A young Ayelet Tsabari with her savta

Today, I brought a video camera to Savta’s house. My family is used to me endlessly documenting, snapping shots with the old single-lens K1000 I had bought on Granville Street in Vancouver during my photography studies. But the video camera is a new toy. I borrowed it from my friend Elsin to videotape a family party and I enjoy fooling around with it. I pan over the old photos by my grandmother’s raised bed: my two handsome uncles as young men, flashing the charming family grin; a smiling granddaughter in a ponytail. The camera settles on my grandmother. She sits between my mother and my aunt Rivka, staring at me, blinking slowly.

“Yafa,” I say to her, the feminine form of beautiful in Hebrew.

She snorts.

“How do you say beautiful in Yemeni?”

“Halya,” my mother answers.

“That’s Hatma’s daughter’s name,” Rivka says. “You know who Hatma was? Your grandfather’s wife.”

“His first wife?”

Savta scoffs, unimpressed. “Yes. She was first.”

Once, in a drawer in my mother’s bedside table, I found a Palestine Immigrant Certificate for Saleh Mahdoon, my grandfather, issued by the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Aden, a port city in the south of Yemen, on December 14, 1934. The picture showed my grandfather and his two wives, one on each side, black-and-white ghosts, cheeks sunken from hunger: my grandmother and her tsara, the biblical word for a sister-wife, also translated as “trouble.” In Israel, my grandmother, for whom the first wife was more trouble than sister, quickly discerned that polygamy wasn’t practiced among the local Jews. “It’s me or her,” she told my grandfather, and then took two-year-old Rivka with her and left. My grandfather followed her soon after. The first wife never forgave my grandmother this transgression, and forbade her daughter, Halya, my mother’s half-sister, from seeing her siblings. Even after the first wife had passed, the daughter continued to reject her half-siblings’ efforts to reconcile, carried on the inheritance of hurt and indignation until the end of her days.

“And then he married you?” I ask my grandmother.

“Then he married another one. Then me.”

“So he had three wives? Wow. I didn’t know that.” I look at my mother accusingly. There is so much she hasn’t told us. We didn’t even know about my mother’s estranged half-sister until my brother happened to run into her son in the army and he explained the family relations. “I’m sure I mentioned her,” my mom said when my brother confronted her. “Didn’t I?”

“The second wife’s brother got jealous,” Savta says, “because his father loved your grandfather very much. So the brother did ish’here on your grandfather. He drugged him.”

I glance at my mother, who translates the Arabic word: “A spell.”

“Wait, what?” I move the camera so I can look at Savta eye to eye. “The second wife’s brother tried to kill Saba? What happened then?”

“His father-in-law saved him. He gave him oil to drink. Bottle after bottle.”

My mother arches her eyebrows. “I’ve never heard this story.”

Rivka shakes her head. “Me neither.”

My grandmother’s stories always came about accidentally, reluctantly, always a slip of the tongue. Stories to her were luxuries, like dreams and regrets. Perhaps she believed, like many immigrants, that to become a true Israeli, she had to leave the past behind, along with the stories that encompassed it. Or maybe it was her children who rejected her stories; like many first-generation sabras — native-born Israelis — they wished to disassociate themselves from their parents’ diasporic history, assert their differences, and stake a claim for their own distinct identity.

“After that, your grandfather couldn’t stay there,” Savta says. “He moved away with Hatma and then he married me. You know how long the second wife waited for him? Waiting, hoping. Maybe he’ll come back for her. Until she realized: en samara.”

No use.

I picture this woman, standing on curvy dunes I borrow from Aladdin, searching the horizon for my grandfather. I file this romantic snapshot in my imaginary family album, the one I carry with me in place of actual photographs.

“Savta,” I say, “I want to hear more stories. If I come by, will you tell me?”

She frowns, waves her hand. “Maybe. If I’m in the mood.”

Ayelet Tsabari talks about her memoir at the Ethnic Cultural Theatre February 28. Purchase a copy of The Art of Leaving at your local bookstore


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