Read an Excerpt

From: This Heated Place

Several hours into the flight to Tel Aviv, we learn we will be making an unscheduled landing in Cyprus. Why Cyprus? everyone wants to know. As with the flight delay at Heathrow, there is no explanation. When the pilot strolls to the back of the plane, I ask him what’s going on. He mumbles something about an order from head office. They must pick up an Israeli crew. The British crew is no longer allowed to stay the night in Tel Aviv due to the “situation.” The word “intifada” is not used. Nor are “violence,” “suicide bombings,” or the latest term for this: “war.” As the pilot continues down the aisle, a woman sends sharp words in his direction.

I ask Saif if I should be worried about the so-called “situation.”

“I am a fatalist,” he says. In this, despite a secular university education and an otherwise cosmopolitan outlook, Saif betrays the part of himself that is wholly Middle Eastern. If it is his time to die, it is his time. “You can die anywhere,” he says. “You can be hit by a car.”

The best solution, he advises, is to avoid following the news.

From my time in the region, I recall Israelis as a newspaper baron’s dream demographic. Wherever there was an Israeli, there was a radio, a TV or some other news source. Even high-school students tuned into the news. Bus drivers would crank the volume on the radio for the benefit of the passengers, who leaned forward in their seats.

I tell Saif that this time around I want to see as much of Israeli and Palestinian society as I can, to hear as many viewpoints as possible.

“What you see,” he says, placing an index finger on either side of his lowered meal tray, “depends on where you are standing.”


As we prepare to land in Cyprus, the passengers grow irate. The pilot again announces the brief stop on the public address system, and again manages to avoid any concrete explanation for it. Instead, he apologizes for the confusion and then says, “I would understand if you don’t want to fly with us again, but we really hope you will.” He adds something about “needing the business.” Needing the business? He is clearly unnerved by the passengers’ reactions to the unexpected landing. Not that it wasn’t scheduled by the airline; our arrival time hasn’t changed since we boarded, so they’d obviously factored it in. It simply wasn’t mentioned to any of the already apprehensive passengers.

It is dawn as we touch down. Since the passengers have been instructed to stay on the plane, I watch through the window while the crew run headlong across the tarmac, as if the hounds of hell are chasing them.

“They are letting the terrorists know they can take over now,” I say.

Saif laughs. And advises me to keep my voice down. “People are very tense,” he says. “They will believe you. Look around.”

People are tense. As soon as we landed, they were out of their seats, disobeying injunctions to wait for a full stop. A subdued anarchy reigns. None of the ultra-Orthodox appear to be praying, but I wonder if now wouldn’t be a good time.

To occupy ourselves, Saif teaches me to count in Arabic; then to swear in Hebrew. He teaches me a common Israeli expression: I am so tired my penis is broken. Women also use it, he says.

No doubt it will prove useful, I tell him. After so many hours of travel, it is exactly how I feel.

Next to us, in the aisle seat, a hulking man has slept through most of the flight wearing a powder-blue eye guard. The eye guard looks comical on his enormous head. Now he pushes it up onto his bald pate.

“The fucking British,” he says to Saif, referring to the airline staff. “They can go fuck themselves.” Saif tells me the man works in Britain. The man told him earlier that the British are nice and well-meaning and easy to manipulate. Heaving himself from his seat, the bald man strides to the back of the plane where the kitchen is located, returning with a coffee. He asks us if we want one, not in a polite way, but gruffly, closer to an order than a request, and as though he would as happily dump it on our heads.

“Sure, why not?” I don’t risk refusing. Still wearing the eye guard pushed up on his head, the man retreats to the back of the plane.

The new crew has arrived. We appear close to takeoff, but people aren’t returning to their seats. Strangers conglomerate, mill about, but there is none of the joyous excitement I have witnessed on previous flights as passengers near the Holy Land. Rather, the energy is one of nervous tension. The new crew seems jumpy, as if they don’t quite know how to take control of the situation. The pretty high-school girl is among the most collected of the passengers, kneeling on her seat and reading aloud to her friend from a love letter written by a boy at home.

“He told me he likes a lot of girls,” she explains to her companion. “So I said, why bother telling me that?” It is clear she has already written him off. He won’t be the last to suffer such a fate.

The Israeli hulk returns with our coffee. He tells Saif that the crew informed him there was no coffee left. So he shouted “Café!” and lunged at them. And then there was coffee.

BBC journalist John Simpson, who has travelled to most of the world’s dangerous places, has written, “There are three bad times: the night before you leave for somewhere difficult, and you sit with your lover or your family trying to behave entirely normally in order to show how safe everything is going to be; the following morning, when the car comes to take you to the airport; and the moment when the plane touches down at your destination.”

Of these, the first two are most difficult for me. Arrival, by contrast, flowers with expectation. As the plane lands in Tel Aviv, my fears and reservations evaporate in the subtropical heat. I have no idea what the future holds. I have moved into the realm of the unpredictable, where all discoveries are made.

I leave Saif in the airport, where I enter the lineup for passengers carrying foreign passports. A waifish ultra-Orthodox youth stands in front of me. He has a long neck and glasses and clutches a large hat box bearing a Brooklyn address in English and Hebrew. When he reaches the front of the line, the young woman at the passport counter barks at him.

“I go today to make a marriage,” he tells her, in a nervous accent. He doesn’t speak Hebrew or he would have used it. His accent is Yiddish, most likely. There are still communities in Brooklyn that speak Yiddish as their mother tongue.

I am next. She is more polite.

“Do you speak Hebrew?”

“Yes. A little.”

“Where are you staying?”


“With whom?”

“With friends.”

“Your friend’s name?”

I give it.

“Is your friend Jewish?”


A sidelong glance. “Are you Jewish?”


“Bevakasha.” If you please.

I pass out of the airport, into close warm air that clutches me to its chest. Like a lover or a captor, I cannot say.