You are my prison, you are my prison and my freedom, you are the one I hate and the one I love.
Fayrouz sings as Suha scrolls through her friends’ posts on her Facebook page the day before, on her birthday. Repeated words press on her neck like a noose. The same words each year, over the past five years, carrying the same wish. A wish that becomes more of a burden with each passing year like a drowned corpse being dragged to the bottom of the sea. ‘Here’s hoping that Ziad will be back by the next one’. She closes her eyes and thinks, ‘I’m happy without Ziad, he isn’t coming back!’ She adds an emoji with its tongue sticking out at the end of that sentence. ‘God willing your new year will bring happiness with the return of Ziad.’ She closes her eyes again and imagines writing back, ‘Aren’t you sick of repeating this wish? I am!’ She adds a tearful laughing emoji. All the wishes have three words, ‘Return Ziad safe!’ Just what we need, another space for whining and repetition, thinks Suha.
She shuts her eyes again. She remembers how on the way to school she used to knock on doors then run away giggling. She enjoyed breaking the silence by throwing stones, the surprise that her mischievous behaviours left in the eyes of those who had given in to laziness and monotony. She goes deeper into her imagination, she ‘writes’ on her page, ‘There is no thanks for your stinking birthday wishes, if someone had asked me what do you want for your birthday, I would have answered: ‘a wild party with a bunch of indifferent people drinking and dancing until intoxicated and after that we would have an orgy.’ Have you all forgotten that I’m a woman of flesh and blood and needs?’
Suha drifts away for a moment focussing on two words ‘Five years’. Has it really been five years? Or fives lives or five lifetimes or fives glooms. She thinks that no one has felt the rust on her lips. Do they want her to waste more years waiting? It’s strange how humans have perfected the art of hypocrisy!
She opens her eyes, and speaks to the void in front of her, ‘I told you once that I hate decorated Christmas trees. I hate the thought of Santa Clause bringing joy in wrapped boxes. I hate fake feelings and pre-empted emotions. They want me to be the Christmas tree, I stand as they race to attach principles to my tragedy. No one has ever asked the Christmas tree about its wishes, maybe it wants to be in the forest! They want me to be an icon of patience and loyalty. The icon industry flourishes during times of war, just like the arms industry. How miserable are icons, deprived of the right to experience, imprisoned in perfection.’
She shuts her eyes again, sees herself crucified in the centre of the city. She feels the nails piercing her skin and going through her hands with the iron burning the flesh, she feels the blood trickle down her palms, and the thorn pricks in her forehead. The eyes, she knows all those eyes: her mother’s, mother in law’s, friends’, her son Majd’s, his school friends’ and his headmaster’s. Relatives and scorpions, all eyes looking at her pitifully, tragically. She feels the heat of the sun burn her forehead and a salty thirst in her mouth. She screams, ‘No. I will not carry your sins, I am not your messiah, you can each carry your own sins. Stop this nonsense!’ She wrenches her hands off the cross, opens her eyes and gets up with a numbed head. She walks towards the recorder, presses rewind and then play. She wants to listen to this song until she is drunk on it.
The melodies build up epically, her body sways in the confines of the room and her hands swim upwards. ‘I miss you, I can’t see you or speak to you…’ She calls, ‘Ziad! Ziad! Can you hear me? I am thirty, Ziad. Do you know how big that number is?’ She continues to dance and sway. She sings carelessly. ‘I am a young spring flower that has been stomped on by five lean cows, my cries aren’t heard and no one notices the loss of colour and fragrance. I am nothing.’ She repeats it a few times, ‘I am nothing, a small stone in a mosaic of mass grief.’
She stops dancing suddenly as if she had remembered something important. She says, with astonishment, ‘Our son. Our son, Ziad. That little creature who once was crawling and could only express himself with crying and shouting, is now a boy walking, running and talking. He goes to kindergarten and comes back with a lot of stories, news and questions. The questions, oh how difficult are children’s questions, Ziad. He asks me if you love him and if you will love him after he has grown, he asks why you don’t come back and when will you come back, and whether you will come back. He asks why do grown-ups fight and when will they decide to end the war and make up. One day while I was in the kitchen preparing dinner, I heard him playing in the living room, he was saying, ‘Baba, Baba you have to move your horse faster or mine will win.’ My legs trembled, I ran out in disbelief, I asked him shakily, ‘Majd, where is he? Where is baba?’ He pointed across the table where he had placed his favourite brown horse, ‘Baba is there with the brown horse, we are playing horse racing until dinner is ready.’ I cried, told him that you are coming back, Ziad. Promises are like nooses: they get tighter until you suffocate.’
The one I love is you. She dances and says, ‘Longing has taken another form than how it was when we met and got engaged, when you would be at work. At the time, longing was a warm sun that was slow cooking me. I knew you were coming. I would fly with joy, and melt as you said cheekily, with eyes glittering with love and lust, ‘Come to me my tasty apricot, so I can smell and taste you, don’t you know that I love apricots, their smell, taste and colour.’ Five apricot harvests have gone by, one after the other and I, the apricot, fall and lose my sweetness to the soil.’
She stops for a moment and remembers something. That day, she felt sick to her stomach at the way Majd’s head-teacher was staring at her breasts. He was mumbling his words as his neatly trimmed moustache touched his lip, ‘Live your life to the fullest Miss Suha, most of those kidnapped never come back, they can’t escape the killers’ clutch’. ‘I have huge faith in God, Sir.’ She answered as she secretly thought, ‘I hope God takes you, Sir.’
You had me up all night, she sits on the ground and addresses the void, ‘Catastrophes change priorities and reshape relationships, Ziad. Don’t laugh. Listen, my relationship with your mother has changed. She doesn’t criticise me anymore needlessly, she doesn’t say, ‘Suha is spoiled and only knows how to moan anymore. She now says, ‘Suha is true to her roots, she has kept her promise.’ I feel sorry for her, your absence has broken her. The lines on her forehead and wrinkles in the corners of her eyes speak volumes. Time doesn’t make people age, Ziad, catastrophes do. At the start, she sought out anyone who she thought could help, anyone who might have heard something, she begged, she pleaded, she paid anything to war vultures and brokers, and just got more fogginess. Their promises never materialised, they vanished into thin air. When she had given up on the powerful and the brokers, she went to the psychics, she consulted each one in the city, and she gave them a lot and waited patiently: the olive trees blossomed, the first rain of the autumn fell, 13 days after your birthday passed, as did seven weeks after the lunar eclipse, and the promises ran out. Your mother leaned her heart, heavy with disappointment, on God’s crutch. She started reciting the Quran and praying and beseeching for your return. I ask myself sometimes, Ziad, I wonder what was the first human’s catastrophe, the one who invented God, the one who invented bowing and praying.’
Suha allows her body to collapse on the floor like a cloud full of rain. She lifts her back, and sits against the nearby wall. She looks up. ‘How I fear that I will stay in love with you for the coming days. Do you know what it feels like to live a postponed life, Ziad. This is what I’m doing while you’re away, I live on the surface, I don’t feel deep joy or deep sadness, I don’t cry or laugh passionately. I live in limbo, between life and death. I carelessly watch the reel of days play in front of my eyes. It has been five years since the last time I read a story or a novel!’ Suha chuckles and asks, ‘Haven’t I read a story while I am living the strangest story of all? It’s been five years since I last bought a dress, how can I buy one when your eyes, my mirror, are missing? Is this what hope is, Ziad? Is it this limbo that doesn’t let a black hole swallow us and also doesn’t set us free from this prison of waiting?’
Suha remembers that her mother-in-law stopped cooking Ziad’s favourite dishes five years ago. She says she can’t bear tasting them knowing that Ziad cannot. A fleeting thought occurs to Suha. She giggles and says, ‘Why don’t they start a faculty for studying the art of pain! Is there anything humans excel more at?’ She imagines her mother-in-law standing below a university auditorium in front of tens of students listening to her and taking notes! She laughs. ‘At least some of my crazy imagination is still alive!’
I wish I hadn’t stayed up and you had fallen asleep … I loved you.
She remembers a thought that comes to her when she lies next to Majd, that she has to wake up the next day, she has to stay alive tomorrow because this little one needs her. She asks the emptiness in front of her, ‘Do we have children for them to be an umbilical cord between us and life?’ She closes her eyes, rewinds her life’s reel and sees a lot of pictures, her mother’s face continually confused as if she is trapped in an ongoing dilemma. Her father’s face is a combination of worries and kindness. ‘Strengthen your heart.’ His much loved saying that he always repeated whenever he saw any fear or confusion in her eyes. She audibly says, ’How I need him, I need my father, I need his kind eyes and his tender voice to tell me, ‘Strengthen your heart Suha’. The tears keep coming and she wonders why the lord could not have come up with an alternative to death when he created this play? She thinks to herself, ‘I need to hug my father at this very moment. Death, can you not give me a small death so I can hug my father? Don’t be afraid, I don’t want a final death yet, I won’t sneak up on you!’
I am trying to forget and you’re stealing my ability to forget.
She speaks to the void, ‘Memories are exhausting me Ziad, I don’t forget anything, details pain me. The hair on your chest tickles my cheek and my forehead touches your chin. Doctors have a diagnosis for lack of iron in the blood, what about lack of kisses? Or the lack of hearing your laughter to bring back the colours of my soul. I can almost see your toothbrush extend to hug your hand. Your electric razor complains about the lack of usage. The right side of the bed, your pillow, your hanging shirts, your seat at the table, your favourite place on the sofa. Your things share the pain of waiting.’
She asks the void, ‘Has my love for you grown in your absence? We haven’t fought in five years! I miss our fights. I want to cuss once more my bad luck that caused me to fall for you, so you can chuckle and say, ‘You’re crazy.’ Every time I see two lovers I get the urge to tell them, ‘celebrate your existence, contemplate the miracle of being together!’
When I find you again I think I found what was lost, and then I lose you again every time I find you
She tells the void, ‘I dreamt once that you had come back, I hugged you, then I looked at your face, my fingers felt each of its details, I wanted to make sure that nothing in you had changed. Your wide forehead, the scar on the upper right side of your face, your brown eyes, your big nose and thin lips, my hands went through your short flowing hair, I whispered in your ear that I love you, you didn’t say anything. I didn’t hear your voice in the dream. I woke up panicked, this was the first time I had said I love you and you hadn’t replied with your usual, ‘I love you more’. Your silence in the dream was shocking. What if the dream had come true, Ziad? What if you did come back one day and you weren’t you anymore? They say that those who come back after long absences are nothing more than their ghosts, what comes back is the wreckage, the remains. Those who come back are shattered glass, trying to glue it together is futile. What have those five years done to you Ziad? Have you become rubble? Will we know each other if you come back?’
You are my prison, you are my prison and my freedom.
‘I think sometimes that I am not waiting for you out of love, but out of fear for you. I worry about you from another grief. You are a ship in the middle of the sea and I am your harbour. Do ships in the middle of a storm hear the harbour calling? I worry for you from the grief of lost ships. I worry for you from drowning again.’
She stands up, singing along
You are the one I hate and the one I love.
She spins in the centre of the room with raised arms, she dances and says, ‘I hate you Ziad, I hate your stubbornness and insistence on smoking. You tell me rudely, ignoring how it suffocates me, ‘I will stop when I decide to stop. I hate your sarcastic remarks, ‘Suha, go easy on the food, you know I don’t like fat women… Why did I love you? Why you specifically? I could have loved anyone else, someone less stubborn, less sarcastic, less arrogant. Love is the product of our illusions and dreams. A girl grown up with dreams of marriage and children being planted in her head. Then she prepares the trap for the prey, she gets made up, and flirts in the hope that she would catch the best one. And you were merely the best prey that fell in my trap. We invent the legend of love so we can escape our constructed hunger.’
Suha stops dancing. ‘Yesterday I told myself, today is a new day, stop butchering your days with waiting, Ziad is dead. They’ve burnt him. They’ve drowned him. They blindfolded him and killed him. Stop waiting, enough illusions. For five years you’ve been watering this hope, and not once blossom or bud has showed. For five years you’ve been a widow in the making, stop being a project or an idea, realise yourself, be the word, be a widow. Tomorrow you will cut the ropes of your torture with your teeth. Tomorrow you will wake up and take a hot shower and wear your best clothes and put on some lipstick. Yes, lipstick is enough to tell everyone that you have just finished killing hope, they will see its blood on your lips. And if someone asks you how you are, tell them you’re as well as can be. Take everything else off with that hope, the worried confused looks and the expired prayers. Tomorrow is a new day, tomorrow you wake up with the heart of a hungry wolf who doesn’t condemn hunting and doesn’t have sympathy for the gazelles.’
She falls to her knees on the floor. She wails, she whines. She says, ‘That tomorrow hasn’t come yet. It hasn’t come yet.’
Her father’s voice echoes in her head, ‘Strengthen your heart, Suha.’ She thinks, ‘Tomorrow I’ll wear the lipstick and tell them, what do I tell them? You’re the one I hate, you’re the one I love.’
The doorbell rings, Suha flinches, she fixes her hair with her fingers, she wipes her face, stands up, walks to the door, it must be Majd, back from kindergarten with his grandfather. She hums, ‘You’re the one I love.’
‘Dance’ was written as part of Beirut Short Stories, a collaboration between KfW Stiftung and the Goethe-Institut for the promotion of young literary talent in the Middle East. The project consists of writing workshops for young writers writing in Arabic who develop short stories under the direction of renowned writers (including Abbas Khider and Dima Wannous). The best texts are translated and published in Arabic and English on adda.