The Checkpoint

By Jillian Slutzker

“Did she always have to say that?” Leila wondered again to herself looking down at her hands. It was getting to be a little too apocalyptic for Leila to handle these days. “Make sure you come home to me tonight, my Leila,” her mother never failed to call after her each time Leila left their apartment in the East quarter of the city. For fourteen years now, since she was eight years old, every trip to the store, to class, even to her friend Amal’s house only two blocks away elicited the same warning… or order, Leila could never tell which it was. “Inshallah. “ She would answer. “God willing, Mama, I will.”

Leila had been fortunate, for fourteen years now she had kept her promise.

Across town now in a West Jerusalem community center basement, Leila sat straight-backed on her cold metal folding chair. She had deliberately chosen the fourth row aisle seat, close enough to appear involved, she’d reasoned, but not so close that she absolutely had to contribute. Plus, this aisle seat was a quick out if this meeting turned into something she didn’t actually want to attend. Right now though she still thought she did, but that all depended on whether that girl she’d met was going to show up or not. Leila didn’t really like to think of her as anything but “the Israeli girl”. The implications of the word “friend” still scared her a little. She had said she would be here today, hadn’t she? Leila was certain of it, but the meeting was supposed to start in ten minutes and the chair next to Leila was still empty.

Leila shifted uneasily in her seat and subtly readjusted her headscarf, tucking a renegade strand of jet-black curl back behind her ear and under its cover.

“Your curls are just like you Leila,” her father used to tell her. “Uncontrollable.” Leila never asked him if that was a good thing or not. It reminded her of those superhero stories her brother Yousef always used to watch on TV when she was younger. The hero had always been some ordinary person with some secret magic power capable of good and evil, and everyone would be surprised when either the hero turned villain or came out of his ordinariness to save the world. Yes, that was it, she decided. This stubborn streak of hers was simply just a thing, a thing that could be whatever she wanted it to be. Like today. Coming to this meeting. For perhaps only the second or third time in her memory Leila had blatantly lied to her mother. She had gone across town, not to her study group at Al Quds University, and now she sat in a damp basement of folding chairs in the largely Jewish section of the city with twenty strangers, roughly two-thirds of them Jews, she surmised with a quick glance around the room. Leila’s eyes swept the room again. The girl still hadn’t shown.

Leila hated to be caught staring but it happened often. She had wide green eyes that never could conceal that they were reading whoever fell in their line of sight. Leila’s eyes bore into people. It wasn’t grating but it was obvious. At Al Quds University she studied literature, but what Leila really wanted to do was to write stories, which is probably why she spent so much time reading people. A good author always needs inspiration for her characters
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Leila’s green eyes danced across the room again, looking for someone else to settle on who looked just as out of place as Leila felt. Her eyes skipped from a few Palestinian men in the second row, to an elderly Israeli couple in the first, and then to a petite pregnant brown haired woman standing near the front of the room smiling and chatting with a grey-haired, pot-bellied Palestinian man.

As they skirted the periphery of the room, Leila’s eyes stopped dancing and came to rest on a tall lanky boy probably around twenty with tousled honey-colored hair swinging down over his eyes. Hands in his pockets, he causally leaned against the wall just underneath the white magic marker banner that read “Shalom. Salaam. Peace”. He cocked his head to the side and Leila noticed he had only one earphone in. She couldn’t tell what color his eyes were. They were fixated on the floor.

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“I don’t know why the hell I’m even here,” thought Ari, counting the number of black and white squares per floor tile. If you stared hard and long enough at the tile, it sort of took you in, like one of those 3D magic eye puzzles his cousins in New York had sent him and his sister one year for their birthday. “What the hell I am doing?”

“There will be an answer. Let it be,” the Beatles sang back at him through his single earphone.

“Screw you Paul McCartney.” Ari threw back at the voices in his ears singing their so-called “words of wisdom”. He shut off his I-pod and continued his counting.

The room was starting to fill up but Ari couldn’t persuade his eyes to leave that black and white tile. What he really wanted to do was scream, but his voice, like his eyes, wouldn’t listen to him right now. It had retreated to the pit of his stomach. Still, Ari wanted nothing more than to yell at every single stupidly naive person who walked through that door with their white PEACE pins mocking him from their shirt pockets. But because his eyes froze and his voice choked, Ari just kept staring at the tile at his feet. It was a simple pattern. He could make sense of it. It wasn’t going to up and leave. It didn’t have a history or a story or a God-awful gaping hole in its life now that stung incessantly. It was just a tile in a basement.

Suddenly, in Ari’s head he was ten years old again. He and his sister were skipping over similarly entrancing black and white tiles in the Kanyon Malha shopping mall in West Jerusalem. Their mom used to spend what seemed like hours in the stores while he and his sister had become mastermind inventors, creating oceans and crocodiles out of glossy linoleum floor tiles outside of their mom’s favorite dress boutique.

They had made up rules that inevitably changed every time they played the game except for a few constants. None of the rules made any sense to him now. He remembered something about stepping on a crack and losing a foot to boiling hot lava. Then you had to spend the rest of the game hobbling on the other salvaged limb, which could be the ultimate test of endurance depending on the vigor of their mom’s shopping spree on any given day. His sister was always the first one in the lava but she usually won anyway since she could hop one-legged like it washer job, a genetic gift she had unjustly hogged in the womb, Ari decided. Inevitably, out of guilt, their mother would take them for ice cream afterwards and his sister would order a scoop of bubble gum ice cream in a cone. He’d always preferred plain old vanilla. Last week he had even given bubble gum one last shot but it only confirmed that she had been wrong about that all these years.

Ari pulled himself out of his lava-hopping, ice cream past and back into the basement of strangers. He felt someone’s eyes glued to him, but he kept staring at the tile under his feet. “Screw you,” he muttered under his breath to the anonymous onlooker. He turned on his I-pod again, this time conspicuously sticking both earphones deep in his ears, and slouched back against the wall under the white banner. He maxed out the volume and let the Beatles drown out his thoughts.

The irony of Leila choosing this day to come to West Jerusalem for this purpose hadn’t escaped her. It was February 25, 2008. Leila knew the date simply by the slight waiver in her mother’s voice and the way she nearly choked over the word home when she said her usual goodbye to Leila. “Make sure you come home to me tonight” had sounded a little more like a plea than a command. And early this morning, Leila overheard her mother whispering her father and brother’s names in her room alone but, like she did every year, Leila pretended not to notice.

Ramadan had always been a special time of year for Leila’s family. But until February 25, there was nothing remarkable about the normal specialness of Ramadan in 1994. Up until that year, Leila had always seen Ramadan as the holiest of months that turned life upside down in the best possible way. Days were lazy and at night sleep fell away to feasting, singing, and- what Leila had always longed for the chance to do-visiting family. Her father’s two sisters and brother lived in Hebron, a city 30km south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Leila had met them only twice before when she was a baby, yet out of her father’s stories she had fabricated her own memory of them. “They would say to me ‘Hamid that daughter of yours could hang the moon.’” He had told her. “It only took them one look at you, Leila. Did you know you already had those two unruly curls right on the middle of your forehead? One look and they fell in love with you and your curls and big green eyes.”

They think I can hang the moon, Leila had repeated the mantra as she stuffed her crayons and paper into her sack for the car trip to Hebron. She had no other material from which to spin images of her family in Hebron except for this anecdote of her father’s, an old photograph, and a list of names and ages her mother had written out for her to study.

Since 1987 the West Bank had been a hotbed of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. As much as Leila had begged her mother to take her to Hebron anyway because it wasn’t fair that she just had one brother here in Jerusalem but had a dozen cousins there that she couldn’t know, her mother had told her no, not now Leila. Inshallah some day, but not right now.

But then it was 1994. The intifada in the West Bank had subsided a couple of years before and a giddy eight-year old Leila would finally meet her cousins this Ramadan.

“Ahmed is ten,” she quizzed herself out loud. “Malik is seventeen. Karima is twelve, right Mama?” And Miriam, who is she again?”

“Your cousin’s wife, habibiti, my darling.” Her father answered, chuckling. “You have a steel trap in that head of yours! And how about Leila and Yousef? Who are they?” he teased, flashing a smile at her in the rearview mirror.

“Papa I’m Leila! And I am 8 years old and one half, silly!”

Her brother Yousef sat next to her in the back seat of the car. He had just turned sixteen and, despite his teenage stoicism, Leila sensed he was just as excited to be going to Hebron for Ramadan as she was.

“Yousef. Did you remember your jacket?” his mother asked.
“Yes Mama.” Yousef answered mechanically, staring out the car window.
“Do you put the cake and the gifts in the car Yousef?”
“Yes Mama.”
“Do you promise me you will be respectful to your aunts and cousins Yousef?”

“Ahh, Amina give the boy a break!” his father broke in. “Yousef is a good boy, a little headstrong like his little sister there but a good boy in the end. I’m sure he did everything you asked him to do before we left.” He paused, letting out a hyperbole of a sigh. “Ahh, Yousef and Leila! Leila and Yousef! What in the world are we going to do with you two?” He did this often, joked about the difficulties of raising his two children who, in reality, he too thought could hang the moon. Again Hamid shot a smile at his children in the rearview mirror then turned back to the road towards the other part of his family whom he had not seen for seven years.

One thing Leila had realized in the fourteen years since that Ramadan is that memory can work in truly mind-boggling ways. Maybe because it would rather not remember some things, it magnifies certain others, stretches out memories of one particular event for hours on end in one’s head and paints the colors of a single piece of clothing ten times brighter in the imagination than it ever was in real life. That drive to Hebron was fourteen years ago. Leila was eight. The car ride was not the epic journey she had remembered but actually lasted only fifty minutes, not counting the one-hour line at the security checkpoint they had had to pass through. Her father’s shirt that day, she was sure, was a deep forest green.

Hebron was sea of brightly clad people milling through the street bazaars when they arrived. As the sun slouched lower into the orange sky, signaling the approaching meal, a particularly cranky Leila bemoaned the struggles of her first year fasting. “I think I am dying!” she complained to her family. “Did you hear that growl Papa? That was my stomach! I hope Miriam is at least a good cook.”

“Leila. Leila. Leila.” Haamid shook his head in feigned exasperation. He swooped her up out of the back seat, planted a kiss on her cheek, and said, “I suppose I will just have to say an extra prayer tomorrow at the mosque. One for you and an extra one for your little stomach! Yousef can we do that for your sister?”

“Inshallah Papa. I have to wake up first though. Five a.m. prayers are a tough sell. I don’t know if Leila’s stomach’s wellbeing is worth me losing that much extra sleep.” He turned to look at his sister, now swept up and grimacing in their father’s arms. “Leila, do you think Mohammed or Aisha ever complained about having to fast?”

Yet regardless of his mocking, they all knew that Yousef would still wake up before the sun, go to morning prayers with his father like he had every day of every Ramadan since he could recollect, and even remember to say a prayer, despite his better judgment, for his little sister’s stomach. He was, after all, a good boy and, as his father proudly noted, was becoming day by day a better Muslim.

The following morning Haamid and Yousef arrived at the Cave of the Patriarchs at 4:45 a.m. to enter the east gate to the Ibrahimi mosque at 5 a.m. with eight hundred other worshippers for the first prayer of the day. Haamid had grown up in Hebron years ago. While it now seemed much smaller to him, the city and mosque had taken on mythical proportions to Leila thanks to her father’s stories. He told them of how he had learned Quran in the mosque and played games on its grounds where, it is believed, Adam, Ibrahim, Ishaq and Yaqub are buried. That Yousef was now allowed to share this secret place with their father did not seem fair to Leila.

Leila’s jealousy, however, coupled with the fatigue of a first time faster, left her exhausted. At her aunt’s home tucked away in the heart of Hebron’s old city’s winding narrow streets, Leila lay asleep in a bed with two of the cousins whose existence she had for years craved and imagined.

Around 6 a.m. Leila was jolted awake by a sharp piercing wail followed by a long gasping, almost breathless, sob. Memory had since blocked much of that day from Leila but it had not been kind enough to let her forget that sound. She ran in to the kitchen just in time to see her mother, still wearing her rose printed apron stained with apricot jam, crumble into a heap in a corner against the wall. Her mother’s motions were methodical in a way that terrified Leila. Her loud sobs suddenly silenced and gave way to rocking back and forth, back and forth. Leila had only a moment to take all this in, for her aunts quickly hushed her back into the bedroom. Her memory, however, had already had its chance to imprint the image into Leila’s mind. She did not know exactly why her older female cousins kept paying so much attention to her then, brushing her curls and teaching her songs they learned in school, but she suspected it had something to do with the same reason her mother was on the floor rocking and why she, Leila, still had the sound of that wail in her ears.

*To Part 2*

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