The News from Bulgaria

We will not cross paths with the bodies. 

We are due at Ben Gurion airport in just a few hours, and we are deep into the final busy-ness of moving out of our Tel Aviv apartment. My wife is mopping the kitchen floor, the two children are checking under the beds for any items left behind, and I am carrying the luggage down the stairs one heavy piece at a time. I return to the apartment after each trip, glad for the air conditioning, but with each piece of luggage removed the apartment becomes emptier, less our space as it has been for the past five weeks, and more a generic rental apartment awaiting the next customer. Soon there will be the short, hot walk to the taxi, the nighttime ride to the airport, the intricacies of Israeli security, the final spending of the shekels in our pockets on gum or chocolate, and finally, hopefully, a flight moving smoothly and relentlessly along the earth’s rotation to meet the sun as it rises early Sunday morning in New York.

But one thing we know; we won’t have to share the airport space with the bodies. They passed through Ben Gurion two nights earlier, on a chartered flight from Burgas, Bulgaria, one airport giving its dead to another, the sterilized transit space at either end suddenly made very personal, if only briefly, until time passes and regular flights resume.

So much of Israeli history has been written in airports. Entebbe. Vienna. Rome. Munich. In grounded hijacked airplanes and in airport lounges crackling with gunfire. In daring rescue raids made into the stuff of miracles and in botched rescues turned bloody and wrong. Even Ben Gurion, our destination tonight, is itself a part of this history, though it was called simply Lod Airport almost exactly forty years ago, when members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Japanese Red Army pulled assault rifles out of violin cases and fired indiscriminately into the crowd, murdering twenty-six people, most of them Christian tourists from Puerto Rico. Or the alternate Israeli history that could be written in flight numbers: Swissair 330, Sabena 571, TWA 480, El Al 426, El Al 253, El Al 432, like entries in a most particular and morbid travel itinerary.

Now comes Burgas, a tourist town on the Black Sea many people had never even heard of before last week, before the explosion, the bodies, the wounded. (When I mentioned the event in class, a student said, quite simply and earnestly: Bulgaria?) Burgas, like all the attacks before it, is now built into the Israeli encounter with airports and airplanes, an ever-evolving series of expectations and procedures, scans and questions, excitement and worry, the emotional background noise that mixes with the flight announcements, the steady drone of human conversation, the unhappy babies, the stern warning please do not leave your luggage unattended.

Even in more normal circumstances, there is something about imminent travel that turns my sensible, practical, detail-oriented wife into a festering anxiety bubble. She worries. She cleans obsessively. She has terrible fantasies about burning planes and emergency water landings. She writes notes to her friends that say, regarding the children and me, at least we’ll all be killed together. This happens every time, recent terrorist attack or no, though I know that the news from Bulgaria isn’t helping. We are putting ourselves and our children into danger every time we take off and land.

Still, we go to the airport.

When we arrive, the lines are long, as they always are on a Saturday night, since Shabbat has ended and all of Israel is free to travel again.  If you hadn’t been reading the newspapers, or listening to the radio, or watching the television (though what Israeli hasn’t been?) there would be no sign that this week was different from any other. 

Soon the small, attractive Israeli security guard is holding open my passport, with its numerous entry and exit stamps for Ben Gurion-Lod, and looking at the document and at me at the same time. She asks: Is this your first time in Israel?

My sixth.

You don’t speak any Hebrew?

I do.

Where did you learn?

Kibbutz Ramat Yochanon, near Haifa. In Ulpan.

You didn’t know any before that?

I learned some, for my bar mitzvah.

Where was that?

Congregation Ezrath Israel. In New York.

Do you still go there?

I don’t live there anymore.

Oh, she says. And then somewhat nonsensically, I’m sorry.

I’ve heard all these questions before, exit and entry. I answer them fully, precisely, like filling in a crossword. I’ve done this enough to know that the content of the questions is hardly the point. She’s looking for a hesitation, an inconsistency, a nervousness—something that will make me stand out from the hundreds of people waiting behind me. She leaves with our passports in hand and gives them to another small, attractive security guard, who comes back to us. She says, Sorry if I repeat some of the questions my colleague just asks. Then she asks all of them, again, and we give the same answers, again.

It’s all so normal. It always is. Things are normal until the terrible moment that they aren’t. Even from Burgas, the eyewitness accounts reinforce the routine of air travel, how much we are able to put all this out of our minds for the nearer anxieties and bothers of long lines, luggage retrieval, bad air, bad food, boredom that feels almost sacred when set against the other possibilities. “We were just getting on the bus when suddenly someone came near the bus’s front door and exploded,” one Israeli tourist testified. “We heard a boom and the next thing we saw were body parts scattered on the ground…a burned hole in the side of the bus.”

After the second round of questions the guard folds our passports and hands them back to us. The security officers turn their eyes to the next family. Our luggage slides through the system and receives its tags. The passengers around us board their packed, noisy flights. The wheels go up. Everyone hopes to land somewhere.


Kevin Haworth is the author of a novel about the German occupation of Denmark, The Discontinuity of Small Things, and editor of Lit From Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art and Craft of Writing. He teaches at Ohio University and at Tel Aviv University. “The News from Bulgaria” is from his forthcoming essay collection Famous Drownings in Literary History.

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