“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!