I entered a full city bus in Tel Aviv. As I pushed my way to the back, I found, amidst the crowding, an open space. An old Muslim woman wearing a headscarf slept with her feet propped up on the bench across from her, on which she had placed her large backpack. The remaining two seats were empty – the only empty seats on the bus. As soon as I sat down next to the backpack, I regretted my decision. There was a reason these seats were empty in a crowded bus. Obviously, everyone else knew something that had escaped my notice: I was the only passenger so naive that I had picked a seat right beside a bomb about to be set off.
As I considered whether to get up to or not, we passed the corner of Dizengoff street where twenty years ago a suicide bombing in a public bus had killed twenty-two people. I scooted to the edge of my seat, ready to get up. I didn’t want to give in to prejudice and irrational fears just because the woman wore a head scarf and carried a backpack. But I didn’t want to die either. I figured that if I moved to the back of the bus I could increase my chances of survival. Five meters distance could be the difference between life and death; or the confirmation of small-minded bias.
If the woman had been awake, I would have made eye contact and the expression on her face could have clued me to her intentions. But her eyes were closed and her mouth twitched restlessly in her sleep. Maybe she wasn’t really asleep. Maybe she had just closed her eyes to muster the courage to press the detonation button. She looked tired and worn. I studied her face to try to understand if she was indeed about to blow herself up, and if so, what kind of bitterness could have driven her to such a horrific act.
I stayed in my seat and braced myself for the explosion, suppressing the fear that burned in me. We all die eventually, I told myself. Car accidents, cancer, murder, disease, war, earthquakes... – even the most obsessive vigilance can’t keep death away forever. I tried to relax and accept my fate. That was when she opened her eyes and looked at me.
“Sorry, does this bother you?” she asked in fluent Hebrew and pointed at her feet on the seat. “I didn’t sleep all night, and I’m sick,” she explained, “I feel awful!”
“No, it doesn’t bother me at all!” I said, “You should rest and get better!”
“Todah, kapara! [thank you, my dear]!” she smiled, and she blew me a kiss before she closed her eyes again.