JERUSALEM — Jerusalem.--FOR MANY, THE GREATEST danger of the Persian Gulf war is not the conventional warhead, chemical or nuclear warheads, or even the fear of warheads, but simply the "war head," the head-full-of-war: war radio and TV, war politics, war small talk, war games, war food and war protective plastic sheeting.
One becomes a war-head when one's mood and curiosity, one's every night and day, are swept up in The War. This, of course, is the collective victory of Saddam Hussein and George Bush. Each day that we await the sirens and unknown explosions from the sky, or at least an hourly news update, we feel the roots of our defeat. A defeat not of territory but of consciousness, yet a defeat with exciting consolation prizes.
I am one such victim, who, for lack of ability to concentrate on academic work, has chosen to describe this suspended reality. In so doing, I hope also to encourage people who are more physically removed than I (that is, whose bodies are outside of missile firing range) to consider today's war drama from a more personal perspective, that is, to test their own war heads.
Our Jerusalem apartment, perched on a hill near the president's house, overlooks the Israel Museum and the Knesset. Maria and I make sure we are home before dusk (from dusk to dawn being Saddam's preferred hours for launching missiles) to be with our nine-month old baby during raids.
When the shrill civil defense alarm is sounded, I pause for a few seconds by our picture window to watch the museum's lights extinguish and to absorb the sights and sounds of a nation running for cover. With the siren, the people-pulse quickens and the scuffle of Jerusalemites fleeing the streets can be heard from the streets three floors below. The few drivers on the roads frantically honk their horns and race to an appropriate place to pull over and seal the car windows and don their gas masks, as instructed by the civil defense authority; while others just speed home.
At the instant of the warning, our building of six apartments becomes alive with activity -- doors and windows slamming, feet scurrying, announcing that families and old folks are manning their airtight "sealed rooms."
Each home has one. For sake of convenience, we chose to seal the baby's room, but it's not hermetically sealed. We have done our best to block incoming air from the windows and external doors by fitting foam strips between the frames, taping over the cracks, and then covering the entire structure with thick, clear plastic which is taped to the wall inside the room, giving the appearance of a makeshift plastic bag with its own brown tape frame hanging over the windows.
In the Room we have a bucket of water, to soak a towel for the foot of the door (once we are closed inside) to block gas from coming under; a few days supply of canned food and milk for us and baby; sealed mineral water; equipment such as batteries, flashlight, candle, radio, pocket knife, etc.; our gas masks, the self-injectable Atropine doses (nerve gas antidote for adults and babies) and talc treatment for mustard gas burns; and, most important, baby's "mamat" or "infant survival carrier," in which infants and toddlers until the age of two or three are locked during each missile attack.
The mamat -- a transparent plastic box more than a yard long, with a filter system and a shoulder strap, supported by an aluminum frame -- is also a carrier which collapses in order to travel (with baby inside) to a hospital or bomb shelter if necessary. During daylight hours, one occasionally sees parents lugging the hefty unit in its cardboard box wherever baby must go, so baby will never be out of reach of her mamat, and that mommy and daddy will be a little less worried by the prospect that an attack would come while separated.
It's a strange burden, to drag masks, talc, injectors and the burly mamat anywhere and everywhere one goes: shopping, to a pizza parlor, a walk around the block. . . . The official instructions are to always take one's personal survival kit, though many people break the rules here and there. For example, our day baby-sitter has a sealed house (!), with every window and door in the ten-room villa individually insulated. Hence, confident that little Anitra would be amply protected from gas, we have taken the liberty to leave the mamat at home during the weekdays.
The mask and the mamat are among the symbolic centerpieces of the entire war ordeal as lived by Israelis. There is something particularly heart-rending about seeing an infant stare helplessly through the walls of the mamat, as if to ask: "Why am I here?" Caressing her with the internal plastic arm, as instructed in the manual, is of little consolation, difficult as it is to maneuver the mitten, with its stiff sharp edges, to pick up a pacifier or to give her a bottle.