It's Friday. Without opening my eyes I can see the layer of dust
covering everything. Tile floor, wooden furniture, aluminum window
frames. In this city where I ended up after Beirut, everything is
coated with fine powder. You can smell dust suspended in the air of
the room. You can smell lime dirt scattered along the roadside. You
can feel a light ash settling on your skin, dry, rough, piling up
layer by layer, a cocoon growing around your body with every new
direction you take. Dust! Everywhere. At the office, at Suad's
house, in the alleyways of Yarmuk Refugee Camp, in the city's
gardens. The atmosphere is ashen, dusty, brown, beige, neutral. Has
no hue. When I look up the sky is colorless. When I look down I
find no sea. A wan desert full of weary citizens waiting in
exhaustion for buses that never appear. Laden with bags of hard-won
vegetables battled for in long lines at co-ops. Taking shelter in
the shade of billboards that advertise consumer products guaranteed
to please. If you use "Omo" detergent, you're sure to live happily
ever after, and if you buy an "Icee" refrigerator, your family's
joys will know no bounds. Overlooking all this is a soccer star
with dark glasses and a hefty mustache, radiating health and
leisure. Images, images. Everywhere, always. Almost always. On and
on. The circle of sand closes in. Beirut flashes before my eyes to
torment me again. The Mediterranean. They call it al-
the White Sea, when in fact it's blue. Yellow sand, a halo of green
ringing the sea, an azure blue, turquoise, endless greenery. A
rainbow of memories. So! Shall I pull myself together and go to
Suad's house? And if I do, will we be stuck inside the walls of
their cramped, rented quarters? Will we be forced to sit, as usual,
in the anteroom separated from the owner's living room only by a
pane of glass, so that our throats grow dry from whispering? And
will the owner's wife impose herself on us as usual, complaining
about food shortages while her children wriggle like worms
No, I tell myself. I must get up and write. In spite of my
aching eyes and bruised legs, battered from banging into the jumble
of suitcases crowded between the bed and the wall. I haven't
unpacked yet. I might as well keep everything zipped up and ready
to go again. I only hope no emergency arises to make me leave with
nothing, the way most Palestinians had to in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1970
and 1982. I blame our parents for not grasping the situation
quickly enough to teach us the art of escape. They could have
instructed us in the methods of lugging and hauling. How foolish
they were to assume others would shoulder their cause, and neglect
schooling us youngsters in the vital means of packing and
No, I tell myself. I'd better stay here and write a
novel. I'll give it one of those rhyming names you find in
classical literature, like The Complete Book of Facts for Those
Who Never Unpack, or A Guide for Those Who Wander between Hither
and Yonder. Or maybe I'll drown myself in poetry, since nobody
else has managed to drown us and get rid of us yet. I wade through
language in search of a homeland. Although when I lived in Jericho,
I never knew it was a homeland. As my mother always said, health is
like a crown on the heads of the healthy; only the ill can see it.
After 1967, I wept for a homeland I had lived in without
And I, simple-minded child, girl, adolescent, believing and
unbelieving, unable to do a thing but listen to bombs falling from
the jets in Jericho's sky. I hid under the stairwell until the raid
was over, then ran into the garden with the other children to
collect the warning leaflets that had fallen from the planes like
swarms of locusts:
"The IDF warns against resistance. You will see our revenge.
Put your hands up, raise a white flag over every house, and you
will find clemency."
We raced to show the leaflets to our parents, making fun of the
silly threats they contained. We couldn't understand why our
parents' faces turned white when they saw them. Could they really
be taking these threats (which so resembled their own threats to
us) so seriously? Could these pirates of the air really subdue and
discipline an entire population? It seemed the whole international
community would make a mockery of anyone who resisted them and
their phosphorus bombs which were to kill several of my classmates.
When they called to us to leave, I was holding two cubes of Nablus
soap. I hung on to them, to the soap made of virgin olive oil, to
that fresh green smell. Those two chunks of soap had the security
of home, the density of everyday life. Holding on to them, I
thought for sure we'd be back the following day. Even when the
bridges burned behind us and the enemy forbade us to return, I
clung to that scent, entreating time not to become a grid of steel,
not to slam shut on us like a prison. And so on, and so forth
…. And now, as you see, I no longer have Jericho. I have no
city, no street, no wall to lean against when I tire of waiting
outside city gates. When I find nothing before me but dust in an
apartment or office. Missing my grandfather's house in Wadi
al-Tuffah, the Valley of Apples. Missing that town of oranges
and greenery. With no neighborhood, no street, no home at Kitf
ai-Wad, the Valley's Shoulder. With nowhere to go on
Lucy the Armenian repeated the same phrase incessantly. An old
woman in her seventies, she trembled when she spoke, and the woolen
shawl she had crocheted herself trembled with her. Her face paled,
and her teeth chattered as if in fright.
"Everything, Khabibi, Sweetheart," she explained in her broken
Arabic. "We nothing. They massacred the Armenians."
I never quite understood. I would watch her for a while, then turn
back to my toys. The best one was a monkey that slid up and down
the pole of a well while waggling its tail. I pulled the string,
and the monkey went up. I released it, and he slid back down. I
entertained myself by watching this elegant mischief. Lucy would
implore me to listen. When she persisted, I finally let the monkey
slide smoothly to the bottom of the well. She took me by the hand
and seated me on her lap, repeating the phrase I didn't understand,
while everything about her quivered: the knot of her hair, the
transparent, lizard-like skin of her fingers with the veins showing
through, the navy blue dress she wore year round.
Whenever Lucy arrived, the festive smell of baking filled the
house. The moment she entered the kitchen, she regained her
youthful posture. Tying an apron about her waist, she would soon
surround herself with heaps of treats, round and square, and the
inevitable large raisin cake that was her specialty. My mother
looked forward to Lucy's monthly visits because of these delicious
treats, but Lucy seemed to look forward instead to addressing me
the moment my parents went off to work and we were alone.
"Khabibi, they massacred the Armenians."
I tried everything. I brought her chocolates from the box of Black
Magic my mother kept hidden away in a cupboard. Still she insisted.
I spread out all my toys before her, stood on my head for minutes
on end, crawled under the sofa, even though I had gotten stuck
there several times. I touched my nose while dangling from the edge
of the dining-room table, calling out for her approval, but she
didn't care. Still she muttered the same phrase, trying to make me
"Habibi" (finally she corrected her pronunciation), "We ...
they massacred the Armenians."
The only Armenians I knew were in the Christian Quarter of
Jerusalem. I had walked there hand in hand with my father, who had
Christian friends in the Old City. There, at the top of the long
staircases leading up from the gate we called Khan al-Zayt,
Gate of the Oil Inn, under stone arches where bushes sprouted
between the cracks, past doorways smelling of arak and aniseed,
there were sausage sellers who talked the way Lucy did when she
forgot my presence and mumbled to herself. Near the last gate in
the wall of the Old City lived an Armenian dentist whom my father
visited. I accompanied him, thrilled at the prospect of watching
his teeth being treated, and the drill penetrating his molars. We
traversed the entire neighborhood, my father and I, past homes and
stairways, covered souks, souvenir shops taking advantage of
Westerners enamored with camels and tents. We passed shops with
ropes of tobacco hanging from the ceilings, leather tanners, pastry
sellers whose wares sent off warm waves of tantalizing aromas, jars
of dried chickpeas coated in sugar and rosewater. Wherever we went,
the stone walls of the City encircled us with protection and
blessing, until we finally arrived at that distant spot at the edge
of the visible world: the dentist's clinic. He never began work
before giving me a stick of chewing gum. I, in turn, began by
stealing glances at his teeth as he spoke to my father. Were they
different than his patients' teeth? When I had satisfied my
curiosity, I turned to the dolls he made out of wax. Each was more
beautiful than the other, with wide eyes, red lips, and gorgeous,
colorful dresses. They seemed to have a joy of their own, and to
multiply on their own, increasing with every visit we made,
although I couldn't imagine how.
My teacher had told me that every doll had a living counterpart
somewhere on earth. I wondered where these dolls' counterparts
were, and most of all, who made their beautiful dresses. The
dentist said that his sister embroidered them, but I had never seen
his sister, who supposedly lived in an apartment adjacent to the
clinic. I myself tended to think that some magical beings created
them in secret, decorating them with butterflies and flower's,
bunches of grapes, bright suns, and sheaves of wheat. Bright red,
cinnamon, peach, rose, pink, scarlet, watermelon, sienna, crimson,
burgundy. Turquoise, verdigris, navy, sky blue, lilac, purple,
azure. Lemon yellow, saffron, maize, gold, yolk, ivory.
All of these colors shone before me like magical planets in the
space of the room, making the dolls seem to jump and play, stroll
about on the table and chatter together - in Armenian, even though
their embroidered dresses were Palestinian.
And Lucy insisted on explaining, and still I didn't
Who were these Armenians? If not the owners of the shops in the
Christian Quarter, the dentist who made dolls out of wax, his
invisible sister who embroidered the beautiful dresses, then who
Could Lucy alone represent them all?
Her lonely figure quivered under the brown shawl. I looked to her
eyes for explanation, and found two shrinking puddles of water, the
dregs of a bottle slowly drying. Why was it so important to her to
make me understand, me in particular? If it weren't for her sincere
dedication to her message, and my deep sense of her love for me, I
would have tormented her as I did other guests I found
"Go home, God damn you!" I would say behind my mother's back. (She
would never believe that her sweet little girl could utter such
demonic phrases). But with Lucy I listened quietly as I built my
magic kingdoms, constructed houses and tore down others, followed
the monkey's escapades in and out of the well. Lucy never
interfered with my games, didn't object if I addressed an imaginary
giraffe, or pretended the illustration of a wolf lurking in the
pages of a magazine was about to spring to life. She never scolded
me, never reprimanded. All she asked was that I understand the
difference between nothing and everything.
"Look, Khabibi, we lost everything. They massacred …"
Who was she talking about? How could people, people with faces and
smiles and hands and mouths to eat Lucy's delicious sweets, how
could they be massacred? I knew a wolf had swallowed Little Red
Riding Hood, and a woodsman had had to rescue her with an axe. But
No, it couldn't be.
An endless sequence of images races through my mind.
September 1971. A seventeen-year-old in military uniform falling
off a wall. He cradles his intestines in his hands, trying to keep
them from spilling to the ground. His companions come running with
a ladder for a makeshift stretcher.
Then the first aid center at Jabal ai-Hussein in Amman. Flies swarm
around the pile of swollen black corpses.
Shatila refugee camp, Lebanon. Umm Ahmad, a full-figured woman with
a traditional white peasant headdress, owner of the biggest coffee
pot in the neighborhood. She was illiterate, and made fun of us for
trying to teach her reading and writing.
"You're trying to teach old dogs new tricks," she'd remind
"Dear, sweet Umm Ahmad," I'd plead. ''You're not old yet. All your
children are in school now, God bless them, and there's no harm in
your learning a little yourself."
"What for?" She'd ask. "So I can read the news? All the news in the
world comes right to my doorstep, and it hasn't gotten me back to
my home in Palestine yet."
Sometimes she showed up at the literacy class, and sometimes she
She'd bring a bowl of green beans to string, or a pot of squash
with a metal corer, to prepare for stuffing with rice and meat. She
came for my sake, so I wouldn't take offence. And she made sure her
children brought tea or coffee to every class. "Between you and me,
sister, nothing's changed. It's the same old world. We're stuck in
the same old camp. Big words don't mean a thing."
On the first day of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Umm Ahmad fled
with her children from Shatila to Sabra, where they took refuge in
a relative's house. Two days passed. The swarm of children crowded
into the house were crying with hunger. On the third day she simply
picked herself up and went back to her home in Shatila for some
flour. At the doorstep of her house they slit her neck clean
I still remember her beaded headdress. The way she would bring a
pot and sponge to her doorstep and stood there to do the dishes.
The gold tooth that gleamed when she laughed. The condescending
smile she reserved for me, because I was naive enough to believe
that reading and writing could change our lot. Every time I think
of her, I wonder if things could have been otherwise. "There's no
hope for us outside our country," she used to say. "No hope at
No! I scream covering my eyes. That's enough! I bound
out of bed, gasping for air. I try to shake my head clear of the
memory, push it away with my fists. In a moment I am calmer. I must
channel my thoughts in a different direction. How to coexist with
memory if you can't forget. To forget or not to forget. I reach for
pen and paper, trying to focus my thoughts, to get to the vague
thing we call truth. It's a little like a folk remedy: A sprinkle
of marjoram, a dash of ginger, a pinch of cinnamon and a little bit
of memory. It was 1967 when my father, sweat dripping from his
temples and the rim of his glasses, came home and said there were
no weapons, and the Zionists were about to enter the town and make
an example of us all - the girls in particular! He said he would
take us across the bridge, get us to Amman and return. "But you
said we were staying," I nagged. "You said we would stay even if
they brought the roof down over our heads." He was too busy with
the refugees to hear me. A flood of people from the three camps
around Jericho, fleeing with their baskets and mattresses and
belongings! He was busy tending to the wounded. Several days later,
when they had all gone and the town was deserted, we left. Because
a friend of his frightened him, asking, "What will happen to the
girls?" He made him feel responsible, until my father finally said,
"I'll take you to the East Bank, and come back."
"And us girls," I asked, "when do we get to come back?"
There was no answer. With a vague premonition, I snatched up my
mother's picture (although I was to lose it during the many
emigrations yet to come). Then I went to the kitchen and climbed
the ladder to the attic, where I picked out two pieces of Nablus
soap, made of pure olive oil. I don't know why I took them. Was it
to remind me of the oil, or of the salt, or of Jericho's Dead Sea
and the oils and salts that float on its surface? I don't know,
because memory is like a story about doomed lovers that you watch
on screen, knowing the ending already.
Chapter One from The Stars over Jericho, translated by s. V.
Atalla. Printed by permission of the author.