Yesterday evening, as the heat was finally receding and the sun dusting the sky with pink, I met my friend Deema. She is a children’s social worker in East Jerusalem, and one of the most creative and insightful specialists in children’s mental health whom I’ve ever met. “I love the way they think, children,” she has told me more than once. “They can take a simple incident, like seeing an ant walking by, and make it into a big story.” As we hadn’t seen each other in far too long, she invited me to join her family for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, and to spend the night with them in their house in Jerusalem’s Old City.
At Damascus Gate she descended on me with the velocity of an avalanche. Being hugged by Deema is enough to get you sent to the spinal injuries unit. “I’m so excited to see you! You look good, habibti! Where have you been? What have you been doing? I’ve missed you!” – and I struggled to draw enough oxygen into my lungs to wheeze out, “Tamam, alhamdullilah,” before she pulled me into the intricate maze of little alleyways and courtyards that surrounds her home.
She lives in a rooftop apartment, the front door of which opens onto a steep staircase that totters unevenly down to street level. As she rummaged for her keys, I noticed that something was different about that door. Half of it was missing. The frosted glass had been replaced by strips of cardboard and matting. “It was the army,” Deema said wearily when she saw where I was looking. She pushed open the dilapidated door and guided me into the courtyard. “Some boys in our neighbourhood were throwing stones, you know how it is. So they came looking for them.”
“It was one o’clock in the night when they came. They wanted to climb on our roof, because we are the highest. We were sleeping. We woke from the crash of the glass when they broke the door. Then they came in with their guns, and we were all here in our pyjamas.” Deema’s ten-year-old sister nodded. “I was in bed,” she added, before losing interest and poking open a tin of crayons. And did they get you out of bed themselves, Zeynab, or did they let your mother do it? I almost asked, but I didn’t. It would have done her no good to tell. It would do me no good to know.
I remembered an incident when a young border policeman had stopped Deema in the street, asking for her ID. She had given him an ominous stare, like the one a python might bestow on a particularly wholesome-looking rabbit, before swelling up with characteristic indignation. “You want my ID! You want my ID!” His commanding officer had hastened over to rescue him, only for Deema to turn the full of force of her attentions onto him. “‘Give me your ID!’ he says to me. ‘Give me your ID!’ He will fall over if I blow one breath on him, and he says, ‘Give me your ID!’ Why do you send this child to say ‘Give me your ID’?! He is like a – “
But what else he was like neither the magavnik nor his officer waited to find out. I imagined the army having to confront Deema in her pyjamas and for once I found some sympathy being diverted to the army. “What did you say to them?”
“I laughed at them. And they said ‘Why are you laughing?’ and I told them, ‘Look at yourselves’.” She shrugged slightly as she pulled off her headscarf. Her usually animated face was suddenly tired. “Laugh. What else can we do?”
Deema’s mother was preparing makloubeh when we arrived. The little courtyard at the centre of the apartment was thick with cooking smells. I checked the clock. Seven minutes until Maghrib time. “That’s the mosque!” Zeynab cried out in glee, only to sink back into her chair with an expression of pained resignation on her face: it was just the neighbours playing a Qur’an recitation. But then the cannon whistled to life with a stinging crack, followed immediately by the adhan; Deema’s mother passed out water and a small bowl of dates for the breaking of the fast. All over the Old City, people were beginning their breakfasts like this, as the sound of the call to prayer washed over the rooftops and the alleyways. The setting sun had turned the courtyard walls the colour of soft marshmallow or spun sugar. I had not been fasting, but the first mouthful of sweet date took me back to my childhood in the Middle East, and the iftars I had attended when I was no older than Zeynab. I watched her eating, delicately starting from the edge of her plate and working her way in, and noticed that she had hardly any makloubeh there. “She doesn’t eat enough,” Deema told me in January, after we had spent half an hour gently persuading her to eat half a falafel pitta. A scoopful of rice, two slices of potato, and a little heap of salad lay on her plate now. I watched her dissect it with her fork, trying not to show that I was watching, and once again I saw her standing in the cramped little sitting room, showing me the place where the soldiers had stood.
“Do you want to go out?” Deema asked after the meal was over. “You can come with me to Aqsa.”
I brightened. In all these years, I have never visited Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. There are designated hours for tourists, and I’ve never been free in Jerusalem during those times. To prevent the army or the mosque stewards from turning me away, Deema lent me a prayer suit, white and embroidered with pastel pink roses. I held it out and surveyed it sceptically. The skirt seemed to have been designed for women wider than they are tall. I had to tuck it into my trousers to keep it up, and it finished just below my knees. The headscarf, meant to fall to the waist, flapped vainly about my bare elbows. I had serious doubts that this camouflage attempt was going to work.
“Deema, in this get-up I look like a Turkish grandmother, or possibly a wedding cake gone wrong.”
She tutted disapprovingly and yanked at my scarf, trying to gain a little more elbow coverage. “You do not, you look beautiful!”
Zeynab wanted to come with us, so she skipped off to get her own scarf. It was dark now. Outside, strings of fairy lights were twinkling between the housetops, some clustered together in the shape of roses, others in constellations of stars and moons. It being Ramadan, the whole of the Old City was alive with colour and bustle and savoury smells, with sticky-fingered children clustered round the bakery waiting for their portions of baklava and other sweets. We were carried along in a stream of people heading for the Al-Aqsa compound. (Zeynab kept getting separated from us in the crowd, but whenever I looked around in anxiety, Deema laughed: “She will find us.” And she did.)
It was beautiful that night. Two images: a woman sitting on the floor, propped up against a pillar, absorbed in her Qur’an; and another woman enveloped in a big white scarf similar to my own who was curled up in prayer and pressing her face to the well-worn floor tiles. Both appeared to have come alone. I prayed for them, whoever they were, as we entered the Dome of the Rock itself. “This is the rock,” Deema whispered to me, directing me downstairs to a cave similar to our own grotto in Bethlehem. “Prophet Muhammad went to heaven from here.” In the cave, women prayed and children tumbled about on the carpeted floor, sinking almost up to their ankles. Above our heads ornate lamps burned. The whole place was full of women – men were using Al-Aqsa – and as we left I found myself muttering a Hail Mary. In the courtyard women beginning to form lines for the ‘Isha prayer. One or two recognised Deema and broke ranks to hug us hello. I met her brother’s fiance, who took in my dubious hijab and asked if I wanted to pray alongside her. “She’s Christian,” Deema explained, using nasraniyyeh (Nazarene) as opposed to masihiyyeh (of the Messiah). Both terms are used interchangeably in Arabic. I like nasrani because I like Nazareth. The word anchors me to this place where I feel so at home, and its religious connotations remind me that home doesn’t have to be exclusionary.
“This is what I like most about Ramadan. You can learn about my religion, and I am learning yours.”
I smiled, remembering Deema’s habit of climbing the bell tower of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, and the famous Qur’anic verse: “We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another…Indeed, Allah is knowing and acquainted.” In Palestine there are all kinds of knowledge, which became most obvious one day in the winter, when Deema and I were strolling through the Old City. Interrupting our conversation, she pointed to the corner of a shop on the Via Dolorosa and said, “Look, that is where Isa put his hand.”
“What?” I asked, startled.
“When they were taking him past the stages.” (She meant Stations of the Cross.) “He fell over here and he put his hand on the wall, and the mark of his hand stayed there.”
There was an indent in the smooth buttery brick of the wall, a wall that obviously had not been standing at the time of Christ. Deema knows that. She also knows that in her own religion Christ was not crucified and the story of his painful walk to Mount Calvary is not detailed. But she is a resident of the Old City, and as such the Via Dolorosa is threaded through her mental geography, with the Christian stories of Jesus’ three falls finding tangible expression in a hand-shaped dent in a shop wall. I am fascinated by Jerusalem’s stories and how they form a complex and brilliant interweave.
There are darker threads in that weave. Before we sat down to iftar, we traded stories from work. Deema has been managing a summer camp, and a few days before my visit, she had taken the youngest children to a playground. “I saw one of the girls crying,” she said in a low voice, and I understood that she did not want her younger sister to hear, even though we were using English (which Zeynab cannot speak). “I went over to her, asked what’s wrong, and she said that the woman had shouted at her. Which woman? The Israeli woman over there. So I went to this woman and asked, ‘What did you say to make the child cry? She says you shouted at her.’ The woman said, ‘No, I didn’t shout, it was all very fair. I said we would have five minutes and then you would have five minutes.’ She meant five minutes to play on the round thing that goes round like this – “
“Yes, roundabout. She had told one of my girls to get off the roundabout. ‘We will have our five minutes and then you can have yours.’ She kept saying that. But the roundabout was empty, it had only two children, Jewish children. I asked why they couldn’t play together and she said, ‘I don’t want them playing together.’”
Deema’s face is one of the most expressive I’ve ever known. Lately it’s been too tired. Don’t you give up, I wanted to say. You’re too bloody tough to let this get you. She raised her eyes and looked at me. “They’re only children, Vicky. If we let them do it they would just play. But – ‘I don’t want them to play together’, what can I do? So I said, OK, I am the manager here and if you need anything just ask, come to me first, not the children. Then she said that we could have our five minutes first.” Deema’s mouth gave a slight twist, as though she were trying to smile through a mouthful of bitter lemon.
“So polite and thoughtful,” I said gravely. She hit my shoulder. “Come, let’s go and eat something.”
We came through the Jewish Quarter on the way home from the Dome of the Rock, a five-minute walk that seemed to imbue Deema’s story with additional sadness. Two tall haredi men in their distinctive black coats and hats passed us by, absorbed in conversation with one another. At this, Zeynab clutched at our hands and muttered something to her sister that I didn’t catch. “She’s afraid from them,” Deema explained.
I was concerned. “You shouldn’t be, habibti. They won’t do anything to hurt you. They’ve just been to pray like we have, that’s all.”
“Why do they have all black clothes?” Zeynab asked uncertainly.
“That’s just part of how they live. You’ve seen women with black jilbabs, haven’t you? Are you frightened of them?”
“No, but the jilbabs have got decorations on them. And you can get a pink one or a yellow one.”
“Now, do you suppose those men would be interested in having a pink coat and a hat with decorations?” I asked solemnly, and was rewarded by her peal of laughter. I told her a little about Jewish prayer customs, and how, at the Western Wall, people can write notes to God and ‘post’ them in the cracks. This intrigued her. “But what when the cracks get full?”
“I don’t know. How shall we find out?”
This conundrum silenced Zeynab for a while. We stopped at a sweet shop to buy some concoction that probably contained enough sugar to give anyone diabetes and a terrifying amount of E numbers, washed down with glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice as a concession to health. At the falafel stand next door some on-duty soldiers were furtively buying sandwiches (which I know they’re not supposed to do). They were on every corner, and the people of the city flowed round them as though they were not there. I felt another strange stab of sympathy. Everyone in the neighbourhood was out to celebrate tonight, and they weren’t part of any of it. Holding assault weapons and forever on the outside looking in, no matter how many doors they kick down in the night. Only the flicker of Deema’s eyes and the irritation that registered briefly on her forehead showed me that she had even seen them. The unspoken question: Were these the ones who came in the house and scared the shit out of my sister?
“Let’s go home,” was all she said, and we left the Ramadan hustle behind for quieter and darker streets, the thick sweet taste of orange juice still in our mouths.