A travel document to hell
A short story by Adel Bishtawi
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!”
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 two most important Palestinian characteristic – endurance and defiance.
Image credit: Reuters