This story appears in Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman.
Red wool, and falsely brightened, since
we need the help.
A child because
the chambers of the heart will hold so
—Still Life, Linda Gregerson
There was once.
A little girl named Lala lived with her mother in a place named Gaza, and all who knew her loved her, most of all her Uncle Hashem, who gave her a red coat and called her Little Red Riding Hood, after a story he’d read once, many years before, in America. In that story the girl was foolish and was devoured by a terrible wolf, but Uncle Hashem knew Lala was clever and would never betray herself to a wolf. Also their lives were not fairy tales—tempting as it was to imagine a clever woodsman bestowing, before the bitter end, the end to their sufferings—and it was more likely that Lala would be killed by fire flying out from the darkness of night than an anthropomorphized wolf, an otherwise peaceful creature made ugly by man’s imagination. He told her the story as a cautionary tale, saying, “I know your actions will demonstrate the strength of your mind, not the foolishness of your heart.” He believed he was imparting a special kind of wisdom to her, hopeful that she’d be able to pass it on some day, in some fashion, to the next generation. Maybe.
Lala wore the red coat with pride and was admired by the other little girls and could be seen, a great vibrant redness against the dull brown sand of the refugee camp, from kilometers away in many directions, but not too many kilometers lest one be touched by the blue of the sea or the barbed wire of an old armistice line. In this way, Lala and the little red coat became inseparable from one another and one couldn’t imagine Lala without also imagining the little red coat.
Uncle Hashem did not live near the camp like Lala. It was a matter of pride. When he returned from America, he took his wife and their newborn out of the house Lala and her mother and father lived in, and moved into an old seaside villa. He was an American educated doctor and his home would have a view of the sea. A view of the sea was a view of all that Gaza wasn’t, even if the view was from the top of a crumbling building that had survived, inexplicably, the last war no one had heard of and which even he was beginning to forget, as a man might forget the circumstances of his birth or the fact of his impending death. Never mind, it was a luxury to live in such a mindset, and he wouldn’t give this up, not even for Gaza. On the first floor he had a medical practice where he would see patients complaining from any number of illness that were all really something else. For example, extreme boredom presenting itself as a terminal and most definitely fatal chest pains by one hysterical Umm Hamdi Hamoodi, or an utter lack of interest in mathematics masquerading as a developmental delay in a boy of fourteen named Hamdi Hamoodi, or depression cloaked as a stubborn insistence on revisiting certain events of the past and asking why over and over again by one Ms. Jamilah Hussein, widow of Mr. Hussein Hussein, who perished heroically in a firefight in the last war no one had heard of and which Jamilah could not forget. In all their charts he wrote, “Diagnosis: Gaza. Patient suffers from Gaza.” Once Uncle Hashem wrote Umm Hamdi a prescription which read, “Leave Gaza, get a life” and she laughed, a great big sound coming from the cavernous mouth of the forty-seventh most anxious woman in Gaza.
“Dr. Juda. This is my homeland. It’s yours too.”
“Learn to swim Umm Hamdi. There is a sea here at your disposal. Please, it will do your heart some good and my time can be spent watching LBC in peace.”
“I’d be better off learning how to dig, Doctor.”
At that very moment the TV screened flashed with the start of a game show. All of the game shows on LBC featured beautiful women, as did all of the other shows on the LBC, the news, for example, and the dramas, and the comedies. Watching LBC gave one the distinct impression that all the women in Lebanon were voluptuous brunettes with silken skin so white it glowed and perfect little noses and great moons for breasts and voices a surgeon’s knife never touched. Uncle Hashem could fall asleep listening to them, or thinking of them, or wondering if an army of them might charm the world into mundane quietude.
“I’ll see you next week.” Umm Hamdi walked out slowly, as if there was no better place to be in the world but inside the office of an irritable middle-aged man who may have been diagnosed with any number of illness associated with a diet just less than the 2,279 calorie intake recommended by the World Health Organization and a broken heart. The lights flickered on and off and on again but the TV screen remained dark and the LBC girls were gone, for now, at least.
Uncle Hashem suffered his patients all morning and again, after lunch, all afternoon, until Lala appeared at his door and said, “Mama says it is dinner time.” And he took off his white doctor’s coat and put on a light jacket and walked through the narrow streets with Lala’s and imagined he was her father, and his own daughter wasn’t dead, and that she was his daughter, and her own father wasn’t dead and that they were on an early evening stroll as banal and unremarkable as a cypress tree.
“Uncle Hashem, why did you come back from America?”
“This is my home. I was only in America to study. I had to come back.” What he meant to say was he’d already had a child and the child was waiting and the mother couldn’t leave, and after all, this was home like a millstone around his neck, and he missed the bread his wife made and his mother’s coffee on Friday mornings. He should have stayed on in that small town in Georgia, where he was mistaken for black, when he was mistaken for anything, and it was better to be black in America than an Arab man with a dead wife and a dead child in the pene-exclave of Gaza, but that wasn’t something he wanted to tell Lala. He was home and apart from himself, he was alive and as good as dead. But he didn’t say any of these things. They were all disjoined and confused in his head. Sometimes he didn’t believe himself. Why had he come back? Why had he left? Why did he exist at all and as a Gazan, which seemed a particularly difficult burden to bear once one had borne exile—even a very temporary one. Don’t leave Gaza is what he should have said to Lala, I shouldn’t have left myself. It is better to know only Gaza or if you leave, to hold the fading memory in your heart like a stone, rather than come back.
“Hamid of Ramallah says if he could go to America and study like you did he would never come back here. He says Gaza is a bad place and that no one who has brains enough to leave, should stay, let alone come back. Is that true?”
“Look,” he wanted to tell Lala, “There isn’t a truth more noble than the fact of our existence. Even the Israelites who dared to leave two centuries ago came back singing their birthright songs. No one who leaves can stay away and no one who returns can forget where they have been. Lala, we are the Israelites who stayed behind. We stayed with this land too long. We became Christians. We became Muslims. We became fools over and again. We died so that we could live in the next world with those who had died before. That is the truth as I know it. The dust and the sea and the old armistice line like three wise men hunting the brightest star that someone turned off long ago. A dream you can feel but can’t remember. A divine message in analog when all that we can hear now is digital. Land of milk and honey and horseshit. Land of Dr. Hashem Juda’s despair. Land of songs and solitude, madness and repentance.” He might has well have added, “There was once, in an anemic strip of land along a very blue sea, a man who prayed for dust and two thousand years later, a long blink in the eye of the God of Bonbons, dust rained and bloomed and shimmied like slow motion angels down upon the villages of Gaza and buried those who stayed and those who loved the dust returned to claim what they took to be promised to them alone.”
But he didn’t because she was a child, and she was new in the world, and it was already too much for her—for any child—to be born with the burden of a disappeared nation, let alone hear the affected musings of a man who’d lost everything and nothing over and over again. In time, she would learn about the terrible dilemma of citizenship to a land no one recognizes, and what it meant or didn’t mean to belong to a place trapped in the gap between oblivion and annihilation, and of the desires of a free people to be free.
Instead, he squeezed her hand and said, in a fatherly way, “He is correct and incorrect, Lala. Gaza is our home and so we are drawn here, no matter how far away we travel. And while it may be inhospitable to our dreams at times and make us terribly sick, we can not deny that it is a part of us, and that it shapes us, and that we are damned to long for it, and some of us, damned to return.”
He stopped walking and turned to look Lala in the eyes, “Do you understand, Lala?”
Her eyes filled him with a strange mixture of hope and sadness. “Suffer but weep not,” he wanted to say now. “Uncle, do you think the grocery store will have ice cream bars today?”
On certain Thursday afternoons it was possible that the small grocery store on the far side of the camp would have a special and limited collection of ice cream bars smuggled into Gaza by Hamid of Ramallah. Hamid of Ramallah could get ice cream bars, Dove brand soap, Camel Light cigarettes, generic ibuprofen, lentils, tomato paste, soccer balls, tampons, condoms, and keyboard pianos. If someone wanted chocolate, say to give to someone they liked, sometimes Hamid of Ramallah could bring a Dairy Milk chocolate bar hidden in the leg of his pants the next time he crossed Eretz. But his specialty was ice cream bars and no one knew how he managed to keep them cold but he did and he was the most beloved smuggler of goods among children and adults alike, even though he was from Ramallah and a refugee, as opposed to a native of Gaza, which is different. A native wasn’t displaced the way a refugee was displaced. A native was imposed upon, forced to share, given over to giving into the open maw of the need of the refugee. Such was the burden of the natives of Gaza, including Uncle Hashem and his lot.
The grocery shop owner was a native, of course, and Hamid of Ramallah was his friend, even if he was also a refugee. And so it was no surprise to find both of them inside the shop on Thursday afternoon and for both of them to smile when they saw Uncle Hashem and a red coat with his little Lala inside.
“Peace be upon you,” they each said in turn and shook hands and kissed each other’s cheeks.
“Lala dear, I have a package of pink bubblegum just for you!” said the shop owner.
“I was hoping for an ice cream bar today. Hamid of Ramallah, did you bring any?”
Hamid of Ramallah looked at Uncle Hashem, then sighed and turned to look woefully at the shop owner, who shrugged.
“My dearest, I was not able to bring ice cream on this trip but I promise to try the next time I come.”
“But you said next week last week, Hamid of Ramallah.”
“Lala, don’t be rude. It isn’t easy to bring such things. Why don’t you try the gum?” Uncle Hashem squeezed her hand gently.
“Thank you for the gum.” Lala said and placed it in the pocket of her little red coat.
“Gentlemen, I trust you and your families are well?”
“Thank God. We are well in our house. But Hamid of Ramallah is in trouble; tell him, brother.”
Hamid of Ramallah hesitated. “No, it isn’t the time, not now.”
“Lala, wait for me outside dear.”
“No Uncle, I want to hear what is wrong with Hamid of Ramallah.”
“Yes, but some business is only between a man and his doctor, Lala.”
“Then why does he get to stay?” said Lala and pointed to the shop owner.
“Come on then Lala, I’ll wait outside with you.” The shop owner took her hand and they walked out and stood in the street.
“Hamid, tell me. What is it?”
“Umm Hamdi’s daughter is pregnant.”
“Does your mother know?”
“No, of course not. Umm Hamdi doesn’t know either.”
“No one has told you this yet, so I will, you are an idiot.” Uncle Hashem slapped Hamid of Ramallah on the back of his head.
“I don’t know what to do. She’ll be ruined if anyone finds out. She’s meant to go to university in Egypt next year. This will ruin it for her.”
“How far along?”
“There is a medicine you can obtain that will help her avoid this embarrassment. It is available in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.”
“My next trip is in three weeks.”
“That is too much time wasted. Go sooner, if you can, while this is a problem that can be fixed.”
“Brother, these things are out of my hands. The borders are closed.”
“You might have considered that before you got yourself and a nice girl in trouble.”
When they left the shop Lala asked her Uncle what was the problem with Hamid of Ramallah but Uncle Hashem was silent.
In the small house at the far other side of the camp Lala helped her mother, Tamara, turn a pot filled with thin chicken and rice upside down onto a silver tray.
“Voila,” Tamara said and smiled at Uncle Hashem.
“Tamara, this looks wonderful as usual. You are a magician of culinary magnificence. You are, dare I say, the best cook in Gaza.”
“You, brother, are the best liar in Gaza.”
The evening passed in this way as it always did; polite conversation, dishes washed and dried, coffee, and maybe after Lala went to bed, Tamara would have a cigarette with Uncle Hashem and they would speak in voices so low Lala couldn’t hear, but sometimes she could discern the soft crying of her mother and the warm voice of her Uncle saying it would be alright, all suffering has an end.
Occasionally, the lights went out or the curfew began early and Uncle Hashem would sleep on the couch in the living room. Lala liked those nights the best because she didn’t worry about Uncle Hashem all alone by the seaside in his office. On such nights Lala slept deeply, without dreaming of ice cream or wondering what heaven was like and whether Aunt Sara, her father and Tala kept each other company while they waited for Tamara, and Uncle Hashem and Lala. On such nights it was silence and velvet darkness; the kind that didn’t come screaming so very alive.
“You could sleep here every night,” Lala said as Uncle Hashem tucked her in.
“Good night Lala.”
Uncle Hashem didn’t need to worry about waking up in time to open his office the next morning when he stayed with Tamara and Lala. Lala was always dressed and beside him before dawn.
“Uncle, I’ll walk with you to your office. Mama says I can if I promise to come back right away without any stops.”
In the early morning sunshine the streets were still quiet, still recovering from the deep silence of night, slowly emerging but still endowed with a fine coating of honey colored dust. A million little motes captive in the long tendrils of sunshine. The shop windows, the street sweepers, the carts pulled by donkeys from an era before, the era they lived in perpetually, were all still faint suggestions of themselves. Uncle Hashem gritted his teeth.
There was once.
Mornings with coffee in a prosaic student apartment. In his student days in that small town in Georgia—where everything shined clean and new, even if it was old, and everything smelled of soap and hopefulness, because the world was very so completely open—one didn’t need a view of the sea to feel a moment of escape from endless dust, one didn’t feel continually submerged and emerging from some invulnerable menace. One was simply of the world, nature didn’t have a second meaning; trees grew because they could, boys and girls laughed without complications, and if there was a window you could open it. And it didn’t have to end until someone said, “tell me again how to say your name?”
“Lala, I had a very dear friend in Georgia and he was a Palestinian like us, but he’d been born in America, and couldn’t ever come back here.”
“How was he a Palestinian like us if he wasn’t born here?”
“His parents were born here but then left.”
“They didn’t come back?”
“And so he also couldn’t come back? Because they didn’t?”
“His friends and everything he’d ever known was in America, even if he constantly spoke of being Palestinian. If he came here, if he could, he would miss America the way we would miss Gaza.”
“I bet he has all the ice cream he wants whenever he wants.”
“For you, everything is measured in ice cream.”
After they arrived at the office, Uncle Hashem watched as the image of Lala’s red coat got dimmer and dimmer until his eyes couldn’t discern her anymore. When he opened his office there was barely a moment before his patients began to arrive, his patients who oppressed him with their millions of unnamable anxieties all morning and all afternoon and into the evening and beyond, for weeks, until one singular explosion stopped all their whining and half the sky collapsed upon them. Don’t believe what scientists say about the nature of time. Time stopped long enough after the explosion for Uncle Hashem to say, “wait.”
There was once.
He emerged thinking only of Tamara and Lala alone across the city and made his way toward them even as the buildings shook and smoke billowed up like so many dancing jinns all around him. Every so often he was confused by the thought that perhaps this was a dream from which he wouldn’t wake up and that he was at college again, making friends with Palestinians who’d never seen Palestine, eating ice cream in an ice cream shop with a gaggle of young people who couldn’t decide between a movie or dancing, or that maybe he’d had too much to drink and at any moment he’d be woken up by an alarm or maybe he was dead, finally, and somehow that was the most comforting of all of his thoughts; to go to sleep and to die in a dream and to find perhaps the better life you prayed for, the better life you deserved but for the skin you were born into, the better life served up without strings attached like so much water in a land of thirst. But then the buildings stilled for a moment long enough for Uncle Hashem to continue his way toward the small house on the far other side of the dust filled camp, to find the last two people to whom he belonged.
In every war the land is remade and reshaped to suit the desires of the conquerors. There was once. A house built on the edge of what became a refugee camp. A girl who might have been Little Red Riding Hood in a fairy tale about the darkness of the woods and the evil lurking there. Once there was and now there wasn’t. The building where Tamara and Lala lived was gone, a faint column of smoke remained there as a reminder perhaps or it too was confused and lingering like Uncle Hashem. Here is the place where the table was set for dinner and there was the windowsill where we sat and spoke of what had passed. That was where I took your hand and said, “don’t cry Tamara,” and lied through my crooked teeth, “you will see him again,” because the truth didn’t matter to me as much as your comfort and I couldn’t think of how else to mend your broken heart but to lie about an afterlife where your dead husband would be waiting. And there was the narrow bed where Lala, your only living child, was tucked in and told to dream of pretty things, so that she wouldn’t wake up screaming, a scream like a woman’s scream, not a child’s scream. A scream that lived into the morning and the afternoon and the evening because what else was there here, but a million orphans screaming and waiting for the day they could sleep and dream of nothing. The house was gone. Tamara and Lala were gone. If anything remained it was the suggestion of a red coat, somewhere among the rubble.
“Uncle Hashem, why are you kneeling in the sand like that?” Lala said. She must have been standing behind him for some time with her mother, regarding Uncle Hashem on his knees with handfuls of sand, crying out.
“You were gone.”
“No,” Tamara said. There was nothing to betray fear or even relief in her voice. Her voice was her voice.
“She went to the grocery store after school and when I found her she was eating ice cream with Hamid of Ramallah.” And then after a breath she touched Lala’s hair and said, “Thanks to her the house didn’t collapse on top of us. We are still alive. Still here.”
Whether Tamara had uttered a statement of fact or a question regarding the nature of existence Uncle Hashem didn’t know at that moment. Years later, beneath a hasty pile of twisted metal and concrete, he would say the same thing to no one in particular and an inch of sky.
“Hamid of Ramallah brought me strawberry vanilla crunch and vanilla chocolate swirl. And he said his problem was fixed but he still wouldn’t tell me what it was, but I think he left Gaza and realized he missed Gaza and so he came back, not just to bring ice cream and cigarettes and gum, but because he wanted to, because his heart wanted to be here.”
“Lala, where is your coat?” Uncle Hashem asked.
There was once. Once, there wasn’t.
Kafah Bachari is a short story writer, poet, and aspiring novelist. She lives in Houston Texas, with her two young sons and teaches business law at the University of Houston Law Center. Currently she is at work on her first novel, Azadistan.