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.
Groundation_, pigment painting on wood panel, 2011_
The commander, strangely, is just as identifiable with the mask. The way she stands, with her arms behind her back, holding the handle of her gun. Her chin is raised high. She starts with the redhead.
“How are you feeling with the mask, soldier?”
“Do you love the army?”
“Yes. It’s hard but it is a rewarding experience and I learn a lot.”
“Do you love your country?”
“Who do you love more, your mother or your father?”
“I can’t really answer that. I think I love them both the same amount, but in different ways.”
“Are you afraid to die?”
“Take off your mask. You can run out when you feel you have to.”
I watch the redhead fumble to untie the elastic of her mask and then remove her mask. Immediately, her face crumbles inward like she is sucking on a lemon.
“Do you love the army?”
The redhead opens her mouth to speak and then closes it quickly. She is drooling already. She opens her mouth again, smaller this time, and grunts out a sound. “Yeah.”
“Do you love your country?”
The redhead is flapping her arms near her throat, like a fish.
“Ahhh,” she mumbles, and the mucus from her nose falls to her mouth. She runs out like a stork.
Now it is me.
“Do you love the army?” my commander asks.
“Yes and no, I mean I definitely believe that it is important in a country like ours to serve in the army, but I hope for peace, and on a personal level, of course, boot camp presents its own hardships, and also—”
“Enough,” my boot-camp commander says.
“Are you afraid to die?” she asks. She skips two questions. She knows I am trouble, although I have barely caused any yet. Maybe trouble isn’t something you do, it’s something you are.
“No,” I say. Short and concise. What she wants to hear and, also, the truth.
“Take off your mask. You can run out when you feel you have to,” my commander says. She sounds different from when she said it to the redhead. More content.
I take off my mask and at first I feel nothing but the pain in my scalp. Then I feel the fire, the burn. I cannot open my eyes. I stop taking air in through my nose. But I open my mouth, I do.
And I talk. I have been waiting for so long. This is my chance. As long as I am choking, I am allowed. My talking serves a purpose, it is a matter of national security. A part of our training. I will be prepared for an attack by unconventional weapons. I could save the whole country, that’s how prepared I’ll be. My entire head is burning but my mouth rolls off words; they taste like apples, and they go on and on and on.
My commander runs out of the original four questions. She has to make up a new one.
“What is your earliest memory?” she asks. It is a question they used to ask before someone was brilliant enough to come up with the mom-and-dad question.
I don’t leave on my own. She tells me to.
I talk and I talk and I talk.
I think I stayed inside the tear-gas tent longer than any soldier before me.
Outside, I cannot breathe. I cannot open my eyes, and although I don’t want them to, my feet start running on their own, faster and faster. I can taste blood in my mouth coming from my nose, my throat burns as though it is stuffed with boiling oil. The skin of my face feels like it’s been rubbed with sandpaper. I run and run, until arms catch me midair and hold me for a very long time. When I can finally see again, through the water in my eyes, I see where I was heading. The cliff. The arms belonged to my commander. She held me, before I fell. My commander, this was her job.
They are sure I cheated, although they cannot for the life of them imagine how. I am told I stayed in the gas tent for more than two and a half minutes, and they say that this is just not possible, that there must have been some funny business going on. It felt like I was talking longer. It felt like in that time I got to tell everything, almost.
I have to see the commander of the base. I enter the room, salute with my gun, and stare at him.
For a second, I think he is reaching for his gun, that the commander of the base is going to kill me. Sometimes I think things I know are not true. But he is just reaching for his cigarettes. His nostrils flare when he drags in the smoke. He gestures for me to sit across from him, and when I drop onto the office chair I can see that the hairs inside his nose are gray, like the lifelines of spiders. He crushes his cigarette in an ashtray made of a green grenade shell and then reaches for another.
He is only interested in killing himself, and slowly. He doesn’t care about killing me. I am sad that he cares about himself more than me. Say I am just not being realistic, but it still makes me sad when people are like that. Most people are like that. I am like that.
The base commander says I need to get my act together. Don’t I know? People are dying. He hopes I will take some time to think of ways I can become a better soldier.
“And just a general point. Your commander says you keep on talking when you are not talked to. Why do you do that?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I guess I have all these thoughts,” I say.
“One day soon you need to wake up and realize that your thoughts are interrupting everyone.”
My punishment is to sleep that night with my gas mask on. Creative and humiliating all at once. I’m sort of impressed.
I wish I were a better soldier. At night, no matter how hard I try, I think about everything but how to become a better soldier.
All night long, I stare at the ceiling of the tent through the sheer plastic; it frames the thick green cloth of the tent, all this green, an impressionist painting. The knobs at the back of the mask pierce my scalp.
If I cry, it’s not because I hope that one of the girls in the tent will wake up. We only get five hours of sleep each night. And we are not friends.
I cannot sleep, so I imagine one of two things could happen.
I could wake up after a night with my gas mask on and find that Iran had bombed Israel and that I am the last living person in the whole country—the mask had saved me. The girls in the tent would be dead and blue, and I would march out of the gates of the base and into the Negev desert, where dehydration could kill me, or chemicals poisoning the skin of my body could kill me, but those things don’t kill me. What kills me is that I have no one to talk to.
Another thing that could happen is that Iran doesn’t bomb Israel, at least not on that day, and I reach the end of the world. I finish boot camp. I finish the army. I go to Panama and Guatemala and Argentina. There are Israelis, of course, swarms of them everywhere. But finally, they all leave, and I am the last Israeli tourist left in Ushuaia, Argentina, the closest city to Antarctica, to the end of the world. The bookstores are all in Spanish. The lakes are too cold for a swim. At the bars, all the clients are middle-aged French men. I am all alone.
My earliest memory. I open my eyes and see the small room through plastic. My father is wearing his mask, and my baby brother is on the carpet inside a gas-protective incubator, because he is too small for a mask of his own. It is 1991, and missiles are falling from Iraq. On the radio they tell us to avoid the underground shelters. They tell us to seal one room of the house with duct tape, wear the masks, drink a lot of water, and hope for the best. On the radio they say missiles are falling in region M, our region, and my parents are arguing. “Duct tape?” my mother asks. “This is silly.”
I do not know the details of any of this, I hear about it later, and it becomes my memory. That night, I do not yet have enough words to make a sentence. All I remember is my mother, her dark face bare, collecting me in her arms, me only, and running up the wooden steps onto the roof. Rain falls on the palm trees below, but my mother removes my mask and pulls my chin up, high in the air. A ball of light rips through the night sky in pink and ember and blaze. My mother drowns her chin in my hair. We watch, and if I am alone I do not yet know it.
I stare at the ceiling of the tent through the sheer plastic into the night. The knobs at the back of the mask pierce my scalp. I am crying, and not because I hope that one of the girls in the tent will wake up.
But then one does wake up. The blood one, the one who thought too much of her blood was being taken. She is awake, but she does not realize that I am a person, her fellow soldier, and in my field bed and crying inside a gas mask. My suffocated whines sound to her like the words of an animal.
“Is that a cat?” she whispers, spiky as a blade that pierces through the air and tent and ears. “Girls! There is a cat in the tent.”
“A cat?” the redheaded girl asks. She does not bother whispering.
“Help me. I am allergic. I may die.” The blood girl waits for the words of another person.
The mask protects me. They cannot see my face. They cannot see my mouth. They do not know that it was me who made the sound. If I scream, if I scream right now, a deafening and smashing and muted scream, there is a chance, a small chance, that no one will ever know it was me. It will be the sound of all girls screaming.
I scream the fear of blood, and ember, and blaze. I scream the terror of the beeping watches and boots treading the sand, and the panic brought by a reek that thinks it’s bananas. The sound of the words I scream is the groan of my shame, my shame that is not a boulder, my shame that I never agreed to bury.
If you want, I will tell you the words I scream, I will tell you all the sounds and words and letters. But first you have to swear that you really want to hear it from me.