“You’re a disgrace”. The words echo in her ears as she steps off the greyhound. For a moment, she is frozen in time. Standing still with one hand firmly fisted around the strap of her handbag that hangs loosely from her shoulder, she blankly looks around. Her gaze rapidly shifting from one object to another. Suddenly her eyes stop moving; they are fixed looking straight. The widespread grass that was once lush green with vibrancy is now frosted into grey; its glassy leaflets gathering and holding the last of the dew. Ahead of it, stands a fancy white architecture. She steps forward, squinting her eyes to read the small blue signboard in the corner. The grass crunches and crackles beneath her boots as she doddles through it. ‘Scarborough Civic Centre’. Lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t even realise how she got there from the Town Centre Bus Stop. She is lost.
It was back in year twelve, when Hurija initially got into politics and activism. Especially after the gap year, when she tried passing the online courses of International Relations and Global Politics. Majoring in World History and Global Studies at uni, she started to see the world from outside her own bubble of illusion. But even then, she failed to realise the reason behind such issues. Issues like poverty, conviction, violence and war. Issues that struck her in her first year at uni. Those case studies of starving children in worn out clothes. The images of Afghan child brides, whose innocence was yet to be snatched. The distortion caused by acid on the half-covered faces of Pakistani women. The catastrophe caused by terrorist groups like Hamas against the only “democratic middle eastern state”. But did she really know what the world was really like? No. Though she thought she did, but she only knew what she was told by those middle-aged men and women who stood at the front of lecture hall, fixing their specs and talking clichés. Either that, or what she saw and read on those glossy laminated pages of her course books; or what she saw on that big black box that had always been in her living room since she ever moved out. It wasn’t until she met Salima, that she came to face the truth and began to see what the world was really for. If it wouldn’t have been for Salima, Hurija would still be living with an illusion that the society had created for people like her.
She is lost. Lost as an unknown in a place that had once been hers. Among the people who now, seemed like strangers. Around her, objects grey with first snow of the season settling. Above her, the grey cloudy sky. Facing her, the fancy greyish white building. Everything still with ice. Its half past two already. Her hand vigorously drills through the random contents of her handbag. Most of them, travel necessities. She found it; it is cold and smooth at touch. She fishes it out. A glossy brochure that smelt the same as the flight attendants at the airport. ‘Toronto Travel Guide’, says the title in red and white, surrounded by maple leaves. She has two more blocks to go. As she chucks the brochure back,she finds herself holding onto something. A hard cardboard with the same smoothness as the brochure. Before she could look at it, it slips through her fingers, gliding towards the cold hard gravel that she stands on. Kneeling to pick the Polaroid photograph, she feels dazed. In it are two people, almost looking like a very young couple in their early twenties. The girl has a sharp jawline and pale complexion that she inherited from her Serbian ancestry. Her cheekbones elevated by her symmetrical smile, slightly narrowing the sparkle in her turquoise eyes. Standing close to her, the young man is tall and stoutly. His strong, dark olive arms castled around her. His round faced smile makes his squinted eyes look even petite under his thick dark brown eyebrows. ‘You’re a disgrace.’ It is all coming back to her. The harshest of the memories, the painful reminiscences, her unforgiving past.
* * * * **
‘You’re a disgrace’. As far as her memory went, it was from Eli. Right when she was leaving for Jordan. It was different back then. He loved her. He’d always been there for her. Since year eleven, or even before. He was more than a high-school sweetheart for her. He was her soul mate, and he proved it. She didn’t remember how it felt, where it was or how it happened anymore. Bad memory along with trauma does that. But she did have a fuzzy image of him, down on his knee. The serene sound of waves crashing to the shore. The love and assurance in his eyes. She loved him too. In fact, she loved him more, but she didn’t want to give up on what now became a dangerous passion of hers.
‘Why do you even cares of what’s going on there?’
‘I just wanna know the story from the other side. I can’t just sit here and be biased on this issue, I won’t make much of a successful political scientist if I do that. Plus I always wanted to travel.’
‘Yeah, but why exactly do you have to travel to West Bank and Gaza? You know there is trouble going on there. The terrorists have been causing trouble.’
‘Well, that’s why I am documenting the events. Especially now, after what happened with Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall.’
‘Rachel Corrie? The American activist chick that got killed?’
‘Crushed. She got crushed by an IDF bulldozer while trying to protect a Palestinian house from being demolished, in Rafah.’
He looked away. There was an unusual silence for the first time. She reached across the table placing her hands onto his. ‘I’ll be back after a month or two. You won’t even know it.’ She smiled.
‘I really wish you didn’t have to go. I am gonna miss you’.
‘I’ll miss you more. I’ll be back though and then everything would be as it is. I promise.’
He said he’d wait for her. That, on her return he’d talk to her parents and make it official. It all sounded like a fairy-tale. Finally getting to achieve her life-long dream. Full-filling her passion to ‘make a difference’. Getting married and settled with the love of her life. Living happily ever after. Everything seemed impeccably perfect for her.
* * * * * **
She calmly strolls under the canopy of the leafless frosted trees. Just a few more steps to go. Everything has changed. New buildings, old ones renovated, the old elementary school at the corner street that no longer exists. Nothing is the same. She lost everything that she could call hers. Mum and dad, friends, the society, her beauty, and even Eli. She never knew that this step for her passion would change her world so much. Even she isn’t the same anymore; neither inside, nor out. From inside she had already started to change before she even left for Palestine. She had never been as determined about anything as she was for this cause. And now, after so much that she has been through, that change is permanent. She walks on, thinking of this irreparable loss. Her face half covered with the black scarf loosely draped around her head. Her beauty, family, love; all snatched from her. She casually brushes her palm across her cheek, wiping her tear away. The hard uneven surface of the stitches. She recalls Salima’s tranquil face at the time of numerous catastrophes. Being forced out of her own house, having her father in jail, facing the death of her baby brother and even being abused and judged on her ethnicity on daily basis. After all that, the only words that she usually uttered were Al-Hamdulillah – Thanks be to God.
* * * * * **
The opening time for checkpoint was seven twenty A.M. The summer of 2004, Hurija was filming the checkpoints in West Bank. The long-shot of crowded people bundled in the gateways of the Askar Camp Checkpoint. Many of them waiting since five in the morning. Standing there crammed up together, drenched in each other’s sweat; many waiting to go work, others school or university and some to simply go back home. The commotion on the far end caught her attention. A girl about eleven years of age being stopped to go through. She stood in silence, wearing a beautiful orange and brown jillayeh, beside her older brother who was arguing with the soldier. She was paler than her sun-tanned brother, with rosy cheeks and jet black hair tied up with a pink ribbon in a neat ponytail. Hurija moved closer to hear what the dispute was about. However even after being a metre away from it, she still couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Thus, she finally decided to step in.
‘Hi. What is the problem officer?’
‘They are not letting my sister through. We have to get home’.
She got startled at first by hearing the young man talk in English. He was around eighteen or nineteen, with tall and broad built. Thick eyebrows and a light scruff of chestnut brown emerging from his bony olive cheeks. He reminded her of Eli, in a way, just a very young and scrawny version of him. She noticed the officer glaring at her. As if trying to shoo her away. The young man began to converse in English with the officer, giving her the hint. Turning her camera and zooming in, Hurija smiled, imagining the horror of her right-winged parents on seeing her help ‘the enemy’. The officer came in front, covering the lens with his palm.
‘Don’t film this’.
‘Excuse me sir, but I have the permission from the magistrate to film in particular territories. And this here happens to be one of those territories’. She stated sternly, while quivering with fright on the inside. The officer gradually walked away, giving her what could almost be described as a death stare. After a while of continuous arguing and yelling, the officer, conscious of being documented, finally allowed the girl through. Hurija moved on documenting all the areas near the Askar Refugee Camp.
Hurija looked down on the side. It was the girl, walking beside her holding her brother’s hand. Hurija smiled back. She kneeled down to the height of the girl. ‘You’re welcome. Would you like to tell us your name’? She zoomed in to focus her. ‘My name is Salima. Salima Hayat. What is your name?’ Her voice was light.
‘I am Hurija Delic. So, Salima is that right? How old are you?’
‘I am thirteen years old’.
‘Where are you from Hurija’? She looked up; it was the young man addressing her, looking down at his feet. He paused. ‘I am Amr’. He said slightly bowing his head with his hand placed on his chest. He spoke precise sentences of English in his thick Arabic accent.
‘I am from Canada. I am here to document some events’.
‘You here to film us?’ He asked demonstrating his words by his hands to ensure that she comprehended him.
‘Ah. Yes I am here to film.’
‘Our house is only a few minutes away. You can come if you want’. He pointed towards a neighbourhood in the nearby town of Rujeib, southeast of Nablus.
The house was timeworn; it needed a coat of paint, and some reparations. Their mother, Aisha, was a pleasant woman in her forties. She had those rosy cheeks of Salima and used a lot of hand movements while conversing in her poor English. Several other interactions like these made Hurija stay in Nablus. The twenty five year old baker, Khaled, who quitted his education after the demolition of his home; and started work to support his sister Yasmin, who went to Al-Najah National University. The orphan named Youssef who lived in the Refugee Camp after losing his house and family in a bomb raid. Fatima, the lady next door, who finally got married to her fiancé on his release from prison after eighteen years. Salima went to Al-Khansa Girls School, whereas Amr was finishing his final year at King Talal Boys College. Both schools poorly ran according to inconvenient circumstances. There were a lot of times when classes were often cancelled and postponed, the causes were usually due to lack of facilities, shortage of teachers, death of a staff or student or because a bomb raid by the Israeli military. She decided to stay not only because she wanted to document the full story; but also because the courage of these people fascinated her. She sometimes wondered what it’d be like if she had nowhere and no one to go to. What would’ve she done if it was her, instead of them.
‘What’s the matter Salima’?
‘I miss my father. He is in prison’.
‘Why is he in prison’?
‘He was caught on a checkpoint with some explosives. What the military feared so much were basically fire crackers for the celebration of last Eid. I haven’t seen him for nine months now’.
‘Oh he’ll be back soon’. Hurija affirmed, unsure of her own assurance. ‘Hey help me learn Arabic, what does ‘Salima’ mean?’ Her somewhat successful attempt of distracting Salima from the grief.
‘It means ‘peace’. And so, Salima Hayat together mean “peaceful life”. What does your name mean?’
She thought for a while. ‘Erm, I don’t know.’ It surprised her how after all these years of learning about history and different cultures, she never bothered to learn about her own origin. She continued. ‘But what I do know is that it is a Serbo-Bosniak name, so originally the ‘ja’ would be pronounced ‘ya’. Hearing this, Salima smiled shyly, increasing Hurija’s curiosity. ‘What?’
Salima looked up, half smiling. ‘I know what your name means. ‘Huriya’ in Arabic is “freedom”.’
It was that fateful morning, when during a demonstration near Kafr Qallil, the settlers from Itamar and Bracha, jumped in with their military supplied AK 47s and Kalashnikovs, causing violence and chaos. Igniting the young men and boys to bring their ‘Intifada’ by throwing rocks at them. Not long after that, the military opened fire on the thousands of demonstrators. Men, boys, women, aged and children. People scattered all over the place. In panic, leaving her camera on, Hurija looked for Salima. The girl in the kuffiyeh styled dress. There stood the same officer she saw on the Askar Camp Checkpoint. Wondering how bad it could be, she hesitantly took steps forward. They were the authority; they might be able to help. She walked up to them to ask for a girl in Kuffiyeh dress. Twenty metres away. ‘Excuse me?! Have you seen a little girl in…’ The officer smiles pointing the barrel at her. ‘No! Wait. Listen!’ BANG! Everything blacked out.
She woke up after a week in Rafidia Surgery Hospital, in West of Nablus. Her cheekbone and jaw almost killed her with agonising pain. She couldn’t talk, nor was she allowed to in order to recover as quickly as possible. It turned out, that during the demonstration; the bullet was fired at her face. Her left cheek bones and mandible were severely damaged. This was it; she had to get back home as soon as possible, no matter what. She was suddenly brought back to the memories of her parents, family and Eli. For the first couple of months no one agreed to show her the mirror, despite her desperate pleas. After months of final stitches and recovery she was able to sip the protein shakes and finally managed to come back home. That was when her ‘far right’ parents failed to empathise with her, believing that she got herself into ‘trouble’. They always had that strongly biased perspective, the one in which they tried to filter her into. That was how she became such a “disgrace” for them in the first place. She never saw or spoke to them since then. As for Eli, when he first found out about her ordeal in Palestine, he got hesitant on what used to be his firm and obvious commitment, nor she ever expected him to put up with her either, especially now, with this face. She never talked to him after that last brief conversation over the phone. Where she wasn’t sure if she could be with him anymore and neither was he.
Later in that year, on October the fifth. She read in the newspaper that a thirteen year old girl was shot dead at a checkpoint in Nablus. She was suspected of carrying explosives in her schoolbag. Two of the soldiers emptied their magazine in her body, as an act of ‘defense’. Around seventeen bullets were found in her body. Hurija stopped reading. ‘Oh God’ she whispered to herself. ‘Please let it not be Salima’. She didn’t want to read anymore, so she skipped to the end bit. The girl’s father told the media about his terrifying horror on discovering his innocent daughter’s death on his release.
* * * * * **
Hurija pauses, she closes her eyes, drawing in a deep breath. She sees Salima throwing her schoolbag away and desperately running away from the checkpoint. Bang! She opens her eyes. Relieved that it was only the thunder. She quickens her pace to reach there before it starts to rain. She is there now; standing still in front of the house, not sure if she should push the button. She sees him inside the window sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee. The sight of him. She feels a shiver run down her spine. Her memories, her past, once again is coming back to her; both, the blissful and painful. Inside, the phone rings. She remembers the sweetness of his deep voice that had always been enough to give her goosebumps. His humour that was just enough to make her cry from laughing. That time, when a brief chat with him was all she ever needed to get her through her worst times. He answers the phone. His voice is still the same, strong low-pitched; however now it has an essence of maturity. She feels goosebumps all over once again. It is strange to see him again after seven years. He changed too, unlike her, positively. He looks old. His hair now short and precise, his messy scruff, now a well-groomed and trimmed beard. His dark brown eyes, in the thick frame of his specs. Thinking of Salima every time makes her realise what she has gained. To her surprise, it always out-weighs her loss, making this ordeal of her, seem worthwhile. She half-smiles to herself. Al-Hamdulillah. The words automatically spring out of her mouth in a half Canadian and imitated Arabic accent.
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