The mass of people at the Western Wall had been immense, and their wait had been lengthy. Step by step, they had inched closer to the huge, tawny structure. The boy had looked up at the clusters of pieces of paper stuffed into every available crevice of the Wall’s face and had wondered how many prayers had been answered and if his would be.
They had gone to mark the anniversary of his mother’s death. His father and younger sister were there with him and they had all touched the Wall for solace, praying for her and remembering the joy she had brought into their world.
Feeling slightly comforted, they began to head back home. The streets were packed with people of all colours and ages. The boy recognised some of the faces of the locals, and saw that there were a lot of tourists out that day too, wending their way around the city, some with mouths agape in awe. He felt a pang of jealousy; he wished he could view his home in the same way. But when he looked at the worn cobblestones, it was not Jesus’ blood he saw shed over them: it was his mother’s.
The warm bodies jostled against each other as the sun above them beat down relentlessly. It was sweltering, and the musky smell of a concoction of sweat permeated the air. The boy’s mouth was parched. He looked about him as they walked, and saw several policemen strolling around, their eyebrows knitted together into menacing looks, hands wrapped around mean-looking batons. They passed more faces. Some wore anxious expressions, others looked stern and determined. Anticipation and fear were tangible in the air: something was up, he could feel it.
As they reached the Damascus Gate they heard angry chanting intermingled with shouts, and it grew louder with each step they took. At first, the boy could not see what was happening. Then a small parting formed in the crowd in front and he saw clearly. There was a protest going on, with dozens of people holding up placards whilst a cavalry of policemen tried to push them back.
‘This looks bad’, his father said. ‘Maybe we should find another way home.’ As soon as the words left his mouth, there was a loud scream. The boy saw two policemen punching a protester, who held his hands over his head helplessly. Frozen, he stood watching in horror until the people in front tripped backwards into him, obscuring his vision. The police were trying to force the crowd back the way they had come, away from the rioting.
‘Hold hands!’ his father said. He heard his sister sobbing somewhere next to him and then felt her damp, sweaty hand clutching desperately for his. He latched onto it just as the crowd surged again, allowing him to catch another glimpse of the commotion up ahead. One man was pinned up against the wall being handcuffed, whilst a young woman tried to run out of the reach of the policemen’s batons which were raining down upon anyone near enough. The sight frightened him, but he couldn’t run away knowing this was going on. He had done that once before, the day he lost his mother.
He loosed his sister’s hand and wriggled out of her grip. Using elbows and knees when he had to, he fought against the bodies and broke free from the crowd which was now shuffling away from the Gate as one entity.
‘Come back!’ he heard his father shout uselessly, as the crowd carried him away from his son. ‘You’ll get yourself killed.’
The boy paid no attention and instead hurled himself down towards the Gate, against the flow of people. Luckily, he was small and slight, so he managed to squeeze through knots of bodies, and duck around legs with relative ease. He passed a blonde woman, fresh sunburn peeling on her nose, huge backpack weighing her down as she was pulled along with the crowd, the look of awe on her face now replaced with one of panic. She was a tourist obviously, otherwise she wouldn’t have been so startled by the events.
He reached the Gate and slipped between a horse’s gangly legs, trying not to get trampled on. On this side, people were frantically running in all directions. Immediately, a man slammed straight into him, sending him sprawling to the floor. He lay still for a second, momentarily winded, before realising how vulnerable he was lying on the ground. His hands were grazed and sore, yet he pushed himself back to his feet and gave his knees a quick, clumsy brush before starting to walk again, a bit unsteadily. His fall had left him feeling shaken and all he wanted to do now was to go back to his family. But that wasn’t possible.
Everywhere around him, people were pushing and shoving, kicking and screaming, hitting and being hit. There was nothing he could do to help, to stop what was going on. He felt too small, insignificant. The cacophony of voices was too much for him and he couldn’t focus. Then one detached itself from the incoherent rumble, louder and more defined than the others.
‘Aamaal! Where are you?’ a woman yelled. The boy stopped. That name. It was a sign, he was sure. Had his prayer been heard? He scoured the crowd for the owner of the voice and saw a frail-looking woman, her face etched with crinkled lines and her coffee-coloured cheeks slick with tears.
‘Aamaal’, she called again desperately, as a policeman ushered her on, not too gently, so that her hijab partially slipped down over her head. She tried to resist, turning around as they pushed her, and her eyes met the boy’s. She knew he had heard. ‘My granddaughter’, she said to him. ‘She’s lost. Please help me.’ Then a mounted policeman galloped through the middle of them, cutting them off. When the horse had passed, the woman and the accompanying policeman had vanished.
Heart pounding, the boy began to call out the lost girl’s name. Water cannons had now arrived, and the police were soaking everything in sight with them. People began slipping over as they scurried across the wet ground and the boy almost fell over again, stepping on crushed falafel that had been scattered everywhere from an upturned market stall. He gasped as he saw a smattering of scarlet drops on the ground at his feet. Cries of pain punctuated the air along with a host of other strange sounds. A lashing noise, the clang of metal upon metal. Whips, swords and spears? he thought. He couldn’t tell if he was imagining them or not. The ghosts of conflicts long over still haunted the city.
The staccato rattle of gunfire brought him swiftly back to the present. He renewed his search, calling the girl’s name at intervals. His feet slapped dully on the wet cobblestones as he ran, and a stitch started to pierce his side. His breath rasped harshly in his throat. Then a small figure dashed past, almost colliding with him. ‘Aamaal?’ he called after it, but it didn’t stop. He heard something like hail and saw a shower of stones pelting down on a parked police car.
He called for the girl again and then heard a whimpering sound down to his right. Ducking around behind a battered market stall he saw a dishevelled bundle huddled up in a small enclave. Dark, matted hair hung across her face and her eyes were round and terrified. A crack of gunfire shattered the air like a boom of thunder.
‘Aamaal?’ he said. She gave a quick nod, her huge brown eyes filled with fear.
Gently, he coaxed her out of her hiding spot, and took her hand. Feeling her palm against his own reminded him of his sister. He hoped his family were all safe. The boy saw that the girl was missing one shoe; she must have lost it in the furore.
‘Where do you live?’ he asked her, and she pointed down the road. ‘Let’s go then.’
Aamaal limped along, her unshod foot looking red and raw as if it had been trodden on multiple times. Purple bruises were already forming on the boy’s skin, and he ached everywhere. The crowd was thinning now as the two children hurried along, keeping to the walls as much as they could, and the shouting grew more distant as they moved away from the epicentre of the conflict.
Finally, down a narrow, empty street, the girl broke away from the boy and ran to a door. She banged against it as hard as she could with her sharp, little fists calling out for her grandmother. A moment later, the door flung open and before the woman had time to come out, Aamaal launched herself into her arms. Both remained in the doorway sobbing, the grandmother mumbling the words ‘Thank you’ over and over into the girl’s hair, but the boy knew she meant it for him.
He was about to leave the two alone when he felt a huge hand clamp down on his shoulder. Instantly, his blood turned to ice. He was certain it was a policeman come to arrest him or an angry protester out for blood. Slowly, he turned around and was shocked to see his father standing behind him instead. The boy tensed, waiting for his father to shout at him for running off. So he was surprised when he picked him up and held him to his chest tightly.
‘Your mother would have been so proud of you’, he told his son.
A smile stretched across the boy’s face.
Just then, Aamaal let go of her grandmother and came over to the boy.
‘Thank you for bringing me back home’, she said.
‘You’re welcome’, he replied. ‘Hope.’
And despite the yells and bangs that resounded throughout the city, the boy knew his prayer had been answered.