Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sister Jamileh

Sister Jamileh loves to hear the bells chiming Ave-Maria at sundown. She sits at the entrance to her home in Nazareth and plots the source of the magic tune on the hazy panorama of old Nazareth painted across the arroyo. It seems even more colorful from memory than from actual light refraction. Past ninety now, her vision has failed after the loss of her late husband. The more the doctors tamper with her eyes the less distinct the individual structures in the Nazareth scene splashed before her become; she has to embellish some of those fading shapes with the original colors she remembers from sitting with Sheikh Salah when they were newlyweds and he, the native Nazarene, would identify the main landmarks on the facing mountainside: St. Gabriel Monastery, the French orphanage, Saint Margaret Schooi, The Farah neighborhood, Nabi Sieen Mosque, El-Qashleh police headquarters, … etc. etc. And there is that gulch between Mount Precipice, Leaping Mountain to the locals, and the next mountaintop where one of the Sheikh’s brothers helped build a hotel in the pre-millennial tourism high hopes that fizzled out leading the owners to rent the facility to the government. It housed illegal immigrants, too many for the regular jail system. She remembers the first time Salah related to her the legend about the name Nazarenes use for their imposing mountain: Jesus, whose mother those bells celebrate every night, was chased up the hill by the Roman Legionnaires. He made it to the top and stood at the precipice but was surrounded on all sides. He simply jumped across the gulch to the next hilltop and escaped. Jamileh now is pleased and secretly modulates the sound of her chuckle under her breath to the tune of those bells still reverberating in her head: Perhaps that is the reason they now use the spot to house asylum seekers. Not only was Salah brilliant but so were his next of kin.

That Jesus must have been a superman like Sheikh Salah. Salah had brought her from Arrabeh, a village he and his citified fellow Nazarenes associated with door-to-door salesmen of virgin olive oil and sweet watermelons. True she didn’t work the fields like all her childhood friends did; she came from one of the few landed families that had local sharecroppers till its land. But in the subsistence farming existence of her childhood the difference was of little significance. No one in the village lorded it over others enough to escape the drudgery and the beauty she now remembers with tender nostalgia. They all lived close to the land eking a life directly from the earth. She and Fatimah, her older sister, had to collect greens from the fields, draw water from the rainwater cisterns at the edge of the village, gather firewood from the mountains and tend to all the household chores. They baked bread, cooked three meals a day, cleaned the yard and tended the little ones and the chicken and pigeon flocks. And there was her father’s prize apricot orchard and vegetable garden that occupied everyone’s cool afternoons. Except for the few rainy months when the red earth turned muddy, they hand tilled that land, weeded around the apples, the pears and the apricots and carried loads of composted natural fertilizer on their heads from the closest garbage dump to the receptive land. And, as if for leisure, they gathered the endless supply of stones that their land seemed constantly to expel from its entrails and carried them to the perimeter of the field for their father to practice his mortar-less wall-building skills clear around all four-acres. Yes, the Medan was always a fun chore especially in early summer when the whole village would come to pay tribute to its owners and to partake of their plentiful fresh produce. And there was that other backbreaking but happy occasion of the olive picking season. That always ending on the day the oil was brought home from the press with a msakhan feast that thinned out the flock of chickens and with a full container of Halva for desert.

Then Fatimah got married. After soldiering on for a dozen more years she lost her mother, a city girl from Akka who never adapted to rural life, to typhus. Jamileh, having experienced the tragic loss of two first-cousin fiancés, one after the other, redoubled her dedication to her diabetic father. Only after his death and her slide down from her prestigious role at his side did she consider marriage again. That was when Sheikh Salah Elafifi happened to ask for her hand in marriage. She accepted and he proved to be more than a worthy match, almost the equal of her late father, may Allah engulf both of them in his mercy. It must be easier for men to achieve greatness than it is for women. How else can she explain encountering so many exceptional men in her life who verged on godliness? And though she loves the Ave-Maria music still wringing in her ears, it was Jesus who performed miracles and jumped over mountaintops. She is now completely torn between her fond memories of her father and of her husband. And there is Jesus, peace be upon him.

True, Arrabeh’s door-to-door salesmen were not how Salah found about her. On the contrary, he was the one to journey north to her village to earn a living as a stonecutter molding his solid ware into a minaret for its very first mosque. That one was built on the foundations of a church. Was that another coincidence, she wondered? The two faiths always played an integral role in her life. Who knows if it didn’t all start as a Canaanite temple of sorts? Arrabeh, with the Middle East undercurrent tug of religious war and the likely secret infusion of Wahhabi oil money, has since flourished into a seven-mosque town. Its own homegrown imam takes credit for most of that. He once sought Jamileh’s hand in marriage, she now reminisces. And he wasn’t the only one. Her father was still alive and her dedication to him in his old age led her to refuse many attractive offers of marriage. But it turned out all for the best. God rewards all good deeds and He knew she accumulated enough credit with Him: Look how many adoring children, grandchildren and their children she inherited from Sheikh Salah, not to mention Anwar, her own flesh and blood who is there for her day and night, a good lawyer and a pillar of a respectable clan in the city.

Yes, the city, their son Anwar and the five children Sheikh Salah brought into the marriage from his former union with his late first cousin. That legacy was the crux of her new life after she turned the page on her rich past of forty years in Arrabeh. Jamileh never took anything for granted. Whatever challenge each new day brought she faced with courage and determination. That was one thing Arrabeh prepared her for; the principle if not the details. Forty years of challenges and surprises all of which she had excelled at negotiating. In the process she had raised and sustained a slew of siblings three of whom she had helped put through high school in the city. She had cared for a cantankerous diabetic father through thick and thin. And she had gone through two traumatic first-cousin engagements both ending in the death of her fiancé and all the filial tug of war to keep the memory of a young martyr alive. On her part, all she salvaged from those prearranged romances were two tiny squares from the cloth presents she had received on those festive occasions. She spent near fifty years of rewarding life in the city under the wing of Salah Elafifi, founder and self-made founder of The Peace Mosque of Nazareth. Then he too departed and she added a third tiny piece of fabric from his present to her on the occasion of their engagement to her secret collection. What more private place to treasure those three sentimental mementos than the drawer of her precious Singer hand-sawing machine, one of the few memorabilia that she still keeps from her village days.

It is strange how well she can still distinguish the sheen of each of those three tiny pieces of cloth despite her failing sight. Time has done little to blunt the visual or tactile impact of each of them on her senses. But with aging each of them has acquired its own unique individuality: Opening the tiny drawer she can distinguish them apart without looking at them. Each has its specific personality beyond color, touch and smell. There seems to be an ‘Ahmad El-Ali’ essence and distinguishing character that seeps into her body upon holding that one piece, the oldest of the three; it is imbued with its own special character; it floods her ninety-year-old body with that haughty and rebellious spirit of village youth. And the next one reeks of the majestic power and uprightness of the uniformed soldier named Mohammed Ibrahim. No it is not the color, not the touch nor the size. It is the basic quintessence of the tiny thing that screams with its individuality. How can she ever not tell those three pieces apart! True, the brightest is the one from Sheik Salah. And it is the only cloth with its own distinct scent and flavor. She swears she can still touch her late husband every time she opens that tiny drawer. And she hears his call for prayer from the Peace Mosque of Nazareth, the one he dreamt up, planned in his mind’s eye and sculpted with his own hands. True it was a process and a group effort. But her husband led that process. To her fading recollection he saw to every little step: from collecting donations, including from her and from Moslem and Christian friends and neighbors all the way to calling for prayer the first Friday the mosque hosted the noon prayer of the East Neighborhood of Nazareth. Abu-Othman, her husband, drew the architectural plans, dug the foundations, fitted every stone in its exact place and arranged the carpets and reed mattresses on the floor. He persisted till he purchased and distributing the sweets in celebration.

As one thing led to another Jamileh found herself not only the mother to a ready-made large family but also the hostess to the crowd of Moslem Sheikhs who flocked around her husband, their anointed leader in Nazareth. Overnight she, a village woman, became a central pillar of city society. Always at the ready to face a new challenge, she adopted and adapted herself to the new persona of city socialite, albeit the reserved and respectable Islamic brand of socializing, a sort of Inner Wheel to the organization of salaried Islamic mosque leaders, employees of the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs. Fortunately that involved no direct contact with the system for her, for she would probably have failed that test of Sumud. It took Salah’s smarts and social skills to navigate the twisted inroads of the system, catering to the spiritual needs of a community of Moslems from within the inimical reality of an anti-Islamic state hierarchy. Vying for a religious court judgeship the Sheikh lost to a competitor probably because of an initial handicap. He had fought back and continued cutting stones from his huge quarry when Israel confiscated it. It was included in the sweeping land grab Ben-Gurion orchestrated to balance the region’s demographics with the new Jewish-only city of Nazareth-Illit. This criminal topsy-turvy curl in the clash of civilizations that swept over Nazareth in the 1950s and the 1960s somehow landed the Sheikh on his two feet, a recognized community leader but at a relative disadvantage, what with his close association with the communist Nazarene firebrand and poet mayor, Toufiq Zayyad. But how was Jamileh to comprehend all of this regardless how often Anwar explained it. Yes, she can make out the neighborhood of Zayyad in the thickening dusk below her high perch, the nice home her husband built for her on this easterly ledge as Nazareth’s demographics exploded to press physically against the dividing perimeter from the Jewish new neighborhoods.  She can still hear Salah’s effusive welcomes and Zayyad’s roaring chuckles in response as he arrives with Ramez, his deputy, and the entourage of assistants and council members here to wish them well in their new residence. She should better go in. The Sheikh is sure to want her to prepare a festive meal for his guests.

It is a little confusing with no one around to ask about what she thinks she sees and hears while enjoying the Ave Maria bells. Anwar is at his office, Othman and his two sons are at their construction jobs, Samira is at the city rehab club and all three married daughters must be busy preparing the evening meal each for her own brood. What adds to the mystery of her mixed senses is their clarity: She has no doubt that she hears her husband’s call for the evening prayer wrapped within the echoes of those bells. He is dead and gone of course, but they must use some of his beautiful tape recordings. And there he is again receiving half a dozen priests in his guest room. They must have come to wish him well on the occasion of initiating the new Peace Mosque: It is pleasing to see him standing there with his snug white hat in the center of all their black ones. She thinks it is the right reflection of his central position in his community of Nazarenes. They are welcome to borrow the reverberations of his shrill voice to reinforce their beautiful metallic tunes at sunset and sunrise. In death as in life, the Christians are his friends and allies. And that is as it should be. She grew up with Christian friends: The Christians and the Kanaanehs shared the same neighborhood in Arrabeh. And her father always told her we all worship the same God even if we do it differently. She now sees how true that is: In fact she can’t distinguish the mosque on the facing mountainside from the couple of monasteries there. Is it her failing vision and the dimming evening lights? Or is it her father’s insights, her childhood friendships and her husband’s social position and practices enveloping her in a moment of grace? She wishes she could ferret things out. She is sure Anwar will tell her what the reality at the base of all this mix-up is. He always knows what is right for her.

Rest in peace Jamileh. We love you.


George Polley said...

A beautiful tribute, Hatim. Thank you for sharing it.

George Polley said...

A beautiful tribute, Hatim. Thank you for sharing it.