"Long Thing That Isn't Quite Done Yet"
(a novel in progress)
Ha, Mim. Hereby the Book that brings light to bear. We have sent it down on a night that is blessed...for it has been Our wont to communicate to man--in act of mercy from your Lord who sees and knows all, Lord of the heavens and of the earth and all they encompass, if only you knew it for certain.
Listening to my husband read the sweet words was like hearing a letter from a distant acquaintance speaking of people I'd never met. It is familiar yet distant, an unnamed fragrance. It reminds me and reminds me.
When we first moved to the camp, my mother stopped praying. She said she had lost the habit of praying: she could no longer remember what it was good for. When Abu-Bakri wanted to start his school under the trees where little boys and girls would study the Quran, my mother refused to let me go saying that she was no longer on speaking terms with God.
Kalim brought some of my world back to me.
On our wedding night, deep in our bed, in the held-breath of the first night, I lay awake after Kalim had fallen asleep. A vision of a person came to me, rising above our bed like an angel or djinn. I meditated on this image until I saw the transparent eyes filling with smoke, the mouth curling over like petals. It was my mother, standing at the edge of the marketplace, watching the driver who would take me to the boat, a hand lifting, her eyes turning toward me. As the car pulls away, I see a shadow fall over her, hear the sound of the car's motor. We turn the corner....
She is standing, a moonbeam, her face white as bone, her fingertips egg shells.
"Yemmah," I call her, "Mother!" I try to take her fingers but can not find them, they are traces of light, so my fingers fall through hers. I try to rise from the bed to move closer, toward a place where I know I will keep falling. "Where are you," I ask. "What happened to you?"
I look into her face and see tears like branches of water, her face smooth as earth, her hair a cave. Sadness sweeps through me.
"Alia," Kalim says, holding out his hand. "What are you doing? Come back to bed, it's okay now. Everything is okay."
I return to his chest and arms. He encircles me, and I whisper, "Habeebi, love, my home is all gone, there's not another thing like it, is there?"
He doesn't answer. In the night, his face looks like a dream.
"All right," Kalim said to me early the next morning. "I want to show you something."
He borrowed a car from Mam's brothers who charged us ten dollars, and we drove up the parkway, past the cut-away cliffs called the Palisades and into the forests of New York State. At first I thought we were going back to Camp Watchenatchee, where Kalim and I first met, but the land opened into a bowl of rivers and dairy farms and the drive went on for hours.
Finally we turned off the highway and passed a sign that said, "Spring Festival" and under that jags and slashes that looked like another language. We passed a giant sign that said CIGARETTES in ten-foot red letters, other smaller signs that said Handguns and Liquor, then structures that were familiar to me: shacks of half-wood, half-automobiles, corrugated metal and tar paper and broken glass. There were toys, chickens, wire, undressed children.
Scorched faces, eyes like brands, they turned in the fields to look at us, or up from the steps of the little stores. Not until I'd seen their faces did I understand: I was back again. In the camp. Our car had found some hidden passage back.
"No, no," I said. I pushed down the lock on the car door. "I won't get out here. You can't make me stay."
Kalim tried to calm me. "You don't understand. I just wanted to show you what was here."
Every woman there wore grief wrapped tightly about their faces, cutting into their skin like netting. I was in Beit el Salaam camp, my mother's face wavering behind the skin of the women, turning again to look at me.
The wind came roving over the hillsides, blowing back the women's hair, combing the grass down. We drove out the other side of the town, into land where houses were farther apart, front yards heaped up with motorcycles and cars on blocks, clotheslines floating like sails. The sky turned silky, as if swirling with ghosts, the wind fine and flat as a knife. Ghosts poured out of the sky, drumming on the roof of the car, everything rushing up toward the gray palm of road. I covered my face with my hands and said, "My God, Kalim, what place is this?"
We were turning back on to the highway, out of this nightmare nestled in the secret valley. We passed a highway sign: Onondaga Nation.
"I'm sorry. I only thought--it might comfort you to be reminded," He said. "I mean, of home."
Half-bedouin half-city dweller, he knew what I had lost. He had the ability to see over valleys and through mountains. He'd seen the loss in my face; perhaps that is why he came to me in the first place, like an angel descends to a site of suffering. He thought the sight of old memories would drive my sadness away.
What is a refugee camp? A thin skin between you and the elements. Death is there. It is in the sunrise; it is in the sewers running down the street, past metal houses. Dust fills the air.
I was six in 1949, when we moved to the place called Beit el Salaam camp. It was hidden away, far from roads or markets. The White Eyes had not discovered it. We began with bare ground and tents, then added stone sides and cement floors. Families came fractured over the borders into our wilderness. We made a fragment of a village in a briar field.
"We had walked for miles," my mother tells me. She is cleaning dishes with steel wool. "There were thousands of us at first, then fewer as some fell, exhausted. "When we came to the river, it was huge and foaming. We followed it. You were in my arms. At six you looked like a four-year-old. You weighed less than ashes. I walked days not knowing if you were still breathing. Thanks to God, the trees fanned air into your lips.
"There were a few other women from our village. We didn't know where we were. Eventually we all scattered. We had a stone for a compass. I learned the faces of the stars. I grew as familiar with them as with the faces of my own family.
"When we reached the river, we knew that we had run out of homeland. The other side was a strange country. We followed the river and at last we came to the place where the river breaks through the hillsides into an inky sea. Salt coated everything like moonlight and rubbed into our palms and the soles of our feet. Nothing moved. Nothing was alive. There was only the shape of life--birds, wings raised in mid-flight--that had petrified into rock salt. This was where I would leave my heart for safekeeping. And then the Bedu found us."
She would finish, saying, "Losing your land is like losing your soul."
If Umm Lutfia was sitting on the ground, doing her embroidery with us, she would say, "Souls, souls! This and that. Talk to me about soup not souls."
My mother laid her hands flat on the carpet before me and said, "Do you see this? The knuckles are the hills and the fingers are the valleys. And look, the grain of the skin is like the grain of dirt. Someday soon, we'll return. I know the way back by heart."