In Spitting Distance

Taher Najib

Illustration by Michela Caputo

Act 2 : Paris, a sign from heaven

Paris, six monts later.

I go into the kitchen to make us coffee. I'm beginning to feel anxious, as I always do when I have to take a plane. I drain the last drop of coffee and pick up my suitcase. She turns the music off and locks the door behind us. We take the metro from République to Opéra; from there, a direct bus will take us to Roissy. I've made up my mind that whatever happens today, I won't lose my cool, I'll keep my temper. At Opéra, we down another espresso as there's a twenty-minute wait until the next bus. We enter Terminal A through door 2. We treat ourselves to one last glass of wine, then we say goodbye, holding each other so tight that I can count every vertebra in her lithe, dancer's body, pressed against mine, very close. A kiss, a prolonged kiss... and now she walks away and leaves the airport without looking back even once.

I head towards the check-in. The young woman behind the desk is very pretty.

I place my passport in front of her—it's blue—with my plane ticket inside an envelope. She removes the ticket from the envelope and scrutinises it, opens my passport and scrutinises it, looks up at me and scrutinises me. Then she looks down at my passport again, looks up at me, looks at my ticket, looks at me, looks at my passport again, my ticket, me, my passport... and me once again. Finally, she raises her hands and staring at me bemused, she asks:

"Vous êtes quoi?"

"Palestinien, Mademoiselle."

"Sur le passeport, c'est écrit 'Israélien'. Alors vous êtes quoi?"

"Mademoiselle, moi Israélien, et moi Palestinien. Moi la même personne."

"Comment ça, la même personne?"

"La même parce que moi Palestinien avec passeport israélien."

"Pourquoi?"

"Pourquoi quoi?"

"Pourquoi deux nationalités?"

"Two? I don't even have one proper nationality."

"Et... vous vous appelez comment?"

"Je suis..."

"Votre nom?"

"C'est écrit sur..."

"Monsieur, il y a un problème."

"A problem? What problem? I want to speak to the supervisor."

"Désolée, ce n'est pas possible. Encore une fois, comment vous appelez-vous?"

"C'est écrit sur..."

The young woman nods, gives me a broad smile and asks me, half serious and half mocking:

"Prove to me here and now that you are both Palestinian and Israeli at the same time."

"Prove what? That I am what I am? That I am who I am? Excuse-me, but are you saying that I might not be allowed to board the plane today? I'm not getting worked up, I'm not getting angry, I'm not shouting, I'm not threatening, I'm not losing my temper, I'd just like to know."

Then she leans towards me, coming close, very, very close:

"Monsieur, listen carefully and try to understand: you are Palestinian, you have an Israeli passport, you want to board the plane for Tel Aviv, with one name on your passport and a different name on your ticket, and all this on September 10th!!!! Monsieur, do you truly think, I mean seriously, do you truly seriously think... ? Monsieur, do you truly think we're going to allow you onto the plane?"

Instinctively, I thrust my face closer to hers, even closer, within whispering distance:

"Mademoiselle, now you listen carefully to me and I'm sure you'll understand. I'm delighted to accept this punishment that gives me another twenty-four hours in Paris."

I pick up my suitcase, gather my passport and ticket and take the first train back to the city centre.

First of all, I go to the travel agency and explain the problem to the man behind the desk. He gives me a replacement ticket for the same flight the next day. Without really thinking about it, I make my way back to the tree, our tree, on the banks of the Seine, the bicycle tree. Yesss! Brilliant! Another day in Paris! Yesss! Brilliant! I phone her to let her know, she picks up the phone the minute it rings.

She'll be there in half an hour. It is already 1 pm. I should have been on the plane by now. I go over what happened to me at the airport. I was asked to prove who I am and what I am ... and I failed, miserably. As is evident from the fact that here I am, right now, by the Seine and not in the plane that should have flown me back to Tel Aviv. Re-running the whole scenario sets me off laughing.

At this spot, there are very few people out for a stroll, only sightseeing boats going up and down the river. On catching sight of me, the passengers give me a little wave—a strange custom humans have when they become tourists—and not to be outdone, I wave back with extravagant gestures. Me neither, I don't know what I'm doing here today.

The more I think about what happened at the airport, the funnier I find it. I start laughing, not smiling, no, laughing. Laughing out loud, a real belly laugh, louder and louder. I can't stop, and anyway, I don't really want to. Now, I'm laughing my head off. I just can't stop. But suddenly, I feel embarrassed, sitting here all on my own, laughing like a madman. So I get out my cell phone and pretend to be deep in conversation. True, I'm in a foreign country, and so who cares. There's an Arabic proverb that goes: elbald elle bteerefesh hida fiha shammer wekhra fiha, "in a country where you don't know anyone, you can pull your trousers down and shit in peace". But it's a long time since I—who this morning wasn't able to board the plane home—felt like a foreigner here. In any case, no more than I do back there, in my homeland. My homeland is the one where, at night, I lay my head on the pillow.

I look up and realise that she's been standing watching me for a good five minutes:

"Who are you talking to on the phone?"

"Myself."

"I thought so. What happened?"

"They wouldn't let me onto the plane."

"Why not?"

"Parce que Palestinien et Israélien, ce n'est pas la même chose, ma chérie!"

"Merde!"

"Don't worry. I was lucky. The travel agency has given me a new ticket for the same flight tomorrow."

"Hang on! What's the date tomorrow?"

"September the 11th."

"They didn't allow you on the plane on September the 10th, but they will on September the 11th!!!"

"Exactement!"

"That'll be something!"

I don't care. I'm thrilled at the idea of having to fly on September the 11th. Another sign from heaven. It is fate that brought me here, and it is fate that is sending me back home now. This whole business makes me laugh, and I'll be laughing tomorrow too. To hell with the bloodthirsty country they're trying to prevent me from returning to because I was born with one name and the state decided on another. To hell with the theatre in Israel. It'll just have to wait for me for one more day. I've spent my whole life waiting! To hell with politics! I'm so glad not to have to talk politics. Politics have failed and now madness rules. Our madness versus their insanity, their insanity versus our madness. To hell with this war of mutual annihilation. One day common sense will have to prevail. I'm so happy that Osama has given me the opportunity to stay an extra twenty-four hours in Paris. To hell with that country where people are tearing each other's guts out, to hell with duty, commitments. To hell with the lot of them! They'll have to wait another day for me. After all, I've spent my whole life waiting.

I remove the padlock from her bicycle, but I don't touch mine. This time, we're going to ride the streets of Paris on one bike, her bike. "You pedal and I'll sit on the handlebars," she says. Her bicycle is straight out of the 1950s, the kind with very big handlebars. I race to the apartment and grab my pillow which is still on the bed, and place it on the handlebars. Like a gentleman, I invite her to mount; as soon as she's seated on the handlebars, facing me, she rests her head on my shoulder. When we reach Boulevard Voltaire, we head in the direction of Bastille. I ride around the Place de la Bastille five times, while we decide where we want to go and, as usual, Saint-Michel wins. I can't see the road with her perched on the handlebars. So as not to hinder me, she leans forward, pressing herself against my chest. To prolong this embrace, I'd be prepared to ride not only the streets of Paris but to criss-cross the whole of France. The streets are packed, but I feel as if she and I are alone in the world, in this city which, suddenly, I no longer want to leave. Amid the hubbub, all I can hear is the sound of her breathing in my ear, so calm, so soothing, so intimate and so romantic, I admit. From Saint-Michel, we cut through to Saint-Germain. We stop to drink a hot chocolate at the Café Molière and set off again in the direction of Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Placide, Saint-Jacques and Châtelet...

It's three in the morning. Raindrops are beginning to fall, cooling the heat of our bodies. She is literally plastered to me; I let go of the handlebars and place my hands on her waist. Now it is her hips that are my handlebars: to turn left, I push her left hip, and to turn right, I push the right hip. She rests her legs on my shoulders and leans back, her head towards the front wheel... "Mon chéri," she shouts, "mon chéri, with my head upside-down like this, I can see where you're taking me... I want to go back to the tree, our tree." And, since I have promised to do whatever she wishes, I wheel the bike around a hundred-and-eighty-degrees and pedal like crazy in the direction of our tree. It hasn't moved, our tree, it's standing there, the same as ever. Visibly, it will never need to and probably will never want to fly from here.

For her, my departure tomorrow spells the end of our relationship. I find it hard to grasp, I find it hard to acknowledge... I absolutely refuse to accept it.

I came to Paris determined not to grow attached to anything I couldn't leave within ten minutes.

I do not believe, as she insists, that there's no point my going back. When my country calls on me, I must obey. Nothing and nobody can dissuade me from performing at the National Theatre, in Tel Aviv, in a play about the brutality of colonialism, from performing in the land where, for ages, war has been raging for exactly the same reasons as in the play. And besides, I can't stay away from the chaos for too long, otherwise, afterwards, I won't be able to live in it any more, understand it, cope with it, make it mine. I can't leave the chaos and the bloodlust to spread without going back and immersing myself in it from time to time. Otherwise, it will get the better of me, crush me, and drive me crazy. At regular intervals, I need to go back home and pay my dues to the chaos.

I came to Paris after Ramallah to preserve my freedom; and so I won't do anything that stands in the way of that freedom. I want to go back, even if our relationship suffers, even if it means separation.

She takes my hand and pulls me along. Suddenly, she begins to dance, with her entire being. Rising and falling at the same time, stepping forward and back at the same time, love and hatred, tenderness and violence, all at the same time.

"You are so beautiful, so superb when you dance... You are so..." She interrupts me by placing her lips on mine and forcing me to join her in a "dance of death" as she calls it...

Again, I feel raindrops. "Please... don't do it, don't go. Take this as a sign from heaven. Don't be so stubborn. I want you so much. What will happen once you're back? How will you be able to live there, when you couldn't before? What has changed? What do you know? Tell me, what guarantees you that something has changed? What about our plans? What about us? I absolutely refuse to go and live there, in a country where they don't treat people like human beings, where they don't let people do as they wish. I don't want to begin a new life over there, when my life is here. And you'd love to stay here, but you dare not admit it to yourself."

Zuzu...

I don't have time for a shower. It is already 7 am and I have to be at the airport in less than an hour.


Wednesday September 11, 2002... Bonjour...

At the airport, we have a coffee—perhaps our last, if they let me board the plane this time. Carrying my suitcase, I head for the check-in desk and find myself facing the same young woman as the previous day. "Bonjour!" I boom, glancing at my girlfriend to watch her reaction. "Bonjour," replies the woman at the check-in, who recognises me straight away. She hurriedly picks up my ticket, examines it, looks at my passport, examines it, looks at me, then asks if I have any other luggage to check in. My suitcase, that's all! I say goodbye to my girlfriend, place a kiss on her eyelids and walk determinedly towards passport control, without looking back even once.

Here I am at last. And now, it's make or break. I place all my documents before the officer, including my passport.

"Bonjour!" I say, amiably. But the moment he opens my passport and sees my name, he shoots up from his seat, comes out of his booth and motions me to follow him. As this is the first time I see him acting in this way since I've been waiting in line, I have no clue what's going on. And I don't like it one bit.

He takes a step forward and says:

"I'd like to ask you a few questions if you don't mind, Monsieur."

"Bonjour! I won't answer any questions and I won't confirm that my name is my name until you admit that this whole charade is because I'm a Palestinian trying to board a plane on September 11," I say with the utmost calm.

"Monsieur, today we've been given particularly strict instructions by the Israeli Embassy," he replies limply.

Voilà. I try to reassure him:

"Ce n'est pas grave, pas grave du tout. On an ex-cep-tional day like this, it's quite natural to be given ex-cep-tional instructions! Go ahead, ask me everything you have to ask, and I'll cooperate."

"Puisque ce n'est pas personnel, il n'y a pas de probème,"

"Take this number while we check your passport."

"Go ahead, no problem. But while I'm waiting I'd like an espresso and a glass of water, sparkling water if possible."

Nearby is a row of four seats. I sit on the second one. Two minutes later, the passport guy is back with a tray. On it, there's a coffee, a glass of water and a Bounty. I hadn't expected so much. I take the tray gratefully. He apologises, there wasn't any sparkling water, and off he goes again. He still has my passport.

Five minutes later, the guy returns with three bearded men in white jellabyas; the shortest of the three is at least six foot six. They walk towards the seats where I'm waiting. Ominous. When they're just a few feet away, it suddenly dawns on me! That's what it is, beyond a doubt! That's what they've got me pegged as! The tallest guy sits on the outside, the middle one between him and me, and the shortest one sits on my other side. That's how I found myself hemmed in. The minute the last one is seated, they chorus: "as-salamu aleikum wa-rahmatu Allah we-barakatu". "Bonjour!" I reply, picking up my tray to move away from them. I don't know if what I'm doing is good or bad, but one thing is certain: this is the last thing I need, today of all days.

At 10.25, the passport control guy comes back. Only five minutes until take-off. He hands me back my passport and I give him back the number. He apologises for the delay. No problem, I say, turning round to head for the departure gate. But he follows me.

"Bonjour! Don't worry, I'll manage. I understand you had to carry out checks, but..."

"I have to escort you, Monsieur."

"Really, it's not necessary, there's no need to make amends."

"I'm sorry, Monsieur, but I'm obliged to escort you onto the plane."

"Obliged?"

"Yes, those are the orders we've been given for today. I have to."

"OK, if that's the case, let's go."

And we set off, me in front, him behind. On reaching the top of the gangway, he shakes my hand and wishes me "Bon voyage".

I step inside the cabin. The hundred and fifty or so passengers are all sitting quietly in their seats, their safety belts fastened. They're waiting for take-off. To get to my seat in row 47, I have to walk almost the entire length of the plane. I don't like the fact that the hundred and fifty passengers are all staring at me, as if they've finally grasped why their flight is delayed. On the one hand, they're relieved the plane can finally take off now everyone is on board. But, on the other hand, they are anxious that the plane is going to take off with the cause of the delay seated among them.

Faithful to the promise I made myself, I remain calm. Like an actor playing a particularly challenging part, I take on the role assigned to me by the passengers, playing it to the hilt. I walk to my seat with exasperating slowness, there's no rush, I have all the time in the world ... As I advance towards row 47, my movements become sudden, jerky, unpredictable – the sort of movement that could turn into anything.

There's a vague itch on my back. I spin round as if I've been attacked from behind. It feels as if a fly brushed my face. I pretend I want to thump someone. A woman holding a baby on her knee implores me with her eyes, eyes filled with all the prayers in the world, for the love of God, for the baby sleeping in her lap, for her, for all those aboard this plane, and even for me: don't do "it", give up, you'll regret it! Count to ten... or at least to three!

A man and a boy are sitting in row 47. The moment I boarded the plane, they realised that they would have the privilege of sitting right next to me. I fasten my safety belt with meticulous care, which is unlike me, the process lasts a good minute and a half. When I've finished, the plane starts to move. To my delight, for the first time in my life, I've missed the safety demonstration, the tedious and depressing safety demonstration by the stewardess who explains the best way to hit the ground, which part of the body you should present first when you fall out of the skies, those same skies that a moment ago remained cruelly deaf to the prayers of the passenger with the baby on her knee. As I've been given a part to play, I perform it enthusiastically, especially as I've made up my mind that today, whatever happens to me, I won't lose my cool, I'll keep my temper.

Paris and everything I have experienced there, is receding into the distance, getting smaller and smaller, barely the size of a packet of Gauloises. Paris is getting further away... me too, I'm getting further away... Paris disappears... Adieu la ville lumière.

Act 3 : Tel Aviv...

translated from the Hebrew by Ros Schwartz

The English translation was based on Jacqueline Carnaud's French version, in collaboration with Jacqueline Carnaud and Taher Najib.



Read the original in Hebrew

Read translator’s note

Taher Najib is an actor and playwright, who has held leading roles in productions at the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, the Al-Kassaba Theatre in Ramalla, and the Hebrew theatre in Jaffa, as well as roles in films such as The Olive Harvest, The Moon Sinking, and I Frank. As a playwright he has written three plays: In Spitting Distance, a play published in French and produced in Palestine, Belgium and France, as well as Both Upon a Time and Sea Wall. He regularly gives lectures and debates around the world on the topic of political theatre.




Ros Schwartz has over the last thirty years translated some sixty works of fiction and non-fiction from French, particularly Francophone writers such as Andrée Chedid, Aziz Chouaki, Fatou Diome and Dominique Eddé. Her new translation of Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince was published in 2010. She co-translated Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti which won the 2008 Duncan Lawrie International Dagger award. In 2009 she was made a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her services to French literature. A Fellow of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and a previous chair of the European Council of Literary Translators Associations, she is currently chair of English PEN's Writers in Translation committee.


This play was originally written in Hebrew in 2006. The following translation was completed in 2010, and was based on Jacqueline Carnaud's French version, in collaboration with Jacqueline Carnaud and Taher Najib.


Content