In the oak-paneled study of a comfortable Georgian home in the prosperous Westmount neighborhood of Montreal, Edward Al-Masri stops packing papers into his briefcase when he hears the doorbell. His rimless spectacles and academic tweeds are belied by a certain brooding intensity: His jaw is set, his eyes narrowed. Covered in a close thatch of premature gray—he is not yet forty-five—his large, handsome head is planted at an angle from shoulders that have never known physical work. His body seems a bit too small to hold it.
“Mr. Al-Masri?” Snowflakes the size of coins flood in with the Arabic. The taxi driver holds a wheeled suitcase high above the snow. It is the largest suitcase meeting the regulations of international airlines, but to judge by the way it swings from the driver’s hand it is clearly empty.
“Praise Allah, a flat. Imagine. In this storm. First to take off the chains, then—”
“Late is late, habibi.” The word—it simply means my friend—is uttered in a tone of near-feudal condescension. Al-Masri takes the suitcase from the driver. He looks at the snow coming down, the all-white street. In the taxi, a small flame momentarily lights up the dark rear seat, a lighter, not a match. He knows the man in the rear seat. He knows the man’s gold lighter.
When he turns back to the driver, Al-Masri’s reluctance is palpable, but the snow cannot be ignored: Arabs are taught hospitality from an early age. “Wait inside.”
While the taxi driver stamps his boots on the grate and shakes off the snow that has already covered his shoulders and the stocking cap that warms his shaved head, Al-Masri rolls the suitcase into his study. He places it next to an identical one, a subtle tan plaid trimmed in blue piping, transfers his neatly folded clothes and a dozen books from one to the other, then disposes of his own empty suitcase in the rear of a closet. He locks the closet. Some things must remain secret, even from his wife. He wheels the new suitcase out of the room.
In the foyer, where the driver examines the book-lined walls with the awe of the barely literate, Genevieve Al-Masri holds their son. She brushes the fawn-colored hair from her face. “Kiss Daddy good-bye, honey,” she says in the heavily metallic French of the Québécois. Many years before, Al-Masri published a book, adapted from his doctoral thesis, called The Political Dimension of Language: Anti-Colonialism in Patterns of Inflected Speech. It sold only a few copies, but was a beginning.
As Al-Masri embraces them, the toddler, suddenly aware that his father is leaving, begins to wail.
“Be careful, Edward,” Genevieve tells her husband in English. “Those people . . .”
He winks, and follows the driver out the door.
The suitcase wheels are useless in the snow. The driver slips twice. Al-Masri does not reach out to steady him. He knows this much about himself: He loves his people in the abstract, less so when it comes to individuals. He knows this as well: He hates himself for it. This is why he will do what he is about to do.
The courtroom in Jerusalem is carpeted in a lush blue, apparently meant to echo the two blue bands and Star of David of the flag on the wall behind the three judges. The walls are paneled in a pale oak veneer. Oak forests covered much of northern Israel until the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the Middle East until 1914, built railroads that crisscrossed the Holy Land and fueled them with what was at hand. As a result, the number of old-growth oaks in modern-day Israel might be counted in the hundreds. Occasionally, solitary trees can be found like sentient monuments among the pine and fir of the reforested hills around Jerusalem. The oak panels in the courtroom are from Sweden.
Dahlia Barr, at forty-four a stark beauty whose face, long drained of softness, retains the glow of resilience, stands with the prosecutor before the judges. Her hair is the color of the oak veneer, shot with streaks of dramatic gray that pick up the color of her eyes. Her voice is clear, still young. “Your Honors, in any other situation, but a thirteen-year-old girl who is unable to communicate?”
The prosecutor breaks in. “Fourteen in two days.”
“Thirteen, fourteen—a distinction without a difference,” she says. “This is a child, perhaps not even capable of understanding
the charges against her, a condition that will not be improved by further incarceration.”
The presiding judge removes her glasses. “Prosecutor?”
“Your honors,” he says with the sullen impatience of the put-upon. “This so-called child was carrying explosives, an undisputed fact. Does my learned colleague believe defendant received these explosives from an angel? Defendant received them from a human being. The state believes another week of careful and sensitive questioning will reveal—”
“Sensitive questioning? The child is both deaf and mute. We might as well have her on the rack. Does my respected colleague not have children?”
“My children do not carry bombs.”
The judges confer in a whisper. “Forty-eight hours more,” the presiding judge says.
Across the courtroom, a translator signs to the young girl. She immediately begins shaking her head. This sets off her family who, as one, shout imprecations at the judges, the court, the state.
Dahlia has seen this often. It is, she knows, a paradox: Palestinian Arabs believe cursing will improve the result, reflecting at once resentment against Israel and faith that the same Israel will not, as would any court in the entire Arab world, imprison them for it, even kill them. But she is a mother, too. She thinks, Can any mother be blamed for losing her self-control in such a situation?
The presiding judge bangs her gavel repeatedly.
It is minutes before Dahlia can speak. “After which defense respectfully requests defendant be remanded to an appropriate juvenile facility.”
The presiding judge bangs her gavel once more. “So stipulated.”
The prosecutor turns to Dahlia. “My children could have been on that bus.”
Ignoring him, Dahlia approaches the sobbing girl as her large family gestures angrily behind the child. Unable to communicate with the girl, she places a hand on her shoulder. The family will have none of it. Now they are cursing her.
As the taxi plows sullenly through the Montreal snows, Fawaz Awad sits behind the driver puffing on a Gauloise in a gold cigarette holder. The left side of his heavy face is scarred, perhaps from burns, his thick glasses framed in gold with the left lens blacked out. In his mid-fifties, he is elegantly dressed, his left sleeve folded and pinned at the elbow. A cashmere overcoat is neatly arrayed on the seat between the two passengers.
“The Jews have one weakness,” he says. “They will fight to the last child. They will clean up the blood and broken glass so that an hour from the worst attack, there is not a sign. They do business, conduct scientific research, write novels, make love.” He sighs for effect. “But they hate when the world condemns them. Funny, no? We send thousands of rockets over their cities, and they laugh. But when the UN declares them to be criminals, they cry and tear their hair: ’Oy vey—nobody loves us!’ ” He laughs. “Praise Allah, this is not an Arab trait.”
Al-Masri cracks the rear window against the veil of smoke. “Praise Allah,” he says, not bothering to hide the cynicism. He has not seen the inside of a mosque in years.
In South Lebanon, Tawfeek Nur-al-Din stands at the edge of a high cliff overlooking the Israeli border. Still fit at forty, he is one of a rare group of Palestinian military commanders who has learned to emulate the example of the officer corps of his enemy: He does not lead from a desk; he leads by doing. Trained in Libya and Afghanistan, Commander Tawfeek carries with him the aura of personal martyrdom that is standard issue among Palestinian military leaders. Though he makes a point not to speak of this painful subject, it is said that his young wife and son were killed in an Israeli bombing raid over Gaza on the fiftieth anniversary of Al Naqbah, the Catastrophe, when the normally fractious Palestinians unite to commemorate their bitter loss in the struggle that Israel calls its War of Independence.
There was no Israeli bombing raid over Gaza on May 15, 1998. Commander Tawfeek’s wife and two children are safely abroad. He does not know how the legend began. Nor does he care. A Palestinian military commander must have an aura. He has no tanks.
On the high cliff, twenty-one intensely trained black-garbed commandos face their leader, each strapped into an identical black hang glider. They have been training with this equipment for months.
Tawfeek raises his own glider wings, holds a wetted finger to the wind, winks theatrically, then breaks—with the wild improbability of a Bollywood film—into sweet Arabic song.
No wind today,
A sign for tomorrow
When our young martyrs will
Fall upon the filthy Jews
Like hawks upon rats,
Like eagles upon snakes.
His fighters join in heartily for the rousing chorus.
O purify the Muslim lands
Of Jews and Christians and their bands
Of rapists, murderers and thieves,
Devils’ dung who won’t believe.
Tawfeek holds up his right hand. “Praise God. Follow me now for one final practice flight. Radios off.” With a flourish, he lights a cigarette from a pack marked Liban, then leaps, the others jumping after by threes. Seen from below, the black wings of their gliders all but eclipse the sun.