It was 24 hours he would never forget. His father had slipped in after curfew and he knew what that meant. He had hardly slept when his father bade his silent goodbye, lingering a while next to where he lay pretending to sleep. When he got up, he could see in his mother's eyes that she knew too. It extinguished the last glimmers of hope in his 15 year old mind.
Saadiq knew as he trudged to the place they called a school that it would not be long before the IDF came seeking retribution. His friend Zayed had noticed his shift in mood. To the outside world, Saadiq and his friends had little to be jolly about on any given day, but they were only children, children who knew a life no different. It takes a lot to steal the joy from a child. Zayed knew Saadiq's father, and Saadiq confirmed Zayed's suspicions of the source of his mood.
When the helicopter came, they knew it had happened, but there was no time for poignant reflections. Saadiq, Zayed, the Imam and the other children had run from the ramshackle building in search of more stable shelter. Zayed hadn't run, instead he'd picked up a stone, pulled out his catapult, and missed the helicopter by a mile. The pilot had started shooting, off-target, as a warning, but one of the bullets had ricocheted. Zayed died in his friend's arms.
When the Red Cross had finally taken his friend's body from him, Saadiq returned home with his mother. She carried his baby sister and he his little brother. As they walked, his mother wept openly. She wept for her husband; she wept for her son. She wept for her small children who would grow up without a father, without a breadwinner. She wept for herself.
That night, the men came to pay their respects. There could be no funeral without a body, but the customs would be observed. "He died with honour, Allah is pleased with him. You should be proud," the man said to my mother.
"Who will put bread on these children's plates?" my mother replied.
"We will see to you, Umm Saadiq" the man said to her, looking at me. Then he came over to me: "Saadiq I am sorry to hear about your friend Zayed. He was a good boy. He told us you are a good boy. You understand why your father is gone, no?"
"Tomorrow come to my house. I have food for your mother. Bring a friend to help you carry, maybe two friends. I will give them something for their mothers also."
The next day I did as the man said. There were boxes and boxes of food, as much as we three could carry. Flour, oil, salt, rice, dhal, dunya, but also tins of tomatoes! Dates! Potatoes! And a freshly slaughtered chicken! Luxuries we hadn't seen for months, and even more food than we'd seen ever.
My mother was suspicious when we arrived, but when I told her where I got it, she threw her hands up and cried out, then packed the food away.
She cooked the chicken that night and we shared it with the neighbours. It might have been a feast, but there was no joy in the occasion: my father had died for us to have this meal. My mother had set some of the chicken aside and before I ate, I took it to Zayed's family. His mother opened the door and closed it again when she saw it was me. Then his father opened the door again, "Zayed was my friend," I said.
"I know," he replied, "she knows. But these things are hard for a mother to bear. They are hard for everyone." He thanked me, sent his thanks to my mother for sharing the food, then bid me run home to beat the curfew.
As time passed, the food was running out and I could see the lines of worry drawing out on my mother's face. I could hear her sigh at night, tossing and turning when she thought I slept. One night I heard her sobbing and I got up and sat on the floor where she lay. "Mama" I whispered, "I'll get a job." She sobbed louder, and I said it again: "Mama, do not worry, I will find work."
"Saadiq," she replied, "one day this will all be over and you will need your education. Go to school and do not worry."
"But Mama we do not learn at school, I can get a job and earn us a little money. I am the head of the household, it is my duty."
"My child I will get food from the aid trucks. You must go to school, I will not let them take your youth. They have taken enough."
The next day I followed my mother to the aid station where they distributed the flour and oil and dhal. She carried my sister, held my brother's hand, and joined the back of the queue. Some of the women recognised her and began to gossip. My mother saw and drew her shayla down, but the gossip ran up the line quickly. Suddenly women were pointing and shouting, one of them was Zayed's mother. They pushed my mother out of the line, chased her away.
I ran to join her but I was intercepted by one of the men who came the night my father left. "Come with me Saadiq," he said, "These women do not understand. They blame your father for their suffering. They do not recognise his honour, that he gave his life for them. Come with me, I will give you food for your mother."
He gave me all the flour and oil and rice and dhal that I could carry and as I left, he said "we can look after your family, Saadiq. Tonight listen to the muezzin. It is the fourth day of Muharram, so the place he says after the fourth call to prayer is where we will meet. Join us after salat."
My mother did not ask when I returned home with the food, she simply packed it away in silence and fed my baby sister.
It is now five months since my father left. I meet every night with the men after salat, and they talk about the future. A future with jobs, food, schools, mosques, water, houses, hospitals, doctors, medicines... A future with no more refugee camps, no more curfew, no more fences, no more IDF. It is a beautiful future and I want to be a part of it.
My mother's belly grows rounder and at night she sobs longer and louder before falling asleep. I know she does not approve of me going to meet with the men. She still goes to the aid queue, but every week it is the same: chased away empty handed. When I come the next day with the food from the men, she does not ask and she does not smile. A mother must feed her family any way she can.
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