Daughters of IRAQ
Chapter One: Violet Rosen
Monday, October 15, 1986
iolet! Violet Twaina!” Aba’s voice thundered. “Come here this instant!”
“My father’s calling me,” I said to my best friend, Naima. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.” I ran up the narrow stairway that led to my family's house. When I looked into Aba’s eyes, I knew I was in serious trouble. My heart froze.
“Violet Twaina!” My father stood fuming, rocking on his heels, hands buried deep inside his pockets. “Mrs. Chanukah called from school. She said you talked back to Mrs. Zbeida today.” The terrifying glare accompanying his words seemed a sure sign harsh punishment awaited me.
“What are you talking about? I didn't do anything,” I said, crossing my fingers behind my back, desperate to wheedle out of the situation.
“Don't tell me stories, Violet,” my father said. “I know you're lying, and I know you talked back! Mrs. Chanukah doesn't call parents out of the blue and waste their precious time. She said Mrs. Zbeida asked you to stop talking, and you told her you hadn't been talking, that maybe it was time for her to get her hearing checked once and for all, because this wasn't the first time she’d blamed you for something you hadn't done.”
“That's not true. That's not how it happened! She's always accusing me of things I didn’t do. I hate that teacher,” I said. “She picks on me for no reason. She’s very rude to me. She told me to shut up, but I wasn’t even talking. And,” I continued, unable to stop myself, “I said it very politely. All I said is that she must have misheard, because it wasn't me. If you want, you can ask Naima,” I said, dragging my poor friend into my scheme.
“Go tell Naima to come upstairs right away.” My father’s voice was angry; I could tell he didn’t believe me. I went down and called Naima, trying to think of how I could buy her cooperation.
“Naima,” I said. “My father wants to ask you something, and you really have to help me. If you do what I tell you, I'll give you Fahima as a present.” Fahima was my most beautiful doll. She had long flowing hair I loved to comb and several outfits my mother had sewn especially for her.
“Fahima?” Naima asked. “If I do what you say, you’ll really give me Fahima?”
“Yes, I swear, I'll give her to you.” I raised my hands to my heart and looked right into her eyes. I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist. “That vicious teacher Mrs. Zbeida, she’s always getting me into trouble. You have to tell my father I didn't say a thing in school today. Tell him everything I told him is true.”
“Wai li,” said Naima, grinning. “The way you spoke to her! The whole class was rolling on the floor.”
“Ya’allah,” I said. “I promise I'll give you Fahima, alright? What’s the big deal?”
“Okay, fine, I’ll do it,” she said. “But what if your father finds out we’re lying?”
She had reason to be worried, but my style was to jump into icy water first, then think about it later. “I don’t know. Let’s not think about it. Come on, he’s waiting for us.”
We went upstairs. Aba sat in the living room, in a big red armchair covered in an embroidered fabric flecked with real gold. When we walked into the room, he turned a menacing gaze on us. Normally my father would have asked after Naima’s family, but he got straight to the point.
“I understand something happened in school today,” he said.
Naima stared at the floor. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, Mr. Twaina. A lot of things happened in school today. Which one do you mean?”
“I understand that Mrs. Zbeida got angry at Violet during class. Can you tell me what happened?”
Naima tried to fulfill her part of the deal. In a voice not much louder than a whisper, she said, “Mrs. Zbeida didn’t get angry at Violet at all.”
I hadn’t thought of this. My father had outsmarted me; instead of offering my story for her verification, he had allowed Naima to make up her own version.
“That’s not what Mrs. Chanukah told me!” he hissed.
“Mr. Twaina,” Naima said, “Violet is such a good student, so quiet and serious. Nobody could ever complain about her. She sits so nicely in class. She pays attention, she doesn’t talk, and she always does her homework. It doesn’t seem possible she did anything wrong. Mrs. Chanukah must have gotten her mixed up with this other girl who’s always bothering her and called you instead of the other parents.”
Even I could tell she had gone too far. And Aba—who knew me very well, who knew I could never be the angelic little girl Naima described—couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Realizing Naima would be of no help, he called for his driver and sent her home. I knew exactly what would happen next. This is it, I thought. I’m doomed. A week under “house arrest.” No going out to see people, nobody coming to see me. As for the beating, I wasn’t afraid. Whenever my father hit me, I imagined my nephew Eddie, my sister Farida, and I jumping into the river, and all I was feeling was the touch of water on my skin.
My father didn’t yell. He glared at me and said, “I know you, and I know that you talked back to your teacher. Not only did you lie to me, but you made Naima lie to me as well. You are a bad girl. You have no respect for anyone, and you don’t care about anything. The only one you care about is yourself. Well, I’ll show you exactly what you are. Go to my closet and bring me my thickest belt. Go on. I’ll wait for you right here. If you try to trick me by bringing a different belt, I’ll beat you with both of them.”
I went to my parents’ room. Nothing could help me now. The other children of the family saw me crying, but they didn’t say a word; they were already used to these scenes. I was the only girl in my family consistently beaten, and everyone knew why. I was the rebellious child. I dodged responsibilities, and I pushed limits. I wasn’t afraid of anything, and I did whatever I wanted. I lied constantly, with no remorse. I ran away to the river with Eddie, I talked back to the teachers, I skipped classes, and I stole money from mother’s drawer for candy. In other words, I knew how to live, and I didn’t let any person, or any consequence, dampen my adventurous spirit.
My father beat me that day—he beat me whenever I did anything stupid—but his anger drove him beyond a normal thrashing, and my mother was forced to intercede. She pleaded with him to stop, and finally he did. My back hurt, my bottom hurt, and I couldn’t move. And of course he told me that until Eddie’s Bar Mitzvah, which was ten days away, I could only leave the house for school, and I had to come straight home. I couldn’t play outside, and I couldn’t see my friends. Aba’s driver would take me to school in the morning and bring me home in the afternoon. None of this broke my spirit, though, because I knew a little patience was all I needed; then I could go back to doing as I pleased. I never gave Fahima to Naima. I told her she hadn’t lived up to her end of the bargain and that she’d gotten me into even more trouble. Back then, that was how I behaved.
Chapter Two: Farida Sasson
arida felt uneasy about doing her usual Sunday errands. She had both a daily routine and a weekly routine, and she tried to stick to them; she knew if she fell behind, the pressure would be too much for her. Sunday was supposed to be haircut day. After spending all day Friday cooking, by the next morning she usually looked haggard, and her fine hair was imbued with kitchen smells. On that particular Sunday morning, however, she was reluctant to leave the house for her weekly salon visit. The heat was oppressive, and newscasters talked of terrorist attacks. In order to reach her appointment, she would have to wait for the 15 Bus which came only once an hour take the bus to the center of town, and then walk to Shimon’s Salon, situated next door to Chaim the Moroccan’s butcher, right below the new Chinese restaurant. Because of all the talk about bombs, Farida didn’t want to take the bus, and so after much deliberation she decided to stay home and cook okra patties for her grandchildren, who were visiting the following day.
She rinsed the okra, removed the stalks, sliced an onion and sautéed it. While she worked, her thoughts drifted to Baghdad, the city of her birth. Farida remembered the large houses with the enormous courtyards, designed to accommodate prodigious families like hers. Each wing of her house was inhabited by a different family: Aba, Ima, Violet, and Farida herself, the youngest daughter, lived in one wing; her sister Farcha, along with her husband Sammy and their three children, lived in another; her brother Anwar lived in a third wing with his wife Yasmin and their three daughters; in yet another wing, her sister Habiba lived with her husband Yaakov and their five impish kids. Farida loved her nieces and nephews as if they were her own siblings, perhaps because they were closer to her age than her own brothers and sisters. She and Violet were the youngest of the brood. Georgia, their mother, had given birth to Habiba, Farcha, and Anwar at a very young age. She then had two more children, both of whom died in infancy. After many years, the two girls were born less than two years apart, brightening Georgia’s heart and bringing her solace. By the time Farida and Violet were born, they were aunts to Edward, Habiba and Yaakov’s oldest son. The rest of the nieces and nephews came later. Eddie as he was called by everyone, was born one year before Violet, and a year and a half after Violet was born, Farida came into the world.
Farida remembered how she, Eddie, and Violet used to sneak out of school. They would look for a horse-drawn carriage, jump on its back, and hitch rides through the streets of Baghdad. If the driver caught sight of the kids, he beat them with his horsewhip and cursed them for not paying the fare. Later, when they were a little older, they raced to nearby Chidekel River, took off their clothes, and swam in its cool waters, free from trouble and pain, splashing each other and laughing endlessly.
During summer, when Baghdad’s rivers dried up, tiny islands surfaced—jazira, they were called—and the children searched them for water creatures. They’d pick up animals and insects and examine them. Then they’d dress, pack up, and return home, pretending to come straight from school. Because they went to the Jewish school, the teachers knew all the parents, and if the instructors ever suspected anything, they dropped in for unannounced visits. The kids knew that when a teacher came to the house, their punishment would be severe. They paid the price for their adventures willingly, taking comfort in knowing they would return, again and again, to these moments of pure delight.
“Ach,” Farida sighed. “It’s a shame, walla, it is such a shame.” She was talking to herself in the empty kitchen. “It’s a shame we couldn’t have had that kind of life together.” Farida and Eddie had shared a special closeness during childhood, which later blossomed into a full-fledged love. Farida’s heart clenched at the thought that she and Eddie couldn’t get married, couldn’t bring children into the world. “He was so handsome . . .” She sighed again. “And his eyes, don’t get me started, those eyes . . .” She continued to ruminate, first aloud, then silently, remembering different episodes from her life, scenes that made her feel his absence, and his loss, more acutely than ever.
She sliced the okra, and the vegetable’s color made her think of his green eyes, the intelligence she saw there. Tears slid down her cheeks. She wiped them with the edge of her sleeve to keep them from dripping onto the okra and put down the knife. For a long time she stood, stooped over the cutting board, until the wave of emotions had passed; then she straightened, took another stalk from the platter on the counter, scraped its rough edges, and returned it to the platter. After preparing the vegetables, she dipped her hands in water and began composing the filling for the kubot—the semolina pockets. She took ground chicken mixed with parsley and spices, placed it on the dough, and rolled the mixture into small balls, which she dropped into a steaming pot of water.
Farida thought of mid-1940s Iraq. She remembered how Yasmin, Anwar’s wife, had finally given him a son after three daughters, how they celebrated his birth with a chalri—a traditional Arabian party with belly-dancing. The chalri took place on the seventh day after the child’s birth—the day before his brit. Farida’s parents invited relatives from all across Baghdad, Hilla, and Basra. All the important people in the Jewish community were invited. Farida’s mother, Georgia, was a pillar of Baghdad’s Jewry; she came from a family of well-known rabbis, and it was a great honor to attend one of her parties. The family overlooked nothing: the best musicians and singers were summoned to the chalri, along with a famous belly dancer who strutted before wild-eyed spectators. Some men stuck bills into her belt and bra, and everyone sang and danced and showered the new baby and his family with blessings.
After the birth of her son, Yasmin took to her bed and barely rose for forty days. At that stage, her duty was to take care of the new baby and to rest. The women from her extended family waited upon and fed her, tended to her and her baby’s needs. It was traditional for female relatives to care for the mother, house, other children (if there were any), and the husband, so that a mother could regain her strength and resume ministering to her family. The women did this with great joy and unlimited generosity.
That was a good year: it featured a charmed birth as well as Eddie’s Bar Mitzvah. He was the first grandson of the family and everyone’s darling. And despite the fact he was almost thirteen, and she was not yet ten, and notwithstanding that this was often when families separated related boys and girls because of the new, strange, amorphous tension between them, Farida remembered they couldn’t stand being apart, not even for a day. Whenever they saw each other, they secretly pledged their love for each other until the end of time.
On the day of Yasmin’s baby’s birth, Eddie, Violet, and Farida were given an important task: they were sent to tell all their acquaintances about the child. Once word got out, the women—relatives, servants, Arab and Jewish neighbors alike—began to trill loudly, celebrating the happy event. Those who hadn’t yet heard the news now understood: something wonderful had occurred in the Twaina household.
At the conclusion of that festive day, the merry trio split up as usual and returned to sleep in their separate homes. It was a stifling Baghdadi night. In the height of summer, when it was too hot to sleep in their beds, people camped on roofs. Farida and Violet, along with their parents, slept atop one of the wings of the big house, while Eddie and his family reposed above another wing. After the excitement of the day, Eddie, Violet, and Farida had trouble falling asleep; they gazed at the lovely full moon shining in the distant sky, at innumerable stars. They were filled with a sense of great satisfaction and indescribable joy. A new son had been born into the family, and they were all part of this creation.
Chapter Three: Noa Rosen
oa rushed from the apartment. She hadn’t heard the alarm go off. She’d awakened in a fog to discover it was 8:20. In less than an hour, her Introduction to Jewish Philosophy exam would start; it was an important test, and she’d been studying for days. She’d writhed most the night, sleepless, and when she finally did nod off, she’d had a bizarre dream. The course material morphed with her daily life. Angels moved between spheres, changed levels, revealed different faces, gathered around her. Michael and Gabriel, she thought. Her brother Guy appeared, but as a small boy with angel wings on his back. Her mother Violet was in it, too. She wrapped Noa in her arms, and Noa felt wonderfully safe. She told her mother she missed her very much and was so happy she’d finally come home. Her mother’s hair had grown back; she’d worn a wig the last time they’d seen each other. But when she reached for her mother’s head, the hair became the kabbalistic chart she’d memorized the previous night. The alarm screeched, and she woke, trembling.
Sitting on the bus, bleary-eyed, she tried interpreting the dream. Angels going up and down, and Ima, and Guy . . . no wonder she’d woken up wearier than she’d been the night before. A multitude of thoughts scrolled through her mind, and she attempted to make sense of them. This was Noa’s second year of studying Hebrew literature. She supported herself by working in the university library. She believed in financial independence and refused to be a full-time student unless she could pay her own tuition and living costs.
After her mother died, Noa had extended her tour of duty in the army. She needed the stability and was happy to be far from home. When she completed her military service as a lieutenant, she began saving for college and decided to see a bit of the world. She worked as a waitress, then traveled with Barak, her former boyfriend. When she attended university, she assumed a heavy course load and worked in the library as many hours as she could.
Noa had never believed her strong, vigorous mother would succumb to the cancer that struck when Noa was fourteen. Violet’s stubbornness had bought her a few more years in the bosom of her family, but Noa, like most teenagers, was absorbed in her own life. She didn’t understand how little time her mother had left, so she hadn’t spent the last days at Violet’s bedside.
One fall morning, as Violet underwent a round of chemotherapy, all the systems in her body failed. Noa received a summons in the midst of her tour, and Guy was called out of school. Violet never regained consciousness, and she died the same night, leaving her husband and children broken and aching. Noa was twenty.
The bus was crammed with university students, teenagers, and old people. Noa rested her nose and forehead against the frame of the open window. Though only June, the hot mornings had become oppressive. People pushed up against one another, and the smells of sweat, spices, and fresh vegetables from the market blended into a pungent odor. Noa didn’t notice the chaos. She was in her head, floating to other destinations. The smell of spices and fresh vegetables conjured Aunt Farida, her mother’s sister. She heard Farida’s husky voice—a testament to many years of cigarette smoking. It was soothing and brought a faint smile to Noa’s lips. Noa saw her aunt’s stout body, heard the heavy Iraqi accent. Farida was Noa’s favorite aunt: a tender woman in a large, awkward body.
Farida was truly an enormous woman: her breasts sagged upon her gargantuan belly and grazed her hips. Noa yearned for her aunt’s warm touch, which had quietly protected her over the years. Aunt Farida’s demeanor was kind and reassuring: her nose was as wide as her heart, and her forehead was plowed with wrinkles, which vanished when she smiled. She had a large chin with a dimple in the middle and dark, sympathetic eyes that always looked tired. Aunt Farida’s life had not been easy, but despite the hardships, she exuded optimism and love. Like a Bozo the Clown punching bag, when she went down, she popped right back up. She was always so encouraging, a safe haven in Noa’s turbulent life. Noa didn’t like to think about what she would have done without her.
Noa continued deciphering her strange dream. She understood it had something to do with the exam, but she couldn’t remember the obscure words her brother had whispered. She searched for a connection between the dream and her current preoccupations and thoughts. Her mind returned to her mother, and her eyes teared up when she imagined sharing her thoughts and struggles with Violet. Noa yearned for the comforts of a real home. Her childhood house was nothing like it had been before her mother died; in fact, it was barely recognizable. Every inch of the house, it seemed, was steeped in sadness. The joy that once filled the home, that had almost burst through its walls, had disappeared; now it reminded her of a deserted, queenless castle on the verge of collapse. The study, once packed with papers, had been abandoned; the fragrance of spices was gone, too. And Noa’s grandfather had immersed himself in his own affairs. Since the death of his wife, Georgia, he had buried himself both in work and, in the last two years, his studies. He made a point of cooking dinner every Friday night in an attempt to maintain the family’s long-time tradition of eating together once a week. But the meals weren’t the same without Violet.
Noa wanted to fall into Farida’s arms, rest there, recuperate. Maybe she’d visit her after the test. She had no plans for the rest of the day, and the test would only take three hours. If she caught the noon bus, she’d reach the village within two hours. Yes, that’s what she would do. She’d call Aunt Farida and ask what was for supper. She’d board the bus, wind through the streets to her aunt’s house. She recalled the smells of familiar and beloved Iraqi dishes. Aunt Farida would spoil her: feed her and send her home with packages of food for the rest of the week. Yes, she’d call her after the test. Noa remembered other times arriving at Aunt Farida’s house, forlorn, defiant, like a rebellious teenager. Farida always smiled, plied her with pots of good food and luscious pastries—all the comforts of a real home.
Noa emerged from her daydream. She hadn’t noticed the bus moving or the passengers getting on and off. She had no memory of traversing the usual route from her apartment on the Street of the Prophets to the gates of the university. She almost forgot to disembark near the Gilman building, where the test would be given. While entering the building she slammed her leg into the security guard’s table and stifled a scream. She plodded up the stairs, one step at a time. Only when she sat down for the exam did she feel her distracted mind focus. The morning daydreams receded. Noa bent over the paper, concentrating on her mission. She took a deep breath, rotated her head, shook out her arms, stretched her muscles. Everything had been leading up to this test. She had studied day and night, imbibed the material. She was like a trained soldier ready for battle. Wasn’t she?
Noa lifted her head and looked around. She saw the heads of the other students bent over their work. She looked at the preceptor. The woman walked past her, offered a candy, and wished her luck, like she could read the doubt in her mind. She could do this, Noa thought. If she just relaxed a little, the lines of text would stop dancing before her. Noa took more deep breaths and again looked at the test. She read the first question, then the next four, and she knew her hard work had paid off. She began to write.
Chapter Four: At Aunt Farida’s
ello, my sweet girl, my soul, may God bless you, how did you know I was thinking about you all morning?” Farida hugged Noa and planted wet kisses on both cheeks. “I missed you—what were you thinking: why didn’t you call me all week?”
“Hi, Aunt Farida,” Noa said, leaning into her aunt’s soft, warm body, wrapping her arms around her, absorbing warmth and security. “I was so busy—you know how it is. Work, school, exams . . . even today I had an exam. You see? I came to visit as soon as I could. What’s that fantastic smell? Okra?” She headed for the kitchen, following the scent.
“You’ve always had a sharp sense of smell, a blessing on your head. I’m so glad you came—there’s okra with meat dumplings, just what you like, and as you can see, I’m also making machbuz,” she said, tempting her niece with the promise of Noa’s favorite Iraqi pastries. “Eat, eat,” urged Farida, taking a tray out of the oven, “and when you go, I’ll send you home with a bag of Purim goodies.” She laughed. “Now tell me, Noa, how was the test?”
“It was fine.” Noa let out a loud sigh, popping a piece of cheese pastry into her mouth. “I’m glad it’s over. This exam was weighing on me. There was so much material, you can’t even imagine. I spent so much time at my desk my behind was starting to ache...”
“Nu, I’m sure you did well. With your mother’s intelligence and your father’s good looks, you’ll go far,” Farida said, clasping her hands.
Noa laughed. “Wait a minute, what are you saying? That my mother was ugly and my father stupid?”
“God forbid!” Farida said, wringing her hands, spitting, doing whatever she could to disperse any evil spirits lingering outside her door. “Your mother, allah yirchama( may god bless her memory), was beautiful and good and smart, and your father—is there anything that man can’t do? Ya’allah, come here and sit down.” Farida pointed to the empty chair across from her. “When you’ve finished eating, we’ll get to work. You see,” she said with a smile, “I already made the dough for the machbuz.”
“I came at the right time,” Noa said, laughing. “As if you really need help. . . but, actually, I’m in the mood to bake something together.” Noa leaned back. “Do you remember when I was little, I would spend my vacations with you, and Sigali and I would help you bake? We each had our own little jobs: Sigali was in charge of rolling the date spread into little balls and stuffing them into the dough, and my job was to dip the dough in water and sprinkle it with sesame seeds.”
“Yes, of course I remember, that’s what’s called ‘Tena Maca.’” Farida’s laugh disintegrated into a coughing fit, and she cursed her cigarettes.
“Tena Maca? What’s that?”
“Ah,” Farida sighed. “Tena Maca is a code word for babysitting. If a woman needed a little peace and quiet, she would ask her neighbor to give her children a Tena Maca—to keep them occupied for a few minutes . . . Oh, baking was such a Tena Maca.” She waved her hand. “You and Sigali helped me in the kitchen, and Uncle Moshe got to rest a little bit. Ya’allah, my sweet girl, even though Uncle Moshe’s been gone awhile, and nobody in this house needs a Tena Maca, I’ll still let you help me. But first, have a drink, taste my okra—I even have some rice ready. Work can wait a bit.”
Farida scanned her niece from head to toe. “What’s the matter, Noa’le? You don’t look good to me today.” She piled fresh-baked treats onto Noa’s plate. “What? You’re not sleeping at night? You’ve lost a little weight. What’s going on? Aren’t you eating?”
“No, Aunt Farida, really, I’m fine. And what’s this about losing weight? I wish.” Noa gave her aunt a rueful smile. “Actually, it wouldn’t be so bad if I lost a few pounds. It’s this test,” she added. “I didn’t sleep well last night.” Noa sat next to the little table. It was loaded with delicacies, as if Farida were planning to feed an entire platoon. “Is someone else coming?”
“No,” Aunt Farida said, a little sadly.
“So who are you cooking for?”
Aunt Farida sat in the chair opposite her, looked around, and sighed. “I don’t know how to cook for two people. Only for an army—that’s how it is. It’s not so bad; whatever’s left over, you can take back to your apartment.” She gazed out the little kitchen window.
Children played outside, and the laughter made Farida forlorn. She remembered other days. For a moment there was a strained silence between the two women. Each seemed to be remembering: a house buoyant with life, crammed with people. So much had changed in recent years, leaving both of them yearning for the past.
Of Farida’s children, Sigali had married and left the house first; then Oren got married. Sigali had two children before leaving her husband. “It killed me,” she had said, “that he wasn’t doing anything with his life.” Oren lived in Nahariya and rarely visited. Sigali lived near Aunt Farida, and whenever one of her kids got sick, she brought the child over. But most of the time Sigali was busy with her own affairs; she was a single mother, and it wasn’t easy. And Uncle Moshe . . . Uncle Moshe had died two years ago. Only Farida remained, and being alone was not easy for her.
For many years, Uncle Moshe was out of work, and the family lived off social security. Moshe suffered from what we call shell shock. He had left for war as a confident man and returned shattered, unable to transcend the trauma. From conversation fragments gleaned over years, Noa collected an assortment of images, and from those images she pieced together the complete story.
Uncle Moshe had fought in Sinai. He was the platoon’s cook, and one morning he woke from a dreadful dream, soaked in sweat. In his dream, all the men in his unit were killed in a surprise attack by the Egyptians. Uncle Moshe had just climbed out of his sleeping bag and was looking for a quiet spot to urinate and calm his nerves when the bombing started. His friends didn’t even make it out of their sleeping bags; only Uncle Moshe found shelter, and he was saved. When it was all over, he realized his nightmare had become a horrific reality.
Uncle Moshe’s life, and the lives of everyone in his family, would never be the same after the Yom Kippur War. He couldn’t hold a job. Some nights he screamed and cried in his sleep; other nights he couldn’t sleep at all. Aunt Farida loved her family fiercely and strove to maintain a sense of normalcy for Uncle Moshe and their kids. She ministered to him, and made sure his children respected him. Two years ago, Uncle Moshe’s heart could no longer carry the burden of all those memories, and he died. Farida was left alone.
“Ya’allah, Noa, start eating,” Farida urged. “The food is getting cold, and you haven’t even touched it. Eat already, before it cools and becomes jifa—nobody wants rotten food. Now, tell your Aunt Farida a little about Noa: how is she doing, and when will she get married already, with God’s help?”
“Really, Aunt Farida,” Noa said, her mouth full. “Get married? Who exactly do you suggest I marry? I don’t even have a serious boyfriend. You know Barak and I broke up.”
“Do I know? Of course I know. Okay, I’ll tell you the truth. You want the truth?” Farida hoped Noa would be willing to listen to her. Farida had a strong opinion on the issue—she had strong opinions on every issue—and it was hard to keep her thoughts to herself.
“Sure, I want the truth—why not?” Noa said, laying her fork on her plate. She knew nothing would keep her aunt from voicing her thoughts about Barak. She looked at her and waited.
“He’s all wrong for you,” Farida said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “He loves himself too much, what can I tell you? You need someone who loves you more than he loves himself. This young man is killing you.”
“Right.” Noa smiled. There was no ambiguity in Aunt Farida’s outlook on the world; there was right, and there was wrong. “In the meantime, I’m kissing a lot of frogs,” she said with a wink, “until I find a real prince.”
“I pity those boys when you’re around,” Farida laughed. “Do they know they’re just frogs in your eyes?” Her plump arms fell to her sides. “So some day, one of these frogs will turn into a prince? I like that idea. Now that I think about it, most of the men I’ve known were frogs, too. A couple were princes, including your father, God protect him. Do you know I saw him yesterday at Uncle Anwar’s house? He is a good man, your father. I hear he’s taking a class in geography, and sometimes you two meet between classes?”
“That’s true,” Noa said. She picked up her fork and took a bite, surprised and relieved the Barak conversation was over. “We do meet from time to time, and it’s great we have new topics to discuss. He’s quite the student,” she said. “He never misses a lecture. You won’t believe his latest kick: he wants to earn a doctorate in geography—Ima’s field—and complete her research.”
“Are you serious? I had no idea. Good for him,” Farida said.
“You know, it’s really nice to see him there,” Noa said. “He’s smiling again. He looks much younger.”
“Good,” Farida said, “very good. I’m happy for him. It’s time he started looking for a wife, don’t you think?” She grinned.
“It is time, but you know how it is. At that age, it’s not so simple.”
“Tell me about it!” Farida said. “I’m in the same predicament.”
Noa felt uncomfortable. It would be difficult seeing her father with another woman. “So what’s new with you, Aunt Farida?” Noa looked at her aunt’s large hands. “Look how rude I’m being, I haven’t even complimented you on your delicious okra. The crust is amazing. Gute, gute, like my grandmother would say. Just how I like it. We’ve been talking about me this whole time. What’s going on in your life? How are Sigali and the kids? I haven’t seen them in ages.”
“Bless God’s name forever and ever, may his name be blessed, I can’t complain,” Farida said, staring at the kitchen ceiling and shaking her hands toward heaven. “Look, I’m keeping busy, as you can see. I couldn’t even make it to the hairdresser, and tomorrow Sigali’s taking half a day’s vacation and bringing the kids for a visit. Can you believe that Ruthie’s in second grade already? You should see this little slip of a girl reading and writing like the devil. And Shai is in his last year of preschool, driving his teacher crazy. Did you know he has a male teacher this year?”
“What? A man teaching preschool?”
“That’s right. You don’t need breasts to enter the profession anymore. He’s a fantastic teacher,” Farida said. “He takes the kids on nature walks, teaches them plant names. He knows all the songs, and on Pesach (Passover) he taught the kids how to stomp grapes and make wine.”
“Nice,” Noa said, impressed.
“But while we’re on the subject of me,” Farida said, “it’s not easy living alone. The days are one thing, I keep busy, but the nights . . .” She tried to recline, but her corpulent body slid forward on the seat, and she couldn’t get comfortable.
“I can’t fall asleep at night,” said Farida. “The nights go on forever—they have a beginning, but no end. I go to bed as late as I can, I watch the late shows, and I still can’t fall asleep. I wander the house like a sleepwalker. I have no idea what’s going on . . . maybe it’s my age or the approach of summer . . . maybe it’s the heat.” She looked at Noa’s plate. “You ate everything, a blessing on your head—come, let’s clean up and start baking.”
Aunt Farida stood and walked to the counter, which was covered with delicious food. She bent to pick up the huge platter that sat beside the neat rows of spices; her house dress rose, reavealing a pair of thick legs. She rummaged around one of the shelves for the baking implements she’d had for so many years. After clearing the table, Farida put down the yeasty dough that had already risen. Taking pleasure in its appearance, in its very presence, she rolled it into a log and split it into two pieces, one of which she gave to Noa. The two women, one young, one old, sat by the table and rolled the dough into tiny balls. They were making sambusak bejiben, a cheese-filled pastry. Later, they’d fill some of the dough with dates and sprinkle it with sesame seeds. The sweet smell of these yeast cookies, or baba, would fill the room. The women fell silent as they concentrated on their tasks. Both focused on their own work, engrossed in their own thoughts.
“From everything you’re telling me,” Noa said, returning to the topic of Farida’s sleeplessness, “it sounds serious. Maybe you should try warm milk. Or deep breathing, like they do in yoga.”
“Nothing’s going to help,” Farida said, “it’s awful. Ya’allah, forget it. There’s no point in discussing it.”
“Well, if we’re pouring our hearts out,” Noa said. “If we’re talking about truth and feelings . . .” She spoke slowly, eyes averted, concentrating on her work, as if rolling little balls of dough was the most important thing she’d ever done. “I’ve been very unhappy lately. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“As soon as I saw your face in the doorway I knew something wasn’t right,” Farida said. She raised her arms, then put her hands to her cheeks and shook her head from side to side. “My girl, a blessing on your head, why are you sad? What’s missing in your life? Maybe you should live with your father again? Maybe leaving home wasn’t such a good idea? You had everything you could ask for living there. And now you’ve left your father all alone. I’ve been saying for a long time that living by yourself in that apartment was a mistake.” She wagged her finger. “If you lived at home, your father could take care of you. He could cook and do your laundry. What’s so great about all this solitude, anyway?”
“Maybe, Aunt Farida. I’ve thought about it; we’ll see.” Noa was losing patience. She hadn’t come to be lectured, and she certainly hadn’t meant to upset her aunt. She drew a deep breath. “It’s not as simple as you think. I miss Ima so much—every day I long for her more,” she said, eyes on the table. ”I’m asking myself questions, and I’m not getting answers. Do you understand?” Noa finally lifted her head, searching her aunt’s face. “I keep asking myself, where is she when I need her? I know it makes no sense.”
“Not everything in life makes sense, Noa’le,” Aunt Farida said. “It is what it is, as the young people say,” she added, half smiling.
“But do you understand? I feel like she disappeared too soon, like I don’t know enough about her, her family, you, your childhood. Ima didn’t talk about growing up. And I have my own feelings of guilt,” Noa said, pointing to her heart. “I feel like maybe I wasn’t there for her when she needed me.” Her voice was soft, and she spoke fast, as if worried she wouldn’t be able to speak if she slowed down.
“What? Why are you tormenting yourself?” This conversation was hard for Farida, and she distracted herself by putting all her energy into rolling the dough into little balls. “You were in the army when your mother got sick. What could you have done?”
“It’s true. I was in the army.” Noa looked her aunt in the face. She took a deep breath and forced herself to examine the whole truth, all at once. Let it all out, she told herself. Don’t keep anything inside your aching heart; tell Aunt Farida the whole thing before she has a chance to stop you. “I was in the army, but I was selfish. I should have asked to serve closer to home, but instead I ran away, ran from the sickness. I couldn’t stand watching her body deteriorate. Her beautiful face looked more and more sunken every time I saw her, like her eyes were about to meet, like her cheeks were stuck together. I couldn’t abide her trying to convince me everything was fine, that she was strong. I knew there was no chance she’d make it. It was just a matter of time. I can’t live with these thoughts all the time, do you understand?” Tears streamed down her cheeks, and her breathing grew ragged.
“Do you understand?” Noa caught her breath. “I wanted to get used to her absence before she was even gone. I tried to see what it was like to live without her, and the whole time I knew that when it got to be too much, I’d have a place to go, and she’d always welcome me with a smile. I didn’t think about her,” she said, bowing her head. “I didn’t think about how hard it was for her, don’t you see?” I only thought about myself,” she said again, pointing her index finger at herself, jabbing it into her ribs. “I never thought about how I wasn’t there for her on a daily basis. I withdrew while she was still with us, and I didn’t take advantage of the time we had left. And for that I can never forgive myself.”
“Oh, my child,” Aunt Farida said, taking Noa’s hands in her own. “Now listen—listen very closely. Your mother was glad you were busy, that you had a full and productive life, and that you were a successful army officer. At first she was sad when you enlisted, but when she saw how good it was for you, she was happy. And when you became the first officer in our family, she was so proud. She talked about it all the time. The truth is, she was relieved you didn’t see her suffer. She wanted to shield you from her pain; she knew how hard her illness was on you. Your mother talked about you all the time, told me everything you told her, every detail. And to every detail, she piled on her own blessings. Your mother didn’t expect you, a girl of nineteen, to sit with her all day and watch her suffer. You’re a kind and sensitive soul, Noa’le; your mother would have been just as proud of you today. It’s good that you think about her, that you miss her. It’s good, my girl. But sadness?” She stroked Noa’s face. “What a waste,” she said. “Really, that’s no good. Oh, the pastries are burning.” She shuffled over to the oven to take out the dessert, which was truly on the verge of ruin.
Noa tried to digest what she’d been told. There were so many things she hadn’t known. She’d never realized her mother had understood her, that she hadn’t been angry with her. She was struck by how much she didn’t know about her mother.
Aunt Farida stood behind Noa and stroked her long hair. “Shhh . . . shhh . . . it’s alright,” she whispered. “Everything’s alright, my child, my dear one. It’s good that you told me all these things. It’s good to cry, to release it all. You know I’m always here for you, my darling, no matter what . . . How did we get to the point of tears? You must have been thinking about these things for a long time.”
Aunt Farida walked around and stood in front of Noa. Her voice was gentle. “Now listen very carefully to what I’m about to tell you. You’re a big girl. You’re independent. You’re everything your mother wanted you to be, from the time you were in the womb. She wanted a girl exactly like you: sensitive, smart, thoughtful, loving. Even when you were little, you made your mother so proud. And I know your mother, of blessed memory, is looking down now and marveling at what a good job she did raising you. You’re an adult. You’re strong.” She spoke slowly. “And for that reason, for that very reason . . .” She paused, considering her words. “It’s for that reason I can now give you something I couldn’t give you before.”
“What is it, Aunt Farida? What do you want to give me?” Noa’s eyes were wide.
“Your mother’s diary,” Farida said quietly.
They regarded each other in silence. Noa shook off her aunt’s hands and wiped her eyes. When she spoke, her voice was a combination of surprise and fury. “A diary . . . what kind of diary? What are you talking about? Since when was there a diary? Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner? How dare you hide this from me?” Noa couldn’t believe the person who’d been her protector all her life had cheated her like this. She rose from her chair with such violence that it fell over and clattered against the floor, and she stormed out of the kitchen.
Farida stood, too, as though someone had stabbed her posterior with a pin. She rose so quickly she surprised herself. She stumbled into the small living room after Noa. “My girl, don’t be angry with me. You have to understand. Just wait a minute.” She reached for her niece’s hand, but Noa recoiled, and Farida stepped back.
“You tell me, Noa’le,” Farida said. “How could I have given a twenty-year-old girl, a girl who didn’t know anything about life, her dead mother’s diary? You weren’t mature enough; you weren’t ready. Even without the diary it wasn’t easy for you. To read personal things—confusing things—about one’s mother would be hard enough—but for a daughter whose mother had just died?” She held her hand in front of her, open, pleading. So we waited, your father and I, we waited for you to grow up. We waited until we thought you were ready to understand it. I wanted to give you the diary when you came to me, just like you did today. When you started looking for answers about who your mother really was—when you started looking for your roots. I wanted it to come from you, not from me or your father or anyone else. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“So the two of you were in this together? Who else knew?”
“A blessing on your head.” Farida spoke calmly. “Your father and I were the only ones who knew about your mother’s diary, and we decided not to tell anyone else about it because we didn’t want you and Guy to feel like everyone was hiding something from you. Listen,” Farida said. She again tried to place her hands on Noa’s shoulders, but Noa wouldn’t let her. “When your mother started writing, she had no idea what would happen to her. Listen to me very carefully: in the beginning, your mother wrote only for herself—that’s what she told me. It’s not easy being sick, and writing allowed her to express her feelings. Later, though, she wrote for you.”
Farida raised her hands to the heavens. “Do you understand? Your mother, God have mercy on her soul, kept this diary for you and for Guy. She made both your father and me swear we wouldn’t give it to you until you were older. Those were her exact words. She said to me, ‘Farida, I’m counting on you and Dan to give this diary to Noa only when you’re sure she can appreciate what’s inside.’”
Noa’s expression softened, and Farida continued.
“This diary, it has everything she ever wanted to tell you. She wanted you to know, that’s what she told me, may I fall down dead if I’m not telling the truth. Some of the stories you’ve already heard, from me or from her, but your mother wanted you to learn about her whole life. She wanted you to know the story of our family. She thought that when you and Guy had families of your own, you’d want to know, but that until then you were too young to care. Someday, she thought, you might want to know more, and who knew if she’d be around to tell you herself? Those were her exact words. So please understand”—she reached for Noa’s hand, and this time Noa didn’t flinch—“it was for your own good. It was never my intention to take this diary to the grave. I was just waiting for the right moment, and now that moment has come. Do you see now?” Her voice had risen as she talked, and she was nearly shouting. It hadn’t been easy to keep the secret. She had been tempted to give it to Noa many times, and she and Dan had almost done so on more than one occasion, but, in the end, neither of them believed Noa was ready. But now the time had come.
“I don’t believe this,” Noa cried out. Again, tears flooded her eyes, choked her throat. “I want to see this diary! Where is it? Where did you put it? And,” she added, “why do you have it in the first place?”