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I wish I had the luxury to make my dreams come true; bring to life those visions that visit me every time I close my eyes at night. I wish I could wake up to find the place all clean and tidy with not a speck of dust in sight. With chairs standing tall, tables and beds as they should be, walls holding the roof in place and not crumbling helplessly around us, the exteriors pockmarked with bullets, the plaster blown away. I yearn to hear birds chirping in the trees outside, see flowers nodding their heads and feel the wind blowing in and out of open windows, caressing my face and carrying the smell of cooking from all the hearths around us. Most of all I want to experience that feeling in my stomach of contentment born out of years of fulfillment.
But I wake up to the noise of soft crying in hidden spaces, behind cupboards, under the stairs, in any place that can shield a body from what’s to come. I wake up to bombs howling through the sky in search of something to explode, of lightning flashes running from over there to here, directing fire towards us, targeting us as we sleep and dream, of furniture scattered like after a brawl, chairs bent, their legs broken in like an old man shuffling on the street in another country. I wake up to see my children cowering in a corner, tears staining their cheeks and mingling with the dust that has settled yet again, and the look in their eyes that remind me of the dead. I wake up to the wail in my stomach that tries valiantly to drown the noise outside.
That simple dream I dream every night, of waking to peace and beauty, was real a long time ago. A long time before my time, when things were not like this. But not for me. My ancestors’ reality is not my inheritance. My reality is a different story, one they wouldn’t understand. They’d think I was joking if I told them about it, not believe a word of it, say I was making it up. My home is not how I want it to be. There are no walls to protect me, only gaping holes, large ugly openings covered over with old bedsheets that don’t keep away the dust that flies in on howling winds during summer or the terrible cold that creeps in to wrap itself around me like a blanket hugging my body in a chill embrace.
This is my life. It’s been like this for a long time. It’s not how I wanted it. I want to live free, to be able to walk the streets without worrying if I will ever return home, if I will ever see my children, my family or my friends again. I want to move to every corner of this land without being told, Stop! You can’t go there. You are the wrong kind.
But I’m not free. I wasn’t born free. There were restrictions placed the moment I came to this world. There were things I couldn’t do, places I couldn’t go to and dreams I had no right to dream – though I dream them in secret when no one is there to prevent me.
They made the decision, as they have always done all these years and for as long as I can remember. I am a visitor in my own country, that’s what they tell me; an unwanted visitor they wish to get rid of. But where will I go? There’s no place to go. How do I leave my home and go away? Where do I go? Do I live like a criminal always on the run when all I have done wrong is to be born different? Not like them?
There were many people who went away. They were tired of all the rules that never change but keep piling up higher and higher like dirty washing sitting on top of the broken machine waiting for someone to come along and do something, anything.
But exile isn’t as nice as it sounds. There are no olive trees in exile, no narrow streets to walk on and no familiar faces to greet you as you go shopping or to school or stop by to have a chat with someone over a cup of tea, ask about their family, their children, how they are getting on. Everything looks different in exile. People give you strange looks in exile, glances of scorn as they see you attempt to build a life in another country, their country. They stare at your clothes and make fun of the way you try to roll your tongue around an alien language. No one stops to talk to strangers in exile. The trees look different and the wind carries unfamiliar smells from unknown places. Even the food tastes different in exile.
Those folks yearn to come back but they can no longer return. They are not allowed to. There’s nothing to return to except broken-down buildings but even that is not permitted. There are limitations for our kind. But not for the others. They can walk free, live free. Come and go as they please.
I will stay here. Where else will I go? I can’t go that way, or the other way. They’ve closed the exits. No one can leave even if they want to. They cry and beg, scrambling over each other to pass through, but the gates are bolted shut and the guards stand with guns ready to shoot. And over there, beyond those broken-down buildings, there’s only sea. I can’t swim. And even if I could where would I go? This is my home. There’s nothing for me out there. Nothing. No one. Everything I know is here – my family, the trees, the roads, my ancestors, and our broken-down house with its dreadful gaping holes.
Last night Wasim walked out never to return although he didn’t know it then. He went into the open to pray. He said he couldn’t sleep; the noise was bothering him and the humidity inside was stifling. He would pray instead. The school grounds would be quiet at this time, cooler too. He would pray to God under an open sky. Plead with Him to stop the roaring bombs destroying us further, beg Him to give us food, money to mend our houses and peace for at least a few lifetimes.
“I won’t be long.”
He picked up an old mat and walked out of the house, his feet as silent as a cat’s. He stopped at the corner to look up at the building and wave at me standing in the shadows of the open window. A lone figure on a lonely street, his face shrouded in darkness.
It struck him as he bent his head down to touch the ground, his prayers cut in mid sentence. God never heard him call out.
Another bomb took our neighbourhood. There’s nothing left except ugliness but I’ve got used to the hideous mess that’s our life. It’s all around me. Has been for a long time. My old home is no longer recognizable. They tell us to go someplace else, but where do I go? Where do we all go? Where, where, where? There’s too many of us that can fit into a tiny place. Besides, there’s no place to go. All the places are crowded, the neighbourhoods, the schools, the hospitals. Even the graveyards are beginning to overflow. Soon there will be no room to bury the dead. The few places that aren’t crowded are collapsing like my home that I try desperately to keep together. And I will stay.
You ask me why I want to stay.
“Are you mad? Don’t you care? For yourself? For your children?”
Yes I too think I’m unwise to remain while the skies hurl fire at us without respite.
“Why don’t you go?”
The voice inside my head screams, banging to be let out while I remain silent. I can’t leave. It’s not as easy as that. Where will I go? There’s no place like home, and though there’s only rubble and dirt now, this too is home. Where will I go? I’ve done no wrong, broken no rules, no one can make me leave. This is my home. My ancestors’ home. I will stay to protect it for my children and their children.
But leave, they tell me over and over. Leave now before it’s too late. Before, before, before. But the words make no sense.
There’s nothing to eat. No water to wash ourselves. I made a thin soup for lunch with the leftover vegetables Hana gave me. She knew I couldn’t leave the children alone to go out to look for food. Besides, where would I look for food? The shop on the corner we bought food from was reduced to rubble. What little provisions not burnt were taken away by the mobs that rose to protest. And now Wasim’s gone, where will I find the money to buy food?
It’s night and I can’t sleep again. The sky is lit up all over like a thousand fire crackers bursting in the sky. But it isn’t beautiful. Not to me or the ones sitting here wondering which one would come screaming at us as we huddle in a corner hoping and praying they’ll fall someplace else.
But those folks living on the other side think it is beautiful – the night sky with its sparkle of lights. Bring their chairs out into the open to sit and watch and cheer like it’s a game of football. I’m forced to play a game I don’t want but I’m not on the team. I’m the ball they throw around. That’s what’s become of my life. The noise is deafening. The roar of bombs flying in to make their mark on buildings, homes, hospitals, and every place I call home. It’s not a nice sound. Will it ever end?
The last time it was white phosphorus that turned some of us into something strange. Our flesh burnt, we looked like old people, coughing like the sick that should have been inside hospitals but there was no room for all of us inside the hospitals that were already crammed. They are always full; every hospital is overcrowded, never empty – unlike our stomachs. And our dreams.
Every moment they tell me I should go, move out. Don’t give us much warning. Three days ago they sent a message to Uncle Usman who lives on the other side of town. They couldn’t contact him so they called Aziz, his neighbour in the other building, and asked him to pass on the message.
“We will fire in two minutes,” they said.
Old man Aziz had barely enough time to get off his chair when the bomb whizzed in through the open window. Uncle Usman was buried under the debris. They had to pull him out. He was bleeding all over and he had a broken leg. He now has a broken heart after he heard that Soraya his beautiful wife had died. Unlike the leg, his heart cannot be mended. My cousins lived, but two nieces died. Several more children in the building also died, burnt by the flames, crushed under the rubble. They said the children were terrorists and had to be got rid of, even the infants that couldn’t lift their arms to hold the bottle of weak milk that was all they had to drink.
I will stay here. What else can I do? I will bury my feet in the sand like I used to do on the beach, letting the waves run past me – in out, in out – digging my feet in deeper and deeper. I will bury my feet here and wait. There are no waves here to bury me deeper except for the rubble that piles up higher and higher. But I’ll wait. I buried Wasim today amidst the noise and scorching sun. There were many others that joined him. Very soon there will no longer be any space left on earth for all of the dead. Who will it be tomorrow? I’ll dig myself in deep and wait like mother earth waits, silently opening herself up to take in her children as they are thrust in every day. I don’t know for how long I’ll wait but I know I won’t go away. I’ll wait. Even if it takes a lifetime and even if I’m the only one left. I’ll wait. And if they try to drag me away I’ll kick and scream and refuse to leave. They will have no choice but to leave me where I am. Or send a bullet into me. I’ll wait. This is my home. I’ll wait.