Three poems by Susan Rich

What We Were Taught / What We Have Lost

One of us will never suffer, you promised
as if words were as simple as offering a car ride
for pistachio ice cream on Sunday afternoon.
As easy as turning on the evening news
to hear the fractured screams of a father—
his child killed by mortar fire.
You promised I would be loved in the way
only a father can say, like a spell uttered three times
in the garden with trellises of jasmine flower.
Dad, today I need miracle ice cream
for the boys on the beach in Gaza,
a soccer ball between them.
Their lifeless bodies haunt me
and more, the young faces of their friends.
You promised I would never suffer, father,
but imagine the families checking websites
for their loved ones, for the innocent dead, targeted
by the country we were taught to believe in.
Sometimes I still look for my friends Amjad and Samir,
boys who drove me to Gaza’s shoreline decades ago,
dreaming of five star hotels, an airport.
Father, the day you were diagnosed in Boston, I dressed slowly
and then climbed back into bed, a green blanket
over my head as the bus exhaust rose up,
as the restaurant workers next door
picked stones from grains of rice,
speaking in a language as foreign to me as the future.
Now death arrives each night over Twitter—
the bluebird of death you might say.
And I think of your promise. Your face.

~for Ahed Atef Bakr, Ishmail Mohamed Bakr, Mohamed Ramez Bakr, Zakaria Ahed Bakr and Abraham Rich

In Other Words Bookstore, I Imagine

the lives of the Women of the Word
and What We Leave Behind.

Secondhand volumes lined-up together

debate late into night’s Mourning Hour.
On a side table, My Hope for Peace,

signed by Jehan Sadat and the Middle East

enters this quickly fading bookshop
accompanied by a phantom Lemon Tree.

Out-of-print mothers and daughters join in

as I turn the aisle, learn Drops of the Story
glimpse Naomi’s, Words Under the Words.

Some texts are made for each other—

Travelling Rooms and After the Last Sky.
There’s a developing interest in Water Logic

and the bestseller, What We Have Lost.

If I were to walk again through my life,
Down Roads That Do Not Depart

keep Half of a Yellow Sun in my shirtsleeves,

would My Happiness Bear No Relation to Happiness?
I lift Tomorrow’s Tomorrow from the upper shelf:

Dear Memory Board, Dear Everyone’s Pretty

and Nine Parts Desire, dear Musical Elaborations—
Open the Cloud Box. Taste the Olives,

Lemons and Zaa’tar; The Space Between Footsteps.

Redress The Butterfly’s Burden, the Unreal and the Real—
The Question of Palestine.


Gaza City, Gaza

I arrive via optimism, in the aftermath of Oslo,
into a roomful of bright teachers,

Welcome to my class on human rights theater,

for Palestinians who have known only its absence.
There are concerns, and then, much excitement,

over the abolishment of classroom rows.

No more first or last students; an equal footing.
On our last day together, a few students ask for my passport—

the men look terribly serious with long rifles
slung over their shoulders. In reality—

these are water guns borrowed from a teacher’s son.

Our play is called, Checkpoint, they tell me.
Each day we live this way.

In the painting on the wall

By Chaun Ballard

the young refugee boy, stands
at the broken wall
and concentrates his gaze
in the direction of Jerusalem,
and he knows he will pass through
this stone that has opened—
and when he does,
he will venture to the other side
Though he knows
when he departs this land
he might never return,
he does not turn around. He never waves
farewell to the people gathered.
He knows his pause is enough.

the young refugee boy, stands
gazing from the broken wall—
fathers, mothers, children,
and liberators have come
to wave flags, some wave hands,
and they know
he must cross into this freedom
alone. For they know his will—
they have all seen his face.

For more poems by Chaun Ballard, check the full issue: Vol. 4, Issue 1

ARE YOU SAFE? (or the occupation of love)

By Shebana Coelho






A pitch dark stage – as dark as you can make it –

slowly lightens into shadows. A dim blue

searchlight roves across the stage, and into the

audience, and in the arc of its turning, it

illuminates a table and two chairs. In one chair,

facing the audience is a GIRL, fair-skinned, in

her twenties with long black hair. Her hands are

clasped behind her back, as if they are tied

together. But they are not. Her head is lowered,

as if she is sleeping. But she is not. One side of

her face looks discolored, as if she’s wearing a

face mask, the kind you get in beauty salons. A

MAN, in his fifties, sits in the chair to her

left. When the spotlight reaches her again, her

head swings up and she opens her eyes.



Later, he tells me he knew my name all along.



Your middle name, to be exact.



All it takes is a Muslim in the middle.



Naseema, to be exact.




She slowly, sinuously leans towards the man and

blows. He blanches, startled. She keeps blowing

and slowly, with her breath, forces him to rise

and he rises and steps back, and further back till

her breath has forced him off stage.



Naseema. Wind.


She turns to the audience.



But earlier, first – the skin of my father gets me in.

If they saw the brown inside, the brown of my mother,

I’d be at the detention cell, at the airport with

everyone else who had brushed against brown in their

past or in their family or on the plane and the scent

lingers, did you know? That’s what the guards say. “We

know how to smell you.” They’re trained to

smell…roses. They’re trained to smell…attar. I hear

them whispering as if no one hears. But everyone hears.

Those smells carry.


The SOUND of low bells, the kind cattle wear

around their neck and a shepherd, NIDAL, about

sixteen, enters from the opposite side of the

stage. He wears a keffiyeh, a black and white

chequered scarf around his neck. He’s in a

reverie, as if following his cattle and not

noticing her at first.


I carry a new lamb. The sheep follow. We go to what is

left of grass. They eat what isn’t burnt. They eat what

is left of green. I swallow the sand. I love a girl who

I saw on a bus that went by very slowly so the people

inside, behind the glass, could take pictures. I stood

up straight when it passed. The minute you see anyone

shooting…a picture, you want to stand up straight. It

could be on the news. You have to think ahead. But that

girl, she put the camera down when she saw me, and the

sun hit her instead. It hit her through the glass as

she looked at me and then I saw her hair…


Now he notices the girl and they meet in the

center of the stage. Tenderly, he touches the

girl’s hair.



…hair like yours…



…like how..?



like this, soft and clean from a place that has water,

a place where you just ask for it and….


He takes a step back and a stream of water falls

on him, drenching him. Like a waterfall, it falls

as he stands there, arms akimbo and then he cups

the water in his hand. The girl reaches forward

and puts her hand in the falling water, cups the

water in her hands as well. The water fall stops.

In unison, they drink from their hands. The Girl

looks up at Nidal.



In the desert where I used to live, where I used to

love, the land is flat and the sky is so big you can

see for days ahead. You can see the weather forming.

You can see a storm coming. You can say (she points

into the audience) it is raining there, just in that

spot, and not there, in that other spot – like that.

Nidal shakes the water off him. He unloosens his

scarf, squeezes the water from it, and then sits

down slowly on his haunches, as if looking at a

horizon only he can see.



Here, we watch the bombs falling. You can see, (he

points into the audience ) there is someone dying, and

there is someone not dying, not yet. You can see this

bombed from clear across the ocean. You can see the

planes. You can see the righteousness with which the

bombs fall so we die righteous deaths. (laughs) Can’t

you see us all dying so that the rockets hidden under

us may live?


He ties the scarf back around his neck, humming

softly. It’s not a carefree sound – as if he’s

deliberately calming the cattle, while keeping an

eye out, being vigilant. Suddenly he YELLS, ducks

and goes flat on the ground.



Get down. Now.


The Girl gets down, lying on her belly. Together,

they look at the audience.



My father is an old man in a chair in a desert. A man

like thunder. A line of sheep behind him. A gaggle of

hens beside him. We live in a house with sheets of

aluminum for walls and sheets of plastic for roofs.

Bullet casings at our feet.



The sheep nuzzle the casings. The chicken nuzzle the




We dream of the well we can’t dig. The land we can’t



Not allowed.



Mamnou3…it says here right on the dotted line, in

between the dotted lines, see that signature, see the

shadow of that ink…



The water in the river…



…the water is not allowed, mamnou3. The water we

hear, running in pipes past us, the water that goes




…settlements, swimming pools, dates…



…stockpiles, guards, guns.



But still…



We know…


They slowly begin to rise so they are sitting on

their knees.



….that after a village is destroyed…



…what is needed is to build something even if it’s




…this high…



…that high…


…this tall…



…that short…



…building a wall…



…patting a wall into place…



…by moonlight, only by moonlight…



…just so…


They slowly rise to their feet



…just so something is left standing at dawn. Fajer.


He sits cross-legged on the stage.



At dawn, he was sitting outside…



…twenty feet from the mosque waiting for prayers to




At dawn, they took him. Later, they hit him. They

argued about hitting him more. Hitting him more, they

decided. His small body on its side.



How do you burn a body? They didn’t know. Burning my

body, they learned.


I dreamed him. Even as they found him, even then, I

dreamed him and it was the dream that brought me here.

I had never up and gone anywhere. I up and came here.




They exit in the dark.






Lights up. The girl returns to the chair and sits.

She places her hands flat on the table, closes her

eyes. Her head falls forward. You can see the mask

clearly now, green, covering one side of her face.

MANJU, an Indian woman, also in her twenties,

enters and sits on the other chair. She takes a

nail file from her pocket, picks up the girl’s

hand and starts buffing her nails. Sounds of

Bollywood SONGS slowly RISE on a radio we can’t

see. Manju hums as she buffs. The Girl slowly

opens her eyes and raises her head. She yawns.



Welcome back, Madam. Have a good doze, Madam?






Oh. I thought the mister that you came with made you







Miss, what beautiful nails you have. Bloody beautiful,

if I may say so.


The girl laughs, intrigued.


So sorry, Madam, I mean Miss. It is a bad word but I

love it.


She giggles-she has a distinctive voice.



Isn’t it good, my “bloody?” I practiced it watching

those Bond movies. Uska nam kya hai? (what’s his name)



James. His name is James.



Those only, Miss. I watch those only over and over

again. If you heard me with your eyes closed, you

wouldn’t even know I’m not a native. I mean, Miss,

would you…


The Girl already has her eyes closed.



Go ahead.



If I bloody well say so, then it bloody well is so.

Those bloody people. No bloody manners. Now open your

bloody eyes and look at me, I said…


The girl opens her eyes and smiles.



You’re bloody perfect.



(giggling) Thank you, thank you, Miss. The hundreds of

time I have practiced bloody, I can’t even tell you,

can’t even count…





Twenty times a day, every day for a week – that makes

twenty into five… No, wait… regular week is seven

days, so that is twenty into…


A GUNSHOT offstage followed by a recognizably

Palestinian SONG like “Wayn A Ramallah.” The Girl

and Manju listen.



You want me to change the channel, Miss? I can’t stand

these shouting-bouting movies.



That’s the news, Manju.



Same thing, Miss, all doom and gloom, kill this, win

that, shoot this, save that.


The Girl is silent.



Close your eyes, Miz. I’ll take off the mask now.


The Girl closes her eyes. Manju takes a cotton pad

from her pocket and scrapes the mask off the

girl’s face, in smooth, lulling strokes. The Girl’s

head drops and she snores for a few seconds, then

starts and opens her eyes.



(softly) Turn up the volume, Manju.





She stops cleaning the girl’s face.



I said, go make it louder.

Manju drops the cotton pad on the table, rises and

walks off stage. The SOUNDS of the SONG RISE

LOUDLY. The Girl picks up the cotton and finishes

cleaning her own face, till all traces of the mask

are completely gone. As if looking in the mirror,

she inspects her face. A harsh SPOTLIGHT finds

her, and illuminates her, blinding. She begins

coughing. The MAN enters.


By Lena K Tuffaha


before you can see

we’ll need to adjust the lens

we find that natural light can be


all those lines and jagged edges


beads of sweat shimmering on the brow

scarlet of a fresh wound

unfurling across a body

might overwhelm

we’ll need to calibrate


before you react

before you assign any labels to what you see

(like injustice)

before you identify any emotions stirring in you

(like anger or shame)

we’ll need to fine-tune

It’s so complicated, this cycle

what appears so obvious

cannot be named

to maximize clarity

find a signature for the moment

we’ll need to select an image

layer the right sounds on top of it

we assemble a collage of now

so you can understand what’s at stake

so you can understand what you think you are seeing

the information that is

being sent from your eyeballs to your brain

is just raw data

and must be processed for you


This is called Context.


see for example the brown-skinned boy

slender limbs running across the street

a rock in his hand

focus on the rock

if you feel a bit unsettled by the chaos unfolding on his street

the smoke billowing from fires all around him

the tank pouring out armed soldiers

at the vanishing point where he aims

steady yourself with the thought

of the damage that the rock could conceivably do

and here it would be illuminating to note

that we have soldiers too

our boys sent across the globe

and don’t we love our boys?

and don’t we want them to come home safe?

see? A tank isn’t necessarily a bad thing            a semi-automatic

weapon aimed at a child maybe isn’t

what it appears to be

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

as you look at that brown boy with the rock in his hand


This is called Nuance.



now it gets trickier

you’ll need to remain vigilant

now that rock-throwing boy

wounds still fresh on his face

eyes half open to the sky

re-appears in the foreground swaddled in a flag            piled onto a stretcher

and beneath him a teeming sea of people

swells in what was the street                        they are lifting what’s left of him overhead

let us now turn up the volume for you

let’s pan out            resist the urge to look too long at

any one face

here a wide camera angle will do best


what are all these people saying?


focus on the totality of the sounds

why aren’t they softer? shouldn’t sorrow

be soft     modest     relatable?


focus on the Allahu akbar

who else says that?   what have you learned to feel about those words?


This is called Critical Thinking.



if you find yourself distracted

caught by the anguish on the mother’s

face in the crowd

focus instead on her veil

notice how many women in the crowd are veiled

how do you feel about that?


let the question fall slowly

between you and the mother

whose son’s limbs have been

collected for burial

if you find your stomach

tightening at the sight of her pain

if you find yourself measuring

the miniscule space her son’s

corpse takes up on the stretcher

if your eyes find others in the crowd


focus again on the sound that floats up

the words you don’t speak

you do not know these people


why are they so angry?


tune into how their grief is loud

and disarrayed and confusing

and threatens to make you feel bad

stay with these feelings

now hold these feelings in front of your eyes

to filter the images you are seeing.


This is called Balance.


For more poems by Lena K Tuffaha read the full winter 2015 issue

The Tulip Tree

By Philip Metres

They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our Jewish neighbors, last year. It throws a shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no. Now they’ve hired a hand to chainsaw an arm—the crux on our side of the fence—and my wife marches in tousled hair and morning sweats to stop the carnage, mid-limb. She recites her litany of no’s, turns home. Minutes later, the neighbors arrive. The worker fingers our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two young clueless daughters alone. I want no trouble. Must I fight for my wife’s desire for pink blooms when my neighbors’ cukes will stunt and blight in shadow? Always the same story: two people, a tree, not enough land or light or love. They want to let the sunlight bathe their garden—how can we refuse them? This is the only tree in our whole backyard—how can they insist? By rights they could cut every bit that begins on their side of the line. Like the baby brought to Solomon, it can’t be cut in two and survive. Someone must give. Dear neighbor, it’s not me. Bloom-shadowed, light deprived, they lower the chainsaw again.


By Tara Ballard

Al-Quds, Nablus, Tulkarem! The Drivers call:
Which servees we shall take together? We want
Ramallah, the height of God. We have friends there.

Kaddish? How much? ‘Ashreen shekel. Twenty total,
as you like. That is all. Yalla, let’s go. Climb through
the door of yellow taxi-bus: an old Mercedes, leather

seats split, windows belching a gust of tobacco smoke.
I am the one woman. My husband and I in the back row.
Eight men turn to examine us. Whole trip will be one o’clock—

ah, one hour, yes. Eyes fasten to my hands, folded
on this skirted lap, and we are patient as Driver hurries
through Wadi an-Nar, desert Valley of Fire.

First checkpoint, easy passage. Palestinian flag
painted on metal trash bins. Two soldiers with
machine guns nod, and we are through. Next checkpoint,

not so easy. Even inside the Territories, IDF has many.
My eyes finger the purse, identities safe within.
Husband’s words—only if we have to—enter

my ear, and we turn our glance outside. But this?
What? A barrier before the point, because today
is different. Today, huge stones block this road. Piles

of rock front like bold words. Driver’s hands yell
in irritation: Shoof! Look, we must find another way, another
road. Ah, yes, nothing is certain here, but this. Yalla, let’s go.



Intifada Love Story: 1988

By Susan Muaddi Darraj

When they came, they stayed on the rooftop for seven days. Nobody knew it would be that long, not at first. They came because of the demonstration in Ramallah, said Jamil’s father. He’d been the one to see them from the salon window, as they’d trudged up the walkway, their backs loaded with olive green duffel bags, their shoulders embraced by the leather straps of dusty AK47s. Four shebab killed in that protest, including one of the boys from Jamil’s history lecture class, and twenty arrested, they’d heard. All the villages were on lockdown.

The thumping of boots on the house’s flat cement roof could be heard most clearly in the kitchen, despite the insistent humming of the old refrigerator and the loud coughing of the pipes. On the first day they were there, the heavy thuds shook loose bits of plaster from around the light fixture to the floor, like a light coat of snow that Jamil’s mother sent him to sweep. Four, Jamil thought. There must be four of them up there. He counted their distinct footsteps and patterns of shuffling – one guy had a light, quick gait, while the another plodded like a giant with thick, flat feet – as he lazily swept the powdery plaster into a pile, then pushed the small hill into a dustpan. Since his last sister had gotten married, household chores had come down on his head. The usual bad luck of being the youngest, the last egg to be plucked from the coop.

He put the broom and the dustpan back in the pantry, then turned on the sink faucet to rinse his hands. The pipes groaned, then backfired sharply, and he smiled to realize that the footsteps above his head froze. He dropped the grin when his parents rushed into the kitchen.

“It’s just the pipes,” he calmed them. They knew that, of course; the pipes always made that horrible cracking. His father exhaled and sat down at the table.

“Go talk to them,” Jamil’s mother urged her husband, her hands picking on a hair of scratched wood on the table’s surface. With her thumbnail, she pushed the line out at the sides, until it tore a sliver of wood of and chipped a crescent out of her polished, pink nail.

“And say what?” Her husband seemed annoyed, like someone who thought himself clever but was easily beaten at a game of cards or tawla.

“I’ll go,” Jamil offered.

“No! God forbid,” his father replied, standing reluctantly, petulant at being pushed to the task. “This is my house.”

Up he went, trudging up the cement steps off the balcony to the flat roof, calling, “Salaam, salaam! Shalom, shalom!” as he neared the top. Jamil and his mother sat down at the table to wait, interpreting the noises – the stomps, the scrapes – above their heads. No shots fired, no yelling. That was good, at least.

When his father returned, Jamil could see the anger in his face, and the sweat that made his hairline slick. He sat down and croaked, “Water,” to his wife.

After he gulped down the small glass she filled for him, he told them, “Four or five days. They said it shouldn’t be longer.”

“Why our house?”

“It’s the biggest on this side of the hill. They can see everything from up there.”

Only later did he mention the rest of it. He admitted it nervously, like a confession wrenched from his guilty conscience by a priest. “They want us to stay inside.”

“We have to?” asked his wife sharply.

“And if we leave?” Jamil muttered. “What? Will they shoot us?”

His father slammed his hand down on the rickety table, catapulting the glass to the floor, where it shattered like a spray of ice pellets. His mother rolled her eyes at Jamil – that was the first glass from a new set, sent by her sister in Michigan, to break. “They shot four boys in Ramallah!” his father shouted.

After his father trudged out of the room, Jamil started to sweep up the glass shards from the floor, but his mother took the broom from him. “My turn,” she said. “And keep your mouth sealed. Let this glass be the only casualty this week.”

They played backgammon for the first night, sitting on the grape-colored, velvet-upholstered sofas in the formal salon, where they never sat casually. Tonight, though, his mother seemed not to care when Jamil’s father took out the J&B bottle, set a glass on the coffee table, settled on the largest sofa and opened the game board. Poor game board, Jamil thought, almost hysterically. Before tonight, its function had been to serve as a decoration in the room, its inlaid dark wood, in a geometric pattern, accenting the stuffy furniture. It had been set casually, like a movie prop, on the side table, to make it look like they played every day, to add to the aura of their perfect family: Father, a retired schoolteacher; Mother, a beauty in her day; and Son, a top student and soccer player – Tel al-Hilou’s model unit.

The phone buzzed steadily that first night. Their friends and neighbors, the Ghanems, called first. “I can see them from my bedroom window,” Mr. Ghanem reported. “Little kids with guns. These Israelis – what? Are they sending children to monitor us?” The old woman, Miss Salma, on the other side, could see them from her bathroom window: “Six rifles, but only four soldiers. They have a little stove, and they’re taking water from your roof tank with a metal pitcher.” She asked if she could bring them any food, but Jamil’s mother said no. It was better to wait and not cause problems. “They’re probably nervous, and a nervous boy with a gun is no good thing.”

“They don’t look nervous to me,” Miss Salma replied before she hung up. “But let me know if you need anything. I’m not afraid.”


For most of the morning of the second day, Jamil’s father fretted that Miss Salma was implying that he was. “I carried her brother’s body on my back when we buried him,” he said angrily to nobody in particular. “She had better not be calling me a coward.” Jamil’s father lived his life worried about gossip, and as much as he claimed to despise old women with free time, he also feared their storytelling.

His wife soothed him, saying she’d only meant that they wouldn’t bother an old woman. He reminded her of the girls who had been arrested in the demonstration three months ago, and the one who’d been released – pregnant – to her parents. “It’s like the French in Algeria,” he muttered. In his bedroom, Jamil listened, and while his annoyance with his father was blossoming, he was nevertheless sinking in the quicksand of his own worries. Being trapped in the house was upsetting his parents, who had to survive each other as well as the soldiers, but it threatened to suffocate a seventeen-year-old man.

The bedroom, large and square and white, had only become his when his last sister had gotten married. Years ago, he’d shared it with her and two other sisters: four children, crowded in one room, sharing the bathroom with their parents. When the house had been built eighty years ago, his father once told him, it didn’t even have a bathroom. The third bedroom had become the bathroom when Jamil’s parents had married. His mother – whose family had been the first to hold a wedding in the new hotel in Ramallah instead of in the church hall, like everyone else – had insisted. That left them with only two bedrooms, because she needed to keep a salon as well, to receive visitors properly.

Now it suddenly felt like the room, the whole house, didn’t belong to him anymore, like the soldiers on the rooftop could come in and take this too. As he lay on his bed, listening to his parents’ nervous chatter in the salon and the faint scrapes on the roof above his head, Jamil imagined that the soldiers would never leave. What if they stayed up there, nested, made the rooftop and the house their base, and Jamil stayed locked in this house forever? He’d never finish high school, never get married, never have children.

His thoughts spiraled like a hawk, seeking prey, until they centered and swooped down, as they inevitably did, on Muna, the Ghanems’ daughter. She would be home from school in a few hours and he could see into her living room from his bedroom window. He hoped she would signal him, even call, perhaps, pretend she wanted to give him the homework assignments he’d missed the day before, just so he could hear her voice. And if he could glimpse her sheet of black hair, her eyes from the window, it would end this terrible day happily.

In the other room, his parents had started up another game of backgammon. Jamil napped, not knowing what else to do until dinner, but his thoughts were filled with Muna: Muna next to him in algebra class, Muna secretly holding his hand under their white robes during their confirmation ceremony, Muna being attacked in a jail cell by a soldier wearing thick black boots, Muna collapsing in his arms after he’d broken in, kung-fu style, to rescue her. He awoke in a sweat, noticing that it was four o’clock, hurried to the window. But all the drapes in the Ghanem’s house were drawn. Of course they were. Jamil didn’t blame her father. They had three daughters too, just like his parents, but he felt like a castaway nonetheless. There would be no communication today.

Dinner that night was meatless, since his mother hadn’t been able to go to the butcher. Lentils and rice, a tomato-less salad since they couldn’t even go out to their own garden. “The last of my cucumbers,” his mother murmured like a mourner as they ate. “I suppose we can’t even go to the shed to get some pickled jars from our shelves?” His father didn’t reply, and she didn’t raise the subject again. They ate as usual, in the formal style she always insisted upon – quiet, cloth napkin in the lap, salad first. She baked a tray of haresia, since all she needed was the sugar and the tahine and the wheat, and they ate it as their dessert.

In the middle of the night, in his bedroom, he heard laughter above his head, two loud stomps, and a man’s explosive guffaw. He tried to fall back asleep, imagining his head so heavy that it sank into the thick pillow, but there was a pull, a tension in his neck that wouldn’t relax. He gave up, instead switching on his lamp and pulling Muna’s letters from his bedside drawer, where he kept them hidden under his old comic books. Every note she’d ever scribbled to him as they stood in line, had her younger sister discreetly palm to him – hastily written notes on napkins, plain notebook paper, on the pale blue sheets she’d used for half a year in tenth grade, all there in a bundle, organized from first to last from sixth grade, when their eyes first connected during Sunday mass, to two weeks ago, when she’d passed him a textbook in the library with a note tucked behind the table of contents. “All my love – mim.” Always signed with her initial, a simple circle – ﻢ – but the tail curliqued with a flourish, so secretly and lovingly. Whenever he saw a mim, in anything – a store sign, in the newspaper, in Mubarak’s and Shamir’s names, even – her face appeared, making the ugliness of it all more palatable. But her last letters were so insistent, and he hadn’t answered them. Girls, he’d thought. Always needing confirmation, something official, some way to prove how he felt. Why? Why couldn’t she accept the bare facts – she liked him, he liked her. Official things were in the distant future. He drifted off to sleep, wondering why Palestinians girls needed every little emotion clarified, every feeling uprooted.

He woke up in the morning, on the third day, startled, the letters under his chin, to the sound of yelling from the roof. An Israeli accent, speaking Arabic – “Shai. Bring shai. Four cups. Now.” The voice was so close, and then he realized it was in the house.

His mother scuttled by in the hallway, glancing in anxiously as she passed. He shoved the letters back in the drawer and hurried out, pulling his robe over his shoulders and licking the sleep off his teeth. His mother had put her small teapot on the stove and was digging in her canister for peppermint. His father walked in off the balcony, cursing.

“Sons of dogs, may their mothers burn at their fathers’ funerals – coming into my house! May the blackest plague swirl around them and kill them!” he fumed, his chest heaving even as he pulled four teacups from the pantry. “I should put some rat droppings in their shai, those bastards. Too bad you are too perfect of a homekeeper,” he muttered, consoling his wife, and even Jamal could see his father had now exploded sufficiently, released his anger, and could focus on calming his wife’s anxieties. That’s how it was in their home: the privilege of emotional outbursts always were awarded to his father before the others could share it.

“The roof is one thing, but to come into the house!” his mother said shakily, steeping the tea leaves in the pot, pushing them down with a fork she pulled from the sink. It seemed to Jamil, standing in the doorway, leaning on the wall, that the water boiled languidly, slowly, and their nerves bounced like the leaves in the simmering pot. “They just walked in like they own it!”

“Sons of dogs,” his father muttered again, pulling a tray from the rack. “Are we servants now, as well as prisoners?”

It was left to Jamal to carry the tray up to the roof. His mother had started to do it, only to be yelled at by her husband. “My wife is not a waitress for the Israeli army!”, but she wouldn’t let him ascend either, because his temper would get them all killed. “Send Jamil,” she finally said. And so up the cement steps he went.

He reached up above his head and knocked on the roof door, calling “Shalom!” as his father had instructed, listened for the mispronounced “Idfa’!” and walked through, pushing upwards, finally planting his feet on the cement roof and raising his eyes, to see a rifle pointed at his heart.

“You brought four cups?” asked a voice to the side, not owned by the curly-haired, rough-shaven teenager holding the rifle. The tray trembled in his hand and Jamil had the sense to steady it with the other.

“Yes,” he answered the Voice, his eyes focusing for some reason on the fingernails of the soldier – lines of black tucked deep in the nailbed, the knuckles below caked and peeling as the fingertips playfully drummed the trigger.

“Put it down,” instructed the Voice calmly. “Right at your feet.”

He did, and looked to the right. The Voice’s owner was younger than he thought, perhaps Jamil’s own age, his face and neck browned by the sun. Eyebrows like even rectangles, separated by a slit of brown skin. A chipped front tooth.

“Get the fuck out of here. And tell your mother to make us sandwiches for lunch.”

Jamil left, the gun still pointed at him, although he understood now that the initial splash of fear had dried off his body – they would laugh to themselves later, over and over, about his expression, imitate his reactions to pass the time.

His father roared, and his mother groaned, even as she began to pull the bread from the cabinet. When Jamil took it up to them, there was no gun now, only four pairs of eyes, four foreheads greasy and sweaty from the hot sun, four pairs of parched lips. They made Jamil nreak the corner off one sandwich and eat it, then the Voice took the small tray from him and they began devouring, not caring whether he’d descended or not, as they sat around the water tank.

Jamil stood awkwardly, feeling oddly like an intruder on their meal, despite the fact that they were gnawing on their hummus and pickle sandwiches while perching on his father’s – his grandfather’s – rooftop. He looked over the ledge, down into the courtyard, where the gate of the old chicken coop, long unused, swung lazily, unattached to the wall. Further up, he saw the metal doors of the old well, which they hardly used anymore.

The Voice licked his fingertips and picked up the fallen crumbs like a magnet attracting metal shavings, while the Gun paused, thumped his chest with a closed fist and burped. Jamil saw their guns leaning casually against the water tank, the large cylinder he’d helped his father install a few years ago. It caught the rainwater and stored it, a reserve right there on the roof, a modern development his father loved and was proud of, no longer depending on his well as many of their neighbors continued to do.

Across the street, in the window, a movement – small, quick – attracted his attention. A curtain pulled back at the Ghanem’s house, then dropped hastily. He waited, wondering if Muna had seen him, but the curtain stayed in its place. He looked back at the four soldiers only to find the Voice staring at him.

The Voice handed him the tray, cracking, “You have pretty neighbors,” in his rough Arabic. Jamil grabbed it as the others chuckled. He hurried down the steps, spent the rest of the day quietly reading and re-reading the three-day old newspaper, filled with turmoil that was meaningless in light of this moment. Riots in Jenin. A suicide in Lebanon, a girl jumped off her balcony. King Hussein is feeling better, the Queen says in an interview with the New York paper.

That night he dreamed of himself in black ninja pants, his hands slicing through the air, breaking noses and cracking collar bones, defending his love. He woke up, sweating hard, his hands searching for the comfort of the bundle of Muna’s letters.


On the fourth day, Jamil worried that he might scream at his mother, who was obsessively fretting over her inability to hang the laundry on the lines. Or at his father for his bluster, promising between TV viewing and snacking to slaughter the army with his bare hands. Jamil opted to be even more alone than he was: he spent most of the morning watching a crackly video tape of a king-fu movie. It was in Chinese, as far as he knew, dubbed into Russian, or Polish, or something, but he didn’t care. He could still follow the slow, angry glares, the face-offs, the jumps, kicks, and flip – the anger and its release. He knew every move by heart, had his favorite moments of the carefully choreographed fight scenes. But even that grew wearying, so he went into his room and spent the afternoon looking through his books. What were his classmates doing now? He lay on the floor in front of the low bookshelf. His sisters’ old textbooks filled half of it, and all the family’s other books – some inherited, some borrowed, the old Bible, some funeral memorial booklets of old people he didn’t know, a couple of photograph albums – sat dutifully, side by side, like victims condemned and waiting at the gallows. He pulled a battered, creased literature textbook, his eldest sister’s name scribbled in the front cover. Literature of the Globe. He opened it to the contents: “The Ancient World,” “The European Middle Ages,” “The Islamic Golden Era.” He turned to this section: he read Moses Maiomenedes, scanning the biography: a Jew. Nobody had ever told him that. Back to the contents: “India and the Subcontinent.” Tagore: he flipped to this section, and read “The Punishment,” about a wronged girl who stubbornly accepts her unjust sentence without a fight. Picked up the old newspaper again: some stories he missed… food riot in Thailand. George Bush elects his new cabinet. The girl in Lebanon again. Enough victimization. He felt confused, his world was not right. He skipped dinner and went to bed early.


On the fourth day, they ran out of bread. Jamil told the Voice, whose beard and mustache were thickening, that they were out of almost everything else too: milk, butter, eggs, vegetables.

“Tell one of your pretty neighbors to bring it,” he replied gruffly. “And we need more tea.”

“How long will you be staying?” Jamil asked boldly, but his only reply was a glare. Irritated by the casual reference to the Ghanems, Jamil repeated the question, regretting it instantly, feeling in that second that he had betrayed his father, his mother, his priest, Muna, including his own intelligence. The Voice rushed to his gun, reaching the tank in three strides, spun and pointed it at Jamil in one fluid motion, while one of his comrades watched casually. While the gun centered on him, Jamil still saw irrationally another soldier to the left, behind the Voice picking his teeth with his fingernail.

“What did you ask me, you filthy dog?”

Jamil felt surprised by how smoothly the Voice cursed in Arabic. How did he learn it? This question circulated persistently in his head as he stared, for the second time in his seventeen years, at a gun aimed at his heart.

“What did you ask me?” the Voice was shouting now, and when Jamil still did not reply – did he learn it in the prisons? – the Voice lifted the gun skyward, perpendicular to the flat roof, and with a casual contraction of his index finger, punctured the cloudless blue sky with a single bullet. He just deflowered the sky, Jamil thought, and wanted to burst out laughing at his own insanity.

A small silence, and then Jamil sensed several things at once – a curtain pulled back, two sets of panicked footsteps below, his own heart pausing in its beats, a desert in his throat.

He moved to the steps to block his parents, to show them he was fine. His mother dragged him down by the hems of his pantlegs, then by the shirtsleeves, to the kitchen, ran back and locked the balcony door, and, despite his protests, searched every inch of his face, arms, and chest. “Are you sure? Are you hurt?” she muttered over and over, not listening for his responses and reassurances.

The phone rang and his father, his face gray, his tongue quieted for once, answered softly. “We are fine, thank God,” he said robotically into the phone and hung up, but it rang again almost immediately. Six more phone calls followed.

That evening, Jamil sat on the couch, reading the newspaper yet again. The story of the girl in Lebanon startled him out of his reverie, as if he hadn’t already scanned it ten times. Suspected rape, an uncle, fourteen floors, cement courtyard. The church wouldn’t bury her because it was a suicide. Sadness flooded over his body again, and he stood abruptly, asked his father to play tawla out of sheer desperation to fill his mind.

After playing several rounds to soothe his father ad himself and after eating every seed, nut and pastry his mother placed before him, after they’d all gone to bed, to empty his own heart, Jamil wrote a long letter to Muna.


The next morning, the fifth day, shortly after dawn, old Miss Salma hobbled over to their front door. Jamil’s mother opened the door quickly and let her in. She carried two plastic sacks of her homemade bread, a jug of milk, and a block of cheese wrapped in cloth.

“God bless your hands, Miss Salma, and may God bless our lives with your presence for many more years,” Jamil’s mother said, accepting the sacks without the usual feigned reluctance and disappearing into her kitchen.

“Come here, Jamil,” Miss Salma said, sitting down heavily on the velvet sofa, her thick ankles ballooning out under the hem of her blue dress. Her diabetes was worsening, he could tell. Her legs were like heavy slabs of meat, pushed into her shoes so tightly that the front bulged out against the leather tongue. Her mottled blue calves and shins looked like a world map. “Are you alright, young man?”

“I’m fine. They didn’t touch me,” he replied, putting a small side table next to her as his mother called from the kitchen that she was boiling tea. He walked to the kitchen and took from his mother a small dish of watermelon seeds and a glass of ice water.

“Those bastards stared at me as soon as I came out of my front door,” she said, cracking the seeds expertly between her teeth and spitting out the shells into her palm. Jamil grabbed an ashtray and put it before her politely. “They leaned over the roof and watched me all the way until I got here and knocked on your door.”

“Sons of dogs,” Jamil’s father grumbled from where he sat on the other sofa, his arms folded across his chest. “That other boy in Ramallah died yesterday. They couldn’t find a kidney.”

“They had one, but they couldn’t get it in. And a new checkpoint around Ramallah, did you hear?” Miss Salma asked.

Jamil’s father shrugged. “All I hear, my dear lady, is this news from you and sometimes whatever I can get on the radio. Our newspaper is a week old. The only thing playing on the TV are soap operas. We could have a full-out war, but Abu Ammar would find it only suitable to play Egyptian soap operas for us!”

“Sugar in your tea?” asked Jamil’s mother, and Jamil wondered, ludicrous as it were, whether his polished mother would always fret over etiquette and appearances even in the midst of an apocalypse. While the world burned around them, she might spend precious minutes wiping down the silverware or folding napkins. Yet, while it irritated him, this image also soothed him; there would always be order, as long as his mother was around. Women, he felt, brought stability, like Miss Salma who’d arrived and solved their problems with her bags of bread and cheese, like Madame Amira, the former nun who lived on the other end of the village, who threw herself on top of boys so the army didn’t drag them away.

“Two spoons,” Miss Salma said. “You know, they’re closing the schools, no?”

“What?” Jamil asked, panicked into joining the adults’ conversation.

“Oh yes, all the schools in Ramallah will shut down, starting tomorrow. Seven o’clock curfew.”

“But not here in our village,” Jamil clarified.

“Well, be prepared,” she said, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Yesterday the principal of the middle school called and asked if they could use my cellar as a classroom if they need to. All the villages are making back-up plans.”

During the rest of her visit, Jamil barely spoke, feeling fretful and anxious. As she prepared herself to leave, he suddenly decided on a course of action. He rushed to his room, grabbed the letter, and then returned, insisting on helping the widow at the door. Sure his parents were not listening, he pushed the letter into her bag, asking her quietly to give this to Muna, Mr. Ghanem’s oldest daughter. Not Huda or Lena, but Muna.

“Miss Salma…” he stammered.

She smiled and whispered, “Trust me, young man. Nobody keeps secrets better than me.” And with a wink she was gone.


Jamil sat in his bedroom window that evening, having just delivered bread and cheese to the roof. His parents watched the new Egyptian soap opera on the television, but he knew they weren’t paying attention. His mother was knitting a sweater for him that he didn’t need and his father leafed through one of Jamil’s calculus textbooks, for lack of anything better. “If they need schoolteachers,” he’d told Miss Salma, “I’ll come out of retirement. They will need math teachers.”

He thought back to Muna’s last letter, which he’d memorized by heart – it seemed like she’d written it and slipped it into his satchel years ago and not just two weeks – and her insistence that something be made clear between them. She wanted an answer. Why had he interpreted it so badly? She was right – there was no time to be lost anymore.

It was nine o’clock, and he peered out the window. Across the alley, the curtain moved aside, although the room inside remained dark, as he’d instructed in his letter. A pause, then the curtain fell twice, and was still.


“God bless you, Miss Salma!” he said to himself.


The soldiers left on Saturday night, the seventh day, while they were sleeping, slipping away in the dark, leaving crumpled napkins and dirty tea cups next to the water tank. Sunday morning, they woke up and realized they could attend Mass. He would see Muna, make plans. They could do a long engagement, marry when they’d finished college, lock it in now, rather than search for a bride later. Or maybe they’d just marry this summer, and attend classes together. Why waste time? There was no time anymore, and nothing was certain.

Jamil hurried into the bathroom to shave, scrubbing his face with a soapy rag. The water pipes creaked as the water flowed, and Jamil looked more closely at the water as it pooled in the white basin. A horrible thought came into his head at the same time that he heard his father cursing from the kitchen and footsteps stomping up to the roof.

His mother rushed into the bathroom, shrieking, “Don’t use the water, Jamil! I think they –“

“I know. I thought as much.” Jamil swabbed his face with rubbing alcohol, ignoring the sting and his watering eyes, then climbed up to the roof and stood over the water tank, staring down into it with his father. An empty bucket, which Jamil had never noticed before on the roof, lay on its side next to the tank. “They were using it,” his father kicked the bucket, “as their bathroom, and then dumped it into our tank before they left.”

Jamil stared down at the waste floating in their modern water tank, and suppressed the nausea creeping acidly up into his chest.

“Goddamn animals,” he screamed. There, the anger did it. The anger quenched the nausea. His father was right to always vent.

He knew what to do. This week had made him into a man, with a man’s problems and solutions. He walked down to the cellar and fetched a metal tin and a long rope, then strode down the courtyard steps to the well. He hadn’t visited it in a long time, but he knew his father always opened it before a big rain. He pulled back the old, metal door, and he let the rope slide down its stone-blocked sides, the tin clanging, echoing, as it clunked down. The well was deep, deep, deep in the earth, and not as vulnerable as an open tank on the roof. The well was old, but could not be contaminated.

As he carried the bucket of icy, clear water to the house, he calculated how much it would cost to empty the roof tank, to sanitize it, and then how long it would take for the rains to refill it. He’d look for a job soon, start earning some money. Before he stepped through the doorway of the house, he glanced over at the Ghanem’s window. He would see her today, no matter what, in church, would see, maybe touch, the black ribbon of her hair.

Take me with you, to Tel Aviv

By Firas Khoury
Translated from the Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes

My Occupier and I ride the train together. “Excuse me” I say, smiling, asking if I can sit in the empty seat next to him. My Occupier lets me through graciously, smiling.

I get off the train. My Occupier serves me coffee and lunch at a restaurant. “Do you need anything else?” my Occupier asks.

“No” I tell him, smiling. My Occupier smiles and backs away, so as not to disturb me by hovering over the table for even another second.

My phone rings. My Occupier speaks to me through the phone, “Can I offer you some of our products?”

“Sorry, I don’t have time.”

“Have a good day,” he smiles.

“You too,” I smile.

I leave the restaurant and head to the bank next door. I get stopped by my Occupier’s car, he asks how he can get to the Occupied street named after a leader of the Occupation. I think, I choose my words in the language of the Occupation and I give him directions. My Occupier thanks me and smiles. I smile.

I go into the bank. Next to me, my Occupier is reading the newspaper of the Occupation. Our eyes happen to meet so he smiles to avoid that pointless awkwardness. I smile back, and wait for the screen to announce my turn. My Occupier processes a cheque for me, a cheque I received from my Occupier after he deducted a percentage for the Occupation army. The money goes into my account (my Occupier’s account). I thank him and I smile, so he smiles.

I enter my Occupier’s university to pay off a debt that is a few years old. It is the first day of the academic year and my Occupier is joyous: my Occupier frolics, dances, sings, jumps. My Occupier is flying high!

“Me and my Occupier are in a garden, under a canopy of roses”


I call my Occupier, I want to meet. My Occupier is a dulcet beauty with lips like Golan cherries moist with dew. Nothing can turn my gaze from her breasts except the curve of her hips, my Occupier’s hips. We meet in my Occupier’s bedroom. My Occupier kisses me, I shag my Occupier. She comes, so I come. Me and my Occupier have just come (together).


In his taxi, on my way to a party, my Occupier asks me “Shall I turn on the meter?”

“Yes,” I reply, smiling.

“Thirty shekels. OK?” he asks, not smiling.

I say “OK.” I imitate him, and do not smile.

My Occupier has thirty shekels. My Occupier has no meter. My Occupier hates keeping count. My Occupier hates history.

Here we are now…

My Occupier and I are celebrating in the same place. My Occupier raises his glass high towards me as he drunkenly passes me in the queue for the toilet:

“Happy New Year” he says in a voice that pierces through the loud music. “Happy New Year,” I reply, smiling.

My Occupier has a drink and a holiday. My Occupier has no meter. My Occupier hates keeping count. My Occupier hates history.


My Occupier hunts me down before dawn between the folds of the last drink in the final bar. He wants to talk to me about politics. My Occupier is a “Leftist”- his hatred of me is gentle and my hatred of him is banal. My Occupier is my Master and feels guilty about his status, so he tries to endear himself to me in the tackiest ways, and smiles. What else can I do? Eternally bored, I smile.

He tells me about his earnest love for the superficialities of my culture and his commitment to the two-state solution. My Occupier has chewed up Yaffa and spit on Haifa, urinated on Akka and swept away the Galilee, cast Safad into darkness, wiped away Al-Lid and Ramlah and combed the coast. He has choked Al-Nasra and swallowed Al-Quds but he would like to take Tubas from the hands of my Occupier and liberate it for me.

My Occupier is a Leftist. My Occupier is a Leftist.

Whether I like it or not, he has publicly declared himself to be a Leftist.

My Occupier is the same as my Occupier.


As the first rays emerged from behind the deceitful cement buildings, he began to get comfortable in my company (in his own company) and so he asked me for the only thing I have left, my right to be “Occupied”. He wasn’t content with what I offered because according to him, he is not my Occupier.

My Occupier thinks he is “not” my Occupier, but I think that is the only thing he is. That is how he started out and that is how he insists on continuing. To me, nothing remains of him except this “not.”

My Occupier has no meter and I don’t have anything left to pay him with, so I pay for the glass of whiskey and get up. I do not see him anymore, I do not see my Occupier. I see beyond my Occupier, and I smile.


This story first appeared in Arabic on

Translator’s notes

“Me and my darling are in a garden, under a canopy of roses” is a line from a song by the iconic Arabic singer Sabah Fakhry.

Yaffa, Akka, Al-Lid, Al-Nasra and Al-Quds are the Arabic names for Jaffa, Acre, Lydda, Nazareth and Jerusalem. The English spelling for the other cities mentioned in the story reflects the Arabic pronunciation.


Firas Khoury is a Palestinian citizen of Israel living in Haifa. He is one of over 1.5 million citizens of Israel whose cultural, linguistic and ethnic heritage is Palestinian. They are the descendants of indigenous peoples who did not flee to neighboring Arab countries during the 1948 war that led to the establishment of Israel.

Although they were granted citizenship, Palestinian citizens of Israel were subject to martial law until 1966 and continue to face institutionalized racial discrimination today. Several prominent Israeli politicians have even gone as far as to call for the revocation of their citizenship, or for their collective transfer to a future Palestinian state.

Take me with you, to Tel Aviv is a bold expression of this community’s unique experience of exile within their own homeland. It is a defiant expression of a collective identity that is still considered subversive in Israeli political culture, written in a strikingly detached voice that mirrors the alienation of the protagonist.

On the Plane of Men Without Legs

By Naomi Shihab Nye

A deep lull engulfed us up and down the aisle.
Some lacked arms or hands as well.
I wanted to beg, Tell me your second thoughts
about war, or your fourth. Once the cloud settled
and silence coated the changed air…where
were you then? I would not wish to enter even
the slimmest corridor leading back. But ask,
Where are you going today? My seatmate
says glumly, We are going to a gathering
of people like us. To learn how to live again.
He doesn’t say, anything accomplished.
He doesn’t say lost or won.



By Naomi Shihab Nye

The old farmer Mohammed Al-Atrash was standing in shock, speechless…

On the first day after the Eid, everyone out and about,
returning to school and work, but Israeli soldiers had a plan.

They brought massive forces starting at dawn, circled an area
over one square mile declaring it a closed military area.
Dozens of olive, almond, za’rur, and pine trees were destroyed.
For pictures of the corpses, see footnote 1 below.

Never mind, we will not include pictures of the corpses. Though stumps,
they are too big for the page. They scorch its edges.
We would like the trees to tell their own stories but
it is hard for trees to speak, once cut. What does the world know
of the tree-tender’s sorrow? How many places, how many years?

Before cutting a tree, anyone might hear
almond shells clicking into a bowl, olive oil sizzling in a skillet.
Leaves in sweet successions of light and shade speckling anyone’s face,
saying yes, you are lucky to be part of the esteemed human race.

(Indented sections from an email by Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, Occupied Palestine, 2011)