Monday, October 16, 2017

Amirim (excerpt from a story)

            “My big knife is missing again,” complained Hannah, our hired cook, in her heavy Moroccan accent as soon as I stepped in the door. “It’s that wretched Sara!”
            “Where’s Merav?” I said, halting at the kitchen’s threshold to avoid the oil clouds rising from the spitting frying pan. “She asked me to relive her a little earlier today.”
            “She had to take one of the girls to the hospital,” replied Hannah, her silvery short hair sparking with anger. “Now go get my knife; I can’t work without it.”
            Dismayed by this tense start to my 24-hour shift, I unlocked the office and entered the room awash with morning-sunshine, un-shouldered my backpack, locked the door, and climbed upstairs to find Sara sitting on her bed wearing a defiant expression.
            “Boker tov,” I said.
            Sabah al-noor,” she muttered in Arabic to my Hebrew greeting, her voice fainter than usual, face turned away.
            “Sara, please give me the knife,” I said with a sigh.
            “Me no taking,” she said with a tight jaw, fingers sliding on her gold necklace.
            I sat on the bed opposite hers. “Come on, Sara, please don’t play games with me,” I said in my softest voice, wanting to resolve the situation with minimal conflict.
            She shrugged, her pale face framed by dark clumps of uncombed hair. She was a small woman—a teenager really, only eighteen—and despite being five months along, her pregnancy had yet to show.
            Pointing at her pillow, I asked, “Under there?”
            Another shrug, and now I wondered if she hid it in the usual place, wrapped in a towel and tucked in the back of her pants.
            Fatima walked in. She must have been hovering outside the door.
            “It’s alright,” she said, and I wasn’t sure whether she was addressing Sara or me. She then looked at me. “You go downstairs, I’ll get it for you.”
            “But …” I mumbled, imagining Hannah’s sour expression when I turn up empty handed.
            Fatima shook her head. “You don’t understand us Palestinian women,” she said, placing a hand on Sara’s shoulder. “You can trust me, just let me talk to her.”
            I glanced at Sara, whose glassy eyes were still fixed outside the window. “Fine,” I said and got to my feet with reluctance, trying to imagine how the other den mothers might have acted in my stead.
            Merav, the shelter’s director, asserted herself ever so gently, while Gali, the third den mother, was stricter, which often proved counterproductive. I knew the girls resented her shaking them out of bed when she was on duty, calling “Rise and shine,” startling them out of sleep at 8am sharp. “It’s not like our schedule is full with important stuff,” they complained. “Other than craft classes and doctor appointments, we just sit around all day long. Why can’t we sleep in a little?”
            While I tried to emulate Merav, I found it difficult to reach the depth of her empathy, and even though I wasn’t overbearing like Gali, my demeanour was often colder than I had indented. I did wish to be as effervescent and cheerful as Gali, but these traits fitted me like the glass sandal on the feet of Cinderella’s sisters.
            And it’s true, I thought as I stepped out of the room; I probably don’t understand Palestinian women. Until I started working in this shelter for pregnant unmarried women I had met very few, and always from a distance. There was an invisible barrier between them and us, in the real world beyond the shelter’s walls.
            And besides, I summarised as I reached the bottom of the staircase, by now I know Sara’s stubbornness could not be dissolved with adamance.
            But there was no time for idle contemplations. I had to start the morning routine: read the shelter log; check which girls needed medical appointments attended today, or scheduled for a later date; which ones had their due date approaching; and of course, report the missing knife.
            A half hour later I locked the office and walked into the spacious living room, where four of the girls were seated around the blaring television, knitting; the favourite pastime around here. A large closet stood at the back of the living room, one of its drawers brimming with yarn and needles. I contributed to the effort by admiring the results of a craft that lay well beyond my skills. 
            “Any luck?” I asked Fatima, who sat among the knitters. With her tall and heavy frame slightly hunched forward, it was difficult to notice her due date was looming close.
            “Gave it to Hannah,” she replied with a pleased smile. “Didn’t want to bother you in the office.”
             I sat beside her. “Bless you, ya habibt, Shukran!” I said. “Wow, your sweater has grown quite a bit in the few days I haven’t been here. Who is it for?”           
            “My brother,” she said, her voice soft with longing.            
            Goodness, I thought. The same brother who might have harmed you if you weren’t brought to this shelter in Jerusalem? But I didn’t say anything. Of course I wouldn’t. After she delivers her baby and signs the adoption papers, she will have no choice but return to her family. And so now, in her semi-exile, it is only natural she clings to them. I bet she also longs for her culture; the language, familiar foods. Or perhaps Hannah’s Moroccan cooking reminds her of the West Bank village she came from? With my Eastern European background, my familiarity with both these cuisines was limited.
            But I was learning fast. Sharing meals with the shelter’s women, I realised some folks are able to pop hot peppers whole into their mouths and survive the experience; that bread could accompany each meal, even if it contained rice or pasta; and most recipes require astonishing amounts of oil.
            My work at the Amirim shelter had broadened my horizons far beyond traditional Moroccan cuisine. Exactly what I craved upon completing my bachelor degree in art school. During my final year I came to realise that while we art students constantly refer to life in our work, most of us had had very little hands-on experience, myself included. I was tired of the pretentious attitude expressed from the safety of our ivory tower. I wanted blood, sweat, and tears; but mostly, I wanted to be useful to others.
            So when a friend told me she decided to go back to school and leave her job at the shelter, I jumped at the opportunity and interviewed for the position. I knew it involved caring for women in dire straights, and participating in baby deliveries, but most of all I was inspired by my friend’s passion and sparkling eyes whenever she had mentioned her job.
            I too wanted to spark!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

BN and the Old Man (published in Dunes Review, Spring 2017)

(Link to magazine:

A sunny morning by the sea. Calm waves lick the sand. A long-legged bird hunts for tiny silvery fish in the shallows. A lone man wearing a suit walks down the beach, his eyes on the horizon.
            “Oh, sorry,” he says, nearly bumping into an old man performing a headstand. “Wait, no, it can’t be.” The suited man stoops to have a closer look at the upside-down face. “Yes, it is you!”
            “But of course it is,” says the old man. “I can only be me.”
            “What an honour,” breathes the suited man, whom we’d call BN.
            “The honour is all mine,” replies the old man.
            “Sir,” says BN, “do you know who I am?”
            “A man needs to know himself regardless of what others might think of him,” the old man says.
            BN nods. “True, true.” He then glances around. “I’m surprised to see you on your own. Is your wife not here?”
            The old man grins. “What would we do without our faithful wives?” he asks with a wink.
            BN blushes, issues a hesitant smile, and turns to look at the hunting bird chasing its prey, running across the wet sand, ignoring both men. A pleasant breeze rises and he’s thankful for the silence, though after a while he wonders what he should do. He knows the old man’s morning routine is near holy, but excited at the rare opportunity, he’s not ready to leave yet.
            “Funny we meet,” he finally says, his voice cheerful. “Lately, everyone has been comparing us, but they fail to see how times have changed. All world leaders live in style. Could you imagine me living in a shed in the middle of nowhere? I’d be made fun of!”
            “We certainly can’t have that,” confirms the old man.
            BN grins. “I knew you’d understand.” He releases his tie a bit, saying,” It’s getting hot.”
            “Why won’t you take off your shoes and dip your feet in the water?” offers the old man.
            “Yes, I think I will,” says BN, does just that, then returns to the old man, and seats himself on the sand with his pants still rolled up, his socks neatly tucked inside the dress shoes.
            The long-legged bird had flown away by now, and the glimmering sun keeps beaming in the pale summer sky.
            “How long can you hold like this?” asks BN. 
            “For all eternity,” answers the old man.
            “Very impressive.”
            The old man says, “I’d think you had more important things to do than keep me company.”
            BN shakes his head. “I have some time before I’m expected in the office.” He then adds with a deep sigh, “I haven’t felt so relaxed in years.”
            “Nothing like the sea,” agrees the old man. “It’s why I used to come here each morning.”
            “I still can’t believe I bumped into you,” says BN. “So many things I want to ask you.”
            “Go ahead. I’ve got all the time in the world.”
            “I wish I knew beforehand, so I could better prepare. I seem to draw a blank now.”
            The old man smiles. “A good handstand energises the brain.”
            BN smiled thinly. “I carry so many responsibilities,” he moans. “Nobody but my voters has any appreciation for me. Especially my cabinet members; they want to gang up and throw me to the dogs.”
“I sure know how that feels,” the old man slices out through his teeth, and BN, though surprised by the bitter tone, exclaims: “Exactly! Like you, no one but me has the backbone to fulfil the country’s potential, the importance of our great nation.”
            Releasing his tie a bit more, he carries on, “The politicians, on both sides of the isle, don’t get it, the media keeps trying to sabotage me, criticising my every move, making fun of me in every imaginable way, but luckily, this only strengthens both me and my loyal voters.” His head bobs slightly as he speaks, and the pink of his baldness glimpses through the silver bluish comb-over. 
The tall bird returns to fish in the shallows; it reminds him of a stilted clown.
            “See this one?” he asks, thrusting his chin at the bird. “He’s like me, negotiating the treacherous waves to get what he wants. He’s focused, unrelenting, hardworking. That’s what strong leaders are made of. You were like that, and what tremendous challenges you had faced!”
            The old man slowly scissors his bent legs in the air, then brings them down one by one, and sits on the sand with his eyes on the sea.
            “Toward the end I tried to imagine fifty years into the future,” he says. “I came up with various scenarios. I suppose a nation’s path is carved out by many factors, not only its leaders’ strengths and capabilities.”
            “To be honest,” says BN, looking at his companion with glimmering eyes, “I see my work as a natural continuation of yours.”            
            The old man glimpses him. “You don’t need my approval,” he utters with a shake of the head, grains of sand fly out of his white hair, and BN thinks he would never have allowed his own hair to look like two fluffs of candy cotton sticking from either side of the head.            
            “Would you have voted for me?” he asks, wondering what flavour the old man’s hair might have been, had it been made of … vanilla, he decides. French vanilla. Or maybe coconut?
            The old man chortles, and BN winces, fearing his friend might have guessed his tasty contemplations. 
            “Doesn’t look like you need my vote, either,” says the old man when his laugh subsides.
            BN swallows hard. “It would be good to have it, nevertheless.”
But the old man doesn’t seem to be listening. His eyes linger on the far horizon, his mind drifting.
BN decides to be patient, and quietly gazes at the sea as well.
            “I thought we’d have a peace agreement of some sort by now,” the old man finally says, and BN hears some sadness in the voice. “But that might be just an old man’s sentimentality.”
            “We have come a long way since our early days,” BN replies, his doughy face clouds in thoughtfulness. “But in some ways, nothing has changed; our enemies still connive to obliterate us.”
            The old man nods, saying, “And still no set borders …”
            “Like the Americans when they got their independence,” says BN with a smirk. “But sir,” he carries on, and his expression turns serious, “as you correctly said long ago, they do not exist as a nation, and therefore the land is—always has been—ours to take.”
            The old man looks at BN with surprise. “I said it was ours, all of it?”
            BN flushes, replying,” Well, not exactly, but from what you have said, on many occasions, it would be only logical to conclude—“
            “Logic, schmogic,” says the old man with a dismissive wave of the hand, and rises to his feet. “You really need to try headstands; it’ll help you see the world from a fresh angle.”
            And with that, he leans forward, and soon he is upside down again; his cotton candy hair in the wet sand.
            At that moment, a small band of youngsters in bathing suits walks by, and one of them, a tall guy in orange surfing shorts, points toward the older gentlemen, calling, “Hey, look!” which startles away the bird.
            The group quickly envelopes the men, yammering, “Oh, wow,” and, “How cool is that?” and a tanned woman pulls out a Smartphone from her bikini bra, announcing, “Photo!”
            BN, though reluctant to share his friend with strangers, is nonetheless beaming at them, proud to be found beside a historical figure of such calibre.
            “Hey grandpa,” asks the guy in the orange shorts, crouching beside the old man. “Could you take a picture of us with the PM?”            
            No reply. The old man seems to be in deep meditation.
            “Oh, leave him alone,” reproaches a curly girl. “Can’t you see he’s dead?”
            Alarmed, BN jumps to his feet, crying, “Don’t you know who this is?” But they don’t seem to have heard him, and the tanned woman gathers everyone round BN for a few selfies, then shows them to her friends, who quack and giggle, urging her to post them on social media, which she does.
            BN, all the while, lectures them about the old man’s epic achievements—his voice deep, brow creased—taken aback only when his palms don’t meet the solid surface of the podium behind which he imagines himself standing. When he looks up he is astonished to see a hasty swarm of people approaching them. Time to leave, he muses, and starts inching away, barefoot.
            “It’s true,” yells someone in the nearing crowd. “He is here!” And with that, the cheering throng blocks BN’s escape route, and he surrenders to the hands that want to shake his, the showered hugs, more selfies. But no, he did not forget his friend, who has remained in his upturned position. 
            “Sir,” he calls to the old man, “do I have your vote?”
            “What does it matter?” replies the old man. “Like the girl said, I’m already dead.”
            “But would you support me?” BN’s plea hovers in the air as the enthusiastic band of fans carries him away. He tries to break free, but the strong youngsters hold him tight, his protest drowned by their calls, “Long live the king, long live the king!”
The long-legged bird returns to the beach once the mob had vanished. The old man then slowly moves his bent legs in the air and brings them down one by one. He sits on the sand, his eyes on the horizon.
            BN’s shoes, scattered by the trampling feet, lie orphaned. This morning’s polished leather now muddied and somewhat cracked.
The water rocks a lone sock hither and thither; its mate is nowhere in sight.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Lydia (published in East Coast Ink, 2014)

What's wrong, Lydia, the hunter's wife?
Sitting alone in front of the hearth,
a sock and needle in your lap,
staring at the fire, shadows of its flames
dancing on the walls of your one-room home.
Your husband, the hunter, is not home tonight,
as many nights before.
He shall return in a few days
with a deer or two splayed cold on his horses,
and chilly air will enter the house with him.
Will you offer him a warm cheek,
as you have done since many years back,
when you thought life begins here, far from home,
with this broad-shouldered man, whose words are few,
yet his touch is tender, and his lips are seeking.

Does routine nibble at you, Lydia,
after twenty years of waiting?
And your hopes are seeping out
as plans to add a nursery
are nearly forgotten.

Perhaps you will rise at once—
wash the floors,
shine the silverware, light the candles,
while humming a tune that rocks
like the waves in their tranquil hour.
You will wear your dark wool-coat
and leave the house for fresh air, flooded
with dreams: travel far away,
visit exciting places, discover new people. 
Or you might return to your hometown on the coast,
where your parents are growing old
in a large house filled with numerous rooms and books.
But you can still remember how you detested
the sounds and smells of the city,
and your longing for the serene lands of the prairie,
which is now your home.

Wrapped in your cloak, you briskly cross the frozen field,
glancing at the longstanding couple of leafless trees at the far edge of your land,
as you always do when riding the wagon on the road going up to the village.

You turn away from your home and walk fast,
your heavy grey dress sweeping the ground,
raising small clouds of glittering dust.

Then you abruptly stop to
look back.

Why are you standing there, Lydia, the hunter's wife?
Who are you glaring at, what do you see?
You are all alone here.
The night is empty,
the fields are sitting barren in the cold.

Is it me you are staring at?
(This is impossible, I think to myself)
I am not a part of this tale, I say to Lydia.
Go, go on your way. 
But she persists; her wild eyes dig into my mind,
her towering figure leans forward.

Surprised, I find myself
shivering in the slicing wind,
in this foreign land,
stumbling toward Lydia as she turns on her heel
and renews her pace up the road.
With a quickened pulse and trembling legs
I follow her.
But her steps are wide and confident,
and she soon becomes one with the dark.

At once, I am all alone in a night full of shadows,
glancing around in hopes of rescue.
In this vacant, quiet place.
Down the road sits the house of Lydia and her husband, the hunter.
The wind’s sharp claws dig into my skin.
Choiceless, I turn toward the light,
enter the warm log cabin,
close the door to leave
the night behind,
and approach the hearth.
On the chair in front of it, a sock and needle.
I pick them up, place them in my lap,
and hold out my palms
to the flames—listening
to the chatter of consumed wood.
I examine the sock in my lap; not keen on sewing,
what shall I do with this needle?

I look about:
to one corner, a small table
set with two chairs.
Dishes and books neatly stacked on sturdy shelves.
At the room’s other side:
an oval braided rug over the wide-planked floor,
a wide bed, soft blankets covering white linen.

I add logs to the dying fire,
lean back in the chair and watch the
frolicking flames.

Then rise to my feet and walk to the bed.
Sink into the mattress.
It accepts me like a mother’s bosom.

I recognize:
this is my bed, these are my books,
and my husband, the hunter,
will soon enter our home.
His greying temples under my fingers, his neck
emanating intoxicating scents.
My fingers will slide with feather-like touch
on skin roughed by summer sun and the winds
that blow upon these open plains.

The logs crackle in the hearth,
the flames are strong and steady.

At last, I am warm.
I, Lydia.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Suitcase (forthcoming in Waves, an anthology by A Room of Her Own Foundation)

Lifting the lid, she said,
"Bonbons for my girls";
ghosts in her German accent
floating about.
"Dollhouse table," my sister declared.
"A sofa, and this chair."
Collecting the wrapping paper,
inhaling flowery perfume, I imagined
Granny's house in London.

The drifting dessert sand, Mother removes
from her gravestone once a year.
I pull out the suitcase waiting
in the boidem, dust it off.
My diary packed, small can-openers,
some scarves—waving good-bye,
I moved to another country.

On snowy days, I look to the East—
my hair as grey as Granny's
on her visits long ago—and think
of the Desert and the Forty Years,
asking, Where is Home?


More about Waves anthology -