Remember that night on the balcony,
When a tense summer breeze kept us company?
With mangos galore, and
Uncles long snores, and
The sea down below putting waves on its shores, and
That’s when you turned to look up at me.
In those rare, golden moments when I was able to visit family in the Gaza Strip, I would always find myself gravitating toward my grandmother more than anyone else. We had all sorts of rituals — from the early morning breakfasts with sweet, warm goats milk to the clothes she would knit or crochet for me that I’d model around the house, and from the trips to the marketplace where she’d buy me a souvenir to take back with me to the afternoons spent listening to stories about my mother when she was young. So many rituals.
You — just barely ten. I was six times your age, and
In a matter of days we’d be so far away that
Whoever invented the phrase good
Followed by bye
One ritual stuck with me more than any of the others. Teta and I would spend evenings on the balcony of her home eating mangos and watching the sun go down. We did this all the time with all kinds of fruits. But mostly with mangos. I remember it best with the mangos.
So I peeled and I pitted from dusk until dawn,
Smile glowing so golden like nectar in palm because
You don’t have mangos like these in America,
Sweetness like this doesn’t grow in America,
The last time I shared mangos with her was in the summer of 2000, just about two months before the beginning of the Second Intifada. Tensions were high, as you might expect in any occupied setting, but they weren’t as high as they would soon become. At the time, I was able to use my U.S. passport to travel through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Leaving Gaza to get to the airport meant I needed military permission and enough patience to last me through all of the checkpoint waits. At any moment I could arbitrarily be turned back.
The hours slide by and— oh, here comes goodbye.
Down by the soldiers below is your ride.
Here, take a wet wipe, wipe the tears from your eyes.
Of course I’ll come with you. I’ll be right by your side.
On the final night of our stay in Gaza, my mother, sister, and I packed our belongings and made our way to the car waiting outside for us. Teta wanted to escort us to the airport so she got into the car with us. I sat behind her.
The only thing heavier than luggage I learned
Is a heart caged two to the left and two toward the stern.
The only thing heavier than luggage I learned
And as it beat to a track,
You seated in the back…
What a way to part ways.
We were separated when we reached the airport grounds.
Two men and
Two dogs said they’d take it from here.
“Out!” they all barked, and
Out we appeared, and
Out came the sleeves
Because we don’t show tears.
Then out from the rear
Came a gun in full gear, and
As it creeped near,
Your breath shivered in fear, and
How I wish
It was a scene
Or maybe a dream
Or something left to the sightless.
Under the watchful eyes of two growling guard dogs and the piercing death stares of the soldiers holding their leashes, we rushed our goodbyes. I was nine years old at the time, stuck in that phase when I was convinced that the person I wanted to become was the man we were trained to see on the television: big, tough, brawny, and exclusively emotionless. My goodbye was nonchalant.
But even then,
If I had closed my two eyes
I’d never see you again,
And the thought of peeled mangos…
Well, what a weird way to end.
So on the car ride back home,
Tangled thoughts to comprehend,
Fleeing memories to apprehend,
Sights and stares of my young best friend,
I tried hard not blink
Lest my eyelids drop curtains
On the only image of you I have left.
Somewhat ashamed, I looked back at her and cried the moment we made our way into the airport. So much was left unsaid.
The balcony felt empty the following day —
The mangos uneaten,
The sea washed away.
I haven’t forgotten how you last looked at me,
Like a constant reminder of what we failed to say:
Samsoum, I’m really going to miss you.
Teta, I really do love you.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I would never share mangos with her on the balcony ever again. In 2003, an Israeli air strike targeted her home. Half of it was demolished. The remaining half she stayed in — partly because nobody wants to leave a home built on a life’s worth of memories, but mostly because she didn’t want to give Israel the impression that she had been defeated. Then in 2004, she passed away. I was due to fly in just forty days later. My mother still regrets every inch of distance that existed between us all.
But when my soul left me early it was too late to ask
About that time on the balcony, mangos in hand,
About that time when you looked at me, stare from a glance,
About that time when you spoke to me,
I really just wish,
I knew what occupied your mind
Clouded our eyes as we forced our goodbyes.
Sometimes when I’m struggling, I like to think about those evenings on the balcony. The salty air always mixed well with the sweet aroma of the mangos she sliced. She had a unique technique with the blade that frequently culminated with her handing me a perfectly-halved mango to nibble on. My mother does it the same way now that I think about it. And in these imaginations, I construct entire conversations, filling in the gaps with all of the things I wish I could tell her and pausing to think about all that she might wish to say to me.
Curse the day they took you away.
I really do hate that phrase.
This piece, then, is what I imagine — what I hope — her perspective to be.