Her First Palestinian by Saeed Teebi
2021 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
Saeed Teebi made the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Her First Palestinian.
You can read Her First Palestinian below.
This story contains strong language.
Not long after the first joys of finding each other had settled, Nadia asked me if I would teach her about my country. It was inevitable. The walls of my Toronto apartment were conspicuously covered with Palestinian artefacts, and donation brochures featuring Gazan children were often laying about.
I said of course I would, although at the time I was quite busy finishing up my residency and trying to land a permanent position. She was busy too, she was a lawyer.
Our initial discussions were informal, and took place between embraces. After she quickly devoured the basics (the British Mandate, the nakba, 1967, et cetera) and asked for more, I realized I had to create a sort of ad hoc curriculum for Nadia's education. So I did. I summarized all the major historical milestones, and supplemented with discussions on current sociopolitical issues. Most of these things I knew by heart, like any good diasporic offspring. For those that I didn't, I asked my parents, or consulted a text I trusted. I took an even-handed approach, because someone as intelligent as Nadia would've detected anything less.
I am no proselytizer, but the truth was self-evident. Nadia took to the cause immediately. She had a lot of outrage. Do you realize that you are an indigenous population, she asked? I did. Do you realize that they are trying to prevent you from even the most peaceful forms of protest, she demanded? I did.
About a month into our relationship, after a morning of drinking mint tea and discussing the second intifada, Nadia pushed me roughly onto the floor. Before I could stagger back up, she pushed me again. She wanted to fight. I laughed at her, but she was serious. I was uncomfortable with wrestling a woman, but Nadia's taunts were persuasive. I began to wrestle back, only defensively, making sure not to exert too much pressure. Nadia did her best to pummel me. The floors of my studio apartment were bare. My skin smoldered in pain as she jerked my body back and forth against the parquet.
Later, she apologized for her outburst. "I'm sorry, but thinking about Palestine just fills me with fighting energy that I need to release. We both need it, I think" she said.
I sent Nadia articles that I thought would interest her (a news story about another incident at a checkpoint, or an analysis of the peace plan of the day, for example). She sent back massive polemics, decrying the actions of the occupying military, or wondering how a child so young could end up eyeless or armless from the volleys of grown soldiers. My inbox filled with Nadia's responses. Whenever I next saw her, she would expand on her points, and add a few additional that she had thought of in the intervening time. I could not have been more proud. I felt like someone, unexpectedly, had understood a hidden part of me.
I could not have been more proud. I felt like someone, unexpectedly, had understood a hidden part of me.
One time I showed Nadia a passport that belonged to my grandfather, which I had long treasured and kept away. It was leather-brown, torn and dated 1945. The covers said Palestine in three languages, including Hebrew. She posted a picture of it online, and captioned it "Evidence".
"Thank you for doing that," I said to Nadia. "Every little bit helps." Nadia did not reply, but instead tensed herself into a ready position. She whistled and lunged at me, my chest crumpling where she struck me with the top of her head. As I lay on my back, she ground her knee into my stomach and asked if I wanted to give up.
More and more, it was Nadia who sent me the articles. She uncovered new independent media outlets that I did not know, more honest reporters, less timid thinkers. I responded back to her forwards at first, but eventually gave up, and left them mostly unread. My inbox had simply grown too full.
In spring, I was granted an interview for a radiology position at Sunnybrook Hospital, my first choice. Nadia had just been named partner, the youngest at her firm, but hardly had time to celebrate as she was in the midst of litigating a major investor fraud case. At bedtime, when we were both usually exhausted, she made a habit of asking me to read her some of Mahmoud Darwish, in the original Arabic even though she could not understand it. She wanted to drift away to his words as I spoke them.
Once, she woke up feverish, in a sweat. "Abed," she cried, still in the delirium of sleep, "I had a horrible dream that we were running out of time and Palestine was almost gone. We need more help. Should we be starting to have children?"
As a policy, I did not introduce any women to my family. There was no need to trouble them with anyone I was not planning to marry. So it was no small matter when I asked my parents if I could bring someone called Nadia (not an Arab, I clarified) to meet them. My father was dismayed because, as a soon-to-be doctor, my stock was quite high in the community, and there were choices. My mother was too sad to say anything.
I got an email on my phone from Sunnybrook offering me a position while Nadia and I were on a mid-summer hike near some waterfalls. Nadia clapped and jumped at the news. Later, as we navigated a tricky hill, she asked if I knew of any Palestinian lawyers. She wanted to use her expertise to get involved in a more serious way. I referred her to my friend Salwa, who ran an activist legal group in the city.
As soon as we got home, Nadia called Salwa, introduced herself, and talked animatedly for over an hour. They ended by setting up a coffee date. Putting her phone down, Nadia ran to where I was seated on the couch, flew hip-first into my stomach, then gripped me in a furious headlock. Acting instinctively, I threw her off, and she clattered to the floor, cackling with excitement.
I was upset that I had reacted in such an uncontrolled way. Before she could come at me again, I stood up and said, "Nadia, we need to talk about this thing you do. Do you actually want me to fight back, or not? I don't want to hurt you." She was not interested in such a discussion. She said talking would only fetishize it. This was not a fetish, she said, it was important.
Nadia began spending more time at my apartment than hers. "It feels closer to Palestine here," she told me.
Within half an hour of her arrival at my parents' house to meet them for the first time, Nadia had changed their minds. She knew all about the small town in Palestine where they came from, and recounted to them all the heroes of that town's resistance. "What a woman," my father said to me in the kitchen as he tasted the fried pine nuts. "Smart woman, strong woman," he continued. My mother allowed a slight smile as she spooned rice into serving dishes.
The next day, Nadia's trial concluded. Her managing partner took the opportunity to call her into his office and inform her that some of the firm's large corporate clients had complained about Nadia's strident social media activity. "I told him I didn't give a shit," said Nadia. "Anyway, I took some time off since the trial is over." Apparently, Salwa was scheduled to visit the West Bank to work with a local legal aid agency, and she offered to take Nadia along. Nadia excitedly accepted.
Around that time, I went to a home decor store and purchased an inexpensive area rug, to lighten the load on our grappling bodies.
I had been at my new job for a little over a month, and already I was quite well regarded. My father had told me, "Represent us with kindness," and I tried my best to do so. The nurses loved working with this new Dr. Abed, and my fellow doctors respected him. Meanwhile, I told every sympathetic ear I knew that my partner Nadia (not even an Arab, I clarified) was spending her precious vacation time on a trip to the West Bank, doing everything in her power to help.
I told every sympathetic ear I knew that my partner Nadia (not even an Arab, I clarified) was spending her precious vacation time on a trip to the West Bank, doing everything in her power to help.
Nadia's industriousness was awe-inspiring. Despite not being able to formally take on clients because she was not licensed there, she involved herself in many cases anyway. Over Nadia's three weeks in the West Bank (Salwa had come back home after just one), our phone calls became a daily recounting of the sheer variety of human suffering, intermingled with shreds of "I love you," and "I miss you," and "I want to be in your arms." Her social media was even more detailed: one day, it was the story of a fifth member of the same family thrown into prison without charges; another day it was a journalist brutalized for turning her camera onto a protest. It seemed that every time we spoke, Nadia and her team were about to head to court to argue for interim release, or for an appeal from an unjust sentence, or for simple access to detained clients, or something.
I tried to lighten her load. On a video call, I joked that I had been going to the gym more often, training to defeat her. Nadia laughed a hollow laugh. Then she told me about another man she is representing, this one accused of rolling a flaming car tire into a passel of soldiers who had been guarding the teardown of his family's home.
I don't think she even took the time to go smell the air of the Dead Sea.
When Nadia came back, she slept for an entire day. Her skin, roasted by the region, had gone from fair to olive. The following day was a Monday. We dressed together, for the first time both as professionals, and walked to the subway, taking opposite trains to work.
After dinner that evening, Nadia was walking to the bathroom when I brushed into her shoulder, purposely, a twinkle of mischief in my eye. She did not notice.
In bed, she held my hand in hers. "I forgot how soft your hand is," she said. Then she twisted it, but gently, and fell asleep.
Given several new cases at her firm, Nadia settled them all in short order, within weeks. She frequently took afternoons off to come home, where she would turn on her computer and draft court documents for the one remaining Palestinian client she kept, the tire roller, Kamal. She aggressively argued about strategy with her West Bank co-counsel over the phone, occupying them late into the night in their time zones. In the mornings, if I woke up early enough, I would catch her in the sunny alcove of my living room, discussing the particulars of Kamal's case with him, and asking after his parents and siblings.
Nadia's partners at the firm noticed her waning commitment. "I've been given a warning," she told me one day. She had been heard frequently discussing Kamal's case on her phone at work, and found high profile opportunities to speak about Palestinian rights in the media. I had not heard of any of these appearances or articles, so I was surprised. The partners told her to either tone it down or risk losing her job. "But let's be real," she said, "I'm a full partner and the best lawyer in that firm. Let's see them try and take me down."
I counselled her to be more circumspect, if she could. By now, thanks to Nadia, the cause had become a constant concern in my life.
By now, thanks to Nadia, the cause had become a constant concern in my life.
Nadia's wrestling came back. But it was different. Now she rarely took me by surprise. Instead, she asked: "Do you want to get on the floor?" It seemed she was doing it mostly for my sake.
My parents were growing increasingly impatient with me. "When will you marry her, Abed?" they asked. "We saw her on the news, talking about us, about us. She has raised our heads so high, so high!"
I was comfortably liquid from my new position, and flush with credit from expectant banks. I started looking for a house to replace my tiny apartment.
For our one-year anniversary, I took Nadia to a restaurant to celebrate. She wore a shimmering green dress with a red rose in her hair, and she looked content.
After our appetizer had been cleared, she received a notification on her phone, and almost leapt out of her seat with joy. She showed me why: it was a feature article, published in the Globe, about the controversial Middle East case being handled by an enterprising young Canadian lawyer. "This will get so much publicity for Kamal's case," she sighed, the corners of her eyes welling. The story included a picture foregrounding Kamal, an angular-faced, dark-complexioned fellow, with Nadia and her co-counsel looming behind him, arms crossed. The story portrayed Kamal, "a humble seller of snacks and sundries from just outside Jerusalem," in a surprisingly sympathetic light.
That weekend, I browsed in stores for plush Oriental carpets to outfit my prospective new house. Obligingly, Nadia came with me. She smiled bitterly at my discussions with the store clerks. "What's the matter?" I asked. She said listening to me brought back memories of Kamal's family, who had to hurriedly collect their carpets as they were kicked out of their house, so that they would have something to lay on the dirt when they slept outside.
On Sunday night, Nadia held me by my soft hands on the sofa, and asked if I thought it would be ok for her to take a temporary leave of absence from her work, to go assist with Kamal's preliminary hearings. She had no long-term cases on the go, and her partners would probably enjoy a respite from dealing with lobbying groups sending complaint letters about her activities. It would be maybe two or three months of work, but so critical to the case. "I understand you probably can't take so much time off so early on in your career," she said, "but maybe you could come and take a vacation for a week or two while I'm there?"
I replied: "Are you in love with him?"
Nadia did not lunge at me. She did not move.
I said to myself, just let her, let her go to him, let her go, let her go to her first Palestinian.
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About Saeed Teebi
Saeed Teebi is a writer and lawyer based in Toronto. He was born to Palestinian parents in Kuwait, and, after some time in the US, has lived in Canada since 1993. His writing frequently engages the immigrant experience and his Palestinian background. He is currently completing a collection of short stories.
The story's source of inspiration
"I wanted to explore the feeling of inauthenticity that is often part of immigrant consciousness, particularly in diasporas. I was also attracted to the idea that someone could take up an activist cause (especially a difficult cause) so completely that it consumes much of their life. It's not uncommon. The mingling of those two concepts is what created the story."
The winner of the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.