All I want is to go to Omar’s for falafel with Becky.
Becky doesn’t know who I am. We’re students at a university in Israel, I see Becky around campus, I’m loitering near her dorm—not every day, but enough so it’s getting a little weird and her neighbors are starting to notice. I should just ask her out, but I’m nervous and she’s pretty and she wears these headbands with wavy dark hair spilling out everywhere. Finally one of her friends introduces us. She likes bookstores, she likes REM, we make a date to go to Omar’s famous falafel stand in the Old City.
Then a war starts. It’s the Gulf War. The Iraqi army invaded Kuwait and now Team America is ramping up. Iraq has an arsenal of SCUD missiles pointed at Israel—one SCUD missile can destroy, like, a football stadium—and Becky’s parents are afraid she’s going to get blown up. So Becky goes home to New Jersey. She misses the next three months when air raid sirens and missile attacks are driving us underground night after night, or into little rooms that we sealed with plastic tarps against chemical weapons. Basically, I’m a pacifist, but I’m harboring violent resentments against the Iraqi military for fouling my plans to woo Becky.
While Becky’s back home, I’m running in and out of bomb shelters every night (sadly like people in Ukraine are doing this year), and I keep a backpack handy—clothes, book, flashlight, bag of peanuts—and my Special Added Bonus. Everyone in Israel in 1991 has a Special Added Bonus. It’s a personal defense kit, an oversized brown shoebox with a shoulder strap, distributed by the army—like everyone in the country has the same cardboard purse. Inside are a full-face gas mask, a huge syringe, and a towelette in a foil packet, like you get with a fried chicken dinner, only bigger. The towelette is supposed to heal the chemical burns on your skin caused by mustard gas. The syringe is like an epi pen: you jam it into your thigh if you’re exposed to a nerve agent, like sarin, which is what the Iraqis say they’re going to use on us. Later, we learn the Israeli government lied to us and the nerve gas antidote is only temporary; it delays the symptoms, but does not cure them, so you will live long enough to get to the hospital, where you will die with everyone else on the lawn. I decoupage my kit with magazine cutouts of George Bush and Saddam Hussein and Cindy Crawford.
In a few months, the Iraqi army is defeated, and Becky comes back. We pick up where we left off and make another plan to go to Omar’s. We decide to take Bus 23, which travels through a couple of neighborhoods in the West Bank. It’s a risk because the city buses are sometimes seen as symbols of the Israeli occupation, but I’ve done it before, and it only takes 20 minutes to get to Omar’s, and if you take the other bus through the Jewish neighborhood it takes an hour.
We find a seat near the front. It’s not crowded, Jewish people, Arab people, a Palestinian mom with two little girls, an older man with short white hair wearing a kefiyya, an Israeli soldier about the same age as Becky and me. Apparently taking a risk together makes you feel like a couple, so we’re sitting close, and we’re holding hands, when there’s a BANG and the window across the aisle shatters and blows apart, needles of glass spraying everywhere. The driver slams the brakes. Everyone’s thrown out of our seats. Someone is screaming. The face of the man next to the broken window is covered in blood. And then BANG BANG, two more windows explode. Slow motion takes over. Becky and I are crouched on the floor, clutching hands. There’s shouting outside the bus, which has driven into some kind of street protest. I raise my head and look outside. There’s a crowd, they’re angry, it becomes a mob, working together to topple the bus by pushing it from side to side. The tires are coming off the pavement and slamming back down. Stones the size of footballs are scattered on the floor surrounded by shattered glass. More windows are breaking. Some people are banging on the front door to get in. The soldier is on the floor a few seats in front of us, holding an M16 in one hand and a 9mm in the other. He won’t resist the mob if they storm the bus. They will take him and the weapons and if that happens I don’t know if we will survive.
Suddenly, the soldier jumps to his feet, kicks out what’s left of the windshield, and fires two shots into the sky, apparently hoping the rifle crack will break the inertia. It works. Everyone backs up. There is a pause long enough for the the bus to land on four tires. The driver grinds it forward, up a hill and into a gas station. The crowd stays behind. The bus is nearly windowless. The girls and their mother are crying. I pull bits of glass from Becky’s hair while everyone rushes off the bus, and we do the same. We look around. Omar’s falafel stand is a block away. We’re still holding hands. We get a taxi home.
[the author in Jerusalem, January 16, 1991]