Chapter One: Heat
July 1998. Kalandia, West Bank
The gunman was not home. "Come in," his mother said. "Would you like some orange soda?" She smiled back at me, waving me out of the sun and through her front door. The knock must have shaken her out of a nap; she had shuffled out in slippers and a pink embroidered bathrobe. She drew me inside, into a dimly lit living room, the curtains closed against the heat. Children were tucked into every shadow, three small boys wedged in an armchair, a teenager straddling the arms of the couch, toddlers blinking up from the floor.
"That's him," the woman said, pointing over her grandchildren's heads. I followed her finger to the wall, to the shooter's photograph, saw his face for the first time, and sank into the couch. His mother sat down on the edge of the coffee table facing me, her shoulders forward, her feet squared with mine, six inches separating our knees. We looked at each other for a moment. Her features were faded, but her brown eyes glittered, the wrinkles flying out like sunrays. She leaned closer and passed a glass of cold soda to me. Her fingers slid along mine, moist and cool.
"He tried to kill someone," she said in an easy voice.
"Who?" I asked.
"Some Jew," said the twelve-year-old on my right, shrugging.
I turned to him. The boy smiled crookedly. "I don't know who. A Mossad agent."
He laughed and everyone laughed. I joined in too, as best as I could. After all these years, I had arrived unannounced on their doorstep on a fiery July afternoon, a stranger with a notebook, dressed in white. I was a newspaper reporter from America, had picked my way down to their home on the edge of a barren gorge, woke them from their sleep and asked to hear their story. There were eight people in the living room, then ten and then fourteen. Family members wandered out of bed, out of a maze of connecting apartments, to see what the noise was about, to meet the unexpected guest.
"I'm not sure he was a Mossad agent," said a man with a well-plowed brow, leaning against the far wall. "He was a person from the outside, the head of a municipality in New York. We heard he was doing something against Palestinians. Why else would they choose him to be shot?"
This was Saed, the shooter's oldest brother. He served in Yasir Arafat's security forces in Ramallah. He wore an olive-drab shirt and army pants, and had an eagle tattoo and a snakeskin scar etched below his collarbone.
I lifted my eyebrows, encouraging him from across the room.
"It happened inside the Old City, near the Western Wall," he said, coming closer. "He shot the man one time in the head."
"Why only once?" I asked.
"It was in the marketplace." He laughed through clenched teeth.
"After the shooting, he threw the gun in the air, and it fell in the marketplace," said his mother.
We all started to chuckle at the comic scene: one bullet, a cowering Jew, the gun pinwheeling out of reach. The mother, laughing, smacked my thigh.
The shooter, it seemed, had bad aim. He fired at the American man half an inch too high, missing his brain and sparing his life. Some of his partners had more success. In all, twenty-five men belonged to the Jerusalem death gang, which police called "one of the most dangerous and well-organized terror cells in recent memory." They were Palestinians in their twenties and early thirties, many of them ex-cons, all of them members of a radical faction of the PLO, backed by Syria. Their leader had blown out his own eyes while wiring a bomb to a Palestinian informer's car.
The winter of 1986 had been a quiet time in Jerusalem. People walked through the Old City without fear. In March, that changed. The gang began gunning down tourists -- mostly American, German, British -- point-blank, a single shot through the skull.
The American man was their first victim. Next, the gang killed an Israeli businesswoman. Her twenty-year-old daughter had just dropped her off at work at a building outside the Old City's Damascus Gate. The assassin followed the woman up the stairs to the third floor. He walked through her office door as she was settling into her chair, adjusting a green cushion to support her back. She wore a ribbon in her hair, and clips to sweep back her long, brown waves. Eight-thirty in the morning, and here was her first client. Wordlessly, he removed a Beretta from inside his shirt and reached across her desk, over the coffee creamer, over the desktop calendar. He lifted the pistol to her left cheek. She hit the white tile floor so hard it knocked out her teeth.
That same week, another gang member ambushed a German tourist. She and her husband were on a Holy Land tour. On the third day of their trip, they strolled through Jerusalem's walled Old City, down the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus took to his crucifixion. The couple stopped, arm in arm, near the first station of the cross to read a sign about the condemnation of Jesus. Suddenly there was an explosion, and a burning trickle beneath the German woman's blouse. A bullet pierced her an inch to the right of her spine, flying out between two ribs. The couple twisted and saw a man with black, matted hair and wild eyes standing ten feet away. His finger was hooked through the trigger, ready to fire again. I'm going to die, the woman thought. She struggled to shift her body in front of her husband's, to shield him. They had two young girls at home in Munich. Her husband had to live.
Eleven days later a fourth gunman struck. He scouted the streets near the Old City for the perfect site: the Garden Tomb, a secluded park revered by Anglicans as the place where Jesus was buried. Outside the door to the tomb, he found a young man sitting next to his backpack.
"How you doing?" the gunman said in English.
"Good," the tourist said, looking up from under a fringe of curls. He was a boyish twenty-seven, with round cheeks and believing eyes. In his backpack, he carried a Bible.
"You American?" the killer asked hopefully.
"No, I'm British," the tourist said, raising a water bottle to his mouth.
British was almost as good. The gunman let him swallow the water. As he watched him screw the cap on the bottle, he stepped forward, so close he could have shaken the tourist's hand. He felt for the gun on his hip instead. One bullet in the brain. An Anglican minister ran outside when he heard the shot. He found a young man, a boy, really, lying on his back, his eyes still, his lips moving, trembling with his last breath. There was something red on his cheek. Not a lot of blood, just a dab, smeared like a hurried kiss.
I had pieced together fragments of these stories before. But now, surrounded by the shooter's family, I was hearing about the attack on the American for the first time.
"He never talks about it, even now," the shooter's father said. The father had entered the room in a long, gray robe and sat down next to me. He smiled with the practiced reassurance of a man who had raised eight children.
"Maybe he was forced to do it," the mother said.
"No, he wasn't forced," the shooter's nephew cut in. "He did it willingly."
"He was proud, he was beaming." Another nephew.
"After the incident, he came home and ate a big meal," said the shooter's sister-in-law. "He said, 'Don't go to Jerusalem, there's been a shooting. The city isn't stable.'" She remembered serving him a plate of melon as they listened to the radio. They heard a report about an American tourist who was shot in the head.
Now she was serving me a plate of cubed watermelon.
"May God bless your hands," I said, the traditional Arab thanks to someone who gives you food.
"And your hands too," she replied, offering me a napkin and fork.
The mother sighed at the mention of God. "I pray five times a day for my son."
"Yes, she prays for God to take away all the Jews," said an uncle. "We call to God. We call to Allah. We call to Jesus." He threw up a hand. "Nobody helps."
I plugged my mouth with watermelon. I widened my eyes to look more understanding. The room was warm, but my hosts brought out trays of black tea. The ground-up leaves spiraled and settled at the bottom of my glass. I grasped the rim and brought the tea to my lips, blowing off ringlets of steam.
"Why did he do it?" I said gently. I sipped the hot liquid.
"No reason," the mother said, uncurling her fist to reveal an empty hand.
"He did his duty. Every Palestinian must do it," the father said. "Then there will be justice."
"Was it for your honor?" I said.
"Not for my honor, for the honor of our people," he said.
"We were all with him politically," said Saed, the shooter's oldest brother. "We all think it was worth it -- his duty to get back all the cities taken by the Jews."
The family ideology decorated the living room walls: the emblem of Force 17, a crack Palestinian military unit; framed snapshots of Saed in uniform with Arafat, Abu Jihad, and other famous guerrilla leaders;
and the centerpiece, over the doorway, an enlarged color portrait of the shooter himself.
"No justice comes from the Jews," Saed said. He pinched the skin on his neck, twisting it right, then left. "My other brother was in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Jews deported him from Palestine to Jordan."
The deported brother, Imad, straggled in from his nap. He found an armchair and slouched into it. He lit a cigarette and reflexively tipped the pack toward me. This brother looked different from Saed, the officer. Imad's hair, mustache and goatee were dyed a burned orange. He had inherited his father's bony height and his mother's polished brown eyes. He wore a silky red and black shirt. Imad had returned in 1994 from twenty-five years of exile, after the Israelis and Palestinians signed a peace deal. The revolutionary now worked as a beautician.
"Anybody would do what my brother did under those circumstances," Imad said, squeezing his cigarette between his forefinger and his thumb. "If you pretend to be a Palestinian for five minutes, you'll feel what we feel."
"And what about the man he tried to kill?"
"It wasn't a personal vendetta," Imad said. "He didn't know the man. He did it so people would look at us."
As Imad spoke, smoke poured from his mouth. For a moment, he was a voice inside a cloud.
"I am a victim," he said.
A shot went off outside and I must have flinched.
"Don't worry," the father said with his reassuring smile. "It's not a gun. It's a wedding. Fireworks for the party."
Another sister-in-law brought out another tray of scalding tea. I had not seen her before. How many people were in this family? I started counting. Fifteen grandchildren blocked my exit to the door.
"Won't someone from the victim's family kill one of your people?" I said.
"No," said Imad. "There's no revenge." Smoke coiled around each syllable. "My brother never met the man personally. It's not a personal issue. Nothing personal, so no revenge."
The fan behind Imad was blowing his smoke onto me, mixing it with his breath and his sweat. It was not an unpleasant smell, but it was strange, inhaling Imad. I drained my glass, burning my tongue. I looked at the clock behind him, a souvenir stamped "I Love Jerusalem" in English. I had been sitting with the shooter's family for over four hours. It was time to go.
Come back, visit soon, they insisted. I thanked them for their hospitality and promised that I would. They stood up and, one by one, offered me their hands -- muscled housewife hands; gummy toddler fingers; bashful shakes from the girls; blanketing grips from the men; darting, palmy handshakes from the teenage boys. I looked into each person's eyes and felt my lips pull back in a smile.
Outside, more relatives waited and more handshakes. It was sundown on a Friday. The day was spent, burned out in the white hills above the gorge. Everything had turned a shamefaced pink. I walked up toward the main road, and after a minute, my cellular phone rang.
"Just wanted to see if you're OK." It was my husband.
"Yes, I'm just walking up the hill from their house," I said, breathing hard and I hung up.
Then I looked back. The family had gathered on the front steps, in the slanted pink light, arms and wrists and elbows all together, waving. There was Imad, his flaming curls sticking up behind the rest, waving good-bye. "My brother never met the man personally," Imad had said. "It's not a personal issue." I smiled and gave one last spirited wave before I disappeared around the corner. My limbs moved stiffly, as if I had been holding them for hours in an unnatural pose. I felt relief, and then I felt something else. Inside, a clamp came loose. All the swallowed heat rose from my stomach, stinging my chest and my neck. "Nothing personal," Imad had said, "so no revenge." The heat was rising in my face. It was personal. It was personal to me.
Copyright © 2002 by Laura Blumenfeld