Let me tell you a story. It happened in July 2008, when I worked on an ambulance squad in Ashkelon, Israel. One afternoon, we drove to an Israeli hospital called Barzilai to pick up a sick Palestinian boy and his father. Our job was to transport them to the Erez border crossing so they could return home to the Gaza Strip. After I hoisted the young man’s gurney into the ambulance and set up his oxygen, I gave his father the briefest of smiles. As I shut the ambulance door, he smiled back and said in Hebrew, “thank you.”
We drove a little way from Barzilai, towards the highway. We then pulled over to the side of the road and put on our bulletproof vests. The driver took out his pistol. Then we made the half-hour drive to Erez.
To get to the actual, armed checkpoint that leads into Gaza, we had to enter a walled enclosure about 30 feet across. This area is meant to contain blasts from car bombs that might make it past the soldiers at the gate. After we entered the blast zone, a gate closed behind us. Suddenly, we were alone, surrounded by the 15-foot-high walls of concrete. All I could see of the outside world was a square of blue sky above me.
A gate opened on the opposite side from which we had entered, and two soldiers in full combat gear hurried in. They threw open the back door of the ambulance and pulled out the Palestinian, and his father hurried out behind him. The old man looked back once, and our eyes locked for the briefest of moments. Then the back door of the ambulance slammed shut, and he was gone, escorted by the soldiers, through the gate, out to wherever he was going, to whatever life he was going to live, out there beyond the blast barriers.
The engine started, and we returned to the highway. The driver exhaled in relief, glad to be gone from Erez. “Fucking Arabs,” he said, and I nodded. And that was it.
Let me tell you another story.
Tibor, my dad’s longtime friend, was a Holocaust survivor. He lost his whole family in the camps and ghettoes. After the war, he immigrated to the United States to start a new life. He built a career as a prominent psychiatrist, married and raised children. And then Tibor, by his own screw-ups and emotional problems, threw it all away. He divorced his wife and abandoned his children, moving to Florida to live off what few savings he had.
He was definitely a depressed and confused person, but a lovable one as well. Tibor doted on my siblings at family events; he told stories; he womanized; he was a gourmet chef; he loved following the stock market; he was a gentleman.
He died alone. Tibor had requested cremation in solidarity with the relatives he lost in the Holocaust, and since he left much of his estate to my father, we came into possession of Tibor’s ashes. And we had no idea what the hell to do with them.
For a while the ashes sat in a cardboard box on a little wooden table in my house. But then I felt bad for Tibor, in a grim and stupid sort of way, sitting there and watching people walk by all day. So I put his box on the top bunk of my bed. It’s been there for over a year.
For my past two semesters as a columnist, I’ve told stories and tried to extract morals from them. But life doesn’t have built-in lessons. There are no written conclusions; the moral of the story is up to us.
What about stories with no moral? What moral is there that I looked into a Palestinian man’s eyes, and then he disappeared? What moral is there that Tibor’s ashes are sitting on the top bunk of my bed? Why tell those moral-less stories, and why really, come to think of it, tell any stories at all?
I’d like to suggest that some stories just need to be told, for the telling’s sake. They need to be told because, well, if we don’t tell them, it’s as if the moment never happened.
If I don’t remember that old Palestinian man, whom I was supposed to hate without knowing why, then maybe it’s as if no such man ever existed in my life. It’s as if there’s nothing beyond those blast barriers at Erez, just a void, and it’s as if those ashes on my bed aren’t part of a real, human history of a man named Tibor and his family. Without the story, the ashes would be just common dust in a cardboard box. Nobody would know, anyway.
Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.