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Chapter X: Elham

Hebrew University, Jerusalem

December 2015

Winter was descending over Jerusalem and it was raining in my garden. The trees, soaking in their drink of the year, were omitting an earthy, melancholy smell. There was a sickly cat that had been following me the last few days, and today he meowed so desperately that I picked him up and sat down on a bench, holding him tightly as he purred at the sudden warmth. Drops fell down around us from sodden leaves. As-Sawiya was quiet today. I shivered and stroked the cat, appreciating his warmth as well. I supposed even repulsive cats with head colds deserved love.

Nablus, Palestine

Elham was a dazzling enigma, and you couldn’t help but love her. We had met through the Arabic program at Hebrew University, for which she tutored. She was now sitting beside Tyrone and me on a bus bound for the old Palestinian city of Nablus. “Are you sure it looks okay?” she asked for perhaps the third time during our drive, running her fingers through her hair. “It just feels so short!” Elham had stopped wearing hijab shortly before the semester started. It had not been an easy transition and had significantly strained her relationship with her conservative Muslim parents. Yesterday, she had chopped her hair to just below her chin, and her bouncy black curls were free to fly about in the wind escaping through the cracked window.

“It looks great,” I assured her. “It suits your personality. Trust me!”

“Okay...” she said with an impish smile. “I guess I believe you.” I had spoken the truth. I had come to covet every aspect of her style, from her carefree hair to her flamboyant second-hand prints and vintage denim. Her style, like her opinions, were all her own and never failed to defy. Tyrone had told me about the last time he’d gone to Palestine with her, and a shopkeeper had cursed him out after discovering he was British. “This is all your fault!” he cried. “You handed us over to the Jews!” Tyrone was horrified, but Elham was having none of it.

“We are all responsible for this!” she retorted. “You can’t blame just the British, or the Americans, or even the Jews!” And she proceeded to rattle off a list of historical facts, the shopkeeper countering with his own. Tyrone was impressed by the vast amount of history they knew. I supposed, in Palestine, they didn’t learn history, but rather, lived it. After an uncomfortably long while, both parties grew tired and the debate ended. “I think it would be better in the future if you were Irish,” Elham told Tyrone as they resumed walking. “Palestinians identify with the Irish.”

“I can’t wait for you to see Nablus!” Elham exclaimed presently, always loquacious and ricocheting easily between subjects. “They have the very best kanafeh in the whole world.” Kanafeh is a dessert consisting of a creamy white cheese soaked in syrup and rose water, and topped with a layer of shredded pastry. It is actually believed to have originated in Nablus. I was highly anticipating getting my hands on some as soon as we arrived.

Our bus cleared the checkpoint without incident and carried us a few more miles into a little white city nestled between sloping hills. It dropped us off in the historical center of town, which had an Old World feel and was said to resemble Damascus. Moving into the interior, we explored the narrow, winding streets and bazaars bursting with locals that forced us to push through many bodies. Despite the condensed crowds, the atmosphere was easy and slow. No one was trying to get anywhere quickly, and from the way they addressed each other, it was clear that Nablus was very much a community. All of the women here wore hijab, so, needless to say, Elham and I got a lot of attention from catcallers. However, the comments were mostly good-natured and flattering. Elham was at ease in this environment and was without reservation in striking up conversations with strangers. She stopped a woman on the street and asked her where we could find the best kanafeh in Nablus. Without having to think about it, she gave us directions, bidding us to enjoy. We continued on down a street lined with shops selling textiles and coffee, and then another street of butcheries displaying rows of recently severed goat heads. It felt like another, simpler time had been preserved here.

Elham led us down an alley to an open-air shop. There was a crowd of men standing around a baker who was removing slabs of orange-colored kanafeh from the stove top, slicing pieces to distribute to the nearest standing person. He could not work fast enough as the crowd was perpetually replenishing itself. We pushed our way in and stood with the others, watching like hungry dogs as the baker expertly handled the hot, delicate pastry, the scent of sweetness and roses wafting from a slab that was not yet deemed ready. At last, he began to slice, pulling us from our trance, and he handed each of us a square with a knowing smile and a nod. We handed him a few coins and proceeded to devour his creation, which was perfectly sweet and creamy, with the slightest bite of salt from the dough and a light, floral aftertaste. We had scarcely finished before we were back in line for another.

After we finished that slice, we exited the shop upon agreeing that we would come back for more before the day was done. A few steps across the alley from the shop, there was the bakery’s kitchen, and you could walk right in. There was a young man rolling the dough, and he gladly showed us the giant mixer and the burlap bags filled with different colored powders. The cheese, he said, was incredibly special and only came from Nablus. We thanked him and continued on our way.

Not much later, as we were meandering the shops on a tiny street, I realized I had to go to the bathroom, but there was none in sight. It wasn’t like the modern city, where there are bathrooms in every restaurant. “It’s okay,” said Elham, “we’ll just ask someone.” We continued a few more yards down the street in search of a place that looked like it could contain a bathroom. Across from a stand selling potent perfumes in curious-looking bottles, there was a jewelry store with glass doors. It was dark inside and looked very closed. “Here,” Elham declared, pressing against the glass to see inside. She knocked, and a very tall, old man came to the door. “Ahlan,” she said in Arabic, “may we use your bathroom?” The man considered for a moment, then welcomed us in. There was no jewelry in this jewelry shop, but there was a plump old woman sitting on a couch who smiled at us warmly. The man pointed me toward the bathroom, and when I came back out, Tyrone and Elham were sitting next to the old woman, conversing happily. “Come, sit down,” the woman invited me in Arabic, patting her seat, “my husband is making us tea.” I joined them and tried to participate in the conversation. She was asking Elham about her life and where she was from, and later, she asked Tyrone if he was of Arab descent.

“No,” he laughed, “but I look kind of Arab, don’t I?” His Arabic was getting very good. “Though Dakota is part Syrian. Correct?”

Shwaya,” I said, nervous to be in the Arabic hot seat. “My grandmother is half Syrian.” She smiled and touched her face, saying something I didn’t understand.

“She says you have lovely Syrian features,” Elham translated. I thanked the woman for her compliment, though I doubted it was true.

“Ah, my husband!” the woman exclaimed as the old man entered the room with a tray of tea. There was a light in her eyes when she looked at him that warmed me. “He makes the very best tea. He knows just how I like it. Don’t you, habibi?”

“Oh, yes,” the man said as he handed us our tea, and there was light in his eyes, too. As we sipped the sweet tea, the man told us how they had lived here in Nablus their whole lives, watching it change. He had seen many conflicts and hard times, but the heart of the city had remained the same. He would never wish to live anywhere else. “Where are you going after this?” he asked when the tea was finished. We told him we wanted to see a hammam we had heard about, which was having a “women-only” day today. “It is just down the street!” he exclaimed. “I will take you there.” His wife seemed a little sad to see us go, and insisted that we come back to visit if we were ever again in Nablus.

The old man led us swiftly down the street, ducking up some narrow stairs carved into the stone between two buildings. The door to the hammam was at the top. He shook each of our hands. “I am so happy to see visitors here in Nablus. I hope I have helped to show you that this is a good place. I hope that you can tell others the same.” We promised we would, and his venerable eyes filled with joy. “I will keep you in my heart, always.” With that, he was gone.

Elham and I entered the hammam, leaving Tyrone outside for a moment. The room was hazy with smoke and steam, and full of the most glamorous women I had ever seen. They were in various states of undress, gossiping in whispers and relaxing on embroidered cushions. One corpulent woman lounged on her side, sizing us up in a queen-like manner as she puffed smoke rings from a hookah. Unfortunately, we couldn’t just abandon Tyrone to join them, so Elham and I agreed to return on another women’s day. “We can talk about girl things and go thrift shopping!” Elham promised as we left the hammam. “Speaking of girl things, any boys in your life?”

“Well, I was kind of seeing this guy who just got out of the IDF - he’s a security guard now.” She knew what kind of security guard I meant. “But it was...complicated. I haven’t seen him in a while.”

“Yeah, I get it,” she said. “I dated an IDF soldier for a while.”

“Really?” I was taken aback. “How did that work?”

“It was also complicated,” she sighed. “We had very different ideas...I guess too different….But, wow, he was hot!” We both laughed. Even though it didn’t always work, I admired Elham for her refusal to remain within her zone of comfort. She had an internship at the biggest Israeli newspaper in Jerusalem, and was constantly exposed to conflicting views. I was beginning to believe that, if this divided nation were to ever see a bright future, it would be through her and people like her.

After a tour of a historic church and some obligatory kanafeh, we boarded a bus for Jerusalem. On the way out of the checkpoint from Palestine, we had to get off the bus and walk through. We loaded our belongings onto the scanner, and as Elham placed her passport against the glass to show the IDF girl inside, the she called her partner over to look at it. The two girls laughed as they pointed at her passport. Elham stared at them blatantly through the glass, not lowering her arm until they finished and unlocked the gate to let her pass. Once outside the checkpoint, I asked her why they had laughed. “I’m wearing hijab in my ID photo,” she said. “Some of them think it’s funny.”

A week later, I was looking forward to going back to Nablus with Elham. I texted her to see if she could go, but she told me she couldn’t because her parents had grounded her and made her quit her internship. She didn’t reveal why they had punished her, but I knew it was just because Elham was Elham. “Don’t worry,” she wrote, “I’ll get my internship back, and we’ll go before you leave.”

Jerusalem, Israel

I was riding a bus bound for the center of Jerusalem. It was the fourth night of Hanukkah and there was a menorah in every window. The Hasidic men walked with a spring in their step as they carried bags of fresh donuts. They gathered in candlelit doorways to pray and sing, swaying with a special vigor. The women in wigs donned their best black skirts, walking tall as they pushed their strollers and led their lines of bouncing children. I was listening to Creedence Clearwater’s “Down on the Corner” and the community of matching figures seemed to move about within the cadence of the song. Unknown to them, I shared in the merry lightness that guided their step home and radiated from reverent windows.


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