Stories Too Awful to Believe: Adania Shibli on Bombings in Ramallah
“When I try to think of what I could say or write, I feel numb, knowing that the words that will pour out of me will be useless.”
This piece was written in 2014 and published in English in the 2016 issue of Freeman’s. Translated from the Arabic by Wiam el-Tamami.
To be clear, I don’t like mobile phones at all. But when my family and I arrived in Ramallah, a friend gave me one in case of emergencies. Even so, when it starts to ring, suddenly, at 8:29 on this morning in mid-July, I let it go until my partner picks it up. He goes quiet and holds the phone out to me, pressing it to my left ear. It’s a recorded message, delivered in a booming voice speaking in formal Arabic. I catch only a few words: “. . . You have been duly warned. The Israeli Defense Forces . . .” Then the message ends and the line goes dead. I freeze.
This is the kind of call made by the Israeli Army when it is about to bombard a residential building. The moment someone answers the call, they relinquish their right to accuse the army of war crimes, as they have been “duly warned.” The strike can take place within a half hour of the call.
Just yesterday I heard about a young man receiving a warning call like this, informing him that the building where he lived in the north of Gaza would be bombed. The young man was at work in the south at the time. He tried to call his family but could not reach them. He left work and rushed home, but found the building destroyed. Some of his family members were wounded; others had been killed.
I don’t know whether this incident really took place. One hears a lot of stories these days, some too awful to believe. But here it is, at 8:29 a.m., pouncing on me like my destiny.
I’m not sure who this phone belongs to exactly, or who the Israeli Army thinks it belongs to. I wonder if my friend might be part of some political group. I doubt it. I make a quick mental survey of the neighbors, trying to guess which of them might be “wanted.” The only people I’ve encountered since we arrived two weeks ago in Ramallah are annoying children aged four to eleven; two middle-aged women and an elderly one; and a man in his late fifties. None of this puts my fears to rest. Their profiles do not differ much from those of the victims of recent air strikes. And then I realize, with dread, that I’ve become a replica of an Israeli Army officer, pondering which of these Palestinians might represent a “security threat.”
My partner is still standing in front of me, and behind him our eight-year-old daughter has now appeared. Our son, three months old, is sleeping in the next room. My partner, who has limited Arabic, asks me what the call was about. I look at him, then at our curious daughter. I try to find something to say, but I am overcome by a feeling of helplessness.
I look at the number again. I could press a button and call the “Israeli Defence Forces” back. Or I could send a text message. I could at least voice my objection to this planned attack. But when I try to think of what I could say or write, I feel numb, knowing that the words that will pour out of me will be useless. This realization, that words cannot hold and that they are wholly feeble when I need them the most, is crushing. The Israeli Army can now call my mobile phone to inform me of its intention to bomb my house, but my tongue is struck dumb.
After telling our daughter to get ready I go to the room where our three-month-old is sleeping. We have less than a half hour to leave the house. I walk into the darkness of the room and stare at the wall. I begin to notice a strange, intensely black cube high up on the wall. I don’t understand what that cube is doing there. I am sure that the wall is white; it’s not possible that a part of it has suddenly turned black. I scan the room for other dark cubes that might have crept into it while I was outside. Finally my eyes fall on a dot of green light at the end of the computer adapter, in front of which a pile of books stands. The light emanating from that tiny dot has cast the shadow of the books on the opposite wall, creating that black cube.
That tiny green dot of light, as faint as it seems, barely visible, was able to throw me into another abyss of fear. Perhaps my terror following that phone call is also exaggerated. Before my daughter and I leave the house as we do every day—she to her summer camp, and I to the university to my students—I look at my partner and our three-month-old child. Will this be the last time I see them?
We go down the stairs, without meeting any of the neighbors or their children, so I stall in the hope of picking up some noises from behind their closed doors. I hesitate for a moment, wondering whether I should ring one of their doorbells to ask if they received a similar call. But I keep walking behind my daughter until we leave the building. Then I look at the fifth floor and at the sky, trying to detect any sound or movement of drones or fighter jets. So far, nothing. We continue down the road to catch a cab from the main street.
As we reach it, the morning bustle of the main street embraces me. I calm down slightly, thinking it might have been a mistaken call, or one intended as a general warning to everyone, and not specifically to me and my family. But once we get inside the cab, fear overtakes me again. I ask the driver to turn the radio on.
For the next half hour, there will only be news about bombings of buildings in Gaza, with none in Ramallah.
The final issue of Freeman’s, a collection of writings on conclusions, features work from Rebecca Makkai, Aleksandar Hemon, Rachel Khong, Louise Erdrich, and more, is available now.