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The Road to Amman

by Channie Greenberg

A few months ago, when I was driving from Tel Aviv via Highway 6 to visit my sister, who lives in the Negev, instead of arriving at Beer Sheva, I found myself in Altoona, Pennsylvania. I became aware of my location only after I had passed the exit for Kyrat Gat.

On the one hand, Altoona is a city in south-central Pennsylvania that I had transversed on route to a Penn State football game, thirty years ago. On the other hand, Altoona is in America, roughly 5,900 miles from Beer Sheva.

Initially, I appreciated finding myself in a locale where my first language is spoken and where I understand the workings of the local marketplace. In Pennsylvania, protexia is limited to: organized-crime family members, tenured professors and their designated protégés, and PTA committee chairwomen. In Israel, contrariwise, even busboys have connections.

I spotted a 7-Eleven from the highway, so I pulled in to inhale the stink of overcooked hotdogs and to watch strangers order gargantuan Slushies. As I lingered in the parking lot, I observed frantic housewives, agitated plumbers, and distracted high-school truants smoke. Unlike Israel, the States offers few indoor places for “carcinogenic fumes.”

Having satisfied my olfactory drought, I drove around Altoona. The city seemed to have preserved the blight caused decades earlier by urban decentralization, industrial decline, and a lack of reliable shashuka. Not only Israel’s great beaches, cutting-edge machineries, and modest-clothing empire, but also her vast host of hummus huts make her unique among the nations.

Shaking my head, I drove onward toward State College and made plans to keep going until I reached Philadelphia. I passed groves of yellow-green maples and bright cyan copses of spruce. The landscape was so much more color-flecked than the arid fields shouldering Highway 6. Nevertheless, I did not linger to admire Pennsylvania’s vistas, but continued on in the direction of Philadelphia International Airport, the closest of El Al’s USA ports.

Granted, I hated the thought of leaving my trusty car, whose legion of previous owners were legendary in barracks, billiards rooms, and Facebook posts, but I could not afford to ship it back to the Holy Land. Fortunately, I neither had to buy a ticket to Ben Gurion Airport nor abandon ‘Ol’ Paint. It was not so much that I suddenly morphed into an urban cowboy as it was that somewhere around Lancaster, when I turned on the headlights by plugging them into the cigarette lighter, I again found myself on Highway 6, heading toward my sister’s place.

Although I had long believed that the most bewildering feature of my many times previously-owned car was its roof, whose holes were so large as to make my auto permanently into a sort of convertible, I was mistaken; its unpredictable ability to jump geographies was much more mystifying.

Eventually, I arrived safely at Sis’s place. There, I ate platefuls of shawarma, shashuka, and chopped salad, and drank down a few beers. Whereas I blamed my alcohol consumption for my needing to leave behind my four-wheeled charger, and whereas it’s public knowledge that I hate the bus, I loathe, even more, the thought of possibly winding up in Harare, Zimbabwe, or in Conakry, Guinea. My mistake was not in leaving my car behind but in leaving it in Sis’s care.

Amir, her husband, ought to have been happy as manager of a falafel shop and ought to have been happy with me as his brother-in-law. He was not happy with either. Whenever he and I shared oxygen, every other sentence dropped from his lips was a curse for his shop’s owner or for me.

The man was jealous of every mouthful of delicious food and of every minute of attention my sister gave me. I was “the enemy,” a nerdy foreigner who had captured the elitist position of “professor at Tel Aviv University” and who had served no time in the IDF. That I had made aliyah when I was forty-two and was consequently prohibited from conscription made no matter to Amir. Frequently he fantasized aloud about finding a means to get me deported.

Had I not been so shaken up about my brief, unplanned long-distance journey, I might not have left my car in my sister’s care. As it was, I was so happy to be returning via public transportation to the Startup City, that I allowed my memories of that nonstop metropolis’s noise to soothe me to sleep.

While I was busied on an intercity Egged bus with dreams interspersed with Penn State football games and Bauhaus architecture, my brother-in-law was finagling the keys to my car. My jalopy represented to him an opportunity to seize more wealth than he had possessed in his entire lifetime. Permanently borrowing my ride, too, represented an opportunity to spite me.

Having served in Sayeret, the IDF’s commando forces, and having lived for long stretches in highly dangerous foreign places, Amir was fearless about travel. Had his wedding not been scheduled before he indulged in his Indian subcontinent trip, he might have lingered in that strange clime forever.

More recently, he hoped that my rattletrap would transport him to New York, to Chicago, or to San Francisco. He believed my sister about the dearth of good pita in the USA, but was willing to risk his stomach for a trip abroad. Maybe, if things went well, he could resell my car to his cousin in Austin, who worked for a high-tech company.

My traitorous sibling encouraged Amir to follow through with his plan for stealing my car. Years prior, it had been her guidance, not his acumen, that had gotten him promoted from his line chef job.

Sis must have been distracted when we were kids and our parents were teaching us that critical thinking ought to enhance, not distract from, efforts made to surmount life’s incommensurabilities. Fresh ontological frames can and ought to be used to deploy civic discourse, not to actualize grand theft auto. Free will is great, but Machiavellian activities remain undesirable.

She must have failed to notice, as well, that even after I had unintentionally relocated halfway around the world, I had stayed faithful to our family’s epistemology. Sure, I had giggled when driving past the exits for Carlisle and for King of Prussia.

However, it is likewise the case that I tend not to be indomitable when confronting grumbly graduate students.

I have witnessed — and plan not to copy — the adverse reactions of persons, preoccupied with bags full of produce or arms full of children, awarding charity collectors twenty shekel bills, only to discover, later, that they had handed over fifties. To be more precise, unlike other members of my family, I continue to be well aware that haste leads to mistakes and that neither brawn nor brain can reliably guard against all of life’s unexpected moments.

Amir and Sis ought to have known better than to have Amir appropriate my junker, whose highly atypical workings were known to them. Unquestionably, happenchance runs according to the dictates of Heaven, but when Sis phoned me to hold me accountable for Amir going missing, I felt guilty all the same.

Two days passed and Sis received not one collect call from New Orleans, not a single IM from Cincinnati, and no ping from Saint Louis. There had been nothing but silence from Amir. It was many months later, actually, until we heard from him.

A prisoner exchange, ultimately, yielded Sis’s husband. He was brought back to Israel in nearly one piece. Our government, though, said nothing about my car, which my brother-in-law was forced to leave behind.

The way Amir tells it, at first he had not realized that he was driving on a road leading to Amman, so excited was he to supposedly be heading to the land of: Donald Trump, Big Macs, Jack Daniel’s and Spike Lee. Less than an hour into his trip, though, he realized something was very wrong.

For one, the road signs were not in Hebrew and they were not in English; they were entirely in Arabic. Second, none of the cars passing his were being driven by women. What’s more, the few female passengers were veiled.

That was then. These days, I am a nonentity in my sister’s home. Both she and Amir say they never want to see me again. They hold me liable for Amir’s misadventure.

More exactly, Amir assigns answerability for the beatings, which he received at the hands of Jordan security forces, to me. He’s repeatedly hollered at me about the soldiers who strip-searched him and otherwise subjected him to torture. He says his punishment was increased from bad to worse, not because he was an Israeli who suddenly appeared in the neighboring kingdom, but because he claimed to have no understanding of the miraculous “weapon” he was driving.

Moreover, Sis blames me that her hubby didn’t sell the car, which he stole from me, to an American conglomerate. In her mind, it’s my fault Amir got sidetracked from the US of A and my fault she’s even now limited by his falafel-stand manager’s salary.

Sometimes, my sister’s and Amir’s rants hurt. Sometimes, I try to visit them, regardless. They’re the only family I have on this side of the Mediterranean. It’s just that the emotional pain I suffer from our encounters causes me mental blocks.

I’m “this close” to perfecting the skin “tattoos,” which are built of nanos and will enable other researchers to map emotions and to improve prostheses. I’m similarly nearly at goal for a releasable prototype of a device that can use memories, literally, to cause conveyance.

Nonetheless, ever since the fallout from Amir’s “incident” began, not only have I been recurrently visited by Mossad agents, but I’ve also been having difficulties manipulating the processes that I used to be able to complete quickly and, essentially, mindlessly. Currently, I either have to change my mode of attack, or to rely less on greedy algorithms.

At least I’ve learned, as a result of my family’s brouhaha, that it’s unwise to trust a single set of particulars when tilting at windmills, let alone when actually providing a service. Maybe they’ll still invite me to my oldest nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.

As for dealing with the government, those folks who want me to recreate my car’s special wiring, I’ve not yet reached a verdict. The gun-toting go-betweens have tried threats and bribes, but I have neither wife nor children and don’t care about becoming well-to-do.

Besides, if they cause me to be dismissed from my academic post, my tenure notwithstanding, there are numerous, fast-growing entrepreneurial ventures that would gladly add me to their payroll.

So, my weeks are still populated with spy-types, my brother-in-law still won’t use any mechanically sophisticated device, including his formerly beloved smart phone, and the queen Dowager of Jordan was recently reported as having driven to Jakarta. Apparently, she was heading toward Tel Aviv.

Copyright © 2018 by Channie Greenberg

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