“We still have time,” my host from the University of Tennessee said, glancing at the car clock. “It’ll take 10 minutes,” he added, turning off the airport road and onto a trail leading to a national park. We soon saw cannons painted glossy black, barricades and plywood soldiers aiming rifles at one another. The place is called Stones River National Battlefield, and there were about 25,000 casualties in the battle fought here in 1862. My host pointed to the adjacent cemetery, with seemingly endless rows of soldiers’ graves marked with small white crosses. “They’re mainly Northerners’ graves,” he said. “The Southerners usually returned the bodies of their sons for burial in their hometown.”
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Two children emerged from the souvenir shop bearing wooden rifles. They chased each other, hid behind barriers and aimed their weapons as they made noises meant to evoke single gunshots, conjuring up times past.
“In the meantime, it’s a kids’ game,” my host said. “Let’s hope these elections don’t cause another civil war,” he added, with a pained laugh.
Sometimes I miss that painful laugh so much, the humoristic writing, and sometimes I feel contempt for myself for having made use of it. Sometimes I think I’m not capable of creating humor by remote control, since humor was a tool of self-defense that I used in Israel to make life a little more bearable – until it ceased to be effective. It was a kind of mask: not one I wore, but one I projected onto the surrounding reality.
Sometimes I think that maybe I’ll write something funny and find out whether I still have the ability to console myself through writing.
This week, for example, I wanted to write about the driving lessons I’ve started giving my daughter. “‘D’ is drive,” I found myself explaining to her in the empty parking lot where the first lesson took place. “‘P’ is parking and ‘N’ is neutral.”
“What does neutral mean?” she asked.
And it came to me that this could be the source of the verb “neutralize” [the Hebrew word the Israel Defense Forces uses when attackers have been subdued]: Could it be that this word, used so frequently in Israel these days, comes from the English? “He’s still alive, that dog” – the words again echoed in my mind, and I wondered whether Abed Fattah al-Sharif had heard them before being shot in the head by an Israeli soldier in Hebron last week. How “neutralized” was he?
As with an electric circuit, you disconnect a cable and neutralize the system: simple, smooth, scientific. Are those who are neutralized aware of what’s going on around them? Did he sense the band of predators at the site? “He’s still alive, that dog,” constitutes dehumanization mainly of the speaker, not the person lying wounded on the ground. But is there any point talking about this? In writing about an event that, because it was filmed, somehow got headlines that will fade away by the time the next one occurs?
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” the medic said, perhaps to the soldier, perhaps to justify his own behavior in a moment of doubt. It’s fine, it’s fine. That’s how it should be. That’s how it is written.
“He is liable to assail us,” the medic shouted – in order to destroy us – and perhaps was seized by clarity for a fraction of a second in which he understood who is assailing whom and who is destroying whom. It’s fine, everything is all right, as natural as can be. Because if he starts to doubt the necessity of killing Arabs, he’s also liable, heaven forbid, to doubt his presence in Hebron, his rule, his notion of supremacy and lordliness, everything he’s learned all his life.
“He’s still alive, that dog,” echoes and resonates, and this week of all weeks I actually wanted to go home more than ever. Maybe it was because of the talk I attended recently by the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, and maybe it was because of the guilt feelings that assailed me when Khoury talked about how voluntary exile is not an option, that exile is necessarily the result of an act of coercion – especially in a bleeding land. “It’s your garbage, you mustn’t leave it in the hands of others,” he cautioned.
Khoury is right: There is nothing for me in a distant land. I have to go home, gird my loins, roll up my sleeves and join the Jews and Arabs who are still fighting for the future of the only place possible. I found hope in Khoury’s words, as I did in an interview that David Grossman gave to a foreign journalist.
It’s still possible, I thought, and asked my daughter to push carefully on the gas pedal. “A little bit more,” I told her. She tried again but nothing happened, only the sound of an engine turning over in neutral.