My Future, Sculpted in Play-Dough

Sometimes I over-think my narrative and try to make it grand.  Let me tell you all a story; I will try to let


A guest lecturer from “Living Classrooms” came to my graduate-level curriculum class. She was a white-lady from South Dakota named Monique who taught in Rwanda with Peace Corps and now coordinates educational programs in Washington DC. Twice she mentioned teaching in prisons and on an indigenous peoples’ reservation in The West.

In the middle of the lesson she gave us each a canister of play-dough. The uncanny salty scent of a once familiar, now exotic,

Find more of Joan Peters' artwork here:

Find more of Joan Peters’ artwork here:

childhood filled the air. Mine was a green like cactus. I looked around to see if anyone else had

cactus play-dough. No. Prickles rose up the back of my spine. She instructed us

she encanted

…instructed us to sculpt our future in play-dough. She instructed us

she encanted

…instructed us to choose a symbol of what we wanted to be and make it from play-dough

the uncanny, salty scent of a once familiar, now exotic, childhood filled

…play-dough. I started making the fronds of a cactus, like green pancakes. I thought I would be clever and use my secret canister of purple play-dough to make cactus fruit. In Palestinian Arabic, the colloquial word for cactus fruit


puns on a classical word for patience. I remember the land left latticed by cactus rows surrounding


…land left latticed by cacti after radical militia burned and bulldozed Palestinian villages

the houses are gone, burned and bulldozed by radical Zionists in 1948

…Palestinian villages. Now, pears that pun patience grow green with great, sweet fruits in a lattice

because the roots did not die and the stalks regenerated

….great, sweet fruits the color of my secret play-dough grew in a village whose name meant


prickly-pears-bowl-1…grew in Beit Jala West of Bethlehem where I lived for 17 months more than 27 months ago. I wanted to symbolize patience, resilience, and the persistence of memory but the play-dough could not stand erect like…


…so I smashed it into a lump and began again.


 I finished my play-dough bridge just as time expired. I glanced around the room at an owl, a magnifying glass, a cocoon, a house… then back at my bridge. It looked like a tongue draped over four pencil-eraser butts with a pair of disfigured dorsal fins. Green like chewed wintergreen gum, it sagged in the middle. Its columns were fat and squishy, its suspension towers were useless decorations. The lecturer nodded at my explanation: “I want to build a connection between areas that once seemed separate.” In saying so, I tried to re-anchor my thoughts from over four years ago. I paced around a retreat center in up-state New York, rehearsing my elevator speech about entering into mission service and becoming ‘a bridge’ —

“Great job everyone,” she said slyly, smirkingly — furtively. “Now smash-it and make a new future.” The message was that we always needed to stay malleable as educators and teach students to imagine multiple futures and…

I wanted to be free

…multiple futures

I want

…to imagine multiple futures and I wanted to be something clever and free like a fox or

Coyote lays in forestmaybe a coyote listening in the woods, head and ears erect, laying in undergrowth with my front paws nestled beneath my chest and my back legs idly cocked to one side, extended. I was alert but relaxed

sculpting a coyote future from green play-dough

…with my tapering cloud-tail and my upturned snout, smelling

the uncanny, salty scent of a once familiar, now exotic, childhood filled.

“I made a coyote because I can be adaptable and free and I can do whatever I want, when I want.” Classmates complimented my handsome sculpture as he listened to them with perky ears, still green like cactus.

This future is vastly different than a bridge. I left the coyote resting on the edge of my desk until the period was concluded. Everyone nodded as my pet returned into the canister, into formlessness.

stay malleable as educators and teach students to imagine

…nodded as the beast returned.

To Be Continued…


MORE Cactus Pricking

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Three of us left the compound a while before sunset. We needed two people on the passenger side of the station-wagon to poke their arms out the window in order to carry the picking tools, which were tin cans mounted side-ways on the end of long poles. These are the instruments and this is the account of my second time witnessing the art of cactus picking.


Unfortunately, there were only two poles: Zoughbi took the longer one and Rajaee took the shorter. Zoughbi, realizing my lack, expressed remorse but I gently cut his apologies short and ripped a flap of cardboard from a nearby box. Last time, Rajaee let me use the pole while he picked using a piece of cardboard for a grabber; I saw this as my chance to show my unselfishness. Because the cacti are on a hillside, one does not simply walk up to them and start pilfering but I thought I could pick faster without the tool by scrambling across the rocks. This is how stories where I seriously injure myself tend to begin.

Yet I was vindicated by every plump and bristly صبر* (cactus fruit) plopping into my three-flapped cardboard box. I picked with the same cavalier exuberance and masochism I learned from picking raspberries in the patch behind my childhood home in Michigan. In those days, I pressed between the thorny branches to pick the most succulent of all fruits. I thought I had morphed into an expert cactus-picker, for a minute, until I glanced at my hands. A raspberry thorn pricks you once, the instant you touch it, but a cactus bristle quietly embeds itself and pricks for hours. It looked like someone had put tiny hair-plugs just above my wrist. Knowing how much that would hurt later, I decided to make the most of the time I had left. Needless to say, I did not try to push between the cacti.

At one point, I balanced on a rock with one foot and leaned, with my other leg extended for balance, to grab an especially pink صبرة. I was proud: my box was nearly full. Just as I grabbed for the next one, a wasp burst from the shadows! I flinched and brushed against a big, green cactus frond. Clothing only half-exists in the cactus dimension: the bristles went into my shirt and itched my belly the rest of the evening. It was a small price to pay to avoid being envenomated. Meanwhile, my hands were already starting to burn as I watched Zoughbi finish filling his bucket.

When picking one, make sure to mind the others…

“عشرة كمان…” he said, setting his goal at ten. We counted with him as the muted pink of twilight diffused through the olive trees. I snickered, thinking about the time last fall when a branch broke and I was almost clobbered by a falling…
“ست…ةةةةة!” –the sixth صبرة slipped and tumbled from the mouth of the tool! We cringed, then relaxed as it collided with a frond and changed direction, lost forever in the netherworld between cacti that none dare to enter. After a dozen, we called it quits and returned to the compound.

“My hand is full of pricks,” said my boss, innocently.
Later, we rubbed our hands thoroughly with salt, especially between the fingers. The salt crystals were supposed to help pulverize and remove the thistles (شوكا). This was the phase where Amu Nicola joined us and suggested we rub our hands with sand instead. Luckily, we had none or we might have made an even bigger mess.

Each cactus fruit comes with its own sheath that needs to be removed. We dumped all the containers of fruit onto a patio area and doused them with buckets of water to either wash-away the bristles or make them clumpy— alternatively, to water the nearby ivy vines since the bristles seemed just as numerous and pernicious. One person cuts a lengthwise slit and peels back the armored jacket to expose the naked fruit while the other carefully snatches it. The process happens faster this way. Zoughbi used a piece of cardboard to hold them while he peeled, while Nicola gingerly held each with his big, sausage-sized fingers. He is surprisingly adept.

Color may vary…

I was Amu Nicola’s snatcher. Intermittently, he peeled the skin and thrust a fruit into his mouth. With some coaxing, I started eating them too. Zoughbi insisted that I had earned some and I whole-heartedly agreed with him. The صبر in every way seem to satisfy the golden mean: they’re not overwhelmingly sweet, have a glorious texture, require peeling but have no inedible pit, and are not at all acidic. Maybe the alkaline chemistry of cacti compensates to make the fruit neutral. Nevertheless, as I gobbled my ninth صبرة, Zoughbi became concerned that I would develop ‘hard stomach’.

“How many did you eat? We are accustomed but you might get – what is it?”

“Constipation!” said Rajaee, proud to remember his English.

“Eat some خوخ ليلة…” said Zoughbi. The Arabic term might be new to my friends in the West but, trust me, ya’all know what خوخ ليلة are: plums, the dark kind that are often dried to make prunes. I tried to wave him off, reassuring him that I had a drawer of plums upstairs, but he insisted I go inside and eat خوخ ليلة equal to the صبر immediately.

I recommend not eating too many of of these at one time, either.

I stood inside by the sink as a fresh bucket of water filled, filching plums from a nearby tub and contemplating the goodness of life, when the punishment for eating too much of something delicious is to eat another delicious thing in equal quantity. My day had lacked some luster before that and, at last, it seemed like a bowl of raspberries (in lieu of plums, sorry) was all I lacked. In hindsight, no number of cactus fruits could reckon with the fiber from a dozen plums and the pair of mangos I ate earlier in the day but I think the details of the morning after are best left alone في الحمام. Let’s just say it was a very ‘regular’ morning.

The sing-along portion of the evening was still before us. Zoughbi is wont to insert extra jolliness into his work by singing songs in Arabic. Up until that night, I assumed he was always singing traditional songs that everyone knew but me. Now, I have my doubts; this explains why he is the only one singing too often. He has been making-up silly songs all along. Regardless, he and Rajaee decided that it would be even more fun if I started singing.

I chuckled. Shoved into the spot-light, I discovered no strikingly appropriate song rushing to my lungs. I felt embarrassed. Zoughbi insisted, burying me even deeper in my shyness. I wondered why I can function so differently in one context versus another. I began June by serenading Precious “Toots” Matzo during the final session of our workshop in Mindanao. The facilitators decided to do an affirmation circle, where we each were given another’s certificate and required to present it to them with a speech. Babu quickly added that we were welcome to sing our sentiments. There was no doubt I had to sing. First, I was early in the affirmation circles and wanted to clear the air so other people felt comfortable singing (no one else sang. Soak that in). The other reason was that ‘Toots’ and I had bonded quickly and I felt as if I should give her 100% effort. I thought she would sing back but I think poor Toots was too stunned. I got a big hug, though.

It is really a matter of timing for me. A melody finally crept into me {“When You’re Happy & You Know It!”}  and I pulled my Arabic together for an attempt:

عندي صبر في بطني—هذا جيد

عندي صبر في بطني—هذا جيد

لكن… ممكن…لزم أكل خوخ ليلة و… مش عندنا مشكلة في الحمام…

عندي صبر في بطني—هذا جيد”

For those who do not read Arabic, a translation by Google:

[I have patience in my stomach – this is good! “
I have patience in my stomach – this is good!
But … Possible … necessary to eat night peaches and … We have not a problem in the bathroom …
I have patience in my stomach – this is good!]

As I enter those words into the translator for the first time, I discover that there was an extra meaning in the word “صبر”. The ‘patience’ it required seemed to make them even more delicious the night we picked them. Yet two days later they are as addictive as ever for everyone. Zoughbi commented at dinner today that there must be something chemically in them that makes you forget your stomach is already full. ( خوخ ليلة appeared as ‘night peaches’, amusing me to no end…)

“Sing us another song, John. You can sing in English.”

“I don’t know what I would sing in English…”

“You sang something in English – you have a beautiful voice.”

“All I can think of is… okay… how about: {“The Nearness of You”}

‘It’s not the pale moon that excites me;

that thrills and delights me?

Oh no: it’s just the flavor… of صبررررررررر.  {roll the ‘ra’ to get the full effect!}

It isn’t your swee-eet conversation

that brings this sensation!

Oh no: it’s just the prickles from صبر

When I chew you in my mouth

and I eat you… then have some خوخ ليلة

My wildest dreams came true!

And I need no soft light… *crescendo*


if you will only grant me.

The righ-ight to hold you ever so tight—‘


On second thought, maybe I would rather not hold them so tight.”

“Do you want to go picking again on Sunday?”

To pick or not to pick: that is the question.

*Curious about how to pronounce the Arabic? The cactus fruit is “ssubr”. Plums are “khokh laiyla” (good luck ). “Six” is “sitah” (or “sit—ahhhh!” in this case!). If you plugged عشرة كمان into a translator application, it might have given you ten violins but that is actually “ten more” in Palestinian Arabic. Finally, لا  means ‘la’, which is no.

* * *

Bonus Song: (“Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera)

Chase your cactus with a lovely night peach!

First you pit them; later on you [spit] them! {and by spit I mean something else…}

Open up your mouth and

you’ll find that they’re not foul but

if you have too many, then you will regret

eating all those peaches of the night!!

Cactus Pricking

Since the showdown with the Ministry of Interior in Haifa, I have noticed my psyche relaxing to a healthier, idling state. I was more apt to let writing go this week in favor of spending time socializing – company was dearly missed in exile. This week was counter-intuitively comforting for all its mundane worries, like moving back into my flat and exorcising it of the interim-tenant’s grime. It was almost sundown, and I had just finished moving all my clutter upstairs, when my boss’s ring-tone erupted from my newly kludged cell-phone holster.


“John – hallo! Would you like to pick cactus with us?”

The answer could not have been anything other than “yes” because I had never picked cactus-pears before. Additionally, I had been outlining an entry about ‘communion’ in my head and it seemed like it would be less funny and interesting than one about going to a cactus patch. Nothing against the last supper, of course…

I knew the story was only going to get better when I reached the family court-yard and saw Rajaee Zoughbi, pulling on a pair of heavy gloves. Rajaee is Zoughbi’s nephew of twenty-years, a musician by passion, a budding accountant by study, and all-around interesting guy.

“John! Do you want to pick cactus? Be careful: you will feel the spines in your hands later…”

I was dressed for the occasion in Fred Elmore’s old jeans, Tim Leisman’s discarded hat, and a t-shirt badly in need of retirement. I gave Rajaee the thumbs-up and we climbed into the Volkeswagon station-wagon. We peeled all the windows down and I noticed Zoughbi’s demeanor begin to relax; he is a man heavily relied upon in Bethlehem civil society but his inner boy emerged as he warned me: “…ya John – you will feel the spines later *cackle* but we rub salt on our hands, habeehee. You want to pick a prickled pear, a prickly prickly treat? *cackle*” (salt?!) I tried to disguise my smile. When he is fretful, I remind myself of these moments so that I know it is the weight of his job that sours him a little, not his true nature. He is, well, as sweet as a cactus on the inside.

The cactus patch is on the next ridge, in Beit Jala; as we started up the hill Zoughbi told Rajaee (in Arabic) to look for discarded boxes. I pointed to an empty Carlsburg carton but Zoughbi shook his head (later, it dawned on me that a cheap beer-box was clearly not the way to deliver fruit to family members). We made an abrupt stop on a narrow side-street and Rajaee squirted out the door and pilfered a clutch of plainer cartons.

“For the cactus so we can carry it places.”

Half-way uphill, Rajaee and I bailed-out with the boxes.

“I will go and get the machines,” said Zoughbi. My imagination ran wild with visions of Dr. Seuss-esque cactus picking machines.

“He means he’s going to get the tools,” said Rajaee blandly.

We walked a short distance before I recognized the plot: it was the same place I had picked olives the previous fall. A short flash-back montage danced into my mind’s eye:

                “The hired guy fell on top of me!” –Me

“He wants to know why you did not catch him – he’s joking…” -Z

“I showed him where I live in Michigan by pointing to my hand…” -Me

“He is from the middle of Bethlehem, that’s why he pointed to the middle of his hand…” -Z

“Don’t step on the olives or we’ll lose profit…” -Z

“Sorting the olives on the ground is supposed to be women’s work…” –Rachelle

“GAH! I twisted my ankle… why are the police here?” -Me

“The police wanted to fine me for burning grass but I reasoned with them…” -Z

“How did you get in the tree? Did they lift you up? We should take a picture!” -Everyone

Me, in the middle, olive-pickers on either side.

I thought they wanted me to help them down from the tree. Then they grabbed me by the wrists… I love Palestine so much.

 * * *

                I stepped carefully around the very same series of rocks where I wrenched my ankle. The cacti themselves were the circular kind that look like giant, green, thorn-studded chicken-patties linked precariously to one another. Rajaee ripped a flap from the box and folded it around one of the yellowish knobs growing from the top of a patty. I got a flap and did the same for a while. Somehow, I had imagined the prickers would not be as bad as touted.

“Ar!” he said suddenly. I think anyone can guess why; the fruits were not covered in long needles but with tufts of tiny bristles that, frankly, are ten times more wicked. A minute later, I could testify to this.

Around then, Zoughbi came with two ‘tools’: they looked like tomato cans mounted perpendicular on rake handles. The idea is that one reaches to a distant fruit and wiggles the can over it. Then, you twist the can and the fruit comes off inside. Sometimes. If you twist too hard, the fruit will come flying out and everyone will duck. Most of the time I twisted and twisted at a little pear, the can slipped off several times, and then I finally tried another one. A quick piece of advice: ripeness does not correlate with easiness; try not to twist the cactus part off in the process.

When the sun had almost completely set Zoughbi said “John – thirty more and we can go…”

I picked a pear and proclaimed “wahid!”

Zoughbi responded “’tnayn”, “tilaht”, “arba”, and “khamza” and I excitedly added,


“Six? You already have six?”
“No, we have six collectively…”

“I meant thirty more EACH.” Heaven only knows what Rajaee had.

I trotted to a better spot on the hillside, careful not to break my legs. Just as I was turning the screws on “subbah” I felt something sting me through my cross-trainers. These shoes are normally a good choice because they have plenty of mesh to let my feet ‘breath’ in the middle-Eastern heat. My shoe had taken a big whiff of cactus needles. I leaned against a retaining wall and picked them out while Zoughbi continued to count. He had reached “subbatash” (17) before I said


“Tinein?! What are you doing, John?” Rajaee chuckled.

By this time, I was determined. I started really plucking those spiny devils. I lost a few to the nether regions of the patch but I made-up quite a bit of ground.


“Mish subba’-wa-ashreen? Oh John…”

I scampered onto a boulder, surrounded on three sides by cactus. The potential for a memorable episode, in the most terrible way, was so salient I could taste it. Instead, I found three likely candidates and went to work.

“John – halas?”

“Kaman wahida, bus!” (just one more!) They both cheered and said ‘kaman wahida!’ with pride. Just then, I put the twentieth pear in the box and declared “ashreen!”

“Taleteen?” (30?)

“La… ashreen…” I said, my voice falling a little.

“Oh… well, halas, it’s getting dark…”

* * *

                I knew he was doing it to me. He asked how I felt and I said “fine” without thinking. That gave him license to just start driving to Beit Sahour without batting an eyelash. With my limited Arabic, I surmised from their conversation that we were taking fruit to Zoughbi’s older sister. I missed my chance to say “I’m tired” and protest.

My inner-American rouses to consciousness when fatigue takes over. I began to think of all the little ways I was not in control, remembering small chores to do and lamenting unwritten blog-entries. As she buzzed us into the apartment building, my inner-Palestinian burst forth in song:

“She’s going to feed us! She’s going to feed us! Praise God on high!”

It was not a hot meal but it was surely fit for a king: stuffed eggplant, pickles, rice rolled in grape-leaves (an acquired taste I picked-up long ago), fresh plums. Several small things I love about Palestinian culture surfaced: it’s okay to eat loudly, finger-licking is a compliment, and there is always a beverage if food is involved. I relaxed, knowing the evening over. Of course, it was not: I also had to endure an episode of catus-pear peeling with Zoughbi’s brother Nicola and his grand-daughter. Just the same, I want to close this piece as if the last thing I did was eat that wonderful food rather than hosing down our catch and discussing constipation:

                “Don’t eat too many or you’ll get a hard-stomach”


When we had said our goodbyes to Zoughbi’s sister and loaded into the car to return home, he said to me, “you never know when you will eat,” and then he looked up at the stars and said, “you know, life really is very good—don’t you think?”

“Yes. I think life is really very good, too.”