خلود ח'ולוד Khulud


“The doors of my writing”

לקריאת קטע קצר מהסיפור "דלתות בכתיבה שלי" בעברית הקליקו כאן

(1)

at the end of this corridor – on the second floor

of this stone house

there is an opening

with an iron bolt

two doors – light blue,

like the color of grass when you look at it from a certain angle right after shatwet Nisan.

the doors, when closed – insist always to stay locked in a kiss.

just like that – with no shame at all.

When father forces their kiss to come to an end in the morning – they groan, slowly turning away, each one facing another part of this corridor. Sometimes they get to be reunited after a short while, because mother doesn’t like the draft much, so after an hour or two she walks up the stairs to the second floor and makes them into lovers again. When that happens, there’s no groaning from the doors. I think mother does oil their hinges every so. With olive oil – anything other would be an offence to these wooden old friends of hers. They’ve been living here longer than her, that’s for sure – I can tell from the wrinkles in their wood just so – deeper than the surface – running from the top all the way to where they meet the stone floor.

I remember the day mother decided to put bars on the small windows on the upper part of the two lovers. The frame – almost collapsed from all that metal fitting, but survived – to the amazement of father, who refused to pay for the bars. “Not a body can squeeze through these windows, Widad!” He hollered from the diwan on the ground floor. But she was determined, and paid Abu Hasan from her own money.

The next day, early in the morning, father got out of his bedroom and walked down the corridor. He forced the night-long kiss of the old wrinkled lovers apart. A sharp wind blew in. He closed the doors again. Silently, obediently, they went back to their kiss. But father wanted to air the corridor, so he unlatched the windows and pushed them out. They didn’t fly open. Their glass rattled as they smashed into the new metal bars. Abu Hasan put the bars on the wrong side of the windows. “Widaaaaad!” father hollered, for the second time on the count of the bars, and the glass rattled again as he banged the windows shut.

The bars remained there. Father never forgave mother her stupidity. It became the story told over and over to anybody who happened to walk past these doors on the second floor of this our home. But mother would just smile, and always add at the end, “We are all entitled to small stupidities sometimes.”

So this is the story of the doors leading to this balkon where I sit and write you Asmahan into my bones. This is where it all begins. Because I can’t write within these walls. Why I started writing – that’s what you always wanted to know, and I tell you it doesn’t matter why but the essence of it that matters. But now, to tell you the truth, I try to remember the time before. When I wasn’t frantically writing down every word flitting through my brain. I remember always being afraid to lose the words – somehow. Like you lose the key to your home because you were made an exile and was never able to come back to your home. The words – they are much more slippery, and if you lose them, it’s always impossible to retrieve them in that same original order and form. From the very beginning I was fascinated with what you can do with words – create whole new worlds and then populate them with whatever and whomever you just choose.

(I’m tired now – it’s almost four in the morning, I will continue writing tomorrow. This remembering is straining my brain.)

(2)

These doors are not just any kind of doors. They have their own history, and if you come closer, you can read it in their cracks. I remember – I think I was about sixteen – hiding behind them, out on the balkon in just my shorts and a short-sleeved shirt in the middle of the night, from father’s anger – no, his wrath – when he discovered my secret notebook. But then I wasn’t so smart. I hid it under my mattress, so obvious a hiding place. He burnt it – of course! He waited until morning and went to the garden and there he set fire to it, and he made me watch it. I saw the words – every letter curling up in the flames, dissipating. I stood there shaking. He thought I was shaking from fear. But I was shaking because I was so concentrated on the escaping words – I was trying to catch them as they spiraled in the flames. Sumud resistance fight back stand up never kneel down this earth my earth this land Falasteen. Then, when all that was left was think gray smoke coiling up towards the west, I followed it and saw that it was in the direction of the balkon and I ran inside the house and took the stairs three at a time to reach these doors. I pulled them open and they croaked like always – only with mother they are quiet and obedient – and I stepped out and caught the smoke in my lungs. I breathed fast to get it all inside because that was all that was left of my words. So you see Asmahan they are literally inside me even now. I swallowed them whole. Father was defeated but I let him believe he reaped his victory on that day.

For two months after that day of burning, I didn’t speak to father. I spent the afternoons on this balkon, behind these doors. Mother kept stuffing money in my pocket so that I could buy a new notebook, but I always returned it to her. I thought she was doing it more out of pity than the realization of the significance of writing for me. You see, my mother never learned to read, and father never told her what he read inside my notebook on that day. But I was wrong about mother. I mistook her love for pity. Aywa –

Well, even though mother had had the bars put on the wrong side of the windows, she was a very smart woman. She had this small trunk in her bedroom where she kept her things what I have no idea but I think just some brass stuff from her own family. So after two months from that burning day, when she could no longer bear the silence of the walls in the house, she carried this trunk – or pushed I don’t know – in through the corridor to the balkon and put it in the middle of this small space. Then she brought two chairs – just some old wooden chairs that were out in the garden, standing there unused. She put a chair on either side of the trunk. Then she went down to the salu and from the cupboards she brought up a deep red, hand-stitched tablecloth. It was square, and the trunk was rectangular, so she spread it diagonally across the trunk. She did all this while I was at school and father at work. When I came back from school, she was standing in the doorway, smiling, and I knew she was waiting for me with some secret. I kissed her on the cheek and smelt her – she always had this clean smell of the homemade olive oil soap. She didn’t say a word, but motioned me inside the house. When I closed the door behind me, she turned back and put her hand inside the deep pocket of her abaya, still smiling that warm smile. She took out a brand new notebook, very thick and with a leather cover Asmahan – real leather! She extended it to me and I shrunk back I thought where is father is this one of his tricks but it couldn’t be because this is mother and her smile is the smile of my mother and she loves me and she would never do any such ugly thing to me. She was still holding the notebook in her hand, extended in front of me, silently. I could smell the leather and I wanted to grab it and run where I don’t know. I took the notebook from her hand slowly, and then I kissed her hand and then I took her other hand and I held both her hands in front of my face and I put them on my cheeks so she could feel the tears. “Yamma,” I whispered but she put her hand on my mouth and whispered back “Don’t say thank you. This is yours and you do what you feel in your stomach is right. But don’t be angry with father. It’s not good for your health.” I was young enough still to let mother touch my face, but old enough for anger that made my stomach twist. I threw the notebook at her feet, and ran up the stairs, hollering, “I hate him.” I ran to the balkon – the doors were open now to let in fresh air and sunshine. When I saw the chairs and this makeshift table with the burning red cloth I knew immediately I shouldn’t have turned my back on mother like that. But it was done – her own son had hurt her. Her only son. The tears were dried now and I felt such shame because I knew she did it for me although I didn’t know yet that all this was devised carefully to deceive father.

I sat down – broken on a broken chair and stayed there. I knew mother was downstairs, probably still standing there with the notebook at her feet. But my pride wouldn’t let me go down to her for forgiveness. So after a while she came up to me – the strength of this woman! She came with shai – lots of sugar just the way I love it and with fresh na’ana that she had just picked from the garden. She was calm – so calm there was not a drop of anger in her for me. She put one glass on my side of the trunk and one glass on the other side, just almost on the very edge, close to her. We sat there, just watching the garden and the street beyond. Maybe an hour we sat like that I don’t know how long. And I thought father will come home soon and discover the leather notebook and I will never have any place to drop my words into other than the insides of my body.

I was getting sleepy but I was also stubborn and curious to see what mother would do. She just sat there, her hands in her lap, looking down into the garden, ignoring me. I was beginning to think she forgot I was even there. But then she turned to me, put her hand on mine – with all her love concentrated in that touch, and she said, “I bought this notebook from my own money, Majid. It belongs to you. You can throw it away if you want, or you can write in it all that you’re carrying inside your body.” And she took it out of the pocket of her abaya – as if it wasn’t taken out already once, and put it on the red cloth. I didn’t touch it. I was scared Asmahan to even hope that I would be able to write again and not see the words curling up in smoke. Mother saw the fear in my eyes and she just smiled, then she reached for the cloth and uncovered the trunk partially to reveal the heavy lock on its side. She didn’t have to say anything. When she saw my face widening in a smile, she closed on my hand with hers, dropping into it a small key. Then she stood up and went downstairs to prepare dinner.

And then I knew. I knew what she was thinking when she just sat there looking down into the garden. She was thinking about my baby sister who never saw this house. The baby girl whose face mother never knew, whose tears she never touched. The baby girl who could have brought her so much joy but instead she was stuck with stubborn me. Back then I still didn’t know the story of how it happened mother never spoke about it and father would close his face shut like a book. I didn’t even know her name then but I couldn’t get her out of my head. I stayed there on the balkon broken on a broken chair and then it was dark but I didn’t see it becoming dark. The dark was just there as if it always were. The notebook still lay on the trunk and the key was still wrapped up by my fingers inside my palm. Then I heard the gate opening and closing and I knew father was home from work. I quickly unlocked the trunk it was full of small brass objects I took some out and put the notebook in and then put the objects carefully on top of the notebook and I locked the trunk and pulled the cloth over its edge so that it hid the lock. I went into my room and lay on my bed for a long time until I heard father’s heavy footsteps walking tiredly up the stairs and into his bedroom. Then I waited some more until I heard his faint snoring. Then I went downstairs to eat something because I was starved and came back up to the balkon the doors were slightly open because mother knew I would come back for the notebook and she knew the doors would croak if I opened them. I sat on the broken chair for a long time, holding the notebook in both my hands.

Then mother came up with a big round candle in a jar and she set it on the trunk, kissed me on the cheek and said good night ibni. The next thing I remember it was morning and I had some twenty pages full of writing between my hands.

(I have to go now Asmahan. I will write more later at night.)

(3)

I was in a trance because the night before and for two months the burnt words were just that – all burnt and turned into ashes and I tried to move them from my lungs into my brain and make up something with them but no words moved. And then when I opened the leather notebook with its smell of something wintery my hand just began moving across the lines – from right to left and I couldn’t keep up with the words so I moved my hand even faster and then faster until the letters moved into each other, the seen and the ya’a making one straight line the ha’a running way down below its designated space, the meem making a wild flower at the end of a word, the noon just another tooth with a dot. Asmahan I was writing and I was breathing the words in and out of my body. Everything that was burnt was restored to life.

When I stopped writing I couldn’t feel my fingers hand arm legs. I went downstairs when I heard the gate open and close and father’s footsteps receding. I ate – what I can’t remember – and I walked up the stairs again like a ghost and dropped like a stone onto my bed and slept. When I woke up, I looked out of my window I could see a patch of the sky from where I lay in my bed and I saw the sky gray so I thought it must be evening but then it began turning to purple and red and then finally settled on light blue and I knew it was morning again I slept the whole day and the whole night.

(This writing is exhausting me. I will come back to finish it tomorrow. Now I need to sleep.)

(4)

Do you think Asmahan I am making all this up so maybe I am even I don’t know anymore what really happened how or why. Maybe it was all a dream I dreamt but what I know today is that the notebook is no more. It disappeared along with you when I returned from that horrible place where they kept me out of the light that abominable place where they deleted your name from my memory but of course they didn’t know it was etched into my bones how could they have known such an unimaginable thing. But Asmahan we all make up our histories as we walk along these stepping stones and what does it matter if these histories were dreamt up made up written down then burnt remembered forgotten or if they did happen in reality that is just not relevant. Facts become marginal in the face of reality. Everything becomes liquid ultimately even the words that are burnt they melt again into something completely new that no one ever intended or imagined.

But these doors ach – even as I look at them now from their other side their rain-washed wind-cracked side, I touch the cracks running from the top to the bottom or are they running from the bottom to the top trying to reach to beyond where they end. These cracks hold the smell of mother’s kusa mahshi and wara’a dawaly she would come here in the morning when I was just a small boy when the trunk didn’t take up this space and these chairs were still in the garden it was just a balkon and she would sit on its tiles with her feet crossed under her long abaya and in her apron the wara’a dawaly and in front of her the tushut with the rice specked with meat. I would sit with her and try to help her but my hands were never good at rolling the wara’a into the neatly packed rolls so I just sat there with my kurrasah and practiced my alef ba ta’a geem ha’a. Mother would look up every few rolls and smile at the way I drew the letters. She said I never wrote but only drew the letters. I was fascinated from the very start how so many letters changed their shape like a lizard changing its color adapting according to its surroundings and so the shape of the meem changes from the beginning to the middle to the end of the word and even when it’s in the middle of the word it changes according to the letter coming right before it. So does the ha’a and the geem and the noon and the kaf and each letter can be drawn in several shapes ach how I love the written letters of this language I wish I could paint I would paint these letters into beautiful paintings.

Ach look at me sitting here watching the wrinkles of these old doors now and writing such nonsense as the painting of these letters such a romantic you made of me Asmahan! But no matter it is only words but then I live my life through words I like to breathe them in slowly and fill my lungs with them and then feel them warmly spread through my blood to all parts of my body until I reach the saturation point but I can never reach that point they are like drugs the more I breathe them in the more I want of them even now when I promised never to breathe these words out of my body again. But a time comes when I can no longer contain them within me and have to breathe them out somehow someway because ultimately I need to take a fresh breath. But life doesn’t wait Asmahan not for me not for you not for us. And so I must breathe all these words out and empty my body of them so that I might somehow someway pick up some fragments of me before they are scattered and lost completely.

I remember another day that day I was sitting on these tiles I was maybe six years old and mother came home all smiles with something heavy very big bulging out of her bag. It had the shape of a framed picture I was thinking why does she want to hang a picture on the wall here on this balkon but no. She sat down right in front of me and I scooted over to make room for her. She looked me in the eyes and her smile was gone suddenly and I became scared I thought something happened because it was a very serious face she made. Then she took out that something out of her bag and it was a very thick book. You see Asmahan I was already reading but father never brought me any books even though it was him who studied in Dimashk and became an important person with a high position but that’s another story. So she gave me this book and she apologized, she said Majid habibi I saw this book in the maktaba but bte’araf, and she lowered her eyes to the tiles, your mama can’t read and I couldn’t ask the bookseller what is inside this book or even what is the name of it because… and she fell silent and I was silent because I understood – no, I didn’t understand, but I felt – her shame at not being able to read. I took the book from her and I read the cover Alf Leila w Leila. Then mother smiled this time a very broad smile, I think she was happy that she didn’t get me accidentally something boring or something that grown-ups only could read. Then I read her sadness in her smile. Mama, we can read it together. Here, on the balkon. Every day after lunch – just you and me mama. Every day, just one story. Shufi, some are short. Mother was happy and I was happy and the next day we did it I read to her the first story and we shared a secret together.

(I promised mother to help her today so I have to go now. But more tomorrow.)

(5)

This is what is special about these doors – they are different from inside the corridor than from the balkon side. The balkon side cracks hold all these stories from Alf Leila w Leila. The inside cracks hold something else entirely.

I’m jumping from one thing to the other am I making any sense to you Asmahan all you wanted to know after all was the place where I wrote you the panther poems but how can I just answer you with one word el-balkon when it’s so much more than that and then even more. I would take these doors with me when it’s time for me to go where I don’t know yet but I know I will not stay in this house always this is the home of my father and mother and there are memories here that I can’t erase by putting a fresh paint on the walls how can I.

And then there is the other family. I don’t know much about this but what I know this is not the house of my grandfather because I remember though I was very small back then but I remember it was a house with no second story and I remember standing in front of these wrinkled doors for the first time and wondering how come there are doors in the middle of the wall in the corridor when I knew that what was beyond the doors was the outside there was no room to enter through the doors. Then mother came and opened the doors but with such tenderness as if they were her friends from long ago and she held my hand and we walked into a spot of sunlight and saw the garden below us and mother said this is our new garden habibi. When we moved in some men came and took away all the furniture I remember this because I stood in the salu and I thought where are they taking all this stuff are they taking it to the owners of this house. And then some other men brought furniture our own from our old house and other furniture that belonged to other people from other houses. Asmahan it was such chaos during that year that I don’t want to ask father about it for fear that he will not be able to explain and remain my father. But then I know he couldn’t do anything against his values because mother never left him I know she couldn’t live with him if he had done something unforgivable. How do I know Asmahan I just know like I know the letters of your name will remain etched in my bones that is how deeply I know.

(I think tomorrow I will finish this. I’m almost done with remembering.)

(6)

I am sending you this letter with Muhannad knowing it may not reach you so I am making a copy of it to keep for you just in case. In case what – in case I see your face again? I know that will not be. So just in case – for the sake of history. Whose history you ask? Don’t ask such silly questions Asmahan.

I am enclosing here the one poem you always ask me to recite to you and which I have – until now – refused to write on paper because it’s useless. We write so that we don’t forget but the words of these poems are inside my blood how can I ever forget them even if I wanted to they refuse to leave my system. But you with your bad memory – so here is just the one you love so which you make me repeat for you with my intoxication with the letters of your name. Salamat Asmahan.

اسمهان

when I'm with you in the bayader                                  parts of me fall off

your body is so tender that I'm afraid                             to touch you – lest

you diminish in                                                             beauty and – Asmahan

 

when you take the veil off your hair                                for me – I am. I become.

and I lust to cover my                                                    body with

your hair                                                                      – to feel its silky smoothness

 

I crave to worship –                                                       you.

kneel down and –                                                         pray your love into me.

to lose my self and find my self –                                    inside you.

 

terrified you will – one day –                                          dissolve between my arms

intoxicated by the letters of –                                          your name in my blood.

and one day I will                                                          turn to the ashes of your name.

 

 

***

Maisoon read the all too familiar poems – about a panther walking on Asmahan’s back and about Majid’s intoxication with the letters of Asmahan’s name. She also knew them by heart, and had them pinned on the board over her worktable. There was something intriguing about them that fascinated her. It was their intensity, and even more so the unusual ways Majid chose to express his love for Asmahan. To think up panthers and letters that intoxicate the blood – it was love on a level she couldn’t conceive. Her stomach made a funny noise and she realized she hadn’t eaten since morning. There were some manae’esh in the freezer that Layla made and packed for her a few days before. She got up from the diwan and walked through the long narrow corridor that connected the diwan with the kitchen and her bedroom. She walked into the kitchen, opened the freezer. Closed the freezer. Retraced her steps back to the corridor – and there they were. The two light-blue doors, even more cracked than in Majid’s description. She has never given this corridor any thought before, passing through it from the diwan to the kitchen and from the bedroom to the diwan and back. She was vaguely aware of the doors; when she first moved in she tried to open the windows but discovered the bars were on their wrong side and laughed at the stupidity of the person who did it.

She stands in front of the doors now, her hand reaching for them. She touches their wrinkles, her finger going deep into the wood – it’s rough, the creases are curving downwards. She pulls at the door handles but then sees the thick iron lock holding them prisoners. The key. There was a key. Baba gave it to me. Where did I put it. She stood in front of the doors in the dim light coming from the small windows – they were filthy, so the light came in yellowish almost gray. The kitchen. She returned to the kitchen and opened a drawer where she kept all kinds of useless small objects – corks from wine bottles, seashells, small stones in different shapes, tin cans, and yes, there they were – two keys, one medium sized and rusty, with four teeth, and one smaller with less rust on it. They were bound together by a piece of black thread that was fraying at the ends. She took them out of the drawer and walked back into the corridor. She stood in front of the doors again. Peeped through the dirty windows, how come I never thought of cleaning you two? She looked at the tiles around her bare feet. They were rough – still the original ones. She looked at the far end of the corridor, or rather the beginning of it. It began at the door to the apartment, with the diwan two steps along the wall. Then her bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen at the end. The light-blue doors were the only doors on this side of the wall. The corridor ran along the whole length of the apartment. I need to do something about you, give you back some life. You’re in a horrible shape. The paint on both sides of the walls was coming off, revealing ugly patches of gray and pale brownish yellow underneath. There was mold in the upper corners where the walls met. She breathed in deeply and took in the mustiness.

She took another deep breath and, with a slightly shaking hand, inserted the key into the lock. It went in with some resistance, she felt metal scratching against metal, then giving way and turning slowly inside. The lock snapped open. She hesitated, will you croak as with baba or will you extend me a silent opening like sitti Widad? Another deep breath and she slowly separated the doors. They opened not with any croaking, but with such screeching that sent Maisoon’s blood straight into her brain and made the hairs on her arms change their direction abruptly. Her eyes fell on a trunk in the corner of the balkon. It was an old trunk, its wood full of small intricate designs made by woodworms – circles and curving lines. She bent down and smelt its rottenness.

When she opened it, she half expected to find her grandmother’s objects in it along with Majid’s leather notebook. But all it contained was thick nets of cobwebs full of different kinds of tiny dead creatures. She closed it and pushed it with her foot further into the corner of the balkon, Asfi, teeta. She sat on the tiles, feet tucked under her, held on to the bars and looked down. The remains of what once used to be a garden.

This whole time, baba… you were so close…

A section from Haifa Fragments, a novel by khulud khamis, forthcoming by Spinifex Press in 2014.

 

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