My father was gone. I was too young to understand why, and nobody was able to explain it to me, not even my mother. When I asked she would always give me a sad smile, unlike her usual watermelon grin. I hated it when she did that. It frightened me. There was danger in that smile, which I could not understand, a hidden story that I was desperate to uncover. But she never told me, despite my desperate attempts to make her talk. Perhaps this is what pushed me to proclaim myself the youngest detective in the Jabalia Camp at the age of eight.
I learnt not to talk about my father. Sometimes I missed him so much it hurt, almost as if I had nails running through my heart. However hard Mum tried to make it better for me, there was a hole in the middle of the family where Dad should have been. An empty space whenever we sat down to eat, a place that couldn’t be filled by anyone else. Everybody had a father except me and it hurt, but nobody wanted to know, no one listened when I tried to explain how much I missed him. But for one last time, I wanted to hear the scripted story from her so I could take it from there. Although I was eight years of age, there was so much destruction around me it forced me to grow up much faster. Or maybe I believed I did.
One February morning in 1982, seven months after I was born, Mother woke up and found our front door unlocked, a warm small cup of sage tea perfuming the salty air. It was still dark outside, which made the house look even smaller. Realising there had been a power cut, she searched for a candle and lit it. She opened the front door and looked around the narrow alley with patriotic graffiti on its walls. Sometimes Israeli soldiers forced the men in the Jabalia Camp to come out in the middle of the night to clean off the graffiti and the anti-occupation slogans, painted on the outside walls by Palestinian freedom fighters. Everyone in the camp had to have gallons of white spirit and several brushes stored in their houses to be prepared for such occasions, as they never knew when the masked men would come to paint it or when the Israeli soldiers would take notice and order its removal.
During the three years of their marriage, Mother would often watch Father erase from the walls of the camp a white pigeon stuck behind prison bars and carrying an olive twig in its beak, or the Palestinian flag with its red triangle at the top and black, white and green strips coming out of it.
“Don’t say anything, Mustafa, please,” she would whisper in his ears as the heavily-armed soldiers barged into their bedroom in the middle of the night, pointing their guns at both their faces. Mother always wore a long black embroidered dress to bed in case the men came in the night. She kept a headscarf by her mattress on the badly tiled floor in case the soldiers walked in unexpectedly. Some nights she just slept wearing it.
Father, however, enjoyed sleeping in his boxer shorts. He would enjoy the shock on the soldiers’ faces as he lifted up his covers, standing up as slowly as he could, yawning loudly, stretching his arms in the air then pulling a cigarette out from the drawer of the side table where he had a lighter placed on top. Their room was much smaller than mine and had one side table, dresser drawers with a big mirror, a small old olive wood wardrobe, but no bed. They slept on two mattresses on the floor that were often stored in my big room and taken out only at night. Mother continued this practice even after Father disappeared.
“Pass me the lighter, will you?” he would ask whoever was closest to the table. Very often the soldier would be confused and look towards their boss who was doing all the shouting, ordering my father to hurry up. Sometimes a soldier obeyed Father’s orders, which pleased him enormously.
“Souad, when they are in my bedroom, I am in control,” he would laugh, a deep and loud guffaw uttered whenever Mother would talk to him about not making fun of the soldiers.
“One day they will be angry with you and you will regret it.”
“Or maybe they will stop coming and save us and themselves the humiliation.”
Sometimes this would turn into an argument between the two of them, with Mother ending up refusing to speak to him or sometimes not serving tea to his mates when they came to visit. This made Father angry as it undermined his social status, as wives were expected to carry on with their household duties regardless of what was happening in the household. Father never shouted or raised his voice at her. Instead, he would refuse to speak to Mother for a while and end up doing his socialising elsewhere, normally in the local café with the other men, smoking lots of shisha on the side. He would stay there for a long time, not to annoy her but to avoid more arguments, which normally ended when she cooked a nice meal and things got talked through.
She was 24 years old in 1979, and although six years younger than him, she was still considered to be too old for marriage by Gaza’s standards. Most girls in the late ‘70s got married at 19 and no older. People talked about Mother being too arrogantly beautiful and too fussy in choosing a husband. She was pale-skinned and tall, with thick straight black hair and wide blue eyes. When my grandfather took my father to ask for her hand in marriage, her response was: “He is the one I have been waiting for.”
They were then engaged for a year, which added to her already damaged reputation. But Mother didn’t care; she was madly in love with Father and could have easily been engaged to him forever, enjoying the journeys my father took her on and the places they visited together.
The 45-minute drive from Jabalia to Khan Younis in the south always depressed her, and as she leaned her head on the passenger window of Father’s old 1952 rusty Mercedes, she wished that it would break down so that they could take a walk out in the country, gazing at the olive groves that stretched between Al-Nusairat, Deir El-Balah and Khan Younis. She had a favourite spot that she used to go to as a teenager when she ran away from school, just after the turning from the Salah El-Dein main road, which runs through the entire Gaza Strip, towards Deir El-Balah.
In the early ’70s, as a girl, she would climb a small sandy hill that always had litter at the bottom of it and roll cigarettes with a couple of schoolmates. They would stay there until an hour before school finished, giving themselves enough time to return home without any of their fathers suspecting anything. They would laugh and tease each other and gaze at the vast sea in the distance, seeing Israeli gunboats floating on the water. Sometimes, Israeli military jeeps would stop and search them, asking for ID cards. They would beg not to be arrested so that their families wouldn’t find out what they had been up to. Mother was not that scared; she often wanted to be arrested, challenging the soldiers to do so, to the dismay of her mates who would beg her to be quiet. Sometimes the soldiers would just sit with them and smoke cigarettes too. After all, they were only teenagers.
From Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda, Rimal Publications 2015.
Ahmed Masoud is an award winning writer and theater director who grew up in Palestine and moved to the UK in 2002. His theatre credits include The Shroud Maker, (London 2015, recipient of many awards and currently playing for the 70Palestine activities in London), Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea (London and Edinburgh 2009), Escape from Gaza (BBC Radio 4, 2011), Walaa, Loyalty (London 2014, funded by Arts Council England). His debut novel is Vanished – The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda (2016), which is also been translated into Spanish. Ahmed is the founder of Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre (2005) where he wrote and directed several productions in London, with subsequent European Tours. After finishing his PhD research, Ahmed published many journals and articles including a chapter in Britain and the Muslim World: A historical Perspective (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011)”