It was not only packed with passengers and luggage but also with emotions. It was an old train, like those used to transport soldiers in war movies. “It has been taking off with us since it came out of the factory!” the man sitting next to me, a physician in his fifties, drew me into a conversation. I had no reason to doubt him. I hardly remembered anything that had happened before I got on the train. In fact, I woke up to its noises and grew up on its vague promises. Despite its velocity, the journey was rather slow, painfully so.
I rarely spoke to my companion on the leather seat. We exchanged glances during bumps and jumps, that was all, really. The hullabaloo around me sapped my desire to speak. I tried to say something a few times but the light simply went out before I could utter a word. Of course, I could have spoken in the dark and raised my voice so he could hear me clearly but the effect of words in the dark was not exactly the same as in the light, and the sudden onslaught of darkness confused me. There was always that sudden paranoia too. What would prevent a criminal from pulling a fast one on us in the dark?
The other two neighbours sitting across the compartment from me, one short and fat and the other tall and bald, were on the other hand too busy talking to notice what was going on around them. They fell into deep conversations, endless and loud, about losses and profits, work conditions, opportunities not to be missed, and rights and wrongs. Breathless and with apparent understanding they conversed fluently, unhindered by sudden darkness or occasional uproar.
Still, I felt I had to say something to initiate a conversation. My neighbour was one of those fair people who met my silence with his own and responded to my small talk with his chatter. “Tunnels. It’s the tunnels.” “The light goes out in the tunnels,” he whispered to me. “There’re so many of them! And each of them is so long.” “Your timing is off.” “You think so?” “It’s not what I think. It’s what happens.” Something compelled me to speak whenever we were near a tunnel even though I rarely realised we were approaching one. My fellow passengers, however, never got used to tunnels. Murmurs would turn into shouts then loud protests about the lights going out. I would then find myself encouraged to speak, then I would speak, and so it went on.
It was a huge train, big enough to house the inhabitants of an entire city. It was so long, longer than winter nights in our village, and it stretched beyond what eyes could see. Its carriages were uncountable, each of them carrying a trainload of passengers who knew one another. Those who had never met before, like the doctor and I, came to know each other during the journey. And the journey had been hard and long, much longer than we had expected, in fact, we did not even know when we would arrive. We only knew that our train was on track and as long as it was moving it would surely take us to our destination.
“It’s a strange train. It’s not one of those trains which meticulously follow a schedule of departure and arrival,” I started my conversation with my neighbour. We had not spoken to each other for days. My observation did not surprise him or bring him out of his usual steady calmness, as if he had heard the same comment before and had answered it dozens of times. He said in a confident tone that could not hide his irritation: “Our train’s not like other trains.” He said that without looking at me, as if he was conducting the train, or speaking to someone else, or no one at all. “Why? Why isn’t our train like other trains? And why aren’t we like other travellers?” He came out of his reverie suddenly and said feelingly: “I am not the one to answer your question. I am like you only a passenger.” In reality he wasn’t like me at all. He always read, pouring over old books, newspapers, and maps, and wrote copious notes. He would disappear on me for hours only to return after nightfall.
“How long have we been on the train,” I wondered, apparently audibly. I did know how long. The man laughed and repeated the question sarcastically: “How long? Since it came out of the factory and started working it has been taking off with us.” I had not spoken about this before or after, nor had I heard any such talk around me because it saddened and distressed us, in fact, it made us “dwell on the past”. Those who were older than us were always sighing, shaking and bowing their heads, showing signs of contempt and irritation. As for us, the younger generation, we would break out in loud cheers, determination ringing in what we shouted: “It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been on the train. How much time we have left is more important.” I would say this, folding my anxiety, as if pushing something all the way to the very bottom of a bag.
I heard a commotion around me. I saw women running and pulling down curtains. I suddenly realised that a birth was taking place. One of the women passengers had a baby. I learned from my companion, the doctor in his fifties, after he returned to my side that he supervised the birth. “Does this mean that more passengers are joining us?” “Yes. Didn’t you know? A girl was born. The baby is a girl.” “A girl? What did they call her?” “Palestine.” “Did they really call her Palestine?” “Yes. If the baby had been a boy as the father had wished they wouldn’t have been able to call him by the name I love so much.” “What a name! It is almost like calling a girl a girl,” I said, almost wanting to go on talking, “I know everyone would love to call their daughters by this name, but only very few actually do.” I said: “I can imagine Palestine a woman in her forties, but not a new-born baby. Perhaps the mother is more deserving of such a beautiful, perfect name.” I said too, “people get born, grow up and die and what if something unthinkable happens to her, do we say, she has. . . , she has. . . , God forbid.” My neighbour listened to me attentively. He seemed content that I was expressing myself lucidly and fluently.
“We shouldn’t attach conditions to names, not at all. A name should have a meaning or a corresponding reality. Or, it should be inherited. Every era has its names. Arabs in general don’t call their children by the names of their countries. But our situation is a bit different, otherwise we wouldn’t have been on this train.” I called him, “doctor,” considering his title more important than his name, and he sometimes called me “brother” and other times “mister,” as if he was avoiding names so that we would not “dwell on the past”. “They’ll have to,” he said, “they’ll have to take care of her and call her by the name they love best.” I said, “That’s true, that’s true.” Then I found myself a little irreverent: “They won’t be able to curse or reprimand her. They won’t be able to do that.” While I was speaking I was unable to contain my consternation about the daughter of the train. “What would be her birth place? What would you tell her when she asks tomorrow?” “It’s not a problem. It’s not a problem. I wish all our problems were of this nature.” The passengers around me, men and women, did not share my consternation. I heard the voice of a small woman in the middle of the clamour saying that even on plane journeys of no more than four or five hours women did give birth in the clouds and what was so strange about women giving birth on the ground. My neighbour heard her too, but I spoke before he could: “Yes, what’s so strange about women giving birth on the ground, especially on a train full of passengers who are more like residents?” I said that with such force, as if trying to convince myself.
My neighbour then told me, and in such a way that made me want to add a line to a long poem, that he could no longer remember how many times he had assisted women during birth. “But I didn’t notice!” I said to him, “I didn’t notice!” He said that my not noticing did not mean things did not happen. “No, no, it doesn’t mean that,” I said meekly. A smile returned to his slightly wrinkled face and sympathy shone in his narrow eyes again. He leaned over and whispered in my ears: “A number of women became pregnant during the journey.” I became distressed and began looking around me: “Things like this happen here?” “Why not?” he said. I was tempted to say I had not seen that but decided to hold back my laughter. “Do you want life to stop simply because the train does not stop?”
He eventually showed understanding of my astonishment. After all, I got on the train much later than he. He was older. I found in our moment of understanding a chance to defend myself. I was not heedless and definitely not hapless, I wanted to show him. “Does this mean we will live and die on this train?” I asked. He answered confidently, chastising me for my naÔvetÈ: “There are reasons why we don’t stop!”
The train made stops in remote places, where one saw only faint lights glittering from a distance, few houses spread here and there, and lone trees scattered about that looked like apparitions. No one could tell whether they were standing or moving, coming or going. You could tell that those stations were in remote places because they were empty, abandoned with no trace of left-over food, stray cats or dogs. We stopped at those places in the late hours of the night, when the outside was even more desolate and claustrophobic than the inside. We stood there, inspecting our limbs, looking at the sombre sky, and stomping on the unfamiliar, mute ground until we could think of nothing but for the train to take us out of there again. We did not turn to each other except to find out how different we looked outside the train. We would meet again soon inside and would check each other out again. We never found out when some of us would sneak away, leaving their family on the train not knowing where they had gone. They would leave and make their way in the dark and suddenly the whistle would blow, all hoarse and wounding, signalling another departure. We heard gun shots from a distance as we prepared to pull out but as soon as we tried to ascertain what they were the train would have left, rolling out of the station speedily, stifling its screech and carrying its heavy load.
We would all return to our carriages. We were not allowed to move to other carriages unless we conned the guards or promised them things we could not possibly afford. My companion informed me calmly that he would be sitting next to me and that his wife and children were in another carriage and that he had not seen them since they embarked. “Didn’t you get on the train together?” He said that they did get on the train together but the chaos surrounding them at the time and their fear that the train would suddenly move confused and dispersed them. “What about you? Where’s your family?” he asked cautiously. “I have no family,” I said shyly and tersely, as if responding with “one” to “what time is it?” I later explained: “ I don’t have a family. My mother died and my father didn’t make it to the train.” I said it with deliberate shyness and even more laboured nerve. I looked out of the window into desolation and darkness. My mother died and my father chose to stay with her. I was his envoy. He let me go so he could stay. And this train was swallowing the rail tracks and robbing me of forty years of my life. I turned away from the window. My companion faced me, “I was afraid of that.” “How did you guess?” “It’s easy. You behave like an only child.” His honesty wounded me. I had no idea my loneliness was so apparent. I asked him then to answer me truthfully, now that we were honest and open with each other, whether he really believed the train would take us to our final destination after all the delays. He answered right away that he had complete faith in that even though he had no idea when. I did not understand exactly what he meant. To help me understand he added: “The train may not arrive but we will.” “How?” I asked. He did not answer despite my persistent questioning. He just looked at me quizzically until I felt utterly exhausted from searching for an explanation.
“What is it you want to say with your mysterious looks?” I asked him. He did not answer. He fumbled in his coat pockets and took out a cigarette. Doctors smoking? I had never seen him smoke before. But he did not light up. He just held the cigarette between his fingers. He looked at me intently, as if trying to reach for the depth of my soul. “Isn’t it strange?” he said. “What’s strange?” I asked. He answered: “You didn’t think of our stops.” My heartbeat quickened. We were in a moving train and the stops were only stations we always left behind. There, our hearts would fall apart, we would hear the sound of their breaking, then pick up the pieces and put them back together in their places. I never saw anyone come to meet me, bid me farewell or send a message with me. I breathed in fresh air, that was all. I found myself responding to him without thinking: “Stops? I do think about them!” I could feel my heart beating in my chest when I said that. He asked for an explanation: “Are you sure?” “Of course, I am. Why don’t you believe what I say?”
His face lit up, but his familiar reservation and suspicion did not entirely disappear. He drew close to me and whispered to me in a brotherly tone that I would be able to keep some of my luggage and leave the rest behind at the next stop. I nodded. He whispered again: “No use, we won’t be coming back.” We would not come back here. I was suddenly lost in my thoughts, hearing only a voice inside screaming, what a dream! Taking the train was a dream and now getting off it has become another dream. They put us on the train and we said it was a thousand times better than walking. Suddenly all we knew was cabin fever and we were losing patience. One of us would have to scold us that none of us had a right to complain about the fast train to the East. What a dream! What a train! I screamed in my heart. He rather bent over, as if talking to himself, into his chest. What do I know? They might have left. Who will guarantee that the vibrant young people would stay? Who could guarantee that they would stay with us? My companion the doctor turned his hands around, talking about his family.
We began to anticipate stopping at the next station in the darkness of the night. Something like this may have happened to other people before. Anticipation became more unbearable than all the waiting we endured. We merely decided to take what was left of our destiny into our own hands. We heard songs coming from around and behind us about longing and love, promises and keeping promises, arrival and being together. I heard my father’s unsteady voice rising above the tumult around us, and my mother’s silence louder than his voice. I found myself whispering to my companion: “We will no longer rush off in the dark, we will wait for the first light before we are on our way again,” I said in delirium, the delirium of one making a pact with sunrise. He nodded, I did not know whether in agreement or to urge me to be patient. I had not thought about what I was saying until our little exchange. The idea flashed in my head like a gold coin glittering in a poor man’s mind. I began to fidget in my seat. I got up and paced. I looked at faces, some I knew and others I did not recognise. I disrupted reveries and interrupted commotions. I heard conversations about the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire and the English who brought with them the Jews. I overheard talks about coughs, difficulty in breathing and vacations. I eavesdropped on people arguing about whether it was better to have daughters or sons, and who was a better daughter, this girl or her sister. Which system was worse, the new one or the old? What should we do if the train stopped or did not stop? What was the direction of prayer? I heard everything they were saying but they heard only greetings and saw only smiles from me. Some even invited me to sit down with them. When I returned to my seat, my companion was listening intently to the passengers sitting before us, the short fat man and the tall bald one, talking incessantly about profits and losses, what was right or wrong . . . I learned from my companion that neither of them left his seat unless he was striking a bargain or making an appointment, but only to quickly return to his companion to engage again in serious, feverish dialogues permeated with phrases like “when we arrive,” “as soon as we arrive” . . .
Events started to happen quickly all of a sudden, quicker than our heartbeats, faster than our ability to think and take action. The conductor (the concealed and concealing, distant and distancing commander of destiny), his assistants and the guards announced through the loudspeakers at the very first stop we made that the doors would remain closed because they had to follow an international order that prohibited passengers from disembarking. When the passengers heard that, they started to grumble. They looked at one another. The surprise was too much for them to bear. Excitement fluttered around their heads and above their chests. They exploded, shouting. They stood up and started cursing: “We’re not prisoners of war, we’re not hostages, we are not commodities to be shipped about! You’re not our fathers or masters!” They began to destroy everything and anything that came within the reach of their hands and feet. We joined the voices of the sensible: “Not like this, not like this!” but the thundering protests roared on, bursting out of every car, like a human torrent tearing through the silence of the night, rocking the void around us, until the train quacked under the pressure of humanity.
Instead of getting a response to our protests we found ourselves in total darkness, the lights switched off on us even though we were not passing through a tunnel. The rumbling motors were turned off. The train simply stopped dead in its tracks. We pounced on the windows, trying to break them. The doors opened, people gushed out frantically and the courtyard was suddenly packed with huge, angry crowds. In the meantime, we noticed that a small group of people, not all old, had stayed behind and preferred to start a sit-in on the train. When we disembarked, the train in its sandy colours looked older than it really was, as if it had stood still there immobile for decades.Translated by Wen-Chin Ouyang
from the author’s collection, Al-Qitar [The Train], 1996, republished in selected short stories, Liqa’ lam Yatim [Missed Appointment], published by Amman Municipality Publications, 2002, for Amman Arab Cultural Capital 2002