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A short story, translated by Thomas Aplin
The palm tree made me promise never to tell a soul what she said to the sea, but today I’m forced to break that promise because it could be very important for you to know what she said. It’s been ten years now and I don’t believe her words should remain locked away inside me, alone. Firstly, let me admit it was wrong of me to listen in on the palm tree as she spoke to the sea. For a long time I’ve kept what I heard to myself, but now I must tell. Today, I’m spurred on by the thought that death could strike me at any moment and what the palm tree said to the Sea might never reach you. Death is all too common in these times . . . and all too cheap.
A Night and A Witness
On a moonless, starless night, the solitary palm tree bent towards the sea and began to tell him what she had seen and heard. While the calm sea listened sedately, she said: “They used to come under the cover of night after the people had gone to sleep and life in the village came to a halt. They would stand beneath me talking and whispering while I listened in awe. I even thought they might be angels or djinn. I loved them both for their sincerity. I shall tell you their tale and entrust their secret to your depths.”
I remember at that moment some intuition pushed me towards the sea, and it so happened that I found myself close to the palm tree. I sat on the sand hidden by the night and listened, despite the uncomfortable feeling that I was listening to something not meant for my ears.
The palm tree said: “They came after nightfall. He said to her: ‘Salma, you know how much I’m suffering, and if not for your love, which ties me to this earth, I’d be no more.’
“As tears poured from her eyes, she said: ‘But things haven’t gone the way we wanted them to . . . Now I’m married to another man, Salim . . . This is what they wanted for me. If not for my love for you I would not chance the dangers of coming to you every night.’
“ ‘Remember when I went to your father and asked him for your hand?’ Said Salim. ‘He refused me saying I’m merely a sailor who owns nothing but his loin cloth, and now you’re the wife of the Nawkhidha .’
“Her heart raced and her face was contorted with sadness as she told him: ‘But despite everything, my heart will always be yours.’ She cried and her voice cracked: ‘Have I forgotten the days when we used to play on the beach: you, me Khalfan, Mariam and . . .’
“ ‘Listen to me,’ he said, both intense and distant. ‘Tomorrow we set sail. Our captain is your husband and I swear to you, one of us will not return.’
“She felt a tremor of fear and said: ‘If you don’t come back, I’ll kill myself.’
“ ‘Last year when Khalfan hid a pearl, the Nawkhidha saw him and as punishment branded his back and chest. I still remember Khalfan writhing and screaming in agony. It was awful, Salma!’ ”
Departure and Death
“So Salim departed for the depths of the Gulf while Salma continued to come every night to remember him and feel closer to him. And she would weep. After four months the divers returned but Salim was not among them. I learnt from Salma that her husband, the Nawkhidha, had ordered Salim to make a dive far out at sea and amongst the jellyfish, even though he was ill and could not be treated. The Captain insisted and Salim dived. He remained underwater a long time and when they brought him back up they found only half his body. Despite the pleading of Salim’s companions the Captain threw him back to the water and the fish.”
Here I heard the sea break its silence and say: “I remember that. They threw him to me. I found him with no legs and eyes and embraced him at the bottom until he dissolved in the sand and the water. If I had known there was someone waiting for him I would have tossed him onto the shore.”
The sea stirred and its placid waters surged up into crashing waves. The palm tree said to the sea: ‘Calm down. I’m not blaming you. One night I heard Salma, distraught with grief, imploring God: ‘Lord, take vengeance on my husband, the Nawkhidha, who trapped my father so he could steal me from Salim. Deliver me from Salim’s killer.’ ”
“But she didn’t say anything about you, O sea. I understood from her that her father was in debt to the Nawkhidha and when he defaulted, the Nawkhidha asked for Salma. He got what he wanted.”
A Birth on a Night of Love
I listened in fascination as the palm tree spoke to the sea with such pain and sadness. I was determined to listen until the end. The palm tree said to the sea: “I’ll tell you a secret. I beg you to keep it between your folds and never cast it upon the shore.”
After regaining his calm and resting at the feet of the palm tree, the sea said: “Tell me, for if it were not for you I would know nothing of this land.”
“In their comings and goings – I mean Salma and Salim – they were always innocent in their affections for each other but . . . Things unfolded according to the will of the day and as their tender passions desired. I shall tell you what happened one night. The sky was clear and a smiling moon shone, but Salma was distracted and sad. As for Salim, he was angry but in his heart desire burned.
“He said to her: ‘You’re so beautiful, Salma, like the moon, and sad like this lonely palm tree in the desert.’ She blushed and her eyelids fluttered: ‘Let me look into your eyes and dream of the stars that shine in a sky other than our own.’
“He grasped her fingers longingly; their bodies shuddered, they forgot themselves and fell to the ground. She bore him a child who she named Saeed, as I heard from her later. Salma was proud of him and remembered that night happily, until Salim left for you, never to return, and she died of grief.
The Palm Tree Reads the Days
“Those were wonderful days despite the toil and the hardship. I loved Salma and Salim very much because the love they shared was like my love for the soil and the earth that embraces my roots in perpetual warmth. But today, O sea, I’ve become afraid. I don’t get a wink of sleep and my mind is never at ease. The times of ease and peace have gone.”
The sea asked the palm tree what she meant, giving her his full attention in his desire to understand.
The palm tree said to the sea: “The land was once full of palm trees and fruit even though it was almost parched with drought. Then in the space of a few years, which passed like lightning, I found myself alone. These two lovers provided the only relief from my misery but they soon departed with the palm trees that went to the belly of death. Ruin and dismay befell us suddenly.”
“From where, O palm tree, and how?” asked the sea.
“They found a lot of oil in you.”
The sea roared in protest: “It benefits people and does no harm.”
“It benefits those who are able to benefit from it.”
Then, after a period of silence, in which I could hear only the sea breeze and the sound of my own breathing, the palm tree said: “I only came to talk to you today so that you would preserve and reflect. You’re strong, O sea; they can’t kill you like they killed us. My heart is broken from sadness for Salma and Salim. The most painful thing in all this is that their son, Saeed, became a stranger. I don’t know him or where he is. They say he lives in the city, but it is difficult to become acquainted with him. He has lost many things.
“I know I’ve kept you a long time and perhaps I’ve caused you some sadness. I’ll say goodbye now and if I do not return to you again, then know that I have caught up with the world of Salma and Salim. I implore you to keep what I have told you secret forever.”
Then the palm tree began to shake her roots violently (perhaps she wept) until she was exhausted and became still.
A Word before the Epilogue
Now, after I’ve told my story, allow me to introduce myself. I am a young man who works as clerk and earns a regular income. I live alone in a noisy neighbourhood inhabited by Indians, Pakistanis, Koreans and others whose nationalities I do not know. My life was easy. When I finished work I’d sleep for hours in the afternoon; and at night, I’d stay awake into the early morning with a group of friends united by circumstance alone. I thought about getting married but my financial situation prevented me. So I decided to remain single and enjoy my solitude, untroubled until I eavesdropped on the palm tree one night and its talk began to trouble my heart and mind. I remember the palm tree cried and knew that I’d heard her tale and made me give my word never to tell anyone. But her words tormented me until I could no longer keep them to myself, and here I am. Perhaps it troubles you too, now that you know what I know. The secret was never destined to be kept, contrary to what the palm tree imagined.
But what I didn’t understand was the palm tree’s fear, even if these days, whenever I see a healthy palm tree, her fear makes me uneasy. One night, when I stood on the shore, I saw flames sending out their light from the deep, dark sea, as though a dragon had opened it jaws and breathed fire. I wondered: Could it be the reason? And is the sea poisoned like the land?
The Son Who Found Himself and Cried Out in Protest
Before I finish the story of what I heard, allow me to tell you what happened to me:
One night, I emerged inebriated from one of those poisoned places, which I’d began to frequent in recent times to escape from my loneliness and fear, and to search of that thing which troubled my doubt-ridden mind. I know this wasn’t the best way to go about it but it consumed me until I almost lost the warmth of certainty in my being. That night I searched people’s faces; I searched for myself. Their faces were strange and their voices sounded hollow, like the rattling of a tin can. Suddenly, the words of the palm tree came back to me and I realised something: I am Saeed! Saeed who was conceived on a tender, moonlit night of love beneath the palm tree; Saeed the sad and solitary hero! I set off running towards the sea in search of her. The palm tree. I didn’t find her. So her prophecy had come true, after all.
Observation: “I should have written this Afterword a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years or more after writing this story.” Abdul Hamid . . . The grandmother sat telling a story to the children who listened in rapt attention:
“Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a people who built a glorious civilisation in their land. It was a land of great abundance for long years but it was the dangers within to which they succumbed before those from outside. Corruption burrowed into its enormous edifice like woodworm into a tree trunk. When the first strike came from outside it collapsed and was reduced to ruins, to become a shrine and a mourning place.”
Here one of the children shouted, interrupting her: “Didn’t a mother say to her child when collapse was near: ‘Mourn, like the women, for a land that you did not protect like men.’ That’s what they teach us in school, if it’s the same story, grandma.”
The grandmother said: “If you already know the story then go to bed, and tomorrow I’ll tell you one you don’t know.”
The children yawned and the grandmother fell silent.
The next night she sat with the children around her as usual. She told them: “You might believe the palm tree spoke or you might not, but that same day the palm tree told a tale to the sea, which I’ll tell you so that you, in turn, may tell it to your friends.”
The children shouted with renewed enthusiasm: “Tell us dear grandmother . . . Go on.”
The grandmother said: “Once upon a time there was a solitary palm tree. On a moonless, starless night it leaned towards the sea.
The palm tree said to the sea . . .”