My grandma_Mor Deree, Beer Sheva.
_Energheia Israel Prize 2014.
Night winds are coming. My body shakes, my heart begins to pound and I can feel it burst inside me. I’m revising the prayers quickly and praying hard they would let me pass. It’s already 18:00, the curfew has begun and I don’t know how I will pass the guards. I cover my head. I’m sure I will be recognized, but I have to try to pass. I enter an alleyway, hoping the darkness will hide me, and in my head, I’m thinking only of Yosef, Eliyahu, Charlie and little David who haven’t eaten all day. I muster the courage and walk towards the guards. They yell at me, “aji lhina dria!” (Come here at once!) One of them approaches me quickly, my head is right next to his and he demands with a shout: “Barhawat!” (Documents!) What are you doing outside at this hour? You know you can’t pass. My heart is pounding fast and I talk fast and explain: I just now got out of the shoe store, I live in the next street, I couldn’t get out on time, here is a permit that I work there. He takes the documents angrily and walks towards his friends. I’m standing by trying to listen to their conversation but they talk too fast, I can’t understand. He comes towards me and I’m clenched and nervous, he throws the documents on the ground, pass, and it’s the last time. I got in quickly and went to madam Jerby’s house; a big pot is on the table. I tell her thank you, kiss her cheeks and enter my house. One door separates my house from madam Jerby’s house. I enter and hear loud crying and yelling, take a deep breath that fills the chest and start cleaning up the mess. I’m holding David in my arms. Eliyahu, Yosef and Charlie are playing, Massoud is doing his own thing and my mother is trying to calm me down. The pot is on the table, everyone is seating and eating, it’s quiet in the tiny room we all live in. It is finally quiet.
David emitted, the slip was soiled, I don’t have time to clean up. I organize quickly, put on a dress, try to patiently put on the pantyhose, a shout is heard in the background and I rip my pantyhose. Never mind, no time. My mother stays with David at the house; I will walk with Charlie and Yosef to school and take Eliyahu to kindergarten. When I open the front door, my heart already begins pumping fast, stress sneaks in me and I’m restless. My children are around me holding hands. It’s already a repeating ritual. We stick to the street, try to be invisible, just not attract any attention. Charlie and Yosef are at school, such luck. Now only to get Eliyahu to the kindergarten. We walk fast, I get a bad feeling, and I hold Eliyahu in my hands and start running. I see two people fighting; a whole commotion of people around them and one curses the other. From the yells, I understand it’s about a theft. The punishment for theft can be severe but the Arabs solve it amongst themselves, they don’t call the police. That is what I’m afraid of, I heard about violent incidents when a Jew was blamed for a theft just to charge someone. I shiver, Eliyahu feels my fear and starts screaming, five more minutes of walking and I’ll be at the kindergarten. The commotion blocks me and I can’t find my way. People begin crying out for help, I look around me again, stop for a second and calm down. I have to get away from this commotion. I caught my breath and began making my way through the crowd. I approach the kindergarten, Eliyahu is screaming and I just pray to god to help me. I made it and got to the kindergarten. Eliyahu is fine and I’m calmer. This situation can’t continue to be like this, life in Casablanca isn’t easy and the body is already tired. There is no way to stay here anymore.
The shoe store is small; Massoud sits and greets the costumers. Sometimes his face is reconciled and sometimes angry. He doesn’t have an endearing affability and he is angry most of the time. I explain to him: be nice to the costumers, it is our livelihood. There are days when he doesn’t even come in, he just disappears and I sit and greet the costumers. I have no way to assist, I’m not a shoemaker, all I do is organize the shoes in boxes and clean up. His work tools are so dirty. One day I just told him: “Massoud, clean the tools, it doesn’t look good, there is so much dirt!” Then he answered me angrily: “Don’t tell me what to do. I know best, a good shoemaker is one whose tools are worn out. It shows he’s doing a good job. I like the dirt, don’t touch”. Sometimes when he’s not looking or when he disappears, I secretly clean the tools and get scared he’ll catch me. He doesn’t understand this place is our livelihood.
We have a costumer who comes once every two weeks, mister Jalame, and he has twelve children and two wives. Massoud and him can sit and talk for hours about mister Jalame having two wives and how he wants more, and I always see in Massoud’s gaze how he is enjoying the thought. I think he wants another wife, but it will never happen. One Friday we hurried to close early before the Shabbat enters. A moment before I closed the store’s metal door mister Jalame came with his little son whose knee was bleeding. The sandal Massoud fixed was completely torn. Mister Jalame’s face was red and he was breathing heavily and yelling at Massoud: “Wait! Don’t close, the shoes came apart because of you and the kid fell and got hurt! What did you do? How do you work? What, did you fix them while you were drunk?” Massoud didn’t know what to say. He was surprised from mister Jalame’s vehemence and I was afraid he would talk back to him with anger. I tried to calm both of them, moved my hand across Massoud’s back and told mister Jalame: “I’m sorry, don’t worry, give me the sandals, take these for free, they are new. Come back Sunday noon and get the sandals which would be good as new”.
Sunday morning came and mister Jalame was the first one to enter the store. He didn’t say a word, took the shoes and left. It’s been two weeks and he never came. It’s been another month and another month and I understood he will never come again. I was worried mister Jalame’s friends will stop coming as well. Massoud started being angry and disappeared from the store more often. The money was running out. We missed this month’s rent and the owner came to demand the money. I kept stalling with a smile: “Rada ana nachles, rada yakono li laflosh” (Tomorrow I will pay, tomorrow I will have the money). However, I knew the day would come when the smile won’t be enough. A few days later I got to store earlier than usual and saw three or four Arab men pulling out the merchandise and throwing everything on the ground. I stood by, looking, couldn’t move. I was scared, I didn’t have the money, a smile won’t help here anymore. I went back home and realized we don’t have a way to earn a living anymore, and looking for a job is dangerous. I don’t know what to do.
Charlie is twelve already, Casablanca is not a good place for him. He is not developing enough and I fear for the future of my family. He is the eldest, he is big – I tell myself. He will know how to handle this. I go to him and tell him about my plans; he doesn’t object or argue with me. He is smart enough to understand it’s hard on me as it is. I explain to him what I know and he asks me many questions I don’t have an answer to: “When will I see you, mom? What about grandma? Where will you be? How will I find you when I graduate? Where do I send the letters?” I don’t even have one clear answer to give him. I hug him and say: “Vladi, ikbol felhar, ana tithabek” (son, there will be better days, I love you). I packed his bag; we left early in the morning, I brought some documents with me and took him to the Youth Aliyah offices. I didn’t understand much, they told me he would study in France, in an Ulpan. I was glad. I left him there and went back home.
Something changed in the air. The neighbors are shutting their blinds early, the street goes silent in 17:55, and the fear is felt in the silence in the street and homes. I start hearing about Yosef Kadosh: “He’s a good man, this one. He helps Jews get to Israel; he has a lot of power”. We manage to contact him, were explained what to do and bring. “Before everything you have to sign a document which claims you undertake to never return to Morocco”, said Yosef. For my part, I agreed instantly. I will never want to return here. Yosef said he’ll be in touch with us when he’ll know more. “In the meantime go home and wait”. It was already late, my feet are tired, and the stomach reminds me that I ate nothing but bread and margarine in the morning. Massoud doesn’t really care what will happen to us and what we’ll do, some husband I got.
We haven’t left the house in a week. We’re all together in one room. I can’t breathe and I’m choking. We closed the store because we couldn’t make the rent and Massoud comes and goes without saying a word. My mother, the kids and I are staying at home and not going anywhere. I stayed with David, Yosef and Eliyahu and I’m assuming Charlie is on his way to France already. I’m not sending them to school and kindergarten because it has become too dangerous to walk the streets. My stomach signals we’ll hear good news soon and I try to stay optimistic. It’s been two weeks since I last heard from Yosef Kadosh and I try to keep busy and occupy my thoughts. I imagine Israel in my mind and tell the children every night about the journey we’re going to have, try to prepare them for every scenario even though I don’t really know anything either. I try to be patient and my thoughts sail to the land of honey, to the place where we could live among Jews, friends, thinking about the peacefulness that would fill my life where I could raise my children with dignity.
I found a folded yellow note under the door someone dumped quickly and left. I start reading: Tuesday 2:00 a.m. get to the old stone tower, on the right there is a large wooden door. We’ll be waiting for you there. Take only one suitcase not to draw any unnecessary attention. Please memorize the details and burn this note after reading. God bless you, Yosef Kadosh. A great feeling of relief together with stress washes over me. I whisper the details to my mother; we memorize them and burn the note. No time today, it’s already Monday and tomorrow we’re leaving. All our possessions will stay here, all the clothes my sister sent me from America can’t fit in the suitcase. I will take only a few things that will remind me of the good times in Morocco and will leave the bad behind. I took the jewelry I got on my wedding day and a few clothes for the children and us. I took one suitcase for five people and left behind twenty-nine years of memories. It’s time for new memories.
We got to the old stone tower and entered the door. There were many people. We huddled in the corner and kept being whispered to to stay quiet. After a few hours, buses came and took us the ship. Casablanca was still dark. The sun will rise in a few hours. I was afraid of what the light would bring and preferred the darkness. Everyone boarded the ship; it was four-five stories high. We slept on mattresses, everybody together, close to each other. The ship sailed and I started breathing again.
Massoud and I wanted to go up to the deck because the ocean was making him sick. Eliyahu was beginning to show symptoms of sickness too. My mother stayed with Eliyahu. Yosef, David and us went outside to get some air. We started making our way through the crowd. Everything is crowded, mattresses everywhere and I try not to bother anyone. I started walking fast, the kids were running ahead of us and Massoud was slightly behind. I kept going, assuming he’ll be alright. All of the sudden, I heard a voice calling me: “Alice! Alice! Aji alhana!” (Alice! Alice! Come here!) I see Massoud yelling and waving at me to come and I don’t understand what is going on. I approach him and he waves his arm, look. I’m shocked. Charlie is on board with us! He looks so exhausted. Here I thought he was in France already. Massoud, untypically, went to get mint tea and stroked Charlie’s cheeks to calm him down. He told him: “Mommy and daddy are here, don’t be afraid”. Charlie smiled, couldn’t figure out what was going on, sipped the tea and fell asleep calm.
The sun I was afraid of was shining bright and I was shining with it. There is a feeling of a new era in the air. The smell of the ocean excites me and the wind blows my hair. It feels like a movie scene and I’m the star. Today is Friday and the feeling of Shabbat moves me. We are all sitting around an improvised Friday table, a plastic Kiddush cup and Massoud chants the Friday night prayer. I eat plain white, tasteless rice with a pinkish looking fish in hot sauce, but I don’t care, it feels like a five star hotel meal to me. The ship docked in France where Charlie got off alongside dozens of youth who went to study Hebrew in the religious school for boys. I couldn’t take Charlie with me, I didn’t have the documents and the Youth Aliyah guide who escorted the boys convinced me it will be the best for him to study in France for a few years and then come to Israel. I agreed with her and said goodbye to Charlie again. It wasn’t easy. Scruples and thinking whether I made the right choice will haunt me forever. Days pass. I lost track of time and can no longer keep count on how many days we’ve been on the ship.
Shouts wake me up. My hands are feeling around, looking for the children, and I can’t find my glasses. I’m sure I’ve put them under my pillow and keep searching. My hands caress Elyihau, who is still napping in spite of the shouts, nothing wakes him up. Yosef is already awake, I can’t see his face and start stroking it only to discover my glasses on his tiny nose. Yosef! I told you not to play with the glasses, they’re not a toy! I can’t see anything without them. The turmoil continues and people are hurrying to the deck. Massoud is gone and my mother is holding David. I gather everybody and we’re going outside. I hope we’re not caught and will be sent back to Morocco. People keep shouting and I still don’t understand. We’re approaching the deck, the sun’s high beams blind me. I got a little light headed, closed my eyes, stood up and took a deep breath. The shouting continued and turned into warm, pleasant words – We got to the holy land, Israel! We stood there together, Massoud joined and the ship docked in Haifa port. A warm feeling fills me as we leave the ship. I dropped on the ground, kissed the dry land and my tears wet the hard soil. I’m home, Baruch Hashem (Thank God).
Friday came and it’s a holiday for me. I’m looking for bus number 33 to get me to Ofakim. I set down in the slightly stuffed bus, hoping to sit by myself, but oh no – a fifteen year old teenager sits next to me. He starts playing with his Iphone and plays music without headphones. Mor the educator is about to come out and give him a lecture about manners. I gathered my patience and growled at him: “Either lower the volume or put on some headphone, please”. Luckily, my tone of voice served me well and he put on some headphones. It’s about a twenty minute drive from Beer-Sheva to Ofakim, but as the years go by and I get older it seems shorter. I don’t mind staying on the bus for an hour even though I usually hate public transportation. Something about me is addicted to the desert landscape.
The trip to grandma’s house is accompanied with inexplicable excitement. Sometimes it feels like falling in love for the first time and the butterflies in my stomach overflow me. Maybe it’s because this city marks for me my first home and the family history I’m not entirely familiar with. Whenever I get to the city I’m overwhelmed with a childhood memory I can’t tear myself away from: I’m at my grandma’s yard driving a small blue iron bicycle, around me are green strips of grass. I’m pedaling on the narrow path that leads to the wormwood bush, I pick some leafs and put them in the basket on the back of the bicycle. On the way back I pick a few anemones and put them in the basket as well. I knock on the brown iron door, which is boiling from the sun. My grandma stands in front of me with a big smile on her face, “come in y’binti, why did you pick anemones again? You know it’s forbidden”, I smile shyly, which reconciles her quickly. “Never mind y’binti, I’ll make you some tea with wormwood”.
Every time I get to her house, the memory comes and is replaced immediately with the reality that hurts my stomach. The grass was replaced by cold cement that covers the entire yard, because it’s hard for grandma to clean and weed. She asked for a smooth, straight cement surface so it will be easy to walk on with her walker. The anemones are gone and she buys the wormwood from the greengrocer. I knock a few times and no one answers the door. I know she is there; I open the window next to the door and call her. Slowly she comes and opens the door. I lean towards her and kiss her soft cheeks. “Grandma, it’s me, Mor”.
“I know, I had a feeling you’d come. What can I make you to eat? To drink? There is root beer in the fridge”. “No, grandma, I don’t want anything. I’ll take something to drink in a minute”. Nevertheless, she doesn’t quit. “Eat something, drink something”, and until I don’t do so the entire conversation will be about food. I go to the fridge, open a bottle of root beer, pour it in a glass and sit next to her. I’m looking for her good ear and like always, get it wrong. Through her right ear, we have a conversation. My hand is stroking her back and I can feel the huge arch in her back. Her hair is wrapped with a scarf that covers her gray, flowing hair. On her nose, she has big brown glasses that cover almost her entire gentle face, and a long purple dress wraps her body, despite the hot weather. “Aren’t you hot, grandma?”
“No, not at all. I like it this way.”
“Grandma, what did you do today?”
“What did I do? Not much. I woke up early, ate, did some exercise in bed, took a nap, spoke with your mother and then you came. And how are you? How is school? Work?”
“Everything is great. I’m having a good time. Grandma, where is your red box?”
“In the closet, at the bottom, on the same shelf as the shirts.”
I go over to the closet like a little girl who just found a treasure. I look through the shelves, it’s not where she said, I keep looking and find it. I sit next to grandma, hand her the box. She places it on her knees and with her special gentleness she takes off the lid and puts her hands in the box. Inside there are black and white photographs, old crumbling pages. We go through every photo and grandma tells me. “This is madam Jerby. She was our neighbor in Morocco, a very good woman. She was a big saint. Poor thing. She never made it to Israel and was murdered in Morocco”. Her tone of voice changes when she speaks about madam Jerby. This is not the first time she tells me about her and every time something in her voice changes. She keeps looking through the photos until she finds the one she was looking for and asks me, “do you recognize them?” I look closely but can’t quite figure it out. She takes off her glasses, takes the photo closer to her eyes and point with her fingers, “this is Eliyahu, Yosef, Charlie, David, grandma Itto and Massoud. This is before I sent Charlie to school in Paris”. I see tears clogging her eyes and she wipes them quickly. I bring her a handkerchief and she holds it firmly in her hand.
She changes the subject and moves on to other photos, “look, this is the shoe store where we worked, these are the regular costumers. This was a good friend of your grandpa, mister Jalame. He would come often to the store. Grandpa and him would sit around for hours, talking, drinking arak and laughing. If I’m not mistaken, I remember that a month or two after this picture was taken we came to Israel.
“Grandma, why did you come here? Don’t you miss Morocco?”
Then she starts answering in Moroccan, she speaks too fast and I can’t understand every word. I stop her. “Grandma, slower, I don’t understand”. When she’s this excited I understand I touched a sensitive nerve.
“Y’binti, life there weren’t easy, and I lived worrying all the time. Here it’s the best and I’m glad we came here. I have nothing left there and I don’t miss it. Are you hungry? Can I make you some lunch?” When she speaks about food it means she doesn’t want to speak about something else. I get the hint.
“No, grandma, I’ll make you some.” I open the fridge, see some food in boxes and heat up some meatballs and rice. We sit at the table. Grandma is playing with her food; her fork touches the meatball and falls back to the plate. “Grandma, eat, why aren’t you eating?”
“I’m eating, don’t worry.”
There is a knock on the door but grandma can’t hear it. I tell her someone is knocking and go open the door. It’s the next door neighbor, Mrs. Bitton, coming to visit grandma. Mrs. Bitton enters, I ask her if she wants to join us for lunch and she said she already ate. She goes over to grandma, kisses her on both cheeks and sits down next to her. “Alice, akes bark?” (Alice, how are you?)
“Ana mejiiana, akes bark madam Jerby?” (I’m good, how are you madam Jerby?)