Exile is a forceful presence in Palestinian literature, a recurrent theme that takes fertile forms which undermine cliched interpretations. Outside the homeland whose name is Palestine exist many other lives lived by outsiders: the exiled, the displaced, the uprooted, the homeless. Whatever the differences in aims and directions, all those lives start from a common basis: escape and the ability to survive. Survival under all circumstances is the greater proposition that also ensures the survival and safety of homelands.
In this chapter of Gazan writer Abdalhadi Alijla’s novel, the setting has an emotional frame of reference derived from the dreams and longing for the old certainties of the Gaza that produced him as he tries to reconstruct that fragmented and fraught relationship in the relationship of the novel’s protagonist in his new transforming spaces: studio – cell – villa – Sweden. In a complex plot, he outlines two lives, here and there, and two voices lost in questions of belonging and fear of uprooting.
Suspended between a vanished past, of which his severed memory can only recall his drowning at sea, and an equally intangible present, all he can focus on is his anxiety about a letter that may threaten his existence in a country that may not grant citizenship to its guests.
Alijla presents a schizophrenic biography; the schizophrenia caused by the occupation, alienation, and migration to the world’s capital cities. Neither here nor there, it is the biography of all of us.
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?
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