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Issue 50 / December 2012

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“Her sister put her to bed, but Rania kept weeping, saying between sobs that they’d lost their mother but she didn’t know why they had to lose their father, too.”

Photograph: ©flickr.com

Miral by Rula Jebreal

That morning Jerusalem's Arab neighbourhoods were teeming with the usual preparations in the souk. A muffled clamour filled Jamal's head as he set out with his daughters, carrying in his right hand a small suitcase with the girls' personal belongings. Rania clutched his little fingers on that side as she walked along, and Miral held on to his left hand. Their father stopped at a stall to buy caramels for them. He knew he would visit them almost every week, but even so, he was uneasy. The children tasted the candy's sweetness. It mingled with the bitterness of departure.
         Miral looked around as they began walking. Apart from the vendors in the souk, there seemed to be no one on the streets. After a few steps, however, a flood of neighbours appeared at windows, and children who had been their playmates on sunny afternoons greeted them along the way with flowers and even more candy. Miral sensed that she wouldn't be going home anytime soon. Her father had always managed to avoid answering the question of when she and Rania would return, and Miral had never insisted very much, partly because she didn't want to alarm her sister. Ever since their mother died, Miral had looked upon Rania with different eyes: although Miral was only a year older, she felt that it was her duty to protect her little sister.
         After they had walked all the way across the Old City, they stopped at Jafar's, the oldest confectioner's shop in Jerusalem. There they ate a knafeh in silence. This pastry, made from a mixture of cheese, butter, durum wheat, and pistachios that had been softened and sweetened with syrup, reminded Miral of the happiest moments of her life, when she and her mother would go to Jafar's shop to pick up knafeh for the whole family.
         Outside the walls of the Old City, they found themselves standing before an iron gate, on which Miral read, somewhat unsteadily, the worlds DAR EL-TIFEL, JERUSALEM, 1948.
         Proceeding through a shady garden, they reached a long drive lined with pine trees. Beyond it was a clearing, and farther on they could glimpse three buildings. "They're decorated in Mudejar style," Jamal told his girls, never missing an opportunity to teach them something new about the historical or articstic tradition of their heritage.
         "Mudejar style," Miral and Rania repeated solemnly in unison, their voices sad and serious. Not far off, they saw a lawn where some little girls were playing volleyball.
         A middle-aged woman wearing a white suit came towards them, smiling cordially. Her grey hair was gathered at the nape of her neck, and there was a thin coat of pink lipstick on her lips. She greeted Jamal affectionately and then turned to the girls, stroked their faces, and told them that they could join the other children playing.
         Miral reached out to take Rania's hand, but her sister was clinging to her father's arm and wouldn't let go, afraid she would never see him again. She stood frozen at his side, silently pouting. Jamal then took both daughters by the hand to the lawn where the other girls were playing assuring them that he wasn't leaving right away and had to have a little talk with Hind. Rania stared at her father with suspicious eyes for a moment, but in the end she followed her sister. Out of the corner of her eye, Miral saw her father walking away and then turning to look at them, eyes bright with tears. She had never seen him so miserable. Jamal waved to them, but by then Rania was playing and didn't notice. A soccer ball landed in front of Miral, and she simply stared at it, wishing she could kick it back and somehow return to the days when her mother was there and they all were still together.
         The school's oldest building, located on the highest point of the hill, overlooking the Old City, housed the classrooms and the administrative offices, including Hind's, a simply room with antique furniture dating back to the period of the British Mandate. On the other side of the playing field stood a more modern building that was built with Sheikh Muhammad bin Jassim Sabah's money and used as a dormitory. At that time, there were already two thousand girls. There, as in the classrooms, Hind had decided that the youngest girls would be assigned to the first floor, where they would live in rooms containing six beds each. The older girls were on the second floor, in rooms with four beds. Finally, the top floor provided single rooms for a few girls in their final year and for the teachers who lived on campus. On the opposite end of the small field was the gymnasium and a little farther down the hill, surrounded by a park, was Hind's residence. As she was getting older, Hind decided that she would move back to one of her grandfather's oldest buildings and would use it as her home. Its spacious terrace looked out over the city, and its white stone walls were almost completely covered with ivy.
         That first evening, after dinner in the large cafeteria, a thin teacher with sad eyes accompanied Miral, Rania and four other little girls to their room. Rania had left her food untouched and never let go of Miral's hand.
         Miral noticed that the older girls helped the little ones change into their nightgowns and told them fairy tales to lull them to sleep. Those stories, however, tended to be about other orphans, like themselves. Oliver Twist was a favourite. As Rania listened to one of them, the tears she'd held back all day began to run down her cheeks. Her sister put her to bed, but Rania kept weeping, saying between sobs that they'd lost their mother but she didn't know why they had to lose their father, too.
         Miral moved her bed closer to her sister's. As long as they were together, she told Rania, everything would be all right. Then she caressed her little sister's hair and face until she went to sleep. She thought again about her father walking away down the tree-lined drive and about the stories the older girls had told that evening - sad stories that were perhaps true, just like the story of her own mother, who used to be happy and then one day stopped smiling and disappeared.

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Miral, by Rula Jebreal, is published by Serpent's Tail.
It is now a major motion picture, directed by Julian Schnabel and starring Freida Pinto
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Monday, 20 December, 2010

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