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from the July 2017 issue

Crime in Ramallah: Noor’s Story

In this excerpt from A Crime in Ramallah, Abbad Yahya's narrator Noor remembers his adolescence in Palestine, marked by the second intifada. 

At its peak, the intifada took over my parents’ lives. They weren’t explicitly affiliated with any one faction, but they tended to support anything Islamic, and the intifada fueled the continued rise of Hamas. My older brother's wife was an activist, a leader in fact, and our family was very proud of her. I was never sure what my brother's role was—I always had the feeling that he was a big shot in the Organization, but security considerations meant it couldn’t be revealed.

My father had a good relationship with Hamas because he was a shopkeeper and he would sell Hamas the provisions they then discreetly distributed to the poor. I suspected that my dad earned a tidy profit from Hamas, though he kept quiet about it all and managed to deflect attention through his generous donations to the needy—orphans, the destitute, and the families of martyrs and political prisoners.

Whenever anything of national importance happened—like the funeral of a martyr or a national festival—my family would always be there, every single one of them. From the way the organizers and activists interacted with them, I could tell my family members were key players in the movement, but I wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how smart my father was at keeping everyone satisfied, because we never had any trouble from the Occupation, or from the PA or Fatah. No one in our family was ever arrested or got mixed up in the infighting between the factions. My dad always knew when to come forward and when to stand down without losing face—a trader by nature. So perhaps that’s why he focused on everything outside the house, leaving domestic matters to my mom.

Mom was a pious woman and proud of her faith. The women of the neighborhood and prominent female figures from across the city would congregate at our house to discuss religious matters. Mom lavished hospitality on these devout women, and whenever any women came over who were politically involved with Hamas, mom would parade her eldest son’s wife in front of them. Of course, they all knew my sister-in-law. A single obsession guided my mother’s life: the “Organization,” or the “Movement,” as Hamas was referred to. Her beloved movement was the one thing that was always on her mind. I remember her delight, her almost drunken glee, every time she saw the daughters of her Hamas “sisters.” She’d gush about how beautiful and grown-up they were. Time and again, I’d heard her squeal, “Aren’t our boys lucky!”

Nothing made Mom happy like arranging marriages between the sons and daughters of the Hamas families, as if it were a way to secure the future of the movement and ensure its survival. Through the door to the sitting room where we received guests, I would often hear her singing the praises of one of the girls to the mother of an eligible Hamas brother. Mom knew full well that social ties were the most important things in politics, and anytime she hosted a meeting of women at our house, she would be showered with hugs and kisses.

My sister-in-law’s most important role, meanwhile, was finding new husbands for the widows of the martyrs. When a Hamas son is martyred, the movement takes over as protector of the widowed wife, and her future becomes a matter for Hamas, regardless of how she feels about it. My brother's wife and her fellow activists saw this as a duty to be fulfilled, and they would work tirelessly to find a brother who would marry her. However, all the respect and special care that were lavished on martyrs’ widows vanished the instant they were married off. They might become a second or third wife to their new husbands, but the important thing was that they were married by whatever means possible. My sister-in-law achieved all this with her rare skills of persuasion coupled with her zealous enthusiasm for everything associated with the movement.

Whenever I think of my sister-in-law and her gang, I remember the day I peered through the keyhole and watched them in the sitting room, the day when I realized that the movement rested on their shoulders more than on the men’s. Given how she constantly drilled the sisters’ children and how, before she even asked “How are you?”, she would be testing them on how much of the Koran they knew of by heart, I am often surprised at the way people talk about “men of faith” and seem to ignore the “women of faith.”

My brother was happy with her. I’ve often tried to imagine his private relationship with her—this strong, passionate, capable woman in her prime, so mature in her figure and features—and her physical devotion to him, with her vast experience in everything.

Our family was blessed by its female members, women who were dedicated to serving the men and making them happy. This was always clear to see at the brothers’ weekly gathering every Friday morning around my parents’ dining table—you could see it in the men’s faces, sated with the pleasures of Thursday night. While on Friday mornings their lips never stopped reeling off the word God and muttering prayers for the Prophet, the night before they had indulged in the torrents of lust.

The plan was that I would wait until I was older before I followed in my brothers’ footsteps, with my sister-in-law finding me a bride, just as she had for nearly everyone in our family. She would always present the potential bride to the mother of the young man in question, letting the girl flaunt her knowledge of the Koran, and emphasizing her pious and God-fearing nature and that of her family. Then, my sister-in-law would drop in some comment about her physical integrity, as though it just slipped off her tongue accidentally. “The girl’s all in one piece,” she’d say. “From her hair down to her toes, she’s—pardon me—a virgin—God, forgive me!” Her apparently spontaneous “pardon me” was of course intended here to trigger a waterfall of associations where naked virgins splashed and frolicked.

Well, the whole thing about me getting married wasn’t to be.

At the height of the intifada, I chose to stay at home, unlike all the other guys my age. I didn’t go to any rallies and I didn’t throw any stones. I felt too young. I was afraid of the outside. I was happy to stay in and use helping my mom with chores as a pretext to steer clear of what my classmates were doing. I would help mom wash the dishes, mop the floor, and hang out the laundry.

Why didn’t I go out with them? Was I really just afraid? I don’t know. Perhaps what my classmates were getting up to simply didn’t inspire me, it didn’t turn me on. At school, I could see the thrill in their eyes, and in their bodies, as they boasted about their clashes with the Israelis at the city gates, as they described the smell of gas, the flaming tires and the blood, showing off about how brave and strong so-and-so had been.

A few months in, they were picking up empty shell casings from beneath the demonstrators’ feet. The demonstrations no longer got anywhere near the Israeli checkpoints at the city gates; now they were contained within Palestinian territory. There were a lot of weapons being brandished, a lot of threats being shouted, and there was a lot of waiting around.

The intifada uprising shifted from the streets onto the TV. We would all sit there watching Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi, trying to keep track of what was happening and who had been martyred, trying to make sense of all the arrests, the shelling, the operations, the shooting and the casualties. Everyone was glued to their TV sets, watching events unfold. We’d laugh for an hour, then sob for hours.

With every assassination of a Hamas leader, my family entered an undeclared period of mourning, which meant that attempting to do anything vaguely normal brought nothing but trouble. I remember my older brother’s reaction once when he was sitting in front of the TV watching the morning’s news. There had been a major assassination operation, and as the names of the targets scrolled across the screen, his face seemed to crack, as fault lines of grief and rage spread across his features. His wife was sitting at his side, trying to comfort him, but she couldn’t hide her emotion, her tears. This was a seismic shock that shook them both to the core.

My brother got up to get dressed and head out. Dad asked him where he was going, but he didn’t answer. I spent the whole day watching TV, enduring endless patriotic songs about martyrs’ bodies and bullets, convinced that the next news item I’d see would be about an explosion or an operation in an Israeli city confirming my brother’s involvement. I couldn’t sleep until I knew he was back home with his wife.

I hated the television and I hated the long hours that everyone had to spend at home, and this was even before the paralyzing days of curfew. I hated it when everyone amassed at our house, robbing me of my privacy. I hated everything, and I especially hated the intifada.

At night, when everyone was asleep, I tried flipping between the satellite channels in search of anything other than news of shooting and casualties. My favorite channels and all the ones at the top of the list had been overrun by death, and it was only on some of the very last channels and the hidden ones that I found movies and music videos. I explored these with the sound off so my mom and dad wouldn’t wake up. I didn't want them to discover that I was browsing through forbidden territory at the very moment when the channels where our blood was to be coursing were the news and the streets. I craved many things, but nothing that was going to be sated anytime soon.


From A Crime in Ramallah. © Abbad Yahya. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. All rights reserved.

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