Al-Arroub Refugee Camp, West Bank
Sun setting in her eyes, she follows a procession,
all solemn Palestinian men, except her group
of Americans, women touring with backpacks to
get beyond newspaper spin on suicide bombs,
to listen. Ahead, flames rise high
above a flatbed. Smoke. The group presses,
minces steps, she wants to stride, stretch her legs,
perhaps they see — heavy hand on her shoulder
voice in her ear — stay close,
or we can’t guarantee your safety.
One woman in abaya watches from a doorway,
others hold toddlers or the hands of children on concrete
balconies a story up. Their grandparents
fled armies of soldiers
like her grandfather razing villages to the ground.
She crosses the square, relieved
of the darkening night, its tension kindling.
Women speak of children and names stricken from maps
treasured here, whispered with a breath of cardamom,
handed down like a promise. Later, a peacemaker explains
the Israeli soldier who shot him at close range
came to see him in the prison hospital.
They spoke. Began slowly to cross their distances.
Later, in the half-dark, she
climbs the camp hill up and up
led by a teenage host who smiles and points.
When he speaks, she can only smile and blink.
Through a door into at an uninhabited apartment –
two blue velvet couches, a long banquet table,
mattresses and boxsprings, side tables
with intricate designs, all curlicues
turning in on themselves and weaving together.
She thinks it’s nicer than any home
she’s ever rented. The host leaves her there. Did her grandparents
buy their house in Ramat Gan or does a woman here
wear its housekey around her neck?
The front door opens, and everyone floods in, abuzz.
She’s dragged over to a huddle
around a cellphone, the screen a panorama
of formations of soldiers, face
after face under the keffiyeh
the martyr. The Palestinian anthem,
someone whispers under the hum. Him,
there, says the young man with the cellphone
he’s from here, his eyes glassy.
Even later, the hosts, all men, explain this apartment is a mahr,
a lure, a dream of a home, a gift a wife can keep
if a marriage doesn’t. The owner
works in Canada. He won’t mind we’re here.
During introductions, it comes out she’s divorced,
a doctoral student yoked to the cycle of semesters.
Still single and in his thirties, Ahmed replies,
in these days maybe
it’s easier to be unmarried.
On the opposite couch, a wizened man praises
his red-faced son’s devotion,
searching out scarce mare’s colostrum for his bad chest
twice. He speaks in Arabic to Ahmed,
a social worker in Bethlehem,
whose nine-mile commute checkpoints
and car searches make two hours,
who translates into Hebrew and
the group’s American ex-kibbutznik
translates into English — and back again and again
before children and teenagers again stream in
bearing plate after plate, a parade
of young people with plates, filled with hummus and pita,
pickles, sunflower seeds, intricately cut oranges
and roasted eggplant, and roasted eggplant with tomato
until the man in Canada’s banquet table is full
with the work of many women unseen
and the hosts all leave
and the group eats.
Full and tired, they divvy up blankets, spaces
to sleep. She and another share the sheetless bed.
Shivering, she pulls the bedspread over her head
as a shield, fearing knives in the night,
but doesn’t recognize the weft and warp of hope.
The granddaughter of a captain in Israel’s War for Independence, Joy Arbor grew up in Los Angeles, listening to stories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To see for herself, she joined the Compassionate Listening Project’s citizen delegation to Israel and the West Bank to listen to people from different perspectives. Poems about her experiences have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Jewish Currents, and Scoundrel Time. She is also the author of the chapbook, Where Are You From, Originally? (Finishing Line Press, 2016). She works at Kettering University and lives with her husband and son in Columbiaville, Michigan. Learn more about Joy here.