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Nazeem and the sea

For the 40-minute drive to the beach, he would require a permit from the Israeli military administration. I was there just yesterday – and the day before
(Illustration by Avi Katz)
(Illustration by Avi Katz)

At first, there is a three-lane highway, shared by trucks and Japanese-made compacts. The cars carry impatient Israelis. The drivers constantly switch lanes, trying to save a few precious seconds. The air is filled with nervous honking, the cars weaving from one lane to another – the beauty of Israeli driving culture on full display.

Gradually the road narrows to one lane and soon enough my car is climbing the hills of Samaria. I stop at a checkpoint, a dot on the Green Line, a border that is invisible yet so palpable to those living on both sides of it. The checkpoint is a scar on this land. That may sound dramatic, but truth can be dramatic.

In an open field by the checkpoint, cars with green license plates are parked seemingly randomly, at strange angles. They are left there by the residents of neighboring Arab villages who have obtained permits to work in Israel. From this point on, shuttle vans will carry them to their places of work.

But I breeze through the checkpoint without any complications because there is an Israeli settlement on the other side of the Arab village. Each time, this unfettered passage feels like injustice, a tiny prick of guilty conscience.

But today I’m not crossing to see my relatives living in the settlement, I’m on my way to see Nazeem.

In the Arab village, the main street is crowded with market stalls selling cheap, fresh produce. A local farmer on a horse-drawn cart slowly crosses the street, the cars mass impatiently behind him. A mad motorcyclist roars by.

Nazeem is an acquaintance and a magician of his craft. His repair shop, a four-car garage, is located nearby, at the end of the street. His is a family business and it has prospered since his father’s death when it fell on Nazeem’s shoulders to pay his sisters’ tuition and support his mother.

He is a thirty-something, who repairs cars from dawn to dusk. In the evening he returns home to Nablus. With this sort of work schedule, he hasn’t had time to start a family. His mother and sisters constantly need money and his exhaustion is evident, even though I only see him irregularly when my car needs to be fixed.

Expensive SUVs with yellow plates are often parked in his ramshackle shop. Why overpay for car repairs over there in Tel Aviv, the most expensive city in the world, when good workmanship at low prices is so close?

Nazeem is like a family friend. He waves at me with his grease-stained hand, directing my car to an available parking spot.

“So are you going to Herzliya with Leah?” I ask him, getting out of the air-conditioned vehicle and into the scorching heat.

Leah is my niece, who lives in the nearby settlement. Her porch opens up on the wadi, a dry and hilly ravine, covered by olive trees. There is an Arab village on the other side of the wadi. From time to time one can hear the muezzin’s plaintive call to prayer. Sometimes black smoke billows up into the air – the protesters are burning car tires. A soldier guards the bus stop. It’s routine around here.

A 40-minute drive away

Leah and Nazeem have a shared love of cars. Also, Nazeem adores children, and Leah has got two. He has invited her and the whole family to visit him in Shechem and she reciprocated by inviting him to drive down to the sea.

“Did you see the news?” He waves his hand and goes back to work.

I check my phone. There’s been a terror attack in Jerusalem’s Old City. Yet another madman opened fire by the Western Wall. One dead, two wounded.

I watch Nazeem as he opens the hood of the car. No, they won’t let him go to Herzliya. None of them will be allowed to leave over the next few days, maybe weeks. They will be held responsible for that Islamist teacher from Shu’afat. But will I be held responsible for what’s happening with Nazeem?

I know that he has only been to the sea a couple of times in his life, despite the fact that he is a 40-minute drive away. But for such a trip he would need a special permit from the Israeli military administration. And such permits are rarely granted. I was at the sea only yesterday and the day before yesterday. 

Today’s heat is unbearable, but it’s always unbearable in August. I sit in an old, beat-up chair by the table, which displays some paper cups, a bottle of Coca-Cola, and a teapot. Nazeem’s work partner pours me Coke and directs the purring fan in my direction. I can live now again.

I search for the appropriate Hebrew words, he nods, wiping off his hands on a dirty rag. It’s only midday, but being here is exhausting, I don’t know if I can bear another two hours in this hole. I also wonder how they manage living here their whole lives.

Half a year ago Nazeem decided to leave – to change his life’s trajectory, to correct his karma. He got in touch with relatives in Italy, who were willing to host him. He spent a lot of money on visas and plane tickets to travel via Jordan and London. His dream was to sell his business and start a new life somewhere in Tuscany.

Need I mention that nothing came of it? He was turned away in London – something was wrong with his documents, some problem related to the pandemic. Most likely they simply realized that it was a one-way trip for him. Not too complicated to realize that.

I’m watching his bent back as he tinkers inside the hood, and I imagine him in Heathrow, a confused Arab guy with broken English. I see the British officials looking at him, shrugging their shoulders. And now he has to shell out a small fortune to cover his return ticket. And there is no hope left that tomorrow he will be able to see his relatives, and meet a girl, and start a new business, and build a new home. Maybe not a home by the sea, but still not all that far away, and reachable by car. But alas, he’s back in his rundown garage, fixing my aging Daihatsu. Maybe he is hoping to try again, maybe he is waiting for the end of the pandemic, waiting to save some more money?

The garage is especially busy today. Three vehicles are waiting their turn to be served. A colorfully attired Druze is seated in a chair next to mine, smoking something exotic, while I’m shadowing the oscillating fan, like Julia Roberts in “Runaway Bride,” gulping for air and trying to figure out how to arrange a trip to Shechem, which I have glimpsed only once from a nearby hilltop. How dangerous would it be? Not too bad I hope if Nazeem accompanies us as an escort. Maybe.

Or maybe I should find him a girl? But where would I get her? I don’t know any Arab girls, and mixed marriages are rare. Very few are ready for this sort of trouble. Everybody needs a quiet life, free of family complications.

Leningrad

The fan drones on sleepily, the Druze listens to some Middle Eastern song, his fingers tapping on the phone. I look out on the dusty street and think, “What are we doing here?” Nazeem was born in Hebron, I was born at Otto Clinic in St. Petersburg. It was June. Leningrad was full of lilacs and tulips in blossom. My mother rolled the baby carriage in a small municipal park, not far from our house on Liteyniy prospect. They say that summer was particularly hot. But what did we all really know about heat?

I was told I was going home.

And at first, it felt like it. At first, I did feel triumphant: That’s it, I will never again be part of a persecuted minority, no one will ever puzzle over my alien-sounding patronymic like they sometimes did back in high school. No one will ever again guilt me with my ethnic origin. And my boss, with a giveaway last name Kogan, will not say to me: “We should not cluster together, we need to spread out, we’ll assign you to a different department.”

“We Support Desert Storm” – my father put up this poster inside our closet. The poster had been gifted to us in secret by an American guest. My father was proud of Israel. We all were.

But my father had never been to Israel, and I moved here many years after his death. So time has passed and my joy of being part of an ethnic majority subsided. I didn’t want to be responsible for what was happening with Nazeem and his family, and most certainly I didn’t want to blame him for what was happening to us. The daily diet of blood-soaked news led to despair. 

Fate, macabre history, ancient beliefs, and dirty politics reign supreme in this land. And maybe God. But we all have our own God.

He finished his job and returned the car keys. Then he looked at me doubtfully: “Wait a sec, I’ll back out.” This noisy and sloping street is unpredictable, one never knows who or what might suddenly appear from around the corner, driving on it requires special skill, it’s an extreme sport.

“When driving through the checkpoint,” my husband always reminds me, “don’t forget to roll down the window and say Shalom to the soldiers. Shalom means peace, so…”

It’s an easy word to say, much easier than standing in a morning line by the checkpoint on your way to work.

The cars with green license plates are quietly melting under the scorching sun, waiting for their owners to return.

I said shalom, the soldier smiled back at me, and I reentered Israel. Straight ahead lies Tel Aviv, this eternally sleepless, young, fashionable and reckless city; my beloved Tel Aviv, with its theaters, museums, and high rises, with its seaside promenade stretching out all the way from the Northern Port to the ancient rocks of Yaffo. The sea is calm today, and it sparkles with all sorts of hues of turquoise and emerald. Nazeem’s little garage is very far away.

––

Translation by Maxim Matusevich

About the Author
Alla Borisova-Linetskaya is an editor and author. Born and educated in Leningrad she pursued her professional career in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she worked as an editor, journalist, and columnist at the city’s major newspapers. Her writing appeared on the site Jewish.ru and the popular blogs Echo Moscow and Snob. In 2002, she served as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Journalism of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Alla was a long-time editor of the Russian-language Israeli website ReLevant. Presently, she writes for the Israeli website Detaly.
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