Moshe Sakal:

from the novel My Sister

 

Excerpt translated by Jessica Cohen

 

Published in The Literary Review, 2018

 

Chapter One

 

1.

 

My sister is three years older than me. She’s a quarter of a head shorter, her figure is curvier, she has long brown hair, and the skin on her face is not entirely smooth. She hides her artistic penchant behind crisscrossed fences of Excel tables. On her way to work she listens to indie music on the car radio. On Wednesday evenings she attends a lecture series at the Neveh Ofer library. Once every two years she and Nadia travel overseas with all of us.

            Mom always declares these trips our absolute last family vacation, because, she says, you can’t stop the passage of time and we are not immortal. We always go to Classical Europe. My sister is crazy about Paris. Mom loves London. Dad is stuck somewhere on the Channel in between. My sister keeps telling him you can’t be down and out between Paris and London, but Dad has never been good at making up his mind. He even seemed to have trouble deciding which of us – my sister or me – was his favorite. Mom always said: “There is not one heart in my chest, but two” – one for my sister and one for me. When Tomer, the third one, was born, Mom quickly announced the discovery of a new heart beating in her chest. And in fact when I think about what I learned from her, I realize that she taught me how to love. But now we’re talking about my sister.

            She is an unmarried woman. She has a daughter whom she adopted in a cold and distant country. The hows and whys of that are still to come. Our family is white on the outside, black and warm on the inside. Lots of inner turmoil. I’ve known all kinds of families, and ours turned out this way—kind of makeshift. Our family wasn’t designed the way they plan cities, deciding where each street will run, where to put public squares, how exactly all the municipal services will be provided. Mom and Dad set up our family the way the city planners worked out our south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kiryat Shalom: retroactively. All the clichés are there – roads as crooked as an ingrown nail; low, lopsided houses; additions cobbled together; streets that are one-way in appearance, two-way in practice; one long, winding main road – Ha’Keshet, which means “the arch” – on which you end up at the exact same point where you started; narrowly missed accidents at every turn.

            In the depths of Kiryat Shalom stands the Goren Goldstein Recreation Center, which Mom referred to at first as G.G., then simply Gigi. On the way to the rec center there are signs hidden behind dumpsters and sloppily-pruned trees. Sometimes the signs are misleading and Mom winds up on a dead-end street, even though she’s lived in this neighborhood for years and years. When that happens she thinks about our family, and she realizes how closely this crooked neighborhood resembles us, and she calls me so that I can contradict or reinforce her notion. She trusts my judgement, especially when it comes to comparing families with neighborhoods and cities. But I’ve strayed from my sister again.

 

 

2.

 

My sister and my mother swim regularly at the Gigi pool. They spend twenty minutes in the Turkish bath—the hamam—which sits right next to the dry sauna and has a steamy window facing the pool. Dad boycotts the hamam, which he calls a petri dish, where the water flows in and out in a closed circuit. He prefers crowding into the dry sauna with the Bukharians.

            My sister sits next to Mom in the hamam and they both stare at the coffee lady. The coffee lady is a woman who smears ground coffee beans all over her body the way people lather up with soap. The coffee grounds stick to her skin in the petri dish, and everyone stares at her without saying anything. After a while the coffee lady leaves the hamam and steps into the dry sauna next-door. The men there fall silent and watch her coffee-speckled skin dry out. A short old man wearing a felt hat walks into the sauna and drizzles a few drops from a small glass bottle onto the coals. The drops make the coals sizzle and dry up with a screech, and Dad storms out in protest. He says no one has the right to endanger his life that way. For years, Dad claimed he wanted to live to see grandchildren from his oldest son—namely, me. But he said I was lazy. He did have a carrot to hold out, though: a plot of land he was holding onto. The plot sat waiting for planning permissions for thirty years, while my father bided his time. The hows and whys of that are still to come. For now, back to my sister.

            She does the breast-stroke, and so do I. She’s in better shape than I am. Every time I get into shape, I immediately come up with excuses not to swim. At nights my sister sits down at the computer with her Excel fences and proves to me, black on white, that I’m wasting my money. She says I have to go to the rec center ‘n’ times to make the family membership worth it for everyone. Otherwise, why bother with a membership when you can just get a punch-card?

            Once a week she takes a belly-dancing class at the rec center. She ties a sequined wrap around her hips, and that’s how she gets in touch with her roots. Anyone would think our foremothers in Cairo used to prance around shimmying their buttocks. The truth is that Dad’s family wasn’t even from Cairo originally – they moved there from Hungary – and Mom’s family were “true Sephardics,” meaning descendants of Iberian Jews, who got stuck on the Nile on their way from Jerusalem to Brazil. Nonetheless, my sister bounces around a lot at her belly-dancing class and sweats a lot and burns calories and, unlike me, justifies the family membership dues.

            A few years ago, my sister appeared as a surprise guest on a TV talk show featuring Shoshanna, back when she was everyone’s favorite pop star. When my sister walked onto the set, Shoshanna eyed her curiously, and the host asked, “Do you recognize this young lady?” Shoshanna didn’t. Then the host gave the signal and Egyptian music blared through the studio. My sister started shimmying, and the audience applauded. Eventually Shoshanna put her hands up to her face in surprise and remembered that she’d once taken part in a belly-dance-a-thon in a hotel in Eilat for a whole weekend, but she didn’t remember my sister. She apologized profusely, then hugged my sister, but for some reason she didn’t join her in the Egyptian dancing.

            My sister didn’t tell Shoshanna that they were acquainted from somewhere else, too. Or rather, almost acquainted: my sister’s cosmetician was Shoshanna’s sister. Shoshanna’s sister looks a lot like her, but she also doesn’t. One day when my sister was having a facial, lying on the table in a daze from the lotions and the steam and the squeezing of blackheads on her nose, cheeks and forehead, her eyes suddenly popped open and, through the mask of mud and orange peels, she clearly saw Shoshanna, upside down. Or rather, she saw Shoshanna’s sister, close up and without any blackheads, from the bottom. And it was a rather unsettling apparition.

            That’s the way we are, too. We’re mixed up with each other, my sister and I. Sometimes you can’t tell where she ends and I begin. Our story starts in a neighborhood in the far north of Tel Aviv, on the other side of the Yarkon River, the year I was born. My sister was three. And she wanted a little sister.

 

 

3.

 

In those years people didn’t know ahead of time whether they’d get a boy or a girl. When I came out, Dad held me in both hands, and after kissing my forehead and sliding his fingers between mine, he asked what my sex was. He was surprised to hear that I was a boy.

            My sister wanted a sister. But I didn’t come out like a girl. I didn’t wear pink, and I didn’t play with dolls. I hardly played at all. I would stare at the clouds and make up stories from them. I used to sit my sister down and invent tales for her about faraway places, and nearby ones. No topic was off-limits. From early childhood it was clear to me that without those inventions, without life elsewhere, whether fictional or real, I was dead. But I didn’t come out like the sister she wanted, and she didn’t call me ‘my sister.’ She wanted to, but I wouldn’t let her.

            From the day I was born she dragged me around everywhere she went, the way you drag a doll. That’s why I had two different ages: my own, and my sister’s. I was always jumping three years ahead of my own life. I knew what was going to happen. I was disillusioned by things other children my age hadn’t even imagined yet. I knew her girlfriends, she told me about her dreams, she recounted the most minute details of her life. I knew her body better than my own, because with me I couldn’t reach all the places. Everyone called my sister by her real name, Neta, and me by mine, Lior. But we had a private nickname for each other that no one else knew, and it had nothing to do with our real names. We called each other “Shushnik,” and you could tell who we meant by the context: when I said “Shushnik,” I meant her; when she called “Shushnik,” she meant me.

 

 

4.

 

Six years after I was born, Tomer came into the world. He was prettier than my sister and me put together. From a young age he learned to trust no one but himself. He didn’t straggle behind anyone and he didn’t drag anyone behind him. In our family, he was always known as “the third one.”

            He was a principled boy, the third one. His room was always meticulously neat, whereas the room my sister and I shared was horribly messy. But our room always smelled nice, thanks to our body. My sister and I used to scrub each other down for hours. The bathroom door would be locked, and the third one would bang and bang on it. As early as age six, he spoke just like our father: “I will not tolerate locked doors in this house!”

            When we came out of the bathroom we gave off a strong whiff of shampoo and other personal care products. We had a cache in our room where we hid the products my sister bought from her friend’s mother, who was a rep for “Nature Beauty,” which made aloe vera products. My sister used to scatter fleshy aloe vera leaves around our room like incense. Pale green aloe vera was drizzled on our floor tiles the way other rooms might have drops of blood. Aloe vera was our goddess, and to her we addressed our prayers: not to get run over, not to be maimed, and to have facial skin that glowed like a daffodil.

            “People can see everything on your complexion,” my sister recited, parroting her mother’s friend. “Whether you’re a good person or a bad person, whether  you drink sodas, whether you’re sexually frustrated.”

            I was, of course. I didn’t have a minute to myself. There was not one square inch where I could be alone. But that state of affairs somehow instilled me with confidence. While other boys filled their minds with suicidal thoughts, I had my sister. And even if, on a momentary whim, I had held the jagged thorns of an aloe vera leaf to my throat, she would have immediately pulled it away and warned me not to dare harm myself. We always heard that soldiers are punished if they try to commit suicide because they are considered military property, and it was the same with me. I belonged to my sister.

 

 

5.

 

Tomer, the third one, was neither easily conceived nor easily born, but he was, as if to compensate, an extremely amenable child. He didn’t expect our parents to support him, and towards the end of elementary school he started tutoring younger pupils, and occasionally a few who were a year or two older than him. He was picky: he only accepted gifted or semi-gifted students, the kind who were screwed up, full of self-loathing, aware of their own worth, and knew at a very young age that their presence would always threaten those more senior and seasoned than them. They had the instincts to predict a tough life for themselves.

            Tomer helped his pupils pass their exams, but his real job in some cases was to make sure they didn’t starve themselves, sink into a bottomless pit of depression, or turn into desperate people who radiated bitterness. His pupils always got excellent grades or, conversely, failed miserably. Never in the middle. When they did well, their damp, pimply faces trembled with pride. When they failed, suicidal thoughts struck them the way old-age strikes others.

            Our parents were terribly worried about the third one. If they’d had any sense, they would have realized he was the only one of their children whose future was assured. But they couldn’t see it. They were intelligent people with rich life experience, but too often they were enslaved by their own preconceptions and prejudices. When Tomer was a teenager, he sometimes got drunk, and once he was even arrested and spent the night at the police station. Dad said it was the worst night of his life. But apart from that incident, the third one never bothered them once he grew up, and they were blissfully ignorant of all the other things he went through in adolescence.

Tomer had his own way of getting by in life, which included healthy instincts even in the most difficult moments, and various other qualities that my sister and I were not blessed with. But we did have a great concern for our complexions. We wanted people to see good things in it: that we were not evil, that we did not drink sodas, and that we were not sexually frustrated.

 

 

6.

 

My sister and I were born with silver spoons in our mouths. Tomer was born with a bronze one, and by the time he was a teenager it was closer to copper—or tin. Tough times befell our family, and our parents were forced to sell our three-bedroom apartment in an upscale suburb north of Tel Aviv and move to a rundown one in the southern end of town, Kiryat Shalom.

            We lived in a small apartment in a row house. We had a kitchen, a hallway that led to the living room, one bedroom for our parents, and another room where I slept with the third one at first. Our bedroom led to a small closed-in balcony where my sister slept. But after a few days of animosity, during which Tomer berated me and refused to put up with my mess, it was decided that he would be exiled to the balcony, and my sister moved into the bedroom with me. Tomer spent the whole day painstakingly cleaning and tidying his annex, and when the door finally opened, he emerged in his finest outfit and marched superciliously through our room.

            At first my sister insisted on staying at her school in north Tel Aviv. It was a one-woman busing policy. She wanted to keep seeing her friends, and they were genuinely attached to her. But a chasm soon opened up between them, divided as they were by the dangerously polluted waters of the Yarkon. I went to school in our new neighborhood, being absolutely unwilling to take public transportation all the way up north—and that was even before the bus bombings started. I hated facing the wrong direction in the bus. I hated the people who breathed on me. I preferred to get up later and walk at my own pace.

            My sister traveled for an hour on two buses, crossing the Yarkon to spend a whole day at her northern school and come back in the evening to Kiryat Shalom, crushed and doubt-ridden. After two months she broke down and switched to my high school with her tail between her legs. She was no longer ashamed to acknowledge that the neighborhoods north of the Yarkon spelled death, while in Kiryat Shalom there was life. Disgusting life, but life nonetheless.

            Suddenly the tables were turned. I took her to all sorts of places, both public and secret. We were especially fond of one hidden spot in a copse just behind the flowerbeds planted by the kids who studied agriculture. In winter there were toads croaking. In summer the sun burned our eyes and we could hardly see anything, even with dark sunglasses on. The dense leaves and the toads in winter, the blinding sun in summer—they were our salvation. My sister was a well-developed girl, and her body could not tolerate the flat surfaces, the feeble light, the asphalt and the delicatessens along the ring of roads around Kiryat Shalom. The Bukharian boys called to her on the street, but she didn’t respond. Not yet. She had issues to figure out with herself.

            One day she went out with Mom, and when she came back in the evening she told me she was starting the pill. She said the pill would make her chest bigger. When we got to our secret place the next day, in the copse under the sunlight that filtered through the branches, she started counting the hairs in my moustache, one by one.

            Dad always said I would start shaving in the winter of ninth grade, exactly when he first did, when he came to Tel Aviv from Cairo. But one year before the intended date, on the first night of Hanukkah, my sister shaved my moustache with her razor. Then she rubbed copious amounts of aloe vera on my skin. My moustache only sprouted back after a few days.

 

 

7.

 

My sister’s friends took good care of me in our wooded hideout. They bronzed me in the sun, gave me massages, and fed me meat dumplings and chak-chak, a Bukharian confection made of pastry, honey, nuts, dates and apricots. Each of these girls had two names: the one her parents had given her when she was born, and the one that was her grandmother’s. Lilach-Sarah, Maya-Malka, Gili-Esther—I got to know them all.

            Maya-Malka brought me her nishalla – a velvety Bukharian confection made of whipped eggs, which looked like cream or congealed milk and tasted viscous and sweet. I liked the nishalla, which I called inshallah, and Maya-Malka whipped some up for me every morning in her kitchen, while I sat in class or contemplated life in the hide-out, with the toads in winter and the blinding sun in summer.

            After school I would go and help Dad in his shop on Yefet Street. He sold charcoal, barbeque grills, briquettes and fire extinguishers. I particularly hated Independence Day, because on the days leading up to it there would be a long line outside the store. Dad took the customers’ money and put it in his pocket, and I had to carry bags of charcoal to their cars. They bought screens for their grills, lighter fluid, garden chairs. Everything. When there were no customers, I sat in the store wearing my Adidas sweat-suit, looked out at the street and thought about the hideout in the copse.

            Lilach-Sarah, Maya-Malka and Gili-Esther fought over me like lionesses. I tried to sleep a lot and eat a lot and, above all, not to spill my inshallah in vain. Unlike other boys, I could not treat my inshallah as my own, and so I resisted myself. This demanded a huge effort. In one of her mother’s books, Maya-Malka found a description of a ceremony they used to do for boys in cases of wet dreams—or wet daydreams. And she taught me the rules of the ceremony. If I discharged my inshallah by mistake, I was to touch it and recite:

            I take back the semen

            That spilled forth from me today on the earth and flowed into grass and water.

            May I regain my powers, my splendor, my urges,

            May the fire and the secondary altars regain their former glory.

Then I had to take some between my thumb and ring finger and spread it around my nipples, or between my eyebrows, and recite: In me lives the splendor, the power, the glory, the wealth and the privilege.

Even when girls my age started showing an interest, I remained faithful to my sister’s girlfriends. They drew charts and schedules, and the topic was me. In between classes I would put my arms on my desk, rest my head on them and fall asleep. In the mornings my sister would cut slices of challah and make me sandwiches with a thick layer of margarine and halva. On days when I had to be at school extra early, I also took a banana, an apple and Mom’s traditional Egyptian fried breaded cauliflower. When my fingers were greasy from the cauliflower, I wiped them off on the underside of the desk.

            My desk-mate used to lend out bootlegged porno videos to all the boys in class. One day I took one and watched it secretly on my parents’ VCR, while my sister was out justifying her birth control pills. The third one was in his room with one of his pupils. Dad had gone to buy charcoal in the occupied territories, and Mom was doing an evening shift at the Neveh Ofer library. It was at that time when the planning permissions for the plot of land were finally underway.

 

 

8.

 

This was the story: Grandad, my father’s father, had an Arab friend from Yaffo, a lawyer. They had met in the early 1930s, when the Yaffoite lawyer visited Cairo, wandered the streets, and somehow ended up in Grandad’s shop. Grandad was a tailor who made men’s suits sur measure—custom made. The Yaffoite customer was enthusiastic about Grandad’s suits and also about his fingers. In fact, he was enthusiastic about all of him. The lawyer soon became Grandad’s soulmate, and bought all his suits from him. Whenever Grandad took a business trip to Palestine, he always stayed with his friend in Yaffo.

            Granddad visited Palestine even during the Arab Revolt in the late 1930s, but then he stayed with relatives in Tel Aviv. Despite the riots, he travelled south all the way to Manshiyya, put a kafiyyeh on his head, and made it to his friend’s house in Yaffo. While he was there, he got to know some fighters from the Arab resistance. He listened and did not intervene, even though back in Cairo he supported the Zionists. His Yaffoite friend knew this. But neither man told the others what they knew. Their friendship was stronger than any nationality. This lasted until 1948.

            That was when, Dad told me, the wealthy residents of Yaffo left, almost without exception. The city collapsed. Bombings, shootings, fear, they had it all in Yaffo. That’s what he told me.

            Grandad’s friend fled to London, leaving all his property behind. He thought he would only be gone for a short while, until things cooled off. But as it turned out, his exile would last the rest of his life. Before he left he transferred the ownership of his house to Grandad. After the State of Israel was established and the War of Independence was fought, Grandad sold the house and travelled to London, where he gave his friend the money from the sale, right down to the last penny.

            When the Yaffo friend died, he left Grandad a small plot of land that had been an orchard before ’48. It was not far from the area that would later become Kiryat Shalom, and that was our connection with the neighborhood. Thanks to that small piece of land, we felt a bond. Because of the war and the friendship. For years, Dad, who was Grandad’s legal heir, had planned to pass that little plot down to me, his middle son; he would do so on the day he was blessed to see my daughter or son, the fruit of my loins, with his own two eyes.

            Mom always thought this was a preposterous idea. My sister protested too. The third one stayed out of it. He had his own plans when it came to matters of fertility. He was planning to blow us all out of the water, and his inshallah was destined to benefit the entire world’s population. The hows and whys of that are still to come.

***

More about the book: here

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