Lizzy wants to tell you a story about boys

Lizzy wants to tell you a story about boys

Though warned repeatedly not to eat his jam sandwiches in the back of his elder brother’s car, little Mike loves to do just that. As he was enjoying smearing the back seat with his jam-laced fingers, he sees his brother coming. He hides under the seat. His brother comes in followed by his girlfriend. The elder brother drives to lovers’ lane. He stops the car and turns to his girlfriend, “We are here. Do you want or you don’t want?” She looks at her little finger. “I think this little finger is smaller than the other, so no! I don’t want.”
He waits a couple of minutes then turns to her again, “Think about it, do you want or you don’t want?” She says, “I don’t want and I told you why.” After two more minutes he says, “For the last time, do you want or you don’t want?”
She had enough. She bursts, “How many f….times do I have to tell your f….head I don’t f….want?”
“Fine,” the elder brother says, “open the door and go back on foot.” She does exactly that still swearing.
The elder brother returns home and heads for his bedroom to be with his girl against her wish.
Little Mike creeps out of the car silently and heads for the garage and returns with his bicycle. He pedals to Lizzy’s house. She’s playing outside. “Behind me,” he shouts,”We’re going places.” He cycles all the way to the lovers’ lane, stops and turns back to her, “Lithy,” he says, “Do you want or you don’t want?” Lizzy says, “I want.” Little Mike is confused. He waits a couple of minutes, “Lithy, think about it, do you want or you don’t want?” Lizzy says, “I want. I really do.”
Little Mike is truly confused, so he asks again, “For the last time, do you want or you don’t want?”
Lizzy had enough. She bursts, “How many f…. time’s do I have to tell your f….head I f….want? I don’t know what in hell is this thing that you want me to want but I want it, and I want it now, so I’ll say it again, ‘I want,I want, I want!”
Mike is absolutely confused, “Damn it! It didn’t work. OK, You take the bicycle and I’ll walk home.”
Lizzy’s heart is broken. “Oh, poor boy. You look sad. Come, we’ll go together but only if you tell me what is it you think I should want? You asked me three times, so it must be important. Could it be sex?”
Little Mike shrugs his shoulders, “Beats me, no idea.”
Lizzy is angry again. “So you don’t want?”
Now Mike is confused, again. “Want what?”
Lizzy had enough, “Mum is right. She said boys keep nagging you to want something they want; when you say ‘yes’ to the thing they want you to want they don’t want to say ‘yes’ to the thing you said you want for the thing they wanted you to want in the first place. So I’m going to say it again: I don’t want, I don’t want, I don’t want.”
Now little Mike is absolutely, absolutely confused. “Don’t want what?”
Lizzy is equally confused. “I don’t know what I don’t want. Do you know what is it that I don’t want?”
Little Mike threw his head back, “Dad is right. He said girls want but they don’t want to tell the boy what is it that they want, so the boy has to do the thing the girl wants him to do without him knowing that he’s exactly doing what the girl wants him to do without telling him that the thing he’s doing is actually the thing she wanted him to do but -”
Lizzy screams really loud. “Stop it! You gave me a headache. I told mum in the morning I do’t want to wake up today but she insisted, and look at me now.”
Mike is broken hearted, “What do you want to do now?”
Lizzy says, “I want you to tell me what is it that I want to do.”
Mike smiles. “I know that. We dump the damn bicycle here and both of us will head back home on foot.”
Lizzy smiles back, “That’s exactly what I wanted. One day in the far future I’m going to want you to say ‘I do’ and you will say it because you really, really, really want to say it but you are not sure what I’ll say.”
Mike: “If it is in the far future why are you telling me now?”
“Because you’ll forget that I told you I want you to say it and you will think it is your own idea which it is. Can you please forget now what I’ve just told you?”
“If you tell me what is it that you’ve just told me I will, no problem.”
Lizzy is really happy. “You’re a super fast learner. Of course I’ll say ‘yes’ but don’t tell yourself that, promise?”
“Promise what?”

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The Atheist

Rana, a beautiful Christian girl from Beirut, goes to her Muslim boyfriend’s flat for a coffee. As they were talking she blinked. When she opened her eyes again she found herself naked in the darkness and virgin no more, a very serious even in Arabia.

Here is what happened next:

Ali: “Can I breathe?”
Rana: “Quietly, if you please. I need to think of the plight you’ve plunged me in, parted legs first.”
“Why don’t you let me help you?”
“How can you help me when you are the cause of my calamity? I was an innocent young angel before I blinked a while ago and look at me now – a ruined, deflowered slut.”
“I hear Rana but I can’t see a slut. It’s too dark. Can I switch on a light?”
“No!” she yelled anxiously. “Keep the lights off. Please.”
“The moonlight is coming through the window; do you want me to turn it off as well?”
“No, I want to see what you do.”
“I’ll do nothing.”
“You said that but you lied.”
“I didn’t lie. You wanted to come here.”
“You didn’t stop me.”
“I tried.”
“You didn’t insist. Arabs always have to insist three times before anything gets done. You didn’t insist once, and maybe because I’m Christian.”
“I gave you the treatment of the people of the Book. You didn’t insist so I respected your decision.”
“But you should have insisted. Your Book told you to be cordial to us Christians not to screw us. There’s a big difference, you know.”
“When the lights are off and the desire is on everything becomes secular. They don’t call it ‘the atheist’ for nothing.”
“I heard Nisreen describe it as the ‘one who recognises no friends’. I should have remembered this but now it’s too late. You get distracted when you are attacked in the dark on all fronts. There wasn’t even a cover to take.”
“Well, you don’t enter a lion’s den and not expect to be scratched.”
“Just scratched? I wish. You should have really stopped me.”
“I thought about it but then I realised it was already too late.”
“You should have thought of that earlier and insisted on me not coming in.”
“Were I mad to insist?”
“Were I mad to come in?”
“What is done is done. We need to think of what we’ll do next.”
She quickly opened her eyes wide in the darkness and closed them as quickly. “Oh, God, Jesus, Mary and the Saints! There is still a ‘next’ to do? I can’t take any nexts.”
“I meant what we have to do.”
“What would that be?” she said in a voice where anxiety and an urge to cry mingled. “I don’t want to do anything.”
“I meant –”
“I meant, I meant, I meant! Why don’t you shut up and give yourself and me some peace?”
He kept his peace and she did likewise but her anxiety spoke freely, “What is mum going to say when she finds out?”
His response remained hidden behind the chair, intensifying her anxiety and pitch. “Am I no longer deserving of an answer?”
“You told me to shut up.”
“Just answer this one, please.”
“She would tell you to demand from Ali to patch it up or –”
“Oh, my God!” she said with a bit of anger and a smaller bit of pain. “Haven’t I asked you to stop playing the comedian?”
“Control yourself. What will my neighbours say if they hear your loud voice?”
“They’ll say to you, ‘How did you find it in your heart to take advantage of a vulnerable girl like Rana?’ ”
“I’ll tell them that the vulnerable girl was the one who seduced me.”
“Seeing my tears, no one will believe you.”
“In that case, they’ll call the police.”
“The police? What have the police got to do with us?”
“This is not Beirut. This is Abu Dhabi.”
“What would the police do?”
“They usually do a lot of humiliating and dragging to the police station. A scandal which will be on every tongue in all the salons of Abu Dhabi, from the corniche to the bridge, from now until deep into the third millennium, provided the country still had oil.”
“You may tell the police that I’m your wife.”
“They’d demand to see the marriage certificate.”
“We have no certificate.”
“So…”
“So what?”
“Don’t remind me. For the single man, the punishment is one hundred lashes or multiples thereof; depending on what mood the judge happens to be and the adulterer’s tolerance. In the case of a woman, you know the story of the adulterer in your book (Bible) so there’s no need to elaborate.”
Hearing a sound close to chattering teeth, he smothered a malicious urge to laugh for fear that she might have a nervous breakdown. The chattering stopped suddenly then he heard an incomplete laugh.
He tried to see what she had been doing behind the seat in darkness. She lowered her head as far as she could. “I told you not to look at me! If you don’t stop I’ll scream.”
There was silence for a moment. “Why are you laughing?” he asked.
“I didn’t mean to. I had the urge to ask where would they find enough stones in a desert country full of sand, but I didn’t want to look more stupid than I already am.”
“Why don’t you see the positive side of things?”
“What’s positive in my situation, Mr. Genius?”
“At least you are not thinking of demons, Miss Genius.”
“The demons are more compassionate than you are. They didn’t do to me what you have done. With them, it is all talk and promises and windows overlooking the sea. You’re the only one who did something. What am I to say to mum now? That I lost it in crossing my legs?”
“Tell her the truth.”
“What is the truth? I wasn’t aware of what was happening to me.”
“You don’t have to tell her everything. Fetch a box of matches from the kitchen then stand in front of her, light a match and blow it out with strength. Tell her that what happened to your virginity but don’t mention my name.”
He heard the sound of suspicious movement. Raising his head to discover its source, he spotted an object that flew in his direction, passed close to his ear then hit the wall behind him and fall on the carpet. He then heard her voice hitting the top of the scale of her yelling, “I told you a thousand times to stop kidding.”
“I wasn’t kidding,” he said as he tried to identify other flying objects. “I was just trying to help.”
“What help? Do you want to remind me that it’s like a spent match? I know that it is like a bloody spent match.”
A few moments passed in silence and then he heard muffled giggling. “Laughing again, Rana? Why?”
“I couldn’t help it.”
“What are you laughing at?”
“Every time I heard somebody say that losing virginity is like a match losing its burning power, I laughed. Actually, it’s just like a match.”
“And as expendable.”
“Except that it ruptures without a glow,” she said in a tearful voice.
“In the dark.”
“With nearly the same thrill one gets from lighting a match. Where is the enjoyment that we see in the movies?”
‘The enjoyment comes after marriage.”
“When’s marriage?”
“After the engagement.”
“When’s the engagement?”
“After the proposal.”
“When’s the proposal?”
“Do you want a proposal without love?”
“Love? Where’s love? There’s nothing – no love, no proposal, no engagement, no marriage and no hymen. Never in the history of womanhood virginity was sacrificed so cheaply. I dare you to say that you’re still waiting to love me.”
“What waiting?”
He heard a movement. Raising his head, he saw it in her hand, “Put it down! The vase is a gift from Louai.”
“If you don’t stop acting silly, you’ll get nothing at the end of your waiting but this vase.”
“Hit me on the head and the match would have been expended uselessly.”
“You forced yourself on me, that’s what I’ll say. And you won’t be able to deny it lying on the floor helpless like a belly-up-crocodile.”
“Would you go that far?”
“That far and more. You weren’t gentle with me.”
“I didn’t invent it. It always comes with a touch of seriousness.”
“A touch of seriousness? You acted like a guerrilla on a raid.”
“What do you mean? It was mostly exaggeration.”
“No, it was not. There was manoeuvring, infiltration and… You’ve done well in training.”
“Not training, experience.”
“What?”
He heard the familiar sound of movement behind the chair. “Put down the vase, I was just joking.”
“You’ve promised and you will be committed to wait for me,” she said, lifting the vase up. “Had you not committed yourself, I wouldn’t have come to your bed.”
“I’m totally committed. Six months means six month. After that we’ll talk.”
“Six months minus a fortnight.”
“Minus a fortnight.”
“What’s it that you want to say afterwards? That the match has been expended.”
“If you keep your commitment to the letter, I’ll say whatever you want me to say.”
“Whatever?”
“Whatever.”
She put down the vase. “You won’t cheat me or on me.”
“Never. I give you my word as a good Muslim.”

“But you’ve just said you’re and atheist.”

“No, no, no. I wasn’t referring to me but to him, him, you know.”
“Oh, him, my tormentor. So that means you are not going to tell me to finish my tea, pick up my little eraser and say to me, ‘Go back to your mum – don’t call us, we’ll call you?”

“Why would I say such a thing?”

“Why should I believe?”
“You have no choice.”
“But I do.” She picked up the vase again.
“This is not an option. Trust me on this.”
“Then six months minus a fortnight.”
“Six months minus a fortnight and two minutes.”
The months reminded her of something she had forgotten. She gasped. “Ali!” she cried in panic.
“What?” he uttered in anxiety.
“What if –?”
She cut herself short. She disappeared with a suckling baby anxiety and reappeared momentarily, having weaned the child, then quickly changed her mind and again disappeared and reappeared with the child having grown into a boy with a loud voice, “I become like Fatina?”
She gasped and re-examined her anxiety. She counted on her fingers and recounted before she dropped her hands. He saw her melt and disappear behind the seat.
“Ali!” she said from the bottom of the well of her fears. “This is the worst day of the month.”
“Oh, dear.” he said in regret and pity.
“Why didn’t I think of it before? Mum is going to find out and she’ll be within the walls of the monastery before the end of my cycle. Poor mum and poor dad too, and Rama. She’ll never find one to marry her once the word spreads. Poor Rama and her sister. What am I to do?”
From crying to wailing she moved in one jump. A worse scenario presented itself and took the place of crying and wailing. She remembered what Om Omar had said about new-born babies being left by their mums on the steps of mosques. Fright taking hold of her, she came out from behind the seat and threw herself on Ali. She took his hand, “If that were to happen, you would have to stand by me.”
“I certainly would.”
“Mum must know nothing. Between scandal and abortion she will settle for the scandal.”
“There will be neither abortion nor scandal. You will bring us a Rasha and return Rasha to her poor mum who hasn’t seen her baby daughter since you returned from Beirut.”
“Would you admit to fathering her?”
“Wouldn’t I?”
“Would you tell my mum that she’s your daughter?”
“Of course, I would.”
“I’d love to see you admitting that to her.”
“What would she do?”
“She’d throw you out of the balcony, with my help.”
“Why would she do that to a man who wants to marry her daughter and save her from scandal?”
“Would you tell her that you want to marry me?”
“If pregnancy does happen, I’ll consider the waiting over and marry you immediately.”
She fell silent. She had a brief dialogue with herself. He expected her to say something, but she took him by the hand and dragged him. “I want you to repeat that where I can see your face.”
She made him stand in the middle of the kitchen. She switched on the lights and asked him to repeat what he had said. As he did, she gazed in search of any sign of hesitation then asked him to repeat again.
“You’re indeed a brave man, just as Rama says,” she said, nodding in amazement.
“You’re the brave. If I were you, I wouldn’t have dared to go into the apartment of a man even if I had all the demons of the land inside me.”
“I did, but you’ll marry me nonetheless, won’t you?”
“The minute pregnancy is ascertained. No fear, regrets or hesitation.”
“But you don’t know everything about me.”
“Shut up, Rana!” he said with a long dismissive arm. “Listening to you talking about sins one would think your legs are like the Arc de Triumph – one army going in and another army coming out. Even the art of kissing you hardly know. Without the ample training you have had on the cheeks of poor Rama, this ‘hardly’ wouldn’t even apply.”
He didn’t understand what happened afterwards. He expected her to throw herself on him out of gratitude, but she instead roared off like a racing car, attained maximum speed in two seconds and hid behind the chair. “I’m not good enough even at sex?”
He stood outside the kitchen and spread his hands, “Now did I say that? I meant to say that all your sins are not worth a wet onion’s peel.”
“Are you absolutely sure of what you are saying?”
“Oh, brother! How serious can they be – your sins? It’s only in being deeply religious and hypersensitive that you think you have laid the world in ruins. What are these sins that you’ve plagued me with? If I were to show but the finger of one of my sins, I’d have to immerse you in water to get you to regain consciousness.”
“Why do you say that? Are you possessed by demons?”
“I have demons in me, if that’s what you mean. Of course, I do. We all have demons.”
She cowered and looked around searching for demons, “Even here?”
“Not in the flat, but here,” he said, pointing to his head.
“But you told me you had them behind a door in your apartment,” she said, thinking of a door next to the kitchen’s she hadn’t opened. “Which door is it?”
He again pointed to his head, “In my head here, behind a door in my head, here.”
“I haven’t felt the presence of demons in your head. While I was being crucified on your bed and you were doing those horrible things to me, maybe, but not before or since.”
“I’ve sent them on a long vacation.”
“Why haven’t you got rid of them?”
“There aren’t enough pigs in the world.”
“The poor pigs!”
“Don’t worry; I know how to keep them under control.”
“Just keep them away from me. I don’t want to see demons.”
“They too don’t want to see you. Angels and demons don’t mix.”
“You still consider me an angel?”
“You know my opinion.”
“Am I to despair of you having a bad idea about me?”
“We’ve finished with that.”
She uttered half a word then laughed. She uttered half of another word then laughed.
“Why are laughing now? You couldn’t control yourself, of course?”
“I’ve been thinking that if I were a demon, not an angel, how would you treat me in bed?”
Ali shook his head. “You wouldn’t want to know.”
“It is that bad, is it?”
“Absolutely.”
Rana was quiet for a while then she took a very deep breath as if she was going to jump into deep water. “I’m still a bit sore from your cave man gentleness so you have to be really gentle with me all the time, promise?”
“Of course I would. I’m always gentle.”
“Settled then. I have a confession to make. I’m really a demon. Grrrrrr!.”

The coup d’eta

Adel Bishtawi has written a short story to express solidarity with Arab girls coming under a crushing pressure from the #ISIL and other #Islamisthooligans to cover everything except their right ears. It is in Arabic, obviously, but here is a snippet in English for taste:

The coup d’etat (snippets I & II )
Sana stopped his creeping hand under her bra, “Cease now! I read somewhere that a Muslim girl who loses her hymen before marriage is destined on Doomsday to have her middle finger stuck firmly in her right ear day and night.”
Ahmed was disappointed, “It seems to me that justice is found neither on Earth nor in Heaven. Why should a girl trying to please her boyfriend suffer punishment by forcing her to stick her finger in her ear? ”
Sana pushed back and looked at him intently, “Where do you want her to stick her finger?”
“Somewhere more suitable.”
She pouted, “Suggest to her another place; where? for example.”
Ahmed laughed. Sana poked his side, “Why are you laughing? If I were you I would be crying over the fate of all girls here and in Heaven. When they tell you in religious books that “most of them will be in hell” they mean girls – me, Dina, Reem, Susan, your sister Madiha, the neighbor’s daughter and this poor girl whose middle finger is stuck in her ear as she marches to hell.”
Ahmed reached to comfort her, “In hell? No way. My Sana will most definitely go to Heaven.”
Sana shrugged her shoulders, “So what? Heaven can go to hell,” she said. “Genetically re-engineered for permanent Viagra state, you Muslim boys are promised in Heaven all the girls you can manage. This means that we Muslim girls are screwed on Earth and screwed in Heaven with no questions asked and no answers given. I say, screw Heaven.”
Ahmed gasped, “How can you say that? If you are not with me in Heaven -”
Sana stopped him, “Shshsh! Sweetest, listen to me carefully. If they ask you in Heaven what girl does your heart desire tonight tell them ‘Sana and nobody else’. Don’t try to be clever and say Nathalie Emanuel or Emily Blunt or Imogen Poots. If you do that you will piss me off.”
“Sana and nobody else.”
Sana was relieved but only momentarily, “But promise,” she added hastily, “Not just for Saturday nights or Wednesday afternoons but every afternoon and every night. Can you promise me that before you bare my bosom again? ”
Sana fell silent suddenly. Ahmed peaked at her face in the shadows and felt she was worried, but he didn’t know why. Slowly, her worries parted a window in his mind and walked in.
The silence turned heavy and troubling.
The bench vibrated lightly and his nerves vibrated with it. Fearing she was crying, he raised her chin to look at her eyes. No tears. Her lower lip was being tickled gently by her upper teeth, but naughtily as well.
She raised her head then looked downwards inviting him to see. “I read in a medical book the title of which I can’t remember that girls with long hair can have orgasms lasting more than an hour,” she whispered, “True or false?”
Ahmed giggled in relief. “I’m the wrong person to ask. At times I hear you whimpering like a kitten on a cold tin roof after a very wet kiss, but only for a second or two. We can test the theory, if you’re ready. Start by clearing your throat.”
Sana threw her hand at her mouth in panic and sealed it, “No way lusty José; nothing is coming in tonight. Last time I puked for a week. I’m still searching for my stomach in the toilet.”
Ahmed shifted himself right, turned to her, crossed his legs and rested his chin on his frustrated fist. “OK, why don’t you tell me what’s going on in your mind,” he hissed in frustration.
“What do you mean? I’m just joking.”
He shook his head. “A while ago I thought you were crying. Now you’re trying to be funny but you don’t look happy.”
Sana breathed in deeply. “Confession coming your way, take cover,” she said fluttering her hands in his direction to move away. “I know we said all that we said minutes ago to cheer ourselves up because you’re leaving in the morning. I’m really grateful because you trust me so you didn’t find it necessary to bring me a chastity belt tonight. But, this talk about earth and heaven is actually worrying a bit. We Muslim girls are indeed expected to be screwed here on Earth, and when we go up, really up, we are expected to be screwed again. What’s in it for us? What we do here we have to do again, the next time indefinitely. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t sound fair, does it to you?”
Ahmed shrugged, “Life is not fair, nor is Heaven.”
“Da! What does that mean? Suppose somebody creeps into your bedroom at night and wakes you up unceremoniously, would you be happy with that?”
“Of course not, I’ll smash his nose. How dare he wakes me up?”
Sana breathed in relief. “Thank you. Now suppose somebody creeps into your bedroom at night, wakes you up unceremoniously and then screws you, wouldn’t you be upset?”
Ahmed: “استكÙال بيانات.”
Sana jumped up and clapped. “Exactly! That’s what I’d say. You see, I’m the only girl in the world who understands your gibberish when confusion is upon you, so you should stick with me if only for free translation. But really, what I’m saying is the truth. Ask my mum if you don’t believe me, or yours. Millions and millions of poor Muslim girls all over the world are shaken out of their deep sleep every night with a 13-stone mass over their squeezed lungs intent come what may, but mostly come than may, on taking their deep temperature with an unsympathetic maxi size thermometer? Now, is this fair?”
Ahmed: “اØer³ØªÙƒtا٠بيانات.”
“Exactly,” Sana said approvingly. “That’s exactly how I’d react. I know it’s only until you have your way with me, but thanks all the same for listening to me.”
Ahmed felt things are getting too serious. “Take it easy. I’m not like that.”
“I know, I know, hun bun, but I still think the deal for us Muslim girls is not fair. After all, millions of Muslim women give the Almighty millions of Muslim babies every year to eventually be his servants. Every single day, and maybe every single hour, hundreds of millions of Muslim wives drive hundreds of millions of Muslim husbands to millions of mosques all over the world to pray to the Almighty in utter desperation. What more can He ask of us, Muslim girls and women?”
Ahmed: “Øtr§Ø³uتكاÙf erبياناØ.”
“Exactly. He can’t be fair to us on Earth so He has to be fair to us, Muslim girls and women naughty or not, in Heaven. We are only asking Him for a fair deal. If he gives us 10% of the deal He gives Christian girls half of us will be dancing naked in the bathrooms for weeks and the other half clapping. Sometimes I feel God hails Muslims but he really likes the Christians. It’s simply unacceptable.”
Like all Muslim men, Ahmed scratched his head hard and long to invite his mind to think.  The scratching worked. “So what do you consider a fair deal?”
Unlike all other Muslim girls and women, Sana found it important for once in her life to weigh her words. She pouted, changed her mind and flagged her head, squeezed her lip and did several other things. It worked. “A reset would be fine, I think.”
Ahmed opened his hands questioningly, “Reset was created by God specifically for Windows because he knew it will give all its users troubles; a reset for what?”
Sana pointed at herself, “On Earth I’m Sana and you are Ahmed. We can’t change that. However, up there, in Heaven, the situation should be reversed. You’ll be Sana and I’ll be Ahmed. What do you think?”
Ahmed: “استكÙet بيuانات “استكمال بي انات اسØer¨ÙŠØ?//f§Ù†Ø§Øª. اqØir³ØªÙƒÙ…ال بيانات??!!!.”
Having muttered his illegible words in perfect confusion, Ahmed became visibly uncomfortable. Fearing he may fly away in panic any second, she moved closer to him and held his arm firmly. “Darling, hun bun,” she said, grabbing the other arm even more firmly, “Not in your wildest nightmares would you believe what I’ll do to you. You may want to read Malleus Maleficarum for a small idea. Forget about walking. If you try you could be walking like a vastly parted math compass and you’ll look really silly. More plausibly you won’t have the legs to support you. And your nipples, Oh my God! Your nipples will glow like the bars of electric heaters. The sky, this huge sky, will be my face, for months on end you’ll see nothing else but my face. This mouth you kiss tenderly on Earth will be something totally else in Heaven. Like the mouths of Pakistan ovens of flat bread, streams of burning desire will toast your cheeks like French baguettes. You’ll get so used to me on top of you, in the five seconds a day when I’m not you may feel shortage of breath.”
Sana breathed so deeply Ahmed was about to start worrying for his personal safety, which he did when she breathed out in biblical-Islamic-size relief.
“Oh! Ahmed! Aaaahhhh, hun bun, Aaaaahhhh, I feel good, really, really, good and satisfied and really, really, really, really wet. As I have long hair, this must be the more than hour-long orgasm I read about proven by me, Sana the Muslim girl, with not a touch by a petrified-looking Muslim boy shaking violently next to me.”

Caption: Now that Sana and Ahmed have swapped sex in Heaven, Sana now is in the middle while Ahmed is to her right pleading for mercy. To the left is Nathalie Emanuel unsure how to react to the swap.

Caption: Originally it was “Ahmed in heaven with NathalieEmanuel and EmilyBlunt“. However, later Sana and Ahmed have swapped sex in Heaven, Sana now is in the middle while Ahmed is to her right pleading for mercy. To the left is Nathalie Emanuel unsure how to react to the swap.

A Travel document to Hell

The glass door to the left of the transit lounge was flung open and a young immigration officer holding a collection of green, blue, and black passports marched towards them in long, military strides.

There were more than 60 transit passengers waiting behind the metal barrier but Ali was alone in his inability to describe why his heart had sunk and his lips dried the moment he saw the officer. It could be because again he saw the now familiar suspended look of suspicion that moved with his eyes like fixed glasses wherever he looked, it could be because he felt that his travel document was among the passports he held and it could be because a combination of psychological and physical exhaustion was driving him fast to total despair.

But despair was a luxury he couldn’t afford. His children and wife were waiting for him at Beirut airport and must get to them so he can’t even think of despair. He must pull himself together, muster whatever strength was left in his body and mind, spring forward like all the waiting transit passengers and hold his breath lest he misses his name being called out.

Spring forward he couldn’t. The moment he stood up he felt weak again and dispirited again. At 59, he was the oldest would be passenger in the transit hall. Naturally and almost mechanically, all the others surged past him. By the time his feet began to respond to the feeble orders of his mind, it was too late. Again he found himself the last in the crowd, again he felt weak and dispirited and again fear woke up suddenly inside him like a child in a thundering storm and demanded to be recognised.

Recognised it was, yet it wouldn’t go away. It demanded another recognition – that of the source of his fear but Ali couldn’t identify the exact source. He could only suggest. He had spent four full nights in the transit lounge with only a few, uninterrupted shreds of sleep next to a cold metal barrier. The sudden roaring shook his being violently every time a plane took off and the movement of feel all around him was constant but it was the smell really that kept him awake. Broad Asian feet of broad-shouldered Asian passengers inside broad shirwals were simply lifted lazily and placed on the metal benches around him. The loosely strapped sandals were disengaged effortlessly and dropped anywhere. The odour was released instantly. It travelled fast to Ali and dug little invisible trails inside his nostrils. Still that wasn’t enough. Nothing he saw, heard or smelled can explain the source of his fear neither singularly nor in sum.

His weakening attempts at reasoning faltered quickly and gave way to another bout of anxiety. He could have been a typical traveller going about his business like all the others, but he was not. Between him and the unassuming appearance of a normal passenger unsuspected by every official eye is a travel document disfigured by the active acid of hundreds of fingers that had thoroughly inspected every word and every page in the hope of finding something nobody else has been able to find yet. Between him and any attempt to regain his wits successive beating waves of fear, anger, persecution and humiliation that incessantly hammered his brain in search of a resting place without finding one. Between him and the reassuring sense of relative certainty enjoyed by most other people there was an overwhelming uncertainty that stretched like a barbed wire from the furthest point of his past to the furthest point of his future. In another circumstance, time and place, he may have been able to dig deep inside himself and come out with strength but not in this place, not in his position, not now.

Suddenly he felt his chest tighten and his heartbeats became audible and irregular. Feeble, half-hearted attempts were made again and again to induce some stillness into his shaking limbs but his body refused to respond to his pleas. Swallowing became difficult as a curious lump nourished by fear blocked his throat and caused his bloodshot eyes to protrude alarmingly. Ali let his head sink as if to reduce the increasing weight of his fears and gazed, closed-eyed at the darkness of the night behind the large windows and thought of brooks , green fields and open spaces that extend to the very edge of the horizon.

“Why do I feel like this,” he muttered to himself. “Maybe I shouldn’t care too much. Maybe I should ignore everybody including myself. “It is worth it?” he asked himself not expecting an answer. “Is it really worth it?”

Compared to the past, the future was but a stride or two, and for the past 11 months it has become shorter still. If he were to suffer a heart attack and fall dead instantly he was certain not a single whimper would escape his lips. Life has to be taken with both sweet and sour, but not with humiliation and most of all not with injustice. Life’s natural punishment has also to be accepted if one is to accept life itself, but not that caused by other people; less accepted still was the punishment inflicted for mistakes not his own.

A sudden awareness brought a sudden feeling of great injustice. His outward anger at the cruelty of fortune gushed ebulliently and filled his soul before collapsing inwards with a deafening sound. A tear broke loose forcefully, a second was caught by an abrupt clasp of his eyelids just in time. This was not the time for self-pity, but of hope – hope that soared for a while and came down crashing at the sight of the fast approaching officer. Ali saw him take his last step and watched intently as his left arm swung high above his shoulder, hit the dense air of the airport, and came to a sudden halt.

More passengers surged forwards leaving Ali conspicuously exposed in the middle of the waiting area like a tall building in a city’s landscape but he did not mind. His 59 years of battle with the crowds has produced nothing but defeats. No matter how much he pushed and shoved, he always ended last. Nine years ago he found himself miraculously fifth in the slow-shuffling queue to a Kuwaiti immigration officer. He looked almost respectable with his new Jacket, new travel document and new work permit. All his papers were in order, but these, along with the confident smile drawn on his face, failed to put the officer at ease. The moment his eyes lay on the Lebanese travel document he became restless. He asked about every detail possible and Ali came out with one convincing answer after another, but still the officer was not convinced. Twenty minutes later a more senior officer was called and another interview began. Ali afterwards felt so embarrassed by the inconvenience he caused the other passengers waiting behind him he decided never again to be anywhere in a queue but last.

The faintest shadow of a weary smile momentarily altered Ali’s age-old features. He could have recalled a dozen or more such lamentable experiences, but he felt tired and his memory began to abandon him to more relaxed moments. Despite all the problems of the past he could hardly view the old days with anything but fondness. Since then things have come a long way in their continuous deterioration. First, the civil war erupted in Lebanon and engulfed the refugee camps from Tripoli to Tyre. Later the Israeli invaded the country and made things worse. Massacres were followed by terror, economic chaos by unemployment and unemployment by poverty and poverty by the daunting threat of civil war. Besieged, like the camp that was his fourth temporary residence since he was exiled from his town in Palestine, there was no other way out but out – out of Lebanon and out of intolerable life into Kuwait. It was unbearably hot anywhere he drove his truck. Unbearable, humid and alienating, but there was money for the family, food and new shoes.

Ali felt a sudden twitch in his stomach and knew it was hunger. There was food and coffee at the snack bar of the transit lounge, but he did not feel like eating. He was anxious, and food and anxiety do not mix well. When he is allowed to take his connection to Beirut he will eat, but not before. For the moment he will have to wait like all the others, right at the end of the queue, as always.

The already squeezed passengers found enough room somewhere and squeezed themselves a bit more, then another but the last push was too much and the barrier jerked forward. The immigration officer took a very deep breath as if to fill himself with anger and spewed out with force. Like little feathers, the passengers blew themselves back pulling the barrier along, smiled collectively and waited.

The officer waited a few more seconds as the crowed hushed the non-attentive to silence then scanned all the faces all in one go. He knew quite well it was a highly theatrical movement, but he never doubted its effectiveness in flushing out all potential suspects. Except for the most hardened of them, a sudden stare will weaken their resolve and hasten their exposure. Other officers do make mistakes, but he does not, and he was determined to keep his record clean. With training and experience he had developed what can be described a seventh sense- suspicion. Even without actually laying his eyes on a suspected passenger, an alarm is automatically triggered somewhere in the back of his mind, and it would not take long before a positive identification is made. He could smell danger in any of the thousands of passengers that arrive or depart every day, and nobody will fool him.

When he began his shift there were three women and 12 men waiting for transit visas including the old man with the Lebanese travel document. Just before dawn they were joined by 50 more mostly from the Philippines, India and Pakistan. All will be granted visas but the young man will be punished for his arrogance and ordered to leave the airport on the next flight to Paris. The old man will have to wait.

He prepared to read out the names, hand over the passports and allow them in before he goes home, but the worried look on the face of the old man behind the horde triggered an alarm. He stood on the tip of his toes, studied the face intently and, recognising the old man, he allowed his suspicion to subside.

 Relief followed as the first name was read aloud. A Japanese businessman collected his passport, bowed and rushed out. A Filipino was next, followed by his girlfriend or wife who took a few hurried steps, looked back at the officer as if fearing he may change his mind and was sent away giggling faintly.

Anxious passengers advanced and occupied the vacant places and Ali, fooled by the great buffoon of humanity, nudged hope forward, took three or four steps and stood still again. From his position he could see all those bodies squeezed against an imaginary line just short of the barrier. Some were skinny and tall, others fat and short. Some had attractive bulges in attractive parts of attractive feminine bodies and others were full of unattractive bulges in unattractive parts not commonly found in normal human bodies. Ali hardly spoke a word or two with any of them, but he felt a strange affinity towards them. Like him, but for different reasons, they were all suffering in circumstances they had no hand in creating.

So too were the officers, in a way. One or two immigration officers expressed sympathy for him, others were totally indifferent, and some were rude and aggressive. But they were all victims of circumstances. Barriers, just like the one separating him from his children and wife waiting in Beirut, were gradually built and accepted first on security grounds and later on any grounds or whims. More will be built and obeyed in time while everybody seems to be oblivious to the countless problems they create for other people, like him.

Ali fixed his eyes on the officer. He too has his problems, he thought to himself. His office is full of small cabinets that were full of names. Some arranged alphabetically according to the surnames, and others according to given names. Some were common and others as strange as life itself. Some were short and easy to remember and others were long, cumbersome and misspelled. He has to search in all the files. He starts by looking up surnames before moving on to first names and later to similar names whether in writing or pronunciation and all this takes time and patience and all for limitless responsibilities with limited salary. If he were to allow in an undesirable he would never escape the blame. They may deduct part of his salary, put him in prison, or transfer him to some lifeless post on the edge of the empty quarter.

The officer struggled with another Filipino name and stopped to catch his breath. As he lowered his arm, Ali tried to identify his document amongst the reduced stack held firmly by the officer, but he could not. His face began to drain of colour. He listened impatiently for the last few names to be read out before his darkest thoughts were set loose screaming in despair.

He looked around in despair. The transit passengers who but half an hour ago filled the lounge with noise and impatience had all vanished except for him and another man in his early thirties. Ali had the chance to study every single passenger, but this young man eluded him. He was among those who arrived on the dawn plane, but while the others seemed anxious to gather all the information available on their chance to obtain a transit visa, he alone ignored everything and lay on the joint chairs ambivalent to the world around him.

The officer assumed his usual off-putting manner as he pushed a small size passport towards the reluctant hand of the young man. “Here Nazmi pasha!” he said sarcastically, “no visa. I have arranged for you to leave on the next plane to Paris so take it and go back to where you came from.”

” Why?” the young man said passively without taking the passport.

The officer’s short temper snapped. “Don’t answer back,” he shouted waving the passport in the air. “Just take it and go away.”

Ali listened in disbelief. He wiped his perspiring palm against his trousers stealthily, and prayed for the young man to subdue himself before he lands in trouble.

But the young man was undisturbed by the officer’s unwarranted anger. “Why should I leave on any plane? I want to visit Dubai.”

Both the officer and Nazmi were determined to have their way and Ali became worried. At first he decided to keep out of it for his own sake but the young man was a stranger to this part of the world and he didn’t know how things work. He was worried about himself but he was worried now about the young man. “Young man,” he pleaded, “just take your passport, please. There is no point in arguing with an officer. You will upset yourself and upset him too and before you know it you may find yourself in big trouble.”

” No,” the young man said angrily as he turned halfway between Ali and the officer. “He will find himself in big trouble. I am an American citizen, I know my rights and I was told in London I can get a transit visa for 72 hours at the airport and a transit visa I should get. It’s my right, I checked.”

The officer flew into a rage. “I decide who has rights and who hasn’t,” he thundered. “You can boil your passport and drink its juice but you won’t be granted entry even if you were the son of God himself. What’s more,” he added while waving his finger threateningly, “your arrogance will not be tolerated anymore. One more word and you’ll find yourself in the detention centre.”

Nazmi snapped. He stretched both arms towards the officer, clasped his hands and yelled: “Arrest me, then.”

 The officer looked at him with disdain. “You think your embassy will save you but you’re wrong. You have an American passport but a third class citizen you are and third class you will remain whatever you do. For them,” he said dotting the area in front of his face with his finger, “you are a man who came from piss-drenched Gaza so don’t provoke me again – ever,” and he threw the passport at him.

Nazmi looked at Ali incredulously and shook his head. “I can’t believe what I am hearing,” he said, “I just can’t believe it.” He knelt down, picked up the passport and opened it. “Look,” he told the officer, “This is my photograph; this is my name and this is my passport given to me by the American government because I am legally entitled to it so what has piss and Gaza to do with this?”

“Why would the American government give Palestinian refugees a passport unless to spy for them or something even worse?”

Nazmi shook his head with disbelief. “Because I have an American green card, an American wife, two American kids, American driving license and many American friends,” he said while taking out his wallet and parading his cards.

The officer wasn’t interested. “There are many good Palestinians but you are not one of them. I know your type. Whether they have a Lebanese travel document like this old man here, or an American passport like you or a passport given by the devil’s cousin is totally irrelevant. I decide who to let in and who to send away, and you are going to go back to where you came from whether you like or not, understand?”

The officer waited for Nazmi’s compliance. None was forthcoming. “Do you understand?”

Nazmi became even more defiant than before. “No!,” he screamed. “No, I don’t understand. I would like to speak to your superior.”

The officer raised his index finger and shook it twice. “Only God is my superior. The rest are employees like me, understand?”

Nazmi shook his head but the officer didn’t wait for him to stop. ” Well, then you can choose the hardest wall in the airport and drive your stupid head against it. Take the plane to Paris, otherwise -” he continued raising his voice to drown Nazmi’s complaints, “otherwise I’ll drive your head for you.”

Nazmi was stunned. He turned to Ali in bewilderment and made a last attempt. “I have my rights as an American citizen,” he said.

“You have shit,” the officer said firmly. “Nothing but shit, and if you don’t shut up that’s what you’ll be eating for the next 20 years while you rot in prison!”

Nazmi struggled to find the appropriate words but he couldn’t wait any longer. “How could you put an innocent man in prison? You have a nice airport and a modern city,” he said gesturing aimlessly with his flying hands, “but it’s a dictatorship, isn’t it?”

“People with two thirds of their pants full of shit have no right to complain of bad smells.”

Nazmi didn’t understand. “Meaning?” He said bringing his face closer.

“Meaning we at least have a country we kept to ourselves, not a country we sold to the Jews.”

Nazmi choked with his next words and the officer felt gratified. He gave Nazmi a last contemptuous look, turned round abruptly and walked away.

“Sir!” Ali shouted after him. “Kind sir, please!”

Keeping his body directed towards his office, he stopped, made a half turn and looked at Ali with impatience. “And what do you want too? You want to tell me you are Englisi?”

“God forbid,” the old man said smiling faintly. “The English are the cause of our woes. No, sir, I’m Palestinian, the son of a Palestinian and the father of nine Palestinian children.”

“You sound very proud, Ali” the officer said sarcastically. “Are you proud of being a Palestinian?”

Ali’s first thought was to answer in the affirmative, but he felt almost relieved at the officer remembering his name and he decided to ignore the provocation. “I was just wondering what had become of my application for a re-entry visa to Lebanon, sir,” he said humbly.

The officer shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing,” he said indifferently. The Middle East won’t allow you to board unless you have a re-entry visa, which you haven’t. The consulate here say they can’t issue you with a re-entry visa unless they have clearance from Beirut and Beirut is saying you should have obtained a re-entry from Kuwait before you boarded your plane and I have a headache and a million things to do and I have done what I could.”

“I know, sir, I know,” Ali said, “but please help me.”

The officer threw his right hand to the air. “I have, but you should help yourself as well. Why didn’t you get a re-entry visa to Lebanon from Kuwait?”

“I checked,” Ali said, “but they told me it is not needed. By the time I arrived here and waited for a connection to Beirut they reversed the law without any warning. it is not my fault.”

“Well, why didn’t you fly direct to Beirut?”

Ali thought of something else but the truth came out by itself: “Because it is cheaper to fly to Dubai and onwards to Beirut, that’s why.”

The officer threw both hands in the air. “There you go. Greed, so suffer for it and blame me.”

Ali wanted to explain but the officer didn’t wait, and the words died on the old man’s heart before they died on his lips. Lost in despair, he looked around for help he knew it wasn’t there, dragged his body to the bench next to Nazmi and let it drop.

“The son of a bitch,” Nazmi said the moment the officer disappeared in his office, “This man is a bastard. Could he claim I am a terrorist and send me to one of those manholes they have in the basements of the intelligence services simply for answering back? He could.”

 Ali closed his eyes and shook his head very, very slowly. “I could have told you all this,” he said while still in his despondent slump. “You think there is law and governance in the Arab world? There isn’t. A corporal from bedouland can stop anybody in the street and take him to prison for a week, two, three or even a year and nobody will ask him why. Unless you know a Sheikh or a prince you will rot.”

Nazmi looked worried but he opened his passport, thought deeply for a while and muttered more to himself than to Ali, “They wouldn’t dare; I’m an American citizen.”

Ali fought back but couldn’t continue holding up his anger. “There is nothing bigger than a camel in this country and his blood is all over the slaughterhouse each day,” he said passing the edge of his hand to and fro. “Your ambassadors, like all others, queue for the Sheikh’s favours and dream of an audience.”

Nazmi thought of ignoring the old man but he couldn’t. “How do you know that? Did he confess to you? There are countless things you can criticise America for but not for the reasons I have been hearing for two weeks. You all hate America for the old known reasons but you don’t know America. The fact that many Arab ambassadors can be bribed with a couple of figs doesn’t mean all ambassadors are corrupt. I am an Arab, like you, but I am also an American and I can’t accept free talk like this so let’s think a little before we speak.”

Ali felt embarrassed. Nobody was ever criticised for criticising America so people say anything they like and he wasn’t any different. It was a mistake to make such a claim but that was not really what he wanted to say so he will say it now: “You can be as proud of being an American citizen as you like but having an American passport doesn’t change the fact that you’ll be always considered in these airports as a Palestinian and you will always be treated as one.”

Nazmi threw his uneven hands open and clasped. “This is it,” he said with a wry smile. “I’ve asked myself the question a hundred times but your words give me the answer. He hates me not for being a Palestinian but for being a Palestinian who managed to escape the persecution and humiliation at Arab airports and border crossings because I have an American passport; they can’t get to me anymore, can they?. They regard us as perpetual sailors without ports of call but this sailor has found a port and they hate him for it.”

“They hate me, too”, Ali said. “I’m also a sailor.”

Nazmi waved his finger. “That officer does not hate you. You are at his mercy; you are vulnerable; you are helpless, and heartless people don’t hate the vulnerable and the helpless-they despise them.”

Ali felt like agreeing with him but he remembered countless people who never set eye on him yet they helped him nevertheless. The young man was not totally wrong but he was not totally right either. “You said what you wanted to say and I hope that made you feel better but think of me, “Ali almost pleaded, “If the officer can’t get you because you are an American citizen he will get me. It’s all bluster. He can’t really harm you but harm me he can. It is nice to come here to see  old friends but such a visit is not crucial; mine is. Now that you made him angry, he would be reluctant to help me even if he had wanted to previously.”

Nazmi couldn’t argue, and a mixture of guilt and sorrow surged inside his mind and crept all over his face. He lost many little battles in his life but he never avoided one. This time it will be different. His argument with the officer may, or may not, have exacerbated the old man’s predicament but if he removes himself most of the tension will be removed and the old man may be lucky. If he isn’t, at least he can’t turn to him again and accuse him of wrecking his chance of reuniting with his family.

He dropped his head and mapped his return journey to Arizona. When he finally threw his head up, he looked almost soulless. He stood up suddenly and followed with his eyes a young girl who had just completed the usual rituals of departure and was walking lazily through the departure lounge on the other side of the terminal. He turned to the seated old man and gazed at him for a long time and thought of endless words none of which became vocal.

“Off to my waiting boat,” Nazmi said after picking up his briefcase. “This port is not for me,” and walking away, he held his left hand as high as he could and waved.

Ali raised his hand as high as he could and waved at the young man. He kept thinking about seas and sailors until the young man disappeared in the crowds, then, like a tidal wave, he felt his chest heave and he was swept with emotions. he looked sideways, made as if he was trying to screw his eyes, and gently wiped two silent tears. He thought of exiles: imposed and voluntary, and failed again to suppress two more burning tears that rolled down his dry, wrinkled cheeks and fell unchecked on his jacket.

How much injustice there can be?  He whispered to himself. Something, somewhere was crushingly unfair. He knew of several young men who chose the easy way out of their misery and melted away as immigrants in countries as distant from home as life from death, and as alien. He never questioned their motives, of which he knew more than enough, but the loss was nevertheless great and the sorrow killed many. Old age, the greatest killer of all, heart attacks, cancer and the other usual suspects were blamed for the death of so many after their children left for good but never broken hearts. Except for violent deaths, nobody leaves this world unless they have had enough. When the time comes, something reaches out for a little button on the side of a soft wall and turns the light off. Again the usual suspects are blamed but never broken hearts; never dreams. And could it be that his miserable life is the usual price for the continuation of a dream to return to his home in Nazareth one day. It may sound far-fetched but how many millions of people died so the dream could remain alive, or a pale shadow of the dream. No more was it possible to dream of returning to Nazareth when a return to the miserable Burj Al Barjneh refugee camp in Beirut has become almost another dream. Is this the reason why so many obstacles are placed in the wretched path of Palestinians to make them even more wretched and force them to head for the four corners of the earth and as far away from Palestine as possible? Is it to create as many sub-dreams as possible in order for the big dream to seem impossible to realise? If this is the case how many governments are involved in this scheme? How many people? Are they all aware of the scheme or only some, or very few?

In countless ways Nazmi may be as good a Palestinian as he is or even better but Nazmi doesn’t have his endurance and his patience to wait for as long as it takes. Nazmi must have had the same dream but does he anymore? Maybe he has realised that for Palestine to be the promised land of millions of Jews it must be unpromised for Palestinians. Like so many young Palestinians Nazmi chose the easier option but he can do for his children a great deal more than he’ll ever be able to do. Nazmi can argue his case forcefully, stand up to injustice and treat arrogance in an equally arrogant manner without fear. He, on the other hand, has to grovel for the very basic of all basics. He is feeding his children but he can neither offer them the comfort of the present nor the certainty of the future. He could put a brave face on the whole situation and sing for Palestine until his voice is lost but the fact remains that his chances of a better life for him and for his children are contracting as fast as the remaining years of his life.

Ali forced a cigarette that was given to him by a Yemeni passenger between his parched lips and kicked a flimsy barrier somewhere in his mind and thought of death. How strange, he thought, how strange that for him thinking of life is a painful experience but not of death. How strange, he thought, that people think Palestinians must put 150% into everything they do to be equal to other nationalities but they have to accept 50% of the rights, or less.

“Do you know why I find Palestinians remarkable,” one Kuwaiti told him. Nazmi thought of many reasons but he knew somehow the Kuwaiti wouldn’t cite any of them. “Despite the killing, the savagery, the poverty, the humiliation and countless other ills that crushed mightier peoples than them you will not find one Palestinian whore in the whole of the Gulf. I will tell you another thing, “the Kuwaiti continued, “you may like a Palestinian and you may hate him but you can’t ignore him. If I can suggest parallels with animals, they would be the mules because I deal with many nationalities and I haven’t found more enduring human beings than them. I can’t say I like Palestinians but I would think twice before I insult one of them. Even when their heads are in the dirt, they will raise their two fingers at you and tell you to get fucked.”

Nazmi will certainly do that and Amjad, his eldest son, but not him. Between hunger and humiliation Amjad would choose hunger but he can’t make the same decision. His children have to be fed. If the only way to feed them goes through humiliation so be it. He will watch them eat and feel the proudest man on earth.

Ali felt tired. The faces of his children rushed to his mind in wave after wave and he pushed them away gently again and again. He loved them, and he was desperate to see them all but in his state, not when he looked weak and broken. Amjad will never respect again. The younger ones may not say so, but they too may not have the same respect for him again. They want food and clothes but they want their father to be strong-a true mule, and they want to remember him so until the end of their time.

His arm suddenly slipped from under his right jaw and his forehead hit the back of the metal bench hard. He pressed his eyes hard to suppress the pain but he opened them there was only darkness. “Abla!” he feebly called for his wife, “Abla!”

2.

Ali opened his eyes and remembered. His reached for his forehead but he felt no pain. His vision was as strong as he remembers it and the dizziness has disappeared.

“Glory be to God,” he murmured, and raised his head to Heavens with his gratitude.

Suddenly his body shook. Six or seven feet away a girl, eight or nine years old, stood with her hands down and repeated: “”Glory be to God.” She then raised her little hands to mouth and giggled.

Ali looked around. It was the same transit lounge that was his home for four days but aside from several women who sat around two tables next to the cafeteria, no other adults were to be seen. The children, though, were many, too many to be solely the children of the women in the lounge.

There was something about the little girl that sent a chill down his spine but he had no fear.

“And who’s the little girl, then?”

The girl giggled again. “I don’t know.”

“Are you the daughter of one of those women,” and he pointed at them.

She looked at the women for a long while and giggled again. “I don’t know.”

Ali was bemused. “Little girl,” he said, “you must belong to somebody or know somebody otherwise you won’t be in a place like this.”

The girl didn’t answer. “Do you know me?” he asked. She didn’t answer. “Do I know you?”

The girl covered her mouth and giggled. “Do you?”

Ali wanted to tell her he didn’t but he stopped himself. Of course he knows her. How could he forget? Death comes in all forms but people know who he is. They were introduced a long time ago – since birth. It just a few minutes of re-introduction.

“You came for me, didn’t you?” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “but only after you called me.”

He couldn’t remember. “Did I?”

She nodded, then shook her head as well. “Yes. You said you want to get out of here. You had enough of everything, and before they take it, you want to get rid of it first. I can help you but only if you want to. Do you wan to come with me?”

Scenes were unfolded and images rolled with speed. He saw a broken man on a metal bench and he recognised himself. A man overwhelmed by surging worries that engulfed his whole being. A man, tired and lost, standing yet again at the gates of yet another exile and waiting yet again to drag himself to a dark corner to nurse his bleeding soul.

Through his blurring vision, Ali reviewed the rushing faces of hundreds of passengers totally oblivious to his existence and some of their own. But such are airports: a field of joy and sorrow, arriving and departing, joining and separating. A microcosm of the world itself: full at times with the exquisite splendour of life, and at others cold, dead and empty. If he were to think of a strange place he would not find stranger than an airport. People weep in cemeteries or the secluded confines of their bedrooms or the darkness of their cells or on each other’s shoulders for the loss of loved ones, persecution or loneliness. They may laugh in theatres and cafes, but the only place where they laugh and weep is in an airport. Sad faces depart in sadness, and happy ones beam with joy as they are pressed between longing arms that promise not to let them leave again. But they will. Like transit passengers, one day each and everyone will queue for a seat on the next plane. And like him, when he finally leaves the cleaners will rush to empty the large ashtray, mop the floor and spray the usual air freshener. The transit lounge will be ready to receive the next lot of passengers, and nobody will remember he was ever there.

“Yes,” he said to the little girl, “let’s go.”

She stretched her arm towards him. She pushed out her chest to reach for his arm before he could touch hers and waited.

Ali’s opened hand clinched slowly. He raised his fist to the little girl and waved his finger. “I can’t,” he said, “Not because I haven’t had enough of this painful life, not because I don’t want to go with you, not because I fear death but because I don’t want them to win, ever. I don’t want injustice to win, ever. If it can’t be fought it mustn’t be rewarded. Do you understand this”

The little girl dropped her arm but she didn’t answer.

“I can’t reward them for inflicting on me so much pain by removing myself out of their way. This is what they want, is it not? Anywhere but in. If not out to anywhere in the world, then out of the world. No Palestinians, no Palestine. Do you understand this ?”

The girl nodded. She put her hand on her mouth, giggled softly and ran towards the mothers.

Ali looked around him. It was again the transit lounge he knew well by now. He stood up. He’ll go to the snack bar and eat something nice. He’ll drink a nice cup of tea with lots of sugar, he’ll have a long walk and when he’s tired he’ll come back and sleep for a long time. Sooner or later they’ll relent and allow him to see his children and wife again. He’ll do that. If he sees Nazmi he’ll ask him to see his passport but not to admire it. Like the officer, he’ll throw it back at him. He’ll tell him that although he speaks Arabic, talk of Palestine, eat olive oil and zaater – he is a Palestinian no more. If Nazmi should complain and ask why, he’ll tell him because he permitted himself to lose the most important Palestinian characteristic – endurance.

 

6,600 words
Translated by Menamedia

Another chance

His sandaled feet dipped uncomfortably in the warm sand as he stood motionless outside his flat staring at the shadowy lights coming through the two big open windows. He felt the heat creep up his legs to his chest which gradually became tighter and tighter threatening to cave in like an empty egg shell the moment he takes another step.

Omar would have preferred to remain with Salem on the left bank of the creek gazing silently at the swaying kerosene lamps of the old dhows as they sailed up the waterway in their long journey to another world densely impregnated with untold mysteries, expectations, and deep inexplicable and indescribable sorrows. One lamp swung forcefully by a sudden wave and shone its flickering light on their faces before extinguishing itself in the darkness behind.

A stronger light from a bigger dhow forced him to close his eyes and it was then that he suddenly realised how peaceful the night was. The stillness was so complete and overwhelming, words would have sounded too alien in the surroundings and the serenity too perfect to be disturbed by human worries. But then the dhows disappeared and he suddenly felt frail and lonely. He tried to force out of his mind his gnawing fears but, like waves wanting to have their brief rest on the sands, they kept surging mercilessly to be admitted. They finally triumphed. They were too serious to be ignored any more; too real to think they could not be happening to him, and too menacing to pretend they do not exist.

There was something wrong, something gravely wrong, and he needed to speak. He picked up a small twig in his right hand, mauled it for a while then broke it angrily and threw it in the water. “Jane is leaving me in the morning,” he said.

Salem was stunned, stunned and speechless. He followed the last of the sailing dhows until it was dissolved in the distant darkness. “I felt something was wrong the moment I saw you but I didn’t ask because somehow I didn’t want to know,” he finally said. “One way or another, one day or another, for one reason or another, they’ll all leave, all of them.”

“Was it painful?” Omar asked hoping the answer would be different from the one he expected to hear.

“No, it wasn’t,” Salem said with a violent facial jerk. “It was hell; it still is, and hell it will remain…for a long time so be warned and be prepared.”

Omar gulped, and Salem remembered things he thought he had forgotten and let out a long tortured sigh. “Aside from the loss of a child, I know of nothing more painful. Even nightmares became preferable to reality. If there’s anything you can do to avoid it, anything at all, and at whatever price, then do it. Such wounds never heal, and blood will gush at the slightest memory, forcefully and unexpectedly. And when you finally think it must be over, you would put your hand over your heart and withdraw it red with the blood of your raw scars.”

Omar had thought it could be that bad and Salem confirmed his fears. “If you sought to terrify I am terrified already but I’m not telling you to be terrified. I want advice. A very good one, and fast.”

Salem nodded. “That was my advice to you,” he said. “I want you to be terrified. I want you to be aware of what will be hitting you so you’d leave immediately and do, say and promise anything to make her change her mind. Had she been in any way like Lynda, I’d be very honest with you and tell you to let her go. Please be generous and forgiving but let her go. Jane, however is not Lynda. Lynda was cheap. You know I had my suspicions all along, then she came up with the pregnancy thing, and I somehow thought she could change. Nobody does. Still, good women are rare, and Jane is one of the rarest I’ve met in my life. She’s worth every effort. If you don’t want to do it for either of you, do it for Mara. And don’t think too much of your pride while trying to mend the fences. You can’t preserve your pride and your marriage at the same time.”

Salem should know, Omar thought to himself. He had a wife once, a beautiful daughter and years of happiness to live and look forward to. Then something happened and seven years were erased from his life with one stroke and left him with a heap of painful memories and lasting scars. He knew Lynda but he later discovered he didn’t know her enough. Many women are like this. If they want something they’ll crucify you with their favours, and many men give in and spread their arms to be willingly strung up. She made Salem a happy man but only as long as he did what she wanted him to do. The moment he said ‘no’ he became an enemy.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Salem told him as they left the solicitor’s office in Edgware Road. “I never thought a human being can have so much hate. Walking to the solicitor’s office in the opposite direction I saw a bloom of hatred hovering above her head, dark and threatening. The closer she became the larger the bloom until it took the size of a cloud. I’ve never been more terrified in my life.”

Omar stared at the stillness of the creek and recalled a more terrifying scene. It was so terrifying Salem never mentioned it again. Lynda wanted a large sum of money from Salem but he hadn’t seen his daughter for over a year and he refused to give her the money unless she brought Reem with her. Tears flooded his eyes the moment he saw his daughter. As she approached he opened his arms and shook with emotion then came the shock. Her shoulders had barely touched the tips of his fingers when she stood on her toes suddenly, collected spit in her mouth and spat in his face. Screaming with abuse, she ran and hid behind her mum.

Omar sucked the cold air through his shaking teeth and asked his God for help. Will that happen to him also, he wondered. Will Jane poison Mara’s mind and turn him into another mythical monster? Will she spit in his face in front of tens of passers-by in one of London’s main streets? Will Jane, like Lynda, accuse him of being a bastard, or that he never flushes the toilet after using it, or never remembered her birthday or that of his daughter? Will she?―

Omar stopped himself. He can’t say it; he won’t say it. Even when Salem threatened to end their friendship of 28 years if he didn’t tell him what he really saw, he refused. Had he told him, Salem would have left Lynda regardless of the consequences. He would have dressed up his daughter himself, joined her hand with her mum’s and sent them away without a tear. That same evening, he would leave for the desert. As long as he remains there he’ll force himself to forget but then he’ll come back to the city, and he’ll remember. Even if he never utters a word of it, Omar will be blamed if only to avoid blaming himself. Later still he will avoid seeing him. Jane will always remind him of Lynda and Mara of Reem. Every time he sees them his wounds would open and gush forth again and that will too much to bear.

Omar felt an urge to leave. The night at the best of times is not suitable for reasoning and that particular night was exceptionally quiet. The usual distractions of noise and movements were few and their worries and anxieties were intensified. Salem gave him his best advice and deepest sympathy and understanding and it was time to give him something in return. “Stay around people as much as possible and listen to the stories they want to tell. Your problems, grave as they are, may pale in comparison,” Omar said gloomily. “Also, my friend, suffering is meant to be a temporary experience. Don’t make it a lasting one with equally lasting harm. Mistakes were made by both of you. I don’t believe Lynda is suffering still and you shouldn’t. Forget, forgive and forget and let the wheel of life turn as usual.”

Salem listened in silence. As he absorbed Omar’s words he felt relief but something in his tone made him very worried. “You sound to me as if you are expecting the worse?”

“I am,” Omar said, “Shouldn’t I?”

Salem corrected: “I meant to say you seem resigned?”

Omar searched for proof but he couldn’t find any. “I’ll do whatever I can,” he said, “but if it’s going to happen, it will, won’t it?”

Omar threw his head back and made a loud dental sound. “You are resigned to whatever fate will bring to you but you shouldn’t. our decisions make our fate, not God.”

Omar heard everything he wanted to hear. He will take his friend’s advice into consideration but he will have to make the final decision. “You are not helping,” Omar said. I need to think for myself now.”

Salem fell silent. He thought of what he wanted to say next, dismissed it and then re-instated it. “You’re right,” he said. “It isn’t my worry about the three of you that speaks but my guilt as well. The fact that Jane is thinking of leaving only five months after Lynda’s departure doesn’t seem to be purely coincidental. I know Lynda is still talking to Jane but I don’t know what she’s telling her. That woman has a poisoned mind and Jane, forgive me for saying it, can be susceptible.”

Omar stood suddenly. “Maybe,” he said, “maybe. We shall see.”

As Omar turned left to head for his car, Salem caught his hand. “Tread softly,” he said. “Tread softly. If you think it’s too serious don’t go home. Women shouldn’t be confronted when they are angry, nor men when they are sad. Wait a few days and you’ll be looking back at your petty quarrels with amusement. It’s nice to be proud and defiant, but is it worth it? If I had been more tolerant, more understanding Lynda may not have done what she did and things may have been different. They tell me the worst part of a separation is the first twelve weeks, but that’s not true. I’d like to claim that I’m on the path to recovery, but I know deep inside I’m not. If it’s not Lynda it’s Reem. Even if you want to forget you can’t. Every little girl becomes Reem and every woman becomes a Lynda. So, my friend, do whatever it takes. Sing to her, dance, stand on your head, tie her to the bed if you must but don’t let her go.”

The lights were suddenly turned off in the small room. Omar looked at his watch. It was past 10 so his wife couldn’t have just put Mara to sleep. The little one must have woken up for some reason and Jane went to investigate. He traced his wife’s movements through the broken shadows in their bedroom until she turned off the lights. For a while he thought she could have gone to bed but a dim light shone through Mara’s window and it was obvious Jane had moved to the front room. She’s waiting for him, he reasoned, but what for? She isn’t going to say that she has changed her mind and she’ll give both of them a second chance. Her mind was set. Maybe she wants another row? Maybe some more recrimination and tears. Maybe-

Omar cut himself short. He’s ready. Whatever she’s going to do or say he’ll be ready for her. She’ll expect to be implored, bribed, promised the earth and even threatened, but she’ll never be surprised. But surprised she will be, very, very surprised.

 

2.

 

A sharp grinding noise, the strong smell of stale curry and the faint sound of a Hindi song rushed to his numb senses as he passed by his neighbours’ flat. Through the partly opened door he noticed the black cover of a tape recorder still lying near the window where he first saw it more than a year ago. New layers of dust had entirely concealed the little white loudspeaker holes but it was kept there as a reminder of a lost battle against the incoming fine sand of the Empty Quarter. Gulshan’s mouth twitched painfully under his hairy moustache as it strove to convey a hurriedly phrased command to his wife who sat on the matted floor opposite him. Omar didn’t understand but she suddenly turned round, peered through the window and pulled up her sari over the hanging layers of fat. What prompted her to cover up in her sitting room on the second floor was unclear as there were no buildings opposite, but she was a woman of sudden, amusing dramatics that everybody liked to see.

He opened the door and went in quietly. His wife was on the yellow sofa staring at the TV but there was nothing on the screen except white speckles that either moved independently or in consonance with a stifled hissing noise that flowed continuously from the set. Her right arm was above her eyes probably to soften the strong lights flooding the room from the hall. She didn’t stir so he wasn’t certain whether she had had just dosed off or she didn’t hear him come in.

He looked around and whistled to himself quietly in astonishment. She must have used every suitcase they have but they weren’t enough. On the dinner table, on all the chairs and almost in every space available in the dinning room and the corridors leading to the other rooms piles of clothes, soft toys and baby-food utensils lay unpacked. One suitcase that blocked his way to the kitchen was exceptionally large but it still bulged like a wooden barrel. Thinking it contained clothes, he bent and lifted it with the strength he thought adequate but it was far heavier than he thought. A superlative escaped his mouth but it was louder than he intended. He turned to see if he had woken his wife up and almost jumped when he saw her right behind him.

Her eyes stared at him, shifted to the suitcase then back. “What?”

“It’s far too heavy,” he said pointing at the suitcase,” what’s in it?”

She looked at him searchingly and hesitated. “My stuff…and Mara’s,” she said. “Would you like me to open it for you to see what’s inside?”

Omar was shocked at how far apart they had become. “This is not what I meant. You can take everything.”

“Only what is mine, and Mara’s”.

“Jane! Go to each room and take whatever you like.”

she shook her hand. “I will only take what’s mine and Mara’s. I’m not sure about some pieces of jewellery so I laid everything on the bed for you to sort out.”

A large green Christmas stocking in one of the piles caught his attention earlier. He picked it up, went to the bedroom and swept all the jewellery in it and brought it back. “Take it, Jane, please, and go round the flat, as I told you, and take anything you like.”

Jane hesitated. “If I come back I’ll ask you for things I would like to have but I have too much already.”

“I’ll pay for all the excess package you’ll have.”

Jane became suspicious. “You will let me take Mara,” she said as her suspicion turned to fear, “you will.”

“Mara will go with you. I want her to go with you.”

Jane had prepared her words but what she heard was new and she didn’t know what to say but he knew. “Jane,” he said. “I mean every word. You are not Lynda so you will not poison Mara’s mind against me. Mara isn’t Reem so she will not allow anybody to poison her mind. When she’s older she can call me or write to me and I’ll go to the end of the world to see her. But now she needs you more than needs me. One day she may need her dad more and I’ll be there for her. Now take her and take anything you like.”

“Mara may need things later. Let’s leave it for another time.”

Omar shook his head and breathed deeply. “There won’t be another time. I can’t take it a second time. Before I take you to the airport I will give Gulshan the keys to the flat. I will tell him to take everything, and when the flat is empty I want him to take the keys to the landlord. I won’t come back to the flat. If you come back I won’t be in it but somebody else.”

Jane gasped in disbelief. “Why would you do this?”

“Why would you do this,” he snapped while sweeping the flat with his hand. “Why?”

“I told you. I told you a hundred times.”

“Tell me again. Make it a hundred and one times and tell me again.”

Jane opened her mouth in pain, dropped her head sideways and began to weep.

He took two steps to the kitchen and stopped. “Weep,” he said, “weep, but I won’t take your weeping for an answer. When you stop, come to me and tell me again why are you doing this.”

“Omar!” She cried after him. He stopped and turned. “Omar,” she said crying. “I can’t it take it longer. Can’t you see this? I can’t take it.”

“Can’t take what,” he asked from where he stood.

“Everything.”

“Everything what? Name a few.”

“Oooooooooh,” she screamed in anguish, and rushed to the bedroom but he was closer to the door and he stopped her. “I’ll help you,” he said, and caught her aimless-moving hand. She took a step towards their bedroom but that wasn’t where he wanted to take her. “Look at her,” he said quietly as they stood above Mara’s cot. “Before you tell me another word, look at her. Look at her and think of her then say whatever you want to say.”

 

3.

 

“Come with me,” Jane pleaded with streaming tears as she came into the kitchen.

“For a holiday, yes. For good, no.”

“Why not? You, too, should think of Mara before you speak.”

“I think of Mara all the time,” he said, “but look at me,” he added with a hand sweep over his clothes, “I am an Arab, An Gulf Arab with a dishdasheh and a moustache. Do I look like I belong in Wales? I’ll be the laughing stock of everybody in Hey On Wye.”

“You wear European clothes when you to England, don’t you?”

He nodded. “I do, on holidays and not all the time. But it’s not only how I look or what I wear. I have nothing there ― no job, no relatives, no friends, no sun, nothing. I think of Mara and I think of you but I have to think of myself as well.”

By now she was convinced he wasn’t going to give in no matter how many tears are shed. She wasn’t even willing to try again, not since their last big row, but earlier that evening Lynda phoned. She took down the flight number and the arrival time, delved aimlessly in small talk then abruptly stopped. When she spoke again she was crying. “I can’t tell Salem,” she said, “but Reem is being very, very difficult. She wouldn’t go to school, she wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t listen. I’ve tried everything and I don’t know what to do any more. If she doesn’t change soon we’ll have a social worker sent to investigate and God knows what will happen next.”

Jane smiled faintly and pushed her lips to his cheek. “Reem needs you. She needs me, but she needs you too, please.”

He wasn’t swayed but when she attempted to step back he held her arm. “This is all silly, Jane,” he said. “You’ve got to stop this. If I’ve done something wrong, tell me. If you don’t like something about me, tell me. I’ve heard you and I will hear you again and again but I’m not convinced what you’re doing is right.”

She kept her arm in his and checked her anguished words. “I can’t stand it here any longer, Omar. I tried but I couldn’t. I love you but if I don’t leave I’m going to lose my mind. You will lose me, and Mara will lose me. Forever. Is this what you want?”

“Tell me why? What is it that makes you lose your mind. Give this thing, or things, a name and let’s deal with them.”

An anguished and lengthily “Ah” tore out of her chest, followed by another, longer still, and another that seemed to him endless in its torment. But no words.

Omar blinked away the sudden wetness in his eyes. If he keeps his eyes on her for another second he’ll go with her. He turned his face away until his shaken resolve was steadied, then faced her again. “I can weep too,” he said, “but that won’t solve the problem. There’s something that’s tearing us apart and I want to know what it is. I don’t want help for myself but help I must have from you to help you, help Mara, all of us.”

She stretched her arms and opened her hands wide. “An hour ago I could have given you a hundred reasons that would convince anybody to let me go. Now that I have seen Mara in her sleep I can think of none. Why do I feel like this?”

“Maybe because Mara is a more important reason than all the reasons you thought about. Maybe she wants you to stay…with her dad so she can have a dad.”

Jane wiped her tears and looked at him straight. She was the one to decide what role Mara should have in making up her mind, not him. If it weren’t for Mara she would have left a long time ago. A great deal of pain was suffered as a price, and she’s prepared to accept more but suffering is not meant be permanent, and she had had enough. “I can’t make you understand and that makes me feel bad, but I also believe nothing I say will make you understand, and makes me feel worse.” She waited for a response but none was coming. “It won’t be for good, I promise. Just enough to think things over and understand why do I feel like this. You can’t ― you won’t ― come with me so let me go. Who knows? I may be back in a week. I may even love you more. I hope you understand this.”

Omar wondered what made her re-command her previous resoluteness. Several possible reasons crossed his mind and none lingered long enough to be analysed. Something cringed inside him and the worry became fear that had to be tested with confrontation. “You want a free sample of separation, a drop on the back of your hand, a taste? I don’t believe in free samples. In one voice,” he said emphasising each word, “in one voice you are telling me that you still love me but nevertheless you want to leave me. Now, there could be logic in this but it’s not the logic I am willing to understand, or accept.”

“How can I make you understand if you don’t want to understand?”

“How can I understand that we are facing a problem unless I know what is causing this problem in the first place? How can I deal with it?”

“There are hundreds of reasons. If you don’t want to recognise them, it’s not my fault.”

Omar became impatient. “Give me one,” he screamed, “just one.”

She didn’t answer.

“I’ll give you one,” he volunteered. “Lynda.”

She didn’t understand. “What does Lynda have to do with this?”

“Everything,” he said. “Five months ago everything was fine. The moment Lynda ran away you began to change. Is this what you want to do as well ― run away like her?””

“Rubbish,” she said dismissively.

“You still talk to her, don’t you?”

“yes,” she said. “She’s my friend. If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t have met you. You know that.”

Omar shook his head in disbelief, then shook it harder still with his anger. “That woman was caught bonking her ex boyfriend in the back of my car at the Hilton’s parking lot. The wife of a friend I value more than a brother claimed that she had left her cigarettes in the car, took the keys and went to make love to her ex boyfriend while we were waiting. How can you call her a friend?”

Jane looked around and raised her shoulder slightly. “The valet made the claim and you believed him. And anyway, it was my car.”

Omar pulled his right arm until it touched his chest and swung it across the kitchen top. “It’s OK then?” he screamed as an electric kettle was plucked from its socket and hit the wall followed by two cups and a bowl, ” It’s OK just because it was your car? I bought it for you.”

Jane sprang backward and held the frame of the kitchen door. “I didn’t say it’s OK. I said what has all this to do with us?”

“Having destroyed her marriage she’s encouraging you to destroy yours, isn’t she?”

“No she isn’t,” she screamed back. “Lynda made a mistake and she’s paying the price, a very heavy one if you want to know.”

“Like you?”

She screamed. “Yes. I’m not Lynda but yes, like me. I am paying a heavy price, like her, and I can’t take it any longer. I can’t adjust to this life. I tried but I simply can’t. Of all the marriages I know ours must be the most difficult. I can’t tolerate these phone calls you get from your friends in the middle of the night. I can’t stand eating with my hand any longer; I can’t bear the sand, the humidity, the heat, the restrictions. Go ahead and break down the whole damn flat,” she screamed, “but I must tell you that I can’t tolerate your mum’s intrusions in my life and in my kitchen. If she wants a boy she should go ahead and have it. I won’t. I don’t want more children. And you want to know why? Because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the future. Lynda left Salem. What does he do? He marries his cousin the next month. Mohammed already has two wives and he wants to buy a third from some poor family in India. You may think you are different from all your friends but you are not. You will wait until I’m older and then bang ― another wife. If I dare open my mouth to complain my daughter will be taken away from me―

She gasped for air and shouted: “Do you want me to wait for all that. I’m sorry but I can’t and I will not.”

Omar was totally stunned and he was lost for words or reactions.

“I’m glad you’re convinced at last,” Jane said as she reached for the door handle.” We will leave in the morning,” and slammed the door shut.

4.

A deep tortured sigh escaped his heart before he had a chance to check it lest it wakes up his wife who was sleeping in Mara’s room. His eyes moved systematically from on corner of the ceiling to the other as he lay motionless waiting for the first light of dawn. Like an old projector, images clicked mechanically in his mind and exposed themselves while others joined the queue and waited obediently to be summoned. He was past exhaustion mentally and physically, but most of the images were full of vibrant colours and constant motion. First there was the sea, greenish-blue as always and bubbling with the soup of life. If you know where you are you will get as many fish as there are hooks on the line, sometimes without a bait. You would think by now you know every fish in the Gulf but you will be always surprised. Not just fish you haven’t seen before, but fish nobody knew existed. Then there were the boats, of course. To escape the eyes of human predators, he used to take Jane and her friends to a cove in a small island just behind the first offshore drilling platform. Storms sometimes would cut the ropes holding the fishing baskets to the sea floor, and some will be always found near the cove.

That’s how he made Jane love him. He was busy hauling out a large fishing basket when Jane felt something brush against her hip. She looked in the water around her and saw nothing but the fear persisted. “Omar!” she called to him, “can you see anything around us?” He rested the side of the basket on the boat and scanned briefly. To the left of the rocks bordering the cove he saw the tip of a large fin but it was a dolphin’s. He was about to tell Jane there’s nothing to worry about when he suddenly changed his mind and yelled for everybody to get out of the water fast. “Sharks,” he yelled, “sharks.” Jane could have made it easily to the rocks but no. He wanted to prove to her that he cared. He dived and came up next her and pulled her away. And then―. Omar tried to remember what happened next but he couldn’t. And then―. Again he failed to remember, then he remembered something else. One way or another, one day or another, for one reason or another, they’ll all leave, all of them. It’s simply a matter of time.

These damn mixed marriages are not working, he said to himself. If they are truly made in Heaven they must be by a cross-eyed angel who weds the wrong woman to the right man and the right man to the wrong woman and then blame them for making the wrong choice. It isn’t that “unmixed” marriages are better with more married people opting out than opting in in an increasing number of countries including tiny Malta, but the glue that bonds mixed marriages appears to be made of cheap stuff. To begin with most don’t understand each not because they don’t speak the same language, but because they don’t understand the cultural language of each other. When they do, they discover they’ve been missing things they shouldn’t have missed. The wife joins the choir, or something like that, and the man locates the local mosque and allows himself to re-baptised as a good Muslim. And like the Wedgwood mugs that are sold at a discount because of a genetic impurity, children of mixed marriages find it difficult to take sides and make choices. They are Muslims and Christians at the same time, white and dark, liberal and traditional, secure and insecure. They like America because for all what it has to offer, but they have to hate it to please their Palestinian or Iraqi mother or father. These are some of the faults that came free with the mixed marriage of their parents but they have one true characteristic other children don’t usually have. Each and everyone is unique.

Women know why men come to them but allow them to fool themselves thinking it is for sex. It isn’t. It’s the only ticket to eternity. It’s the only road to creation, the only way to become a partner with God in the unique gift of life’s perpetuation. Out of the darkest passages of the human body shines the light of creation, of the most bizarre liquids, life, the most precious of all things, is made. The child is the father of the man indeed, but he is also his mentor and tormenter. Now he understands. He once asked Salem if his new wife would accept Reem just in case she decides to come back to him. “She would,” he said, “but I wouldn’t.” Before he was asked to explain he said that except for a miracle, Reem will never change. “Of the two,” he added, “Reem scares me most because her mind isn’t packaged by naivety like her mum.”

Omar cringed from asking the question but it kept coming back. “Will she, or will she not?” he asked himself. Will Mara tell him it was his fault and she will never forgive him, or will she say she understands and both are forgiven? Will she one day rush to his open arms, or will she jump up, collect her saliva and spit in his face?

He had asked his wife to see Mara before she decides but he had gone there before her. . Awe stricken, he stood motionless like he would in God’s hands and studied her features before loading them into his parched memory one by one, neatly, carefully, very, very carefully to keep forever. What wondrous dream her eyes are shielding from him, and what enchanted secrets? Who can produce such a portrait? How will he mix his colours and where? And that is what her face was: A colourful portrait knitted laboriously with love from countless little features that endlessly and mysteriously shape and reshape to produce an ever changing dreamy landscape of unequalled beauty and a wonderful impression of melancholic impact.

In happier times her mother looked almost the same in her sleep. look at her face and wonder, he said to himself as she slept on the sofa. This is the face of a happy woman. A woman loved, and in love. A woman who gave him in three years the happiness other husbands may not enjoy in a lifetime. She was the source of his past joy. From now on she will the source of his misery. The past she’ll always remind him of; the future he has seen in Salem already.

The two-seater sofa in Mara’s room skidded suddenly. Heavy foot-padding followed, then the familiar creaking of the wooden bathroom door. Almost immediately afterwards he heard the gushing crescendo of urine. The foot-padding back was almost the same but not in the same direction. She went by Mara’s room then her shadow appeared and tiptoed towards the bed. She lifted the cover gently and slid in pushing her body sideways.

Like fireworks, something inside him popped in bright colours and faded before he could ascertain its nature. Is that it? He asked himself. Has she changed her mind? She didn’t speak a word so he can’t be sure. Whatever the reason, it must be positive and he was grateful to her.

Slowly, he turned and lay on his side facing her. His eyes had adjusted to darkness and he could see her features clearly but they were not what he hoped to see. Her eyeballs rolled uncontrollably for a while and stopped, then rolled again. Her mouth twitched, and for a few seconds she looked as if she was biting her lower lip. Something dark was troubling her and it pained him to think he could be the cause. She took a deep breath followed by several erratic chest movements then she turned and faced him. He closed his eyes and, slowed his breathing and pretended to be asleep.

The bed moved as she sat up. She looked around, turned her head and looked at him closely. A few second later she got out of bed, walked a few steps and stopped. She looked back at him, moved her head sideways and tiptoed back. She lay still on her side for a long while, then she crept up to him. She laid her hand on his face, lifted his chin gently and slid her right hand under his left cheek and sobbed.

“You know I love you.”

“I know,” he whispered.

“And you still love me, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“And you are not angry.”

“Not angry, no.”

“It won’t be for long, I promise. Two weeks, maybe three. I’m not exactly sure.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

“You’ll keep the flat for us, won’t you?”

“I will. For three weeks. Only.”

For her that was enough for now and she felt relieved. She took a very deep breath, closed her eyes and fell quickly asleep.

 

6,100 words
Translated by Menamedia

Home graves

“Are you all his friends?” Abu Nadim asked the six young men who came to offer their condolences for the sudden death of his daughter in law the night before. “It’s a private funeral, you know.”

He moved his eyes from one to the other waiting for each one to nod. The last one surprised him. “And you too?” he asked?

Majdi’s round face turned suddenly purple. “Yes. I’m the dark friend of your son. Didn’t he ever mentioned to you that he has a Sudanese friend?”

Abu Nadim shook his head. “That boy is a wall. Extracting words out of his mouth is like extracting teeth, but his words take longer to come out and most of the time I don’t know exactly what he means. I have to guess and I’m usually wrong and both of us make each other angry all the time.”

Majdi waited to be seated while Abu Nadim stood thinking of other things. “So do we sit down sir, or do we leave and perhaps come another time?”

“No, no, no, no,” Abu Nadim salvoed. “It’s just the house is becoming crowded with relatives. Follow me please.”

Abu Nadim opened the door of the front room and waited for them to pass him as he held the door. His youngest son rushed to greet them, and invited them to seat themselves. A little girl moved from the large settee and walked to her dad. He lifted her up, seated her on his leg and held her firm with both hands.

Four of Nadim’s friends squeezed on the settee, the fifth pulled a chair from behind a small desk and sat quickly. Majdi looked around again and again but there were no more seats. Slowly, he moved to the back and stood behind the settee.

Abu Nadim offered them black, bitter coffee he poured from a metal flask in small, round open cups. His younger son followed him and offered dry dates.

Abu Nadim brought the flask closer to his ear, shook it and realised the distance between what remained in it and his guests was unbridgeable. Afterwards, he only offered coffee to those who asked for it.

Samih raised a curved index finger to Abu Nadim and pointed to Majdi who wasn’t served.

Abu Nadim chuckled. “You have no luck in this world,” he said to the Sudanese. “Maybe you’ll have a better chance in the next, if the Americans don’t destroy it as well.”

Majdi’s face which has was losing some of the purple colour darkened. He stared at Abu Nadim and ignored his offer of the customary unsweetened coffee. Abu Nadim added another splash of coffee in the rejected cup and handed it to Ahmed. “You must be a bachelor,” said Abu Nadim.

“We are all bachelors,” Ahmed said looking at his friends.

“You’re wrong, Nadim isn’t,” Abu Nadim said. “I wish that he had remained a bachelor. Marriage, you know, doesn’t suit everybody. It’s a wasp’s nest that spews nothing but problems and grief.”

Nadim’s friends looked at each other and wondered what was he referring to, but none challenged him. Abu Nadim always thought if you feed people they’ll allow you to say anything and he felt very much like talking. He picked up the date plate and went round again. “If it’s not his children, it’s his wife. If it’s not his wife, it’s his mother,” Abu Nadim continued not waiting for comments or expecting contradiction.

He faced Majdi again, looked straight in his face and shook the plate repeatedly. Majdi declined but Abu Nadim shook the plate harder and Majdi relented and took a date but he didn’t eat it.

“It’s full of goodness,” he said and encouraged Majdi to eat he date by raising his hand to his mouth. “Bedouins can survive in the desert for months with nothing but dates and water.”

Majdi didn’t comment and he didn’t eat the date. Abu Nadim pushed the plate towards him and shook it. Majdi understood and dropped the date.

Abu Nadim made to move on but stopped and turned to him. “I was told by the Sudanese ambassador that not all Sudanese are black.”

“We don’t have an ambassador here,” said Majdi.

“Well then, somebody who claimed to be your ambassador.”

Majdi jerked his shoulders in indifference and knelt over Ahmed. “I can’t see Nadim so maybe we should leave.”

Ahmed turned to Abu Nadim and asked where his son was.

“He’ll be here any minute. I sent him to the undertakers to return the coffin. It’s nice but not what we ordered.”

Ahmed was alarmed. He lifted himself a little and looked at the door as if trying to see what lay behind. “I don’t understand,” he said to Abu Nadim. “If not in a coffin, where is she?”

“Oh, Where all good wives usually are – in bed,” Abu Nadim said and helped himself to a half-crushed date.” She died there, you know. Nadim didn’t even notice. She just lay next to him and died. Not a whimper. I like silent women who never complain so let’s hope he can find himself one like her.”

Majdi had enough. He drew Ahmed’s attention, pointed to himself then to the door. Ahmed stood, and the other four did likewise.

Abu Nadim saw them and rushed to stop them. “Where to?”

Ahmed pretended to look at his watch. “We must go back to work. We left only two colleagues to man the shift.”

Abu Nadim pulled Ahmed’s arm and seated him. Pointing to the others to do the same he said, “Eat first. My sister’s cooking shouldn’t be missed. The moment Nadim returns we’ll go inside and eat. Then you can leave, not before.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Majdi said as he quickly approached Abu Nadim. “I accept that you are Iraqis and you may have different customs but aren’t we supposed to eat after the funeral not before?”

“You have a comment for everything,” Abu Nadim said. “Yes. That’s our custom as well but we don’t have a coffin yet.”

“Aren’t undertakers supposed to look after these things?”

Abu Nadim shrugged his shoulders. “They are expensive. Besides, What do they know about death that I don’t know already? I’ve buried my mother, two wives and a daughter myself without anybody’s help. It’s very, very simple. Just put them in the box and take them to the cemetery. The dead don’t complain, you know.”

Majdi wasn’t convinced.

“Think of it another way,” Abu Nadim said. “If we wait until she’s buried the food will be cold. Do you want to eat cold food?”

“I don’t want to eat any food,” Majdi said. “How can we eat when there’s a woman lying dead next door…without a coffin?”

Abu Nadim had planned it so and he wasn’t going to change his mind now. “It’s her last wish,” he said.

Nadim, looking worried and haggard as usual but a bit more so, pushed the outside door and called for his brother. Without exception, everybody turned round and looked for the brother. Realising he was helping to lay out the food in the dinning room, they waited for the closest member of the family to identify himself or herself and go inside to fetch him. None moved so the little girl was gently unseated and pushed along towards the inside door.

Nadim appeared again and prepared to yell for his brother when he saw Majdi and asked him to help.

Herding the little girl before him, Abu Nadim emerged followed by his son. By the time they understood that their help was needed, Nadim had pushed the outside door open with his foot, and brought the coffin in. Majdi followed.

Several relatives rushed to open the inside door for them but Abu Nadim stood in their way, and stopped Nadim. “Wait,” he said raising his index finger. Let me check it first.”

Tired and exasperated, Nadim whispered something to his father but the latter was adamant. He lifted the side of plastic top and peered inside. He knocked on the wooden frame and listened for the hollow sound he expected to hear. Finally he checked the edges of the corner and pouted his lip.

“It’s dolce bianco,” he told Majdi, and knocked on the top. “Nothing fancy but good stuff, durable and very reasonably priced unlike the other one she wanted to flog. Dhs 1,800 they wanted.”

Majdi ignored Abu Nadim and gestured to Nadim to move on with the coffin.

“That’s more than two millions in your currency,” Abu Nadim said to Majdi.

Majdi thought of dropping the coffin, force Abu Nadim in it and nail it all round but he opted for something simpler. He nodded to Abu Nadim to approach and whispered something in his ear.

“I’m too old for that,” Abu Nadim nonchalantly replied. He gestured to his son to takeover from Majdi, raised his hands suddenly and clapped. “Let’s all go inside and eat.”

Ahmed shuffled towards the inside door when he notice Majdi shaking his head with astonishment.

“What?” Ahmed said as he neared him.

“No way,” Majdi whispered. “No way I am going to eat while a dead woman is lying next door.”

“But it’s her last wish.”

Majdi shook his head violently. “Nadim’s father told us she died suddenly. How could she have made a last wish? He is a bloody liar.”

Ahmed tried to reach for Majdi’s hand but it was promptly retracted. “No way. Let’s convey our last respects to Nadim and leave this wretched house.”

They all agreed. Ahmed waited for the last of the relatives to go inside and he closed the door quietly.

“If Nadim doesn’t come out soon we should leave regardless,” Majdi said.

They all agreed but barely a minute or two later some began to press the others for an immediate exit.

As they debated the new suggestion Nadim came out. His eyes were swollen and red, and his hand felt shaky as he received his friends’ warm expressions of sorrow. “Thank God you didn’t come in,” he said. “How could people eat at such time is beyond me but it’s not entirely their fault. My father wouldn’t give them a chance to refuse.”

“Was it really her last wish that people should eat even before her burial?” Majdi asked if only to vindicate his earlier stance.

Nadim was astonished. “He said that too? If he had had said it in my presence I would have spat in his face. That man inside there is my father and I should respect him regardless,” he added, “but he’s a heartless animal. He would do anything to save a Dirham, and he would prostitute the most scared thing on earth if he decides that’s what he wants to do.”

“Why do live with him?” Ahmed asked.

“I have no other option. You know what we are being paid. It’s not enough for a bachelor let alone an entire family. We can eat anything, put on anything but you can’t do that to children. They want proper food and clothing and books. You can’t deny a child what other children at their schools have . Suha understood this. Everything I gave her went mainly to the children. I haven’t seen her with a new top for years and I don’t remember her asking me for anything for herself, I’ve never heard her complain, never. Even when-“

Nadim was suddenly overcome with emotion and his voice faltered. He wiped his tears with his fingers and pointed across the wall to where she lay. “If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t have been able to cope. Now that she’s gone I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what will become of the children, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’ know.” He then covered his face with his hands and rocked sideways in his chair.

Abu Nadim entered the room and looked around. “Nadim!” he said loudly as he advanced towards him. “How could you leave all those people and come to sit with your friends?”

Nadim lifted his head and looked blankly at him.

He wanted to chide his son but his bulging, wet eyes stopped him. “Why are you crying?”

Nadim didn’t answer.

He walked across the room and stood over him. “What’s upsetting you so much?” Nadim kept his eyes on his father and didn’t answer. “Speak to me,” his father urged. “What’s upsetting you?”

Nadim looked at his father in disbelief and said:  “My wife, the mother of my children, is lying dead inside and you ask me why am I upset?”

“You don’t have to tell me she’s dead. I know that. But you look genuinely upset.”

Nadim jumped to his feet. “One of us in this family, just one of us should grieve for Suha’s death” he said with his teeth clenching in between words. “She fed the whole family including you and my brother, she washed for the whole family, she cleaned for the whole family so one of us at least should be very genuinely upset for her death. The children are too young to understand what has happened to their mum, you don’t care about anybody but yourself, my brother knows she’s dead but he’s complaining why didn’t she iron his shirts first. That leaves me to grieve for everybody but you don’t want me to. I loved that woman. What should I do now that’s dead? Dance?”

The unexpected outburst took the father by surprise. Had they been alone, he would have probably ignored him but there were other people around-people, like his friends, who could believe that he didn’t care about anybody but himself;  people who would think of him as heartless and uncaring. It’s a powerful accusation and he must defend himself. “Before you accuse me of cruelty you should accuse yourself,” he said. “People who claim to love their wives don’t kick them while pregnant. They don’t push them out of bed if they complain of severe pressure and dizziness. They rush out to get a doctor, not to have a good night sleep on the settee outside while she’s dying in agony!”

“I didn’t know she was having a heart attack. How would I know?”

“Maybe, you didn’t know,” his father yelled, “but you shouldn’t look genuinely upset if you were not genuinely concerned.” He wiped drops of spit off his chin and said with a softer voice. “Now, Nadim. We have a woman who has earned her rest and she must be buried. Your aunts are preparing her. When they are ready we will go to the family as one family and we will return as one family and all this talk will not be repeated again.”

“Where are they, where are they?” Suva’s mum said in eagerness as she looked around. She passed the people she knew and stopped at Ahmed. “Are you Nadim’s friend?”

He nodded.

“And those as well?” she said pointing at his colleagues.

He nodded again.

“I am Suva’s mum,” she said as she dragged a foot stool and sat opposite him. “You met her recently, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Ahmed said. “Only last week. She cooked for us a great meal when Nadim was promoted. “A lady she was,” he added, “a true lady and she will be dearly missed.”

“Did you taste her rice pudding? It’s the best in the world.”

Ahmed couldn’t remember but he said they eat rice putting indeed and it was fantastic

“And was she polite?”

Ahmed nodded then shook his head in complete approval.

“And caring, wasn’t she?” her mum asked.

“Very,” Ahmed said. “The children always looked immaculately dressed.

Suva’s mum stole a side look at Nadim, pulled her stool closer to Ahmed and whispered “Was she happy? Did she look happy to you?”

Ahmed couldn’t answer. He remembers that she looked drawn and very tired but then she was a mum and mums do look like that sometimes. He wanted to tell her that but hesitated. Nadim was hard working but impatient.

Suva’s mum waited but Ahmed wasn’t forthcoming and she decided to abandon the whispering. “Young man,” she said. “I asked you a simple question. Did my daughter look happy?”

Abu Nadim rushed and stood between Ahmed and Suva’s mum. “Now, now Madiha, you are embarrassing our guest. This is not the sort of questions you ask a non-family member. Suha was very happy. She died with a smile on her face. We all loved her and respected her. She was like my own daughter.”

She raised her head and looked at him. “That’s why I asked a stranger,” she said, “because your other daughter is dead…like mine.”

“Madiha, Madiha, Madiha, Madiha,” he salvoed. “You are understandably sad like all of us. The death of a child is an eternal journey to hell but there’s nothing we, humans, can do about it. it’s God’s will. She passed away very quickly. Only those loved dearly by God go that way. The rest leave in agony that can last for years. I know.”

Suha’s mum wasn’t convinced he was telling the truth. It was, nevertheless, God’s will. Whatever pains Suha suffered, she now can suffer no more. She wept in silent and shook.

Abu Nadim helped her off her stool, and gestured to Nadim to give her his settee. “Today we will think of nobody but Suha,” he said. “When the time comes we will have to think of the others-Suha’s children and their future. Children come first, always. Nadim is busy with his work, and I’m too old so somebody else has to be entrusted with their welfare.”

Suha’s mum became suspicious. “Meaning?”

“Not now, not after a month, not later still, but at one point in the future we’ll have to find the children a mother. And I was thinking just an hour or two ago that the best mum they can every have is a woman who can treat them like another woman’s but her own. What better choice can there be than Samira?”

Suha’s mum gasped in shock and hit her chest. “Are you crazy? Suha is still here.”

“Suha will be sent to her creator like a queen. You’ll see the fine arrangements I have devised for her burial. But we would like Samira to be our new queen, my new daughter in law.”

Suha’s mum jumped up in horror. “I squandered the life of my eldest daughter and you are asking me to squander the life of the youngest?”

She rushed inside and came out a few moments later with her coat and faced Nadim’s friends. “One dead daughter is enough for any one mum,” she screamed. “You and you and you and you and you and you be my witness for a mother’s statement I am going to make,” she added while pointing at each of the friends, “God summoned Suha to Him because He couldn’t bear see her suffer anymore. They wouldn’t let her visit me and they wouldn’t let me visit her lest I see her suffering but I know. She never spoke ill of Nadim or his father but my daughter is dead because they didn’t care, they didn’t care enough. Not enough to let her enjoy her life a bit, not enough to let enjoy her children, not enough to make life bearable, not enough to stop her preferring death over life, not enough, not enough, not enough.”

Like acid, her tears streamed down her cheeks leaving a blackish trail. Drip, drip, drip they began their flow, then they gushed. Her hands became wet with the tears she wiped as she spoke. She shook her head instead. Blinking rapidly to see through the thickening veil of tears, she turned around, identified Abu Nadim and his son and faced them. Shaking violently she pointed her finger at one then the other. “I will wait outside to take my daughter to her grave. I will let my tears soak her eternal grave because I’m her mother, but they won’t be tears of grief. They will be the tears of relief. Do you want to know why,” she addressed Abu Nadim. “Because her real grave was right here, at her home. I know of many women whose homes are their graves but my daughter has lived in this grave for far too long. My daughter, my other soul, was kicked when she was pregnant, ignored when she needed help and pushed out of her bed while she had a heart attack. No doctor was called, no remorse was shown, no tears were shed and this man,” she said pointing at Abu Nadim, “this man told all she died with a smile on her face. The woman who was raped, beaten, enslaved and humiliated every day of her married life died with a smile on her face? Can you believe him? Can anybody believe him? No, but I will tell you something you can believe. My daughter didn’t die yesterday. She died many years ago, she died the day she was married, and she didn’t die just once.”

Abu Nadim walked to the outside door Suha’s mother had left open and closed it slowly. He picked up the metal flask and a handful of cups and turned round.

 “Coffee?” he asked his guests and shook the cups. “Coffee, anybody?”

3,200 words
Translated by Menamedia

The last lecture

A shadowy veil descended slowly over the last warm rays of the sun as it dipped behind the trees to the south west. They sat on the cold marble stairs of the new college building, watching silently the irreversible conclusion of another day.

The traffic had thinned to a fine trickle following rush hour, and the owner of the newspaper stall was hurriedly loading his goods in brown cardboard boxes, preparing for his departure until the beginning of the next academic year.

They saw him doing the same thing before but there was a special significance this time. It was their last year at university.

Hisham gazed unswervingly across the road and thought of another twilight. In a few minutes the bell would ring twice, they’d walk lazily the few dozen steps to the lecture-hall, and sit quietly for 45 minutes listening to the seconded American professor from California analysing one of Keats’ poems. Later he would wish them the best of luck in their exams, tell them how much he enjoyed teaching at Damascus University, and bid them a final farewell.

Soon afterwards, the students would congregate in the hallways, and talk about the usual absorbing absurdities for a while before they begin their last journey home for that year. The aged handyman would use this last opportunity as best as he could to collect from the smokers the largest number of cigarettes possible, and gaze down the empty corridors in silence before turning off the lights and closing the gates. Sighing deeply for  the loss of the students’ company and cigarettes, he would begin to prepare himself for opening his laden heart to yet another lot of students in three months time.

Hisham also felt the painful pangs of a great imminent loss. He took out another cigarette and gripped it firmly as if it were a lifejacket in a storm. He traced the lights of a passing car until it vanished in the darkness that suddenly blanketed his world.

It was then that he felt like a scream.

Hisham always does what he feels like doing, and this outburst was long, shrill, and deafening.

Nizar turned round slowly, looked at him evenly for a while, and resumed his previous count of the lights being switched on in the smallapartments of the buildings opposite.

“Did you say anything?” Hisham asked suddenly, unable to keep his private fears to himself.

“No.” said Nizar gravely.

“I could have sworn I heard you say something.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“You know this will be our last lecture?”

“I know.”

“And you don’t feel like screaming or talking?”

“You screamed loudly enough for both of us. Aside from that I feel like getting drunk. A few double vodkas are the best remedy for the thousand and one different complexes that seem to have been built into us.”

“You want to forget already?” Hisham said, somewhat apprehensively.

“No, I want to remember. You know that drinking makes me remember. It isn’t that there’s much to remember, but the little we have in our minds is all we’ve got, and to forget it I need to remember it first, understand?”

“I understand nothing,” Hisham said wearily. “The whole thing is absurd. Four years of waiting, fretting, trying, and hoping have yielded nothing but bitterness and agony. There’s nothing really to understand,” Hisham said,  more to convince himself than to convince his friend. “If we were in an American university,” he added, “we could have taken them with us and spent the night somewhere exotically private to celebrate the last of college days and nobody would complain or raise a finger in protest. But look at us! We are supposed to be educated and mature but we never managed an innocent kiss let alone anything more serious.”

“You are lucky to be thinking of kisses,” Nizar said. “I didn’t manage to exchange a full comprehensive sentence. Her overprotective chaperones wouldn’t allow us a minute of privacy. Why do these veiled girls hate young men so much?.”

“Because nobody looks at them,” Hisham said. “They tell us with their veils not to look at them, so we don’t, and they hate us for that, but it could be our fault as well,” he added hastily. “In a man’s world, women have learned to be cautious. Our fathers and forefathers before them built their sense of superiority on manipulating women’s enforced insecurity. In a society where good conduct is essential for mere survival, women can’t afford to make mistakes. There’s nothing a woman can do without attracting attention for one reason or another, and over the years they became conditioned to feeling the piercing eyes of people watching every movement they make even if there was nobody around.”

“Bunkum and camel drop,” said Nizar. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. To start with, men are in no way superior to women. In the past children used to be named after their mothers. I definitely can’t say my father is superior. My mother dictates everything at home, and God help him if he even decides to think differently. If you tell me things are different at your home you will be lying again and I hate you when you do that. If you are not aware of this you are not aware of anything. My God!” Nizar continued, slapping his forehead lightly, “the other day, in my very presence waiting for you to get ready, she screamed at him so much he almost lost his ability to speak for a couple of days. But let’s not go too far. If you really thought you were superior wouldn’t you march straight up to her in front of everybody and tell her you love her?”

“One day, maybe I will.”

“Bunkum and camel drop,” Nizar said again, “you sweat rivers down the crack of your fat bottom when she is 30 feet away.”

“Look who’s talking about sweating,” Hisham said. “Well, only last week–”

“I know, I know,” Nizar interrupted. “I never said I was better. I was just making a point about who’s really superior, and you know something? I wish I was superior. I wish I could act like my father or grandfather. Things would be so easy. All I’d have to do is find out where she lives and send my mother to ask for her hand in marriage. But no! I can’t be like my father or grandfather. That era is gone forever. Like all young people in my age I have to prove I can do things and act for myself without their help. I have to prove that I am capable of following my own judgement without the elders’ intervention or mediation. If I’d done this in the second or third year I might have had children by now, and who knows? I might have regretted marrying her. She looks angelic sitting at her desk but she could be a terrible lover- foul breath, bad body odour, etc. Imagine that?” He said vindictively, “a terrible body odour and no dexterity whatsoever in the kitchen or in bed!”

Hisham thought for a while, then pouted his lips. “It’s your frustration that speaks, not your love. We’ll have all the time in the world to wallow in our frustration later, but we have to make plans now. There isn’t time. Think of something positive we could do,” urged Hisham.

“There isn’t enough time; there isn’t a  chance- there never was any. The last lecture will start and finish and we will fail to do anything. Neither you nor I have the necessary courage. Let’s be honest with ourselves for once and admit that we have failed miserably.”

“I’ll admit nothing, and I’m going to speak to her no matter what other people may say or do,” Hisham said resolutely.

Nizar raised two fingers in front of his face, then moved them upwards before curving and pointing them at himself. “There’s nothing that can be done. Too many eyes whose collective stares would scare the sh*t out of anybody. Even if you manage to mutter your few illegible words shewon’t listen to you; she won’t even look at you. She’d be too embarrassed and frightened to be even seen near you. There will simply be too manypeople watching, can’t you understand that?”

“My God, man! Do you know the number of nights I’ve spent over the past four years holding her photograph and gazing at every feature of herbeautiful face? Have you any idea of the suffering, waiting, hoping and dreaming that has occupied most of my thoughts since my eyes first fell on her?”

“It all sounds very familiar,” Nizar said with a snappy shrug.

“Then why don’t you agree that it’s time to do something?”

“Are you asking that question to convince me or convince yourself?”

“What does it matter? We must try,” Hisham insisted.

“There isn’t any time. And don’t tell me we’ll still have a chance during the examinations- there won’t be.”

Like a bright star that was suddenly concealed by dense clouds, Nizar fell silent. He crossed the palms of his hands on the back of his neck and gazed up at the dark night sky. The sparkle in his eyes twinkled for a brief moment and began to dim gradually as his hopes melted like grains of salt in a rushing stream of despondency.

Hisham recognised the familiar symptoms of melancholia on his friend’s face. He was already mourning his love, and there was nothing he coulddo to make him feel better. He had decided the last lecture was going to be the last scene of the fourth and final act, and he had concluded there wouldn’t be an epilogue. Just like the sunset, he felt his failure was also irreversible.

2.

The loud ring of the bell broke the prevailing stillness of that early part of the night, and for the first time in four years they didn’t respond immediately. Nizar would have preferred to stay sitting on the cold marble stairs of the college building forever, but he wasn’t going to miss the last lecture because he would be missing his last chance to obtain his love.

Hisham thought of his friends’ words and wondered what was it that changed his mind in less than two hours. At one point he even felt enviousof Nizar’s inexplicable hopefulness. The possibilities of success at the eleventh hour suddenly looked promising, and Nizar even talked of the future. Hope, like despair, is highly contagious, and for a change Hisham also felt hopeful and eager to try.

But that feeling seemed centuries-old now. Nizar had taken one examining glance at his girl as she marched up the stairs to the lecture hall andrealised just how nervous he was. Eyes, numerous and glaring, were in every corner counting everybody’s moves, and there’s nothing lovers fear more than watchful and calculating eyes. Nizar was standing almost right in her way, but she couldn’t look at him in the eye. She didn’t dare, but she also didn’t want to avoid him completely. She simply took half a step sideways, looked at him from the corner of her eyes and continued onward.

When she disappeared into the shadows of the building, Nizar felt depressed. A deep feeling of the usual frustration followed, and he finally gave up his attempt. His heart was at a standstill, and so was his will to act.

Hisham tried to accept a similar conclusion but couldn’t. “I can’t let go, Nizar-” he said wearily, “not now. For the past four years I have had nothing on my mind but that girl. I never missed a lecture, but it wasn’t for my love of this damn place, but because I wanted to see her. All men begin their love affairs as hunters and end up being hunted, and I’m not different. Like you, I thought of it as a challenge at first only to discover it had slowly and surely turned into a trap. I’m addicted to that girl, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I dreaded this day as long as I can remember, but you can’t stop time. I wish I could, but I can’t. I know my chances are slim, but as long as there is the slightest glimpse of hope I must try. Not for her or for me but for both of us. She wants me to act for both of us. I must be able to convince myself that I’ve tried everything. Failure is the greater possibility, but unless I do everything in my power to make it work I’ll never forgive myself.”

“Go ahead and try, my friend. I wish you the best of luck, and who knows? Your success may encourage me to try, yet again.” Nizar said with asoft smile.

“You must come with me,” Hisham insisted.

Nizar shook his head. “No. I’ve had enough for now.”

“But don’t you want to see her?”

“I don’t.”

“Ever?”

“Ever.”

“Damn you, then. I’m not going in alone,” Hisham said resolutely, as he lit another cigarette. But then the unexpected happened. They heard the window behind them slide open suddenly, and they turned round and saw one of Sana’s friends.

“Boys!” she cried. “The professor will be arriving shortly. Come in quickly. This is his last lecture and it wouldn’t be seemly if he saw two of his students loitering outside the hall.”

A minute later they were seated by the window overlooking the road.

Sana was sitting in the front row as usual. Nizar didn’t attempt to look in her direction but the moment they sat down she turned round and gave him the faintest smile human lips could possibly form. It was totally unnoticeable to all others, but he was waiting for a signal, and he saw her and smiled faintly and as discreetly as possible.

“Look at her,” Nizar whispered to Hisham. “What happened to her courage? When she was eight years old she used to lead demonstrations in support of Palestine, now that she is 21 she wouldn’t even whisper a slogan in a public protest. Years of persecution have made cowards of us all. We fear prisons and endless nights of detention in God-forsaken prisons that are scattered all over the city, and we fear prying eyes and gossip,but most of all we fear ourselves. But it’s not her fault. She was brought up like this. From the moment she became aware of the existence of a world around her, she was told to cover up her legs and sit properly and avoid speaking to strangers because she’s a girl. I’m fighting for her, but she must also fight for me. If I can’t lead, she must. I want to save myself the agony of a lost love, but I also want to save her the agony of marrying someone she’ll never love.”

He looked through the window at the darkness and glanced at her again, faintly, unnoticeably, and regretfully. “She’s so pretty,” he murmured more to himself than to Hisham. “So pretty, and so helpless. “I’ll never look at another girl again. No one will be as pretty or innocent or victimisedas she is.”

“Could you stop lamenting your miserable luck and give her the broadest smile you can muster?” Hisham hissed loudly and angrily. “She needs encouragement. Look at her! That girl loves you as much as you love her and maybe more. You can’t expect her to throw herself into your arms in front of everybody! God knows she would like that very much, but she can’t do it. Overcoming the deep-rooted shyness and fear in her, and all of us, isn’t easy. It takes great courage and patience. If you don’t want to do it for her you should do it for me. Rana will be coming in any moment, and you know how much her state of mind is affected by that of Sana. Smile, you bastard! smile!”

Hisham scanned the night outside the window. A moment later the students who had been in the corridor rushed into the hall and took the empty seats. Rana was one of the last students to appear through the back door. For a few seconds she looked lost while pretending to search for an empty seat, but suddenly she overcame her hesitation. Taking great care to appear casual and avoid attracting everybody’s attention, she walked with determined strides towards the window and slid into Hisham’s row, sitting down beside him.

Her movement was so elegant, but the timing was perfect too. In the confusion that preceded the arrival of the professor, the students didn’t have the chance to notice anything, and before they had become aware of the unusual move made by one of the front row girls, the professor had arrived and the noise was subsiding. Before it was completely quiet, Nizar had darted  past the edge of the row quietly and slid into the one behind.

And the last lecture began.

3.

The professor had seen two or three girls talking to the Dean of the faculty near the end of the corridor and he decided to wait a minute or two before he began. He looked casually at the class until he saw Hisham and Rana sitting next to each other. Raising his clasped hands to his mouth, he smiled faintly. Feeling somehow cheerful, he decided to wait a bit more.

Hisham became restless. If he had noticed the professor’s smile as he looked at him, others must have too, and they would be turning around to see what’s going on. If the prevailing silence continued any longer, all those present in the hall would hear the loud irregular beats of his heart andwould  notice to their horror that the two young lovers had tricked everybody in a moment of confusion and finally sat next to each other. Rana had similar thoughts and she too felt suddenly restless.

Like two birds on a window pane they lowered their wings, preparing to fly away each to his and her usual seating place the moment the window was opened, but for now they waited. There was no awkward stirring, nor the exchange of a smile or a look, but they were seated next to each other, and Hisham felt immensely thankful to her for that. It took four years, but it was an achievement; a great unprecedented success Hisham was determined to cultivate further.

A dozen different emotions rushed suddenly into his mind and he didn’t know which to address first. There was a huge surge of restrained happiness but there was also a sense of anxiety and tormenting anticipation. And there was still the familiar fear. Fear of being discovered, and fear of all those inquisitive and envious eyes around them.

Hisham was motionless, breathless, waiting, watching, expecting, hoping and knowing that the first few minutes were the most crucial. An awkward advance could send her running to the front row where Sana and most of the girls sat. A wrong move could attract the attention of a hundred eyes and Rana would have to find another seat away from him, not just for that lecture, but maybe forever. It was an extremely delicate and sensitive battle, and one that he was determined to win.

If he could sneak a quick look at her face he might be able to ascertain her feelings, but the moment she sat down she opened her book and stared blankly at one of the pages, unable to raise her head lest her eyes meet anybody else’s.

Speak, damn you! Hisham ordered the professor in his mind, speak!

The professor surveyed the waiting faces in front of him and uttered his first words.

Hisham was suddenly relieved. From now on all the other students would have to follow the professor diligently, and nobody would have the timeor spare attention to focus on them. He had 45 minutes. It was an emotional make or break, and he wanted to succeed. But first a prayer was in order.

It was short, but sufficient.

The professor asked the students to open their books on page 209 and began read, slowly and passionately, the first stanza of ‘Ode To A Nightingale’.

Nizar suddenly snatched Hisham’s book and placed it in front of him. “I must have it,” he whispered audibly enough for Rana to hear. “I’ve forgotten to bring mine.”

Hisham was annoyed. Nizar had the book in his bag, so he couldn’t understand his strange behaviour at such a crucial moment. For a second or two it seemed to him that Nizar was trying to wreck his chance. However Rana knew the reason, and without saying a word she pushed her book towards him and pointed out where the professor had reached.

Suddenly he was closer to her than anytime in the past four years. He could feel her warmth build up gradually and radiate gently on his face. She wasn’t wearing perfume, but there was this scent about her- feminine to the extreme and mysteriously intoxicating.

The professor went on and on, and Hisham was hearing but not listening. He didn’t even try. There wasn’t time to pay any attention to the professor. He felt the need to contain his joy and plan his next move. It was great that she was sitting next to him sharing the same book, thesame warmth, and the same fervour of the hormones that were boiling within each of them, but all the time he was conscious of the ticking away of an internal and menacing clock. He would have liked to wish time to come to a standstill but what was the point? To begin with, time would not stop for him or anybody else but even if it did that wouldn’t help him. He needed to take action and for that to happen, time must pass.

“He must have been thinking of a girl like you when he composed this poem,” Hisham whispered to Rana as she stared vaguely at the professor. “I’ll rename it Ode To ‘Rana’,” he added, crossed out the original title, and began to write the new one when he suddenly stopped. “Better still,” he whispered, “I will write you a better one.”

It took her some time before she worked out exactly what he meant and why. She looked at the new title but she didn’t know what to say.

“You don’t think I can write you a better poem?”

She turned her head towards him very slightly and whispered. “Of course you can”, and staring at the page in front of her she added faintly, “I know you can; I know you will…one day.”

She didn’t look at him again but he felt her tremble slightly, faintly, and secretively. He couldn’t see her face but he knew she was blushing, for what, he didn’t know but he knew perfectly well that other students could easily be deeply in love with each other for four years without being able to exchange one word. He had passed that stage successfully, but it wasn’t enough. She must have understood his message, as she took a great risk in taking the first move by sitting beside him, and he knew she was expecting him to take the next step and all those thereafter.

And he was grateful to her, and grateful to the other students who didn’t turn around to stare at them, and grateful to the professor who saw him without a book and didn’t stop to ask why he didn’t bring his along. He must have thought that Keats himself wouldn’t have mind seeing a budding love beginning to bloom, and if Keats wouldn’t, why should he? Love will always be the greatest poem of mankind, and any love poem, no matter how great it is, is a mere pulse going through lovers’ burning veins.

“Can we meet outside?” he asked, pushing his chin towards the window. “Just for five minutes.”

Rana’s head shook convulsively and she couldn’t talk, but Hisham was expecting an answer. “How can I?” She said. “If my dad or my brother sawme I’d never be allowed out of the house again.”

“Give me your telephone number, then.”

Rana shook her head two or three times. “I can’t. What would you tell my mum and dad? I want to speak to your daughter? What would they say, or do, to me!?”

Time was running out quickly and a sense of urgency was forcing Hisham to abandon his patience. “Either we are in this together or not,” he said with slight impatience. You must help me.”

“I sat next to you,” she whispered. “What more can I do?”

“You can give me your telephone number, or the telephone number of a friend.”

In a slow movement born out of an undefined feeling very close to despair, she shook her head, paused for a moment and whispered: “Give me your number.”

Hisham shoved his hand into right trouser pocket but it was empty. The left pocket was empty too. He never kept pens in his shirt pocket but he tried that too. He looked at Rana expectantly and somewhat desperately. She pushed her pen over the desk towards him but there was no paper. He looked at her book but she slid it away from him and covered it with her arm.

As he turned to Nizar to ask for a piece of paper, the voice of the professor stopped suddenly and the attention of the students was drawn to each other. Hisham’s heart sank. He knew he could explain his way out of the minor misdemeanor, but deep inside he knew that in the process, his only chance in four years may have been lost.

The professor closed his book, held it in his right hand and glanced at the whole class in one wide sweep. “Any questions?” he enquired.

The students looked at each other, searching for volunteers, but there weren’t any.

“No questions at all?” the professor repeated.

Again they looked at each other almost reluctantly and stared blankly at their teacher.

Hisham felt betrayed, angry and helpless. He could wish for something different to happen next but he knew there would be nothing. Most probably, he said to himself mentally, the professor would wish everybody the best of luck in their final examinations, tell them how much he enjoyed being in Syria and how glad he was to have taught such a fine group of young people before dismissing the class.

The professor inspected the faces before him like a chess player inspecting his pawns and smiled. Sure enough, he wished them the best of luckin the final examinations, told them how much he enjoyed being in the country and how happy he felt to have been a friend and teacher to so many good students, but he didn’t dismiss the class straight away. He eyes stopped at certain faces, ignored others, then looked at the section where Hisham, Rana and Nizar were sitting and bit his lower lip hard before he freed it with a loud sucking sound and spoke again before the sound hadtotally dissipated. “I have a few words to say before I leave you but if anyone wants to leave now he or she can do so.”

The students realised he wouldn’t be talking about classes and exams and were intrigued, and he was grateful to all for them for staying on regardless of their reasons.

“Before I accepted this assignment,” he said, “I was apprehensive. I have watched news coverage of the Middle East and most of the time I didn’t like what I saw. The violence, the bitterness and what we call back home “terrorism” were the recurrent aspects of a conflict that I could neither comprehend nor accept. I expected the worst but I wanted to come to see for myself, and I am glad to say that a lot of things I and millions like me accepted as facts are not so, not after I came to know you and all those in the other classes I taught. The barriers that stood between you and I have all but disappeared and in their place understanding and goodwill grew deeper and stronger as time went by. I came herea foreigner, an alien but you made me feel as if I was among friends and for that I am grateful.”

The professor looked at his watch and again at the faces closest to him and continued at a quicker pace: “The other thought I wanted to share with you may be construed by some as an intrusion, and I will say it not as your professor but as your friend. Those of you who thought I wasteaching poetry and literature so you may pass your exams did not understand fully the purpose of my lectures. Everything useful must have a practical purpose to it and that applies to all the humanities including poetry. What is the purpose of poetry if it fails to awaken dormant hearts and slumbering emotions? I consider poetry the spark that sets light to the deep emotions we have in our hearts and I have seen here, in this class,as in others many sparks but I have not seen any fires as yet.”

The professor knew he was talking about a complex issue in a traditional Middle Eastern society and felt he should perhaps restrain himself a little, but it was the last lecture for him and he wasn’t going to restrain himself in the final few words he was going to say. Love, you see, is like life and it has to be experienced fully to be enjoyed. The emotions expressed by the poets we studied are not mere study cases, but things to be appreciated and reflected in our relations with other people. Romantic poems are not meant to be memorised, analysed, and forgotten but to be recited-“, then he held his breath and moved his eyes across the the hall very slowly and added: “By lovers, lovers of your age.”

He stopped for a while and surveyed the faces before him once more. “I know I’m talking about something very private,” he continued after a moment’s hesitation. “You could ask me to stop but I beg you to listen. It’s painful for me to see so many fine boys and girls and not one love story. I know very little about your culture, but I’m willing to learn if somebody cares to teach me. The little I know, however, gives me the impression that your nation places love very highly. Your literature is full of lovers’ exploits and suffering, but I can’t see it around, and that makes me very sad.”

He wasn’t inclined to go yet and he didn’t intend to, but he found that his eyes were suddenly welling up. “If any of you would like to comment on what I have just said, please do, otherwise I have kept you long enough and I wish you all the very best.”

Nobody stirred, so he collected his papers, stacked them on top of his book and took one step down the stairs.

“Sir!” Nizar said loudly, “Sir! I would like to say something before you leave.”

The professor began to turn around to go behind the podium again but he suddenly stopped and stood on the second step.

“Sir,” Nizar began, “I would like to begin by saying I’m in no way speaking on behalf of my colleagues. They have capable minds and they can express themselves even better than me but I simply think it’s unfair of us all not to attempt to answer some of the valid points you made in recognition for the knowledge you generously gave us. And I will be frank, and say what I want to say not because my words are unique but because none of my colleagues will speak out, and I believe these things must be said.”

“And sir,” he continued with confidence as if he were alone with the professor, “you spoke correctly about the sparks that fail to produce fires but let me tell you that they will never produce fires because they are too weakened by fear. Yes, fear. Am I talking about love? Yes, I am. We fear love. We talk about, sing about it, and write volumes about it, but we fear it. Why? Because love in our society is a challenge unless it’s approved and controlled, and societies with ancient cultures are ruthless against those who dare to defy them. No matter how a love story begins it must end predictably and formally by the man proposing not to the girl but her mother, father, brother and even uncle or to all of them together, but not to the girl herself. She will say yes only when they say yes but not before. Those who violate this rule are branded as immoral and promiscuous. There’s really no alternative. Unless I follow my father’s footsteps and those of his father before him, I’ll find myself fighting a lost battle. It’s not because the elders are always watching what the younger generation is up to. They simply can’t do it. They don’t have thesharp eyes or the time to keep a continuous watch. But somehow, the younger generation is keeping watch over themselves on behalf of the elders- subconsciously, jealously, and even masochistically. Consequently, a method of secret communication had to be invented. It’s an old one practiced by all human beings, but none is more experienced in employing it than the people you are watching now. We love silently and secretly and we think nobody else knows or sees. But, in a complex society like ours, the eyes learn how to say everything in one quick glance. And sir, if you happened to look closely, you’d have discovered that half the students in this hall love the other half; deeply and desperately and maybe hopelessly, but tonight they will leave as total strangers and most may never see each other again.”

The veiled girls in the first three rows turned to each other in disbelief and disdain, and burst out in a chorus of condemnation and denial,with half complaining to the professor and the other half to Nizar who stopped for a moment, viewed them passively and stared at Sana long enough to let the whole class know at last how much he loved her. He then took a deep breath. “And sir,” he continued, “We’re grown up and educated but we are exercising none of our rights simply because we are taught by the system to pay all our dues and seek none of our rights. We are supposed to lead society towards change, but society must watch out for we are actually the largest obstacle to change. We may consider ourselves the promoters of a vital link between the past and the future, but we are really not different from our fathers and mothers, and we’ll end up the same. Meanwhile, we’ll suffer secretly and silently. We’ll let our chances slip away and feel guilty for it the rest of our lives. Look around you and you’ll find normal, healthy people loving and suffering in silence because they have put the needs of repressive societies before their basic needs. And why? Because behind our modern appearance, we are still bedouins deep inside. We need a revolution to ‘unbedouinise’ us,but a revolution needs revolutionaries who want to take us to the future and not back to the dark dungeons of the past.”

The veiled girls took Nizar’s last remark as a personal insult to tradition and stood up all at once. “Come!” Screamed Lutfiah to Sana, “We are not staying with this apostate a minute longer, and you,” she shouted at Rana, “you come with us too.”

Most of the veiled girls had left the hall by the time Sana finished collecting her books and papers. She smiled faintly at the professor and left.Rana closed her book slowly, turned round to Nizar, gave him a most helpless look, and followed Sana to the privacy of the women’s bathrooms.

4.

“By the shore of the Gulf I stood,

Ah Gulf: provider of pearls, oysters and death,

I called,

As if sobbing, the echo slowly said,

Ah Gulf, provider of oysters and death.”

Hisham stuffed his palms beneath his thighs to shield them from the coldness of the marble stairs outside the college and asked: “Who said that?”

“As-Sayyab,” Nizar said despondently.

“Palestinian?”

“Iraqi.”

Hisham smiled to himself. “I should’ve guessed, nobody expresses pain deeper than Iraqis or Palestinians.”

“Syrians too,” Nizar said with a light chuckle, “from now on.”

“You intend to become a poet like as-Sayyab?”

“Why not,” Nizar said with a shrug, “If you can be a bedouin Keats, I can be an Iraqi as-Sayyab.”

“How do you know that?”

“What does it matter?” Nizar said, “I overheard the details of your attempt to lure Rana into your arms by a Keatsian poem, but tell me: wouldyou really write her a poem…if you could?”

Hisham thought for a moment and nodded. “Yes, I would.”

“But what would you say in it? You haven’t even held her hand yet.”

Hisham pouted his lip and shrugged his shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. I love her, you know that.”

“So what? All our masturbating friends in the class love either Rana or Sana, but the question is whether she loves you.”

Hisham wanted to agree but hesitated. “In her own way I believe she does,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. People may laugh at me but she did sit next to me and she asked for my phone number, but your bloody speech ruined everything.”

“She could have waited a minute until you managed to give her your number, couldn’t she?”

Hisham had thought of this before and concluded earlier on that Rana didn’t really make a real effort to establish a life-line for their budding love, but he felt he should give her the benefit of the doubt. “Had she tarried a while longer those veiled crows would have dragged her out of the hall by her hair.”

“Maybe,” said Nizar, “but she didn’t exactly object to being ordered out.”

Hisham thought momentarily of contradicting him but he couldn’t. “No, you’re right, she didn’t.”

“It’s over, then.”

“Why is it over?” said Hisham, “There is a chance we might meet them during the exams.”

Nizar tilted his head backwards. “If you couldn’t do it in four years you won’t be able to do it in two weeks. I can’t see a camel without my glasses but I can see the future, and it’s empty.”

Hope suppressed by fear and anger was quickly replaced with sarcasm. He took Nizar’s glasses off and asked what else he could see in the future.

Nizar laughed and his words trailed his laughter. “In a short while,” he said, “both Rana and Sana will be finishing their third cigarette in the ladies’ bathrooms. They’ll come out surrounded by all their chaperones, stop at the entrance just behind us, and glance at us repeatedly and slyly.Then, they’ll walk to the bus stop and disappear and that’ll be it.”

A couple of minutes later they heard the footsteps of the last batch of girls coming down the stairs and re-grouping on the first landing. Rana and Sana glanced at the two young men, talked some more to each other, and walked slowly over to the bus stop on the other side of the road. A few minutes later, an old yellow bus stopped for them and then continued its race with the night.

Hisham bit one fingernail after another, took a deep breath, and turned to Nizar again. “What now?”

“I could read you a long poem about misery and lost love. I know a good one by Keats.”

“Fuck Keats”, Hisham said.

“Byron then?”

“Fuck Byron.”

“Al Sayyab?”

“Fuck him and fuck you too,” said Hisham. “Think of something nice we could do tonight.”

Hisham smiled, then he cut his smile short, changed his mind and laughed. “In less than half an hour I can see us at the best table Abu Salim can give us, loaded with Araq and hot, steaming hazel nuts.”

“Now you’re talking. And after that?”

“Lots of cups and saucers will be smashed to bits tonight, textbooks burnt, and music records bearing the name of Beethoven reduced tosmithereens.”

“At Abu Salim’s?” asked Hisham. “But he hates Beethoven.”

“In your room, stupid, once Abu Salim throws us out of his bar, where else?”

“Let’s do it,” Hisham said as he stood, and they both raced to the bus stop.

Translated by Mohammed Khaled

7,000 words
Translated by Menamedia

There remains a farewell

The rickety wooden boat rocked dizzily on a sudden wave that crept shyly towards the beach, and almost touched their feet before the gently surging sea pulled it back. Nader was lost somewhere in the innermost depths of his soul when, as if in sympathy with his great admiration of the sea, his chest heaved, accompanied by a deep, tormented sigh that flooded the surrounding silence.

“For the past five years,” he said, watching the receding wave, “I’ve tried to keep as far away as possible only to find myself drawn back by a strange, incomprehensible force. There are a thousand things that force themselves on my mind but all I seem to want to think of is peace, probably because it is absent. There is no point, though. If you can’t find peace within, you’ll never find it anywhere else.”

I joined him at his favourite spot opposite the Golden Beach hotel for two important reasons. The first was to listen to his feelings, but his revelations certainly weren’t what I wanted to hear. I wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about the second thing, and I wasn’t sure I could bring it up either. “There’s nothing like good hard work to help you find peace, and perhaps forget,” I said. “I’ve spoken to the Editor and he will take you back provided I hand over the literary supplement to you. This I’m happy to do because I feel I need to do some reporting on the beat for a change.”

Nader thought for a while and shook his head. “It wouldn’t work,” he said. “Besides, I would like you to remain editor of the supplement for now. I have a big favour to ask of you.”

“Any time, but what wouldn’t work?”

“They’ll keep pressuring the editor until he asks me to leave or moves me somewhere else, where I can’t write what I must write. That would probably be even worse than getting fired.”

I didn’t agree. “Ismail is different. He won’t allow them to interfere.”

Nader wasn’t so sure. Having previously worked with the government, he knew things I didn’t, but he probably decided to keep that knowledge to himself. “They’ll find a way all right,” he said. “They always do. A long time before you joined us at the newspaper I was accused of being a political reactionary. Later they said I was an Islamic radical, then an agent for the Americans, then a spy for the Sheikh of Qatar. What will their next accusation be? That i am a terrorist? The editor knows it’s a false accusation, but there will come a time when he can’t protect me any longer.  The minister of information is very powerful. If Ismail persists they’ll eventually accuse him of something and force him to resign in disgrace.”

A sharp whistle escaped from my mouth almost involuntarily. “That’s hard stuff.”

He laughed. “Last Saturday they tried to arrest me at my mother’s house. They claimed that certain topics discussed at my meetings are not conducive to national conciliation and that a permit must be obtained for any future gatherings. When I pointed out that I was advised by lawyers that such gatherings are private and legal, and insisted that they will continue as per my democratic right, they wanted to arrest me. Luckily, it appears that I have some admirers in the upper echelons of power and I was cautioned instead.”

“This is news to me,” I said. “Did you tell the editor?”

“What for? Nothing happened. They literally left with their tails between their legs. The next time may be different, however. Things are not going their way and they know it. It’s their last stand and they know they are fighting for their economic and political survival. Think of the influence they’ll lose, the money, the palaces…it’ll be a new world they have no place in and won’t know where to turn or what to do.”

Apprehension and excitement held hands in my mind but the latter’s grip was stronger. “This is a cause worth fighting for but someone must lead the struggle.” He didn’t answer my subtle invitation, so I pushed further: “Why don’t you?”

He shrugged his shoulders, remained silent for a while and shook his head slightly. “I tried that,” he said, “and paid the price. Under different circumstances I would have been glad to delve deeper, but getting further involved in this course of action would take months, resources, a widespread audience, evading the watchful eyes of the authorities…it would be slow, risky and ineffective. What’s needed now is a sudden shock. It may or it may not work but I can’t think of a better way.”

“What sort of shock?”

Nader said, “I don’t know. People need a powerful shock to jolt them out of their comas, so it has to be substantial.”

“Who will create it?”

Nader gazed at the sky and stretched his arms out in front of him, but he didn’t answer. He looked at me and noticed I was still waiting. “All right,” he chuckled. “Not the mob. We won’t resort to demonstrating in the streets for as long as it takes to bring this tribal regime down. It won’t happen. They need leadership. They need to lose hope once and for all of the regime’s ability to mend its ways. They need to know it can’t because if it does, it will be committing suicide by loosening their grip on power and information, and they don’t intend to commit suicide. Not unless they know the alternative will be even worse.”

I thought of what he’d said thus far. It was interesting, even provocative and courageous, but it was mostly a vague generality. He may have something vital and decisive to say, but he hadn’t done so yet. Maybe he didn’t, I thought to myself, but it is more likely he just doesn’t want to say it, not now. Whatever the case, it was time for me to move on to something else. “Whatever happens, I said, you can still write your weekly column, can’t you? I expect that, the readers expect it and mostly importantly of all, the advertising department needs it. Sales go up by a quarter with your column on the front page of the literary supplement. So far, I haven’t had the new column and it’s getting late. I must tell you that I have a replacement ready but you wouldn’t want me to use it, would you?”

He waved a finger in front of my face. “Absolutely not,” he said smiling. “This one, I believe, is the most important column I have written but I’m not a good judge of my writing, no poet or writer is- it’s you and all the other good editors, the forgotten information soldiers of- what should be- the free world.”

I stretched out my open palm and gestured to him to hand the papers over.

He smiled broadly. “Don’t worry. I have it with me and in twice the usual length. I could’ve e-mailed it to you but I wanted to see you first. That’s why I called you.”

A sense of urgency made me impatient. “Let me have it. I know you are the most important poet in the country but your column will have to be processed and like any other and sent to the production department. It all takes time, and it’s getting late.”

“Slow down,” he said. “I was the editor of the supplements for years. I know the deadline for the front page, and I know it wouldn’t take the production department more than a few minutes to splash all that ink across the paper. I can also accurately guess how long it will take you to read and proof it. So there’s time, relax.”

Relaxing was the last thing on my mind. “I thought you said it’ll be twice as long. I know you’re famous, but I still can’t fit it all on the front page. I need to find extra space on the inside pages to put in the whole thing.”

“Relax,” he urged. “I know that. I would like it in two parts-the first for tomorrow and the second for next Saturday. I hope you can do that.”

The sense of urgency diminished a little but the prospect of relaxation wasn’t even entertained for a second. Still, a more enjoyable feeling was emerging- anticipation. It was clear to me now, as much as it was to him probably a long time ago, that this column was different. How so, I didn’t have a clue. I could ask him but I was confident he’d let me know sooner or later.

He sat up, outstretched his legs on the sand to their full length, and turned his head slightly towards me. “I will talk for a while,” he said solemnly, “and you will have your own interpretation but I doubt whether you will know why I’m doing all this. You will eventually though. Not later tonight, maybe, but know you will. Tomorrow or the day after. But I want you to tell me now that you’ll keep it to yourself. If I have any doubt you can’t, tell me and I’ll ask you to use the replacement column instead.”

I had no choice. He left me none. I’ll have to bide my time for a while, then I will ask the questions I need to ask. I nodded. That wasn’t enough for him and he waited in anticipation. “I will,” I said.

“Fine,” he replied. “Let’s do it.”

Nader gathered his thoughts first. Not gradually, but all at once. He was a poet but somehow he remained an editor too. And like an editor, he held the sides of the newspaper and pulled it open quickly to reveal the spreadsheet inside. “Don’t look at the details first,” he said. “They are meaningless unless you see you can see the big picture. That’s what I do. If I like somebody, I open up like a spreadsheet. If they are interested, we can move on to the details, issue by issue, paragraph by paragraph, and sometimes word by word.”

“Most of what I wanted to write I have written already. There are a few more pages I spent the last few nights reviewing. These you will have. The rest is a barren heap that will go up in flames the moment you leave me tonight. The past six years were mostly spent in soul-searching expeditions but I never set out to learn anything in particular. We shouldn’t expect to learn lessons from everything we do. For me it was a conscious attempt to unlearn. To free the mind in the hope the soul will be freed in the process. I want to forget everything I have learned, or was told, about life. Only then, I believe, will I be able to understand what life really is, and what it is about. Only then will we be friends, not enemies like we are now. Out of these expeditions I wasn’t expecting dramatic results. Just something to confirm to myself, and any readers who are interested. But then what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before – deeper, and wiser? My years of enforced destitution taught me a great deal and also taught me nothing. It was more to explore myself than to explore the world. I discarded my bed for rough seats at airports all over the world, my home for railway stations and cheap hostels in almost every capital on the planet. I exchanged my family and friends for the faceless multitude, the warmth of this country for the coldness of the weather and souls of others, the sun for the dreary, overcast skies of the north- all in the hope of transforming myself into someone I would be content to live as, for the rest of my days.”

Nader closed his eyes and ears on the world, and scanned the open spreadsheet of the past six years of his life again. “I have a home here,” he said, “a family that seems to love me, memories both good and bad, friends I like to be with and a coffee shop that makes the best cappuccino I have ever tasted, but I have nothing,” he added, opening his clenched fists as if to emphasise his point. I have this real world around me but I don’t belong to it. There’s nothing in this country that I can call mine. Everything is theirs. ‘We have no border guards anywhere on this island,’ the Minister told me once. ‘Anyone who doesn’t like it here is free to leave. If he can’t swim, we’ll give him a boat. If he, or any other citizen of this country, thinks this place will be empty and crumble without them them, they’re wrong. The airport’s gates will be open and the country will be re-filled in no time.’ Then I said to him: But you’ll only have Kerelans and Pashtuns in our place, is that what you want? ‘Why not?,’ he said. ‘Anyone is fine as long as he gets it into his stupid mind that he can live in this country, work in this country, make money in this country, have a future in this country and do all other kinds of things, as long as he leaves running it to us as it was originally intended.’ By whom? I asked him, by God? ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘by God. Go ask him. He wouldn’t share the running of the universe with us, so why should we share running the country with you?’ ”

Nader fell silent. I waited. A minute later I thought a little nudge might be necessary. “It’s not up to him,” I said. “It’s our country and we have rights.”

“We are supposed to have rights,” he corrected. “Whether they let us exercise them is something else. Unless they decide to sometime, we don’t really have any. But they’re not going to let us unless we force them to. Right now they don’t find it necessary because the pressure on them to do so is still manageable.”

Nader adjusted his posture and inched closer to me. “I have no doubt in my mind that one day they’ll flee the country wailing. In a few months they would be forgotten as if they had never existed but the damage they have to us over the past 50 years is incalculable. Worse still is it incurable and we’ll take the disease with us to the grave, regardless of how we reach it. By rejecting the status quo, I was rejecting myself because I was somehow part of it. But look what happened: instead of becoming someone I can live with, I became more attached to what I already am. There was simply no other Nader to find. I spent most of the time trying to understand the conflicting forces that were pulling my mind apart. My need to get away was always battling with the other need to come home. Consciously I’d travel as far as my strength and money could take me but a month or two later I’d be drifting back twice the distance. This is usually the case when you try to run away from something that deep inside you are dying to come back to, and there’s really nothing difficult about this realisation. I could’ve arrived at it over a coffee one morning, long ago, and saved myself years of torment.”

“For you maybe,” I said, “But other people are interested in understanding these conflicting forces. People like to read about things they can associate with, but they rarely find the ability and the creativity to express themselves meaningful, stimulating and above all truthful terms. You’ve been doing that for a long time, with spectacular results, so your experience wasn’t a waste after all.

“And the price?” he asked.

There was a price. Everything has a price, but that question wasn’t for me to answer. Nader did. He sighed deeply, linked his fingers behind his neck and slowly leaned back: “I hope you’re not suggesting that people are champions of truth. I’m sorry to say I don’t find them as such, myself included. Like prospectors who may spend years heaving piles of rocks and debris before they find a good gem, somebody you least expect may be silent for a second and come out the next with some of the wisest things you could ever dream to hear, in the most eloquent fashion imaginable. But this is one off, maybe the one off. The rest is hollowness, banality and peace of mind. There is no price to pay there. We are the professional thinkers. Like the miners who expect to pay with their health for their wages, we too must expect to pay. The price is not higher at the end, but the haemorrhage of time and patience is unstoppable. Still,” he continued, “I’ve met people so different in everything that they don’t have anything in common with the rest of humanity; others appeared to me so similar I wondered why the human race is not one family yet. Now, try to explain the underlying motives that mould people into either cast. It isn’t that I haven’t tried – I did nothing else for a long time, because it was through studying people I sought to study myself. I’ve observed as keenly as I could, but their actions either seemed to me too complex to put in words, or too simple and commonplace to warrant writing about. I was struck by how identical their worries, dreams and ideas were, yet looking at the same people from the slightest different angle produces an amazingly different picture. Having reached this obvious conclusion I became aware that there’s nothing more to see or learn out there. To be able to judge objectively I felt I needed first to view myself objectively. To do that I needed to be where I belong- right here. But look at me,” he added with desperation, “it’s hardly three weeks since I came back and I’m already questioning the wisdom of my decision. There is a great and expanding human margin out there and maybe that’s were I belong.”

“You are being unnecessarily gloomy and pessimistic,” I said somewhat sorrowfully. “This isn’t just another city, it’s your home. Here you have your mother, friends, your past, future and the life-style you are best familiar with. In good time everything will be all right, believe me.”

“Only this stretch of beach reminds me I’m home. The rest of the city is a lifeless collection of buildings and streets. As for my mother- well, she’s barely aware of the world anymore. She has been lonely for a long time and I’m afraid she has become used to being lonely. Half an hour following my arrival I heard everything she had to say a dozen times. I love her but I can’t stand listening to the same things over and over again.”

“You are being cruel.”

“I was alone for a long time,” he said sadly. “Loneliness is not a feeling, it’s a state of mind. It’s a living thing genetically programmed to build endless walls to shield itself from the world. If left to its own device, the walls intended for protection become a prison. The longer the loneliness, the thicker the walls, until they smother the heart and soul. This was frightening for me at first but you soon learn how to adapt to it. I was also struck at how little importance people give to emotions. They encounter too much steel, and like compasses, they become disorientated by its magnetism. When you find yourself in a situation where you can’t communicate with language because you can’t speak it well enough, what else but emotions can you use? Watching tens of thousands of people rush frantically in and out of dark, little openings leading to the subway, waking up very early and returning home very late, and the other countless things that people do every day of their lives; I became intrigued to know what drives forwards. Mere survival, I thought, wasn’t a very convincing factor on its own. There were others, but what were they? What makes some give up the race of daily struggle at the first hurdle, and what makes others carry on bravely for the vague prospects tomorrow may hold? Some men and women I met along the way tried to explain as best as they could. But I had a problem with almost each argument. They just didn’t make sense. They used the wrong argument for the correct cause or the correct cause for the wrong argument; belittled major problems and magnified minor ones. Taken individually, they seemed quite impressive, but collectively they appeared over-simplistic and occasionally naive. There was simply no consistency, but then human beings are not normally consistent. Anyway, this was the motivated minority who agreed to talk. It didn’t really matter whether I agreed with them or not. The idea was to exchange views, not to pull each other this side or the other. I was glad for the opportunity to talk and felt extremely grateful. The majority, however, lived their lives without bothering too much about its true meaning. Some were even astonished to discover they never really thought about it deeply although they enjoyed all its fruits be it social or economic success, knowledge, piety, good health, children or merely peace of mind. Without much fuss they went about their usual activities, enjoying life and feeling it had been especially kind to them. Each seemed to have a simpler answer to enjoying life than the other, each had learned how to handle their daily problems differently and each seemed to have advice on handling such problems if you happened to be in the mood of asking for it. It is one huge human resource for which no bank is available. Every human being goes through almost the same problems and every human being has personally to suffer from them before being able to solve them. The accumulated knowledge for solving most of the problems is called experience and this is the reason why I came to regard experience as the ability to handle your problems faster and more efficiently. The scale and urgency of people’s problems may be different but ultimately they are all the same because human suffering is the same, because human feelings are the same, because we begin and end exactly the same. Yet, stand at another corner and look at the same people and you may be struck at how different we all are. People thought I was only carrying my small suitcase so I looked like most other passengers, but look closer and you will find where most of the differences lie. Here,” Nader said touching his chest over his heart. “I once dropped a pebble in our well and my father stormed over to me and asked me to get it out. ‘How do you get a pebble out of well?’, I said, ‘It’s impossible.’ He agreed and asked me not to do it again. Nineteen yeas later I discovered that getting a pebble out of a well is nothing compared to getting a bad experience out of your mind-

“Or your heart,” I interrupted.

Nader wasn’t surprised. “I know Noora talked to you,” he said. “Had you waited a minute, I, too, would have given you a message to take to her. Everything must be made clear tonight. If I have talked too much already, it’s because I wanted to help you understand what exactly I’m saying in the column, and why. So,” he continued, “there I was, prospecting for wisdom not to be wiser but to be happier. And out there is an immense quantity of human wisdom built event by event via suffering of immense magnitude over the span of human history, but no cure, no comfort, no forgetfulness, nothing. Nobody had an answer as to how I could delve inside and extinguish the fires that have been burning inside me for so long. Every second of our lives we pump our brains and hearts with nourishment but we can’t remove a single painful memory. Neither organ is ours really. But if not ours, whose? Who has control over them, and why? For what purpose?”

Nader closed his eyes as if to get that extra strength he needed to dare open his heart again. Whether he did, I can’t say but that brief attempt was clearly tormenting, and his face screamed in silence. “That is what I said to Noora two evenings ago. I have no control over my heart and my heart is telling me it’s too late. Go ahead,” I told her, “go ahead and marry Ibrahim. Most women love the wrong man and marry the right one. You won’t be blamed by me for any mistake you make,” I said to her. Fate might be a little more cruel maybe, but you are not totally responsible for your actions because you can’t control your heart.”

What he said surprised me. Noora wouldn’t lie, but nor would Nader. “Couldn’t you tell her simply you’ve stopped loving her? It would’ve been painful but surely less painful than what she’s going through now. That girl is suffering and you owe her an explanation, a good one.”

Nader looked equally surprised, and probably felt hurt. “Did I say I’ve stopped loving her? If you understood that then I didn’t explain myself well and I owe you an apology. But let’s be clear. I love that girl but there’re other things I love even more. These you will know later so let me tell you now that although all women are made for this world, Noora is more so than any girl or woman I know. For me, love is an end in itself. There’s nothing beyond love. The poet in me craved for a great, inspiring relationship, and great love can’t merely survive – it has to triumph. She, on the other hand, was perfectly satisfied with a mere working relationship. Love for her is just the means. I loved like a poet; she loved like a woman. And like a woman, her love was a gateway to a house of her own, to children, healthy and numerous, and to the security that a loving man can provide. Don’t get me wrong. That’s their right. They should demand it with strong conviction because there’s nothing wrong with wanting all this and more, but I’m not suitable.”

I asked: “Just because you are a poet? Many poets have wives and the quality of their poetry doesn’t seem to decrease after marriage.”

He nodded. “Absolutely. A wife is a woman after all. Many become even more inspiring after marriage. But again I have to say I’m not suitable for her. Can I say I haven’t thought about marriage? I can’t, but that comes later, much later. In the beginning I thought of nothing but writing poetry. It was, and still is, an obsession. I can’t live without writing. For me it was the ultimate achievement of love. Other things were either irrelevant or could wait, sometimes indefinitely. A new stage of my life followed. After a few hours rest from work, all I wanted to do was to sit down and write. She wanted to eat out, introduce me to yet another group of her friends, or simply to go into the smallest of details about the house she wanted, the furniture she was advised to buy and the names of the children we would have. ‘Don’t get upset when I mention all this,’ she used to say. You don’t have to do anything. ‘It’s just conversation.’ It’s the typical case of the man who, thinking only of honey, was totally oblivious to bee stings. Slowly both of us grew restless, and slowly it became obvious that this couldn’t go on. The night before my last trip she said: ‘I know how important it is for you to write and I will always encourage you to keep writing. I want you to understand that. But I also want you to understand as well that I am a woman and women find it equally important to be loved, looked after and occasionally spoilt. Later, no matter how much later, I want you to marry me and I want us to start a family of our own. My womb cries to be impregnated by the man of my choice; my hands are eager to cook for my husband and children. I want to scrub the floors of my house and do everything married women usually do. For that I’m ready to wait as long as it takes but I want you to promise me that this will happen. I love your poems but I also love you. I want everybody to know that you’re mine. I want security. I made up my mind when I first saw you; it’s for you to make up your mind now. Either that or you give me the freedom to look for it with someone else.’

“Did she tell you all that?” Nader enquired in disbelief. “No, she didn’t,” I answered.  “Nor did I expect her to tell me something very private like that. Noora is a very proud girl.”

Nader turned around to the sea and gazed at the pulsating waves. “I thought about her a great deal during my trip. I’ve met many girls in the past but Noora is very special. I also discovered how important to me she became. If children were not the natural outcome of love and marriage I would have called her and asked her to prepare for our wedding. But I can’t have children, and I mustn’t. My mother will be more than happy to give me her house. I have money so I can give my children good education, nice clothes and as many toys as they want provided I can get in the house unhindered. But I can’t give them a country, I can’t give them the freedom to choose, I can’t give them security but above all I can’t go into their hearts and take the fear away. Do you understand that?”

I did, but I wanted to know what sort of fear he meant.

He pointed his finger at the floodlit palace visible in the distance along the coast: “The fear of them. Our ancestors needed fear to survive in the jungle. There were lions and tigers and hyenas and all the other predators. Fear was essential for survival but the fear these bastards have instilled in our hearts is not for our survival but theirs. During my last trip I noticed something I never noticed at airports before. When a German or a Swiss hands the immigration officer his passport, they don’t seem to say that they have only a nationality but also a country they are proud of. It’s so natural you hardly notice it. Maybe they don’t notice it because they have no doubt whatsoever that their country belongs to them. My country,” Nader said prodding at his chest, “is not my country. It is theirs. We are lodgers. Like lodgers we can be kicked out at any time. We can be made exiles any time and for whatever reason they can come up with. Worse still, the lodger can be thrown into prison, tortured, denied all universal rights and most of us won’t complain. Why? Because we have this immense fear inside us.”

Nader turned quickly to face me and looked at me straight in the eye. “Now,” he said full of anger. “Can you say confidently that this country is yours?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. “You can’t. God damn it,” he cried, “if I can’t give my children a country they can be proud of then I don’t want them. If they can’t grow up without having this crippling fear inside them, I don’t want them. If they can’t choose freely, I don’t want them. Why should I accept for my children what I refuse to accept for myself?”

Nader rubbed his face but then kept his hands there, his head resting in them. When he looked at me again he smiled faintly. “Things will change. I can feel it. When they do I will run to Noora, no, not run, I will crawl to her and beg her to marry me. I will beg to have as many children as she can look after. If my poetry stands in the way I will not write another word. My writing time I will spend making my children breakfast and helping Noora to get them off to school. That’s when things will change. That’s when we will have our country back. Not until then. ”

He fell silent, and attempted another smile but failed. “This is my message to Noora if you want to pass it on and if she wants to hear it. I have nothing else to add. If you want to say something I’m ready to listen.”

I shook my head and sneaked a discreet look at my watch. It was much later than I had thought. He understood. He stood up and walked slowly to the boat. “Here it is,” he said, “but before you leave, I want your help.”

I got to my feet and followed him as he stood up and starting walking.

He handed me a ream or more of written papers: “Spread them around please,” he said.

I glanced at some of the papers and baulked. “This is your work. How can I spread them around?”

He took a bundle and threw it up in the air. “Like this,” he said. There was more in the boat but these he reserved for a “special bonfire”.

Suddenly he jumped up in the air and exaggerated his descent, kicking the sand in all directions. “Let’s dance,” he cried, and jumped again, moved sideways then in all directions. I did likewise. First to please him, then because I felt like kicking something. We both did for a couple of minutes. When we stopped, the stretch of sand between the sea and the main road looked like the scene of a major fight.

 

2.

 

“Clamour at dawn,” Nader began. “Clamour at dawn.” Words – indistinct, sad and broken, ring through hollow walls and partly opened doors and cease abruptly as small locks of small suitcases click noisily amid faint sobbing of an old woman.

Footsteps – staggering, tired and hesitant, shuffle over broken pavement stones of mostly deserted streets marking the beginning of a long journey towards daylight, while tired eyes with haggard looks cling firmly to the night.

Clutching painfully her chest, the old woman listens attentively to the fading footsteps, wipes her tears and closes the door gently. Something in the mind shuts simultaneously. Only long-past memories of a little boy carrying proudly his first school bag remain.

Clamour at the airport.

Passengers laden with heavy suitcases, expectations, fears and tickets to homelessness pass quickly through metal doors anxious not to be left behind. Mechanical moans of the conveyor belt, piled high with suitcases reeking of the scent of little houses tucked away in little, tucked away back streets; all rumbling along dull, rubbery floors nudging hesitant passengers doggedly on.

Eyes from behind barriers, tinted windows, small electronic lenses and magnifying glasses scan suspiciously for potential suspects while restless fingers rest on restless triggers anxious to shoot to kill.

Further on more eyes still – old, young, small, wide, black, brown, blue, and grey gaze colourlessly at black and white travel documents seeking unauthorised victims of homelessness, and eating mercilessly away at people’s vulnerability, privacy and pride.

And there was this moan, or was it a sigh, that tore away from the chest and broke the heavy silence of a long-held breath. The long-feared exile is at last a reality. Everything comes to an end. God said so, so it must be right and admitted freely.

Why weep in silence? You are neither the first exile nor the last. As long as they remain in power there will be exiles, so get ready for the longest flight of your life. Your turn will come soon, or sooner. The equation is simple: To have some more, we have to have some less. To reduce the pain, we have to have some more. To be above, we have to be below. The choice they give is ‘neither’, ‘nor’, their answers are ‘never’ and ‘nowhere’.

Despite your pleas, the moment of farewell approaches. Your heart may ache forever; your eyelids may bite on the few remaining tears that plead to be released; your longing may be forcefully entombed inside you for a while but you can’t hold on! A thought, bitter and sudden, will manage somehow to trigger a scream. A mental explosion will follow. The past, present and future will be shattered to bits. Your road to the unknown has just begun.

But you are not alone. Living in a toilet overlooking the high street, you can still see the faces of a thousand soul like yours – suffering and living and waiting while precious moments continuously slip away from ever tightening fists.

The man behind you in the queue whispers and you move forward reluctantly. You shake your head and sing a mournful song heard only by the mind. The lips tremble slightly, muttering and complaining of overcrowded roads, ports and airports. You hold on for as long as you can before the barrier comes down. Tears roll down dry cheeks and throat lumps grow like tumours.

Luckily you attract nobody’s attention. The falling tears make no sound. The sobbing is faint. The sorrow falls inwards and burns without smoke. And all this because I love. I love my country, my mother and the face of the woman I love. And all this because I hate. I hate dictators, the unjust, homelessness and persecution and torturers of little children. I hate them all. Thieves of souls and smiles. Like a thirsty sponge, they go around and suck the juice of life and wipe the smiles off faces.

Look again. Open your eyes and look again, then hear my words. The heart yearns for the East and bleeds. My eyes, forever drawn to the sun, fly over tall minarets, bustling old souks, muddy, little narrow streets, and tiny overcrowded rooms. My eyes are graced with watching hard-working fathers battling for the day’s bread and the children’s education. Faithful mothers aging prematurely under the heavy burden of mere survival; children eager to grow despite the persecution.

And there, behind a closed window I see two bright but sad eyes blinking the sweetest words ever whispered. I see two trembling lips plead for his return. I see the trace of a smile trying hard to remember how to stretch, curve softly and draw a sign of life on those fine features that have turned pale with longing.

‘Oh, my love!,’ I can hear her say. If I could hold your hand again I’d tell you how much I love you. If again I have the chance, I’ll fly into your arms and tell you how much I missed you. To say: out there there’s no life without you, no joy, no future, no tomorrow and no dreams. To tell you: the day I don’t see your beautiful eyes is not a day, the night that goes without your arms around me is not a night, and a life that doesn’t shine with your smile is not a life.

If I have the chance again I’ll take your palm, press it gently into mine, and confess that man will never know a chain heavier than love; that man will never know anything that chains his heart than a woman, nor anything that chains the soul of a woman than a man. I’ll say that man became aware of love only when he became aware of his need for others, and that he who knows not how to love will not know how to live. I’ll say there’s nothing finer than the line that separates absolute joy from absolute grief. Indeed the shadow of both is a blend. Indeed the heart that doesn’t know the true nature of grief is not capable of knowing the true nature of joy, and he who can’t give has no right to take. Indeed, love does not turn into an infinite source of giving unless the giving itself is infinite.

If you feel lost one day, look around and you’ll find me to help you find yourself again. If the present tastes of bitterness I’ll be there to remind you of the sweetness of things to come. If the evening sadness descends upon your loving face I’ll be there to help you smile; when you cry you’ll have a comforting shoulder, and when the darkness falls, my love for you will be the light that guides you back to me.

When you choose to be my sorrow I’ll be your joy. When your voice rings of misery I’ll be an echo of happiness. When you run away I’ll be your shadow. You are everything I love and everything I fear, but my heart sees in you only the beautiful, the captivating and the supremely good. Together we will sow longing and reap togetherness. Hand in hand we will walk towards the future because you are the desire I never want to stop craving for, the tune that I’ll always hum, the illness to which I seek no cure, the sin I’ll never repent, the light when all is darkness, the solace when the heart chokes with its many dreams. You may love me forever, or you may tire of me the day after next. But like the shadow, I may be far away, close by, melt into your body, but I’ll never disappear. “I fear you not, my love. I fear the world. I fear that fate may become too jealous of our love. I fear the “farewells”, the “good-byes” and the depressing “adieus”. I fear that your hands may cover my face one day and feel cold.

 

And, ah, love. I have a secret too.

My biggest fear is not old age or death,

My biggest fear is not a tearful eye,

My biggest fear is not a jilted heart,

My biggest fear, Oh, help God, is I.

 

So, why is it that when I take my girl in my arms and I hug her so close to the heart I don’t hear it moan lovingly any more, nor do I hear nightingales sing, nor see the face of the moon at night, nor trees swaying, nor dry riverbeds resounding with the living drops of rain? Is it because behind the suit, the collar, the glasses and the book there is a Bedouin who thinks it’s time to move on; time to fold his tent and leave before the sun yawns and shifts to another place? There are a billion things I don’t know but the longing does feel mortal – that I know. The memories can- and do- destroy a loving heart: that I know all too well.

So, friends…

Will you cry with me? Like you I miss my home, my mother and the face of the woman I love. Like you I look to the future while millions of fine threads pull me to the past. Like you I die a thousand times each day without a single moan escaping my mouth. Like you I fear to tell her that I love her and that she won’t understand exactly what I mean. Like you, I’ve allowed a flood of experiences to deform the face of the little child behind the face of the man, and a price will be paid before the sun rises again.

But there’s another price that I don’t have to pay. The thieves must, the assassins and the unjust. Like living corpses, they spread fear,suspicion, and repulsive putrid smells. Like ghouls, they feed on children’s flesh and peoples’ hopes and dreams. You think you are immune in your hole. You’re not. You will be given a choice: either with us or against us. Which one will you choose? Which whore should the saint choose? Is there a way out? You may think so but there isn’t. How could you preserve your innocence in the brothel around you?

Inside there is tumultuous anger. There is a scream that tears the heart to bits. Inside there is fear, bitterness, sadness, and worries, and the rising dust of a desert that has never seen rain clouds since it was formed. Inside there is also love, and a bleeding heart and softness you wanted to hide from all the wolves outside but they came to know of its existence and now they are hungry, and they want a bite. They want a share of your life, of your wife, of your child, of your future, of your freedom and of your dreams.

They will have none of this. Life is precious but it’s not the most precious thing.

So let them come and take it. All is said and done and there remains a farewell.

Life begets life but let’s see. Let’s see if death can do likewise. Let’s see if the death of one is life for many.

So, let them come. I’m ready. I’ve held my heart in my hand and show it to them. “Take it,” I said. “Take it and give me back my country. Give me back my life. Give me back my freedom. Give me back my love. You’ve taken all and nothing is left but my blood.”

I’m ready. My blood is spilt already. And if you search you won’t find it where you think it is. You won’t see it. You have eyes but your heart is blind. Men whose hearts are blind are truly blind, and may as well be dead.

 

And, ah, love. I have a secret too.

My biggest fear is not his royal self,

My biggest fear is not a gun or knife,

My biggest fear is not a cell or two,

My biggest fear, if they remain, is life.

So come to me, my door is left ajar,

My lights are off, a shroud is neatly laid,

My body’s pure and my coffin is my bed,

So come to me. I am prepared,

The last farewell is said.

 

3.

 

Two or three minutes had passed and I was waiting for the lift to take me down to the parking lot when I heard the telephone on my desk ring. It was just past 2:00 after midnight. I was tired and the vision of my right eye was totally blurred from reading the small print of Nader’s column. I also wasn’t expecting any calls so I pressed the button of the lift repeatedly to hurry it up. Suddenly it occurred to me the printers may have had a problem with the supplement and wanted help. I had promised Nader before leaving him that his column would be in the supplement and that the first edition of the newspaper will be sent to the distributors by 2:30am as usual, and I was determined that this would be done.

By the time I reached my office the telephone had stopped. I waited. Suddenly it rang again, but at Noora’s desk near the entrance. I rushed and picked up the handset.

“Where are you?”

At Noora’s desk answering your call, I said to the editor.

“Nader’s column is in tomorrow’s edition?”

I answered in the affirmative and explained that it was far too long and would be continued next week.

“Fantastic,” he yelled gleefully. “Can we flag it on the front page?”

Not in the first edition, I told him. It’s already plated and the run must have started. The second, if you want.

“Do that for me, please,” he said. “and tell Amjad to print 10,000 more copies- better still 15,000. Did you get that?”

I was intrigued by the editor’s call at this unusual time but a run increase of that volume was very unusual. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“OK, listen,” he said. “Captain Anwar phoned to ask if we are running Nader’s column tomorrow as usual. I wasn’t sure so I told him I’d speak to you and come back to him as quickly as possible. I thought you would be at home. Obviously you were not. I called all your friends but none of them knew where you were. It was my desperation that inspired me to call your desk and there you are- a testament to your dedication as usual.”

“What did Captain Anwar want to know,” I asked. “His department cancelled their subscription to the newspaper six months ago so he shouldn’t ask for favours.”

“Did they? Nobody told me that. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, not tonight. He didn’t dare say it but I suspect he wanted to know what Nader’s column is about. Did Nader blast the government to hell again?”

I told him it was powerful but he named no names.

“No names at all?”

“No.”

“Captain Anwar can go to hell, then. That liar…he knew when he called me that Nader had killed himself but I had to find that out from other sources. You can’t trust these people with a paperclip. Alongside lawyers and businessmen they are now the new breed of professional liars.”

 

4.

 

“No! I’m not leaving,” Ramzi yelled back. “I was dragged out of bed by my editor to report on Nader’s death. I am a reporter and my job is to report, so report I must.”

Captain Anwar waved his finger angrily. “You must wait for the official statement like all other reporters. The doctor said Nader committed suicide so Nader committed suicide. There’s no scoop, and there’s no breaking story. There is nothing to report at all.”

Ramzi wasn’t swayed by yet another outburst. “It doesn’t make sense. Nader enjoyed fame and fortune. He comes from a large influential tribe, he was young, handsome and talented. All the girls loved him. Why would he kill himself?”

“He was a poet,” the captain said. “Poets kill themselves all the time. What’s unusual about that?”

Ramzi pointed to the hotel. “What’s unusual is that there are six foreign guests and a Saudi prince who told me something else besides suicide may have taken place here tonight.”

“How would they know? They were all asleep. The prince was drunk and he had two whores in his room. He wouldn’t have noticed an earthquake. I talked to them as well, you know.”

Ramzi shook his head. “A Swiss couple were at the balcony and others were in bed, but they said six or seven gunshots were heard. How is it possible for someone to shoot himself six or seven times-two in the head?”

Captain Anwar’s eyes opened wide in alarm. “Who told you that?”

“One of the paramedics.”

Captain Anwar looked for the two ambulances on the left side of the main road. Both had left an hour or more earlier. “Paramedics are not forensics experts,” he said. “Let’s leave all this to the official statement and stop the conjecture and insinuation.”

Ramzi took offence and shook his head in contempt. “Is it conjecture to say no gun was found where he lay dead in a pool of blood, or is it fact?”

The captain’s eyes widened in shock. “Who told you that!? Tell me who your source is, damn it.”

“I told you who. One of the medics.”

“There were four. Which one?”

“I can’t remember,” Ramzi said.

The captain bellowed: “Nothing you claim is true. You can’t quote that medic. He didn’t say a word to you. It’s the figment of a tired mind. Go and get some sleep.”

Ramzi shrugged his shoulders. “I’m here to report on an important story. When I have it I’ll leave.”

“You’ll have it from the official statement. It will faxed to your editor in the morning. Now go!”

Ramzi was furious. “What’s going on?” He said as he pounded his fist on the desk. “I can’t quote the medic, I can’t quote the hotel guests, I can’t take pictures of the scene-I can do nothing. When the official statement comes out, if it comes out at all, it will contain nothing worth printing. All your statements are like this. I feel there’s a big story here; you are telling me there isn’t. One of us is…wrong.”

Captain Anwar thought of ordering him to be escorted out of the area but decided at the last second that it would be better to ignore him. He turned round and waked away three or four steps, stopped suddenly and turned round. “I am not going to be drawn into a useless argument with you or anybody else about something that’s not worth talking about,” he said. “Wait for the statement, read it carefully and if you have questions we’ll try our best to provide you with answers.”

The captain waited for Ramzi’s response but none was forthcoming. As he joined two policemen manning a temporary checkpoint, Ramzi took a small camera out of his pocket and stealthily crossed the main road. He lifted the blue crime scene strip and crossed the cordoned-off beach. A policeman saw him and alerted the captain. Anwar spun around suddenly and saw the white flashes of pictures being taken, and darted across the road onto the beach. Ramzi had taken a dozen or so pictures of the scene when the captain caught up with him. Ramzi turned around to flee the enraged captain but it was too late. He held Ramzi firmly from both shoulders and pulled him back with force. Ramzi fell on his back and screamed in pain. Next to him lay his camera. He grabbed it and put it in his pocket, then took out it again and pointed the lens at the enraged captain. The captain snatched the camera off and sent it flying off into the sea.

Ramzi’s blood boiled with poisonous anger. He cursed, jumped up cursing and lunged at the captain. Before he could reach him, a policeman appeared in his path. Another rushed to help, and both ushered him away from the scene, but to their surprise the way was suddenly blocked. Joined by up to 10 reporters and cameramen, we stood between our colleague and a waiting police car and demanded his immediate release. A condition to keep Ramzi away from the crime scene was accepted, and he was freed.

Ramzi moved amongst us in circles like a caged and angry lion. And like a lion, he roared non-stop with curses and abuse. He tried to climb atop a car to see the captain so he could hurl more abuse at him the officer wasn’t in sight. He moved further along the street, peeped through the window of another parked car and climbed on top of that but a line of trees blocked his view. Yelling still and fast becoming desperate, he jumped off and stood under a tall electricity pylon and went round it to see if there was anything he could hold onto to climb up. There was nothing. Frustrated, he went around in a circle again, yelled a bit more and sat down on the pavement. When he lifted his head, he saw me and jumped to his feet.

“Where the hell were you?” He screamed. “It’s your story. He wrote it for you.”

I explained.

“Do you have on you a copy of the column?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “but even if I had a copy I couldn’t give it to you without my editor’s permission and that’s very unlikely.”

“It’ll be between us,” he said. “Give me a copy and nobody will know. I’ll keep it a secret,” he said. “You know you can trust me.”

“Of course,” I said, “of course I can trust you but trust isn’t the issue. I promised Nader before he committed suicide that his column would be published in tomorrow’s edition and nobody else will read it before it hits the newsstands.”

Ramzi’s face froze. “You are repeating what captain Anwar has been telling us all night. Are you in it as well?”

“In what?”

“In the conspiracy. Are you?”

I was baffled. “What conspiracy?”

“What conspiracy, what conspiracy, what conspiracy,” he mimicked. “You are also saying Nader committed suicide. How can you be so sure? Did you see him kill himself?”

I stopped to think but there was no need. I know what must have happened after I left him on the beach. “I have no doubt in my mind that Nader killed himself,” I told Ramzi.

He raised his voice: “How can you be sure? Did he tell you he was about to kill himself?”

I couldn’t answer.

“Could he have shot himself in the head- twice?”

I shook my head. I couldn’t say. I was positive he killed himself but I couldn’t tell Ramzi what I knew.

“Could he also have shot himself in the shoulder…and leg? Could he have bled in three different locations? Could he have pulled the trigger six or seven times before he fell dead?”

I was puzzled. I didn’t know what to say.

Ramzi had had enough of my silence. He held me by he shoulders and shook me violently. “Wake up! Nader put up a good fight before they got him at the end. There was a big fight out there. It’s a full moon and I could see it clearly. The stamping of frantic feet was evident on the sand. His papers are strewn all over the place, and a large pile was burnt and bits of charred paper were floating on the water.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “It doesn’t make sense. Nader killed himself. I’m sure.”

“That,” he said poking me in the chest as if to wake me up,” doesn’t make sense. The only thing that makes sense is that they’ve been trying to get him. Tonight they succeeded.”

Ramzi would do anything to get a good story. He would lie to anybody, he would steal documents, he would bribe anybody for information, but his stories are meticulously researched and credible. However, if I were to choose between my version of what could have happened and Ramzi’s, I would still choose mine. But I wasn’t 100 per cent confident that his version of events was the only thing that took place on the beach. Proof, hard and uncontested, was needed and Ramzi couldn’t provide that.

I told him so and he smiled.

“You have proof?” I asked in astonishment.

“Are you willing to give me a copy of his column, not just tomorrow’s part but the second, if I tell you?”

I nodded.

He looked around, and then came closer and whispered. “I have taken pictures.”

I shook my head. “Come on, Ramzi. We saw the captain hurl the camera into the sea.”

“He hurled a camera but not the one with the pictures. That one didn’t even have any film in it. It didn’t work. It’s something I saw in a film once, so brought two identical cameras tonight. He’d kill me for it but I am sure-“

A colleague working for The Voice interrupted him. “Look guys,” he said tilting his head towards the beach. “A police detachment with shovels tried to sneak onto the beach but Mariam spotted them. Let’s go and ask Captain Anwar about this,” and he hurried away.

I looked at Ramzi but he started whistling softly and moving his body as if dancing. “We know what they’re doing,” he said. “Fantastic. Our colleagues will be invited soon to take pictures of the scene, let’s contrast them with our pictures in tomorrow’s late edition.”

My mobile phone rang suddenly. “Where are you?” my editor enquired, a tone of agitation in his voice.

I told him.

“Leave the area now,” he said. “Something big is happening. I don’t know exactly but ministers are being awoken and summoned to the Palace. Apparently one of the paramedics is a distant cousin of Nader and he’s going round telling any member of his tribe he meets that Nader was assassinated. Did you pick up anything at your end?”

“I did.”

“Get out, then,” he said anxiously. “Leave immediately and head straight for my villa. You know where it is?”

I answered in the affirmative, and when he said his next sentence I felt a creeping sense of alarm in his voice. “Something big will happen,” he said. They’ve gone too far this time. His assassins will not go unpunished, and things will never be the same again.”

Like cadets preparing for the most important parade in their lives, questions lined up in my mind and cried to be heard. All were answered except two.

“Is it possible,” the one before the last said, “Is it at all possible that Nader faked his assassination?”

That I could ask to myself but I couldn’t answer it. Nader had to.

The final one then enquired: “Is he alive?”

I was convinced that he wasn’t, but my conviction wasn’t important.

And as I looked at the sea, I thought I saw a figure emerging out of the folds of soft waves. “Is it possible?” I asked.

Nader smiled, closed his eyes as if dreaming, and faded away.

 

10,100 words
Translated by Menamedia