Abel surveyed my massive suitcase, carry-on wheelie, and backpack as if he’d never seen luggage before. It had taken a lot of knocking to get him to the door, and I was losing patience.
“You’re going away?” he asked.
“I’m cashing in the chit, my Eritrean friend,” I said, pushing my way into the tiny living room of his mildewed housing-project apartment. “Even a bleeding-heart leftist like me has his limits. For the last two years I’ve held your hand in the line to get your residence permit renewed, recommended you for menial jobs, taught you English, and invited you over for Friday night meals. It’s time to pay up.”
“But Haim,” he said, still confused. “Where are you going? How will I manage without you?”
I pulled the brochure from my pocket and threw it expertly so that it covered the large hole in the upholstery on Abel’s flea-market sofa. “If there’s one value I hold by, it’s justice,” I said. “If I’ve done good, I should get rewarded.”
Abel’s high forehead furrowed as he picked up the brochure and unfolded it.
“Your Future in the Third Country,” he read.
“It arrived for you in the mail. In my mailbox, of course.”
Abel looked confused. “What Third Country?”
“The one our government intends to deport all you Africans to, on the grounds that you are not really refugees. See, according to our government, at the age of twelve you braved death by walking all the way to the Negev from some godforsaken village in the Horn of Africa because you heard you could get a job here washing dishes in a falafel joint.”
Abel picked up the brochure. “One of the most thriving economies in the world today,” he read, “offers top-tier jobs and career opportunities.” He looked up. “I don’t know, I know it’s strange, but I’m kind of used to Israel.”
I pointed to the glossy photos. “Look that that beach. And those girls! And look here, it says: ‘Your future is secure in the Third Country, which has not experienced a genocide or a coup d’etat in at least ten months, and where violent harassment of immigrants restricted by law to two days a week.’”
“Does it have a name, this Third Country?”
“I’m sure it does. The planes need to know where to go, don’t they? Don’t you trust Bibi and Deri?”
Abel shook his head. “I don’t know. Ever since my mother was raped and had her throat slit by bandits in the pay of the Eritrean government and my little brothers and sisters got sold into slavery in Sudan and my father died of thirst in the Sinai desert I’ve been very careful about who I believe. I think at the very least I’d want a country where violent harassment of immigrants is limited to two evenings a week, with weekends off.”
“That’s not very nice,” I chided him. “After all that Israel has given you, you cast doubt on this glossy flyer printed at government expense?”
“Look, Haim …”
“Don’t look Haim me. Anyway, it’s a moot point. You’re not going, I am. Do you think I skipped out on work and neglected my family just so you could get a free ticket to paradise?” I glowered at him. “Sorry, buster. You can have my humdrum, stress-filled life as an Israeli citizen while I take the stairway to heaven.”
Just then came an ominous knock on the door.
“Someone is knocking on the door ominously,” Abel observed. “It must be the immigration agent come to deport me.”
“I’ll get it,” I said.
The black stocking mask the agent was wearing made it hard to judge his reaction, but something in his eyes indicated surprise, as did the way the expulsion order fell out of his black-gloved hand and fluttered to the floor.
“No need for that,” I said, kicking at the piece of paper. “I’m packed and ready to go to the airport.”
The agent looked warily at me, at Abel, and back to me again. He drew his phone out of his pocket and pressed on the screen. “Hey boss,” he said into it. “I got a problem.”
“No problem at all,” I declared, grabbing the phone from him. “Take me away.”
The agent cleared his throat. “It seems to me,” he said doubtfully, “that they told me I was supposed to take a black guy.”
I drew myself up to full height. “Young man,” I said. “Didn’t you pass your civics bagrut? The law is colorblind.”
“Are there any window seats left?” I asked the woman at the check-in counter.
“Would you mind just scooting up onto the scale?” she asked. A second baggage claim tag snaked out of the printer and she affixed it to my arm. “Sorry, no windows in the African section.”
“You mean I’m going to paradise as baggage?” I asked, looking behind me at my travel companions. “The brochure said I get a free ticket.”
“You were expecting business class?” she said with that loveable rudeness that makes flying out of Ben-Gurion Airport such a pleasure each time. “What would you guys do with china service and cocktails? The interior ministry has thoughtfully provided for you people to travel in the way you Africans are accustomed.”
“What kind of seats are there in the African section?” I asked suspiciously.
“We chain you to palettes and stack you one on top of the other below decks.”
The guys began to murmur angrily.
“Can you check my frequent flyer miles?” I asked her. “Maybe I have enough for an upgrade?”
She punched my number on her keyboard and stared at the screen. “For 12,000 points I can put you on top.”
“You mean in the cabin?”
“No, on the top pallet in the pile,” she said. “By the way, I suggest using the lavatory before boarding.”
“Welcome to the Third Country!” sang a class of cute kindergarten kids waiting for us at our arrival gate.
“Here we are,” I said to my friends, who were rubbing the sore spots made by their shackles. “Work! Money! Beautiful women! A great future for all of us!”
“So what country is it?” one of my companions asked.
I looked around. “I’m sure someone will tell us at some point.”
“I don’t like the look of it,” one of my companions said, pointing at a posse of uniformed thugs approaching us. The leader of the group stepped forward and read from a sheaf of papers in his hand.
“Welcome to the Third Country,” he declaimed. “Here we have many jobs waiting for you because a million of our people have resigned from their positions on account of being dead. If you work hard you may soon move into the top ten percent earnings bracket here, which is not so hard because nobody makes any money at all.”
“What about the women?” one of the guys asked.
“They are beautiful,” the commander declared. “If you like very, very skinny.”
There was a huge explosion and half the ceiling fell in.
“It is nothing,” the commander assured us. “We have a little war. Very little. Nothing you would notice.”
But I was too busy dialing Abel to pay much attention.
“Hey, Abel,” I said when he answered. “Listen, I changed my mind.”
“Haim!” he said. “Hey, thanks so much for everything you’ve done for me. I’m really enjoying living your life.”
“I don’t want you to live my life. I want to come home.”
“How are you going to do that, Haim?”
I pondered a minute. “I know. I’ll apply for refugee status.”
“You? A refugee? But you went to the Third Country to find work, to get rich, to get a woman. You are a classic labor migrant, not a refugee!”
I thought he’d never stop laughing.
Don’t miss the next performance of Necessary Stories: Through Women’s Eyes, at Tmol Shilshom, Jerusalem’s fabled literary cafe, 6 Yoel Moshe Salomon St., Nahalat Shiva, Jerusalem, on Sunday, March. 11, at 7 p.m., NIS 40 minimum order per person. As the venue is small and our last performance at Barbur Gallery was packed, we advise purchasing tickets in advance. With Jane Golbert and Annabelle Landgarten
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