Salwa was reminded strangely of Ramadan in the days of the curfew. Life was suspended so that the hours lost all regular meaning. The merging of the day into night and the reappearance of the day became an absurd background dance, out of tandem with the pace of life unfolding on centre stage. Yet the conflux of people in the town that emerged in the rush for items in the hours before the evening’s breaking of the fast, no longer came with that element of magic and excited anticipation. Rather, the few hours in which the town’s citizens were allowed out between the times of curfew were filled with mounting dread, an unusual sense of not knowing how to act in usual settings. People no longer had the luxury of choosing from a collection of seasonal temptations but took what they could from the increasingly dwindling supply of goods. Returning home before the call to prayer may have irritated your family and prolonged pangs of hunger but to return after the hours of curfew was to find yourself caught in a surreal game of cat and mouse.
And disrupted nights were not born from early morning feasts nor from the enjoyment of staying up through the night while your parents took some hours of sleep before the working day. Sleep was now rationed on a par with any other commodity, with hours grabbed in between ricochets of artillery fire, the sound of footsteps carrying foreign voices through the building, and distorted dreams that people awoke from only to find they were less fictional than hoped.
It was the vibrations, however, that this time awoke Salwa. The walls of the house had always been such that the slamming of a door at one end could be felt at the other, and her bedroom door now rattled hysterically. With the vibrations came her parents’ voices, relentless shouts, loud but muffled as if wrapped beneath layers, and increasingly forceful bangs. They were feebly imitated by the walls around her, but erratically, so that she was unable to brace herself for the next shock. Then, suddenly, the largest of them all caused Salwa to grasp her bed as though it was her only safety line amidst the commotion. A gust of sounds seemed to have entered the house with the bang that had concluded the round – a mixture of voices and objects smashing, crashing, with her mother’s scream finally trilling eerily above them. It snatched at Salwa’s breath and penetrated her from within – an invisible arrow pinning her still.
Until it was her turn.
The door fell forward as though the hinges and handle had been only for effect, and taking its place loomed a figure distinguishable solely by the small pocketed face peering out from the otherwise all-encompassing khaki. For a moment they just stared at each other – the only beings present in that small room. Having jerked upright at the intrusion, Salwa could feel the wall on her back and took comfort knowing that at least nothing could attack her from behind but she felt naked in her thin sleepwear. Carefully she pulled the blanket up to her chin, so that her face now peered out to imitate that of the soldier’s.
Then the cry of her name in that same high-pitched trill, though quickly muted, seemed to awaken the man.
“Qumy! Get up!” he ordered.
She was surprised to hear the man speak in Arabic but she remained rooted, unwilling to let go of her cotton armour.
“I said get up!”
The blanket weakly submitted to his grasp and she tensed as the man’s rough finger enclosed her arm, forcing her upwards and into the living room.
The room that greeted her however, was barely recognisable. Chairs turned into firewood, ornaments that had once sat neatly upon the cabinet, now scattering the floor. The family photo lay rudely broken and their faces stared up at Salwa like ghosts of the past.
And amongst the aftermath of the commotion knelt her mother. She was swaying slightly by the frowning boots of a female soldier, with her youngest son Majed beside her, expressionless. As Shayma looked up at her daughter, their eyes met, and she was ashamed by the look of vulnerability and utter fear that she knew filled her eyes and feared would haunt her daughter. But as Salwa once again moved to the pressure of the man’s touch that was forcing her down to join her mother, she knelt close enough to touch her side, giving a silent communication of support.
“Not that close. Move away!”
The cold baton poked between them to remove even that last solace of comfort.
Salwa was afraid to look up. She was afraid that if she observed the soldiers too carefully, perhaps catching the peculiar features of their faces or the novel ways in which they held themselves, she would begin to imagine their lives outside of this room, as she so often did with the people she passed in the street; and that would simply confuse the situation even more. It was easier to just think of them as robots, unthinkingly following instructions, than as people with the ability to act of their own accord. So she stared straight ahead, paying too much attention to the details of the cracks in the paint. Outside, she could hear her father and brother being questioned in the corridor. Thickly-accented remarks being hurled at them with the occasional physical encouragement. She tried to shut her ears, to ignore the tremble that accompanied her father’s voice and the anger all too evident in her brother’s responses, but they remained stubbornly open.
And then, as swiftly as vultures scattering from their carrion, the soldiers were gone. With them, seemingly unhappy with their fill, they took her father and brother, and left on the floor beside Salwa lay the family photo, the broken glass frame acting as the crudest of metaphors.