Radio Street 1971–1973
Grandmother Fatima has just arrived at our new apartment on Radio Street, on the northern side of Ramallah in the West Bank. She is carrying her woven bamboo basket filled with green almonds from her village in Jerusalem. She does not say whether she likes or dislikes our new place. When I ask her she says, "All that matters is that we are in the same country and I can visit you." She then asks me to remind her how old I am, what school I go to now, and what grade I am in. I tell Grandma that I am seven and a half years old, still go to the Jalazone Girls' School, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and will soon complete the second grade. I am about to show her that I can write my name and many other words, but I stop when I remember that she has never gone to school and cannot read or write.
Mother and Grandma go to the kitchen. I follow them quietly, hoping to listen in on their conversation and learn about the strange world of grownups and its many surprises — marriages, money, deaths, and whispered problems about relationships.
Today Grandma is speaking about Aunt Amina, one of Mother's two sisters. Aunt Amina lives in Amman, Jordan. She has ten daughters and no sons, and her husband, Nimer, insists he wants a boy to carry on his name. Nimer is a professor at a university, and everyone in our family calls him mitaallem, educated.
Grandma is worried about Aunt Amina's safety because seven months ago, in the middle of September 1970, thousands of Palestinians living in Jordan were killed when the fedayeen, the Palestinian freedom fighters, and the Jordanian army had one of their worst battles. The hostilities began even before September and haven't ended yet.
The fedayeen wanted to gain more political and military control inside Jordan in order to fight Israel from the Jordanian border so they could take back Palestine from Israel and return to the homes and cities they lost first in the war of 1948, which displaced the majority of Palestinians, and then in the Six-Day War, which ended with Israel controlling all Palestinian lands.
The fedayeen hoped that Jordan would help them in their fight against Israel. But the Jordanian leaders did not want the fedayeen to organize non-Jordanian military groups inside their country. So the two sides fought, and the Jordanian army won after a massacre of Palestinians so grim that the month of Ayloul is now called Ayloul al-Aswad, Black September. Those words make me think of a whole month without the sun rising once.
"Every time I pray, I leave on the prayer rug big questions that I believe only Allah can answer," Grandma says. "They are about the future and what will happen in this woeful Holy Land. But even after I pray, the questions are still there in my mind and in the world." She raises her arms to the sky pleading: "La-aimta ya rab?" Dear God, until when?
"Nothing in our lives is predictable, but let's not despair," Mother says.
Mother and Grandma begin to exchange happier family stories, entangled with names, nicknames, and half events. They finish each other's sentences, and I try to understand and arrange in my mind the names of my relatives, especially those whom I have not met because they live in other countries, or those who have died but continue to live in these stories as I learn new pieces of how they fit into our family history.
When Grandma gets up to leave, I take her basket and walk with her to the bus stop near the giant radio tower with the frightening skull-shaped high-voltage danger signs that order people to stay away. Radio Street is named after this broadcast tower, which was built by the British forces when they ruled over Palestine after World War I. Perhaps from this day on, every time Grandma Fatima listens to a radio program, she will think of us.
When the bus leaves, carrying Grandma with it, I try to guess how she feels about our new apartment. I hope she dislikes it, because ever since we moved here, one month ago, I have been trying to convince myself to like it, but in my heart I do not.
* * *
Most of me still lives at the stone house we left behind on top of a hill near Nablus Road on the northeastern side of Ramallah. There, I often hid behind big rocks or lay on them, feeling their warm backs against my own. I picked colorful wildflowers and crushed them to use as finger paint on the rocks. I played with turtles on the gravel road, removing obstacles from their paths, sometimes carrying them and running so they would reach their homes faster. I also liked to place bread crumbs on their backs for them to take to their children.
I think about that house every day, but it is no longer made of stone. Now it is made of memories — hours spent watching migrating birds in the sky, waiting for dinner, for Mother to come home after shopping trips, or for Father to come home from driving his truck.
I remember the toys my older brothers created: cars they built from thin, colorful electrical wires; skateboards constructed from wooden vegetable boxes fixed on ball bearings they got from abandoned car tires; kites made with bamboo stalks and newspaper glued together with bread dough; musical instruments shaped from rubber bands strung over a cooking pan; slingshots carved from tree branches; and origami rockets tied to strings and then to Mother's clothesline and left to fly all day.
I can also change my memories as I choose. The garden in front of the house now has magical plants that grow both fruits and vegetables. Rain never falls, except right into designated water containers or within the borders of the front garden. Sometimes a passing purple cloud rains sweet black grapes. We all open our mouths to catch and eat them.
My parents bought the stone house five years ago, when I was two and a half years old, right after the birth of my sister, Mona. And even though only my youngest brother, Samer, was born there, a year ago, and the rest of us children were born in various cities — Basel, who's ten and a half, and I in Jerusalem; Muhammad, who's nine and a half, in Jericho; and Mona, who's five, in al-Bireh — I feel as though all of us were born there.
We left the stone house once before, four years ago, on June 5, 1967, when the Six-Day War started. We had to run from shelter to shelter and from fear to fear as Israeli, Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies fought. The six days became one hundred and thirty-five days for us because it took that long before we could return to Ramallah with the help of the United Nations and the International Red Cross. At the end of the war, Ramallah was occupied by Israel and we began to live as refugees in our own homes and on our own land, with no right to travel to other countries and be assured that we could come back, no right to cultivate most of the lands we owned, and no right to build new homes or start new businesses without the permission of al-hakem alaskari, the Israeli military ruler. But when we returned and lived in the stone house again, that helped me to remember how I had felt before the war: happy and safe.
Then Israeli soldiers started to come daily to train on our hillside. We could see them outside our window as they set up camps surrounded by barbed wire. They ran drills and practiced shooting at cardboard cutouts shaped like people, leaving those targets with countless bullet holes that bled air.
My siblings and I found many ways to become less afraid of the soldiers, including climbing the barbed wire around their camps after they left for the day, playing hide-and-seek inside the trenches they had dug, gathering empty bullet shells, and peeking through the holes in the cardboard people — it was like looking through binoculars into a smaller world.
But then some soldiers began to knock on the door when Father was at work. They asked for a drink of water, even though they carried water bottles. They looked at Mother as though she was the water they wanted to drink. Each time, Mother pointed from the window to our well, which the soldiers could use to refill their bottles; then we pulled the curtains shut, made certain that our door was locked, and pushed all the furniture we could gather against it. We watched the soldiers from the slits between the curtains.
We could no longer go outside, except after the army left for the evening. So my parents decided to leave the stone house forever. They sold it and searched for a different place for us to move to. We came here. I wish we hadn't, and that the Israeli soldiers had gone to train somewhere else instead.
This new house is a one-story white stone villa that looks like a giant ship sailing on a green grass sea. There is a small orchard and a hedge that surrounds everything like the edges of a huge box.
Our apartment is in the basement, so that we can be hidden from all eyes like rabbits in a burrow. Mother especially is happier underground, in this war-shelter-like place. But Father, although he says nothing about the move, appears sad. He was proud to own the house we lived in, proud of improving it as he liked. Here he cannot change anything, and there is no space for him to keep a goat and sing to it every evening like he did in the stone house. Singing helps Father feel happier.
Basel and Muhammad are content to run and play in a nearby meadow with other boys who gather for soccer games. But I continue to be afraid because the news on the radio speaks daily about death and fighting in many places. I do not know how far away the places they mention are from our house.
Father tries to help me overcome some of my anxious feelings. He explains that Vietnam is not nearby and the war there is not about us. Because Grandma's village in Jerusalem is called Beit Iksa — and dozens of other Palestinian villages begin with Beit — and because nam is also a word in Arabic, I had thought Vietnam was Beit Nam, and that its war was also near us.
Only when I enter the imaginative world of a story do I win against the fear of war beginning again and destroying everything. Stories take me on an adventure and change my feelings, as though I am not me, but the main character in the story. I love becoming Sinbad, the fictional Arabian sailor. As I sail into mysteries, monsters hide everywhere, but I battle them and triumph, and always return home, bringing back gifts for everyone who waits for me.
I also triumph over fear by listening to old people tell of memories that bring peaceful, faraway worlds to me. I like how their faces light up when they describe the happy times of hurreyyah, freedom. Their words give me hope and chase away my fears.
Our apartment consists of an L-shaped space that has two main rooms, one big and one small. The small room has a large window that brings in fresh orchard breezes. This room is where my siblings and I spread a straw rug on the floor, place our mattresses on top of it, and sleep at night. In the morning we stack the mattresses neatly and roll up the rug so the room can be used for daytime activities.
The big room has a long, horizontal glass panel up high that lets in light. But unlike the window, the panel cannot be opened. So the first day of our move, Mother stood on a chair, then on her toes, stretching herself all the way to reach the glass, and with red lipstick drew a big sun on it. "This way it will always be sunny," she said, smiling as she jumped back to the floor.
Between the two rooms is a tiny kitchen that has a gas stove instead of the small and dangerous three-legged baboor that sat in a corner of the stone house. Mother had to fill the baboor with kerosene over and over and warned us repeatedly to stay away from it. But children playing in the house, especially our young relatives when visiting, sometimes knocked off a boiling pot of food. My right leg has a scar from a burn from that baboor.
For the first time, we have hot and cold running water. This makes Mother dance as she turns the faucet on and off. Dancing is the way she celebrates. She announces that she does not ever again want to live anywhere without running water.
We also have a shower. After my sister, Mona, tried it for the first time and shouted for help when the hot water suddenly turned cold, I explained that a shower is like a private cloud. It will rain when we want it to. But because the heating of this cloud is done by solar panels, the temperature of the shower is up to the sun and weather, not us. Whenever someone uses the shower, Mona runs to announce that they are inside the cloud.
The biggest new addition to our life, however, is electric light. In each room a bulb hangs at the end of a long wire that dangles from the ceiling. When I want to turn the light on, I move the switch extremely slowly to savor the thrilling moment when the bulb comes to life and glows like a pear-shaped private moon. When the bulb swings from an evening breeze, big and small shadows dance across our walls. Mother holds up the hem of her dress and dances with them.
Because electricity is expensive, Father makes certain we do not waste any of it. He says every minute of light costs him a minute of work. So when I want to stay up and read at night, Father and I agree that I can have half an hour of light if I am willing to tell him some stories from the books I read. This way he can continue his education. Father completed only one and a half grades of school because when he was a child Britain imposed heavy fees on Palestinian schools, leaving many parents forced to choose either food and clothing or education for their children. Jealous of the boys whose families could afford school fees, and sad that he had to work at a rock quarry at age eight, Father taught himself whenever he could and memorized parts of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, and many poems. But he does not read well enough to start a book and finish it.
However, he does know stories that have been told to him — religious and historical, and many parts of a long folktale called "Taghreebat Bani Hilal" (The diaspora of the Banu Hilal tribe). Their name means descendants of the crescent moon. In this half-real, half-fictitious story, Father says the main characters remain the same, but the story varies from city to city and country to country depending on the storyteller, so the plot is always full of surprises and you can hear it many times without knowing it completely.
* * *
Within the first month after we move into our apartment, Mother follows the Palestinian custom of introducing our family to our new neighbors by sending me to deliver a plate of delicious food to each of them.
"You are the safeerah, our ambassador," she explains. "This is an important responsibility. The neighbors will judge all of us by how you behave when they meet you. Do not pester them with questions; just deliver the food." She shakes her hands up and down for emphasis, and waits for me to nod that I understand. "Remember to greet the person who opens the door by saying, 'Marhabah, hello, I am the daughter of your new neighbor, Um Basel, Mother of Basel. Please accept this food from her.' Any questions?"
"Yes," I reply, even though I know the question I have is one she doesn't want to hear. "Why do you always have to be called Um Basel? Can't you be called Mother of Ibtisam on some days?" I ask for the hundredth time, although she has explained that a mother in Arab culture is called by the name of her first male child. "Can't we change that custom in our family?"
As usual, she ignores me, and that makes me sad every time because I do not ever count in her name, not even on my birthday.
As Mother's ambassador, I first go to meet the old man who lives above our apartment and owns the entire building. His name is Haj Hamd Allah. He always wears white-and-sky-blue-striped pajamas and a white knit cap, and carries the traditional phosphorous glow-in-the-dark masbahah of thirty-three prayer beads. Both Father and Grandma Fatima have a masbahah. It means that a person praises and thanks Allah all the time.
Haj Hamd Allah's apartment is on top of our half of the basement and has a glass-enclosed veranda. He sits there in the afternoons to rest. We can see him from the street. When he goes inside, we hear his footsteps moving above us like a slow bear, and we know exactly which room he is in.
Haj Hamd Allah watches me suspiciously as I climb the white stone steps that lead to his veranda, then stand at the door holding the plate of food. He seems to dislike children as much as I dislike his frown.
He calls for his granddaughter, Izdehar, to answer, and I am relieved. I met Izdehar shortly after we moved in. She visits him at the end of every week to cook his food, wash his clothes, and clean his house. For her last chore, Izdehar rolls up her sleeves to her elbows, her pants to her knees, and stands on a chair to clean the glass of the veranda. Then, with soapy water thick with bubbles, she scrubs the white stone steps.