Martyrs' Crossing

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Overview

“SOPHISTICATED AND SUSPENSEFUL . . . TAUTLY WRITTEN . . . Wilentz knows the world she writes about very well, and her descriptions have a solid specificity that lends authority to her fiction.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“At a closed Israeli checkpoint, Marina, a Palestinian mother, clutches her ailing boy, desperate for access to Jerusalem and its doctors. When a young Israeli soldier waits too long ...
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Overview

“SOPHISTICATED AND SUSPENSEFUL . . . TAUTLY WRITTEN . . . Wilentz knows the world she writes about very well, and her descriptions have a solid specificity that lends authority to her fiction.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“At a closed Israeli checkpoint, Marina, a Palestinian mother, clutches her ailing boy, desperate for access to Jerusalem and its doctors. When a young Israeli soldier waits too long before deciding to disobey orders, a martyr is born. Thus begins a graceful, painful, illuminating novel of the Middle East. . . . [Wilentz’s] prose tugs at the reader. . . . The characters are magnetic. . . . [This] is a very human tale of regrets, revenge, and the elusive nature of absolution.”
–Entertainment Weekly

“SO PRECISE, SO STARTLING, SO UNFORGETTABLE. . . . These characters are all pawns of history and politics, but Wilentz makes them live.”
–Los Angeles Times

“MAGNIFICENT . . . Wilentz writes with a prose style reminiscent of The New Yorker’s highest ambitions: crystalline, pure, faultlessly communicative. . . . Like the best documentaries, Martyrs’ Crossing allows us unprecedented access to a little-understood and often misrepresented part of the world.”
–Chicago Tribune

“A BRILLIANTLY RESEARCHED MEDIDATION ON THE CRISIS IN THE MIDDLE EAST . . . Martyr’s Crossing matches Damascus Gate in the quality of research and the mass of intriguing characters–and yet it remains a lean thriller.”
–The New York Observer
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
A deeply felt first novel by an award-winning journalist, Martyrs' Crossing takes readers behind the headlines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and exposes the complex, passionate, and painful lives of the people who live in this region. The story begins as Marina, the American-born wife of a jailed Palestinian activist, is detained while trying to cross into Jerusalem to get emergency help for her sick child. When the baby dies at the crossing, Ari, the Israeli officer who refused to let them through, is devastated. An international crisis ensues -- with Palestinians rioting and Israelis turning to their ace security chief to put the best "spin" on the situation. But it is Ari and Marina who must each break free of the political ramifications and come to terms with their private grief and guilt. The characters in this tense page-turner are richly drawn. In addition to Marina and Ari, there is George, Marina's father, a world-renowned cardiologist with memories of his own expulsion from his home by the Israelis in 1948; Hassan, Marina's husband, a tender man with ties to a terrorist group; Yizhar, the Israeli security chief, who thrives on control; and Ahmed, an opportunistic Palestinian leader, who regards the dead child as a powerful political tool. A former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, Amy Wilentz thrusts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a personal, more painful, light, and proves herself an adept novelist in the process. (Spring 2001 Selection)
From the Publisher
“Powerful and poetic . . . [Wilentz’s] storytelling propels you headfirst into another world.”
–SUSAN ORLEAN
Author of The Orchid Thief

“With intensity and skill, Amy Wilentz manages to show us the internal life of characters who are usually seen as journalistic subjects, those struggling in the complex and highly charged world of the Palestinians and Israelis. A deeply personal and tragic incident is at the center of this novel. The backdrop is one of political and social conflict, but the subject turns out to be the wider one of being human–of the difficulty of enduring loss and of trying to live by one’s beliefs when all the world seems to be against you.”
–SUSAN MINOT
Author of Lust & Other Stories

“The strength of Martyrs’ Crossing . . . [is] its authentic and persuasive portraits of people trying to find their way through, and possibly past, the traps of history.”
Time

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A former Jerusalem correspondent for the New Yorker and 1990 National Book Critics Circle nonfiction nominee, Wilentz supplements a natural storyteller's eye for character with a reporter's grasp of swirling political detail in this complex, haunting debut novel. At a checkpoint in Jerusalem, a beautiful young Palestinian woman begs an Israeli soldier for permission to "cross over" in order to get her two-year-old son to the hospital. The soldier, Lt. Ari Doron, frantically telephones headquarters, but is rebuffed by an anonymous commander: the woman is Marina Raad Hajimi, wife of jailed Hamas terrorist Hassan Hajimi, and therefore presumptively barred from Israel during a border "closure." Within minutes, the child dies, devastating family members on both sides of the checkpoint. It turns out the little boy was the grandson of American cardiologist George Raad, a secular Palestinian patriot whose iconoclastic views are courted, but largely ignored, by the Palestinian leadership. Despite his failing health, George returns to Ramallah to be with his bereaved daughter and to shelter her from the gathering political storm, as Palestinian discontents gear up to play "Find the Soldier." The soldier, meanwhile, plagued with guilt over "his dead baby," is unable to stay out of Ramallah, where he seeks absolution from Marina and George before the newly liberated Hajimi finds him. Characters on both sides of the border are nuanced, sympathetic and deeply ambivalent, which heightens the well-crafted suspense: you don't know what will happen next because neither do they. Wilentz's insight into the region is so sharp that even the maelstrom she depicts is vivid and comprehensible, a full-fledged human tragedy from every perspective. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When American-born Marina Raad returned to her family's ancestral homeland as the wife of a leading Palestinian activist, she knew danger would be part of her new life. Yet she could never have imagined the horror of one particular night at a military checkpoint in Jerusalem. Her husband in prison, Marina finds herself alone in the rain with her desperately sick son, begging Israeli army officers to let her pass so that the little boy can receive medical help. But Lt. Ari Doron receives orders from higher-ups to refuse, and Little Ibrahim's subsequent death ignites a political conflagration. Overwhelmed by regret and guilt, Doron begins to distrust his superiors' actions and determines to risk his life in order to contact Marina. Meanwhile, the grieving young mother finds herself at the center of conflicting plans and plots involving her father, an internationally admired physician and intellectual, and his friends from the old days, now leaders of the Palestinian movement. In time, the tragic tangle involves scores of individuals, some with suspect motives, others intent on violence, and it is doubtful that anyone can escape unharmed. This first novel by award-winning journalist Wilentz features a fast-paced plot that could have been clipped from today's headlines, sympathetic characters, and thought-provoking themes, all creating a compelling read. Recommended for most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/00.]--Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-In this well-crafted novel, Wilentz looks through the eyes of her sharply drawn characters to explore both the objective issues and the subjective realities that form the fabric of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An ill Palestinian child dies at an Israeli-border checkpoint while the young post commander is pressing headquarters for permission to allow the boy and his mother to cross into Israel for medical care. The Palestinian political leaders proclaim the boy a martyr, rallying crowds with a cry for vengeance: "Find the soldier." The Israeli military's doctor fashions a version of the event to shield the army from blame. From this realistic beginning, Martyrs' Crossing dramatizes how easily tragic events escalate into violence. The mother of the dead boy is American-born Marina Hajimi, who married Hassan, a Palestinian. A Hamas activist, he is imprisoned in Israel. Marina's father is an eminent American cardiologist, an intellectual who fled Palestine with his family in 1948 and who is critical of a Palestinian authority he believes is corrupt. Lieutenant Ari Doron, empathetic and "unassailably honest," finds himself affected by the pain and the beauty of this woman whose son is dead because he refused to disobey orders. The major characters are principled people, torn by grief and guilt but unwilling to be manipulated for political purposes. Some of the other characters are less nobly motivated. Teens who are interested in the Middle East will come away from the novel with a better understanding of why the conflict so defies resolution.-Ellen Raphaeli, Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An increasingly suspenseful debut novel from the award-winning New Yorker writer (The Rainy Season) that spins a persuasively elaborate plot from a tragic "incident" at a Jerusalem checkpoint. During a time of continuing terrorist attacks, Palestinian visitors to the new City are detained by Israeli officer-in-charge Lieutenant Ari Doron: among them are American-born Marina Hajimi, en route with her two-year-old son to visit her husband Hassan, a political prisoner. The asthmatic child, thus denied immediate medical treatment, dies in his mother's arms. The ensuing public outcry is exploited by Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen alike, and several other major characters soon enter the action. Marina's father George Raad, a Boston cardiologist and an Edward Said-like émigré intellectual, flies to his daughter's side in the country he had "abandoned"-and endures a disturbing reunion with his former boyhood friend, radical activist Ahmed Amr ("a wrong-headed Bedouin astride a fiery stallion, recklessly leading boys to their deaths"). The task of protecting the despised Doron (and of orchestrating much-needed damage control) brings in Israeli army veteran Colonel Daniel Yizhar, a wily political realist perfectly willing to use lies in service of "the truth." And the hunt for Doron, who in fact never attempts to hide, or claim he was "only following orders," engages Palestinian brothers Adnan and Mahmoud Sheukhi, the latter of whom burns to prove himself a devout nationalist. The story builds terrific tension as Wilentz draws her several subplots gradually together, and a series of staggered climaxes (including the consequences of Raad's physical andpsychic failings, Doron's confused gestures toward expiation, and the fate of Marina's husband Hassan—freed by the Israelis, but unfree of the commitments that engulf him) underscores its bleak, unassailable central themes: that in this helplessly fragmented corner of the world, "everyone was an extremist because everyone wanted things simple" and that "Endings did not happen here." An impressively savvy political novel that compares interestingly with Robert Stone's Damascus Gate.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345449832
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/2/2002
  • Edition description: First Ballantine Books Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 788,152
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Amy Wilentz won the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for nonfiction and the Whiting Writers Award, and was a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1990. She is the author of The Rainy Season and has written for The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Times. She was the Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker from 1995 to 1997. She lives in New York City with her husband and three sons.
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Read an Excerpt

She wanted to be lifted away from here by angels,
plucked up into the empty sky. Failing angels, she would accept any transportation--no matter how mean, no matter how low. The crowd was squeezing the breath out of her,and Ibrahim 's hand kept almost slipping away. Marina picked him up so that she wouldn't lose hold of him. He turned and twisted irritably in her arms.
There was too much old sweat here, there were too many bodies close to hers, and the whole thing made her feel like retching, like running. Too many people were breathing down her neck, and whose breath was it? No one who knew her, no one she wanted to know. Strangers,foreigners, was how she thought of them, really, even though they were her own people,
standing packed around her. Finally, she was sharing their predicament.
She had always thought she wanted to.

They were all treading dust out here on the Ramallah road under the blue winter sky, and Ibrahim was inhaling it, too, like fire. It was scratchy air. He coughed and coughed again, and squirmed in her arms, trying to see what was happening. He was pale and feverish,but there was strength in those little legs. Marina looked down at his flushed cheeks. She looked through the dust up at the sky and saw a string of faded plastic flags fluttering over the road, crisscrossing it. There was a picture of the
Chairman on one side of each flag, and on the reverse, a picture of a jowly commando who had been assassinated more than ten years earlier.

She felt an elbow grind into her side. No one liked to be this close to his fellow man--she could say that with certainty. A car alarm yowled.
The crowd was approaching the yellow sign: PREPARE YOUR DOCUMENTS
FOR INSPECTION. The sky overhead was clear, but there was a threat in the clouds piling up far out to the west over the distant sea. The wind whipped through the cypresses that scrabbled up a hill behind the low stores and houses. Straining toward the rickety watchtower that overlooked Shuhada checkpoint, the faces of the crowd, upturned and expectant,were like faces in religious paintings,the faces of believers waiting for a miracle. Just let me through, Marina thought. A man next to her coughed in Ibrahim 's face.

Next time, get him out of there and over to us as fast as you can, Dr.
Miller had said. He needs to be on the machines. He needs drips you can 't always get at your hospitals. He needs our nebulizers.

She held Ibrahim tightly with one arm, and pushed his hair back from his eyes. He felt hot and he looked frightened, and this was a boy who did not scare easily. Not even when they went to visit Hassan in the prison on the other side. In order to see Daddy, they had to get through the checkpoint, find a taxi, drive into Jerusalem--and then, at the prison, pass through a reinforced steel door while men with big guns watched them and asked questions.

Marina was used to the rituals of crossing over. But today was different.
The press of bodies made her feel faint. In the months since Hassan was arrested, she and Ibrahim had become accustomed to lining up. It was more or less civilized. With the right papers you almost always got through--if you had the patience. Sometimes the soldiers didn't check at all; they were naturally unsuspicious and lenient with mothers and children. But if they did run her through the computer, she was ready with her passport and with
Ibrahim 's medical file from Hadassah Hospital. There would be a few questions about Hassan, because prisoners always turned up on the computer.
But then, right through. Marina looked like what she was, a Palestinian, but she was an American citizen, born in Boston, with what had always been a foolproof passport.

But nothing works forever, especially here. Early this morning, there had been two bus bombs in downtown Jerusalem. Bodies had been blown all over a square. These were the first attacks in a long time,and now the checkpoint was like a place she'd never visited before. Marina had never seen a complete closure before, a towq,it was called in Arabic. They hadn't done one in years, and she'd never believed they could do it, not really.

Could they? No one knew, not even her doctor in Ramallah. She had run to him this afternoon, when Ibrahim seemed to be getting sicker. The medications he had been expecting for more than a week had been delayed again. Get yourself into Jerusalem, the doctor told her. With your passport, it should be all right.

Turning away from his of fice door, Marina flagged a cab and headed for the checkpoint. Traf fic to the crossing had slowed to a stop a half mile from the Jerusalem line. She got out to finish the trip on foot.

Facing the crowd in the shadow of the watchtower, Lieutenant Ari
Doron flicked away his cigarette and tried to decide on a few next steps.
In the old days, he might have panicked. But he was a harder man now, he didn 't wilt when confronted. That 's why his superiors used him for checkpoint duty when the situation got bad. And today it certainly was dangerous. The crowd had grown larger as more and more were refused permission to cross. It was hot out for this time of year, and Doron felt damp beneath his heavy bulletproof vest. He pushed his hair up under his cap and drank some tepid water out of a plastic bottle that was standing on one of the sand-filled, plastic roadblocks the army had set up at the intersection three years ago, as a temporary measure. By now,the checkpoint had become a permanent part of Jerusalem's geography. Since the peace was declared, Doron thought. He tried to brush some of the dust off his shoulders.

Today's disturbance was going down like clockwork, each notch up in the violence coming according to schedule. It was like a drill for the checkpoint soldiers, the angry crowds of rock-throwing young men. Doron was used to it. It started with children, the little boys who slipped through legs and whipped around the crowd and were having the best time, you could see it. It was only a matter of minutes before the young men joined in. They used slingshots, which Doron considered fair practice in the land of David.
He wondered whether these were the kind David had used to kill the giant.
The contraption looked like a holiday noisemaker, and the Palestinians spun it from the hip so that if you were up close, which you tried not to be,
you could hear it whipping the air. The slingshot could send a rock flying at what seemed like the speed of a bullet.

Usually,the soldiers waited until a rock hit its mark, until there were enough men throwing stones, so that they weren 't firing into a gaggle of schoolboys. First they shot into the air. Rubber bullets. Then they tried tear gas. When the tear gas didn't work, the soldiers would shoot in the air again, which also never worked, and then they 'd begin shooting in earnest,
over the heads of the crowd if their aim was good, into the crowd if it wasn't. By then,the men would be angry and nervous and ready to shoot for real, but Doron always tried to avoid this stage. He had never used live ammo at a checkpoint, and could not imagine the situation in which he would give that order. Rubber bullets were bad enough. Or there were sound bombs, a kind of grenade that did not explode but could generally be counted on to send a mob hurtling away. Doron also tended to go extra heavy on the tear gas. He didn't want casualties on his record. Things could escalate quickly into something really bad, something he didn't want to see, didn't want to deal with, didn't want to be responsible for.

Doron had seen the crisis building today as the politicians pulled the closure tighter and tighter. The Palestinians here at the checkpoint were trying to get into Israel for all the usual reasons: work, work, and work.
There had been closures before, as punishment for acts of terror, and yet they would still come, desperate to get through, and every day, some of them made it, because usually the closure was not airtight, and there was room for lackadaisical enforcement,there was room for leniency--even sympathy, on occasion.

Like most of the officers in charge of the checkpoints today, Doron had asked headquarters to loosen up --he could feel the place turning into a flashpoint as the pressure built. But Tel Aviv kept tugging on the drawstrings. Responding to terror, the government said, the two bus bombings all over the television,the two suicide boys, dressed up like Israeli soldiers, who packed their kit bags with explosives and got on the buses and blew themselves up. Whose brothers or cousins might explode tomorrow at the mall, the movies, the grocery store. Fifty killed and scores wounded, in two minutes. So no passage between the West Bank and Israel. No movement among the towns and villages of the West
Bank. Even the most urgent cases would be judged harshly today.

The stone throwers were close. Doron called in to headquarters.
There was trouble at several of the other crossings. It sounded chaotic over the phone line. He heard other phones ringing and the sound of someone cursing loudly. He hung up and had his men advance a few more meters in front of the watchtower, hoping they would look tough and determined, even though right now he had only seven men on shift, if you didn't count the other two he had diverted to watch the dry, deserted wadi a hundred meters away. Sometimes enterprising Palestinians would walk or drive around the checkpoint through the dry riverbed behind it. The
Israelis knew about these violators, but usually ignored them. Today, the wadi was off-limits. Nine men total, a reasonable number. The checkpoints were not supposed to be war zones.

Zvili came up to him. It amazed him that checkpoint duty always meant working with guys like Zvili.

"They 're closing in," Zvili said. He sounded excited.

"They are far away," Doron said.

"We might have to begin firing," Zvili said. He knew that Doron shied away from this.

"I don 't think so, not yet." Doron looked at Zvili. The little man had a hard look on his face, like a gargoyle. These little guys shocked Doron with their toughness. They were ready for anything. Unlike Doron.

"Well, what do you suggest?" Zvili asked him.

"Nothing," Doron said. "Nothing yet."

"So we're just going to sit here like target practice?" Zvili spat on the ground. He was a gremlin, but he was scared. Doron could see it in his posturing.

"No, we're just going to sit here like grown-ups until we see what 's developing," Doron said to him. His tone was condescending, the vocal equivalent of patting Zvili on the head." For all we know, this is business as usual, but a little more intense. Anyway, they 're still too far away to hurt us."

Doron prided himself on his new maturity. He was an old hand,
temperate and calm, having found himself --sometime after his twenty-
eighth birthday--suddenly quite able to distinguish between a problem and a crisis. Was it a run-of-the-mill melee, or "a situation "? Making that judgment was the essence of Israeli military professionalism. Doron checked the time and calculated how long it would be until nightfall.
Even the most violent crowds tended to disperse at sunset. It was a matter of keeping the boys at bay until the earth's rotation came into line with your military strategy. It would be almost an hour, not soon enough. He noticed the dust rising. It made his eyes itch. He sniffed at the air. He listened. A car alarm was going off. From this distance, about a hundred meters, he could only make out beetled brows, and kerchiefs around noses and mouths. It always looked in photographs as if they were seeking anonymity, but in fact it was protection against the gas. The gas slowed them down--it prolonged the time between the hurling of the rock that smashed a soldier's cheek, and the shooting that would repel the stone throwers. That was the only use for the gas, as far as Doron could see. It never really put an end to things.

He nodded to Zvili, and Zvili prepared a tear-gas cartridge. The young men were moving in closer, their pitching arms back. Doron nodded again.

Zvili fired off the cartridge. It soared up into the air and then plummeted down like the tail end of a firework, exploding on descent. The crowd opened up around it. Breaking through the ring of those who were fleeing, a young man with a kerchief around his face ran up to the spewing cartridge, picked it up, and galloped toward the checkpoint like a strange tribal smoke-dancer,stopping finally a few meters from Doron 's line of defense to hurl the cartridge back at the Israelis. Doron coughed and bent over, and tears bit at his eyes. He felt for a second as if he were going to black out, the stuff was so fucking strong. Should have shot him,
he thought. When Doron stood finally after the cramp in his lungs had abated, he saw the boy scampering back into a rejoicing crowd.

Doron wished these battles did not have to be so intimate. He coughed into the back of his hand. There was something too much like children's games about being at such close quarters with the enemy. It was like hide-and-seek, or a color war. They ran up to you, you chased them back. They conked your guy, you conked theirs. You got to know each other by the end of a day. You could take the measure of certain individuals. He hated seeing their joy at a wounded soldier, and wished he could take the same raw pleasure in their injuries. He wanted to want them dead.
But God, he just wished that these people had stayed home today. He wished that they would stay home every day.

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First Chapter

Chapter Nine

To venture into enemy territory, that was how Doron thought of it at first. He located the Hajimi house through police records at the Russian Compound, where Hassan Hajimi was imprisoned. It was like a research project: First, Raad's books at the library. Then some treatises on Islam, and books of Muhammad's sayings. Now this. As he flipped through the long document — which listed former as well as current prisoners — Doron began to wonder who all these political prisoners were. The sergeant on duty watched him with folded arms. Doron was in civilian clothes: black jeans, a white tee shirt.

"Here it is," Doron said to the sergeant, because the man seemed to require communication. Doron jotted the address down on a matchbook. He nodded at the sergeant, whose eyes flickered over Doron's face. He raised two skeptical eyebrows and quickly came over and took the heavy notebook from Doron.

Doron walked down through Musrara and across King David to the Old City. Enemy territory, he thought. Man with a mission. He was looking for a new wardrobe. He wound his way to Jaffa Gate and the souk, and began descending the main thoroughfare. He tried not to look out of place, but he felt huge and awkward and surrounded. He zigzagged through the crowds down to the bottom of the tourist market, past stalls selling tee shirts, chess sets, ceramics, candles and candelabras, round leather ottomans, silver jewelry, and gilt-sheathed daggers, and then turned left and headed toward Damascus Gate and the real market, where they sold things people needed. The place was crowded; Doron was certain he was the only Israeli here — if you were Israeli, you stayed well within the Jewish Quarter in the Old City unless you were looking for a fight.

He passed through the food market. Imploring wide-socketed skulls of butchered animals hung at waist height. Goats and cattle, possibly sheep, Doron couldn't tell. Behind the exotic aromas of cumin and coriander from the spice market, you could smell death. The broad stones of the alley were slick and black with water and bloody runoff from the butcher stalls. Women with shopping baskets and bags engaged in a cacophony of negotiation with the stall keepers. Bright oranges and lemons lit up the dark alleyways.

He turned down a narrow roofed alleyway and emerged from a world of skinned chickens into aisles piled with pants, stacked with scarves, festooned with hanging dresses, leggings, and children's clothes. Eager faces looked out at him from the stalls. It was less crowded here.

If he spoke Hebrew — no, he didn't even want to think about that. But if he spoke Arabic, his accent would give him away, he was sure. So, English — maybe they would not be able to detect his accent in a foreign language.

"Pants," he said to a smiling man.

"Pants?" the man asked.

Doron pointed at the stack.

"Ah, trousers," the man said.

"Yes, for me," Doron said, pointing to his legs. The man showed him a pair of black polyester pants with a sharp crease down the front.

"You like?" he asked.

"Yes," Doron said. He was assembling his disguise. He felt the excitement of adventure. Dress-up.

The man started wrapping the folded pants, and looked sideways up at Doron. Doron caught the look, and understood: Why was this foreigner buying these things? It didn't make sense.

Should he get a keffiyeh? They were hanging from a rack a few stalls down. Too obvious, he thought. And not everyone wears them. And could he ever figure out how to wrap one? Never. He settled on a scarf, a long woolen one. Palestinian men tied them around their necks with the two ends hanging down in front. Guaranteed to look authentic, Doron thought, as he put the scarf in his little black plastic bag along with the pants. Now a close-fitting knitted hat and a sweater-vest, and I'm ready.

He took everything back to his mother's empty house, and changed quickly, shoving his real clothes into the back of a closet. He didn't want to think too much about what he was doing. This would be normal, he thought, if I were doing it for the army, for some undercover unit, for some good reason. The greatest generals always had some story of dressing up like women and assassinating terrorists in distant Arab cities. But for him, there was no good reason. He was doing this simply because he felt compelled. He needed to know more; so far, he could explain nothing to himself. Not the boy's death, not the mother's strange allure, not his own involvement. If he got closer, maybe he'd see things more clearly.

And maybe not. But he had to try. He wanted more than anything to see Marina Raad again. He wondered: Was this normal? In any way? He turned her over in his mind. The black hair, the way it curled in the rain, and her frightened face, which she tried so hard to keep distant and haughty.

When he looked in the mirror, he thought he'd done a pretty good job. He wondered if Palestinians had a different way of walking; he thought so. Israelis moved aggressively; the Palestinians were more cautious. He would try a cautious walk, then, and keep himself as invisible as possible. He pulled his hat down low over his forehead, put one hand in his pocket, and fitted the other with a cigarette. He looked at himself again, and a Palestinian looked back.


From the street, you could barely see the house. It was perched on a hill overlooking the Ramallah road, and only its roof was visible from the street that was listed as its mailing address. Fig trees grew in the garden. Their dark green tops rattled up against the roof in the sandy winter wind. There was a rusting red tricycle sitting in a corner of the rooftop. Some old, dusty, machine-made prayer rugs had been scattered here and there. In front of one section that had been covered with makeshift tin, a clothesline ran. Flowered sheets whipped along it. The flapping sheets waved him away, warned him off. The day was dark and the sky was an ochre color that signaled that the hamsin was coming again.

Doron hated the desert wind: it coated cars with a film of yellow sand, it got up your nose, it made you cough, and worst of all, it reminded you that Jerusalem, with its McDonald's and Burger Kings and nice red buses and nice red post offices and its green gardens and flowering terraces and public buildings flanked by fountains, was actually right on the edge of an ancient desert where camels and cactuses and Bedouins were the only successful species.

He saw that there was no door from the house onto this street. He left his unhappy taxi driver waiting and went around the corner. He hoped no one would see him; they would probably be able to spot him as an impostor right away. Down the hill was the Ramallah road, always busy, its intersections and lanes filled with potential and actual car crashes. Across from the house was a big empty lot. Bits of paper trash skittered along its broken ground, and piles of construction materials — tiles, cement blocks, bags of sand — stood in heaps waiting for the day, long distant, no doubt, when someone would manage to scrape up the money to build something here and also get around to doing it. Facing the Hajimis' driveway was a big green overflowing garbage dumpster. Doron decided he would stand just a little behind it and wait for Marina to come out.

He pulled his wool hat down a bit further around his head. He put the collar of his shirt up against the wind, pulled his sweater-vest tighter, and double-wrapped his long wool scarf, letting its tails hang down at the sides of his neck. He lit a cigarette. Now he looked like someone he would normally avoid. He move farther behind the dumpster, so that he could just see around it. Certainly she would come out. A Muslim mother was not allowed a long mourning period, especially if her son had died a martyr. Not that Doron imagined that Marina Raad was a particularly devout Muslim.

Doron hadn't learned much about Islam in his few short days in the library, but he had dipped into a few handbooks in Hebrew and English. First of all, Muhammad ("Peace Be Upon Him," as they said in the books) was always on horseback, which seemed oddly heroic to Doron, who imagined his own prophets as outcasts with mud-caked hair, ranting on street corners, or elderly men with long beards and shepherds' crooks — their transportation at its best an old jackass. The Prophet of Allah (Peace Be Upon Him) rode horses and pitched tents and dug trenches for battle, working with shovels and pickaxes. He was like an Israeli pioneer. He made miracles in which rocks turned to sand and a girl's apronful of dates was made to feed hundreds of trench diggers. He caused lightning to flash from beneath the blow of his pickax. He claimed Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus as early prophets of Islam. Like so many of these fellows who purveyed the word of God, Muhammad (PBUH — they abbreviated it in the books) seemed to have had a quirky mind, with opinions on everything. "Do not wear silk," he is supposed to have told Muslim men. The sexual proscriptions and advice were particularly interesting: according to another book, the Prophet said, "A man is not allowed to have a woman and her paternal aunt as two wives simultaneously, nor a woman and her maternal aunt." Probably the translations were not great, Doron thought.

In any case, you could certainly find equally silly precepts in Judaism. Do not wear blends of linen and wool. Why? And the other day, Doron had heard that an important rabbi in Jerusalem — some jerk with an Old Testament name who wore a high hat and a rich cape encrusted with gold and jewels — had advised religious men not to walk between two women, just as it is written that a man should not walk between two donkeys

or two camels, for fear of becoming like them. And that same rabbi declared — no doubt after giving it a lot of thought — that it was permissible for an Orthodox man to pick his nose on the Sabbath, but Alka-Seltzer was off-limits because it fizzed. Doron could never take religion seriously.

Doron stood there and inhaled the dust and fumes from the Ramallah road, along with his own cigarette smoke. There were things no Israeli did. No Israeli went to Ramallah: it was enemy territory, a place where they wanted to kill you, like certain places in the Old City. The Authority was in charge in Ramallah. If an Israeli walked down the street in Ramallah, these days, he'd get knifed, people said. But there was no avoiding it for Doron — this little wasteland in Ramallah, his post at the dumpster. He was afraid that Marina might see him — that if she did, she would recognize him, and after that, who knew what might happen. And there was some little, contrary, dangerous feeling in him, too: he hoped maybe she would see him.

Two men were walking down the hill, talking. Doron tried to look relaxed as they approached. They squinted at him, and he thought, What if they speak to me? He drew on his cigarette in what he hoped was a Palestinian way, and kicked at the dirt, looking down, waiting for them to go on. They stopped. He didn't look up. He heard the sound of a lighter being flicked, an exchange of words. He kept his eyes on the ground. The men stood for a moment more, then continued on. Doron lifted his eyes after they passed, and watched them recede down the hill. He tossed his cigarette and tucked himself behind the dumpster.

The whole neighborhood used the dumpster, and a bad smell spilled out of it — old canned fish, dirty diapers. He closed his eyes, and the scene at the checkpoint came back to him. He saw himself at the communications controls. He remembered Zvili's angry face and the boy's scared blue eyes. At the bottom of the hill, a car screeched, glass shattered, and there was distant heated shouting. Closer to Doron, a man's voice said goodbye. In English. A door opened.

Doron peered around the dumpster. Marina was coming out of the garden gate, walking toward the street with the young man Doron had seen at the funeral with her father. Her face was half hidden by a silk scarf and sunglasses. The two of them stood there, silent, staring across the street at the dumpster and the empty lot, and for a moment, Doron thought they had seen him. He pulled his head back a few centimeters. The young man looked at his watch, and then checked the street. He shook his head. Marina stood stiffly apart. She leaned lightly against the wall of the garden. An askadinia tree brushed its thick pointed leaves against her shoulder.

They waited. Doron waited with them. He was beginning to feel imprisoned by the vigil when finally their taxi arrived and they set off. Doron hurried up the hill and around the corner to his waiting cab and jumped in. He watched Marina's taxi as it plunged and bucked through the traffic on the Ramallah road.

At the side of the street, small children walked with their mothers to the market. At every intersection, young men were waiting to be picked up by jitneys and driven across the checkpoint to the Israeli side of Jerusalem for day work. Today they would wait in vain — the closure was still in force — but they were eternally desperate and eternally hopeful. Through the small crack in his cab's curtains, Doron saw a fresh graffito on the walls that were bouncing past. Then he saw it again. He tried to sound it out in his iffy Arabic each time he passed it, translating as he went along. He saw it again. Ah, an "s" sound. He heard himself hissing, "Ssssss, ssssssss." And then he realized what it said. find the soldier. Find the soldier. Soldier, he recognized the whole word, now. It was a word he had learned in training, a long time ago. The CD disk that his driver had hung with a red ribbon from the rearview mirror jumped up and down to the rhythm of the traffic like some kind of measuring device, a meter of impending disaster. Specks of light flicked off it. Doron had always assumed that the disks must be symbolic in some way for Muslims, like the rounded-off crescents that topped so many mosques and minarets. Endless frittering useless thoughts crackled across his brain. He sat back. His stomach bounced. He let himself relax into the car's worn vinyl upholstery. His taxi followed the same rocking trajectory as Marina's. Find the soldier. Like a child's game.

Copyright © 2001 by Amy Wilentz

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Reading Group Guide

1. Who are the martyrs of the title? How does the author use the idea of martyrdom--dying for a cause--throughout the interwoven stories of her characters? What is the author's attitude toward such martyrdom?

2. Who are the heroes of Martyrs' Crossing? Discuss how Yizhar, Ahmed, Shuekhi, Zvili, Doron, George Raad and Hassan, too, each act according to (or in spite of) personal codes of honor, morality, and patriotism. In a conversation between Yizhar and Doron, Yizhar says, "I despise heroes . . . Heroes act, and other people suffer." Which character comes closest to the author's idea of a hero? What constitutes a hero for our time?

3. As Marina is crossing the checkpoint with masses of Palestinians, she thinks They were her own people, standing packed around her. Finally, she was sharing their predicament. She had always thought she wanted to. Is Marina a certain kind of American naif? Or is she politically committed in a way her father is not? Is her marriage to Hassan the result of naivete? In what ways has her American upbringing left her unprepared to return to her people? Do Americans romanticize the struggles of disenfranchised people? Do Americans romanticize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Why do you think the author chose to give Marina an American past?

4. Underlying the stories in Martyrs' Crossing are the twin questions of what constitutes home, and, what is the meaning of home? George thinks of his friend Ahmed, (Chapter 10 p. 113) "It had been decades since they leaned against each other in this familiar way, not considering politics and the oceans that divided them. Possibly, George thought, this is the meaning of home." Hassan (p. 153) has been teaching Marina about her homeland, saying "You call yourself a Palestinian?" How is the idea of home different for the various characters in this story? What is your idea of home?

5. In this story, people who are ostensibly on the same side do not appear to trust each other. Allies are enemies and foes might be friends. Doron and Marina, for example, seem to understand that in other circumstances they might have more in common than not. George and Ahmed are described as friends in the early part of the book, and by the end, George is described as Ahmed's "greatest enemy," because of differences in what they believe. Doron thinks: I am the enemy, I am the enemy, and he asks Yizhar, "So are we enemies now?" (p. 195) Which characters seem to you to be worthy of the term "enemy"? Which characters seem truly at cross purposes? Which are truly dangerous, and to whom? Who is worthy of trust, and for whom?

6. What are the different ways in which the death of Ibrahim becomes fodder for both the Palestinian and Israeli political machines? Discuss the uses of human tragedy for political purpose. Is this inevitable? Justifiable? How does this kind of propagandizing escalate or ease tension?

7. Discuss George's relationship with Ahmed. Throughout the book, George dwells on his childhood friendship with Ahmed. After Ibrahim's death, George thinks, "If Ahmed was insincere under these circumstances, then Palestine was lost to George." (p. 56) How does their friendship evolve over the course of the book? Do the two men have the same goal? The same beliefs?

8. Examine Yizhar's brand of loyalty to Israel. He spins the death of Ibrahim in the press, (p. 72) and Wilentz writes, "Yizhar felt no remorse. His version of the story was not a lie." Is Yizhar lying? Should he feel remorse? In Yizhar's job, where is the line between good and evil? Discuss the differences between Yizhar and Doron.

9. Is there a particular politics or ideology underlying the story in Martyrs' Crossing? Is the book more sympathetic to one side or the other?

10. "Our little Ibrahim was not a brave Palestinian freedom fighter," George says at his grandson's funeral. (p. 178) "If you want to place blame for my grandson's death, look in the mirror as well. Look at yourself and the Authority." Because of that speech, the lawyer Sheukhi believes George Raad to be a traitor. Sheukhi has one rule, (on p. 185) "Never criticize a fellow Palestinian in public." Yizhar, too, seems to have a similar rule about his fellow Israelis. What are the uses of loyalty in a political conflict? Is this unwillingness to criticize one's own a good impulse, or a bad one? What other examples--say, in police departments--of this unwillingness to criticize one's own can you think of? Discuss the characters' choices in terms of moral absolutism and moral relativism. Is George a traitor to his people? Is Doron a traitor to his?

11. Sheukhi makes a choice. Doron makes a different kind of choice. Both men feel a need to act. Contrast their choices.

12. James Baldwin wrote, "We are trapped in history, and history is trapped in us." How are the characters in Martyrs' Crossing trapped in history? How is it trapped in them? Do you believe human beings can escape the trap of history? If so, how? Who in this story comes closest to escaping? What historical traps have a grip on Americans?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2002

    moving and close to reality

    I personally find the book moving. The story's attention to detail and the sensitivity about the realities of life that the Palestinian people go through is astonishing. Special thanks to the author's courage to write about the unpopular and victimized side.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2002

    Did I read the same 'Martyrs' Crossing' as everybody else?

    I must be the only person to have found this book to be propaganda maquerading [transparently] as literature. This is not an anti-war novel. It is not fiction 'ripped from the headlines.' It is exploitation and sensationalism at its worst. That it was written by a journalist makes it sadder because it gives an illusion of eyewitness authenticity. Specifically regarding the book: Is there only one decent human being (Doron) in all of Israel? Is there no irony in the fact that the Palestinian 'voice of reason' is represented in the person of an immigrant American doctor (George Raad), and that the only appropriate medical treatment for his Palestinian grandson exists inside Israel, and has been, except in extraordinary circumstances, readily and willingly available? To place the conflict as rooted in and reflective of Raad's bitterness over the plight of his homeland, without adequate historical background, is fatuous over-simplification. Terrorist suicide bombings, deliberate killings of innocent Israelis--mentioned in passing, but death and suffering that are totally devoid of human faces. In regrettable fact, I pushed on in vain to read one positive expository word about Israel at all. The historical past? It doesn't exist here. There is a total lack of any element of perspective to shed light on the often-necessary extreme measures taken by Israel in attempting to co-exist (by United Nations mandate)with a neighbor whose battle cry for half a century has been to 'push [them] into the sea.' Is the book even-handed in character portrayal? Count the characters on both sides (good or bad), measure the depth of each one's persona, and evaluate the credibility and quality of literary treatment given to each. A little boy--whose health has been carefully attended to for all of his short life by an enemy state--dies a tragic death. Good reading. But far better to have set such an emotional appeal for peace in a truly fictitious locale. No one is opposed to peace. But obviously too many people are opposed to truth.

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