Nasir has been banished from the apartment for waking Jida up from her nap. He steps outside onto the pine-needled concrete, grabs an old soccer ball from under the porch, chucks it into the woods. He is fed up with having to be quiet all the time. Fed up with his mother, who is always in a bitter mood. Mostly though, he is fed up with having to wait for Hamed.
Every Saturday for the nine years of Nasir’s life, Hamed has promised to play soccer with him after work. Every Saturday morning, Hamed whisks out the door in his denim jacket and dimple smile headed for the gas station. Every Saturday evening concludes at around 6 PM when Hamed stumbles into the sitting area of their family’s small flat in East Jerusalem and falls over the arm of the couch. His natural jaw line and twinkling nineteen- year-old eyes are grizzled with toil and frustration, wasted on the scowls from the Jews in Neve Yaakov buying fuel from him on their Sabbath. He lies there, quietly snoring, only to spring up at the call of the adhan for evening prayers an hour later, where he stays late drinking Arak with the old men at the mosque.
Nasir runs drills by himself for a few hours, muttering to himself all the while.
“I’m never going to play for Aswad K’naan if I have nobody to practice with,” he says, and then kicks the ball hard and slips on his back.
He lies in the dirt for a few minutes before hearing the adhan, and realizes that Hamed hasn’t come home yet.
***** I’m sitting down in my bunk with my third serving of off-brand Cup O’ Noodles when everyone stops what they’re doing and looks up. It’s Saturday, which means we shouldn’t have a drill until at least the evening once Shabbat is over. Which is why, when we hear the drones coming from outside of our barracks, we hesitate.
“Do you think this is a real one?” one girl asks from the bed next to me, knowing she’d be greeted with silence.
It’s October 2015. There’s been a string of stabbing incidents across Jerusalem in the last few weeks which was deemed the “Wave of Terror” by Israeli media.
“Yalla! Let’s go!” someone shouts.
As we are pulling on our pants and magazine vests, another girl mumbles to herself what we’re all thinking: “Fuck. We’re all gonna die.”
***** “Where is your brother?!” screams Nasir’s mother as he veers onto the
porch. “He usually calls if he’s going to be late. It’s been two hours!”
She begins pacing. Nasir has seen her do this often lately, especially when the news is on. He hates the news. It is always on. It wafts through the house like garbage stench. Every day lately there is another stabbing, and every day Nasir is reminded of his place by the way people stare at Hamed when they go out. Hamed, who helps him with his homework every night. Hamed, who works twelve hour shifts and takes care of the family, who fixes the neighbors’ pipes without charge, who always keeps his head down and complies when the soldiers on the light rail search his bag on their way to take Nasir to school.
The two of them sit twiddling their thumbs on the couch that Hamed would normally be slumped over by now. It is eerily quiet without the sounds of snores that regularly fill the room.
Nasir’s mother is beautiful, too. Her dark hair shines naturally, and her olive skin glows, even with the worry lines in her face that creased after father died of heart failure three years ago. It seems those creases have folded over in the last two hours since Hamed has fallen off the grid.
Jida sidles in on her cane and commands them to turn on the news. Hamed pouts and folds his arms as the TV screen lights up and a man holding a microphone stands by a familiar intersection.
“Another fatal stabbing today in Jerusalem just outside of a petrol station in Neve Ya’akov. An Arab man inflicted twelve stab wounds on a customer before escaping to the Al Ram neighborhood. The suspect was described as a dark-skinned Arab man in his late teens to early twenties.”
Suddenly Jida begins to pray. Mother frantically calls neighbors and friends while Nasir insists it can’t be Hamed.
“He probably just got held up because it happened right where he works!” he offers, ignoring the niggling feeling in the back of his mind.
Mother spins around and slams down the phone. “If you’re not going to help me, leave! Your brother could be shot at any moment, do you understand? He wears every single attack on his face, daring the Israelis to shove him against the wall and lock him in cuffs for the rest of his life under false accusations. This is not pretend, Nasir.”
For the second time today, Nasir is banished.
***** Yesterday morning we sat in an oval while our acting officer reviewed protocols with us. From the moment she comes into the room, I clock her for having just finished officers’ training. Her red hair is tightly tucked into a ponytail that falls just over her shoulder, which bears her rank as a second lieutenant. She speaks to us in so strict a tone that it’s as if it’s our first day in the army. Most protocol reviews take about thirty minutes, but she has us in her grips for an hour and a half before we can set up our barracks.
“Now,” she says, “what do we say if we see someone approaching us?” quizzing us on the phrases we learned during basic training.
“Saa, saa, o she ani yoreh,” we all grumble in unison, meaning, “stop, stop, or I’ll shoot.”
Someone loudly whispers, “she ani yoreh b’atzmi” modifying the phrase to “or I’ll shoot myself.” Everyone snickers and the commander’s eyes are lit aflame. She sends us outside in single-file, and walks us over to a row of
storage units down the hill from the barracks.
Because this is a command base that takes care of mainly logistical matters, most of us are what the army calls jobniks — as in, we sleep in civilian homes and take the bus to and from base every day as if our service were a regular “job.” Jobnik is something of an epithet in Israeli culture, since it’s often seen as a cushy alternative to our peers serving the national compulsory service in combat or closed-base units. Most of us haven’t shot out of a gun since the first month of basic training.
We line up by the storage units and the commanding officer tells us we are going to simulate an intrusion.
“Here, get behind this container, and —oh! The intruder is getting away! Fire at will! Fire! Fire!”
I feel like I’m playing laser tag with heavier weaponry. “Yes,” I hear someone say, “protect the base! They can’t get our office supplies!” I look into one of the metal containers and see stacked boxes of staplers and printer paper.
Jobniks are by and large in these positions because of personal issues that prevent them from serving on closed bases such as medical, family, and financial obstacles. Many of us work part-time jobs in the evenings and on the weekends. Another portion of jobniks are there because of political opposition to the draft or even the persecution of Arabs and Palestinians in Israel. It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely which soldiers hold these views, but often it’s a matter of listening closely to what they say or don’t say. I’ve been here for a few months after serving on a closed base in Ashdod, where I struggled to fit in and ultimately chose to move to a base that would allow me to go home and spend time with friends in the evening.
There’s a crude term in Israeli culture that refers to being so tired of work, so beaten down that you feel you can’t go on: shavuz. It’s an acronym for shavor zayin, which is translated as the dignified “broken dick.” The Israeli equivalent of the American phrase “a case of the Mondays” is translated as shvizut yom aleph – Broken-Dick-Monday. Israelis of all ages use this phrase, in school, in business settings, and especially in the army. Although combat soldiers have to go through grueling training and risk their lives for the safety of the country. I take the controversial stance that jobniks are more shavuz. Because although combat soldiers and those who serve on closed bases have more difficult tasks and must be away from home for longer, combat soldiers enjoy the camaraderie of their unit. At our jobnik base, nobody wants to be there. Combat soldiers enjoy gifts and praise from the Israeli people. Jobniks are looked down upon as lazy and liberal (an epithet in Israeli culture). Perhaps this is insensitive, but combat soldiers are too busy doing the work of defending their country to really be stuck in the perpetual ennui of shavuz-dom.
Some of us begin to engage in the live gun laser tag exercise, while others maintain the cool aura of nineteen year olds who are too afraid to be genuine. Mostly we’re smiling at each other with the signature expression of a jobnik who’s about to go on guard duty. Wordlessly, we agree: if somebody really were to attack this base, we would all surely die. This doesn’t sound like a funny thing to joke about on paper, but the absurdity of our stark reality calls for casual dissonance in this moment.
***** Nasir runs through the woods. Hamed always makes him wait. He is blinking back the sting of tears when he stops to kick the ball into a pine tree so hard that the needles rain down on him. Then he throws it in the air and kicks even harder, so hard that he falls flat on his back and the ball goes sailing across the compound.
His eyes light up in victory at his strength. Then, a whistling sound plays in the back of his mind as he watches it fly just over the tall wire fence of the military base that mother told him to never go near.
***** Because of the “Wave of Terror,” the army has sent a unit of combat soldiers from the National Guard as reinforcements to close with us this weekend. Their orange berets stand in stark contrast to our poorly folded olive greens, but they’re nice enough. Surely they and the rest of the army know what we do about the likelihood of our survival should this wave reach our base situated on the edge of East Jerusalem, wedged between two Arab villages that surely don’t enjoy our presence.
In truth, guard duty isn’t something I mind. I get a pass from regular responsibilities, and I don’t have to go home to an empty apartment. Guard shifts span 24 hour periods except on the weekend, which lasts Thursday nights to Sunday mornings. During protocol review, we’re assigned shifts of four hours twice a day, AM hours and PM hours. I always choose the reliably unpopular time slot, 2-6. Whereas the other soldiers see it as an inconvenience to take on hours in the dead of night, I take it as the perfect time difference to call my mother — 2 AM Israel time being 7 PM Connecticut time. I sometimes beg her to stay on the phone with me for the full shift; anything to ease the boredom. Sometimes she brings up the fact that I’m not supposed to be on the phone during guard duty.
“Won’t you get in trouble?” she says. “First of all,” I say, “it’s three in the morning. Everyone that wants to check on me is asleep. Second of all, I’m in a poorly built guard tower that shakes any time someone tries to climb it, so I’ll know when it’s time to put the phone down and be a good soldier. Third of all, mother, if someone ever tried to attack this base while I was on duty, I would die whether I was paying attention or not.”
While compelling, she was not as amused by this argument as my fellow soldiers were.
***** We arrive at the meeting point with our vests, helmets, and M-16s in tow, ready to put them to use if the situation called for it. Adrenaline courses through our terrified veins. We, the jobniks, may get the chance to be heroes, ignoring the fact that the National Guard soldiers will be doing all the work.
Once we’ve circled up, the combat commander steps up and explains the situation.
“Alright,” he says, “a little boy from Al Ram threw a ball over the fence, we’re just gonna go check it out to make sure it’s not anything dangerous.” He turns towards the gate and jogs out, combat unit trailing behind. The jobniks and I turn too. I put my helmet on and sling my gun strap over my shoulder, hand on the safety release.
“Stop!” the Jobnik commander yells. “Now just hang back a minute. We need to call roll to make sure you all showed up like you were supposed to.”
We all breathe a mixed sigh of relief and frustration as she ticks our names off the list. If there was ever an appropriate opportunity for a unit of pencil-pushing, desk-jockey jobniks to see some action, this would have been it.
***** I wish I could report on what exactly occured between Nasir and my new friends in the National Guard unit. Later on they will tell me through rolling eyes how simple it went, they just threw the ball back over the fence like a one-round game of volleyball.
Only after my service in the Israeli military ends and I come back to the United States will I think about that evening more critically. Nothing bad happened in the end. Nobody was killed or wounded in this drill. Our office supplies remained safe for another day. But the terror that little boy must have felt will occur to me out of nowhere.
In a year and a half, a concocted image of Nasir’s face will appear to me in a dream.
***** Five Israeli soldiers stand on the other side of the fence, each of them with a hand on the trigger. The alarm blaring has stopped, and mother and Hamed have come running to rescue Nasir. Hamed, who was only late because he was held up by the police, just as Nasir wisely predicted. Hamed, who would never do anything to put his family at risk, who doesn’t have time to play with Nasir because he is too busy taking care of him and mother and Jida.
The soldier grasps the ball small in his hands, smiling at them. Hamed speaks cordially in broken Hebrew, cleanly catching the ball as it sails back to their side. Nasir can’t stop staring at the shoulder-slung guns.