Book excerpt: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

Three young women head off for compulsory service in the Israeli military. What awaits them is perhaps not quite what they expect: endless days of training, men, gossip and boredom, punctuated by sheer terror.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

Our October Chatelaine Book Club pick is a riveting story about three girls coming of age in the Israeli military. Here is an excerpt from The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu.

The Sound of All Girls Screaming

We, the boot-camp girls, stand in a perfect square that lacks one of its four sides. Our commander stands in front of us, facing the noon sun. She squints. She screams.
“Raise your hand if you are wearing contact lenses.”
Two girls raise their hands. The commander folds her arm to look at her watch. The two girls do the same.
“In two minutes and thirty seconds, I want to see you back here from the tents. Without your contact lenses. Understood?” the commander shouts.
“Yes, commander,” the girls shout, and their watches beep. They run. Dusts of sand trail the quick steps of their boots.
“Raise your hand if you are asthmatic,” the boot-camp commander shouts.
None of the girls raise their hands.
“Are you asthmatic?” the boot camp commander shouts.
“No, commander,” all the girls shout.
I don’t shout. I didn’t get it that I was supposed to; I already didn’t raise my hand.
“Are you asthmatic, Avishag?” the commander yells, looking at me.
“No, commander,” I shout.
“Then answer next time,” the commander says. “Speak up so I can hear you, just like everyone else.” In my IDF boot camp, the only combat-infantry boot camp for females, we can’t tell what will become of us next based on what questions we raise our hands for. I know the least because I was the first of the girls in my class to be drafted, so I didn’t have any friends to get info from, and my brother Dan never told me anything about the army, even when he was alive. I got so annoyed when people asked me if I was still planning to go into the army after he died, I decided to volunteer for combat just to make people stop as- suming. I wanted to do something that would make people never assume, ever.
One can never assume in my boot camp. A week ago, we were asked to raise our hands if we weighed below fifty kilos. Then we were asked to raise our hands if we had ever shared needles or had unprotected sex shortly before we were drafted. It was hard to know what to assume from that. The army wanted our blood. Two liters, but you got strawberry Kool-Aid and white bread while the needle was inside you. The self-proclaimed sluts and druggies served it to the girls who were pumping their fists, trying to make the blood gush out quicker.
“Faster,” the commander screamed.
“My hand feels like there is ice on it,” one of the other soldiers said. “It feels frozen.” She was lying on the field bed across from mine. I wanted to reach over and grab her hand, so that she would be less cold, so that I would be less alone. I couldn’t. Because of the needle in my arm, because it would have been a mistake. Mom said that if I want to get a good posting after boot camp, I have to learn how to control my mouth. Mom was once an officer, and now she is a history teacher, and all. She left for Jerusalem a few weeks after Dan died, but in the end she had to come back and help me get ready for the army. Single moms have to come back always.
The girl on the field bed next to mine freaked out. She extended the arm with the needle away from her body, like it was cursed. Her face turned red. “I think it is taking too much blood. Can someone check? Can someone see if it is taking too much blood?”
I knew I should not say anything. “I want to go home,” she said. “I don’t like this.”
She looked very young. And eventually I spoke. “It’s fine” was what I said.
That’s when the commander intervened. “No one said you could talk,” she shouted. I was the only one who was punished. During shower hour, I had to dig a hole in the sand large enough to bury a boulder the size of five heads. The commander said the boul- der represented my “shame.” She smiled when she explained that. None of the girls helped. They just stood on the sand, waiting in line for the showers, and watched.
Now the army wants us to know what it is like to be suffocated. That’s why they asked about contact lenses and asthma. It is ABC day. Atomic, biological, chemical. Every soldier has to go through that, not just girls in combat, they said. But it is especially important for us, because we will have to maintain functionality in the event of an unconventional attack.
We stand in two lines on top of a sandy hill. We help each other put the gas masks on.
“You are doing it all wrong, Avishag,” the commander yells at me. “All wrong.”
She stretches one of the black elastic bands tighter, and my hair is pulled so tightly it is as if someone had taken a handful of my hair and tried to pull it off my scalp. Except that some- one doesn’t let go. The mask is on my face to stay.
With our masks on, we all look like the bodies of soldiers with the heads of robotic dogs. The big gray filter stretches like a snout. The sun heats the black plastic of the mask, and the heat radiates inward. The sheer plastic above my eyes is stained, and wherever I turn the world looks framed and distant, a dirty, cheap painting of sand, then sand from another angle.
The commander goes down the line, breaking plastic miniatures of bananas. “Each one of your ABC kits has a few of these little bananas. If you break it and you still smell bananas, your mask is not sealed right.”
I can feel the veins at the back of my head choking. When the commander passes by me, waving the tiny banana, I can smell it. Bananas. Bananas and sand.
“I can smell bananas and—” I say. My voice vibrates inside of the mask. My words, they fail me. I want to talk. All the time. About Dan. About things Yael said I still don’t understand. The banana fields by our village when they burn. Everything. I am an idiot. Like it matters what I am thinking.
“No one said you could speak,” my commander shouts. “Just get one of your friends to fix it,” she says. They call the other soldiers “your friends.” I hate that. They are other soldiers. They are not my friends. Even Mom said, you don’t go into the army to make friends. Don’t be fooled. Just look at what happened to Dan.
The commander lets us into the tent two at a time. My partner is a tall girl called Gali. We watch one of the girls who entered before us lift the cover of the tent and run back out- side as if she were on fire, her mouth dripping with saliva, her eyes closed and wet, her nose running in green and yellow. She runs with her mouth open, her arms stretched to the sides. She runs far, her small green body becoming a speck on the empty horizon.
Gali laughs, and I do too. I did hear from Sarit, Lea’s older sister, that the tear-gas tent is the first place commanders can get personal with their boot-camp soldiers. They ask them the same four questions:
Do you love the army?
Do you love the country?
Who do you love more, your mother or father?
Are you afraid to die?
The commanders get a kick out of this because first they ask these questions when the soldier has her mask on, but then they get to ask them when the soldier is in the tear-gas tent, without the mask, and watch her panic. That is the goal of the exercise. To train you not to panic in the event of an
atomic, biological, or chemical attack. I fail to see the point of this. I told that to Sarit; I told her, “In that case, why don’t they just shoot us so we know what that feels like?” but she said, “Don’t get smart.” We get to run out of the tent when we feel we are choking. Sarit said they expect you to stay as long as you can. I asked, “What’s as long as you can?” and she asked, “How long can you breathe underwater?”
It is our turn.

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