The text you see before you is a typical example of Abdul Rahman Munif’s monumental literary achievement. Munif who, alongside Naguib Mahfouz, was considered the architect of modern Arab literature, wrote both essays and literary pieces, placing a critical mirror in the face of the depraved Arab regimes and the exploitive and corrupt Western colonialism. After publishing his monumental novel Cities of Salt he was declared a persona non grata in Saudi Arabia. This may be why this delicate and sensitive story won me over. This is an almost universal story that stirred the sweet and sad memories I have of my grandmother Farhaa Moalem may she rest in peace, who died in the nineties when she herself was in her nineties. This is not only because Munif was, towards the end of his life, an Iraqi who spoke her Arabic; not only because my grandmother Farhaa had become very old and her steps became measured; and not only because she sat and waited with endless patience for our rare visits. Her door was also open. She too said the same things. From her I learnt that I wasn’t secular, that I was also Arabic and that my politics would always identify with the weak. She also spoke of those who grow up and then leave, or those who travel to study and never return. Later, I too went to say goodbye to her before going away.
The last thing I decided I would do before going away was to say farewell to my grandma.
By noon I was watching Ghasreen, a small town located at the heart of a small valley. It looked strange to me, repulsive with its long bare trees and old densely packed houses in the middle, with some distant houses at the edge of the strange hills. Wind crosses the roads coarsely, making me shiver, combining cold with fear.
Even the tiny rivulet, as I was crossing the bridge, seemed to me different from what it was before.
I did not want to look at people’s faces too much. Under my arm I was carrying a small gift that I wanted to leave my grandma as a last token. I strongly felt I would not see her again after this encounter, for when I returned from my mad journey she would have left the world.
My grandma had grown very old these last few years and was getting older by the day. Walking had become an exhaustingly heavy task for her, the wrinkles on her face resembled lines made in the soft ground by two oxen, and the stick she had used for pleasure was now an inseparable third leg.
Crossing the alley at the end of which my grandfather’s house is located, I told myself: “I won’t let her speak of memories tonight. I will flood her with talking about trees, animals and rain, and feign fatigue early, so that at sunrise I’ll endure all of her sad words and run away fast.”
The children in the alley are playing with clay, chasing dogs and cats, while women are standing by the doors of the houses as they always did.
I hastened to stop staring so no one would suddenly recognize me and stop me. Women may often remember sad things.
I said to myself: “I don’t need additional sadness,” remembering the often told story of the trees, a meaningless one, resembling lament over oneself.
These words created a rebellion-like nervousness deep inside me.
Chasing away my sad thoughts I said: “Everyone must die. My grandma will die just like my grandpa and maternal uncle. Sadness is usually reminiscent of death. I don’t want to be sad, nor do I want my grandma to die now.”
I briefly greeted two women who had been my mother’s friends, giving them no opportunity to speak, and then walked on. I realized I was followed by their gaze.
My steps were steady and quick. I no longer cared much what people were saying about me. I am not a snob, nor do I like people who show off, yet I have nothing to say to them.
People nowadays are overwhelmed by pessimistic thoughts, instead of, at least taking care of a living, while I am leaving now for that very purpose.
Documents were examined, an interview was held, numerous questions were put to me, and that was it. They told me: “You’re leaving on Wednesday.”
The town doesn’t look now like the one where I spent those lovely long gone summers. I feel it has incredibly changed. It has inwardly changed.
Although some familiar locations are just as they were when I left them ten years ago, they have aged, wrinkled by both the wind and death, and been hit by dizziness as the result of what they have seen and heard. And yet they keep on standing, tall and stupid, awaiting some new catastrophe.
I sadly said to myself: “Places, like people, change considerably.”
Next I thought: “It is people who change. Places only change slowly and mutely. They are inwardly peeled up, they become empty like a hollow cane, then they suddenly collapse all at once. People don’t act like that. They are eaten up by a worm named sadness. It is black and has tiny invisible breasts. At night, however, it grows until it becomes as large as a grey whale lying on one’s chest.”
Kicking a tiny stone I said to myself: “That worm that has killed other people is going to kill me as well, so if I decide to leave my grandma and my memories behind, I must first forget the tale of that accursed worm.”
My grandma’s house is located at the end of the alley. It had changed so much that I hardly recognized it. I said to myself: “It doesn’t matter much whether it has changed or hasn’t. I am the one who has changed.”
I gave it a closer look, and it seemed to have remained as tall as before, but the stones of the wall surrounding the garden had fallen down on the left side of the wall.
I can see the chickens playing with their dirty feet close to the wall and inside the garden.
The walnut tree close to the door is completely bare, as if it were a heavy winter now.
I asked myself, reminiscing: “Is this the same tree that served as both a swing and a bird nest during that summer?”
Coming closer I thought: “A house always needs a man able to repair the outer wall and the roof. A woman, even one like my grandma, cannot do everything by herself.”
The door is swinging. The wind is blowing gently, pushing it effortlessly. It’s the very door I entered thousands of times. Do doors tire of movement, of remaining where they are?
I imagined my grandma inside the house, for why else should she leave the door open?
Her features came to my mind – short and skinny, wide eyes that move slowly as if the thoughts that light up her mind leave her no leisure to move her eyes, her lips resolutely tight the way only harsh desperate people do. And her hands so bony that anyone looking at them might think they are upside down. Her veins are swollen and blue, her bones bare and sharpened as if they were covered with delicate scales.
Her nose is sharp and small, involuntarily moving like an open door.
When my grandma sees me, she will calmly look at me. She won’t act like other women, even when she has made sure who I am. She’ll hit the ground with her stick and get up like a kitten, pushing away both memory and thought, bringing back her suffering through remembering.
I used to hear my grandma say the same words which, as I remember them now, breed in my mind thoughts I don’t like.
She would say: “You must not grow up fast. Those who do are gone just as fast,” then she would embrace me nervously.
In her clothes and breath I smell some past time smell. Is it the smell of dreams, or, perhaps, that of some hidden wish for sadness? I really don’t know.
She would hold me tight for long minutes, and whenever I tried to escape her I would find the palm of her hand behind my back, just like a plough digging deep into the ground.
I did not rebel against it, but often gave in, thinking: “This old woman must have something to cling to, now that they are all gone.”
As soon as that embrace ended, slowly, hardly did I look at her face than I found traces of a tiny tear she knew very well how to wipe off or hide.
In order to suck out my grandma’s sadness I would use pompous words.
I remember saying to her once: “Do you know no other bridge whereby to reach my love but sadness?”
She looked at me when she heard those unripe words crossing my lips: “You must not grow up like them. They grew up fast, and then were gone fast. I would like to remember you only as a child, do you hear, a child, just as you were before you learnt how to talk.”
Both of us tried hard, with clearly visible effort, to create a new atmosphere.
She started asking me the same questions: “Are you tired? Are you hungry?”
I would shake my head, meaning a negative reply, then she would look at me close and ask me, using a new harsh tone: “Why do you look so pale?”
I would repeat the same words over and over again: “Traveling, studying, nothing, Grandma, tomorrow I’ll be as agile as ever, you’ll see for yourself.”
The door moans as I proceed. A few more steps and I’ll see her. She’ll be sitting on the window bench facing the door, or in the middle room, smoking. She’ll hit the ground with her cane and get up. This time she seems to have grown old.
I remember the last time she came to see us in the city. She was extremely old. I saw her grow old as if some years had passed during those four days she spent with us. She insisted on refusing to stay any longer, angrily shouting at my father:
“Would you like to kill everything? The old woman, the animals and the trees? Let me go back. If I stay here a day longer I’ll drop dead!”
No one was able to face her anger. My mother tried hard in vain, while my aunts tried very hard. They made her some enticing promises, all of which she flatly rejected. When I instructed the driver how to get to my grandpa’s house in the village, she leaned towards me, saying calmly, annoying me extremely: “Don’t grow up! You of all people must not grow up!”
As I put down my foot on the threshold, the door shook as if wishing to stop me. I pushed it open and entered. I looked under the vine but didn’t find my grandma.
The door of the middle room was open, darkness mingling with the remains of the past.
I took my time, wishing to leave her the joy of discovering me there. I coughed lightly as men do, and looked.
This is my grandma’s house: four rooms, my uncle’s room on the left, next an inner room behind a tall roofless wall, followed by two rooms on the right, then, close to my uncle’s room, there’s a well. In the middle there are seed containers, two vines and a cherry tree. Facing the well, on the other side, there’s a tall large chicken coop, and a smaller one for the rabbits.
Nothing moved but the sound of the wind playing with the last autumn flowers in the rectangular container along the earthen path up to the rooms, while the door behind me was moaning in an accursed hoarse sound.
I let myself walk. Surely my steps will draw my grandma’s attention. My shadow precedes me and she must see it, even if she doesn’t wish to hear my voice.
The door of the middle room is open, my grandma’s pipe is in its place, but the bed has been pushed to the right side of the front of the room.
I advanced much more, until I could no longer bear her ignoring me.
I shouted with a voice I tried to charge with both glee and fear: “The imp has come! Where are you, Grandma?”
Without stopping, I kept talking to her: “Where are you hiding?”, yet heard no reply.
I entered the room and found no one there. I went into the next room and looked, but found no one there either.
I considered the possibility of bursting into my uncle’s room, but this idea brought back an unbearable scene, so I gave it up.
I went to any place where I might find her, yet she wasn’t there.
I approached the well, sat down on its brim and looked at my uncle’s room.
A white curtain dangled down the window diagonally, letting anyone who wished to look there see everything.
From where I was sitting I looked hard, in the hope of seeing my grandma’s silhouette, but both the sound of the wind and the soft darkness inside the room let me see absolutely nothing.
I touched the door knob and turned it. Up till then I had never thought that grandma might leave that door open.
Every house has a room considered as the house sanctuary. My uncle’s room occupies this role in this house. As a sanctuary, it must not be left insufficiently protected.
No one may ever enter it. It was always secret and obscure.
It has been like that for a very long time, since we were very young.
“Don’t come closer, he is reading! He is sleeping. Don’t annoy him!”
When we grew older it became: “Don’t come closer, he couldn’t sleep all night. Let him sleep now an hour or two! He has taken a sleeping pill, yet sleep refuses to visit him!”
So this room became a scary site.
“How does my grandma leave this room unlocked?” I asked myself, entering it.
It was so clean that I couldn’t think of any other room in our entire city that could possibly be just as clean.
The walls are painted white with some blue, covered with photos of a plain horse, a football player and noble horses, followed by a group of smaller photos stuck together: birds and women and a man who puts his head between his hands, thinking.
The bed had sunk in the middle, taking the shape of the body, and the bedclothes were turned upside down at the edge in order to offer enticing ease for anyone who wished to go to sleep there.
The desk, standing under the window, was covered with several books, a clothes brush, a comb and a small round mirror, part of which had been painted, making the desk look dark.
What else was there in this room? I looked around, wishing to find out.
I found some other things that made the roof the same as any other one: a long bench that may serve as both a bed and a bench, two chairs, ash trays and a bundle of wheat in a ceramic vase.
There was something invisible in the room which, however, was more present than anything else. There was warmth there, and a presence, traces of cigarette smoke, and some breath.
I couldn’t possibly identify what it was, yet I felt it, dense and heavy. As though someone had just left it and was about to return in a minute.
Just as I had foreseen, women possess two particular kinds of senses – sadness and love of curiosity.
No longer had I spent some minutes in the attempt to decipher my uncle’s room than I heard the sound of my grandma’s cane hitting the floor.
I sat down on a chair, near the window, and started looking at her as she approached me.
She had aged as though she had grown some decades older than she was when I last saw her four months before in the city. Her footsteps were fast yet faltering, while her head was turning like a swimmer’s, attempting to get a breath of air in order to neither die nor drown.
I left all other rooms and went in the direction of my uncle’s room.
She seemed to have felt I was there, so, using the same calm I had known for many years, she opened the door in order not to bother anyone, and entered.
I did something wrong for which I’ll never forgive myself, for as soon as she saw me she threw away her cane like someone who had finally lost all hope and fell down on the floor, crying.
I filled up with remorse, feeling somehow I was guilty. I tried to raise her up, yet failed, hearing her cry like that.
It was the first time I heard her cry like that. Previously I had seen her tears, but this time I saw something graver than tears – it was deadly despair.
After a while, that seemed like eternity to me, some women came. My grandma got up sad and exhausted. She washed her face and smiled, or attempted to do so, while I pretended to speak plainly, speaking of my aunts and city life, asking the women about the town and the rain, while my grandma remained completely silent, looking at me from time to time, posing a fearful question that I saw rising between her eyes and her head that was moving mechanically and purposelessly.
At night I tried to alleviate the pain I had caused my grandma. I said to her: “You should move to the city, because staying in this accursed house is burning up your nerves.”
She did not reply, only smiled a challenging mocking smile. She looked at me but remained silent.
I realized my words were melting in the air before settling down in her memory. I also realized that similar words had been spoken to her endless times, yet to no avail, and had merely made her angry on most of such occasions.
Encouraging me to eat, my grandma said: “You must never grow up! I think now I see how much you’ve grown.”
I said, asking her to share my meal: “You must eat! Don’t worry about me, Grandma, I’m still very young! I have just started living!”
She unexpectedly got up, tearing away the shawl from the bed. I wanted to surprise her, so I put it back into place, then shaped it into a triangle, threw both of its edges over her shoulders, letting its top drop over her back.
It was a black shawl embroidered with gentle silver threads. She hurriedly looked at it, then looked at me. Her eyes had filled with a question that was more like anger, as though she were scolding me.
I said, somewhat unsettled: “My mother sent it to you. Did she do something wrong by sending it?”
She looked at it again, touched its edge with her dry wrinkled fingers, then pulled me up to her and kissed me on the cheek a kiss not as warm as her previous one, nor in the manner I was used to.
Then came silence, in which I could hear my grandma’s thoughts hovering over my head, scolding me for the waste of money, possibly also regarding the inutility of bringing her city trinkets she didn’t really need.
Up to that moment I had been unable to tell her anything about my journey. I figured out that even a single word might kill her, and even if it didn’t, it would cause her more pain than she could take.
Before I went to sleep, just the way I decided not to plunge into the kind of talk that might pain my grandma, she threw herself down on the bed, close to my pillow, and said, touching my hair with her wrinkled hand: “Today I saw you had grown older so fast as to cause me pain.”
“Grandma, is this the reason why you cried when you saw me?”
“It is, as well as some others.”
“I am sorry you cried. If I had imagined that coming here would hurt you so much, I wouldn’t have come.”
“I’ve got used to it, my son, and so will you.”
“So why did you cry so bitterly?”
“I did because I couldn’t find him. I thought you were…”
She was unable to speak any longer. Tears streamed down her cheeks fast and strong, yet soundless. I was very happy she had spoken, hoping this would put an end to her sadness, yet it only renewed her tears.
Following a heavy wordless pause, she wiped her eyes with her sleeve, saying in a voice demonstrating traces of her tears: “If I had known it was you who were coming, I would be happy now, yet the women who asked me to hurry up to my home didn’t tell me who had arrived.”
I stupidly asked her in order to alleviate her pain: “Were you not expecting me?”
“You told me you were coming, but those accursed women…”
“Did they tell you something different?”
“Oh, I wish they had said something different, but they shouted: ‘Run, old woman, run, for there’s a dear guest in your house.’ This made me think and speculate.”
“Still, were you expecting someone other than me, Grandma?”
“You must go to sleep now. I, however, must make fresh dough, go to sleep now!”
I wondered and looked at her large indecisive eyes, I pondered long. My thoughts wandered and I felt there was something shady here, otherwise why would my grandma act like that?
I let her get up. She went away, then returned several times, carrying flour, then water, then when she settled on a small mattress ready to start making her dough I asked her: “Grandma, what would you say if I traveled somewhere far?”
She turned towards me, wishing to look me in the eye in order to read my thoughts before she replied.
I was unable to look at her. Her eyes were as sharp as burning iron nails, and her lips were locked up with strong determination close to disdain.
When I looked away to escape her, she cried sharply: “Look at me!”
I looked at her, as obedient as an errant child.
“You have grown up more than necessary.”
Following a short silence she added: “You must never grow up!” Then she went on to talk to herself in a tone of harsh reprimand: “I won’t let you grow any older than this!”
Softening my wondering words with playfulness in order to ease her state of mind I replied: “Grandma, my journey won’t be long, and I’ll bring you generous presents!”
“Quiet! You must go to sleep now!”
“I cannot bear sleeping, and before I go away I wish you would approve of my journey and accept it!”
She got up calmly. It didn’t occur to her to make use of her cane. She jumped up like someone walking over hot sand. As soon as she reached the closest part of the bed, she seized my feet in order to be able to reach me.
I sat up and offered her both of my hands. As soon as she grabbed them, she squeezed them saying: “I am not giving you my word of consent, nor do I want you to go away from here!”
“But I won’t be away for long; I will write you letters and return very soon.”
“Those who travel far never return, and if they do, it’s only after a very long time.”
“But I will, Grandma!”
“Do you know why I cried when I saw you today?”
“I don’t, and I’m still afraid of asking you.”
“I thought it was he who had returned .The women just told me there was a beloved guest in my house.”
“I am the one who came. Don’t you want me?”
“But I thought it was he. I have been waiting for him for so long, his journey has lasted so long, yet he is sure to return!”
It was only then that I realized my grandma was waiting for my uncle’s return.
My uncle was the only brother of three sisters, and only my mother was younger than him. He was close to us in a very special way, and therefore visited us every few days.
And yet, whenever I saw my uncle, I felt something like sadness shade our home.
It was sadness with no clear source. I would see him sitting near the pool in our city house or in the guest room, silence hovering over him like a cloud.
My mother would bring him coffee but never spoke to him unless he wanted to, while his silence made him slip away minute by minute, as if he wished to evaporate and not be noticed by anyone.
His pale face and tired red eyes evoked a hidden sadness within us.
I often tried to ask my mother about my uncle’s silence, but each time I was confronted by a dry reply that only begot further unanswered questions.
In the village, where we regularly used to spend our summers following the end of our school year, I would see him quite often. He was tall and white skinned, and so slim that his shape would raise in our hearts an awareness of a kind of sensitivity uncommon to the kind of men we used to see in the fields or shops.
He did nothing but read, and when my mother felt he was exhausted by reading, she would whisper in his ear trying to revitalize him: “You exhaust yourself far too much! You must stop staying up so late! Why do you stay up every night?”
She never waited for him to answer, but kept on talking in the same sad whisper: “It’s enough for you to read for an hour or two!”
My uncle would smile, but not answer. If she insisted, he would say:
“I prefer reading to any other occupation!” Then his tone changed and he asked her: “What do you want me to do?”
“Read, but reading has its limits! Human beings are not made of steel, so you cannot endure this for long.”
“Don’t be afraid on my behalf! I am strong and healthy and when I tire of reading I go to sleep.”
Then he smiled, speaking further, in order to make her trust him: “Reading is a fine pastime, and every pastime strengthens people rather than weakens them!”
“But my mother says that you sleep no longer than a single hour per night, and whenever she gets up she finds you reading!”
“Your mother doesn’t want me to read at all. She says: ‘Your eyes, your health…'”
Then his tone changed completely as he added: “I do sleep a lot! I sleep both at night and in the afternoon!”
Reading was my uncle’s sole pastime. I don’t remember ever seeing him in the company of any friends. He did have some acquaintances, but the time he spent with them was difficult for him, and he could only relax when he was back with his books and silence.
He didn’t read incessantly, though, for I often watched him fold up his book and his look would wander, staring at the walls or the vine. Sometimes he would drop the book, and this woke him up. Sometimes I would see him mutter in a low voice as though he was repeating some verses or singing.
Once back to his book he would read slowly, so that the pages were only rarely turned.
Was he reading? Was he thinking? No one can answer such questions.
When I got a rare opportunity to look into the books he used to read, they seemed to me incomprehensible but exciting.
My mother would insist on keeping us away from those books, following my father’s instruction: “Look after the children! I don’t want him to do them any harm with his books and ideas. These books cause trouble. It’s politics and heresy.”
I saw French books whose titles were incomprehensible to me. Some of them had covers with pictures of girls and men carrying guns and smoking. Only very few of his books were written in Arabic, and he seldom read them.
Once my uncle decided to get himself a governmental position, only after he had failed to become a farmer. His father had told him time and again he could work with him, though all of the latter’s efforts were to no avail. The old lady did not interfere, except in order to side with her son. She used to struggle with my grandpa, using harsh words. when he once tried to be rude to her, she said: “This boy was not made to be a farmer. Agriculture can make do with a horse…” and pointed her finger at him.
My grandpa would laugh, pleased with himself, but this only lasted a minute, after which he would burst out asking:
“What would you like him to be if he is not a farmer?”
“Let him choose for himself!”
“Let him do something, then, anything!”
“Don’t you worry, he’s my son, I suckled him at my breast and know what he’s going to become.”
“I am not worried, yet you know very well that men were not made to stay at home.”
“Would you like to kill him?”
“He’ll kill himself if he goes on like this.”
My grandma mostly had the upper hand at the end of discussion. My grandpa would always be persuaded by her, though his persuasion was mixed with doubt and uncertainty.
My grandma would talk to my mother, asking her to try and persuade my uncle to do something with himself, and think of his future.
Whenever my mother spoke with him, she would use quiet respectful words she had learnt at elementary school, and the two of them often agreed with each other.
He would say to her: “I would like to go on studying. I don’t want to stay here.”
No one could really understand my uncle.
Then one day, three months after my grandpa died, my uncle took a position at the urban court of law.
He was a clerk. When he returned from work he seemed to have completely changed.
Pallor and challenge, which had been his most prominent features, now became a shadow hanging over his eyes and face all night and all day long.
Once I asked my mother about my uncle’s troubles and silence. First she hesitated, then she said: “He always had a single worry, but since he started working at court it has doubled up.”
“Which worries do you refer to, Ma?”
“Your uncle always felt insecure with regard to everything. He used to think that life was nothing but misery and failure, and nothing helped him get rid of this belief. But since he started working at court, he has daily experienced an incredible number of facts supporting this sad worldview.”
I asked my mother about the thoughts that preoccupied my uncle, but her words dwindled off and I could understand nothing of what she said.
Next, after my uncle had completely changed, combining sadness with insomnia, his pallor spread from his face down to his entire person.
His fingers were shaking, his eyes were red, tears sometimes flowing down his face, and his clothes became so loose as to seem to belong to some other man, larger than himself.
On that day, following a long discussion between my mother and my uncle, he went away.
He went to Marseilles after my mother was persuaded to give him some money for his expenses and after he took a leave from the court of law.
Still, as soon as he left town, the court confiscated my grandfather’s money as a guarantee for my uncle’s debt to them.
Up till then my grandmother had thought this was some temporary joke that must somehow end. Things, however, now took a different shape.
My uncle had put his trust in a Frenchman who lived in Marseilles, who had come here earlier and had a strong contact with my grandfather that had resulted in his selling him a large quantity of wheat from both our village and several neighboring ones.
As the result of this deal, and some similar ones, for which my uncle served as an interpreter, the two men talked long about studying, Marseilles and France.
My uncle, then, went to Marseilles, hoping to continue his studies there, but things did not go well.
No sooner had he arrived in Marseilles than he found out that the Frenchman had passed away. His demise put an end to all the hopes he had nurtured of getting a scholarship or continuing his studies.
The money he had brought was spent during the first months of his stay there, and the letters he sent my mother began expressing despair.
He never asked for money, nor did he want anything. He would repeatedly tell episodes depicting both his sad state and suffering, using words that scared my mother.
Finally my mother bought a flight ticket and sent it to Marseilles to my uncle’s address.
My grandma refused to believe that my uncle had gone on such a faraway journey. She thought he was hiding somewhere close for some time, due to an affair with some woman who was sure to show up sometime, and never believed what my mother said, thinking she was keeping the existence of this woman a secret.
The ticket my mother had sent returned, and the university office sent my father a sad letter that left us no hope.
“We are sorry to inform you that we got your address through the late student’s documents. He had been ill and hospitalized following a two month absence from our university. His illness was caused by poor nutrition. The hospital informed us that the late student was almost well again, but the matter ended strangely and abruptly, and so hints it was his decision. He left this world on Monday, November 17 1960. The hospital’s administration has requested us not to do anything with the deceased’s body before we learn what his family wished to be done with it.
The university’s administration wishes to express its condolences and sadness regarding this painful affair. We hope you send us your reply regarding your wish as soon as possible. We had rather some member of the family come here in case you wish to have him buried in his home country.
Awaiting your reply let us again express our heartfelt emotions with regard to this unfortunate incident.”
That was how my uncle’s life ended, remaining a troubling mystery for all of us.
Yet when my grandma heard about this from the town women, she said:
“He couldn’t possibly have died! Liars, whoever says he has died is a liar! He is sure to return!”
No one contradicted her, everyone kept still out of respect for her grief.
Both my aunts and relatives’ wives cried bitterly over my uncle but spoke harshly of my mother, saying it was she who had killed him by encouraging him to go abroad.
The men said his suicide must never be discussed, as not only is suicide shameful, but it is also a breach of religious law.
In order to end this story quietly, without leaving any trace whatsoever, they sent both the hospital and university administrations telegrams requesting that my uncle be buried in Marseilles, insistently requesting that the burial be conducted according to Islamic law.
So this was my uncle’s end, and yet my Grandma has refused to believe it.
Therefore, when I came into town to bid her farewell, she thought my uncle had returned.
This is what I gathered or guessed from what she repeatedly said before she kneaded the dough, resting in my lap on the mattress that night.
I left town without disclosing my leaving. I didn’t tell my grandma the whole truth. I only told her the necklace was a gift sent to her by my mother. I had some business to finish in our home country, then I might have to go abroad for a while.
My grandma considered everything I said as lightheartedness or as some kind of coarse joke unsuitable for one like me.
All night long, as well as the next morning, she repeatedly said:
“You must never grow older! You must return to your grandpa’s land! You won’t be by yourself – one day your uncle will come, and you’ll work together. The land, the land, my child, needs men. The land, the land, since your grandpa passed away, has not regained its strength. You have to stay here and till the land, and when your uncle returns he’ll fall in love with the green land and fruitful trees, but if he returns and finds the land hard, devoid of trees and vegetables, he may go away again.”
I remained silent and did not say a single word. I knew my uncle had passed away many years before and his bones were now lying in a Marseilles cemetery.
It is a Christian one, no doubt, because when people die they all look alike, with no difference between Christians and Moslems. They are all equally dead, and the dead don’t differ from one another. They all sleep peacefully, without remembering anything about their relatives, as well as their former conflicts.
I left town the following morning.
The trees were old, big and desperate. The walls of the houses had lost their color and they seemed painted with the pale color of graves. Even the rivulet seemed superfluous and strange, and I was unable to look at its water as I crossed the bridge in the direction of the bus station that was to take me to the city.
My grandma took off her shawl, and when I asked her to put it on, she replied:
“I won’t put it on unless you or your uncle return. Then I’ll be able to take out of my chest many lovely things I haven’t worn for ever so long!”
I left everything behind, feeling pain and sadness, my mind full of stupid questions to which I can never find an answer: “Why did my uncle go away? Why did he kill himself? And I… if I go away, will I ever return? And my grandma, will she survive until I do?”
These kinds of questions went on bothering me, remaining unanswered.
I returned in the summer, following an exhausting year of study during which I felt that traveling meant suffering, and that like a flowing river it, too, both rejuvenates you and pushes you towards dangerous waterfalls.
I was carrying a present I had tried to choose carefully for my grandma.
I had bought a shawl, this time a black one.
I don’t know why I chose this color, and yet I figured out that my grandma, waiting for my uncle, had aged considerably, and that black would suit her better than any other color.
I had asked my mother about my grandma, but she didn’t answer me, attempting to avoid my question. I repeated my question, yet got no answer.
When I went into town on the following day, I was convinced everything had ended.
My mother’s silence was a sharp final answer to my earlier question, stronger than any words, yet I don’t know why she let me come.
The town was still lying between the mountains, the trees were green and covered by leaves, the air was dry, coarse and almost hot, but the water of the river as I crossed the bridge was flowing with deaf energy.
I made a stop on the bridge, and many thoughts flooded my mind: “Has my uncle returned? Is my grandma still alive, or did she die long ago? Have I grown up, or remained a small boy?”
Still the water passed on under the bridge, energetic and plentiful.
When I hurriedly passed the alley, approaching my grandpa’s house, I found the door open.
My heartbeats increased and I strongly felt that my grandma was standing at the door and if she wasn’t there, she was no doubt waiting in the middle room.
She’ll be standing there on her three feet, she’ll jump at me, and I’ll breathe in her bosom and clothes the smell of childhood and of green trees, the smell of the land…
I passed through the door, went around the rooms, found my uncle’s room looking exactly the same as always, clean and full of photos, and yet a single thing touched me, filling me with inexplicable sadness – the dust lying on the bed and table.
Before I could end my tour, several women, my grandpa’s neighbors, came by. Their eyes that preceded their words made me feel everything had come to an end.
When I left town, everything seemed strange and unfamiliar to me – the trees, the alleys, and the rivulet.
At the end of the alley I stopped to look back.
The door was still open, as though expecting someone to arrive.