In August of 1997, my Swiss roommate Romana and I dined al fresco under a pergola in an East Jerusalm hotel, a bower of grapes overhead as water babbled in a small fountain. It was a respite after four weeks of checkpoints: A suicide bomb had exploded in an open air market in July—the first in eighteen months, ending the restive but hopeful calm which captured the imagination of Israelis and Palestinians alike. The bomb ensured the full military closure of the Occupied Territories. It was also the definitive collapse of their nascent, tentative peace.

After two months living in the West Bank town of Birzeit, and one month of defying Israeli soldiers, cultural misunderstandings and witnessing true privation, we ate quietly.

We had shared these two months trying to sleep in our dingy room with bad electricity, mosquitoes, and packs of feral dogs outside our window who howled until dawn, when the Call to Prayer took over where the dogs left off.

We attended classes together on the empty Birzeit University campus, save for the fifty international students who remained there after Israel instated the complete military lockdown. Our Palestinian professors often traveled hours to and from the campus, finding ways around checkpoints, sneaking through farmers’ fields; or were hassled by teenage soldiers, who menaced and humiliated them from behind their Oakley sunglasses, machine guns at the ready and chips on their shoulders. All the Palestinian students were forced back to their home villages, postponing their education another month, two. Six.

We floated like ghosts through their dusty, abandoned campus.

Now we sat in East Jerusalem. The program was concluded. We were going home.

Our Palestinian friends could not leave. These were the terms of living in these few square miles of land: militant radicals wreaking havoc on their lives in an instant, calling down the wrath of the stronger, more well-equipped adversary. The stress of living under military shut-down was constant and non-negotiable.

A kitten sat at my feet, mewling.

I was going to see my own cat, in my own dingy apartment, which now seemed the epitome of Western excess with our second-hand furniture and motley set of chipped Ikea dishes. I absently pulled a piece of turkey from my sandwich and dropped it in the dust at my feet.

A pregnant cat leapt from a hiding spot and pounced on the kitten, hissing as she scarfed the meat. Then she climbed up my jeans, into my lap and onto the table while the kitten cried on the ground. She climbed onto my plate to steal the meat from my sandwich. I laughed, scraping the queen off of me, but she was hungry and I was an idiot. She scratched me with her claws, too desperate for the turkey to let me get between it and her unborn, hungry kittens.

The kitten mewled, the tender morsel of food so tantalizingly close and then stolen, while dining Palestinians politely turned away, noting the general foolishness of the Western tourist.

My roommate and I dropped shekels on the table and fled, laughing as we went, forced from the restaurant by hunger.

Here, even the cats were living under terms we didn’t understand.

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QUENBY MOONE used to be a graphic designer who wrote once in a while. After her father came down with a touch of Stage IV prostate cancer, she became a writer who did graphic design once in a while.

She's written a book called Living in Twilight (no relation to vampires - unless dying of cancer is a part of Edward's story) in which her design skills came in handy, and includes some of her stories featured on The Nervous Breakdown.

24 responses to “The Queen and the Fool”

  1. Gloria says:

    A totally gripping and sad morsel, Quenby. The tone is really very different than your other pieces I’ve read here. Engaging and quiet. I’d love to read a longer piece.

    Did you ever hear from your friend again?

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Thanks, G. I wrote a book about it once. It’s somewhere on my hard drive. Seriously, I’ve not opened it since. It might be good, but I don’t have any idea.

      Those cats. Man, were they hungry.

      Everyone else was hungry, too. Sad, depressing story.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      And Romana just looked me up on Facebook a few months ago, but she was never slick with the tech so I don’t think she uses it at all. One of my good friends is a woman I met there, though not the one in the story. She kept in touch with more of the people than I did–I’m terrible at correspondence, especially if it involves a stamp.

  2. Mary Richert says:

    Wow, Quenby. This story makes that joke about “first world problems” seem like… well, a really shitty joke.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Do I know the joke? I’m scrambling to come up with a punchline! I can’t remember it.

      First world problems are pretty isolated, it is true. We’re just too stuck here to see them.

      • Mary Richert says:

        Just a running joke on the internet, I guess. Most of the things we complain about on Twitter can come with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. Eg. “I cannot believe they don’t have this DKNY top in my favorite color! #firstworldproblems” :p

  3. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    That’s quite a weighty place and time to find yourself in. I imagine there’s a lot of backstory here, but you encapsulate the situation well in this vignette. And like Gloria said, an interesting departure in tone from your other pieces.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      It was, I think, the exact moment the Oslo Accords fell apart. After I flew home, Ariel Sharon and his goons went up to wander through Al Aqsa Mosque and The Dome of the Rock in some bizarre posturing and territorial chest-beating. It would be safe to assume that this was considered an overt provocation. The military closure that I saw the beginning of didn’t end for six months, longer in many places. Bethlehem was closed for over a year, I think. Gaza was practically frozen in amber. And, as you can imagine, any treaty after this was null and void.

      I wrote this because I haven’t written in so long–not really, I’ve been editing for months–and decided to do this an exercise. Clearly there’s backstory! But I think I captured the tone of the eerie tension that the closure brought. There were moments of intense human drama, and a lot of very silent roads. The university was flat-out creepy absent its students save for us foreigners, interlopers allowed to use a campus and resources that the Palestinian students were denied.

      Weird and unsettling.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    The juxtaposition of the yowling dogs, the mewing cats, and the praying men is particularly good.

    Great piece, QB.

  5. Joe Daly says:

    Dug this piece, Q$. Like Greg, I loved the contrasts of the animals carrying on their primal urges amid the cultural, historical and egoic strife around them.

    Never been to Jerusalem, but I’ve spent some time in Belfast. It’s a strange feeling to walk down a street half wondering if you’ll make it where you’re going.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      I never felt personally threatened. (Not really. The soldiers gave me a free pass: American, small, blue-eyed, baby-faced. One of them hit on me though, in one of the creepier juxtapositions of my trip.)

      But I’ll say that the iron grip of the closure made the day-to-day lives of the people who lived there practically untenable. People were stuck behind checkpoints for hours, sometimes sick, sometimes pregnant, sometimes just trying to get back to their families in another town. Food wasn’t getting through much by the time I left; there was a milk shortage as I was leaving.

      It was a grinding sort of terror, made to make people as uncomfortable as possible, and it fed every aspect of life. So while I could go from town to town with my American passport, and did, they couldn’t move between their own villages, which, if you understand it a certain way, is like not being able to get from one side of town to the other. Or not being able to visit your parents in the neighborhood next to you. That’s how small the area is, and how much it screwed up their lives. It was completely insane.

      My husband spent time in Belfast and said the same thing. Eerie and weird and wondering what the hell was going to happen.

  6. I wrote a factory poem recently where I reminisced about a worker who assassinated Arabs during the Lebonese Civil War and 1983 barracks bombing in Lebanon. Two vastly different situations, yet I sort of wrote in the same tone as your piece. There is a distance in understanding culture and crime, hunger and social positioning, and death in such countries. Thanks for making me think about it all.

  7. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Lovely piece, Quenby. Many among us would do well to reflect on the violent, scary, oppressive circumstances that millions of fellow human beings have endured, and continue to. Yes, the problems in our own country stink and things could be better—but wow they could be MUCH worse. Thanks for sharing.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      It’s difficult when faced with all our own day to day grinds which seem oppressive in their own right. Which is why I’m so glad I traveled there instead of, say, Paris.

      Not to say that Paris doesn’t also have cultural disparity and privation–but it’s hard to see it when you’re looking at the Louvre or eating in a bistro.

      The problems their people faces, on both sides, were summed up quite succinctly in those weeks. The way out of the problems is the impossible part.

  8. Art Edwards says:

    Good Lord, mamma kitty. What’s up with you?

    How fascinating to have seen some of what there is to see in that part of the world. I really have no sense for it, except what I’m fed, like turkey morsels dropped in the dirt in front of me.

    Thanks for the peak, Q.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      You and everybody else! I remember studying it in college and having this profound “WTF?” moment: I really didn’t know what in God’s name (or any other deities, for that matter) was going on. I heard bits on the tele-novella box, but they didn’t have any relevance to me, my life, or anything or anyone I knew.

      And then, like a curtain being lifted, I realized how completely relevant, and completely crackers, the whole region was. I was hooked. I knew I had to go there and see it for myself, that it really wouldn’t make sense any other way. Turkey morsels? Not enough.

      And truth be told, it was great. I loved it. Just like people get hooked on danger or chaos, I briefly entertained being a journalist there. My sweet husband was not thrilled with my choice, which I appreciate now, but I really, really loved it there.

      I think I wouldn’t have lasted, or my husband would have divorced me, but I truly loved it. The whole experience: the good, the horrifying and the crazy.

  9. Erika Rae says:

    Ooo – I like this. So much about you that I have yet to learn. What a fascinating place to be for a spell – and what a time. This piece…inspired.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Thanks, E%. I’ll bet you would find it fascinating, in that way that all places which are the locus for human drama and religious fervor are fascinating. It’s the convergence of all sorts of human chaos crashing together in ways which seem straight out of fiction.

  10. Wowza, Quenby. So powerful. I think that novel’s worth dusting off if this is the hint of it.

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