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Friend of My Enemy
By Benjamin Eric Hill
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Benjamin Eric Hill
All rights reserved.
September 24, 2000
For Christina Goryeb it had been a week like many others. A morning talk show appearance on Monday in New York to attract interest for her latest book, Women of Palestine, Hope for the Future. A pair of closed-door evening fund raisers on Thursday and Friday in London and Rome for refugee children. In between she'd met with State Department officials about the current Arab-Israeli conflict, taught her classes in international relations and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Virginia and met with her boards of directors of foundations she served on in Washington, D.C.
She'd scheduled a visit to an orphanage in Jordan, but on impulse canceled it when she reached Rome. She hadn't thought beyond that. No one knew she was in Tel Aviv, not even her husband. She told the taxi driver to take her to the Institute for Biblical Archaeology.
It had been five years since she'd seen Chaim Asher, yet the memory of that man lingered in her thoughts like the fragrance of a fine wine. Five years earlier, she'd been drawn into his life. Now, it was happening again. Their love affair had been an aberration driven by shared danger. It was foolish to want to revisit that time.
Those days seemed so long ago, yet it seemed to her that nothing fundamental had changed in Israel. Civil war still simmered with Palestinians on the West Bank, while an embattled Israeli Prime Minister's hopes for peace foundered on the rocky shoals of Middle East politics. Arab and Jew still passed silently on the streets as if the other did not exist. Meanwhile, day laborers from Gaza still crowded like cattle into open trucks every morning to be driven to construction sites in Arab neighborhoods where they built new homes for Jews to live in. Israeli settlers down from their fortified hilltops in the West Bank to shop or work at their day jobs in the city, slung M-16 assault rifles on their shoulders for protection.
Once again, she read the letter in her hand, the one she'd read so many times in the past week.
"Do you remember your last law clerk, the old school teacher?" her Palestinian cook had written. "I have the sad duty to inform you he has died." Fatima included a short clipping from a back page of the Arabic daily al-Kuds. It said the body of Achmed Bikfaya, formerly a school teacher from Jenin, who'd also been employed by the noted Palestinian lawyer, Christina Goryeb, had been found hanging from a rope in her dusty Ramallah law office. A slip of paper in his pocket said "Here I once knew happiness." The article ended with "Mrs. Goryeb, who immigrated to the U.S. five years ago, has dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship."
This was absurd, she thought. Achmed Bikfaya was a fiction devised by Chaim Asher.
She had thought she no longer loved him.
After she'd fled Israel to live in the U.S., they'd exchanged letters, the kind of letters, old friends write each other, newsy and platonic without a hint of the old passion. Two months ago, out of the blue he'd sent her a post card showing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
"Remember—," he wrote.
That was where they'd made love for the last time.
"Always," she wrote back.
His letters had formerly been written in English, for the most part, their common neutral language. Now he wrote exclusively in Arabic, her language, no longer waiting for her response. His letters came every week, then every day, overflowing with yearning and adoration. She felt flattered but she was alarmed as well. There was something missing in these passionate letters—she didn't hear Chaim's steady voice in them, at least not the man she'd known. Instead, he complained that all his zest was gone, that he wasn't interested in his job anymore, or even in his life. And then he wrote that he had to see her. Either he would come to Virginia or she would go to Jerusalem. "You need to visit your family in Palestine. Ramallah, is now governed by the Palestine Authority. No one will harm you."
Immediately she regretted the impulse that had led her to encourage Chaim.
"Chaim," she wrote, "for the sake of my daughters, what happened between us is past and must never happen again. Let us remain good friends, always."
She expected a polite letter of apology, a pledge to never again let his feelings for her go beyond the bounds of friendship. A week went by and then another without a letter from Asher. One day she realized he'd never write her again and pushed thoughts of him out of her mind.
But when she got Fatima's letter telling her the old clerk, Bikfaya, had hung himself, she cried.
Had she been his only life line? She couldn't believe he'd kill himself over an old love affair. Besides his dedication to Israel wouldn't permit suicide. It would be desertion.
She wrote the Palestine Authority for details of "Bikfaya's" death. A courteous reply in Arabic came by return mail from a Captain Kabir. The Palestine Authority had no record of the incident described by Al-Kuds, he wrote. He had discussed the matter with the newspaper's editor and discovered the Bikfaya story was merely gossip from the souk that had been written up by a free lance reporter.
That "free lancer" knew things about her only Chaim Asher would know.
Had Chaim faked the story to lure her back? It was manipulative and oblique, but he was capable of both, especially if he'd become mentally unbalanced.
She had no idea how to contact him once she had arrived in Israel. For his mailing address he used a Tel Aviv post office box. She wrote him that she was coming but when he didn't meet her plane, she'd tried to find him at his old kibbutz. His friends said he had gone away but wouldn't tell her where or when.
Then she remembered his superior at the Institute. Mekor, a hard and cunning man, but perhaps in light of the past he would be sympathetic to her.
Christina stepped from her taxi into the hot suffocating Middle East sun and glared at the glass and concrete office tower on King Saul Boulevard. Two lines of Hebrew on a plaque at the entrance said Institute for Biblical Archaeology. The ugly, familiar knot twisted in her stomach, and she paused for a deep, calming breath before climbing the broad stairs of the Haddar Dafna Building.
A dusty green Volvo station wagon tore around the corner into the square, tires squealing, veered toward her, and skidded to a stop at the curb. Christina recognized the driver as Mekor's trusted assistant, Gilda Sderot. Mekor in the rear seat was crystal cool under a frayed Panama hat. He wore a thin white cotton suit and an open-necked sky blue shirt.
"Get in Mrs. Goryeb," Gilda said.
Mekor opened the rear door and slid over to make room for Christina. His shoes were muddy as if he'd just come fresh from a dig.
Reluctantly, she got into the car.
Gilda drove off through the crowded streets of Tel Aviv at high speed. They went northward out of town past the Sde Dov military airfield until they picked up the coast highway to Haifa.
"So who gave you our phone number?" Mekor said with a dangerous smile.
"Chaim Asher, during that stinking business with B'nai Ha'eretz."
Mekor looked straight in front of her.
"Can you help me contact Chaim? Mekor. I must see him."
"Asking favors, Mrs. Goryeb? You're lucky we let you live," said Gilda.
"That's enough Gilda," Mekor said. His face was as impassive as the brown leather of the shoulder holster that peeked out of his coat.
"Asher's no longer with us, Christina. I haven't seen him for several years."
She faced him directly, eyes flashing. "I didn't come back to this accursed place for sentimental reasons. I'm worried about Chaim's health. I think he may have suffered a nervous breakdown. Either that or else he's dead."
Gilda's laugh was harsh. "By now he's found another woman," she said. "Remember, I've known him longer than you."
Christina snatched the Al-Kuds clipping out of her purse and shoved it under Mekor's nose. "Who else but Chaim could have written that?"
Mekor rubbed two fingers on his chin as he studied the news clipping. Only two people besides Christina Goryeb had known Achmed Bikfaya's true identity, himself and Asher.
"Did anyone in your immediate family know about you and Chaim?" he said.
Her eyes grew distant. "My daughters and house servants must have suspected something. But no one else."
"Let us suppose for a moment a careless word spoken here or there. Eventually, your secret could have hissed through Ramallah's souk like the flame on a fuse."
"Palestinians are my people. I have no enemies here. This is my home," she said.
His glance was thoughtful as though she was a piece of an intricate puzzle.
"In the U.S. you are the voice of moderate Palestinians. For this you would not be universally beloved among your people. Islamic Jihad or a similar terrorist organization may have written this to discredit you and your efforts."
"I doubt that very much," she said coldly. "Perhaps you'd better read these." She handed Mekor a small bundle of letters.
Mekor muttered as he read one of them. Mawkish, almost childish. What had happened to Asher? he wondered. Had the man's brains finally turned to shit? Good men went to pieces in his line of work. Iron men, men like Asher. A famous neurologist from Hadassah Hospital had once described it to Mekor as "delayed shock syndrome." It was usually brought on by the things men like Asher did, like strangle a sentry with a nylon garrote or drive a stiletto up under his chin through the roof of his mouth and into his brain. When you're that close, he's not just a target in a gun sight; you breathe in his breath, feel his death throes. Shock was often aggravated by the loss of loved ones or close comrades, the expert had said. American soldiers suffered from delayed shock years after the Vietnam War had ended. One of their psychiatrists had warned Mekor that Asher was acting strangely but Mekor had discounted the warnings. Asher had always been a moody bastard.
Mekor reached in his coat for a pencil. "Do you have a phone number where I can reach you, Mrs. Goryeb?"
Christina gave him the number of her home in Ramallah where she was staying. "How long will it be before I hear from you?" she said.
"Soon, very soon," he said. "Can I keep these?"
"Certainly. Thank you for helping me."
"You can thank me when we find Asher alive. Where can I drop you?"
"The Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv would be fine."
They rode back to Tel Aviv in silence. No wonder Asher had fallen so hard, thought Mekor. She was a beautiful woman. She wore no make-up and did not need to, for she had that rich olive skin that glowed with a golden sheen of health and vitality. There was a hint of gray in her lustrous curly dark hair, cut short. An American style. Her lush black eyebrows that showed no sign of being plucked. Her white, perfect teeth glinted between soft parted lips. Her dark business suit barely concealed a sensational figure, equal to any of the star chorus girls he had seen in the cabarets of Tel Aviv.
As they drove up to the bus station, she turned to him. "I value your judgment," she said. "Please give me some advice."
The directness of her eyes, that charming smile.
"Be careful, Christina. I can no longer protect you in Ramallah."
* * *
At six o'clock in the evening, traffic was heavy on the street below, as crowds of office workers headed home. Mekor lit his 60th cigarette of the day and coughed violently. He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the pain burn in his chest and dart out his arm.
Gilda shook her head. "Those Marlboros are killing you, Mike. Don't expect me to cry when they hook you up to the oxygen tank."
Ignoring her, he studied the letters Christina had given him.
"I don't believe Asher wrote this drivel," he said. "These are the letters of a school boy."
"If he didn't, who cooked up all that shit about Bikfaya hanging himself?" she said. Besides he wrote her in Arabic. That's what he'd do if he really wanted to impress her."
"How do we know if this is Asher's handwriting. All I have here to compare it with are reports he wrote in Hebrew which is nothing like Arabic. The only way to be sure is to find the bastard." Mekor's voice was a blast of anger as though it was her doing that Asher was inaccessible.
Gilda gave him a sympathetic smile.
"Why, you don't know where he is either," she said.
She glanced at her watch and rose from her chair. "Are we through, Mike? I'm having supper with someone tonight."
"That poor bastard," he said. "Yeah, we're done."
"Don't worry. We'll find him, Mike," she said.
She left him reading Asher's old reports on his computer terminal.
* * *
The sunset glinted on the blue Mediterranean through a gap in the Samarian hills above Tel Aviv, suffusing everything with warm glowing light. A gentle breeze caressed Christina's cheek as she sat in the garden of her beloved home in Ramallah eating supper with her younger sisters, Najat and Janine. She had not seen them since their mother's funeral. She could almost see traces of her in Janine who sat tall and straight in their Maman's place at the head of the table giving orders in a low firm voice to Fatima to serve them coffee and baklava. She's sitting in my rightful place and I am but a guest in my own home, Christina thought bitterly. Najat, the youngest still had the giddy and carefree laugh of a school girl though she was a married woman with children.
"Whatever happened to Achmed Bikfaya, my old law clerk?" she asked Najat. "Do you see him around anymore?"
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
"He vanished right after you went to America," said Najat. "We never saw him again. I think he was in love with you."
Janine interrupted. "He was a very disturbing man," She gave Christina a steady look. "The Jews were watching you so closely at that time. There were ugly rumors in the souk that you were a traitor. That you had taken a Jewish lover," She spoke softly. "You never said much about what was going on, Christina. Now, you can tell us what happened five years ago. We have a right to know."
Christina felt a thump, a flutter in her chest as if her heart were turning over. They'll find out anyway. They always do. She took a deep breath. Where to begin?CHAPTER 2
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, 'To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Ken'ites, the Ken'izzites, the Kad'monites, the Hit'tites, the Per'izzites, the Reph'aim, the Am'orites, the Ca'naanites, the Gir'gashites, and the Jeb'usites.
—Genesis 15, 18-21
In April 1995, on a lonely hilltop at sunrise, before an altar of stones, Mordecai Ben Yusuf, a gaunt, red-bearded man in black prepared a sacrifice. In his arms was a baby lamb. He was the spiritual leader of B'nai Ha'eretz, an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, the land where the biblical Kingdom of Israel flourished two millennia ago. A large brightly colored kippa, the knitted cap worn by religious Zionists, covered his flowing auburn hair. Bound to his forehead with a black strap was a tefilin, a leather box containing the Sh'ma, the prayer from Deuteronomy of God's oneness, and his right arm was bound with a similar phylactery. With his striped prayer shawl, long black robe and blazing blue eyes he looked like one of the Prophets of old.
Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, is one Lord.
Behind him, the men of B'nai Ha'eretz, the Children of the Land, knelt in the dry grass.
Sentinels with rounds chambered in their automatic rifles, stood with their backs to the group as they scanned the hostile hills, missing nothing. They too dressed in black, wore striped shawls, leather phylacteries and knitted kippots.
B'nai Ha'eretz was a "Torah City" of ultra-Orthodox Jews. On Wednesdays at dawn, like this one, they met on this hill for sacrifice and prayer. Fifty men gathered before the Rabbi, young men in their twenties, middle-aged men, and old united by the common dream of building the Third Temple. They practiced a form of Judaism that had not existed since the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. A Judaism with a priestly class, animal sacrifices, and, most important, rebuilding the Temple.
Excerpted from Friend of My Enemy by Benjamin Eric Hill. Copyright © 2002 Benjamin Eric Hill. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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