Translated by S. V. Atalla
from Issue 6: Fires
Her eyes are closed in the still dawn. Snuggled under the covers, nestled in the rosy glow that flows through the window, she wonders, What is time? A lump forms in her throat, a longing wells up insider her, overflows. She climbs the stone steps to the Jerusalem house. Rust in the cracks, crimson and gold. Through the dusty glass door she passes, into the smell of aging wood, the house of her childhood. She runs to the kitchen for her afternoon snack, bread with white goat cheese dipped in nigella seeds. Then the icy water splashing over the ball of soap, made of pure olive oil, the beautiful colors inside it, her small fingers trying hard not to let it slip away.
What is time?
What brings her here before daybreak?
Is time a pendulum swinging back and forth between night and day?
Could she be trapped in its motion?
She wanted to scream, but instead she sighed. She knew what gives time meaning: to overcome fear of the dark, to be born into the assurance of things. To realize that darkness is merely the fading of light, not an ending, a termination. If only she could make the connection between night and day in the flow of her own life, she told herself, she would be free. The chains would break, the sturdy links of steel would melt away.
Dawn! Morning’s rays not yet unfurled. Creatures’ hushed noises. Wood creaking as it regained its body after contracting in the night’s cold. Air blanketing the cypress needles. The white blossoms of Seville oranges unfolding to cradle swarms of wild bees. Barking from a distant wall. Green loquats fidgeting on the branches.
It was spring! Finally spring, after a long winter. She had awaited spring eagerly, anxiously, all her life, but had never seen much of it. In Beirut, spring brought a perfume that wafted into the very heart of things. Transparent light, reflecting off the city sky and plunging into the sea like rainbows dancing through a prism. You could almost breathe light, lose yourself in smiles, in genuine laughter, free of worries and responsibilities. But every year the shelling would begin once more—Israel’s, or the Phalangists’—and she and everyone else would be forced to take refuge all over again in hallways and shelters. Every year she waited patiently, hopefully, for spring, and every year the same thing happened.
And now she was in the new Mediterranean city the fighters had come to by ship after Beirut. Spring! Soon, buds would unfurl into leaves, roads would be lined with color. Fences would deck themselves with blossoms, branches would shed some of the cold of exile. Any minute now. . . .
Suddenly. Abruptly. The shock of collision of the ringing telephone. Dawn! Five loud cries. She would remember them as the cawing of crows, after hearing the news.
She was among the many who ran.
The long road in this tourist town bordering the Mediterranean. Houses lined up on either side. Blue windows decorated with Andalusian carvings. Orange and lemon trees with waxy white flowers. Brightly whitewashed Mediterranean houses graced with the Eastern warmth of wooden lattice-work. The road went by a sweet shop. A train track. A grove of pine trees on a hilltop. And the place!! It was hard to imagine a crime committed here in the dead of night.
At the doorstep. A sour metallic smell, she couldn’t tell from where. Could it be here? She looked closely. At the entrance, there where the stairs met the sidewalk, spots of blood, not yet dry. Dozens of feet had passed them, hurried, anxious, startled, disturbed after hearing the news. Yet the small drops shone in their place, untouched, innocent. A coral smell dripping with anguish fluttered among the warm fragrant trees, wafted its way into a child’s shirts hung on the line to dry. His son! Not yet three. And from the bottom of the white stone stairway all the way up to the wide open door were women in black. Facing them, dazed men. At the center of the wide parlor sat his wife, in dark clothes. Her gaze withdrawn, her red eyes swollen. The black of her pupils had been replaced by a yellow anguish. On the long white sofa she sat, a woman who could see nothing, so fearful the horrors she had seen the night before. They had murdered her husband before her very eyes. And the blood, his blood, had flowed over her. Until it filled her body, and ran over.
She approached her. Embraced her. At the moment of the embrace they were joined, so that the pain flowed from one body to another. The agony! The bereaved woman wept: it happened. What I was always afraid would happen. The comforting woman wailed. Her voice was lost as she said things she could not remember about the pain that assails all of life. Woe upon us; oh ache of the heart. She wanted to talk about solace, but she knew there is no solace. Her voice was drawn out like a metal wire heated with sharp anguish. The magnetic waves of pain spread between them. Now she could see everything.
The man lay at the bedroom door with holes in his body.
That night the man had sat down to watch a film about the Intifada. On the TV screen, children scurry away from soldiers bristling with weapons. One of them, shielded by an iron cage, a steel helmet, and a cement truncheon, attacks a ten-year old boy. Seizes him. His mother and sisters wail. The wailing. Rises. The soldier picks up a stone and beats the boy on the collarbone. The chest. The arms. The boy weeps. Shouts. Screams. Blood spurts from his nose and covers his face in a flood of red.
His pale pajamas reflecting the TV’s fluorescent light, the man replayed the scene he had seen over and over since his childhood in 1948. He remembered it, or he would not have lived to see it on that tape that day. Every night the scene repeated itself on the news. Different people, different places, in a time that was always now. But! That year. The year of the "first" exodus. The Zionists gathered us on the sidewalks after they had stripped us of everything. Even the pieces of cheese and bread and olives and zaatar. They ordered us to get on buses, taking nothing with us. My mother wished she could take even a single blanket, to protect us children from Ramallah’s biting cold that spring. They put us on buses. I was a mischievous child. I mean, I caused a lot of trouble. I went up to the Israeli driver and said, Mister, I want to bring something to eat. I wanted to bring along a little bit of bread and cheese for the road. The driver agreed, so I hopped off the bus. My mother was still standing there on the pavement. I headed for our provisions. Suddenly there was a harsh shout in the distance. Two soldiers were coming towards us. I still remember: they wore blue overalls, and each was carrying an enormous machine gun, aimed at me. My mother pulled me swiftly against her body. At once four shots rang out, wounding a neighbor of ours in the leg. Later, when I was older, he used to remind me that were it not for his crippled leg, I wouldn’t be alive! And were it not for my mother, who was standing beside me.
Despite his years of experience in concealing the scars of old emotions, a tremor ran through the man whenever he saw one of those children wounded by an Israeli soldier. And here it was again tonight, in yet another film. . . .
A warm breeze stirred outside. The white curtain billowed out from the window, fluttering like a butterfly about to take wing. The man remembered that it was spring. He called his teenage daughter, wanting her near.
"Stay up with me!"
The girl dragged her heavy sleepiness to bed. The little boy slept too, and the mother dozed off, starved for a moment’s rest. Everyone slept but he. He sat watching the film.
Night! Night! Seventy bullets in one man’s body!
This time there were four who shot at him, or more. Not two. Maybe the color of their clothes was a little darker, navy bordering on black, and their weapons more advanced.
Yes. Now I could see them clearly. Hear their voices. Steps multiplied on the stairway, He felt a sense of foreboding. Went to the bedroom for his revolver. He took to one corner, and fired. He saw all four of them before him. The first bullet. The second. And then!
This time his wife was beside him. No longer a child, he was grown and married and had children of his own. The vouneest was crying now, as a journalist popped one flash after another at the unexpected news. Crying and saying, "That’s Daddy’s camera. It’s his. Give it to me." The man was grown; he was no longer a little boy hopping off a bus to get cheese and bread. After forty years of continual persecution, they had come into his very house, into his bedroom, to prevent him from watching the scene again. His mother was not there. The woman who was beside him now remembered sitting in the basement with her parents in 1956, waiting for the battle to end. She was preparing for her school exams when the Israelis entered Gaza. When the noise cleared and silence enveloped the place, she opened the small window in the heavy wooden door. She looked out at the garden and saw spring spread out before her like a heavenly carpet. Daisies, henna flowers, and poppies shining with an otherworldly glow. As though there had been no battle, no savage war. The woman in her youthful spring ran to the end of the road to see what had happened during her long absence indoors. A metal monster obstructed the road. An enemy tank, its gun swiveling menacingly. Her heart pounded as she imagined herself targeted by the gunner in the turret. But the real shock came as a rainbow, sparkling like diamonds, spread through the sky over Gaza. A soccer ball kids were kicking around lodged in the mud, disclosing a mass grave containing more than fifty bodies. That was when she knew a vague pain would pursue her as long as unidentified victims lay rotting in the wake of the Israelis. The woman didn’t want to end up another anonymous victim. When she fell in love with the man, she chose him for precisely that reason. He paid no attention to tears and sighs. He was concerned with organizing resistance. Weeping over old ruins is a tribal tradition, he would say. It belonged to the nomadic tribes who traveled here long ago, during the Jahiliyya era. We’ve been settled on this land now for over a thousand years. He would go on and on about it.
It had been a surprise when the schoolteacher finally yielded to her pleas and agreed to introduce her to the local coordinator of underground activity. At last she could join the resistance! She went to the teacher’s house to meet him. She gasped to see her own cousin enter the room. The man of her dreams, whom she secretly adored. Her mother was the only one who knew how she felt. One evening she came into her bedroom carrying a kerosene lamp. I know what’s bothering you, she said by its sleepy light. You never see him. Don’t worry; he’ll come to you. She picked up the lamp again to leave. He’ll come, she said; he’s a free man. Her mother had answered the wordless question that troubled her. Was he in love with her, or just being courteous because they were related? Her mother, with her deep intuition, reassured her. Still she was tormented by questions. Where was he? How come he never came by? Now, at the schoolteacher’s house, she had found the answer. In the twenty-five years that followed she spent long periods of time not knowing where he was, but she knew he was always on the shaded side of her heart. He disappeared to protect others; to teach them not to become anonymous victims. And through twenty-five years and five children, none of whose birthdays he ever managed to be home for, he was always there. Near her, as he was the day she met him at the teacher’s house.
But she marvels! How he taught her to overcome fear with laughter and humor. Whenever she expressed her fear to him, he would answer jokingly, "I’m sure you’re going to die before I do." Twenty-five years she had feared for him, minute to minute, but slowly the feeling convinced her. Settled in the bottom of her heart: surely she would die before he did. Even when he told her about his dream two nights ago, how the enemy came, and he grabbed his revolver, but they fired at it and it fell to pieces in his hands. He didn’t say what happened after that. She was disturbed by the dream, and didn’t ask what happened next. She asked him to tighten the security, and he said he would be traveling that night. But he didn’t leave. Not that night, nor the night after.
I was standing beside him at the door, said the woman. They hit his face. A fountain of blood spurted out. Waterfalls. Founts, fountains. When they aimed. First at his face. I turned my head to the wall. They emptied entire rounds in his body. They took turns. First they aimed at his hand. The gun fell to pieces. Shattered. Scattered. Then his head. Then his heart. They started spraying his face, Blood spurting from the holes. I couldn’t take it. I turned my face to the wall. One of them reloaded and aimed at me. I waited for them to kill me. I was waiting for death. My fingers covering my face, my forehead against the wall. And from his eyes. Blood squirting from his closed eyes. Spurting towards the ceiling. The walls. The keyhole. The sink. The light switches. The fringe on the carpet. The windowsill. Night! Night!
So many nights she’d been afraid, unable to sleep. Two nights before, she had paced the house, checking every window and balcony over and over. He was asleep, but woke up and noticed she was gone. He called her, "Come to bed. Come sleep." She was tense, trembling, and he kept calling to her, "Come on. Come sleep."
This man. He had no fear of death. As if it were a tactless guest, someone you could offer the customary cup of coffee and then turn out into the street. Once, after a major battle, she went to see if he was okay. When she entered his quarters he was bent over a map, studying it. All he did was look up and say hello. As though they had seen each other an hour ago. As though she hadn’t been half crazy with worry. Twenty whole days, before the roads were opened and communications resumed. Another time, in Beirut, during the feast of Adha, a friend called to say how glad she was that he’d escaped the assassination attempt. He’d been away all morning, visiting the bases in Southern Lebanon. She hired a car and headed out, almost out of her mind with fear. Along the mountain road she could see the damage: a gaping black pit, still smoking. There was no sign that any cars had been hit, so she continued south looking for him. All she wanted was to see him. She went first to the Damour bases, but they said he’d left for another base. Every time she arrived at one base, he had just left for another. She visited nearly every guerrilla base in the south that day, till finally she returned home at ten at night. He was there, having arrived twenty minutes earlier. And, as though attempts on his life were old news, he gave her the details of his escape and then turned the page, never to mention it again.
Never had she met anyone with such a keen sense of time. In the course of any one day he received dozens of messages, letters, reports, bulletins. He rarely slept, as though staying up late, keeping his eyes wide open, would hasten the passage of time in exile. Even that night, she had kept asking him to lie down and rest a little.
The woman opened the bedroom door. Empty bullet casings lay on piles of paper. Some grazed others, and they skittered to the ground. The curtains were tattered, as though ravaged by a ferocious dog. Pocks in the wall and shutters. But the woman had not been hit. As though the killer had been overtaken by fear when he approached her.
I sit beside her. The smell of his blood on her body. His sap, their prey. Coursing through his living veins, spattering her body. Dense spots of blood on the ceiling. In the crannies of the light switch. Beneath the carpet. On the broken glass at the entrance, clouded by the fumes of silencers. Near the door, on the night table by the bed, a glass of water speckled with crimson dots like red ants. Brown freckles of dried blood on the white surface of the door. She pointed to the glass. She couldn’t speak. Before leaving, she looked up and noticed. Spots of blood stained the ceiling, like a tattoo marking the skin of an ill-fated prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.
The daughter followed us. "I heard shouting, noise, things breaking," she said. "I thought I was dreaming. I had just drifted off to sleep, ten minutes before. Then! I got scared. I got up to see. The hallway was cloudy with smoke from the silencers. Black vapor. The fog of weapons. I couldn’t see their faces. They were masked. A death squad. I don’t know what they had with them, knives or switchblades or scalpels, that they were able to get so much blood out of him. One of them yelled at me to go to my mother.
The mother placed her hand over his heart. Speaking to him, begging, Live. The child wailed from his room. In a delayed reaction, the mother and daughter ran to him. The body lay at the entrance. The child was crying. The body punctured like a sieve. The child miraculously alive after the dense firing over his bed. The mother running to the window to cry for help. The girl picking up the child and running too. The assailants fleeing down the street in both directions. The mother calling from the windows, from the balconies. Calling out, shouting in all directions. No one. No one to hear. Three other bodies lying in front of the building. The woman shouting. Wailing, railing. Weeping, calling, murmuring, pleading. People, human beings, the neighbors. Anyone! To lend a hand, to help her get him to the hospital. No one for half an hour. Maybe less. When she tired of calling she sat panting on the stairway. Beside her the girl, with the child in her lap asking, Mama, are you scared?
She pointed to the spots splattered on the landing. Deep brownish black. The guard’s blood, she said. Clotted on the ground. Petrol-black, reddish brown, clouded, earthen, spattered, dark, dusty. The bubbles trapped within it seemed to move. Surging. Frothing. Foaming. Multiplying. Spawning more. A sheaf of light from the window cast a strange glow over them. Pinkish-purple flowers outside, through the window. My glance collided with vibrant green grasses beyond. White butterflies flitted above. That moment I couldn’t name what I saw. I couldn’t comprehend until a long, long time had passed that what I saw at that moment, framed in the window, was spring.
Liana Badr was born in 1950 in Jerusalem to a nationalist family and was raised in Jericho. She obtained a BA in philosophy and psychology from the Beirut Arab University. She worked as a volunteer in various Palestinian women’s organizations and as an editor in the Al Hurriyya review cultural section. In addition to her literary work, she also runs the cinema department at the Palestinian ministry of culture in Ramallah and was also the editor of the ministry’s periodical Dafater Thaqafiyya. Badr published her first novel in Beyrouth in 1979, A Compass for the Sunflower. She has also published short story collections, novellas, a book about poet Fadwa Touqan. Her works have been translated into a number of languages.
S.V. Atalla was born in New York, completed high school in Amman, Jordan, and now lives in Southern California where she teaches at Mt. San Antonio College. In 1992 she obtained an MA in Comparative Literature from UCLA. She is an accomplished poet and translator. Her translations have appeared in the journals Mediterraneans, Passport, Prairie Schooner, Painted Bride Quarterly, Banipal, and others.