Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 50 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.
Bitton wiped his hands and walked to the door of the restaurant. Binyamin noticed Shikovitzer biting his bottom lip nervously. They heard a babble of voices from the door, and Binyamin glanced again in surprise at Zelig’s father. It did not sound like just two people were speaking; it sounded louder. The two Jews did not know that they were both thinking the identical thing, even if in different words: Was it an Arab mob bursting into the restaurant because they had discovered their presence?
As they both spun their heads around, it became clear that they were thinking along the same lines. “We can get out through the window,” Shikovitzer whispered hoarsely. “You certainly will be able to, and I’ll try.”
They stood up hastily, ready to escape if they discovered that it was necessary. But after listening for another moment, it seemed as if they would not have to put their plan into action. The voices did not sound bloodthirsty. There was a loud argument going on between Emmanuel Bitton and someone else, and they could hear a guttural voice chime in every minute or so. The tones were loud, but not more than that.
“I only invited you to the meeting,” they heard Emmanuel say coolly.
“It’s the business of our entire hamoula, not just him!” someone else said.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Emmanuel asked. “What is he, a baby, that you need to accompany him? He’s almost sixty years old—let him decide his own affairs!”
“It’s not his affairs!” someone shouted. “It’s our land! What’s his belongs to the whole hamoula!”
Instead of an answer, there were rapid footsteps toward the inner room. “Mr. Shikovitzer,” Emmanuel said in a low tone as he stuck his head in the doorway, “I’m sorry that the plan is going a bit awry. Mahmoud must have told his whole family about the meeting, and he brought friends with him. One of them is very respected and influential here in the city. I hope you will manage despite this. Remember, I’m just a mediator, nothing more.”
A moment later, Mahmoud entered the room with an apologetic smile, along with five Arab men of various ages. “Yischak!” Mahmoud cried with enthusiasm that appeared genuine. “Yischak, I’ve missed you! It’s so good to see you!” He and Shikovitzer clapped each other on the shoulders, and shook hands. Mahmoud also shook Binyamin’s hand in a friendly way. “Yes, yes, you’re Zelig’s friend, I remember, sure I remember.”
His entourage remained standing silently on the side, glaring at the two Jews with unconcealed hostility.
The noise of the tables and chairs outside the room indicated that Emmanuel was cleaning vigorously. Binyamin and Shikovitzer gingerly sat back down. Binyamin glanced at the older man, who was speaking in Arabic to Mahmoud in a quiet but clear tone, and at the Arabs who listened with inscrutable expressions. Aside for Mahmoud and the effendi Yassuf of the Al Almi family, who introduced himself as Mahmoud’s uncle, the rest stood. There were just four chairs at the table.
“The land. Is mine,” Shikovitzer repeated for the eighth time, and Binyamin wondered if he really wasn’t afraid of them. “But I agree to appoint you, Mahmoud, to be in charge of it now, while I’m not here. We Jews have left Acco for now in any case.”
He did not add “but we’ll be back,” although it did seem that those very words were hanging in the air, powerfully. The effendi knitted his brows with dissatisfaction and huffed. “You left,” he insisted, “and it was yours and Mahmoud’s.”
“It was mine,” Shikovitzer repeated. “Only mine. But I’m ready to sign to Mahmoud that I am giving it to him for now.”
“For how long?” The effendi raised his eyes and looked at the other men.
Binyamin could understand the gist of what they were saying. He was familiar with Arabic, after having spent most of his childhood years in this city. But an entire conversation was difficult for him to understand. Yitzchak Shikovitzer, in contrast, spoke nearly fluently.
“For how long?” the effendi repeated with a threatening undertone.
For the first time, Binyamin saw Shikovitzer looking a bit helpless. He paused for a long moment, and then said in a questioning tone, “Twenty years?”
“Twenty years!” the effendi raised his voice. “And you plan to come back in twenty years and take all our lands, Yahud?!” One of the Arabs shifted behind them.
“Twenty-five,” Shikovitzer said, with effort; his forehead was glistening with perspiration, as if it was July outside.
“No!” the effendi barked. “Get out of here, Yahudim, who came to steal our land!” Two Arabs whispered something behind them, and Binyamin felt his hands trembling beneath the table.
“Reb Yitzchak,” he said in Yiddish, thinking about his Chaya’le, sleeping now in his parents’ home in Bnei Brak. “Reb Yitzchak, do you believe they will even honor any written contract?”
“I want to sign the major on the contract.” Shikovitzer spoke without turning his face to Binyamin. “He told me he will come here to pick us up, and I said I want him to come inside. With the signature of a British official, who may in a few years have an important government job here, they won’t be able to argue in the future.”
“First of all, it’s impossible to know what will be here in a few years,” Binyamin whispered quietly. The Arabs were silent now, as if waiting for the outcome of the discussion between the two Yahuds. “Everything in the country is very unstable right now. And I’m not even sure how much they will honor the signature of a Brit, whatever it may be worth at that time.”
“So for the small chance, is it worth it for us to take the risk now?”
“I mentioned the major on purpose,” Shikovitzer said. “I don’t think they will dare harm us; they know he is supposed to arrive soon.”
Binyamin did not respond.
“Twenty-five years is a long time,” Shikovitzer reverted to Arabic. “Mahmoud, what do you say?”
“Mahmoud doesn’t say anything. The question is what we say!” Mahmoud’s uncle banged on the table, and Mahmoud’s son, Wassim, moved closer to the table.
“It’s our land, do you get that?” he hissed. “You have no koshan on it. And besides, you took the land from him in other places, so instead of those places, you will give us this land!”
“I didn’t take any land from any place from anyone,” Shikovitzer said, and glanced at his watch. When was Major Sawyer going to come? “And I bought my lot in Acco at full price from Sheikh Al Rabia. Remember him, Mahmoud?”
His former partner nodded.
“And I’m ready to give it to Mahmoud and your family for a few years, even for a lot of years. But sign for me that after those years—the land comes back to me.”
“After one hundred years,” Yassuf, the effendi, suddenly said.
“One hundred?” Yitzchak burst into hollow laughter. “A hundred is a lot. Who will still be alive then to deal with it?”
“If Al-lah wants, then a person can live even a thousand years,” Yassuf said philosophically.
“Yes, but G-d runs the world in a way of nature, and if I am nearly seventy today, then it is likely that I won’t be here anymore in one hundred years.”
“It’s alright,” the man consoled him. “Your children will come.”
Mahmoud opened his mouth. “He doesn’t really have children. He has only one son. How is Zelig, Yischak?”
Shikovitzer shook his head noncommittally. “G-d will help and have mercy,” he said with a sigh, after a moment.
“He’s not a good boy, his son,” Mahmoud explained to his uncle. “He doesn’t follow his father’s ways.”
“And this is not your son?” the older Arab asked, jerking his thumb at Binyamin Reiness, seated silently.
“No, this is a good friend.”
“So he will come to get the land from Mahmoud’s son,” the effendi said, pointing to Wassim, who was still standing very close to the table. For a second, Wassim and Binyamin locked gazes.
“They?” Yitzchak laughed again. “Binyamin, how old are you?”
“And Wassim doesn’t look any younger to me.” Yitzchak sighed. “A hundred years is too long, effendi. Even if G-d will let them live till then, they will be too old at that point to deal with land and koshans.”
“So then their children,” Al Alami interjected.
“He has no son,” Yitzchak said quietly.
Al Alami did not look at him; he was looking at Binyamin. “Pray that you should live in order to help your friend, and his land,” he concluded. “Sign on a new koshan for us, that we will draw up now. And for the next hundred years, I don’t want to see a single Yahud come here for this land, You understand, Yischak?”
But Shikovitzer kept shaking his head in the negative. “It’s too long, Mahmoud.” He turned to his former partner and spoke in a low voice. “After all, this is my land. You don’t need any documents and contracts to remember that.”
A loud motor suddenly roared outside, drowning out the cleaning sounds that Emmanuel Bitton was making as he worked in the restaurant; he was trying to generate as much noise as he could. A moment later, Bitton peeked into the kitchen. “There’s a major here,” he said. “He wants Mr. Shikovitzer.”
“Oh, yes,” Yitzchak said. “Tell him to come in, please. We’d be happy to have his help.” Two of those who had come with Mahmoud raised their eyebrows in an identical movement, and Yitzchak quickly added, “He has experience with contracts and that type of thing.”
He stood up when the uniformed man entered the room. “Good evening, Major Sawyer,” he said in English. “Meet Effendi Yassuf, from the Al Alami clan, and this is Mahmoud, my former partner, and those who accompanied them. We’d be grateful if you could help our discussion here.” Binyamin gave his chair to the guest and went into the other room to get a different chair.
“Managing?” Emmanuel asked in a whisper as he wrung out the rag. The tiled floor shone.
“So-so,” Binyamin said. “I’m afraid Yitzchak won’t be getting his land back in the next few years. The question is whether another Jew will ever be able to get it,and honestly, I’m really not sure that that will happen. Right now, the only thing I want is to conclude this as quickly and efficiently as possible and to get back home safely. They don’t look very friendly.”
“Well, of course not.” Bitton put his rag down on the back of one of the chairs. “What did you expect?”
“I’m not even sure.” Binyamin shrugged. “But I thought only Mahmoud would come. Tell me, Mr. Bitton, what will be with you after we go? Are you not worried that they know more about you than you’d like?”
“Oh, it’s fine.” Emmanuel smiled dismissively. “I’m leaving soon in any case. I came suddenly, and I’ll disappear suddenly. Anyway, the effendi gets so many favors from me that he won’t want anything to happen to me.”
Binyamin went back into the other room.
“Forty.” The beads of perspiration stood out on Shikovitzer’s forehead. “That is also a very big concession on my part.”
The British major appeared quite amused at the whole discussion. “I suggest you make a compromise,” he said to Shikovitzer. “You want forty; the Al Alamis want a hundred. The difference is sixty. So divide it in two and take the average.”
“What?” Mahmoud mumbled. The effendi gaped at the British soldier. One of the younger members of the hamoula leaned over to them and whispered something.
“So it’s seventy?” Binyamin asked, stepping forward.
“Seventy,” Major Sawyer confirmed as his hand moved toward a clean paper that Yitzchak had prepared on the table. “Let’s write a detailed koshan here, stating that although the land belongs to Mr. Yitzchak Shikovitzer, he agrees, graciously, to lease it to his partner Mahmoud for seventy years. Then, they or their sons will meet here, in this place, and the land will revert to Shikovitzer’s ownership. I will sign the deal as a witness.”
“Binyamin Reiness will also sign,” Shikovitzer said, his expression somber. “I will give him the responsibility. He should come here, or his children.”
Binyamin grimaced for a moment, but he was quiet. And he remained quiet when, half an hour later, he signed all the paperwork.
“Seventy years!” Shikovitzer said, pale-faced, when they left. “Seventy years. That’s 2017! I’ve lost my land, Binyamin, and with it, all of my dreams.”
 Contract, sales document, written proof.