By Inbal Hameiri
We bring you this story as part of a special project by Yekum Tarbut of re-publishing award winning stories which were only published on paper previously.
We believe such stories, having gone through review by judges and won, have special value and should be brought before the public online.
For details on the project see here.
The story “In your previous incarnation you were a cat” by Inbal Hameiri won second place in the Haaretz short story contest of 1999. It was translated into English for the Haaretz English edition, and Yekum Tarbut is publishing both the Hebrew and the English versions.
The story was written about in a book published in Cairo by Dr. Muhamad Abud, which was based on Dr. Abud’s Ph.D. thesis about winning stories in the Haaretz short story contest.
Reasons for selection for 2nd place:
The story “In your previous incarnation you were a cat” is not political, certainly not in the strict sense, but it casually reacts to the complexity of the “Israeli Experience” and its polarizing aspects, including the political.
The author recalls an event which happened some years before, during her military service in Ramallah, and tells of two parallel events happening the same day, at the same time. She intended to read a letter from her sister, in the presence of a good friend, Ilan, a military investigator on the base. However, when she got to his office, he was not there, and she found herself, willy nilly, present in the violent questioning of a young Arab done by another investigator.
A compendium of opposites and tensions is presented by the author in a very short story: the personal intimate experience vs. the collective-external; the letter vs. the questioning; the distant and protected house vs. the bare and threatening office; and the two officers who “personify” two opposite moral stands in the eternal Israeli conflict.
This compendium of tensions, intertwined in the two parallel story lines – the questioning and the letter – is fused into a tight believable text, written with restraint, and gathering force as it goes. The reponse to the demands of the short story genre is clever and precise, showing real writing talent.
The judges: Agi Mishol, Moshe Ron, Dan Shavit
Today is seven years, five months, and three days since I left Ramallah, and six years and two months exactly since I got out of the army, but I still remember how that Monday I ran to Ilan’s office to show him the letter I got from my sister. Ilan was not in his office, but since he’s always in the office or has gone out to wash the dishes and will be right back, I waited for him. After all, this was going to be an emotional letter, and there would be tears, and only Ilan can see me like that and still want to sink into a long conversation.
But instead of Ilan, another investigator stood there along with a second guy, a local. The investigator stood behind the desk and held a long ruler in his hand. The local stood in front of the desk and turned to face me when I opened the door. He looked about 17 but it could be that I was wrong and he was even younger. For some reason, they always looked older to me than they really were.
The investigator was not very bothered by my presence, or at least he didn’t think there was any harm in it. He just said Oh, you’re looking for Ilan, he’ll be here in a little while. Right here is where you want to wait for him? Haven’t you got anyplace better?
So I sat down on the bed, I opened the letter and I began to read:
Hi baby, You have no idea how strange it is to write a letter to my little sister who’s already a soldier. Somehow we always tried to keep you little.
The investigator shouted something in Arabic and I raised my head and I saw the boy mumble something and stretch his hand out in front of him. The investigator shouted something else and the boy held out his other hand, too. He shouted a third time and the boy turned his hands over. The ruler was raised in the air and landed on the long, roughened fingers, stayed there a second, and rose again. Another blow and another. The short, sharp shouts in Arabic were replaced by the unclear mumbles of the local. The whole time he never stopped looking at me, and I thought that he was probably embarrassed about being beaten in front of me. I again heard the whistle of the ruler, the sound of the contact, and another blow, and another. He tried to pull his hands back but the investigator didn’t let him. The ruler was long and smooth and I could see how after every blow the fingers curled in a bit and than straightened out again.
I thought – why doesn’t Ilan come back? The investigator shouted something again and I thought that maybe the time had come to do something, so I got up from the bed and went out to look for Ilan. When I found him, it was too late. As expected.
Ilan was angry at me. Really angry. I tried to explain that I didn’t know what to do, but he started running to the office. By the time we got there, the local wasn’t there any more, but the investigator was still standing behind the big desk and looking at some papers. Ilan yelled at him and the investigator gathered up his papers, smiled, and left. Ilan followed him out and I sat down on the bed to wait for him to come back.
I knew he was going to the detainees’ tent to distribute cigarettes to them. I knew that this time it would take a little longer because Ilan would try to find the boy and talk to him so they would see that not all the Israelies are like that. So I unfolded the letter again and kept reading:
Somehow we always tried to keep you little, but you aren’t any more. I remember as if it were yesterday that Mother and I would wait in the kitchen for you to come home from school and we would eat lunch together, and you would ask for schnitzel and cut it up into little cubes to give to the cats in the yard. You even tried to mash some of the cubes so that it would look as if you had eaten and that you really were “absolutely full and couldn’t eat another thing,” as you would reply to Mother. Did you really think we didn’t know that you had no intention of eating it yourself? I wasn’t kidding when I told you that in your previous incarnation you were a cat. And now I’m hearing all your stories from Ramallah and thinking about all the things that you see. It’s probably really hard, isn’t it?
Then there were descriptions of their house in the Galilee and the landscape and my sister wrote about her children and Dudu and life and the end of season sales.
The whistles of the ruler accompanied me the whole time I read the letter. I wondered whether tonight the girls would have to take turns guarding one of the women prisoners again, or go out in the Jeep with one of the units to a house to arrest some woman. It’s understandable that in sensitive cases like that there has to be a girl along to see that everything is alright, that the soldiers don’t hassle the woman they’ve detained or harass her sexually, and also to make sure that afterward she won’t be able to invent all kinds of stories and accuse them of things that never happened. But please, please don’t let it happen tonight because tomorrow I have to get up early, assuming that I want to join Amit for the officers’ tour of the refugee camp, and still get back and have enough time to organize the evening for the soldiers.
This will be a good opportunity to talk to Amit about how he laughed in front of all the soldiers when they told him the sealing of the house had been completed but in one of the rooms a woman was still inside.