Listening In

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Artwork by Ifada Nisa

I make his coffee with two sugars and then I spit in it. I put the mug on his desk on the way to my computer, feeling his glance rub against my ass until I reach my chair and sit down. Noam doesn’t like me to bring him coffee. It’s not my job. It attracts attention. I’m a soldier in a phone surveillance unit, not some paper-pushing clerk. He tried to tell me that more than once, but I just smiled and kept making him coffee with two sugars, the way he likes it, and I kept spitting in it. Finally he said it to my face: the fact that we went out four times doesn’t mean you have to make me coffee the whole time you’re in the army. But I still make him coffee. I know he enjoys it. And I still spit in it so I enjoy it too.

Nasrin wouldn’t have spit in the mug. Nasrin would have spit in his face. But Nasrin is crazy. Everyone says she’s crazy. Her mother, who calls once a day and cries for her to get married already. Her brother, who calls once every two days and yells that she’s a bitch who doesn’t care about anyone. Her boss in the restaurant, who at first called her himself and then hired a lawyer to call for him, and finally, his wife, who called and begged her to withdraw her lawsuit. They all told Nasrin she was crazy. Even Nasrin herself sometimes says she’s crazy. I got the idea of spitting in Noam’s coffee from her. Before then, I never thought that, instead of drowning in everything I have inside me, I could just take it all out in a sticky drop of spit. I heard her tell Hoda that that’s what she does to all the Jews who piss her off in the restaurant, she spits in their coffee. Hoda told her she’d end up in jail because of it, but I thought it was brilliant.

Sometimes I think no one likes Nasrin but me. Maybe because no one spends as much time with her as I do. Seven hours every day for the past sixteen months. After what happened with Noam on the last of our four dates, I came down with a virus that kept me in bed all weekend, shaking and vomiting up white blobs. They gave me a week of sick leave, but after two days, the minute I felt well enough to sit up, I went back to the base. The officers were sure I was devoted to my job. The soldiers were sure I was sucking up to the officers. But the truth is that I missed her. She was the only one I missed.

It didn’t seem weird to me, realizing that I missed Nasrin when I was sick. But it turned weird when I started thinking she missed me too. I felt it in every conversation she had on the day I went back to work after the virus. It didn’t matter who she talked to—her mother, her brother, Hoda—at some point she said “I missed you.” Even when she called to set up shifts at her new job. At the end of every conversation, she said “shalom” in Hebrew. She did that sometimes—everyone I listen to does that sometimes. Arabs always throw some Hebrew words into their Arabic when they talk. But on the day I went back after two days of sick leave at home, she did it in every conversation. One minute or twenty minutes in Arabic, and then one “shalom” in Hebrew a minute before the end of the conversation, kind of soft and intimate, a tone I had never heard from her before.

I’d had my suspicions even before then. The time they arrested her brother, she called her mother and cursed the Security Services for half an hour, talking so quickly that I barely had time to type, and in the end, she said, “I hope you have a shitty shift.” Her mother didn’t understand what shift Nasrin was talking about, and for a minute, I thought maybe she was talking to me. Then there was the time after she spray-painted the graffiti with Jawad. She told Hoda about it, and in the middle of the story, when she was describing how she sat on his shoulders so she could spray high up on the wall and felt his head between her thighs, she suddenly stopped the story and said in Hebrew, “Are you interested?” I froze in my chair because I sensed she wasn’t talking to Hoda, but to me. Her tone was different—as defiant as usual, but a little curious too. As though it made her horny to know that I was listening to her. As though it made her important.

When I told Yuval about it, he laughed at me. “She might know someone’s listening in, but she doesn’t know it’s you. She must think it’s just some ‘fucking Security Services guy.’” Yuval said there was no way it turned her on. That if she was smart enough to know someone was listening in, then she definitely hated me the way she hated the occupation. And I thought: the way she hates everyone. Because Nasrin—and that’s what’s so great about her—hates everyone. Not just the Israelis, who had put her father in prison for fifteen years, released him, then put him right back inside again. She also hated her father, “the crazy bastard,” she called him, who preferred the Muslim Brotherhood to his own kids and liked demonstrations more than his wife. She hated her mother too, and the pompous lecturers at Haifa University, and the students who played at being militants but were as phony as their lecturers. She had clear reasons for hating everyone. She hated everyone so well that it was almost like loving them.

Nasrin observed people very carefully, found the one single trait that defined them, and tugged at it as if it was a loose thread in a sweater that, when pulled, would completely unravel it. People wear sweaters all the time, but it isn’t until you learn to knit that you really understand them. How they’re put together, how that whole thing that envelops and warms you is actually just one thread. I started to knit in the middle of the course. One of the religious girls taught me. During breaks, she knitted skullcaps for her fiancé. At first I knitted skullcaps too, but whenever anyone asked me who it was for, I had no answer, so I asked the religious girl to teach me how to knit sweaters. And somehow, when we finished the course, it became the only thing I did between shifts. People on the base didn’t talk to me much, or maybe I didn’t talk to them much. I don’t know how it starts, but after it does, it’s impossible to change. I thought Noam might change it, but after our fourth date, when I was too narrow for him to penetrate, we stopped dating and we stopped talking, and I gave up thinking that something on the base would change and started making him coffee.



When I was a kid, they told me that Allah hears and sees everything, and so every time I went to pee, I was afraid that Allah heard and saw me. I learned how to pee quietly, so no one could hear, and how to hold it in for days at a time until I was about to burst. The pediatrician prescribed an antibiotic for urinary tract infections and told me to pee every hour, even if I didn’t feel like I had to. My mother said that Allah the merciful and the compassionate would cure me very quickly. That was the first time I got sick because of God. But I didn’t care, I liked knowing that He was always with me. As though I was important. As though I wasn’t alone.

When my father, the crazy bastard, was arrested again, that feeling came back. Allah and I had split up for good when I was twelve, right before I started middle school, but after my father was arrested for the second time, I felt his presence again. As though the air was thicker when I spoke. The invisible outline of an ear. I told Tawfiq about it and he said I was crazy, it was some fucking Security Services guy. They’d been listening to all of us since Dad was arrested. Tawfiq told me to be careful about what I said because from now on, the fucking Security Services were waiting to lasso every word that came out of my mouth. “They don’t know you’re a motormouth and you talk just for the sake of talking. I hope you don’t end up in prison like your dad.”

The last time we went to visit my father, he yelled at me for wearing jeans and I yelled at him to get out of prison before he tells me what to wear. The guard yelled at both of us to be quiet, then we both yelled at the guard and the visit ended. My mother cried quietly all the way home and I felt bad for making her cry. I hated her for always crying so quickly and so well, shaming us into feeling bad for making her cry. I never cry. The tears never make it past the security barrier in my throat. I’m angry a lot. I’m really good at being angry. People ask me to be angry for them. If they have to complain about a teacher, for example, or demand a time extension for all the Arab students because of the language differences, they ask me to do the talking for them, even though I myself don’t need an extension. My Hebrew is perfect. I’ve been reading Hebrew since I was seven. All the famous children’s book writers. But I still go and ask for them, and if necessary, I fight and get angry for them. In the end, they thank me and go sit on the lawn in the sun, and I don’t know whether I’m invited or not, so I stay in class with my phone and call Hoda.


It never would have happened to Nasrin, being so narrow that a guy wouldn’t be able to penetrate her. Nasrin has the most fantastic sex in the world. I heard her talking to Hoda the idiot about it. She’s already had three guys, Nasrin, and even though they begged her to stay with them, she dumped them all at the end of Ramadan after the last episode of the Egyptian TV series everyone was talking about. The minute it ended, she went from house to house and told each one of them it was over. She walked through the entire town of Um-al-Fahm and kissed all her guys for absolutely the last time, and with Jawad it turned into a wild standing-up fuck. Hoda told Nasrin that hell had been invented for people like her, and Nasrin laughed and told Hoda she was an idiot. Afterwards, I looked for that Egyptian series. I understood everything, my Arabic is good enough.

I was dying to know what she looked like. I asked Boaz and he had no idea what I wanted from him. Yuval said there was nothing as clueless as the brains of officers in the unit. He’d once been an officer in the unit, so he knew. I told him that as my big brother, he could help me just this once and think of a way for me to find out what she looked like. He said I could talk to our counterparts in the General Security Services, but I needed a good reason. Not that it was a problem for them—they definitely had a picture of Mustafa Tahrir’s daughter. They had pictures of everybody, but they didn’t pass them on to obsessive corporals. I’m not obsessive. I’m curious. When you spend so much time with someone, it’s only normal.

In the end, I decided she’s tall, like me. But she doesn’t hide her height and always try to look shorter like I do, she wears her height with pride. Accentuates it with high heels. When she walks in them, the clack-clack-clack guarantees that everyone in Um-al-Fahm knows that Mustafa Tahrir’s daughter is coming home at four in the morning again. Someone else might take off the high heels when she reaches her street and carry them the rest of the way, but not Nasrin. Clack! Clack! Clack! And every deliberate clack, like a trumpet fanfare, announces, “I’m here!” Just like every quick, quiet step of mine in the morning on the way to my post announces, “I’m not here. Keep ignoring me.” Her breasts are small like mine, but assertive, with nipples erect even under her bra. Another girl would choose a thicker bra, but Nasrin, she doesn’t care, she walks around with those prominent nipples, and the world can go fuck itself.

But sometimes I think she actually has large breasts, D cups, like the ones I saw in the shower during basic training, so huge and beautiful that they terrified me. Big, full breasts, heavy in their bra, with round, perfect nipples, completely dark, much darker than her skin. I think about Nasrin’s belly button, whether it’s an innie or an outie, round or narrow. And I think about what she’s like down there. Is the hair short and bushy like Tamar’s from the course, or frighteningly long like Maya’s, or thin and wavy like mine? She has a head of curly, chestnut-colored hair, that I know for sure. A full, beautiful mane. She talks to Hoda about it a lot—how the guys love her hair, how she’s dying to cut it and shock them out of their minds. Hoda told her not to do it, that she’d go to hell for it. Hoda didn’t understand that Nasrin wasn’t the least bit afraid of hell, only of boredom.


When Hoda answers, I tell her about all the girlfriends I have at the university. And all the guys I know. Hoda has no girlfriends or guys because when she was seventeen, she married someone from Tira and the only thing she does in life is have kids. Her ass is like an old woman’s, wide and fat from so much sitting at the medical clinic with her middle kid, who needs inhalations. I make up stories for her just to hear her talk about hell. Hoda talks about hell better than anyone else I know. She makes it sound like it’s a short ride from Tira. Except for that, she’s as dumb as a doorknob. She’s already been with a man, so how come she hasn’t figured out that I’m still a virgin? That I still haven’t had my first kiss? That’s why it’s no fun telling Hoda things. It’s like talking to a well that sends back a scary echo but never says anything new. She repeats everything I tell her with echoes of hell, but I never hear her say anything of her own. Even when I told her about the graffiti I spray-paint with Jawad, she never asked what we actually write on the walls, which I think is the most basic question any person with a bit of sense should ask. All Hoda talks about are the chances of getting caught and about Israeli prisons, which sound suspiciously like hell. It’s so boring that I almost hang up on her, but then I remind myself that I’m not talking to Hoda, but to her.

My listener is obviously a girl. Tawfiq said it’s a fat guy with a skullcap, but I know it’s a girl. I feel her breath on the back of my neck when I hold the phone to my ear. I hear her fingers typing every word I say. She has purple polish on her nails and they make a small tapping noise on the keys, tapping out every word that comes out of my mouth. Fucking bitch. Whore. The fact that she exists is supposed to scare me, make me talk less, but since I realized she was there, I haven’t shut up for a minute. Just so she doesn’t get bored. At first it was a kind of game, a story a day for my listener. But then the story became important. The guys, for example, how I toy with the three of them because they all want me and I just want to be free. I cried so hard the day this fiction ended. My eyes almost fell out of my head from so much crying. I wore sunglasses so nobody would see, but no one around here ever really looks. They all ate their Ramadan sweets, busy with their own stuff, so I started fighting with my mother just so there would be something instead of the story of the guys that had ended.

A peacock is a fairly ugly bird until it opens its tail and that’s how I am until I open my mouth. Anger makes me beautiful. It puts red in my too-pale cheeks. It makes my lips a little less thin. I don’t look 5’2” tall when I’m angry. You would think I was at least 5’3”. My glasses are still there, and so is my hair, which looks ratty no matter how much I wash it. But I radiate something, the closest to beautiful I can be. My listener doesn’t need to be angry to be pretty. She’s a blond from the suburbs whose father is a pilot and grandmother a Holocaust survivor who wrote a book about it. She’s new at her job and everyone puts her down, but she’ll have the last laugh when she marries the best looking guy in the Security Services. They’ll have three children and none of them will need inhalations.


I didn’t want to go on leave. Nasrin had just had a terrible fight with her mother and her brother, the worst they’d ever had, and I wanted to be there for her. But Boaz said you can’t refuse to go on leave, and after listening to her until midnight on Thursday, I took my bag and left for a whole week, hoping everything would be okay.

While I was on leave, I tried to call Noam, but he didn’t answer. The house was quiet. After three days of that, I took a bus to Um-al-Fahm. I wore my uniform so I didn’t have to pay the fare, but when I got to the central bus station there, I changed into civilian clothes because I didn’t want to attract too much attention. There was only one stall and the three women waiting all looked at me. I knew that none of them was Nasrin. One was fat, had a sweaty face and was wearing a hijab. The second was a girl in the kind of school uniform that only Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox wear, and the third was actually Nasrin’s age, but you could tell from her face that she’d never had the guts to really think about anything. I bought baklava in a large store where old men were drinking coffee and then sat on a bench to eat it. I didn’t have a real plan. I hoped that if I stayed there long enough, she would walk past me and I would recognize her instantly. Or I would suddenly hear her voice behind me. I know her voice so well: when she’s sarcastic with her brother. When she fights with her mother. She’s at her nastiest when she’s on the verge of tears. Then she shouts out things that I hardly dare to think. I waited on the bench that whole day, but she didn’t come. I walked on the streets she lives on, ate three more pastries, and because I didn’t drink anything at all, I was nauseous.

When my leave was over and I went back to the base, they told me that Nasrin had tried to kill herself. I lost it. I screamed. I cried. I asked why no one had told me, why no one had called to let me know. They looked at me like I was crazy, but I knew that if I hadn’t gone on leave, if I had been listening to her, she wouldn’t have done it. She would have known I was there, as always, that every word that comes out of her mouth is written on my heart. As always.


I made up the story about spitting in the mugs of the Jewish customers for her. I’d felt the spit collecting in my mouth a thousand times, but only with her did I finally manage to get it out without being afraid they’d fire me.

I got used to her, the bitch. On the worst days, when I felt like I was dying from so much dust and misery on the streets, I waited to make a call and hear her listening. And then, all at once, she disappeared. It was the hottest week of the year, disgusting days as yellow as an egg yolk that had been in the sun too long. I spoke on the phone and she wasn’t there. I checked conversation after conversation, and nothing. It made me nauseous. I walked in the street, knowing she was gone and might never come back, and all the fucking, the graffiti, and the lawsuit against the restaurant I had talked about for her benefit became empty words, like a car after someone’s taken the air out of the tires.


Nasrin never tried to kill herself. They told me that just to see how I’d react. After they did see, they spoke to the commanding officers. Boaz wanted me to take another leave, and go to a different base afterwards. If Yuval hadn’t intervened, that’s what would have happened. I didn’t have the strength to scream at them, I’d used up all my screams when I thought Nasrin was dead. Yuval came to the unit with all his officer’s bars on his shoulders and said that no way would they toss his sister out of the unit and transfer her to a desk job at some godforsaken hole in the wall. I knew he said it because you could hear him shouting on the other side of the base. But right after he left the office, he gave me our secret signal—moving his pinky behind his right ear—so I’d know that everything was okay. He used to do that every time he managed to convince our parents to let us do something. Yuval is the kind of person who can scream like a lunatic one minute and give a piano recital the next. As if his anger is a kind of coat he wears when it’s cold, then takes off and hangs up when he comes into a warm room. I’m not like that. After they told me they were just kidding about Nasrin, it took me half an hour to stop choking up, even though I knew there was no reason to cry. And even when I finally started to breathe normally and people around me said, “Look, she calmed down,” I still choked up inside. I choked up inside for weeks.

Last night I dreamed that I was Nasrin, and I knew I was listening to me. My hair was chestnut-colored and beautiful. I had a different smell, heavy and sweet, and I had just gotten my period, red-purple blood that stained my uniform. I was wearing a school uniform like the girl from Um-al-Fahm, but with a shoulder strap for my beret, and I knew that I’d lost my beret again and they’d call me in for a disciplinary hearing. I wasn’t scared because I was Nasrin and I knew that if anyone dared to say anything about my beret, I’d tear him to pieces with my words the way kids tear the legs off a spider. I was Nasrin and I knew that I was listening to me. It was a wonderful dream.


Then I knew that my listener is short and mousy, like me. And she doesn’t know what to do with her hair either. She listens to me the way people used to listen to radio skits. The life I have is more interesting to her than the life she has. That’s my revenge. My listener hears everything but she doesn’t see anything. She doesn’t see the cuts on my hand after I fight with my mother at home and the teachers at the university, or how I stay alone in class when everyone else is on the lawn. I don’t tell her about that so she won’t be sad. My listener loves me. I know it. She loves me the way Allah loves everyone, hears everything, and still loves us, loves us despite everything He hears, because He is merciful and compassionate, and so is my listener. That’s why, if I tell her about the cuts, if I tell her that I’m going up to the highest floor in the university tower to jump, my listener will try to stop me. She’s in the Security Services, and in the Security Services, they care very much about the security of every citizen.

translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston