Letter from Israel

A day in the life of the Promised Land. Palestine travel poster, detail, 1898. From The Orientalist Poster, by Abderrahman Slaoui.

A day in the life of the Promised Land. Palestine travel poster, detail, 1898. From The Orientalist Poster, by Abderrahman Slaoui.

Sitting on my terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, mulling over the bad things that one character in my novel-in-progress was doing to another, I heard the cell phone inside the apartment ring. If I knew how to retrieve messages from the zippy little contraption, I might have ignored it, but unlike my Israeli neighbors I’m technologically illiterate — and besides, it could have been important news from my wife or children in New York — so I interrupted my work and picked it up. “You’ve heard?” my Israeli aunt said.

Aside from Aunt Shoshana, I’m effectively alone in Tel Aviv, so, maybe fifteen minutes after the explosion, I might have been the last person to hear. A bus had blown up in Haifa, all of an hour’s drive away at the far end of this fishbowl of a country.

Minutes later — by now I was inside watching the local news even though I couldn’t understand a word — the phone rang again. This time, it was a colleague from Bar Ilan, the school that invited me here more than a year ago. Shaindy, who had arranged the apartment and the cell phone, felt responsible for my physical and psychological comfort, and thought that I ought to know. Initial reports had “at least” eight dead, though by the time of this writing it’s nearly double that. What do you say in response to the information or, retroactively, the invitation? “Thanks.”

By the time the phone rang a third time, I was in the loop. The call was from Marlene and Chava, two American women I was scheduled to meet for a late lunch. Clearly calling from the street, they just wanted to confirm our appointment. I said, “Have you heard?”

“Heard what?” Marlene replied.

I told her, and we settled on the hour for our lunch, but first she had to call her family.

As soon as there’s a pigua every telephone in the country rings. Parents check on their children, children on their parents. Was Yossi shopping or Rebecca visiting a friend in an unexpected part of town? Are they alive?

The word pigua is a modern coinage listed in an addendum to the standard Hebrew lexicon under the section called “New Literature.” It is derived from the ancient verb lifgoa, which means “to harm” or the noun pega, which means “wound,” though elsewhere in the Bible the root also has connotations of meeting or encountering and, oddly, beseeching. Well, the 21-year-old suicide bomber on the #37 bus route that climbs up from the port to the university at the top of the mountain overlooking Haifa certainly met at least 15 of his Israeli neighbors and his action might be construed as a form of beseeching, but its primary aim was to harm, to inflict a wound. New literature may look and sound like Hebrew, but it’s distinctly Israeli.

I arrived in Israel for my semester abroad nearly three weeks ago and despite mounting anxieties over more massive international havoc, it’s been quiet. Locals take the ongoing situation in stride, but I’ve been on edge. The other night, I was buying some dried fruits in a tiny hole-in-the-wall storefront when I caught a glimpse of a television over the counter and was immediately drawn to a terrible image. On the TV was a map of Israel with what looked like cartoon explosions drawn in directly over Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and Haifa. Turned out to be a weather report announcing rain the next day.

A different rain of chunks of metal and body parts came down on Moriah Street halfway up Mt. Carmel in Haifa yesterday. That’s the hard rain I anticipated when I accepted Bar Ilan’s invitation to come here. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for the last year. And let me tell you, it doesn’t feel good.

The first sensation is literally visceral; it’s in the belly, not precisely nausea but akin. It’s a violent clenching that you want to get rid of. Minutes later, the sensation moves to the head. Dizziness, disorientation. And then — maybe I’ve acclimated more swiftly than I would have imagined possible — it’s located in a different, more cognitive portion of the brain. Rational calculations take hold. Selfishly, you think that perhaps this pigua buys you personally and everyone you know who wasn’t on that doomed bus a few days or a few weeks of peace, until the next pigua, and you hope you’re not on that next bus and you realize that the odds are you won’t be, and that you may have more to worry about from Israeli drivers.

Walking to lunch with Marlene and Chava along the main thoroughfare of Ben Yehuda Street, we heard a crash and spun around. A taxi had sideswiped a motorcycle and the biker was lying on the pavement clutching his knee. Immediately, half a dozen cell phones, including mine, whipped out of pockets to call an ambulance. The biker was silent, clutching his knee, the driver of the taxi standing worried either about the person he had hit or his insurance, and then a passenger from the taxi emerged, slowly, from the back seat. He was on crutches and one of his shoes was attached to a prosthetic device. Had he been riding a bus a year ago? I don’t know, but the biker shook off his bump — it wasn’t a wound — and drove away.

One more day in the life of the Promised Land.