A Salaam of Birds

July 13, 2014
Dear Marvin,

Missiles are falling, mostly on Tel Aviv, and many back on Gaza itself. I have kids home and we can’t go anywhere for fear of stones on the roads and missiles on the beaches.

Expect . . . well . . . a lot of war poems.

Poems full of words like targeted and triangulated—ninety seconds from siren to safe room. We fly down staircases, grab cell phones, and haul in the dog, who prefers to hunker down and howl when she hears a siren. When we are all in our bomb shelter, we close the heavy door and settle on the floor to wait. Inside are stacks of candy, candles, batteries, fresh wipes, a radio, and, of course, our gas masks in case there is a chemical attack.

When my kids start thinking out loud how they can finagle me to open a candy bag, we hear an explosion to the right. Another to the left. And a few seconds later one behind us. Triangulated. The missiles don’t fall far from their target, but inevitably end up landing on the nearby cities of Bethlehem and Hebron.

No matter what, it seems, we are all in this together.

July 19, 2014
Dear Marvin,

I hope all is well with you and that you and Dorothy are enjoying the summer. I am reading sonnets by Darwish. He mentions “the salaam of birds.” This image—not a dove, but a flock—I’m not really sure what he means.

July 22, 2014
Dear Marvin,

Yesterday morning, after sunrise, as Ramadan continued for the daylight hours and some could still taste that last sip of water before the fast resumed, while I was here getting my coffee and reading poems, in a world where hundreds were rolling over in their beds, breathing in the smell of their own comfort, a lieutenant colonel or a major general or something-—some guy with lots of metal on his shoulders—was in a jeep with three other soldiers parked outside a small farming village in what is called here the Belt: the land filled with small towns, kibbutzim, and farming villages, butts up against Gaza.

Suddenly, at 5:40 am ten Hamas fighters, wearing full Israeli uniforms, popped up out of the ground with RPG launchers on their shoulders. They shot an anti-tank missile at that jeep and obliterated those men.

So? So how is this battle any different than any other bombing or missile play or anything else terrorists and soldiers come up with? One of the boys in the jeep was a kid from here in town.

His name was Yuval. He was a commando paratrooper who was with my son in sergeant training and again now in officer training. Boys in specialized training courses, who have been separated from their home units, aren’t sent into Gaza. It’s the “band of brothers” concept. You are only sent into hard fighting with the boys you trained with.

Instead they were given jobs to guard the small communities along the Belt. And so my son was there. He was on guard duty a few hundred meters in the other direction. Had the men who emerged from that tunnel turned left instead of right, I would be planning Shimmy’s funeral.

And now I can’t seem to sit in a chair for more than a minute or two. I need to walk around the house. I need to touch things, the things that define our life: the dish drain, the coffee table, the light switch in the bathroom, the dog’s worn leather collar.

The fallen boy, Yuval, was my son’s friend. His sisters are in my daughters’ classes. I went this morning to his funeral.

I walked with my two youngest children through the maze of Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery for fallen soldiers. We were searching for the special section set aside for cohanim. Grave after grave for the young dead, for the healthy dead, for the strong dead. Grave after grave stretched over so much land.

Thousands crowded around the tent covering the gravesite. Words and more words— ancient words, holy words, modern words, language spilled out and over all of us. Yuval was seventh generation Israeli. His great-grandfather fell in the War of Independence. His grandfather fell in 1956. V’yisgadal, SMS, Mother. Yuval’s record-breaking speed in the obstacle course. How he would stand on tiptoe to kiss his mother goodnight. The care package recently sent that sits at the post office waiting to be returned.

And the boy wrapped in linen? His mouth opens into a tunnel, an empty Gazan tunnel that we crawl through on all fours, our mouths full of grime. The flowers in our hands are scorched by tears that change nothing. V’yitbarach. But where is the bracha?

We take fistfuls of earth, fling them into the grave, fling them at the body that rests in ground that has opened for him. Dust, only dust and no answers. Still we take some earth, just a bit of dirt that we deposit into our pockets—to remember.


August 10, 2014
Dear Marvin,

Tonight a supermoon rises over the desert hills in a deep shade of orange as if every ghost has grouped together to signal their pain. Its shadow spills a yellow path that cuts this night. Soon that moon will rise further, lengthen, lighten, color the sand an electric blue that will cover us until morning. And here we are, on both sides of the divide, dying too young—our children, the children filling the cemeteries. War drums are pounding. Not somewhere—but here.

August 14, 2014
Dear Marvin,

My son has gone to battle, dressed himself in layers of heavy gear, metal, and flak, black boots held closed with elastic. Once he was a monkey-faced kid, side locks curled, framing his eyes and highlighting his freckles.

I have no one to blame. Only to wonder: Who he will become in war? And who, then, will I be?

August 18, 2014
Dear Marvin,

Darwish again: Delay our tomorrow so our road / may extend and space may widen for us, and we may get rescued / from our story together


The bulldozers are at the ready
to dig more graves for our children tomorrow.

August 19, 2014
Dear Marvin,

The Children—Remembered

Ahmad Nae’l Mahdi, Shelley Dadon, Hussein Yousef Kawari’, Basil Salem Kawari’, Abdullah Mohammed Kawari’, Qasim Jabr Kawari’, Eyal Yifracah, Seraj Iyad Abdel ‘Al, Gilad Shaar, Mohammed Ibrahim Al Masri, Naftali Frankel, Aseel Ibrahim Al Masri, Tsafrir Baror, Yasmin Mohammed Al Mutawaq, Tsvi Kaplan, Mohammed Mustafa Malaka, Gilad Rozenthal Yacoby, Ameer Iyad Areef, Mohammed Iyad Areef, Oz Mandelovich, Anas Alaa’ Al Batsh, Nissim Sean Carmeli, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, Nidal Khalaf Al Nawasra, Atmoz Greenberg, Raneem Jawdat Abdel Ghafoor, Gilad Yaakovi, Sulaiman Saleem Al Astal, Max Greenberg, Meryam Atiyyeh Al ‘Arja, Daniel Tregerman, Abdullah Ramadan Abu Ghazal. . .

August 24, 2014
Dear Marvin,

Once we listened for the salaam of birds, a flock flying in, hasidot, hasidot, finger-winged and navigating by sound. Can you hear them? Can you? Even from far off, their trill—a murmur—says, tattoo my imprint on your forehead, on your bicep, on your chest. Touch an index finger between your eyes, then your navel, then shoulder to shoulder. Says, kneel with me, bend brow to dust. Watch the gazelle as she moves among the olive trees. Now see how easily it’s all snuffed out in a sudden absence of noise—the siren that renders everything quiet; a sound that fills the sky with missiles, the way a bell calls the family in to dinner. Salaam, salaam, a buzz, mosquito-like in our ears, we slap it away and cover ourselves in hazmat and cement. Still the rockets enter us—enter us the way a sperm corrupts the porous shell of an ovum, and we just divide and divide again. Divide into that empty day, divide into that dissolve of sorrow.

Georgia Review (Fall 2017)