Every home has flowers. “It’s because we want to show that we still find beauty in spite of all the difficult conditions,” explains Im Ayman. But I suspect the tradition pre-dates Israel’s oppression. It must have its roots in the ancient gardens of peasants and urban classes alike, in a common appreciation of nature’s gifts. And they are reproduced in profusion: red and yellow roses complete with dew drops in a ceramic bowl, pink flowers in a basket with the handle as a halo, apricot blossoms amid deep green leaves in a white ceramic shell, delicate yellow petals adorning the inside of a large cutaway jug.
They are everywhere, in living rooms, on the school principal’s desk, as a backdrop in the photography studio, and hanging from the rear-view mirror of the taxi. One young man’s white sportscar-to-die-for has a sleek black interior free of any ornamentation save a single red rose at the glove compartment. Climbing roses in twin frames deck Siham’s kitchen wall. In another home, twin martyrs look out from a hinged double frame, each boy’s photo graced by an oversized red flower between the portrait and the glass.
On the Eid al-Fitr holiday when the faithful proceeded to the cemetery after the prayer in the destroyed area of the Camp, I heard that the twins’ graves were “like a garden” with all the flowers people brought. One night their brother-in-law is crafting a wreath in the wee hours when the house is still, and I marvel at the fabric flowers he weaves into his design. He assures me they are easy to find in the market.
Another day, a boy in the alley insists that I come in NOW to meet his family. They have the biggest teapot I have ever seen but tell me this is nothing compared to the tea arrangements they improvised during the Big Invasion in April. With over thirty people in the house and limited kitchen supplies, they made tea in a huge square baking pan over coals, and drank and endured together. Their descriptions are so funny that I dub this the House of Laughter.
When a daughter, engaged to be the co-wife of a man from town, speaks of going to work, I ask about her activities. “I work in roses,” is what the words seem to say, but I do not compute the answer. Yes, roses. I mention Daoud’s wreath with the portrait in the middle. Yes, he had been in to buy roses, and they are glad to hear of the result.
They take me upstairs to a splendid store-room filled with a rainbow of roses. It is heavenly, even if fragrance free. I feel I have unveiled a mystery: So this is where all the roses come from to adorn every possible corner of each domicile and workplace in Jenin. As I decline the insistent offer to be an overnight guest in the House of Laughter, another daughter gives me a blue rose as a parting gift. I tell her of my sister’s blue-roses wallpaper when we were growing up, but don’t mention our family’s loss of this dear one. The blue rose is an unexpected remembrance of a gentle soul.
One living room typifies trends found in many. Decorations are sparse but appropriate: a framed verse of the Qur’an, a flowery ornament on the wall, an artificial tree full of red roses, and a photograph of the daughter who died in her teens. She is standing in front of an expanse of red flowers. The picture was taken at the sea in the days when they could travel inside, i.e., into Israel. A teenage son takes this opportunity to show me his recent photos, one of which features his arms. “Nice?” he asks. “I took the photos because maybe I will be martyred.” “May you live!” I reply, and his mother nods emphatically with a smile that expresses more relief than cheer.
“A remembrance - you never know when you’ll be martyred,” explains a high school student as he waits his turn in the photography studio. People don’t usually use the word “die/maat” or “pass away/tuwuffiya.” The word employed is “to become a martyr/istashhad” and it applies to anyone who is killed, including innocent children and elders. A sign declares that no portraits will be taken with weapons - no exceptions!
Many of the memorial posters of men in the resistance show them posing with a weapon, probably taken with a home camera. “You should have been here last night,” laments Fatima, “we all took photos together with the martyrs.” The gallery of the family’s six martyrs from six-year old to grandmother is still on the wall, where the living family members had posed for family holiday pictures.
Business is always brisk in the photography studio — schoolgirls, some women, babies, fathers with children, and especially young men having their image graven as a remembrance for those who love them. Protecting the memory of a loved one in better days is a practical measure. Siham had seen her uncle just a half hour before a house was bombed on top of him. She quietly describes the horrific scene of bodily disfigurement, although his companion left only unrecognizable fragments. A poster of her uncle cradling the infant son he had seen just four times meets the gaze of Siham and her husband in a red heart frame crafted by a friend in prison.
As her own two-year-old tries out new words, Siham elaborates on the terror tactics of the enemy with its high toll of children. “If I were to undertake a martyrdom operation and I saw a child or an elder nearby, I would turn back and say I cannot do it.” It takes me a moment to realize that she is indeed putting herself in this hypothetical situation. She is not involved in any social, political, or resistance organization.
“Martyrdom operations” have gone beyond the policy or control of any group or leader; they have become part of the everyday vocabulary of living under Occupation. This is Siham’s personal reaction to the horrors she has experienced. Meanwhile, her little girl’s white teddy-bear sits contentedly with his heart-shaped red paws. Every home has hearts, the symbol loved almost as much as flowers.
One day the electricity is out in the greater Jenin area, including the nearby colonies/settlements, as Israel overhauls the lines. The photo studio glows with battery-powered light from red and white hearts on the table. Rashid is meticulous in all aspects of the business, and the little blue outline of a heart on his hand darts back and forth as he rearranges the desk.
Many men have this little heart tattoo, usually between thumb and forefinger, and sometimes accompanied by the English phrase, “I love you.” In my homeland, they would be considered sentimental. And these are the men on whom the warplanes, helicopter gunships, and tyrranosaurus tanks of the mighty Israeli army focus as collective targets. Close up, the munitions seem out of proportion to these heart-loving men and their communities.
Red hearts occupy each corner of the membership certificate from “Love and Relationships Corporation” whose Director lists his mobile phone as a contact number. After the deaths of his older brothers, this high school student was talking everyday of martyrdom, “How about it, Tahani. Let’s become martyrs together!” “May you live,” I replied, and I am glad that he is living with a more sentimental project. But he misses his brothers and is sure they have a peace that he does not.
With his brothers martyred and his father far away - like the children’s song - he is called upon to keep order in the home. “You can’t go out today without Zayd’s permission,” says their mother. “Tahani, are you going out today?” They laugh when I reply, “If Zayd permits.” But I feel free to exit the typical metal front door.
The first time I saw the heart grill-work was on bullet-riddled doors of a home that suffered rocket attacks in the April Invasion. Next to the hearts were spray-painted stars of David with the Hebrew letter “b” in the center. But Camp residents also use spray paint on various walls with messages honoring martyrs: “Munir is in our heart.”
Hearts keep memories alive and flowers keep hearts fresh. One early morning at the Red Crescent ambulance division, I walk across a field toward the rising sun. I have passed this field many times, but never ventured off the path. At the far end, I discover a hidden garden, complete with a tree, not a bush, of red roses. I glory in their rich perfume, and return to the ambulances refreshed.
Later, remembering the intoxicating fragrance of sun-drenched red roses, I decide to replay the pleasure and pay another visit to the secret garden. As I head across the untended expanse of overgrown grasses bounded by cement barriers with “cooperation” and “peace” spray painted on them, an ambulance sweeps into the drive, and I hear my name. I turn to see the sunny smile of Muhammad, whom I always associate with songs. He led the midnight singing and table-top drumming with ambulance staff one balmy night, a charmed evening of spontaneous entertainment that came to an abrupt halt when the Palestinian Liaison Office phoned the Red Crescent to retrieve two corpses the Israeli Army was holding. One was Muhammad’s cousin, shot in the jaw at close range, so Muhammad rode in the ambulance to bring the bodies.
But today he is smiling and calling across the field, “Tahani! There are bombs there!”
No further explanation, but I forego visiting the roses. Perhaps I will go to the photography studio instead.
Dr. Annie C. Higgins specializes in Arabic and Islamic issues, and is conducting research in Occupied Palestine.