I went to visit Abu Mohammad whose two sons, Khaleel and Murad, were kidnapped one after the other, in the span of a few nights. At Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate I boarded a service van going to Ramallah and stopping at the Qalandiya refugee camp.
First the van crosses Qalandiya Checkpoint which is where I met his brother years ago, and through whom I made his acquaintance. This checkpoint – a place and a symbol, both a concrete and symbolic line, a line of destiny that separates me, a non-Palestinian, from all my friends and acquaintances at Qalandiya refugee camp who, unlike me, are not able to cross it. This is a line that separates them from their own history, from their better hospitals, from their city Jerusalem – the violent, racist, arbitrary line that defines all the more the injustice that has been inherent to this country, ever since and to this day.
Abu Mohammad lives in a part of the Qalandiya refugee camp where I’ve only been a few times, and I was not sure I would find my way on my own, so he waited for me at the entrance to the camp.
On the walls hang photos of the martyred – shaheeds : children, adolescents and young men who have been murdered by the various Israeli occupation forces time and again over the years. Some have thrown stones, some have merely looked through the window to see what was going on outside, some on their way to work or the mosque.
Here is 12-year old Ahmad Abu Lateefa who, running away from the soldiers, climbed over a fence and was shot in the back. Next to him is 14-year old Omar Matar who was shot in the neck in front of my very eyes… Not far away are Mu’atassem and Abu Ali, both in their twenties, shot in the first night of Ramadan three years ago, and here are the brothers of Tamer Kusba who were murdered within forty days of each other, 10-year old Yasser, 15-year old Samer… and all the others.
On our way we entered the home of F. and A. F. is Abu Mohammad’s sister-in-law.
It was the middle of the night, when the familiar sound of a broken-in door was heard. Immediately soldiers of the occupation army, along with their dogs, broke into F.’s house in order to arrest her young son, J., 20-years old. F. Was asleep in her bed when it happened. She told me how she awoke from the noise seconds before she was horrified to feel a large unmuzzled dog over her. It ripped her shirt sleeve, bit and scratched her in the neck and arm and she screamed. A young occupation soldier entered immediately, pointing his rifle at her. She hurried to cover her head with a scarf and shut her eyes. The soldier called the dog who responded and they both left the room.
Within minutes J., her son, was found, dragged out of his bed with yells in Hebrew that she did not understand, and in Arabic. “Undress and come out naked” they yelled at him in Arabic. And he replied, “You’ll have to kill me first” and they laughed. They laughed and laughed, the parents told me. But they gave up, A. added. They only shackled him with plastic restraints, the father continued, blindfolded him and took him to the door. Afterwards, they went through all the rooms in the house, throwing glassware on the floor, breaking into smithereens, and only then the soldiers left with their son.
It’s the younger son, F. added. The small one, who just got out of jail. He’d been in jail for three years and only just got out.
For a moment we were silent. All the while Abu Mohammad sat there, his head down.
Come see his photograph, F. said all of a sudden. It was standing on the small chest next to her. I said “Sure, yes. Thank you.”
She showed me the photo. So young, I thought. Almost a child.
His eyes, have you noticed his eyes? she said… and began to cry. After a while she collected herself and put the photo back in its place.
He was picked up and they did not have a chance to say goodbye. To speak. His parents added, and said in a hushed voice: only from outside could they still hear the soldiers laughing.
Why are you laughing at them? asked H. This is my nephew! A. explained. Why?… Then the soldiers hit him with a rifle butt and he fell down. And only then they left.
More than everything else, F. recalls the dog standing over her, and the soldiers laughing.
Abu Mohammad hints that we should leave, perhaps he could tell this was getting too much for them, perhaps he wanted me to visit his family already. But I found it hard to get up and leave. These two no-longer-young people looked so stricken and lost, and especially so alone. It seemed to me they didn’t want me to leave. The mother gripped my hand, as if seeking something more to grip my attention, and I thought that perhaps it is because I come from a different place, and especially because I am outside this destiny that is not only their own private one, that nothing of all these routine horrors out there in the camp actually threatens my own life. Especially because of this, it was as though for a moment I had brought him, their son, all the more to center stage.
We took our leave and emerged again into the camp’s alleys, climbing towards Abu Mohammad’s home. In fact we could already see it not too far ahead.
Let’s go in here for a moment, Abu Mohammad suddenly said, and stopped. Come… this is S., they took him the night they took my son Khaleel. It’s his buddy.
Abu Mohammad made the introductions: S.’s mother, her sister, and her two teenage children – son and daughter. I sat down. The girl went off to bring refreshments and the boy sat down next to me and immediately began to tell me, his child’s eyes shining bright, how earlier the soldiers were throwing small, strange rockets that broke everything made of glass. It’s a new weapon, he explained, and even showed me two things made of iron the likes of which I’ve never seen before (not that this proves anything in my case…). He also reminded me, with a both touching and tragic child’s pride, how at the age of less than fifteen, he was accused to burning a mountain. More precisely, the stolen slopes of Kochav Ya’acov, a Jewish settlement close to this neighborhood. The child back then had told the occupation forces that he did not start the fire, and that the mountain didn’t really burn, but this made no difference and he did several months’ time in jail.
Naturally I remembered this, and he was glad that I knew his story.
What happened there was similar to what happens in all these homes. They have special machines to break down the door, the boy told me. Which I also knew. And then dogs and soldiers burst in, and found my brother, S. and dragged him out of bed and took him away.
In the meantime, the girl, too, sat down beside me and showed me photographs of her brother, who looked so young, not much older than they were. And we spoke some more. Especially the boy and the girl and I. And we asked each other to be friends on Facebook. And I drank some, and everything was so strange. The small rockets on a plate. And the burnt, broken-down door leaning against the wall. And the wide-open doorway with a temporary curtain. And the son, taken away, gone, and that all this was real.
And then at some point the aunt said to me: you know, after what we saw happening in Gaza, after the massacre there, the bombed buildings burying people alive, we can’t compare our lot… and are consoled… (she said this to me in English, luckily, for I would not have gotten all of this with my broken Arabic), nothing here is as horrifying as it was there, that we are all alive. The boy they arrested, he’s alive. Not dead. Just the fear. The fear… they have poured fear over us, she added.
She pointed gently towards her sister, the boy’s mother, who hardly said a word. And all the while she just held on with near-supernatural force to a small child, perhaps 3-years old, her younger son, who sat totally huddled into her, as if wishing to disappear inside her, and she inside him.
I took my leave of them, too, feeling I was walking in an inconceivable world, wondering how I would tell all of this, how… How could I write this beside everything else that I tell, how this is the routine turn of events out there in Qalandiya, as regular as the ticking of a clock.
Arriving at Abu Mohammad’s home, I was astonished to notice the change in his wife. I believe I hadn’t seen her for about two years. The last time we met, I think, was at the wedding of Abu Mohammad’s nephew. I wouldn’t have recognized her now.
Her body was totally crumped, from a well-rounded woman she had turned into a skeletal one, her face pale, almost ashen. She sat cramped on the sofa and for the whole time I was there, which was about two hours, she never stopped trembling.
Abu Mohammad told me this change took place from one moment to the next right after their two sons were arrested, just days ago.
There was a moment in which I simply took her to me and she remained, without any will of her own.
His daughter who also sat with us kept breaking down and crying every once in a while, although she smiled too, and recalled when we had met, and asked – a bit disappointed – what about Tamar, for they had expected her to come with me. And I forgot to tell them that she would not be able to join me, and the daughter remembered the last time we met and danced, probably at some wedding. And she brought out refreshments and more soft drinks. And she cried, and smiled, and spoke. And it was strange, beside all the rest.
They have an image in their minds of this situation with the soldiers, Abu Mohammad explained to me – the violence, the dogs. They have been sleeping with the light on ever since. But they cannot sleep. Neither can I, he added, I can hardly sleep.
What happened, he said, is that he awoke a moment before the soldiers broke in, for he heard them when they were still outside. And then he heard the building door exploding and immediately ran to the apartment door, so they wouldn’t blast it as well.
The soldiers were already near the door, they charged inside with masks on their faces and pointed guns and a large muzzled dog who immediately leapt at him and he froze. Some soldiers gripped him and began to yell at him: give us your knife! Your knife! And he said, I’m an old man, what knife? I can’t even slaughter a chicken… Right away they pushed him away and he tripped and fell and the dog stood over him, drooling, black and huge. That’s how he remembered it.
The soldiers, who didn’t search him for any knife, just said it for the sake of saying it. And they keep blinding you with projectors so you can’t see a thing, not even their faces.
During that time he heard his wife opening the bedroom door and coming out, and immediately the soldiers pushed her back in and closed the door. She was crying and yelling, he tells me, and so was I. But the dog was sitting over me and I didn’t move, just shouted a little. And some time passed, not much. Again she came out, fearing for her son. She’s a mother, she can’t help it. What can she do? So the soldiers pushed her to the ground too, their guns pointed at her, and she fell and a dog was placed to guard her as well.
We’re old, he said. This is how you treat old people?
He continued, painfully telling me how they were both seated on the ground, side by side, and over each of them stood a huge black dog, with its terrible stench, drooling over them and the floor.
They knew where they had come, Abu Mohammad added. There was an incriminator standing by the door, a fellow who had come with the soldiers. It’s a collaborator, with a hood over his head, but he is also unfortunate. Who knows how much they had beaten him for him to tell them what they wanted to know… Perhaps they gave him money.
With them, a person will say anything he’s told to say.
So he told them who’s Khaleel and they took him, my son. And I said, let him take some shoes with him, so they did. And then they took him and stood at the door. He and the soldiers. Lots of soldiers. And then, I don’t know how many of them walked around the house and threw stuff on the floor and broke kitchen things. Just so… In all the rooms.
Why break things? I asked them. I said this to their officer too.
Just so, they said. Because we’ve come to break and ruin. This is what the officer said. And they laughed at me. They laughed.
To laugh at such a thing?! he added. Even if that’s what they are supposed to do?
You know, it didn’t use to be that way. See, in 2007, the first time they came to pick up Murad, I told the officer I wanted to see what he did. So he said sure. He turned things over and searched, and they did throw stuff around a bit, but not like this. With their feet. Dishes and glasses.
You buy stuff for years, and collect things, and these guys come in and break it all to smithereens.
For hours I helped my wife and daughter clean up after them. Where would you hear of such a thing? In what country would you see this? If they want to pick up someone, let them say it. He’ll show up. Why like this? Why in front of my wife, and daughter? And the door. Such a door costs 3000 NIS. What shall we do now?
Meanwhile Mohammad has arrived, their eldest, and sat down with us. Some time passed. We spoke of other things, and of the question whether there is any professional psychological help in the camp for obviously it is needed as well – and then I dared ask about Murad’s arrest. For everything Abu Mohammad had described was of the night they came to pick up Khaleel, his younger son whom they took first. Only day before yesterday they picked up Murad as well, the middle son. And in fact I didn’t know what happened then.
I also tried to recall when was the last time I had seen Murad. I am almost certain it was at his own wedding, which was a bit after he had been released from jail. And I remembered how happy he looked then. And since then he’s had two little children whom I have not yet seen. A 4-year old and a 2-year old, I think.
Abu Mohammad wordlessly pointed to Mohammad. Let him tell. And Mohammad told that he was also at home on the night that the soldier came for Murad.
They were such garbage soldiers, he added. They cursed, bitch, son of a bitch, stuff like that…
Obviously Mohammad was having a hard time repeating those words.
I told them in Arabic not to curse, for the guy spoke good Arabic. One of them. Maybe he was an Arab. A Druze. But after I told them not to swear, they hit me with that plastic shield they have which they use to protect themselves from stones and from their own teargas. They hit me in the back and in the head, and also with their rifles.
He went to the hospital that night, he added. Right after they left the camp. And had his back and head X-rayed. But nothing dangerous happened, he assured me, seeing my worried face. Now everything’s fine.
In the meantime Murad’s wife entered the room, too, and sat down, Murad’s two children in her arms. She told us that one of them has anxious reactions and will not move away from her for a second since then. And the second child is angry. All the time. It’s hard, so hard, she said… And she’s so young.
You know, son Mohammad continued, they also ordered Murad to strip naked. Are these even humans?
My brother Murad told them, well, shoot me. I’m not stripping. But they did nothing. Only laughed at him.
Abu Mohammad’s wife sat the whole time tucked in and between my hands, her gaze folded inward. Not seeing a thing. Not hearing. Only listening, so it seemed, to something deep inside her. Trembling unceasingly. Again and again murmuring a single phrase. Two sons. Two sons. Again and again like a prayer. Like a lament.
She’s diabetic. Her blood sugar has gone way up. Totally, Abu Mohammad added. Giving her a pitying look. I didn’t know what to say, only tightened my hold of her although I’m not sure she felt it or knew who I was, or what was even going on around her.
Finally I left. I took my leave, thanked them for their hospitality, the coffee and tea and juice and cookies, and especially their company, their invitation, and for handing me their story.
Looking back, although the house was already straightened out after those terrible nights, everything that had been broken was thrown away, and what was smashed down had been re-gathered and replaced, the absence of the broken things was present in the empty, outspoken spaces where they had formerly stood and were now empty. But more than the present absence of objects, what was present and endlessly visible was the pealed soul of the family. With its terrible grief and insult.
The total sum of things that had overflowed its parts.
But the worst, the most difficult of all, was undoubtedly the voice of that mother, again and again and all day.
Two sons, two sons. Murmuring and trembling, restless, cureless.
Even as I climbed down the stairs to the alley I still heard her murmuring, two sons… Her ashen murmur.
I stood in line at Qalandiya Checkpoint on my way back home to Jerusalem. There were not many people standing in line with me. But time lapsed as it always does. We stood there for at least half an hour and the electric barrier did not blink its light that would signal us to proceed. That whole time we could see the soldiers’ faces through their well-lit glass panes. Giggling, laughing about their business. Indifferent. Cruel. Or something in between.
Time passed and the line grew longer and longer. But no one raised their voices. Nor shouted. Not protested to the soldiers. Did not demand a thing.
They were all Palestinians from Jerusalem, I am rather certain. Otherwise their passage would be very unlikely, especially at such an evening hour without the few who still get issued a work or healthcare permit. Or other marks such as glasses and smartphones.
But they did not protest either. They did not claim their right. Their time.
For well they know that their relative rights are fragile, conditioned and not obvious.
They know that only one thing determines the way the soldiers treat them, sets the soldiers’ violence and cruelty in place – the fact that they are Palestinian.
This is their name. And this is their destiny.
Only one man, obviously a disturbed mind, loudly said things against the situation, the State, the occupation and the waiting line. But even he did not dare to address the soldiers. Only the heavens and the universe. Who kept still. Aya Kaniuk, April 2015. Translated by Tal Haran