Set first in the village of Saint-Martin in southeast France, then in the refugee camp of Nour Chams, Étoile Errante (Wandering Star) tells the story of two teenage girls on the threshold and in the aftermath of World War II: Esther, a French Jew who flees for Jerusalem with her mother, Elizabeth, just before the German occupation; and Nejma, a young Arab orphaned and unable to return to the ancient city of her birth, Akka, after the Israeli declaration of statehood. The following excerpt, which recounts their momentary (and only) meeting, takes place at a crossroads where one journey ends as another is just beginning. Once the girls have inscribed their names on the notebook in which Nejma will log her memoirs as a refugee, it is through Nejma’s eyes that the second half of the novel is narrated.
Leaving Port-Man at dawn, the Sette Fratelli was stopped by the head customs inspector. The sea was calm and smooth in the wake of the storm. The ship’s motor had been repaired, and we were sailing toward the open sea. I was on the deck with some of the children, watching the water open up before us when suddenly, the inspector appeared as if out of nowhere. The captain pretended not to understand, and the Sette Fratelli continued on its path as their speedboat approached. The officials began to shout into their loudspeaker. There was no escape.
I watched the inspector draw closer. I could not detach my stare from the uniformed men. The Italian sailors stopped the motor and lowered the sails. Then, on orders from the inspector, the boat turned back toward the coast. We were no longer going to Jerusalem-we were going to Toulon, where we would all be put in prison.
In the hold, no one said a word. The men sat perfectly still, like ghosts. Most of the children were still sleeping, their heads resting in their mothers’ laps. The others descended from the deck, their hair disheveled by the wind. In a corner of the hold, near the luggage, the lamp had been extinguished.
* * *
Two days later, Esther and Elizabeth were in the flatbed of a covered pick-up truck headed for Jerusalem. The convoy, made up of six trucks and one American jeep, advanced slowly along the worn road, across the arid hills to the east of Ramallah. Jacques Berger was with the armed men in one of the two leading trucks. The other four trucks were transporting women and children. When she pushed aside the tarp, Esther saw only dust and the headlights of the truck behind them. The wind was cold and the sky was an unwavering blue. War was there, all around them-the news reported that Jewish farmers had been murdered in Ataroth. In Tel Aviv, before their departure, Jacques had translated General Shealtiel’s declaration for Esther: “The enemy now turns to Jerusalem, eternal city of our people. It will be a savage battle, without mercy, without retreat. Our destiny is either victory or extermination. We will fight until the last man is standing, for our survival and for our capital.” The Arab army, commanded by John Bagot Glubb and King Abdallah, had bombed the road from Tel Aviv to Haifa. The Egyptians had crossed the border, and were marching to rejoin troops on the west bank of the Dead Sea.
Nevertheless, no one in the trucks was afraid. They were still enchanted with the proclamation of Israel, the dance through the streets, the songs, and the gentle night on the beach.
People were saying, now that the British are gone, everything will work out. Others said that the war was only beginning, that it would be the Third World War. But Elizabeth did not want to hear that. She too felt enchantment and joy now that the end of the voyage was in sight. The life had returned to her eyes. She spoke and even laughed, as she had not done for some time. Esther studied her face, framed by the black shawl, and still found her mother young and beautiful.
During all the hours waiting, Elizabeth talked about Jerusalem, the temples and mosques, the shining domes, the gardens and fountains. She spoke as if she had already seen it-and maybe she had, in a dream. She said the city was the most beautiful place in the world, a place where every desire was fulfilled, where there could not be war because everyone who had been chased and oppressed in the world, everyone who had wandered without a homeland, was meant to live there in peace.
The caravan of trucks entered a forest of pines and cedars, pierced by rays of light. They stopped at Latrun, and the soldiers and immigrants paused to rest. There was a fountain and a basin where a tranquil stream flowed. The women washed dust from their faces and arms, and Esther drank the cold water from her cupped palms. There were bees hovering in the air. The streets of the village were deserted and silent. They could hear the growling of a storm far off in the mountains.
While the women and children drank, the men stood at the entrance to the road, clutching their guns. The silence was strangely menacing. Esther remembered the day she and Elizabeth had come to the square in Saint-Martin, where everyone had gathered to set off-the old men in cloaks, the women’s faces bound with shawls, the naive children running about, and this same silence. Only a distant growling, an approaching storm.
The convoy resumed its voyage. Further on, the road crossed a narrow, rocky path, where it was already growing dark. The trucks slowed. Esther pulled back the tarp and saw a line of refugees approaching. A woman leaned over to her and said only, “Arabs.” They were walking along the edge of the road, filing past the truck one by one. There were about a hundred, maybe more, only women and young children. Dressed in rags, with their feet bare and their heads wrapped in scraps of cloth, the women turned their heads as they passed through the cloud of dust. Some carried bundles on their heads, others held suitcases and cartons bound with rope. One even had an old, beaten pushcart loaded with motley items. The trucks stopped and the refugees advanced slowly, turning away as they passed, their faces bearing an absent stare. There was a heavy, deadly silence weighing on their faces, which looked to Esther like a mask of dust and stone. Only the children looked at her, fear radiating from their eyes.
Esther climbed down from the truck and approached them, trying to communicate. The women turned their backs to her and some shouted harsh words in their language. Suddenly, a young girl emerged from the group. She walked toward Esther. Her face was pale and worn with exhaustion, her dress covered with dust. Esther saw that the straps of her sandals were broken. The girl approached until they were close enough to touch. Her eyes glowed with a strange radiance, but she did not speak. She reached out and set her hand on Esther’s arm, as if she wanted to tell her something. Then the girl took a blank notebook from her pocket and opened the cardboard cover to the first page. In the upper right-hand corner, she wrote her name in capital letters: NEJMA. She held the notebook and pencil out to Esther for her to mark her name as well. She stood a moment longer, holding the black book to her chest as if it were the most precious thing in the world, and then, without saying a word, turned back to the group and disappeared. Esther hesitantly stepped forward to call her back, but it was too late. She climbed back into the truck and the convoy set off, raising a thick cloud of dust. But Esther could not erase Nejma from her mind-that stare, that hand set so gently against her arm, the longing in her gestures as she held the notebook out. She could not forget the women, their blank faces, and the frightened eyes of the children, the silence weighing on the earth and in the shadows. “Where are they going?” Esther asked Elizabeth. The woman beside her said nothing. Esther repeated, “Where are they going?” She shrugged her shoulders, as if she did not understand. Another woman, dressed in black, responded, “To Iraq.” She spoke harshly, and Esther was afraid to ask more. The dust on the road made a yellow halo around the truck. Elizabeth held Esther’s hand in hers. The woman turned back to Esther, as if trying to read her thoughts, and said, “They’re not innocent, those are the mothers and wives of those who are trying to kill us.” Esther asked, “What about the children?” Those fear-widened eyes had been etched on her spirit, and she knew that nothing could erase their stare.
That night, the convoy reached Jerusalem. The trucks stopped in a large square. There were no soldiers or police officers, only women and children waiting close to the trucks. The sun had set, but the city still glowed. Esther and Elizabeth climbed down from the truck with their luggage. They did not know where to go. Jacques Berger had already left with the other men to go to the center of the city. The rumbling of shells was near, the ground shook with each explosion. Esther and Elizabeth stood in front of the city wall, looking toward the hillsides covered with houses, the silhouettes of mosques and temples. In the copper sky, a column of black smoke rose and swelled, forming a cloud that spread over the night.
Originally published in French by Gallimard (Folio), 1994. To be published in English as Wandering Star by Curbstone Press in 2005 in a translation by C. Dickson. Printed with permission of Curbstone Press.