Excerpt

 THE SEVEN PERFUMES OF SACRIFICE

Chapter One

The afternoon my life blew apart, at the bus stop near the Jaffa clock tower, a Palestinian teenage girl was staring at a young couple kissing. Under her black headscarf, the girl’s face betrayed none of her feelings, but she shifted on the bench, crossing and uncrossing her legs. She couldn’t keep her eyes off the lip-locked pair in shorts and tank tops, probably Jewish Israelis. What could she be thinking? Disgusting? Disgraceful? Maybe she was envious. Or taking notes.

With the new concrete and ancient stone of Yefet Street acting like a convection oven for the June heat, body contact seemed unbearable to me. After a few minutes, the Palestinian remembered herself and lowered her gaze from the couple, covering her face with the end of her headscarf.

Finally, the bus headed for central Tel Aviv arrived. Holding hands, the lovers boarded first and headed for the back. As I scooted into the seat behind the driver, I noticed a young woman running up to the bus holding a white scarf on her head – my friend, Leila. Without a word, she cut in line in front of the Palestinian girl and jumped on the bus.

“Fereby, that one’s going directly to the central station,” Leila said, pointing to another bus that was just pulling up in front of mine. She stood in the stairwell, blocking the entrance, and shielded her eyes from the sun with purple paint-mottled fingers. “Come with me. This one will stop many times before it gets there.”

This unmannerly behavior, so unlike her, confused me. The bus driver glared at us.

“It’ll be faster. I’m going there myself,” she entreated. “Come.” She reached out and pulled me by the hand.

As I stepped down to the curb, I bumped shoulders with the Palestinian girl, making her drop her bus fare on the sidewalk.

“I’m sorry – slikha! I mean, uh, as-fa,” I finally said in the right language.

She glanced at me, startled by my using Arabic or perhaps that I had spoken to her at all. Her pale eyes, not exactly blue nor green, surprised me. We both bent down and gathered up what few coins remained in reach.

“Quickly!” Leila pleaded.

I handed the money to the girl, plus another coin from my pocket, and she nodded her thanks, eyes lowered. I ran to catch the other bus, following Leila’s billowing white foutta, fumbling for more shekels. We bought tickets from the driver and sat down in the first row. Soon, the bus pulled out into Yefet Street.

“Thank you, Leil-” The loudest noise I’d ever heard caromed through my head. All around me, windows collapsed.

Ya Abu Ibrahim!” Leila cried as she covered me with her arms, pushing my head down with her cheek, like a mother.

Crumbs of glass poured into our laps. People started screaming. I jumped up; every cell in my body felt as if it were ablaze. I didn’t know what was happening, but my body was moving without me. Leila seized my upper arm and pulled me toward the exit, the foutta falling to her shoulders. We pushed against the door, but it wouldn’t open. People yelled and pressed on us. Desperate elbows and hands surged at me, burrowing for any vulnerable place to grip and overtake. Someone grabbed my long hair, which yanked out one of my hoop earrings that was caught in it. Bodies urged us out, but we had no place to go. The only impulse inside me was Get out! It was pure energy, no calculation needed. I didn’t seem to be in charge of my mind or body anymore.

A hot wave of metallic air funneled through the broken windows. Someone’s shoe dug into my heel as glass crunched underfoot. So many voices that didn’t seem to belong to any language resounded in my head. A cell phone rang and rang. As my body began to fold under the weight of the crowd, a blend of guilt and shame – my default emotions in any crisis – overtook me.

Leila must have felt me collapsing behind her. Suddenly, she threw her head back hitting me in the face, screaming “Shahada!” It was more the cry of a fanatical dictator than a panic-stricken girl. The crowd recoiled at the Arabic word like another detonation. In those seconds of release, Leila thrust her body into mine, pushing me back just enough to reach her arm behind us and blindly find the button that opened the door, which the driver, evidently, was still too stunned to push himself. The accordion-style automatic door folded hard into Leila, knocking her into me, but she shifted around it as if it were a small nuisance and pulled me out into the frenzied street.

We were hauling somehow – Leila’s one arm around me, the other gripping my closest elbow – but locomotion was tricky for me. My feet tangled on themselves, as though she were teaching me a complex ethnic dance. She was pushing us onwards to try to lead us away from the scene, I finally realized. “In case there’s another,” she yelled in my ear at point-blank range, though it came through in muffled tones as if she were shouting at me from far away.

Leila’s head jerked back and forth, her long swath of black hair flying into my eyes. I looked back and, for an instant, saw flames shooting out of a dark mass of mangled metal down the block, black smoke pouring out into the air above.

“What’s happening?” I yelled.

Leila grabbed my neck to steer me forward and didn’t let go until we had crossed an intersection. Eyes flashing, she inhaled as though surfacing from a free dive. I turned to look again, felt myself unhinging and Leila’s grip righting me again.

Many people rushing in our direction were bleeding or crying. Others came out of the shops around us, throwing their hands up in the air or covering their mouths. One word echoed through the street: “Pzaza!”

“What’re they saying?” I shouted at Leila over the din.

Leila yelled back, though I strained to hear her.

“What?” I yelled.

“Bomb!” She repeated.

Most of the windows of our bus lay in tiny shards on the asphalt of Yefet Street, glittering like quartz under the Mediterranean sun. Somewhere behind it, black smoke unfurled into the transparent sky. I stepped onto the sidewalk to try to see around our bus. People dashed back and forth, blocking my view; in between, I caught glimpses of fire. What had been bombed?

I felt cotton in my ears; I stuck a finger in each but found nothing. We both looked toward the flames and smoke. A terrible, strange smell hit me. You needn’t ever have smelled burning human flesh before to recognize it: sweet, sour and charred, as if something in nature has gone cataclysmically wrong.

“That was the first bus you were on, Fereby,” Leila said.

I heard her, but not as well as I should have. A tremor shuddered through me; I scanned the street for its source, my gaze coming to rest on a pink plastic grocery bag in the gutter. Then I noticed the street and sidewalks were otherwise spotless. I was fixating on irrelevant things. What was wrong with me?

I turned to Leila. “How did you know to get me off that bus?”

She regarded me for a long moment. “Qada’an wa-qaddar.”

“Huh?”

“Fate and destiny. You’re shaking,” she said. “Are you hurt?”

She examined me for signs of injury, then had me shake the shards of glass out of my hair and off my clothing. “Don’t try to brush it off with your hands. You’ll just get cut.”

She saw me looking at her suspiciously.

“How did you know?” I asked.

 “You’re yelling…I didn’t! I mean, sometimes I sort of know things before I know them, okay?” she said. “I can’t explain.”

To my knowledge, the Israeli Druze had never been involved in terrorism against Israel, but I couldn’t help but wonder now about Leila. I’d met her less than a year before when I was on assignment in Israel with National Geographic covering the Druze, Leila’s culture, an Arabic-speaking minority. I was the first American Leila had gotten to know and she was mesmerized by my stories of traveling the world alone, working at what I loved and living independently as a woman in the U.S. Perhaps because of this, she trusted me enough to share her secret life – painting nudes, lovers and goddesses – taboo subjects in her conservative culture, a thousand-year-old offshoot of Islam – and selling them in a gallery in Jaffa. She’d taken me to an art show where she was anonymously exhibiting a provocative installation piece that had caused a commotion all over the country about the treatment of women in traditional cultures. I desperately wanted to write about her, but couldn’t without endangering her. Though a friendship had been born, I realized now there was much I still didn’t know about her.

Sirens filled the sky. Leila walked me several blocks before I thought to ask where we were going.

“The Central Bus Station. That’s where you wanted to go, right?” she said, her arm linked with mine, leading me through intersections, not waiting for pedestrian cross signals.

“Yes. No! It’s too far to walk. I have to get to…I don’t – ” I stammered. What am I doing? I stopped. I had to fly home to the States – yeah, that was it. Running out of money.

“Are you okay?” Leila held my elbows.

I rubbed my forehead and ran my nails along my scalp. “I don’t know. I…I’m-” My head swam as if I were struggling to come out of anesthesia. I felt porous. “I can’t hear that well.”

“Neither can I,” she said, clutching my arms now, speaking slowly as if I were very old or dim-witted. “It will probably go away in a few days; we weren’t that close. You were going to the airport, right?”

 I sighed. It was too bright outside to be real. “No,” I said, shaking my head. “Not yet. My flight’s not until one a.m.”

Leila held me at arm’s length now, staring at the lower half of my body. Everything beyond our twosome was out of focus, something less than pure.

She looked up at me with concern. “Where are your clothes?”

I glanced down, feeling for my pants. They were still on, thank God.

“No. Your clean clothes.”

I blinked at her, still not following.

“Where is the luggage you’re taking on the airplane?” she pressed.

“Oh. At the hotel.” I was staying in Tel Aviv, just adjacent to Jaffa.

“We need to get it now.”

Her eyes returned to my lower half. I looked down again at myself, bending over farther this time. A dark stain emanated from my crotch all the way down to my ankles.

Leila tied my jacket around my waist to conceal the accident and hailed a taxi to take us to my hotel on Hayarkon Street. I’d lost track of where we were and how long it had been since the explosion, but Leila was in charge, shepherding me.

In the hotel restroom, I cleaned myself up and changed into some khaki slacks while Leila waited in the lobby. Since the bombing, it had been like the patchy consciousness of a drunken night out – lost chunks of time, mundane objects commanding undue attention, lucid moments of humiliation and suspicion. I considered that, in three decades traveling the globe, I’d found the single-most embarrassing experience that all cultures share is soiling oneself in public. Wetting one’s pants should certainly come in second, but after nearly being killed, I couldn’t care less.

The bombing also put something even more important into proper perspective: I had long dreamed of being published in The New York Times but, since I’d been in Israel for the past nine days, all the freelance articles I’d written for them had been rejected. I was leaving that night because I couldn’t afford to stay any longer without a sale. I shook my head at myself in the bathroom mirror, incredulous that I’d hit the jackpot of surviving a terrorist attack. But I still couldn’t let go of how exactly Leila managed to save me.

When I emerged, Leila looked nervous.

“You’re coming home with me for dinner before going to the airport,” she said, her slightly hooded eyes, soot-colored with flecks of green, leaving no room for debate.

“I don’t know -“

“You won’t be late,” she said. “We’ll drive you to the airport and have you there in plenty of time for your flight.”

Flight. My heart pounded so hard, I glanced at my chest. Just the idea filled me with dread.

“I just need to ask my parents,” she said, pulling a silver cell phone out of her shoulder bag. She dropped it back in, fished around some more, then pulled out a black cell phone and began to dial.

“I don’t know, Leila -“

“You’ll be afraid if you’re all alone.” She turned her back to me as she put the phone to her ear.

We took another taxi to the Central Train Station in Tel Aviv, but when we got in line to buy our tickets to Haifa – the closest stop to her college, where her brother would be picking us up – my heart hammered again.

“Leila,” I whispered. “I don’t think I can take the train.”

She regarded me with studious compassion. “It’s almost four o’clock and Fadi will be at school in one hour,” she said in a kind but firm voice. “I cannot be late, or I’ll be in big trouble. I don’t see how else we’re going to get there.”

I knew she wasn’t supposed to be in Tel Aviv – she’d told me her family would kill her if they found out she so much as visited the city on her own, let alone painted risqué art and sold it there. She was only able to manage such complex deception with the help of one of her college professors. “Because of Devrah, I can paint what I want in Haifa, sell in Tel Aviv, and live as a good Druze girl in Atabi,” she’d confided.

“What about another taxi?” I suggested.

“It’s far, more than 100 kilometers. It would be close to three hundred shekels.”

I tried to compute that in U.S. dollars, but nothing happened. “I’ll pay for it.”

She blinked at me, either insulted, impressed or unsure if I was actually good for it.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Two minutes later, we were pulling out into a traffic jam in a taxi. Leila dug into her bag again for her black cell phone and turned it off.

“Don’t you want to call your family…or someone?” she asked, giving her foutta a shake.

I looked down at my lap, which came into peculiar hyper focus. I glanced at my watch to calculate what time it was in California where both my parents and I lived. Numbers swam in my head and I gave up. No matter: I couldn’t tell my mother, and therefore, I couldn’t tell my father. They couldn’t keep such secrets from each other. Werner, the guy I was dating, was fishing somewhere in the North Sea. We hadn’t seen each other in three weeks and the few conversations had been strained. I had no one to call. I fought to stifle the knot of despair forming in my chest.

“Not right now,” I managed, and turned my attention to the congestion outside.

When we reached the coastal highway and turned north, the Mediterranean shimmered its obnoxious beauty as if nothing could be wrong with the world.

Leila frowned at her watch, then craned her neck to assess the traffic up ahead. The driver stole frequent glances at her in the rearview. Her beauty, overwhelmingly Arab, was on the order of a semi-feral sultana. Men, women and children alike stopped to ogle her. Leila wore no makeup, probably never had. I didn’t know her exact age and couldn’t begin to guess: Nineteen? Twenty-two? Twenty-five?

She leaned forward and told the driver in Hebrew what must have been, “Would you kindly step on it?” because he immediately accelerated. She turned to check on me.

“How are you?”

I closed my eyes and exhaled. “Just this morning I cancelled an interview with a member of the Zaka task force.” The Zaka were the haredi, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who collected body parts and spatters of blood for burial after a terrorist attack. One of them was writing poetry about his work that was receiving international acclaim.

“Yes,” she said, as though that kind of creepy coincidence was to be expected here. “Why did you cancel?”

I looked out the window and shifted in my seat. “The Times passed on all my stories. Didn’t really see the point.”

“Why didn’t they take them?”

I didn’t know. I’d interviewed an 87-year-old Auschwitz survivor in Jerusalem who’d sent her reparations check to a young German whose grandfather had executed her husband in the war. She wanted him to have the money for his foundation that was trying to eliminate the Neo-Nazi movement in Europe. I’d reported on Palestinian Buddhists. I’d found a folk cure for pancreatic cancer from the Dead Sea with actual doctors backing up its efficacy. I’d gone spelunking in Qumran with some modern Essenes.

 “The editor told me to go where the locals tell you not to go,” I said. “He said, ‘Talk to the finance minister of the Israeli mafia. Get ‘embedded’ with a bounty hunter for fugitive terrorists. Find out something new about the child prostitutes trafficked from Eastern Europe.'”

“That would be interesting,” Leila said. “Tel Aviv’s the brothel capital of the world. It’s a billion dollar slave trade.”

“I know, I know,” I said, a prickle of guilt at the nape of my neck.

“Well, now you’ve got quite a story to tell.”

 I looked at her and swallowed hard. I hadn’t even remembered to take pictures after the bombing, let alone call my editor. I could no longer deny it: I wasn’t cut out for the higher realm of this business. I lacked ambition for lurid stories because they seemed to be told mainly for their spectacle, not their meaning. I felt my livelihood slipping away from me and I was the one pushing it. A brew of alarm and anger stirred inside me.

The radio blared guttural vocals and static as the driver fumbled to find a station.

Leila pulled both her cell phones out of her bag again and began punching buttons. “Raziel didn’t even try to call me.” She dropped them back into her bag and tilted her head towards Jaffa. “The bombing was so close and he knew I was on my way home.”

Raziel was the owner of Mujun, the art gallery where she sold her work in Jaffa. I had just been there minutes before the bombing to say goodbye to Leila before I left the country. She and Raziel were arguing when I arrived, the gallery full of tension. It was not the best time to hang out, so I’d left after a brief visit.

I still couldn’t shake a funny feeling. “You have two cell phones,” I said.

A guilty smile turned up the corners of her mouth. She combed her hair with her fingers and tucked it behind her ears. No earrings, no piercings, no nail polish, no rings. Just dried purple paint on her fingers from making art.

 “I guess I can tell you,” she said. “One phone is secret. My boyfriend gave it to me so we can talk and my family won’t know.”

This was interesting: Dating was forbidden by the Druze, even between each other. She smiled more radiantly than I’d ever seen her, then her face fell. “Fereby, please don’t tell anyone. You know what could happen. And he’s not even Druze.”

The Druze, who were neither Muslim, Christian nor Jewish but had their own religion, didn’t recognize marriage with outsiders and seemed to have a number of such restrictions to keep their religion as pure and secret as possible. The rare woman who dated or married outside the faith was usually hunted down and “dispatched.” Men sometimes met the same fate, or, at least, were excommunicated.

“I’m not going to tell on you, but I’m curious – is he Palestinian?” I asked.

“No.”

“Jewish?”

“No, American – not religious.”

She told me her boyfriend collected art for his own foundation in New York City and had acquired a number of works of emerging and well-known artists from around the world. His curator saw Leila’s work in a Tel Aviv exhibition the previous September and bought several pieces. Since she showed her work anonymously, it took him several months of persistence to find her. After several long conversations, he flew out from New York to meet her.

 “How do you see each other if you can’t go on dates?” I asked.

“He visits me at school when he’s in town. Sometimes he takes me places far off-campus.”

Suddenly, she leaned forward and listened to the radio broadcast.

“They’ve counted twelve dead already from the bombing,” she said. “Many more seriously wounded.”

The report ended and the driver turned off the radio, leaving us in an unbearable silence. I could barely breathe. I stared out at the Bolshevik-inspired box buildings going by, their lines repeating into a blur. I imagined the kissing lovers who had boarded that bus ahead of me, their blood-soaked tank tops, suntanned skin gaping from shrapnel. My abdomen felt like twisted metal. Leila folded my hand into hers. I watched palm trees whiz by, ruins of Roman aqueducts and fields of Shamouti orange trees. Was she involved somehow? Haifa’s working class port finally broke the view as fertile Mount Carmel rose to the east.

“We’ll be at the university soon, Fereby,” Leila said, arranging her foutta back on her head. “Fadi will pick us up. We’re about twenty minutes late. This is our story: I was not in Jaffa or Tel Aviv. You were in the bombing, not me. You then came to school to find me. I invited you home for some Druze hospitality after your trauma before you leave the country tonight. I’m not an artist. Nothing about a gallery. There’s no boyfriend.”

“Got it,” I said, my unstable mind stirring up facts, fiction and memory like a dangerous potion.

I knew her brother, Fadi, had to drive her to school because she wasn’t allowed to have a drivers’ license like many Druze women. She said he never asked her what she did away from home so she wouldn’t have to lie.

After crossing the foutta under her chin and flipping the ends over her shoulders, Leila handed me her secret silver cell phone from her bag. “There’s no time for me to go to Devrah’s office first where I keep my things at school…and I don’t like to take this home with me. You keep it until the airport and then slip it to me and I’ll hide it somewhere afterwards.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good – “

“My mother will search my things while I’m gone to take you to the airport or later when I’m asleep,” she said, pressing it into my palm. “She mustn’t find it and Fadi doesn’t know, either.”

Reluctantly, I tucked it into my backpack.