Aleppo ~1870

A girl of sixteen held her breath, standing as still as the walls of her home. She was
fondly called Rohi, the wind of life. But tonight, only the moonlight illuminated the red in her
skin; to all others she would have looked like stone in the darkness. A low whistle on the night
breeze told her that it was time. With all caution, she willed her head beyond the frame of the
window, glancing down. He waited just below, on a black horse saddled for two. Her almond
shaped eyes blinked slowly, a question in her pupils. The man clicked his tongue sharply and
gestured to her place behind his own. He was tall, brown skinned and with irises the color of
plums. He waited for her to jump; he waited with heat and impatience. Six months of secret
courtship had passed without the knowledge of her father and mother; how much longer would
her complete submission take? She was but one woman – he could not justify this pursuit much
longer to his parents. There were plenty of others who were willing to convert and have children.
The girl twirled a strand of raven black hair around her slender fingers, and asked the
permission of no one to place one slippered foot over the sill. She raised her hand to wave at no
one again, and let herself fall sideways into his arms. He did not permit her to see her family for
over five years after that fall. It was only on the family’s way to America, and under a burqa,
that he allowed her a final and stony goodbye.

Jerusalem, June 2015

One leg over the gate, and then the other. There was only a pale pink on the horizon, and
the streets were dark. No phone and a prayer book tucked beneath my arm. I wanted to see the
sunrise at the Western Wall for myself. Even in the modern part of Jerusalem, the stones were
worn by centuries of use; the slick surface of the street and the narrow walk to the ancient arch
made me slip.

Bullet holes and silence met me at Jaffa, the frequented gate of the Jewish quarter. My
finger fit perfectly into one of the holes. A smooth dent in the rock wall. A few steps forward and the silence laughed at my skin, suddenly bumped and raised. It hadn’t been this quiet the day before. My eyes searched in the semi-darkness for the entrance to the old market, the surest and fastest way to the wall. I had thought to be led by friendly voices and familiar smells. A trash can fell over with a muffled crash.

Only a tabby cat.

Its eyes widened, two yellow orbs suspended in darkness.

Where was that dang entrance?

My throat caught. A turquoise curtain blew in a faint breeze, propped up by poles
jammed between two stone buildings. It did not look as it had. I inched closer, and willed my
feet forward. The market behind the curtain was a graveyard. There were no vendors, no shops.
All was shut up with wooden boards and metal beams. The route was still there, but how would I dare? Shadows too dark to pass seeped from every space between the stalls. I gave the morning a questioning glance.

It must be getting later, where is the light?

Much to my dismay, it had only taken ten minutes to sneak out of the family apartment
and through the gate. It was not yet four-thirty.

I set my mouth in a straight line and stretched my spine to its utmost. In the distance I
heard cars, and what could have been a throughway. I followed the sounds. The Western Wall
surely had vehicle access, maybe this would lead me there. I wound through arches and around
corners, slipping on the stone.

All the time there were tabby cats above, following along on cramped roofs. Their fur
matched the dust that they kicked behind, paws pounding familiar overhead routes. I wondered if the cats had taken a hit or two when the bullets were fired.

“Meeeoowww!”

Apparently not.

I was now on a narrow lane, just big enough for a car and one-way foot traffic. The
buildings on either side were solid walls, for at least a mile ahead. The slow rolling of heavy tires
came from behind.

“Honey, you lost?” The man stared out from the window of the driver’s seat. He had
brown skin and irises of an unusual color. His accent was hard to place. I made no answer. He
tried Hebrew.

“Le’eifo at holechet?” Where was I going? Still I made no answer, my feet kept a steady
pace. He clicked his tongue sharply.

“Inta muslima?” The tone incredulous; no, I was not a Muslim.

“Look honey, just tell me where you are going.” Faint cultural awareness reminded me
that Israeli men are known for being overtly friendly. Perhaps this was just another attempt to be genuinely helpful. I answered in English, better to keep him guessing.

“I’m trying to reach the kotel,” I stammered. Dang. Only Jews call it by that name. He smiled, showing cracked, brown teeth.

“I can take you,” he said, his voice excited. “Please, get in the van.” I looked over at the
van. Black, tinted windows. I thought I saw the shadow of another man beside him.

“La.” No, in Arabic.

“Mayesh,” he responded in the same language, chuckling. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“La.” I said.

“Look,” he says, “it’s ok, get in the van.” There was a click of a lock from inside. An
unseen hand began to slide the door open.

Run.

RUN.

The city exploded in a rush of momentum. My feet blurry beneath me, I looked for a break in the wall.

“Motek!” He yelled, sweetie. “I am trying to help you!”

An indiscernible curse, a revving of the infernal engine; the stone echoed the sound as an
amphitheater would a requiem.

A break in the wall, Please God, a break in the wall!

The saw the tiniest of breaches to my left – a staircase wound upward in a tight spiral, blocked by a low gate. I was out of time. The exhaust pipe of the black van filled my nostrils like the
noxious gas that it was.

Jump.

Searing pain ripped through my lower calf – the small amount of barbed wire on the stair
left deep scratches in scarlet. Daring to look down, I breathed in little sharp gusts. The glint of a
knife from the van window twinkled from far below.

Sharmuta!” Whore!

Whore that I could have been, I kept on running, up and up.

The spiral stopped abruptly. I fell to my knees on the flat of the roof, praying that
whoever’s home it was, they were not friendly towards kidnappers for whatever cause.

Idiot.

I had totally overlooked the possibility of winding up in the Arab quarter, completely
unfamiliar and hostile. Even with my Arabic, a blonde woman without a hijab was one of two
things – an American, or worse, a Jew. The opening days of the third intifada were not
recommended for casual strolling. A dim notion that I had to get off the roof nagged me.

But how to do it?

A curling tail grazed and stung my lower calf. It smelled like garbage water and piss and
looked it too. A tabby cat watched me with luminous eyes, waiting.

“Get out of here, rat.” I said.

It bent its head, almost dolefully. A few more of them came from behind a chimney pipe.
Hanging laundry fluttered in the breeze. I lowered my voice.

“Shoo, shoo.” I needed to think.

In complete defiance of me, they meowed. Loudly. A window banged open from below. I
heard an Arabic inflection, and my skin turned white.

Whiter.

The cats began to march.

“Wait,” I said, hoarse. “Where are you going?”

The curling tail grazed my ripped skin again and I shrieked, uncontrollably. Movement
below. It purred as if it were sorry and brushed me again. I suppressed a scream but stared at the creature, now nudging my left elbow. With the quietest of meows, it started walking forward, paused, and looked back at me.

What the hell?

I followed it.

They jumped over narrow crevices between rooftops. So did I. They did not look down. I
willed myself not to look for a black tinted van.

Hurry, hurry.

The sun was halfway to sunrise; the city was yawning and we heard the
sounds from all over.

Muzzein, the Arabic call to prayer. It wound its way, calligraphy like, through the air
waves over my head.

Tzedka, tzedaka,” I heard beggars say softly. A Hebrew word. Alms, alms.

The Western Wall rose into view, the cats meowing in a chorus of announcement. It rose,
as it has for centuries, in golden light and uneven stone. The darkness moved slowly into the
periphery of my memory, my current senses engaged in the pinks and oranges that illuminated
the small figures at the wall’s base, kissing it and sending their gazes upward. I stood on the
rooftop, bleeding and dazed, holding my prayer book.

Opening it, I read a small inscription from my mother, written in her looping, bouncing
cursive:

“To my Rohi, if ever you are in need of joy, comfort, or salvation, you can always ask for it here.”

I turned to the morning prayer and ran my fingers along the raised Hebrew letters. A
small wind blew, and I did not hear even a faint whistle on the breeze.

Sally Choueka is a graduate student in the humanities program.