There were four of them, and as they entered Herald Square Park they looked rather strange. Outdated and totally out of place, except that in New York, nothing is terribly odd, mysterious, or incompatible.
In The Big Apple, no one is considered too unusual. But I immediately sensed something particularly strange, as if they were aliens from another planet. They were not green – but dark gray and they didn’t climb down from a flashing, beeping spacecraft – but emerged slowly from a black stretch limousine that idled on the far side of 6th Avenue, and marched on the crosswalk into the square. Four slim men, of medium height – gray and leaning forward as they walked. All in dark suits – gray shirts – no ties.
I observed them from the metal park bench in the shade of the trees.
Expressionless faces stained with black whiskers. Closely cropped hair.
Until the arrival of the aliens, I had been lounging lazily on a typical day of the beginning of the summer.
I leaned back on the rigid bench, revealing patches of blue-gray sky peeking through the trees and buildings. The tail of a cloud extending from the Hudson River hovered overhead. And if it weren’t for the elegantly dressed women who filed in and out of the square, I would have already been asleep. They strutted with such grace, that I started trying to guess their professions as they passed. Which are the lawyers who left their air-conditioned offices for lunch? Which were tired cashiers in uniform, escaping their drudgeries at the various department stores around the square for a few minutes of peace? I even recognized one shapely woman in a tailored investment consultant’s outfit. So, I hadn’t the faintest idea that things about to happen, in a foreign city, with peculiar people, were about to change my life – when suddenly, these four gray figures created a divider between me and the pleasurable parade of pedestrians in the square.
Broadway stood in front of me like a long meandering river. There was abundant traffic from the north and west, creating the triangular island exactly where 6th Avenue and Broadway bite into 34th Street. It happened shortly before the area became a pedestrian mall – and there, at the corner, the limo idled. The four men emerged. I think one of them looked me over. Perhaps I’m wrong? Maybe I’m just deliberately upsetting myself in order to suppress random thoughts. Woes and worries troubling a man’s soul during his catnap? And maybe it was just a dream. In any case, I don’t remember the exact time when they entered the square and one of them started staring at me. About a half hour after ten or maybe a half hour before eleven, depending on your philosophical viewpoint. It must have been a half hour after ten. I am always late.
The time mechanism built into Herald Square is a large metal contraption. Every half hour two huge figurines come to life. They turn toward the audience in the garden and hit their hammers on a steel anvil. They did the half-hour bong when the four foreigners entered the area. They approached me at a moderate mechanical marching pace, blocking my view of the attractive women. And when the four of them stood in front of me, the picture became clearer. Today, I realize that it was a misleading picture, and that I must be a prophet, or the son of a prophet, gazing into the entrails of a kaleidoscope. But the square, which had already,seen its share of such people, was not impressed. All four approached me, including the last “special” one that lagged and bent over, as if he were trying to tame a recalcitrant shoe, until his friends walked onwards. He then pounced on me like a cannon ball, without attracting any special attention.
New York had heard it all and seen it all – including me.
2. The Bomber
One morning, “The Bomber” left his home in the Shamran district of northern Tehran, as he did each morning, and slid into his Citroen Crossair. Not just anyone in Tehran could afford to drive a car like this – but “The Bomber” wasn’t just anyone.
Shamran is a luxurious garden suburb and not just anyone in Iran could maintain a villa that looks out over the Elbrus mountains toward the north and on the city of Tehran from the south – but “The Bomber” wasn’t just anyone.
Shamran served as a haven for diplomats of foreign countries, foreign citizens, and quite a few early settlers, who occupied the hilly neighborhood many years ago. Once upon a time,many wealthy Jews also lived there, but they gradually disappeared from the neighborhood, from the city, and from the country over the years, and their houses remained abandoned. People were afraid to purchase them. “The Bomber” did not regret this evacuation, and was even glad that they left the neighborhood. He never met a Jew in his life, but one can detest them without knowing them too.
It was the early morning hours and the traffic congestion increased as he drove further down the mountain and into the city. “The Bomber” was tense and his temperament changed from one extreme to the other. One moment he felt like the hero of the day and the next, he was overcome by fear of failure. He was about to perform a dangerous feat and had no partners to share it with. The words of the spiritual leader still echoed in his ears He was the great new hope for his country in his specialized field, and a great break through was largely dependent upon him. Although previous laboratory tests demonstrated his capability for achieving his arrogant desires, but in order to verify that the results of the experiments, which worked so well in the lab, will be duplicated in a real situation – he had to try one more large trial using different variables. He promised the Minister (and thereby, the President), that he will soon deliver his detailed report of the successful trials. And now, suddenly the Minister called him in on another urgent matter The scorching sun illuminated the neighborhood’s winding road and bright white houses, reflecting the blinding light straight into his eyes. “The Bomber” reached the main interchange and merged into the heavy traffic flow. He heard the loud honking of horns through his closed windows.
A school bus loaded with children overtook him. He accelerated and drove past a few Japanese cars driven carefully by women in chad’ors. Then another vehicle overtook him – a white Nissan pickup, with five bearded men in khaki, sitting up straight in the open backend of the vehicle. They had rifles in their hands and white woolen caps on their heads. “The Bomber” was capable of sizing up a situation in a wink of an eye. “They’re out hunting” he thought to himself. For a moment he thought he might follow them and see where they were hurrying. He took personal interest in them and their activities. But he abandoned the idea immediately. He was about to perform a paramount trial and nothing should divert his attention from the task at hand. But like all humans, when they try concentrating on doing one specific thing, all sorts of vexing issues come to mind, out of the blue.
3. The Time Master
Even a man in his prime years is still seized by doubts, which gnaw at him for weeks at a time, relentlessly.
Can he describe the deed he was about to perform as a Haj’rah? And if so, what are the guarantees of success? Does a Mahadi also need a Haj’rah? That is, unless he is “The Time Master.”
For a sober and skeptical man, this realization hit him like a quick punch in a soft stomach. It would never have occurred to him. Until now, he never made that connection between these two entities – the Mahadi and “The Time Master.” The Mahadi – a man of action, and “The Time Master” – a mystery man.
He decided to go through with a plan – and if this was his motivation, he would wear the costume of a Mahadi. In his country and among his people, especially these days, only a Mahadi can spawn a revolution. A Mahadi that Allah loves.
Nevertheless, all sorts of questions troubled him. Many people imagined that they were the Mahadi, and what became of them? They were hoisted onto gallows as traitors and infidels. But the desire, the almost desperate need to perform, would not give him rest. Only he is capable. Only he knows how. He is the only one granted the ability to act. And now it fell in his lap, almost on request, with an opportunity that will never return.
And as he reevaluated his self-appointed mission over and over, he realized that the action is just one side of the coin. The flip side was mysterious. A true Mahadi is also “The Time Master.” And all the false messiahs that were hung from the gallows were frauds, and didn’t have the least bit of spirituality of a true Time Master.
Though it is written in the books, and all wise men and teachers will reiterate this, the root and foundation of faith says that The Time Master is neither an average man-on-the-street nor one the worthiest Ayatollahs. The Time Master is an heir of God, the twelfth son of the great dynasty that time does not control, and has been hidden in a cave for many generations, waiting for the Heavenly order to return to his people, and bring on the wondrous salvation But the sober and skeptical man refused to believe in an heir of God who will return to his time from his other past. When he dared to reassess this divine belief as a student in public school, the teacher whipped the palm of his hand with a metal ruler again until it broke his skin.
And from that time on, his inner soul struggles between basic religious beliefs and their contradictions, words of unfaithfulness and betrayal that he heard and absorbed in his childhood from his Mother, with all that he would hear later on, from the forgiving infidel. But this was the very contradiction that strengthened him. Absolutes can be catastrophic. Doubts cast away complications that have no answers. All is possible and impossible, simultaneously. Now it was as if he received the blessing for his journey.
The Time Master, whoever he may be, cannot fail. The Time Master is not an heir to any dynasty, and anyone may be The Time Master if he just understands the meaning of time and place. He is not a son of God, but a man. A son of time, a son of place, and in due time, when the risk is greatest, he will rise against the current and stop the breach in the leaking dam with his finger.
He will do a deed that will change the times, although he isn’t mounted on a horse. The period of horseback heroes is over. It’s sufficient if just Allah loves him.
Great danger is threatening the country. The country does not need a miracle. Legends detain and do not achieve miracles. Not even the tale about the individual who hides in a cave for 1200 years. An act – not a miracle. His heart was certain, but his logic was still trying to stall.
And if you fail, would you admit that you are neither a Mahadi nor The Time Master? No. The Time Master will not fail. Allah loves him.
In other words – a miracle after all.
The skeptic, that didn’t believe in miracles, waited for a sign, a development that would lead him to a fateful meeting with time. He convinced himself that the sign will arrive, and if not today, then tomorrow. And the sign arrived. Faster than he ever expected. The sign of a sudden expedition
A. Rendezvous in Manhattan
1. Herald Square – Late Sunday Morning
It all transpired so fast. Perhaps it never happened.
Three Grey-suited figures arrived, paused, looked around, and then moved onward. Finally, a fourth fellow – noticing me – paused for a moment, lagging behind the group, repeatedly bending down to tighten his shoelaces. He then stumbled so close to me that I could smell his perspiration right before he faltered.
Foreign cold, moist, fingers stabbed the palm of my right hand, thrusting a small object therein. As he stabilized his fall, the stranger in gray whispered directly in my ear: “Wait for me here. I’ll be right back. You have to help me.”
I jumped up from the bench, startled. My painful knees almost reacted in the obviously logical way. Run away from there, and fast! But, no. They stayed right where they were? Did I hear something? Am I hallucinating? But the voice that echoed in my ears, the breath on my cheek and the dampness in my ear told me I was not dreaming. I sat back down. No one was observing me. No one saw or heard us. My gaze followed him as he crossed the street. He picked up his pace. He was of average height, neither chunky nor thin. He no longer limped as he walked, nor did he look over his shoulder as he disappeared into one of the revolving doors of Macy’s My hand remained clenched around the object that the man thrust into it. It was a squashed Marlboro cigarette box. Any ordinary person would get rid of it as quick as possible, then carefully examining his hand for any residual grime, and go away. Apparently, I am not an ordinary person. My curiosity wanted to reveal the identity of this nut case.
In fact, I was the nut case I tried to recall his features. A dark, austere face, green eyes, parted lips. His English had a guttural accent playing in the background.
But what is he to me – this Eastern individual.
The music of his speech reminded me of the Persian language. It sounded similar to how my Persian friends talk. And he wasn’t wearing a tie.
Iranians are forbidden to wear ties. It’s too American – too corrupt.
No decent Shiite Muslim would ever dare to diversify his attire with a tie. That would be endangering world peace.
I stuck with my conclusions. The bottom line was – I am now in danger. He recognized me as a Jewish Israeli. He’ll probably booby trap me somehow. The colorful knitted kippah on my,balding head was a dead giveaway. It caught his attention. That means that this sweaty guy who sticks packs of Marlboros into people’s hands and pretends to ask for help, is actually running around the city looking for Israeli victims! And the box! Laced with poison? Maybe with anthrax bacteria? It couldn’t be a bomb, though. I’m not that stupid. Such a light, tiny carton couldn’t hold any serious explosives – at least, not as far as I know I leaped from the bench again. The voice of reason insisted that I throw the box into the nearest trash can and leave the park. But the gambler in me, which said “Let’s see some action!” succumbed to my bourgeois sanity. My fingers caressed the box. I opened it. There was a strip of rolled paper inside. It contained a message in English, with no errors, in block letters proclaiming, on two precisely drawn lines: I AM A DIPLOMAT. I HAVE CHOSEN YOU TO HELP ME. PLEASE DO NOT” RUN AWAY. IN DUE TIME YOU WILL UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING.”
“I have chosen you,” he wrote. We never met, I sat down again. Puzzles are solved sitting down. And now that I had a mystery on my hands, I was no longer afraid of poison or radiation. I turned the paper and the crumpled box over and over, searching in vain for a clue, but there were no clues So, I let my imagination run wild. The park, its occupants and all the stylish women walking by became invisible. I considered several options, all of which I promptly rejected. Then I gained some inspiration: The Persian that I met was a diplomat, but not a member of the permanent staff of the Iranian delegation to the UN. Otherwise, he would not have attempted such a hopeless and foolish exercise, attacking a tired Jew as he rested in the park. Perhaps he is trying to flee from his pious Persian wife embittering his life because he doesn’t pray five times a day. Nonsense! He’s just new in town. A guest. That’s all. The UN is discussing sanctions against Iran again. Maybe this diplomat contact from Tehran is supporting the delegation of his country. Israel also sends Knesset members and experts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the UN.
In that case, this Persian will stay for a few days until the meeting is adjourned and then, as they say – home sweet home. So what’s going on here? He refused. He wants to stay. But why did he choose me? There must be a few possible reasons.
Patience! “Since the destruction of the Holy Temple”, the Talmud says, “prophecy was given to fools.” And if you’re as smart as you think you are, then get the hell out of there and go! Have a coffee at Starbucks, until your wife is finished with her shopping spree! When I think it all over again, it sounds almost as if I was cool and clever. But that is far from the truth. I was being absolutely foolish. Several times I got up to run, but then changed my mind and retraced my footsteps.
The writer is a veteran Jerusalem-based reporter and journalist in both written and broadcast media. He has served on the staff of several leading newspapers and Israel Radio, covering political, religious and historical topics. He has written numerous short stories. ‘Allah Loves Me’ is his first full-length novel.
Translated from Hebrew by Benjy Caplan