Haim Watzman
Necessary Stories

Sitra Ahra–Holes, Part 4

Photo by Gilad Cohen

Etti watches the numbers race on the gas pump, up and up and more and more, just like the dead. One of the attendants, a slim young guy with a bandage over one eye, limps by, asks her if she needs help. She waves him away, but he stands there another moment. “Seen a red Audi here?” she asks him, wondering where Ezra, who had been trailing them just before the turn into the rest stop, has disappeared to. He looks around and shakes his head, then walks on.

Arab accent. A Bedouin from nearby. Probably been in a tribal fight. If he’d been Jewish she would have glared at him for presuming that, because she’s a woman, she doesn’t know how to operate a gas pump.

He’s Bedouin and that’s the way they live. She pities their women. Kept unseen and ignorant. Yes, yes, she’s heard that some of the young ones go to university now. But that doesn’t change things at home. Remember that movie, Sandstorm, that’s exactly what it shows. They’re all thieves, the Bedouin, that’s what her grandfather had told her as he held her in his lap. Stories about marauders coming down from the mountains in Yemen, seeking gold and young girls. They used to marry the girls off even before puberty to protect them. We are not like them, Saba instructed her. They’re the sitra ahra, the evil impulse, demons, and in all we do we should strive to be precisely what they are not, caring and righteous and respectful and humane.

She looks over to the deck of restaurants and food stands where she dropped off Ruth and Naama, right by the restrooms, off to the side, opposite the pancheriya, the tire repair place. Run by Bedouin, of course. Probably from the same clan that runs everything else here. Once, on a family vacation, back when she and Amram needed to rent a van to fit in all the kids, they parked over at the far end of the deck and went to buy shawarma for everyone and when they came back two of the tires were flat. Not just flat, slashed. Amram called over a teenager from the tire place to show him. No problem, he said, just bring the van over and we’ll put on new tires. Amram eyed him. I bet this happens a lot here, he said. Oh, all the time, the kid replied with a straight face. Soldiers crowd the deck and all the stands, talking loudly on cell phones and chomping into pitot dripping tahina and ciabattas erupting with meat and salad. A couple of women, too, one solid and a bit overweight like Ruth and the other dark and wiry, with tightly coiled hair just like hers, Etti’s, oversized rifles on their laps, eating pizza.

Someone is looking at her. She homes in on the gaze. It comes from a reservist, an older one, mid-thirties, maybe. Shaggy dark hair that stands up over his high forehead, with some streaks of gray. His fatigues look as old as he does. Huge grimy red backpack at his feet, though his shoulder still seems to be sagging beneath its weight. He’s leaning on the deck’s railing, sipping from a cardboard cup of Aroma coffee and looking at her morosely. Impatient drivers waiting in line honk. A tap on her shoulder. She turns and it’s a heavy Bedouin with a moustache and a name tag that says he’s the station manager. He points to the pump. Before she can remove the nozzle from the tank, he calls over the attendant who had offered his help before. “Walid will help you.”

She glowers at the moustache. “I don’t need help. I know what to do.” But Walid is already at her side.

“My nephew. He’s our hero.” The manager points to the bandage over his eye. “That’s why he’s limping.”

“Hero,” Etti scoffs under her breath.

“Second year mechanical engineering at Ben-Gurion. Works here half time. He’s a medic, too.” When Etti doesn’t respond, he speaks again. “He was working at that music party. Nova. At Re’im. When Hamas struck. Bullets flying, bombs falling, people screaming. Got hit in the eye by shrapnel. Dragged wounded into a shelter and treated them. Saved lives.” He looks at her. It’s a sad look. He shakes his head and walks away. “Should get a medal,” he mutters. “Or something.”

Walid winks at her, waiting patiently. She removes the nozzle from the car and puts it in its place. She presses the button to get her receipt. He grins and gives her a thumbs up. She stands there for a moment before him, steeling herself. No way she’s going to trade Saba’s truth for that of some gas station manager. She gets in her car, moves it away from the gas island, backs into a parking space, and heads for the restroom. The reservist’s eyes follow her. Naama is standing not far away, looking at him.

Ruth is washing her hands. “Get in line at the burekas place,” Etti instructs her. “I’ll be right there.”

When she joins them their turn is just coming up. She orders three big cheese burekas and three coffees and pays for it all, over Ruth’s protests. The reservist, she sees, is still leaning on the railing, but he’s moved in their direction. They sit down at a vacant table on the deck. Ruth mutters a blessing under her breath before taking her first bite, then looks up apologetically at Etti. The reservist approaches them.

Ahlan.” Hey.

Etti looks up at him, suspicious.

“You’re heading south?”

She considers whether to reply. Ruth watches her. Naama looks at the reservist and sees an acacia. She twists to search east and south for the ones she had seen along the highway, but her view is blocked. She turns her gaze southward, over the railing, toward Gaza.


He waits. Then: “Where to?”


He, too, looks south. Something catches in his throat. “Is there room in your car?”

Etti’s gaze is sharp. Like a bullet, it shoots straight through him. Ruth, troubled, gives Etti a soft kick under the table.

He turns away, muttering something to himself.

Ruth takes the initiative. “What’s your name? Where do you need to get to?”

He turns back to them. “Akatziya.”

“Akatziya?” Ruth wonders. “I never heard that name before.”

He shrugs. “Strange name, I know. A tree. My parents liked trees.”

Naama looks at him. Akatziya. Acacia. Like the ones along the highway, ready to march.

“I need to find my unit. My old unit. It’s been a while.” He sits down at the table’s empty seat. “I should have gone the first day, when the shooting started. That’s what all my friends did. Put on their uniforms and grabbed their duffle bags and drove down, before they were even called. When there’s a war on you don’t wait, you go. But I didn’t go. What the hell am I going to do there? I asked myself. Out of shape and bad knees?”

Ruth leans over, wipes her mouth with a napkin, and pats the hand he had placed on the table. “Better late than never.”

“I should turn around and go home.”

“You’re doing a very good thing. Your wife must be worried, though.”

He looks down and doesn’t answer.


“Two girls.” Pause. “One just two months old.”

Akatziya looks questioningly at Etti. She leans back and nods slowly.

“It’ll be tough getting that backpack into the trunk, but I’ll manage.”

He takes a deep breath. Sits up straight.

“Have you eaten?” Ruth asks.

“Not hungry. Ready to go.” He shoulders his backpack. “Maybe I can hit the men’s room first, though?”

“Go ahead,” Etti says, raising her half-eaten burekas. “We aren’t finished yet.”

Five minutes later he’s back.

“Ok, ready.”

Etti looks over at her car. Walid is leaning over it, washing the windshield. She stands up to see if any of the tires have been slashed. As far as she can tell, they’re fine. Walid looks up at her and smiles. He walks over to the railing with his bucket and squeegee.

“You better get going,” he suggests. He points at the pump Etti had filled up at. A red Audi has taken her place. Ezra’s just putting the nozzle in his tank. Ruth puts her hand over her mouth to suppress a scream.

Akatziya asks: “Who’s that?”

“It’s her husband,” Etti jumps up, followed by Ruth and Naama. “And we’re out of here.”

In a minute they’re at the car. Walid positions himself so that he blocks the view as they pull out. A minute later they’re at the traffic circle where they turn on to the access road to the highway. As they make the turn, they see the red Audi coming out of the parking lot.

“What the hell!” Akatziya exclaims.

Naama leans toward him and musses his already wild hair. They approach the traffic light. Green, their luck. Etti quickly makes the turn just as the light turns red. They pass a sign. She announces: “Thirty-seven kilometers to Gaza.”

About the Author
Haim Watzman is a Jerusalem-based writer and playwright. He is also one of the leading translators of Hebrew works into English, with more than 50 books to his credit. An archive of his stories and more information about his books and translations can be found on his website.
Related Topics
Related Posts