When the new patient was installed in the next bed, Frankel didn’t pay much attention. Friendships in his ward were apt to be short lived. As in the army during the war, you were not sure if it paid to get acquainted. Still, Frankel didn’t feel like reading. It was too much of an effort lately. His eyes would tire easily, or he would get headaches. Speaking was less tiring.
He studied the man who now sat up in bed, staring around like a squirrel introduced to a new tree. A slight smile – friendliness, bemusement, diffidence, irony played about his lips. When his gaze met Frankel’s, he nodded. Frankel nodded back. He felt sorry for the man. Not because he was in the hospital, but because he was new. Even in a hospital being used to a place was an advantage. The man looked to be of Eastern origin. It was when he, Frankel, said “shalom” and the man answered “shalom” more like “salaam” that he realized how Eastern: he was an Arab.
This fact made no difference to Frankel. Maybe once, not now. What mattered now was whether the man was noisy or a nudnik or stupid. The latter had nothing to do with education, he had learned by the midpoint of his life, or what should have been the midpoint, but with character.
The man lay back, tired or hit by the realization of where he now found himself. He seemed oblivious of the stares of the others in the room. A new patient was always the subject of scrutiny, because he was new and because the others were curious as to the stage of his illness. Moribund patients cast a pall in the room. They also had difficult nights, which disturbed the others. And the deathbed scenes were uncomfortable – in themselves and because they were a rehearsal of the future: a play for which all the patients had a ticket, the only question being whether the performance would be sooner or later. Only the few lucky ones were able to go home to enjoy the luxury of attending a regular theater. That was for the younger ones with his “ailment,” as he referred to it when speaking to others.
His name – the new patient’s – was Mohammed. “What else?” mused Frankel, although his name wasn’t so original either. “David,” Frankel said, with the exchange of names. It was soon established that both had the same ailment – and in the same place. Mohammed had tapped his head; it was sufficient explanation. Frankel had replied with a similar gesture of explanation, although conscious of its comic aspect. My alter ego, he thought.
Mohammed spoke Hebrew; Frankel did not speak Arabic. He was the intellectual, yet they had to speak in his language as Mohammed did not know German or French. The thought galled Frankel. And so on the second day after Mohammed’s arrival, Frankel, in his customary vigorous way, though less of late, decided to do something about it. Leaning on one arm, he turned toward Mohammed. “Teach me Arabic.”
Mohammed chuckled. “Learning Arabic takes time,” he said in Hebrew.
“Time I have – I hope,” said Frankel, also in Hebrew.
Mohammed laughed. He hesitated, shifting his body to a more comfortable position facing Frankel. “Why do you want to learn?” From another room the faint moans of a suffering patient could be heard before subsiding. “I want to be able to talk to Allah in his language,” Frankel answered.
And so the lessons began, interrupted by required ministrations, or fatigue, or the wheeling to the x-ray machine. The Arabic lessons were good for both of them. It lessened the need to talk of their situation. The only aspect of their situation that interested Mohammed was the x-ray machine, particularly the red light on the side of the machine. “It is such a lovely red. The color of wine in the garden of Allah,” he said on one occasion. “Let us hope so,” replied Frankel, in Arabic.
The proverbs were the best. Mohammed used them sparingly at first, but Frankel’s delight in them encouraged Mohammed to produce more – when he could remember. Frankel, in his turn, instructed Mohammed in Yiddish proverbs, at first in Hebrew, and later – the simple ones – in Arabic. Mohammed was fond of “Shrouds are made without pockets.” Frankel less so.
One morning Mohammed tried to speak and could not. Frankel was surprised at the instant of panic followed by sadness this caused him, not only for Mohammed, for himself: it meant the end of the lessons. A week later Mohammed was gone. The night of the morning when the lessons had stopped, Frankel had dreamed of a description of Thesiger’s of camels descending a large dune. He dreamed of it again the next night. He wanted very much to tell Mohammed about this dream, but his condition had not permitted it.
In one of those coincidences that life seems to delight in so long as it can, another Arab took the bed of Mohammed. A younger man, jaunty despite his illness, self-assured, to Frankel a reproof of the older generation. He was known as “the smoker” because he persisted, despite the prohibition being pointed out to him, to smoke when the nurses weren’t around. He probably wouldn’t have had patience to teach Frankel Arabic even if Frankel had desired it.
But Frankel had no desire to learn Arabic any more.
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