|Shlomit Miky Dan defines herself as one of the international nomad tribe, the ever-moving international community, an enriching experience that continues to challenge her curiosity and learning. She published interviews with writers, artists and human rights’ committed persons, that reflect her interests in these areas. These days she lives Geneva, Switzerland where she has recently joined the Geneva Writers Group. She studied Art History in Boston and Brussels, and has earned an MA in International Relations, in Geneva, Switzerland.|
DÜRER, NORA AND ME
By Shlomit Miky Dan
“Go fetch Nora!” my mother ordered. “Tell her to come and do our laundry.” Those were the 60s. We lived in Ashkelon, a coastal town located between Tel Aviv in the north and the Gaza Strip in the south. Throughout ancient history, numerous peoples had traversed the landscape, each leaving their cultural imprint on the site.
We were in our early teens. We lived in one of the newly – built quarters of the town. Our high-rise complex adjoined a row of single-storey houses, erected for the immigrants from North Africa. Unlike us, most of them had large families and depended on State support. Our parents were army officers, teachers and other middle class employees. Their goals were to move out to the prestigious neighbourhoods. On official holidays we were invited to visit military bases by the parents serving in the army. We climbed into the bellies of fighter planes, became familiar with tanks and cannons. Army slang and army life played a considerable part in our upbringing. Military vehicles and medium-sized cars filled the parking lots of the suburb.
The sharp-angled houses of the North African immigrants seemed to me austere and alien, situated among the undulating dunes. At school, our history and geography books included North Africa. I remembered pictures of the typical houses in that region. They were constructed of local materials. Their outlines were in harmony with the wavy lines of the landscape.
Did the Israeli architects bother to consult the immigrants before the houses were built?
Did they study North African architecture?
Were they familiar with the culture of the immigrants?
Did they bother about bridging the gap between the concrete they used and the building materials and traditions familiar to the immigrants?
Did the immigrants rebel by constructing their taboons, the traditional North African clay ovens?
The questions intrigued me in my teens. They still do today.
Dome-shaped, hand built, the clay ovens mushroomed across the sand around the orderly lined houses. Their spheric shapes and puffs of spiralling smokes softened the scenery.
Luring whiffs of pita bread and spiced meat smoked up from the taboons. The men gathered around them, lounged on low cushioned seats. They smoked waterpipes. Some solitary elders wandered aimlessly, straying like arrows with no target. A forlorn look on their face, they wore hooded kaftans, sharwals and pointed shoes, often torn and threadbare. Their demeanour captivated me. They evoked faraway melodies, slower rhythms of abandoned lands.
Did they remember their hometowns, the humming cafés in their familiar surroundings?
Did they miss their tête-à-tête gathering? Sipping coffee and spearmint sugared tea in the local café, after work?
Were they grieving the places, the life they had left behind?
The women, eyes made up with black kohl, dressed in iridescent, long dresses and headscarves, clustered outdoors. They looked after the younger children. They spiked their baking and washing with laughter and giggles. Their chanted conversations in a soothing lilt that was new to me.
This was where Nora lived.
Back in our quarters, life flowed along other currents. Our parents maintained a strict enclosed, cocooned society. The children of the North African newcomers were our classmates at school, but we excluded them from our social activities. Like our parents, we ignored this community. It did not concern us.
All the parents read the same popular daily newspapers. The weekend art section included a one-page photo of a work of art. Too young to bother with the text, I eagerly looked forward to those art pages.
I acquainted myself with familiar with Degas’ paintings. With Van Gogh’s desolate landscapes. And, with Boudin’s blue tones marine scenes. They became a palpable part of me. They glided into my head. They were all an enthralling discovery. The suffused, luminescent colours and images of the northern seas scenes created by the Impressionists were a dazzling revelation, compared to the masculine Mediterranean I knew, with its scorching light and intense, deep hues.
They were my first excursions, my visual cruises.
My curiosity would lead me like the Pied Piper to other destinations. To other waters, other blues, other horizons. And it did.
A small print of a drawing by Dürer, entitled ’Praying Hands’, hung in the corridor of our apartment. Two slender, wrinkled palms, in faded blues, stretched upwards, wedded in an attitude of prayer. They haunted me. I often watched them for long minutes. Ignoring time and forgetting my other tasks.
Culture, our parents believed, was crucial to growing up. We attended art exhibitions, the ballet and concerts by reputed international performers, in Tel Aviv, the big city.
We anticipated these excursions with enthusiasm, sported our best clothes. Eyes wide, I watched the city folks and memorised their outfits. The textures, the colours. The city architecture. One day, I promised myself, I would be one of them.
During summers, the beach competed with our home. We dipped into the salty water, jumped about, screamed with joy. The white-foamed waves swished and splashed over our small bodies. Again and again they receded and returned with a swoosh. Our skin became smooth and tanned. By noon, the hot sand was searing our bare feet. The blue of the sea deepened. Nature was signalling for us to take a break, and sunburns experiences taught us to listen.
Nature was signalling for us to take a break. Sunburns experiences taught us to listen. The friendly, well-muscled and suntanned lifeguards were the kings of the beach. We knew them by their first names. We felt important when we chatted to them.
Between dips into the seawater, we searched the beach for treasures. Wearing shorts with large pockets, we skimmed the dunes through the scorching summer light. We hunted for ancient glass and pieces of mosaic, beneath driftwood and seashells carried ashore by the sea. Playing hide-and-seek with us, they glittered in blues and greens and turquoise.
We found antique bronze coins from the Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods, and fragments of ancient pottery. Eric, the classmate we nicknamed Prof for his plastic-rimmed spectacles and knowledge, brought a magnifying glass, a gift from his father for his birthday. How we envied him. Using the magnifying glass, we identified and grouped the different images, writings and shapes of the artefacts we uncovered.
We were competing over who would discover the most.
At noontime, the sea breeze taunted our nostrils with the seductive smells aroma of grilled fish, the local fishermen’s catch of the day. It was our signal to pause for lunch.
Our favourite picnic place was a clearing in the seaside park. It was shaded by palm and fig trees. White marble Greco-Roman and early Christian statues, preserved in almost perfection condition, inhabited our beloved glade. Facing sarcophagi with their hunting and battle scenes, we settled at the foot of winged Nike, the Greek Goddess of victory.
A notable runner and charioteer, she was also a swift flier, thus winning her the boys respect. Next to her stood the Egyptian goddess Isis, a bust of her son by her shoulder. She was a protector of children. We knew those facts thanks to our history books.
I imagined I heard Nike’s gown swishing in her flight. The sea was calm. Sunlight filtered through the trees. It laced the green grass in a grid of light and shadow. I felt we were protected and cradled by the goddesses and Nature. It was a home from home. According to some experts, Isis foreshadowed presentations of the Madonna and her Child. I learned about this later, in my studies of the history of art.
At sunset, the sky fanned out veils of glowing hues on the sea. Within minutes the day colours deepened into indigos. Fishermen prepared their boats and nets for a night lit fishing. It was time to head home. We farewelled the sea. Back home we showed off our treasures. Assembling them by category we set up little exhibitions like we’d seen in museums. Encouraged by enthusiastic parents, some children like Eric had even constructed glass cases. This was was before archaeological finds were declared the State property.
We brought our treasures into our history lessons. The teacher would show them to the class and encourage animated discussions. We felt like real archaeologists. We had the gift of experiencing art and history in an open art museum. It felt at once natural, yet awe-inspiring to hold the artefacts in our small, inquisitive palms.
Summer was over. Its breezes turned into chilling gales. The Mediterranean blue surface turned into silver-grey. His waves grew high, furrowing. Our beach expeditions changed direction. We headed towards the southern dunes. They stretched far into the horizon. The coastline was our guiding compass.
Our passionate mission was finding wild daffodils. Their fragrance was seductive, their white petals crowned by an alluring yellow. Our mothers liked them too. They glowed like scintillating glass mosaics against the backdrop of the dunes, the contrast of colours breath-taking. Surviving the dry climate of the sands remained a wonder for me.
Back home with our childhood trophies, the small bunches of daffodils, we tiptoed in. Sliding along the walls of the apartment, our aim was to reach the shower room without being spotted by our mothers. Often a lost cause. No wonder: the daffodils fragrance spearheaded our coming. It mobilized our mothers’ hunter senses troops. Eyes rolling, sighing, they looked askance at the puddles of water, heaps of sand and patches of mud, the trails of our summer adventures we’d left on the floor.
Yet, a certain glint in their eyes reflected pride in their children’s heartfelt activities, the growing emissaries of their cultured upbringing. We were quick to detect and stockpile these signs. They were the ammunition with which to neutralise potential conflicts with our parents.
We also experienced our first loss. A baby bird died, falling from its nest. We buried the lightweight, still warm, feathered body in a small cardboard box filled with leaves and flowers, in a quiet ceremony.
In the summer after we graduated from high school we encountered death again. Three classmates were killed in the Six-Day War. Two were the children of North African families. They were recruited by the army a month after the graduation ceremonies.
We did not, could not, know it at the time. Yet, from that moment on, death would become an unseparated part of our life. It would visit almost every family. The result of the ongoing military conflicts with neighbouring states.
My mother was a schoolteacher. Tired at the end of the day’s work, she often lacked patience with her own children. She assigned me to call Nora, our cleaning lady, once a week. It was an adventure to walk the short distance to Nora’s place. It transported me to another planet. I skipped to her place along the edge of the sea. The sunlight blazed. The hot sand twirled, slipping in and out my sandals. In no time I was taking them off and walking barefoot, dance-like.
My heart pounded faster as I arrived at Nora’s home. She let me in. The bleached cleanliness of the room never failed to overwhelm me. Fresh green herbs in clay pots lined the narrow white windowsills.
The strong aroma of fresh coffee filled the air, spiked with anise and mint. Like narrow creeks, delicate wrinkles ran down Nora’s honey-toned face. Her eyes, rounded and shining, reminded me of glass beads. Her look was enchanting. We communicated through our silences. Nora was not a talkative person. Since my vocabulary in Arabic was limited, I was silent too. We communicated through our silences.
A current of air swished into the room. Nora’s son emerged from another door. His sleek, dark dampen hair sprayed an arc of soap-scented water drops. He wore jeans. A crisp white t-shirt accented his broad shoulders. He reminded me of the wild, bad-boy image of James Dean. He was our idol. We used to sneak to the adult section of the library and leaf through the American Vogue, hands trembling, looking for his photos. Fearing the menacing librarian would find us. Our English improved. Our British strict, well mannered English teacher wondered. We did not tell her how. We knew her views about American English. And Vogue.
Nora’s son eyes greeted me with amused curiosity. He sorted. My heart walloped, threatened to burst out. I was sure Nora had heard the galloping beats. She smiled, as if she had, and nodded. I overheard adults gossiping about Nora’s son. His name was linked to some street clashes. Was it true?
Did Nora have other children? A husband? I did not dare ask.
Nora touched my arm. Did she guess how I felt? She adjusted her headscarf, in a slow, circular, ballet-like rhythmic motion that I kept with me for years to come. Exchanging glances, Nora pointed her head and swivelled her eyes towards the door. We headed back to my home. It felt like travelling in a space ship. It would fly us to another planet. The place where I lived.
Nora laundered our clothes on an old washboard. She worked in the balcony. It overlooked two bare, bleak buildings. I used to find excuses to stay with her while she scrubbed and washed the laundry against the old board. No one cared where I was. No one missed me. No one cared about Nora either.
She worked in long, sinuous movements. Her looks and the way she worked fascinated me.
She exuded a calm serenity. Her skirts flowed, swirling onto the floor. Her slender, wrinkled, golden-skinned arms moved, silent, in a lilting cadence. From time to time she would chance a glance in my direction. Searching my eyes. Hers radiated a solemn glow.
Or, was it my interpretation?
Then it struck me: her hands. Her hands resembled the praying palms of Dürer.
They reflected poise, grace and dignity. As Dürer palms did. They evoked devotion. As Dürer’s palms. In some mysterious way, her glowing eyes told me she knew. They confirmed my discovery. I returned her subtle, whimsical look. A timeless, small, humble triangle was born. Dürer’s palms, Nora and me.
I wished I could freeze those childhood moments in a treasure box. It would travel with me, and I would open it whenever I wish.
I never shared this with my family, who related to Nora, without exception, with polite indifference. An undetected ghost.
Years have passed. I live abroad. In my travels I sometimes catch sight of a wrinkled arm moving in a slow, languid motion. In my travels I meander through dazzling, busy market days. Whether in big cities, or in far, forgotten backroads, my eyes flutter wild daffodils, collected by a farmer, their petals still wet from a passing rain. I inhale, enchanted, the smells of rosemary, thyme and mint leaves.
Then, my palms remember.
I miss Nora.