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I waited for Layla for an hour and forty minutes. As I walked towards the café near Bab al-Khalil, I was unsure what our meeting would bring. There was a patrol of soldiers monitoring people there. I thought of all the invaders who had come to Jerusalem and entered through this gate, then went back out from it, or from one of the other gates of the city.
The soldiers stopped me to search for guns or knives. I stayed silent and sullen as they searched me. They let me pass and I came to Omar Ibn Khattab Square, crowded with settlers and soldiers, soldiers who might shoot for any reason. A stray bullet to kill me, making Layla go into mourning for me and not marry for seven years. One of the girls in my family, Maazouza, did that, went into full mourning for her martyred beloved. Would Layla go into mourning for me? Perhaps, although I wouldn’t like that. I wouldn’t want her to spend years a prisoner of grief.
The evening was spreading its shadows all over, and in this cruel winter Jerusalem was wrapping herself in some kind of mystery and fatigue – a temporary fatigue, I expect, but I don’t know how long it will last for. I waited for her in the touristy café, where the voyeurs’ eyes wouldn’t find us.
While I was waiting for her, I kept myself busy by looking at the café’s walls, as if seeing them for the first time. Ancient walls, restored to resist the weight of time. In the middle of the wall to my right was a photo of the great father, the first owner of the café and Emile’s grandfather. Next to him was the son, Emile’s father. They both have thick twisted moustaches in the photos, and their eyes are full of determination and persistence. I contemplated growing a thick moustache, then abandoned the idea.
There was also a photo on the wall of the square from almost a hundred years ago, taken in 1918. There are British soldiers and a crowd of Palestinians in it. This city’s history is filled with invaders who occupied her, destroyed her many times over thousands of years, and yet she manages to resurrect herself time and again. I was born in Ras al-Nab’a, not far away from the walls of the old city. Layla was born in Beit Hanina al-Jadida. I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me, even though we lived in the same city.
I kept myself busy looking at the square and the sidewalk. This city’s writer, Khalil al-Sakakini, walked on that sidewalk. He was Sultana’s Majnun . . . maybe Sultana walked with him on that sidewalk, maybe they sat together in this café.
I waited a long time, and Layla didn’t come. I felt anxious and worried.
We met here two weeks ago. I told her about the secret that I had been keeping from her, and I was afraid that she would push me away. Layla was taken by surprise that day. We left the café, hoping to meet there again.
Yet here I am for my date with her and she hasn’t shown up. I tried calling her, but her phone was turned off. I sent her several messages on WhatsApp, but no answer. And her Facebook page has been silent for days.
We are just like the characters in that old story: she is my Layla and I am her Majnun. Ever since I met her and fell in love with her, I’ve found myself sporadically inhabiting that poet’s character, who remained madly in love with his Layla until he died. I believe that she is inhabiting the character of the beloved, whose name she carries.
I love her in this untrustworthy time, when Palestinian men are striving for their honour to the point of obsession. Because any taint on this honour means scandal, and scandal here . . . well, let’s just say that death is easier.
But she didn’t come.
Emile noticed my discomfort while I was waiting, and guessed with his delicate intuition that there was a problem. I drank my third cup of coffee and left.
The wind was very cold and the city lights gave the impression of serenity; nothing but an illusion that the wind dissolves and surprises shake.
* * *
I thought about going home, then I dismissed the idea so my mother wouldn’t get upset when she saw my disappointment. I stayed up working until late. The winter cold was harsh and the night untrustworthy. I drove all kinds of people to the different quarters of the city. I passed through random checkpoints. I waited. I complained. I cursed. And at 10:00 pm I went home.
My father was watching the news, yelling angry comments at the screen. My mother was worried about me. She said for the tenth time: “I wish you’d find a safer job.”
I tried to reassure her, as I did every time: “Don’t worry, I’m always careful.”
My mother was buzzing around at home like a bee. She opened another window in the living room, despite the cold, to get rid of my father's cigarette smoke. She went to the TV, followed the news a bit; then she turned away, smiling from the comments she heard. My sister Lamia was sitting in the corner of the living room watching the TV on and off, when she wasn’t busy with her phone or writing something on Facebook. What goes on in her mind? I don’t know.
She’s pretty quiet most of the time.
I looked at my mother, father and sister and thought to myself: it’s a stable family. Or it would be, if not for the lack of safety and security, and if not for my father’s overwhelming anxiety that makes him wake up several times a night to check that he locked the door.
We exchanged small talk, my mother searching my face as if hoping for an answer. She smiled as if she knew where I had been and who I was with.
I lied to her: “Everything’s fine unless . . .”
She interrupted me. “Forget the ‘unlesses.”
My father wasn’t paying any attention to our conversation; at least, that’s what I thought. My father is interested in the news more than anything else. Sitting in front of the TV, with his salt-and-pepper hair, he seems like a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. But he surprised me when he looked over at me and said: “You’re following in your father’s footsteps.”
He looked at me smilingly and I understood what he meant: he fell in love with my mother when he was a taxi driver. He kept watching the news, and Lamia kept silent, her fingers substituting for her voice as she wrote a comment here and a message there, perhaps for one of her friends.
Meanwhile, I was like an insect crushed underfoot.
I concealed my disappointment until later.
I met her a few months ago by sheer coincidence. My colleague Rahwan accused me of setting a trap to catch her in.
It was a late afternoon in autumn – a morose season of delicate feelings, a yearning to penetrate the unknown. The traffic in the streets and around the curves was at its peak. The sidewalks were crowded with women returning home, parading with their different styles of clothes, some in jilbabs and the others in brightly coloured dresses, each of them with a life story and a history. Their histories are all entangled with the history of this city, making it difficult to unwind and weave in a new, foreign identity. The sky was covered with white clouds. Jerusalem doesn’t reveal what’s in her mind; she bears her destiny without complaint.
I was waiting in my car near Damascus Gate, hoping to find a customer. I was urged on by hope.
She opened the back door and got in. She was wearing a jilbab, her head covered with a scarf. She asked me to take her to Beit Hanina al-Jadida. I drove through the busy traffic, stealing glances at her in the rear-view mirror. My eyes met hers two or three times – I only did that because I was attracted to her. I remembered a relative of mine called Abdel Rahman, whose nickname is al-Qunfoth, who always says: “You taxi drivers don’t leave any woman alone without harassing her.” Or: “I bet you drivers have had sex with as many women as there are hairs on your head.” But I answer him every time: “Enough of that kind of talk,” then I add: “People aren’t all the same.”
“Are you a secretary in an office?”
“I’m a teacher at a Christian Orthodox elementary school in the old city.”
There was a light breeze slipping into the car from the window on my left side. I was too embarrassed to continue the conversation, out of fear of some sort of shock or misunderstanding. I took her to her house, a big one with many windows, deeply rooted in the place. She handed me the fare and left. There was a kind of confident self-esteem in her walk. The houses in the neighbourhood were pleasantly adjacent and the gardens and fences around them spoke of comfort and prosperity. I went back to Damascus Gate thinking about her, captivated by her beautiful voice and the modesty in her eyes, and charmed by her tall figure.
She came again three days later, with the same figure and the same modesty in her eyes. Autumn gives the impression that life is full of secrets. The same scene was repeated and curiosity filled my heart. I realized when I drove her for the first time in my car that she was from an affluent family, that much was clear from her family’s sedate house. Did I have a desire, hidden inside me, to get near the rich and powerful? I don’t think so. I was attracted to this woman because of her delicacy and beauty, and also because of her warm feelings. She couldn’t hide those, not from a taxi driver who, over the last few years, has driven so many men and women to all kinds of places, inside and outside of the city.
“What do you teach?”
“Arabic. I majored in it at university.”
I remembered my relative al-Qunfoth and his tasteless jokes. If he says them again around me, I’m going to tell him to fear God and to stop disgracing people. I was in the presence of an educated young woman.
“I studied Arabic at the teaching institute, but here I am, working as a taxi driver.” After a moment I added: “I’m trying to be a writer. My name is Qais.”
My last words caught her attention.
What he said caught my attention and changed the direction of my thoughts. I became interested in him. His name – and the coincidence entailed when added to my name – caught my attention. I returned the courtesy: My name is Layla.
She asked me: “Are you a poet?”
“I’m trying to write a novel.”
She expressed her approval with a surprising affability: “Woooow!”
Her fascinating voice resonated inside me for days. Her name stirred up exalted feelings inside me. She came again a week later. We smiled at each other. I felt like someone who had found a treasure; that moment of connection was priceless.
I said: “I’m glad to have met you.”
She thought about my words for a moment, as if trying to avoid falling into a trap, then said: “Taxi drivers can’t be trusted.”
Her words brought the shadow of al-Qunfoth and put him directly in front of me. I couldn’t believe how bad the reputation of taxi drivers was. But then I thought of my cousin Rahwan, a fellow driver, and his endless adventures with women.
I also remembered Mohammed al-Asghar, my father’s uncle, and his wife Sana who had asked me two days ago to drive them to the National Theatre. After I dropped them off, I found my Uncle Mohammed had left a thick notebook in the taxi. (Did he really forget it, or did he pretend to forget it for some reason?) Curiosity drove me to read what was in it before I gave it back to him. I read many anecdotes, some of them happy and funny, others confusing and contemplative.
* * *
She didn’t stay away for more than a few hours. She came back, with her captivating beauty and the shadows of her affluent family.
I came, not caring about my family’s strictness, nor the soldier patrols who were spread across every street. I left my bed. I opened the door and set off with the lightness of a butterfly.
There was a pale moon looking down at us from the clouds. Calm overshadowed the world as we embraced near the dense woods. How did we get here? We laughed as if we were coming from deep inside one of the stories, and said let the nights do whatever they want with us. We heard the murmur of water, which anointed our rendezvous with a kind of splendour. “It is the spring whose waters bathed my body when I was a child,” she said.
Yes, when I was a child, I would hike my dress above my knees, then take it off and let the water flow over my body.
She led me by my hand as we approached the spring. Its water was flowing towards the orchards nearby. She submerged her calves into the water. I came next to her and put my calves in the water too. We were like two children having fun . . . Then I dreamed in my dream that I woke up, perhaps because of the cold water, or perhaps for some other reason. I kept watching her while the water was overflowing from her dream.
He was watching me while the water flowed over me.
After a while, I told her: “Let’s go back to the city”.
She asked in a reproachful tone: “Am I to go back with wet legs like this?”
I pulled out a white handkerchief from my pocket, and kept drying her calves until there was no more water on them, then we went back. We saw them together, him and the woman, next to the wall, then while they were entering the square. There was a thick notebook in his hand that I felt I had already read; she was strolling next to him, holding a book in her hand.
We followed them, a light twilight covering the world. “I know them,” I said.
And I said: “His notebook is intriguing – it contains many secrets.”
She didn’t say a word. But she was interested in the two of them. Maybe she was humouring me.
I was interested in them because it makes me happy to see a man and a woman with such a strong connection.
They went into a café near Bab al-Khalil and we went in after them. We chose a table near them and sat down. We pretended that we were not paying any attention to them.
I whispered in her ear: “It’s Mohammed al-Asghar, my father’s uncle, and the woman with him is his wife Sana.”
He opened the notebook and started writing in it while Sana was watching him, impressed, or at least that was what I guessed. Then, before long, she opened her book and started reading.
Layla and I continued watching them carefully. His thick notebook was a dream or two’s distance from us.
I awoke in the early morning. I could remember some of my dreams – that Layla was at the heart of them. And I remembered Uncle Mohammed al-Asghar’s notebook. I got up and went into the bathroom.
I showered and put on my clothes. I drank my coffee then left the house. Autumn was loudly declaring itself: yellow leaves falling here and there; a light breeze accompanied by a possible chill; pale clouds in the sky. The houses of Ras al-Nab’a were piled up and spilled about without any order, without a thought for aesthetics, hinting at the kind of crowding that’s liable to produce a nervous explosion. Personally, I find it amazing: the diversity of people’s destinies! And yet there was a painful truth hovering over it all: this city is still under occupation, after so many years.
I opened the car door and sat behind the wheel. I picked up passengers from the quarter: a post office employee named Amal, her hair blowing freely in the wind, and three other passengers. Amal sat in the front seat, her perfume scenting the air, and the other three passengers piled into the back seat: a minor trader named Azzam, wearing a cheap cologne; next to him a farmer named Awwad, who as soon as he settled into his seat started complaining about the lack of rain this year; and my relative al-Qunfoth, the pungent smell of the sheep that he spends all day with emanating from his clothes. Al-Qunfoth kept watch on the traffic lights, sending me his instructions whenever the light turned green: “Yah!”
Apparently a mare was running around in the head of this relative of mine, because that was a word you only use with a horse or a donkey to get them to speed up. It didn’t take him long to reveal his longing for the past when he said: “God rest the soul of our grandfather Abdallah, he had a mare that was a legend for generations.”
He asked me: “Have you heard of our grandfather’s mare, Qais?”
“Yeah, I have,” I said.
Al-Qunfoth kept praying for our ancestors, until finally the trader Azzam released his aged wisdom: “Times have changed. We’re in the age of aeroplanes now.”
Amal, the post office employee, laughed lightly, then said in a sweet voice: “I’ve never been in a plane in my life.”
Azzam took the initiative in a way that worried the listeners and surprised her by saying: “I’ll buy you a plane ticket.”
She was taken aback by his words and she thanked him.
Then the conversation was interrupted by the voice of the commander as the last traffic light turned from red to green: “Yah!”
I drove until I arrived at Damascus Gate. I dropped the passengers there.
I was still wearing summer clothes: brown trousers and a short-sleeved shirt. The autumn breeze was tousling my hair, putting me in a good mood. I chatted with Rahwan and the other drivers while I contemplated the city: crowded with people, no one disturbing its peace but the soldiers carrying the blood-shedding pieces of polished metal in their hands. The sidewalks and stairs were filled with cautious men – each with their own concerns and their small joyful moments, at least as I imagined – as well as boys and girls going to school and women on their way to the old city for shopping or for work. Most of the women were hiding their bodies in baggy dresses or jilbabs and covered their heads with scarves – I didn’t know what they were thinking about.
Mornings never appeal to me, except when I see Layla coming along the sidewalk with her graceful walk, putting her foot on the first step of the stairs leading to Damascus Gate, on her way to the school where she spends her day giving language lessons to the boys and girls.
I saw her that morning, her pink scarf tied neatly over her hair, surrounding her face with a striking beauty, and her autumn jilbab draping elegantly on her body, yet unable to completely hide its topography. I looked at her and she looked at me. We exchanged two cautious smiles. Our love was still young and tender like a small, dewy plant. Rahwan was not oblivious to what was happening around him. He looked at me with curiosity, then asked: “Did a pretty girl smile at you a minute ago?”
I looked him in the face and didn’t answer. I sufficed with a small smile that could mean anything.
He said: “I tell you all my secrets, so you shouldn’t hide anything from me.”
Then he started talking his usual rubbish.
* * *
I arrived before her at the café where we had agreed to meet.
Its customers are mostly tourists and it serves men and women without discrimination. Our love was still like a toddling baby, trying to walk but wary of falling down.
I walked fast through Omar Ibn Khattab Square. There were settlers, men and women, pouring into the square and onto the sidewalks, and there were soldiers. I felt that the square was groaning under their feet like old wood.
Layla arrived and we had our first date.
We met and I was drawn towards this taxi driver who was more than a little handsome. Not to mention writing a novel, of which I have no idea what it’s about, but I am interested in reading it as soon as he finishes. Here I am, coming to meet him in this café despite my anxiety. I mean, it’s difficult to justify a young woman wearing a jilbab coming to a café to sit with a man! Of course, I know that I am breaking social norms.
“You only know my first name so far.”
“Your first name is enough for me.”
I said, trying to reassure her: “I am Qais ibn Mannan ibn Atwan ibn Mannan ibn Mohammed al-Abdillat.”
I smiled, sensing that he was very nice and maybe somewhat naive with his rural or Bedouin roots.
Then I continued: “I came into this world in 1989, and they couldn’t take my mother to the hospital because of the city curfew from dusk till dawn. It had been imposed on account of the intifada that had spread through the land.”
My words encouraged her to open up, so she said: “I am Layla bint Mohammed Hassan al-Qani’. I was born in 1993. My mother gave birth to me in the Jerusalem hospital on the evening of a hot summer day; the curfew hadn’t started yet that day.”
I listened to her carefully, and we talked for an hour or a little more. It was an enjoyable conversation, more delicious than almonds and walnuts and honey. Then we left the café. We walked on the sidewalk a short distance but we had to part ways, fearing people’s eyes, fearing repercussions from Layla’s family, with its high honour and prestigious status.
* * *
We met after a few hours, despite everything. I told her: “I’ll marry you right now.” She demurred, saying: “No, not now.” I respected her decision and we walked along one of the city sidewalks. Then we saw the two of them slowly approaching the café. We followed them and watched them from a distance.
She had said goodbye to her youth long ago, but still was not lacking in femininity. She had a pride that was evident in the way she walked and in the straightness of her back. And he was walking beside her, with his imposing stature and his distinguished white hair.
They sat in the café and we sat in the far corner. He opened his thick notebook and started writing.
I approached him as stealthily as a cat. Sana was sitting next to him reading a book, her hair falling smoothly over her chest and her perfume scenting the air. I looked closely at the page of his notebook, but I wasn’t able to read his handwriting. Words were flowing from his pen like water in a creek. I rubbed my eyes, hoping to be able to read it, but with no luck. Layla joined us.
Yes, I moved closer and stared at the page of the notebook but couldn’t read it. I didn’t blame myself at all for this curiosity.
We blamed our dream and couldn’t exchange it for another, more obedient one.
I saw him finally stop writing, contemplating a page in the notebook with big handwritten lines. I was able to read some names, and some explanations: “My mother Wadha . . . my brother Fleehan . . . Maria Zakharova . . . Qais ibn al-Moulawah and his beloved Layla al-Amiriya . . . Rahwan???!!! Nafisa, the relative . . . Qais Mannan, my nephew, and his beloved Layla Mohammed al-Qani’???!!!! She is originally from Jaffa. Her family came to Jerusalem immediately after the 1948 Nakba. They came with their money, which they hid in the women’s underclothes, so they weren’t humiliated like the other displaced Palestinians who suffered bitter hunger and deprivation. They resumed their business in the city and lived in rental houses in old Jerusalem for two or three years. Then they bought land in Beit Hanina, near the street connecting Jerusalem to Ramallah, and built modern homes there. Layla, their daughter, fell in love with our son Qais, a risky love that might not survive.”
I was surprised to see mine and Layla’s names in the notebook, as well as the other names. Layla too was surprised when she managed to read them. I told her: “This is what writers do when they are about to write their novels: they record notes and names.” She asked me about Wadha and Fleehan; I told her they are from my extended family, the al-Abdillats. She asked me about Nafisa; I hid half of the truth from her. “She is one of the members of my family; I don’t know why her name is in the notebook.”
They stood up after an hour; she was as tall as he was. He put her hand in his and they walked together, perhaps home, or to a restaurant, or for a walk in the city streets. Layla and I watched them until they left our dream.
I spent a long day in the city, driving men and women in all directions. A lot of the men were chatty and offered commentary, but the women were, as a general rule, more inclined to silence, perhaps to avoid being taken the wrong way if they talked too freely.
I was wearing a pair of blue jeans and a grey shirt, and proudly displaying my arm muscles and my good looks that all my friends envied me for. When it was almost evening, I sat behind the wheel waiting for more passengers at the stop next to Bab al-Khalil. I wasn’t one to waste time.
I took Princesses’ Street: Baghdad Memories out of the glove compartment, where I had put it to read whenever I had some spare time. Once I had got some distance from the people around me, I became engrossed in the book; I was taken with the love affair between the Iraqi, Lamea, and the Palestinian author, Jabra.
I raised my eyes from the book after twenty minutes. The foot traffic on the sidewalks was at its peak, and the city was living the day to the fullest, as if announcing her rejection of being a city under occupation.
I put the book back in its place. The autobiographical touches scattered through it were still infusing me with splendid feelings. I looked around me with an impassioned lover’s eyes.
Suddenly Layla appeared on the sidewalk, walking towards me. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw her. She was wearing her grey jilbab, and as usual covered her head with a scarf; today’s was sky blue, decorated with clouds. She was looking straight ahead, trying to avoid unwanted comments from the people passing by. Her statuesque figure announced a woman of superb beauty, as she walked with serene, measured steps.
It wasn’t just a coincidence. This was one of women’s machinations when they fall under a pressing desire. I opened the back door of the car.
She got in and said: “Take me home, please.”
I paid no attention to the curious looks of some of the drivers standing by the fleet of taxis, and neither did Layla.
I turned on the engine and set off down the main street. I could smell the scent of Nabulsi soap emanating from her body. That smell always reminded me of olive trees. I was secretly thanking the coincidence that made the daughter of a rich family fall in love with a taxi driver. That was a sign of good luck and happiness. I sometimes thought that maybe I was living in a dream, that Layla was nothing but a delicious illusion.
On the road, we joked around innocently. I reached my hand out to the back to touch her hand. Our hands embraced.
I said, inhabiting the character of the autobiography’s writer: “You are Lamea the Muslim and I am Jabra the Christian.”
She immediately retorted: “I am Layla al-Amiriya and you are Qais the Majnun.”
I liked her answer. As I watched her expression in the mirror, she seemed a bit confused. She asked me: “Did you mean Lamea al-Askari and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra?”
I slowed down and reached into the glove compartment, taking out the autobiography. I showed it to her and said: “Yes, that’s who I meant, and this here is our love story.”
The book piqued my curiosity. I asked him to lend it to me when he was done reading it.
I promised to give her the book, then a few moments of silence fell on us. She looked outside then back at me and said: “Fear is constantly ambushing me.”
She said that her father had been on edge ever since the early blossoming of her body. When she grew up and became a fully mature woman, her brother Mustafa became convinced that she would, one day, bring shame on the family. He had bought a gun and hidden it in a secret place.
She said: “I was contemplating my body in the mirror, and I can’t understand my father and brother’s antipathy towards it . . . It’s a good body, harmless and capable and beautiful.”
I liked the way she described her body but I gulped, feeling worried. I parked close to her house and said: “Here we are, my Layla.”
She said, getting out of the car: “Thank you, my Majnun.”
I smiled and followed her elegant walk with my eyes until she was out of sight. Then I left, missing the feeling of security that comes sometimes and is absent at others. I said to myself: I am the Majnun of Layla; I must risk everything for Layla.
* * *
She came at night. I was happy to see her. She was wearing neither jilbab nor hijab; there was no one watching. She came near me and we stood together next to the window.
The whiteness of her body shone from under the nightgown, her hair spilling around her face and chest. She said with conviction: I am not afraid.
We stood, silent. I looked around every which way but wasn’t able to determine where we were. I asked her: “Do you know where we are now?” She said: “No, but I am still in my nightgown!”
We remained confused, looking for an answer. Meanwhile, we saw Uncle Mohammed heading towards us; he sat on a nearby chair, and we saw Sana sitting next to him, then she opened her book to read. I said: “We are in a restaurant outside the city wall. See, here is the pretty waitress, checking on customers to find out what they are going to eat.” She said: “I’ll take off the nightgown then and put on a dress.” I told her: “Don’t worry about it, Layla; stay as you are”.
She fell reluctantly silent, and we watched Uncle Mohammed. We saw him opening his thick notebook, writing a few lines, then from between the lines burst out a long scream – a man screaming in pain like a wounded animal. His screams filled the air of our dream. My body shook and Layla’s body looked as if it had been somehow violated.
When he finished writing, he closed the notebook and contemplated the face of his wife sitting next to him.
Layla said: “It’s like he was writing about something painful.”
“Maybe,” I answered.
I added: “It’s as if I’ve heard those screams before.”
I started to remember where I had heard them. I saw a ghost of an angry girl; I said: “I think it’s my sister Lamia”, then the ghost disappeared. I was still confused. I told Layla we should leave this place. I held her hand and we ran along the street opposite the city wall. When we got tired of running, we headed to the café and sat down there. Then Uncle Mohammed al-Asghar and Sana arrived. We marvelled at how we had left them in the restaurant and yet here they were again. She was walking a few steps ahead of him. She looked into the mirror hanging next to the café door, perhaps to reassure herself about what was left of her beauty. He did the same thing, perhaps to reassure himself that he was still able to stand strong against time.
I told Layla, searching the paths of a quick dream: “She is his wife, she has lived her whole life with him without bearing a child.”
Then I reproached myself for mentioning having children, but Layla didn’t seem to mind and didn’t comment.
Suddenly a nurse showed up. I thought for a short moment that she was my mother. She seemed like she was coming from her shift at the nearby medical centre, coming to the café for a short break.
Layla said: “If she hadn’t been his wife, she wouldn’t have been able to sit with him at the café.”
I immediately answered: “But you’re not my wife and you’re sitting with me.”
She smiled: “I’m a rebel.”
I touched her hair with love, then we continued looking at Uncle Mohammed.
He opened his thick notebook and started writing in it, and the nurse was sitting with her legs crossed, contemplating the whiteness of her knee, no longer covered by her nurse’s smock. I stared at her and was soothed by the peace enveloping her face and appearing in her eyes as she drank her tea. I was behaving carefully so as not to make Layla angry with me.
Suddenly, that sound came out from the notebook again, the sound of a man in pain like a wounded animal, then we heard him saying some obscure words: “Daughter, what? Daughter?”
Layla’s body trembled. I whispered in her ear: “I think I know what happened. I know that blood has spilled from the edges of this story, but I am not sure of anything now.”
The morning was impenetrable like old copper, or perhaps I was fearing bad luck for some reason. I looked at the soldiers standing near Damascus Gate, at the ready to shoot as if they were on the front lines. There were only unarmed men, women, children in front of them, walking in every direction with utmost innocence, making for a strange contrast.
The weather was a bit cold, the sky full of clouds, hiding whatever desires were in its mind. We didn’t get any passengers for an hour, even though people were continuously streaming down the sidewalks. I thought of my relative Nafisa and felt sad for what had happened between us. I remembered the name Maria Zakharova, the name I saw written in the thick notebook. I typed her name into my phone and she appeared with her pretty face. I read some information about her and watched her dancing in her short black skirt. She was a brilliant dancer. I was amazed by Uncle Mohammed al-Asghar’s interest in her, and wondered: what does she have to do with the current situation . . .?
My question remained unanswered when Rahwan came and stood in front of me, studying me with curiosity.
He said: “You’re hiding something from me.”
He kept looking at me, not saying another word, probably trying to provoke me or to create a dramatic impact. Finally, he said: “You have a beautiful girlfriend.”
Then, after a deliberate pause: “Don’t forget, I’m your cousin and friend, and when it comes to women you must tell me everything.”
He added: “She probably has a friend she could introduce me to, then we could be four.”
I paid no attention to what he was saying. Just then, a passenger and her daughter arrived, and it was my turn to drive them.
* * *
We had agreed I would take her to meet my mother, at my insistent request.
My mother has her own charm, and I wanted Layla to meet her and also for her to meet Layla, hoping this might strengthen our relationship. I was afraid that Layla might fly out of my hand.
We set a date and went to see her. Layla sat on the back seat, her overwhelming presence filling the car. I wanted to see her next to me, a beautiful twenty-three-year-old woman who was in love with a taxi driver and was going with him to meet his mother. Perhaps that will put their young relationship on the right path.
I was feeling like our love story was unparalleled, then I changed my mind. I told myself that no one cares about us, Layla and me, and our love is nothing for this city to pay attention to. Then I felt again that it was not right to belittle it like that – I felt like the city couldn’t contain me, and that I was madly in love with Layla.
I drove my car from Damascus Gate towards Herod’s Gate, turned left and headed down for a good distance, then I started up the mountain road. The city was compressed in on herself, surrounded by occupiers penetrating from every direction. Despite that, my happiness over Layla was bigger than the pain of the blockade. I felt as if I was flying and was excited for the meeting that was fast approaching.
I came to the end of the uphill street and turned right towards ِِAl-Amal hospital. Layla was anxious about meeting this woman for the first time.
I was really anxious, and I told him I felt shy.
I told her, so as to lessen her anxiety: “My mother is a modest woman; she loves people and will be happy to meet you and get to know you.”
We entered the hospital. We smelled the odour of drugs and we liked the tranquility of the place. We sympathized with the patients’ dread and the clear pallor of their faces, then we headed to the department where my mother works. We were told that she was in the operating room; she soon emerged with the doctors and the rest of the nurses.
We were sitting in one of the waiting rooms. We had kept ourselves busy watching the people going in and out of the patients’ rooms, and looking at the nurses walking around like white doves. We waited without boredom until my mother came out, wearing her nurse’s smock. I wondered at her appearance: she was like a rose blossoming in the daylight. Despite the passing of the years, she still retained her beauty and elegance.
She walked towards us calmly and with confidence. I kissed her cheeks and she kissed my forehead. Then she hugged Layla and kissed her, and lovingly contemplated her face, pleased.
I contemplated her beautiful face and her sweet smile. I could see a lot of her in Qais.
We walked together to the cafeteria to drink tea. My mother and Layla walked in front, and I walked behind them like a loyal guard. I felt that this love that united me with Layla was walking on its own two feet, so far without trouble.
Translated by Karen McNeil and Miled Faiza for Banipal 70 – Mahmoud Shukair, Writing Jerusalem