On a February 3rd at 10:35 p.m. Palestine time, my father died. When the phone rang with this message I was stunned. How could he not be alive? In the United States , where I lived, it was only half past two . So if he died at 10:35 p.m. , was he still alive in America ? I bargained with God for eight more hours of his life, then set my alarm clock and waited.
One by one, the hours escaped like moths fluttering towards the light. And as they did, I saw the face of my father. A quiet man, he was tall and strong – but afraid of the darkness, afraid of graveyards and their lonely silence. Living on the West Bank in harsh conditions following the 1967 Six-Day War and the occupation of Palestinian cities that followed, he was also afraid that he could neither protect nor provide for us.
My father was the one with the least schooling in our family, having finished only the first grade. And so as a teenager in the late 1970s, at the end of every week I sat with him, added up his work hours and helped him figure out his pay.
As I did this I was aware of his hands resting on the table near me. Weathered and wounded, they revealed the harsh reality of his life. When the work hour numbers did not add up to what my father hoped, those hands clenched into fists. Snatching the pencil from me, he demanded a re-calculation; then cried when my total remained the same. This meant that family purchases like meat or olive oil would need to be postponed.
What was never postponed throughout the years of my childhood and adolescence, however, were the daily little treats my father brought with him at the end of each day. Sesame, popcorn, candy, salted seeds, nuts. They cost money, but he bought them anyway.
“The children need clothes more than they need these treats,” Mother would tell him.
“But these treats put happiness on their faces, even if just for a moment or two,” he insisted.
Now the clock announced 10:35 p.m. My father was dead in both Ramallah time and American time. I felt a glimmer of a desire to die, too.
“Dad, do you want me to go with you?” I asked what I imagined was my father’s soul venturing into the darkness alone.
I remembered that the one thing my father was never sure about was whether anyone would think about him after he died. The last time I saw him he gave me his hattascarf and prayer rug, and, tilting his head, said, “It-thakkareeni.” Remember me!
Now I wanted to give my father exactly what he would have asked for. I wanted to think of him, and to think of him in a way that honored the traditions he believed in.
My father would not expect me to follow these traditions. In fact, he would be shocked! He knew me to be his free-spirited daughter who at age 22, and in spite of his protestations, left for the West, an ocean away from home.
Perhaps I broke my father’s heart a thousand times by challenging his traditional ways.
But today I would respect these traditions. I decided to mourn for forty days, the traditional mourning period for Arabs.
I cancelled all of my appointments, set aside my work, put on my dark clothes and recorded an out-going voice-mail message telling anyone who called me that I was in a period of mourning.
For the next 40 days, no shopping, no sugary foods for comfort, no movies or television to distract myself. Thinking about my dad would get my full attention.
I made a play dough sculpture of my father, and began a forty-day conversation with him. I covered my walls with paper in order to draw large family scenes from my memory and to write giant letters on the wall.
A stack of Kleenex boxes that I bought for the strong rush of tears that has begun stood near the forty tall candles I would light – one every day. I hoped they would conquer the dark and light up the road of the other world for my dad.
I put an extra set of plates on my table and as I served the food, I hummed the only song that I knew my dad loved, “Night, cover up the world like a tent; I am not afraid of your darkness. For after the darkness always will come a morning of love that rises and rises.”mi
As I progressed deeper and deeper into the days of mourning, I found myself going on a journey into the past. No amount of grief could stop me. Suddenly I was willing to feel again the events of my life, which had often seemed unbearable. Now, to remember was to think of my dad. To remember was to keep him alive in my life.
On day forty, I wrote a farewell letter to my father, thanking him for his life, and forgiving him for having let me down at times.
I drove to a creek at the edge of land owned by a friend because my father loved running water. My friend had left a shovel by the creek. “Feel free to play the piano in my house afterwards,” the yellow stickie note on the shovel read.
I dug the earth. I put in it the hardened play dough sculpture of my father, the farewell letter and the scarf that he had given me. I cut the prayer rug into two halves. Keeping the half where his feet used to stand five times a day, I buried the other half where he had put his forehead down in prayer.
I wanted to honor that my father and I had come from the same foot place, the same roots, but our minds diverged into different worlds.
I faced the creek and once again sang his favorite song: “Night, cover up the world like a tent; I am not afraid of your darkness.” I sang it over and over until there was only silence in me. Then I closed the earth as if it were an envelope, patted it affectionately, kissed it, and went inside my friend’s house.
I sat down at the piano and played with abandon. I did not feel even a whisper of unfinished sadness. I had cried all of my tears, felt all of my feelings, said all of my words. I played and played, swaying back and forth, the sunlight streaming on my fingers.
As I drove home I felt closer to my dad than I ever had felt during his life. I also became aware of a new place in me that had opened up, allowing new depths of my past to become accessible.
The next day, when the forty days of mourning were over, a stunning birth occurred. I began to write the book I had always wanted to write, but could not bear to write. It was about my childhood and war.
This story, beginning with the first night of the Six Day War which took place between Israelis and Arabs in June 1967 when I was 3 ½ and accidentally was separated from my father and my mother, had been hidden in a tent of darkness.
I could not find these memories, no matter how hard I tried. Now I began to write – I wrote a chapter every two days, continuing until I finished two months later, writing as though I had entered a morning that never ends.” And my father’s song is with me.
“Night, cover up the world like a tent; I am not afraid of your darkness. For after the darkness always will come a morning of love that rises and rises.”