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23,320

Next week we will commemorate our fallen soldiers and civilians who were killed in wars and acts of terrorism since the inception or the conception of the state of Israel. We do this immediately following the commemoration of the six million Jews who were killed in Europe. We prepare ourselves all week long by listening to stories on the radio and watching video clips of handsome young soldiers and beautiful young girlfriends, poems and letters, twisted metal and smoke plumes, blood, oil, and tears. Then we seem to shrug our shoulders of those unbearable weights and celebrate our Independence Day the very next day with such abandon and insane frivolity as though we received our country on a silver platter for free.

Obviously there is a linkage between those events, the holocaust, the wars and the terror, and the establishment of Israel. Israelis don’t like to dwell on that linkage. Jews went all too gently into the night of the holocaust. Israeli will not go so gently into that night.

23,320 is the number of our soldiers and civilians who have been killed in the current Promised Land. Last year at this time, I wrote another blog post entitled 23,169. This year we had Protective Edge in Gaza. 67 of our soldiers were killed. The rest were killed in incidents that have no names. The incidents seem endless. Sometimes they morph into wars and sometimes wars peter out into incidents. We come to expect these wars and incidents. They make us bitter, but there is no limit to our capacity for bitterness. We really don’t expect our sworn enemies to love us or to recognize us. We don’t expect anyone to beat their swords into plowshares. Neither do we expect to be able to do so ourselves.

We don’t expect to have any friends either. Even if our friends recognize us, they won’t love us. And if we do have a friend who likes us, we are surprised and we wonder whether they really know what we are and how long the friendship will last.

In the end, we depend only on our soldiers, our children. There is no number that can express their loss, only names.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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The Hierarchy of Values

Yesterday I posted the following comment on FaceBook:

“I was just looking to see whether there’s a word for “humanitarian” in Arabic. There is: إنساني. So that’s not the problem, I guess. Must be something else. Why can’t we talk the same language?

It’s a simple enough question. Many Arabs speak English as do many Israelis. It’s even safe to say there’s no lack of Israelis who speak Arabic in addition to their native Hebrew. So language is not the problem. But still, we don’t seem to be able to find a common ground, to speak a common language.

I would venture to say that our problem is related to values. I would not dare to suggest that our sworn enemies don’t possess a set of values. I know we have values. There’s no reason to suspect that they don’t. At the highest levels of abstraction, I would say that we probably have the same values:

Life, family, friends, freedom, democracy, economic fairness of opportunity or allocation of common resources, peace, country, religion, culture, education, health, courage, success, ethics, generosity, beauty, safety, adventure, the ascendancy of political views, of religious belief, of a sports club, etc.

However, these common values may not be in the same order from one person to the next. Aye, therein lies the rub. If I were to list my top five or ten values in order, would somebody else list the same values in the same order? What about somebody from my family? What about a friend? What about somebody at work? What about the guard at the entrance to our bank who checks purses and briefcases for explosives or weapons? What about somebody from another country? Another religion? What about our enemies?

Given my particular background, the fact that I was raised in one country and went to live in another country halfway through my life makes it rather difficult for me to talk to some of my friends on both sides of the pond. Language is not the problem since I speak the languages of both countries. So if I have problems sometimes speaking to my friends about the things that really matter to me, how could I expect sworn enemies to engage in a meaningful dialogue in order to find a common ground on which their swords and shields may be lowered?

Let’s examine two hypothetical hierarchies of values, only five levels down:

Side 1 values:                         Side 2 values:

  1. Life                                          1. Ascendancy of religious belief
  2. Family                                   2. Ascendancy of political view
  3. Freedom                               3. Courage
  4. Democracy                         4. Family
  5. Ethics                                    5. Life

Side 3 (the mediator whose value hierarchy is also relevant but will be ignored for the sake of simplicity): “I’ve finally brought you both together to the same table. Let us now begin negotiations in earnest.”

Side 1: “Since we both value life, I am willing to offer you not a temporary cease-fire but peace for peace.”

Side 2: (thinking – you are a coward hiding behind your hi-tech weapons and your deep-pocketed benefactor, what value is life if it is not lived in accordance with the precepts of our religion? We will conquer you in the end. We are courageous and God is on our side! A cease-fire would allow us to regroup and gather strength. It would serve our purposes more than a peace that lets cowards live.) “We want our past grievances redressed. To this you must agree unconditionally as a precondition to the continuation of these peace talks.”

Side 3: “Let us look forward instead of to the past. Let us look for a common ground from which to progress.”

Side 1: “We both value family. Don’t our wives and mothers weep when their husbands and children are killed? Let’s lay down our weapons for our families’ sakes.”

Side 2: “Don’t talk to me of family. There isn’t a single family in our land who hasn’t had someone killed by your bombs and bullets. Our children are braver than your soldiers. They are willing to sacrifice themselves to rid you from our land.”

Side 3: “Come now. Neither side is being productive at this time.”

Side 1: (thinking – what could I possibly have to offer him that he would value? Certainly not freedom and not democracy. He has no use for those things. Ethics? He would slit my throat in the blink of an eye if he could. The only thing we could offer him is our death.) “It is clear that we have nothing to talk about.”

Side 3: “What about a temporary cease-fire?”

Side 1: “For how long?”

Side 2: “For how short?”

The problem with values is that they come from a position of no compromise or movement what-so-ever.

They are our succor and our bane.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Bitter Sweet

Here is the second poem. Although I try to avoid writing poems about poetry, I find myself returning to violate that rule many times lately, feeling that they are somehow legitimate exceptions to the rule.  See what you think.

 

They’re in that room behind the curtain

Reading their poems and playing their guitars.

The young girls are so pretty they make my heart ache,

The young men, it looks so easy for them.

I could go in, order a beer, sit down,

And listen to a poem or two,

But for what?

I don’t understand what they’re saying.

 

Walking out into the cold night air,

Looking in the glass windows,

My hands in my pockets.

What would I write about?

The garbage cans overfilled and tipped over?

The “fuck yous” on the urinated walls?

The drunken men curled up on their cardboards

Wrapped in the warmth of newspaper?

The sirens from the next street over?

What would I write about?

 

I used to have a job,

Usta have a friend,

Usta have a wife and kid,

Usta have some books and things.

Usta, usta, usta.

 

Life is silenter without a job,

Life is cleaner without friends,

Life is freer without a family,

Life is less encumbered without things,

Isn’t it?

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 33: Break

Lem stood up from the table and told Sangor to walk with him. He brought Sangor out of the forest to a cliff overlooking a fertile valley, dappled by sun and clouds. Beneath the clouds were sheets of rain that seemed to disappear after a few moments. The terraced hills on either side of the valley appeared to be pocked with holes. Sangor saw people, Rats, entering and leaving the holes. Lem led Sangor down a narrow path descending from the cliff into the valley.

Lem guided Sangor to his home, one of the caves Sangor had seen from the cliff. When they reached the third cave, Lem stopped and put his hand on the glass wall. The glass wall dissolved. They passed through the entrance into the cave, after which the glass reformed. Lem pointed to a sofa and told Sangor to make himself comfortable. Lem sat down on a chair opposite Sangor.

Yani offered Lem and Sangor a cup of water and a plate of fresh fruit. Sangor raised his cup and sniffed at the water suspiciously. Lem laughed, switched the cups, and drank from Sangor’s cup. Sangor raised Lem’s cup to his lips and drank down the cool thirst-quenching liquid in a few gulps. Sangor eyed the fruit with a combination of desire and suspicion. Lem smiled, reached over to the plate, picked up a prange, and popped it into his mouth. “You really should try the prange,” Lem said amiably with his mouth full of the tart pulp, “it’s fresh from our garden. My wife picked it just before you arrived.” Sangor picked up a prange from the plate and bit off the tip of the fruit. The tangy taste seemed to explode in his mouth. He ate the rest of it and reached for another piece of fruit.

Lem asked Sangor, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Sangor looked at the Rat with genuine curiosity. He struggled for a moment with his rebellious memories but eventually gave up the effort. “No,” he answered. “Should I?”

Lem said to him, “No, I suppose not” and then, “You and I were children at the same day care facility in Sector 87. I built a fortress of wooden blocks and you knocked it down.”

Sangor started to remember images and feelings from his childhood. After all, he had not encountered many Rat children in his life. He remembered one or two, but not much else; certainly no interactions with them.

“Now, do you remember?” Lem asked Sangor.

Sangor was confused. Suddenly he saw and felt what he saw and felt that day when Lem’s mother had brought Lem to the day care facility and that Rat child had built a fortress of wooden blocks. Sangor had been envious of the Rat’s ability to construct something so tall and was so frustrated when the Rat was able to avoid his blows so easily. The old hatred came back to him.

“How are your parents, Javid and Dorka?” Lem brought Sangor back to the present.

“Hmm?” Sangor responded. “My father died a few years ago. My mother is in good health, as far as I know… Why did you spare me? … I would have killed you if I’d had the chance.”

Lem answered, “It was not necessary to kill you at that time.”

“Will it be necessary for you to kill me at some other time?” Sangor asked defensively.

Lem told Sangor he would not understand the answer to his question.

Lem bade good night to Sangor after showing him to his room for the night. Lem told Sangor they would have breakfast together in the morning and talk some more.

The next morning Lem told Sangor he wanted to show him around the cultivated fields and the cave village. Sangor understood that he was a captive audience and so he assented.

They passed two other caves on the way to the path leading down to the valley. Sangor glanced into the caves as they passed. The caves were similarly protected by a glass wall. Sangor put his hand on one of the glass walls but it did not dissolve. He saw a small Rat child on the other side of the glass wall sitting on the cave floor under a table playing with a multi-colored cube. The child raised his blue eyes to Sangor and waved to him. Embarrassed, Sangor dropped his hand from the glass and averted his gaze.

Lem and Sangor descended the path to the valley floor. They walked through fields of tall waving stalks, of low clinging vines around green and orange tubers, orchards of plump yellow fruits Sangor had never seen before, and flowers of every imaginable color growing from trees whose trunks looked like tea kettles. Sangor had seen farm country in Sector 87 but he had never seen anything like this.

Sangor asked many questions, first about the different kinds of fruit, trees, and flowers he saw, and then about the seeding and the harvest. He asked what the weather in these parts was like. He wanted to know what kind of price the farmers got for their produce. Lem answered each of Sangor’s questions patiently, but Lem’s answers did not make any sense to him. It couldn’t be like that. It just couldn’t be.

Sangor was silent for a while. He looked up at Lem and asked, “What about my friends? Where are you holding them? How are you treating them?”

Lem said “You are welcome to visit them and see for yourself.”

Sangor nodded and said he’d like that.

Lem took Sangor to the captive compound. “I have some things to attend to,” Lem told him. “You may come back to my cave whenever you want.”

Sangor looked Lem in the eyes and said morosely, “My place is with my friends.”

“You may stay with your friends,” Lem told Sangor, “if that is what you want.” He turned back and left Sangor at the entrance to the compound.

When Sangor walked inside, the buzz of Sap conversation went silent. Heads turned in his direction. A voice in the back of the room called out, “Is that you, Sangor?” Another voice snorted “Look at him, all clean and hair wet and slick… Where’d they take you? To the governor’s wife’s own bath house?”

“You can jeer all you like,” Sangor answered huskily, “but I’m a prisoner here just like you.”

“You don’t look like us,” one of the men said testily.

Sangor asked him, “Didn’t the Rats offer you to bathe in the river and wear clean clothes?”

The man shot back, “Sure they did, but I refused… Wouldn’t take nothin’ from no Rat.”

“Did you eat the food they offered you?” Sangor asked him with a wave of shame undulating in his belly.

“And let them poison me?” the gaunt man said, defiantly proud of his own hunger.

Someone else spoke out, “How do we know we can trust this Sap?”

Sangor reached over the heads of some men who were sitting cross-legged on the floor, grabbed the man who had just spoken by his shirt collar, and dragged him through the line of sitting men. “How do I know I can trust you, Worm-Meat?” Sangor hissed at the man. “I marched along next to you and I saved your sorry ass when you nigh fell into the river rapids. Many of you have known me since I was a child. Maybe I did accept their clothes and food, and maybe I just bided my time til the time was right to break them or to break away from them…”

“Hey man,” the man hanging inside the shirt whose collar Sangor clenched in his fist wined. “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it … I was just sayin’, ya know?”

One of the other men said, “Sangor’s all right. I’ll vouch for him.”

“Hey Sangor,” a man who had been silent up to that point said in a voice that carried above the others, “why don’t you come and sit down with us? Some of the guys have an interesting idea you might want to hear, if you don’t have other plans this evening…”

The interesting idea his friends had was a plot to break out of the compound and make a run for the river.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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