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The pale of settlement, p.16

The Pale of Settlement, page 16

 

The Pale of Settlement
 


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  Susan shrugged. It doesn’t bother me, she said. Her mother used to exhale the same way, blowing the smoke away from her. Now Kristin’s gesture made her feel childish, excluded, and she wished Kristin would offer her a cigarette, even though Reid would give her shit, even though she didn’t smoke.

  So how was it over there? Susan said to Reid. She’d seen some of the amazing photographs he’d sent back from Afghanistan: veiled women, tribesmen on horseback, American troops in dusty trucks, a landscape of bare brown mountains and cracked-earth plains. As much as she longed to escape New York, it was hard to imagine spending a month in a place as featureless as that.

  The bartender set down two martinis in front of them, both an alarming shade of red.

  She’ll have one of these as well, Reid said.

  No, I’ll just have a Corona, Susan said, and then to Reid, So how many Al-Qaida and Taliban guys do you think we really got over there? Susan knew that the Americans claimed to have killed over a hundred fighters, but fewer than fifty bodies had actually been found. She looked over at Reid’s vest. What could he possibly keep in all those pockets—gum wrappers, condoms, swizzle sticks, wads of Kleenex, lucky stones?

  Fucking Shahikot, Reid said. Have you ever been inside a cave?

  Yeah, sure, she said, feeling a tightening inside her chest. It was a smugness they all had, those reporters and photographers who’d been there on the ground, bearing witness, bringing back the news.

  Shahikot, Tora Bora, Kristin said in a breathy voice that you had to strain over the thumping jukebox to hear. She said, All of those places sound made up to me.

  The Afghan names did sound rather like something out of Dr. Seuss, and Susan smiled. She glanced at Kristin’s forearms, at the skin so translucent it was nearly blue across her wrists, the cigarette tipped between her fingers, and wondered suddenly if Kristin and Reid actually had sex. He was too good-looking for her, Susan thought, and Kristin was too—too self-contained. A small surge of connection rose in Susan’s chest. Maybe they’d be friends.

  On Monday, Debbie filed a piece saying that the Israelis were pulling out of Qalqilya and Tulkarem but that the fighting in Jenin was growing worse. She quoted the director of the Jenin hospital saying that Israeli tanks were not allowing ambulances to evacuate the dead and wounded from the camp. The Palestinian Authority issued a statement today claiming that “the Sabra and Shatila massacres are being repeated in Jenin.” Here in New York, it was still raining. They were predicting that it might change over to sleet later in the day. In Israel, it was probably nice and warm. Once she’d gone with her cousin Gavi to the Galilee to pick irises and anemones in the spring. She cradled the receiver against her shoulder, squinting at the screen.

  Can we really say that it’s a “massacre”? she said.

  We’re not saying it, Debbie said after a slight delay, the PA is.

  Susan scrolled down the page. As many as 100 Palestinians have been killed in Jenin alone. The line crackled, fading in and out. Where are you, in your car? Susan said. You sure about a hundred? We need attribution. Yesterday we said seventy-four, over the past ten days, and not just in Jenin. And what about the Israeli side?

  A hundred is what everyone is saying, Debbie said, her voice abruptly clear. And from what I’ve heard, she added, it’s probably much worse than that. But they’re still not letting journalists into the camp.

  Susan backspaced over as many as and typed at least instead. She looked at her watch. It was getting late. Okay, she said. I’ll see what Bill thinks. If I need anything else, I’ll call you back.

  Across the newsroom, Bill, the foreign editor, was on his phone. Sipping her coffee, Susan flipped through the pile of clips on her desk, pausing on a photograph of a group of Palestinian militants gazing out from an arcade. They looked curiously relaxed, leaning on their guns, green Hamas bandannas tied around their heads. She’d never been to the West Bank, even though the border was less than twenty miles from her grandparents’ Haifa home. She’d driven through the Arab villages in the dry hills east of Haifa, her parents pointing out how primitive they were: the women in their long robes and headscarves; the men sitting outside broken-down coffeehouses smoking hookahs or playing shesh-besh; the cinderblock houses with roofs of corrugated tin, the dirt yards with chickens pecking in the dust. They wouldn’t even have electricity if it weren’t for us, Susan’s father always said. Most of the refugees in Jenin had fled those same villages. Fifty-four years ago, next week.

  She tried to picture the foothills of the Carmel, the mountains of the Galilee, greened by the spring rains. She remembered the excitement of arriving in Israel for summer visits as a child, bouncing on the edge of the backseat of her uncle’s car as they drove from the airport in Lod up the coast to Haifa, sounding out the Hebrew signs. They always arrived at dusk, the humid air already weighted with dew, the evening sky a luminous pale blue above the shadowed streets, like in that painting by Magritte, Empire of Light. And it did seem surreal, the memory of the crunching gravel along the path to her grandparents’ flat, the echoing of the doorbell, the silhouette of her grandmother appearing in the light, her powdery and perfumed smell, her frail embrace.

  And what if she’d married an Israeli, like Debbie had, and had gone to live in Israel? She might have found herself one of those strong and tough Israeli men, like Paul Newman in Exodus, or Yoni Netanyahu, martyr of the Entebbe rescue raid. Or a Mossad agent with secret scars and a sabra’s vulnerable core. She might even have joined the Mossad herself, learned to pass on information, to encrypt messages in code.

  Bill was standing in front of her desk, looking down at her over his bifocals. He held out his hand.

  Deadline, he said.

  Kristin met Susan at her apartment and then they walked to a nearby West Side diner for lunch. The manager showed them to a booth in back, across from two young mothers with their babies and a prodigious array of sippy cups and bibs and gear spread out over the table. Susan slid awkwardly into her side of the booth, stashing her jacket and bag next to her on the vinyl seat, and unfolded the oversized menu. She’d often eaten alone at a diner much like this back when she first started work. She always sat at the counter and had salad with cottage cheese and half of a canned peach. She worried about her weight back then, even though she’d always been quite thin. Never as thin as Kristin, though; she wasn’t as much of a fanatic as that.

  The waitress came and Susan asked for a Greek salad and a Diet Coke, and then regretted her restraint when Kristin ordered a cheeseburger and fries; apparently, Kristin was just naturally that thin. The mothers at the next table were sharing a piece of pie, picking at it from opposite sides of the plate, their heads bent together in conversation. The baby nearest Susan was hurling Cheerios onto the floor.

  So how’s the writing coming along? Susan said.

  Kristin sighed the way Ph.D. candidates always seemed to do when you asked about their dissertations. She was researching the female mystics, she said, slowly, as if trying to choose words that Susan could understand. She was looking at the way patriarchal culture laid claim to the interpretation of their bodies, fetishizing them, labeling them as witches or hysterics or saints. As she spoke, Kristin’s voice lost its breathy quality and she leaned forward across the table. She was rereading the women’s own writings against the hagiographies and scholarly accounts. Are you familiar with any of them? she said.

  Susan shook her head. Jews don’t do saints, she said.

  They punished their bodies in all kinds of incredible ways, Kristin said, leaning forward. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi made her fellow nuns bind her to a post and whip her; then she dripped hot wax into her wounds. Angela of Foligno drank water containing a leper’s putrid flesh. Saint Rose slept on a bed of broken glass, stone, potsherds, and thorns. Catherine of Siena wound iron chains so tightly around her waist they became embedded in her skin. She flagellated herself, licked pus from a beggar’s cancerous sores. She literally ate almost nothing, and eventually star
ved herself to death.

  The waitress set their food before them on the table. Susan looked at her salad, the gleaming olives and clumps of feta cheese. Are you serious? she said. Why?

  Kristin said, Some scholars argue that self-mortification, or abjection, is a way of claiming one’s own identity, of affirming the borders of the self, in essence, by defiling them. Kristin bit into her cheeseburger, licked a smear of ketchup and meat juice off her lips, and raised her eyebrows. It was also, she said, a pretty good way out of getting married and having kids.

  In ninth grade, Susan had been friendly with an anorexic girl. At lunch, Terry fiddled with her lettuce, or broke up a single cookie into pieces on her plate. Her hair grew limp, her skin sallow, stretched taut as a corpse’s across the bones of her face. She never walked but ran everywhere, a frightening, feeble shuffle, her heavy book bag clutched between her arms. In the locker room mirror, even though Terry turned away as she undressed, Susan could see the jutting ribs and spine, spindly femurs, and jutting pelvis of a concentration camp survivor. Terry left school halfway through the year for the hospital, where the rumor was she was force-fed through a tube. Susan never saw her again after that. She recalled the plush beige carpet in Terry’s bedroom, the white lacquered princess bed, and wondered what Terry was doing now. She hadn’t thought of her in years. She’d never considered the possibility that Terry might have starved herself to death.

  At the next table, the mothers were picking up squeaky toys and plastic cups, buckling their babies into strollers. The mother nearest them bumped into Kristin as she pulled on her coat, and Kristin rolled her eyes.

  Kristin probably wasn’t even thirty yet, Susan thought. Why did guys go out with women who were so much younger than they? She wasn’t sure, now, what she’d thought they would have in common, after all.

  By Thursday, the ninth day of fighting, reports were coming in that the last gunmen had surrendered in Jenin. Debbie had left a message saying that rumors were flying that the Israelis might finally let journalists and aid workers into the camp and that she was heading to the West Bank. Susan pulled the wire stories and a few quotes from an interview with Prime Minister Sharon on Fox TV and set to work on an early edition draft. Maybe this would be the end. She flipped through her pile of clips. On Tuesday, thirteen Israeli soldiers were ambushed and killed by a ten-year-old suicide bomber in Jenin. Yesterday, eight were killed and twenty-two wounded on an Egged bus east of Haifa by another suicide bomber from Jenin. Just this morning, six were killed and seventy injured by a female suicide bomber at a crowded market in central Jerusalem. Susan knew that market well. She wrapped her arm around her stomach and pushed her hair back from her forehead. Palestinian civilians, women, and children, were dying, too. How much worse it had to be for them: she had to remember that. Five hundred dead, they were saying now, maybe many more. She turned back to her computer screen.

  According to the Palestinian Authority, hundreds of civilians were killed in Jenin. The PA has formally asked the United Nations to investigate reports that soldiers massacred civilians and buried them in mass graves. How could we have done that? she thought, then caught herself. We.

  She clicked through the latest photographs: a Palestinian boy walking along a deserted alleyway, a Red Crescent ambulance parked by a barbed wire barricade, a Merkava tank against a backdrop of twisted rebar and shattered concrete, a D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer before a smashed-in wall. Looking at these images, it was impossible not to think of those other bulldozers digging day and night in that apocalyptic rubble pit here in New York. Just last month, they’d pulled two more bodies from the debris. Susan didn’t know which felt more real, the images in her memory or the ones before her on the screen, or those that were missing altogether, those of the three suicide attacks. Even though she didn’t envy Debbie the ratty, scrappy, poorly paid job of a freelancer, she felt more than ever that she should be there instead of Debbie, who was probably driving north now into the Galilee, passing the dusty villages, the green scrub of tomato fields, the yellow ripple of wheat. Or maybe she was already through the checkpoints, waved on by those IDF boys with their laced-up boots and M16s and youthful Jewish faces beneath their helmets; or already in the city of Jenin, breathing that mix of diesel fumes and dung and dust and garbage rotting in the sun, in that jumble of two- and three-story cinderblock apartment houses clustered along the slope of the ravine. Was she stepping over the bodies of Palestinians in the narrow alleys of the camp? Would she find the traces of mass graves?

  The words vibrated on the screen, seraphs and numerals and quotation marks rattling like bones: occupation, apartheid, slaughter, resistance, terrorism, genocide. Behind those words it was impossible to perceive the facts. Militants have pledged that they will turn Jenin into a “Palestinian Masada.” How slippery the metaphors. What we are seeing here is a terrible human tragedy, a Holocaust against the Palestinians. How easily the Israelis were cast as Nazis, the Palestinians as martyred Jews.

  She looked up and noticed Reid standing across the newsroom, outside the photo editor’s office, leaning against the wall. He was sipping coffee from a blue-and-white paper cup and chatting up one of the girl reporters from the City Desk. Once, years ago, just after they’d first met, Reid had asked Susan out. She was still living with her ex-boyfriend then, but Reid had tried to talk her into it anyway. How could she could be seriously involved with someone who wasn’t Jewish? he’d asked, and she remembered how annoyed she’d been by his presumption, and even more annoyed by her guilty sense that he was right. It hadn’t occurred to her until then that Reid was Jewish; his looks certainly gave nothing away—the straight lines of his nose and jaw, his blondish hair. And now he was the one going out with an expert on Christian saints! They’d missed their chance, she and Reid, back then.

  She must have been staring, because just then Reid looked up. And for a moment it seemed as if he was trying to tell her something as he held his gaze on her, but didn’t smile.

  A group of reporters was already clustered on the ratty couches at Bellevue’s on Friday evening when Susan arrived. A few of them moved over to make room for her as she shouted her hellos over the Poison song pounding on the jukebox, whose speakers were uncomfortably close to where they sat. She craned her neck; Reid and Kristin weren’t there tonight. Next to her, a young reporter named Derek was swirling the ice around in his glass, and Susan remembered that she’d once read that advertisers subtly hid images of naked female bodies in the photographs of ice cubes in liquor ads to make the drink subliminally appeal to men. She squinted at Derek’s glass, and thought maybe she did detect a sensuous curve. Or maybe you just saw what you were looking for.

  Next to him, Rajiv was saying, It’s always like, hey you with the brown skin, you must be a terrorist. I have to get to the airport at least three hours early now.

  Well, at least they’re checking, Derek said. I’d be more concerned if they didn’t check.

  A City Desk editor with thinning hair and round horn-rimmed glasses leaned forward from the adjacent couch. You’ve been getting some nice front page play this week, Susan, he said. Good stuff.

  Rajiv was waving his hands. You know, they’re always like, so where are you from? And I’m like, uh, New Jersey? Duh? He made a face and tipped his beer bottle to his lips.

  Yeah, thanks, Susan said to the City Desk guy, whose name, she finally recalled, was Frank. But you know how it goes. Mostly I just cobble together other peoples’ stuff.

  Frank shook his head and frowned. I just can’t see how it’s going to end, he said. When one side has an army and the other side has nothing at all.

  Just suicide bombers, Susan thought, but didn’t say. Like the “heroic martyr” who’d blown herself up in Jerusalem today. Palestinian leaders had gone on TV to applaud her act, calling for more. Surely the deliberate murder of civilians was different from self-defense? Surely it was no excuse to say they had no other choice? But there was no point in arguing with Frank. There was somethi
ng about him that Susan thought of as typically American, a starchy sort of moral earnestness that irritated her, even though there was nothing unreasonable in what he’d said.

  Is anybody hungry? Frank said, glancing around, his eyes resting on Susan. Feel like going to get a bite to eat?

  He really wasn’t unattractive, Susan thought, and it wasn’t as if she had any other plans. But inside she felt tight, wound around herself like a spring. For some reason, the image came to her of Terry, back in high school, breaking that single cookie into pieces on her plate. The self-denial of the saint.

  Thanks, she said, shaking her head. But I really should be getting home.

  Over the next few days, the list of accusations grew. On TV, reporters stood in front of dramatic backdrops of razed buildings and burned-out cars, describing the atrocities that allegedly had taken place inside the Jenin camp. The Arab news networks were now claiming that four hundred, or eight hundred, or twenty-eight hundred, or three thousand Palestinians had died over the past ten days; that thousands more had been arrested and detained; that the Israelis had opened fire on ambulances and paramedics and used Palestinian civilians as human shields; that they’d executed disarmed fighters and left women and children to die as armored bulldozers razed their homes. The Israelis, for their part, were saying that the entire camp was booby-trapped, that the terrorists had mined their own houses, planted detonation charges in the roads, placed snipers inside minarets and schools, commandeered Red Crescent ambulances to transport terrorists and arms. They’d found photo albums filled with pictures of children with notations indicating when each one would be ready to carry out a suicide attack. AP quoted a woman who claimed to have seen at least ten people killed before her eyes and said she came across dead bodies every two to three meters as she fled the camp. Reuters quoted a man who said he’d watched dozens of corpses being carried off in military trucks before dawn. Others reported the stench of rotting bodies coming from rubble overturned by refugees searching for missing relatives and friends. None of the reports could be refuted or confirmed.

 
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