Imagine, then, a British soldier plummeting from the roof high above the third floor down into our courtyard, landing in a puddle of water from the early-December rain. The water splashes on the gas mask over the face of a boy playing by the puddle and blurs his vision. But first imagine a shot, just a single round from among the hundreds that had begun with the gray dawn, whose trajectories crisscrossed the skies of Haifa, in the warp and woof of the war between Jews and Arabs. Then imagine this one bullet hitting the soldier standing watch on the roof. He falls, and behind him the sharp spire of St. John's Church rises toward the brightening sky. The boy, who is about seven, freezes to the spot where the thud has caught him trying to frighten a neighbor's daughter with the gas mask he has bought from a peddler of military equipment. Now imagine the long second that passes between the thud and the scream: the silence that falls on the courtyard and is cast over the body, and then is lifted by the scream, which hangs in the air until the silence wraps itself again around the still body.
After the fashion of a villager who no longer takes any notice of the gunpowder lurking in the air, Father had come to Haifa a few months before, in the summer of 1947. It was just when the end of the British Mandate began to appear on the horizon, and with it the possibility of prosperity, because Fassuta was already becoming a depot for smuggling from both sides of the Lebanese border. To Father's credit, he was never tempted to participate in the smuggling operations run by my uncle Yusef ¬who was moving tobacco, arak, and other, even more elevating goods from the north to the south - even though these operations were handsomely remunerated. He was not by nature a sharp man of business. He was an artist at walking the tightrope between wealth and poverty, between safety and danger, and if in times of crisis he might skirt the edge of catastrophe, he somehow managed to lead the family to a safe haven.
I think about the two of them: the one brother a man of the soil who knew by heart both volumes of the chronicles of the Hlal tribe, the volume of the homeland and the volume of the wanderings, and who in his soul yearned to be a folk poet like Uncle Mikha'eel, whom he might even have exceeded in talent; the other brother a craftsman so exacting that every pair of shoes he made continued to walk even after their owner died, as my uncle Yusef used to say, and who never acted without forethought and calculation, though in his large endeavors he always came out middling, neither at the top nor at the bottom, and whose life's work lay at the two poles of the body, the head and the feet. But when I think about the two of them now, I realize that the real man of the earth was my father, and that my uncle was a prisoner of the enchantments of the air, fire and water of the world,
Be all that as it may, in the summer of 1947 my father took his savings, one hundred Palestinian pounds, and invested most of them in a year's lease of a house on St. John Street in Haifa, in the very heart of the neighborhood that in only a few weeks would become one of the strategic areas in the fight for the city. The villager cobbler's dream was to own a shoemaking shop in Haifa. But his dream proved to be like an honored guest at a village wedding, who makes his entrance just when the hosts are pressing their guests to take second and third helpings of all the delicacies that the women of the house and the neighboring women and the related wives and daughters and daughters-in-law have prepared late into the previous night. And now the honored guest takes his place at the head of one of the tables in the full knowledge of his own importance, and he waits for a skewer of the succulent liver of the fatted calf that had been slaughtered ... only to find that the cooking pots have already been emptied and their bottoms scraped for the last morsels, and the cooking fires have died out.
Uncle Yusef tried to persuade my father that the future is in the hand of an afreet, a quick and mischievous djinni, and that there is no telling what will happen when the country is seething and quaking. But the sharp-eyed can see the sparks spraying out of the air vent of the masharra, the apparatus for making charcoal, and knows that fire has seized hold of the insulated wood within, and that this batch will yield nothing but ashes. My uncle Yusef's images were like that, and my father, who did not like the meandering arabesques, replied with the proverb "Every man has his own Laylah." Whereupon Uncle Yusef drew himself up to his full height and said, "You go first to see what the situation is and then bring your family." My mother's nod of agreement left my father only one course of action.
But my uncle couldn't tell that my father would bet his shirt and lose it on the State of Israel. For when the fall of 1947 came, it was with storms of bullets. By then he had already bought and set up his shoemaking machines in the cellar of the house, acquired a pile of lasts and even found a stitcher. The first clients came to inspect the quality of his work and to ask about prices, and inquisitive neighbors expressed amazement at the daring of the enterprise at such a time. All of which made my father all the more sure of his venture. But then the sparks my uncle had already noticed began to bum holes in the fabric of the dream. And on that one gray December day everything collapsed and fell apart with a great thud, and my father stood there by the body with his hammer still in his hand and thought that this was not how he had imagined his dream might come crashing down.
The soldier was lying on his back with his eyes open. One arm was flung over his head and the other protected his chest in a sort of belated embrace. Blood seeped from the comer of his mouth and dyed the muddy water with the crimson of ancient palaces and glowing hearths and velvet armchairs. My brother Jubran, the boy in the mask, drew close to Father and did not take off the mask, as if it were the last line of defense between himself and the dead soldier, and the neighbor's daughter ran for her life to her mother, because she didn't know what else these villagers had up their sleeves for her. Father looked at the hammer in his hand. Someone could come into the courtyard, take in the scene and ask the wrong questions. So he hurried to put away the hammer before he called the police.
That was at the beginning of December. And like the dreamer who is shaken awake and tries to close his eyes again to return to the chambers of illusion, my father closed his eyes and soothed my mother, saying these were but transient episodes, and the skies would clear soon, and the battle would be decided for one side or the other, though of the other side he knew nothing. The next morning he began to prepare a hiding place in the house, just in case. It was a dark little room, a forgotten pantry of sorts, the doorless entrance to which was easy to conceal behind the kitchen cupboard, and like everything else in the world, it waited for its hour of glory, which was soon to come.
In January the feeling took hold that what could not be settled by shooting could be settled by car bombs; what would not be settled by "concerts," as the shooting was called in the suburbs, could be settled by the solo performance of shock waves in the air. Those were the days my father regretted he was a cobbler and not a glazier, though in his heart he already knew that he had to pick up whatever pieces he could and go back to the village.
One evening in January, Uncle Yusef came to stay with us, he and Khaleel, Uncle Mikha'eel's son, after having transported one of their cargoes to Nazareth. They were still sitting around the sparse supper table when all the windows flew open with a whoosh and the walls trembled.
"I am your eldest brother," said Uncle Yusef to my father, "and tomorrow I'm taking your family back to the village, and you can pursue your crazy dreams all by yourself." Father looked at him and said nothing.
In the morning they all set out, except Father, on the long and devious journey to the railroad station at Faisal's Column in the lower city. Whatever they could carry they took along with them. On the way they stayed close to the walls and went by way of every little side alley they encountered. In her heart my mother offered up a prayer of thanks to the Virgin for granting her the wisdom to oppose my father's wish to bring to the new house the mirrored wardrobe and the wooden bed and all the rest of the furnishings from the jihaz that had been brought on the backs of two camels from Rmeish to the village eight years before. She thought of the long journey she might have to make back to Lebanon, and about the embarrassing moment at the end of it when her brother Elias would stand at the entrance to his home in Beirut and accept her and her children and her husband, and what remained of their worldly goods. What would he think of his sister who had been sent as a bride to a Galilean village with wide-brimmed and colorful chapeaux in her suitcases and now had come back as a refugee, bare of head and despondent of soul? Thinking of their small private tragedy, she wondered if she had turned off the fire under the pot before they left, and if my father would remember to put out the kerosene stove.
It had begun to rain again when Jubran noticed the man in the gas mask who stood at the end of the alley. He stood with his legs apart, like someone who knew exactly what he was doing, his hands in the pockets of his British jodhpurs, indifferent to the rain falling on his head and on the gas mask covering his face.
"It's the English soldier that fell into our courtyard," said Jubran. Uncle Yusef told him to keep quiet. And they, too, stood there in the rain. Behind them stretched Allenby Street, crisscrossed now with bullets and the sounds of explosions, and before them stood the man in his gas mask.
"Since we're getting soaked," said Mother, "let's get going."
They went forward a few steps. The man stood still. The end of the alley behind them was filled with smoke.
"He has a gun in his pocket," said Khaleel, and suggested to my uncle that he give the man the money they had gotten in Nazareth instead of bringing it to the connection in Rmeish. My uncle pulled the packet of money out of his pocket and held it out in front of the eyes that he had to assume were behind the gas mask. Still the man wouldn't budge. It became clear that he wanted everything they had. My uncle stuffed the bank notes into the pockets of the mysterious man, and then he set down beside him the suitcase and the bundles of clothes.
"Khawaja, we are not from here," said Khaleel to him in Arabic. "We are simple villagers, and this is not our war."
Later, in the crowded train that was taking them to Akka, Khaleel broke into a burst of relieved laughter. The people in the crowded compartment had broken the spell of the nightmare. My uncle boiled with rage at him and at all the nations of the earth and particularly at the fact that in a moment of weakness he had taken Khaleel's advice, he whom the whole village came to for advice.
"Well," said my mother, "let's hope that Hanna hasn't scorched the pot."
My uncle shook his head and said, "When the camel's gone, don't cry over the reins." And after that they didn't say a word the whole way back to the village.
But the pot, as it happened, did get scorched.
The next day my father went to his Armenian stitcher, to ask his advice.
The latter offered him two hundred uppers in return for his machines. Heavy iron in exchange for light portable leather. "I don't belong to your war," said the stitcher," so I don't need to wander all over the place and be light of foot. But you have to be ready and alert all the time, prepared to set out on your way the moment anything bad happens. For it is your destiny to be a refugee, you must always be prepared to accept it. So put your home into a suitcase, and your trust in your feet, as a cobbler should."
For a man to be able to walk a long way he needs a sturdy sole sewn correctly to the upper of his shoe. Though my father was not to attain full refugeehood, ever since then he took care that every pair of shoes that came out of his workshop would serve its owner for many long years of walking, in rain and in heat, over stones and through mud, in their going forth and their coming hither, for if the decree of wandering passed over you the first time, no one will swear to you, upon the head of your little daughter Catherine, that it will the second time.
For three weeks he turned the exchange over and over in his mind, until he came to a decision. Then for two whole months he shut himself into the house and devoted himself body and soul to the creation of his life's masterpiece. In his mind's eye he saw the Idea of the Shoe, the all-purpose universal shoe, the shoe for attending receptions in the homes of the Khayat and Khoury and Karaman families, and for trudging to the last of the tents in the most godforsaken refugee camp in the world.
During the day he would sleep a troubled sleep, and at night he would sit down to the tools he had brought with him from the village. After dipping them in high-grade gasoline, he would wipe and polish them until they gleamed in the lantern light in the forgotten pantry. He handled them like ancient ritual objects as he prepared them for the task that he had taken upon himself. Then he sat down at his table, and with his thick carpenter's pencil he made plans and specifications for the Shoe - how it would look and of what materials it would be made and what uppers and what soles and what color and what laces, Then he would erase and go back and redraw every detail from all its angles. When finally he visualized the perfect pair of shoes standing before him on the table, he set to work on the execution of the plan. He selected the best leathers, the best threads and the best soles he could get his hands on. Apart from hasty trips into the smoky streets to buy a bit of food, he remained in the forgotten pantry. Each evening he would move aside the cupboard that covered its entrance and go into his dusky kingdom, and the cupboard, as if in response to some unheard command of "Close, Sesame!" would return to its place and seal the door behind him.
One morning he ventured out of his enchanted cave and found that the door of the house had been broken in during the night and several items had disappeared. But he did not grieve over the loss or permit himself to worry about the rest of his possessions. From that morning on he no longer shut the front door at all, and he allowed the winter winds to overturn and rifle through the few things that remained in the apartment.
In the middle of April, as he later realized, the work was finally done. The djinnis came and sat around his table and examined the pair of shoes from every angle, as their gleaming white beards brushed gently against the leather of the uppers, and the uppers shone in the light of creation. Their ivory fingers caress the two soles and the soles tap on the wooden table like the hoof beats of the hind let loose. And in the same way the djinnis had appeared in a burst of light, they also vanished in a burst of light. As his eyes became accustomed to the dimness of the quaking lantern, he saw a flash on the other side of the cupboard, but by the time he had pushed the cupboard aside and stepped out into the kitchen, the light had faded as it had never been. He collapsed onto the last stool that remained in the apartment and leaned his back against the wall the rest of the night. At dawn he saw a splendid crimson feather in the first light on the windowsill.
He was shaken awake by an uproar in the courtyard. He rushed into the pantry, still in the grip of his dream, and pulled the cupboard closed behind him. He heard footsteps, and from the depths of his weariness his practiced ears managed to distinguish three different pairs of shoes.
The owners of the shoes spoke Hebrew, a language my father did not understand, and he strained his ear to interpret their tone and cadence. Soon they went on their way, and the house fell back into its silence, into the sounds of distant explosions. Father emerged from his hiding place. And the feather that in his dream was on the windowsill had vanished.
That was on the morning of Friday, April 23, 1948. Haifa had already fallen. My father put the shoes in a burlap sack and set out on his way. In the port a boat was taking on some of the fleeing Arabs who would come to be known as Palestinian refugees in the course of time and their wanderings. When my father heard that the boat was heading for Akka, he climbed aboard and squeezed in among them, because from Akka he could get to the village. A man who was standing next to him asked him if the burlap sack was all he was planning to take along on the journey. My father stuck his hand into the sack and pulled out the pair of shoes, as if he were pulling a djinni out of a sealed bottle. The man stared at them, enchanted. "I'll give you everything I have in exchange for them," he said, and pulled out a dank wad of bank notes and stuffed them into the pockets of my astonished father. Then he opened his own burlap sack and took the shoes from Father's hands and slipped them inside. A dull thud was heard.
"What did he have in his sack?" Uncle Yusef was to ask him. "Why didn't you look to see whether he had a gas mask?"

A chapter from the novel Arabesques. Translated from the Hebrew by Vivian Eden. Published by Penguin Books, London, 1990. Reprinted by permission <