My grandmother used to say that a feast is not determined by the amount of food present – it’s measured by the joy of the occasion.
So today, we have a feast.
Bright sunshine gleams in through the freshly polished windows, and the whole house smells of cleaners and air fragrances and laughter and pride.
The adults – Mama, Pappa, Aunt Tayabba and Uncle Ahad, Umm e Jamila and her daughter, the rest of the cousins – fill the living room with life. The men sit at one corner making jokes and roaring with laughter, being served Hummus rolls by Ibn Hanif, my brother. The women, on the other hand, excitedly chatter amongst themselves.
The children, young minded, cluster around the two tables stacked beside each other, wondering what event caused such a get together. On the tables, proudly showcased, are all the shields, trophies, gifts and sashes I’ve been gifted from school all my life. Report cards are in little glass frames, the neat textbooks piled in perfect rows. In the middle of it all sits my graduation certificate.
I passed my secondary school with such shining marks that I topped not just in my class or school, but in the whole region.
And now, finally, I can attend Bir Zeit University. The one from where my mother received her PhD. The one which stayed in my dreams each night and my daydreams each day. The one and only.
I nervously glance around me. The reply to my exit permit should have arrived by now. The human rights organization that helped me apply was positive I would get an affirmative reply. Bir Zeit would accept me and my glamorous credits hastily, if only the Israelis let me cross and go over to the West Bank. That’s where the majestic building stands.
“Oh, come on,” Aunt Tayabba comments on my worried face. “You will receive the permission alright.”
“You’re a star,” Umm e Jamila agrees, and I can’t help but notice Jamila stiffen all over. Oh, well. “Stars belong in the sky. There’s no way you’re not getting admitted there.”
I try to smile for their benefit, but my dry lips only manage a half-hearted grimace. Mama smiles softly, her eyes twinkling with pride for me.
Aunt Tayabba leans forward and taps my forehead. “Cheer up already or you will destroy all our moods,” She remarks sarcastically and it brings out a sincere chuckle from me.
“But Lozein,” Jamila looks at me. “Why Bir Zeit? Why not one here…there’s nothing wrong with Al Azhar Uni here in Gaza.”
Of course she would say that, since that’s where she studies.
Before I could reply, Umm e Jamila rolls her eyes. “Because this is Lozein Az Zaeem we’re speaking about here, darling. Our star and pride.” Honestly? I think she is buttering her words too much. Did she and Jamila have a fight today? She would certainly try to make her feel bad, then.
I shake my head. “No, no. It’s just…” I glance towards Mama, who already knows the answer. “…that’s where Mama studied, yeah? I want to walk in her footsteps.”
Umm e Jamila snorts. “Did you hear that, darling?” She addresses Jamila. Yup, certainly a fight.
Aunt Tayabba doesn’t bother hiding her laughter, but Mama quickly tries to change the subject. “Does anyone want some Hummus?”
Aunt Tayabba wipes her teary eye and nods. “Yes, if the men have left us any.” She jokes and we all smile.
“Yes, let me just – Ibn Hanif?!” Mama calls out at our brother. Her eyes flick over everywhere and she frowns. “Where is that boy?” She murmurs.
Just then, as if on cue, Ibn Hanif barges in through the front door, panting. A white envelope is clutched in his hand.
Everyone quiets down at his appearance, even the evertalking men.
Ibn Hanif pants. “A…mail…ar-rived…” He manages through huge gulps of breaths.
One second, I’m sitting with the rest; the next, I’m getting on my feet and rushing to him. I grab the envelope and hold it in my shaky hands.
It is from the Israeli security authorities.
Everyone is quiet. Or perhaps, I can’t hear anything besides the rush of blood in my ear. My heart thuds in my chest, trying to slip past the ribcage and land in my fluttery stomach.
One pale finger of mine reaches at the top. I grab the seal and start to peel it.
Everyone is holding their breaths. Aunt Tayabba’s hands are up in a last-minute prayer. Papa fingers the tasbeeh beads in his hand. Even Jamila is leaning forward, eyes wide.
But I can’t do it. My trembling hands won’t let me.
Without a word, I pass the closed envelope to my mother.
“Open it,” I say to her, my voice rasp.
She complies, going at the same pace I did. I look away from the envelope.
I hear the sound of the envelope crinkling as she dips two fingers inside and pulls out the paper.
I let her read.
I wait. I wait. I wait.
I wait some more.
And finally, when I can’t wait anymore, I look towards her.
The envelope is in her lap. I watch her glistening eyes produce a watery, drop-shaped tear which slowly rolls down her chubby cheek.
That one tear answers everything.
I get numb. The men are whispering angrily, their hushed voice letting a loud ‘israel’ or ‘occupation’ or ‘our own country’ slip by.
Aunt Tayabba sits next to me, holds me against her warm body, but I don’t get warm. I am cold, cold inside.
Because I know something that probably didn’t cross their minds.
I know that as I, a Palestinian, sit here facing their rejection, another girl, an israeli, gets her acceptance letter to Bir Zeit even though her marksheet can’t compete with the half of mine.
She, an outsider, an occupier can go to any university she likes in my country.
But I, who the country belongs to, can’t even walk freely without their permit.
In the midst of the numb thoughts of my broken mind, I hear a snapping sound, and I know what it is: the sound that arises when a textbook’s heart breaks.
A semi-fictional story based on the real-life problems faced by Lojain Az-Zaeem in Gaza, Palestine. Re-written to present the human side of the story, taken – along with the featured image – from OCHA.