Drifting Eastward Like Desert Sand

A child learns about impermanence as her family looks for an `oasis' to call home

THERE was a lair of foxes near our house in Maan, where, nearly 20 years before, the Englishman, T.E. Lawrence, rallied Arabs into resistance against Turkish rule. But at age two or three, caring not a whit for history, I still recall fox-eyes shining from a hollow rock, and a sea of endless sand. In later years, I would lie awake at night listening to the cries of foxes in the valleys, and wonder how they'd managed to track me down to my Ramallah home. We weren't exactly Bedouins in search of an oasis in the desert, nor even gypsies in caravans with wanderlust in our veins. But during my childhood years ``home'' first meant Jerusalem where I was born, then it drifted eastward, like desert sand, and crossed the Jordan river into what was then Transjordan; and wound its way back to what was then Palestine: to Beersheba, to Jerusalem twice, and finally to Ramallah, where my mother lives today.

Our house in Zerka, near Amman, had a pomegranate tree, and a garden oasis in the back. If watered and fertilized, the desert would bloom a hardy crop of peas, tomatoes, and even mushrooms.

I looked for edible mushrooms hiding in tiny mounds of fertilized earth. Some mornings, I wandered off to my mushroom patch, and with eagle-eye, would spot each webbed mound as if it were a treasure chest. Carefully, I broke off chunks of dirt to uncover plump, whitish mushrooms nestled inside, then brought my haul of mushrooms to my mother to cook with eggs for breakfast.

Since children my age were nowhere to be found, I turned to fuzzy worms for company. At four or five, I spent hours building safe and fortified mud homes for ``Hurus murus,'' the fuzzy orange worms that crossed my path.

``Hurus murus ... oom urus,'' I'd sing the Arabic ditty over and over again. ``Hurus Murus ... Get up and dance!'' When evening came, I tucked my fuzzy friends inside their well-built homes - for safe-keeping. But by morning, I discovered to my dismay, the worms had mysteriously vanished in the night.

How was it possible? My childish mind could not comprehend fuzzy worms refusing hospitality, burrowing through dirt and sand, leaving homes behind.

On hot summer afternoons, squatting, I watched scorpions at play near our Zerka garden. And during family walks, I trailed behind, exploring bug, bird, or desert plant - discovering horseshoes on the way - always hurried on by parents in a hurry.

There were one or two more places in between before we began to call ``Beerissabi,'' or Beersheba, home. Not far from the Sinai (Sina') desert, Beersheba had daily sand storms that kept us busy dusting and sweeping floors; while in our high-walled garden, squawking geese held friend and foe at bay. And when the youngest of my sisters was born, my parents named her ``Sina.''

When I was 10 or 11, Abu Rbaa, a Bedouin sheikh who lived in the desert beyond Beersheba, invited our family - girls and all - for a noonday meal.

Since no road or map pointed the way to the sheikh's desert tent, my father drove by instinct, bearing south, we thought, toward Sinai. But somehow, instinct and wisdom floundered in desert heat, and we wandered, lost, in stretches of sand for hours on end. The ``noonday'' sun had angled sharply to the west when we finally found our way to Abu Rbaa's tent. Our host - relieved we were still intact - welcomed us graciously and without reprimand.

ACCORDING to custom, the sheep for the luncheon-feast, or mansaf, would be slaughtered and cooked as soon as guests arrived. So ... while others scurried to prepare the belated mansaf from scratch, we, the privileged guests, sat cross-legged on Damascus-woven carpets in the master tent, and passed the time in friendly talk - and in hope that stomach rumblings would soon subside.

When members of the sheikh's household finally brought in the steaming platter of cooked lamb and rice, ``noon'' had turned to dusk, and oil lamps had been lit.

After feasting, Arabic coffee was served. But first: the roasting and the grinding of coffee beans.

Hunkered in a corner of the tent, the coffee grinder pulverized coffee beans with flair, his pestle clanging against mortar with a brisk and rhythmic beat.

Our wandering days were over, we thought, when my father built our Jerusalem ``El-Kuds'' home - for permanence. Katamon, in West Jerusalem, was an eclectic neighborhood: with a Greek family, and a Yugoslav couple with a pianist son nearby. And down the road there was a well-known Palestinian author of history books.

At age 12, I devoured as many Zane Grey books I could find in our YMCA library and fell in love with cowboys. I climbed trees, explored empty lots, and took city bus No. 4 to school and back again. At night, I fell asleep to a lively Chopin polonaise or a lyrical etude - courtesy of our Yugoslav neighbor - whose piano-playing almost drowned out the escalating sounds of gunfire in the city.

I climbed our Jerusalem saru tree to see beyond rooftops and the verandas of our neighbors' houses - beyond, even, the Semiramis Hotel, a block away. And once or twice a week, Aunt Nabi and I would walk through British Army checkpoints near our home to the nearest ice cream store. And although caramel or chocolate swirls of ice cream on a cone did not quite rival mushrooms in splintered earth - it came quite close.

One night in January, stones and mortar exploded - muffling for a few moments, the steady cadence of pouring rain. In our Katamon house, window shutters clattered to the floor, glass broke.

When morning came, rain had stopped and skies were almost blue. With my younger sisters in tow, I walked with a procession of neighbors to see for ourselves what we suspected to be so.

Despite the rubble - an outer wall of the Semiramis Hotel still stood, defying man-made bombs. As British soldiers dug through debris, one of their comrades began to whistle a merry tune.

Did he whistle for courage? I wonder. For wanting to go home?

Or for Hurus Murus to get up and dance?

Barely 13, I had learned the lessons of impermanence. And even after we left for the safety of Ramallah, I would dream of tents anchored in sand and hear the coffee grinder's rhythm in my head, and think of Hurus Murus leaving homes behind.

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