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When I Failed to Say Farewell to You…

[A Painting by the Iraqi Artist Ahmad al-Soudani] [A Painting by the Iraqi Artist Ahmad al-Soudani]

It was winter and my Berlin nights were crowded with people yet full of loneliness. I don’t know what year it was. Maybe 2008. I was working as a journalist and producer for a German television station in Berlin.  My schedule used to vary from week to week. I would sometimes start early in the morning and other times late in the evening. I used to love the night shifts, they were more quiet and I had an excuse for not being able to sleep. 

That night I decided, although it was not my habit, to go early to bed. It was like those  silly “new year resolutions” most of us never abide by, but still make every year. Maybe it’s the hope. And as they say in German “Die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt”, Hope is the last to die. Although I had a night shift the next day, and I could stay up and go out and enjoy life, I deiced to go to bed early.

I remember very well lying in my bed looking outside my window and thinking that I should get up and close these curtains. I didn’t. I was, for some reason, running away from closing them, touching them, and remembering your story about your curtains. How can you remember something that you don’t forget? I assume I was trying to fool time and shorten the period of the thinking about it. I hated curtains because of you. I didn’t put any curtains in any of the rooms in my apartment, except for the bedroom. I tried my best not to touch them, to keep them closed, to ignore them and accept the necessity of their existence. 

I sank into sleep after putting my mobile on silent. I overslept. When I opened my eyes and looked at the phone it was already after 10 am. There were at least ten missed calls from back home. I knew something must be wrong. I called my older brother immediately. His usually hesitant voice was fighting to pull itself  together to avoid a certain, but deferred falling apart. “Tata died”, (Grandma) he said. There was silence on my part. My voice had already failed me.

I took the first flight to Tel-Aviv and went home to al-Taybeh, where you came to live after the Nakba, after being displaced internally from Jaffa. I arrived at the beginning of the night and they had already buried you.

“Why?” 

I asked my brother who came to pick me up. 

“You know our traditions. Honoring the dead requires burying them as soon as possible. They don’t wait. 

“You couldn’t wait for ten hours? That’s how long it’s been from the time I knew until the time I arrived?”

“You didn’t answer the phone!”

“I was sleeping.”

I came home. You were everywhere, but nowhere as well. Grandpa was there.I knew he needed a drink. I did too. But there was no way to get one then. He was sitting there, shocked that you, too, like Jaffa had gone. I couldn’t believe my ears. I hugged him and noticed for the first time that he had become old, very old. 

I was sitting there and, yet again, couldn’t take the story of your curtains out of my head.

I was never able to look at curtains the same way, after you told me the story back then. It was 1998 maybe, a few month before I left Jerusalem, where I was living and studying and decided to stop and go to Germany and start again. I was suffocating in Palestine. I was suffocating in the cities I loved more than any other city: Jerusalem and Jaffa. 

You said that your blind sister Samiyya crocheted the curtains and hung them in the guest room before you were kicked out of the house. You only took some of your jewelry and had to leave everything, including the curtains. But you never spoke about anything you left behind as much as those curtains. You decided to go back to retrieve them.

You said you returned with grandfather to your house. You insisted and fought with him until you got your way. I don’t know how you were able to go there. Did you get a permit? You were living in al-Taybeh, forty kilometers north. You were forced to become Israeli citizens and you were forced to live under military rule. You couldn’t go anywhere without obtaining a permit first. Did you sneak in or did you obtain a permit? You went back to retrieve the curtains. I don’t know why you were sure that they would still be hanging there in the guest room window.

You said you returned and knocked on the door. A Polish woman who’d been given the house came out. Was she really Polish or did you just call her that? You used to call Ashkenazi Jews in Palestine “Polish.” You said you knocked and she came out and knew you were the owners. What language did you speak to her? You didn’t speak Hebrew, maybe she didn’t speak Hebrew too. My grandfather did. Perhaps he translated? But I remember you saying that you didn’t say much. She said she’d been expelled from her country. In what language did she say that? You knocked and she knew you were the owners of the house. But how did she know that? She asked you to come in. Most of the furniture was still there, and the curtains too. The curtains your sister Samiya crocheted, before she became a refuge in Amman with your Mom and brother. And you wouldn’t see them for 19 years. What patterns did she use? Were the shapes of roses and grapes? 

You said she, the Polish women, served you tea, or maybe coffee. I don’t remember. She served you something to drink, but you didn’t drink it. You looked at the curtains and were about to ask for them. You looked at the curtains and remembered Samiya’s jokes and her spirit. Remembered the conversations you had as she crocheted the curtains for you. The war had been everywhere around you. It had been right at your doorstep but seemed distant somehow. Perhaps Samiya was crocheting those curtains in an attempt to dodge the war and make it forget about you. You didn’t realize back then that wars never forget anyone—they feed on the souls of survivors.

I knew Jaffa and learned to love its sea and old buildings. I say learned to love it because knowing it used to kill me. You sat in the guest room in your house besieged by the presence of a woman. A woman perhaps besieged as well by memories of her own country— longing for her curtains, or anything, there. You looked at the curtains and were determined to take them with you. When you were about to ask for them your tongue let you down. You didn’t cry. You said you didn’t cry then or anytime thereafter. You used to cry when you fought with grandfather and had no one to go to. No father, mother, or brother. They were all in Jordan, and Jordan was far—farther than the sky.

You were about to ask for the curtains, but you told the blond woman instead (you described her as being blond and having a pleasant face) that your blind sister, Samiya, had crocheted them for you as a present. The blond woman fell silent. You did, too. Words no longer had any meaning. You and grandfather left without drinking the tea, or coffee. You left the curtains behind. Since that year, whenever we went to Jaffa to visit your distant relatives or friends, you would say, “Jaffa is beautiful and tears are dry. The absent will eventually return.”

Today is the anniversary of the Nakba. Its memory is linked to you and your stories, my story, our stories. I usually stay at home with my beloved, on this day. Or see very close friends and don’t talk about it. This year I’ll go out and see strangers at work and on the streets of Manhattan, another place with its own Nakba. And maybe one of those strangers will smile and touch my shoulder, just as you used to. Maybe I`ll finally be able to say farewell to you. 

[* Parts of this essay were written initially in Arabic and published in “Words without Borders” as part of the series “A Literary Map of Palestinian Writers.”] 

 To follow Ibtisam Azem on Twitter: @IbtisamAzem

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