A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
She reached for the back of her head and loosened her niqab strap slightly. Her daughter had tightened it too much this morning. During the entire ride, she thought she was getting a headache, but it turned out to be just a side effect of the tight strap around her head. So she loosened it, then tightened it, and loosened it again, and tightened it six times in a row, worried that her niqab might slip off and expose her head and face. She focused at the same time on locating her headache and found it narrowing in, somewhere near her eyes. Every time she tightened the strap, she felt her head tighten along with it, and her eyes succumbed to a forced blink with colored lines beginning to dance under her eyelids.
She was exhausted. She poked the boy next to her and pleaded with him in a hushed voice to loosen her niqab strap for her: “It’s sliding off my head, your sister didn’t fix it for me this morning”, she told him anxiously.
The boy complained and cursed his sister but then stood up, adjusted the tie around his small waist and shook off the dirt that had crept up his left foot and into his open-toe sandals with engraved heels. He then circled behind her and the small stone she sat on. They quarreled about the proper way to tighten the strap and how tight it should be, but once they finished arguing and agreed on the details, he pulled her head back towards him and kissed her forehead, seeking her familiar comforting scent, but he couldn’t find it.
“Ah! That’s right, these aren’t her clothes,” he reassured himself.
Now, back to waiting again.
She sat thinking. “What are you thinking about?” her son, who was again seated next to her, might have asked. “Nothing and everything,” she would have answered him if she knew how to speak such sentences. But since she never encountered such expressions, she wouldn’t have been able to think of them even if she wanted to use them. If her son had really asked her what she was thinking, she would have instead felt a little nervous and made up some story she’d told him previously. But in any case, he did not ask. Rather, he was daydreaming of his lunch, which would undoubtedly be a rice dish. He would carry the bag of rice himself and return home with it, where his elder sister would take care of cooking it carefully. She would add onions, tomato sauce and a lot of hot pepper, and decorate it with the Common Purslane plant (Rijla) that she would pick from the roof of their house. And in the center of the large plate she would put a small bowl of the red Bisbas paste made with a strong garlic flavor. The boy smiled in satisfaction and adjusted his mo’wez garb to better cover what was between his legs.
The mother looked around her at the people looking back at her. This was normal, seeing how they were all strangers apprehensive of one another. And the thought crept from the boy’s head into hers, and she began thinking about lunch. She wished she could get more than what they gave out to them. If only they would replace the non-cookable beans that lambs eat with flour so she could bake more. They could even give her the grain, and she would grind it herself. Anything would be helpful, really, as long as it was edible. But what they handed out was not enough, and the road to here was tiring.
She reached out her brown hand, covered in sunspots and burns from years of working the furnace and fireplace, and scratched the middle of her head with her bony fingers. The original color of her skin is hard to see. The niqab opening for her eyes is too large now because of the wrong adjustments her son made to the strap. The lower part of her niqab now hangs over her prominent bony nose, which kept it from sliding any lower. The top piece only rose slightly to show part of her eyebrows, making them look slightly dense and beautiful. And in the large opening designated for her eyes, one could fall into the socket caverns that contain two very small eyes surrounded by wrinkles. The image of the mother is completed with a look of sadness and loss that she shares with those around her.
Her headache is being fueled by the crying of a child nearby, but she distracts herself from it with thoughts and observations of the people around her. A woman is sitting cross-legged across from her. Her head is encircled with a colorful veil dominated by red, which doesn’t cover her face. Her two palms are a shade of faded orange from the henna that is probably days’ old. She dons a black cloak like everyone else, and underneath it she wears blue fabric pants with narrow edges embroidered with gold and black stripes. The woman looks exhausted. She sits with her head down, arms around her knees, entirely disinterested in the crowd. The mother is able to guess that the woman wore loud colors under her cloak, and she is also able to tell from her position that the buttons of the woman’s cloak are open and her chest is nearly exposed. Or is it already exposed? The mother trembles at the thought!
She tries to keep her mind occupied, but the child’s demonic screams and the distress brought on by the sight of the squatting woman makes her headache all the more prominent. She recalls the one time she was admitted to hospital because an insect had crawled up her nose and refused to get out no matter how many times she sneezed. She sneezed for eighteen hours straight, and her tears drenched her face and turned her eyes into a soft spring. Her children tried to reach the insect lodged deep inside her nostrils, but it was impossible. So the following day, her son took her to a clinic made up of two rooms, one was a waiting room and the other an examination room with one chair for the nurse to sit in. The doctor would bring in two patients at a time, so the other room could accommodate more female visitors. The doctor ordered her to lie down and asked the nurse to hold her head still. And the moment her head touched the foldable bed, she could see a woman sitting cross-legged, just like the woman sitting in front of her now. And just like the woman across from her now, the cloak of the woman at the clinic was not properly positioned, and she could see her black pants that were tight and narrow. And in a split second she got a glimpse of the opening that lit up the middle of her legs. Her pants were ripped. And it appeared that the woman had not noticed because her pants were new. They must have ripped when she sat down. The sight of the ripped pants kept her occupied, so she didn’t pay attention to what the doctor was doing to her. And when the doctor showed her the dead insect she had pulled out of her nose with tweezers, she was startled, completely forgetting the other woman and her pants that were showing a bit of the flesh of her thigh. Her mind was captured by the sight of the dead insect drenched in mucus. She was horrified by the idea that this small creature could have gotten her killed, and even more terrified by the idea that this could happen to her again and again. Could she permanently close her nose? She wondered.
The dumbfounded mother left the room then recalled the woman and felt sick to her stomach for not warning her about her pants and the way she was sitting. She was sick with guilt for a while, and continued having a recurring dream of the woman’s thighs drooping as she stepped on them. And now the same feeling of sickness is gnawing at her with the sight of the woman in front of her. So, she will have to tell her. A woman’s breasts should not be exposed, after all. Her daughter, who has a high school education, had taught her that everything must be covered by a robe and protected from the eyes of others, and that any other way of dressing is considered a sin. What if the men around her could catch a glimpse of her from different angles? And what if she was out alone? The mother wondered, wishing at the same time that the child would stop crying and have mercy on his mother whose husband was poking her every other minute. As soon as she stood up to reach for her child, the dust began to fly and the roaring sound of engines indicated incoming vehicles.
Two huge trucks penetrated the large dirt square, dispersing the people. The mother stood, along with everyone else who was seated at the far edge of the square. The two trucks pulled over and a man spoke through a loudspeaker: “We will call your names as listed on here. Please remain calm and orderly. We have gunmen ready to break up any altercations.” The man ended his announcement in a non-threating tone, as if he was reading the weather forecast.
People began moving closer to the back of the trucks to listen out for their names so they could take what was allotted to them: a bag of 10 kilo rice, 5 liters of vegetable oil, 2 kilos of strange colored lentils, 1 kilo of huge pink beans, 10 kilos of white flour, 5 kilos of white sugar and 2 cans of tomato paste. Next to the two trucks stood three armed men watching the people like falcons. Nearby, a man stood pointing at a large sign hanging at the back of a stone building and talking to a boy who was taking pictures with his phone.
Her son gave instructions to her and his friend, who had volunteered to come out and help them carry their share of the food supply. He would divide the load among them and told them that as soon as they heard their names, they should take off at full speed towards the trucks, because if they’re late getting there, then they will lose their share.
“Is that true?” his mother asked, amazed.
“Yeah, that’s true,” her son answered her, stretching the word, imitating his mother.
When their turn came and the name of the boy’s father was called, he jerked up, alert like a leopard, and shrieked to alert his mother and friend, then took off running ahead of them toward the truck. The mother followed her son’s footsteps, jogging behind his tiny body. He seemed to her much younger than his face suggested. His hair looked rough and dry, and his shirt, which he had refused to change in the morning, was loose and dirty. As for his tightened lower garb, it showed the size of his small butt exactly as it was. She glanced down at his scarred and scraped legs, and at his dusty and hardened feet. She felt pain and couldn’t tell whether it was from the miserable sight of her son or whether it was an indication of something ominous to come. Perhaps it was guilt at recalling the woman with the unbuttoned cloak. Or the pain could simply be coming from the stiffness in her legs after sitting down for so long. She ignored it, and followed her son and his companion.
She waited next to one of the gunmen, glancing at him with fear. It was a boy a little older than her son, and he had the same look as him: it was the look of a lost boy who was made to carry more responsibility than he could handle at an early age. The look of fear on her face was then replaced with compassion, confusing the armed boy.
She carried the bag of rice over her head and put the sugar bag over it, and in her hand she carried the sacks of lentils and beans. Then she went ahead of the two boys. She had decided that she would look for the woman with the open buttons. She picked up her pace, breathing in the dust. The niqab tormented her with the headache, but she was grateful for it now as it protected her from inhaling more of the dust circling her.
She cut through the crowd reaching the spot where the woman was seated. Her eyes landed on a woman from her neighborhood, but she ignored her and went on looking for the exposed breasts and blue pants with the gold trims. There were so many young barefoot, dirty and hungry boys wandering around in search of God knows what. She reached the spot but did not find the woman there. And as she was about to give up, she caught sight of a colorful headscarf, so she took off towards it. She was surprised by the person in front of her. She had completely misjudged the woman previously, for the woman in the blue pants was at least fifty years old, judging by her haggard appearance. And her chest was exposed because the buttons of her cloak were damaged, and what she wore underneath had a massive neckline, much too large for this woman’s shrinking body. The older woman sat on an uneven rock. She was no longer bowed, but she was lost. The mother stepped toward her and set down the bags she was carrying on her head. She gave the old woman a look of tenderness in exchange for her inquiring gaze, then matched her anxious gaze with one of confidence. She reached for her and when she could not close the buttons, she removed a clip from the sleeve of her cloak and closed the old woman’s buttons. Now she felt content and relaxed.
The lady reached for her: “I have no one to carry it with me… you can take my share.”