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Achmed
Halina Birenbaum

We had a tree in front of our house which bothered us a great deal. We could not find anyone to cut it down for a reasonable price. One morning, I noticed a man walking past. He was short and thin, with dark skin, dark eyes and curly hair, and was dressed in worn work clothes. He was carrying gardening tools in a basket hanging over his shoulder. I asked him if he could do something in our garden.

I could tell that he agreed even though he spoke Arabic. He followed me immediately. After all, walking around from house to house with his basket hanging from the hoe handle, he was looking for work. He eagerly started to work. He worked hard in a primitive way; he knew only a few words of Hebrew. Yet we managed to communicate. He bargained intensely, arguing with me, praising his work in Hebrew mixed with Arabic -- and by miming. He came from a village near Rafiyah on the far side of Gaza. He immediately started trying to persuade me that the garden needed weeding and grass should be planted. When I asked him how much this would cost, he again started telling me how reasonable his price was, then he kept lowering it until he arrived at the price I had suggested. This is how we went on, over and over, for the next several years. While he worked, I usually gave him coffee and sandwiches or, in hot weather, a cold beverage. He would thank me, murmur something in Arabic, wish me good health and praise me to the skies. No matter what fee we had already agreed on, he always importuned me for a few pennies for his travel expenses. Then he thanked me
profusely for the additional sum... He also found work with my neighbors. However, he left his basket of tools at my house each day, and on Fridays when he went to visit his family. He would come back to my house for the bag into which he packed things that had been given him by his other employers, or left the gifts in his basket at my house because he only went home once a week. My house was his base. He came and went from my yard as he needed to. When his shoes fell apart, he asked me for help. I often gave him old things we no longer needed, but which would be very useful to him and his family.

The times were becoming more tense. There was Arab terror -- first knife attacks, and then the intafada. Hostile acts in Jerusalem and around the country. Householders being murdered by their Arab employees in the occupied territories, attacks and stabbings on the street, explosives in buses. I read continually and fearfully about all this in the newspapers, listened to it on the radio, saw the victims on both sides on television. Yet it was all far from me. Achmed came and put in a hard day's work, he was friendly, trusting and trusted, as if we had nothing to do with all that, as if it did not affect us. I know no other Arabs and hardly ever saw any, because they do not live near me. I have heard about the problems and bloody incidents from morning to night during all my years in Israel, and I am afraid and feel the pain of the families who have lost someone, and go on losing people to this situation -- but it has nothing to do with
Achmed on my side, or with me on his side.

He brought his son along several times. The boy was about fifteen -- helpful, polite and modest. Tall and strong. He worked energetically to help his father. Achmed has a flock of children and works hard for the pay he takes home to his village each week. In between times, he sleeps at relatives' in Tul Kerem, because he is not allowed to spend the night on Israeli territory.
He is on good terms with his Jewish employers and speaks better and better Hebrew. He is always looking for weeds in our garden and noisily trying to persuade me that there is work to be done. He rings the doorbell and calls me outside, interrupting my writing, which I do not like. He wants urgently to show me how the hedge needs clipping and the yard needs weeding, and then the haggling over the price starts again, with the vows to Allah that he would only do it for me, "Bishvilek (the correct Hebrew is bishvilech) eynaim sheli", or, "I would give my eyes for you"; he will do it cheap -- and in the end he agrees to do it for half the price, of course. Yet he must always start high, like in the Arab (and Jewish) marketplace...

One day, he called me outside. He had brought me a tiny bird. "Take it", he said, "it's a mitzvah (a good deed), it's a beautiful creature, rare, I found it..." I have cats at home and in the yard, so how can I take in a bird? He decides to take it home to his children, but he has to leave it somewhere until he finishes work. And so we make a provisional bird cage out of the old oven. He tells me to bring something with water, and buckwheat grains. In the country of the intafada, the stones, the knives, the killing, the hatred, the innocent victims on both sides each day, here are Achmed and I fussing over a bird he found that has fallen out of a nest somewhere!

Suddenly, Achmed stopped coming. A week went by, then two. His basket remained in its usual place, waiting in vain for its owner. I could not imagine what might have happened. He had always come to take his tools and go to work, and I had become as used to his presence as to anything else around me! They had always let him out of the Gaza district because he was no longer young and had a large family, children -- people like that are allowed to go to Israel to work.

Then he finally rang the doorbell. I ran outside, shocked but glad that he had come back. His face was unshaved and his eyes were grim. "They've killed my son!" he said at the threshold. No! The boy who had helped him. He had grown since then, become a man. I knew him. I felt that the earth was shifting under my feet. Now it was right here, so close to me. Our soldiers had killed him. A soldier had shot him while he was crossing into our territory with a group looking for work. He was standing next to his father. An officer had shouted to the soldier taking aim -- "Not him!" But he already lay dead at Achmed's feet.

I pressed my head between my hands, I felt so terrible! Guilty, helpless, stunned. I could not say a word, I felt like a stranger to myself, I could not understand. I went back inside to bring him something to drink and a little money. "Take that for your children. After all, you haven't worked for a while", I asked timorously. It was more than I had ever paid him at the end of any of our haggling over his price -- this was different. From the heart. He was amazed. He covered his face with his hands, wept bitterly, then looked up to heaven, saying "May Allah bless you".

He started coming back to work, but with longer or shorter interruptions according to the political situation. More and more often, his basket full of tools sat forsaken. It was becoming harder and harder for Achmed to get to us and make some money to feed his starving family.

My husband, my sons and I could not shake off the shock of this terrible event for a long time. Yet I must admit to something silly, under the influence of the unceasing news... When Achmed knocked on the door the next time after that tragic incident, I trembled and did not answer immediately. I was filled with a sudden fear. Perhaps he would want to take revenge on the nearest Jew for the killing of his son, and who was nearer than me? I had heard of such things so often. However, I finally opened the door and everything was as it had been, or even better, because Achmed remembered how I had wept and tried to help when he told me about his misfortune. He had not doubted. People are always people, whatever happens -- I had been taught this lesson once again to my shame and in such unforeseeable circumstances!

Achmed came one day after a very long interruption. He was complaining that his tools had grown dull and rusty. He bought a new basket, a new shovel and hoe, worked a day or two -- and now that forsaken basket again stands waiting for its owner. Who knows if he will come again? -- the situation is growing more and more complicated.

Translation into English: William Brand

Halina Birenbaum - writer, poet, translator. Born in Warsaw, she lived through the Warsaw ghetto, and the concentration camps in Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück, Neustadt-Gleve. Since 1947 has lived in Israel. The author of books Hope Dies Last, Journey to the Land of Ancestors, and three volumes of poetry.