The Second Battle
The women were weirdly dressed: short, revealing, feminine dresses over naval uniform trousers. An attractive French woman was topless, her lower half crammed into a pair of tight military trousers, while some of the soldiers living it up down in the belly of the ship were wearing women’s silk negligees, once bright white but now so heavily stained with vomit, urine, and semen that they were closer to dark grey. On board the Josephine—over the many days of her voyage so far—a professional, serious, and accurate reenactment of some of Sodom and Gomorrah’s wildest days had been performed. Thus the Josephine rocked heavily on the surface of the sea, her cargo consisting of dozens of woozy French women and dozens of French soldiers who were “guarding them,” while the port of Saint Jean d’Acre blinked on the distant horizon.
We never had carts, only donkeys that trotted along unencumbered. But my imagination sketched a cart onto every donkey I saw.
I learned to pray facing a well. My grandfather would stand behind me, reciting the words I was to memorize, and scraping at the ground with a stick that was always ready to leap onto my back at the slightest slip. I would repeat his words without mistake.
My Japanese wife Takara told me once that she saw how I turned all things into the substance of a novel. This was fine, she said, but in my relentless pursuit of doing so, I overlooked many aspects of real life.
“The things around us are neutral,” she said. “On an equal plane. We are the ones who raise them up high or bring them down. Disgust is as we define it. Morality is as we define it too. We define right, and we define wrong. We are obsessed with defining everything external to ourselves. Yet this does not mean that we acknowledge what we have defined. Things are by their nature simple, but they coexist within a circle of complex relationships. You, when you write, complicate things and simplify the relationships among them,” she said. “Can you deny it? Even stories that are not trying to provoke social or political changes and are only meant to entertain, most of them simplify the relationships among their characters. Perhaps simplicity in relationships is what we desire in an alternate reality? Even cheap melodramas, we relate to them because they entertain hidden parts of our souls. Do you tell stories to entertain? Is life entertaining, anyway? You do not know? Maybe? No? It is not important. The point is that when you see everything as a story, you are constructing a perfect scene, so you let yourself overlook everything that has no place in your idea of it.”
My life would have been a lot easier if only my grandmother had not been a liar. Or, to put it more nicely, if she hadn’t been so imaginative on that winter night when she convinced me that she would never leave me. If she had informed me that she would die, then I wouldn’t have become so naïve. I’m not sure my story is all that important, or whether I even have a story in the first place—at the end of it all, I stand a defeated woman, one who has faced disappointment again and again. But that’s not important now. The important thing is how that woman spoiled me completely.
The world was still, and Yunus felt alone in existence. He walked along the shore beneath a sky studded with stars. It was his birthday, and he was finally returning home, after his drinking buddies had departed one by one. What was the essence of his solitude? A void and waiting… waiting for what? The end that no one can escape. All he could hope for was that the end be without pain or suffering, as if he were sleeping, roaming the seashore, leafing through a book, listening to one of his favorite symphonies, lost in thought, or recalling memories from his happy past.
Memory and pain are partners in crime. You will kill pain only by killing memory!
I sit facing the coast in a place where I can see the route by which I came. I stand and try to allow the burdens of memory to fall away. I start to slowly raise my hands as if to drag these burdens off me and throw them into the sea.
These days, I can’t seem to hold on to anything, and yet the screeching of battle takes hold of my mind, my fantasies, and my thoughts. The trainer yelling and the bullets flying were the sounds that pushed me to kill so many of my countrymen. I was led by the lust of my budding virility and my idiotic youthful pride. I was nothing but a fool. The war tricked me and played me like a fiddle. The shouts of Abdel Nasser, and wounded Palestine, and crazy Lebanon—my mind kept an account of them all.
Avenue Mohammed V is silent and desolate this late at night, empty apart from a few stray cats meowing like newborn babies; it’s a creepy sound. Then a she-dog ambles up, stops in front of me, and raises her tail at a black male dog limping past. A single bark of seduction from her and he’s mounting her. They’re cleaved to each other, clinging on, and she shuts her eyes in ecstasy, surrenders to his movements. A delicious tingle runs through me. How lucky they are! They do it in public. They’re shameless—as the saying goes, “Not only God sees them but his servants do too.” They don’t have to worry about a police patrol, or about what people will say.
It was almost time for lunch. The guests had grown tired of oohing and aahing over the properties, the streams, the lakes, the banks, the airplanes, and the beautiful women.
“You are about to behold a rare kind of sheep which you will soon be eating,” announced the master of the palace and surrounding farms, as he stood pointing with his right index finger at a giant television screen.
The guests stared at the screen, where a gaggle of beautiful young women, shapely and fair-skinned, their silky golden or jet-black hair streaming in the wind, picked flowers as they romped through a verdant garden filled with trees, cavorted in a turquoise pool, splashing one another and laughing, and finally sat around circular tables, surrendering themselves to ravenous and seemingly insatiable appetites as they devoured the finest foods. The master of the domain addressed his guests once more: “When sheep are upset or frightened, their meat is tough and leathery, and it tastes like sawdust. Our sheep enjoy only the happiest of lives, leaving their flesh succulent and juicy, so tender that it melts in the mouth and hardly requires chewing—moreover, they are all slaughtered in the prescribed, halal manner.” Turning to his eager assistant, the master added: “Yahya, please give our guests a brief summary of what is required for halal ritual slaughter.”
Before my feet even crossed the threshold of the main door, her voice reached me from the courtyard. She appeared from deep within the cloud of dust kicked up by the sweeps of her palm-leaf broom and called out her usual warning: “Don’t you dare play near Khaduj’sruins!”
An extinguished cigarette is suspended between my fingers. I don’t know who put it there, but I feel worms moving inside it. When I look at them I imagine I’ve seen them before, tens of small bodies—identical, without any features.
The cigarette is a large worm ingesting and regurgitating the smaller worms inside it. They slither into my mouth, filling my lungs, and after a short, loud party there, they begin to flow with my blood.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to jump from the third-floor window. I don’t know where that tree shot out from on my way down. And I don’t know what made our neighbor go outside to hang her laundry at the moment that I fell. I don’t know why I imagined that I died when I collided with the ground. I was happy at that moment of collision; I closed my eyes tight and slipped into something like a delicious nap.
It took only a few moments until I heard our neighbor scream and realized something was wrong. I hadn’t really died; I could still hear the honking of cars driving by.
When I stood up and dusted off my clothes, the crowd surrounding me started to back away. Maybe I scared them. I heard one of them tell another, with fear in his voice: “There are worms coming out of his nose.”
“They are not coming out,” I corrected: “they are spilling.” I left them and walked up to my apartment.