the short story project


Uri Orlev | from:Hebrew

The Chinese

Translated by : Leanne Raday

Image: Wolfgang Stiller 

Introduction by Our Editors

The story “The Chinese” by Uri Orlev was first published in 1971 in the Literary Supplement of Ha’aretz newspaper. As the decade drew to an end (in 1979), it was republished in the literary section of HaOlam Hazeh magazine, where the editor Dan Omer wrote the following: “In the opinion of this editor, the finest story published in the last decade is “The Chinese” by Uri Orlev. This story, which was first published in 1971, seems to have concluded one era and started another. It includes all the linguistic, narrational, social and moral elements a story has the power to comprise.” “The Chinese” by Uri Orlev is published here once more as a reminder of the compelling force within it.


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The day the Chinese army invaded, my brother moved in with us. He came straight after they had laid down their arms and surrendered Jerusalem. It was only a formal act of surrender as our army never actually tried fighting after the allies retreated. There was no point in fighting and, besides, they promised the Jews local government. We were lucky the war hadn’t broken out at a time when Zionism was mentioned in the same breath with Revisionism, Capitalism, Imperialism and so forth.

At first, I couldn’t understand their blind hatred for the Arabs. Strange rumors made their way to Jerusalem from Iraq, Syria, and the Transjordan area. It was hard to believe that, while still fighting in Siberia, Alaska, Australia and Egypt, they found means to transport their yellow civilians and resettle them by the thousands in the villages and deserted cities of the Arab states. Us, they perceived as a small population that could be of use, at least for the time being. Hopefully, before they change their minds the outcome of this awful war will be decided, as I really don’t know how long this provisional immunity will last. My brother, the longer he worked for them – he served as a driver and guide to one of their officers – and the more of their strange language he understood, the more he horrified us with stories about the fate of the Arabs.

We didn’t believe all those rumors at first. Of course some things happened in plain sight.  They took, for example, all the valuables from the Arabs of Jerusalem. They started with the carpets and televisions and then, a few months ago, took the transistor radios and all the other electric appliances. Our communication with the rest of the country was very limited. Almost no one went across the borders of the “Development-Regions”, as they named them. But we still heard things here and there. Haifa and Tel Aviv didn’t have large concentrations of Arabs. They moved the few Arabs in Haifa to Nazareth. The distinctly Arab areas, like Wadi Ara, Nabulus-Jenin or Bethlehem-Hebron were closed off and surrounded by military guard. Then Chinese citizens suddenly arrived with their wives and children, commune after commune, and settled in the Arab villages. Where had the former inhabitants all gone? It was forbidden to speak of it out loud. Slowly, we found out without a shadow of doubt – they were murdering them by the masses. It was most likely what they were doing in Iraq, Syria and all the neighboring countries. They used simple and efficient means. The Arabs dig holes. They tell them everywhere that these will be the foundations of a huge Chinese culture house which they must build in honor of Mao (Mao the Third, for those who are unfamiliar with the dynasty). Then they gather all the inhabitants to hear a speech. A helicopter appears and sprays them from the air. They fall and never get up. Someone told me that the Kibbutzim receive special fuel rations to cover these holes up using the few mechanical tools remaining in their possession. I think the corpses aren’t to be touched for a month after the spraying. It wasn’t hatred, as I had previously thought. It was an act perpetrated calmly and collectedly. It was Jules Verne who prophesized that the Chinese were destined to take over the world. They probably decided to annihilate the large populations and inherit their cities and villages, with all their possessions, everything besides the clothes they were buried in. As for us, the fact that we are a small and talented people has spared us so far. And so, the vague rumors that came to us from India at the start of this war have been confirmed.

The day before yesterday, my wife came back distraught from the hospital, where she worked as head nurse of the maternity ward. They took the Arab women out and no one said a word. A Chinese doctor arrived and carefully examined all the women. Those who had already given birth were taken away with their babies. My wife tried saving one child, a twin, with the intention of raising him in place of the daughter we had had; she had died in tragic circumstances about a year ago, on the first day of this world war, hopefully the last. The director of the ward refused to hide him. He said he would not jeopardize the whole hospital for one Arab baby. She has not gone to work for the past three days. She paces round the house, walking back and forth, and constantly argues with my brother. I don’t know what she intends to do, but by the look on her face I can tell she is planning something. She has barely spoken a word to me since that day. She can’t forgive me for not firmly admonishing the doctor. But how could I admonish him? What would I have done in his place? After all, decrees have been posted everywhere, clarifying that those who hide an Arab man, woman or child at home or at work, or even aid in their concealment, will be sentenced to death. I’ve known the director of the maternity ward since the days we went to school together. He was a kind, plump child. He couldn’t have put all the other Jewish patients and doctors at risk. They may have spared them, executing only the people directly responsible: that is, him and my wife and maybe another doctor from the ward. My wife is a very young woman who is passionate about saving souls, but she can’t demand that he risk his life. It is true that an Arab child is just like any other child. But isn’t the old saying “charity starts at home” the conclusion of realistic, sensible folk wisdom? He has a wife and children, Dr. Alon, and couldn’t risk his own life. My wife will not forgive me for those comments.

We’ve been sleeping in separate rooms for three days, something that hasn’t happened since we got married. She won’t say a word to my brother now and has started suspecting that he is collaborating with them on things related to the Arabs. If it had gone on like that for a few more days, we would have slowly devoured each other, but today the whole thing blew open.

My brother arrived as usual at lunchtime. We sat down to eat. Not a sound was heard besides the rattle of cutlery and my brother’s loud chewing noises. My wife kept blowing her nose and wiping it as if she had a cold. I wasn’t sure if she really did have a cold or was just upset and didn’t want us to see she was crying. We ate the soup in relative peace. I thought about this surprise she had prepared for us – cooking onion soup with melted cheese toasts floating in the bowls. I thought it might be a sign that her hostility had thawed. She collected the plates and silently served out the meat. It was a farm chicken turned wild that had been hunted by his officer, my brother’s, in one of the empty villages and given to him as a gift. We both started eating. She sat over her plate and didn’t eat.

“Why aren’t you eating?” I asked her.

“Because I feel as if we’re eating their corpses,” she said and looked at my brother. He burst out into laughter.

“I don’t understand,” she said, throwing her fork forcefully on the table. “Can’t you feel how you’re losing your humanity?”

“Not me, sweetheart,” said my brother.

I went on eating. We hadn’t had any meat in over a month and a half.

“You’re an animal,” she said to my brother. “I loathe you. You haven’t got a grain of human emotion in you.”

“What would you have me do, sweetheart?”

“Stop calling me that!”

“And you,” he said, “stop calling me names.”

I thought she would throw the plate in his face. I saw how she resisted. Just in case, I pulled the plate away.

“Saving the meat, ah?” she said mockingly.

“The three of us live here together,” I said, swallowing her comment. “Our life can’t become a living hell. For the last three days, you’ve been the cause of this.”

“None of us is good or perfect,” she said emphatically. “And our whole life is just the way it is, but if we’d at least try to do something.”

“Interesting,” said my brother.

“Everyone realizes that it’s impossible to save all the Arabs,” she continued, “but I will save the child of someone I know, Taleb or Awad.”

“How?” asked my brother.

“You’ll help me.”

Now the meaning of the onion soup became apparent.

“Me?! You’re crazy. You’re crazy, woman. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Pointless romanticism. When you’re sitting in prison before they execute you, you won’t be thinking all those pretty thoughts, sweetheart. Sorry, I didn’t say that to annoy you, okay? It’s just pretend, just teasing you to show affection. Do you think I’m a complete idiot or that I have no soul? You have to realize that your life is in danger. And his,” he pointed to me. “Not to mention mine. You probably want me to smuggle one for you in my officer’s car, right?”

“That’s right. From the Old City it could be difficult, but from Abu-Tur it would be a piece of cake.”

My brother glanced at me and then said: “To tell you the truth, I’m sure the Arabs are human beings, just like us. Not exactly, but if they were brought up differently and all that nonsense, but they’ll always be Arabs. Just like we have always been Jews. I believe that the war will end within a year, give or take, and not to their advantage. The Americans have to win. And we,” he slammed his fist down on the table, “we’ll get rid of the Arab problem! Do you realize what it means that there will be no more Arabs, or almost no more Arabs, in this region? Here, in Jerusalem, we’ll be able to rebuild the temple and all with our hands clean, without laying a finger on them. The Chinese are doing all the work for us. It’s like a miracle, the hand of God. They’ll finish the Arabs off and then lose just before they’re done. Don’t think that my heart doesn’t ache seeing them being led to Gehenna.”

“Seeing them? You’ve never mentioned that before,” said my wife.

“I’m not allowed to say anything,” he said. “But that’s why we’re still living in our apartment and eating like human beings, why you still have hot water for your baths. But that’s not why I’m working for them.”

“Are you really only a guide and driver?” my wife asked suspiciously.

“No,” said my brother. “I help them tell the difference between Jews and Arabs. To them we all have the same white faces.”

“You help them find the Arabs?” my wife said almost whispering. Then she stood up and began screaming: “Get out! Get out of here! Get out of my house! Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!”

My brother stayed put.

“Tamar,” I said. “We’ve decided to speak candidly and talk things over. You’re losing it. Calm down.”

“You’re not throwing him out?”

“No, he’s my brother.”

“In that case – I’m leaving.”

“Shush,” said my brother and stood up. “I don’t have to stay here if you don’t want me to. I just wonder how you’ll smuggle that little Arab of yours.”

“That’s right,” I said. “Sit down.”

“Build the temple,” she repeated his words in a whisper, “Monster”.

“We haven’t sinned, haven’t committed any crimes,” said my brother.

“When they’re killing people around you and you help catch them…”

“I don’t help catch them. I simply save the Jews that get caught by mistake. That’s it. Nothing else. Smuggle televisions and radio sets and split the money with my officer, which is a private business whose fruits you also enjoy.”

“I don’t believe you any longer. But suppose you really do nothing, then that’s your sin, the fact that you don’t! Can’t you see?”

“Maybe,” said my brother. “But your children and grandchildren will thank me for it. Do you realize what it will mean, to have a country free of Arabs? Not to mention the neighboring countries.”

If she hadn’t needed him to carry out her plan, she would have thrown something at his head that very moment.

“Stop,” I asked. “We don’t want to hear any more of your opinions.”

“Will you help me?”

“No,” said my brother.

“Will you give him the car,” she pointed at me, “and your driver’s uniform?”

“No,” said my brother. “Unless you steal them.”

My brother gave in. He loved her from the very start. He adored her for her courage. But now he had yielded on my account. Fear crept into my stomach. That I do it? Me? God help me.

My brother buttoned his shirt up.

“I’ll be back in the evening,” he said. “In the meantime, think your plan out. Hurry, because soon you won’t have anyone left to save. And know that if you get caught I will testify against you and if you claim that I suggested you should steal my car, I’ll laugh in your faces. Furthermore, if you do bring some Arab home I’ll leave the apartment immediately and then I don’t think they’ll let you stay in this neighborhood. It’s too close to the Old City and Mao Hotel (the former King David Hotel). When they throw you out, they’ll find the little Arab right away.”

“I’ll fake certificates that prove he’s my son.”

“You can’t fool the electronic computer.”

“I have an understanding with a Chinese man.”

“Well, well,” said my brother, “you too?”

“His wife had a C-section in our ward.”

“What’s his rank?”

“He’s not in the army. He updates the population registry computer.”

“I see you’ve been planning this for a while.”

My wife nodded.

“They really are eager to sleep with white women,” he added mockingly.

“Watch what you say,” I commented as the moderator of this debate.

My wife wasn’t offended. She looked both of us over and then said plainly: “I’ll sleep with him to get what I want.”

“What?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “It won’t lessen your worth.”

“Not only am I supposed to risk my own life and yours, you’re also going to sleep with that Pistachio?”

Pistachio was the people’s derogatory name for the Chinese. I think the origin of the name comes from a sprout that looks like a bearded Chinaman. You find this sprout at the tip of one of the two halves of the groundnut when you crack it open. My father, I remember, used to call these sprouts Kikes.

“Don’t imagine that it’ll be a one-off thing,” my brother commented.

He put his hat on and left.

“You’re crazy. A crazy woman. A righteous woman, goddamn it!” he said before slamming the door shut. We heard him skipping over two-three steps at a time on his way down. It was just the two of us.

“Tamar,” I said anxiously. “I’m afraid I wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. You know I’ve never been a soldier. When I even begin thinking of driving up to the checkpoint in his military car, everything starts quivering inside me. I’ll give myself up immediately – it’s useless.”

“You won’t help me?”

I saw a look of desperation on her face, I stretched my hand out to her but she pushed me away.

“You won’t help me? I don’t understand. You’ve always explained the Chinese’s premeditated crime so well to me. You’ve always known to articulate what was common to all human beings so clearly. Was it all just talk?”

“Tamar,” I said, but actually had nothing to say. What could I say? I really did believe what I preached.

“Does being weak and cowardly,” I said bravely, “mean that I’m lying? I didn’t lie. I really do believe all these things to be true. Arabs are as human as Jews to me. Even the Chinese are human beings in my eyes. But I can’t risk my life for them. When I just think of how they’ll catch me, how they’ll drag me to the Chinese Compound (the former Russian Compound) and try to get the names of my collaborators out of me through torture before cutting my head off. Oh well, let it be spiked on a pole among the others. At least it won’t hurt anymore.”

“I won’t be able to go on living with you,” said my wife.

She wasn’t saying it to torment me. She gave me this wounded look. So young, so pure and innocent. She was about to do something for which the yellow animals would tear her apart.

“You’ll wear his uniform. The resemblance between you is enough to fool them. It will be dark. With his documents no harm will come to you. You’ll put one of those children under the seat, like he smuggles the televisions. You won’t get caught.”

“And if they check?”

The day will come when I’ll have to account for my actions, I thought. Me, the great humanist, Prof. Ben-David, what did I do to save the Arabs? Will I be able to say in my defense that I was scared? afraid of torture? that I wasn’t cut out for it? People know exactly who actually does things and whose words are nothing but empty talk. My wife sat, burying her face in her hands, her hair gliding down between her fingers. The fear. That awful fear.

“Will you do it?” She asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Tomorrow. But first I’ll go pick up some cyanide in the lab. Because if they catch me, I’ll kill myself.”

“You’re making something too serious and tragic out of it,” she said. “You’ll drive there, take one of the children and bring it here. Take a girl. Nothing will happen. I just need to get the information about Miri’s death out of the computer. I’ll tell him we want to adopt a child and don’t want anyone to know that she’s not our own. Even if he doesn’t believe me, he still might help. We could even send her to school.”

“You’re naïve, Tamar, someone will turn us in.”

“Who will turn us in?”

“Aren’t there enough Arab haters in this neighborhood?”

“If we could only move somewhere else…”

“Maybe my brother will help us move,” I said. “And get rid of us all that way…”

“I loathe him and the likes of him, you know. If need be, we’ll build a wall in the passageway to the storage room, open an entrance into the attic and hide her there. Or maybe we’ll hide her in the hidden weapons depot. We’ll be able to spend time with her there or maybe even bring another child. It would be the same risk – dying once or twice. All right, don’t get upset, I won’t send you again. Just this once.”

“You know about the weapons depot?”

“What do you think I am, blind and deaf?”

“We thought you hadn’t noticed anything.”

We lay on the bed listening silently to the hum of the army vehicles crawling up the road from Bethlehem. The Chinese built massive weapon and ammunition warehouses near the holy Christian churches. The Americans and their allies have never dropped bombs there or in the Old City. We also enjoyed the protection of those shrines. The inhabitants of Haifa, for example, had already been evacuated from the harbor area and industrial zones. The small, tactical radiation-free atom bombs have demolished the harbor and the airport twice, before they were rebuilt by the Chinese. They really were like ants. The first bombings delayed the annihilation of the Arabs in the north of the country, because they still didn’t have enough of their own work force to rebuild. That, at any rate, was what my brother’s officer had told him. There was something about what my brother had said to us at lunch. With all the anger I felt hearing the words come out of his mouth, there was some truth to it. We really would no longer have a minority problem in the country, once it was liberated. No doubt, we were all predators.

When we woke up it was dark outside. We awoke from the sound of footsteps and the lock squeaking in the door. My brother walked in. He had brought a package tied up in a sack. He’ll get caught one day, with all his shady businesses. My wife woke up too and sat on the bed. He stood at the entrance for a moment.

“I’ve brought a present for you,” he said.

I only noticed then that the package seemed very heavy. My wife leaped out of bed and, with trembling hands, began untying the rope, pulling and opening the sack. A fair-haired girl of about four, dirty, skinny and petrified, landed on the ground. My wife snatched her up like a precious jewel. The girl didn’t utter a syllable. She looked at us in amazement.

I’m saved, I thought, or maybe I have lost everything. My wife picked the child up and brought her to her feet. She closed the black-out curtains and turned the lights on. The little one looked at us with large, blue eyes, maybe dating back to the days of the crusaders.

“Whose is she?” I asked.

My brother shrugged his shoulders.

“No one’s. I pulled her out of a house they bombed this afternoon.”

Now the three of us were in the same boat.

“Quickly, bring the meat I kept from lunch,” my wife said to me.

I ran and brought the food. I placed it in front of the girl.

“Do you know Hebrew?” I asked.

“How could she know Hebrew?” my wife asked annoyed.

“She’s older than she seems,” my brother intervened. “They’re all like that.”

“How old are you?” asked Tamar.

She showed us five fingers in one hand and one more finger in the other hand.

“I’m Christian,” she said anxiously and pulled out a little cross that was hanging on her neck.

I nodded my head.

“Eat,” Tamar said to her. “It’s for you.”

The child gobbled the food up. I couldn’t bear to look and turned my head away. When I looked back at her I could see she was crying. Eating and crying. And her little tears dropped into the plate, creating light, transparent lakes that lasted for only a moment before mixing with the sauce.