Commentary Magazine


The Persians

In memory of Marion Magid

Ed goes all the way to the campus mailroom to sign for his registered letter. He had complained about it over lunch, and said it was inconvenient, but as soon as he left the café, he went over to get the thing. He has been receiving a great deal of mail recently as well as phone calls: requests for comments on radio and television. In the wake of the bombing at the World Trade Center, Ed is in demand as a terrorism expert—and working at Georgetown makes him accessible, too. This very afternoon he is having a pre-interview with a radio producer from Talk of the Times. Over lunch he brushed off jokes that the letter was an invitation to the White House, but walking to the mailroom, he has no trouble believing it’s from the Feds. He has received letters from the CIA in the past, although they were not particularly dramatic.

The letter is from Iran, on stationery with the letterhead in Persian. It is typed in English, and it reads:

In the Name of the Most High
Most Respectable Scholar,
Professor E. Markowitz:

Salaamon Alaikom—With our wholehearted greeting:

We acknowledge the estimable occasion to inform your highness that the “Celebration Congress of the Great and Glorified Divine Mystic Mullah Sadra” will be held in the City of Isfahan from 1st to 6th Zelqadan.

Hereby, we find it most timely to request to know when we may enjoy your high presence. Most pleasurably we will be informed that your excellency are leaving for Iran at the soonest possible convenience. As such, we may make preparations regarding the provision of tickets and rooms in the ancient city of Isfahan, of which it is said: Isfahan nisf Jahan—Isfahan is half the world.

With greatest respect for your graciousness,

Dr. V.P. Jamil

The Secretary
The Committee of the Celebration Congress

Ed has never seen a call for papers in quite this form. He stands there in the mailroom and reads it through twice. The glorified divine mystic Mullah Sadra is certainly not within his area of expertise, and he can’t imagine where they got his name. It is a little frightening, although it is also proof that he is developing a truly international reputation. These are heady times for him; he is being sought on many levels. But it is the language of the letter that rings in his ears and puts a skip in his step as he walks back to his office. In this day and age, when one’s graduate students call up and ask for “Ed”—the undergraduates waiting for only the slightest encouragement to follow suit—it is undeniably a delight to be referred to in the royal plural and to be called excellency. There is, perhaps, a courtier in every scholar; especially in those like Ed who study the modern world and do not have a chance to savor the past.

He paces around his office, waiting for his three o’clock phone call from the radio producer, Jill Bordles. He sorts the papers on his two desks, moving offprints from one pile to another. It’s a large cluttered office with pictures on the wall of Sarah and the children. “This is my daughter who’s getting married this summer,” he will say to visitors, although the description does not match the picture of Miriam in her band uniform. The phone rings.

“Professor Markowitz,” Jill Bordles says. “Hi. How are you?”

“Oh, fine,” he says. “Busy. How are you?”

“I’m great. Let me tell you how we do this. It’s really just a chance to find out about you and your work. To ask you some questions.”

“OK, shoot.”

“I have a paper here you wrote in 1989, ‘The Terrorist as Other.’ You say here that our very attempts to understand the terrorist are already compromised by hidden assumptions that the terrorist is alien to us. That his morals and motives could never be shared by any of us in the civilized world.”

“That’s exactly right,” Ed tells her. “And that’s what puts us into a bind, because many of us have a double standard. In the Jewish community, for example, we refuse to see that the birth of Israel was facilitated by terrorist acts. The terrorist who acts against our own established political and social institutions is an alien and a renegade; we refuse to see him in our own history. In essence, we refuse to see the terrorist in ourselves.”

“And so,” Bordles says, “when we learn American history in school we don’t read about something like the Boston Tea Party as a terrorist act—because it has become part of our myth about ourselves.”

“Yes. Absolutely. Although, of course, strictly speaking, terrorism as a concept was invented in the 19th century by Georges Sorel and put into practice by the Narodnaya Volya movement in Russia. But to speak about it in a more general way, then, absolutely. Something like the Boston Tea Party is a perfect example of my point. This is a heroic event for us from the third grade on. The destruction of English property never becomes an issue in the classroom. We don’t think of it as a terrorist act at all. And yet, when we look at it closely, we find insurgency, secrecy, and sabotage—the three fundamentals of terrorist activity. And so what we are practicing in the classroom is a perfect case of sublimating the act to our iconography—or, in other words, what we are teaching is that the ends justify the means if the end is the United States.”

“Professor Markowitz,” Bordles asks, “do you then excuse something like the bombing of the Trade Center in New York?”

“This is a question that we have to examine in its complexity,” Ed says. “And so I prefer to use the word ‘understand,’ rather than the word ‘excuse.’ This is what I think we all have to learn. We have to recognize our own contradictions. What have we allowed and excused in ourselves? What kind of rhetoric do we use to cloak our own rebellion, our own battles, our own invasions—the genocide and slavery in our own history? Then, with self-knowledge, we can look at the culture that produces the terrorist; we have to understand his—or her—mores and motivations.”

“One country’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter,” Bordles quotes from Ed’s book.

“You’ve really done your homework,” Ed says.

“Oh, well, it’s my job,” she tells him modestly.

“I’m impressed.”

“No, I was fascinated by your book. Particularly with one point—” he can hear her leafing through the pages. “There is a very subtle point you make here in chapter six, where you say that, on the one hand, we have to understand that our own culture and history are rooted in violence, and not merely in the myth of pacifism and agrarian isolation that we promote. But, on the other hand, we have to avoid judging the terrorists of the Muslim world by the strictures of our own Judeo-Christian tradition as it is institutionalized in America.”

“Yes, you are really getting to the heart of it there. You really put your finger on it.” Ed is warming to his subject. “We have to look very carefully at the insurgents we call aliens. It is vital for us to examine the ‘Other’ in order to understand ourselves. But at the same time, we have to remember that the terrorist really is alien to us—his otherness is real, and his world is different from ours—and here’s my point: if we can learn about ourselves from great, generous liberal minds like Tocqueville or Crèvecoeur, then we can learn from the terrorist as well. And if we have trouble with the parallel, then that says a great deal about us, and what we are willing to find in the mirror the ‘Other’ presents to us. We have to be willing to broaden our reading of the responses to America, and move beyond the classics of democratic ideology to think about what these visceral reactions by terrorists tell us about America and its policies, its military might.”

He has not quite finished, but Bordles interjects, “Professor Markowitz, I want to thank you for your time. I think you are going to be our perfect guest because you have the kind of expertise and the kind of balance that we’re looking for—not just in the political sense, but as a scholar.”

“Listen, it’s a pleasure,” Ed says. “And feel free, if you want to ask any other questions; just give me a call.”

“We’ll be looking forward to seeing you on Friday.”

_____________

 

Over dinner Ed tells his wife Sarah, “She really read my book. It was very flattering. She was quoting me, chapter and verse.”

“I like the letter,” Sarah says, looking at it lying on the table next to her plate. “Are you going?”

“You want me to go to Iran?” Ed asks.

“Of course not. We still have to pick up that present for Katie Passachoff,” she informs him.

“I thought we said we weren’t going to that bat mitzvah,” Ed says.

“No, we’re going.”

“Oh, why?” he groans. “After a week like this I have to get up on Saturday and drive out to Shaarei Tzedek for the whole day?”

“We discussed this a month ago,” Sarah says unruffled. “We’re supposed to look at their band for the wedding.”

“Just look? Do they play any instruments or do they just stand there?”

“You know what I mean. They’re having Phil’s Harmonic, and they’re supposed to be wonderful according to Liz Passachoff.”

“Oh, right, the Phil’s Harmonic with what’s his-face.”

“With Phil!”

“What a terrible name for a band. What’s his last name?”

“Katz.”

“Well, why didn’t he do something with Katz? The Katzenjammer Kids or something.”

“I thought we’d pick up a book for her tomorrow,” Sarah says.

“All right.” He sighs. “I’m just exhausted, and I’ve still got to prepare my lecture. But you know,” he says as he gets up from the table, “I had a pretty high-level discussion with that woman from public radio. I formulated some things on the phone that I had never really articulated in quite that way before. This sort of interview situation really—it really gets the thought processes rolling.”

“Well, good,” Sarah says. “And hereby I find it most timely for you to unload the dishwasher.”

_____________

 

Ed stays up until almost midnight preparing his lecture, and Sarah is sleeping by the time he gets to bed. He usually tosses and turns, but tonight he falls asleep almost at once, and he begins to dream. He is working in an Islamic scholar’s garden, kneeling at a low desk. The arched windows are surrounded with intricate carvings, the garden itself exquisitely planted with flowers surrounding a fountain tiled in blue, purple, and green. The surface of his desk is like silk. However, on top of the desk he finds his familiar lecture notes, and he is sitting in Sarah’s orthopedic chair with the knee rest which is supposed to take the weight off your back.

He gets out of the chair with some difficulty and walks into a larger courtyard planted entirely with agapanthus in different shades of purple and lavender. There is a larger fountain here, the mosaic at the bottom flecked with gold. As he walks, he passes from one garden into another, each more splendid than the last. He is alone, except for a pair of peacocks who swish the gravel as they walk. The day passes, and he walks through a hundred gardens. He is lost and cannot find his way out. Then, to his horror, night falls. A velvet curtain literally covers the sky, the soft fabric embroidered with pearls.

At this point he stirs and realizes that Sarah has thrown the comforter over his head. He wrestles with it and heaves it onto the floor. When he settles down again he is still in the maze of gardens. However, he has found the registration table for the Celebration Congress. The other participants are milling around with drinks, and they include Liz and Arnie Passochoff with their daughter, the bat-mitzvah girl. He looks for his name tag and finds that it is printed in gold in both Persian and English and reads: “His gracious Edward Markowitz, Table 15.”

Then he realizes that he has left his lecture notes in the scholar’s garden. Of course, he is not foolish enough to go back for them. He walks up to the conference chairman, who is sitting behind the registration table and wears black-rimmed glasses. “I want to give my lecture extemporaneously,” he says.

“Everything will be as you desire,” the chairman tells him. “Please accept your copy of the conference proceedings.” He then gives Ed a book bound in gold cloth. Ed sees that it is an exhibition catalogue, and that each plate depicts a miniature painting of one of the gardens he has walked through. There is the fountain flecked with gold. There is the courtyard of agapanthus. He reads in the catalogue notes:

What can we say when we look at this consummate craftsmanship? These gemlike colors? We are confounded by the miniaturist’s artistry: he takes us into the garden itself, as if we were walking along its paths or listening to the play of a living fountain. This illumination, merely three inches high, is one of the loveliest landscapes on the face of God’s earth.

It’s Henry, Ed realizes. It’s his brother Henry, in England, who put together this conference and wrote these notes. Only Henry habitually refers to “the face of God’s earth,” as if the world were a grandfather clock. He of the exquisite taste and the musty collections. Who has been nagging Ed for years to write a book about Islamic culture, despite the fact that, as Henry knows perfectly well, Ed’s area is politics and modern history. It was his brother who arranged this invitation, not to modern Iran, but to Persia.

Ed wakes up shivering. He does not remember any of the dream except for the thought that his brother has orchestrated the conference invitation. Could it be? Has Henry, living as he does on the fringes of academic Oxford, met someone at the Oriental Institute and given him Ed’s name? Ed gets out of bed and washes his face. Henry probably had nothing to do with the letter from Iran. It was just that the letter reminded him of his brother. It was mannered; it was antique. Henry loves that sort of thing. He has always chosen the Old World, just as Ed has chosen the New. He likes to think of it that way, although, in fact, Henry is a businessman and it is Ed who works as a scholar. He goes downstairs to breakfast. He doesn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about his brother. Or at least he tries not to. Henry’s aesthetic transports exhaust him. The letter is still lying on the kitchen table where Sarah left it, and Ed folds it up and puts it on the stack of bills in the hall. He checks and sees that his lecture notes are in his briefcase where he left them.

After work that day, Sarah picks him up and insists that they go to the campus bookstore to get the present for Katie Passachoff. She reminds him: “You said tomorrow is out, and Friday you have that radio thing.”

“Is it really necessary for both of us to get this present?”

“I’m tired of buying gifts and getting criticized later,” she says.

“All I said was I thought it would be more appropriate to get a Jewish book for this kind of event.” The two of them have been going to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs in the past few months. Their friends waited longer to have children, and now Ed and Sarah have to go through these milestones again.

They go to the Judaica section of the bookstore and find several Haggadahs, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, and a coffee-table book called Great Jews in Music. “I was thinking more of a novel,” Sarah says.

“All right, look through fiction. Find a few possibilities.” Ed strides off and starts pulling books off the shelves. He prides himself on getting in and out of a store quickly. After a few minutes he has three books. “OK, pick one of these,” he says. “We’ve got Goodbye, Columbus—”

She shakes her head.

“This is a classic coming-of-age story!”

“No. I don’t think it’s the right thing.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ed, for you its a coming-of-age story. She’s a girl, and she’s not living in the 50’s.”

“Well, excuse me!” Ed says. “OK, we have the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.”

“Oh, no.”

“What?”

“Singer is not for a twelve-year-old.”

“This is a nice hard-back book,” Ed protests.

“He’s kinky,” says Sarah.

“He’s a great writer!”

“He’s obsessed with defloration! That is not an appropriate gift.”

“Fine. Then we’ve got The Adventures of Augie March. Now this is a great book.”

“It’s too hard for a twelve-year-old.”

“OK, either it’s too hard or it’s too kinky. So what do you have? Oh, very original. The Diary of Anne Frank. And what’s this? I thought we said Jewish books. Little Women? Sarah! You’re accusing me of living in the past. Talk about the 50’s. You’re dealing with the 1850’s here.”

“I was thinking about her age level,” Sarah says.

“I thought we were looking for a great Jewish novel. I find classic Jewish literature and I get vetoed. Then you come up with Little Women?” He looks at her standing there with her big purse. He realizes that this is what she must have been reading when she was twelve, and he thinks it’s sweet. “Let’s try again,” he says, and they turn back to the shelves.

“Oh—Chaim Grade,” she exclaims. “He’s wonderful. My Mother’s Sabbath Days.

“God, no,” Ed says.

“Too sad?”

“It’s only the saddest thing I’ve ever read. I couldn’t even finish it. Tell me something, why do we have to get her a Holocaust book?”

“Who said anything about the Holocaust?”

“Everything you come up with is a Holocaust book. You’re honing in on them.”

Sarah looks up. “I am not! I’m just looking for the Jewish ones.”

They spend half an hour combing the shelves and arguing. In the end, they buy The Diary of Anne Frank and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.

_____________

 

When they get home and drop their bags on the kitchen table, Ed says, “I’m absolutely sure Henry got those people to invite me to Iran.”

“Who does he know in Iran?” Sarah asks.

“He knows everyone! He’s a professional—”

“Raconteur?”

Yente. He probably met someone in an antique store, or at the Ashmolean, or the Radcliffe Camera, or at some society or other. He’s a member of everything. And he got talking to some kind of Iranian and he volunteered me to give a paper. He told them all about me and my work and now I’m in their records.”

“In Iran?”

“Sure, they’re reading up on me over there.” Ed paces around the kitchen.

Sarah waves this away and makes herself a pot of coffee.

“How much do you want to bet he wangled this somehow?”

“You’re going to call and ask him?”

“No, I’m not going to call him.”

“Why not?” Sarah asks.

“Because whenever I call he gets hysterical because he thinks something has happened to Ma.”

“Well, Ed, with you it’s a reasonable assumption.”

“So he could call me once in a while.”

This conversation plays through his mind that night as he is falling asleep, and he dreams about his brother. He is in Henry’s apartment in Oxford with its dark upholstery and clutter of books. “Henry,” Ed says, “you gave my name to the Persians and now they are sending for me.”

“Dear Edward,” Henry says. “How marvelous!” He is standing in a scarlet-and-green smoking jacket, with matching quilted slippers and a fez on his head, its gold tassel hanging down. “Did they send you letters? It’s like something from Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes. Did I ever show you my edition? It’s exquisite. Look at this engraving, with the Persians arriving at the French court, gazing at those Parisian clothes and those powdered headdresses. Here is one of them sitting at the table with her quill and her little travel desk, writing a letter back to Persia. This is the original 18th-century binding. Do you know how much this cost? Don’t even ask.”

“OK, I won’t.”

Henry looks disappointed. “When are you leaving?”

“I’m not going to Persia,” Ed tells him.

“But they’re expecting you!”

“Don’t you understand that it’s dangerous?” Ed demands. “We’re talking about a theocracy governed by Islamic absolutists!”

“But Edward, how many people have this kind of opportunity? And think of the book you could write. Not just a book about them, but a book to them: Lettres Persanes in reverse, where you would be the exotic!”

“What do you think I am, an anthropologist?” Ed demands. “If anyone is going to be exotic, that would have to be you.”

Henry reddens. “But I thought you would enjoy Persia. I wasn’t going to say anything about it, but I went to a lot of trouble arranging that invitation. It was going to be a surprise for your birthday. Susan and I gave it a great deal of thought. We had planned to get you the new OED on disk, but I began to think about it—taking all that rich language and condensing it on that little disk like synthesized music. I thought since you wrote about understanding the Other, you could write your next book on becoming the Other.”

“I’m not interested in becoming the Other,” Ed says. “I’ll leave that to you and your expatriate friends.”

Henry pours Ed a cup of tea. “Edward, please don’t be upset. I thought if you could go over there and sit down with them, then you could work out our problems, because you understand the Arab mind.”

“I don’t even understand you,” Ed tells him. “I have no idea what’s going on in the Arab mind.”

“Isn’t that what you should be finding out?”

“Not in person,” Ed mumbles. “What is this, the hundredth time I’m telling you? Iranians are not Arabs; they’re Persians.”

He walks out of the room, and finds himself in his mother’s apartment in Venice, California. Rose also pours him a cup of tea, and she offers him chocolate-covered chocolate Girl Scout cookies. “They came to the door, so I had to buy them,” she says. “Have some, dear. But I want to tell you something about the Persians. They are no friends of Israel. Esther was a beautiful girl, and she did the best she could, but it was a mixed marriage. No one talks about King Ahasuerus converting. I think he did not. I got you a couple of things for the trip. Wilton frozen dinners. Very expensive, so eat them. And sucking candy for the plane. And also I clipped William Safire for you from the Times, about how the international terrorists are all operating out of New York because we have such civil liberties.”

“Yeah, I saw that one already,” Ed says.

“And what did you think?” Rose asks. “The Arab mujahideen from Lebanon are getting Egyptian passports in the Sudan and Iranian meshugoyim are infiltrating Paramus and Oklahoma City.”

“Alarmist, as usual.”

“He’s a beautiful writer,” Rose says, looking over the clipping. “I’d like to see you someday writing a column like that. Especially on Sundays, when he writes about the English language. It’s just beautiful.” Ed wakes with a start. The dream flashes before him and then vanishes.

_____________

 

Ed drives to the studio for the Talk of the Times interview. Jill Bordles ushers him in and introduces him to the other guest, Georges Zaghlul, a Lebanese Christian Ed has met several times before. The two of them sit on either side of the moderator, Bob Kennedy. At exactly three o’clock, Kennedy announces to the radio audience. “Hello, it’s foreign-affairs Friday on Talk of the Times. We’ll be discussing the quagmire in the Middle East today, and we’ll focus on what Israel, the Arab states, and the U.S. can do to get the peace process rolling. We have with us today Professor Edward Markowitz from Georgetown University, a noted expert on terrorism, and past fellow at the Oxford Center for Peace. And Georges Zaghlul, of the Committee for Peace and Justice in the Middle East. Welcome. Professor Markowitz, let’s start with you. Just where do you see us in the process today? And how do you think the bombing here, the shootings and stabbings in Israel, the Muslim militants in Egypt, are going to impact whatever progress we have made so far?”

“Well, Bob, I’m an optimist,” Ed says. “I see a move toward resolution and moderation on all sides. We’ve had the Israelis sitting down with their neighbors—”

“You’re referring to the peace talks begun in the last administration,” Bob says.

“Yes. And we have a climate in Israel where it’s no longer sacrilegious to consider land for peace—”

“You mean the idea of Israel giving up land for peace,” Bob glosses for the audience.

“That’s right.” Ed is starting to get annoyed by these interruptions.

“But what about the increase in terrorist activity? You’re an expert on terrorism; does it concern you?”

“Well,” Ed says, “terrorism is a complex phenomenon with many facets—”

“How about you, Georges Zaghlul?” Bob asks. “Do you see a distancing of the Islamic world from some of the tactics of these terrorists?”

“Certainly,” Zaghlul replies. “Islam is a religion of peace and historically one of moderation and tolerance for minorities. But when we consider terrorism, we have to look beyond the headlines to the causes behind it. When young boys throwing stones are gunned down with automatic weapons the situation becomes inflammatory.”

“We have a long line of callers,” Bob says, “Let’s go to Carol in San José. Hello, you’re on Talk of the Times.

“Hi, Bob, I love your show,” says Carol.

“Thank you,” he says.

“This is a question for Professor Markowitz,” Carol continues. “During the Gulf war there was a travel advisory that suggested that we not fly unless it was necessary. I’ve been hearing a lot about airport security, and I was wondering if they are still advising people not to fly.”

Ed blinks. “Not that I know of,” he says. “I don’t really follow airport security.”

“All right, thanks for calling, Carol,” says Bob. “Let’s go to Joyce in Silver Spring.”

“Hi, this is a question for both guests,” says Joyce. “When you’re talking about the Islamic world, I wanted to know—have either of you seen the movie Not Without My Daughter? It was based on the autobiography of an American woman who is trying to get her daughter out of Iran?”

“Yes, actually I have,” Ed says.

“I just wanted to know—is it really like that for women in the Arab world?”

“Of course, Iranians are not Arabs,” Ed says.

Joyce qualifies herself. “I guess I mean the Muslim world.”

“Well, I can say this,” Ed tells her, “I thought the movie accurately showed the lack of freedom for women. There were a few scenes, of course, that must have been fictionalized. The scene where the woman gets in touch with an underground escape movement at the bazaar—obviously the details there were changed to protect the actual people who helped her.”

“Oh, no, that wasn’t fictionalized,” Joyce says. “That was in the book.”

_____________

 

At which point Bob Kennedy booms out, “Hasan in Oklahoma City, you’re on the air.”

“Hello, this is Hasan. I am listening to the two guests and I want to know who they represent when they talk about moving to moderation. These men are both American people hired by Israel in a propaganda campaign—”

“Is this a question or a comment?” Bob Kennedy breaks in.

“First a comment, then a question.”

“Well, all right, let’s keep it brief.”

Georges Zaghlul adds, “I am not American and I am not funded by Israel.”

But Hasan continues, “You must understand the propaganda of land for peace. This is lip-service by the Israelis. This is a cover-up of Israel’s abuses of human rights, its nuclear arsenal, and its terrorist destruction of lives and property.”

“Let me explain something,” Ed says. “There are a plurality of opinions in Israel, as in every democratic state, and there is a history in which policy has shifted and changed just as it does in every country. But to say that every move toward moderation is compromised—”

“In other words, give peace a chance,” Bob sums up for him.

“No,” Ed says, testily, “let me finish my point.”

“You see,” Hasan announces, “He is not interested in peace. He is interested in public opinion, and the reason for that is financial, because—”

“Listen, Hasan,” Ed interrupts, “before we single out Israel, which is the only democracy in the Middle East, let’s remember—”

Hasan talks over Ed’s words, “Israel is a U.S. colony dedicated to a racist ideology. It is occupying land and holding indigenous peoples in concentration camps and building up weapons arsenals.”

“Hold it,” Ed says, “let’s look at this in context. Let’s consider what Israel is reacting to. Israel is surrounded by absolutist, radical, anti-Western theocracies. Look at the Iraqis. Look at the Per—Iranians. All this aside, we have to recognize and applaud the movement in Israel to recognize the plight of the Palestinians.”

Hasan says, “This is only Israeli propaganda.”

“Where do you get your information?” Ed asks Hasan.

“All right, we have to move on,” Bob Kennedy says.

“Have you researched this issue?” Ed presses on, “or, let’s hear what organization you belong to—”

Bob Kennedy is waving his hands at Ed and shaking his head.

“Let’s hear the name of your organization,” Ed says.

“All right,” Kennedy says, “we have a lot to cover today.”

“Just hold on a minute,” Ed snaps, forgetting his professorial manner and his radio manners. “Let’s hear who’s paying you, Hasan.”

“Georges Zaghlul,” Kennedy interrupts, “what do you think of the issues Hasan raises. Are these legitimate concerns?”

“The concerns are very real,” Zaghlul begins. As he speaks Kennedy passes Ed a note: “Do not antagonize callers please!”

Ed has a roaring headache by the time the two-hour show is over. He can barely see straight and almost hits a biker driving home. There is no point in going back to school. He gets a dusty bottle of Scotch from the cabinet over the refrigerator and pours himself a drink. They got him comfortable with their bright, intellectual-sounding producer—the one who could read—and then they just threw him out there and he couldn’t hear himself think, let alone formulate his argument. And he had flattered himself that he would have a chance to make a real statement there on national radio, not just about tolerance and coexistence in the Middle East, but about the way we examine other cultures, about examining our assumptions and moving beyond stereotypes into a more enlightened, more cosmopolitan view of the world. His temper had flared up again, shot to hell the balance Bordles had so admired in his book. He couldn’t help himself sitting there with that simplifying, bowdlerizing radio moderator, and those callers, by turns ignorant and vituperative. Of course, Georges Zaghlul had kept his cool; he is a lobbyist, a hired gun. But Ed made a perfect fool of himself. This is why, despite his dreams when he was young, he is an academic and not a diplomat. He has studied and written—“brilliantly,” according to the Near East Review—on diplomatic theory, but he doesn’t have the personality for diplomacy.

_____________

 

The next day Ed and Sarah stand in the social hall of Congregation Shaarei Tzedek. Ed is wearing a peach satin yarmulke with “Bat Mitzvah of Katie Passachoff” printed on the inside in gold. “Ed, I heard you on Talk of the Times yesterday,” slim, snowy-haired Ida Brown tells him. They are all standing in the buffet line. “He was wonderful, wasn’t he, Sidney?”

Sidney nods and says, “You took out that Arab from Oklahoma City. You really had his number. I said to Ida, ‘I’m glad we had someone on there to defend Israel.’”

“Well, I didn’t go on the show to defend Israel.” Ed is feeling grumpy. “I was trying to talk about terrorism and its impact on the peace process.”

“It all goes together hand in hand,” Sidney Brown tells him.

The videographers are walking along the other side of the buffet tables, panning over the food. At the midpoint of the buffet table one of the chefs is carving up the prime rib.

The Greenbergs wave at them from the other end of the line, and Jeanne Greenberg seems to be calling out, “Loved you on Talk of the Times,” while Art Greenberg gives Ed the thumbs-up sign.

Ed looks at Sarah. “You see,” she says, “everyone loved it.”

“Of course they did,” Ed groans, “I gave them the Arab-baiting performance they were looking for.”

“Relax. You made them happy!”

“Meanwhile, I’m a laughingstock at the department.”

“Oh, stop. You’re the man of the hour.”

Several people come over and congratulate Ed at table eleven. A few of them are old-timers in their eighties, and they congratulate Sarah too, and tell her she must be very proud of her husband’s accomplishments. She thanks them all.

A drum roll signals the arrival of the bat-mitzvah cake, which the caterer rolls in on a white table, for everyone to see. It is magnificent—adorned with a marzipan book and a gilt ribbon bookmark. The pages of the open book are inscribed to Katie. There are holders on the table for the birthday candles. Katie Passachoff comes to stand by the cake, to be photographed. She is thin and long-legged in her floral dress, and she wears large round glasses. With the video cameras running, she takes the microphone.

“Another speech?” Ed asks Sarah.

“No,” Sarah whispers back, “I think she’s going to do the candle-lighting thing.”

Sure enough, the keyboardist from Phil’s Harmonic begins playing softly, and Katie reads:

Friends and family, I have got.
I love you all an awful lot.
With joy I ask you each to take
A candle on my birthday cake.

Three friends I have,
So great and jolly,
Darcy, Britanny, and Molly.

Ed and Sarah watch as the three friends get up to light candles. “I can’t believe this with the rhymes and the piano,” Ed says. “Have we seen that before?”

“She’s very poised,” Sarah comments, watching Katie read.

“You say that at every bat mitzvah,” Ed reminds her. Then, a few minutes later, “How many candles does she get? There are seventeen people up there already.”

“A lot of them are sharing candles,” Sarah explains.

A woman Ed doesn’t know leans over from the next table and whispers, “You don’t know me. I’m Katie’s aunt. I just wanted to say I heard you on public radio. I only heard the end, but did they say you wrote a book?”

Just at that moment Katie Passachoff is reading:

Much loved, and too seldom seen,
Light a candle, Aunt Irene.

“I think you’re on,” Ed tells Katie’s aunt.

“Oh, you’re right. Thanks,” she says.

When the cake is finally rolled off for cutting, the band starts playing again and Sarah wants to dance. “All right, come on, we have to check out the band for the wedding. Listen, what’s that they’re playing?” Sarah hums a bit, “’More’? I think they’ve hit our decade!”

They go out onto the dance floor, where a few couples are sham-dancing around the zest-filled Millers who have had dance lessons and take to the floor whenever they can. “Maybe we should take some lessons,” Sarah says, looking over Ed’s shoulder.

“Why?” Ed asks. “You know, I can’t believe how many people were listening to me on the radio.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling you,” Sarah says.

“But they’ll never invite me back.”

“So what? They want you in Iran. Do you think we should hire them?” She gestures with her head toward Phil’s Harmonic.

“Yeah. They’re good. I liked the guy who did keyboard for Katie’s candle-lighting.”

Sarah gives him a look.

“Oh, God, Fran and Stephen are working their way over here,” Ed says. He steels himself for another battery of compliments on his performance.

“How are you, Sarah? Ed?” Fran asks them. “Isn’t this lovely? Can you believe Katie is twelve years old already? I feel so old! I remember when she was born.”

“You know,” Stephen Miller says, “as the time passes you don’t remember the years any more, just the decades.”

“And now your oldest is getting married?” Fran shakes her frosted head at Sarah. Fran chatters away, and Ed looks around for some means of escape. It’s clear to him that as far as the talk show went—she and Stephen hadn’t even been listening.

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