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A Story With A Happy Ending
Fiction | Sour Soup
Nine years ago, during one of the bloody rounds between Israel and Palestine, my friend the brilliant writer Sayed Kashua, who was born and raised in Israel, decided to emigrate. The violence, hopelessness and racism he endured made him want to leave the country and seek a better future for his kids. After he moved to Champaigne, Illinois, Sayed and I had an honest and sad correspondence, which was published in The New Yorker. In one of his letters, Sayed, who felt alien and disconnected in the U.S., asked me to write him a story to cheer him up. Last Saturday, when we began to hear reports of massacres on kibbutzim in the south of Israel, vicious kidnappings, and hundreds of people missing, and knowing that Israel was about to go to war led by a government that includes messianic extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, I felt that same despair that Sayed and I felt nine years ago. Desperately searching for a little bit of hope, I pulled out that old story from the attic.
A Story With A Happy Ending
2015 was a historic year in the Middle East, all because of a surprising, brilliant idea that an Arab-Israeli expatriate had. One evening, the writer was sitting on his front porch in Urbana, Illinois, looking at the endless cornfields that spread all the way to the horizon. Seeing that enormous expanse, he couldn’t escape the thought that maybe the troubles in the place he came from stemmed from the fact that there simply wasn’t enough room for everybody. “If I could just pack all those fields in my suitcase,” he said to himself, “fold them very, very neatly, very, very small, I could fly back to Israel with them. I’d pass through customs on the green line for people who have nothing to declare, because what would I really have? It wasn’t as if I’d be bringing some subversive ideology in my suitcase, or anything else that might interest a customs inspector. All I would have would be some huge cornfields that I’d folded up very, very small, and when I got home I’d open the suitcase, take them out, and shazam! All of a sudden, there would be enough land for everyone, the Palestinians and the Israelis, and even some left over for a giant amusement park where both peoples would take all the knowledge and technology that they apply to developing weapons and use it to build the most amazing roller-coaster in the world instead.”
He was very excited when he went into the house and tried to share his thrilling insight with his wife, but she refused to get excited. “Forget it,” she said in a cold voice. “It’ll never work.” The writer admitted that he still had to figure out a number of logistic issues, like convincing the farmers in Illinois to give him all those cornfields, not to mention finding a method of folding that would allow him to squeeze all those fields into one large suitcase. “But,” he rebuked his wife, “those minor problems are no reason to abandon an idea that might bring peace to our region.”
“That’s not the problem, dummy,” his wife said. “Even if you managed to squeeze all the land in the world into that battered suitcase of yours, you’d never succeed in bringing peace to the region. On one hand, the radical ultra-Orthodox would say that God promised all those cornfields to them, and on the other the messianic racists would say that those cornfields were their birthright. There’s no getting away from it, husband,” she said, shrugging. “We were born in a place where, even though a lot of people want to live side by side in peace, there are still enough people on both sides who don’t want to, and they’ll never let it happen.”
That night, the writer had a strange dream, and in it there was an endless cornfield, and from that cornfield missiles were being launched and shot down by antimissile missiles as jet fighters flew past, dropping bombs from the heavens. The field went up in flames and the writer found himself wondering, still in his dream, who the hell was fighting whom? Because there were no people at all in the dream, just missiles, bombs, and burning corncobs.
The next morning, the writer drank his disgusting American coffee quietly, without even saying good morning to his wife—he was highly insulted that she had called him a dummy the day before—and after dropping the kids off at school and kindergarten he sat down at his computer and tried to write a story. Something sad, with a lot of self-pity, about an honest, good man whose life and wife had both been cruel to him for no reason. But, as he labored over the story, a brilliant idea popped into his head, a hundred times better than the previous one, about how to solve the problems of the Middle East. If the issue wasn’t territory but people, all they had to do was update the “two-state solution” to a three-state solution, so that the Palestinians would live in the first, the Israelis in the second, and the radical fundamentalists, the racists, and all those people who just got their kicks fighting would live in the third. His wife was less scornful of this plan than she had been of his folding-up-the-cornfields idea, not to mention that Barack Obama, whom the writer bumped into in a diner at a gas station on the outskirts of Urbana Illinois, simply loved it.
In less than a decade, there were three countries side by side in that tiny corner of the Middle East: the State of Israel, the State of Palestine, and the Republic of Force-Is-the-Only-Language-They-Understand, a place where civil war raged constantly and which arms dealers and news broadcasters supported. The writer (who, in the story, is quite modest) politely refused the Nobel Peace Prize, packed his suitcase, and went back with his family to his old house in Israel. And each time Barack Obama came to the Middle East in another one of his unsuccessful efforts to bring peace to the Republic of Force-Is-the-Only-Language-They-Understand, he’d stop in for a visit to the writer who had managed, with his own hands, to bring peace to his people. They’d sit together in silence on the writer’s balcony, which overlooked a terraced valley, and eat heartily of the ears of corn resting on the plates in front of them.
This piece was published in The New Yorker, October 13, 2014