In the evening, Haj Ibrahim approached our tent. I caught a glimpse of him while I was hanging out our clothes to dry. An ominous feeling engulfed me as I noticed he was walking quickly, his brown stick preceding him caught the light. I left the clothes and waited with bated breath; I whispered, calling my mother who did not hear me. But then I thought I cried. My mother came walking slowly on tip-toe, barefoot. We both followed Haj Ibrahim's footsteps. She said nothing. I knew she was reciting something from memory. Her lips moved rapidly. He arrived. I wonder if he said anything at first, but he looked at us as accusingly. He seemed helpless and pale. "Where is my wife, Aisha? Is she there?" Our silence seemed enough of an answer. He raised his stick towards Heaven and walked back. He did not even look back when my mother shouted asking him when Aisha had disappeared, or if there was any place she could have gone to. His stick and the sand were two dolls, an image which receded and then vanished. My mother threw a shawl on her head and left the tent without saying a word. I later understood she went to Abdullah bin-Zayyan (the Bedouin), as well as some others, and urged them to look for Aisha. She came back late in the evening, lumbering in the sand. She could hardly take a deep breath before Yousef came bursting into our tent without any notice.
I was in my little corner of the tent which is separated from my mother by a curtain. His fury scared me. When I lifted the curtain a little, I saw him standing threateningly with both fists clenched. "Where is mother?" he screamed. My mother lost all patience and yelled that it was none of her business, and that his mother had never come to our tent ever since she arrived in Busra. I remember she also said something about "mad people." Yousef jumped and ran out. I followed him and looked through the tent opening, but I couldn't catch him. What could I have told him? No words came to me. I only had an image of a woman running out of Busra and climbing the graceful mountains. The mountains start with a little elevation like a wave, but then they rise up as if to tease us as we walk. My mother went to sleep early. She slept in the "living-room" without changing her clothes. She did not even pull down the little opening of the tent. I sat nearby hoping that she would take a little nap and then wake up. She seemed irritated -uttering short shrill sounds. For me, it was hard to unravel the secret of my mother's interest in the Haj Ibrahim family. They were strangers, and she herself was a stranger, but that was not reason enough. Something more important must have moved her. She told me (assuming I did not know) that Haj Ibrahim very much wanted to have a child named Ismail, although he was getting very old. She told me the story with a great deal of composure. I did not get the feeling she was being sarcastic or that she thought his wish was impossible. He just wanted little "Ismail."
I wondered if Haj Ibrahim attracted or puzzled her, or if he brought back to her memories a face they both knew. Was he the overpowering strength which she needed to find some form of equanimity within her? But even if this were the case, she must have known that Haj Ibrahim was an impregnable remote impossibility, so she was attracted by the relationship between opposites, or perhaps she was drawn by the relationship between the distant and the near, man and the stars, for example, the earth and the clouds, the mountain and its foot which are in love with each other. I often wondered. We always ask questions and receive no answers. People and things leave us with questions and a few brief comments, which immediately give rise to more questions. Everything is a big question: Mass'oud el-Wali, the desert where he came from, and the history of Bint el-Mabrouk which goes back to the palaces of Hijaz (a district in Arabia), and my father, who, I understood, was once a fighter against the ruling family. I, however, never knew how they got married. You sleep, Bint el-Mabrouk, whilst the door is wide open and my apprehensions invade the sand. A full world you are, and I am not your secret... I am just a little "reader."
Once upon a time there was a little daughter of El-Mabrouk's who lived in a palace and had servants and guards. She was much loved by her father. The gates of the palace never opened except for the soldiers and the guards. And one day the guards fell asleep, and Bint el-Mabrouk went up the walls and sat on the minaret. She could see the people, but the people couldn't see her. She was surprised to see all those people in the street; they looked at the palace as if it were a ghoul. Amongst the crowd, she saw a young man with a gun. She admired him in spite of the rags he wore - he was even barefoot. When the people slept, he stayed awake and stealthily entered the palace. Bint el-Mabrouk said she wanted to see the people and walk in the streets - she followed the young man who had fallen in love with her.
A poor reading for a sleeping woman - a story as depressing as that of a woman who rocks an empty cradle - no drowsy smile or a muffled moan that leaves a mother's heart broken while waiting for a new joy. A new joy? That may have been had Aisha appeared and come back to Busra. My mother left the tent everyday without washing her face and came back at night without any new tidings ... She came exhausted, with a vacant look and went straight to bed. On the seventh day, Abdullah bin-Zayyan came with five other Bedouins. They entered the tent with their heads down, their faces dusty. Shortly after their arrival, a large number of Busra people streamed into the tent; ahead of them was the sheriff. Haj Ibrahim and Yousef were not present. All eyes focused on Bin-Zayyan, of medium height, in his fifties. His voice was rather hoarse. He said, "It would not have occurred to me that she might climb Moab had I not remembered how Haj Ibrahim had told his wife about Nebo Mountain and that he saw Sadeer as he climbed its summit. Of course, I had no idea about her longings for Sadeer and for her two daughters there. My men and I searched all possible places around Busra. We even used the dogs. We traced all the valleys of Busra until the borders of Tibor in the east. All those we asked about a woman in white shook their heads; some of them joined us in the search party. On the fifth day, we started our ascent towards Moab, at first with little hope, but then I remembered Haj Ibrahim and his story about Nebo. I shouted, "We'll find her down the mountain." The dogs showed a sudden interest; they started to run through the narrow paths and we followed. Once we began our descent towards the west, our task got easier.
A deep hole in the rock made us halt for a while; right next to it was a dark rock on which some strange writing was inscribed. The path widened a little and went on for some distances; I was quite familiar with the Moab paths because I had walked them as a peddler. At noon we were at the outskirts of Sadeer. The fields were totally neglected; thorns and weeds had covered everything. Except for the wind and the ominous sounds of insects, nothing could be heard. Ar-Rabee'i (a young man with a thin mustache, a dark face, and thick lips) was alarmed by something white which moved with the wind. We approached it out of sheer inquisitiveness. She lay under a carob tree with her arms stretched out - Aisha. Her face was deep yellow, and her hair was completely covered with a shawl. Ar-Rabee'i thought she was smiling and wanted to awaken her, but I knew she would not wake up. Ar-Rabee'i said he wanted to listen to her heartbeat, but he gave up when he noticed how heavy her head was. We left her for a little while and consulted with each other: Should we carry her back to Busra or should we just bury her at the feet of Sadeer under the carob tree?
Sheikh al-Falihi (a tall, thin man with cloudy eyes) said: "We'll certainly add to Haj Ibrahim's pain if we get her back to Busra ... let's give her the ceremony and bury her just where she is lying." I protested that Haj Ibrahim was sure to blame us. Al-Falihi seemed lost in thought. He moved away and knelt down looking up at the dark skies. We surmised he wanted to weigh matters. He whispered: "God's choice is best. It's dark and we're exhausted." He then drew closer to Aisha. Since there was no water to bathe her, he took a handful of dust and spread it over her body. Ar-Rabee'i dug a hole in the ground. It wasn't a deep grave, but the body was completely buried. Al-Falihi read from the Qur'an: "0 ye satisfied soul, return back to thy Maker and peacefully join my people, my Eden. Amen." We moved a huge boulder over the fresh earth and walked back home.
That was the last chapter of Aisha's story. Nobody talked about her afterwards. However, some women of Busra used to say, "By the life of Aisha" whenever they wanted to express calm. Bint el-Mabrouk - my mother - said nothing about Haj Ibrahim, and I did not ask her how he behaved when he heard Bin-Zayyan's story. In fact, I did not know who told him the story, who dared to do it, and how he could bear Haj Ibrahim's looks. Certainly, the story was not to be a page turned. I thought it was an inscription open to the sun and the wind. Later, Bint el-Mabrouk frequently went to Haj Ibrahim's house; so many things changed in her. She took care of the household and nursed Haj Ibrahim in times of sickness.
And so, Yousef came to our tent and asked for various things which my mother sent him. When I asked him if he would like some tea, he did not hesitate. "Received my letter?" he asked all of a sudden. The question was daring and direct. "I knew you sat in the middle of the classroom, but I couldn't figure out the exact desk... I could have mistaken it." He understood perhaps through my body language that I had not read his letter. Another girl must have received it and thought it was hers. A page turned! Had I read it, many things could have changed in two years... But now, he's to go to America. Mark - manager of the Excavation Mission said to him: "Your interest in the inscription 'Song of Creation' is proof enough that you'll be creative if you study Eastern Civilizations… I have nominated you for a scholarship in America. You'll go there, Yousef, and you'll discover the world. You'll see much bigger things than Busra and Sadeer - nothing should stop you."
In less than six months, Yousef will leave for Michigan. I'll miss him and live with the memory of the few hours we'd spent together. He never tried to hug me, even when he came to say good-bye. I'll remember that I stood close and looked into his eyes - my insides bursting with desire, madness, and silence while he avoided my eyes and looked at the drawing on the wall - the bull and its huge horns. My dreams I'll inflame once he leaves and, as I go to bed, I'll remember how serenely he reads the "Song of Creation"… "We are also capable of creation just as God is, though our tools differ!" He says, "I understand what you say, but we create our things of finished clay - God imparts spirit to our creation." "So, what do you want for yourself?" I ask him. He says, "I don't know ... I hope I know ... but let me ask you, Mariam: Is there a miracle through which you give birth to a little Jesus? I mean without being touched by man?" I got angry because I thought birth is not needed for its own sake. It's a human relationship, an agreement based on love - birth is a fruit. Could it have helped to tell him that? But certainly, I was also to wonder why he did not ask me if I could give birth to little Ismail instead of having Haj Ibrahim dream of such a desire in his old age. We do not read ourselves through miracles - terrible things must have happened and led to our misunderstanding of History.
A rumor spread that Haj Ibrahim had decided to visit Sadeer. Events began in Dahesh al-Araj's little shop where he also typed visit permits. It was only yesterday when I asked him to type a permit for my father. He said, "I must write your name exactly as it appears on your ID; here we are: Afaf Ibrahim Marzoug el-'Imran!" He typed with one finger and checked the numbers several times. He eventually sighed and said, "Hope we'll see you, Haj Ibrahim el-'Imran. How nice it would be if Aisha bint Abdul-Mu'ti comes too."
As soon as I stepped into my house, my sister Amina appeared. She wanted to make sure that I had arranged things for Haj Ibrahim's visit. In a few minutes, the open yard in front of my house thronged with Sadeer women who asked about my father. They wanted to know when he was to arrive and if I sent him the permit. That was the first occasion in three years when my house was crowded with people. Sadeer remained haunted with the destruction that befell her during the war of 1967, although many families that fled had returned. The people wondered if they should repair the partially destroyed houses or build new ones. Some believed it was impossible to repair them, especially as the old walls were so thick. However, many other houses were completely devastated, and bulldozers carried the rubble into the nearby valleys. As the first winter arrived, the valleys looked so muddy and the waters mixed with old hay. The huge boulders, however, remained where they had been dumped; they were washed by the rain. Huge trucks came and carried the boulders to the newly built settlements where they were used in the high walls that were erected around the settlements.
The first man from Sadeer to discover the boulder mystery was the oldest son of Dahesh al-Araj who worked in the settlements. He said, "The people of Sadeer threw their houses' boulders into the valleys; the settlers' trucks took them and I rebuild them!" The people in Sadeer boycotted him because he willingly agreed to work in the Jewish settlements. His wife said he cried bitterly when he found himself shunned like a mangy goat. It was too much for him. But then he quit the work in the settlements. "How can I fend for my eight kids?" he shouted in the streets of Sadeer. A few days later, he and several others took the bus and went to work in a kibbutz. He received lower wages but enough for the needs of his household. Thirteen youngsters from Sadeer moved to work in the settlements some time later; they even slept there and guarded the place. A young worker brought a Jewish girl with him to Sadeer one day. People talked about her beauty, her short dress, and her foreign accent and some children exchanged a few remarks in Hebrew with her. The young worker came to be known in Sadeer as the "Jewish woman's boyfriend." People discussed him extensively. For some, he was rude and a "big scoundrel." Others thought that the Jewish girl really loved him; she reminded them of the time before the 1948 war.
The Moroccan (a woman who originally came with her family from Morocco just before the Turks left the country) said, "The Jewish woman's boyfriend was only sixteen in 1967 - a spoiled little kid, who grew up in body but not in brains. The Jewish girl knows that!" The Moroccan bravely faced the peoples' stares. Her older brother, Muhammad bin-Mubarak al-Maghribi, married a Jewish woman in 1920. They lived together until 1948 but never had any children. He was sterile, but she loved him.
Haj Ibrahim is coming to Sadeer in a few days. He'll certainly ask about the Moroccan and her whereabouts. Perhaps, he'll smile and tell the others that he was a witness to that historic marriage. "Haifa," he would say, "is my aunt's city. There she got married and since then deserted Sadeer and its people, except for a few occasions when she came for a visit. My father, Haj 'Imran, loved Haifa, and my aunt and the sea, so he would visit all of them every summer and I would go with him. There, I met Mahmoud al-Maghribi in the mosque. He recited the Qur'an while the men swayed in prayer to the sounds of his voice. I heard them say many things about him when they left the mosque. An old man whispered to a friend of his: 'The jinn read for him one-third of each night and one or two hours at dawn. The jinn teach him how to pray and recite.'" But Mahmoud al-Maghribi left Haifa for a whole year. It was said he visited many shrines and cities. He walked along the seashore up to Gaza without being noticed. He even visited Morocco by sea, leaving his sister all alone. One day, Al-Maghribi came late in the evening with a heavy bundle over his back. At his heels walked a woman with a black shawl covering her head. The two came from the sea, jumping onto the shore out of a little ship. The fisherman who told the story was not sure if any other passengers were on board. His new wife's name was Shulamit. Al-Maghribi told the people that religion did not proscribe such a marriage. The Prophet Muhammad, he continued, married a Jewish woman. Haj Ibrahim would talk fondly about Al-Maghribi. Each time he talked about him, he would assume certain facial expressions. We would ask him what had happened to AI-Maghribi in the end. My father - Haj Ibrahim - said that AI-Maghribi fought the British who detained him in Akka, and no news about him ever filtered through. The Moroccan did not believe the story about her brother. She said that her brother lived with his wife, Shulamit, who was a barren. She only left him the first days of the war in 1948 because he carried a gun and joined the Iraqi troops in Jenin. Haj Ibrahim heard her story and shook his head in disbelief. Would he understand Sadeer now after six years of absence?
We've got lots of things to tell, but we will not tell all. Some stories must be left untold. My sister Amina would not mention anything about our uncle Younis el-'Imran, but Haj Ibrahim will ask and expect to see him. Where did he go the night the people of Sadeer fled east? That was a day when wet-nurses forgot the babies they fed; artillery spewed forth lava from the unknown and leveled the earth. Aircrafts, as if in a race, descended beyond the mountains only to ascend and invade the houses of Sadeer, hurling whatever they had in their bellies and burning everything along their way. The few soldiers at the police center fled; they said that the troops were to enter Sadeer and murder the people... it will be a new Deir Yassin.
Younis el-'Imran always feared sounds; he would hide in a jiffy on hearing a tin can thrown on the floor. How could he have coped then? He must have hidden a thousand times; the neighborhoods of Sadeer would be too small to hide him. He wasn't with us when we fled. Amina screamed: "Where is Younis?" She wanted to go back although we were almost out of Sadeer, but her husband dissuaded her. He himself went back to fetch him. It was longer than we thought before Amina's husband reappeared all alone. Except for the dogs' barks, he heard nothing... People fled and left their houses wide open... At least one woman forgot her child sound asleep and came back to fetch him... She clung to the child and cried, "This is a day when one deserts one's brother." Younis el-'Imran did not appear, and my father Haj Ibrahim almost burst with fury and shouted, "Oh God, let it be Your will that Younis dies so that I be relieved and others will not come and complain about his oddities." One, two, three days went slowly by.
We ate grass. Some people continued their walk eastward; others stayed in the open and waited. We said, "Not all people fled Haifa or Nazareth in 1948… let's attempt to return; we'll either live or die." We returned. Many devastated houses looked like piles of wreckage. Hell must have broken loose. A pleasant cool welcomed us as my husband pushed the door open. Everything was in its place: the straw mat, the tea kettle and the Primus stove. We could hear the thrilled cries of Amina and her husband. Were we to stay or would the soldiers come and decide for us? "Should we leave if the soldiers ordered us to...?" My husband was absent-minded, but he quivered at my question. "Where to?" he whispered. "Suppose that came to happen! I don't think I can leave. I just want to sit here." A dialogue between us would always be that short. He rarely liked to exchange a lot of words... He rarely started a conversation. He'd sit silently in a corner wrestling with his worries. What do we do when we are faced by the big things? We try to think, and when "reasoning" is mixed with fear we cannot answer, but rather give in to the unknown; we only hope for a less painful sequel than we expected.
Haj 'Imran's house on the other side of the street was not completely destroyed, only the left wall of the diwan (living-room) was seriously damaged and the large door was unhinged. Younis was still alive, jumping out of the wreckage. What could he have done during the past days? He slept - jumped down the empty well as usual when he was scared. He did the same when Umm Muhdiyyeh came and reported him to Haj 'Imran. On his fourth day of his hiding, Haj 'Imran passed peacefully away. Haj 'Imran used to sit with his old friends in the diwan where Younis would quietly sneak in and draw close to him. Haj 'Imran would pat Younis on the head as if to remove all fear and anxiety and finally say to him, "It's all right, Younis my love." Haj 'Imran was gone, so who was left then to cleanse the fears and wash away the pain? And it was said that Younis entered the houses of Sadeer and asked about his father, Haj 'Imran. People said they cried a little, but Younis never cried. The Moroccan said he came to her house and asked her several times about his father. She eventually took him to the graveyard and showed him Haj 'Imran's new home. Since then, and whenever he found her out in the street, he took her hand and led her to the graveyard. She'd stand still at the grave, recite some Qur'an verses and cry a little. She'd then walk home and Younis wouldn't believe she could leave Haj 'Imran under the ground, so he would run amongst the tombs and disappear for a while behind a big headstone. All of a sudden, he would run and take the shortest way to Sadeer square and marketplace. People stared at him as he cried, "Why don't you die as my father Haj 'Imran did? Why don't you go to the graveyard?"
Military jeeps patrol Sadeer and fire in the air. People lock their doors and nestle in. Some take a peek through the windows. The soldiers enter the houses one by one looking for weapons, men and old fighters. Voices in foreign accents order people to open up their doors. What's up? I could feel what was happening and my imagination preyed on my fears. In our yard, a few pigeons buried their heads under the big berry tree and I wondered if they slept while standing on their feet. There was no blood on the pigeons' feathers or legs. My husband sat motionless, but his face looked pale. I felt that a single comment could blow up the whole house, so I decided not to say anything. A little male pigeon moved one step forward and topped a pigeon that stretched on the wet soil; she was submissive or shattered or indifferent - she did not stir a single feather. The male pigeon, however, shook himself with little satisfaction and nestled nearby as the voices outside grew wilder. The accent was not understood at first, but then somebody was ordered to stop. "You there, stop, stop, stop!" Dozens of bullets rang out, sharp and painful. I wanted to cross the yard and open the gate. My husband stood silent and still. Outside, the jeeps vacated the place with a lot of noise. The wailing sound of an ambulance made me tremble. The Moroccan was the first to open the door of her house, "Younis el-'Imran was shot." Holes penetrated his body in several places: the chest, the back, the arm and the thighs. One bullet took one of his eyes and left a deep bloody hole. His face looked up towards Heaven and sunk in silence.
1. Aisha bint Abdul-Mu'ti:
Wife of Haj Ibrahim, Yousif's mother
Aisha = living
Bint = daughter of
Abdul = slave of
Mu'ti = giver (God)
2. Bint el-Mabrouk:
"Mabrouk" means "blessed." In Arabic culture, women who do not get married, or who are divorced, but have some distinction are usually referred to in this way. Out of respect, husbands occasionally talk about their wives in the same manner.
3. Haj Ibrahim:
In Arabic the word "haj" is a title given to men who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. For a woman the title is "hajjah."
In Arabic culture, the use of this title is a sign of respect and politeness.
Ibrahim = Abraham.
4. Mass'oud el-Wali:
Mass'oud = one who attains happiness.
Wali = the master
Sadeer: an imaginary Palestinian town, west of the River Jordan.
Busra: A town east of the River Jordan.
Moab: A series of high mountains east of the River Jordan overlooking Jericho, the Dead Sea and the Jerusalem hills.
Nebo: The highest summit of the Moab Mountains. According to the Old Testament, Moses climbed Mount Nebo to view the Promised Land.