Grandmother Alia had never in her life heard of communism, despite the sickle laid upon her belly on Thursday, the first of April 1954. Since the early hours of that morning, Abu Jameel, the village carpenter, had been working intently in the darkness of Uncle Yusef’s house across the courtyard from ours, turning the planks from an old cupboard into a coffin. His sense of humour usually covered for his slow work pace, but he was pensive and quiet now. Grandmother Alia had died the night before, and her belly puffed up, so my father had laid the iron sickle on it. Abu Jameel said something about how tiny she was, that there is no need for so much wood, and really it’s a shame to waste the cupboard. From one of the leftover planks he would make a low stool on which my mother would later sit to do laundry or knead dough. I was four when Grandmother died. Only the sight of the sickle in my father’s hand took my enchanted eyes from the carpenter’s work. Abu Jameel winked and said, ‘The old woman’s fooling you – today is April the first.’
Abu Jameel was using the same table where at the end of the autumn the strings of dried tobacco were brought to be stuffed into a special large wooden box. When they let me, I would pass the strings of tobacco already cut in two to Uncle Yusef, who would then arrange them carefully. Whenever the box filled up, Uncle Yusef and his son would lay a board over the leaves and stand on it to tamp them down. The smell of the first rain always arouses in me the smell of pressed tobacco in the small square courtyard between our house and my uncle’s, the courtyard filling up that April morning with the wailing women who had come to mourn for Grandmother as she lay there with the same clasped hands that had held this same sickle during the tobacco harvest.
Grandmother was said to have been born in the year of the Ottoman law on growing tobacco. My father did not know her birth-date. In his notebook, bound in faded leather, he calculated the date by referring to other important events in the life of her husband, Grandfather Jubran. Grandmother Alia complained all her life of the blind fate which had dumped her in the hands of the wayward Shammas family. Grandfather Jubran, who was fourteen years older, left her twice to sail far away. The first time was at the end of the last century, when he went off to Brazil for a year and left her holding Uncle Yusef, a squalling infant, in her arms. Then, on the eve of the First World War, he went to Argentina where he vanished for about ten years, leaving behind three daughters and three sons, all of them hungry. When he finally returned he brought a large wooden box and a pair of scissors. When his sons opened the box they found it was filled with rusty clothes. Grandfather Jubran had, for some reason, hidden a pair of scissors which had rusted in the box and during the three-month sea voyage had wandered among the clothes, making ‘crazy patterns’ as Grandmother called them. Seven years later she said goodbye to her son Jiryes, who also went to Argentina, but she would never see him again. She preserved him in her mind by telling a story about two dairy cans of milk he had once brought her, which always made her laugh so that she would have to hide her face behind her headscarf.