Commentary Magazine


Aspects of Israel: The Dark Aristocrats

All day the sharkeea blew from Arabia and whipped stinging sand into our skin. Sharp maize stalks, dried to needles, pierced our hands, and the hot wind tore like a demon at the scratches. Bits of marble plinth carved with Roman laurel lay in the tractor path. I picked cobs with Saadya, who had the physique of a fourteen-year-old. Yemenites before they begin to raise a family look younger than they really are. Later they turn wizened, metallic, ageless. The Yemenite boys can work better than a grown man when they have a spurt of energy. Suddenly they run a race, or as suddenly, like spent elastic, they drag mournfully. Saadya pulled a row of cobs, yanking the heavy sack with dogged joy. Then his huge calf-eyes mooned, and he asked the time although he knew no one had a watch. His friends wandered moodily up the furrow, kicking cobs. They chanted a plaintive high-pitched song: “A young girl begs her lover, do not fear me that I am dark.”

The Yemenites in the kibbutz have a dull inarticulate feeling of being alien. We “white-skins” went to college, we have a radio. The collective rigidly allots an equal share for equal labor, but it cannot yet do something special for the underprivileged. The little Iraqi whose bed is next to mine powders her coffee-brown arms every evening after the shower. The Persian girls put cream on their sallow cheeks; they want to be white. The Persians are docile, silly, and square-haunched. Saadya and company pepper them with rude questions. “We are Jews like them? It’s impossible. They are slower than the big combine.” I too feel more akin to a Cockney bus driver than a Persian tailor who happens to be Jewish. With the Yemenite adolescent, I feel quite differently, ashamed of my textbook proficiency and envious of his curious ignorance, his rhythm and instinct for formal pattern.

Galya, the only girl in the bunch, has arched eyebrows black as a witch’s cat. Her white teeth flash grotesquely large from a miniature face. The boys tease her cruelly, while she defends herself with her nails and Arabic curses. Galya is fifteen, beautiful as a yellow cactus petal unfurled at the prickly leaf-tip. “Going to school” keeps her busy after she’s done her stint in the baby-house. (She hates “sponja”—washing floors.) The Yemenites are coaxed into a hut, restrained from putting too many questions, and initiated into the marvels of mathematics and elementary socialism. Deprived of education until the most receptive age, they grab facts like candy, hear a new word and exhaust it like a toy.

Galya has higher ambitions. She peeps through the window as I type and announces, “I want to learn.” “D’you know the English letters?” I ask, never doubting the answer. She squats on her heels in Levantine fashion, and hesitantly draws the alphabet till J, at each lopsided hieroglyph glancing at me to observe the effect. Then she humps onto the bed and wriggles her toes like bits of toffee. The Yemenites peel their shoes off at every opportunity.

“Don’t you know any more letters?” “He died.” “Your teacher?” “My abba.” Rather humbled by this exchange, I afterward discover from Saadya that Galya’s father used to clean the high school at Aden. Meanwhile Galya pegs away with surprising perseverance, arriving in our hut to light the oil lantern and pat at the keys most evenings after supper.

One night she didn’t come. New members of the kibbutz were learning the latest polka, a tame collectivized version of the Slav original. At first Galya held back, wringing the hem of her skimpy skirt. Then Amir, the ginger cowherd, caught her and whirled her away. She leaped loose and dictated the step. The Yemenite boys ringed her round, drumming with feet and hands thin as wire netting. Then Galya became tired. Her lashes fluttered on her cheeks like a pomegranate in the lamp glow. She relapsed into her normal fidgety whipcord. The Yemenites went to “lift” an old tin for browning sunflower seed over a primus stove. They’d already grilled a wooden hut along with seeds. Amir followed Galya on the pretext of seeing to it that safety regulations were observed.

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The Yemenites came here from a transit camp, in cast-off pants and tattered T-shirts labeled “Dodgers.” Saadya rolled up his pants to imitate shorts, and the whole crew hung around the clothes store, bent on getting a complete outfit. As the kibbutz ration system allowed us half a shirt per year, to bestow a trousseau nearly broke the heart of the matronly Berliner in charge. Galya of course loitered round the cupboard, unable to face the idea of removing her ankles from the shabby embroidered leggings inherited from her mama. She cuddled the darning egg, and whined an Arabic lullaby. “For heaven’s sake, make up your mind . . .” said the Berliner, whose fat knees go always naked. Galya admired her own skinny thighs, and just as the boys went by, on with the shorts. She sallied out, her legs like oiled teak. Amatzia and Pesach pranced behind, tweaking her small bottom. Galya fairly preened with delight, then crumpled into woe because the elastic broke. Never having worn such a thing before, she imagined the elastic was an irreparable part.

Yesterday Galya asked the kibbutz treasurer for 50-grush fare money: “To visit my cousin near Hedera.” As Rina unlocked the cash-box, Galya deftly removed a comb from the box of toilet things doled out weekly. “Your cousin, eh?” Galya drove the clothes store crazy, altering her single best blouse, starching her khaki skirt until it grazed her knees. She got some lace-up boots and clean white socks, as a favor. Before the bus left, she flew from hut to hut, like a leaf in the khamsin: “I want a shmutter for my head.” The Yemenites love parading their Yiddish. Galya borrowed an Arab kefieh and swathed the voluminous muslin so that its tassels fringed her brow. She asked me to play chaperon. After all, I had translated the Hebrew assignation—in its formality so Victorian, yet seductive. On the way to the bus, Galya told me that the boy friend really was her cousin. Her family in the transit camp had written to inform her of a marriage contract sealed while the parties were respectively two and three.

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A waste of dingy huts, their canvas walls like discarded stage scenery, lay at the foot of Mount Carmel. Barbed wire had long ago been pulled down and turned into coops for the scrawny hens. Galya’s people lived in a shack of corrugated tin. Filched boards guarded their pathetic patch of melon from dogs and a lively mob of children. An acrid odor of chlorine and excreta hung in the hot breathless air. Mrs. Ashurabi wept and chattered over her daughter, picking at the khaki skirt, fingering the shoes. “I’ll call him,” she said. At the irrevocable tone of her remark, Galya shrank into a prim figure on the bed. Too conscious of her situation for small talk, Galya gazed at the flies thickly clustered on everything. They blackened the white cheese hung to drip. A boy with narrow shoulders and corkscrew ear-locks blocked the sun from the doorway. He resembled his cousin: flaring black brows, feminine luxuriance of hair, and fragility of hands and feet. His parents and more children somehow got into the shack. Galya had already unlaced her proud boots and reverted to Arabic, hardly different from the see-saw Hebrew she loved to display. Her betrothed said nothing. Mrs. Ashurabi brewed tea on the primus which stood on a grimy concrete floor surrounded by pots and children. She poured the tea, rusty and oversweet with a bit of dried mint. The uncle brought glasses still dusty from the shop: “I am keeping them for the young pair.” Mrs. Ashurabi whimpered and plucked with her chicken fingers at Galya’s new outfit. It was time to go, I hinted. Galya peeped coyly at her betrothed, the solemn dark unknown. Not a word did they exchange. It was not considered proper.

We walked over the throbbing tarmac, between the lines of sagging huts. Old men, propped against shady walls, opened and then closed one eye. The children crouched farther into the sand like bedraggled sparrows in a dust bath. We thought our own thoughts in silence. “When is it allowed to get married?” Galya inquired in her bold, shy way. “You must be seventeen at least.” “Such a long time. . . . I shall know how to type letters by then, won’t I?” With a look of unfathomable sorrow, she waited for the bus, her manicured paws folded. The boots tired her: Galya wriggled out of them and flopped down on her heels, her bottom just above the baking sand. “Why don’t you try? It’s so comfortable.”

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