In this story, excerpted on page 6 of the May 2010 print issue of World Literature Today, Lavie Tidhar asks the question, What if you woke up one day as your greatest enemy? The real question arises from what our answers reveal about us.
When I woke up this morning I found out I was Osama bin Laden.
At first I didn't even realize. I tend to be a heavy sleeper, and I woke up feeling groggy, my mind occluded by fog. It was only when I dragged myself to the bathroom that I noticed it. I splashed cold water over my face and was startled by the unfamiliar beard. It felt strange, at the same time soft and sharp. When I looked in the mirror I saw I had become Osama bin Laden. I knew his face, of course. Everyone knows his face.
I stared at myself for a long moment. My new face stared back at me.
Memories began to crowd themselves into my mind, then. Growing up in my mother's house with her second husband and new children, visiting my father's family compound, hanging out with my brothers. University, watching the Iranian Revolution on television. Studying engineering, and the holy book. Marrying my first wife, my cousin Najwa - I was only seventeen. Making love for the first time . . . seeing the birth of my first child, my second child, my third child . . . marrying my second wife . . .
Afghanistan, where the desert never ends. . . . I loved that landscape. I felt at home there.
Fighting the Russians, making children, living in that camp in the desert we used to call, simply, the Base, or Al-Qaeda . . .
What was I doing here? Where was I?
I felt very confused.
I went to the kitchen and began to prepare coffee. My fingers resisted me, telling me this was not the right way to do it, that it should be cooked, not brewed in a percolator, but I ignored them. Routines kicked in, and I followed them, even when my fingers insisted I don't take milk with the coffee and my brain was telling me that everything was wrong.
I took the coffee to the balcony and sat down and lit a cigarette and stared out at the street. I scratched at my beard. Random phrases kept coming into my head: The Zionist enemy . . . American imperialism . . . To die for the cause is to be reborn in Paradise . . .
I had to be in the coffee shop in an hour. I had to see her. Instead I was - how had I become Osama bin Laden? There was no doubt I was him. I knew him as intimately as he knew himself. Forbidden memories: masturbating for the first time, sexual fantasies about an older woman, a friend of his - my mother's; first time I killed a man. Doubts, too - everyone has doubts. I never thought of him as having them, but it's only natural. Was he doing the right thing? Sadness, missing my - his - children. Not being there when they grew up. But there was the conviction, too, very strongly: that sense of doing the right thing.
I never feel that way. I never know what the right thing is. But my passenger did. He really did.
Is that what he was? Had I, in fact, become Osama, or had he somehow come into my head and resided there, a passenger, a separate mind?
Both of us were confused. We drank our coffee. I smoked. We stared out at the street.
And I thought - should I turn myself in?
“You look different,” she said. We were sitting at the coffee shop, a neutral ground. I fingered my new beard and said, “What do you mean?”
“You look . . .” She shook her head, and for a moment looked confused. “I'm not sure. Just . . . different.”
“It's because I'm Osama bin Laden,” I told her, suddenly bold. A look of disgust crossed her face, almost instantly. She never used to look at me like that. She said, “You're such an asshole. It's not even funny.”
I tried to let it go. My hand, holding a fresh cigarette, was shaking, just a little. Too much coffee, maybe. I said, “Forget it. I'm . . . I'm sorry. I am so, so sorry about what happened.”
She stood up. She looked sad. She said, “Yeah. Me too.”
Then she walked away.
I missed my wives at that moment. I missed being a normal guy, doing normal things. No one can wage war all the time.
Things used to be different between us. I used to make her laugh. She used to come, sitting on top of me, her head buried in the crook of my neck. She had the scent of wild berries. . . .
I couldn't let her get to me. I had a higher purpose. I looked at the coffee shop with new eyes. Emergency exits, crowds. I could leave a backpack under the table and leave, and watch it explode from a distance, and hear the screams. I didn't enjoy the screams, sometimes I dreamed of people dying and woke up sweating, people I'd killed, people I sent to be killed. But it had to be done. It was the right thing.
It was scaring me. What I'd become. Again I thought of turning myself in. But that would be crazy. They'd fly me to some secret location and torture me, and how do you explain that: Yes, you're Osama bin Laden, but you're also just some innocent guy? They would hurt both of us, and it would hurt me more than it would hurt him - somehow I just knew that to be true.
What was he, anyway? A ghost? I felt the question float between us, as insubstantial as smoke. Did it matter? I was the most wanted man in the world. They were after me, and if they caught me, they'd never let me go.
I stared at my coffee. I used to make her laugh. What had changed? How did we find ourselves, as if with no discernible interval, here at this coffee shop, saying goodbye without saying anything at all?
I was too valuable to blow myself up, like a foot soldier. I began to write her a letter, to explain how I felt.
I tore it up and threw it in the bin.
Paying, we left the coffee shop.
Memories like water, pouring in:
My father's seventh wife, her breasts like heavy melons in my fevered imaginings . . . Najwa my wife, putting her arms around me . . . my son Abdullah, how old was he now? I remembered him as a plump young boy, always asking for attention . . . Omar, Saad, all the rest of them . . .
I felt very lonely.
I dug deeper. How did I get here? A memory hiding. I pushed, Osama pushing back. He did not want me to see. . . .
A secret compound in the Saudi desert. We're in the car, my father driving. “The king does not know of this,” he says. “No one does. This is your legacy, Osama. Our secret.”
We drive into the desert and my father stops the car. He presses a button on a remote control, and suddenly the desert floor is rising. We drive through the opening, into the ground.
My family's secret compound.
That's not a real memory, I suddenly said. We went back to the apartment. We were trying to make plans. Osama had an e-mail account to contact, but it was bouncing. We were reading websites, picking up rumors. Where in the world was Osama bin Laden?
No one would guess he was right here.
“That's not a real memory,” I said. “That's the opening of The Time Tunnel.” It was an old American sci-fi television series.
I pulled away from the computer. I paced the room. I turned on the television but, as usual, there was nothing on.
We turned it off. We don't watch television, do not listen to music. Frustrated, I dug again -
The secret compound. Lights blinking, machines lining the walls. Men in white coats hurry this way and that. My father, saying, “This is where we come when we die.”
Men take me into a sterile room. The walls are white. They strap me down to a table. Something cold touches my neck - it hurts for a moment, then I feel drowsy. . . .
“This won't hurt,” a man in a mask says. Something metallic in his hand, he is reaching for my neck. . . .
When I wake up it hurts, then stops.
“A way out,” my father says.
Already I could feel him slipping away. In sleep itself he was least there. He was drifting in and out of my mind, the beard fading over my face like a ghost. “Why me?” I asked him.
He said, “Some people are more receptive than others.”
“What was that device?” I said. “In the memory?”
“What device?” he said.
I woke up groggy in the middle of the night, mosquito bites on my face - for a moment it was as if I were back in the caves, high up in the mountains. In the dark I felt for the phone and almost dropped it. I dialed her number.
Her voice, thick with sleep: “What . . . hello? Who is this?”
“It's me. I just wanted to say . . .”
Another voice in the background. Deeper. Coughing.
“Is there someone with you?”
“You can't call me at these hours!” she sounded strange, her voice coming as from a great distance. “Don't call me anymore!”
The other voice, beside her, “Who is it? Is something wrong?”
“No,” I heard her say, quietly. “Just a wrong number.”
In the night, just like that, he was gone.
When I woke up this morning I was Arik Sharon.