DevMode
It's Friday. Without opening my eyes I can see the layer of dust covering everything. Tile floor, wooden furniture, aluminum window frames. In this city where I ended up after Beirut, everything is coated with fine powder. You can smell dust suspended in the air of the room. You can smell lime dirt scattered along the roadside. You can feel a light ash settling on your skin, dry, rough, piling up layer by layer, a cocoon growing around your body with every new direction you take. Dust! Everywhere. At the office, at Suad's house, in the alleyways of Yarmuk Refugee Camp, in the city's gardens. The atmosphere is ashen, dusty, brown, beige, neutral. Has no hue. When I look up the sky is colorless. When I look down I find no sea. A wan desert full of weary citizens waiting in exhaustion for buses that never appear. Laden with bags of hard-won vegetables battled for in long lines at co-ops. Taking shelter in the shade of billboards that advertise consumer products guaranteed to please. If you use "Omo" detergent, you're sure to live happily ever after, and if you buy an "Icee" refrigerator, your family's joys will know no bounds. Overlooking all this is a soccer star with dark glasses and a hefty mustache, radiating health and leisure. Images, images. Everywhere, always. Almost always. On and on. The circle of sand closes in. Beirut flashes before my eyes to torment me again. The Mediterranean. They call it al-Abyad, the White Sea, when in fact it's blue. Yellow sand, a halo of green ringing the sea, an azure blue, turquoise, endless greenery. A rainbow of memories. So! Shall I pull myself together and go to Suad's house? And if I do, will we be stuck inside the walls of their cramped, rented quarters? Will we be forced to sit, as usual, in the anteroom separated from the owner's living room only by a pane of glass, so that our throats grow dry from whispering? And will the owner's wife impose herself on us as usual, complaining about food shortages while her children wriggle like worms underfoot? ...
No, I tell myself. I must get up and write. In spite of my aching eyes and bruised legs, battered from banging into the jumble of suitcases crowded between the bed and the wall. I haven't unpacked yet. I might as well keep everything zipped up and ready to go again. I only hope no emergency arises to make me leave with nothing, the way most Palestinians had to in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1970 and 1982. I blame our parents for not grasping the situation quickly enough to teach us the art of escape. They could have instructed us in the methods of lugging and hauling. How foolish they were to assume others would shoulder their cause, and neglect schooling us youngsters in the vital means of packing and carrying.
No, I tell myself. I'd better stay here and write a novel. I'll give it one of those rhyming names you find in classical literature, like The Complete Book of Facts for Those Who Never Unpack, or A Guide for Those Who Wander between Hither and Yonder. Or maybe I'll drown myself in poetry, since nobody else has managed to drown us and get rid of us yet. I wade through language in search of a homeland. Although when I lived in Jericho, I never knew it was a homeland. As my mother always said, health is like a crown on the heads of the healthy; only the ill can see it. After 1967, I wept for a homeland I had lived in without realizing.

And I, simple-minded child, girl, adolescent, believing and unbelieving, unable to do a thing but listen to bombs falling from the jets in Jericho's sky. I hid under the stairwell until the raid was over, then ran into the garden with the other children to collect the warning leaflets that had fallen from the planes like swarms of locusts:
"The IDF warns against resistance. You will see our revenge.
Put your hands up, raise a white flag over every house, and you will find clemency."
We raced to show the leaflets to our parents, making fun of the silly threats they contained. We couldn't understand why our parents' faces turned white when they saw them. Could they really be taking these threats (which so resembled their own threats to us) so seriously? Could these pirates of the air really subdue and discipline an entire population? It seemed the whole international community would make a mockery of anyone who resisted them and their phosphorus bombs which were to kill several of my classmates. When they called to us to leave, I was holding two cubes of Nablus soap. I hung on to them, to the soap made of virgin olive oil, to that fresh green smell. Those two chunks of soap had the security of home, the density of everyday life. Holding on to them, I thought for sure we'd be back the following day. Even when the bridges burned behind us and the enemy forbade us to return, I clung to that scent, entreating time not to become a grid of steel, not to slam shut on us like a prison. And so on, and so forth …. And now, as you see, I no longer have Jericho. I have no city, no street, no wall to lean against when I tire of waiting outside city gates. When I find nothing before me but dust in an apartment or office. Missing my grandfather's house in Wadi al-Tuffah, the Valley of Apples. Missing that town of oranges and greenery. With no neighborhood, no street, no home at Kitf ai-Wad, the Valley's Shoulder. With nowhere to go on Fridays.
With nothing.
With nothing.

Lucy the Armenian repeated the same phrase incessantly. An old woman in her seventies, she trembled when she spoke, and the woolen shawl she had crocheted herself trembled with her. Her face paled, and her teeth chattered as if in fright.
"Everything, Khabibi, Sweetheart," she explained in her broken Arabic. "We nothing. They massacred the Armenians."
I never quite understood. I would watch her for a while, then turn back to my toys. The best one was a monkey that slid up and down the pole of a well while waggling its tail. I pulled the string, and the monkey went up. I released it, and he slid back down. I entertained myself by watching this elegant mischief. Lucy would implore me to listen. When she persisted, I finally let the monkey slide smoothly to the bottom of the well. She took me by the hand and seated me on her lap, repeating the phrase I didn't understand, while everything about her quivered: the knot of her hair, the transparent, lizard-like skin of her fingers with the veins showing through, the navy blue dress she wore year round.
Whenever Lucy arrived, the festive smell of baking filled the house. The moment she entered the kitchen, she regained her youthful posture. Tying an apron about her waist, she would soon surround herself with heaps of treats, round and square, and the inevitable large raisin cake that was her specialty. My mother looked forward to Lucy's monthly visits because of these delicious treats, but Lucy seemed to look forward instead to addressing me the moment my parents went off to work and we were alone.
"Khabibi, they massacred the Armenians."
I tried everything. I brought her chocolates from the box of Black Magic my mother kept hidden away in a cupboard. Still she insisted. I spread out all my toys before her, stood on my head for minutes on end, crawled under the sofa, even though I had gotten stuck there several times. I touched my nose while dangling from the edge of the dining-room table, calling out for her approval, but she didn't care. Still she muttered the same phrase, trying to make me understand.
"Habibi" (finally she corrected her pronunciation), "We ... they massacred the Armenians."
The only Armenians I knew were in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. I had walked there hand in hand with my father, who had Christian friends in the Old City. There, at the top of the long staircases leading up from the gate we called Khan al-Zayt, Gate of the Oil Inn, under stone arches where bushes sprouted between the cracks, past doorways smelling of arak and aniseed, there were sausage sellers who talked the way Lucy did when she forgot my presence and mumbled to herself. Near the last gate in the wall of the Old City lived an Armenian dentist whom my father visited. I accompanied him, thrilled at the prospect of watching his teeth being treated, and the drill penetrating his molars. We traversed the entire neighborhood, my father and I, past homes and stairways, covered souks, souvenir shops taking advantage of Westerners enamored with camels and tents. We passed shops with ropes of tobacco hanging from the ceilings, leather tanners, pastry sellers whose wares sent off warm waves of tantalizing aromas, jars of dried chickpeas coated in sugar and rosewater. Wherever we went, the stone walls of the City encircled us with protection and blessing, until we finally arrived at that distant spot at the edge of the visible world: the dentist's clinic. He never began work before giving me a stick of chewing gum. I, in turn, began by stealing glances at his teeth as he spoke to my father. Were they different than his patients' teeth? When I had satisfied my curiosity, I turned to the dolls he made out of wax. Each was more beautiful than the other, with wide eyes, red lips, and gorgeous, colorful dresses. They seemed to have a joy of their own, and to multiply on their own, increasing with every visit we made, although I couldn't imagine how.
My teacher had told me that every doll had a living counterpart somewhere on earth. I wondered where these dolls' counterparts were, and most of all, who made their beautiful dresses. The dentist said that his sister embroidered them, but I had never seen his sister, who supposedly lived in an apartment adjacent to the clinic. I myself tended to think that some magical beings created them in secret, decorating them with butterflies and flower's, bunches of grapes, bright suns, and sheaves of wheat. Bright red, cinnamon, peach, rose, pink, scarlet, watermelon, sienna, crimson, burgundy. Turquoise, verdigris, navy, sky blue, lilac, purple, azure. Lemon yellow, saffron, maize, gold, yolk, ivory.
All of these colors shone before me like magical planets in the space of the room, making the dolls seem to jump and play, stroll about on the table and chatter together - in Armenian, even though their embroidered dresses were Palestinian.
And Lucy insisted on explaining, and still I didn't understand.

Who were these Armenians? If not the owners of the shops in the Christian Quarter, the dentist who made dolls out of wax, his invisible sister who embroidered the beautiful dresses, then who were they?
Could Lucy alone represent them all?
Her lonely figure quivered under the brown shawl. I looked to her eyes for explanation, and found two shrinking puddles of water, the dregs of a bottle slowly drying. Why was it so important to her to make me understand, me in particular? If it weren't for her sincere dedication to her message, and my deep sense of her love for me, I would have tormented her as I did other guests I found tiresome.
"Go home, God damn you!" I would say behind my mother's back. (She would never believe that her sweet little girl could utter such demonic phrases). But with Lucy I listened quietly as I built my magic kingdoms, constructed houses and tore down others, followed the monkey's escapades in and out of the well. Lucy never interfered with my games, didn't object if I addressed an imaginary giraffe, or pretended the illustration of a wolf lurking in the pages of a magazine was about to spring to life. She never scolded me, never reprimanded. All she asked was that I understand the difference between nothing and everything.
"Look, Khabibi, we lost everything. They massacred …"
Who was she talking about? How could people, people with faces and smiles and hands and mouths to eat Lucy's delicious sweets, how could they be massacred? I knew a wolf had swallowed Little Red Riding Hood, and a woodsman had had to rescue her with an axe. But real people?
No, it couldn't be.

An endless sequence of images races through my mind.
September 1971. A seventeen-year-old in military uniform falling off a wall. He cradles his intestines in his hands, trying to keep them from spilling to the ground. His companions come running with a ladder for a makeshift stretcher.
Then the first aid center at Jabal ai-Hussein in Amman. Flies swarm around the pile of swollen black corpses.
Shatila refugee camp, Lebanon. Umm Ahmad, a full-figured woman with a traditional white peasant headdress, owner of the biggest coffee pot in the neighborhood. She was illiterate, and made fun of us for trying to teach her reading and writing.
"You're trying to teach old dogs new tricks," she'd remind me.
"Dear, sweet Umm Ahmad," I'd plead. ''You're not old yet. All your children are in school now, God bless them, and there's no harm in your learning a little yourself."
"What for?" She'd ask. "So I can read the news? All the news in the world comes right to my doorstep, and it hasn't gotten me back to my home in Palestine yet."
Sometimes she showed up at the literacy class, and sometimes she didn't.
She'd bring a bowl of green beans to string, or a pot of squash with a metal corer, to prepare for stuffing with rice and meat. She came for my sake, so I wouldn't take offence. And she made sure her children brought tea or coffee to every class. "Between you and me, sister, nothing's changed. It's the same old world. We're stuck in the same old camp. Big words don't mean a thing."
On the first day of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Umm Ahmad fled with her children from Shatila to Sabra, where they took refuge in a relative's house. Two days passed. The swarm of children crowded into the house were crying with hunger. On the third day she simply picked herself up and went back to her home in Shatila for some flour. At the doorstep of her house they slit her neck clean across.
I still remember her beaded headdress. The way she would bring a pot and sponge to her doorstep and stood there to do the dishes. The gold tooth that gleamed when she laughed. The condescending smile she reserved for me, because I was naive enough to believe that reading and writing could change our lot. Every time I think of her, I wonder if things could have been otherwise. "There's no hope for us outside our country," she used to say. "No hope at all."
No! I scream covering my eyes. That's enough! I bound out of bed, gasping for air. I try to shake my head clear of the memory, push it away with my fists. In a moment I am calmer. I must channel my thoughts in a different direction. How to coexist with memory if you can't forget. To forget or not to forget. I reach for pen and paper, trying to focus my thoughts, to get to the vague thing we call truth. It's a little like a folk remedy: A sprinkle of marjoram, a dash of ginger, a pinch of cinnamon and a little bit of memory. It was 1967 when my father, sweat dripping from his temples and the rim of his glasses, came home and said there were no weapons, and the Zionists were about to enter the town and make an example of us all - the girls in particular! He said he would take us across the bridge, get us to Amman and return. "But you said we were staying," I nagged. "You said we would stay even if they brought the roof down over our heads." He was too busy with the refugees to hear me. A flood of people from the three camps around Jericho, fleeing with their baskets and mattresses and belongings! He was busy tending to the wounded. Several days later, when they had all gone and the town was deserted, we left. Because a friend of his frightened him, asking, "What will happen to the girls?" He made him feel responsible, until my father finally said, "I'll take you to the East Bank, and come back."
"And us girls," I asked, "when do we get to come back?"
There was no answer. With a vague premonition, I snatched up my mother's picture (although I was to lose it during the many emigrations yet to come). Then I went to the kitchen and climbed the ladder to the attic, where I picked out two pieces of Nablus soap, made of pure olive oil. I don't know why I took them. Was it to remind me of the oil, or of the salt, or of Jericho's Dead Sea and the oils and salts that float on its surface? I don't know, because memory is like a story about doomed lovers that you watch on screen, knowing the ending already.

Chapter One from The Stars over Jericho, translated by s. V. Atalla. Printed by permission of the author.

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