I ran as quickly as I could, turning the corner to reach where he had told me to go so I can get home. “That way is probably the best way,” he muttered hastily, his eyes nervous as I was leaving the falafel shop. “There won’t be any soldiers that way.”
‘What will my mother do to me?’ my mind preoccupied with the fear of upsetting her, of her finding out. ‘I was supposed to meet with my cousin, but I am alone. My mother would never had let me go if she knew my cousin wasn’t there.’ My heart thumped rapidly, my sandals lifting the dust off the dirt road as I ran but I did not know where I was going, what was really happening. My body almost instinctually running in the direction he had pointed. Hazr altajawul? What does that mean? There were so many people at the falafel shop and then suddenly everyone dispersed, disappeared and I was left by myself with the shopkeeper. “I can’t leave and go home,” he muttered at the time, “I need to close the shop. Get inside!”
I sat on the chair as I watched him peer through the large keyhole, checking to see if there were soldiers outside. The hole was big enough, the type that needed a large, iron key to unlock it and his eyes moved from side to side, glaring with panic as I stiffly held the falafel in my hand, frozen from the sudden chaos.
“To get home,” he said to me all of a sudden, pointing outward before saying, “turn that corner and go straight and you will find it. That way is probably the best way. There won’t be any soldiers that way.” All I could think about as I tried to get back home is how angry my mother will be at me. ‘I am in so much trouble!’ I thought to myself.
“Why are you here?” I heard the soldier scream as he pressed the gun to the back of my head, all of a sudden several of them emerging from the street beside me holding a young boy that they threw in front of me. He was blindfolded, his hands tied behind him as I watched the tall men dressed in green surround us, yelling out words I could not really understand. I stood gripping the falafel.
I was eight years old, one year since the second intifada began. It was when they started building the wall across the West Bank, that time when Israel tried to seize the Church of Nativity because some Palestinian men sought refuge there. My family was heartbroken, my father especially. A part of our land was taken from us, cut off by the wall. The feeling in the house was heavy as though covered by a thick fog that we could no longer see one another, speak to one another. We all slept in the one room, my parents on the bed and rest of us on the floor, but the quiet lingered like we were waiting for something.
My father works for the other side now, helping them construct Israeli settlements on our land. We need the money. He never talks to me. He never talks to anyone.
One night as I lay awake beside my younger sister, I heard explosions and saw lights flashing in the distance. I was so excited! I thought it was Eid festival, the fireworks exploding in the distance. My mother, with her hair covered in Henna that she kept on overnight to cover her grey hairs, woke from the bed and she nervously picked me up, my father in his shorts woke my sleeping siblings and gathered us together. I was confused as to why they looked so frightened. “One shekel” I said, lifting up my hand to my mother as I knew that during Eid we always get money so that I could go buy some sweets.
They didn’t know it was my cousin, not until afterwards when his picture holding a gun on the rooftop was published in the newspaper. He was not wearing a mask, his face was visible for them to see. It was when my mother sent me to live with my grandmother who lived alone and had some space for me that was better than sleeping in the one room. My jaddati made me clean and always asked me to help her, but I never really listened to her. I didn’t want to clean. She would always complain until finally that night she said to me that it was going to be my last before she was to send me back home.
I lied awake in bed, peeling the paint off the cement wall. The smell of the summer night still fresh, drops of sweaty dew slide down from my forehead and I heard him come into the house to speak with my grandmother. I just laid there and listened. “They are following me now,” he murmured. “It won’t be long before they capture me, so give me the key to my home, let me go home and spend some time there before they get me.” I woke up that morning, my sister holding the cheese our mother gave and she asked me to accompany her so that we could try and sell it. Our mother never allowed us to do things on our own, so she sent my sister to me, you see.
We walked with our grandmother together and abruptly we were intercepted by an army vehicle, surrounded by soldiers and one man speaking Arabic yelled out telling us to let him know the whereabouts of my cousin. I became nervous and started yelling that I did not know, my grandmother holding me back, her hand on my chest as my heart once again drummed thump thump thump nervously, pulling me back as everyone else remained still, shocked and unable to speak. The man looked down at me with a light grin, smiled and said, “you know where he is, don’t you little girl?” My grandmother’s hand pressed tightly as she drew me in closer.
She did not want me to stay with her anymore after my cousin was captured. I was too much trouble, but I did not want to stay there either. I wanted to go home. I refused to leave the house and for years wanted to stay in the room all the time, even eat in the room. My mother was always infuriated with me, at my desperate need to stay indoors and in closed spaces. “Why does she need to close the door?” she would yell out, sometimes giving up when I would anxiously beg her to leave me at home whenever there was a wedding or an engagement.
My teachers also complained about my lack of attention and changes in mood. I would sometimes just wander off and around the school, would stare aimlessly and not respond when teachers would ask me questions and I especially never did homework. I loved books, though. I loved reading different stories and whenever I watched a cartoon, I would sit in front of the mirror and pretend I was speaking to different characters that I watched. They were my friends, they made my heart stop thump thump thumping.
I made my mother nervous. ‘She needs to get out of this house, be with other children,’ I heard her say once to my father, who sat quietly and never responded. My mother forced me out of the home and took me to a summer camp, a place that allowed me to since and dance. I loved singing and music. It wasn’t too long afterwards that my mother became worried I was singing too much.
*This is a true story based on interviews I conducted with women in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. The names are anonymous, the short stories creative, but the actual events did occur.