Translated by NARIMAN YOUSSEF
The village had many corners, of which the far western side, leading to the bus terminal, was the bleakest. Om Saber sat on the clean plastic bench installed by the village’s youth committee and waited for the first microbus to take her to the city. With an anxious movement, she reached into her bra to check on the piece of paper she had placed there. Abu Hosny, the old taxi driver, had written down for her all the instructions that she needed to get to her destination: Shatta Prison, where the sweetest part of her now resided, which made distance and time nothing but an illusion. A large cat rubbed its dewy fur on the hem of her black dress. Om Saber smiled and tried to stay still so as not to disturb the cat. She smiled again when she found the paper in its fold.
The giant pine tree that spread its tangled branches over the entire terminal was still there. Om Saber used to walk past it every day on her way to the field. She would point out to her husband the flocks of birds that resided there, while Abu Saber, sitting in front of her on the pale donkey, would tell her about the days of childhood play and the long nights of merriment he’d passed with his peers under this very tree. But now, the tree reminded Om Saber of only a handful of specific days: the day she took the bus into town to buy the burial shroud for her husband; the day she saw off her son Saber when he left for university for the first time; and, yes, also that day when, just fourteen years old, she and her mother, Hajja Aisha, waited three hours for a car to take them into town for her bridal shopping. Om Saber found it surprisingly easy to remember that day, steeped though it was in the past. Was it because it had been her first trip to the city? Or was it…
The loud rattle of the old microbus caught her like a sledgehammer on an unyielding roof. She got up suddenly, not noticing how she’d startled the cat until she saw it run then squeeze its small body through an opening in the wall that surrounded the tree. Om Saber checked once more that her valuable note was where it should be, then, light as a shadow, slipped through the car’s door and sunk into the early morning gloom behind the driver’s seat.
The city had many corners too, but Om Saber knew nothing about them. The one part of town she used to know had seemed to her borderless and directionless. Could it have been the center of the city? It held the old mosque, the prison, the wide road, and hundreds of vaguely remembered journeys. It held every possible smell. Over more than three years, she had grown to know it, walked it accompanied by scents of oranges and dew and always guided by Saber’s eyes. When it was time to go back to the village, Saber—despite staying behind in his cell—still took her hand and led her to the first returning car. On the road, the world became a listening ear, the magic drums beat with ululations, and happiness told every girl of tomorrow’s story, the smell of wedding food, and the singing of an olive-skinned girl.
Here comes our groom looking dandy
Paler than sugar and sweeter than candy
The women gathered to shower Om Saber with congratulations, tears of joy burst open the heavy years of silence, the young men danced, and Saber rode his white horse confident and smiling, the house behind him trembling with the voices of the little ones whose time was still to come.
Om Saber was disappointed to find that the road to the old mosque was no longer the same. Or maybe she just didn’t see it with the same longing, now that it no longer marked the end of her journey. This time, she had to make her way farther, to the outskirts of the city. The top of the road was submerged in the shadows of high-rises, and Om Saber’s attention quickly turned to the pedestrians, as she looked for someone she’d feel comfortable asking to read her note and tell her what her next step should be. She stood hesitantly at the corner of a gas station but didn’t wait long before she noticed a young woman holding a newspaper. Om Saber stepped in front of her.
“Have a look at this note for me. I’m here now. What’s my next step?”
The woman’s face turned red as she stared at the piece of paper. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to visit your son today,” she finally said. “Didn’t you know it’s Land Day?”
“Yes. There are strikes. Transport will be affected. And there might be trouble. Why don’t you postpone the visit to next week?”
The older woman went quiet and gazed at the hem of her black dress. Then she said, “Daughter, what is the next step?”
“Okay, you take bus twenty-four. Do you see that bus terminal over there? Go and ask for number twenty-four.”
Om Saber picked up her silver mesh basket and started walking. It felt to her that she had already walked for miles. The younger woman stayed at the corner of the gas station, watching the woman’s shadow recede. She moved slowly but with assurance. There was something about her, Aida thought, some magic, some power in the black, weathered eyes. There was a secret Aida couldn’t explain; she felt this was no ordinary woman. Why was she drawn to her? Deep inside, Aida accepted the ethereal wave that pulled her to the woman, a wave that weighed down on her being and didn’t let up until she caught up with her. Om Saber turned when she heard the soft voice behind her.
“Yes, my daughter?”
“Don’t go today. Please. I beg you.”
“Because I don’t know what the next step is. None of us knows. This whole generation.”
“You are the lost generation. But still…” Om Saber smiled, eyeing the younger woman with love. She placed her roughened hand on the girl’s shoulder and said, “Go home. I’ll manage. Don’t worry about me.”
She left no room for arguing and resumed walking, her smile unchanged. She began to notice that nothing seemed normal today. Shops on both sides of the road were shut; the shopkeepers stood outside looking distracted. Pedestrians were few and scurrying with no clear aim, unable to hide the panic in their eyes. Before she had a chance to turn in the direction of the buses, she heard the first shot. She felt her heart drop through her ribcage. She thought someone in the street might have been hit and for some reason thought immediately of the young woman with the olive skin. But when she looked around, there was no one except groups of boys running in all directions. Vehicles howled and sped away until the terminal was still. Where could the girl be? Had she gone home? A flurry of gunshots tore the rope of Om Saber’s thoughts. Her heart didn’t drop this time. Instead of turning onto the side street where the terminal was, she turned onto the main road, which was now so empty, and she began to imagine that the cemetery where no one dwelled had moved from its place behind the prison, expanding into this terrifying sprawl.
Then, a crowd of barefoot girls suddenly gushed out from behind the walls, bringing some calm into Om Saber’s heart. The hard white lumps in their hands made her think of the story of a wall that was on the verge of collapse until a mute boy came along with a small stone and, using it to prop up the wall, saved it. She looked behind her when she heard voices that were closer to prayer than normal words. A deluge of people, carrying a flag she hadn’t seen before, getting louder as it flowed toward her. And she stood in the middle of the road until the flood reached her, and she found herself lifting her right arm and her deep voice with the chant. I am the land. A gentle hand on her back made her tremble. Its touch was calm and caring, like Saber’s. She turned to look.
“Why didn’t you go home?”
Their exchange was cut short by the roar of a motor and a loud voice calling for people to go home. The rising growl of approaching cars spread; then the soldiers with their heavy sticks were everywhere. Om Saber grabbed Aida’s hand when she heard more gunshots, held on to it with all her might. When she saw the boys running, she let her basket go. The kids were being crushed under the sticks, their veined hands wiping the bloodstains off their faces as they either escaped or were led to the vans that lined the road. Om Saber lifted both hands to the sky in prayer. She looked around and hoped for a miracle to transform the world into a blaze that would devour all living things. But now the human tide was ebbing. People got separated and were swallowed into the corners and nooks of the side streets. She found herself alone with Aida at the center of a steel barricade and spat on the ground in frustration.
Aida stood behind Om Saber as if seeking shelter. A soldier approached them with slow, heavy steps, waving his stick in the air. He stopped before he reached them and beat the stick on the retaining wall by the entrance to the bus terminal. Om Saber picked up her basket with one hand, pressed Aida’s trembling hand with the other, and took one step forward. The soldier stood nailed to his place and yelled, “Where?”
The older woman didn’t speak; the younger woman didn’t tremble.
“Where? Where?” the soldier repeated and, when he didn’t get an answer, he hauled himself toward the woman with his shotgun held high. He stared at Om Saber for a few moments, then stepped back and spoke again in a calmer voice: “Where are you going?”
“To the prison.”
“To visit my son Saber.”
“Do you have an ID?”
“Women don’t have IDs where I come from.”
“This is my daughter.”
Om Saber pressed her lips together and stared the soldier down. He took another step backward, then turned back to the steel barricade and got into a car. The motors started, and within moments the large cemetery had engulfed the city. The two women stood at the center of the stillness.
When Om Saber reached Aida’s home, she stood in the alleyway, drowned in sunlight and silence. Aida opened the door and entered, expecting Om Saber to follow. But the older woman turned around and walked away until she disappeared down the far end of the alley. She didn’t seem to hear Aida calling. She had hours of walking ahead of her. By sunset, the whole world was a listening ear: a girl with olive skin beating a magic drum, the sound flowing softly like evening waves, only stopping when Om Saber took her first step into her own home.
Izzat al-Ghazzawi (1951–2003) was a Palestinian writer born in the village of Deir al-Ghusun in the Tulkarm Governorate. He wrote about the suffering of the Palestinian people and was arrested a number of times by Israeli authorities. His son Rami was killed by settlers inside his school in 1993 during the First Palestinian Intifada. Al-Ghazzawi was a professor at Birzeit University and was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2001 and the Norwegian Freedom to Create Prize in 1994. He headed the General Union of Palestinian Writers from 2000 until his death in 2003. He published several fiction and nonfiction books, including the short story collection Prisoner, from which the story is this issue has been chosen.
Nariman Youssef is a Cairo-born literary translator based in London. She manages an Arabic translation team part-time at the British Library, and has led and curated translation workshops with Shadow Heroes, Shubbak Festival and Africa Writes. Her recent translations include Mo(a)t: Stories from Arabic, Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven, and contributions to publications like The Common, ArabLit Quarterly, and Words Without Borders. Nariman holds a master’s degree in translation studies from the University of Edinburgh.