The greatest thing in his life – indeed, in his family’s life – happened to Ahmed at a time when he couldn’t leave Gaza and yet he had to go to Ber Sheba claim his good fortune.
The number was there on the ticket in his lined and dusty palm, and on the small chalk board hanging on the outdoor pole in the cafe where he had spent mornings and evenings (and sometimes whole days) of his adult life.
He squinted at the number he held and, again, at the little chalk board: yes, it was the same number. According to the ticket, he had to claim the first of ten annual installments of his prize – altogether 342,000 shekels over ten years – in Ber Sheba by June 14. If, by then, the money remained unclaimed, the ticket with all its installments would be invalidated and the money added to the prize of the next drawing. June 14 was two weeks away.
A feeling of dread settled in his stomach to keep company with the exhilaration that had arisen there. The Israelis had once again cut off the border and imposed a curfew due to acts of the extremists, whom, he was sure, included some of his friends and acquaintances. The closed border meant that no one would be crossing to work in Israel, where most of the jobs were, and where most of the money for the local economy came. Gaza would be a tight kettle under a slow burn, with radicals on all sides providing the fuel. Despite his own suffering, he himself had never given in to extremist importunities (live and let live was his motto, though certainly not theirs – he wouldn’t, anyway, be able to distinguish the extremists from possible informants of the Israeli Bet Shin.)
In his own mind, Ahmed’s needs were clear, though far from simple – just as the number in his hand was clearly their solution, though far from attainable. He wanted to own his own land, which remained undeeded despite claims of resident ancestors as far back as the Phoenicians; he wished for prosperity for himself and his children; and, most immediately, he desired work – at least the chance of work – which he would never have so long as the border remained closed.
In order to accomplish these things – which meant, in order to collect the prize – he would have to collect his thoughts – which he had been doing several days a week anyway at the cafe for as long as he could remember – collecting and collecting, not knowing what he’d got – but now, in his grip, he had a number.
Ahmed finally pulled himself away from the board. He walked slowly past the faded green canopy covering the three tables and two benches, past the several scooters and the Meredes Benz. Ari, the pink, fresh-faced kid who was a part of the small Israeli security force assigned to the village, and whose uniform seemed always too big for him, nodded and smiled at him. A machine gun was slung across his camouflaged back.
Ari often liked to engage Ahmed in conversation (security assignments were, by and large, boring ones), but Ahmed was not in the mood. He kept walking.
He came to the edge of the village where there were a half dozen houses, all in the midst of some construction or restoration. He himself was an electrician, a master at wiring efficiently and neatly, and some of these houses were his. But work on them had stopped with the border closed and money so short. Arab houses, of course, were often in a state of disarray or incompletion, but those Western houses he had seen on TV and in the movies never failed to arouse in him a disdain for their reverence of tight construction and antiseptic order over openness and space and, yes, inner peace.
He stopped at the end of the dirt road, at the edge of a trash dump filled with crumpled cups, newspapers, sandwich wrappers and empty bottles. He gazed across the dump and, beginning from it, a rippling tide of bare arroyos and hillocks stretching to the bluish mountains in the far distance that formed the border with Israel, beyond which lay the place where he would have to go to redeem his ticket. Among the litter surrounding him on that dark patch of sand were numerous spent lottery tickets.
He approached his friends at the table, saying to them evenly, after their usual greetings of Salaam: “I won the lottery.”
A silence descended upon them, in which they all seemed to fix on this amazing possibility of life, until Shulan the barber, a large man with a raggedy head of hair, said in a colloquial American accent: “Are you kidding?” Toulous, an elderly farmer with twenty acres of fava beans, and the Talis brothers, who were construction workers when they could be, offered expressions of incredulity and vicarious pleasure, while Robert, a kid with three years of college in Bierut who hung around bars and cafes and was thought to be a courier for Hamas, said, “Congratulations for nothing. They’ll never let you collect.”
Ahmed sat down and, looking carefully around the table, said, “What should I do?”
Shrugs immediately opened like sluices, releasing a lengthy flow of advice that, in effect, amounted to nothing more than a sprinkling of consolation: perhaps the border will open in two weeks; maybe an appeal, along with an appropriate bribe, could be made to someone in the Israeli security command; the ticket could be sent by mail to a trustworthy relative; someone with good border clearance might be paid to redeem the ticket; perhaps Ahmed himself could acquire papers, real or fake, purchased on the black market, or from Hamas.
None of these ideas inspired Ahmed’s enthusiasm. Rather, they confirmed his confusion and despair.
He knew no one outside of Gaza, certainly no one he could trust, nor anyone inside Gaza with unquestioned border clearance. And even if he knew someone outside of Gaza, the mails were totally untrustworthy: everything censored, and some things confiscated. No, he could never send the ticket through the mails. His friends were now lavishly offering the names of people they could trust both in and outside of Gaza….
Ahmed listened politely. But he knew he could never offer a ticket worth many thousands to a stranger, no matter whose so-called friend he was. Besides, no one knew, really, who worked for the different factions of the radical underground, any one of whom would regard the ticket as just confiscation for the cause. Not to mention informers for the Shin Bet, who had neither cause nor conscience, and needed no justification for anything they did.
Fake clearance papers, though, that was something else. “I know someone,” Robert said importantly “who could provide you with ID and border clearance. For a small percentage of course.”
Ahmed didn’t begrudge anyone a percentage. But he wondered, as Robert babbled on: what if he himself was caught with fake papers? Of course, they would put him in jail, interrogate him (he heard the most terrible stories), and worst of all, confiscate his true identity card, without which he could never find work, or drive, or travel, receive his water ration or, if the opportunity should come up, attain a business or import/export license. No, the thought of all these consequences gave Ahmed shivers in the hot Gazan sun. And then, of course, there was that rumored Israeli supercomputer that was supposed to keep tabs on all paperwork and occupations, all comings and goings of Palestinians everywhere. Ahmed didn’t know if it existed, didn’t understand it, really, but knew he would never test its reality with the life and livelihood of himself and his family.
So did Ahmed’s thoughts go round and round, as pointlessly as his friends’ conversation, while the sun made its own relentless arc.
In a while his friends talked of other things, played some backgammon, until, with “shaloms,” they drifted off and left Ahmed sitting alone at the table.
In a moment, he too would drift off to his family – arriving home as though nothing at all had happened to him that day.
With a bitterness, he caught sight of Ari making his own redundant rounds. The soldier had turned and was strolling slowly toward him. He knew the young man wanted to talk to him, about the weather, the crops, the rare tourists, the young and beautiful wife that he missed, the places he would go to on his alternate weekend leaves…. There were many times, Ahmed had to admit, that he himself had enjoyed such talks….
But this time Ahmed merely stared at Ari, and the soldier passed on.
That evening Ahmed moped around the house in a way his family took, simply, for moodiness. He wandered out to the edge of the fields whose stubble was broken by an occasional plot of cabbage or beans.
Behind him, the sun was throwing purple shadows on mountains in the distant that, like Ahmed’s hope, would soon be dark.
He considered that perhaps it was his lot in life to remain as he always was. Prosperity was an illusion of progress that never really happened. Only the past was vouchsafe. The past that no one else would acknowledge.
Yes, moderation and acceptance of reality was the only way through life. This day, if anything, had been a confirmation of that.
Yet he stayed up all night, staring out into the darkness and the mountains beyond, going over in his mind whether there might be anyone he knew who had unquestioned clearance out of Gaza.
The next morning at the cafe Ahmed approached Ari and asked if he might walk with him a little distance out toward the fields. Behind them, at the shaded table Ahmed’s friends were discussing the latest soccer scores.
When they stopped, Ahmed told the boy what was on his mind. He explained things carefully, trying to keep humility out of his voice. He reiterated that the boy could have 25% of the first installment, and the same for any subsequent installment he might have to call upon the soldier to redeem – delicately leaving out the fact, which the soldier surely knew, that he could, if he wanted to, keep it all. Then, with his back to the table, he handed over a small envelope with the ticket inside.
A couple of days later, Ari left on his usual weekend leave and was replaced by a surly older soldier who, perhaps knowing that his mission was temporary, or perhaps having had one assignment in the territories too many, kept his distance from the locals.
Each day at the cafe Ahmed sipped his Turkish coffee and fell into the usual discussions of sports and politics and crops and the ever-tenuous labor market; he played some backgammon and, without concentrating on his moves, won more often than not.
Ahmed tried not to think about the ticket – he told himself that life was what it was and nothing could change that. Perhaps, after all, he would soon find work. Of course, if he actually received his winnings, he already had his story in place, of how he sent the ticket in a sealed envelope, by way of a contractor he knew, to a distant cousin living in Ber Sheba who, with his share of the winnings, had moved north where the climate was better. No, Ahmed had no idea where.
When the days stretched into the following week, this well-turned story in Ahmed’s mind began to take on the hardened cast of a fabrication, a tale that happened to someone else, or perhaps to no one at all. Of course, the young soldier might have been delayed by red tape, not to mention the trip to Ber Sheba itself. But by the end of the week Ahmed pictured it: Ari had requested a transfer and was gone forever. It was well-known how the Israeli Security Force bent over backwards to satisfy the requests of its security patrols.
On the second Monday of Ari’s absence, following a weekend of self-recrimination, Ahmed finally wandered out to the field where Ari’s replacement was making the rounds. The soldier paused and was looking at him as Ahmed approached; after a formal greeting, Ahmed asked: “I was wondering, if you could tell me – the soldier before you – Ari – we used to be friends and have conversations – what has happened to him – was he transferred?” Ari decided that he would try to find out where he lived and would write to him.
The soldier’s stare focused to a glare, and he was silent for a long while. Then he said:
“Ari Haschav was killed, in Tel Aviv. In a terrorist bus explosion.”
Ahmed said nothing. The soldier continued to glare at him, as though Ahmed himself had set the charge and planted the bomb.
Ten days later the border was re-opened on a limited bais, from six in the morning till eight at night. There was great relief, not only among the workers and shopkeepers and their families, but among the civilian population as a whole, which had grown intimidated by the aimless hordes of youth who had taken to hanging around. People had feared another intifada, or worse. But now they needed haircuts, so Shulan went back to work. The Talis brothers went across the border each morning to Ashkelon where they were helping build a large mall. Toulous, the farmer, had just signed a contract to export his fava beans. Robert had disappeared.
Ahmed resumed work on one of the houses in the field, for an absentee owner wished to install a large hi fi, VCR and TV viewing room. Still, Ahmed continued spending mornings and evenings at the cafe.
One Sunday, a full month after the border had re-opened, an Israeli jeep drove up to the cafe and an officer of the I.S.F. got out. He walked over to the table where Ahmed was sitting with Shulan, Toulous and some of the other locals. They were playing backgammon and looked up in feigned surprise when the officer stopped at their table.
“Mr. Ahmed Hazir?” The officer stared straight at him, addressing him formally. Ahmed immediately thought about the Israeli supercomputer. “I have someone with me who has come a distance to see you. Would you be so kind as to come with me?”
A rhetorical question if ever there was one. Ahmed looked briefly at his friends, then arose. The officer followed at his side.
Straight ahead, in the open jeep, were two figures: a soldier with an uzi slung across his back, and a woman, – a civilian.
The officer put a hand in front of Ahmed. “Please wait here.” He proceeded alone to the jeep, spoke briefly with the woman, then gestured to the soldier, who alighted and stood at attention several meters away.
The officer then motioned to Ahmed, who moved between the two soldiers until he stood by the side of the jeep, confronting the woman, who looked directly at him. She wore large dark sunglasses, a black scarf that covered her head and no make-up – a latter fact which impressed Ahmed. She was in her late twenties, and beautiful. “I wasn’t sure I should meet with you,” she finally said in a halting tone that suggested she was speaking as much to herself as to him. “I wasn’t sure that I had the courage to. I am Ari Haschav’s widow.” There was another long pause. “My husband sometimes spoke of you, he said his conversations with you helped to make his assignment…more agreeable. I want to make it clear there is great bitterness in my heart. That is the only feeling I have. But there is something my husband left unfinished, and I am trying to carry out his wishes. I believe he wanted you to have this.”
And she handed over an envelope, which Ahmed took while staring into her opaque glasses.
He didn’t know what to say. Finally he said: “I am very sorry for your husband. He was a good man. I hope one day you will find peace.”
She seemed for a moment to be trying to control her expression, then said: “Maybe someday I will.”
The woman nodded over his shoulder, the two soldiers got back in; Ahmed stepped back and watched the jeep drive off. The woman didn’t turn back to look at him.
Ahmed let himself into the house and went upstairs to the long room where his wires protruded from one wall. On the other side of the room were bare joists, open to the hills and the bluish mountains beyond. He opened the envelope, took out and counted twenty-four crisp thousand shekel notes, the entire amount of the ticket’s first installment – minus, of course, Ari’s 25%. After a moment he looked again in the envelope, and took out nine perforated tickets, for redemption of the next nine installments.