Arts & Culture

“Yunis”

Author Gilad Meiri formed the collective Kvutzat Ktovet with a like-minded group of young writers in Jerusalem in 2002. Despite an evolving roster of participants, Kvutzat Ktovet has continued to adhere to its social-communitarian mission of bringing writing workshops, literary … Read More

By / December 18, 2008

Author Gilad Meiri formed the collective Kvutzat Ktovet with a like-minded group of young writers in Jerusalem in 2002. Despite an evolving roster of participants, Kvutzat Ktovet has continued to adhere to its social-communitarian mission of bringing writing workshops, literary festivals, and cultural events to traditionally underserved communities throughout Israel. This story, from Meiri’s debut collection, hints at his on-going concern with the economic and social rifts that divide contemporary Israel.

– Adam Rovner, translations editor If a Citroen’s electrical system crashes and you’re inside, it’s a lost cause—you’re stuck. That’s exactly what happened to Yunis. He was with his boss in the apartment and they were plastering and putting the finishing touches on the paint. His boss was too lazy to get cigarettes, so he gave Yunis a fifty shekel bill and the keys to his Citroen and told him to bring back some smokes and a bottle of cola. Yunis didn’t know the area very well, so he drove around and around until he saw the commercial center and parked. He turned off the car and tried to get out, but the door wouldn’t open. He tried all the windows and doors. Nothing worked. And Yunis forgot his cell-phone at the apartment so he couldn’t even call his boss. He tried to start the car again, but it wouldn’t respond with even a single sputter. He slammed the steering wheel. The horn didn’t work either. It was as if the car’s heart had suddenly stopped. He thought of his boss back there still waiting for cigarettes and cola.  A whole day of work could be wasted on car problems, he thought. Maybe he broke something in the Citroen? He started to stress out. Or maybe, worse still, there’s no problem at all and it’s just that there’s something about the car he doesn’t know how to work? Yunis sat and stared at the customers leaving the stores with their bags of clothes, housewares, and gift boxes. He saw customers here and there, but he couldn’t make up his mind who to turn to. He was afraid to shout for help because his work clothes, his Arab appearance, and his accent would be a dead giveaway. Maybe they’d think he was a suicide bomber sitting in a car rigged with explosives, just waiting to draw a crowd before flipping his martyrdom switch. A young woman with a cart full of all sorts of good things passed in front of him. Yunis sat and watched her. She followed his glance, but pushed on with her cart without meeting his eyes. In his mirror Yunis saw her disappear behind the parked cars. He waited a bit longer and then spotted an old man walking slowly in his direction. Yunis noticed the logo of the medical clinic on the white marble wall of the commercial center and guessed he was headed there. He quickly abandoned the idea of flagging down the old man, who would certainly be alarmed and wouldn’t understand what Yunis wanted from him anyway. Inside the car a pleasant warmth surrounded him, making him wonder what it would be like to live in the Citroen.  If you got into debt, you could just live in the car with its upholstered seats and its radio. On cool nights you could pull into covered parking lots, recline the seats and go to sleep next to your wife, with your two children in the back. His reverie was broken by a kid on a skateboard sporting a school bag strapped to his back. He swerved and zigzagged between the cars and the people carrying their bags and pushing their carts until he reached the curb near the Citroen. The kid hesitated, deciding whether to jump the pavement with his board, which would require him to squeeze between two parked cars on the other side of the pavement. While still skating, the kid noticed Yunis and quickly turned away. Yunis wondered whether to use hand gestures to stop the boy in mid-flow, but because he was embarrassed, he procrastinated and the kid moved on. After missing his chance to get help from the young woman and the boy, he realized he had to find another way out. He couldn’t break the windshield. That would only make people suspicious of him and they’d immediately call the police. And besides, it’s better to try to get help without causing a mess. But he couldn’t keep sitting like this for hours in the car, cooking in this hunk of metal, so he resolved to call out to the next person who came along. A few minutes later, a middle-aged man passed by wearing a white button-down shirt and black pants, and carrying supermarket bags and dry cleaning. Yunis gathered his courage and shouted at him and motioned with his hands, “Sir, excuse me, I’m stuck in the car.” The man slowed his pace and looked with surprise and suspicion at the strange Arab who yelled something unclear at him from inside a beige car. For a moment he hesitated. On the radio they warned of terrorist groups plotting to kidnap Jews during the holidays, but he swept away the troubling thought and approached the Arab. When Yunis saw the man draw near, he worried that he wouldn’t believe him, but he hoped that he’d at least listen. “Mister,” Yunis flashed an embarrassed smile before turning to the man in a calm voice, “I’m stuck here with no electricity in the car and I can’t open the doors or the windows. Please, maybe you can call my boss and tell him I’m stuck.” The man saw that Yunis wasn’t a nutcase, but he still couldn’t understand what the problem was. “What do you mean, stuck in the car?” He responded forcefully but politely from the other side of the glass. Yunis was surprised that the man wasn’t embarrassed to raise his voice in the middle of the street. “Walla…I don’t know! Everything here is probably electric, and I bet there was a short and everything died.” The well-tailored man looked at the Arab in silence, like someone trying to digest a mechanical explanation or waiting for an official response. “You know these Frenchie cars,” Yunis continued, “all pose and all problems.” The man smiled as if he understood: This one’s not a terrorist, he’s all right. He put his shopping bags on the hood and pulled out his cell phone. “What’s the boss’s name?” “Moshe Yonah,” Yunis said expectantly. “Related to the contractor Yonah?” the man asked with interest. “Yes, but he’s a distant cousin.” The man nodded and pursed his lips as if to acknowledge that he had heard what was said to him. It occurred to Yunis that perhaps the man knew Moshe. “What’s your name?” The man asked while the phone rang. “Yunis.” He started to worry because Moshe hadn’t yet picked up. “Hello, Moshe?” He asked, emphasizing the second syllable of his name. “Yeah,” Moshe responded impatiently. “Yunis, your worker, is stuck here in his car and he can’t get out.” “Ahh, yes, I know the problem. It’s my car.” The man was now firmly convinced the Arab wasn’t a terrorist. He told Moshe where the place was. Moshe promised to come and send someone out to fix it. “Thank you,” Yunis said with an apologetic smile. “You’re lucky today isn’t a very hot day, or you’d dehydrate in there. Do you want me to stay with you until Moshe comes?” the man asked, fearing a response that would delay him here under the autumn sun in the middle of a boring parking lot. “No, but thanks, really, it’s okay, he’ll come quickly.” The man nodded, but before he went on his way he told Yunis he’d alert the security guard so he’d come check on him in another ten minutes to see if Moshe had arrived. Yunis thanked him again. He sat in the Citroen and thought of the symbolism of the incident. National Insurance wants him to prove he’s a resident of Jerusalem or they won’t give him unemployment for the months he couldn’t find work, but the clerks are afraid to come to East Jerusalem to check whether he really lives at the address he provided. His older son suddenly decided he didn’t want to hear about high school next year. Instead he wants to drive a cab and make some money. And yesterday he found out his father’s request to go on the Hajj was rejected Yunis watched the man wander away amid the sea of cars gleaming in the sun’s rays. He followed his steps up to the entrance to the supermarket where he stood and spoke to the guard and waved his hands. The guard looked in the direction of the parking lot, nodded, and then the man walked off toward his own car.
The sun grew hotter, and sitting inside the car was becoming more uncomfortable. Maybe I really am a suicide bomber, Yunis thought. Maybe Moshe and that man who helped me both work for the General Security Service and I’m about to blow up. And then they’ll report that the explosion was premature and thankfully a catastrophe had been averted. Yunis was lost in thought, scouting for hidden cameras between the cars and along the windows, but instead of cameras he found a class of school children walking in pairs on the pavement toward the Citroen. The children passed by at the level of the windshield, and two by two their eyes stared questioningly at him: an Arab just sitting in a car with the windows closed. An explosion rattled the windshield. The children raised their eyes upward and let out gasps of surprise. The alarm on the Citroen began to wail and the last pair of children and their escort shook with fear. The sonic boom of the American fighter jet shocked the car’s electric heart and returned it to life in a flash, jolting it from clinical death. Yunis got out of the car, turned off the alarm, and went to buy cigarettes. *** Zeek’s Hebrew translations are made possible by a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Please direct submissions and queries to editors[at]zeek.net Gilad Meiri holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew literature from the Tel Aviv University. He has published two collections of poetry, Tremors in Jelly (Za’azuim B’Jelly 2006) and Organic Paganic (Organi Pagani 2003), and one short story collection, The Department for the Public’s Stories (HaMisrad L’Sipurei HaTzibur 2008), all published by Carmel. In addition to founding Kvutzat Ktovet, Meiri serves as the director of the affiliated Makom L’Shira, based in the Nakhlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. In 2008, he received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature. Adam Rovner serves as the Hebrew translations editor for Zeek and is an assistant professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver. all images from Leonardo Kaplan‘s series Surfacing