This story is set in Yemen at the time of Operation Magic Carpet
Shadra was standing in the daily market in Aden. She watched the British soldiers walking among the crowd. They were in their smart, dark blue uniforms, some on horseback. They kept watch over the area and tried to work with the people. One Friday she was with her father and sisters buying some vegetables. He had gone to talk to a friend and left her at a vegetable stall. She enjoyed watching all the different people coming and going, chattering away in Arabic, intermixed with visitors ad tourists. She saw a group of soldiers ride by on horseback. One of them caught her eye. He stopped, got off his horse, walked over to the stall next to her and bought a bunch of bananas. “I am John”, he had said, gesturing towards himself. She had smiled at him. “Shadra” she replied, pointing her index finger at her chest. He picked up a tomato with one hand, pointed at the sun with another, then at his own skin, then at the tomato. “Hot!” he said, waving his hand up and down. Shadra laughed. He smiled. They gazed at each other for several seconds then he went back to his horse. Even though they could not speak each other’s language, something passed between them. She thought about this, intrigued by the blue-green colour of his eyes and the pale skin these British usually had, that turned red in the sun.
“What are you staring into the sky for?” asked Sara, the oldest of her two younger sisters.
Just as Shadra began to answer, there was a shout and a big argument developed at the stall across the street from hers. Some Arabic men who had been walking around the market began to fight with some of the stall holders. They threw over stalls and damaged the produce. One of them pulled out a gun and began to fire shots at the stalls. “Father!” yelled Shadra. Sara pulled Shadra under a table fast and she heard a whistle. This was followed by thundering horse’s hooves. The soldiers shot guns into the air and rode into the crowd. The Arabs started to run. The British sergeant, a tall, Scottish man, shouted out his orders, pointing at other soldiers in turn. “You. Follow and arrest those troublemakers! You and You take those women out of harms way.”
As fate and Shadra’s destiny seemed to dictate, the soldier she had met in the market was the one taking them to a safer place. They went into the nearby Hotel De L’Europe. The soldier shut the door and stood on guard outside. Shadra could see the silhouette of his white ‘pith-helmet’ through the glass in the door. There were pleasant chairs and some tables inside. Five or six women talked between them about the events. One said a prayer. Shadra wondered when they would be able to go home.
* * *
Miriam breathed deeply. The air was cool in the evening. She could hear people talking in a general murmer around her, as crowds do. Looking around, she saw British soldiers, who had escorted them as their protectors. The warm gold light of the setting sun made her brown cheeks glow and her green eyes shine. She held her mother’s arm as they lined up ready to board the ready Air Alaska plane. Having never seen an aeroplane in her short life, Miriam wondered how it could lift an entire group of adults and children into the air and actually convey them safely over the long distance to Palestine, particularly as it was made of metal. Her mother seemed to be ok with it, so she would go along and see what happened. Her thoughts turned to her destiny. She would no longer grow up in or know what life would be like as an adult in Yemen. It felt ok, though, and she knew that her destination was the land from which her ancestors had come. She felt happy that a large group of many people that she knew were also with her. They would organise everything in Israel and she would have a home there. Her uncle called the flight; On Wings of Eagles, a Biblical description from the Book of Isaiah. The British called it Operation Magic Carpet. Miriam knew that it was an evacuation of Jewish people to Israel, away from the dangers of Arabic tribes who were attacking in response to the creation of the new Land.
She heard a shout. The soldiers were announcing the departure. People began to move and climb up the steps into the aircraft. They seated. Miriam asked her mother if it would be a long flight. “I think so“, replied Rumiya, Miriam’s mother. “We will pass the time with a story.”
“Which story is that?” Asked Miriam.
“I am going to tell you the story of how you got your green eyes”, she said.
As the engines coughed into life, a rabbi stood up and started to say a prayer. When he had finished, and the aeroplane was moving, Rumiya began the story.
It started with your grandmother, she said. When the British came to Aden they set up a colony and this became more established as part of the British Empire.
* * *
Soon the soldier returned. He opened the door and gestured for the women to leave. He saw Shadra and recognised her. She smiled and looked at him with her deep, dark eyes. He smiled and pointed at his horse and moved his hand up. She understood what he meant. She shook her head. If she let him give her a ride home it would lead to trouble with her family and the community, even though secretly she would have loved to know what it felt like to feel the wind in her hair and to be close to this intriguing man. Her cousin called her and pulled her hand and the women left, laughing and talking.
A few days later, Shadra was with her sister Sara at the market, when she saw him again. Again he smiled at her but walked away in the direction of Hotel De L’Europe. “That is the man”, she told them.
“He is so nice”, said her sister.
“I wish I could meet him”, replied Shadra. She knew that if anyone found out, especially her father, she would be in serious trouble. They decided to walk past the hotel. His horse was outside and he was sitting on the verandah having a drink. He saw them. “Hey”, he called and walked over to the steps that led to the hotel. Shadra’s heart beat faster. She thought if not now then she might never get a chance to talk to him. She smiled and pointed to the horse. He walked over to it and gestured for her to get up. She looked at her sister, who nodded, and got up. It felt so high. She had been on a camel once before when a small child. This was similar. John looked at her. He took the rein and gently led her for a walk. Her sister stayed behind. They went around the back of the hotel. When she returned she was smiling. He helped her off the horse. He said something that she did not understand, then “Bye Shadra”. She waved and ran with her sister into the crowd. They stopped in the market. “He lifted me off the horse and put me on the floor”, she said. “He was so strong. Then he put his hand on my cheek like this” and she touched the line of her jaw gently. Shadra told Sara, her sister that they had sort of talked and then he lifted her up again to return her. She wanted to see him again.
The girls arrived at their home. Shadra’s father was sitting at a table. “Did you get me something from the market?” he asked.
“No” they replied.
“I have an announcement”, he said. “Shadra you need to get married soon so I am going to introduce you to someone. Maybe next week.”
She protested. “I am not ready to marry someone Abba”.
“Every girl has to get married sometime”, he said. “You are old enough now and it is important to start to have children young”. She looked at him, knowing that she could not refuse his word. She wished she could be like the British and French women she had seen. They did not seem to have these strict rules. They did not even cover their hair. She left the room quietly. The next day, she returned to the hotel. John was there at around midday. Again she went on the horse with him, around the back of the hotel. She told Sara that he had lifted her off but this time held her. She held him. Then they had gone for a horseride together a little further. “Shadra! Are you sure you want to do this?”, Sara had said. Shadra just asked her not to tell their parents or anyone.
“I am going back”, she said adamantly. She returned two more times. Sara kept telling her it was too much risk and someone was bound to see. The third time Shadra returned with a sad look on her face. “What is it?” asked her sister. Shadra explained that some of the British soldiers were being sent to China in two days and John would be leaving. The next afternoon Shadra had to stay at home. Her father brought a man called Moshe to meet her. He was nice enough but not really the type of man she wanted to marry. She did not wish to displease her parents. “Tell me honestly”, said her father, “do you like him?”. She said she did not. “I will bring you another person to meet”, was the reply.
As soon as Moshe had left, Shadra ran to find Sara. Her other sister, Hamama was also there. I have to see him before he leaves, she said. “See who?” said Hamama. Shadra told her that Sara would explain. She put a scarf over her and left. Later she told Sara that her evening had been very romantic. They had ridden into the hills and she had drunk a glass of wine. He had held her very close. Shadra felt very sad. This was the last time she would probably see him, unless he was posted back to Yemen.
So John left Aden and Shadra life continued. Her father introduced her to several different suitors. They were all similar and all were boring. She often thought of John.
About 2 months after he left she discovered she was pregnant. She confided in her sister and then ran to her father to tell him she would marry Moshe. So it was arranged. Moshe, being a little naive, never knew the difference. They had six children in all. Five of them had brown eyes but only the first, a little baby girl, had eyes of emerald green. They named her Rumiya.
* * *
Rumiya smiled at her daughter. “So that is the story of your Grandmother”, she said.
“Rumiya is your name Ima”, said Miriam. Her mother nodded. The aircraft began to descend. The announcement came that they were due to land shortly. Miriam looked out of her window. Down below she saw a long coastline stretching out in a straight line. “Welcome to Israel”, said the pilot.