The separate entrance

As Tel Aviv marks its centenary, here is a tale from a collection of short stories to be published in Hebrew in May by Kinneret, Zmora Bitan.

tel aviv beach 88 (photo credit: )
tel aviv beach 88
(photo credit: )
First rule: Don't call me Dr. Halberstam. My name is Rosa." Ali stares at the landlady. Her face is parchment - wrinkled. Her spectacles are the only smooth part of her face. "Yes, Mrs. Rosa." "No, no. Don't call me Mrs. - just Rosa." And a woman like her is not afraid of letting a young man into her apartment? "Shall I call you Rosa?" "Yes, by all means. Don't hesitate. That's the way all my tenants address me. And that's how I'll call you: Ali. No formalities. Ali." Ali, soft and clear is the name. "Yes, Rosa. No formalities". "With some of my tenants I have become very friendly. I still keep in contact with them. They occasionally come and visit me, their old Rosa." "Yes, Rosa." "And you too, Ali, please don't look at me as if I'm your landlady - how I hate that word: landlady! - an awful word - landlady. No, no. Consider me a member of your family. You are far away from your family. And I am here." "Yes, Rosa." "Your room has a separate entrance. Straight from the front garden. This is the advantage of a ground-floor apartment. Were it not for the separate entrance, I would not have rented out the room." She stops for a second and sighs: "I grew up here in this apartment with my yekke parents. You do know, Ali, who the yekkes are?" "Of course." "When they passed away, I stayed on. Here, on Frishman Street. The apartment was too big for me, so I had a shower and separate toilet installed in the room. Actually, it's almost a separate apartment, with its own entrance, so that we won't disturb each other. I have always preferred to rent this room to students." Ali does not say anything. "So I absolutely do not interfere in what goes on in your room, and I don't care who comes to visit you." "Thank you Rosa." "But not after midnight. After midnight I expect total silence. I can hear the slightest of noises through the thin walls of this old building. A pin drops - and I wake up. They hadn't heard about insulation when they built these buildings in the '50s. When I hear the slightest sounds, I can't fall asleep. You do understand me, Ali, don't you? I won't sleep all night long if I hear any noise from your room, after midnight." "Yes, I understand, Rosa." "I am a progressive, liberal woman. That's why they sent you to me." "Do the neighbors know?" "The neighbors? I don't give a damn. And you won't meet them, anyway, on account of the - " " - separate entrance. I understand. I just do not want any misunderstanding with them. I don't want any problem with them." "I don't give a damn about them. I belong to the political Left, to the 'Peace Now' camp. So what do I care what the neighbors say?" Rosa inspects her new tenant. Black, curly hair and dark-skinned. A child; blurry-eyed, fashionably dressed with torn jeans, a white T-shirt, with lean muscles. Rosa adds: "My take is that you are first and foremost a human being, then an Israeli, and lastly - an Arab. It's humanity which counts. Simple humanity. 'All men are brothers' - that's what Schiller wrote about, and Beethoven composed music to these wonderful words. Do you know this music, Ali? No. A pity. I'll play this heavenly music for you. We are all descendants of the same ancient father. And let the neighbors go to hell." "Yes, Rosa. You're right. Jews and Arabs are cousins." "And one must not forget this, even during these difficult times." "But the police and the border patrol do not understand this, and the neighbors…" "I don't give a hoot about them. You have your separate entrance. You won't see them, and they won't see you. You go straight through the front garden to your room; there you are on your own. But there is one more thing - once every two weeks, on Thursday afternoon, we have our quartet, and then we need total, but absolutely total, silence. But otherwise, if there's anything you need, old Rosa is always here. Just knock on my door. "So what do you say?" Rosa asks her sister, who has come down to Tel Aviv from her village in Galilee. "What do your neighbors say?" "I didn't tell them. This is my apartment, and it's none of their business." "And if they learn about your new Arab tenant?" "Then I'll tell them that our Declaration of Independence assures total equality to Arabs, and I'll tell them that if an Arab student at Tel Aviv University can't find proper lodgings, this would be both unbearable and dangerous. And if they don't agree, I'll just ignore them. Ali stays here." "Are you ready to quarrel with them over an Arab boy?" "Yes! He is not an 'Arab boy'! He's an Israeli student; a very nice guy. I see in your eyes that you disagree." Arab music from Ali's room is audible. "Rosa, can you please ask him to lower the volume? This is all I need: Arab music - and so early in the morning." At lunchtime, Rosa's sister assumes her admonishing tone: "Rosa, I must be frank with you - this business with Ali is not as simple as you think. Yes, of course, all of us are in favor of equal rights. We are all, above all else, human beings. But these are not normal times. These are times of terror and suicide bombings. Terrible things are happening all around us. In our village - where almost all of us belong to the Left - we had an Arab gardener who was adopted by a couple of friends. What didn't they do for him? What didn't they give him? The husband's clothes, food for the Sabbath meal; they visited him regularly in his village, they met his wife and children, they even learned a few words in Arabic. Everything you can think of. But then, during the recent intifada, when the wife was alone at home, he suddenly brandished a knife and stabbed her in her stomach, shouting, 'Allah Akhbar!' She was flown to the hospital and miraculously survived. This, too, is part of our life." "Yes, it's a terrible story. I read about it in the press. But Ali is a sweet and sensitive boy." "Believe me, our gardener was equally sweet. Our friends blindly trusted him. You are alone here. I would not have said this if there were a man here with you. But for a single Jewish woman to let an Arab young man into her home? Never!" Through the window, Rosa notices three young men ascending the stairs to Ali's separate entrance. "If I don't rent him the room," Rosa thinks aloud, "he won't find any lodging in Tel Aviv and wouldn't be able to study at Tel Aviv University. I can't throw him out. I may have been too hasty in taking him in… but now? I just can't tell him to go. It goes against all my instincts." "Don't be foolish. Tell him that your sister insists that he get out. Give him some money so that he can rent an apartment, together with other Arab students." Rosa notices two more young men entering Ali's room. What business do they have with Ali? Should she enter his room and surprise them? Or perhaps she should tell Ali that despite the separate entrance, he cannot turn his room into a meeting place for God-knows-who? "And Rosa, you can always tell him that the neighbors object; not you, but them." Suddenly there is a knock at the door. Ali enters, smiling: "Rosa, hi, how are things?" "Meet my sister. She is a neighbor of yours in the Galilee." A strong aroma of sweetish aftershave has a dizzying effect on Rosa. How can Ali use such cheap and disgusting aftershave? A thought crosses her mind: This is an Arab smell. She discards this thought immediately. No, no, this is what young men use nowadays. "Hi," Ali says to Rosa's sister, "nice to meet you. Rosa, do you have some coffee to spare? I have guests and have run out of coffee." "Friends?" "Yes, we are preparing for the exams." When Ali leaves, Rosa turns victoriously to her sister: "Well, what do you say?" "A nice boy. Just like our gardener." Rosa notices another young man entering Ali's room. What is going on here? Just moved in and already so many visitors? All of them preparing for exams? Nonsense; she shakes away her thoughts. Yes, there are mid-term exams. She is under the negative influence of her sister. Ali is an innocent, sensitive, harmless boy, and no force on earth will convince her that he is dangerous. She will not listen to the voices of despair. Hers is the voice of hope - hope for peace, hope for Arab-Jewish brotherhood. Next day, after her sister has returned to her Galilean village, Rosa feels that the visit has adversely affected her mood. She stares intermittently at the separate entrance. Too many young men visit Ali at all hours of the day. This has nothing to do with her sister's warnings. Her room should not be transformed into a mass meeting place. "Good morning, Dr. Halberstam," the chairman of the house committee greets Rosa. "What do I hear? You rented your room to an Arab?" "Yes, he is a student from the Galilee; a very nice and pleasant young man. You should meet him." "Without consulting the committee? Without saying a word to us?" "You know that I'm renting a room to students. This does not get in your way." "Students, yes; but a young Arab - that is something different. Entirely different. You know, of course, that there have been unpleasant cases." "Of course I know, but Ali is different; he is something special - a human being. Like us." "Yes, that's what they said about that gardener from the Galilee." "All he wants is to be a doctor." "Yes, like Dr. Habash. Don't you realize that you're endangering all of us? Do you have any idea what goes on in his room? In his mind? Only a few weeks ago, not far from here, two buses were blown up. One of the suicide bombers was aided and abetted by an Israeli Arab." "Do me a favor - meet him and get to know him." "No point. Even if I am convinced by his gentle personality, the terrorists can threaten his family and blackmail him into becoming a shahid. Did you think about this possibility?" "I am sorry. I do have certain principles that I will not give up. Never." That evening, she sees an older man climbing up the stairs to Ali's room. This one is certainly not a student. What is he doing here? Rosa decides to enter Ali's room. "Ahalan, Rosa. Please come in and meet my uncle." Rosa notices the changes in the room: a picture of the Dome of the Rock with an inscription in Arabic hangs on the wall; a laptop is open, and on its screen, some medical illustrations. A strong aroma of coffee mixes with the sweetish smell of the aftershave. "Rosa, meet Abu-Jihad, my uncle. He is from our village." "Abu-Jihad? What sort of a name is that?" "Jihad is not what you think it is," says the older man. "It is a common Arab name. My son, Jihad, is 25 years old; he got his name long before the intifada, when there was no terror." "And what brings you to Tel Aviv?" "I just wanted to make sure that everything was okay with our boy here. But it was difficult to get here; every few kilometers - search and ID, ID and search." "Yes, this is scandalous. I signed a petition protesting these repressive measures." Ali nods and tells his uncle in Arabic that Rosa is Leftist, from the peace camp. "Mrs. Rosa," smiles the uncle, "I thank you on behalf of the whole family for taking such good care of our boy. He looked in vain for a room for a long time. Well done, Mrs. Rosa." "And how is it in your village?" "What can I say, Mrs. Rosa, it's tough; no work, no livelihood, and the Jews have stopped coming to us on weekends. There is no money to feed the families." "And the fundamentalists don't exploit this to draft local shahids?" "Of course they try. But we are a village of moderates. We want to live in peace with the yahud. We have good friends in a neighboring kibbutz. We are law-abiding citizens. There are no militants in our family." "I'll tell you frankly why I'm asking. Here in Tel Aviv, they frighten us that the terrorists will force people like you to become shahids. I don't believe this is so, but that's what they say." Doubts - inaudible, hardly-felt doubts, begin to creep in. Is this man really Ali's uncle? There is no family resemblance. He does look like a suspicious type. A character like that can certainly be an emissary for the terrorists. Now she recalls that he entered Ali's room noiselessly, almost surreptitiously. That's no way for an uncle to enter his nephew's room. A doubtful character like him can talk innocent Ali into being a shahid and video him before the atrocity is perpetrated. She can believe anything about this perfidious type. Not Ali. Ali is something special. Ali with the soft, sad look in his eyes. Rosa enters her rooms, heavy-hearted. She removes the day's make-up, combs her thin, balding hair and puts on the tatty old night gown. The uncle - if he is indeed Ali's uncle - looks to her like a subversive character. She also noticed that Ali did not establish eye contact with the older man. And the name - Abu Jihad - sends shivers down her spine. On the other hand, she tells herself, she is not familiar with Arab manners, and avoiding eye contact may be a sign of politeness toward an older member of the family - and the name Jihad may indeed be common among Israeli Arabs. With these doubts, she falls asleep. In the morning, she meets the lady who lives opposite her apartment on the staircase. Her neighbor does not respond to her "Shalom." She meets other neighbors. All of them - even the old one who still remembers her parents - turn their backs on her. She is being ostracized in the very place where she has been living all her life. All day long, this meeting hangs heavily over Rosa. Who would have believed that her good old neighbors, even they, are racist? She immerses herself in indignation and self-pity and thus retires for the night. No noise from Ali's room. After midnight, she suddenly wakes up: A strange noise penetrates the walls of her bedroom from Ali's room. A strange metallic noise - a noise of metal touching metal. What is he doing there that late in the night? Is he opening some canned food tin? A late supper? Or maybe this is something much more sinister which is somehow linked to the visit by Abu Jihad - the so-called uncle? She dismisses these suspicions: All these anxieties are the product of a sick imagination, planted by her sister and racist neighbors. All of these suspicions are foreign to her nature. Rosa decides to enter Ali's room, but as she is about to knock on his door, she realizes how she looks: without make-up, eyes muddled with anxiety, her face smeared with night-cream, wearing her worn-out night gown. She tiptoes back to her bedroom. What will she say to Ali in the morning? Should she express her fears? Should she demand an explanation for the midnight noise? Would she dare hint that she suspects him of preparing a suicide belt? Won't he be offended by these horrid accusations? "Ali, please come in… I must have a word with you… something terribly important. You know me and my attitude toward you. I was very happy when the university's lodging bureau referred you to me… and I enjoyed our Shabbat meal together. This is why it's so difficult, so utterly difficult, to say what I'm about to say." "Rosa, please don't say it. Don't kick me out… I have no other place… I have noticed your changed attitude… I have also seen your eyes when my uncle came to visit me…" "Ali, you must remember one thing: I am alone here. I lead a solitary life. I am a helpless old woman. I am defenseless. My neighbors boycott me because I let my room to an Arab…" A thin veil of tears covers Ali's eyes. "What should I do? All I want is to study medicine... to be a doctor. This is my dream. It was not easy to be accepted to medical school. There is no Arab university where I could study medicine; I cannot study abroad. Our family cannot afford it, and all my friends are here. "What should I do? You tell me. I feel so good here in your home. All my friends envy me because of this room - with the separate entrance. Rosa, please. Don't say what you want to say…" "What was that noise coming from your room after midnight?" "Noise? What noise? At midnight I turn the radio off." "I heard a strange noise after midnight…" "No, no… at midnight I switched from the radio to the I-pod, I listen with earphones…" He takes a pause. "Now, I remember. The I-pod's batteries were depleted and I replaced them with new ones. That was the noise! I promise not to do it again after midnight." "It didn't sound like changing batteries…" "Rosa, give me a second and I'll fetch the old batteries. Do you suspect me of being a shahid? Me? Ali - a shahid?" "I don't suspect anything. I am a lonely woman and the neighbors are ostracizing me. There were cases, you know. I'm under terrible pressure. If I were not alone here, it would be another story, but being alone… I didn't sleep a wink all night…" "Because of the batteries?" "Because of the strange noise and because of my mental state… I'll tell you what my proposition is: I'll break my savings account and give you enough money to rent a whole apartment for yourself. This will solve everything." "But Rosa, who would rent me an apartment in Tel Aviv? Before I found your room, I encountered only humiliating refusals, and at your place, I feel so happy." Rosa is incapable of responding. Ali's eyes are again tearful. "What do all of you want from us? What do we have to do to prove that we are law-abiding citizens - that we are not shahids? What do you expect of us; that we should remove ourselves from our land?" "If only I were not alone…" "But I'm lonely, too. I don't feel at home anywhere. I don't feel at home in our village; my uncle came to talk me into marrying his niece. I am not ready, but I'm tired of constantly arguing and quarreling with my family. When, on the first Shabbat here, you invited me to stay for the meal, I was happy not to have to go back to the village; but here, too, in Tel Aviv, I am not at home. When we walk up and down the sea-promenade, the girls turn their backs on us. In the buses, they search us as if every Arab carries on him a suicide belt - and I have no language of my own. I went to a Hebrew school. I cannot utter one sentence in Arabic without using Hebrew words. Nevertheless, when I speak Hebrew, they notice immediately my Arab accent. I have learned to pronounce the letter P. No problem. I know some of Bialik's poems by heart, but then they realize I'm an Arab, even before I open up my mouth, and the look in their eyes is transformed…" Rosa is devastated. Her world has collapsed. Her instincts rebel against her decision, but she is firm: "Please understand. I cannot act otherwise. My loneliness and the boycott. All this is too much. "I'll give you all my savings… but I cannot pass one more night like this one." Ali leaves his room, holding in one hand his suitcase and in the other - the picture of the Dome of the Rock with the inscription in Arabic. He does not turn back to say a last goodbye to Rosa. He walks down the stairs of the separate entrance and crosses the street toward the bus stop. Rosa watches him from the window of her bedroom, stunned by her deed and regretting it. She has sent away her tenant only because he is Arab. She is shattered by this realization. She gave in to her sister's incitement and to the neighbors' boycott. Rosa, without make-up, her hair unkempt, runs out to the street. Ali is not to be seen anywhere. She stands on the pavement and shouts: "Ali, Ali, come back! Come home!" Passers-by stare at this deranged old lady. Rosa goes on screaming: "Ali, I'm really sorry! Come back home, to Rosa!" But Ali is gone, and there is no one at the bus-stop. The room is empty of Ali. No more Arab music from the radio. Rosa enters the room silently. The wall bears the emptiness of the absent picture of the mosque. On the floor lies an Arab daily; in the air, there is still the pungent aroma of bitter coffee and the sweet smell of the aftershave. The bed is not made up. The pillow still bears the imprint of Ali's head. Rosa, with her worn-out night-gown and with unlit eyes lies on the bed. Her heavy breathing takes in Ali's aromas. She sighs. She's got to phone the lodging bureau and ask them to send another student - a quiet Jewish student. Her sigh turns into a groan. She had no other choice. She is alone; defenseless. And the neighbors. She buries her head in Ali's pillow and emits from her entrails a deep, guttural howl.