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Translated by Sophia Vasalou
Let me reveal to you the way I felt about you before I even knew you, from the moment I first heard the sound of your voice. This was – as I have mentioned, and as you could never remember – on the 21st of December 2002, when your warm voice lit up the candles that had long been extinguished within me and threw open the windows that ushered fresh air into my lungs, dispelling the clouds of stifling smoke that had resided in my breast for years. I didn’t know your name; I hadn’t the slightest idea what you looked like; but there was a tone in your voice that I could have discerned amongst a thousand other voices – just as my mother taught me. I had never believed in love at first sight, but it seems I had fallen in love at first sound.
At first, I managed to convince myself that what I was experiencing was simply a result of the solitude and sadness I had been plunged in ever since my mother had died and left me an orphan. Because I couldn’t understand why else I was opening the windows and doors of my soul to you, offering you a paved access to my inner fortress upon the merest sound of your voice. Was I in love with your voice? I couldn’t say. I felt a strange urge to listen to it. Harbingers of love? I was unsure, for the gates of my castle had not swung open to any girl before you – as they did not do so again, sadly, after you.
I pick up a pen and write things you will never read. I address my question to a stem, which once held a red rose that you had given me for no special reason and which still stands on my desk, inside a glass box: “Does she hate me?” The stem gives a smile as wan as itself and answers with a question: “Do you still love her?”
“No, no – I hate her.”
“Would you swear to that?”
I keep silent.
“Go on, swear by her ‘precious head’ as you always used to.”
No: I will not swear false oaths upon your head. I do not wish to be the cause of your death. I still feel regret for the crime I committed against my father – a crime you knew nothing about. All you knew was that I was the son of Dawoud Abdel Aziz, who died a martyr’s death.
“How was he killed? Why?” You asked me one day to tell you more about his death; you were taking an interest in my father at the time. I told you that my father was a member of the resistance. This much you knew. He was a rare breed of man: a gentle lamb with his wife and young cub, and a fierce beast of prey with greedy hyenas. He killed many of them and he refused to flee, staying behind to defend his lair with his fellow lions. The situation was deteriorating across the country. During the daytime, he continued working at a bakery, baking bread and slipping pamphlets in between the loaves. At night, he would carry out the operations he'd been assigned. The hyenas were his only target. He killed many of them and sowed fear among their ranks. But the hyenas’ cupidity – their thirst for murder and torture, for terrorising women and children, for pulling out nails and tearing out men’s beards, for hanging women by their breasts from prison fans, for raping and defiling – did not let up.
At that point you interrupted me with cries of: “That’s enough! That’s enough please!”
But I didn’t stop, I pressed on like someone trying to cover up his crime: “The idea of rape was unthinkable for the lion. He bared his teeth and flexed his claws: no hyena will lay hands on my wife. He went on killing, ripping them to shreds. And yet the hyenas went on profaning everything that was holy.
At that point he decided to take us out of Kuwait.
“Pack up your bags, Umm Abdel Aziz.”
“Where are we going?”
“What? And what about Kuwait?”
“I will take you out and come back to fight by my brothers’ side.”
That was what I had told you about my father. It pleased me to see how touched you were, to see the tears in your eyes; because I had managed to keep the truth hidden from you on that occasion.
At the time, I did not tell you that I was the one who killed martyr Dawoud Abdel Aziz, or who was the cause behind the great man's death. I ended my story with his death at the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, after the vile hyenas spotted his name on a list of wanted criminals following an altercation between the lion and a number of those greedy hyenas, whose filthy drool had dampened the earth and sullied its purity. What you did not know was that one of those hyenas turned his weapon on the head of the young cub as its father kneeled before it in chains, tears of anger silently streaming from his eyes, and as its mother stood by muttering Qur’anic verses and feigning fortitude so as not to break the lion’s heart.
“Are you the son of the great man?”
“Yes . . .” I replied in a whisper.
The hyenas exploded into peals of laughter, spraying drops of their foul-smelling saliva all over my small face.
“Good for you,” the man with the yellow teeth went on. “Now tell me: who else is working with your father in the resistance?”
I said nothing.
“Speak up, you little shit.”
“I d-d-don’t know.”
“How old are you, you scumbag?”
“Can you believe it? People your size carry weapons and go to war, and you can’t even string a sentence together!”
“Speak up, you son of a bitch.”
“Speak up, pig.”
“I don’t know . . . I swear by God.”
“You take oaths in God’s name, do you, you little rat,?”
“I swear by God, I don’t know anyone.” (And I did know the names of some of the greatest figures at the time.)
“Swear by your father’s head, you piece of filth.”
At that, I turned to look at my father, who had always admonished me, “Swear your oaths in God’s name, my son, for we are His servants. Don’t swear in any other name than God’s. Don’t make anyone else equal to God.” But this time his eyes were telling me: don’t swear falsely in God’s name – swear by my head, my boy; swear by my head, my little cub.
“I-I swear by my father’s head – ”
At that moment a bullet ripped through the air and pierced my father’s head – the head of the father I had sworn a false oath on, thereby causing his death.
So can I swear I hate you? Can I swear a false oath on your head, and be the cause of your death?
Even as the fires were raging within me, I seemed like a block of ice in your eyes. A strange feeling for you swept over me. I kept it to myself and didn’t declare it at first, not out of a desire to keep it secret, but because there was no-one else I knew to whom I could declare what I felt. I turned my back on the written word for several days – something I had never been able to do before. My need for the written word is in every way like the human need for oxygen: I breathe words, I inhale them from books with a deep breath that fills my lungs, then I exhale them onto paper using my pen. The written word is everything to me; if I’m not reading, I’m writing, and if I’m giving my fingers rest from the labours of writing, it is only to wear my eyes out with reading. That night, however, my thoughts were in a muddle, and I couldn’t focus. The written word forsook me, and instead new spoken words occupied my being. “Sorry – by mistake – sorry – by mistake – sorry – by mistake.” Had your message really been a mistake? And had I also prepared the space by mistake, putting it in order and dusting it out for its new occupant?
And why not? For everything around me, after all, had happened by mistake. My mother had died on that bed in the intensive care facility – a facility that was in need of care itself, at a run-down hospital that needed another hospital to nurse it back to health. Weren’t there a few too many causes of death listed in the medical report? High blood pressure led to the heart receiving an insufficient supply of blood and oxygen, which led to blockage of the coronary artery, cardiac necrosis and cessation of heartbeat. Inscribed on that yellow paper, I found a multitude of causes and illnesses that my mother had not been suffering from. Heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol – and a long litany of other ailments bearing names like arcane magic signs legible only to a select few. The truth was that my mother’s death had had a single cause: it had been an accidental death. His rosary beads nearly at an end, the doctor had given the wrong diagnosis; he had picked up the piece of paper and rapidly scribbled out the names of some medicaments. Never mind whether they were suited to my mother’s condition: what mattered was that they suited the amount of time he had left on his shift. He picked up the pen and wrote out the prescription using the fewest possible letters in the names, so that he could make it to his rent-free accommodation in good time and have lunch with his family, despite the fact that sick people were dying in the hospital due to his negligence.
Hadn’t my father died at my feet because of a mistake I made? For, had I sworn by my small head, that is what the bullet would have pierced instead of the head of my father, exiting through his right eye, leaving him dead on the spot before he'd had the chance to roar like a triumphant lion who’d reclaimed its lair.
Weren’t we driven out of Paradise as the result of a mistake made by Adam, God’s peace be upon him? So, if we are living on this earth right now, it is by mistake.
May God grant me forgiveness – absolve me, Lord; absolve me, Father. I shall repeat the words you taught me as a child: “God disposes and God acts as He wills – may God grant me pardon.”
Everything is over, and yet here I am, still revisiting the past and wondering: had the message really been a mistake? No, it hadn’t; even if life was nothing but a collection of mistakes, your message had certainly not been one of them. For, what had made you hold on to my telephone number once my mission had been completed at the doorstep of your house, and your father had pronounced the words “Thank you, my son”? Yes, I remember, one day you told me that you had been watching me from the window of your room as I handed your mobile to your father. You were struck by my self-confidence as I exchanged words with him. What self-confidence you were referring to, given what you later learned about me, I have no idea. You told me your father was impressed with me and my manner, and more importantly, you said he was even more deeply impressed once I had told him my name: Abel Aziz Dawoud Abdel Aziz, son of the martyr, son of the great hero. And you also mentioned that your father knew a lot about my father and about his role during the occupation; which was something he had also said to me on that day. He was going on about my father’s acts of valour, while I was reading the features of his face and asking myself: “The writing on this man seems familiar; I feel I’ve read this book before. Where have I met this man?”
I still remember how that kind-hearted man shook my hand again, with greater warmth this time, after he had asked me my name and heard my answer. A look of amazement appeared on his face. He raised his eyebrows, which were heavy with the skin of many years. He took a couple of steps back, and then knit his eyebrows, contracting them until the space between his eyes and his eyebrows disappeared. He examined my face carefully, as if he was trying to get something straight. The space between his eyes and his eyebrows lengthened, and then he repeated several times: “God’s world is full of surprises, full of surprises – God preserve the great hero’s son – it’s a small world. Your father defended Kuwait with heroic courage and laid down his life for this land; he played a tremendous role during the occupation.” He ended his words with an invocation that ripped me to bits: “I trust in God to punish whoever caused it. May God take His revenge on him!”
Was it me he had in mind? Was that invocation the cause of my present unhappiness? Was he calling upon God to take His revenge against me? I don’t consider it wholly impossible, even if his invocation was a mistake, as is the way with all those mistakes that force themselves into my life.
This is what I was thinking.
I continued to burn in my fire, whose heat you didn’t feel, and whose smoke you didn’t breathe. I wanted to know more about the author of that message. It wasn’t love, as I had imagined. It was something different, which I couldn’t identify; I don’t think it was curiosity, but your voice might have had something to do with it. Yes, the reason lay in your magical voice, that voice that reminds me of Orpheus and the lyre – I believe you remember it well, that story, for it was you who related this Greek myth to me.
Orpheus had a lyre, and on this lyre he would play songs of such exquisite sweetness as to make the stones melt. The moment he started strumming his lyre, the trees in the forest would begin to tremble with rapture, the animals would sway, and the birds would beat their wings in unprecedented joy. Do you remember that story? Do you remember how I used to listen to you and your stories before falling asleep?
“Hello? Abdel Aziz! Are you still with me?”
“I’m here – go on, Reem.”
“You’ve gone to sleep!”
“No, I’m listening to you.”
“What’s the name of the hero of the story?”
“Orpheus. Stop it, Reem. Please go on.”
“All right, then. Orpheus loved a girl called Eurydice. He loved her to the point of distraction, and she likewise. One day, while Eurydice was walking deep in the forest, she stepped on a snake. The snake bit her. Her agony did not last long, and she died.”
“And what happened to Orpheus?”
“After Eurydice’s death, everything changed in the forest. Orpheus began to roam through the forest playing mournful songs that threw everything around him into a state of wild grief. The animals and the birds began to follow him in silence as if they formed part of Eurydice’s funeral procession. When life grew unbearable for Orpheus after the death of his beloved, he decided to visit her in the underworld, which the living are barred from. In his journey to the underworld he encountered many difficulties, which he overcame by playing on his lyre; neither the guards nor the savage beasts could prevent him from reaching his destination once they had been exposed to his heart-meltingly sweet music. He crossed the river of death and came to Hades, the god of the underworld, who at first refused to return Eurydice to him; but no sooner had that hard-hearted god heard Orpheus’ doleful strains that his heart grew soft and he granted his wish.”
The myth had an unbelievable ending. Hades asked Orpheus to return to his world and to refrain from turning around during his journey, because Eurydice would be walking behind him on her way to the world of the living, and Orpheus was not allowed to see her in her altered form before she had emerged from the land of the dead. As he walked, he heard the sound of her footsteps behind him. More than once, he stopped short, feeling the urge to reassure himself that it she was really following him, but he would remember the condition and forge ahead, resisting his temptation to behold his beloved. As soon as he had crossed the gate separating the two worlds and had set foot in the land of the living, he turned to face Eurydice, but at that moment, she had not yet made it past the gate, and was still a few steps away from the land of the living. He stretched out his hand – but she disappeared, never to return.
Your voice had an effect that drew me to you without any conscious awareness on my part. It was a magic not unlike the one produced by Orpheus’ lyre in the Greek myth. Talking on the phone with you one day, I told you: “Your voice is like Spring; the moment you start talking, the world goes off kilter. Winter melts into the arms of Summer, and Summer freezes in the arms of Winter. Autumn dies away between the two, and the only thing that remains is Spring. The sun shines at midnight, and puts the darkness to the sword. Flowers bloom on the icy surface of the earth, and white turns to different shades of green.” This description made you happy, and it made me happy to be able to express truthfully what I felt.
The common denominator between us in the beginning was fire. The fire that had melted me down and poured me into the mould of madness at the merest sound of your voice, and the fire you would spit out angrily like a riled dragon, the fire that was burning within you – the fire of your pride, which I injured by what you perceived as my standoffish attitude and indifference.
Wednesday evening, I was sitting alone in that restaurant, looking like someone who wasn’t in his right mind; book in hand, hiding the trembling of my fingers between its pages, I was searching for the girl who had no form in my imagination. My search lasted an hour and a half in that welter of voices. I was using the method for analysing and comparing voices that I had learnt from my mother, but my ears failed to pick up your spring-like voice. All I could make out was the sound of a young guy sneeringly asking his friends at the neighbouring table: “Does the fellow think he’s in a public library or something?”
I feel alienated from the people around me; a vast gulf stretches between us, and there are barriers that make it difficult for me to reach out to people, to feel their presence, and to think as they do. Even though most of the people there were around my age, we had absolutely nothing in common. The guys with their trendy eye-catching clothes, the girls with full-on makeup – the whole restaurant was like a catwalk, the smell of perfume outperforming the smell of food. All the young guys cared about was to get one of the girls to look at them, and all I cared about was the sense of emptiness in the people around me.
I asked for the bill.
I went back to my little world to find the cloud awaiting me. I threw myself into its arms, unable to see anything but you, and unable to hear anything but your words. “Good evening” – yes, it was an evening full of good, one in which I laid eyes on the most beautiful face in existence after my mother’s face had disappeared. “I was lucky my phone fell into the hands of an honest person” – it is rather I who kisses the hand of luck for placing you in my path. “It was a happy accident” – yes, that it was; and you were the reason why it was happy, and why I was. Then I succumbed to sleep on top of the cloud to the sound of Orpheus’ strains, before I had heard his story and how things ended with Eurydice.
Sleeping on top of the cloud was a different experience: never-ending happy dreams, a constant smile on one’s lips. I can’t remember how many days these dreams went on for, but on the 1st of January – midnight had just struck – I remember suddenly waking up to the sound of a new text message :
Happy New Year 2003 :)
I felt that the start of this year augured well; it was as if I had found the person who would rescue me from the grip of my loneliness. I had the sense, at the time, that hope occupies large tracts of our hearts, which we become blind to when we surrender to despair. I had not learnt from my mother that “Hope in God lives on,” as she always used to say, and it was she who had almost learnt from me how to let pessimism trump anything positive.
One day during the occupation, I remember lying on one of the couches in the living room in front of the TV; my mother was playing with my hair like she used to whenever my small head rested against her thigh. She was worried about my father, who had gone out at a time when the so-called deputy interior minister, lieutenant colonel Ali Husayn Ali, had ordered a curfew between 7 pm and 6 am starting the 6th of August. All my attention was focused on my head, where my mother’s fingers were sinking into my thick hair, pressing down on my scalp with their tips. Sleep began to knock on the door of my eyes. My eyelids grew heavy and my lower lip drooped, but before the thin trail of saliva had had a chance to form at the corner of my mouth, heralding my entry into the world of sleep, on the screen before me appeared a man whose voice scattered the clouds of security that I had been enjoying. His keffiyeh made it clear that he didn’t come from our country; the agal holding it in place was irritably perched over his head as if it knew it was in a foreign land. His nose was pointed like a beak, and his thick brown moustache had grown over his upper lip to cover part of the lower. “Mummy, that guy looks scary,” I said to my mother.
“Hush – let me listen.”
“The wheels of history will not turn back. Kuwait and Iraq form a single entity whose common destiny has been decided.”
“Mummy, will Kuwait ever belong to the Kuwaitis again?”
“It will, my son, God willing. The darkness will lift and the sun will cast its warm rays on the houses and the streets as it used to.”
“When? When will that happen?”
“I don’t know, Abdel Aziz, but hope in God lives on.”
“What does that mean?”
“You see the darkness?” She said, pointing to the window.
“What comes after it?”
“So even if the sun disappears, it must always shine again.”
“But even if the sun shines, it must always set again.”
My mother fell silent. Unconsciously, her fingers tugged sharply at my hair. “Ouch!”
My negative way of looking at things came to me naturally. Pessimism continued to be my inseparable companion. I lost my father and my mother. I lost my childhood and my self-confidence; I lost the most beautiful days of my life, along with my hope that happy days would follow. But after I got your message, I decided to rediscover my self-confidence, and this, in fact, is what happened. I prepared myself for a new year that would be different from all the years of loneliness and pain that had gone before. I tried to coax smiles into renewing their friendship with my lips. I succeeded, and my lips acquired a new habit, having hitherto known only the habit of kissing pictures of my mother whenever I missed her. That year you became my medicine, which I became addicted to until it finally killed me. You became the air I breathed until I almost died from asphyxiation; I would hold my breath because it was part of my love for you, which I refused to expel from my innermost being. That year you came to repair the edifice of love, which was on the verge of collapsing. Ever since I was a child, my heart had been large enough for two people. During the first years of my life, my love for my parents occupied all the space in my heart. I lost my father for the good of Kuwait, and I acquired the love of Kuwait – my father’s death instilled it in me – and my heart came to belong to Kuwait and to my mother. I lost my mother and Kuwait was left all alone in my heart, in need of someone who would share its solitude in the sprawling expanses of my heart; then you came along, to rebuild the pillar that my mother’s death had knocked down and to bolster the edifice of love, which had stubbornly endured throughout the years, propped up by that single pillar. After reading that message, I wished I could dissolve myself into letters and recompose myself to form words of love that I could send you across the air, so they could reach your phone, and then your heart. Clambering up the ladder of courage, I wrote:
To: Reem Sultan
It will be a very happy year for me no doubt.
Wishing you all the best.
And this is how, during the first three days of the new year, my life came to consist of a succession of incoming and outgoing messages. I would send the overflow of my storming emotions, and would receive in return lines that would render them wilder, more frenzied, more insane. From the outside, they seemed like ordinary messages; from the inside they were full of madness, concealing messages you didn’t understand. Throughout this time, you were imagining that I would take the initiative to call. Yes, I was supposed to take that initiative as an oriental man, or as any man from anywhere else in the world, but I belong neither to the East nor to any other direction in this world, in fact I don’t belong to this world at all, I come from a world where there is neither East nor West, I come from a world that has no sun to rise in the East and set on the opposite side, a world whose cardinal directions are different from yours, a world in which East is remembrance and West is longing, North is heartache and South is regret, a world without seasons and years, where tears fall from the sky onto an earth smouldering with anger against the times, only to evaporate and reform into clouds , and then rain tears down, again and again and again.
You had a certain boldness, or daring. You took the initiative to call, as no girl ever does. I thought you came from a different world, just like me, and that we had landed on this planet in our spaceships by accident, to meet in a space and time that do not resemble the space and time in our own worlds. That night, I sat up listening to the singer Najat al-Saghira*, whose voice imparted a bit of warmth to my cold room. The phone rang; it was you. I turned down the sound of Najat – I turned it down, I didn’t turn it off.
I don’t remember what the first moments were like, but I was finding it hard to take in what you were saying on account of the bewitching music that accompanied your words. Washed away by the sweet melody of your words, I couldn’t understand their meaning. But I can recall the highlights of that conversation, in which we began getting to know one another. That day, I discovered you were a university student, that you relished reading old stories, particularly mythology – legends from India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Greek myths that I later grew to love because of you. I found out the year and day you were born. I found out you adored flowers, particularly “lilies,” as you would say in your perfect English. I learned about the music you listened to, the films you liked watching, what you loved and what you hated – though I had my doubts that someone with a voice like yours could really know the meaning of hate. In that conversation, you threw the windows of your heart wide open; you talked about how unhappy you were that your parents and siblings ignored you, as the youngest of the family, and you said more than once that all you dreamt about was for the rest of your family to become aware of your existence and to show you they loved and cared about you.
When you asked me about myself, I told you I was working, and that I was twenty-five. I was married to my life as an orphan, and I lived in a big house where I occupied a single small room. I loved reading novels and poetry and watching films. You asked me what music I enjoyed listening to the most. I had no consideration for Najat that night. I said to you without a moment’s thought: “The music of your voice.”
The sunshine disappeared from the conversation for a few moments, and a still silent darkness descended in its place. Suddenly I heard blood-curdling shrieks coming from one of the corners of my room. They were hysterical shrieks mixed with fits of crying and frightful laughter. Loneliness was stretched out on the floor on its back. It was rising up in the air and then thudding back to the ground, and shrieking in a snake-like hiss: “Quit that – stop it – I’m burning – oh – ”
The spectacle frightened me out of my wits. It was as though I was watching a demon on fire being exorcised from a human body. While this was happening, Sadness was kissing my feet and pleading with me, “Please, please stop killing my sister, I beseech you – please stop this, father.”
I returned to my senses and suddenly returned to our telephone conversation. I was scared you would hear the shrieks of Loneliness and the pleas of Sadness. Before I realised what I was doing, I hung up. I turned my gaze to the corner of the room and found Loneliness staring at me angrily in a terrible silence while her breast heaved violently. Her eyes were warning me against repeating what I had just done. I was shivering in fear, until finally Sadness put its arms around me and fell asleep on my chest.
After that night, I tried to call you, but the threats of Loneliness, the pleas of Sadness, and the shackles of my diffidence made it impossible. I waited until the next day, hoping you would call back, but you didn’t. I recollected that the 5th of January was your birthday, as you had mentioned in our conversation, which had taken place on the 3rd of that same month. The next day, I went to a florist to pick out the biggest and most expensive bouquet available, and I asked the owner to use exclusively the lilies you love so much. Eighteen lilies, one for every year of your life. I made a point of not including any red lilies, so as not to reveal my feelings too quickly – as if I was not already moving too quickly with everything I was doing! I took a card and wrote: “Happy birthday Reem – January 5, 2003.”
I hesitated over what name to sign the card with, because I didn’t know who would come to the door to receive the flowers. I thought of leaving the space for the sender blank, but it’s no good receiving flowers unless one knows who has sent them; flowers become even more fragrant, beautiful, and resplendent when they bear the spirit of the sender. And so I consented to an idea that my state of mad ferment had suggested to me, and signed the card with the girl’s name “Aziza”.
I instructed the florist to deliver the bouquet to your house on the designated day, and I spent the day wandering through the streets and waiting for you to call, far away from my small room so that my evil daughter would not get wind of anything.
That whole day, you neither called nor messaged me. I returned to my world to be welcomed back by Loneliness, which pointed to the bed where Sadness lay as if ordering me to go to sleep next to my small son, my great sadness. I opened a book but all I could see on its pages was your image, and all I could hear as the pages turned was your whispering, until finally the message arrived, incinerating part of my loneliness.
From: Reem Sultan
Thank you Aziza :P
I feigned sadness before my Loneliness even as my heart was dancing with joy, and then I succumbed to sleep.
After that, I didn’t take the initiative to send you any message that wouldn’t simply be a response to a message of yours. I would often compose messages – at work, in the car, in my small world. But at the last moment, I would hesitate and change my mind. I was waiting for my phone to ring and announce the arrival of a new message the way one waits for the bell to ring in a boring class, so I could then write back to you. But after your last message of thanks, I didn’t get a single message or call from you for an entire week.
There have been many times in my short life when I have had to endure the arduousness of waiting. And I don’t know what exactly the connection is between my experience of waiting and the number seven in particular. We waited seven terror-stricken days for my father to be released after he refused to reveal the name of the person who had carried out the “Free Men’s Operation,” which had blown up one of the largest buildings the enemy had exploited for the execution of their schemes. My mother and I and the rest of the Kuwaiti people waited seven months for the land we had been despoiled of to be returned to us. After my father’s death, my mother waited seven years for the Angel of Death to send her after him. I spent seven hours outside the intensive care room before my mother’s doctor came out and said: “God alone is everlasting.” After your eighteenth birthday, I waited for a call or message from you for seven whole days that were longer than time itself. And in the end, I would send you my wishes for your birthday and wait seven months for you to return the courtesy on my birthday.
It was as if I had gone crazy – I had gone crazy, a crazy person with eyes helplessly glued to the screen of the phone. And yet for all my longing and waiting, I was unable to send you a single message. I tried to shake myself free from the shackles of my weakness. I wrote many words, but I was too weak to press “send.” I spent a lot of time thinking and trying to understand why you had grown distant. Had her parents found out about the flowers? Had this gesture killed it off for her? Surely not, surely flowers can’t kill, however many thorns they might carry.
On the seventh day, I decide to kill the wait before it killed what remained of my sanity. If only it would muster the force to kill me so I could be with my mother and father again, over there in the faraway world. But waiting never kills people, it only kills their minds or leads them to paralysis; so that we then live a long life in which all we can think about is the return of what we’re waiting for.
The rivers of my patience ran dry; I picked up my phone and wrote:
To: Reem Sultan
I’ve missed you, Reem
Less than a minute later, the reply came.
From: Reem Sultan
Well . . . why don’t you call?
And suddenly, a third hand appeared before me – I think it was the hand of Longing. It picked up the phone, dialled your number and put the receiver against my ear.
The winds of longing were blowing wildly in my heart, and the floods of desire almost swept my hesitation and shyness aside, casting them onto the banks of the river of love. I wanted to carve open a direct channel to your heart, through which I could pour in the torrent of my feelings and calm the floods and storms raging within me. I would tell you how much I had suffered during this week-long wait. I would describe how much pain your aloofness had caused me. I would talk and talk, till there was no breath left in my lungs and words had become an inexhaustible spring in my heart. Yet I found my voice stretched out on the bed beside me in a state of deep sleep the very moment your magical voice came whisperingly over: “Good evening.”
After a week of longing and waiting, that phrase was sufficient to force my tears above the dam the waiting period had erected over my eyes. I was so weak. I wanted to cry, but the laws of the part of the planet we live in do not permit a man to do that, even if this man happens to come from a different world.
You were talking, you were strumming chords, you were singing – I don’t know what you were doing in that phone conversation, but I was listening in silence. You told me you had stopped calling me and sending me messages because you had felt you were being a nuisance. I interrupted you at once: “Not at all! No way!” You insisted your messages were getting on my nerves, and the surest proof, you claimed, was that I had never taken the initiative to call or message you. You were right; to you I looked like someone uninvolved and lacking interest. I tried to explain that I came from a different world, but I was worried you might think I was mad. I tried to explain I was bound by shackles of diffidence, but I was worried that I would tumble down a high mountain to find your eyes looking disdainfully upon me from the summit. You made things easier when you said: “Do you know what I like about you, Abdel Aziz?”
I was silent.
“I feel you’re different – you’re a man who comes from a world that has nothing to do with this one.”
I was pleased with your conclusion that day, as it lifted a heavy burden off my shoulders. But I didn’t ask you how you had realised I was different, and whom you had compared me to in order to reach this accurate conclusion.
We talked a lot, there was hardly a topic we didn’t touch on, and the most important thing that came up in that conversation was what I found out about my father. I was amazed by how many things you knew about him – you knew things about Dawoud Abdel Aziz that even I wasn’t aware of. When I asked you how you knew all this when I didn’t, you told me you had heard it from your father.
“Did he know my father personally?”
“Abdel Aziz! Are you serious? Haven’t you seen the programme ‘Heroes From My Country’?”
“Of course I have. It came out in August 1998, and I still have a copy of the episode that was about my father’s activities during the occupation.”
“Who was the witness to the events in that episode?”
“It was Sultan – Sultan Saif! The person who had carried out the ‘Free Men’s Operation’ – of course – now I realise where I’d seen your father before – it was in that series. Your father was a friend of my father’s, God have mercy on his soul – of course, of course, now I remember.”
What a small world we live in!
It was only after that conversation that I realised why your father had shown such interest in me after I told him my name that day. Talking transported us back in time, when I was nine and you were six and we knew nothing about our fathers’ heroic work. You told me the reason for my father’s arrest had been his relationship with your father, Sultan Saif, who had carried out the biggest explosive strike in that period. You told me your father owed his life to my father, who refused to disclose his name despite the different forms of torture the invaders used. You also told me you that your father had told you about the time when I almost got my father arrested again when I wrote “Long live Kuwait, long live Baba Jaber” on the outside wall of our house. “Where did you find the pluck to do that,” you wondered at the time, “a mere nine-year-old child?” I couldn’t answer, for I too needed someone who could explain that to me. I think what I had was the courage young cubs have when their lion fathers are still alive. Yes, every ounce of courage I had died after I lost my father, after I lost my faith in justice. I couldn’t accept that a brave lion could die at the hands of a cowardly hyena that gets its power by staging mob attacks; for had that hyena been alone, it would never have managed to inflict the slightest wound on the angered lion.
I had always loved my father; and I loved him more and more through you. He left the world a happy man, no doubt; he went away knowing that God Almighty had given him the means for granting life to many other people. In that conversation, you told me the story of my father and Ahlam, that girl who was almost raped by the hyenas right before the eyes of her old father and her brother Youssef, who died from a heart attack while he was tied up – he died from the wounds dealt to his honour by those filthy hyenas. You told me that Youssef was a member of the resistance and a friend of my father’s. My father found out that the hungry hyenas were heading for Youssef’s house in order to arrest him after forcing him to confess, using the vilest and most sordid means of psychological torture. For when they had thrown his sister to the ground in front of him and his old father, when they had stripped her of her clothes, Youssef could no longer restrain himself; his whole body went into a shudder and his hair stood on edge faced with that horrific spectacle. “I confess,” he cried out, “I confess, I’m a member of the resistance, I confess to all the charges brought against me, only stop what you’re doing.”
“You’ll be telling us everything we want to know once we’ve had a bit of fun with this pretty lass.”
Youssef gave a final cry that shook the walls of the house and then dropped dead on the spot, his glassy eyes turned to the door through which my father entered to start shooting those vile hyenas, leaving the walls of Youssef’s house and Ahlam’s naked body besmirched with their foul blood. He completed his task and then rushed out of the house, but he did not escape the fire of the soldiers who were deployed outside, and who would have taken him captive had it not been for the grace and providence of God, and for the help of Sultan Saif, who drove him to our house in his car. That day, my father was wounded in the arm. I have a clear memory of him coming home drenched in blood. He didn’t tell us about Youssef and Ahlam – a story I first heard from you. My mother also refrained from asking about my father’s activities during that period. My father went into his room and my mother attended to him like an experienced doctor. She extracted the bullet – which I have kept to this day – from my father’s arm, and then cleaned and cauterised the wound. She was so strong. The love she felt for her husband did not prevent her from doing her duty toward her country, and she urged my father to press on with his defence of Kuwait.
“Watch your step at all times, don’t let yourself fall into their hands.”
My father smiled at her affectionately. “Are you worried about me?”
“I’m worried the larger group will lose its nerve if anything happens to their top man.”
“Pray for me, Noura.”
“God be with you, Dawoud.”Ahlam’s rescue was one of the noblest and most heroic things my father had done and the one that was closest to your heart, as you used to say. After telling me that story, you said to me: “You know, Abdel Aziz, I dream about a man who’d be as brave as Dawoud Abdel Aziz.” This kind of man, I replied to you at the time, had gone the way of dinosaurs and mammoths.
* Najat al-Saghira is a famous Egyptian singer
From the author’s novel Sijeen al-Maraya (Prisoner of Mirrors), published by Arab Scientific Publishers, Beirut 2012
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