Gazing at the white-capped aqua waters of the Mayan Riviera, Ibrahim Jefar struggled to imagine the act that would end his life: the righteous murder, far from home, of the man who led the enemy of his people, the hawk-faced architect of his sister's shame and grief.
Ibrahim and Iyad Hassan, who directed their actions and would join him in death, were living in suspension, awaiting the directives that would transform their anonymity to honor. Their temporary refuge was the village of Akumal, sequestered in a strip of beaches on the east coast of Mexico. Once the area had been peopled by Mayans, whose disappearance had left behind the ruins of pyramids and temples; now it was the playground of rich foreigners, sport fishermen and snorkelers, drawn by a reef system that offered coral of rich and varied hues and a plethora of vividly colored tropical fish. Their white stucco villa was one of a string of such places, sheltered by coconut palms, built into black rock ledges at the edge of the Caribbean. To Ibrahim, used to the desolation of his homeland, it was beautiful and alien, as disorienting as the aftershock of a dream.
They had existed here for a week. Each morning, as now, stiff breezes drove away the early clouds and exposed a rich blue sky, which met the deeper blue of the ocean. Sunlight summoned forth the slender women in string bikinis who snorkeled and swam and walked on the beach nearby, filling him with desire and shame. He turned from them as he did from the pitiless sun.
To Ibrahim, in their heedlessness and privilege, these tourists symbolized those who had shamed his people, the Zionists who used America's weaponry to occupy their remaining lands and strangle them in a web of settlements and roadblocks, cementing their exile with the glue of poverty. He thought of his sister, sweet and scared, who once had trembled when the bombs fell, before the soldiers drove all reason from her brain; of his father, whose profitable accounting practice had shriveled to bare subsistence; of their ancestral home in Haifa, now possessed by Jews, its beauty known to Ibrahim only through photographs; of another image, this one of bombed-out wreckage in the refugee camp in Jenin, beneath which lay a corpse whose sole marker was a shattered pair of gold-rimmed glasses. "Terrorist" the Zionists had called him.
No, Ibrahim thought-a martyr, and my friend. But it was Salwa, his sister, who fueled his wavering resolve in this place too far from home.
Their journey here had begun in Ramallah, on the West Bank. Using their own passports, they drove to Amman, then flew to Paris, Mexico City, and Cancún. There they had rented a car in Iyad's true name, driving to the villa selected by the unknown authors of their mission. Ibrahim was unused to this freedom of travel-a clear highway without checkpoints or soldiers, running for miles in a straight line.
They were free here, Ibrahim thought now, a bitter irony. Neither had a criminal record; both spoke fluent English. They were in Akumal for the diving, they said on the few occasions in which they needed to say anything, and then proceeded to do nothing but await their fate in luxury. The conceit of this refuge was that no one with their actual mission would choose such a place: they were rendered inconspicuous by the sheer incongruity of their presence, and the indifference of vacationers bent on their own pleasure and distraction.
And so they kept to themselves, unnoticed save by a housekeeper who spoke rudimentary English and did what little cooking and cleaning they required. Their plans, Ibrahim felt certain, were beyond anything that life had led this simple woman to contemplate. The only Jews she had ever known were no doubt rich Americans-like, by the evidence Ibrahim had sifted from photographs and books, the absentee owners of the villa-and probably she did not even know what they were. For now, at least, he and Iyad seemed safe.
Yet Ibrahim was both frightened and sad. The dream state of this respite made him feel small, the puppet of unseen forces. He tried to imagine once more the pride of his friends, the admiration of strangers for whom, in death, he would enter into history. But here, in Akumal, this vision lacked the vividness it had had in Ramallah. Instead it seemed somehow juvenile, the fantasy of a boy who had placed himself in an action movie with which he had killed some idle afternoon.
Their only contact with reality was Iyad's cell phone. Ibrahim was not allowed to answer it: Iyad would retreat to a corner of the villa, speaking Arabic in a low voice. His terse comments afterward made Ibrahim feel patronized, a child fed by his parents some rehearsed and edited version of a grown-up conversation held behind closed doors. It was this, he supposed, that made it even harder to imagine Iyad Hassan taking orders from a woman.
But this woman, too, was surely only a conduit, the instrument of other men who shared their vision. In the end, they and their faceless masters were all servants of their people, and of God.
Ibrahim checked his watch. Inside, he knew, Iyad was finishing his extended prayers-head bowed, eyes squinting tight, deepening the premature lines of a face too careworn for a man who, at twenty-four, was only two years older than Ibrahim himself. Sometimes Ibrahim believed that Iyad had known everything but doubt.
Sometimes he wished that Iyad had not chosen him.
He could not envision paradise. He could experience what martyrdom would bring him only in earthly imaginings of the Ramallah that would persist after his death, peopled by ordinary citizens whose pleasure it was to recall Ibrahim's sacrifice while living out their ordinary lives-in a land, he could only pray, transformed by his act. He would never know the unborn children who, Iyad had assured him, would feel pride in the mention of his name, study his photograph for the markers of bravery. The pieces of his ruined body would find no grave at home.
This place was his oasis, and his prison: he was a hostage to time that dragged with agonizing slowness, waiting for the phone call that would propel them into action. So yet again, he sat on a stone bench atop a rocky ledge where waves struck with a low thud and shot spumes of white into the air, dampening his face and bare chest with a cool mist. The sandy space between the rocks and the villa was thick with palms; the pounding surf filled the air with a ceaseless watery static. The villa itself was bright and airy, and in the sheltered front garden was a swimming pool. Ibrahim could not imagine that anyone lived like this-except the Zionist settlers, the red tile roofs of whose houses resembled the roof of this villa, or, he thought with fleeting disdain, the eminences of the Palestinian Authority, once his nominal leaders. But from the evidence of the photographs, this was the home of a bearded American Jew and his skinny wife, grinning maniacally at the camera in a parody of the vacationer's escapist glee. On their coffee table was a picture book entitled A Day in the Life of Israel, a catalog of Zionist achievement, schools and cities and deserts bursting with green orchards and bright fruits and vegetables. Still, what Ibrahim saw as he leafed through the pages was his grandfather dying in a refugee camp, a small wizened man with a gaze at once nearsighted and faraway, the look of decades of wretchedness and dispossession. There was no book with a picture of his grandfather, he thought now; the old man had died as he had lived, seen only by his family.
Remembering, Ibrahim felt his eyes mist with grief and anger. The world weeps, he thought, at the death of a Jewish child. But there is no press coverage of dead Palestinians, unless they die killing Jews; there was no notice of his sister, or the daughter she would never hold, by a media obsessed with Jews blown up in cafés and restaurants by those brave few who chose to emerge from the faceless squalor of their camps, seeking to make their enemy suffer as deeply as did their people. And yet, though Ibrahim respected their courage and understood its purpose, he could not easily conceive of taking women and children with him to their doom. He must be grateful that he had been sent to kill a man.
This man, the face of Israel.
Ibrahim had known that face since childhood, as long as he had known Israeli soldiers and overcrowding and humiliation; that even dogs, but not Palestinians, were allowed to bark; that the real terrorists were not only the Jews but the Americans; that when a Jew dies, the president of the United States weeps in sorrow. He had known all this, and done nothing. Until the day when he looked into the eyes of his sister, now as dull in life as they would someday be in death, and knew that he must redeem his honor . . .
Something heavy struck his back. Flinching, he heard the bomb's percussive pop, stiffened against the explosion that would tear his limbs apart. Then he saw, rolling to a stop, a half-ruined coconut that had dropped from the tree behind him.
Wanly, Ibrahim laughed at himself-a displaced Palestinian on a verdant patch of Mexico, with imaginary bombs falling on him from a palm tree.
Before the trauma of Salwa, he had laughed more often, even in the worst of times. He wondered if what he saw on Iyad's face had entered his soul without touching his own unmarked face-this sense of having felt too much, of a despair deeper and older than his years. On television, at home, he could see beautiful people from all over the world, as free and happy as the half-naked women on the beach at Akumal. But that television set, all he possessed besides a few books and clothes and a college degree from Birzeit without a future he could see, filled him with a sense of his own nothingness. He would sit in his international relations class, furtively admiring Fatin of the light brown eyes and seductive smile, and know that nothing was all he had to offer her.
Even this sojourn was a tribute to their facelessness. That they were in Akumal instead of western Mexico, Iyad informed him, was a change of plans, a fluke of racism and oppression. Self-appointed American vigilantes had begun spending their idle hours patrolling the borders of Arizona and New Mexico, hoping to snare Mexican illegals scurrying across. Those who had planned their mission did not want them caught by some white people's hunt for brown invaders they could not tell from Arabs.
Americans, and Jews. When Iyad had first approached him, he had recited a sermon he had heard from a radical imam. Wherever you are, the holy man had said, kill Jews and Americans. He who straps a suicide belt on his children will be blessed. No Jews believe in peace; all are liars. Even if some piece of paper is signed by Jews and Palestinian traitors, we cannot forget Haifa, or Jericho, or Galilee, all the land and lives the Zionists have stolen from us, the day-by-day degradation into which the occupiers grind our faces. " 'Have no mercy on the Jews,' " Iyad repeated. " 'No matter what country they are in. And never forget that Jews are the sword of the United States of America, the enemy who arms our enemy.' "
This recitation left Ibrahim unmoved. He had heard it all before, countless times; hearing it again gave him the dull sensation of being rhythmically pounded on the head with a bag of sand. Then he thought of Salwa . . .
Once more, Ibrahim flinched.
Tensing, he heard the second discordant ring of Iyad's cell phone, carrying through the screen door of the villa. The ringing stopped abruptly, followed by the sound of Iyad's voice.
Ibrahim closed his eyes.
For minutes he was still. Then, with a sense of foreboding, he heard Iyad's footfalls in the sand, felt his shadow block the sun.
Raising his head, Ibrahim looked into his companion's gaunt face. Then, as before, he thought that God had given Iyad too little skin to cover his bones.
"She called," Iyad said. His monotone had the trace of disdain that Ibrahim found so discordant, given the exactitude with which he carried out her directives. "This is our last night in paradise on earth. The next will be far better."
Two afternoons later, driven by a lean, cold-eyed man they knew only as Pablo, they rode in a van headed toward the border. Crossing would be no problem, Pablo assured them in surprisingly good English-thousands did it every day. Although not, Ibrahim thought, for such a reason.
Pablo left them a mile from the border. Stepping onto the parched earth, they began to walk in the sweltering heat. Turning, Iyad watched Pablo's van disappear, then ordered, "We leave the cell phone here. And our passports. Everything that names us."
These few words, Ibrahim found, sealed his sense of foreboding.
He emptied his pockets. With the care of a man tending a garden, Iyad buried their passports under a makeshift pile of rocks.
An hour later, sweat from their trek coating his face, Ibrahim saw the metallic glint of a silver van driving toward them across the featureless terrain. Ibrahim froze in fear. With preternatural calm, Iyad said, "We're in America. The home of the brave, the liberators of Iraq."
The van stopped beside them. Silently, its dark-haired young driver opened the door, motioning them into the back. In English as fluent as Pablo's, he said, "Lie down. I'm not getting paid to lose you." To Ibrahim, he looked more Arabic than Hispanic. But then, he realized, so had Pablo.
When the man told them to sit up, they were in Brownsville, Texas. He dropped them near a bus terminal with nothing but what he had given them, the key to a locker inside.
The terminal was nearly empty. Glancing over his shoulder, Iyad opened the locker. The brown bag they found held a credit card, three thousand dollars in cash, car keys, a binder, two American passports in false names, and California driver's licenses. With mild astonishment, Ibrahim gazed at his photograph, encased in plastic, and discovered that his new name was Yusuf Akel.
"Let's go," Iyad murmured in Arabic.
Expressionless, he led Ibrahim to a nondescript Ford sedan with California license plates, parked two blocks away. Iyad unlocked the passenger door for Ibrahim.
"We have seven days," Iyad said. "We'll drive until it's dark."
It was June, late spring, and the days were long. Tasting the last saliva in his dry mouth, Ibrahim got in, knowing he would not sleep for hours, if at all.
Iyad drove in silence. Ibrahim riffled through the binder. It contained a sheaf of maps, detailing a route from Brownsville to San Francisco. On the final map of San Francisco were two stars scrawled with a Magic Marker: one labeled "bus station," the other beside a place called Fort Point.
Closing his eyes against the harsh sunlight, Ibrahim tried to summon an image of San Francisco, the end of his life's journey.
Excerpted from EXILE © Copyright 2012 by Richard North Patterson. Reprinted with permission by PUBLISHER. All rights reserved.