Reckoning with the loss of his grandmother, a young man inquires into the nature of memory and cultural identity in this excerpt from a novel by Palestinian writer Ibtisam Azem.
Listen to Ibtisam Azem reading from "The Book of Disappearance".
It is close to midnight now and I feel so tired I cannot fall asleep. Do you remember that evening when I slept at your place in Jaffa, a month before you moved to live with my parents? I was tossing and turning and I had gone to the kitchen to drink water. You must have heard me since I kept shuttling between my bed, the kitchen, and the bathroom. You came out of the dark, your voice preceding you, and asked me if I wanted mint tea. As if you knew, without even asking, that I wasn’t able to sleep in the room next door and that I was staring at the silence. Silence and not quiet. Quiet entails some peace of mind, but silence is like waiting for the unknown. I smiled even before seeing your face because I’d heard you. “That would be great.” We drank together without saying anything. We sat watching the silence in and around us. That was the first time I felt you were tired of life. We sat for a whole hour and drank the entire pot of mint tea, cup after cup, saying only a few words about the taste of mint. You said that sometimes it has a rancid taste. I disagreed, but ever since you said that, mint began to smell a bit rancid to me. When I look back at your life, I am surprised that you didn’t tire of life until you reached your eighties. Or perhaps you did but I never noticed. What am I tired of? Why do I feel so tired? You once said that a human being dies when he loses hope and the taste of life. Did you say all that or am I imagining it? “Good Night, grandson,” you said in a night-calm voice and went to bed.
“Mad. She’s mad.” That’s what Mother said about you when she discovered that you’d bought and prepared your own shroud. “How did you know?” I asked her. Your grandma told me. She always referred to you using “she” and “your grandma.” I rarely heard her say “my mother.” You bought your shroud ten years before you departed. Ten years. Can I call your death anything but a departure? You could’ve stayed longer with us. Your presence brought us together and gave our lives a special flavor. You were my only remaining grandmother. My father’s folks left him with his uncle and were forced to flee to Jordan. But they never returned. No one knows what happened to them on the road. Perhaps in one of the massacres? They were worried about him because he was so little. So they left him with his uncle until they put things in order in Amman. But no one heard anything from them. They went and never came back. When we used to go on school trips to the Galilee, or any other place, I used to wonder: Should I tread lightly? Was I walking over the corpses of those who had passed through and who were decimated? Was I walking over a land that was made of decomposed bodies? When I walk in Palestine I feel am walking on corpses. Those images of multitudes of people leaving in terror are always on my mind. All my grandparents had died except for you. Do we breathe in the decomposed corpses? What are we going to do with all this sorrow? How can we start anew? What will you do with Palestine? I, too, am tired. But whenever I wake up in the morning I remember you and smile. And I say, just as you used to, “God will see us through.” Then I listen to Fayruz: “Yes, there is hope yet.” Because her voice translates what you used to say, with a slight variation. I think that’s what you meant by “God will see us through.” But is there really any hope?
Perhaps our presence could no longer give you hope or that zest? Perhaps you departed because life became bland, as you used to repeat in that final year? Because people wither and die when they can no longer savor life. You said you didn’t want to inconvenience anyone after your death and that’s why you bought the shroud and everything else. You even put the funeral expenses in a pouch with the shroud. But later you gave the money to charity after mother started sobbing when she found out about the whole thing. And after one of the neighbors told you it wasn’t right, religiously speaking.
Your initial reaction to the neighbor was a roaring laugh. You said, “Am not going to wait for nitwits to tell me what’s right and wrong. They barely come up to my hip and have the balls to issue edicts.” Speaking of nitwits, do you remember that afternoon when you were sitting with Um Yasmeen in your courtyard and the proselytizing sheiks came to tell you about faith and religion? One of them said with an idiotic smile, “Hajja, you have to wear the veil. You made the pilgrimage and you will be rewarded greatly for that. But a veil and a long gown would suit your age and your faith better than this cloth which exposes more than what it covers. Do you want to be like Christian and Jewish women?” You shook your head and let him finish. Um Yasmeen was red in the face and was about to storm off. You gripped her hand so she would remain seated next to you. As soon as he finished, you asked her to take off her shoe. You took it and stood up to beat him with it.
“Ten of you aren’t worth the sole of Um Yasmeen’s shoe.” You spat on him and yelled, “Go away you worthless imbecile. I never want to see you or any of your kind in this neighborhood again. By the holy Kaaba, which I visited, if I see you here again I’ll pluck your beard. Get out, both of you. So now Um Yasmeen is an infidel because she’s Christian? What kind of nonsense is that? Since when did God give you power of attorney? You losers have no manners and no sense.”
You both burst out laughing. And the nitwits never dared set foot near you again. You said you saw her eyes well up. When you told me the story, you said, “Where were our prophet Jesus and his mother born anyway? Shame on these people. That’s not the type of religion I learned from my folks. These idiots now claim to know God better than we do? They are Godless. There weren’t any problems even between us and the Jews like there are today. The problems started with the Zionists. This is what my father told me. Your ma’s grandpa, he was a partner with a Jewish man named Zico. They were friends. But when the Zionists came, they kicked most people out, slaughtered them, and took everything. They ruined everything and then sat perched above the rubble, my boy.”
I feel tired. I always felt tired. I don’t know why. Is this what you felt as the years piled on? I asked you once when I was little if you were scared of the soldiers, police, or of Jews, Ashkenazis in particular. You said, “No one is scary, grandson. And if you are ever scared of someone, just imagine them naked and you’ll see how most people have disgusting bodies and they look funny when they are running around naked.” Then you gave a loud chuckle.
Sure, it was pretty funny, but this trick didn’t appeal to me. Perhaps because I myself was forced to undress many times. You remember the first time I went abroad to France?
At the airport they interrogated me for a long time and weren’t satisfied with a regular search. They took me to a room and left me in my underpants. My breath mixed with that of the person searching me and whose device was making noises as it roamed around my body. That was the first time I thought of my skin as a sort of clothing, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t have used that device on my bare skin. I started to sweat and you know how I hate that. I couldn’t smell my body or my own odor anymore. I was sweating like an exploded water pipe.
White, snow white, is what I felt when I was naked behind the curtain in that room. Not that pure snow white, but that of snow mixed with wet sand. I could see the steam coming from the security personnel’s bodies and I was sweating. We had nothing in common at that moment except animal instincts, separated by soft gloves. Gloves touching my body as if I were nothing. A mere sacrificial lamb . . .
I tried to see our city, Jaffa, your city and mine, the way you see it. I tried to walk and talk to houses and trees as if I had known them a long time ago. As if they were your old neighbors. I would greet them and clean the road if I saw a stray piece of paper in its streets. This is our city and these are our streets, you often said. You always picked up paper if you saw some. Do you remember when I threw away the paper after I unwrapped a piece of chocolate you bought? Remember how angry you were when I, still a child back then, insisted that it was good because it was the Jewish neighborhood? I told you their streets were clean and ours dirty, so why not dirty their street? You said that if I loved Jaffa I must look out for it even if it’s in their hands. You said their neighborhoods were part of our city even if we weren’t living in them. I didn’t understand what you meant. I only understood later.
Cities are stories and I only remember what I myself lived, or fragments from your stories and what you lived, but these ties have been severed. I remember their stories very well. The ones I learned in school, heard on TV, and read and wrote in exams in order to pass. I had to tell their stories to pass high school and college. That’s why I remember them like I remember my ID number. I know it by heart. I can recite it any minute. I memorized their stories and their white dreams about this place so as to pass exams. But I carved my stories, yours, and those of the others who are like us inside me. We inherit memory the way we inherit the color of our eyes and skin. We inherit the sound of laughter just as we inherit the sound of tears. Ah, your memory pains me.
They say that my laugh resembles yours, but not Mother’s. Was Mother’s laugh like her father’s? Poor Mother. All she knows about her father is that he left. After they opened the borders with Egypt, she mustered all her energy and went to Cairo to see him. He had gone there after leaving Beirut. But he died a week before she arrived. She met half-brothers and half-sisters there, but she didn’t feel they were her siblings. She said some of them had the same eye color as her, but they spoke with an Egyptian accent. She was upset they didn’t speak her Jaffan dialect even though their mom was from Jaffa. Perhaps she was jealous of their having grown up with a mother and a father while she was raised fatherless. She didn’t say much more about that visit. She came back sad and crestfallen. Her father had left before she arrived in Cairo. The father who was displaced from Jaffa before she was born. When I asked her once about her date of birth, she said she didn’t like to think of it because it was the year of the nakba.
I recall some stories from your memory. The stories I read, heard, or the ones you/I made up when you were tired. It seems to me that the most beautiful stories are the ones we make up. They are the most astounding and horrifying. What we live is truncated. Even what I lived is truncated in memory. As if my memory is a glass house full of cracks that are like wrinkles but still standing. We can see through it, but something is muddled. “Muddled” doesn’t mean an unclear view or that both viewpoints are equal. These are the lies of those who write in the white books we have to read. It is muddled because the pain is too great for us to hold on to the memory. We store it in a black box inside our heads and hearts, but it pains us and gnaws at us from within. And grows rusty day after day. Yes, rusty. I wonder at times why I feel all this sadness? Where does it come from? I realize soon thereafter. Your memory pains me and burdens me. I feel so alone in Jaffa.
I met Ariel today, but I didn’t stay too late. Just before midnight I said that I had to leave because I was going to Jerusalem the next day for work. It wasn’t true. I don’t know why I wanted to leave. Maybe I was bored or wasn’t interested in recalling that time when we first met. Not because it was a bad memory or anything, but for no particular reason. I don’t know why I felt, as I heard myself speaking Hebrew, as if the voice coming out of my throat was not mine. It just comes out and speaks Hebrew on my behalf while I am there inside myself, looking and not knowing what I am doing to it and to myself. I cannot stand this voice any longer. I felt alienated. This is not the first time I have had this feeling. But it was intense and completely overwhelming me this time. I can’t take it any longer and am running out of patience with them. But how many times have I said this before? I said it and I spoke calmly or screamed, but they only see themselves. They hear, but they don’t listen. Is Ariel really any different from the rest?
I hear a tumult outside. I’m remembering you a lot tonight. Tata? Are you here? I called to you, but you didn’t answer. Maybe it’s my fault that I can’t see you. Perhaps I should look carefully. I went back in and closed the balcony door. I had gone out to call you. You used to say that balconies are the best thing about city houses. I’m listening to one of your favorite songs, Um Kulthum’s “Do you Still Remember?” I feel so cold, as if it’s mid-December. White cold. White like pure snow that will soon be sullied. White, like this white city.
I wish you were here.
Missing you is like a rose more thorns than petals.
From “Sifr al-Ikhtifa” (The Book of Disappearance) by Ibtisam Azem, Beirut & Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2014. With the permission of the publisher and author. Translation © 2017 by Sinan Antoon. All rights reserved.