An expanded and revised version of this novel imagines a possible nuclear war with Iran and has been published, now titled "A Burnt Offering - a fable" and is available through the following link: https://www.amazon.com/Burnt-Offering-linked-Nuclear-Fables/dp/B08B325H7K/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=A+Burnt+Offering+Melnick&qid=1594848014&sr=8-2
Please see the FIFTH excerpt of this short novel, recently added in January 2013. Here is the fourth excerpt from my novella about Israel and unrecorded acts of terror and contrition during the 1990 Iraq War with the threat to Israel of Iraqi missiles and the danger that they might carry nuclear payloads. [See February posts for the previous three excerpts.] One strong motivation to write this novella was my desire to reinforce a sense of the great danger of nuclear radiation and nuclear weapons - a danger powerfully explained by Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth and The Abolition (Stanford Nuclear Age Series).
The entire short novel has been published by and is available through Amazon.com - as well as other on-line bookstores (the book also contains eight stories of the nineteen-eighties following the text of "Acts of Terror and Contrition" about the 1990 war).
Thursday, September 27, 1990
Arie left his office overlooking Jerusalem, took the elevator four floors down to the exit, and walked past the guards into the parking lot. It was after midnight, and the city lights were extinguished, giving way to a star-lit black. At midnight, he had called his father to meet. Rami was known for late hours, and the habit had grown with age. He stayed up each night until two and three.
As Arie left his office, he had called Simon’s apartment. On the eighth ring, Simon answered. His breathing was labored and barely controlled.
An image crossed the Intelligence Chief’s mind, of a man and a woman locked together. For an instant, he imagined their nakedness, the smell of their lovemaking, the liquid surging in her, his semen, their sweat.
“Simon, there are developments at headquarters. I need you here.”
There was mumbling in the background, and then the aide replied.
“I’ll leave immediately.”
“There will be instructions for you.”
As Arie hung up, he was certain that Rachel was there: his loyal aide coupling with this brilliant and intense policy analyst.
Arie’s gray sports car drove now toward the city to a street bordering Nachlat Shiva. Rami lived alone on the edge of the district, in a street of two story residences with walls of stone, wrought iron balconies, and vine-covered patios. Arie drove up to the walkway, and his father was standing alone at the corner. None of the orthodox was there to observe or harass them late at night. The Intelligence Chief got out of the car.
“Don’t bother,” Rami said as his son walked to the passenger door. The father swung the gray door open as if it were a bank vault or a cache of weapons. Arie stood next to him on the sidewalk, and as his father settled himself in the bucket seat the son smiled with deference at the old man and shut the car door with a click.
“Take me for a drive, Arie, around the walls of the City. There is a place I like near Zion Gate.” The son had wanted to talk in his father’s apartment, yet he kept mute. “This café is quiet and open late; it’s run by Armenians.” They drove out onto the thoroughfare heading down Shivtei Israel, past the entrance to medieval, orthodox Mea She’Arim boarded up and deserted. Father and son did not talk as the Old City wall crowded to the left. The silence between them was broken only by snatches of a song, which Rami whispered, a march in Yiddish. They drove south past Jaffa Gate toward the Mount of Zion with the tomb of David on it and the prison of Jesus nearby; inside the car, the old diplomat long removed from Europe sang softly in Yiddish:
“Kumen vet nokh undzer oyzgebenkte sho
Svet a poyk ton undzer trot: Mir zaynen do.”
The storefronts, the City wall, the clay-domed roofs of houses were blackened in the moonless night, and the City seemed barricaded. Arie parked his car near Zion Gate, and they emerged into the night. The southern wall loomed by them as they strolled toward the gate and the Old City’s Armenian quarter. The passing groups of armed Israeli soldiers—all of them assigned to police signs of Palestinian uprising—halted them only the first time to ask for identification. There were few people out.
“Jerusalem is good at claming up, father; for thousands of years, we’ve been building barricades. We’re good at shutting ourselves in.”
“Mir zaynen do,” Rami softly repeated the song’s cadence. “All week that has been running through my head. You know the Partizaner song? ‘Beneath our footsteps the earth will resound: We are here!”
They walked together down a darkened street, past tiers of homes, and Arie held his father’s arm firmly, as they came upon the café, still open among the thick walls of the Armenian district. The quarter’s closed windows and walls were lit only by the gleams of light filtering through slits in a few shutters and doors. From the café, several yards in front of them there came the noise of laughter and talk and men singing out orders for lahmajoun and beer. Here in Ararat Street there was a pungence to the narrow, walled walkway. The clay, the wood, and the latticework of iron bars absorbed the spice and scent of its inhabitants.
Rami opened the green door of the café, and father and son walked into a kitchen where several Armenian men sat impassive now on wooden chairs. A few yards away were steps down into a shallow hole in the cement floor, and at the end of this recessed area, a massive open oven was flaming. The chef stuck long poles into the arched and fiery opening. Inside the walls of the furnace cooked eggplant, chicken, and dozens of small lamb pizzas—the lahmajoun lay flat on long wooden pallets the chef pushed and then pulled from the fire.
Arie and Rami made their way through the kitchen to the side room with tables and late-night diners; as they walked, Rami resumed their conversation.
“We are here inside these walls. Like these Armenians. And our voices, our souls resound. That is Israel: thick walls and singing souls.” Rami was smiling. His eyes looked briefly askance at his son.
“Mr. Schneider,” the bald Armenian—who was fluent in Hebrew and willing to admit it—asked the white haired Jew, “a sweet perhaps?”
“No, Abrahim, the cognac is perfect. From Armenia?”
“Only for my best customers, Mr. Schneider.”
“Please, call me Rami. You know we have the same name. Call me Rami.” The warmth emanated from his father which was the mark of the man, compelling an acknowledgment even from those who otherwise would dismiss him.
They sat isolated in the back of the dining room. In the front were men playing chess and tavloo and cards, and they ate from small plates of the food from the kitchen. Two lone foreign tourists—a man and a woman—sat by the entrance, and they had a late night snack, cured and peppery basterma, rice filled grape leaves, and glasses of red wine. In back, Rami raised his glass to his son, about to sip the smoky liquid: “Mir zaynen do.” Arie could not smile, and Rami looked full at his son.
“I have to tell you,” Arie’s voice was cold with rage, “there is increasing evidence that the Iraqis have put nuclear payloads on their missiles. And the Americans are withholding intelligence of the threat from us. This afternoon, the CIA even cut our communications link for over an hour.”
“Why would they do this?” Rami asked, having seen a lifetime of hope and nightmare realized beyond imagining.
“Because they want war, father. Everyone is hungry for war—the Iraqis, the Americans, let alone the Europeans, the Russians, the Iranians. I don’t even mention the Palestinians. And they will all risk a nuclear exchange because they want war so badly. It is chaos. The American troops are headed for Saudi Arabia, and they carry anti-radiation gear. I’m convinced they will permit a so-called limited nuclear war in the region, if it seems ‘necessary.’ This means that Tel Aviv as well as Damascus, Riad, Baghdad—all will be incinerated.”
“It may be,” Rami’s words were tentative; they trembled like an old man’s.
“Yes, it may be,” Arie said in a furious voice. “It may finally be world war. Now, of all times,” he said bitterly, “to celebrate the end of the Cold War, there will be a nuclear war. I must act, father. I can prevent it. I have the intelligence, I have the power. There are steps I can take, and I am taking them.”
Rami lifted his glass to his lips and swallowed the remaining half of his brandy in one gulp, tilting his head back like a Russian. “Let’s take a walk,” he said to his son, but Arie did not move. He sat sipping brandy by his father in the smoky, spice-scented room. With distant fury he said: “Who would bring children into such a world?” Arie looked up, and he saw his father’s face staring blankly across the table.
“Be careful,” Rami said as they walked into David Street next to the Armenian Quarter and near the café they had left. The son reached to hold his father’s arm, yet it seemed as if Rami were leading him.
“You know what your mother used to say about you? Almost your exact words: ‘How could we bring a child into this world?’”
“She suffered. A great deal.” In the camp, she had been strapped on the conveyor belt of death. Arie’s sorrow was beyond explanation for him.
“There is a lot we don’t speak of,” Rami said. They were walking past the noisy doorways of cafés and a few occasional pedestrians, some arrayed in Arab gown and headdress, some in shirtsleeves. Then, father and son turned left onto a street of churches, walking toward the Holy Sepulcher, and Rami continued: “Your mother always suffered twice. First she would imagine the possibilities for suffering. Not that there was anything false; she did not fake feelings which were not her own. No, she suffered because she imagined her suffering before the fact. Afterwards, she suffered in reality.”
“She was self-destructive.”
“I have no contempt for suffering, whatever the form. After the camps, Magda had a harmed soul; I felt compassion for her.” They were walking toward the twin-domed Church of the Holy Sepulcher, luminous in the night. “I believe you suffer twice, like your mother. I know it hurts.” He paused as his son maintained his hold on him. “No one can live as they should when they bear a double measure of such pain. We become enraged, and this can only obscure our vision. It can disfigure our humanity.” They passed the Hill of Golgotha buried within the stone shrine and turned up the Via Dolorosa, retracing backwards the Stations of the Cross. “But you’re a strong man; I’ve seen it time and again, how much control you have. Now you must be especially alert and strong.”
“I do the best I can,” Arie said, but his voice was bitter. “Is it enough? I couldn’t stop the Palestinian rocket from killing mother.”
“What could you do?” Rami cried out. Then he said softly: “You remember when she rose in her bed and stared, as if she saw a cataclysm out over the Mediterranean, and then she fell back. Is it awful to say, Arie, my heart broke then not for her death but in gratitude because I knew she would no longer suffer so?”
They walked to the corner of Al Wad road. The peasant-looking Special Operations Chief and his white-haired father silently headed for the Temple Mount, and at the Al Wad intersection they walked by a handful of young Arabs loitering at the door of a café. The black-haired men gestured at the two anonymous Jews and spoke in bursts of Arabic.
“No, what’s awful,” Arie spoke to his father, seeming to ignore the men they passed, “is that these people with their Intifada have their hands on our throats, these primitive Bedouins. What an irony they can still shed our blood!”
The five Arabs were following Arie and Rami down the dark street. One of the strangers suddenly seemed to recognize the old, famous diplomat. The Arab was thin, his skin sallow. “You, Schneider, stop,” he said in Arabic, “I’m going to tell you something.” Rami slowed and looked back at the short man who talked as he approached. The Arab’s thin hands flew in Rami’s face.
“You’ve taken my farm away with your settlements! Your expropriation! It is my land! My farm!”
“You must hire a lawyer, my friend,” Rami said in Arabic, improvising, exploring the alien role.
“We did,” the Arab’s glance was full of pride and exhaustion; he had the look of death in his sallow face. “Your law is a farce. It’s no use to us.”
“We must not stop trying to make the law serve justice!” Rami told the stranger. “You’re a courageous man. You must keep trying.”
“I’m just another Palestinian. The law is not for me. Do you know what humiliation I’ve suffered from your laws, what danger there is from every side for me to appeal to your courts? From your soldiers and settlers, and from my own people: the Hamas and the Israeli Army are both at my throat!” The man’s tense high voice shouted now into Rami’s face. “The intifada, the revolt, even Sabra and Chatila were nothing compared to this, this slow death, this, this starvation, from no freedom. No justice! Why do you think we rise up now, even our children, with stones? Because you are killing our souls. And your soldiers are killing even the children who throw stones!”
Three of the other men surrounded Rami and the desperate man. The four Arabs menaced him with shaken fists, on the verge of assaulting him and Arie. A short heavy man, who had stayed back, hissed at the others: “Don’t talk to those filthy dogs. Gamel, it will do no good.”
Arie’s large frame was tense with rage as he watched his father, thin and tall, impassioned and revolving in the circle of Arabs. Rami repeated to them all: “I understand your struggle.”
“Son of a bitch,” one of the younger men snapped back, almost spitting his words at Rami. “You understand nothing!”
“Don’t harass us,” Rami bargained, his thin body electrified; “you don’t want this trouble.”
Suddenly Arie bellowed out to military police who appeared some distance down the road, and as he shouted, he saw the faces of the young Arabs and his father’s surprise.
The Intelligence bureaucrat instantly reached out for the man nearest him, the desperate landless Arab. With both his hands Arie lifted him into the air and threw him to the ground. Three other Arabs began to swing at him, and Arie beat them down with fists. The soldiers sprinted up to them. The man who had stood back from his fellows ran away into the labyrinth of nearby street. Arie snapped orders, and four bruised and stunned Arabs were held now at gunpoint. Rami was relieved yet appalled as he stared at his furious son.
Father and son walked over the worn stairways of Temple Mount. Guards on alert, policing signs of uprising, accompanied the two Israeli officials, eminent and eccentric, as they passed during the first hours of the morning. Jerusalem was an ocean of darkness at their feet with islands of light scattered in the night. The twin globes of the Holy Sepulcher stood in the middle of the Old City, and on the Mount itself the Dome of the Rock was bathed in gold, self-reflexive in the floodlights. Immediately below Arie and Rami was the western Wailing Wall.
“What people do in extremity I can understand, no matter how terrible,” Rami said, breaking the silence.
“You understand,” Arie said softly. They seemed to discuss themselves now, not Palestinians, not the possibility of war. “Do you forgive?”
“I remember what people did in the camps, what I did; we did things we wanted to forget. Forgiving is not the issue. When we left Auschwitz, we were put on trains, and many of us climbed to the top of the hurtling cars; we let the wind pummel our skin, to blast away the memories of what we had done.”
Arie held his father’s arm to support him, and he felt the soft, frail flesh. He spoke into the night: “Do you understand what happened just now on the street? I understand, but I hate it. I hate what must be done. And I think, why must we always be an example? Must we tolerate these dogs snapping at us?”
“Yes, our neighbors are violent,” Rami cut in, “and not only they.” The father’s voice was withdrawn, dispassionate. “Those young Palestinians are not animals. Impotence only makes them seem so.” For a moment, Arie glimpsed obscure, half-human figures frothing with fury, figures from a dream. “Even the men with their fingers on the button of the nuclear holocaust are human beings, sick and confused though they may be. Look around us, Arie. The Temple Wall, the Holy Sepulcher, the Mosque, what do they tell you?”
The two men stood in silence, gazing at the golden Dome where Mohammed had risen to heaven; it was the site where Isaac had been bound on the rock altar, a sword poised above his neck at the Lord’s behest.
“We’re all tied to the same myths,” Rami said, “all of us hungry for the same transcendence.”
They took a few steps further toward the overhanging Wailing Wall, and suddenly Arie let go of his father’s arm. The old man’s face and hair gleamed a pale gold in the reflection from the Dome several hundred yards away. Rami seemed on the point of leaping into the shadows below.
“As you said, we Jews are good at building walls. They are what separate us from the animal.” Rami’s Hebrew re-echoed with the inflection of an eastern European intellectual, and his voice shot out into the emptiness before him. “We’re all tied together by a vision of the good. We must continually seek it, Arie; it must rule us.” Rami was suspended above the black ocean of Jerusalem.
* * *
He rushed into the night, circling through the Old City and finally reaching Damascus Gate. Never looking up yet always wary, he made his way toward his apartment. When Sayeed saw soldiers patrolling East Jerusalem, he eased into alleys, slipping into the dark. In this neighborhood under tight surveillance, every action was under suspicion, every movement became political. Even the desire to be unseen collided with the law of the Occupation. Such conditions radicalized every Palestinian, even before they recognized themselves as radical, for every fact of their existence was under concentrated scrutiny. In this lit and malevolent zone of scrutiny and censure, millions of them lived as if in a vast prison camp.
Such were the phrases pulsing in his head as he neared his flat and hid in a nearby doorway to observe whether it was being watched. The sentences were a distillation of his thinking and reading about the tyranny of the West—Qutb, Foucault, Schmidt, so many others, he had not thought there were so many when he first embarked on his studies. And the sentences with their distillations and syntheses were part of what he spoke to his followers, and just now these closest followers—Ishmael, Hassan, Muhammed, and Gamel—had been in jeopardy when the aged dog of a diplomat and his henchman called out for the police on Temple Mount. Sayeed was unsure what had happened to his comrades. When he leapt for the cover of darkness, he had heard scuffling, and he wondered whether Gamel was safe—his newest recruit had spent all his family’s money trying to regain their land; now they had nothing.
Climbing darkened stairs to the second floor landing, he was breathless. Oddly trembling, he unlocked his apartment and made his way to sit down in his study. He knew that his distress was due to flight and terror, and that it was compounded by his isolation; he knew too that it was a necessary isolation. He rose to play some music on his stereo, and the rhythmic plaintive sound of classical Arabic instruments enveloped him—the dhol, the kanon, the tar, the kamani, the shurangiz, the damman, the udu, the daf, the tombak. His mother, Jena, had first introduced him to this music as well as to European classical music. She was such a generous and refined spirit, yet she was forced to take on the pose and manner of a servant to dogs. As he thought of her humiliation, the undercurrent of his rage and bitterness surfaced. What equanimity the music gave him shattered, and he gripped the arms of his study chair.
He would fill his mind with certain verses from the Quran. Yes, their beauty would offer at least a shard of assurance to him that justice was possible, not here, not now, but possible. He spoke some verses to himself: “God truly loves not the men of pride. For when it is said to them, ‘What is it that your Lord hath sent down?’ they say, ‘Fables of the ancients.’ On the day of resurrection these men will bear their own entire burden, and the burden of those whom they, in their ignorance, misled. Shall it not be a grievous burden for them? They who came before them also did plot of old. But God attacked their building at its foundation—the roof fell on them from above; and whence they looked not for it, punishment overtook them.”
It was not for nothing that he trusted no one completely, that he kept his plans to himself; anyone else involved never knew more than a part. Isolation and secrecy were essential, for any of his comrades could be picked up, interrogated, and tortured into confession at any time. The constant danger of arrest for Palestinians was one of the injustices that had spurred the new movement of protest, the Intifada that had broken out this summer. Clerics had spoken from their pulpits, calling for protest marches, boycotts, passive resistance—all with a new vehemence. Sayeed numbered a few of these clerics among his friends, despite their naïve belief that protest could be effective under these war-like conditions of oppression. He had a wide range of friends too in the PLO; even Abu Nizan’s associates knew him as did Intifada activists like Faisel Husseini, but they all remained unaware or at least unsure about his plans and actions.
In these last months, he had told no one the details. He planned a strike against Israeli rule so devastating that it would force an end to its dictatorship over Palestine. The operational conditions existed to bomb the Mossad tower complex. He had watched from surrounding blocks and detected certain lapses in security procedures on the Sabbath and on Holy Days. It was possible on such a day for a small truck driven by a martyr and loaded with explosives to speed the truck through the security gate into the parking lot and detonate at the base of the main building. Sayeed had decided that the coming Saturday must be the day, the conjunction of their Sabbath and their Day of Atonement. And he had come to realize that the martyr must be himself.
* * *
There was a knock at the door. Sasha sat up in bed, his thin body taut and knotted. The Moscow sky was a starry black outside his apartment window. His clock read long after midnight. The knocking rattled his door again. He reached for a small gun in his bedside drawer, and put it in the pocket of the bathrobe he threw on over his pajamas.
“Who is it?” he spat out at the door, and a voice mumbled that it was Block. Sasha unlocked the apartment door, and the short, fat man burst in.
“I’m sorry to barge in. It’s indecent, terribly dangerous, I know. You were asleep? Don’t be angry. It was impossible to wait. I am an impossible person, and I’ve put you too in jeopardy. I shouldn’t have come.”
“Calm yourself, Block,” Sasha said, and led the man to a table in the center of the room. There was a bottle of vodka half full, and Sasha went to the kitchen stall on one side of the narrow room to get a glass. The tiny apartment was in the sixth story of a high-rise apartment, one in a complex of buildings indistinguishable from similar tenements which rose up in Chicago, in Hong Kong, in Rio de Janeiro. Block fumbled at a pack of cigarettes, lit one and inhaled deeply. Beads of sweat swelled on his forehead and over his balding head. He swallowed the liquid Sasha poured him and then poured himself another glass of the vodka; he began to speak in a voice purged of its urbanity, its irony now twisted.
“Our talk this evening, I must say, it terribly upset me. I went home to Anna and dinner, and I could not talk with her as we ate. I could not offer the minimal decencies. And now I’ve awakened you. Impossible. Please forgive me. I am not this way—the decencies I trample on mean something to me.
“After dinner, I went out walking in our district; I must have seemed a madman, wandering in and out of Gorky Boulevard, mumbling to myself as I walked, burning my brain to find the key. Now I have found it, and I think I will be sick, Sasha.
“Wandering about, you know, I was not stopped. Several times in the park, I passed patrolmen. They stared straight in my face and turned aside as if they had seen a dog pissing. There are mad risks I’ve taken, Sasha. Finally, I decided: I had to find out more, and I headed for the Ministry. I have made other appearances there at night to pick up papers or to check on a development. They are used to my eccentricities, and anyway the chief of the night section is an acquaintance. I knew Nickolas at the university. He was always so efficient, so committed to study, yet my work surpassed his, for all my distractedness, my not belonging. Well, he is the one now who has advanced in the Ministry. He’s made up for the past, surpassing me, and he enjoys seeing me, reminding me of it. One of your perfectly ordinary, sadistic bureaucrats, no?”
Block looked up at Sasha, who stared contemptuously at him.
“Don’t you see? I knew Nickolas would talk; he can’t resist showing me that now he knows more than I and is close to the center of power. He’s a machine of a man, but he has these bursts of vanity. He began by talking about the Iraqi threats and invasion. ‘It’s the last straw,’ he said with his usual eloquence. The fool fixed me with an arch stare, and with glee he whispered the secret, the key to Kutzov’s isolation, plotting up there in the top floor of Defense: ‘Marshall Kutzov has developed contingency plans, Block. Top secret. Retargeting missile and bombing programs. The Americans are doing the same, and more! Some of their troops carry tactical nuclear weapons. For the battle to come. You know we’re on alert, Block; condition two. Iraq and your Israel—the whole region is on the verge of being bombed back to the dark ages!’”
Block’s fat face was twisted. He reached for the bottle of vodka, and took a gulp from the glass he poured. Sasha’s glare had widened and now encompassed his room and the city beyond. He broke the silence between them: “For the battle to come.”
Then Block’s murmur burst again from his lips: “Anna, my Anna yearned to immigrate. For years, she has pleaded. But you know I never even tried. I have been an impossible husband; I am at home in these long nights, the cold, a Muscovite at home in suffering. What was I to do? I could not please her. And now Israel will become a radioactive wasteland. Maybe Moscow. Maybe the whole world. Do you see, Sasha? There will be war. And the Israelis know it is coming—Nickolas said it, the sadist; he teased me, knowing I am a Jew. He said there has been a leak, some incident in Western Europe, and Kutzov’s informant reports the Israelis know something is up, know the apocalypse is knocking at the door. ‘Marshall Kutzov is alarmed,’ Nickolas gloated in my face; ‘he has prevailed on the President to declare an alert.’ How, Sasha, how could a madman like Kutzov work his way up the bureaucracy, how could such a pig gain the President’s confidence? I tell you,” Block rose up, his drunken bulk looming above the table, “I tell you, Sasha, the world is ruled by madmen.”
* * *
Outside the expanse of Arie’s windows, the first light of Thursday touched the city with points of fiery gold and drew out Jerusalem’s glaze of pink. Arie was leaving for the early morning Cabinet meeting, scheduled in half an hour. He had roused himself from the couch in his fourth floor office an hour before. It was his job to keep this nightlong vigil; Elena would have to accept it.
When he had returned from the Old City, Simon had been at the office, and hours before they had received Sasha’s message. Stunning realignments had occurred. Both the Russians and the Americans were preparing for the possibility of nuclear war in the region. The Intelligence Director was on a trip to NATO in Brussels, and in his call to brief Arie before his meeting with the Prime Minister, he said that it had become clear that American forces were slated to be shipped to the region and that some would be equipped with secret caches of battlefield nuclear weapons. American troops were on alert across the globe, Iraq threatened nuclear war against Israel, and thousands of troops were massed in each nation across the region. All the while, Washington and the CIA were stonewalling Israel: they denied a heightened alert existed, and they refused to admit that any danger existed of missiles equipped with nuclear payloads. Washington was continually bullying: Israel must bow to the regional American command structure; above all, Israel must not strike in any way against Iraq, or it risked grave consequences. In return, the U.S. would send Patriot missiles to them, as a defense against the possibility that Iraq would launch its Scuds against the Israelis. It was clear to Arie that the Patriots were merely a gesture, for they would provide an unreliable and ineffective missile shield. And then what payload would those Scuds bear?