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The End Is Where We Start From | 2.3

CHAPTER TWO (part 3)

On the hill above the cliffs of the Valley of Hinnom, also called Gehenna, or the Gates of Hell, where the worshipers of Baal had sacrificed virgins by fire, where, by Christian tradition, the wicked amongst the resurrected would be punished, sprawled Abu-Tor, a neighbourhood split between Jews and Arabs.

In the east, far beyond the ashen Judean desert, the mountains of Edom glowed red. To our north, like a brooch made of gold, the Dome of the Rock decorated the pallid city. To the west, up a flight of stairs, a large woman was rushing toward us.

“Welcome, Madam Nurse. Welcome. I see you brought your children with you. How wonderful. We thought you only had one boy. Now we see you have a girl, too. What, Madam Nurse, she’s not your daughter? How old is she? Look at these blue eyes. She’ll make a beautiful bride for your son.

Congratulations. Madam Nurse, why don’t you send them to play? Boaz, your mother is an angel. I hope you do everything she says. She knows more than all these doctors put together. I’m Esther. These young doctors they send here, they know nothing. Come along now.”

Around the corner, children of all ages were playing in the street.

“Children, these are Boaz and Tali. They’ll play with you,” Esther called. “Meir, you take care of them.”

An older boy left the group and ran toward us. “Yes, Esther.”

Esther pointed to a stone wall covered with shards of glass and broken bottles, which reflected the rising sun in flashes of green, yellow, and blue, like the scales of a dragon.

“Boaz, Tali. Don’t climb the wall. It’s the border.”

Tali rolled her eyes in disbelief. “But it’s so low. It can’t really be the border,” she whispered to me.

Meir overheard. “It sure is. Don’t even think of climbing it,” he said.

Two groups, one on each side of the wall, were throwing a ball back and forth in a game of Shemot Avir, air-names.

“Is the other side Jordan?” I asked.

“Sure is,” Meir answered.

“Is it dangerous?” Tali seemed excited.

“Danni, the ball,” Meir called.

A shirtless boy threw the ball to Meir.

“These must be Arabs,” I whispered to Tali, with my head nodding toward the other group.

“Yusuf,” Meir called, as he threw the ball over the border.

A boy wearing a worn-out thawb caught it and hurled it back. “Ruth.”

We kept passing the ball from Jordan to Israel and back. If it touched the ground when your name was called, you were “burnt” and stepped aside.

Danni, of our team, held the ball. “Abida.”

A teenage girl ran forward. Unlike the other children, her hair was red. “Her father was a British soldier who had defected to the Arabs,” Ima would answer my question later.

The ball brushed against the wall and bounced onto the ground. Abida did not catch it. “Burnt, you’re burnt!” everyone called. But Abida, shouting in Arabic, stamped her feet and would not step down. 

“She says it touched the wall, so Danni’s out, not her,” Meir translated. 

“There’s no such rule,” Danni protested.

“You are lying,” Meir translated, as screams in Hebrew and Arabic rapid fired across the border.

“Liar, liar!” Tali joined the Hebrew chorus.  

Abida tossed the ball, but this time straight up, not to us. “Muhammad.”

Tears welled in Danni’s eyes. “They’re playing with my ball. Thieves! Tell them to give it back, or else …,” he yelled, as he picked up a broken tile and swung it over his head.

Immediately, the Arab children scrambled to pick up stones and debris. I watched how our group, too, and Tali, spread around, looking for potential weapons.

Esther appeared. “What’s all this noise? Why aren’t you playing nicely? Danni, put it down. Now! What d'you think you're doing? You don’t throw stones at your friends. They stole your ball? Don’t you have a mouth? Fatima, Fatima, Ta’alee huna—come here.”

A pregnant woman, not much older than the playing children, plodded into the yard, and after a short exchange in Arabic with Esther, she passed the ball back.

Danni picked it up and turned to run away. Esther, catching him by the ear, slapped the back of his head. “What about a thank you to Fatima? Where are your manners?”

“Thank you, Fatima,” Danni murmured.

“Louder,” Esther raised her voice. 

Shukran Fatima.”

“Now go play somewhere else.” Esther shooed us away. “I don’t want to hear any more screaming. Enough troubles you caused.”

Tali grabbed my hand. With everybody, we ran to the front of the house, where a mud-covered Sussita station wagon was parked. We rushed to search for camel holes. Every child knew that camels loved eating the fibreglass of Sussitas. We found no holes. Fortunately for Sussita owners, camels were uncommon, and the Sussita had become the pride of the Israeli motorcar industry.

We pressed our noses against the car’s murky windows. Plumbing pipes were scattered like a giants’ game of Pick-Up Stix. One pierced a paper bag; cement drizzled out. A chipped ceramic toilet sat on top of a pile of bricks, fastened with a washing line. 

“They’re here, Mother, they’re here!” Ruth called.

“Who’s here?” Tali asked.

“The builders. They came to build our toilet.”

Tali looked perplexed. “You don’t have toilets?”

Ruth pointed to a corrugated tin shed at the farthest end of the yard. “Only the privy over there. It’s so dark and freezing at night. The new toilet will be near the house. With lights, too.”

A man, his clothes stained with whitewash, came down the stairs and began unloading bags off the Sussita. We watched him emptying the sacks into plastic buckets, adding water, and stirring with a freshly broken branch from a nearby tree.

“Do you want to be my helpers?” he asked.

Like an army of ants, we carried the items from the car. On the other side of the border, a silent crowd was gathering, glaring at us. Two Jordanian legionnaires turned up. One of them, an officer, was shouting and waving his fists.

“Go bring the bricks,” the builder ordered.

From the Sussita to the builder, we heaved the coarse bricks. The older boys carried one brick at a time. Tali and I, holding a brick between us, stepped sideways like crabs, taking a rest every few steps. Meir lifted three. “Show-off,” somebody whispered.

The Jordanian officer, striking a fist against an open palm, was now shouting in Hebrew: “Stop! Stop! Here not building!”

“Ask him what he wants,” the builder told Meir.

“He says the yard is over the armistice demarcation line, so building is not allowed.”

“What’s dec… rec… tation?” Tali asked.

I remembered Abba telling me about the armistice agreement. Long after his lecture, uniformed soldiers haunted my dreams, patrolling along a barbwire in the middle of my bedroom.

“It’s a fence between Israel and Jordan. Some people have it inside their houses so they don’t go to Jordan by accident,” I explained.

The builder was speaking to Meir. “Tell him it’s only a toilet for the kids.”

“Not building, not building,” the officer repeated.

The builder, turning his back on the soldier, shrugged his shoulders and returned to churning the big bucket. “Kids, back to work,” he said.

“He’s going to shoot!” Tali shrieked.

She was right.

The officer was lifting his pistol, and before any of us could say or do a thing, a shot cracked, and a grey cloud rose from the cement bucket.

Tali grabbed my arm and dragged me behind a tree. Unable to take my eyes off the handgun, I peeked out.

The builder’s expression did not change. With palms up in front of his body, showing empty hands, he stepped back. “Chalas. Stop. No more toilet. I stop building. No shooting.”

Women were pouring out of the surrounding houses, calling for their children. Three Israeli soldiers arrived, rushing from the nearby post.

At the sight of the Uzi submachine guns in a ready position, the Jordanian officer returned his pistol to its holster. “Here not building,” he repeated, his tone appeasing.

“The UN are on their way,” Meir kept translating the officer’s words.

Ima found us behind the tree. “It’s time we went home,” she said.

“Can’t we wait? Just until the UN is here.” I begged.

“It’s so exciting,” Tali said.

Ima pulled us behind the trunk. “You’ll have plenty of excitement throughout your lives. Too much, believe me. But now we’re going home.”

Seeing our disappointed looks, she knelt and brought her face close to ours, “Let’s have fun on the way back. Anyone wants a falafel?”


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