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  • Published: 17 September 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761344978
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $36.99

Cactus Pear For My Beloved

A Family Story from Gaza

Extract

PROLOGUE

BABA

QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA, 2018

I park my father's old Camry in the last remaining disabled spot outside the Logan Shopping Centre. I switch off the tired engine and it squeals with gratitude before it slumps into silence.

‘Baba!’

I nudge him.

He does not respond. He sits in the passenger seat, still like a mountain, ancient like eternity, fragile like a poem. His dark, round face a rugged terrain of countless tear tracks and glorious laugh lines. His brown eyes hold a thousand and one stories in a glance. His lips move to the rhythm of a verse that he whispers like a sacred prayer. He’s somewhere else. He is always somewhere else. And it is this constant state of absence that makes his presence more splendid.

I know better than to rush him. I wait.

Heat replaces the cool air inside the car. My skin burns under the relentless rays of a blazing Australian sun, beaming through the windscreen.

‘They don’t call it the Sunshine State for nothing!’ I mumble, as I slather on another layer of sunscreen.

Only seconds have passed, but already the air grows thick and humid. Sweat beads fill the grooves on Baba’s cheeks. His red golf T-shirt clings to his belly, damp with perspiration.

‘It is hot in here, Baba!’ I say, as I dust off the dandruff sprinkled on his shoulders and adjust his black sun cap. ‘Valla Habibi,’ I beg.

He turns his head, exasperated. It takes a few seconds for his eyes to focus, as if he is dragging himself away from a differ­ent world. But he gets here, and when he does, and in true Baba fashion, he snaps into character.

‘First,’ he declares with a theatrical voice, ‘fetch me my trusty steed.’ He points out the window to the line of shopping carts nearby. ‘Pick a solid one that I can charge into the battlefield with!’

‘A shopping trolley?’

‘Yes.’

‘But Baba,’ I wipe the melted make-up off my face. ‘Your walker is a much better steed. The physiotherapist said you should . . .’ he rolls his eyes, but I push on, ‘. . . you should always use your walker. It gives you the support you need. I’ll get it for you. It’s in the boot.’

‘Well, it can stay there,’ he insists. ‘A walker? Do you want my friends to think I’m an old man?’ He fakes outrage with a mischie­vous smile, and it is in that instant, that I see him. I see him. The wounded fighter who drank the sorrow of loss and bled his pain into captivating verses. The wanderer who traversed every corner of the world searching for home. The hungry Palestinian refugee who swallowed the Arabian desert and landed on Australia’s shores. I see him – poet, revolutionary, entrepreneur, Aussie sheep farmer and now, aged pensioner. Him! I see all of him. My Baba. And my heart, like my make-up, melts.

I capitulate. In my fifties, I’ve become much more understand­ing of the need to hide appearance of old age, even at the expense of comfort. Vanity, like poetry, runs in the family.

I fetch the trolley and help him out of the car. First he leans on me, then shifts his weight onto the trolley. It takes him a few minutes to adjust his balance, slowly stretching one leg, then the other, before shuffling his sandal-clad feet across the hot asphalt, jaws clinched and back lifted as straight as he can possibly manage.

Halfway to the entrance, a soft whimper escapes his lips. He quickly wipes the pain from his face and forces a smile as he glances sideways, embarrassed I may have heard his moan. I pretend I did not.

‘Baba, you were right,’ I say. ‘This trolley makes you look at least twenty years younger.’

He grins.

We make our way into the shopping mall. I am blown away by his popularity.

A hipster Caucasian with a beautifully groomed beard standing outside the barber shop smiles and waves. ‘Lovely day, George!’

Soon after, a vivacious blonde in her sixties, wearing full make-up and freshly arranged hair, winks at him.

‘George,’ she says with a husky voice, ‘I took your advice and sprinkled sumac on my fish.’ She places her hand on his shoulder and whispers loud enough for me to hear, ‘Why don’t you come over to my house tonight? I can show you how well I can do it.’

OH MY GOD! I scream in my head. Is she flirting with my father?

I hide my shock. Baba does not hide his joy.

‘Sure,’ he laughs wholeheartedly, adding with a great deal of dramatic flair, and in his most charming, heavy accent, ‘but you must promise you will not take advantage of me. I am a married man!’

The woman giggles pleasurably as she sashays away, leaving the scent of her floral perfume behind.

A few steps later, a young Māori woman wearing the mall’s security uniform is delighted to see him. ‘Good morning, George!’ My father returns the greeting with equal enthusiasm.

We arrive at his favourite cafe. A couple in their seventies wearing a healthy Queensland glow and matching white shirts, shorts and runners, bounce to their feet.

‘George! Right on time, as always. We held your table for you.’

Their smiles light up their suntanned faces. They move the chairs out of his trolley’s path and hand over the table in what appears to be a daily ritual, before they wave goodbye.

My father looks sheepishly at my bemused expression as he lowers himself slowly onto the seat.

‘You see? I am the most important person here,’ he brags. ‘Everyone knows me!’

‘Clearly,’ I shoot back, ‘they don’t have a clue.’

I feel unsettled, resentful – even angry. There goes my baba, exiled to the edge of the earth, leaning on his shopping trolley every day through this small-town mall, pretending to be someone else. Pretending to be George. George! A non-Arab, non-Muslim immigrant, who makes up for his heavy accent with a good sense of humour and a great deal of charm.

A voice of reason struggles to make its way through the cracks of my mind’s anger. ‘Why can’t you let him be? Why must you blame him?’ George fits in places Abdul Karim cannot.

I draw a deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, then I exhale. I know that what I am about to ask once uttered, will be irrevocable.

My father will latch onto it, and not let go. But right now I am more convinced than ever of the urgency of my request, as I see frag­ments of our history slipping through the trembling fingers of this old man who calls himself George, and falling, scattered like dust particles, all over the shiny tiles of this nondescript shopping mall.

Baba orders a cappuccino and I order a blueberry muffin. We sit across the table from one another. I begin to pitch my idea.

‘You want to write my story?’

‘I want you to be my research subject for . . .’ before I finish my sentence and say PhD, he reaches for my muffin and takes a big bite. I am distracted. I want to protest. I want to say, ‘Don’t eat sugar – you are diabetic!’ But it is too late. He has swallowed the piece whole. ‘Pick your battles, Samah,’ I say to myself.

I watch as he draws a long sip from his cappuccino to wash down the sugary treat. ‘I will consider your proposal,’ he says, nodding. ‘After all, you are a writer – and mine is the best story you will ever write.’

‘Well, Baba,’ I tease, ‘I’m sure I could come up with better stories if I wanted to.’

‘Nonsense.’ He laughs and reaches for the rest of my muffin. I surrender.

‘Why didn’t you ask me sooner? I am too old to enjoy being famous now.’

‘You’ve had enough fame. Khalas. Everyone knows you back home.’

‘Yes, but here they only know George.’

A long silence passes between us before he speaks again. This time he is stoic. ‘You want to reconstruct my life with your words?’ His eyes pierce through me as if weighing up my worth both as daughter and as writer. I smile confidently.

‘That is a lot of faith you are asking for. You want me to open my old wounds and let you pick at them?’

‘I will be gentle, Baba – and it will be therapeutic for you. We will spend a lot of time together. This will be fun.’

‘You want to bribe me with your attention?’

‘You get my attention anyway, so what’s the harm if I were to get something in return?’

He laughs, and mulls over the proposal. When he takes too long to respond I confront him with my words of truth.

‘Baba, you ate my muffin. You owe me.’

He laughs and tries to sit up straight in the chair, but an expres­sion of pain shoots across his face. Irritation takes hold of him. His mood shifts.

‘I’m not an old, open book with falling-out pages and faded ink that needs to be reprinted.’

‘Of course, you are not.’

‘I’m not an abandoned, derelict building that needs to be restored.’

‘I know, Baba. I promise. I will look after your – really, our – stories.’

‘I have to approve your transcript.’

‘That goes without saying.’

‘Writers, they always make promises before they begin writing. Once they put words to paper the words grow into worlds, and the worlds open possibilities where temptations lurk, and hidden secrets beg to be revealed.’

‘I promise to do no harm to you, or others. I will weave fic­tional characters in places where real people choose not to be named. I will be truthful to the historic events and to your own personal story. I . . .’

I begin to tell my father about the ethics course we had to do before starting our research, about what it means for him to be my research subject – his rights, my responsibilities. I explain how I will use standpoint theory and oral testimony to explore trauma, but he holds up his hands to stop me.

‘You know, one never needs to work so hard to convince a storyteller to tell his story.’ He reaches for my hands and wraps them in his. ‘I want to do this. The question I struggle with right now is which stories will I tell you, and what stories will you write?’

‘What was it like to grow up in Gaza? Why did you leave? I want to write about your journey into exile.’

‘My journey into exile?’ He laughs out loud. ‘Ha! Exile is not a journey. A journey begins somewhere and progresses towards something. Exile refuses to take me anywhere but exile itself.’

I have the urge to record every word he says. ‘Baba?’ I pull out my phone. ‘Is it okay to record our conversations from now on?’

He nods.

‘If you were writing your life, Baba, where would your story begin?’

‘I will tell you where it does not begin. It does not begin with my birth, just as it will not end when I die. Stories are powerful and meaningful only when woven together. My story is part of a tapestry of stories, it is not mine alone. If you pull it out of that tapestry it will unravel and will lose its meaning. Do you understand?’

‘I do, Baba. I do!’

 

1

KHADIJA

GAZA, PALESTINE, c.1940

Before my father was born, Khadija climbed up the sycamore tree and refused to come down. Hair uncombed, face unwashed, clothes stained, sharp splinters shooting through soft hands and bare feet, Khadija sought refuge inside the thick green foliage and wept.

Down below, her husband, Sheik Hussein, limped in circles around the majestic trunk.

‘Khadija, be sensible. Come down,’ he ordered.

‘Khadija, get down from that tree now!’ he commanded.

‘Khadija, come. I am your husband. I am grieving, just like you,’ he pleaded.

‘Khadija, I need you,’ he sobbed.

Khadija did not come down.

Days passed. The sheik resigned himself to the familiar help­lessness of a cripple, and the stinging solitude of grief.

News of Khadija’s madness spread. Relatives and neighbours from near and far came in waves. Some, driven by a genuine desire to help; others, seduced by a morbid curiosity to stare grief in the eye. Grief, unapologetic and un-wavering, stared back at them. Their hearts were shattered by Khadija’s gut-wrenching howls. Their clothes were drenched from her falling tears.

The wind echoed Khadija’s sorrows across the fields, swooping over the hills and valleys of Palestine. A restless night breeze carried her name, and whispered it into her mother’s ears:

‘Khaaadiiijaaa . . .’ ‘Khaaadiiijaaa . . .’ ‘Khaaadiiijaaa . . .’ the wind hissed and breathed.

Khadija’s mother tossed and turned in her sleep, but the relentless whispers of the wind refused to give her reprieve. ‘Khaaadiiijaaa . . .’ ‘Khaaadiiijaaa . . .’ ‘Khaaadiiijaaa . . .’ the wind whooshed and hissed and hissed and whooshed until Aziza finally woke, startled, her hand on her heart and her daughter’s name on her lips.

‘Khadija!’ Aziza shouted her daughter’s name into the night, waking up her husband, Ibrahim, from his deep slumber.

‘Oh Aziza, why are you screaming your daughter’s name in the middle of the night?’

‘Something is wrong.’ Aziza got up. ‘Khadija needs me,’ she said, as she ran outside.

Ibrahim, used to the accuracy of his wife’s intuitions, asked no more questions of her. What was the point? He knew his wife would be well on her way to her daughter’s rescue.

Aziza threw her veil over her head and prayed for God’s mercy as she ran with urgent steps into the barn.

‘I am coming, my daughter. I am coming, ya binty!’

She repeated her prayers to God for strength and patience as she mounted her donkey and rode all the way along the Mediterranean shore from the town of Salama near Jaffa in the north of Palestine, to the Tuffah district of Gaza, eighty kilometers to the south.

When Aziza finally arrived west of Mohatta Street in Tuffah, Gaza, she was greeted by a welcoming committee of excited, bare­footed and scantily dressed children who formed a circle around her, and competed to tell their version of the story of how Khadija, the wife of their respected sheik, had climbed up a tree and had refused to come down.

Aziza listened for a few moments before she impatiently shooed the children away and entered the sheik’s home.

In the front yard, under the sycamore tree, Aziza lifted the hem of her dress and waded into her daughter’s puddle of tears. She opened her arms wide and looked up at the branch where Khadija crouched. She drew a deep breath to subdue her chaotic, drumming heart before she spoke softly.

‘Khadija, my beloved binty habibty, come down.’

Khadija did not move. She did not make a sound. Aziza tried again and again and again.

‘Come down, my child. Come down, piece of my flesh and fragment of my soul . . . My arms will carry your pain. My heart will share your sorrow. My eyes will cry your tears . . . Come down, my beloved. Ya binty ya habibty, come down! Mishan allah, come down.’

There was a slight movement on the branch above as Khadija parted the leaves and looked down at her mother.

When Khadija finally spoke for the first time in weeks, this is all she said.

‘I am not your daughter. I am a cat. I swallowed all my children.’


Cactus Pear For My Beloved Samah Sabawi

'Samah Sabawi has written a story of courage and struggle. Her generosity is such that above all she has gifted us a story of love of family and country.'TONY BIRCH The story of a family over the past 100 years, starting in Palestine under British rule and ending in Redland Bay in Queensland.

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