September 2000

He wasn’t proud of himself. As he emptied the post office box of the 3 letters, Asher Yitzchak made his final decision to stop this dehumanizing charade forever. There was no justification for continuing: in fact the whole thing had been a mistake from the beginning. From the moment he read that rejection letter 2 years ago, he’d been out of control of his life and it was now in his power to take over, to stop before something terrible happening. “Mr. Yitzchak, Your story is banal, emotional and unbelievable. Besides, it is fraught with grammatical and spelling errors in English. We suggest you work with a translator and an editor.” At that moment he stopped thinking. He didn’t even read the story over, or question his perfect faith in this 23rd unpublished submission: he moved into immediate action. He wrote the address of his new Jaffa post office on a blank envelope, attached 2 international postal coupons, folded it into the other envelope together with the story, and addressed the full envelope to another journal. Finally he composed a letter to the other editor, this one in a brand new identity.

Dear Mr. Davison, he wrote. I am a young woman writing in Israel. This is the first story I have ever sent to a publisher. I write in English because I do not wish to identify with either Hebrew or Arabic, and I do not want to be constrained by the reactions of my family. My parents would be shocked if they were to read my work, and my fellow students as well, so I am corresponding with you through my post office box. I hope you will enjoy this story about the tragic love affair of an Arab woman student with her Jewish instructor. Sincerely yours, Nawal Mansour.

He had no doubt the story would be accepted for publication, and was not surprised to receive a check from London Magazine almost immediately. The story was sensitive and erotic, with a pretty standard romantic plot, and only vaguely political. Nida spends the first half of the semester at Tel Aviv University arguing with her professor about sociology, and the second half in his bed. At the end of the semester, he goes back to his wife and she is unable to return to her village.

It had it all: the peace process, sexual, pedagogical, and political exploitation, intercultural romance and misunderstanding, eroticism and exoticism of the Middle-East. But written by the man, the Israeli, the teacher, the exploiter, it didn’t work.

Not that it was autobiographical. He had never touched Nawal. All semester long he had watched her writing notes, hunched over her notebook and hiding her face with her hair. All semester he had thought about how he could approach her, how he could talk to her in such a way that she would not color and hide her eyes. Her political analyses were bold and sharp, but it was only in her writing that she allowed herself expression. Worried that perhaps someone else was composing these searing analyses, he assigned a paper to be written in class, and watched her closely during that quiet hour. She sat at the desk, in her white blouse and jeans, looking cool and assured, and writing away, until she looked up and noticed his stare. Then she stopped, and took a few moments to collect herself before she returned to her cool intensity. When he read the paper he looked for that point in her writing when she had noticed him, but there was no evidence of any response.

So there was really nothing he could do. Except fantasize. And in the dreams he created on the bus home from the university, he would imagine. That she initiated a friendship, that she came to his office and asked for his opinion of something, or asked for elaboration upon one of the points in his lecture, and then that they gradually struck up a friendship. The sexual element would come later, slowly, inevitably.

And when the fantasies were crystallized, he began spending his evenings at the computer, caressing each word with the love he felt growing for Nawal daily. His wife had long disappeared from his consciousness, and sometimes there would be a loud noise somewhere in the house and he would be shocked to learn that he was not alone with Nawal.

One day he saw her standing outside of his office with a young man. The sight was painful to him even before he saw who it was. But then she turned to go, and called out, “Yalla, Ahmed, Achui,” “Goodbye Ahmed my brother,” and he passed by them both with a sigh of relief and a slight wave to her.

In the second story he wrote in her name, she had returned to the village and told the story of her love for her professor to her brother, Ahmed. And Ahmed reacted the way a Jewish-Israeli brother would – he told her to forget the whole thing happened and get on with her life. No exotic blood feuds, no murders for the sake of the honor of the family. Ahmed, in the story, had plans for his sister to go beyond the limitations of the life of the village, to go into politics, to become a leader. He told her that the romance she had had with her professor was a way for her to lift her self up beyond the banal future life would have had in store for her, and to succeed in ways she could not have imagined before. This one was written directly in the first person, and he called it “Politics.”

When that story got snapped up by the Partisan Review, he decided he couldn’t keep away from her any longer, and wrote himself back into the third one. With each sentence he felt he was deeper and deeper into her – It was far greater than making love, it was an identity. Even though the story had an objective plot, it emerged from deep within her erotic consciousness. By now she had finished both her political science and her law degrees and was running for government under the Labor ticket. He himself had become Rector of the University and was about to be appointed ambassador to the UN and they are seated next to each other at a dinner party at the president’s house. The flame is rekindled even before they turn to each other, even before they acknowledge each other’s presence, and they rendez-vous in the garden without arranging the meeting. Under the sharp gaze of the secret service, they whisper their love, and agree to meet at the King David hotel for a drink.

He didn’t like the story himself, and stopped it in the middle, but on a whim sent it off to another journal that had been rejecting his stories for years, the Atlantic. And when he got the handwritten letter from the editor, the promise of speedy publication and double the usual fee, he promised himself he would now stop this masquerade. It was not a question of whether he would be found out, it was a question of how he would be found out. What if someone tried to look her up in the village and interview her about her stories? What if someone he knew identified his style and confronted him with the imposture?

He did not cash any of the checks. It was not only technically difficult for him to sign her name and deposit the check into his account, it was a moral impossibility. Instead he pasted an envelope to the bottom of the drawer of his locked office cabinet, bank drafts as strong a proof of their union as steamy love letters.

And sitting in his office, with the evidence so close, he dreamt of her. But now he began to think of her and his cross-dress writing as a sickness from which he would soon recover.

For over a month he did not visit the post office box. It was like detox for him. The hunger was ever present. Once, while he was talking on his car phone he found himself driving to Jaffa instead of Ramat Aviv. He swerved the car around with the fury of a recovering alcoholic handed a drink. Then one Thursday, after class, he made the decision to find out what was in the box. He was deliberately going to leave the story he had been doodling on the computer in his unconscious hours in his office, and he was comfortable in the idea that nothing serious would happen if he went since he was expecting no important mail. No manuscript had been sent out to publishers since the last success.

The box had two letters—both heavy, propi. One was a request for a photo interview by Newsweek. The reporter was suggesting a visit to the village, and as he sat in his car, he found himself bathed in a cold sweat. But the second letter was worse: the return address was from a name vaguely familiar to him in the film world. And he knew he was on the verge of opening the letter of what would have been his dreams had it been in his name. But it was of course addressed to Nawal.

Two weeks old. He was a man who always responded to mail immediately, feared passivity and the passage of time. He decided this time not to think.

That evening he excused himself from the guests his wife had invited and went into the bedroom to call Nawal. His hand shook but his voice was clear as he asked the man who answered the phone to speak with her. Broken Arabic—Bitna Nawal. Professor Etamar, he responded to what he assumed was the inquiry concerning his identity. Immediately, her voice – breathless yet confident – was on the line.

He arrived at the village the next day, and saw her almost immediately, waiting. She was dressed in a long black embroidered dress, and seemed the antithesis of the shy student she had been when he saw her last semester. “Let me show you the village,” she said, and as they walked he felt more comfortable speaking to her than in her former identity.

After her mother finished serving coffee in the small, dark room of honor, he spoke, “I have to tell you why I came,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I have been using your name.” He passed the folder of stories to her and watched as she read them.

“You loved me.”

“I love you still.”

“And why do you tell me now?”

“To ask your forgiveness for the past and a partnership for the future.” He handed over the letters.

She leaned over the letters briefly. “So I give you 15%.”

“I was thinking more of 50-50. It IS my work, you know.”

“You can’t do it alone.”

“Let’s shake hands on 50% and I’ll write Newsweek.”

She stared at him for a long time, a deep, sultry stare—“We are partners in this then. This is what you have taught me.”