Three Stories One Middle East
It was a little after six o’clock in the afternoon of Tuesday, June 5, 2001 when Ronen finally managed to get to Beit Urshalim Hospital in Tel Aviv. He immediately approached an elderly lady sitting behind the information desk. She was talking to a nurse and another clerk who sat next to her.
“Excuse me? Could you tell me how to go to the CCU ward?” he asked without waiting for the elderly lady to finish her conversation. All three women looked at him. The woman might have taken offense by this sudden interruption if Ronen was in civilian clothes, but he was in a military uniform. He looked very distressed and anxious. The woman pointed towards the hallway to their right.
“Go towards that hallway, turn right at the second set of double doors, keep walking until you see the elevator on your left. Take it to the third floor. When you get off the elevator, turn left and then turn right at the first entrance. The CCU ward will be to your right.”
If Ronen weren’t so worried about his mother, he would have easily remembered these directions but not today. He just stared at the lady and was about to ask her to repeat the whole thing when the nurse intervened.
“I’ll take you there. Just follow me,” she said and looked at the two women. “I’ll be right back.”
She probably wouldn’t have done that for a civilian either but Ronen was a soldier and, besides, she found him attractive. Like the lady behind the desk, she had also noticed how anxious Ronen looked, so she walked fast and Ronen followed her.
“Are you here to visit a close relative?” the nurse asked when they were both in the elevator.
“My mother. She had a heart attack earlier today,” answered Ronen.
“What’s her name?”
“Oh yes, I remember her,” said the nurse as the elevator door opened on the third floor and she led the way. “Her condition is more stable now.”
Ronen didn’t say anything and followed the nurse quietly into the CCU ward. Ronen felt even more anxious than when he got the news about his mother’s sudden heart attack earlier that afternoon. He was in Ramallah interrogating a Palestinian teenager when a soldier told him that he had an urgent message from his aunt about his mother. He immediately called his aunt and, despite her assurances that Sara’s condition had stabilized, decided to go to the hospital immediately.
“Yasmina, Dr. Meridor was looking for you,” said another nurse to the nurse that was taking Ronen to his mother’s room.
“I had to go to the lab. I’ll go find him in a minute.”
After turning left into a narrow hallway, they entered the CCU ward.
“She is in here. Room seven,” said the nurse and opened the door.
Sara appeared to be sleeping. Several tubes and monitors were attached to her body. Sara’s sister, Golda, was sitting next to her bed. She stood up and opened her arms to greet Ronen when he walked in. As Ronen held her, she started crying.
“Your mother is alright. Don’t worry, she will live,” said Golda as she tried to control her crying.
Ronen was quiet. He stood close to Sara and held her limp hand. Then he leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. Sara’s breathing seemed regular, but Ronen could tell that she was breathing faster than normal. In the meantime, the nurse who accompanied Ronen was checking Sara’s charts and looking at various machines monitoring Sara’s condition.
“Everything looks good. She will probably sleep for a while since we gave her sedatives.”
“Thank you. You have been very kind,” said Ronen in a low voice before the nurse left.
He held Sara’s hand for a while and quietly talked to his aunt. Now that he was here, he felt less anxious but still very worried about Sara. This was Sara’s second heart attack in less than a year, and he was well aware of the risks. He was certain that after this one the doctors would recommend bypass heart surgery for her.
She was not that old – only in her late sixties – but still, heart surgery was always risky. Ever since Ronen’s father died in a car accident two years earlier, he had developed a close emotional bond with his mother. Ronen was thirty-four, but since he was not married, he lived with his mother. Ronen’s work was his life. Immediately after his military service he was recruited into Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad, and for the past six months he had been on temporary assignment with the domestic intelligence service, Shabak, to help with domestic security in face of the Palestinian Intifada uprisings and suicide bombings. Ronen was so involved in his work that he didn’t have much of a social life, and living with his mother didn’t impose on his privacy.
The only thing that had recently bothered him was Sara’s repeated motherly warnings that it was time for him to get married. The frequency of these comments and Sara’s matchmaking efforts had intensified over the past six months. But now that his mother was sick, even these pressures seemed tolerable. He decided that once his mother was well, he would finally give in to her wishes and settle down.
“Aunt Golda, why don’t you go home. I’ll stay with her tonight.” asked Ronen.
“We both have to leave by seven. No overnight companions are allowed in the CCU. I’ll just stay here until then, and we can both leave together.”
“When did she go to sleep?”
“About two hours ago, after they gave her some medicine.”
“Maybe I can talk to her doctor and get permission to stay overnight,” said Ronen and stepped out of the room. He returned a few minutes later. “Unfortunately there is no way, but her condition is stable and the danger has passed. The doctor says they will transfer her to a regular room tomorrow and then I can stay with her.”
For the next half an hour, Ronen and Golda were mostly quiet. Ronen was gently holding his mother’s hand and thinking about his childhood with his parents. These happy memories were frequently interrupted by thoughts of his most recent assignment in Ramallah. It had been a difficult forty eight hours since the latest suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. He was an intelligence officer in the Israeli army and had spent most of the past two days interrogating the Arab suspects who knew the bomber. The techniques that they used to extract information from Arabs were often brutal, but he knew that there were no other alternatives. The army wanted to identify anyone who had assisted a suicide bomber in the shortest period of time possible and that meant Ronen’s unit would be dispatched to the bomber’s area of residence only a few hours after an attack. Over the past day and a half, he had interrogated twenty three suspects, spending up to three hours with some of them. It was no wonder that he couldn’t switch off the sounds of the Arabs cursing, crying and screaming in his mind.
Aunt Golda was Ronen’s only relative in Israel besides his mother. He didn’t have any siblings. He thought about how lonely he would feel if his mother died. It was a sad and frightening idea. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door opening.
“The visitation time will be over in five minutes,” said a nurse opening the door a crack. She smiled kindly before closing the door. Golda lifted her heavy body out of the chair with a sigh and moved closer to Sara’s bed. Ronen gently let go of his mother’s hand and kissed her on the forehead for the second time. Back when he was a child, he always preferred it when his mother kissed him on the forehead than on the cheek. So now that Sara was asleep, he subconsciously landed his kiss on her forehead.
“Why don’t you spend the night with me and Zavi? We can come back to the hospital together tomorrow morning,” said Golda as they walked out of the hospital.
“Thanks, Aunt Golda but I’d rather go home,” answered Ronen. He then waited for Golda to get into a taxi before walking to the nearest bus station to go home.
Ronen went to bed around half past ten but didn’t fall sleep until a little after midnight. It was twelve minutes after four a.m. when the phone rang. The phone was next to his bed, but Ronen was so exhausted that the loud sound of the first few rings didn’t wake him up. It took six rings before he suddenly woke up and jumped out of bed. Because of his line of work, it was not unusual for him to receive calls in the middle of the night, and his first assumption was that an officer was calling to tell him that a driver would pick him up in ten minutes.
“Is this Mr. Shamir?”
The question and the female voice that asked it made him nervous. He immediately had a feeling that it was from the hospital.
“Yes. Who is calling?”
“This is the night nurse from Beit Urshalim hospital. I’m calling about your mother.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Her heart beat has been very unstable for the past two hours. She needs immediate surgery, and she insists on seeing you before her surgery. Her doctor also wants to talk to you.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” said Ronen.
Ronen was nervous and still a little confused from the sudden interruption of his sleep. He first called for a night taxi and then put on his clothes. The streets were empty and the ride to hospital, which would have taken twenty minutes in daytime traffic, took only seven minutes. Ronen quickly rushed to the third floor and walked to the reception desk.
“Hello, I’m Ronen Shamir. How is my mother?” he asked the nurse.
“Oh yes, Mr. Shamir. The doctor is in your mother’s room right now. He will be out shortly,” replied the nurse.
“Can I go in?”
The nurse shook her head.
Ronen stood outside his mother’s room and tried to peek into the room through the window. All he could see from the little opening between the curtains were two nurses and a doctor with gray hair. He anxiously waited for ten minutes before the door opened and the doctor came out. Ronen introduced himself and asked about Sara’s condition.
“I’m afraid she is in critical condition. She has suffered another mild heat attack and is in a lot of pain but refuses to take any strong pain medicine. She insisted on talking to you before taking any sedatives. I need to speak to you immediately about her, but you should talk to her first. Keep it short and try to calm her down,” said Dr. Horowitz.
Ronen immediately went in. One of the nurses was still in the room. Sara was breathing heavily, and it was clear from her facial expression that she was in a lot of pain. Ronen could imagine the one thing that his mother was going to tell him: marriage. Fearing that she might be close to death, Sara probably wanted to fulfill her motherly duty by asking him for one last time to get married, thought Ronen as he stood next to his mother’s bed and gently said, “Hello mother.”
Sara was not asleep but her eyes were closed. She suddenly opened her eyes. “Ronen, thank God you are here.”
She tried to smile but the pain in her chest forced her to close her eyes tightly once again. Ronen bent down and kissed her. Sara wanted to put her hands around her son’s head but needles were attached to both of them. They were both crying. Sara noticed the nurse had stayed in the room. Still breathing hard, she asked the nurse to leave her alone with Ronen. The nurse left but said that she would check on them in five minutes.
“Mother, how are you feeling?” asked Ronen sitting close to her bed and holding her hand.
“Listen to me Ronen. I might not live much longer and there is something important that you should know,” said Sara as tears moved slowly down her cheek. Ronen used his free hand to wipe the tears off her face.
“Mother you are going to be fine. You are only sixty-five.”
“Listen Ronen, your father and I have kept a very important secret from you - something that you must know,” said Sara.
It occurred to Ronen that this wasn’t another one of Sara’s pep talks about marriage.
“Mother, whatever it is it can wait. You shouldn’t tire yourself now. I’m here and we can talk after you have rested,” said Ronen.
Sara sighed from pain, “No Ronen it can’t wait.”
Ronen looked at her. She stared at Ronen’s eyes for a few seconds. Her lips were trembling.
“What is it mom?”
“Ronen, my dear Ronen, I’m not your biological mother,” said Sara and fixed her eyes on Ronen’s.
Ronen could not believe his ears. “Mom what are you saying?”
“It’s true. I breastfed you since you were only a few weeks old, but I’m not your real mother.”
Ronen could not talk. He could not move any part of his body for a few seconds – not even his eyelids. His breathing became heavier and heavier. “No!” he said finally.
“I got pregnant twice and miscarried both times. The doctors advised me against a third pregnancy, so we adopted you,” said Sara as she began to cry.
Ronen was in such a state of shock that he forgot to wipe the tears off her face this time. If Sara had told him about this when she was healthy, he would have shouted and demanded to know why no one had told him earlier. But he tried his best to suppress his anger.
“But I look so much like Dad. Was he …was he my biological father?”
“No my dear. We adopted you.”
Ronen was in shock but tried hard to focus and hold back his emotions. He had so many questions to ask, but this wasn’t the right time. He could see that she was in pain. Now, he was also in a lot of pain. It was a pain that he had never experienced before. The last time he felt so much agony was the day that he learned about his father’s accidental death. What his mother had just told him was the news of his own death – the death of his identity, the person that he thought he was. He would have allowed this pain to consume his soul if his mother wasn’t ill. Years of training and service as an intelligence officer had taught him to cope with all kinds of emotions and to stay focused on the task at hand. The shock and pain was still there, but he gradually managed to suppress these feelings and concentrate on his mother.
“As far as I’m concerned, you are my mother and nothing is going to change that,” he said. Like Sara, he was also unable to hold back his tears. “We will talk about it after you feel better.”
“There is something else that I need to tell you,” said Sara with a weak voice.
“It’s alright mother. We can talk later. You should rest.”
“I’m so sorry!” said Sara as she began to sob.
Ronen used a napkin to clean her face. “Please don’t cry mother. Whatever it is it can wait.”
“No! I must say it now,” said Sara. Ronen couldn’t imagine what else she had to tell him so urgently.
“Ronen, my dear, your real parents were Arab.”
Sara turned her face away from Ronen after delivering this news and kept quiet. She knew very well how much pain she had inflicted on Ronen and could not bear looking at his face.
“What did you say?” asked Ronen with a quivering voice. Sara kept quiet and kept looking away from Ronen. He stood up and released Sara’s hand. Then he slowly walked towards the other side of the bed so he could see his mother’s face.
“I’m an Arab?” he asked. Ronen slowly bent down and got closer to Sara. “I’m an Arab, Mother?”
Sara looked into his son’s tear-filled eyes. “Your biological parents were Arab but you are my son,” said Sara.
Ronen quietly pulled himself up. He looked straight ahead. Now the pain was so severe that all of his experiences could not help him contain it. A patriotic son of Israel, a man who had spent all of his adult life pursuing and interrogating Arabs and those who helped them, a man who had even killed several Arabs in the line of duty, was being told by his own mother, that he himself was an Arab. No man could cope with such a shock, and he felt like he was being crushed under a giant stone. For a moment, he could not maintain his balance and used his hands to support himself. He slowly walked back to the other side of the bed and sat down, still looking ahead at nothing in particular. Sara was looking at him silently.
“I’m so sorry my dear. I had to tell you, because I am afraid that I might die. You deserve to know this, and I don’t blame you for hating me.”
Ronen wished his mother had never told him the truth. She didn’t have to destroy his life like this. Suddenly the door opened and a nurse walked in. Still in a state of shock, Ronen slowly turned his face toward the nurse.
“Please come with me. Dr. Horowitz wants to talk to you. It’s urgent,” said the nurse.
Ronen looked at Sara for a second. She was looking back with teary eyes. After staring at Sara for a few more seconds, Ronen bent down and kissed her on the forehead. He had acted like any elite member of the Israeli intelligence would have under extreme emotional stress. In a few short seconds, he had set his priorities and decided to focus on his mother’s health for now. All other emotions and anxieties were suppressed. The kiss was meant to reassure Sara that he loved her and reduce her anxiety during these crucial moments. It was effective and Sara felt better. No more words were exchanged between them before he followed the nurse to Dr. Horowitz’s office.
“Mr. Shamir, unfortunately your mother has suffered another cardiac arrest in the past three hours and must undergo bypass surgery within the next twenty-four hours. If she weren’t in the CCU when this happened, she would not have survived. More than seventy percent of her heart tissue is damaged and the risk of another fatal heart attack is very high,” the doctor explained.
Ronen was not fully focused on Dr. Horowitz but understood the basic message.
“If you believe a surgery is necessary, then she should have it. When are you going to operate?”
“In the next five hours. I must warn you that in her condition, the surgery will be risky. However, the risk of surgery is less than the risk of another fatal heart attack without surgery.”
“She is my only relative in this world. I hope…” Ronen’s sentence was interrupted by the sound of a speaker on Dr. Horowitz’s desk.
“Dr. Horowitz to room seven immediately.” The physician stood up and briskly walked toward the door. Ronen followed him to his mother’s room.
Ronen stood outside the room and watched the doctor and nurses as they tried to revive Sara’s heart. Ronen was not a religious man, but he began praying to God for his mother’s life. The physician gave Sara several electric shocks to stimulate her heart, but she didn’t respond. Ronen didn’t know that Sara was dead until the doctor turned around and stepped out of the room.
“I’m very sorry. We couldn’t save her this time.”
Ronen didn’t say anything. He quietly walked into the room and stared at Sara’s body as the nurses pulled a sheet over her face. Ronen leaned against the wall and just looked at Sara. This was the third unbearable shock that he had to cope with in the past thirty minutes. One of the nurses – the same woman who took him to see Dr. Horowitz – walked toward him as the other nurse walked out and closed the door.
“Mr. Shamir I’m very sorry,” she said.
Ronen didn’t look at her or say anything.
“I was the first nurse to come in when the monitor alarm went off. She was still conscious and asked me to give you a message.”
Ronen didn’t react and made no eye contact with the nurse. She didn’t mind.
“She said no one else knows,” said the nurse. Ronen was still quiet. Without saying anything else, she walked toward the door.
“Thank you,” she heard Ronen say. The nurse turned around. Now Ronen was looking at her. She nodded and closed the door.
Although Sara didn’t have any living relatives other than Ronen and her sister-in-law Golda, the funeral attracted a large group of people, including some old friends of his father, Aaron, and some friends and former colleagues of Sara’s from the elementary school where she used to teach. However, by far the largest group was the friends and colleagues of Ronen from various branches of Israel’s intelligence community.
While sitting Shiva for his mother, Ronen was so busy with visitors and so overwhelmed by the grief that he didn’t think much about Sara’s secret during the day. At night, however, it was the opposite. Unable to sleep, he was up until the early morning hours trying to absorb what he had just learned about his roots. It wasn’t easy and initially he had some doubts about the whole thing. It seemed so unreal.
With all the animosity and bad blood between the Arabs and the Jews around the time of his birth in 1967, how could his parents have brought themselves to adopt an Arab child? Didn’t anyone try to stop them? Even more difficult for Ronen to comprehend was why would an Arab family ever agree to give up their child to a Jewish couple? As much as the Jews hated the Arabs, the Arabs hated the Jews even more.
The story of his adoption just didn’t seem rational on both sides of the equation and made him wonder if Sara was telling the truth. It would have been easy to forget the whole thing if he could convince himself that Sara was lying.
But why would mother make up a story like this at a time when she felt her days were numbered? Ronen asked himself.
As much as he wanted to believe that his mother was lying, he couldn’t find any reason to support this belief. With his years of training and experience as a spy and an intelligence officer, Ronen was not the type of person to accept anything without careful investigation and this was no exception.
Ronen looked at the clock radio. It was 2:23 in the morning. Luckily for him, it was Saturday and he didn’t have to report back for work until Sunday. Aunt Golda and her husband stayed with him last night until a little after eleven, and Ronen had been in bed, thinking and trying to clear his mind, ever since. He had finally gathered his thoughts about how he was going to investigate the validity of his mother’s claim. This would be the most secretive investigation of his life.
This issue is so sensitive that no one must ever find out what it is that I’m investigating. I need an excuse, a diversion, every step of the way, Ronen said to himself and then recalled the message that the nurse gave him. Sara wanted to reassure him that no one else knew.
Oh mother, I wish you hadn’t told me either. Why did you have to tell me? Why did you have to put me through this agony?
He finally fell sleep and didn’t wake up until a little after eleven when the phone rang. By the third ring, he opened his eyes and stared at the phone. It kept ringing but Ronen didn’t answer until it went to the answering machine. As long as it wasn’t an emergency call from his superiors, he was going to ignore it. He listened to the message as soon as the light started blinking. It wasn’t from the army so he ignored it. He wasn’t trying to hide from people – he just had a lot to do and didn’t want any interruption.
Ronen went to the dining room and stood next to the table. It was the largest table in the apartment, and he cleared the surface by removing the flower vase and a few bowls and plates that were sitting on it.
Then he went to his mother’s room. The familiar smell of Sara’s perfume was still recognizable. He stared at an old picture of his parent’s wedding on the drawer for a few seconds. Then, he opened one of the closets and took out all the photo albums that were lying on the top row. After carrying them to the dining room table, he returned and this time pulled out a wooden box where his mother kept all the valuable documents and personal letters.
The box was almost the size of a large shoebox and must have been full because it felt heavy when he carried it to the dining room. Ronen then returned to Sara’s room for a third time. This time, he looked into the drawers and closets in search of any other written material. He then finally sat down behind the table.
If what mother said is true, then I should find something in these pictures and documents to show that I was adopted. Even if they hid this secret from everyone else, they still must have kept some legal adoption documents for themselves, thought Ronen as he started looking through photo albums.
Fortunately, the albums were in chronological order, and he didn’t have to search through each one. He was looking for pictures of his mother’s pregnancy and the first pictures of himself after birth. There were seven albums on the table and the album that covered that particular period of time was the third one that he opened. It was an old album with dark blue cover. Sara had carefully written the date under each picture.
The pictures on the first page were dated August 1966, and the date on the last page was February 1968. He was born on August 13, 1967 so this was the right album. He wanted to quickly go over the pictures of the early months but, as he looked at the black and white photos of Aaron and Sara in their youth, he was overwhelmed with nostalgic memories. He stared at each picture carefully.
Sara was a beautiful woman in her prime, he thought to himself. She looked beautiful and happy and peaceful. Aaron appeared in his military uniform in many of the photographs. In these pictures, he was a young man in his early thirties – tall and thin with an old scar on his left cheek. The scar was not a battle wound. It had happened during a biking accident when he was seventeen.
As he followed the pictures of his mother over time – month after month – he could see the signs of her pregnancy. Starting with the pictures of May 1967, her stomach was clearly growing bigger and bigger up until August when he was born. He also noticed that Sara’s face looked sad in the pictures of her final months of pregnancy, but this thought was just a diversion from Ronen’s main preoccupation.
How could she claim that he wasn’t her child, Ronen wondered?
If he wasn’t her child, then what happened to the child that she was carrying in those pictures? He carefully looked at the pictures that were taken in the hospital soon after his birth. He saw pictures of himself in Sara’s arms, his father’s arms, the arms of aunt Golda and so many other friends or perhaps relatives that Ronen could not recall.
His mother had clearly given birth to a child around the same time that he was born. Was it him in those pictures or someone else? He looked at images of the child in the album marked March 1968 through August 1972 and then in the next album covering the years up to September 1975.
He found several pictures of his fourth birthday among those dated August 1971 and the child in those photos clearly resembled him as a child. Tracing the pictures back in time, he could tell that he was the infant. But then what about Sara’s claim that he was adopted?
As he was thinking about this paradox, he looked at the box of old documents. The green cardboard box was the size of a shoebox but made of much harder material. When he lifted the top, the smell of old paper filled his nose. The box was about half empty. He pulled the documents out one by one and looked at them: His father’s birth certificate, Sara’s employment contracts, Sara’s birth certificate, his own report card from the eighth grade….
The documents were stacked up on top of each other without any chronological order or separation by subject. He had no alternative but to check all of them. Some, like his report card, brought back old memories but most were legal documents. There was also his father’s death certificate, which again reminded him of the car accident that killed Aaron. Suddenly, under an old envelope, he saw a picture.
Why wasn’t this picture in one of the photo albums, he wondered?
He picked it up and stared at it. It was a black and white picture of his father and a younger man that Ronen didn’t recognize. They were both in military uniform. In the background, there was an empty village with modular houses and dirt roads. He flipped it over and saw three words written in blue ink on the back: “Ferdous August 1967.” August was the month that he was born. He looked at the picture again and tried to remember if he had ever seen this man.
He put the old photo in front of him and turned his attention to the photo albums again. He found the album that covered 1967 and, while holding the photo with his left hand, he carefully looked at every picture to see if he could find any other picture of this man. After flipping several pages, he finally recognized the man’s face in one of the pictures. He carefully detached the picture and put it next to the first one. It was the same man. Ronen flipped the second picture around and saw a handwritten list of names in his father’s handwriting: “From left to right: Ihub, me, Sani and Ishaq - September 1967, Black Horse restaurant, Tel Aviv.”
So the man’s name was Sani. He was a man in his mid-20s with a thin body and dark hair. A recognizable feature on his face was a small scar on the left side of his forehead that was visible in the second picture only.
Ronen searched for Sani in other pictures, and after flipping through several more pages, he recognized Sani in a third picture. Sani was standing next to Sara and Aaron in a park, and Sara was holding Ronen in her arms. The picture was dated April 1968. So Sani was a family friend.
But if that was the case, why didn’t he recognize him, Ronen wondered? He put the three pictures next to each other and was trying to remember Sani when the sound of the doorbell interrupted his thought. It was Aunt Golda who had come to check on him.
“What are you doing with these photo albums?” she asked when she saw the mess on the dining table.
“I just felt nostalgic and decided to look at some old pictures. I haven’t seen some of these albums in ages.”
The conversation then moved to other issues, but Ronen was preoccupied with thoughts of his identity and Sani. On a few occasions, Golda felt that he wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying but, given the circumstances, it didn’t bother her.
Suddenly, it occurred to Ronen that his aunt might recognize Sani.
“Aunt Golda, there is someone in one of the old pictures that I don’t recognize, and I was wondering if you could tell me who he is,” said Ronen.
Then he quickly went to the dining room and brought the third picture. As soon as Golda looked at the picture, she recognized the man.
“I remember him. He was Arun’s lieutenant in the army, and they were very close friends back around the time that you were born. But I can’t recall his name.”
“Was it Sani?”
Golda focused on the picture for a few seconds.
“Yes, it was Sani. Now I remember. He is the man that helped Sara deliver you,” said Golda as she looked at Sani.
“You mean he helped my mother deliver me in the hospital?”
“No, not in the hospital – in your old house,” said Golda. Ronen was silent and looked totally shocked by this news.
“Come on! Surely you must know about what happened.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about?”
“Don’t tell me your parents never told you about this? Everyone knows about it,” said Golda.
“No, honestly Aunt Golda, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Golda put her right hand on her chest in shock. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. All these years no one told you?” said Golda and looked into Ronen’s anxious eyes.
Ronen just waited for her to continue.
“Well, as I recall, you were so impatient that your arrival caught everyone by surprise. One day when Sara was in her eighth month, she and Aaron were visiting Sani at Maarif Kibbutz when she started having severe contractions. Aaron and Sani wanted to drive her to the hospital, but your father’s car didn’t start. Sani went to borrow the neighbor’s car but, by the time he came back, Sara was too close to delivery. Sani was serving in the army and studying medicine back then. Looking at Sara’s conditions, he told Aaron that it was too risky to drive her to the hospital. Instead, he helped Sara deliver you in his house, and then they called an ambulance after a few hours to take you and Sara to the hospital.”
Ronen was listening in disbelief. Golda looked at him and waited for his reaction, but Ronen was just staring at her.
“I’m sure they must have told you about this, but you just can’t remember,” continued Golda.
Ronen was certain that he had never heard this story, or he would have always remembered it.
“You are right. Perhaps they told me, but I can’t remember. However, I still can’t recall ever seeing Sani in our house. Were he and father still friends when I was in school?”
“I’m sure they were, but I think Sani went to France for advanced medical studies when you were two years old, and I don’t know what happened to him after that. Why are you suddenly so interested in him?” asked Golda.
“Nothing really. I was just curious, because I didn’t recognize him in these pictures. Do you know his last name by any chance? Perhaps I can let him know that both mother and father have passed away.”
Golda was quiet for a few seconds. “No. It was so many years ago, and I only met him two or three times in your house.”
It didn’t matter. Ronen felt confident that he had enough information to track Sani down.
Golda left after a few minutes and Ronen tried to digest what she had told him. So there was no actual witness to his birth other than Ronen and Sani. The description of his birth added more plausibility to Sara’s claim. If they were indeed going to adopt a child and pretend that it was their own, then this could have been a perfect cover.
As much as Ronen wanted his mother’s claim to have been a tasteless lie, he could not ignore what he had just learned. It pained him to think that he was really an Arab. He who had shot and injured so many Arabs and had never felt any compassion toward them during interrogations. How could he ever come to terms with being of Arab blood? It would have been easier for him to learn that he was a bastard than an Arab, he thought to himself. He put the albums and the box back in Sara’s room, but the three pictures of Sani were still lying on the table.
The next morning, Ronen showed up in the Shabak office at 10 am, as he had been instructed to do. This was the first day of work for him after a week of mourning. A few colleagues who couldn’t come to the funeral approached him to pay their respects. It wasn’t difficult for those close to Ronen to see the signs of stress and fatigue in his face, but they attributed these to the passing of his mother. Little did they know what was really tormenting him.
He was there to interrogate two young Arab boys who were suspected of being Hamas supporters. They had been arrested two days earlier in Jenin after a tip from an Arab spy. They both looked seventeen or eighteen and were wearing Islamic-style full beards. Both were handcuffed and had some bruises on their faces.
Ronen and another officer, Anatoli Salovich – who was a new immigrant from Russia – were sitting behind a desk. The two Arabs were standing before them. One of them looked scared, but the taller boy didn’t show any emotions. The table was very wide and two empty chairs were placed at each end.
“Is your name Mahmoud?” asked Anatoli as he stared at the taller boy. The boy looked at him but didn’t say anything.
“Is your name Mahmoud?” shouted Anatoli as he leaned forward and slowly stood up. The boy was still quiet, but his companion looked very nervous.
“Are you Mahmoud?” asked Ronen in Arabic.
“Yes,” responded the boy in Arabic. Only a small portion of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza speak Hebrew but Mahmoud’s file showed that he had worked inside Israel for seven months and Arabs who get permission to work generally can engage in simple conversations in Hebrew.
“You know Hebrew. Why didn’t you answer me?” asked Anatoli in Arabic as he ordered the boy to sit at the left side of the table. He instructed the other boy to sit at the other end.
“You speak Arabic. Why didn’t you ask in Arabic?” answered the boy. Anatoli, who had a large build and was taller than Ronen, walked toward him and without saying anything kicked him off the chair. The blow was so powerful that the Arab boy fell on the ground and screamed in pain.
“Get up and sit on the chair,” Anatoli shouted in Hebrew and walked toward the other boy. “Are you Rashid?” he asked in Arabic.
“Yes,” responded the shorter boy. Mahmoud was still moaning as he stood up and sat on the chair.
Anatoli turned around and walked toward Mahmoud. He stood on Mahmoud’s left side and, without saying a word, kicked him off the chair – this time in the opposite direction. When Mahmoud fell on the ceramic tile floor, he could see Ronen to his left. He gave out a loud cry of pain.
“I didn’t tell you to sit up. Stay down,” said Anatoli, now looking at Rashid who was clearly terrified. He had seen Anatoli use this technique many times when they were interrogating two suspects at the same time. It never bothered him to see Anatoli beat up one Arab suspect to frighten the other one into talking. But this time he felt sorry for Mahmoud. He even felt like helping him get up and sit on the chair but controlled his emotions.
Instead, he tapped on the table with his fingers a few times. Anatoli and Ronen had worked out a way of communicating with various body gestures that helped send various messages to each other during interrogations. Anatoli immediately understood that Ronen didn’t want him to beat Mahmoud any more. Ronen was of higher rank, and Anatoli always followed his commands. Ronen told Mahmoud to get up and sit on his chair.
Then they started questioning Rashid about his links to various Palestinian groups that were fighting against Israel. Rashid was so frightened that he had to gasp for air several times, but he answered all of their questions as Ronen took notes.
During the interrogation, Ronen’s thoughts were going back and forth between how to find Sani and his work at hand. His feeling of sympathy for the two Arabs was unprecedented, and he attributed it to his frightening thoughts of himself being of Arab blood. He tried to suppress these thoughts as he questioned Rashid and took more notes.
Rashid denied the involvement of himself or Mahmoud in any attacks against Israelis but admitted to knowing two Hamas members in the neighborhood. The interrogation was being video taped. After a while, Mahmoud avoided eye contact with Anatoli and looked straight at Rashid who was trying to avoid eye contact with him. Initially, it was hard to make Mahmoud talk but, after Anatoli threatened to hit him again, he answered their questions. Like Rashid, he also denied any involvement with Hamas.
Ronen used a hand gesture to let Anatoli know that it was enough for today. Before sending the suspects out of the room, Ronen pulled out three hair threads from each of them for DNA sampling. He also took saliva samples from both. It was standard policy to take DNA samples. The DNA was used to see if the suspect was connected to any of the known terrorists, and it was also tested against DNA samples collected from the scenes of terrorist attacks. While Ronen routinely took saliva DNA samples during interrogations, Anatoli had only seen him take hair samples on a few rare occasions.
“Take them to their cell. We will question them more tomorrow. And take him to bathroom to wash his face," said Anatoli to a soldier who took the two Palestinians back to their cell.
“I’ll take these to the lab for a DNA test and see you this afternoon in Bethlehem,” said Ronen as he picked up two small envelops that contained the hair and saliva samples and walked away before Anatoli had a chance to ask any questions.
That evening Ronen searched Sara’s room, which had been left untouched since her death, and found a few threads of her hair.
It was Tuesday morning around noon when Ronen got a phone message from the lab. The DNA results were ready. He had submitted the hair samples and the saliva samples as separate, unrelated cases. While the saliva samples belonged to the two Arab boys, the hair samples were from Sara and himself. On the hair samples, he asked specifically for a test of kinship. He had been anxiously waiting for these results. The DNA test would finally end his doubts about the validity of his mother’s revelations.
It was around two o’clock when he got to the lab and received the two yellow envelopes. As he exited the lab, he quickly put one of them in his pocket and walked into his office.
“The test results for Mahmoud and Rashid are here. They didn’t match any existing records,” he said to Anatoli, who shared the office with him.
“I’m not surprised,” responded Anatoli. “The army is arresting so many Arabs these days in reaction to the suicide bombings that most of them end up being ordinary people with no previous anti-Israeli records.”
Ronen had no intention of opening the other envelope before going home despite the fact that his curiosity was killing him. Finally, a little after six o’clock, he stepped into his apartment and locked the door behind him. He anxiously opened the envelope and saw the result that he was afraid of. The two DNA samples were not related. No kinship detected. He was simultaneously relieved and angry. At last, those few days of doubt and uncertainty were over. Sara was not his biological mother. Having verified the first part of Sara’s claim, he now felt more willing to accept Sara’s other claim that he was the biological child of an Arab couple. For the past few days, he had resisted this idea with all his strength and had hoped that even if he was an adopted child, his biological parents weren’t Arabs. But now he had lost all resistance. He felt like a man who discovers that a house is on fire in his neighborhood and hopes that it isn’t his. But as he approaches the fire, he realizes that he is getting closer to his own house.
“No! No! This can’t be,” said Ronen angrily. “No!” he shouted and then cried.
After a few minutes he calmed down. The logical, experienced intelligent officer in him, regained control of his emotions. As painful as the situation was, he had to analyze it rationally. His immediate goal was to find Sani. All he was sure of so far was that Sara was not his biological mother. Sani could tell him whether he was of Arab blood or not.
He had to search for Sani in complete secrecy. No one could know that he was searching for Sani for personal reasons. He could not risk letting anyone know about this. If people discovered his Arab roots, they might doubt his loyalty to Israel.
In many covert operations that he had carried out in the past, he had always relied on an elaborate support network but not this time. He could not trust anyone with this secret – not even his closest friends. He had to design a perfect disguise and a convincing cover up. The secret search for Sani was on.
Story two - end of part one (Continue to part two)