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.
A smile blew across Baba’s face and he quickly took a sip of his mint tea – he never liked to gloat. Abbas didn’t care. He didn’t try to conceal his smile.
Teacher Mohammad extended a sweaty hand to me. ‘I knew I was in trouble when you started off with that 5-6.’ His handshake was firm. After my initial high roll, I’d used the running strategy to beat him.
‘My father taught me everything I know.’ I looked at Baba.
‘The teacher is important, but it’s the speed at which your brain fires that makes you the champion at only eleven years of age.’ Teacher Mohammad smiled.
‘Almost twelve!’ I said. ‘Tomorrow.’
‘Give him five minutes,’ Baba said to the men who’d gathered around us in the hope of playing me. ‘He hasn’t even had his tea yet.’
Baba’s words warmed my insides. I loved how proud he was of me.
‘Great game, Ahmed.’ Abbas patted me on the shoulder.
Men reclined on floor cushions, clustered around low trestle tables set up in lines down the length of the room on top of overlapping carpets. Um Kalthoum’s voice overpowered the medley of voices from the men.
The attendant emerged from the back room with a pipe in each hand – long, coloured stems hanging over his arms, charcoal glowing on the tobacco – and set them in front of the remaining men of the Abu Ibrahim group. They thickened the air with sweet-smelling smoke, which mixed with the smoke from the oil lamps hanging from ceiling rafters. One of them told a story about how he had bent down and ripped his trousers open. Abbas and I laughed with them.
The Mukhtar entered, raising his arms at the door as if to embrace the entire tea house at once. Even though the military government wouldn’t recognise the Mukhtar as our elected leader, he was, and men with disputes came to him. Every day he held court in the tea house. The Mukhtar was making his way to his spot in the back, but stopped to clap Baba on the back. ‘May God bring peace upon you and your sons.’ He bowed before us and shook Baba’s hand.
‘May God bring peace upon you as well,’ Baba said. ‘Have you heard that Ahmed is being promoted by three grades in the coming year?’
The Mukhtar smiled. ‘He will bring great pride to our people one day.’
As men entered, they came over to Baba to greet him and introduce themselves to Abbas and me. When I first started coming with Baba, I felt strange because this was the domain of adult men who looked at me strangely. Only a few had wanted to play me at backgammon; but after I proved myself, I became a welcome and honoured guest. I earned my position. Now I was sort of a legend, the youngest backgammon champion in the history of my village.
When Abbas heard of my victories, he began to accompany us. He wanted to learn to play like me. While I played, he spent much of his time socialising with the men. Everyone always liked Abbas; even from an early age he had charisma.
On my right was a group of men in their twenties, dressed in Western clothes: trousers with zippers and button-down shirts. They read newspapers, smoked cigarettes and drank Arabic coffee. Many of them were still single. Abbas and I would be with them one day.
One of them pushed his glasses up with his index finger. ‘How am I supposed to get into medical school here?’ he said.
‘You’ll figure out something,’ the sandal-maker’s son said.
‘Easy for you to say,’ the bespectacled man said. ‘You have a trade to go into.’
‘At least you’re not the third son. I can’t even marry,’ another said. ‘My father has no land to give me anymore. Where would my wife and I live? Both my brothers and their families already live with my parents and me in our one-room house. Now, Jerusalem…’
The radio’s battery went flat right in the middle of Um Kalthoum’s song, Whom Should I Go To? Villagers gasped and voices rose. The owner scurried to the large radio console. He turned the knobs, but there was no sound.
‘Please, forgive me,’ he said. ‘The battery needs to be recharged. There’s nothing I can do.’
Men started to get up to leave.
‘Please, wait.’ The owner made his way over to Baba. ‘Would you mind playing a few songs?’
Baba bowed slightly. ‘It would be my pleasure.’
‘Gentlemen, please wait – Abu Ahmed has agreed to entertain us with his wonderful music.’
Men returned to their spots and Baba played his oud and sang the songs of Abdel Halim Hafez, Mohammad Abdel Wahab and Farid al-Atrash. Some sang along with him, others closed their eyes and listened, while still others smoked their water-pipes and sipped tea. Baba sang for over an hour before he put down his oud.
‘Don’t stop!’ they cried.
Baba picked up his oud and started again. He hated to disappoint them, but as dinner approached, he had no choice.
‘My wife will be upset if her dinner gets cold,’ he said. ‘Everyone, please join us tomorrow night after dinner to celebrate Ahmed’s twelfth birthday.’ As we left, villagers cried out thanks and shook Baba’s hand.
Even this late in the day, the village square still bustled with activity. In the open-air market at the centre, pedlars lined the ground in front of them with clay pots filled with combs; mirrors; amulets to keep away evil spirits; buttons; threads; needles and pins; bolts of brightly coloured fabrics; stacks of new and second-hand clothes and shoes; piles of books and magazines; pots and pans; knives and scissors; field tools. Shepherds stood with sheep and goats. Cages held chickens. Apricots, oranges, apples, avocados and pomegranates lay on tarps next to potatoes, squash, aubergines and onions. There were pickled vegetables in glass jars; clay pots filled with olives, pistachios, and sunflower seeds. A man behind a big wooden camera, half hidden under black fabric, snapped a picture of a family in front of the mosque.
We passed a man selling the paraffin that we used to fuel our lanterns and to cook with, then the herbalist, whose fragrant wares disguised the petroleum smell of his neighbour’s. There were dandelions for diabetes, constipation, liver and skin conditions; chamomile for indigestion and inflammatory disorders; thyme for respiratory problems and eucalyptus for coughs. Across the way, we could see women gathered at the communal ovens chatting while their dough baked.
We passed the now-vacant Khan, the two-room hostel where visitors once stayed when they came to sell their goods in our village, or for festivals, or during harvest season, or on their way to Amman, Beirut or Cairo. Baba told me that when it was open, travellers came on camels and horses, but that was before there were checkpoints and curfews.
The roar of military Jeeps speeding into our village silenced the chatter. Rocks flew through the air and pummelled them; engines screeched to a halt. My friend, Muhammad Ibn Abd, from my class, ran past us, through the square, with two steel-helmeted soldiers with face protectors and Uzis on his heels. They threw him down on a tarp of tomatoes and drove the stocks of their Uzis into his skull. Abbas and I tried to run to him, but Baba held us back.
‘Don’t get involved,’ he said and pulled us towards our house. Abbas’ fists were clenched. Anger bubbled inside of me too. Baba silenced us with a glance. Not in front of the soldiers, or the other villagers.
We made our way towards the hill where we lived, past clusters of homes like ours. I knew each of the clans that lived in these family groups, as the fathers would split their land among their sons, generation after generation, so the clan stayed together. My family’s land was gone. Most of my father’s brothers had been forced into refugee camps across the border in Jordan twelve years ago, on the day of my birth. Now, my brothers and cousins and I would have no orange groves, no houses of our own. As we passed the last of the mud-brick homes, my head pounded with rage.
‘How could you stop me?’ The words burst from my mouth as soon as we were alone.
Baba took a few more steps, then stopped. ‘It would accomplish nothing but to get you into trouble.’
‘We need to fight back. They won’t stop on their own.’
‘Ahmed’s right,’ Abbas chimed in.
Baba silenced us with his look.
We passed a pile of rubble where a house used to be. In its place was a low tent. Three little children held onto their mother’s robe while she cooked over an open fire. When I looked over at her, she lowered her head, lifted the pan, and ducked into the tent.
‘For twelve years, I’ve watched many soldiers enter our village,’ Baba said. ‘Their hearts are as different from each other’s as they are from ours. They are bad, good, scared, greedy, moral, immoral, kind, mean – they’re human beings like us. Who knows what they might be if they were not soldiers? This is politics.’
I gritted my teeth together so hard my jaw hurt. Baba didn’t see things the way Abbas and I did. Uncollected rubbish, donkey dung and flies littered the path. We paid taxes but received no services because they classified us as a village. They stole the majority of our land and left us with one half of a square kilometre for over six thousand Palestinians.
‘People don’t treat other human beings the way they treat us,’ I said.
‘Ahmed’s right,’ Abbas said.
‘That’s what saddens me.’ Baba shook his head. ‘Throughout history the conquerors have always treated the conquered this way. The bad ones need to believe we’re inferior to justify the way they treat us. If they only could realise that we’re all the same.’
I couldn’t listen to him anymore and ran towards home, shouting, ‘I hate them. I wish they’d just go back to where they came from and leave us alone!’ Abbas followed on my heels.
Baba called after us, ‘One day you’ll understand. It’s not as simple as you make it out to be. We must always remain decent.’
He had no idea what he was talking about.
The flower scent reached me about halfway up the hill. I was glad we lived only five minutes from the square. I wasn’t like Abbas, outside playing games with friends and running all the time; I was a reader, a thinker, and this running fast made my lungs burn. Abbas could run all day and he’d never even perspire. I couldn’t begin to compete with his athleticism.
Bougainvillea in shades of purple and fuchsia climbed the trellises that Baba, Abbas and I had made to run up the outside of the little house. Mama and Nadia were taking more trays of sweets to their storage place under the tarp near the almond tree. They had been baking all week.
‘Go inside,’ Baba said as he trudged up behind Abbas and me. ‘They’re starting curfew earlier today.’
Sleep could not find me. My anger made me invisible and when it visited the rest of my family, it overlooked me. So I was the only one who heard the noises outside. Footsteps. At first I thought it was the wind in the almond tree, but as they drew louder, closer, I knew it was not. No one was ever out after dark except soldiers. We could be shot if we left our homes for any reason. It must be soldiers. I lay very still listening for the pattern, trying to discern how many feet. It was one person, and not in the heavy boots of the soldiers. It must be a thief. Our home was so small that, in order for everyone to lie down, we had to place many things out of doors. The food for my birthday party was outside now. Someone was creeping up on it. I stepped over my family’s sleeping bodies, afraid to be seen outside, but more afraid to let someone steal the food Mama and Nadia had worked so hard to prepare, and that Baba had saved all year to buy.
The chill caught me off guard and I wrapped my arms around my chest as I picked my way along, barefooted. There was no moon. I didn’t see him. A sweaty hand clamped over my mouth. Cold metal pressed against the back of my neck – a gun barrel.
‘Keep your voice down,’ he said.
He spoke in my village’s dialect.
‘Tell me your full name,’ he demanded in a whisper.
I closed my eyes and envisioned the tombstones in our village cemetery.
‘Ahmed Mahmud Mohammad Othman Omar Ali Hussein Hamid,’ I squeaked, wishing to sound manly, but sounding like a little girl.
‘I’ll cut your tongue out if I catch you lying.’ He spun me around and jerked me backwards. ‘What’s a rich boy like you doing in my house?’
The scar on his forehead was unmistakable. Ali.
‘The Israelis, they took our land.’
He shook me so violently I feared I might vomit.
‘Where’s your father?’ He jerked me further backwards. I grabbed onto his arms with all my might and thought of my family asleep on their rush mats in our house, Ali’s home.
‘He’s sleeping, doctor,’ I said, adding the title as a show of respect so that he might not slit my throat there, next to the birthday pastries.
He thrust his face into mine. What if he asked what Baba does?
‘Right this very minute, my comrades are burying arms throughout this village.’
‘Please, doctor,’ I said. ‘I could pay attention much better if I were vertical.’
He slammed me backward before he yanked me upright. I looked at the open bag next to his foot. It was filled with weapons. I looked away, but it was too late.
‘See this gun.’ He shoved the pistol in my face. ‘If anything happens to me or my weapons, my comrades will chop your family to pieces.’
I nodded, mute to this horrible vision.
‘Where’s the safest place to hide them?’ He glanced towards the house. ‘And remember, your family’s lives depend on it. Don’t even tell your father.’
‘I would never,’ I said. ‘He doesn’t understand. We have no choice. Hide them in the dirt behind the almond tree.’
He walked me over with the pistol against the back of my neck.
‘There’s no need for the gun.’ I lifted my hands away from my sides. ‘I’m quite willing to help. We all want freedom for ourselves and our brothers in the camps.’
‘What’s under the tarp?’ he asked.
‘Food for my celebration.’
‘My twelfth birthday.’ I could not feel the gun against my skin anymore.
‘Have you a shovel?’
He followed me.
When we finished, Ali stepped into the trench and laid the bag of arms down the way a mother would place her baby in his bassinet. In silence we scooped dirt from the mound beside the trench until we covered the bag.
Ali grabbed a handful of date cookies from under the tarp and stuffed them into his pockets and mouth. ‘Palestinians trained to use these weapons will come.’ White particles sprayed from his mouth. ‘You’ll protect them until the time is right, or your family will be killed.’
‘Of course.’ I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to become a hero of my people.
I started to return to my rush mat inside the house, but Ali grabbed my shoulder. ‘If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you all.’
I turned to face him. ‘You don’t understand. I want to help.’
‘Israel has built a house of glass, and we’ll shatter it.’ He cut the air with his fist then handed me the shovel.
There was a skip in my step as I returned to my house. I lay again in the darkness next to Abbas, my body and mind charged with the thrill of what I’d participated in. Until it occurred to me – what if the Israelis found out? They’d imprison me. They’d bulldoze our house. My family would have to live in a tent. Or maybe they’d exile us. I wanted to talk to Baba or even Abbas, but I knew Ali and his comrades would kill us. I was caught between the devil and the fires of hell. I had to move the weapons. I’d tell Ali they weren’t secure. I couldn’t dig them up now. Where would I put them? During the day, someone could see me. I’d have to wait until curfew. The whole village would be at our house this evening. What if the soldiers came? What if my family noticed, or someone from the party? The village cemetery. New plots were dug there almost daily. I’d go after school to scout out a place.