—Jerusalem
By Naim Al Khatib
Authors
  • Naim Al Khatib

    Naim Al Khatib is a writer living in Gaza City.

Translated by Ghada Mourad and Tyson Patros

 

I live in the neighborhood of Tal al-Hawa (or Hill of the Wind) in Gaza City. I get so exasperated when people mistakenly spell my address by replacing the extended alif (ا) with the shortened alif (ى; making it Hill of Passion), which, I presume, has provoked some to change the name of the area to Hill of Great Islam. What annoys me is the term “Great”: if it refers to Islam, it confirms what is already certain without adding anything to the meaning. If the adjective refers to the hill, it is not consistent with reality.

The night, or the day, as my young daughter would say, that the war tightened its grip around the neck of our (‘great’) neighborhood, Dina asked me, “Baba, why did they make it all daytime?” The truth is that my intelligence got in the way of understanding her question, and when I asked for an explanation she clarified, “because they didn’t let us sleep.”

We were close to thirty, brought together by coincidence, or by some unannounced collusion, at the home of our Christian neighbor, who happens to be the only Christian in the building or maybe in the whole area. None of us expressed any objection, especially later when we all clustered around the remaining sweets from the holiday of Saint Barbara. When my eyes met those of the Virgin Mary hanging on the wall, I reassured her and stressed that the misunderstanding was mutual.

We gathered in a corner of the dark kitchen after a rapid security sweep of the area. Under missile strikes, the whizzing of bullets, and the shaking building, the summation of our existence transpired as two connected ideas: the fear of death and the need to go to the bathroom. Many of us know that water makes up three quarters of the human body, but few of us are aware that the entirety of these quarters flows into the bladder at times like these.

The suicide missions of taking our children back and forth to the bathroom did not cease, even though the trip required crossing an area in the line of fire that faced the big glass balcony overlooking the street. A person would stand and hold their little one, taking cover and waiting for an opportunity to dart forward like an arrow. In the bathroom, the army was only a half-opened glass window away and the sound of their machinery was enough to shorten all protocols. As for the return, it was a reverse trip not without anticipation and euphoria for those waiting their turn.

Why, in situations like these, do the principles of architecture, the fundamentals of interior design, the rules of public health, and the recommendations of environmental health all fail us when we have a basic functional need as simple as having a bathroom in the kitchen? The call of nature did not stop; rather it became a continuous scream. I then decided to take initiative and accept my new responsibility as the group’s shit engineer. I searched the kitchen cupboards for an appropriate receptacle; I emptied a bucket and placed it behind the kitchen table. I then lowered the tablecloth to the ground as a cover, proudly announcing to the group the official opening of the new kitchen bathroom. Children under ten expressed their happiness about the idea and began practicing their tasks standing, sitting, and even without a chaperon.

Of course the new bathroom did not solve everyone’s problem, mine included. The need to go to the bathroom was heightened by the degree of risk taking. For my turn, I traversed the miles separating the kitchen and the bathroom, and did what I had to do in a speed that baffled me. I do not know whether it was because of fear, the flow of adrenaline, or the mind’s superior ability to control our limbs at a given moment.

After hours of the army’s control over the neighborhood, the raging war calmed and shit was no longer the master of the situation. The women enjoyed staying in the master bedroom that had its own bathroom. We men were left with a separate bathroom but the trip there was no longer that dangerous. We were deliberating over matters of non-interest such as providing food and blankets and determining the locations and hours of sleep. Some began designing white flags in case we were asked to leave. We argued over the need to keep the door open for fear of getting it blown up if the army entered. Some even went as far as to joke about looking for a prayer rug in our friend’s home.

In the evening of the next day, horror visited us again with the sounds of feet behind the door followed by intense banging. We gathered immediately and reviewed the plan we had prepared in advance. One woman went ahead and opened the door amid everybody’s trepidation. After a tense, long wait, our elderly neighbor peered in, jokingly saying: “People, why are you so afraid? We are now under the protection of the army.” He was accompanied by a group of women we did not know and who came halfway through the neighborhood in the darkness of the night in order to help one of them, who was looking for diapers for her young children.

Diapers!!! What a reaction! I do not think that that woman had to face such reprimands or the need for justification or terror from the army as much as she did from the women of our group. “You are crazy! Who leaves their home for diapers?”

“People, the lady is only asking if you can help her.”

“I don’t understand why you are treating me like this.”

“Wipe him with a cloth or with your clothes” … “Are you willing to die because of your child’s shit?” … “No one here uses diapers” … “For God’s sake, O Jamal, do not leave us” … “That’s it, I don’t want anyone to open their mouth” … “Enough, enough, I am sorry”… “People, I tell you that the army’s tanks entrenched themselves in the sand.”

The situation became surrealistically analogous with the conclusion of Orwell’s Animal Farm. My eyes met once again with those of the Virgin Mary, and I thought this time she was smiling from her place on the wall. The mutual misunderstanding still stands, and as for shit, it has returned to chasing us like a ghost of or a refrain for a war that has not finished yet.