AS DAYS PASS BY
Days pass by, and the fuzzy edges of memories remain shaped by the shadows of men. Or maybe by the shade the men provide. There is a wish to be in their presence and enjoy certain protections, like the cool relief you find under a tree after a long day working in the fields. However, men are filled with contradictions and weaknesses, and their behavior is feeble and defective most of the time. Yet, power and dominance are theirs in the end. For they are men.
My grandfather was my role model. In my imagination, he was God-like. Maybe I thought he was God himself. I imagined a God who looked and spoke like my grandfather. He died at the young age of fifty-two, but he was always present in my life. After his death, I continued to search for a God in the form of that great man.
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 still resides a child that does not grow, a childhood made of memories that begin with the first moment of my life. Childhood departed but never left me. The realities of this time are different than what my memory tells me, but my memory is shaped by the repetition of idealized events that linger 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 land 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 streets. Some years, when we returned to Jericho at the winter season season, we would arrive to find a fine from the city. In our absence the Crazy 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. 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 in my eyes 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 the Jericho house that my mother loved so. My grandfather spoiled her. The pain of her contractions and labor were all felt in that house. At that time, Jericho seemed 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 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.
When a boy arrived, life began to flourish in our home. My mother’s happiness flooded the earth and sky, and it overwhelmed us. Finally, we were bonded with this world. Finally, we had an existence. Finally, we had a brother.
Time had passed, and it was too late to grow beyond what had been ingrained in me for years. Yes, I broke from tradition and convention, but I remained within the structure created by men. The ceiling above me was represented by my mother telling me, “Be careful. You are a girl. Be educated so that education can be your weapon. Work hard so you won’t need anyone to support you.” And yet no sooner do your dreams start to fly than spinsterhood becomes a threat on the horizon, and you haven’t even yet surpassed the age of twenty. “You have to marry,” my mother told me, “for you are the eldest, and everything you do will reflect on your many sisters behind you.”
I threw myself wherever life hurled me and said, “It is written and destined.” I insisted on the challenge, on creating a reality that looked like my revolution, on manifesting the enlightenment I wanted to exist somewhere inside me.
Before the age of four, I asked my mother whether God was male or female. I thought he had to be male because everyone preferred males. I silently questioned the masculine dominance of this “fact,” because the origins of life are from femininity. How could my mother, the creator of children, remain in the shadow of my father, who we rarely saw? How could the branch be stronger than the tree, and more dominating, while the tree, the origin, remained subordinate and obedient?