The Walls That Separated Me

It used to be a fence that separated our side from theirs. I remember being a child not so long ago and looking over, waiting for one of them to come out with a rifle to scare the children away while they were playing, and occasionally they would. It used to be a fence just like the one that surrounds most soccer fields. Now, it’s one massive, gray block of wall after the other. Oh, and they have a tower to watch us from, too.

“Remember when it used to be a fence?” I said to Amjad, one of the many boys I grew up with.

“Yeah, I do. They used to put barbed wire around the top, and when we’d shoot a soccer ball that high up, it would hit a spike on the barbed wire and flatten,” Amjad reminisced.

“Well, they’ve presented us with a challenge! We need to learn how to shoot the ball way high up over the wall!” I suggested.

“Are you kidding me? The one good thing we got out of them removing the fence is the fact that we don’t have to keep buying soccer balls every time they flattened,” Amjad said, giggling. I laughed at the truth in his words.

“Rumor has it that if you touch the fence, you get electrocuted,” I added.

“Well, we never got close enough to try.”

“What on Earth are the two of you doing?”

            I got off my back and saw my mother standing a few feet behind where Amjad and I were laying down. On our walk home from school, we decided that the weather was nice enough for us to put our backpacks down and sit on the only piece of land that had grass in the area and watch the soldiers in the tower as they were always watching us.

“Hey, mom,” I said.

“Hey, mom? That’s all you have to say? Get up, both of you, and come home. We don’t want any trouble with the soldiers, do we now?” My mother continued yelling. “Amjad!”

            Amjad was still lying on the floor. He was nudging on the end of my jeans with one hand and pointing up with the next. “They’re out!” Amjad was amused. Two soldiers had opened windows in the tower and peeked their heads down to where we were sitting.

            “Shalom!” Amjad and I yelled at them. I could still hear my mother in the background calling our names.

“Go away,” the soldiers were mumbling in Hebrew on their megaphones.

“Shalom!” We continued.

“Move it!” One of the soldiers started to get angry.

“Mahmoud, you better come here right now!” My mother yelled. She was standing behind Amjad and I now.

“Okay, mother, we’re coming.”

            Amjad and I dusted our pants and followed my mother. “Don’t the two of you have studying to do?”

That was something my mother often said, and I often ignored. My parents had always insisted on imprinting the idea of education in my mind. It worked, though. I am in my final year of high school, and education means a lot to me because it means a lot to them. My mother wants to see me become a successful lawyer because according to her I have this ability to make people sit and listen to what I am saying. “I wish mothers had that ability with their children,” she’d tell her friends when they came over, and they would all start giggling at the idea. My father wants me to be anywhere but the place I am currently in. “Behind those walls, there’s a door that opens to a large world,” he’d always say, and a part of me believes that he’s actually trying to convince himself of the fact. “Education was the key to success”, they’d say, but what if there was no door to begin with as was with their case?

“You used to be afraid of the soldiers when you were younger. You’d see them come out and run inside to hug me,” my mother told me, as she was putting the dishes away in the kitchen.

“Well, I realized they were just like the monsters behind my bedroom door. They aren’t that scary,” I reassured her while chewing on my food.

“They aren’t as scary as they are crazy. I don’t want you to get hurt or end up in prison.” She sighed.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m a big kid now.”

“Mahmoud, when will you see that you will always be my baby boy even when you are sixty and visiting me on my death bed?”

“God forbid,” I got up from the kitchen table, went to her and kissed her forehead. “The food is great as usual, mom.”

“You didn’t finish your plate,” she said, taking my plate in her hand.

“I’ll finish it tonight,” I told her.

“Where are you going now?” She asked with an eyebrow raised.

“To my room, I swear,” I said, walking out of the kitchen smiling at her.

Later that night, my mother and father passed by my room to say their goodnights.

“Don’t stay up too late,” my mother said. “You’ll go blind.” I shook my head.

“Behind those walls, there’s a door that opens to a big world,” my father added. “You want to be able to see it.”

I closed my books shortly after they made their stop by and lay on my bed, thinking. Perhaps I could see the world one day.

The next day was one of the three days where the possibility of becoming blind due to studying at night became the impossibility. How would I be able to study at night if there was no electricity? How wondrous, though, were the ways I found out there was no electricity!

            I put the plug for the coffee maker I bought my mother for her birthday last year in the outlet and turned it on. I yawned, and as I squinted my eyes and opened them, I saw that the red button on the machine wasn’t glowing. What the…don’t tell me it’s broken! I used it yesterday. I opened the fridge, and with that came the annoying message: there is no electricity today. I washed my face, put on my uniform, and met Amjad outside so we could walk to school together.

        “Miss, I can’t see,” said one of the kids sitting at the end of the classroom. “Can we turn the lights on?” The teacher went over to the door where the buttons were and began flickering them on and off. There was still no electricity.

“Sorry, Ahmad, but from now on, I’ll just read what I write, okay?” She was probably the only teacher who had the patience to offer to do so.

“Why can’t we go protest? They’re the ones who are taking away our electricity three times a week, aren’t they?” One student commented.

“How will we be able to study for our tawjihi exams?” Another student asked.

“Maybe we should go protest after school!” Another one suggested.

There was a loud roar in the class as the students showed their excitement about the idea. The teacher began to hush us.

 “Now, now, boys. Stick to your studies first, she said.

“Why?” One student asked.

When the last bell rang, my classmates and I ran to the wall to protest. We began shouting slogans until the soldiers in the towers pointing their rifles down at us and yelled. “Go before we shoot!”

“Give us back our electricity!” We shouted. “We want electricity!”

“Go! Go! Move it!” They shouted back, and within a minute, a jeep carrying five soldiers came to the road. We stood in front of it and continued shouting. Two of the five soldiers got closer to us than the other three and threw tear gas canisters our way. Through the smoke, all we could see were the soldiers’ running back into their jeep, and all we could hear were each other coughing.

“I said stay out of trouble with them, didn’t I?” My mother scolded, as I entered my home.

“It was all of us,” I said.

“I don’t care, Mahmoud. I have to go to Um Mazen’s house, now,” she said, panicking. “They’ve arrested Mazen,” she added, and walked outside wrapping her headscarf over her hair.

She worried too much. I went to grab the phone to call Amjad. No electricity. Right.

            As I was going to lay my head down on the pillow that night, I saw a light flicker from underneath my bedroom door until it stayed lit. Within a few seconds, the whole camp was whistling with excitement and shouting slogans at the soldiers. Mazen was released after a few hours from his arrest. I looked outside of my bedroom window and saw one house after the other being lit. It’s times like this where I realized how all the houses are cramped with each other. I lived in a refugee camp all my life, and it was only during a few times where I really felt trapped between the walls of each building. The whole country needed help, but it’s better to live in a city than to live in a refugee camp.

I started measuring the distance from wall to wall with a space between my thumb and index finger. When my eyes dart to the massive, gray wall, I find myself needing my whole arm to measure it. Do they know what this feels like?

            An hour had passed after the whistling and the chanting had died out, and people were in their homes enjoying a few hours with the lights on. The electricity was back, and in two days time, it will be cut again.

****

On Friday mornings, I would prefer to sleep in after a long week of school and protests and dealing with electricity issues. However, my mother has an urge to open my door and put a pile of laundry on my bed. “I have folded your clothes, and all you have to do is put them in your closet,” she said.

            I opened one eye and looked at the clock sitting on my desk. God, it’s only seven o’clock, I thought. How does she wake up this early? I closed my eyes and went back to sleep only to be awoken again at seven fifteen.

“There’s no water,” she announced.

“No water?” I mumbled before I realized what I was mumbling. “No WATER?”

“Not a drop. Come see for yourself,” she added and walked out of my room.

            If it’s not the electricity problem, it’s the water problem.

“But today’s Friday!” I shouted, as I played with the facet of the sink.

“I know. Go get ten two liter water bottles from the store, and we’ll see what we can do with them,” my father said from the living room.

With two of those bottles of water, I managed to take a quick shower by prayer time.

“They cut the water today!” Amjad announced, angrily, as he saw me.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

“Bastards!”

“Indeed, they are!”

            After the prayer, Amjad suggested we have a little “picnic” in front of the wall like we usually do, so after we ate and changed, we met in front of the watchtower and lay on our backs.

“Bastards are probably smiling right now!” Amjad says.

“They probably are,” I agreed.

“First, it’s the electricity. Then, it’s the water. No, no, no. As if putting us in this camp isn’t as big of a move!” Amjad ranted.

“The situation is hell,” I added, shaking my head in sorrow.

            After a moment of silence, Amjad gets up off his back and says, “Did you know that on the other side of the wall was my grandfather’s home? He used to point it out to me, but I was too young to understand what he meant when he said things like ‘my land’ or ‘I’ll never see my home again.’

“I didn’t know that,” I replied, shaking my head.

“Yeah, well, I hope they’re WATERING HIS PLANTS!” Amjad yells at the tower.

 Three heads peek out of the window this time. “Go! Go!” One of them yelled.

 Amjad and I looked up. “Shalom!” We waved.

“Go! Move away from the wall!”

“Are you watering my grandfather’s plants?” Amjad yelled back. The soldiers seemed to take a minute to look at each other in confusion. They looked back at us and warned us to move away one more time. When we didn’t budge, a gunshot fired from the other side of the wall as a queue for us to get on the move, and we eventually did.

            On the way back to our homes, we walked in silence, occasionally giggling at how we are able to get the soldiers angry this quickly. I thought quietly at how smart the soldiers play out to be. They are able to build a massive wall separating people on either side yet that isn’t the only wall they build for people like Amjad and I, refugees in our own land. They build walls inside of our heads where the only things we can concentrate on is when the electricity and water come back, how can we get rid of them, the soldiers…

“Behind those walls, there’s a door that opens to a large world,” my father said often. Will education help me find that door or will resistance show it? People still held the keys to their old homes, but are their doors still intact?

            “I used to think that it is hard to miss something that is so far away like my village from which my ancestors were expelled from. Though, I can see it’s even harder when that something is so close yet so out of reach,” I said to Amjad. “One day, we’ll get it back, your grandfather’s home, I mean. Even if we have to carve our way through the wall.”

            The idea amused Amjad, and for a moment, I actually thought he’d go bring an ax and begin breaking past the wall. Instead, he continued walking forward and said, “Mahmoud, maybe one day we actually will.”

            The next morning, I heard water drizzling from a hose outside. I looked through my kitchen window and found Amjad helping the neighbor’s water their plants.

It always amazes me how the students who have the means and ability to go to school don’t want to, and those who can barely afford it and have difficulties getting there want school and education more than anything. It isn’t like this in all-case scenarios, though. Sometimes, one is inevitably prevented from going to school.

            There’s nothing more aggravating during your last year of high school than when the soldiers decide to prevent you from getting to school. A few days after the water scenario and like the several times throughout the past six months, two military jeeps were parked in front of the road to the school I attended. When they saw a crowd of students teachers, parents, females and males alike approach them, the soldiers got out of their jeeps and watched their surroundings like hawks ready to catch their prey.

            “There are exams going on, now,” one of our teachers told them. “We’d like to get in. We have our basic rights, you know?”

            The soldiers stood idly still.

“Move out of our way!” A group of students started the chant, and soon everyone was chanting after them. “Education is our right!”

            Still, the soldiers remained, as if their feet were planted into the hard, cemented ground. Still, our chanting continued. This happened over the course of six months, and when it did, protests would break out by the students, the teachers, and the parents. Our schools are funded by internationals, so they protest along with us.

            My eyes darted to my surroundings, and I saw a boy who appeared to be around the age of six crying. He was holding a woman’s hand, and a few more little boys were surrounding him. I nudged Amjad to look their way.

            “That used to be us,” Amjad yelled over the chanting.

“It sure was,” I said, smiling.

            I went to the little boy that was crying and held him. “Don’t worry, kid. They’re too scared to come near us.”

            “I want to go to home,” he said. Home…What’s that saying about school being our supposed second home?

            “Well, alright. Bring your friends, and let’s go home.”

            The little boy wiped the tears off his face leaving marks of dirt on his cheek and told three more boys to follow.

            “Where are you going, Mahmoud?” Amjad yelled.

“Taking these guys home,” I replied.

“I’ll be right behind you,” he said and went back into the crowd to continue chanting. By the time the last bell was set to ring, the soldiers would be off the premises, and a school day had been wasted.

            “So, what grade are you kids in?” I asked them, as we walked towards my home.

“First grade,” one of them said. “Are you in school?”

“Yeah, it’s my last year,” I told him. “What’s your name?”

“Ameer,” the one that was crying a few minutes ago answered.

“I’m Mohammad.”

“I’m Anwar.”

“Jamil.”

“Yousef.”

“What’s your name?” asked Ameer.

“My name is Mahmoud. Hey, we’ve reached my place. Do you want to sit on the steps outside? I could tell you fellows a story,” I suggested.

            The boys looked at each other, and then, they eyed me. “Well, try not to make it boring,” requested Mohammad.

            I laughed. “Looks like you guys are one audience I need to impress.” We sat on the stairs outside, and I began to tell them a story I had written a few weeks ago.

            My father named me Mahmoud after the late Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. He imagined I would grow to become a poet like him, but I found my heart in the center of the art of short stories. The story I was telling them today was a story of a ring that falls off the skinny finger of a dead woman and takes on a journey of its own before going back to that dead woman’s husband.

            I noticed Amjad come from a far, partly defeated and partly satisfied. He came and sat next to Ameer to listen to the rest of the story I was telling.

            “Did you guys like the story?” Amjad asked the boys, winking at me.

They all nodded their heads. “You should write our books!” they suggested. I laughed, “Maybe one day.”

            As the words for the afternoon prayer echoed in the sky, the boys decided it was time to go home. “Next time we don’t have school, we’ll come to you,” Ameer said, and they began making their way towards their homes.

“As if all the chaos that happened in the morning is not enough” is what my mother would say if she saw me walking back to the wall after the afternoon prayer. Once I reached there, I took out a can of black spray paint and began drawing a line across the massive gray wall.

            “A line is as creative as you can get?” Amjad startled me. “Well, look! Now you have a pulse,” he added, laughing at the squiggly line that my hand drew out of being surprised. The bottle finished, and I tossed it away.

            “So what’s the line for?” Amjad asked.

            “Like you said, a line is as creative as you can get.”

            Truthfully, the line started out to be only a line, but when I’d see it on different days, I see my goal. I want to cut through that line one day. I want to cut through it, chop down the wall, and make it resemble the fence that once stood there. It’ll be like going back in time. When the fence comes, it’ll go and so on till people like Amjad get to water their grandparents’ plants on the other side.

            The wall would be down, and if one wall falls, maybe all the other ones will, too, even the ones that are put in our heads. The wall that is blocking my future would go down. The wall that is that’s telling me I have to choose between resistance and school would go down. But, for now, if the soldiers are sitting in their towers, they will surely see the smoke of tires rising in the sky changing the blue to black.

Image Credit: Luigi Farrauto

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