Many Palestinian stories are the stories of sons: heroes or victims, Everyman or Superman. In the intifada, the rebellious young men, the shabab, have become the sons of all the people and their exploits legendary.
Sahar Khalifeh’s stories, like her own life, are the stories of daughters, mothers and self. This story about Umm Samih resumes Khalifeh’s exploration of characters from the northern West Bank town of Nablus which figure in her three novels, Wild Thorns, The Sunflower and the semi-autobiographical Memoirs of an Unreliable Woman.
Khalifeh’s early characters endure the occupation with a stoic cynicism or a quixotic, sacrificial courage. But the intervening years have made a difference. Khalifeh’s attitude — and those of her characters — changed with the coming of the uprising. Khalifeh had left Nablus 15 years ago, fleeing 13 years of an unhappy, arranged marriage. Commissioned to study women’s involvement in the uprising, she returned to her hometown for three months in November 1988, interviewing women in Nablus’ Old City, the poorest and most militant quarter. She is now back to stay, both to work on a new novel and to coordinate a pioneering Women’s Resource Center there.
Khalifeh’s portrait of Umm Samih al-Sabir reflects her literary interest in the voice and speech of ordinary people, and her feminist interest in the world of poor women. Al-Sabir, the 42-year old mother of five sons and two daughters who lives in the al-Faqqous quarter of the Old City of Nablus, is known as Umm Samih in the usual Arab naming pattern — “the mother of Samih,” her eldest son. Umm Samih’s world is at once highly insecure and deeply rooted — both conditions stemming from her strong, highly localized identification with a particular hara (neighborhood) of the Old City. Her reactions help explain the localism — a politics of geography — which is a feature of the uprising: Outside the Old City is also her balad (country/place), Umm Samih explains, “only here in the Old City is more so.” In turn, Umm Samih, her son and her daughter give the same answer to supplications to leave the violence and uncertainty of the hara for the richer neighborhoods of Nablus or for the lifeless tranquility of Amman. Home and hara are inextricably linked in her mind.
Umm Samih’s world is dominated by violence: beating, biting, kicking, cursing, shouting and killing. Her account of the killing of a collaborator in the hara is chilling — she admits it gives her shivers — but there is a kind of relentless logic in her narrative. The violence of Umm Samih’s world seems to offer no space for ambiguity or moral dilemmas. Umm Samih has many of the attributes of the emerging female heroine of the intifada — the mother tenaciously defending her family and community against all odds. “Women can take it better than men,” she tells her husband, explaining why she can confront the soldiers who will beat her while she orders him to the kitchen. Her emergence from the kitchen, of course, is conditioned on confrontation and crisis. Whether she will return to her kitchen, or return untransformed, is another story.
We have been living here for 40 years and before that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers lived here. Our roots run deep in this town. My husband, Abu Samih, who is 50 years old, is a vegetable seller. At the beginning of the intifada, we really had it bad. When we first started to have curfews, we had to throw away boxfuls of vegetables. Whenever Abu Samih would go down to the shop, he would find everything had gone bad: cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, mulukhiyya — everything had to go in the garbage.
It was like this for four or five months, but, thank God, we were never in need. The neighborhood committees brought food in bundles, we would find them in the morning near the house. Our neighbors were equally generous. Things got better after that, right now we have the Lord’s greatest blessings. We need nothing other than the safety of the shabab.
As I said before, this is our house. We shall never leave it. We don’t have the means to get out, and we wouldn’t even if we could. I swear to God that on rainy days when the children get up from their beds, they are dripping wet. What can we do? This is our fate and this is our house. Where else could we go? This is our country, isn’t it, and outside the Old City, is also our country. Only here in the Old City is more so. I haven’t seen my son who works in Saudi Arabia for three years now. He begged me to go and meet him in Amman, but I refused. Also my sister, the one in Khillat al-Ruhban [the wealthier quarter of Nablus] begged me to stay with her instead of sitting here in the middle of beatings and killings, but I refused again. Look here, I told my husband, I will never leave this house. By God, even if they paved the road for me with money from here to Sheikh Musallam quarter, I will never leave this hara.
But there have been so many beatings and killings — every day, every day, every day. The soldiers come and go, wanting to take my son. I told him, let’s go to your aunt in Khillat al-Ruhban instead of sticking it out here where we are constantly kicked with their boots. “We leave our hara? I will never do so, whatever happens,” he said. “If they want to take me away, let them. I will never go away from here. Go if you want, go to your sister’s. I will stay.”
And so we stayed on, but every other day the soldiers barged in on us in our house, kicking the door first with their boots and gun butts. In the middle of the night, after dawn prayers, at twilight — it’s all the same to them. You find them surrounding the hara and banging. Bang, bang, bang, anyone could hear the banging from al-Sitt al-Sulaymiyya quarter. All the neighbors stand at their windows and the same story starts all over again. They invaded my house many times. This daughter of mine had seven tear gas canisters thrown at her. The doctor said, “If she continues to eat tear gas, she will die. She should get out, go somewhere else.” I tell her, “Go to Amman, go to Riyadh, go to Khillat al-‘Amud.” She refused. Look at her, she is thin as a shadow.
Me, too, I haven’t been spared. I too ate their blows more than once. The first time, I was beaten right here in the middle of my house. The second time, ten soldiers surrounded me, cornering me in the courtyard. They started beating me, blocking the entrance of the room, not allowing anyone in. They kept beating me and I kicked them back, cursing and shouting. The people outside screamed, “They’ve killed the woman! They’ve killed the woman!”
Then they took me to their building and I continued shouting and cursing. Nobody could beat me down. In the end they brought in Abu H. [a collaborator who works with the army] and he told me, “By God, nobody can beat you down except me.” “Go away,” I told him. “Shame on you, you indecent creature. In the name of the Prophet and He who made the Prophet, it is certainly I who will kill you and your kind. It is I who will chain the city gates against you and the likes of you, you dog!”
You see, even if I die and am gone, I will still teach a lesson to this Abu H., this shit. He roams around, picking up the shabab. Young men as fresh as roses, may the evil eye smite him. Do you think the shabab ever sleep? Never! They are always awake, waiting for the right moment. Abu H. will have the same fate as that which befell X. That one they cut to nearly one hundred pieces and threw in the manhole. Since then, they have called that manhole the manhole of collaborators. Something to give a person goose bumps. But this is how things are done. Otherwise, they would carry on gathering up all our young men. No, by God, let them pay the price with their blood and their souls!
My sons — may God’s prayers protect them — are all within the age range for those who are wanted by the authorities, between 15 and 21. One day at dawn, they took us by surprise, pouncing on us from the roof. I suddenly saw them right in the middle of the house.
Jumping like a mad woman, I told my husband, let’s go. “Where to?” he said. “Go to the kitchen,” I said. “I will meet them.” “They will beat you up,” he said. “I can bear that, not you,” I told him.
Women can take it better than men. I made him go to the kitchen and I went out to confront them. They were standing at the door of the boys’ bedroom. I told them, “Hush, the boys are sleeping.” They didn’t listen to me and kicked the door with their boots and tore our sofa with a knife and went around searching. One of them poked the children who were sleeping on the floor with his boots. “Mind your manners,” I told them. “Don’t act like vagabonds! Don’t you dare touch anything with your hands or your feet. Do you understand? You don’t have a permit to beat anyone here.”
I got the children up, lined them up near the wall and stood in front of them, spreading my arms wide, like this. “I want the shabab,” the soldier said. “There are no shabab here; these are my sons.” “Maybe so, but they are shabab,” he said. “You want to shoot me? Go ahead,” I told him. “Go ahead and shoot. You want to slaughter me with your knife? Go ahead, but my sons will never go out from this house.” “Move away.” I started cursing and screaming and they pulled me away from my sons. I pushed back. “Aren’t you satisfied? Haven’t you taken enough already?”
Huh! They want shabab, they say. Who would ever give them what they want? A woman would sacrifice her blood, her soul, rather than give the shabab over. Upon my soul, even if they aren’t my sons, I will never do that even if they cut my throat.
I don’t know what stopped them; they left us and went away. But a few days later, they came back barging in on us in the house again. “Where is the boy?” “What boy?” “The one who hid here,” he said. “There is no boy.”
As we argued, our shouts could be heard everywhere. My son was upstairs in a room at the top of the staircase. A soldier stood there outside the door, but my daughter, the 19-year old, blocked the door with her arms, not allowing him to go in.
He told her, “I won’t do anything, just let me see the boy.” “He is not a boy, he is my brother.” “Just let me see the boy,” he repeated, “and if I see he is not the one, I will let him go.” “Impossible,” she said. “On my honor, I swear I will not do anything to him.” “Are you telling me you have honor?” “Just let me see him.”
She moved away only a little bit, and like a hyena he attacked Samih and started beating him. I don’t know how the house filled up with soldiers, breaking and smashing things. My daughter Sharifa tried to interfere but the soldier grabbed her by her hair, like this, throwing her on the floor.
I found myself shoving the garbage can on his head. Two soldiers took hold of me, dragging me downstairs, where they started to beat me on my head, face, stomach, until I felt I’m about to faint. The others, after dragging Samih down the stairs, took him outside, blood streaming down his face. They had broken his nose. When Samih saw his own blood and me thrown at the doorstep, he picked up his courage and bit the soldier on his thigh, such a bite that made his soul leave his body. “Ay, Ay!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. My son picked himself up and ran as fast as he could. May the evil eye smite them and their memory!
By God, all my body is shaking. Do you want me to tell you another one?
—Translated by Vera Tamari