The famous “Six Day War” of the Middle East –Israel against its antagoneighbors– has come to its 40th anniversary. The day it started I, a young US Navy officer, was boarding a Soviet passenger ship in Yokohama, Japan, having heard no more than a headline or two and imagining my life might change immeasurably if the war were joined by the United States, and of course, the USSR. We were heading to Khabarovsk, Russia on what was to be a 14 day train trip across the whole country, followed for me by another two weeks rounding the world to what would be my next duty station –a ship out of San Diego. The war in Vietnam was raging and I was heading away from it. But if Israel was in trouble there was no way in hell the US would stay out. The war in Vietnam would seem like a minor skirmish.

I was traveling incognito, of course, from my own countrymen as well as the Russians. I knew no Russian and the ship steward standing next to me at the rail knew only enough English to respond when I asked him: “Israel…attack (with hands indicating airplanes)…Egypt?,” “Yes.” Adding, “Israel man, bad! Arab man, good.” That’s all I knew until I arrived in Moscow and the news of the war had by that time almost disappeared from the pages of the International Herald Tribune. Even so, my life, as all of ours, was immeasurably changed by those six days. We just didn’t know then.

Years later, living in Spain, I found a marvelous short volume of writing by an author I was completely swept up by. Max Aub was a Spaniard of the Civil War generation. Born in Paris of a German Jew and a French (German-Jewish ancestry) mother, the family had come to Spain following the father’s trade as an itinerant salesman. Max, as an adult, was imprisoned in concentration camps first in France (Le Vent) then in Morocco (Djelfa.) He fled, as the story went, hidden in a big rolling basket of laundry, from Morocco, to Mexico where he died in 1972. Along with his great impressive sweep of novels about the Spanish Civil War (The Magic Labyrinth), and some sly, amusing “factions” about Pablo Picasso’s best friend, Jusep Torres Campalans (totally invented, along with actual paintings) Aub had written, Impossible Sinai. A 70 page volume, it purports to be composed of scraps of writings and short biographies of the dead of the Six Day War, Arab and Jew, Bedouin and unbeliever, translated with the help of Max’s students, from the native languages — all of this coming, of course, from the fertile imagination and empathy of Max.

Some of my translation from Max’s Spanish into English, has been published in The New Orleans Review, Winter, 1986, but we could never find a publisher for the whole book. So, I offer what I have done, perhaps a third of the whole, as an anniversary memory of a war that, depending on the kaleidescope one chooses, was glorious or horrific, as the light turns.

IMPOSSIBLE SINAI

by MAX AUB

(c) 1982 Perpetua Barjau
Editorial Seix Barral
Barcelona, Spain

translation (c) 1986
Will Kirkland
San Francisco, CA

A Preliminary Note

These writings were found in the pockets and backpacks of Arabs and Jews who died in the so-called “Six Day War” in 1967. The translations are due, in great part, to my students. I am indebted to them.

I take no sides here; I have only chosen for publication with the kind help of Alastair Reid those that seem to me to be the most representative.

THE EVENTS. June, 1967 (from the 5th to the 10th.)

The First Day, Monday

Israeli aircraft cross the border at dawn and destroy the Egyptian air force on the ground. Similar incursions occur simultaneously in Jordan, Syria and Iraq while the Algerian air force is lured into occupied airports and disarmed.

The Arab countries begin their attack through the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and the north of Galilee. Syrian and Iraqi airplanes bomb Haifa, Tel Aviv, Netanya; Jordanian artillery shells the border from Qalquiliya.

Israeli tank columns cut through the Gaza Strip and advance across the Sinai Desert, capturing El Arish. Israeli paratroops land in Sharm el Sheikh, on the Red Sea, while in Jerusalem bloody fighting takes place (some at bayonet point) resulting in the Jordanian capture of Mt. Scopus, to the north of the city, under the command of Hussein.

Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Sudan and Kuwait declare war on Israel. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Yemen and Tunis promise aid.

General Dayan, the Israeli Defense Minister, declares that Israel has no territorial designs.

De Gaulle suspends the shipment of war material to Israel.

The USSR states that it will not intervene unless the US does. The United States promises to be neutral in “thought, word and deed.”

The Second Day, Tuesday

Israeli tanks advance towards the Suez Canal. Another armored column succeeds in over running Kuntilla and turns towards Sharm el Sheikh to reinforce the positions taken by the paratroops.

The coast at Tel Aviv is shelled by Egyptian warships, and in the north of Galilee the Syrians succeed in penetrating Israeli territory.

An Israeli offensive along the Jordanian border results in the silencing of the enemy artillery and the taking of Jenin and Qalquilaya. In Jerusalem the air force bombs the Jordanian positions.

Nasser accuses the United States and Great Britain of taking part in the air operations on behalf of Israel, breaks diplomatic relations with the United States and closes the Suez Canal.

The US and Great Britain deny Nasser’s accusations. Syria and Iraq break diplomatic relations with the US and Great Britain. Algeria also breaks with the US and nationalizes the oil companies while Kuwait and Iraq hold back all deliveries of petroleum to North American and England.

England suspends shipment of arms to the Arab countries, while Germany offers a shipment of gas masks (!) to Israel. The USSR says that Israel is the aggressor and demands the withdrawal of troops from Egyptian territory. In the UN a resolution is passed unanimously calling for the cessation of hostilities.

The Third Day, Wednesday

Israeli forces enter Gaza and continue toward the Canal in the North, taking Romani, and towards the Mitla Pass in the South where they are engaged by the Arabs near Prot Taufiq. Landing forces complete the capture of Sharm el Sheikh, as well as of the islands in the Straits of Tiran.

In Galilee the Syrians are thrown back from their positions. Israeli forces conquer Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho, thus occupying the entire east bank of the Jordan River.

Israel and Jordan accept the cease fire called for by the UN. Egypt refuses.

The USSR threatens Israel with the rupture of diplomatic relations if it doesn’t observe the cease fire.

Jordan accuses Israel of violating the cease fire.

Yemen, the Sudan, and Mauritania break relations with the US.

The Fourth Day, Thursday

When an Israeli column comes within sight of the Suez Canal in the North, the Egyptians counter attack in the area of Bir Gafgafa, along the main line of march. There is a great tank battle in which the Israelis crush the Egyptians.

In Galilee the Syrians withstand the thrust of the Jews, who are now reinforced due to the end of resistance on the Jordanian border; the war ends on the Sinai front.

Israel broadcasts a recording of a telephone conversation between Nasser and Hussein in which they agree to accuse the United States and Great Britain of participating in the air attacks.

Egypt and Syria accept the cease fire.

The Fifth Day, Friday

Israeli airplanes bomb the Syrian positions, silencing their artillery and allowing the advance of their own troops toward the interior of Syria where they occupy the heights near the sea of Galilee.

Part of the forces of the UAR which are surrounded in Bir Gafgafa are able to break out and retreat to the African side of the Canal. Those remaining scatter and wander, without arms or equipment until they are taken prisoners by the Jews.

Nasser, in an emotional speech, resigns as the President of the UAR, accepts responsibility for the disaster and puts himself at the service of his country as a private citizen. His resignation is refused by the National Assembly and produces, paradoxically, an upsurge in popularity of the Rais, with demonstrations in the streets of Cairo.

The Sixth Day, Saturday

The Israelis cross into Syria all along the border. There are air bales near Damascus.

Israel and Syria agree on a cease-fire.

The USSR breaks diplomatic relations with Israel.

With the cessation of the fighting on the Syrian front, at 6:30 PM Middle East time) the Arab-Israeli War is over. As they say.

*

Salomon Chavsky

A soldier in the Signal Corps, a witty young man and fond of practical jokes; he could run like a gazelle and they called him “Kangaroo.” Happily without any culture, but a very capable broadcaster. A fine performer of popular songs. He was born in a kibbutz near Genezaret. He died on the fifth day near Bir Gafgafa.

Night time still.
Sand.
Horses.
Sheep.
Soldiers
Camels
asleep.
Dark skinned
Bedouins.
Tanks!
Radio!
Too late!
Surrounded!
Poor Arabs,
Arab poor.
Which is the adjective,
which the substantive?
Who is responsible
for this disaster?

If you don’t tell anyone
in part it is…

*

Ibn Musa Amir

A Bedouin. He was in a tank, his corpse half burned, about twenty meters from the highway, two hundred kilometers to the south of Gaza. I don’t know, of course, the day of his death.

Yes, certainly the land you offer me is better, richer than my own.

But it’s not the same.

Every piece of land is different: some have water, some have none, some are high and some are low, some are steep and some are level, good for sheep and bad for goats, close to the sea and far away, hot and cold.

But none of this matters.

There are only two kinds of land: mine and all the rest.

You can offer Paradise to me; what I want is the desert I was born in and which you stole from me.

You can give me a palace made of richly colored marble. What I want is the tent where my two horses and three camels gave birth.

Don’t give up yet. Kill me, so my dust can return with the wind and mix with the desert sand.

*
You will find the whole translation in this pdf file: Impossible Sinai, Max Aub