Translated by: Maya Klein
The defining period of my youth stretched into my mid-twenties, and more than any other afflictions, it was plagued by deep seated agitation. I engaged in minor, almost perfunctory, identity crises, but overall I willingly acceded to the existing order of things. The agitation was palpable nonetheless; during the bad times I remember experiencing dead-end hours that stretched for days on end, when I felt that the world and I were sizing each other up, each searching for weak points in the other’s defense; life seemed to be filled with exclamation marks. Invisible fingers were pointing at me, as if commanding: seize the day, exhaust yourself to the fullest, reach your limit- live, damn it, live! But instead of driving me forward, this destructive-libidinal force only served to paralyze me, echoing like the tormented roar of a motor stuck in neutral gear. It’s one thing to want, but another to fall in love with wanting itself, grasping at it with all your might.
In time I learned to grow a thick skin, but ever since I got here the city has been gnawing at it at an alarmingly fast pace; the beauty of Florence was closing in on me. “Beauty” could be misleading, in this sense, being subjective and civilized. The beauty that I am referring to contains violence, it’s a rough, stunning sketch of something much larger than itself, a spearhead that stabs you, injecting- day after day, layer upon layer- hundreds of years of thought, trade, folklore, history and religion, animated by radiant color or carved in polished stone. In Florence, it’s a presence that lurks in every corner, enveloping you all at once- every building is a Palazzo, each elaborate cornice bears its own bleak, solemn air. The Church and the Medici understood the power of this beauty well, and no space in the city unencumbered by its weight.
Even a person of very little sensitivity cannot remain unaffected over a period of time, especially if, like myself, he is equipped with the bare minimum schooling. In my place of birth there is no architectural acknowledgement of the sublime; our achievements are limited to the clean white lines of the Bauhaus, and Florence had a decidedly profound effect on me, overtaking me with its endless parts working together like the chorus in a Greek tragedy: the furrowed tiles on the Via Faenza and the thick, overstuffed rocks of the Palazzo Strozzi; the tremendous Duomo overlooking the incomprehensible richness of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore; the numerous statues that turn a watchful eye at you at the Bargello and the Galleria dell’Accademia. And the paintings, for heaven’s sake! With angels and demons dragging their dead with force and fury towards the Inferno or Paradiso in the stern descriptions of Judgment Day on the church ceilings. How many Marias, stand, sit, lean or bow with pure, harrowed longing? How many babies drift beside them, decorated with Giotto’s copper auras or with the shining, three-dimensional ones in the humanist depictions that followed? It’s an entire visual opus, every single morning, in one reverberating voice. It’s an impossible, unrelenting situation that could not but seep through me, moving from the city’s palaces through my pores to my very core: what am I doing here, in this stunning, daunting place? The motive for coming here, which was elusive to begin with, completely evaporated as soon as I moved from the hostel to Eytan and Yifah’s attic. I reached the edge of the abyss and instead of stopping I broke into a run. Everything happened in utter solitude, in silence, for it should be noted that as long as my feet were planted in Florence, I didn’t post a single Facebook status, blog post or a even a tweet. I skipped those habits, which by virtue of their existence quickly become needs, and avoiding them turns into a decision one must actively make. I told no one of my story. Everything was building up, accumulating inside of me with no possibility of release, like the wafts of incense that Yifah lights in the evenings and are absorbed in the attic’s wooden floors at my feet; or the three-dimensional shapes gliding on the screen saver, as long as I do not write, filling the dark screen with their stoic movements, forever hitting against its sides, not changing the course of their orbit in the slightest.
The airport was deserted at dawn. The escalator carried me from the railway platform upstairs and within a few steps I reached the open sliding doors. There were only a few passengers inside, rolling their carts leisurely. The blue seats were all empty, as were the silver cafeteria tables. I strode down the long corridors, the heels of my black shoes tapping the floor in a steady rhythm, like a cardiograph of a stable heart rate. Section A was empty, and the large metal chains covered in velvet had fallen to the floor. It was tempting to spot human scenery in all of this.
I continued to the check-in counter. I had packed sparsely, meticulously – a month’s supply of clothes, toiletries and books – and I got through the weighing in quickly and smoothly. My suitcase was significantly under the limit, and when I saw the red, right number fixed on the scale, my face betrayed a trace of a smile. The gracious stewardess at the check-in counter, whose long neck made her appear tall, returned the smile and sent the suitcase on its way. I turned back for another, final look – the large spacious airport, the electronic departure and arrival sign, the vending machines, the huge billboard advertisements selling typically Israeli goods, targeting not the hearts of passengers as much as those of their accompanying loved ones – and made my way to the big hall.
My mother, to my surprise, hadn’t wanted me to go.
“I don’t know…” she ventured cautiously, the last time we saw each other. “I’m always in favor of progress and learning new things, but this time it seems to me that it’s just not… not a good direction for you.”
We were in her kitchen; I was helping with the dishes after lunch. As a freelancer I could come and go as I pleased, but “pleasing” proved to be difficult, either due to my stringent work ethic or other, more troubling emotions, after all that’s how it all started; even when I did leave the house in the middle of the day, it was an outing marked by hypercriticism, in my attempt to be efficient and make the most of it. This time I decided to run the distance from my studio apartment to my mother’s house, and I did it with a backpack full of used plastic ice-cream containers so I could pack up the leftovers and take them back to my place; I arrived drenched in sweat and couldn’t stop checking my watch.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because translating doesn’t do you good. You’re always tense, always complaining: you said yourself that it’s a tedious, unrewarding job, with no stability and little future.”
I nodded. I was almost surprised to hear how plain and banal my problems sounded when she recounted them.
“So now,” she continued, “instead of changing your course, you’re going in deeper and learning Italian?”
“Not learning,” I protested. “I already studied Italian for three years at the university. It’s an intensive course for advanced students and it’s funded by the Italian consulate, by the way.”
“I don’t care about the money”, she continued. “And if you weren’t so stubborn, you’d let me help out a little.”
“Thanks but no thanks.”
“You know what I’m concerned about, what bothers me?”
“That as a translator, you sit at home alone all day, you don’t have any kind of a work environment, you don’t see anyone, there’s no social interaction.”
“So?” my eyes traveled to my watch.
“So it’s not good. You hate when I say it, but it affects you. I can tell.”
“What affects me? How?”
She didn’t answer. I followed her nimble movements as she dried off the dishes; the fine lines drawn in her high forehead, now higher than it used to be. My mother was in advertising, for the course of her entire adult life she was an art director, and she belongs to a select group of artistic souls that are fortunate enough to have made a good living while loyally hanging on to their lofty ideals. But this time my mother, forgoing the insights of authors such as Deepak Chopra and the likes of which line her overstuffed bookshelves, sensed that something about this trip wasn’t right.
“It’s beyond me, why you would want to take this trip.”
I nodded and absentmindedly jumped up to sit on the counter, the way she asked me not to do as a child. I found it hard to determine whether the problem was that I needed to explain it to my mother, or just putting such things into words. In any case, it was pointless. I probably just hated the fact that there was something to what she was saying, the stubborn kind of way mothers have of being right. During the past few years I really have changed, and even if she wasn’t aware of all the nuances, she could sense the general effect. Not that it was particularly difficult to do. While my friends were out acquiring a trade, progressing at work and getting engaged, I was going out less often, shaving less often, and always, always hurrying to get back to work.
Instead of answering, I went to the bathroom, took the bottle of chamomile extract and slipped it into my bag without her noticing. It was hot outside and my sweat refused to dry. I felt- the way I always feel at her house, even during the quickest, most casual visit- that time was standing still. At that moment I decided to go to the airport on my own.
The large hall was fairly empty too, and it wasn’t hard to find a place to sit. I leaned back in the chair and the nape of my neck brushed against the cold stainless steel. I let my gaze linger on the huge wired windows, shifting my focus from the far away fields that were blinking on the horizon to the vehicles closer to the windowpane, hybrid types of apparatuses that one can only find at airports. I was glad to be there on my own, without having to subjugate those precious moments to the nuisances of encountering another person. I needed the space. As a single, freelance translator working from home, everyone thought I was in complete control of my time and schedule; but it was only during those moments at the airport that I felt, after a very long time, that time was truly in my hands.
At some point I decided to eat, even though I wasn’t hungry, and I took out a sandwich from my backpack. I ate it carefully, not wanting to soil my freshly ironed button-down shirt. I usually wear cut-off t-shirts, faded remnants of my time in the scouts and the army, and when I catch sight of well-dressed people from my window, especially those my age, I get pangs of jealousy. In the distance, the line was quickly moving through the maze of metal guardrails, and it was mesmerizing in the way that particular occurrences in still spaces are mesmerizing. In fact, I didn’t even notice that I was looking at it, until my eyes settled on the security guard that was standing nearby. But he noticed me at once, registering my gaze. I tensed when we made eye contact. He smiled at me and motioned for me to come closer. There was nothing threatening about the circumstances, but I found myself hastening to get up and walk towards him, the sandwich and water bottle clutched carelessly in my hands.
“Jonathan,” he called as I came near, “what are you doing here?”
At that moment I realized that I knew him too, as if calling my name was an “open sesame” drawing him out of the cave of oblivion. His name was Naor Peleg and he was a soldier in my unit in the IDF. I was commanding the unit when he transferred there and six months or so later he was discharged and moved to headquarters. I hadn’t heard from or about him ever since and we didn’t particularly bond or speak much. Even now I knew that if the conversation strayed from its standard trajectory, I’d have a hard time finding common ground. I muttered that I was going abroad, immediately realizing that it was a stupid response, although not any stupider than the question asked. In the meantime, the thin, sympathetic smiles pasted on the faces of the people standing on line faded and the looks on their faces indicated that their patience for our reunion had been exhausted.
“Wait a sec,” he said, holding up his palm like a traffic sign. Then he whipped out a walkie-talkie from his multi-pocketed vest, pressed the button and spoke into the device, “Nathaniel, could you cover for me for a few minutes?”
His co-worker arrived within seconds, dressed in a suit, and Naor began walking, signaling for me to join him. We passed three lines, which were surprisingly long in the otherwise desolate airport. While I was deliberating whether to tell him that it’s wasn’t necessary and I’d stand in line like everyone else, he took me by the hand, propelling me to the head of the line. With deft, self-assured hands, Naor untied the bendy plastic coils for me, we continued to walk on, our faces expressionless and a short while later found ourselves facing passport control. He stood at the entrance, a bit demonstratively, like someone who has completed his part of the deal. To my slight surprise, he explained that it was the furthest point he could reach within his zone. He crossed his arms over his chest and I hurried to imitate the gesture.
“So, where are you heading?”
“No kidding, for how long?”
“For real, what, like a trip? Is someone getting married?”
“No, I’m taking a course.”
“You’re going to study there?”
“No. I mean, yes. I’m taking a language course.”
I nodded animatedly, like someone trying to convince you that they’re innocent.
“What for? Hmmm…good question. I guess you’re not the first to ask. Actually, I’m not so sure either. I worked as a translator, basically I still do, so I thought…”
“That’s so nice. Translating what?”
“Whatever they need. I mean whatever the publisher needs. Novels, detective stories, even children’s books.”
“Nice, nice. What are you working on now?”
“I translate from English.”
“Oh, is your family American, were you born over there?”
“So how come you know the language?”
“I don’t know, I guess maybe I picked it up watching TV… I also read quite a few books in English, so…nothing in particular, anyhow.”
His face showed the slightest quiver of doubt, and he gave his head a faint, almost indiscernible tilt. He gently scratched his chest, using only his pinky for some reason, with his ring-finger brushing ever so lightly on the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration logo. At that moment I realized that the balance of power was sealed and that superiority derives from power in the present rather than the hierarchies of the past.
“And say, can you make a living from that?”
“I mean, like, is there enough work?”
“Oh, well…that’s part of the problem. Most of the books published are translated from English, but naturally there are lots of translators too.”
“Yes, there must be lots of Jews that made aliya, or children of diplomats who speak English as a first language and that sort of thing.”
“It’s more important to know the language that you translate into. Target language, as they call it.”
“Yeah, but in order to translate it you have to understand everything, the culture and what the author meant by every expression.”
“You can reach pretty much any level of depth in a second language too.”
“Must be hard.”
“The target is more important.”
“The target language.”
It was evident that Naor still hadn’t quite reached firm ground. He ran a hand through his thick hair and I was suddenly reminded of the fierce-looks on the faces of the motorcycle riders that graced the covers of my notebooks when I was a child.
“What about all of the cultural references, idioms and word plays?”
I didn’t answer. The charming spell that my choice of employment often casts is a fleeting one, stemming from the joy one finds in the unconventional. Therefore, when on the lowest levels of conversation, which most of these interchanges does not surpass, I am careful to limit myself to a general remark. If, however, the inquisitive soul wishes to gain insight as to the deep truth of my craft, the nature of the tiny parcels that I weigh out daily on the scales when I make my endless infinitesimal decisions- then the abominable child in me rears his head, the same child that recited the names of flora and fauna in front of company seated in the living room, without understanding why he was doing so, because the time was right and his instincts drove him to act. Naor reached farther than one would expect. I looked at him at length and in my mind’s eye I could see myself telling him, right there at the edge of his zone, about Roman Jakobson and three types of translation; about Lawrence Venuti and Friedrich Schleiermacher or Lakoff and Johnson’s universal metaphor, which would soon be countered by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; about my life. All of those exist within me, ready and waiting for the right opportunity. Naor was still silent.
I stole another look at him. He seemed completely different than I remembered, and it wasn’t just the hair. His blue pupils rested peacefully in the center of his eyes; his forehead was smooth, his chest expanded and contracted with every breath and the contours of his muscular body filled out his tight polo shirt. I could only recall a trace of rebelliousness in the soldier that he used to be, which was marginal in any case and but now I found myself facing the very heart of the establishment.
Our eyes met and I quickly asked, “So what about you?”
He answered whatever it was that he answered. When he saw that I wasn’t responding, he finally broke the silence:
“Wait a minute, so why Italian? You didn’t tell me.”
“It has to do with my translation work.”
“Oh,” he evaluated me with his eyes. “You’re looking to carve yourself another niche, eh. A specialty or something?”
“Something.” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I could see passengers moving sporadically, which, from my vantage point outside of the herd, seemed very slow. A faint urge rose up within me to hurry up and beat them to the line for passport control, not to let them get in before me. I didn’t move. We remained silent. Much to my relief, a few seconds later his walkie-talkie crackled and a disembodied voice came over, cleared his throat and said:
“Naor could you come over to do a questioning?”
He aimed his mouth at the mouthpiece. “Sure, no problem, anything urgent?”
“No, no, routine.” And after a short pause: “We sure aren’t in any rush. Just come when you can.”
He looked at me and later glanced apologetically at the walkie-talkie, but then he said leisurely: “So where were we?”
I feigned concern. “Don’t you need to go? You don’t have to stay on account of me…”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re right,” he said, but didn’t budge. “Funny, isn’t it?”
“That we met up. What are the chances of meeting someone you know like this?” Now he was addressing himself more than me, “No one’s ever here at these hours.”
I didn’t have an answer and so I did what I usually do in situations like these: I furled my brow and nodded profusely, as if lost in thought, so that while the awkward silence was inescapable, at least it would be excusable. I’m not a big fan of cosmic musings of this sort and I didn’t have much to add on the topic. The chances of this coincidental encounter are just as slim as any other coincidental encounter and just as random.
Our goodbye was imminent, waiting for the right moment as if deliberating which one of us would be in charge of executing the inevitable event. The physical act, in any case, was a success: although I extended a limp hand for a shake and nothing more, as indicated by my assessment of the circumstances, I was lucky to spot Naor raise his hand at a substantial distance in an effort to gain momentum, and with a sudden spurt of energy I stiffened my extended palm just in time, thus contributing my share of a loud, vigorous high five which metamorphosed into a firm shake. Naor then walked off. His parting words still hung in the air:
“Have a nice flight Jonathan.”
My budget was tight and planned down to the last Euro, but that didn’t affect the natural way in which I stepped into the spacious duty free shop. I usually don’t eat candy and I definitely never buy it, but at that moment, in that shop, surrounded by plenteousness, by a multitude of packages in shameless sizes, some of them as colorful as fireworks, I found it to be an uplifting sight. I passed by the perfume aisle and doused my hands indiscriminately until I quickly ran out of available pieces of flesh and couldn’t tell the different scents apart. I sighed in despair and left the shop verging on anger, with an eclectic yet unequivocally festive scent trailing behind me, and made my way to the gate.
On the moving walkway, while enjoying the rapidness of my own steps, my eyes stumbled upon the sign for the lounge. I suddenly recalled that when I issued my credit card the salesperson repeatedly stressed that the card would offer me unlimited access to this coveted area. At the time it was a meaningless, almost ridiculous detail, but now I saw it as another pleasant surprise. As the walkway deposited me on the marble floor, I braked with one foot and didn’t board the other strip of the moving walkway, the one leading to the gate, but rather turned sharply towards the glass door beneath the inviting sign.
“Hello Sir,” enunciated a man slightly younger than me, who was probably the shift manager. His chest was decorated with a gold name tag spelling YARIV – all in capital letters for some reason. He was wearing a cream colored shirt, his hair was cut short and he sported a five o’clock shadow; I gathered that he neglected to shave before his shift because he was either in a rush or too lazy. I began to regret the entire adventure. On his part, YARIV wore an expressionless face and with a brisk clap he joined his hands, then moved them in opposite directions in a partial twirl, a gesture beaming with efficiency that was somehow reminiscent of prayer.
“What can I do for you?”
My stomach turned. I handed him the card wordlessly and YARIV leaned down and typed something in the computer. Seconds later he announced that I could enter, but I emitted a thin jet of air through my nostrils with obvious indignation. Language can only go so far, and grand formalities expressing a reverence for ceremony are simply not an option for us Hebrew speakers. Hebrew can’t help but give a little wink, a hint of ridicule between the person employed in the service industry and the lines that they need to recite. From the moment that he opened his mouth, I shed my position as a young man at the airport terminal on the brink of an adventure; with one “what can I do for you” YARIV banished me back into the bland formality so odious in daily life; to the pathetic salespeople on the phone, who only utter the word “sir” when angry, saying it with protest as you threaten them with a lawsuit; or the strained civility of your correspondences with the tax authority, where your inability to comprehend their language, a bitter loss on your part, causing an alarming deficit of hundreds of shekels a year. Such is my life.
I remained still.
“You’re welcome to enter the VIP salon, sir.”
I snatched the card and hurriedly raced inside. I could almost hear the thin envelope of peaceful calm that had been surrounding me, the one I was so intent on keeping intact, being torn away in a single instant.
Salon? What on earth? He’s never used that word before coming in for his shift and he’ll never use it afterwards- at home, in bed with his girlfriend, on the bus to the university – so why the hell use the word “salon” now? What kind of an outdated formal frame of reference did he draw that from? How can you be so alienated from the things that come out of your mouth, man, how can you forfeit the most valuable defining element of your individuality, your language, and hand it over to the system?
And how about the VIPs? The Hebrew word for it is a stately one, suggestive of secret service agencies and the “personalities” in question would be a Churchill, a Truman, or a Moshe Dayan. It’s hard to say that this gaudy room that any twerp with a MasterCard has access to, would be their lounge, (pardon, their salon), right?
It’s a bad translation, bad translation indeed. VIP Salon is supposed to give off an air of sophistication, comfort and elegant mobility, while the Hebrew version is cumbersome and provincial and does exactly the opposite.
I fumbled inside my bag, reaching for the bottle of chamomile. I brought it to my nose and carefully counted out the usual sequence-sixteen deep inhales and sixteen full exhales. I needed to be more cautious. I had been working incessantly and my defenses were worn down. When languages are juxtaposed, you can’t help but notice the battle scars that are left behind, ones that necessarily remain when one organ is transplanted in another’s body; the scratches that the jagged protuberances each one- a male cat in heat and an uncooperative female in the dead of night – leaves whenever contact is made. For it’s an attempt doomed to fail, treating a shattered image like a puzzle, plundering a cargo ship in the middle of the ocean and escaping on a narrow raft. Literary translators accept all of this with submission, it could also very well be that we astonishingly see these impediments as an artistic justification for our low wages. But for me, they proved to be an occupational hazard and I had been translating for too long- alone, from home, from book to book, invoice to invoice- to the point of abandonment. Something had to change.
Unlike my natural inclination, the realization was not a gradual process of awareness that came about in the course of long lunches or sleepless nights (hence the cat metaphor). In fact, it happened while I was working: I was translating an article for the Sunday section of a major business newspaper. It was about wealthy Westerners that devote their lives to poverty-stricken regions. One of the people interviewed described why he decided to oversee the reconstruction of a public school in Port-Au-Prince: “I am a broken man, so I am interested in broken institutions.”
I cannot forget that moment. I stopped, allowing my fingers to hover over the keyboard without writing a thing, and at that cursed moment it dawned on me in full force: you cannot utter that sentence in Hebrew, not the exact same one. In a kind of revelatory moment, I immediately knew that that single sentence, which you can’t even formulate in my target language, would remain with me long after the article went to print and I received my pay (with an invoice net 60); it would play in my head in the dead hours and serve as a yardstick to measure myself against, somehow representative of me, converging with the elements that make me what I am. For one brief and concentrated moment, I stood with bare hands and open eyes, facing nothingness.
And once the crack appeared, dear God, I couldn’t help but see it again, everywhere, no matter what I was working on and how much I was getting paid. When I translated a teen novel and one of the protagonists was “throwing a party”, I was haunted for two weeks straight by the blessed light airiness that “throwing” entails, which cannot be transported to the Hebrew, where you simply do not “throw” parties in the air, but rather “conduct” them, as if they were military exercises or exams; when I was commissioned by the family of a Holocaust survivor from Queens to translate his memoirs (hence, the insinuation of the high fee), I halted at the introduction, standing stark naked before the physical weight of hand that fate had dealt that man: to bear witness. I couldn’t bear it.
But that morning I wanted to forget all of that, and slowly, with the aid of the plush VIP Salon, I seemed to be succeeding. I gazed out of the window at length, I sliced open a small roll, buttered it and spread it with jam, taking measured bites. In my last moments at the airport, the past and the future that was waiting for me on both ends of that month seemed far away, too far to be of concern. The loudspeaker chimed with an announcement: the flight to Florence will depart on schedule.
When the delay on the runway approached an hour, you couldn’t ignore the complaints any longer. The “open skies” policy introduced the Estonian carrier to the local market a while back, but the latter was slow to accustom to the sense of entitlement nurtured by its newest clientele. The Estonians failed to deliver, and the tension in the plane parked on the tarmac was palpable. The stuffy air was certainly of little help and from the snippets of conversations that I picked up, in Hebrew, the recurring expression was “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. I put my book down and looked around. The reason for our delay wasn’t clear- there wasn’t any formal apology and the captain didn’t address the passengers on the loudspeaker.
It was only when a few passengers actively protested, teaming up for a common cause and moving towards the cockpit, that a stewardess came out from behind the partition. Her forehead was scared with acne, her natural blonde hair was practically blinding and she was playing with it incessantly. She was undoubtedly the youngest and probably the most inexperienced member of the crew, and I couldn’t help but regard her to be a kind of sacrificial offering to the passengers, to appease their fury.
The more active ones in our midst immediately huddled near her in the narrow aisle, demanding an explanation. Even those of us remaining in our seats supported the move, commenting loudly. She finally admitted that they were waiting for more passengers, and actually, they were waiting for one passenger. When the joint Israeli-Italian offensive delivered this news, the plane erupted in anger. More people got up, shaking their heads, clicking their tongues, others typed out text messages or emails with vindictive vitality. Some of them even demanded, without purpose or even an addressee, to get their money back. I looked intently at what was happening around me. The only empty seat I could see was the one beside me, and the more time passed, my hope for a roomier, more comfortable flight with a seat at the window was dashed, replaced with the realization that I would soon be caught in the center of attention, if only for a brief hour. Our self appointed envoys, on their part, were casting accusations at the stewardess, claiming that her employer was trying to fill up flights at the expense of the passengers and promising that they wouldn’t get away with it. The accusation seemed unfounded, as payment is done in advance and a covert operation of deductions and flash-transfers between the airlines down to the single passenger would be a complicated endeavor with negligible profit. No, it was clear to me that something out of the ordinary was taking place.
Finally the missing passenger arrived. He walked briskly, accompanied by a ground stewardess, his entire body language exuding apologetics. The second thing I noticed about him was that he was familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. He was relatively young, and mainly, how shall I put it, different, unlike anyone who would’ve attended my school or joined the scouts (not to mention the army!). His tailored pants and matching jacket were elegant, more elegant than anything I’d wear, yet with his slight build and smooth face, he looked as if he were in costume.
Everyone stared at him and you couldn’t miss the accusatory expressions on the Israeli passengers’ faces, as if his appearance was sufficient to get to the bottom of the issue. He was palpably uncomfortable about being the center of attention and in a few quick steps he reached the aisle before our seats. “May I…” uttered my neighbor and fell silent, in the hope that the tone of his voice completed his sentence. Under the watchful gaze of the passengers and the crew, he gave up on the attempt to cram his bag in the overhead compartment, taking it with him instead as he stepped over me. His skin was slightly dark, olive toned, and his short hair was curly. When he passed over me, he left behind a trace of a pleasant, strong scent; a single unified sweet fragrance, one which does not owe its strength to comical attempts at the duty free but rather belongs to an established tradition. He buckled his seatbelt, vigorously signaling the sacrificial stewardess. It was evident that he was trying to hasten take-off as much as possible.
The plane immediately did a 180 turn, accelerated on the runway and took off. The drama was over and the rest of the passengers returned to their business. As a gesture of goodwill, the stewardesses offered vodka from their overloaded carts. I drank some and got out a stick of gum to ease the pressure in my ears. I offered him a piece, silently, but he still had his face buried in his window and was looking back towards the airport, shaking his head in disbelief. When he noticed my offer, he declined and thanked me with a slight nod.
I opened my book again, but it was lost. I could swear that this guy was familiar and I knew that until I remembered how I knew him, I’d never find any peace. I glanced over at him from time to time, aching to strike up a conversation, but I had no idea what to say. The only thing I did know about him, which was plain as day and the first thing that I noticed, was also the issue I couldn’t very well bring up.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s my connection too, with a stopover in Tallinn.”
He smiled, pleased with what we shared in common.
“And what are you going to do there?” he asked after a while.
“It’s a little complicated.” I replied. I was considering how much I should tell him, but I noticed that I was stalling and I didn’t want to seem rude or impatient. “I’m taking a course there.”
“Accademia del Linguaggio, through the Italian Institute of Culture?”
“Yes! How did you know?”
“My older sister went there, she got a scholarship from the Dante Institute in Haifa. She’s a musician and the course was extremely helpful for her.”
“Yes, she had a fantastic experience. You’ll probably have fun too.”
“Ana aref? How should I know? I hope so.”
He didn’t answer. I was scanning my brain looking for more words in his mother tongue, driven by an uncontrollable urge to show off. I spotted a few pimples sprouting on his left temple, the one closest to me.
“How about you?” I finally said.
“I’m flying out for a few days, something of a sudden visit you could say. I have some tryouts…”
“Ohh!” I exclaimed in surprise, too loudly, because at that moment I realized who he was and why he was so familiar. The word he used was enough to connect the right wires in my brain. “That’s right! You’re Hamed Kassum! Maccabi Haifa Under 18s. Of course, a special passanger onboard, Florence, tryouts. You’re going to play for Fiorentina!”
“God willing, God willing,” he chuckled, surprised.
He started to say something about the difficulties that the Israeli club was making, but I cut him off. It wasn’t necessary, I knew it all, down to the smallest detail: the curly-haired, bashful teen by my side, his large almond-shaped eyes still wide with wonder at my response, was the next big thing in Israeli soccer. When he was just fourteen, Maccabi Haifa was quick to snatch him up from Hapoel Taybe’s Under 16s, in a move inspired by their European counterparts, who scout young talents in Africa and South America and sell them for millions. After bettering his game for a few years in the Junior Leagues, last summer he moved up and made his debut in a friendly match in the Austrian training camp, where he scored two goals against Red Bull Salzburg. Footage of his performance started to circulate in Europe. When the offer came from Fiorentina, Maccabi Haifa didn’t hesitate to quote an astronomical sum, much higher than the penalty for breaking his contract, on the presumption that the young talent’s legs offered them a lucrative future to come. The matter was still being negotiated and was about to be turned over to a mediator.
I knew all of the details thoroughly, because I was and still am, a dedicated reader of the sports section, preferably in Yediot Aharonot and Ma’ariv daily newspapers. I don’t go to the games or watch them on TV, and have hard time keeping up when I play every Saturday, but I never miss the sports pages, on account of nostalgia and a deep sense of gratitude. For the tabloid sports section was my first grown-up reading material, the first to furnish me with a reading experience that I can still relate to. It was those slim pages that gave me access to the secret world hidden in words, and, despite the prevailing belief, my predilection for florid prose and wit is not a product of my literary studies or my advertiser parents, respectively, but rather the splashy Sunday headlines. To this day, even as those sections have been downsized to a few double spreads, I never forget where I came from and I’ll never leave the table before I read them straight through and reach the obituaries.
“What do you mean, God willing?” I asked. “They want you, they’re willing to pay and in the end, that’s the only thing that matters. From what I read in the papers, it seems that Haifa just wants to flex its muscles in order to get a better deal.”
“I gather you’re a diehard fan.”
“Good. So there are a few other problems that need solving. As of this morning, I didn’t even know if they’d let me out for the week.”
“That’s why boarding was delayed,” I stated.
“No,” his lips parted into a kind of a smile. “That was because of a security screening. It was really, like… a long story.”
My face darkened at once. “What happened over there?” I clicked my tongue in sympathy, with all due severity. “Did someone give you a hard time?”
“No, no, it’s always like that when I travel alone. Security is just doing their job, and this time he was very, um, like…enlightened. But I had to be on time. The agent is meeting me at the airport with Fiorentina representatives. After all this mess, if I would’ve missed the flight it would have made a very bad impression. I suppose that’s the reason they were willing to hold the flight for me.”
I recognized his face; it was Hamad Kasum alright, but something about his story, the ornate Hebrew he spoke and his very presence at my side was strange, almost unrealistic. How come he was there on his own, flying with such a questionable airline on a trip that could be the chance of a lifetime? If I were him I’d arrive three days in advance, on a direct flight, with or without approval from Maccabi Haifa and my parents would accompany me there. I wanted to ask him something about all that, but I refrained from doing so; after all, with all due respect to my good intentions and liberal attitude, I hadn’t the slightest idea about his world. Perhaps things are different when you’re an…
“Great! Great! So what happened?”
“They took me to a back room and started asking questions. I showed them my player ID and the invitation from Fiorentina but that didn’t help. Forging documents has gotten so innovative these days, they needed to do a thorough check. After the first security officer emptied my bag, a higher ranking one arrived. They mentioned my sister’s trip to Italy a few years ago and my parents’ frequent visits there and asked about the keen interest my family seems to take in all things Italian: perhaps we have ties to immigrants there, people like ourselves, from Algeria or Morocco? People that didn’t exactly come to Italy, like…” -Hamad shifted in his seat and, for the first time looked me straight in the eye- “to admire the achievements of the Renaissance- if you know what I mean.”
“That’s what they said?!” I asked, appalled.
“Not in those exact words.”
In time I would come to understand just how misleading Hamad’s long “like…” was, ostensibly aiming to please, to smooth over any distress and signal “business as usual.” I learned to discern that during those brief silences and while under their protection, a wild emotional tumult occurs within him.
“Unbelievable,” I said. “How come they didn’t recognize you? How many seventeen year old players have scored two goals against Red Bull Salzburg?” He stifled another chuckle and raised his brows as if he too were astonished: “I guess the guys on security were basketball fans.”
I nodded in earnest.
“And what about you?” he asked.
“I’m a translator.”
His face lit up for a moment and then immediately curbed, kept in check. I could tell that my answer interested him and I was prepared to begin my usual routine, but he fell silent and turned to the window. A stewardess approached, offering more vodka. There was no food on the flight, which was delayed for an hour and a half and the captain didn’t miss a single air pocket on the way, nor was there any leg room to speak of; but the vodka flowed freely. I nodded my head in the affirmative and so did Hamad. I was briefly surprised. Even though there was no good reason, I still thought that there was an element of defiance to it.
“To Italy,” he said.
“To Fiornetina,” I replied.
“To Florence!” we chimed and downed the vodka. When the last waves of heat that the drink generated were absorbed in my body, I was overcome by fatigue. It had been trailing me like a shadow since morning when I stood waiting for the train, at dawn. I suddenly realized how little time had and how misleading the sensation was. I saw Hamad looking out of the window, as if protecting us from what was still to come- each man to his destiny, each man to opportunities that await him. I let my head drop and was asleep within an instant.
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