Gimme Shelter

Wake at eight. Quick think, quick look, quick stretch. Back to sleep, cos I’m worth it. Wake at nine. Think, look, stretch, remember. Up, coffee, shower, eat, smoke. Choose clothes. Sunday best? Monday worst. Gonna get dirty, gonna get drenched, blood, sweat, tears. Third-choice Diesel jeans (£120). Fourth-choice Air Max 90s (£105). Old Armani Jeans hoodie (£150). Leave the iTouch (£130) at home, got to take the E71 (£400) though. Five hundred shekels, twenty Parliament Silver, lighter, gum, water, keys. Out door, in cab, slalom up Salame. Into the lion’s den. They’re all on the prowl. Black, brown, yellow, green. Big, small, old, new. Straight-off-the-boat, just-crossed-the-desert, fresh-from-the-genocide. Tribes, clans, races, nations. Leave your baggage at the border, leave your dignity at the gate. Don’t care who you are, don’t care where you’re from. Keep your head down, eyes down, hopes down. Stand on the corner and wait. Stand on the corner and hate. Hide the hate though, don’t wanna queer your pitch. Smile like you’re on the back of a marmalade jar. Only way you’re gonna get picked up by a van, only way you’re gonna get work. Ten hours on a building site equals another day’s survival, another day’s grace, another day’s keeping the wolf from the door. Right off Salame, left off Har Tzion. Dante missed a trick. The tenth circle’s a side street in South Tel Aviv. The whole cast’s here, the curtain’s up. Mad Moshe centre stage, pack of dogs in tow. They know the score, they don’t mask their malaise. Bark, howl, whine, scowl, curse their luck, curse their lot. Would love to stay and chat, got work to do though. Inside, end of the corridor, key in the lock. Smaller than my bedroom in length and width. Fair enough, my bedroom’s massive. Not quite fair enough, ten people have to live here. Five mothers, five kids. Ten hearts, ten souls. Ten sets of hopes, ten sets of dreams. Two’s company, ten’s a nightmare. Still, you think, they’re the lucky ones, they’re the survivors, they’ve fallen on their feet. Could be worse, could be burned alive in your mud hut. Could be strafed by Janjaweed Apaches. Could see your son conscripted, your daughter raped, your husband swinging from a tree. Welcome to paradise. Don’t mind the mice, they’re housetrained. Don’t mind the rats, they know their place. Don’t mind the roaches, the bats, the dogs, the cats, the bugs, the thugs, the drunks, the punks, the thieves, the crooks, the stares, the looks. You’ll be just fine, you’ll be just great. Riley could only dream of a life like this. We sweep, we scour, we paper over the cracks. Shake our heads in disbelief, shake our heads in sympathy. Shake our heads from force of habit, go outside for a smoke. Mad Moshe’s talking to a tree. One-way traffic though, the tree’s too busy trying not to die. Trying not to choke from the fumes, trying not to get chopped up for firewood. Trying not to remember when it was just an acorn, when life was sweet, when it had the world at its feet. Probably been chatting to the man next door, propped up by his cane, weighed down by his pain. Seventy years old, nothing left but his proud moustache. Carefully-manicured tufts atop his parched, pursed lips, but the image is spoiled by the green plastic shoes and the torn tracksuit trousers. He hobbles by, saying nothing, seeing it all, seen it all before. He’ll see it all again, and again, and again till he drops. Could be today, could be tomorrow, could be tonight on his twelfth-hand bed. He watches us washing and cleaning and fixing, knows why we’re here, knows who we’re helping. Knows that there’s no one who’s gonna help him. Knows why that is, knows how it goes. Knows he’s got nothing and no one and no hope and no chance, no reason to go on, no reason to fight. The moustache might not realise, but the nose knows. The nose gets it. The road map of burst capillaries and hollowed-out pores says it all. He’s at the bottom of the barrel, at the bottom of the bottle, at the bottom of the bottomless pit. Not our problem. Back to the issue at hand. Back to the drawing board. How to knock a ten-man square peg into a box-sized round hole. Needs must, in God we trust. Walk down the road, through the park, past the school, up the stairs. Watch the loose ones, hold onto the rail. Bang on the rusted metal, door swings open, two-foot kid flashes a three-foot grin. Delighted to see us, delighted to be her, delighted with the world outside, inside, up and down. Her mother sits on a bed, her smile’s far weaker. She gets it. She knows. She’s been there, done that, got the t-shirt but it didn’t fit. Hard to see in the gloom, squint at the scene. Five kids, four mums, the fifth’s at work. Everyone’s eating, scooping up curried vegetables with hunks of flatbread. They offer us food, some accept, I decline. Already ate. Already drank. Already smoked. Already decided to steel myself to their reality, to erect a barrier between them and me. I’m here to do a job, not here to befriend, commiserate, sigh, cry, feel. Not my role, not my duty. Into one of the bedrooms, dismantle the bunkbeds. The frames don’t want to come apart, the frames want to stay where they are. The frames don’t want to move from their five-room penthouse into a one-room hovel. Don’t blame them, but it’s going to happen either way, so I wish they wouldn’t make a meal of it. One mother watches us, silently scoffing at our futile attempts. She turns, leaves, comes back brandishing a metal pole. Her frame’s more slender than those of the beds, doesn’t stop her though. She steps, swings, smashes. Metal on metal. Iron on iron. Rust on rust. Steps, swings, smashes. Repeats as required. The bed’s bloodied, bruised, beaten. Job done, she stalks back out, face softens again as she scoops up her daughter. We pick up where she left off, lesson well learned. We step, swing, smash, the foundry soundtrack pealing out through every room in the flat. The walls shake, the babies cry, the mothers don’t ask for whom the bell tolls. They don’t need to. They know it’s time. They scurry around filling up bags. They break world records, they’re champion packers. They know how to leave in a hurry, they know how to flee. They’ve been here before, at least this time we’re saying it with flowers not flamethrowers. They clean the house while we stumble down the hill, beds on backs, hands on hearts. Off to the pint-sized promised land, the one-roomed shack of wings and prayers. Can’t be helped, this is the new reality. Credit crunch in the charity sector. Funding’s dried up, can’t afford to keep them where they are. Your home is at risk if the UNHCR don’t keep up repayments on the mortgage. Still, like we say over and over till it becomes a mantra, it could be worse, could be worse, could be worse. As long as you’ve got your health. As long as you’ve got your kids. As long as you don’t think too long and hard. Back with the beds, back up the hill, back to the step, swing, smash. Down hill, down road, down tools, smoke. Water, bareka, can of Coke. Jack and Jill went up the hill to clear them out the shelter. Walk back down, women in tow, women in front, we push the prams. They laugh, they smile, they don’t know what’s coming next. Reach the room, let them in. Let them in, their kids in, their bags in, their pots in, their pans in. They leave their happiness outside. Can’t blame them, so would I. I’m not exactly a bundle of joy either, got rust stains on my jeans (£120). Got sweat marks on the chest of my AJ hoodie (£150). Got a major grudge against the neighbours who’ve got a major grudge against the Africans they’ve just seen move in. There goes the neighbourhood, they think. Are they blind? The neighbourhood went years ago, decades ago, lifetimes ago. The neighbourhood was never here to start with. This ain’t a neighbourhood, this ain’t a suburb. This is wasteland, this is scrubland, this is lowland. These hills are not highland hills, or the island’s hills, they’re not my land’s hills. Or rather they’re definitely not the mothers’ hills, but they’ll have to do. Refugees can’t be choosers. Can’t hold on to the past, can’t pin their hopes on the future, can only just about get to grips with the present. They’re not heroes, by the way, in case you got the wrong idea. Victims, for sure, but can’t issue medals of valour to each and every one just because they didn’t die. Can’t lionise them just for being black, for feeling blue, for being beaten black and blue. Some are good, some are bad, some are sweet, some are sour, only thing they have in common is they’re all here, all need help, and now they’re all under one sagging, splintered roof. And the pressure’s mounting, the heat’s rising. Mother number five gets back from work, gets a glimpse of her new home, gets into a mood and into a fight and into a whirlwind of rage. Tempers flare, voices rise, threats and screams and wails and tears all fly round the room in a violent, vicious cycle. A ceasefire is declared and shakily holds. The moustache takes his man for another slow, stilted walk round the block. Mad Moshe’s fallen out with the tree. The dogs chase the cats chase the mice chase the roaches. The kids chase each other, the clouds chase the sun. A woman high on crack/smack/drink/pills/glue/life (delete as applicable – clue, it isn’t life) begs for a cigarette through the bars of her front window. She wants, she gets, she barks like a seal in delight. Inside, a fat man stares at a fat television. In the next house, the scene is the same, the weight distribution, the TV addiction, the cash shortage, the need surplus, the vain chances of recovery and reprieve. Round the corner, the families in the other shelter get on with getting on. Women clean, cook, chide. Children hop, skip, jump. Elders and betters speak in Amharic, children reply in Hebrew slang. They’re dual nationals, dual citizens, with dual cultures vying for space in their still-forming minds. Like watermelon put to grow in a square box turn out cube-shaped, so will these children follow suit. They’ll forever keep their dark skin, but that’s about it. The Ethiopian will be moulded out of them, the Sudanese, the Eritrean, the Namibian, the Congolese. The memories fade, the scars linger. The brother shot as they crossed the border won’t rise from the dead. The sister sold into slavery to pay the rest of the family’s way isn’t coming to visit. The herds left behind, the flocks, the cousins, the friends, none of them will ever be seen again. But these are the lucky ones, these are the lucky ones, it could be worse, could be worse, could be, could. Couldn’t really though, could it? Not in our terms, not in our frame of reference. This is the nadir, this is a low. Lean against a tree, look up at the sky, a thousand leaves get in the way. Leaves that position themselves to grab every drop of sunlight, leaves that block any ray from reaching down to ground level. As with nature, as with society. It’s cold at the bottom, it’s dark and it’s wet. And that’s where the wild things are, where the madmen are, and all the thieves, crooks, stares and looks that are part of the package. All the roaches, bats, dogs, cats, bugs, thugs, drunks, punks. And none of the Air Max 90s (£105), and definitely none of the E71s (£400). But they’re the lucky ones, it could be worse. A day at the coalface, and still you say it. Still you think it. But you know you don’t mean it. Hand me down my silver trumpet, Gabriel.

 

Haaretz, 18 March, 2012

 

***

 

Aunt Selam sits bolt upright at the dinner table, hunched over the newspaper, reading every word out loud carefully and slowly in English. Aunt Aatifa translates it to us, but it doesn’t make any sense, we all look at each other across the room and roll our eyes. The woman from the shelter told Aunt Selam that the article is a big deal, that a big newspaper published it and that the whole country will understand what it’s like to be us, what it’s like to live in this condition. I hope so, but I still don’t know what it means. Aunt Aatifa doesn’t look like she knows either, but she keeps pace with Aunt Selam right through to the end.

 

The article is long, and I’m starving. The others are too. Omar 1 and Omar 2 are staring into space, propped up against the back wall and sweating from their foreheads like they do every afternoon until the sun sets. Jamila is chewing on that stupid rag she carries everywhere, her eyes are half-shut but I know she’s not asleep, her jaw is munching too hard and her fingers are drumming against her thighs. I look out of the doorway, hoping Mama will appear like a genie, but still nothing. Just a cat limping past, glancing back at me with mean eyes. It drives its nose into our rubbish sack and pulls it back quickly in disgust. Dumb cat, there’s nothing wrong with our food, nothing wrong with us. We’re just a bit different, but that’s not our fault, and it doesn’t make us bad. I want to throw a missile right at its nose, but there’s nothing in reach and it’s stalked out of sight anyway.

 

Aunt Selam and Aunt Aatifa spot how bored and hungry we are, I bet they are too but they won’t show it. They always pretend everything is ok, always act like we’ve landed in paradise. If we complain, we get shushed the first time, smacked the second. There’s never a third time. Well, there is in our heads, but we know better than to say it out loud. When we’re getting told off, the aunts always threaten to send us back to Asmara, hissing out the name like it’s the worst word on the planet. I always want to answer back that I wish they would, but before the words can even move from my mind to my mouth I stop myself. I don’t wish they would. None of us do. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it here.

 

Mama walks in from the street, my eyes light up instantly, then dim again as soon as I see her face. She looks exhausted, but more than that she looks scared. Her eyes dart around, taking in which of us is in the room, counting silently and working out who’s missing. She’s breathing in short bursts, arms weighed down by the thick sack of cloth she’s lugged in. I hate it when she looks like this, I want to solve all her problems in a flash but I know I can’t fix even one of them. The cloth means she’ll be up all night on the porch working, sewing under the streetlight, as long as the light doesn’t get switched off of course. They’ve been switching them off loads recently, same with the water and the electricity. Mama says it’s just bad luck, but I bet they do it on purpose. I know they do. They all hate us, not just the ones in the street but the ones in the tall buildings too, the ones who run the city, the ones who make the rules.

 

Mama smiles weakly at the aunts, leans over Omar 1 and drops the sack awkwardly onto the camp bed. A spring creaks, then suddenly snaps and everyone swivels round to work out what the sound was. The bed sags but doesn’t collapse. There are more broken springs than working ones, but Aunt Selam has kept the bed together with twine and string for weeks. She’s a genius like that, working shapes and patterns that manage to hold everything in place, even with three of us sleeping on it head to toe to head. Everything would fall apart without Aunt Selam, not just the bed. Mama used to be strong and wise like her, but she hasn’t been herself for ages. She tries, but she just can’t do it.

 

Mama sits down next to the aunts, they huddle together and whisper among themselves. There’s no point trying to overhear, they know exactly how much sounds travels over what distance, and if you edge closer they just turn down the volume the perfect amount. If you edge too close, you get flicked back like a mosquito. I stay in my place, I’m too hungry to move anyway. Dinner won’t be for ages, no one’s even made a move to start cooking, so we’ll be lucky to get anything before dark.

 

Mama calls out to Omar 1, he’s first up for a wash, but he’s got other ideas. He jumps up and darts below the grasp of Mama and the aunts, tearing out onto the street and zooming off to the right. He always does that, you’d think Mama would be a bit smarter by now in working out how to stop him. He’ll be back in a minute anyway, fear always brings his legs to a halt before long, plus he can’t have much more energy than me, and the act of leaping up and escaping will tire him out quicker than he thinks.

 

But Mama’s not prepared to wait, her eyes widen and she turns to me in desperation. “Maryam, get him back, now – I mean it, move”. If she’s calling me by my full name then there’s definitely something really wrong. I nod and scramble up, even though all I want to do is curl up in the corner till someone thrusts a plate in my hand. Mama and the aunts are chattering urgently as I duck outside, I don’t catch what they’re saying, just try and focus up ahead on where my brat of a little brother might have gone.

 

The sun is brutal, my head starts pounding after just a few seconds. My feet are burning, the tarmac boiling hot and scalding my soles each time they hit the ground. The street is quiet, too quiet, especially as there’s a lot more noise than usual coming from the direction of the bus station. I can hear a drum banging, but maybe I’ve got the sounds wrong, maybe the beat is my brain hitting my skull as I rush along the road. My dress is flying up around me, I try to hold it in place with my hands like Mama showed me, but that just slows me down, and I want to get Omar 1 quickly so I can get back inside.

 

None of our men are in sight, they’re normally working in the shade of the petrol station wall at this time of day. The old man Binyam is there, but he doesn’t have much choice. There’s no one to push his wheelchair, and where would he have to go anyway? He sits there every day of the week, just watching, just waiting. He stares right through me as I pass by, just like normal. No sign of Omar 1, but he can’t be that far. I’ll go as far as the front of the bus station and then head home. It’s not my fault if he’s hiding somewhere, Mama can’t blame me for him being an idiot.

 

The noise is louder now, I can hear singing, it sounds like male voices. It sounds a bit like prayer too, but it’s hard to tell. Three trucks are blocking the street, one of the drivers is shouting at the other two, someone needs to give in if they’re going to be able to get past each other. Dust is choking me, it normally doesn’t bother me but my mouth is parched and I’m getting more and more annoyed with Omar 1. It’s only a little wash, it’s not like we even have a bath to put him in, he’ll just get splashed a few times and then they’ll leave him alone again. I don’t know why he cares that much.

 

I turn the last corner before the bus station, catch a glimpse through the shops at Levinsky Park. That’s where the noise is coming from, the park is packed full of people, but not our people. Our people normally sit there all day long, or at least the ones who can’t find work. And the ones who don’t want to find work, the ones who would rather fill their mouths with drink and see where the wind blows them. But not now, now they’ve all disappeared, and the grass is being trampled by a crowd of angry, shouting men. I can’t tell what they’re screaming, I don’t understand their words any more than the language the article Aunt Selam read us was written in.

 

Some of our men are on the other side of the street, mouths shut, looking nervous. Police cars are parked down the middle of the street, forming a barrier between the groups. I stop, not sure whether I’m allowed to be here, not sure what I’m meant to do. I can’t see Omar 1, and although I know I should keep looking for him I don’t want to tear myself away from this. I want to understand what’s happening, why the police are here. The police never come round here, or if they do it’s only to wake us up in the night with their sirens and then drive away. They never get out of their cars and stand around like they’re doing now. And normally our men run away as fast as they can when they spot the police, but right now they’re all standing still too, backed against the shop walls as they watch the crowd in the park.

 

I stay where I am, eyes fixed on the shouting men, my feet tapping along to the rhythm of their chanting. I like the feel of the beat, even though I can tell from their faces that they’re not here to entertain us. They’re angry, their eyes are screwed up and their necks are bulging. I know I should leave but I want to see more. I edge nearer to the police cars, I look right and left to take in the number of people crammed together on the grass. I turn my head and look along the row of our men, I can see Negassi with his gang standing near the bakery. That’s good, Negassi’s the toughest man in our community, and if he’s here he’ll take care of any trouble. He’s been my hero ever since we arrived here, and even though Mama snaps at me to behave myself, I always find myself trying to catch his attention whenever he’s nearby. But now that I look at him closely, I can see he’s as scared as everyone else. This isn’t good.

 

The police look calm though. They’re leaning against their cars, some chewing gum, others chewing sunflower seeds and spitting the husks in front of them while they gaze at the crowd in the park. The shouting’s getting louder, and their men are starting to move in the direction of ours. I was right – there is a drum banging, in fact more than one. The voices sound furious, I wish I knew what they were saying.

 

Suddenly my hunger tears at my stomach, and I remember why I’m here. I need to find Omar 1, and I need to get him home, both to keep Mama happy and to keep my brother out of danger. I look around but still can’t see him, so I run along the street and try and spot him among the groups of our men. A man I don’t know grabs my wrist as I pass, bringing me to a sharp and painful stop. “Go home, girl, this is a bad place to be”, he urges, nodding his head in the direction of the park. I try to break free, but he won’t let me go. “What’s happening?” I ask. “Who are these people, and what do they want?”

 

The man releases my arm, and shrugs helplessly. “They want us out of here, and they’ve come to cause trouble”, he says, quieter than before. “They say one of our men assaulted one of their girls last night, but…”, he continues, before his friend shoves him in the side, and he falls silent. “Nothing happened, it’s just an excuse to attack us”, says the other man, “You shouldn’t be here anyway, child – get yourself away from here, and fast”.

 

As I start to reply, we hear a loud smashing sound behind us, quickly followed by two, three, four more. In an instant, the sky seems to be full of bottles and rocks, and we all rush for cover. My mind can’t keep up with the situation, I don’t understand who’s throwing what, or why the police seem to still be doing nothing. I stumble as knees and elbows jab me from in front and behind, our men rushing in every direction and no one knowing quite what to do next. Our men are shouting now, but from fear not anger, while the voices on the other side are somehow getting even louder.

 

I think I spot Omar 1 up ahead, and I try to shout out to him, but more smashing glass scares me silent, and I try to step carefully along the road without slashing my feet. I look up again but can’t see Omar 1, can’t see anything other than jerking bodies blocking my path. Sirens have started now, adding to the noise, and the chanting sounds like it’s all around me. I can’t get my bearings, but I want to get out of here, want to run home either with or without Omar 1. He knows how to get home, he’ll realise he has to escape from here. Everyone’s running, I run too, hoping I’m heading in the right direction. I don’t care about my dress now, I know Mama would want me to hold it down but I have to keep moving. I hear screams of pain, but I don’t know who made them. I want to get out of here, I have to escape.

 

I get carried along with the crowd, trying to spot a familiar road or turn. I should know every street, but it feels like I’m in a totally new city, and it feels like my eyes aren’t connected to my brain. I’ve cut both of my feet, but I don’t want to look down, I need to keep moving and get safe. I spot a gap between the men, and duck through it, down an alley and catch my breath. That’s better, I can start to work out where I am now, though I’m starting to feel dangerously weak. I don’t know if it’s from the fear or the hunger, but it doesn’t matter, I need to make one last effort to get back to Mama. I rush forward, then stop on the spot. Groups of their men are running along the road, and I can’t see any of ours, so I know this is trouble.

 

They have sticks and bars, they’re hitting windows, fences, cars. Glass is shattering everywhere, dogs are barking, babies cry behind walls. Some of the men laugh, others shout angrily, all of them swing their weapons and keep jogging down the street. None of them have seen me, I’m pressed between two drain pipes and a shop’s rubbish bin. My hands are shaking, so are my legs, but I know I’ve got to get home once I can work out a safe way.

 

The men are out of sight, but I crawl behind cars, not sure where or when the next group will appear. I’m one right turn and half a street away from our building, and I’m ready to drop. I inch forward, can’t wait to rush into Mama’s arms, even though I don’t have Omar 1 with me. Maybe he’s back already, maybe it’s only me who’s still outside in all this madness. I keep going, my feet really hurting now, I glance back and see the drops of blood I leave with each step. I turn the corner, can’t wait to rush down the road and through the doorway into the front room.

 

And then I see the smoke and the flames, and hear the roar of the fire and feel the heat burn my face. I hear the wails and the screams inside the house, and I fall to the ground and I start praying my heart out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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