Every morning she starts her day in front of the taboun; she bakes bread then prepares breakfast for her children and her grandchildren. She watches them leave to school, university and to work. She then sits on the stone step in front of her house in the over-crowded refugee camp, a dish of dried lentils in her hands, and while she cleans the lentils from stones, her thoughts wander.
Every day, Basma wakes up in the small UNRWA room, looks around her, gets up and sits in front of the taboun. Every day, Basma sits with her children and grandchildren on the matt and while breakfasting, she listens as they talk of home works, of exams, of annoying teachers and co-workers. Every day, Basma sits on the stone step in front of her small house, peels potatoes, slices zucchini or cleans lentils for dinner. Every day, Basma’s thoughts wander, and she returns back to that day in 1948, that day when her father and brother hugged them and went to defend the village from the Zionist militias. She remembers her brother Ahmad, she sees his smile, she hears his laughter. She remembers him kissing her mother’s hand and asking for her blessings and forgiveness. She remembers him hugging her and kissing her forehead. She looks in front of her at the dirty street in the over-crowded refugee camp, and sees the green meadows in front of their village, she sees her father, her brother and the men of the village waving to their families and heading to the surrounding hills to defend the village. Her thoughts wander, and she sees Ahmad turning back, looking at her and smiling. She thinks of him and wonders where he could be; is he alive? Is he in a Zionist dungeon? Is he in refugee camp in Lebanon or Jordan or Syria? Does he still remember us or has he forgotten us?
Basma was a little girl when in 1948 Zionist militias attacked the villages in her area. They attacked one village after the other. They shot at people, had machine guns and hand grenades and cannons. The villagers fought with the little means they had, they were alone, while the Zionist militias were armed by the British troops. And as other villages were attacked and occupied and their inhabitants massacred or expelled, her village had stayed put, fought back. And since the fighting began, Basma rarely saw her father or her only brother; they had gone to protect the village. Every day, she would watch her mother look out of the window at every sound, at every whisper, at every breeze that passes by. Every day, she would listen to her siblings asking about their father and their only brother. Every night, she would listen to her moving restlessly on the mattress, trying not to cry but unable not to. Every day, they would wait for their return, every night while the sound of bullets drowned the space, they would pray for their safety. And then, the village fell, many were killed and the rest were expelled. They were forced out of their homes and lands with nothing but the clothes they wore. Her mother carried her baby sister and held her hand while she held the hand of her other sister and they walked with the rest of people; they were relatives, friends, neighbours, all crying, tired, hungry and angry.
For some time, Basma, her mother and siblings stayed in tents with the rest of those expelled from their homes and villages, not knowing what had happened to her father and brother. Her mother told her and her sisters that everything will be fine again, they will return home and that her father and brother will soon return to take them back home. But at night she could hear her mother crying, crying in her pillow the whole night until she fell asleep. And as Basma heard her mother’s cries, she would feel her own tears along her cheeks, and would curse those Zionists who had brought death and pain and suffering to her family and to all other families. Then one day, her father came back with a few other men from the village. They had been chased by Zionist terrorists all across the mountains and the valleys, and to escape the Zionists they had had to hide in caves for some time. Her father came back, but her brother never came back. Her father tried to comfort her mother, to comfort them, saying he lost Ahmad while they were being chased by the Zionist militias, that her brother will return back soon, that he most probably went in the other direction and will find them soon. Maybe he was just comforting himself, trying not to imagine his only son lying dead somewhere, his body mutilated by Zionist terrorists, or by savage dogs or by both. Despite the assurances and despite the fear, the family never lost hope of Ahmad being alive, and everyone dreamt of the day when he will come home and knock on the door of the refugee camp.
And when Basma is surrounded by her children and grandchildren, she hears their talk, their laughs, their arguments and their teasing, and amidst that joy that rarely visits them, she remembers her brother, and pain fills her heart as she wonders: “Where are you, Ahmad?”
One evening, while Basma was sitting on the stone step, watching something only she saw, her daughter Amal came back from work and hurriedly went inside the house. It was very unlike her, Basma thought, Amal usually would take the time to join her mother on the stone step, ask her about her day and tell her about her own day. But, not today. Today, Amal greeted her mother as she passed her hurriedly inside. Basma could hear her call her sibling … Silence followed. All kinds of scenarios ran through her head. … soldiers, bullets, hospital, prison … and her heart started to beat faster. She stood up, turned to enter the house when she saw her children coming towards her. Her heart skipped a beat as she looked into their faces, searched their eyes for the bad news, the sad news. “What is it? Who is it?” “Oh dear God, whatever it is, let it hit me, but please spare my children and my grandchildren”. Amal sat next to her mother and held her hand as Basma’s other children gathered around her. Amal glanced at her siblings again before speaking: “Yamma, I found a document at work today…. It’s a report on what happened to our village in 1948… It lists the martyrs who died fighting the Zionists and defending the village.” She stopped for a minute before finishing “My uncle Ahmad s on this list.” Amal held a paper and showed it to her mother. It was a photocopy of some page from a book. It was tidily folded into four. Basma looked at the paper, her eyes searching for a name her heart so often spoke to, but it was useless, for the letters refused to betray the beloved name. They all seemed the same to Basma, and Ahmad, her beloved brother, was so special that the letters that made his name should have shone on that paper. Amal pointed to a name in the list and read the name out loud. It was her uncle’s name, the name she so often heard her mother mention. Basma looked at the paper, at the letters that were supposed to relate the destiny of her beloved brother. She asked her daughter to read the name again and again. And while Amal was pointing to the name , reading the full name out loud over and over, assuring her mother it was the name of her uncle, Basma snapped the paper from her daughters hands, folded it calmly and hid it in her thob. She didn’t say a word that night. No one said a thing.
The next morning, Basma woke up early, sat in front of the taboun and baked bread. When her children and grandchildren gathered for the breakfast, she told them she had some urgent business to attend to. She went to the main road and waited for the bus.
Her family was expelled from their home and land in 1948. At the time, Basma didn’t only lose her home, but also lost her only brother. And with Ahmad gone, laughter and joy left her family. And with Ahmad gone, her mother’s sweet smile left them and her father’s funny stories left them. And with Ahmad gone, her childhood left, left behind, together with her doll and ball, in her home in a village that was wiped out. She was but a little girl, but remembered clearly, even after so many years, countless years, the older brother who often carried her on his shoulders and took her to the fields while her father walked along. She remembered clearly how she would sit on a rock and listen to them singing while working the fields. She remembered the laughter when her mother and siblings would join them in the fields and bring the dinner and they would all sit eating under the olive tree. She remembered the time when it rained, when thunder and lightning rocked the house and her brother hugged her and tried to comfort her and told her to love the lightning and the thunder because they bring the rain and the land loves the rain. She remembered their many fights, him snatching her doll and she running after him and hitting him with a stone, and apologizing through her tears while her mother wiped the blood off his forehead. Ahmad comforted her when she needed comforting, played with her when she was bored and always took care of her.
Basma stopped in front of a small shed that sells flowers, seeds and seedlings. She often passed it on her way to the market, and often wished she had enough land to plant all the trees in the world there. She looked around, her eyes searching for the olive seedlings. “Good Morning, ya hajja, how may I help you?” asked the elderly owner. “I need an olive seedling, ya hajj”. Basma carried the seedling between her hands as if it were a baby. She walked and walked, taxis passing her and hooping, but she preferred to walk. She passed the children on their way to school, passed the villagers carrying their harvest to the local market place, she passed mothers on their way to the market, fathers on their way to work. She passed them all and thought of her brother; the boy who used chase after her all over the courtyard in front of their home, laughing and teasing. She remembered the boy who used to pluck flowers for her to give to their mother, who used to peel the oranges for her, who used to knack the dried almonds and give her the seed inside to eat while sitting on the hill watching the sunset. So many memories, “how can he be dead with so many memories?” Basma thought. Basma stopped in front of a house and knocked on the door. Um Khalid opened the door, surprise to see Basma there so early and without prior notice. “Kheir ya Basma? Has something happened?” She asked anxiously. “No, no, everything is alright.” Basma answered as walked inside and sat at the table. And before Um Khalid could ask another question, Basma took the piece of paper out of her dress and spread it on the table in front of them both. She didn’t read, she couldn’t, but she knew exactly where the name stood. Her fingers went over it. “Here, see, read it.” Um Khalid looked at where the finger stopped and read: Ahmad … Both were silent for some time. “Amal found his name in a book. He is a martyr Khawla, he is a martyr. He died for our land, to protect us, to save us. We have found our brother, he never died, he will never die, he is a martyr”.
Carrying the olive seedling in her arms, close to her heart, as if it were a child, as if protecting it, Basma walked together with her younger sister to the fields nearby. Her sister was married to a villager who had lands and olive fields. Both sisters often sat there and spoke of their village, of the fields their family owned, of their father’s pain at being a farmer without his land, a farmer who was expelled from his fields and forced to live in a tent.
Olive trees were everywhere, the sun was shining and the birds were singing, poppies were blossoming and mingling with the earth of Palestine. Basma and her sister chose a spot between two huge olive trees, ancient ones, older than the nakba. They chose a spot that was touched by the sun of Palestine and at the same time protected by the olive trees. Basma dug the earth with her bare hands. It was moist and easy to dig. She wanted to feel the earth, wanted to feel its warmth. Then the two sisters planted the seedling, covered it with earth, watered it and stood watching it, while saying a prayer for a beloved brother.
“This is for you, Ahmad”. Basma thought, and she smiled as a tear dropped down her check. “I finally found you, this is your home, for now, until we return.”