Teaser from Next Year in Jerusalem
by Layal Barakat

“Our plums in Nablus are bigger and sweeter than your plums. Your plums are sour and small.” My cousin Zayna threw a plum over the garden wall. “Look even the boy who is grazing the goats on your land wouldn’t let them eat the plums.”

The small plot of land we owned behind our garden was overrun with weeds and garbage. Zayna had done nothing but insult my house since her arrival. We knew nothing about the whereabouts of Aunt Lotfiyeh. The three of them would not answer any of our questions about her, nor would they tell us how they managed to cross the border. On top of this, Zayna and Majed refused to speak Uncle Fathey, who was too busy getting drunk with Father to notice. I caught them on the roof, stirring ice cubes into a clear liquid that turned foggy white.

“What are you drinking?”

“Milk,” they said.

I put my hands on my hips.

Father sighed and pulled a half-dinar from his pocket.

“Get something for your cousins.”

I was stuck lifting my cousins’ spirits because Father was too busy attending to his brother’s.  Majed I could tolerate, even though Grandmother was obsessed with him. He was the first son of her first son and named after her husband, Majed, who was also a first son of a first son and named after his grandfather, Majed. Although Grandmother saw Majed the Grandson as heir to a dynasty of First Sons, in the rest of the world’s eyes, he was a pin-thin four-eyed flatfooted boy with sweaty, wrinkled hands that left oily prints everywhere. It was hard to hate him.

It was Zayna I could not endure. She had a quick temper and a big mouth and skinny skinny arms she liked to hold next to mine to show everyone the difference.

At the store, I bought two packets of ten-fils gum for my cousins and spent the rest of the money on myself.

“One for you and one for you.” I presented my cousins with gum as I entered my room. Majed had taken over my bed (Tayteh insisted) and Zayna and I were on futons. Uncle Fathey would have been given my bed but he preferred passing out on the busted-up couch under the satellite dish in the corner of the roof. He didn’t seem all that bothered by the bird shit in his hair when he came down for breakfast.

“What’s this?” Majed yawned, almost asleep.

“A treat.” I unwrapped my candy bar.

“You couldn’t get us chocolate?” Zayna asked.  She blew air out of her nostrils. Majed’s eyelids fluttered shut.

“I already brushed my teeth.” He held out his gum-laden hand, unsure of where to unburden it.

“Give it,” Zayna snatched the packet out of his palm and shoved all four pieces into her mouth.

“Hey…” Majed started but then fell back onto his pillow and resumed sleeping.

 

* * *

 

In the morning there was a huge wad of gum stuck to my hair. I found Zayna at the breakfast table, haloed by morning light, threads of orange and brown gleaming in her clean, black curls.

“Good morning,” she smiled, dipping pita into a bowl of labneh. I picked up the bowl and dumped it on her head, rubbing the thick yoghurt into her hair and her eyes.

“I’ll show you, you dog!” I screamed. “You donkey! You pig!”

Mama turned from the stove and gasped.

“It’s burning my eyes!” Zayna said. Mama pulled me away from her and took the bowl out my hands.

“Have you gone crazy?”

The rest of the table sat in the meditative harmony of familiar company.  Majed scooped labneh into a triangle of pita as soon as the bowl was returned to the table. He wrapped it around a wedge of tomato, extracted a strand of hair, and dipped the bundle into the saucer of olive oil before delivering it into the margin of his mouth that was not stuffed with boiled egg.  He then lubricated the mélange with a gulp of tea. Meanwhile, Grandmother rolled sesame fudge and plum jam into a pita cylinder and waited for a vacancy in Majed’s mouth to squeeze it into. It was like a grandmother-grandson game of Breakfast Tetris. Uncle Fathey watched the game absently, smoking a cigarette and fingering the most current avian deposits in his beard. Father laid his head on the table and unsuccessfully attempted to slurp his tea by tilting the glass towards his mouth, his lips bisecting rather than coinciding with the rim.

“The animal stuck gum in my hair,” I said.

“I don’t care. She’s your flesh and blood.”

“Look!” I turned around. Mother gasped.

As a collective punishment, we were both sentenced to picking two buckets of plums for the picnic Mother planned in Ghor Valley for that afternoon. She had cut a bald spot in the back of my head that I was to conceal with a ponytail and a confident demeanor until it grew back.

 

Layal Barakat received an M.F.A. from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn, NY. She is at work on a novel, Next Year in Jerusalem.