The Knife Intifada by Dewaine Farria
In “The Knife Intifada,” Dewaine Farria grounds us effectively in place, taking us to the Jerusalem of just a few years ago. By establishing the intimate setting of two colleagues on shift in their ambulance, Farria brings the scale of huge events down to a human level. He encapsulates a complex conflict through the interesting and tender friendship between the two. The setting and place are both richly detailed, but that is not all that Farria does well.
The dialogue especially is adept, and funny, and the inclusion of multiple languages highlights the nature and history of the conflict, the humanity. Perhaps best rendered in this story is narrative time. Without the use of white space, Farria uses the throughline of one night in an ambulance during a riot to move in and out of flashback delivering backstory detail. This is a story of tribes; of contention; of translation and what is lost. This is a Jerusalem story. Be sure to read Farria’s author’s note for more on place and setting. In a night where “[s]izzling flares swayed to the earth on tiny parachutes, trailing smoke tendrils like a demon’s nostrils,” you’re in good hands following Yaccoub and Keren into the fray. —CRAFT
The night sky above the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shufat burned with magnesium. Sizzling flares swayed to the earth on tiny parachutes, trailing smoke tendrils like a demon’s nostrils. Yaccoub leaned over his elbow onto the ambulance’s open windowsill, face contorting in the breeze as if trying to make out fine print. The rear columns of a company of olive-garbed Israeli Border Police materialized in the flares’ ephemeral light. Polycarbonate visors glistened, and the space-age Roman legionnaires’ elongated shadows shuddered back towards the ambulance.
Beyond the rows of Israeli troops amassed at the Shufat checkpoint separating East and West Jerusalem, Yaccoub could just make out a dozen columns of smoke billowing from tires engulfed in flames on the Palestinian side.
Yaccoub raised the ambulance’s power window against the first wafts of burning rubber. He turned to Keren, his paramedic training officer. “At least two hundred border cop.”
“Two hundred border copsss,” Keren hissed in reply. “Police is the one with no plural in English, remember?”
Keren had been Yaccoub’s PTO long enough for the Jerusalemite Palestinian to have grown used to the American-born Israeli’s language regime. English in the ambulance. Hebrew everywhere else.
“Only way to learn,” Keren had said during their first shift together, almost a year ago. “Zinken oder schwimmen.”
While the two of them checked the rig’s inventory that first day, Keren had told Yaccoub how her Yiddish-speaking great-grandfather had survived the holocaust and died in the American state of Pennsylvania not long after her immediate family made aliyah to Israel.
Keren had given her new trainee a lopsided grin. “When I was born, Pop-Pop told everyone ‘the new grandkid got my old nose.’”
Yaccoub had never had a conversation like this in English, and Keren’s forthrightness, familiar from all the American films he’d seen with his movie-buff wife, lanced his heart. So much so that Yaccoub very nearly found himself mentioning his own grandfather—Nabil, his mother’s father, on the West Bank side of the family—who’d died in an UNRWA hospital in Jenin in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, more than a decade past.
Yaccoub caught himself at the last moment, though, and bricked his features as Keren described the singular horrors Pop-Pop had endured in Poland. Or maybe it had been Czechoslovakia. Even as Keren spoke, Yaccoub knew he would have trouble remembering which; he always imagined the Holocaust occurring in the same monochromatic, cobblestoned place.
Yaccoub’s brow had begun to ache by the time Keren finally nodded in acknowledgment of his grim-faced solidarity.
Keren had been eight years old when her family emigrated, young enough to learn Hebrew without the telltale accent most American immigrants never shook. During his eleven months under Keren’s tutelage, the rule about Yaccoub’s Hebrew over the VHF network remained nonnegotiable. But she was happy to practice English with him in the ambulance. Yaccoub was proud of the progress he’d made in both languages. Meanwhile, his PTO’s Arabic still began with habibti and ended with yalla, and Keren never expressed any desire to fill the space between these two words.
In the ambulance outside the Shufat checkpoint, Yaccoub watched Keren recline the passenger seat, take off her blue Mount Scopus EMS cap, and shake loose her blonde hair as if she were auditioning for a shampoo commercial. She tossed the cap onto the dashboard, then gathered her hair into a ponytail.
“And I told you, if you want to keep your night vision, close one eye”—Keren tugged the bottom of one eyelid with her fingertip—“when they pop flares.”
“Two-fifty.” Yaccoub ogled his PTO with both eyes as wide open as he could manage. “There are easssily two hundred and fifty border copsss out there tonight, my preciousss.”
The two shared their first laugh of the night, and if Keren disputed Yaccoub’s count, she was polite enough not to mention it. Both Palestinians and Israelis were reckless with numbers: troops, protesters, and—most of all—casualties and deaths. Both tribes believed that the amount they bled into the holy city’s dirt cemented their claim to it.
“Maybe you should study optometry when you finish up at Mount Scopus,” Yaccoub said.
Keren gave him her put-upon, who-cursed-me-with-this-rookie sigh. “In this field, there’s folks who practice emergency medicine.” She raised her hand to just above her forehead. “And then there’s everybody else.” She blew a raspberry while dropping her hand to her lap.
Moments like these reminded Yaccoub just how desperately he wanted to earn a place in this arrogant little community of emergency medicine fanatics.
“Zinken oder schwimmen,” Keren had repeated, when, barely a week into Yaccoub’s field training, the two waded on foot through a three-car pileup in a warm, autumn cavalcade of confusion: sirens, crackling VHF static, and shouts in Hebrew machinegunned back and forth on Highway 60’s jam-packed shoulder. Everything loud and close.
Aping his PTO, Yaccoub had knelt next to a rag-dolled motorcyclist lying still on the cracked asphalt and prepared to ply his trade.
“Relax, Yaccoub.” Keren’s blonde hairline had darkened with sweat. “Prioritize and execute.” Keren zeroed her trainee onto the task of inching off their patient’s helmet. “Cervical spine neutral. Just like you learned in class.”
The man’s right arm lay at such an extreme angle to his head that it seemed to have a separate existence from the rest of him. The back of his neck was open to the spinal cord, and there was so much blood. In class, Yaccoub had learned that the human body contained about five liters of the stuff, but the sheer quantity on the pavement that day—thick and shiny in the afternoon sun—astounded him.
If he survived, this man’s road to recovery would be a walk through the valley of death, but Yaccoub didn’t care about that. All Yacoub wanted was to stroll back into the emergency room after working his first mass casualty incident and hear Keren Mizhali tell the senior medics, “Our guy was pretty fucked up, but he didn’t die on us.”
After prying off the helmet, a puddle poured out of the man’s mouth like a milk-crimson speech bubble with no words. Their patient’s head was shaved to a bullet and the color of his face reminded Yaccoub of a peeled onion.
“How…” Yaccoub’s sphincter yoked as the gleaming mixture of blood and sinus fluid haloed the man’s head. “How will we drop the tube?”
Instead of answering, Keren scooped open the patient’s mouth with a laryngoscope, javelined an endotracheal tube down his throat, inflated the cuff, and attached an Ambu-bag to the end. The whole process took less than forty-five seconds.
She handed the Ambu-bag to Yaccoub. “Squeeze every time you breathe.” Dust streaked Keren’s face like fading war paint. Her expression hadn’t fluctuated since they stepped out of the ambulance.
How could she be so sure the tube had gone down the trachea and not the esophagus? Then Yaccoub squeezed the bag and watched in awe as the man’s chest expanded. Just like on one of the Little Anne mannequins, except on a real human.
Yaccoub looked up just in time to see the back of Keren’s Mount Scopus EMS coveralls bobbing and weaving through the swarm of first responders on the roadside.
Keren hollered over her shoulder, “I’ll get the gurney, Yaccoub.”
Still trembling with adrenaline, he nodded to no one in particular and again squeezed the Ambu-bag. Yaccoub had discovered what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He was thirty-two years old.
Keren was only twenty-six, the youngest PTO on Mount Scopus’s EMS staff—a superstar in a bizarre, hyper-masculine little clan that practiced medicine like an extreme sport. She called paramedicine a throwback to the days when doctors showed up with nothing but “their stethoscopes and balls,” seemed to have committed the entire alphabet soup of protocols—from ACLS to PHTLS—to memory, and, unlike the other PTOs, always stayed after shift to help clean up and restock the rig for the next crew.
Outside the Shufat checkpoint the sky was like a charcoal smear, striped with wavy lines of smoke.
Keren yawned and stretched over the seat’s headrest until her palms went flat on the ambulance’s ceiling. “Tell me another Hebronite joke.”
Yaccoub’s face calloused. Letting Keren in on the running jokes about the stupidity of the Palestinian residents of the town of Hebron had started as a bit of fun, but was beginning to feel close to selling out.
“One Hebronite joke coming up,” he said. In Yaccoub’s new tribe—the one that had come to mean so much to him over the last year—a stamp of approval from Keren Mizhali meant something. “Then you’ll tell me a Yiddish curse, yes?”
Keren shrugged—all the encouragement Yaccoub needed.
“Cocksucker,” he said.
Earlier that night Yaccoub had told Keren how he and his wife, Suha, had recently watched The Exorcist. He disliked horror films, but Suha had insisted. As Yaccoub expected, his wife’s adamance was the bit of the anecdote that Keren had enjoyed most. Keren had never seen The Exorcist, and Yacoub recounted to his PTO how jagged chunks of evil clung to each string of obscenities the little girl spat out in the film. Terrifying soliloquies punctuated by venomous “cocksuckers”—an Americanism that Yaccoub had previously thought trite from overuse.
“You already know ‘cock’ in Yiddish,” Keren replied.
“And now,” Yaccoub raised both eyebrows, “I would like to know how to suck one.”
Keren laughed. “Fine. Joke first though.”
Yaccoub cleared his throat and assumed the storytelling voice he planned to use after he and Suha had their first.
“One day a Hebronite shopkeeper named Abdi got a visit from the Palestinian Authority police. They pointed at the sign above his shop: Abdi Ali and Associates.
“‘Who are your associates,’ the police asked.
“‘Oh, it’s just me. It’s only the name of my shop, that’s all.’
“The police shouted, ‘Liar!’ and beat Abdi mercilessly.
“Abdi was so humiliated that he moved from Hebron to Saudi Arabia, where he named his shop Abdi Ali the One and Only—”
From beyond the checkpoint, shouts crescendoed into the thuds of stones pounding Plexiglas shields, followed by the gentle whump-whump-whump of tear gas canisters being launched. The CS gas mingled with smoke from the burning tires, choking the checkpoint in a roiling cloud of intifada.
Yaccoub remembered his first protest, shouting his throat raw at the Old City’s Lions’ Gate. “Gaza! Gaza! Gaza!” He’d been utterly subsumed in the chant when the first gulp of tear gas scorched through his mouth and engulfed his lungs.
The ambulance team leader’s voice crackled through the VHF radio in Hebrew. “Stand by for the first casualties.”
Yaccoub waited for rigs one through three to respond, then keyed and spoke into the mike in Hebrew, “Red Team Leader, this is rig four. Copy your last.”
A crash of bottles punctured the din.
Keren straightened her seat.
Yaccoub nodded. “It’s a different breed out here in Shufat, Keren.”
She looked at him. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“Waiting until midnight to return a kid’s body doesn’t mitigate the clash with the cops afterwards,” Yacoub said slowly, placing each word with care. “It guarantees it.”
Yaccoub’s eyes remained on the windshield, but he felt Keren smiling at him.
“Nice English,” she said.
Yaccoub snuck a glance at his PTO. He was pretty proud of that sentence.
Keren tugged on the brim of her cap and her smile dissipated. “Hopefully the government delivering bodies this way will mitigate the number of kids in Jerusalem who decide to try to stab cops.”
Yaccoub’s lips parted, then he thought better of it. What was the point? Keren couldn’t see herself as anyone but the cop.
Jerusalem’s residents predicted clashes like inclement weather. They knew when to expect the worst, and the Jewish autumn holidays were always tense. Still, the spate of stabbings of Israeli law enforcement personnel and settlers that autumn—dubbed the “Knife Intifada” by the Facebook generation—had taken everyone by surprise.
Occasionally, a Palestinian attacker would fatally slash a cop in an inspired first swipe. Then, without fail, a Palestinian would get shot. Most of the stabbings remained alleged—the Israeli government rarely released CCTV footage of the events—but a Palestinian always ended up getting shot. In Yaccoub’s neighborhood they’d started calling the attacks “suicide stabbings.”
Yaccoub recognized the type behind the stabbings. The type who could explain the precise combination of fuel, saltpeter, and machine oil for the best Molotov cocktail; the type who knew the inside of room #4 in the Russian Compound better than their school library; the type whose hearts had no more room for fear, and so they led lives of near death experiences: stoning armored personnel carriers, fucking, and smoking hash on the weekends. Every kid from Yaccoub’s generation had participated in the Second Intifada to some extent. Everyone showed up at the big protests and provided the frontline warriors with logistical and moral support. Yaccoub’s status as a bit player had only made him idolize his generation’s lions all the more. So, yes, Yaccoub recognized the type. They tended not to live long.
And, just as it had been during Yaccoub’s day, the Israeli government had to figure out what to do with the bodies. Return them during the day and you guaranteed a martyr’s funeral followed by a riot. Hold them too long and the world tilted its head in Israel’s direction. The Israeli government solution? Release them at night and—given Muslim burial traditions—the family shouldn’t have enough time to organize a large funeral, ostensibly avoiding both a clash and the international spotlight. Every time Yaccoub thought it impossible to get worse, the Israeli government, like a sort of Zinedine Zidane of ruthlessness, managed to step up its game.
Flames from the burning tires reflected off the windshield, and Yaccoub found himself restraining a smile in the eerie glow. Nights like tonight reminded the Israelis that the occupation was like holding a wolf by the ears.
“How about the rest of that joke then?” Keren asked.
“He was decapitated.”
“Abdi Ali the One and Only. He was decapitated for blasphemy.”
“Oh.” Keren paused, shook her head, and then—even after all their months working together—she managed to surprise him. “I’m not sure that joke rates a lesson in dirty Yiddish.”
That had been precisely the type of joke Yaccoub expected Keren to love; one that reinforced the message the Israelis never let the Palestinians forget: “You think the occupation is bad? Just remember how you Arabs treat each other.”
A chorus of thunderous stun grenades interrupted the peal of stones bludgeoning shields. Boom! Boom! Boom! Phantom figures darted, ducked, and lunged in the stun grenades’ shimmering haze. Yaccoub understood what was happening in a way he knew Keren did not. “Flash-bangs” quaked the equilibrium to its core and signaled when the Israelis would attempt to break the lines. Occasionally the Palestinian ranks held through the first thrust, but eventually they wavered, then broke. Riot control was nothing more than a kind of graceless choreography, a fascist dance routine that the Israeli Border Police spent their workdays perfecting.
Yaccoub would never forget the feeling when the solidity of a protest crumbled. When the heaving mass of men—that furnace roar of testosterone—finally gave, and the cops rushed in to exact revenge. When undercover Israeli agents in the Palestinian ranks donned blue baseball caps, snatched the closest protester, and dragged him to their salivating comrades. When the world dissolved into boots and batons.
“Wow,” Keren said. “What a fracas.”
A limping figure emerged from the anarchy.
Yaccoub flicked the headlights on and off.
“A cop,” Yaccoub said. “One of the undercovers.”
Apparently this cop had lost his blue baseball cap during the clash. Still, Yaccoub immediately pegged him as an Israeli. It wasn’t his clothes. The undercover’s protester uniform of acid-washed jeans, twirling metallic belt buckle, and a blood-streaked Prada T-shirt was impeccable in its bad taste. He was sufficiently swarthy, with a nose that owned most of his face’s real estate, and eyebrows that reached halfway to his hairline. One of those wiry, working class Israelis of Yemeni or Persian stock, who occasionally got their asses kicked when mistaken for a Palestinian. Still, even staggering and clutching his thigh, the cop’s gait betrayed him; he approached the ambulance like a citizen of the state of Israel, not a ward of it.
Keren climbed over her seat, clicked on the overhead light, and threw open the double doors at the back of the rig. The clamor of gunshots, stones, and shouts flooded the ambulance, as if she’d suddenly jerked the volume from minimum to max.
Blood gushed out of the cop’s femur in terrific spurts, while he gasped like a child working up the energy for a good yell.
Keren shoved the undercover unto the gurney and cinched her fingers into his thigh, a few inches from his crotch, to pinch the artery.
Yaccoub jackknifed from the driver’s seat to the rear of the ambulance and pulled the doors shut. Then he tore a C-A-T tourniquet from the pocket of his coveralls and fastened its Velcro straps in place near Keren’s fingers. Yaccoub swiveled the rod on the tourniquet stubborn-faucet-style until the bleeding stopped.
Keren looked up at Yaccoub. “There it is.” She smiled, pale face glistening under the humming overhead light.
Yaccoub nodded. He’d experienced every nanosecond of the last minute in Technicolor detail and was still buzzing.
Keren stretched her bloodied fingers into latex gloves, then began scissoring away the cop’s jeans. Following his PTO’s lead, Yaccoub patted the breast pocket of his coveralls for his own gloves.
“Let’s get this bandaged up,” Keren said in Hebrew. “We don’t want to leave that tourniquet in place too long.”
“That’s a nasty wound,” Yaccoub said to the cop in Hebrew.
The cop looked Yaccoub up and down and then returned his stare to Keren.
The paramedics examined the cop’s hairy, exposed thigh. Keren picked metal shavings the color and shape of coconut flakes out of the gash.
“Tear gas canister,” the undercover blurted.
One of the uniformed border cops had somehow fired the thing low enough to puncture the undercover’s thigh. Weird. But then human bodies are just bags of blood in the end, easy to pierce and quick to drain.
“Huh,” Yaccoub said, then added in Hebrew, “Own goal.”
“Dirty fucking mekhabel.” The cop slathered such venom on the Hebrew word for “terrorist” that Yaccoub flinched.
Then the undercover officer switched to Arabic: “So this is what happens to our collaborators after we wring them of their usefulness.” He spoke with a perfect Palestinian accent. “We let them drive our ambulances. Better than a garbage truck, I suppose.”
“Yeah, this is what happens to your collaborators,” Yaccoub replied in Arabic. “They end up fucking your blondes.”
For a moment Yaccoub hated himself for the betrayal. Then that moment passed.
All the accumulated anger, envy, rancor, and malice in Yaccoub’s heart rushed to the fore. All those undetonated-time-bomb memories from the Second Intifada: how to affect a demeanor that implied no sudden moves; how a boot nudging apart your heels reminded you of your place; how not to look your grandfather in the eyes when an Israeli soldier barely out of his teens demanded identity cards.
Fuck Keren, who spoke of medical school with the casual confidence of her staggering privilege: a little girl assured her entire life of a seat at the table. Yaccoub’s hand moved to the Leatherman fastened to the belt loops of his coveralls. Fuck this uniform—with its Star of David insignia—that he donned and shed in secret, like some sellout superhero. Yaccoub’s fingers unclasped his Leatherman’s case. Fuck this arrogant, undercover murderer, the kind who worked over Palestinian children in Room #4, and whose dismissive turn to the ambulance’s windshield now seemed to say, “I know Arabs, and you aren’t one I have to worry about.”
Plunge the Leatherman deep into the cop’s belly. Feel that sticky warmth coat your hand. Finally transformed into the hero you hadn’t had the guts to become as a teenager. Jar the knife free, and then jam it back home. Again and again and again, your arm going from slick to sloppy to numb with the effort. So much blood in the human body. Beautiful and terrible. As the stench of bowels bubbles through the ambulance, stare into the face of a corpse the moment before it enters the afterlife, that look when there’s nothing on this planet a human wants more than not to die. Then dig the Leatherman through the tepid entrails, up into that Jew heart, and hold it there until the body goes slack.
Keren’s hand fell on Yaccoub’s forearm.
Her eyes ricocheted from Yaccoub to the undercover police officer and back again. “Kacken zee ahf deh levanah,”
“What?” the cop demanded.
Yaccoub exhaled and very nearly laughed out loud. His PTO had just told the cop to go take a shit on the moon.
“Just a Yiddish prayer,” Keren said in Hebrew. “Now let’s get this thing patched up.”
The muezzin’s call rang out across Highway 60 as the two raced back to Mount Scopus at the end of their shift. With one hand on the steering wheel, Yaccoub watched the dusty city pass by like scenery in an old movie. He remembered how his grandfather used to joke that “the Muslims must drive God mad with all that mandatory prayer.” Then, for the first time, Yaccoub wondered how the call of the muezzin sounded to the Israelis. What did Keren hear at that moment? Anything at all?
“So.” Yaccoub glanced at his partner. “Cocksucker in Yiddish…?”
“Ah. Ah. Ah.” Keren raised the brim of her cap with a finger. “Not until you give me a better joke, habibti.”
Yaccoub opened his mouth, closed it, and then resolved to speak. “Am I the only Palestinian you know?”
“No.” She smiled. “But you are my favorite.”
Yaccoub laughed. “In that case call me habibi. Habibti is the feminine.”
“Habibi,” Keren paused. “You waited long enough to correct me.”
“You never asked, habibti. If you really want to sound cool say shabaab. It’s more like dude.”
“Shabaab,” she repeated.
Yaccoub watched the Jerusalem Police Headquarters zip past under the first hints of sunrise. His view of the world was fundamentally different from inside the rig. Yaccoub considered sharing this thought with his PTO. But when he looked over to Keren she’d already let the brim of her cap fall back over her eyes.
DEWAINE FARRIA holds an MA in International and Area Studies from the University of Oklahoma and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Outpost Magazine, and Drunken Boat. He is a frequent contributor to The Mantle. Follow him on Instagram at @dewainefarria.
Photograph by Iryna Farria