The man behind the counter greeted me with a wordless smile of familiarity. With rapid sleights of hand, he turned the yellow paste into Ping-Pong sized balls, which he flicked one by one into the crackling oil. Then he handed me my regular. Just the right fusion of soft and crunchiness, I delighted, as the flavors of my childhood flooded my senses. This was a true Jerusalem falafel. The only one in London.
Suddenly the market froze, hawkers stopped their singing, chitchats paused in mid word, and all stares turned to the clock tower, from which a tide of murmurs rose and fell, threatening like an ancient prayer.
A rush of anticipation heightened my senses and slowed my heartbeat. Another demonstration. With the falafel in hand, I pushed forward through the crowd.
The plaza underneath the tower was an unbeatable venue for illegal gatherings. The stone wall, which had once enclosed the village fountain, served as a stage for fervent speakers. The iron poles encircling the cobbled yard made the place inaccessible to law enforcement vehicles. Even the arches over the alleyways to the old jail, too low for mounted police, were built as if to provide an escape whenever trouble erupted. A demonstration here was a thrill I could not resist.
“Excuse me, will you come to our stand to sign a petition?”
The question, asked with a light Japanese accent, came from a petite woman wrapped in a red ski jacket that cloaked her figure—but not from my imagination.
“Nihon jin desu ka?” I asked. Are you Japanese?
Her mouth gaped.
“Nihongo o josu desu ne,” she uttered the answer I had learned to expect— You speak Japanese very well.
“Okagesama de,” I said—Thank you. “What’s your name?”
“Noriko. Will you come to our stand?”
I followed her to a rickety table, onto which a brunette was stapling a banner. “Support the children of Gaza,” it read. Instinctively, I turned to face the crowd. With my back protected against the table, I studied the scene. Could anyone recognize I was an Israeli?
Several dozen demonstrators packed the court. Many held banners spattered with red stains. “Stop the genocide” and “Israel mass murderers,” they cried.
Teenagers were posing for photos. With faces wrapped in black and white keffiyehs—the symbol of the Palestinian resistance against the British—they waved the green flag of the Hamas militant movement on which, in white Arabic script, the Shahadah was inscribed: “la ilaha illa-llah, muhammadun rasulu-llah,” there is no deity but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger.
A middle-aged man with a groomed beard was standing atop the fountain wall, holding a loudspeaker. Even though only a white robe and a red fez protected him from the well-below-freezing temperature, sweat rolled down his face. With a distinct Oxford accent he orchestrated the crowd.
“When you drink Coca-Cola, when you buy at Marks and Spencer, when you have a coffee at Starbucks, you give money to the Zionists to kill your friends in Gaza.”
“Forget Nestlé,” roared his orange loudspeaker.
“No more Nestlé,” followed the crowd.
“Don’t drink Coca-Cola,” he sang, waving his hands like a conductor.
“No more Coca-Cola,” chanted the crowd in unison.
“I want you to shout so loud that your brethren in the Gaza streets hear you. Long live Palestine.”
“Long live Gaza,” roared the crowd.
“One two three four.”
“Israel no more.”
“Five, six, seven eight.”
“Israel will soon be dead,” hollered the crowd in ecstasy.
Tightness was creeping from between my shoulder blades, as though the entire hostility was aimed at me alone. It was a sensation I experienced whenever anyone condemned Israel—even if I agreed with their views. Logic had no power over this primordial susceptibility, reaching back to times when calls to defend the tribe overpowered reason. After so many years abroad, Israel still dominated my emotions.
A tug at my sleeve. Noriko.
“You can sign here,” she said, waving a pen and a sheet of paper on a wooden clipboard.
But before I could think of an answer, a nearby argument hijacked my attention.
I grasped the table.
It was not the words that unbalanced me. I could barely decipher them. It was the voice that pierced me with aching longing, snapping me away from Noriko, the demonstration, and the frozen winter, drawing me toward it, unable to resist.
“Where are you going?” Noriko asked, her face awash with surprise.
But her words slid off my mind, replaced by the voice that for years had occupied my reveries and haunted my sleepless nights.
And there he stood. Despite the weight he had gained, the hair he had lost, I had no doubt: this was Yoav, the friend I had hoped never to see again.
The world turned silent, deafened by my heartbeat. Surely, everyone could hear it. Yoav apparently did. He turned away from his argument and, without a moment’s hesitation, with no hint of surprise, he smiled and said, “Boaz?”
Images, flashing through my mind, failed to turn into words. But Yoav, in his casual manner, as if our meeting was but an everyday event, said, “Let’s get out of this madness. How long has it been?”
Twenty-six years and four months, I did not need to calculate.