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 shrugged. “After your grandmother . . .”
He shook his head sadly. There was no need for him to finish the thought. It was eloquent testimony to Judit’s extraordinary qualities. Yael only wished she could have known her as she knew Shalman.
Then the twinkle came back into his eye, and he said, “Yael, darling, love is blind, but marriage is an eye-opener. Why get married again when I was looking after your mother and dozens of women felt sorry for me?”
Yael burst out laughing. She loved his irreverence with all her heart. But there was always something in his eyes when he made such jokes, and Yael had often found herself wondering if it wasn’t a façade hiding some deeper, long-forgotten event. From the time she’d first begun inquiring about her family’s history, her mother’s mother, Judit, had always been spoken of with reverence—too much reverence—and to her young and inquisitive mind it always seemed as though her grandfather and her mother were trying to hide something from her.
Miriam reentered with a tray of tea and chocolate cookies and set it down on the coffee table.
“I think I can make up for your disappointment in me. I have a gift for you. I think it’s very old, but I’m not sure it’s anything important . . .”
“Oh, yes?” Shalman said with a raised eyebrow.
Yael drew the object from her coat pocket and placed it unceremoniously on the table, wrapped as it was in a bandage taken casually from the hospital. Shalman wrinkled his nose as if fearing the swaddled object might be some macabre hospital souvenir or practical joke—a severed finger, or worse . . .
“What’s this?” he asked quizzically.
“Not sure. Probably nothing. Something for your collection of historical tidbits. Maybe just a peace offering,” replied Yael with a smile.
Shalman gingerly began to unwrap the object, his curiosity piqued. Yael turned her gaze to the window and unconsciously changed topic.
“So I thought we might go out for lunch. I can make time. Beautiful day outside . . .”
Shalman suddenly cut her off. “Where did you get this?”
Yael turned back to see the small object unwrapped on the table and Shalman’s eyes wide and staring at her.
“It was in the hands of a Palestinian kid who tried to blow up the Haredi at the Kotel. The police shot him, arm and leg, and—”
“Where?” Shalman cut her off sharply. “Where did he find it?”
“He tried to explode a bomb underground, near to the entrance to Warren’s Shaft—King David’s tunnel.”
Shalman leapt to his feet, holding the object tenderly in his hands, retreating to his desk to examine the stone more carefully. Yael continued the story, although she doubted that her grandfather was still listening.
“Only the detonator cap went off, thank God. But it must have brought down some masonry. Anyway, he was brought in unconscious for me to operate on, and I found that in his hand.”
Shalman studied the object methodically yet held it like a newly delivered granddaughter. He read the inscription, turned it over, turned it back again to reread. Then he viewed the sides, then the reverse, then the obverse; then he reread the inscription, then he turned it over and then over again.
Yael realized that she’d been holding her breath and was surprised at herself. She wanted to ask what he was thinking, but knew to keep silent.
Finally Shalman looked up at her and smiled. “You have . . .” He couldn’t continue. She was surprised by the emotion in his voice.
Holding the object, he stood from his desk and walked over to his library, taking one book, then another, flicking over some pages but not really looking. Instead, energized, he walked to the window and continued to look at the object that the Palestinian boy had grasped with a handful of dirt just before he blacked out.
Yael sat there in fascination, wondering whether it was her grandfather’s usual sense of exaggeration or something else.
“Well?” she asked after what seemed like minutes of silence.
Instead of answering, Shalman bellowed, “Miriam!”
Suddenly the door flew open. “Fetch Mordecai. And Zvi. And Sheila. And fetch Mustafa . . . he’d be fascinated by this. And . . . oh, hell. Fetch everybody! Now! Immediately! Go! I don’t care if they’re in a meeting. Go! You’re still there. Why? Go!”
“What?” asked Yael.
Shalman shrugged, suddenly coy. “What do you think it is?”
“Don’t play games, Shalman.”
“No game. I want to know. What do you think it is?”
“If you don’t tell me what it is, I’ll take it to the Bible Museum.”
“Don’t even joke! Treasure hunters and publicity hounds. Amateur mamzers!” He motioned with a theatrical gesture for Yael to come over to the light of the window. On the sill, there was a magnifying glass. Holding the stone, he turned it slowly, lowered his voice to a reverential whisper, and said softly, “It’s a seal, of a mason from Solomon’s Temple, when he was building the underground walls. It’s perfect. It’s intact. It’s wonderful . . . I’ve never . . . didn’t even think that in my life . . .”
“That’s it? A seal? You’ve got to get out more often, Shalman, and get some perspective.” It might have been a casual joke, but again the words were harsher from her lips than she intended them to be. She turned away from the window.
Yael turned suddenly when she heard a gasp from the doorway. Shalman also turned and saw Miriam still standing there, looking on in rapt attention.
“Go! Now! Bring them all.”
He turned back to Yael, and calmed himself down. “It says, ‘I, Matanyahu, son of Naboth, son of Gamaliel, have built this tunnel for the glory of my king, Solomon the Wise, in the twenty-second year of his reign.’ ”
Yael turned back to face her grandfather; she’d never seen his face so luminous. He’d always been a lovely old man to her, but now he looked zealous, electrified.
“I have to get Zvi to give an exact translation—not just the words, but their meaning, the nuance, but I’m pretty sure . . .”
Yael stared at him lovingly, the significance of what he had just said not lost on her. Shalman’s thin voice shifted register into his “lecture voice.”
“Let me try to explain . . . The tunnel builder, Matanyahu, son of Naboth, son of Gamaliel, mounted it somehow onto the wall so that everybody who passed by climbing up the tunnel would see it and know who’d built it. And God would know that he built it.” Shalman stopped and faced Yael directly with a smile. “Or something like that.” He lowered the object. “Over the millennia it must have got covered up by dirt or mud or something. But after three thousand years, to know the name of the man who built the tunnel under David’s city . . .”
Suddenly there was the sound of footsteps approaching quickly. The door flew open, and two elderly archaeologists rushed into the room.
“A seal!” shouted one.
“From the First Temple,” said the other.
Furious at being upstaged, Shalman yelled in fury, “Miriam, why did the Almighty give you such a big mouth?”
IT WAS ALWAYS DANGEROUS, but Yael’s life was so pressured that the moment she felt the vibration, she picked up her phone, one eye on the frenetic traffic ahead of her, the other eye on the illuminated screen, and quickly read the words of the text message.
It was a request that she return to the hospital as quickly as possible. That meant one of three things, or maybe all three at the same time: one, an urgent new case, somebody who needed surgery immediately; two, one of her patients was in postoperative trouble; or three, the chief surgeon was being pressured by the hospital administration to achieve some sort of new efficiency and he needed Yael’s help to frame a response telling them to go to hell but without upsetting them too much.
She was on her way back from the Israel Museum anyway; she always returned, even for half an hour, to check personally on the recovery of all her patients before quitting for the night. Pulling into the parking lot, she wondered which of the three usual summonses it would be this time—or maybe there’d be a fourth that the bureaucrats had suddenly invented to ensure that the doctors knew who was running the hospital and who was paying the salaries. It was all so infantile, and so typical of Israeli bureaucracy—another reason why Yael had declined the past two promotions she’d been offered from the hospital, preferring instead to do what she loved most and not accepting more money for a new level of administrative responsibility.
Walking quickly toward her boss’s office, she nodded to the secretary and went straight in.
“So, what’s up?”
Pinkus Harber was only ten years older than Yael but looked as if he could be her grandfather. Like Yael, he had no life outside of the hospital. Twice divorced, with four kids who lived elsewhere, he was the archetypal obsessive personality who’d driven himself into the ground. She adored him, as he adored her, and once, in a reception at the hospital, he’d tried to get too friendly and she’d deflected any hope he may once have harbored about a relationship. But it hadn’t affected their professional or personal bond, and they remained both valued colleagues and dear friends.
“Your last patient, the Palestinian kid . . .”
Yael waited for the bad news.
“We have to go in again. He was doing fine in recovery, but then an hour after we took him back into the ward, his BP suddenly dropped massively and we had to pump him full of adrenaline. We nearly lost him. One of his major arteries must have bled.”
Yael frowned and recalled every moment of the four hours she’d spent repairing his body. She shook her head in surprise. “No, not possible. There were no major arteries. He was incredibly lucky. The bullets missed all the biggies and only minor ones were lacerated. I fixed them up. I checked his BP after the closure, and it was fine and rising. It’s something else—gotta be.”
Pinkus shrugged. “What?”
“Dunno, but it couldn’t be from surgery. I didn’t miss anything. I didn’t go into his body cavity or his chest or anything like that. I don’t think we should reopen him—not yet. Let’s just observe him for the next twenty-four hours and keep him on meds and support and see what happens. I suppose you’ve ordered close observations,” she said. “Have we got a reading on his iron yet?”
“Very low. Probably thalassemia. He’s got a huge hemoglobin count and a low red cell count, so I’ve ordered a profile.”
“Do you think it could be something else?” she asked.
“He wouldn’t have gone into shock after the operation because of his thalassemia. Half of the Arabs suffer from it. No, it’s something else. But I agree that we can afford observations for twenty-four hours rather than schlep him back into surgery. Oh, and there’s one more thing . . .”
The look on his face told her that it wasn’t good news. She waited for him to speak again.
“His blood group . . . AB negative . . . very rare, of course. We have a supply shortage. Donations are almost impossible. I know that we can use a negative, but . . . what I mean is . . .”
Yael shook her head, knowing exactly where this was going. AB negative blood types accounted for only one percent of the Israeli population. She herself was one of the very, very few in the country, which was why she was always called upon, every four months, to donate some of her blood.
“No way. No damn way. I sweated blood for him for four hours. I’m not giving him any more, especially my actual blood. Anyway, fill him up with universal O neg. He’ll be fine.”
“Not sure if I want to risk it if he’s suffering from thalassemia. He’s been through trauma, and I’m concerned about an adverse reaction. Better for him to have AB negative. And that’s where we have a problem, because of supply shortages.”
“Isn’t there . . .”
Pinkus shook his head slowly.
“Anywhere?” she asked.
Again he shook his head. “We’ve phoned Tel Aviv, Haifa, everywhere. It’s in such short supply.”
Yael sighed. “My damn mazel. That’s all I need. An Arab with my blood group.”
Pinkus grinned. “Israel is the land of coincidence.”
By the time she returned to the intensive care unit, Bilal was stabilized, but she knew just by looking at him that the pallor of his skin and the deflated nature of his body meant that he was on life support. Again she searched her mind for something she’d missed when she was operating inside his body. But after she’d repaired the damage to his blood vessels and his muscles, and pumped him full of a cocktail of intravenous antibiotics, he should already have started to recover. Nor did it seem to be a severe adverse reaction to the medicines she’d prescribed. A young man in full strength shouldn’t be behaving like an old man grasping at staying alive.
She checked his charts and was worried by his vital signs. But she had no idea what it could be. Still, now that he was stabilized, even though on virtual life support, she had the time to check other things. He could have had a problem with his liver, his kidneys, his gut; something outside of her operation must have happened to have caused such a massive blood pressure drop. If he was suffering from thalassemia, then he’d be anemic, but after the operation his blood pressure had been normal.
The cause usually had to do with loss of blood, but from where? Could one of his organs have been ruptured? Impossible. Could she have missed something? Possible but hugely unlikely—not because she was infallible, but because she’d checked really carefully. And there were no puncture wounds on any other part of his body that could have damaged internal organs.
Perhaps he’d swallowed something and was being poisoned; but again, they’d done a toxicology screen and his blood seemed to be clean. In confusion and concern, she walked to the nurses’ station, smiled at the nurse in charge, and picked up the phone, asking the operator to put her in touch with the head of internal medicine.
She explained in a few terse sentences her patient’s condition to Professor Elon Talmidge, who asked her, “Have you done a CT scan? An MRI? X-rayed his chest and stomach? We might need to do some nuclear medicine to find out what’s happening inside and see if there’s a problem with his organs or some blockage or something. But isn’t this guy the terrorist who killed the guard?”
Yael told him who the patient was.
“I’m talking about a lot of investigation. Seriously high-end medicine. This kid will be going to prison for the rest of his life. It seems a bit of an extravagance, if you’ll forgive my saying so.”
“And how will that sort of statement sound on Arab television, Elon?” she asked.
“I don’t give a fuck. But you’re right: we should find out why his BP dropped so drastically. Pump him full of blood and I’ll order the tests.”
“That’s another problem,” she told Elon. “We’ve run short of AB negative and I’m probably his only source.”
He remained silent. It was the silence of condemnation. She could feel him looking sternly at her, even through the phone, just as he’d done when she was at the university and he was her professor.
“Okay, I’ll set it up. You order the X-ray and other tests and I’ll order the bloodwork, and then we’ll find out what’s what,” she said.
She put down the phone and began to write instructions to the pathology department. But when she thought about their having the same blood group, out of interest she wondered what a comprehensive DNA profile would show. His DNA spectrum could explain much about his family history, even going back aeons.
It took twenty-four hours before she began to feel stronger after giving her blood. She barely considered the irony that the kid would survive to live for the rest of his life in a prison. She picked up the reports and wondered whether she would have enough energy to go out tonight to a new stand-up comedy club that she’d been told was very edgy. She yawned and decided to go home, order some takeout.
When she read his results and looked at the pictures from the CT scan, it all became as obvious to her as it had been to her colleagues. The young man was both incredibly unlucky and extraordinarily fortunate. Unlucky that there was a massive growth of rogue blood vessels on the outside of his left kidney, an angiomyolipoma, which had burst and bled at least two liters of blood into his stomach. Yet unbelievably lucky that it had happened in one of the world’s leading hospitals. Had it happened in his village, and had he been taken to a Palestinian hospital, there would have been no hope of it being diagnosed, let alone treated. He might have lived, or he might have died, but he would have been extremely sick.
Because Yael was weakened from giving him blood, the head of surgery had refused to allow her to observe the rare and complex operation. So one of the hospital’s senior renal surgeons had been called upon to insert a catheter in the kid’s leg and follow its progress up his arteries until he’d maneuvered it into the blood vessels that were the source of the growth. There he filled the vessels full of a mixture of ethanol and inert particles, nonreactive gloop designed to block the blood vessels and kill them off. In time the growth would wither and die and normality would be restored. In the meantime, he’d had a large infusion of Yael’s blood, the operative procedure had been successful, his bodily functions had returned to normal, and he’d soon be sufficiently recovered to return to the police, then the courts, then prison.
Yael put down the scans and picked up the pathologist’s report on his blood and DNA. She looked closely at the pictures of the DNA sequences. She studied the vertical lines and read the report. Then she looked again at the sequencing pictures and frowned in concern. She stood and walked over to her filing cabinet, pulling open a drawer and searching for a file. Some years earlier she’d participated in a heritage study among Ashkenazi Jews conducted by the Technion, the university in Haifa. She found the file and withdrew her own DNA sequencing. She looked at it carefully and realized that, despite the air-conditioning, she was sweating profusely.
FROM HIS VANTAGE POINT on the flat roof of his palace, Solomon watched the two men walking down the steep hill on which the city of Jerusalem had been built. Most of the original buildings of the Jebusites had been demolished. New houses, shops, markets, and palaces had been constructed. And it was a beautiful city, pleasing to Solomon. He smiled as his mind settled on his lesser wife, Naamah. The previous night she had caused him to shout out in joy, doing things to his body that he was certain the Lord Yahweh would find offensive. Yet the words she had whispered to him as he lay spent on the bed, about how the priests weakened him in the eyes of the people, haunted him.
His first wife, Tashere, would be waiting for him tonight. She always waited. But he would not go to her. Naamah was in his thoughts, residing somewhere between lust and desire. Descending two levels in his palace, he walked along a corridor and through a courtyard covered in vines, and entered Naamah’s separate apartments. Though he’d not told anybody he was visiting his third and lesser wife, it was as though her servants were expecting him. Solomon was met at the vestibule of her apartments by two rows of bare-breasted women, some from her nation of Ammon, some from Nubia, and some he thought might be Egyptians. They bowed as he walked past them and held out trays of bread cooked in spices, honey from the comb, and thinly sliced meats. He took a slice of fig covered in honey as he walked toward Naamah’s rooms.
He found her naked except for a sheath of the sheerest gossamer covering her body, lying on her bed propped up on one arm, and smiling at him.
“I knew you’d come to me tonight, my king, my lion,” she said. “I know what mood you wear after you have spoken to those priests of yours. You desire to have your mind and body eased by your loving wife from Ammon.”
Solomon straightened to his full height and looked at her with skepticism in his heart. “And what if I’d have chosen my first wife tonight? What if it had been Tashere the Egyptian I went to?”
“Then you would have enjoyed a long and restful night’s sleep.”
Solomon snorted and stepped closer to the bed. He felt a stirring in his groin.
“Come to me, my lion of Judah. Let your Naamah soothe your mind and excite your body.”
Solomon, lord and master of Israel and many lands and nations beyond, was helpless in her presence. Any resolve he might have had with other wives, no matter how skillfully they pleasured him, disappeared immediately when he was with Naamah. She wasn’t the most beautiful, nor was her body as comely as many of his other wives, nor was she as young and nubile, but she knew how to pleasure him, drawing him to her like bees to a ripe and newly opened flower.
He slipped off his cape, undid the fastenings on his tunic, and in the blinking of an eye stood there naked, prone, and rigid. Naamah smiled and beckoned him with her finger to come to her. Solomon mounted her bed and reached for her breast, cupping it in his hand as he kissed her tenderly. What he didn’t see was Naamah beckoning with her fingers behind his back to three of her most beautiful naked slaves standing just beyond the doorway. They entered her bedchamber, climbed onto her bed, and pleasured Solomon while he was still kissing Naamah.
It took longer, much longer than the previous night, for her lion to be spent, emptied, and satisfied, but as with all men the end came loudly and definitively. As he lay back on her cushions, she dismissed the three slaves and lay beside him, holding him in her arms.
“Why do you let these priests offend you, my king?” she whispered. “In Ammon, my father would have had them nailed to a cross like the Assyrians and the Akkadians when they wish to punish somebody. It can take a man a day or more to die in agony. If you did that to one of your priests, the others would do your bidding immediately.”
His voice hoarse from his cries during lovemaking, he said softly, “I can’t go against them. In your land you have many gods, and your father, the king, is the greatest of your gods. But we are not like you. We have just one god, Yahweh. And anyway, Yahweh tells us that we mustn’t be cruel in our punishments.”
“My lion, I have just felt the potency of your sword. You have great power. It should be you that wields it, not the priests,” she said.
“If I move against the priests, then the people of Israel will spurn me.”
“Then appoint a priest who will wield Yahweh’s sword for you and not for himself. Then both the priests and the people will be your subjects.”
But she didn’t know whether he’d heard, because as she stroked his hair she realized that he was asleep.
TASHERE, DAUGHTER of Pharaoh Shoshenq and first wife to King Solomon the Wise, had for many years been a devoted wife. But the sands were shifting, and as she made her way to the throne room she eyed with suspicion the people she passed.
Tashere had been the first wife Solomon had taken. When Tashere was Solomon’s only wife, she was lavished with gifts and a palace and attention. Now Solomon had hundreds of wives. Each day it seemed she saw a woman whose face she had never seen before. Of course they all knew her and greeted her courteously as first wife, but each diminished her a little and she felt their presence like needles in her skin. Yet, Tashere loved Solomon. And at night when she was alone, she reminded herself that she was his first true love and that, regardless of the numbers of other wives and concubines, none of them could feel this way.
Tashere stopped herself at the great doors to the throne room and waited until the king was walking along the corridor. He saw her, opened his arms and embraced her, but she knew from long experience that his embrace lacked the warmth it once did.
“Was Naamah pleasing to you last night, my king and husband?”
“Yes,” he replied flatly.
“It saddens me that you no longer allow me to pleasure you, Solomon.”
He stood back and pulled away, looking closely at her. “Shall I come to you tonight?”
She shook her head. “Tonight is not a night for us. The moon god, Khonshu, has traveled again from Egypt to Israel to visit my body and my blood flows. And besides . . .”
“What?” he asked with a thinly disguised note of annoyance.
Tashere hesitated. “Nothing.” She looked at him and smiled.
The king seemed to soften as if remembering her as she once had been. “I know that I have a place in your heart. That is all I need,” he said.
The compliment stung Tashere like a whip and she drew away from him.
“Not everything is pleasure, my king. You spend so much time looking up to the mountain that you may not see what is at your feet.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“I have no power but what you have given me. No wealth but what you allow me. My dowry has already been spent on the timber and the stone of this palace. All I have is your firstborn son, Abia, your heir. And my task is to protect him, to protect your legacy.”
Solomon viewed her with dark, intent eyes but said nothing.
“There are those, Solomon, who look upon your son with treacherous thoughts. Sons will kill other sons and it is their mothers who give them the knife.”
Solomon leaned back and exhaled slowly. She was unsure of what he might say or do because of what she’d just told him. She waited in the silence, dreading his response, but for the life of her son—and her own life—she had to speak out. Then he bent down and kissed Tashere on the forehead.
“The day is early and my mind is weary already. I don’t need such girl-like thoughts from you, my dear first wife. You see shadows where there is only daylight.” And with that, he walked away toward the doors of the throne room, which were opened with a waft of air that ruffled Tashere’s gown. Silently, her lips barely moving, she said to herself, “But, Solomon, you killed your own brother so that you could sit on your throne . . .”
October 18, 2007
EVERYTHING HURT. When he moved, his back hurt. When he twisted his body to look out of the hospital window at the panorama of the Old City of Jerusalem, his neck hurt. His head hurt all the while with a pounding and throbbing ache exacerbated by his dry mouth. And surprisingly his arm and wrist hurt from the handcuffs that secured him to the iron frame of the bed.
Bilal had woken from the operation an hour earlier with the noise of the nurse checking his vital signs and taking his blood pressure. Instinctively he’d tried to move his body, but it was an agony to shift positions in the bed, made worse by being tethered like a dog. He’d fallen back into a narcotized sleep, but the noises from the ward kept bringing him back into the present.
Still suffering the effects of the anesthetic, Bilal struggled to recall who he was, where he was, and why he was there. He remembered lying on the pavement underneath a white wall. There was a mosque nearby. He remembered the pain in his arm and leg, now numbed by the morphine coursing through his body. He remembered falling down into a tunnel and the excruciating agony of an explosion that he had thought had blown his head off. And, most of all, he remembered the crowds that had gathered around him, shouting and gesticulating and shining flashlights into his face in the early-morning light. But that was all he could remember: vague and disconnected images that his addled brain tried to blend together into a coherent narrative, but that he failed to associate with one another as he drifted off.
Vaguely and with his eyes closed, he knew from time to time that nurses or doctors or the police or some other Jewish official would come into his room, walk over to his bed, look at his face or his wounds, check the fluid bottles that fed and drained his body, and then walk out, seemingly satisfied. And Bilal’s mind fantasized about remaining asleep forever, not waking up, letting people tend to his comatose body, so that all of his worries and frustrations, his anger and resentment, would be the problems of others, and not him. Even in his dulled mind he knew that being alive was a curse, not a gift. As the veil lifted from his brain, he remembered that he would have to face Jewish punishment for his actions as well as Islamic punishment for his failure to become a martyr and being deprived an eternity of paradise and seventy-two black-eyed and beautiful virgins at his disposal every day of his death. The greatest punishment was that his life would be the same as before, only spent in prison. Death would have been a release.
Death? Where was the sweetness, the peace and beauty, of the death that his imam had promised him if he failed to escape from the Jews? His imam knew everything and had assured him that if he didn’t manage to get away, the Jews would surely kill him—stick him in the heart with their knives or shoot him in the head with their pistols. A moment of pain for an eternity of joy. His imam had promised him that they wouldn’t allow him to leave the temple alive. His imam never said anything about Jewish doctors fighting to save his life!
But here he was, in a Jew hospital, in discomfort, his body aching, attached to lines and drips and machines that beeped every couple of seconds, with people fussing over him as if he were somebody important. What had happened? How had it come to this?
Bilal searched his leaden mind for linkages. He tried to think back to those days when everything had seemed possible. When he’d first been encouraged by his best friend, Hassan Khouri, to come along to the mosque because the new imam had so many answers to the young men’s questions. In the beginning the imam treated him with indifference, and then like an employee, asking him to assist in the mosque after he’d finished working for his father. Then he became the imam’s driver, taking the holy man from place to place, and the imam even paid him for his time and trouble. Yet, never did the imam seem to place faith in him or his abilities as a Muslim until the day he pulled him aside and told him that God had identified him as the man to undertake the mission to blow up the Jews in the temple.
His mind was clearing now, and he struggled to keep his eyes open. He had left the comfort and security of sleep and was aware of who he was, where he was, and how he was. A nurse came into his room and saw his eyes open.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. She spoke to him in Arabic, accented but clear. How did she speak his language? he wondered. By custom, he sneered at her. Why should he talk to a Jew?
She picked up a button device and placed it in his hand. “This is self-administered morphine. If you begin to feel pain or discomfort, press the button once, and it’ll deliver a small amount of painkiller.”
She turned and walked out. He pressed the button and waited. Nothing happened immediately, but within a minute he felt his aches begin to recede and his pains become less sharp. He actually smiled. But the drug made him tired, and he closed his eyes.
Determined not to think dark thoughts, Bilal tried to remember back to those early days in the mosque when all of his anger was muted by the imam’s gentle words and his questions were answered by the imam’s incredible knowledge. Even when the imam became angry and cursed the Jews and Israel, Bilal felt a sense of wonder and for the first time in his life a sense of excitement for his future, of possibility, of something better when the Jews were gone.
When he’d been the imam’s driver they’d talked and talked about the happiness he would experience when he and his parents were living in a luxury apartment in the center of Jerusalem, once the Jews had been driven out. He would have an important job in the government, perhaps even traveling overseas, and his parents would never have to work again, because the Palestinian government would be wealthy and pay them a pension. It was a wonderful future to look forward to, and Bilal remembered how his chest had swelled with pride that he would be playing his part in the security of his people. He had purpose. He would be someone important. Like his beloved brother, imprisoned by the Jews for trying to free his land . . . his people.
Bilal thought of one particular day when he’d driven his imam to a village south of Jerusalem, a long way from his village of Bayt al Gizah, on the road to Bethlehem. On the outskirts of the village, the imam had ordered him to stop the car and to remain in the driver’s seat while he met somebody in a private house.
And he would have done exactly what the imam had demanded had it not been for the girl. She was no more than sixteen or seventeen, with huge dark eyes and a seductive look. She’d walked past the car, glanced in, saw Bilal, smiled at him, and then walked on. But her glance was enough to entice him out of the car and defy the imam’s instructions. In Bayt al Gizah he was nobody—he would have only dreamed about the possibilities and regretted the lost opportunity—but today he was the imam’s driver, he was in another village, and he was behind the wheel of a car, making him a man of position. So he got out of the car and for half an hour Bilal and the girl, whose name was Almira, talked and joked and he arranged to drive down from Bayt al Gizah and meet her again.
It was already evening, and he had hurried back to the car so his absence wouldn’t be discovered by the imam. Passing some houses, he glanced into one of the windows. The curtains were partly closed but there was sufficient space between them for Bilal to see inside. There was his imam, talking to a man. Not an Arab or a Palestinian. From the expensive suit and white shirt worn open necked and without a tie, the man was obviously a Jew. He was middle-aged with an amazing stripe of white hair surrounded by graying hair. It looked as if he were wearing an animal on his head. Bilal smiled at the thought but remained crouched so that he couldn’t be seen. And out of the shadows in the room a shape emerged. Remaining hidden outside in the umbra of the room’s light, Bilal looked inside and felt a sudden shock. As the third man leaned forward to pick up something from the table, his shadowy outline suddenly became distinct. A large round hat with a wide brim, ringlets falling down the sides of his face, a bushy beard, a long black frock coat . . . and then the man sat back and was lost in the shadows.
Now Bilal didn’t want to think anymore. He pressed the morphine button again and drifted back to sleep.
STANDING AT HIS WINDOW, he looked over the valley and saw the blinding golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock and before it the revered mosque of al-Aqsa. In the distance, he saw the rest of the Old City of Jerusalem, and although he couldn’t see them, he knew with absolute certainty that a thousand Jews, and a thousand more, were praying at the Western Wall of the Temple of Herod, the temple that had replaced the Temple of Solomon. He shuddered in disgust that the infidels, those who had rejected the word of Mohammed, were allowed to congregate so close to such holy centers of Muslim belief.
Abu Ahmed bin Hambal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, the imam of Bayt al Gizah, a Palestinian village on the eastern slopes of the Kidron Valley, which separated it from Jerusalem, tried to restrain his anger. Not with the Jews, for he knew in his heart that they would soon be driven out of Jerusalem westward into the distant Mediterranean. Not with the police or Shin Bet or any of the other repressive organs of Jewish control over the lives of his people. No, his anger and fear were because Bilal was not dead. And his anger was also directed at himself for having trusted such a vital mission to such a bonehead.
Of the twenty young men who sat regularly at his feet and listened to his sermons and shared his hopes and aspirations for the future of the Palestinian land and people, he could have chosen anybody. Any number of young men would have taken the mission in desire of becoming shahids. The attempt at desecration of the Jews’ most holy place was more important than the deaths of a handful of black-hatted Jews bowing and scraping at a wall.
But Abu Ahmed bin Hambal had chosen Bilal, in part out of pity for the idiot and in part because he knew he wouldn’t return. But instead of succeeding in exploding his bombs, or more likely dying before any great destruction, the imbecile had managed to be wounded and was now in a hospital and would be tried, and then it might all come out. For a youth such as Bilal was like a stalk of wheat on a mountaintop: a strong wind and he would bend. And when the Jews’ Shin Bet security agency began to torture him, he would bend so quickly that he would tell everything.
Were he an imam in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, such an exposure would have meant little. The Americans would do their best to find him with flying drones and satellites, or they’d send in a killing party from Delta Force, only to see their soldiers left as bones in the desert, killed by the imam’s loyal protectors.
But if Israel’s secret service, Shin Bet, came after him, then his chances of survival were negligible, for they had spies and turncoats and traitors throughout the Palestinian communities, and nobody knew who was in their pay. He shuddered when he thought of what Shin Bet could do to him, even though he continued to enjoy a layer of protection from their highest placed operative.
AS AHIMAAZ WALKED THE STREETS from the temple back toward his home, a servant approached from a dark alleyway and demanded that he follow. When Ahimaaz asked to know who wanted to see him, the servant replied simply, “Queen Naamah,” and continued on.
Now Ahimaaz stood in front of Solomon’s third wife and felt her radiating presence, which filled the room like light. He had barely time to ask why she wished to see him, when the queen dismissed the servants with a wave of her hand and drew Ahimaaz down to sit on a long, low bench.
“The king is frustrated,” she said in a surprisingly gentle tone.
Ahimaaz did not need the context of her statement explained to him.
“I know, Majesty, but even a king as powerful as Solomon can’t defy God.”
Naamah nodded slowly and said, “A country ruled by priests! Such an interesting place. But who is it who rules over the priests?”
“The high priest,” he said bluntly, but found himself strangely confused.
“Ahh . . . your brother . . .” Naamah smiled, then turned her body more fully to face him, well aware of her nipples showing through the translucent gown.
“Ahimaaz, you are cunning yet powerless.”
Ahimaaz flinched at her beauty, but her words were an insult to a priest, especially from a pagan queen. “Powerless? How can you say that? I am close to the high priest, and I—”
She cut him off immediately. “And you perform menial tasks; you fetch and you carry, and you teach women and boys.”
Ahimaaz looked at her with a mixture of anger and suspicion, but he remained silent and allowed her to continue.
“But you could be so much more . . .”
To his surprise she then turned and began to walk away toward another room. Without realizing what he was doing, Ahimaaz ran after her and held her by the arm. “What do you mean? How can you, a foreign queen, say such a thing to me, a priest of Yahweh?”
Naamah looked him up and down. “You Hebrews are so innocent, so trusting. For all your knowledge, you understand so little.” She leaned in closer. “Power is not inherited or given by gods. Real power must be taken and only those fit enough to take it will ever hope to hold on to it. The people are only safe in the hands of such men. Did your god make you such a man?”
“Yahweh made me to serve him,” Ahimaaz said, and suddenly realized that he was in the queen’s bedchamber. He looked around in sudden fear.
Naamah smiled and said, “Don’t worry, little man. The king has another wife to distract him tonight.” But Ahimaaz still felt uncomfortable in such intimate surroundings.
Naamah laughed softly. “This god of yours, this Yahweh! Do you serve him adequately? Or are you failing to live up to”—she searched the air for the right word—“expectations?”
Ahimaaz felt a hand on his arm and found himself drawn down to sit on the edge of the queen’s bed with her dark face close to his.
“If you were high priest, could you not serve your Yahweh better?”
In his most secret and private moments, Ahimaaz had entertained such thoughts, but the idea had never been voiced. Now this woman was saying things he barely dared to think.
Knowing that it could be a trap, Ahimaaz replied, “Why do you say these things, woman? I could no more be high priest than you could be first queen.”
Again Naamah smiled and said softly, “But if you were to be elevated, think what that would mean for you.”
He looked at her coldly, full of suspicion. “And what would it mean for you, Queen Naamah?”
Naamah answered the question with another question. “Who should lead your people when wise Solomon is gone? Should his heir be the one who is obvious or the one who is worthy?” She reached over and held his hands in hers.
Ahimaaz answered without thinking. “Abia is Solomon’s firstborn true heir.”
Naamah frowned. “And do you think him worthy? Do you think yourself worthy?”
Ahimaaz pulled away from her hands and stood to his feet. “Treason . . .” he began to say, but the look on her face silenced him.
“Listen to me carefully, priest. My son, Rehoboam, is the king this nation needs if it is to live beyond Solomon. Abia is spirited and without caution. He will go to war at the slightest insult. Clever people are required to lead this country or it will fracture between north and south and then both will disappear, overrun by jealous kings.”
“And your son, Rehoboam?”
“My son is neither clever nor wise but he is strong, and with me by his side . . .” She let the thought hang incomplete for a moment before adding, “. . . and you by mine, this kingdom could be truly great.”
Ahimaaz was speechless while his mind raced. Naamah continued before he had time to recover.
“Solomon must be made to see the better way, and that’s where you have an opportunity.”
Ahimaaz finished the thought for her. “My brother speaks for God and will never approve such a succession. And while my brother Azariah is high priest, Solomon will never listen to me.”
“The high priest speaks for God,” Naamah corrected him. “And who may yet become such a high priest?”
“Solomon will never raise me. This is treason you’re uttering,” he stammered again.
Naamah looked at him with derision. He would never forget the scorn in her eyes. “You’re like a cup of goat’s milk, Ahimaaz, bland and plain. And as you age you become bitter. There are many priests and my son will be king. And then you will remember my words.”
“And if I tell Solomon what you’ve said?”
She smiled. It was the smile of a jackal. “Words said in a court have less impact than words whispered to a king in bed.”
Despite himself, Ahimaaz nodded. Solomon would never believe him. And now he felt opportunity slipping away. “How will you remove—” He quickly stopped himself and chose his words more carefully, as if someone might be listening. “How will you open the way for your son?”
Naamah smiled again. “The kingdom of the Israelites has many enemies. And a son of a king can be impatient for succession. Such a son might find common cause with a father’s enemies. And these are all things that can be whispered in the receptive ear of a lover.”
Naamah stretched her long neck in a manner so sensual that Ahimaaz felt his groin stir.
“But it’s not true,” Ahimaaz said in a whisper.
Again Naamah smiled condescendingly. “But it will be true. Once whispered and said, words can easily become truth. I know my husband. It’s me, always me, that he returns to when his shoulders need rubbing with oils and when his mind needs distraction from the weight of being king. And that’s when he’ll begin to question just why Abia is away from the palace and why Azariah is sending messengers to strange places, and why nothing is being done to build his temple . . .”
Ahimaaz looked at the queen as if confused, but he understood clearly and plainly.
“Join me and you will understand. And in your learning, you will come to appreciate much about leadership. Stay with me and I will teach you how to destroy your enemies without raising a finger. Support me and you will be the most powerful priest in the whole world.”
October 18, 2007
SECURELY TETHERED by tempered steel handcuffs, Bilal was a prisoner of the bed, the room, the hospital, and the nation. On the second day after his operation, he’d slept much of the night and woken up groggy and in pain, but as the morning dawned, the pain lessened under the effect of the morphine drip and the painkillers he was given, and his mind was clearer because he no longer needed to press the drip as often.
He remembered everything from the time when he left the imam’s home to the time when he made the shahid video in the bomb-maker’s basement, his explanation to the world of why he was becoming a martyr. He remembered being driven very early in the morning through darkness, with no car headlights, to a point in the floor of the valley where he could access David’s tunnel once he’d dealt with the guard. He thought he could remember climbing the tunnel after he’d slit the guard’s throat, but after that, nothing was clear until the Jew doctor was checking his wounds on the day of his operation. It was a blank, an absent memory, a hole in his mind; try as he might, he couldn’t remember leaving the tunnel—or anything else—until waking up in the hospital. All he had were the dreams, some vivid, some indistinct, which had floated through his mind when he was drifting in and out of consciousness.
Bilal knew that he would soon leave this room, this hospital, and be transferred to a prison. At least there he’d be among his own tribe, among Palestinians; in prison he’d be a hero—a hero like his brother; a man of position because he’d brought freedom and prosperity to his land. People would come to his cell and pay their respects, ask him to tell them how he’d carried out the daring and amazing plot to kill so many Jews. But try as he might, he couldn’t remember.
The door to his room suddenly opened, and in walked a tall, lean man in an expensive suit, wearing a white shirt without a tie and open at the neck. On the back of his head he wore the skullcap of the religious Jew. Bilal looked at him in surprise and suspicion. But it was his hair that was unusual. There was a thin streak of white hair. Bilal had seen him before.
As though he owned the place, the man walked over to the bed, pulled up a chair, and sat down. “Hello, Bilal. My name is Eliahu,” the man said in flawless Arabic, though with a Jewish accent. “I’m with the Israeli government. I’ve come to talk to you about what you did. But before we get down to details, are you comfortable? Is there anything you want? Food, water? Would you like your parents to visit you? I can arrange all those things.”
The man’s smile belied the coldness in his eyes. Bilal had seen that coldness before.
“I won’t talk with you. Leave here. You’ll get nothing out of me, Jew!” he said, repeating words he’d practiced a thousand times.
Eliahu smiled. “Bilal, you were shot and wounded committing a terrorist act. I don’t need anything from you to have you sent to prison for life. But if you cooperate, life could be made a lot easier for you and your family. Help us, and I can help you. All you have to do is tell me what you know.”
“Fuck off. You’re a thief. You’re a criminal. I’m a mujahideen. I fight for the freedom of my people. I’m a warrior for Allah, and you and your—”
“Cut the crap, Bilal.”
Startled by the blunt response, Bilal stopped talking.
“I’ve heard it a thousand times, and it doesn’t impress,” Eliahu said. “Now, if you want to wallow in slime for the rest of your life, getting raped by lifers and being the girlfriend of really nasty prisoners, then stay quiet. If you want to make life easier, with visits from your parents, maybe even an early release date from a halfway decent prison, just answer a few simple questions. Okay?”
And then a curtain was raised in his mind. The man’s movement, his gestures, were vaguely familiar. Bilal looked at his face, his hair, and suddenly was shocked by the memory, no longer distant. Through a window, a gap in the curtains.
The man removed his skullcap to scratch his head, just as he’d done when he was sitting in the front room of the house in the village. The recollection, once vague, indistinct, suddenly became vivid and present. And terrifying. This was the man sitting with his imam. But how? He was with the Israeli government. Why?
Bilal remembered the phone. A gift from his friend Hassan, a phone he’d pickpocketed that day from a Jew. A new phone, a smartphone. He remembered returning to the car after speaking to the pretty girl. He had taken her number and keyed it into the phone’s address book. The device had a video camera and he recorded her smiling at him. She was shy but she didn’t stop him. He recorded her a second time, giving him her name and telephone number. She giggled in shyness, but he could see in her eyes that she wanted more.
Walking back to the car, he had played the video of the girl back to himself. It was the first time he’d owned such a camera phone. He pressed RECORD again and enjoyed the way the colors of the streetlights blurred and flared in the darkness. He lifted the camera up and saw the glow in the crack of curtains covering the window in the small house where the imam materialized on the screen. Like the photographer on Candid Camera, he’d hidden outside the house, taking a video of what was happening inside.
Later he had shown the video of the girl to his friend Hassan to prove he wasn’t making it up. Then they watched the video of the house, laughing at the man inside the window with the white streak of hair. Hassan said it looked like a skunk, ridiculing the old Jew in the hat with the ringlets of hair.
Now the man was beside his bed. Bilal was chained and it was impossible for him to move.
Was this man here to kill him? His mind was in turmoil. Looking at him, Bilal was terrified. Was this Malak al-Maut, the Angel of Death? Was this man here to put an end to his life? Was he suddenly going to take out a blade and slash his throat, just as Bilal himself had killed the Jew guard? Would he die a coward and not a shahid, die chained like an animal to the bed?
Confused, terrified, Bilal closed his eyes and began to pray. He held his breath, waiting for the agony before the ecstasy. But not being a martyr, how could he be taken up into heaven? O, Allah the Compassionate, he thought, where is my imam when I need guidance?
“Bilal? What’s wrong with you, boy?” asked Eliahu, a mix of suspicion and annoyance creeping into his voice.
Eliahu Spitzer put his hand on Bilal’s arm, but Bilal reacted with a shudder and tried to pull his arm away, only to be restrained by the handcuffs.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Bilal.”
But Bilal wouldn’t open his eyes. Instead they remained tightly squeezed shut. Only his lips were moving in silent but heartfelt prayer.
“Either you can talk to me here in safety or we can talk in the prison. And let me assure you that if your brothers in jail learn that you’re talking to Shin Bet, your life won’t be worth a cracker,” said Eliahu.
Still Bilal refused to open his eyes. Still his face remained a mask of pain, as though a knife had already been stuck into his guts and was being twisted by the man sitting beside his bed. He wouldn’t say a word to this man until he’d spoken with his imam.
Fed up, the Shin Bet agent said softly, “Okay, kid, have it your way.”
Bilal remained stubbornly mute. Eliahu stood and walked toward the door. For the first time since remembering who the man was, Bilal opened his eyes and watched him leave. He looked up at the ceiling, his mind a whirl of confusion and doubt. What was going on? What in the name of Allah and Mohammed and all the angels was happening?
YAEL TRIED TO MAKE IT a normal postoperative visit, but even as she walked down the corridor of the men’s surgical ward, it was obvious that this patient was very different from all the other patients in the hospital. For starters, how many men who had just been through an operation were given an armed police guard stationed outside, checking the identity of everybody who walked into the room? And how many patients were handcuffed to their bed?
Yael smiled at the policeman, who nodded back. She hesitated before entering the patient’s room, even though she’d already been in there twice during the day to check on him, just in case the policeman wanted to see her ID card. But he immediately returned to his inspection of the corridor and Yael pushed open the door.
Bilal was looking nervously to see who was coming in. When Yael emerged from the doorway her eyes met his and he lay back down and stared at the ceiling, as if to pretend she wasn’t there. Yael walked to his bed, picked up his chart, and read it. His vital signs were good for postoperative recovery, but his blood pressure had risen considerably since the morning. She wondered why. But he seemed to be recovering well from the two operations, one to stitch up his wounds, the second from the surgery on his kidney.
She put down the chart and walked around to his bedside, sitting on a nearby chair.
“So, how are you feeling?” she asked in Arabic.
Bilal looked at her closely, again confused at hearing his language from the mouth of a Jew. It was unnerving and so different from what he’d experienced when he was in the shops and shuks of Jerusalem, where the Israelis were always so gruff and aggressive and suspicious of him, always refusing to speak with him in his own language.
He shrugged, but his right arm, handcuffed to the bed, made the gesture difficult.
“Do you need anything?” she asked.
Again he tried to shrug.
“Are you in pain?”
He said nothing and stared at the ceiling.
The revelation about their shared DNA rang in Yael’s mind like a bell as she looked at the boy, but she couldn’t find the words to frame questions that would give her the answers she sought. Instead she fell back to the instinctual questions of a doctor. “Can I examine your wounds? I want to make sure they’re healing properly.”
Again he made an attempt to shrug. Yael didn’t notice and unwrapped the bandages, first on his leg and then his arm. They didn’t talk, but she could tell that he was scrutinizing her and she felt his hostility. It wasn’t unusual but it was unnerving.
Satisfied that his wounds were healing nicely, she smiled at him. A silent moment passed, an opportunity for Yael to fill it with questions she was anxious to ask. But instead she just remarked, “Your wounds weren’t all that bad. But the angiomyolipoma could have been very serious. I spoke to the renal surgeon and he told me that it was so large, he feared they might have to remove your kidney. But fortunately he was successful in the operation. We just have to monitor your urinary output for a few days to ensure that the left kidney is working properly.”
Bilal frowned. It was obvious that he had no idea what he’d suffered two days previously.
“Has anybody explained why you needed two operations?” she asked.
“Two?” said Bilal in obvious confusion.
Yael realized that nobody had told him, and he probably hadn’t realized he’d been wheeled into surgery a second time while still unconscious from the first. It could have been an oversight on the part of busy nurses, or, more likely, Bilal was simply being ignored because everyone in the hospital knew who he was and what he’d done. Yael told him precisely what had happened in the recovery room and why such an extensive second operation had been necessary.
He looked at her in a mixture of amazement and incredulity but said nothing.
Yael continued on to fill the silence. “You were fantastically lucky you were here when it happened, or you’d have been very seriously ill.”
“You operated on me?”
Hearing something that wasn’t an insult took Yael by surprise. “Not me. Another surgeon, head of renal. He’s very good. He was—”
Bilal cut her off sharply, the details lost on him. “Why? Why did you save me? Why did you stop me from going to paradise?”
“You’re going to prison, Bilal. That’s a very long way from paradise.”
Bilal’s jaw stiffened. “I am not afraid,” he declared with all the bravado he could muster. “The man who came to me this morning, I showed him that I wasn’t afraid.”
“You didn’t succeed, Bilal.” Yael’s tone was remarkably soft and calm. “Your bombs didn’t go off, people were spared, and you didn’t die a martyr.”
Bilal’s eyes narrowed.
“You failed, Bilal.” Yael’s words came not as an accusation but with a tinge of sadness that surprised her as she heard her own voice. She turned to leave. But Bilal’s anger rose behind her and she heard the rattle of metal as he pulled at his handcuffed wrist.
“When I see my brothers in your prison, they will greet me as a hero. They will cheer my name!”
And it was in that moment that Yael realized how naïve she had been and, worse still, how blind Bilal was. He had failed. He had been sent with a task to kill, and in his failure had achieved too little. Yael knew Bilal’s brothers in prison would not offer him the hero’s welcome he expected.
The revelation brought the reason for her visit to her mind and she turned back to the room with images of DNA strands floating in her brain. But before she could formulate questions about where his family was from and who they were, Bilal launched into a spiel.
“You say I failed. Maybe. But behind me come thousands. And they will drive you into the sea. This is not your land. It is my land. You occupy my home, you made my family into refugees, you build giant walls through the middle of our towns, and you kill my people. We live in tents, in dirt, while you live in palaces. But your time is ending!”
Yael looked at him, torn between wanting to tell him the truth and wanting answers. Before her she saw little more than a kid fed a diet of distortions that gave him an identity, a reason to be. There was no point in trying to convince a fanatic he was wrong. For Bilal, just as for many in the West, Israel was a colonizer, an aggressor, an imperialist. But the narrative he’d been taught was simplistic and naïve. Yael, too, had her own recitations. How Palestinians tore up the UN partition plan and seven hundred thousand Jews were expelled from Arab nations and made refugees, all of whom had been absorbed into Israel and become valued citizens. She wanted him to see the hypocrisy of Syria and Egypt championing the Palestinian cause while refusing to give them citizenship, using them as tragic pawns in a twisted game for their own political ends.
But she didn’t.
In that moment, with the young man in front of her, the image of their matching DNA overshadowed politics and culture and she said nothing. Moreover, she thought of the prison that awaited him and the yawning chasm between his expectations and the hard reality he faced.
Her scowl softened and instead she asked a question. “Bilal, do you know where you come from? I mean, where were you born?”
Bilal was caught off guard by the sudden change of topic and answered before he could stop himself. “I am Palestinian,” he declared.
“No, I mean specifically. In what town?”
“I was born outside Nahariya in the north of Israel. We came to Bayt al Gizah when I was two.” Again Bilal answered the question as a prisoner of war might declare his name, rank, and serial number: a kind of badge of honor, proof of his identity and purpose.
“Do you know where your father or your father’s father came from?” she asked.
“We are Palestinian!” he declared once again in an elevated voice. “My father’s family lived for thousands of years in Palestine. Why do you want to know, Doctor? Why is this important? You’ve stopped me from going to paradise. Now I’m going to prison. Why do you need to know this?”
She’d already said too much. The last thing she wanted to do was to alert him to the information that was troubling her. So she shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.” She turned and started to walk toward the door.
“I will give you no information. I gave none to the man from the government. You will get nothing out of me, Jew!”
She left his room, but instead of walking away she dallied outside his door for a moment, thinking. The security guard looked at her questioningly. She smiled at him and sneaked a final look inside Bilal’s room. She’d left a boy full of bluff and bluster, mouthing hatred taught to him by older and more malicious people. But now he was lying on his hospital bed, his free arm over his eyes. She was sure he wasn’t, but from the look of him he could have been sobbing.
THE MUSEUM’S THEATER was big enough to be impressive but small enough to deny anonymity to anyone in the audience. Half a dozen print reporters were sitting in the front rows reading the press release. There were four television cameras in the stages of adjustment for height and focus, positioned at the back of the room. Radio reporters entered en masse and put their microphones on the table; the cords and the mics themselves reminded Yael of the head of a Gorgon.
Yael sat several rows back from the front and behind the reporters, unconsciously putting herself out of their gaze in case it turned her into stone. She never liked the spotlight and even resented speaking at the conferences and seminars that were part and parcel of her job as a surgeon. She wasn’t shy and retiring, and had even received prizes in school for public speaking, but she much preferred working with a small, intimate group in an operating theater. Yet, even sitting behind them, she felt the focus of the reporters on her, probably wondering who this person was.
But her thoughts were mostly elsewhere. She wasn’t thinking of the biblical seal or of the presentation to the media. She was thinking about irregular lines on a DNA profile and then of the fragments of rock slipping from Bilal’s fingers. The one-in-one-hundred-thousand coincidence, having compared his DNA with her own . . . How could he and she be so closely related they could have been brother and sister?
And every time she thought about it—whether it was driving home from the hospital or out at a Jerusalem nightclub—it kept coming back to haunt her. As a surgeon, a specialist doctor, she had access to other experts in the field, but she wasn’t willing to consult with them. Any questioning of blood relationships in the fraternity of the medical profession posed the danger of her being branded a racist. So the questions kept bouncing around in her mind.
Bilal was a child of a people still living a life, an existence, that had barely changed since medieval times, in an impoverished village where nothing had changed in millennia; she was the daughter of Israeli academics and professionals. Both Yael’s sets of grandparents had migrated to Israel from Russia or Germany or Austria just before the closure of the borders and the beginning of the Holocaust. Their prescience and understanding of the reality of Adolf Hitler and their luck in having been able to leave Europe had saved their lives. Before that, her mother’s family had come from Latvia and her father’s grandparents had been living in Russia, but the family history, because of migration and escape from persecution, was clouded in supposition and mystery. Even long before her grandparents’ generation . . . She tried to remember but couldn’t recall if her grandparents—all of whom, except for her beloved Shalman, were now dead—had ever told her.
Her rational side knew that DNA had nothing to do with education or status and everything to do with heritage and biology and linkages over millennia, but emotionally she couldn’t equate her ancestry with that of Bilal; their worlds were so far apart. And now Bilal was waiting in the hospital for her approval, as his doctor, to be transferred to a prison cell and into custody to await trial for murder. And when that process was complete, Bilal would disappear into the ranks of the civil dead forever. Why had she not signed the release forms? Why was she hesitating?
Her thoughts were interrupted when the door suddenly opened and in filed Shalman, followed by Dr. Zvi HaSofer, who in turn was followed by the head of the museum’s ancient coins department, Dr. Sheila Ragiv, and one or two others whom Yael didn’t recognize until they sat in their allotted seats and she read the nameplates arrayed in front of them.
Quite used to press conferences and wanting to keep the meeting informal, knowing that less than a minute of the conference would be used by the television stations, Shalman wished everybody good morning. “As you’ll have seen from the press release, today we at the Israel Museum are delighted to announce the acquisition of a major find, an artifact dating back three thousand years to the time of Kings David and Solomon. Indeed, this is the world’s first direct contemporaneous link with these two great kings. Their existence is no longer mythical or anecdotal. We now have proof positive from archaeology, not just from the Bible, that they lived.”
A huge image of the stone Yael had unearthed from the hand of Bilal was flashed up on the screen behind the speakers. For the first time Yael could see the delicacy of the inscription and the perfection of the Hebrew writing. For her, as for any child in an Israeli school, reading the inscription posed no problem, for modern Hebrew was based on the ancient letters and words of the Bible. The founders of modern Israel, faced with the problem of immigrants with different languages from dozens of different countries, used ancient Hebrew as a modernized language to unify its people.
“The inscription and its translation into English, Arabic, French, and Spanish is written for you in the press release, where we have also given a chronology of the known historical events around the period, the meaning of the words in their three-thousand-year-old context, and the significance of this treasure to the Jewish people.
“So let me come to the find itself. This object represents one of the most important discoveries of recent biblical archaeology. This inscription is one of the earliest proofs of the Hebrew presence in Jerusalem in the reign of King Solomon. It must have been written within decades of the capture of the city by King David from the Jebusites, when Solomon the Wise, his son, ruled. This puts the date of the inscription at around the middle of the tenth century BCE, most likely around the year 958 BCE. Its archaeological importance is of the very highest order.”
The reporters did not wait for an invitation for questions and one jumped into the pause. “Who made the find?”
“It was found in debris at the top of the shaft, just before the steps that lead up to the walls of Herod’s Temple,” Shalman said quickly.
“By whom? Who found it?” asked the reporter again.
“One of our people,” Shalman answered. But his evasion made the other reporters sit up and take notice.
“And the name of the archaeologist who found the object?” asked another.
Shalman breathed deeply and sighed. Yael sat uncomfortably. He knew she’d resent the attention and would berate him for it later. A silence descended on the room, broken only by the faint electrical murmur of the television cameras.
“The lady who brought it to us is sitting in the back row,” he said, nodding toward Yael.
All turned and looked at her. “Who is this lady?” asked a woman reporter from Channel 3.
“Her name is Dr. Yael Cohen,” Shalman answered. “Yael, why don’t you come forward and sit with us?”
Unwillingly and uncertainly, she stood and walked to the podium. Yael was the type to draw attention, tall and slender, with long black hair, huge eyes the color of a desert night, a sensual blend of experience and innocence in her smile, and her obvious reluctance to be in the spotlight. The questions began immediately, blending into one another.
“How did you find this stone?”
“Are you a professional archaeologist?”
“Did you sell the stone to the museum?”
“How come you found the stone? Were you digging?”
Yael stared blankly at the field of camera lenses, lights, and expectant faces. Her mind focused on the insistent questions from the reporters and she realized how pregnant was the pause she had left in the air. “No, I’m not an archaeologist. I’m a surgeon, and I’m very proud to say that I’m also Professor Shalman Etzion’s granddaughter.”
“You’re a surgeon?” asked a reporter. “How did you come by the stone?”
Yael looked at Shalman, who shrugged. It was too late to avoid the truth. “A young Palestinian carrying bombs was shot and arrested when he used the tunnel to gain access to the Kotel. One of the detonator caps exploded, bringing down some of the masonry. I operated on that boy and in his hand I found . . .”
WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN a half-hour press conference turned into a one-hour inquisition, with demands for separate interviews, television appearances, staged photos of Yael sitting on a desk with her skirt slightly hitched up, legs showing, pointing to the blown-up writing of the stone on the screen.
When the circus was finished, Yael prepared to leave, but found a tall, muscular reporter to whom she hadn’t spoken standing nearby looking at her. She knew instantly that he was American, and from his looks had probably been a college football player. All muscle, but was there a brain?
“Dr. Cohen, could you spare me one more minute of your time?” he asked. His Hebrew was perfect but his accent jarred on her. What was it? New York? Chicago? And she was surprised by his voice. It was deep and melodious and attractive, like a baritone. But she had commitments at the hospital and she told him, “I’m sorry, I’m already late for an appointment and I don’t think there’s any more I can answer.”
Subtly ignoring her protest, he took out his card and handed it to her.
Yaniv (Ivan) Grossman
Senior Correspondent, Israel, for ANBN
American National Broadcast Network
Then she remembered his reports from the Golan as fighting between Syrian and Israeli forces raged in the background. As an Israel-based correspondent for a US network, his reports were sometimes broadcast on Israeli television. Yael felt slightly embarrassed that she hadn’t recognized him.
Yaniv Grossman smiled his devastating smile, full of perfect American teeth and apple-pie cheeks, and said to her, “You’re a fascinating woman, Dr. Cohen. The find is fantastic but I think you’re just as interesting. I’d like to do a background piece on you. For American audiences. You’re beautiful and smart. You’re the face of modern Israel.”
“I don’t know about that,” Yael said, and hoped desperately that she wasn’t blushing.
“Well, US audiences rarely see any Israelis who aren’t rabbis, feral settlers, or soldiers, so you’ll be like a breath of fresh air.” He let out a small chuckle, deliberately self-deprecatory as a counter-balance to his fulsome and, she thought, fawning approach. “What do you say?”
She shrugged. “I’m just a doctor who got lucky. I’m sure there’s very little about me that your viewers would be interested in.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. You’d be amazed at how interesting I can make you, Miss Cohen. It is Miss Cohen, right?” he said.
As Yael walked out of the museum, she wondered whether she’d just been propositioned for a television program or for a date. Certainly he was handsome, but the slickness of his American attitude annoyed her. Where some might have seen confidence she saw only entitlement. But the contemplation of Yaniv Grossman only partially distracted her from the thoughts in her head that seemed to be coming from twisting strands of DNA.
AHIMAAZ LAY AWAKE, staring at the low ceiling of his house, thinking about the things that Naamah had said to him, wondering whether he’d ever get to sleep in the palace of the high priest. For years he had accepted his lot of being a minor functionary in the priestly hierarchy of Israel. Azariah, his brother, was the favored one, the gifted one in the family.
But now he held in his grasp the chance of becoming high priest himself. Suddenly he had a patron, a woman who had recognized his talents. And why not? Why shouldn’t he be the high priest? As a descendant of the line of Zadok, why shouldn’t Ahimaaz rise to the top? He knew as much, was as devoted to Yahweh, and prayed just as fervently as any other priest.
Yet, though he smiled and bowed, willingly did Azariah’s bidding, and had married Solomon’s daughter Basmath, Ahimaaz was never the one to whom the Israelites looked for rituals or comfort or advice, nor the one upon whom the king called in time of need.
As third in charge of rituals, he was sometimes invited to the home of Azariah when there were matters of importance to discuss. But Ahimaaz knew that Azariah’s invitations were delivered at the behest of King Solomon, who asked the high priest to include him. It was both the advantage and the curse of being married to Solomon’s daughter.
Try as he might, he had begged Basmath to intervene on his behalf with her father, to get her to use her influence so that Solomon would elevate him to the position of second in command of the priesthood. Yet, she had refused. He knew that she held affection for him but she would not raise a finger to intercede on his behalf with her father.
But now, as if from nowhere, Naamah the Ammonite had delivered power into his hands.
The next day a message came to him from the third queen, delivered by a female servant, evidently one she trusted. The message gave Ahimaaz the task he must do to set the wheels of his ascension in motion, though the message was phrased as a pondering question rather than an instruction.
What if Azariah was the worshipper of pagan gods?
Could he? Could he plant such a seed? Place a pagan idol in his brother’s house?
Was it only last night, in the fierce heat of Elul, that Naamah had brought these ideas to him? He knew that for the past few months she had done more than sow doubt in Solomon’s mind; she had played him like a harp. By allowing him to find certain documents, by having servants tell him that Abia and that Azariah seemed to disappear without trace for long periods during the day—by telling him that his first wife, Tashere, was writing to foreign kings without Solomon’s knowledge—Naamah’s lion of Judah had growing concerns about the loyalties of his son and heir, and his high priest.
THE IDOL WAS HEAVY in his clothes. Secreted inside an internal pocket of his priestly robes where he normally kept the money Israelites gave to the priesthood on visiting the house of the Ark of the Covenant, Ahimaaz felt its density weighing him down as he shuffled in the dead of night toward the lavish house of his brother. He felt debased by the closeness of the pagan idol to his skin.
When Jerusalem was conquered by Solomon’s father, David, the fervor of the citizens to destroy all that had been Jebusite was so great that a tide of burning and smashing was unleashed on all the images of their gods. The idols and statues, shrines and altars, were put to the torch and the axe. Forbidden to set foot on the top of the mountain on which their evil temple stood, the people vented their horror and disgust on the Jebusite houses, the household gods, and the workshops that made the idols.
Ahimaaz was hard-pressed to find even one idol that didn’t belong to one of Solomon’s foreign queens or concubines. Such artifacts were rare and, worse still, the act of acquiring one would see Ahimaaz face the same fate he had determined for his brother. In the end he had traveled beyond the walls of Jerusalem to a tiny village where nearby caves held ancient graves of the Jebusites. At first he was met with nothing but dirt, sand, and bones. He despaired but kept digging with his hands through the pagan bodies and tearing at their shrouds until he found what he sought. It was small, only slightly larger than a man’s hand. Dense and heavy and made of black marble or some such stone. Or Ahimaaz thought it might be made of copper that had been burned in a fire. But when he looked more carefully in the light, he saw chips and cracks over its surface, which told him it was stone. Though time had worn it down, it was still a ghastly image of Moloch, the god with horns and an open maw. Ahimaaz smiled wryly at the idea that Moloch was an Ammonite god, the god of Naamah; it was fitting, then, that this should be the instrument in her plan.
Ahimaaz was met at the door of his brother’s house by a servant. The young woman knew Ahimaaz on sight even though he was an infrequent guest. “The high priest is not here,” she told him. But he knew that already and had planned his visit to coincide with his brother’s absence. He explained that he needed access to the high priest’s study and the scrolls and parchments that were kept there. Ahimaaz had prepared a detailed story but it was unnecessary. The young girl was not one to question a priest of the family of Zadok, and spoke no word of challenge.
Azariah’s private study was remarkably small and unimpressive, little more than an antechamber to the otherwise lavish house. Ahimaaz chose in that moment to see this as a sign of his brother’s misdirected priorities, valuing showy opulence over pious reverence. Yet, the small room was laden with shelves of scrolls and parchments, stone tablets and waxes. There was no shortage of places in which to secrete the idol.
He cast his eyes about the room as he took the pagan statue from his robes. A small shelf stood alone against the smallest wall at the end of the room. Stacked with scrolls like the others, it nonetheless appeared to be special in some way, perhaps holding the most important texts. A mat was laid in front of it, adorned with bright colors and clearly not of Hebrew origin, a style and pattern foreign to Ahimaaz’s eyes.
Yes, this would be the place, he thought to himself. But as he took short steps toward the shelf that he intended to be mistaken for a shrine, Ahimaaz suddenly stopped. In one corner of the room, leaning casually against the wall, was an object wholly out of place. In a study replete with scholarly pursuits and the dry solemn air of a library was a child’s toy.
A spinning top, wide as a dining bowl, wooden and covered in colored paint panels. It was worn, the hue faded, the edges chipped and bruised from years of play. But the sight of it upset Ahimaaz. It was foreign and yet familiar. Ahimaaz knelt beside the toy and reached out to pick it up. Years had dimmed his memories, yet the feel of the spinning top in his hand brought them back in vivid color.
Ahimaaz and Azariah as children sitting on the cold stone floor of their father’s house. He younger and looking in love and admiration at Azariah, who seemed to know so much. Cackling laughter as the boys each spun the top and watched the colors blur and blend into a streaky white. Setting up wooden stick soldiers and watching the army of David defeat the army of the Philistines and bring down the giant Goliath of Gath. Ahimaaz lying, belly pressed flat and chin on the floor, as he watched his brother spin the top with a thin rope with greater speed and dexterity. Watching it spin on a single spot, the colors blending until they became a blur of white before teetering and sprawling over. And the colors magically reappearing.
Ahimaaz shook off the memory and looked down at the objects in his hands—a child’s toy in one palm and the image of a child-eating idol in the other. He couldn’t be a child anymore; he could no longer be dazzled by his brother’s spinning of toys. Ahimaaz dropped the top back into the corner, placed the gruesome statue just out of sight on the shelf, and walked away as quickly as he could, leaving the childhood memories behind him.
IN THE END, it was so much easier than Ahimaaz dared to believe. The idol was found by a servant, a girl in Naamah’s pay, and, as instructed, she brought it to Solomon’s treasurer, who reported the high priest’s great act of heresy. But this was only the second blow to Solomon that morning, and not the only arrow to find its mark. When the news of the idol was brought to the king, he already held in his hand a scroll under his own seal, written in his own court by his son Prince Abia. A scroll intercepted by a soldier in Abia’s retinue but faithful to Solomon. When he opened it and read the words supposedly written by his son, he wept. His own son had written to Og, king of Bashan, asking him to supply him with an army so that he could deliver Israel into Og’s hands and rule in Solomon’s place as a vassal of the great king.
So when Ahimaaz walked into the throne room, it was in an uproar. And he watched in breathless awe, silent and brooding, while his brother Azariah was exposed. Despite the protestations the high priest made while he was being rushed out of his palace, Solomon had refused to listen, shouting at him that he had transgressed against Yahweh and that he would be banished from Israel forever.
And on the following day, the lies and gossip that Naamah had been whispering into Solomon’s ear grew to fruition. Abia, Solomon’s firstborn son, was accused of treason, of plotting with foreign kings to overthrow him. Abia protested his innocence but was banished to the Valley of Hinnom and beyond. Tashere screamed at Solomon that the allegations were lies, but she refused to beg for mercy, instead turning and addressing the court and swearing to bring ruin on the heads of all who had slandered her son.
Solomon’s fury at Abia’s treason would not be abated, but to command Tashere to follow her son into exile would have meant war with the Egyptian pharaoh. Instead she quietly retreated into the palace, where she wept and rent her garments as though her son had died in battle.
In the large square of Jerusalem’s upper public marketplace, a crowd gathered. Rumors had been rampant in the city, and the people came to hear the king’s herald announce what was happening. Their shock at the cherished high priest’s betrayal of Yahweh was enough to make everybody weep.
And when it was announced by the herald that Ahimaaz was to be the new high priest for the forthcoming Temple of Solomon, people turned to one another and said, “Who did he say? Ahimaaz? Who’s Ahimaaz?”
October 18, 2007
ELIAHU SPITZER WATCHED the live television broadcast from the lounge suite in his office on the third floor of a nondescript building in the middle of Jerusalem. As deputy director of the Arab affairs department, he was entitled by the bureaucrats to an LCD TV, which he’d initially enjoyed, but he found that he lost the privacy of his office when crowds of employees would congregate to watch a sports match beamed live.
Shin Bet’s headquarters were about as different from those of Britain’s MI5 and America’s CIA and FBI as it was possible to imagine. He knew all three agencies well and visited them regularly to discuss internal security prior to an official visit by somebody important. But while the Brits were always pompous and looked down their noses at him, and the Americans were his bestest lifelong buddies until he asked for something, these other nations’ offices were strictly hierarchical. His organization, Shin Bet, responsible for internal national security, was strangely open and informal. If the janitor wanted to watch the news while Eliahu was sitting at his desk, he’d probably just excuse himself and switch the TV on.
Even the building itself was unusual by international standards. At ground level were shops and a narrow corridor open to the street but guarded in its recesses by two security experts. The corridor led to an elevator where the floors were marked 1, 5, 6, and 7. To all visitors, there were no levels two, three, or four. Only by optical iris identification and fingerprint recognition would a potential visitor get to these floors unless escorted by one of the security men if the visitor was known. Those who’d never been before would be interrogated initially by the security guards, then sent skyward by elevator to a bombproof office on the tenth floor, and then, if they were given permission to enter, they’d be escorted down by a mid-level security person to levels two, three, or four for their meetings.
But even so, the government, understanding the danger of placing such an important target in the middle of a commercial area, was in the process of building a large edifice on the outskirts of Jerusalem to house the top secret unit of national security.
When the broadcast from the Israel Museum was finished, Eliahu switched off his television. He returned to his desk and sat there thinking. The Bilal kid had been shot but was still alive. He was recovering well but his contacts in the hospital had told him that there had been some sort of complication with the operation. His man at the Western Wall hadn’t been able to inject the kid with insulin and put an end to him, so there was a danger that he could have talked about the imam. That in itself wasn’t such a great problem, but it was another complication, and the last thing Eliahu needed was another complication. And now there was an added thorn. This piece of archaeological treasure that had been found by the surgeon, of all people, had made Bilal and his activities into front-page news worldwide. The story could be the beginning of a forest fire.
And to make matters even more complex, the surgeon was like some poster girl for Israeli womanhood: pretty, elegant, stylish, and no doubt making her Jewish parents proud of her in her work as a doctor. The media would love her and that would keep the Bilal story alive for weeks if not months. He knew the media, and he knew with certainty that the moment some news producer with CBS or CNN or ANBN looked at this doctor, they’d milk the story for all it was worth.
Eliahu sighed. It was all becoming so messy . . .
Taking out a Palestinian who was about to desecrate the holiest monument of Judaism, demands for aggressive retribution, the fury of the Jews worldwide, demonstrations and the beginnings of a sharp move to the right, the pacifist voices silenced. Then more and more terrorist assaults against religious targets. The rise of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in the government of Israel to deal with the outrages. Ridding the nation of these peacenik appeasers until a religious government, a theocracy, was established in Jerusalem. All so simple. Now all so complicated.
He scratched his head under his skullcap, opened his drawer, took out his prayer book, and found the page that gave him a blessing that would bring him some relief from his complications.
YAEL WALKED into the doctors’ staff room and found all eyes on her. It looked as though everybody in the room was reading the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth, one of Israel’s major newspapers, or had seen her the previous night on television. And the paper’s picture of her, seated at the table with Israel’s most prominent archaeologists, was in the middle of the front page. The story was headlined “Surgeon Uncovers Bible Treasure in Terror Patient’s Hand,” and having read it over breakfast earlier she knew that the reporter had written about a terrorist, a bomb that didn’t explode properly, and an attractive trauma surgeon named Yael. There was hardly any reference to the artifact itself or its place in the ancient history of Israel and the Jewish people’s connection to the same land for over three thousand years. With all the undermining of Israel’s right to exist by Arab nations, especially in the United Nations, surely this was the important story.
“Welcome O great and famous archaeologist,” called one of her colleagues, a vascular surgeon dressed in his surgical greens, from across the room as she hung up her coat.
“I’m more used to digging out shrapnel than digging up artifacts.”
The other doctors smiled and laughed and offered congratulations amid the usual teasing remarks.
“Is there a case to be made that the stone belongs to the Palestinian kid? After all, it was he who found it. As a surgeon, shouldn’t you have put it into a security bag along with his wedding ring?” The question was only half-facetious and asked by a doctor on the far side of the room with a wry smile.
“He didn’t even know he had it. And wouldn’t know what to do with it if he did.” Yael’s offhand comment gave her boss, Pinkus, a small opening to raise issues of unspoken politics to the room.
“The Palestinians could use it as a reason to lob a few rockets our way. Not that they ever really need a reason.”
Another surgeon put a hand on his arm, said softly, “Pinkus,” and nodded to a man who was sitting in a corner, reading a medical journal. Mahmud was a Palestinian surgeon who had trained at the Bethesda Medical Center in America and was a member of the hospital’s staff.
Mahmud had seemed as though he weren’t paying attention but no doubt heard the comment. He lifted his gaze from the journal and peered over the tops of his small, round glasses. The doctors rarely discussed Palestinian-Israeli politics when he was present, out of deference to him. He was a good surgeon and was well liked by his colleagues. Yael knew nothing of Mahmud’s personal life, but from the hours he kept, she often wondered if he felt the need to work twice as hard to prove he was as good as his colleagues.
Mahmud smiled. “I’m thrilled Yael found it . . .” He let the unfinished sentence hang for just a moment before adding, “And when my Arab brothers drive you bastards into the sea, we’ll sell it on eBay and make a fortune.”
His joke broke the moment of embarrassment; people laughed and went back to their reading. Yael walked across the room to her pigeonhole and withdrew four letters. She glanced at them and saw that two were from the hospital administration, concerning some new rules that had been imposed. She, like her colleagues, made a habit of ignoring such documents. The other letters were interesting; one was a note from the surgical secretary, telling her that NBC and Fox in the States had phoned and would like to set up an interview. The other was a personal letter, handwritten but bearing no postage stamp, so it had been hand delivered to the hospital. Yael Cohen tore it open, and read it.
Dear Madam Doctor Koen
I am Fuad. I am father to Bilal. Last night on TV I see you at museum. Now I know name of my son doctor. You operate him. You save him. I write thank you. My wife Maryam she say thank you doctor. Yes my son did a very bad thing. Allah forgive him. But work you do save him and I thank you. Excuse my writing. I am not educate man. Wife Maryam no read write.
Fuad. Father to Bilal
Yael smiled awkwardly to herself and returned the letter to her pigeonhole. She went back to her table to read the morning newspaper, but after a minute returned to the letter and put it into the pocket of her gown. She wanted the address.
A MAN DRESSED in the robes of a Muslim cleric entered the hospital. He asked the receptionist to direct him to the floor where Bilal was a patient. The moment she entered the patient’s name into her computer, a red flag caused her to pick up the phone. Within minutes, two senior hospital security officers escorted the imam to a bombproof room in the basement, where they interrogated him for ten minutes, searched his bags for guns, explosives, and hypodermic needles, then his clothes, and ran a metal detector over his entire body. Satisfied that he carried no weapons, they apologized for the necessary precautions and escorted him upstairs to the men’s surgical floor. The imam approached the policeman guarding the room, who further interrogated and asked him his purpose.
“I am Bilal’s imam, Abu Ahmed bin Hambal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed. I am his spiritual guide through the darkness of this world into the light of the next. I have come to offer him the consolation of Allah before his tribulation begins. I just wish to pray over him and offer him the comfort and solace of Islam,” said the imam in calm tones.
The policeman said only “I’ll give you half an hour.”
The imam, followed by the Israeli policeman, entered the room. The cleric smiled at Bilal as he walked to the bedside chair and the policeman lingered near the door, looking and feeling decidedly out of place. Bilal tried to sit up in the presence of his imam, but the handcuffs allowed him only limited movement. “Greetings, Master.”
“Relax, Bilal. I’m here to pray with you and hope that you find peace and contentment in the hands of Allah when you are on the next phase of your journey.”
The two looked at each other. Then the imam began to pray, whispering the prayers into Bilal’s ear. Quietly the policeman left the room. Realizing that they were suddenly alone, the imam whispered urgently, “Bilal, my brother, listen closely, for what I am about to say is very important.” The imam drew a deep breath. “You are to be taken from here to prison. You understand this?”
“There will be a trial. It will be short. You will deny nothing. Truth of killing the enemy will be your only defense. They will ask you who sent you. You know that you must say nothing of me and your brothers. This is clear! Yes?”
Bilal nodded again. This time more slowly.
“In prison you will be with many of your brothers and they will teach you many things, for your journey is not over.”
Bilal seemed about to ask a question but the imam answered it before the young man could frame it.
“They will teach you how to fight. How to survive. How to be strong. And when you are strong, you’ll be ready to take Palestine from the Jew.”
Bilal shook his head. “But how? How am I to fight from a prison cell? I don’t understand.”
The imam sat up with the faintest hint of a smile on his face. But he lowered his voice to a near whisper and Bilal had to strain to hear. “We will pray for the kidnap of an Israeli soldier and that he is hidden by our brethren. Remember what happened with the Jew soldier Gilad Shalit when Hamas kidnapped him last year from the border and held him in Gaza? The Jews cannot find him. And”—the most minimal of smiles came again—“whoever kidnapped him will make a trade. A thousand of our brothers for just one of theirs. They show their weakness with Shalit; they will show their weakness when we capture the next of their boys. The Jews will have fathers crying like women for the return of just this one, in exchange for our many.” The imam leaned close to Bilal and put a hand on his handcuffed arm. “And you will be one of the many.”
Bilal’s eyes widened. “I will be freed?”
“This I swear to you, in the name of Allah, provided you don’t cooperate with them, provided you remain silent concerning the involvement of me and your brethren.”
All the muscles in Bilal’s face let go of their long-held grip and he seemed to sink into the bed. But he quickly caught himself and turned suddenly to face his imam. “I wasn’t afraid! I knew Allah would look after me. If I couldn’t go to paradise, then I knew I would be saved. I wasn’t afraid, I swear . . .”
The imam smiled gently. “I know, my son. I trust you are strong, now and always. But first I must know something. And much rests on your answer.”
The tension returned to Bilal’s face.
“Who have you spoken to since coming to this hospital?”
Bilal’s eyes narrowed, as if not understanding the question. “No one.”
“No one?” asked the imam. “Surely you were not silent. The police have come, no? Shin Bet has been here to question you. Yes?”
“I told them nothing,” Bilal stated as flatly and firmly as he could.
“You told them your name.”
“Well . . . yes. I told them my name. I was not afraid.” To prove his silence, he continued, “I even said nothing to the man who you know, the man from the government.”
“Man? What man?”
“The man . . . I . . . when we . . .” Bilal stuttered a response, strangely wishing he hadn’t said anything. His head hurt and with his free hand he rubbed his face as if to wake up.
The imam remained silent, looking at Bilal, his eyes utterly impassive. Softly, gently, he said, “What man, Bilal?”
“The man you know . . . I drove you . . . But I stayed in the car. I just . . . When he came I didn’t . . .”
The imam’s response came sharp and flat on Bilal’s stammering. “I know of no such man.”
The silence that fell between the two of them was cold; Bilal, sensing that he should say no more, nodded and closed his eyes, not wanting to look at the imam.
“When you drove me? Where did you drive me?”
Bilal remained silent for a long moment. Then he said, almost inaudibly, “I don’t remember . . .”
“And have you spoken to any others?”
“Not even a doctor? A nurse?”
“The doctor! Perhaps? Maybe I spoke to her . . . but she was only a doctor. And I spoke of nothing.”
The imam cut him off. “She? A woman? You have allowed a woman doctor to touch you?”
“Yes. I was asleep. But she was kind. The Jews came and wanted to take me away to the prison. The soldiers. The police. But she said no. She said they had to wait. She stopped them, told the police that I was not well enough.”
The imam breathed quietly. “And why did she stop them from taking you?”
“I don’t know.”
The imam said softly, “My son, you must continue to say nothing. There are things happening that are greater than you. You will be a part of them, provided you remember to remain silent. Say nothing to the Jews, for this is how they work. They question and promise and lie. They will smile and they steal your land and stick a knife into your back. Mohammed, peace and blessings be upon him, said in Surat Al Ma’idah”—the imam closed his eyes—“ ‘Shall I inform you of what is worse than that as penalty from Allah? It is that of those whom Allah has cursed and with whom He became angry and made of them apes and pigs and slaves.’ ” The imam opened his eyes again and looked at the boy coldly. “Bilal, remember those words: apes and pigs and slaves. Mohammed, peace and blessings be upon him, was talking of the Jews.”
Bilal nodded to show the lesson was understood.
The imam stood to leave, saying a blessing over Bilal, and then walked out of the room. The guard nodded at him, but before he left he asked the guard, “I wish to speak to this young man’s doctor. A woman. What’s her name?”
The guard said, “Dr. Cohen. Dr. Yael Cohen.”
The imam nodded in gratitude and walked down the corridor.
YAEL WALKED THE CORRIDORS of the hospital, making precise turns left and right, without ever looking up from the clipboard in her hand. Her feet seemed to know exactly how many steps each hallway segment required before turning as she made her way through the labyrinthine building. She had pushed all thoughts of Bilal and his family and ancient stone seals from her mind and was intent upon her rounds when she all but walked into the lean but muscular figure of Mahmud, her Palestinian colleague.
“God, I’m sorry. I wasn’t looking . . .” stammered Yael.
“I’ve been called many things, but never ‘God.’ ” Mahmud smiled his wry and somewhat mischievous grin, but it took Yael’s mind a moment to catch up to the joke. She returned the smile and was about to continue on her way when Mahmud’s hand rested on her shoulder.
“How is the boy?”
Despite the number of children in the large hospital, Yael didn’t need to ask which boy Mahmud was referring to.
“He’s . . . um . . . recovering well. Slowly . . . Did you know him?”
“Sure. All us Arabs know each other. We’re all cousins.”
Yael blushed just a little and smiled at his facetiousness. But no matter how long she lived and worked with Palestinian people, she found casual conversation hard.
When the grin left Mahmud’s face, he removed his small, round glasses and began to clean them with a handkerchief from his pocket. “Bilal? Is that his name?”
“Yes,” replied Yael.
Mahmud nodded. “More than bullet wounds, right? Angiomyolipoma?”
“Yeah.” Yael found herself transfixed by Mahmud’s hand as he rubbed at the lenses of his glasses, rubbed at dust that was long gone.
“That’s a rare condition. I would have liked to see that operation.”
“He was lucky he was here for us to find it,” said Yael.
“Allah works in mysterious ways.”
Yael let out a soft laugh.
“I don’t know Bilal, Yael, but I know I could have been him . . .” He returned his glasses to his face and used them to focus on her. “Different choices, different opportunities. My father gave everything to send me to school. He said it was the only answer to what you all call the Palestinian problem. Funny for a man who couldn’t read. Bilal and me, a fork in the road, and yet we both end up in a hospital. Me to save people; him to be saved—by you.”
Yael found herself unable to reply so Mahmud filled the silence for her.
“Thank you, Yael,” he said as he walked away down the corridor toward his patients.
GAMALIEL, SON OF TERAH of the tribe of Manasseh, had grown rich from buying the rights to impose a levy on all visitors to Jerusalem and placing his own tax collectors outside the gates. He’d bid for the privilege of collecting taxes when the king’s treasurer offered for sale the right to tax people passing through the gates of the city. And the deal he’d made with the treasurer had been rewarding for all concerned. The king was earning good money from traders, merchants, and visitors to Jerusalem, who paid a tenth of Gamaliel’s estimate of the value of their goods to the king’s estate. He gave the lion’s share of the levy to the king and kept a quarter part of the tax to himself, and paid a twentieth part to the treasurer for giving him the rights.
Of course, what Solomon and his treasurer didn’t know was that Gamaliel always overestimated the value by a tenth part, much to the anger of the merchants, and underestimated the value to the king’s treasurer. The difference went directly into his pocket.
Now he’d been called to the palace to sit in an audience with the king himself and with the high priest, Ahimaaz. Why? he wondered. What spoils of office were on offer now? With the temple almost complete and with Solomon’s treasury almost empty from his ridiculous demands for gold leaf to adorn the tops of columns, and for huge statues of angels and cherubim and seraphim and lions made only of gold, no wonder the king was without money.
Perhaps the meeting was to demand he increase the levy at the gates to pay for the temple. Perhaps it was to raise new levies from an already overburdened people. Who knew? He told his wife he’d be back before nightfall and left his home to walk the steep pathways up the hill of the City of David toward Solomon’s palace.
Gamaliel was shown into the king’s throne room and he bowed low before Solomon the Wise. On the far side of the room stood the man Gamaliel knew to be Ahimaaz the high priest, although they had never met.
Solomon seemed to ignore the priest and looked only at Gamaliel from his throne. The king then abruptly stood and began to talk. He talked about the temple, his reign, the troubles he was having with his wives, his relationship with nearby kings, the difficulties with the twelve tribes, and on and on. Gamaliel was not in the least surprised by this long-winded monologue—nor was Ahimaaz, it seemed to him. Solomon, though renowned for his wisdom, could talk from morning to dusk and not realize that the minds of those listening to him were elsewhere.
But the rewards the king held in his gift were great, as was the potential of his wrath, and so those summoned listened in lengthy silence.
Though Gamaliel’s eyes never left the king as he wandered the room, he could feel the eyes of Ahimaaz on him. Did the priest know what the king might say to him? Or was the priest waiting with painful curiosity just as Gamaliel was? Gamaliel was a shrewd and successful man and so was cognizant enough to know that those in power stayed in power by knowing from where future threats might come. Did the high priest see him as a threat?
Solomon turned from the Western Wall, with its miraculous painted display of ferns and flowers, of lions and deer and rabbits and birds, and faced Gamaliel directly for what seemed like the first time. On either side of him were golden statues of lions, and Solomon sat down on his gold-covered ivory throne with its purple cushion filled with the feathers of ducks. With a voice much softer than his previous monologue he said, “As you can see, my temple is close to being finished. The land is sanctified and cleansed, thanks to you, Ahimaaz”—Solomon gave a curt nod in the direction of the high priest—“and the builders from Lebanon will soon erect the roof of costly but beautiful cedars. Which brings me to why I have commanded you to appear before me.”
At last, thought Gamaliel. But with the mentioning of the temple he assumed whatever the king was about to tell him had something to do with its building. Again he felt the eyes of Ahimaaz searching him from the other side of the room. Rumors reverberated around the city about Ahimaaz: how he had spent his life studying the scrolls that were written of the life of Father Moses and of the laws he and others had invoked for the community. It was said of Ahimaaz that he knew every prayer for every occasion. His visits to the poor and the sick were spoken of, and how he gave away large sums of his wealth to those in need. No doubt such rumors were the fabrications of Ahimaaz himself to cement his position. Gamaliel didn’t envy him. He had no time for priests and their empty declarations and pointless rituals. Yet, he knew well the machinations of the priestly order and that if Ahimaaz was to survive he would have to be very deft.
Solomon picked up a scroll and read briefly from it to remind himself. “Two separate orders of officials are required to ensure the good running of my temple. The first is the priesthood, which will minister to the people, keep the times and meanings of the services, ensure that all the people worship there at least three times every week, and bring the correct gifts as offerings and animals for sacrifice. Since his betrayal of me and my kingdom, Azariah has been banished and therefore you, Ahimaaz, have been tasked with the role of the high priest, and your charge will be maintaining the priestly blessing, the redemption of the firstborn, prayers for skin diseases and mildew, and instructing those who are learned and of the priestly family in the words of the law, and you will control the order and distribution of the sacrifices and the incense offerings.”
Ahimaaz looked at the king in amazement. The revenue he would earn from these tasks was enormous. He would be wealthy. He nodded his thanks to Solomon, unable to speak. And then the king looked at Gamaliel.
“Know this, Gamaliel of the tribe of Manasseh, tax collector. For many years, merchants and travelers, men and women from foreign lands, have been coming to Jerusalem to see its splendors and to marvel at the brilliance of its impenetrable walls. And during that time I have allowed you to collect the revenues that accrue from taxing such peoples at the gate. According to our contract, you have given me over half of the tenth part of what you levied when they entered the city. This is true.”
Gamaliel looked closely at King Solomon, sitting there on his raised dais, shrouded in his purple cloak, his golden crown sitting firmly on his head. Gamaliel nodded, and said, “That is true, Majesty.”
“But while you pay half of what you are paid, my spies have spoken to these merchants and they tell me that what you levied is not what you’ve told my treasury. You have demanded a tenth share more from the merchants than you’ve declared to me.”
Gamaliel began to speak but the king put up his hand and said, “Silence! Not only have you underestimated your income from these merchants but you’ve also lied to me about the numbers of people who visit my city. You pay me tax for a hundred people in a week but my men have counted those whom you tax and they tell me that, since the last full moon until the full moon two days ago, two hundred people have entered the city every week.”
Gamaliel smiled and tried to hide his nervousness. He knew that he was sweating and hoped that it didn’t show. “Majesty, your spies are correct. There have been twice the number of men and women than those who have paid to cross the threshold of the city and enter its walls. But your spies haven’t told you the whole truth, for those extra people who enter are residents of the city. They are exempt from paying the levy. They are farmers in the valleys, or workmen on the Mount of Olives, or builders cutting rock. You have received all that I have levied, less my part. And as to the tax on the goods the merchants bring in, Majesty, I levy no more and no less than the value of the goods. I swear by Yahweh, Majesty, that—”
“Lie to me one more time, Gamaliel, and I will cast you out. My first and foremost wife, Tashere, tells me that one of her servants overheard one of your wives speaking in the marketplace. Your wife was boasting about how she had a lot of money because of you and the way you cheat your king.
“The walls of this city have my ears, tax collector. I know everything that happens, and if you continue to lie to me, then you will follow my son into the darkness of the Valley of Hinnom. My men didn’t just count the people who entered but asked them where they were from. And they tell a very different tale to your lie. You have cheated me and my kingdom of wealth, money that has gone into your pocket. That is punishable by stoning until death.”
Gamaliel looked upon the king in terror and began to answer, but Solomon put up his hand again to silence the man. “The eighth commandment of the Lord Yahweh was that you will not steal, and if I stone you or cast you into the wilderness, you will surely die.”
Gamaliel coughed and tried again to speak but no words came out. Instead the king’s tone changed abruptly.
“But your death will not suit my purpose. For once a thief is caught and death is the reward of his crimes, then that thief will do anything to remain alive. Will he not? So I will not punish you despite your thefts, for you, more than any before you, are a good collector of taxes. Liar and a thief though you may be, I will use these failings to my benefit. I need money to complete the building of my temple. You will collect it by raising taxes wherever you can. Do not bend the backs of the people too much, but I must have money. You will keep one-third of all you collect and two-thirds will be given to me to pay for my workmen and those from Lebanon. And from time to time, at times unknown to you, my treasurer will seek your records and will count the number of people, how much each has paid, and the purpose of the payment, and he will count every talent, every mina, and every shekel. Should there be one single shekel’s discrepancy between what is and what should be, then without question all your wealth, property, and livelihood will be forfeited and your family will be expelled from Jerusalem forever. And you, tax collector, will be cast into a pit and stoned to death from the walls above.”
Gamaliel looked at the king in horror and nodded quickly and emphatically.
GAMALIEL LEFT THE PALACE chastened and shaken. His head was a beehive swarming with stinging insects. Normally a man of determination, he felt himself flailing on the edge of a precipice, one part of him about to plunge into the abyss because of his deceit, yet the other part elevated to the safety of increased status.
The logic and wisdom of the king was not lost on Gamaliel. Solomon knew that in a world where all men cheated and lied, the only thief who was honest was the thief who knew that all knew him to be a thief, one too afraid to steal again.
It was a long moment in his bewildered state before he realized that he had been followed. Ahimaaz walked quickly behind him to catch him up and tapped him on the shoulder. Lost in his own world of confusion and relief, Gamaliel turned in surprise.
“Priest? You want to speak with me?” he said.
Ahimaaz nodded, and said, “It’s a hot day. In the next lane is a stall selling pomegranate juice. Let us drink together. There is much that we have to discuss.”
Years of shrewd business dealings brought back Gamaliel’s composure and he eyed the high priest suspiciously. “I know the stall you’re talking about. The seller waters down juice and charges too much. Why not walk down two streets to the marketplace? There are better stalls there.”
It was a big and crowded bazaar: not as large as that of Hebron or Damascus because Jerusalem had been built on a steep hillside, but it was noisy and bustling with the smells and sounds of any marketplace in any city. Some of the stalls sold the meat of sheep and cattle, some sold freshly baked bread, some the produce of the fields, and others proudly offered goods from as far afield as Acco in the north and Lachish in the south, from Damascus, Sidon, Jaffa, and Ashkelon on the coast, from Assyria, Persia, and even India in the east. Everybody, it seemed, every merchant, caravan, and craftsman, was setting their sights on Jerusalem.
As they rounded the corner, the noise of the marketplace grew louder and Ahimaaz wondered whether this was the best place to talk. Sensing his concerns, Gamaliel turned and said, “There’s a stall owned by my cousin. The drink isn’t watered down and he won’t cheat us.”
Gamaliel led the way, weaving around the stalls, holding his breath as he passed the tables of meat sellers, whose carcasses hung in haunches, shoulders, innards, and entrails covered in hysterical flies. The acrid smell was soon replaced by that of newly baked bread. Gamaliel took some shekels out of his pocket, threw them onto the table, and grabbed two warm loaves. He handed one to Ahimaaz.
“I wish you God’s good appetite.”
“Thank you,” said the high priest, slightly startled, but the hours standing in the palace had left him hungry. Gamaliel tore off a chunk and chewed openly. Ahimaaz held the bread in both hands and under his breath whispered a prayer.
They sat down on stools at the stall of Gamaliel’s cousin. Ahimaaz looked darkly at Gamaliel as he ordered juice, then said quietly, “Do you always eat without blessing and giving thanks to Yahweh for providing it?”
Gamaliel’s reply came bluntly. “The Lord didn’t provide it. The baker did. And I thanked him accordingly with shekels on his table.”
“Is everything not provided by the Almighty?” asked Ahimaaz.
Gamaliel, shorter than Ahimaaz, graying and slightly stooped, thought for a moment before replying. “Did the Almighty give me the right to levy taxes at the gate, which has made me a rich man? No, I negotiated that myself from Solomon’s treasury. There were others, but only I came to a suitable arrangement with the treasurer. So why should I thank God? It was me who paid out of my pocket. You, priest, would tell me that what I did was wrong in the eyes of God. So how do you explain that I’m still here, not struck by lightning, not brought down by a divine arrow, but standing before you with bread in my stomach and juice on my table?”
Gamaliel picked up the cup and drank deeply. He didn’t know what this priest wanted, but after the brush with death at the hand of Solomon, and now facing a strange future, Gamaliel felt oddly bold.
“And when I prayed fervently and offered all manner of things to the temple, did the Almighty save my second-born son when he fell into the ravine? No, my son died after three days in agony, his body broken. And where is the Almighty when my second wife, whose skin is constantly aflame with welts and ruptures, cries from morning till night and scratches herself so hard that she bleeds? And my daughter from my third wife, while no beauty, is still unmarried and is already fifteen years old and no man, regardless of what I offer as bride money, will take her because her arm is withered.”
Ahimaaz was clearly unused to such speeches and found himself without response as Gamaliel continued in a strangely mocking tone.
“Surely conjuring a loaf of bread is a rather unimpressive display from your god if he means to atone for the sorrow and misery of the city?”
Ahimaaz’s dismay turned to shock. “How dare you speak in that way, merchant! How dare you think you can understand God’s ways! Wasn’t it God Almighty who gave us this city? Wasn’t it Yahweh who gave our father, Moses, the strength to resist the Egyptian pharaoh and lead us out of our bondage? Wasn’t it—”
“Spare me, please. Your sermons are wasted here. I’m a man of business and I make a living from those who come into this city to trade. I have no need for this god of yours, or any other god. The Jebusites had their gods and look what happened to them.”
“Our god is the one true God . . .”
“Show me proof and I’ll believe you. Do you know what proof is, Priest? Solomon had proof that I had cheated him. I have proof that the bread I’ve just eaten was baked today. Other people have stone and iron gods that they can see, but our Yahweh is invisible”—Gamaliel pointed up to the sky, and then to the top of Mount Moriah, where the temple was soon to be completed—“and yet we’re building Him a home. So when the roof is on the building and the men of Lebanon have gone back to where they came from, will Yahweh reside there? And if He does, will we be able to see Him? When I’m in my house and sitting on a chair, people can see me and nobody can sit on the chair that I occupy. Yet, if Yahweh is invisible, how will we know which chair He’s sitting on?”
Ahimaaz looked at the tax collector in fury. “For such words, as high priest of Israel, I could order that you be stoned to death. You blaspheme against the Lord our God. I will have you killed.”
Gamaliel smiled as he took out more shekels to pay his cousin for their pomegranate juice. “And will my death make Yahweh appear? No. But it doesn’t matter. Let us make a deal. You tend to your congregation and I’ll collect my revenues. We’re both now in the service of King Solomon and his temple, Ahimaaz, but we’re using different doors to enter.”
Gamaliel drained the cup of juice and looked at the priest, whose face was red, not only from the exertion of the walk to the marketplace and the heat of the sun, but also from the seditious and blasphemous words of the tax collector. Gamaliel wiped his lips and smiled. “Now, what did you really want to talk about?”
October 18, 2007
YAEL STRODE UP THE CORRIDOR and ignored much of what was going on around her. Patients, nurses, fellow doctors, visitors, the low din of clinking trolleys and the hum of machines. But the swirl of brown robes caught her attention. They billowed as the imam walked briskly down the corridor toward her. She saw the imam reach into a pocket deep within the folds of the material and draw out a mobile phone. For a second she was about to stop him, to point to the sign on the wall that declared mobile phones were not to be used in the hospital, but she thought better of it and the pace and purpose of the bearded man with suspicious eyes implied he was leaving. As she passed him their eyes met, his dark and piercing, black pools deeply set into a tanned face. She quickly looked away, unnerved by his stare. But when she was farther down the corridor and many steps past him, she turned her head to look back and saw the phone pressed to his ear. And it was obvious from the position of his body that he’d just turned back from staring at her.
Yael’s thoughts were interrupted by the abrupt presence of the uniformed guard outside Bilal’s room. He looked her up and down as though he were about to challenge her entry or search her, even though he had seen her a dozen times. But he simply sat back down on his seat without a word and shifted his rifle’s strap on his shoulder. As Yael put her hand on the door and her weight behind it, she pondered how out of place such a weapon was in a hospital.
Inside the room, the air was dry and still and quiet, the TV hanging from the ceiling remaining silent while Bilal lay in his bed. He started with a jump when she entered, and at first she wondered if she had woken him from sleep. But red eyes and the adoption of a fiercely resolute posture in the bed suggested something else. This intrigued Yael and she unintentionally quickened her steps to the bedside, but by the time she was close enough, Bilal’s face was a hard mask and he refused to look at her, his eyes fixed dead ahead like those of a soldier lined up for inspection.
“How are you today, Bilal?”
Bilal said nothing. Yael’s attention was distracted by thoughts other than bandages. As she checked his blood pressure she could not help but think of the blood that connected them. Who was this young man? Who were his family? How deep did the roots go that linked both of them, two people whose worlds were so diametrically opposed? But her musings were agitated by the image of an imam walking arrogantly down the hospital’s corridor, a man she knew must have just been speaking to Bilal. She didn’t trust any religion or any cleric, no matter how unctuous or bland they were on the surface. To her scientific mind, God was simply an invention to allay people’s fears, but organized orthodox religion had grown into a woman-hating and power-hungry institution of medieval costumes and archaic ideas. Orthodox Jews and Christians were bad enough, but when it came to hate-spewing Islamic clerics, Yael’s secular tolerance flew out the window.
In lively dinner-party debates with her educated friends she would attest to her discomfort for the faith of her own people, her frustration with the Jewish religious right, her disgust at the sycophancy of the Christian churches toward the Palestinians when its very own communities in West Bank towns had been decimated by Palestinian Muslims.
In her professional life, she kept such thoughts to herself. Now that she was in the hospital, her duty was to her patients. She gazed at Bilal and was concerned about the stress, anxiety, and fear on his face. Such emotions would adversely affect his recovery.
“Did you just have a visitor?” she asked him. “I saw a priest in the corridor.”
But he said nothing. His eyes locked on an imaginary spot on the far side of the room.
“You’ll be leaving soon.”
This statement turned Bilal’s head but he remained silent.
“Can’t stay here forever . . .” She stopped her inspection and returned the clipboard to the end of his bed. “So we’ll be saying good-bye to each other, Bilal.”
“I am not afraid of what happens next,” said Bilal flatly but unconvincingly.
“So you’ve said.”
“Understand, woman. I am not afraid.”
“Yes, Bilal. You’re very brave,” replied Yael. She was feeling sardonic and didn’t mind sounding patronizing.
“I will stand up straight and say to the world that I am a freedom fighter!” said Bilal, exhaling defiance with every syllable.
“Then your trial will be mercifully short.”
Bilal turned his head and looked Yael hard in the eye. “I will be a hero! My brothers will embrace me and they will call me a hero. Of that I promise you.”
Yael knew she should remain silent and dispassionate. She shouldn’t have cared for his beliefs or assertions. They were nothing to her. But despite the bluster in his voice she could not dismiss him. Whatever he’d done, he’d been controlled by others and he was only a kid. Sure, he was eighteen, but in his attitudes he wasn’t much more than a boy.
She stopped examining his wounds and looked at him intently. “Listen, Bilal, you’re in trouble. You don’t understand. These people you think love you . . . they . . .” Yael snatched at words. “You have no value to them anymore, Bilal. They don’t need you. And they will abandon you. They’ve used you for a couple of weeks, and they’ll leave you to suffer for the rest of your life.”
“You lie!” Bilal spat. “My imam tells me that—”
“Son, listen to me for a minute . . .” Yael put her hand on Bilal’s arm. He tried to snatch it away but the handcuff held it and Yael’s grip was firm. She could feel his pulse throbbing under her fingers, feel his blood pumping, blood that they shared. She softened her attitude toward him but her grip on his arm remained. “Bilal, you’re not safe. You won’t be safe in prison. You need to protect yourself. You need to tell the police that you’re not a hero but that you’ve been led astray—”
“You lie!” Bilal yelled, as if he could drown out her words.
Behind Yael, the door was suddenly pushed open and the security guard entered the room to see what the shouting was about. His eyes narrowed on Bilal and Yael turned to him. “It’s okay. We’re fine.”
Bilal yanked with all his strength at his handcuffed wrist in anger and the bed lurched with a force that surprised Yael and brought the guard over to the bedside.
“It’s okay. We’re fine. You don’t have to . . .” Yael said urgently to the guard, but as she did she was conscious that the chance to garner more information from Bilal about his heritage had slipped through her fingers.
“Calm down, boy!” said the guard with one hand outstretched and the other hovering near his weapon. There was no chance the guard would actually use his rifle, but many years serving on West Bank checkpoints had ingrained a muscular memory and a reaction to Palestinians that was not easy to let go.
“You lie!” yelled Bilal again. “I am a hero. I am a fighter. And you lie!”
The guard pushed Yael away from the bed with a sweep of his arm, a strong signal that she should leave.
“Bilal . . . Please . . . It won’t be what you think. You won’t be a hero in prison. You’ll—”
But her words were smothered by Bilal’s yelling. “YOU LIE!”
Yael turned her back and moved toward the door with the image of Bilal’s enraged face in her mind. She left the room, and as she walked down the corridor her mind began to doubt the science that had been her mainstay since she’d been a university student.
The match between their DNA must be wrong, the idea absurd; how could this idiotic failed terrorist be related to her? This deluded boy shared nothing with her—not heritage, not culture, not reality. The blood profile was a mistake, the DNA map was wrong. Or it was a one-in-a-billion chance that their DNA was identical but that they had no relationship to each other at all. And the proof was in the room behind her, painted in denial and ignorance.
Putting one hand in her pocket as she walked quickly toward the stairs that would lead her back to modernity and the certainty of her reality, Yael felt for the slip of paper that she’d retrieved from her hospital mailbox: the letter from Bilal’s father. They deserved to know the truth of their son’s fate and Yael needed to put this stupid absurdity to rest.
STANDING BY an empty hospital bed, Mahmud had watched the imam from a distance for some time, but although their eyes never met, he knew that the imam had seen him too. Dark Semitic features were common to Arabs and Jews, but the imam would recognize Mahmud for what he was.
Mahmud had been watching as the imam entered Bilal’s room. He’d waited patiently for the imam to leave. Now Mahmud stood outside the front doors of the hospital. The sunlight on his face felt good after hours drenched in the cold fluorescent light of the hospital. Before too long the brown robes of the imam emerged from the automatic sliding doors of the hospital and Mahmud saw him blink in the sun.
“As-salamu alaykum,” said Mahmud, and he took three paces toward the man. The imam seemed startled by the Arabic words and blinked again as he tried to focus on Mahmud while his eyes adjusted to the glare.
“Wa alaykum as-salamu wa rahmatu Allah wa barakatuh,” came the holy man’s reply.
“What brings you to the hospital today?”
“I go where I am needed,” the imam replied bluntly as he looked Mahmud up and down. “You are a doctor?”
“Where are you from?”
“Beit Safafa,” replied Mahmud.
“Ahh . . .” said the imam, as if the name of the town where Mahmud grew up said it all.
Beit Safafa was an Arab neighborhood in southern Jerusalem. For decades it had been split down the middle, an invisible division of hatred and suspicion separating the Israeli side from the Jordanian side. But after the Six-Day War, when the Israeli army drove back the Jordanians, the township became a symbol of cooperation where both Jews and Arabs lived side by side peacefully. But in truth it wasn’t where Mahmud had been born. Desperate for his son to grow up away from the tension and violence of the West Bank, which had characterized Mahmud’s father’s upbringing, the family had moved to Beit Safafa. Arriving poor and illiterate, they lived four people to a single room while his father drove a taxi eighteen hours a day to send Mahmud to school—an education that had been a gateway to a life his father never knew but had had vision enough to dream of for his son.
While the town of his childhood was a source of pride to Mahmud, the tone of the imam’s response was very different.
“You grew up among the Jews, then. And now you work among them too.”
“Do you know that boy? Bilal?” Mahmud asked, ice in his voice.
“He is a child of Allah. As are we all.”
“And did Allah wish for him to carry a bomb?”
The question was so blunt it surprised the imam, but he didn’t flinch, instead replying, “Did Allah wish for his people to be brutalized into poverty?”
Mahmud said nothing. The imam continued. “You are a doctor?”
“You are a good Muslim?”
“My father taught me to be so,” replied Mahmud.
“I see . . . Then why are you here? Why don’t you use your doctor skills to help your own people instead of helping these Jews?”
“Jews and Muslims and Christians come to this hospital. We treat the sick. We don’t ask what they believe. Anyway, what kind of help are you offering to Bilal?”
The imam’s eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. “I am guiding him to Allah. Who is guiding you?”
“When does it end?” asked Mahmud. His voice had lost its edge. It was barely more than a whisper. He turned away from the imam and walked back into the hospital.
THE OUTWARD CHANGE in Eliahu Spitzer’s appearance was minimal but momentous. It was glacially slow but, now that he came to look back on events, inexorable. Perhaps, in all his secular life, in his work protecting the State of Israel from Palestinian terrorists and other madmen, he’d hungered for a higher calling, for a spiritual side to his innate practicality, but there were times when Eliahu’s change surprised even him. Yet, when he had a moment of doubt, he remembered back to the events two years ago that had triggered his transformation, and it all somehow came together.
Before his daughter’s murder, before his massive heart attack six months later, he had been—like so much of Israeli society—secular. His father, a Polish immigrant, had been ultra-religious, a former Yeshiva student who would have been a rabbi had not the war intervened. But Eliahu rejected religion and in his social life and education embraced the secular Israeli lifestyle.
For him and later his family, the synagogue was a three-times-a-year obligation at the insistence of his wife. He’d met with rabbis many times for his work and been to the ultra-religious corners of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but religion had never been anything other than what he’d done for personal cultural reasons. Yet, like a stone on which water drips and drips, after his daughter’s murder and his brush with death, Eliahu’s secularism eroded and he made room for a deity in his life. He’d actually seen God and it had changed his life forever.
He had two great regrets: the first was his rejection of his father’s faith and that his awakening to the Almighty through the sect of the Neturei Karta had taken him over fifty years to realize; and the second was that, because of his position as a senior security officer for the government, the leaders of the sect had begged him to hide his affiliation to the Neturei Karta and to continue working within Shin Bet as usual and further the sect’s cause.
He’d been hiding his faith for three years and in that time he’d worked to change the sect’s methods of making the Messiah come early. They believed in prayer; so did he, but assisted prayer. He had laid out an ambitious plan for the leaders of Neturei Karta, and they’d eventually given their approval. In the three years since covertly joining Neturei Karta, he’d paved the way for the coming of the Messiah by honing and refining plans to bring about chaos, the destruction of the government, and its replacement by fervently religious Jews. And then all Jewish voices would be lifted to heaven so that the Messiah heard and would come.
Some members of Neturei Karta refused to go along with what Eliahu suggested to their leadership, believing that the restoration of the nation of Israel should be brought about by the will of the Messiah and not at a time dictated by the sect; and when they heard that people might be killed in the process, they were horrified. But their leader, Reb Shmuel Telushkin, reassured them that fighting governments of foreign lands was unacceptable but fighting Zionists who were traitors against the laws of the Bible was necessary.
Eliahu’s identity was kept a strict secret from most of the membership while Reb Telushkin prepared him to be a member of the sect in every respect other than wearing the sect’s uniform of the black fur hat and the long black silken frock coat and growing his sideburns.
His transformation from secular to Neturei Karta was carefully handled and subtle. After the shattering events he and his family suffered, he changed his appearance only slightly. Now he wore a small blue and white skullcap, the symbol to Jews that he was a religious man. He wore his Neturei Karta uniform of eighteenth-century garb only when he was in their synagogue, carefully screened from impure eyes; not even his wife knew.
The instrument of his change had begun with the murder of his daughter on a school excursion to the Dead Sea. For days he hovered over her bedside, looking at her torn body swathed in bandages, praying to a remote and invisible God for her recovery, one he’d not spoken with since he was a boy with his father in synagogue, knowing that her life was ebbing away as her vital signs continued to weaken.
Others might have sworn off the deity, becoming confirmed atheists because God hadn’t answered their prayers; but as the doctors switched off the machinery that was keeping his daughter’s shattered body on the threshold of life, Eliahu prayed fervently for God to look after her in heaven, now that he could no longer protect her on earth.
The month of ritual mourning had done little to mollify his hatred of the Palestinians, and he’d smoked and drunk more than usual before and after the crowds had come to his home to comfort the mourners and say evening prayers. Two of the visitors to his home had been Neturei Karta rabbis. His wife was surprised, as was he. But he welcomed any visitor who could lift the burden of grief he felt, even for a moment. At first he thought that they were just ordinary black-hatted rabbis. They kept their identity disguised until the third visit to his house of mourning, when the older man said that they were guardians of the city. In ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, that meant they were Neturei Karta. His wife, knowing they were anti-Zionist, wanted them gone, but he accepted comfort from anywhere and took them into his study, where he asked about their beliefs in God and the afterlife. They spoke soft and conciliatory words into his ears, and for the first time such words from the lips of Hasidic rabbis began to mean something to him. He knew consciously that he was clutching at straws, but he was a drowning man.
Eliahu’s wife continued to view the rabbis with derision bordering on hatred, but the Shin Bet leader still listened to their words carefully as they enticed him out of the protective shell of his previously secular life. His wife railed against them and their desire to destroy the State of Israel. Soon they became the focus of her grief, expressed as anger and hatred against those who wanted to demolish her homeland and replace it with a Messianic theocracy.
The rabbis of the sect told Eliahu that the only way for him to meet again with his daughter was with the establishment of the Holy Nation of Israel, not the secular state that had been founded by Zionists and the irreligious. They said that this was holy land and that the Lord God was ready to send his Messiah to ease all the pain and suffering of His people, provided certain conditions were met. The rabbis begged Eliahu to come and see their mentor and spiritual leader of the Neturei Karta, Reb Shmuel Telushkin, who would explain more, much more, to him.
But when the thirty-day period of mourning was over, Eliahu stopped thinking of his conversation with the Hasidic rabbis. He returned to work after the religious s’loshim ended, and threw himself into his job with renewed energy. He wasn’t ready to go back onto the streets, and so they created a research position for him. And he ate hamburgers and french fries and drank liters of Coke and Pepsi at his newly created desk in his new office, rarely moved from his chair, took a taxi home, and sat in front of the television watching American cop dramas. The words of the Neturei Karta faded.
That is, until the morning he’d just finished a meeting and was crushed by a pain in his chest. His heart failed just as it had been broken when his daughter died. In the hospital he was immediately injected with thrombolytics to dissolve the clot and was wheeled up to an operating theater to be given a quintuple bypass, a wonder of modern surgery. And it was in the hospital that he saw the light . . .
While he was waiting for the operation to begin, he was given oxygen and injected with drugs to keep him alive before the surgeons could open his chest, and while he was lying in the pre-op ward, he slipped into a coma. The trauma nurses hit the alarm buttons and doctors rushed in. He was given electric shocks and wheeled immediately into the theater. But what the medical staff didn’t know was that while he had his eyes closed he could sense that massive things were being done to his body. His eyes were tightly shut but he could actually see a brilliance above his head. The noises of the theater, the urgent instructions of the surgeon and nurses—even the smell of the disinfectants and the anesthetic—all faded, replaced by a warm and gentle atmosphere of peace, serenity, and calm, and the smell of jasmine. Jasmine, Shoshanna’s favorite perfume.
He opened his eyes and near the ceiling, floating above him, he saw his beautiful daughter Shoshanna, dressed in the white of purity, smiling at him, waving to him, encouraging him to leave his pain and grief behind and follow her into the whiteness. Behind her, he saw an even more brilliant light, which he could hardly look into, but it shrouded his daughter in a sort of halo. He clearly heard her saying, “Abba, come, follow . . .”
And he did. He rose from the bed and could see the faces of the nurses and surgeons desperately trying to keep him alive. He saw his chest open, his heart beating, surgeons quickly trying to hook him up to machines to keep the blood flowing. He looked around the room and could clearly see the surgical table on which he was lying, the doctors and nurses, the instruments, the bottles and syringes and medicines and tubes. As he floated, trying desperately to reach his daughter’s outstretched hand, calling out her name, he heard a voice in his ear. He recognized it immediately. It was the rabbi who had visited him months earlier when he was in mourning for Shoshanna, the rabbi who was a Hasid and who told him that the answer to his nightmare was the Neturei Karta. The rabbi’s voice whispered, “Reb Shmuel.”
Fifteen hours later, he woke in intensive care, but all he could remember was the brilliant white light, his beautiful daughter, and the urgent need to see Reb Shmuel Telushkin so that he could understand why the vision had come to him.
He’d discussed it with his cardiac surgeon, who had told him blithely that it was an unusual but perfectly understandable function of oxygen deprivation and the bright lights of the operating theater, and that he was to put it out of his mind. Which he assured the doctor he would do.
But the image stayed with him, haunted him, and even when he was exercising and trying to get his mind and body back to the way they once were, all he could think about was the way his beautiful daughter had looked, so grown-up and peaceful and serene. When he left the hospital two weeks later to go home, the voice and images remained as strong as ever in his mind. After two months of boredom, walking, watching television, and going to the hospital for checkups, and out of curiosity, he went to see Reb Telushkin in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim district.
Yet, Telushkin knew that he wasn’t ready to join the sect, and so he sent him home and a month later they began the first of a series of regular talks, prayer meetings, Bible readings, explanations of the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, the Mishnah, the Gomorrah, and other spiritual books, which, despite being a Jew, he’d never bothered to open or read.
It took two full years before Reb Telushkin thought he was ready to join their sect. For the better part of six months, Eliahu had begged to be allowed to leave all of his ways behind him and become one of them. Every day he was increasingly estranged from his wife and wanted to leave the world of security and Zionism and politics behind him. But the rabbi refused his request and told him firmly to remain in his secular life, and only to come to them when his heart and mind could bear it no longer.
When, two years after his heart attack, Eliahu said that he was ready, he was surprised when Reb Telushkin told him that he would be welcomed into Neturei Karta on the condition that he continue to work with Shin Bet. He must maintain the façade of a secular life. The condition felt like an insult, an instruction that compelled Eliahu to lie and be dishonest to himself and to his newfound faith. But Telushkin calmly explained why this act was good in the sight of God, a small lie to bring about a bigger truth.
Eliahu would be their instrument to end the secular predicament, to end the abomination that was Israel. And he asked Eliahu, as an insider in both camps, how best to do it. Decades of experience with terrorism told Eliahu how to use it to pressure the Jewish community worldwide to rise up against the effete government that ran his nation and replace it with what it should all along have been: a theocracy, a dedicated group of rabbis who knew the message of God Almighty and would bring about the arrival of the Messiah and the Golden Age.
And since his heart attack, since seeing his beauteous daughter, since Reb Telushkin and he had planned their strategy, he had managed to obviate every threat to expose him, even if it meant that some people had to be killed for a greater cause. And now another potential threat was arising, one he had to keep his eye on.
Eliahu Spitzer sat at his desk, ruminating on Bilal’s failure to be killed. He thought about this young trauma doctor in the hospital. Why was she visiting Bilal so much? His guard outside the door had reported that she had been in to see him four or five times, each time just talking. Far too much for a surgeon. What were they talking about? And why had Bilal reacted so badly when Eliahu had tried to talk to him, to see what he knew and what he might tell other authorities?
What the hell was going on?
GAMALIEL SAT IN HIS HOME and pondered his sudden change of fortune. Though he and his wives were richly attired and they had every comfort their home needed, still his house was just above the middle of the hill on which Jerusalem sprawled. It suffered the stench of the marketplace and took the full brunt of the burning winds that blew in from the desert.
Unlike princes and priests, and Solomon himself with his vast palace at the very apex of the city’s hill, Gamaliel’s rank as a tax collector on the gates to the city didn’t entitle him to a higher position. But now that he was going to enter the temple, where he’d have an office and servants, he wondered whether Solomon or his court officials would grant him the right to build or buy a house much higher up the hill. If he could, then not only would his status as a lowly tax collector and merchant rise but he would be mixing with the sort of people whose patronage mattered: wives of Solomon, princes of his loins, and important people in the army and the palace itself.
His first and foremost wife entered the room, bowing her head reverentially, and stood in the doorway, waiting for his permission to enter. She still bore the marks on her face from the beating he’d given her the previous week. The truth was Gamaliel didn’t know how Solomon had discovered his fraud with the tax collection. Nor did he know which of his wives had spoken of his business in the marketplace. But he did know two things: that he had told his first wife too much of his affairs and that she had a big mouth, always chattering to her friends and neighbors. And one of the servants of Tashere, Solomon’s first and foremost wife, was probably listening as she’d boasted of their riches and fortunes.
“Yes?” he said sharply.
“She’s here . . .”
“The king’s first and foremost wife. I swear in the name of Yahweh, husband, I didn’t know she was coming. And I didn’t invite her. I’ve never met her. But she just appeared at the door and asked to see you. I swear.” She seemed about to cry.
“The king’s wife Tashere? She’s in my house?”
His wife nodded.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Show her in. Immediately.”
His wife ran off and returned in moments with the queen, only to disappear once again just as quickly.
Gamaliel stood when Tashere entered. “Majesty . . .” He bowed and waited for her to release him.
Instead she began to speak, and sat on a chair opposite.
“You have been lucky, Gamaliel the tax collector,” said Ta-shere in a near whisper, and she looked about the room in case people were listening.
Gamaliel didn’t respond; Tashere didn’t expect a reply.
“The money you will raise will be a fortune. But the fortune will be Solomon’s. And it will be swallowed by the temple.” Ta-shere surveyed the room, the furnishings, the matting on the floor. “No doubt you will want to rise higher in the city?”
“It is what all of us wish, to be closer to God’s house.”
“Save your piety for the priests. You wish to rise higher. And you will. But only so far. You will be blocked by Naamah and by that false high priest Ahimaaz. Is this not true?”
He looked at her and frowned. “Only last week, the king commanded me to raise the taxes. I haven’t thought about what that means for me personally.”
She laughed. “I know that you have been lying and stealing from Solomon, tax collector. But don’t lie to me, for I know you and your kind only too well. My father, the pharaoh Shoshenq, employed a hundred of your kind, and all of his troubles were caused by them and the priests of the god Horus. Their bodies were found floating in Mother Nile until eaten by crocodiles. You want money and elevation from your lowly rank, but Naamah and Ahimaaz will ensure that you fail.”
Gamaliel remained silent.
“I can prevent this happening. I can make you more than a rich man. I can make you rich and powerful,” she said.
Again he was silent, stunned by her audacity.
“I was once the most powerful woman in Israel. Solomon listened only to me. Naamah took this from me by stealth and by using her body. And she took my son from me. They think I’m finished. But they’re wrong, for I was not exiled by their lies. They left me alone because they think me weak; they have badly underestimated me. I need something from you, and you need something from me. And that is all it will take to elevate us both.”
Gamaliel leaned in closer to hear what she was about to say.
“Money!” said Tashere.
Gamaliel let out a dry, soft laugh. “What a fool you must take me for, great Queen. Your husband, Solomon, has seen my deceit once and he will not hesitate to stone me to death and exile my family if I am so stupid as to risk his displeasure again.”
“You are at risk already. Regardless of what you do, Ahimaaz and Naamah will see to your downfall. They have no control over you. Now that the priest knows you, he knows well that he cannot use you. Naamah will seek to place her own creature in your role. You have nowhere to go but further down the hill—if they allow you to remain alive, of course.” She gestured toward the markets and slums that leaned against the outer gates and walls of the city, as far from the temple and prosperity as a Jerusalemite could live.
“Join with me, tax collector, and give me sufficient funds from your revenues to raise a militia of mercenaries to deal with Naamah, and I will expel her from the palace and with her will go Ahimaaz. Then my son, Abia, the rightful heir to Solomon’s throne, will return and he will reward you for your loyalty to me.”
Gamaliel smiled. “My reward will come swiftly the moment Solomon learns I have diverted revenues to you. I will be cast into the pit at the foot of the Northern Wall. No, thank you, Tashere; I don’t fancy ending my days being crushed to death by large stones.”
She nodded. She’d expected nothing less. “Naamah is a fading light. Solomon is growing tired of her, and her body no longer pleases him. She has to resort to more and more slaves doing more and more unusual things to his body to entice him. Her days are numbered, but she still commands a bodyguard, which will prevent me from getting near to her. Solomon still visits me in my palace and I have more of his ear than before.
“But she’s also failing for another reason. Solomon now listens to me when I tell him things about her and her idiot son, Rehoboam, and he is regretting his decision to expel our son, Prince Abia. Soon, in a few days, I will say other things to him that will convince him of Naamah’s treachery. That is why I need to pay for men.”
Gamaliel listened carefully before saying, “But how do I account for giving you the revenue from the tax collections? Solomon has told me that he will be counting every shekel.”
“Naamah is not the only one with creatures. While she controls the priests and high men, she has neglected the lowly men of the palace, men who see her for what she is. The clerks and the scribes and the money counters, these are my creatures—lowly men, but they are mine and they see everything. Solomon will not see any numbers before they have passed through my hands.”
Gamaliel raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“I do not need an army. There will be no war. Just the removal of thorns. Naamah and her fool of a son, Rehoboam. Then my son will return as prince of Israel and you will rise higher than you could possibly imagine.”
IN THE YEARS SINCE becoming high priest, since the downfall of his brother Azariah and the exile of Prince Abia, Solomon’s heir, Ahimaaz had worked hard to teach Prince Rehoboam the intricacies and complexities of the laws of Moses and Yahweh. The young man occasionally asked some questions of merit, but most of the time when he was learning Jewish ways in the new and wondrous Temple of Solomon, his mind was elsewhere.
The prince even admitted he would rather be hunting or visiting other lands than spending his time at the feet of his father, learning the perils of kingship, or in the inner sanctums of the temple having rituals explained to him by the high priest.
In desperation Ahimaaz summoned Naamah, Rehoboam’s mother, now the most important of Solomon’s wives, to attend a meeting with him at his offices in the temple. He had told her to be present after the noonday sacrifice, and he sat and waited for her. And he sat. And he waited.
As the mid-afternoon prayers and sanctifications were about to begin in the western wing of the temple, Ahimaaz felt he had waited long enough and sent a messenger to ask why the queen had failed to attend. The man returned in less than an hour, red-faced and diffident.
“Her Majesty said that she was unable to attend,” he said softly.
Surprised, Ahimaaz asked, “Did she give a reason?”
The man didn’t answer but looked at the floor.
“What did the queen say?” Ahimaaz demanded.
The man whispered, “She said, ‘Queens do not attend priests. If Ahimaaz wishes to speak with me, he will come to the palace and await my pleasure.’ ”
Despite the cold that was setting in on top of the mountain, Ahimaaz began to sweat. He had not seen the queen in many weeks. After his elevation to the high priesthood was secure, he’d been a valuable tool to the queen and had systematically removed any potential thorns and opposition in the temple while the queen herself cleared the palace of opponents. But with her power now seemingly secure, she no longer sought his counsel, leaving him to his rituals and the instruction of princes.
But Ahimaaz had to inform Naamah of Rehoboam’s recalcitrance, his obduracy, and his waywardness so that she would scold him and force him to concentrate. Perhaps he shouldn’t have summoned her, but he knew that was what his brother Azariah would have done. Azariah had even summoned Solomon to his home when the great king had allowed his foreign wives to place their idols close to the Ark of the Covenant so they could continue the worship they had practiced in their homes. Wary of Azariah’s fury, Solomon had ordered his wives to keep their idols in their rooms. If Solomon had come at the high priest Azariah’s behest, why wouldn’t Queen Naamah come when Ahimaaz summoned her? Was he no less the high priest?
He donned his cloak, walked from his office, and descended the steps that led to the heavily guarded gate in the Western Wall of the city of Jerusalem. The guards let him pass without hindrance and he descended the well-trodden path to the king’s palace. Weaving his way through the corridors to the women’s quarters and then to the upper levels to the queen’s chambers, he asked her steward for permission to enter. The arrogant man told him to wait while he went into the inner rooms.
And Ahimaaz waited and waited. There was no chair on which to sit, so he paced the floor wondering, then worrying, why it was taking so long for the steward to return. Eventually, after what seemed an age, the steward threw open the doors to the queen’s chambers and told him to enter. The man didn’t bow—didn’t even lower his head in abasement—much to Ahimaaz’s growing anger.
When he entered Queen Naamah’s apartments, she was seated on a raised chair, a replica of a throne, surrounded by women in gossamer dresses lying around the plinth at her feet, their breasts and hips and legs clearly visible through the voile. He was shocked at such a display. Under other circumstances, he could have been in the inner recesses of a pagan temple, in the presence of sacred prostitutes.
Affronted, Ahimaaz looked at Naamah and said sharply, “Queen, when a high priest demands your attendance, you must come.”
She sneered at him in contempt. “Little man, you are a high priest because I made you one. Yet, you sit in your temple and convince yourself that it was the Lord God Yahweh who put you there.”
Ahimaaz was suddenly afraid for such words to be said aloud. “Silence. These women—”
Naamah said quickly, “All Nubians, Ammonites, Egyptians, and Moabites. Not one of them speaks a word of Hebrew. And even if they could, I’ve had their tongues removed . . .” The queen stretched out the last words as if they were a threat.
“I’m here about your son,” said Ahimaaz.
“And what of him?” said Naamah, dismissively raising her eyebrow.
“He is lazy, indolent, and unwilling to learn. King Solomon has commanded me to instruct him in the ways of our faith, but in all of the time that I’ve been teaching him, he has learned nothing. His mind thinks of little but hunting and sport and women.”
“I provide him with enough women. As for hunting and sport,” said Naamah, “every young man needs distraction.”
“You don’t understand, Naamah—”
“Queen Naamah,” she said, her voice cold.
“Queen Naamah,” Ahimaaz corrected himself. “If he doesn’t know and understand our laws and our ways, how can Solomon allow him to take over the kingdom? If he is disappointed, he will seek another son.”
“And you will be sent into exile for your failure. But don’t worry, Ahimaaz, these things so important to you and your god are of little consequence to me. While my son will rule Israel, it will be me who rules my son, and my plans are much greater than your invisible god can contemplate.”
“But . . .” was all Ahimaaz was able to say as the blasphemy echoed in his ears.
“You people can see no further than your diminutive little city. Do you think I’ve worked so hard, used my body with such skill, just to be the queen of a sandy desert and the mother of houses made from stone? Go, Ahimaaz. Return to your little temple on top of the mountain and leave the running of the nation to those of us who understand what greatness means.”
Before he could argue, she banged her foot on the plinth and immediately the door to her chamber opened, and the steward walked hurriedly over to where Ahimaaz was standing. He grasped his arm and tried to hurry him out of the door. But Ahimaaz held his ground and said to the queen, “I am the high priest of Israel. Do not dare treat me in this way. Control your son, Queen Naamah, or I will—”
“What? What will you do, little man?”
He swallowed. “I will curse him and forbid him to be the heir. I will refuse to anoint him when Solomon dies. I will—”
Suddenly, furiously, Naamah stood up and walked swiftly down the steps until she stood so close to Ahimaaz that he feared she would push him over.
“Listen to me, you ridiculous, disgusting little man. Go back to your temple and pray to your god that you never meet me again. For if ever I see you, and if ever I hear that you have used your office to curse me or my son, I will have you stripped naked and will order my soldiers to flay all of the skin from your worthless body. Now go. Get out of my sight. And never dare speak to me again.”
Truly terrified, Ahimaaz left her chambers, his legs shaking and his head pounding. As he walked back up the hill toward the temple, he felt as though his head would roll off into the dirt.
In the years since he had replaced Azariah as high priest, Ahimaaz had immersed himself in the richness and complexity of the rituals of temple worship. It seemed all he had wanted was fulfilled. People bowed and deferred to him, sought his counsel and wisdom. He could not have imagined greater fulfillment and even believed he heard the voice of his God in the stone of Solomon’s Temple. When he was in the Holy of Holies, alone in the darkness with just a single light to shine upon the Shekinah, he would stand still, barely breathing, and in his ears he could hear the breath of the Lord God. And when he stood even longer, the Lord God Yahweh told him what to do, how to behave, which of his priests to reward and which to punish.
But lately the voice had faded and the stones of the temple seemed cold and silent. The other priests cowered before him, spoke only when spoken to. He was asked no questions and provided no answers. He had convinced himself that God himself had orchestrated his rise.
Then he could think only of the small children’s top, a toy from his days of innocence, with its painted colors spinning on the floor. And the laughter of his brother . . .
And now he couldn’t even hear that laughter. Now all he could hear was the cackling laughter of the queen as he was hustled out the door by the guards.
Even before he reached the outer gate in the Western Wall of Jerusalem, even before he began his ascent to the Holy Temple, Ahimaaz stopped in his tracks and stood in the road. The guards looked at him, wondering what he was doing. Those worshippers who were going up to the temple carrying sacrifices, or who were descending after offering their prayers and sacrifices, stared at him. And then they rushed over to Ahimaaz when he fell to his knees and sprawled in the roadway in a dead faint.
October 20, 2007
ALTHOUGH SHE’D BEEN strongly advised by both her colleagues and the police superintendent whom she’d consulted not to go into the village, Yael went nonetheless, and immediately regretted it. Israelis didn’t go to the Palestinian village of Bayt al Gizah, or to most other places that were predominantly Palestinian towns or cities. Even though Bayt al Gizah was just the other side of the valley from Jerusalem in Israel proper, ten minutes by car and clearly visible from the city’s eastern side, she’d never been there before. Cars had been stoned, Jews had been beaten, and there had even been several Israelis killed. Yet, Yael was determined to visit the village both to show that she wasn’t afraid and to fulfill a promise she’d made to herself: to find out just how she was linked by bloodline to Bilal.
But now that she was parked on one of the potholed, unpaved streets and knew that those looking at her weren’t kindly disposed, she realized how foolish she’d been. Her car, for a start, made her stand out as a person to be detested. It was a late-model dark blue Honda sports car, and a world apart from the ten- and twenty-year-old pickup trucks and dusty Fords and Toyotas parked in the narrow hillside lanes of the village. Then there was the fact that she was a woman, exposing her face and her chest in a blouse that, while modest by Israeli standards, showed the beginnings of cleavage, an outrage in a medieval Islamic setting. She bought her clothes to look sharp and modern, from the expensive boutiques along the Mamilla shopping mall in the center of Jerusalem, in stark contrast to the traditional Arab clothes of men and women who, when they weren’t wearing a thawb or a hijab or a niqab, wore jeans and tops.
And lastly, there was the fact that her long black locks of hair as well as her face were exposed for all the men to see because she wasn’t wearing a hijab or niqab, and her body was clearly visible because she wasn’t in a chador. Instead of covering herself, Yael was wearing the normal clothes she wore to work, a blouse and skirt that rode just a fraction above her knees, revealing the shape of her legs. She’d driven straight from the hospital just a short distance beyond the valley where her look was completely unremarkable in modern Israeli society to a traditional society where conservative dress and the restrictions on women were mandated by men.
Indeed, it was only a few years earlier that a group of fundamentalist members of Hamas in Gaza, who called themselves the Swords of Truth, had threatened to behead women television presenters and reporters if they didn’t wear a hijab.
As she walked toward the house, she wondered if her car would still be there when she left. It was easy to be angry at thieves, much harder to fix the poverty that afflicted many Arab neighborhoods in Israel. Yael knew this but still felt a mixture of anxiety and anger at the prospect of being a victim of theft.
It was a modest house made of limestone blocks. The front garden was neat and there was a small patch of earth where lettuce, radishes, and carrots were being grown. The steep and terraced garden was intersected by a path that led to four stone steps and the blue front door. Yael smiled at the color; she’d been told as a child that it was painted blue because the devil can’t swim, and so he’d mistake the house for the sea and leave the occupants in peace. She just prayed that Bilal’s parents didn’t look upon her as a Jewish devil as she climbed the steps and knocked.
Within a moment it was opened by an elderly stooped man, unshaven and with the ubiquitous cigarette in his mouth. He looked at Yael as though she were a visiting alien. “Yes?” he said in Arabic.
“My name is Dr. Yael Cohen. Are you Bilal’s father, Fuad?”
He frowned but the frown quickly became a strange smile. “You’re the doctor who . . . I wrote to you . . . You were on the television . . .”
“Yes. I wonder if I could talk with you. Inside your home, if that’s all right?”
“Is Bilal well? Has something happened? The operation? He was taken to prison?”
“He’s fine. And no, he won’t leave the hospital until Friday.” She was nervous about being on the front step and spoke quickly. “I’ve arranged it so that he can stay a bit longer. He wants you to visit him before he goes to prison. I just need to—” But before she could say anything further, she saw that Fuad was looking beyond her, to the street. She turned to see that a group of about twenty young men had gathered around the front gate of the house, and while some were looking with interest, it was evident that others were looking at Yael with menace. Israeli women, especially those who came without men, didn’t enter Palestinian villages. They wanted to know why she was here, visiting Fuad and his family.
“Excuse me,” Fuad said, and stepped from the house to stand beside Yael on the front step. He shouted to the group of men, “There is nothing here. This is the doctor who saved Bilal’s life. Leave now and go back to your homes. Everything is all right. She is in my protection.”
With these words from Fuad they all left to walk back to where they’d come from. Fuad looked at Yael and said, “You will be safe now. Please, good Doctor, come inside. You will have tea and cakes. Yes?” And as if he’d just realized something important, he said, “Your Arabic. It’s very good.”
Yael knew from her education at school of the legendary hospitality of Arab households, and to refuse an offer of food and drink was a great insult, so she walked into the beautifully neat home and was encouraged to sit on a sofa. As was Arabic custom, the sofa was actually a series of deep cushions, and so she sat on the floor, carefully adjusting her skirt for modesty while Fuad positioned himself to her right. Within moments of sitting there, two women, one elderly and the other presumably her daughter, walked into the central room of the house. Both women were carrying ornamental copper trays on which were arrayed a dallah, a traditional coffeepot with a long curved spout, and two small handle-less cups along with cakes. The women, whom Fuad didn’t introduce, placed the trays on the small three-legged tables and poured two cups of coffee. The smell of cardamom rose from the cups. Yael smiled when she saw the cakes, small diamond-shaped morsels and triangles of sugary, syrupy confections, full of honey and nuts and flaky pastry. Delicious, and although her diet would never allow her to eat such treats at home, she gladly accepted and relished their sweetness and flavors.
As soon as the coffee had been poured, the two women retired from the room. Yael assumed that the older woman was Fuad’s wife and Bilal’s mother, and the younger was his sister. But as was traditional with Arab men, Fuad neither introduced them nor would he countenance them sitting in on the conversation.
Alone, Fuad said, “You have come here to visit me. It is a great honor. My house is your house, my possessions your possessions. I wrote to you and I apologize for my writing because I am not a man of education. All my life I have been a construction worker; now I am boss of two construction gangs and I am a respected man in my community.” His chest was noticeably full of pride but deflated as he continued. “But I ask you, Dr. Cohen, why are you here?”
“I’m here to ask you about Bilal, and yourself.” She sensed a moment of suspicion when his eyes narrowed, so quickly added, “Don’t be alarmed. Bilal’s health is good, and he’s well enough to leave the hospital, but I’m keeping him in for some days so that you can talk with him.”
Fuad looked at her in surprise. “Is this usual in your country for you people to speak Arabic as well as you do?”
She forced herself not to smile. “Your country”? she thought. “You people”? It was always like this, separated even though living beside one another. She wondered when it would all end.
“We learn Arabic at school, and as a doctor I treat many Palestinians, so I have learned the beauty of your language and the wisdom of your thoughts.”
Fuad nodded sagely, accepting the praise and compliment without comment. Yael heard a slight noise coming from the kitchen. It was obvious that the two women were close by, listening to every word that was being said.
“If Bilal is well, why are you here? Don’t misunderstand. I am honored and grateful, but why have you come?”
“It was through your letter that I discovered your address. Because of what he did, all Bilal’s personal records are kept secret, to protect you and your family. But the reason I’m here is because of a blood test that I ordered to be performed on Bilal before we operated on him. He has a rare and unusual blood group.” Fuad’s eyes widened, anticipating bad news as would any father speaking to a doctor about his son’s health. “Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong, but the blood group is very strange, and I was hoping you’d be able to tell me where your family came from, your family history.”
His concern turned to suspicion. “We are Palestinians. We were born in Peki’in. Near to the border with Lebanon. Why do you ask?”
She knew she’d addressed the issue wrongly. It undermined him to be asked in such a direct way. The Arabic mind-set was full of twists and turns and, like the language, often relied on nuance to make sense. “As a doctor I have to understand blood. It’s blood that gives us life. And blood is something we pass from father and mother to son. Bilal’s blood is very interesting and rare, and I’d like to know where his bloodline comes from.”
Fuad looked at her for a long moment, and she couldn’t perceive what he was thinking. Then, unexpectedly, he said with a smile on his face, “Bilal came from my loins.”
The joke was strangely comforting, like the dry overt humor of fathers the world over. Yael let out a small laugh and Fuad continued.
“My father was born in Peki’in. His father too. My family came to Palestine many years ago. I don’t know when. They say from Egypt, which is why our name is haMitzri. In your Jew words, it means Egyptian. But we are all Palestinians. We’re told that we have lived here for many thousands of years. Our president Abbas told us that we Palestinians have lived in Palestine for over seven thousand years. Perhaps my family has always lived here. I don’t know.”
“And Bilal’s mother, your wife? Where is she from? What’s her heritage?”
Fuad looked at her strangely and asked quietly, “My wife? Why does she matter?” Fuad’s question was genuine, born of a traditional way of thinking about families and bloodlines.
“Because—” Yael was about to explain the need to trace the maternal as well as paternal bloodline but Fuad suddenly cut her off.
“Doctor, I thank you for treating my son. I thank you for saving his life. But you are asking about my family. And these are not things I will discuss with you.”
They continued to talk for a little while, but it was obvious that he was immensely sensitive about information concerning his family. She knew that Arab families, as well as the tribe they belonged to, kept personal information very private, rarely revealing details such as this. She decided to leave, finished her coffee, and thanked him, asking him to pass on her regards to his wife, then she said that they should come to the hospital the following day if possible to visit Bilal.
He stood and escorted her to the door. There was nobody left in the street, and her car was intact. But as she walked to her car, she wondered if Fuad was so sensitive about discussing his ancestry because it was a traditional Arab reaction, or because there was something he didn’t want others to know.
DRIVING BACK TO THE HOSPITAL in Jerusalem would take her not more than ten or fifteen minutes at the most, but driving out of the village of Bayt al Gizah seemed to take forever. Apart from the impossibly narrow streets and the precipitous drops on either side of the roads, which had been carved out of the steep hillside, forcing her to drive at slow speed, Yael felt horribly intimidated. Along the route from Fuad’s home to the outskirts of the village, young and old men had positioned themselves on both sides of the road.
Fuad’s warning to the village that Yael was under his protection had spread from house to house. But that didn’t stop dozens of people from lining the streets on the outskirts of the village as she drove slowly away. They were just looking at her and her car. She tried to focus and concentrate on her driving, but whenever she looked at the people’s faces, she thought she saw both anger and envy. They had been warned off from harassing her, but Fuad had said nothing to them about intimidation, and that’s precisely what she felt.
The menacing stares grew fewer and fewer as she drove out of the village, but she could still feel them. Having been brought up in Jewish cities and suburbs all her life, and with few Palestinians whom she could call friends, her only contact with them was through her patients. She didn’t want to think of herself as a racist or a person who instinctively disliked or distrusted Palestinians, as did a number of her friends, but her experience in Bayt al Gizah deepened her concerns that Jews and Palestinians were destined never to live together, and all the high hopes and naïve optimism might never change the relationships between the two peoples. Abba Eban’s words came to her mind:
“History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
Yael was afraid, and she was angry that she should feel afraid. So close to her home, in the place she was born, she was suddenly fearful of those all around her; of the Palestinian eyes she felt boring into her. Realizing that she was driving faster than normal as her anxiety increased, she slowed down as she approached the outskirts of Jerusalem and its familiar lights reflected on ancient stones.
At school she had learned her history and the complexity of the diaspora and exile of the Jewish people. Land and culture were ancient, but nations were built and made and manufactured. Israel had been built upon the bones of an ancient culture with a narrative of determined survival in the unwelcoming places Jews had been forced to live. It was a narrative well suited to a people who had nowhere else to go.
And the Palestinians, whose envious eyes Yael could feel watching her as she drove away, had an identity and a narrative manufactured for them by external political forces. A nation dispossessed and a victim of colonization. Both were simple narratives obscured by infinitely more complex truths. The Jews had been exiled and yet they had never truly left, with family lines remaining in villages, towns, and cities. Palestinians longed for a nation of their own, yet history had never known a people called Palestinians. Their narrative had been written for them, and they had become a people with nowhere else to go. The story was flawed and complex, and too much blood had been spilled trying to simplify it.
But all this was very far from Yael’s mind as her eyes glanced nervously in the rearview mirror and the mix of fear and anger welled inside her. Why should she feel afraid? Behind her car, lights flashed and she caught her breath. Was she being followed? Or was she jumping at shadows? She had gone to a village so close yet so far removed in time and place from her home. She had spoken to a reasonable man, a loving father, yet she was at the mercy of his protection from his neighbors, who saw her as an enemy. She was furious that she should need protection.
Yael flexed her hand and shook out the tension, placing her palms back on the wheel with a deliberately lighter grip. The lights behind turned off into a side street and she was alone on the road again. She thought of the blood she had washed off those hands through countless surgeries. Jewish blood and Arab blood all looked the same as it cascaded off her latex gloves and flowed down the sink. But fear and delusion were much harder to scrub away. The realization of her own bloodline’s complexity filled her with anxiety, as her own heritage was shown not to be as simple as she had once thought.
She had to control her anger before arriving at the hospital, but the thoughts kept invading her mind. And she couldn’t stop her mind from being angry when she remembered her father telling her that, even before the Six-Day War in 1967, those Arabs living on the West Bank and in the north called themselves Jordanians and Syrians. She knew from further education, talking to friends, and listening to lectures that before the First World War the area now encompassed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority was little more than an outpost of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. And before that, their land was occupied by half a dozen different warring Arab dynasties; even before the rise of Islam, the Romans; before them, the Greeks. No research she’d done, no book she’d ever read, had identified a Palestinian capital or a separate Palestinian culture, language, religion, dress, art, cuisine. The people who now proudly said that they’d been Palestinian for seven thousand years were actually an amalgam of migrants, nomads, Bedouin, and residents of sporadic villages.
Yael pulled into the hospital’s parking lot and had to sit for five minutes to get her emotions under control. She was a surgeon, so self-control and the ability to handle any sudden and life-threatening emergency were the hallmarks of her profession. The last thing she wanted was to walk into the hospital in her current angry state.
Eventually, calming herself with deep breathing and listening to a Mozart piano concerto on her iPod, she left her car and walked into the hospital. Up two flights of stairs to the doctors’ rooms, she entered and immediately found a note telling her to come to the men’s surgical ward. It was signed by her boss, the head of surgery, and he had noted the time: the note had been written only ten minutes earlier.
Rushing up the flights of stairs to find out what was wrong, she was confronted by the sight of three tall and officious-looking men standing outside Bilal’s room, arguing in restrained but clearly angry voices. She walked quickly to where they were standing with her boss, Pinkus Harber. “What’s happening?”
Pinkus looked at her in relief. “These gentlemen are demanding that Bilal be taken to prison today. Now. Immediately. You told them that he would be able to be released today but, according to the nurse, you’ve given instructions not to release him until Friday. They’re insisting . . .”
Her state of distress from her experiences in Bayt al Gizah suddenly returned and she said defensively, “His wounds aren’t recovering as quickly as I wanted. He’ll stay here until he’s safe to be released into your custody.”
The oldest of the three men looked menacingly at her, a technique he used with uppity young women. “We’re government officials. We’re here to take our prisoner into our custody. We don’t need your approval.”
“What government department? Where’s your identity card?” she demanded.
The man looked at Pinkus.
“Yael,” said her boss, “I’ve seen these men’s identification. They’re from Shin Bet. They have the right to remove the patient, provided you give permission as his treating doctor.”
“Doctor,” said a younger man, trying to mollify her, “we have excellent medical facilities at the prison. We’re taking him now, and he’ll go into the prison hospital.”
“He’s my patient. You’re not taking him now. He’s staying here under my care until I’m sure that he’s well enough to be released.”
The third man, shorter than the others, chimed in: “Are you forgetting that this bastard slit the throat of an Israeli citizen and tried to murder dozens of others? The man he killed was Yemeni; he came to this country with his wife and four children, and he’d become a respected citizen. Yet this little bastard slit his throat like a piece of meat. This hospital isn’t a health farm for the likes of him. We have orders to take him, and take him we will!”
Now it was Pinkus’s turn to be angry. “Dr. Cohen is one of our finest surgeons, and until she says so, he stays in her care. Now, if you gentlemen would kindly leave and return on Friday, we’ll get on with our work of curing the sick.”
The most senior Shin Bet operative stared at Pinkus, then Yael. “And if I get a court order to remove him?”
Pinkus said menacingly, “The hospital’s lawyers will oppose the granting of any court order. It’ll take till Friday to resolve the issue anyway. So it’s your choice.”
The oldest man slowly nodded to his colleagues. They all knew that the next step simply wasn’t worth it. Without a word, they turned on their heels. Yael watched them disappear down the corridor. To her surprise, Pinkus said, “After they arrived, I took a quick look at Bilal’s wounds. They’re healing fine. You know he’s ready to be released. So why the hell are you keeping him here? Fattening up the goose before the slaughter?”
She thought quickly for an excuse, but none came to her. So she told him half of the truth. “He’s going to prison forever. I know he’s a murderer, but he’s also a misguided kid. Pinkus, when he goes to prison, he won’t see much of his parents for the rest of their lives, and whatever visits he gets will be through glass walls, talking to them with a telephone, or whatever they do to terrorists. I’ve arranged for his mother and father to visit him tomorrow. At least in here they’ll be able to touch him, kiss him, hold him. I’m sorry that you were involved.”
Pinkus nodded. “Okay, fine. But don’t compromise this hospital any further. Friday is Friday—it’s when he’s wheeled out to prison. No ifs or buts or maybes. He goes. Understood?”
She nodded, thanked him, and was about to go into Bilal’s room when her phone beeped with a text message.
I’m in a taxi nearby. I could be with you in half an hour for a cup of coffee, if you’re free. Text me. I’d like to continue our conversation, especially now you’re a media star . . . Yaniv Grossman.
Again Yael found herself annoyed by the American’s bravado and slick confidence. And yet, she knew some personal time with him would calm the tension she’d suffered since going to the Palestinian village. She texted him back.
I’m free—so to speak.
PUTTING DOWN THE TELEPHONE, Eliahu Spitzer ached to reach for a cigarette to calm his fragile nerves. He hadn’t smoked in three years at the insistence of his doctors as well as his wife, who hated the stench of tobacco in his hair and on his clothes, yet the urge to smoke in times of tension had never left him.
Instead, he opened another packet of gum and slowly chewed the little white bullet as he pondered what to do next. This damned, bloody, interfering bitch of a doctor wouldn’t give up her patient.
He breathed deeply and realized that his hands were sweating despite the air-conditioning. But why? What did the little Arab shit know, other than the imam had sent him to blow up a wall and, right on schedule, he’d been taken down by the Israeli security forces. Sure, it had made headlines as far away as New York and Moscow, but the reaction, both in Israel and in the rest of the world, had been muted, to say the least. Eliahu had assured his rabbi that it would be the first in a series of planned Palestinian atrocities against Jewish monuments that he would orchestrate to build and build until the momentum of the atrocities against ancient Judaism would anger world Jewry, who’d rise up in outrage, swamping the voices of the appeasing left-wingers.
The rabbi had concurred that violence committed to bring about the downfall of the secular government was justifiable. And as an expert in counterterrorism, it was just a small step across the line for Eliahu to go from protector to destroyer. But, unlike most destroyers, his plan was to rebuild a Messianic Israel after the destruction, the foundations of which would be the Torah, and this would lead to the return of his beloved daughter.
In the eyes of Neturei Karta, Israel was an illicit, amoral collection of Jews who should have stayed in the diaspora created by the Romans until the Messiah arrived. Then He would gather up His people and return them to God’s land. A small number of blessed Jews had lived in Roman Judea, in Islamic Palestine, in the Crusader kingdom of Christendom, and under the rule of the Ottomans as caretakers, and this was God’s will until the arrival of the Messiah and the return of all the Jews from around the world. But then political Zionism had begun the artificial building of the Jewish nation and secular lawmakers had introduced things that weren’t in the Jewish law of the Torah, and so the Messiah would not come.
Eliahu reached for another piece of chewing gum as he remembered his many conversations with Reb Telushkin in the two years after his heart operation. But the first steps in their plan had gone slightly awry. In the ordinary scheme of things, it wouldn’t have mattered. The Palestinian kid had failed to be killed, and he could have been seen to in prison or anywhere. But this doctor was getting involved, and that was adding an unnecessary layer of complication. If there was one thing Eliahu hated, it was external complications to a neat and clever plan.
This damnable woman doctor was frustrating him again. What had Bilal told her? What had he said to others? Had he named the imam? For if he had, Eliahu was concerned that if the pressure on the imam was too great, the bastard would tell the cops about him. It was unlikely, and he’d covered his tracks, but he didn’t want any cop or colleague in Shin Bet examining what he was doing. Two had already become suspicious and he’d had to deal with them.
But this doctor—she was a problem that needed to be removed! He continued chewing, realizing that he was chewing faster than normal. To calm himself, he began to sing the Neturei Karta anthem under his breath.
God is our King, Him do we serve, the Torah is our Law and in it we believe.
We do not recognize the heretical Zionist regime, its laws do not apply to us.
We will go in the ways of the Torah in fire and water.
We walk in the ways of the Torah, to sanctify the Name of Heaven.
He sighed and felt calmer as he remembered the brilliant white light and the path he’d followed ever since.
AHIMAAZ SAT ALONE in the silence of his office—a silence that was not only in the room but also in his mind. Yahweh’s silence was the most profound indication that Ahimaaz was abandoned. The duties of the day were nearly upon him but he could not empty the silence from his mind.
There was a knock on the door and he didn’t have time to say “Enter” before it opened and Gamaliel the tax collector walked in. The man was so rude, so arrogant, that Ahimaaz nearly ordered him to leave. Since they’d been working together, administering the temple, they’d barely spoken a civil word to each other.
Gamaliel sat himself down and drew out an assortment of papers and accounts relating to money and expenses in the maintenance and construction of the temple. Small talk of small financial matters filled the room in short, sharp statements, yet Ahimaaz saw that there was something in Gamaliel’s face. Today he was a different man, his arrogance dissipated.
Finally the small talk between them was broken when Gamaliel abruptly said, “You and me, priest, we are not so unalike.”
Ahimaaz raised an eyebrow. Gamaliel lowered his voice, the first time he’d done so since Ahimaaz had known him. Normally he didn’t care who heard him or what he said.
“We find ourselves elevated to high office, with much further to fall,” said Gamaliel.
In past times Ahimaaz would have been defiant in his denial, but today he was silent.
“We were both raised up and now those who raised us have no need of us. We are expendable and we teeter at the top of a precipice. You and me . . .”
Ahimaaz remained silent.
“I, too, was offered advancement and protection beyond my station. The first wife herself, Tashere, came to me, just as Naamah came to you.”
Ahimaaz flinched. Gamaliel smiled and said, “You can’t hide anything from Solomon—or me.” He pushed himself back slightly from the table and eyed the priest coldly. “Naamah gave you power when your invisible Yahweh did not. Tashere gave me protection when I could not protect myself. But what price did we pay, my dear priest?” Gamaliel didn’t wait for an answer and Ahimaaz had none to offer.
The tax collector continued. “Tashere came to my house and asked me to divert money to her so that she could raise a militia to overthrow Naamah. She wanted to expel the third queen from the city, along with her son, Rehoboam. She wanted her son, Abia, to be brought back from exile and be Solomon’s heir.”
Ahimaaz finally found words. “And what did you do for her?”
“I gave her money. Money from the temple taxes.”
Ahimaaz stood up suddenly, his chair falling backward. “How dare you!”
But Gamaliel stood to match Ahimaaz and cut him off. “Protection from Naamah was the price I charged Queen Tashere. What was your price when Naamah bought you? Which of your fellow priests did you cast out? How many opponents did you have removed?”
“Enough!” yelled Ahimaaz, his mind aching with pain. “Enough!”
But Gamaliel persisted in softer and more resolute tones. “And what of your brother? Is this another story of Cain and Abel? How did you convince Solomon to get rid of him?”
The words sucked the air from Ahimaaz’s lungs and he sat back in his chair, his face ashen.
“Do not fear. I am no judge. Your god has the monopoly on that. But now is not the time for giving in . . .” Gamaliel sat back down and leaned across the desk to be close to Ahimaaz’s face. “Now is the time to protect ourselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“Naamah has no need of you any longer. And as Tashere circles her with soldiers my money has just bought, Tashere will soon have no need of me. You and I must make ourselves needed, valued, by someone higher than a queen.”
“Solomon? How?” asked Ahimaaz, his hands trembling. “When he finds out, he will have us killed.”
“The truth. The truth about the plotting of his queens. Such truth will set us free,” replied Gamaliel with a smile.
“It will be a half-truth,” said Ahimaaz, shaking his head.
“Better than no truth at all.”
“My dear priest. We used different doors to enter, but we are both now, as always, in the service of the temple.”
The Heritage Trilogy: Book One
The Heritage Trilogy: Book One
Bilal, a radicalized Palestinian youth, is promised paradise if he destroys the Western Wall. But his attempted terrorist attack fails and he finds himself in the hands of a young Jewish surgeon, Yael Cohen. After saving his life, Yael makes the startling discovery that her DNA and Bilal’s are nearly identical, sparking suspicion that their connection is greater than mere coincidence. Their search for answers soon puts them in the middle of a high-stakes international conspiracy—one that has its roots in the blood of thousands, and now threatens to spill the blood of thousands more.
Unknown to Bilal and Yael, theirs is the last chapter in a story that crosses millennia. Century after century, two ancient families—bloodline ancestors of Yael and Bilal—defied the power of corrupt kings and conquerors, fighting to forge an alliance and lasting peace. But through many years of secret dealings and war, kinships were shattered, dynasties fell apart, and evil gained a foothold. Now, in modern Israel, those same sinister forces are at work, stopping at nothing to take control of the Holy Land and silence anyone in their way. Through imprisonment, assassination attempts, and political machinations, Bilal and Yael must ultimately confront the truth of who they are. But is the common blood of two individuals enough to bring two enemy peoples together, and stave off the destruction that threatens them both?
Crossing borders, centuries, and battlegrounds, Bloodline is a thrilling, ultimately redemptive story taking place in the shadows of one of the oldest, most sacred cities in the world.