When he rose from his seat, the others saw a short, thin, young-looking man. He had a handsome and gentle face, with light eyes. He smiled and his smile wasn’t directed at anyone in particular. “My name is Sayid. Sayid Cohen-Tsedek,” he said. “I was born in Algeria, in the city of Algiers. My mother died when I was a child. My two older sisters married and immigrated to Canada. They’re both still living in a suburb of Montreal. After my sisters had left, my father, may he rest in peace, contracted that awful disease and died within less than three months. I was left alone. I was one of the last Jews in the city. All the others were old. I didn’t want to stay there and I didn’t want to join my sisters. They’re my beloved sisters, but I knew there was nothing for me in Montreal, where I’d always be the little brother, always under their wing. I gathered all my papers and certificates. I asked the university for a certified English and French translation of my curriculum and grade records. I handed the keys of the house to the elderly synagogue caretaker. Perhaps he’d be able to sell it once I was gone. I went to the Jewish cemetery and said good-bye to my parents. And afterward, carrying two suitcases, I boarded a ship bound for Marseilles. From there I continued to Paris by train, took a room in a small hotel in the Seventh Arrondissement, and then reported to the Israeli Consulate. A week and a half later, I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. I wanted to kiss the ground of the Land of Israel, but there was only a jet bridge displaying advertisements for a bank that led from the airplane to the terminal. I was a young man, just twenty-two. It was the year 2000. That’s a good year to begin a new life.”
Sayid stopped for a moment and looked at the faces of the other cadets. They appeared to be a single tight-knit entity, and he didn’t know if he’d find his place among them. He hoped he would. His Israeli experience thus far had been a complex one. He loved the country and inhaled its sacred air deep into his lungs. But his gentleness had been shattered time and again by the aggressiveness of his surroundings. As a child, he had learned a little Hebrew from his father, but it wasn’t enough. So he studied his heart out at the language school and his Hebrew was now fluent, and often elegant. But he hadn’t managed to shake his accent and was often mistaken for an Arab.
“People think I’m an Arab,” he continued. “Because of my accent. Because of my name. And perhaps because of my appearance. And it’s true. I am an Arab. An Arabic Jew. And an Israeli. I’d like to explain myself. A Jew who comes from France has no qualms when it comes to saying he’s French. And the same goes for a Jew who has immigrated from Russia or the United States. But Jews who have immigrated from Arab countries are afraid to identify with the countries from which they came. They may say they’re Egyptians or Iraqis; but when people in Israel say that, they’re talking about ethnicity, not a country. And they certainly won’t say they’re Arabs. Because the Arabs are our enemy, and because Arab culture in Israel is looked down upon. But I feel Arab . . . Arab as well as Jewish. Arabic is my mother tongue. It’s the language I spoke to my parents, the language in which I think, and my culture is Arabic, too. Arabic and French. So I am an Arab. But I was born a Jew, and I want to be a Jew, and I could read from the Torah already by the age of four. In Algeria, I went with my father to synagogue every Friday and every Saturday, until there were simply so few Jews left that it shut down. Now, I’ve been an Israeli for fourteen years.
“I studied economics at Constantine University. What was supposed to be a shortened military service turned into a four-year stint in uniform. I enrolled afterward in various supplementary courses to complete my BA, and then went on to obtain my master’s in economics. You can just imagine how difficult it is to get credit for courses you studied at an Algerian university. Having my bachelor’s degree recognized was out of the question, of course. Over the past six years, I worked for First International Bank’s Research Department, and God only knows how and why I quit a steady and stable job in favor of Ya’ara’s madness.
“Frankly, I told Ya’ara that if my parents were still alive, I wouldn’t have joined, because I wouldn’t have been able to explain myself to them. I wouldn’t have been able to justify my choice. But as things are, on my own, I am willing to dive headfirst into an empty pool. Besides,” he added with a smile, “I was told I could meet nice girls here.”
“Honey, you really have come to the wrong place for that,” one of the young women in the circle responded. “Serious, intelligent—yes, for sure. But nice?! Us? You shouldn’t count on that.”
“What’s your name? Nufar, right? I’m sorry. I was kidding. Although you’re surely not as fearsome as you’d like to make out.”
Nufar gave him a stern look, but Sayid noticed the smile she was trying to suppress.