Irhab

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is a true story about an Arab israeli woman called Irhab (terror in English) and describes the dilemma that Israeli Arabs are under

Submitted: April 16, 2014

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Submitted: April 16, 2014

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Irhab

Every year, just before the beginning of the summer vacation, my wife and I begin our holiday hunt of the season. We wrap our two children into our compact German Sedan and set off touring the many travel agencies in my hometown looking for the almost impossible deal: a vacation that includes everything from sea side resorts , historical sites, cheap shopping centers and restaurants- all for the budget of 2000$. Every year we hope for a better deal but every year we end up paying much more than we can afford. We are not alone in this hunt, though. Herds of thousands of what are called "Israeli-Arabs" (or even "Palestinian-Israeli" as dismaying as this name can be) roam travel agencies looking for the ultimate vacation that will emancipate them from the burdens of their daily life: the bad economic situation, the deteriorating political and security conditions and from the feeling of being trapped in a homeland that does not look at them as sons and daughters of the land but rather as a demographic danger. Like mice in a trap, the Arabs of Israel run out of their cage once a summer. They fill the hotels of the Mediterranean. The lucky few go a bit further and travel to the luxurious and Euro-dominated cities of Europe. 

Like mice, the Arabs of Israel never walk. They run. In this short escape from their cage they want to devour everything, they want to travel, have fun, buy presents for their mothers in law and exploit every minute before they are back in their well-furnished cage. And like mice, the Arabs of Israel never speak, they only shout. And like mice, the Arabs of Israel have no consideration to others. They are focused on their own needs knowing that what is available for them today might vanish like the clouds over their villages and towns in mid summer. A cloud of uncertainty hovers, summer and winter, day and night, over their heads, just like the dangling sword of Damocles.  [1]

Eventually, my wife and I found our perfect deal. It was to Cyprus "-the island of sun and sandy beaches." We were not alone in that trip. We were among a group of diverse people: couples of pensioners who spend their days taking care of their grandchildren and every summer visit Greece or Cyprus. They say that they like the clean and clear beaches of these countries, though during our stay I have never seen any of them in a bathing suit. With us there was a couple of newly wed basketball coaches who were immediately adopted by the pensioners, maybe in hope to be infected by any of the couples' passion to come! There was also my friend's family: a wealthy family owning a house in Cyprus – an asylum "just in case things go wrong in Israel". Among this group there was an old woman sitting alone in the front seat of the bus. She was in her seventies, a tall and heavy woman with a stern face. She seemed alone, but not lonely. She was very relaxed and seemed to know exactly what was ahead of us. We wondered who she was and why was she on this trip with us, traveling without any companion. I did not know at the moment that her secret, or secrets, were yet to unfold on the Balcony of a Limassol hotel. Whispers about her followed shortly in the bus. Many blamed her for delaying the bus with her heavy luggage and arriving late while others said that she travels to the same place and stays at the same hotel every year for nine years now.  Our informer, so I liked to call her, a mother of three sent on this trip with her children by her busy husband, said that this woman has a STORY. She did not know what the story was but she promised to inquire. We sat at the end of the bus, the "mysterious" woman and the other pensioners sat in the front. The athletic honeymooners were fast asleep. Hints and jokes of the scoring they were about to make that night filled the air. Our informer sat in the middle seats of the bus with her children. She belonged to either group. We could tell that she tended to us. The thought of spending the whole trip among the pensioners might have scared her to our side but being without her spouse deterred her from joining us. We noted with vicious smiles that not all the delights of a hotel room in Cyprus would be accessible to her.

As the bus got near the airport, the informer came with a startling fact about the mysterious woman. The woman's name was Irhab! We were all stunned when we heard the name. Irhab in Arabic means "terror". None of us have ever heard this word used as a name in the past. We were curious to know the source of this name and the reason it was given to her. We wondered how she could get along with such a strange name in Israel and abroad. In our lifetime, we have heard this word many times. After all, we live in the Middle East. We are experts in Irhab and its many connotations! The word is so common to us like snow to the Eskimos and Vodka to the Russians. It is true that after nine eleven, this has become a very well known word in many languages around the world, but nothing could settle our curiosity why should an Arabic woman, born in the days of fierce struggle between Arabs and Jews over the land of Palestine-Israel, be called with such a name? What parents can do such a thing to their children? [H1] Why didn't she choose another name when she grew up? My friend said that calling your child Irhab in Israel is like calling a newborn Bin Laden in post nine eleven America. Whispers spread again that this woman's name might delay the whole group in the airport just as her luggage has delayed our departure in Nazareth. The mystery was great and it was yet to unfold on a Limassol hotel balcony.

Cyprus was no surprise to us. The landscape was similar to ours. Many times, we were certain that the people we met on the streets were flown especially for us from Nazareth to make us feel at home. Or maybe they were duplications of those people. I could swear that I "saw" my uncle George, our late neighbor and three of my classmates. My wife insisted that the man who served us dinner in the hotel was none else but the fisherman from Acre who once swore to us that he managed to swim to Cyprus after his boat capsized in the middle of the sea away from the shores of Israel! 

Our hopes of a perfect deal were soon shattered like the waves on the Island's rocks. The prices were very high. The Island divided by Turks and Greeks seemed indifferent to us. We eventually found ourselves spending more time at the hotel, enjoying its free-of-charge pool and spending the time with the kids. On the third morning, I decided to read the newspaper in the lobby. They were all there, the pensioners, the informer and Irhab. She sat among them like a leader of some clan. They all gathered around her in a circle and listened to her explain the ways to get along around the island. Beside her, there was someone I haven't seen before, an elegant woman in her seventies. Her hair was combed very neatly and her clothes seemed different from the cheap clothes most people in the group were wearing. I have also noticed that she was wearing a bathing suit underneath her dress. She smoked Davidoff's cigarettes very elegantly and looked around with an indifferent look.  She sat very close to Irhab and yet seemed detached from the group. Could she be a tourist sitting there by chance? It cannot be, for she was sitting very near to the group and looking at them. If she were a tourist sitting in the lobby, she would have kept the distance strangers strictly keep from each other in hotel lobbies.

Upon seeing me, the informer gave the I-have –fresh –interesting-news look.
I approached the group, which I wouldn’t have done unless the informer’s gesture, and said hello. I deliberately looked at the elegant woman. Irhab looked at me and said quickly:

“Meet my sister in law, Nahida.” Then she added, indifferent to the surprise she going to cause:[H2] 

“She came from Beirut last night”.

“Beirut?!”

I couldn’t hide my surprise. How come that her sister in law lives in

Beirut! Beirut? Hey? This is the legendary city we cannot visit! The land of the great singer Fairuz, the land of the great Lebanese writers, actors, singers and beautiful women. We have been dreaming since childhood that maybe one day when there is peace between Israel and the Arabs we would be able to visit Beirut, to experience the legendary streets, and to walk into its fancy restaurants and bars. Meanwhile, we had to compromise for Amman, the capital of Jordan. What a mean compensation!

I said hi to the no-longer-strange-woman and could not hide my surprise. I am a polite person and therefore I did not ask the burning questions I had been tormented with for the last couple of days: Who are you? What's your story? And, for God's sake, what are you (both) doing here?

At that exact moment my little son came to tell me that "the man who rents cars" is waiting for us. So I went with him, we rented a van and together with our relatives we went to the mountains of Cyprus. At the peak of some God-knows-where mountain we visited the tomb of Bishop Makarios, the legendary man who led Cyprus for many years. I pretended to be excited. After all, I am supposed to. I am the history teacher and in my family, Makarios was an important guest in the conversations led by my father and uncles. To say the truth, the taste of barbequed ham in a sandwich we had prior to the visit was much more exciting and rewarding.

In the evening, after returning to the hotel, it was time for dinner. We went into the hall and had our meals, watching some clown holding more and more glasses over his head. A band played songs of the sixties without any affection. They must have done that for many years now and I wondered when was the last time they enjoyed it!? 

After dinner, the time to unfold the great mystery had come. We went out to sit on the balcony of the restaurant, to smoke a cigarette (my wife usually allows me to smoke few cigarettes every time we go abroad without giving me that guilt feeling as if with every breathe in I have, I am going to shorten the life of our happy family) and here they were sitting together, side by side, not exchanging a word, smoking freely, Irhab and her sister in law Nahida. I envied them, for smoking freely of course, and knew that this was my chance to finally disclose the secret of the two women.

Under the influence of Alcohol and the taste of the great cigarette I had, I had the courage to do what I wanted to since we first arrived here. I told my wife and relatives that I am leaving them for a while and going to sit with the ladies, to finally unfold the mystery of the trip. My wife encouraged me but she was not much exited to know the story. She never was like me, a lover and admirer of gossip!

I approach the two ladies, who more than welcomed me to sit with them. They were not surprised. Actually, they were relieved that a third party is joining them. It seems that I spared them the embarrassment of not being able to have a decent conversation. From the moment I took my seat, and accepted a cigarette from the Lebanese-sister-in-law (glimpsing at my wife to see how she would respond) things started happening at a startling speed. Irhab looked at me and said:

"You know, me and my sister-in-law Nahida come to this same hotel every year in this month. Sometimes, we come earlier and sometimes we even come in September. I liked it the more in September, when there is less commotion, kids and heat."

"But why" I asked, "why do you come here every year? Is it like my mother's uncle who lived in Lebanon and used to meet his brothers and sisters once a year in Cyprus?"

"Not really" said Irhab and started to tell her story. Nahida was still mute at this stage.

"You see. My brother and his wife lived in Kuwait. They have been living there for over 30 years when they finally decided to move back to Beirut. His wife is Lebanese."

"We had to move back to Beirut." Nahida interrupted her "we couldn't live in Kuwait anymore. Palestinians are not allowed to obtain citizenship in Kuwait and without being a citizen; it is not easy even to get buried in that country. We were about to retire, so we had to leave the country. The only good option was my homeland Lebanon."

"Anyway" Irhab continued her story, not paying attention to what Nahida has just said. "Nine years ago my father passed away, so we called my brother asking him to come to the funeral. He was in the midst of arranging their move to Lebanon and decided to come for a few days, attend the funeral and go back. The only way he could come to Israel was flying to Cyprus and then to Tel Aviv. He arrived in Nazareth on Thursday and was about to leave back via Cyprus the following Monday."  

"Yeah, but you asked him to stay until Tuesday, promising him a delicious food he liked." Nahida said, with unhidden disappointment and a glimpse of accusation.

"True" Irhab said, "But he asked me for it and I could not prepare it amidst all the things we were going through. Anyway, he flew back to Cyprus on Wednesday, and could not find a hotel in Larnaca where the airport is, so [H3] he had to spend the night here in Limassol."

"The taxi driver who took him back to Larnaca that night was drunk. They were both killed on the spot. They had no chance." Nahida said sharply, without much explanation.

Now I see. Suddenly the whole mystery was really unfolded on this Limassol hotel balcony.

"But why do you come here then? Why Limassol."

Nahida explained, "As a non-citizen, Kuwait did not accept to bury him there, neither did Lebanon. He was not a Lebanese citizen. And Israel.... "

"I see" I said, "so you just had to bury him here in Limassol and you come to visit the grave every year."

"Exactly" Irhab said. "We visit the grave and clean it every day during our stay in Limassol. We do nothing else."

A long paused followed.  I had to break the silence and I heard myself saying to Irhab, "Can I ask you something?"

"Yes" she said.

"Why Irhab? How did you get that name?"

Irhab smiled and started to tell me her story. A story that she has been telling for years it seems.

"I was born in 1936, during the big revolt against the British in Palestine. My father was a teacher in Nazareth. One day he hit the British inspector sent to his school with a book so they exiled him to Gaza."

"Gaza?" I shrugged, "That's the end of the world?"

"Yes" she laughed, "but hitting a British inspector is no small matter. Anyway, my father rented a house from one of the teachers who worked with him. They lived side by side. One night, there was a big fight between the Arabs and the British and many people died. On that night, two babies emerged to the world, me and the daughter of the other teacher. Both fathers decided to call us Irhab because of what happened that night."

"What a story! But didn't you ask him why he gave you this name? Didn't you have trouble going around with such a name in Israel?"

"Actually, no. I never asked him and I never had problems. You see, after the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, I went to Gaza and looked for the other Irhab. I finally found her. She had to change her name. Her name now is Fatima. She could not manage with that name under Arab rule. I could. Few people in Israel understood the meaning of it. I even became a teacher myself, and a principal later. Now I have a decent pension and life is good!"

Suddenly, I had to leave the two ladies. I had a suffocating feeling all over me. I felt that their story is surrounding and overwhelming me. I felt a need to breakout, and being under the few glasses of wine I had earlier during dinner, I was in a gloomy mood. I excused the ladies and said that my wife and kids are waiting. We all went to the room, we put the kids to sleep and after looking at them for a long while, I took a pencil and some of the hotel paper and jotted down the story I have just heard. That night, I slept very well, only interrupted by a dream about a secluded grave and two old women hovering around it.

The trip came to an end. Irhab was received in the airport by a taxi. I never saw her again. Nor did I see the informer. The angels whisper that two women still trod the narrow paths of an old cemetery in the Cypriote city of Limassol, cleaning a grave that no one attends during the year, a grave of a stranger who was on his way back from one homeland to another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Judge no one happy until his life is over" is a familiar theme in Greek and Roman philosophical writing. One variant of this is the Sword of Damocles, which is used to describe a sense of foreboding and might translate into English idiom as "walk a mile in my shoes." Here's the story about Damocles' sword: Dionysius (II) was a fourth century B.C. tyrant of Syracuse, a city in Magna Graecia, the Greek area of southern Italy. To all appearances Dionysius was very rich and comfortable, with all the luxuries money could buy, tasteful clothing and jewelry, and delectable food. He even had court flatterers (adsentatores) to inflate his ego. One of these ingratiators was the court sycophant, Damocles. Damocles used to make comments to the king about his wealth and luxurious life. One day when Damocles complimented the tyrant on his abundance and power, Dionysius turned to Damocles and said, "If you think I'm so lucky, how would you like to try out my life?" Damocles readily agreed, and so Dionysius ordered everything to be prepared for Damocles to experience what life as Dionysius was like. Damocles was enjoying himself immensely... until he noticed a sharp sword hovering over his head, that was suspended from the ceiling by a horse hair. This, the tyrant explained to Damocles, was what life as ruler was really like.Damocles, alarmed, quickly revised his idea of what made up a good life, and asked to be excused. He then eagerly returned to his poorer, but safer life

 

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