The child simply broke my heart. He was three, at most four years old. Crying, he screamed out loud, "Daddy!" He was striding forward quickly, almost running; or perhaps it was that he had started out sprinting, and by the time I found him he was too tired to run. "Daddy," he cried out again, and his weeping drowned out everything else in the Ben-Gurion Airport terminal. People stared at him in wonderment. Some, mostly women, looked like they pitied him; once in a while somebody asked "whose child is this?"
As is my habit before flights, I was stone drunk. Twelve hours of flying to New York awaited me, along with another six hours to San Francisco. Pre-flight pills have never worked for me, so I have no choice but to have several rounds of drink to dull the senses. When will I learn to decline invitations from faraway countries? When will I learn to just say no and save myself the pain of dealing with one of life's worst anxieties?
"You know what?" my wife asked before I left the house that night. "I don't really believe your talk of fear of flying."
"I believe in it," I told her.
"How could it be that a person with such a fear, as you say you have, would end up flying so much?"
"You know that this is an inseparable part of my work," I replied, telling her the truth and nothing but the truth.
"And how exactly does this flight to the Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco help you with your work? I don't understand."
"Are you kidding me?" I asked her. "This is perhaps the most important flight of all. What do you want me to do - insult the Jews? Refuse their invitation? What would that make me look like?
I could refuse invitations to any festivals around the globe, but not to this Jewish festival. After all, I was supposed to receive a prize connected to freedom of speech, or something of that sort. I must say I was a little taken aback when I was notified of the award. Though I am punctilious about drawing distinctions between Israeli and Jewish identities, "Jewish" can be a broad category, and I feared that receiving their award for free speech would be perceived as, let's say, winning an "Award for Moral Police Work" bestowed by Israel's Public Security Minister.
"I'll have to think about it for a while," I responded to one of the festival organizers when he called to inform me that I had won the prize.
"Last year Amos Gitai won the same prize," the organizer added, as though reading my thoughts.
"Okay," I said. Amos Gitai - that would be a knock-down response to anyone who might try to criticize me for accepting the award. If such a hater-of-the-Jewish-people won the prize, then why shouldn't I accept it? "Thank you," I told the organizer during this conversation. "I am thrilled and delighted to receive this award. Heartfelt thanks to the Jewish, I mean the Jewish Festival."
And then there was this boy, perhaps a three-year-old, bawling his eyes out a few minutes before I had to board the plane. I couldn't stand up straight any longer, thanks to all that cheap whiskey at the Duty Free shops. His parents better find him already, I thought to myself as I looked at him, and combed the area for possible parents, to see if anyone was racing around, looking for a lost child. The moment he stepped onto the moving walkway, traveling in the wrong direction, I simply could not stand it anymore. I threw down my bag and ran after him. He was trying to make progress, but was held in check by the conveyer moving in the opposite direction, and interfering with the other passengers. And he continued to yell, "Daddy."
Just keep your balance, I said to myself as I climbed onto the walkway after him. I took a deep breath, and ran after the boy, gave him the widest smile my face could muster, and then simply lifted him in my arms and turned around, telling him in Arabic, "don't worry, sweetie, we'll find your father soon." I stepped off the walkway and felt the earth spinning around me. The frightened child didn't calm down, so I continued to hold him. He didn't seem to mind being held in my arms.
"He's yours?" a woman asked, as she stood alongside the walkway. "He's been crying for an hour."
"No," I replied, smiling. "He's not mine, but soon we'll find his daddy, won't we," I said, nodding at the boy. "Let's go."
Slowly, his cries of fear turned into muffled sobs. Though I kept trying to talk to him, he didn't say a word. Perhaps he's not Israeli at all," I wondered - just as his parents came running toward us. The mother, wearing a head covering, hugged the boy, and the young father thanked me in American English, even though he was clearly an Arab. What identity issues all those Palestinian Americans must have, I reflected silently. They're born there, they grow up and are educated there, and then suddenly, they put on a headscarf in the middle of America, a country that unlike this one, is not at all their own.
The parents were even happier when they discovered that I am also a Palestinian - at first, they took me for an Israeli. They spoke broken Arabic; they had come to attend a relative's wedding at a village near Ramallah, and now they were flying back to America. I chewed some gum to counter the smell of the Duty Free spirits I had imbibed. The boy had calmed down, and his mother asked him to thank me by saying shukran. Instead, he muttered, "Thanks."
"Yes, is that so," I said, thrilled at my new identity as the guy who saved an Arab American boy who now surely took me for Batman. "I too am flying to America."
"To San Francisco," I replied to the smiling father.
"I'm a journalist," I revealed, responding to his continued questions; I gave this reply after I recalled that Superman was also a journalist.
"That's great," the father said. "It is very inspiring to see our young men succeeding so well around the world."
"Yes, I'm traveling to receive an award."
"Congratulations, God bless you. What award?"
"Freedom of speech."
"Wonderful - it's wrong to keep silent about the injustice of the occupation. Speaking out is surely dangerous in your profession. Congratulations. Who is giving the prize?"
"The Jewish Film Festival," I said, speaking with Spiderman-like speed.
"Come on," the father said in Arabic, turning to his wife and young child, and leaving me behind, confused.
"Wait a minute," I called after him, as soon as I realized my woeful mistake. "You have to understand, last year Amos Gitai received the award."
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