When I was still very young—before I started school—the first thing I saw when I opened the front door of our home was the front door of the Abu Qasem family residence across our very narrow street. It wasn’t really a street, more like a footpath—it wasn’t wide enough for even a single car to traverse. The Abu Qasem’s son, Qasem, was my older sister Heba’s friend. He was her age; the two of them were two years older than I. He used to play with me because he liked to be around Heba and I was Heba’s shadow, whether she liked it or not. Om Qasem—Qasem’s mother—and my mom alternated sitting on each other’s front steps, chatting as they kept an eye on their younger children.
The first newspaper I ever saw belonged to Om Qasem. Some days she had the paper with her. She sat on the steps, surrounded by children of all ages who listened as she read aloud from the paper. Often I lost interest in what she said because I was more interested in the images on the front page, including the logo. Al-Quds (Jerusalem), written in a bold, black Arabic font with an illustration of the city of Jerusalem behind it. Om Qasem noticed my fascination and offered to leave the paper with me so I could see the pictures on all the pages. But when I tried to check out the entire paper, I couldn’t flip the pages. I was overwhelmed by their size. From then on I was satisfied with whatever I could see while Om Qasem held the newspaper.
Sometimes Om Qasem asked the older kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Qasem, Heba, Ahmed, Ashraf, and his brother Khalil answered “engineer,” “doctor,” “car mechanic,” “lawyer,” “architect.” Some of the others were like me—too young to attend school—but it didn’t matter. We told Om Qasem to ask us the same question; then we provided the same answers we had heard from the older kids. It made us feel proud to be part of the “grown up” conversation.
One day Qasem and his mom and sisters disappeared. Their house was empty. For weeks I hoped that when I opened our front door I would find the Qasem’s door also open. Instead, months passed. Occasionally, I and others heard rumors of at least some of the family members returning to the house, but never to stay. Eventually, even that stopped. We didn’t mention their name anymore.
Their front door began accumulating spider webs—but only until that time of year when the smell of ripe guavas filled our street. In the past, all the kids in the neighborhood would climb the wall surrounding Qasem’s house to steal the fruit from a big tree in the courtyard. For days on end we kids ate nothing but guavas. Soon enough, like all of us, I experienced the pain that gorging on guavas precipitates when going to the bathroom to do #2.
Around noon, on a day that no one wants to remember, I saw their front door open slightly. Heba and all the other big kids were at school, so I embarked on a solo mission to learn what was going on in Om Qasem’s abode. I climbed the wall surrounding our house, then moved sideways along it until I was at the angle that allowed me to see inside the house across the way. A man was replacing the lock on the front door. I kept moving until I saw Om Qasem at the back of the house, close to the kitchen door. All the while the stranger continued to test the new locks he had installed.
I moved back to our front door and jumped to the ground. I already knew that by placing one foot on the doorknob and leaping as high as I could, I would be catapulted high enough to catch the top of the door. Then, by pulling myself up by my arms, I would be able to sit on the narrow concrete slab that jutted over our front door. When I stood up, there was Om Qasem, staring at me. Her eyes shot through me like two bullets. I panicked. Looking away, I climbed up one more step and began walking on our roof, acting like I was checking the rocks that held down the asbestos sheets. This was a routine my dad performed every fall to make sure the roof would last through the winter, except I was checking the sheets in the spring. At the same time, I continued to glance at Om Qasem’s house. I realized she wasn’t alone. Her two sisters were with her. All three were cleaning the house.
Om Qasem noticed me once again, but this time she said, “Khalil, come on down here. I want you to do something.” I retraced my steps and in seconds I was on the ground, had crossed our alleyway and was standing at her front door. I didn’t knock immediately because I was mesmerized by the shiny new lock. The Multilock brand is shaped like a man raising his arms above his head to show off his muscles. When I finally did knock, it was the locksmith who opened the door. Om Qasem handed me ten shekels and asked me to buy a broom, Tide detergent, and a small soda for the man who was working on the doors. I ran to the store, bought the items, and handed them to Om Qasem with the change, one and a half shekels. She insisted that I keep the change, carefully putting the coins in my side pocket.
I didn’t leave the house. Instead I found an empty bucket, turned it upside-down and sat on it, observing the man changing locks in every room. Then I started sweeping the floor with the new broom. Though the brushes were brand new and soft, its handle was twice my size, and when I pushed my pile of dirt into a mound the broom handle shook and the coins in my pocket jingled.
Then my mom called me. I yelled back, “I am here.” She asked, “Where?” I answered, “At Om Qasem’s house.”
Her response was joyful, “Om Qasem? Are you back?” She covered her hair with a towel and crossed the alley. Upon entering the house, she let go of the towel, then quickly put it back on her head because she saw the man who was replacing the locks. With a big smile, she said, “I wondered why the refugee camp appeared bright and beautiful today!”
Om Qasem kissed Mom’s cheek as she replied, “It is your friendship that makes this such a bright and beautiful day! I missed you.”
“Oh, Om Qasem, I missed you too!” said my mom. “And look who else is here! Widad and Salwa! How are you doing?”
Om Qasem’s sisters responded politely, but also continued to clean the rooms.
My mom pointed to me. “When did you come over here?” By now I was standing next to her, still holding the broom. I answered, “An hour ago.”
She slapped the side of my head as she asked, “Why didn’t you say something?”
I didn’t respond; instead I continued attempting to sweep the floor. Mom heard my money jingling and asked, “Where did you get those coins?”
It was Om Qasem who responded. “I gave them to him. He has been very helpful.”
Mom replied, “This is his duty. You shouldn’t give him money for what he must do.” She looked at me as she asked, “How much did she give you?” I showed her the money. “Are you crazy, Om Qasem? This could be Heba’s pocket money for a week.” Om Qasem dismissed her comment, so my mother began helping the others to get the house ready. Two hours later, Heba showed up from school with Qasem. Tagging along behind them was one of Om Qasem’s daughters.
Beckoning to Heba while pulling my arm, Mom said, “Let them rest. Let’s go eat lunch.” The locksmith followed us out the door, his work completed.
Once in our house, Mom took me aside. “My love, this is a lot of money in your pocket. Someone might steal it from you. Kids may take advantage of you. How about I save it for you?”
I answered, “No, I can take care of it and I can hide it myself.”
“It’s your call,” she responded, “but how about I give you one third of it every day. You can start with the first third today?” After some thought, I agreed. So I handed her two half shekels and kept the third one.
Even before lunch I went to the store and bought candy. After lunch I went again, this time to buy a smoothie. Naturally Heba noticed my two trips and asked our mother why I had money of my own. Mom told her what had happened, so Heba started being extra nice, promising that she would take me with her to play with her friends. She even asked if I wanted anything from her school the following day. I didn’t understand what she meant until she explained that she could buy me the best lime juice smoothie ever at the shop next door to her school.
“Of course,” I answered. “I would really like to try one.”
Because she was being so nice and had promised me the lime juice smoothie, I told Heba that I had three agoras left in my pocket and another whole shekel that our mom was safekeeping for me.
“Wow! That’s very cool. You should buy more candies.”
“I did twice already today and I’m full,” I replied. Would you like to have a candy?”
“No, not really.”
“Is it because a lime juice smoothie is better?”
“No. You know that I like many kinds of candy at the store, but this is your money and you should keep it,” Heba said.
Nevertheless, late that afternoon I asked her to walk with me to the store. So off we went. Once there, I told her to pick out two pieces of candy, and I picked one. “I will make it up to you tomorrow with the smoothie,” she said. I smiled. I loved my older sister.
We moseyed along toward home, enjoying each other’s companionship as we savored our candy. It was almost sunset. Out of nowhere, a white 404 Peugeot zoomed down the street. It stopped at the entrance to our alley. Three men jumped out of the car and started running. Immediately, Heba and I did the same. Where were these men going? When we got closer, we recognized Abu Qasem as one of the three men, so it was no surprise to find all of them pounding on the entrance while Abu Qasem shouted, “Open the door!”
Om Qasem responded calmly. “This is my house, so please leave us in peace.”
The response was, “Your house? You are not the man here, Mrs.! Our issues have not been resolved. You have no right to open this house on your own!” (But she did. Many years later I would learn that what Om Qasem had said was true. It was her house. Her wealthy parents bought it when their daughter married, so she and her children would always have a place to live. Abu Qasem, unlike his wife, was uneducated. A fisherman by trade, they knew their daughter’s spouse would never make a substantial living wage.)
One of the men ran back to the car and picked up two crowbars and a thick wooden board. At the same time, Heba and I ran to our house. My sister went inside, calling to our mother to come help, while I watched the unfolding drama from our front door. The men stuffed the two crowbars between the steel door and the front of the house and gave a mighty push. The crowbars slipped out. By now Om Qasem was begging Abu Qasem to go, to leave them in peace. He ignored her.
She cried. She begged her husband to please go away, for the sake of their children. It was the first time I had ever heard Om Qasem sound weak and broken.
Her husband dismissed her, continuing to fight the steel door. By now the crowbars were wedged deeper into the gap. Then, there was a loud, scary bang when one of the crowbars flipped out, hitting Abu Qasem in the chest before falling to the ground. One of the sisters began wailing, “Oh friends! Oh neighbors! Help us! Save us!” She kept repeating this litany, louder and louder.
Mom pushed me to the wall as she rushed outside. “Abu Qasem,” she exclaimed. “Praise Allah, brother! This is a moment of anger! Please calm down; she is your wife, the mother of your children! Brother, listen to me! Praise Allah and calm down!”
Abu Qasem ignored my mother and continued his destruction of the front door. So Mom asked Heba to run to the nearby home of the Lobbad family to tell their sons their help was urgently needed.
Before Heba reached the end of the alley, another car pulled up, disgorging more men with iron bars and thick wooden planks. “Alright, whore,” said Abu Qasem. “I will show you what these animals can do and they will teach you a lesson you will never forget.” He asked four of the men to lift the lightest among them to the top of the wall surrounding the house. The plan was that he would then cross the roof, jump into the courtyard, and enter the house by the kitchen door. Then he could open the front door from the inside.
Even though I was very young, I realized what was happening. Once again, using our front doorknob as my launching pad, in no time I was in my monitoring position, able to watch the stranger walking on the opposing wall. The three women, armed with the new broom and pots and pans, were ready to stop him. I couldn’t see Om Qasem, but I heard her behind the main door continuing to beg her husband to leave all of them alone. Mom’s voice escalated, shaming Abu Qasem and his brothers for assaulting helpless women. “Instead of demonstrating your manhood to the Israeli army you are practicing on women. Shame on you! Shame on you! Your children will never forget this day. Stop it, brother, and praise Allah. Calm down for Allah’s sake!”
Meanwhile, Abu Qasem’s brother was crossing the roof and looking for the best place to jump off the wall into the courtyard, but the sisters were too aggressive. So the man picked up a concrete block off the roof and threw it at them. They avoided it by pulling away, calling for help at the same time. But now the man could jump down easily. Though the women attacked him, he pushed them away and rushed through another door into the house. Though I could no longer see what was transpiring, I heard Om Qasem and her sisters attacking the man, keeping him away from the front door. But it was no use. Moments later I saw Om Qasum and her daughters run into another room, locking the door behind them.
Now the man opened the front door easily. Six other males, still armed with iron bars and thick boards, rushed into the house, locking the door behind them. My mom, hysterical, began banging on the door, calling to anyone on the street to help her. She was like a bird fighting death in a closed cage.
In minutes, the men managed to break down the interior door and drag the three females into the courtyard. They started beating all of them with crowbars, iron bars, thick boards, and their feet. The men hit their faces, their heads—all over their bodies. No exceptions, no mercy. The cries for help stopped. Instead, there were whimpers and groans.
When the men finally opened the front door, my mom attacked Abu Qasem’s face with her fingernails. He pushed her aside. All the men rushed to the two cars and quickly disappeared. Mom was inside the house in an instant. I heard a loud, long scream. “The criminals, the animals! Call the ambulance! Call the ambulance!”
Neighbors ventured out and, hesitantly, began to help my mom. She asked young men to carry the injured to their cars and take them to the hospital. Mom went in the last car to leave for the hospital, but not before she told Heba to guard the house. I left my observation post in a state of shock and walked into Om Qasem’s house. Though they lacked color because by now the moonless night was very dark, I knew the patches of liquid on the floor were blood. In the midst of that darkness I saw one thing still shining—the new copper lock.
Reflecting on that day years later, I surmised that Abu Qasem was the real guardian of the house, but because he failed his family—especially his wife—time after time, she installed a lock—with the symbol of a guardian—hoping it would protect her and her children from strangers. She didn’t expect her husband, who should have been her primary guardian, to become her potential assassin. The shiny copper lock wasn’t enough to protect her from him.
No one ever mentioned that day again. No one wanted to remember it. It was as if it never happened. That front door remained locked for years.
Eventually, however, a divorced Om Qasem did return to her house to raise her son and two daughters. She was a single mother, the sole protector of her children, this time with neither a shiny lock nor a guardian to assist her.
Khalil AbuSharekh is from Gaza, Palestine, and now lives in Houston, Texas.