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Saturday
Nov172012

Springtime, in Judea

A translation of a story by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

"These distant days in Judea which left me a cripple, lame for life, occurred at the very happiest time of my youth," said a tall, well-built fellow with a yellowish face, sparkling gray eyes, and short, still-curly silver hair.  He always walked with a crutch since he could not bend his left knee.

"At the time, I lived in Jerusalem as part of a small expedition aimed at investigating the eastern shores of the Dead Sea, the legendary locations of Sodom and Gomorrah.  While waiting for my colleagues still held up in Constantinople, I made a series of trips to one of the Bedouin campsites on the road to Jericho, to Sheikh Aaid, recommended to me by some Jerusalem archaeologists.  The sheikh procured everything needed for our expedition for which he would also act as our guide.  When I first went to him so as to negotiate our trip, I took a guide; the next day the sheikh came to see me in Jerusalem, at which point I started visiting him on my own.  There I found a riding mare whom I took to riding with immoderate frequency.  

"It was spring.  Judea was drowning in joyous sunshine, reminiscent of the Song of Songs: 'Lo!  The winter is past ... the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land ... the vines with the good grapes blossom in their fragrance.'  Yet there on that ancient path to Jericho, amidst the stone-ridden Judean desert, everything was as always dead, wild, bare, and blinding in its heat and sands.  Even then, during those flower-bearing spring days, everything seemed to me to be endlessly joyous and happy.  This was, you understand, my first time in the East, and before my eyes I beheld an utterly new world.  And in this world I beheld something extraordinary: Aaid's niece. 

"The Judean desert seems as vast as an entire country: it descends unswervingly into the Jordan valley itself, in hills and mountain passes of both stone and sands, to places overrun with wild vegetation inhabited only by snakes and partridges buried in eternal silence.  In winter, like everywhere in Judea, it rains and icy winds blow.  But in spring, summer, and autumn one finds only the serenity and uniformity of a churchyard, albeit under the heat of a sun that devours your sleep.  In the hollows where the wells are located, visible signs of the Bedouin sites persist in the campfire ash, and in the stone circles and squares on which they secure their tents.  But the site where I went, whose sheikh was Aaid, presented the following picture: a wide sand ravine between hills, and in it, a modest flock of black felt tents.  These tents were flat, four-cornered, and, against the sands' yellow sheen, rather gloomy in their blackness.

"As I passed by, I saw pile after pile of pressed dung before some of the tents, and space between the tents was very tight indeed: everywhere ran dogs, horses, mules, and goats.  I still have never understood how and where all these beasts were fed.  I also saw a multitude of naked, swarthy, curly-headed children, women, and men, some resembling gypsies, others Africans, although without the full lips.  And it was strange to see how warmly the men were dressed in spite of the heat: a dark blue undershirt to the knees, a cotton coat, and on top an abaya, that long, heavy, wide-shouldered, chlamys of striped piebald wool.  On each head was a keffiyeh, a kerchief with red and yellow stripes, loose on the shoulders, hanging along the cheeks, and held twice at the top of the head with a woolen piebald plait.  All this was in stark contrast to the women's garb: dark blue kerchiefs were tied around their heads, their faces showing; and over their bodies flowed a long dark blue undershirt with sharp sleeves that almost reached the ground.  The men were shod in coarse boots padded with iron; the women were barefoot, and they all had a light and marvelous step, their feet almost as black as coal from the sun.  Men and women alike smoked pipes.

"The second time, when I came to the site without a guide, I was received as a friend.  Aaid's tent was the most spacious, and there I came upon a whole collection of elderly Bedouins seated around the tent's black felt walls with only raised flaps for the entrance.  Aaid emerged to greet me, gave a bow, and placed his right hand to his lips and his forehead.  I entered the tent right in front of him and waited until he had sat down on the carpet in the middle, then I did what he had done upon seeing me, which is always proper, that is, the same bow and touching of the right hand to the lips and forehead.  I did this several times, to everyone who was seated.  Then I sat beside Aaid and, now seated, did the same thing; of course, everyone responded in kind.  Only the chief and I spoke, briefly and slowly; this was necessary not only according to custom, but also because at that time I was not yet well-versed in colloquial Arabic; the rest smoked in silence.  In the meantime behind the tent refreshments were being prepared.  Bedouins usually eat khubz, a corn-based flatbread, cooked millet, and goat's milk.  But guests are treated without fail to kharuf: lamb cooked in a pit dug out of the sand, piling on it layers of smouldering dung.  After the lamb coffee is served, but always without sugar.  And here everyone sat around and ate in insouciance, although into the shade of the felt tent came the hellishly hot stuffiness came, and to look at its wide open flaps was simply terrifying: the sands were sparkling from so far away that, it seemed, the horizon began to swim.  After every word the sheikh would say to me, khawajah, sir, and I would say to him most honorable bedawi sheikh.  That is, son of the desert, or Bedouin. 

"Aaid was about fifty years old and not particularly tall.  He was big-boned, very thin, and very strong.  His face was burnt brick; his eyes were translucent, grey, and penetrating; his copper beard with tinges of grey was small, stiff, and well-trimmed; his moustache was groomed just as carefully (Bedouins usually keep both well-trimmed).  He wore, like everyone else, thick, iron-shod boots.  When he was visiting me in Jerusalem, he had a dagger on his belt, and in his hands was a long rifle.

"I saw his niece that same day while I, already having been deemed a 'friend,' was sitting by him in his tent.  She walked past holding on her head a large tin can full of water, and steadying it with her right hand.  I don't know how old she was; I think she was no more than eighteen.  Later I would learn that, four years prior, she had gotten married, yet that very year she had become a widow, still without children, and, being both an orphan and very poor, moved to her uncle's tent.     

"'Turn around, turn around, Sulamith!' I thought. (Understand that Sulamith likely resembled her: 'Dark am I, yet lovely, daughters of Jerusalem.')  And passing by the tent, she turned her head somewhat and followed me with her eyes.  Her eyes were unusually dark and mysterious, her face was almost black, her lips were purple and thick, and it was precisely at that moment that they, most of all, struck me.  Had it only been that!  Everything struck me: her arms, surprisingly bare to the shoulder as she held the can on her head; the slow, sinuous movements of her body beneath her long blue shirt; her full breasts that held up this shirt.  And so, it simply had to happen that soon thereafter I met her in Jerusalem by the Jaffa gate!  She was coming towards me in a crowd, this time wearing on her head something bound in cloth.  Seeing me, she stopped.  I bowed in her direction.

"'Did you recognize me?'  

"She gently touched my shoulder with her free left hand and grinned:

"'I did, khawajah.'

"'What are you carrying?'

"'I am carrying goat cheese.'

"'For whom?'

"'For everyone.'

"'You mean, to sell?  Then bring it to my house.'

"'Where?'

"'Here, this small hotel.'

"I was living just at the Jaffa gate in a tall, narrow row house, one of many on the left side of the small square from which the many-stepped King David street emerges.  It was a dark house, covered in some places by canvas, in others by old stone vaults with a passage among those arches and old workshops and stores.  And without the slightest shyness, she went ahead of me up that house's winding stone stairway, gently leaning back and freely contorting her sinuous body, her bare right arm supporting the cheese in its cloth in a blue kerchief on her head, which made the black hair of her underarm visible.  At one of the staircase's turns she stopped: there, down below behind a narrow window, one could make out the ancient reservoir of the prophet Ezekiel, the greenish water of which, like a well, was contained in a square of neighboring houses' walls with small, latticed windows.  The same water in which Bathsheba, Uriah's wife, enthralled King David with her nudity.  Stopping, she looked out the window; just as quickly, she turned around and gazed at me with her surprising eyes.  I could not restrain myself and kissed her bare forearm – and she looked at me quizzically, as kissing was not a Bedouin custom.  She entered my room and laid her bundle on a table, then extended to me the palm of her right hand.  I placed in it a few small coins; but almost immediately I became very anxious, and so I produced a gold pound and handed it to her.  She understood and lowered her lashes.  Her head slipped down submissively and she covered her eyes with the inner crook of her arm.

"'When will you bring more cheese?' I asked, accompanying her to the staircase half-an-hour later.

"She shook her head gently:

"'It won't be soon.'

"Then she showed me five fingers: five days.

"About two weeks later when I leaving Aaid and had gone rather far from his campsite, behind me a shot rang out.  A bullet hit the stone in front of me with such force that it began to emit smoke.  I urged my horse into a gallop and hunched over in the saddle.  Then a second shot was fired and something very powerful struck me below my left knee.  I rode on to Jerusalem all the while looking down at my foaming, bleeding boot.  To this day I marvel that Aaid was capable of missing not once, but twice.  And I am no less surprised at how he was able to learn that I had bought goat cheese from her.  

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