by Mohammed Al-Asfar, from Words Without Borders
To Jean Genet
I was anxiously staring at the walls in a room with drawn dark curtains. Father lay on the bed, his blind eyes peering into the ceiling, his hands searching for the pillow beside him. When he didn’t find me there, he yelled my name. I rushed to him and lay beside him. He wrapped his arms round me and we both cried.
In the morning he insisted, “We haven’t slept together in one bed since you were forty days old.”
Later, without uttering a word, a guard came in and handed me a cup of tea and half a loaf of bread. Father was praying morning prayer, his face against the pillow.
Half an hour later, around noon, we were taken to see the investigating officer. The authorities had held us hostage hoping my brother would turn himself in, but now we were released without knowing if my brother had been captured or, upon hearing that his blind father was arrested, had lost his nerve and turned himself in.
A long time passed and we still had no news of my brother. Was he alive, dead, incarcerated, or free? Every day at dusk I would join Father in the sitting room. He would start his story in the usual way, with his famous sentence, “We haven’t slept together in one bed since you were forty days old.”
I would take advantage of the opportunity and tease the story out of him.
“And after the forty days, Haj, what happened?”
He would smile, taking his time with the unruffled passion of old age.
“On the forty-first day I bought you a wooden cradle, with bars on all four sides. Your mother dressed it in the hide of a sheep we had slaughtered for Eid. She breast-fed you, aided your burps, wrapped you tightly in a sheet, then a woolen cape and put you to sleep. How beautiful and satisfied you seemed, your cheeks pink, your eyes sleepy, your lips occasionally surprising us with a magical smile. We never tired of admiring you-we feared giving you an evil eye-and you never disturbed us. You only woke up crying when morning came, after we had had our blessed sleep.”
Mother entered with a bunch of fresh mint. We smiled and she smiled back, saying, “While picking the mint I got the hiccups. I am sure you were talking about me.”
“Yes, but only saying good things.”
“I know, but you have a cunning tongue; you were never as naive as your brother.”
Her eyes filled with tears. Father seemed to share her grief, but he didn’t cry. The only time I had ever seen him cry was during that night we were arrested, when he wrapped his arms round me, affectionately pulled me to his chest and wept.
I left them and went downtown. On my way I imagined them in each other’s arms, drinking mint tea, consoling one another with memories. I wasn’t worried for them. When I arrived at one of the pavement cafés, I slumped into a chair. I sipped my bitter espresso, smoking and talking to myself. Will grief return? And will happiness? And will forgetfulness? And will… and will… return? I sat frozen a long time listening to the news of the world till I got bored. Then I returned and found them calm.
Father was counting his agate prayer beads, Mother was peeling cloves of garlic and crushing them in the mortar before scraping the paste with a spoon into a boiling pot. I whispered to Father, “We haven’t slept in one bed since I was forty days old.”
“A year later your brother was born and we moved you to a bigger bed in the neighboring room. Then you grew and your brother grew and we grew with you, always obedient to God. And your sisters married, one after the other, then you left your room for the sitting room before moving to your flat on the second floor, then your brother moved into the sitting room, where he read and prayed. And here I am now, alone, in the sitting room, telling you what you can read into the wrinkles on my forehead.”
A delicious steam was rising above the pot of tomato and sun-dried lamb soup, fragrant with thyme and fenugreek seed. I poured lukewarm water over Father’s hands then handed him a clean towel. Mother was engrossed in shredding the clay oven-baked bread with burnt edges.
Nothing preoccupied my mind. Time has taught me to ignore sorrow till happy times have passed.
“Come, dinner is ready.”
Mother was used to eating alone. I can’t recall her ever eating with us. Even on Eid she would serve the grilled meat and leave to eat her share with my sisters and the women from next door. That evening I tried to break the custom and asked her to join us. She replied gracefully:
“Eat, don’t mind me. My share is in the pot. I’ll have it later.”
Father stopped chewing and swallowing, then whispered: “She won’t eat. Insist upon her, I beg you. She’s growing thinner, withering away. It has been ages since I heard her singing to herself while baking, sieving rice, or sweeping the floor. It is a sure sign of danger, when a woman falls silent.”
I kissed her forehead and whispered in her ear: “For my sake.” She promised she would eat as soon as she was finished with her night prayer.
What kind of life is this? Silence is killing me, tranquility is thrusting me into an annihilation of fire.
Patience presses against my chest till I tremble. Tedium unsettles me, making madness seem inevitable. I am exhausted of this life of waiting.
A piece of me is lost, amputated before my final slaughter. My wound is deep, fixed on not healing. Forgetting has failed. Keeping custody of one’s eyes has become a rare thing. Memory is an ivy sipping rain-when will the wall fall, when will you awake and dare-its roots piercing the nerve. Father aches. Mother aches. How will they depart without provisions?
They might have found him there, waiting. And they might have not. How will they ever return? All right then, I must follow. But I may not find them, nor find him, nor he us. They have vanished and vanished and vanished, all into eternal oblivion.