On July 16, I flew from Tel Aviv to Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. I had spent part of the morning in Tel Aviv in a bomb shelter, just as I had for eight days as rockets flew out of Gaza and were blown up in the Israeli sky. Many rockets flew back the other direction and landed on tunnel openings and apartment buildings and moving cars. All of these rockets from both sides were aimed at people and some of those rockets hit those people. Many of them hit other people–a man delivering food, a woman washing dishes in her kitchen, a man from halfway around the world who had come in search of work.
I had arrived in Amsterdam on a Wednesday evening, glad to be out of the direct line of those rockets. The next morning, an airplane took off from the same Schipol Airport where I had landed and headed eastward–near the same direction from which I had come. Its destination was Kuala Lumpur, far along the curve of the Earth. It flew for four hours when a missile of incredible sophistication and vicious intent shredded it like a spent firecracker. Two hundred and ninety-eight people were killed and their bodies rained down on a field in Eastern Ukraine.
In Israel and Gaza, there are sounds that tell you when someone is trying to kill you. In Israel, a high-pitched siren signals an incoming missile and sends everyone to the nearest cover—either a public shelter, or the basement of your apartment, or your stairwell, or, if you’re on the highway, huddled between your car and the concrete divider, the best of bad circumstances. Elsewhere in the country, people try to go about their business, listening for the sound that could change everything.
In Gaza, a missile strike on a building is preceded by a phone call from the Israeli Defense Forces asking civilians to leave, or by an inert missile (an odd term) that knocks against the roof like the Angel of Death banging on your door. The people either choose to leave or they don’t. Either way, a few minutes later, the building is gone.
What did the people on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 out of Schipol Airport hear as they entered Ukrainian airspace? The awful roar of jet noise, music from their iPods, babies crying, the small talk of strangers and the wordless sleep of their children. Then—who knows.
Meanwhile, the list of the dead grows longer by the hour. Three teenagers on a lonely road in the West Bank. Four young cousins playing on a Gaza beach. A world-renowned AIDS researcher. A thirty-year old florist. In Schipol Airport, a small sign on plain white paper offers sympathy aan alle slachtoffers, to all the victims. Of all the memorials I’ve seen in the last few weeks, and there have been many, this modest offering comes the closest to acknowledging the immensity of the losses so far, and the open-ended world of conflict in which we seem to have found ourselves.
Meanwhile, I watched it all unfold not from a bomb shelter–not anymore–but from the television in the lobby bar. It was my first time in Amsterdam, but not my first time trying to grapple with the space in the context of disaster. Twenty years ago, I tried to write a short story set here. At the time, I had never been to Amsterdam, but since when did that stop a twenty-three-year-old writer?
The story was based on the real-life incident of an El Al cargo plane that crashed into an apartment building in the southeast part of the city, killing most of the inhabitants of the building as they went about their daily business. The story’s main character, a Mossad agent (remember, I was twenty-three) arrives in Amsterdam to investigate the crash, and, in the course of his duties falls in love with a Dutch woman. With no first language in common, they speak to each other in a fitful, limited English. As the story progresses, their relationship unravels over the difficulty of the crash investigation and their inability to communicate clearly to one another. Despite suspicions of terrorism, the crash comes down to a simple mechanical problem. Pins that are supposed to break cleanly under stress do not do so. Basically, they fail to fail correctly. The plane goes into a dive. Objects fall from the sky. The story is never finished.
The story was going to be about how people find each other in times of great trauma. It was going to be about love and language. It was going to be about all the ways, in the end, that we fail to tell each other what really matters.