I never let them touch me. I told Dima that at every opportunity, once she was old enough to understand. When she’d learned from her friends what I could not bear to say and what the Rosary Sisters would tell the girls only the following year, she said she did not believe me. Believe me or not, I said, you will not go die for them.
I long ago stopped believing myself. Stopped believing the Rosary Sisters and Father Joaquin and Ismail Haniyeh and Abu Mazen and the pope and my own thoughts. Nasrin, the only thing you believe in is the sea, Mama screamed at me when my brothers found me on the beach instead of in class with the Sisters. Because, I screamed back, it’s where Gaza ends and the world begins. But I could never put even my foot in the water.
Our names were right. I was a lonely flower, Dima was a downpour. By the time she was fourteen she was climbing out of the bathroom window at the Rosary Sisters, shouting herself hoarse at demonstrations that no one heard, attending political meetings that no one cared about. When I raised the subject, she shouted at me about Israeli imperialism and European colonialism and patriarchal oppression. What does a girl with no father know about patriarchal oppression, I countered, trying to make a joke. But jokes only work if there’s a real world to joke about.
The Rosary Sisters taught a great deal, but I learned very little. I had no use for incarnations and visitations and transubstantiations, for a miracle’s only a miracle if you live in a world that operates according to laws and logic. Then a miracle can startle you out of the natural routine and give you a glimpse of something beyond. But in Gaza, where sewage runs down the street and your fridge operates just a few hours a day and where a brother or two, bored and distracted and unmanned by inaction and unemployment, beats you at incoherent intervals for no reason at all, there are no laws, so there can be no miracles.
The math teacher at the Rosary Sisters, Mr. O’Reilly, got me excited about geometry for a few months. I was stunned when he told me that triangles always have three sides and their angles always sum to 180 degrees. Always? I asked in disbelief. Always, he gravely replied. Even in my house? He considered that and then said, yes, necessarily. But then he put his hand under my skirt and I stopped believing in math along with everything else. And I checked. In my house, there were no triangles, only bare and lonely angles with no connection to each other.
And that was it. No other man ever got any nearer to my own triangle, although many tried. Muslim men in particular. They think that all Christian women are whores because we don’t cover our heads and necks and wear bags over our bodies. Mama was sure that I was copulating on the beach with every many who came by, but I knew how to protect myself. I refused to marry, too. Not that there were proposals. I had neither the personality nor the beauty that the average young Christian man in Gaza seeks. There are not very many young Christian men in Gaza. The average has no meaning.
It was a few months after my thirty-third birthday that my time came but the blood didn’t. A week went by, and then two. Mama gloated. It proved everything she believed about me. I, in contrast, disbelieved. Who said that a missed period means pregnancy? Why have any faith in anything everyone said? If you needed a man to put his thing up inside you to have a baby then I could not be pregnant. But why believe even that? Perhaps it was true beyond Gaza beach, but there is no truth here. So when my belly began to swell I simply put what little I had in a bag and went to the Holy Family Church on Zeitoun Street. There was nowhere else to go. As Father Joaquin is a believer, he believed me. A couple of my brothers soon stormed in and he told them in no uncertain terms that I did not belong to them and that if they touched me he’d tell Hamas about their beer stash and they’d be dead. The brothers fumed and made a show but, once they had demonstrated that they were real men, they went back to their backgammon boards and cigarettes and drink and let me be.
The Rosaries gave me a small room with a bed and a crucified Jesus hanging on the opposite wall. Sister Nabila was charged with my soul and sought to speak to my heart. She spoke about the power of Christ’s salvation to cleanse the darkest heart. Contemplate our savior in his agony, she suggested. I looked at the crucifix and pointed out the triangles formed by his arms, the arms of the cross, and the line of his pierced abdomen. Can a triangle have two sides made of torn human flesh and another of wood? I wondered out loud. And can one add angles of flesh to angles of wood? What are you talking about, she asked helplessly. Oh, something I learned from Mr. O’Reilly, I said.
As there was fear I might be abducted from the hospital, or worse, by a brother or a jihadist, a midwife was brought in for my labor. By this time my belly was so large that my navel had disappeared. An Israeli flare shined through the window. I called my daughter Dima. The patriarch, Father Joaquin, and Mr. O’Reilly came to visit and brought gifts. A consultation was held, and the patriarch suggested that perhaps it would be best to send me and the baby to Egypt, where we might be safer. But I refused. Outside of Gaza, I feared, I might encounter truth, and if I encountered truth I would also encounter lies, which can be told only when there is a truth to lie about. I preferred to stay where dreams of blissful villages from which we were expelled by the Jews in the past, and illusions about the same blissful villages we will return to in the future when the Jews are dead, are far more meaningful than the city we actually live in.
That everyone around me believed that Dima had a father was of no interest to me. I’d listened to my school lessons just enough to know what it meant. So as she grew, as soon as she could understand, I told her that she was not to die for them, not for anyone.
In some ways she was clearly my own daughter. She took nothing on faith, neither religion nor mathematics or even the operations of her own body. Well into second grade, she refused to go to the bathroom if she was busy with something else, until an accident occurred. When I, when the sisters, tried to explain that she should go when she felt a need, she countered that she would not be forced to do anything by anyone, including her own body. When she was ten, she joined the girls’ soccer team. She was an able dribbler and had a powerful kick, but refused to aim at the goal posts on the grounds that she should be allowed to score no matter where she sent the ball. Needless to say, she was soon asked to leave the team.
At sixteen, she announced to me and the Rosaries that she wanted to do the medics’ course that the Red Crescent was advertising. Perhaps it will be good for her, Sister Nabila said. She will be able to give of herself to help others. I don’t want her raising any dead, I said. In Gaza, a child’s duty’s simply to stay alive. Do you want to help others? I asked her. I want to help the revolution. Oh, the revolution, I said. Just don’t die for it. She completed the course with great success and began to work on an ambulance.
When the Ramadan Friday picnic protests were announced this past spring, and the Israelis started shooting, and Hamas got people to throw stones and send burning kites over the border, Dima and her crew were assigned to treat the wounded. I stayed in our little room at the Rosary Sisters because I did not believe in violence, or non-violence, or Hamas, or Israel. I lay in bed and contemplated the triangles of bloody flesh and wood on the wall. Dima would come home from time to time. She told me nothing and I didn’t ask. But each time, I said: You will not die for them. You cannot atone for their sins, for people can sin only when they live in a world that runs according to rules, and there are no rules in Gaza. There is nothing to atone for. You cannot save them because there is nothing to save. We here in the Strip are but lone angles, stripped bare of flesh and wood and lines. She did not believe me. Of course not. There was nothing to believe.
She was bandaging a man just by the border when a tear gas canister came in from where real things exist. It hit her in side of her chest and tore it open. She died in the operating room.
She died helping others, Sister Nabila comforted me. She died for nothing, I said, for a child born of a woman who has never known a man can only die to bring salvation to others, and there is no salvation where there is no world to be saved. Sister shook her head and patted me on the head sadly. She locked the door from outside when she left, but I climbed out the window and went to the sea. What else can you do if you live where there is no life, think thoughts that have no meaning, and do not believe they even belong to you?
I sit on the sand and glare at the sea, far enough from the water so that the waves do not lap my toes. Some angels appear. They want to take me to heaven. I shoo them away, and frightened, they fly off. The men who walk by do not dare come near.
Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is available as an e-book, paperback, and hardback on Amazon, and on all other on-line stores and select brick-and-mortar establishments. More information on South Jerusalem
To read more Necessary Stories on-line, go to theNecessary Stories archive