Jacqueline Schaalje emigrated from the Netherlands to Israel to pursue her hobbies of diving, archaeology and hanging out in historical places. She worked as a journalist and marketing manager, then switched to teaching English and Dutch (she holds an MA in English from the University of Amsterdam). This is her first fiction publication, although another story will shortly come out in MAYDAY magazine.
Interview With Myself During the War
by Jacqueline Schaalje
How did you react when the sirens went off?
Oh, quite cockily. I quickly saved the website designs I’d been working on and, suppressing a wide smile, I flew out my front door and hurled myself one floor down. Finally—some action!
At the bottom of the stairwell I found the usual suspects.
The right-hand neighbor wasn’t home, which was just as well. Hysterical woman dominating everyone’s moods. But her daughter was hard to look at too. Her pink blurry eyes pulled her cheeks down; her forehead was prematurely lined as if an imaginary headscarf was bothering her. Her dad sat clutching the burbling little one in his lap. He urged her to sit down on the step, but she preferred to lean her back to the wall.
The other neighbor’s son was playing a video game. No one said hi Liza. So I just kind of quietly joined them.
The siren wasn’t loud enough to obliterate the opera music.
“Is that beautiful music coming from you?” asked the neighbor.
“It’s just a game,” answered the boy, who didn’t look up from his black console. As his fingertips tickled and prodded, a hooded monk kept smashing his mace into a Godzilla-type-monster. The opera sounded too sweet, not Wagnerian enough, but the Godzilla made perfect sense to me at this time when our country dumped down fireballs in Gaza, squelching the black-and-green men, and, regrettably, large numbers of innocent women and children with it.
In other words, the only thing missing was the monk. But perhaps that was stretching the analogy a bit.
As the siren was dying down, I lifted my legs like a stork’s—over their heads—to step back to my flat.
The boy looked up, smiling.
It might have been too early; I was back in a second. Cracks and blasts exploded in the vast expanse above our building, which suddenly seemed so small, yet was the eye of the attack. It sounded somehow more benign than winter thunder, probably because it came without the theatrical lighting. The Chihuahuas, tied to the kitchen stools, went out of their minds. The window in the front door was rattling. Wow, we went. The neighbors uttered intuitive (yet very incisive). pronouncements as to how nearby the rocket had detonated: very very near.
After a few days of this, did you still wax lyrical?
The second time already wasn’t fun anymore. I had eaten half of my dessert when the alarm sounded again. We gathered in the same dugout. I held my phone in my hand. My neighbor, like a boxer, wore a towel round his bare shoulders. The hysterical daughter of his hysterical wife’s cheek was smeared with jam. The overriding air was embarrassment. I didn’t know what to do with the phone, so I feigned the utmost urgency, and because it was protesting as it was just a simple Galaxy 1, I switched it on and off. I tried opening an attachment in my Google email, but it crashed. I blamed the rockets for this, but I knew it wasn’t the fault of the rockets.
“I haven’t shaved for a few days,” apologized the neighbor. He stroked the crotchet work on his chin wistfully as if it were Aladdin’s lamp. “But one’s got to have a bath.”
“Why didn’t you shave?” asked the keen neighbor’s son. He hadn’t brought his Game Boy, so he just sat there. His parents weren’t anywhere in sight.
“I was afraid of being caught in the middle.”
The neighbor’s son’s face registered no recognition. The beauty of children is they never get caught in the middle.
After the obligatory high-tech blasts outside, I wanted to dive into bed, stick my head under the pillow. Just let go of the stress that was punching holes in my habitual optimism as if it were an unproved theory. But it was still pretty early. I hooked my phone to the charger and dragged my tablet and a small solar lamp out to the balcony. I read several pages of… yeah, of what? The opposite neighbors were watching an English channel which was obscenely loud.
“A frog with a bra on, and it’s keeping an eye on the speedometer. That would be a good one for [name I didn’t know] if he wanted to compete with the Antiques Road Show. He should try pole vaulting: see if his stick would break!”
The program’s panel was sniffling, and the studio audience reacted uproariously, but there was no laughter, not even a peep, emerging from behind the screening oleander hedge. No movement either. Just light pouring out between the branches.
Were they missing the war? All the people I knew had the TV on the news channel which showed the latest developments in Gaza. Like an astronaut in outer space staring down at Planet Earth, and children wanting to catch flowers opening, I kept hoping for some movement in the opposite flat that would betray life. It was an estranging experience that you can’t rely on your senses but must deduce that people live at a certain place. These particular ones produced TV. It was like the people of Gaza. We’ve mostly never seen them, but we know they exist because they fire rockets at us. (A cynic would say, they know they exist because they fire rockets at us.) And that’s why the army blows them up, after deducing that a particular building they’re bombing is either full of culpable terrorists or empty of innocent bystanders. (Too often, it’s neither.)
Maybe I just didn’t hear the neighbors, because my ears were jaded.
Was I turning into a weird Israeli, who always looks behind them and wonder why that door is creaking, even when they’re in the middle of Amsterdam?
Well, it was going that way, slowly, almost imperceptibly—obviously. You can’t live in a country 15 years and remain an outsider.
I was only interested in two kinds of sounds at that point:
1) Sirens. Real ones. As opposed to quasi-sirens or irrelevant sirens, such as sirens from emergency services, buses pulling into the next gear, jokers who installed a siren ringtone on their phones, an old whirring air-conditioning or a hairdryer starting to blow, a baby crying, children trying to imitate the siren while running in the garden, trumpets sounding, a creaking door.
2) Tranquilizing sounds. Bird song, palm leaves swaying, clouds breaking. Friendly nature sounds. Music but not too loud so as not to blot out the siren. Fighter jets breaking the sound barrier provided a sense of safety. Five-year-olds chattering about peanut butter snacks was okay too.
All other sounds couldn’t crawl through my filter.
Who was that again who said that all phenomena in the human experience are real? Kant still divided experiences neatly into empirical experiences and experiences that cannot be observed. So what are illusions? Dr. Oliver Sacks defines illusions as sensory perceptions that only you experience. However, when you glimpse suffering people on internet pages, and you’re the only person who starts to cry: is that illusory?
What happened to your other senses?
I don’t know if this counts, but I immediately knew there was something strange in my study, although nothing was moving apart from the winnowing curtain. A one-eyed something was perching on the upper row of books, in the corner of the bookcase, near the window. That eye was looking at me. My brain was in overdrive trying to make sense of this surprise visit. I decided to deal later with the conundrum of how the pigeon had managed to wriggle itself through the narrow grille. What was more important was to push it back out. Of course it had to go.
If the pigeon had asked: “Could I please find shelter in your house because I find being outside quite scary these days?”, I would probably have answered: “Be my guest. War is terrible. Bring a friend too.”
But what I don’t like is creatures who don’t ask permission to come in. (Where I live, it’s usually the animals who don’t ask.)
You see, a pigeon who asks would probably also be receptive to requests not to poop inside. But from a pigeon who doesn’t ask, you can expect anything.
I considered ringing up Yoni to deal with the stupid bird. But on second thoughts I didn’t. Unfortunately, Yoni wasn’t one of these wonderful practical men from the generation of my father. The kind who don overalls and climb straight onto the roof to seal a leak.
Today, in your best case scenario, a strapping young man, a soldier like Yoni, would first surf to Handyman.com or WikiHow and then he’d have to pop into a hardware store to buy tools. This would take hours while he’d be informed about the best gear. I’m sure that in the case of the pigeon, however, the idea of checking things in HowStuffWorks wouldn’t even enter his head. He’d leap at the poor pigeon straight.
Can’t complain, though. I’m too much of a chicken to leap at pigeons, or any type of bird, myself. The idea that he’d flail around my head and take an eye out or an ear chip, well, I would not risk it.
The pigeon, meanwhile, wasn’t interested in what was going on inside my brain. It kept sitting on his book, leering at me with tired ennui bordering on the disdainful as if he were Tartuffe with a deed to this place. I shooed it. It mocked me. I shooed it again, making a little spring to reach up. I fetched the bathroom wiper and pulled out the stick. My twirling with the stick made the bird perform through the room. It flopped around heavily as if trying to grab onto thermal lift, but of course it didn’t find an entrance point. It swooped onto the edge of the desk, but miscalculating that, ended on the printer table. After a little prodding with the wiper stick, it started up again, and plunged onto the other little table, the one with the three-in-one on it. Then it darted all the way to the ceiling, reached for the top of the door with outstretched claw, hit it, and sagged behind the door.
I felt sorry for my abuse of the ungainly bird. The chances that this bomb would find its way out through the trellis looked very, very bleak.
I closed the door. I fervently hoped that a miracle would happen overnight.
What did you do when there was a siren while you were driving?
Whilst driving, I was listening to a string quartet by Fauré. A calming voice mounted the airwaves like a bright child that was called in front of the class. “Rocket siren in Yad Mordechai. Rocket siren in Netiv Haessera.” Fauré’s playful strings were discarded, like broken toys, squeaky in the background. Again, the voice enumerated reasonably, “Siren in Yad Mordechai. Siren in Netiv Haessera.”
I wasn’t immediately panicked. I didn’t even know where Yad Mordechai was.
The music came on again, but it had lost its luster.
I meant, what did you do when there was a siren in Tel Aviv while you were driving?
I was driving home from the gym when the air raid siren went off. I wasn’t sure whether to stop and find shelter in a house along the road. Plenty of buildings vied for attention; they seemed to say: “Come here.” “No, choose me, I’m unlocked!” “I have a porch like a gaping jaw, I’m crazily safe.” But as soon as I’d picked a place, I reasoned, the siren would die off. Just as I decided to continue driving, many drivers did the exact opposite. They braked; citizens emerged from their cars, slowly, dazed, peering at the sky. Some cars stood on the dotted lines between lanes and one was parked crossways. I slalomed through the next kilometer. Like in a computer game, I was the only car.
So what about your boyfriend? And the pigeon?
I was telling my past master Golani about the pigeon: “And when I went into the study the next morning, there was a big pile of poop behind the door. Obviously it had sat there a while. There was poop on the book it had clenched between its toes, too. But I was so relieved it was gone, that it wasn’t a big deal. Horrible stink, though. Blobs of grey, yellow and white, shiny like oil paint.”
“Oh, that’s what birds do. Not a big deal.” Yoni said it in an absent-minded tone that seemed to warn me: don’t assume I will be of use wiping butts.
We made love a little roughly, but still passionately, in the hallway on our way to the bedroom, and then removed ourselves to the balcony to drink coffee. Yoni was ready to try soya milk in his Turkish coffee. That was his first time with the stuff.
We talked politics. Yoni wasn’t normally a fan of Netanyahu, but he thought he had handled the war pretty well. I said he had pointed his finger at Hamas already before he’d known the facts; he’d destroyed houses before he had evidence who was behind the kidnapping of the three boys. When Yoni proposed a regime change in Gaza, I had reminiscences of Bush Jr. And what did he do?
“Those poor Gazans,” said Yoni. He was almost shouting. “Hamas hijacked them. They’ve got nowhere to go. They have no democracy. Hamas keeps them in a stranglehold. They deserve a better life. We ought to help them with that. We can give them a Marshall Plan.”
“The Gazans voted for Hamas,” I said. I made a weary sound in my glottis. “Obviously you haven’t turned on your TV in past years. Have you still not understood that the Americans got nowhere in Iraq and Afghanistan? They strove to sow democracy, and what they got is sectarian terror.”
Yoni sipped his Turkish soy coffee carefully. He took another sip. It couldn’t have been half bad.
I asked Yoni whether he didn’t have to be in the army now. Camp outside Gaza, at least. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “Only if a total war broke out they’d call me up. Because of my accident—you remember, I told you how I sprained my ankle and couldn’t finish my third year in Golani.”
I nodded. It was a pity about the loss of prestige, but at least he wasn’t going anywhere.
So war didn’t stay exciting very long, did it?
I’ve told you already. People were dying on both sides. On the Israeli side: mostly soldiers. Capable, talented young men. Bit by bit you’d hear their stories on the media, filled out by details contributed by the aunt of a friend of a nephew of another friend. I knew where this would end. Years later you’d suddenly find yourself doing a facial and the cosmetician would burst out in tears because your innocent chat touched upon a habit that her son used to have. Of course he was her favorite son, the sweetest and the most promising. She’d show me his portrait on her screensaver. She swiped her finger over his cute monkey face hundreds of times per day.
Did you identify with the victims on the other side?
I scraped all the generic bits about them, mostly in foreign media. I didn’t have enough Arabic. Photos showed exasperated faces covered in blood and dust. A photo in Time Magazine moved me to tears. It showed a doctor in the hospital morgue. The caption says four corpses of children are placed in front of him. He has just opened the first body bag. An arm is sticking out. Next to his desk, the floor is covered with more body bags. The doctor covers his eyes for he is crying.
As a doctor and as a person I imagined he must have had so many things to cry for:
Because these people were dead before he was called up.
Because of his inability to let these people live.
Because of his inability to prevent these people from being killed.
Because of the madness of Hamas’ struggle against Israel.
Because Hamas seemed to have instigated a death cult, which was against his professional and ethical principles.
Because of sheer worry about his family, his friends, his colleagues and his patients.
Because he felt defenseless and exposed.
Because the floor was mucky.
Because Hamas used the hospital as a launch pad for missiles on Israel.
Because some months ago he had caved in to Hamas to allow them to store rockets in his hospital, in exchange for funding, and he felt so stupid.
Because his cousin was a member of Hamas. Now they were eyeing his 12-year-old son.
Because the shame of a photographer’s (and the world’s) eye on him was overwhelming.
Because he picture that he saw in his mind’s eye of himself in the morgue with the heap of bodies was a real turn-off.
Because he hated his job.
Because of self-pity.
Because one of the dead children was a returning patient of the hospital and/or the neighbous’ child.
Because he hated the Israeli army and Israeli politics who had initiated this new round of bloodshed.
Because there was no future for his family in Gaza.
Were you relieved when the rocket attacks stopped?
The last air raid siren had been one or two days ago. I’d be hard-pressed to even pinpoint the exact day it had been. It was true, you did get used to everything. It was less confusing than the first days, when war yanked you out of your complacent life. It wasn’t just the thought that I could die, but what frightened me even more was that my life would change: I’d lose my graphic design clients, I’d have to move or even immigrate, I’d get injured, a friend would die, who knows. I walked around frozen in fear of loss of an unexpected kind. The absence of rockets created a lull. It wasn’t safe, but I was able to resume my normal lifestyle. Yet the rocket scare was always there, ready to burst out anew. And the soldiers were still wreaking havoc in Gaza and the death toll kept rising. Now they’d also closed the airport because one “glass bottle” projectile had landed next to the landing strip. I hadn’t been on holiday yet!
“How about coming to visit us?” asked my brother. “We’re worried about you.”
“You might use the opportunity to get a little rest, get away from it all,” said my father.
“You could just come a little earlier this year,” said my mother, as if I had a fixed time to visit my parents in Holland. I didn’t have one, period. I flew home in different months, if possible when business was at an ebb.
“Can’t you understand the bloody airport is closed?” I yelled at last.
Did you sleep in a shelter?
No. Only people with children did that. Galit had just recently moved to a mansion in the nouveau riche quarter of Neve Dkalim (Palm Oasis) in Rishon Lezion, a 15-minute drive from my flat. There were slabs of marble everywhere: on the floor, on the stairs, wall panels. Outside, there was a shimmering pool, with toys scattered on the marble curb.
We took our morning coffee at a large marble bar.
The air raid siren sputtered and then made a sad noise as of a large herd of elephants at a funeral, mixed in with some mosquitoes.
“Let’s go down,” said Galit. We passed the enforced room. Through the open door I saw the two bigger children zonked out on the king-size bed. Whispering, we waited in a corner of the playroom; this part in the house had the greatest number of walls above and around us. Marble can do lots of damage when you get a pile on top of you. I thought of Pompeii, and hubris.
“What did you put in their drinks?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Galit said. “It’s their holiday. Believe me, it’s better if they don’t know what’s going on.”
I expected them to wake up any moment and start screaming “Mummy, mummy!”
“Do you also sleep in that room at night?” I asked.
“We do,” Galit said.
“All of you?” I tried to imagine them in a five-figure tangram on the double.
Galit was grinning too. “You don’t hear the siren when you close the door. Or hardly. It’s better than slipping in your pajamas, pushing wailing children down the stairs.”
The noise died down and we resurfaced in the kitchen. For some reason, a white Mazda turning around the corner caught our eye. We got closer to the window. Two army-clad men got out, and then a third one, all in ironed uniforms, and walked up slowly and leisurely to a house on the opposite side of the street.
“Uh-oh,” said Galit.
“Do you know who lives there?” I asked. The soldiers’ stiff postures drifted against the graver wood door. The darkness behind the door swallowed them. The street fried itself stupid in the sun. Those lovely modern villas froze: they became staid and uncaring cancers of stone.
Galit’s tanned arms were filled with goose bumps. Then I noticed my own.
From the way Galit answered, almost stuttering, I understood that she didn’t know those folks. But she had read something on some gossip Facebook page that morning, she said. “One of the dead soldiers was from Rishon.”
“Is he a Golani?”
“That’s terrible,” I whispered.
Later, after I’d gone home to work, I would look for a face that went with the story; an explanation that went with the upsetting morning. Galit and I contemplated how lucky we were that we didn’t know any soldiers who were in Gaza besides friends of nephews and sons and friends of cousins, nephews, uncles or colleagues and how terribly unlucky those Israeli families were who lost someone. Because there weren’t that many soldiers who died, but only a few dozen, so if something happened to your nearest and dearest you were statistically and otherwise miserably out of luck. Somewhat desperately, Galit kept inventing instances when she could have met some acquaintance or family member of the dead soldier in her street. Perhaps the wish to be involved in his story was an infantile attempt to contribute something. This half-baked substitute for sacrifice lulled us into thinking we were doing substantial stuff, but of course we weren’t doing shit. We were just celebrating that nothing affected us. We were survivors of unconcern. We were on the receiving end of sacrifice. We were pathetic.
The fallen soldier was Tal Ifrach, a popular boy at school, who loved sport.
Later that day, Galit sent me a WhatsApp message to ask whether I felt like visiting wounded soldiers in hospital. I didn’t feel like it. From another Whatsapp group I heard there were hundreds of clucking matrons round the beds and the soldiers couldn’t eat any more chocolate.
Does a pigeon signify peace?
The fat pigeon had taken position on the roof of the house opposite mine. I was happy for him and wished him to grow fat and that he line up his squabs on the ridge cap.
A doomsday message interrupted the news program I was listening to. “Air raid siren in Kisufim, Raim, Nirim, Ein Hashlosha and Beeri.” The message was repeated. “You were saying,” said the original newsreader. “The armored vehicle is outdated and gets stuck all the time. So why are they using them? Why aren’t they using …?”
“Air raid siren in Yad Mordechai,” said the cutting-in voice. He sounded in an ill mood. Who were they kidding anyhow?
“Excuse me, you were saying?” The interviewer had also contracted the ill mood.
I bothered to look up those villages that time. They were next to the Gaza strip. Also, I finally took the trouble to look up the crazy-suffering Yad Mordechai, which was beleaguered by dozens of rockets daily. This was just north of the Gaza Strip. Most of its inhabitants had probably left.
The fat pigeon’s female companion joined him on the rooftop. I thought of Noah’s story in the Bible and went delirious for them. The ragged female, she was in his neck a lot, raking the muck between his feathers and his ears. At regular intervals, they split. The male was looking south, whereas the female was watching northwards. Guardian doves. When there was a rumble in the sky, they’d start into that direction. But when they knew it was only an F16, they got busy picking their own feathers. As the jet tore the clouds asunder, the female stole up to the male again with swift little steps, and picked him a kiss. The first time he would go along with that; they’d be beak to beak for a minute. But when she kissed him again, he pulled away.
“Look,” I said to Yoni, “you’re just like that stupid pigeon.”
“Why?” he said.
That night, the air raid siren went off in the middle of the night.
Yoni veered up like a loaded gun; duty had shot the habit in his dark warrior body. I was squirming, working the sheet between my legs. We were both naked.
“This is such bad timing,” I moaned. “Why now when everybody’s sleeping? Exactly when we have no clothes on.”
“Where do you normally stay when there is an air raid?” Yoni asked, groping around for his underwear.
I didn’t feel like getting up. Some part of my brain that was normally not very active was working out that as the air raid was going to last only a minute or two, there was no sense in trying to find something to cover myself and hurry down the stairs. By the time we got there, it would already be over. Absurdest thinking ever.
I heard only one door slam open onto the hallway. The building was not noisy, but when you really trained your ears you could hear the doors.
So we stayed in bed. But I was terrified. When you’re doing something irresponsible just once, you know you’re done for. Like the one time I left my laptop in the back of the car and it got stolen. But nothing happened. The rending of the skies took place not above us, but more to the south. Lucky.
Very quietly I went to the loo, after I was sure the neighbors had gone back to bed. I wasn’t sure what I was embarrassed about, but those were days of shame. Not a single rocket fell down in Tel Aviv; not a single hair was touched. And every day made me more ashamed.
What did you think as the war seemed to get worse instead of better?
My work continued. I had as many clients as always, although we did more through emails than usual. As the Israeli military opened its big gob not only to suck up the tunnels and rockets but houses and well-stocked cellars and mattresses and pens and notebooks, my shame made uncomfortable stretches and pinches, coiled inside my stomach and made me retch. The more people around me stuck their heads into the sand, I only felt worse. More and more people died, mainly on the Palestinian side (of course!). I couldn’t understand how most people just accepted that as a necessary evil. Some of my friends (maybe not such good friends) sent me jokes that seemed to evince a frightening lack of empathy, such as:
8 am: Spacious apartment in Shujaiyeh, northern Gaza Strip. 3 rooms.
9 am: Update: 2 rooms with large windows.
10:06 am: Update: breezy one-room apartment.
10:41 am: Update: Sorry, not available anymore.
I sent a message back saying I didn’t appreciate the joke. At our next meeting, my “friend” didn’t talk to me.
Did you lose your sense of humor?
It was black humor, another friend explained. Yes, yes. But black humor can only work when you see things as totally absurd. For me, for now, that wasn’t the case. But seeing as perceptions can change really fast when the social media (your own friends who peddle their political stances!) home in on you night and day, let’s not lose hope. In case things get grim, it’s better to lose your humor than to lose hope.
First the cockroach came, as gigantic as a matchbox.
While I was reading on my balcony I noticed something advanced over the edge. Blinded by my solar lamp, it crept back. A few seconds later, it tried again. And again. I gave it a shove with the magazine I was reading. But it went the wrong way. Instead of tumbling off the balcony on the garden side, where its fall would have been broken by soft leaves, it crashed onto the balcony. My slipper closed upon it. It made a rich splat sound. I felt really sorry about it. But not sad. It’s hard to feel sad when you’re mopping with toilet paper.
Followed by the giraffe.
The gaps between the trellises were too small for its head to go through. I never realized that giraffes were that tall. Even from a jeep in Africa they hadn’t looked that tall. The perspective was different now. I was close to its head. The moonlight and the lantern dappled the light. Its skin looked hugely touchable like ripe fruit. I patted its neck while trying to hold my own under its whimsical, mourning look. “What do you want?” I whispered, afraid the neighbors would hear and my illusion would evaporate. It swiveled round its head so fast it caused me to mistake its ossicones, those little horns on its head, for its ears. The garden at this time of night looked more like a paradise than ever, between the enormous reeds of oleander and the Chinese roses that hid sunbirds. The giraffe just wanted to munch some leaves and lick at the mini-green lemons, I thought. And keep this a secret from his friends at the safari park in Ramat Gan.
Copyright 2014 by Jacqueline Schaalje