The Stranger

By ABEER KHSHIBOON

Translated by NASHWA GOWANLOCK

 

Farah was struggling to keep her balance in the heaving crowd near the locked gate. Despite how long she would have to wait to get into the hall at Amman University—where she’d already been standing for more than an hour—she remained both calm and cheerful. She was even humming a song—the last one she’d listened to on the way from the border crossing to a modest hotel in the Jordanian capital where she was sharing a room with the university friend joining her for the Fairouz concert.

Her friend was busy talking to some of her relatives from Shafa Amr whom she had bumped into half an hour ago at the gate. They were now emphatically discussing how severely congested the border crossing had been that morning. Farah, meanwhile, was watching the people around her and listening to their chatter. She tried to see if there might be anyone else there she knew, since it had become apparent that the crowd was mostly made up of ’48 Palestinians, like her, who spoke with a Galilean accent. She needed only to hear an Arab say the name Fairouz to know that they were Palestinian from the way they ignored the a completely, clipping the first vowel sound into an ee. It was the same with the word Beirut, which they pronounced as if there were no e at all. Farah chuckled to herself, feeling as if she were back in her neighborhood, even though she was in an entirely different country.

Since she couldn’t find anyone else to pair up with for the concert, she started tallying up the Palestinians around her, to make her forget how lonely she was beginning to feel without her friend. All of a sudden, a raucous surge in the crowd sent a young man forward and down into a bundle by her feet. She quickly helped him to stand next to her. The stone verge she was perched on was relatively stable, which is why she had chosen it from the start, knowing how long she would be there. It was a strategic choice, to help protect the toes of her tiny feet from being trampled beneath a multitude of shoes.

“Thank you!” he cried happily. “They pushed me. I have no idea how I got here!”

Farah was struggling to contain her excitement at being here, finally, and with people from all over the region, but steadied her emotions to calmly respond: “It’s fine. But you don’t look like… where are you from?”

“I’m from Syria,” he replied. “From Aleppo. What about you?”

“I’m from Palestine…” she began, then paused. “From Galilee. So, from inside,” she added, looking at him meaningfully.

It was his turn to be shocked, since it was so rare for Syrians to meet Palestinian citizens of Israel. Anyone holding a Syrian passport would be immediately barred from entering the other “enemy” state.

“Seriously?” he asked, incredulously. “And what’s your name?”

“Farah,” she said, still feeling elated. “And you?”

“Hassoun,” he replied, with a grin that matched her own.

His backpack, which looked just like a school bag, caught her eye. He looked like he was quite young, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old. He had blond hair, honey-brown eyes and a permanent wide smile on his face. She carefully scrutinized him. Just looking at him made her feel even happier; this was the first time she had ever met a Syrian face-to-face, although she’d always had a passion for the country and its people, whom she only saw on TV.

Curious, she asked him, “Are you on your own”?

“Yes,” he replied quickly. “What about you?”

She looked around, searching for her friend, but couldn’t see her.

“It looks like I’m on my own.”

“Which level have you booked?”

“The first,” she replied.

“Me too!” he said enthusiastically. “Then we can sit together, right?”

When she nodded, he seemed even more delighted. He steadied himself, then tilted his head up to look at the gate. They could tell that the gate would be opened soon, because they could see more of the staff on the other side preparing to deal with the tidal wave that was about to flood the campus at the crucial, imminent moment.

“Do you realize that the seats aren’t numbered?” he asked gravely.

“Yes, I heard,” she replied, also looking worried. “So where will we sit?”

“Leave it to me,” he reassured her. “I’ve studied the layout of the hall. But we’ll need to be quick. They’ll all try to rush in. But don’t worry—we’re ahead. If we hurry, I’ll grab a good spot and save you a seat.”

Farah couldn’t help but laugh when he finished speaking, and he looked at her inquisitively.

“Your accent!” she said. “I feel like I’m in a Syrian soap opera!”

He started laughing too, and the gate opened.

The noise levels multiplied as the crowds poured into the hall. Hassoun dived into the throng, his slender figure helping him weave his way through. Farah found herself clinging onto his backpack until they reached one of the entrances to the sought-after hall, where a Jordanian employee addressed them.

“Level Two?”

“One!” they replied loudly in unison.

When he gestured to the left, they immediately started sprinting again, laughing all the way, until they reached their designated entrance. They found a long, orderly queue of people, so they joined the end, clutching their tickets ecstatically.

Farah was thrilled to have passed the stage of standing around aimlessly, because she wasn’t good at handling crowds. She was also feeling safer since meeting Hassoun. Hadn’t he told her that he’d studied the layout of the hall? How had he done that? Had he been here before? Maybe he’d gone to the Fairouz concert three years ago? She hadn’t, because the performance came at a time when money was tight, when she was unable to even cover the fees for her first year of university. Missing that concert had left her heartbroken to this day. But she wouldn’t think of that right now, because she was only minutes away from seeing Fairouz live for the very first time. Still she felt the urge to ask Hassoun if he had been there three years ago. She hoped he’d say no, because if she found out that he was there, she would instantly feel low. But remembering a photo of Fairouz that was at her grandmother’s house perked her up. It was a medium-sized picture of the singer in a white dress, raising her right arm, her fingers grazing her cheek. Her aunt, who had placed the photo in a red frame and chosen where to put it in the living room, had been at that concert that caused her such misery. Damn this sadness when it rears its head! So, had Hassoun been there?

She decided to finally ask him but noticed that he seemed quite distracted, scanning the faces of everyone around him as if he was expecting to find someone he knew. If she couldn’t recognize anyone when she was in the majority here, she wondered how this young Syrian man realistically expected to find a familiar face.

“Looking for someone?”

He stopped searching and turned to her. “Yes! My friends from the Fairouz.org site. We arranged to meet at the concert. They’re from your neck of the woods, by the way.”

Surprised, Farah asked, “From my neck of the woods? Where from, exactly?”

He seemed pleased at how taken aback she was. “Palestinians from Haifa, and from Galilee. I have no idea what they look like. I’ll tell you all about them when we get inside.”

Then he pointed out that the people in front of them had just had their tickets checked, meaning that they were now the next ones in line and would finally be able to enter the hall. He gestured to the staff member standing by the door to check Farah’s ticket first. She liked to see a boy behave like a gentleman toward her, without the irony she had become used to these days. It seemed that Hassoun was a genuinely nice person. She showed her ticket to the staff member, who tied a colorful band around her wrist, explaining that the color would help tell her apart from people with seats on other levels, if she had to leave the hall during the interval and needed to get back in. Another band of the same color was tied around Hassoun’s wrist, and they hurried inside.

It was a large hall, and everyone was streaming through by some logic that Farah couldn’t fathom. Hassoun called out for her to follow him, which she instinctively did. He was racing through so quickly that she never questioned why he chose one route over another. Before she knew it, she found herself sitting on the seat next to his, in the front row to the left of the stage. She studied every single detail around her. Their location was perfect. She wouldn’t need to strain to look over someone’s head during the performance, since the row of seats Hassoun had chosen was elevated. Their seats were higher than the ones in front of them, which looked reserved for VIP guests. Farah felt very lucky to have met him; “a coincidence is better than a thousand appointments” and better than a thousand chat sites on the internet. She glanced at the screen of her cell phone—it was 6:30, which meant that there were still two hours to go before the show started. It was time to ask him all the questions she had been turning over in her mind. This time, she blurted out the question she was dying to know the answer to: “Were you at the 2004 concert?”

A shadow fell over his face as he replied, “No, I had to sit my baccalaureate exams.”

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Me neither!” And it was his turn to brighten up, clearly feeling the same way she did about their mutual misfortune.

He asked Farah whether she would like to listen to a song, and she looked down to find a modern contraption in his hands that she didn’t recognize, with headphones connected to it. Hassoun placed one of the pods in his ear and handed her the other. She nestled it in her own ear, and they were soon disconnected from the relentless din around them.

He picked a song, and the music began to seep through like a spell that stirred her soul and triggered age-old sorrows.

They closed off the streets, shut off the traffic lights. They planted cannons, emptied the squares. Where are you, my darling? After you, my darling, we’ve become the weeping love, we’ve become the distances…

How could this boy, who knew nothing about her, so quickly choose one of her favorite songs? For a while, Farah remained silent, flabbergasted by the coincidence and lost in the song. She was used to people preferring different songs by Fairouz than the ones she liked the most. When she whispered to him that she hadn’t come across this recording before, he told her it was of a 1981 concert in Boston. It sounded completely different to the one she knew well, she told him, from the 1979 concert in Paris. The song ended, and Hassoun began to rapidly list the differences between the two recordings, describing them in such minute detail that she quickly lost track of what he was actually saying. But she could clearly see how passionate he was. He was speaking nonstop, waving his arms around like an excited child, flitting from one recording to another, and one song to another, as if he were a bird soaring in a sky no one else had yet reached. She felt as if he lived among the songs, just like she did.

One song played after the other, and she listened to them all on Hassoun’s device, which, he told her, had been a gift from his brother who worked in the Gulf. Farah couldn’t help but think of Salam, the friend she met online two years ago, and she began to tell Hassoun about her. She told him how she had a Syrian friend whom she had never met and who was from a village called Al-Judaida. She used to live in Aleppo with her family before she got married. After that, she’d traveled to Brazil with her husband, and that was where she was now. This friend had three children and loved Fairouz’s music too. Salam knew that Farah was at the concert and was waiting for her to get back home so she could hear all about it. Salam had never seen Fairouz live, but tonight Farah would. She wondered whether, if she had been with them now, Salam would have spent the whole time chatting to Hassoun about Syria. Salam missed Syria terribly; she had only three wishes in life: to return to Syria, to visit Palestine, and to see Fairouz. Was there any connection between these dreams?

Hassoun chose another song and picked up the thread of her conversation about Salam. He told her how he was originally from a village near Al-Judaida called Hatya, and how he’d lived with his family in Aleppo until moving to Damascus for university. He preferred Damascus, he said. Farah knew of Damascus through the poems that Fairouz would sing in her lyrics, and from TV. Fairouz loved Syria and sang about it; she loved Palestine and sang about it too, just like she loved her own country, Lebanon, which a lot of her songs were dedicated to. Did Fairouz’s songs mean the same in every time and place?

Farah’s curiosity kept spilling over in more and more questions, and Hassoun kept up with her, never seeming to need a break. He chattered constantly: he had a twin sister whom he loved very much; he was studying media and journalism at Damascus University; he had a friend around the same age as Farah who lived in Damascus (she was also a huge fan of Fairouz but couldn’t come to the concert with him); and he had a talent for making decorative candles, which he sold. When she told him that she liked candles, he promised to make a special one just for her. Although this made her happy, she didn’t say anything. How in the world would they ever meet again? Farah had always dreamed of visiting Damascus and Beirut, two cities that seem to exist on the other side of the world, and where she wouldn’t be allowed in with her passport. He wasn’t put off by her daydreaming and carried on listing the details of his journey. She found out that he had arrived in Amman that day, and he was returning that same night, right after the concert. Could Damascus really be that close? He asked about her plans, so she told him that she had arrived in the morning and that she was returning the next day because she needed to buy some books before she left, which would be cheaper here than back home. He nodded, then began to search for another song to listen to on his player. She glanced around her and found that all the seats had filled up. The hall was filled with noise as everyone chatted excitedly, as if they all knew each other and had lots to talk about before the start of the show. She wasn’t surprised, given that only an hour had passed and she already felt like she had known this stranger her whole life and that there was barely any distance separating them. She felt they were as close as a palm and its five fingers, or a word made up of seven letters, like Fairouz.

“You’re really happy, aren’t you? Is this the first time you’ve seen Fairouz in concert?” he asked.

She liked that they pronounced Fairouz with a similar emphasis.

“First time.”

His eyes sparkled as if he had just set eyes on Fairouz. “Me too! My God. It’s unbelievable! Can you believe it?”

She felt deeply joyful without understanding what exactly was making her so happy. “Absolutely not. It’s incredible!” Then she burst out laughing, as if it had finally become clear to her why she was there. She kept on laughing, which triggered him to start laughing too and his eye began to sparkle.

She checked the time on her cell phone and saw that it was 7:40 p.m. She hadn’t noticed how much time had passed. She decided that as soon as she got home, she would tell Salam all about Hassoun, this guy who might have been her friend’s own neighbor if she hadn’t emigrated all those years ago. Or even if she’d only gone away for a short stint and then come back. Why would anyone leave the land where Fairouz sang? The grief of estrangement is a void that can’t be filled. In spite of everything, we are here, where we can meet another person, spend time with them, share all kinds of joys and sorrows together, without the need for context, theories, permissions, foreign languages, justifications, or explanations. Farah was born on a small patch on earth, inhabited by two peoples who had been trying (or not trying) to study the possibility of living together for a century. What was the point of the blue passport that supposedly united them, if she still couldn’t say a simple “good morning” to her Russian neighbor who moved next door two months ago in the student dorms? What did it mean to live in such hostility with this neighbor—one of the citizens of the colonizing state —who himself maintained similarly frosty relations with other Jewish-Israeli citizens of different backgrounds? And what did it mean for her to find herself in this place, sharing stories and personal experiences so spontaneously with a Syrian boy she didn’t even know, who randomly landed at her feet, by a random gate, in a random country, before the beginning of a random concert?

No, it wasn’t a “random concert”—it was Fairouz. She looked over at him, rummaging around for something in his bag distractedly. He was humming the lyrics to the song they had just listened to: They put her in a castle, beyond the seven seas. The princess was tiny, and the gates were huge. Take me, my darling, to a house with no doors. Take me, my darling, to the hidden moon. Leave me to slumber in the calm, joyful days, till the bright nights return and our loved ones too. My darling… The way he muttered the words sounded like he was breathing, just like it often did when she listened to Fairouz while doing something else. She saw that he’d pulled out half the contents of his bag without finding what he was searching for, and without missing a single word of the song. Although he didn’t have a great singing voice, and he may have been a little out of tune here and there, jarring with the melody, she could feel just how much these words were etched into his heart, just like they were in hers. She realized that there was no formula to explain what had happened between them; when a body of water meets another, there’s no need to question how they formed a single river.

When he realized she was watching him, he stopped looking through the bag, as if he’d given up hope, and shoved the backpack under the seat. He leaned back and rested his head on his arm, then turned to her and asked her to tell him about herself. She told him that she was studying sociology at Haifa University and that she was working on an educational project, which she was directing. The project was aimed at providing aid to pupils who needed some sort of support, whether social or educational. Each boy or girl was allocated a university student as a mentor, and they supported their assigned pupil for the whole academic year. In return, the university students received a scholarship to help with their tuition fees.

“Is Haifa nice?” he said, interrupting her.

She gave a soft smile. “Really lovely.”

He smiled back and paused, before adding that he would visit her one day. Her face lit up, and she remembered how she’d always told Salam that she would love to visit Damascus one day. Where was Salam now? Dreams could also meet each other in this world, just like people.

Hassoun started rifling through his bag again. The hall was completely packed. Farah looked at the large black curtain and sensed a movement behind it. She searched in vain with her eyes for her missing friend, but couldn’t see her.

“Finally,” Hassoun said.

She turned to him and saw that he was handing her a pen and asking her to write her email address on a scrap of paper, which she did. He then noted down his email address too, on an even smaller scrap, which she hid in her pocket. Even though communicating from behind a computer screen would be no match to meeting face-to-face, Hassoun had a point: it wouldn’t make sense to rely on chance meetings for this friendship to survive after they each went home. Was it a true friendship? And if so, would it last? Her friendship with Salam had taught her that distances between people were nothing like those mapped out in an atlas between countries and continents. It was impossible to describe or explain how close you could feel to another friend, even from a distance. You simply had to experience it, just like a Fairouz son.

It was nearly 8:30 p.m., and Hassoun’s device hadn’t stopped playing songs. He himself didn’t rest, and Farah felt positive. The concert was due to start soon. She looked at him. His eyes were focused on the large black curtain, and he sang quietly along to the recorded song: I gave this night my names, and it led me away. I turned its stars into books; I drew you as the star of the books. I wrote to you from soft reproach, a letter of a tired lover. His homes, he builds without reason. The song ended, and before another one could begin, the lights dimmed. The entire hall was drenched in darkness, and Farah’s heart began to pound. She yanked the pod from her ear, then handed it to him and planted a kiss on his cheek. He looked at her sheepishly and she couldn’t tell whether he was flustered by the kiss or by how close they were to Fairouz. He took her hand in his, their eyes fixed on the curtain, as if they were waiting to enter another world, or another country that could never be stolen.

Music rang out from all around them. The applause started. The curtain began its ascent. From the other side, a yellow light began to seep through that looked—to Farah—like morning.

 

Abeer Khshiboon was born in Haifa in 1984, grew up in Galilee, and has been living in Berlin, Germany, since 2018. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and two master’s degrees, one in educational counseling from the University of Haifa and the other in Jewish theology from the University of Potsdam. She is a doctoral candidate at the faculty of theology of Humboldt University of Berlin. She is the author of the short story collection Small Joys, which received an honorable mention in the A M Qattan Foundation’s Young Writer of the Year Award competition in 2012.

Nashwa Gowanlock is a writer, editor, and translator of Arabic literature. Her translations include After Coffee, by Abdelrashid Mahmoudi, and Shatila Stories, a collaborative novel by nine refugee writers. She is the co-translator, with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, of Samar Yazbek’s memoir The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria and is a contributing editor of ArabLit Quarterly.
 
The Stranger

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