Author: Vladimir Vertlib
Translator: Marilya Veteto Reese
“Where’re you from?”
“I come from Klingonia.”
The man’s face doesn’t change. His smile seems artificial. His inflection shifts but the corners of his mouth remain firmly pointed upward. “Come to my shop!” he cries. “I show you. You want souvenirs? Something for your wife?”
“In Klingonia we don’t eat human food, we don’t buy what humans buy, we don’t consume things at all. I come from another planet, you see. I am not human, you see. We are not humans over there.”
The man is not deterred.
“Beautiful place, Klingonia,” he opines.
“Kronos planet,” I say.
“Yes, a wonderful place.”
“Really? How do you know?”
“I have many friends there.”
Has he really never heard of Star Trek, or is he just playing along?
“You know Captain Picard?” I ask him.
He looks at me in bewilderment for the first time, studying my face, probably trying to interpret my smirk correctly, and then says finally, “Yes, yes, nice guy. Come on, I’ll show you my shop, you won’t regret it, you’ll be surprised.”
“I have only Klingonian money.”
The man points to the money stall on the far end of square. “Over there you can exchange into Shekel.”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
It’s the third time today that I’ve been at the Jaffa Gate and the third time that the man is attempting to lure me into his souvenir shop. There are many kitschy shops in Old Jerusalem but they all pale in comparison to the items glittering in this man’s showcases. Portraits of the Virgin with luminescent blue glass eyes, rabbis with sidelocks made of marzipan, or handkerchiefs with a stylized depiction of the Wailing Wall are among the most harmless of the abominations.
Yet the persistence of the man deserves recognition. Perhaps I am not yet old enough to react with aplomb to such a trifle. Perhaps it annoys me that on this occasion, unlike both preceding times, I am unable to simply flee. My wife has gone into the Tourist Information Office, and because I did not wish to accompany her, we agreed upon this corner as a meeting place.
This time I cannot flee. And besides, Tanya is picking us up at the Jaffa Gate. She is due to arrive in ten minutes. I am curious where she is going to park given all the barricades and the crowds of people, or where she can even pull over in order to let us hop in.
I am tired, hardly slept the night before. If it were not for the shopkeeper, I could at least have a cigarette in peace and quiet. But he refuses to budge from my side. I notice that he even looks like a Klingon: broad face, furrowed forehead, plentiful hair, large, close-set eyes. Only the mustache disrupts the Klingonesque aura.
I begin telling a long story. The Klingon people, well-organized and as industrious as a population of ants, half-human, half-machine, are an aggressive species that has expanded throughout outer space and enriched its empire by assimilating other peoples. The man listens attentively. His expression darkens. Yet the corners of his mouth continue to point relentlessly upward. “Yes, we assimilate you,” I explain, reflecting at the same time that it was perhaps not especially clever to tell an Arab in East Jerusalem that I have come to assimilate him. Besides, it suddenly occurs to me that it is the Borg and not the Klingons who assimilate other peoples. In the past I would never have confused Borg and Klingons, but my enthusiasm for Star Trek: The Next Generation is now some ten years in the past.
The Klingonesque Arab is not troubled by being assimilated.
“What do you like?” he asks me. “Come to my shop, I make you a good price, whatever you want to buy.”
“Nooo!” I screech, exasperated. “Forget it! No, no, no! Go away! Piss off! Please! Just disappear!”
The man says something in Arabic. It sounds like a major insult. The only word I understand is “khalab”—dog. Then he turns and walks away. My mood is ruined. Any other man would have thought, to hell with him, and forgotten the incident. But in my case, he lingers in my head to haunt me.
Among the remnants of the communist upbringing enjoyed by my parents during their school years that they then passed on to me was disdain for any type of wheeling and dealing, for “speculators, hucksters, or bargain-hunters.” Even in my youth, when I had scarcely any money, it would never have occurred to me to bargain a merchant down or to drive all over the city to purchase something on sale. In my interactions with lawyers I often felt that they acted like the small-time conman at the Vienna Naschmarkt, who swindled me by five schillings at his flea market stand and pulled a satisfied face when I didn’t immediately protest. My parents respected people who had a “decent profession”, a job and a steady wage, and who went about their work conscientiously, regardless of whether it gave them pleasure or not. The freelancers and wheeler-dealers, on the other hand, were nothing but a necessary evil. One needed them, but did not view them as equals. The wheeler-dealer bought a product as cheaply as possible in order to sell it at maximum profit. The successful man was he who knew how to persuade a customer to buy at an inflated price. Several conmen competing was called capitalism, and this was nonetheless better than the state-directed economy in which only the state and its highest echelons swindled all the others without competition. Communism was an idealistic dream, a utopia that could not function because not all humans were honest or in possession of firm moral principals. When I went to college at eighteen to study socio-economics, I was astonished that others did not see things exactly as I did. Some attributed a positive value to the sheer acquisition of wealth.
I glance at my watch. It is five past six, no sign of Tanya, and my wife is still in the Tourist Office. The Klingon has gone on to find another victim, a young redhead in a straw hat. He pesters her until she finally disappears into his shop.
A quarter of an hour later my wife and I are standing outside the Jaffa Gate. The rooftops and the white facades of New City gleam in the light of the evening sun. Were I not so nervous, I could lose myself in the beauty of the scenery. It is neither the people nor the buildings, it is this light that makes Jerusalem into a sacred place, more so even than its elevation, the clear air, the white stone, the rustic landscape and the indisputable loveliness of this combination, this mixture of old and new, of sublime and shabby, and their baffling harmony, more than the historical knowledge and the religious sensibility that every visitor brings to it and envelopes it with. The light serves as a catalyst, as a vehicle for pleasure or for orgiastic excess, depending on how far a person wants to go.
“I’ll call her up,” I say.
“Give it another five minutes,” my wife says. “You don’t know how many checkpoints or detours there are on an evening like this.”
Even I would have been enthused by the golden gleaming city wall in the light of the evening sun, were it not for all the Orthodox Jews hastening past me in their fervor to fall upon the center of the city in order to celebrate the Seder, the beginning of the festival of Passover, in the Jewish section of old Jerusalem. They deprive me of the ecstatic moment because they seem in such a rush and thus attract glares from the Arabic population. The presence of the security forces is massive. Nonetheless the police and soldiers try to keep in the background.
“Okay, now I’m going to call her,” I say.
In that moment, my cell rings.
“I am so sorry!” I hear Tanya’s voice say. “It’s just so typical of me. But there’s no moving forward or backward right here because…” For several seconds the reception is cut off.
“I’m stuck in my car on Latin Patriarchate Street… driving back… took a wrong turn… they won’t let me out again… because…”
“Tanya, we’ll come to you. You are just around the corner.”
It is only a couple of minutes from the Jaffa Gate to Latin Patriarchate Street. How did she manage to drive down that alley?
The alley is not even five yards wide. It winds up the hill and curves to the right behind the Latin Patriarchate, a massive, gloomy palace from the eighteenth century, only to branch into a series of even narrower alleys. No vehicle would fit through there, but Tanya only managed to drive some fifty meters further anyway. A delivery truck is making a turnaround impossible. Several children cluster around Tanya’s silver colored Toyota Corolla, which still looks relatively new. In that car I wouldn’t have even dared to drive into the vicinity of Old Jerusalem. Some of the children are drumming on the hood, others laugh or screech, one of them sticks out his tongue, another holds up his middle finger. The driver of the delivery truck, a middle-aged man in a grey suit coat, gets out and explains something in a mixture of English and Arabic, gesturing excitedly all the while. Tanya sticks her head out the side window, looks around for assistance and smiles abashedly. “Please,” she murmurs, “Please, would you be so kind to…” She sighs and leaves off. Is this the same woman who gave a brilliant speech before hundreds of people just yesterday and had masterfully handled embarrassing questions and agitators afterward by putting them in their places?
“Glad you two are here,” she said. “I drove in here to turn around and now I can’t get out anymore.”
“What made you think you could turn around in here?” I ask. “It would have been better…” My wife turns a stern look upon me and I fall silent.
The men sitting in plastic chairs in front of the coffeehouse down on the corner watch in amusement, smoking and grinning.
“You have to drive back, please!” says Tanya to the driver of the truck, probably not for the first time. “What shall I do? Tell me, what shall I do?”
The man screams, impertinent and obdurate, as only drivers in certain situations can be: “Go away! Go! Go! Move!”
“How can I possibly move if you are in my way?” Tanya’s voice remains quiet, unperturbed, more sad than anything else. “Do you think I can fly? What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see?”
Tanya tries to avoid the man’s eyes. Suddenly she reminds me of my mother when she was Tanya’s age: the same sadness in stress situations, this same subdued determination, the tendency to confront emotional excess and irrationality with logic. Her shoulders drooped, her back bent, and when I looked into her eyes, I slipped down into the chasm between hope and reality that got wider and wider with every word. The more clearly Mother outlined her position, the more I had the sense that she was about to collapse, roll up, hide herself in her own interior.
I wish Tanya would look people like that confidently in the eye, and put insolence in its place. Why did she immigrate twenty years ago from the Soviet Union, why did she go to all the trouble and arrive in Israel to make a new life for herself while Saddam’s missiles had landed in Tel Aviv, working her way up to the chairship of a German department and raising her two daughters? Who is she and who is that slimy fellow in the delivery truck?
“Why are you speaking English to him?” I ask her.
“He says he doesn’t speak Hebrew. The children don’t speak any Hebrew either, at least they claim they don’t. They keep trying to sell me something.”
“Of course they speak Hebrew,” I say. “They’re just pretending they don’t to annoy us…”
“Stop it!” interrupts my wife. “Now is not the time to discuss this.”
I get in the passenger side, my wife gets in the back. The driver of the delivery truck swears, and walks over to his truck. Backing up is a matter of precision, inasmuch as the pedestrians only move aside reluctantly and at the last moment.
“It probably wasn’t a good idea to meet at the Jaffa Gate, I’m sorry,” I say. “But since our hotel is in the old city and we aren’t familiar with Jerusalem…”
“I’m just incompetent,” Tanya explains.
We move toward the end of the alley at a walking pace. The shrill beep of the reversing delivery truck masks the noise emanating from the Jaffa Gate.
“Will you come to my shop?” I suddenly hear a familiar voice say, “It’s only round the corner. I’ll show you.” The grinning face of the Klingon shows up at the side window.
“No!” I cry.
“Yes, okay, show me, but I won’t visit it today,” says Tanya.
I am so surprised that I don’t contradict her, and before my wife can protest, the Klingon is sitting next to her on the back seat. I would like to turn around and launch myself at his throat.
I am mute. The Klingon keeps praising his shop to the heavens. My wife attempts to put more space between herself and him. It appears she wants to melt into the side door. “I am certainly not going to go to his shop,” says Tanya half audibly in Russian.
“Dobri den! I love the Russians,” cries the man.
“We are all from Klingonia,” I explain.
“Yes, I know,” he says.
After we have finally extricated ourselves from Patriarchate Street, Tanya actually steers the Toyota toward the Klingon’s souvenir shop. But it’s a no-parking zone. Even the owner concedes that fact. The attention of the police is not something he wishes to attract, certainly not so close to one of the Jewish High Holy Days, when the nerves of those in authority are worn to a frazzle.
Nevertheless, Tanya stops the car for several seconds. “Give me your card,” she says. “I’ll visit your shop later, but not today.”
He gives her his business card.
“You are a pretty woman.”
“Thank you,” says Tanya.
A pink Maria Immaculata with blinking halo peers at this tableau though the glass of the showcase with her lightning-blue sled-dog eyes.
Finally, he is gone. Tanya steps on the gas before the two heavily armed policemen coming toward us can say anything.
“What was that all about?” I ask. “Do you really want to visit his shop? I always say no right away whenever shopkeepers harass me.”
We are gliding through the Armenian Quarter, leaving Old Jerusalem by way of the Zion Gate, turning onto the road that takes us around the city. The Jaffa Gate briefly appears at our right, then the Notre Dame Center on the left.
“Maybe I won’t go, but then again I always have such a guilty conscience about these people, I don’t want to hurt their feelings or offend them.”
We drive north via a multi-lane arterial highway. In the past, up until June 1967, this was the no man’s land between the Western and the Eastern sections of the city – the walls and the barbed wire coils and the famous Mandelbaum Gate. Now a segment of streetcar line is being laid.
“Why a guilty conscience? Are you responsible for the Israeli occupation? Did you resettle anyone? Besides, didn’t you tell me that you take special care of the Arab students on campus?”
“Still,” she said. “It’s not just about me alone.”
“Yes, I understand. But I’m sure that as a voter, you’re for the liberals. You came here as an immigrant, you aren’t responsible for the mistakes of the last hundred years, you don’t live in the occupied zones…”
“But we do,” she said. “To be honest, we live in the territories, in Maale Adumim, it’s not far from Jerusalem, but in the east, towards Jericho.”
Tanya had kept his fact from me up to now. I thought she lived in Jerusalem, and when she had invited my wife and me to celebrate the beginning of Passover with her and her family, I had assumed it would be somewhere in the western part of the city.
“We had no other choice. We arrived in this country completely penniless, and the apartments in Maale Adumim were cheap. The state gave subsidies to anyone who moved there. Our daughter was only five years old. We had virtually no clue regarding the ins and outs and the historical implications. We simply didn’t think twice.”
I know that Shimon also lives on the other side of the Green Line – what a strange term for a former border that still is the cause of so much suffering. Shimon had a long road behind him, from Leningrad through the hell of the camps on the Volga and in western Siberia and finally to the Promised Land, to north of Jerusalem where the white apartment blocks encircle the barren stony hills and then creep down, up and down, on and on. Ramot is the name of the area: the heights, the plateau. The area looks from afar like a massive chain of defenses, the oldest part on this side of the former border, the highway to Tel Aviv, the periphery and gaps long since filled in with cypresses that now struggle to hold their own against rock and concrete.
Tomorrow I will travel to Ramot to visit Shimon. One reason I agreed to do this book tour of Israel, and the primary reason I accepted Tanya’s invitation to give a reading and to come to Jerusalem for a panel was to visit Shimon. This unspoken melancholy, born of having seen too much, was not something I wanted to accompany me unto my dying day.
“If there ever is peace,” I slowly begin as we turn onto the highway toward Jericho. “If it comes despite all signs to the contrary—peace, that is—and the whole area must be returned…”
“Then we will have to move out again,” says Tanya. “It wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve had to pack up and leave.”
We are silent. After a while the breathtaking panorama of the Judean desert opens up before us, its many terraces, the series of hills upon hills that extend down to the Jordan plain only to build into a massive cliff on the other side of the river, in Jordan.
“But there won’t be peace,” says Tanya at last.
From Vladimir Vertlib, Schimons Schweigen © Deuticke Verlag, 2012