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Lee Capristo, editor
The Mulberry Tree
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Cont'd from Next Year in Jerusalem by Samantha Cameron:

***

Miriam fixed her eyes on me, like a cat that’s found a snake in the cellar.

What had Miriam seen? More importantly, what did she think she had seen? It was an innocent friendship…or it would have been if I weren’t a girl.

We had always been careful: I destroyed every note after I read it. We only spoke when I was veiled and could have been any woman – his sister Salima, for instance. We always changed the times and places of our meetings. But now, Miriam had pulled some loose thread, and it would all come unraveled like a poorly woven abaya, revealing the indecency beneath.

The fear that haunted my every step for the past two years was about to pounce: God only knew when Miriam would reveal my indiscretion to Nana and Baba.

Unlike Rahel, I had one saving grace that could be my ticket out of perdition: Rahel could not marry her tempter because he was Christian, but mine was Jewish. 

Rashid Street sizzled with frying sambusak and my stomach growled its response. Boys my age made their own money: they could buy as much sambusak, spicy mango pickle, honey-drenched baklava, Turkish delight, and kebab as they wanted. I envied them most of all that they had the pocket money to go to the cinema every day, and they could go whenever they wanted, without an escort, and without disapproval.

The fulus weighed heavily in my pocket, and my stomach gave a piteous groan as a vendor shouted after me to buy his sambusak. I pretended the smell was that heavy, warm pastry on my tongue: in one bite, it was stuffed with chickpeas, in the next, feta, and, in un-kosher succession, spiced chicken.

The heady cloud of sugar hanging in the air outside the sweet shop reminded my stomach that once again I had only been daydreaming. My daydreams became tangled in sweet memories of my fingers glued together by the residual honey of baklava…

Aaron laughed as he stuck his own fingers together and offered me another sweet. He alone knew I had a sweet tooth, because he was the only one who had ever bothered to indulge it. He often had sweets or other food to share. He once bought a mango pickle, wrapped in crusty bread. We were going to share it, but then he decided to buy a second one, so that we each could have our own.

“I’m never going to be rich,” he said.

“Not the way you spend your money,” I quipped in reply, delighting in the fiery spices that made my mouth tingle.

He shrugged, “What good is money if you can’t use it to make yourself happy?”

He told me that when the workers’ revolution came to Iraq, money wouldn’t matter anyway.         

I came at last to Aaron’s shop, and my stomach, gorged on imaginary food, wanted to sacrifice its contents. I took a deep breath. There was a way out. My shame could be buried before Miriam ever revealed it.

I stepped into the shop. Aaron stood with three other young men. They whispered harshly to each other, their heads bent close. Aaron glanced up when he heard me enter. His brown eyes, sealed like fortress gates, kept his thoughts from me. He inclined his head slightly towards me, and the others turned around. With some shuffling and whispering the three men left the shop, each inclining their heads politely towards me as they passed. The first two were Muslims, but the last was a gangly youth I recognized: Ezra, a Jewish boy who lived a few houses away from my family.

Without needing to ask, I understood the nature of the meeting. They were Aaron’s political friends.

“My mother needs some nuts and dates,” I said, timidly. “For the haroset.”

Aaron nodded, and strode to the shelves. I walked up next to him, heart pounding, as I rehearsed my plea once more in my head.

Aaron bent his head, gazing intently at the shelves of goods, as though to fill my order. For years, I had stolen furtive glances at his aquiline profile, imprinting the image in my mind’s eye, where it served as the face of the ubiquitous, dashing hero of the films I played for myself every night.

“Miriam knows.” 

Aaron continued his search, undeterred. “Knows what?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “She suspects something, though.”

“What makes you certain of that?” He continued assuming the posture of diligent shopkeeper, while I played the patient customer.

I told him how Miriam had regaled us with Rahel’s tale of perdition.

“Don’t you girls have anything more important to talk about?”

“She was warning me,” I persisted, angrily, “reminding me of the consequences if anyone were to catch us talking.”

“What do you expect me to do about it?”

“The dallal has been nosing in, trying to bring husbands for Miriam and me,” I had rehearsed my solution all the way to his shop, yet now, I stumbled over it. “Go to him.”

“Your parents refused my offer last time.”

“My prospects were better then. Miriam and I are getting too old – Nana and Baba despair that we will be old maids.”

Aaron laughed.

“Please. Go to the dallal again.”

“I can’t.”

“I know you don’t like tradition, but we can do this properly…” I begged.

“That’s not why,” he snapped. He hazarded to look directly at my face, directly into my eyes, his gaze soft as the movie heroes’.

Habibati,” he said mournfully, and looked away again. “I can’t stay in Baghdad,” he confessed, “or in Iraq, even.”

The imaginary food became a rock in my stomach. He leaned against the shelves, his knuckles white from the strength of his grip.

“They are rounding up Zionists and communists – it won’t be long before they come for me, and no bribe will save me, any more than Shafiq Ades’ fortune saved him.”

I shuddered at the thought of Aaron sharing a similar fate, swinging in the wind outside his shop while Muslim revelers mocked his corpse.

“But you’re not a Zionist,” I protested. “You’ve told me that you are an Iraqi first and last.” Mere weeks before, he had scorned the new law permitting Jews to emigrate only if they forfeited Iraqi citizenship and promised never to return. He couldn’t think of any reason why a Jew would promise that.

“These days, being Jewish alone makes you a Zionist. We can buy them tanks and bombs for the war against Israel; we can vow that Israel means nothing to us, that we are loyal patriots of Iraq, that we will die for Iraq and Iraq alone, but it won’t matter. We’re Jews. Every year on Passover, we pray ‘Next Year, in Jerusalem.’”

“But that doesn’t mean…”

“I know that. To the Muslims who want us out, it is proof of our Zionist convictions. Our yearning for Israel is written all over the Torah.”

“Aaron…”

“I’m an active member of the communist party, habibati. You know that. Everyone knows that. That’s why it won’t be long now before they come for me and accuse me of being a communist and a Zionist. That’s why I must disappear.”

“Where will you go?” I asked, willing my heart not to shatter until I could be unobserved in my grief.

“Tehran at first,” he replied. “Then, Jerusalem. After that – who knows?”

“Jerusalem? But…”

“There are communists there,” he said. “Even if they want to pitch me in prison for that, it is the one place left on this earth where I will never be arrested for being a Jew.”

“But the war…the bombs…it’s dangerous.”

“It’s dangerous for me to be here.”

He had collected the dates and nuts for Nana and placed them on the tabletop. I had dawdled long enough, but could not bear to go, not when each time I saw Aaron now might be the last. I’d prepared myself for the possibility that he didn’t want to marry me, but not that he would soon leave me, forever.

“I don’t suppose you could write…”

“A bachelor exile, writing to an unmarried girl? It took only an imprudent letter to seal poor Rahel’s fate.”

I lowered my eyes, ashamed.

He sighed, “They accuse people who have letters from family in Israel of being Zionists, too. I don’t want to put anyone in that kind of danger.” He slid the goods across the table to me, leaving his hand to rest on top. I put my hand on the bag too, letting my fingertips brush his. He looked down at our hands, then at my face.

“Come with me, habibati,” he blurted out, looking as though he had not meant to say it out loud.

Habibati he called me. Habibati: my beloved. It is a word we used to address friends, children, cousins – anyone dear to us. I had long ago refrained from calling Aaron habibi, in case he guessed my shameful, true meaning.

Aaron called me habibati during our clandestine conversations, and it was agony, never knowing if he meant habibati, my treasured friend, or habibati, woman I love.

“Come with me, habibati,” he said again, this time sounding more certain. “I cannot marry you here, where my life is in danger, but I can marry you in Tehran and take you to Jerusalem as my wife.”

Habibi…” my head was swimming. Aaron wanted to make me his bride. “But leave Baghdad?” I protested. “Leave my family, never write to them – habibi, habibi-” the word felt sweeter than honey on my tongue.

“Of course. You have to think about it,” said Aaron, gritting his teeth.

Did he think I did not want to marry him after all? That I had only told him to go to the dallal to save me from disgrace?

“I don’t know when I’ll have to leave,” he said, brushing dust from the tabletop. “It will make a big difference if I need to make arrangements for two of us rather than just myself.”

Perhaps he hoped that I would gush like a film heroine – yes, I’ll follow you, abandon my home, my family, my way of life for you and never look back.

I wasn’t one. I could not do those things, not even for Aaron. Yet, the thought of a Baghdad without him – a lifetime without him – seemed unbearable.

He turned away from me. “Take your nuts and dates,” he said coldly. “Your mother will scold you for dawdling.”

Habibi…” I murmured. He turned to look at me. It would have been proper for me to leave the money on the table, so that he would not touch my skin. Instead, I held it out to him. He took it, one coin at a time, pressing his fingers to mine each time he collected.

He pressed his hand against the last fils in my palm and said in a low whisper, “You have until the Seder.”

I nodded. He took the final coin, I took the sacks, and we parted ways.