When my friends and I left the homeland, my second departure from Kuwait, there were five of us and ten suitcases. I knew exactly what was in each bag, just as I knew the pain and angst of the five travelers heading toward the unknown. The suitcases were packed with clothes, kitchenware, Indian spices, and various items we didn’t think we’d be able to find abroad. I could only bring four books with me from my vast library back home: Al-Mutannabi, in two parts; the collected works of Mahmoud Darwish; and just one of the volumes of The Unique Necklace. These would constitute the entire library I would survive on, for however long I ended up living in estrangement. Once we’d settled into our accommodation in a small house on Norris Drive in Ottawa, I arranged the books on the sleek wooden flooring, the place being still unfurnished. Then I sat back and simply gazed at them.
Whenever she spoke, my mother habitually turned down her upper lip and clenched her teeth as if to control the flow of her words—filtering them, if you will. Her teeth were white and strong; they were free of blemishes, except for the three that had been chipped in an old accident. She leaned in toward whomever she was conversing with, an apologetic smile on her face, which our neighbor’s daughter described as radiating kindness. A colleague who was once delivering an urgent message to me couldn’t help but remark that even from a distance her beauty was striking. He must not have seen her moving about with the distorted gait that caused one side of her rear to rise as the other descended. Although it had become less conspicuous with age, her limp harkened to another old story, but whenever anyone inquired about it, my mother just smiled enigmatically. Some of the questions were innocent enough, but others seemed veiled––I couldn’t fathom their subtext, nor could I recall anything from the actual events that might help me discern the questioner’s motive. All I know is that I had grown used to the way her limp caused gasps of astonishment, making mouths salivate with unspoken questions and eyes gleam with curiosity.
They say that, sometime at the end of the nineteenth century, a woman came on a wooden ship from Najd, married a wealthy man from the island, and, when she didn’t conceive, had a maqam built on the ruins of a pagan temple near the cliffs of the shore. Having had a dream where a man holding a staff spoke to her, the woman then named the maqam after the mystic Al-Khidr.
We were happy children. Fear didn’t stop us from doing what we wanted whenever we wanted. The clock had no place in our daily lives, as long as we were armed by play and by the secret weapon of Allah y-saʿdak, that Iraqi phrase that we used as a password to keep the soldiers at bay.
But when it came to rescuing me from the claws of a heart sickness that sent me to the hospital, twenty-nine years after the invasion, the password didn’t work. In truth, I don’t know what struck me. It seemed that my heart could no longer contain the force of all the memories of the days of the invasion, when I was a nine-year-old who spent most of his time playing football or riding a bicycle. The stream of images pushed my heart rate to over 160 irregular beats per minute. As doctors struggled to figure out the reason, I myself was certain of it.
The cold stings your skin as you walk out of the hotel. It’s your first visit to Europe. You’re with a cultured friend who knows these countries well and, most importantly, is an art enthusiast. He immediately suggests, with a friendly and zealous shake of the head: “How about a museum?” And you think it’s a great idea. Restaurants, cafés, streets, tourists, crowded squares… they’re the same everywhere. But if you go to a museum, you’ll be able to show off about it to your co-workers. And it’ll be a conversation starter with Sarah, the woman you can’t stop staring at, who has an odd-looking painting in her office and who once told you that it was by someone called Dalí, although you’ve already forgotten the rest of the name.
It was raining nonstop, and the flowing stream of rainwater collected anything it met along the dirt track. As if this apocalyptic scene weren’t savage enough for God, the rain brought with it thunderstorms and gales that threatened to uproot the streetlamp and thin cypress trees dotting the neighborhood.
It was freezing cold, and my grandmother crouched in a corner of the house near the dakhoon, which no one had lit, shivering under her black woollen shawl. From time to time, she muttered, “Oh, Mary, mother of Jesus, protect us!”
I was leaving El Rafidayn supermarket in Ramallah. I had bought coffee, wet wipes, and two cans of tuna. One of the Israeli occupation’s patrols was parked at El Rafidayn roundabout. I was alone in the area, and the hour was approaching midnight. The patrol blew its impudent horn. I ignored it and kept my course due home. But a soldier opened the window and called out, “Come over here, monkey.”
He stormed out of the house, yelling and cursing. His belly, hemmed in and taunted by high-waisted underpants (which had once been white), flopped over his waistband as if trying to flee from his too-short pants. He cursed those raucous kids; cursed their parents, those bastards; cursed the father who spawned those wretched creatures. As for his other neighbors: in a matter of seconds they were at the black iron railings, gripping onto the bars that surrounded the high windows to stop reckless children from falling yet still allow the adults to enjoy the view over the city. Meanwhile, the Syrian characters of the soap opera were left to discuss amongst themselves the various methods of smuggling weapons and prisoners, and how to free themselves from the yoke of the French colonizer.
“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?”