Traces of a Tattoo: Chapter 18


Traces of a Tattoo

Read Chapter 18

London: Mill Hill Cemetery
Two weeks later


Hisham pulled the sagging flowers out of the submerged vase and laid them inside a plastic bag which Wissam held open. He took the bag from his son, knotted its opening and laid it on the wet grass. He then picked up a fresh bunch, removed the translucent wrapping and shook it gently. The flowers and surrounding roses raised their heads and waved to the driz-zling rain.

“You do it,” Hisham said to his son in a quivering voice. “I saw her in my dream. She wanted you to replace the flowers.”

Wissam squatted. Unable to see the vase clearly, he wiped his tears with the back of his hand and tried again. He gently immersed the bunch into the rain water and, with both hands open, ruffled the violet roses and the red, yellow and crimson flowers in the middle. With their loose stems gathered neatly into the vase, the flowers straightened up, overshadowing the date of death on the stone as if to declare that time was no longer important.

“Do you want to talk to her now?” he asked his son.

Wissam wiped his eyes once again and made a single nod. His father raised his head more than was needed to see the narrow road that extended in front of him. He walked slowly west before he veered towards the circular driveway.

“Somewhere near here, no doubt,” Hisham thought, canvassing the cemetery area around him. “I know he’s here, but I don’t know where. He walks up to the visitors and stares in their faces from below and says: ‘This fellow hated his wife and felt that her passing away was too good to be true so he came to make sure she’s truly dead and buried. This fellow loved. That fellow did not love, but then she died and he remembered and he is now in love. This woman did love him but the tattoo she had on the back of her hand disappeared to be replaced by a new face. She probably came to say that she’ll not forget completely, but she won’t again come back alive. This one for-got to tell her he loved her and now comes every week to tell her, weeping, that he loved her all his life, but she hears him no more. That one has come to say to her that his break lasted far too long for him to bear and wants her to give him direc-tions for the shortest road to her. But she’s going to tell him she doesn’t want him near her, for now. That one over there, she died shortly after he died but some people still think she’s alive merely because she moves, eats and sleeps. This one, his mother left him behind when he was six. He has grown up but remained a six-year old. That one! I know her, I know that one. She comes every week and sits on her folding chair, away from the driveway, and tells him about everything that hap-pened since her last visit. That one too I know very well. He never embarked on a trip to the Gulf countries without leaving behind a list of everything he owned so that in case he died she’d be able to live comfortably with her only son. But she died before him, leaving behind a list of all the things she loved in him and their lives together. Every Sunday he comes and reviews the list together again.”

“Somewhere near here, no doubt,” Hisham whispered, siz-ing a tree which appeared to have grown more than his eyes could reach. He stops the people he knew and those he didn’t and says: ‘Mister! Please, don’t be sad. His time is up. My dear friends, just like every one of you, I too have no choice. When the time comes, I come and we play an innocent game. You know the rules so no one can claim that the headman is more compassionate just because the latter offers a last wish. Hide out well and I’ll count from one to ten. Be careful to put your feet out of my sight. Hide under the beds or squat behind the water-tank in the attic. Hide in mines, submarines or in space rockets. Hide wherever you choose. When you all have hidden yourselves well, I’ll shout: Ready or not, here I come! The game will start. Once tagged, you better start digging your graves.’ ”

“Somewhere near here, no doubt!” Hisham said, veering south along the driveway. “He chews the root of a fresh grass hanging loosely in his mouth, and turns pages in his notebook. Every time he comes across an unfamiliar name he scours the faces. ‘You!’ he says to the unfamiliar face. ‘To you I’ll say first, open your eyes good and look at me! I’ve come to take your filthy soul because you killed, oppressed and made eyes cry of something other than love. Look how am I going to retrieve every vein in your body along with your soul. Look at the veins how they stretch, like elastic rubber, before they snap produc-ing the sound of the crack of a whip. Look, see and scream if you can. Scream away! You won’t be able to.’

That’s what he says to the man with the unfamiliar face. To the other he says, ‘Hey, you! You’ve seen enough, come relax under the shade of that tree yonder. Come. Close your eyes and dream a little. I promise you that this time your dream will not go away. You’re going to die, but your dream will live. You’ve lived just for that, right? I’ll grant it. Close your eyes and dream. From now on have no fear. Be sure that no harm will come to you; no dictator will take your liberty; no villain will persecute you; no illness will visit you; no hand will strike you; no depraved will insult you; no beloved will abandon you. You won’t suffer from hunger or from thirst. Do your thanks if you so wish, or keep your peace, your eyes have already spo-ken of gratitude.’ ”

‘Advance! Have no fear!’ Hisham hears him say to those who are looking behind their backs, worried that the dead may break the ground and drag them in. ‘Advance! You seem to fear the dead. Well, I know the dead more than the living, and I can say that they are more scared of you than you are of them. Advance, have no fear, the dead have no use for you. Like you, the dead were once alive but they experienced life and no longer had a desire for it. They’ve already spoken, I heard them. One thought it wasn’t worth it. Another thought it was a big con, a third said it was a raw deal. I can tell you that not many would like to be alive again. As for you, you’re going to experience life and there will come a day when you, too, look around but find nothing worth living for. You’ll discover all the shortcomings of life. Once that’s done, what is it that remains but to leave? You’ll be as bored of your friends as of your enemies. You’ll request that you join those who left be-fore you to escape all that’s wrong in life. First you’ll request, and then you’ll insist until your wish is fulfilled. Oy! You living all! Advance slowly but have no fear. It’s you who frighten the dead!’

“Somewhere near here, no doubt!” Hisham continued, veer-ing east in the driveway. “He stares at the visitors from below and says: ‘Welcome! You know me. The ultimate winner I am. If anyone has forgotten me for a moment, all he needs to re-member is to look around. If he sees me, let him urge his feet to carry him away. They won’t oblige. He’ll say to them in des-peration, ‘Why aren’t you taking me away?’ They’ll reply, ‘We make one step, he makes one step. We make two, he makes two. We run, he runs. We go into an alley, we find him in front of us. We stay put, he stays put. Why bother? Sit and wait for him.’ ”

“Somewhere near here, no doubt!” Hisham thought, look-ing over his shoulder for no apparent reason. “He stands in the corner of his choosing confident no resentful enemy will attack him from behind, sides or above. He knows no enemy, fear or defeat. He knows that man will remain defeated until man defeats death. But how can man defeat death except by death itself? Death is the winner whether he stands at the start-line with the competitors, arrives late or joins the ranks of the onlookers. You die, he’s a winner; you live, he’s a win-ner. Once out of the womb, he writes down your name, stands near the barrier and waits for you to come to him. Nothing will make him go away. Nothing will change the fact that he’s the ultimate winner, except for you not to happen. If you don’t happen, there’ll be no problem. If you do happen, even for one second, you won’t escape.”

Hisham waited for his son to stand up then asked, “Did you talk to each other?”

His son’s eyes remained fixed on his mum’s grave. “Yes! We did.”

“Did she tell you something that you want to tell me?”

“Yes. She said, ‘I saw you collect Aroub’s tears with your lips and I knew then that you loved her. Wissam, my son, follow her, please! Follow her to the end of the world. I’ll always pray for both of you.’ ”

“May God have mercy on her soul,” Hisham said. “Did she say anything about me?”

“Yes. She said, ‘Tell your dad I love him. I love him very much. You too love him as I love him. I want to see you like that always.’ ”

“Did you tell her something you want me to know?”

“Yes. But I don’t want to tell you now.”

Wissam swept the rainwater off the curved marble by his hand, collected it in the other hand and spattered the grave. They both opened their arms at the same time and hugged each other. Their chests shook together. The roses and flowers behind them shook too.
“We’re late,” Wissam said, wiping his eyes and walking away from the grave.

“Yes. Darkness falls quickly and suddenly here. I dislike coming in the evening.”

Wissam walked ahead towards the double gate where he waited as his father concluded a short prayer, raise his palms to his face, pick up the plastic bag and joined him.

The sudden arrival of darkness surprised the other visitors too. They folded chairs, picked up plastic bags and headed to the gate. Amidst the crawling mist, the visitors made it look as if the dead had risen from their graves and embarked on a collective stroll in their own garden, stopping here and there, telling each other about the events of the day: who visited; what was carried and laid; what was said; how the visitors shook their drooping heads and wept for the thousandth time.

“Maybe Aroub’s friend Nadida exaggerated a bit,” Hisham said to his son as they drove back home.

“I don’t think so. She cried hard as she described the state in which Aroub was when she visited her.”

“May God forgive our sins,” the father said. “How could he do such a thing to his own daughter?”

“Imagine! A girl, who is capable of extracting love out of hard rock, stands powerless before his hate.”

“And to top it all, he’s forcing her to marry against her will?”

“He made a pledge to his sister. He gave her three weeks to prepare her son for the engagement. That’ll be next week. You’d think Aroub is nothing but a pack of cigarettes.”

“I thought such things were behind us. What about Alia?”

“He hit her too. Imagine!”

Hisham shook his head. “Nadida must be exaggerating. Alia didn’t marry a man who would do such a thing. I don’t know a man who does that. Poor Angel! Aroub loves him; she said so many times. He loves her too. What happened is beyond me.”

“She’s been on the verge of death for two weeks now. He didn’t allow me to say to her a single word.”

“You did tell him that we’re ready to ask for her hand?”

“I did. I said to him, we’ll come any time he chooses; we’ll agree to any dowry, any condition, any request – anything. I also said to him that we’ll wait if he wants us to. I even prom-ised to stay away from her if he wouldn’t force her to wed her cousin Adham. But he’s blind. This man needs a psychothera-pist and fast.”

Said Hisham, “I told Alia I was ready to confront him, but she said that my presence would make things worse. Maybe she’s right, but I just can’t be an onlooker. This man wants to put all the blame on me. If he wants vengeance, so be it. But he should leave Aroub and her mum alone. They’ve done nothing to be blamed for.”

“He threatened me. He threatened me while twisting his daughter’s arm. ‘Mr. Wissam, if we had enough space in the house, I’d invite you to her engagement party,’ he said to me this morning. Have you seen anything more evil? ‘If I see you here,’ he further threatened, ‘I’d say to the authorities that you’re a spy.’ Have you ever heard something as filthy?”

“This can’t continue,” Hisham said. “Aroub needs to be seen by an eye specialist. He can’t get her to marry in the state she is in.”

“I don’t know why am I waiting a second more, but I’ll wait two more days and I will then go to Damascus come what may.”

“I don’t advise it. After what he’s done to his own daughter, anything is possible.”

“I can’t abandon her. I have to go. I have the visa.”

“I’ll ask Salma to go back to him again with her husband. She might be able to do something.”

“How could aunt go back? He threatened her with the scis-sors.”
“Then let’s wait a little. Maybe —”

“Maybe what? We don’t have time. I feel like a candle burn-ing on both ends. I must do something.”

“I fear for you.”

“I too fear for myself and for her. But my biggest fear is that I might one day have to confront myself if I am unsure I had done all I could at the time.”

“I won’t be less encouraging than your mum. But I can’t af-ford to lose everything. Maybe fate doesn’t want it to happen. Have you thought of that?”

Wissam remained silent. Hisham pushed a second possibil-ity under his son’s eyes. “Sometimes, for reasons unknown to us, fate intervenes and makes our decisions for us. Maybe this is one of those instances.”

Wissam could take no more. “What fate are you talking about,” he flared. “Here is a dad who, blinded by jealousy over nothing, has beaten his daughter and wants to force her to marry somebody she doesn’t love. What fate’s got to do with that? Could he have done that in London, Paris or Washing-ton? Why it’s fate over there, but it’s not fate here? When I drive a car and get run over by a tanker, that’s something! But when I sit behind the wheel and drive a car over the pavement, across a barrier and right into the river, what’s fate got to do with that?”

Hisham thought and saw fate differently. “I once asked a professor at Osaka University why some Japanese opt for ritu-al suicide? He threw his hands in the air in exasperation and said, ‘How can I explain? You won’t understand no matter how hard I tried. So I’m not going to try.’ ”
“In your place, I would have insisted. If he understood hari-kari, I don’t see why I wouldn’t. I understand what fate is, but I can’t understand your interpretation of it. When you fail to do something, you blame fate. Does fate want our destruction? What would he gain from our death, suffering and weeping? Fate gave us life, what kind of gratitude have we shown? Sad-ness, tears and grief? Do you know why we laugh? You don’t! Do you know why we smile? You don’t! Do you know why we feel happy? You don’t! You know the reason, but you don’t know why. The heart, the mouth and the lips that I have, do they love, laugh and smile by chance? Just like that! Did it come in the package of the flattened fish which is supposed to have been our first mother? Nonsense! Fate wanted us to laugh, smile and rejoice because you can’t be truly thankful to your creator unless you’re happy.”

“Don’t misinterpret what I said,” Hisham said. “Of course we’ve to try, but it’s our duty to be cautious. If something hap-pened to you at his hands, God forbid, how would that help Aroub? One is her dad, the other is her man.”

“You’re my dad, but you don’t know what I feel. I feel that I am now her dad, lover, friend and everything, just as she is now everything to me. At the wedding party of her uncle, there were over a hundred people. Her uncle came to us as we were talking to some of his friends. He pulled her from her arm. ‘Aroub, come dance,’ he said to her. ‘Come, it’s your turn now. Show us your dancing skills!’ Her answer? She raised her eye-brows to him. He sought the help of everybody and everybody did clap to encourage her, but she still raised her eyebrows. Finally, her mum pleaded with her, ‘Aroub, dance to please your uncle in his wedding party.’ But she nodded at me and said, ‘Ask him. If he agrees, I’ll dance, If he doesn’t, I won’t. And tell everybody: I’m dancing for him only. Others can look.’ She danced for me. Her mum, uncle and over a hundred people stood to watch her dancing for me. How can I forget that?”

“So I did miss something great! It’s not fair.”

“Aroub will find a way out. That I’m sure of. Like me, she turns in all directions. She thinks of all the one hundred things then applies herself to the two things that nobody thought ex-isted. If she’s watching TV, it’s only five per cent of her mind that’s engaged while the rest is mobilised for other things. And make no mistake – Aroub is not only my love; she is my wife. I haven’t asked for her hand formally yet but she is my wife. She knows that and everybody else does, including her mum, uncle and even her dad. If her dad chooses another man as a hus-band for her, he will be giving him my wife and I will take her back the minute I can, be it after a hundred years. I don’t know the forced candidate, but I know that I won’t take a girl from the man she loves, even if she were the last girl on earth. That’s why I have no respect for him or her dad. I won’t hesi-tate for a second to make them taste the bitter apples they keep pushing into my mouth.”

“Wissam, please don’t get me wrong. I’m only trying to help you.”

“You want to help me? Great. Thank you. But help me get her back. No more talk about fate, travel, cousin, devil or any-thing else. No more talk about anything to undermine my de-termination. No ifs; no bargaining. You Arabs are the best there is to bargain, but you only bargain on petty change. What others throw at you, you take as acts of fate. They’re not acts of fate. They’re decisions made by this individual or that and have nothing whatsoever to do with fate. If everything is fate, why the Day of Judgement? You want to accept what’s happened as an act of fate, fine. It’s your personal choice. I am not like that. With the exception of death, I know that there is a solution to everything. If I don’t find the solution, it must be my fault. I didn’t think as hard as I should.”

Wissam parked the car outside the garage of the house, dis-embarked and waited for his dad to get out before locking the door. His dad stayed behind. Wissam lowered his head and looked. His dad was looking ahead, at a curve that preceded the main street, at the most critical turning point in his life. He bowed low before he finally got out.
Standing beside his son on the pavement, Hisham ducked and spat on something. He turned to his son, “Had I thought the way you do twenty-five years ago, I wouldn’t be looking at you today. From now on there shall be no remorse.”
“So help me.”
“You don’t need anybody’s help. I and others are only span-ners in your wheel. You do what you have to do with all my blessing but you should know that my support for you and Aroub is unconditional, total and absolute. You plan and you act and I will say to you that I approve whatever it is.”
“You could be making a mistake.”
“No, I’m not. Maybe you don’t remember, but I do. I once took you with me to a reception which was attended by the MP of our borough. That was before the general elections. You were the only child present. Remember?”
“Of course, I do.”
“Do you remember what he said to you before we went to the restaurant?”
“I remember that he put his hand on my head, turned it to the audience and said something. I remember that everybody laughed, but I don’t remember what he said. I was hungry.”
“He said, ‘When time comes for the fourth general elections, I’ll read the list of the candidates. If I find this young man’s name, I won’t run because I’ll lose.’ ”
“He might have, had I been inclined to politics.”
“He might, I’m sure. But I’m not sure of something else.”
“What’s that?”
“Have you bought a ticket to Damascus?”
“Not yet.”
“Whenever you do, make them two tickets. I have on my British passport a multiple-trip visa that I think is still valid.”
“What about your work?”
“What work? You and Aroub are my work now. Is your mum to compete with me even on this?”
“The general assembly of International ME Investments will convene after the feast. You’ve been preparing for that meeting for seven months.”
“It could be seven years for all I care.”
“You will not be elected.”
“They can go to hell with all their posts. What did you think?”

About the author

Adel Bishtawi

Adel S (Said) Bishtawi was born in Nazareth, Palestine, 1945. He read English Literature at Damascus University, attended short courses of familiarisation of languages including Latin, German and Russian, and attended a course in Linguistics at the Central London Polytechnic.

Adel published more than 20 books in both English and Arabic. the last of which is Only When Desire Screams co-authored by Selvi Sado. A journalist since the late 1960s, he became Front Page Editor of Al Arab Newspaper (London), the first pan Arab Newspaper launched in Europe. In 1978, he joined Jihad Al Khazin in launching Asharq Al Awsat Newspaper (London) as Business and Supplements Editor. In 1980, he was appointed Central Managing Editor of the Emirates News Agency in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In 1988, he joined Jamil Mrowa (who later re-launched the Daily Star in Beirut in 1996) in London for the re-launch of Al Hayat Newspaper and continued under the editorship of Jihad Al Khazin until he left in April 2001 to dedicate what is left of his time to literary and historical writing. as well as investigating origins by means of historical and etymological linguistics.

Adel produced and co-produced a number of TV documentaries. He produced, directed and wrote “Muslims along the Silk Road”, a five part-60-minutes-each documentary tracing Muslim culture and heritage and the legacy of Muslim pioneers and merchants along the Silk Road starting from China.

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