Readings — From the February 2020 issue

Here and There

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From Apeirogon, published this month by Random House. The book is a fictionalized account of the lives of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli. Aramin’s ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was killed by an Israeli soldier, and Elhanan’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

When they slid Smadar out on the metal tray, Rami noticed her grandfather’s watch on her wrist: it was still running.

After Smadar was born, her grandfather Matti Peled sat with her in the garden and taught her English and Arabic both. The General liked the role of grandfather. It softened something in him. He brought her to meetings of community boards, activists, human-rights groups. Until she was eight, he carried her around on his shoulders.

They worked on their cars together, Rami and his father-in-law. Peled was tall, taciturn, silver-haired. He talked more when he leaned over an engine block: it was as if he found it easier to address something ordered and logical.

He fumbled around under the hood. His fingers were thick and clumsy. He cursed as he unscrewed the carburetor.

Peled said to Rami that he was not one to suffer fools gladly, least of all himself.

He had been an architect of the Six-Day War. Lightning strikes. Bombing raids. The aura of surprise. He had become a general, revered all over the country—one of the original Jewish idealists: socialist, Zionist, democratic, but after ’68 he grew almost immediately wary of the Occupation. It jeopardized, he said, the moral weight of the cause. It took away from the sense that Israel was a guiding global light. He went to meetings at the Knesset wearing a pin showcasing a Star of David alongside a Palestinian flag. He was no Lamed Vavnik, he did not want to carry the sorrows of his country. He had fought for Israel, he said, from ’48 onward, and he knew a thing or two about military might. Holding on to the Territories was a mistake, contrary to a secure Jewish democracy. They needed to disengage. Get out.

Rami enjoyed the diatribes: there was something maverick about them. He sat on the bumper and listened while Peled tinkered with the engine.

Peled raised himself up and banged his head on the open hood.

—Go ahead, Peled told Rami, crank the engine.

Matti Peled died of natural causes eighteen months before his granddaughter was killed. It was the only thing, in either death, that Rami and his wife, Nurit, were thankful for.

On Peled’s seventieth birthday—in a green Jerusalem garden—Smadar was videotaped in a light purple flowered dress and white headband reading a toast to her grandfather.

L’chaim, l’chaim, she says in Hebrew, brushing back a strand of hair from her neck.

Then, in Arabic, she says, Ahlan wa sahlan, glancing up at the camera with an impish grin. Her front teeth are prominent, her eyes pellucid.

—Grandpa, she says, Nine years you have raised me, fourteen years Guy, sixteen years Elik, and ten months Yigal. You have raised all of us with warmth and love.

She then smiles again.

—You have taught us all chess, except for Yigal! Thanks to you, we know more about politics, about Israel, and about all the wars you fought. I am proud of you that you struggle for peace, she says. And that you are the leader, I think.

Here, in the video, the listeners, including Peled, erupt in laughter. The I think hangs in the air as Smadar plays with her hair and smiles.

—I am proud of you that you write in the newspapers. You were always handsome. And don’t say you were not, because I saw pictures!

She tucks her hair behind her ears again, before Peled leans down to kiss her cheek.

—Till you are one hundred and twenty years old. From Guy, me, Yigal, and Elik.

Smadar and her grandfather were buried side by side under a grove of knotted carob trees. The wall along the back side of the graveyard was made of limestone but had been reinforced with steel rebar, some of which was hollow. Gliding over the wall, the wind echoed as it caught in the lips of steel.

After the death of Matti Peled, Smadar got in the habit of winding his watch at bedtime. She didn’t want it to stop while she was asleep, lest it signal that her other grandfather, Yitzak, had died during the night too.

Once she climbed into the pool still wearing the timepiece on her wrist. The second hand froze. She insisted that Rami take her to a jewelry store to get it fixed. He bundled her in the car to the house of a clockmaker, an elderly Armenian woman who lived in the Mea Shearim district.

Rami had heard about the Jewish woman from a colleague in the advertising industry.

While the clockmaker dried out the inside of the watch, Smadar walked around the house among the hundreds of working clocks.

Before they left, she nudged up against Rami and tugged his sleeve. Why, she asked, were all the clocks in the back rooms of the house exactly one hour off?

It bothered Rami, too, until he remembered that there was a one-hour time difference between Israel and Armenia.

Perhaps, he told her, the clockmaker wanted to dwell in her original time. Or maybe the clocks just reminded her of her homeland. Or maybe—he thought later—the clockmaker didn’t want to dwell in that time at all, and she was, in the back of her house, always an hour ahead, so that the things that had happened there might not yet have happened here.

Peled had worn the Timex all through the ’48 war, his days in the Knesset, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the agreement with Sadat, the withdrawal from Sinai, the invasion of Lebanon, and the First Intifada. The timepiece was a talisman of sorts. In his personal diary, in the summer of 1994, he wrote that the only time he had not wanted to wear it or consult it at all was at the conclusion of the Oslo negotiations.

The agreement, he wrote, was like a piece of chamber music disguised as a symphony, a temporary salve for the Palestinian ear but designed, in the end, only for the Israeli violin.

After he left the morgue, Rami had to go to his father’s house to tell him what had happened to Smadar. His father was in the small living room, watching the news. Yitzak did not yet know: none of the names of the dead had been announced.

Rami switched off the television, pulled a chair close. His father, almost eighty years old—a thin blanket across his knees—stared at a point beyond Rami’s shoulder. He moved his mouth but didn’t say a word. It was as if he needed to figure out what new taste this might be.

Yitzak put his hand to the bridge of his nose, then rose slowly and said: I’m awfully tired, son, I have to go to bed now.

As if things that had happened there might not yet have happened here.

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