22 July 2012

Shai at the Checkpoint - Um Maysara

I wake up just before dawn breaks over the hills to pray. After so many years, it has become part of me. My body betrays me and I find myself dozing off after the prayer for a few moments. Then I collect my wrinkled body and start the day – slowly so that I don’t forget anything. The cloth bag – as I walk through the deserted streets – feels heavy on my back, pulling my body down to the ancient ground. My footsteps barely make a sound, but the contents of the bag jingle with a life of their own. The portable gas, the old brass tea-kettle, the tin box of tea-leaves and, most importantly, the fresh na’ana leaves Salwa makes sure I have. I head towards the hills, leaving the camp abandoned behind me.

The checkpoint is on the main road leading to the camp. It takes me about half an hour to get there, sometimes more, sometimes less – depending on how cooperative my legs are. I always get there before the soldiers. I can’t give them the pleasure of arriving before me and claiming this land as their own. No. I am a reminder to them – every morning – that I was here before them and I am part of this land.


Abu Hasan is approaching the checkpoint with slow, tired strides. His body is bent on itself, as if trying to make himself less noticeable. Abu Hasan is a big man. Before the second Intifada, he used to work in Haifa in construction. I know this because he was one of the men that my Maysara used to work with. They made a good team together. Maysara, young, full of energy and strong, and Abu Hasan, with a solemn face that made it clear he knew his profession. But now it is almost impossible to get work permits. He walks past me, his eyes empty – his Assalamu Alaikum is empty of warmth, an absent-minded greeting said to a stranger. Yasmin told me they live on charity nowadays. Abu Hasan is too proud to go stand in line and wait for the rice and flour to be handed out, so he sends his young daughter. He has four sons and three daughters, all sharing a two-room crumpled old apartment. “Wa’alaiukum E’salam,” he turns his head towards me, a glimpse of recognition passes through his face, but only for a moment. I’m not sure, but I think I see an echo of a smile brushing his lips. He reaches the checkpoint and stands at the end of a long line to wait his turn.

The shai is getting cold. I get up, stretch my old body towards Allah, and dump the remaining shai into the bushes on the side of the road. I make a fresh pot of shai with na’ana and settle on my rug, waiting. I look towards the checkpoint. The line isn’t getting any shorter. It never does. Mostly I see men, young and strong, some older. There are also women, young, most veiled. There is no work at the camp, so beyond the border is their only chance. We don’t want to live on charity. We want to live dignified lives. We want to give our children hope of something better. That’s why Abu Hasan is here today. He has been crushed and reduced to less than human when he couldn’t work beyond the border anymore. But things are changing now. At first, only a few men were able to get temporary work permits. At first there were rumors that they are collaborators. But then more permits came through. This was about six months ago, and since then, most of the men from the camp have tried to get work permits. But it’s not easy to get one. Maysara came home the first day with his head down, humiliated. He was denied a work permit because our family name is the same as that young man’s who blew himself up on the bus in Haifa some years back, killing more than ten people. But he didn’t give up. Ever since then, he’s been running around from one authority to the next, filing all sorts of paperwork, his file getting buried with thousands of other applications. He’s still waiting, hoping that maybe, one day soon.

I sell three cups of shai before I see Abu Hasan emerging from the small building next to the checkpoint and heading back, his body even more crumpled than before. This time he stops at my stall, hands in his pockets. “I don’t have any money on me, hajji, but if you would be so kind as to give a tired man a drink of shai, Allah will reward you, and I will send my daughter tomorrow with some fresh na’ana for you.”

“Abu Hasan, do you not recognize your neighbor? I used to pack you bread and za’atar for lunch and send it with my Maysara when you worked together.”

Ya a’mmi, Um Maysara! Allah be blessed to have put you in my path this morning. Alhamdulillah for kind people like you.”

He sat next to me and sipped his shai while I told him about Maysara and Yasmin, the other children and the grandchildren. He told me about his own family, and how difficult it was these days to get cooking gas, and how his wife has been trying to set up a small family business at home, sewing clothes. But even thread was difficult to obtain these days. Not being able to stand it any longer that his family lives off charity, he decided to try his luck at the checkpoint. Although he is no longer young, his body is still strong and he has years of experience in overseeing construction teams, identifying problems and coming up with creative solutions. “The soldier sent me to the general. I don’t know why he chose me over all the other men standing there in line.”

13 July 2012

Closing the last page

(c) photo by khulud kh. Jaffa, 2012

Time to say goodbye. Time to close the last page of this book. To reclaim my freedom – for now at least. Yes, it’s exciting to complete a book. But more than that, it’s sad. For two and a half years, Maisoon, Ziyad, Majid and Asmahan lived with me. They would wake up in the morning and sit with me at the kitchen table for a morning coffee and cigarette. Sometimes they would talk to me, other times they’d remain silent.

They walked inside my body. I was never alone. Never lived in one world – always the other parallel world would creep up on me – a shadow that followed me everywhere.

And now – it is time to release. I closed the last page of the manuscript, and with it I said goodbye to Maisoon, Ziyad, Majid and Asmahan. The door to this specific parallel world has been closed – for now. The feeling is a one of a newly regained freedom and aloneness. I can again breathe on my own.

But with this door closing – I am left stranded in a long, narrow, dark corridor. At the moment, I’m still adjusting to the darkness around, feeling my way around, getting ready to walk – towards what – towards another parallel world.

Two years ago, in Andalucía, four characters made a sudden appearance in my mind. They wrote the beginning of their history in some ten pages. That was all they needed at that time. Just to make me know they exist and are waiting for me patiently. Maybe now is the time to go back to them, see what world they will reveal to me, and invite them for a morning coffee and cigarette.