It’s August 2000, and I’m overwhelmed by this emotional leavetaking.
It’s the first time you’ve ever dreaded visiting your grandfather al-Atawi, but it’s because you’re saying good-bye—before you depart for Baghdad. We never thought you would travel overseas and leave us.
Sanaa is twenty-seven kilometers west of your grandfather’s village, Hisn Arfata. You have persuaded me that you can say good-bye to your grandfather without telling him that you’re leaving Yemen to study medicine. You promise me you’ll telephone him once you reach Iraq.
Do you remember when you returned from the village? You told me then how you felt. I can imagine your heart pounding when you knock on the door. His beaming face with its neatly trimmed beard peeks out, and he stretches his arms out to hug you. For the first time ever you tremble in his embrace. He asks in a loud voice, “What’s happening, Hanzala?” That’s how he always greets people. He focuses his gaze on your eyes. You advance through the living room to the south room, where the large red copy of the Scriptures rests on a lectern. You lower your face toward it and read, “David said to his son Solomon . . . ‘Pull yourself together, take heart, and strive. Have no fear and be not alarmed, because the Lord God, who is my god, is with you, will not forsake you, and will not abandon you until you have completed all the work for the Lord’s temple."1 You turn a number of pages and find a second text in the verse: “While he was saying this, a woman raised her voice from the crowd to say, ‘Blessed be the womb that bore you and the breasts from which you sucked.’ But he said, ‘No, blessed be those who hear the word of God and act according to it.’”2 You leaf through some more pages and then read, “He said, ‘Lord, my bones are weak, and my hair has turned white, but my prayers to you, Lord, have never been in vain."3 You close the Scriptures and contemplate the contents of your grandfather’s room, saying farewell to it, to the Kalashnikov mounted over the window, to the various pictures on the wall, a mirror, cushions, an old wooden box, and a prayer rug.
I imagine you fleeing to the north room, to your room where you memorized your lessons when you lived in the village, making the walls of the room ring. Leaning against the small light over the window, there’s a photo taken in 1994 of you standing beside your grandfather. You hold a bunch of qat branches in your arms and are gazing at your grandfather: his smiling features, the shawl wrapped around his head like an Indian turban, his small eyes, and his clean-shaven upper lip. You compare your features to his; your eyes, nose, and complexion, and even your smile, are a smaller replica of your grandfather’s face, but without the wrinkles. They say you inherited a lot of his features. On the other wall is a picture of a winged girl flying. Instead of hands or feet, she has a horse’s hooves. There are several books on a high shelf.
You turn around in the dark of your room, where the stillness is absolute except for the din of your thoughts. Your grandfather dominates your thinking. You feel anxious about the next morning. You’re wondering how to hide your secret.
You try to free yourself of your obsessive thoughts, hoping to oust them so you can try to get a few moments of sleep. Your grandfather’s features are recreated in a hologram in the darkness of your room—his looks, his smile. You close your eyes, searching for the harbingers of drowsiness. After some false starts, sleep catches hold of you. You don’t know how much of the night has passed when you hear your grandfather saying his prayers—a cappella music. You leap from one rapture to the next. He lifts you up the steps of purity till it seems you no longer know whether you’re dreaming or asleep. You attempt to go back to sleep. You try hard. Your grandfather’s voice fills the house with emotions that make you cry. . . . Ringing bells blend with the whinnying of invisible horses. You close your eyes again. You lose the ability to see. In no time at all, dawn’s crystal glows, birds chirp, and the aroma of baking bread scents the air. You open the window and gaze at the deep valley. The first traces of light are visible at the horizon and there is a chill wind. The slopes of the hill are tinted a rosy yellow . . . acacia flowers and tents, a wadi like a trench lined with pebbles, the valley’s plots, scattered fields of qat bushes, mountain ranges that harbor your feelings, and villages over which the dawn sighs—everything is still except for the pillars of smoke. Farmers race the daylight to the valley’s lowlands where they will shake drops of dew from qat boughs.
At the top of the village, stripped of many of its members, the ruin of Hisn Arfata looks down from the hill like an old man. The upper structure was blown up in 1981 at the suggestion of our shaykh, and only its lower walls with their windows and colored moldings have survived.
While the sun’s disk rises, you bid your grandfather farewell, avoiding his eyes. You try to keep the embrace short, while he tries to prolong it. You feel like crying but restrain yourself. Then you hear your grandfather declare, “May God be with you, Hanzala, preserving and accompanying you.”
You tell him, as you head out the door, “God be with you, Grandfather.”
You wave to him as your eyes fill with tears.
The vehicle cuts its way through the center of the village as chickens scatter in all directions along with dogs, children, and old men with mouths agape. The aroma from hearths slips through cracks in the walls of tall houses. You can’t hold back your tears. The vehicle’s roar as it leaves the outskirts of the village rises toward the northern mountains from the zigzag road. You wish you could soar over the village to see your grandfather who is standing in front of his house. All the way to the city you quarrel with yourself. “If I had told him about my trip, would he have agreed? If he had objected, would I have had the guts to go against his will? Forgive me, Lord! Help me write him an apology. I’ll explain all the circumstances; I’m sure he’ll forgive me.”
When the vehicle climbs the heights, you turn to scrutinize the village: a rocky tongue of land, the ruins of Hisn Arfata, deep valleys, and high mountains that resemble the features of your grandfather’s face and that intersect, sketching his smile. All is still except for the uproar in your spirit.
You close your eyes to evoke your past, those moments when early in the morning you went down into the valley with your grandfather to help him cut sprigs of qat, which you also helped him sell. You went with him by night to guard the valley when you were stirred by the barking of dogs, howls of mountain wolves, and the ring of shots that were fired from time to time.
The vehicle emerges from the dirt road and shoots off down a paved road toward the north and Sanaa. Villages speed toward you, and the houses of other lofty communities perch on the brink of the summits. Other towns are garrisoned on the mountain slopes. On the hillsides, fields of qat compete for space with green coffee bushes, and the higher plateaus are occupied by trellised vineyards.
The city of Sanaa glows white in the distance. The rectangular plain is guarded by the fortresses of the high mountains: black lines to the west and east. The plain for the most part is black and earthen-hued but has green squares of potato and berseem clover fields. The city has towering stone minarets and white domes. It was first a pagan city and then Jewish with some Christian minorities. No one is too sure what past delights time has hidden away there. It is gripped by cold weather. Your eyes try to create a collage of everything you see: the mud walls, red brick houses, dirt streets, ornamental façades, and the throngs of street vendors.
My dear Hanzala . . .
While waiting for you I glance at the hands of my watch; there are only hours left before your plane’s departure time, and you’re not back yet. I pack your bag: nut cake, raisins, thyme mix, coffee, nigella seeds, a container of butter, honey, cologne, combs, creams, and pastes. I inhale the scent of your clothes.
You’re back, happy that I’m concerned about you. I urge you to hurry to the airport. We depart . . . paved alleyways, houses packed together . . . We pass beneath high stone arches and parallel to high mud walls. We go through Bab al-Yaman.
You smile and tell me, “There’s plenty of time, Mom, before the plane’s departure.”
“What does that mean?”
“I want to say farewell to Sanaa first!”
“What do you have in mind? We’ve got to get to the airport early. Someone is waiting for us.”
“Who do you mean?”
“No, your closest relative!”
“You don’t mean my grandfather!”
“No . . . you’ll never guess.”
I say this and let you stew.
After a pause, I tell you, “You’ll leave us in no time at all. You’ll test your ability to face life among people you don’t know. Part of my spirit will leave with you. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t have agreed to let you travel. I’ll never tell you that I’ll feel lonely, that I’m losing the whole world when you leave, that I’m a woman who has no wings, that my sky will be overcast, or that my hours will lose their savor. Instead I say I’m extremely happy to see you off because I know you’ll be a doctor when you return.”
I remember those moments when you silently wiped the sudden tears from your eyes. The words didn’t come to you. You pretended to be busy looking for something as you gazed up at Sanaa’s sky. You stared at the streets leading to the airport, the city’s houses, and the mountain peaks. As I checked the hands of my watch, I said, “Don’t fret. . . . These are the words of a woman whose heart is filled with satisfaction with her son. You will realize your dreams. I will continue to pray for your welfare. I pray to God you’ll return safe and sound.”
“I’ll remember you at every moment. I only hope my grandfather forgives me.”
“Put simply: you are his heart that throbs with life and his eyes through which he sees the world. So how can you say this?”
All the way to the airport the conversation’s fragrance spreads, and the discussion’s pleasure releases sweet gusts. I embrace you and gaze into your beaming eyes. I ask you, “How will I exist without you?”
“I’ll telephone you when I arrive and then every day!”
“I just hope you’ll remember you’re my only child and our hope whose return we await.”
“You’re my whole world. It will be only a few months before I return.”
“Do you remember me asking whether you wanted to listen to some stories about our ancestral roots, saying: Should I tell you the stories of your ancestors?”
"That would make me happy.”
“Then I’ll tell you a number of stories that you may think naïve, but I enjoy telling them.”
“Go right ahead.”
“The first tale says that a warrior came from Anatolia with soldiers of the first Ottoman invasion of Yemen. He fought for years, and when the Turks decided to withdraw, that fighter chose to settle in Sanaa. He married and began to sell old carpets. It is said that this soldier was one of your ancestors.
“Here’s another story that dates back much further in time. It was related that one of your ancestors served Abraha the Ethiopian as an army chaplain. He came up with the idea of establishing a Christian church in the south of the Arabian Peninsula as a forward base for the faith. He obtained Abraha’s permission, and the church of al-Qalis was soon established in the heart of ancient Sanaa. That chaplain became the church’s first priest and served until after Abraha and his elephant were defeated in the Hejaz and Abraha returned to Sanaa. Then the Ethiopians departed, but that priest chose to settle here and became a citizen of Sanaa, where his son, grandson, and grandson’s grandson have remained to this day.
“The third story, which is a matter of common knowledge, relates that one of your ancestors was a prominent Ma’rib personality who moved from the fringes of the eastern desert to the mountainous highlands after executing a deceptive ploy. This was in the last days of the state of Saba’. Your ancestor, who was privy to what the stars said, owned land irrigated by water from the Ma’rib Dam reservoir. The stars told him that the mighty dam was about to collapse, and so he thought of a strategy that would allow him to depart before the dam failed. This was to be a skit justifying his sale of all his real estate holdings. He would have one of his sons challenge him. The father chose to present this drama during the monthly market in the city of Ma’rib at the time of day it was most crowded. The son pretended to quarrel with his father, vilifying him and slapping his temple, to the dismay of everyone present. Then the father swore he wouldn’t remain in a land where his paternal authority had been insulted and announced that all his houses and lands were for sale. The news spread, and everyone vied with each other to purchase these properties. The scheme worked, and the man departed with his flocks toward the highlands. His sons followed him later. But his ploy turned into a curse, because all of his children died, except for the eldest son. Thus his progeny were all the offspring of one male.
“The final tale goes as follows: In the second century after the birth of Jesus the Messiah, a man came from the eastern Mediterranean, fleeing religious persecution there. The Tubba‘ As‘ad al-Kamil4 met him north of Yathrib. Your ancestor was well-versed in Oral and Written Torah, and the Tubba‘ decided to add him to the ranks of his priests. So he traveled south with the Tubba‘ to his capital, where your ancestor worked his way up in the ranks of the Jewish priesthood until As‘ad al-Kamil named him High Priest. It is said that he was responsible for drafting the plans for judicial proceedings against anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Thus he was behind the fiery massacre of Christians in the trench of Najran and the death by fire of all those who clung to Jesus’s teachings recorded in the Gospels. For this reason, he was cursed with having only one male child per generation, and this curse remains in force to this day. That ancestor had one surviving son and so on down the generations. Thus our progeny are menaced by extinction in an environment dominated by force and violence.
“A mystic prophesied that this curse would be lifted if the heavenly books in their original scripts were brought together. So your ancestors began combing Sanaa’s book collections to find all the scriptures and bring them together in a single tome. The quest lasted for centuries, through several generations, until all the sacred books were collected—from Sanaa’s markets—along with some principles of the Sabians5 and Buddhists. The prophecy states, ‘That curse will expire in the seventy-seventh generation.’ That’s why your grandfather takes his tripartite scripture wherever he goes. The oldest part is the Torah, and the beginning of it goes back to the original ancestor and has been handed down by his descendants for hundreds of years. The second part is the Gospels in Syriac, and the final part is the Qur’an written in an undotted script on parchment made from the skin of mountain goats.”
I paused to check the impact of my stories, as if I had been casting a magic spell on you. You said thoughtfully, “These are thrilling tales I’ve never heard before, but as far as I’m concerned, here I am, and that’s that. These stories won’t change my plans in any way.”
I answered you sympathetically, “One day you will understand how important it is for a person to have his own special story—when you search for your self. A man needs something that sets him apart from other people. At that time something inside you will goad you to tell a tale.”
“Assuming this happens—what story should I claim as my own?”
“To be what you propose to be.”
“What difference does it make whether I choose a personal story, or not?
“You’ll learn with time and realize that man remains ignorant of his self and then searches for something that will satisfy his vanity.”
“Each individual continues to believe that he is special and distinguished in some way. That’s why our destinies differ from those of other people.”
“I’ll await that future moment then.”
“We’re all pawns of the future . . . and sentenced to await the morrow.”
We reach the street in front of the airport: metal façades, parking areas like deep pits, monotonous motion, a buzzing sound, dark corners, diverse faces and complexions, soldiers, glass walls, a lounge filled with clamor, new colors and smells, and people heading in every direction. I search for a place to sit because my heart is racing . . . all these faces. I tell myself, “He promised!” I can’t keep my heart from pounding when they begin to weigh your luggage. I watch your gestures. You return to say good-bye to me: “There’s no one but you to see me off. Where’s the person you said would be waiting for us?”
“He’s definitely here somewhere in the crowd.”
I suddenly sense that the moment of separation is at hand, and my heart beats faster.
You embrace me and say consolingly, “I won’t go if you ask me not to.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s just the emotions of the moment. Don’t worry—I’ll be fine.”
I notice Tubba‘a there when I turn to look for him. He has kept his word. He is dressed all in brown, and his glasses cover half his face. I rise, waving. I gesture to you. “See who has come to say good-bye to you—just as I said!”
You turn as he approaches us with faltering steps. A man in his forties with a small face, a skinny body, and a receding hairline—he has wrapped a shawl around his torso, which trembles from some ailment. You rack your memory; his face looks familiar to you. I feel certain your memory has failed you. You feel embarrassed as he approaches. He extends his hand. I turn to embrace you as I tell him, “This is Hanzala, your son!”
He stands gazing at you, spreading out his arms and smiling. “Hanzala, my dear son, you’ve become a man!”
You exchange tepid hugs with him, asking yourself, “Could a man like this be my father?” You search the cubbyholes of your memory, through my stories, those of your grandfather, your grandfather’s wife, and of the village women. He showers praise on you, and you step back, a phony smile on your face. You deny that this man is Tubba‘a. You whisper to me, “Mother, where did you dredge him up from?” You gaze at him . . . at the remnants of a man.
We find a place on a bench to the side, and you steal quick glances at him. Tubba‘a removes his glasses. His eyes are sunken and his features deformed. You search for some sign of the knight whom your memory treasures. He spreads his arms out again and embraces you. Then he has me sit down beside you while he stands before us like an orator. With theatrical gestures of his hands he proclaims, “My dear son, whom I named Hanzala, and my precious wife, Sambiriya, my darling, my sweetheart, I stand before you today to apologize.”
He pauses, noticing the crowds of people around us in the waiting room. Then he continues, addressing them, “Folks, with you as my witnesses, this is my only son and this is my wife. I apologize to all of you for my shortcomings. Do you believe me? You won’t believe me when I tell you that I am meeting my son for the first time. I don’t know him, and he has not seen me since he was born. But I ask you to look: doesn’t he have my features? I am a great fighter. I haven’t abandoned my responsibilities from fear or cowardice. No, I have been trying to live my dream of one Yemen, united, offering freedom and justice to all. I’m a combatant— my true love Sambiriya knows that—and a sincere champion for my country. That’s why I haven’t ever seen my son. The police are still after me; I’m under threat of summary execution at any moment! My body bears these scars.”
As he speaks, he starts to remove his clothing and point to scars left by torture. You stand there trying to help him.
Someone says, “Just an old drunk.”
I feel I’ve been stabbed in the heart. To console Tubba‘a you say, “Pay no attention . . . we’re in a crowded place.”
“Didn’t your mother tell you?”
You turn to me and to the eyes around us as shame and anxiety assault you. “Mother? The happiness his presence here brings me is comparable only to my sorrow at his condition.”
I reply falteringly, “He’s your father!”
My words stir your emotions. I try to calm you. I notice that Tubba‘a is unsteady on his feet. I whisper to you, “You’ve often asked me desperately about him, and I’ve frequently discussed him with you. Today he’s come to bid you farewell. You must forgive him. I didn’t know he was in such rough shape.”
Tubba‘a notices that we were whispering to each other and yells, “My coming seems to have been a mistake!”
Then, raising his voice even louder, he tells everyone in the hall, “I admit that the risk I took in coming was unwarranted. Be my witnesses, everyone: I admit my error!”
3Holy Qur’an,"Maryam," 19:4.
4Tubba‘: ancient royal title in Yemen.
5An ancient community of ethical monotheists in the Middle East.
From Mushaf Ahmar. Published 2010 by Riad El-Rayyes Books, Beirut. Copyright Mohammed Algharbi Amran. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by William Hutchins. All rights reserved.