Commentary Magazine


One Morning in a Maabera:
From the Israeli Scene

It was one of those winter days between rains, when the air is bright and clear, yet never warm enough to take the chill from your feet. I had been playing social observer for several weeks so I already knew most of the immigrant camp officials and the office hangers-on. The game and the language were still new to me, but I tried always to nod and smile knowingly, to look wise and not too uncomfortable.

Most mornings I drove up in my large car, parked near the dingy building, rolled up the car windows, and then went to search out my informants. That day I had arranged again to see David, the camp director, to continue our conversation. David was sitting behind his desk in the small office when I came in, and he smiled when he saw me. He removed his glasses and began to rub the lenses on the sleeve of his jacket.

“Ah, Mr. Alex, come in please, I just have to finish a few things and then we will have time to talk. Come, sit down over here.” He pointed to a chair near the desk, and I sat. For a moment we exchanged pleasantries, I in my clumsy Hebrew, David correcting the poor phrases, desiring to be gracious in the wooden setting. We sat smiling across the littered desk, as if smiles meant intimacy and ease. He shifted in his chair, and turned back to his papers. Outside there was the noise of a drum beating time to a children’s song, and I reminded myself that I should interview the teacher. I waited for him to finish. It all began to feel very monotonous and somehow sad.

David continued to shuffle papers. Before being introduced to him I had been told all his vital statistics: he was a Tripolitanian, and he had two wives, one who cooked for him, and one whom he went home to. They smirked when they told me, and I suppose I did too. I forgot the story soon after I met the man, for David hardly seemed to fit so exotic a tale. He was short and becoming pudgy, with a brown, almost swarthy oval face, and he habitually wore the rough suit and open collar of an Israeli minor official. He had liked the idea of my coming to him and our sitting and talking. I would sit in his office and watch and listen, and afterward he would explain what had happened, taking pains to be certain that I understood. When others asked who I was he would smile and explain that I had come to see and learn, and that I would write a book. The idea appealed to him. It gave our mornings a gloss of importance.

We sat silently for a few moments, David searching his papers and I trying to recall the questions I wanted to ask. As always, the quiet was interrupted without notice. A boy appeared in the doorway, and stood there staring at me before entering the room. I thought he looked eighteen or nineteen. He was thin, with blond, well-combed hair; he wore a turtle-neck sweater, the kind the Israelis call “French.” He walked toward the desk and began to speak to David in Arabic. David slouched back in his chair, Now and then he interrupted the boy’s speech, and then their voices grew louder. Finally the boy turned to leave. He glanced toward me and said, this time in Hebrew, “All right, then I’ll wait for the police. They told me they’d be here soon.”

He left, and David got up from behind the desk and walked to the door. Naturally, I was interested, and I asked what had happened. David began to say something, but then he stopped and excused himself, saying that he had to leave for a few minutes, and asked if I could wait. I said of course, and he left the room. I watched him walk off toward the closest row of huts.

I had grown used to waiting. I saw some men outside whom I had met before, and I walked out to meet them. They smiled when I came up, and we joked for a moment. I asked them what had happened. They knew, of course. One of them, the grocer, explained. That boy, he said, is in the army. He had a hut of his own in the camp, and he used it on weekends when he had leave. It was a good hut, with a good roof. Yesterday the boy came home, and found the door broken off his hut and a family living inside. The squatters were also from the camp, but their hut was old and broken, and their roof leaked. So they had broken the door of the empty hut and moved their beds into it. Now the boy had gone and complained to the police, and soon the police would come.

I listened to the story and nodded. We all said it was a great shame. When would they finally move into permanent housing? Inevitably we spoke of the new apartments being built for them. I heard again the stories of trouble: they were poor, they had no work, they were North Africans, and no one cared. You needed 300 pounds to buy an apartment, and where would they get the money? Some people in the camp had money, but they were just poalei dachak—occasional laborers on public works. New immigrants from Poland and Rumania got new homes with electricity, but the government gave them the maabera. Who would help them? Well, you had to be patient, they concluded, invoking the magic formula that always ended a tale of woe: be patient! I had heard it before, but I was impressed again. Their life was very hard, they had real troubles; so I shook my head, sympathetically.

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David meanwhile had returned. I continued to stand outside the office, waiting for a chance to break away politely. The men were chatting in Arabic, laughing at private jokes, warming themselves in the heat of the sun. One of them nudged the others, and they all turned toward the huts. I turned too. Three figures were coming up the dirt path to the office, two boys and what was unmistakably their mother. I stood and watched them approach. There was something crazed yet powerful, almost fearsome, about their entrance. The two young boys, seven or eight years old, were wildly dancing round the mother’s bare feet. They were smiling nervously at no one in particular, calling out in a weird sing-song of Arabic and Hebrew. The boys fell behind the mother to laugh and shout, then dashed ahead as if to clear the way. They were mimicking her, and yet peering toward her with faces filled with pride and hope, as one looks to a leader in moment of battle. The mother never so much as glanced at them. When they came closer I saw that she was an enormous woman. Her faded print dress could hardly hold the bulk. Everything about her was round and somehow hard—her face, her body, her legs. She was massive, almost thick with fat and bone. The woman seemed to roll with short certain steps; she was so much a mother, yet it was as if an armored tank were approaching, accompanied by two mad footmen. I leaned closer with the others to watch this oncoming juggernaut.

When they reached the building, the two boys raced up the few steps, laughing and twisting about the entrance to David’s office. There they stopped, looking back at the mother with that nervous mixture of parody and pride. They were waiting for the show to begin. Folding one thick arm beneath her giant chest the woman halted outside. Immediately, as if it were all rehearsed, she began to scream through the door to David’s office. The high Arabic shot out in one long barrage. We heard David’s voice from within, but she shouted over his words until she had finished. She was still. staring silently through the open door. I did not understand the Arabic, but David’s answering tone seemed one of conciliation. Then suddenly she opened up again, and we heard David too shouting from within. Now they were both screaming at each other, the words grappling and smashing in battle. It lasted for at least several moments, and we all stood and watched. Then suddenly, for me inexplicably, it was over, and the men about me began drifting away. The woman still stood near the steps, and I could hear David walking about inside.

Now that it had grown quiet again I felt awkward standing alone. The best course seemed to get some explanation from David, so I carefully walked past the woman and into the office. David was startled when he saw me, but he smiled faintly and asked me to sit down. His face was still red from shouting, and he had not yet regained his composure. He felt some need to apologize. “You see,” David said, “we always shout. It’s like talking with us.” I tried not to look dubious, for I felt sympathetic. David walked up and back, pacing upon the thin boards. The scene obviously had upset him. Then he explained what had happened. This woman and her husband had broken into another person’s hut while the other was away. It was winter, and their own roof leaked. Now the police had been called, and they would arrive in a few minutes. He sympathized with the woman, but you couldn’t have people going about breaking into houses. What could he do?

We both sat quietly then, waiting. A few minutes later the police came. The boy whose hut had been broken into announced their arrival. David and I got up and walked outside. There were three policemen sitting in an open jeep. All three wore blue uniforms, and the one in the back had on dark sun glasses. David went over to talk to them, and I watched from the side. A crowd had already gathered. The children across the yard in the nursery school stopped their games and stood staring through the wire fence.

The blond-haired boy stood next to the jeep, again explaining what had happened. He looked nervous, and kept licking saliva back into his mouth. David stood next to him, nodding his head and adding details. The police looked bored; they sat listening from their jeep, looking at the huts and the crowds of children. Finally the telling ended and the policemen said they wanted to see the hut. The driver asked if they could drive there, and David said they could. David went back to lock his office, and the whole crowd began to walk off after the jeep.

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I had never been to that part of the camp before. The huts were like all the others: large sheets of tin nailed to pieces of board. There were cans and rocks strewn about, and I could see that we were tramping over the outline of kids’ games scratched on the ground. The gullies cut by the rain made it hard for the jeep to pass, but the driver shifted into low and crawled through the holes. We walked past some workers tearing down huts; when they saw the jeep and the crowd they joined us, asking what had happened. They spoke Yiddish, and I thought that they were Agency workers. The jeep finally stopped about fifty feet away from the shack; the driver was afraid of getting stuck in a ditch. One of the policemen, the one with sun glasses, crawled carefully out of the back and walked over to the hut. The other two stayed sitting in the jeep. We all stood in a bunch near the hut.

I don’t know what I had expected, but it was a big disappointment. All of us watched while the woman and her old husband (he was a thin man, with incredibly long ears, bending with brittle legs stuffed into worn flat slippers) carried their angular beds out of the boy’s hut. Apparently they had begun even before the police arrived. The two children were rushing about, playing at throwing cans into an old blanket. The blond boy followed them about, making sure they took everything. He showed the broken door to the policeman and said, grievedly, “Who’ll fix this now?” The policeman mumbled something, but it was hard to catch his feelings with the dark glasses covering his face. He stood apart from the crowd, perched on some stones, his arms folded on his chest.

The old man and the woman began dragging the mattresses out. Standing and watching with the others I wanted suddenly to help. But I looked first at the men standing near me, and I changed my mind. The people from the maabera just stood and watched, every now and then exchanging a few words. No one seemed moved. The Agency workers were in a circle away from the others, making laughing comments in Yiddish. There were five or six of them, stout men with cloth caps pulled over their foreheads. They were telling stories about ignorant North Africans who didn’t mind living in a dump, who didn’t know any better. I stared at them with what I hoped was anger; I think the Yiddish annoyed me more than the words. The others stared at them too. I heard someone say out loud “Vus-vus-vus.” Another said, “Why don’t you speak in Hebrew so we can all understand!” But nothing happened. Some of the crowd began to leave.

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The old man and the woman had disappeared for a moment. We were all just waiting for it to finish. I saw the woman in the hut picking up some metal plates and a teapot. She carried them out, squinting in the sudden glare of the sun, her face flat, without expression. She stood alone with the broken hut behind her, the children rolling about her feet. I watched her look at the policeman, and suddenly, without warning, she stalked off toward him. He was still standing on the clump of rocks, his hands now clasped behind his back. Looking down at her through his dark glasses he seemed pale and fragile. For a moment she just stared at him, as if waiting for a sign. But then, with a sudden burst, a stream of words shot from her lips. The policeman stood his ground, swaying slightly, the words spraying up at him. She was still speaking when he called to David. “Tell her I don’t understand Arabic.” David smiled weakly and waited for her to finish. When the words finally stopped David spoke, but again the woman opened up. The policeman crossed his feet and looked down at the ground. Again he said, this time more annoyed, “Will someone please tell this lady that I don’t understand Arabic!” A voice in the crowd called out to the woman. But she continued, not heeding the interruption, gesticulating broadly with her massive arms, her eyes never leaving the policeman’s face. He began to look uncomfortable. “What is she saying?” he asked David. David translated. “She says that she and her husband are old and they cannot find work. She says she has young children and nothing to give them. She says that her roof leaks. She says that the government promised to help but she gets no help.”

“But why is she yelling at me?” the policeman asked in a suddenly high voice. “What does she want from me? I’m not to blame.”

David turned as if to ask, but the woman had already begun again. The words seemed to beat one atop the next. The policeman looked even thinner. The words rushed on and on. Finally he could stand it no more. “What is she saying now?” he called to David.

“She says she has three older children but they have all been taken into the army. She asks what will happen to her now.”

This time the policeman shouted. “Is it my fault that her children are in the army? I’m not to blame, am I? What does she want from me?”

David said something to the woman, and she answered. He looked up at the policeman. “She says that she just wants you to listen. That’s all.” The policeman stared, and then looked away, frowning. David laughed. The woman stood still for a moment longer, staring at the dark glasses. Then slowly she turned and walked back to the hut, and disappeared inside.

A few minutes later we all left. The boy was trying to fix his door. The policeman had climbed back into the jeep, where the other two waited, and they drove off. On the way back I stopped to watch some men tossing marbles at a mark in the sand.

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