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Nabbatiya

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The Road to Nabbatiya
translated from the Hebrew Language
by Alan Sacks


The Road to Nabbatiya is very unpleasant, even for the veteran troops known as "not dead yet, just disappearing." I try to get the escort troops to smile. What do we have to lose? I ask. What's waiting for us at home? Boring jobs, heart attacks, traffic accidents. Here, a bullet you never see suddenly puts you out of your misery. And we'll show you respect. Since you've come to an honorable "end", you'll make the newspapers, even the zeroes among you who in life would never deserve a word.

Above all, you'll always be young. Forever, for all generations, for all time. No one will ever be able to take that from you. Almost as though without design, a joke takes on an unexpected seriousness. The curves in the road become sharper. Dark bridges suddenly appear. The closer the stones to the road, the more menacing they seem. A green copse arouses suspicion.

Just over a month before the war in Lebanon broke out, I went to class to discusses the year's memorial day with my students. I recited from Archibald MacLeish's moving poem:

"The young dead soldiers do not speak,
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses;...
They have a silence that speaks for them at night...."

The young pupils before me sat silently as my voice echoed through the classroom. Their eyes fixed on my lips as though they grasped the old fears and painful memories coming back to me from far away and long ago. I had felt that way once: as though I alone remembered and knew, and no one but I bore the burden of recollection. In another, distant war, young troops collected for burial had called to me.

"You'll remember us, you won't be able to forget. You'll tell others, all those who weren't here, how we were sent out. How we waited for help thatnever came and how a look of betrayal shone in our dimmed eyes".

My young students noticed the strong feelings gripping me. I still had several poems to read. And then I wanted to talk to them about the meaning of memorial day. But I couldn't go on. The faces of the young students before me became the faces of the young soldiers in MacLeish's poem. I stopped in the middle, apologized in a quiet, trembling voice and left the room.

"Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they
will mean what you make of them...."
I clutched my papers and notes with the poems I'd copied and threw everything in thtrash. What could I discuss with the students? What meaning was there to talk about on the eve of memorial day?

That summer during the war, in the shadow of the nets cast, among the groves of pistachio trees, along the road to Zahla, on a taut stretcher in the division medical small, little-noticed piece. In Illinois, so far away, an old poet had died. he had been nearly 90 at the time of his death. A young artillery captain who had walked through mounds of corpses in the plains and mud of Europe. one of those who saw the young bodies gathered for collection, who had heard them pleading in his ears through bloodless lips. The American poet Archibald MacLeish.

"We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning...."

I hear the hot, dry wind whistling through the Valley of lebanon. It raises whorls of dust beyond the groves of cherry trees, beyond thickets of olives, beyond the green gardens and fields of grain.

"We were young....
We have died. Remember us...."

A few more feet and our trip ended. In low gear, we entered the command post busy with activity in Nabbatiya. And the patrol, I hear someone reporting over the radio, passed without incident.

(Qoutations from The Young Dead Soldiers, in Archibald MacLeish: The Human Season, selected poems 1926-1972, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1972.)

© Elisha Porat 2000 All Rights Reserved.

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