Halima had not known what to expect when she came to Bethlehem. The city was filled with old cars adorned with the distinctive license plates showing that they belonged to Palestinians. A few jeeps with tinted bulletproof windows displaying UN flags sped past their battered taxi. Halima felt tension in air, as if violence could break out at any time.
Halima and Ari traveled to the outskirts of the city to the street of Rania's parents. The house was dilapidated and there were two gaunt trees in the front. The house had not been painted in years. The roof, made of tar tiles, looked as if it would leak in the rain. The yard was dusty with little sign of any capacity to maintain vegetation. Whether that was through neglect or because there was a shortage of water was not clear. Halima assumed the latter.
In the back of the house were some hills--dusty, rocky, smallish--as if they yearned to be mountains but really couldn't muster up the strength. Halima got out of the car and, not without some trepidation, walked to the house. She tapped on the door, dusty with scuff marks, a section of which was peeled away exposing a lighter wood underneath.
Ari stayed in the taxi. He knew better than to come to the threshold of a Palestinian domicile. Halima looked back to see him and noticed a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
The sun was high overhead, casting almost no shadow. Children's voices punctuated the uneasy silence, laughing in the distance.
Halima knocked again and the door jerked open. A woman's face appeared in the opening. Halima held her breath. The years had not been kind to Rania's mother. The graying lady before her was beaten down by life. Her eyes were intense, suspicious, and the corners were raw and red, as if she had cried for many years. Lines etched her face in the standard and non-standard places. Her lips, dry as her front yard, had not been covered with lipstick for a long time.
With effort, she managed a smile and said, "Halima, thank you so much for coming. Please come in."
Iman, Rania's mother, slowly turned around and Halima followed cautiously, her eyes adjusting to the darkness of the house. Iman offered her a seat on the old sofa, carefully situated away from the lone window that let sunlight into the room. Halima thought to herself how can people live like this?
Iman asked about Halima's parents and offered other small talk. Iman was careful not to complain, she knew that people were tired of hearing them complain. Halima was well aware of the art of small talk, the inquiries into the state of the health of each family member was necessary before any serious matter was to be discussed.
Halima offered an abridged version of her life from the time when Iman last saw her. When Halima was just an overenthusiastic kid playing Little League baseball. After ten minutes of chit chat Iman said, "Wait here."
She shuffled out of the room like a woman twice her age and returned with a wooden box, approximately the size of a shoe box. She carefully set it on the coffee table and sat next to Halima. She opened the hinged top as if it were an 18th century music box. The light was so dim that Halima could barely see its contents.
Iman delicately removed a lined 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper—the kind middle school students use for taking notes and homework. Halima gaped as she recognized the handwriting of her dead friend and an eerie, shuddering feeling washed over her.
What the hell am I doing here? she thought. I'm sitting next to my dead friend's mother on the West Bank reading a letter addressed to me from the deceased; and there is a former Israeli officer waiting outside in a taxi.
Iman interrupted her thoughts. "I found it tucked in her diary," the woman said, succeeding in maintaining her composure. "We were cleaning out her room, getting ready to move back here when I found it. Here, read it." Reluctantly, Halima took the paper and held it to her face.
I know I don't have many days left. I really love you. You are my best friend and I am sure you will be successful in whatever you do.
I want you to know something. When I was 10, just before I left to come to America, I went exploring in the hills behind my house with my cousin Aydin. There are some caves there and we looked into some of them with his flashlight. There was one cave that was really deep. It was big enough for us to stand in. At the end of it were all of these shovels and pickaxes and other tools. It looked as if someone had been there before, probably some Israeli scientists.
We did not want to get in trouble so we turned around to get out of there. That's when Aydin stumbled and fell. His flashlight went flying and hit the wall. We went to retrieve it and that's when we saw this brown piece of leather poking out of the rocks next to it. We didn't know what it was but we thought it was important.
We did not want anyone else to find it. But it would be dangerous for us to keep it too. If we got stopped they would have taken it from us. We took the leather and placed it in another cave next to the one we were in. Thiat cave wasn't very deep. We hid it under some rocks and promised to not tell anyone about it until later. I am telling you now. You will know what to do.
Love, your friend,
Halima looked up at Iman as if to say-this is why you asked me to travel 6000 miles? To read a letter from my dying friend? Anticipating Halima's question, Iman removed another article from the box. It was stiff and brittle, only the size of an index card, with the top and bottom stuck in a permanent curl. There was some dark writing on the sheet. Halima asked Iman, "What does it say?"
"I don't know," replied Iman in a measured tone, "the writing is not Arabic and it's not Hebrew."