Short Story: “Permission”

Ben White Abu Samer scratched his belly and ignored the coffee on the table. He was watching the news. The volume was loud and the reporter urgently insistent, but his mind wandered. Every few minutes his wife Imm Samer would crash together some pans in the kitchen, and Abu Samer would stir, shift his weight […]

Arts & Culture, Short Stories - Posted on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 11:36 - 0 Comments

Ben White

Abu Samer scratched his belly and ignored the coffee on the table. He was watching the news. The volume was loud and the reporter urgently insistent, but his mind wandered. Every few minutes his wife Imm Samer would crash together some pans in the kitchen, and Abu Samer would stir, shift his weight on the chair, then resettle. The bulletin finished, and a cartoon began. The colours flickered and bounced off his glazed eyes. His wife came in, and took the cold coffee back to the kitchen.

An hour passed and the light coming through the living room window had become a softer shade of orange, pursued into Abu Samer’s house by the darkness. He could hear the cries of children outside, as his two sons scrapped with their cousins. He grew frustrated, but his boredom was not disturbing enough for him to move from the chair. He willed himself to at least sleep, but his eyelids remained light, and his senses alert. The sun had set, and the house was filled with a blue-tinged gloom. Imm Samer had gone to the neighbour’s house to gossip so Abu Samer’s shape sat alone in the chair, the television throwing shadows up against his body.

Later that night he lay in bed until his wife came home. She undressed and lay next to him. Something stirred in him, and he moved over so that his body pressed up against hers. His hands moved over her but she only half turned to him and without speaking, he withdrew, rolling back to his side of the bed. He sighed and gazed up towards the ceiling. Lying there, he thought back to the previous day, and standing in the queue of people at the District Coordination Office. The sun was high and most of them had been there before dawn. Some of the men stood in small groups, eating the sandwiches their wives had prepared. A few women stood by themselves, shifting weight from foot to foot. Abu Samer’s friends, fathers of a similar age to himself, stood around him, gossiping.

Every few months he had to return to this military base, and reapply for his permission to work inside Israel. For eleven years he had been working at the same factory in Jerusalem, but since the uprising a few years ago, everything had become harder. There had been months at a time when all of the Palestinians had been forbidden from entering Israel. Each week he waited for the news to see if he would be able to work. Of course, he thought, he was one of the lucky ones who could get a permit at all – he had always been careful never to involve himself in politics, and his age was now in his favour as well. Younger men found it impossible to obtain even day permits, and Abu Samer would see them at dawn, clustering around the edges of the city, discussing ways to evade the soldiers and sneak into Jerusalem.

Sometimes he too played cat and mouse with the soldiers, on days when the city had been closed off for weeks at a time, and his family was desperate for money. To the west of the checkpoint there was a dirt track that passed almost parallel to, but lower than, the main road. If you were lucky to avoid army jeeps, and moved quickly, you could be waving down a bus into Jerusalem in a few minutes. Yet even when he got through, he couldn’t go to the factory. The boss refused to pay the Palestinian workers during periods of closure, as the wages would show up on the tax returns, and that could mean trouble with the police. Instead, Abu Samer was forced to beg work at a construction site, where the managers turned a blind eye to cheap labour.

His wage was pitiful for a man of his experience – he knew that – but he had to only look at the situation facing many of his neighbours and relatives to know that, once again, the little he had was better than nothing. The factory boss paid him in cash at the end of each week, and when work was consistent, there was enough money to keep the bills paid and food on the table. Since he had only worked for about 18 months from the last six years, however, Imm Samer often had to go out to the local charities in search of handouts.

Abu Samer listened to the noises of the night. His wife’s light nasal breathing, and the barking of a dog. In the distance there was a short burst of gunfire. Gazing up he suddenly saw the face of the soldier from the morning. A young face, poorly shaven, with dark brown eyes. Gun around the shoulders. A bored stance. The same as every time. Come! Step forward, walk slowly. After a few paces, stop. Lift up your shirt! Turn around slowly, fingers holding up the shirt fabric, eyes cast down. The folds of his white belly resting on the belt buckle. He half moves, half twists his feet to complete the circle. The shirt falls back down and he moves forward before he remembers to straighten his clothes.

Every morning the same routine.

* * *

He turned over onto his side so that now he was staring at his folded clothes on the chair next to the bed. He hoped that tomorrow would be better than this morning. He had arrived at the checkpoint just after 4.30am, groaning when he saw that the huddle of men was already at least 30 strong. The narrow gate into the first stage of the checkpoint was invisible behind the jostling bodies and already, impatient curses were rising up the concrete wall. Abu Samer started to edge his way into the back of the crowd, squeezing past two or three men before he could not move any further. The density of the pack made them like one body, swaying and shifting in unison, as they waited for the soldiers to finish their breakfast.

Abu Samer could not see what was happening, but the metal gate must have clicked open; there was a shout from the front, and without warning the men in front and behind him surged forward. Abu Samer felt himself sucked towards the gate, but the ground was uneven and he stumbled. He fell to the ground and before he had a chance to protest, his legs were being stamped and pressed. Someone saw him and shouted out for the others to have some respect, so now the men moved around him. He scrambled up, and joined the back of the crowd making their way through the turnstiles and X-rays.

He moved his hand down over his thigh and towards his knee, feeling the bruising. He looked at his watch. 2am. Another couple of hours and he should be getting up. Even though he always left home early, there was no predicting how long it would take him to reach work. The factory was only 5 miles away, but with the checkpoint, and the risk of the bus being stopped by soldiers on the road into Jerusalem, he had to allow at least two hours. The conditions of his permission obliged him to return home no later than 7pm, which meant leaving work early. His boss didn’t object, but made it clear that he expected Abu Samer to make up the hours by arriving early. But when the checkpoint opened late, Abu Samer would have to decide whether to finish the full shift or lose his day’s wage.

* * *

Last week it had all gone wrong. Arriving at the factory late, he decided to take a risk and stay the full shift. When work was done, he ran for the bus, and sat on the front seat, urging it on through the traffic. But when he arrived at the metal turnstiles and looked at his watch, he saw that it was 7.45. After handing over his identity card and permission slip, he stood silently, looking down at the ground. The soldier examined the piece of paper, reading it through a couple of times. Then he shouted for one of his colleagues to come over. They exchanged words, and then the second solider looked at Abu Samer and spoke in broken Arabic.

“Do you know you’re late? Late!” Abu Samer muttered under his breath. The soldier held up the permission in front of him, both hands holding the top of the paper between thumbs and forefingers. “Do you want me to destroy it? Shall I? Shall I ruin your work?”

“No!” erupted Abu Samer, looking in the soldier’s eyes for the first time. His hands came up to his chest, pleading. “It’s not my fault, my boss asked me for over time, and I have to feed my family, I’m just an honest man, an old man, please…” Abu Samer trailed off. The solider smiled with satisfaction.

“Will this be the last time you make this mistake?”

“Yes, yes, for sure, yes.”

“Well, we have to be sure you learn your lesson, don’t we?” The soldier handed Abu Samer’s papers to another soldier behind a desk. “Sit down over there and wait”. Abu Samer glanced over at where the soldier had nodded and saw three other men sitting on the ground. He looked back at the solider, almost as young as his son, and then walked over to join the others. It was another hour before the soldier called them over and handed back their documents. While he was still turning away to his colleagues, the soldier barked a short sharp “Go!”

* * *

Abu Samer looked at his watch again. Exhaustion filled his legs and arms. Whenever he was lucky enough to sleep, he always dreamed. He would lie there, eyelids flicking, murmuring softly, back at the checkpoint and lifting up his shirt. Always lifting his shirt. Sometimes he even reached for his nightshirt, waking with the fabric pulled up under his armpits. But that night he stared stubbornly ahead, alone with his sleeping wife.

The muezzin cleared his throat at the mosque down the street, and started the call to prayer. Abu Samer thought that his voice sounded tired. He sang every syllable in his head, following the melody to its conclusion. There is no God but God. The loudspeaker crackled and then clicked. Silence. He could hear the strains of other mosques tailing off in the distance, until the weight of the night was once again his.

Eventually the time was near enough to when he had intended to wake, that he could justify getting out of bed. That morning the queue at the checkpoint was small, thank God. Same soldier though, who never seemed to show any flicker of recognition. Shirt up. Turn around.

* * *

His sons ran past him as he came home, kicking up some dust. Abu Samer could see his wife’s figure through the kitchen window, preparing supper. He fingered the bottom of his shirt flapping by his side, and walked along the path to the front door. Abu Samer glanced at the fig tree in the garden and recalled how delicious last year’s fruit had been.

* * *

Standing at the checkpoint, bag in hand, Abu Samer gazed up at the ceiling. What annoyed him the most was how the building was so boring. Strip lights glared, leaving no corner or joint unlit; there were no mysteries, just exposure. No wind or natural light. Not even a stray insect crawled on the gleaming floor. In recent weeks, it had dawned on him that he was the only old man ever required to lift his shirt and turn. Abu Samer was sure that the soldiers had changed during that time – there were always army units coming and going – yet still he remained the only one singled out. He suspected that each departing group were deliberate in passing on the orders: “And that Abu Samer? Careful of that one! Be sure to be thorough with him!”

* * *

The sheets had lost their coolness under his legs and Abu Samer felt restless. He was wary of moving around for fear of waking his wife, who would make him pay later for the disturbance. So he lay there, rigid, sometimes gingerly raising his hand to scratch an imagined itch on his face. Eventually the light outside began to change, and after glancing at his watch, Abu Samer prepared to go out. After dressing and collecting some pita from the kitchen, he decided not to make any coffee, but spent several moments in the bathroom splashing his face with water.

He trod down the path onto the main road, and turned in the direction of the checkpoint. The town was quiet at this time, save for a number of solitary men beginning the day’s search for work. Most dressed in slacks and a polo shirt, others in t-shirts and jeans. All of them were clutching lunch in a black plastic bag; one or two had a coffee flask as well. They studied the ground as they walked, though younger ones walked so fast they were almost running, arms going back and forth, furiously looking ahead.

Abu Samer arrived at the checkpoint and saw that this morning there were only a handful of men waiting for the soldiers to open. Thank God, he thought, I’ll probably get one of the earlier buses. He lingered towards the back of the huddle, reluctant to mix with any of the others, but content to be in this small group of daybreak hunters. Around ten minutes later, the electronic lock on the gate clicked, and the first man pushed the turnstile and stepped through.

The men were moving steadily, and soon Abu Samer came face to face with the metal gate. The light switched, the lock clicked, and he pushed forward. On the other side was the soldier. He couldn’t tell if it was a new one or not; they had all started to look the same to him. “Stop!” the soldier shouted. Abu Samer stood still. The soldier yelled in Hebrew and gesticulated with his hands. A few seconds passed. “Lift up your shirt!” the soldier repeated, exasperated, but Abu Samer did nothing. He looked at the young man ahead of him with curiosity, examining his mouth, the way his arms moved, the lines on his face.

The soldier shouted to some of the others, at the same time as lifting his gun to shoulder height and pointing it straight at Abu Samer. Abu Samer saw this too, and very deliberately, dropped his black bag on the floor. Then, unhurriedly but purposefully, he started to unbutton his shirt. When he had finished, he took it off, and dropped it on the floor beside him. The soldier had been joined by two more, and all three stood, motionless, guns levelled. Abu Samer reached down with trembling hands to his trousers and lowered them to his ankles. Half a minute later, he stood there, naked, his clothes scattered around him. In the checkpoint there was complete silence, save for the hum of the lights.

Abu Samer bent down and picked up his plastic bag and documents. Looking straight ahead he walked past the soldiers, pushed through the final turnstile, and out the other side of the checkpoint. As he passed them, the three soldiers kept their heads lowered, only half looking at him. Then they slowly turned back, guns lowered, to the waiting line of men. “Come!” the soldier shouted.

Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer, His first book, ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’, was published by Pluto Press in 2009, receiving praise from the likes of Desmond Tutu, Nur Masalha and Ghada Karmi. Ilan Pappe called White a “strong and clear voice”, while Ali Abunimah described the book as “essential reading”. His articles have appeared in the Guardian online’s ‘Comment is free’, Electronic Intifada, the New Statesman, Christian Science Monitor, Al-Jazeera English online, Palestine Chronicle, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East International, Al Aqsa Journal, Church Times, Church of England Newspaper, Third Way, The Muslim Weekly, and Palestine-Israel Journal.

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