I was sleeping very late. There is a Chinese writer whose name is
Sun Tsi and who lived hundreds of years before Christ. I was very
attracted by him. He relieved my weariness and held my attention.
(However, all that is beside the point of what I am going to write
about.) He wrote that war is subterfuge and that victory is in
anticipating everything and making your enemy expect nothing. He
wrote that war is surprise. He wrote that war is an attack on
ideals. He wrote...
But all that is beside the point...
I was sleeping very late and the telephone rang very early. The
voice that came from the other end was completely refreshed and
awake, almost joyful and proud. There were no feelings of guilt in
its modulations. Half asleep, I said to myself: this is a man who
gets up early. Nothing troubles him at night. The night had been
rainy, with thunder and strong winds. Do you see what men do in
times like this, the men who are marching in the early darkness to
build for us an honor unstained by the mud? The night was rainy,
and this man, at the other end of the line...
But all this is also beside the point.
He said to me: "I have an idea. We'll collect toys for the children
and send them to the refugees in Jordan, to the camps. You know,
these are holidays now."
I was half asleep. The camps. Those stains on the forehead of our
weary morning, lacerations brandished like flags of defeat,
billowing by chance above the plains of mud and dust and
compassion. I had been teaching that day in one of those camps. One
of the young students, called Darwish, sold cakes after school was
out and I had chased him in between the tents and the mud and the
sheets of tin and the puddles in order to get him into the evening
class. His hair was short and curly and always wet. He was very
bright and he wrote the best creative compositions in the class. If
he had found something for himself to eat that day, his genius knew
no bounds. It was a big camp. They called it...
But that too is beside the point.
The man at the other end of the line said to me: "It's an excellent
idea, don't you think?" You'll help us. We want a news campaign in
the papers, you know." Even though I was half asleep, just the
right phrases leapt to my mind: "Mr. So-and-So spent his New Year
holiday collecting toys for the refugees. High society women will
distribute them in the camps." The camps are muddy and dresses this
season are short, and the boots are white. Just yesterday I had
torn up a news story and photo: the lovely Miss So-and-So spent the
evening in such-and-such a nightclub. The young man sitting with
her spilled his drink on her dress and she emptied a bottle on his
suit. I said, that must have cost at least a hundred pounds. I
said, at that price...
But all this is beside the point.
Going on, he said to me: "We'll put them in cardboard boxes and
find trucks to bring them free of charge. We'll distribute them
sealed and that way it will be a surprise." A surprise. War is
surprise too. That's what the Chinese writer Sun Tsi said five
hundred years before Christ. I was half asleep and I couldn't
control this folly. Such accidents occasionally happen to me,
especially when I'm tired, and then I can't believe my eyes. I look
at people and ask: are these really our faces? All this mud which
June has vomited on to them, how could we have cleaned it off so
quickly? Can we really be smiling? Is it true...?
But this too is beside the point.
As the telephone receiver slipped from my hand, he said: "On the
morning of the holiday, every child will get a sealed package, with
a surprise toy inside it. It will be luck." The receiver fell. The
pillow carried me back nineteen years.
It was the year 1949.
They told us that day: the Red Cross will bring all you children
presents for the holiday. I was wearing short pants and a gray
cotton shirt and open shoes without socks. The winter was the worst
the region had ever seen and when I set out that morning my fingers
froze and were covered with something like fine glass. I sat down
on the pavement and began to cry. Then a man came by and carried me
to a nearby shop where they were lighting a wood fire in some kind
of tin container. They brought me close and I stretched my feet
towards the flame. Then I went racing to the Red Cross Center, and
stood with the hundreds of children, all of us waiting for our
The boxes seemed very far away and we were trembling like a field
of sugar cane and hopping about in order to keep the blood flowing
in our veins. After a million years, my turn came. A clean starched
nurse gave me a red square box.
I ran "home" without opening it. Now, nineteen years later, I have
completely forgotten what was in that dream box. Except for just
one thing: a can of lentil soup.
I clutched the soup can with my two hands red from the cold and
pressed it to my chest in front of ten other children, my brothers
and relatives, who looked at it with their twenty wide eyes.
Probably the box held splendid children's toys too, but these
weren't to eat and so I didn't pay any attention to them and they
got lost. I kept the can of soup for a week, and every day I gave
my mother some of it in a water glass so she could cook it for
I remember nothing except the cold, and the ice which manacled my
fingers, and the can of soup.
The voice of the man who wakes up early was still ringing in my
head that tired gray morning when the bells began to clang in a
dreadful emptiness. I returned from my trip into the past which
continued to throb in my head, and I...
But all of that too is beside the point.
December 1, 1968
From Palestine's Children. Translated from the
Arabic by Barbara Harlow. London: Heinemann, 1984.