"Swap-Meet" - an excerpt from Eden

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
October 7, 2010

Yael Hedaya has emerged as one of contemporary Hebrew literature’s finest observers of the Israeli social fabric. Her well-crafted fictions manage to be both sweeping in their scope and pointed in their attention to domestic detail. As one of the main writers of Israel’s In Treatment (B’tipul), she has also proved herself a master of the demanding medium of television drama. Hedaya’s latest novel to appear in translation, Eden, traces the interconnected fortunes of several residents of a moshav. Politics and urbanization intrude upon their solitude until their rural community reveals itself to be a microcosm of Israel. In this excerpt, Dafna, a frustrated married woman, deals with the outsized ego of her boss, Gabi, a wealthy “social peace movement” entrepreneur. Gabi’s latest public relations stunt propels Hedaya’s biting satire on the complexities of today’s Israel. —Adam Rovner, Hebrew translations editor

People no longer believed in peace, and she could understand them. She didn’t think it had much of a chance herself, or that it was even relevant anymore. Peace was a concept that might have been right for the nineties. But still, she believed that CUSP—Creating Unity for Social Peace—was important, so she pressed on, enlisting support from the press, organizing petitions and demonstrations, getting Gabi onto talk shows, watching him sweat and argue impassionedly as he sat on panels with politicians, settlers, generals, and economists, and swapped jokes with entertainers or authors filling the entertainer slot. Sometimes he came to the studio with the requisite backup: a single mother, a handicapped person, or an elderly man who sat beside him, blinded by the lights.

And now she was stuck with Gabi’s new initiative: Swap-Meet. He was very proud of the name he’d come up with for his new project, in which underprivileged Israelis and Palestinians were supposed to offer items they no longer needed in return for other ones. A sort of virtual second-hand store, as Gabi envisioned it, mediated by CUSP. He even set up a toll-free number, and good-naturedly took on the media’s bemused mockery. “Are you crazy?” laughed one talk show host, “I mean, it’s a noble idea, there’s no question about that, but wouldn’t it be more reasonable for the rich to donate to the poor than for the poor to donate to the poor? Because, just between us, Gabi, what do the poor have to offer?”

That was exactly what Gabi had been waiting for. “Everything!” he told the host, and repeated to other journalists who took an interest in CUSP’s Swap-Meet initiative. “Everything!” he emphasized. “Because we’re not talking about a material project. Not at all. The point is not whether a Palestinian family gets a used TV or an Israeli family gets a Sony Play Station. The point is that underprivileged classes on both sides get closer to one another, talk to each other, understand that each side has something to give, not just to take. And then maybe a sort of dialogue will emerge, a sort of understanding, a sort of identification. And a recognition that salvation will not come from above but from below.”

The interviewer wouldn’t give in: “But poor people can’t afford to give away their old stuff. They need donations!”

“You’ll see!” Gabi retorted. “We will mediate, Israelis and Palestinians will call us and tell us what they need and what they have to give—and by the way, it doesn’t have to be material things. You can also offer services, each according to his abilities, and we’ll arrange for everyone to get what they need.”

But only one young man called. His name was Adel, he said—or rather whispered, as Dafna recalled from the hesitant, secretive phone call—and he lived in a village near Nablus; he refused to give an exact address. He asked for a Power Ranger doll for his son, Munir, and in return he offered his services as a floor tiler. Apart from Adel, no one from the Palestinian side called.

“We’ll get back to you,” Dafna told him. “We’ll see what offers we get and call you back.” But Adel refused to leave a phone number. He sounded disappointed and betrayed, as if he had imagined a decked-out Israeli office with crates full of unwrapped Power Rangers, one of which would be sent by courier straight to his village, rather than a century-old ruin with a toilet that you couldn’t throw toilet paper in because the plumbing couldn’t handle it, a twenty-one-year-old secretary who spent most of her time texting her boyfriend, a CEO who was bringing peace to the Middle East while scarfing down salami sandwiches, and an infertile spokeswoman. That was not what Adel had pictured. Dafna asked him to call back in a few days, maybe something would turn up. He said okay and hung up.

But the Israelis called en masse, responding to the widespread ad campaign launched by CUSP: radio jingles, TV spots, and billboards with the heading SWAP-MEET above a photograph of an Israeli child and a Palestinian child sitting on the floor facing each other, each holding a toy behind his back. During the first week the line was flooded with calls from Israelis who said they’d seen the television ad, or the poster, and thought it was wonderful, and best of luck.

The poster design was a nightmare. The Israeli child was easy; they purposely chose a fair-haired boy. But the Palestinian? They had trouble finding a model, and spent days arguing about the concept. The graphic designer suggested using a dark-skinned boy, maybe a Yemenite, and dressing him in Palestinian-looking clothes.

Dafna was outraged. “What do you mean, Palestinian clothes? Define Palestinian clothes!” Oh, you know, he said, and she said, “No, I don’t,” even though she did. The Yemenite boy seemed like a bad idea, not just because it smacked of racism, as she told the designer, but because, if they were being honest, it wouldn’t be completely accurate to present a fair-skinned child as underprivileged. “It’s not realistic to use an Ashkenazi and a Palestinian,” she said.

“Once, maybe,” the graphic artist said, “but today it is. Think about the Russians.” She said that was a stereotype, and you couldn’t define the two peoples by two colors. He said you could, and it worked better in photographs that way. If there were two dark kids on the poster, the public wouldn’t know what they were talking about and the message wouldn’t get through. “Photographically, we have to have contrast,” he explained, and offered his five-year-old son as a model. When he showed Dafna some Polaroids of the boy, whose name was Bar, she looked at his lovely face and told the designer that on second thought, maybe they should drop the whole kids idea. Maybe it was better to show two men, or two women. He said she was crazy: “Why on earth would you use grown-ups? Kids are the most effective, and you know it. There’s no debate here, Dafna. Kids, period.”

Eventually they cast a little boy from Bar’s kindergarten in the Palestinian role. He was the son of foreign workers from Chile, dark-skinned but not too much. His name was Emmanuel, and the designer said he had that Palestinian look. Dafna was forced to agree. As a compromise, they dressed both kids in similar clothes: dark flannel pants and solid t-shirts, orange for Bar and light green for Emmanuel.

One-thousand seven-hundred and forty calls came in during the first week of the campaign, all from Israelis. Dafna and the secretary could barely keep up, and Gabi was busy talking to journalists. Most people asked for electronics and offered housewares and clothes. There were Russian immigrants with more generous offers, like rugs and pianos. Many asked for computers for their kids, DVD players and Play Stations. Since winter was nearing, there were a lot of requests for heaters, except that no one offered heaters, or computers or DVD players, and CUSP had trouble mediating.

Hundreds of forms detailing the callers’ names, offers, and requests were placed on Dafna’s desk. At first each form looked fresh and clean, full of childish hopefulness, but cumulatively they began to resemble a heap of despair. A month into Swap-Meet, the Palestinian question had been all but forgotten, and she felt like a rag-and-bones man pushing a virtual horse and cart through the streets of big cities and development towns and moshavim.

One evening, when she sat with Gabi in the office and he wondered why the Palestinians weren’t calling, she said, “Maybe they don’t know about us.”

He said, “They know, trust me, they know.”

“But how?” she insisted.

“Through the grapevine. It goes through the grapevine. They’re just afraid to call. They don’t believe a word we say anymore, and rightly so.” She reminded him of Adel, the Palestinian sampling, and Gabi enthused. “Does he have an entry permit? I’ll get him a floor-tiling job tomorrow. Tomorrow!” She said she hadn’t asked, but he called every week to ask if there was a Power Ranger, and there never was. Gabi said, “So let’s get one for him! We have to do this, do you understand? It’s one thing to disappoint the Israelis, but one poor Palestinian calls and we can’t help him out?” His eyes lit up and he started pacing the room. “It’s genius, genius! We’ll make this Adel into a star. He’ll be our star, Dafna, you’ll see. We’ll get him that doll, we’ll get him ten of them, so he can give them out to all the kids in his village. And we’ll get him a job, and we’ll put him on TV and the radio, and we’ll organize a cover story in the Maariv supplement. I can already see the headline! Can you guess?” She shook her head. “PALESTINIAN ACTION FIGURE! It’s genius, don’t you think?”

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Excerpted from EDEN: A Novel by Yael Hedaya, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, to be published in October by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2005 by Yael Hedaya. Translation copyright (c) 2010 by Jessica Cohen. All rights reserved.

Jessica Cohen was born in England, raised in Israel, and has been living in the U.S. since 1997. She translates contemporary Israeli prose, as well as commercial material from and into Hebrew. Her published translations include David Grossman’s critically-acclaimed new novel, To the End of the Land, and award-winning works by Yael Hedaya, Ronit Matalon, Amir Gutfreund and Tom Segev. Her translations have appeared in Words Without Borders, Two Lines, and Zeek.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com