Winter 2010

One Thousand Shekels, Fifteen Agurot

Vytautas Malesh

I took a bus to Jerusalem, a green tour bus with luxurious seats. The bus drove up hill and down on narrow roads that we balanced like a tarmac tightrope.  Our driver waved his hands, screamed and groaned in Hebrew at the tiny hatchbacks in his way and the jaywalking Chasids. There were hundreds of men in sackcloth suits narrowly dodging our speeding bus as they crossed narrow cobblestone streets to carry on thousand-year-old conversations while their yarmulke-capped sons darted between their legs and tugged at their coats.  It was one hundred degrees. I watched them and I sweat.     

The bus dumped us in a cobblestone plaza near the west wall. The street and the walls were the same sandstone color as the surrounding desert, and the Dome of the Rock bulged up over it all like a golden balloon. The thousands of worshippers and tourists filtered down to the kotel, men on the left, women on the right, and vied for a place at the rocks.

At the wall, a middle-aged beanpole of a man in jean-shorts and socks with sandals reverently mumbled out some thanks to Elohim for America and the troops to my left, and to my right a short Chasid in a black-brimmed hat raced through some Hebrew chant, sounding like cashew, cashew KA-shew as fast as it could be said and nearly all in one breath before turning around and hustling back to the same bus that brought him.

Following tradition, I wrote out a quick prayer of thanks and shoved it in the corner of four cyclopean sandstone blocks.  It was a weak prayer.  I felt put on the spot – I wanted nothing deserving prayer.  

I made up my mind to visit the Al Aqsa mosque. It had been in the news recently and I wanted to see the site of the hassle. I’d learned that Arab protestors tried to stop some nearby construction, which they claimed threatened the structural integrity of the mosque.  The protestors had thrown rocks. The soldiers had thrown teargas grenades, and so on.  

I wandered through the underground bazaar of Jerusalem, kicking up thousand-year old dust and peeking into thousand-year-old stores which once surely sold Frankincense and Myrrh, but now sold knock-off Gucci handbags and Bart Simpson T-shirts.  I found a map that showed me where to go next.  I stumbled down one underground alley after another and even with the map I became hopelessly lost.  

I stopped in a produce market swarming with merchants bent under boxes of produce, and buzzing scooters honking impatiently to pass them by.   

A little Arab boy tugged on the hem of my shirt and asked “America?”

I said, “Yes, American.”

He asked, “What America want?”  

“Al Aqsa mosque,” I answered.

He grinned and said, “Al Aqsa,” before waving for me to follow him. We went straight ahead and down a long and empty row of shops. He looked back at me every fifty feet or so and said, “Al Aqsa!”

He led me further down the tunnel to where it opened into daylight.  A group of men came our way carrying boxes of fruits and vegetables, and bags packed with carrots, beets and parsley. One of the men stopped to talk to my guide, who was his perfect, hairless, miniature.  They were both light-skinned and lion-nosed, they both had broad shoulders that sort of slumped and slouched.  They exchanged a few words, and I listened to the sound of the language, not understanding a bit.  The father spoke and his voice resonated in the empty alley in a mature, exhalative rumble: impalah sasha mamba, and when the boy answered it was in an impish, nasally babble: Mama ilyamma comma!  

The boy jerked his head back at me and the father looked me up and down, dismissing me without a second thought.  I imagine that the boy was explaining his errand and expressing hope for a few American dollars for his effort, and the father probably congratulated his initiative before he waved the boy along, and me with him.

At 4:15 we stepped into blinding daylight and the boy held his arms out wide to present the plaza before me.

“Al Aqsa!”

We were nearly right back where I had started. The big green buses from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Eilat stretched out in a long line to my right. The Wailing Wall was far ahead and to my left, and the dome of the rock loomed up before me. I asked my guide if he could get me inside.

He shrugged and again announced, “Al Aqsa!”

I said, very slowly and a little too loud, “yes, I want to go inside.”

“In-side Al Aqsa?” he asked.

“Yes,” I grinned, “inside Al Aqsa!”

He pointed over the wall and said, “In-side Al Aqsa,” like he was agreeing with me.

I fished in my pocket for a ten-shekel coin, but I only found a few agurot and ten 100-shekel bills.  I wanted to give him something, but the bills were too great and the coins were too small.

“I’ve got nothing for you,” I said, knowing that he would only say Al Aqsa again. I stood there for half a second with fifteen agurot in my left hand and 1000 shekels in my right, feeling guilty and foolish.

I felt a great pressure, the strong and crushing kind a hard tick must feel when he’s pinched between a meaty thumb and forefinger.  I felt a pain in the back of my left arm, like being pinched. I couldn’t hear anything, until a gray cloud of smoke and dust began to swallow me up and then a siren screamed and wouldn’t stop.  My heart beat hard and slow, dull kicks in my cheat. I shook my head and tried to cover my ears.

When my hands reached my face I saw dirty blood coating my left pinky and ring fingers.  I felt woozy and I looked at the ground for stability. I saw some tufts of fabric, some burnt pieces of paper, and a bloody human ear. I put my hands back down, not wanting to know.

I woke up. I crawled towards the fountain in the plaza by the Wailing Wall.  I tasted ash in my mouth.  I smelled hot ham sandwiches on yeasty rolls.  I tried to get to my feet, but there were rough hands on me, forcing me to the ground, yelling in Hebrew and Arabic. I heard another high-pitched wail - an ambulance.  The screaming wail I was hearing was inside my head.  Many hands rolled me onto a soft, narrow bed, and a paramedic shined a bright light in my eyes. He barked things at me in Hebrew that I didn’t understand.  I don’t know what I said back.  They loaded me into the back of an ambulance and put an oxygen mask over my face. I went to sleep.

I faded in and out of consciousness, but my conscious moments were no more lucid than those spent asleep thanks to a strong tincture of pain killers and antibiotics.

People ask what I remember – if I remember the surgery, the news cameras, anything.  I don’t.  I have a 38-hour blur of drugs and light that I have never made sense of, and probably never will.

The first thing I do remember is finding someone waiting for me in my room – a woman in her early forties, light skinned and curly haired.  Her hair was graying but her eyes were young and lively, very energetic, and always moving – she looked me over, looked out the window, looked at the EKG, looked back at me, looked at her watch, all the while maintaining a lucid conversation.

“Can you speak English?”  

I managed to slur out a lazy yes – I was swimming in morphine.

“The paramedic said you did not, but it is good that you do.”

Her pronunciation was fine. She spoke the strange sort of half British-English taught in that part of the world - English devoid of contractions and idioms, peppered with unfamiliar inflections.  Textbook English.  Her name was Doronit and she was from Natal.

I remembered looking at my hand and seeing blood. A cold panic took hold of me and, fearing the worst, I touched my face. I was whole – I felt some scabs along the back of my neck and my cheek. It hadn’t been my ear in the street.

“I have rung for your doctor, and he will explain to you the extent of your injuries, but I understand they are quite minor. You are very lucky.”  

I asked for a mirror, and she brought one to me. The rough patches on my face were not too bad. I was missing a small patch of hair near my temple, and there were six sutures in a neat, even line.  There was a bandage on the back of my hand, and the back of my left arm ached up high.

I should have felt relieved. I felt nauseous. I saw an empty kidney-shaped bowl next to my bed and I snatched it up and held it in front of my face, but I did not throw up. My head spun and I was very cold, but I did not throw up.

“Would you like to talk?” Doronit asked when I lifted my head from the bowl.  I shook my head.

The doctor arrived – short and stocky, dark-skinned with salt-and-pepper hair all made even more dark by his spotless white coat. He nodded hello, said something in Hebrew to Doronit, and looked over my chart.

“How are we feeling today?” he asked.  

I nodded weakly and swallowed a hard lump.  He pulled an otoscope from his breast pocket and began sticking it in my ears and nose. He removed the cone and shined the light in my eyes and mouth.

“You are very lucky,” he said, “some scrapes and bruises.  We’re going to keep you here for three days of observation.”

The bomb had been packed with shrapnel – nails and screws, nuts and bolts. A lot of factors came together to keep me safe; the recursive compression of the tunnel, my distance from the bomber, and six intervening bodies between me and the blast.  I was fine. He recommended that I see a physical therapist when I returned to America, but only if I felt I needed one. He stressed again that I was fine, that I was lucky, and then he left.

Doronit hunted through a manila folder on her lap while the doctor spoke. She closed it and again invited me to talk. I didn’t have anything to say.  

“It was … accidental in so far as the bomb was not meant to go off.  Thankfully most of the shops in that tunnel were closed. There were very few people in the tunnel, and so only the bombers were hurt. The bombers, and you.”  

“There was a boy,” I said, “an Arab boy. He showed me the Al Aqsa mosque and I wanted to give him a tip, but I didn’t have any money.  I just wanted to give him a tip.”  

“I will try to find him for you, if you like.”

I shook my head.  “I guess it doesn’t matter. I’m fine.”  

She said “I’m going to leave you with my card. I know it is hard to talk now, but I would like you to call me tomorrow.  Whether you do or not, I will be here on Wednesday to see you again.”  

“Thank you,” I said, “but I’m fine.”

I didn’t call Doronit the next day, and true to her word she returned on Wednesday.

“I want to go back and find the boy,” I told her.  

“I do not think that is healthy for you,” she said.

We sat in silence until I said, “he worked hard to show me the mosque. I just think he should have a few shekels for his trouble is all.”  

“I think you should take your flight to America.”

“I’m fine,” I said, “I just want to give the kid ten shekels.”

“I cannot make you go, of course. That decision is for you to make. I can only hope that you will begin to tell me what you are feeling now, and that you will take my recommendation seriously. If you were staying, we would talk at great length about your circumstance and condition, but I feel you should return home as soon as possible.”

“I’m fine,” I said again, “it doesn’t even hurt. I’m off the morphine. I’ll be on my feet tomorrow.”

“I know,” she said.  

“And then I’ll have a day to go back to the old city and give the kid his tip.”  

“I would like to say again that that is what you should not do.”  

“I’m really tired all of a sudden,” I said, “I’m going to take a little nap.”  

I rolled onto my back and closed my eyes. I heard her leave.

I slept through the night. I woke up. I sat up in bed and tested my legs.  I felt weak, but I could walk.  

I left against the doctor’s orders. I told them I was fine, which is what everyone had told me, and that I was tired of lying around wasting hospital resources. I had to sign a waiver, and they gave me a prescription for painkillers and antibiotics that I never filled. My clothes were ruined. They gave me a suit of scrubs and a small canvas bag for my personal belongings, which they enumerated in clumsy English.  I didn’t listen; I just signed where they told me to sign and then left.  

I hitchhiked to the old city, and arrived a block from the Wailing Wall. I saw that the blast site was roped off with yellow police tape reading “Caution” in Hebrew, English, and Arabic.  Two soldiers stood guard, looking at their watches and shifting their rifles lazily from left to right and then back from right to left.

I went down back underground, trying my best to retrace my steps.    I walked through an ancient tunnel of Russian silverwares, knock-off fashions, Persian chessboards, leather sandals, silk scarves, incense, fruit markets, old men smoking hookahs, little kids playing tag over broken cobblestones, Christian pilgrims walking the stations of the cross.

It was near dusk when I came back to the vegetable market where I had first encountered the boy who guided me to the mosque. Maybe I thought the boy would be waiting for me. Maybe I thought I would be conspicuous and worthy of help or attention. I was ignored, and so I yelled out Al Aqsa, Al Aqsa, but no one came to guide me.  Some people stared, most went about their business as they and their ancestors had for hundreds of years. The boy did not come.  I went back the way we had gone, back through the tunnels that would take me to the wall and the fountain and the plaza.  I reached a dead-end – the tunnel had been boarded up with a makeshift plywood wall, like a new store under construction at a cheap mall.  There was no guard, and the slipshod door was unlocked. I went through.

Some of the stone had been gouged by the blast, and it looked fresh and clean where the dirt had been chipped away. Elsewhere it had been blackened by carbon and smoke, so it looked even more impossibly old than before.  There were huge steel doors over the shops here. The doors were painted royal blue, and they all looked clean except for two which had been closed during the explosion.  I approached the opening of the tunnel and saw the two soldiers standing guard, still bored, still shifting their rifles around and looking at their watches.  Their backs were to me.  

The street had been swept clean except for one small pile of debris about 20 feet from the mouth of the tunnel.  There were flowers, candles, and crumpled papers. I uncurled one and saw Arabic writing and a face I did not recognize. Then I uncurled another sheet and it was much the same – different writing, different face, still unfamiliar. I smoothed out a third and saw a picture of my guide’s father – his nose was proud, his eyes determined. The image had been Photoshopped so that his skin looked smooth and light. His beard and hair were thick and black.  I stuffed the paper into my canvas bag.  

I decided I would leave the boy’s tip there, where I knew he would find it.  I pulled my wallet from the canvas bag and stuck my fingers in for whatever bills I could find, but there was nothing there.  I opened the wallet wide: still nothing. My credit cards were lined up neatly, my driver’s license, passport; everything was there except my cash. I remembered withdrawing it from an ATM downtown, I remembered making a few purchases in the market, and I remembered pulling the bills out as I searched for a tip for the boy.

It was gone.  I had nothing for the boy.  1,000 shekels gone on the wind or taken from my hand, burned in an explosion, dropped to the ground, snatched up by the very people helping me into the ambulance. I don’t know. It’s gone. It would have meant the world to that kid. I hope he got it, but I’ll never know.  I got my things from the hotel and went back to America.