Thursday, May 17, 2012

Il Pomeriggio

“But this is the point. You die for your country. Suppose. Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I didn’t want it to die. Damn death. Long live life!” –James Joyce, “Ulysses”

The early evening seemed squalid, though somewhat warm. Blotches of purple, cerulean and always the thick white - the summers in the south are never blue. Fernando's mother had gone to Venice and we had only a couple of hours to enjoy, more than we had had in long weeks. “Il Pomeriggio” was always the place; after all none of us was older than sixteen, and in spite of the dyed hair, the trench coats and the incessant smoking, the obvious anxiety gave our ages away at mere hindsight.

Honorary membership in the bourgeoisie gave teenagers in those days the privilege of partaking in the world of the adults; especially expensive alcohol and lies. The nervous conversations, like verses written in free style without punctuation, filled the entire air and froze it, showering the half empty martini glasses with a thawing breath, half incomprehensible, half miraculous. It is called love. Only at “Il Pomeriggio” such pleasures could be thoroughly enjoyed, not entirely free from guilt.

When he left – as the clouds turned from purple into violet and then invited the ocean of dark – I thought, “Maybe I could linger a little longer”. I was a careful observer of nature; not of the plants and thrushes, as much as of the faces. “Where is this man going?” I asked myself. “—Hello, Bloom. Where are you off to? –Hello, M.Coy. Nowhere in particular.” I imagined that conversation from the Ulysses. And anyway, observation of human nature at that moment saved me.

Saved me from provincialism, from the inanity of home, from the obligation to read that book about the “Ladies in Blue” fresco from the Cretan palace of Knossos and anyway Juana had interpreted much better than me. She was better than me in everything, in the love of Greek and in the love of men, that came to her easily. At a time when I struggled still with a few phrases from Xenophon, she was already reading Euripides and was a regular fixture at the important parties in the city, which I only dreamt attending.

I wasn’t curious about the parties because I thought it would be nice to be free for a few hours, but rather the opposite. I wondered about the little deaths of the people and the stories they had to tell. Maybe I would meet somebody interesting. I guess that is why I began writing in the first place: Since the people I had met at the parties had never been interesting – with the sole exception of Tundama, whom I met many years later and now lives in Siberia – perhaps the anonymous readers I would find them.

I thought that the world was divided in two: Those who belong to the secret society of books and those who don’t. For that very reason, I always walked around with a book and when I sat in cafes in the city, I thought that reading a book would always bring people to me with a casual “I also read that book!” or even better, “That’s an interesting book! I’d like to read it as well”. This of course never happened. Neither did it in the countless museums, art galleries or even brothels. Reading books in brothels. How little did I understand.

But that night at “Il Pomeriggio” was not like the other nights, walking all night, looking for someone to talk to. In the cold, in the rain, in the brimming sunlight. Sonia was very elegant, like those women I had seen only in films and sometimes at the tailor’s shop. Her long hair sprouted sidewards like a fountain of glittering brown and formed one vast unity with her fur coat. It all began with a cigarette, still unlighted for her. Then the coughing and that young people shouldn’t be smoking. Then the shy approval.

My grandmother, prostrated in her bed, so full of hubris and slurs, seemed from an entirely different planet. Sonia was a psychoanalyst and then we talked about Fernando: “But he’s so young!” she exclaimed, as if forgetting for a moment that so was I. “Isn’t that a curious name of yours?” she inquired and then I told her it was a name for a Jew. Her friend, Mrs. Goldman, also exhilaratingly beautiful had just left and Sonia told me she was also a psychoanalyst, and her parents had come after the Holocaust.

I wasn’t too worried about an age difference of at least four decades, and all what mattered after all was the friendship. Not the friendship of comradeship or complicity, but rather the polite, distant and very political friendship of conversation. I didn’t know quite well what “Zionist” meant at the time, except that all Jews were Zionists, because Israel was the land that the Eternal, our God, had given to us. Israel was not in this planet, it was something otherworldly. Sonia taught me, but not on that day.

The next time I saw Sonia – a few weeks later – she invited me for a succulent dinner at the same place and I was so elated, never had I eaten in a luxurious restaurant like that, then given alcoholic drinks and chocolates and cigarettes. At my age, I only had enough money to buy one drink – always the cheapest on the menu – and cigarettes I stole from my father’s drawer. She told me then a mysterious tale: Her father, a Palestinian, had once bought a Hebrew manuscript in Damascus and she wanted to know what the age of the text was.

Along the way, I learnt that “your people, the Zionists” burnt the house of her father and forced him into exile, long before the establishment of the state. Then he fled to Lebanon where he met her mother, and together they left for the new world, though they were always called “Turks”, because Lebanon still belonged to the Ottoman empire and they traveled the entire world on a boat with nothing but a Turkish passport. That night I learnt that the Zionists had burnt her father’s house and that knowledge still didn’t change anything.

I didn’t speak Hebrew at such an early age – though little did I know, how soon I would find myself in Jerusalem – but I had been taking Greek for two years with Noel, who had been once a militant priest in a revolution and learnt the sacred tongues in Rome and in Jerusalem. He invited me to join his class in Biblical Hebrew, in which for the first time I learnt what the dots below the letters in the prayer book meant and how they were to be deciphered. I took a copy of the Damascus manuscript to him and waited patiently for an answer.

In the meantime, a friend of Sonia – another psychoanalyst – had gone insane after quitting her medication and was now in a mental facility. In the meantime, Sonia had taken to drinking and thought a lot about her father. She told me about the Holy Land, to which she had been once, and where her father house had been, in a place where years later I found instead, a restaurant of Lebanese exiles. Once I called Sonia from Jerusalem to tell her that I had found this restaurant where her father’s home once had been.

About ten years had passed and she no longer remembered me. That’s what happens when you mix alcohol with Alzheimer. But I remembered that “we” had burnt her father’s house, so I came back to the restaurant and asked the Lebanese couple to allow me to put some flowers in the memory of her father, who never saw the Holy Land again. Now I knew who the Zionists were, and I longer had a rational explanation for the expulsion of Sonia’s father. I felt sorry. I wanted to walk all the way to Beirut, and say to people I was sorry.

Of course most of us had been taught that the love of the people of Israel and the love of the state, were one and the same. And why would you not love your people? After all, it was on the name of these people that world history had been wronged; the utopia hadn’t come. How could God have given us this land? Then I remembered my first time in Jerusalem, walking along the street of the Prophets and telling myself: “So, this is the Holy City. Stench of sweat, garbage and dust.”

Perhaps we took it. Perhaps we took it because there was nowhere else for us to go. Perhaps we burnt Sonia’s father house because we were full of resentment. And who is this “we”? Why can’t we be treated as individuals? Zionist no longer means anything other than “those Zionists”, e.g. those who burnt Sonia’s father house. Criminals, villains, thieves. There are no other Zionists. There are no good Zionists. We shouldn’t have stolen the land in the first place. We should have stayed in Europe. Mourn our dead there.

I’ve asked myself for so long, what would have Sonia thought of me, had she lived to see me today? Would she also tell me, “I have no problems with Jews, only with Zionists”, like Ali did? Would she also tell me that we should have stayed in Europe? Would she also call me a jerk? I wonder if Sonia would have returned to Palestine. Perhaps we’re wrong, and no justice can be delivered on any of these peoples, perhaps it is like the Book of Job, we can’t be redeemed even if we do everything to be redeemed. There’s no insurance.

This should have never happened. I told myself so many times as I drove alongside the road to Jericho, and I saw the Israeli soldiers strip searching the Palestinian women clad in abayas. This should have never happened. I told myself when I had to watch on TV the soldiers stabbed, their eyes gouged out and their bodies disemboweled in a square in Ramallah. This should have never happened. I told myself when a friend who bragged about having killed many Arabs was himself killed in Lebanon. I buried him too.

But the truth is that all this did happen and a lot more. Who are these Zionists that burnt Sonia’s father house and that she could never forgive? Perhaps some of them were simply dreamers, running from the Soviet Union, running from poverty, running from death. Perhaps they were born, like Sonia, to people whose houses were burnt too. Perhaps they didn’t have enough time to read Herzl’s “Jewish State” and barely had enough time to reach a boat and leave their entire families behind.

All of them, those people who built that country in which I lived and where I paid homage to Sonia’s parents; they were not murderers, they were not thieves, they were not criminals. They just wanted to live. Those Zionists. Once I heard Tim Hetherington say that wars are something very human – people are put with weapons at two sides of a mountain and asked to defend their comrades. This is how this country was born, in a war. People do terrible things in wars, in order to survive. Even good people.

What if Ali and I went to war? Would he kill me to survive? Would he burn my house? I don’t know, but probably I would. All I learnt from Sonia – in between the lines – is that this war already happened, and we shouldn’t fight the wars of other people. Forgive me, friends, if I can’t un-make the past of my people, since I’m only an individual. This is one tragic story, so countless our dead. But it is a tragedy of two. There’s no innocence to be had in tragedies. Not yours and not mine.

Forgive me if I think you border on hate when you think they’re innocent and we’re guilty; forgive me if I think you border on hate when you think we should have never come; forgive me if I think that you have a problem with me when only my people has to bear all the blame. Forgive me if I think you’re unfair when you label me a jerk for defending myself from generalization. Please forgive me. Forgive me for thinking this is a world made only of individuals, who love and hate, who do good and evil, who have grace and cruelty, all at once.

The only important thing is that I will not die for my country, perhaps for you, but never for my country.

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