“[H]er narrative voice resonates with the inner geographies of the Palestinian space, in a painful and unflinching precision. Her language is that of a writer who has turned her back on the readymade structures and prevalent rhetoric of modern Arabic literature, and trusts nothing but her inner voices and her amazing intuitiveness when it comes to the hard-to-master and hard-to-tame Arabic language.”—Anton Shammas
Throngs of sound advance toward the little girl, each throng attempting to reach her ears first before the others, to come down on them like a gavel, and her ears take them all in. After her brother screams, she hears a fly, then it flutters away, so she hears the whisper of the electric meter.
In the entire world, she cannot find a single moment of silence.
The sounds that invade her ears do not leave, but form layers, one on top of the other. She puts her fingers in her ears in an attempt to pull the sounds out, but she does not succeed, so she sits behind someone else so that person's ears instead of hers can receive the approaching sound. She wants to put a stop to the layering, but the sounds want to reach everybody's ears, including hers.
The heat is intense, and the washing machine tumbles stubbornly the whole day, repeating a monotonous sound that accompanies her image of the world and the mother within it. The girl searches for the silence she can take comfort in, but before finding it, pain had already arrived. She blocks her ears, but the sound of the blocking is like that of the sea, and the pain that of a disease.
Then she falls.
After a while, her body transforms into a flame, and sounds no longer reach her, not even the sound of her mother carrying cold water and pouring it onto her inflamed, feverish body, the movement of her mother's lips balancing the stillness near her, her father's lips immobile.
The three of them leave.
They arrive in a white room, and her father transfers her from his arms to the high bed. The doctor puts out his hand to her dress and lifts it. She pushes his hand away with all the energy she can muster. He holds a small light and looks into her ears to see the sounds that had entered and not left. Her lips continue to shiver.
The doctor says—she doesn't hear him—that she is suffering from a severe ear infection in both ears, and that they had brought her just in time; had they delayed but a little, she might have lost her ability to hear completely. But, he adds, because they did delay a little, she will have to deal with this type of infection throughout her life. This is the story the mother would tell her whenever she would get this infection in the future.
On the way home, the mother moves her mouth constantly and angrily, and the father holds the steering wheel still and doesn't move his mouth at all. Silence hangs on the stillness of the father's lips; above the silence rest the eyes of the little girl.
The signal for the fall was the acute whistling sound in the ears, and the fall the signal that the ears are full of sound. When she gets up, her body is like a dry leaf.
The little girl throws herself on the bed, into the silence; at her side the mother drips an olive oil mixture into her ears. After a few days, she takes her to the doctor, and he sends them to the nurse. The nurse wraps the girl up in a plastic apron and places a cold metal dish around her neck and under her ears. He inserts what seems like the largest possible syringe into her ear. A current of water rushes in and then floods out into the metal dish that rests on the shoulder. Afterward, the paradise of silence disappears and the world of noise returns.
In the house, there is always noise; it doesn't stop until one stands outside the closed door of the parents' bedroom or the mother prays. Or when the family prays—then even the television is quiet and shares in their piety. But the prayer is short. Soon the door swings open, and there is no possibility of escape except in flight from all the threats of sound and illness and the search for silence.
The girl stops joining her brothers and sisters for meals, during which there is more screaming than food, and begins to eat and sleep alone in the sitting room, because the screaming follows the siblings into the bedroom. Afterward, the father builds a wall to separate her bed from the bedroom of the guests, whose voices rise above those of the siblings. But the sounds continue to crawl toward her through the door, through its keyhole, through the space beneath it, through the space between the door and the floor, and through the space between the door and its frame: everywhere.
In the morning she goes to the fields, and at night she sits in the father's car until everyone else is asleep. She puts the car keys on the mantel, then enters her room until the sound comes back the next day once again and then she leaves.
Loneliness is the girl's eternal guard, a small space of silence.
The father sits cross-legged on a multicolored blanket with straight lines, his legs surrounding more than half of the round tray, while the little girl's legs barely surround the remaining part. Between them, on the tray, stretches the sound of the crushed cucumbers the father has been chewing. Afterward, they head for the car.
The car takes them haphazardly all over the place, hugging them in its silence and isolation, while the images upon its windows change. In the car is another silence, which stretches all the way to the end of the road, to the front yard of the house.
The yard is quiet until it begins to fill up on the right side with the noise of the sisters who have come to play and fight. She slips out and hides in the car and begins watching them in the rearview mirror, their faraway voices penetrating the glass in a whisper.
At the edge of the rearview mirror, the seventh sister stands by two stones on which a small stick has been placed; in her hand she holds a larger stick, which she brings closer to the smaller one. She looks up, then down at the stick, then up, then down at the stick, then up, then she pushes it with the larger stick until it passes through the mirror quickly, passes through her, then disappears—and the siblings disappear after it.
In this way they appear, then disappear, going after the smaller stick until the rain comes and makes them vanish completely, into the house.
The first raindrops fall on the roof of the car; the rain seems heavy, and as it becomes heavier, its sound is like a whisper. Inside the car, the sounds and the wetness seem far away. At school, when the rain falls outside, the sound remains inside the classroom. Silence comes only after the light knock on the door, behind which her neighbor—a young boy—stands carrying her shawl. The kids at school say the neighbor likes her.
She opens the car door and shuts her eyes to keep the cold air out, and she walks across the yard in the mud to the tree behind her neighbor's house, where she waits for him to come out.
They walk together across the yard in the mud until they reach the car. They close the door behind them, the rain begins its silence again, and they play their game of "mother and father" behind the closed door.
Her body approaches his with the speed of her seventh sister's hand approaching the stick. Mother puts her hand over Father's hand. Mother puts her hand over Father's face. Father puts his hand on Mother's leg. Mother puts her hand in Father's hair. Father puts his hand on Mother's back. Mother puts her hand through Father's shirt. The girl hears the beating of the heart, which disappears when she moves her hand away.
They play until the rain stops, and the girl never puts her hand on her neighbor's heart again, so that the silence can keep the secret of the game.
The girl dreams that she is on her way to meet God. Her body climbs up and she stays below, watching the road above the gray sky. First, she sees a demolished building. It transforms into a dry grapevine, its branches reaching out in all directions into the sky and lessening gradually until only a single branch remains, at the end of which she stands and waits for God to come. A powerful clap of lightning, the color of grapes, appears, without any thunder. She leaves the bed and goes to the bathroom.
In the night, silence lives in spite of the small sounds drowned out by the big sounds during the day. This is her bed from which she has moved. This is the water that hangs on her eyelids, and she hears the sound of it loosening up every time she opens her eyes and shuts them and opens them again.
Only God has no sound? Only God is silent? She stands to pray, then sits.
She must be far away from the sounds in order to be distant from the illness, and along the way the sounds finally start retreating. At school, no one speaks to her, and at home she isn't part of her family, as though a huge argument has taken place, and this silence is her punishment, this silence that has spread to every corner.
God had expelled Adam and Eve's voices from paradise, and by this act all sound had left him, had forgotten him. The day shall never come when God would make peace with man; God is greater in his silence.
Her bent head directs her sight to the tiles on the floor, tiles that have lost their shine in the night, given way to the radiance of the stars; the soft light has come merely from the habit of getting used to darkness.
Into her field of vision enter two feet, the soft light outlining their swollen size and the moldy toenail visible on the right foot. Once, the girl had held onto her mother's dress and looked at the street, on the way to the doctor, and she'd seen the moldy toenail walking ahead of her. She hasn't seen it since she started going to the doctor's office alone.
The mother's feet still do not move, like the silence that has grown rank between her and the mother, a silence of anger some of the time, and heaviness the rest of the time.
Her mother may open her mouth at any moment, pull away the curtain that covers the whole house to show the latest sign of the progression of the illness that began in the ear and ended in the brain, but at this time of night, sleep is better than prayer.
The girl tries, before the mother pulls away the curtain, to collect herself.
But the silence can't be quieter or any worse.
She lifts her head in the mother's direction.
Her lips create the memory of a bygone smile.
The mother's smile, silence to the girl's prayer.
The muezzin's voice is a soft powder floating in the silence.
The girl sits in a wrought-iron chair—which could fit in two or three people—alone. The chair's right edge faces the edge of the sea. Across from her, she could see the waves repeatedly attempt to climb the far, high wall. She sought refuge in the port's only chair to escape the wetness from the waves on those walls.
It is as though this sea is not the same sea that she lives near. The light makes way to its own darkness, shows the movement of a torn blue plastic bag in the water. The plastic's soft movement is like the movement of a mermaid. As the price of the mermaid's life on dry land was eternal silence, so was the plastic bag's entry into the water done with an eternal silence. This silence is like a price. It exists as punishment from everyone, just as there is no escape from the father. The silence of her marriage was voluntary.
The call to prayer ends.
"Samt" © Adania Shibli. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2006 by Randa Jarrar. All rights reserved.