Nairouz, a Palestinian woman from Haifa in her 40s, has to make room in her too-busy life, to care for her disabled mother for six weeks, when the Second Lebabon War breaks in July of 2006. The novel follows her life during six hectic weeks, as she negotiates between her two children, academic career, activism, and caring for a disabled mother.
Day 1 – 12 July 2006
Great. This is just great. Just what I needed to add to all the chaos in my life right now. I put down the phone and sink into the sofa. I hear Yasmeen’s hushed voice from her bedroom, but I can’t hear the words themselves. Secrets of the young on the phone. Razi storms in, his sneakers caked with mud, and before I can say something, he’s already banged the door to his bedroom shut. Not even a ‘Salam, mama.’ His life revolves around football, computer games, and his two best friends. I need coffee. Strong coffee. Then I can think straight and try to figure this out. Maybe by the time Emad gets home from work I’ll have figured out something and I can run it by him.
Everything was set up carefully. Neelam, the Nepalese woman living with my parents and taking care of my disabled mother leaves in two days for Nepal for six weeks. She’s been with us for the past two years without taking any days off. She has three small children back home, and she misses them achingly. I can’t imagine the strength it takes to leave your children for so long to ensure a better future for them. The sacrifice. Rafiq volunteered to go through the bureaucratic process with the agency and find a temporary replacement. I called the agency this morning to make sure the replacement will arrive as agreed, tomorrow, so Neelam can show her everything. The man on the other side of the line was courteous, apologizing that I had to wait on the line while he checked the file on the computer. ‘Can you spell the family name again, please?’ I did, and was asked to wait again. No. They didn’t have any such request on their files. ‘Can you check again? Maybe the file wasn’t updated yet?’ No. He’s quite sure that’s not the case, but he’ll check again. Can I leave him my phone number and he’ll get back to me?
He called an hour later, all apologies again. ‘I’m sorry, but I went through all the papers on my desk, and the computer files, but there really isn’t any such request filed. You’re saying tomorrow? That’s impossible. We need at least one month notice in advance. I’m really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Yes, I’ll keep your request on my desk, and if anyone becomes available I’ll let you know. Although I doubt it.’
Breathe, Nairouz, breathe, I tell myself. You can deal with it. You’ve dealt with more difficult crises in your life. You’re raising two teenagers and doing a damn good job at it. You managed to get a fucking PhD while raising two kids and managing a household. I take my coffee, cigarettes and mobile out to the verandah and am hit by the thick, hot, humid air of July. There’s no point in calling Siwar for help. She’s so fragile and emotional. She’s always been the impractical one of the three of us. Quiet, sensitive Siwar. I’ll call her later this evening just to update her, after I straighten this out with Rafiq and we figure out what to do. I dial Rafiq’s number, even though I know he’s probably in one of his important meetings and he’ll be angry at me for disturbing him in the middle of his work day. ‘Rafiq? Hey, sorry about bothering you, but it’s urgent – about mama. No, she’s fine. It’s the replacement from the agency . . . there is no replacement.’ I feel my pulse rise again as Rafiq tries to calm me down, telling me it must be some mistake. Somebody must have misfiled the paperwork. He’ll sort it out and call them on his lunch break.
I walk back inside, into the cool air-conditioned apartment. Emad was in charge of the dishes last night, and so I’m not surprised to come to a sink full of dirty plates, cups, and two pots. If you could at least have soaked them! Just because I mostly work from home doesn’t mean I have endless free time, I talk to Imad in my head. I roll up my sleeves and start washing the dishes, when Razi comes bursting in, ‘Mama, I need some money. Just a hundred.’ I turn around to face my son, water dripping from my hands onto the floor. ‘Didn’t baba give you and your sister your weekly allowances only a couple of days ago?’ He stares at his feet, hands digging deep into his jeans pockets. ‘Where are you going?’ I ask in resignation. His eyes light up as he realizes he’s not going to have to beg for it this time. ‘Don’t know yet. Maybe see a movie and then head down to the beach.’ He follows me to the bedroom like a puppy. ‘It’s coming off your next week’s allowance,’ I tell him, but he’s already out the door. He’s like a tornado, this kid.
I sit down on the edge of the sofa, and my eye catches the pile of books on the coffe table. Screw the dishes. I pick up Vikran Seth’s A Suitable Boy and tuck my legs under me. I’ve been putting off this book for so long. I remember when it arrived in the mail, I was both horrified and delighted at the same time at the hugeness of it. I start reading, and am immediately transported to India, finding myself at a wedding. For a few hours, I leave my life behind: my own mother, Neelam, Razi and Yasmeen, even Rafiq. I enter a different dimension, a different time.
I jump when I hear the front door bang. Emad’s strong voice reaches me; he’s on the phone talking business. Immediately, I am flushed with inexplicable guilt. I put the book face down on the table, and rush to the bedroom. I stand in front of the mirror and look at my reflection. Shit, I look a mess. My hair is all tangled up, a pencil sticking out from the back, which I used to secure my hair with. I quickly let my hair down and run a brush through it before tying it neatly in the back with a pain hair band.
‘Habibi,’ I try not to sound hysterical when I come back out. I have to stand on tiptoe to reach his cheek and kiss him. He wraps his free arm around my waist, and walks with me toward the verandah, still talking into the phone. When he finally ends the call, we stand still, my small body enveloped by his strong arms, and just watch the sea for a while. It’s become our ritual, a few moments of togetherness, of calm, of just him and me, before going back to the chaos of our lives. ‘Mmmm, you smell like oranges,’ he inhales my hair. ‘And you smell sticky and sweaty,’ I reply. His laugh is husky. ‘Should we share a cigarette?’ It’s his way of asking what’s wrong. He can sense it from the slightest touch. ‘You’re so transparent, Nairouz,’ he’d always tell me.
‘Well, let’s wait to hear from Rafiq. If he doesn’t fix it, we’ll think together,’ he says after I tell him about the mess at the agency. ‘As I see it, there aren’t too many options. We won’t be able to find anyone on a day’s notice.’
I’m still hopeful, but another part of me knows what this means. But I’m not ready to think about it just yet, so I push the thought away and focus instead on cutting the vegetables for the salad while Emad prepares the pasta. ‘Oh, Razi isn’t having dinner with us,’ I remember when I see Emad taking down four plates. He raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything. He knows better than me that there’s no holding that hyperactive boy at home. And from the guilty look on my face, he guesses that I gave him some money. ‘Only a hundred, and I told him we’ll take it off from next week’s allowance.’ Emad laughs, ‘Yeah, right. He’s almost an adult and still thinks money grows on trees.’
At seventeen, Yasmeen is a quiet girl. Yes, sometimes I hear her laugh on the phone, a friend or two come over, but mostly she spends her days caved up in her room, with her sketchpads, charcoals, oils, and pastels. She is so much like Siwar. When I call her to dinner, she comes out as if from a different dimension of reality, her fingers smudged with shades of yellow and green. ‘Did you people hear the news today?’ she asks as she washes her hands in the kitchen sink. I quickly glance at Emad; he shrugs his shoulders. ‘No, but I’m sure you’re going to update us.’
‘Hizballah killed three IDF soldiers and kidnapped two.’ My hand, holding a salad bowl, stops in midair. I stare at Yasmeen across the table as I try to comprehend what she has just said, and what it might mean. Shit. Kidnapped soldiers can only mean disaster. Israel will definitely retaliate. As I slowly realize my situation, with three academic articles due by mid-October, the stacks of books I need to read before the academic year begins, the syllabuses I need to prepare for the two courses I’ll be teaching, and the three students whose MA theses I’m supervising, my mother, two confused teenagers on the brink of adulthood, and now this, I put the salad bowl down and sink into the chair, dazed. ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I say to no one in particular. ‘Here, give me the bowl, mama, I’ll do that.’ Yasmeen takes the bowl and starts dishing out salad for us. Emad watches me and for once, there are no words of comfort that he can think of. We eat dinner in silence. When the phone rings, I rush at it, hoping against hope that somehow Rafiq managed to fix it. That it was some mistake, some misplacement of documents. The moment I hear Rafiq’s voice, I know. ‘I’m sorry, Nairouz.’
I try to focus on the book in my hands, and I find myself reading and rereading the same paragraphs, the same words, over and over. Their meaning eludes me. ‘Did you talk to your sister?’ Emad’s voice brings me back into the living room. ‘I forgot . . . but I can’t imagine Siwar taking care of mama. She can barely remember to eat sometimes. And anyway, I think she’s supposed to fly to Spain sometime soon, for some dance therapy workshop. She said she’ll be gone a few weeks. I think she mentioned staying with some friends in Andalusia.’ Siwar, my baby sister, still unsettled, still looking for herself in this world. She’s recently been taking some advanced dance therapy workshops somewhere in the desert. Last time she came to visit she seemed finally at ease in her own body. Like she’s finally found her thing, that very thing that makes her happy and content. I can’t dump this on her now. But I should call her in any case. I put down the book, it’s no good anyway, trying to read in this state. I grab a notebook and start jotting down things. Just the act of getting things down on paper gives me a feeling of control. I can do this. I can juggle around things and fit them around. Most of the things, luckily, are things I can do from anywhere, as long as I have my laptop, Internet connection, and my books. ‘I’ll make you a cup of chamomile tea to calm your nerves down, Nun.’ Emad, the one responsible for my mental health. I don’t protest, only give him a silent, thankful smile. What would I do without you, Emad?
Day 2 – 13 July
When I finally wake up, Emad is already gone to work. There’s a note on the kitchen table, scribbled in his untidy handwriting: Be kind to yourself today. Love you. He does this sometimes, reminding me of small beauties. I am taken aback by the simplicity of his words, or maybe just surprised how easily we forget to appreciate the simple things in life, taking them for granted.
Razi is already gone for the day too. I try to remember if he told us where he’ll be, but can’t. I send him a message, and he responds that he’s on his way to the beach and won’t be home till late in the evening. I find Yasmeen in her room, sitting on the carpet, still in her pyjamas, painting on a large canvas. I worry about her sometimes. Siwar says to just let her be. This is how artists are born. Emad agrees with her. I bend down and kiss the crown of her head. Before I leave, I tell her she can heat up some of last night’s pasta for lunch. She just nods and continues painting.
It’s just after eleven when I leave the house. I walk down from Hess street, then through the stairs that lead me first to Hillel, then Massada street. I need the walk to clear my head. It’s all downhill to Wadi Nisnas, and I can use the cardio when I go back up in the evening. Or I can take the bus or have Emad pick me up.
Neelam opens the door for me. She’s in her mid-thirties, a slight body. Long, thick, dark brown hair braided, resting on her left breast, reaching all the way to her hip. Today she’s wearing a lavender colour sari, with thin yellow swirls running through it. ‘Hello, Naroos, how are you?’ Her smile reaches her kind eyes. ‘Namaste, Neelam. I’m good, shukran.’ She trails behind me into the living room, where mama is sitting watching a movie. When she sees me, her eyes light up, ‘Na . . . Nanu . . .’ she laughs and shrugs her shoulders in apology for not getting my name out the way her brain willed it. I hug her, making sure not to put too much pressure on her right arm, and kiss her on both cheeks.
She makes a movement with her left arm, and when she realizes she won’t be able to mime what’s on her mind, she switches the TV to a news channel. ‘Boom boom, eh,’ she points to the television screen, then at the newspaper lying on the coffee table. I forgot all about it. I haven’t listened to the news this morning, so I don’t know what’s happening. I take the newspaper and read about the kidnapping of the two IDF soldiers. The Prime Minister is quoted that there will be massive reaction. Nobody, nobody, will threaten Israel’s security. ‘Don’t worry, mama. We’re safe. Anyway, they know in Lebanon that Haifa is a mixed city, right? They wouldn’t bomb us.’ I see her nose crinkling, then she clicks back to the movie.
Neelam brings tea and sits down opposite me. ‘Where is replacement? Coming today? Have to teach her. So many things.’ She says in broken Arabic. My eyes widen in surprise. We were so busy trying to figure out what to do that we forgot to update Neelam and mama. I scoot over to the edge of the sofa so I can reach mama’s hand. She looks at me and smiles. It’s a lopsided smile, the left side more alive than the right. I take a deep breath. This is it. There’s no going back now. ‘I’m the replacement.’ Mama looks at me, not really comprehending. ‘Mama,’ I say, ‘I’m going to take care of you while Neelam’s gone.’ I don’t explain any further, because that might make her sad, knowing that I’m doing it because it’s been forced on me. The laughter that comes the moment the words sink into mother’s brain surprises both me and Neelam. She slaps her left hand down on her knee, then, with an effort, gets up, supporting herself on her cane, and stands in front of me, waiting. I look at Neelam, and she shrugs. I get up, and mama’s fragile left arm is around my neck. She struggles to pull up her right arm from the shoulder; it lifts halfway, then falls back down. I take her right arm, and gently lift it up to my neck, so that she can properly hug me. ‘Su . . . sukraaam,’ the kiss she plants on my cheek is wet. I didn’t expect this gratitude.
For the next few hours, I follow Neelam around, taking down notes of all the chores she does. It’s overwhelming, and Neelam seems to be all over the place, doing five six tasks simultaneously. I didn’t realize there is so much to do. So much work. ‘No worry, Naroos. At five thirty, we have one free hour. Is when baba Jawad come home. They play chess together,’ she motions to the wooden chessboard on the side of the coffee table, which I only now become aware of. ‘We can sit in kitchen and write down, make order.’ Her words have instantaneous calming effect on me.
I sit at the kitchen table, notebook open to a new page. I’m ready to write down every detail, afraid to miss something small but important. ‘Eight thirty, mama get up, bathroom first. Dressing, and breakfast at nine,’ Neelam speaks slowly so I can write it down. She goes through the day, hour-by-hour, breaking down the day into small increments, each hour marked by a chore. ‘After breakfast, Tuesday and Saturday, B12 and folic acid pill.’ I write down the timetable of the pills on a separate sheet. When Neelam has gone through the whole day, she gets up to wash our cups. ‘Is easy, Naroos. After two days, you remember and no need for paper.’ I guess she’s right. Looking down and reading through, it all follows a certain logic, an organized frame, something to hang on to, some control. It probably eases mama’s anxieties as well, knowing what comes after what. It gives her an illusion of control over a life she’s lost control of. ‘I go now to finish packing. Then I give mama shower. You watch, is important. Last thing for today. Then bed.’
She leaves and I am left stranded, suddenly feeling the weight of it all. So much to care for one person. I thought once baba was home, he’d take over. A shower. The most basic action, the most intimate activity of the body. I’m not going to cry now. My mind drifts to the first days mama came home from the rehabilitation center. Two weeks of scrambling for a moment of sanity. Two weeks until Rebecca finally showed up and rescued us all from insanity. Two weeks of arguing, yelling, screaming. Two weeks of tears shed at night, in utter loneliness. None of us had an idea of what we were doing, and mama was freaking out. Until baba set his foot down and called the agency for migrant workers. ‘Obviously, we can’t do this on our own, and you girls have your own lives you need to get back to.’ Rebecca had been with us for six years, then it was time for her to go back to her own family in the Philippines. Rebecca . . . I should write her an email. I’m suddenly angry with myself for not keeping in touch with her, the woman who took care of my own mother, cooking, cleaning, washing. Showering. A woman who became family. I vaguely remember an email from her writing that she’d made it back home safely and the emotional reunion with her own family. I can’t remember now if I ever replied to her. I write down her name next to the medicine timetable for mama so I don’t forget to write her an email.
Showering mama turns out to be an hour-long ritual. I watch as Neelam washes her with the gentleness of a mother washing her own child. The thought crosses my mind suddenly: I’m not going to be able to wash her like Neelam does. Her hands move in complete sync with mama’s body movements. Her movements are at once efficient and graceful. I am entranced at their intimate, silent, slow-motion water-dance, and come out of my reverie only when I hear the absence of running water. ‘Give me that stool, Naroos,’ Neelam’s voice is efficient. ‘One towel for feet, one for body, yes? You can remember this?’ She helps mama lower herself on the stool and starts drying her wrinkled body.
It takes another twenty minutes before mama is tucked in bed. I kiss her on the cheek, and she beams at me. There is something childlike in her smile, the anticipation of something wonderful, like soft pink cotton candy.
I walk into the living room, where baba is explaining to Neelam that he’s taking the day off tomorrow to drive her to the airport. ‘But baba Jawad, train is OK. Is faster, you can take me to train station,’ but he’s not hearing any of it. ‘Nairouz, my favourite daughter,’ he winks at me. ‘You look a bit haggard. Take an advice from your old man, and don’t watch the news tonight. Nothing new, same old story all over again. Don’t worry too much, it will be fine.’ I nod and turn towards the television to try and glimpse some news, but he’s already flipped to a sports channel. ‘Neelam, please leave some room in your suitcase, I have something for your children. Some small gifts.’ She waves her hand in protest, and starts to say something, but I stop her with a hug. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’ I walk out into the still hot evening, taking baba’s last words with me: it will be fine. Yes, it will. It has to.
I decide to walk back home. As I walk up Khoury street up to Hadar, I call Emad to see if he’s up to meeting me halfway. He stays on the phone with me until we meet in a hug. Ever since the stairs rapist roamed the stairs of Haifa a while ago, I avoid walking them at night. A piece of personal safety that was taken from me. I used to love jogging up and down the stairs in the cool evenings, alone with my thoughts. Not anymore. Now I have to nag either Emad or Razi to accompany me.
‘It doesn’t look good,’ he replies when I ask him about what’s going on with Hizballah, breathing heavily. ‘Sorry, habibti, can we talk at home? I’m not in shape for these stairs. Or tell me about your day, and I’ll be a good listener.’ I’m just beginning to tell him about all that’s waiting for me for the next six weeks, when we hear a sudden, loud crashing noise somewhere. I stop, horrified. ‘Nah, don’t worry, probably just some ship uploading cargo, you know how loud they can be,’ Emad is panting. ‘No, Emad, this was different. And it didn’t come from down below. It sounded like . . .’ what the hell did it sound like? Not a rocket, surely? I run the rest of the way home, any rapists lurking in the dark waiting for their potential victim the least of my concerns at this moment. I need to get to the news.
The kids are both in the living room for once, glued to the television. ‘There’s a war, yamma’ Razi greets me with excitement, ‘like a real war!’ Yasmeen is sitting cross-legged on the carpet, her sketchpad abandoned on the coffee table.
I watch in horror the replaying of the day’s events. While I was learning how to care for my mother, a woman has been killed in her home. An apartment building in Nahariya took a direct hit from a Hizballah rocket, killing her and injuring others. Monica, I test the name silently on my tongue. She was sitting on her balcony when the rocket hit her building. The news blurs in my mind – names of the two kidnapped soldiers are released, IDF attacking in Al-Dahyia, where Hizballah headquarters are situated. More rockets on Israel, Prime Minister threatening on the screen. Then the camera zooms in on a familiar spot. I see the view of Haifa from up above, I can see Bat Galim right below. Stella Maris. How did the news crews get there so fast? Two rockets. I unglue my eyes from the screen just enough to see Yasmeen rocking slowly back and forth, hugging her knees. She’s staring at the screen with wide eyes. I pull her towards me and envelop her body in mine. ‘We’re safe, habbuba, it will be fine,’ I parrot baba’s words and kiss the top of her head. ‘We’re going to be just fine, Yasmeenti.’ Rockets are falling on Haifa. How did this happen? Shit. Never before had the Hizballah fired any long-range rockets that reached Haifa.
Emad suddenly gets up and turns the television off; I can see Razi already half-way up in protest, but Emad shoots him a murderous look and he sinks back down on the sofa. ‘All right, kids. Listen up now. You too, Nairouz. Things are going to change around here for a while.’ His voice is even, but I can see a flicker of confusion in his eyes when he meets mine. ‘If until now you had the idea that your mother is a superwoman, forget it. She’s going to need our help in the next few weeks.’ He disappears into my study and comes back with a yellow legal pad and a pencil. ‘Alright, you people are going to start pitching in some more into this family.’ He draws two lines, splitting the page into three columns. At the top of each he writes Razi, Yasmeen, and Emad. ‘Razi, what house chores are you taking up?’ Razi gives him an incredulous look, ‘But Baba, it’s summer. I just came out from a marathon of finals. I need to rest.’ Emad ignores him and writes down “washing dishes every other day.” Then he looks at Yasmeen. ‘I can take the washing machine,’ she says with a slight tremble in her voice. They go on like this for close to an hour, while I retreat into my study with a bottle of white wine. I hear their voices rising and falling, arguing over who will do what. ‘This is ridiculous! There’s a war out there, and you’re worried about dishes and timetables!’ Then the slamming of Razi’s bedroom door.
Later in bed, I run my fingers up and down Emad’s back. ‘You handled that quite well, I’d say. Extraordinary. You. Are. Have I told you that lately?’ He slowly kisses my closed eyes, lingering on each one, before turning off the light.
Day 3 – 14 July
The alarm goes off at seven, waking me into a new reality. I feel like one of the characters in Murakami’s books, where the reality has slightly shifted, and is now off and out of sync. Actually, I think as I watch my reflection brushing her teeth, it’s close to the after effects of bad hashish. Afghani hasish, Emad would say, though I have no clue if that means it comes from Afghanistan or if it’s just a slang word for bad hashish. Bad hashish is the kind that stays in your body for a few days instead of only a few hours. It makes you see things from odd angles.
The kitchen smells of strong coffee. Emad is sitting at the kitchen table, a steaming pot and two cups in front of him. ‘Waiting for you, hayati,’ he smiles at me. The yellow legal pad is on the table, filled up with various chores divided between the three of them. ‘Umm, hub, do you think this is a good idea when there’s a . . . war, rockets falling on Haifa?’ I’m surprised, but also pleased, that he’s still home. Usually at this time he’s already at his downtown office.
‘Precisely because of the rockets, we need two things: one, order. Two, give the kids things to do inside, so they’re kept busy and safe.’ I see his logic. ‘Anyway, Nasrallah denied that it was him who launched the rockets at Haifa, so maybe it was just a one-off thing,’ he sighs. ‘Also, I did an inventory last night. Kids have food for the day. I’ll stop by the souk after work to pick up some fruits and vegetables. We’ll take it one day at a time, and we’ll be fine.’ Things are collapsing around me slowly, and everybody keeps telling me things will be fine. ‘Yalla, go get dressed. I’ll drop you off on my way to the office.’
Mama has fallen asleep in her reclining chair. Neelam is already gone, and the house is eerily silent after the chaotic morning and last minute instructions from Neelam and baba, heating up lunch, and some miscommunication with mama about some towels that I had put on the wrong shelf. Neelam said that sometimes she dozes off after lunch. It’s the one time of day that isn’t completely predictable in mama’s schedule. Neelam said the nap usually lasts between one and two hours, so as soon as I hear the soft snoring, I grab my yellow notepad and start writing. I scribble down as fast as I can; there’s so much stuff to do, so many things filling up my life, so many deadlines. I start out neatly, breaking things down into categories and sub-categories, but soon the list becomes just a jumble – the jumble of my life. I reread it and am astonished. I need to duplicate myself and soon. How can a single person do all this . . . this . . . stuff – and remain sane?
From the corner of my eye I see the television screen, channel 22 now running only news. I keep it on silent. The news will be fragmentary and chaotic anyway, filled with military jargon and sowing even more fear among the public. They now need to keep a unified front. Everything else becomes unimportant in the face of threats on the security of Israel. It’s what they live on.
I step onto the verandah with a cigarette and a cup of coffee and call home to check on the kids. Yasmeen answers after the sixth ring. ‘I’m just listening to some music mama,’ she replies to my answer in a bored tone. ‘Razi . . . yeah . . . he was gone before I woke up. Nope, didn’t leave a note.’ I ask her not to leave the house, at least not today, not until we figure out what’s going on. ‘Can you call your brother habbuba and ask him not to be late? I should be home around eight. Kisses.’
‘Hada hon, hada hon,’ I’m startled by mama’s voice as I close the verandah door behind me. She’s pointing at the coffee table. ‘The TV remote control?’ I ask her. ‘La, la. Hada hon, hada hon,’ now she’s pointing at her mouth, her hand cupped. ‘Water! You want a cup of water, mama?’ I beam at her, ecstatic that I understood what she wanted almost immediately. ‘La, la,’ she gesticulates with her arm, moving it to the right and then pointing back at the glass. ‘Oh, sorry,’ I hurry to the kitchen. Of course she wants fresh water and not water that’s been sitting there for a couple of hours collecting dust on its surface. Details, Neelam said. Pay attention to details. I notice her chapped lips as I hand her the glass. ‘Your lips, mama. You need some lip balm,’ she gives me a questioning look. ‘They’re dry, your lips,’ I try again. This time, she smiles back at me and nods her head in approval. ‘I’ll buy some tomorrow.’
My yellow notepad with my chaotic life in it lies now forgotten on the coffee table. The next two hours are a mix of watching the news, prime minister calming down the public now but at the same time sending threats to Hizballah, then cameras zoom in on some sites where rockets fell, then back to the studio where ex-army men and political experts on the Middle East argue between them, each trying to come up with the smartest interpretation, and predictions for the near future. In between, mama tries to communicate to me unrelated things that I should be doing. It takes a lot of questions on my part to understand what it is she wants. Laundry. I go and fill up the washing machine and get it started. Stripping Neelam’s bed and putting clean sheets, for what, I have no idea. Writing a shopping list for baba takes almost twenty minutes, as I have to guess the items by showing mama pictures of different food items from her small notebook. It’s a notebook the speech therapist back at the rehabilitation center prepared for mama. It’s divided into sections and has photos of all family members glued in it, then clothing items, food, and activities. When we’re done with the shopping list, she points at the chessboard. ‘Baba should be home soon, so you can play with him,’ I say. ‘La la, ana, ana,’ she points at herself and then at me. ‘I’m terrible at chess, mama, you know that,’ I say. ‘Ana, ana . . . Na . . . Nana,’ I see her struggling to get the word out. ‘Nairouz. Say, Nai-rouz,’ I split the word into two, pronouncing each syllable slowly. ‘Na,’ she pauses, her brow furrowing in concentration, ‘Na . . . Na-rooz.’ If it weren’t so sad that my own mother can’t pronounce my name, it would be funny. Still, she laughs at it, and I join her. ‘OK, one game.’ It’s amazing how, when her mind shut down, she can still play board games and win almost every time. That part of her brain has only become sharper for some unfathomable reason, while her speech is still limited to some forty or fifty words. Baba arrives just in time to watch mama grin as she check-mates me.
Showering mother turns out to be quite the disaster. I get everything wrong; at first mama seems patient with my clumsiness, but within minutes she becomes agitated and starts yelling undecipherable words, swaying her good arm, pointing in different directions. I panic, try to calm her down and understand what she wants; she gets even more frustrated with my questions. Baba comes in a couple of times to see if he can somehow help, but we both scowl at him. Finally, she gives up on me and lets me wash her without any resistance, her head averted from me in a painful grimace. My clothes are soaked through when we finish, and I come out of the bathroom dripping wet and defeated. As mother sits on her bed naked while I massage body lotion into her back, arms and belly, she starts laughing. ‘What?’ I snap, miserable in my failure. She points at my wet clothes, her laugh becoming now uncontrollable, her eyes watering. I grit my teeth, my anger bubbling up, until I can no longer hold it and I burst out laughing too. I laugh at the absurdity of it, I laugh because mother is laughing, I laugh at my complete inadequacy at showering her. ‘I’m sorry, mama. It’s all new to me. I’ll try to learn faster.’ She pats me on the knee, and I see her mouth struggling to get the right word out. ‘Shuk-ran,’ she thanks me, for what I have no idea.
After mother is finally tucked in bed, with the television turned on a movie channel, I collapse on the sofa in front of a cup of tea that father has made me. ‘Difficult first day, ah?’ he asks. I nod and pick up the abandoned yellow notepad from the coffee table. Difficult is an understatement, I want to scream. ‘It will be fine, like you said, baba.’ Suddenly I remember that I have two kids. Shit, I haven’t checked on them for a while. What a horrible mother I am. I quickly dial Emad’s number, and when he hears my tired voice tells me to stay put; he’ll come and pick me up in twenty minutes. He hangs up before I can ask about the kids. Until he arrives, I watch the news with father; they’re showing sites where rockets fell today in the North. A number of injured people, two killed – a woman and her grandson. IDF continues to bomb Al Dahiya in south Beirut. I slip the yellow notepad into my bag, and as I see it disappearing, I feel my whole life is slipping away from me.
At home, I eat the salad that Yasmeen set in front of me. Emad must have talked to them, because after dinner, Razi brings a pile of clean clothes to the living room. Yasmeen folds them, stacking them into four piles, and Razi takes the folded stacks, one by one, into each bedroom. I don’t remember them doing anything together as sister and brother in years. In their teenage years, they’ve become almost strangers, avoiding each other most of the time. ‘Hey, don’t you have some important academic paper you need to be working on?’ Emad asks as he clears the kitchen table and stacks the dishes in the sink. ‘Oh, don’t even think about it! Washing dishes is my new specialty. Yalla, go and get some work done. I’ll bring you tea in a few minutes.’
In my study, I take out the yellow notepad from my bag, put it on the desk, and just stare at it. When Emad walks in with na’ana tea, he finds me crying. He puts the tea down and sits on the floor. I join him. ‘You want to talk about it?’ he asks. Do I want to talk about it? I don’t even know where to begin. ‘Things are falling apart around me, Emad.’ Until a few days ago, I had an organized life. I was in control. I had all my deadlines figured out with a detailed plan. ‘And you feel you can’t hold them together anymore,’ he completes my thoughts. How the hell do you hold things together when all of a sudden you have to free hours upon hours every day to take care of your disabled mother? Hours you didn’t have to begin with? And now this stupid war. How do you make room in your life for a war? Emad stands up and I see him studying the yellow notepad. ‘You’re in the right direction, Nun. Be gentle with yourself. Take a few days off your regular life, and just focus on your mother. Things will settle down in that brilliant brain of yours and you’ll know how to deal with all of this,’ he points at the page with all the work-related deadlines. ‘Come,’ he gives me a hand. ‘Let’s take this tea to the bedroom. Forget work for tonight.’
On my way from the study to the bedroom, I involuntarily stop in front of the television in the living room. Nasrallah is speaking, threatening to attack an Israeli ship. No, he’s saying that they did attack an Israeli ship. Then the screen goes back to the news studio for analysis. I don’t want to hear it, not right now. We won’t be getting any real time truths anyway. The Israeli media is an expert at releasing partial information, usually distorted. Pieces start trickling bit by bit, and we try to piece them together like a puzzle, but the pieces never really fit into each other perfectly. It is as if they were originally cut wrong. I turn the television off.
Before going to bed, I check on the kids. Yasmeen is sketching at her desk. When I take a close look, I can already see that it’s a bombed building. ‘We’ll be fine, habbuba,’ I try to make my voice soothing, but she isn’t fooled. ‘I’m scared, mama,’ she keeps her fingers moving across the paper, not looking up. ‘I know, Yasmeenti, I know,’ I stand behind her and start unbraiding her thick, black hair in slow movements. She doesn’t resist. I can’t remember when we stopped doing this. The moments when time would glide by silently and the world would stop, to allow mother and daughter precious moments of together, of sharing secrets and releasing laughter out the window. ‘You never do my hair anymore,’ she makes it sound like a casual comment, but it hits me hard in the stomach. I had no idea that she missed this. I pick up her comb and start combing her hair. ‘What do you say about visiting teeta tomorrow? We can have lunch together and after that, if we’re lucky, teeta will fall asleep and we can spend some time together.’ Yasmeen looks up. ‘And if we’re not lucky?’ she asks. ‘Then you’ll get stuck in a game of chess with teeta. And believe me, she’s one mean chess player.’
khulud khamis is a Palestinian feminist writer, author of Haifa Fragments, published by Spinifex Press (Australia), New Internationalist (UK), and translated into Italian and Turkish. Born to a Slovak mother and a Palestinian father, khulud grew up in two countries and between two cultures, her identity composed of both, and her multicultural background is reflected in her writing. She writes fiction, poetry and nonfiction. In her fiction, poetry, as well as non-fiction, she deals with political and social issues as they relate to and affect women’s lives, striving to bring forth local marginalised and unheard voices. khulud is a member of the radical feminist collective Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Centre, where she has been an activist for many years, fighting for the rights of the most marginalised groups of women, and the co-founder of the Tuskuteesh grassroots project: a safe space for Arab women to share testimonies of sexual violence. She lives with her daughter in Haifa. Find khulud on her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @khulud_khamis.