In the dark depths of this pit, I try to touch the light seeping in through the cracks. My hands clasp nothing but dust, while the silence carries its nightly promise of my everlasting confinement.
On the very first night, one thousand years ago, or… wait, why do we always begin our stories with the first night? There is absolutely no difference between what happened in that distant time and what is happening now. The same columns of men march beneath the sun’s rays in the afternoon’s scorching heat, the same tear-soaked supplications and hymns: “O God, make his grave a green pasture in the gardens of Paradise—don’t cast him into a burning pit of hell.” “O God, grant him a better spouse than the one he has, a better home, and better children.” “O God, forgive his sins and those of your faithful worshippers.”
It was the first of February 1957, and in the entrance of Prince Abdul Munem’s palace, a young officer stood facing the prince. With the usual sternness, the officer told the prince that he must leave the palace immediately.¹ Without saying a word, the prince went back inside and came out carrying a suitcase. He smiled at the officer and walked toward the southern wall of the palace.
At first the officer was astounded by this, as there was only one entrance to the palace and it was located in the northern wall. His amazement only grew as he watched the prince open the door of a room built against the southern wall and step inside it. Thinking he must have been duped and that his assignment had not been successfully completed, the officer went into the room and yelled furiously at the prince, threatening to use force to get him out of the palace. But the prince claimed that because the room was not part of the palace and he did not actually own it, he was still allowed to stay and live in it. He told the officer that his father had given the little room away a long time ago. He also informed him that Sheikh Abu Annoor was buried inside. He pointed to a structure in the middle of the room covered with a thin rug. “Don’t you see the tomb?” he asked. He then whirled his forefinger around in the air, pointing around the room, and asked the officer: “Would you really nationalize a shrine?”
“Wait here. We’ll get in touch with you later. Don’t go beyond the confines of the village.”
The village seemed to have been abandoned, although there were still goats roaming here and there. I didn’t know how long I would have to wait. To pass the time I wandered in and out of the abandoned houses. I felt tired, but I wasn’t sure whether sleeping had a place in my new life. I went up on the roof of one of the houses and looked out over the neighborhood. The smoke of battle was rising from the nearby towns, and two military helicopters were skimming along the horizon. Fields of cotton surrounded the village on all sides. I had never before had a chance to see cotton flowers. Or maybe I’d seen them in documentaries and other films; I don’t exactly remember. I had spent my life working in a bakery, then as a taxi driver, and finally as a prison guard. When the revolution broke out, I joined the resistance. I fought to my last breath. The cotton flowers looked like snowflakes, but they would have had to be artificial or else the fierce rays of the sun would have melted them all.
There once was a man who left his home every morning at about six or six-thirty after shaving his face. He sprinkled heavy golden droplets of cologne onto his palm and then patted his cheeks. His cheeks tingled, and he experienced the subtle scent of lemon. The sting and aroma made him feel as if he were passing by a fruit orchard whose scent was dispelled in the air. Next, he put on a clean pair of shoes, one that he had polished as the final chore of the previous day, just before going to bed. He quietly stepped out of the house. In wintertime he encountered the first beams of the rising sun. In summertime, everything was lit already. He picked up a pebble from the sidewalk nearby. He used to choose one carefully, scooping up and inspecting a handful until one special pebble called out to him and his heart was pleased with it. Now he automatically put a pebble in the pocket of his pants, feeling it from time to time. The mute texture gave him comfort, and the solid roundness made him feel that he was carrying something unique and precious, something whose value was not diminished by the fact that it was picked up from the sidewalk.
In your stained dishdasha, drooping collar, and sneakers with grimy laces, you stand waiting. You see him poring over a faded paper, its lines glowing red with numbers and scribbles. The paper yells: Overdue payment!
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.