Translated by AMIKA FENDI
Drowsiness weighed down my eyelids, so I stretched myself out on the mattress, swimming in the shadows made by the light of the single candle, lonely in the cold, rugged corner where it stood. My friends had been sleeping for an hour or so. I nodded along to their continuous, flutelike noises, a steady chaos.
I felt my neighbor to my right rolling around on my mattress; he moaned faintly and painfully, as if he were crying, while my neighbor on the left remained melting in the darkness of sleep, possessing his own a quietude, like that of the dead.
I do not know what made me open my eyes and look at the hands of my watch, which I found to be nearing eleven, but just then murmuring voices outside scared away my drowsiness. I jumped up from the mattress and quickly crawled over to the flute choir. One touch was enough for each to open his eyes wide, and they understood at once, from the expression on my face and the gesture of my index finger against my mouth, that we were under a raid.
I blew out the candle. Complete darkness ruled.
Each of us firmly gripped our breath. We held it in until all traces of our presence vanished in that impregnable shelter, underneath the great building that was still under construction, where we worked during the day and slept at night. By so doing, we broke the law that forbade us to sleep in our own country, the one that was no longer ours; the one gifted to others with the carefreeness of a drunkard who donated the world.
Since I did not know how they discovered our presence in the shelter—we were cautious not to go out after sunset—I found myself thinking about this strange paradox: We preceded them in using this shelter, erected with our arms, which they would use to take refuge from us when we attacked them with our planes and missiles someday. A day that may or may not come!
We heard them gibber to each other.
Their voices approached and moved away, and then came close again, until we heard them clearly as they confirmed our presence, repeating the word “Aravim” as if it were an insult through which they released their anguish, the word permeating the shelter walls buried in the sand and penetrating our silence as bullets pierce a skull.
We no longer had the slightest doubt that they were from the Nahal Brigade, with their green berets, specialized in hunting us down everywhere. We were, however, determined to remain silent and steadfast until the end, because we were in a fortress designed out of their anxious engineering and obsessive genius. We shut tightly from the inside the iron gate, fitted with thick steel bolts, impossible to open from the outside, even if they used explosives.
They started banging hard on the door and calling, “Hey, you, Muhammad, Ahmed, Mahmoud, open the door!”
But we remained silent, without moving, so they kept banging on the door and calling out to us, overlapping voices growing ever louder. Then they finally stopped, and we heard them withdraw. We were overwhelmed by a hissing of joy: “They went. They went.” We thought they’d given up on us, to never again return. Our joy did not last long, however, for the water soon burst in on us from the ventilation shaft, which hung high on the ceiling, parallel to the earth’s surface on the outside, where they stood. It was clear to us that they had pulled out the workshop’s long hose and opened the water tap to its fullest.
We heard them laughing, mocking us as they hollered and threatened, “We will drown you in water, Aravim, until you croak like cockroaches.”
We held out, sacrificing our mattresses and blankets, for more than two whole hours, in the hope that they would despair and depart, but the water rose on the reinforced-concrete ground and submerged our feet and parts of our legs. They wouldn’t back off.
One of us, wading through the water toward the door, shouted, “No use. We must open.”
We let him open the door, without intervening, perhaps because we were all thinking at that moment about the necessity of doing so, but without the audacity to take the initiative.
As soon as the door gave its wailing screech, the searchlights in their hands washed over us. We shaded our eyes with our hands while we turned round in our places in that puddle, confused and lost, not knowing what to do.
We were more than fifteen people, brothered in a bond of toil that had melted us in its gelatinous crucible, so that we looked alike, despite our varying ages and facial features. (The youngest of us was no more than thirteen, while our eldest was over sixty.) They took us out one by one, forcing us to lift our hands over our heads like prisoners of war or members of a dangerous gang of skilled hooligans.
Outside, the cold wind whistled and slammed the walls of the unfinished buildings that surrounded us on all sides. They commanded us to lie on our stomachs, on the sand that was sown with the residue of building materials: broken bricks, pebbles, iron rods, nails big and small, and strands of twined and untwined wire. We shivered in our soaking wetness and from the stinging, cold wind.
I was freezing, shivering convulsively. Upon hearing my friends’ teeth chattering, my sensation of cold increased until my heart contracted, almost stopped beating, and yet I did not, for one moment, stop thinking about the significance of what they were doing to us: What did they get from forcing us to the ground? What were their next steps?
They were divided into two groups: a group in front of us and another behind. Both began to abuse us, warning us not to raise our faces from the sand or to make any movement, no matter how minute, not even coughing or clearing one’s throat, shouting at those who attempted to do so. They kicked them in their flanks like one would a soft mattress, to throw it as far as possible. As if that were not enough, they set to walking, in their spike-soled military boots, on our backs, as if we were a pedestrian bridge. They crossed from one side to the other, and when the last of them crossed over, he felt ultralight compared to those who preceded him. We could hardly feel his passing over us, so we did not ache, nor did we groan, and perhaps this angered him. As soon as he crossed once, he came back again and started jumping on our backs, jumping into the air and falling on us with all his might, keen, it seemed, to crush us into the ground. We screamed and shouted; we squirmed in our places. But he neither cared nor budged. He continued jumping and free-falling on us, until fatigue subdued him; when he was no longer able to keep balanced above our bodies, he caved in, panting, and shouted at us: “Yallah… get up and stand in your places!”
We stood up, gathering ourselves, our bones crackling like broken sticks. He commanded us to stand upright, to cinch our hands behind our backs, and to look, each one of us, directly ahead, in a straight line, not deviating to the right or left. He commanded us, as well, to quit with the groans and the crackling of bones, since that agitated him and grated on his nerves. Then, from one of his colleagues, he picked up a large flashlight, and began to shine its light at our faces, one face after the other, and asked repeatedly, “Who among you carries a knife?”
Shaking his head as if to threaten us, he contemplated our silence and frozenness. Then he bobbed up, as if an idea had occurred to him, and shouted, raising his forefinger in our faces. “Ah… you damned ones, you aren’t gonna confess, huh? You must be hiding knives under your clothes!”
He circled around us with his searchlight two or three times before ordering us to take off our clothes to be frisked. One of us whispered, “Cold!” He heard this, dragged the speaker from among us, and threw him to his colleagues. They quickly grabbed hold of him and rained blows on him with their hands and feet. So there was nothing for us to do but to comply with the order and take off our clothes, which were soon dry enough. We again shivered in the wind.
He rebuked us and shouted, “Shh… not a single movement!”
He walked past us, checking us like a general does his soldiers. I don’t know why he stopped in front of me and began to examine me, shining his searchlight in my face!
Perhaps he discovered that slight difference in my appearance from the rest of my companions, the veneer that I acquired during my long years of study, which had culminated in my graduation from university—that veneer that I had lost to many years of construction work upon my return. I figured a meager trace of it was left, and this may have caught his attention and made him pause in front of me.
He asked me in Hebrew, “You… what are you doing here?”
I pretended not to understand and said that I didn’t speak Hebrew, so he slapped me and snarled, “You don’t understand Hebrew? So, what do you understand?”
I said in Hebrew, my chest burning, “I understand Arabic. And English, as well.”
He gave me a savage, bloodhound look for a moment, then explosively spat in my face. “Dog. Arab dog.”
He quickly turned from me, not waiting for my reaction, as if he sensed I was boiling and was afraid of what might come out of me. And perhaps he caught sight of the foolhardy phantoms wrestling in my eyes. He chose to step back hastily, clearing the yard for one of his colleagues. This one had, from the beginning, kept away from us, as if content with observing what was happening, frowning in silence, as if he were not pleased with what his colleagues were doing to us, so much so that I expected him to take pity on us and allow us to put our clothes back on, clothes they were trampling, over and over, without searching or looking at them. But he approached, as if starting a new chapter of this protracted nighttime diversion, and began selecting and asking each of us the long-belated question, “Don’t you know it’s forbidden to sleep here?”
And each one of us would answer him, “No, I don’t know, Khawaja!”
He would then slap us, knee us between the legs, and shout, “You are a liar. One big liar.”
But when one of us tried to answer mumblingly, like a polite boy admitting a great mistake, “Yes. I know this, Khawaja,” he would do the same, hit and knee him and shout in his face: “Then why didn’t you go to sleep at your mother’s house, you donkey?”
I smiled, and I felt the smiles of my friends flutter their wings around me, the echo of their laughter ringing in my chest. Their great laughter could have exploded at any moment, in spite of the night’s clutch over everything, its nervousness and frostiness. But just then a big car emerged from around the corner and came upon us with its terrifying red eyes glowing like those of a ghoul. It snarled, rattling its long tail of exhaust, then pulled up at last near our tired tormentors’ Jeep. Its doors were flung open as if to prey upon us. The car ejaculated three zealots. They ran up to us, stood a few steps away, swaying, giggling, pointing at our shrunken, naked bodies, waving their hands in the air with random, clumsy movements. They bumped one another’s shoulders, without the slightest control over their limbs. It seemed to us that there would be no letup, and that yet another evening play had begun.
But the night, panting from fatigue, was reaching its end, so they ordered us to put on our clothes. We fell upon our garments in disbelief and hurriedly donned them without bothering to clean them or shake off the sand and dirt.
At last, at long last, they led us to the big car. It swallowed us quickly. Then we made our way through the silent, desolate streets, as we mended our bodies and muttered to one another, pretending to be indifferent, “Prison, prison. So be it.”
We peered through the glassy blurriness at the broken dawn that was now emerging.
Khaled Al-Jebour was born in Yatta, in the Hebron Governorate, Palestine, in 1959. For twenty years, he worked as a teacher in the United Arab Emirates. Since 2008, he has been caring for the olive trees he planted on his land. He has published fourteen books of prose and poetry, for both adults and children. He has also won several Arab awards, especially in children’s literature.
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.