Sunday, 15 May 2011


Palestinian refugees (British Mandate of Pales...Image via WikipediaI sipped some wine and watched her. Long, dark hair with highlights she’d had put in at the weekend, brown eyes fixed on mine, her brow creased and the last remnants of a smile dying on her full lips.

‘I’m really sorry about your cousin.’

She relaxed. ‘It’s okay, Paul. The funeral’s over, life’s back to normal for everyone. You have to move on, you know.’ She laughed, a bitter little laugh, flicked her hair back. ‘You even start to get used to it after a while.’

‘That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.’

She tensed again.

I looked at my glass. ‘About your father and your brother.’

‘Oh.’ She said.  I watched her shoulders hunch and her hands come together on the table, a barrier. ‘Why does that matter?’

I ploughed on. ‘Because other people are telling me about it and I wanted you to tell me first.’

‘It doesn’t concern you, Paul. It’s...’

 Go on, I thought. Tell me it’s none of my business. She looked down at her own wine glass. I saw her eyes were moist, the warm light from the stove sparkling in them.

‘It’s not something I like to talk about very much.’

I tried to be gentle but, heard myself whining instead. ‘I wanted it to be open between us.’

Paul Stokes, bumbling prat. The man who takes his conversational gambits from third rate soap opera scripts. If I had a low opinion of the human race in general, at least I had the grace to put myself at the bottom of the heap.

Aisha looked away from me, reached into her bag for her cigarettes and lit one. I got the ashtray I kept for visitors, grateful for the excuse of movement to break the tension. She talked to the table, her voice low. ‘My father was born on a farm in Palestine in 1946, outside a village called Qaffin. It’s the farm we have today. My grandparents left during the troubles in 1948, what we call the Naqba, the tragedy. You know this, right? The Naqba?’ I nodded. ‘When the Zionists threw my people from their land and declared Israel a state. They had a saying, you know, “A land without a people for a people without a land” But it’s a lie’.

Aisha was slowly twisting her lighter between her thumb and forefinger. ‘My father met my mother in the camps. He was just another urchin in the streets there, but he was smart and started selling fruit on a street corner, grew it into a business by employing other kids so that eventually he could open a shop of sorts in the camp. He was a good businessman and soon opened a proper store in Amman, made of blocks. He opened more of them. He started to trade with the Syrians and the Iraqis before he left the Amman business in Ibrahim’s hands and went to the Gulf in the ’70s, to Kuwait, with my mother. The Gulf had oil and needed food, steel, concrete, cars. He did deals with family traders in the Gulf, gained a name for being able to get things nobody else could get, ship things nobody else could ship. Ibrahim found the supplies, my father sold them. My parents moved back here after I was born.’

‘And he met Arafat in Kuwait.’

Aisha’s eyes widened and she took a pull on her cigarette, staring at me, the lighter twisting in her hand, the shaking tip of the cigarette glowing momentarily as she inhaled. ‘Yes, he met Arafat in Kuwait. Through Quadoumi. And he supplied Arafat. My father believed in Arafat. His family had lost everything, including my grandfather. My father believed that we had to try and fight to return to our country, to our land.’

‘But Arafat was a terrorist.’

She was trembling. ‘No. Abu Ammar was a unifier. There was no Palestine, no Palestinian people, no Palestinian identity. We lost everything, you see? Arafat brought us the dream that one day we could go back to things we had lost, that one day we could become a nation again. What could my father believe in other than this? We are lucky, at least we still have some of our family land, but only because we are on the border, only because we had an Arab Israeli lawyer on our side. Back then, there was no hope for any Palestinian other than Arafat.’

Aisha gestured with a wide sweep of her hand.. ‘My people lost everything they had, living in camps with rusty keys and English title deeds that meant nothing. The world stood by and let it happen. Who else offered any hope to the Palestinians except Arafat and the people around him? Who else was helping us?’

Aisha ground her cigarette viciously into the ashtray. ‘My father supported Arafat in the early days, but he turned away from them after the problems in Jordan. He stopped believing in Arafat’s way. Both he and Ibrahim became closer to King Hussein, then the King threw the PLO out of Jordan. We stayed here.’

‘Why did they leave Kuwait?’

‘Because I was born. I was my father’s favourite. He was always very close to me. We used to go on little adventures together, especially after I learned to ride. He was an accomplished horseman. I remember once we went riding with His Majesty. It was such a special day, the horses groomed until they were shining and HM chatting with us while we hacked along the wadis. He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told him I wanted to be a princess. Can you believe it? My father told the king I was already a princess and they both laughed at me. My father was a very gentle man.’

‘But he was with a Hamas man when he died,’ I blurted.

She recoiled as my words shattered her reminiscence, catching my gaze for an instant, her eyes flickering around the kitchen, casting around for something from inside. I waited for her to calm and speak. She took a deep, shuddering breath and spoke to the tabletop in a small voice.

‘Yes, Paul. My father was in a house in Gaza that belonged to one of his old business contacts from the Gulf days. Another man was visiting, an important man in Hamas. The Israelis attacked the house with missiles. They killed my baba and took him away from me forever.’

‘Was he involved with Hamas?

I had spoken as gently as I could but then I saw, to my horror, the splashes on the tabletop. The tears brimming in Aisha’s eyes ran down her cheeks as she looked up. Her chin was puckered, her words halting as she fought for control of her breathing. ‘My father. Was not a terrorist. He was. Not an evil man.’

She held onto her lighter so tightly that the blood drained from her fingers and her hands shook. She dropped it, sniffed and wiped at her cheeks with her fingertips.

‘He was not accused, tried or found guilty of a crime. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like the young mother in the shopping mall when the bomb comes. He was killed by a state formed by bombing and violence, founded by terrorists who threw my people off their land by murdering them and driving them away with fear. By the people that killed the villagers of Deir Yassin and hundreds of Palestinian villages like it, the people that killed thousands when they smashed into Gaza and poured phosphorous on it from the sky like rain. There was no judge, there was no jury. He was murdered in cold blood.’

Aisha delved into her bag for a tissue and wiped her eyes, shaking her head as she looked out of the kitchen window, away from me.

‘I don’t want to think about this, Paul. I prefer not to live with it in my mind every day. I have a life to live. As Palestinians we have to put this behind us and live, because we can’t afford to spend every single day focusing on the tragedy and death that is around us, inside us.’

She drank from her wine, her reddened eyes on mine over the fine rim of the glass. Her mascara was smudged.

I broke the long silence. ‘So is that why Hamad did what he did? To revenge your father?’

Aisha glared at me, placing the wineglass on the table with agonising slowness, her eyes on me as she pushed her chair back and stood looking down at me. She turned to hook up her coat.

My chair rattled as I stood in panic. ‘Where are you going?’

‘I don’t need this. You don’t need Daoud lecturing you, but I don’t need you questioning me, either. You just go ahead and believe what you want to, listen to what you want to. I will not be interviewed by you. I’m going home. Goodbye, Paul.’

I was incapable of movement, shocked by the realisation of my own immense stupidity and crassness. I saw her chin pucker again as the light caught the side of her beautiful face, but she didn’t look back as she closed the door gently behind her. The kitchen was quiet, apart from the soft background grumble of the wood burning in the stove and the electronic tick of the wall clock. It ticked four times before resolution rescued me from stasis and I ran out after her. I caught her opening her car door, about to get in. I called across the road to her as I stood at the bottom of the steps that led up from the road to the garden: ‘Aisha.’

Today, May 15th, is Al Nakba or 'the tragedy', the day Palestinians mark the creation of the State of Israel. Israel declared statehood on the 14th, in fact - the 15th marks the end of the British Mandate in Palestine. The above is a little bit of 'Olives'.

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1 comment:

Mita said...

I thought I recognised the passage. Loved Olives - my thoughts with the matter which generation

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