Jerusalem, The Present
“There are times in life when the only way to save yourself is by dying, or killing.” She had been troubled by this phrase of Mohammed Ziad’s ever since she had heard it from the lips of his son Wädi Ziad. She couldn’t stop thinking about these words as she drove, under an unforgiving sun that gilded the stones of the road ahead. It turned them the same golden color as the houses that were crammed into Jerusalem’s New City, which were themselves built out of these deceptively smooth stones that were in fact as hard as the rocks of the quarry from which they had been hewn.
She drove slowly, letting her gaze wander over the horizon, where the Judean Mountains seemed almost close enough to touch.
Yes, she was driving slowly, even though she was in a hurry; as she had to savor these moments of silence to avoid being overcome by emotion.
Two hours before, she had not known she was going to take this path that would lead her to her fate. Not that she wasn’t prepared for it. She was. But for her, who liked to plan everything in her life down to the smallest detail, it had been a surprise that Joël had arranged the meeting so easily. He hadn’t needed to say more than a dozen words.
“That’s it, he’ll meet you at midday.”
“It’s only ten, you’ve got more than enough time, it’s not very far. I’ll show you on the map, it’s easy to get there.”
“Do you know the place?”
“Yes, and I know them as well. I was there three weeks ago with Witness for Peace.”
“I don’t know how they trust you.”
“Why wouldn’t they trust me? I’m French, I’ve got good contacts, and the poor saps at the NGO need someone to get them through the Israeli bureaucracy, someone who can get them the permits to cross through to Gaza and the West Bank, someone who can get an interview with a government minister so that they can complain about the conditions the Palestinians live in; I give them a good price on trucks to get their humanitarian aid from A to B. My organization does a good job. You can trust that.”
“Yes, you live off the goodwill of the rest of the world.”
“I live by offering a service to people who live off other people’s bad consciences. Don’t complain, it hasn’t been a month since you got in touch with us and I’ve already managed to get you meetings with two ministers, with parliamentarians from all the groups, with the general secretary of the Histadrut. I’ve got you access to the Territories, you’ve interviewed a lot of Palestinians . . . You’ve only been here four days and you’ve already done half of what you wanted to do.”
Joël looked at the woman with annoyance. He didn’t like her much. Ever since he had picked her up at the airport four days ago he had noticed how tense she was, how uncomfortable. He was annoyed that she put distance between them by insisting on being called Ms. Miller.
She held his gaze. He was right. He had fulfilled his tasks. Other NGOs used his services. There wasn’t anything that Joël couldn’t arrange from his office, with its views of Old Jerusalem in the distance. His wife, an Israeli, and four other people worked with him. He ran a business that the NGOs greatly appreciated.
“I’ll tell you something about this man: He’s a legend,” Joël said.
“I’d have preferred to talk with his son, that’s what I asked you.”
“But he’s traveling, he’s in the U.S. giving a seminar at Columbia, and when he gets back you’ll be gone. You didn’t get the son, but you’ve got the father, and trust me when I say that it’s a worthwhile exchange. He’s an impressive old man. The things he’s seen . . .”
“You know so much about him?”
“Sometimes the ministry sends him people like you. He’s a ‘dove,’ unlike his son.”
“That’s why I wanted to speak with Aaron Zucker, because he’s one of the chief supporters of the settlements policy.”
“Yes, but his father is more interesting,” Joël insisted.
They fell silent, so as not to get caught up in another of their absurd arguments. They had not hit it off. He thought she was too demanding; she saw only his cynicism.
And now she was on her way. She felt tenser every minute. She lit a cigarette and enjoyed breathing in the smoke as she looked out onto the swelling ground over which, on both sides of the road, modern and functional buildings seemed to be clambering. There weren’t any goats, she thought, letting herself get carried away by the biblical image, but why should there be? There wasn’t any space left for the goats, next to these hulks of steel and glass that were the sign of modern Israel’s prosperity.
A few minutes later she left the highway and headed along a road that led toward a group of houses on a hilltop. She parked the car in front of a three-story stone building, identical to the others that stood on this rocky ground; on cloudless days, it was possible to see all the way to the walls of the Old City.
She put out her cigarette in the car’s ashtray and took a deep breath.
The place looked like a sleepy bourgeois town, the same as so many others. Houses a few stories high surrounded by gardens filled with swings and slides for the children, and cars parked neatly alongside pristine pavements. The air itself tasted of calm and safety. It was not difficult for her to imagine the families that now lived in these houses, although she knew what the place had been like decades ago. Some old Palestinians had told her, their gazes lost in the past, of the memory of those days when it was they who lived on this piece of land because the others, the Jews, had not yet arrived.
She climbed the steps. Almost as soon as she rang the bell, the door opened. A young woman who couldn’t yet be thirty greeted her with a smile. She was dressed informally, in jeans, a baggy shirt, and sports shoes. She looked almost the same as so many other young people, but she would have stood out in a crowd for her open smile and her obvious goodwill.
“Come in, we’ve been waiting for you. You’re Ms. Miller, right?”
“I’m Hanna, Aaron Zucker’s daughter. I’m sorry that my father is away, but as the people at the ministry insisted, my grandfather will receive you.”
They moved from the tiny hall into a large and bright salon.
“Please sit down, I’ll get my grandfather.”
“No need, I’m here already. I’m Ezekiel Zucker,” a voice came from farther inside the house. A moment later a man appeared.
Ms. Miller looked straight at him. He was tall, with grey hair and grey eyes; in spite of his age he appeared lively.
He shook her hand firmly and invited her to sit down.
“So, you wanted to see my son . . .”
“Well, I really wanted to meet both of you, but your son in particular, being as he is one of the chief proponents of the settlement policy . . .”
“Yes, and he argues it so well that the ministry sends him to explain the settlements to all the most critical visitors. Well, tell me what I can do for you, Ms. Miller.”
“Grandpa,” Hanna interrupted, “if you don’t mind, I’ll be off. I have a meeting at the university. Jonah is about to leave as well.”
“Don’t worry, I c