I first met Muhammad al-Jabri when he came to the small supermarket I ran in the Nemsawi neighborhood of Khan Yunis. The 13-year-old boy was a familiar figure in the area and was called Abu Zaqzouk by the people of the neighborhood. Zaqzouk is a nickname given to someone who walks quietly without disturbing anyone. He had wheat-colored skin, soft brown hair, and wide black eyes topped by high eyebrows and long lashes that fluttered like a butterfly gliding over flowers.
I thought he had come to the store to beg, but he wanted to buy chips and coconut candy. I gave him a small piece of chocolate for free. He wore a worn t-shirt with the Real Madrid logo on it and short blue jeans that seemed almost black. He stood at the shop door with his head bowed and body bent almost in half like an old man, hugging the door with both hands. I was busy with customers and arranging things. Moments later, I turned back to the door, but he had left.
On the second day he came to the store, he wanted to buy yogurt and cheese. I put these things in a bag and gave him a free sweet.
“Peace be upon you, Mustafa,” he greeted me. “How are you?”
“Hello, Abu Marzouk,” I said, joking with him.
“No,” he answered, raising his chin and standing up. “Abu Zaqzouk.” He began flicking his nose with his index finger.
“How are you?” I asked him.
“Thank God,” he said. “Praise be to God.”
He began coming to the store and waiting for me to give him free candy. But he also wanted to make himself useful. “Is there anything I can do for you today?” he would ask. “Maybe taking out the trash or filling your water bottle? Going to get some food for you?” His coming to the store became a daily habit, and over time, he became my friend.
One Monday, Muhammad came to the market as usual, but he was not as usual. He wore almost the same clothes, but his head was covered by a black hat. He had to tilt his head back for me to see his eyes. When he removed the hat, I saw that he had shaved his head.
“Why did you do that?” I asked him in surprise.
“I’m annoyed with how people treat me. I’m bullied by the kids at school and in the street. Even my teachers grab me and pull my hair.”
Without his hair, his scalp looked like snow fallen on an old car parked on the street in winter. “You are more beautiful than before,” I said, trying to joke with him.
Abu Zaqzouq laughed, showing his blackened teeth. “At least now I’m relieved of getting my hair grabbed and pulled by the teachers. That was painful!”
I kept joking while I squeezed pain from the inside. “How can they bully this beautiful child?” I wondered angrily. “They really do not have mercy in their hearts.”
I sat Abu Zaqzouk on a chair next to me. I took out my mobile phone and asked him to look into the front-facing camera. “You are much handsomer than you used to be,” I told him.
He straightened in his seat and looked at me in astonishment. “Am I handsomer, or are you kidding me?”
“I want you to regain confidence in yourself,” I said, “and accept your personality as it is.” I gave him a piece of chocolate, which he took and began eating. The chocolate seemed to help him forget about his hair.
When he’d finished eating, he asked. “Do you have a prayer rug? I want to pray to Alesha.”
“Here it is,” I said, handing him the rug.
“Thank you. I will pray to God to give you more than you ask for and to bless you with a good wife.”
When he returned from praying, he told me, “I pray every day that God will provide for me so that I can support my family, especially my little sister, who goes to school without money.”
I was shocked, but tried not to show my surprise. “What does your father do?” I asked.
“He is unemployed.”
He told me that after school each day, he collected the bits of bread left in the classroom and the schoolyard, putting them in a bag he carried with him. He’d then spend the rest of the day collecting leftover bread from shops and homes, which he then sold to make some money to help his family.
Time flew by like lightning, and before I knew it, it was 12:30 a.m. and time to close the shop. Abu Zaqzouq helped me get the ice cream into the fridge, move the soda boxes inside, and lock the door. He seemed lethargic now, as if he were wilting, his eyes red with exhaustion.
“Do you want anything else from me?” he asked.
“Nothing, thanks, Abu Zaqzouq.”
I gave him a biscuit to give to his sister. His eyes overflowed with tears. “My sister will be very happy with this,” he told me. He put the biscuit in his hat.
When I left the store, he was waiting for me next to my motorcycle.
“You want a ride?” I asked him, even though I knew that his house was only a three-minute walk away from the shop. “Come on, get on.”
Muhammad climbed on the motorcycle behind me. He put his right hand on my shoulder and right foot on the foot pedal and made a quick movement to adjust his seat. When we took off, he held my stomach with both hands to keep from falling. He bounced on the seat and laughed. His laugh seemed to rise from pure joy and echoed in the streets.