CONTROVERSIAL. BOLD. COMPELLING.
A Story Exploring Both Sides of Fate
Free-lance writer Zach Miller doesn’t mind going the extra mile for a good story, but 7,500 miles is a bit more than he bargained for. Nevertheless, when his closest friend fortuitously points the way to Israel, reluctantly he goes.
In the caldron of intrigue, politics, and terrorism that is the modern Middle East, Zach uncovers a plot—one that potentially threatens the lives of perhaps millions. His problem? There are two sides to every coin, and at least two sides in every war. But in this kind of conflict, information is a commodity, and misinformation, a weapon. Zach might be the unexpected emissary, the man with an answer, but sadly, neither side trusts him. Worse still, both sides will do anything in their power to stop him.
Far from home, in a strange and at times incomprehensible land, Zach has no resources other than his own ingenuity…and a desire to be on the side of truth. That might be too tall an order in an encounter where both combatants are dead certain that there is only one truth: theirs.
Mistaken Enemy, the first of the Zach Miller Stories, is a heart-racing account of hate, revenge and destiny, ultimately testing the boundaries of human love and will.
National Indie Excellence Awards
Award-Winning Finalist in Fiction: General
USA Best Book Awards
Nehamen maintains the thriller’s pace through believable dialogue, short paragraphs, chapter-ending cliffhangers and by weaving in relevant background information on the Arab-Israeli conflict…similar to those terrorist-themed TV dramas like 24 or Homeland, the prison torture scenes are especially convincing and lifelike. Zach’s snappy narration–“I’m excited! I’m also a damn fool”–enlivens the story…riveting, ripped-from-the headlines suspense novel.
Readers not usually interested in political thrillers will find Mistaken Enemy uniquely gripping and nearly impossible to put down, from its intriguing introduction to its masterful method of personalizing politics. Mistaken Enemy features the rare ability to juggle a myriad of plots and subplots to become a real winner. It’s a standout in the world of either political novels or thrillers, and is highly recommended as a captivating read.
D.Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
I enjoyed spending time with Zach since he is three-dimensional, highly intelligent, observant, and expresses himself in an interesting and entertaining manner. The plot is enough to keep pages turning and I believe readers will want to read more books featuring Zach. 5 out of 5 on Structure, Organization, and Pacing; Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar; Plot and Story Appeal; Character Appeal and Development; and, Voice and Writing Style.
Readers Digest Book Awards
Mistaken Enemy is an intriguing and carefully drawn work that moves at breakneck speed, with early hints that unfold in a series of surprising ways. The novel does not waste words, but instead features a first-person narrator with a distinctive, colloquial, and dramatic voice. It is heavy on action rather than description, from its teaser of a prologue through to Zach’s eventual imprisonment. Mistaken Enemy is a smart thriller from a talented voice…perfect for thriller readers looking for quick scenes and multiple moving parts.
A compelling thriller linking secret operations, deception, revenge and murderous plans!
With its quick witted dialogue and storyline that delves deep into the complex world of Israeli-Palestinian politics, Nehamen has crafted a suspenseful and intriguing thriller, filled with revenge, buried family secrets, deception and dastardly intent. With his extensive background in forensic and clinical psychology, Nehamen brings realistic understanding and insights into his characters’ motivations and intents to this incredible story that rings both outlandish and credible. His descriptions of Zach’s feelings and reactions while imprisoned or in traumatic situations are particularly strong.
Zach is also an interesting protagonist who is full of curiosity and has a very adventurous spirit. His views are apolitical and non-religious at the start but as the story develops, his character grows considerably in the story, yet he is still young enough to have lots of room to grow in future books. Thriller fans will find there are more than enough surprising twists and amazing revelations to make for a very interesting story from a new author with the promise of more to come! The implications of the story about what fanatics will consider on both sides in this story will reverberate in your mind long after you finish this dramatic story! Enjoy!
A Zach Miller Adventure: Book 1
Dennis A Nehamen
Copyright @2016 Dennis A Nehamen All Rights Reserved
Published by Golden Poppy Publications™ Los Angeles, CA
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission from Golden Poppy Publications or Dennis A Nehamen, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
All images, logos, quotes, and trademarks included in this book are subject to use according to trademark and copyright laws of the United States of America.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013947639
Cover and Book Design by Nick Zelinger, NZ Graphics Nehamen, Dennis A Author
Dennis A Nehamen
Printed in the United States of America Second Edition
To my wife Bernice for shining bright in support and sacrifice.
“I’M SORRY. I’LL ALWAYS think of you as my brother.”
Those are the last words I recall him saying.
As I lay naked, shivering on the hot dirt floor, I struggled with an awareness that must have taken a bullet. The whirling fogginess was deadening to my senses.
Then in a flash my mind’s eye blinked, exhibiting for me a panoramic view of all the events that had transpired to land me…in Hell.
I hadn’t betrayed him…but I had planned to.
THE TAKE OFF
El Al Flight 318 to Israel. The announcement sounded like a warning.
Israel? Why in the world was I going?
All I could think of was a hard right turn.
Next I was seven hundred fifty miles from where I intended to shop for groceries.
Finally I was waiting to journey another six thousand miles from my intended destination.
El Al Flight 318 to Israel, the loud speaker pledged for the second time as I apathetically hoisted my carry on bag to enter the plane.
I had a stressful evening before leaving, waking numerous times. Thus, the first leg of my trip, from L.A. to New York, was devoted to catching up on sleep, to which I surrendered much more freely than the night before. The flight zipped by in an instant.
My plan was to relax, enjoy some reading during the second phase of the journey. But first, it seemed I would have to dispose of the pesky neighbor seated next to me who, immediately after takeoﬀ, initiated a one-way conversation regarding his pursuit of a career in Israel as an actor, playwright, director, producer, musical book writer…time for a second snooze.
After bragging up the fame he imagined, he finally shamed me into agreeing to listen to one of his creations, a musical with an uninspiring story line of adolescent love gone sour, with characters arousing as much excitement as the periodic table of the elements in a high school chemistry class.
“Amir Hamdallah,” he introduced himself like a celebration after I dutifully complemented his work.
While I had to conclude he would be a bust as an artist, I could imagine him enjoying success as a lady-killer. His black hair was styled into three distinct sections. The longest was on the crown, but still, what most would call short. Trimmed ever so slightly closer was a goatee of matching color. Finally, since he appeared not to have shaved for a couple days, his face was darkly shaded, an intentional act to create the impression of a rugged, untamed man.
“Wish me luck.”
“Oh, of course. I’m sure I’ll be boasting soon to all my friends that I sat next to you on a plane ride to Israel,” I assured him as I took note of his impeccable dress.
His white linen shirt was perfectly laundered, as were the tan casual slacks. on his feet he wore what looked like expensive, burgundy-colored leather loafers. when he returned from a bathroom visit and was about to sit back next to me, three pieces of jewelry he had been wearing commanded my attention—a gold watch with a black leather band, the dial reading Patek Philippe; a large diamond stud in his earlobe, which, judging from the rest of his apparel I assumed was not a cubic zirconia; and a good-sized silver ring with several small sapphires on the middle finger of his left hand.
Our conversation lasted through the entire flight, at times Amir entertaining me with impromptu comical skits; on one occasion he nearly had me laughing.
“Why are you visiting Israel?” he asked, his first probe to find out something about me.
I smiled coyly. “That’s the same question I keep asking myself.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Amir assured me. “Now, where do you plan to go first?”
“I really have no specific itinerary,” I replied, puzzling over the fact that I hadn’t even considered his question.
My new buddy proved quite helpful. After a brief historical discourse on the country, he drew up a plan for nearly the first week of my journey. I would spend a couple of days resting in Tel Aviv. Then I would make my way to Haifa, after which I would go to the Golan Heights, before finally looping back to Jerusalem. Then he informed me that he would be leaving immediately for a trip out of the country but he would be insulted if I didn’t come visit him at his home, located just outside Jerusalem.
As the plane veered oﬀ the runway, we exchanged numbers.
Then, inside the terminal Amir stopped to bestow a grand smile and substantial double hug on me, thanking me for making his trip a pleasant one and expressing how joyous it would be to meet me again soon.
We went our separate ways; no doubt both assuming it would be the last we would ever see of one another.
WELCOME TO ISRAEL
MY ENTRY INTO THE country was uneventful—at least for the first few seconds. I had my passport in hand, along with the properly filled out entry form to be submitted at passport control. I went along with the other passengers, all of whom seemed to be proceeding without a hitch. However, as I presented my materials to the oﬃcer for inspection, she casually, without attention to what I had written, ordered me to step to the side and wait.
I had no idea why but obediently did as I was told. within seconds, a uniformed man walked up and asked if I was Zacchaeus Miller, which I confirmed. He then requested me to come along with him and bring my luggage. I thought it might be a full body and bag check, one of those random deals where a ninety-year-old woman is stupefied when ordered to lift both arms parallel to the ground so she can be probed.
Not so. I was taken to a small room and “asked” to wait, which I did. I waited and waited, until I started to panic. what if they deported me before I’d even had time to spend a shekel?
The interminable delay did nothing other than heighten my fretfulness over having made the trip in the first place. In fact, I spent much of the period rehashing several times the unexpected encounter I had with my mother when I informed her I was venturing to Israel. I had stopped by the house to let her know I was leaving, and to do something I’d never done since emancipating myself after college, ask for a loan.
“How much do you need, dear?”
I wasn’t sure, especially given the fact that I had no idea how long I’d be gone.
“Five thousand dollars.” I squinted. “I’m not really sure.”
She disappeared for a moment before cruising back into the room waving her checkbook. Then she asked the question, quite matter-of-factly, I might add.
“What do you need it for?”
She loved needling me about my dedication to a single lifestyle, teasing me about having traveled more love-roads than can be found in an atlas. on this occasion, she couldn’t pass up what she wrongly sensed was at long last my coming of age.
“Don’t tell me Zacchaeus the bachelor has gone and fallen in love.”
“No, Mom. Sorry to disappoint you.” She giggled, but only for an instant. “Mom. I’m going to Israel.”
“Zach, don’t joke with me,” she shot out, my words erasing the mirth from her face. I watched as she vehemently threw down her checkbook.
“I’m not, Mom. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“what for? Son, there’s nothing there for you.”
“I know. It’s more like a whim…I mean just some silly thing I feel like I have to do.”
“There’s nothing silly about that country. Besides, it’s not—.”
“It’s perfectly safe,” I asserted, finishing the thought I assumed was on her mind. “I’ll be fine.”
She hesitated before continuing. “Zach, this is not a good time to go. Look what’s happened here,” she reminded me, hoping that the couple acts of homeland terrorism might bring me to my senses. “It has to be much worse there.”
Imploringly she inspected me. Then I noticed her eyes welling with tears.
She didn’t answer. Instead she stood quaking, as if fear had paralyzed her mental functions.
I went over to hug her. As I did she looked up at me and shook her head, a pleading gesture. while embracing her I reiterated that I’d be careful, adding that I doubted I’d be away a week.
What shocked me most was that I’d never known Kaye Miller to be squeamish or meek. She had a fiery personality and nobody would attest to having witnessed her backing up if she needed to defend herself. Still, her reaction alarmed me but not suﬃcient to do as I wished, forget I was ever conned into making the trip.
Dutifully she wrote out the check and handed it to me.
Before I left she did something peculiar. She went into her desk and took out a leather pouch she kept stuﬀed with more scribbled entries than a computer could house on its hard drive. Even without the convenience of a file storage or search function, she knew every item and could with astonishing speed extricate what she was looking for from the mass of clutter.
Finding the reference she wanted, she took a pencil and a blank piece of paper and wrote a note, handing it to me. “you probably don’t remember him, but there was a fellow I went out with a few times, Zev Feld?”
I laughed. He was a tall, overweight man who’d boldly pointed his middle finger at his premature balding by shaving his entire scalp. How could I forget him? with broad powerful shoulders and a squat neck narrowly rising out of his suit, he was the first man I ever met whose perfectly round head was almost free-kicked by one of my friends who mistook it for a soccer ball.
“The bald Jew!”
“Don’t be smart. He liked you a lot. I’ve kept in touch with him through the years. Here’s his name and number; he lives in Tel Aviv and works for the government. Anything you need, he’ll help you.” She stopped to let the point sink in. “Anything, Zach, okay?”
She wasn’t really posing a question. I knew my mother well enough to tell when she was distressed, so I placated her by neatly folding the contact information and putting it in my wallet.
I paused, not liking what I saw. Terror-tears were now streaming down her cheeks. “I love you, Mom,” I said tentatively.
At that moment, my mother’s upset alarmed me. what was it? She understood it was an innocent trip to Israel. She and I both knew that millions of people traveled safely through that country every year, regardless of the risk yet she seemed panicked. The thought crossed my mind how she might have reacted had I told her the true circumstances leading to my decision to make the journey, as well as my own apprehension over going.
By the time I was in the car, I was close to jealousy for those lucky people who allow themselves to use sedative drugs as freely as chewing gum; Valium would have loved my trepidation-bash, and I would have equally delighted, allowing it to vaporize my concerns into airy masses of feelgood bubbles. I wasn’t lonely but I felt alone, and that’s a rare one for me—well, if all you have is Xanax, i’ll try it, just this one time.
That evening I jumped into bed, pep-talking myself to prepare for the upcoming trip. “I’m excited!”
I’m also a damn fool.
The room the Israelis were holding me in had a tiny window, and on a couple of occasions I saw various officers glance toward my door, assumedly discussing me. one time, an armed security guard with his back to me received a cell call, and as he answered, he rotated to look in my direction.
I was about to thank my mom for bald Zev Feld’s number and thought of giving him a ring when at last another man, this one wearing a plain suit, came in and warmly shook my hand.
“Welcome to Israel,” he greeted me matter-a-fact. “you hopefully won’t look at the delay as a lack of hospitality.” Then, as if an afterthought, he perused the paperwork that he was holding in his hand.
“So, you’re a reporter,” he announced.
His statement perplexed me. Moments earlier, I’d written “artist” in the box describing my occupation. I’d also distinctly noted that I was on vacation.
“No, if you look at my document there,” I pointed, “you’ll see there must be a mistake.”
“I’m not a reporter,” I informed him.
“It’s quite all right. you’re a cherished guest in our country regardless of what you do for a living.” He held out the document for me to inspect. “See, it says right here ‘journalist.’”
I stared at the paper. It was definitely mine, but in the space where I had formerly listed my occupation, somebody had written over it, indicating “journalist,” just as he’d described. “That’s a mistake,” I protested. “I’m a fiction writer…I didn’t fill that out.”
“Well,” he continued, ignoring my last comment, “there is one slight favor I’ll have to request of you.” I silently awaited what I knew would be a demand. “If you would, we’d like you to register as a journalist. It’s quite a simple matter.”
I was baﬄed by the nature of his request. Foolishly, I pled my case. “But I’m in Israel strictly to travel. I’m not interested in reporting on foreign aﬀairs.”
“Not to worry,” he replied. “It’ll only require a few minutes.
They’ll take care of the registration immediately. you mustn’t look on this as an inconvenience. on the contrary, there are privileges you’ll have that you may find advantageous. you’ll be able to pass checkpoints freely and gain access to areas that would be restricted to you if you were a civilian.”
I bobbed my head, not informing him that the last thing I intended to do was test the safety of a zone already designated oﬀ limits.
“Mr. Miller, I’ll have your luggage secured for you right here for when you return from the Ministry Press oﬃce.”
That was it. No more glitches. They seemed to be waiting for me at the press oﬃce. There was only one other person there, a male who sat reading a newspaper in the waiting area. I went directly to the counter, and in less than five minutes I was processed and certified.
I made my way back to the airport. As I was ascending a stairway I must have miscalculated the top step by a fraction of an inch because the toe of my right shoe kicked it and I lunged forward, stopping short of a fall on my chin by bracing myself with my outstretched hands. My clumsy action caused the person behind me to nearly fall over my body.
The man didn’t look at me. Instead, he nonchalantly went his way. But I recognized him. He looked to be about fifty, was muscular in build, and was wearing a distinguishable Hawaiian-style shirt—he was the same person who had been reading the paper at the ministry where I had just registered. Strange coincidence, I thought as I brushed myself oﬀ.
Retrieving my luggage, which had been secured as promised, another thought struck me. The episode had one benign consequence. with shocking ease, I had become an independent reporter on Israeli aﬀairs. I might as well have registered as a proctologist as far as I was concerned. I’ll admit, however, my first experience with the Israeli authorities unmanned me.
UPON MY ARRIVAL IN Israel—and without conscious awareness—almost immediately I began to follow the exact itinerary my plane-mate, Amir, had outlined for me. I spent my first day taking a self-fashioned flash course on the region—a task that included a full visceral inspection of the raving nightlife promoted, and in no way exaggerated, by my guidebook on Tel Aviv. That evening, I wandered into clubs with live music and crowds of customers feasting on a party spirit, ignorant of the enmity of the region being debated on news programs at home.
The next morning I took a walk, yearning to find a used bookstore reminiscent of my favorite one in Los Angeles, a cosmopolitan shop with just that name. As a creative writer, I was not an expert on current events. After arriving in Israel I realized how little I knew about the country and its relationship to the Middle East. Sure, like most people, I had heard about wars, negotiations, betrayals, and hopes of peace on both sides. I understood that the Palestinians wanted an independent state, many were refugees, and their position was that Israel was an occupying force since…the 1967 war. But…what really were the issues and conflicts, the historical facts so bitterly important to these embattled people that they would not cease killing one another?
With surprising ease I happened upon just the store I was looking for, a close relative of Los Angeles’ Cosmopolitan, called The Book Junkie. I eased my way in and by chance found myself the only customer, making it comfortable for me to amble casually through the narrow aisles cluttered with mounds of dusty books that awaited shelving.
The store smelled musty, precisely as the “junkie” place I had expected. I doubted whether it had been cleaned in decades; some of the books had to be suﬀering bedsores. The real signature feature of this establishment, however, was the noise. whoever owned or ran the business must have yearned for a music store, or actually believed that’s what it was. The volume of what I assumed was Israel’s version of hip-hop music was deafening; I wondered if their specialty item was earplugs. After strolling up and down a few rows, I was approached by a girl in her early twenties, one of the two staﬀ members working.
“Welcome. Can I help you find something?” she perfunctorily addressed me in Hebrew.
“I speak English,” I informed her—she then seamlessly shifted language.
She was a skinny thing, shaped like a sunflower stem. Her hair was no doubt very long, but she had wrapped it circularly skyward on the top of her head—the dark color and swirling pattern reminded me of a cup of fresh-machined chocolate yogurt.
“I’m browsing, looking for something to read while I’m here.”
“About what?” she shouted above the blasts of sound shooting helter-shelter through the shop.
I don’t know what struck her as so astonishing, especially given we were in Israel, but you might have thought she’d just won a lottery. She became animated; the slow, chewing motion on a stick of gum she’d been massaging between her molars quickened in pace and her face toned up from dull yellowish to pink.
“Well, you’re talking to the right person. I’m not only Jewish but I’ve lived here for years; and I’ve studied the history extensively.”
“I’m from Los Angeles.”
“Boston for this lady. yes, I’m American as well,” she gaily informed me. “Okay, you’ll want to understand as much about the country, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as you can. Let’s see what we can find for you.”
I chased after her as she steered herself like a video game player through a maze of shelves. She stopped and turned to inspect me, as if she were taking me into her sight for the first time.
“Are you here for vacation?” she asked. Her thick-rimmed, black glasses dropped low on her nose; they hinted at a positive trait of high intellect.
“No, I’m trying to figure out myself why I’ve come here. you know, sort of a spur of the moment, impulsive trip.”
Dismissing what she likely interpreted as evasiveness, she turned abruptly, marching forward as she lifted her right arm and waved for me to follow her.
“Nobody comes to Israel on a whim.”
It was a jeer, and she lobbed it over her shoulder—in my opinion, intentionally aiming it on my path like a hand grenade. “Well, to tell you the truth, you see, I’m a writer. I was thinking I might be able to help with the problems here; a fresh, wildly imaginative fiction story that in the end oﬀers the hope of a lasting solution…”
The words popped out mindlessly and embarrassed me; it was a vacuous response, far from the legitimate rationale for my trip. The stick girl rightly took me to task.
“Like a thirteenth century crusader, but instead of recovering the Holy Land for the Christians, you’ll be a peacemaker?”
“I don’t know if what I have in mind is that grand.” “I hope not,” she smirked, “for your sake.”
As we browsed books, she emphasized that she prided herself on impartiality in affairs pertaining to the State of Israel. Amazing! My impression after listening to her speak for five minutes was that her opinions definitively keeled her portside. So extremely left was her view of the state created by the Israelis I was almost convinced that she wished to capsize the whole venture.
Still, she lectured me for a good half hour on the history of the country. Then abruptly, as if she lost interest in me, she began tapping on the computer to calculate the charges. She bagged my purchases and handed me the bill. After I paid she ended our relationship by delivering me a luck-to-you-buddy dismissive nod.
As I proceeded down the block, I noticed that a large crowd had assembled. I stopped, attempting to poke my head in to get a view. The group of spectators was densely packed and in my zeal to catch sight of what was happening I must have inadvertently brushed against a lady who was holding several large parcels in both her hands.
She shoved back at me mightily. I stood; shocked by her aggressiveness—she wasn’t finished.
“You’ll kindly keep your space,” she yelled in what to me was a thick, unrecognizable accent.
Shouting her indignity distracted me from the crowd breaking up. The woman walked away. It was then I saw a man whose eyes lingered on me dispassionately. I would have thought nothing more of it except for two factors. First, he was definitely the same man who had been sitting in the lobby area when I went to the Ministry Press oﬃce to register as a journalist, the same man who’d nearly crashed into me after I fell at the airport. Second, my impression was that the object of his interest was me rather than either the encounter I had fortuitously fallen into with the woman or the gathering, the purpose of which I would never learn.
I moved down the street with several others who had been in the audience. In my left hand I gripped the bag carrying my purchases from The Book Junkie, and in my right I clutched an intangible vow to stay the course; whatever that might be.
A few times, I stopped and noticed that same man behind me. I had to believe he was following but, knowing absolutely no one in the country, I dismissed the idea as preposterous. Still, he was there and when I turned deliberately, he casually slowed to glance in a shop window.
Finally I went into a café for an iced tea. I sat down and contemplated recent events—my occupation somehow being changed when I entered Israel, and now possibly being followed. Neither comforted me. But when I reentered the street after a drink and snack, the man was gone. I finally concluded that events of great improbability are still mathematically calculable and therefore will likely occur—I had just experienced an example.
That evening, I had dinner at a restaurant near my hotel, walked the streets alone to digest my meal, returned to my room to read, and went to bed early anticipating…I knew not what.
THE HAMDALLAH HOME
I AWOKE THE NEXT morning with the residue of one of the most bizarre dreams I could ever recall having. It seemed to have been inspired by the absurd comment I’d made to the clerk at The Book Junkie about my mission in Israel. In my wild, sleep-induced script, rather than being a writer, I had commissioned myself an emissary sent by the United Nations to meet with the Israelis and Arabs.
I was ushered into a large room, aghast to discover that on opposite sides of the space were groups of diapered infants.
They were screeching menacingly toward the look-a-likes across from them, at a louder pitch than their little lungs should have been able to reach. After a moment, I shouted for them to quiet down so I could begin the discussion. The room went deathly silent. A moment later, one of them passed gas and the entire collection of babies started giggling uncontrollably.
“Stop it! Stop it!” I ordered. But my demand only incited greater outbursts of laughter. I was about to walk out, when I noticed each of the members of the two groups holding a rifle—they began firing indiscriminately at their enemies across the room. All the while, they were jubilantly yelling “hurrah,” “whoopee,” and “yippee.” That’s when I woke up.
Israel was bizarre to me already and I hadn’t even been in the country forty-eight hours.
I assumed my duty as sightseer for the rest of the day. The following morning, I traveled north to Haifa, where I refreshed myself in the early morning coolness of the streets as they lazily climbed upward, preparing to simmer under the afternoon Mediterranean sun. Two days and then I was oﬀ again, finally appreciating why Syria never relinquishes its quest to retake the Golan Heights area, while Israel struggles to hold on to as much of this wondrous country as it can.
On several occasions during the trip, I sensed I was being watched. The feelings were dissimilar to those I’d had in Tel Aviv. This time there wasn’t anything concrete—just a few diﬀerent men and, on one occasion, a woman who seemed to be trailing me. I wondered if my counterfeited role of being a peacemaker was getting the better of me. Each time the thought entered my awareness, however, I managed to convince myself that the likelihood of actually being an object of investigation was negligible.
When I awoke on the sixth morning of my venture, I realized that even with all the imagination I was employing to keep up my mood, I had succumbed to a feeling of emptiness. I was alone. I was bored. I was purposeless.
The hotel room I was staying in near the Golan Heights had a phone. My musing about visiting Israel was interrupted by it ringing. When I picked up the receiver, there was nobody there. I hung up. Less than a minute later, it rang a second time. I repeated the same step, saying hello but without a reply.
I set it down, anticipating it summoning me again. This time it went silent. once more I felt unnerved. Thus, after a couple minutes of deliberating I called the front desk to see if by chance they had an explanation. The clerk informed me that a gentleman had called and asked to be connected to Room 243. He said nothing else. Then a second later he called again. Both times he was put through to my room. The hotel operator had no idea who the caller was but surmised that the person had erred in the room number, assuring me that this was not an uncommon occurrence.
Not wanting to let my imagination get the better of me, I stood up and went into the bathroom to shower. I remember feeling cool and refreshed as soon as I stepped out, jettisoning any concerns about the nature of the calls. I started dressing. As I put on my pants and began loading my wallet and other items into my pockets, I glanced at a small piece of paper sticking out from the corner where I kept my bills. It was the name and number of Amir, the guy who’d sat next to me on the plane.
What the heck, I thought. I wanted company, so I called him.
“Hello, is this Amir?”
“Yes. I recognize your voice. How are you, my plane-mate?” “Really? That’s amazing.” I was truly awed. “I didn’t know if you would even remember me.”
“It was our fate to sit together and become good friends. why should I forget? where are you?”
“Near The Sea of Galilee. I thought maybe we could meet.
“You’ll come to my home and stay with my family. I’ve already told them about you. They’re expecting you to be with us.”
“Don’t make a fuss. My mother will be upset. Here’s my address.”
That morning I took oﬀ for Jerusalem. Amir Hamdallah’s home was located in a neighborhood not far from the old City, Beit Safafa. I traveled by cab. we entered the city, crossing over a short viaduct that led to the main commercial area of town. The traﬃc was shockingly slow, and we sat for several minutes before continuing on our way. I noticed on the left a large building with a red heart-shaped design painted on its side that, rather than an arrow piercing it, had a yellow and red rainbow pattern streaming from the sides.
Had it not been for a thin green-topped tower rising like a rocket and a few bronze-colored roofs, the sign on the side of that building would have been the single bright-colored feature of the community skyline. All other structures were in shades of tan brick and stucco. oﬀ in the distance, I saw what had the appearance of a grain silo with Arabic writing and underneath the name Hamdallah. It was the only English I observed. I wondered if it belonged to Amir’s family.
The nearer we drew to Amir’s home, the more I began to feel out of place. I was going into an Arab community, and I was about to stay with an Arab family. Amir had told me that under no circumstances would I be allowed to take a hotel; his house had an abundance of space and his parents would be insulted if I didn’t accept their hospitable oﬀer. I assumed I could deal with any potential cultural shock for a few days and then be on my way.
The residential area was to the right of the main road. Land would soon become a focal point for my visit to Israel, but from what I observed initially there was more to bicker over in the ritzy areas of Los Angeles where every square inch of space had astronomical worth. Homes in Beit Safafa were scattered, with open grass spaces between them. The exterior architectural design of all the homes was basic squares or rectangles, lacking the architectural angles, curves, and lines that stimulate the eye.
Then, I noticed something interesting. one house crumbling and abandoned was sitting next to a structure meticulously cared for and seemingly of opulent ownership. Suddenly, I realized that colossal modern home was Amir’s. My cabbie confirmed my conclusion by calling out our arrival. He pulled over and shut oﬀ the motor, then wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. The charge deserved a comedic swipe.
“My Lord, you must be making a down payment on a planet.”
He burst out laughing, taking no oﬀense as he jumped out of the vehicle to collect my luggage, which he insisted on carrying along the pathway leading to the landing of the home. I handed him the fare.
“Thank you, mister,” he said with a deep bow.
Amir’s home definitely impressed me as the finest in the community. It was a two-story structure, but only half of the top was living space; large glass doors opened to a rooftop patio with what I soon learned was a collection of pricey patio furniture and a garden of potted plants. Atop the second level was a satellite dish, and the exterior walls were all brick.
Before I could ring the bell, Amir flung the door open and greeted me with his signature hug.
“My friend, how has your trip been?” Amir asked, as his arms widened to welcome me.
“So far I’m still in good working order.”
He took my suitcase the rest of the way in. The interior space confirmed a fact that no visitor could miss—these were people of marked wealth. The entryway alone was big enough to hold two of my apartment.
After showing me to my room and stowing my limited possessions, Amir suggested we take a walk around the neighborhood. The sun was intense, and I had forgotten my hat in the hotel at the Golan Heights. I assumed I’d find a backup to purchase while out with Amir.
We made our way to a small commercial center. Amir knew many of the shopkeepers. when we walked into one of the small stores, an intense confrontation was taking place in Arabic between the owner and a customer. The boisterous patron was holding a picture. As we stood by the door listening to them argue, I realized I didn’t need to know the language to understand that the man was launching a rapid-fire assault of invectives. I turned to leave, but Amir smiled and grabbed my arm to keep me in place.
Abruptly, the yelling stopped. The buyer put down the picture he’d been holding, and he and the owner put their arms around one another in the most pleasant manner. Then, the now-jolly customer gave the owner money and walked out with his purchase.
The owner looked over at Amir and commented in Arabic, which Amir later translated for me, “That’s a man there. He’s willing to fight the price to the death. He’s not like many of those pitiful changers of female diapers.”
Amir explained after we left that in his culture a person who doesn’t hold his ground bargaining loses the respect of the other person. Nobody should ever accept the first price when buying something, and never walk away without a quarrel.
My new friend smiled at the owner and tapped his right hand to his chest, a greeting of respect that was countered similarly by the shopkeeper. Amir addressed the man in English.
“Omar, this is my friend from America, Zach.”
“Then we will speak English,” the man said immediately.
He came over to hug me. “Let me get you some tea.”
The man hurried over to a small kitchenette and poured three cups, one for each of us.
“Zach,” omar addressed me. “what else can I get you?” “Really, nothing. I’m going to buy a cap later, that’s all.” “where in America do you come from?” he asked in a calculating manner.
“Los Angeles,” I responded proudly.
Omar went through his store and came back a few moments later with a Dodger baseball cap. He placed it on my head.
“There you go, Los Angeles Dodgers. I watch them on television.”
I reached into my pocket to pay him, and Amir again grabbed my arm, halting me. He looked at me and subtly motioned with his head for me to forget it.
Omar had turned away from us and picked up a photograph. He beamed as he showed it to me. It looked to be a child about ten or eleven years old.
“My boy. His name is Ramzi.”
“He’s handsome.” To compliment him, I added. “He looks like his father.”
I could tell it meant the world to him. His smile might have purged mankind of enmity. But to keep us from having to linger too long, Amir addressed him.
“Praise be to Allah. your family is well?” “Thanks to God. To your father.”
That afternoon we stopped into several other stores. Every person was as gracious as omar. Amir had diﬀerent relationships with each of them but was always gentle, cheery, and amicable, nearly enchanting. By the time we ambled back to the house, it was getting late and I was starving. I didn’t have to wait long to eat.
Hibat, the family cook, had a feast ready when we arrived.
This lady had no Michelin rating, but I can attest to the fact that she was a five-star master of gustatory ecstasy—that night we dined like princes.
Reading my mind, Amir remarked. “we live well. My father owns real estate and is an investor. His properties are in East Jerusalem, Jaﬀa, here in Beit Safafa, and a few other communities in Israel, and some in England and America as well.”
“Yes, when I arrived I noticed your name on a building.” “That belongs to us, as does the shopping center we walked into today. The owner of the shop would have been insulted if you had tried to pay for the Dodger hat.”
“I was prepared to show him I was no diaper changer,” I said, proud to demonstrate I had already learned a cultural lesson.
“That’s why he gave it to you. you’re a guest, and he didn’t want you to bargain. By giving it as a gift he avoided that.”
“That was really nice. So, Amir, I assume your father’s position allows you to devote fulltime to your career?”
“It does, yes. I appreciate it, but at the same time I’m not proud. you see, what I mentioned to you when we met on the plane about being Israeli citizens, I’ve never respected my father’s doing that. After the 1967 war, the Jordanians retreated from the west Bank and Jerusalem, leaving the land to the victorious Israelis. It was then they made the oﬀer of citizenship, but in exchange for allegiance to Israel.”
“So you didn’t agree.”
He then curtailed the discussion. “you’ll see.” I was about to, very soon.
It was only an hour later—we were about halfway through the South Park movie we were watching and a bowl of popcorn Hibat had prepared for us—when Amir’s father came in.
“I hope I’m not intruding.” His voice was gentle and his smile as charming as his son’s.
“No, Papa, this is my friend I told you about—Zach, who I met on the plane.”
“Oh, yes.” In the kindest manner he came toward me, and as I rose to shake his hand, he embraced me as a long-lost friend. “I’m so pleased you came. Amir told me all about the long journey you shared on the plane. Isn’t it wonderful traveling? years ago, in Switzerland, I met one of my best friends, before I was even married, when I was on holiday for fun in Europe. He invited me to stay with him on his family farm.” His eyes begin to twinkle as he added, “The best food I’ve ever had in my life.”
“That’s saying something, sir, after the meal we just had.” I was still drooling over the dinner. “It’s good to meet you too, Mr. Hamdallah.”
He made no oﬀer of informality, and I would never address him other than “Mr.” for the remainder of my visit.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to finish your film.”
Before he took oﬀ, however, Amir instigated trouble. “Papa, I’ll prepare Zach for what to expect in a blasphemous home.”
Laughing, Mr. Hamdallah took the bait and spat it back playfully.
“Please, and don’t forget an Arab home of Israeli citizens.” Click. It was time for a movie intermission.
This was to be my introduction into a rift that never ceased to be an assault point for Amir on his father. Amir was unforgiving that his father “sold out” and accepted the conditions for citizenship set by the Israelis. He was equally miﬀed that his father made the decision knowing that his first cousin had been killed while fighting for the Palestinians. Amir believed it was an insult to the relative that his father conducted his life without sympathy to the Palestinian plight. one occasion when Amir mentioned the topic of the deceased cousin I recall distinctly. In response, Mr. Hamdallah shrugged before sorrowfully addressing the loss. “I can’t bring back my cousin’s life. It was decades ago. He did what he felt was right. I loved him and would have taken care of his son like my own, but we never had the chance to know the baby.”
Later Amir embellished, filling in for me that the cousin was a newlywed and the wife was pregnant when her husband died.
During these conflicts that unfolded almost routinely, and never reached resolution, Mr. Hamdallah would gently remind Amir that it was owing to his prescience on the issue of citizenship that the son enjoyed a Yale education and that the home growing up was frequented by dignitaries.
As the son passionately ridiculed his father, I was surprised that the elder Hamdallah never scorned his boy—the intentional aﬀronts by Amir left his father unruﬄed. In fact, he never manufactured a bead of sweat on these humid, warm, late spring Jerusalem evenings, whereas Amir produced enough moisture under the arms to discolor his fine tan cotton shirts.
GETTING TO KNOW SISTER BAHLYA
FOR THE FIRST THREE days after my arrival at the Hamdallah home, it was only Amir and Mr. Hamdallah in the house; Mrs. Hamdallah was on vacation with the daughter. Any apprehension I had about being in an Arab dwelling quickly dissipated, mostly due to the fact that this one bore only minute resemblance to the typical Middle Eastern residence; it was as western as any house in my own neighborhood.
During those days, Amir and I enjoyed the luxury of free time, spending two of the afternoons at the beach in Tel Aviv—swimming, reading, and conversing. one morning, we began with a tour of Lion’s, Herod’s, Jaﬀa’s, and a collection of other gates to the old City of Jerusalem. we visited the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and a host of other sites near the city center, the trek eating up most of the afternoon. I noticed, however, that we never entered, nor did Amir mention, the Jewish Quarter. Amir, intermittently along the guided excursion, infused me with history, as well as a superficial political education.
Several times while we were vacationing during these first days, Amir received calls and would talk freely in my presence. yet, as I listened to these conversations, I would have guessed them to be coded; they lacked any of the detail one would normally hear; such as names, places, or specific issues.
I never asked him about the cryptic conversations, assuming he was talking business and his side of the discussions did not require anything more than perfunctory response. Still, as I glanced his way, I noticed tautness in the muscles of his elongated jaws as well as flexing down the sides of the neck. His grave expression confirmed that whatever he was addressing was stressing him, but after the conversations he became friendly and cheerful once again.
When I came down for breakfast on the fourth morning of my stay, I noticed Hibat had set two extra plates. within moments, Mrs. Hamdallah and Amir’s sister, Bahlya, took their places. when my eyes set sight on Bahlya, I imagined her absence had been deliberate; Mr. Hamdallah was intent to determine whether or not I could be trusted in the same house as she. I couldn’t.
Either Mr. or Mrs. Hamdallah, or perhaps both, must have possessed moments of clairvoyance before her birth, for they had selected the name Bahlya for its Arabic meaning—beauty and radiance—qualities no man would question when looking at her. In every respect, Bahlya was a princess. Raised as a wealthy girl with all the luxuries money can secure, she needed none of it to purchase pure beauty.
“Zach, what brings you to Israel?”
“Everyone I meet asks me that,” I smiled. “You’re Mrs. Hamdallah, I assume.”
Amir interrupted. “Mother, I’m sorry; I should have introduced you as you came in.” His apology for the oversight lacked no authenticity.
“I don’t mean to be evasive, Mrs. Hamdallah, but the plain explanation is that the nature of my visit is unknown to me.”
“That sounds intriguing.”
These were the first words I heard from Bahlya, my ears tuning in to a melodious, sensual voice packed with contrivance, charm, and a most stunning, unashamed swirl of tease.
“To me it’s disconcerting.” I responded shyly, like a teen praying he could find the boldness to talk to a girl. “It seems I was sent on a mission, like a child on an Easter egg hunt.”
“Yes, I know what those are; how fun,” Bahlya said breezily. I silently complimented a face like none I had ever seen—a perfect oval, angelic, creamy, and without a single wrinkle, line, or blemish. “Perhaps Amir and I can help find the Golden Egg our little guest is looking for.”
I laughed nervously, staring at her large, dark, deep-set, alluring eyes. She swished her head slightly to the words “our little guest,” and as she did her long, thick, light-brown hair, combed straight down to the small of her back, swayed like a silk scarf.
I had no opportunity to reply, Mrs. Hamdallah taking her turn asking questions of me. “Then, you don’t know how long you’ll be staying?”
She seemed to be sneaking in the query, and I presumed she expected my stay to be brief. I responded accordingly.
“No, I really have no agenda. Amir kindly invited me to stay but I’m sure I’ll be continuing my journey soon.”
I was warned by Amir that talk of not staying in their home would oﬀend her, and it did.
“we wouldn’t hear of you leaving. you’ll be our guest until your destiny takes you elsewhere.” Mrs. Hamdallah spoke gently but emphatically. “you’re a friend of Amir and you must stay in our home.”
The “oﬀer” from this puﬀy-cheeked, tender woman with tiny slit eyes to house me felt strangely similar to the custom agent’s request at the airport that I register for my press credential. This time, however, I had no interest in objecting—I was quite comfortable in their home.
“Thank you. I’ll try not to be an intrusion.”
“Maybe you’ll become part of the family,” Bahlya put in. “My new brother.” She hesitated, as if furtively reading a poker hand. “odd, very odd. I already feel like you are part of our family, though we’ve hardly met.” She stopped again, this time to deliver a gentle admonishment to Amir. “After all, my brother never introduced us.”
“If it will help, Zach, my sister Bahlya, and sister, this is my friend, Zach.”
“Well done, big brother.” Bahlya commended, after which she addressed me. “Amir and I want to take you out on a journey today,” leading me to conclude that my visit had been discussed beforehand with her brother. She then added with a seduction that turned my white skin to an embarrassing pinkish tone. “It won’t be an Easter egg hunt, but I’ll see if I can get you something better.”
Before we left on our outing, Bahlya explained that often when outside her home she behaved strictly in accordance with Islamic law, oﬀering some details of her traditions.
“To Americans, the phrase ‘don’t leave home without it,’ refers to a credit card. Muslims who are serious about their faith apply it to clothing. Now, Zach, you have to understand that hijab is more than a head covering; it’s an entire code of dress. The word actually means ‘curtain’ or ‘covering,’” she proudly explained. “A Muslim woman must be modest and exude morality in public, so no part of her body but the face and hands are to be shared.”
“I’m not sure that’s a custom I would vote for,” I bantered to her.
“you simply have to use your imagination.” “I’m not sure if mine’s in good working order.”
“Then I’ll assume I have a job to animate your senses.” “I’m not sure I’m ready for that.” I swallowed nervously.
She simply smiled. whatever game we were playing, she knew she had the winning hand.
That morning Bahlya, Amir, and I went oﬀ for a full day’s activity. They promised it would be a surprise, and that is exactly what it turned out to be. The only clue Bahlya told me was to be prepared to be outdoors and to bring sunscreen, hat, and a bathing suit. I donned my new Dodger’s cap and was ready to go. on the way to wherever we were headed, they stopped suddenly.
We pulled into the parking area of the open mall owned by their father. Glancing to my right, I noticed another car parked across the lot. If the man driving wasn’t the same one who had trailed me after I first arrived in Tel Aviv, he was surely his twin brother.
He never looked up or directly at me. He sat in his vehicle while Bahlya and I went into a café to pick up a large bag of food they had ordered in advance. when we left the store, the man was still there, now glancing my way. I couldn’t help but bring it to her attention.
“Bahlya, do you see that man in that car over there?” I said, trying not to point but instead using my head to lead her eyes. “I swear he was following me when I first arrived here.”
To my surprise, she didn’t give the man a look. “Israel can be a scary place,” she said nonchalantly as she pranced across the lot. “Many people when they first arrive get suspicious and start imagining things that are not real. I promise…nobody cares to hassle you.”
“But somebody changed my career on the papers I filled out when I entered Israel.”
“Don’t make more of it than it deserves. Everyone thinks the Israelis are flawless, but they’re constantly making mistakes.”
We got back in the car, and by the time we’d driven a few blocks, I had managed to comply with Bahlya’s advice—the man was out of my mind.
We drove into Tel Aviv. Near the Carlton Hotel was a marina, where we pulled in to park. I was informed that the Hamdallah family owned a sailboat and we would be spending the day at sea. I knew nothing about the sport and had to place my trust in their proclaimed expertise. Thankfully, both were knowledgeable in the craft. In fact, Amir had competed in some fairly long races as far back as high school. I helped as best I could to prepare the boat, but they seemed to have perfected their routine, and in only a few minutes we were setting sail.
The boat was about thirty-five feet long and roomy enough to hold several more people. The main sail was a pleasant pink, pale blue, and yellow geometric pattern; the name painted in red letters on the side of the white hull was Bahlya’s Baby.
The day was clear, warm, and mildly breezy, just enough for us to be moving along at a fine clip. A short time after we set out, I innocently asked how it happened that the boat was named after Bahlya.
Big mistake! Bahlya looked on the verge of dumping me at sea to swim for home. “why are you so surprised?” She stabbed the question into me like a stiletto. “Are men supposed to have all the power?”
I tried to correct course with her. “Bahlya, I was just curious, that’s all.”
“You were curious because since men dominate women, you assume the boat might better be named something like Zach’s World.”
I really wanted out of the debate I knew was coming, but I could tell this lady, whom I hardly knew, was in the mood for a quarrel. I tried to avoid the inevitable by making light of it. “I like that name—good idea.”
“Zach, you’re not escaping the issue that easily. Admit it, men run the world. That’s why we have to fight for the rights of women.”
I tried to appease her any way I could. No matter what I said, however, I was staring into those magnificent eyes. I noticed her snout snarling as she glared at me.
I wonder, I recall thinking to myself as I deliberated how to diﬀuse a potential disaster, if she’s calculating whether I’d drown or be eaten by sharks first after she tripped me oﬀ her boat.
I even agreed with her that men run the world. But when I added that it was women who run the men, she bristled.
“Then who runs you?” she volleyed back at me. “I haven’t found the right woman yet.”
I was oﬀ balance and she sensed it. Plus…it was the wrong answer—end of conversation.
She refused to even look at me for the next hour, and the worst part was it troubled me. All through lunch she shunned me, and even when Amir tried to ease her foul mood, it made no diﬀerence. Little did I know she was deciphering my words, actually raising the value of the stock she held in me, while at the same time deliberating what strategies she’d have to employ to eventually crush me.
I was surprised how it ended. She came up unexpectedly behind me and put her arm around my shoulder, whispering with her lips nearly kissing my ear. “Zach, are you finished pouting?”
It was such a relief to be back in her graces, I agreed. Then, for extra dressing, I played a second line like a stage character. “It hurts so much when we fight, but I love making up.”
“Then, my little visitor, we have to fight often.”
Lustful. Sensual. Bahlya could reach in and take out your heart, and it would still be pumping in the palm of her hand.
we spent the remainder of the afternoon sailing, enjoying what for the most part was a grand day together. Bahlya had her edges, but they were what made her sensational beyond any other girl I’d ever encountered.
As I was basking in the splendor of the princess’ grace and the wonder of a diamond-glittering sea, every bit of hesitation I had regarding coming to Israel dissolved. For the first time since leaving home I felt…at home, safe and thrilled. A sweet love bug might have bit me.