“Cover Up” by Clare Needham

In Clare Needham’s memoir about her experience as a young woman living and working in Jerusalem, the author reflects on issues of women’s bodies, national identity, and physical safety. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read our interview with Clare here.

Cover Up

Clare Needham

 

I did not begin my time in Jerusalem with the desire to be dangerous. I arrived in that most intoxicating, infuriating, enervating, derelict, and sad of cities with a large black suitcase into which I’d folded a year’s wardrobe, plus books and toiletries. I had a postcollege fellowship at an Israeli civil rights and legal organization that soon came to feel too conservative for me. Its mission was laudable: it advocated for a greater separation of religion and state and for equal allocation of government funds for all minority groups within ’67 borders. But the organization relied on funding mostly from Jewish groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, which were, as one colleague explained to me, “progressive except for Palestine.” In the fundraising materials I helped compose, I could not mention Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, which began about four hundred meters from our office, or its occupation of the West Bank, or its occupation and total blockade of Gaza, even as we approached the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. Granted, antioccupation work was not within the organization’s purview, and among the staff there was disagreement and a spectrum of political opinion. But I felt stifled nonetheless.

I was, however, free to wear whatever I liked to the office. I had two bosses, one an American who’d explained to me before I moved that I didn’t need to worry about packing a separate work wardrobe. Israelis dressed casually; they wore whatever—the organization’s press liaison liked to wear thigh-highs and little black dresses to work. My American boss now felt stuffy whenever she had to put on button-down Ann Taylor blouses to meet with potential donors. I adored my Israeli boss, the organization’s executive director, who had been a champion swimmer in a former life. She wore jeans and T-shirts, so I did the same.

My first day out in Jerusalem, before I had to report to work, I wore jean shorts. The temperature was in the mid-90s, and at noon there was a blinding white heat. Almost as soon as I left my apartment near the city center—where something like a secular atmosphere still prevailed—I began to feel my mistake. A man grabbed the backs of my thighs and parted my legs with his hand. I vowed never to wear shorts again.

I put on jeans that covered my ankles and then decided it was better to cover my shoulders as well, even if, for a little while longer, I left the rest of my arms bare. Within two weeks, I’d added a scarf to the ensemble. Often I wore a black one dotted with tiny blue and violet flowers that I adjusted each morning to hide my vulnerable neck and collarbones, then double-checked my work in the mirror—though mirrors were not necessary in Jerusalem. As soon as you stepped onto the street, your body was reflected back to you, and your body was understood as your essence. Jerusalem, reputed to be a spiritual place, was rooted in the physical, in the crudeness of surface appearance. I was a young white woman, secular, not obviously Jewish: everyone I passed reflected that image back to me.

My excessive paleness—red hair, blond eyebrows and eyelashes—made strangers often stop and demand where I was from. The first time I flew out of Ben Gurion Airport, I underwent extensive questioning— Why did I speak Hebrew? What was the origin of my last name? Was I really Jewish?—and my passport was slapped with a stickered number 5, the second most serious security rating. On my return from Istanbul, as I rode up an escalator with other passengers from my flight, airport security summoned me out of line before we reached passport control. They searched my luggage; they asked more questions. When I described the experience to an Israeli colleague, she didn’t miss a beat. “Oh,” she said, “you fit the Rachel Corrie profile. European-looking woman, traveling alone. They assume you have a Palestinian boyfriend, a blog where you write about the occupation.” (Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003 while defending Palestinian homes in Gaza from demolition.)

I did not have a blog, and my boyfriend was American, but he taught at a Palestinian university and lived in East Jerusalem, and soon I moved in with him. With the move, I became the one white lady in At-Tur, a neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, a part of East Jerusalem crowded with many histories and lives. It was a Palestinian village with an illegal Israeli settlement embedded in it, whose compound flew an Israeli flag large enough to be seen clearly from the Old City. Soldiers patrolled 24/7 outside. Christian tourists were bused in every day to visit the Garden of Gethsemane and the storied churches that spread up the slope. Our apartment was not far from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, on whose property the head of John the Baptist was rumored to have once been buried.

I would have been interested in many of these details if I’d had a different body, if I were not thinking so much about the uniform I needed to wear. Growing up, I spent time looking through a book my mother had, called How to Be a Perfect Stranger, an etiquette guide for every religion. What to bring to a Baptist wedding, what to wear to a Muslim funeral, what to avoid saying, whether to give gifts or take photographs. It was in this spirit of respect, of not giving offense, that I planned my dress. I was an outsider; I was no one’s sister or daughter; I had no family protection. I could not blend in, but I wanted to float through; I wanted to be safe.

This was not possible. One morning an old man pulled down his trousers and extracted his limp dick, holding it in his hand as he crossed the road toward me. I knew then that I’d have more problems. Still, I thought the right clothes might help minimize them. No matter the weather, though easier in colder months, when I could wear a coat, I kept on the jeans and the scarf and traded my T-shirts for long, loose shirts that fell at least midthigh. I’d learned that any part of a woman could tempt—a man once grabbed my naked left elbow and imprisoned it between his hands, briefly, before I could pull away—so I tugged down the sleeves of my shirts to cover even the backs of my hands. Though I felt like a colonizer all the same, I wanted to make clear that I was not an Israeli settler: a long skirt was out of the question. Loose red hair was too suggestive, so I put mine in a braid. I wore Supergas or low-heeled boots; I didn’t want to show my feet, much less my occasionally painted toes: that was slutty. When I went outside, I pretended to be married and wore an opal ring on my left hand.

I repeated the lie of my marriage often to Samir, one of the taxi drivers who waited at the foot of the Mount of Olives every day to drive tourists and others up and down the slope. He introduced himself to me shortly after I arrived and it became clear that I was a more permanent resident, though I’d noticed him right away, in part because he was exceptionally well-dressed. Palestinian men, in general, dressed more formally than Israelis; they wore blazers and shoes with laces, while Israeli men wore shorts and Crocs. Samir’s daily uniform was impeccable, a triumph, almost a fuck-you to the occupation, a hint of whom he might have become had he not been born under a system of foreign military rule designed, among other things, to disrupt daily life and thwart ambition. He wore a fresh white button-down shirt tucked into dark denim Levi’s, a leather belt that matched his polished shoes. Nothing he wore ever showed dirt, dust, or sweat. His head was shaved, and he managed to sport Ray-Ban Aviators without looking like a tool. He seemed imperious until he removed the sunglasses and showed his gold-flecked eyes.

He began offering me free rides, and at first, I accepted. When I sat next to him in his clean cab, I felt ashamed of what I wore, designed to minimize everything about me that was desirable. I felt ashamed of my dress because I was attracted to him, as he was to me. We never spoke about it, though often he suggested that we drive to Jericho (we never did). But I had a boyfriend, and he had a wife and kids who lived in Silwan, a neighborhood next to the Mount of Olives, where settler violence against Palestinians was well documented. Around him, I was especially aware of my American passport: I could leave whenever I wanted. My citizenship, for which I’d done nothing other than possess the random good fortune of being born to American citizens, granted me powers he would never have. When one afternoon he leaned over and kissed me as I was getting out of the car, I decided I had to refuse his rides as often as I could. So I began treading carefully down and up the steep slope each day on my way to and from work in West Jerusalem. If Samir was there, I would make small talk, then move on.

But I was far from slipping into the crowd. Often I was the only woman walking outside, or the only one unaccompanied by a man.

Late one morning, when I was on the slope and almost in sight of the taxi drivers, a man came running from behind. He slammed his body into mine and put me in a chokehold. One arm gripped my neck and the other belted my waist. In memory, it feels as if he had his pants down, though I might be confusing this time with other times, with other men who unzipped their flies as I walked past. I would like to say I fought off the man on my back, but he had the advantage of the slope, of gathering the energy of the hill before putting me in his grip. He must have chosen to let me go. He disappeared, and I ran the rest of the way down the hill, shooting past Samir and the others, propelled by fear. When something like this happened, I scrolled through my recent calls and talked to whoever was first to pick up. I screamed at my boyfriend or at a friend as I described the latest incident. Nothing they said was enough. I was outraged but stubborn, and stupid. I kept walking. Everywhere I wanted or had to go required my first getting down the hill.

Soon there was trouble every day. A good day meant only being called a slut or a Russian (i.e., a slut). A bad day meant I was touched, grabbed. And almost every evening, I would tell my boyfriend what had happened, and he’d suggest that I had a bad attitude: I just had to shrug it off. He did buy me pepper spray, which I knew I’d never use. I tried it out on our roof, and with comic predictability, a sudden gust sent it stinging into my eyes. Other people said I should move. Another friend told me to wear a hijab. I balked at the idea, in part because I knew that covering my hair would not work. I was from elsewhere, and it was visible in the way I moved; a piece of cloth could not change that. I had been in Jerusalem long enough to realize that actually I was my body: it was my essence; my body was my soul.

I decided I would become ugly, neglect my hair and skin and clothing. I would make myself repulsive, untouchable. Then I might be safe. I tried becoming more like a man: I started wearing my boyfriend’s clothes. He was disappointed; he wanted a sexy girlfriend. But the new uniform didn’t work, anyway. The incidents continued.

My boyfriend and I went on a short vacation to Greece, where I could wear whatever I wanted. I understood this conceptually, but my body did not. In Thessaloniki, we went for a walk along the promenade, looked out over the shining Aegean Sea. I had put on a dress I’d loved wearing in New York: horizontal black-and-white stripes, thin shoulder straps. We had not gone far when I insisted we turn around so I could change. I felt like a slut, I said. Someone could hurt me in the dress.

Things got worse when we got back. One evening at the end of February, I was returning from having a drink with a friend in the Old City. It wasn’t late—just after seven—but the sky was dark, and Samir and the others had all gone home for the day. I reached the base of the Mount of Olives and started walking up. The road I took was poorly paved, with no shoulder and no sidewalk, and was barely lit by streetlights, several of which had been extinguished for months—Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem paid municipal taxes, yet there was an appalling and unequal distribution of municipal services. But I had experience with this path, a sense of how to handle the road.

Five or so cars passed, a couple of drivers sounding a friendly beep of their horn to let me know to watch out. Generally when a car approached, I moved to the edge of the road and waited for it to go by. Since it was dark and the headlights were bright, I looked down at my feet each time the beams swept over my body and face. It had rained earlier that day, and it was cold. I wore black leather boots and an androgynous black raincoat that tumbled to my knees and hid my form.

Soon I was walking up the steepest section of road. My breath was heavy, and the sound of it filled my head. On one side of the road was a high stone wall that bordered private church property and on the other, directly to my left, a steep drop down to an open field, usually dusty  and dry, though in late February, the start of Jerusalem’s brief spring, covered in vibrant poppies and wildflowers exuding their colors, even in the dark.

Someone flung himself at me sideways. I remember an expression, eyes and teeth—not a face. I began to wrestle with a body much stronger than mine, though both of our bodies were, in that moment, transformed by adrenaline. My mind was clear: I was an idiot, and I was going to die; it was my fault, because I’d insisted on being alone and walking. In seconds, this other body had slammed mine onto the ground. I had a gray leather bag slung diagonally across my chest; now he reached for its base and pulled it away, over my head, while I clung to the strap. He began to drag me, headfirst, back down the steep hill, pulling me behind him like a dog. I skidded along on my right side, scraping elbows and knees, but I managed to hold up my head, and that’s how I saw the idling car, the open door, and knew I’d be thrown inside. It did not occur to me to let go of the bag. I held on to the strap and tried to use all my weight to stop this trajectory: I would do all that I could not to be put into the car.

But he only wanted the bag. I was an available body lugging a bag of unknown treasure, there in the right place, the right time—for him. He dragged me until I could hold on no more. He tore the strap from my hands, and I rolled further down the road with the momentum and the slope’s decline, then stopped. I raised my face from the ground and saw the car’s taillights, its exhaust curling into the dark air, the silhouette of a man holding up my bag, then jumping into the passenger side, the car screeching down the slope. My instinct told me to pursue them. I was somehow on my feet, then running down the road; I can’t remember if I was screaming. For that moment, I was pure adrenaline. I wanted so badly to kill someone. I imagined turning superhuman, leaping in front of their moving car, smashing through the windshield, strangling them. Instead—there was never a chance to catch them; they were gone almost instantly—I turned and ran back up the hill, for once not noticing its steep pitch or my ragged breathing.

I reached our compound, stormed up the stairs, slammed open our apartment door, and greeted my boyfriend with an unsettled grin. At first, he thought I was laughing. I managed to explain what had happened, though not before backing him against a wall and knocking a glass from his hand. Then I went to my desk, took out a sheet of paper, and in a gesture I thought even then a bit grandiose, titled it “What I Have Lost.” It was meant to be a list of items from my bag—driver’s license, passport photocopy, a laminated card of the traveler’s prayer—so that I could sort out what needed to be canceled, replaced, what could not be retrieved. I tried to hold a pen and write down a few words, but I couldn’t control the shaking of my hand and kept stabbing the pen through the paper.

I went to bed with a stomachache. Lying awake, sleep impossible, I saw how things could have gone much worse. It was the first time that fear broke through my conditioned numbness, and I started to feel afraid for myself—a feeling that would become constant for the next few years. What might have happened if I hadn’t been able to pick myself up in time? Or what if I’d been taken into the car? I fell into a nightmare and woke vomiting over the sheets. For days after, I could not keep down food. My throat was raw, and my arms and ribs were sore from the pummeling on the road.

My boyfriend reversed his policy of telling me to chill: he said I couldn’t walk on my own up and down the hill, and this time, I agreed. The taxi drivers urged the same. They told me the men who’d mugged me were drug addicts, thieves from neighboring areas. The police wouldn’t do anything, as the men were also collaborators with the Israelis, and the police didn’t care about making a Palestinian neighborhood safe. Their explanation was plausible; regardless, the no-walk rule meant that after work in West Jerusalem, I walked to Damascus Gate and got a taxi or went further east, to Herod’s Gate, where I could pick up a ride in a shared car. I hated this new system; I felt trapped in the vehicles. I also hated what it confirmed. I wrote in my journal: “And then I was dropped off at the top of the hill, and the good little white girl ran all the way home.”

The mugging was an earthquake that went off only inside me, an event whose damage could never be fully shown. But its devastation was extensive. A colleague at work expressed concern that I had changed so much, even in the few months she had known me. She gave me the number of her therapist. And one day soon after, Samir found me sitting on a bench in the Dominus Flevit Garden, where sometimes I went because I was unlikely to be molested there. I was pretending to read and was listening instead to an American pastor describe for his congregants how on this very spot Jesus had wept for Jerusalem, how Christ’s tears were similar to those some of them must have shed when faced with a person who did not accept the Lord. Samir appeared during this sermon, his  uniform intact as ever, and asked how I was. How was my life, my husband? I made up some lies; he nodded. He turned away, went back up some steps, where he joined the Americans and waited to provide them with rides down the hill. Then he came back down to me. He asked more questions. How was I really doing? “You don’t seem okay,” he continued. “You look bad.”

I was bad. In the aftermath of the attack emerged someone new, someone who wanted to do harm. Again and again, I had experienced how easy it was for someone to get too close, to cross a line, to touch me so it hurt. I saw now that it was easy to do. They did it because they could; they understood it was easy to do, so they did it. Most people didn’t see this, how easy it was, but now I did. I saw it, too.

I wanted to commit violence, to trespass into someone else’s life. I was given many chances. Wherever I’ve gone, people have asked me for directions, maybe because I’m often walking alone, at a good clip, so they assume I know the way. But also, likely, they stop me because I do not appear to pose a threat. In my previous life (and again, now, in a more recovered life), I thought of giving directions as a sacred duty. When someone asked which way to go, I did everything I could to direct them. I felt a failure if I didn’t know, and I’d take out a map or my phone. On a few occasions, I’d run after strangers, maybe slightly startling them, as I reappeared to say I’d gotten it wrong: they were to go right, right, then left.

In Jerusalem, after the mugging, these requests for directions presented an opportunity to abuse my power—no one would suspect me. I grew breathless with the potential. One time in particular: a pair of blond European tourists, both women, were heading toward the Mount of Olives. As I followed them, I wrestled with conflicting desires, the urge to help, the urge to hurt—or to do both, perhaps. I imagined a scenario. I’d tell them, do not walk up the hill; it’s not safe—and as they were thanking me, I’d find a way to take something from them. I imagined they’d be too distracted to notice my hand slipping into a coat pocket or purse. Or maybe I wouldn’t even attempt a cover-up: I’d approach with a smile, then take their stuff and run. I knew the city better than they, and they almost certainly did not possess my kind of fury, which gave me energy even as it exhausted me.

Instead, I called out to them from a distance and told them to take a taxi.

The fantasies made me dizzy. When I did get asked directions, I’d keep my sweating hands in my pockets, or I’d clasp them behind my back, fingers curling, just in case I couldn’t control the desire to do something more physical. I wanted especially for people who seemed protected to experience violence. I wished to trouble their lives. I would come down from these urges scared for my sanity. I fell into weird states. One day, I was late to meet a friend for coffee because a young man had asked me what time it was, and I assumed this was the prelude to an attack. So I screamed at him, and when he turned away, I followed him, galloping alongside and telling him never to fuck with me again. My friend thought this picture of my anger was funny. But I thought it was horrifying.

That year, a Christian radio host in California made a widely publicized prediction that the Rapture would begin in May and culminate with the end of the world five months later. I was unconcerned. The end of the world seemed fine by me. I welcomed an apocalypse—an uncovering, an unveiling.

***

I returned to the States in June. But anger and fear continued to warp the familiar. Walking one evening from the train station in my parents’ suburb to their quiet home close by, I glimpsed ahead on the sidewalk a tangle of dark shapes. My mind constructed a group of Satanists crouched close, ready to turn me into a sacrifice. I took a longer route home. As I walked, I reasoned that what I’d seen was unlikely to have been real— but I didn’t trust my body to register reality in time and avoid going into panic. The next day, I walked back in sunlight and saw that the menacing  shapes from the night before were a bundle of tree branches. Every place, every person could cause a flare-up. Every landscape was strewn with traps. On a night typical of many, I abandoned a group of friends on Brighton Beach. Their chaotic energy, their eyes flickering bright as they shouted and ran into the shallow waves—suddenly I didn’t trust them. Alone, I found my way to the elevated subway platform. But there I experienced a fear of being thrown onto the tracks. The next subway station also troubled me, though I did not know why. A voice told me to go back into the night. I obeyed. I kept walking.

With time, and with the rescue of EMDR psychotherapy, I improved, and New York came to seem a safer city. While a shadow or something just outside my periphery would continue to suggest the mugger and I’d feel a surge of sick energy spike up my right side, mostly I no longer feared for my life. As my fear receded, I was granted the New Yorker’s wish, the writer’s wish, the solo walker’s wish, to feel invisible, anonymous, all the better to observe. Walking home at night in Brooklyn, I noted the regularity with which Black and Brown men were first to move to the edge of the sidewalk or cross the street as I came toward them; they knew how their bodies were perceived. I had to break the habit I’d learned in Jerusalem of walking straight toward a person if I thought they were going to fuck with me—though I knew I was not the one seen as dangerous. Still, I tried to give people space, the right of way. Here, you don’t know me. You don’t know the harm I wish I’d done; you don’t know how violent it’s been in my head. Let me move first.

I made these minimal gestures.

With time, I no longer felt the need to cover my neck or elbows or ankles. But I could not drop the urge to hide and disguise myself. For five years I wore a broad-brimmed men’s hat that turned me confident and made me mysterious. Mine was not the face people expected beneath; this discrepancy was doubtless part of its power. I wore the hat for style, and to block the sun, but also because it was slightly too big and sat low on my forehead, cast a shadow, concealed my eyes.

Late one spring evening, on a subway ride home, I noticed a young Black man wearing an incredible wool hat. It had about six inches of excess fabric that stood straight up and was stitched with a gold-sequined slightly smiley face that gave its wearer the power of having two expressions at once. We got off at the same stop, and at the corner, waiting for the light to change, he came up to ask for directions and to praise my own much-prized hat. He might even have used a phrase I was familiar with, that many people used when they described how I looked: “bandit chic.” Everyone who said those words did so with good humor: to them I didn’t look like a criminal. The young man and I were walking the same way, and we kept talking about style. He had an internship at Michael Kors and was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Within a block, a police car pulled up, and an officer leaned out to ask if I was okay. In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.

***

Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012.  (Author photo by Bree Zucker)

 

 

“Triumph” by Sahar Mustafah

In her richly textured story “Triumph,” Sahar Mustafah employs the setting of a women’s clinic in contemporary Palestine to address issues of gender, power, and domestic violence.  The story appeared in our summer issue (TMR 43:2).  Recently the author talked with TMR staff about the story and about her writing on women’s issues and Palestine.  You can read that interview here.

Triumph

by Sahar Mustafah

 

It was harder than she expected. Some of the patients at the women’s clinic refused to give Intisar their full medical history, as though it were gossip she might turn loose around the refugee camp. They only reported their immediate ailment or injury, scoffing at her clipboard. It’s only a headache—just give me something for the pain.

They were guarded and suspicious, calling Intisar “amarkaneeya,” though her Arabic was sound. Her parents had made sure of that. Sunday school at Izzadeen Mosque in Chicago until she turned fourteen, Miss Sawsan standing at the front of a small classroom, a ruler in her hand, pointing to words on a whiteboard:

صباح /sa-bah/morning

ليل /layl/night

قط/kut/cat

She knew it would take time before the women warmed up to her. They would see how she hadn’t given up after five months and returned to the States, how the mass of hopelessness that had formed in her throat the first week upon her arrival had now hardened into a lump in her stomach. The clinging stench of the sewers, the burning heaps of garbage outside cinder-block shacks, and the pro-Hamas graffiti smearing retaining walls and storefronts no longer shocked her.

Every morning, the women clamored behind her when she unlocked the clinic door. More than one had pulled her aside and in a hushed tone asked if Intisar could help with a delicate matter: I want to pull it down. What am I to do with another child?

At first, Intisar had not comprehended; then her face flushed, and in a low voice she told these young women that the doctor didn’t do that here. They’d storm out of the clinic, weeping, children clinging to their hips. Intisar hated those days the most.

This morning was comfortable and cool. Soon enough, the heat would seep inside the unadorned building and stifle the two minuscule examining rooms and the small room for breaks. There were frosted hexagonal windows ensuring patient privacy that were never opened. The women’s clinic reminded Intisar of an animal shelter back home in Illinois.

The buzzer sounded, and Intisar checked the security camera. She watched Amal, an assistant, come through the clanging metal door, then through a slight entry, carrying a steaming paper bag. “Salam! I’m sorry I’m late!” She was a slender woman with small shoulders. Today she wore a lavender headscarf. “My daughter had a fever last night. Elhamdullilah it broke early this morning.”

Three of the meagerly compensated volunteers had come and gone since Intisar had started at the clinic in the spring. Amal was the best one they had. She knew most of the women in the mokhayam, and they respected her. Her husband was being held at Nafha Prison in Israel, had completed his second year of confinement without a trial. Amal had been pregnant at the time they raided her home and dragged him out in the middle of the night. He hadn’t seen their firstborn, had missed his daughter’s akeeka, when the imam blessed the baby and the extended family ate from platters of broiled lamb and yogurt-soaked rice. Once a month, Amal traveled a half-day between checkpoints and detours to visit him. The drive to Nafha alone could take up to five hours each way.

Intisar had soon discovered that the third question on a form she fastened to the clipboard for new patients was necessary, if not surprising: Is your spouse or any member of your family in prison?

The second question was Has your spouse or any member for your family been killed? It was as casual a question as the seventh one: Do any congenital diseases run in the family? If yes, please list them.

Intisar found Amal’s sense of optimism boundless, her smile never faltering, as though the absence of a husband and father was not the worst thing to happen to a family.

It made Intisar ashamed of her own father, living in the States with his new wife. Seven months ago, he’d taken Intisar to a restaurant, trying to avoid a spectacle, afraid she might throw a temper tantrum like a child. He’d never given her enough credit.

“Why are you leaving? You have a career here,” he’d said.

In Cook County, she’d been working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital had offered her a managerial position, but she’d turned it down.

“I want to go where I’m needed,” she flatly told him.

“Life is difficult in Palestine,” her father pressed.

Life is difficult everywhere, she replied evenly. “For some of us, it’s almost unbearable.”

“You’re doing this to punish me?” He’d said it like a question.

“Punish you for what?”

“Your mother is a wonderful woman. We married young, habibti. We aren’t”—he’d fumbled with the words in English—“the same people.”

“Isn’t that what marriage is about?” Intisar had wanted to say. She’d thought it inevitable that married people changed, but couldn’t these new selves be woven into the fabric of their original bond? If their love was strong enough? Instead, she’d kept her mouth shut, poking at her chopped salad.

“I will always take care of her, Intisar. And you.”

That had meant helping Intisar with her nursing graduate loans and paying the mortgage on the house she’d grown up in while he lived in a new one with his young wife. It meant finishing the payments on Mama’s SUV while the other woman drove around in the latest BMW series.

“Please, habibti.”

Intisar wanted him to stop calling her that. She’d heard him on his cell phone call his new wife, Khitam, the same. “Habibti, I’m on my way home. Do you need anything?” A young woman only three years older than Intisar. Young enough to be his daughter, young enough to be her sister. Intisar knew Khitam’s brother, had gone out with him and a group of college friends. He was blithely pleased to see her at the wedding, a lavish affair that deeply embarrassed Intisar. She hadn’t wanted to attend, but her mother insisted. “Don’t let them know they’ve hurt you.” Her father was dressed in a tuxedo with a yellow carnation pinned to his lapel, one meant to be worn on the day he would walk Intisar down the aisle, if that ever happened—not to be married in himself, to a young woman in a sequined, sleeveless mermaid dress. Her brother had referred to Khitam as “Kitty” during his reception speech. She’d also been married before, had a son twenty-five years younger than Intisar.

Would it have been any different if it’d been a woman her mother’s age? Would that have stung less? She’d pretended she hadn’t cared, packed up her clothes and books, and flew across continents to leave it all behind. She was thirty-one years old, could call the shots in her own life.

Amal placed the bag on her reception desk. Dorit Borja, the clinic’s sole gynecologist, poked her head out of the examining room. “Do I smell falafel?” She drew the syllables apart in a charming, unobjectionable way. Dorit was fascinated by the Arabic language, particularly names; she had asked Intisar what hers meant.

“‘Victorious,’ I think,” she’d told the exuberant doctor. “Triumphant”

“Ah, the Triumphant One!” Dorit had gleefully declared. “I like that. You’ve determined our destiny here.”

Amal waved the grease-soaked bag. “I stopped on my way. Fresh batch.” She carried them to the small break room. “Abu Yasser asked about you again, Dr. Dorit,” she teased over her shoulder.

“I told him I couldn’t be his second wife,” Dorit called back. “My Lutheran father would never allow it.” Dorit Borja was a young Norwegian gynecologist. She’d worked with Doctors Without Borders in Syria before enlisting with UNRWA in the West Bank. The patients were enamored by her, perpetually awed by Dorit’s naturally platinum hair. Her eyes were frigid blue, deeply set in a lightly freckled face. To them, Dorit was ajnabeeya. A foreign woman. She beguiled them.

The first patients arrived early as usual. Their mornings were busiest when mothers from the refugee camp sent their children off to school and squeezed in an exam between cleaning and cooking. Amal spoke with the women in a soft voice, her tone kind and patient like a teacher’s. Intisar had developed a habit she found rather disconcerting: she imagined what Palestinians like Amal would be in life if not for the occupation. Would Amal have pursued a professional degree in education, or perhaps become a pharmacist? Would her husband be her husband, free and present in their daughter’s life?

A large woman toddled into the clinic with a nylon bag in her hand.

“How are you, Um Nabeel?” Amal smiled. “How are the migraines?”

“Same. I brought you all some tomatoes.”

Other women brought them green almonds and sour plums. Sometimes they brought jars of pickled turnips and pressed olives.

One girl, fifteen years old, came in with her mother, an overbearing woman, a noticeable mole on her upper lip. They rarely saw young daughters—virgins still.

“She can barely move when she gets her period,” her mother loudly declared. She looked at the other patients for affirmation. They nodded their pity. “Inshallah khair,” went around the waiting room like a spark.

The girl’s face flushed, and she kept her eyes on the floor. Intisar felt sorry for her.

“Bring her into the examining room,” Dorit instructed, waving the girl in.

“Lah, lah, lah!” the mother intervened, an arm blocking her daughter. “She’s still a binit—I don’t want you prodding inside her.”

Intisar explained that the doctor would only be examining her on the outside. She patted her abdomen to demonstrate.

“I’m going with her,” the mother asserted, ushering her daughter through the door with a hand clamped on her shoulder.

“How old were you when you got your first period?”

Intisar translated.

“Eleven.”

Dorit nodded. She gestured for the girl to lie down. Her eyes, fearful, flitted from her mother’s stern face to Intisar’s then to the doctor standing over her.

“She’ll need an ultrasound. Might be early endometriosis. I can prescribe an oral contraceptive for the pain—though I know the mother will refuse.” Dorit spoke as if the woman wasn’t present. Intisar smiled reassuringly at the girl. “Let’s give her turmeric and ginger vitamins in the meantime.”

By late afternoon, they’d seen a dozen women. Amal cleaned the waiting room and Intisar had begun sanitizing the equipment when the door alarm sounded. She buzzed in two women who appeared to be mother and daughter. They both had reddish complexions—a’la hamar, the women called it—disarming spatterings of freckles. Their eyebrows were the color of brown, turning leaves.

Amal immediately recognized them. “Ahlan, ya Um Hussain!” She kissed the older woman on both cheeks. “How are you, Muna?” The daughter smiled, the apples of her cheeks rising.

“It’s her wrist,” the mother said, holding her daughter’s arm for them to see. The mother’s body was shaped like a ripened fig, narrow at the waist, her hips straining against her abaya. “It’s hard to get to the hospital, you understand.”

“Khair inshallah,” Amal said. “Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll speak with the doctor?”

Mother and daughter sat side by side, silently regarding Intisar. She brought over a clipboard.

“Your left wrist?”

The other patients didn’t disguise their curiosity and leaned in as Intisar wrote on her clipboard. The girl nodded.

“How did it happen?”

The girl answered in a soft voice, eyes darting around the room before settling on Intisar. “I fell.”

Intisar looked closely at her young face, freckles like tiny date palms. Beneath her black head scarf, Intisar imagined spirals of thick red hair.

“Can you show me how it happened?”

The girl glanced at her mother. The older woman said, “It was my fault, you understand. I asked her to bring down the laundry, and she tripped over a sack of clothespins.”

“You were on the roof?”

The girl nodded.

Intisar might have believed them if their faces hadn’t turned red. The daughter appeared nervous, and her mother clasped her left hand and patted it. “May our Lord reward her. She’s a helpful girl to me. I haven’t been well lately myself, you understand.”

In Cook County, Intisar had counseled American women, some whose faces had grown gaunt from opioids, sores on their foreheads and chins. Victims tended to offer her very little information, humiliated and scared, their cuts and bruises speaking for them, telling the stories of brutal attacks by men they typically knew. Then there were those women who’d been forthcoming with every detail. One named Amber had reported to Intisar that her boyfriend had shoved her head in a toilet. The motherfucker waterboarded me.

Intisar turned back to the mother. “Who lives in the house with you?”

It wasn’t precisely the next question on the form: How many people reside in the home?

Um Hussain said, “My sons and my youngest daughter.”

“How many sons?”

“Two.”

“Ages?”

“Twenty-one and twelve.”

The girl shifted her body and kept her eyes low. She permitted her mother to gesture with her hand, their fingers interlaced. It looked as though they were performing a strange kind of dabke dance in their chairs.

“If there’s a problem in the home—” Intisar said “mushkala,” stepping around the word “abuse,” which she couldn’t quite summon at the moment. She was learning how easy it was to be proficient in euphemisms in this country. “We’ll have to investigate.”

“I fell,” the girl quietly said again.

Amal gestured to the mother and daughter to follow her to the examining room.

 

***

On the veranda, Intisar and her friend lounged on a long, cushioned bench set back from pedestrians walking below them on the narrow road. They had the privacy to smoke and wear shorts. A bowl of shelled watermelon seeds had been lazily set beneath their feet.

It was still hot, hours after she’d left the clinic, but a constant breeze from the wadi reached her great-aunt’s two-story villa. She’d been staying with Amti Farha, an invitation that had shocked the rest of Intisar’s paternal family. The old hajja had a reputation for orneriness and a fierce independence. But she’d insisted that Intisar reside with her instead of in the dormitory in Ramallah, where young single working women found cheap housing. Many had managed to leave Gaza on a work permit and vowed never to return.

Amti Farha’s villa sat atop Jabal al-Taweel, across from another mountain range, where a settlement rose, surrounded by barbed wire and a watchtower. The old hajja cursed its dwellers every morning as if it were an addendum to her obligatory prayers. Intisar had never seen them, and there was no life stirring as far as she could tell, aside from the drone of generators and the barking of dogs. When she’d first moved to Palestine, it was an ominous sight to her, like a prison compound. She’d wondered if they were under surveillance.

“Of course we are,” Amti Farha had spat. “The bastards don’t want us out of their sight. There will be retribution, inshallah.”

The villa had been built by Farha’s husband four decades ago, on a few dunum of land he’d purchased from a family who’d fled after the ’67 war. She and her husband had stayed, while ugly tanks rolled through Ramallah and her village. Others had long been driven from the coasts of Haifa and Jaffa and later from Jerusalem, feeling to Lebanon and Jordan.

From the veranda, a spectacular view of the village had stunned Intisar the first morning of her arrival. She’d descended after sunset, and the valley had been mostly dark, except for the lighted homes scattered below her. The refugee camp was located to the west of Amti Farha’s home and temporarily hidden from this vantage point.

Intisar’s toes grazed Ummaya’s thigh as her friend puffed from a hookah. Amti Farha hated girls smoking. She was in the vineyard behind the villa selling her grapes; they were temporarily safe from her scolding eyes.

“Have you ever had to report abuse? To the police, I mean?” Intisar asked her friend.

“You need to know how to finesse them to really get anything done,” Ummaya said, passing her the tube. “A little flirting doesn’t hurt.”

Intisar nudged her thigh. “Stop it. I’m serious.”

“I am too.” She took another long drag and exhaled, a ribbon of smoke obscuring her face for a moment. “Be careful when you go to them. You don’t want to be on their shit list. They can help your cause or pull the rug from under you.”

Occasionally, an officer from the Palestinian Authority would show up with a reporter and take photographs outside the clinic, respecting the privacy of female patients inside. “Attempts to show progress,” a volunteer had once snickered. Sometimes they asked Dorit to pose with them, but she adamantly refused. The officer would then attempt to hide his embarrassment, unaccustomed to being denied.

Intisar’s friend Ummaya interned with an international organization that worked with victims of posttraumatic stress disorder in Gaza. These were mostly kids whose daily lives were rattled by artillery and bombings, buildings gutted in their neighborhoods. They couldn’t sleep or play normally, and some refused to go to school anymore, terrified they’d come home to a pile of rubble, their parents killed while they were away. One little girl had told Ummaya, “I want to be killed with my family. I don’t want to be left behind.” Funding had eventually run out for the program, though, and now her friend would be going back to the States to finish up research on her PhD. Intisar would miss her. She was the closest connection to America she had.

Ummaya tapped Intisar’s leg with her toe. “Why are you asking? Who’s in trouble?”

“It’s a teenage girl from the mokhayam,” Intisar said. “Her brother is beating her.”

“That’s fucked up.”

Intisar reached for the tube. “Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your time?”

“What do you mean?”

“Not wasting your time, but—I don’t know.” Intisar hesitated. “Not making progress, I guess.”

Ummaya shrugged. “It depends on how you define progress. Once you learn to lower expectations, you won’t be so disappointed.” Her friend took a drag and exhaled, the smoke hanging on the air, then disappearing without a trace.

 

***

Intisar found her great-aunt asleep under the fig tree; the late-afternoon azzan hadn’t stirred her. It was the only thing that still astounded Intisar every time the melancholic call to prayer echoed from the minaret. It felt almost anachronistic: a human voice booming from a period when muslimeen traveled the desert, searching for truth and humanity.

A little boy was waiting with an empty nylon bag, staring at Amti Farha. He looked afraid, not daring to wake up the old hajja. Intisar didn’t blame him. Even in her sleep, her great-aunt appeared formidable. She dozed with a meaty fist under her chin, her seventy-six-year-old body still upright like a sentinel nodding off for a moment. Her lips were set in a straight line, as though she were formulating a verbal lashing that would burn your ears for days. Her father’s aunt, a widow for twenty years now, was like a matriarch in a house empty of its descendants.

The small vineyard was a wonder to Intisar. She like to stroll through it, cigarette in hand, a canopy of leaves forming a reprieve from the heat. “Imagine the killing she’d make if folks drank around here,” Ummaya had once joked. At the end of the season, her great-aunt permitted the villagers to pluck piles of dawali to roll and stuff with rice and ground lamb.

Intisar leaned over the old woman. “Amti,” Intisar whispered in her ear. “Amti. You have a customer.”

“Aywa, aywa,” her aunt grumbled. “Who’s come?”

Intisar nudged the little boy forward.

“Hajja, my mother wants one kilo of the green,” he said, encouraged by Intisar’s smile. He held out his bag.

“All this way for a kilo?” Amti Farha muttered. She knew every child, woman, and man in the village and nearly everyone in the mokhayam. She straightened up, pulled a bunch of grapes from a crate beside her, and set them on an old-fashioned scale. She placed a one-kilo disc on one tray, added another smaller bunch until the scale evened out. The old woman’s keen eyesight amazed Intisar.

“How’s your mother? Has her foot healed?” Amti Farha asked the little boy.

He shook his head. “She can’t walk yet. Or cook for us.”

“Don’t despair. I doubt any of you will go hungry,” she said huffily, handing him the bag, now heavy with grapes. “I’ll send her a tray of fatayer tomorrow. I know she likes the spinach ones.”

Amti Farha was prickly on the outside and soft on the inside, like the cactus pear the old woman ate every morning with a slice of goat cheese. She sold her grapes at a price to cover the labor of the Bedouin family who helped her till and harvest the vineyard each fall. There was no profit. Her husband had left her with the land, and her sons in the States made sure her other expenses were handled. For years, they’d begged her to move in with them—they were Intisar’s second cousins in Louisiana and Georgia—but Amti Farha refused to leave Palestine. Her mother had once told Intisar the old folks were afraid of dying in another place, far from home.

“Try to convince her, ya Intisar,” her cousins implored her when they called to bid Intisar farewell and make sure she’d packed all the items for their mother that they’d shipped to her a month before her departure. A small suitcase of slippers and robes for the winter, denture glue, insulin monitors (accompanied by a notarized letter from a US pharmacist to avoid confiscation at Ben Gurion Airport), and ibuprofen. Amti Farha had sneered at the robes she believed had been the frivolous idea of a half-witted daughter-in-law.

“I plan on staying for a while,” she’d told her cousins.

“Yeah, right,” they’d quipped on the phone. “You won’t last, Intisar. You’ll see.”

The little boy grabbed the bag of grapes and scampered out of the vineyard.

“How about some shai, Amti?”

“In a little while,” the old hajja said, re-draping her headscarf. Strands of gray hair framed her wrinkled face. She withdrew a handkerchief from the breast pocket of her embroidered thobe and blew her nose. “I’ve missed asr prayer. How were things at the clinic today?”

“Busy.” Intisar sat on her haunches, passed her great-aunt a water bottle. “Amti, do you know the Hussain family?”

“The redheaded ones? The father used to help out my husband—Allah have mercy on his soul—in his furniture store in Ramallah. A shame what the Israelis did to him.”

Unlike most of the women in Intisar’s life, arabiyat who’d give you unsolicited advice in the same breath as the latest rumor, her great-aunt needed constant nudging. And if she were willing, she’d parcel out the information, not freeing it all at once. It was a quality Intisar had come to admire, a form of restraint she figured had formed with being alone for so many years.

“What happened to him?” she asked.

“Shot dead,” Amti Farha said impassively. “During a protest in Jerusalem.”

Intisar was silent. Her knee-jerk reactions of outrage had dissipated since her arrival, and she’d quickly learned to swallow her expressions of sadness, which were as useless as the husks of watermelon seeds she and her friend had tossed in a bowl.

 

***

On Fridays, the women’s clinic was closed. Intisar used those mornings for home visits with Amal. Some women in the mokhayam still refused to come for regular checkups.

They walked down a road strewn with discarded water bottles and plastic bags. Graffiti covered the dented and rusted doors: Freedom for Palestine. Oslo Failed Us. The stench of rotting vegetables prickled Intisar’s nostrils. Amal walked on, unperturbed.

At the first house, a ramshackle structure with a corrugated roof, the young woman held out her crying toddler to Intisar. “He’s been constipated for days.”

“Maskeen!” Amal cooed, patting his chubby cheek.

Intisar held the toddler on her hip and fished out a pamphlet on how to perform a breast self-exam. “Sister, you’ll need to take him to a pediatric doctor.”

Amal took the toddler from her. “I give my daughter a spoonful of honey.”

The young mother nodded, listening intently. Her child’s crying had turned into a low moan as Amal rocked him. Intisar stood by, the pamphlet in her hand.

At the next house, a middle-aged woman allowed Intisar to check her blood pressure. “It will be my heart that gives out, worrying over my son. The Israelis revoked his license to work in Al Quds. He’s been unemployed for a year. His spirit is low. Can you speak with him?”

Portraits of martyrs hung in the sitting rooms of the cinderblock homes, taking up most of the wall. Head shots of young men with serious faces, dark eyes shining, the black-and-white checkered keffiyeh draped around their slender shoulders. Intisar been told they took professional photographs in case they were killed or imprisoned. She found the women—their mothers and wives, sisters and daughters—still cheerful. The same hopeful gaze in their eyes as Amal’s, as constant as time passing. They listened politely as she went through the motions of an exam, lifting her arm and pressing two fingers in a circular motion over the fabric of her shirt to demonstrate.

They approached a structure like a shed. Inside, a mother and her six children lived. Cushions lined the floor, dingy pillows propped against the wall. In one corner, there were a portable stove and refrigerator. Scratched steel pots hung from the ceiling.

“How are you, Um Ribhi?”

“Elhamdullilah, Amal.”

“And how are the children?”

Intisar noticed a boy on the floor, drawing circles on an old newspaper with a broken red crayon. He hadn’t lifted his head to acknowledge them.

Amal stooped to his level. “How are you, habibi Emad?”

“He only permits me to touch him,” his mother was saying. “Screams when his brother Nasser tries to play with him.”

“How long has been like this?” Intisar asked. She thought of her friend Ummaya and the work she’d done with children just like Emad.

“His father—Allah have mercy on his soul—was killed a year ago. A sniper. Emad was with him. Saw his father choke on his own blood.”

Intisar kneeled down on the floor next to the little boy. “Hello, Emad. I’m Intisar. I’m a nurse. How are you today?”

He refused to look at her, started rocking back and forth, his crayon creating a deep ridge in the paper. The lump in her stomach rose up into her throat again.

“He’s stopped speaking and won’t let anyone near him. His brother Nasser can’t stand to see him this way. He’s acting out, giving me a hard time. The school threatened to kick him out. They say Nasser fights the boys in his class. Disrupts the teacher’s lessons.” Um Ribhi pulled a handkerchief from her breast pocket, sniffled into it. “What do they expect? He’s already lost a father and now his little brother. Allah, give me strength.”

“God bless you,” Amal said, patting the mother’s back. “Inshallah khair. And how are your daughters?”

“Iman wants to be a doctor,” the woman told Amal, perking up. “She says, ‘Yamma, one day I’ll cure Emad.’ She loves school. First in her class, mashallah.”

Intisar smiled at this.

“Habibti, mashallah!” Amal beamed. “She sounds like an ambitious one. And what do you want to be, ya Emad?” She leaned down toward the boy. He ignored her, pressed the crayon harder, the spirals no longer distinct, turning into a red mass.

Outside, Intisar lit a cigarette, took a few discreet puffs and snuffed it out.

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Amal smiled.

“How can she care for all of these kids?”

“Donations from the conservative groups, a little welfare from the sulta. They’re sometimes generous with the families of a shahid. May God protect and keep her children. They’re all she has, maskeena.”

By the noon prayer, they had covered half a dozen homes. At one shack, Amal prayed with a woman on a threadbare rug while Intisar sat with small children who’d gathered around her, covering their mouths and giggling. Intisar hugged them and handed out cherry-flavored suckers. Each woman absent-mindedly took a breast-exam brochure that Intisar held out and they waved it at her as they spoke hurriedly about backaches and canker sores. A few in the mokhayam refused to let them in, dismissing her and Amal through the heavy steel doors.

They walked slowly down an unpaved road, crunching pebbles. “Um Hussain lives in that bayt.”

A little girl with red curly hair sat on the doorstep, coloring on a drawing pad. She held a bundle of crayons in one hand, drawing with the other. Intisar remembered what Amti Farha had told her about Abu Hussain. Shot dead.

She tried not to think about Baba. She hadn’t lost to him to bullets or imprisonment. He had remarried. “There are worse things in this life,” her own mother had said, signing the divorce papers.

“Salam, habibti!” Amal called from the road.

The girl had the same spray of freckles as her mother and sister. She waved back at them. Behind her, a young man appeared in the steel doorway, the bars obscuring his face. He said something to the girl, and she quickly gathered her drawing pad and retreated inside.

“That’s Hussain,” Amal whispered. “The older son.”

He stood in the doorway as they passed, and Intisar could still feel his eyes on them as they continued down the road.

Outside the PA building, an old man was hocking his watch. “For a bite to eat,” he said to Intisar as she approached the steel entrance. The face of the watch he held out for her to examine was cracked, and the metal wristband had turned brassy green.

She dug inside her purse and handed him twenty shekels.

“Shookrun! Shookrun!” he waved.

Intisar climbed a short flight of stairs to the second floor and entered a suite filled with cigarette smoke and men in slacks and tie-less shirts. There were police officers who stopped their chatting to eye her up and down.

A receptionist in a black hijab asked Intisar to have a seat outside an office. She knocked on the closed door, poked her head in, then closed it again.

Ten minutes passed. Intisar said, “He knows I’m here?”

The receptionist’s eyes flitted from Intisar’s bare head to her designer purse—a gift her mother had insisted she take with her. “Yes. He knows.”

A police officer escorted a middle-aged man down a corridor. “If you can’t settle this privately, sir, you’ll have to take it up with the civil court.”

“I never promised her family that money! They stole it! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, ya zalama!”

At Cook County Hospital, Intisar had provided injury reports to the police. They’d usually showed up, a coffee in their hands, waiting for her to finish her examination. How many women had she seen in seven years? One to two per shift? Two thousand fifty-five women, give or take a hundred, on her off days? It seemed an absurd number. Their faces blurred now—a collage of bruised cheeks and blackened eyes. How much torn flesh had she tended, where their thighs had been clawed, handprints of the attackers left on their buttocks? And the sound of their voices. Soft, hoarse whispers; others loud and angry as they were made to sit in their soiled clothes while Intisar asked them preliminary questions. Then the examination and the whimpers of pain as she collected specimens of violation, assuring them she would try not to hurt them.

“Doesn’t it make you sad?” people asked her, their expressions really asking, “Doesn’t it disgust you?” Who would want to work such a job when there were other choices? “Have you considered pediatric care? I bet you’re great with kids.”

She’d believed in her challenging work, the reward being much greater than the easier jobs. Isn’t that why she’d come here?

The door to the office finally opened, and a man invited her in, gesturing to a single aluminum folding chair across from his desk. A fan whirred in the corner, but it did little to alleviate the heat. Intisar regretted the knit sweater she’d chosen to wear over a crisply ironed blouse. Her collar had started to wilt.

The office was small, and she could hear the muffled voices in the atrium and those coming through the adjacent walls. The despairing pleas of the old man outside floated through an open window facing the street.

“Ahlain. I am Chief Inspector Abdul Rasheed. How can I be of assistance, Miss?” His uniform lapel contained three service ribbons with stars. The golden eagle coat of arms was sewn on the opposite breast pocket. His top shirt button reached the bottom of his Adam’s apple. Behind him, a framed flag of Palestine hung with a plaque inscribed in Arabic: Atlanta, USA, Olympics 1996. She recognized it. It was the original flag carried by the first internationally recognized team at the opening ceremony. Intisar had been seven years old at the time, sandwiched between Mama and Baba on the couch, watching the grand entrance of each team. Her parents had never paid attention to the games before then or ever since. It had felt monumental to her, a young girl, Baba squeezing her hand and telling her, “This is history.” Only eight days later, a white man would plant a forty-pound bomb of nails and screws in Centennial Olympic Park, claiming a life and injuring over a hundred others.

Intisar smiled at the chief inspector. Her purse was propped on her lap, heeding her mother’s warning that it was bad luck to set it on the floor. She’d humored so many of her mother’s superstitions without thought. She could see the chief inspector studying it, and her face flushed. She quickly said, “I am Intisar Hassan. I work at the women’s clinic in Al Omari camp.” Not a flicker of acknowledgement across his face. She wondered if she should mention her great-aunt’s name. He kept his gaze steady on her face. Intisar continued, “I am concerned about a young girl who might be physically abused by her brother.”

“Do you have evidence?” The chief inspector lightly tapped his fingers on the edge of the desk. She noticed there were no papers or files spread across its gleaming surface.

“She came to the clinic with a sprained wrist.”

Someone laughed in the adjoining office.  The chief inspector nodded and leaned back in his chair. The black eye of the eagle insignia on his breast appeared to blink at her. Her eyes traveled up to his face. There was a pockmark above his left eyebrow and a tiny cut beneath one nostril of his slightly crooked nose—from shaving, she suspected. “Did she disclose to you that it was the result of a beating?”

“No,” she said. “But she appeared frightened, and her mother made excuses.”

He nodded again. “So there was no clear admission of abuse?”

Sweat pooled in her armpits and trickled down the middle of her back into the seat of her khaki trousers. She thought of all the rape kits she’d administered, DNA she’d swabbed from the victims’ mouths. “Was it my fault?” some women had asked her. After all, they’d accepted a drink or let the man into their home. Others had never met their attacker before the incident, a stranger who’d forevermore stolen their privacy.

“No. There was no admission,” she told the chief inspector, shifting on the folding chair. “I’m convinced she’s vulnerable.” She had an opportunity to intervene before this innocent girl could suffer any more. It was too late for her other victims; she’d merely collected and cleaned off the criminal mess wreaked upon their bodies. She was a recorder of their battered limbs and broken spirits. But here she could speak up and circumvent the damage. Or at least prevent it from getting worse.

The chief inspector stood and turned the fan up a notch. His back to her, he said something she couldn’t hear above the increased whirring.

She leaned forward. “Pardon?”

He turned around. “We can conduct an unofficial visit.” He walked toward the door. “If there’s nothing else,” he said.

“You don’t want to be on their shit list,” Ummaya had warned Intisar. The chief inspector looked keenly at her as though reading her thoughts. She stood up. “Thank you for your time.”

When she reached the door, he said, “Sayida Intisar, may I offer you a word of advice?” For the first time, he switched to English, his accent like a British professor’s. The fan whirred behind him. “Beware of your boundaries.”

“Pardon me?”

“I do not doubt the work you are doing at the clinic has been invaluable to the community. You do not want to jeopardize your reputation. Sometimes these folks lack education and a certain—what do you call it?—sophistication to adequately appreciate the intrusion of strangers into their private affairs.”

Heat rose from her collar. “Is trying to protect someone a private affair?”

“Of course not, Sayida Intisar.” He opened the door. “It is a pleasure to meet you. Keep up the good work in the mokhayam.”

In the atrium, the same men were still bantering and smoking. The receptionist gave Intisar a nod, and she headed to the stairwell.

Outside, the old man had moved on. A taxicab honked at her, and she waved him away. The sun hung high overhead. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and slowly walked home.

 

***

The electricity went out in the middle of night. She’d awakened at the abrupt cessation of her fan and couldn’t get back to sleep. Careful not to wake Amti Farha, Intisar grabbed her cigarettes and sat on the veranda. Though it was dark and most of the village was asleep, the absence of electricity allowed every other sound to emerge. She heard a breeze through the trees before it rushed her skin. A mosquito buzzed near her ear, and she swatted. Across the valley, she saw lights dotting the top of a mountain—the settlers were unaffected by the outage.

The stars hung closer here, not like the two-dimensional backdrop in Illinois. “Light pollution,” her science teacher had told them in school. She remembered being a child on a field trip to the Adler Planetarium and sinking back in her chair as the domed ceiling transformed into a spectacular universe. To be looking at it while actually living and moving inside it boggled her young mind. She wondered if aliens were just as awestruck. From the veranda, she could make out Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. Intisar gazed at them: a milky cluster that flattened like a heart. She remembered thinking that even the stars were luckier than she, who’d grown up an only child.

Her parents doted on her to a fault; friends had teased her, calling her spoiled, though she’d had no idea what it was like to demand and not receive something. It had propelled her belief that she could do anything, change anything. The reason she came here.

 

***

At sunrise, she unlocked the caged door of the generator and started it up. The whirring sound disrupted the quiet hum of early morning. Inside the clinic, Intisar turned on the large oscillating fan. She opened her laptop, checked her e-mail. There was another message from UIC Hospital: Do you expect a long tenure overseas? The job was still hers. Their offer would expire in six months. How did they imagine “overseas” to be? They were careful not to say Palestine or the West Bank, as if she were on some secret mission.

Intisar was filing charts when the buzzer sounded. In the security camera, she could see an older girl, her hijab-swaddled head looking down at her feet. She buzzed her in. Behind her a young man suddenly appeared and entered too.

Intisar stood up. It was Muna, the girl with the sprained wrist. “Good morning,” Intisar said, her chest tightening. It had been a week since she’d gone to the police.

“Salaam,” Muna replied, nodding at her brother. “This is my brother, Hussain.” Her arm was still in a sling, though it would have likely healed by now.

Her brother glanced around the clinic, then stood in front of her desk. His hair was reddish-brown and wavy—the same color and texture she’d imagined the girl’s hair to be. His boyish looks might have been disarming if not for the dangerous glint in his eyes. “Stay out of our business.”

Intisar held a pen, clutched it tightly. “Excuse me, I don’t know—”

He gripped the edge of her desk and stabbed a pile of medical charts with a finger. “Why don’t you go after the Israelis?”

Intisar tried to keep her voice steady. What if he lunged at her? She straightened up, held a solid stance, the pen still in her hand. “You’re beating your sister.” She hoped he didn’t hear the loud thumping of her heart.

He clasped his hands into a ball and shook it at her like someone pleading for understanding. “You think you know anything about me? Or my family? You come from America, and you don’t have a clue.”

“Hussain, please—” Muna said, holding one hand up like a meager offering, but she didn’t dare touch her brother. Her white-swaddled head and an arm in a sling gave her an air of defenselessness, like a bird with a broken wing.

“Shut up!” he hissed at his sister.

“I won’t be silent,” Intisar said, “when I witness violence against women.” Had she uttered the correct word? Was it “ashad”? Or had she said “shahid”like martyr.

“And what about violence against men?” he spat back. “Young falasteeniyah?” He laid his hands again on the edge of her desk. She could see his fingernails bitten down to the quick. “Ha? How about the boys and men shot dead every day? Or hundreds tossed in prison? Can you save any of them?”

Intisar’s face flushed. “That doesn’t justify what you’re doing. How does that solve political issues?”

“‘Political issues’?” He snorted, took a step toward her. She gripped the pen more tightly but didn’t move. “This is our life,” he said bitterly. “Not a political issue. But you wouldn’t understand that. You haven’t lived like a rat stuck inside a wall, scratching away.”

“When I observe a vulnerable—”

“I am vulnerable too!” he swiftly interrupted. He had begun to shout. “Can you not protect me? You sic those police dogs on me, and you have no idea what’s it’s like for our family.” He pointed a finger at her. “I’m warning you. Keep away from my sister. Keep away from us. Or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” He grabbed Muna’s arm and pulled her through the door, slamming it behind him.

Intisar stood there for a long time, her jaw clenched in fear, hands shaking. She sank back down in her chair, tried to file away the charts, but her fingers trembled so badly she had to sit on them for a few moments. She breathed deeply, exhaled. At Cook County Hospital, she’d never seen any of the attackers of the women whose bodies she salved and wiped down—just the evidence of their violence, their rage. She suddenly felt unsafe and began sobbing into the crook of her arm, muffling the sound.

An hour later, women gathered again outside the clinic and Intisar let them in, grateful for the distraction. She had somewhat recovered by the third patient, mechanically checking blood pressure and gauging temperature. The fear seeped out of her, leaving behind a heavy dread. She forced herself to stay in motion, to fight against the weight in her stomach. She waited until Amal took her break and sank in a chair across from Dorit.

“Muna’s brother came to see me.”

Dorit’s eyes shot up from her paperwork. “The freckled girl? What did he want?”

“He threatened me.”

“Intisar! I knew it. You seemed”—Dorit rolled her eyes, searching for the word—“off. You were off this morning.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

“You need to report it.”

“I did already, remember?” Intisar gave a bitter laugh. “That’s why he paid me a visit.”

Dorit shook her head, came around her desk and gently clamped Intisar’s shoulders. “You need to document it. This is a separate matter.”

“Not really. I mean, it’s because he beats his sister that I went to the police in the first place. And I made it worse.”

Dorit was quiet for a moment, her hands still on her shoulders. Intisar cupped the doctor’s elbows. “I’m not afraid.”

Dorit released her and smiled. “You must brace yourself, Intisar. Sometimes these people don’t always understand that we have their best interests at heart.”

Intisar nodded and gathered a chart from Dorit’s desk. Patients were waiting, and she registered the new ones, her clipboard in her hand. She bent down to speak to a young mother nursing a large baby, the fabric of her hijab draped over its suckling face. The woman whispered into Intisar’s ear.

“We don’t do that here,” Intisar told the woman, straightening up. And she moved to the next patient, trying hard to keep her pen from shaking.

 

***

Sahar Mustafah is a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, a complex inheritance she explores in her work. Her prizewinning short-story collection Code of the West (2017) is followed by her first novel The Beauty of Your Face (2020). She writes and teaches outside Chicago.

An Interview with Sahar Mustafah

Sahar Mustafah is the talented author of our featured fiction, “Triumph,” which first appeared in the summer 2020 issue (43.2) of the Missouri Review. Recently, TMR staff member Vivian Herzog spoke with Sahar about the occupation of Palestine, global feminism, and what it means to belong to a place. You can read her story here.

 

Vivian Herzog: As the American daughter of Palestinian immigrants, how do your own lived experiences inform the character of Intisar?

Sahar Mustafa: I very much see Intisar as embodying young people like my own daughters, who are third-generation Palestinian. They’ve largely enjoyed greater diversity and reclamation of their identities to an extent that I hadn’t growing up in America. Their generation is more optimistic and inclusive as opposed to assimilationist, as my experiences had been. However, there’s a danger in that kind of optimism—as we see in the character of Intisar—when you’re so far detached from the experiences of political occupation and trauma.

VH: Your story subtly discusses issues of abortion, domestic violence, and gendered power dynamics. How do these topics—and the way they’re portrayed in your story—speak to the current state of feminism in Palestine?

SM: I think we’re seeing a powerful surge of intersectional, global feminism and protection of women’s bodies. This story was inspired by a friend who works with a protective agency and has had to combat the patriarchal and cultural attitudes of silence. I hope this story might speak to the idea that women form the collective foundation of any country and it’s important to defend, uplift, and support Palestinian women from both domestic violence and the effects of the Israeli occupation—forces that seek to oppress or completely destroy them.

VH: The piece is written with such lush and precise sensory details. How did you conduct research so as to capture the specific character of the setting?

SM: Thank you for saying so! I’m fortunate to have lived in Palestine and to continue to travel there. Much of those direct experiences contribute to world-building that I hope feels authentic. My family still owns a small villa just a kilometer or so outside of a mokhayam, the Al Om’aari refugee camp.

VH: It seems to me there’s an element of challenge Intisar is chasing, or maybe that she has something to prove. Her cousins tell her she “won’t last” long in Palestine, which she refutes. What does this reveal about Intisar as a character or about her relationship to Palestine?

SM: Yes. I think it’s connected to a few things. One is the turbulent relationship with her father, away from whom a reader might sense she’s running in rebellion. Another dynamic is the American-bred sense of invincibility, which leads Intisar to feel equipped and qualified to succeed no matter where she lands. She’s got this “seen-it-all” experience of working as a sexual assault examiner in the States. Finally, and most interesting to me, is that Palestine represents a place she might find some sense of belonging and purpose in this life that she hasn’t quite achieved. This makes for a noble quest, but one that we discover is unattainable in Palestine. She’s fully immersed in her ancestral culture and wants to reclaim it, but she hasn’t rightfully earned it.

VH: Why did you choose to center the story around life at a women’s clinic?

SM: It allowed me to home in on a complex and nuanced population of Palestinian women as well as interlopers, so speak, like the Norwegian doctor. I could explore the salient similarities, as well as—and more intriguing—their resounding differences, stemming from race, culture, class, education, etc.

VH: Amti Farha’s villa is near to the refugee camp, but you explicitly write that the camp is hidden from the villa’s view. What does this detail say about the nature of life in occupied Palestine?

SM: As I shared earlier, my family and I were very close in proximity to the refugee camp, but it was essentially out of sight. I find this intriguing as an American citizen who gets to come and go, relatively unfettered. I was born to immigrants and have never had the experience of even temporary homelessness. It demonstrates the clashing existence of class and wealth among native Palestinians who escaped the squalor of poverty and displacement after 1948 and 1967, as well as the return of expats. In the end, I’ve come to appreciate that it’s really only a sliver of fate between me and my counterparts in the refugee camps.

VH: Most interactions in the story take place between women. Obviously, scenes of interaction between men and women occur, but they are briefer and more charged. In other words, these interactions seem to lack the warmth that defines the relationships between the women in your story. Were you conscious of this when writing the story? What does this say about gendered interactions in Palestine today?

SM: I wouldn’t characterize it as a lack of warmth in those interactions, as much as my desire to focus on the community of women for storytelling. I’ve always been moved by the compelling bonds between women, as a woman shaped by such bonds. Palestinian women possess a resilience and grace that transcends hardship and propels them to live and love their families—not merely survive.

VH: How does the historical plight and identity of Palestine guide your writing?

SM: I’ve only written about native and immigrant Palestinians in my fiction. Being Palestinian is an incredibly charged and fraught identity that also informs other identities I carry: American, Muslim, woman, mother, writer, teacher. There’s a perpetual yearning for home in the diaspora and for an end to the Occupation in Palestine to which I’m drawn, as well as how generational trauma and collective memory manifest in future generations.

As a writer, I’m quite conscious of the privilege I possess in being able to write in a space free from the shackles of the Israeli occupation. I also pay attention to what I’m creating as art, dispelling commonly reductive narratives around Palestinians. For me, fiction provides a space to explore identity and belonging without having to worry about finding the answers. I hope we get closer to those answers about our humanity every time we engage in a story.

 ***

 

Vivian Herzog is an intern at the Missouri Review.  She is a senior at the University of Missouri, where she is studying magazine editing and creative nonfiction writing.