Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


THE ENEMY

Akhmed was born in a poor family in a poor village in the Nile Delta. His parents worked hard in the fields, and their home was little more than a hovel. There were many children and little food. In summer, during the day, the heat slowed down Akhmed's thoughts, and the flies trying to settle on his mouth and eyes made concentration difficult. In the cooler hours his brain worked well, and he enjoyed impressions and knowledge flowing into it, taking root, and fermenting and combining into new thoughts and knowledge.
He was livelier and more curious than his brothers and sisters and most of his friends. He wanted to know where the swallows and the storks came from and where they disappeared again each year, and about life in the big cities, and many other things, but the villagers couldn't help him much. They said you could read about it in newspapers and books but they themselves couldn't read. The exception was an old ailing man who had been a school teacher and now lived alone on the outskirts of the village, and Akhmed started taking lessons from him, paying him by doing odd jobs about the house and generally looking after the old man. He learned to read and write and do simple sums by the time the old man died, leaving him a few tattered books and old magazines.
This little library became Akhmed's most cherished posession. He read and reread it constantly, taking every rare opportunity of adding to it. He was helping his father in the fields now, and beginning to think about his own future.
It would be easiest to remain a peasant. But he felt that he wouldn't be happy, and wondered whether there was an alternative to growing into a poor and tired old man like his father. He loved and respected his parents but couldn't help finding their world stunted and narrow. He wondered whether his father was born like this, suited only for this work and condition, or whether - a thought that greatly worried Akhmed - he had been like Akhmed when young, and worn down through long years of struggle, hard work, poverty, and worry.
He could leave the village and look for work in a city where there would be new and interesting things to see and books and magazines to read. But he suspected that without a profesion or, better still, influential relatives or friends, the city might suck him dry even faster than the village. Life for the poor was supposed to be very hard there, employment difficult to find, and some people extremely nasty. He would also miss the wide open spaces of the Delta, the tall sky, and the irrigation ditches with their vegetation and wildlife which, in spite of his poverty, provided a feeling of riches and freedom.
There was yet another choice: the army. It was a tough life, the pay was low, and if a war broke out one could also get killed. But it was a manly and respected profession, and it could offer Akhmed the best of the two worlds: he would be rubbing shoulders with modern inventions, while not altogether cut off from nature, because the army trained in the open and went on long marches and maneuvers. After a due reflection, he enlisted.
The basic training period was very difficult but he did well and learned many new and interesting things. Afterwards, being intelligent and able to read and write, he made good progress and became a non-commissioned officer in due time. There was a supply of newspapers and magazines, and he spent much of his free time reading. Whenever peasant or army life in Egypt were being described, he had the additional warm feeling of first-hand knowledge. He read about the exploitation of the poor by Egypt's former rulers who also used to sell the country to the foreigners, and about the recent revolution, and about Nasser's plans to improve the lot of the poor and to make Egypt truly independent and powerful. The fact that poverty still existed was mainly the fault of the aggressive Israelis who were trying to establish an empire and kept the Arabs poor through the need to spend so much on defense. But with the Arabs shaking off their chains and uniting under Nasser, the time was not far off when Israel would be wiped off the map and all problems solved. Perhaps Akhmed would be able to participate so bravely - for example being the first non-commissioned officer to lead his men, in hand-to-hand combat, into Tel-Aviv - that his picture would appear in the papers.
The last war with Israel did not go well because England and France had tried to stab Egypt in the back, and Israel managed to sneak into the Sinai while Egypt was busy defeating the two major aggressors. Afterwards the Israelis had to get out of Sinai, tail between legs, like whipped curs. But next time, with growing Arab unity and friendly help from the Soviet Union, things would go differently.
Akhmed also read about other countries, some similar to Egypt and some different, with lots of water and rain and snow and green grass and forests. Even more interesting were the people who lived there, and their ways and customs. Occasionally he would come across some attitude, practice, or a sense of humour which baffled him, For example, in the modern and advanced United States of America, where the airplane was invented, there was an association which pretended not to believe in flight and dismissed aviation as a hoax perpetrated on credulous public with the help of gadgets, even though some of its members traveled to their conventions by plane. Akhmed himself had seen airliners passing overhead, army planes participating in the maneuvres, and paratroopers dropping from them. Therefore the American organization must have been a joke, but the humour behind it escaped him, leaving some uneasiness; as if among the hundreds tidy little drawers in his mind there was one which got stuck and from which disturbing noises, like scratching and shuffles of mice or cockroaches, could be heard.
Off duty, when not reading, he would participate in sports, and became a good football player and cross-country runner. On leaves too short for a visit home he and a few friends would go into town to see a movie, and afterwards sit in a caf¨, sipping strong coffee, smoking cigarettes, watching people go by, and chatting. His best friend was Fouad, a quiet older soldier who had already served a dozen years in the army. Fouad was married and had three children, and he occasionally invited Akhmed to his home where Fouad's plump wife made coffee for them and the two soldiers would chat with the children and answer questions about army life. The apartment in which the family lived was small and poor because a soldier's pay did not amount to much, but the atmosphere was warm and friendly. Akhmed was not averse to the idea of one day having a nice plump wife of his own to sleep with, and in due time, children who would be proud of him. Once, Akhmed and Fouad visited Fouad's cousin, a poor tailor with a large family who lived on the outskirts of the town. One of the tailor's children, a pretty, slightly plump teenage girl with almond eyes and a magic voice, made an extremely strong impression on Akhmed and imposed herself on his thoughts and feelings. The visit was followed by long and delicate conversations between Akhmed and Fouad concerning the possibility of marriage. The cousin was then equally delicately sounded out by Fouad and approved of the idea, especially since the girl also seemed to have taken a liking to Akhmed. The marriage would have to wait a while because Akhmed had to save enough for the customary present to the bride's father and for setting up home. Shortly before the marriage was to take place, tension on the Israeli border began to mount, all leaves were canceled, and the army was put on the alert. This, Akhmed thought, was as good a time as any for the final war with Israel to break out. If he got killed, he would not be leaving any widows and orphans behind. If he survived unhurt, he would be entering marriage with the elimination of Israel safely behind him, possibly with a sergeant's stripes on his sleeves and a decoration or two on his chest, and a long period of peace and prosperity to look forward to.
The whole thing started with Israel treacherously planning to take another bite out of an Arab neighbour, Syria this time. Luckily, a secret service - it was not clear whether it was the Egyptian, the Syrian or the Russian one - found out about it in time and warned all the Arab states bordering with Israel, and they lost no time in forgetting their differences and mobilizing. United, they were strong enough to put an end to the Zionist plague. The new song "We Are Going In Like Morning After Night", sung by Um Kulsum, blared from all the radios. Weapons were being distributed to the Palestinians in Gaza and the newsreels showed them reverently kissing their brand-new Kalashnikovs. The army was moving into the Sinai desert to take up positions on the Israeli border. Akhmed's motorized brigade with its tanks, self-propelled guns, and troop carriers rolled through Cairo on its way, and the streets were packed with cheering crowds while the throb of heavy engines blended with the blaring of military bands.
Having crossed the Suez Canal, the brigade wheeled south towards the lower part of the peninsula. It was very hot and the crowds were not there to cheer them on any more, but they were well led and looked after, and they had little transistor radios from which music and enthusiasm poured unabated. They reached their position - not right on the border but a couple of kilometers back where the terrain was favourable to the defenders and disastrous for the attackers - and began to dig in, stretch barbed wire, and plant mines. They were excited and confident, with the officers going to and fro, telling this soldier to dig the trench a bit deeper and that one to camouflage his machinegun even better.
Fouad was a bit subdued and did not look his best. Shortly before they moved he must have sprained his left shoulder, although he could not remember when and how, and now felt occasional pain shooting down his arm. He did not go to see the doctor so as not to be suspected of malingering and cowardice, and applied cold compresses whenever possible instead.
He also seemed to be apprehensive about their position, although he took care not to mention it to anyone except Akhmed.
"In the last war," he said, glancing around to make sure nobody overheard them, " the Israelis cut across the top of the peninsula, trapping us in the south like kittens in a bag. Our soldiers had to make their way back to the Canal mostly on foot, and hundreds, or more likely thousands, died of thirst on the way. I've once overheard an officer say that the Russians had warned us not to get ourselves into such a trap again, and yet here we are."
"Oh, but it's different this time," Akhmed said. "The Israelis have us on all their borders, and are outnumbered four to one, in planes, tanks, guns, and men. And they don't have England and France to help them this time."
A young soldier came up and asked Fouad about the 1956 war and what the Israelis were like. Fouad had to admit that although his unit had been stationed in northern Sinai, it was pulled back behind the Canal to face the imminent Anglo-French invasion, so that he had not yet seen a single Israeli soldier.
"Well, you will this time," the young soldier said happily.
But it was not yet certain. A few days before, President Nasser ordered the United Nations force out of Sinai and closed the Tiran Straits to the Israelis. Ever since, Israel has been whining and squealing at the UN, calling it blockade and aggression, and nobody seemed in any great hurry to condemn Egypt. With every passing day it looked more and more as if Israel would finally back out like a whipped cur with its tail between its legs. The war would be won without a single shot, and Arab unity would reach new heights under Nasser's leadership.
One morning they heard some planes in the distance and assumed they were their own patrols. An hour later all the field radios began to crackle; the Israelis have attacked after all.
They waited for the Israelis the whole day, and then - more tensely because it was dark - the whole night, and then another half a day. They were grim, determined, and confident. It was basic military knowledge that to attack a fortified position with any hope of success you had to send in at least three times the force defending it, and be prepared to suffer corresponding losses. The Israelis would blow themselves up on the minefields, get stuck like quail in the barbed wire under massed fire, and if any of them got through they would find themselves in hand-to-hand combat against fresh and determined troops. The radio was already reporting the first victories in the desert and the bombing of Israeli cities.
At noon, information was received that some Israeli units were trying to bypass their position, and they were ordered to move north-east to intercept and destroy them. They were sorry to leave their fortified position, but otherwise in high spirits and keen to get their hands on the enemy. It took them the rest of the day to load their stuff onto the vehicles, and then they waited till dawn to get moving.
Out in the open, they were deprived of their three-to-one advantage. But the brigade on the move in battle formation, with its tanks and self-propelled guns raising columns of dust was an inspiring sight. By nightfall they have reached their new position, having apparently beaten the Israelis to it. They now had one tank, one self-propelled gun, and two troop carriers less because those vehicles got stuck on the way and had to be abandoned. But they planted mines and spread out barbed wire all through the night, and regained the good feeling of a fortified position and the three-to-one advantage.
The day passed and there were still no Israelis. It was frustrating, and it was also very hot lying there in the sun with one's helmet on. But there was also the nice comfortable feeling which no one bothered to put into words: that the Israelis were getting their comeuppance elsewhere, and that one might yet share in the glory of defeating them without having risked one's own neck.
The radio was still enthusiastic, but some of their officers looked grim. Another order has arrived: to race north, in the direction of the Canal, there to join forces with other units to give final battle to the Israelis. ("Are they there already?" Fouad whispered to Akhmed.) Speed was of prime importance. The troop carriers would go ahead, with the slower tanks and self-propelled guns right behind them, catching up every evening or as soon as Israelis were sighted. Anyone who was doubtful of such separation kept his doubts to himself.
Rolling across the desert, they felt rather naked with their armour behind them and out of sight but their luck held and they did not run into any Israelis that day either. It was just as well because grinding their way over rock and sand three of their twelve half-tracks got stuck and had to be abandoned. One suffered engine failure, one a broken transmission, and the third overturned killing a soldier. They buried him in the desert, piling large stones over the grave to protect the body from scavengers, and fired three volleys into the air. The soldiers and equipment from the abandoned vehicles were transferred to those that could still travel and were now badly overloaded, creaking along at a walking pace. Now and then, a soldier would jump off and walk beside his half-track for a while to stretch his legs.
For some reason, the armour did not catch up with them that night. Either they have been slowed down as well, or they have by-passed them without establishing contact. In the latter case, it was all to the good; they would not be the spearhead any more.
They camped in a wadi as usual that night because they did not want to risk their vehicles in the dark and also because they needed sleep and rest. For a while after stopping they listened for the engines of their tanks and guns but couldn't hear any.
By the next evening they were down to six half-tracks, two of them also giving first warnings of problems to come: too hot an engine, and a slipping clutch. The officers held a conference, and then called the NCOs. Apart from mechanical problems, fuel for the half-tracks was running low. If they went on with all six, they would be out of fuel by tomorrow night, while it was still at least three days' travel to the Canal. The decision was: instead of finding themselves without any transport tomorrow night, and having to carry the two wounded soldiers and all their stuff, they would continue on foot, accompanied by two half-tracks only, the best of the six, with fuel to last them till the Canal. The half-tracks would carry the wounded soldiers, the heavier weapons such as machineguns and light mortars, and the jerrycans with water. The soldiers, marching light with only their personal weapons, would take turns riding on the half-tracks for a while to rest.
The drivers and officers inspected the half-tracks, chose the best two, and sabotaged the other four. Instead of setting them on fire, which would have wasted some valuable fuel, or blasting the engines with handgrenades which they might need later on, they cracked the engine blocks with hammers.
The next day was very difficult. They have discovered the difference between sitting on the half-tracks, however slow and bumpy, and crossing the desert on foot under the sun. Apart from the awful tiredness, marching across the desert called for a lot of water, which would be lost in sweat as soon as it was drunk. They would flop down in the sand as soon as a halt was called, too exhausted to think about food. One of the men passed out with obvious symptoms of dehydration, and was revived with a flask of water. Extra water was distributed early in the afternoon to keep them going, but the officers were worried and got into another huddle as soon as they settled down for the night. By then, one of the two half-tracks had also been abandoned in the desert, with the remaining one carrying the two wounded soldiers, the heavier weapons, and the jerrycans with water. There were no more rides; the officers walked together with the men.
The officers interrupted their consultation once, to count the men and the remaining jerrycans of water. Carefully rationed, the water would last them till the Canal, but not if they marched by day, under the sun. It would have to be done in the cool of the night, sleeping and resting during the day in whatever shade could be rigged up using blankets and sticks or rifles. It was decided to set out at midnight, after a half-night's rest. In case some of them lost their way and became separated in the dark, the men were divided into squads of six or eight , each with an officer or an NCO in command, which were to stick together at all times. Akhmed included Fouad in his squad. They were to travel light, each man carrying his rifle, ammunition, helmet, a knapsack with field rations, and two full water flasks on his belt. The even number of men in each squad was due to the water supply, a jerrycan of twenty liters for each two soldiers, to be carried by them slung from a rifle. There was to be no opening of the jerrycans without permission; each man was to drink from his flasks, which would be refilled from the jerrycans under the officer's or NCO's supervision. As the steel jerrycans were heavy even when empty, they would use up one and then leave it behind, the soldiers taking turns to carry the remaining ones. The half-track was to go ahead in the morning with an officer, the driver, and the two wounded, to summon help. If an emergency occured in a squad, it would deal with it on its own, without delaying others. If separated, each squad was to press ahead on its own. The squad leaders did not have maps or compasses, but as the general direction was known and could be checked by sunsets, sunrises, and the stars, it would be difficult to miss the not too distant Canal.
They set out at midnight in comparatively high spirits. It was cool; they were small intimate groups under the command of leaders they knew and trusted, and independent of the capricious vehicles. The jerrycans were heavy, but water was a pleasant and reassuring weight to carry in the desert. They walked in silence, saving their breath, and stopping for a few minutes' rest every hour.
By dawn, the squads had spread out somewhat, but still maintained eye contact . Then one of the six soldiers in Akhmed's squad slipped on a rock and sprained his ankle. They had to stop while the other squads went on before the sun got too hot. They bandaged the sprained ankle tight and settled down for the day's rest. Against their hopes, the ankle got more swollen and painful by nightfall; the soldier was unable to walk, and they could not carry him. His jerrycan companion offered to stay behind with him, in the hope of some help showing up from somewhere, and they left them there with full flasks and half a jerrycan of water, and went on. Fouad's shoulder was hurting again.
The next day of rest left them still tired by nightfall. The tiredness seemed to be accumulative, not fully removed by sleep or rest in the small shadow of a blanket. The squad was down to four men now, which meant that each of them had to spend a quarter of the day at the top of the sand dune under which they lay, watching for Israelis or, preferably, Egyptian help.
At sunset, when they moved again, Fouad's shoulder was hurting worse than before, with the pain shooting not only down his arm but into his chest as well. Under his growth of beard, his face looked haggard and grey. He breathed heavily as he tried to keep up with the squad. Akhmed insisted on carrying their jerrycan and Fouad's rifle, and the fact that Fouad agreed after only a brief argument testified better than anything else to his true condition. After they rested for a while at the end of the first hour, Fouad found it difficult to get up again, and when he finally did he stood there swaying on his feet. Akhmed decided to send the other two soldiers ahead; it wouldn't be fair delaying them because of Fouad's condition. They divided their water, shook hands all around with wishes of speedy reunion and victory over the Israelis, and parted company.
By midnight Fouad, who had been stumbling every few steps, fell down and couldn't get up again. Akhmed made him comfortable in the sand and gave him a generous drink of water.
"We'll have your shoulder checked by a doctor as soon as we get there," he told Fouad, "so that you can squeeze your wife real hard when you're next in bed with her."
"I don't think I'll ever see her or the children again," said Fouad feebly. "I don't think it's a sprained shoulder; my wife's uncle had similar pains before he died, and it was a heart disease. A stupid death for a soldier in wartime, isn't it?"
"Don't be silly. A heart disease at your age?"
He was hoping help would show up soon because he was not going to leave Fouad behind, and he couldn't go far carrying him and the jerrycan.
Fouad died in the morning. Akhmed took his documents and the still unused last pay to give to his wife when he got back, and then buried Fouad at the base of a rock, digging a shallow grave in the sand with the butt of his rifle, piling rocks on top of against scavengers, and scratching Fouad's name and army number into one of the soft rocks with the point of his bayonet. To make the grave more noticeable, he attached the bayonet to Fouad's rifle and stuck it into the sand. Then he scanned the horizon for the Israelis and, not seeing any, stood at attention and fired three rounds from his own rifle into the air. Then he said a prayer for his dead friend, and, not wishing to spend the day resting near the grave, walked for another kilometer or so until he found a rock with some shadow, stripped to his underwear, and lay down in the shadow. The sand was already hot. He took stock of his water supply. With his inheritance from Fouad, he now had four full flasks on his belt and a quarter-full jerrycan. Before falling asleep, he allowed himself a generous drink from the jerrycan. The water was very hot but he didn't mind.
He slept badly, tossing and moaning in his sleep. Some monster was going to attack him and when it tried to bite his hand he screamed and woke up. The shade was gone and the midday sun stood overhead. He had been sleeping for the last couple of hours without any shade. His mouth and throat were parched and a heavy headache was pounding his skull. There was a scratch on his hand where the monster had tried to bite him and, looking around, he saw a big vulture on the ground some distance away, watching him. He waved his hand to shoo it away, and the vulture hopped a few paces farther and sat there again, watching him. Akhmed slowly raised his Kalashnikov to his shoulder and with a short burst blasted the bird into a cloud of grey feathers and shreds of bloody flesh.
The burst and recoil of his gun almost made his head explode with the headache. He put his shirt over his head, keffiyah fashion, and took a drink from the jerrycan. Then he swallowed some salt from a tin he was carrying to compensate for the salt lost with sweat, and washed it down with a little more more water. He knew that it was this salt deficiency that caused headaches no less than sunstroke, and was just as dangerous. He went back to sleep with his shirt over his face in case a vulture should try to peck out his eyes.
He woke up shortly before sunset with the headache gone, drank the water left in the jerrycan, and tossed the heavy container away. He was now down to the four flasks on his belt, but he would be traveling light. He left behind his helmet and handgrenades, taking only his rifle and two magazines. This war was growing unreal. It has been going on for days - he had difficulties remembering exactly how many days - and he still hasn't seen a single Israeli. He had to meet someone soon - preferably Egyptians and not Israelis but it was not all that important any more - because if it was still far to the Canal he might not make it on four flasks of water. For some reason he trusted the Israelis to have enough water for themselves and their prisoners. Or perhaps he would meet some Bedouin who would give him water. The main thing was to keep going.
He walked the whole night and a part of the morning, crossing an area of sand dunes with occasional rock outcroppings. He was very hot and tired. The long hike had cost him a flask of water and now there were three left. He scanned the horizon but once again there was no one in sight. He found a large rock outcropping which would give some shadow for a while and flopped down, aware of some unpleasant smell from the other side of the rock, but too tired to investigate.
He woke up to the flapping of large wings overhead but saw no vultures on the ground near him. There was some scrapping and shuffling on the other side of the rock, and that smell again. He crept around with his rifle on the ready, and three vultures hopped away and rose into the air with much flapping of the wings. Under the rock lay bodies of two Egyptian soldiers, dressed only in their underwear and woolen socks. Although their eyes had been pecked out and their faces taken on a dark hue, Akhmed could see that they were not from his unit. The stomach of one of the dead soldiers had been distended to a huge size by the gases of decomposition. That of the other one had burst open, or had been torn open by the vultures, and the intestines had spilled out. They were of various irridescent greenish and purple hues, and already dry except where the birds had been at them. Clouds of flies buzzed over the bodies and crawled over the intestines and faces. Akhmed checked the water flasks near the bodies but they were empty and dry. The three vultures circled low overhead once and settled on the ground not far away, waiting. Akhmed did not shoot at them and did not bury the soldiers. He walked to the next dune to get away from the smell and sat down to think.
By walking at night and sleeping during the day he was making himself practically invisible to anyone who might be in the area - Egyptian, Israeli, or Bedouin. He had to be up during the day, heat or no heat. With three flasks of water left, he could not afford long stops either. He had to keep going, with minimal rest or sleep, so long as he could. He took off his uniform, remaining in his long underwear, which was light while still protecting him from sunburn. Then he tried walking on the scorching sand in his heavy woolen socks and found that they offered sufficient protection. He left his rifle, magazines, uniform, and boots behind, wearing only the underwear, a T-shirt on his head, kaffiyah-fashion, the socks, and the belt with the three water flasks. It was very difficult plodding through the sand under the sun; as if his brain was giving orders to someone else's feet to lift themselves out of the sand one by one and take another step.The dunes ahead all looked the same. He would reach the top of one hoping at long last to see some people or a road or an oasis or the Canal, but there was always another dune there just like the last one, blocking farther view.
He was rationing his water carefully, taking small gulps at long intervals, letting the water wet his mouth and throat before going down, but even so by the end of the day another of his flasks was empty.
He went on, walking as long as he could, then lying down to rest or sleep, and going on again as soon as he rested or woke up. In the morning, he had only one flask of water left. It would be the last flask he drank if he didn't meet someone soon. There was already a vulture circling overhead. The effort of walking under the sun, combined with thirst and tiredness, made his head swim and prevented him from caring deeply about anything. He knew that his death was now walking beside him, but he was not very scared of her; dead, he would not be thirsty or hot or tired any more. And there was also hope, hiding behind each successive dune. He went on, rationing his remaining water in litlle half-wettings of the mouth, and decided that when there would be only two mouthfuls left he would lie down, in shadow if possible, drink all of it, and die in some dignity and comfort.
He kept climbing dune after dune, hoping that from the top of this one he would finally see someone or something, but there was always another dune ahead, just as deserted.
By noon, he was down to the last two mouthfuls in his flask. He climbed several more dunes without touching the flask, and on top of the last one his heart gave a jump because he saw something dark in the distance, but it was only a small rock with a small shadow. It might hide something, and with a great effort he finally reached the rock and looked around it, but there was nothing there; no jerrycan, no water flask, no footprints.
He knew that if he did not lie down in the shadow of the rock for his last drink he would probably collapse soon afterwards and die with two mouthfuls of water still in his flask. He lay down in the shadow.
There was always hope. He was not going to get up and walk towards the Canal any more, but his hearing was still good and as long as he remained concious he would hear any people or transport passing by and probably be able to get up and wave to them. Even after he lost conciousness, if they didn't take too long to find him they might still revive him.
He shaped the sand under his head into a comfortable pillow and rested for a while. Then he pulled himself up and uncorked the flask. His movements were slow and difficult as if his arms and legs were filled with lead.
He took half a gulp of water and rolled it around his mouth before swallowing it. It was wonderful to have water in one's mouth and know that there was more to come. He took another half a mouthful and held it in his mouth again before swallowing it. Then he drank the rest, tossed the flask aside, and lay down.
He was very weak, but also comfortable and relaxed, and not even particularly thirsty for the moment. For the first time in days he did not have to save water, plan, organize, get up, and keep going. A gift which had been stifled by the outbreak of war and the move across the desert has returned to him: he could think again, at ease, about anything he pleased.
He considered this war, recalling the mobilization, the fortified positions, and then the withdrawal across the desert, the disintegration of the mighty brigade, and the strange and stubborn absence of the Israelis. And then a thought occured to him, so audacious that he caught his breath and whistled through his teeth.
What if there was no Israel and no Israelis at all? What if such a country and people have never existed except as an idea, without any flesh to it? He remembered the organization in America whose members pretended not to believe in flight although aviation was a proven fact. Could there not be an opposite case, with a whole nation and army believing in something that did not really exist? The poverty of his village was blamed on the Israelis; but what if poverty was an integral part of village life without any outside factor having to contribute to it, and certainly not a proof of the existence of the Israelis? There had been two wars against them before this one, and Fouad had been in the second one, but he had not seen any Israelis either. And now Akhmed himself has seen the outbreak of another war with Israel, and saw the mighty armoured brigade fall apart in the desert, and Egyptian soldiers dying: the one under the overturned half-track, and Fouad, and the two with vultures, and now it was his turn; but he still hasn't seen a single Israeli. There was only the desert, and the sun, and a vulture slowly circling between them.

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