Searching for Sidewalks: A novella
When Royal Jordanian Flight 263 touched down at O’Hare International Airport at 4:15 p.m., central time zone, the man with the strange face gave what could be described as a professional smile. For the most part, his chapped lips remained sealed. Shoulders back, he held his head high as if a film director had asked him to act that way for this scene. However, the look in his eyes was a strong contradiction. His hazel eyes signaled certain giddiness. He had been waiting for this moment, well, since autumn. It felt more like forever than it felt like fall. Regardless, December had finally come. Finally. And here he was in Chicago. At the gate. Waiting for them. To get off the plane. The smell of the frost was interchangeable with the exhaust fumes of airplanes.
Over the past few months, he had imagined, maybe close to ten thousand times this moment. Sure, he couldn’t wait to see all of them. But mostly he was dying to hold his children –his two daughters, in particular. The reunification was here. For a second, a painting of the resurrection of Christ popped up in his head. Ironically, it was followed by an image of him in bed with his wife. He had remained faithful since the very day she took the girls and left him, vowing never ever to have any further communication with him until the courts. “Vowing?” It was more like screaming. He drove them to the airport of course. Not for her. For his daughters, they spoke the necessaries. Six piece chicken nuggets. Two small fries. “What do you want to eat?” “I don’t want anything from you.” She agreed for him to drive them because she did not want the children to be the victims in their upcoming divorce. “Ha!” The children are the only victims in these matters. Ever. Somehow time mends. Getting here wasn’t easy though. Keeping it together would be even harder.
He had nightmares about the jumbo jet crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. He was both an observer and a passenger. You know those dreams because we’ve all had em’.
One dream he had, which was in the afternoon, a reason they say cat naps are bad for you, the plane was diving down like those roller coasters at Six Flags.
Then in slow motion, his wife turned to him and said, “You could have had five months with us. Live with that.” Swoosh! Crash! Boom! The man with the strange face was paranoid because things seemed perfect. He imagined himself losing to Murphy in an arm wrestling contest. “My win, my way, my law,” he would tell him after the defeat. Who the hell was this Murphy guy anyway?
Before he had a chance to search for an answer, the passengers started coming out from beyond the gate. Gate 16, in case you’re wondering. He saw a young woman run up to a man and almost knock him down. Within seconds, they were passionately kissing. She was doing the most work. “My wife could never be like that,” he found himself thinking. And then he watched a father holding a Baby Alive doll. It drinks and pees in case you didn’t know, but don’t rush to the nearest toy store, it has yet to poop. The Man with the strange face wanted to smile when the father handed the doll to his kid and kissed her. She must have been close to his daughter’s age. Be patient, he told himself. Still, he found himself envying the man for a moment. Over the last 150 days, he was jealous of every man with every daughter. Especially those he saw at the supermarket, when he went to buy his TV dinners in aisle 22. One evening, there was a man who held his girl by her left hand, as she dragged her feet, crying, “I want it, I want it.” He imagined punching the father out, giving the girl what she wanted, along with a balloon. A store employee would yell, “Maintenance to aisle 22, employees report to that aisle too!” The cleaning lady would be mopping the blood while the male and female associates cheered on the man with the strange face. The imagination bubble became broken when he saw his wife. Next, his eyes went to her waistline. Before he had time to react, he collapsed and was on his knees, sobbing. She ran up to him and picked him up. The man with the strange face was no longer confident. “Where are they?” “Where are they?” He asked over and over again. “Did something happen to them?” He didn’t wait for an answer and instead, cried more – the loud wails as if something had happened. The wife of the man with the strange face agreed to tell him if he calmed down. After a few minutes of walking away from the gate, they sat on a nearby metal bench. As uncomfortable as that was, he had a feeling that listening to what his wife would be more discomforting. “The girls did not come because they gave up on you. You took too long. They want to live with their grandparents.” When the stroke hit him, he thought at first he had been stung by a bee and then –
“It looks good from here,” a female voice said. Tear drops on the key pads, he could still type. But when his eyes became too watery, Munther stopped writing. He was too startled to recognize the sound of his wife. He turned to find Fatmah. “I heard that writers sleep to write.” The document was far from any writing – just notes. He didn’t even write short stories. But this one came to him in a dream and he put pen to paper. “Can you please come to bed?” He nodded. “The girls asleep?” This time, it was her turn, to nod. Munther saved his document the same way by emailing a draft to himself. When he actually completed a piece of writing, in the textbox of the email he always wrote something like “Thank God or Just God,” so that if HE was tuning in one evening, he would bless his writing. When he could only outline or jot notes, he still saved the document but as “Please God.” He turned off the computer and the light and closed the door of his study. In the dark he sat for a couple of minutes. His wife once asked him about this particular ritual. He was too polite to explain it to her. But to his friend Ramzy he would answer, “The same reason some people smoke after sex.”
It happened Sundays through Thursday. If there was work on Friday and Saturday, Munther was sure it would happen on the early mornings of those days too. Well, probably. The day his wife Fatmah caught him was the last day of the work week in the Palestinian Territories…
While this Muslim couple woke up to pray the Fajr together, Munther was quick to jump up from the rug after completing the morning prayer, re-set the alarm for 6:45 a.m. and sleep a little bit more. Fatmah, unlike her husband, remained on her knees, tasajud, in worship. She asked for forgiveness of sins she may have committed -- willingly or unwillingly. She also liked to read a chapter from the Holy Koran. Being tomorrow was Friday, she liked to read Surat Al Kahf or The Cave.
Fatmah stopped only to adjust her Abaya.
She digressed for a moment about how it bothered her husband that she only wore the white prayer garments her mother had given her when Munther had bought a brand new one on his trip last year to make Omra. “What does he have against Mamma?” she asked out loud, not sure if that was meant for her or Allah.
Although she wouldn’t mind God answering the question and perhaps providing a remedy for her husband to get along better with his in laws. The question certainly wasn’t for Munther who, like the people in the cave, was deep in sleep. Why can’t he ever learn to fall asleep holding me as tightly as he holds that pillow?
“Astaghfirullah,” she said. On her knees, the Muslim holy book in hand, she uttered that word for forgiveness several times, failing to hear when five year old Maya came in. Her daughter startled her. Why is it that on the brink of my 40th birthday, I get startled so easily, she thought and not asked. “I peed myself again,” said Maya. “The bed, too?” Maya shook her head.
“The pee didn’t wait till I got to the bathroom,” she said. “It was in a hurry,” the preschooler added with a peculiar, semi-intelligent look on her face.
Was that guilt? Mashallah, this generation grows up, and graduates before it’s out of the womb. In town, people were astonished how Munther’s girls answered their father in English and mother in Arabic. She remembered the time when the father of one of Maya’s classmates approached Munther after school. This particular father had one thing in common with her husband. He, too, had spent a number of years in America and could speak English fluently. He was born in Abu Dis and went to Chicago after high school. Was it Chicago or Cheyenne? In the minimal encounters which took place between the two men, he compared himself to Munther, although her husband was born, raised and educated in the U.S. What was his name, Fatmah? Ever since he returned to the West Bank, people always questioned his motive and he got asked the same question over and over – “who leaves America and comes here?” She probably inserts the words, ‘the hell,’ between who and leaves. Motassem. That was his name.
He said it wasn’t pure coincidence that both of their names started with ‘m’ but a sign of how close they should be. Motassem met Munther and made his way to Madrid for milk.
An obvious play on words. She knew this word. It started with the letter, “T.” She did well in English. Anyway, Motassem told Munther how his wife was giving him f-ing shit for not speaking to his children in English. Oh that was the other thing that annoyed her about people like Motassem, who went to America, learned English and came back.
They always felt like they had to use the f word in every sentence, even those that didn’t belong. Tautogram, she said out loud, startling herself. God! I startle myself, too, Fatmah thought. She recalled the “Be like Mike” commercial for Michael Jordan she once saw on Youtube.com. Was he a basketball player or baseball? “Mish muhimm.” What was important was the comparison – “Be more like Munther, Motassem, for me,” Fatmah imagined Motassem’s wife saying, playing with her hair with one leg in front of the other. M.M.M.M. Motassem’s wife, whose name was probably Manal, Muntaha, Miral or Marwa, was like many others in this town – who wanted their husbands to be everybody else except for who they were. This town…Abu Dis. The best way to describe it would be like the experience of witnessing the aftermath of a horrible accident on a busy road. Everybody slows down and you know it’s bad, but you still look anyway. “That happens here, too?” Munther once asked her. “It’s not an American phenomenon, it’s a worldly one,” she told him.
She closed the Muslim holy book and kissed it, brought it to her forehead, repeating that acknowledgement one more time.
She took off her prayer clothes, folding it and placing it neatly in the drawer next to the side her husband slept on. They kept each other’s belongings in the other’s bed stand drawer. “A good way for couples to stay together,” Munther once said to Fatmah in a dream.
After giving Maya a half bath and dressing her in her second Frozen pajamas, Fatmah put her back in bed, tucked her in and kissed her on the cheek. “Hold my hand and stay with me until I fall asleep,” she ordered. Wow! Kids give the orders and we follow them. It’s no longer the other way around.
She glanced at Linda sleeping in the other bed. At first she was sad to have had Irish twins. She didn’t want to remember the fights she had with Munther. “It’s too soon to have another baby because Maya hadn’t received enough attention yet!”
She was mad at him for a week. And of course when a Palestinian girl gets angry at her husband, she can’t stay with him in the home. No. No. No. She has to take her anger out at her parent’s house. In Arabic, the word for that was Harad. Fatmah imagined a classroom lesson -- The adjective would be – Fatmah is har-da-neh at her mom and dad’s home. Some would joke that it’s become a tradition. Others would ask if they’re teaching this stuff in school. Four year old Linda slept better than her older sister.
She also played better, ate better and had no trouble making friends. But Fatmah didn’t want to think about that now. She could feel the tears forming already. Instead, she uttered “Al hamdulileh.” Always, thank God. Thank God, they were each other’s best friends. Thank God they’re 11 months apart. No regrets. Just God.
By the time Maya fell back asleep, the sunlight had entered the room so Fatmah turned off the cheap night lite.
“Oh Munther you’re not cheap, why do you buy that way?” On her way to the bedroom, she stopped at the mirror between the family room and dining room. She checked herself out. Pointing to her stomach, she said, “This could be smaller.” She turned and looked at her butt. Grabbing it, she said “God forgive you Mamoun, this mirror does make everything look bigger.” Mamoun, another M.
Mamoun was the owner of the Qader furniture place. It was indeed destiny that they would replace the original mirror after it cracked due to the sound of a nearby Israeli sound bomb that exploded.
But Fatmah was sure Mamoun had fooled them and given them a second hand mirror which made people look bigger. She made her husband Munther tell Mamoun. “Tell” here meant call him and bring him over to the house to show him the mirror and get him to replace it.
Munther was embarrassed. But he did it because Fatmah was his Abla, the Arabic version of Juliet. She knew that Munther quietly wondered to himself if she considered him to be her Antar aka the Arabic Romeo.
Muslims were allowed to have four wives but she didn’t have to worry about that with Munther. She knew he would die for her.
Or because of her. Poor men. Besides, his job was not steady which meant he couldn’t afford to marry a second wife, buy or even rent a second home, pay the utilities. Running two separate households? He wasn’t properly running this one. More children that were not hers? What would she call them? “How are the children belonging to the woman, you, my husband, married and made with wife number two?” That would just get… confusing.
But most of all, she couldn’t imagine dealing with her durra – Arabic for, “the woman I want to kill for becoming my husband’s second wife.” That wasn’t the actual definition, but that’s what it should be. Just the image of him sleeping in bed with another –Stop! Breathe! No! Wait! Another point – although he practiced Islam, she knew that the American in him was against this which was fine by her. What wasn’t fine was how in some things he was American and other, he was Arab. He got mad at this but not that. But it was true. What was the name of his favorite musical? Jekyll and Hyde. For example, when it came to money, Americans saved. Munther didn’t save. He was being Arab here. That’s not fair, a voice inside told her. She knew a couple who had money because they saved money. They were also considered to be extremely bakheel, the Arabic word for cheap. “We always have difficulty finding a middle ground,” she said. When his girls would grow up, he argued with her that he wasn’t going to mind if they wore a veil or not. That was the American in him. She could go back and forth on this, but she didn’t want to be late for work. Besides, she also didn’t want the prayer she just prayed to go to waste with such thoughts.
Munther pretended to sleep as his wife stood in front of the mirror. Dressed, she was putting on her veil. He had trained himself to sleep just in time to wake up and watch. He loved this. He wasn’t sure what part of it turned him on the most. Perhaps it was how for the years they’ve been married she always did it the same way. Imagine a scientist conducting an experiment. Or one of those cooking shows where the chef is letting the salt back into the jar because it exceeded the one table spoon. He never thought he would marry an Arab looking woman. If she didn’t wear the veil, she could pass for an American due to her skin being whiter than the Middle Eastern complexion. Growing up, his parents worried he would end up marrying an American, or rather a non-Arab girl. Ironically, although he had grown up in the states, his skin color was darker and he was once taken for Sicilian or Italian rather than Middle Eastern.
He always knew he would marry a Palestinian but one who was less conservative and didn’t mind showing her hair, legs and arms while she was outdoors. If he were creating a character like the love of his life Fatmah, for one of his screenplays, he would describe her as in her thirties, a moderately dressed Muslim, barely revealing her women features. Barely revealing, still meaning she wore tight jeans and-
“You need to write,” he heard a voice interrupt him.
Talk the talk about being a writer but never walk the walk, the same voice said. “I’ll write,” he thought to himself.
Just as she was using the last pin to secure the veil from falling she spotted his eyes moving. Does she know I’m not sleeping? Next thing he knew, she had jumped on top of him. Fatmah was cool like that. “Want to explain yourself?” She asked tickling him. He couldn’t get a word out because he was laughing so hard he couldn’t even think. Aroused, absolutely. He managed to have one thought, other than “that” thought - life was, good!
Then his cell phone rang.
She stopped tickling him. They looked at each other. “Your parents?” She gave him a frown. A math equation popped into his head: Early morning plus phone calls equals bad news. She looked at the name. “Office,” she said and threw the phone at him almost playfully. He answered the phone and was cut off to listen. Looking at him, she could tell immediately that her husband had been let go.
He closed the phone and gave a look to confirm what she had been thinking, her face went from pink to pale and would be followed by, pissed. While they both knew this was a possibility, they didn’t expect it so soon. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You never stand up for your rights,” she said. He got out of bed and faced her. “What do you mean? Of course I do.” She shook her head, her eyes starting to tear immediately. “You spent two months in taxi fare going to Ramallah – “-Money comes and goes, Fatmah he said. “I’m not talking about the shekels you blew. I’m talking about your dignity, Munther. Going to that office, sitting there among people in their twenties making more than you and for what? To be let go like this? Do you want me to talk to him for you?” He just stared at her, then, “Say it Fatmah, Munther don’t write. Don’t waste your time being a writer.” She shook her head. “There’s Matlubeh from yesterday. I’m going to work.” Like the English name for the Arabic dish, his life which had literally been good a few minutes ago, was now, ‘upside down.’ He heard Forrest Gump’s voice saying “Life is like a matlubeh, you never know whether your feet will be on the floor or ceiling.”
She grabbed her purse, put on her sunglasses, opened the door and stopped to look at him. This was a frequent move of hers and reminded him of Whitney Houston’s character in The Bodyguard. Fatmah walked back into the bedroom, gave him a peck on the cheek and left. “Daddy? Do you have to go to work? Can you take us instead to ride our bikes outside the gate?” It was Maya. How they grow fast, he thought. What’s the rush? “What about school?” Sitting with people younger than you. In America, life starts at 40. Why was the mentality different here? “If you’re not going to work, we want to stay home to play with you, Baba.” What was he mad at again?
Being overprotective, he immediately said “Okay. We can ride but within the gate, not outside.” To say no to the child would have crushed Maya’s feelings and been down right cruel. “Come on, let’s get breakfast.” They headed for the kitchen. “But your scrambled eggs taste like our toy ones so we want cereal,” Linda added.
The new routine went on and on. Get the girls to school, have a couple of hours to himself. Close the windows when the Israeli soldiers fired tear gas. “Oh, I love the smell of tear gas in the morning,” he said. Another movie reference. It’s Apocalypse Now, don’t lose sleep over it. Movies. An idea came to his mind. He thought that he could be a triple threat – look for work, write and get some things in the house done before he had to go back out to pick up the girls. One out of three ain’t bad. No work. No writing. Just chores. This lightbulb idea though – heat up lunch their mother had made and then put on a film. “While they’re watching Tangled, I will try to write a screenplay.” They got scared from the witch and called their father over to watch with them. Damn you Disney, you’re not supposed to be this scary. “Who wants to color?” He took out coloring books and crayons. The moment he was about to come up with a storyline, world war three erupted, although it was more like the fights amongst the Kardashians. “I want the red one.”
“No, it’s my turn. I want the red one, now.” Put on the referee hat. He thought of the Dallas Cowboys playing any team. Eureka! He decided that he would try to write when they napped. The problem was simple. Irish twins, yes? Take a nap at the same time? No. Power off. Laptop to study. Lights off. Den door closed, locked.
Kids don’t forget. Namely, Maya’s questioning about riding bikes outside the house gate continued. Finally, he subdued, surrendered, put the white flag up, gave in, and agreed.
It made them happy. What would make me this happy? He forgot about the writing, not having a job. It was like that metal object Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones use in Men in Black.
“Except the children are using it on us,” he thought.
The last time the girls were this excited was when they first rode a horse in Jericho. Due to Munther losing his job and having to pick up the girls after school, he stopped going down to the oldest city in the world. He was stuck in Abu Dis. He remembered the summers he used to visit. He couldn’t wait to get back to the states. His mother and father took him and his siblings there so “they wouldn’t forget their roots.”
He brought books and spent time locked in his room reading them. With each new day, he marked an X on the calendar – almost time to go home. At first, for him Abu Dis was like that ride at the amusement park that went back and forth, before hanging upside down in the air. Matluba again. One night his mother’s cousin told him Abu Dis was lovely in the summer, but beware in the winter. She went on to tell him that when it gets colder, Arab hyenas with horns emerge and to stay warm they ram themselves into people. “They have an extraordinary sense of smell and can sense those who grew up in America,” she said to Munther’s horror. He was 19, naïve so he believed every word. Somehow the town in his eyes had changed. The people too. He stopped being Anti-Arab.
God how mad his Dad used to get at him when Munther called his own people Camel jockeys. That was a long time ago. Yet, it wasn’t.
Munther stayed behind Maya and Linda as they rode their bikes up and down the dirt road. Taking a break only to use the bathroom. Then immediately, they were back outside. He liked this.
Yes, he wasn’t working but he was hanging out with his girls. There had been nights he’d come home from Ramallah only to find them in bed. Suddenly, unemployment didn’t seem so bad.
As the days passed more and more, he found new places to take them. Their favorite became “Land 4 Kedz.” The spelling of kids with an ‘e’ and a ‘z’ was not intentional. They meant to write land for kids.
These places spent so much money opening a business, yet when it came to making the sign in English, they failed to hit the spell check button. Maya and Linda considered this place their favorite because there wasn’t anywhere else to go. It was a small playground in a mini mall in Al Azariya, just a couple minutes from Abu Dis and where Munther lived with his family. Al Azaria, Abu Dis and Al Suwahra were a district, located Southeast of Jerusalem, containing a population of 35,000 villagers, he recalled from his days writing for a business newspaper.
But you’d be wise not to quote him on that because he never was a good economic reporter. He wasn’t very good with numbers. “That’s why I married a math teacher,” he often joked. There was one main road for these villages. It was impossible to get lost. Munther, being bad with directions, managed to find a way. His relatives always asking him – “Who gets lost in Abu Dis? It’s one road.”
One particularly cloudy day, Land 4 Kedz was packed – with women. He only looked at the women when he entered and this is not to mean that he checked them out. He only really did have eyes for Fatmah. Munther recognized them as his wife’s friends or colleagues. After marriage, his wife had less and less time to mingle.
He wasn’t like other those Palestinian husbands who politely asked their wives to sever all contact with friends or people she went to college with or else. It’s a village. People see each other out all the time. Going to a pharmacy, you were sure to bump into someone you knew. On a number of occasions, he was shy to give a prescription to a pharmacist because someone he knew he would see would ask him about his ailments. He would go in spending twenty minutes looking at the different tooth pastes. He would quickly give the scrip and avoid making small talk. He was made to feel like he was doing something wrong. It felt like a quick drug exchange. It made it worse when the pharmacist was a cousin. “Oh no my cousin, you got high blood pressure? From the woman I’ll bet.” He smiled. He didn’t like those jokes men made about their wives.
Picking up medicine in Abu Dis should be like obtaining top secret documents. Munther often imagined himself as Robert Redford, although he looked more like Dustin Hoffman, in All the President’s Men when Woodward and Bernstein met up with ‘Deep Throat’ for an exchange of information.
Abu Dis was not a place for a man to wear shorts. Unlike Ramallah which was liberal, going out in public in this town, you dressed not ultra conservative but semi-ultra. One evening his wife fell ill.
And for the first time in his ten plus years living there, he went out in his pajamas.
Well, what he slept in really were shorts and a tee shirt. He drove to the pharmacy, got the medicine and drove home. It was dark and he was sure no one saw him. The next day Fatmah came home laughing. Laughing so hard she couldn’t even tell the story. She spent ten minutes trying to get through the first sentence. She finally managed to tell him that her colleague’s husband had asked her what’s the matter with Munther? – that phrased sounded like a title of bad 1990’s television show. “Yousef saw Munther at the pharmacy (pause for dramatic effect) wearing shorts!” She said it, the line delivery, as one was about to tell her friend that she saw her husband with another woman. Netherless, that’s how he began to recognize or rather look out for his wife’s acquaintances.
Now, Munther could tell they were looking at him carefully watching his daughters jump up and down in the colorful plastic balls. That they would stare at him the whole night, as he played with his girls. One of the mothers there even bought chips for Maya and Linda. “Say hi to Fatmah,” she said as she handed him the bag of Lays. “Who are you,” he thought. And why are you wearing so much eye shadow? He didn’t mind being the center of attention. He knew they were all whispering about him. This did not bother him. What he didn’t like was having to take his daughters into the disgusting bathroom with that disgusting smell. Worse than the fact that there were no paper towels in the dispenser was the disgusting fact that there was no toilet paper. The owners of this place would probably spell toilet, Toy Let, his mind drifted.
Luckily his wife had taught him to bring his own tissues as well as Huggie wet wipes, two hand sanitizers. One for Maya and one for Linda. Who fights over hand sanitizers? Oh yeah, the Kardashians. So one of the other sisters wouldn’t get taken or lost, he would take both of them to the bathroom at the same time. His wife called a few minutes later to say that her parents were over and to bring the “kedz” home. He said the girls were still playing and politely told her to say hello to his in laws. This was his time.
It bothered him sometime, maybe – no that’s not the right word - often, that he was expected to stop everything and bring the girls home just because people came over.
In a Palestinian village, no one believes in calling first. “Great! Munther and Fatmah, you’re home? Screw your plans we’re coming in and we’ll start with the fruit.” Starting with the fruit meant a long visit. Starting with a hot beverage meant a shorter visit. What’s the name of that restaurant in California and that hilarious movie with Kevin Kline -- In & Out? Those kinds of visits were out of the question.
Afterwards, he stopped at “Bizza and botato.” They didn’t want bizza, so he ordered them a large blate of French fries.
When the girls had finished, he took them home and found Fatmah bored out of her mind.
She also seemed a little perturbed. She gave the girls a bath, brushed their teeth. They were fast asleep immediately upon their heads hitting the pillows.
“I got a phone call today,” she said. Then she paused. Munther hated when she did that. The pause meant a storm was brewing. “Yeah from who,” he asked getting nervous. “Jolan called.” Again that silence. He felt like the boy who was weak in math about to take a Geometry test. Mr. Procida was my high school geometry teacher, his mind digressed. “Oh baby, let’s do some geometry,” was his catch phrase. Oh baby, let’s get another 60 was Munther’s motto. “She saw you at the playground. A lot of women did too.” He put his hands up as if to say ‘so.’ “They’re talking Munther. This whole town is.” “What are they saying about me exactly, Fatmah?” She added his name at the sentence, he could too. She shook her head and pointed to herself. “They say I’m controlling you. That I’m making you take the girls out.” Munther stayed calm. It wouldn’t last. “We know that’s not true.” She got closer to him on the couch. “Maha told Raghad who told Golan that all that’s left is for you to breast feed.”
Breast feed, he thought? What the hell? “A father can’t spend time with his daughters?” “You have to change. You have to find a job. After school, my parents can -”
“ - Fatmah, women talk. Gossip. That’s nothing new.” She looked at him thinking how innocent he was and honest. Growing up in the U.S. and then moving to Palestine he did not break this habit of being a good person. Good was good.
But overly good in this town meant you’re an idiot. “It’s not just the women. Men too. My friend Samar who bought the chips for the girls told me that her cousin Senat went home and caused a fight with her husband.” “Because of me,” Munther said, almost loudly. “Senat asked Said why can’t you be a good father and take your kids out like Munther?” She continued with the story, pausing to dab a tear under her eye. “A big fight erupted and she is hardaneh at her parent’s house.” Hardaneh, adjective for harad. Munther looked at Fatmah long and hard. “You would get mad at me when I would spend hours at that stupid office I was working out. You would accuse me of not wanting to hang with my children if I said I need to write.
Now, I am neither working or writing and spending a lot of time with Maya and Linda and I’m still doing something wrong? Add to that I’m causing couples to divorce? Well slap a pump onto my nipples and oh baby let’s breast feed!” He was fuming now. It rarely happened. He was hurt. Genuinely hurt.
He hadn’t done anything wrong. But what was he thinking? In today’s world, right is wrong and wrong is right.
He unlocked his study, went inside and closed the door. Slamming it would have been to overdo it, although the thought had crossed his mind. He opened up a blank Microsoft Office Document and stood staring at the cursor. He looked at his hands, namely his fingers resting on top of the keys. He typed:
Premise: A Palestinian father gives up his love of writing when he loses his job and has to become a homemaker, look after the kids, while his wife works and society talks.
“She’ll kill me.” He backspaced and deleted the words. A writer loves to touch the skin of his significant other. But once he has touched the keys of computer to punch out a story or put a pen to a pad of paper, everything else was secondary. To him nothing else was like writing. He remembered when he used to smoke. The best cigarette was the first one of the day. That was writing to him every time he wrote. After the first cigarette, everything else, was, bland. Blah.
He loved movies about writers. He loved the sound of the pen scratching on the notebook or hearing the sound of the keys on the computer. But now there would be no sound.
After a minute, he turned off the computer, swiveled left in his chair to the book shelf. The Book shelf that she had not only designed but paid for. He had a number of books on writing. Screenwriting, mostly. “I’m onto you writers of screenwriting books,” he said out loud. He often thought that coming out with these books was a secret plot. Type in screenwriting on Amazon and you get over 13,000 titles or 13,000 books written mostly by wannabe screenwriters used to distract us from writing so they can write while we read book after book on the subject without ever getting our own writing done. “I’m on to you,” he said as he looked at his dozens of screenwriting books. “I’m not falling for that.”
Instead, he reached for Stephen King’s Misery, a book he must have read thirteen times. He went to page one and started reading…
He woke up to the smell of pancakes. He missed the Fajr prayer. And yes, he was sleeping in his bed. No matter how bad it got between the two of them, they had both agreed that they would never sleep apart from each other. 5:16 a.m., his cell phone read. He didn’t notice her at first. Or he thought she was a figure of his imagination. She was holding a tray – two glass tea cups filled with Arabic coffee and pancakes. Although he spent the majority of his life in America, he loved Arabic coffee more. That was the Arab in him, Fatmah thought.
“Good morning,” she said. “Hey,” he said quietly. “What’s that?” “That,” she said pausing for effect, “is an apology.” It was followed by that smile of hers. If it was placed on a SAT exam, the question would go like this: Fatmah’s smile to Munther is like a) Kryptonite to Superman or b) spinach to Popeye. The latter. Yes, definitely a fair analogy indeed. They had breakfast in bed but hardly spoke. The vibes were good though. And unlike the movies, the scene did not end with them making love. Instead, they got up, turned on the television, found Law & Order: SVU. Although they had seen the episode three times, they didn’t change the channel. They drank their second cup of coffee. It’s true what they say -- the best part about arguing with your significant other is making up.
Despite living and working in the Palestinian Territories for ten years, the locals still considered Munther to be ajnabee or foreign. Speaking broken Arabic didn’t help. On the contrary. It caused trouble for him because he was often taken advantage of. Taxi drivers and merchants alike. If a taxi ride from the end of Al Azaria to the beginning was 15 New Israeli Shekels, $4.00, he would be charged double.
Munther’s mind wandered again: how can Palestinians and Israelis share a currency but not a state or the land. They had just finished their second cup of coffee when Fatmah’s mother called – Abu Kinan had died.
With the death of Abu Kinan, one of the village’s leaders, Munther was off to offer his condolences. Maher Abu Kinan Surkhi was from the village of Al Suwahra – a village known for their temper. Mel Gibson’s Rigg character in Lethal Weapon was Mike Brady compared to them. The impression of the town from residents of Abu Dis and Al Azaria was that it was a town full of hooligans and trouble makers who got away with murder, literally. Of course, a non-Suwahra resident wouldn’t be caught dead saying that out loud. To do so would be like shouting bomb at an airport. Abu Kinan’s nickname was ‘Rajal al adel’ or Justice man.
He was well liked and would be remembered as the greatest Palestinian tribal chief ever. What helped him tremendously was his voice. If there were hundreds in the crowd, Justice man never needed to use a microphone. He had a strong presence and a voice that would echo blocks away. He also wore expensive cologne. If you went to the store to buy something, you could tell Abu Kinan had been there and you would be sad that you just missed him. It was like Jack Nicholson at the L.A. Laker games. The level of respect Abu Kinan had was higher than anyone else. Not because he lived in the most beautiful home in the area. Like most Palestinian homes, it was built of stone. Munther was astonished to notice this immediately. Americans use wood. Palestinians build their homes out of stone. Abu Kinan’s home was also the only two level story home in the area. Nobody built two story homes. It had an elevator. He built that for his wife in her last days. It cost him a fortune. And she died the morning the elevator was to be switched on. She.never.rode.it.
Not only could Abu Kinan fight, but he could love. And that made a girl’s heart melt like an ice cream cone in Jericho, the oldest city in the world, in the summer. The last few years of Abu Kinan’s life saw a rapid deterioration in his health.
People from Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, even Syria and Iraq came to say their goodbyes. If the women’s tears had been rain, the 35,000 villagers would have been all flooded. Although he was 80 something and a heavy smoker, it wasn’t cancer. One day after reuniting a husband and wife after a judge irresponsibly and expediently passed a divorce verdict, his leg went out and he fell as he was leaving the couple’s home. Doctors prematurely went and amputated without seeking an alternate operation.
Not even a few months, some disease Munther couldn’t pronounce had made the leg of Justice man, also known to some as Braveheart, go rotten. So. It. Was. cut. Then a nerve hit his brain and this once powerful voice started mumbling. Because visitors could not understand him when he spoke, he would cry. His sons and daughters knew his death was near when he refused a cigarette. Although it had been weeks since he stopped eating, instead only sipping a little water, he kept on smoking. When Kinan put a cigarette in his father’s mouth, Justice man spit it back out as one did when salt was accidentally placed in a tea cup instead of sugar. No one spoke it but everybody thought it as they were coming to say their goodbyes – his four sons are not like father, like son. And they never will be. An hour after he spit the cigarette out of his mouth, extended both of his arms out as if in a pool, reaching for the ladder. And then he was gone.
For Munther, this was the largest funeral he had ever attended. Later at the azza, funeral repast, he learned it was the biggest sendoff a non-political leader or martyr had ever been given.
The Palestinian President sent the family his condolences in an official letter with a signature that had actually been signed and not been scanned as he was often known to do. The PLO leader had it put in a frame and had it delivered by the Chief of Staff himself.
Relatives of the deceased would later say that Israelis dressed in disguise attended to pay their respects to Abu Kinan. For them to come as themselves in this time, without peace, Abu Kinan and his family would be seen as spies.
Tradition has it that since the family is too much in mourning to cook, someone not directly related to the dead would cook. The other two days could be a family member. They ate mensaf; Lamb and rice drowned in hot yogurt and broken pieces of taboun bread. For Munther, this, too, was the biggest lunch he had ever been at in Palestine or anywhere in general.
He couldn’t get over the organization. Enter, shake hands and be seated in an area and wait to be taken to your table. Munther sat with people he didn’t know. This was normal.
There was no room for conversation here. Eat and wash your hands at rented sinks brought in on flatbeds. Drink coffee, eat fruit and go home if you like only to return later to continue paying respects. It should be noted here that fruit is not an obligation. Neither are sweets.
Yet, they are passed out favorably to show appreciation of coming out to pay respects. The largest Palestinian daily wrote an article about Abu Kinan, the Justice Man, and, filled a page with his photo and a brief obituary.
It was common to find pictures of the recently deceased at the back page of the newspaper. Munther remembered a response an old man had given when asked “How is your health?” The old man replied: "As long as I can read the newspaper without finding my picture on the back page, my health must be good.” In the case of Abu Kinan, however, his photo came in all sections -- Front, middle and end. And all sizes – large, medium, and small.
The hired help immediately rushed to the men returning from washing their hands to serve them saadeh, coffee without sugar. That was followed by the one carrying tamerr, dates. The movement of those coming in and out of the Surkhi diwan, flowed like the Nile River. Some would come alone or with a friend or cousin. But the majority of the town dispatched family members who gathered themselves at one location, then went to azza as a group to pay their respects.
The heads of the deceased, that is, the sons, brothers, cousins stood at the front, accepting the condolences via handshakes or kisses. After extending sympathies, the party would then be seated. Although the chairs were plastic, Munther swore that they shined. He couldn’t stay long because he would have to go home to the girls so his wife could come and pay her respects. It was rare that men and women offered condolences in the same place due to logistical reasons. Culturally, it was unacceptable for Muslim men and women to be seated in azza. This happened at weddings, too. This was something that Munther never got used to and promised himself that he wouldn’t. “Your being American here,” his wife began, “Expecting for men and women to be seated at occasions together,” Fatmah had told him. Well, it was more like taught him.
He and his wife, getting dressed up, going to a wedding only for the men to follow the signs to their side and the women to theirs. It was a bunch of men sitting down talking politics. Hell, business transactions were held here too. The chatting discontinued only twice – for collective prayers to take place.
If you were lucky, you didn’t stay long enough to pray the last prayer of the night, the ishaa. “Lucky” here meant your wife would call and say she was ready to go home. Although more and more women were driving in Abu Dis, it was a rarity at night. Add to that the occasion of wedding. Men did not want their wives to drive at night wearing high heels. “That’s like drinking araq and taking a bunch of pills while drunk to get rid of a hangover that has yet to come.”
While discussing politics at the wedding, they would be served coffee and a small piece of cake. Money gifts are the tradition. Most stuff 100 shekels (25 bucks) into a white envelope with the guest’s name on it so the groom or bride’s family knows where it came from. Next, came kissing the groom and wishing him the best. At each wedding, Munther remembered the day he married. He felt bad for the groom only because he, too, had to make the rounds. Regardless of how many men there were, one to one hundred, the groom had to go up to each men and kiss them on each cheek. Sometimes he got four kisses; two on each side. Probably, Munther deduced, because they wanted to get the most for their money.
For the 100 shekels, a guest received unlimited soda and water, coffee, a small piece of bad tasting cake drowned in frost a little cake and four kisses. Munther also figured men preferred to kiss more for good luck. “They’re gonna need it,” Munther thought. He imagined mafia movies where a man receives a kiss of death right before he is sent to the bottom of the ocean.
Once he attended the wedding for a man who had been in prison for ten years. Add to that that he was the only son amongst five daughters. Thousands turned up to celebrate and kiss the groom. It took Munther over an hour to approach the groom, to shake his hand and hand him his money gift. Two days later, Munther heard a story that the bride’s parents had followed them to make sure “everything” was okay; a custom still practiced in the West Bank to the chagrin of the groom. When they approached the room, they found the newlyweds still in their wedding attire. More, their son in law was fast asleep and snoring. “What happened? Mish nafe,“ the bride’s mother asked. Translated literally, it means he is useless. “I don’t know.” The story goes that the mother and father stared at their daughter puzzled. “He was all kissed out,” were the words that came out of the bride’s mouth. And tears came out of her eyes.
After that digression, Munther first heard the word, baytooti, Arabic for homebody or someone who likes to stay at home. Separately, sitting amongst men in the azza, his ear caught another phrase, more of a fragment, actually, something along the lines of “she wears the pants.”
Munther had to admit his spoken Arabic was definitely not at the level it should be. That’s why he talked to his girls in English. He also didn’t want them to have broken Arabic. But as for understanding, his comprehension was excellent. He wasn’t paranoid to think people would talk about him. He was a writer – yes – had a low self-esteem when it came to whether or not someone reading his work would like it. Overall, any other issues, he was confident. Hada mish zalameh, was the second sentence he heard. Who is not a man, he wondered? He was not into the gossip circuit. Just a few short months after living in Palestine, he discovered men gossiped too, more than the women. Months, it must have been only weeks he recalled.
That’s what some of them hung out at coffee shops and did. Smoked cigarettes, nargila, cigars, talked politics, played cards and gossiped. Try to imagine this. One coffee shop has twenty tables. Seated are at least four men. That’s 80.
Imagine that instead of gossiping they put a plan about regaining independence --nonviolently of course. Forget politics. Creating businesses. Analyzing the situation and then brainstorming. Addressing things like ‘let’s see what our cities are missing, what the people want and let’s work to achieve those goals.’ No. An Oprah Winfrey book club was definitely out of the question. Forget Oprah. What about Mahmoud Darwish or Khalil Gibran? No. No. Then they couldn’t play Hend. Tarneeb. Trix or other card games Arab men were addicted to. “It’s strange,” Munther said, speaking out loud for the first time since saying goodbye to his wife and two girls and coming here, how the place was packed and despite the Holy Koran playing, you could still make out the conversation people were having. But were they talking about him? “Munther,” someone said. That’s when he heard his name. It was a Palestinian name but there were definitely more Mohammad’s here than Munthers. 20:1 ratio. Hey Fatmah, I could do ratios, he wanted to say.
He looked around and someone waved to him and was red in the face as if he did not intentionally mean to say his name. You know those times you enter and a room and everybody goes silent? And you know they’re talking about you? “He cooks… he irons… he changes diapers while his wife takes the car and goes to work. If Munther is not careful, his wife is going to come home with a real man and have him kick her husband’s ass.” That was followed by quiet laughter.
It was confirmed. They were talking about him at a funeral repast for one of the most respected men ever to walk the soils of the Palestinian Territories. What could Munther say? Let’s take this outside? They were sitting outside. “Please take that to a coffee shop?” What could be done? He had too much respect for the man who passed away. More, he was not brave enough to fight. It was true, men in the town were talking about him. He decided the best thing to do was leave the azza.
But sometimes men just don’t leave other men alone. As he was walking down the rows, one pointed.
A major figure in the town died and you’re talking about me, he thought. “Munther,” he stopped and turned. “Yes, that’s his name. He lost his job and got too comfortable wearing a house dress,” the man said. Munther did not recognize him.
But he had to say something until he got the sudden urge to pee. He was nervous. Fear of confrontation began to grow on him. He felt like he had to go number two. He walked further away from the crowd, still within distance of the diwan, a housa of sorts. It was sad. He walked out of the azza and felt like he could cry. And he could probably get away with crying because men would think he was crying over Abu Kinan. So he let go. And cried. Slowly, he started becoming angry. “He’s a writer?” If it was an action line from a screenplay it would read:
Chuckles come in the dark of faces only lit by the end of their burning cigarettes.
MAN IN DARK #2
What does he write?
MAN IN DARK #3
Whatever his wife tells him.
The SOUND of men in the dark LAUGHING some more.
MAN IN DARK #4
If he was my son or brother I’ll tell you what
I’d have him write -- his last will and testament, because
I’d kill him for acting like a slut.
That’s when Munther started yelling. The Holy Koran was switched off. Men started saying to each other sallee ala nabee -- swearing upon the Prophet was a way to get people to calm down. One of Munther’s cousins, a third cousin, was the first to get to him.
If you have something to say to me,
say it to my face!
Come on! Cowards!
Let’s hear it!
Khaled and Jamal dragged him away but he broke away and just left. Munther was too busy to notice that they were smiling and about to break out into laughter.
Although by the time he got home, he was calm, Fatmah could tell something was wrong. He changed the subject, handing her the key to the car instead and asking if she still planned on going to the azza. “Yes I will pick up my mom and Aunt Najiah and go,” she said.
He wanted to say can’t you go alone? But the words of his best friend Ramzy rang into his ears. “Pick your fights.” Maya and Linda were asleep. He went into their room and sat on the couch. He closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them, Fatmah was standing in front of him, arms folded. He imagined the settings on a washing machine - Pink to pale to pissed.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” For a second, he had no idea what she was talking about. And then he remembered. If it was a movie, insert flashback scene here. It was best to stay silent. “I’m tired,” he replied. “I had to hear from the women? At Abu Kinan’s azza? I told them, no, no, he came home fine. You weren’t fine, but I said that. I didn’t imagine you would fight at Abu Kinan’s azza!” Fought? “You know me, as someone to fight,” he said rather tipsy-like. “I’m not even man enough to fight you,” Munther added. This stopped her. “What did you say?” He left her standing in the girl’s room. She called him, not once, but twice and by full name. “Munther Naser Al Sayed.”
It was only when he turned around slowly did she see that there were tears in his eyes. “Fatmah, I think you should go. Take the girls and sleep at your parent’s house.” Her jaw dropped. “You’re going to let cheap talk get in between us?” He laughed a laugh that was louder in his mind than in real life. “It’s not cheap. It’s costing me my, what was the word you used a couple of weeks ago, dignity,” he replied. Fatmah looked at him curiously for a moment. She wasn’t sure to be tense. Or mad at him. Although she was pissed. Do the math. “Munther, since when do we fight over people? When we do that, we let them control us,” she said, almost pleadingly. There was a knock on the door and his father in law entered. “I got to the azza a few minutes after you left. I heard about what happened. Are you okay?” Munther nodded. Her dad also confirmed that people were talking about his son in law in town.
“Nobody interferes with-“, but he didn’t let his father in law complete the sentence, instead putting his hand up. “Your daughter doesn’t deserve this. Someone sitting at home, taking care of the girls. It upsets her too that people are talking about me because it looks like she’s the boss.” “God decides the rizek,” his father in law said using the Arabic word for sustenance.
“You think these people know God? All they know is what they see. Me at home or out with the girls. Not working. They see that she is providing for the family. If this were America, a stay at home Dad would be acceptable but not here,” he said. Although he was addressing the love of his life, he couldn’t face her. “So until I find work, I think you should take the girls and have your mom take care of them while you’re at work.” It hurt like hell for him to say this. Hell wouldn’t be this much pain, he thought, goosebumps erecting on both of his arms.
His girls were his world. But Fatmah was his everything. However, he had to do this. His father in law tried to argue with him but it was no use. He carried the girls in their pajamas to the car. Fatmah, meanwhile packed a few items, mostly for the girls. Munther made coffee and brought it to the table. His father in law declined politely. Munther locked the door, turned off the porch light. He downed the three cups of coffee as if they were shots. Quietly, he went to the study to the story he had begun earlier. He saw himself as the man with the strange face. He backspaced until the whole story was deleted. Save changes? Yes. He didn’t know when he started crying or how he found himself in his daughter’s bedroom. He looked at the beds of his daughters. A moment ago they had been filled with treasure. Now, like that Nicolas Cage movie, they were gone in 60 seconds. Movies! “Is that all you think about, Munther,” he yelled at himself. He climbed into Maya’s bed and violently threw the covers off with his feet. Not knowing what to do, he jumped out of the bed as if he had just spotted a snake and ran to the bathroom.
He performed wadu, replaced his short shorts with a pair that went below the knee. He prayed, crying uncontrollably, wetting the sajadeh he was kneeling on with tears that fell like hail.
When the Fajr prayer called, he didn’t hear it. He was snoring in Linda’s bed, holding her stuffed bunny rabbit, Dory, along with Maya’s.
Two days later, Munther’s Great Uncle Dahoud came in from Jordan to pay his respects to the passing of Abu Kinan. He had another mission: to apologize on behalf of himself and family for Munther’s outburst and lack of deference for the deceased and his family. “He was raised in America,” his Great Uncle Dahoud added.
Murmers from the crowd and looks as if to say, “Ah,that makes sense.” Oh yeah, Munther thought, it’s always America’s fault or the occupation. Believe it or not, guys, blame can be assigned to you. That was forgotten with the thoughts of his two beautiful daughters. And his heaven on earth, Fatmah. To make it right, he had to work.
But the job search wasn’t going well. If he was interviewed and about to be hired, they stopped short after discovering he couldn’t write Arabic. He was going to Ramallah on a daily basis. Talking to everyone he knew. What was that line? A friend is someone who walks in when everyone else has walked out. That wasn’t it. “And you call yourself a writer,” he heard a voice in his head tell him. In the taxi on his way back to Abu Dis, he couldn’t think straight too. It seemed as if the lights of the house had dimmed without his girls and wife at home. Had his home had a soul, it would have left with them that night when darkness entered. Like when Christopher Reeve’s Superman turned bad and Peter Parker wore the black Spiderman suit. “Those guys were heroes to start with. I was never a hero and never will be one.”
Sure, Munther saw his daughters. He was able to take them out, not like those Palestinian women who use the children as leverage and forbid the father from seeing the children. But what broke Munther’s heart was how the conversation with the love of his life had become very business oriented. Like Sargent Friday used to say in Dragnet, “Just the facts, mam.” Separation was hard. It changed people. Communication among a couple was implemented in as few words as possible. A cashier and a customer at the local supermarket said more to each other. It seemed almost militarily. “Girls ready?” “Yes?” “What time?” “Pick them up at thirteen hundred hours and return them at seventeen hundred hours.” There were whispers in the village. People were still talking about him. Her. Them. Some were bothered. Many were happy this had happened to them. Selfishness and jealousy are incurable diseases. “They talk about a dead person when his grave is warm,” his friend Ramzy once told him at their meeting place on Rukub Street. Ramzy is to Munther as Jiminy Cricket was to Pinocchio. He wore glasses, was bald and like Alfred Hitchcock rarely could be seen in public without a suit. In the Tom and Jerry cartoons, he was the white angel sitting on the right shoulder. He loved Munther and always told him something people in the world disliked hearing – the truth.
But her mom only said, “Turn off the lights before you go to bed and Fatmah?” Here it comes. “Go to bed.” She nodded. Go to bed. It was strange to think that she could not fall asleep in the room she had spent most of her life in. It was something to visit mom and dad, spend hours there, but something else to sleep. Especially in conflict. Many times her mother had told her the same sentence, “A woman has only her husband.”
With that her mom left. It’s true. It was different. How? I don’t know, she thought. But it was. Divorce popped into her head but she quickly shooed it out as one does to a fly. God, I hope not.
While Americans put their hands together to say a prayer, Muslims open them to the sky. “Please. I can’t live without him. Help me, help him be together.” She wanted to cry. She wanted to text him but she looked at a picture instead. It was the one they had taken in Ramallah at Angelo’s after seeing the new Anne Hathaway movie. They almost didn’t go. They got into a fight over nothing. She couldn’t even remember what it was about. “That’s not true, Fatmah.”
She turned to see Munther standing behind her. “You remember all the arguments.” From where had he entered? She must have fallen asleep on the table. She tried to wake herself up. “You’re not dreaming, I am,” he said. “I’ve been having the greatest dream since I married you.” But we’re fighting. “How many times have your parents gotten into a fight?” “Never.” He folded his arms, and gave her a stern look. He sat down next to her. “Balloons?” he asked looking at the photo on her phone. “Angelos,” she said correcting him. “I like that picture,” he said. So did she. “We look like each other,” she thought. “And that’s why we’re going to get through this.” Did he just read my mind? “I heard that that too.” She stared at him as one does a magician after having witnessed a great act. Now she was crying. “Don’t do that. Look at the photo. They say couples who get married start looking like each other after marriage due to the amount of love they have for each other.” He touched her phone until she came to a family photo with the girls. “And look how beautiful they are? Only two people who love each other so much can create such beauty.” Astifigurallah. “Yes. God forgives us more than we forgive each other.”
The sound that she had received a text message woke her up. She opened the message to find a photo Munther had sent. Her mouth dropped and tears streamed down her eyes.
The photo he sent was the same one she had been looking at; where the both of them were at Angelo’s restaurant.
Ramzy wanted Munther to sleep over but he had to get home. “They’re always going to talk,” Munther realized out loud in the taxi. “Shoo?” the college girl said to him. What. What indeed. He shook his head and told himself “I’m the one who kicked my wife and kids out of the house.” “Taroff innu inta majnoon?” the college girl asked. “Yes,” he said to himself. “I know I’m crazy.” On the way home, he thought of the plan to get his family back.
He would get his haircut, take a shower, dress nice, go over there and bring his family home. With the 50 shekels he had borrowed from Ramzy, he bought a small bouquet of flowers. They were all almost withered.
He picked the least wilted purple flowers. And of course, he bought zakee -- junk food for his girls. When he went to unlock the door, it was partially ajar…
“Baba!” his girls screamed as they came running up to their father. Each one taking a leg, none wanting to let go. “What are you girls doing here?” “We live here, Dad,” said Maya in perfect English. “Why are you late?” Linda asked in Arabic. “Because your father was buying you chips and chocolate,” said Fatmah. In the girl’s bedroom, he saw his in laws sitting on Maya’s bed. Standing almost immediately, they simply greeted him and didn’t say much more than “Take care of each other.” And with that they left. “It’s not the time, Fatmah, but I swear your mom looks mad that you’re not going to spend another night at her place.” Fatmah shot him ‘the look.’ You know the one that’s universal no matter whether you’re Arab, Jewish or 100% pure American, if there was such a thing anymore. “Are the flowers for me?”
“No. Your durra is supposed to meet me here in an hour. You can stay if you like and make us tea.” She made a laugh that she had seen Woody from Toy Story do in one of those films she had watched with her daughter.
“Yeah, but I will serve it cold so I can dump it over your hot head and break the tea pot over hers.” They hugged each other. “And I thought you would change.” What had happened to them that they had to be away from each other for three weeks?
After they put the girls to bed, they promised each other that no one would ever come between them. She would be patient with him in finding work. They talked until the Fajr prayer. After praying together, they made love. When they finished, they showered separately and got into their night wear although it was almost time for Fatmah to go to work. “Call out sick,” he told her. “Let me work now so I can use the time off deservingly so when you want to take me to Paris or Turkey.” He smiled. “Inshallah.” He remembered his old South African editor Mark Andrews who used to joke that the Palestinian answer to everything was IBM. “IBM, the computer company?” Munther asked. “No, Inshallah, Bookra, Malish.” God willing, tomorrow, okay.
Munther thought of his Australian friend, Barry Bolton who said inshallah was the word Palestinians used when they knew procrastination was inevitable – “Did you get any writing done while we were gone?” Fatmah interrupted spraying perfume on her wrists and rubbing them against each other. Munther remembered the story he had deleted and shook his head. That was a hard night. “Then what did you do?” He blushed. “I opened your closet to smell the perfume on your clothes. I couldn’t think without you.”
“You said you can’t write because of the girls. We go, the house is quiet and you still can’t write. Do all writers act like you and look for excuses not to write? Just write, make excuses later.” He loved her for giving him a line he knew he would one day utilize in a movie or something, if he ever got around to it. I’ll make it my status on Facebook tomorrow morning so I don’t forget the line. He was waiting for the story idea to come. “God is big. He doesn’t forget anyone -- the good or the bad,” she said. He remembered a line from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. “God sees the truth but waits.” Fatmah took his hand. “You’ll get your 15 hours of fame,” she said in English. He laughed. He thought it was so cute when she incorrectly used an American expression. “You mean minutes,” he said. She shook her finger. “I want more than 15 minutes for you.” What a woman.
Linda saw the four Israeli soldiers before her older sister and her father did. They were just there. As if they dropped from the sky or came up from the ground.
She barely had a chance to say “Baba!” when the armed men, donning M-16’s, were on the sidewalk. Munther was used to the army, but he knew better to say so. To do that would be to acknowledge and accept the Israeli occupation – something no Palestinian would ever do. Now it was Munther and his two daughters. Finally after days of teaching the girls to ride their bikes, and finding the nearest sidewalk, the party was to be spoiled? Munther was not intent on making a scene. Protection of his girls was a priority. But how to move to the side? On the right side was a cliff that went down to a valley. The left side was the highway. Sure, there were speed bumps, but they were built incorrectly.
You could barely see them and you only slowed down after you went over them, destroying your car in the process. ‘Can’t we get anything right?’ Munther found himself ironically joking to himself. “Shalom! Ma nish ma?”
Peace, how are you, was the only Hebrew phrase he had ever learned. That and Yesh lee stayh todao oot zahoot, I have two Ids. Being the social of the two girls Maya said “Hello.” The soldiers just stood there. “Bo,” said the soldier who seemed to be the leader. He waved his hand. My daughter just said hello, Munther, thought.
Fearing the safety of his children, he looked to the right, then to the left and back as if to say where am I going to go with my girls? Not one of the soldiers cracked a smile. Their eyes suggested they were studying the subjects. “Dad, what did he say?” Maya asked. “I said move, little girl!” he yelled. The yelling startled the two girls, but they did not cry. It was not the first time they had seen the army. But they had never seen them up this close before. Most of the kids were terrified of the soldiers. In America, growing up, children played Cowboys and Indians. Here, in the West Bank, kids played Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.
“Captain, where can we go? It’s easier for you to move, Sir,” Munther said in his perfect English, exerting every ounce of diplomacy. “Me en fo ta,” the Captain gawked. “I am from Abu Dis.” Looking at him puzzled, he said, “You’re American?” “shtay Todaoot zaoout”, one of the other soldiers mumbled, holding up two fingers for two ID’s, a Palestinian one and an American one. “Haweeyeah,” the soldier said asking for the West Bank Green I.D.
Munther always regretted it when he heard other people speaking Arabic better than him. In particular, when they were Israeli soldiers. But he had no one to blame for this but himself. Twenty years and he had never bothered to learn his mother tongue properly. Other people would have also learned Hebrew. He remembered visiting professors who came from the U.S. to teach. Efforts exerted, they were speaking Arabic by the end of the first semester.
Muther took out his green I.D. and handed it to him. The leader told the third soldier something else in Hebrew. Munther understood it as “Run the name,” because the soldier took out a walkie talkie, stepped a little away from the group.
“Tasha, effes, effes, arba-“, giving the ID numbers into the walkie. “Baba?” “Yes, Linda.” “I have to go the bathroom number one.” “Hold it sweetheart, okay?” “Okay, Dad,” she obeyed. What bothered Munther was the look the lead soldier gave his children. It was of disgust. Like he was in the operating room, watching the doctors perform a spleen transplant. “You have children?” he asked the soldier. Perhaps he had been married, got divorced and couldn’t see his children. Munther immediately wished he had not asked the question. The consequence came – face to face with the barrel of an M-16. “Not your business!” He screamed. Again, the girls were startled. “Baba?” “Yes, Linda,” Munther said eyes to barrel. “I peed myself.” “We’ll get you cleaned when we get home,” he said calmly thinking if he would ever get to see his house again. An image of the Mel Gibson film Signs popped into his mind. It’s the scene where Mel Gibson’s character comes face to face with an alien while his two children and brother look on. Second, he thought of his wife, Fatmah. And strangely enough he thought, ‘I’m too young to die and still haven’t read all of Stephen King’s books.’ “I want to go home,” said Maya. “Kamen shway, habibi,” he said, using Arabic here because he remembered Ramzy once telling him that Israeli soldiers despised a Palestinian that spoke better English than he or she did.
The lead soldier looked at the soldier checking Munther’s ID numbers. “Ha kol beseder?” He nodded. Everything was okay. He handed the ID back to his boss, who lowered the gun and aggressively gave it to Munther. He couldn’t remember if he put the ID in his front pocket or back. He could have dropped it down the cliff for all he knew. All that was racing through his mind was “Let’s load up the bikes in the car and get the H-E double hockey sticks out of here,” a phrase he had not uttered since junior high school. Oh what were my worries back then, he thought?
It was over or so he thought until the lead soldier said the most frightening thing yet. And he didn’t say it to Munther but to Linda…
Munther thought there was something wrong with his hearing when the solider said to his four year old daughter, “Get off your bike.” Although it was technically a tricycle, Linda called it her bike. “We’ll leave. Okay -?” He yelled it again, but this time in Hebrew. Facing the father and the two toddlers, the other soldiers transformed into defense mode. “Linda, sweetheart,” Munther said quivering. “Please get off of your bike.” She did. Social Maya looked up at the soldier. “Do you want me to get up, too?” The lead soldier didn’t answer her. It angered Munther when Maya said something to an adult and they ignored her. The captain shrugged passed Maya and Munther, picked up Linda’s tricycle and threw it down, over the cliff, into the valley. “My bike!”
On impact of hitting the medium and large sharp rocks, the tricycle broke into pieces until it was no more than little bits of plastic. Linda was crying as if the mute button on the remote control had been switched on. It was after the soldiers turned the opposite direction and departed that the sound of Linda’s cries could be heard. Like some messed up orchestra, the cries collaborated with the horns of speeding cars flying over incorrectly constructed speed bumps. He remembered the gun to be fired at the scheduled crash of the symbols in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. The moon even seemed to give off a bamboozled glow. Maya took one look at her sister. “He’s a bad man,” she said. Like an adult, she put her arm around her sister and started crying too.
“We’ll get you another bike. Don’t cry now.” Inside, Munther was screaming. His blood was boiling. But looking at him, you’d think he was just given some bad news about an older relative in Phoenix, Arizona passing at the age of 83, surrounded by all of his sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. “We’ll get you another bike, don’t cry.” Adding to the cries, and the traffic, came the call to prayer. His cell phone rang, too. He knew it was his wife, but he was frozen with his girls.
After a moment of listening to the muezzin finish calling the Maghrib, evening prayer, Munther said, “Yalla. Let’s go home.” Munther carried Maya’s bike back to the car, managing to also hold the hands of his two daughters.
When you get to be a father, these skills come from some unknown source. He opened the trunk and put her bike in. Before slamming the trunk, he looked at the empty space where Linda’s trike should be sitting. He opened the sliding door and helped the girls in. Despite being distraught, they put on their seatbelts by themselves. Watching Linda do so broke his heart because she was sniffling. In the very few times Linda wet herself while out, Munther would have her sit on the prayer rug. But he didn’t care now. How dare them. Munther started the car when the phone rang again. This time he answered and spoke immediately. “We are coming,” he said. He listened. “Palmolive. Anything else? Twix? Got it.” He hung up. That’s appropriate. For his daughters, again he failed to be hero instead choosing to be zero. When he switched on his left turn signal, checked the rearview mirror, he saw that Maya and Linda had fallen asleep…
Her mother brought over a flask for the coffee after Fatmah told her that one was not enough for the people who had showed up. Frankly, she didn’t expect anyone to come. But suddenly, people she knew and didn’t know, relatives and non-relatives were at their home. Munther borrowed chairs from the neighbors. They had set up the chairs on the veranda.
The women were sitting in the family room and living room. Her sister in law and her mother had come over, showing up at the Duhr Prayer along with a couple of journalists from The Associated Press and Reuters. Soon there were other reporters, local, Arab, international. The attendance of Israeli reporters surprised her. One not so pretty female reporter was from Yedioth Ahrinot and another handsome reporter from Haaretz. Although it wasn’t the time, Fatmah wondered if these two were married in holy matrimony and if they had kids, what would they look like? Munther complimented his wife on how easily she spoke to the press. She was always good at public speaking.
After all, she was a teacher. She also once had wanted to be a journalist. It was either that or be a nurse. How she ended up studying business only to become a teacher was one of the consequences of being a Palestinian woman. Most of the good jobs went to men. Other available jobs were for Ramallah residents. The positions that were open required the woman to work late hours. It was not about her having a family to get home to. With the assistance of her parents and Munther of course, she could make it work. But the talk of the town would be unnerving. “What’s a woman doing coming home that late? You actually believe she’s working?” While she once thought time could make such unfortunates go away, in the case of her home town of Abu Dis, she predicted it to be like DNA – “Once it’s there, it’s there forever,” as Madeline Stowe’s character had uttered in the John Travolta film, The General’s Daughter. Like Munther, she found herself memorizing movie lines, too.
Unlike Fatmah, Munther was nervous talking to the press. He came across as neurotic. That’s a first for a writer, eh? His daughters were even better than he was. One reporter from The Financial Times managed to get a quote from Linda, in almost grammatically correct English. “The Jaysh throwed my bike and broked it,” said four year old Linda Sayed. “I cried this much,” she added, holding out her arms wide apart. “Linda, what’s Jaysh?” the amused reporter asked. In English, she answered, “The army.” She brought her arms back in, turned her palm face up and said, “Now, can I have chocolate?” Munther sat among the men speaking to each other over and over about the incident. Repeating the story. The questions. Nine out of ten had cigarettes in between their fingers. He looked around to the men he knew and didn’t know and had the same thought – how old were they when they started smoking. He wondered how many had been caught by their mothers and beaten by their fathers.
When he wasn’t looking, the men were staring at him, like he was a hero. He knew that some did not like the attention he was receiving, and that he had hassad, envy and gheera, jealousy. But to the majority he had redeemed himself, somehow. It no longer matter that he was unemployed. All the gossip that existed about him receiving a salary from his wife to baby sit had ceased. Surviving this ordeal with the army had made him a man again.
To them, anyway. And again, he was someone who could be associated with. Accepted. Still he hadn’t wanted it to happen this way. And he was still determined to work. To become a writer.
Well, he was a writer, as he had once read in director Robert Rodriguez’s book on writing when he was supposed to be writing but wasn’t. He was seeking to be a professional. He did not feel right about using his and his family’s newly founded fame to do so. He excused himself from the men he was sitting with and went to his den walking in from a door that went directly from the patio to his study. He liked his home. Two bedrooms. A living room. Family room. A study. Baytooti and damn proud of it.
A kitchen that “could always be bigger,” his wife had hinted at several times. He wondered if she had been secretly referring to the kitchen as a metaphor for something else. It was one story although he had discussed with Fatmah a number of times to build a second story when he sold a, well, a story. Abu Dis was crowded. Al Azaria was even more crowded. He remembered attending a talk on urban cities at Al Quds University where the British lecturer had said all of the places were built incorrectly without any consideration for the public. Wedding halls and stores without adequate parking lots. But it would stop there. No action plan. Well, nothing could be done. If the authority ever attempted to redesign, riots would break out. Sometimes, crooked is better than straight. To imagine traffic in Al Azaria, ladies and gentlemen, you would have to take L.A., San Francisco and New York City and combine them. Abu Dis had one problem, no sidewalks. They built semi-sidewalks where it was safer to walk in the middle of the street than the sidewalk itself. But he loved this town. He lived in Ramallah for a few years. One time, he spent months living in Jericho. At ten million years old, it held the record for the oldest city in the world. But he didn’t like it there either. Abu Dis was like the porridge that Goldie Locks drank – just right. We will get it right eventually. “Who is we,” Munther asked himself out loud again. Was it the American in him talking or the Palestinian? Both. A lot of American money had come through Abu Dis. Some of it was physically visible. Others came in the form of education grants, funding. A knock on the study startled him and Fatmah came in.
“Why did you leave the men to come in here?”
“I thought the writing would come,” he told her. She smiled genuinely at him, kissed him on the forehead and returned to her women guests, whom he could hear speaking. But when the writing came, nothing would be able to interrupt him. A number of evenings he had written during Israeli-Palestinian clashes in his village. The sound grenades were loud as were the Palestinian chants of ‘Allah Akbar’ but that, too, could not keep him from firing away an ammunition of words. Another time he wrote while Bethlehem was being tank shelled. He could hear it despite being 18 minutes, give or take the Container Israeli military checkpoint, located just after Abu Kinan’s village of Suwahra. “I am a writer,” he said. No, you’re a wannabe another voice told him. He quickly changed the subject.
Sitting in his black leather swivel chair that she had also bought him, he started imagining himself making a living as a writer. He visualized the times she had asked him a question he could not answer – why did you become a writer? Why? How? It just happened. “Dad used to write science fiction,” he said out loud. But your father died before he could ever see any of his writings published. Is that going to be me? “Why does someone become a doctor? They like biology, chemistry. Now, whether they become a podiatrist, pediatrician, or any other depends on which areas they feel more comfortable with,” he had once told someone who had asked him about the type of writing. As for the specialty he could not write songs. Poetry was definitely out. Fatmah had asked him to write her a poem. He spent hours and hours but could not produce one. Well he came up with something but he knew he would not share it with her or anyone for that matter. What was it? “Roses are red, violets are blue, falafel is brown, and all women are ugly when they frown.” He started out writing short stories but fell in love with screenwriting. “One day,” he said. Actually he said that a lot. For now, he would keep at it. Although the town had become okay with him, the fact that he was not writing, created a vacuum. There was no money in writing. “Yet Munther.” he said to himself. Yet. In the meantime, he settled for writing commercials and women empowerment videos. But $100 for a 3 minute did not cut it. But it was better than zero…until he got terminated.
He had been promised a full time job at a salary of $1000…until he got terminated. How am I going to pay the electricity bill of $1500? The outstanding debt he had generated at the local supermarket or pharmacy. $2000. They would have to wait. He turned off the lights and returned to the men where he found them praying the Maghrab evening prayer together. He couldn’t join them. When Fatmah had startled him, he had broken wind, therefore losing his wadu and therefore would have to do the ritual washing again before he could pray.
“I have to buy a new trike for Linda,” he thought to himself.
He remembered watching a news briefing at the State Department where a Palestinian reporter working with Al Quds Newspaper asked the spokesperson if the U.S. would compensate the Al Sayed family. The spokesperson said, “No.” The reporter, in his late sixties, was quick to rebuttal.
“Can’t you take out $30 from the billions of dollars you give your ally Israel to get her a new bike?” The U.S. State department responded that such a compensation would be unlikely but added that “If an Israeli Army soldier had done this, he should know better.” That evening an Israeli Army spokesperson made a statement. It only took one week and only happened because they were probably pinched by America to do so. And, Munther, thought Israel was better to have stayed quiet.
“The IDF is investigating reports that a soldier threw a small child’s bike into the valley near Al Azaria. But at this time, we cannot confirm that this incident actually happened.” The words did not come as a surprise to anyone. The next thing that happened would shock everyone. The second thing would embarrass the U.S. State Department…
When the Israeli soldiers came to arrest Munther, he was just about to pray the morning prayer. They did not pound on the door or make one of their fancy noisy entrances. It was a simple knock. Munther asked “Meen?” A voice in Arabic better than his wife’s, responded, “Jaysh.” He opened the door and three soldiers stood in the street. Munther noticed the jeep parked with an additional two soldiers sitting in the front seat. “Munther Al Sayed?” He nodded. “Haweeyeah.” He went into the bedroom where Fatmah was sitting up.
He put his finger on his lips. He got his ID and American passport. The door closed and he was gone. Fatmah ran to the door, opened it without her veil, just in time to see the jeep driving off.
His eyes were covered and plastic had been used to cuff his hands. A zip tie was what it was called. He wasn’t scared. He was concerned though. Although he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. He knew that after he had left, Fatmah had called her parents, woke them up, and they were there within minutes. The girls will be fine, he thought. “Quiet!” the soldier shouted. He hadn’t realized he had said that out loud. “Sorry,” Munther added. He didn’t know what to call it but it was a combination between a slap and a punch. It hurt more than a slap, but came across his face in a fist fashion. Tears came down his eyes immediately.
He wasn’t crying, it was involuntary. For a moment, it felt like his nose would bleed, too. The last time he had been punched was in seventh grade on his first day of a school he had just transferred to. Munther’s dad was proud because he had lied to his dad that he punched the kid, too. The only lie he ever told his father. Well, the truth was he did shove him and he fell. Wow, that was so many years ago. He found himself thinking about the soldier who had just hit him. ‘What was he doing when I was in seventh grade?’ You probably weren’t born yet, he thought. PUNCHSLAP! “Quiet!” ‘I’ll take Jaime Ketchum’s punches over yours any day and twice on Friday.’ They were there, wherever ‘there’ was. Where’s there? He didn’t know. The jeep had stopped. And he could hear Hebrew.
He learned a little but not enough to understand the plans they had for him. But his fate would be known soon. He heard the backdoors open and he was dragged by his arms. It reminded him of high school when he had acted in the musical Oliver! He was one of the Bumble’s henchmen who had to drag Oliver by his arms because he had asked for more. The he who had played Oliver was actually a she. Kristin Whitmore. Wow!
Even at this moment, it impressed him that he could remember her name. Only a high school girl had the Soprano voice to play the title character.
Munther also recalled how she’d tape her breasts together and cut her hair short to appear convincingly as a boy. “Today, actresses do much more,” he thought. What are you doing now Fatmah, he wondered with heart ache?
The Al Sayed house was filled to brim. “There must be more people here than the Abu Kinan azza,” Fatmah’s mother said. Her husband had been following up with the Prisoner’s club in Ramallah, an organization which immediately handles and tracks prisoners detained or arrested. They said since there was nothing concrete to hold Munther on, the Israeli Army would interrogate him a little and send him home. Fatmah looked at the women in her home. To make room, they had moved the couches and little coffee tables to the master bedroom. “It’s amazing how supportive everyone has been through this ordeal,” she said out loud, to God to make sure he heard her expression of thanks. Watching the girls color in their Frozen coloring books, she brushed away the thought that these girls would grow up without a father figure in their lives. As orphans? Stop!
Fatmah went into the room and hugged them. In actuality, she needed it. As she held them both, she looked out the window to notice that the number of men in attendance had aggrandized. What she observed more than anything else was that none of the women were whispering poorly about her or her husband. No glances. And she wanted to believe that the same was to be said on the men’s side. At the moment, her faith and belief that God would make everything right, rose 200%.
The events that took place the past month or so had been bad. Horrible. Munther losing his job. The gossip after her husband had taken the girls to the Land of Kedz. His outburst at Abu Kinan’s azza. The three week separation. The Israeli soldier throwing Linda’s tricycle in the valley. And now, the Army arresting Munther. All of it, she believed was part of God’s bigger plan. It had to be. She and her husband were good people who kept HIM close. And she remembered her Grandfather’s words, ‘keep God close and he will keep you closer.’ And God was not about to let the people of the town think otherwise. Across the globe people were always looking for roads to a better life. The path to success. What was the song she heard her husband once sing – life is a highway, I want to ride it all night long.
But she wasn’t asking for streets or roads or highways. Fatmah would settle for sidewalks. “What are you doing now, Munther?” she wondered out loud.
He was sitting in a chair now. His mind had taken him back almost 20 years ago. A door that sounded like the Titanic going down opened. While he knew it would shut, he was still startled when it did. The hair on his arms stood on end. Coffee? American? Just a few seconds again, it smelled like rusted metal and wet wood. Was he smelling coffee now? His blind fold came off and a man in civilian clothing was standing in front of him.
He looked around. There was a small window, but it wasn’t big enough so that light lit the room. The lights were on. A small table that didn’t belong there was in front of him. But Munther’s eyes soon went to the object that was in the man’s hands. Closer look, he didn’t appear to be Israeli or Arab. He didn’t care who this blond haired man was. He cared about what this man was going to do with the scissor-plier object in his hand. “I guess you’re a coffee drinker,” the 50’s something man said in a British accent. Or was it South African? My political science professor in college was a South African Jew, Munther recalled. Are you still alive Jonathan Mendilow?
“But teaching does not suit you,” Munther concluded to himself. With your looks, you should be in the movies. The man with the British accent cut the plastic and his hands were free. The man stood next to him. “I am Yoav. It’s not every day you meet a celebrity. Mister Al Sayed, may I shake your hand?” He extended his hand to Munther who paused for a second before shaking it. Yoav let out a boastful laugh. “That’s the American in you to shake hands. The pause was the Palestinian part of you. If you had been fully Palestinian, you would have refused.” An image appeared in his mind of Fatmah saying, “You’re American when you want to be and Palestinian when you want to be.”
He picked up a blue pack and brought it towards his face. Munther started backing up. “Ice. It’s for the beauty mark my incompetent man gave you,” he said charmingly. “I’m sorry.” Sorry? Munther put the pack on his cheek which felt like swimming in the dead sea with an open cut.
Yoav sat in a chair that was placed for him. He pushed the coffee towards him. “It’s not Starbucks or Stars and Bucks,” he said referring to the copy restaurant in Ramallah. He knew not to take the coffee. But he did. He sipped it. It tasted like the beans had just been grinded from Brazil and flown over just for him on the Enterprise at warp speed.
“Thank –“, Munther started saying but stopped when he noticed the tape recorder. “I am not recording anything yet,” he said in broken Arabic. “As soon as I do and we’re finished here you can go home to Fatmah, Maya and Linda,” he said with warmth and compassion. Was he for real? The next two minutes there was silence. Yoav just eyed him. If it were a staring contest, Munther would have lost. He looked at his coffee cup which had the Hebrew letters of Tet and Alef. It wasn’t the time but he also wished he had used the nail clippers to cut the hang nail on his thumb. He would remove it now, but it would bleed.
When Munther looked back at Yoav, he had lost the smile. He was dead serious. In fact, he even seemed threatening. Pink. Pale. Pissed. “It’s simple, Mr. Al Sayed.” He took out a handkerchief barely in time to catch the sneeze. “Summer colds,” commented Yoav.
“Bless you,” said Munther. Yoav’s eyes widened. Munther didn’t realize he had said it until afterwards. It was involuntary, like, well, like a sneeze.
“A Palestinian would never say that to a Jew. But I thank you. The American part of you anyway. I’ll be direct, Sir. I want you to say that the story about my soldier throwing your daughter Linda’s bike into the valley was made up. That you lied about it.” Munther looked scared. Yoav pointed at him. “That emotion you have on your face is only necessary if you do not say the truth.” Between the ‘the and the truth,’ he had paused for effect. All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players. Munther was not a trouble maker.
He hated confrontation. Why was he here? Why had this happened? Suddenly the coffee tasted bad. He didn’t want it. He wanted the only thing that gave him comfort in the world – Fatmah.
“We did not think it was going to turn into such a big deal. That’s the truth.” Yoav shook his head.
Once again, for effect, he was pretending as if he was thinking about what to say. But Munther studied acting. In acting class, you take a course on body language. He had rehearsed this dialogue a number of times. Maybe not rehearsed. At least, he had gone over it with his superior officer. “You live in Abu Dis, the capital of gossip. How can you say such a thing? Is it because you think me to be an ahbell,” he said using the Arabic word for idiot. “We hear everything. How the town is against you. Not calling you a man. A husband divorcing his wife because his wife said he should be more like you when it comes to caring for babies.” The way he said babies made Munther want to smile, laugh actually, because it was an Arnold Schwarzenegger “It’s not a tumor” moment.
“Is that true, Munther?” Munther shook his head. He indicated to the paper. “I can fix it. All of it. I have a few friends in Hollywood. I must, I’m Jewish, right? Seriously, I can find you work. I know people. My wife is best friends with the woman who created that show in the 90’s where everybody are friends. What’s it called?” “Friends?” Munther said with a question mark. “Sign and we will be. Friends.” You sneaky British or South African bastard, Munther wanted to say. “All you do is sign that little paper with this little pen that this little incident never happened and this little problem will be go away like Stuart Little.” Today’s secret word, boys and girls, is little. Whenever you hear the secret word scream real loud, okay? Is Pee-Wee Herman still working? No matter, Munther wanted to get back his reputation in the town, something the people and their tongues let him lose unfairly. But this man in front of him was not the one to do it. He would be seen as a liar to the two people who trusted him the most – his girls, Maya and Linda.
“In Arabic, Munther, there is a saying: Make it big, it gets bigger. Keep it small, it stays little.” Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. “You’re asking me to lie,” Munther asked.
Yoav let out a boastful laugh that belonged to an overweight man like the producer in The Player or the one from Barton Fink. “No. No. You lied, Munther. I’m asking you to tell the truth that you lied and get respected again.” He felt shivers on his hands. Yoav noticed. He knew he was getting to him. “This is a trick. Whatever I say or do will incriminate me.” Yoav got into his face.
“You made up the story about my soldier breaking your little girl’s bicycle.” The breath mint was poorly hiding the fact that Yoav was a smoker.
“Don’t sign.” Marlboro lights. “Case closed.” No, Marlboro Reds. You’re going to jail” He stood up and Yoav’s cell phone rang. “Ken…ken. Yoav.” he said agitated. Listening, his mouth fell to the floor and he let out a loud “MA?!? he said slamming the pen on the paper. Munther knew that word, too. It was Hebrew for what.
He ended the call. “I’m sorry for my behavior,” he said. “It seems you are free to go.” Yoav didn’t speak anything else after that. He left, leaving Munther alone with the pen. After a minute, he turned the paper over and started handwriting something. Yoav re-entered and grabbed the pen and paper out his hand and started ripping it into three or four pieces. It doesn’t matter. The pen is truly mightier than the sword. Besides, “You can’t rip up what’s in my head,” Munther said out loud. He took a drink from the coffee. It tasted good. Just then Yoav re-entered the room. He took the coffee out of his hands and left. Even in the ugliest situations and places, a smile is hiding somewhere. He was back…
Fatmah’s brother Samy told Munther about the video on the car ride home after picking him up from the Ma’ale Adumim settlement police headquarters. The video showed Munther with his daughters and the whole scene with the Israeli Army. More, it was visual confirmation that the Israeli soldier had in fact, thrown Linda’s tricycle.
“Then it’s all over the news?” Munther asked. “The video has gone viral,” Samy said.
Someone in Al Azaria, using their IPhone, had secretly filmed the encounter of Munther Al Sayed and his daughters Maya and Linda. Filmed from across the street, the anonymous good Samaritan was behind a tree.
In the video, in between the passing automobiles, the traffic lulls and you can make out the soldier pushing Munther and his daughter aside, picking up the bike and throwing it.
It was clear as day and on Twitter and Facebook. “516,329” have seen it on You Tube already, Samy added.
The streets of Abu Dis were lined with residents and with people from all around as Munther came home. Waving, clapping, and cheering.
Children were holding Palestinian flags. As soon as he pulled up to his home, a mass crowd swarmed on him like, pick your choice of words here. He was home. And everybody had spent hours waiting to catch a glimpse of him. He emerged from the car and people started greeting him. Kissed on the cheek. He yelled out to Fatmah similar to the scene from Rocky when he calls Talia Shire. Fatmah was his Adrian. But this was no movie. This was life. And it was sure pretty, he thought as he hugged Fatmah and his two daughters. Things were happening. He heard the writer in him say “I’m not mad at you anymore, come on let’s do lunch.” In that cold interrogation room, the voice that had once gone into hibernation had awoken.
At another briefing at the U.S. State Department, the Palestinian journalist had been allowed in, contrary to the rumors that the Americans would forbid him. Later, they wished they had denied him entry. Despite the Spokesperson going left, right, up and down to avoid the question about the video, she finally answered. Her face beet red she said: “We regret this troubling incident deeply and only hope our ally will exercise, no, will know how to act next time.” Next time, Ms. Spokesperson? Oops!
Munther felt that everything would turn out the way it was supposed to. He would find work. He would write again.
But somehow, for this moment, what mattered to him more than anything were the girls in his life. That sentence is wrong, he thought -- The girls are his life. He was greater than any super hero.
Journalists, politicians, men, women, children of all ages, had been in and out of the Al Sayed house for days. People around the world could not stop talking about the video, the bike incident.
But the shock came when he received a phone call from Los Angeles that a certain director had taken a great interest in his family’s story.
Two weeks after the video had gone viral and he’d been released from the police station, Munther could not believe that Mr. Oliver Stone was sitting in his living room. God forgive me, but after God, the Platoon and Wall Street director was God. His wife was reacting better than he was. Because she was not familiar with him, she was not star struck. She respected him and treated her as she did the villagers. She smiled at him, looked him in the eye.
It was no surprise when Oliver Stone later told Munther that he liked his wife more than him. She was not acting giddy. “What’s your favorite film, Oliver?” She asked him. Oliver? Wow. “I really liked Omar, Fatmah” he said referring to the Hany Abu-Assad movie. Munther liked the way he said his wife’s name. Although it was pronounced Fot-ma. Mr. Stone had said it Fot-e-ma. “Don’t say that you like Omar just because we’re Palestinian. In Israel, you say your favorite film is an Avi Nesher film, no?” Munther’s mouth dropped. First, she called him Oliver. Now this. How can she be talking to him like that? “While Israel has a pool of talented filmmakers, and yes Mr. Nesher is absolutely brilliant, I never really got into the Israeli film scene. But Omar will be studied as one of the greatest love stories ever told. You don’t have to be Palestinian or even Arab to relate to that.” He took out a cigarette. Munther jumped to put the ashtray in front of him. “I’m sorry Mr. Stone we don’t allow smoking in our home,” Fatmah said. “Fatmah!” Munther snapped, his face turning red.
Her choice to call him Mr. Stone over Oliver did not influence him to put his cigarette back in the box. He would have done so anyway. But hearing her say Mr. Stone didn’t hurt. “Would you like Arabic coffee or tea with mint?” He chose the latter and Fatmah left for the kitchen. Maya and Linda came running into the living room holding paper with colored drawing on them.
“Umo, Umo, this is for you,” said Maya in English, umo, meaning mister. Linda repeated the same sentence but in Arabic. “Girls, don’t bother Mister Stone,” their father said.
Oliver Stone put up a hand and turned his head sideways to Munther as if to say ‘Really? Come on they’re kids.’ He took the drawings from the girls. “What is it?? He asked, his famous eyebrows elevating in genuine curiosity. “It’s you making a movie,” Maya said smiling. Linda repeated the same sentence in Arabic. “Is that me?” Oliver Stone said pointing to the squiggly line. “No, that’s the camera. This is you,” Maya said pointing to something that looked like a cloud. “Why thank you. What’s your name?” “I’m Maya and this is my sister Linda,” she said. “You’re the one whose bike was broken, right?” Linda nodded. “What did you do?” “I cried.” “I cried, too,” Maya shouted.
Wow she speaks to Oliver Stone more confident than I do, Munther thought. “Well, thank you, Maya. Thank you Linda.” They ran out of the room, almost bumping into Fatmah carrying a silver tray with three glass cups of tea. “I love mint tea,” Oliver Stone said.
Munther couldn’t believe that not only was the Born on the Fourth of July director in his home, but drinking tea. He likes one sugar in his tea, by the way. “Tom Cruise is a tea freak,” he said smiling just before sipping his tea. The doorbell rang. Fatmah got up and returned with her father and mother. “Oliver, this is my mom and dad, Abu Samy and Um Samy,” she said. They shook hands. “Oliver Stone, Mohkrij cinematee,” she said to her mom, using the Arabic word for movie director. “Sahafee kaman,” Oliver Stone added, surprising all that he had used the Arabic word for journalist. Fatmah left to get cups of tea as the parents sat down. Her father engaged in conversation with the famous personality about his visit to America a few years back. Namely to California. Oliver Stone seemed genuinely interested.
“In your one month visit, Abu Samy, you saw more of the United States than I have seen in my whole life.” Man, thought Munther, this guy really listens to you. This is how Oliver Stone became Oliver Stone. Fatmah returned with two glasses of tea. “So Munther let me cut to the chase because I have to fly back to L.A. tonight and security at Ben Gurion airport is a nightmare,” he said. Before Munther could wonder, “And I tell that to their faces. I’m not afraid like Jon Voight.” he added. “What happened with Linda and your family is terrible and shocking. And I don’t want you to think that I want to profit it on that or exploit your family or anything like that. Yes, I like controversy. But I love a great story even more. However, I can’t tell it alone.
I would like you to work on the screenplay with me and you’ll get sole credit for it. “Hitchcock did that all the time,” said Fatmah. “Munther, if your wife wasn’t married --,” he began to say but noticed a look from Munther’s father in law. Fatmah was kind of bummed that Munther hadn’t given Oliver Stone the look. “I’m impressed,” he said correcting himself. After a moment, Fatmah’s father chuckled as her mother covered her mouth and giggled. He smiled with them. “Look, I don’t want to make this movie, I have to make this movie,” he said. Munther was speechless. Her parents, too. “How much will you pay up front?” Fatmah asked. Munther’s eyes widen. “I’m sorry if my question bothers you but Munther has worked hard and written for too many people and nobody paid him,” she said without breaking a sweat. “Fatmah,” he said talking with his hands. “Don’t be sorry. I will give him fifteen thousand down, plus another fifteen after submitting the first draft. Each draft I ask, he will receive an additional five thousand.” “Dollars?” Fatmah asked. “The only language we Americans know how to speak. Is that okay?”
“Yes!” Munther shouted, startling his mother in law who almost spilled a little of the tea on herself. “Can you write that down,” Fatmah asked. Oliver Stone let out a whole hearty laugh.
“The moment I get back to L.A., it will be done. You have nothing to worry about. I need Munther. Munther doesn’t need me.” With his Shukran, he put the tea saucer and cup down and got up. “Oh. May I say good bye to the girls?”
Munther called them saying that the guest filmmaker was leaving. They all walked him outside to his SUV where the driver was reading a newspaper that had a still image of the video gone viral.
“Gal,” Oliver Stone said followed by a word in Hebrew that Munther did not know. The Israeli driver got out and went to the back and opened up the trunk. He produced two brand new hot pink bicycles. “For Maya and Linda,” he said taking one of the bikes from Gal. Maya and Linda started jumping up and down. He kissed the girls on their heads. Then he shook the hands of Fatmah’s parents and hugged Munther. Fatmah put her hand out. “No. I’m going to hug you, too. Fatmah. You’re an amazing woman.” Munther watched as she returned the embrace.
“I want this one.” No, I want this one, Maya and Linda said. “I’ll let you handle the Kardashians.” With that, he got in the SUV and drove off.
The last thing Munther saw was the driver handing Oliver Stone his mobile phone. For the rest of the evening, Munther and Fatmah watched the girls ride the bikes that Mr. Oliver Stone had brought them. They hardly spoke to each other. Sure, they could have. But really for some moments in life, a picture is worth a thousand words. A moving picture is worth infinity.
Fatmah grabbed Munther’s left arm. He managed to kiss her forehead. As the sun was setting over Israel’s separation wall, Fatmah grabbed Munther’s hand and together they strolled after Maya and Linda. “Daddy,” Maya called out. “Yes, Maya?” “I have to go to the bathroom.” “Mamma?” “Yes, Linda?” “I have to go to the bathroom, too.”
That night Munther woke up from a dream. He wasn’t sure whether it was bad or not. He tried to recall it but couldn’t. “Sometimes a cake is just a cake,” Impath Deanna Troi had once uttered on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He got out of bed and walked to the kitchen and drank a tall glass of water. Half way he stopped, starting to remember bits of the dream. Then he saw all of it:
Oliver Stone is driving away in his SUV after having just given the girls their new bikes. But Munther’s point of view is that of the driver, not himself. Behind the wheel, he looks over to his right at Oliver Stone who is speaking on the telephone. “You’re right, Yoav. The family is definitely lovely.”
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