As Omar Yussef came along the passage, the flies left the flooded toilets to examine him. The filth in the latrines soon lured most of them back, but a small, droning escort orbited him as he sweated toward Gaza.
The passage was wide and empty, haunted by the thousands who shoved through there twice a day. Its whitewashed walls were soiled gray to the height of a man’s shoulder, marked by the touch of laborers jostling at dawn to their construction jobs in Israel. The mid- morning sun slopped under the raised tin roof, sickly and urinous. The air was pale and stinking and every surface was repugnant.
Omar Yussef struggled along the uneven concrete, scuffing his mauve loafers and bracing his overnight case against his knee with each step. He touched the back of his hand to his nose, fighting the toilet stench with a hint of his French cologne.
Magnus Wallender came alongside him. At forty, the Swede was sixteen years younger than Omar Yussef and three inches taller, not quite five feet ten. His wavy hair was a blondish gray and his light beard was trimmed very short. He wore khaki slacks, a well- pressed blue shirt and tasteful glasses, horn- rimmed and rectangular. “Oh dear,” he said, raising a pale eyebrow at the putrid puddle in front of the toilets.
“The scent of Gaza,” Omar Yussef said.
Wallender smiled and turned to Omar Yussef. “Would you like me to help you with your bag?”
The Swede was trying to be kind, but Omar Yussef hated to think it was obvious that the weight of the bag was a discomfort to him in the heat. Had it been anyone else, he would have snapped, but Wallender was his boss. Kiss the hand that can’t be bitten, he thought. “Thank you, Magnus. I can manage,” he said.
A Palestinian officer sat behind a battered desk in the shade of the grubby passage wall, beyond a squeaking turnstile and a tall roll of barbed wire. When he saw Omar Yussef approaching with a foreigner, he straightened, preparing to process important guests. He reached for the green plastic wallet that held Omar Yussef’s ID card and for Wallender’s dark red passport. The officer examined the photo page of the passport. “Mister Magnus?” he said.
Wallender nodded and smiled.
“Welcome,” the officer murmured, in English. “For what do you come to Gaza?”
“I’m with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in the Jerusalem office,” Wallender said. “We’re making an inspection of the UN schools in the Gaza refugee camps.” He gestured toward Omar Yussef. “My colleague is the principal at one of our schools in Bethlehem.”
The officer nodded, though Omar Yussef was sure the man’s English wasn’t equal to Wallender’s explanation. Omar Yussef noticed that he transcribed the Swede’s name incorrectly in the large, dog- eared tablet on the table.
“How long since you were in Gaza, ustaz?” the officer asked Omar Yussef.
“Twenty years, my son. The permit isn’t easy to get.”
“You’ll notice some changes in Gaza.”
“Gaza will notice some changes in me.” Omar Yussef gave a short laugh that sounded as though he were preparing to expectorate. “When I was last in Gaza, I had nice curly hair and I could carry an overnight case without breaking into a sweat.”
The officer grinned. He glanced from the ID card to Omar Yussef and his smile wavered, betraying polite confusion. Is he surprised that I’m not as old as I look? Omar Yussef thought. Just below average height, Omar Yussef appeared even shorter because his shoulders stooped like those of an old man. His hair was white, liver spots stained his balding scalp, and his tidy mustache was gray.
“At least, you still have your mind, uncle.” The officer handed back the ID card. “Unlike Gaza.”
Wallender stepped into the light beyond the passageway and gazed at the sun, stretching. “We’re being met here by the UN security officer for Gaza,” he said. “A fellow named James Cree. I’m told he’s Scottish.”
Omar Yussef came up beside him. “A security officer?”
“Apparently Gaza is a bit dangerous, you see.” Wallender laughed.
Taxi drivers lazed in the shade cast by a one- room police post. A few of them approached, calling vaguely predatory welcomes and pointing to their shaky, yellow vehicles. From the shadow beyond the police station stepped a bald, thin man, peering at his mobile phone. He was nearly six and a half feet tall, and his face and scalp were red from the sun.
“I’d say that’s our Mister Cree, don’t you think?” Wallender said. “He looks even more foreign than I do. Which is a rare feat.”
James Cree put his mobile phone in the breast pocket of his short- sleeved shirt. His sunburned face was soft and seemed wavily rounded, like a poached egg on a plate. His eyes were a delicate, faded blue, and he wore a ginger mustache no wider than a pinkie finger from top to bottom. His limbs were long and narrow and suggested the sinewy strength of an endurance athlete.
Wallender shook Cree’s hand. “This is our colleague Omar Yussef, principal of the Girls’ School in Dehaisha refugee camp,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to have obtained permission from the Israelis for him to pass through the checkpoint to work with me on this inspection.”
The Scot bent to shake Omar Yussef’s hand. Omar Yussef felt small, slow and paunchy before the tall, lean man. “Mister Wallender takes you to all the best places,” Cree said dourly, barely moving his lips.
Wallender reached up to slap Cree’s shoulder and went laughing to the white Chevrolet Suburban with black UN markings that rolled out of the parking lot for them.
They settled into the vehicle’s air- conditioned cool. From the front seat, Cree looked at Wallender over his shoulder as the driver pulled into the road. “We’ve got an emerging situation here, Magnus. The office called me as I was waiting for you, and they’ve been messaging me more details on my cellphone. One of our teachers was arrested early this morning.”
“Who?” Wallender said.
“A fellow named Eyad Masharawi. He teaches part- time at our school in Shati refugee camp. The rest of the time he’s a university lecturer.”
“At the Islamic University?” Omar Yussef said.
“No, the other one, whatever the hell it’s called.”
“Aye. Well, the poor bugger’s been arrested. So I’ll drop you at your hotel, if you don’t mind, and I’ll get along sharpish to Masharawi’s house to see what can be done.”
Magnus Wallender looked at Omar Yussef. “We don’t want to delay you, James. Why don’t we come with you? You can take us to the hotel later.”
“I’d just as soon drop you first.”
“No, really, we’d prefer to go with you.”
Cree wasn’t looking at them now. “What about your inspection?” he said, softly.
“I’d say this would be part of our inspection, if one of our teachers is in custody...