Last week, I participated in a launch event for arc 25, literary journal of the Israel Association of Writers in English. Around 100 people turned up–a lot more than expected!–and it was awesome to meet the faces behind the wonderful poetry and prose that appears in the journal. I had a great time! You can view photos of the event, including a few of yours truly, on the IAWE website here and here on the Facebook page of Jerusalism, a literary organization that helped coordinate the event.
Each of us was allotted just 4 minutes for reading, so I only had time to read half of my story. Here’s a brief snippet:
I’ve decided to post the full text of the story here, since it’s not available online anywhere else, and it may be difficult for people outside Israel to obtain the printed journal (you need to send a check to the IAWE by snail mail; instructions here!).
A few people asked me if Scarf Sisters is based on a true story. It isn’t, but as people who live around here–particularly those who have shopped in that grocery store–know… it could totally happen.
(first published in arc 25, literary journal of the IAWE)
It was her pink sparkly hijab that caught my attention.
I had just bought that same scarf from the shuk in Ramle. It took me five shopping trips to come across a hair covering that matched the dress I’d bought for my brother’s wedding. And there she was, selecting tomatoes in the aisle right across from mine at the Rami Levy in Gush Etzion, wearing that same scarf.
She wore it elegantly, pinned around her face in a way that made the tassles ruffle as she moved. Her long coat, flowing to her ankles like a dress, was immaculately pressed. Her skin was just about the same shade as mine. Pale for a Middle Easterner. She was thin, with a roundish face. Or maybe it just looked that way, framed by the hijab. She caught me staring at her, standing there like an idiot with a tomato in my hand, and gave me a suspicious glare. I quickly looked away.
I saw her there again the next week, same time, same scarf. I guess she shares my preference for shopping on Tuesdays at 10am. I tried not to stare this time, but peeked at her out of the corners of my eyes as she examined the eggplants. Where had she bought the scarf, I wondered? Where did Palestinian women buy things? Probably a store in Bethlehem. I hear there’s a hopping shopping life there. Maybe she lives in Bethlehem. I live in Efrat. We’re practically neighbors.
The third and fourth time, I found myself drifting after her through the aisles and stealing glances at her purchases. There were lots of eggplants and tomatoes. Rice. Chicken. For Maqlooba, no doubt. I tasted that dish at Eucalyptus just outside Jaffa Gate when my parents took us out on their last visit. The menu said it was an authentic Palestinian dish, and they served it to me with an ostentatious wish-making ceremony that involved counting down and banging on the bottom of the pot with a spoon to loosen the contents. Maqlooba means “upside-down,” the waitress had explained, because of the way it’s served. That might be the only word in Arabic I know.
She bought diapers, and a colossal amount of food. Enough to serve a big hamula. (Okay, I guess that makes two words in Arabic.) I imagined her coming home to a big villa housing her extended family. I bet she has her mother-in-law at home rocking her baby to sleep and knitting baby blankets while she goes shopping. I’m jealous. My parents are in New Jersey, and Rafi’s are in LA. I have to leave my baby at a day care to get anything done in the mornings.
The fifth time, I got bold. That morning, I fished my own pink scarf out of the garment bag at the back of my closet, and wrapped it around my hair. I met her at our usual spot, on opposite sides of the vegetable stand. I took my time selecting tomatoes, watching her out of the corner of my eye until I saw her look up and do a double take. I met her eyes. She was looking at me in astonishment. I smiled, and pointed to the scarf. She broke into a shy smile, and then blushed and went back to the tomatoes.
Small steps towards peace in the Middle East.
The next week I was back with the pink scarf… but she wasn’t. It was only when I was at the cheese counter that I recognized her ahead of me in line—but with a different scarf! A shimmery purple one.
Had she changed scarves because of me? Why would she wear the same scarf on five consecutive Tuesdays and then start wearing a different one?! It couldn’t have been an accident. I was sure of it. But what did she mean by it? Was she making a statement about not wanting to identify with the Israeli settler lady? Maybe she was embarrassed to have been seen donning the same attire as a Jew? I found myself getting indignant about this blatant display of antisemitism. And then she caught my eye, and winked.
She winked at me.
And then she wheeled her cart right past mine and disappeared into the disposables aisle, leaving me staring in shock past the frozen malawah.
That Thursday, things changed at Rami Levy.
There was a stabbing attack in a different branch of the store, the one in Samaria. Two Palestinian teenagers attacked a Jewish woman in the cereal aisle. She died of her wounds, and another man was badly injured while tackling the terrorists.
When I went shopping the following Tuesday, the whole junction was swarming with soldiers, and metal detectors had been erected by the doors. The store was much quieter than usual. The guy at the cheese counter, usually teaching his Jewish customers Arabic in a jovial baritone, just sliced my cheese and slapped it on the counter without meeting my eye. And for the next three weeks, I didn’t see a trace of my Palestinian scarf twin.
On the fourth week I finally saw her. She was standing next to the guard at the entrance, weary bags under her eyes, her lips pursed in annoyance, and a green hijab wrapped around her face. The guard was dissecting the contents of her purse. She glanced up at me. I was wearing a blue scarf, but her eyes lit up in recognition. I stood, frozen in her gaze.
“Shu hada?” came a sharp question from the guard. We broke eye contact and turned to look at him.
Dangling accusingly from his hand was a pocketknife.
My heart plummeted. My breath caught in my chest.
Would she have stabbed me?
The woman clapped her hand to her mouth, her eyes bulging in fear. She began to stutter in Arabic at the guard, bending forward with a hand over her heart in an expression of contrition. The guard listened with his brow wrinkled deeply in suspicion, but after a few moments of tense silence, he tossed the bag back at her roughly and pocketed the knife, waving for her to go inside. She walked through the metal detector with her head bowed in shame.
I offered my bag to the guard but he took one glance at me and waved me past. And for the first time in my life, I felt ashamed that the guards didn’t check me the way they checked her, just because we wore our scarves differently.
But they had found a knife. And she could have been feigning innocence.
On the other hand, my husband regularly forgets to leave his Leatherman behind at the mall parking lot. When he tries to go through security with it, the guards yell at him and send him back to put it in the car. I could totally see it happening to someone else.
I wasn’t sure what to think.
Once inside the store, I noticed that she had stopped by the tomatoes and was bracing herself against the wooden frame of the stand. Her shoulders were shaking.
It occurred to me then that she must have thought she was going to be arrested, or worse. She probably believed those stupid reports of “extrajudicial execution,” that we were shooting kids for no reason and planting knives on them.
I abandoned my cart by the bananas and approached her. I lay a tentative hand on her shoulder. She gasped and looked up, her muscles tight beneath my fingers. Her face streamed with tears.
“I’m sorry,” I said stupidly in English.
She brushed a tear away and gave me a sad smile. Then, she lifted a cautious hand, and gently touched my scarf. “Jameel,” she said.
I don’t speak Arabic, but I knew what she meant.
“Todah,” I replied, hoping the Arabic word for “thank you” is similar to the Hebrew one. (It isn’t, I later learned from the cheese guy. Oh well.) “Yours too.”
She smiled again and turned away, reaching for a tomato.
I stood there and watched her until she disappeared into the next aisle.