By Jillian Slutzker
“They think there were more than twenty killed.” She heard her uncle say to no one in particular. Leila had managed to sneak away from her cousins and was standing in the doorway of the living room watching her uncle pacing with the phone receiver dangling in his hand. He turned to his wife. “Did Yousef come back yet?”
“He isn’t here. ” She answered, holding her head in her hands. Neither of them had noticed Leila in the doorway.
“There are riots there, Farah! He’s just a boy. I am not going to be the one to tell Amina that, yes, your husband was shot and killed and now, oh by the way, your son is missing too! Where is Yousef?” His fists clenched and Leila noticed the beginnings of what could either be a yell or sob settle across his face. “The Israelis have taken our land! Our dignity! Our freedom! And now what?… Now one of their Zionists comes into my mosque and kills my brother in front of his son! The bastard should burn in hell, Farah! I need to find Yousef!”
As he turned to leave the room he saw Leila quietly staring up at him in the doorway. Her aunt ran forward and instinctively grabbed Leila by the shoulders and enveloped her in a hug, trying to hide the look of absolute pity and pain on her own face. She then pulled Leila back in front of her. Not quite looking into Leila’s eyes, which would have betrayed the pity she felt for her niece, she told Leila that her father had been killed. A man, a bad Jewish man, had entered the mosque that morning with a gun, and killed many people, including her Papa. She did not mention Yousef, which only highlighted the uncertainty of his continued absence.
When she was older, Leila had of course learned the facts. The man’s name was Baruch Goldstein. He was an Israeli-American settler in Hebron, an off-duty Israeli officer, and a member of an extremist Zionist movement. He killed 29 Palestinians in the attack and wounded 125 others. The Israeli government condemned his actions but that didn’t matter to Leila, who remembered her uncle that day railing against the people who had taken their land in the first place. Her father would still be alive if not for them.
It wasn’t until sunset that evening when Yousef finally did come back. By then, Leila had watched all day as her mother kept rocking and sobbing, sometimes quietly, sometimes violently in a heap on the kitchen floor. Leila couldn’t remember if Yousef spoke even a single word to her when he finally did come home. She only remembered that night he sat still on the sofa and barely blinked- an eerie contrast to the heap of convulsing sobs that was Leila’s mother next to him.
After her father’s death, Leila spent a lot of energy hating Yousef for his silence, which kept up in the days and weeks after they finally returned from Hebron to East Jerusalem. She was eight and she wanted things to be normal. She felt her father’s absence just as much as they all did but she didn’t see why Yousef had to act so absent too. It didn’t occur to her until she was older that Yousef had been there when it happened and what that really meant. She imagined he was praying next to their father, with his head to the floor when the rhythm of prayer was pierced by the cacophony of gunshots and screams. He was only sixteen.
It was a month after she, her mother and Yousef had returned to East Jerusalem, but not by any stretch to normalcy, that Yousef left home for good. Leila’s mother had told her, in a child’s language and a soft but shaky voice, that her brother had gone away and that they would not see him again. Leila must never leave her, she said, like Yousef had done. Her brother had been wrong, she told Leila, but he was also deeply wounded for reasons beyond his control and Leila would understand one day when she was older. The day Yousef left was also the day her mother began religiously telling Leila that she needed to make sure to come home to her each night.
When Leila was twelve, she found a letter in the top drawer of her father’s old desk stashed next to yellowing photographs of her brother. It was in her brother’s handwriting and dated the day before he had left home. Leila read each sentence over twice to make sure she understood it. She was only twelve and she sensed that there was a reason, maybe one she wasn’t really supposed to know, that Yousef’s letter was stuffed away in a drawer.
He wrote that he could not stand by idly while Zionists stole their land and killed their families in their own homes and mosques. He told them that this was a war for justice and he, sixteen-year old Yousef Sharif, had a role and a duty to play in it. The Israelis might have their tanks and guns, he wrote, but he had his mind and body, a more powerful weapon after all. They should be proud, he also added, that he was fighting for their people, their home and their faith.
Leila read through the letter three times before she thought to turn it over. On the back of the page, she let her fingers methodically trace the letters of her name etched in her brother’s deliberate script. “Leila,” it read, a special addendum just for her. “Take care of Mama. She needs you. I am sorry I could not be there too but I had to leave and fight the enemy- the Israelis. You’ll understand someday. I am fighting for you and for the memory of Baba. I love you”
At twenty-two, Leila was still not sure that she did understand what had happened to Yousef, or at least why Yousef had to leave. She blamed him for their mother’s fear, constant worrying and sleeplessness. If he had never left, their mother might still think that she could enjoy life instead of gripping it like it might just evaporate out from under her fingers when she was too careless not to hold on tightly enough. Leila was in these grips. She was the last solid thing her mother could hold on to. It’s not that she blamed her mother, who had never asked for her life to be shattered that way. But she oftentimes found herself asking an imaginary Yousef why justice had to mean leaving them and running off somewhere to, although she would never say this to her mother, most likely make himself a human bomb and kill someone else’s father.
And it’s not that Leila wasn’t irate at the man who had stolen her father away or at the way she had to wait, everyday, for hours in a line just so some teenage Israeli soldier could tell her that it was ok, today anyway, for her to cross into the West part of the city. She was afraid, though, to really indulge her anger because of how it had unapologetically consumed her brother and so, instead, she wrote.
“What are you aiming at here Leila?” a literature professor had once asked her upon returning an essay. “Your writing is passionate, but lacks restraint. Try to control your ideas more next time. This is analysis not fiction you know.”
The problem was Leila could not rein in the ideas that bolted around in her head, multiplying by the minute as they sprung from synapse to synapse. And so she filled pages upon pages of journals. She dreamed up characters in places like Italy, France, Africa -anywhere would do that was beyond her immediate reality. Her pen let her create a world where a twenty-two year old girl didn’t have to carry around her widowed mother’s grief and her missing brother’s anger.
Leila’s favorite story she’d written was about a young writer traveling South America. Leila orchestrated a brilliant plotline of political scandal and mystery that took the protagonist across the continent, climaxing in the Andes in Patagonia. It was a work in progress and she had yet to choose one of three possible endings for her fearless heroine. In the story the main character was a French writer with an affinity for South American men and investigative reporting. But Leila had chosen to give her wild midnight black curly hair and bright green eyes.
It was the last page of this story that slipped loose from her notebook that day at the checkpoint a couple months ago. Leila didn’t notice it fall to the ground as she finally tucked her identity card back into her coat pocket and passed through the gate. She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to face a petite brown-eyed Israeli soldier whose own unruly curls were revolting in corkscrews out from the loosening bun on the back of her head.
“You dropped this.” The soldier said in broken Arabic, handing the page back to Leila.
“Oh. Uh…thank you.” Leila stammered, surprised by the girl’s handing her the page but more so by the
language coming from her mouth. Never had Leila met an Israeli who bothered to learn to speak Arabic. Leila had learned enough Hebrew to get by, but the Israelis never seemed to make any effort on their part.
“My name is Riva.” The soldier continued. “I am sorry the line was so long today. I….” she paused, her Arabic faltering. “Well here is your paper.”
Leila noticed a tiny white button pinned to Riva’s uniform as she turned away back to her post. “Peace” it read in both Hebrew and Arabic.
Confused and grateful for her returned runaway story page, but really just mostly confused, Leila returned home. After routinely placing a kiss on her mother’s cheek she went to her room to write. Maybe she would finish her story tonight, she thought. This girl, this Israeli soldier, had thrown her off balance though. Leila did not know what to make of her disconcerting kindness and that small white pin on her sleeve. So instead of writing, Leila sat at her desk holding her pen and staring out her window, her thoughts jumping around from that drive to Hebron fourteen years ago, to Yousef’s letter, to Leila’s page in that girl’s hand and to the white button on her uniform.
Leila would see Riva several more times at that checkpoint. Riva would offer a greeting in Arabic, ask Leila how she was, and apologize for the long checkpoint wait. On the third time Leila saw her, she had the nerve to ask Riva about the button she wore. Riva smiled. Her Arabic vocabulary failed her but she discretely handed Leila a small bilingual flyer. “I am part of this group.” She told her. “Maybe sometime you could come…if you wanted. The meetings are in West Jerusalem but there are always Palestinians there too, so you wouldn’t feel weird or anything. I go to the meetings every Monday. If you want we could meet there sometime. I think I have to go back to my post now. Sorry, again for the long wait.”
Leila had not seen Riva at the checkpoint in a while but today was a Monday and Leila decided to indulge that stubborn streak of hers, lie to her mother and go across town to the meeting. She’d certainly see her there. She was also anxious to tell Riva about an idea she had for a story. Normally Leila didn’t share her stories easily, but Riva had expressed interest in her writing since the day she picked up Leila’s loose page, and Leila had just dreamed up a new character a little bit like Riva.
This Monday was also February 25, 2008, the fourteenth anniversary of her father’s death. With the flyer Riva had given her tucked in her coat pocket, Leila meandered through an unknown section of the city in search of an unknown community center. She would go to this “Peace Meeting”. She wanted to see Riva but maybe too it was time to deal a little more with what had happened and was still happening. Yousef had run away from it all even if he thought he was dealing with it. Their mother had retreated into a world of fear. But maybe Leila could be different.
*To Part 3*
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