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from the April 2020 issue

The Appearance of the Dragon, and His Disappearance

A dragon gives a boy the courage to face a life-and-death situation in this children’s story by Hooda El Shuwa.


Khidr’s heart was pounding as he stepped into the house. It was almost sunset, and his mom wasn’t usually this late. Was she on an emergency visit to the hospital to see his dad?

Then a buzzing sound sliced through the sky above the camp. It was a familiar sound—the continuous whirring of a drone, the sound of the monster that harassed the camp without mercy. Its constant roar was punctuated by the whiz of bullets and the thunder of guns, which shook the windows of the house.

Khidr lifted his head to look out and saw groups of heavily armed occupation soldiers wearing helmets and fanning out through the alleys of the camp. He watched them spread out across the rooftops, leaping onto the roof of the building that overlooked the central street. He saw a slow-moving armored vehicle patrolling the main road. Behind it, military jeeps turned to probe the narrow camp alleys.

The stench of suffocating smoke rose up from the alleys . . . the sound of bombs . . . gunfire.

He muttered to himself: “Dragon, Dragon, where are you now? Where are you when I need you?”

Khidr stepped out onto the street and was filled with an extraordinary horror: his mother might be on her way home, and anything could happen during these wild raids that rained curses down from the skies above the camp.

He moved lightly down the alleys that threaded between the camp’s packed-in houses, listening to the growl of the patrol ahead. He turned and slipped into the darkness of Abu Lutfi’s barbershop, since his metal gate was open. He took in a breath . . . Through a crack in the door, he caught sight of a young guy, his face covered with a checked keffiyeh, standing on the roof of the building opposite. He was standing on top of Abu Yazan’s restaurant, the one that sold falafel, hummus, and fuul beans.

“Oh my God,” Khidr sputtered loudly. It was Marwan—he could tell from his black Reeboks with their red eagle wings. Those were the same shoes that had given him a sharp, cruel kick to the chest.

He muttered: “What is that crazy idiot doing on top of the restaurant? He’s going to get hit, either by a stray bullet . . . or on purpose.”

Marwan seemed to be hanging between life and death.

Khidr felt a bitterness in his stomach. He hated Marwan so much—so very much—but did he hate him so much that he’d wish him dead? Would he be happy if he saw a bullet pierce Marwan’s skull, knocking him off the roof?

The masked boy who stood with supreme confidence on the building’s roof . . . was he going to get hit from behind by a sniper’s bullet? Khidr asked himself: Would he be happy if he saw Marwan’s face on a new poster on one of the camp walls? Or a new painting on the side of their open-air museum, featuring him as one of the camp’s fallen? Would he rejoice if Marwan became a new hero and people wrote songs and poetry in memory of his martyrdom?

Khidr crouched in a corner of the barbershop, head pressed between his knees, trying to turn his body into a ball so small it almost wasn’t there.

He didn’t know how much time had passed. Chills raced through his body, his forehead was bathed in sweat, and his breaths sped up. He felt a twinge in his right thigh and put a hand in his pocket, feeling the wooden protrusions that jabbed into his flesh. A desolate feeling crept through him—a desolation mixed with guilt. Then, the next thing he knew, he was filled with an invisible strength.

Khidr got up, his feet driving him to the front of the shop, where he cautiously stuck his head past the edge of the metal door. He turned right, toward the end of the road. There, the situation seemed calm. Quickly, he went up a small stairway on the north side of the street, which brought him level with the roof of Abu Yazan’s restaurant, and within moments, he was standing face-to-face with Marwan. Behind the mask, he saw a spark of terror flashing in Marwan’s eyes.

As soon as Khidr took a few steps in his direction, extending his open hand toward Marwan, the street was filled with growling: loud bullhorns and popping sounds, clouds of foul smoke rising from the alleys between the houses, and the sound of shelling. Khidr grabbed Marwan’s jacket and threw his weight on top of him, dropping him to the ground among a cluster of satellite dishes.

Ahhhhhh.

Khidr felt a hot, searing pain in his right thigh, and he released another groan as he shoved his hand into his pocket, feeling for the pain, moving his fingers around the wooden statue of the saint and his dragon, which was deep in his pocket.

Lifting his head from its place on the roof, Khidr saw that a hole had been torn through the right side of his jeans.

Oh my God.

A bullet had pierced the fabric of his jeans . . . and it had gone straight into the body of the dragon! He touched the bullet—it was warm, satiny—and tugged it out of the tough sculpture. He ran it between his fingers, muttering: “It’s no more than a scratch, thank God . . . a scratch on the wood . . . torn jeans. Bless the spear-wielder, Khidr the Green, and the dragon.”

Khidr shifted from where he’d been lying, on his back on the roof, trying to catch his breath. His heart was beating fast, a series of violent, confused thuds striking against his cotton jacket. Inhale . . . exhale . . . inhale . . . exhale . . . . Khidr closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the smoke had risen far above, leaving a patch of starry sky that stretched out over the camp.

From this position—lying between the piles of wires, satellites, crushed soda cans, and leftover falafel bags—he lifted his gaze toward the dome of the sky. It seemed as if the moon, the stars, and the planets were all very close, and that the sky had expanded beyond his sight. It seemed as if he could stretch out a hand and touch it. And was that the constellation Ursa Major? Or was it Ursa Minor that flashed up before his eyes? And what was the name of that planet tinged with a lustrous red? He didn’t know! Where were the other heavenly bodies? Where were the constellations from the zodiac—Aries, Pisces, Leo, Capricorn, Taurus, Cancer, and Scorpio—that his dead friend Adnan had shown him from the roof of his house in the camp?

Adnan had been born under the sign of Leo, and where in the sky was Leo now? Khidr’s mom was a Capricorn . . . but his dad? He didn’t know his dad’s sign. He couldn’t even remember his dad’s birthday.

The dome of the sky was packed to the brim with images of animals, monsters, and bright and luminous beings, and they swam like meteors in an amazing panorama of orbiting radiance. The sky was so wide! For a moment, he imagined that he saw a flying dragon spreading out its two great wings, which beat with a powerful thunder along the edge of the horizon, and that out of its mouth gusted a brilliant flare that illuminated the darkness of the universe.

“Dragon!” Khidr shouted, lifting his voice and waving an arm in the air, the fist of his left hand clinging to the little wooden statue. The fingers of his right hand still clutched the bullet, the idiotic bullet, the bullet that had come to him, the bullet that had not struck Marwan.

The dragon had disappeared.

His throat felt very dry. Everything went quiet. Slowly, he lifted the statue to his lips and kissed it. “Dragon . . . you came, dragon.”

The sky shed droplets of water that moistened Khidr’s dry lips, and soon water was flowing down the heaps of metal satellite dishes, wetting the boy’s cheeks as well as his jacket and pants.

He heard a crunching sound to his side, from the darkness of the roof. Marwan slowly lifted his head, arched his back, and pulled the keffiyeh from around his neck. Khidr caught a strange flash in Marwan’s eyes, a look he’d never seen from his sworn enemy before, a look that seemed . . . grateful. Marwan reached his wet palm out toward Khidr, spreading the keffiyeh over both of their heads to protect them from the rain. In a low, breathless voice, Marwan said: “Khidr . . . That was . . . wow. Thanks.”


From The Dragon of Bethlehem (Tamer Institute, 2017). © Hooda El Shuwa. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.

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