Mordechai’s Mustache and His Wife’s Cats

Mordechai is a simple person, like tens of thousands of others in Tel Aviv (though he would insist that there are few like him there). He enjoys living his easy and comfortable life, gives no one grief, and no one gives him grief. That's why Mordechai's neighbors like him: he doesn't hassle them.

Mordechai was in the army, and after his discharge he continued to see himself as a soldier-as indeed he was, in the reserves. He has held many different jobs, simple trades befitting an ordinary citizen. For many years Mordechai worked in a carpentry workshop, while Stella worked as a waitress in a restaurant. These occupations didn't provide them with great wealth, but they managed to raise their son and daughter on whatever they earned. The son became a noteworthy young man and married the girl next door. The two went off to live together in one of the city's suburbs. The daughter left the family home to live with her boyfriend in a small apartment.

After the children left the house to the two of them, Mordechai was prepared to live a quiet life with Stella, all alone. They were over fifty and retired, and it was their right to live out the rest of their time in peace and security. Yet Stella, like Mordechai, sometimes felt overwhelmed.

They began to equip themselves for their new lives. Stella brought three cats into the apartment, two of them gray-haired and one black, with shining eyes. He was her favorite because of his unimaginably daring exploits. And Mordechai let his mustache grow out to cover the lower "sector" of his face. (Mordechai, as always, was enamored of military jargon.)

In the beginning, Mordechai had no complaints regarding his wife's cats. He considered them to be an inevitable variation in a life that was otherwise completely on course. And in the beginning, Stella did not mind her husband's mustache. She viewed it as a custom that many a soldier and commanding officer followed, in Israel and the world over. Military men distinguished themselves through their abundant and lengthy mustaches.

Nevertheless, the unruly way that Mordechai's ran wild first led her to grumble, then drove her to distraction. She began to think of it as two separate entities: the right mustache and the left. In the middle of the night, as Mordechai slept next to her, she would awaken, distraught, because the right tip was so close to her nose. She would attempt to curl it away from her, or under the blanket, but it immediately sprung back and took up its station near her nose. She was forced to wake him in order to distance it from her. Mordechai would then turn over to sleep on his left side, with his right mustache spiking into the firmament over the bed like a parched desert plant. But he could never last very long in that state. There was, inevitably, more fun with Stella's nose.

The next interruption came at dawn, when Stella's cats jumped into the bed and stretched about luxuriantly, emitting a steady stream of purrs. Mordechai would turn away from the cats and complain that they wouldn't let him sleep during the most precious moments of the morning. Stella didn't like to hear it.

"You don't like being at home any more," she'd say. Mordechai also sensed that his wife was shying away from him, or, more accurately, from his mustache, which had become the longest in the neighborhood, if not in all of Tel Aviv. As she prepared breakfast, she'd say to him: "Come on and eat, you and your mustache." Mordechai tolerated her comments, dismissing them as some sort of playful jest, although every day he grew more and more convinced that she was pointedly mocking his mustache. Despite this, he would never trim it-not even, he swore, if it grew ten feet long.

*

Mordechai and Stella sat down at the dinner table, she and her three cats on one side, and Mordechai and his mustache on the other side, facing them. Stella studied it. Stretched out from the left tip to the right, it looked like the two wings of an airplane. She said: "It's as if I was sitting at the airport!" Mordechai smiled, and chose to take his wife's comment with good humor. Yet deep down in his soul he knew that the remark was a rebuke. She utterly disparaged his mustache!

Mordechai had sufficient cause to find fault with his wife. He could have easily launched into a tirade against her cats' behavior, but he abstained out of respect, and because he didn't want to anger her. As the gray cats prodded his legs, purring wildly, almost gurgling with saliva, his appetite had never been so weak. Suddenly the black cat leaped up on to the table, not far from his plate, and stood taut. His tail rose straight up as if it were an antenna. Mordechai shrank back. The cat looked like it was on the verge of broadcasting a news bulletin!

Mordechai averted his eyes and turned his head away from the newscast. He just couldn't tolerate the sight of it. He stopped eating and sipped his tea instead, reading the details of yesterday evening's armed operation in Tel Aviv. He folded up the newspaper after a bit and said to his wife, abruptly:

"I'm going to go sign up for military duty!"

"At your age? They'll never accept you."

"I know people my age who volunteered for checkpoint duty, and they went."

Stella realized that it was best to encourage him; she had noticed that his spirits were low. He had too much free time on his hands. She told herself, "At least he will get out of the house for a while."

Mordechai didn't tell her that he was fed up with the atmosphere at home. Instead he attributed his decision to that peacenik Yossi Beilin1 and his little two-state solution.

"That Beilin is working against the state's interests, and we have to protect it from his destructive schemes."

He was angry with all those leftist writers who were poisoning Israelis' minds. He told her about an article he had read in Yedi'ot, where the writer argued that the government was likely to be infected with syphilis if it continued to "embrace" the occupation!

*

Mordechai put on his military uniform, grabbed his M-16, and headed for the checkpoint at Qalandiya. There, he crouched behind a cement wall and put a reinforced helmet on his head. His face and mustache and the tops of his shoulders and hands were all that appeared above the wall. He fixed his gaze straight ahead, at two Palestinians only a short distance away.

Then, for the first time in his life, Mordechai stood face-to-face with Palestinians. He scrutinized their features, and noticed that the whole group of them was silent and apprehensive, standing in the long line in front of the checkpoint, waiting for a chance to cross. He sized them up. It was a mixed bag of humanity. Men of various ages, old women who could barely stand on their feet, and young girls, some wearing pants that stretched tightly over their bodies, others covered by traditional, full-length galabias with white or colored scarves over their heads.

Many thoughts and feelings swarmed in his head. He almost voiced his sympathy for this unarmed and defenseless congregation, people who were just waiting for a gesture of his hand. But the security of the state, which came before all other considerations, led him to banish these more delicate sentiments from his mind. Because, in the final analysis, these people were the enemies of Israel!

To shore up the stern feelings inside him, he banished all children from his field of vision, as well as the old men and women. He decided to limit his severe gaze to the young men: the "Klashins." They were the source of danger, the root of the problem. They were the terrorists who wrapped explosive belts around their waists, or hid machine guns under their parkas, sowing death in the hearts of Israelis.

Mordechai proclaimed his first words to the waiting crowd: "NO CHAOS! IT'S FORBIDDEN! You are trespassing!"

There was no clear response from the crowd, just some obscure grumblings. He saw some smiles that failed to put him at ease or to reassure him in any way. Any haste in allowing Palestinians to pass through the checkpoint could result in grievous harm to the State of Israel! Of course, at the checkpoint right in front of Mordechai, an electronic gate searched them as they passed through it, so the possibility of smuggling weaponry and explosives was nil.

But in any case, smooth and unobstructed entry through the checkpoint might give them the wrong impression: that the state was more lax than it should be. And that might cause the Palestinians to become insolent, and dare to challenge the state and its security.

What's more, Mordechai did not want any tinge of disappointment or failure to be mixed up, in any way, with his first day at the checkpoint. What would his fellow soldiers say if a suspicious person were to cross the checkpoint due to his negligence!? What would Stella say about him?

Despite his meek character, Mordechai could be a tough soldier when necessary-the wars he had fought in were proof of that. And who could guarantee that this crowd in front of him was really innocent and beyond suspicion? If it were up to Mordechai, he would close the checkpoint and tell those waiting, who were multiplying minute by minute:

"No! Go back! Go back! Leikh! NOBODY passes through here!"

It wasn't all in his hands, but Mordechai was supposed to foil any attempt to let dangerous Palestinians inside. Mordechai was no omniscient god. How could he know Palestinians' innermost secrets?

In circumstances such as this, slow and steady wins the race. Mordechai noticed a cluster of men standing at the checkpoint. They raised their voices, as if to protest the way he held up the line.

"Sheket! Silence! Chaos I don't want! You are trespassing!"

The clamor intensified as others spoke up.

Mordechai exchanged a knowing glance with the soldier standing near the electronic detection gate. The soldier jumped up and closed the gate. The attendant Palestinians fell into disarray and disbelief. Mordechai issued his orders once again: "Be quiet and you will cross! Understand?"

The Palestinians were divided among themselves. Some proposed that they keep calm, while others shouted and unleashed angry comments. Finally the first opinion won out.

Closing the checkpoint gave Mordechai the opportunity to let his thoughts wander wherever they wished. He enjoyed daydreaming. Letting his thoughts stray relieved his nerves and gave him chance to just contemplate life. He could also indulge in his favorite pastime: blissfully stroking his mustache while gazing at women's bodies. He fixed his gaze intently on the young women before him.

He said to himself, "These Palestinians have some beautiful girls!" He made a quick comparison to the girls of Tel Aviv. "The ones in Tel Aviv are prettier." He felt a twinge of sadness, though, because some of them had gone a little wild. Once he had seen an Israeli girl on Dizengoff Street with a young man beside her, his arm around her waist. Mordechai enjoyed her beauty, but it disgusted him to discover that the man was a "legitimate Arab," or an Arab "of the State," as he referred to Israeli-Arabs. He attacked that man and would have killed him if passersby hadn't intervened and pried the young man away from him, saving him.

Mordechai did not like to see Tel Aviv girls arm-in-arm with the Arabs. "Zaalika faal ghayr hassan," he would say in his pidgin Arabic. "That's a no-good thing."

"The government ought to pass a law against Jewish girls marrying Arab boys," he thought. Mordechai was disheartened to see that the state wasn't doing itself justice. It should pass more laws to protect itself from every evil. It should pass a law against meloukhia. Yes, meloukhia, that slimy green that the Arabs loved! It should be illegal to cook it without a permit from the army. Mordechai would never forget a joke that was reported in one of the Israeli papers, one that had come from an Arab paper, as told by one of the Arab press's leading wits. Mordechai was convinced that it was no joke at all, but really just a wicked plot disguised as one. The Arabs didn't need weapons to fight back at the Israelis, it went. All they had to do was bring a crowd of ten million Arabs to the Jordan River, starve them for a week, and then spread a rumor that all of Tel Aviv was, at that very moment, cooking meloukhia. The ten million would immediately head off for Tel Aviv. Israel would fight them off, using its devastatingly effective weaponry, and half of the Arabs would die. But the rest would stay on and vote in the Knesset elections. They would in time become a majority in the Knesset and seize control. Eventually they'd seize all the power in Israel!

This made Mordechai anxious. He felt it was the state's obligation to watch the borders carefully whenever the people of Tel Aviv set about cooking meloukhia. For that matter, they had better monitor them even if Tel Aviv was just eating hamburgers: there was no conclusive proof that Arabs didn't like hamburgers!

Mordechai emerged from his daydreaming to the sound of an old woman's voice as she stormed up to the crossing point, right up to him.

"Are we supposed to spend the night at this checkpoint, or what? What kind of treatment are we getting?"

Mordechai told the woman to go on back where she came from, but she stayed cemented in her spot. The other soldier, Mordechai's friend, gave her a hard shove, but then she reared up, raised her voice, and threatened the soldier with her two sinewy, emaciated hands. Mordechai gathered that she had won this round; there was no way out except to let her pass.

He signaled to the soldier, who with a wave of his hand allowed her to cross. Then, after an especially rigorous check of their identity papers, Mordechai gave more Palestinians permission to cross.

Mordechai needed a little rest after his exertions. He ordered the Palestinians to be patient and wait, and gave free reign to his reveries once again, stroking his mustache. He remembered Stella and felt a warm vitality in the core of his body when he realized that he hadn't been in her for three months. He decided that tonight he would surprise her in a way she'd never expect. He'd tell her that military service is life itself, and that the state grows from the army, which is like a living root.

Under the influence of these refreshing thoughts, and due to the increasingly jam-packed condition of the checkpoint, Mordechai allowed another batch from the long line to cross over. ("They say they are a small nation but I'll bet they outnumber all the Chinese in China!" he told himself.) The movement across the checkpoint unfolded with excruciating slowness, until Mordechai's shift came to an end and he left for home.

Stella greeted Mordechai with open arms and listened at length to his rambling account of all the Palestinians he had seen with his own eyes. Stella laughed a little and occasionally even felt a little sorry for them; at other times she seethed with hatred. Her feelings were colored by the various incidents he related to her, this husband of hers who told her, as he carried her toward the bedroom: "Tonight, you will be subjected to a heavy bombardment."

He kept silent for a moment to take in the effect his words had on her. Then, seeing no sign of interest, he added: "I will advance toward you under the cover of a tender light."

A look of disgust appeared on her face, and she said, "You've gone back to that old dictionary! Didn't we agree to forget about it?"

He demanded: "How can I turn away from a dictionary that arouses such feelings?!"

But she replied, "I am not a wall. If you want to bombard something, the wall is in front of you. Pound on it to your heart's content!"

Mordechai turned silent.

In the morning he went back to the checkpoint. He carried out his work with even greater vigilance than on his first day. He squeezed the Palestinians until their spirits broke.

It took him a while to notice the popping and cracking noises that they made whenever he put his fingers to his mustache. At first, he thought this was just a coincidence, purely unintended. But then the smirks on their faces raised doubts in his mind. He shouted again and again: "Sheket! Sheket!"

They quieted down, and Mordechai took the opportunity to caress his mustache and gaze at the girls' beautiful bodies. The pops and cracks suddenly started up again. Mordechai couldn't pinpoint who and where they were coming from. But it became clear to him: these sounds had no purpose whatsoever, beyond making fun of him and his mustache! So what was he supposed to do? Should he shut the checkpoint in their faces, once and for all? That wasn't possible! There were orders from the higher-ups to permit them to cross.

Should he arrest those he suspected were behind the mocking popping sounds? (They would, on the whole, be despicable teenagers.) Maybe, though there was no law stipulating arrest and imprisonment for unleashing such irritating noises. And besides, Mordechai did not want, in any way, to bring shame upon his mustache. The left-wing press might write up the affair and denounce it and him. And that Yossi Beilin-he just might exploit the whole thing to bolster his call for the removal of all the checkpoints and the withdrawal of the army!

Should Mordechai give up massaging his mustache, and abandon a pleasure he didn't want to live without? That would be difficult, very difficult. Yet it seemed that there was no other way forward if he wished to safeguard his mustache's reputation.

"Be quiet and you will cross! Understand?"

From then on, when Mordechai arrived at the checkpoint he was wary of putting his hands to his mustache. But the popping and cracking didn't stop. For the Palestinians, the mere sight of Mordechai had become a cue to begin the concert their lips performed so well. Even Mordechai's colleagues-in-arms, the other soldiers on checkpoint duty, were two-faced. They would avenge his mustache with a volley of insults and threats whenever the accursed "concert" got under way. But when they gathered together on their own, out of earshot of the Palestinians, they would fall over each other laughing.

Mordechai knew he had reached a decisive crossroads. Either he could give up his checkpoint service to shield his mustache from insult, and forfeit his sacrifice to and for the state-or he could shave it and maintain his loyalty to Israel. (He decided to propose an annual "ideal citizen" contest to the government, with a reward worth 50,000 Shekels. He was certain he would be the first winner.)

And this is what happened: Mordechai decided to shave his mustache. He decided to seize this decision as an investment, and to barter. He could use it to rid his home of his wife's cats. Mordechai was confident he could force Stella to make "painful concessions," because she loved her cats and hated his mustache. So she might well agree to a kind of settlement between the two, ultimately to live and let live.

Mordechai entered into bitter negotiations with his wife. In the end, these were concluded with some success for each. Stella agreed to get rid of the two gray cats, but held onto the black one; in exchange Mordechai got rid of his mustache.

So Mordechai returned to the checkpoint shorn of his mustache. The Palestinians noticed that movement across the checkpoint became slightly easier. Perhaps they could tell that Mordechai had cut out some of his own passions and preoccupations.

1Yossi Beilin is a pro-peace Israeli politician and intellectual who, together with Palestinian philosopher and university president Yasser Aded Rabbo, authored the stillborn Geneva Accords for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in 2003.

First published in Al Karmel 78 (Winter 2004). Copyright 2004 by Muhammad Shukair. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2006 by Michael K. Scott. All rights reserved.