This piece is part of my experimentation with creative fiction writing as fellow at the Writers Institute at CUNY
“It never used to be this hot when we were children,” I complain to Toufiq, my childhood village friend, as we scout the jujube bushes in my garden for the tart sweet chocolate-brown fruits. He reminds me of how enticing the fruit always seemed, thanks to the famous poetic imagery implanted in our young minds:
“And she bit the jujube fruit (of her fingertips) with the hailstones (of her teeth.)”
We would argue long evenings over the circumstances that compelled the poet’s beloved enchantress to coquettishly admit her guilt and bite the tips of her fingers in playful remorse. Then we would fall asleep pondering what could have followed in the way of reconciliation between the two lovers.
“It is the complicity of western consumerism with Arab oil dictators that has busted that gaping hole in the ozone layer,” I now say, hoping to raise Toufiq’s anti-colonial ire.
“We were children, less observant and much more tolerant physically of weather conditions,” He assures me. I argue back and he reminds me of the harsh conditions of village life in the old days.
“It has always been hot and arid in these parts. Have you forgotten that this is the Holy Land, land of so many prophets and three invented religions?”
I am used to his blasphemy. He comes from an even harsher rural background than mine. Some of the years I spent in the USA he spent in godless USSR.
“How about a hint? What does religion have to do with global warming?” I ask.
“Think of it, man! It was hot enough to fry the brains of so many desert vagabonds into all sorts of creative imaginings of a cooler place that they called paradise. From there it was all downhill. The rest is history.”
“It doesn’t all fit together. We have air-conditioning; we don’t need the promise of a cooler paradise. But in the USA they are still flocking in the millions to listen to Jerry Falwell.”
“It is because the Bushes and the Cheneys are in a hurry to wreck it all in preparation for Armageddon. And they make a killing from oil and weapons on the way.”
With Eid Alfitr marking the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, just around the corner, we need to stock up on fruits, sweets and nuts, mukassarat –breakables-- as they are called in Arabic. The best modern-day Arab literary minds have long debated the quandary if hard candy-covered almonds, popularly known as pigeon eggs because of their shape and size, are among the true mukassarat or not. Toufiq and I have long opted to stay above the fray; we usually avoid buying the contested commodity. We don’t have the teeth for it.
We head to the Farmer’s Market at the edge of Arrabeh. Two days a week it attracts shoppers from all over Galilee. On the Sabbath it is full of Jewish shoppers. Second to young Jewish women in shorts, the black-tented Moslem women excite the loudest raucous cries of the sellers’ declaring their merchandize with open innuendos: “Spring chicken thighs at discount prices,” declares a butcher at the top of his lungs. “Take off the cover and enjoy the flavor!” responds the mango fruit seller. The absence of a single Jewish transient merchant in the market is unusual. I ask the candy man and he gives a cogent explanation: The stall owners arrive at dawn and much of the bulk trading with suppliers takes place at night. Jews in Israel need the security of daylight. I ask for confirmation from the young entrepreneur who operates the market.
“Let us keep away from politics,” he says. “I deal with all who support my business: covered Moslems, bare-breasted Christians or bikinied Jews.” He won’t be drawn into a more serious discussion. I figure that the young man, an internal refugee who has built a thriving business, is reluctant to speak out on what he considers to be a sensitive political issue.
With the alibi of looking for a flyswatter, we go on an extended exploration of merchandise, merchants and especially clients. To our surprise, eventually we do find the Chinese-made item we look for. Toufiq philosophizes:
“The old allegory has been reversed: ’the flutter of a flyswatter anywhere on earth affects the Chinese economy. Except for fresh mulukhiyeh, everything is made in China.’”
As we leave an ancient Peugeot blocks our way. Soon, it is sure to be on its way, piecemeal, to China. The driver is another of those women going full-tilt at a chance to qualify in the afterlife as a virginal maiden out of the seventy for some young martyr. She preserves all of Allah’s gifts in the form of her human image for her current lawful husband permitting only her eyes the freedom to roam the confusion around her. On the back fender are two prominent signs: the first with artistic Arabic calligraphy declares: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His Prophet.” Right after it, the second warns in Thick Hebrew script: “Keep your distance.”
At home, my wife reminds me of all the items I have to tend to before we leave to New York: the AC in the house lost efficiency; the main electric safety switch keeps coming down; the icemaker in the fridge stopped making enough ice; and the washing machine lost its patience; it spins through a full cycle in minutes. Luckily, all the repairmen in Arrabeh are at my disposal. It is Saturday, the day on which, like the Good Lord, they stay home. Except that for them, unlike for its lawful owners, the Shabbat is not a day of rest but of alternative work for additional unreported income. No technician scoffs at the chance to do a small side chore for a little extra cash for the kids. It is Ramadan and children must have sweets and firecrackers after breaking their fast. One after the other the technicians arrive and pronounce the house sound.
“It is fit like a fiddle. It must be the overload because of the children and their children joining us for the summer,” I explain. “The use of utilities went up 300%, six welcome summer guests added to us two. Think what it would be like had we followed the rule of nines standard in our family tree.”
“You needn’t remind me,” my wife answers. “I would have been the first to malfunction from wear and tear. But could it be those technicians don’t know what they are doing? They are used to someone else making the decisions for them. May be we should call their employers on weekdays for an expert opinion. I don’t want to come home in six months to malfunctioning facilities.”
“Not to worry. Just like us, everything around here has gotten used to lower demand and lower maintenance. It is fine as long as the AC is on only part of the day and the icemaker doesn’t have to quench the thirst of half of the neighborhood’s kids. The issue is settled,” I declared in my usual tone of finality. You see, over four and a half decades, my wife and I have worked out a stable sharing of responsibilities: She is in charge of bringing up relevant issues and I am in charge of dismissing them. Much will change in six months. Why worry about it now?
The phone rings. It is still functioning. It is another grandniece asking if we could come to her family’s house for the formal visit of her fiancé and his family to recite Alfatiha – the opening chapter of the holy Koran -- to formalize and consecrate the young couple’s relationship. It is the second such invitation in as many days, I am reminded of my figs: They are all ripening at the same time. I have to beg neighbors and friends to help themselves to the fruit.
Like all the youth in my extended family, Laila is a sweetheart. Except that she is special: She had lost her father to diabetes at the young age of forty and her mother is a nurse, two facts of special relevance to the physician in me that I keep trying to ignore. And I was personally involved in the arduous matchmaking process between her parents, a fact that obligates me at some subliminal level. Laila’s mother was a dark-skinned Bedouin girl while her future in-laws, trapped in the purgatory of farming village peasantry, were desirous of catching a fair-skinned city girl for their firstborn son. Social climbing runs in the family. I busted my ass pushing against the solid wall of family opposition. At the end it was all worth it: the couple produced four lovely children, sufficiently acculturated in Israeli ways to attract attention when in mixed company:
“Are you a Persian immigrant?” Ashkenazi women would ask admiringly.
“No. I am Arab.”
“But you look nice,” they object.
The real trouble now is the fact that Laila’s sweetheart, whom she wants us to receive formally tonight, is Christian. We had already made a casual exchange of visits with the boy’s family.
“What do you think of it ammi?” Laila’s mother asks with an apprehensive tone of voice, addressing me with the respectful ‘uncle’. “Is it OK, ammi?”
Does she expect a reprimand, I wonder? Both of us are thinking ‘what would people say?’ but don’t vocalize our worry.
The small Christian community in Arrabeh has always been an integral part of our neighborhood. But it never was integral enough for intermarriage. We grew up playing in the churchyard and in the same fields with Christian boys. We attended the same school where both the priest and the imam taught us. But now I remember that the Christian boys skipped religion class. Suddenly I read significance in the fact that the imam taught us Arabic poetry and grammar while the priest taught us English as a second language. This was during the British Mandate days.
“Christians were cuddled and pampered by the British,” I blurt out.
“Ism Allah alaik! Are you alright uncle?” The woman utters Allah’s name for my protection; she looks worried. “You are straying off the topic.” She is a nurse and is in the habit of assessing the mental function of the elderly.
“Alzheimer pays me an occasional courtesy call but this is not one of those episodes, I assure you. I am reminded of the good old days. Christian girls were always just a tad more daring than Moslems in the way they dressed. They never covered their heads.”
“Are you referring to Laila? True, Laila doesn’t cover her head but usually she doesn’t wear daring clothes.”
“Did you ever hear the story about the religious sheikh who was always admonishing the womenfolk in his town to dress modestly? When a neighbor pointed out that the sheikh’s own wife was seen out in a miniskirt he responded: ‘But she is beautiful!’”
“Oh, ammi! You are making fun of my daughter. It is unfair.”
“Believe me, Laila is doing the right thing. She deserves the freedom and pampering only a Christian man can give her.”
I remember how pretty the Christian girls in our neighborhood looked. On the spot I fast-forward across a decade to the many times I accompanied my high school friends in Nazareth to church where I could ogle all the revealed ware of the female Easter service celebrants and drool mentally.
“Do you know the one about why we Moslems wear the hijab?”
“No. Tell me!”
“When God created the human race, He asked His three favorite prophets to choose their followers. It went by age. Moses came first and chose according to IQ. He chose the smartest ones and those were the Jews. All the rest were feeble-minded. Jesus considered his choices and decided to pick out the good-looking ones. Those are the Christians. That is where Laila belongs, believe me. Mohammed’s turn was last. He was left with a bunch of rejects. They were all disfigured. He took one look and said in desperation: ‘Yallah –come on! Cover your faces and follow me.”
“That is cruel. Women in our family don’t wear hijab and we are not disfigured.”
“That is why I don’t blame the young man for falling in love with Laila. But mentally we, Arab citizens of Israel, can use a lot of help, can’t we? Look around you. The Arab Spring is in full swing all across the Fertile Crescent and North Africa and the most revolutionary thing we have done is to stay away from cottage cheese.”
I take mental leave of my two guests. Instantaneously I am in beautiful Hawaii and it is the beautiful 1960s. I am slick of body enough to ride the Pacific waves; I am sharp of mind enough to top my class in every science course; and I have the social graces enough to woo a local mate. Campus life suits me well as the whiz kid at the center of a circle of foreign students: Its hub entwines me with a carefree Dutchman and an Indonesian worrywart; its periphery encircles us with a colorful mesh of Asian, African and South Pacific natives; and a frill of Anglo-Saxon American females are ever ready to lend a hand to stray foreigners. And what a hand they lend! A gaunt Gandhi minus the stick, a lanky Jomo Kenyatta minus the whip, and an ever-smiling Sudanese named Hassan Adlan enrich the Foreign Student Association with added authenticity and wisdom. Hassan is the brightest but shyly refuses to admit to it. “It is the shortcomings of the group around me. I shine because of the others’ tarnish. When you fail so badly that, unable to praise yourself, you speak ill of others, remember the Hassan Adlan principle: ‘Life grades us all on a curve.’”
I am back with my nieces, angry with them for being who they are, for being who we are: misfits among the misfits; Palestinians in Israel; Arabs among Jews among Arabs; Israelis in an Arab Middle East proud of its toppling of our allies. Dumping on others to gain prominence has never been harder. Middleclass Jews are vacationing in tents in urban centers across the country to protest their relative lack of luxury. We yearn to join but can hardly afford the tents. How can I feign disdaining them?
“God has gifted us with the handiwork of the servile Western nations. With no effort on our part, the West has developed all the implements we need for an easy life, from the sewing needle to the nuclear reactor, inshallah,” says one of our sages. In the intricacy of his logic, he forgets that our dependency on the servile West has left us rootless and worthless. How can I rise above the West’s treachery? Would the tent dwelling protesters demand segregated camps? Would they object to my excessive demographics? Would they cry ‘existential threat,’ their figurative ‘wolf’ as they see me with my ‘figurative’ brood of kids? And do the tent residents dare touch their holy defense cow that pictures us as the enemy, or the settler movement that wants to cleanse ‘their’ holy land of my taint? What means can I muster to belittle my belittlers?
I feign mental infirmity again. I know the young man’s name is Rabi’i.
“Is he called Qays?”
Laila’s fiancé does have a dreamy demeanor. I can see him striking out aimlessly across the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert, barefoot, unshaven and in tattered clothes, shouting out his pain and longing in rhyming couplets he recites to the gazelles he has befriended before he writes them with his stick in the sand for the desert winds to caress on their way to Laila’s oasis dwelling.
“I pass by the dwellings, Laila’s dwellings
and kiss this wall and that wall.
It is not the love of the walls that fills my heart
But the love of those who lived within the walls.”
Some nine centuries before Romeo and Juliet, Qays Ibn el-Molawwah, better known as Majnun –The Mad One –and Laila Alameriah played out the real life story of unconsummated passions and mortal infatuation. They bequeathed it to all romantic Arabs as the purest and most sacred form of love, al-hub al-utheri –virginal love. The Arab literati of the time recorded the details of their desert tribal saga with accuracy befitting the playful mirage of their wasteland; the Persians embellished the text and adorned the script with their flowery illustrations and passed it on to all serious romanticists across Asia; and the Indians couldn’t but mythologize it with their transcendental flourish picturing Laila bleeding from the very same sight in her body whenever Majnun suffered another wound. The most aching of wounds, those of the soul, ricochet across the Arabian Peninsula and back to afford Majnun an imagined opportunity for a measure of intimacy, even if contrived:
“They tell me Laila in Iraq is ill.
I wish I were the treating physician.”
The jealous husband challenges him to a dual. Alas, Majnun loses and Laila breathes her last breath all the way over in Iraq as the sword’s tip pierces his yearning heart. How the two came to be buried in Rajasthan for all the Indian lovers to visit till the present day, I will never know. Time and fertile imaginations work wonders.
“I am the last person who has the moral right to object to a mixed marriage,” I say suppressing the urge to make light of the subject. “After all, I am married to a Christian.”
“Yes, and there are others in our family. But they are men except for your daughter.” Laila’s mother must have given this subject much thought. “I know I married into a family of infidels,” and she breaks out in a nervous giggle.
“Thank God Laila didn’t end up with a Jewish or a Druze young man,” I say. “Otherwise you may live to see your grandchildren coming to visit you with automatic weapons slung on their shoulders. They may even be put in charge of evicting you from your unlicensed home.”
“God forbid! They took over our homes, our land, even our falafel. If they marry our daughters they confiscate our honor. Then we are lost forever.”
“Come off it now! You shouldn’t mind having an influential son-in-law who graduates from the army into a successful career as an arms dealer or an ambassador in some exotic capital. You may even look forward to being the mother-in-law of a prime minister ”
“I dream at my own size, ammi. As our saying goes, ‘stretch out your legs to the size of your bed.’ A nurse like me, only one step up from construction work, is good enough for me. They will be coming for their formal visit tonight. I am afraid someone on our side might speak out against Laila’s choice.”
“I don’t blame you. These are hard times for us. We are speed-skating through the westernization process that sweeps across all Arab societies. Some of us are likely to slip and fall.”
This is getting too serious for comfort, I remind myself. I pour a glass of pomegranate juice for each of my two women guests and two fingers of Scotch on ice for myself. I have downed two cold beers already without any effect. So many of our socialist leaders led our masses with vodka in hand. And most of them had blond Russian wives many of whom eventually walked out on them leaving us with the husbands’ hangover mutterings for sermons. No wonder our demands for justice and equality reach Western ears muffled and confused.
“Imagine where we would be had we focused all of our wasted energy on our own affairs,” says Laila’s future father-in-law ruefully one night. “We marched for hours with red flags to demonstrate against the assassination of Lumumba. Who in hell was Lumumba? And how did that help me get a permit from the military governor to reach my land to plant wheat for my children? But our leaders said it all added up to liberation for all the downtrodden in the world and we willingly suffered the consequences. They said international solidarity would rid us of the need for permits; it would dismantle the military rule. And, surely, it did. Except that by then they have confiscated my land and I no longer needed to reach it in the first place. Here, look at my son-in-law, a well-paid mechanic working in a Turkish immigrant’s shop, commuting every day with no need for a permit to travel. Times have changed. Who needs to bother with oxen and ploughs?”
“A few minutes before you told me you were not on talking terms with most of your immediate relatives because of land disputes,” I remind him. “If land is so insignificant, why can’t you make up with the folks?”
“One of my ancestors was a tax assessor for Thaher el-Omar and a great hoarder of wealth and land. That is how we came to own much of the valley of Ebillin.”
“I was always under the impression that Christian landholdings came down to you through the generations since the days of the Crusaders. After all, the name of your village and valley is that of a French Crusader king.”
“Regardless of who started it, when we divided the land between…”
“Stop it right there, please,” I interrupt. “I know the rest. There is not a single Palestinian extended family in Galilee that doesn’t have an internal feud based on conflicting land claims.” I catch myself lecturing but can’t simplify my thoughts. “The problem is more psychological than financial or utilitarian. We have inherited the subsistence farming need-based land protectiveness but lost the traditional communal magnanimity and the agrarian social accord that went with it.”
“It is much simpler than that,” says my wise host. “It is too many unemployed lawyers and too many illiterate old women telling them what to do.” Obviously, he generalizes from his specific experience.
“He might be a simple old farmer, but he has experience and native smarts,” says my niece of her daughter’s future father-in-law. She always finds buried treasures when she is desperate for a compliment to boost her own morale. “And he is a dyed-in-the-wool communist,” she adds. “It is lucky we got to know the folks after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the old days his son wouldn’t have had a chance to train as a nurse in Israeli. Now communists no longer register on the Shin Bet’s radar. Of course, the kid could have gotten a scholarship to a Soviet Union country and come back as a doctor. But then he would have come back a godless alcoholic and with a blonde wife. We would have lost him before Laila found him.”
“Any objection from any immediate relatives so far?” I broach the sensitive subject.
“None openly. I insist that we follow the customary procedure of a formal visit where they recite Alfatiha.”
“But they are Christian. They don’t know Alfatiha and some old religious fuddy-duddy on our side may raise a fuss. The young man should convert even if nominally.”
“Let us get this straight,” I don my learned hat again. “The hitch is that Israel does not recognize interfaith marriages. But it recognizes such marriages if imported from abroad. This is hardest for Jews. Moslems have it easy. Islam permits interfaith marriages. All that is required is for the two partners to state their willingness to marry each other in the presence of two witnesses. What remain are the social formalities. Here is my scenario then: The two kids declare their intentions to the two of us; that covers religion. Then we go through the social partying at a banquet hall; that is the responsibility of the groom’s family. Then the two go to Cypress for their honeymoon and come back with a certificate of civil marriage that they perform at the municipality there. That takes care of the legality of the marriage in Israel. You think you two can wing it, Laila?”
“Yes, but my mother wants Alfatiha and his parents want a church ceremony.”
“Let us do both then.”
“He doesn’t know Alfatiha by heart like us.”
“We read it silently, each addressing Allah reverently in his own heart.”
“You want me to tell him to lie?”
“You can manage that one, one way or the other,” the mother says firmly. “What worries me is the likelihood of one of our other two elders making a scene. You take liberty with your interpretation of Islam and they may object. ”
“They will not. I have explained to both of them that they can stay away if they don’t want to be seen attending such a compromised affair.”
Suddenly our cat, Edward, marches eastward across the yard ahead of a pack of tomcats. Muammar, the fattest cat of them all, strides confidently in the first row.
“Are you any good in interpreting dreams,” I ask my niece and grandniece.
“How about epiphanies? Did you see what I just saw? All those cats headed east with a purpose. It is too late for us humans though.”
“What are you talking about, ammi?”
“It would have been a different destiny had our leaders followed Edward Said’s advice and stopped slavishly emulating the West. The way it is, parents cannot send their children away from home for college and expect them to stick to traditional rules of conduct. Regardless how conservative parents are, they can’t put a lien on their child’s virginity while he or she is away at the Hebrew University campus for four years.”
Laila breaks out of her pouty silence with a chuckle: “No one has invented the perfect remote-control chastity belt so far. Very likely someone at Apple is working on the u-belt.”
“You mean the i-bellt?”
“The ‘i’ series gave its users freedom and individuality. They are inventive enough to start a new ‘u’ line designed to control. That is how parents will be able to sleep well with their children not directly under their thumb.”
“The Saudis would love to invest in that, I am sure,” I say.
“The CIA is probably working on it already. You were there and know the Americans. The entire World Wide Web was started to facilitate exchange of information between academics with military research contracts.”
“The IDF probably have secured the contract for the final product already,” I venture.
“They will be sure to put a brainy young religious Jew in charge of it so it would be determined in advance who controls whom when the use of the technology extends beyond the eternal intergenerational parent-child conflict.”
“Like our National Service scheme.”
“Exactly! We do the service and they are the nation. After all, the country is defined to exclude us.”
“But we look up to them, nevertheless. Our young generation emulates theirs and theirs emulates America’s youth and the latter is rotten to the core by our old standards. Our leaders have to digest that truth thoroughly. Their only escape route towards our authentic values is eastward and it is too late for that. They had a choice with oil and they flubbed it. They should have taught their children about Gandhi, not Churchill. At least we could have kept our falafel.”
“But not our al-hub al-uthari,” Laila demurs.
The evening westerly breeze softens the mood of the gathering members of Laila’s immediate family waiting for the guests in the spacious veranda of her home. The women move elsewhere to make space for the men’s officious gathering. I object but am overruled by my own wife.
“Don’t make waves. This is how they do it traditionally. This is not the time for revolutions.”
“The hell it is not! Haven’t you been following the news? Libyan rebels have just breached Gaddafi’s compound.”
“I am serious. Let us hope this make-believe show passes peacefully.”
“I’ll never marry another man,” Laila asserts. “Neither of us two cares much about our presumed different faiths. He is the one for me regardless what happens tonight.”
A party of six arrives: Four elders and the young man and his father. We exchange minimal formal introductions and the customary niceties. Their lead speaker, a ponderous man with a PhD in a field requiring great imagination, launches into an imaginary account of the heroics of Arrabeh’s residents in the Land Day mini uprising. A relative of ours responds with a tale of humility and denial:
“The most memorable act by a member of this family from those days is that of an uncle of ours who was arrested from his hiding place at home and taken away in his underwear. He managed to stop the army’s halftrack in its tracks by pounding forcefully on the driver’s window. When the soldiers halted for him and rushed back with their guns pointing at his head, he explained that he was getting carsick in the back and would one of them be good enough to exchange seats with him!”
Everyone laughs heartily and the tension in the air melts away. The former mayor of Ebillin formally asks for Laila’s hand in marriage to their boy who smirks self-consciously. I respond in the affirmative on behalf of the family and request all to recite Alfateha to guarantee Allah’s blessings for the couple. I cup my hands in the standard Islamic posture when begging for favors from Allah. Qays cups his two hands like all the Moslems in the group and after a brief pose rubs his face with his two palms in the usual gesture of ending the silent prayer. By now my bladder threatens to burst its dikes. I open the connecting door to the house and catch Laila hiding behind it, tears streaming down her face and gulping for air between fits of silent crying.
“We spent two evenings memorizing the seven verses. I was afraid he wouldn’t get it right.”
Sweets, coffee and fruits are offered, starting on the left and moving right.
“Coffee moves rightward even if Abu-Zaid were on your left,” an elder offers the standard wisdom referring to the the famed Arab swordsman. The young man pouring the cardamom-flavored bitter coffee, Laila’s younger brother, beams his willful acceptance of everyone’s standard wish for him to be the next one to catch the engagement bug. The father of the groom accepts everyone’s congratulations and good wishes. As he pays me farewell the father assures me he is as proud as Lumumba once was.
My niece, the gracious hostess and mother of the bride, expresses admiration for my presence of mind in saying what I said to the guests.
“I hope I didn’t jinx Laila’s engagement, though,” I say. “I forgot half of the verses in Alfatiha. You are right. I should start taking vitamin D and Omega-4.”