A Spy in Exile: Chapter 8

“I’m Nufar Ben-Bassat, from Ramat Hasharon. Everyone’s clearly laying their cards on the table, so here are mine: My father was a contractor, the owner of a large construction company, Ben-Bassat and Brothers, you may have heard of it, although there weren’t any brothers, my father was an only child. He built primarily in Petah Tikva, Kfar Saba, Kfar Yona. These days he spends his time in Hadarim Prison, serving a three-year sentence for tax offenses. He always worked long days, but one day he came home early and told us—me, my mother, and my sister—that he had messed up. His face was gray, and his voice, which was always rich and full of life, was dead. His voice was the thing that made me realize that everything wasn’t going to be just fine. You see, I had always looked up to him, ever since I was a young girl. My friends used to say he looked like he just stepped out of a television commercial. He always drove a big car, an American car. Back then, when it happened, he owned a black Cadillac, which my mother hated and refused to travel in. But he was proud of his projects. When we were kids, he used to take us on weekends to his construction sites, to show us what he was building, and how the work was progressing. He was proud of his company’s reputation. ‘We set a standard for others,’ he’d say.

“My mother’s a judge. Still is today, on the bench of the Herzliya Magistrate’s Court. We looked like the model family. Well-established. Educated and wealthy parents who had acquired status in the world. And as for me, I did as they expected of me, I studied what they thought I should study, and I completed my economics degree at Tel Aviv University with distinction. I was on a summer break from my studies toward an MBA at INSEAD at the time. I felt I was on top of the world, studying in the best business school in Europe. And my sister, Tamar, was a recently released air force officer, just two months away from her big trip to the Far East. Our mother had been on duty that day at the court for remand hearings. She always returned home a little frazzled from days like that, and our father came through the door like a dead man, a walking dead man. He asked us to come and sit down with him in the living room; my sister offered him a glass of water and he just waved it off. I don’t really know why I’m telling you all of this, in such detail, but if everyone shares in . . . So anyway, my father, the squeaky clean and straight-as-an-arrow contractor, Ben-Bassat, told us he was in trouble. Really serious trouble. Certain factors had left the company facing a crisis, and the accountants did indeed warn him, but it wasn’t their company, damn it, it was his company, he explained. He had to come to its rescue. The investigators, he told us, had shown up at the company’s offices with a warrant that same day, in the early hours of the morning, and had seized computers and papers. His lawyer had already put him in touch with a firm that specialized in white-collar crimes. He couldn’t look my mother in the eye, and she just sat there holding his hand, with her own eyes fixed on some imaginary point in the distance. Two people incapable of looking at each other. Her face was pale, as if she, too, had joined the world of the walking dead.

“As for me, I ran away. I went back to France. I mumbled something about suspending my studies, about putting them on hold until everything had blown over, but my father said I had to continue, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and besides, the process would be a long one and he had the best lawyers working for him. He allowed me to go back to INSEAD, ordered me even, but the truth is I ran away. I couldn’t deal with his fall from grace, with my mother’s shame.

“The whole thing dragged on for two years—the investigation, the trial, the conviction. The rejected appeal. I had to beg for financial aid because his assets were frozen. The good life had come to an end, and I worked while I was studying. I returned to Israel before the entire process was over. The day he went to jail, he wanted me alone to escort him. Tamar was back in the East, on another trip, I knew it would have been too much for her, and my mother went to work that morning, as if it was just another regular day, her face pale and her hair tied back. Like she was the one going to jail and not him. She barely said good-bye to him. I accompanied him. They only allow you in up to a certain point in the jail, and my father went on alone from there. It’s like in the movies, the sound of the steel door clanging shut and the bolt sliding into place to lock it. I sat in my car and cried. I sat there, in the prison parking lot, crying for two hours—until the shift changed and there were too many people watching for me to stay. I haven’t shed a tear since.”

Sayid was surprised how much he wanted to reach out for Nufar’s hand, to console her. He wondered how she’d react if he did—probably not well. So he remained still, in the silent circle.

“I live alone these days in Tel Aviv. My computer games and I. I have the soul of a geek. I’ve always been good with computers, and I became a PlayStation addict from the moment the very first model was launched. I don’t think I’ve kicked the habit just yet and I hope it doesn’t show. That’s what I did in the army, too—messed with computers. Or as the news would say, I ‘participated in cyberattacks on the information infrastructure of Israel’s adversaries.’ ” She smiled, and Ya’ara noticed it was a tight smile, almost a grimace.

Nufar continued, “There wasn’t a term for it back then. After I left the military, I went to work for an investment firm by the name of IIG, or rather I worked there up until two weeks ago. It’s a small firm with large portfolios—they only handle investments upward of one million dollars. I was responsible for keeping people like me out of their computers. Our offices . . . their offices are located in a Bauhaus building on Ahad Ha’am Street. I felt like I was suffocating there.

“My father is due to be released from prison in nine months, assuming he’s granted parole after serving two-thirds of his sentence. I visit him every week. Every Wednesday. Stepping into the prison after spending a day at a plush and discreet office in the heart of Tel Aviv is like entering another world, a completely opposite one.”

“You haven’t told us anything about your personal life,” someone said in a quiet voice.

“My personal life, right. A psychological cliché to the point of embarrassment. I had an affair for two years with someone twenty years older than me. He paints and also teaches painting. And he’s even pretty good at it. If you’ve visited a museum in recent years, you’ve probably come across one of his works, but his name isn’t important right now. We split up two months ago. It was a real love story, but it had to end. He wanted us to be just us, to forget the rest of the world. He used to say he didn’t need anything but me. It sounds romantic, and I got swept along for a while, but I soon realized that my overriding emotion about our relationship was fear. And it wasn’t just his possessiveness that scared me. I was afraid of surrendering to it, of remaining in that same state of togetherness with him forever, in this seemingly wonderful world he’d created for me, which was actually miserable and closed and destructive.”

“But what brought you here?” murmured the young woman across from her in the circle.

Ya’ara didn’t know whether Nufar had heard the question, but she appeared to shrug it off, and her voice was steady when she said: “I needed to restore meaning to my life. I felt like everything had faded into nothing. My family—the one I had or perhaps didn’t have—had come apart at the seams, my job had lost all its appeal, and my relationship was going nowhere.”

Nufar’s eyes dropped to the floor and her voice went soft. “I hope I’ll be good at what we’ll be doing, and I hope I can be a good team member. I’ve been on my own for too long—even when I was in a relationship. I want to be a part of this unit. I want to be a part of something that doesn’t have a profit-and-loss line at the end. And I want, finally, to win.”

Ya’ara hid a smile as she watched heads around the circle nod in unconscious agreement.


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