By JASSIM AL-SHAMMARIE
Translated from the Arabic by MAIA TABET
I feel the wall with my bare hands, the peeling paint, the cracks along its surface…. They’re just superficial and haven’t impacted the solid masonry. There’s no light coming through.
The soaring, towering wall is solid; it is two lights and one darkness long. This is how I measure the passage of time in the endless enclosure of this space, either as glaring light or as pitch darkness…. Once, to figure out how long it was, I hugged the wall, reaching its farthest edge after two lights and one darkness. Truth be told, this exhausted me, and I may have slept one or two lights without knowing it.
Believe me when I say that I didn’t want to know the length of this damned wall. It’s not something I cared about; I was just looking for some kind of exit to the other side. When I reached the farthest edge, there was nothing but another wall. And at the end of that wall, my bare hands collided with a third wall, and so on and so forth until I was back at square one. Enclosed by four walls.
I didn’t find out what square one was until I heard my elderly grandmother asking me what I had been doing for the past fifty lights and forty-nine darknesses. “Oh, Grandma, I was looking for a way out of here.”
The old woman guffawed. Pointing to a spot nearby, she said: “Over there is where, of a darkness, your grandfather breathed his last trying to open a breach in the wall. Not far from him, your exhausted father lay down and surrendered his soul after embracing the trunk of a dead tree. And in the following light, you were lying next to him and he was the trunk of a dead tree.”
The old woman is out of her mind, I thought. And I too will lose my mind if I don’t get out of here.
I hear a commotion on the other side of the wall. I open my ears, but there’s only a jumble of sounds… knocking, screaming, and an occasional chuckle that quickly turns into crying and wailing. Is all that din coming from just one person? I let out a howl… maybe whatever creature is on the other side will hear it… but my cry just echoes back, mockingly; there’s no one there.
I go back to feeling the wall, on the off chance that I can find a way out, or something like it.
I asked my grandmother, once upon a light, how we came to be here. It was as if I had transported her back in time with my question. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against a clay pillow, and when she opened them again after a pause, I saw that unmistakable glimmer of integrity in them. “Once upon a darkness,” she said, “your grandfather told me that a passing cloud had carried him from a land he no longer remembered and dropped him here. At first, the courtyard had impressed him….” Pointing toward a decrepit old hovel, she added, “He built that bit of shade. He planted something of a garden nearby to stave off hunger. And then, as time passed, although he didn’t keep track of the lights and the darknesses, he felt lonely; he looked up to the sky, and from a passing cloud a young girl appeared by his side––just like that. I was the young girl. He fed me, and we lived together, and when his back began to bend, I gave birth to your father. Back and forth, the two of them walked along this wall, with your grandfather going around and around in search of an exit through every light and darkness, until he finally laid his head down by this little spot, thinking it would prove to be the way out… the way to the other side of the wall… and fell asleep. He slept a long time, son; he’s still asleep.”
“And what about me, Grandma?” She went over the same details again, but I didn’t believe her this time around: “You were born of a tree trunk, from the soil of a patch of land that your father watered before he fell asleep. When we woke up in the morning, he’d fallen asleep… no more than a dead tree trunk… and you uttered your first cry.”
Clasping the wooden handle made from a dead tree trunk, I swing the pickaxe at the crumbling wall. The darkness shakes off its shadows, and a glimmer of light appears. I rejoice that this might be the way out. Let me sleep a little, I think, and I’ll complete what I started at the next light. But when the light appears I find a dead tree trunk by my side. And a child who utters his first cry… The old woman is nowhere to be found in this endless enclosure.
Jassim Al-Shammarie is short story writer in his mid-fifties who belongs to a community of stateless people in Kuwait known as the Bedoon. A journalist by trade, he believes that writing can propel social change.
maia tabet is an Arabic-English literary translator with five book-length translations to her name. Her work has also appeared in Words Without Borders, Banipal, Fikrun wa Fann, Portal 9, ArabLit Quarterly, and the Journal of Palestine Studies, among others. She is currently completing a translation of Rula Jurdi’s ‘Ilbat al-Daoww.