Do you know the feeling you get when you ‘almost made it’? When something was within your reach, and then unspeakably, unexplainably, it slips out of your hands in slow motion? – like in the movies, when the protagnists are hanging off a cliff edge and then one of them loses grip and disappears into the abyss – that stare of doom forever capturing their final moments of fear? It’s the feeling you get when you’re informed of that job promotion, or that you have been awarded the Nobel Prize for sobriety – only to be told later that it was all a mistake, and that your name was mistakenly announced – “you were never sober”, the Nobel Prize Commitee tells you, “you were in fact a raging, inebriated alcoholic from the get go.” These analogies somehwhat exemplify my experience over the past 24 hours. After a year of hard work and training, test and interviews, changing enlistment dates and numerous travels to the army office and back, my dream of enlisting into a particular special forces unit was dashed. I was almost in, with 2 days to go. I was on top of the world. And it felt great. Which makes this emotional rollercoaster so much more painful.
It’s been quite a journey to get here – Gibbush Tzanchanim in May, getting the news that I had passed (!) in June, getting my enlistment date moved from August to November, fighting to attend Yom Sayarot – passing that and then passing Gibbush Matkal as well! Gibbush Matkal is a gruelling week long “hell-week” style physical test, that the most motivated army canditates attend in order to enlist in one of the IDF’s top tier, elite units. Naturally, over the past three weeks since getting the results, I was on top of the world – one of the few who finished the gibbush and got selected – and today I had to resign myself to being regular, simple and plain again.
I received the call last night – an army clerk informing me that I was to be dropped. I scrambled to make a few late night calls to fellow friends who had already enlisted in these units, and thus had some connections with the officers who pass and fail the aspiring canditates. It was both a disappointment and a relief to find out the reasons behind this last-minute fiasco: They had simply accepted too many canditates, and Olim Hadashim – new immigrants – whose families remain behind overseas, generally have a lower security profile to begin with, than the Israelis that try for these units. I wasn’t the only one held up by this last minute surprise either. Another 5 guys I knew, Olim like me, had been hastily culled from the list, merely 2 days before we were due to go in. Luckily though, I was still given the option of enlisting tomorrow, albeit to the infantry brigades of the IDF.
There are essentially two ways to view this scenario – two outlooks that will define hereafter my service in the IDF:
The first is the negative outlook: That now I will never be satisifed as a regular solider. That I have trained mentally and physically for an entire year, and invested all my willpower for nothing. That the army has screwed me over – like all those stories that I hear about ‘so-and-so’ that will never happen to be – that has indeed just happened to me. This attitude is inherently flawed because it sets me up for disappointment from the outset – even before I have gone in. It is wrong for me to feel this way even though I cannot help it.
The other option is to bite the bullet and look at the positives: I still get the chance to serve in the IDF, I don’t have to wait until March, and it’s still Kravi, Achi! I made Aliyah in order to give back, to contribute and to work hard in the Israeli army – to serve and defend the Jewish people – and that is exacly what I will be doing when I put on my army fatigues tomorrow afternoon – regardless of where the IDF chooses to place me. The brigades – the ‘Gdudim’ in hebrew – have a shorter training circuit by a few months and are generally assigned to the more mundane and routine jobs that keep this country moving. Being in a place where the ‘Yokrah’ (prestige in hebrew) is a little less, is simply a matter of semantics when one looks back on his army service. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that “Gam zoo le tova” – “this too is for the best”. I’m also a strong believer in destiny, and that there is definitely a good reason, and an excellent life lesson learnt with this entire affair. “It is written” before me, my destiny was outlined, and it was simply a matter of living up to this moment and discovering the path that I am to tread. And yes, despite the unsavoury news, I still feel that I have suceeded.
I’ve proved to myself that if I can put my mind to it and give my maximum, I can achieve – anything. You can only give 100%, and the rest, so to speak, is out of your hands. That annoying little element of uncertainty that bugs the hell out of me – that hovers on everybody’s shoulder like an unwanted stain, constantly whispers into my ear that maybe, maybe it will not be. It will not succeed. It will not work out in the end. It was not meant to happen. That yes you have 2 days until you reach the light at the end of the tunnel and there is still a minute chance that they will drop you at the eleventh hour. Anything is possible. Dreams become reality and reality morphs into nightmares. The future is uncertain, yet I believe that “it is written” and this was meant to be. And this thought of all things provides me with the most consolation. I can do everything in my power to minimize the element of uncertainty, yet I can never eliminate it. And that’s the great irony: our path is laid out before us, yet it curves in mysterious ways.
Over the course of the past few months, I engaged in long discussions with my close friend from the garin, Yoni, about service in the gdudim, in regular infantry, versus that of special forces units, Sayarot in hebrew. It’s a given that Olim normally arrive in Israel with the motivation levels of a horny Chihuahua overdosed on viagra, and thus many of them volunteer and attempt to get accepted into the elite special forces units in the IDF. Yoni however was different. His position – for an Oleh – was rather radical and from what I found, strangely noble. He argued that he “Davka” wants to be a regular infantry solider – to serve side by side with the layman – the ones who spend hours on guard duty, man checkpoints and conduct the day-to-day work on the ground. These are the guys in the “Shetach” (the field in hebrew) – who may go in slightly less motivated than all the GI Joe Olim straight off the plane from America in their quest for modern-day Maccabee-dom – and yes, some of them may be left slightly short of breath after a 5km run, but these are the guys that we should invest our time and effort into improving. ‘From the ground up’ in other words. “We can be an inspiration to others” he argued. After all, the brigades fight the wars and suffer the bulk of the casualties – not that that should be a reason to run there bareheaded – but that Olim and other Israelis who really want to contribute should be ‘side by side with the man in the trench’, not sitting on their high horse within the sayarot. From this persepective it’s easier to be a Special forces solider in the IDF, as everybody there is super motivated, is there on a voluntary basis and absolute discipline and self control is a given. Every one is ‘mentally ready’ over there. That’s not where the work is. That’s not even a challenge. Sure, aspire to aim as high as you can. But anybody who thinks that they have what it takes to be a SF solider should consider first and foremost the Gdudim. Thats where they need to be. And Yoni wasn’t just saying that. He really believed it and wanted to set a personal example.
I found Yoni’s outlook interesting for a few reasons: firstly, because he was not only motivated by a desire to serve, but because he was motivated by a desire to improve. The Zionism running through his veins is one of self sacrifice in a place where much of the blood, sweat and tears that he – we – will endure will go largely unsung and unnoticed. After all, a SF soldier has but to board the bus as all heads turn accordingly in awe and admiration (perhaps slightly exaggerated, but you get the drift). A regular ‘Gdudnick’ does not bask in the aura of everlasting glory – his is the curse of the foot soldier – he may put in more work and effort and time and willpower than Moshe and Gidon from Special Forces, yet he remains judged and confined by his shoulder unit-tag. What struck me most about Yoni’s worldview however, was the modesty and humility with which he viewed the whole situation – a modesty welded into his personality that cannot be learned or acquired, and that I can only envy. “This is the real challenge” I hear him saying in my head as I type this up in the wee morning hours before I go in tomorrow (today!), and although the question of ‘what could have been’ keeps on pounding through my skull like a woodpecker, I realize that the experience that I’m in for now is no less honourable, and demands far more patience, effort and respect for those around me. This is the challenge. Now is the time for me to really get to work.
At times like these I remind myself why I immigrated to Israel – the country I love. I came here because I believe in the Jewish state, in our right to self determination as a people, “lihiot am hofshi be’arzenu” as the last line of the anthem goes. I made Aliyah in the hopes of building a fair and equal society that will be the envy of the world. A place where ‘freedom’ and ‘peace’ will one day replace today’s political discourse of ‘war’ and ‘violence’. And of course, I came here to protect the Jewish people and defend their homeland – as a soldier in the Israel Defence Forces. I didn’t come here to get into the elite units per se – even being considered was just a bonus. Yes it is disappointing that I nearly made it, and I’m now coming to grips with it, but I’ve long known that every job in the army is extremely important, and just like in a well designed mechanical clock – you need all the cogs and pieces, no matter how small, for everything to work properly. Frankly, I’m just really excited to get in tomorrow and start my service. This country is dear to me, and I want to give back with everything I can. Sure, there might be less prestige in my new place – but I’m here doing what I believe in, and fighting for a cause that defines my very identity. And that’s what counts.
I go in tomorrow into the infantry brigades, and I’m still as motivated as I was when I got off the plane. I’m young, healthy, and of sound mind (at least as far as I can tell – the rest is between me and my therapist. Just kidding 🙂 ) and the future looks prety bright. I’m finally fulfilling my dream of serving in the IDF and I will proudly wear my uniform and know that I am making a difference. This country was built from the ashes of the Holocaust because of resilience – because of people who in the face of despair chose never to give up. Who never said ‘I can no longer’. People who defied the Nazi beast to immigrate to Israel and turn their hopes into reality.
Tomorrow it is my turn, as I join the IDF and fulfill an ancient legacy dating back 3000 years – I will now be a warrior in King David’s army – and I’m fighting for what I believe in. And when I look at it this way, this whole experience is something that I’m greatful for – far from disappointing, to say the least.
Where to begin? Mum often nags me to write – to put my thoughts and emotions to paper, to spew out the couscousy mesh of experiences that have been blended into a single stretch of memory – and thus to immortalize the symphony of incidents, stories and smells that accompany me throughout my journeys. ‘Anything, anything at all’, she pleads and reasons. But I never seem to have the desire or the discipline to dedicate the few hours required to put pen to paper. So here I am now – on a bus from Tel Aviv back to the kibbutz, with a few hours to kill, my laptop, and a lump in my throat from not being quite sure how to summarize the past few months, or how to unpack my thoughts.
What is the most suitable way to describe the people I have met, and the gems I have gleaned in a faraway land described by many, simultaneously as ‘holy’, ‘heavenly’ and ‘hell’? How to relate to the people here that I simultaneously love and despise – like the young man, shut off from the world with music blasting through his headphones, who sneaks in front of the ticket machine at the train station, and grabs a ticket that he didn’t pay for – or the young woman who rushed to the aid of an elderly lady who dropped her shopping bag in crowded Jerusalem? How to thank the proverbial Israeli on the street, who insists on inviting me over for Shabbat dinner, “whenever you’re in city X!”, despite having just randomly met me on the street. And how can I even begin to detail the many random acts of kindness – a stranger, in the right place at the right time, bridging the invisible bridge that separates people, and running to the assistance of another.
Which is the best way to describe the uncomfortable feeling I get, when I hear one of my kin preaching hatred against perceived enemies of our people – real or imaginary, or the silent applause during the many moments of social harmony: religious and secular Jews, together celebrating the 60 year anniversary of a local council in the Negev; or the large billboards in Gush Etzion that promote coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Watching Ethiopian and Russian kids playing soccer in the street, hearing Americans ordering hummus in Jerusalem, watching an impromptu performance of Japansese pilgrims singing in Zion Square, or feeling the heat, as I sunbake amongst a sea of Frenchmen on a beach near Achziv.
How can I begin to explain the time an entire Egged bus erupted into laughter, when an Arab transport van pulled up beside us – with a podgy middle aged man seated cross-legged on the floor between the seats, happily smoked a nargilah and smiled back at us – the mystical plume of smoke that he exhaled, dancing toward the heavens, as if he was relaxing in Abu Gosh. Or the frustration of being screwed around with by the army – that constantly changes my draft date, and insists that all communication be done through faxing? How to picture the warmth and hospitality of the Beduins of Aramsha – a small village that straddles the Lebanese border, or the way that residents of Bnei Brak purposely avoid me with their eyes during a Shabbat afternoon stroll? How to describe the multitude of faces, cultures and personalities that forge this country for what it is – an unprecedented melting pot, instigated by one of the boldest state building projects of the 20th century.
How to express the sheer outpour of otherworldly senses when the sun kisses the pluvial horizon between Gaza and Rafiah, and bids these shores farewell with a spectacular show of colours in the sky – orange, blue and violet? How can I colour with words the jungle-like Wadi’s of the Upper Galilee, and the wild meat cows that roam free, and follow each hiker with their distinctive, pitiful stares? What on Earth is more blue than the Kinneret when viewed from the Golan Heights, or more yellow than the gigantic bees that lap up the water of the kibbutz pool, and then fly off in a hurry to pollinate the fields of the Western Negev desert?
Living in Israel from the inside is nothing like living it from the outside. The headlines continue to ramble on, inexorably and increasingly sensationalist, whilst on the ground, people trudge on, like a backpacker trekking through waist-deep mud: slowly, tiredly and assuredly forward – warding off the hardship and difficulty that surrounds. For in a place so compact and laden with history, which snares the hearts and minds of so many around the world, it’s really easy to get carried away in a biblical fantasy land of prophecies and conflict. It’s a land that brings out the best and worst in people – those guided toward kindness by their beliefs, and those who seek salvation in terror, destruction and death.
Perhaps on this auspicious occasion, at the height of the Arab spring, and Israel’s increasingly difficult political situation it has to be said: Too often Middle East is portrayed as a black and white narrative of hollywood-esque proportions, a game of good vs evil that each side reframes and repackages to suit their bias. The truth however lies in fact this troubled neighbourhood is plagued by many shades of grey, with each opinion offering an element of truth, and an element of sweet illusion. Often I find that the most zealous voices are those of people who have never set foot in the holy land, whilst those who live the reality, lead the moderate voices of peace.
Sure Israel has changed me. There was a time, in the first few weeks, when my heart would open up to every beggar in the street, as I foraged my wallet for all the spare change I could find. Today I join the mass of people who nonchalantly pass them by, choosing to ignore, reasoning that they should get a job, and passing on the assumed responsibility of helping them onto the next stranger. There was a time that I would wait politely in line, whilst the onlookers who pushed in front of me, looked back and giggled at the ‘friar’ (‘loser’ in Hebrew), who clearly has no idea about Israeli society. I remember the days when seeing a wind-torn Israeli flag fluttering in the middle of the desert aroused all kinds of emotional nostalgia and reinforced my sense of purpose here. And how could I forget the tiring bus trips at night, when I would stay awake and rest my head on the window, gazing out to the lights of distant settlements and villages that dot the inland hills; an intense spiritual sense like that of my first visit to the Kotel.
Indeed, as my initial excitement turned to disillusionment, which in turn became a sort of rebellious-teenager apathy, I found myself increasingly sceptical and disconnected from the values that initially brought me here. Whilst now, I find myself in a consolidation of sorts – having sobered up both from the initial thrill this country offered and the mild disappointment that followed.
There was a time when my heart skipped a beat each time I would come across ancient Israelite ruins – and each time I gazed out across the Shfela, the coastal plane, and imagined the ancient wayfarers and merchants that traded spices between the Phoenician north and the Philistine south. There was a period when seeing an Israeli soldier on the train filled me with pride, and almost always led me to make conversation – as I took the role of the excited ‘oleh hadash’ teenager – both astonished and envious.
Yet despite it all, I still feel that I belong here. A humid summer night in June comes to mind: we had just crossed back into Israel from Taba, Egypt, and although the surrounding mountains and the deep dark sea remained the same ominous mountains and sea, the distinct sense of anxiety, and foreignness that accompanied me through Egypt suddenly dispelled across the border. Sure the customs officers cursed in Hebrew, the taxi driver tried to rip us off a few extra shekels, and the size of the Israeli flag, flying white and blue, was no less impressive than her Egyptian counterpart over the border. But I felt at home, and I still do – and that is a feeling that is hard to come by.
When I first arrived in Israel, I believed that I had the entire conflict figured out and neatly wrapped within a few inviolable facts and slogans that validated my worldview of what it meant to be Jewish, Israeli and Zionist: “A Land without a people and a people without a land” I could quote without apprehension – referring to the early Zionist belief that Palestine was empty of inhabitants. Argue “Deir Yassin” and I would respond with Gush Etzion and the Haddasah medical convoy massacre. Discuss the 1948 Arab Palestinian refugees, and I would counter with the massive (forced?) exodus of Jews from Arab countries. Tell me that Israel should withdraw from Judea and Samaria (the west bank), and I would tense up emotionally and become completely immune to any logical persuasion. In other words, I was like a slave to my own ironclad opinions – almost unwilling to accept the other side of the argument or to see any basic humanity in the Arab/Palestinian narrative. Indeed, the moment that the basic tenets that I had come to believe regarding Israel and her history were criticized, I always tended to dismiss them as irrelevant, untrue or even anti-zionist.
This was the worldview that – due to my voracious reading habits and to a large degree, my emotional ties to the Jewish narrative – I had come to accept; a scrawny, bespectacled Aussie kid growing up within the Jewish bubble and dreaming of the Holy Land. Perhaps ironically, as I enter my fifth month in Israel and actually live and observe the Arab-Israeli conflict from within, I have come to the tentative realization that conflict is so complex and intricate – that by mentally summarizing the situation into a few historical flashpoints and soundbytes, I have been not only untruthful to myself, but to all the victims on both sides of the border.
The Melbourne Jewish community is by and large one built by Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Ties with Israel are incredibly strong, with large numbers of Jewish high school graduates spending their ‘gap year’ in Israel, and quite a few even staying on to make Aliyah and join the IDF (myself included). Another by-product of this environment, and one that I only begin to notice now, is that the picture we have of Israel is painted with bright colours – one that ignores the Palestinian side or masks over the entire Arab world as bloodthirsty Jihadi terrorists preparing to drive us into the sea. I must admit, that I had even dabbled in literature denying the existence of a distinct Palestinian people altogether: “After all there has never been a Palestinian state or people in history” I convinced myself. Little do I realize that such an argument is inherently foolish, as all identities – regardless of their historicity – are essentially self-conceived. The entire argument would become one of who has stronger links to the Holy land – whilst ignoring the realities and facts on the ground: That the Jewish people and Arab Palestinians have both made their home between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea.
The more time I spend here, the more opinions and stories I hear and the more I see, I realize that in their own way, everybody here is very right, and very wrong at the same time. Left wing, right wing, religious, secular, Zionist, Jewish, Arab, Palestinian – this is the crazy concoction of everything that has been thought of and conceived to explain the violence, the anger, the baseless hatred and the unboundless kindness that I have come across in this blood-drenched land during my short stay. I have gone from consuming hours of news and media reports, scouring opinion forums and talkbacks – to becoming completely apathetic toward the political situation altogether – and reading almost nothing; for so many things that I observe here, openly contradict the media reports that I rely on for information and history. My solid opinions and the “I know everything” attitude that I arrived here with have crumbled impressively to the point that I am entirely confused as to who is right and who is wrong; what is true and what is fake. Everybody here is correct, and everybody has their facts (or emotions more-so) to back it up. And who am I really, to question somebody who has lived here their entire life? Who am I to deny to the right of an Arab farmer to till his lands in the seam zone, or for the Israeli victims of Arab terror to call for harsher retribution against terrorists and their sympathizers? I’m just some kid piggybacking this conflict and getting a ride through history. Yesterday I set out to convince the world what needed to be done. Today I keep my mouth shut, listen silently and ask inquisitive questions; powerless to prevent the events spiralling out of control around me.
The more time I spend in Israel, the more I realize that this conflict at it’s core is not so much about religion, nationality or land, but rather it’s about people. Regular people – most of whom don’t get involved in politics or ideology, who prefer to live a quite life, like the life I had in Australia. “We’re not angels or demons,” a local Arab from Hevron told me as I visited the ancient city, “we were born into this crazy situation, and now we just want to live our life normally.” The massive cave of the patriarchs compound loomed before us, cut in half by a wall to separate Muslim and Jewish worshippers for fear of a repeat of the 1994 massacre, perpetrated by a militant Jewish-American that left nearly 30 Muslims dead. The reason I bring this up, is to show that Jews and Israelis are capable of evil as well, the same kind of evil that we vilify Palestinian terrorists for. At least this attack was unequivocally and wholly condemned by Israeli society, whilst similar attacks on the Arab side are usually praised and glorified.
Indeed, visiting Hevron was an eye-opening experience for me: a strange journey into a different world of tight alleyways, ancient stones and a tense feeling so thick that you could cut it with a knife. The Casbah – which once housed the ancient Jewish community of Hevron, is now a modern battlefield of ideologies that illustrates this conflict better than another. A populated, dense area – the former principle Arab market of the city spirals through the narrow alleyways, manned by ageing Palestinian caricatures – wearing traditional white-black Kaffiyehs, sitting quietly by embroidered carpets and ‘made-in-china’ souvenirs, smoking tobacco from a pipe, and staring blankly into a bygone era when this market was bustling full of people. In the floors above the market, Israeli-Jews have moved in, reclaiming the houses their parents had been dispossessed from, following their massacre and expulsion in 1929. An Israeli flag flies from the edge of one of the windows.
Below it, a net has been erected by the Arab shopkeepers to prevent the settlers from dropping stones down below. It was such a strange feeling, standing in the market, looking upwards at the Israeli flag. Up there are my people. Down here are the people I sympathize with. Both sides have claims to this city. Both sides have a right to live here, to pray here. Both sides have ruined this place – a city built by the love of our forefathers, now consumed entirely by hatred.
I returned to Jerusalem, dazed and confused – from the heat, from the conflict, from this swimming pool of intensity that I jumped into when I got off the plane. Relieved to be back in Israel proper, I strolled through Yafo st – a lively boardwalk lined with shops – just as the warm Judean sun began casting her shadow over trendy rooftops and balconies. The place was packed with people in every direction, as an impromptu band sang over-played Israeli rock’n’roll from the 80s. I sat down and observed quietly: Middle-aged women sipping late at a nearby cafe. A gaggle of teenagers in summer clothes organizing a sleepover. An elderly couple walking past the band, receiving a nod of recognition from the guitarist and then staying on to listen a little more. A Rabbi hurriedly walking past to make afternoon prayers, followed closely by a religious Muslim woman, inspecting some of the latest fashion at the adjacent boutique. It felt so hard for me to believe that Hevron – a virtual warzone compared to this – was just a cool 30 minutes drive from here.
That night I stayed at my uncle Ran’s place in Jerusalem, and we began discussing the separation barrier that I had visited that afternoon – built to prevent suicide bombings from the Palestinian territories. At the edge of Bethlehem, the walled, concrete section of the barrier (that makes up 10% of the entire fence) dominates the road in front of it. On my return from Hevron, I stopped by the graffiti covered barrier, that has almost become a post-Berlin symbol for anti-nationalists and anarchists everywhere. Every single message and artwork has turned the wall into a figurative monument: spraying a profound quote is like tagging your name in history books. “‘Alaskans for Palestine’; ‘UCLA ’09 against the occupation!’ – who do these people think they are, coming to this part of the world and getting themselves involved in the conflict?” I muttered openly with a touch of annoyance. “Perhaps they also have a stake in it?” Ran prodded, while concentrating on the dishes. “All the people perpetuating the violence seem to be from outside Israel! Most people here just want to live their lives peacefully. What the fuck do Alaskans have to do with Palestine??” I shuffled uncomfortably on the couch. A brief silence ensued, and then Ran unloaded the big one: “You’re one of them too, aren’t you?” he asked, in a wise, yet humorous way. And as much as I’d like to deny it, he’s basically right. My emotional, historical, religious and family connections have pulled me to this land – an intense yearning unexplained by logic. My desire to enlist in the IDF stems from my ideological perceptions and my belief in Jewish self-determination – a self determination that I believe should not come at the expense of another people’s. Indeed, at my base, I’m still a Jew born in Australia. Maybe a Palestinian born in Alaska, attending UCLA feels the same way?
Overcome by immense tiredness, I shuffled around on the mattress, trying to forget about the collapsing situation around me, and everything that I have gotten myself into. Ran turned off the light, as the sounds of distant traffic and flickering street lights poured in through the fly screen. I dozed off perhaps for a minute, and suddenly I found myself once more in Hevron. The terrible heat of the sun beat down on my face, as I slowly made my way through an abandoned street between an Arab and Jewish neighbourhood: Every door had bolted shut, and every window had been shattered by rocks. Garbage lay strewn beside dust that had been collecting there for years, and the blue sky seemed much paler than usual. My mouth was parched from the heat and the thirst, as I came across half-ripped Arab posters immortalizing Palestinian suicide bombers, right next to Jewish signs proclaiming the message of Rabbi Kahane. Unawares, the muezzin – the Muslims call to prayer – began sounding off throughout the city. First a distant whisper from the furthest mosque, and then closer and closer, until it vibrated in my ears, as if each new voice was a louder echo of the first. It sounded like a proclamation to besiege the Jewish quarter that I now found myself in – a quarter filled with bumper stickers calling for the forced expulsion of the Arabs in Israel. The Muezzin echoed defiantly loud and clear – beating down on my face like the heat of the sun, whilst the stickers radiated an equally overwhelming political message that seemed too much to bear. There I stood awkwardly not quite part of it, not quite taking sides – the thirst killing me and driving me into a delirious trance, the oppressive heat of the sun frying my thought process. I was stuck in the middle, on the fence, not quite sure where I belong.
(Written for the Glen Eira Short story Award 2010)
A tender tear ran down the little girl’s cheek. Her angelic eyes staring deeply into his soul.
“Why did I have to die?” She asks naively, innocently, like a little girl asking her mother why the sky is blue, or the grass is green.
Lying in wait since midnight, the sniper breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the first crack of dawn. A cloud of his warm breath effused like a silhouette against the pink sky and then disappeared into the heavens. Camouflaged with leaves, only the protrusion of a shiny, high-powered rifle betrayed his seemingly inconspicuous physique. Patience had been wearing thin over the arduous, solitary hours of silent nightfall and the sniper was eager to finish the job and disappear into the desert.
Gently centring the lens onto the window of a mud-brick house, the sniper brought himself to attention and focused every fibre of his body into a singular mantra-like awareness. A passing mosquito, the distant rustle of faraway apple orchards. Every tiny movement and every minute sound was detected in this impulsive state of absolute tension. Suddenly, his target appeared in the crosshairs through the lattices of his kitchen window in the mud-brick house. Having returned from morning prayers, the bearded figure clothed in desert attire served himself breakfast, completely unaware of his impending fate. Stealthily, the sniper retrieved a clear photograph of his target to ensure there would be no case of mistaken identity. There was indeed no doubt that the sought terrorist in the image was this bearded man eating his breakfast in the crosshairs of the rifle. Sufficiently pleased at the ease of identifying his objective, the sniper returned his gaze to the eyepiece, and wrapped his index figure around the enticing contour of the trigger.
Without warning, more figures suddenly appeared in the window. The entire family chanced up for breakfast at this untimely moment. But the sight of young children tugging at their mother, broke the sniper’s passive indifference to the impending execution, and transformed him into an active moral accomplice. No longer, in his mind, was he a neutral mercenary pulling the trigger at somebody else’s moral expense. The act of killing the father in full view of his children carried unforseen ramifications. With this sudden realization, the sniper jerked away from the eyepiece, as the first beads of sweat formed in his brow. He closed his eyes.
Her eternal stare burned him from within. The guilt was unbearable. Her lightly tanned face, her perfect smile. He didn’t know her name, but she accompanied him on every job, every mission, and every nightmare. He opened his eyes.
The dilemma erupted into a full-scale war in the sniper’s mind. The fundamentalist mass-murderer with no compunction would not have afforded him such hesitation had their roles been reversed. A powerhouse of terrorism erased from the earth. Countless lives saved. Planned suicide bombing aborted – all with the single thankless act of squeezing the trigger.
On the other hand, no child should witness the murder of their parent. The sight of their father’s lifeless body bleeding onto the kitchen floor would burn an indelible scar on their hearts, fuelling the seeds of revenge for generations to come.
The humanity and compassion pumped their way through the sniper’s veins, intensifying with each deafening heartbeat. Pulling the trigger was never a problem in other situations. No regrets. Yet this was somehow different. At all other times ethical concern seemed to evade him. Why did it bother him so much now?
He always fired the gun with the regret of stepping on an ant or killing a mosquito – perfect executions, a stream of pay-checks and no moral cost.
An uncanny feeling swept through his body – he wanted to wash his hands. For some reason, his inconvenient conscience parked itself in the driveway of duty and his fingers turned to stone. For all he cared the person in line with the barrel of the gun could be anybody, but the innocent children made him squirm.
Children, child, her. Her faced seemed blurry and out of focus. Her fixed gaze carried no expectation, just a melancholy aura. No regrets. Oh how he regretted that day. If only to turn back time. Not to shoot. To pack up, leave, come back the next day. He could imagine her cheerful, smiling – a lingering fantasy that consoled him as he wondered about her life-cut-short. Maybe learning how to read today, giggling around a skipping rope, dreaming about her life tomorrow. Their paths never crossing.
The opening rays of sunshine bounced back and forth between his face and the makeshift costume of leaves. With every minute that the sun rose higher in the pristine Mediterranean sky, the sniper’s chances of escape decreased. Facing capture in these areas meant certain death – together with a little memento of your beheading posted on Al Jazeera for the world to see. Staring at the terrorist’s family, the sniper developed an eerie myopia, clouding his vision and returning him to another place and time. He imagined his own children back home – the grief they would face at discovering their father flanked by masked mujahedeen on the six o’clock news. It sent a shudder down his spine.
Why is one life better than the next? Will there be one grieving family by day’s end, or none? Who decides who lives and who dies? There were no easy answers, but the sniper knew that the outcome rested in his stony fingers. In another world, his target could’ve been waiting in line with him at a university canteen. His heavy beard but a point of conversation in a multicultural society. His children, attending the same kindergarten and both their wives together organizing a community theatrette. Life, unfortunately had other plans. Destiny had engaged them to cross at this pivotal moment: The sniper contemplating his life in a pastoral orchard, the distant smells of the souq beckoning him to return here on his real visa. The bearded man, eating breakfast with his family, before sending teenagers like his own, to their deaths in suicide attacks. With their inescapable fates, they were wed in unholy matrimony, the 18mm bullets determining whether death do them part. An innate, primal desire to escape and return to his family strangled the sniper’s every decision, but his duty obligated a complete and thorough execution. Shutting his eyes, he asked for a decision.
Just the girl, staring back at him again, and a light sheet of salty water skipping in her eyes.
Looking back on it, it was like every other assassination. Another mundane job. The wear of routine – set up, lie in wait, finish it off, and get out ASAP. He never countered on that little girl running in front of his target. How he longed to know her name, to meet her on the street and plead for forgiveness. . .
Having the life sucked out of his grey eyes, the sniper had made a resolution. Either he would abandon his profession, pack up and disappear into the sprawl of orchards, leaving his target to die another day – or he would go above and beyond his duty, killing the terrorist together with his entire family. Both these options seemed most humane – if there was in fact any humanity in his line of work. Either way, those children would not suffer as orphans – their souls slowly incinerating with the obsession for revenge. But either way the sniper’s integrity was forfeit. Every future death his target authorizes would stain his conscience, every time he would close his eyes, his target’s children will join the little girl to forever haunt his dreams.
Fate had presented him with a decision he was incapable of making. As fiery daggers fell from the sweltering morning sky, the sniper arrived at his unbearable decision. Retrieving a coin from his back pocket, he had resolved to leave the day’s bloody business to chance. With heads, the bearded figure finishing his breakfast would continue his day, completely unaware of how close he came to death. With tails, he and his entire family would be liquidated.
The sniper tossed the coin into the air for what seemed to last an eternity. Fate and destiny had no power over chance, and the coin seemed to absolve the sniper of his impending ‘sin’. Like the petals of a rose gracefully descending toward the ground, the coin silently returned to the muddy Earth and disappeared amongst the symphony of leaves and shrubbery that conveniently concealed the sniper’s ambush position.
Shedding a brief tear, a camouflaged figure covered in bushes whispered a brief prayer of atonement. If only for the high powered rifle aimed at a mud-brick house in the distance, he would be invisible.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, and imagined the little girl with angelic eyes – now a young woman, smiling back at him
Why begin a blog? Why throw myself to the hungry masses of armchair generals and internet commentators? Why endure the afflictions of the Web 2.0 experience in a much more personal form?
I guess that I am intrigued by the idea of sharing my thoughts with the entire world. The sense of anonymity is enigmatic, empowering. Previous generations endured the messy pen and the diary – a keepsake stored away in the attic – only to be discovered years later, by close relatives, covered in dust and buckling under the process of deterioration and time. Everything written online is permanent and instantly available. Nothing is sacred. Everything can and will be read and criticized and scoffed at and loved and bookmarked. Like scattering the feathers of a pillow in the wind, each word becomes indelibly stained on the global network, never to be returned to it’s owner – a memento vicariously indulged by young and old, tech savvy and tech challenged alike.
Never before have we been so connected in history. The fact that you are reading this now from anywhere in the world is testament to that. By starting this blog, I throw myself into the sea of blogs, videos, memes, comments, forums and life that has characterized the evolution of the internet.
Do I lose my anonymity in the process? Possibly. But perhaps under the watchful gaze of the 24/7 media, identity cannot be concealed in any practical manner. It waits within, lurking for 15 minutes of fame, or a lifetime of notoriety. And so it is with me. A personal memento of my inner thoughts and observations transmitted through ethernet cables across inviolable borders to you, now. Perhaps we will never meet in real life. But as of now, the bonds of curiousity have been forged, and our paths meet – if only for a moment – before we throw ourselves back into the shapeless, faceless sea of the internet.