ARE YOU SAFE? (or the occupation of love)

By Shebana Coelho

 

ACT I

 

SCENE 1

 

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.

 

GIRL

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

 

MAN

Your middle name, to be exact.

 

GIRL

All it takes is a Muslim in the middle.

 

MAN

Naseema, to be exact.

 

GIRL

Naseema.

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.

 

GIRL

Naseema. Wind.

 

She turns to the audience.

 

GIRL

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.

NIDAL

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.

 

NIDAL

…hair like yours…

 

GIRL

…like how..?

 

NIDAL

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.

 

GIRL

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.

 

NIDAL

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.

 

NIDAL

Get down. Now.

 

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

they look at the audience.

 

NIDAL

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.

 

GIRL

The sheep nuzzle the casings. The chicken nuzzle the

feet.

 

NIDAL

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

farm.

GIRL

Not allowed.

 

NIDAL

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

between the dotted lines, see that signature, see the

shadow of that ink…

 

GIRL

The water in the river…

 

NIDAL

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

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

there…

 

GIRL

…settlements, swimming pools, dates…

 

NIDAL

…stockpiles, guards, guns.

 

GIRL

But still…

 

NIDAL

We know…

 

They slowly begin to rise so they are sitting on

their knees.

 

GIRL

….that after a village is destroyed…

 

NIDAL

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

only…

 

GIRL

…this high…

 

NIDAL

…that high…

GIRL

…this tall…

 

NIDAL

…that short…

 

GIRL

…building a wall…

 

NIDAL

…patting a wall into place…

 

GIRL

…by moonlight, only by moonlight…

 

NIDAL

…just so…

 

They slowly rise to their feet

 

NIDAL

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

 

He sits cross-legged on the stage.

 

GIRL

At dawn, he was sitting outside…

 

NIDAL

…twenty feet from the mosque waiting for prayers to

start.

 

GIRL

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.

 

NIDAL

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

body, they learned.

GIRL

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.

 

BLACKOUT

 

They exit in the dark.

 

 

 

SCENE 2

 

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.

 

MANJU

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

 

GIRL

Ms.

 

MANJU

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

madam.

 

GIRL

No.

 

MANJU

Miss, what beautiful nails you have. Bloody beautiful,

if I may say so.

 

The girl laughs, intrigued.

MANJU

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

love it.

 

She giggles-she has a distinctive voice.

 

MANJU

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

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

 

GIRL

James. His name is James.

 

MANJU

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.

 

GIRL

Go ahead.

 

MANJU

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.

 

GIRL

You’re bloody perfect.

 

MANJU

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

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

can’t even count…

 

GIRL

Try.

MANJU

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.

 

MANJU

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

these shouting-bouting movies.

 

GIRL

That’s the news, Manju.

 

MANJU

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

that, shoot this, save that.

 

The Girl is silent.

 

MANJU

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.

 

GIRL

(softly) Turn up the volume, Manju.

 

MANJU

What?

 

She stops cleaning the girl’s face.

 

GIRL

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.

Goodbye, Thea Stavroula

By Lisa Suhair Majaj

She died at 94. There are worse ages at which to leave this earth, but that doesn’t dispel the sadness. How many changes did she see in her life? How many wars? When she was a girl, the quickest way from Limassol to Paphos was by boat. People stayed in their villages, grew their own food. Now there are highways, and cars, and smart phones, and all sorts of other things she probably never dreamed of—though some things, like wars and their after-effects, don’t seem to change much.

She lived in Episkopi, a mixed village, populated by both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots until the invasion that split the country. She raised three sons, losing a daughter at the age of four. My husband tells me she always wore the Hand of Fatima, at the time considered a distinctively Muslim symbol, next to the cross around her neck. That doesn’t surprise me. From the first time I met her, as I struggled to find enough Greek to thank her for her coffee, her smiling hospitality, it was clear that she had a large, embracing spirit. Whenever we visited there were always stray cats she was feeding, children in the garden, a bowl of sweets for passers by.

And everyone passed by. Her house was at the heart of the village, right across from the church, down the street from the archeological museum. Neighbors, relatives, outsiders—all were welcome. She taught the young archeologists staying at the museum how to embroider, unperturbed by the lack of a common language. There was no better place for coffee than perched on one of the chunks of ancient Roman columns scattered outside her gate, breathing in the stunning vista of the coastline spread out below, the sense of timelessness.

But time never stops.

The day Thea Stavroula died, a massive sandstorm struck, blanketing the island for days in a cloud of dust so thick it was impossible to take a deep breath. Temperatures soared as the sky pressed down, gritty and clotted. Even the sweat rivulets rolling down my skin felt muddy.

On the day of the funeral, we braved the brownish haze to drive from Nicosia to Episkopi. We parked outside of her small, familiar house, the usual coastal vista shrouded in dust, and crossed the street to the church. Family and neighbors were already gathering in the oppressively hot stone-paved yard, their black clothing a reminder of why we were there.

Inside, the church was dim and slightly cooler. I slipped some coins into the donation box and lit three candles: one for Stavroula, one for my parents, who died decades ago, and one for those still engaged in this battle called life. Then the chanting of the Orthodox service began, the musicality of the priest’s voice carrying me out of my thoughts as the candles flickered.

Soon enough the service was over—how quickly we mark passage from this earth!—and mourners gathered again in the churchyard, waiting for the coffin to be carried out. At the gate of the yard I noticed two tiny, ancient women clutching each other’s hands for support. One, I saw with a thrum of sadness, wore mismatched slippers on her feet. Later my sister-in-law told me that after the 1974 Turkish invasion, when refugees took shelter in Episkopi, Thea Stravroula had been the first to help these two women, giving them olives, that staple of village sustenance. Decades later, they had come to say goodbye.

We proceeded to the cemetery, where the open coffin required confrontation. I hardly recognized Stavroula in the body that lay face up to the sky. Age and illness had replaced her calm, robust demeanor with a startlingly gaunt profile; her eyes were no longer smiling, but closed.

This was my son’s first funeral. He watched carefully as they lowered the open coffin into the grave with ropes, poured oil on the body, scattered earth, and rinsed the shovel off with water over the coffin, mixing earth’s elements with her human remains. Then the coffin was closed and buckets of soil were tipped on top, attendants shoveling in more to finish the job. Dust clouds rose to join the dust that hung in the heat-struck, lowering sky. Her body went into the earth, earth was shoveled on top of her, and the sky rained earth on all of us: a dusty kind of tears.

At bedtime that night, my son asked me, “What is it like when someone passes away? What do they feel? What do they see? Where do they go? What do they become?” I had no clear answers to offer. Instead I kissed him and stroked his hair till his breathing settled.

But Stravroula didn’t settle. She lingered in the air around me, rich and full, her life too real to close a coffin lid on. I thought of an afternoon decades earlier, as we sat in the cool of her garden after hours at the beach—her laughter filling the air, the coffee she had brewed with careful hands waiting to be drunk, the future full in the unturned cup.

In my kitchen grows a plant started from a cutting taken from a tree in her yard, nestled in a simple clay pot. Like her, it is rooted in earth, arching toward the sun.