SOMEWHERE ON THE BORDER
The Gaza border crossing was out in the desert. Low brown hills rose on the horizon, the air above them appearing to quiver with the wind-blown sands. On the Palestinian side there stood a lone café, built with one side open. People went there to escape the heat.
It was summer. It had been sweltering and dry in the city, but the desert was even hotter. More than a hundred people were waiting to cross the border into Egypt. The café’s one plastic table couldn’t accommodate everybody, so those who didn’t get a seat leaned against the bullet-ridden wall, waiting, listlessly watching the grimy ceiling fan churning the hot air.
I sat at the table inside with Marwan I had already been waiting sixteen hours for them to open the border so I could return to Egypt. Because of the blockade things like this were a bureaucratic nightmare.
For six years now Israel had kept the Gaza Strip under closure by land, water, and air. The only reason there wasn’t famine was because hundreds of tunnels ran under the border, through which goods from Egypt were smuggled in. The trip through a tunnel lasted an hour, cost a hundred dollars, and you could die there if a rocket from Israel landed. But the legal route was time consuming; nobody was surprised if they had to wait four or five days.
“Another coffee?” I asked Marwan and set the empty plastic bottle I had been playing with back on the table.
“We can have another.”
“Itnen ahwa sadaa,” I called out to the waiter, who nodded, then shuffled back to the unit’s grimy kitchen. I marveled at how dirty his feet were. But in the café everything was filthy, myself included. It was because of the dust, the fine desert sand in the air. It stuck to your skin and mixed with your sweat to darken your clothing. Marwan was watching the crowd gather by the steel gate. They solemnly pleaded with machine-gun-toting Hamas soldiers, but the gates weren’t being opened for anybody.
“You know, I was thinking, you don’t really speak Arabic,” said Maruan.
“Then what do I speak?”
“So what’s the problem?”
“It’s not a problem. It’s just not Arabic.”
“Of course it’s Arabic. There are only minor phonetic differences.”
“Then it’s not Arabic. Palestinian isn’t real Arabic either.”
“So what is real Arabic?”
“The Koran. That’s Arabic. The rest are just dialects.”
The waiter brought our coffee and set it on the table, along with small glasses of water. Bits of rust were floating in the water. Without a thought, Marwan tossed his back, and then lit a cigarette.
“The Hamas officer said he would come here with your passport to tell you when you can cross.”
“Did you hide the cassettes?”
“Yep. They’re in my underwear.”
“Good. They won’t frisk you, don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried.”
“It’s good material, right? I mean, it’s worth a lot of money.”
“Yes, it’s good material.”
I leaned back in my chair. I was beginning to sweat through my shirt. I felt the cassettes pressing against my skin. On the tapes men told of how family members of the Hamas government were being maimed or killed.
It really was good material, and we had worked hard to get it. Marwan had arranged all the interviews in secret, under the cover of night. He worked with striking resolve, fearlessly. If we messed up, Hamas would execute him without a second thought. I pulled out a cigarette and lit up, the smoke feeling no hotter than the air.
“This is the worst, this waiting,” I said.
“We can always take the tunnels. Then you can say in Egypt that you lost your passport. That way we can go together.”
“I thought we talked about this, Marwan. I can’t go by the tunnel, because I didn’t come by the tunnel. I can’t risk it if they turn me away in Egypt.”
“I know, but I’ll miss you, brother.”
“One week Marwan. It’s nothing. I will speak with the consul, who will write a letter that will get you permission to leave. Then I’ll come pick you up in Arish.”
“And if he doesn’t send the letter?”
“He will. He’s a friend of mine.”
“It would be better to go with you.”
“It would make me happier too, but it’s not possible. You just need to wait a week. Then we will go together and you will work for me as my cameraman. We’ll see the Sudanese refugee camps. We’ll earn tons of money.”
“I don’t care about money.”
“I just want to go with you from this godforsaken Gaza. It’s the devil’s paradise. Cross the border and wait at Rafah. I’ll take the tunnel. Then we will go together to Cairo.”
“And what will you do without papers? You’ll be shipped right back.” I said this louder than I should have. The others at our table turned toward us. “One week, Marwan. Just a week,” I continued, more quietly. “But we’ve already been over this.”
“Okay. I’ll stay and keep my head down.”
“You said there wouldn’t be trouble. If there will be trouble, I won’t leave you here.”
“Hamas will definitely want to talk with me, because they knew I was with you.”
“So what will you do?”
“I’ll stay out of sight with my relatives in Khan Yunis. It’s no problem as long as the tapes aren’t played on TV while I’m here. They won’t be, right?
“Of course not.”
“And you’ll come back in a week? No matter what, you will come, right?”
“We already discussed this. I’ll come get you in a week. I don’t know why we are talking about this again.”
“Don’t be angry. It’s because of the heat. It makes a person nervous. Shall we drink something, brother?”
“No, I’ve had enough of this café already.”
“I’ll bring a water.”
He stood and went to the rear part of café, where the waiter was setting drinks on a tray. Sweat broke out on my brow and dripped into my eyes. I took out a tissue and wiped my face. I thought about how every conflict is the same, how the regions may change, but the way you spend your time is always the same. This is what war’s about: waiting. You wait for something to happen. You wait in a hotel room, in a café, you wait on the front line, by the fire of a camp, and you do all this as though you have a chance of understanding what is going on. But you don’t. If something does happen, it happens too fast for you to get it. The only thing you understand is that you are waiting again. That’s your work, to convey the private hell of others, as though you understand it or as though it has anything to do with you.
Marwan returned to the table, a bottle of mineral water in his hand. He sat and poured a glass.
“Look,” he said, and gestured toward the entrance. A black BMW had pulled up in front of the café, reflecting everything in its tinted windows. The door opened and a thirty-something balding man emerged, dressed in an Armani suit and patent leather shoes. He was a surreal sight in these filthy surroundings.
“Look. That one’s a killer.”
“Why do you think?”
The waiter rushed out when he saw the man. We couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the guy must have ordered something, because the waiter hurried back to the fridge and retrieved a bottle of water.
“He won’t have to wait,” said Marwan. “Hamas’s killers don’t need to wait for anything.”
“Again, why do you think he’s a killer?”
“Only killers have such eyes. Look at his expression. Their eyes are like this, like glass.”
“I don’t see anything. How do you figure?”
“I am Palestinian. I’ve known a killer or two.”
I looked the man over, but didn’t see anything unusual about his face. His eyes were olive-green and bored. I couldn’t imagine him, in his elegant suit, shooting somebody in the leg—not the way they usually did it in the Gaza Strip. If they thought you had loose lips, they would find you at night, press the rifle barrel into your leg and shoot so the bullet blows the leg bone to pieces and comes out the heel. Nobody can stand on a shattered leg bone; the limb is generally amputated from the knee down. They would also push people from rooftops. Sometimes it happened that they didn’t have to push; it was enough to remind men that they had wives and children, and the men would jump themselves. Those were the things we covered in the interviews over the past few days; those were the stories I was taking with me in my underwear.
“I should have been a killer,” said Marwan. “I’d have been a good one, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t think you’d have been a good one. You’re too sensitive.”
“This is true. But I should have at least given it a try.”
“Don’t talk crap. Of course you shouldn’t have tried. You’re too smart to be a killer.”
“That doesn’t matter. Whatever happened, I’d live better than most. It’s just my eyes. I’d be sorry for my eyes.”
The waiter brought the water for the man in the suit; the man paid him, then got back into his car and drove off. The soldiers pushed the crowd back with their rifles and held the gate open for the car. The whole scene lasted no more than five minutes.
“See? What did I say? Killers don’t need to wait.”
“It’s also possible he’s a politician or diplomat.”
“He was a killer, I’m telling you. Give me a cigarette, please. I’m out.”
I passed him the pack. Marwan took one and lit up. From outside came din of the crowd of people pleading to be let through. We didn’t speak; we just watched a family weighted down with luggage and wailing children. A few minutes later a black-clad Hamas soldier entered the café. The long black beard that hung from his face collected drops of sweat and appeared to sparkle in the sun.
“Foreigner!” he shouted.
“That’s you,” Marwan said, signaling the soldier, who stepped up to our table.
“Here is your passport, foreigner. You can cross. Your permission arrived from Egypt. Follow me.”
We stood from the table, made our way through the crowd, and then walked down the dirt road to the gate. The soldier opened it a crack, and we stepped through. A booth stood by the chain-link fence. The bearded soldier gave the man inside my passport so he could take down my information.
“Have a great trip, brother,” said Marwan, hugging me. “You’re coming back for sure?”
“Good. I will wait for you every day. Just a week?”
“Yes. Just a week.”
I got my passport back and took a taxi to the Egyptian side. The border crossing there was empty, so I didn’t have to wait to get my stamp. After making it over the border I haggled with a Bedouin to take me to Cairo. He drove me in his beat-up Mercedes truck. I sat in the passenger seat. The horizon was brown; a storm was brewing above the desert.
I spent a long time gazing into the rearview mirror, studying my eyes. They were the same as always.
SÁNDOR JÁSZBERÉNYI (1980) is a Hungarian writer and Middle East correspondent who has covered the Darfur crisis, the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the Gaza War, and the Huthi uprising in Yemen, and has interviewed several armed Islamist groups. A photojournalist for the Egypt Independent and Hungarian newspapers, he currently lives in Cairo, Egypt. Born in 1980 in Sopron, Hungary, he studied literature, philosophy, and Arabic at ELTE university in Budapest. His stories have been published in all the major Hungarian literary magazines and in English in the Brooklyn Rail, Pilvax, AGNI and B O D Y. His first collection of short stories, Az ördög egy fekete kutya (The Devil is a Black Dog), was published in late 2013.
The Devil is a Black Dog, translated into English by M. Henderson Ellis, is being published in December 2014.
About the Translator:
M. HENDERSON ELLIS is the author of the novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café (New Europe Books, February 2013). He lives in Budapest, where he works as a freelance editor at Wordpill Editing, and is a founding editor at Pilvax magazine.