Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Infiltrator - a short story

The document was incomplete. This was not all that unusual, given the nature of these interrogations.  There were only the responses from the accused, and not the questions from the interrogators, so the document made for odd reading, like listening to one side of a telephone conversation.

This too was not wholly atypical; often, two stenographers recorded these sessions, one in the Hebrew of the interrogators and another in the Arabic of the infiltrator.   No doubt the documents were affixed together, but like a squabbling couple, eventually they decided that separate beds were in order.  Often, the Hebrew document survived and the Arabic was lost.  Rarely, the Arabic was the sole survivor – or even more common a Hebrew translation of the Arabic original, long gone, only echoes of it surviving in a few Arabic words, here and there, embedded in the Hebrew sentence: proper and place names, cultural or religious concepts that were then difficult to translate in Hebrew… one or two words or phrases like Arab foundlings in a Jewish orphanage.

This document was such an example: a Hebrew facsimile of an Arabic original.  I was told it was unearthed from a box in the Foreign Office’s archive, recently opened, and dated March 4, 1952.  This was probably not the date of the actual interrogation, but when the transcripts were deposited, en mass, with a host of their brethren, in some metal filing cabinet in the Foreign Office.  A chronological fiction, provided to give order to that which had no real order. 

So, I held the brittle, yellow papers in my hand, nearly forty years old.  The paper had not aged well, as if it had lived a life of gross physical abandon, and not a staid existence in a box in the FO archive.  There were five pages.  The typing was poor.  The Hebrew translation was not skillfully prepared.  When it was made, scores of such translations were being drafted, and niceties like grammar, spelling and punctuation were a luxury the overworked FO staff could not indulge.

Following 1948, the border of the new Jewish state was porous, without natural barriers of any kind, often merely an arbitrary line which zigzagged along a hill, splitting villages in half, separating fields from towns, families from kin; from the security perspective, an impossible position.  One war had concluded, but its conclusion was no more than a prelude to the next.

Arab “infiltrators,” former residents of villages, towns, cities, hamlets, now in the Jewish state, slipped through this untenable border by the thousands.  They did so for from many motivations: to steal fruit that they had planted the last season; to visit relatives on the other side of the border; to perform acts of sabotage, both petty and grave; and sometimes, for something as heart rendering banal as just to see their old houses, now occupied by their enemies.  Those who were caught sat in hard backed chairs in the FO office and were asked questions in a language they did not understand and answered them in their native tongue.  Two pens recorded the same verbal event, but from two mutually dissonant vantages: that of the victor and that of the defeated.

I quickly scanned the document.  It was apparent that the young Arab man had two interrogators, which usually meant they suspected him of some larger infraction than stealing fruit or going to a wedding.  Of course, I could not read their questions, but from the infiltrator’s answers I could discern a stubborn insistence.   

They followed the standard interrogation protocol, but they did so with a speed and persistence that was unusual, which was reserved for the “big fish.”  It was also apparent that he was being questioned by top men in the FO, and that the questions about oranges, irrigation pipes, telephone wire or copper sheeting stolen from Jewish settlements were merely preludes to more probing questions, for the confession of more damaging secrets and malfeasance.  I turned the pages to the strong light of the window, but the Jerusalem sun had just hidden beneath a cloud, and I was forced to turn back to the lamp before I could read the pages.

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