EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 1:
Mama always said Amal was mischievous. It was a joke we shared as a family – that my sister, just a few years old and shaky on her pudgy legs, had more energy for life than me and my younger brother Abbas combined. So when I went to check on her and she wasn’t in her crib, I felt a fear in my heart that gripped me and would not let go.
It was summer and the whole house breathed slowly from the heat. I stood alone in her room, hoping the quiet would tell me where she’d stumbled off to. A white curtain caught a breeze. The window was open – wide open. I rushed to the ledge, praying that when I looked over she wouldn’t be there, she wouldn’t be hurt. I was afraid to look, but I did anyway because not knowing was worse. Please God, please God, please God…
There was nothing below but Mama’s garden: colourful flowers moving in that same wind. Downstairs, the air was filled with delicious smells, the big table laden with yummy foods. Baba and I loved sweets, so Mama was making a whole lot of them for our holiday party tonight.
‘Where’s Amal?’ I stuck a date cookie in each of my pockets when her back was turned. One for me and the other for Abbas. ‘Napping.’ Mama poured the syrup onto the baklava. ‘No, Mama, she’s not in her crib.’ ‘Then where is she?’ Mama put the hot pan in the sink and cooled it with water that turned to steam.
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 2:
Abbas and I heard the cries before Baba. He was focused on inspecting our oranges. He was like that. His family had owned the groves for generations and he said it was in his blood.
‘Baba.’ I tugged on his robe and broke his trance. He dropped the oranges in his arms and ran towards the cries. Abbas and I followed closely.
‘Abu Ahmed!’ Mama’s screams echoed off the trees. When I was born, they had changed their names to Abu Ahmed and Um Ahmed so as to include my name: that of their first son. It was the tradition of our people. Mama ran towards us with our baby sister Sara in her arms. ‘Come home!’ Mama gasped for air. ‘They’re at the house.’
I got really scared. For the last two years, when they thought Abbas and I were sleeping, my parents talked about them coming to take our land. The first time I heard them was the night Amal died. They fought because Mama wanted to bury Amal on our land so she could stay close to us and not be afraid, but Baba said no, that they’d come and take our land and then we’d either have to dig her up or leave her with them.
Baba took baby Sara from Mama’s arms and we ran back to our house.
More than a dozen soldiers were fencing our land and home with barbed wire. My sister Nadia was kneeling under our olive tree holding my middle brothers Fadi and Hani while they cried. She was younger than me and Abbas, but older than the others. Mama always said she’d make a good mother because she was very nurturing.
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 3:
A brass tray of coloured tea glasses scattered the sunlight that streamed through the open window like a prism. Blues, golds, greens and reds bounced onto a group of old men in battered cloaks and white kaffiyahs secured by black rope. The men of the Abu Ibrahim clan sat cross-legged on floor pillows placed carefully around the low table now holding their steaming drinks. They had once owned all the olive groves in our village. Every Saturday they met here, only occasionally exchanging a word or greeting across the crowded room. They came to listen to the ‘Star of the East’, Um Kalthoum, on the tea house’s radio.
Abbas and I waited all week to hear her sing. Um Kalthoum was known for her contralto vocal range, her ability to produce approximately 14,000 vibrations per second with her vocal chords, her ability to sing every single Arabic scale, and the high importance she placed on interpreting the underlying meaning of her songs. Many of her songs lasted hours. Because of her great talent, men flocked to the only radio in the village to hear her.
Teacher Mohammad wiped the sweat that trickled down his nose and dangled there, about to drop onto the playing board. We both knew there was no way he could win, but he never quit and I admired that trait in him. The cluster of men gathered around the backgammon board teased, ‘Well, Teacher Mohammad, it appears that your student has beaten you again!’ ‘Concede already! Give someone else a chance to take on the village champion.’
‘A man never quits until it is over.’ Teacher Mohammad bore a chequer off.
I rolled a 6-6 and lifted my last chequer from the board. From the corner of my eye I saw Abbas watching me.
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 4:
After school, I stopped by the cemetery, found the appropriate plot and went straight to my almond tree. The dirt looked the same.
‘Come sit with me.’ Baba appeared next to me. ‘I heard a few new jokes.’
My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t think straight. I held the telescope up. ‘She’s beckoning me.’
‘How can I compete?’ Baba said.
I climbed our almond tree. Abbas and I had named her Shahida, ‘witness’, because we spent so many hours in her watching the Arabs and Jews that she felt like a playmate deserving of a name. The olive tree on Shahida’s left we called Amal, ‘hope’, and the one on her right was Sa’dah, ‘happiness’.
Baba leaned against the mud-brick wall of our home to watch me. I aimed the lens of my new telescope at Moshav Dan’s swimming pool.
‘I wonder if Einstein made his own telescope. You’d do well to follow his example,’ Baba said.
‘Abu Ichmad!’ Mama called. ‘I need your help inside.’
Baba walked to the front of the house.
I aimed the lens of my telescope to the west of the village. Our hilltop home was the highest point in the village. All the remaining homes were one-room cubes, mud-brick with square flat roofs. The sweat dripped into my eyes. Would this day never end?