Seventy-six-year-old Moshe Shamir has been happily married for fifty-one years and has three children and four grandchildren. Born and educated in Israel, he has been a farmer in a kibbutz, a captain in the Israeli Army, and a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. But mostly, Moshe Shamir is known as being a very prolific Israeli writer: his published works include twelve novels, three collections of short stories, and a number of children's books. In addition, twenty of his plays have been produced and published, and three movies have been made from his works. His writing has been featured in many anthologies.
As suggested in these passages of autobiography, Shamir feels very strongly about the importance of the building of Israel. His own parents were pioneers in Israel and he tells me that "the building of a country for a homeless people is, to my mind, the greatest event of the century." He believes that the only way that there will be peace in the Middle East is for there to be "the honest and indubitable acceptance by the Arabs of the existence of a strong and viable Israel among them....At the present, regrettably, I am afraid the Arab/Palestinian aim in what is called 'the peace process' is simply to weaken Israel."
Moshe Shamir is very widely read in Israel and has received every major literary prize there is to be won in that country. His work has also been translated into many languages, and the following novels are available in English: The King of Flesh and Blood, The Hittite Must Die, The Fifth Wheel, and With His Own Hands.
My Life with Ishmael, the autobiography from which the following excerpts were taken, (originally published in Hebrew in 1968), was published in English by Vallentine, Mitchell (London) in 1970.
No Other Storm
MY brother -- I knew in his life and in his death. To this day, twenty years after his death, he returns to me in my dreams at night, young and handsome and blond and blue-eyed as he was in life. And in my dream I want to embrace him and I dare not. A dreadful fear roots me to the spot -- lest I hurt his wounded body. And within that fear, a terrible joy -- that his death is a lie, a lie, a lie. I know what period of time I relive in my dream. It is a quarter of an hour, ten minutes: someone bursts into the Tel-Aviv office of the Haganah, the Underground [secret Jewish self-defense force], tells us about the seven at Yazur and blurts out his name, not knowing that Eli Shamir was my brother; then the man's shock and his saying: "Run to the Hadassah Hospital" -- then the moment when I enter the hospital's corridor and my father is sitting on the bench, encircled. Oh that it be a lie, a lie, a lie -- and it was the truth. They had summoned Father from his office. It was I who climbed the three floors to tell Mother.
Later, much later, an hour later, someone made the world's most banal and irritating remark to me, and the truest and most needed: "Think of your parents. You must be strong now."
Then, before they took the seven of them away, to lay them out beside the candles and the guard of honor in the barnlike gymnasium, before they took them, I saw him in the refrigeration room of the hospital mortuary -- and the dark blue hole in the clear white forehead. And on his face the look: mature, responsible, astonished.
They were killed in an open lorry after it had struck a mine. Injured and burnt they were murdered one by one, shot at close range. What were they doing in an open lorry in the street of an Arab village? They were driving out to inspect the road ahead of a convoy carrying passengers, food, medical supplies, fuel -- to Jerusalem.
I was a child among Grade III children at the time of the 1929 disturbances. On a hot day in July the school celebrated Herzl [Theodor Herzl, father of Zionism] Day. We donated a mil [small amount of money] to the Karen Kayemet [Jewish National Fund]. The pretty girl from Grade VIII read out Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Bones. I understood nothing of what she was reading except: "Come oh breath..." and then "breathe" which sounded to me like "weep," so I understood it as: "Come oh breath and weep upon these slain..." and it made sense. Nice. Really nice....
A week later we received the certificates. That was a real celebration for us. We all came in sandals, and Samul -- the Yemenite [from Yemen] devil of the class -- came in a blouse! And off we went on our school holidays....
I went to the village where Grandma and the uncles lived. Be'er Ya'acov -- a quiet little place surrounded by Arab villages without even a road between, no electricity and no telephone. Just a secluded happy home, quite innocent. An Arab shepherd by the name of Shak'r, who is like one of the family, takes the farmers' cows out in the morning and brings them back in the evening. A friend to everyone, including little me, who steals out every now and then to spend a whole day with him and the cows. Except at almond-picking time which I wouldn't miss for anything, or even better: almond-peeling time. And if they let me help in the fresh-smelling citrus nursery, that's the highlight and a great novelty. Will there be oranges? Mandarines? It is so quiet and peaceful in the village that fire and smoke are remembered as symbols of sweetness and contentment. The smoke of Grandma's baking-oven, with the wonderful smell of burning eucalyptus twigs, or the fire gaily crackling to warm the bath-water on Friday night.
Then suddenly someone is standing by my bed, and it is dark all around, and he quietens me with a kind hand: "Night. Get up. It's all right." By the light of the paraffin lamp in the other room I find my clothes and see my uncle groping in the chest under the bed and taking something out and thrusting it into his belt. Apparently I am still sitting on the bed, goggling in astonishment. Grandma comes in. They dress me. There is no time for my sandals, and they push them into my hands. Tumult in the house, they hustle the women and children outside. Other figures are hurrying about in the cold dark of the village street. They rush to the one and only stone building, on the hill across the street -- the schoolhouse. Words are flung in hushed tones. To the southeast, beyond the cypresses in the yard -- like a premature sunrise -- a pale rosy stain on the fringe of the sky.
"Hulda is burning."
The following day Grandma took me by train to Tel-Aviv (not neglecting the opportunity to bring a basket of lemons to sell at the market). At Lod she would not allow me out of the coach, even though she knew how much I loved running backwards and forwards in the tunnel linking the two platforms under the railway lines. I tried outwitting her by pleading for something to drink, but what had come over her? -- no response whatever. Through the lowered shutter I peeped at the Arab boys running about with their newspapers, shouting: "Falastin...La Bourse Egyptienne [Palastine...the Egyptian stock exchange]..." When the coach started moving Grandma relaxed her hold on my arm, and then a stone struck the shutter, and the engine whistled.
Grandma said something in Yiddish to our neighbor -- and he repeated it three times in emphatic agreement. But at home in Tel-Aviv she closeted herself with Mother to confer in secret and forgot about me and the lemons. I stole out to the yard, and from there to the street. All the children of the neighbourhood were squeezed behind the stone fence of the house at the corner of Hayarkon Street, whispering together in a huddle as I joined them, and looking towards the south.
We were waiting for the daily funeral. This was an Arab funeral that passed along Hayarkon Street every day on its way to their cemetery on the sandhill, to the north, past the huts of Mahlul. Soon the morning would be over -- and no funeral. What's the matter with them today?
Over the years we had grown accustomed to those strange processions, and till today I recall the tune they used to sing, just as we heard it and imitated their singing of it: "La Allah il Allah ua Mukhamad rasul Al'lah...La Allah il Allah ua Mukhamad rasul Al'lah....["There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah..."] They used to pass by, every day, winter and summer, a lot of them or just a few, leading the coffin and singing, serious-faced and chanting, moving along with a dancing gait. It was part of the life of the street, a colourful and salient part of the mosaic landscape of our lives -- like the skyline of Jaffa and its mosque at a distance, like the drivers of the black, horse-drawn cabs at the corner of Allenby Street, like the fishermen standing on the rocks in the sea, like the hawkers of cleaning-powder -- "Qudsi ramel!"; like the rag-dealers -- "Weissen Kessalach!"; like the Bedouin women fruit vendors tinkling their medallions with every nod of their heads and movement of their hands -- "Tut ya tut, taaza ya tut, frishe ya tut -- sabress!" ["Delicious strawberries for sale!"]
The funeral didn't turn up. The children on their holiday rambles discovered that in Allenby Street too the world order had changed: no cabs. At the foot of the casino there was no fishing. We went farther south along Hayarkon Street, daringly -- for that was the base of our rival gang in games and brawls -- and there, in Yonah Hanavi Street, a young man is strolling up and down with a stick in his hand and making signs to us with the stick that this is as far as we go, and back home please, about face -- to Mama, home!
At home Father was already there, and rumours. And what's more the children are not to go out any more. Not even into the yard. As if Father had brought the tension with him. How and why did he come home so early that day? His office, the Government Veterinary Laboratory, was in the German Colony in Jaffa. The Englishman in charge had received a telephone call, summoned the three Jewish workers, and advised them to hurry home. Father went back to his laboratory, calmly covered the microscope, closed the large log-book of tests, inserted something into the pocket of his coat with a quick smooth movement. At home, when he had gathered the children together inside the flat (a two-roomed flat on the ground floor) and then gone himself to stand in the street at the entrance to the building, I saw the knife -- not long but highly sharpened -- which he used for separating the diseased limb from the body of a sheep or cow in order to examine it.
This was our armoury for the defense of our home.
When we returned to school about two months later, matured by a summer and anxieties, we had an orphan girl in the class. Between the closing and opening of an exercise book -- she became an orphan. Her father and mother went to Hebron for a week but were there for four days only. On the fifth, the Arabs came.
They called it a pogrom then. After seven years the name changed to "disturbances."
Hulda was attached, evacuated, and destroyed by fire. Be'er-Tuvia was burned and abandoned. Mahanayim was burned and abandoned. And the list comprises further pogroms in Jerusalem. In Safed. In Jaffa. In Haifa. Men, women and children were slaughtered. Houses were razed. Fields and granaries were set on fire. Citrus groves were uprooted.
And to all those places we returned. All those fields we restored, all those citrus groves we replanted. All the houses we built up. One place alone, the worst hit of all, the most sacred of all, was not brought back to life: Jewish Hebron. Here we had to wait for almost forty years, until 8 June, 1967 [the Six-Day War].
On the festival of Succot in 1968 a few families went down to Eilat. We found a spot in the fenced-off camping ground of the Stella Maris Motel, pitched our tents, donned our bathing suits, and sent our children to swim in the sea. The spot was at the eastern extremity of the populated area of this oddly-modern Israeli town. It's a town where you walk out into the yard and you're in the desert. The distance from our camping ground to the houses of Jordanian Akaba was no greater than the distance to the center of Eilat. But the quietness over there was like the end of the world.
On the journey, as we hurled along the Arava road, we saw some unusual army activity; billows of smoke, a helicopter landing, parked jeeps on guard with their weapons at the ready. The evening news told us -- a mine. One killed. An incident. In the midst of all this, right next to the border, between incident and incident, three days of sunshine and self-indulgence and games and campfires and swimming and shell-gathering. To forget. To sink into a round of aimless activities. When cooking the soup becomes the main preoccupation, that's repose. And the children, we were sure, the children certainly...
The children, we were sure, the little ones, were basking in their own Garden of Eden. My son Eli and my niece Merav, a pair of little devils, founded a 'science-group' and were busy collecting things, making discoveries, fishing hopefully but unsuccessfully, sunbathing, disappearing when they were supposed to be eating the soup we spent so much time cooking -- in short: utter oblivion, relaxation, a world of eternal peace.
After our first night there, the little ones disappeared early in the morning. On their reappearance to the smell of coffee they were talking together in whispers. No tempting suggestion for passing the time could distract them. Not yet. They still had something terribly important (and terribly secret!) to arrange. My son went looking for paper. A large sheet. White paper. He scratched around and found some, apparently, because the next requirement was a pencil or crayon. What for, eh? -- it's a secret.
It went out of our minds, and there were plenty of other things crowding in, one upon the other, to explain the glint in their eyes as the hours passed on that glorious beach. All day the 'science-group' displayed particular interest in the water currents and prevailing winds in the bay. How do fishermen sail here? Does the wind always blow from the land towards the sea? Are there no currents drifting eastward? What, by the way, is the distance by sea to Akaba? I didn't connect all these items, until night came and in the silence, in the shelter of the tent, with his head poking out of his sleeping bag, my son couldn't contain himself any longer: "Daddy, d'you know what we did today? We made paper boats. Merav and I -- two boats. And we put them far out to sea to sail away. But first we wrote on the paper, Why don't you make peace with us? Dear soldiers of the Akaba Legion, why don't you make peace with us? Signed, a boy and a girl from Israel. Whoever finds this, please hand it to the Legion, Akaba."
Copyright © 1998 by Laurel Holliday