The Woman in the White Headscarf

Yael Unterman

     The clock ticks. There she sits, in her white headscarf. I sit on the other side of the room, staring at my old, brown, veined hands. I know every callus, every scratch. I think of all the places those hands have been. Earning my living one Egyptian pound at a time in the deathly heat, muscles aching, sweat trickling down my armpits.

The clock ticks, the one that belonged to her grandmother. I know her profile well, the beaky nose, the hard eyes. The white headscarf. Jameela. We sit in silence.

When we were first married my name was on her lips. Mustapha, my husband, she would murmur with pride. Her eyes were softer then. My name has not crossed her lips in twenty years. As if it is the name of a devil or a curse. She refers to me as “That man.” She beckons me with a grunt.

The room is overstuffed. I do not need all this furniture. Our son bought it for us. European furniture – lime green, like a rotten tree. It is foreign. My bones sink into it in a foreign fashion. There is a picture of him on the mantelpiece, tall, smiling, holding a camel by a leash. I miss him. I miss Egypt. This place is grey, with red-roofed houses and people who look like their skins have been bleached by a washerwoman.

Outside our house there is a trimmed hedge. Sometimes I go outside for a walk. How can she just sit there in silence? How can I?

My next lifetime will surely be better than this one. I imagine myself a rich man. My wife will count herself lucky. She will not ignore me, opening her mouth only to spit out complaints, like balls of chewed tobacco. She will wash my feet and look at me with admiration.

Now I am old. I do not know when I was born. I think I am eighty-three. I go outside. My breath becomes tight and choked. I stumble against the hedge, green and verdant. I collapse, making no sound. I lie on the ground, barely breathing. The minutes tick by, but no one comes.

A tunnel of light opens before me, and with it, a searing pain. Sixty years of frozen love. Sixty years of lost moments. It is not my failing lungs that torture me, but regret.   

My soul, ripping from my body, cries: O Jameela. I will see you again on the other side.


Yael Unterman's first book, "Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards. Her second book, a collection of short stories (many written while in the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Programme) is due to be published by Yaldah Publishing in 2012.


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