My grandmother’s house still stands. When she was born in the 1920s, the streets had no name. She said the earthquake parted them. And when my mother was born, two years after 1948, my grandmother says they were trapped inside their home, damp and cold, because of a snowstorm that covered Jerusalem by surprise. This is my lineage, my connection to the city, a place marked by both natural and man-made disasters. But the city’s disasters don’t follow me the way they do my mother and grandmother.
My curiosity about Palestine developed late—after my grandmother lost her husband and moved from Jordan to Texas to live with us. In the month following my grandfather’s death, she acted solemn and played her part of the ritual. I knew she wasn’t really mourning. She never truly loved him. But that same year, when her youngest son suddenly died of a heart attack, that hit her hard. He was only forty-three years old.
She became silent. Before that, she was known for her humorous affection and storytelling. Her sorrow grew deeper. That’s when I asked her to draw me a map of her house—perhaps that would help her grief. I also wanted to travel to Jerusalem and see what became of the house. I recall playfully buying bottled hot sauce to get her talking about the “magical pepper tree” from her childhood. My Jerusalem was in the pepper tree story that she obsessed over. Out of love and pity, my mother would plant every pepper she could find, but none of them would ever grow into the tree that my grandmother longed for. Our garden was transformed into a metaphorical graveyard of memories.
My grandmother is now ninety years old. Her face is symmetrically wrinkled, like the creases on the paper map of Jerusalem she drew. When she gets upset, her wrinkles cover her face as if they were drapes. But nothing could really curtain my grandmother’s anguish. She tells me:
They shot my father when I was seventeen years old. He was working at the bakery. We found his body near the oven. I can’t remember exactly which day it was, but our world collapsed. I was the oldest of the four girls, so they married me off. In a way, I’m lucky because my younger sisters were sent off to live with my uncle. He treated them like servants and married them into the Kurdish clan. (Haven’t you ever wondered why my nephews and nieces all look the same?) The family bakery was eventually shut down and my mother, my poor mother, was left to live alone without any of her children. So why don’t I want to see the house I grew up in? Why would I? There’s too much hurt.
My father was a charming man, you know? He had so many muses: Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, it didn’t matter. In fact, the love of his life was a Moroccan Jewish woman. I remember she used to knock on our door, pretending to be one of the women selling couscous in the neighborhood. Of course, this is before ’48, you know? They say she had his daughter. Imagine that! I have a Jewish sister living back in Jerusalem! But you know… our reputation was ruined because of him. I was dumb and naïve, of course. I looked up to him and thought he was a beautiful man. He resembles that American actor… what’s his name? Anthony Quinn! Anyway, once, when I was fourteen years old, my friend came over to the house. I wanted to show off that I knew how to be a good host like my mother. So I poured her some arak from a bottle instead of serving her tea… that’s what I saw my father drink. I didn’t know it was filled with alcohol. Nobody told me! By the time my friend went back to her house, she was drunk. Boy, did I get a beating from my mother.
When she finishes, I leave the room but hear her tell my mother:
She thinks about Palestine like it’s a lost inheritance waiting to be discovered. It’s good she is going back to Jerusalem. Even if she thinks it’s because of a silly pepper tree. Yaani, doesn’t she know that peppers don’t even grow on trees? Anyway, I think it’s important for people to know that Jerusalem is ours. The world should know the truth.
It was early autumn in Jerusalem. Still hot, still humid. So humid that the ink on the map was smudging from my sweaty thumbs. I worried I would get confused and take the wrong turn somewhere. But then I remembered what my grandmother said before I left Texas: If you can’t find the pepper tree, just ask about the American Playground. Our house was just opposite from there, you can’t miss it.
Map in hand, I took the first right after entering the Old City through Damascus Gate. It’s the street just before the “merchants of god” who sell trinkets to biblical tourists. But there was nothing on the street except for a butcher selling chicken, live and sinewy, and kids playing with a deflated soccer ball. The house should have been here—at this “X” that my grandmother methodically placed. But instead I hit a wall to someone’s courtyard. I went back, retraced my steps from the beginning. Same thing. So I went into what looked like a pop-up meat shop and asked the butcher if he knew where I could find the house on the map. I handed him my grandmother’s drawing. He looked at me with a suspicious face, and said: Say, where you from again?
I went to the other side of the Old City. I thought maybe she got the orientation wrong. An hour later, I began to think that this was all some big joke, and that my grandmother was playing me. I walked and walked until I found myself going in a circle. First, the Christian quarter, then the African quarter, and back to where I started. I wanted to give up. More people were becoming suspicious of me, even though I speak my mother’s Jerusalem dialect. I knew it was because the city is tense. Nobody trusted one another, anyone could have been a collaborator. Anyone could be lurking around to come and take your house. Hell, what if they thought I was some undercover Israeli speaking some warped version of Jerusalem Arabic?
Eventually, I took my grandmother’s advice, and asked for the American Playground. But nobody knew of it. Finally, someone told me it shut down over seventy years ago. Another added, No memory of there being a place for “fun” in the Old City. And another commented on how nobody actually used the playground and it was probably a myth all along. So I walked up to the oldest person I could find. I asked him if he knew my grandmother, and gave family names, place names, names of relatives. He stayed silent—shrugging, sitting in his plastic chair, eating and spitting pumpkin speeds.
I was in the Old City for nearly four hours: dazed, frustrated, tired, hot. Four hours is all it took before I quit and went back to my friend’s apartment. Maybe I misunderstood what she said. She is ninety years old after all. Strong, sure, but memory—they tell me—has no translation. I thought perhaps if she drew me another map she could recall the story from another angle.
Maybe she thinks I have this nostalgia for the old Palestine, that’s why I so badly want to see this home. I don’t have the heart to tell her that peppers come from plants, not trees! But what if (and this is a big what if) I do find the house? My mother was six when she left, what if I find that her belongings are still inside? My mother and grandmother were here, in these very streets. I must keep searching for my grandmother’s house. I know it still stands. And her voice telling me:
I see a century of grief. Sometimes I see a person, dressed in tatters, whispering to her reflection in the mirror. I see letters arriving at a woman’s home, her mailbox stacked with every silence in the world. I can hear flowers talk and watch as trees vanish. And then I see myself walking in the Old City. The storefronts are the same as I remember them. The streets still don’t have names. And, yes, I did find the house. Only the door changed. It’s not the one I know. The doors open—my father is there. Outside, a man tells me, “We must reach the graveyard before it’s too dark.”
I don’t know what the dream is supposed to mean, but I dream it every night. I saw her: a city compiled by exiles in exile. But she didn’t see me. As for the pepper tree, yes, it’s still there.
Another map? Of course, habibti, I will draw you another map.
© 2015 by Sousan Hammad. All rights reserved.