Huda El Shuwa’s 2017 YA novel Dragon of Bethlehem is built around a 16-year-old who lives in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp just south of Bethlehem. In 2018, it was turned into a musical narrative by Faraj Sulaiman, and presented by narrator Fida’ Zaidan and the The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music:
Here, with permission from Tamer Institute, an excerpt from the beginning of the novel.
“It’s six o’clock… Come on, get up…”
Khidr wriggled in his bed, drifting between sleep and wakefulness as he drew his woolen Tom and Jerry blanket up over his head. He couldn’t sleep outside this haven—it had sheltered him from his first year to his sixteenth, which had just begun last Wednesday.
He hated waking up early so much. And he hated school…and oh, he hated first period…
He wished he could sleep a little longer in this warm bed, under the ancient woolen blanket that was like a cave full of beautiful, safe dreams. To go to the high school near his house meant he had a morning walk down cold, dark lanes, before the sun dared spread its wings firmly across the sky above Dheisheh Refugee Camp.
The smell of sage tea, hard-boiled eggs, hot bread with zaatar… That’s what his mother fed him every morning, and it sent a little warmth his way, pulling him out of bed.
“Zaatar kickstarts the brain,” his mom would tell him every morning, as he sipped his tea. Khidr wasn’t sure about this saying; his brain felt completely shut off.
“Did you forget I’m seeing your dad today? Won’t you come with me? It’s so long since you’ve seen him.”
Khidr looked over at the picture hanging on the wall; the two people in it looked like wax statues. His dad was smiling in a black suit, while his mom was beside him in a white dress, wearing a lot of makeup… His mom didn’t wear makeup like that anymore, and she didn’t put on bright-colored clothes, either.
“No, Ma, I don’t want to see him. What am I going to say? I mean, I feel like I don’t know him.”
“How is that your father’s fault?” She lowered her head. He knew that look—the look where the light in her eyes flickered out. He felt a prick of conscience, as he did whenever he saw tears shining in her eyes.
“Go on, go to school, and by God, if I hear you’re hanging out in some alley…”
“Bye—I’m going. Say hi to Dad.”
Khidr slung on his heavy schoolbag, kissed her forehead, and opened the front door.
With slow steps, he trudged down the dirt path that led to school. Gusts of cold air pushed up past the hood of his padded cotton jacket, grazing his cheeks as the wind caught up yellow and red plastic bags that looked like clusters of colored flowers. Khidr drew his head back into his hood and tightened his jacket around him. The birds chattered busily, as if they were conducting some vital conversation. He looked up at them, and for the first time an idea surfaced: Do birds eat zaatar to make them so chatty and full of energy?
IN THE CLASSROOM
Mr. Hassan, with his big swollen belly and dyed black hair, paced back and forth in front of the classroom, as if he were an elderly tiger in a worn-out cage. His eyes fixed on a book in front of his thick glasses, and his voice rose loudly: “Today, we will speak of the Arab poet Antarah bin Shaddad, the heroic warrior-poet who set an example of nobility, morality, and chastity, and who said in his diwan:
When I beheld the people advancing as a solid mass,
urging one another on, I wheeled on them, blameless;
“Antara!” they yelled, their lances taut
like well-ropes that pierced the chest of my black mount.
Again and again I charged them, until my horse’s white-blazed
face and chest were robed in blood,
and he twisted round to the spears’ impact on his breast
“And complained to me…”
Suddenly, the teacher’s eyebrows shot up, his eyes bulging, and he said in a resounding voice: “Khidr… Khidr… Wake up! Do you come to school to sleep? You, my God! All your life you’ve been a failure. Doesn’t your mother have enough to deal with? Do you want to give her more worries? Come on, speak up. Recite the poem.”
The buzzing of the class stopped at this scene, which repeated day after day. Forty pupils were lined up on worn wooden benches. In front of them stood tables etched with carvings, writing, and the names of students who’d sat at them since the school’s founding in 1950.
The students were secretly busy with their phones, or else drifting into daydreams on this early morning, but they tuned in to follow this scene: Mr. Hassan taking out his anger on the skinny boy. They stored up his rebukes, as continuous as the strafing of gunfire, or the roar of missiles, and they’d take their chance to repeat them at the break. Then, they surrounded Khidr, forming a closed circle around him in the school’s barren courtyard: predatory wolves, ceaselessly laughing, savage and cruel.
That day, Marwan, who lived in the house next to Khidr’s in the camp, shoved him roughly toward a schoolyard wall. Marwan had a round face crowned with thick hair, and he shaved the sides so that it looked like a cock’s comb. He hung a checkered keffiyeh around his neck, and he didn’t wear a navy vest like the rest of the boys. Instead, he wore a black leather jacket and black Reeboks etched with red eagle wings.
“Hey insane, Son of Insanity.”
“He hasn’t learned the poem.”
Khidr couldn’t stay quiet. He insulted…slapped…kicked… He pushed back with all his strength, even though all he really wanted was to go back to his bed and bury his head in his pillow, huddle beneath the warmth of the Tom and Jerry blanket, and silently cry. He dreamt of being Superman, flying out through the window of his house, streaking across the airspace above the school in his latex uniform and bulging muscles. He’d burst into the classroom and teach the teacher a lesson, right in his swollen stomach.
He’d bring the whole class down, especially Marwan, dropping them to the floor one by one, except maybe one or two—like, for instance, he could leave out Hassan, the boy who stuttered. Hassan had never hurt him. No…in Hassan’s uncertain glances and smiles, Khidr sensed an expression of sympathy.
Once school was over, instead of going home Khidr turned toward Star Street—contrary to his mother’s warning, and even though it wasn’t close. Khidr walked down the oldest street in Bethlehem, down the historic corridor that led to Nativity Square. He walked beneath stone arches, along the cobblestone path, which branched off into alleys with clusters of houses, their balconies and courtyards all crammed into a single whole. Most of the shops and stores that stood along the narrow street were closed, their metal gates securely fastened, save one or two of the stores.
Khidr went past a barber shop that had no customers, where a red leather chair stood guarding the place. An old man was sitting on a rattan chair near the shop’s front door, his snoring intermittently broken by whistles. Khidr went on, then stopped when he saw movement behind the window of a darkened shop at the side of the street. It had a sign above its glass front window that read: Jibreel’s Curios & Antiques.
Behind the glass, Khidr caught a glimpse of a young woman with smooth, honey-colored skin who was still wearing her school clothes: a blue blouse and navy skirt. Her chestnut hair was held back by a white ribbon, which prevented stray wisps from settling on her clear forehead.
He stood in front of the shopfront, absorbed by the sight on the other side of the glass. He felt as though he were floating on the surface of a body of water, and he wondered how he could float like this when he didn’t even know how to swim! Where did this sensation come from? The dreamer didn’t know! He mumbled: “She’s so beautiful.”
Suddenly, reflected in the glass, there appeared a face with a checked keffiyeh. Khidr stared back at the two eyes that were shadowed by the keffiyeh, two eyes that were slowly growing closer to him, step by step, until they nearly slammed into his back! He felt hot breaths heaving out near his right ear, and a hoarse voice said:
“Recite the poem, Khidr…. C’mon, say something, Khidr… Is your dad still there, with the crazies of Dheisheh?”
Khidr’s heartrate sped up, and he heard it go faster and faster until he thought his heart muscle might burst out of his chest. His bowels writhed, and squeezed, and he tried to get hold of himself; he turned and stared into the face of the owner of that keffiyeh, Marwan, and their eyes met. Marwan’s eyes bulged with a look of aggression, challenge, ridicule.
Khidr heard the sound of whistling and laughing rise up in a jeering buzz around him, like flies hovering around his head.
At that moment, the door opened, and the girl stood on the threshold. She shouted in a stern voice: “Are you guys here to buy something? Leave him alone, you cowards.”
Marwan laughed. “Look at this, you’ve got fans, Khidr the Greener, you lucky old man. It’s Romeoand Juliet…”
They repeated their chants and threats, and then the group of them set off through the alleys, having exhausted their energy for mockery for the day.
Khidr stayed frozen in place, sweat sliding down the sides of his red, swollen cheeks. He went on breathing as if he were on a racetrack. It was Hala Jibreel, daughter of the antique dealer Jibreel Jibreel, who, he’d heard from his mom, visited their house now and again.
“Khidr,” she said. “Why haven’t you gone home yet?”
“My mom’s not home. She went to the hospital to visit my dad.”
“And why didn’t you go?”
“What for? Even my mom isn’t sure if he knows her. And she always took me when I was little.”
Hala lowered her head. “My mother says that, when your father was beaten in prison, it’s from then…”
Khidr felt his heart tighten, and he drew in a long breath. “Listen, I’ve got to go. My mom’s going to be back. Yalla, bye.”
Hala stood, watching the slender boy until he’d disappeared down the end of the long road.
TOM AND JERRY
The clouds were thick in the sky over the camp as Khidr walked back home that afternoon. He was soaked through with sweat and rain by the time he unlocked the front door to their house. This was what he did whenever his mom went to the hospital, or when she was off buying things for the house, or, like most times, when she was at her daily job cleaning other people’s houses. She’d been the breadwinner ever since her husband had entered prison.
Although she’d left early, Khidr’s mom been careful to leave the small house clean and neat—a clean, neat cube in a camp made up of masses of concrete blocks.
Khidr was hungry, and he thought about going out to buy a falafel sandwich, but the rain was pelting the windows of their concrete home.
I’ll wait a little while, he told himself.
He sat down in front of the TV and, by a stroke of luck, found a re-run of “Tom and Jerry” that was on. It was his favorite episode, and he never got tired of watching it; Jerry fled from Tom after the hurry and scurry of a long hunt, provoking the gray cat’s anger. The mouse slipped into a crack in the wall, and Tom waited for him, and waited, and it became a war of attrition. Tom knew the mouse had to come out sooner or later—and that’s when the damned mouse would get what was coming to him.
The boy’s eyelids were weighed down by repeated images of Jerry’s anxious running. Khidr couldn’t resist the drowsiness, what with the rain still falling, and the sound of the cartoon’s repetitive music, and so he surrendered to the power of sleep.
The Tom and Jerry music was still echoing in his ears when he woke to a banging in the tinplate door:
Tktktktktktk … tktktktktktk … tktktktktktk.
Between sleep and wakefulness, Khidr pushed up off the couch and turned toward the door.
The knocks continued in violent succession.
When he cracked open the door, Khidr felt nailed in place, numb with shock. In front of him was some green creature standing erect on two hind legs. After a glance at the creature, Khidr cried out: “Ahhhhhhhh!”
He tried to shut the door, but, with lightning speed, the creature shoved its thick tail into the crack.
Khidr watched in horror as the tail relentlessly flopped, writhed, and jumped up before his eyes. Possessed by a terror that made him unable to think what to do, he shoved at the door. Should he try to escape into some corner of the house? He pressed at the door with both palms, shoving with all his strength, but the tail remained, twitching in the crack.
“Wait… Khidr, please… Open the door a little.”
“Excuse me?” The creature spoke! Khidr’s words came out with difficulty: “What did you say?”
“I said: Ease off, you’re hurting my tail.”
“Yes. And if you don’t mind, may I enter? You’re pressing against my tail!”
Khidr didn’t know if he was still dreaming, or if maybe the scene in front of him was a waking dream. But he complied with the request, and the door opened, as if enchanted.
The creature stepped over the threshold and shook its tail and body, droplets of water flying out onto the tile floor. Then it said: “That’s better. The rain’s really coming down out there, and my scales do not love water.”
Then he added: “Good day, Khidr.”
Khidr stood stiffly, his eyes bulging out as he stared. He gave a hard swallow, pushing the words out of his throat as best he could: “How do you know my name?”
“It’s not important. I know a lot of things.”
“Like what? What are you? A big…lizard?”
“A lizard? Shame on you. Of course, I mean, all due respect to the lizards. But I am not a lizard. I am a dragon.”
“A dragon, yes, a dragon. Haven’t you seen a dragon before?”
“No. I mean, in cartoons, on television.”
“Oh, there are many books. But you and the books are not friends, am I right?”
“But why are you here? What do you want?”
“I’ve been here since time immemorial. Although it’s true I haven’t been out of my cave in a while.”
“You live in a cave?”
“Indeed. In a mountain not far from here. By the way, I’m feeling a bit hungry. Do you have anything to eat?”
“But my mom’s not back.”
“Listen, what do you like to eat?”
“I don’t know, anything. Like…falafel, I guess.”
“Falafel for you, and hot sauce for me.”
“Yep… You weren’t aware that dragons breathe fire from their mouths? Hot sauce helps to stoke the fire.”
The dragon moved his tail. “Yalla? You ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“To fly, to go eat falafel… It’s stopped raining!”
“You’re kidding, right? For sure I’m dreaming.”
“I’m not joking, and you’re not dreaming. Let’s ride!”
“Let’s go, Khidr, get on!”
Get a copy of the novel on the Tamer Institute website.
Translation by M. Lynx Qualey.