Rebecca Sacks: “City of a Thousand Gates”

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Author, Rebecca Sacks. Photo by Justin Bishop.

Rebecca Sacks discusses her novel, “City of a Thousand Gates,” which explores the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by testing its boundaries, with twenty-nine main characters from across the grid. She says she wanted a narrative shaped by the many ways there are to think about Israel. Each character is written from the inside, and through what they care most deeply about. The result is a panoply of characters that shape a narrative in a world of conflict, the method: psychological realism and a full range of human impulse.

Excerpt from “City of a Thousand Gates” by Rebecca Sacks.

Crossings: Hamid, Vera, Ori, Samar

      Hamid is fucked. He knows it now. If he hadn’t let his boss convince
him to stay an extra hour to finish installing the last air conditioner.
If he hadn’t stayed to work inside Israel for nearly a month already—
all that pay carefully folded into his wallet and, for good measure, his
socks. If he wasn’t rattled and jumpy, hearing about the boy the Jews
beat half to death in a settlement parking lot last night. If he actually
had a permit to be here. If, if, if.
     By the time Hamid got to the bus stop, it was midmorning. He
was supposed to wait for a bus that would take him in the general
direction of Jerusalem. From there, he could get home to
Bethlehem. He waited at an overhang by a highway, cars rushing by.
On the other side of the road were a gas station and an
“American-style” waffle place. A few Jews were waiting for
buses—women with their hair covered tending to babies, guys
maybe his own age talking over a cell phone that blasted the latest
Israeli pop song to rip off Palestinian music. My beloved, my beloved,
my beloved, the singer trilled in Arabic. Hamid’s real phone doesn’t
get service this far inside the Jewish areas, so he used his shitty
phone—the one with an Israeli SIM card—to read about Salem
Abu-Khdeir. Someone posted what looked like se- curity
footage of the beating, but his phone wouldn’t load it. At the bus
stop, Hamid began noticing how the Jews his own age seemed to
be drifting closer to him, saying something among themselves that
made them laugh, and then looking at Hamid again. He wondered if
they had seen the video. He wondered if they were in it. Fuck this, he
decided, and the next bus that stopped, he got on, not even bother-
ing to ask the driver where it was heading. Anything was better than
being beaten half to death in some suburban bus stop. Right?
     Wrong. Because now he is so spectacularly fucked. Ever since
the bus flew by the junction and continued down the highway, he
has known that he is fucked. Because this bus will not take him to
the outskirts of Jerusalem, to a place where nobody checks your
hawiyya to see if it’s green or blue, to see if you’re from the West
Bank, to see if you’re allowed to be here without a permit. No, this
bus will take him—he’s sure now—deep inside, all the way to Tel
Aviv, all the way to the Central Station, a place where every hawiyya
is checked as they funnel you out of the exits, a place where he’ll be
caught. Fucked.
     On the highway, they speed deep into the interior of the Jewish
state, past fields of brown grass. In the distance, dystopian-looking
power plants vibrate. Signs for Tel Aviv begin to appear. Hamid
presses a hand up to the glass. Breathe, he tells himself. There are
probably a lot of bus stations in Tel Aviv. He doesn’t actually know
this to be true but it stands to reason. There are a lot of stations, so
who’s to say that this bus is going to the one station that he abso-
lutely, absolutely cannot enter?
     Ask someone, he begs himself. It might not be too late. He might
be able to get out before they pull into the Central Station, before
he’s forced to show his hawiyya and his expired permit to the soldiers
there. But he doesn’t move. The bus’s seats have soft fabric that was
probably itchy once, long since worn away. He’s sitting near the back,
and there’s nobody immediately next to him, but there are people
around. A tourist-looking white lady, European maybe, writes in a
journal. A couple speaks Hebrew a few places up.
In the back, some tired, refugee-looking black guys watch
something on a cell phone held between four hands.
     There are two soldiers on the bus, but they are sitting closer to
the front, and anyway, as he’s recently learned, outside of
checkpoints most soldiers aren’t working. They take buses from
this place to that place; they wander around in little packs waiting
for some train; they eat falafel. When he first began to come into
Israeli territory with- out papers, he was shocked to see off-duty
soldiers—like an action movie showing the villains making coffee
or taking a shit—but the more times he comes inside the Wall (the
fucking Wall) the less be- wildering it is. They are dangerous only
contextually. They don’t ask you to produce your hawiyya—match
the picture to your face, call in the ID number on a walkie-
talkie—they don’t do all that unless it’s their job. Unless they’re
manning, oh, say, one of the countless security checks at the big
bus station in Tel Aviv. Even when he has the right papers, he
doesn’t go near that big central station. Everyone avoids it if they
can. What’s to stop one of them from pocketing the document, or
tearing it up, or finding some otherwise unnoticed flaw?
Because really, their job isn’t to check for the right anything.
Their job is to catch him.
     He thinks about texting Mama, but what would he even text to
her? Don’t wait up. They got me? He rolls his head to face the window,
lets out a whimper. What is Mama doing now? She must be home
from work. Cooking, probably. Cooking in Teta’s kitchen while Teta
has her late-afternoon lie-down. He hopes it’s something simple,
something comforting. His favorite meals are the ones she makes in
a rush. Macaroni and cheese, baked with strips of chicken. His empty
stomach clenches acidly. Whenever he comes back from working
inside, Mama and Teta lament how skinny he’s gotten. Will he spend
tonight in jail? Will they shoot him on the spot?
     His elbows rest on his thighs, his face in his hands. It was sup-
posed to be easy today. Just a few final air conditioners to install
before he went home. Cash and no questions from the boss, Segev. 
He’s a decent guy, a Jew, but not a real Jew—a Russian with
Hebrew worse than Hamid’s. The work was brilliant all summer and fall, the
pay so good that Hamid enrolled in university for the winter. But now
he’s fucked. “Fucked” means going to jail, of course, but it means
more than that. This will be the third time. The first two times, it’s
just a day lost in handcuffs and getting printed at some station. But
the third time is jail time. How much is impossible to say. How
much do they feel like giving you? Are you on any lists? Do you want
to find out? Jail means being taken inside, far inside—an inside so
deep that nobody, not even God, can reach him. Once they have him,
Hamid feels in his heart that they will never let him go.

Excerpted from City of a Thousand Gates © 2021 Rebecca Sacks. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.