A poet leaves his house in haste, heading toward the harbor. In one hand, he carries a book of poems; in the other, his keys. The man then boards a British ship that takes him from Haifa to Acre; and then from Acre to Beirut, Damascus, and other places. Can we imagine what these keys look like?
As a child, I had never heard of Abdul Karim al-Karmi—whose nickname was Abu Salma. His name was never mentioned, neither at home nor at school. When we were little, we learned how to recite and declaim poetry for rhyming competitions at school. Each competition started with the opening verse of a poem, which we coined “al-Miftah”—the key-verse. Our Arabic teacher used to start class with a key-verse taken from Abu Salma’s poetry: “the grievances of slaves about slaves, are delivered on the flare of a poem”. He always insisted on this one, although he never bothered telling us about Abu Salma. The truth is that we were not interested in him either, as we were busy recalling tricky verses that ended with a tough Arabic letter, such as the “Dal”.
Our history teacher, on the other hand, gave in to our pressures, and agreed to replace a dry history lesson with poetry competitions. However, he insisted on a different key-verse: “The Arabs are the noblest nation in the world, and whoever doubts it is a heretic.” To this day, I do not know who the author of this line was, since the teacher never told us. In fact he did not complete the school year with us. One day he disappeared without notice; and we were told that he had been removed from the school and had left the country to wander between Egypt, Libya, and Jordan. Our teacher never returned to his homeland, and we were left wondering: are the Arabs really the noblest nation in the world? Perhaps one day, when he returns, he will share with us his lessons about the nobility of the Arabs—whether they be among the faithful or the infidels. I have no doubt, and God is my witness, that after his long examination of the Arab people he will repent and apologize. Not for heresy, god forbid, but for the naive faith he had in those days.
My late father was a poet, and I became a poet as well. I used to write love sonnets and brag about them to the other schoolkids, who labeled me “the poet”. Everything was going very well until the schoolmaster got his hands on my sonnets, and gave me detention in his office. He stared at me and asked me with a stony face: “To whom did you write these sonnets, Ya Amar ibn Abu Rabia?” Abu Rabia was one of the greatest love poets from the pre-Islamic era; and at the time, I foolishly thought that a poet was free to express his passion and yearning for love. I believed that in the twentieth century I was entitled to announce my love in public just like the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah poets. When I confessed and named a girl, he seemed agitated. He circled me slowly and said sarcastically: “I suggest that we find her family. Let us see if they support your flirting with their daughter. If they do, I will let you go. However, if they do not, I will let them cut off your head and make you a martyr on the altar of poetry—you, the great poet Abu al-Tayeb al-Mutnabi. ” He kept me locked in his office for five long hours. I sat on the chair staring at the window, trembling with fear, waiting for the hangman to come. Eventually, I decided to save my head and gave up. I was willing to admit that I was too young for love and that the whole episode was foolish, inappropriate, etcetera. He then let me go. Ever since then, I have not written any love sonnets. I turned my back on them, renounced my desires, and abandoned the notion of love altogether.
After this episode, the headmaster started summoning me to his office every year, requiring me to compose a poem for the Independence Day ceremony at school. The headmaster would correct my syntax and grammar and worked on the intonations of my readings. Everybody would attend the ceremony: village residents, Education Ministry inspectors, government representatives, the military governor, and even the director of nearby Damun Prison. When I would finish reading the poem, everybody would applaud along with the school headmaster and the officers of the military government.
Many years after I graduated from high school, our Arabic teacher appeared suddenly at my door. Worried and down, he asked me if I had kept those Independence Day poems. Apparently, a person from our village had denounced him to the police, claiming that he had been rousing Pro-Palestinian feelings among the children. As the headmaster had been removed from school, he wanted to bring my poems to the police as proof of his innocence. He needed evidence of his loyalty, of the fact that he was instilling joy of the holiday and love for the state in us. I handed him the poems and said to myself: If my poems have become certificates of innocence for the police, I should probably stop writing poetry.
Although I loved poetry, I never heard of Abu Salma while in high school. I still recall the painful memory that gripped me when I realized that I passed by his house every day for four consecutive years without ever having imagined that our national poet lived there. The truth is that at the time I did not know what the term “national poet” meant. The Hebrew teacher had planted in our minds the idea that Chaim Nachman Bialik was our national poet, and that no national poet could ever be born to any nation like Bialik had been to the Hebrew nation. Funny enough, it was only as I grew older that I was able to go back and ask the questions that only little boys dare to ask—namely, why do we not have our own national poet, as they do. I so much wanted for my father and the history teacher to become national poets.
I met Abu Salma in the summer of 1980 in Sofia, a few months before he passed away. I went there to study communism and he arrived to recite poetry. All he talked about was Haifa. At the time, I spent most of my days squeezed inside a small room in the editorial office of the communist newspaper Al-Ittihad. In one of the offices, there was a thick wooden desk that once belonged to Abu Salma, who used to gain his living by being a journalist. His desk vicariously kept us in touch with him, and he kept in touch with us through the keys to his house —like lovers Who converse under the moonlight – it is there, but far, far away.
He described a different Haifa, very different from the one I knew. He asked about al-Malukh Street, and about al-Hanatir Square, and said that his house was on al-Bassatin Street—in the German neighborhood. He asked: “Do you know the house? Is there anyone who looks after it?” Abu Salma scolded us for not watching the house, for being satisfied with his desk as a substitute. We did not dare to reply: “And you, why did you leave?”
He talked and wept. We cried together. “I left the house with the keys in one hand and a book of poems in the other. The poems fell and sank into the vast sea, and only the keys remained because they were tied to my waist.”
On my way to the Balkan Hotel, I saw a gypsy sitting on the pavement with a small baby in her lap; and next to her stood a boy of about seven years old, with his hand raised and his face like a beggar. I wanted to give him some coins, but the Bulgarian woman who accompanied me was reluctant. She said: “No. They really do not need it. The state gives them a whole lot and they reject it!”
“What kind of a talk is this in a socialist country, comrade?” I asked her with indignation.
And she answered:
“The Gypsies reject what the state offers and prefer begging in the streets! This is their way of life! We built apartment buildings for them and handed them the keys. They abandoned the apartments and sold the keys in the market. And then they scattered in the streets singing, dancing, and begging.”
“What are you saying?”
“Are you laughing at me, comrade?”
“Please take me to the Balkan Hotel where I am meeting with the Palestinian gypsy sheikh. He is our national poet. Do the gypsies have a national poet?”
“Bulgaria has its own national poet!”
Comrade Nana said this as she accompanied me to the hotel where I met with Abu Salma. When I embraced Abu Salma, who was waiting in the lobby, I heard nothing but his gentle weeping and the rattling of keys held by a hotel staff member who then disappeared into the spacious lounge.
The trip to the Balkan reminded me of those legends that are passed on from generation to generation. They are always woven with beliefs in blind fate, fruitful coincidences, and nostalgia. At the heart of these legends is the story of a man thrown into his own fate—just like this old poet who keeps dreaming about a return to his house. He could describe it in detail, corner by corner, stone by stone; he would ask about the condition of the stairs, about Said’s room, and about the courtyard; and he would reprimand us for not watching after it.
The poet started his long journey with a fairy tale: the legend of a young shepherd from Tel Radwan, who used to sing and play his flute to communicate with the buffalo flock. One day the young man fell in love with the daughter of the tribe’s sheikh and asked her hand. The sheikh was furious, his blood boiling at the insolent shepherd who dared to ask him for his daughter. In return, he ordered the shepherd’s fingers to be cut off. It was the harshest possible punishment for a young man who used to make the buffalos dance in the pasture with his fingers. The following morning, the flutist shepherd did not show up and the buffaloes refused to leave their pens. There was no choice but to make him new fingers out of wooden sticks. The shepherd played the flute once more and the buffaloes returned to the meadow. And in the end, he also married the sheikh’s daughter.
Abu Salma admitted that “Al-Miftah” was derived from this legend. It was a source of inspiration, much like the inspiration that filled the buffaloes when the shepherd played the flute again, with his wooden fingers. Is it possible to open the door into a new world, whether material or spiritual, without a key??
During the Nakba, tens of thousands of keys disappeared. Countless remained stuck in the wide-open doors of houses. Many others were lost in the arid paths or sunk into the sea, unless they had been attached to peoples’ waists. Their owners have been sitting and waiting for many years with a supreme and endless patience. They believe that patience is their real “al-Miftah” and have replaced the iron keys of their houses with the keys of hope. The spark of hope awoke in them the moment the bulldozers had finished demolishing their houses.