The captive is kneeling at my feet, clutching onto the fabric of my pants, begging for my help. Please, please, tell him to let me off, this will be my end.
The bus driver hesitated before announcing his verdict. He looked up through the mirror at his jury of passengers, scanning the faces he could see, before turning back to the captive. “I cannot just let you off in the middle of the highway. I will only let you off at our final stop. So sit down, and be quiet.” I look back at the other members of the jury. They are attentive, but quiet. Each is making their own calculations.
When I get the chance, I like travelling in the front seats. Especially on the way back to Jerusalem, as the bus winds its way up through the hills and the road rises up ahead, carving deep narrow cuts through the layered rock. We’d just pushed through a cloud of thick fog that blanketed the valleys. Until now, the only sounds were the strain of the motor and the rattle of the windows. But now a trial has erupted.
There is only one stop left before we reach the city, and our captive, who is about my age, is wailing, begging to be let off before we reach the city. He spent most of the trip at the back of the bus, but something happened back there, which has led him to seek escape. He has not accepted the shifting of his status, from passenger to captive.
Does it make a difference to our story that this man is the only Palestinian on the bus? At least as far as I can tell, that is. If there are others, they will remain quiet. It does make a difference: the jury he faces is not composed of his peers.
The second and third time the driver proclaims the verdict, it is lacking the grain of uncertainty I am sure I heard earlier. “Be quiet! I will let you off only when we reach Jerusalem, and not before then.”
The captive is sobbing louder now, in true terror as his fate, which I cannot truly grasp, solidifies. All at once, the jury erupts: men and women, young and old, a raging mass of eyes and teeth set loose, demanding he relent, sit down, accept his fate. Shouting. Some wishing back their broken stillness, some from their own sense of duty, but all brimming with spite. As a last resort, the captive turns to me. He is kneeling at my feet and clutching onto the fabric of my pants. But one look back at this eruption is enough and I have turned to stone.
Before the verdict, there was another man: the prosecutor. A young, tall man with a rifle slung over his chest, delivering confident testimony. He still bears the air of a soldier, and probably always will. Emerging from the back of the bus, he strode up to the driver, on the heels of our accused. “Driver! This man harassed a woman.” He points back toward the dim, faceless stillness. “He tried to touch her. He should be taken directly to the police. Don’t let him off before we get to Jerusalem.”
Is it possible I am reading this story all wrong? Am I the one with a clouded judgement? Is it impossible that this self-appointed prosecutor is an upstanding citizen – a man standing up for a woman, and all other considerations are merely coincidental? I look back to see if I can glimpse this woman, but she is a missing character in the story. The bus is a corridor, endless and dark. Her version is missing. Why has the captive chosen me as his public defender? Simply because I am there, beside him? Perhaps he senses that I can be swayed. Shall I rise up and assume the duty thrust upon me? Shall I attempt to summon the alleged victim? Walk back, see if she is real, if the story is true? By becoming an active part of this court, do I legitimize it? Who am I, to subpoena any woman? I am paralyzed, and the moment passes. The jury has said its word, wishing back silence through their anger.
It is said there are two Jerusalems: the Jerusalem of above, and the Jerusalem of below. They exist separately yet bound, always affecting each other. Jerusalem the heavenly and Jerusalem the tangible. I tell you this knowing full well that in English these translated words will always appear distant, unconnected. But in Hebrew they sound true, even obvious; an essential piece of navigational knowledge, something only an outsider would not pick up themselves.
The doors open at the penultimate station. The captive’s attempt to flee is feeble, quickly blocked. The doors shut and we continue upwards, the possibility for mercy gone now. Our captive, our driver, our prosecutor, our invisible woman, our jury silent again but with its suffocating spite still reverberating, filling the space which now seems heavy, thick, incapable of motion. My mind is going round and round, trying to grasp onto something as different stories I tell myself about what is most important mercilessly collide within, exposing my own transparency.
The captive has stopped crying. He is staring forward at the road now, stone-faced, through the glass. We reach the central station, a hideous cavern half buried in the ground, and the passengers get off, each to their own way. Our court is adjourned. I take one last furtive glance at the captive, who is being enveloped by others: men, arms, guns, voices. I make my own escape, unimpeded of course. I don’t want to be late. I really can’t lose this job.