The Prisoner I & II | The New Engagement
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The Prisoner I & II

By Nadia Ibrashi

The Prisoner
I

-Did you kill him?

-I wanted to, Doctor Khalil. I stared at sand plastered on his face, and held up my AK-47. SAM’s blasted from our side of the Suez Canal. Soldiers aimed their sub-machine guns at the prisoner.

-So the soldiers shot him?

-“Why are you fighting us, you son of a dog?” he said. Hebrew words rushed at me through the inferno of war. I understood him because I have a degree in Semitic languages from Cairo University.

The prisoner was placed in shackles, and his lieutenant stripes dug in the sand. His Uzi was confiscated.  I wanted to know his name; it was against regulations, he was the enemy, but I still needed his name.

“My name is Isaac.” His voice was hoarse. I choked on the metallic sting of blood, and wanted to go home.

-Where is home?

-Mansoura, the northern city by the Nile. It seems so far away.

-Tell me about your family.

-My father’s family lived in Egypt for centuries and my mother’s family arrived in the 1800’s from Turkey. My father’s father was a cotton merchant who had business dealings with the Jewish Community, and my father joined the enterprise. His partner, Maurice Effendi, disappeared when I was a child.

-Doubtless shipped to the infamous Torra prison, you bastards?

-I don’t know. When I was older, my father told me that Maurice was stripped of his nationality and served with deportation paper. He left for France in 1956, helped by the French Israeli Alliance. That’s the last we heard from him.

 -Do you have any siblings?

-My brother was drafted in the Army. He died 1967, in the Sinai. I remember my mother’s screams.

- Stupid wars. Fucking Cane and Abel. My father died in the 1956 war, and I almost died in 1967. Do you mind if I smoke?

-No, Dr. Khalil. We are all dying one way or another.

-The incident with the prisoner happened thirty years ago?

-Yes.1973.

-So what happened to the prisoner?

-He was sprawled on the ground. The men in my troop pointed their AK-47’s at him. We were instructed to take as many prisoners as we could, so we shackled him and brought him to camp. We rounded up the rest of his platoon, all twenty men.

Skyhawks, phantoms and mirages broke the Israeli impasse, raining bombs and circling our third Army at the tip of the Sinai. Now I realize that we were all a bunch of kids, no one over twenty-five. Only our commander was older, in his mid-thirties.

-Did you ride the jeep with the prisoner?

-Yes. He said it was a bitch. “What?” I asked him, “This war, you started it” he pointed  at me. I said: “This time, but you started the whole thing in 1948.” “You mean our war of independence?” He stared at me.

 -In our part of the world, no one is really free.

-The prisoner was thirsty, and Ahmed Souss gave him water from a canteen. I wished that the prisoner would dry out and die like my brother. I hated the sand in my eyes.  I wanted to kill him, but my commander said: “Ismail, we’re keeping him.” It is only later that I didn’t want him or anybody else dead. There were too many deaths by then.                

- There is life and there is death. Be glad that you’re alive. So what happened to the prisoner?

-He may have died in jail or maybe he was returned with the prisoner exchange. The strange thing is that he started visiting me recently.

-A visitation!

-At my home. I blinked and his image was gone.

-Um, where you were alone?

-Yes.

-Did you tell anyone about this?

-My wife said to come see you.

-When was the last time you saw the prisoner?

-Yesterday. The prisoner stood in my kitchen, smelling of gun powder, a nauseating sulfur smell. He wore a skull cap, like the cap I wore when I used to pray, only smaller.

He asked me why I didn’t kill him in the desert. “I should have,” I said, and told him to leave the kitchen. He walked out and sat in the garden.

-These are echoes from the wars. I know them well.

- He mouthed some words. It felt like a ringing in my ears.

- But it doesn’t stop, does it?

- I haven’t been sleeping.

- Sleep is an elusive commodity.

- So this shit with whom I’ve fought, who has killed my brother and my best friend, whose best friend I’ve killed, who was probably killed then resurrected in my kitchen, this man...

-Accept the world and its shadows, Ismail.

-O.K., doctor, I’ll ask you because I trust you. This nightmare that I live, this man who fought me in the Sinai, who walked past jail, past death and right into my kitchen: Is he my brother?

Doctor Khalil, why are you laughing?

The Prisoner
II

-Did you kill him?

-I should have, Doctor Rubenstein. I stared at his puffy lids, grime plastered on his face. My Uzi felt unbearably heavy. SAM’s blasted from the other side of the Suez Canal. “Halt.” My commander’s voice boomed, blending with the roar of planes, rockets and bombs. Soldiers froze, aiming their sub-machine guns at the Egyptian.

- So they shot him?

- No. He was placed in shackles. He stomped and thrashed, sand rising like a cyclone around him. He yelled: “ Have mercy. Rahma.”  Then he fell like a wreck at our feet.

I understood his language and I felt he knew it from the way he held my eyes. My parents were Jews from Egypt and lived in Cairo till their families were run off in 1956. I grew up with the harsh consonants in my ears. But the other soldiers didn’t understand.

We’re family, the Egyptian kept saying, tears running down his face. So why are you fighting us, you son of a dog? I said. He prostrated himself, his lieutenant stripes dulled by the sand, his rifle thrown far at my commander’s instruction. The sun was burning at high noon, and heat waves gyrated all the way to the horizon. Sweat steamed off my face.

Golems lurked in broad daylight. I felt like breaking a taboo; I wanted to know the name of this soldier. It was completely against regulations, he was the enemy.

“My name is Ismail.” He croaked, the sounds fighting their way to my ears, squeezed by the sound of bombs and gun-shots. Arabic words, the sound of my parents’ private discussions, the back story of their early lives, came at me through the raging inferno of war.

I felt disoriented, as if the past and present collided, yielding shards of reality. I stood in the desert where my ancestors roamed and there I was five thousand years later, a sweltering October day, the smell of sweat and blood flooding my nostrils. I wished I was home.

-Where is home?

-Jerusalem.

-Tell me about your family.

-My father’s family lived in Egypt for centuries and my mother’s family arrived in the 1800’s. They were served with deportation papers and they left for France in 1956, helped by the French Israeli Alliance. The Second Exodus. My parents were members of the Young Zionist movement in Egypt. They went to Israel against their parents’ wishes, and lived in a Kibbutz in Haifa.    

-Do you have any siblings?

-An older brother. He died.

-How?

-A side-walk in Jerusalem, sipping coffee. A suicide bomber.

-The incident with the Egyptian happened thirty years ago?

-Yes.1973.

-Was this at the beginning of the war?

- It was towards the end. My last day. When I returned to camp I learned that my best friend, David Gatz, was missing. He never returned.

-So what happened to the Egyptian?

-He lay on the ground. The men in my troop pointed their Uzis at him. He peed through his pants and stained the sand with sour blotches. We would have killed him but we had instructions to take as many prisoners as we could. We shackled him and took him in a jeep back to camp. We rounded up the rest of his platoon.

Overhead, MIG’s flew by the dozens, breaking the impasse, raining bombs, circling their third Army at the tip of the Sinai. Looking back, I see that we were so young, barely out of our teens.

-Did you ride the jeep with the prisoner?

-Yes. He said the war was shit. I said: “You guys started it,” and he bobbed his head up and down, and said: “Yeah, this time,” then he spit out: “But you started the whole thing in 1948.”

He was thirsty, and I wished that he would die of thirst, just dry out and shrivel in the desert, with a thousand curses heaped on his head. But Mickey Klein gave him water from a canteen, and he drank lustily, water dripping on his chin. He took one last gulp and sprayed it in Mickey’s face.

I hated the Egyptian then, and all the other soldiers who had crossed the Bar Lev line, their sneak attack on Yom Kippur. I wanted to kill him, but my commander said: “Isaac, we’re keeping him.” It’s only later that my feelings changed.

-You joined a leftist movement for Peace after the war?

-No. That came much later, though I’ve quit all that after the second Intifada in early 2000. Peace seemed like hopeless proposition by then.

-What happened to the Egyptian?

-I don’t know. I forgot about him, but lately, he came to visit.

-Where?

-At my home.

-Where you alone?

-Yes. He felt like a shadow at the edge of my vision.

-Did you tell your wife?          

-I finally did. She said to come see you, that she trusted you because you’re her cousin.

- Have you seen more of him recently?

-Yes. Take yesterday, for instance. The Egyptian stood in my kitchen, with his head bent. He was eating bread, and started whimpering when he saw me; it seemed he was play-acting. His eyelids were red like they were rimmed with rouge, the whites of his eyes were flushed with thickened veins and his pupils were dark like the eclipse of the sun, the eclipse of the world, sucking me in. His beard had grown ragged, tinged with grey and reached to his chest.

He asked me why I didn’t kill him in the desert. “I should have,” I said, and told him to leave my kitchen, but he kept on eating, then he just walked out, through my living room, through the front door. I spied him sitting in the garden.

- How did you feel about that?

- I didn’t want to see him. He got up and started walking in the street. I heard his laughter as he disappeared.

-Did you hear him clearly?

- He mouthed his words, they felt like a thick ball of wax. But the question I ask you, and I am asking you because there is no one else to ask, and everyone I’ve asked before has lied to me, saying you should know better than to ask such a thing.

-Isaac, everything you think matters to me.

- Do you see my wild eyes, my disheveled hair? I haven’t been sleeping. When I look outside your window, I see a post-card view of Jerusalem; the Temple Mount, the Kotel with prayers tucked in its wall, and the Dome of the Rock. I feel their stones are whispering.

 -What are they saying?

-I don’t know, like they are telling me a secret. I want to ask you now, otherwise, I’ll never know.

-I’m here to help.

-So this wretched man who has been eating my food, who wants my land and all the land, who has killed my brother and my best friend, who wants to be killed then resurrected, this man with the scraggly beard and torn nails, this shit in yogurt.

Doctor, this man whom I met in the desert, who survived his own death to strut into my kitchen:  Is he my brother?

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