This story was inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: more directly, by one of the first reports from the refugee camp at Jenin. It seems rather presumptuous for a white, Western writer to tackle this subject; all I can say in my defence is that I do not claim to have produced a 'true' representation, and neither am I making a political statement. The views and experiences expressed are all imagined on behalf of the characters. I would encourage you to read this piece as a Western woman's interpretation of the refugee experience.
Hurt/comfort alert: this story is not pretty. If violence, obscene language and the more unpleasant human emotions offend you, please don't read on.
Grateful thanks are due to my partner Troubleshooter and my friend Kamouraskan for their encouragement and help. This story was also workshopped on the Bardic Circle.
Winner of "The Next Chapter Award of Excellence"
Letter to America
Copyright © 2001-2002 All Rights Reserved
I hope that you receive this letter, and that you do not mind my writing. I hope I am not an unwelcome visitor in your new life. I do not wish to remind you of where you have come from. But when you boarded the jet for America you told me to call out if I needed you, and you would help me.
I write to you in English - I did not want to express myself in our native language, for fear that I might be suspected and my letter destroyed before it reaches you. I am no longer naïve enough to imagine that your mail is not opened and scrutinised, although you have been away from this place for many years now. Of course, due to the postmark and the content of this communication, it may still go astray.
There are soldiers stationed outside my house, Risa.
She puts her pen down. Or rather, it slips from her fingers, as she tries to think of a reason to continue. The letter seems too formal, somehow - when all she wants to do is scream obscenities at the militia who persecute her, and spit in the faces of thousands of unseen others; the ones who live in snug suburban cocoons, who see pictures of the world's suffering on their television sets and shake their heads in sympathy, while they thank whoever might be listening, that they're not the ones taking the bullets.
The more enlightened might pull out their chequebooks. For the rest, she's the stuff of fantasy - because she exists in a reality too terrible to imagine.
She hates her ex-friend. She pictures her: answering calls in a business suit; collecting a fat monthly paypacket; having dinner in an expensive restaurant with her colleagues; and in the pool at home, enjoying a late-night dip.
The ripples of fresh water make soft murmurs in her ears.
And in her head, she watches Risa sigh.
Risa. The Brand New American, the One That Got Away: or rather, the one who fled the gruel and grime of their everyday existence for a new bill of fare (easy on the fries).
She left because she didn't see why she couldn't have it all.
But now, It All seems to be a little too much.
Risa rests her head against the clean, cool ceramic tile, and slowly closes her eyes.
Oh, and the damn groceries.
She doesn't realise that she left this place before she had a chance to experience true misery. Perhaps, if she knew, she would find it in her heart to appreciate her upgraded, improved, poolside life.
But Risa will never know what it's really like to be put under house arrest. How it feels to have soldiers sent to guard you, while no other house in the dusty alley has its own battalion surrounding it.
I suppose they came when the shelling started, over two weeks ago - but now it seems they have been watching me forever. They stare in at the windows, waiting for me to do something they can punish me for. And day after day I sit in the same chair, afraid to move in case I raise their ire.
I am not afraid of being beaten. You of all people must know that. Violence seems to be any woman's lot in this world of men and their brutal games. The white man will fight the Arab, the Arab will fight the Jew - and it is always the women who lose. We are spoils of battle, to be used and discarded in any way the victor sees fit. I have known this now for many years.
But I am afraid that they will stop beating me, before I am dead: and that I will be forced to hobble back indoors, disfigured and disabled, to fester here until they come for me again.
Sometimes, the whole troop march inside.
They put their hands on her body, and say they'll leave her alone if she does them a favour.
They strip her naked with their eyes.
Then, they laugh out loud.
They taunt her, telling her she smells like a pig in a filthy shed.
She hasn't been able to wash properly in weeks - the electricity was cut first, and a few days later, the water ran out.
Every night she sits in the dark, soiled and unable to sleep.
And she idly wonders what will happen next. What can be worse than this? Babies are dying because their mothers are being forced to feed them with sewage.
She wonders what Risa would do, if filth and excrement began to flow from her pristine gold faucet. Sometimes, she pictures it: muck from the mean streets flooding into the bowl, shit mingling with soap as Risa washes her hands.
In her head, Risa steps out of the pool, crystal droplets of water all over her body; and makes her way towards the shower.
I have cuts on my arms and legs, Risa, where the soldiers pelted me with stones. It happened last week; they ordered me to come outside, and when I went, they assaulted me with fragments of brick and tile.
My wounds are weeping and infected, but I have no medical supplies; I gave everything I had to the hospital.
I know the poison can only get worse. In time, it will swallow me up; I am sure. But I am unable to leave this place, and I cannot call for help. Even if I could cry out, nobody would be able to hear me.
I am very afraid.
Even before the newest horror started, she'd been branded.
Her independence marked her out - she was dangerous.
Her clothes said she was a provocateur.
The two together made her a feminist. The term for a woman living under a death sentence.
Who would eventually be forced to pay the appropriate price for her autonomy.
The soldiers' hatred of her is unmistakable - cruelly, they wave their guns too close to the broken windows, and their fire is indiscriminate, when anyone comes past.
A few deaths will teach her a lesson, they think.
They want to keep her under control, because they think she would help the snipers if she could.
They think she's an animal, because they ignore the noble impulses of her people and only see their vengeance.
Sometimes, when the soldiers torment her, she stifles an inner shriek. Sometimes, she calls up a whisper - and tries to tell them she's tired.
And sometimes, she wishes that someone would put a bullet through her chest, so she could luxuriate in oblivion. In much the same way that Risa, in her head, luxuriates in the shower.
In her head, Risa tenderly rinses the soap off her body; bathing her limbs with a soft, warm sponge. She shuts the water off - and reaches behind the shower curtain for a towel.
Risa. Who boarded the plane without a glance over her shoulder. In fact, she rushed: almost sprinting for the comforts of the New World, pursued by the ancient hatreds of the Old.
She was out of breath when she found her seat on the jet. Exhausted by the narrowness of her escape.
A flight attendant brought her a glass of water, but she was unable to lift it to her lips: she stayed motionless, until the cabin door had closed.
She knew the ghouls were still waiting, outside.
Even now, they linger; and she knows that if she ever returns, they will eat her alive. They will crunch up her bones between their teeth, and suck the blood from her veins until they have consumed her spirit.
Risa wraps herself in the towel, and sinks into its softness: and as she pats herself dry and gets into bed, thoughts of her old life fade away.
Soon, she closes her eyes.
Remember the summer we spent in Yemen, Risa? We went there to say goodbye. You told me not to cry. You told me I would find someone else. You told me it would take time. I did not believe you, but you were right.
She is a doctor. She loves these wretched people so much that she spent her youth learning how to save them - ignoring the mockery, defying her father and concealing her relief that she might never attract a husband. She left me, Risa, to tend the wounded.
Like you, she told me not to cry when she left. But I could not obey her request. I cried for hours - bitter, boiling tears - I tasted the salt and the oil from my skin.
I knew when the door closed I might never see her again.
At night, she imagines her lover's death.
It seems easier to bear than the vile uncertainty. She refuses to believe her lover might be alive - far more likely that she has been tortured and beaten or shot in the street like a dog.
Given a choice, she would probably rather the shooting. Imagining the beating is almost intolerable.
Images of a bloodied, broken face, now unrecognisable to anyone but her, haunt her in her chair.
She sees beautiful legs bent at ridiculous angles: almost cartoon-like, but this is no drawing.
Her nightmares are fuelled by the stench of death, which grows more pungent every day until it feels as though the whole camp will eventually rot in its own remains. Bodies are scattered in the streets like litter, because it is too dangerous to move them. People dare not leave their houses to claim their dead, for fear that they too will be added to the pile of corpses.
Sometimes, she wonders if Risa sees terror when she falls asleep at night.
But she knows that her ex-friend is not surrounded by death, but by life. She traded her ignoble existence for a taste of the neon-lit civilization: the heaven of high-tech, free will, and fast food.
She despises Risa, for living the Dream; because she is being forced to take part in a nightmare.
The other day, the soldiers killed her neighbour's 14 year-old son. He threw a stick at them, and they shot him dead where he stood. Then, they urinated on his corpse.
Sometimes, she wishes it had been Risa lying there, covered in piss, blood and dust, staring vacantly at the sky.
In her head, Risa turns over in her sleep, covering her face with her pillow.
Sometimes I cry when I remember the old days, Risa. Before they took us. We started a clinic in the city - for the women who were being forced to birth the next generation of this hopeless nation. Some people called us murderers. But we were not; we refused to help the women who came to us because they were not carrying sons.
When they claimed the building for the settlers, they destroyed our work. They smashed our equipment, and burned our papers. Then, they threw us into the back of their truck, and told us where we were going.
We had no money to bring to the camp with us. A friend came to our aid, sending us parcels of foodstuffs and household supplies - she wrote that her neighbours were also helping our people.
But now, mail no longer arrives...our friends cannot help us any more.
She looks up from her letter; disturbed by the small form of a mosquito on the window ledge. She can see it out of the corner of her eye.
Without thinking, she reaches out and squashes it between her fingers.
And suddenly, she wants to cry - the insect's life seems so similar to her own.
Sadly, she watches it die.
'Mosquitoes are easy to squash,' her lover told her, once.
She never squashed one, though: she always shooed them outside.
In her head, a mosquito buzzes outside Risa's window.
Persistently, it tries to find a crack in the screen; she wishes it could get in, so it could feast and grow fat on her ex-friend's blood.
But it gets stuck on the screen; and dies, slowly.
I do not understand what is happening, Risa.
They call us refugees, but they treat us like criminals. They say our land is their shrine and their temple, but they commit murder on its sacred soil.
You have to help me; I do not know where else to turn.
She crushes the unmailed letter in her hand; the paper leaves cuts in her skin.
Outside, she hears the rattle of gunfire.
In her head, Risa smiles in her sleep and pulls the blanket closer.
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