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?
Baba reappeared. ‘Dinner’s ready.’
A book hit the almond tree and crashed to the ground. I jumped off the branch.
‘I hate maths.’ Abbas kicked up the dirt. ‘I’ll never be able to do it.’
‘A man who needs fire will hold it in his hand,’ Baba said.
‘I’ve tried, but I keep getting burned.’
‘Ichmad will help you.’ Baba put his arm around me. ‘God has blessed you with an extraordinary mathematical mind for a purpose.’
Abbas rolled his eyes. ‘How can anyone forget?’
‘Maybe if you spent less time with friends and more time with your books like Ichmad does you wouldn’t have any trouble with maths.’ Baba raised his eyebrows and patted Abbas on the head.
‘Dinner.’ Mama’s voice was soft; she was just reminding Baba of what she had sent him to do.
‘We’ll be right there, Um Ichmad,’ Baba said. ‘Let’s go, boys.’ We walked towards the house, Baba in the middle, his arms around Abbas and me.
Inside, my little sister Sara ran to Baba, nearly toppling him over. Mama and Baba’s eyes met and she smiled.
‘Let Baba breathe,’ Mama said.
‘Here it is.’ Baba pointed to this year’s portrait of me, which hung in the birthday section of the wall.
‘You look just like your father.’ Mama grabbed my cheeks. ‘Look at those emerald eyes, lush hair and thick black lashes.’ Mama raised her eyebrows. ‘You’re my masterpiece.’
Abbas and my other siblings looked like Mama, with their skin the colour of burned cinnamon, black unruly hair and long arms.
‘Take these.’ Mama handed Nadia small dishes of hummus and tabboulie, which she placed on the dirt floor.
‘Come, Mama prepared a feast,’ Baba called to Abbas and me. He sat cross-legged next to the small dishes. ‘I swear to you she is the best cook in all the land.’
He looked at Mama. The corners of her lips rose and she lowered her head.
Abbas and I sat next to each other as we did for every meal. The rest of our siblings joined us on the floor around the dishes.
‘It’s your favourite,’ Mama said. ‘Sheikh El Mahshi.’
I could not meet her gaze. ‘No thanks.’
‘Is something wrong?’ She looked at Baba.
‘I’m too excited about the party.’
Mama smiled at me.
‘Those are yours,’ Mama said to Baba. She pointed to a plate of miniature aubergines stuffed only with rice and pine nuts. Baba was vegetarian; he would have no killing in his name, even of an animal for food.
Baba sat with his oud on the stone wall next to Abu Sayeed, the violinist. I’d started to walk back to the almond tree, when I felt Baba’s hand on my shoulder. ‘Stand next to your portrait,’ he said. Abbas walked behind the house with a group of his friends. My stomach dropped. I stood beside Baba next to the easel that held my portrait.
Men lined up, arms on each other’s shoulders, and began to dance the dabkeh in the middle of the courtyard. Others went behind the house. I could feel the wetness under my arms. The guests were dressed in their Friday best. The older people wore their traditional robes. Children shouted, the babies yelled, and everyone laughed while Baba sang his heart out. Abu Sayeed tapped authoritatively on the side of the violin, tucked it carefully under his chin, and then waved his bow in the air in an elaborate flourish. He manoeuvred it like a magic wand. More and more children headed for the back yard.
‘Let’s go!’ Abbas returned for me. I looked at Baba. He nodded. I ran past Abbas to the back of the house where a group of boys sat on the ground.
Abbas gave me a handful of sand. I placed it in a bucket of water. Everyone gathered around. After stirring the water, I pulled the sand out dry.
The audience clapped with enthusiasm. I noticed my brothers Fadi and Hani walk to the spot where the weapons were buried with sticks in their hands. They spent every day together looking for clues so that they could solve mysteries that didn’t exist.
Sweat beaded up on my face. ‘Join us, brothers.’
‘We want more,’ the children chanted. ‘No thanks,’ Fadi said. ‘We’re hot on the trail of something big.’ Hani said the same thing every time Abbas and I asked him what he and Fadi were doing. I rubbed the bristles of a hairbrush against a wool sweater while I watched them scrape at the dirt over the weapons. I moved the brush close to Abbas’ head. His hair immediately stood on end, following the brush.
‘By order of the military governor, tonight’s curfew will begin in fifteen minutes. Anyone caught outside his or her home will be arrested or shot,’ the amplified voice said in heavily accented Arabic.
Soldiers swarmed into my birthday party like locusts. They stared at Abbas’ hair. Without explanation, curfew was starting an hour earlier tonight.
‘Party’s over,’ a soldier said. ‘Everyone go home.’
They waved their guns at us. I turned to look for Fadi and Hani. ‘Move it,’ the soldier said to me. I scurried to the front of the house, but soldiers remained at my almond tree. It was difficult to breathe. The guests dispersed. Baba offered the soldiers sweets.
‘Don’t look so upset,’ Baba said. ‘We had a great time. We’ll do it again next year.’
‘Hurry,’ Mama called to my sisters. ‘Help me with the mats.’ Nadia and Sara placed ten rush mats on the dirt floor where we’d eaten dinner. The soldiers left and Mama blew out the lanterns.
I lay in the dark on my mat trying to banish the terrible thoughts by recollecting the next problem from the physics book I was reading. Even so, I kept listening for the sounds outside of soldiers uncovering the cache.
A rock being shot from a slingshot accelerates over a distance of 2 metres. At the end of this acceleration it leaves the slingshot with a speed of 200 metres per second. What would be the average acceleration imparted to the rock?
The rock was accelerated from rest. Its final speed is 200 m/s; it’s accelerated over a known distance, 2 metres; v²=2ad; (200 m/s)²=2a(2 m); then a=40,000/4=10,000 m/s².
I was starting on another problem when I heard noises outside. I sat upright and squinted into the darkness, trying to decide what to do. Was it the freedom fighters? Or the soldiers?