Nataly Shaheen, excerpt from

One night, around our bedtime, we had pulled out the mattresses that were rolled back during the day. From the outside of the apartment, we heard the elevator door open and the heavy steps of army boots. Baba peeked through the peephole and saw six men, in black, armed with rifles, with leather belts holding hand grenades, knives, and guns.

Then, the banging started. They were trying to force open the door of the apartment facing us. No one lived there.

Baba was frantic because he alone could not face nor fight six much younger men. So Mama took over, counting on the fact that Arab men might not hit a woman. She ordered us girls to hide in the inner room of the office. She opened the apartment door, and my breath stopped for what seemed like the rest of the night. My sisters and I looked through the cracks of the door to watch and listen.

Mama stepped outside. “Good evening, young men. How can I help you?” I think the men were puzzled. There was a woman in her early forties, alone and in her nightgown, greeting them as if they were lost children who absolutely needed her help.

“Go back in! This is none of your business!” shouted one of the older looking young men. He turned his back to her and continued banging.

At this point, I had tears running down my cheeks. I was fully convinced I was going to see my mom shot dead in the head right in front of my eyes. Nothing strange about that in this crazy war. I prayed she would close the door and let them get about their business. I wished my dad would be man enough to step up and protect her. Neither happened.

She stepped out further into the hallway, and looked curiously at one of the men. “Ali? Is that you?” she asked.

He looked around, ashamed to have been singled out in front of his peers. “No,” he murmured, and to assert his manhood that seemed in question, he continued roughly, “Who are you?”

“I am Madam Asma, your school teacher. Aren’t you the Ali I know? Weren’t you in my class a couple of years ago? Look how grown up you are!” she said it with the most charming, loving, proud way that a teacher could muster for an old student of hers.

“No! That was not me. You must be thinking of my cousin. He’s Ali. I am Mohammad,” the young man responded, softening a little.

“Oh, I see! The family resemblance is amazing! I would have guessed you were cousins anywhere,” she said excitedly.

Now, the men had these perplexed looks on their faces. The banging had stopped. They were looking at each other, a little disconcerted by this motherly teacher. So she pressed her point. “You know what, gentlemen? I want to help. I see you want to get into the apartment. I can help you do that without breaking the door.” Their faces lit up. “Please come inside! We will have a coffee together, and my husband will call the owner who lives so close by. He will come open it for you for sure,” she continued.

My sisters and I almost fainted with fear. Men with weapons. Us in nightgowns. All in one apartment. We slammed our door shut. 




From The Malahat Review's winter issue #217