Educator, writer, teacher advocate and coach, mother of twins, baker and passionate foodie. Riyam has a PhD in Chemistry and over twenty years of educational experience. Riyam is a certified Erikson and Lanning Concept Based Curriculum and Instruction Trainer. She works with teachers collaboratively to coach and consult on everything they need to make their classrooms intellectually stimulating environments. Throughout her career, Riyam held a diverse set of positions, but ultimately the classroom, teaching and training have is where she finds her passion.
On the weekends, you will find her in the kitchen, willing a sourdough starter to bubble, or a cake to rise in the oven, away from her professional life, she is a passionate baker and foodie!
There is a shadow in her room; it traverses the cracked walls and holed ceiling. At night it hides maybe in the remnants of her closet, maybe under the bed with tattered sheets, maybe it disappears, she does not know where it lurks, perhaps inside her heart.
It dances on her walls, expanding, shrinking, attacking, retreating. All day it dances She lays in her bed in surrender to its advances, Then she stands in defiance, slides into her clothes and walks out. She slams the door behind her, But the shadow bolts under the dresser, over the bed, through the door and straight ahead.
It climbs the walls in the corridors it crawls the broken floors, it swings back and forth from the burnt grapevine pergola. It moans a sad moan in her ears, and hovers heavily over her shoulders.
It clouds her eyes with grey melancholy It burdens her voice and inhibits her smiles. But without it, she is an aimless bee without a hive.
On a hot summer night, the sea crashed into the beach urgently The sky glowed white phosphorus hot, He arrived more beautiful than the moon, more luminous than the sun.
Her heart gave in to the softness of his skin, the tenderness in his cooes They placed him in her arms, a crying, swaddled bundle, and her heart took a tumble
They stitched her insides back together, To her chest she pulled him closer his head she smelled His face she caressed A magnificent feeling to become a mother..
During the years, she learned That her heart will break everytime he fell That his laughter is the edge of heaven That his tears are the gates to hell She learned That she will cry at every first day and last day of school That his voice will salve her soul in the midst of endless explosions She learned that the voice will change quickly from a cry to a roar, but his eyes will sparkle just the same, like the moon glistening in the sea.
It was a fateful morning when he left the house, his eyes iridescent with laughter In between breakfast and teasing banter He kissed her cheeks and asked for her blessings. He was a bright spot in all the darkness, an oil lamp in the endless electricity outages. He was as sweet as bottled water.
On that fateful humid May morning, She found his eyes,first… a light extinguished His smile, second…a rose wilted His hand, third, wrapped around his phone…a signal killed His legs, last, two limp logs splayed to the East and West
She birthed him from the mouth of rubble, head first, shoulders and torso second, hands and phone, third, then two limp broken legs...
She held him to her chest, this time, a silent swaddled bundle In his place sixty seven shadows hover
A flower stretches its neck in the sun, Anthers protrude rigidly beyond its petals, Waiting expectantly for the bird
A Sunbird hovers in the garden Flutters from one flower to the other Its feathers glisten iridescent blue.
Pollen scatters from its wings falling into the troughs of longing stoma The roses whisper for it to stay a little longer But the lilies beckon with seduction The sunbird rushes in hypnotic attraction.
I am the Sunbird Untethered Unhindered Free
Darting between the flowers Filling my cup with nectar Waiting for wholeness to fill the emptiness
Sometime in my graduate school career and the long road to a PhD in Chemistry, I remember standing over the stove for hours making qatayef. I got the recipe from my mother on the phone, back in those days social media, blogging and online recipes were still a novelty; YouTube was still an invention of the future. I hovered over the small frying pan, praying very hard that this experiment of mine would work. I do not think I willed any of my reactions in the lab to work as much as I did this one.
Earlier that day a reaction between sodium and ammonia worked so beautifully in the lab and most definitely got me closer to my dissertation, but the elation I felt as the qatayef hissed gently then sighed as the last bubble formed and popped was only reserved for the kitchen. With every pancake successfully lifted from the pan, and stuffed with walnuts or cheese, I got closer to home in an instant.
Fast forward about 15 years, April 2020… A pan much larger than the one I had back in my Tennessee kitchen, sizzled. I poured the batter out of a measuring cup. The perfect circle formed, then slowly bubbled. Success!!! The recipe worked! This was at least the fourth trial as I tweaked multiple recipes to make it work.
As the small bubbles popped, the same elation of fifteen year ago swept over me. Life was so different, but the act of making katayef had the same grit and perseverance of fifteen years past, albeit for different reasons. I was not in search of a taste home, I was home. Locked down at home that is, with a husband who was a far superior human being than I could ever hope to be, whose patience for my kitchen adventures was the embodiment of true love, and two tiny versions of myself in the form of children.
That spring the kitchen adventures intensified. I found myself, much like the rest of humanity, kneading dough, shaping it into loaves of bread, or spreading it for fteer bizaatar, or sprinkling it with cheese to make mana’esh, losing myself in the dust of flour, running away from the intangible virtual life we were living to the very real sturdiness of dough, and batter.
As the pandemic continues to rage on with virological supremacy, we find ourselves in the same place. Perhaps a bit more nuanced in our virtual lives, but exactly in the same place in the real world, at home, tucked away, staring in disbelief at the crowded shops, and secret weddings as the infection curve rises into the unknown.
As I try to make sense of the world, the kitchen seems to be the only place I have control, and the exhale of fresh qatayef makes me feel more safe and more at home than ever before.
This recipe is featured in the April 2021 edition of This Week in Palestine. Click on the link below
Activate the yeast: add the water, milk, sugar, and yeast into the blender, mix with a large spoon, then leave for ten minutes. The yeast should start working and you should see bubbles forming.
Prepare your dry ingredients: in a bowl whisk together the flour, semolina, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Mix the batter: mix the dry ingredients with the water mixture in the blender by adding the flour mixture slowly into the water and blending well. Add the rose water in the end. Pour the batter into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen cloth and store in a warm, draft free spot in your kitchen for at least 30 minute.
Cook the qatayef: heat a large non stick pan, or a pancake griddle. To know if the pan is hot enough, sprinkle a few drops of water and watch for a frantic sizzle, you want the pan hot (i preheat mine on medium heat for 15 minutes). Pour small amounts of the batter (¼ cup or so) in the middle of the pan. Watch as bubbles form and pop. If the pan is too hot, the qatayef won’t have time to form the bubbles and will cook too quickly. If the pan is too cold, the batter will stick and not cook all the way through. Depending on your stove, play with the heat until you get the perfect setting . Watch the qatayef closely. When all the bubbles popped, remove the qatayef and place in a large plate covered with a towel. Repeat until batter is finished.
Filling: take the qatayef in your hand, pinch the end to make a small pocket, place a teaspoon of crushed walnuts and cinnamon in the middle, then bring the edges together by pinching the dough between your fingers to seal the qatayef closed. Do the same for cheese.
Make Kater: place sugar and water in a saucepan on medium heat. Allow water to boil and sugar to dissolve completely. Then heat for a little longer until it starts to slightly thicken, turn off heat, stir in lemon juice and orange blossom.
Grilling Qatayef: Preheat the oven to 180 C, brush the filled pockets generously with butter, and place on a baking sheet, insert into the oven and cook until it is a deeper golden color, the center is crunchy. Remove and soak in lukewarm Kater; serve immediately. Note: many choose to fry qatayef, which is equally delicious. Heat oil and deep fry them then quickly transfer them to the kater as they come out of the oil.
By 2020 humankind was fully virtual, and a bit more robotic and a lot less human. They were too busy fighting each other, to notice that nature was lurking around the corner ready to aggress against them. Nature chooses its own moments, it does not ask for permission, neither does it knock on one’s door before obliterating it. There are no grand announcements of Nature’s arrival, it simply attacks. It chose this moment to aggress against man, again, and it did not do so lazily. This is not the first time modern, virtual, robotic humanity, practicing the scientific method expertly, would confront nature. However, it may just be the first time in living memory, humankind would confront nature in its fullest rage.
For a virus to cause a pandemic that could potentially kill millions, it needs to maintain a delicate balance between contagiousness and deadliness. Deadly viruses like Ebola for example, are unable to cause pandemics, because patients get severely ill that they are immediately hospitalized and isolated; more often than not ending up dead within days.
In the 1918 influenza pandemic, the virus managed to maintain this balance, killing many, yet doing it at a rate that allowed it to be passed from one individual to the other spreading widely across the globe. In 2002 SARS broke out; it was deadly and it was contagious. However SARS is only contagious after the patient becomes symptomatic laying gasping for life in a hospital bed.
COVID-19 mastered the balance between deadliness and contagiousness artfully. What started as a generally mild virus, deadly to the elderly and those with chronic health conditions, or so we thought, has now raged on for a full year and is promising with its new mutants to continue its spread. It is contagious even in asymptomatic patients, allowing the virus to move from one patient to the other without becoming symptomatically visible. It is smart and devious in that sense; it does not ask permission, it moves swiftly. It enters homes and spreads amongst families, at first giving a sense of false security, only to hit loved ones viciously.
In Palestine, there was a sense that the viral copy we had most of last year was a mild one. Today it is safe to say that this sense is no longer true. As I write this, we can no longer pretend that the virus is life threatening to the elderly and the sick. Additionally, reports of symptoms rendering the young ill for weeks further confirms that no one is safe.
One thing for sure, the lock down failed, at flattening the curve. A year of on again off again lock downs and we find ourselves in face of a climbing curve, the higher it climbs the less concerned people seem. It is not that lock downs are ineffective. If history is the greatest teacher then there are many lessons to learn from the Spanish Influenza Pandemic. In fact epidemiologists rely on historical knowledge to inform their present day responses. So by all accounts lock downs when community infections hit a high should have been effective and should have flattened the curve and stopped the virological spread. But, we were never in real lock down, where we? While the lock down seemed to apply on specific neighbourhoods and the center of one particular city, Ramallah, life proceeded business as usual elsewhere. Weddings, large gatherings, shopping sprees continued with no one to stop them.
While it is easy for leaders to turn and say this is an example of bad citizenship, that somehow the people have failed to act responsibly, this kind of rhetoric is inaccurate and seems to only relieve leaders from their own responsibilities. Those responsibilities being, planning, decision making and implementation.
Starting with the lack of a serious set of measures for those who do not wear a mask, who do not adhere to social distancing, and continue to hold social gatherings with no precautionary health measures, people will continue to not take heed of any decisions. In addition to the selective implementation of rules and regulations, so this cafe/restaurant or bar (you fill the blank) is open beyond curfew with no questioning, allowing its patrons a prolonged social gathering, while the falafel stand belonging to the old man and his sons whose only source of income is the number of five shekel sandwiches sold that day, gets shut down right at curfew, or maybe even five minutes before. And the lack of a clear plan on how the government will take care of its people, how will they compensate the daily falafel stand, or nawa’em boy. And how will they pay off the debts of the restaurant owner and the mortgage of the Maitre Di with four children at one of the most popular restaurants in the city, as they undulate between closures and openings. Additionally, the lack of true governance beyond major city boundaries as per Oslo accord agreements and zoning. Plus the contradictory messages received daily, like on the eve of announcing that Palestinian hospitals are operating at 100% plus bed capacity, only to announce that all stores are open leading to the piling up of people like sardines no social distancing and a negligible number of masks in markets. All of this have lead to a lack of trust in leadership that is unfortunately trickling down throughout society, and leading to one inevitable outcome…disaster.
Death will lurk around the corner of every street, every harah and every family. If illness is the nightside of life, then night has definitely fallen on Palestine and it may be a long time before the sun shines again.
Yes, pandemics go beyond borders and pose a threat to humanity as a whole, however, rarely has a disease not been politicized with marginalized groups, and cultures paying the highest price. Palestinians are no different. And the pandemic has exacerbated our plight and has been a rude reminder of how low we place in the world order in terms of access to resources. The state of Palestine is a state under occupation after all. One can wonder if it is even a state these days. In the coming few months we will be disabused of our delusions of grandeur that plague us as a nation, as we cower in front of nature and roll into the night of life.
We managed in the last year to corner ourselves into a health vs economy vs education (do not even get me started on schools) debate. That is not the debate we should be having. We should be having a serious conversation on how to open? how to implement regulations? how to push onwards without paying the highest price…human life.
We should have been having conversations on how to increase hospital capacities, how to support and protect our overworked and underpaid heath workers, our best and brightest. The conversation should have also been about what relief can be offered to families who rely on per diem pay, should a lock down become inevitable.
Instead document upon document of regulations for every single sector was put out, and shared widely with no real follow up. The only sector that operated like there is a pandemic, outside the health sector, and in my opinion did so like a champion, is the educational sector.
We hung our hopes on immunization. But in Palestine the vaccine remains elusive. Not only because we are a country rich in dignity, and poor in resources, but also because we failed to have the right conversation, the right debate. Who will pay for the vaccine? Should we act like an independent state and perhaps bite more than we can chew, or should we ask the occupying force to take its legal responsibilities and vaccinate the nation it has oppressed for decades? And should the vaccine become available, how, and when, and who will get vaccinated first? And who will make sure that the process is transparent, equitable and fair? But we did not have this conversation, and we remain looking down a dark tunnel.
Life will go back to what it is, there is life after a pandemic. The world today is living proof of life after the Spanish Influenza. But the road of return is long, arduous, and heavily priced.
For my conspiracy theorist friends, I pray this is all a conspiracy, not nature in its fullest rage, and biological history repeating itself…
“By 1918 humankind was fully modern, and fully scientific, but too busy fighting itself to aggress against nature. Nature, however, chooses its own moments. It chose this moment to aggress against man, and it did not do so prodding languidly. For the first time, modern humanity, a humanity practicing the modern scientific method, would confront nature in its fullest rage.” The Great Influenza, John M Barry
There is a particular sadness in cheesecake, a melancholic after taste, flat and blunt. It is creamy and sweet on the edges, but heavy in the middle. A sadness that registers on the tongue and releases memories into my synaptic cleft with electric speed.
Replaced with sadness are memories of my father standing in our kitchen making the cake from a German recipe written in German on a piece of graphing paper. The operation was carried with surgical precision and scientific accuracy. My mother found herself demoted in her own kitchen to su chef or second surgeon. She would eye my father with grave concern, like a mother would eye her toddler dashing straight into a mud puddle, pondering the dreadful aftermath, but giving in to the inevitable mess.
With her lips sealed thin tight, mother helped. A few protests would escape her mouth, just as quark came flying off the spatula to land flat on one of the kitchen cabinets. Sometimes the comment would turn into an argument, and other times she would reign in the comment, and continue to stand there watchfully. It looked like Mama was not enjoying any of this, and Baba loved every minute of it. Now I know that the instantaneous argument was a necessary ingredient that ultimately made the cake taste particularly happy.
Happy tasted light, creamy with hints of lemon zest, and notes of rum flavor or was it real rum? Happy had whiffs of sour on the edges, but was perfectly sweet in the center. It had the laughter of children growing up, the excitement the first slice carried with it as Mama lifted it expertly out of the pan. It had the seriousness of classical music and the memories of a younger version of Baba that must have lived freely and danced carelessly in what sounded to us a magical and far away place called Dresden.
I believe Baba was happiest when he was in Dresden; immersed in his books, electrified by the science and carried lightly on melodies of his favorite symphonies. Baba was a complicated man, Palestinian fallah meets German professor; poverty stricken meets eduationally fed; socialist fighter meets middle class comfort. The fluidity of Arabic language collides with the discipline of German culture.
Cheesecake was happiness for my father. A piece of his complex soul, a peace offering extended to us, his teenage children. Deafened by our own lives, he must have felt invisible; unheard and unseen. It was an invitation to get to know him. It was a concave view of his complexity. But for us, at least that immediate moment of heightened consciousness, it was simply delicious, irreplicable cheesecake.
Cheesecake, meant Baba taking over the kitchen for a half a day, and Mama cleaning after him for days. It was a tasty inconvenience. But it was also a moment of peace, when everyone would grow quiet, the arguing, the laughing and the loudness tethered to children came to a screeching halt.
The house abandoned its daily noises and listened intently to the signs of brewing coffee, the clicking and clacking of dishes and utensils as the table was set. And as quiet spread its thick blanket, the chairs were drawn and three children with their parents plopped themselves in anticipation.
The click of the springform pan announced that it was time. The kitchen smiled broadly, proud it survived another cheesecake adventure. The knife silently slid into the cake, and a hushed swoosh was heard as it traveled down through the filling reaching the crust. Then my mother pried the first piece out of the pan, careful not to break it apart. We stared through the arabesque of her arms, cradling our faces with drooling mouths, each hoping that the first piece made its way to their plate.
Eventually we each got a piece, and coffee gurgled into Mama and Baba’s cups. Then the competition of who ate slowest ensued. I watched around the table as I began the swift journey of my fork pressing into the cake , only to be surprised by the crust’s slight resistance before it gave way into crumbly surrender. Then I lifted my fork, slowly, surely to my mouth. My lips parted; the cake made its way into my mouth. My tongue received the piece eagerly, and as it sighed its flavors out, an explosion of thickness, creaminess, light tangues of lemon awakened my taste buds. The flavors waltzed in my mouth, as I started preparing the next bite.
There was a particular happiness in cheesecake that I missed. I was busy being a teenager who was branding her family annoying, dysfunctional and any other adjective that came rushing to mind. But it is exactly moments like this , when families sit around tables in silence to enjoy a meal, or a piece of dessert that memories are made. It is the stuff families are made off. It is what we take for granted as children, the love and safety of parents and the warmth of belonging together.
I had the same dream again…creamy silky cheesecake, Baba in my kitchen, mixing the ingredients, smiling at me. Sugar, cream cheese, butter, a dash of rum flavor, or vanilla, and eggs. He reminds me not to forget the juice of a half lemon and grated lemon peel. I hover around him, trying to register every move. But when I ask him questions, he does not answer. He just pours the batter into the pan, and opens the oven door. I reach out to help him, suddenly he is gone, he gets sucked into the darkness. I lose my footing and fall into the oven behind him. He disappears, and I come crashing into my bed…. The dream ends abruptly; I wake up sweaty, panting for air, with a blunt pain in my chest.
Decades after Baba’s cheesecake adventures met its abrupt end at the hands of multiple coronary thrombosis, I was blinded with bottomless grief and found myself in a state of perpetual hunger for hints of him in everything. I became acutely aware of all the similarities I share with him but never admitted to. So I embarked on a journey to recreate his cake in a desperate search for a hint of him in a bite.
My journey is ornate with endless failures. In my notebook, I enter one failed attempt after the other. One time the quark was too salty, another time, not enough sugar, the third time the consistency was all wrong, not dense enough, not creamy enough, too light, too airy, not enough vanilla, and the list goes on and on. My notebook reads like the hall of fame of failures and the disappointed looks on my siblings’ faces are trophies shining on its walls lustrously.
I regret not translating the recipe into English or Arabic. A continued pang of pain throbs against my heart that I never made the cake with him. He spent so much time with the children, yet we could never squeeze an afternoon to bake. Life always interrupted with a meeting or a phone call, or a sick child. I desperately wished I filmed him making it. Although my memories were as crystal clear as a glass ornament, they were devoid of color and sound. They receded into foggy compartments, there and not really there.
Many times I find myself remembering his wrinkled dark hands, opening the quark/labneh and pouring it into the food processor bowl. I imagine I am standing right beside him taking notes, talking to him. I see him smiling, answering my questions with scientific rigour. I think he would have loved this rare moment of attention from his eldest daughter. The. busy one, who resided comfortably in the distant Sunday dinners, occasional birthdays, Christmas Eves and Eid gatherings. Always busy, always on the run…
Often the images in my head are vivid that memory and imagination mix together, and become indiscernible. But one thing remains and perseveres, the cheesecake. The finer details of its flavors, the happiness it once brought and the particular sadness it now brings.
There is a particular sadness to cheesecake these days. One that persistently comes up in every attempt to recreate dad’s version and in the realization that to die means to not live. A painful recognition to come to is the mortality of our parents, the mortality of ourselves.
It is hard to imagine Baba not enjoying cheesecake. How fragile life is! How flimsy are its pleasures! We take them for granted, casting them aside as mundane and worldly, and only when death takes our loved ones, do we understand their preciousness.
My dad lived a full life with a successful career, a vibrant family with a wife who was equal parts homemaker and intellectual partner. A father who raised the bar high for his children, and never took any excuses. It is the fullness of his life that leaves behind an array of pain and memory. The more one lives, the more love there is to mourn.
All faiths and cultures believe that death leads to a better place. Does it? Or is this what mortals tell themselves to ease the pain of loss. On the eve of what would have been Baba’s 87th birthday, I can only pray that he is indeed in a better place where eternal peace and happiness envelope him warmly.
Over Winter Break, my children started to read Harry Potter. A fan myself, my heart was swelling with joy and pride. Eight years old and holding their books, sometimes to the light of a mobile phone to read, I was thrilled that they have discovered the joy of reading, the escape into a good book’s pages. And Harry, Hermoine and Ron were good characters to fall in love with, or at least that is what I thought.
I would take Hermoine over any Disney princess, any day. Knowledgeable, well read, knows her way around any library, intelligent and inquisitive. Hermoine never really needed anyone to help her, she never batted her eyelashes to get Ron or Harry to do anything for her. So, yes, I was thrilled, that we were out of the princess and prince woods and into the Harry Potter world.
And yes of course I prefer Harry and Ron over any Disney prince, from Prince Charming who went on his good looks and toothy smile to sleeping beauty’s prince, who apparently kissed girls in their sleep, without their consent one would assume (imagine if sleeping beauty got up and slapped him…that would have been funny)
Ron’s humility, his sense of humor, his loyalty and his arachnophobia make him approachable and believable. He is a character with so much humanity that one cannot help but love him. He tells a human story of friendship. For children, making friends is their first experience in building relationships, and creating their own social space where they grow, learn, experiment and express themselves. And Ron does exactly that, out of a very ordinary family (nothing ordinary about Mrs. Weasley’s kitchen, yet still apart from the magic, the Weasley’s are a hardworking middle class, maybe lower middle class family), Ron makes friends, and brings values like honesty and loyalty to life.
And there is Harry, rising from the ashes of tragedy, with a good heart, despite all the evil he has seen. Harry was no different than many children across the world today. Losing his parents in a war, turning into a refugee as a baby; sent to live in a cellar underneath the stairs; mistreated by those who claimed to be family, but adamantly refused to treat him as their own. Judged for who he is and where he came from, I couldn’t help but think of all the refugee children who met the same fate Harry had. The interconnections between the two stories stared back at me, and there was one child, one particular refugee child that kept popping in my head…his hands clasped behind his back, his patched shirt, his bare feet vividly dancing in front of my face, a black and white outline of a character, Handala…
Without any magic, or a Dumbeldore to look after him, Handala is practically on his own, he was and remains ten (maybe 11) years old. Having lost everything, Handala does not grow up; over the years and decades he remains a child..His face turned away from the world, his hands clasped behind his back, he patiently waits to return home. On the walls of refugee camps spray painted, he waits. He swings helplessly from silver key chains, his back still turned to the world, he faithfully waits. On the chests of young women he hangs from necklaces nestled under warm scarves wrapped artfully around their necks, or heads; he rests listening to their heartbeats and he tirelessly waits. Shared as an animation, or printed in white and black in newspaper cartoons, Handala never shows us his face; all he does us wait. One wonders if beyond the turned back there are tears; or a patient smile, or a sarcastic look…Or maybe he is angry?
Handala is no different than Harry. And if they ever met, maybe they would become friends? Harry would teach him how to swing a wand (Hermoine would be the one to teach him different spells though, especially the complicated ones); or how to use the Pensieve to collect memories. Or they might been perfectly content eating chocolate frogs, and vanilla wafers, on the Hogwarts Express laughing and talking. Harry’s scar would match Handala’s scratched marks. Handala would share a citrusy orange, while telling Harry how much he wishes to see his home again. Harry would swoop Handala on a quick trip over Palestine. They may be mistaken for a handmade drone, and may have to escape the iron dome missiles quickly, but Harry would handle the situation and disapparate them back to the train cart safely.
They would argue over which is the more interesting game Quidditch or Football (the real football, i.e. soccer). The argument would be heated, Harry would claim that football is boring; no one gets to fly, there is only one ball, and it rarely leaves the grass. Handala would defend football, and argue that quidditch cannot be played anywhere anytime, but football is not constrained to the field and the match. All you need is a ball, two stones as your goal post and children who want to play. In fact the most beautiful football is played on the streets with makeshift balls and very loud children. However, Handala would marvel at the opportunity to fly freely to the highest of altitudes on a broomstick. Both children would agree that Quidditch and soccer are far better than American football, and would joke at the weird shaped ball and the grunting player faces. They would laugh and quickly turn to eat more chocolate.
Harry’s scar would burn, Handala’s shadowy scratches would tingle, and they would become fast friends. Harry would smile, Handala would stand with his hands clasped, his face staring out the window, and would secretly smile. Harry wouldn’t see Handala’s face, and being a wizard, having met all kinds of magical creatures, he wouldn’t mind.
Handala would think Harry is a magical hero, but it is Harry, in his humility and kindness who is quick to recognize that it is Handala who is magical and heroic. Muggle born, with no supernatural powers, no wand, no magic, Handala is just as mysterious, just as enamoring, and just as heroic; his power is patience and perseverance…
Everyone knows Harry Potter’s happy ending, but we still wait for Handala’s happy ending to come. We can only hope it would be as magically just as Harry’s
In the meantime, I stand in my kitchen baking ginger bread cookies in the shape of Handala; I decorate them and bring them to life on my kitchen counter. The kids are curious…they ask questions, the conversation takes on all kinds of shapes, they want to know what will happen next to Handala, they want to read on about Harry (although they know the ending too well), we talk, we dream, we imagine what Handala’s face might look like. We agree that the only happy ending is for Handala to return home…
As I sit down to write this, they read over my shoulder; and as the questions continue , my heart fills with hope.
After one year of giving birth, I sat in a cafe frantically writing this letter to motherhood, before picking up the twins form day care. I read this now and recognize how paramount that year was, and how thankful I am that i became a mother.
I survived…One year later, and I am still alive. I do not sleep, I do not eat, and washing my hair is a luxury, but I made it and I may have turned into a better person. I have two tiny people that remind me daily that life is sweet and short, much like a mini Mars bar, just when you start enjoying it, it ends.
As my day starts and my level of stress shoots to star high levels, the piled undone laundry starts to develop an attitude, and the unprepared lecture notes start to guilt trip me into wondering what kind of person I have become. What happened to the talented, smart, intelligent, career oriented, size 8 wearing, 15 km running woman I once was? And just as the sight of a morning jogger starts to pinch my heart and bring severe awareness to my protruding belly, and my wide hips, and just as my colleague writes me a long email passive aggressively reprimanding me for missing yet another academic committee meeting, and just as I race out of campus only to be stopped at Qalandia…for hours; just as the world starts to cave in, these tiny feet, and tiny teeth, and innocent eyes that gather the most beautiful expressions a human face can gather remind me that I am no longer who I once was, that I have irreversibly changed. I may have been the career oriented, size 8 wearing, 15 km running woman, but back then I was only a caterpillar slowly swallowing everything in front of me, unable to ever feel full or satisfied. I did not know back then, just like a caterpillar does not know that we were both only fulfilling our destiny. That soon we will emerge out of cocoons, butterflies with wings to carry us as far away as possible from everything that is mundane, to the honey centers of jasmine and rose. My soul has wings now, and it sores beyond all that is daily and boring. It can see the bigger picture even when my children are sick, and I am on my way to yet another doctor’s appointment in the middle of a thunderstorm.
A student of mine approached me cautiously a few weeks ago; she said that I made her cry last year. She was terrified of taking a course with me, but was pleasantly surprised when she finally did. “You changed, professor, you are not as difficult as you used to be,” she confessed. I was not sure what to do, should I be embarrassed for what I once was? Or should I be happy that I have changed. My students have always known me to be tough, but never was the intention to make anyone cry. She said that I still held them at very high expectations, but that I was gentler and more compassionate. I wanted to hug my student so hard and tell her that motherhood changes everything. It softens the heart, and awakens the conscience, and opens up the brain to fresh air. It rewires all emotional, biochemical and hormonal pathways, and the end result is a new human being. The caterpillar undergoes major biochemical and physiological changes too, it grows wings, legs, and tentacles; its body becomes skinnier and lighter to fly away. As it emerges out of its cocoon, it is changed forever. And I have emerged out of my cocoon.
Yes, there are days when I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I do wake up feeling much like Gregor Samsa did, a giant vermin, ugly, frantically trying to gain control over my body and everything else. There are days when I am no longer a butterfly but a ferret running frantically on its wheel and getting nowhere. A look in the mirror could send me into uncontrollable crying episodes as I lament the dark circles under my eyes, the ungroomed person I have become with milk, egg, and lentil soup stains on almost every piece of clothing. But soon enough Basil’s belly laugh comes rolling into my ear and rudely interrupts my self-pity. Then I snap back and remember that I am neither a ferret nor an ugly giant vermin. I am a butterfly. Or Taima’s unlimited babbling that starts at 6 a.m. and does not stop until she falls asleep trustingly in her father’s arms at 8 p.m. swirls around me, and then I am transformed again from self loathing to sweet reality.
Yes I have cried endlessly this year. I have cried alone, with the children around, in my car, in my bed, while changing diapers, while cooking dinner, in the kitchen, while grading papers, while reading scientific literature that made no sense at all at 2 a.m. while trying to a make a deadline for an article in This Week in Palestine, while missing mixing body butters and scrubs. I have cried everywhere you can think of as the pressures of life caved in. I cried when Basil could not breathe from his broncholitis and when Taima was rushed to the emergency room on her first birthday. I cried when I missed the Christmas tree lighting in Ramallah, and when I gave my midterms three weeks before finals. I cried when I realized that I have not said one meaningful sentence to Ahmed for months, and when we could not finish a simple conversation because Taima woke up full of tears and vomit, sick again. I cried when Basil woke up and screamed for two hours every day for the past month. I cried when the only sleep I got where between the hours of 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. I have cried a lot this year. But (and please underline this but) I have also laughed. It is difficult to say which I did more off crying or laughing, but when I did laugh, it was the kind of laugh that uncoils from the bottom of your tummy and roars through your entire body. I can say I have experienced pure joy, the kind that only a mother knows.
As the year ends, and I continue to search for me and find me in between written lines, cooked dinners, decorated Christmas trees, graded or ungraded papers, endless laundry, stolen quiet moments (even if they are in the bathroom), I just have one request from you dear Motherhood; have mercy on me and Ahmed. Give us the wisdom and strength to raise these children to become better than us. Give us the strength to raise them lovers of life and humanity, fighters for justice, kind, compassionate, well read, well written, well spoken, strong, very Palestinian individuals who will be able to face life even after we stop to exist. And give me, personally, the ability to understand that I have forever…morphed.
First Pubished on The Big Olive. And the waiting continues…
Welcome to the land of waiting. People here are born waiting. Waiting to return to a homeland lost, and from the looks of it, in the most desperate moments, lost forever. Waiting to return to a home they still carry a key for in their hand and a memory in their heart, an image hidden in the folds of their dreams, that sadly and in the most realistic moments, they know no longer exists.
In Palestine you wait for Ramadan, just like you wait for a breath of fresh air in a crowded restaurant in NYC, you wait for a tasree7 (permit), you wait for the paycheck, or even worse you wait for the job.
You wait for schools to open, for the strike to end, for the checkpoint to be removed, for the accident rubble to be cleared. You wait for the Allenby bridge to empty, you wait for the doctor to finally come in on time.
In Palestine you wait. You wait for your dreams to happen.
You wait to leave the refugee camp, you wait to leave the village, you wait to arrive to Ramallah, you wait for destiny to embrace you, but she really never does. In fact at the first stop she slaps you hard in the face and leaves her mark, and then you spend a lifetime waiting for that wound to heal. It never does.
In Palestine you wait to graduate, you wait to find a job, you wait for the next job to be better.
In Palestine you wait to get married, then you wait to have children then you wait for them to grow, then you wait for them to become doctors…trust me they will not.
In Palestine you wait in line endlessly to receive permission to see Palestine that is yours. And after you finally get a chance to see her, you realize she looks nothing like what your grandparents described, and nothing like the country your mother cries over. You wait to see her, only to realize, she did not wait for you.
In Palestine you wait for the birth of a child anxiously with the hope she is not born on a checkpoint. In Palestine you wait for the hunger strike to end. You wait for sons and daughters to be released from prison, only to be rearrested again, at the next checkpoint on the next trip, on their way to find a job and start a life.
In Palestine you wait for your paycheck only to have it hijacked by hungry loan payments and red hot gasoline prices.
In Palestine , you wait endlessly in Qalandia to get home. Keep waiting…this might take hours. .
You wait for the summer to end in the hopes that winter will bring more peace, and you wait for winter to end in the hopes that summer will bring more warmth.
And in Palestine you wait for the next eruption, the next intifada, the next incursion, the next war…And that always happens