The Shoes

Perhaps it is merely a clever joke, but it has become a story, everybody's story.

No one knew why Nizar insisted on going to Ramallah. The situation is not encouraging—the military checkpoints, the humiliations, the grueling walk through the hills and over the barriers made of dirt. Nevertheless, with a laborer's determination, Nizar insisted: There is a problem that must be resolved in Ramallah. He must go. "I will bear the burden of the road . . . we've grown accustomed to it . . . it has become normal for us. The Israelis don't realize that they have managed to turn everything unnatural in our life into something natural . . . what else can we do? Sit until we die, wait for what?"

He got into the car and left. He had to reach Ramallah, one way or another.

The cars go through the hills, through a kilometer of asphalt road and then another kilometer of dirt roads. Nizar turned his gaze toward the hills. People always find a way around the checkpoints. The side roads have made them experts at circumventing the checkpoints, the orders, the exhaustion, the wretchedness. They are like a colony of ants that always find a way out, a solution, when their homes and paths are pulverized; they are resourceful in circumvention, adaptability and endurance. For days, these ants dig with their mouths and their tiny legs, carrying grains of earth to far-off places. They open a tiny hole, but it is enough; they will continue on their path as if nothing has happened. Perhaps after a minute, intentionally or by mistake, one of them will destroy the hole. The ants stop, move their antennae agitatedly, contemplate the scene, crowd around it and then burst forth again and begin working.

On the dirt paths, people appear like small black mounds, moving in threads; these flocks of humanity limp, stop, walk forward and then retreat. They will climb over anything to reach their destination; they walk as though through Dante's hell. On the straight path, they huddle together; they climb; they jump over the dirt barriers. After an hour, the bulldozers may destroy their paths with rocks, earth, and cement blocks. The black lumps stop, look around, turn on themselves, on their suffering, on their tears, their sweat, but still find a new way again, create it, discover it and continue in their eternal stubbornness.

Nizar moved like the others. Seized by rage, he climbed the ant paths, cursing. His feet sore, he fell, got up, held onto the hand of an old man and together they continued their climb uphill. He must reach Ramallah. In that instant, he may have forgotten why he wanted to go to Ramallah. Not important. The arrival itself is his aim—the ability to be stubborn, to assert himself so that mere arrival is a kind of victory, and this is enough.

Time passes slowly, hot and dusty: Barriers, guns, soldiers, identity card checks, long waits, curses and humiliations. Everything mixes with everything else; the advance and the retreat both have the same measure of suffering. In the back, the barriers and the humiliations; ahead, the same thing. So, forward he went. Isn't arrival, isn't the surmounting of suffering, the defiance of being broken down a simple, clear parity? An entire nation finds byroads, steps over logic and reason to maintain for itself the logic which says, Persistence first, or death.

Lost in his imaginings, Nizar climbed a fine line of hope in the tedious thud of his feet. Every hill is an obstacle he must overcome; it nourishes his steadfastness. Every laugh was a way of resisting, as though he were the happiest man on earth. But the instant of unadulterated laughter, that was when he will feel truly happy.

He continued to dodge and maneuver, from car to car, from hill to mountain, from checkpoint to checkpoint. He moved on, the road twisting, resisting, until he found himself limp on the seat of the car, oblivious to what was happening around him.

Six hours since dawn is not a long time, he thought and smiled. Some people spend ten hours to reach where they want to go, to achieve what must be achieved. He moved closer to the last checkpoint in front of Qalandia refugee camp. Only one more step left before he wins the war.

A long queue of cars stretched along the asphalt. The car slowed down and came to a stop at the tail of the line. He opened the door and got down, examined his surroundings. On both sides of the road, the ants were moving between the cars, in the dust; women, children, young and old men, sellers, students, donkeys, all moving back and forth; voices, shouts, whispers, pleas—a dizzying mixture of people; of pain and of dirt; of insistence and dust; of life.

He left the car and moved ahead, joined the crawl forward. A clean black car passed by, creating a whirlwind of dust, leaving curses in its trail.

The sun broils the top of people's heads; the salty sweat streams down their necks, clouding their eyes. But despite all this, there is no alternative but to continue.

Nizar walked with resolve, his ears catching sentences and fragments: "They will not allow anyone to pass, only those who have a permit from the civil administration."

"I must reach Ramallah, permit or no permit I will not return."

He approached the checkpoint and stood in front of the cement blocks. A few soldiers were hanging around; some of them could not have been eighteen years old; their mustaches had not grown yet. In front of them were hundreds of men and women, waiting, hoping, trying to coax the soldiers with everything in their power into allowing them to pass. But to no avail: the pleading, the tears, the age, the illness, university courses, all this is to no avail . . . "No means no."

The pressure and the congestion intensified. One of the soldiers threw a gas bomb, which gave out a muffled sound as it exploded in the crowd. People ran, coughed, fainted, but to no avail. No means no.

The crowds began their crawl again. Nizar advanced. He stood in front of the cement blocks, then he moved forward to the narrow passage.

—Hey, you, where are you going? Stop!

—I want to pass.

—Do you have a permit?

—No, I don't have a permit.

—Then go back. It is forbidden.

—But, Mister, I must pass, I have come from far, I have important business to take care of.

—I don't care. It is forbidden. Go back or I'll shoot.

—Why do you want to shoot? You can see, I am unarmed.

—I said no; it is forbidden.

Nizar hesitated. He turned his head, looked at the crowd through the dusty film of his eyelashes, then tried again:

—Please, if you want to keep my identity card till I return. Here, take it.

—I don't want it. It is forbidden to pass. My words are final.

-Why, brother? What do you want from me? I must reach Ramallah.

The soldier looked beyond and then returned his gaze to Nizar's face. Here is an opportunity for some fun, for a joke. The soldier asked Nizar for his identity card. He looked at the card, then at Nizar.

—Listen, I will let you pass if you take your hat off!

Nizar looked at the soldier intently, then took the hat off his head and threw it far away.

—Now, can I pass?

The soldier laughed out loud. His eyes followed the hat as it bounced among the crowds and then disappeared.

—We're not finished yet; there are other conditions, if you want to pass.

Nizar sensed that he had succeeded in breaking the barrier of the initial and absolute refusal. He began to maneuver, to negotiate.

—Yes, what else do you want? he asked the soldier.

—You must take off your shoes and leave them here with me and pick them up when you return.

Nizar stared at the soldier. Is this a joke or is the soldier serious?

—It's not possible. How am I going to walk in this heat, the broken glass, the dirt . . .

—Fine, you don't want to? Return to where you came from.

Nizar lowered his head and turned it slightly. He scanned the crowds in the blazing sun and the dust. In an instant, a lifetime of suffering surfaced again.

—Fine, I accept, he said firmly.

He bent down, took off his shoes and placed them immediately on the cement block, in front of the shocked soldier, without waiting for permission to advance.

—Hey, wait, the conditions are not over yet.

Nizar walked as though in a trance. The dirt road was hot under the sun.

—Before you go, I want you to bring me a glass of tea.

Nizar looked at the soldier, looked at his feet. Drops of sweat trickled down the edge of his cheek, slightly hesitated at the end of his chin before plunging down and finally vanishing into the sweltering dust.

He walked slowly and was gone. Five minutes later he came back with a large glass of tea. He gave it to the soldier, who began to sip it, joking and laughing with the other soldiers.

Nizar left the checkpoint; finally he crossed it and he was on his way to Ramallah. The important thing was that he had passed.

(Here, and in keeping with the logic of the narrative, the story can come to an end. But as usual a typical Palestinian insisted on interfering to make the story continue toward another ending.)

After four hours, Nizar returned. Before reaching the checkpoint, he took off his new shoes. He put them in a plastic bag. The agreement was that he should return barefoot.

He moved toward the checkpoint, toward the soldier.

—Hey, as you can see I have returned. Where are my shoes?

The soldier fell in a wave of laughter, pointing with his hand to the shoes next to the cement square block.

Nizar walked toward the shoes. He slid his right foot into it and felt a hot liquid. Startled, he moved back. He held the shoe and looked at the soldier who was joined by four others who all began to laugh.

Nizar turned the shoe over; a muddy, yellow liquid poured out of it. He shook the shoe several times. He tried to dry it with newspapers, their pages full of reports and pictures of political leaders and summit conferences. He got up calmly, put his feet in the shoes, and walked through the checkpoint. Three steps. Then he stopped abruptly. He turned and walked back, approaching the cement blocks.

—What do you want? the soldier asked him, with laughter and surprise.

Nizar stood, silent. He looked at the people and the cars. He took off his shoes and steadied them on the cement block. He looked straight into the eyes of the soldier.

—One last word, he said firmly, I want to tell you. As long as you continue to urinate in our shoes and we urinate in your tea, there will be no peace between us. Do you get it?

Nizar turned around fast. He dissolved into the crowd, his feet bare.

First published in Masharef 28, Autumn 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Nassar Ibrahim. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2006 by Taline Voskeritchian. All rights reserved.