Category Archives: Short Fiction

My friend has a story

My story on openDemocracy as part of the Gaza Voices column:

This isn’t my story. But it could have been, and it can be the story of any young Palestinian living in this small besieged part of the world. Only that it bears much more painful profundity being the story of that particular man who chose to be nicknamed “Awsaj”— the Arabic equivalent for Lycium, which is some kind of a thorny shrub that bears red berries and is used sometimes for hedging.

Awsaj is my new friend whom I have met only twice, the first meeting lasting for no more than a quarter of an hour at a mutual friend’s, and the second born out of my initiative to venture out southward to the far eastern areas of Khan Yunis near ‘the Green Line’ (a phrase which refers to the demarcation lines marking the lines between Israel and other territories including the Gaza Strip occupied by Israel in 1967). Awsaj is an intelligent human being. He is an angry young man with such a variety of contradictions which, though they can be seen almost everywhere in Gaza, would make any description of him sound like the figment of an eccentric writer’s imagination. To be painstakingly interested in perfumes, to hold a degree in IT studies, and to voraciously read such a fussy amalgam of Jubran Khalil Jibran, Edward Said, Karl Marx, and Marquez, these are all signs of a human being with an especially sophisticated interest. To be, on top of this, a self-sustaining farmer absolutely adds up to an unparalleled elegance.

We arrived at Awsaj’s farmland where, in perfectly farmer-like style, he was diligently ploughing the land with a shovel, and as we hailed him from a distance, he looked up, waved back to us, and wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of one hand, placed the shovel aside with the other, and walked in our direction to welcome us. “He can’t be a farmer,” I said to myself, “he’s trying to look like one!”

Soon he was chopping small pieces of wood to add to the small fire he had just built in order to make us some of his special manually-ground black coffee. I had already formed a considerable admiration for Awsaj, both inspired by and jealous of his exhaustive knowledge, his avidity for reading, his ardent passionate talk and angry criticism of almost everything. We shared several targets of scathing criticism. We were particularly sarcastic about “our” buffoon politicians. These, we agreed, are complete morons whose very presence in the positions they occupy is only a matter of fortune, or the arbitrariness of fate, or, as some would say, demonstrative of the injustice of this world, a world in which it is hard to believe there is any logic at work. It is their job to lead the “country” (a word we use almost always cynically) down the road into, well, the abyss. They are an untouchable gang; mostly silly, possibly educated but unquestionably unthinking, blinded by an absolute loyalty to the party they belong to. “Morons, indeed!” he sighed. They are of two sorts: the openly treacherous, base and self-interested collaborators and, most annoying, the completely delusional. Although they are one step away from, probably unknowingly, following the exact same steps as their lousy predecessors, they never stop indulging in self-aggrandizement and claiming the moral high ground and relentlessly bore you with their unexciting oratory. “You know what,” Awsaj told me, “I have no problem with the first kind of politician. It’s similar to working like a prostitute: although everyone else knows they are one, the prostitute is still okay, possibly even proud, about being one. As simple as that, my friend!”

He was unorthodoxly and harshly critical of parents as fosterers of hypocrisy, mental impotence, personal insecurity… Though at some point, a fiery debate erupted between us over his unwarranted criticism of how people’s relationships are no more governed by affection, care and mutual respect for the other, but rather largely dominated by private interests where, in the normal state of affairs, it should be presumed that hate pre-exists any human communication. Nevertheless, our personalities were largely drawn to each other, and Awsaj made such a favourable impression on all of us.

To be equipped with a critical mindset and a desire to learn and read is enough, at least in our eyes, to make someone worthy of being held in high esteem by their interlocutors. But that’s not the case in a local community that is concerned, first and foremost, with outward appearances and thus can be easily manipulated and mind-controlled, a society that no longer has the slightest appreciation for complaining, outspoken and ungovernable personalities, a society that is highly polarized in politics, social convention and religion and every other field of life, and a society that has no understanding, acceptance or tolerance for the other, or the different. “I am right, and everyone else is wrong. Things should be done my way. This is when victory will come your way. This is when you can liberate Palestine!” Awsaj furiously and succinctly reproduced this doctrine of fanaticism while we both continuously shook our heads in sympathetic agreement.

To have to face these things, however — or, more precisely, to tell yourself that you do — and to display, on top of that, some interest in politics, to steer most of your conversations toward politics in Palestine, essentially saying nothing about the conflict more than stating its most obvious facts (like, for example, ‘not every Jew is a Zionist!’), to always talk to your international ‘friends’ about how Palestinians are craving to live in peace and to simplistically speak of “peace”, time and again, as the solution to ending this conflict as though “peace” per se was not the problem in the first place and as if there actually was unanimous agreement on the meaning of the darned word. Moreover, to have the kuffiyeh wrapped around your neck or flung over your shoulders every now and then, and to stress to your interlocutors the fact that you run a blog, never mind how infrequently you update it or the sort of stuff you post on it, and you are then the very guy who is likely to be identified here as an activist, which is an appealing personality, largely regarded as a promising peace (and potential human rights) champion by roughly everyone working in the field here, particularly by a bunch of foreign journalists with whom you engage in seldom profound, political discussions and who you might win over, but by no means does your knowledge about Palestine, Israel or politics match theirs.

Awsaj is of this type, for which so little space has been left in our society. There is still something much more characteristically appealing about him, i.e. (what he boastfully dubbed) his wide-ranging experience and “history of struggle”. And out of this history, there is one specific experience which Awsaj found himself narrating to his guests that, listening to, we agreed must uniquely underlie this man’s personality, at which I insisted that it would not go unrecorded.

Almost every Palestinian must have been in direct contact with Israel, and by ‘Israel’ I mean Israel as it is referred to by ordinary Palestinians, the occupation and its actual manifestations, its war machine, the military establishment, its rogue army and every other Israeli atrocity it inflicts upon the Palestinians; and every Palestinian, therefore, must have been a direct victim of Israeli crimes. There is no such thing as an indirect victim within the context of the Israeli occupation and its ubiquitous oppression of the Palestinian people, being essentially a conflict between a state (i.e. Israel), on the one hand, and individuals (i.e. Palestinians) on the other. Israel as a state and in the above sense is an enemy of every Palestinian as an individual, as far as they are its direct victims. It’s no big deal therefore when I am told that this old man had spent twenty years in Israeli prisons; that this little boy’s parents were killed during Israel’s last airstrike in Gaza, this old woman’s son was assassinated by Israel in the 1980s; these two kids were traumatized during a night raid by heavily-armed Israeli soldiers in Nabi Saleh, or this student from Gaza has lost their scholarship because they were not allowed to travel, and so on and so forth…

The weighty significance of Awsaj’s experience, I believe, resides in the fact that it encloses within its narrative several Israeli actualities. Whereas most of the endless Palestinian encounters with Israel lose an extremely large share of their actual significance once the real encounter is over and is narrated time and again as a past experience, Awsaj’s experience seems to have acquired vitality and a renewed reality each time he has narrated it since. During his powerful narrative, Israel would borrow such a physical existence that it was no more an abstract entity but had become embodied in the Israeli soldier, the Israeli jeep, and the female officer’s broken Arabic phrases, the Bedouin collaborator, the scars across my friend’s back… The reason? It definitely lies somewhere in relation to Awsaj’s human passion and dramatic eloquence. During the course of his narration, Israel becomes one single intimidating and repulsively antagonistic entity that one will have to face with nothing but piles of pent-up anger and extreme hatred, both securing the last vestiges of their almost lost humanity.

The sun having sunk, we head towards our friend’s home, having already chatted for what seemed to be ages. Straight backed, we walk, gossip and whistle, leaving behind neatly-queued, graceful thyme saplings, four scattered coffee-soiled plastic cups, a dying fire, and several untold stories.

One Night in the Dark

Illustration by: Bissan Rafe Alhussien (Qasrawi)

I always believed to write is to “make less the dept of grief.” But it’s been long since I wrote down anything, and indeed I spent long and hard time attempting to convince myself that this latest recurring experience of mine isn’t any different and, like many other episodes in my life, can be recorded well.

There is no phrase in regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that I hate as much as that of “the suffering of both peoples”, “the fear both peoples have to go through”, “the trauma both peoples experience” and the like, usually made in places like the U.N. general assembly’s podiums, the International Court’s or even in the White House. Not that I care whether those neatly-suited, shiny-black-shoed politicians are neutral or one-sided— meaning pro-Israel because there are definitely no such politicians who are on the side of the Palestinians—  or whether they have the sort of genuine interest needed to solve this seemingly insoluble conflict. But considering the fact that I sometimes tend to be a little bit selfish, I hate that my personal suffering, let alone the suffering of 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza, be seriously sabotaged by such phrases once analogized, and hence diminished, to the state of fear felt by a few Israelis in the aftermath of firing often-homemade missiles onto Israel, occasionally not mistaking their target and falling into a huge deserted land in Israel and, once fallen, absolutely resulting in no casualties whatsoever except on very rare occasions.

However, the other day I was sitting in the heart of my pitch dark room, immersed in sweat and hemmed in by the wild hems of a few frenzied generators drifting through space and time and forcing their way into my head to crowd themselves into some little unengaged space of my racked brains meant to absorb the words neatly seated before my eyes onto the pages of The Diary of Anne Frank. I wiped sweat off my brows and continued reading. The unnerving hems of the generators swarmed into my brain like the throngs of mostly pale-faced short-tempered passengers with whom I was packed the other day in some little stuffy room, some puffing on their cigarettes, some fanning themselves with their official documents, all of us, however, waiting for our names to be called out to get a stamped ticket. Not that we were crossing into Egypt on that day but rather we were trying to ensure that, at least two months from that date, the time when our travelling has been scheduled, when we  go to travel through the Rafah crossing, we won’t be turned back, having already reserved a place to travel two months in advance. Anyway, my pains paid off, and I got my ticket. That experience is past.

In my room, meanwhile, I was engaged in my life-time struggle against the unforgiving oppression I had always failed to familiarize myself with. I was being normally punished for a misdemeanor I have never committed in the first place.

It seemed then all the suffering in the world combined into one I was bound to endure. I was the center of the world’s unfortunate beings. The Wretched of the Earth. I was a starving child in Somalia, a Syrian demonstrator shot in the neck in the streets of Hama, a pregnant mother dying at a checkpoint in Palestine, a besieged Palestinian schoolboy in Gaza helplessly sinking into the depths of despair. “But I can’t be that selfish,” I would think, “here is a guiltless Anne Frank in a wardrobe hiding from her imminent death at the hands of a Nazi officer. And she wouldn’t complain!”

But while Anna hid in her wardrobe, and Iona confided in his mare, I had neither a wardrobe nor a mare. Darkness is the only place where one can hide from the dark. I had nowhere to hide, and I had no one “to whom I can tell my grief”.

I always told myself, “had it not been for these eight cursed hours when power was cut off, I would have never complained.” But now my wrath had grown so immense to be curbed. My chest is now brimming with pent-up ages-old anger the causes for which, unlike their united implications on me, vary disparagingly. I was stifled. I was half-way through my desperate endeavors to stop myself from cursing the place where I have grown and become a man whose tongue can strikingly respond to the most abominable of curses— having already learned them in the aisles of the camp and furnished myself with a remarkable arsenal of phrases and swear words.

I picked up the candle and looked at the clock as it ticked time away. 10:15 pm. I guessed, “I still have two more hours ahead before the power is turned back on,”

I had to think of some way to while away these two hours. “I can do anything but leave myself to my besetting thoughts,” I murmured trying to break the had-it-not-been-for-the-generators silence. I knew if I did, I would be eventually be left with nothing but a pathetic state of gloom and hopelessness. I couldn’t afford a new strike of despair; it would take me ages to recover from it. Not even the beautifully resuscitating spectacle of our neon bulbs flickering back into life would relieve me this time.

I wanted to escape this gruesomely fiendish place. I was exhausted. My breaths grew fast and short. Sweat started to flood down my body. I didn’t want to think anymore. I desperately attempted to shut the omnipresent scene of the dark out of my mind. One more moment contemplation of the flowing endless succession of the generators’ revs would cast me straight into an abysmal void where all I could do then is but scream at the top of my lungs.

Putting out the candlelight, I groped my way through the dark as fast as my feet could carry me, straight and out of the room, rushing down the stairs until I was out in the street. I leaned against a wall, drew a deep breath, and uttered a vile curse.

In a display of utter disregard to the generators all around me, I walked on and on curiously exploring the street lamps and flashing car lights. My thoughts immediately wandered to the several “foreigners” I had met and their naive remarks  on living in Gaza. I thought wryly, “They don’t know a god damn thing about living in Gaza! Gaza is such an awful place to live in!”

No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than I ducked at the sound of a missile being fired from a neighboring area. I instantly cursed. I needed to get back home as quickly as I could, for I had no doubt what would follow. And in no time, possibly before the fired missile had even reached its target, a deafeningly F-16 bomb hit the area and shook the ground from below my feet. My heart skipped a beat; I cursed and longed for home.

Back home, still teetering on the edge of despair, I lied on my bed, and, indifferent to the dark, the generators’ noise, the clock’s ticking and the Apache’s hovering, I kept on cursing knowing that somehow I would eventually fall asleep and that this misery of mine will come to an end. Somehow.

My friend has a story…

"Montasiba al Qama" by Samih al Qasim; Photo by Salman al-Msjen

This isn’t my story. But it could have been, and it can be the story of any young Palestinian living in this small besieged part of the world. Only that it bears much more painful profundity being the story of that particular man who chose to be nicknamed “Awsaj”—the Arabic equivalent for Lycium which is “a thorny shrub bearing red berries, some kinds of which are used for hedging.”

Awsaj is my new friend whom I met only twice, the first meeting lasting for no more than a quarter of an hour at a mutual friend’s, and the second born out  of my initiative to venture out southward to the far eastern areas of Khan Yunis near “the green line.” He is an intelligent human being. Young, enthusiastic, and bright. Awsaj embraces such a variety of contradictions which, though can be seen almost everywhere in Gaza, would make this man’s description but a figment of an eccentric writer’s imagination. To be painstakingly interested in perfumes, to hold a degree in IT, and to voraciously read such a fussy amalgam of Jubran Khalil Jibran, Edward Said, and Karl Marx, these are all signs of a human being with a specially sophisticated interest. However, to work, besides this, as a farmer absolutely adds up to your  unparalleled elegance.

We arrived at Awsaj’s farmland where, in a farmer-like style, he was diligently plowing the land with a shovel, and as we hailed him from a distance, he looked up, waved back to us, and wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, he placed the shovel aside with the other, and walked in our direction to welcome us. “He can’t be a famer, he’s trying to look like one,” I said to myself.

As soon as he was chopping small pieces of wood and adding them to the small fire he had just started to make us some black coffee, I had already had considerable admiration for Awsaj and started feeling jealous of his exhaustive knowledge, his avidity for reading, his ardent passionate talk and angry criticism of almost everything. We shared several subjects of our criticisms together. We were particularly sarcastic of “our” buffoon politicians. He was unorthodoxly harshly critical of parents as fosterers of hypocrisy, mental impotency, personal insecurity. Though at some point,  a fiery debate erupted between us over his undue criticism of how people’s relationships are no more governed by affection, care and  mutual respect for the other, but rather largely dominated by private interests where, in the normal state of affairs, it should be presumed that hate is pre-existing to any human communication, our personalities were explicitly largely drawn to each other, and Awsaj could make such a favorable impression on all of us.

To be equipped with a critical mindset and insatiable desire to learn and read is enough, at least in my and my two mates’ eyes, to make you worth being held in high esteem by your interlocutors. But that’s no that case. To have these things, however—or to pretend that you do—and display in addition some interest in Israel-Palestinian conflict, to always talk of peace as the solution—as though peace were not an impasse in itself—to ending this conflict, to have also the Kuffiyeh worn over your head from time to time, and to stress to your interlocutors the fact that you run a blog, never mind how less frequent you update it or the sort of stuff you have on there, you are then the very guy who is likely to be indentified as a peace (and potential human rights?) champion by roughly everyone working in the field here, particularly by a bunch of foreign journalists with whom you engage in seldom profound, political discussions and who you might win over, but by no means can your knowledge about Palestine, Israel and politics match theirs.

Awsaj is of the first kind. There is still something much more characteristically appealing about him, i.e.,  (what he boastfully dubbed) his wide-ranging experience and “history of struggle”, and out of this history, there is one specific experience which Awsaj found himself narrating to his guests and, upon listening to, we agreed it must be uniquely underlying to this man’s personality, and which I insisted it would not go unrecorded.

Almost every Palestinian must have been in direct contact with Israelis, and by “Israelis” I mean Israel’s atrocities; and every Palestinian, therefore, must have been a direct victim of Israeli crimes—there is no such thing as indirect victim within the context of Israeli-Palestinian conflict being essentially a conflict between a state (i.e. Israel), on the one hand, and individuals (i.e. Palestinians) on the other. So it’s no big deal when I am told this man had spent twenty years in Israeli prisons, or that little boy’s parents were killed during Israel’s last offensive against Gaza and so on…

The weighty significance of Awsaj’s experience, I believe, resides in the fact that, it encloses within its narrative several Israeli actualities. Whereas most of the endless Palestinian encounters with Israel lose an extremely large share of their actual significance once the real encounter is over and is narrated time and again as a past experience, Awsaj’s experience seemed to have acquired validity and renewed reality each time he narrated it since, during his narrative, Israel would borrow such a physical existence that it was no more an abstract but became embodied in the Israeli soldier, the Israeli jeep, and the female officer’s broken Arabic phrases, the Bedouin  collaborator, the scars across my friend’s back…The reason? It definitely lies somewhere around Awsaj’s human passion and dramatic eloquence.

The sun having sunk, we headed toward our friend’s home, having already chatted for what seemed to be ages. Straight backed, we walked and chatted, leaving behind neatly-queued, graceful thyme saplings, four scattered coffee-soiled plastic cups, and several untold stories.

A scenario that didn’t happen: Jawaher Abu Rahma

The tragic death of the Palestinian protester Jawaher Abu Rahma in Bil’in grieved all of us very deeply as we sat helpless leafing through the news that reported the story of her sad death. That, in fact, was not an extraordinary incident to me, but rather a new episode in the long series of the Palestinians’ embodiment of the essence of what a sacrifice means. As one sleeps, another wakes up. As one dies, a whole generation is born.

(The sun is about to set behind the horizon; the trees stand on the two sides of the gritty road; nothing is heard in the background but the demonstrators marching amongst whom is Jawaher, her heart beating really hard. The demonstrators carry the Palestine flags, red flags, and yellow ones. Some are busy taking photos. A sudden stream of thoughts invades Jawaher’s mind as few Israeli soldiers into the distance come within her range of vision.)

“Here we go,” Jawaher says to herself, still marching ahead. “here is 1, 2…3” Jawaher turns her head a little bit to the right, “4, 5, hmm” and as a new soldier, his gun diagonally overturned across his chest, comes into view from behind a hill (supposedly there is one) she continues “and here is 6” Jawaher lowers her head to the ground as she marches ahead.

(The protesters start whispering to each other, some hastening their steps to catch up with others and pointing with their hands in different directions. A middle-aged protester with shabby hair, putting on sun glasses, and grotesquely wearing green stroked Bermudas hastens his steps so that he becomes by the side of Jawaher, and pointing with his eyes straight ahead slightly to the left.)

“There are another two,” he says to Jawaher intermittently.

(Only then a whole troop of soldiers appear from behind the hill. Barely visible, four soldiers in the lead followed by a dozen behind them who show up gradually in pairs, all helmeted and carrying their guns haughtily.) Continue reading

On Page “184”

Sweet. Provoking. Sometimes the two attributes reconcilably fuse together into one where I stand unguarded against the impulsive temptations for cursing the holiness of the vacancy of the place. Around the bend I stood, waiting for a cap so as to escape the impervious darkness of our house except on rare occasions when the feeble beam of a candlelight can reach and dimly lit a tiny spot here or there, blown by the maddeningly raving winds of mid December, my growing wrath which had now cumulated itself in my chest which was already brimming with pent-up ages-old anger the causes for which, unlike their united implications on me, vary disparagingly, stifled; and engaged in my desperate endeavors to stop myself from cursing the place where I have grown and become a man whose tongue can strikingly respond to the most abominable of curses having learned in the aisles of the camp and furnished myself with a remarkable arsenal of phrases and swear words accompanied with the most influential way, pitch and facial expressions of communicating them to my opponent (once he dares to set himself up as one) sharply and in a matter of a few seconds in order to leave him perplexed and wordless. I sank my hands into my pretty warmer pockets, and furtively searched the place with my looks for any sign of a coming light. In vain.

I thought how warmer it would have been had I said “No” to my friend’s invitation to go out for a walk, only to be struck with the charm and loveliness of the scene of our home when I left it. My father would be reading all alone now, having the whole light of the candle, the whole small-sized wooden table with its four dwarfish legs he made with his bare hands and which we used for reading, the whole cup of coffee,  and all the time in the world, only for himself, without me who would usually share him and bask in such pleasures, the flavor of which is still distinct to me. “I should have stayed.” I thought. Continue reading

Me and My Israeli Cousin

In the early 1980s my father was illegally crossing the borders as he stamped his passport with forged seals of the countries he wished to visit, from Libya to Syria, from Syria to Amman, from Amman to Yemen, and from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, and there he settled for 16 years, though he did not remain in one place for long and carried on his habit, moving from Al-Riyadh to Jidda, and from Jidda to Tabook— where I was born, and lastly coming back home. His brother, meanwhile, had already settled himself in a land far more handsome and graceful, mild and sunny, all along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea than the baking wilderness of the Arabian Peninsula. He had already gained a wide reputation that recommended him the best T.V. technician in the Galilee. By then, he had his own shop, and diligently worked so as to preserve his place in that heaven; he feared nothing as the prospect of going back to a flaming Gaza. I care not how low, inconsiderate, and void of principles this man might be regarded, nor do I care how discreet and realistic his attitude toward life was. He married an Arab-Israeli girl of fifteen from Kofor Kana, who as she crossed our doorstep in Beit Lahya thirteen years ago had already brought him three sons and two daughters, who added up to the overall lot of the loosely connected extended family to which I belong.

That was the sole time I met my uncle’s family, and I hadn’t a clue I ever had an uncle from Israel! I was nine years in those days. “Israel” was something completely unlike the “Israel” I know, hear, meet and think of at the present. All I knew about Israelis— or “Jews” for I used the two words synonymously back then, and they are still thus used amongst the Palestinians, especially little children like me at that time who knew nothing of the huge disparity between the two terms, grannies, and illiterate people; all I knew about “Israel” is that they were the most hated enemy to me, the worst enemy I could ever think of. Continue reading

Peering Through the Fence

Holding their green passports in their hands, people were hustling there and back while, making weird gestures on their faces, others were nervously shouting over their phones. From afar, a baby was crying out load as his mother, lulling him, patted him on the back so as to hush him. She restlessly trotted to an officer in a blue uniform seated on a chair at the gate. The wretched mother talked to the officer who politely replied to her making signs which I construed as I-can-not-help-you. She pleaded with him, and he repeated the same gestures. The officer was a good man, and it seemed he really couldn’t help her. On the right side of the road leading to the gateway, two cafes crowded with customers who were none other than the very passengers who had gathered in one of these two cafés so as to protect themselves from the burning sun of July in this morning. The customers, or the passengers, were having breakfast. Some were drinking coffee and puffing at their cigarettes. Others were clutching their hookah hoses as they waited for their names to be called out. There was no space left to me inside the café, and I had to wait outside, just behind the fence.

I wasn’t a passenger, however. And I didn’t wait for my name to be called out. I waited for my brother who had been away from home for three years and a half and would be home in a little while. My brother studies medicine at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. He decided to pay his family in Gaza a short visit, one month at the utmost; for, as he said, he couldn’t tolerate staying away from home anymore.

However, it was immensely distressing just to think of visiting the Rafah Crossing at that time: at a time when those who were strictly stifled for four long years were eventually granted a tiny vent hole by their neighboring merciful Egyptian authorities to take a short breath before they are stifled again. Every one wanted to breathe, and for that reason, the two cafes on the right side of the gateway were packed with passengers for the first time in ages unknowingly stifling each other with their breath and smoking. In all cases, it wasn’t my choice, and it was just improper to be enjoying a good sleep at the very moment my brother would be going through all sorts of humiliating suffering since he would be crossing into Gaza with an expired passport, not to mention an expired residency card. What one can do? He couldn’t tolerate it anymore… Continue reading