ميريام سيفان מרים סיון Miriam Sivan


Bortukal

בורתוקאל  מאת מרים סיון – לקריאת הסיפור בעברית הקליקו כאן

"Burtukal. Burtukal," Robyn says slowly, softly, stressing the first syllable's 'b', bringing the 'r' up from the gullet, tapping the 't' on her palate, gliding into the lilt after the click at the back of her throat. A word sweet in the mouth like the oranges it names, padding the tree Robyn sits under, waiting for Sami.

It is night and she looks up at the black sky and stars blink through the branches. Like the holiday evergreens in the apartment windows along Tiberius Street, the tree shimmers orange and twinkles white. Christmas is three days away. Shining ornaments, runs of lights, and crowds of shoppers in Wadi Nisnas make Robyn feel more at home than she has in weeks. She smiles to herself remembering how New York dresses up this time of year: wreaths, ribbons, tinsel, and bright colors invite good cheer, and freshly lumbered trees — stacked five feet deep in makeshift stalls — are sold by handsome men who bring the smell of the wild with them into the concrete urban grid.

An orange suddenly lands behind Robyn and she jumps. "Burtukal," she says

again, loving the word just learned in Arabic class. She turns around on the low stone wall she is sitting on and sees pockets of extra ripe fruit on the ground becoming mulch, fragrant meals for the garden's birds and insects. She feels embraced and safe in this courtyard, even though she misses New York and its holiday cold and rush and tumble. But she is in Haifa now, on the Mediterranean, and on this day a warm winter breeze blows in from North Africa.

Robyn looks at the olive tree next to her, also framed by a low stone wall. Two months ago when she first started to learn Arabic at the Tiberias 15 Community Center, that tree had given fruit. The lower branches were sparse but the high end was full of green and black olives that neighbors from the street picked. All together the setting – the trees, the stone courtyard, the stately stone house — reminds Robyn that she also loves this country even though she doesn't plan on staying very long, and that it too is a kind of home, whatever that means.

And isn't it this whatever, this vagueness, that troubles her? Isn't 'home' just a sentimental cover for nationalism? A sacred cow that legitimizes aggression? What allowances are given when someone claims to be protecting her 'home,' defending his 'home'? And the longings for home — the cycles of retreat and exile giving birth to collective dreams of return? All clichés, Robyn thinks with a mild wave of disgust. Her research intends to expose all of this as hallowed mantras that shackle people's minds, whole nations, the world.

Her doctoral advisor back home – there it is again – but how can Boston be home when she's barely lived there, when she's just enrolled in a university there because of the grant they gave her – her advisor is not so sure. He likes his political philosophy as much as the next academic, but occupies the space of home like your average Joe: there's no place like it.

These are the questions Robyn lives with. Questions which occupy her, prod her, give her little peace. She is far from one kind of home – country of her birth – city of her adulthood – and can choose to feel close to it, Christmas, Central Park, and yet not terribly so at the same time. This is the limbo she has inhabited ever since Mercedes died fifteen years ago. Home: a synonym for mother? Another sentimental outpost waiting to be untangled?

Tired from a long day at the library and the Arabic lesson, tired from her fight with Sami, Robyn returns to the olive tree, tall yet slight against the dark sky. Inside the folds and knolls of its trunk, it is using these cold winter months preparing for spring. Then small pale yellow flowers will push their way out. Last year when she studied the Basque, and the lost and found Anusim in Spain, she witnessed the flowers giving way to fruit.

Areen, Robyn's Arabic teacher, told the class that these trees were part of a small south facing grove planted decades earlier by the Awida family when they built their graceful stone mansion. Burtukal. Orange. Zatun. Olive. Robyn feels the warm evening air on her face and imagines Central Park's trees at this very same moment straining under the weight of winter snow and ice, their mummified limbs shining beautiful and locked in.

Sami climbs up the stairs from the street, sees Robyn lean figure under the orange tree, shakes his head slightly to toss his long black hair out of his face, and comes to sit beside her.

"Masa al'kheir." Robyn leans towards him.

Sami turns his face slightly and she kisses his cheek.

"Masa al'kheir," he says back and takes her right hand as if to shake it.

Hurt by his formality, Robyn takes her hand back, folds it neatly in her lap,

and asks softly, softly, after so many loud words the night before. "So shy suddenly?"

"Robyn…" he says and nods to the window near them. The kitchen is filled with people preparing coffee and tea and the window is open because of the hot winds visiting for a day. "Some of my mother's friends might be in there."

Robyn looks up at the window. No one is paying the slightest attention to the couple under the orange tree. Sami's fears upset her just a little and the inconsistency of his fears upset her more. Walking on Nordau he can suddenly pull her towards him and kiss her madly in front of all the shopkeepers. Or at a performance, with plenty of people he knows, including the musicians he plays with regularly, his hold on her waist will confirm physical intimacy. And then sometimes he imagines threat and discovery where little actually exist. How likely was it that his mother and her friends would be at a community center outside their neighborhood?  Didn't he paint a portrait of a woman who spent her days close to home in the Wadi? Robyn feels her heart sink with tension. She changes the subject.

"I just learned the word burtukal in class." A neutral topic. "It comes from Portugal."

"I thought oranges came from China."

"The fruit, yes, the Arabic no. Lots of words in Arabic sound Iberian to me."

"You westerners are always claiming other people's cultures. Imperialists by nature."

She looks at him and smiles knowing he knows she knows Spanish well, that Mercedes was from Columbia. Is he playing? Is he still angry? The turn of the cheek, the handshake, the unreturned smile. Angry, she thinks, he is still angry from their fight last night.

"Could be," she reaches for the orange that fell behind her. "But I guess the Spanish and Portugese in Arabic comes from Islam's colonial years in Europe, not the other way round." She pierces the orange rind with her nail and juice mists her fingers. "But if the orange came from China, then why does it have a name from Andalusia? And why so many orange trees in the country? All very mysterious." She peels the thick skin from the sweet fruit and smiles again at Sami, waiting for him to unwind. Sometimes there is no such thing as a neutral topic.

"Most Arab houses have fruit trees. Many had lots of trees, like Bustan Hayot, where we visited last week." Sami looks away from her and into the palms of his hands, and then he looks again up at the orange tree. "Palestinians developed the Jaffa orange about 150 years ago, a mutation of the baladi variety near the city."

"How do you know that?" Robyn pulls the orange sections apart and stares at their happy shiny color. She offers him half.

"My uncle's an agronomist and has citrus groves. In high school I'd help pick fruit over the Christmas break."

"Kitchen gardens were standard household features in Europe and the States once."

"So?"

"So nothing."

"Why the sudden interest in trees and vegetables?"

"We have to stay in strictly prescribed territories?"

"Don't have to. Just happens and maybe there's logic to it."

"I'm into busting boundaries Sami, not obeying them."

"Tell that to the government."

"Tell that to your family. Why can't I come for Christmas?"

Sami turns away from her. His face colors a furious dark red. This is the anger he's been carrying around all week, the anger which exploded the night before, all because she asked again if she could join his family for the holiday meal. After all they were lovers for two months now.

"Tell them I work with you at the university. It's true." Robyn stares at his profile.

"This isn't America or New York." He won't face her. "They'll know, and here you can't just date or marry who you want, or produce mixed up kids."

"Mixed-up kids? Why not just call them mongrels." She bursts with frustration and wants to throw Spanish curses high up into the air that'll land straight down on his head. Last night they tried again to talk calmly about Christmas, but when Robyn dug in her heels, when she started talking about the shackles of nationalism, Sami's voice rose in decibels and range and he shrieked at her: "You just don't get it, and at the end of the day, you're as arrogant as most Americans. Your culture is no better, or more enlightened."

"That's not true. I do get it cause it's not just your community," she yelled back at him,"but a big chunk of the entire world thinks like this, my people too. My grandfather disowned my uncle for marrying a shikse from New Jersey. But I reject this Sami, even though I can also appreciate the fears, especially among minorities. It's my work, you know. But what about the heart? Doesn't it have a place too in this world?"

Then she pouted, then cried at the sinking treasure of love, then slammed her bedroom door and told him she wanted to sleep alone. Sami stormed out of her apartment and texted her at 2 in the morning — waking her, angering her, though also deliriously relieving her – that he was sorry about the fight. She answered him the same and the all-day message exchange between them nudged them back to their status quo and a date to meet at Tiberias 15 after her class at six in the evening.

Now all Robyn wants is to get them back to level ground. She looks away from him towards the bend in the street and takes a long deep breath. She drops all talk of mixed-up kids and family pressures. Instead she says softly, "Look what I took from the free book bin," and points with her chin to a large wooden box by the building's entrance. She shows him Brod's biography of Kafka. "You remind me of Kafka," she opens the book to a photograph of Kafka in his early thirties. Black hair. Dark eyes. Thin sallow face. A low hairline like a helmet. Pointy Vulcan ears tuned to obtuse frequencies. He looks nothing like Sami with his round face, amber eyes, and long dark hair. "Kafka was genius at feeling like he belonged nowhere and asked: how do I know what I have in common with the Jews, when I have nothing in common with myself?"

Sami bursts out laughing. "No one understands me like you do, Robbie," he pulls her to him. An orange falls on the ground loudly and they both jump. "These hot winds are stronger than usual. Oranges on the edge come loose." He smiles, he is soft again. "C'mon," he stands up. "It's been a long night and a longer day. I missed you through every hour of it."

Robyn's smile widens. "Where are we off to?"

"Your place, no? Walking distance."

"Say it louder so the people in the kitchen can hear." Robyn looks over at the window. "'You, Sami, are coming into my bed and plan on staying all night. Until dawn. 'Look, love, what envious streaks do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.'"

Sami looks up at the window and sees the kitchen is empty.

"Make fun if you want, Robyn, but my family lives only streets away, and you don't know what it's like."

"I'm learning every day." She stands and starts walking towards the building's entrance. Music from the holistic belly dancing class spills out through the doors pushed open by the wind, and left open by those inside eager for a brief respite from the winter cold.

He walks after her. "It's not just the family, Robyn, I hate Christmas, all holidays, you know that. I hate religion."

"Sometimes we just have to be human, Sami, not symbols."

"And every holiday the family wants to know why I'm not married since I'm so wonderful and successful, and also so handsome." He slips into a fake grin and then into a frown.

"Tell people to mind their own business. That you'll marry when you're good and ready."

"It doesn't work that way. There are expectations…my parents…"

"There are expectations and restrictions in everyone's world, Sami. Socrates drank hemlock instead of putting his mind on the guillotine of social conformity."

"Wow, now I'm being measured against Socrates?"

"You have the right to live life the way you see it."

"Tell that to Palestinians at the checkpoints."

"Seems to me you're living with your family's checkpoints right here in Haifa."

He pauses at the top of the stairs and looks at her. She can tell that he too is tired and wants the fight to go away.

"Tell your family I'm a foreign student here for the year, that I love Christmas, that I celebrate it at home and have nowhere to go, that when I go to mass I don't take communion because I'm Jewish." Robyn looks at him and then for a brief moment glances back at the orange tree showing off her goods.

"They'll know."

"Only if you keep staring at me with bedroom eyes." Robyn moves closer to

him. "A land that hates landlords, ever heard that about this place?"

But Sami has heard enough. He holds Robyn close to him, looks soulfully into

her brown eyes, pushes his hand through her hair, and kisses her passionately.

"Ệshta'telek, ya kamar," he whispers when their lips part for a second.

"Kaman bosi."

He drinks her with his mouth.

"Bosi," she murmurs.  "Beso. Un beso más."

And the trees sway in the hot winds embracing them all: Sami, Robyn, the  orange tree's ornaments, the openhearted date fronds, the olive tree charm bracelet, and towering cypress, all of them together part of the earth where roots meet in silent slips of water. And all of them together on the hard surfaces above the soil, living between right angles and low and high stone walls, totally unlike the wild nature of reality.

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