By Lama Z. Khouri
My mother is finally mustering the strength to tell me about the day she left the home of her birth.
“I am 12 years old. Nadia [her sister], our neighbor Lily, and I are playing hopscotch in front of the house. Your grandfather and grandmother are going in and out loading the car and getting ready to head to Amman. Our dog is strangely excited or agitated, I’m not sure which. Every time a suitcase is loaded in the car, she barks at the bag and her whole body shakes, as if the bag is a collaborator in some conspiracy. Maybe she knows what we do not anticipate.”
“My brothers are playing marbles. At 15 and 17, they aren’t getting into mischief, as they used to do. My father is roaming around, seemingly busy, but doing nothing. He seems to be all in a spin. My sister, Hala, is with my mother. She is barely two and not allowed to play outside.”
“Are you sad to be leaving?” I ask.
“No!” she says emphatically. “I am relieved. Zionist gangs are terrorizing the Arabs. They are laying mines in markets and in the backyards of houses. My mother spends the night on the roof of our house to make sure no mines are laid in ours. Going to school is dangerous – we could be caught in the
crossfire. When the sun sets, we run back home and pray to be alive the next day.”
“Why are you leaving?”
“The Zionists have bombed King David Hotel, which was owned by the British, as if to say: ‘even the British won’t stop us.’ The last straw was when we got news about a massacre in Deir Yassin — hundreds of Palestinians murdered, and in the most atrocious ways. We were told that the bellies of pregnant women were slit open. Yesterday morning, British soldiers knocked on our door and told us to leave for two weeks. The situation is becoming increasingly dangerous. They said we can come back in a week or two when the danger has subsided.”
She stops talking, lost in thought for a moment, then goes on.
“I think my mother knows that it will be longer than that because she has packed winter clothes. My father asks her: ‘why winter clothes, when we will be back in two weeks?’ She doesn’t respond. My uncle, aunt, and their daughter left to go to Amman a couple of months ago to seek safety. I sing to myself: ‘Ami bi Amman, ou kullo aman’ [my uncle is in Amman where it is all safe]. But, when we get to Amman, we receive news that the Zionists have invaded West Jerusalem and taken it over. We are told that we cannot go back to the house, because it is occupied by someone else. When we return a year later, we have to live in a one-bedroom apartment in East Jerusalem and barely scrape by. My two sisters and I sleep in my parents’ room and my two brothers in the living room.”
My mind stays with the dog, as if it is too painful to think about the betrayal which the Palestinians would have had to contend. I have heard about her before. My aunt Nadia loved her. Nadia hated meat and would sneak her lunch to the dog.
“What happened to the dog?”
After a moment of silence, my mother continues, but as if she hasn’t heard my question.
“My mother looks sad and sullen. I feel the heaviness in my parents’ hearts but I don’t particularly care to know why. Two weeks earlier a stray bullet entered the house and missed my head by this much.”
She makes a space of about an inch with her fingers.
“What happened to the dog?” I ask again.
“Nadia is crying,” she responds. “She wants the dog to come with us. When we finally are seated in the car and close the doors, the dog stops barking, lays her head between her paws and begins to whimper, as if she knows she won’t see us again. As we pull away, she runs after us until she can’t catch up.”
“Why don’t you take the dog with you?”
“I think because there is no space. And my mother says the dog needs to stay to guard the house.”
“But how will the dog survive if there is no one left behind to care for her?”
My mother has a dissociated look on her face, as if she doesn’t understand or something is amiss. She repeats:
“The dog has to stay to guard the house. My mother has placed the sewing machine behind the entrance door, with a mortar and hammer on top. She thinks if someone tries to enter, the hammer will fall, and they’ll get scared, thinking the house is occupied.”
For days following this conversation with my mother, I think about the dog, my heart heavy. Why was she barking? What might she have known that they didn’t know? Could she have known what was coming, the betrayal and deception? How did she fend for herself when they left? What happened to her? In dark moments, I imagine her roaming the streets emaciated looking for food. It is easier to feel sad for the dog than for the Palestinian people, homeless and destitute. I wonder how the dog felt when strangers entered the house. In my daydreams, I wish that there had been another 12-year-old girl, who might have fallen in love with the dog and protected her. Perhaps this girl wouldn’t have liked meat either and would have also sneaked it to the dog. Most likely, the dog, who was supposed to guard the house, barked and growled at the intruders. My worst thought is that they shot her dead.
I always found it peculiar that my mother could not recall the dog’s name. Perhaps the trauma is too great to remember it. I fantasize her name was Lady, perhaps because of the Disney movie The Lady and the Tramp. Was this Palestinian Lady forced to become a Tramp?
“What did you take with you when you left?”
A moment of silence. “The Christmas decorations,” she mumbles.
“All of them?” I ask with astonishment.
She goes quiet and looks lost in thought, staring at the Turkish coffee cup next to her.
She forces the words out, as if barely able to breathe.
“The North Star.”
Lama Khouri is a Palestinian psychotherapist, who was raised in Jordan and now resides in New York. She is the Executive Director and founder of Circle OASIS, which is a not-for-profit serving Arab immigrant and refugee school-aged children and their families. Lama comes to the field of mental health following a 14-year career at the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, where she was a Political Affairs Officer.