“We’re in this together,” Layan whispered, looking suspiciously around her with paranoid eyes. I watched her scheming, holding the ladle up near her chin as she walked slowly around the tent plotting her next move. She has lost her mind. “Yes, indeed, we will say that it was an accident!”
“There is no we in this,” I muttered quietly as I prepared the bed. She was mad. I was impressed that she had the confidence to challenge her husband, there was even a part of me that wanted her to succeed. You should see that new aluminium pot that Dima was now using, how they ate mansaf like I had never seen it before. “Everything cooks so fast,” she boasted that one time I went to visit, clicking her fingers to confirm this speed. “You should see Amalia, in only five minutes everything is hot! My husband is very pleased and I get to do a lot more in the day, you know.”
Yeah, like show off. It felt like I was a ghost just sitting there listening to her swoon over her new cookware. She loved herself, that one, even though she was as plain as flour. You can see the indifference in her husband, how he often disappeared into another dimension as she talked and talked while he stared out into space, her monotone voice eventually hypnotising anyone that sat next to her.
If her plan to trick her husband succeeds, then perhaps I won’t think she is as insane as she looks right now, scheming aloud holding up the ladle as though the spoon symbolised some domestic revolution. She seemed determined that the only way forward was to break the clay pot so that he would be forced to buy an aluminium one. We lived together, our husbands were brothers, so why not! We would labour for hours using that earthenware nonsense, stirring like we were being punished by God. If we looked away even for a few moments something would burn or stick. It was, well, crap!
“So what happened, then, grandma?” he asked as she peeled open the pod and dropped the broadbeans from inside it into the bowl in front of her. “Did she break it?”
“It took her a while,” she continued as her grandson listened attentively. “One day, I was outside washing and I heard a loud crack before she screamed oh no! that called us all into the tent. We stood over her wailing at the pieces of terracotta that she ‘accidently’ broke by smashing the damn thing with her spoon. After rehearsing it for so long in her mind, she still looked rather ridiculous. It made me wonder how outrageous her imagination probably was if she was behaving so over-the-top like how she was now. “Why, God, why?” she screamed. “What am I going to do, how am I going to cook!”
Her howling clearly frightened our husbands, their wide eyes danced around the tent imagining from her screams that maybe an Israeli soldier had entered and was trying to kill her. She looked up at her husband with tears streaming down her face, waving the ladle around in her hand almost mockingly, like a bloody knife at the scene of a crime. At least the woman was a pretty good actress, God knows how she made herself cry like that.
“It’s ok,” he kneeled down beside her and gently placed his hand over her shoulder. “I promise everything will be alright.”
“No!” she cried, “I cannot cook anything without the right pot.”
“Did you really like that pot?” he questioned. “I never realised it was so important to you. I promise, we will get you another one. The best one! Don’t worry at all.”
“Really?” she said, mischievously, wiping her tears with the sleeve from her dress. “The best one? Just like some of the other ladies in the camp?”
“Yes! I promise.” She smiled almost flirtatiously, batting her wet eyelashes as he pasted his forehead against hers.
“I don’t why she was that upset,” he said as they left the tent. My husband shrugged his shoulders. What a shifty woman, I love her!”
“So you both got the right pot in the end?”
“As they say, be careful what you wish for. Her husband leaped into the tent a few hours later, his face gleaming with a bright smile as he called out to his wife. “Layan!” he cried like a desperate lover and she excitedly stood up from her bed only to find that he brought her another terracotta pot.
Have you ever seen a dark-skinned woman go white?
“I did not realise how much you loved cooking with his,” he muttered somewhat awkwardly or with caution as he noticed the shock on her face. He was clearly confused between whether she loved or hated what he was holding, but he continue. “I actually thought you hated them and was going to buy you one of those new aluminium pots. After yesterday, I realised just how much you loved them and I did not want to break your heart!”
“Is she possessed with the devil?” my husband said when I began laughing hysterically. “What is wrong with these women of ours?”
“After all that effort!” her grandson said. Almost seventy years had passed and it still made her laugh. He watched her giggling, her chest and shoulders almost convulsing and she placed her hand over her mouth to prevent exposing her teeth. A courteous habit. Her pale skin and small, pointed nose was lightly dotted with age spots and she had little curls of wrinkles around her eyes and lips that looked soft. She was plump around the midriff like most elderly women, her wedding band so tight around her fleshy finger that the skin became a muffin top, yet she was still glowing with youth.
“Grandma, can I have some baklava?”
“Of course, habibi!” she said, dropping into the bowl some beans she had in her hand before standing up. Ooof she whined at her stiffened left leg from the solid outdoor chair before waddling toward the kitchen. “We need to get some cushions,” she yelled out. There was no greater joy in her opinion then seeing her grandchildren eat and laugh, laughter most of all. You forget all the hardship, to remember what life is all about.
“What was grandpa like?”
“Eh, like every other man. An idiot,” she smiled, handing him the baklava before sitting back in the same place she was originally. “I am just joking of course.” He knew that. Everyone knew she was always playful but had a loving heart. “He never talked, he was quiet. Unlike your grandmother.”
“How did you meet?” He asked this long after some silence between them as she continued with the beans and he took his first bite into the crunchy dessert, the sugary juice escaping from the corner of his mouth as it slowly crawled down toward his chin. He tried to catch the leak with his tongue, crusty pieces of pastry blocking the flow to give him enough time to wipe his mouth with the palm of his hand that he licked, along with his sticky fingers.
His left eye winked as he glanced sideways, contemplating what that could possibly mean. How could they not have met?
“Habibi my family just shipped me off in a box to Bethlehem when I was fifteen.”
“A box?” She started laughing. He was just a little boy, she thought.
“He was at Aida refugee camp. We were not that far away from it, but I kept on running away from him and back home. I found myself crying and crying and he never said anything. He waited, silently, patiently and he was kind to me. I hated him. I was only fifteen.”
“Same age as Sabia!” he said, referring to another girl he knew. “She is so nice.”
“Eat the rest of your baklava,” she said to stop him from interrupting her without being cruel enough to tell him to be quiet. He looked down nauseously, sickened by the idea of finishing the rest by scrunching his face and withdrawing back into his seat. She paused, the glare in her expression reminding him that his behaviour may get him into trouble. Sweets are expensive. It is a rare treat and her firm eyes spoke to him saying that he is required to ignore that queasy feeling he had in the pit of his stomach and finish the rest. It was small anyway he thought to himself as he held up the final piece with bated breath in preparation for the final munch.
Good boy she spoke without words by shaking her head approvingly as he forced down the rest of his baklava. “So one day,” she continued, “my father agreed to the marriage. He never told me. His sister came to the house and asked whether I was available, telling him there was a young man in the camp who wanted a wife and that she remembered me and how I was of the right age for marriage.
He had asked for some help from my aunty, you see, that he felt lonely and needed someone to comfort him, to feel connected in marriage and feel motivated. My dad fell silent when she spoke. He never looked up but he agreed anyway. It was like he was ashamed but knew there was very little choice in the matter. Times were turbulent, it was better for me to be protected by someone younger, a strong man rather than my ageing father. That is how they thought, back then, but I will never agree to anyone marrying so young.
I cried everyday. For weeks. I kept on running away back home, my dad never looking into my eyes as he regretfully pulled me back to the camp and reminded me that the tent was my new home and that man sitting quietly in the corner was my husband. I was now owned by him and his family was my new family.
“Please!” I wailed, tears painfully drizzling down my dirty face as I begged for my dad not to leave me behind. Your grandfather never said a word. I am grateful for this in a way. Some women told me some pretty terrible stories about how their new husbands first treated them, threatening them to be silent and submissive. I think it was his mother. His mother was very kind and maybe she told him that I was suffering from a wound that first needed to heal. So he waited patiently for me to adjust to my new environment. She slowly helped made me accept my place, teaching me to cook and wash the clothes. I remember the way that she cooked bread was so different to the way my mother did. They had a much bigger stove.
“Go on,” she said, asking me to flip the cooking dough over to the other side. I pulled myself back and shook my head, refusing. “Go, before it burns!” Her tactic to inspire a quick response was unsuccessful as I pulled further back and behind her.
“No, my fingers will burn!”
“Look, just watch how I do it,” she said, as she flipped it over. “It’s easy. Give it a shot and you’ll be fine!” I burnt the bread almost three times before I got used to it.
It was chaos back then but we made the most of what little we had. I missed home very much, people from everywhere had gathered together into such a small place when the war started. It was hard to know who was who. We were all together, but we felt alone. My husband was very young too so I don’t blame him. We never even went to school.”
“Really?” her grandson said, shocked.
“That is how it was. One day my father came to me and said, “you are to be married,” to some man and that aunty will take me to go and live with him in his tent. His tent! Can you imagine! My father’s house was still standing after The Nakba when so many thousands of people lost their homes. Sometimes there were hundreds of people sleeping just outside our house, my father would feel aggrieved for them as though they were his own family despite them walking from other villages and cities, people he did not know. Whatever extra food we had we would share it with them and every night my father offered the barn outside where the sheep would sleep so that they had cover. “Better to sleep near the animals than outside on the dirt road,” he would mutter, painfully.
Our house was magnificent, at least it was to me. Today, there are all these massive houses with fancy things inside, but our house was just one big room, really. It had a fireplace for cooking in the middle of the room and we would often sit talking in the evening around the warmth of the fire.
My dad was a very serious man, his voice thundered deep echoes and while he was big in stature, he had a gentle soul. He was gracious. He would tell us stories from the Qu’ran, about King Solomon and the prophet Mohammad. I especially loved the adventures of Joseph and Moses. My mother would cook unleavened flatbread on the convex hot plate that sat on the fire, the ash and soot would often stain her face and fingers as we nibbled away listening to our father.
The ash was normal, we did not have showers like how we do now. We had a shower maybe once a month and it would take a very long time. It was almost like an event! We would walk for a long while to get the water, return and fire up the coals in order to heat the water and when everything was prepared we would wash and scrub and clean every inch of ourselves. Our mother would scrub us until our skin was red and raw. We had to take care after that because we knew another shower was a month or so away, washing our hands and feet each time we left the house.”
“My mum hates it when I get dirty. She would never let me walk around without shoes.”
“We only had one pair of shoes,” she said, “slippers made from plastic and we were so afraid of damaging them. Oh, those shoes! How I loved them. They were black. I remember when it was given to me how I held it up high as though it were a holy object. I was determined to keep them clean and undamaged, to have them ready to wear when I go to a wedding or an engagement so that I could look pretty.
We would walk for almost an hour out of the camp to get water, to my old village al-Khader and from there to Solomon’s Pools. We had no food, no shoes, walking over sharp stones and dust everywhere in order to bring back heavy loads of water for us to use at the camp, setting aside some of the water to wash the dirt and blood off our feet. The water was fresh too back then, not that green sludge you see today. The water was flowing.
Just imagine, the camp was covered in dirt and mud and it had only four bathrooms in each corner of the camp. I would walk barefoot and in the cold just so I would not damage the shoes! That was how much I loved those shoes, that probably would cost around five dinars now.”
“Grandma, why do they call it Solomon’s Pools?”
“Solomon had a ring, a ring given to him by God and it gave him great powers. He could speak and control animals and jinn. It was only for Solomon because he had been given the great gift of wisdom. The ring had a seal, this was in the old days where they would use their rings by pressing it into melted candle wax to stamp and confirm that it was them that wrote the letter or scroll. He knew a great deal, his wisdom was given to him by God because he understood how to be responsible.
They say his ring is inside that pool. Many bad men wanted the ring for themselves, so that they could have the power and magic that the ring had, but everyone who went swimming in the pool searching for the ring died.”
“So are you drinking dead people?”
She gave a funny look. The same look one gives when they lick a hairy peach, a sour expression. She changed the subject.
“It was a few years later that they started to quickly put up buildings in the camp, using stones and other materials so that we had a better place to sleep. In a way, it was almost a bad thing because it made the camp like a permanent village, that we had no hope of ever returning back to our own homes. We were given a small room and so we could leave the tent, the house around three meters each side. We all slept together, me and my husband and all the children.”
“You all slept together?”
“Ehh,” she elongated as though using sounds to sigh out of course without saying those words. “We had no choice in the matter, sweetheart. Here, give me your plate so I can go and wash it.”
She staggered as most elderly do back toward the kitchen as he curled into the chair, reflecting on the conversation as the cool breeze whistled through the grapevine leaves above him. For a moment he was distracted by the idea of eating warak dawalie and then returned back to his grandmother and her story. Something was troubling him, you could see it in his anxious eyes.
“Grandma,” he muttered as she was walking back towards him. “How did you and Grandpa make children if you were all in the same room?”
She was stunned. Her entire body just stopped for a few moments as she suddenly looked around her to try and find an object, a broom, something she could use to threaten violence towards him. “What!” She yelled, holding a vase as she clumsily leaped towards him. He jumped out of his seat just as stunned as she was. “You should not be asking such questions!” He ran from the front gate and back towards his own home, only a few houses away. “If I ever catch you talking like that again!”
She was out of breath. She fumbled back towards the seats, gently placing the vase on the table in front of her before collapsing into the chair. ‘How do we make children? What a question to ask! At such a young age too!’ That was much more energy then she was used to giving and she suddenly felt exhausted. As her heart beat slowed and she could breathe normally again, she sat silently and smiled.
“At night time, when the children were asleep.”
These are short creative non-fiction stories based on true accounts from women and girls at Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem that I interviewed. The names are intentionally changed.