Terrain, sand painting on wood panel, 2011
Twenty-four-year-old Shani Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem into a mixed Iraqi and Romanian family, and raised in a small town on the Lebanese border. This is her first published story, inspired by her time in the Israeli Defense Force as a teenager. We have coupled Shani’s story with photographs by the New York City-based artist Peter Sutherland, which he took while making a series of sand paintings. How does one make a sand painting, you ask? Well, Peter says you pour colored sand on panels and then let whatever magic happens, happen. The result makes our eyes feel all warm and fuzzy, which is a very nice feeling indeed. It also calls to mind the tear gas the main character endures in Shani’s story, which conversely isn’t pleasant whatsoever. Shani is currently at work on her first novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid.
We, the boot-camp girls, stand in a perfect square that lacks one of its four sides. Our commander stands in front of us, facing the noon sun. She squints. She screams.
“Raise your hand if you are wearing contact lenses.”
Two girls raise their hands. The commander folds her arm to look at her watch. The two girls do the same.
“In two minutes and 30 seconds, I want to see you back here from the tents. Without your contact lenses, understood?” the commander shouts.
“Yes, commander,” the girls shout, and their watches beep. They run. Clouds of sand trail the quick steps of their boots.
“Raise your hand if you are asthmatic,” the boot-camp commander shouts.
None of the girls raise their hands.
“Good,” the commander says. “Very good.”
In my IDF boot camp, we couldn’t tell what would happen after we raised our arms in response to one of the commander’s questions. The week before, we were asked to raise our hands if we weighed below 50 kilos. Then we were asked to raise our hands if we had ever shared needles or had unprotected sex shortly before we were drafted. The army wanted our blood. Two liters, but you got strawberry Kool-Aid and white bread while the needle was inside you. The self-proclaimed sluts and druggies served it to the girls who were pumping their fists, trying to make the blood gush out quicker.
“Faster,” the commander screamed.
“My hand feels like there’s ice on it,” one of the other soldiers said. “It feels frozen.” She was lying on the field bed across from mine. I wanted to reach over and grab her hand, so that she would be less cold, so that I would be less alone. I couldn’t. Because of the needle in my arm, because it would have been a mistake. Mom said that if I want to get a good posting after boot camp, I have to learn to control my mouth. Mom was once an officer.
The girl on the field bed next to mine freaked out. She extended the arm with the needle away from her body, like it was cursed. Her face turned red. “I think it’s taking too much blood. Can someone check? Can someone see if it’s taking too much blood?”
I knew I shouldn’t say anything.
“I want to go home,” she said. “I don’t like this.”
She looked very young. Eventually I spoke. “It’s fine.”
That’s when the commander intervened. “No one said you could talk,” she shouted.
I was the only one who was punished. During shower hour, I had to dig a hole in the sand large enough to bury a boulder the size of five heads. The commander said the boulder represented my “shame.” She smiled when she explained that. None of the girls helped. They just stood on the sand, waiting in line for the showers, and watched.
Now, the army wants us to know what it is like to be suffocated. That’s why they asked about contact lenses and asthma. It is ABC day. Atomic, biological, chemical.
We stand in two lines on top of a sandy hill. We help one another put the gas masks on.
“You’re doing it all wrong,” the commander yells at me. “All wrong.”
She stretches one of the black elastic bands tighter, and my hair is pulled so tightly it’s as if someone had taken a handful of my hair and tried to pull it off my scalp.
With our masks on, we look like the bodies of soldiers with the faces of robotic dogs. The big gray filter stretches like a snout. The sun heats the black plastic of the mask and radiates inward. The sheer plastic above my eyes is stained, and wherever I turn the world looks framed and distant, a dirty cheap painting of sand, then sand from another angle.
The commander goes down the line, breaking plastic miniatures of bananas. “Each one of your ABC kits has a few of these little bananas. If you break it and you still smell bananas, your mask is not sealed right.”
I can feel the veins at the back of my head choking. When the commander passes by, waving the tiny banana, I can smell it. Bananas. Bananas and sand.
“I can smell bananas and—” I say. My voice vibrates inside of the mask. My words, they fail me. I want to talk. All the time. I am an idiot. Like it matters what I am thinking.
“No one said you could speak,” my commander shouts. “Just get one of your friends to fix it,” she says. They call the other soldiers “your friends.” I hate that. They are other soldiers. They are not my friends. Mom said, You don’t go into the army to make friends. Don’t be fooled.
The commander lets us into the tent two at a time. My partner is a fat redhead. We watch one of the girls who entered before us lift the cover of the tent and run outside as if on fire, her mouth dripping with saliva, her eyes closed and wet, her nose running in green and yellow. She runs with her mouth open, her arms stretched to the sides, she runs far, her small green body becoming a speck on the empty horizon.
The redhead laughs, and I do too. I have heard from Sarit, my friend, or maybe just a girl I know who happens to live in my village and is a year older than me, that the tear-gas tent is the first place commanders can get personal with their boot-camp soldiers. They ask them the same four questions:
Do you love the army?
Do you love your country?
Who do you love more, your mother or father?
Are you afraid to die?
The commanders get a kick out of this because, at first, they ask these questions when the soldier has her mask on, but then they get to ask the questions when the soldier is in the tear-gas tent without the mask and watch her panic. That is the goal of the exercise. To train you not to panic in case of an atomic, biological, or chemical attack. I fail to see the point. I tell that to Sarit, I tell her, in that case, why don’t they just shoot us so we know what that feels like, but she says, Don’t get smart. We get to run out of the tent when we feel we are choking. Sarit says they expect you to stay as long as you can. I ask what’s as long as you can, and she asks, How long can you breathe underwater?
It is our turn.
The redhead and I bend below the tent’s flap and enter. It is dark inside, and so warm I feel as though the buttons of my uniform burn my wrists. I can feel it. I can see it. The tent is full of poison. I know it, but the mask doesn’t let it harm me. In a way, I feel like a cheater.