Story-Back to the Beginning

Isra’ was just 20 when the conflict began. Her brother Ahmad was 22. Born in Damascus, Isra, Ahmad, and their younger sister, Hoda, grew up surrounded by family. Fridays were chaotic, in a good way, in a memorable way—the kind of chaos mixed with love that fills the entirety of the heart.

Ahmad always wanted yebra on Fridays. Without even asking, everyone knew what he craved. He had some sort of addiction to the salty little leaves. On weeks when Ahmad brought home good news from school or passed an important exam, their mother would make yebra for him. Isra’ dreaded it, as she and her mother together had to start preparing it the night before. Every yebra Friday, Isra’ would start to feel her fingers cramp up in anticipation of the work. It was a labor of love, but a labor no less.

Still, Isra’ loved watching her brother delight in his favorite food. 

Isra preferred bamia. Sometimes, she won the argument about what to cook, because she was one of the cooks. As anyone who eats knows, the food tastes better when the cook is happy. Importantly, Isra’s father also loved bamia, and like Isra’, loved the extra garlic she and her mom always added. Whenever she cooked for her father, Isra would anticipate the sigh of delight that he would give upon first taste. Isra’ treasured her father’s affection. She awaited it; she needed it. 

Isra’ was always bolder than her friends, bolder than others recommended, making choices uncommon for girls like her. She had learned at a young age to trust few. Her father worried for her safety, a worry which reinforced his lessons to “trust no one, except those bound to you by blood.” He used words poorly understood but rich in implication, words like ezweh, old Bedouin words that Isra’ used to laugh at, but that he used specifically to emphasize the importance of kin. 

Her father trusted so few people, and whether or not she realized it, Isra’ took after her father in so many ways.

It was her lack of trust in others that enabled her boldness, in part. She wasn’t scared of people, or so she always told herself. She did not need to fear those who could not hurt her, those whom she did not trust.

That is not to say that Isra’ was invincible. Her skin was thick, but her heart was no less tender for it.

As a young girl Isra’ was taller than most others in her class. Perhaps her height was always trying to catch up to her dreams. She wanted to be an engineer—a mechanical engineer specifically. She wanted to make things. To make something out of nothing. 

Her wild imagination was rivaled by her mathematical mind. She was a force like few others, wildly creative and abnormally intelligent. A lover of numbers and of art, she wanted to create things, things that others could not imagine, let alone make.

Her extreme height was a constant source of embarrassment, though. She was very tall. Noticeably so. Girls in her class would regularly make fun of her, usually thinking they were too far for Isra’ to hear. Other times, they were less careful, letting comments fall from their mouths unguarded and unhindered by what should have been barriers of common sense and kindness. Even when the mockery was far away, Isra’ could often hear them from across the classroom. 

Outside school, her height was no less obvious. And strangers were just as vicious as her classmates.

Isra’s mother told her that she was simply oversensitive, paranoid about what people were saying or thinking. But, Isra’ could not help it. She had grown hawkishly attentive to the unapologetic stares of employees at clothing stores, to the admonishing once-overs from elderly women masking cruelty as empathic concern.

Her least favorite mockery, not that she ranked them, was any combination that used her height as some sort of prophecy about her love life. Isra’ remembers with vivid anger one elderly woman in a supermarket who loudly blurted out: “Wow, a tall one. Too tall to find a boy.” The woman chuckled and patted Isra’ on the shoulder, again trying to soothe the sharpness of words with the softness of touch. Yet the softness only infuriated Isra’. 

Isra’ had ears like a fox—she could hear people talking about her from meters away. This only emboldened Isra’s mother. It strengthened her opinion that Isra’ was just too sensitive.

But what her mother saw as weakness, Isra’ saw as asset. She was grateful for her fox’s ears, for they helped her understand the truth around her, what others really thought. They kept her safe.

Isra’ needed to hear people well, and hear them from far, to prepare for her battle each day. She knew to trust no one. But she still needed to prepare. To be bold, to cling to her inner calm, she had to be prepared. Her ears and her heart had coordinated for her to survive this uneasy childhood.  And this was well before the conflict began, when something as meaningless as height was the extent of her pain