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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the July 2015 issue

Fighter

He doesn’t say that he had no choice. He says that his father was also a soldier. He says that if he had the choice today, he would perhaps choose differently. At that time he made his choice.

My two grandfathers were also soldiers and fought for the lunatic who had his grandparents gassed in a concentration camp. But he has never asked about my grandfathers.

He was stationed for five years in the occupied territories. Voluntarily. During the First Intifada. He tells this to everyone right away—everyone. But only those who were there know what that means.

He was an officer in an elite unit, and I don’t really want to know what that means.

He still knows all the names of the most wanted terrorists from that time: Mohammad Taha, Ahmed Yassin, Khaled Meshaal . . .

Elite unit, First Intifada, occupied territories, officer, that’s just great, says the Mideast Conflict. The Mideast Conflict really drives me crazy, but he’s always there, ever since I’ve known him.

The first thing he does in the morning is smoke a cigarette. He’s been doing that since the army. In the army you have to get out of bed in a hurry, but you need to allow enough time for a cigarette, he says.

He was in the refugee camp Dheisheh near Bethlehem for eight months, after that in Jenin, Hebron, Tulkarm, Kalandia. Everywhere, where it burned.

He was a fighter, and only fighters know what that means, he says. That’s why he gets along with them the best. With former fighters, like him.

I am not a fighter.

He gets along with former fighters who are Palestinian better than he does with me, he says. A fighter is a fighter. He even has former fighter friends from Palestine.

He saved a little girl’s life in Dheisheh. The girl fell out of a third-floor window. He was on patrol and heard screaming and saw the girl lying there. He picked her up, took her to the emergency clinic, and kept thinking the whole time that he hoped she wouldn’t die in his arms. She didn’t die. She had broken both legs. Soon afterward an officer wanted to find out from him where the girl’s family lived because such an incident is a good opportunity to recruit Palestinian collaborators. He didn’t think about that when he picked up the girl. He can no longer remember exactly where the house was. Everything happened so quickly, he says.

Twenty years later he’s no longer a soldier—he’s a journalist and as a journalist has returned to Dheisheh to look for the girl he saved and to find out if someone remembers what happened. No one remembers. The mother of the girl says she saved her daughter. He doesn’t want to take away the mother’s and the daughter’s memories. No one can take away his memories. He wrote an article about what he remembered.

He remembers everything:

The names of the terrorists and the camp in the small pine forest on the hill. The daily patrols and house searches. The photo albums and books that they arbitrarily took with them even though they didn’t know what was in them because they couldn’t speak Arabic. The children who threw stones and who were always faster than they were. The one of their own who was particularly violent—he accompanied two Palestinian prisoners to an interrogation and beat them so badly that an interrogation was no longer possible. The flags and slogans that were hanging from the houses over night and that had to be removed during the day. They determined who had done it, and whoever denied it was arrested or beaten. Every day. The half-naked boys whose T-shirts with the banned slogans had to be forcibly taken off them in the middle of the street. The empty shell cases, tear gas, burning trash, and the dead.

When he was in Dheisheh he tried to wash the memory of Dheisheh off himself every day. Just like in Jenin, Hebron, Tulkarm, Kalandia, and everywhere else they were.

Sunset, beer, cats, music, laughter.

We’re sitting in a café in Tel Aviv, smoking pot. The Mideast Conflict saunters by.

Tomorrow we’ll take a trip, he says.

Palm trees, burekas, coffee in paper cups, a traffic jam on the Ayalon, skyscrapers, heat.

The Mideast Conflict makes himself comfortable on the back seat and starts to doze.

He takes me to a Palestinian family that he had made a promise to. The father was murdered by a settler; the settler was convicted, but then he escaped. He wants to find the settler and bring him to justice. He promised the family that he would. He doesn’t yet know what will happen when he finds him.

He stops at an army base and asks the soldiers what they are doing. They are carrying out an exercise.

That one is playing a terrorist, he says, and points to a soldier who is hiding behind a large boulder. The Mideast Conflict yawns.

Dead dogs are lying on the street.

We stop shortly before the village, near an intersection, at an abandoned watchtower. He rolls a joint. I can’t smoke pot so early in the morning. The Mideast Conflict smokes with him.

The family, sitting on the floor in the living room, is still eating breakfast. They make tea and send us out to the terrace so they can tidy up. The muezzin calls. The mother has four daughters and two sons. Yasmine, Tala, Shehenaze, Samira, Mohammed, and Nassar. Yasmine and Mohammad are blind. We sit with them and drink tea. The Mideast Conflict takes his leave to go walk around the block a couple of times.

He goes to see one of the witnesses from that time whom he wants to persuade to testify again. I stay there, with the women.

The women think my skin is beautiful, no wrinkles. Am I married? No. Am I Jewish? No. Even if you were, it wouldn’t be so bad, says Yasmine.

They added two more floors onto the house. Tala says from the roof of the unfinished building you can see the intersection where my father was shot dead.

White laundry is drying on the roof.

He comes back. The witness doesn’t want to testify. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. We eat together with the family. The Mideast Conflict also wants some mulukhiyah. Then we leave, the sun is low in the sky.

The streets are clear. On Shabbat the settlers sit with their families in their white fortresses.

We stop again near the abandoned watchtower and the dead dogs. He rolls a joint, this time I join him. It’s getting dark, the hills are turning purple.

Watchtowers, barricades, restricted areas, barbed wire, olive trees, stones.

Suddenly, he brakes abruptly.

God is standing on the street in front of us. God wants kenafeh. So do we.

The best kenafeh is found in Nablus; everyone knows that.

The Mideast Conflict and God stay in the car. Why now all of a sudden, I ask. Just don’t feel like it, comes the answer.

It’s very busy in the little store. It’s Friday evening after prayers. We go in and everyone stares at us. He uses Hebrew. He says if they know who I am they won’t do anything to me. He says he’s not afraid.

I see a soldier who makes me afraid.

He says if we actually realized how much the occupation is costing us, we would stop. And then? They won’t forgive you so easily, I think. All those years, all the checkpoints, the watchtowers, the restricted areas, the walls, the olive trees, the stones, the barbed wire.

He’s never thought about forgiveness, he says.

We are detained at the checkpoint. God has an Arabic name and I have a German passport—that is suspicious. He gets really angry; it’s totally racist, just because God has an Arabic name. It could be forged, says the lady from the security company.

The Mideast Conflict goes to take a piss and I stand there silently. No one gives a damn that we are all completely stoned. Somehow he manages to spare us the interrogation circus. After fifteen minutes we continue on our way.

Shortly after he left the army he went alone for the first time to the occupied areas. To Bethlehem. To eat falafel. He was never allowed to eat falafel there when he was a soldier. The soldiers weren’t allowed to eat anything from there. It could be poisoned. He went there alone, but he took a weapon with him, so he could feel safe. He wore it so that everyone could see it and he ate falafel.

God has had enough and asks if we could let him out at the next intersection. God wants to go to Jerusalem. We continue on to Tel Aviv.

The Mideast Conflict wants to go get drunk. I scream at him and say he should look for someone else to go drinking with.

Five hours later I’m sitting behind him on a scooter, stoned, and am holding on to him firmly for the first time. I am terrified to be on a scooter stoned and drunk, even if it is three in the morning and the streets are empty.

He says he tried to kill himself.

Even though I’m not a fighter, there is something we have in common. We feel compelled to write about the things we cannot come to terms with.

 "לוחם Lochem" © Noemi Schneider. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Julie Winter. All rights reserved. 

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