Issue 222, Fall 2017
It happened like this. A week after the Six-Day War, Sam walked to the eastern bank of the Jordan River. He was working as a counselor that summer near Karameh, at a day camp for boys. Although the fighting occurred further upstream, camp activities had been suspended. Then came the cease-fire, and the usual schedule resumed: football in the morning, literacy after lunch, assorted games in the afternoon, orange juice and croissants in plastic wrap, and a bus to take them back to the city.
That Tuesday it was sweltering. After taking the register and sending the boys outside, the supervisor told Sam that a new counselor-in-training would referee the match that day, which gave Sam the morning off, if he wanted it. At first Sam considered hanging around all the same. He could watch the football and smoke. But the air was so thick with heat that even the boys faltered as they ran after the ball. By the time he set out, his shirt was sticking to his back.
The walk took perhaps an hour. He heard the river from some distance away, and when at last he climbed over the tussocks that crowded the bank and saw the water slicing through, a breeze reached him and the torrent sounded out in the clearer air.
He had arrived at a bend. The water coursed down over a natural dam of rocks, cascaded and slowed into a shallow pool, then fell again through a second, narrow channel and pushed on. As he stood there watching, something came into view. From around the corner on the far side, a long shape was carried forward beneath the low-hanging trees. He watched this enormous colored bundle transported downriver, and guessed, long before he could make out its features, what it was. He held his breath as the body sailed toward the rocks. The face was bearded, the arms flaccid. But the dam, alas, would not admit the cargo, and the body was caught. On either side, the water rushed white. A curtain appeared underneath, a solid curve reflecting sunlight. The curtain became wider and wider until finally, with one hefty surge, the corpse fell into the pool. It wore a white shirt. The parted legs wheeled.
Sam did not move immediately. He could see the mouth, though dunked momentarily underwater, was populated with flies. The stomach was bloated, the neck a dark bruise-blue. The hair on the head waved in the current. Sam removed his shoes and slid down the muddy slope, bracing himself against the water, which twisted like a muscle around him. He reached out and grasped the feet with both hands. The sodden plimsolls oozed under the pressure, and he resisted the urge to vomit. He fastened his grip on the ankles, the ribbed socks. He dragged, and finally hauled it up onto the bank. The white shirt was stained with red across the chest, still bright.
“And his eyes,” said Sam. “They were open.”
“And?” said Jibril. “What did you do?”
This was in Beirut, several years later. Sam and Jibril were sitting on the beach as the light faded after a long day of classes.
Well, of course he had buried him. He searched the body, holding his breath against the smell, found in the back pocket a wallet and an Egyptian document folded into a half pulp that showed the man was Palestinian. Then he removed his own shirt and ripped it into pieces, used the pieces to stuff the orifices. He performed the ablutions with the same water that had brought the corpse, the abdomen huge and white, the hairy navel visible in the stretched gaps between the shirt buttons. He shrouded the torso with his keffiyeh as much as was possible, then left the body concealed under a bush while he ran back for a spade and one of the other counselors. They dug a grave on the hillside. They offered prayers and supplication with the sweat running down their cheeks.
Sam looked at Jibril beside him and waited for a response. He wondered if he should have told the story differently. Jibril said nothing. He looked out to sea, where an oncoming fog was starting to overwhelm the Corniche.
That was at the beginning of their friendship.
Sam and Jibril first laid eyes on each other in the basement of Penrose Hall, at the inaugural meeting of the Monopoly Club at the American University of Beirut. Sam was the shoe, Jibril the top hat. The other players were soon joking that the two of them looked like brothers—and it was true: Sam and Jibril had a similar build, similar eyes and mouth, skin a similar golden dark. So where did you guys grow up? the others asked; and which one of you’s older? And everyone laughed, and Sam and Jibril rolled their eyes and exchanged smiles. In the way that the meaning of a name can occasionally appear to prophesy, or at least to have some influence on a person, the two young men had, after that night, become quite good friends. It turned out they lived in neighboring buildings in Hamra, and Sam caught sight of Jibril a day later in the supermarket aisle. He waved, blushing, as he picked a mana’usheh from the counter. Although Jibril studied history and Sam engineering, they began to cross paths before and after classes. Then Jibril invited Sam round for coffee, and the accidental became fixed: Let’s meet here at six and I’ll show you the lab. I know a good new bar near the seafront; meet me by the market at nine.
Jibril Tamimi came from Haifa. He was the type of guy women smiled at on the street. In bars, Sam watched their eyes fall on his friend’s glossy dark head and angular body. Theyapproached him. At night, Jibril would sip a nightcap while leaning over the edge of his balcony, staring at the lights of Beirut, and tell Sam stories about his childhood. He described the sense of mission that propelled him and constituted the central theme of his life.
“There are five types of Palestinian,” he said. “West Bank Palestinians, Gazans, East Jerusalemites, Palestinians in exile, and Palestinians from the inside. That’s what I am. Falastini fi dakhil, Arab Israeli, whatever you want to call us. And we are the quietest type. Haifa is actually the most peaceful city in the region. Except for Amman, I guess.”
Sam had spent his whole life in Jordan. He did visit Dubai once, for a holiday, stayed with a cousin, spent a night in the Marriott and sat by the pool—but other than to Beirut, he’d never gone anywhere. He had never visited Israel or the West Bank. Nor would he: when he saw Jibril over subsequent years, it was always in Amman. Sam and, eventually, his wife, Aziza, would insist on hosting Jibril when he traveled, or when there was an uprising or unrest, and took offense at the suggestion that he might ever stay somewhere else. When a Palestinian militant bombed a bus near Jibril’s house, he came to stay at Sam’s for three months, and flicked all day long between news channels. By the time he left, Aziza had renamed the guest room “Jibril’s room.”
As a child, Sam knew the Palestinian refugee kids at school by the cheap plastic sandals they wore. He first learned the nickname Beljiki in the school playground, when a child wearing these shoes asked for the ball and an older boy, resting his eyes on the younger’s feet, asked with a sneer, Did he come from Belgium? Soon Sam heard the word from his own mother’s mouth: she hissed it at poor boys walking the pavement, and later, stopped in traffic, at a well-groomed businessman whose little flag on his windshield lacked a white star. Everyone Sam asked about the name had a different theory, but most said it was because of European aid after ’48. And yet in Sam’s mind, the name remained tied to those cheap plastic shoes. They were Beljiki shoes. And to his later shame, when the fedayeen appeared on television, he shouted “Beljiki” at the screen and his uncle cheered.
But then here was young, bony Jibril Tamimi, standing on a Beirut rooftop, telling Sam about his relatives in the Jordanian camps and in South America without shame, and even with some pride. Freely he discussed his opinions of the different factions, positing pros and cons, explaining the guerrilla movements and Nasser and the splits in the PFLP. In a measure, this openness was at the heart of Jibril’s charm, and Sam was just as captivated as the girls were.
Yet it was only that evening on the beach, when the sea was gray and fatigue had worn off what remained of their shyness, that, sitting on the sand, Sam finally told Jibril the story of the body. For once this was Sam’s tale to confide, Jibril’s to listen to. Jibril’s to be convinced by, of Sam’s commitment and goodwill. Or so, at least, Sam always hoped.