By SUHAIL MATAR
Translated by AMIKA FENDI
“Let’s see if he’s working now. Yes, there he is.”
Ayed heard these sentences inside the shawarma shop where he worked on Calle Elvira. As he turned around, he recalled what had been uttered just previously, in the middle of the evening rush: “Assalamu alikun, Ayed!”
“Wa ‘alaykum as-Salam. How are you, Tony?” he answered in Arabic.
Antonio, Ayed’s friend, was an amicable young man who joked quite a lot in a manner that erred on the sexual side. He also was learning Fuṣḥa at one of the many language centers in Granada. Ayed liked him for his good nature and because he was Ayed’s umbilical cord to the happenings in Granada’s nightlife. Often Tony came accompanied by one girl, or several—for the most part, tourists—to say hi to Ayed at his workplace. He would then ask him, before throwing him a knowing wink, to join them after his shift. So, Ayed was puzzled when he saw that Antonio’s escort was a lanky, short guy. The guy’s face was smeared with an obvious awkwardness, camouflaged under a half smile. The young man greeted Ayed with a nod and said, “How’re you doing?”
“Al-khamdu-li-la,” answered Antonio excitedly, and he went on, pointing at the young man: “Khatha Khathi!”
“Hadi,” said the young man to Antonio, smiling widely. Then he turned to Ayed and explained: “I’m Hadi. This guy told me that he had a buddy from Gaza, so I came to say hi.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Ayed.” Then, to his friend, Ayed added, “Hey, Tony, it’s ‘Hadi,’ Haaadi, not ‘Khathi’!”
The three laughed, and Antonio muttered something in Spanish about where Ayed should stuff these strange letters of his.
“You and Tony are friends?” Ayed asked him.
“No, not really. I met him just now at a shop over there,” Hadi said with a smile, pointing at the street.
“Where are you from, Hadi?”
“From Haifa,” Hadi replied. His smile contorted as he felt the typical embarrassment of meeting a Gazan when he himself came from the “privileged Inside,” which now was Israel. “I am studying in Madrid now, though.”
Ayed smiled bitterly at the thought of this place buried inside what used to be his country. “Welcome. And how is Haifa?”
“Haifa… is well and still very beautiful. She’s waiting for all of you,” he replied with evident self-consciousness. Ayed nodded his head in gratitude for the feel-good bromide. Hadi went on: “How long have you been here?”
“Six years for me in Spain.”
“Ah, you mean… before the Siege. And your family? Here as well?”
“No, my family is in Gaza.”
“How are they? How is the situation there?” Hadi asked. He used his hands a lot while speaking. “Hard, certainly…?” He began the question in the affirmative form but softened it with the word “certainly” toward the interrogative form.
What an eccentric young man, Ayed thought to himself, before answering dryly, “Alhamdu lillah, thank god, things are alright.” It had been almost two years since he’d used phrases like “alhamdu lillah” and “inshallah” in their literal sense.
Hadi opened his mouth as if he wanted to ask about something else, but instead he clapped it shut and remained silent. Antonio followed the conversation with interest and a wide smile that did not leave his visage. Ayed knew that he did not understand much of what was said or what was not said, even if he understood the colloquial words themselves.
After the two of them fell silent, Antonio spoke up again in his halting Arabic: “Okay, we two is going… We two are going? We go now. We be see you later. Cool, khabibi?” The other two resorted to laughing stiltedly.
“Goodbye. An honor!” said Hadi, extending his hand to Ayed, who shook it and replied: “Glad to meet you too.”
Their second meeting took place two days later, and it was short. Ayed stood outside the shawarma shop. Darkness had swept Calle Elvira. At this hour, the sidewalks were full of cheerful pedestrians outside the taverns flanking both sides of the narrow street, pleading for the free mini lunches served with every glass of beer, the hospitality that distinguished Granada from other Iberian cities. Ayed pulled out some tobacco from his pocket. He rolled a cigarette and pushed it between his lips. But when he tried to light it, he discovered that his lighter had run out. He sighed.
A voice surprised him by shouting his name: “Ayed!” He turned around to find Hadi, alone, coming toward him. Ayed often met Palestinian visitors in Granada, but before today he’d never run into any of them twice. They shook hands, and Hadi asked him, “Can you tell me how I can get to Plaza de la Romanilla?”
Ayed gave him the necessary instructions, adding, “When you’ve reached the place, you’ll see a statue of a man and a donkey carrying water.”
After Hadi thanked him, Ayed asked, “Are you going to meet Tony?”
Hadi replied that he was going to meet friends he had made through Antonio; the latter might join later. Such is life in Granada, Ayed thought to himself: If you want, before even two days have passed since your arrival in the city, you will have established a complex network of friends and acquaintances. The problem is that this network will inevitably disappear after a short time—the lack of job opportunities and the influx of many university students to Granada shifted the demographics here at a speed unconducive to maintaining long-term relationships.
“Okay, thank you, khayya,” Hadi said with a smile, and he made to leave.
Ayed stopped him: “Wait, Hadi! Do you have a lighter?” He flicked the air with his thumb.
Hadi had a childish look on his face. “No, I never smoke. Kick the habit, brother. You’ll be better off. Otherwise, it’ll kill you, kill you!” he jokingly yelled at Ayed as he walked away and slipped into the crowd. Ayed watched him disappear and thought to himself, What does this boy know about death, anyhow?
Ayed had Tuesdays off. He spent his Tuesday hours roaming the city streets, especially its old neighborhoods, where many knew him. The Albaicín neighborhood, located on the hill behind Calle Elvira, particularly impacted Ayed. He enjoyed wandering its winding, labyrinthine streets and its sloping, narrow, quiet alleys with their bright whiteness, where it was not uncommon to see slogans such as Long Live Palestine! sprinkled on the walls.
In the afternoons, he found himself scaling that famous road that leads tourists to Spain’s most visited landmarks. Ayed did not exactly like to go to El Hamra. Because it was a magnet for camera-carrying floods of tourist hands, the eyes were deprived of the pure fascination of the elegant and meticulous reliefs that stated Wa lā gāliba illā-llāh (“There is no victor but Allah”). He had visited El Hamra several times, of course, but his first visit occurred only several months after he arrived in the city. El Hamra was luxurious and stunning, to be sure, but he couldn’t shake off the image of thousands of tourists, especially the large numbers of Japanese.
No, Ayed did not go to El Hamra every Tuesday when he climbed the hill; rather, he went to a garden on the side of the hill. One could spend an entire laborious day tracing all the “must-not-miss” nooks and crannies on the map that visitors received upon entering the palace. The degree of aesthetic saturation forced upon the average tourist and their wee camera’s memory card often led to them overlooking the garden called El Carmen de los Mártires. Ayed did not know the history behind the garden or its name, nor did he want to know. He possessed his own personal connection to the garden’s namesake.
Every time he visited, he had to dodge his way, skillfully, around the gypsy women who tried to stop him, to bless him and pray for him to receive love, luck, and marriage by scrubbing his wrist with some rosemary. Having escaped, he engaged in his weekly ritual, which he’d cultivated over time: walking around the garden; admiring the headless and handless statues; ascending the helical staircase that surrounded the stone tower (the tower stood on the bank of a large pond); sitting on the tower’s roof with his back against one of the stones in the low parapet; and watching the city expand before him.
On this Tuesday, he sat at his usual spot, his thoughts meandering, when he heard a deep voice mutter some song in English:
I had come to meet you
With a question in my footsteps
I was going up the hillside
And the journey just begun
Little by little, the voice, accompanied by the sound of footsteps, drew nearer to the roof. It was Hadi. Upon seeing Ayed, he winced, but caught himself. “Hello, Ayed!”
Ayed smiled and greeted him with a nod.
Hadi continued: “What are you doing here?”
Ayed did not feel like speaking; he had never uttered a word in this place. He also did not wish to appear rude by not answering. But after the first moments of silence passed, it became too late to speak: he looked back toward the horizon. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hadi’s befuddled figure, which came forward, deliberately silent, and sat at one end of the roof, opposite him. After a few minutes of stillness, the crowing of one of the garden’s peacocks suddenly rose from below.
“What’s that?!” Hadi jumped up in panic.
Ayed giggled and calmed him with a gesture of his hand. After a moment, he said, “That’s a peacock.”
“The bastard gave me a shake!” Hadi answered and returned to his sitting position. After a moment of silence, Ayed asked, “What brings you here, Hadi?”
Hadi hesitated a little before answering. “I came because of a song. A song that I love talks about this place… I wanted to see it.” Hadi’s face turned red, and he went silent.
“Were you at El Hamra just now?”
“I have been, but not now, no. I went there two days ago.”
“And what do you think about it? Lovely, huh?”
“Sure, it’s nice. But the tourists, man… it’s not normal…”
Hadi stretched out his lips and shook his head. Ayed nodded in agreement, satisfied.
They kept silent again for a few minutes. This time the silence was perturbed by a childish voice and keen footsteps rising toward the roof. A girl of about five or six years appeared in a yellow dress. She looked at them timidly and then rushed to the parapet’s edge, shouting in Spanish: “Mama! Mama! Look, what a beautiful sight!”
Her mother appeared on the roof, panting, reproaching: “Silvia! Watch out. You’ll fall!”
She ran toward her daughter and grabbed her by the shoulder. Then she turned to Ayed on one side and Hadi on the other and muttered “Hola” before continuing to scold her daughter: “Silvia, did you say, ‘Hola’? It’s good manners to say hello to others.”
Silvia looked at the ground and mumbled, “Hola.” The two men laughed and saluted her in kind.
“What a fucking sight, Mama!” Silvia shouted.
“What kind of talk is this? Silvia! These are not words for children,” said her mother, unable to hold back a laugh. Then she exchanged looks with Ayed and Hadi, who joined her good humor. Suddenly, Silvia crossed her leg over the parapet and sat down. When she set to raise her other leg, her mother deterred her.
“No, Silvia. You might fall.”
“But, Mama, I’m tired, and I want to sit down and watch the view.”
“And if you fall?”
“Nothing is going to happen, Mama. This tower isn’t that high.”
“Yes, look. See? If you fall over, I won’t have any Silvia left. I’ll have Silvia-shaped tortilla.”
“Ha-ha-ha! A tortilla that looks like me?”
“Of course, a tortilla with slices of Silvia instead of potato.”
The girl laughed at this picture, and Hadi too. Ayed looked at him out of the corner of his eye: What was funny about this situation, in this particular place?
“Yeah, I’d like to have a sweet potato tortilla,” said Silvia excitedly, and her mother grabbed the opportunity, saying, “Then let’s go find some,” and she took the girl by the hand to the top of the stairs. The mother nodded at Ayed and Hadi. The little girl’s voice faded as she descended: “I don’t want to be a tortilla, but I wonder what a tortilla with Silvia bits is like.”
Hadi laughed again. “Such a cutie,” he said to Ayed, who nodded with a weary smile. Then Hadi, encouraged, added, “We… we forget that—at times—a person can die a natural death or… or a ridiculous death, right?”
Despite himself, all the canals leading to Ayed’s eyes overflowed with tears. He tried to pull himself together. That is, he commanded his face not to twist as it did, and he chided his throat lest it let out a rattle, but it did anyway. Only his hand obeyed and covered his face as he sobbed.
Another peacock screeched.
When he calmed down a bit, Ayed wiped his tears with his palm and looked ahead of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Hadi had quietly advanced toward him and crouched beside him. Hadi did not say anything until Ayed breathed again.
“Ayed? What is it? Are you okay?”
“Nothing,” he said at first.
Hadi did not move. Ayed could still feel his eyes staring at him firmly.
“Two years ago, during the aggression, my brother—”
He didn’t know why, suddenly, but he felt, for a moment, that it wasn’t enough, so he added, “His name is Isam. His name was Isam.”
He exhaled forcefully, feeling that a transparent cloud had cleared around him. He felt a small hand steadfastly holding his shoulder. It patted him once, twice. He turned to Hadi. His face looked pale and orange at that sunset hour, tinged with shades of inquiry and concern.
Suhail Matar was born in Haifa in 1987, where he also grew up. He is now pursuing a PhD in neurocognitive sciences at New York University. The story “Granada” belongs to his short story collection North of Andalusia, West of the Homeland, which was jointly awarded the A M Qattan Foundation’s 2012 Young Writer of the Year Award.
Amika Fendi was born in Syria and lives in Oslo. He writes in Arabic, English, and Norwegian. His texts have appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2019, The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human: Tales from Many Muslim Worlds, New Reader Magazine, Sukoon, and elsewhere. A refugee of war, he is currently writing a semiautobiographical novel in Norwegian. He works as a digital editor at Norway’s biggest publishing house.