My grandfather was tough. Everyone in the family feared him, but I was his favorite. He protected me from the tyranny of my mother and the beatings of my grandmother and the teasing of my aunt. He preferred me to my cousin (or so I imagined), the first grandson, who was the eldest and, of course, a male.
Inside of me resides a child that does not grow, a childhood made of memories that begin with the first moment of my life. My childhood departed but never left me. The realities of my childhood are different than what my memory tells me, but my memory is shaped by the repetition of idealized events on the tongues of adults.
What mostly distinguishes my oh-so-heroic childhood are the first hours and months of my life, and I don’t know if my connection to the place where I was born is related to those memories.
Jericho is the city I love. We are alike. The people call Jericho “the city of the moon.” The moon embeds itself in the sky, and you see it touching the earth where the earth is flat, spacious, and green. The sun burns, but the moon brings a chill.
In Jericho, there is a tree we call “The Crazy.” It is a bougainvillea, and it belongs to the carnation family. People also describe it as hellish because it grows and erupts in crazy ways after a long lull. Its colors vary from violet and lilac to orange and white. It always hangs from the balconies of the house and spreads into the street. Some years, when we came back to Jericho at the beginning of the season, we would discover we had been fined by the city because the tree had grown so much it had blocked the road.
This tree is very much like me. I feel that my spirit contains a part of its craziness—its lulls and sudden eruptions. It is a stranger, and yet it comes too close. It grows in a land that is not its home and conveniently finds itself an owner there. The olive tree, however, cannot find a life in Jericho. Neither can the almond tree. Jericho is the city of the delicious citrus trees, askadinya, and “The Crazy.”
My grandfather bought a winter house in Jericho. I like to say he did this in celebration of my birth, but that’s not the truth. Telling the story this way makes me feel as though I were his favorite. The house is dreamlike in my memory, a castle. In reality, it was just a normal house. Still, it embraced us all, the entire family, my uncles and their children, too. Each uncle had his own room. How spacious it felt, though it wasn’t a very large house. There was a small fountain that to me seemed the size of a swimming pool. Happiness makes things grow larger than they really are.
Before my birth, my mother, grandmother, and aunt were busy preparing this house my mother loved in Jericho. My grandfather spoiled her. She had contractions and labor pains in that house. At that time, Jericho was very far away from Jerusalem.
My mother gave birth to me in Jerusalem, and my first months were spent in Jericho. I was born in a sun month—the flaming August, they call it. In those years, summer arrived with immense strength, unlike these days, when we don’t know when it will start or when it will leave us.
I was a small baby; my weight didn’t exceed three kilos. My grandmother used to wipe me with olive oil and wrap a piece of cloth tightly around my tiny body to strengthen my bones. My mother used to put me on the terrace in the courtyard of the house and leave me there until she finished her house chores. Sometimes she’d forget me, and my grandfather would scream, “Come and take her before the cat eats her!”
No wonder my skin was darker than my sisters’. The rays of Jericho’s sun brushed me for many hours, day after day, to make my bones stronger and harder. And yet what was inside of me always frightened me: Slow down. You are a girl. Your sphere will always be limited. You don’t need a man, but you will never be anything without one. No matter how hard you and your sisters work to make up for the absence of a boy, you will never be able to fill the gap in your mother’s heart.