Read time: 7 mins

A Story from the South

by Eman Sharabati
26 August 2020

Translated from Arabic by Katharine Halls

It’s evening, and she’s walking into the Culture Palace in Ramallah. While she’s looking for a seat in the packed hall, she bumps into a group of friends sitting at the back, and greets them excitedly.

The play is so funny it tires the audience out, and so painful you feel it in the soul. As she leaves the auditorium after the final act, she’s glad that the audience, so gripped by what they’ve just seen, are silent. Life is a distant dream; they are awake only to the world of the play. She’s been waiting for this last pleasure to complete her sense of gratitude towards the theatre.

She goes out to the courtyard and lights a cigarette while her girlfriends file out and gather together. Behind them, she spots him. She doesn’t say hi, even though she knows him; or, at least, she’s seen him around.

After a quick discussion the group agree to continue their evening at the café. There they sit around a single table, and the way the bodies arrange themselves there’s a space next to her, which is taken by him. While she’s talking to her friend in the seat opposite, he surprises her with a question about the final scene in the play, in which the sheep decide to join the villagers, who have risen up against the imposition of Israeli citizenship.

‘It’s surprising they picked the sheep, of all things, to represent that stage in the history of the Golan, don’t you think?’

‘I think that scene is going to change my life,’ she replies immediately.

More drinks are ordered and everyone switches places apart from them. His best friend comes over to say hi and he pretends not to notice. She decides to retreat; she’s too overwhelmed. They quickly agree to meet up soon.

On day one they follow each other on Instagram. She wends her way through his many photos, drawn into his expansive world.

On day two, nothing.

On day three, she resolves to take the initiative and suggest they meet up.

On day four, she sends a hello and proposes a time and place for them to meet.

An hour later, some mutual friends post that he’s been arrested.

‘Oh, great,’ she thinks.

From that moment, she thinks about the meeting that will now be postponed until he’s released. She imagines telling him that she must have brought him bad luck, and laughs.

A fortnight later, the court adjourns for ten days while evidence for the case is gathered. This is going to take a while, she thinks, but then what’s the harm in prolonging their desire?

For the next twenty days she tries to recall the colour of the shirt he was wearing when she saw him, but she can’t. His court hearings come and go; she’s reminded of them by friends’ comments on his photos.

When he’s served his first term of administrative detention, she jokes to one of her friends that he must be struggling to survive without her.

As she’s looking at the sky one evening, she finds that the long rays streaming out of the orange disc of the sun have filled up all the blue. That day, she decides the time has come to write him her first letter.

She hesitates over the opening, and thinks for a long time before telling him the reasons why she’s getting in touch, albeit belatedly. She’s just got back from abroad, where she spent the whole time thinking about what he looks like, the image fading as she moved from one city to another. It seems to her that telling him about her trip might bring him a little comfort, as well as being some sort of continuation of their first and last conversation.

She starts with salam, which is a pretty confusing word to use, given the context. Then she reminds him of the things they could have done if he weren’t in prison, like take a short trip to one of the villages to the north of Ramallah, which has to be done before spring comes to an end and the countryside dries out. Then she describes at length what she saw on her trip abroad.

I loved the faces of the street sellers, who were immersed in movement. Their faces watched their surroundings, alert. Their cheeks were raised in a perpetual smile and they quickly grasped the gestures of the other, offering a gracious welcome. Lines on foreheads rose in excitement and mouths laughed as if a new prophet had visited a village inhabited by the abandoned.

On the opposite side of the street, a face screamed down a public telephone. On the other end of the line, it sounded like his wife in Africa wasn’t being very understanding of his circumstances. By strange coincidence the public telephone was located inside a Western Union branch, so the caller could send both money and existence to his impoverished family on their distant continent while the bored white employee reaped the profits granted him by this age we live in.

I have to tell you that the place is full of hearts, which people connect to ancient religious beliefs. The heart becomes everywhere. It transcends its vital function and climbs the walls. It becomes more delicate, takes on a thick, soft texture that suggests sleep or embrace. Unsettling questions are closed and a warm tranquility takes their place.

When you’re travelling, reality crystallises into something new. The vision clears when it meets other visions. New acquaintances and new images are fresh and surprising.

How can we understand our lives, understand what we experience here, without going through a temporary physical estrangement? I don’t know. For some people, closed borders may be more reassuring to their hearts. Waiting to hear your news.

She gets the letter the following month.

The bed I spend my days sitting on asks me to sleep without any indulgence. It is sleep in a token sense; the selection of a need or desire by thinking. ‘For a moment, fragile sleep is a match for that colossal strength that underpins the universe—just for a moment.’ I read that in The Book of Sleep, by Haytham El-Wardany. A friend brought it in for me. Do you have a favourite writer?

A few items of clothing hang from the bed, and the sheet insists on getting bundled up in one spot, while the pillow migrates between the top, middle and bottom of the bed. The cover, meanwhile, only enjoys a few moments of tidiness each week.

I appear stronger when I write to my mother and friends or when they visit me; I prefer to tell you what I’m really thinking about.

In answer to your question, I may well need the images and feelings I’ve stored up from past travels. They’re useful as raw material for creating stories with the outside, for remembering its existence in all its forms. The difference between us is that I live today in an orbit that is much closer to my nucleus as a human being, and my questions revolve around it. The distant other seems less important.

I’ve stopped drawing recently. In my next letter I’ll tell you about the walls and the floor. Tell me more.

She reads his letter early in the morning. Her arm goes numb; she feels tired. She works out how much air she would have to breathe if she were sharing her room with five other people, and writes:

One day I visited the sea, where a flock of seagulls had landed on the sandy beach, as if that was where they belonged, and were silently watching the waves as they stood in tight rows, their wings hanging down on either side. They seemed to have agreed on a plan to collectively stay where they were. Humans were distant and far away. Who said that the place was theirs? The humans went on to the next beach, frightened by the unity of the collective.

His next letter is late, but it does arrive:

Tell me how that scene at the theatre changed you.

I feel closer to freedom today. This feeling comes over me from time to time. I feel that my drawings and writings have become truer and more honest. I wanted to tell you that friends here want to make a diary about the hunger strike, written and edited by the prisoners who haven’t yet joined.

The image of the seagulls comes to me often. Do you think that in standing by our demands, we are like them?

She comes out of a film showing, deep in thought. She’s been preoccupied by his question about the hunger strike for days. While she wants to avoid seeming overly rational or unrealistic about a something as critical as this, it occurs to her that the people of the global south, wherever they are, live in the strangest and most illogical circumstances, yet are expected by the eyes trained on them to always behave rationally.

She watches the door to the cinema auditorium, images and sounds clattering together in her head, accompanied by something the director of the film said: ‘Nothing can replace our hopes, which will always remain a necessary utopia.’

Illustration by Rafik El Hariri

About the Author

Eman Sharabati

Eman Sharabati was born in Jerusalem, where she still lives. She works in the field of culture in Palestine, and studied Contemporary Arab Studies at Birzeit University. This is her first published story.