By Neal Bascomb
If experience is any guide, spies are not wont to emote. On the rare occasions they do speak about their perilous missions, they avoid sentiment, as if recounting a visit to the dry cleaners. For this reason, histories often fall short in tapping the depths of their lives — or, more aptly, their humanity. Matti Friedman’s “Spies of No Country” stands out as a wondrous exception.
In this genesis story of Israeli intelligence, Friedman focuses on a period of 20 months, beginning in January 1948, on the ports of Haifa and Beirut, and “on four young people drawn from the margins into the center of events. I was looking less for the sweep of history than for its human heart, and found it at these coordinates.”
The four men, Gamliel, Isaac, Havakuk and Yakuba — all in their 20s — were members of the Arab Section, a secret unit led by the Jewish militia in Palestine. Called the “Ones Who Become Like Arabs,” they were Arab-born Jews put to work as spies and saboteurs in enemy territory. Theirs was a haunting task, where the simplest act could escalate into disaster.
In the opening chapter, Gamliel is introduced. He must pick up a ticket to Beirut from a travel agency in an Arab neighborhood of Haifa. Dressed in a suit and carrying luggage, he is operating under the name Yussef el-Hamed from Al-Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem). To his surprise, the agency is closed. A passing local stops to interrogate him and quickly becomes suspicious, particularly since posters throughout the neighborhood warn of fifth-columnist traitors. Standing on the sidewalk, Gamliel faces a horrifying situation: “The distance between alive and dead had already become negligible — the length of an incorrect verb, an inconsistent reply to a sharp question.”
Such moments are the point and purpose of “Spies of No Country.” In unadorned yet piercing prose, Friedman (whose previous book, “Pumpkinflowers,” was a memoir of his service in the Israeli Army) captures what it was like to be part of the Arab Section. “They had no country — in early 1948, Israel was a wish, not a fact. If they disappeared, they’d be gone. No one might find them. No one might even look. The future was blank. And still they set out into those treacherous times alone.” …
(Read the whole thing here.)