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Minor Victories

 

Ibtisam Azem

Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon
Photography by Amira Karoud

 
 

The heat besieged us from every direction: the windows, the simmering seat covers, and the windshield. Even our bodies seemed to be colluding against themselves in this conspiracy of heat. October had arrived, but that day was August-like in its heat. Some cars were driving on the unpaved shoulder trying to bypass the long column of cars waiting to cross the checkpoint. Clouds of dust billowed. Their particles pierced our lungs. We had to keep the windows down to fight the heat. We were like panting dogs, lying on the road, burdened by their fur.

It was an old car with no AC. A white Subaru truck, maybe 1992? It was in its twenties and that’s quite an old age for a car. But my father loved it. Let’s say he and the car were kind and patient with each other. The window handle resembled a pipe. I probably thought of it as such because of this silent man, my father, who was a pipe-smoker. The sun made the window handle feel hot. Its leather cover was coffee-brown. It must have lost much of its color since the car’s heyday. The car was carrying the year’s supply of olive oil that day. Not only our family’s, but that of my siblings’ families, our neighbors, and some relatives. There were fifteen jerry cans in the back. Each held seventeen liters of olive oil.

It felt like we were smuggling gold. But we had no clear plan for going about it. In our area, we ignored the ban the Israelis imposed on commodities coming from the West Bank. We knew that there might be a price for violating their laws. That our ancestors survived the Nakba made us feel quite lucky in that unlucky moment. But “survival” is a tricky word. My father, who was seven when the Nakba took place, always says that we were unfortunate to stay in Palestine . . . and we were so fortunate to do so.

I remember the first time I travelled abroad. I was on the train from Zurich to Freiburg in Germany. When we reached the Swiss-German border a few guards got on board and asked passengers for passports or IDs. One of them spoke to me in German. I responded in English. When he asked where I was from, I felt a bitter taste in my mouth. From Palestine, I said. But my tongue didn’t move. He didn’t care about the homeland. He was interested in my passport. So I gave it to him without saying a word. He looked at me and said, “Shalom.” I didn’t say anything. I’d wanted to say: I am Palestinian. We were living in a tiny country and woke up one day to find that our neighbors were kicked out and we had become a “minority.” We became monkeys. Monkeys in our paradise carrying passports that only represent our catastrophe.

 

I always felt I was under surveillance, or being watched by spectators. As if this country was a zoo. They are spectators and you are the monkey.

I got sick a lot as a child. I was six or seven when I had a kidney stone. After it was treated I still had to go for follow-ups. The hospital was in Mlabbas, or “Petah Tikva” as the Ashkenazi call it. During one of those visits I was naked except for my underpants. My mother stood next to me. The doctor took longer than usual checking my back. He said that I was too hairy. I wasn’t. But this dark body was too hairy for him. I don’t know where he’d come from? Poland, Russia, or some other western country whose women undoubtedly had hairless bodies with milky skin. As if that wasn’t enough, he asked another doctor to come and look at my back. My poor mother wore a nervous smile on her face. They looked at me as if I were a monkey. A little monkey.

I felt trapped at the checkpoint. I feel trapped everywhere in this country. They also looked at us as if we were monkeys. Our town was on the other side of the checkpoint. “You know,” my father said, then he fell silent and took a deep breath as he looked at the soldier. The soldier wasn’t even twenty, but he controlled the lives of hordes of humans with his finger, or his trigger. As if summoning his voice from the bottom of a deep well of memories, my father said:

 

“There used to be beautiful groves and houses built in the old style with arches and illuminated windows. Some of them are still there and weren’t destroyed. I was fourteen. Just a boy. We had to sleep in the groves and the wolves came at night and roamed nearby. It was very cold in the winter. My fingers froze.”

 

“You know, when Israel came and they kicked our people out, we lived under military rule, just like the West Bank and Gaza now. It’s true that they imposed Israeli citizenship, but it was all nonsense. Military rule lasted for nineteen years. I decided, like so many others, to go and work in the orange groves in Jaffa. We worked without permits. I worked in Shaykh Mwannis, where Tel Aviv University is now. We would climb into big trucks and sit until we reach the checkpoints of one of the Zionist militias, which they later started calling the Israeli army. We would get off and walk for hours. There used to be beautiful groves and houses built in the old style with arches and illuminated windows. Some of them are still there and weren’t destroyed. I was fourteen. Just a boy. We had to sleep in the groves and the wolves came at night and roamed nearby. It was very cold in the winter. My fingers froze. I remember one night I was so tired I couldn’t sleep. I kept crying and fell asleep crying.”

He took another deep breath. I was afraid to look at his face. A speeding car passed by and a cloud of dust brought us back to this checkpoint. Suddenly, an October wind blew and it cast that day’s heat away.

 
 

We tasted the olive oil at the mill as if it were wine. We marveled at its dark green color and spicy aroma. The taste of freshly milled olive oil is heavenly. My mother always says the mills that use old methods are much better. My father responds, “That’s nonsense.” But he still goes every year to a mill that uses old methods. He raises his left eyebrow in protest. “That’s what your mother wants,” he says. “What about you?” I ask. “What do you want?” He doesn’t answer.

The workers helped us load the jerry cans. With all that added weight in the back, the car looked as if it might just flip over on its back like a beetle. Father used to say that these cars are excellent. That’s why they stopped making them. They only make things that break nowadays so you have to keep throwing away and buying again. Tulkarim was behind us now. We stood in line on that one road we cross to go from Palestine to . . . Palestine.

They all ask you to buy for them because you have a pickup truck. As if it’s a donkey and they all want to pile their cargo on its back. “Thank you” is all our neighbor could muster last year. After all the waiting, carrying, and unloading. Just a mere “thank you”?

 

“Don’t say anything,” my father said. “Let me do the talking. If you talk it’ll be a lecture about human rights and colonialism. We don’t have time for your war of liberation. We have to cross the checkpoint with the olive oil!”

“Don’t say anything,” my father said.
“Let me do the talking. If you talk it’ll be a lecture about human rights and colonialism. We don’t have time for your war of liberation. We have to cross the checkpoint with the olive oil!”


 

“What more do you want her to say?” my father asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It didn’t come from her heart.”

“Did you open her heart and see what’s inside? You’ve become like the Ashkenazi after going to college and living with them. You want a person to say thank you twenty times. She’s our neighbor and neighbors help one other.”

The Israeli soldier looked tired. His body took the shape of a question mark.

“We should’ve listened to Isam and brought something to give them so they would let us through.”

He looked at me and said:

“You think Isam is telling the truth? You believe that he bribes them with a shawarma sandwich? He gives them hash!”

I laughed. A joint is exactly what I needed at that moment.

“So what’s the plan?”>

“We’ll see,” he said as he watched the soldier.

“What do you mean we’ll see? We need a clear plan.”

“Just wait and we’ll see.”

The soldier looked drained by the heat, just like us.

“Don’t say anything,” my father said. “Let me do the talking. If you talk it’ll be a lecture about human rights and colonialism. We don’t have time for your war of liberation. We have to cross the checkpoint with the olive oil!”

“Since when did they start banning olive oil anyway?”

“I don’t know. Lately they started restricting the amounts. A jerry can per family. They know we don’t just use it for cooking. We swim in it. But it’s about suffocating the West Bank, just as they did with Gaza. They don’t want us to buy from there.”

He took a deep breath and repeated:

“Let me do the talking.”

 
 

The soldier looked at us and took our IDs. I was sixteen when my ID was issued. I had that stupid smile on my face back then. My face looks different now. The soldier scrutinized my face and then my father’s. He asked him, “Who is she?” My skin is dark and my eyes are the color of walnut, whereas my father was fair and had sea blue eyes. The soldier didn’t believe us, but our names did. He turned his gaze to the cargo.

“What’s all this?”

“Olive oil. It’s the season, you know. This is the year’s supply,” my father said.

“All this is for you?”

“Yes, for seven families.”

He looked at us and then said:

“Wait here.”

It was a bad sign. We’ve been waiting our whole life. He returned and said, with a sly smile:

“You can’t go through with all of them. Just two. You have to take them back. Go straight and make a left turn into that opening and go back to wherever you got them from. I’ll keep your IDs until you come back.”

My father sighed. But I could tell that he was looking for a way out. It was futile to ask if it was legal to keep our IDs. I remembered what he used to say whenever we encountered racism and I yelled that it was illegal: “They didn’t write those laws for us, but to protect themselves from one another and to suffocate us.”

He started the engine and drove slowly.

“Now what?” I asked.

“He thinks he’s smart, but we’ll outsmart them. We are a sly people and even if God came down here they won’t beat us.”

 

I laughed. We exited the checkpoint area. He turned the signal on and prepared to make a left into the opening to go back. He kept looking in the rear-view mirror. I turned and looked back. The soldier was busy with another car. My father stepped on the gas and drove straight ahead.

“What are you doing? If we’re late he’ll know that we went home and unloaded the jerry cans. It’ll take us at least an hour to do that.”

“Who said we’re going home?”

We were on a two-way road with a dividing white line in the middle. He stopped on the right shoulder, turned on the hazard flasher.

“Come on.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Let’s unload the jerry cans and put them on the side of the road, next to the slope, so that they can’t be seen easily. Come on!”

Just as we were about to start unloading a car stopped right behind us. A muscular young man got out.

“Is everything OK, uncle? Flat tire? You need help?”

“No flat tire, but please help us. We need to take these down and line them by the road over there. The soldiers didn’t allow us to bring them all in and took our IDs.”

He laughed, telling my father that he was still a rascal. I asked him if I should stay next to the jerry cans. He said that that would attract attention and we should both be in the car to get our IDs back.

 
 

We left the olive oil right there and drove back toward the check point. The soldiers rarely search or stop cars going into the West Bank. They are only concerned with cars entering Israel from the West Bank. We drove through and then turned and joined the end of the column of cars leaving the West Bank. Somehow, the heat was no longer as potent, as if it had retreated from the day.

When we reached the soldier, he asked how we were able to come back so quickly?

“It’s a tiny mill nearby,” my father said.

The soldier looked at the two jerry cans we kept in the back. He wasn’t convinced.

“Give me the IDs” said my father in a firm tone.

We took our IDs and drove away. My father stopped the car again on the side of the road. He said he wanted to make sure they didn’t send a military vehicle to follow us. He took out his pipe and stood next to the car to smoke and watch the checkpoint from afar.

“Someone might stop and take the olive oil.” I said.

He shook his head and smiled. We drove to the spot where we had deposited the jerry cans. They were right there waiting for us.