Monday, August 18, 2014

Stranger on the Sofa: What Would You Do, If You Came Home to Find You Had an Unwanted Guest?



            B had gone to New York to visit family, and I was alone for a few nights: just me and Kirby, our Shih Tzu. I have an irregular schedule: teaching and rabbi’ing amount to strange hours. I was looking forward to having a quiet dinner, watching some old movie on TV, and reading a Carl Hiaasen adventure novel in bed.
            When I came in from the garage, it took me a little while to realize that I was not alone: I had time to pat Kirby on the head, he all the time wagging, while holding his favorite chew toy in his mouth—I never understood why; was I supposed to chew it, too?—but then, I noticed the man, sitting quietly in the halflight coming in through the unopened blinds.
            He was sitting on my sofa. Not moving, reading, or twiddling his thumbs. Sitting. On my sofa.
            I didn’t know what to do: should I yell? Cry out? Call the Police? Offer him a diet soda, or coffee?
            The man turned. “Hello,” he said. “Ah-Salaam Aleikum.”
            “Hello,” I managed, finally. I turned on the light, and sat down on the opposite end of the sofa. We looked at each other. A long moment passed.
            “Can I help you?” I finally asked.
            He shook his head, but smiled, pleasantly. He appeared to be about my age, with pepper-and-salt hair, and a heavy mustache.
Arab? Israeli? I wondered. I try not to stereotype people, but old habits are hard to break.
            “How did you get in?” I asked.
            He patted his pocket: he had a key, as I did.
            “Why are you sitting on my sofa?” I asked.
            He frowned, for the first time, scowled, turned out his lip, and folded his arms, curling his hands into fists.
            “Your sofa? I beg your pardon, Sir—“—he spoke slowly and deliberately, and a certain accent crept back into his voice—“It’s my sofa.”
The man reached into the pocket of his jacket—for the first time, I realized that he was wearing that same, peculiar (at least, to me) men’s dress jacket-and-long-robe-combination I had formerly seen only on elderly Arab men in the Old City of Jerusalem.
            My “guest” had taken out a parchment document, which, despite its having been folded into his inside jacket pocket, was not creased at all. It was tightly rolled, with an official-looking red tassel hanging from the lower-right-hand-corner, and an impressive-looking wax cylinder-stamp alongside.
            He inhaled deeply, as one would, before making an Official Proclamation of Great Importance.
            “This is my Kushan Tabo, my Statement of Ownership, attesting to my family’s owning this Sofa, going back to the Reign of the Emperor-Caliph Suleiman the Magnificent, Peace be Upon Him! Who presented this Sofa, a Royal Item of Furniture from the Caliph’s Own Collection, to my Great-great-great-great-Grandfather (there are more ‘greats,’ but I have omitted several, in the interest of Saving Time). It has been in my Family for Generations Untold.”
He smiled at me, and settled back among the cushions. Kirby sneezed, and moved away, clutching his chewy toy.
            It was my turn. Without a word, I rose, and went into my study. From a small Holy Ark in the corner, I took my personal Torah. Touching it tenderly and kissing my hand, I lifted it out of the cabinet’s recesses. It smelled old, from a mixture of human sweat, old parchment and cloth, and Tradition. Holding it in my right arm, though I’m a lefty, I bore it into the living room.
            “What is your name, Sir?” I asked my unbidden guest. I saw, but was somehow not surprised, to see that a woman had suddenly appeared by his side, dressed in the long robes and hijab of a devout Muslim woman.
            “I am Musa Ibn Faraj,” he said, rising to his feet but not extending a hand, “and this is my wife, Laila.”
            I nodded, and placed the Torah-scroll on its special shtender, or reading-desk, which stood in the corner. I immediately turned it to Gen. 17:7-8, chanted from the Hebrew, and translated the text into English:

I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

I finished my chanting with a cantorial flourish, and looked up, expecting the Farajes to look impressed. Kirby wagged his tail; my guests looked bored.
            When I went to bed, I left my guests seated on the couch. They chatted between themselves, softly; the woman was a bit agitated, but calmed down when her husband spoke. This no longer mattered to me; I had a class early the next morning, and my own schedule to deal with. Kirby and I retired at about 10:30 pm. We left the lights burning, and I mumbled “Good night.” Neither responded.
            The next day, I returned home to find not only Musa and Laila, but two young boys, about nine years old: twins, Mahmud and Wasfi, their names were. Laila beamed when Musa told me their names, and the boys nodded politely. They were bright-looking children, with short black hair, cut Beatles-style; their mother, Musa explained to me, did not wish for them to lose their childhood too soon, and preferred to keep their hair long. I muttered some sort of compliment, and Laila smiled.
            Our evening dragged a bit; when I turned on the TV for the evening news, we all paid close attention. The Middle East was overheating, again: extremist fighters were closing in on a minority religious group, somewhere in Iraq, but a third ethnic group had come to their aid, backed by the US and Britain. The inevitable mischmasch of religion, ethnicity, race, and geography was turning yet another country, or bordering countries, into a bloodbath.
            “Terrible, isn’t it?” I said, spontaneously.
            “Yes,” said Musa, and his wife nodded vigorously. Wasfi peeled an orange, and his brother Mahmud focused on a handheld video game. The TV screen echoed with the sound of supersonic aircraft dropping bombs on an unseen enemy.
            “If only—“ said Laila, speaking aloud for the first time, but she left her sentence unfinished. Nonetheless, I nodded, and we smiled at one another.
            At least, I thought, it’s not happening here. But then, I caught myself, Who are these people anyway, and what gives them any right to share my sofa? It was all so confusing….
            Wednesday evening passed, much like the previous two; I had papers to grade, which I laid in neat piles on the coffee table, and Musa read what appeared to be a professional trade magazine. Laila worked at a needlepoint; it appeared to be a large hamsa. The boys were nowhere to be seen; their mother explained that they had gone to the movies with a friend’s family.
            As the hours crept along, I found myself wondering about the boys: where were they? Who were they with? Almost at the same time I was about to suggest it, Musa pulled out his cellphone and called the friend’s home. All was well: after the movie, which was dull, the family had gone out to a popular fro-yo store. I knew the owner; it happened that he was Israeli. Still, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Who could tell what sort of world we lived in, nowadays?
            …That was—how long? Three months ago. Have I gotten used to it? Not entirely. When B returned from New York, it took some doing, plus Musa’s and my debating over his Kushan Tabo vs. my Torah, to realize that we had reached an impasse. Neither of us wanted to pursue the argument any further, and we were a little too embarrassed to go to outside authorities; what was the point? The boys like walking Kirby, and he loves it when they play with him, too.
            B and Laila seem to get along; they take turns cooking, and we are getting used to the taste of halal meat, which does not differ all that much from kosher. Musa likes to tease that our Jewish cooking is “too bland,” and so B is trying to spice things up a little. We will be alone for a few evenings, because Musa and Laila will be visiting relatives in Jordan and Jericho.
            They promise they’ll call, though, and Musa told me he has a friend who can give us a “good price” on an international cell phone, when we make our special trip to Israel in a couple of years.
            Still, I think we will miss them….