When your children let you in on their secret plan for a surprise party for your wife’s seventieth birthday and you remember that you are seven years her senior, a ‘senior moment’ should not come as a major surprise. Still I panicked.
A friend had dragged me kicking into a conference on international health and justice that a friend of hers was organizing in Canada. I had a basic concept that I had mulled in my mind for a long time: to look at the health of the Palestinian citizens of Israel from the critical angle of equality and human rights. I submitted an abstract and received an encouraging response from the organizers. Then I realized that the conference coincided with my wife’s birthday. I apologized to my friend intending to withdraw my paper. She came back with a counter proposal: Let us do that through Skype. I agreed and submitted the full paper. The organizers came back to me asking for a photo and a brief bio. I submitted those and received further encouragement. Then communications ceased. I wrote an email to the technical expert in charge of the Skype linkage asking for technical assistance. No response. I started feeling uncomfortable.
The morning of the opening day of the three-day conference I woke up at dawn in our Lower Manhattan rented studio apartment sweating from a nightmare whose details I couldn’t remember except that a crowd was shouting me down for something I had said. I went to the kitchen to prepare my morning kick-start cup of instant coffee in hot milk. When I reached for the coffee container I couldn’t find the spoon that I was sure I had taken out of the silverware drawer. I spinned around looking for it when I realized that I was holding it in my hand all the time. I scooped a heaping of freeze-dried coffee from the container to find two cups of milk on the countertop, not one. My wife must have mistakenly left a full cup on the counter before she went to sleep, I thought. But both cups were equally cold. I poured one back in the milk container. I needed to run a reality check: I walked over to my desk to see if I had already placed my standard morning anise-flavored biscotti (our rented studio is just west of Little Italy) on a paper towel by my laptop to savor with my first morning coffee. I felt reassured not to find any. I rubbed my hand over my face: No, I hadn’t shaved yet. I regained my composure and didn’t start crying. With age we all become emotionally labile. I heated my cup of coffee and sat down to check my email. No response from my technical contact at the conference. I wrote a panicked alert to the dozen different people with whom I had been in touch about the conference including the friend who had lured me to this trap in the first place: “Help! I am being ignored.”
I didn’t share with anyone the familiar feeling that had started sneaking into my mind: I seemed to remember the name of one of the conference organizers as that of one of my former bosses at the head office of the Ministry of Health in Jerusalem. Could he have thrown a monkey wrench in the works, I wondered? Am I being intentionally sabotaged? Could the Mossad have laced something I ate or drank with a mind-altering drug? Is their reach that extensive? Had they infiltrated the Canadian public health field? Or is this Canadian-Israeli doctor acting on his own initiative to deny me a voice in this international forum? Might he volunteer to inform the Israeli embassy on my seditious thoughts and pronouncements expressed in my paper? And what consequences might this behind the scenes cat-and-mouse game have for me as I land at the airport in Israel? Should I already take the preemptive step of turning to the press with my story? During my public health career back home I had always avoided lurking in the shadows. My policy was to stay in the limelight: The moment I found out that my phone at the office was bugged and the few times that the Shin Bet sought to enlist my services I announced the information immediately to the local press. Would the New York Times publish my story if I went public with it? I should give Jonathan Cook, my international journalist friend a call. Or would it be wiser to wait till the conference was over and the Israeli thought police made their first move? Wouldn’t that be already too late? The NYT is sure to abide by Israel’s gag order on the matter once they put me behind bars. How can I communicate my plight to anyone from within my cell? I was extremely uncomfortable scrunched in the corner of the bare-walled constantly brightly lit 10x4-foot windowless cell. Perhaps if I lurch back with all my strength I could manage to tip the low wooden stool to which my feet and wrists are bound backwards and I would end up with my torso leaning against the wall to relieve the pain in my lower back from all the hours I had spent in this same position. I glance back first to the right then to the left to gage the distance from the corner: I can’t see that corner clearly. I probably would get jammed in some contorted position between the stool and the wall with my neck flexed at some ungodly angle till I suffocate. They surely have calculated that to the millimeter. And if I were to choke to death in that position, it would be another Palestinian prisoner suicide by hanging. Logical, isn’t it? Or a heart attack. Or whatever. That is never a big deal. Palestinians are in the habit of dying in and out of jail. What I really cannot take is the prospect of the postmortem at Abu-Kabier with those jerks making their sick jokes as they put away whole organs for future experimentation or for export. I have heard rumors about my colleague who headed the Forensic Pathology Laboratory trading in human organs for years. If he is still there I don’t want him to touch my corpse. I detest the guy!
Oh, boy! How did I get into this mess? I have been held incommunicado forever, it seems. I have no idea how long ago all of this started. I don’t even know if it is day or night. How can I reach anyone? My wife knows I love her too much to do this to her on her birthday. Damn if I am not confused! I need to let her know. The only way is to send her a message directly from my mind to hers. There is a name for that. But I can’t remember it. I can’t remember a thing. Not even her full maiden name. They must have drugged me, tampered with my mind. I shouldn’t have eaten that foul-tasting porridge but after starving me for so long they must have known that I couldn’t resist. I open my eyes wide and concentrate on messaging my wife by telepathy. Yes, that is its name, telepathy! I focus every last ion in my entire body on emitting the thought of my current state and location through to her mind. It flashes back off the bare wall nearly blinding my eyes.
The loud clanking of the lock on the metal door to my cell makes me jump further injuring my wrists and ankles. A new face I haven’t seen before: full Ashkenazi features with double chin and redundant fat folds over his eyebrows and along the sides of his cheeks. He growls and I say in total silence: “Easy, boy! Bulldogs aren’t my favorite.”
He swings his five-pound open right hand across and catches my left cheek squarely with full force. I spit out the blood straight in his face.
“Oh that is how you want to play this game, hah?”
He takes out a handkerchief from his pants back pocket and meticulously wipes his face clean. Then he places the palm of his hand on my face, as if sizing it up. I stiffen uncontrollably in anticipation of what will follow. That sends a lightening-like spasm down my left sciatic nerve that had started acting up again since they put me in the contorted shabih position. Mr. Bulldog ends his malicious patting of my cheek with grabbing the end of my moustache and giving it a sudden and violent tug. I curse under my breath. He flicks the wad of hair he has ripped out on the urine soaked floor, steps with his boot on it and spews a frothy stream of saliva from between his tobacco-stained front teeth aimed first at my displaced moustache then at where it sat only minutes before.
“I spit on your honor,” he says stating the obvious. “I spit on all the Arab scum. I spit on your Mohammad!”
He then follows with the foulest expletives in the Arabic language directed at the female members of my immediate family.
“Vanity, thy name is Arab,” he ends his tirade chuckling mockingly. “Sprucing with expensive Argan hair oil from Morocco, no less.”
I heave out the last spoonful of yellow bilious stomach content. He throws a quick left hook at my jaw. This time the blood soils his boot. He steps back, looks at it and shakes his head in disappointment. He orders me to lick it clean at the same time that he delivers a professional soccer kick to the imagined ball lodged between my collarbone and lower jaw. I gasp for air, lose my wind and black out.
As I come to I am astounded with curiosity: I expected him to heap the foulest insults on my honor. But how the hell have they learned such minutiae about my grooming habits? I know such tricks of the Israeli investigative trade: They want me to believe that they are omniscient, that there is no use hiding anything from them, that I might as well give up and admit everything.
“Not me!” I reassure myself under my breath.
“But I have nothing to admit,” I declare in garbled thick Hebrew that he doesn’t understand.
He tries to extract out the words by ordering me to spit out the three teeth he had knocked from my lower jaw. I cannot talk. Instead I feign fainting again. He delivers a parting full force solid kick to my side. I swear I can feel my spleen burst. Or is it my liver? Or my empty stomach and intestines? I wish I had a free hand to palpate my abdomen and make a more objective clinical diagnosis. I go under again, this time for real.
As I regain consciousness a diminutive Sephardi man, the same Israeli Ministry of Health boss whose name on the Canadian conference website made me suspicious, is wiping the blood from my face with a rag and apologizing for how “that Ashkenazi brute” has messed up my face. I realize that he has unshackled my legs. I stretch them this way then that way,
“We are both public health physicians. We should come to an amicable understanding,” Mr. Nice Guy tells me. “We can speak in Arabic if you prefer. Let us see if we can get over this snag in communication.”
“What do you expect me to communicate to you?” I ask, not really sure I can make out my own slurred words.
“We know you have been sharing information with an enemy agent. And you used to throw stones at our soldiers. But that was a long time ago. We won’t bring that up unless you force us.”
“I did no such thing!” I object raising my voice.
“See? You are very antagonistic,” he says gently touching the sensitive skin of my missing moustache with the back of his index finger as a gesture of reconciliation.
“But I participated on Skype. I wasn’t there physically. How could I’ve met anyone?”
“One thing at a time, my friend,” he says with a knowing smile. “At the conference it is your words and strange thoughts we want to hear. You said a lot that you shouldn’t have. You accused your own country of genocide, of fascism and of apartheid even when you didn’t use the exact nasty terms. And you tried to back your misinterpretations of our goodwill with statistics that you used selectively.”
“I used only official figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics,” I declare indignantly.
“But you twisted them out of their original context. We both are learned enough to know how to lie with statistics, aren’t we?”
“Speak for yourself, Boss!”
“And we know you met an enemy agent at a party and he asked you for a contact in Galilee.”
“Is that all you have on me, you SOBs?”
“Cool it! You know who is in charge here,” Nice Guy says. Then he smiles kindly “If you have more, I am all ears.”
“But the guy is a Jewish gay peacenik,” I say in amazement. “How do you manage to turn him into an enemy agent?”
“But where were you sending him?” Nice Guy asks instead of answering me. “And with whom was he going to meet?”
“I wanted to arrange for him to meet a communist nephew of mine on the occasion of the commemoration of the Nakba in the ruins of Lubieh the ruined Palestinian village half way between Nazareth and Tiberius.”
“You are an educated man,” he says with a condescending tone of voice. “Think about it. You should be able to set your own limits. You know when you are becoming an existential threat to Israel by thought or deed.”
“Do me a favor,” I say ready for reconciliation. “Just out of curiosity, how did you people find about the hair oil I use?”
“That is a secret trick of the trade,” he says and comes close to whisper in my ear. “I’ll share it with you if you share some of your friends’ secrets with us.”
The SOB wants to smear my name, I think to myself. He wants me to commit suicide once I get out of here.
My wife plants a gentle kiss on the side of my forehead:
“This is not comfortable for you, Honey! What time did you get up to work? Why don’t you go lie in bed?”
I lift my head from the keyboard. I must have rolled my head back and forth several times. There are several lines of gibberish on the screen: