Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 48 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.
Emmanuel Bitton smiled at the man amiably. “Yes, Sa’id? Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, everything is fine. Can I have some more of your stuffed things?”
Bitton smiled and pointed to his “waiter,” a barefoot youth who was walking among the diners holding a huge elliptical-shaped bowl filled with mangrove leaves that were stuffed with rice and raisins. His mother’s recipe really used meat, but that was too complicated to obtain.
Someone walked in to the small restaurant with a heavy, slightly uneven gait. Bitton tensed— it was one of the prominent effendis of the Al Alami family, who had cast fear on the other Arabs of Acco. If they would begin with riots and ambushes against the Jews of the Galilee, of which Acco was a part, they would almost certainly draw the others to follow them.
“Hey, effendi!” Emmanuel called. “Salaam aleikum! Come, have a seat, here’s a clean table. Ahbed! Come and give the gentleman a large portion!” The boy came over with a smile and asked the effendi what he preferred. The guest sent him away with an impatient wave of the hand, and the boy scurried away, offended, to Emmanuel.
“I’ll go over to him.” Emmanuel took two large trays and approached the table. He bowed slightly. “What would the gentleman like?” he asked politely.
“What do you have?” The man leaned back as he studied the restaurant owner.
“Fried fish, straight from the sea, chips, and stuffed mangrove leaves.”
“Ch-ips.” The man uttered the Western words scornfully. “What is this, this food?”
“Something American,” Bitton replied. “It doesn’t hurt to try it now, does it?”
The man glared at him. “Bring it over,” he barked.
“And here is a cigarette for our guest,” Emmanuel said, as he pulled from his pocket a package that he kept for just these moments. “This is also from America.”
This was the seventh week that his restaurant was operating, and what he was hearing was not making him happy. The Galilee Arabs were all being incited. It was true that the city folks did not seem to be as bad as the fellah peasants from the villages, but he knew quite well that the entire situation was very delicate and explosive. A few inciting rants by a sheikh or kadi, and the Jews would be in terrible danger. The whole land was sitting on burning coals; the situation was very complicated.
So how did Shikovitzer think he was going to get his lot back?
The thought made him blush slightly. He had been here for seven weeks, and he hadn’t yet done a thing to find out about the lot. It wasn’t nice of him. True, he was involved in much more important issues relating to all the Jews of the Galilee, but Mahmoud, Shikovitzer’s partner, had already been here twice, and he could have felt him out about the situation. Maybe he could have had him sign a document that the land was not his. In time, if the Jews would be able to return to Acco and would build up a presence there, this signature would be helpful.
As if to check the seriousness of his intentions, the first customer the next evening was Mahmoud. “Butan!” he shouted. “Butan, you have buri fish?”
“Yes, yes,” Emmanuel replied, and sent the boy over.
“Mmmm, very tasty.” Mahmoud waved a fork in his direction. “You cook well, you. Hey, we know each other a bit, no?”
“We do?” He remembered the encounter! Did Mahmoud realize then that he was a Jew?
“Maybe.” Mahmoud chewed vigorously. “You are familiar to me, you know, so I thought that maybe we’ve met before.”
Did he recognize him or not?
“Where do you live?” Emmanuel tried to sounds as courteous as possible.
“Near the market, on El Abeid. You know the place?”
“No.” Emmanuel raised his eyebrows. “But maybe I once saw you at the market. I go there a lot.”
“I don’t,” Mahmoud said. “I have work. I have no time to wander in the market. I’m busy.” He blew out his cheeks with an air of importance and then went back to his plate.
“Very nice, very nice. What do you do?”
“I fix carriages, tend to the horses. If your horse ever needs a new shoe, or something breaks in your carriage, ask everyone where Mahmoud’s workshop is, near Nebi Salah. Everyone knows the place.”
“Good to hear,” Emmanuel said. He knew that in the next two weeks, his horse was urgently going to need some care, if he wanted to help the desperate Shikovitzer a bit, or at least to explain that he’d tried to help.
But when he arrived, after working to extract two of the nails in his horse’s shoe, the lot was empty.
He jumped off the driver’s seat of the carriage and walked into the lot. It seemed like in the half a year that had passed since he’d spoken to Mahmoud and his friend here, the neglect had spread even more. The old stable was just a tangle of boards and thorns, and the “new” one was empty; the troughs were covered with dust and algae. The work hut was covered with ivy and other creeping plants, and its open door was hanging on a slant by one hinge. Inside, it was just a black, uninviting void, proving that there wasn’t even anything to steal there.
Emmanuel walked over to the hut. He remembered Shikovitzer’s large oven well; as a boy, when he sometimes came here with his father in the winter, he liked to sit across from it, and gaze at the red flames licking the iron pieces inside. Where were Shikovitzer’s large tongs? Were they not there, hanging on the rusty nail in the wall?
He entered. The floor was covered with a thick layer of dust, and every step he took kicked up clouds of dust and left footprints on the floor. He was overcome by a fit of coughing as he looked around. No one seemed to have stepped foot in here in a long time. Mahmoud probably didn’t go inside anymore, doing whatever small amount of work he had outside.
He tried to pull down the tongs, and the nail in the wall broke right away.
“You!” The hut suddenly became even darker. “What are you doing here? Trespasser!”
“I’m not doing anything.” Emmanuel spun around. A young Arab, about his age, more or less, stood there, his black eyes flashing. “Salaam aleikum. Mahmoud told me to come here if I have a problem with my horse.”
“And you have a problem with the horse?” The Arab did not return his greeting; he blocked the doorway with his body.
“Yes, he needs a new horseshoe, or to fix the one that’s there.” Emmanuel put the tongs down on the anvil and drew closer to the door. “He barely hobbled over here.”
“Show me,” the Arab said, and moved aside, walking with a pronounced limp toward the horse.
They both emerged outside into the sunshine. Emmanuel stole a glance at the young man’s profile; he looked very similar to Mahmoud. “Are you Mahmoud’s son?”
“Yes,” was the terse response.
“How do you know my name?”
“Did you forget that everyone calls your father Abu Wassim?” Bitton smiled.
The young man did not return the smile. “This is your horse, huh?” He walked over to it.
“But I don’t see a workshop here,” Emmanuel remarked casually.
“There almost isn’t one.”
“Almost isn’t one?”
Wassim bent down to the horse. “There’s no work for my father,” he said tonelessly. “People don’t come.”
“Look, I came.”
“And you think he sits here all day for people to come once in half a year?” The younger man raised his voice indignantly.
“I didn’t say that. But if he doesn’t work here, how will you fix the horseshoe for me? Does he still have has tools?”
“We won’t fix it.” Mahmoud’s son stood up.
“No? So why did you check my horse?”
“To make sure that you’re not lying, because I don’t like you.”
“What? Why don’t you like me?” Emmanuel pretended to be very insulted. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the owner of the fish restaurant. You never came there with your father?”
“I have no money.”
Emmanuel coughed. The dust was still clogging his airways. “Tell me where I can fix this horseshoe, and I’ll let you come today on the house,” he said. “My gift, one time.” If there was any chance of saving Mr. Shikovitzer’s lot, it depended on this firstborn son. The heir— real or imagined.
“Fine.” The gesture seemed to have softened Wassim’s suspicions a bit. “Continue straight, on Khan a-Shuarda, where all the merchants come to rest and to trade. They’ll take care of your horse there. You’ve never been there before?”
I bought my horse there when I came to Acco. “I’ve seen it.”
“So go there, and they’ll take care of your horse, for a small fee.”
“Why do they have business and not you?”
“Well, there aren’t too many horses left in the city…not enough business for all of us.”
“I actually saw some!” Emmanuel protested. “Horses, donkeys, and carriages.”
“But not like there used to be.” Wassim’s eyes focused on him as he climbed up to the driver’s seat. “When I was a boy, wai, wai, what went on over here! How many horses and carriages there were…quite a lot of work for my father and his friend. Today, there’s nothing, and even what there is at Khan a-Shuarda is less than what was here when I was a boy.”
Emmanuel didn’t ask about the friend Wassim had mentioned. He grabbed the reins of his horse. “So what will be here instead?”
“Here? Nothing,” Wassim summed up the dismal situation.
“But it’s a shame about the land, no? It’s just standing here, empty.”
“Oh, our family has lots of land. In the city, outside the city…we don’t need this particular piece.”
Emmanuel did not know if this was true, or if the boy was just bloviating. “You mean that this lot is also yours?”
“So if you have so many properties, why don’t you sell some of them?” he suggested.
“Do you want to buy?”
“Maybe,” Emmanuel said. “I need to think about it. Where is your father, if I want to talk to him about it?”
“When you want to talk, come to me. I live here, nearby.” He pointed to one of the houses in the distance, near the wall. “Don’t speak to my father about it.”
“Because he doesn’t really want to sell the land. I’ll speak to him; you don’t have to.”
“Fine.” Emmanuel raised a hand in farewell without asking any more questions. He imagined that Mahmoud still remembered who really owned the land. In any case, he had no idea if anything would come of this visit, but it was certainly some progress on Shikovitzer’s affairs.
“Hawissa!” he called to his horse, and, limping slightly, it began to trot off.
In the evening, Mahmoud came with his son Wassim, and as if to provoke him, so did the effendi from the Al Alami family, who sat with them at the table. Emmanuel, busy with the fish on the fire, blew out a long breath between his tightly pressed lips. He could not raise the suspicions of this man with too many questions.
“Mr. Butan,” the boy who worked for him asked, “what should I give them?”
“Ask them what they want,” Emmanuel replied. “You know what we have, right?” He didn’t mean to sound impatient, but he was. If he could carefully mention Shikovitzer as an old friend of his, and see Mahmoud’s reaction, he would do that…but that was impossible today. Yitzchak Shikovitzer would have to wait. He would write a letter saying that he was thinking about him, and that the matter of the shul was very important. But he would also note that he couldn’t sabotage other goals that were even more important, like preserving Jewish lives, while doing so.
“The effendi wants cod, and his nephew wants sea bream.”
Emmanuel turned around. “His nephew? Mahmoud is his nephew?”
Bitton was quiet for a moment, and then he shook himself. “And what does Wassim want?”
Sure, the most expensive fish.
“I’ll serve them,” he said. “You stand here at the grill and make sure the fish inside doesn’t get black, okay?”
“Okay.” The boy was nothing if not obedient.
Emmanuel walked over to the table. It was good that the other tables were still empty; it gave him some quiet so he could think. If Mahmoud also belonged to the Al Alami family, everything was more complicated. Or maybe it was simpler? When Wassim said that they had lots of properties, in the city and outside, he’d thought he was just boasting. But if this was a wealthy family, maybe it would be easy to persuade Mahmoud to give up the land to its real owner.
“I was at your lot this morning, Mahmoud,” he said, when the three plates were full and all three men were chewing noisily. “I wanted you to fix my horse’s shoe.”
“Oh,” said Mahmoud.
“In the end I went to Khan, and they did it for me.” He paused. “You’ve got a big lot there, big and empty.”
Mahmoud raised his eyes for a long moment, and then bent back over his plate. Emmanuel leaned on the table behind him and waited to see if the conversation would develop further. He had no idea why he had this distinct feeling that Mahmoud remembered him as the man who had come to him some time ago inquiring about Yitzchak Shikovitzer’s lot.
“Yes,” the effendi interjected with his hoarse voice. “The Al Alami family owns a lot of land. A quarter of Acco belongs to us.”
“But this lot—it doesn’t,” Mahmoud said, almost casually, as he poked around the bones on his plate. “It belongs to my Yahud partner. Yischak.”
“Father!” Wassim looked ready to explode. “It’s ours! What do you care about that Yahud?! He’s gone!”
“He may come back,” Mahmoud said bravely, seeing the silent, smoldering eyes of his uncle, the effendi.
“What’s here is ours,” Wassim insisted. “They won’t steal our land.”
“He didn’t steal it,” Mahmoud said. “He paid lots of money for it, I remember. I sent him to Sheikh Al Rabia, who sold it to him. Yischak gave him lots of liras for it. Lots.”
“Who is Sheikh Al Rabia?” Emmanuel inquired, trying to shepherd the conversation from an argument to the safer channel of dry facts.
No one answered him. Mahmoud’s older uncle waved his hand in dismissal, and silence reigned at the table.
Emmanuel felt that it was time to move off and listen to the conversation from a distance. He would find Mahmoud at another opportunity and would try to keep playing on his conscience. Not that he could trust an Arab’s conscience, but maybe he could get to a secret agreement with him, without his family’s knowledge. Or maybe they could agree with Mahmoud that he would continue to hold onto the lot as a guardian and wouldn’t let his hamoula build anything there. Maybe he would even be able to get them to sign something, and then, if in ten years from now, Acco’s Jewish population would—with Hashem’s help— grow again, Yitzchak Shikovitzer would have the winning card in his hand.