Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 46 of a new online serial novel, The Black Sheep, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“Hey, Mahmoud!” Issam Abu Rafij sat down on the edge of the bench on the lot in Acco. Mahmoud, the owner, was already sitting there, leaning back and tanning in the sun. “What’s with that wheel I bought you? You didn’t fix it yet? What’s going on? You had too much work this morning?”
Mahmoud ignored the snide remark and sufficed with waving a tool that Issam could not identify. “Your wheel will be fine in half an hour,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me it’s urgent?”
“It wasn’t urgent for a day, or two, but now it is. What do you do all day, Mahmoud, besides smoking your nargilah?”
Mahmoud just shrugged. Then he sighed. “You know, one day Yischak will come back, and he’ll be angry that everything is such a mess.”
“Yischak will not come back,” Issam corrected him. “What’s with you? The Yahud ran away, and they’re not coming back to our Acco.”
“I’m not sure.” Mahmoud straightened up in his place. “The Yahud always come back. Look how much they left here. And others will also come, maybe.”
“They were actually good neighbors, weren’t they?” Issam looked around at the neglected lot that was overgrown with weeds and brambles. “Look how nice it was for you when Yischak was here. And now? It’s all just dirt. And you don’t have work either. He was clever; he knew how to manage a business.”
“What should I do?” Mahmoud whined. “It’s not only because of Yischak. It’s because today, people don’t want to take care of their horses. Everything has a motor; they don’t need horses and buggies.”
“We do need horses and buggies,” Issam corrected him again. “And if Yischak would be here, trust me, there would be a lot of customers.”
“Tell me, what do you want from me?” Mahmoud was getting irritated. “Like my grandmother would say, did you come to cut onions on my wound?”
“I came to tell you that you should close up shop. Enough,” Issam said. “I’m a good friend. I want to help you. Think—what do you need all this for? It’s all just a loss.”
Mahmoud looked at him suspiciously. “Why do you want me to leave it all? Because you want to open this kind of business?”
His friend snickered. “No. Listen to me, Mahmoud. No one needs your shop anymore. And in five years, people really won’t need it.”
“Just a minute ago you said we do need such a shop!”
“If Yischak was here. When it’s just you, no one needs it.”
Mahmoud swallowed his indignation and decided not to respond to the insult. “So what do you want from me?”
“I want to buy the lot.”
“Buy the lot!” Mahmoud looked at the neglect and overgrowth all around him. “What will you do here?”
“My son got married last year, and in another month, my second son is getting married. I don’t have room at home for all of them. I want to build a big house here.”
“A big house!” Mahmoud was still looking around. “Here?”
Mahmoud shook his head. “No.”
“Because maybe I’ll also want to build a big house here one day.”
“But you have only one son and five daughters, Mahmoud! Your son limps, and he’s not finding a wife so fast. Your daughters will get married, and they’ll go live in their husbands’ houses. Why would you need a big house?”
“It doesn’t matter. The point is, the lot is big. Maybe soon it will be worth a lot of money.” Mahmoud was adamant. “I’m not selling.”
“I will also pay a lot for it.”
Mahmoud sighed. “Issam, I’m not selling.”
“But why not?”
His friend stood up and looked out at the street. “Yischak,” he said finally.
“What about Yischak?”
“He will come back soon, and he’ll be very angry that I sold the lot.”
“But it’s yours, the same way it’s his!”
“No.” Mahmoud shook his head and sat back down. “We did everything together here, but the land is his.”
“Who sold land to a Yahud here?”
“Yischak paid a lot of money to Sheikh Al Rabia, when he came to Palestine twenty, twenty-five years ago—I don’t remember exactly how long ago it was. It’s been his land ever since then.”
“I’m telling you, Mahmoud, he’s not coming back.”
“He will,” Mahmoud insisted.
“So if he suddenly comes back, you’ll call the gang from the neighborhood. They’ll take care of everything for you, and the land will be yours.”
“I don’t know.” Mahmoud sighed. “I don’t want to start up with Yahud, Issam. For now, I’m waiting. If a year passes, and then another one, and another one, and Yischak still doesn’t come, we’ll talk then.” The two friends glared at the British patrol that marched down the street at that moment, toward the fortress. “Besides, his son Zelig is here, in prison. And if they bomb the walls and the prisoners escape again, he might come straight here. What will I tell him then?”
“You’re afraid of Yischak’s son too? You’re a real coward, Mahmoud!”
“I’m not a coward!” Mahmoud shot back. “I’m just careful not to do things too quickly. My grandmother used to say that you can always take the fish out of the sea, but if it’s already dead, you can’t put it back.”
“Yes, and if you put it under the sun for a few hours, it will spoil. But she didn’t say that, did she?” Issam stood up. “Waiting around for no reason is not a good thing, Mahmoud. I’m leaving now, and if you want to sell me the lot, remember that I will pay you well for it. And remember that the Yahud are not coming back—you heard it from me!” He suddenly stopped and stared at the young man who had appeared just then and was standing at the edge of the property, studying it from one end to the other. He was wearing a kaffiyeh on his head, but something about him looked too urban, too out of place here.
“Hey, you, what are you looking for?” Issam called out to the young man, as if he was the owner.
“Mahmoud,” the man said, and looked over his shoulder to the nargilah smoker.
“Ah, you know that he’s Mahmoud and not me? How?” Issam growled.
“I know.” The stranger walked further in, bypassing Issam. He stuck his hand out to the man sitting on the bench, and the latter returned the handshake, looking a bit confused.
“I know you, don’t I?” Mahmoud asked.
“Maybe,” the man said. He sat down in the place that Issam had vacated a few moments earlier and took out a long cigarette from his pocket, handing it to Mahmoud.
The cigarette was wrapped in a whitish, transparent paper. Mahmoud was impressed by the foreign lettering that he could not read. “What is this?” he asked the stranger.
“A small gift from someone.”
“Yischak!” Mahmoud and Issam exclaimed in unison.
“Yes,” the young man said, and pushed aside the kaffiyeh, which covered half of his right eye. He spoke Arabic fluently, but it was clear to both Mahmoud and Issam that he was Jewish. “He asked me to visit you and to see how you are doing.”
“Me? I’d doing wonderfully,” said Mahmoud, bewildered as ever.
“And how’s the business?” The young man looked around, taking in the neglect.
“You can see for yourself…” Mahmoud waved his hand expansively. “It’s not so good. People don’t really need to take care of their horses these days… Besides one officer, an important guy who likes to ride on a horse, the British don’t have horses and carriages anymore.”
“And this officer takes care of his horse over here?”
“Yes,” Mahmoud said.
“But the last time he was here was a year ago,” Issam interjected. “Right, Mahmoud? You did a nice job on his horseshoe. And he hasn’t come since then.”
“Right,” Mahmoud had to concede. “There really is no work to be had. You can tell that to Yischak. Nothing, none. Today Issam came, but only a few people still come by…”
“So there’s nothing for him to come back to,” Issam explained.
“But it is his.” The younger man pointed to the land, and Mahmoud sucked in his breath. “No?”
“No!” Issam declared with confidence. “Why is it his? It’s Mahmoud’s!”
“Right, right,” the former partner murmured submissively.
“Who bought the land?” the young man asked.
“Yischak.” Mahmoud’s eyes were darting around.
“But Mahmoud worked a lot, he paid him with work, and now the land is his!” Issam was nearly shouting. “And what is this? Yischak sent you to get the land back? Let him come himself, the coward!”
“He might come,” the man said calmly. “But tell me, Mahmoud, what does that mean, you paid him with work? This was a jointly owned business, right? You both worked, but the land was always his. Isn’t that so?”
“Uh…” Mahmoud rolled the cigarette between his fingers. “…Yes.”
“Let him come himself!” Issam slammed his fist on the back of the bench. “Mahmoud, don’t give in to the Yahud so fast! Tomorrow they will come and take the land, and you—where will you go? To the sea? The land is ours!” His eyes were fiery as he approached the guest, who rose from his place swiftly. “Acco is ours, OURS! Why did you come back here?”
“We didn’t come back,” the man said. “But Yitzchak wants to reach an agreement with Mahmoud about the land, that’s all. And you, sir, please don’t get involved. Mahmoud, when can I speak to you?”
“Who are you?” Mahmoud asked weakly.
“Someone who wants the best for you.”
“Yischak sent you? Why are you helping the Yahud?”
“Tell him,” Issam stepped in between them, “that he should come himself. Yes! He should come himself, the coward!”
“Yes, right,” Mahmoud said, suddenly feeling more courageous. “Tell Yischak that if he wants to talk about the land, he should come himself. I’m going to talk only to him, not to you.”
“No problem.” The young man smiled and put out a hand to Mahmoud, who shook it weakly, and then to Issam, who merely responded with a big scowl.
“Tell Yischak that I want to see him…!” Mahmoud called after him, and sank back down onto the bench.
Emmanuel Bitton bit his lip and left. It didn’t appear that these two were going to send the rabble after him, but he still preferred to move as far away from them as he could. He’d told Yitzchak Shikovitzer and his young friend from the start that he didn’t think the visit would be very productive. There was no chance of getting anything out of the Arabs at this point in time. Since the Jews had left Acco, at least officially, no Arab had agreed to give up even one inch of land, or to pay for it.
That’s just the way things were right now.