July 2009, Jenin
With her hand placed down on the fabric to the left of the needle, Salwa pressed the pedal and moved the fabric gently forward. It was boredom rather than intrigue that had led her to ask her mother to teach her how to sew. Life in Jenin moved along so unbearably slowly that she was grateful for anything with which to utilise her time.
‘That’s it. Just gently now,’ encouraged her mother. ‘You certainly have the feel for it.’
Salwa was not sure that she did. She simply tried to keep it in a straight line and was relieved each time to not catch her finger on the needle. There was something almost unsettling in the insistency with which it hammered down on the cloth. Her mother, however, clearly enjoyed teaching her and, reminded of those first days spent together in the kitchen as she learnt to cook, Salwa also took pleasure in the process.
‘I think I’m ready to move onto clothes now,’ she said, holding up the piece of scrap cloth she had been practising on, now laden with stitches.
‘Ok but be careful. We can’t afford to waste any.’
Her mother lifted pieces of white garment from a bag and laid them on the floor so that together they made what looked like a shirt or a coat.
‘See here,’ she said, pointing along the seams where the sleeves met the shoulders. ‘This is all that’s left of this one but it’s the hardest part. Get the angle wrong and the whole thing will be misshapen.’
Salwa moved so that her mother could sit at the machine and show her how to do the first one.
‘You need to curve it round in a slight arc, feeling the needle,’ she told her.
When she’d finished that side, she turned it over so that Salwa could attempt the other.
‘Softly,’ she said, placing her hands either side of Salwa’s in order to guide her, ‘but not so slowly that you over-do the stitches.’
It was far more rewarding sewing actual clothes.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘A doctor’s uniform, by the looks of it.’
Salwa held it up and tried to imagine who might wear it. The shoulders were too broad for a woman, she thought, but the man would have to be of slim build to fit. She pictured the face. Sharp eyes that could maintain their focus but not too stern – a doctor had to be kind. And Israeli. This was where the clothes were going, after all. Would he have a face like that of the soldier who had once stepped into her room? Or maybe he was Arab. Her father had been to see an Arab doctor there once.
‘Do you not feel strange knowing where these are going?’ she asked her mother.
‘I’d rather make clothes for Palestinians, work for a Palestinian company, but I suppose I don’t care where they go, not really. If they start sending me army uniforms, then I’ll have a problem.’
Salwa supposed she was right. Any doctor would be working to cure, not kill. She neatly folded the jacket and waited while her mother took out the next lot of fabric.
‘Soon we’ll be able to work side-by-side. Imagine, Salwa! It’ll be like having my own little factory back in here.’
She smiled at her mother’s enthusiasm. Her temperament had noticeably changed since Salwa had returned to living in the house permanently, rather than visiting only for weekends. But her insides twisted with guilt. She had not mentioned the idea of going to Gaza, had not told her mother that Mohanned also believed it to be the right thing to do.
‘Yes, maybe,’ she said, ‘though I’d like to do something related to my studies. Train to be a proper psychologist perhaps.’
She had already discussed this with Mohanned who told her there was always work for counsellors, with the NGOs or even some private clinics.
‘And what would this entail? More studying?’ Her mother sounded sceptical.
Salwa also knew where she wanted to study. A mental health organisation in Gaza City ran programmes for counsellors. If she could find the money somewhere, it would mean she was well-qualified.
‘It would require more training, yes. But then I’d be able to work, and in something worthwhile. And I’d earn more money than I would from sewing.’
‘Habebte, you could sell bread and make more money than I do from sewing.’
‘You know what I mean.’
Her mother looked at her thoughtfully, a fabric arm held by her side.
‘Perhaps once your father returns. If it would make you happier here.’
Salwa bit her lip, wondering if there would be a better time. ‘The thing is,’ she told her mother, ‘I was thinking I could do it in Gaza.’
The needle vibrated furiously as her mother absentmindedly pressed the pedal. Salwa expected her to shout but instead she sighed, which was more affecting.
‘Gaza? Wallah, seriously Salwa?’
‘Yes, when the borders are open.’
‘Did Mohanned talk you into this?’
‘No, it was my idea. But how else are we going to be together? What did you think would happen once I’d finished university?’
‘You’re crazy if you think I’m going to let another child leave me. And have you not thought of your father?
‘So, I should just sit here watching time pass by. For what?’
‘For what? To be with your family, to start a family. And to work, if you like.’
‘But I want to start a family with Mohanned. And what family I have left! A brother who torments me, a father who’s in prison…’ She hesitated. Her mother’s eyes had saddened and though the needle hung still, her hand quivered beside it.
‘Go on, habebte, finish. If the mother who gave birth to you, raised you and loves you more than anyone in this world – more than Mohanned – isn’t enough reason to stay, then maybe you should go. And good riddance.’
Salwa left her mother sat at the machine. She didn’t hear a sound from her as she left the flat. In need of air, she ran up the stairs of the building until, short of breath, she was forced to a walk. She made it to the top and pushed the door open onto the roof. Late afternoon, the sun still shone strongly on her face but the worst of the heat had dissipated, and she breathed deeply, glad to be alone.
Perhaps university had taught her too much independence and, unused to family life, she was acting selfishly. Jenin certainly appeared more favourably from this height. She looked towards Jenin camp, visible by the hill on which the houses clustered, and away beyond Jenin where the land rolled out towards the surrounding countryside. It was home, that was for sure, and always would hold a place in her heart, but there was no ignoring that, without Mohanned, it felt empty – a city built on sand.
A cough sounded from behind and she turned around, startled. She could not see anyone until she moved to the side and a figure, previously obscured by the large black water tanks, became visible.
As she stepped towards him, he turned steadily to face her, still leaning on the wall for support.
‘Ah, Salwa! I didn’t hear you come up. Kefek ya umry?’
It was a few months since she had last seen him and he appeared to have aged rapidly.
‘I didn’t know you came up here.’
‘Well, I already have to climb most of the way to make it to my flat, so I may as well enjoy the view.’
She smiled. There were few people she felt as at ease with as she did with Abu Hamoud. To think that she had once been afraid of the old man.
‘How is your mother, Salwa? Is her health any better?’
‘She’s well. Her back is still sore but she pretends it’s no longer causing her pain.’
‘A stubborn woman, your mother! And your father? Is there any news from him?’
‘Not much but, if God wills, he’ll be back soon.’
‘Yes, inshallah. And you Salwa? Are you glad to be finished with your books and back in Jenin?’
She looked at him despondently.
‘Hmm, I thought not,’ he said. ‘Troubles, not joys, are usually what bring people to ponder alone on the roof.’ He paused reflectively for a moment. ‘But, of course,’ he continued, ‘talking can be equally beneficial. If there is anything you’d like to share, that is.’
She wasn’t sure that sharing was what she sought at this moment but it felt rude to say so.
‘It’s my mother,’ she told him. ‘I want to go to Gaza to be with Mohanned but she won’t allow it. I think she still thinks I’m 12 years old and unable to make my own decisions.’
‘Ah, yes,’ he sighed. ‘That age-old problem of forbidden love is still doing its rounds, I see.’
She was unsure how to reply. Sometimes she felt his mind take her words and wander with them to a different place, a place she could not see.
‘My parents were not so keen on my wife of choice, either. She was too poor, they told me, as if love could be determined by class. I tried to convince them and when there was no changing their minds, I ran away.’
She raised her eyebrows, trying to imagine him in his youth, able to run, let alone elope against his family’s wishes.
‘I should say, though,’ he added, ‘that it is not something I recommend. The importance of family is never to be undermined, no matter how fierce your disagreements.’
He looked out again, beyond Jenin and to his hidden place.
‘It’s not Mohanned that’s the problem though,’ she explained. ‘I think they’d be happy for us to marry if he lived here. It’s the idea of me leaving and going to Gaza that’s the problem.’
‘And understandably so. It does not have the best reputation as a place one would want their child to live.
‘But if it’s the only place I can be with Mohanned then I don’t care. Why does everybody think I’m crazy for that, Abu Hamoud? Is it crazy to want to be with your favourite person in the world?’
‘No, Salwa, it’s certainly not. But those who believe such sacrifices to be absurd have either forgotten or never known what it is to be in love.’
They stood side-by-side on the roof as the sky mellowed. Abu Hamoud could have been sleeping, had his eyes not been open, and the stiffness in his legs causing him to shift his weight occasionally. Salwa’s mind too wandered to its hidden place.
Her hand in Mohanned’s, they walk out of the camp and towards the sea. It sparkles in the light, splashes of gold among the turquoise.
‘Touch it, habebte,’ he whispers. ‘It’s warm, as though the Earth’s blood pumps beneath it.’
She lets go of his hand to reach out for the water and finds him to be telling the truth. Then she takes off her shoes and socks, rolls up the ends of her trousers and starts to walk into the ocean.
‘Follow me,’ she tells him, and he walks after her, laughing as the tails of waves ride up their legs.
Soon, the water is up to their waists and Salwa’s hand back in his. They keep walking until their toes barely touch the bottom.
‘Let go of the ground,’ he tells her, and she pushes up so that she is floating on the surface.
‘Now move your arms and legs.’
She does so as though she knew how to from birth, the sea stroking her skin playfully, welcoming her.
‘Do you know what’s beyond the ocean?’ he asks.
‘Tell me,’ she says.
‘Everything. We’re on the edge of the world.’
‘I think I’m going to go down now,’ Abu Hamoud announced. ‘I wish I could stay here with you ‘til the sun sets but my body needs to sit a while.’
‘Would you go back?’ she asked him.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You once told me that you were separated from your wife. If you had the chance to return to her, wherever she lived, would you?
He smiled, but so sadly that it was almost a frown.
‘Of course. I would take this stick and a loaf of bread, drag my old body through those ghastly checkpoints and walk until I saw her face again. If only I believed in the possibility, I would leave tonight.’
‘Thank you,’ she told him.
‘Whatever on Earth for, dear?’ he chuckled.
‘For making me feel a little less crazy.’