Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
Except from Passport Control, by Gila Green
After class I’m starving and Valerie is nowhere to be seen. I remember she’d mumbled something about a research paper, but it’s not clear to me what she was talking about. I’m too shy to ask anyone else in my program if they want to join me for a late dinner, and I’m avoiding my roommates—the complaint letter burning a hole in my brain.
I head to the cafeteria on my own. Today I’m happy that my uncle has invited me for the weekend and to celebrate I’m splurging on a dinner.
The cafeteria closest to the dormitory is packed and noisy. Most of the students wear jeans as they do at home, but I notice how much older Israeli students are, how many are pregnant or walking around with babies as well as backpacks slung over their bodies. I remind myself that most are here after two or three years of military service and another year or two of travel and work, even after marriage. Every woman I see who isn’t sporting a baby is wearing full make -up and my face feels naked in comparison. It had never occurred to me to put on lipstick for a university class let alone eye shadow, liner, and mascara. One of the lights in the corner flickers on and off, and I look away. It buzzes as it dies out, but it’s so noisy in here, it’s impossible for me to isolate the sound.
I stand at the end of the line, considering the menu. It takes me a minute to realize that the woman with the long hair standing in front of me is Farzeen. Before I can stop myself, my fingers are on her shoulder. She turns to look at me.
“Want to eat together?”
Farzeen tosses her long hair with one hand and turns back around. I shrug. Her hair is so close to me I can smell her floral-scented hairspray. I inch back. I tried. I keep my eyes on the sticky floor. There are so many languages being spoken so rapidly around me my head swims. The smell of fried food is the strongest smell in the room, but I can’t identify it beyond that. Falafel? French fries?
Finally, it is my turn to pay. I’d already chosen the largest Danish I could find in the row of desserts and received it heated up along with my hot chocolate. The change clinks on my tray. I turn left and right, weaving between people, seeking an empty table, and finally find a two-seater in a far corner next to the only row of windows that are pulled open as far as they can go. Outside I can see the base of the Eshkol Tower, the highest building on campus, lit up in the night.
Bang. A tray loaded with a large salad, large sandwich, large Coke, and a healthy slice of chocolate cake lands on the table. I raise my eyes, and Farzeen is arranging the strap of her briefcase around the back of the chair opposite me.
“There were no other seats,” she says. I can’t read her face and it’s rude to stare too long. I force myself to look away from her.
“It’s nice to eat with you,” I answer. I sound too formal. I clear my throat.
Farzeen settles herself in her chair and immediately tends to her food. She pours a clear dressing all over her green salad and mixes it with her knife and fork. With her first bite a cherry tomato lands on her lap. She blushes and fumbles for a napkin on her tray, but there isn’t one.
“No big deal,” I say. I hand her a napkin. She wipes her pants.
“Thank you, Miriam,” she says.
It’s a good thing I grabbed such a large pile. She lets the tomato fall to the floor, and fails to pick it up, allowing it to roll toward the next table. I watch it come to a rest under her chair, but don’t say anything. She’s still red and concentrates hard on the rest of her salad.
“I’m sorry about the other day,” I begin. There’s a stone in my throat as the image of Dalit’s letter comes to my mind and I hear Arslan: Please. I can’t live like this all year. She hates me. There’s a dull burning in my stomach. I tell myself I chose an old pastry.
Farzeen shrugs. She looks at me and offers a small smile.
“Are there only Jews in your classes?”
I hadn’t thought about this. I am unused to organizing the people around me according to religion.
“I didn’t ask.”
“Can’t you tell?”
“No. Not really. I didn’t think of it.”
“You should pay more attention to who you’re with. This is the Middle East.”
“I guess so.” I play with my hair.
“Do you like the professors?”
“Yes, I find them very professional and warm.”
“You sound surprised.”
“I didn’t know what to expect.”
“I understand. I wouldn’t know what to expect if I studied in another country either.” She smiles at me, and I smile back.
“Of course, I’d be prepared,” she adds.
“I asked around but couldn’t find anyone who’d been to Haifa and I spent most of the summer working two jobs to pay for the trip.”
“I worked all summer, too. Teaching Arabic to children with special needs, you know? Learning problems.”
“That sounds way more interesting than seating customers in a restaurant or putting gym towels in a laundry basket.”
We are both quiet for a few minutes, while we eat. My Danish is finished in a few bites, and I sip my hot chocolate. Farzeen still has half a salad in front of her. She hasn’t even begun the sandwich or the cake.
“You see that table over there?” Farzeen points with her chin, her fork full of cucumber in mid-air. “First years. I tutor all of them in Arabic in the evenings. Most of them came to me from their older sisters who I also tutored. I don’t take money.”
“It’s great you have the time.” I try to catch her eye, but she’s examining the contents of her sandwich, adding more pepper to the bread from a take-away packet. “I wish I could help other students for free, but I need to find translation work for the money.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” she says.
“I was just saying,” I answer.
“Right,” she says.
I shred my empty hot chocolate cup. This line of tension is becoming too familiar between us. I’m already regretting my invitation to eat together.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man coming toward us. He is wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, not unlike many of the other students, and his face is screwed up. He notices that I’ve seen him and picks up speed. In ten seconds both of his palms are flat on our table. Farzeen jerks her chair backward.
His mouth is open, but his voice is low. He speaks without a pause in-between, but I don’t understand Arabic. For a moment he is silent, eyeing me menacingly and then looks hard at Farzeen. He speaks again, even lower this time, and I resist the temptation to lean in, and Farzeen herself is leaning farther back, not closer, but her eyes don’t move from his lips. His spit lands on the edge of Farzeen’s chocolate cake. I don’t know if she notices.
When he finally pauses for breath, Farzeen puts her hands on her hips and yells unapologetically. No one in the cafeteria so much as raises a head. It is so crowded and noisy, the yelling blends into the orchestra of high and low-pitched voices in Hebrew, Russian, English, French and Arabic. I rest my chin in my hands, my elbows propped up on the table, only inches from this stranger’s big, dark hands—the same color as my father’s.
Now the man, angrier than ever, flails his hands around in the air, but Farzeen continues screaming in a stream of guttural tones. She doesn’t flinch, though he is easily twice her size. They are speaking at the same time, in an odd sort of competition because she drowns him out hands down.
Finally, he glares at me, spins on his Nikes, and stomps away, muttering to himself and shaking his head. The heavy smell of tobacco mixed with cloves is left behind for a moment after he is gone.
Farzeen begins to chuckle and then to laugh. The clunky, silver necklace she wears rocks on her chest as her shoulders shake and her black mascara runs onto the backs of her hands, as she wipes her eyes. She brings her hands together in front of her.
“Do you know what he said?”
“No. What did he say? Who is he?”
“He’s one of the new student teachers in my history class. He could use a good pinch.” Farzeen stops speaking, and I imagine her standing up and squeezing the angry man’s skin between her fingers. I inch my chair backward. She picks up her Coke with both hands, drains the cup. I am afraid she’ll get distracted and stop explaining. “He said we are traitors, show-offs. He said who do we think we are?” She dabs at the corners of her eyes with a napkin and tosses the crumpled napkin over the chocolate cake. “He accuses me of being influenced living with Jews in the dorms.”
“I don’t get it.”
“He said no one is fooled by us sitting here pretending to be Jews, speaking in Hebrew.” She throws her head back and laughs again.
My mouth drops, but then I smile, too.
“Called me a show off, a liar, and an embarrassment to my people. Oh well. We must have deserved an admonition. Would you like half of my sandwich? I’m out of time.”
She picks up half of the sandwich with two hands and takes a bite. It looks as though she’s eating some sort of white cheese with cucumbers and black olives on whole wheat pita.
“Here, you know what? I’ll have them wrap it. Put it in the fridge for tomorrow.”
Before I can answer she is off to the cashier with the sandwich. In a minute she returns with the food wrapped in a paper bag, which she puts between us on the small table.
“That was really funny, no?”
I smile. At least we’ve shared a joke of some kind.
“I guess people make a lot of assumptions around here.”
Farzeen looks at me. I can’t read her eyes—again. At least she doesn’t disagree out loud. She’s finished half of the sandwich. She takes out her purse from her briefcase, unzips it, and digs around inside. She reapplies her red lipstick and mascara with a small mirror and returns her cosmetics to her purse.
“Have to run.”
She scoops up both of our trays, nods at me, dumps the remains in the bin and the empty trays on top of the garbage can. In a minute the crowd swallows her up. Out of the corner of my eye, I can still see the angry man. He waves a finger at me and clicks his tongue.
I imagine that man following me back to my dormitory and I really want to leave, but I have nowhere to go. I decide to go for a run. I could use some exercise. I stand up and exit the cafeteria taking the longest route because it is the farthest from him. It is only after I open the heavy cafeteria door and walk into the fresh air that I realize I’ve forgotten the other half of the sandwich on the table.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Canadian novelist Gila Green lives in Israel. She
writes both adult literary and young adult fiction and has published three
novels, a short story collection, and two dozen short stories.
AVAILABLE FROM sandhpublishing.com, Ingram, Amazon and other online
Contact information for author:
Gila Green LinkedIn