Read In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist Online

Authors: Ruchama King Feuerman

Tags: #Fiction, #Jewish, #Contemporary Women, #Religious, #Political

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (26 page)

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
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Mustafa nearly tore off his kaffiyeh in frustration when he heard this. So many precautions! Because of a foolish firecracker, his beautiful clay bird lay trapped in a hole! Buried. As the workers dispersed, each going to his job, he fretted: How much longer until he could take it off the mountain? Things will pass, he soothed himself, and he set to scrubbing around the El Kas Fountain. A firecracker set off by a silly boy was not a bomb, and not a fire either. The imams would calm down. Any day now he would bring the bird to Mr. Kareem. It had to be.

After work, he showered and tried to clean out the grime that had collected under his big toe. No one should laugh at his dirty feet or say he smelled if he did end up getting his shoes fixed or went to the Mashbir to buy the underwear. But the grime was embedded, a thick black crescent under his horny nail. He soaked his foot in warm water and a squirt of dishwashing liquid. It helped a little. Tomorrow he would go to the Mashbir,
he decided. Today he had more important things to do than buying underwear.

He went from jewelry shop to shop, looking for bargains. The day would come when he had enough money, and he wanted to be ready. At every shop he carefully marked down the item and the price. A clerk with large ears sneered at him, “You with your broom and dustpan are going to buy diamonds?” Why hadn’t he left his dustpan at home? he rebuked himself. But it made such a good walking cane.… Two lady clerks stared at him, whispered behind their fingers with their fancy rings, and giggled. He paid no attention. One day he would return with plenty of cash, and they would welcome him into their shop with a thousand apologies, and he would say, “No thank you, I will spend my cash elsewhere.”

He leaned against a wall in the crowded alleyway, his dustpan lying at his feet. He needed to rest. Going from store to store, shopping—even if just in his heart—had worn him out more than a full day’s work at the Haram. But he had to buy ingredients for tonight’s meal, some rice and yogurt and lentils and onions to make
mujadara
, Ali’s favorite. In this way he would draw his flatmate to the table and they might eat together and talk a little. He bought the items at the corner grocery, giggling to himself at his plan, then loaded the food into a plastic blue basket, but as he walked down the alley with his purchases, he then remembered: hot peppers and tomatoes! Without them the
mujadara
would taste like old socks. Ali would hate it. He returned to the grocery and settled the peppers and tomatoes in his basket. As he started back, he heard a voice behind him. “Wait, Mustafa! Please, wait!”

His neck turned, slowly, like a key in a rusty lock, and he stared in amazement at Rabbi Isaac standing near a stall of eggplants. “What are you doing here?” flew out of Mustafa’s mouth. The rabbi looked different, younger, like a regular working man, in a cap, not a hat, and regular working man pants. His face looked as if it had been cleaned and made fresh by mountain air.

“I’ve been looking for you,” the rabbi said, panting a little. He removed his cap and drew a sleeve across his forehead. “Thank God, I found you.”

Mustafa gaped at him. Rabbi Isaac had been looking for him, him alone! What could bring the rabbi here? It didn’t matter—he was here, that’s all. He probed some loose skin on his throat. Could it be Rabbi
Isaac had come to—help him? Ah, he understood now! The rabbi had changed his mind. He beamed. His whole body filled with happiness, his legs and spine and the tips of his fingers, too.

“We need to talk,” the rabbi was saying. “Somewhere private.”

“Would you like to come to my flat?” Mustafa asked shyly. He worried he hadn’t cleaned the dishes from last night or swept the floor.

Rabbi Isaac shook his head. “It’s better I don’t know where you live. This way no one can accuse me of withholding information.” He gestured with his chin. “How about that little bench?”

Mustafa puzzled over this last remark as the two walked toward a secluded spot behind a carpet vendor. What did it matter, the rabbi had come. Mustafa placed his plastic basket of food and dustpan at his feet. They both settled into the hard bench. All around them the vendors were putting away their wares, shutting down their stalls. The sun was scattering its last bits of light on the alleys and stalls, and a thick smell of jasmine hung in the air, just like in the courtyard.

“Let me explain why I’m here,” the rabbi said, setting his cap on the bench.

“I know why you came to find me,” Mustafa said softly.

Rabbi Isaac turned in his bench. “You do?”

“Last time you said no. But this time you changed your mind. You came to help with my neck.” Mustafa stroked the flesh there, hard and thorny as the skin of an olive tree.

The rabbi stared. “What?”

Mustafa nodded. “I don’t know how you will help exactly. Anyway, I don’t need much.” He strained to twist his neck forward, but it budged only slightly. “Just four centimeters, that’s all I need. My neck still wouldn’t be straight, but then it wouldn’t hurt to chew and swallow, and I could see better.” He looked over at Rabbi Isaac whose mouth was hanging open a little.

“Mustafa, I don’t understand.” He was fidgeting with his cap. “How could I make your neck straighter? I’m not a doctor. But I could find you one. A specialist. Let me try.”

Mustafa mulled this. It would take years before such a meeting ever really happened, and at the end the doctor would say, “No hope,” same as the doctor from Jordan. He made a sharp sideways cutting motion. “No
doctors.” In his heart he never had believed they could help. The imams said that Allah creates forty people with the same looks, but he never saw anyone with a neck like his, or even half as bad. “You can help.” He pointed a finger.

“But … but,” the rabbi sputtered. A policeman passed by eating sunflower seeds from a bag and the rabbi’s face turned into a stone. After the policeman had disappeared down the alley, Isaac said quietly, “How I wish I
could
fix your neck. But you’re asking for a miracle.”

Mustafa squinted into the last bit of sunlight. Was that so terrible? The Christian lady once told him a story about a boy in a wheelchair who spoke to a holy man and then for the first time the crippled boy began to walk. She said there were many stories like this. “Four centimeters is so hard to do? Or to stop the pain?” The rabbi sat there, his mouth opening and shutting like a fish. Then a thought struck Mustafa. “What about the holy old man?” he said loudly. “He made a miracle. He made the old lady better. You said he got rid of her cancer.”

The rabbi’s watery eyes got big. “What are you talking about?”

“The old man in the courtyard—he made the professor’s mother get well when everyone else gave up hope. I heard you say it, don’t lie to me,” he said boldly.

The Jew stared out. “Yes,” he said at last. “I remember. But if I recall, I also told you it was a coincidence. The rebbe was a holy man, but never a magician. Anyway, I’m not the rebbe.”

Mustafa stared over his right shoulder at a small stall: Rafik’s Bike Repair. His arms hung at his side, cold and heavy, even on this hot summer aafternoon. “I can’t see what’s in front of me,” he muttered. “Maybe you can tell me why I am like this. Allah created the world on one side and me on the other. I can’t even see myself.” He twisted his fingers into a grotesque knot.

“No, Mustafa,” the rabbi said, slowly shaking his head, “everyone sees what they have to. You already see more than most.”

Here, Mustafa lifted his head a little. He was quiet. “Yes,” he said, finally, reluctantly. “This is true. Every single day I think I am just sweeping dirt, but then one day you call me a kohein, you talk to me, and I see: No. Not dirt. Not rocks. Treasures. You made me see. No one else.” He stopped. The rabbi had to care, just a little, to have talked to him like that,
and maybe even Miss Tamar cared about him a little, too. “Who else will help me with my neck if not you?” He looked with plaintive eyes into Rabbi Isaac’s gray ones.

But the look on the rabbi’s face made him see the truth: No miracles for Mustafa. “Why won’t you help me?” His dark eyes flashed. “Is it because I’m not a Jew?”

“God forbid!”

“But maybe that is the reason!” Mustafa bent clumsily to retrieve his basket of groceries. “You care only for yourselves! Other
yehudi
.”

The rabbi’s eyes flashed then turned sorrowful. He held out his hand, and Mustafa brushed it away.

“Why did you try to find me?” Mustafa said angrily. “Why did you follow me?”

Here, the rabbi’s face turned even more serious. “I had to let you know. The police are watching me. It’s dangerous to bring things off the Temple Mount.” He cast a quick look behind him and then continued in a lowered voice, “The police want to know about the pomegranate, how I got it. We’re both in danger.”

Mustafa’s words expired in his throat. “Me?
Laa!
” His eyes brimmed with anxiety. “Why me? No one knows about me. Only you.” He got to his feet, the dustpan in one hand, the basket in the other.

“That’s why you shouldn’t come back to the courtyard. They have their eyes on it. Better they not know about you.”

“But nothing will happen to my job?” Mustafa tightly gripped the dustpan and basket. “I can’t lose my job.”

“God willing, nothing will happen,” Rabbi Isaac said, trying to sound soothing but it was too late. “Just don’t bring any more things off the mountain. Protect them, hide them, until the right time when they can be removed. Meanwhile, whatever is there must stay there.”

What about the clay dove?
shot through Mustafa’s head. With that, his only chance for getting money died. He started to walk away.

“Wait, Mustafa,” he said. “Where are you going? Don’t leave!” He held out his arms. In a ringing voice he called out,
“Kel nah refa na lo!”
Please God, heal him!

Mustafa felt a watery, rushing sensation at the base of his trunk as the rabbi called out his Hebrew prayers. The strange feeling traveled up the
knobs of his spine—
could it be?
—reached his chest and shoulders, but then stopped at his neck, died there. Nothing.

“Please stay, Mustafa!”

But he kept walking, not caring to hear the Jew’s empty words.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

At first, Isaac hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. He had ordered two pitas with falafel and a side order of french fries. When he reached into his pocket to pay, he spotted the strange men from the courtyard: the short, burly one in tight frayed pants, and the other, the tall twig of a man swimming in his baggy trousers. Ha. He grimaced to himself—who else but plants from the Israeli Intelligence? He snuck another look. Their hoboish yeshiva attire offended him. Was that their idea of how the “Ultra-Orthodox” dressed? The tall one was picking at a beet salad. The burlier man who had been reading devotedly from a religious pamphlet, rocking slightly as if inspired, now wiped his greasy fingers on it as Isaac passed. They stood to leave when he did, their expressions now alert and aggressive. Isaac’s palms prickled with fear. What did they want with him?

He walked across Ninveh Street, and he heard their footsteps clomping behind him.
Clomp, clomp
. One sneezed, a loud, honking sound. Whatever happened to stealth? he thought with a sneer. Halfway across it got quiet, and he turned and saw them slipping into a dark car. He steadied himself against a mailbox. Threatened by Jews in the State of Israel. How low could Jews sink?

The early afternoon sun was cooking everything in sight as he turned into the courtyard. He had too much on his head. Mustafa’s sad, outrageous request weighed on him. Somehow he had encouraged the poor man to believe he had special powers. And then the past few days the rebbetzin kept dropping hints: “So
nu
, how did it go with Tamar?” but he couldn’t bring himself to talk about her. The young lady had stirred trouble in his soul. A Yiddish proverb: “A bird and a fish can fall in love but where will they make their home?” They were so different. The age
difference embarrassed him. Maybe he wasn’t any better than Itai Shani, lusting after his teenage secretary. Anyway, it was no good. She wanted too much from him, he feared—the wisdom of a father, the freshness and passion of a young man. More than he could deliver. No wonder he kept stalling and not calling her. The same thing with Mustafa. Way more than he could deliver.

He entered the kitchen and stashed his bag of leftovers in the refrigerator. From the half-opened window he saw the courtyard filling up. It was going to be crowded today. People had already gathered under the scant protection of the olive tree. He heard a baby crying and the hushed sound of psalms being recited, soothing and urgent as rushing waves. The good rebbetzin was handing out glasses of water and directing people to the shady area, and then he too went into the white clarifying light of the courtyard. His eyes quickly assessed the various supplicants—the concert pianist who had lost his audience; the barren midwife, thick-ankled in her clunky brown shoes; the acne-ridden Hassidic teenager; the olive-skinned groom, a deserter from the conjugal bed. So many desperate Jews. Today he would definitely need help.

But what was this, a sharp intake of breath, the courtyard gasping in one voice? In the center of the courtyard Mazal stood, clawing at her clothes. Her red kerchief tied under her chin was slipping off her head. She shouted in a menacing voice, “What is the sin for trespassing?” Her fingers stumbled as she tried to undo the buttons to her shirt.

Isaac closed his eyes for a split second. Was this a dream? Then, fast, fast, he bolted from the kitchen, flung open the door, made a beeline for Mazal. From the corner of his eye he saw the olive-skinned groom and the Hassidic teenager, looking woozy-headed, the women standing stock-still with their prayer books like frozen pillars of salt, even the toddlers in their carriages shocked into stillness. Isaac advanced while tearing off his jacket. He held his jacket before him like a matador, eyes averted, but even still he glimpsed her large, mottled stomach, scarred and pocked. Almighty Hashem, where was Shaindel Bracha now?

“Mazal, oh Mazal,” he implored, “please cover yourself!” He lifted the jacket so that it covered her from the waist up. She clawed it down with a disgusted swipe. Again he held it up while she struggled to remove her shirt. Again she thrashed the jacket down. She raised her arms threateningly.
“What is the sin for trespassing?” she repeated in a loud, aggrieved voice.

BOOK: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist
9.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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