The Best Runner in the Class (Part 1)

It was the quiet lapping of the waves that reminded her of that awful day. Like now, it had been the middle of May, and roughly — or was it? — the same time of day, the Mediterranean dusk, when the skyline above the sea becomes a glowing display of colors, contours and configurations. But of course, on that day she did not rest as comfortably as she did now, with her bare feet dug deep into the crisp warm sand of the beach near her village.

The flickering water and fading sunlight prodded the painful memories to surface and trouble her mind to the point of derangement. Then a sudden silence fell, for the shortest possible moment but crystal clear and sharp, as if everyone and everything was frozen in time. Fifty years ago it had been the same: a very brief interlude that allowed everyone on the beach — killers, victims and bystanders — to absorb the moment, even to grasp it in a lucid manner that would never repeat itself. Now her own realization was more stoical, and free of the panic that had gripped her then. This time a sense of surrender enveloped her. “Illi fat mat,” bygones are bygones, Fatima murmured to herself.

Yet they were not gone. It was all the fault of that insistent student. Nosey and unpleasant as far as she was concerned, with broken Arabic, who had interviewed her about those traumatic days in the past. Fatima tried desperately to brush aside the memory of the meeting she had had with him that morning and to distance herself, as far as she could from the beach and its dark secrets.

She walked to the gate — a gate that was not there fifty years ago. In 1948 none of the villages in Palestine had gates; but there was no village now. Its houses had become a kibbutz, its fields tourist bungalows and its graveyard a parking lot. In the last fifteen years she had walked through this gate every Saturday at noon and such comparisons did not trouble her. But this pushy student had brought it all back.

At the entrance to the parking lot, the old graveyard, her son Ali was already waiting in the driver’s seat, patiently as usual, mesmerized by the voice coming out of his car radio. “That same wretched cassette,” grumped Fatima inaudibly. She was fond of the singer and did not really dislike the song, but had had enough of hearing it again and again. But wait, there was someone in the back of the battered Toyota. Oh no, not that Jewish student.

“He happened to be in the area for his research and I ran into him,” Ali explained, and of course he had invited him not only to the house but also to dinner.

The ‘of course dinner’ pained Fatima, who did all the cooking. Out of her four boys and two girls, only Ali, the youngest, was still at home and whenever he felt hospitable it meant more work — and Ali was very sociable. Well, what could one do?

“Marhaba,” she muttered.

Yaacov appeared even more preoccupied than before. He did not wait for them to arrive at the house, or till the end of the small talk that was customary before food was served. He was obviously in a hurry and, as it turned out, did not run into them incidentally, but by intent.

“Fatima, I need to know exactly where the mass graves are.”

“Well, I told you, ya Yakub, it has been fifty years now and Allah is my witness, my memory betrays me.” She stopped, looked anxiously at Ali, who seemed to focus on the road more attentively.

“Hear him out, ya Mama, it is important. Tell her, Yaacov.”

“They want to come … and it, I mean, they, will not be here. We have to show the world the bodies … before them.” He interchanged Arabic and Hebrew at such speed that she lost him. He became even less coherent, unable to articulate his thoughts clearly. The rest of his explanation was rushed, and only parts of it made sense to Fatima.

“The professor, Dr. Awad, is willing to alert the media and they will come and photograph and film the graves and then the world will know and …”

And then what, indeed? wondered Fatima. From her late husband she had learned what happened if you annoyed the powers-that-be. Every trivial aspect of your life was affected by tax burdens, permits for this and that, and, worst of all, by a constant and almost daily harassment by the police and the devils from Shabak, the Israeli Secret Service.

“This is for the sake of truth,” Yaacov continued, in the same muddled manner.

‘Science’ and ‘national pride’ were the only fractions of phrases she could make out from what now became an unstoppable diatribe, against Israel and the scholarly world, and in favor of the Palestinian struggle.

“Let’s go home and talk further there.”

Ali had saved her, and the car ended the short drive between what had been her village and the neighboring village that became her new home fifty years ago. She now lived in one of the few villages that had survived the ethnic cleansing on the coastal plain of Palestine during those violent months of 1948.

They came through the barley fields — a sea of tawny stalks swaying back and forth in the early afternoon breeze of mid-May. The five young men who took it upon themselves to protect the village from the southern flank frantically raised their Hartushes, the old shotguns from the day of the Great War that were used for hunting, and aimed at the invaders. In less than five minutes they were gone; struck down by the troops who entered the village from the east, south and north, completing a full encirclement with the navy people who landed on the west from the sea.

Fatima was in her teens and on her way back from the new school for girls that had opened the previous year. Tired from a long day of parroting what the teachers asked her to memorize, she was heading home when she met her elder brother who hurried her along, yelling at the womenfolk in the house to hide wherever they could, because “the Jews are coming.”

Fatima knew in a timeless way, in those days of May 1948, that the Jews were coming. For the last six months shreds from the daily news — traditionally the domain of the men in the village — had reached her. She was aware that the British were leaving and that the Jews were occupying nearby villages at a frightening rate. She also heard the men complaining about the Arab world’s betrayal: its leaders made inflammatory speeches, promising to send soldiers to save Palestine, but not matching their rhetoric by any real action. Yet the daily routine of those days was not interrupted even once, so that the threatened arrival of the Jews was like an evil spell, against which the blue-painted door and ornate ceramic Hamsa — the amulet hand hanging on one side of it — should be sufficient protection.

But on that fateful day the evil spirits were stronger than any talisman or benevolent djinns hovering over the village to safeguard it, as they had in the past, from Crusaders, Napoleon and other would-be invaders who frequented the Palestine coast on the way to another conquest, or seeking a Christian redemption of the Holy Land.

Hiding was no use. The troops found them and ordered them to leave their houses, without exception. It took several hours and they huddled on the beach, not far from where Fatima now sat reflecting, fifty years later, relishing the warm holes carved by her feet in the soft sand. The one thousand villagers were immediately separated into two groups, one of men and the other of women and children, seated a hundred yards from each other. They were ordered to put their hands behind their necks and sit cross-legged in a circle. Fatima saw one of her brothers, aged twelve, in the women’s group, and from the distance she spotted another, aged fourteen, counted as a man with the male members of her family.

Fatima sat facing the sun, and when the men were moved toward the sea with loud shouts and kicks, their silhouettes were so blurred that she could not tell who belonged to her family and who did not. But she did hear the ear-splitting shots, the quick bursts of machine-gun fire. Then a silence — echoed now on the beach — descended on the scene. And she ran, as one who was the top runner in her class. She did not understand the Hebrew curses shouted behind her as she flew through the scrub and made it to the old school, now empty and desolate, on the eastern side of the graveyard. Shivering with fear, she curled herself into a ball, crouching in what must have been the storage part of the school, and found a small aperture through which she could see a limited view of the outside world.

Later she learned that the noises she heard were the vehicles that transferred the women and children from the village to a distant location. She still refused to leave her hideaway, and then saw what was now, fifty years later, so valuable in the eyes of a nagging Jewish student: the piling up of the bodies. Two huge pyres; but they were not set alight. The heaps were amassed by a group of villagers, most of whom she did not recognize, who were then shot and thrown on top of the corpses. The vision seared itself into her mind, and she never let it go.

[PART 2]