Black Elephants
A Memoir
Karol Nielsen
(Bison Books)
Karol is traveling around Peru and she meets the love of her life: Aviv from Israel. They end up on a train together, and it's his hands that get her. "His fingers were as lean as the rest of him," she reports.

She angles to travel with him, but it's slow going:

    I wanted him to reach out, take my hands, wrap me around him, kiss me. But he didn't. I walked out of the room behind him, watching his Levi's pockets and the rim of his flannel shirt.

And so we get to move around South America and then, later on to New York with her and her new love, now captured. They end up in Israel, in 1990, at the beginning of the war over Kuwait.

For the six weeks of the war, Iraq is lobbing Scud missiles into Israel, and Karol's first taste of war comes with elephants. Black elephants. Because it was thought that the missiles were sure to contain poison gas: during the raids everyone put on gas masks, Aviv and his mother and father --- Moshe and Sarah --- and Karol:

    Cramped. Confined. Agitated. Afraid. I could see their eyes through the lens of the black rubber mask. Nervous like mine. We were no longer men and women. The mask was our hide, the filter, however short, our trunk. We were black elephants stripped of our humanity, trapped like wild game.

When she first arrives in Israel, Karol learns immediately what it is like to be in a state of siege:

    I looked at the shattered window, and thought of the boy who'd thrown the stone at our cab, poisoned falafel sandwiches, tourists gunned down in Egypt, the British traveler stabbed in the West Bank, and how Israelis tried to prevent it all with soldiers and rules ... shooting rocks and real and rubber bullets; sealing and bulldozing homes; plowing olive groves; and building a reinforced-concrete wall along the West bank.

Aviv and Karol falling in love (in South America), being in love (in New York and Israel), and then falling out of love (in Israel and New York): It is a brief history of their love, but also it is a primer on where not to love.

For instance ... in a war zone, around those who have lived in a war zone before. Aviv's parents lived through WWII and the holocaust, Aviv himself grew up in a family that was so inundated by horror that, sooner or later, all emotions got dumped in the freezer. But Karol doesn't stop trying:

    I wanted to show that I could understand and cherish their world, and all the history that had shaped it. I wanted to learn a whole new alphabet and speak in Hebrew, to talk with Moshe and Sarah and Aviv in their own tongue. I wanted to work hard on the kibbutz ... I wanted to write about the constant relentless terror, the air raids, and the threat of chemical and biological warfare.

"And I did. Did all that," she writes. But it isn't enough. There are Moshe's hard eyes when she makes a mistake in her Hebrew lessons; there is Aviv hunched down in front of his computer night after night. And something else, the undercurrent of violence ... even between those she is living with.

When she is in the kibbutz, Karol's roommate gets date-raped. Karol falls to pieces, but when she tells Aviv's family, they don't get it.

    Talking to Sarah: "I'm not going back to the kibbutz," I said.

    She set down her knitting. "Why?"

    I told her about Lucie.

    She furrowed her brow. "But was this really rape?"

    Lucie was my roommate, my friend, a young woman. Vulnerable. Violated. And Sarah was a mother, my mother away from home. How could she abandon me?

What Karol is learning is that many of the people in this war-torn, history-haunted, blighted and fought-over land have been violated in so many ways over such a long time that something like a "date-rape" does not cause much in a way of a reaction. The mother Sarah says, "I had to learn to be strong ... strong like a good Israeli girl has to be strong. We have no time for crying." This is not the way Karol wants to be to be, this is not what she bargained for when she came to Israel as Aviv's fiancée.

Love? It's best in a flower-filled garden, or on the relatively peaceful streets of New York --- with a deli down the way, ice-cream across the street, bagels around the corner. The lesson is one as old as Romeo and Juliet where a near-perfect love had to founder because of a gang-war between two unforgiving families. As Nielsen writes near the end of her classic memoir,

    I think of the siren's slow and relentless beat as our finale --- a sad, sad song about war and the unraveling of Aviv and me. I see how war and terror squander innocence and twist the soul, even if you are not among the visibly wounded or dead. It was as if we have never left that room, had never taken off those masks, had never returned to our old selves. We were black elephants, still.
--- Carlos Amantea
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH