by Karen S. Jellal
“Palestine is the cement that holds the Arab world together, or it is the explosive that blows it apart.” – Yasser Arafat
The marketplace was like a coal mine that afternoon—dark, sweltering, and damply constricted. Patrons moved forward listlessly, eyeing vegetables, comparing wilted leaves of ba’dinjanein low voices, rough and granulated as the sands which assaulted eyes like snipers. A blood-orange sun hung harsh in the sky. Calloused feet kicked out as elbows dug into passing flesh, and the village of Tantura grew restless.
Yassir, not yet 17, sat atop his makeshift canopy three stories up. His sister, a child in a faded yellow dress, cradled a sand-stained doll in her arms. The blue tin beneath Yassir’s thighs throbbed dully with heat while his legs swung arcs in the air, two sandaled pendulums in rhythm with his sister’s chanting.
Scents of roasting tam’r laced into those of goat and sweat while the people below frothed up from the pores of the city. Alleyways between buildings seemed to sway with the ceaseless motion of the crowd. Children tumbled out from beneath merchant’s carts. Capes of dust billowed out from behind their bodies as they wrestled. Anxious mothers chased after them, hands gripping their hijabs as they called out, dodging camels and skirting bartering traders with covered eyes.
It was high noon, the busiest of hours—and for a few moments he thought they looked like one united entity, an amoeba, or perhaps a shifting continent.It was nearly dinnertime, and the usual hustle in the street was dying down. Miriam sliced potatoes as cries from the baby in her arms finally quelled. His head bobbed forward slightly, asleep—her youngest was much fussier than her previous children had been.
The harira steeped in its clay pot, steam rising and making the faces of Miriam and her child glisten in the small, enclosed space of her kitchen. Since her husband left it felt much more confined than it had ever been before. The last months hadn’t been kind to them, but then again, they hadn’t been kind to anyone. Zionist militias were becoming more active, and the wealthier families on the outskirts of Tantura were already beginning to flee. The abandoned houses of some areas seemed like archaeological dig sites rather than a village, effigies of a time already slipping away. The ones who were able to flee considered themselves lucky. Miriam couldn’t see how leaving a place that is as much a part of you as your own limbs could be ‘lucky’. It was rumored that those in surrounding provinces had been forced out by the thousands. Displacement, the militia had called it, though some whispered of ethnic cleansing. Al-Nakba. A cataclysm.
She remembered dancing in the kitchen, before the talk of al-Nakba, twirling about while the scent of frying samak wrapped around her like a bodice. Now, it felt like a movie she had watched long ago. The crow of roosters had proved a jagged beat on which to flourish hips, but she felt young then, and the laughter of her children made her twirl faster as her skirt ballooned out like a storm cloud. The eyes of her husband seemed to move with every fluctuation of her body.
La’Takhafo, she said softly, knife poised in the air above a half-sliced potato. Her eyes settled on a spot far in the distance. Fear not. The candle lit in the hearts of Palestinians will not go out that easily.
A few hours passed and the sun was nearly set. Miriam had been scrubbing the children’s clothes out in an aluminum tub, but now her hands wiped themselves across her apron. The market should have been near-silent by then, but a steady clamor had been growing outside.
She made her way into the kitchen. Yells began to sound somewhere close. Her daughter Hakima stood on the tips of her toes in front of the sink, the yellow of her dress glowing slightly in odd, orange light. Her face, for a wonder, seemed resigned as it pressed against the window.
“Mama,” she said. “Something’s happening.”
Yassir was walking when everything blew apart.
As he walked, though, he was remembering. He remembered looking up at his mother from the floor of their rooftop patio as she jumped from ledge to ledge, watching him, waiting for his eyes to light up. The walls were caked from the sun. They hadn’t the nokoud that last year to repair the clay inlets between bricks. Her sandals scraped them gently, and almost half the stone eroded in a sea of ash. Then his mother lost herself, the children saw, day by day. It was in her walk and speech and manner of touch. There was no gentleness left to her step, no humming in the night to keep dark dreams at bay. Yassir had saved up for weeks to buy her favorite kaâke, a small cake with a thin layer of icing on top. He pictured it in only the way 16-year-old boys knew how: grandly, and perhaps a bit overindulgent. There he was, swooping in, flourishing the cake like a lance—and her, for the briefest of instants, overcome with surprise and old, forgotten feelings. So much so, in fact, that her eyes would widen and her mouth would form a slight o in delight, despite the clay bricks deteriorating around them like a sandstorm.
Bullets clawed the air. A bride raised her arm up and tried to keep her eyes open long enough to see the sky as the henna on her hands smeared like war paint. Her groom lie slumped across the flat of her stomach, their faces nearly touching, while at that same moment a grenade made its way into a smoky room in Palestine, rolling about the floor, stopping itself beneath the chess table of two lifelong friends. They crouched together on the ground, thinking similar thoughts of how blessedly old they were. A boy ran down the street, the kaâke he had bought for his mother trailing the ground behind him. It had been a gift, and a woman with child watched the boy go as she stood outside of a burning bakery, silent and blood-drenched, clutching herself.
Miriam pushed her daughter across the kitchen and out the back door, eyes wild and pleading.
“Go, child,” she whispered. “We’ll meet you there soon. I’ll get the rest of the children—” And with one final, violent shove, the young girl was thrust into the marketplace as her mother’s voice was abruptly cut off. There was a flurry of movement. Unfamiliar men with covered faces and dark eyes forced their way into buildings as glass flew like locust. Bodies lie everywhere. Children sat in front burning homes, faces upturned, searching for someone familiar.
Hakima set off running, legs pumping toward an earthen building in the distance—Madrassat ibno battouta. The school. Her hair whipped out behind her as she bent low for a moment, seizing something from the arms of a man sprawled out on the road, uniform hanging off his body in strips. She stumbled a little as she ran on, cocking his rifle. Only then did she begin to weep.
There was nothing but darkness. The scent of chalk greeted Yassir, masking the stench of sulfur from outside.
She wasn’t even screaming, his mother, as he watched from the bedroom window. She had begged for the lives of her children quietly, desperately, before a blast ushered in a silence that hung heavier than he had thought possible. She was supposed to have her kaâke tonight, he thought. His legs were numb. It was supposed to be a surprise.
Yassir struggled to breathe, hands flailing for balance as his eyes adjusted to the shadows. And then, dissolving into his line of vision, there she was—a canary in her yellow dress, shoulders heaving, cheeks wet.
The door to the schoolhouse imploded behind him as he ran to his younger sister, tripping over upturned chairs. Stone and wood rained down around the two children as they crouched together beneath a low-lying desk toward the front of the room. Voices began shouting.
“But this is our home.” Hakima was shaking. Her thin trill struggled its way out from within the debris.
As the last of the door finally blew off its hinges, Yassir thought briefly of what it would be like to live in the sky, where there was so much you wouldn’t even dream of containing it, or of claiming it.
Screams and gunshots from outside closed in around them. He grabbed Hakima’s face, pressed flesh against flesh, and spoke low and swiftly into her ear. He spoke of green grasses and waters untouched by wars. He spoke of children, soft breezes, dancing mothers. He whispered of a place where land was just land and people—just people, all hovering a few breaths away from falling. She nodded and clutched the rifle closer to her chest. Seconds passed as Yassir held his sister in his arms, and he rocked her small body back and forth, humming. The din of the marketplace seemed to mute for a moment and finally, gloriously, everything went still.
Intifada, they had yelled. Revolution.
When Hamza fell, the sky exploded with noon light—it was a teasing contradiction to the land sprawled beneath it. Now, many hours later, the air opened up to a fitting shade of pyrophobic grey. The desert held a crouched, occupied feeling. Always there was more to be done.
A woman lifted the flap of his tent and examined him with fixed eyes, not looking at his face but at his body. She was pretty, he supposed, with a strong nose and heavy-set brow, boasting the air of one who was headstrong but still too young to know it. She was perhaps a few years older than his son. With a sigh she sat next to him and opened a first aid kit, fingers moving with precision.
“I’m Leila. I have no more painkillers.” This sounded tired on her lips, as if there was an unsung eye roll that lingered beneath it. Premature lines had begun to spider out from the corners of her eyes and downturned mouth.
“You’re in the medical field?” Clay deposits seeped from mud in rivets between his toes, darkening his sandaled heels like ink. He was a teacher—literature, mostly. Its illusions had comforted him during his undergraduate studies in Cairo, a comfort which transitioned into the transparent sort of faith that held him now.
She took pause, hands poised in the air as they threaded a needle with what looked like simple fabric thread.
“No. But I am here, and you need stitches or your stomach will not heal itself properly. I have read enough books to know that much.”
Hamza nodded and lie back. There had been a shortage of doctors and nurses in their division the last few weeks. Many women who wanted to fight from surrounding provinces were either handed a gun or a medical textbook, chosen at random, to reference.
“I’m a student,” she said, the tinge of a smile on her face. “Well, was a student. Ethnology. I studied animals rather than people.” She inserted the needle and raised a slightly arched brow as his body jerked. “There’s not much of a difference anyway. Be still, soldier, unless you want me to do more damage than good.”
“Not a soldier,” he said. Her hands fluttered about his open wounds as the needle began to zigzag across the planes of his flesh.
He was a defender in the 32nd civil division of Ouadi addahab, a barren triangle of desert a few miles wide on the eastern end of Akko. Its location bore a fighting ground for centuries by groups, religious and otherwise, staking claim on what was proving to be an unclaimable—and perhaps, to Hamza, indefinable—thing. His homeland was to the south of their camp. He hadn’t seen it in months.
“We have an optimist on our hands.” She looked as if she meant to laugh, but her frown lines only deepened instead. “There. A few makeshift stitches and you’re good as new.” She blinked at him—at him, he was sure—as if her vision was obscured. The boy next to him stirred, and she bent down to examine his forearm.
Hamza closed his eyes.
He pictured the militia men—farmers, really—sloping forward with the grace of a rotary tiller in short bursts of iambs. Their march calls flew through the air on lilting metrical feet. Loading his rifle, on the other hand, was a spondaic affair. Check front trigger. Arm up. Slide down. Elbow in. Aim.
“Your accent, it’s familiar.” She started to change the boy’s wrappings without looking up at Hamza. “Where do you come from?”
“The south,” he said, opening his eyes and examining her work. “Tantura.”
“Ah, yes. You have the hands of a fisherman.” With his bandages off, the boy looked small and shriveled. It was as if he’d worn his cast for weeks longer than necessary, and the flesh underneath smelled like eggplant left in the sun for too long. “My sister’s husband grew up in Tantura and they’re there now with his family. She’s pregnant, the fool.”
“It’s a holy war,” he said. Hamza tried standing up. The skin holding his crude stitches together was tender and she eyed him warily from her crouched position. “But time unfolds as it will.”
“A holy war? It’s shit.” She pulled the bandage taut in one strong movement, twisting the boy’s forearm away from his body. His moan failed to say as much as his glare.
“Of course it’s shit.”
“Then why are you here? Intifada? These boys know nothing of revolution.” She spat on the dirt floor of their tent as curses spilled off her patient’s tongue in disjointed syllables.
“My son and daughters. My wife, Miriam.”
“And your country.” Her tone held an air of accusation. Hamza began to think that maybe Leila was older than he first assumed.
He tried to laugh but it came out wrong. More like a bark, really. “What country do you see here, girl? There is no such thing. No borders or land.” He stood up finally, clutching his stomach as he fished a cigarette out of his back pocket. Her face swam in shadows as he lit it. “Only people and the things they do. The people we care for and the ones we don’t.” Hamza’s arms swept out across the dessert in a fluid motion toward the south, hand brandishing the cigarette like a white flag. “To keep one from the other. That’s why I’m here.”
He ducked out, and the warm winds of Palestine billowed up in his wake. Leila began to mend the next injured body.
K.S. Jellal is a self-proclaimed provocateur from southern California. Eventually she traded one dairyland for another and is now working out of Wisconsin where she writes, dances, and makes a meager living within the confines of a cubicle. While her roots are on the Philippine Islands, her husband grew up in the mountains of northern Morocco — their lives are a meeting ground of different cultures, interests, great food, and big ideas. They currently live under the supervision of two cats, Bear and Jacquelyn, who sometimes allow them to venture out for jazz and cheap wine.
Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Damazine, The Sheepshead Review, Danse Macabre, and others. Her poem “Conveyer Belts” won The Sheepshead Review’s 2010 Rising Phoenix Award for Poetry. Jellal is finishing her first chapbook, The Unadorned Hunt and Other Limitations, as well as a collection of short stories.