The day I moved from the city to the country my dog returned his spirit to the God who gave it. I do not know whether it was the shock of the move or just a coincidence. Nevertheless, at one-thirty in the morning, after a death rattle that appeared suddenly and lasted a few hours, he lay his head in my lap, shivered one last time and went limp, while defecating on our new wooden flooring. Throughout that evening I could hear the jackals howling from the dry riverbed nearby. I don’t think there was any special reason, certainly nothing symbolic. The jackals were being jackals, and their howls were just howls. Yet back then their sound was still foreign to me and struck me as ominous. Moreover, at the very same moment the dog endured his final spasm, I heard a loud, guttural howl that was altogether different from those that had preceded it. I’m a rational person, but I must admit – it sent a shiver down my spine, and for a moment I was almost convinced it was the dog’s soul, parting from this world in fury and disappointment. Still, I ultimately dismissed it as just another of the jackals’ howls. For who can comprehend all their words and cries? And besides, whatever its source, the howl too ceased definitively after a few moments. Just like the dog.
I buried him in the riverbed the following morning. It seemed more respectful than taking him to the vet, where they would have undoubtedly sent him off in a black trash bag to a crematorium for biological waste. There was also the issue of transportation: conveying a dead body, albeit canine, in one’s trunk is a rather messy affair for the average law-abiding citizen. A burial felt more dignified. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return. Since you’ve already made it to the valley where we hoped you would roam, at least your bones will be laid to rest honorably in its soil. I do not wish to exhaust the reader with the fine details of the burial. In a nutshell, the dog was somewhat overweight, and the dry rocky ground of early summer refused to accede to my shovel’s pleas. Eventually, I buried my beloved dog in a hole not as deep as I would have wished for him, and tried to compensate for it by mounding a large pile of stones I had collected from nearby.
In the days that followed, I refrained from going anywhere near the grave. Maybe I was just being sentimental, or perhaps it was the strange odor that had come to envelop the yard, suggesting that the grave had not been properly sealed. All the same, after observing the traditional shiva week of mourning, I was overcome by an urge to check what had become of him, especially as the odor had begun knocking gently on the windows of the house during the nights. My heart told me that the scene I would encounter would not be a pretty one, but I was motivated by a sense of responsibility: what if a child walks by and comes across the grave, which I now began to suspect was open? Again, I will not tire the reader with graphic details. Suffice it to say that a half-eaten leg was protruding from the ground, like a strange summer bloom. The foot was completely intact, including the fur in its original honey hue: a true collectors’ item. Below, however, there was only gnawed red flesh with pieces of brown bone poking out. I fled home, praying the jackals would finish their sloppy work as quickly as possible.
A few weeks later, on a mid-summer Saturday morning, I was out having a light breakfast in the garden when I suddenly heard another strange cry coming from the valley. This time, I was not under any kind of hurry, and could consider the sound more intently. It was a throaty, agonized cry, like the one a moose or a giant rooster might produce, though neither have ever lived in the southern Judean foothills. My next speculation was that a dog or a jackal had gotten caught in a leg trap, the kind that locks onto the bone and bores a serrated hole into it. I once heard that there were partridge hunters in the area, so it was possible one of them might have set up a trap and mistakenly caught an animal with which he could do nothing except toss it away on the roadside. I waited another minute to see whether the sounds would subside, and when they did not, I set out running through the back gate to see if I could help. As I ran downhill, a potbellied man of about fifty appeared before me, wearing a woolen sweater and hat, despite the hot weather.
“Did you hear the hyena down there?” he asked.
I held my tongue. For a moment I was filled with a strange fear that he was an inspector who suspected I had buried the dog against the regulations.
“I saw it there, on the path.” He turned and pointed. “You’d be better off not going down there.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Only if you’re a carcass,” he laughed. “No. It’ll just run off the moment it realizes you’re after it. They’re smart animals, those hyenas. Smarter than dogs.”
I got the hint, so I thanked him and walked back home. I waited quietly behind the orange tree in my yard until I saw him come up the path, pass the garden, and continue on to the street.
Every day since, with complete disregard for his instructions, I walk across the valley to look for the hyena. It doesn’t require a whole lot of effort. I fill a thermos with coffee, find a good vantage point, and wait. Mongooses pass me by in wonder; partridges march their chicks across; and one time I even inadvertently frightened a gazelle. But no hyena. Not once. Apparently, the scent of my yearning fills the valley.
And yesterday, on top of everything else, my house was broken into. I guess I forgot to lock the door when I went out for my daily walk. Upon my return I found it hanging from its upper hinge. I went through the rooms to check what had been taken. I do not possess many valuables. Still, there is my laptop, phone, car keys, wallet. All were left at home, and all remained untouched. I could not be certain that all the cash in the wallet was in place, but the credit cards were, along with a few bills. I figured no thief would take only some of the money. On one of the walls, in the corner, just above the floor, I found a small drawing of a dog, sketched in black chalk. “This is not a pipe,” was written beneath it.
I set out to look for a hyena in the valley near my home. Of course, I set out to look for a hyena. A genuine hyena, flesh, and blood. What else could I possibly be looking for there?
*The story has won the first place at “My one-hundred meters” competition, that took place during the Coronavirus lockdown.
About one o’clock in the afternoon. The wind is busy rolling along some beer-can that has been drained of its contents in the deserted street. A massive silence links the arch of the Sea Gate with the enormous clocktower 1 The clocktower in November 7 Square is a symbol of the coup mounted by General Zine al-Abidine ben Ali against President Habib Bourguiba on November 7, 1987. The clocktower stands where a statue of Bourguiba stood before. 2 where Mohamed V Street crosses Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The tranquillity of the deserted capital city is disturbed by its well-known nutter: a paranoiac who circles the tower for the last time then starts pushing people away, warning them of the poisonous hands of the clock high above. He then starts to throw stones, pieces of iron, houses, trees, crows and goats at imaginary enemies; things that are invisible to anyone else. He imagines that he is picking them up from the marble base of the wrought-iron clocktower that flaunts itself like a whore in the last years of the struggle. People have forgotten the days of forced disappearances and fear. Not a single person has disappeared for a year or more. People are enjoying the sacred siesta of August. The temperature is over fifty degrees, and the devil of midday picks the crab lice caught in transient lust from its crotch.
Ambulance and police sirens suddenly massacre the slumbering siesta, and everyone rushes, with the traces of drowsiness and dried semen stains still on them, to the street of streets. Something is happening at the lofty clocktower. Cordons of police officers surround the place. Rapid intervention forces hide behind cold helmets, and press back with batons the onlookers at whom car horns honk from every direction. Human beings without number look up to the top of the stern clock. A small remote figure, apparently no bigger than a finger is climbing the clock-tower with the speed of a cockroach. Everybody is amazed. He is about to announce the end of the world.
Necks strain to look at the bold climber who has reached the top of the clock and is holding on to one of its hands. He takes a water-bottle out of his back pocket, has a drink and then empties what is left over his head. He removes his leather belt and secures himself with it to some iron rings, and turns to the crowds that have gathered below like ants. Nervous policemen surround the crowds and run in all directions talking into their radio sets. Gesturing nervously they ask the man up there to come down: up there is out of bounds. Meanwhile he mutters something, the content of which is lost in the air. Only fragments of what he says fall like droppings from a ram. There is a movement of his left hand and he waves right and left, indicating his refusal to come down. The police carry on pushing back the people who are circling the tower like dung beetles. They try to ban any photography, to silence voices and to prevent mobile phone cameras being focussed on the hands of the clock. Traffic comes to a standstill and the car engines throb like the veins of a hundred metre sprinter on the starting line.
Something serious is going on. No one has been bold enough to get near the clock for the two years since a soccer fan fell off it in a delirium of happiness after his team won the President of the Republic Cup. On that day, the water bubbling up from the fancy fountain beneath the clock turned into a pool of red. From that evening the clock was subject to strict surveillance: it occupied a strategic site in the heart of the capital, regardless of what the nutter sometimes said about it.
The crowds grow and the front rows are reinvigorated by tourists who pour in from the beaches and from hotels nearby. The policemen’s batons are a little muted, but the men grow more agitated. They run about everywhere, barricading the pavements and extending the restricted area. Meanwhile the man clings to the end of the hand at the top of the clock like a gecko.
For years on the site of this clock stood a verdigrised statue of Bourguiba on a horse, with one of its forelegs raised to the faces of those who looked up. It was said that it raised its hoof in the face of Ibn Khaldun, whose statue had been planted like a bad dream opposite Bourguiba – and at his request. After he was swept away by order of the present rider, the statue was removed and there sprouted in its place a giant clock-tower with a cold cement pedestal. It was not long before it gave seed to smaller versions that were planted in each town and village, while statues of the Leader were banished from every part of the land.
The clock was changed for another that came from Switzerland or England or America – there were conflicting reports about the nationality of the new clock – and a bronze plinth was decorated in arabesque style. Groundless talk without proof about the clock of unknown origin was installed in the heart of the city that was heedless of its sons. No trace was left of the Leader whose statue was moved to La Goulette to gaze at the bitter sea.
Spiderman remains above the restricted zone, supporting himself with the leather belt from which he hangs as he swings about, like a professional mountaineer. Below, the world, bewildered. The crowds grow after workers leave their offices. One whole hour passes by and the police are chewing their sticks, unable to persuade the man of the hour to come down. Among the crowd strange things are going on. Thieves and pickpockets are busy stealing mobile phones and necklaces from the women onlookers; hands grope startled breasts or oblivious bums.
Climbing to the top of the clock is a serious crime, an unpardonable sin. What is happening today undermines security. The police are facing a dilemma: how can they get on top of the situation when the scandal is unfolding in front of everybody – citizens and foreigners, and the whole country at the height of the tourist season too?
An officer almost bites the head off one helpless policeman, asking him for the thousandth time, “How did that dirty son a of a bitch get up there? Where were you, stupid idiots? How did you let him get near the clock and let him climb up as well?”
Elsewhere a policeman pounces on a tourist and snatches the camera that he was pointing at the clock. The policeman rips out the battery and nervously hands back the camera, cautioning him against using it again. The barricaded area is a restricted security zone.
The crowds start to mutter about the behaviour of the police as they clear a large space between the people and the location of the incident. Their grievance becomes louder when they see the man on the clock waving his hand and addressing the chief of the rapid intervention forces. As he is waving the empty water-bottle about, they understand he is asking for water. Another bottle is brought. A policeman scales the clocktower’s inner stairway. He throws the man the end of the rope tied round the bottle. The man grabs it and, after the policeman tries to open negotiations, orders him to go back down.
Nothing of his conversation with the policeman is heard. People are busy listening to the ravings of one young man who is shouting, “They’re showing what’s happening on television and you can hear what the guy is saying. Look, I’ve had a text message giving the news and the frequency of the channel.”
People take out their phones. The message reached everybody at the same time. The policemen get more het up and frenziedly start to look for something or other. Another group of policemen come and busy themselves searching buildings all around for the source of transmission and for the camera that is filming the incident.
Some people rush home but crowds remain and others arrive until the pavements and streets are packed to overflowing.
The translation appeared in “Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa I”, Edited by Peter Clark, Dar al-Saqi in collaboration with IPAF, 2010.
Someone looking at the large photograph hanging on the spacious sitting room wall would imagine that there was something anomalous about it. An anomaly impossible to define at first glance, and perhaps not at second glance, yet there was no shame in continuing to look. Afterall, these large photographs in their carefully chosen frames hung there for everyone to look at in contemplation of their static details. This picture, however, was not like other staid and solid wedding photographs, out of which beamed smiling faces and where gazes intersected or looked straight ahead. It was an old photograph, perhaps a touch faded, and the gazes were unusual, or perhaps their interplay was unreadable.
“Can the bride please look at me. Over here, here, towards the camera. No! No, not into the corner. Yes, you, hold her hand and look into her eyes, and you as well Dear, look into his eyes. No not like that! God, what’s the problem? Please, just look at the lens or into the groom’s eyes!
“No, don’t look at that bloody monstrosity,” he thought to himself, then gave up.
The shutter clicked at that instant, capturing it all, sharply and starkly. A groom with frozen features looking into the space in front of him, a bride looking to her right, where the enormous wooden side of what looked like a wardrobe was visible. Time gets canned like that, without regard for a history that is out-of-date. In the frame along with it we preserve some unspoken convictions and some satisfaction, too, at days when we ask, “Has it really been twenty years? Thirty?”
The mirror hanging in the bedroom with the ugly scratches on its surface belies the fallacy of photographs and preserved time. In front of it, the now-elderly bride counts her new wrinkles and laments her faded bloom, then pats conviction and satisfaction on the back before their serviceability expires.
The conviction was that she married for cultural wealth in the shape of a giant wooden wardrobe. That conviction itself bequeathed her the satisfaction, and both together ensured her survival. She did not know how far back the history of the wardrobe went, but it had been a reason for the tranquil married life of two or three generations of women up to her mother-in-law’s time. The fourth generation had begun with her.
Some married in exchange for ten gold bracelets, others for an elegant and spacious room in their mother-in-law’s house or as a pampered rival to a barren first wife. But Warda had married in exchange for a wooden wardrobe, behind whose solid panels she piled thick wool mattresses.
When still a radiant newlywed, over the wall she heard one woman say to another hanging out her washing, “She got married for a wardrobe. Everyone knows it. Her mother never pretended otherwise. They say that on her daughter’s wedding day, she said between one ululation and the next, ‘My daughter the bride has something that none of you have! A wooden wardrobe that goes from floor to ceiling. A dozen men couldn’t move it.’”
A giant made of wood overshadows the bride and groom in a traditional wedding photograph. They stand next to it, adjusting their looks and their awkward poses.
She had great respect for that wooden giant. As for her husband, she was confident that she fulfilled her duty towards him, as an obedient and conscientious wife. But the two of them brooked no comparison. The former won hands down. Were it not for its towering presence in the spacious sitting room, she would have felt that she had been led to the marital home like an underfed ewe. She maintained it like she maintained her dignity. She had sold off her few pieces of jewellery, and only kept hold of a few items of clothing that had not worn out and from which the whiff of memory had not faded.
But the wardrobe however! She took care of it just like one of her four children. The rituals of cleaning it and repairing its edges, which got scratched by a blindly wielded broom or a lazy body, were rituals that emulated the celebrations of joy in her immediate family, and sometimes surpassed them. In the hidden recesses of her mind, such a comparison caused her no embarrassment.
Almost all the village houses had dispensed with wool mattresses and heavy blankets. There was no longer a need for a large wardrobe with split doors to store their bedding. Only a few houses made washing and restuffing the mattresses a time for celebration, after which, revivified, they would be put away in a modest wooden wardrobe. Her celebrations were more than the mere washing of rarely used mattresses; they were times to restore the sheen to the idea that she was a dowried bride and that her dowry was no less than that of any of her married peers.
When her sons grew up, she married them off without any great worry. Little did she know that she would be recompensed with a great deal of worry when a young man, who owned nothing more than a modest room that he had partitioned off in his family’s home, asked for her daughter’s hand, and that her daughter would fall in love and insist on marrying him, despite his scant means. Back in the day, she had not allowed the women of the district to make fun of her situation, or did not like to let the feeling that she was inferior to any of them worm its way into her heart. Now, however, when she was marrying her daughter in exchange for nothing at all, how would she protect her from belittlement by the village girls? Since this did not seem to be of the slightest concern to her daughter, how then would she protect herself, having given her daughter away in marriage for nothing?
In the morning hours, as the whole household was busy preparing for their only daughter’s wedding, an enormous truck pulled up at the big gates and out jumped five burly men with bulging muscles fit to burst the sleeves of their tight shirts.
Within minutes, the five men were struggling to haul the heavy wardrobe into the truck to head off to the bride’s new home as a present from her mother. The eyes inspecting the blushing bride observed the compelling scene and watched the mother as she warned the men not to scratch their load. “Slowly does it, slowly! Watch out for the edge. Wake up man, there’s a step! Oooohhh, don’t you know how much a wardrobe like this is worth?”
Perhaps she wanted to say, “Don’t you know I bargained away an entire life for it?”
Perhaps none of them understood what the woman who had bargained away an entire life was referring to. No more than a heavy wardrobe with split doors.
“Here comes the bride, or here comes the wardrobe?”
The phrase must have been on the lips of many, or at the very least come up when they tried to relate the details of the strange wedding to those who had missed it. During the rounds of morning gossip it was present with a vengeance, no doubt about it: “Here comes the bride, or here comes the wardrobe?”
“If only they’d taken the mattresses with them too. Weren’t they the pretext for keeping the wardrobe? The objects provided the rationale for their container, how unfair!”
For many days, and with a large empty space having taken over the sitting room, she was plagued by a strange question: Hasn’t the life I’ve lived also been a container? What excuses have I clung onto to keep hold of the container, I mean my life?
A few days later, her husband’s twenty-year-old sofa took up the space vacated by the wardrobe, and right above it hung the faded old wedding photograph. The husband did not ask and did not object. He sat on the edge of the sofa and shouted grumpily as usual for his coffee.
She laughed in her heart as she brought him his cup.
There was nothing more amusing than a wooden husband insisting on his sugary coffee.
I learned of the character of drugs and the nature of poisons from an alchemist – an Arab alchemist from the outskirts of Baghdad who had come to work as a physician in the palace of one of Van’s magistrates. This alchemist guided me to the knowledge of every herb from which lethal poison could be extracted.
He opened every sealed door to me and revealed all the secrets of alchemy, except how to mix mercury and lead! Since the dawn of time, it has been the alchemists’ practice never to reveal that secret nor that of converting base metal into gold. In the end, however, and before I had fully satisfied my thirst for knowledge, that Arab alchemist swore by the mausoleum of Sheikh Abdel Qadir Jilani that the amalgam of mercury and lead was a pure lie. They could never be blended, he said, and one who did so would reign over East and West.
The tale of my mother’s slaughter and what followed
My father – known by the name of Berzine Alchakordi – killed my mother in front of my eyes when I was a ten-year-old child. A dagger in his hand, he was bellowing like a bull: “Whore! You have defiled my honour!”
I didn’t understand what was going on nor why my father was so enraged. I was crammed in a corner of our small house, hiding behind the curtain and slyly peeping at their quarrel. I didn’t think my father would kill my beautiful young mother. Yet my thoughts were killed when my mother was killed. My father was still raging and holding my mother’s severed head when I escaped. I ran and ran, not looking back, until dusk; the sun sinking behind the mountains seemed like a severed head. I haven’t met my father again since. I thought he would kill me too if he saw me.
In a city about thirty or forty parasangs away, I fell into the hands of a gang of bandits and hashish fiends. I became the boy in whose inkwell they dipped their nibs to inscribe their lusts on my back. I suffered greatly to begin with, but got used to it after so many times and started to take some pleasure.
I was attractive and handsome, nicely plump and with glossy flesh. I feared the men and I wanted them to protect me. The cost of sheltering me and shattering the jar of fears in which I cowered was for them to quench their burning lust inside my body. Then I started wanting it, and if there was no one there to do it with, I would roam the alleys and proposition dervishes. They recognized boys like me and seized the first opportunity, throwing their beggar’s bags behind a rock and inviting me to follow them down into the valley. Once a dervish saw my smooth naked body, he would exalt, stuff his long beard in his mouth, and push his plough through my furrow.
I grew up like that, surrounded by bandits and hashish addicts in the village, and I started frequenting inns. Isolated inns far from the cities were a den for homosexuals, fornicators, merchants, Mullahs, students of jurisprudence, and every no-good sort. From the first glance I could pick out those who liked boys; their looks, their way of staring at the boys’ buttocks, the glint in the eyes, the spittle in the corners of the mouth…all that revealed they were sodomites.
My first victim:
One summer I was on my way to Diyarbakir. I had crossed the Mourad river and was welcomed by the Mouch plain. It was nightfall and I was exhausted, so dozy the drowsiness of a whole city was attacking my eyes. I couldn’t shake off the sleepiness no matter what I did. True, I was wearing my dagger tucked below my belt, but thieves on the road are many. I had to have a rest and get a little sleep. That night was gloomy and dark except for someone’s fire to which I was strongly attracted. All the fear of sinners and robbers filling my heart dissolved like a pinch of salt and the fire drew me like a magnet.
In short, I approached the fire and glimpsed the ruins of an inn, but nobody was by the fire. I recited some verses, thinking it was probably the work of the jinn or spirits. Fear gripped me and I thought of leaving that place, when I heard a clattering from the ruined inn followed by a human voice shouting, “Who’s there, is it human or jinn?”
He sounded no less afraid than me, and my fear vanished. “I’m human like you.” I called out. “A traveller on the road.” I headed towards the ruins of the inn, leaving the dying fire behind me. I and that man could barely see each other as it was pitch dark inside the inn except for the light of some stars and that almost dead fire.
No longer feeling afraid, the urge to sleep assailed me again. Without even letting the man ask my name and origin, I said, “I’m going to faint from lack of sleep. I’ve been walking a whole half day and I’m exhausted. Do you mind if I spend the night here?”
“Ace! And why, young man, would I mind? The inn is deserted and not my property. God has blessed me and sent you this night. I would have found the place desolate all on my own.”
He then withdrew into a corner, took off his shoes, and put them under his head. The handle of his dagger gleamed in the pale light . I desired him, so I went and lay down next to him. I took off my shoes and rested my head on them like him.
After an hour, I felt his hand running over my body, stroking every part of it. I kept calm and the man went further and caressed one curvaceous buttock. When he saw I was quiescent and did not object he fumbled for the drawstring of my trousers and hurriedly untied the knot. From behind, my hand fell on his hot cock, stiff as a tent peg! Aroused by flames of lust, I took off my trousers. Everything happened under the cloak of darkness and silence. Sexual pleasure heightens when one is half-asleep, so I kept my eyes shut while the man, whose face I still hadn’t seen, pulled me close and banged in his tent peg with consummate skill.
I had spent hundreds of nights like that one, but I had never met a man with such a thirst for sex. As soon as he finished with me, he turned on to his back, fell asleep, and started to snore.
Out of the eastern window I spied the full moon. I’d been afraid of the moon since infancy, and didn’t dare look too long at it. My mother would say: “One who looks too long at the moon or in the mirror will go mad!”
I put on my trousers, tying them tightly around my waist, and got up to cast an eye outside. I turned towards him and looked carefully at his face, then I started screaming at the top of my lungs.
That man was my father. His beard had gone white a little, but his face was as I remembered it: round with a flat nose and thick eyebrows.
Startled by such a high-pitched scream, he jumped to his feet in panic, fumbling for the handle of his dagger. When he saw me straight on he said in a shaky voice, “Who are you?”
I pulled out my dagger and leaned against the window. I saw sparks of death fly from his eyes and reflect in the glow of the moon. It was him, definitely him, with his frame, his voice, his stature. It was my father!
For a while I was dumbstruck then I said, “It’s better not to recognize me.”
But he replied with a voice that could split granite: “Who are you, boy? Come on tell me your name and your clan!”
I stepped forward and said, “I am your son. I am Yaouz. Yaouz, whose mother you slaughtered before his eyes. I am your son who, because of you, has spent his life wandering in the wilderness! Your son who…”
He didn’t let me finish and, like a wild boar, attacked me with his dagger as he said, “Son of that whore, you’re still alive! I spent ten years looking for you.”
He stabbed me in the face, but when I lunged at him, he ducked and stepped back, and the blow went wide. He attacked again, repeatedly stabbing me in the face. I stabbed him in the neck and we exchanged thrusts until I killed him. I was drained, exhausted, by multiple cuts to the face. My lips were slit. One final blow had reached my chest without penetrating deep. Although none of my wounds were serious, I slipped into unconsciousness and remained sprawled in that deserted inn.
*An excerpt from the novel Mirnameh – Poet and Prince by
Hilik arrives at about 12. “Am I interrupting you?” he asks. I gesture for him to come in, but he still hesitates on the threshold. “If you’re busy working,” he says, “I’ll come back later. I don’t want to bother you or anything, I was just curious.”
I make coffee and we sit in the living room. He doesn’t drink the coffee, doesn’t even taste it, just sinks into the couch and tries to smile. “I only dropped in to see how it’s going,” he says. “The people at the publisher’s are on pins and needles, dying to read it.”
“Great,” I say, “it’s going great.”
“Terrific,” Hilik smiles, “I’m glad. Because you know, it’s nine years already. In March, I mean, it’ll be nine and you haven’t written anything since then…”
“But I have,” I say, “I write all the time. It’s just that it isn’t good enough.”
“I want you to know,” Hilik says as he holds his hands above the coffee so they can catch the steam, “that with your reputation, even not-good will sell. I swear, during Book Week, someone came up every ten minutes and asked when you’ll be publishing a new one. Ask Dubi. After almost ten years, even really-bad will sell. But if you’re not writing at all, then…”
“I’m writing,” I say, “all the time. But I don’t feel like publishing a not-good book, even if you or Dubi…”
“Of course,” Hilik interrupts me, “no one said it has to be not good. It can be good too, goodwill sells even better. Just finish a book already, for God’s sake.”
I know him. This isn’t the first time he’s come here. Soon he’ll start talking about his daughter, the paralyzed one, and then he’ll cry. He always cries in the end. “I’m almost finished,” I say, trying to head him off, “another fifty pages, tops.”
“Fifty?” Hilik repeats suspiciously. “Yes,” I say, trying to sound enthusiastic, “fifty tops. I just have to get the protagonist to kill someone who has it coming, in self-defense. Then he’ll sleep with the sister of the dead guy without her knowing that he’s the one who killed him. And then there are a few more pages of his thoughts as he walks on the beach in Caesarea. And a short epilogue with him in a taxi on the way back to his apartment when he hears about the Coronavirus outbreak on the radio, you know, so the reader can place the plot in a historical context.
“Fifty pages, you say,” Hilik says, clutching the handle of his mug of coffee, “fifty tops and the Coronavirus?” He pauses for a second and then hurls the mug at the wall. A black stain appears on it and begins to ooze towards the floor. “Remember what you told me last time? Twenty pages, you said, Twenty! Twenty pages and the last Gaza War. If you’re not writing, then don’t write, but for God’s sake, we’ve known each other for more than 25 years, even before my Yifat was born, so don’t lie to me.
I don’t say anything. Neither does Hilik. I see him slowly realizing what he’s done. The stain is still oozing, it’ll reach the carpet soon. “Do you have a rag?” he asks after the brief silence. “Don’t get up, just tell me where and I’ll clean it up.” I shake my head, I really don’t think I have one.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I lost control. It’s not like me. I’m just going through a bad time now. I apologize. Do you forgive me?” I nod. “Good,” Hilik says, “so I’m going now. I don’t want to disturb you… Fifty pages, you said? Great, you really are almost done. Don’t make the ending too depressing, okay? Leave a sliver of hope. People like to feel there’s still a chance.” He stops at the door and says, “I’m really sorry about the coffee. You’re not angry, right? It’s just that, my daughter, she’s in a bad way…” And he starts to cry. I put a hand on his shoulder. Exactly the same one I put a hand on last time.
“Life is cruel,” Hilik says, “a real bitch. Heartless. It grinds you down until there’s nothing left but dust. Write about that. Write something about that. Not now, in your next book.”
“I’ll send it to you as soon as I’m done,” I say before I close the door, “it won’t take much longer. I’m right at the end.”
After Hilik goes, I sit down in front of the computer and surf a few porn sites. One shows a young girl with a braid whose name is Nikki. She speaks a language I don’t understand and drinks cum from a glass that someone hands her. I close the site and open my word processor. I have a lot of ideas in my head. Too many, in fact. This time, I tell myself, I’ll do it differently. This time I’ll try to start from the end. “ ‘Let’s not talk about that now,’ Nikki whispered, covering his mouth with her soft hand, ‘Let’s not even think about it. Let’s just kiss and watch the sunset.’ The sun had almost completely sunk into the black sea, and only a single, stubborn ray of light flickered in the sky in a final, desperate effort to give the very dark world another sliver of light.”
Like at other periods of metaphysical ardor, at this time too, the body (that of a woman, to be sure) wasn’t taken very seriously. This may be why even the dockworkers in the port that day didn’t notice a woman disembarking from a dinghy in the port of Jaffa, whose legs, below her dark, collared dress, were without feet. These were, as said, times of metaphysical ardor, and we must understand the lack in that very spirit, and include this woman in the family of creatures that culture has crossbred between fantasy and biology: the unicorn, the child immaculately conceived, ministering angels, Mephisto, and the Loch Ness monster.
She was assigned a house on the beach of Tel Aviv. It did not take long before she was joined there by a well-known editor of matters of public and spiritual interest, at a paper in which she published her stories – stories that charmed him greatly. As was to be expected, in the deep sea tradition, he was doomed to drown. But before this came to pass, the woman gave birth to his daughter, a regular girl in all respects, and so as soon as she stood on her own two feet, she was put in charge of looking after her mother, whose only nourishment was grains and grasses which the girl collected from neighbors’ gardens and from the beach. And claiming that her mother was her teacher, the girl never visited school.
When the father crossed the sea to collect money from Diaspora Jews for building up the country, the girl and her mother stayed in this wooden house by the sea, as though they were living on an island, and other than the writers and poets who wrote for the paper, and who got together in their house once a week, no one came in. Like buzzing flowers, they circled the figure of the hostess, slim like a black wasp, who lay in bed, all covered, her hair tied together, exposing her dark, heart-shaped face, the white collar of her dress accentuating the hue of her eyes that burned with a black fire, part evil and part mournful. The girl too hovered like a dark butterfly with one damaged wing, pouring tea into tin mugs for the guests. They were all men, except for one English woman, who got herself into trouble with a man who brought her here and then ditched her. She did not return to her own country, her parents’ home, maybe out of pride, or for other reasons.
Because it was dark, those who looked through the window could not make out the sea, but the waves’ tumult entered the room, rising and falling, by turns, as if the little house were a shell or an ear whose depths the boom was supposed to drown out, to reveal something, to conceal completely, and get in the way of making any sense.
Meanwhile, the visitors sat and discussed Hebrew literature and what made it stand out, about its connection to the renewal of life here in this land. Lisbeth, the English poet, who in the yishuv was called by the name Elisheva, tried to raise her voice above the sea’s din and the others’ voices and said that literature needs its conceit, much like poetry, whose truth is at the same time its lie, that is, the attempt to catch hold of the stream of nothingness, the void, above which everything hovers, the absence in the very belly of words; being before the first day. The gentlemen seated around the bed protested vigorously: It’s sinful, they said, to think of poetry as a kind of hovering over the abyss. After all, we find ourselves in this life for the purpose of confirming it and to create a new world, to write new literature which replaces zero by one, and all this, in order to create the New Man. For what is literature if not a looking glass which reflects to man asleep his image fully awake.
“I drink to the life of contemporary man,” said one of the gentlemen and raised his empty tin mug, and all the gentlemen raised theirs and called out: “Here’s to the community, the individual’s salvation!” And this is how the evening came to its end.
“Will you be writing to Rabinovitch?” asked the visitors, as they were taking their leave, one after the other – S.Czaczkes, 1 S. Ben-Zion, 2 A. Siskind, 3 and Y. Zarchi 4 – adding, before stepping out onto the sandy path, “Give him our best regards and tell him we’re keeping our eyes open.” And Lisbeth too, a little embarrassed, sent her wishes so it wouldn’t seem that because of one man’s offense she was now holding a grudge against all the men in the world.
The hostess however felt no need to justify the letters she did not write. Privately she believed that every husband is nothing but his wife’s hangman, and also the other way around. She had a personal memory of a garden full of wild raspberry bushes which covered the riverbank, the river whose waters set her father’s flour mill into motion. That was where she and her brother played before her mother died, and also, after some time, where she joined him to study from his books by night what he studied during the day. Though that room held no more than a small table, one chair and a bed, she lacked for nothing. It was only after his death, when she arrived at the coast and disembarked onto this land, that she felt her feet had remained there, and maybe she had never had any in the first place.
Now the sea’s din abated. She turned down the oil lamp, whose shadow fell onto the tense face of the girl asleep in the chair – she who was born to a sorrow not produced by her life’s experience but which was nevertheless beyond her power to keep at bay. She returned to the table, opened the window, and looked out. The sea was utterly quiet. No one passing could have known that this expanse of dark continent was nothing other than the sea. She pondered what the gentlemen and the lady had been talking about. What is this here and what this now, she wondered, and what is the manifold, if only one sorrow always enfolds all wars, epidemics, and disappointments, because what you are able to suffer is necessarily the greatest suffering you can experience in this world. And time, what is time if it isn’t small links of pain that keep emerging every moment. She dipped the quill in her ink and began to write.
But tonight more than at other times, perhaps because of the gentlemen’s words which still lingered in the room, she felt the impotence of tales of the past: the small town, her father’s flour mill, her grandmother the rabbi’s wife and her spotted cow. She obviously must be wary of these gentlemen and stay safely in the little house, keep intact her world which was so fragile, so transparent that it took just one word to burst the bubble. Not an incessant nothingness, she thought, but an incessantly flickering electricity with which the brain hit the word, or the other way around, and one dead word would do to remove its root of fire and turn it into a mummified part.
She knew that those little stories would come back to her, but not tonight, and she felt how her gray brain lay orphaned from itself, heavy and lifeless, in the crown of her head, like a stone or a dead fish. Then she opened the door and sat down on the bench on the porch.
A tiny fishing boat, it must be Arab, cast a very slim ray of light which entered through the eyelashes like a net.
Someone approached from the sea and sat down by her side. It was a woman, a lady, and she introduced herself:
“Je suis Madame Bovary”.
Worried, the owner of the house looked to her sides. Madame Bovary, of all people, who the yishuv members, and the editorial board, considered the epitome of vacuity, of the corruption of feeling, was it she of all people who had to appear and sit down here by her side on the bench? In fact, even though the owner of the house felt a mixture of fondness and revulsion for her, she had always believed that if she ever got the opportunity to meet her, she might give her some useful advice. First, that the men she had decided to love, this Madame, were chosen neither intelligently nor in good taste. Even had she not been one of those women possessed by the dybbuk of having children, she might definitely have done with a little more imagination and delight in her genius for falling in love, and understood, after so much experience, that true hunger is a hunger never stilled; yet now that she actually emerged from the sea and sat next to her and she moreover had the chance to say it, she wondered whether there was any point left to it.
Madame was sitting there, wrapped in her black hood, like a Capuchin friar, but the owner of the house did not immediately say what was on her mind; instead she said: “Madame, what are you looking for here, at my place?”
Her coarse intonation made Bovary shiver, an intonation of the kind they used, in the yishuv-under-construction, with those women who were considered useless citizens, those who yearned for flirtations on nights when the hot desert wind deprived them of their sleep, for salons bathing in shadow, for pianos and for the touch of silk on a white, smooth thigh, for wild senseless weeping; but Madame did not reply and did not even remove from her head the dark hood which hid her face. The sound of the sea rose momentarily, blotting out this malicious remark to the visitor: “What was this mythology of love such that, in your foolishness, you assumed your role was that of a goddess, and to make it worse, alongside those who were many times cleverer than you, foxes of a minor existence?
“And on what intuition?” she continued with a lowered voice, because in those days that substance was not really recognized. “And if dramatic theater was what you were after, what kind of heroes did you come up with – some village apothecary and a bank clerk, and then that pathetic finale you arranged for yourself?”
“L’amour,” spoke Madame, and the word quivered, lifting briefly above the smooth Jaffa sands before being swallowed: “Who can even imagine a life without love?” Having said this, she held her head high like a heroine facing the guillotine. “I had to fall in love with one idiot or another. How could I have left it to the writer?! How could I trust him to give me a decent hero who would be able to make use of everything he himself, the writer, had put into me, all my gifts, my power, my will; so what if I used my own imagination a bit to help him along? The heroine, too, after all, has some responsibility for the story.”
The sea crashed, its sound like the wind blowing through corn stalks. The two women looked each other straight in the eye. Madame was the first to lower her head and she whispered: “And if you want to know the truth, all this didn’t depend on me. It was Gustave who took me for a ride.”
“It’s hard to blame another person when you’ve allowed him to live in your stead,” said the owner of the house, her voice harsh, “But letting him get away with dumping you just because his imagination had run dry, that’s overdoing it. Nobody told you to. And you should have known that, being a man, he was never on your side.”
Now the little boat near the beach could be made out. The lights on its deck swung in the wind making it hard to tell in what direction it was heading, or whether it was coming or going.
“What did you want me to do?” asked Madame, “We’re all actors performing the dialogue we were given, whether by nature, culture, the times, or God above, you might call it catechism, apology, karma, fate. It’s like when that nun confesses to the priest about the man who appears in her erotic hallucinations, and the priest answers her mockingly: “All you need is to wake up, dear lady. The dream, including its heroes, are the products of your sleep.”
She’s right, thought the owner of the house, without admitting it, of course we cannot wake up from our dream. Only the convinced, priests and the like, they are the ones who pretend, moronic enough to believe it. For the dream is our true nature – and how can we escape it? She was at a loss.
The two sat there in silence.
“But anger?” the owner of the house suddenly said, remembering somewhat hopefully. “Isn’t anger even more powerful than the imagination?” She turned to with renewed vividness, “You should have taken your revenge on that feeble fat man La Bovary who took his pleasure from you as if you were him, when he pretended that your deceit rather than his own inability led to your end. Why didn’t you revolt?”
Madame rose from the bench, her figure darker even than the darkness.
“I never could,” she said and lifted the hem of her dress, exposing her feetless legs – and then she vanished.
The owner of the house remained seated as she was for a long time, until the dark air grew thinner, like aluminum foil children smooth with their nails, and turned transparent until the morning’s white light pierced it.
Still, she said to herself, as she got up from where she had sat, I won’t allow anyone, not even fate, to pull me along like that as though I had no anger. I will stand within my anger like Honi the Circledrawer who drew a circle around himself. And as for the foot, even if it’s only in our imagination, even then we must dedicate ourselves to it lovingly, no matter to whom it belongs – the writer or the hero of the story – for no one can tell us that the foot on which we stand in our imagination, against the story, exists more, or less, for real than the story itself.
She entered the house, picked up the book she was reading from the table, got into her bed, rested the book against the slate she held on her knees, and began to pour the sentences from French into Hebrew: “That wonderful spectacle that was so deeply engraved in Emma’s memory, seemed to her more beautiful than anything a person could imagine.”
“Evangelina Segunda, you have the beauty of Artemis:
Venus herself fiercely envies the innocence of your smile”
Sunday Magazine, Issue 54, El Dictamen (13 February, 1983)
The centre of Veracruz is full of ghosts, my father says every time we pass by the ruins of the Melchors’ first home in Veracruz, a gloomy residential complex on Avenida Cinco de Mayo. Like so many other buildings in the Historic Quarter, these abandoned barracks are now home to junkies and mangy cats, sorry-looking ghosts pawing through rubbish and disturbing the good consciences of the Port, just like the Headless Nun or the Woman in White once did during colonial times. The first ever painting of Veracruz shows ghosts with dirty faces lying drunkenly in alleys: fleshless horrors who come and go in the hallways outside canteen bathrooms. Shadows who through charity or their own cunning live in coral mansions, buildings whose cornices are crumbling into the streets: a deadly hazard when the wind gets up.
The legitimate owners, descendants of the Spanish nobility, watch disinterestedly as their inheritances crumble to dust because it makes more sense for them to sell the land than spend the money to restore the colonial architecture.
“For a long time, I lived in the National Lottery building above the Fabrics of Mexico shop on Rayón and Independencia… it was called that because the Lottery offices were on the ground floor until they moved in nineteen-ninety something when there was a fire in the cellar… After the fire the owners told us that they were going to remodel the flats but instead they cut off the water and electricity and tried to drive us out… I held out because I didn’t have much money: I wanted to go on paying the fixed rent. I clung on, but eventually got tired of fighting… and I didn’t really like living in that building… I don’t know if you noticed when you were there but it has bad vibes, don’t you think? It’s an uncomfortable place to be, you know what I mean? At night you heard nasty things, screams, moans… One of the residents died; Doña Esa, she was very sensitive to things like that… She was the one who saw the two boys, Evangelina’s sons, playing on the stairs long after the crime came to light… I think that’s why the owners let the building go to hell, maybe they wanted everyone to forget what happened in that flat…”
In 1983, Evangelina Tejera was crowned Queen of the Veracruz Carnival and given the name Evangelina II. “Her Majesty is eighteen, plays tennis, loves modern music and plays the piano,” reported the society pages of the time. She was accompanied to all her official functions as queen by her father, Jaime Tejera Suárez, a doctor, but her mother, whose maiden name was Bosada, is never mentioned. The divorce that split up the family when Evangelina was nine wasn’t reported by the media and neither was Tejera Suárez’ alcoholism and violence; he used to threaten his family with a gun during domestic arguments. Nor the nagging Evangelina’s mother subjected her to on account of the family’s parlous finances, which eventually forced her to leave school and find work as a secretary at a company in the centre of town.
Photographs of the teenage Evangelina bring out her clear eyes, waxen complexion and well-defined cheekbones. Her thin eyebrows are always raised, as though frozen in an expression of flirtatious surprise. Perfect teeth, dreamy eyes, and lush eyelashes. Smiling with her hair down, lying on the grass at a country club, or walking hand in hand through the streets of Veracruz with Octavio Mardones, the bearded Ugly King of 1983, clad in silver lace, sequins, and costume jewellery, enveloped by clouds of confetti.
“Yes, she was pretty. She looked like a gringa. She had green eyes and very pale skin… She had boyfriends from a young age, one of them even hit her, but she was half-crazy, you know? She got addicted to marijuana when she was fifteen but really went off the rails after she was crowned queen of the carnival. She went to all those parties, trendy clubs, a wealthy crowd… They say she met up with posh kids to take drugs at Guillo Pasquel’s house at Emparan and Cinco de Mayo… she was always with that gang who would take cocaine and then go off and do crazy things in their cars. People even got killed but no one ever did anything because the police protected them… Like Picho Malpica, who killed Polo Hoyos’ (the local alcohol baron) daughter just because the girl didn’t want to go out with him. Or Miguel Kaiser, who sold cocaine at cockfights… They say that he was the one who sold her the drugs, to her and that Rosa boy, the father of Evangelina’s two children, and that they sold cocaine and marijuana to other drug addicts from that flat in the Lottery building. Also that they held orgies… and that during one of them she suddenly went nuts and killed the two kids… They say that after she strangled them, she chopped them up on the dining room table so she could bury them in a plant pot…”
It was Evangelina’s younger brother Juan Miguel Tejera Bosada, twenty-one, who reported the homicide to the authorities after detecting a rotting odour emanating from the flower beds on the balcony and Evangelina was unable to coherently account for the whereabouts of his nephews Jaime and Juan Miguel, three and two respectively. This was on the sixth of April, 1989.
According to forensic experts, the boys had died three or four weeks earlier and in both cases the cause of death was cranial-encephalic trauma with fractures and internal bleeding. The little bodies had been further damaged after their death: an attempt had been made to burn them on a pyre of paper in the living room of flat 501 of the National Lottery building, and when it failed they amputated the legs so they could fit them in an Oaxacan plant pot, fifty centimetres in diameter, which could be seen for weeks from the main road of the city, Independencia Avenue. Jaime and Juan Miguel were buried on Wednesday, 12 of April 1989, almost a week after Evangelina was arrested. Because none of the family went to the Institute of Forensic Medicine to claim the bodies, the authorities arranged for their burial at the municipal cemetery. The ceremony was well-attended and there was a lavish array of flowers.
“The court was jam-packed, full of officials, reporters and morbid gawpers waiting for the murderess to confess… she appeared behind the railings looking properly fucked up, the poor thing, hunched over, dishevelled, dressed in a skirt, trainers, and a white t-shirt that was far too big for her. Her blonde hair was filthy and her chin was stuck to her chest… She never looked up once the whole time she was speaking, I never saw her eyes. It was as though she was afraid of people. She clutched at the bars, her hands trembling… Her lawyer, Pedro García Reyes – we used to call him Pedro the Terrible because he was such a crook – was sitting on one of the secretarial desks, smoking like crazy. He spent the whole time shouting at the public prosecutor Nohemi Quirasco, interrupting her questions… an hour later Evangelina said that she hadn’t killed the boys, claiming that they’d starved to death because she didn’t have the money to feed them and she hadn’t said anything to her family because they were estranged… Then the prosecutor asked her why she’d buried the bodies in a plant pot and fuck me if Evangelina didn’t say ‘Because I was scared’, ‘Scared of what, or who?’ Quirasco asked but that pompous idiot Pedro the Terrible objected to the question, claiming that it wasn’t relevant… that was when I really began to suspect that there was something going on, they were hiding something… So when the judge suddenly sent her for psychiatric evaluation I realized they were going to get her off on an insanity plea, which was exactly what happened…”
Evangelina was remanded to the Ignacio Allende Centre for Social Rehabilitation in the Port of Veracruz and stayed there until 1990 when Judge Carlos Rodriguez Moreno decided to open special proceedings and send her to the Veracruz Psychiatric Institute where she was placed in the care of Camerino Vázquez Martínez, a psychiatrist very familiar with Evangelina’s family. Of the three medical evaluations carried out on the accused, only that of Marco Antonio Rocha diagnosed ‘anti-social personality disorder with acute outbreaks of psychosis’; the others found no evidence of neurological or endocrinological conditions that might be responsible for Evangelina’s behaviour.
Ordinary proceedings re-opened in 1995 after a string of thwarted appeals by the public prosecutor. Judge Samuel Baizabal Maldonado sentenced the former carnival queen to twenty-eight years in prison and a fine of thirty-five pesos for the crime of second degree murder of Jaime and Juan Miguel Tejera Bosada. In his summation, the judge affirmed his belief that Evangelina had demonstrated sufficient reason and understanding of the criminal act she had committed when she tried to get rid of the two bodies. There was also the testimony of her younger brother, who directly accused her of having committed the crime.
Daniel, gang member
“I don’t think she killed the kids… She wasn’t a violent person at all… Sure, she was off her head, a junky: she liked drugs, weed, and coke, but she wasn’t a maniac… At first I thought that she’d killed them because I’d noticed that the kids bothered her when she was trying to get high, but she told me she hadn’t, she’d never be capable of something like that and especially not chopping them into pieces… I went round to that flat a lot: we used to hang out there… Mario, the Kaiser, Guillo, Tiburcio, Picho, Lion Face. Everyone came round and they had everything… a world class stash, the old fashioned kind, not the shit they sell now… coke that came in flakes, crystals that costs a thousand pesos a gram back then but that really gave you a buzz… The flat was always full of people snorting that shit, drinking, dancing… and the kids were in the bedroom, you know? I saw them a few times, they were both blonde, like her… I think Evangelina went crazy later because of everything she went through… I think the narcos killed the kids out of revenge because she and that guy Rosa took all the cocaine and spent everything they earned from dealing… I think that’s why she never confessed but also why she never said anything else. She’d rather live with the stigma than be killed by them too. And that’s why she hooked up with the Zeta in the joint, to protect herself from her enemies…”
In prison, Evangelina recovered from her disorders and continued with her appeals. She ran various businesses inside Allende prison, gave aerobics classes, and was named queen of the prison carnival. Later, she was transferred to Pacho Viejo, a prison in Perote where she earned an honorary mention in the ‘Letters to Society’ literary competition and met the man who would become her lover, Oscar Sentíes Alfonsín, aka Güero Valli, a very dangerous prisoner with links to the Gulf Cartel who was in charge of drug trafficking inside the prison. Originally from Cosamaloapan, he was serving a nine year sentence for robbery – he’d previously been imprisoned for public health offences and illegal possession of a firearm. Güero Valli went on a tour of the prisons of the state of Veracruz and Evangelina went with him, from Allende to Cosamaloapan, Perote to Villa Aldama, Amatlán to Coatzacoalcos. There, in May 2008, Sentíes Alfonsín spoke to state officials and managed to secure the early parole of his lover, signed by Zeferino Tejeda Uscanga, the then Director of Social Rehabilitation.
But Evangelina didn’t leave his side immediately. She continued living with her partner until October 2008, when Alfonsín Sentíes was murdered in an isolation cell to which he had been sent after supposedly organizing a riot at Coatzacoalcos prison. The autopsy report stated that of the fifty-six stab wounds inflicted upon the victim, only three were actually mortal.
Over two decades after the double homicide shocked Veracruz society, people still whisper about Evangelina, as though she were a ghost. They say she works at a laboratory in the centre. They say that she still likes bad boys. They say that she’s prettier than ever. Parents invoke her to make their children behave and eat their vegetables: ‘Evangelina!’ they shout in exasperation and the children burst into tears.
And while the legend of her crime continues to pass from mouth to mouth in urgent whispers, a mysterious glow can be seen in the window of her former home.
I grew up suddenly like a tree. Once I had a dream when I was five years old. This dream visited me again. I slept for ten minutes that night. It was hard. The medicine that the psychiatrist prescribed to me did not work.
Tranquilizers had not worked for me in the past and would not work for me this time. I did not take them the night before. I had taken them in the past to take the edge off my fear. The previous night, something waded through my mind, convincing me that tranquilizers were not for me, my mind was like a narrow potholed way in an ancient town. I had a nightmare. In my dream, I was a child back in Gaza, on top of one of the city’s highest towers. I was riding a camel, which was over another smaller camel, while a storm was coming from the sea. Suddenly, I fell down and the sea swallowed me. I woke up shuddering. I have feared the sea since I almost drowned in Gaza at the age of nine. Why is the sea chasing me? I woke up wondering why now!
After the nightmare I did not go back to sleep. I put my cheek back on the pillow, reached for the desk, and glared at the screen of my phone, flicking from one page to another, from one application to another, aimlessly. Hundreds are online. Almost all from Gaza. It is four o’clock in Gaza, while I am here, in Sweden. One hour between us, but this hour is a time between two different worlds. I found one unread message. It was from my brother asking about my wellbeing. I pulled my leg to my chest, then reached for the desk, put the phone down smoothly, then stretched my other leg towards the cupboard. My home was similar to a small and beautiful cell. A tiny studio with a narrow crawling space in the middle. On the right was the kitchenette, on the left the sofa bed, and in front near the window a desk and small library. I slept, studied, wrote, ate and read on the same chair and sofa, which also happened to be my bed. Luckily, the bathroom door was one and a half meters from my sofa bed. A friend who visited me told me that this tiny studio was better than a villa in many countries of the world.
I opened my eyes, and suddenly clenched them shut again. They were swollen after a night of nightmares, preceded by four hours of reading and writing. It is difficult for the eyes to open all at once after a terrifying nightmare or a beautiful late night.
“Should I go to work?” I thought while my eyes were still shut. I could not decide if I would go or not. The cranks and dials in my head were still turning. “I will stay here in the four walls of this flat,” I said to myself. I opened my eyes again. This time, I did not look up at the white ceiling but back towards the window. I wanted to see the sky.
“Is there sun today? Will it visit us today?” I asked letting myself hear my voice.
We had not seen the sun for two weeks. In this northern city, sun comes rarely after August. It rises and shed its light, bringing a cold breeze and chilling weather to remind people of its mere existence. Suddenly, my eyes widened. “There is sun,” this time my voice was louder.
Today could be a beautiful day. I pulled my leg, put it down and stood on my bed. I looked on the desk and found a few books that I had to return back to the library. I had a bad habit of borrowing many books at once, after I bought a new collection of books. I end up reading half of what I buy and half of what I borrow. My relationship with books is cherishing. Books are my family, friends and soulmates. When people lose the meaning of family, they turn to new things, sometimes drugs and crime, sometimes noble things such as charity and volunteering. I turned to books. I could speak to them and learn from them. They never complained and I never complained. Once Luis Borges said that all human inventions are an extension of the senses. The microscope is an extension of the sense of sight; the telephone is an extension of hearing, and a plough an extension of arms and movement. However, the book is an extension for something invisible, inaudible and intangible. It is an extension of memory and imagination.
So, I had to return these books. I made myself get up, while looking at the packet of cigarettes. I remembered that I had not smoked for two days. Today could be the day for resuming the habit of smoking once or twice. I prepared the Swedish coffee machine- they call it bryggkaffe, turned it on and turned right towards the shower. I walked oddly, almost a sidle pushing my right leg in front of me as if I am testing a loose wooden floorboard. I wanted to shower, to have energy despite knowing that a hot shower would make drowsiness my friend again. I looked in the mirror. I could see myself blurred, a bearded-face with shapeless swollen eyes. “More grey hairs,” I said mumbling.
As soon as I left the shower, I made the sofa bed a sofa only, pushing it to the wall and making more space in the tiny villa. I opened the window slowly, making a crack to form an air-shaft. The coffee breath was filling the room. My brain started to work again. Coffee always remind me of Yemen. Yemen was the most important producer and exporter of coffee. Even “Moka” the Italian coffee machine was named after Mocha, the port in Yemen where coffee used to be exported. Since I learned this, it became my favorite story to tell my European friends whenever I see a Moka. I feel proud telling them this, as if I was giving colonialism a small slap on its face, correcting a small bit of history.
It is nine o’clock. I must go, but I remembered that I had to throw out the garbage. I folded the garbage bag, put on my sneakers and opened the door of the cell, or the studio. A stiff breeze blew in my face. It energized me. After almost fifteen stairs, I was on the ground outside the building. On my way out, I saw the postman with his green clothes. “God Morgon”, I said. Good morning in Swedish. He answered, “God Morgon.”
He started to distribute the post in the twenty-four mailboxes. Nothing for me on the horizon. I was not expecting anything. Suddenly, he took out a different post, which was a confidential post and put it in my box. I stopped and threw one leg back, standing behind him with a smile on my face. Once he was gone, I opened my box. I took the paper, went up, and looked at it. Strange. It was a paper to inform me that I had an important letter that I had to pick up from the post office. They stressed that I had to take a valid ID. This was strange. I was not expecting anything. The post office point was close to my home, just a ten-minute walk. The Swedish post made life easy by delegating posts and mails sending and receiving to the kiosks and tobacco shops. I decided to go and pick it up on my way to the library.
I put the bag filled with books and my laptop on my back. Before locking the door, I changed my mind. I decided to leave the bag, collect the post, buy some groceries and come back home, then go to the library. On my way to the post office, I was unnerved. Where from? Who sent me the post? Was it a gift? From whom? Friend? Lover? Many questions continued to make me muddled-headed.
The sun started to take on the weather, and the temperature hitched another notch. The smell of last night’s rain was filling my nose. A few crows were around and many other birds. The crows started to follow me. This made me feel my temples pulse with a steady pounding. Crows are not a good sign. I grew up knowing that crows are bad luck wherever they exist. Suddenly, a small wet leaf fell down on the post paper I was holding. Everything was silent around me and the leaf was sticking to the paper, yet moving as if it were dancing in a spiral motion. I smiled. I was in front of the service man.
“Hej Hej,” I said. Hello in Swedish. I handed the paper to him, and my driver’s license for an ID card. The sound of the machines was loud.
“Teck Teck, Peep Peep” he scanned the barcode of a big envelope. “Sign here please and write your name.” I did. All I need is that envelope. Curiosity is killing me. “Here we go”.
I have it now. Shall I go to the grocery store or open it now. I put my ID back in my wallet, and then my wallet back in my right pocket. The envelope said that it was from the migration board of Sweden. I had applied for citizenship last month. They may need more documents. They need more papers, for sure. Unlucky me. I have been told that one can wait up to one year to get a decision, but I needed something that makes me not “Stateless.”
I opened the envelope and I found my Palestinian travel document and other papers. I was mellowed, somehow now calm and quiet, yet I was sure the service man inside could hear my pulse and feel my hot painful breath. Two meters away I put the passport back inside my pocket and pulled the paper from inside the envelope to read. It could be a letter to explain whatever they needed.
Suddenly everything changed. My eyes were wide open. My mouth was wide open and the hot breath fog in front of my face became more intense. I smiled. It was a big smile. If someone saw me while staring on the paper, he would wait to see the outcome of that smile and why I am staring on that paper. -I was still staring at it, open mouthed and heavy thoughts.
It is here with the storm. It is here like a quaint dance coming from afar. It is an ivory page with the Swedish Kingdom logo. Yellow, blue and garnet colors decorate the document. It is written as if it were an honorary doctorate. They were informing me that I had become a Swedish citizen. It was as if some voice from far away was telling me of my new reality. It was the beginning of something. I knew that there would be more beginnings that there are more ends to them, but here is my new beginning. There was the beginning of “Them” and “We”. “I” and “Them”. My skin color and name does not match this passport: that was the most difficult beginning. There are moments when happiness and sadness violently collide, propelled by an insane wind blowing from the Russian steppe. This moment was one of them.
The journey of the ninth child, escaping death and life. How did it start?
“It was a pitched battle…” – a description he had often read out to his classmates from history textbooks but never thought he would one day use as he had just done, speaking to his friend, to describe that night. He didn’t even know what ‘pitched’ meant. He just felt it captured the passion of his history teacher at the time.
“… The ground invasion began from the western side of Tel el-Hawa. As you know, the area is divided into two parts, west and east. The west has brightly coloured apartment blocks that have names and are stuck together in rows. It’s quite well known for its bourgeoisie since most of the residents work for the Palestinian National Authority that was created after the Oslo Accords and instituted their bourgeois class. But those people created no wealth of any kind. Actually, the good name of the bourgeoisie took a bad hit when the term was used to characterize that side of the area. Perhaps there was something problematic about applying the concept. Many people think that the bourgeois are the rich who own their own homes and eat well, and in that respect we can count the residents of the area as such. But the real bourgeoisie is a class made up of businessmen and factory owners that creates some wealth. They are also hard workers and those who spark revolutions.”
“I don’t understand why you have to provide all those details as if I came from a foreign country. Why do you have to explain what I already know to tell me about the battle? Perhaps you want to give me a masterclass in you Communist ideology that has been dead and buried for ages. Spare me and just tell me the story. I’m from the area the same as you. But I’m a real bourgeois and you’re a self-styled one.”
“Ha, ha, ha! Exactly! That’s just what I mean. Anyway, the other half of the area, the eastern side, is closer to the border but the invasion didn’t start there. It’s mostly agricultural land, and the Occupation Army started encroaching from the more vulnerable area, where it was not expected to encounter any resistance. The Army left the east of the neighbourhood till last. It’s where the true bourgeoisie live, the owners of farms and factories, even if most of those were shut down because of the siege. They were also behind the revolution. Many of the resistance leadership had homes there. The battle of the 2008/2009 war took place that night.”
Is there another war in history that when you want to talk about it, your have to append two years? Or when you write it down, it looks like you’re referring to the academic year, with a slash between the two numbers? Basically, apart from this war, is there a war that begins at the end of one year and ends at the beginning of the following year? A succession of questions, numbers, and years took his thoughts away, as if he was trying to uncover an algorithm to predict the outbreak of war, forgetting that in his situation, war was an inheritance.
He poked the fire in the grate and piled the coals beneath the teapot to heat it up for the third time. Through the fog of this thoughts he observed his friend Abu Ahmed watching and waiting for him to snap out of it, just as he had waited a little before for him to finish his revolutionary preliminaries. What he loved about his sessions with Abu Ahmed was that he rarely interrupted when he went on too long in speech or went too far in the imagination.
He poured the tea and resumed: “The Army infiltrated into Tel el-Hawa and occupied the residential towers, contrary to all expectations. At that point, the PA people who had come from Tunis and Lebanon felt they were in direct confrontation with the Army, something which hadn’t happened since the 1980s. Still, that area wasn’t the Occupation’s target, but the other side of Tel el-Hawa, the revolutionary side where we live. That day I stood behind this window watching the missiles and listening to the gunfire and the screaming. Some people got away from our street by driving away at top speed, especially those who lived at the ends. Those in the middle, like me, were stuck. I couldn’t even open the window one centimetre. It was pitch dark. There was no electricity. Sometimes I heard the gasps of the resistance fighters as they ran. Honestly, I couldn’t tell whether it was the Army or the resistance running. It wasn’t even really running in the way it was back in the first Intifada for example. It was more like stalking. Like a game in which you ended up either alive or dead. A game in which you could enjoy deceiving death. You stood in front of it, but made it pass you by. Something like Russian roulette: one bullet in the chamber, spin the barrel a few times, then pull the trigger as soon as it stops without wondering whether the bullet will get you or not. The chase was like that. The combat was like that.”
“Strange that it’s been ten years since the war and this is the first time you’ve told me these details.”
“Ten years, right, almost to the day. Cold like this. Then it was impossible to light a fire for warmth. A spark the size of a fly meant certain death. Anyway, my friend, I stayed in the house, dipping bread into oil and zaatar, after the kids and my wife and mother escaped to my uncle’s house a week before during the ceasefire. I knew they wanted to take revenge on the eastern side, which is what happened. But I stayed guarding the house. You know how much I love history. Perhaps I wanted to be part of the battle, which happened too. To begin with, I heard guys calling to each other. I didn’t recognise any of the voices. I saw black shadows running through the blackness. I did know the local guys, but wasn’t friendly enough to recognise one of them from his voice. I’m a smoker and don’t go to Friday prayers at the mosque, so I was shunned in a certain way. I went out to work and came home to watch a game or read a book. I wanted to be a history teacher, but unfortunately, my high marks in science made my family pressure me into enrolling in something connected with medicine, so I went to the school of pharmacy.”
“It’s like you’re standing on stage introducing yourself to the audience. You’ve told me the story of history, your exams, and pharmacy a thousand times. Have we got old and senile? Go and pray on Fridays, perhaps God will be merciful and you’ll stop losing your memory.”
“Just listen, Abu Ahmed, and I’ll finish telling you what happened. Suddenly, I saw things glint like flickering lanterns, but it was more like the sheen of glass than lamplight. Straightaway, I knew it was an Occupation special forces unit. I couldn’t tell whether it was their weapons or their helmets that were flashing. My heart was beating like it would burst and I was so scared that I would be shot in the head that sweat trickled down from the back of my neck to my legs. You can taste death when it’s close. I was terrified of making any movement. They would hear me for sure – there weren’t many houses around me as the land hadn’t been developed. It was empty and that was what had made it safe for the resistance and a problem for the Occupation. So they were backed up by two helicopters. I’ve never been to the cinema, but from this viewpoint I saw what must have been more dramatic. Cinema in real life.
“They knew exactly where they were going. A helicopter shelled one of the houses. Then came an exchange of fire that went on for a few minutes before the same building was shelled again. Then everything stopped. I couldn’t hear the battle anymore. They must have left or got into the helicopter, I’m not sure. Minutes passed then I heard the voice of one of the resistance guys calling for help. He was wounded. All his comrades must have been killed because his was the only voice and resistance fighters don’t usually move around individually. None of the local residents still there approached him. Fear gripped the hearts. Of course, I didn’t approach either. I heard him calling, ‘Help me.’”
“We’d left the house that day, as you know, and fled to our uncle’s house in the north.”
“I heard him moving in the dust. He seemed to be writhing on the sand like a cat that had been hit by a car. Have you ever seen how a crushed cut struggles? It’s a sight that tears you up. Those were the thoughts messing with my head when I could hear his voice but not see him. Soon he called out again in a fainter voice, ‘Arab nations, where are you?’
“Amazing. He was bleeding to death and in his final struggle it occurred to him that the Arabs might respond. Perhaps it was despair as he drew his last breaths that worked on his mind and speech, taking it back to earlier slogans. How could someone in his struggle call out to nameless people whose response he did not know. Do you know what it’s like? I’ll give you an idea. A criminal shoots you one freezing night in Sweden, and as you’re dying alone in the snow, you shout, ‘EU, where are you?’
“Was there anything more ridiculous than that phrase of his. It might have been a worn out cliché, but it made me want to burst into tears. I instantly understood his unshakeable sense of his own inevitable death. What he said wasn’t a history lesson. It was a lesson in human weakness and the love of life. I mean my love of life.
“The next morning, once we were sure the area was safe, we cautiously stepped outside our homes. The sand had soaked up his blood. He lay there in a black jacket with a mask over his face.”
“Uff. What are you going on about? You’ve made me shudder. It wasn’t your fault, Salam. It was his fate. His time had come.”
“Fate, are you mad? That guy would be in his thirties now. If he’d lived and got married, he might be a father. Submission to an unjustified death makes me sick. I feel it’s helplessness not faith. Where were the neighbours and the locals? Where was the sheikh of the mosque?… Where, my brother, were the Arabs? Everyday for the last ten years when I leave my house I see him lying there. Imagine how many times I’ve stood in the doorway. How many times I’ve seen him stretched out. I’ve been living with the dead since that night. The whole of this city lives with the dead.”
“It’s been three wars, that’s no small thing.”
“When is war ever minor? All the wars in the world that I’ve read about, especially those with millions of victims, were all lies, because you can only write about war if you’ve survived.”
“Let God guide you. Go and pray the dawn prayer. Enough talking for today. Without faith, our people would never have endured all this suffering and these crimes.”
“The secret of our strength isn’t faith, but living with the dead. Good night. I pray the morning prayer at home.”
“Oh I forgot. You’re a spoilt bourgeois. The mosque comes to your bed. God Almighty forgive me. No one wants to speak blasphemously. God give me strength and refuge. All you’re saying is from the heat of battle.”
“The real blasphemy is what’s happening to us.”
Abu Ahmed headed for the local mosque. Salam tided up the cups and scattered sand on the fire. The whole time they had been sitting there, he felt that someone was behind him. He looked at the spot. Nothing had changed except the barrel of dried cement that the dead man had lain next to was gone. “Ten years we’ve been neighbours, my friend,” he whispered, “and I’ve never once said good morning to you.”
Here, people are only observed by the eyes of the night watch. The walls of Acre have not yet been completely built. Nor its lighthouse that looks over the sea to the west. The stones are cleansed by the sweat of the builders, scorched by day and then are cooled down at night by the waves of the sea.
The family sleeps, and Laila goes out under the cover of darkness. She shelters in the space between the piles of huge cut stones that are laid out east of the sea and the waves coming from the west. It does not occur to anyone that the night watch has eyes amidst the waves and in the labyrinth of emptiness among the stones.
Their love was forbidden. ‘Azim, a soldier in the guards of Ahmad al-Bushnaqi al-Jazzar, was not allowed to marry, and Laila was the daughter of a wealthy merchant family. They used to meet clandestinely there under the moonlit darkness where Acre met its waves.
“ ‘Azim, look how the sands of the beach delight when the waves break over them.”
“Laila, I will love you all my life. We will sit here, just the two of us, looking at these sands of ours.”
“But the sands of Acre will not be satisfied with one wave breaking over them.”
As dawn broke there came the din of the builders as they shifted the great building blocks day after day to line them up to make the great towering walls. Not one of them realised that the damp patch yet to dry on a stone was ‘Azim’s semen. It was not the only stain on the rocks.
“The eyes of the night watch never sleep,” whispered ‘Azim’s comrade at the barracks into his friend’s ear.
On that morning, 13 October 1784, the din of the builders was unusual. For some minutes it masked the tapping of the chisels, and only shouts were heard.
On the site for the construction of Acre lighthouse, there were only men and one woman. She had been brought to trial for cheating on her husband with a lover from the neighbouring village, who was reputed to be a maker of fine ceramics and an innovative artist. His pieces filled the houses of the wealthy and well-off of Acre. But as for her, nobody could remember her name or family. All that was said was that her husband was a butcher who had been stricken by illness for a long time, that his skin was covered with pustules, and that he had been married to four women before here and had no offspring.
On this morning the two of them were buried alive beneath the lower stones of the lighthouse. Builders’ clay covered their bodies until they suffocated.
The commotion did not die down, but changed just as the tones of music change in a stirring symphony. After the shouts and cries for help, the roaring of the soldiers and the curses of the angry husband came the turn of the chisels and the orders of the soldiers as they tried to get the work going in an orderly way once again.
Life returned to its natural order until the setting of the sun.
‘Azim stuck to the peripheries of the city, leaving the barracks heading westward. Laila would be waiting for him after sunset. If anyone saw him in the darkness he would not be able to avoid suspicion. Indeed his tumultuous thoughts were audible behind the dark sleeping windows. “The eyes of the night watch never sleep” repeated unceasingly in his mind. He suddenly gave a secret smile, “But I know them all. If any of them saw me, would they denounce Laila and me?” He went on smiling and shaking his head, “Impossible, under any circumstances. I know how to conceal myself and protect her from any scandal. I will go to Laila and snatch delight from her after the toils of the day.” That was what went on in the mind of ‘Azim as he made his way to meet Laila.
She was waiting for him. She was sitting on the stone that had been laid out that day, its edges sealed with damp mud. ‘Azim reached her. His desire for her was like a volcano about to erupt. She turned into red-hot lava when she caught sight of him. They embraced, exchanging lascivious kisses as if they were at war, using every part of their mouths as weapons. Wildly, impatiently, they pulled off each other’s clothes. He fondled her breasts with his rough hands. Her trembling hands undid the cord of his trousers searching for his penis. She grabbed it at its base and took it up to her hungry mouth. She loved to savour its heat in her mouth, and relished its gradual swelling, inwardly proud at her ability to make it stand to attention. She looked at it fully erect and said with a chuckle, “There’s no need for the builders to wake up tomorrow. The lighthouse is already lit up.”
There was a crescent moon. Stealthily, it watched over the land. The eyes of the night watch never sleep.
I must go back to the barracks now. Before they notice my absence. He wiped the head of his penis against her breasts. Her mouth was still full, so she nodded her consent. She swallowed her saliva and whatever was with it. “You go first,” she said, “and I’ll follow after a little while.” This was what usually happened so they would not be seen together.
‘Azim went back to his barracks. He slept long and soundly.
On the western shore the waves crashed violently against the sands one after another.
Laila was down on her knees on the cold rough stone; she sucked the cocks of the watchmen one after another.
The spume of the waves drenched the sands.