I found myself searching through the flat for all our paperwork, looking for anything that might lead me to that cursed number which Nouman wanted so badly. I searched the bedroom thoroughly, going through every single piece of paper which might offer clues.
We had lots of old photographs from university, particularly from the time when an American delegation came to visit us on a summer school programme. We had fun with them: photos of scorching sunshine on the beach; barbecues; playing football. We studied cultural programmes about the ‘American Dream’ and I remembered how one of the students was really shocked to learn I knew about jazz music.
And there I found one of my favourite photographs, of Ammar in his majestic role as Richard II in the final production of our Shakespeare assignment, the one we had constantly rehearsed. I remembered how my husband didn’t like the royal robes that our low budget costume designer made for him. He complained to our professor that it didn’t look kingly enough, so he went out and bought an Arabic Abaia and gave it to the designer to create new majestic robes for him. The poor thing worked for days until she produced something that looked perfect, but it still wasn’t good enough for Ammar.
In the photograph, he was standing stage left, upright, facing me, with his back to the rest of the cast. He had a big smile on his face as he was about to banish Henry:
With harsh-resounding trumpets’ dreadful bray,
And grating shock of wrathful iron arms,
Might from our quiet confines fright fair peace
And make us wade even in our kindred’s blood:
Therefore, we banish you our territories:
You, cousin Hereford, upon pain of life,
Till twice five summers have enrich’d our fields,
Shall not regret our fair dominions,
But tread the stranger paths of banishment.
Shakespeare’s words sounded so sweet coming from his mouth, as he tried to be as regal as a fourteenth-century English monarch. It somehow suited him; he was full of life and arrogance. Perhaps that was why both he and Richard II ended up as dead as a worthless worm. I looked more closely at the photograph of the king. He was almost staring back at me. His face was full of happiness, not knowing what the future had in store for him.
I refocused on the task Nouman had given me, but there was no mobile number of any kind. I threw the photos down on my dressing table and went to our smaller second room, which we mostly used for guests. We had kept it tidy and clean. There was a small bookshelf with the Oxford Dictionary on it, as well as an English-Arabic Dictionary and a few books from university days. I went through the shelf, opening the books to make sure there was nothing inside them. I looked around the single bed, but there were no papers there. The last time I tidied it up was the previous week, when Mother had come to stay. I bent down and looked underneath the bed. Still no papers. But as I was about to stand up, I noticed something black in the far right-hand corner, next to the leg of the bed. I lay on my stomach and stretched out to retrieve it. When I stood up I was shocked to see I was holding a Motorola mobile phone I had never seen before. It was very dusty. I tried to switch it on, but there was no battery life. There was only a Nokia charger in the house, which was the same make we both used. Still, there was a small glimmer of hope that the phone belonged to someone else. Mother could have dropped it when she last stayed, but then I had never seen her use this handset before. Or maybe it was Wafa’s and she’d accidentally left it here when she stayed with me.
As I stared at it, I felt scared. It was then when I realised things were going to be different, that I was a fool living a complete lie, that the man I loved was not the one I knew and that he kept so many secrets from me. For some reason, the news that Celine wasn’t real didn’t scare me as much as finding an old mobile phone in the house. I wasn’t sure why that was, but somehow the betrayal felt too close to home. Something inside my stomach churned; I was sure this handset belonged to Ammar.
I didn’t want to know what was on that phone. I looked at it for a long time and thought how stupid I was, not to have noticed that my husband had another mobile. Why would he need another phone? What was he doing?
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her in a picture on top of a pile of papers on the floor. There she was, but with a different hair colour. Celine had long black hair in the photograph, but I was sure it was her. She was part of the American delegation that came to El Azhar University on the summer programme. We had both spent a lot of time with the group – in study skills classes, research activities, cultural programmes, taking them out in Gaza, and even visiting my family home in Jabalia Camp. How had I not recognised her to start with? What an idiot I was! She was part of the group, but we never spoke. She was one of those who stayed on the fringes of large gatherings, hardly any personality at all. Sure, she had changed since 2000, she had long black hair back then unlike the blonde short style she had when she came to our house three days before my husband’s death. But it was the same smile, I remembered it.
I felt as though I was about to faint. I couldn’t stay in that house any longer. How had I not recognised Celine? And what was her name anyway? Well, what was the name she used as an American student? I couldn’t remember. Wafa would remember, for sure. She had a good memory, and I was certain, if I asked her, she would be able to tell me. Then I could take it to Nouman and tell him all about it. I rang Wafa, but she didn’t answer. I tried again and she picked up the phone, breathless.
“Hello,” she said.
“Are you okay?” I asked, “Is your husband home?”
“He just left.”
“Wafa, listen to me. I need you to answer a very important question.” I gave her the description and told her everything about Celine and the photograph I had just found. She listened, said she couldn’t remember, but that it should be in the records of the English Department at El Azhar University, and surely Nouman could get them to give him a copy of the names and all their details.
I couldn’t stay in the house any longer. I grabbed my Nokia phone, the Motorola handset and the photographs, and left immediately. I started walking as fast as I could without any real direction. I went down to Omar Mukhtar Street, to El Jalaa Street junction and walked down the long road all the way until I got to Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood.
The scent of oranges filled the air, wafting across from a couple of farms in the nearby Jabalia Town. Subconsciously, I was walking back home to Jabalia Camp. I headed down El Saftwai Street all the way to El Twam Street, then took a right towards El Fakhoura, and before I knew it I was descending on Jabalia Camp. People were sitting outside in the warm weather, soaking up the sun. For some reason, I felt everyone was staring at me. Citrus scent was quickly replaced by petrol. There were donkey carts waiting outside the UN Refugee Centre as people waited to get their rations, and when I got towards El Markez Police Station, the stinking smell of a large bin on fire made me pinch my nose hard.
As I walked near the Girls High School, I phoned Nouman and told him everything I had found. He couldn’t see me, but he asked me not to go back home or to my family’s. He asked me to go to a friend of his in Tel El Zaatar, and said he would come and find me later that evening. The problem with that plan was if my family saw or heard from one of the neighbours that I had come to Jabalia Camp without telling them or stopping by, I would be dead. So I had to zigzag through the Camp’s narrow streets to avoid seeing anyone I knew. I took a left before I got to El Markaz, turned around the water pump, past Abu Rashid’s water reservoir, then all the way to El Trans Street, up the hill onto Abu Khousa Street, then left on Tel El Zaatar.
Abu Suleiman opened the front door and ushered me in. He had a large five-storey house that overlooked the Jabalia Camp. He took me up to the roof and offered me a cup of sage tea. He asked me if I needed anything and told me to consider this my house at any time. I didn’t quite understand why Nouman had sent me there and what I was doing, and neither did Abu Suleiman. He had grey hair and a grey beard, although he looked much younger than Nouman. He had a wife and six children of different ages and sizes. They all ran to me to say hello and looked in bewilderment because I was wearing jeans and a tight top with a loose headscarf.
“You are in the Camp now,” he said. “You will be very conspicuous in this outfit. I can get you a jilbab to throw over if you like.”
“Thanks, that would be great, I left in a rush.”
He whispered something to his ten-year-old son, who rushed downstairs in a flash.
“Have you always lived here?’”I asked.
“Yes, since my father was deported from our village near Jerusalem in 1948. We were one of the very first to come to this area. The first official refugees.” He spoke with a smile which hinted at a modicum of pride, as if there was any in being a refugee. He seemed to be a very kind man, a family person, playfully hugging his youngest thirteen-year-old daughter, whom he introduced as Princess Yasmin. We sat in the sun on the roof, sipping our tea. There was some comfort in that setting. The sun was shining on some tall buildings across the way, which looked like a huge line of washing hung out to dry. I could almost see steam coming out of the buildings. Refugee camps always looked drab in Gaza, and maybe everywhere, but every now and again, colours came out through the sunshine, reflecting off the solar panels used to heat water. The Camp could look magical with different reflections from the rooftops, as if some spiritual force existed there.
Or perhaps it was simply memories being squeezed out of people. Those memories evaporated whenever winter settled in: whenever sewage flooded the streets; whenever people lined up at the UN Refugee Centre waiting for their food rations; whenever the Israelis bombed us. You could almost see those memories steaming up from the tops of the houses, high above the big black water tanks, like souls rising up to heaven. But then, a wedding party would start roaming the streets, with men drumming loudly on an old pickup truck, followed by a huge line of cars all pressing their horns as hard as if it were the apocalypse, kids running behind them and women ululating loudly. And then life would be revitalised. “Just like a phoenix”, Ammar would surely say.
“How do you know Nouman?’” I finally asked.
“Well, we were in hospital together. We shared a ward. He was on the bed next to me for about a month.”
I kept silent, wanting him to say more, but he was waiting for me to ask questions.
“Were you ill?”
“No, neither of us were. We were both shot; I by the Israelis, and he by a drug lord. It was at the beginning of 1994, as the Israelis were stepping up their arrests and shooting at the Palestinian resistance in preparation for the arrival of the Palestinian Authority. They wanted to make sure that this damn authority would get a grip over Gaza and do their dirty work for them.”
“I take it you are not a fan of Fatah then. Are you Hamas?”
“These are all names, just names. Don’t be hard on judging Hamas yet, they are doing their best. I am not a member, but I admire their spirit of resistance, the way they tell the Israelis to fuck off, the way they have always invented new ways to resist, which is our right, or any nation’s right. I believe in resistance. The Israelis have taken everything from us, everything – even hope. What’s left?’
“Your children and family,” I said abruptly.
“Well, yes, but do you really think they have a future here?’” He spoke as a truly disappointed man, a man who had thought about the situation. I’d thought him to be a family man who had nothing to do with political activism, but I was wrong. He now looked more like a retired soldier who was trying to make his family his whole life. I could see that deep down there was something inside him which hurt him terribly.
“Maybe things will change,”I said, trying to comfort him.
“Perhaps for the worse. You saw during the last assault in 2014; the Israelis burned everything for us, even the will to live. There are those who disagree with me, of course, and I respect their views, but for me, I feel no one will come to help us – no world leader to enforce a peace settlement; no neighbouring country; nothing. If we don’t resist and stand up for our rights, we will soon perish. Palestine will become a collection of small communities encircled by a majority who will never give us our civil rights. This is a white man’s world, my daughter, and we hardly count – they don’t even see us. Anyway, how do you know Nouman, and why has he sent you here?”
“Er . . . he is looking into a case for me. My husband was killed – I mean murdered – and someone tried to cover it up and claim it was an Israeli attack. Today, I found out some more information about it and he asked me to come here instead of going back home. I have no idea why.”
‘I am sorry to hear this; I hope it can be resolved soon. But let me tell you that you’ve got the right man. He’s an honest person. He will be very straight with you. Nouman loves his job and there is nothing in the world he adores more than catching criminals. Sooner or later, he will catch them for you. I have no doubt about that. I have learned a lot about all his adventures chasing criminals in Gaza. You would think there wouldn’t be so many people committing crimes here given how small the place is, but there are always those who try to take advantage of any lack of order.”
“During our time in hospital, lots of families of victims came to visit him. His wife had just passed away so he was still grieving.”
“I blamed him for working for the Blue Police, which was effectively under the direct control of the Israeli army, but he was not bothered about that. He thought better a Palestinian detective than a foreign Israeli occupier, who would just commit more crimes than the criminals themselves. He also assured me that the force was completely independent. This is when I came to trust him. The Israelis were waiting for me to heal so they could take me to prison – a soldier was stationed outside our ward. But Nouman got me out, through some contacts who came to visit him. When I was able to move, he asked his young cousin to come with a group of women wearing black dresses and niqabs to cover their faces. He also asked him to bring a spare dress and niqab for me. I put it on as they prepared to leave and we all ran together out of the door. You see, the Israelis didn’t dare search a covered woman, but that was back then. Now, they do anything they bloody like. And that’s how I escaped the Israeli prison, by dressing up as a woman.”
Abu Suleiman talked of Nouman as if he were his own brother. There was pride in the way he described the detective to me. They spent a lot of time together after the Israelis evacuated their soldiers from Gaza. Abu Suleiman came out of hiding then, and through his connections he managed to stay low key under the watchful eye of the Palestinian Authority, who were arresting anyone who thought of resisting against Israel.
Nouman and Abu Suleiman visited each other weekly – apparently. Nouman liked the little Akkela Falafel Restaurant and loved to have a Barrad ice cream at Abu Zaytoun at the corner of Madaris street. The two of them became inseparable.
I had only known Nouman for about ten days by then, and I felt as though I had learnt a lot about him already. For some reason though, the idea that he was a workaholic bothered me. The fact that he dedicated so much of his life to his work was a little off-putting. Despite how difficult life in Gaza was, work was always considered as a means to end, a way to earn money so you could enjoy life. People visited each other a lot, cherished gatherings on long summer evenings. A trip to the beach with its rustic, palm-covered little huts was the ultimate pleasure; a wedding party on the street drew hundreds of passers-by, and even watching the Egyptian football league made people cheer themselves senseless.
Gaza was a simple place to live, still innocent in some ways, still growing up and maturing into a world which had moved on too fast and left our little town in the slow lane.
When the July war broke out in 2014, my brother Issa was watching a football match broadcast live, all the way from Brazil. When I asked him why he was paying attention to football in such terrible times, his response was that war came every two years to Gaza but the World Cup came only every four years. That was my brother, just a simple person from Gaza, and he and many of his peers laughed in the face of death, they cheated death and sometimes even befriended it.
But Nouman was someone who focussed a lot on his work, as though trying to progress in his career. Maybe he wanted to advance to a higher position. The feeling that both he and Ammar were very similar came back to me – they were both deluded. He wasn’t the perfect guy I had hoped he was.
I began to daydream about us going out together when this whole thing was over, maybe getting married and living together at some point. It was wrong of me to think like that, but I couldn’t help it. I found him very attractive, but what I had learned about his obsession with work was less so. Being in his fifties was also worrying, but he had the energy of a man in his twenties. I never thought I would find another man attractive. I was content with Ammar, full of love and hope for the future. I never even admired or felt any desire for another man.
We stayed on the roof for a long time. Abu Suleiman’s wife, Um Suleiman, joined us and we had a late lunch together around 3 p.m. when it started getting cold again.
I didn’t know what to do. Nouman still hadn’t turned up and he had asked me not to leave his friend’s house. We went downstairs. There was no electricity. The house was very cold, but Um Suleiman handed me a thick blanket and her husband started burning some charcoal in a barbeque container to generate some heat in the living room. I chatted with his six children and asked them about university and which subjects they studied. I helped his youngest daughter, Princess Yasmin, with her English language homework. They were very grateful and impressed with my English.
By 8 p.m. I could almost sense the horrible feeling of outstaying my welcome. The kids lay on the rug covered with thick blankets, huddled near the charcoal grill, Um Suleiman was staring at me, and her husband was listening to the news on a handheld radio. The streets were pitch black by then, with hardly anyone moving. The whole Camp was falling asleep. My eyes were shutting, when I heard a loud knock on the door. Abu Suleiman got up very quickly, lit another candle and made his way to the front door. I wanted to follow him to receive Nouman by the door and ask him why the hell he was late. But women were not meant to open front doors in the Camp, so I waited until I heard my host’s voice calling me to come to the guest room and to bring another candle.
I put on my headscarf and the jilbab I had borrowed from Abu Suleiman’s family and went to receive the guests. Nouman was crouching down on the thin mattress on the floor, laughing with Abu Suleiman. I went straight to him as he stood up, shook my hand and introduced me to someone sitting next to him. The man got to his feet immediately, almost knocking over the candle next to him. I could hardly see his features in the semi-darkness, but he looked very young.
“This is Samer, he works with me and is responsible for our technology department.”
I looked at this young man, sizing him up, and as if Nouman read my thoughts, he continued. “Don’t be fooled by his age, he is young, but quite a wizard with the old technology.”
“Very nice to meet you,” I said, as I stared at his big, wide smile.
“Can I see that mobile phone please?” he replied quickly, while still shaking my hand. I took out the old Motorola handset from my pocket. He tried to switch it on immediately, but of course it didn’t work. Within seconds, he was sitting down on the mattress again. He grabbed a black laptop bag next to him and got out a charger; he searched through numerous cables and found the right one to plug it in. He then got his laptop out, switched it on, removed the phone’s battery but still kept it plugged in so it would work, then he attached a small wire to the back of the phone and connected it to the computer. A black screen appeared and he started to scroll through.
“Are you in?” Nouman asked sharply.
“Of course, did you doubt it?”
“Good man,” Nouman responded. “When was the phone last used?”
“19th of July at 16:25 precisely.”
“No . . .” That was just thirty-five minutes before Ammar left, how could that be possible? The only phone I had seen him with was his usual Nokia, I had certainly never seen this new and mysterious phone which had suddenly appeared in my house.
“Zahra, are you okay? Do you want us to do this another time?”
“Absolutely not . . . now, I want to know everything now.” Um Suleiman came towards the room and called for her husband to come out and take the tray of mint tea she had prepared.
“Come, please sit next to Zahra, she could do with your company.” He ushered his wife in, and she started handing out the small hot cups.
“Okay,” Nouman said, “I need you to focus now. This will be difficult, but try to please.”
“Okay,” I said, and Um Suleiman held my hand as she crouched next to me. I looked at her and suddenly saw kindness I hadn’t spotted before, as if she understood.
“A phone call or a text message?” Nouman was staring at Samer, waiting eagerly for an answer. Samer took his time to scroll through the black screen.
“Phone call,” he answered, then started reading the number aloud. Automatically, I got my phone out and asked him to repeat the number, and the colour must have drained from my face.
“It must be a number you recognise, you’ve gone pale,” Nouman said in a soft voice.
“It’s my brother’s number – Jamil. There must be a mistake here, are you sure it’s Ammar’s phone?”
“We can’t be sure,” Nouman said, “but it seems likely. Samer, can you check the SIM card to see if it’s registered against someone–”
“Already done,” said Samer, before Nouman finished the sentence. The IT geek looked at both me and Nouman without saying a word. He knew and understood. He looked down at his screen again.
There was silence for a few, very long seconds. Nouman looked at me with glassy eyes, expressionless, not sure what to say. The revelation shocked him as much as it did me. He didn’t need to ask any further questions; he guessed that Jamil hadn’t told me that he had spoken to my husband an hour and a half before he was killed. Was this why Jamil never wanted me to find a detective to look into Ammar’s death? Was this why he got angry when I told them I had found Nouman? But why? And what did they speak about? What happened in those last few hours?
“So, why did he send about fifteen text messages from his other mobile phone, the one I know about? Why didn’t he use this one?” I asked impatiently. Everything was very confusing, nothing made sense anymore.
“I don’t know,” Nouman answered. “Maybe this phone ran out of battery and he had to leave in a hurry. My guess is that he hid the phone when it ran out of juice. Remember, he didn’t know what was coming, so he probably thought it was a mistake he was able to afford at the time.”
“What number is that?” Samer asked, and Nouman got out a piece of paper and handed it to him. He started scrolling through, typing very quickly on his keyboard, as we all looked at him in anticipation. Even though I was eager to find out, I was afraid of what was coming. My whole life was on the line there; everyone in the room was learning details about my husband that I didn’t know myself. I felt like a fool.
“Although this number starts with a 0599 Jawal code, it is actually connected to an Israeli phone number on the Orange network, but I am afraid that’s as far as I can get, given that it is a different company. I can’t access any further data,” Samer said, while continuing to look at the screen.
“I think you should stay here tonight,” Um Suleiman said, as she held my hand tighter.
“This is a good idea,” Nouman said. “Samer and I will leave now and let you rest for a while; I will be in touch.”
They were both up on their feet before I could say a word. Nouman held out his hand to shake mine and I suddenly remembered the photographs, so I just handed them over to him. He looked at them for a brief second and then turned around and headed for the door. Samer followed him like a puppy. I wanted to go home, but words were not coming out, I couldn’t protest against the decision that was made for me. Once again, I was powerless, almost imprisoned again in this strange house, my brain trying to work out why my bastard brother never told me that he spoke to Ammar shortly before his death.
The room was suddenly empty. One of the two candles was burnt almost to the base. After the guests left, Abu Suleiman announced that he was going to sleep and his wife would sort me out with bedding. When she re-entered the room, she wasn’t carrying a duvet or pillow, but was dressed to go out.
“Come with me,” she whispered. “Let’s go out for a walk, clear your head a bit.”
I was surprised; it was getting late, cold and dark outside, and women didn’t wander alone at night in this part of town. But without uttering a word, I put my shoes on and followed her to the door. The wind was crisp; the warmth of the day had disappeared completely. We walked quickly through dark streets. The power cut had blanketed the entire area in darkness. Although it was only 10 p.m., the whole of Tel El Zaatar seemed very quiet. I could hear a dog barking in the distance, a stray cat jumped as we turned right heading up the hill. The smell of cooked tomatoes, fried aubergine and chips, a typical Gazan dinner, was coming out of one of the houses. We kept zigzagging through little streets filled with houses built with fragile cement bricks and asbestos sheets for roofs. Graffiti filled the walls of almost every street we passed through and I could see the faint pictures of people martyred in the last war on Gaza. I realised I hadn’t walked through this part of Jabalia Camp for a long time. The landscape had changed. There were now open spaces with nothing in them except rubble. Entire streets brought down to dust. I wondered where the people were. Um Suleiman and I were two ghosts walking through a haunted place.
“Do you walk here often?” I asked her to break the silence.
“Well, sometimes, to take a break from the great touristy sights Jabalia Camp has to offer.” I laughed and held her arm. She was my guide, leading me through my own town which I could barely recognise. We got to Sikka Road and she stopped for a while, watching the bright light coming from the Israeli watchtower on the other side of the fence.
“Once, there was a train here that used to connect Gaza to Egypt and Haifa in Northern Palestine, and onwards to Beirut. This is why it is called the Railway Road. If you look carefully, you might spot parts of the old track built by the British when they occupied the land.”
I was fascinated by her knowledge and didn’t expect it for some reason. When I first met her she looked like a typical passive woman – mother of six children, dominated by her husband. But now she was a tour guide, a historian who was taking me on a magical trip and – much to my shame – I didn’t even know we had had a railway at some point.
“Yes, my father was the conductor,” she carried on, as though talking to herself, recounting a memory of happy days. ‘” loved the train rides with him. We used to go as far as Jerusalem, and all the way up to Haifa and Beirut. In those days, Father used to turn a blind eye to a lot of people who didn’t have tickets. From the age of six I started to meet so many people travelling up and down the country. That was before the Six Day War, when Israel officially ended the service. Once we checked the tickets, my father would give me some money to buy him a cup of coffee and sweets for myself. I used to run to the small canteen and rush back to Father’s little cupboard room, which was filled by a massive radio and a small chair and table. He would sit there and listen to the soft voice of Um Kulthum singing at the top of her voice through the speakers, bringing the whole of Egypt to Father’s train. He would be so happy just reclining and resting his chair against the wall. The music was too boring for me. I would run out and wander between the aisles, chatting to people, telling them all that my father was the train conductor.
One day I met a little boy, sitting next to his blind and deaf grandfather. He was the same age as me and I wanted to play with him. I remember my delight at finding him. I hadn’t realised how much I was eager for kids’ company on that long journey. But he wouldn’t leave his seat. His grandfather had his arm around his shoulder. He remained silent and didn’t even respond to my requests. We were only eight years old then, but at that moment he looked like a little man. I ran back to Father’s cupboard room and brought some old photographs of the two of us in Cairo and Beirut which we’d taken on some of our journeys. The boy didn’t even glance at them, he just stared ahead.
I kept returning, bringing snacks and sweets, leaving them on his lap and running away. And just before the journey ended, as we were passing this very same Sikka Road, coming back from Egypt towards Jerusalem, he told me that his name was Jamal and that he was accompanying his grandpa back after spending a few weeks in an Egyptian Hospital in El Areesh. I told him my name, Aida, and said I would always look out for him near the train station in Jerusalem if he wanted to come and see me. And he did, often, indeed for many weeks afterwards. Jamal is none other than Abu Suleiman.”
She stopped talking and started walking very fast as we reached the junction between Masoud Street and Salah El Dein Road, which runs all the way down to Rafah in the south of Gaza. As she picked up her pace it felt as though she was going to walk all the way there. I smiled as I tried to catch up with her, thinking of the innocent little girl she was then, and the romantic person she became. Did we really have true love stories in Gaza? Were they our own Romeo and Juliet? She married the person she loved as a child. How did they make it happen? Did their families just agree? I wanted her to tell me more, I wanted to hear her story and escape mine completely.
“We became inseparable friends between the ages of eight and twelve, then he disappeared when the service was stopped in 1967. We could not get to each other. I begged Father to ask for him, but we had no way of knowing where he was and how to reach him. We were already refugees in Gaza and he was from Jerusalem. There was a big fence between us.
When I finished high school, my father refused all marriage proposals from my suitors and insisted I should go to Beirzeit University in the West Bank. He wanted the best education for his daughter, and it was in the second year that Jamal – Abu Suleiman – and I were reunited. He was studying law and had already been an active member of the student union. I recognised him immediately when I saw him address a crowd of students, encouraging them to join the cultural resistance and write just like our great writer, Ghassan Kanafani, who was killed a few years later.
I walked towards him as if I were in a Bollywood film. He hadn’t recognised me at all. I reminded him quickly and we embraced in front of everyone. We still held to our innocent selves. Everyone stared at us even though Beirzeit was far more liberal than Gaza.
We became very active together and we got into so much trouble, but we were never arrested. We dodged bullets, Israeli military jeeps chasing us, other spies informing on us, and a host of other things. I wrote many anti-occupation articles in the university’s magazine. I was studying Arabic literature at the time.
Then, we got word that all of our friends who were active in the resistance had been arrested, so we had to escape. Someone arranged for us to leave the West Bank and head into Jordan. We walked endless hills until we reached Amman, and from there we travelled down south to Aqaba, then crossed to Saudi and later to Egypt. The whole journey took around two weeks, in between hiding and running. We bribed our way through.
We got to Cairo, but Jamal was very depressed. The life of the big city did not suit him and he was dying to go back to Palestine. But the only option we could think of was to go back to Gaza, rather than the West Bank, as we knew it would be impossible for us to go there. We made our way through the Sinai desert and when we got to the border with Gaza, we went through a big dusty tunnel that let us into this damned Strip”.
She was as old as my mother, yet looked much younger; she had something about her, an energy which surrounded her. Despite the darkness and lack of electricity, she knew every corner we turned. She walked with confidence, without watching her feet, as if she had made this journey many times before.
“You are surrounded by two good people, Zahra,” she suddenly said to me.
“Nouman and Abu Suleiman.” I wish I could have seen her face at that moment.
“Should I trust Nouman?” I asked instead.
“Do you have any reason not to? Take my number, call me at any time! You are alone, let me know if you want to talk things through.”
I saved her number on my phone. Then we turned back and walked in silence. I looked to my right as we walked back on Sikka Road. The eastern side of the Jabalia Camp was lit as if it were daylight. The Israelis had fired balloon lights, which were as bright as the sun. They often did this. We would see night change to day in an instant with the firing of these awful military inventions. The whole area was silent; half of it drowned in the darkness where we walked and the other half basking in the light.
When we got back, Abu Suleiman was sitting outside the house. He looked at us from a distance and seemed to have recognised us despite the dark. Um Suleiman quickened her pace, but did not say a word. He was sitting on one of the three half-broken steps which led to his front door. It was cold, but he had wrapped a keffiyeh scarf around his head and put a thick blanket around him. He was smoking slowly, staring at the wall opposite him as if it didn’t exist.
“Nouman phoned for you! He woke me up, the bastard.” Abu Suleiman was looking at me as his wife put her hand on his shoulder, and I checked my phone and saw three missed calls from Nouman.
There was something about this couple that was so soothing, so comforting, that I didn’t even care what Nouman had to say; I just wanted to watch these two lovely people who had gone through so many hopes and failures in their lives. For a split second, I imagined the two of them as kids, full of hope for a better life, travelling together on a train between Egypt and Jerusalem. What a world that must have been. Her hand was still on his shoulder and I couldn’t decide whether they were still living the life they once envisaged or not. It felt to me that Abu Suleiman had given up on life a long time ago, but that his wife was still hanging on to it, the same way she still held on to his shoulder, the way she held on to her memories, still a child trying to hold onto a seat on the train or the ticket machine, helping her conductor father.
“He asked me to tell you to meet him at Gaza’s municipality building tomorrow morning, as soon as it opens at 7:30 a.m.”
“He’s keen,” murmured Um Suleiman.
“Well, it must be important – otherwise, he would’ve found another time. He also asked me to accompany you.”
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) which recently had a run in Chicago, and is the recipient of numerous awards . His debut novel is Vanished – The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda (2016), which is also been translated into Spanish and Italian. His second novel Come what May (Victorina Press 2022) has received favorable reviews and the Italian translation is in the process of submission for publication . 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)