Read time: 6 mins

Walking on Quicksand

by Huda Armosh
28 August 2020

Translated by Nariman Youssef

A ground laid with sand, marks where his toes have brushed it, his feet scattering a few sand grains, forming a crescent in the air and kicking the tip of the orange scarf that hangs down to his right knee, sending it upward to spin around his waist into a swirling cyclone. To the tabla rhythm, he shakes his hips, moves his weight from one foot to the other. His belly shimmies with the oud strums. The violin joins in and he arches his back, naked except for the scarf, his hands in the air. He lifts his right elbow and brings it down, then his left, undulating his arms snake-like as he slowly rises. His long earrings are flicked by his shoulder that roll with the movement. He pulls his long hair into a ponytail, the muscles on his back strong and defined, and swings it in the air to the changing rhythm. The rose that has been fastened to his locks falls and lands in the sand.

With the final dum from the tabla, he turns to the mirror leaning against the wall, raises his left eyebrow and smiles. He glances at the motion of his full chest with the quickened breath then throws the scarf on the bed and follows it, his face and legs open as if for someone waiting. In a corner of his room covered in sand from a Haifa beach, he practices his dance. He takes the headphones off and unplugs them. From the main speakers, an old song descends on the room.

He pulls off the wig and removes the hairs caught between his fingers, then gently pats his hair, his eyes closing with each touch like a cat’s, retrieving some calm from the clamour that has filled the space around him once he’s stopped dancing. Drops of sweat form at the top of his head and glide down his scalp to the curve of his neck, where the soft pillow soaks them up. His gaze travels around the room: the sand-covered corner, the architectural models spread along the wall – historical and dilapidated buildings carrying hundreds of years between their folds – the samples of stones that he has laid out on custom-made canvas bags, the books arranged in a huge suitcase. He stops at the few booklets and the stack of papers atop a clear folder on the table by his side.

He takes the papers, holds them up and lets them fall – they tumble down on his face, neck and chest. He breathes in their scent then pulls himself up and picks up a document that carries his photo ID. With his index finger, he traces the words at the top: ‘tourist visa’. He closes his eyes and pressed his forehead, sticky with the cooling sweat, against the plastic folder. He imagines his boyfriend’s face getting nearer to his, a big smile on his face, neither of them able to look away from the other. He takes the folder from the table, pulls out another set of documents, and goes towards the window. Leaning slightly out of the window to get some air, he extends his arm with the documents towards the sun, as if they can only be read by sunlight. They are from an NGO that organises youth programmes around gender and sexuality. He’ll never get rid of this habit of twirling the hem of his clothes around his fingers when he’s thinking.

The plan was for his boyfriend to spend as much time as he can with the kids over the summer holiday, then leave his wife. They should have left together. He turns his back to the window. But to wait for him would have meant risking his life. Suddenly, the air pressure in the room transforms into a pillar of steel pushed into his throat, releasing the tears that are held there. It’s the same lump he once stifled when he stopped himself from breaking down in front of his parents. He’d overheard them say that they would lock him in a room away from his siblings to protect them from being corrupted. The first sob unhinges his knees. His body collapses onto the grains of sand that carve a place for themselves on his skin. He weeps.

I want to write poems for readers with no mother or father,

For they alone understand what cannot be told.

His phone vibrates but he doesn’t hear it over the song that was still pouring out of the speaker, nor does he see the flashing light from behind his tears. He tries to remember who it was who wrote this poem playing in his head, or what the next lines were. He shakes it off, gathers himself and crawls from the window to the bed. Exhaustion has drained all his will. He falls asleep.

He wakes up from a long sleep to find a text message and a missed call from his boyfriend. He replies with a laughing emoji and lines of red hearts and orange flames, but his texts don’t appear to be delivered. He turns off the music and calls, only to get a recorded message saying that the phone is switched off. He bends down, ties the laces of his trainers so tight he nearly chokes his feet, and grabs his rucksack to head out. As his hand touches the door handle, he turns confidently towards the mirror. He looks good, he thinks, even if the mirror reflects nothing but the colour of the opposite wall.

He walks out into the city wearing a rainbow bandana around his head. People’s reactions tell him nothing. He opens his bag and pulls out his phone and a flag with light blue, pink and white stripes, which he waves with both hands above his head. There is something like a sixth sense that lets you feel the world with your eyelashes when you’re happy, he thinks to himself. But once he notices the crowd of people behind him, his eyes cloud over. Pain shoots through the sole of his foot and his big toe. The noise that fills his head is like a badly played violin. A voice asks if he’s ok and the noise travels from his ears to his eyes, blurring the picture before him. Pain squeezes the seams of his skull. The voice grabs his neck and lifts him up like he’s made of straw, then throws him down on his back. He feels every bone in his spine as he hits the ground, wishes he were falling upwards instead, onto that delicate cloud lazing in the sun, looking outwards to the open sky instead of inwards on his fear and covertness.

When the voice comes nearer to his face, he sees the deep wrinkles running from the eyes down the cheeks. His thin fingers, blue veins pulsing under their skin, shake before his eyes, his hands hold his head band, and he turned his face to the right then to the left. The man yells, ‘Are you ok?’ and he pulls his neck back, locking the answer in. It feels like if he opens his mouth the sound coming out would be that of the wind. His eyes sink into blackness and he sees himself running, gasping for air, his brother following him on a motorbike, its motor screaming behind him.

The ambulance crew arrives and puts him on a stretcher. His head lolls to the side, the hands carrying him unsteady and the feet racing ahead. He wakes again when they put him inside the ambulance. One of the paramedics seems new, asking the other too many questions. The examination reveals nothing to worry about. He just needs rest and food. They take off his shoes, ask him for his address, and advise him to eat something. One of them gives him a candy from a bag in his pocket.

He gets home, heads to the bedroom and lays himself down. From under the pillow he pulls out a chequered black-and-white cloth that he hugs to himself. Soon he’s twirling the hem of his shirt again while his head hatches a whole flock of questions. For twenty-seven years he couldn’t see life, until he met his love, and now more blindness awaits.

He murmurs the rest of the poem –

But those who have no mother or father understand

the vacant rooms, the dusty books, the stifled poems.

They simply walk close to their death, deep within the body a soft

touch that guides with no telling, no stopping.

Illustration by Alexis Baydoun

About the Author

Huda Armosh

Huda Armosh was born in 1998 and is from Nablus, Palestine. She has a BA in Law from Al-Najah University, is a trainee lawyer and researcher at the Palestinian Affairs Center while preparing for the Bar exam.