Authors: J David Simons
by a low, partly plastered, brick building. ‘Give these to Rafi,’ she said, handing him the bundle of letters. ‘I must take the medicine to the sick tent.’
Lev let the dust settle from her departure, looked around. The brick building was surrounded by tents, ten of them, patched-up, sandy-coloured affairs, he guessed they had been acquired on the cheap from the British Army now that the desert campaigns were over. It was the kind of deal Mickey might have brokered. Behind the tents, there was a stone byre fronted by a fenced-in area where half-a-dozen skinny cows chewed on some sparse gorse and a few chickens roamed. Beyond that, a rusted anvil, a wagon, buckets of tar, a couple of wooden sheds for storage, stalls for the horses, a covered area for the hay. Further off, a remote tent where Celia had already pulled up the wagon, gone inside. The compound reminded him of the small farms back in Poland. He recognized the sense of struggle and sadness about the place. Jobs half-completed, repairs needing to be done, improvements to be made. He picked up his case and tube of maps, entered the brick building.
The dining room was laid out with six long, trestle tables, assorted chairs and benches. At one end there was a cloth partition beyond which he guessed was the kitchen area from the sound of pots being washed and scrubbed. At the other end of the room, a solitary figure sat bent over some spread-out sheets of paper on the table.
Lev called out to him. ‘Rafi Melamud?’
The man looked up then his voice came out deep and fierce. ‘Who wants to know?’
‘From the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association,’ Lev said as he approached the table. ‘From PICA.’
Rafi Melamud was a solid boulder of a man with a thick neck and round head, hair cropped short. As he leaned back in his seat, his short-sleeved work shirt stretched tight around his powerful chest, as if it were a piece of child’s clothing on an adult’s body. He didn’t get up. ‘I expected you tomorrow,’ he said, waving his hand over his papers. ‘These accounts are for you.’
‘No, today. It was definitely today.’
‘I have your telegram.’
Rafi’s steady look challenged then quickly softened. ‘What does it matter? You are here now.’ He motioned to the chair opposite. ‘Sit.’
Lev did as he was told.
‘The midday meal is finished.’ Rafi called out to the kitchen: ‘Shoshana.’
,’ came a cry from behind the cloth partition.
‘Is there soup?’
‘There is always soup.’
‘We have a guest.’ Rafi clasped his hands in front of him, the knuckles on his thick fingers were grazed, his fingernails filled with dirt. ‘You walked from the train stop?’
‘Celia brought me.’
‘Ah yes, Celia. Were there boxes?’
‘Good. The new tools. And post?’
‘Yes, yes. I almost forgot.’ Lev handed over the bundle.
‘Letters are always good. They are our only hope.’ Rafi flicked through the envelopes until his eyes clouded over in disappointment. ‘Ah, here is your soup.’
Shoshana waddled in. A stout young woman with large, bovine eyes, an enormous bosom, a filthy apron and a stink of sweat about her. ‘Here,’ she said, handing Lev a tin cup with one hand, a chunk of bread with the other. ‘It’s all there is.’ She glowered at Rafi. ‘Until I’m permitted to kill another hen.’ She turned her back on them, returned towards her kitchen.
‘You are my little chicken,’ Rafi shouted after her. ‘You want that I should kill you?’
‘I want I should cut off your dirty tongue for my soup,’ Shoshana called back, before disappearing between the folds of the cloth partition.
Lev sipped at the hot liquid. It was thin and salty with some slithers of tough meat. He soaked it up with his bread and ate.
‘From Poland?’ Rafi asked, flicking away some flies from his paperwork.
‘Polish is for the weaklings in the diaspora. We speak only Hebrew here. Where is Sammy the King?’
‘I thought only PICA called him that.’
‘The four kings of Israel. Saul, David, Solomon. And Sammy. King of the Land. Where is he?’
‘He had a meeting in Jerusalem.’
‘You can help us?’
‘That’s why I’m here.’
‘You look too young.’
‘I’ve been with the organization for a number of years.’
‘You can lend us money? We need a tractor. More tools. More food. More everything.’
‘I have no authority in money matters.’
‘Bah! Then what do you have authority in?’
‘I am here to discuss the land.’
Rafi grunted. ‘Ah yes, the land. The land is simple. There is an area down in the valley. About 250 dunams. Half is occupied by a Bedouin family. They have a large vegetable plot, the rest for grazing. The other half is swamp. The Bedouin use it for watering a few buffalo, goats, horses, a small herd of sheep.’
‘What do you need it for?’
‘If we have the land, we have access to the River Yarmuk, a tributary of the Jordan. That is the most important matter for us. Then we can draw off water, then we can irrigate, then we can bring life to this dried-up place. Sammy knows all of this.’
‘I had a look at the maps before I came. I can’t see the plot you’re talking about.’
‘Show me what you have.’
Rafi moved his papers, Lev extracted the maps from the tube, rolled them out on the table. ‘One is from the time of the Turks by the Palestinian Exploration Fund,’ he explained. ‘It’s about sixty years old. This other one we made with the help of the British from campaign maps they produced during the last war. We used these when we first bought the land for your settlement. Where is the piece you want?’
Rafi twisted the maps around, peered in close, ran a dirty-nailed finger down from the Sea of Galilee. ‘I don’t see it,’ he said. ‘It should be here but I don’t see it. Where the hell is it?’
Lev went round to Rafi’s side of the table. ‘Where should it be?’
‘There. Outside this pink boundary. What is this boundary?’
‘Inside that is the land we lease to you now.’
‘No, it cannot be. This shows your pink boundary as going right up to the River Yarmuk. I told you we don’t have land to the river.’
‘You do according to the maps.’
‘Damn the maps. I know my own land. Our boundary is this ridge, not the river. The river flows below the ridge. Your pink line shows the ridge and the river as if they were the same line. But the river does not go like this. It twists to the east, then back again to make a bulge. And inside this bulge is the land we want.’
‘I don’t understand. How can both maps be wrong like this?’
Rafi sniffed hard. ‘What does it matter? Just alter them.’
‘We can’t do that. According to official documents, the land doesn’t exist.’
‘I can assure you it does. It’s got a swamp full of malaria and a family of Bedouins on it.’
‘I need to see for myself.’
‘It is not far to the ridge. From there you can look down on this land that does not exist. I’d take you myself but I have to finish these accounts now you are a day early. Come, I will point you in the right direction.’
Rafi took him outside, indicated a rough dirt road rutted with the grooves of wagon wheels. ‘Down there. Straight line for a half-mile or so. Until you come to the ridge. We call the place the Centre of the World. You won’t need your maps to show you why. We can talk again later. After supper. After supper is the time for talking.’
Lev headed off east along the track, passed rows of citrus saplings, a field of wilting wheat, another of sorghum, a line of eucalyptus trees shedding their ribbons of white bark. Then as he reached the ridge, the land suddenly opened out before him, the width and depth of the view taking him by surprise.
He needed a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the vast space, the brightness. Before him a valley that stretched eastward for miles to the pink ridge of hills he had seen earlier. These hills would be part of Trans-Jordan, then beyond to Persia and Arabia. To the north, there would be Syria and Lebanon. To the south, Jerusalem then on to Egypt and Africa. Behind him was the Mediterranean, then Poland and the rest of Europe. Rafi was right. This really was the Centre of the World. And below him in the valley was the Yarmuk River, not flowing parallel to the ridge on which he stood but meandering eastwards to take in its grasp a piece of land that did not figure on any map. He could make out the Bedouin encampment dotted with black tents, flaps raised against the sun and for the capture of any breeze. He cupped his hands over his eyes. A man on horseback moved among the goats, children were playing in the dirt, a cluster of women watching over them from the shade of a tent. Part of the land had been cultivated with a few rows of vegetables. But a large section was just swamp, a couple of figures bent low with their baskets among the reeds.
HE DINING ROOM
was surprisingly quiet for a group of over thirty people. No laughter. No strident voices. Some dull-toned conversations, that was all. Mostly men, perhaps about ten women, all about the same age, in their mid-twenties, even younger. Lev sat beside Rafi, feeling very much the city boy in his long trousers and shirt, although he had given up on the tie. Those sitting close by barely acknowledged him. Not, he felt, out of any rudeness but rather a weariness that excluded the burden of conversation with a newcomer. Everyone seemed caught up in their own islands of existence. He noticed Celia over at another table, reading a letter while she ate. A few lucky others did the same with the post they had received. He spooned up the same soup he had eaten earlier except for a few beans added to fill out the broth. Bread, jam and honey on the table, this was the evening meal after a hard day’s work in the fields.
He realized he could have been one of these young pioneers. If God or Fate or Love had dealt him a different hand. Or if Ewa Kaminsky had not taught him how to type. One of these weary souls trying to build a community here with barely the strength left at the end of the day to lift a spoon to their lips. He was never as exhausted as the members of this group, his hands were not calloused, his clothes were not in need of a launder and a stitch, there was always a fine meal waiting for him at Madame Blum’s.
Here, after supper, everyone washed their own dishes, dried them, stacked them away, sat back down at the tables. He noticed the mood immediately pick up. Conversations were louder, chairs were shifted
closer, pots of tea were poured, cigarettes were rolled, pipes were lit, a couple of the women took out their knitting, another started to sing to herself, pages of a newspaper were passed around.
He watched on as Celia continued to read her letters, unconcerned about the activity going on around her. She paused only to look up in irritation if someone should block out the light from the nearest lantern. The headscarf she had worn when Lev had met her earlier had been abandoned to reveal a mass of dark curls. A young man squeezed in beside her. There was a slick-haired confidence about him that reminded Lev of the British police officers strutting around Haifa with their Webley revolvers. Celia turned away, shielded her letter from the intruder, bit down on her knuckle as she concentrated on her reading. What was she doing here, this young woman from Scotland?
Rafi stood up, held out his arms for silence. ‘Comrades,’ he shouted. It took a while for everyone to settle. ‘Comrades, comrades. We have a visitor.’
Lev felt himself flush to the attention, raised his own hand briefly in acknowledgement.
Rafi continued. ‘Lev is here from PICA. I asked them to have a look at the land down by the river. As noted in the minutes of previous meetings, there is a long-standing need for us to–’
‘You had no authority to do that,’ called out one of the pipe-smokers. He was a thin, bespectacled young man with pointed, ferret-like features, a peaked worker’s cap tilted back off his forehead. ‘No authority whatsoever.’
Rafi struck his fist on the table. ‘For God’s sake, Amos, we agreed all this. We agreed access to the river was important. Look at the wheat. It’s dying in the fields. We haven’t seen rain for weeks. Hardly a drop in months.’
‘We agreed in principle
at some later date
,’ Amos countered. ‘We didn’t agree to any negotiations with the Anonymous Donor and his beloved PICA.’
‘I am the
secretary. I have the authority to take the initiative. It is important PICA understands what we want.’
Amos pushed himself slowly to his feet, confidently surveyed the audience. ‘Understands what we want?’ he snarled, shaking the stem of his
pipe at his listeners. ‘We can’t even work the land we have. We already have to bring in cheap Arab labourers from al-Dalhamiyya and Tiberias. That land down there is just more work. It’s just another swamp to be drained.’ Amos placed his hands on his hips, swivelled his puffed-out chest in defiance. ‘It’s not more fields we want. What we need is money for a tractor. And a thresher. And another plough to work the land we already have. Can PICA give us that?’
‘And what about the Bedouin?’ This question came from a blonde, red-cheeked man with piston-like biceps bursting out of his short-sleeved work shirt. He represented what Lev thought of as the ‘New Jew’, the kind of scythe-bearing figure he used to see back in Poland on posters advertising the joys of agriculture to the Zionist Youth. All that was missing was a twinkle of light flashing from this New Jew’s blue eyes. ‘Have you told Zayed we want his land?’
‘We don’t know if it is his land,’ Rafi said.
‘Of course it’s his land,’ said the New Jew. ‘His family have been coming here for centuries.’
Rafi sighed, his own face red now with rising irritation. ‘There is doubt regarding his ownership.’
‘What doubt? If it is not his land, then who’s is it?’
‘I’ll let our friend from PICA explain,’ Rafi said.
Lev looked around at the expectant faces. This was his moment. When he had to step forward, take control just as he had done on that cold night in Zebrzydowice on the Poland-Czechoslovakia border. He gripped the table edge, pushed himself upwards onto his feet.
‘The land under discussion…’ He was pleased to hear his voice had emerged both calm and even. He glanced at Celia but she was still engrossed in her letter reading. He pressed on. ‘The land under discussion does not appear on any map in our possession.’
‘What the hell does that mean?’ Amos asked.
Lev sucked in a breath, looked over at his questioner. He sensed something self-righteous and smug about the man, marked him as one of those Russian socialists full of noble ideals that would come to nothing. He had seen plenty of them from his office window, wearing those very
same peaked worker’s caps, lining up to catch the next boat out of their Promised Land. ‘It means I don’t know who owns it,’ Lev admitted. ‘It could be this Zayed you talk about. It could be the British. It could be the French. It could be some Arab landowner sitting in a villa in Cairo. I just don’t know.’
‘Well, if it doesn’t feature on any map,’ someone called out, ‘it must be no-man’s land.’
‘No-woman’s land, comrade,’ Shoshana from the kitchen corrected to roars of laughter.
‘No-woman’s land, then. Why don’t we just take it?’
‘It’s not that simple,’ Lev said. ‘There are laws, ancient property laws that are likely to apply in the absence of any documentation. I need to make enquiries, take advice. I should also like to talk with the Bedouin. Who is this Zayed?’
‘He is the elder,’ Rafi informed him. ‘He speaks on behalf of the tribe.’
‘Can I meet with him?’
‘What will you tell him?’ New Jew called out. ‘That you’ve come to steal his land?’
‘PICA does not steal land,’ Lev countered, trying to keep his voice steady against remarks he was beginning to take personally. ‘You reside here now on land PICA bought properly and fairly.’
‘But there was no-one living on it at the time,’ New Jew said. ‘What will you do with Zayed and his family once his land has been purchased?’
‘It is not PICA’s policy to displace tenant farmers unnecessarily. Zayed and his tribe can come and go as they have always done. Once properly drained, this land is only needed for access to the river.’
‘We don’t need the land at all.’ It was Amos again, still on his feet with his poking pipe. ‘I keep saying, we can’t even drain the land we already have. We should only take what we can work with Jewish labour. That is a basic principle. If we have to bring in Arabs to work for us, we are no more than colonialists.’ Amos spat out the last word with contempt, before adding with even more bitterness: ‘And capitalists.’
‘And when Rafi here wants to start damming the river,’ New Jew continued, ‘what will happen to Zayed’s pastures then?’
‘Enough, comrades,’ Rafi said. ‘Enough. I still don’t see any reason why Lev cannot meet with the Bedouin. It is, after all, only a preliminary talk.’
‘I will need a clear mandate from the group,’ Lev added.
‘I will ask for a show of hands,’ Rafi said. ‘Against?’
Only three hands were raised.
Amos sat down defeated while New Jew shuffled in his chair, folded his thick forearms against the victors.
‘Good,’ Rafi said. ‘Now who is free to take Lev down to see Zayed?’
‘I can.’ It was the young man with the slick-backed hair who sat beside Celia. ‘I have to go there tomorrow anyway.’
‘That’s settled then,’ Rafi declared. ‘Jonny will take him. Now let’s move on to other matters. We have much to discuss.’
Who should work with the children now Ahuva was sick? Could Shoshanna kill another hen? Was there money available to buy more vegetables from the Arab farmers? Who could work on building a children’s house? What to do about the mice? Avi needed help to tar the wagon wheels. Chaim wanted to keep bees. Tools shouldn’t be left in the fields. Where could they get more books? Could Tsur keep the stray dog he found in the valley? Some of the married couples wanted their own tents. Where was last week’s newspaper? Yes, where
last week’s newspaper?
The talking went on and on until everyone was tired of it and a wind picked up, causing the lanterns to sway. The discussions subsided and one of the women started to sing, quietly at first until the melody was taken up by someone else, then another and another. Lev recognized the tune from the country of his birth. He began to hum the melody. And then there were more songs, again in Hebrew or in Russian or Yiddish, songs of
, of the homeland. The group drew closer, the lamps were turned down save one, there was clapping and finger-clicking, one of the members returned with a battered accordion, a few people got up, held hands, began to dance in a circle. Celia was one of them. Lev watched her carefully as she played out the familiar steps. Her eyes closed, a few paces to the side, dipping her body then pulling back, arching upwards, forcing out her breasts, throwing back her head, caught up in her own private passion, as she retraced her movements in rhythm with her partners. He heard his own voice soar
to the melodies accompanying the dancers and somewhere deep within himself he felt a yearning for something he could not name. But just as the intensity of the music reached its zenith, the dancing broke up, people started to leave, still singing as they filed out of the door, their melodies spilling into a star-filled night.
He was to bed down in the dining room. He was brought a cot, a pillow and a blanket. Everyone else had gone to their tents. The last lantern was left burning at the far end of the room for when the night guard came in to make tea. Lev lay awake on his back, staring at the corrugated roof. It had been a long time since he had felt so much a part of something. He would have to go back to his time spent with Sarah and the rest of the Ten Lost Tribes. Since then, his existence in Palestine had been a lonely one. He had his relationships with Mickey, Madame Blum and Sammy but beyond that, he had no family here, no other friends, no connection to any community. The singing, the dancing, the camaraderie, it had deeply moved him. He turned restless in his cot, was about to get up to make himself some tea when he heard someone enter at the far side of the room. He looked up. The figure moved into the light of the lantern. Without thinking, he called out her name. ‘Celia.’
‘Who is that?’ she said, moving towards him, peering into the darkness.
‘Lev. From the station. From PICA.’
‘I didn’t realize you were here.’
‘It’s all right. I couldn’t sleep.’
‘I’m just going to sit by the lantern. I want to write a letter.’
‘At this time of night?’
‘It is the only time I have.’
‘I was just getting up to make tea.’
‘Stay. I will bring you some.’
Her sudden kindness surprised him. He propped himself up on his cot, watched as she worked, firing up the charcoal in the samovar, testing the temperature of the water, filling up the teapot. She poured out two cups, brought them over. He saw that she was wrapped in a blanket, her body in
the bathe of the lantern casting strange shadows around the room. He felt excited by her presence as she crouched by him, passed him his cup, then again surprised when she pulled up a chair, sat by him, placed her own cup on the floor. He watched as she stretched her neck, massaged the nape with her hands, the movement causing her blanket to drop slightly to reveal a glimpse of her upper breasts. He realized she might be naked underneath.
‘So?’ she said, with a quick smile as she recovered her cup. ‘Can you solve our land problem?’
‘It could be complicated.’
‘Everything is complicated here.’
‘Land is an emotional issue in Palestine.’
She sipped at her tea, staring at him over the rim of the cup. Then she closed her eyes, blew on the liquid so the warmth rose up to massage her face and she relaxed into the feeling of the heat. She opened her eyes again. A soft, dark brown, like smooth leather freshly shone. He saw a hidden warmth in her gaze, but an insecurity resting there also.
‘Since we are talking about land,’ she said, ‘where is your land?’
‘I come from Poland. A small town. Not far from Warsaw.’
‘And what brought you here?’
‘I came with a
. A group from the Young Guard. The plan was to build a settlement together. Probably something quite like this one.’
‘And now you are a land agent for PICA.’
He took a sip of tea. It was bitter and lukewarm. ‘Everything changed.’
She nodded. ‘It often does.’
‘And you?’ he asked.
‘I wanted a fresh start. But I’ve learned you can never really do that. You’re always building on what is already there. Either within yourself, or within others. And within the land itself. There is so much ancient history here.’
‘My grandfather told me the same thing. Coming here is like grafting new branches onto old vines. He said if I really wanted to start from the
‘I don’t know about America. All I know is life in this community can be extremely hard. But it can also be very beautiful.’ She rocked the base
of her foot against the leg of his cot. ‘I saw the way you sang along with us. Perhaps you should try this way of life again.’