It is a beautiful day. The sun is out. We’re shopping, visiting the individual stalls in the shuk and talking to the owners – some of whom I’ve known for 42 years. The awnings of the stalls hang out into the alley between them, providing much needed shade for products and proprietors alike – just as similar awnings have done for millennia. The cobblestones’ worn faces massage my feet with their gentle edges as I pass over them.
It’s a beautiful and peaceful day.
Most importantly, Abdul is in a good mood.
I can barely get by when he isn’t. He’s 51 years old and it seems like his bad days are getting worse and worse. And his good days are getting less and less frequent. I’m 74 and his rages are getting dangerous for me. I might need to put him in a home – but he’s my boy and I don’t want to. So I accept G-d’s decree and simply enjoy the good days when they come.
Today is a good day. Abdul, my sweet, sweet boy, is following behind me. He’s carrying our shopping bags. He is very strong. Today, that’s a blessing.
There’s a stall here that sells spices. It’s owned by a man named Hassan, who was once from Pakistan. The stall itself is simply beautiful to see and incredible to smell. Dozens of spices crowd against each other in a riot of color and smell. Sometimes I buy something new, something I’ve never had before. I ask Hassan what it’s called. Sometimes I go home and Google it and find a recipe. But sometimes I just smell it and imagine how it might be heated and mixed and added to other flavors to make something wonderful and new. It is always a treat, a luxury.
Today, I feel like a luxury.
I point at something deep brown that looks like a collection of seeds and ask, “Abdul, what about that one?”
He sticks his face towards it, inhales and says in a soft voice that belies his size, “I like.”
So I ask Hassan and he measures out a tiny amount and places it in a small bag. It is enough for a few dishes, it always is – he knows I can’t afford more. I can always tell how strong the spice is by how much he ladles out.
The spice is 30 Zusim. I pay 10 from my own account and 20 in subsidy comes from the government.
Our city is different than most. We don’t receive food stamps, a pension or some monthly ration. We have to spend a bit of our own money, whether we get it from charity or work, in order to get our initial subsidy. Between my savings and my shared subsidy with Abdul, we have enough to barely get by. We could spend more, but the subsidy would diminish and our money wouldn’t go as far.
I want to keep as much for Abdul as I possibly can.
“What is it?” I ask.
It is a formality, I always ask.
“Ajwain,” replies Hassan, “Heat will reveal its flavor.”
I thank Hassan, tuck the small and precious bag into one of Abdul’s larger shopping bags and continue walking down the narrow path between the stalls.
It is then that I see a man I haven’t seen in 42 years; and even then only for brief moments.
A flood of memories come back.
He sees me and he lowers his eyes. He is clearly filled with shame.
And then I see him gather his resolve and begin to walk towards me.
“Time to get up, dear.”
The voice is soft and calm and it shakes me from my nightmare.
I open my eyes.
“How are you feeling?”
“My teeth ache,” I answer, popping out what seems to be a decorative mouth guard. “Another nightmare.”
“What happened this time?”
“Same thing,” I answer. I’d told her in the past. My dreams are always the same. I make some wrong turn, or shake the wrong man’s hand – any stupid mistake really – and I get blown up or shot dead. What I don’t tell her is that my nightmares don’t end with my death; they used to, years earlier. Now they end later, with my family abandoned and suddenly at grave risk themselves.
“It’s the first day,” she says.
“I know. Add it to the reasons I don’t sleep well.”
She just smiles.
“Are you sure you want to be here?” I ask, “With the kids?”
“My dear,” she answers, “I want the kids to see your work.”
“It might be dangerous.”
“It might be. We all have our time.”
We’ve been through the conversation dozens of times before. I still don’t buy that we have a time. I still don’t understand why she wants to be here with the children.
Even I don’t want to be here.
I roll out of bed, wash my hands, shower, pray and eat my breakfast. Oats again; watching my cholesterol. I’m not going to check my blood pressure – I’d probably be hospitalized.
I kiss my wife. I kiss my two little boys and my little girl. And then I open the front door of our trailer, 3 minutes earlier than planned.
There’s a guard there – a guy by the name of Eran. His head is clean-shaven and dark. His eyes are aggressive. Very few things surprise him, and I don’t either.
“Boker Tov,” I announce.
“Boker Ohr,” he replies, in a thick Israeli accent. That’s about the extent of my Hebrew – my work is in English.
Eran leads me out to my Jeep. There’s a driver waiting. I know him as well. The drive isn’t very long, but the Jeep is armored and the time has begun to take precautions.
My office is on the edge of the city. Well, you could call it a city, but there are no residents, not yet. Within minutes, we come to the double-wide trailer that serves as an administrative building. I’d considered living right next door to it, but I didn’t want people to always know where to find me. And I didn’t want to totally lock myself away from the town itself.
There’s a guard inside. He opens the gate and the Jeep pulls up. I get out and walk inside. Waiting for me is a room full of worried faces.
“How are we doing today?” I ask, trying to be jovial.
There is no answer. I didn’t want to be in charge. I kept trying to find others to take my place. But nobody would.
And so I set to work.
“First things first. Security. How is it looking?”
A small wiry man named Itai answers. He’d been a General once, but was now he was retired. I’d spoken to dozens of people – trying to convince them to join up. I’d chosen an Israeli because I needed somebody who knew the terrain. But really, I’d chosen the first person with the basic qualifications who really loved the project. Itai fit the bill.
“All of our systems are working, there’s nothing exciting going on. The people outside have been given pagers and spaced away from each other. We’ve got everybody on deck, nobody is on leave.”
“And the mines?”
“We found another one last night. We think it’s the last of them… We’ll find out today.”
“Information Technology?” I ask. I turn to a tall, blond, American woman by the name of Elizabeth. She was a do-gooder who I sold on a unique chance to make a difference. She wasn’t too stupid either. She’d made billions on Internet payment systems and was ready for a new challenge.
“We distributed accounts to the soldiers last week. We’re paying them locally – partially as a supplement to their normal wages, but partially because we needed somebody to test with. One of them even started a business on the side – selling frozen treats from a vending machine. The tax and welfare system appears to be working robustly and is, at this point, bug-free. At least from a software side. At this point, we just have to see what happens when the real people get here and try to cheat it.”
That draws a few nervous laughs.
Water, sewage, electricity. We have hookups to the outside world, but little else. Gravel roads have been laid out in some kind of pattern. Warehouses of tents await the residents.
Finance is my responsibility.
“I checked the accounts and did the math last night. We’re ready to set the welfare levels. The first five hundred Zus each individual newcomer spends will have two thousand Zus in spending power. The next five hundred will have one thousand in spending power. Then 750 for the next five hundred. And then parity. If you don’t have anything to spend, even if it comes from charity, you get no subsidy.”
Elizabeth types vigorously into her laptop.
“What about tax rates?”
“We’ll start at 30%. Just so everybody knows, this isn’t an income tax. All revenue is taxed at 30% – the same for both individuals and businesses. When individuals spend, they get their subsidy. Until it is used up. And when businesses spend on their businesses or distribute their money to their owners, their withheld tax gets returned and then the owners get taxed on the income they realize. The goal is to encourage productive spending.”
People always begin to drift off at this point – even though I consider it incredibly exciting.
I just hope it all comes together as a living system; a system that pushes productivity while also helping the weakest survive. Elizabeth looks interested – so that makes me happy.
“We also have investors lined up – I think we could pull in a few tens of millions for small businesses.”
People perk up a bit at that.
A striking man named Daoud, possessed of a crystal clear voice, answers, “We have import and export permits ready. The Israeli government will allow us to ship through Haifa, although inspections will be heavy at first. A Cypriot airline will provide passenger service to Nicosia – but we need to get the EU to set up a Visa program before they’ll pull the trigger. It will take a while for things to settle in, but I think, once we have a track-record, we’ll be okay.”
It was a massive hole of uncertainty.
“Finally,” I ask, “Avigail, tell us about profiling?”
“When we gave out the pagers, we collected people’s basic documents and blood samples. We’ve begun researching them. We don’t really have enough to establish real criteria for who gets in – we’ll have to play it a little bit by ear.” Avigail, a short, slightly rotund, woman with soft eyes. Avigail was an incredibly considerate person – which was probably why she was so frighteningly clear-headed in her analysis of people.
“What kind of people have come?”
“What types?” she asks.
“Where are they from? What are their ethnicities?”
“We’ve got a good mix. Some Druze, a few Yazidi, quite a few Alawites. Quite a few Arabs, mostly Muslims from Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian Territories. We also have some Pakistanis, some Eritrians and Somalians and even a Chinese family. All in all, there are fifteen thousand people waiting out there.”
The room freezes.
“Fifteen thousand,” says Avigail, sensing the mood of the room, “And the satellite footage shows thousands more coming in the next few days.”
I look around the room at the worried and stressed faces. The task seems enormous – our path from here to a real city seems frightfully gray. And the responsibility seems overwhelming.
And so I begin to speak.
It is the time to speak.
“Folks, this whole thing started two years earlier when I wrote an editorial. As you all know, it called for a City of Refuge. Not a city of refugees, but a city where people could run to, as immigrants. The editorial called for a place where these people could abandon the failed ideologies of the places they’d run from and build something new. It was to be like Hong Kong, or Amsterdam, or East Berlin or even the New World. It was to be a place where people could flee the ideas that had governed and destroyed their homes and instead build something new and better and hopeful. It called for a place whose ideas would ultimately infect their original homes and transform them into something greater.
“I desperately wanted somebody to take the idea and run with it. Some Prime Minister or President. Some technocrat. Maybe a general. I hadn’t expected a phone call. I hadn’t wanted one.
“But the call came and I was informed that the project had been granted a small budget and a parcel of land. Here. This land. Just south of the abandoned Syrian town of Qunietra. But the budget was small. And the manpower was inadequate. The government didn’t consider this project core to its security. So they wouldn’t require any soldiers to support the effort. And so I began to travel. I used the budget to speak and to seek out people who could help. Security experts, psychologists, informational technology experts. The shopping list was long. There was some money, but our fundamental currency was something else. It was opportunity.
“And so when I met you, I sold each of you on the ideas of a new society, a society that encouraged productivity while also providing social welfare. A society that simplified government. A society that had connection to the unchanging divine at its core; even as it encouraged constant growth and development. I showed you my vision of how it could be possible. And, one by one, you signed up.
“John Winthrop famously called the New World a City on a Hill. He wanted America to be an example to the world. He succeeded. Despite many shortcomings, his efforts were the germ of a set of ideas that transformed humankind. Now the time has come for another germ. This is our City on a Height. And you are the best – not only because of your skills, but because of your dedication. You have taken my very broad concepts and you have made them stronger and more robust. And – in a few hours – you will have made them a reality.”
“This city, this Protectorate, will not be democratic. Not at first. It will be governed by us. The check on our power will be the flow of people. We draw them in and the City will grow. If we abuse our power, they will leave, and our city will crumble.”
“At this point, it seems like we have nothing. Some tents and caravans and computers. We have a border fence. But we do not have nothing. We have thousands of people outside these walls. People who share your vision… Avigail?”
“Yes?” she answers.
“Do we have any shopkeepers?”
“So we’ll have stores. How about builders?”
“Maybe a hundred.”
“So we’ll have houses and apartments. What about civil engineers?”
“We have a few of those.”
“So we’ll have running water and electricity and sewage. Road builders?”
“We have a guy who used to drive a paver.”
“Give it a few days, and we’ll have what we need to build roads. The people will come – and they are coming to build. They are not coming as refugees or as charity cases. They are coming to build something new. So they’ll start poor, but they’ll build and they’ll produce. And they’ll sell, one to another… Do we have singers and writers and artists and directors?”
“Our city is outside these fences. All of the possibility is waiting outside. There is opportunity and hope waiting to come inside our walls. We have people walking away from the sicknesses of the societies they’ve come from. It takes courage and strength and determination to do that. It says in the Bible that you must bring in and settle escaped slaves. I believe that this is because only the best have the drive to escape. To deny them a home would be to deny tremendous human potential.”
I paused for a minute.
“But these people, the people we want, aren’t alone. There are also people who are hoping to bring their sicknesses to us. They are hoping to destroy us. They are hoping to eliminate our ideas before they can flourish. This is why our first job, today, is to sort them out. Profiling and files can only go so far – beyond that, we will need to rely on our guts.
“One hundred thousand people a month came to Hong Kong. 8,000 bombs – 1,000 of them real and 7,000 duds – were cleared by police. The Communists tried to destroy the poison of hope that had set up shop on their borders. But they didn’t succeed. Our enemies will try to destroy us as well. We won’t be perfect in stopping them. But we have no choice other than to be good enough. That is our first task and it starts today. Everybody will interview today. In the future, there will be a dedicated intake staff. And if we have hard cases, we’ll kick them up to Avigail and ultimately to myself.”
“15,000 people are out there. Tonight, some will come within our walls and we’ll have the beginnings of a new society.”
I turn to Itai, the security chief.
“Are we ready?”
“We are ready.”
“So let’s begin.”
I’d expected something more impressive. I’d expected 30-meter high concrete walls with guns emplaced at regular intervals. I’d expected something like a fortress, or a prison. Instead, I see a fence. It is solid, to be sure – but hardly imposing.
I’d hoped for instructions posted on the road, telling us what to do. But we are in Syrian territory. Signs probably wouldn’t have survived and the Protectorate probably didn’t want to regularly risk lives to post them.
So instead, as we drew closer, we hear a loudspeaker repeating – droning – instructions in English and Arabic. We are to drop off our documents, give blood samples, get some food, water and tents to tide us over and then receive a pager – as a family group.
Then, we are to disperse. They are worried about suicide bombers. The pager would summon us back.
A black woman is walking next to us. She has a baby strapped to her.
“What do I do,” she asks, in broken Arabic, “I don’t have any documents.”
“I guess you should say that,” I answer, “When we come to the fence.”
She nods and we walk on.
The sun is out and it is very very hot. The low grasses and trees of the Golan Heights don’t seem bothered by the weather. And I guess I’m not either. I’m focused on the goal.
And so we walk on.
Signs and fences warning about mines funnel us in towards a small booth. It looks like an armored porta-potty with a window. Now, I can begin to see the security. There are cameras and a few soldiers milling around. But it is so low-key I can barely imagine them resisting the forces whose violence I’d seen. I can barely imagine it, but I know my eyes are deceiving me. This is one of the most secure borders in the world.
I take out our documents out as we come nearer. My children Abdul and Mohammed are walking in front of me. I always keep them in sight. I have ever since the mortar attack.
Ibrahim is to my right, holding my hand. I turn and smile at him. He smiles back.
And then I say, mostly to myself, “I can’t believe we’re coming here.”
“Why?” asks Mohammed with the bright eyes of a precocious 8-year-old.
Abdul just smiles, as he always does. He’s been that way for the last two years. Sometimes I’m thankful for that. It can be good not to understand all the horror you witness.
“I grew up in Damascus. So did your father and his father before him. We’ve been there as long as anybody’s been keeping track.”
“So what?” asks Mohammed. His youth is showing through.
“Mohammed, Damascus is the oldest city in the world. I am so proud of it. It is in our blood and in our souls. Damascus, in its way, is the center of the world. It is the most mature place and we are the most mature people in the world. And, growing up, we knew our future was bright because of it.
“The Americans were immature newbies whose time would quickly pass. The Israelis an infection which didn’t belong. And while the Europeans had their libertine philosophies and their nationalism, we had our far more solid submission to the will of Allah. We knew the West would spin out of control. We knew their technology would only add fuel to the fire of their untethered morality. Their World Wars would multiple and grow and lead to their total destruction. We, blessed with age and perspective, would survive and eventually, we’d flourish. We would be blessed by Allah, who we had not abandoned. We’d live in the shadow of G-d. We’d respect tradition and the prophet. And we’d keep going. Forever connected to our ancient city.”
Mohammed hasn’t looked up. But I can see he’s thinking.
“But we’re here?” he asks, finally. It almost isn’t question.
“That’s right, Mohammed.”
“And this is the newest place. The youngest one in the whole world.”
“That’s right, Mohammed.”
Sometime he stuns me with his clarity.
“Perhaps that’s why I can’t believe we’re here.”
He nods, solemnly and continues his pondering as we come to the booth. A man is waiting within.
We hand our identifying documents through a bank-like receptacle. I am incredibly scared of those documents simply disappearing. But we have little choice. And then a small robotic arm reaches out and collects blood from each of us. The man gestures to the right. A small cart rolls up – it is pulled by a little electric tug. On its back is a large package. Ibrahim opens it. A tent, a pager, water and food.
The tug disconnects from the cart and leaves. “Take the cart,” says the man in the booth. Good thing too, we were already carrying everything we could. We add some of our stuff to the cart and then Ibrahim grasps the end of it, preparing to walk.
“How long will we have to wait?” he asks as we turn and begin to look for a place to set up our temporary home.
“Our turn will come soon enough,” I reply, my eyes taking in the thousands of arrayed tents.
I feel like a traitor to my own history.
“Who’s next,” I ask.
Over the course of the day, we’ve put together an informal prioritization. There’s no humanitarian crises outside the fence, so we’ve decided to sort people by occupation. We need everything, but some people are needed first. For example, doctors. Although we can send people to Israel for treatment, we need some front-line diagnostics. So the eight General Practitioners came first.
We also decided to do the initial interviews as a group – to get a feel for the cadence and the nature of the interrogations. One of two of us would do the actual interview and the others would observe from another room. Afterwards, we’d compare notes and shared criticisms and make our decisions. And we’d rotate interviewers, so everybody got in some practice.
I was the only one, as the most public target, who would not directly interview anybody.
As I watched, I was reminded of a small bit of Byzantine history. When Emperor Constantine V invaded Arab lands, he brought back all the Christian populations of the places he took. He gave them land grants and resettled them in his own territory. The idea then was simple – he’d take productive people from his enemy’s domains and use them to strengthen his own empire.
I wondered when and how immigration had become a bad thing.
Seven of the doctors passed their interviews. The eighth failed.
We’d already decided that we weren’t going to requalify anybody. There was a simple rule: whatever qualifications they possessed had to be presented truthfully. If they were licensed in Syria or Pakistan, they need to state that in order to work. If they claimed qualifications they lack, they’d face exile. But, bottom line, they’d get to work that day.
With doctors in place, we next interviewed those families who the triage guard had noticed seemed to be sick. They were brought in and immediately assessed by our brand new doctors. If their cases were emergencies, they were transferred to Israel for care. If not, their families were put through the normal process. The doctors were to be paid a flat rate for their assessments. In time, we’d transition to the new system.
But, with those priorities behind us, we needed to decide who would be next.
Avigail looked up from her notes. “How about this guy?” she asks, “He was a director of civil engineering in Mosul, under the Americans. Then he moved to Damascus where he worked on civil projects.”
Itai is looking over her shoulder. “Look at his wife.”
“Abal Hussain? What about her?” asks Avigail.
“She’s a photographer and a blogger.”
“So what?” asks Avigail.
Itai, the hardened General, replies, “We’re building something here, she can record it and share it. We want somebody like her to watch things from the very beginning. If she’s any good, she can help it flourish.”
“Is she any good?” I ask.
Avigail pulls up the blog. Gorgeous images of Damascus at war fill the screen.
“That one,” I say, pointing at a picture of the old shuk, “Click on that one.”
Avigail opens in and we read, slowly, about the history of that place and the people who lived there. It pulls us in, deeply.
“She loves it,” says Itai, drawing in his breath, “She loves Damascus.”
“She stopped eight months ago,” says Avigail.
“I wonder why?” I ask no one in particular.
“I wonder,” says Itai, “Whether she could love this place as well.”
Elizabeth, the billionaire IT genius, selects their family on the PC. She clicks “Interview.”
A few minutes later, we can see a tent being folded as another family prepares for their interview.
The pager buzzes. I glance down and it reads, in Arabic, “Come to entrance 2, bring your belongings and tent.”
It is still the first day and I’m amazed that we’ve been selected so quickly.
“What does it mean?” asks Ibrahim.
“I have no idea,” I answer, “Maybe they need civil engineers.”
He smiles, we fold up the tent and load everything on the cart. In the last six months, we’ve become experts at packing and repacking our possessions.
We pull the cart towards a large sign labeled “2” above another armored porta-potty.
A guard ushers us through and we find ourselves in a large empty space surrounded by walls. There is no roof, but the floor is some rubbery substance punctuated with small holes. There is an exit directly opposite from where we came in.
“Good afternoon,” says a voice from a loudspeaker, “My name is Itai Ben-Eliezer. I am the Head of Security.”
“Hello,” I say, feeling awkward trying to talk to a faceless box, even if it has a name.
“We are going to start today by ensuring you don’t pose any personal threat… Do you have any weapons?”
“I have a pistol,” says Ibrahim.
“Back of my waistband.”
As always, his answers are short and to the point.
“Please remove it from your pants, remove the magazine, open the chamber, and place it near the exit.”
He does so and then returns to the center of the enclosure.
A hand snakes out from behind the exit and pulls away the pistol.
“Now,” says Itai, “Please unpack your belongings so we can verify there are no additional weapons.”
We do as he asks. Layers upon layers of our tightly packed possession come away into smaller and smaller pieces, like the skin of an onion. At some point Itai stops us. “That is sufficient.”
“We are going to scan you for explosives. There will be a puff of air from below.”
We nod and the puff follows.
Moments later the exit opens. A young soldier is standing there.
“Come on in,” he says, “We’ll take care of your stuff.”
We walk through and find ourselves inside the Protectorate.
What I see is an empty piece of scrub land with a few trailers. One thing stands out. A massive play structure – surrounded by nothing.
I’ve always lived in a city, in an established place. This is frighteningly empty.
I take what solace I can in that play structure; and the priorities it represents.
We’re directed towards a trailer. The soldier opens the door and we walk in. I was expecting a blast of air-conditioning but the room is on the edge of comfortable. This government isn’t wasting any money. It is either a sign of weakness or of prioritization. I can’t figure out which.
A short, friendly-looking, woman stands up from behind a desk and shakes my hand. She nods at Ibrahim, respecting the space between the sexes. And then she offers us a seat.
“My name is Avigail,” she says, “I want to introduce you to the Protectorate and then you can ask me questions about it. We’ll also have a few questions for you.”
We take our seats. There are about 10 chairs there. I guess they’re ready for larger families.
“This place,” says Avigail, once we’ve settled in, “Is not like any other place on earth. Our mission here is to build and create in the image of G-d. It calls for a new way of running things. But it also calls for commitment from those who join us… Do you understand?”
“I do,” says Ibrahim, surprisingly, “I like to build.”
I nod my agreement.
“We have unusual rules here,” says Avigail, “We are focused on productivity – the fruits of which will be invested in community and connection to the timeless. You do not need to be religious to live here. But whatever religion you adhere to, we will not permit anybody to seek a connection to the divine through destruction. If you preach destruction, we will exile you. If you take a life, we will do worse. There has been enough destruction outside these walls… Do you understand?”
I nod. I’m nervous, I’m scared. I don’t have much faith in these new sorts of ideas. I imagine the implementation will be very messy.
But I want a place where my children can flourish – and the place we’ve come from has no chance of flourishing.
“I need you to say it,” says Avigail.
“I understand,” I answer. Ibrahim follows. And then Mohammed. Abdul does not. When he’s wearing his hat, his injury isn’t that obvious.
“Abdul,” asks Avigail, I guess she has his name from our file.
“His brain is injured,” I say.
“Take off your hat,” I say, to Abdul.
He raises it, revealing a significant indentation.
She checks her notes and nods. “Okay, he doesn’t have to understand.”
Her phone buzzes and she picks it up and looks at it. A look of surprise crosses her face.
“Ibrahim,” she asks, suddenly changing the topic, “Are you the father of these children?”
“No,” answers Ibrahim. Once again managing as few words as he can.
I interject, “My husband was killed, in the army. We met afterwards.”
“That’s okay,” said Avigail, “We just have a concern. A very specific concern that women like you might have had their husbands held hostage so that other men could be smuggled in. Because of this, we’re going to need to interview you separately. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I say, “Do you also want to interview the children?”
“No,” says Avigail, “They make terrible witnesses. And the process can be incredibly stressful for them. They can play outside, if you’d like. We’ll have a soldier who can watch them.”
“I’d like that,” I answer. Abdul probably won’t climb the play structure. But Mohammed will, and he’ll enjoy it.
The soldier reappears at the door and guides my boys out.
As another soldier appears and guides Ibrahim away from me, I sit nervously.
I hope we pass the test.
“Where did Ibrahim get his education?” asks Avigail.
“Saddam Hussain University.”
“Why did he come to Damascus?”
“His family was killed in Mosul. His wife and three sons. ISIS had taken over. He’d worked with the government – he was a government official. They came to his house but he wasn’t there. So they killed his family. And he fled.”
“Why not go to Baghdad? People don’t normally flee into Syria.”
“He heard they were watching the routes towards Baghdad. He didn’t think he could make it. He thought he’d have a better chance going the other way. I don’t think he wanted to come to Damascus – just get out of Mosul. He ended up sneaking out what food and valuables he had, putting them in his bag and starting to walk.”
“What were their names?”
“His wife and children?”
“I don’t know. He’s never said.”
“Why not? I think he’s just been traumatized about his past. He doesn’t talk a lot.”
“How did you meet him?”
“My husband was conscripted and killed while in the army. I used to blog – taking photos and telling stories about Damascus. I spent what savings we had on ever more expensive groceries. And then I ran out. So I started begging. I knocked on doors and begged for food. I knocked on his door. I don’t know why, but he let me in. He’d managed to get himself a job with a paycheck from the government. His skills are valuable. He let us stay with him.”
The topic suddenly jumps again.
“When was Abdul injured?”
“After my husband was conscripted. He was out playing, there was a mortar. A rock must have hit him – judging by the dent. I don’t let him out of my sight anymore.”
“Does Ibrahim like him?”
“Abdul? I guess so. Ibrahim doesn’t speak much.”
“Does he love you?”
“He’s protected me. At great risk to himself. That’s what I care about.”
Avigail pauses. “Fair enough.”
Avigail ruffles through her notes.
“When?” she asks, suddenly.
“When did he protect you?”
“I’d brought the kids to get some ice cream – a very very special treat in a war zone. My grandparents had made it from goats’ milk. I was coming home when a militia member accosted me. The front lines kept moving and I guess, that day, we were almost on top of them. I was in sight of the house. The militia member told my kids to run – and they did. They ran to the house…”
I pause, “Do I have to talk about this?”
“Yes,” says Avigail, “I’m afraid so.”
I breathe deeply, “Okay,” I reply, “He covered my mouth and forced me into an empty store-front along the road. I tried to scream, but he hit me. Hard. I shut up. He started pulling my dress up, violently. And then Ibrahim appeared, behind him.”
“And Ibrahim shot him. Killed him on the spot. I still remember how his face exploded. He never had any idea what we coming. We ran home. I was so scared. Ibrahim was so scared. It would be clear he’d been killed, at short-range. There were powder burns. This wasn’t some sniper – that would be obvious. We were worried for days that somebody would find out, investigate and come for us. But nothing happened.”
“Why did he come for you?”
“Why did he save me? I have no idea. I guess he cared about me. It was certainly risky.”
“When did it happen?”
“About six months after we’d moved into his house.”
Avigail again looks at her notes.
“What color were his shoes?”
“The man who attacked you.”
“Black” I say.
“Black,” she repeats, “Okay…”
She continues, “So is that when you left?”
“No, we left later.”
“After they came for Abdul.”
“Who came for Abdul?”
“Militia men. They came to recruit him.”
“Why him, he doesn’t seem like an aggressive boy.”
“They wanted him to martyr himself. There’s less of a loss when the bomber is already damaged.”
There’s silence. And then Avigail softens dramatically.
“And so you left?”
“They gave us a day to decide. And we decided to run. To the only place we could. Here.”
“You, your kids, and Ibrahim.”
“Yes,” I answer.
“Thank you,” says Avigail, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Avigail comes back into the control room. “How does it look?”
“The stories match,” I say, “Ibrahim doesn’t talk much, but he told us more about why he let Abal in. You might like to know.”
“Because he thought she might be able to get him across borders.”
“Single men have a hard time traveling.”
“They sure do. So why did he protect her?”
“He doesn’t know. He didn’t really clarify – I’m guess living together made him feel some connection. You know they still aren’t married – they’re just together. He protects her and she gets him across borders.”
“It sounds like a wonderful match,” she says.
“It does, tremendous things can grow from foundations like these.”
She thinks for a moment and then says, “Have Daoud ask him about the shoes.”
Daoud, the diplomat, is interrogating Ibrahim.
“The militia man’s shoes?” I ask.
“Yeah. See what he says.”
Daoud is wearing an earpiece. I press a button and tell him what to do.
In the room, Daoud suddenly switches topics.
“What color were the shoes?”
“Which shoes?” asks Ibrahim.
“The man you killed. The man who was threatening Abal.”
Ibrahim thinks for just a second and then answers, “White.”
The answer is clear and definite and confident. Exactly what it should be.
Except that it doesn’t match.
We argue, of course. It is one question. One tiny detail in a flood of a story. But their answers were so confident and so certain. Nobody said they didn’t remember. They filled in a detail, and they got it wrong. It happens sometimes. People remember things incorrectly.
Or people coordinate their stories, beautifully. But mess up a detail.
Ultimately, I make the call.
He has to leave, he represents a threat.
There is screaming, crying and fighting.
The arguments come in a flurry of middle-eastern verbal struggle. “He has to stay,” Abal argues, “He can’t be forced out. He has to stay, they won’t let him live.”
There is more than simple convenience at work in this relationship.
But he is a threat. They can leave together, or she can stay with her children. Those are the options.
In a tearful split, they separate. Abal and her children stay.
Ibrahim is rejected. He promises to return.
I watch it all from my video – strangely disconnected from my decision.
Over the next few weeks, the city grows immensely.
For my part, I travel through it, watching and supporting and learning. The cream of a billion people are coming to a tiny city on the Golan. The sprouts of investment crack through the dirt – small markets, a medical clinic. Workmen and engineers begin to build the city – funded by our modest budget and the very beginnings of our tax revenues. Slowly, things rise.
With a tearful eye, Abal catalogues her new home and its growth. Even I can see that, reluctantly, she is beginning to fall in love with her new home.
And then 42 days in, Itai calls me into his office.
“I need to show you something,” he announces, gruffly.
He has me sit, he opens a web address, and then he plays a video.
It is Ibrahim. He is in an orange jumpsuit. And he is being beheaded.
And just like that I realize that I was wrong. I’d made the wrong call.
And I’d destroyed a life.
I stop showing up for interviews. I’m avoiding another decision.
I start avoiding the streets. I don’t want to see Abal. I’m ashamed by my decision.
Before the year is up, I’ve resigned.
The decisions that must be made are not decisions I can make.
I never wanted this position. It belongs to Prime Ministers or Presidents.
The city has grown in my absence. There were growing pains. There were attacks. I watched the news as the little city defended itself – and was defended by others. But millions live here now, in the metropolis on the heights. Its borders have been expanded greatly. Territories in both Syria and Israel have placed themselves under its rules. Freight lines and roads connect it to Haifa. A full-size airport connects it to the world. Its citizens enjoy full rights and they have recently earned the ability to vote for their leaders. Their passports can carry them almost anywhere in the world.
The ideas behind it are infecting the neighborhood; bringing the first shoots of life and potential to lands that have for decades been suppressed by totalitarian Islam.
It is the City on the Heights. Even as the images of Ibrahim crying for refuge fill my sleep – pride fills my days. It has been 42 years. I am not a young or healthy man.
And so my wife, who insisted the whole family live in the city in the first place, insists that we visit once more.
I’m walking through the shuk, amazed. It all seems so ageless – like it has been here forever.
But I can remember the emptiness that was here when we started.
People of every color and culture surround me. The borders still haven’t closed – and refugees arrive from the world over.
The air is vibrant with the unique life of this place.
I’m walking through the shuk when I see an older woman. She seems vaguely familiar. There’s a late-middle-aged man behind her. He is wearing a baseball cap. Beneath it, I can see the edges of a familiar indentation.
I want to look away. I want to run.
But the time has come for apology.
I steel myself and approach her. She inhales deeply as I approach. She’d seen me around, in those first few weeks, but I’m surprised she remembers me.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “For Ibrahim.”
“What?” she asks.
“I made the decision. The decision not to let him in. I killed him. I thought he was from ISIS and I was wrong and they killed him.”
She smiles broadly. “You weren’t wrong,” she answers, “They kidnapped my husband. They said they’d kill him if I didn’t get Ibrahim in. I tried to get Ibrahim in. I tried as hard as I could. I cried. Not for Ibrahim, but for my husband. But you caught him. And you exiled him. And then they killed him. And it turned out they’d already killed my husband.”
“Why’d they kill Ibrahim?” I ask, suddenly confused.
“I don’t know,” she answers, “I’ve never tried to understand. Maybe because he failed. Or maybe just because they thought it would weaken the Protectorate.”
I think about my decision to resign, prematurely. They weakened me. Perhaps they succeeded.
But then I look at the city that has been built and I realize that maybe they didn’t weaken the Protectorate.
Maybe the Protectorate was stronger with somebody else in my position.
“You were in charge?” she asks, “In the beginning?”
“I was,” I answer.
She smiles even more broadly. And then she turns to Abdul, her simple son.
“This,” she announces softly, “is the man who saved our lives.”
Looking at her, he answers in a soft voice that belies his size, “I like.”
I admire the beautiful boy carrying the bags of groceries.
I feel the smoothed cobblestones beneath my feet.
And I realize that this is truly a beautiful day.
to learn more about the rough ideas behind this story visit: http://createconnectprotect.com/pp/