It all started with Philip Roth and the new Hebrew translation of "Portnoy's Complaint." Don't get me wrong, I really love the book and identify with the characters. So much so, in fact, that the descriptions of the constipation plaguing the narrator's father blocked up my own plumbing. And Roth just never lets up. Every few pages he elaborates on the agonies endured by Portnoy senior each morning anew. And when I get into a book that I admire, I really get into it. Totally.
If only I could write the way Roth/Portnoy writes - about his family in particular and about the Jews in general. Not that I want to write about Jews; I want to write about Arabs. But it's hard, and writing about them this way, in the language of the enemy, is basically impossible. Until I actually learn how to write in Arabic, I wouldn't dare try to produce such hatred-filled portrayals suffused with an awareness of shared fate. Roth writes in English - his mother tongue and the language of the American Jews he depicts in his novel. And he writes to them about themselves, not about them to other people.
Anyway, ever since I began reading the book a few days ago, my life has been hell. Like Portnoy senior - with his failed attempts to solve his chronic constipation using dried fruit, milk and all sorts of remedies - I have also tried to cure myself, but to no avail. "It's because of all that stuff you drink!" my mother shouted on the phone, after my wife told her about my latest affliction. "What did you think? That it wouldn't affect your health?!"
"What does that have to do with anything?" I replied, giving my wife a look that could only be mustered by someone extremely constipated. "I've been drinking for over 20 years and never had any problems - well, not this kind at least."
"Do you think you're getting any younger?" my mother scolded me. "Age takes its toll. You just refuse to accept that, that's your problem. Stop drinking and you'll see that everything in your life will flow smoothly."
"Did you tell him we're going to Mecca?" I heard my father's voice in the background.
"What? What is he talking about?"
"Yes," said my mother. "Al-hamdu lillah, we've signed up already and we're going on the pilgrimage, inshallah."
"What's with the inshallah?" I ask, letting out a squeal of pain that would pierce the heavens. "Since when are you so religious?"
"Here, talk to your father," my mother said, passing the phone to him.
"So what's going on exactly?" my father asked. "Constipation at your age is a sign from above."
"What does God have to do with my ass, Dad?"
"You should be ashamed of yourself," he chided me. "It's because of talk like that that you're being punished."
"But Dad, you're a Communist, remember?" I tried to figure out what was happening to my parents.
"And you know how long I suffered from constipation because of that Communism? Not to mention hemorrhoids."
"Fine," I said, trying to end the conversation. "What can I tell you? Have a nice pilgrimage."
"Wait a minute - your mother wants to tell you something else."
My mother got on the line. "Hello," she said, and I heard my father correct her: "Say Salam alaikum, not Hello."
"Salam alaikum," my mother corrected herself, and then she asked: "Do you want anything special from the holy soil?"
"I don't know, um, no. Thanks."
"Okay, so I'll bring you a bottle of spring water from Mecca," she said. "If your problem isn't fixed by then, there's nothing like Mecca water to cure you."
"Fine, Mom. Bring me a bottle of water."
"Okay, and I'll buy some Playmobil toys for the children. God willing, they'll have Playmobil there, and inshallah it will be cheaper than Toys 'R' Us."
The Day of Wrath was the worst. It hurt so bad I thought I was on the verge of dying. And that evening I was supposed to take part in a panel on the future of Jerusalem. I knew that if my problem wasn't solved by then I wouldn't be able to stand on the stage at all, let alone give the lecture they'd invited me to deliver.
"Maybe you should go to the doctor?" suggested my wife, who could no longer handle the irate husband shuffling around the house.
"Are you out of your mind?" I protested. "You want the whole world to know that I, the acclaimed Haaretz columnist, am suffering from constipation?"
"What does that matter?" she asked innocently. "This is your health we're talking about."
"Oh, it matters," I replied angrily. "Constipation isn't something a serious writer should go to the doctor for."
"Fine," she said, and adding insult to injury, entered the bathroom while muttering - loud enough for me to hear: "As far as I'm concerned, you can just explode."
I tried to get out of appearing on the panel. Of course, I didn't tell the organizers what was really bothering me. Instead, I tried to come up with various excuses: "I don't know, it's just that it's the Day of Wrath and I think the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee has called a strike." It didn't help. Apparently, there was no strike. "My parents are leaving for Mecca, you see," I tried again, "and I have to go home to see them off."
"But people are coming to hear you," the event planners insisted. "We already printed the program and you're one of the main speakers."
I took the stage with tears in my eyes. The pain was unbearable. I cursed Philip Roth and his father and that goddamned Portnoy. Because of some perverted American Jew from the 1960s I need to suffer like this in 21st-century Jerusalem?
"Excuse me," I said to the audience in the middle of my talk, just when I'd started to speak about the lack of infrastructure in the Arab sector. I have no idea why I drifted onto this subject, but for some reason I had a sudden urge to talk about the problems with the sewer systems in Arab communities.
"Excuse me," I said to the audience when I could no longer stand up straight, knowing full well that if I didn't get to a bathroom in the next second, what followed could be considered a criminal offense. "I can't go on," I apologized to everyone and started crying, so mortified I wanted to bury myself and disappear.
But instead of jeering or booing when I exited the stage, the audience members rose to their feet and gave me a long standing ovation. A few older women wiped away tears, their eyes glistening with heartfelt empathy. "Your words make me feel ashamed to be an Israeli," said one elegant woman in her sixties, who blocked my way and took me by the hand. "Your pain was just..." she began, as I tried to wriggle out of her powerful grasp and get to where I desperately need to go, "so honest."
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