This was Professor Ahmad’s blazing passion. He had his reasons, personally and professionally, for such field trips. For him, the map of my nation was superimposed upon a remembrance of his country. Such trips were informative to his work, and elegiac to his people. But he was a pragmatist. As he searched for the lost past as exemplified in a mosque converted to a café there, a graveyard turned refuse yard here --- he knew memory and reality could only serve certain convergences. After that, all this was useless. It was rattling a dry drum.
We drove to what he believed, in his expect opinion, was the spot where the 1948 armistice line skirted the orange grove and Tel Far. Professor Ahmad knew the terrain well. He had visited it ten years ago, but since then it had changed. The kibbutz which had occupied the site of Tel Far was gone, usurped in turn by a stand of concrete apartment houses along the road to K_____. We stood in front of their bland, vacant facades. There was not much to see. Perhaps that sandy patch there had been the wadi, he said, filled in when the water was useful no longer useful. That would explain why the ground was so springy, he diagnosed as he hopped gently on one foot, when it is so dry.
The apartment houses were filled with newly arrived Russians. I asked an old man on a bench if he know if there were any orange trees about? He told me in halting Hebrew that he did not speak Hebrew. We took a short walk. In an open field a dozen boys were playing battle. Some had toy guns; some had fashioned guns from sticks. There was much charging and counter charging. I asked one if there were orange trees here. He looked at me quizzically; his hair was blond and his narrow tartar eyes expressed pure cynicism. I think around that bend, he said quickly, and then he ran off for yet another offensive in an unending series of offenses.
We left the boys and rounded the bend to a gently sloping field. Perhaps this was all that was left of the Tel (hill) of Tel Far. Near the base of the slope where three or four untended orange trees. Beyond them, I found the remains of fence posts, and some bits of wire still strew about. The trees looked too young to be from the era of our infiltrator. The remains of the wire did not run long enough to tell if it was really the old 1948 armistice line. If it was, then those oranges must have been as tempting to the Arabs of Tel Far as the fruit to the first couple in Eden. You could almost reach out and pluck them from the border. The day was hot. Professor Ahmad and I sat beneath the most shady of the scraggly orange trees. He fanned himself with his straw hat, and as was his wont on such trips, he began to speak and I did not dare to interrupt:
“Let’s say this man in your papers is who we think he was, and who his interrogators supposed: his mother is a Jew and his father an Arab. By Jewish religious law, he is a Jew. By Israeli law, he is Israeli. By Koranic law and Arab custom, he’s a Muslim. It must have been a terrible position for him to be in. All the factions back then. All the infighting. And here is a man not only caught up in the Arab turmoil, but a half-Jewish as well. He’s fluent in Hebrew. He can hardly conceal it in that interview. A man brought up in two languages and fastidious in both to the point where a botched word in a translation by an overworked FO man chaffs him, and this interview could mean his life!
But where is the Jewish mother? Maybe she fled for her safety during the war. Why stay in danger in Jordanian Tel Far when you can be in relative safety just three kilometers down that road. A small war in a small land – but devastating. And this son is a grown man. A Muslim with a wife and child. Where can he go? He stays in Tel Far. He’s used by his people in a cruelly cynical way. He is threatened. You must cross the line and do this, or we’ll do this to your child. Plant this bomb here, or this is what will happen to your wife. These things happened, you know. No one is more cruel than a defeated people. Defeat doesn’t make you compassionate for the weak. It makes you hate them: you see your defeat in their weakness.
This was a bad time for everyone. They probably drove this man mad with fear…. That’s the impression I get from that transcript. He was relieved to be captured by his mother’s people, and not because they would protect him. That final document they produced, there is no way to know, but it is probably an affidavit from her, the mother, claiming him as her son. She writes with that beautiful Rashi script, like a Jew from the Levant. They probably told her it would help her son’s case.
As I said, there was much cruelty then, on all sides. This man was relieved to be captured. Playing the Arab for the Arabs and the Jew for the Jews; it is a miracle, really, those five pages. The story of two people and one land, in the convergence of a single man. And of course he is in great pain. And of course there is no way out for him. Whatever he does, he loses something. Is that our story?”
Professor Ahmad was done. He looked around. A swatch of sweat glistened on his high forehead. The sun overhead was lowering. Its beams pierced the leaves of the tree. There was not even an implication of a breeze.
“Maybe this is the spot where they caught him,” he said, standing up, dusting his pants with the back of his hand. “But like so much else, we will never know. Unless someone brings you another treasure from an old box. All we have are conjectures and theories. Just another Arab crossing a boundary which is no boundary into a nation that is no nation… at least as recognized by him.”
As we left, there was the peel of ordinance. But it was not an echo of one of the two wars which had ripped through this field: the little Russian boys with their ersatz guns had ambushed us, and the air was hot with the rat-tat-tat of simulated bullets. For we had blundered, Professor Ahmad and I, and strolled unwittingly into a classic pincer movement. Boys rushed at his from the left and from the right. There was no way out.
“You’re both dead!” said one of the boys, our original guide to the trees which may or may not have been the trees we were looking for, in the place which may be Tel Far but just may as well be some place else. The boy’s cool blue eyes were drunk with the glee of capture, with the power of his decisiveness and our defenselessness.
But he was wrong. We were both very much alive. We drove back to Jerusalem as night crowded all around us and the wind whispered in through the cracked windows.