Israelis control Palestinian water resources, directing two-thirds of it to Israeli settlers who use three times the amount of water Palestinian homes do. Palestinians must buy their own water back from Israel. Israel also controls the flow to the private family cisterns, and families receive a refill once every five days. My host family corrected me on this point. They said, no, our cistern is only refilled every 20 days.
This time the Israelis were late. 24 days had passed and there was no water.
“It is very hard to live without water!” My host mother Rudeina cried in despair, slamming the faucet handle down after it yielded only a tepid leak at full torque. I had refrained from bathing myself every three days. Now, it was too much.
A twenty minute drive across the green line in Jerusalem, Israeli families picnicked on lush lawns, nurturing their desert flowers with irrigation hoses. Some families even had swimming pools.
But my Palestinian family was very thirsty. There were three young girls: clever Ludra, the eldest at 7, Sidra, the sweetly timid middle child who was two weeks shy of 4, and Krista, the devilish toddler of 2.5 years. Ludra sensed from the hushed, tense Arabic of her parent’s dinner conversation that something was wrong. I only heard one word over and over: Ma. Water, water, water. I knew the word because it was so close–and yet suddenly so far–from the Hebrew Mayim, a longer word that takes more ink and real estate on the page.
Bethlehem is hot. Bethlehem is bright. In the summer the temperature is over 100F and the baking sun bounces off the smooth white stones of old domes and plazas. For a typical family like mine, with an olive wood worker father and an English teacher mother, the heat means one thing: thirsty children.
On my last night in town I sat with the family on their concrete porch. Scorpio glittered overhead, the same constellation I had traced from Jerusalem, from California, from Peru. I drank from my own water bottle and the family of five, plus two cousins, passed around one water bottle between them. As many times as I had offered my water they had refused. After all, they signed up to take care of me, not the other way around. I held little Sidra on my lap. She was small for an almost-4-year-old and she had an endearing koala way of cuddling and nuzzling. She often babbled to me softly in Arabic, which I could not understand. Perhaps most almost-4-year-olds are accustomed to adults not understanding. She didn’t seem to care.
She sighed softly in my lap. Her mother Rudeina said, she will miss you very much. I gathered Sidra closer and nodded. In two weeks I had grown attached to the child, imagining that I could bring her with me when I departed. I would bring her to lush valleys and beaches, to summer camps with lakes and pools like I had gone to, to Slurpees and slip-and-slides, to Raging Waters amusement park in California where I had my 12th birthday party. All day we had raced down water slides, screaming with delight as we shot out of slippery tubes and plunged into the glittering chlorine bay. Sidra would love it.
Rudeina said, can she sleep in your room tonight? Of course. It was the last night. I didn’t want to leave Sidra either. I was worried she wouldn’t understand where I had gone, why I had gone.
I carried her to my room and she sat on the bed, watching as I changed into my pajamas, fascinated not only by my pale skin and adult body but also by my well-fed American curves, a novelty in Palestine. She stared until my pajamas were on and I switched off the overhead lamp, then she silently reclined and shut her eyes. I pointed the fan toward her and claimed into bed. She was so tiny under the cover, just a rumple in the sheet. She held my thumb with her whole hand. She seemed to sleep immediately.
I slept restlessly. I was worried about rolling over on her. I was a little excited, in a shy slumber party way, to have a little friend in my room. I wished the room weren’t so dark so I could watch her sleep. I love this child.
We drifted in the heat.
Hours later I awoke to her cries in Arabic. I couldn’t understand her. I gathered her into my lap and felt her clammy skin. She squirmed, fussy, frightened. I did not know what to do. I carried her across the kitchen to the room where all five family members slept on the floor. Even in the dark night I felt the white heat of my shame for having a room of my own with framed beds while they all slept together on the floor. Their room was hot, hot, hot.
I whispered, Rudeina. She did not stir. I whispered, Jerias. He did not stir. The only sound was shallow, arid panting of the little girls and their parents.
Finally Rudeina roused, sensing me and the tiny girl. I said, she is crying. I don’t know what she needs. Rudeina said, water. She is thirsty. We have no water.
I have water!, I cried, finally able to give them something, anything. I will give her all my water!
I carried the limp child back to my dark bunk and nursed her with my big plastic water bottle. It crackled as she pulled from the bottle. She writhed in my arms, still whimpering. I wanted her to drink more but she pushed the bottle away. I wanted to pour the water all over her. I wanted to buy her a swimming pool, a water park! I wanted to give her my blood! If only it were cold, and lighter.
With no Arabic I could not understand her or properly comfort her. I only could coo and rock her little body and kiss her feverish forehead. I could say Habibi, Habibi, yallah….meaning my love, my love, come on now….but perhaps it didn’t even mean that. I gave up and led her back to the torrid family room. Sidra stumbled in the dark and collapsed next to Rudeina. I returned to my room.
It was my last night in Bethlehem. When I departed for Tel Aviv the next morning I kissed the girls, worried for their faultless, punished lives. I was helpless.
By that evening I had returned to my apartment in Rome. For nights I dreamt of Sidra’s cries for water. In the dreams I would lift my bottle to her thirsty lips but it was always empty and it would melt on her face and encase her in plastic as she struggled weakly in my arms. In other dreams Sidra was dying because I couldn’t give her enough, and I flailed searching for the cure. In the dream I try to squeeze some moisture from anything around me, my breasts, my laptop, my American passport. All of these things were dry as the valley of bones. In this dream I end up pacing with a lifeless Sidra in my arms, weeping tears that might have moistened her lips.
For days in Rome I felt guilty when I turned on the faucet. I worried about whether to flush the toilet, wondered whether the taps would sputter and fail like they had in Bethlehem on the last night. I found it difficult to use as much water as the cooking needed. Washing clothes seemed a crime of excess. I waited for toilet paper, vegetable bits, and soap to ruin the pipes and poison the water. I felt alarmed by flowers. The thought of a swimming pool drowned my heart.
Sometimes Israel is called the garden in the desert. Many parts of it are succulent. Pomegranates spring from stone. The lawns might have been watered with milk and honey. But if you listen carefully, on the high, hot wind you will hear the bone-dry whimpering of Ludra, Krista, and Sidra, who never had the life chances of an Israeli pomegranate.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.