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The Words and the Wall

STRANGERS - an American couple with a son aged 7 or 8 - now live in my mother's house in the town of Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

When I ask permission to drop in for a visit, they hesitate. ``Not yet,'' the man says. ``But we'll call later and invite you over for tea.''

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``Nothing formal,'' I say, since I don't need tea to make me feel at home in my mother's house. For now, I must stifle impatience and restrain an urgency to sift through the barriers of time in this house of my teenage years.

Ten days later, when permission finally comes, I tell Nabiha, my mother's friend, that I've been invited to my mother's house.

Nabiha raises an eyebrow. ``People here would usually say `my father's house.' '' After all, in those long ago days, didn't men pay for the construction of houses where women and children lived?

My dad had built the house in 1937, a stone house with a red-karmeed roof and high-ceilinged rooms radiating from the central liwan, our informal family room - with a fireplace in the living room - all for 600 dinars ($2,000). The colorful geometric designs of the tile floors in both the living room and the liwan lay hidden beneath Persian carpets in winter months; they were exposed during summer months when carpets were washed and put away.

In one corner of the living room, tiles are cracked, as if an ax had severed flooring in the act of cutting wood. British soldiers had once occupied the house before our family reclaimed it in 1948. That same year, when the British Mandate came to an end in Palestine, British soldiers also vacated the Masonic building next door.

At 13, I found refuge from the turmoil of our political lives on the far side of the low-slung wall between the Masonic building and our house. The wall, made of fitted stones, with no mortar to seal its cracks, was built on a slab of rock. One spot was easily converted into a writing place.

Here, in this secret corner of my world, I wrestled with words in the Ramallah sun. I wrote in Arabic, my native tongue, and sometimes in English. But words, resisting, fell into holes and lay hidden like mushrooms in the webbed domes of the earth. And occasionally, as I reflected on the barred windows of the empty Masonic building nearby, words bubbled up.

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But how does one write for posterity when one is barely 13?

Once, during a bout of writer's block, I climbed the rough-hewn stones of the Masonic building, pulled myself up, and peered furtively through window bars at the large and empty room. I stared in surprise at artwork that soldiers had left behind - a supersized nude painted on the facing wall. Not quite a Renoir or a Botticelli, the painting would shortly disappear beneath pristine paint that would transform the Masonic building into a church.

Soon after, I abandoned my writing place in the shadow of the wall and transferred my private world of words to the stoop just outside the kitchen of my mother's house.

NOW, years later as I make my way past the Masonic building, the vineyard, and the ragged snober pine toward the house, I hear the clatter of dice on a wooden board and see my mother's shining amber eyes as she plays backgammon with my dad - and wins. Once more, daughters take sides, cheering parents on, as the game becomes a drama of suspense and hope, each move both strategy and risk. Life can be both, I speculate, as I walk up the veranda steps to the front door and wait for strangers to let me in.

Although I am now a mere visitor to this town of Ramallah, my gnarled roots are embedded deep in its rocky soil. During the last few years of my mother's life, my summer visits here cemented ties, linked me to the past, and gave me clues as to who I really was.

I ring the doorbell, hold my breath, and wait until a woman with a striking narrow face allows me entry. As I step inside, I stifle the impulse to burst through rooms in search of family and old friends.

Composure regained, my eyes adjust to incongruity - to blue and green on wooden trim, to armoires once hidden discretely in bedrooms, now protruding from liwan walls.

Once, not too long ago, the liwan held a rectangular dining table, three plastic-covered chairs, and a vintage piano badly in need of tuning. Here neighbors and friends dropped in to chat, to sip lemonade or Turkish coffee while my mother took a break from her myriad tasks. When her tasks were incomplete or time was of the essence, my mother brought along the cookie batter to be stirred, the lentils to be cleaned, the mound of squash to be stuffed with rice and meat.

``Let me introduce you to our son,'' the woman says with an effusive smile.

I follow meekly into the bedroom where I had slept at 13 - in later years, my sister Nel's room - now transformed into a computer room, with a small boy busy at computer keys.

``Why did you do this or that?'' she asks her son, worried that wrong buttons had been pushed, that files used by adults may have been lost.

For now, a small boy must give up computer games to watch TV - and give his mother time to entertain a woman passing through.

As we sit at a round table in the liwan, sip barely sweetened lemonade, and make small talk, I try not to stare at apples and pears and grapes in a bowl meant to entice; no knife to peel is visible, no plate is offered.

Spiked with a touch of rose water, my mother's lemonade was always sweet enough. Assorted tin cans held the homemade cookies that she offered to guests or neighbors who dropped in unannounced. And for special occasions, she baked a variety of cookies, brownies, apple or lemon pies, and more - her symbol of Palestinian hospitality. And there was always fruit in season: plums and apricots and watermelon, figs and grapes, and cactus fruit - always with plates and knives.

The woman's husband comes home late from Jerusalem, pleased that his car, under warranty, is fixed. He points to the rewiring overhaul in the house, notes the repainting of walls and ceilings, points to the sloppy painting of wooden trim, then adds apologetically, ``One thing led to another....'' How else can a computer-age couple live an efficient American life in my mother's old-fashioned house?

During his monologue in praise of the organizational wonders of computers, my unformatted mind shifts back to a simpler life without the benefit of computer technology.

DESPITE the precariousness of her world, my mother lived each day as if it were a gift. To prepare her meals, she walked early mornings to the farmer's market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and stopped at the butcher shop for meat. She made tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes - scalding, peeling, then dicing tomatoes for stew or stuffed squash. Each day in winter, she cleaned, filled, then lit her Aladdin kerosene heaters for warmth; she heated bathroom water with wood stored in the cellar. Yet, despite curfews, strikes, and other daily crises in her life, she never wavered in her tasks of cooking, cleaning, entertaining guests, overseeing the handicraft cooperative for refugees and needy women, and teaching the children of her Sunday school.

Before I leave, I take a covert look at my mother's kitchen, now reshaped to fit someone else's needs. Beyond the kitchen is the stoop where I would sit hours on end dredging up words to give shape to the ragged edges of my life.

One day, when words had finally begun to dance a lively dabkeh folk dance across the page, a rustle of fig leaves a few meters away pulled me back from creativity. A flicker of yellow flashed as a bulbul took flight. Then suddenly, a tiny missile, hurled from the direction of the fig tree, grazed my arm and landed with a thud at the foot of the kitchen stairs.

A hard green fig tied to a scrap of paper lay cowering in the shadow of our house. Gathering courage, I picked it up, unraveled the paper, and read the scribbled Arabic words. The message, without signature, was innocuous enough: ``If you know him, accept it. If not, ignore it.'' Below it, the universal symbol - a lopsided heart pierced by an arrow.

But in my socially uneventful 13-year-old world, I knew no one who would fling romantic missiles my way. Fearing my dad's reprimands, I dared not bring the note into our house and chose, instead, to hide it inside a crevice of the stone wall.

As I now walk away from my mother's Ramallah house, I gaze back at the wall between our house and the Masonic building, and entertain a wild and illogical hope that - despite time and the elements - a fragment of that note of long ago, wedged in a secret crevice of a stone wall, still remains intact.

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