October 16, 2007
SLITTING THE MAN’S THROAT wasn’t the problem. Bilal waited, watching the Jew enemy shift position in his chair, and fought to overcome his rising panic by remembering the lessons he’d been taught. One hand over the man’s mouth to stop him screaming as the knife in the other hand sliced through the soft tissue of the throat and all the blood vessels. Keep the hand tightly over his mouth for at least a minute for the lifeblood to drain away. He’d practiced the movement in his bedroom until he was fluid as a dancer.
Bilal crouched and held his breath as the Jew, remembering his duty, stood, scratched himself, walked around his position glancing left and right, up and down, made certain that everything was in order, and then sat again. Bilal saw the man looking directly upward to the white walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem and the golden mosque beyond—but what was he thinking? And did it matter?
The panorama in front of Bilal made his heart beat in excitement.
The massive walls of the Old City that surrounded the Temple of Solomon gleamed white in the glow of the arc lights. The moon was a thin crescent over the distant mountain ridge. In his rising panic, he tried to calm himself by remembering what his imam had taught him. That the great sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had built those walls and Bilal even remembered the date: about 1538. It was impossibly long ago. Bilal couldn’t even understand how long. But it all seemed so grand and old.
Above the walls was the gray-blue dome of the third holiest site in Islam, the al-Aqsa Mosque. And beyond that, the gleaming golden cupola of the Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah, the Dome of the Rock, both mosques the symbol of Islam’s ancient claim to the city of Jerusalem. Bilal found himself imagining pictures from the stories he’d been told since a child, of Mohammed tethering his wondrous horse al-Buraq, with its head of a woman, wings of an eagle, tail of a peacock, and hoofs reaching to the horizon, before ascending on his journey to heaven.
“Peace and blessings be upon him,” Bilal murmured under his breath as a reverential reflex to using Mohammed’s name. But Bilal’s mission wasn’t to pray. He prayed every Friday in his own mosque and lately, urged on by his imam so that he could familiarize himself with the terrain, he prayed in the al-Aqsa. No, today his mission was to begin taking back Jerusalem; to take revenge on the Jews who had dispossessed his family, destroyed his homeland, made his people into paupers, imprisoned his brother as a terrorist, and cast him as a refugee.
Jerusalem’s night air was cold, but he felt comfort and warmth when he remembered being in the mosque of Bayt al Gizah, his village just across the valley, sitting at the feet of the imam a month ago, along with twenty other young men from his village. The imam sat cross-legged on a cushion, surrounded by Bilal and his friends on the carpet. His imam was smiling and talking with such ease and confidence about the splendors they would each
experience in the afterlife; but then his face and voice became severe as he spoke of the way in which their people, the Palestinian people, were daily abused and murdered, tortured and brutalized, by the Jews. He asked each youth on his way home that night to glance over the valley toward the city of Jerusalem; to look at the glory of the mosques, one gold and the other silver, their subtlety and quiet beauty, and then to look at the gaudy, tawdry, and immoral modern city the infidels had built. One day it would be gone.
When they were leaving the mosque, the imam asked Bilal to wait. At first he thought the imam had made a mistake, confusing him with one of the older boys whom Bilal so looked up to. But from the moment he spoke, Bilal knew that his words were for him, and him alone. Barely able to breathe, the young man wondered why the imam had held him back. Was it because of the way he worshipped? Was it to ask him to do a job? Was it to say something now that he was approaching his eighteenth birthday? It was none of these.
“Allah has chosen you for a special purpose, Bilal.”
The boy made no response but his heart thudded in his chest. Of all the prospects of hope and excitement that the sentence suggested, it was the sound of his own name from the imam’s lips that filled him with the greatest pride and settled any doubt that his holy teacher spoke only to him. His shoes were worn near through, his family wasn’t rich, and he’d long since stopped going to school. But there, staring up at the imam, he felt for a moment like a prince.
“You will be among the blessed. You, Bilal, will be a hero to our people, the pride of your mother and father. You will strike a blow from which the enemy will never recover. And I will ensure that your name is inscribed in the holiest of holy books and kept in pride of place in Mecca.”
“Me? My name?” Bilal could barely speak.
The imam smiled and put his hand on the young man’s
shoulder. “You, my son. Though I’ve only been your leader for a year, I have grown to love you and the other young men who have flocked to sit at my feet and listen to the words of Mohammed, peace and blessings be upon him. And in these past months, you, as well as a number of others, have impressed me, Bilal. You will lead the fight of our people against the Zionist enemy. Soon, I will inform you of a mission I wish you to undertake.”
Close to tears of pride, Bilal whispered, “I won’t let you down, Master. This I swear.”
And during the month, the imam and the mosque’s bomb maker had worked hard to ensure that Bilal’s mission would be successful. His training done, his prayers said, his will written, his face and voice recorded for all the world to admire on the Internet, Bilal stood in the shadow of the wall with the imam’s words still fresh in his ears. He smiled to himself as he waited and watched the Israeli guard shift his position protecting the entrance that led into the tunnel. He ached to strike a blow for the freedom of his oppressed people, to reclaim his land from the Jews. He lived a degraded life in a crowded village while just over the valley the Jews lived in luxury houses and had maids and manservants and wore gold jewelry and drove expensive foreign cars around a city that should have been his.
Bilal was a Palestinian but his culture told him he was born a refugee because of the 1948 war, and the war of 1967, and the war of 1972, and the other wars waged by fearless Arab armies to push the Jews back into the sea. Each war, each attempt to eliminate the Jewish presence from Palestine, had ended in failure and misery; but the Jews were few, and the Arabs were many and they could wait for a hundred, even a thousand years to win, but win they surely would, according to his imam.
And so Bilal waited patiently for the right time to kill the Jew. He hated waiting, but his imam had told him that patience and judging the moment were more important to his mission than rashly moving forward and exposing himself to the enemy.
The Jew guard seemed to relax; he moved his head in a circular direction as though massaging his neck muscles, put down his rifle from his shoulder to his lap, and reached down to a thermos; he poured himself a drink and Bilal saw the steam coming out of the cup. As the man lifted it to drink the coffee, Bilal slipped his knife from its scabbard, ran forward silently to cover the twenty meters between himself and the Jew enemy, and, before the man even knew that his life was in peril, put a hand over his mouth, pulled his head back, and sliced his throat in a gash of crimson from ear to ear.
Bilal kept his hand over the man’s mouth so that he couldn’t scream and embraced his body firmly against his own to prevent him from struggling. Even though the guard was seated, Bilal could barely constrain the tough body flailing against imminent death. He felt it through the shirt. It was a hard body, a strong body. Not a bodybuilder’s physique with constructed muscles only good for posturing and lifting weights; no, this was the taut body of a man who’d done physical work all his life. Compact, tight, beautiful.
He put his face close to the Jew’s, smelling his sweat and fear and blood. And in the moonlight, Bilal saw that he wasn’t a Westerner but a Yemenite, a Moroccan or maybe even a black Ethiopian Jew—certainly a Jew with Arab blood, but difficult to tell without the daylight sun. Bilal felt a moment of empathy with the man. Killing an Arab Jew was different from killing one from Germany or Russia or America. As he held the man’s increasingly limp body, he worried that he’d killed one of his own; but the man wore an Israeli Border Police uniform, and that made him the enemy, no matter where he’d been born.
With his hand still over the man’s mouth, Bilal held him closely until he felt no more struggling. Just a body slumped in his chair, the stench of urine, coffee, blood mingling in the cold night air, making Bilal want to gag.
YES, SLITTING THE ENEMY’S THROAT was easy. As was concealing his body. He just pulled the dead Jew out of the seat and dragged him inside the fence where the excavations were being conducted to reveal the City of David at the base of the wall that encircled the Old City of Jerusalem.
And weaving his way through the digs, it was easy to ascend from deep in the valley at the base of the City of David, up the newly discovered tunnel, and out of sight into the Old City, where he’d create mayhem, headlines that would be read around the world.
Bilal stood at the base of the tunnel and switched on his flashlight. He remembered the feeling two days earlier when he pretended to be nothing more than a tourist, joining lines of people walking up through the tunnel. He was there to memorize the way, to plan every footstep, for when he came again to complete his mission, it would be dark.
On that day, the first time he’d been in the tunnel, he stood at the back of a group of American evangelical Christians, some black, some white, waiting for them to finish praying. Their leader, a tall, white-haired black preacher, was holding up the other tourists, but the man of the Christian god didn’t care. He raised his arms and shouted to his congregation, “Brothers and sisters, let us ascend to the Temple of Solomon as the ancient Israelites did three thousand years ago, and raise our voices in praise of the Almighty . . .”
Every evangelist shouted, “Praise the Lord . . . Hallelujah . . . Praise be to God.”
“Praise the Lord who has brought us to the Holy Land and enabled us to walk in the footsteps of our very Lord Jesus Christ himself, who came from the line of King David, who built this very tunnel three thousand years ago, my brothers and sisters . . .”
“Praise the Lord!” they all shouted as the guide for the City of David tried to round them up and usher them all into the tunnel.
Bilal hung around the group, and when the last few were
walking toward the tunnel, he attached himself to the rear, trying to hide himself in the crowd, avoiding the eyes of the guards and police and soldiers. And as they walked up the slope, which once was a waterway from the top of the city down to the Pool of Siloam, they began to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at the tops of their voices as they slid and stumbled on the slippery floor and clung to the handrails in the dark. Had he been born across the valley, as a Jew Bilal might have known that this tunnel was used by King David to breach the defenses of the Jebusite city. But the intricacies of such history were unknown to him. All he knew of his people’s history was filtered through devotion to the Koran. Yet, even so, Bilal knew that his beating the security in the tunnel would grant him accolades. It was history repeating itself. King David’s captain had climbed the tunnel to open the gates, capture the city, and slay its people, and now Bilal, too, would climb the tunnel and kill the Jews who had usurped the holy city of Islam.
So Bilal sang along with the Christians, raising his voice for most of the song, mouthing the words he didn’t know and quietly, under his breath, changing the word to “Muslim” when the evangelicals shouted out “Christian.” He was a proud Muslim soldier marching onward, like the armies of Mohammed, peace and blessings be upon him.
And now that the Jew guard was dead, there was nothing to stop him carrying out his mission. Tonight he was climbing the tunnel again. There were no singing Christians this time, no throngs of tourists. This time his problem was the night-vision scopes of the Israeli soldiers who guarded the holy places around the clock. And despite what his imam had told him about the joy of being a martyr, a shahid, who would feel no pain as the bullets entered his body, there was a part of him that was afraid, a part that he knew he had to keep under control. Escaping after his attack on the Jews would also be difficult, but what did escape from enemy guns matter when he had the afterlife to look
forward to, a green garden full of blue water and seventy-two virgins to attend to his every need for all eternity?
In his backpack were four bombs pieced together that afternoon by his mosque’s bomb maker. Each had a timer, a detonator cap, and enough explosives to kill a cluster of Jews that would be praying at the Western Wall of the temple later that morning.
All he had to do was to get to the top of the tunnel and then continue along the path that led to the Western Wall, which the Jews called the Wailing Wall of King Herod’s Temple. There he’d emerge, place his bombs, and hide in the shadows until early light, when the Jews would come to pray. That was the time he’d watch with pleasure as heads and arms and legs flew here and there and people screamed and men and women and children looked at the carnage in horror. In the mayhem, he’d dump his backpack and outer clothes and make his escape through the Dung Gate and down to his village of Bayt al Gizah.
943 BCE, the month of Sivan
MATANYAHU, SON OF NABOTH, son of Gamaliel, of the descent by God from the tribe of Judah, lay on his back, looking up in suspicion at the shard of stone that was poised to drop onto his throat. Like any good tunnel builder, he knew not to make a sudden move or to continue chipping at the stone until he was certain that such a move wouldn’t bring a rockslide down on his head. The evil-looking shard, more like a dagger than a stone, was pointed like a needle, and could—no, would—do him great harm if it dropped and speared him.
Matanyahu’s experience told him that if he hit the rock in the wrong way it would dislodge and fall, piercing his throat and probably killing him in the process. In the days of his father, Naboth, son of Gamaliel, a tunnel builder called Ezekiel of
blessed memory had been carried out from a tunnel when a similar shard had fallen from a roof and pierced his eye; he’d died in agony a week afterward, and Matanyahu, although only a boy at the time, could still remember the poor man’s screams.
Blinking the dust from his eyes, he maneuvered himself so that if his next hammer blow dislodged the shard, it would land away from his body. He realized he was sweating despite the cool of the tunnel and the constant wetness from the underground river.
Matanyahu hammered a seam in the rock and clenched his eyes shut as the dust fell away into his face. He rolled over onto his shoulder, spat dust from his mouth, and then brought the hammer back, poised to strike again. But he hesitated. It was going to be a long day. He called out to the slaves nearby hauling rubble.
“Sing. Sing a song of King David, so that the Lord Almighty guides my hammer and my chisel, and the rock comes off without killing me.”
Matanyahu continued to hit the rock, and eventually the shard dislodged and fell harmlessly a cubit away from him, breaking in two. He thanked the Lord Yahweh, then he thanked Solomon for giving him the job of building the tunnel that ran along an old water pathway from the top of the city of Jerusalem, all the way to the bottom, where it watered the crops of the farmers who fed the city.
Solomon! Solomon the Wise! Just two days earlier, King Solomon had made a surprise visit to the tunnel; Matanyahu had no idea he was visiting or he’d have prepared an offering. One moment the tunnel builder was on his back, covered in filth and debris and dust. The next moment he saw a man in rich garments lying beside him, asking him questions.
To his eternal shame, half-blinded by dust, Matanyahu snapped, “Fool of a man, this is dangerous work. Get out of here immediately or I’ll tell King Solomon.”
The fool of a man laughed, and said, “Then you’d better tell me now how stupid I am!”
Solomon continued laughing while Matanyahu stammered apologies. But the king waved him off and commended him on the excellent progress of his work.
In preparation for the building of the temple, Solomon had ordered the construction of a tunnel, expanding the watercourse that ran underneath his city of Jerusalem to the source of water at the top of the hill where the pagan building sat. And Matanyahu was just the man to build such a tunnel. He loved the dark and the damp. His wife said he was mad and ridiculed him to all the others, but when he came home after a day of chipping away at the rocks and ordering his slaves to carry out the debris and dump it into the valley—after being drenched in the ever-flowing water or sprayed by the drips that dropped from the roof of the tunnel—he walked into his house and he was cool, while his wife was pink from the heat. She might ridicule him, but she spent these summer days in exhaustion. Yes, he was dirty, but as a tunnel builder he could afford a plentiful supply of water from the well, and his servants knew to have clean towels to wash and wipe his face and body, his arms and legs. So when they sat for their meal he would be clean and cool, while his wife, she who ridiculed him, would still be pink and hot. And he would smile smugly to himself.
But those thoughts were for tonight. He still had a complete day of work to do. And that meant hacking away at the rocks on top and to the sides of the tunnel, which had been built by the Jebusites to fetch their water.
In years long past David, king of the north and south of Israel, had captured the city of Jebus from the Jebusites. His captain had secretly climbed this watercourse from the valley, under the impenetrable walls, and opened the gates. It was one of the last of the Jebusite cities to be conquered by the Israelites, but this was the important one, for it sat on the border separating the
ten tribes of Israel in the north from the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south, and David needed to show he was king of all Israel.
David himself had been forbidden by God from building a temple on top of the mountain called Moriah; this task fell to his son, Solomon, and it had become his driving mission to rid his land of the shrine to the child-eating gods Ba’al and Moloch. Yahweh had to replace them on the top of the sacred mountain.
The worshippers of those stone gods were long gone, but still their pagan building remained because the priests of the Israelites refused to allow any Jew to step onto land where pagan worship had been exercised. So the building remained, and Solomon’s dream of a vast temple—a source of power and glory, of wealth and fame, built to the exaltation of Yahweh and himself—remained unfulfilled.
EVEN THOUGH HE HATED THEM as the enemy of King David, Matanyahu had to admit that the ancient tunnel builders had done a first-class job in extending what must have been a natural watercourse into somewhere that slaves could easily ascend and descend beyond the walls of the city to fetch their masters’ water.
But the family of merchants who had been sanctioned by King Solomon to collect taxes to build his temple when the priests allowed it had also been told to raise money for the extension and widening of this tunnel. For King Solomon the Wise had determined that the people of the city of Jerusalem needed a secure source of water if the city was under siege, and so he had ordered Matanyahu and his slaves to improve what the ancient inhabitants of Jebus had done.
The work was filthy, dangerous, well paid, and he loved it. What Matanyahu enjoyed most was being in a place where he could see his work improve every single day. The more he banged and chiseled, the larger and more amenable the tunnel became. Where once he’d crouched, now he could stand. In the seven months he and a few other master stonemasons had been hacking away, they’d extended the tunnel remarkably, and the year they’d estimated it would take could actually be revised down to months. It wasn’t pleasant work to be wet all the day long, but it certainly was better than being in the fields tending sheep, with ravenous foxes and wolves and lions constantly on the prowl, and a desert wind screaming in his ears, blowing sand into every opening God had made into a man’s body.
At the beginning of his life, as a boy of seven, he’d been a shepherd, and all day, every day, he’d take his sheep from their pen beyond Jerusalem’s walls, down into the valley where the thin but constant river that flowed from the Spring of Gihon ensured vegetation. He’d watch them drink, frolic, eat, and at the end of the day he’d round them up and put them back in their pen so that the guard ensured no wolves or foxes took one. And that was what he did the following day and the day after.
At the age of twelve, he’d been given by his father as a bonded apprentice to a metalworker in return for his food and lodging, and spent years building and lighting and tending the furnace so that his master could heat the iron, then beat it, then heat it—day in and day out.
So when his father, Naboth of blessed memory, died, he suddenly found himself free to pursue a profession he’d chosen himself. He would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a tunnel builder. First he became a rock cutter, then a mason, and then after the death of King David, in the reign of the blessed King Solomon the Wise, he’d specialized in tunnels. Few wanted to do this work. Most were afraid of the dark and the damp. Some told fantastic stories of the collapse of the tunnels and men dying
in the dark and cold, starving to death before they could be rescued. But Matanyahu trusted his hands and his tools. The rock was familiar, like an old friend, and he had an instinct of when a rockfall might take place and knew how to avoid it.
And he had one other blessing that he knew would protect him from any harm. In his pocket was a seal, a precious stone that a scribe had faithfully inscribed—a seal that he carried with him at all times, and which, the moment he reached the top of the shaft, he’d place on a ledge so that God Almighty and all Israelites who passed to collect their water would know of his work and devotion, and he would be blessed in the afterlife. He’d done this on every tunnel and on top of every building he’d ever constructed. It was Matanyahu’s way of ensuring that Yahweh God knew of his work as a great builder when he died and ascended into the heavens for judgment.
Meanwhile, he had many cubits of rock to cut that day, and his slaves were waiting patiently, sitting in the cold tunnel below him, some with their feet in the stream of water, others resting before their backbreaking work began, and others still eating their rations. Lying on his back in the cramped area directly beneath the roof, a cloth covering his face to protect him from the dust and debris, Matanyahu began to seek out a fault or an edge that he could use to begin chiseling. Provided he hit to his left or his right, then chips or lumps of rock or even boulders that were dislodged wouldn’t fall on him. But that shard of rock pointing at his throat had frightened him.
October 16, 2007
THE PAIN IN HIS SHOULDER and his leg was excruciating. He gasped in shallow breaths because breathing hurt. It was like being hit repeatedly with a hammer. Bilal’s eyes were nearly
blinded by sweat, but he had to get out of the glare of the arc lights that were shining on him. He distantly heard voices screaming at him to stay still, not to move, throw down his backpack, put his arms on the back of his head.
His fury made him crawl toward the beginning of the shaft, away from the temple wall, out of the burning lights of the Jews. Another gunshot rang out beside his head, kicking up dust, which clung to his sweating cheeks.
“Stop right there!” shouted a voice in Arabic over a bullhorn. “Remain still, or the next shot will be at your head. Keep still! If you move, you will be shot dead. Stay still!”
But he crawled on, and soon his aching head and torso were already over the top of the tunnel. He heard more gunshots and felt a searing pain in his leg. His hands were too weak to grip the treads of the ladder, his arms gave way, and he tumbled down the well, screaming in agony.
Bilal landed in a crumpled heap at the foot of the steel ladder, the one that took visitors up to the base of the temple wall. The fall and the bullet wounds made him cry in pain. A part of his mind remembered his mission, and if he was going to die as a martyr, he would die blowing up the tunnel and the walls and bring the whole festering Jewish building down on top of him.
Somehow, despite the pain in his shoulder and arm and his leg, he managed to bring the backpack around to his front, and he took out one of the bombs. He smiled bitterly when he thought of the damage it would cause; he hoped that Jews would be up top, looking down, and they would die too.
Bilal tried to wipe the sweat from his eyes, but all he managed to do was to rub specks of dirt into them, causing him to blink furiously. It didn’t matter. He’d soon be in paradise.
He held his breath and prayed once more to Allah, telling his God that he would be with him shortly. Then, thinking of his mother and father, he pressed the button on the ignition switch
that would explode the bomb in the backpack. He smiled as he felt the button move. But then he suddenly remembered that the bomb was activated by a timer, and all he would do was set off the primer. His last words were a prayer for salvation.
The flash burned his back and the hair on his head. It made a huge noise, and some mud and dirt and rocks came falling down from the roof of the cave. It pushed him from a sitting position onto the filth of the ground. He grasped the stones that fell beside him. He looked up and wondered how that could have happened, how he could still feel stones in his hand. There should have been seventy-two virgins . . . and where were the green fields? Then he fainted.
BILAL LAY THERE SHIVERING, wet with sweat, his face a mask of terror. Like a fox, his eyes darting this way and that, never once meeting the eyes of the soldier, policewoman, or ambulance driver who’d brought him to the emergency room. Handcuffed to the bed, Bilal had wet himself, and the smell of urine rose above the aroma of antiseptic, making people who were close by stop, sniff the air, and turn toward him.
The young policewoman looked at him in disgust. She’d been the first to notice the yellow stain spreading outward from his crotch to dirty the thin white bedsheet that covered him. As he was carried out of the tunnel at the base of Herod’s Temple, just moments after they’d challenged and then shot him, they’d covered him in a thermal body blanket to reflect his body warmth and treat him for his wounds so that he wouldn’t die in the shadow of the monumental walls. It had been removed when he reached the hospital.
A doctor came running down the corridor with a sense of urgency and pulled aside the curtain. She looked exhausted. The
policewoman, Dorit, assumed that she’d been on duty all night and probably most of the previous day. That was how they treated young doctors.
“My name’s Yael. Who’s this?” said the doctor.
“Says his name is Bilal. That’s all he’ll tell us, except to say that he’s a Palestinian freedom fighter, blah blah blah, the usual bullshit. You know the rest.”
“He killed a guard, climbed up David’s tunnel carrying four bombs in a backpack, and tried to enter the area of the Kotel. He was going to place the bombs at the base of the wall and blow up Haredi later this morning when they came to shaharit prayers. Stupid bastard. As if—”
“He wouldn’t stop when he first emerged from the tunnel, so our snipers shot him in the arm.”
The doctor carried out a cursory examination to determine the size and extent of his wounds, and saw that he’d sustained burns and abrasions to his back, his neck, and his head. None was life-threatening, but initial triage to stanch the bleeding and the pressure bandages applied to his wounds by the ambulance paramedics needed to be fixed properly.
“What happened here?” asked Yael, pointing to his neck and head. “And here?” she said, indicating his wounded leg.
“The shot to his arm didn’t stop him, so our guys were forced to take him down again, this time in the leg; but he’s a tough little bastard and somehow he managed to crawl back into the tunnel. He detonated one of the bombs but only the detonator cap exploded, which scorched his back and neck. Lots of smoke in the tunnel, and a bit of the rock work came down, but no real damage.”
Yael nodded and turned her attention to the young man. She looked at his face, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes. A sudden loathing suffused her and threatened to overwhelm her years of medical training: Ignore the person, treat the body.
But he was a kid who’d tried to kill a congregation of religious Jews, and now he’d spend the rest of his life in prison. If, of course, she managed to save his life. She asked him in Arabic, “Bilal, are you allergic to penicillin or any antibiotics? Before I prep you for surgery to remove the bullets, I have to give you an injection to stop any infection. Do you understand?”
Surprised that he heard his language coming out of the Jew doctor’s mouth, he turned and looked at her. She was tall and slender and quite beautiful. She had big eyes and long, black hair.
Yael took a half step back. She’d experienced this kind of look before and expected him to spit in her face.
“Understand me, son. If I give you an injection and you suffer an allergic reaction, it could be very dangerous for you. Now, Bilal, for your own sake, tell me: Are you allergic to antibiotics? Yes or no?”
“Why bother?” asked Dorit in Arabic. “If it kills him, it kills him. Seventy-two virgins! Inshallah! Right, kid?”
Suddenly confused, Bilal turned to the policewoman, then to the doctor. And he could feel fear rise inside him. How had it all gone so wrong? The imam’s plan had been meticulous. Before he set out, he’d been blessed. He’d been told that he was going to be a shahid and his rewards would be in the afterlife. But now he was in a Jew hospital surrounded by Jews speaking Arabic—his language—getting ready to use a knife. He’d been told they took organs to sell on the black market and used the blood of Arab children to make their bread. Or was it Christian blood? The morphine that the ambulance officer had given him had made him feel secure and happy until now. Suddenly fear was taking over.
“Fuck you!” he sneered at the two Jews in front of him.
Dorit shrugged and nodded to Yael. “I’ll leave you to it. I’ll be in the cafeteria. He’s going nowhere. Here are the keys to the handcuffs; just make sure that he’s properly anesthetized before you undo them.” She slipped them into the doctor’s gown pocket. Then she and the ambulance man left the cubicle.
Yael watched them go, then turned her attention to the kid.
“Okay, Bilal. As I said before, I’m Yael. I’m a trauma surgeon. You’re going into the theater now, and I’ll remove the bullets and stitch up the damage they’ve done. From the bleeding and your blood pressure, I think they’ve probably hit some minor arteries, but not major ones, so you’re lucky. We’ll take a blood sample, cross-match you for compatibility, and then tomorrow morning you’ll wake up feeling drowsy.”
Bilal turned his face away and clenched his eyes against the pain. Yael deftly inserted the needle and within moments his eyelids relaxed as he slipped back into unconsciousness. Yael continued to examine his wounds as the nurses swabbed and then inserted lines into his arm for the anesthetic and painkillers, and a tube into his penis to collect his urine. And as she looked carefully at the wound in his arm, Yael saw that Bilal’s left hand was tightly clamped. Now that he had drifted into narcotized sleep, she forced his hand open, concerned that it might be hiding some form of explosive. But it was just full of dust and debris, presumably from the tunnel where he’d exploded the detonator cap.
Yael picked up a metal bedpan and brushed the stones and dust from his hand. As the debris fell, she heard the clank of something solid hitting the metal bowl. Sifting through the debris, she found that it wasn’t a rock at all but some kind of colored stone, maybe marble, the size of a large pebble, with faded writing on it. She picked it up, dusted it, and held it close.
It was obviously old—very old. She blew on what she now observed was a semiprecious stone, possibly quartz or lapis. She took a bottle of distilled water and squeezed a thin jet of liquid over the face of the object, which revealed the glassy, iridescent original. The fluid exposed ancient words and symbols, but the comatose body of Bilal in front of her made her slip the stone into her pocket.
She noticed the theater nurse looking at her strangely. “What was that?” she asked.
Without consciously choosing to lie, Yael found herself answering, “What? Um, nothing.”
The nurse gave her a curious look, but Yael quickly returned her attention to Bilal. She knew the theater nurse was a stickler for rules but hoped that she wouldn’t question a senior surgeon.
As she set her hands to work checking Bilal’s vitals and intravenous line, she felt her ire rise once more. This kid had tried to kill innocent people praying at the Western Wall. Those people would have been Orthodox Jews, devout and dedicated. In truth, she didn’t have much time for ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredi, and she never prayed herself. God was a faraway and unprovable abstract idea to her scientific mind. Her culture and her country were Western and modern and she didn’t like the direction in which the hard-line ultra-religious Jews were dragging Israel. But that was politics, not blood and murder, and she bit her lip and concentrated on saving Bilal’s life.
Ensuring that he was now prepped for surgery, she readied herself for scrubbing up and entering the theater. But before she left the prep room, she glanced out the window. She saw in the distance the panorama of the Old City, resplendent and eternal within its ancient stone walls. There was the Muslim golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock, built on top of where once stood the Jewish temples of Solomon and of Herod; there the Tower of David and there the gray-blue dome of the Christians’ Church of the Holy Sepulcher, beside the Via Dolorosa, route of the Jewish Christ’s last agony. Three of the holiest sites to the three great monotheistic religions, dedicated to peace and harmony and the love of the Almighty; yet the site of some of the greatest crimes of humanity committed by fervent men in the name of a peace-loving god.
And she looked at Bilal, the latest fanatic in the army of madmen who believed in their absolute right to kill all those who disagreed with them. It was her job as a secular, nonreligious Jew—a doctor trained to the highest levels of professionalism in
one of the world’s greatest hospitals—to ensure that he didn’t die. She felt aware of the strangeness and stupidity of it all as she felt in her pocket for the key to his handcuffs. And as she did, her fingers found the semiprecious stone she’d retrieved from Bilal’s clenched fingers.
October 17, 2007
IN ANY OTHER CITY it would have caused people to turn and stare. But in Jerusalem it was part of the tapestry of Israel, a country where Jews of many different sects walked side by side with Christians of all colors and creeds representing a plethora of beliefs, watched by Muslims resolute in the belief that their version of the Prophet’s heritage was the truth. And all of these zealous believers were ignored by thousands of irreligious men and women wearing the latest fashions, speaking on their iPhones, or engaged in heated discussions about politics or current events.
So when a middle-aged man wearing a business suit and a white shirt open at the neck sat on a park bench with another man dressed like the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century denizen of the backstreets of a Polish village, in the uniform of the ultra-religious Jews known as Haredi, few turned and stared. Those who did were hardly surprised by the elderly rabbi’s clothes or by the other man’s strip of white hair that ran from his crown to the back of his head, surrounded by graying hair on his temple, making him look as though he had a skunk sitting on his head.
The two men nodded as they spoke, their heads close together to the point of almost touching, and from a distance it looked as though they were whispering in each other’s ears.
They were seated on a bench in the middle of Sacher Park, one of the most popular green spaces in Jerusalem. The park—a long and thin stretch of verdant sanctuary separating the suburbs
of Nachlaot and Rechavia, and close to the center of government power in the Knesset and the Supreme Court—was a magnet for families, lovers, and workers on their lunchtime break.
But neither Eliahu Spitzer, dressed like a twenty-first-century business executive, nor Reb Shmuel Telushkin, in the black hat and frock coat of the ultra-religious Jew, was there because it was lunchtime, and certainly not because of any notion of passing the time of day. The two men, one in his late fifties and the elderly rabbi in his late seventies, were discussing the recent attempt to destroy the Western Wall, the Kotel of King Herod’s Temple, and Bilal’s failed attempt to kill a dozen Jews in particular.
“And?” asked the rabbi.
“Too early to say,” said Spitzer, deputy director of the Arab Affairs department for Israel’s internal security agency, Sherut haBitachon haKlali, or Shin Bet, as it was known to spy agencies throughout the world. Not many outside of Israel knew of Shin Bet, though its high-profile sister organization, Mossad, responsible for external security, was famous and feared by terrorists. But Israel had just as many people wanting to kill Jews inside the country and its territories as it did in the rest of the world.
Spitzer unscrewed the cap on his bottle of water and swallowed a mouthful. The elderly rabbi watched him with careful eyes.
“But do you think he could have got through?” asked the old man.
Eliahu shook his head. “He wasn’t meant to. The police and the guards knew about him. The death of the guard was my miscalculation.”
The old rabbi sighed. “The boy remains alive.”
“True,” said Eliahu. “I had a man there to finish the task, but there was no opportunity.”
“This was not how it was meant to be.” The rabbi waggled a reproachful finger at Spitzer.
“The boy knows nothing.”
“But while he’s alive, Eliahu, he remains a threat to us.”
“It will be taken care of,” Spitzer told the rabbi, who simply shrugged and got slowly to his feet.
They parted, the rabbi to get a taxi back to Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox part of Jerusalem where he lived, Eliahu Spitzer to stroll back to his office ten blocks away.
He walked slower these days than before his massive heart attack three years earlier. Had he been less fit, there’s no doubt that the infarction would have killed him. But as a Shin Bet field operative, he was strong, healthy, and muscular. His problem was the fatty meats he ate and the diet of cigarettes smoked during a stress-laden day secretly convincing Palestinian youths to become covert Israeli agents.
The heart attack had been caught before it was catastrophic and the quintuple bypass saved his life. Few outside his circle of friends and family would have known of his brush with death; the only outward sign had been the stripe of white hair on top of his head, where once it had been gray and black.
As he approached the Knesset building, he shook his head in sadness. He’d once so admired Israeli democracy that he’d brought his fourteen-year-old daughter, Shoshanna, there so that he could explain the Byzantine ways of Israel’s parliament to her. As he walked past the building, the hideous memory train restarted. Kissing her good-bye at the bus stop, seeing her climb on board with her other excited friends contemplating a school trip to the Dead Sea and Masada, her angelic face in the window waving him and his wife good-bye, turning and heading toward their car to drive home, the massive explosion that had blown them off their feet and deafened them. The screams, feet pounding, parents hysterical, Eliahu trying to claw people out of the way to get to the bus—and the anger and hatred and sorrow and grief that became their lives forever after.
But it was a memory train that he had to drive, to control, or it would take control of him. So he did what his psychiatrist had
trained him to do: he forced himself to think of Shoshanna as a child in their garden, digging with him as he planted a vegetable patch, and sitting on his knee, hugging him as he read her Dr. Seuss. And the train slowed and came to a halt as he smiled at the warmth of his beloved Shoshanna and walked past the walls where great Jewish temples had once stood, back to his office.
942 BCE, the month of Elul
THE SHUFFLE OF SANDALS on the stone behind him told the king that somebody was approaching. He knew who it was. There was no need for him even to turn. The smell of incense on the man’s tunic told him enough.
“Three years I’ve been waiting. Must I wait any longer?”
Azariah, the high priest, responded calmly, well used to such frustrated ranting from the king. “The king of Tyre has agreed to the supply of wood from Lebanon and craftsmen for the new temple, Your Majesty, but the old fox didn’t make their time of arrival known.”
Solomon’s eyes remained fixed on the mountain before him.
“Only the men of Jerusalem know how to cut the stone. Massive stones for my temple. But such work needs timber and labor. And so I am kept waiting.”
The king turned suddenly to face his priests. The lesser priest cast his eyes to the stone floor. The high priest looked steadily at Solomon.
“God and his temple are kept waiting for want of trees,” Solomon sighed. Then he cursed under his breath. He looked out into the distance, away from the sight of the proposed temple. Watchmen had been standing on the tops of five mountains running into the distant northwest toward Lebanon, armed with polished
discs of metal to reflect the sun’s rays one to the other and send a warning, long in advance, of the arrival of the woodworkers from Sidon and Tyre, with their tools and implements and the vast amount of cedar he would need for the construction.
Solomon closed his eyes and imagined he could already hear the sounds of construction: of the cutting of the wood with saws and adzes; of the chipping of the stone blocks to ensure a precise fit, one abutting the other; of the polishing and sanding of the roughness so that it was perfect.
“The delay is costing me a fortune. Every day, every week, every year the temple remains unfinished means I am a lesser king in the eyes of those on our borders. We lose trade, respect, and money.”
The high priest suppressed a sneer. “The temple is for the glory of our god, Yahweh, Solomon. It will be built when I say it will be built, and not a moment before or after. And when it is built, my king, it will be on land that is clean for Jews to stand upon, pristine for the use of the Lord. It will be perfect. We will fire clay into beautiful tiles and they will line the inner sanctum in which will reside the most holy of holies, the Aron Kodesh, the Ark of the Covenant, the agreement made between Father Moses and his people in the Sinai. All of these things, my king, will come to pass when I say that the time is right. But one thing I tell you, Solomon, and that is that no Israelite will set foot on that terrible place until the men of Lebanon have pulled down the hated temple and I have cleansed it with our sacred rituals. Not one Israelite, Majesty!”
Solomon looked at his high priest in anger but knew that if he were to move against him, Azariah would bring the entire priesthood crashing down on his head, and then the people would revolt. So, despite his power, he felt at that moment like the most powerless of kings.
But how could he wait longer for what he most desired? For years the Ark had been a site of veneration and worship, but
in a temporary house; now, soon, it would have its own home. Then the Lord God of Israel would have His own dwelling place, His Shekinah, and He would be pleased. And Solomon would be pleased and more trade would begin, and Solomon’s prestige would expand.
“I should just send my soldiers up to the mount and pull the foul thing down with ropes and iron,” Solomon said in anger and weariness.
“My lord, I will curse any Israelite who steps onto that land. You know this cannot be so,” said Azariah. “The sons of Zadok the Blessed have decreed the land profane. No Hebrew is to set foot on the mountain until strangers have destroyed its blasphemy—”
Solomon cut him off. “Stone by stone, pebble by pebble, until the mountain is again bare and naked before the eyes of the Lord. All I have to do is command, and it will be done!”
Azariah shook his head wearily. “That is not the way, my king. The ground must be cleansed. God has willed it so.”
“And it seems you have the monopoly on God’s will.”
But despite his rebuke that bordered on blasphemy, Solomon knew that the high priest was right: for though he was beloved by his people and admired for his wisdom, all of the Hebrew people would obey the high priest. The power of the priesthood’s curses for those who transgressed held more sway than all the whips and swords in Solomon’s army.
He had waited with growing impatience for years, and his many wives kept chastising him, reminding Solomon that he was the king, that all knelt before him, and that it was his right to order the priests to obey his commands. And the most vociferous of all, the wife who complained long and loud in his ear, was his lesser wife, Naamah the Ammonite. He had been pressured into marrying her by her father, Harun, the king of Ammon, who wanted a political alliance, and in the many years they’d been married, she had proven herself time and again as a wildly seductive and adventurous woman. No matter how many women
were available to him, somehow Naamah was always close to his bed when it was time for him to retire.
And it was Naamah, more than any other, who had urged him to pull down the pagan temple and rebuild it as God’s house, no matter what the cursed priests threatened. But Solomon was not that naïve.
Shaking off his thoughts, Solomon looked at the man who stood beside the high priest, a man named Ahimaaz. Why his daughter Basmath had married him, he couldn’t understand: the man was short of stature, had a ridiculous giggle, and rarely said anything interesting. The king seemed as though he were about to renew the discussion but stayed his words and dismissed the two priests; he would win no arguments with them today, and diminutive priests like Ahimaaz were not worth the expenditure of breath. Instead he returned to his brooding over the pagan temple, starkly outlined by the cold but brilliant moon.
AHIMAAZ AND AZARIAH, the two priestly brothers, walked in silence through the streets of the sleeping city. Ahimaaz, as a junior priest, would return to his modest house low down on the hill on which the city of Jerusalem was built, and Azariah, as high priest, would be headed to a palace just below that of King Solomon. But for now they walked together.
Ahimaaz had grown up in awe of the seeming brilliance, knowledge, and worldliness of his older brother. But as they walked he found himself questioning the wisdom of Azariah’s words.
He said softly, “Forgive me for saying this, Azariah, but I don’t think you should have spoken to Solomon like that. He will become annoyed and it could go against us.”
Azariah didn’t bother looking at Ahimaaz before saying, “And how would you have spoken to him?”
“I would have explained to him the reasons we’re not allowing anybody to build the temple until it’s been cleansed.”
“Is that not what I did? As I said to him two days ago, and last week, and two weeks before that. I have been telling him since I made the decree. It’s not that he doesn’t understand, brother; it’s that he doesn’t want to understand.”
“Our job as priests of the temple, by our descent from the line of Zadok, is to ensure that the worship of Yahweh is conducted properly, purely, and by all. Any deviation, any breaking of the rules, will weaken us.”
Ahimaaz contemplated the words of his brother and couldn’t help but wonder who Azariah meant by “us”: the people or the priesthood?
October 17, 2007
YAEL RIPPED OFF her gloves and mask as she left the theater and threw her bloodied gown into a dump bin. Dressed only in surgical shoes and a light frock, she walked briskly to the doctors’ changing room and showered. Now, dressed in modern street clothes and partly refreshed but tired after standing on her feet for four hours, she walked to the parking lot and drove the few miles from the Jerusalem Hospital in the direction of the center of the city until she reached the Israel Museum. She could have left it for a couple of days until she had more time, but she was anxious to see her grandfather again, and the object she’d taken from Bilal’s hand gave her the perfect opportunity to go to the museum.
Even though she had lunch and dinner with her grandfather regularly, she missed his gentle ways, his wisdom, his knowledge. And especially his link to her grandmother. Judit had died when
Yael’s own mother was a baby, killed by snipers when Israel was first declared a state in 1948. Yael loved hearing his stories of the old days in Russia and Germany, his work founding a kibbutz, and his training in archaeology.
She wondered what the precious stone was; she’d never have taken it to the museum had it not been for the inscription, which she recognized as ancient Hebrew writing. As she walked from the parking lot, she saw to her right the extraordinary building that housed the Dead Sea Scrolls, the roof of which was created in the shape of one of the ancient jars in which an Arab smuggler in the last days of the British mandate in 1947 had discovered the greatest treasury of biblical Jewish writings. There was a time when she would have loved little more than walking around the Shrine of the Book and the grounds of the museum. But that was a different Yael, a different life.
After passing through the metal detector and having her bag searched, Yael walked to the reception desk and announced, “I have an appointment with the director, Professor Shalman Etzion. My name is Yael Cohen.”
The receptionist looked down at her list and saw Yael’s name. She smiled and nodded, then phoned through to the director’s office. “Do you know the way?” she asked, and Yael nodded. She knew the way very well, as she had visited her grandfather here on many occasions.
Walking down the corridors, up the stairs, and along passage-ways, she breathed in the perfumes of the ages. This wasn’t public territory; the men and women who worked in these offices were working on stones and clothes, woods and metals, papers and parchments and all other types of things that hadn’t seen the light of day for thousands of years. She felt strangely nostalgic but quickly dismissed it as whimsy.
As she walked purposefully down the upper corridor, she heard a deep baritone voice behind her.
“Ms. Cohen? Yael?”
She turned to see a short, gray-haired Palestinian in a dusty cardigan. For a moment Yael didn’t recognize him, but distant memories from her youth enabled her to remember the man’s name.
The old man smiled and gave a short single nod of his head.
Mustafa was a museum expert on ancient Islamic arts and culture, respected throughout the world for his knowledge, and often appeared on television panel shows dealing with cultural issues. But to Yael in that moment he was an awkward and distant memory from childhood: a man her grandfather, Shalman, knew, a friend from times long gone, times of which her grandfather rarely spoke. They had visited Mustafa and his wife, Rabiya, when she was a child. She had played with their children. But that was a long time ago, and a lot of bullets and bombs separated that time from now. And Mustafa had told Yael, many years ago, about how Shalman had changed his life, about his sponsorship and encouragement of Mustafa’s love of archaeology. How Shalman had fought to have Mustafa accepted into the university and how he’d become a top-grade student. But rarely did the two men talk about the old days, no matter how much she pressed them to do so.
Yael looked at Mustafa and thought that perhaps she should hug him, kiss him on the cheek as she might have done as a child. But she didn’t. Childhood was her past, and the man before her was no longer a part of her present.
Instead Yael smiled and said, “It’s been a long time. Are you well?”
Mustafa shrugged and said, “I’m old, like your grandfather. We have earned our right to complain.”
Yael laughed. Grandfathers, it seemed, transcended culture.
“I have many grandchildren now, Allah be praised. But they grow up too fast. One moment you’re cuddling them on your knee, the next moment they’re helping you find your walking stick.”
“But we love them for all their faults of growing up, don’t we?” replied Yael. She struggled for what to say next, strangely awkward as she stood in front of the old Muslim after having just saved the life of Bilal, who had murdered in the name of Allah. She was almost relieved when he broke the strained moment of silence.
“You are here to see Shalman?” asked Mustafa.
“Yes,” and before she had time to think about what she was doing she added, “I’m taking him this . . .”
She took the stone out of her pocket and unwrapped it carefully, handing it over to the elderly archaeologist. He looked at it thoughtfully, turning it over in his fingers.
“This is not in my expertise; it’s not Arabic. It’s Hebrew. But it looks very interesting. Where did you find it?”
“In the hands of a Palestinian terr—” she began, but cut herself off before she completed the word. Mustafa looked at her as if he understood and slowly handed the stone back to her with a frown on his face.
“Shalman will be excited to see this.”
Yael didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing as she folded the stone away into her pocket once more.
“It is good to see you, Yael.”
“Yes.” It was all she could say.
Then the old man turned and shuffled off down the corridor.
SHE WALKED ON until she came to the outer office of Shalman’s suite, and his secretary of thirty-five years beamed a smile and walked around the desk, hugging and kissing her like a beloved daughter.
“Nu,” said Miriam, looking her up and down, “you’ve lost weight.”
“Don’t start,” Yael said with a smile. “No, I’m still not married;
no, I don’t have a boyfriend; no, I’m not joining an online dating club; no, I’m not interested in your neighbor’s son; and no, I’m not ill. I’m just busy.”
“Did I say a word?”
“You’re a Jewish mother!”
“How’ve you been? Seriously, you look tired.”
“You’d think there was a war on. We’re still packing them in, ten operations in a day. Mines, bullets, accidents. It never stops. God help us if Iran or some other basket case decides to get nasty. Peace is busy enough for trauma surgery.”
Miriam smiled. “I’d better let you go in. He’s been ringing every half hour, asking whether you’ve arrived yet.”
Yael grinned and walked to her grandfather’s office door, knocking gently. She heard his chair scraping and waited for him to open the door.
He stood there, diminutive, overweight, balding, white-haired, and pink-faced despite the cold air-conditioning, but just as beautiful as she’d always known him.
“Bubbeleh,” he said, and hugged her.
“Shalom, Shalman. How are you?”
“Now, good. An hour ago, lousy. But come. Sit. Miriam, tea. And some cookies. The chocolate cookies, not the ones you usually give me.”
“But your doctor said—” Miriam began.
“Phooey!” he said. “I’m the boss. Not him. What does he know about chocolate cookies?” He winked at Miriam, and said softly, “Miriam and my doctor conspire to stop me eating chocolate, but sometimes I’m clever and I fool them.”
“But, Zaida,” Yael said, “you know you shouldn’t . . .”
“Not from you! I have enough trouble with Miriam,” he said, grinning and holding his granddaughter’s hand as they walked into his huge office. They sat on opposite couches, the coffee table separating them.
“It’s been far too long, Yael. Why have you stayed away so long?”
“I had lunch with you three weeks ago,” she said defensively.
“In three weeks, I could have died and gone to heaven. I’m an old man, bubbeleh. Three weeks is a lifetime.”
She smiled. Her beloved grandfather Shalman was laying on a guilt trip. Why did Jews always play the guilt card? she wondered. Her mother had always laid on the guilt when Yael didn’t call her regularly. Her excuses that she was busy or out of town never cut any ice. “What?” her mother always used to say. “There aren’t any phones where you live? And why don’t you phone your mother more often? Sure you’re busy. We’re all busy. But who’s too busy to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hello, Mom’? She’s all alone in that big apartment with nothing to do except have tea with the girls. What are you, the secretary-general of the United Nations, you’re so busy?”
Yael didn’t let the guilt trip bother her, but she suddenly felt sad, sitting in Shalman’s office, conjuring images of her grandmother, Shalman’s wife, all based on photographs taken with an ancient Kodak. But she had died before Yael was born, when Yael’s own mother was a baby, so all she really had of her were a couple of indistinct photographs and the narratives from other people. Yael’s sadness was because her grandfather had been so devoted that he’d spent the rest of his life in almost perpetual mourning.
Shalman was looking at her, waiting for a response. “I’m just so busy,” said Yael apologetically. “The hospital, my work. What can I say?”
Shalman looked at her sternly. “You can say that you’ll have lunch with me every two weeks. Is that too much? You’re all I have left in the world, darling, and—”
“Bullshit, Zaida!” she said in exasperation. “You think nobody knows about you and Miriam? Or five years ago, you and Beckie? Or before her, that research assistant—”
He put his finger to his lips, and motioned to the roof. “Shush! You want your blessed grandmother aleha ha-shalom to hear what I’ve been up to since she died? God rest her beloved soul.”
Yael looked at the old man with a depth of affection, part granddaughterly, part maternal; she loved him so much, but his loneliness was of his own choosing.
“Why didn’t you marry again after Judit was killed? You were a young man. You had a young daughter. Yet you never married.”
He looked at her mischievously. “I had lots of good times with ladies. Why should I upset so many by choosing just one?”
“C’mon, Zaida. We all know about your affairs. But why didn’t you marry? Seriously!”
The old man