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    In Part I of Foreign Correspondence, Geraldine Brooks tells of her sheltered Australian childhood and the pen-pals she excitedly enlists as a young girl full of yearning to become a woman of the world. Part II takes place some twenty years later with Brooks, now an award-winning foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, on a search of her long lost girlhood pen-friends that takes her through New York City nightclubs, Martha's Vineyard fishing shacks, medieval French hill towns, Israeli moshavim, and Arab souks. In the following passage she describes the beginning of her adventure in Israel.  
 
Foreign Correspondence (Geraldine Brooks)


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  What is the purpose of your visit to Israel? Do you know anyone there? How do you know them? What are their names?"

The rapid-fire interrogations droned on. As I waited in line to be questioned by the El Al airlines security staff, I pulled the fragile old envelopes from my bag and studied the addresses. In a corner of my ticket envelope I clumsily doodled a fiery-looking Hebrew alef; trying to picture what Amme Street would look like on a Hebrew-lettered street sign. I practiced asking, wayn is-sharia hatha? (Where is this street?) in my rusty Arabic.

The people on line for the flight covered the spectrum of American Jewry. There were stylish Orthodox women from the Upper East Side, furfilling the modest dress code of their faith with straw hats and long linen dresses; black-coated Hasidic men from Crown Heights; huge tour groups with towers of luggage, and Walkman-wearing teenagers off for their year abroad at Hebrew University. The tall, beefy youths jostled each other with the easy physicality of puppies. I wondered what their fellow students would make of them. Israelis go to university only after army service. I had seen them on campus: lean, self-contained, slow to smile, their faces prematurely lined and their watchful eyes grave.

All the passengers ahead of me had simple answers for the security checkers. But what was the purpose of my visit to Israel? I'd answered the question dozens of times before, drenched in sweat in the stifling old terminal of Cairo's international airport or shivering in the chilly expanse of London's Heathrow, waiting for flights that left late at night, the terminals empty and the halls patrolled by machine-gun-toting Egyptian soldiers or bulletproof-vested British police holding German shepherds on tight leashes. On those trips I'd always had press credentials and a clear assignment.

But this time all I had was a handful of old letters and a whim. The purpose of my visit to Israel was to find an Arab and a Jew I hadn't been in touch with in twenty-three years. I wanted to know how they had been treated by the history I had helped to write every day when I was a Foreign Correspondent. But I also wanted to get back in touch with that other foreign correspondent -- the passionate young girl in faraway Sydney who dreamed of adventures in dangerous places, and then went on to have more adventures than she'd ever imagined.

"And what is the purpose of your visit to Israel?" As I tried to answer, the grim young El Al interrogator peered at the letters. The old-fashioned design of the stamps intrigued her: they'd been issued before she was born. She called over the flight's security chief, a wary man who questioned me closely. Finally he handed back the letters as the young woman marked my boarding pass with the sticker that would allow me to board the flight. Their stern faces softened into sudden smiles. "We think it is a very beautiful story," she said. "We wish you luck."

Hours later I woke from a cramped doze as the plane banked over Tel Aviv. Below, an edge of brilliant blue sea sparkled against the gray concrete sprawl of the city. Along the coastline, solar panels glinted from the rooftops of boxy apartments. An Israeli writer once observed that he preferred the unhandsome chaos of jerry-built Tel Aviv to the ancient gleaming stone of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, he complained, was too holy and too demanding. "If I forget Tel Aviv," he said, "my tongue won't cleave to the roof of my mouth."

I wondered if there was an Israeli Sam Spade down there somewhere in a dingy office who would help me with my search if I got desperate. To find Cohen, I knew I could try the army: almost all Israelis are soldiers, and the army has to know how to find them quickly in time of war. In Nazareth, I had a journalist friend on the Arabic paper. I was sure he would have some ideas about how to locate Mishal.

But first I would go to the old addresses, no matter how unlikely it was that the trail would be fresh enough to follow after twenty-three years. In that time I had moved house fifteen times and wound up ten thousand miles from where I started. If any of my old pen pals presented themselves at the door of the house they'd written to in Concord, my trail would be colder than a frosted beer glass at the corner pub.

It was dusk when I pulled off the coastal highway and drove into a small town on Israel's narrow waistline north of Tel Aviv. Cohen's home town was once a moshav -- a farming co-op in which families worked their own land, sharing machinery and marketing crops jointly. Over time, the moshav had been swamped by the sprawl reaching out from Tel Aviv and had grown into a residential community of some 7,000. Now only a few melon fields and orange groves remained.

It was that Mediterranean hour when the heat has finally eased and the heavy shutters have been flung open. People walked their dogs past neat little bungalows with bougainvilleasplashed gardens and mango trees. I pulled over near two smiling women gossiping on the street corner. One of them was pushing her sleeping baby in a kibbutz-designed crib on wheels that allows parents to take slumbering infants with them to the communal dining hall. I showed the women the old mauve envelope with the Amme Street address on it, written awkwardly in a hand unpracticed in the Roman alphabet. They puzzled over the street name. Neither had ever heard of it, which was odd, since the town had only a few dozen streets.

"There's a big map in the town square," said the young mother. "I'm sure you'll find it marked there."

The air in the square was tangy with the smells of grilling meat and spicy falafel. Lamb kebabs sizzled on the flames at an outdoor restaurant. Boys in high-top sneakers and baseball caps hung out under eucalyptus trees. They looked about sixteen -- the age Cohen was when I wrote to him.

The map was easy to find, large and well illuminated. Of course, it was in Hebrew. A middle-aged man noticed me studying it in the gathering gloom. I asked if he could help me and showed him the envelope.

"Amme?" he said, loaffled. "I don't know such a street." Pinching his fingers together in the universal Middle Eastern gesture that means "Wait a minute," he darted off with my precious letter. I followed, into the Town Hall. A secretary got out the telephone directory and looked up Cohen. My heart sank. Looking for a Cohen in an Israeli phone book struck me as only a little better than trying to look up a Smith in Sydney, or a Kim in Seoul. "There's a Cohen on Amami Street," she said, and proceeded to dial the number.

Of course. Written Hebrew leaves out many vowels. Amme was young Cohen's best try at transliterating the Hebrew word Amami.

A woman answered. Her voice had the quaver of old age. I asked for Cohen in halting Hebrew.

"Ma?" she said. "What? Who wants him?"

I told her Geraldine Brooks, from Australia.

"Jordan Books?" she said, her voice rising with a tinge of alarm. I think she thought I was an Arab publisher. I passed the phone to my helper. His solution to the communication problem was to repeat what I'd said, louder.

"OUR-STRAW-LIAR!" he bellowed.

"Australia," I prompted.

"You're calling all the way from Australia?"

"No! From here, at the Town Hall." The woman, even more confused, muttered something grumpily. "She says the Cohen you want doesn't live there." Disappointment clouded

my face. But my translator pinched his fingers together again, in the "Wait a minute" gesture. He listened for a moment, took a pen, scribbled, then put down the phone. "It might be her son. She gave me his number in Netanya." Netanya, a bigger town, lay just a few miles farther north. "But she said he can't know you, because he doesn't speak English."

Could Cohen's mother not realize her son had known enough English to correspond in the language? It seemed unlikely, but the scrawled phone number was the only lead I had. I decided to call it while I still had a Hebrew-speaker on hand. We dialed. No answer. There was nothing to do but thank my helper and head back down the coast to my hotel.

From my room, I tried the number again. This time a younger woman answered, switching quickly from Hebrew to English as she heard my accent. Yes, she said, Cohen lived there. She called him. In Hebrew, I heard her warning him, "She's speaking in English."

Then he was on the line, the disembodied voice of the boy who was the repository of so many teenage fantasies. It was a deep voice, thickly accented with the heavy gutturals of Hebrew-speakers who don't have much practice with English. I tried to explain who I was. His reply, after a long silence, was grave and guarded. Yes, he agreed, he was the Cohen who had lived on Amami Street.

"But I don't remember you," he said.

"Well," I said, "it's a while ago. You were sixteen."

"I was sixteen ? But now I'm forty-one! " Silence again. Then, finally, "I don't know what to say." I told him I'd like to meet him. There was yet another long silence. "Why ? " he asked. "Why, after so much time?"

It was a question I barely knew how to answer. How could I explain to this taciturn stranger who didn't even remember me that he was part of a fantasy-obsession that shaped my life? I mumbled something about having recently found his letters and

wanting to meet him at last. "I'll have to think about it," he said. He took my number and hung up, without even saying goodbye.

I put the phone down, the euphoria of the early evening turned to discouragement, As I tried to sleep, my mind again started spinning scenarios for Cohen, just as I had as a fifteen-year-old. Maybe he was a Mossad agent, and he needed to have me checked out.

I had worried about the logistics of finding my pen pals. It hadn't occurred to me that they might not want to be found.
 
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Excerpted from Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks. Copyright © 1998 by Geraldine Brooks. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.