My father had asked me, "Shall we go to al-Muzair'a first, or to
Jaffa so you can see the sea?" Time had stopped, waiting for my
My longing was all for the sea, and Father's longing for the land.
I passed a long moment, facing the question and the wrinkled face.
His memory has fed me stories of both land and sea, and now he was
asking the difficult question, adding in a conspiratorial tone what
would likely give him the desired response, "From Muzair'a you can
see the sea, since it overlooks Jaffa."
He repeated his question democratically: "What shall it be, the
land or the sea?"
I said, "We'll go to the land first."
The words slipped across my tongue gently, in a tone bent on
fulfilling Father's wish. He seemed relieved, his tension
disappeared, lit up. I consoled myself thinking I would see the sea
from there, and the streets burned under the wheels of the
We left the gloom of Ramallah behind us in the distance. Ramallah,
which had many years ago bidden good-bye to its summer, always
seemed to be huddling into itself, dreaming of another summer. The
region called Batn al-Hawa, the Belly of the Wind, on the outskirts
of the town, opened up to a rich and pure breeze. For there you
could bid good-bye to the town; and it welcomed you back at the
Now our driver was saying, "Batn al-Hawa! The purest air in the
He breathed deeper, filling his lungs, and my father did the
Crickets buzzed among wild thickets of trees, their incessant
humming scratching the solemn silence of the place.
We passed Bitunya. Now the humming disappeared, and silence
dominated the village whose houses were scattered to the right of
the road, whole fields stretched to the left. I could see the
furrowed spaces at the base of the mountain slopes stretching wide,
lined with grooves which the sun left in a land that sucked
seawater. I could remember the days of the tiny sea. Rainwater
poured toward this place, from the sky, from the top of the
mountain, from the side of the street, or oozed out of the land
itself, gathering on the land at the foot of the slope. We would
cross the hills under the sunrays that appeared after days of
incessant rain, and come to Bitunya to see its sea. It was really
no sea at all, but we regarded it as such after our feet had been
wounded from walking and hopping across the mountain rocks. We
would contemplate the "sea" for a moment, then strip off our
clothes and jump in to embrace the water. We believed we were
embracing the real sea. We would dive and plunge and swim till
evening came. Then we would return home, exhausted, across the
mountains. Mother would scream from the distance as she saw me
coming. "Where were you? My heart was burning up with worry...
where were you?"
My damp, disheveled hair with mud still clinging to it would expose
"I was at the sea!"
"What sea?" she'd return, angrily. "What muddy sea are you talking
She would peel the mud off my skin, as I stood naked in the basin,
surrendering to the water's warmth and the smell of soap and the
loofah scrubbing my body raw. I listened to her voice. "What sea is
this? There's no sea left. They've taken all the seas. Jaffa's sea,
and Haifa's sea, and Gaza's sea and the sea of Majdal. They've
taken all the seas. Mud! Nothing but mud! Look at the water under
your feet! It's all mud!
The water under my feet was all mud. They'd taken the seas and left
this sea of mud for me. I asked my father about the real sea's
color and he said it was more blue than the sky. So it's not just
the color of mud then? I asked how big it was and Father said the
eyes could not measure it; I knew then that my mother's seas were
all one big continuous sea stretching along the country's
And I kept longing for the sea. When I answered his "Land or the
sea?" question with, "Land first," I kept my longing secret. "From
our village I shall see the sea." The car was still swallowing the
distance, crossing roads and villages.
...The landscape changed and wilderness rose on both sides of the
road. Small houses retreated, and small rocks, and fields, and wild
trees. Locusts disappeared and wandering butterflies, and death
dominated the landscape. Somehow wonder and enjoyment felt suddenly
absent. What was this place? We stayed silent for a long time. Even
the car's engine felt muted. The silence prevailed until the
driver's voice broke in finding my face in the mirror and
questioning rather defiantly, "Do you know where we are,
I was not happy with that name. Ustadh sounded sticky in my ears.
But the place remained dry and desolate. I said without pause, "In
No trace of the destroyed village remained. Bulldozers and tractors
had removed all its ruins after demolishing the houses. How did I
recognize it then, despite the fact that I had never visited it?
Sometimes I had passed it nearby on my way to 'Imwas.
The driver continued to gaze at me in the mirror, and said, "Bait
Nuba! Then you know all the region!"
Father sounded shocked. "Bait Nuba! God, I served in it for six
months when I was in the National Guard. But by God, I didn't
recognize it now. How could I?"
...The driver pointed to the barren summit of a mountain, "That's
where Yalu once stood. They've destroyed it too, completely erased.
Do you remember it, Ustadh?"
I tried to sound assertive as I stared at the eroded black line
which used to be the paved road that led to the village. "I
remember it. It has an ancient wall that was wiped out along with
the houses of the village."
The driver answered, "A wall? I don't remember! Anyway, you are
more knowledgeable than we are in history, Ustadh."
Yes, it had an old wall. We were silent for a long time....
[…] The car swerved onto a new road opposite the seminary [in
'Imwas]. I felt a blood other than my own rush into my veins. Here
I was, entering the road of my own village for the first time. The
driver said, "Here's where the wire fences stretched."
My eyes searched the ground for some landmark, but could see
nothing besides flat stretches of land. The seminary grew smaller
behind us, a little green oasis. I could feel the car's wheels
madly trampling the old days behind us, all crushed by this new
paved road that joined the street of 'Imwas with a road which had
been neglected for years. Thorns had grown from its cracks. Once it
joined the village with other invaded towns beyond. Now the new
street was struggling to connect some lost continuity, interrupted
by the thorns and wires. The driver said, "Now we're in the green
belt they speak of."
"Where is this belt? The land used to be always green!" my father
The speeding wheels were still swallowing the asphalt road, burning
away history, memory, the war, defeated armies, names carved on
cactus leaves and the bark of cypress trees; and piercing time over
a road where memory froze like the hard face of an icy river.
The driver said, "It won't be long now."
We arrived. I stepped out of the car silently, armed with dreams
and wonder! I tried to contain my excitement and took a deep
A sour air filled my lungs. The car that had carried us here drove
off, its engine melting into the emptiness as it veered far away
behind the mountain. Silence with its rough fingers fell upon the
We could see the rubble of the village on our right… the
remnants of a wall and scattered stones of houses. Far away, a
small old building the size of a single room remained standing
among the debris. On the left the old fields stretched, a million
slender green stems going toward the sea.
Our footsteps left the paved road and walked onto dusty ground
dominated by thorns and dry wild plants. We crushed them beneath
our shoes, making a broken sound which mingled with my father's
He stopped among the debris. I stood behind him, feeling completely
bound to him, mechanically reacting to his every move. His eyes
roamed the place like two swords, and he looked like an old
horseman whose spears had all been broken. The footsteps of his
aging horse echoed plaintively on the ground. Then he sighed
deeply, expressing emotions which had been suppressed in his breast
for many years, devouring his life. "Ah! I never believed I'd live
long enough to stand on it again with you! Twenty-five years! What
What a life that crushed us from one exile to another!
I stared at everything. Merciless misery everywhere. I could not
find any kinship to this land. Where were the threads of continuity
that had shaped themselves so beautifully in my mind through many a
winter's tale? I wondered in my heart if we had not lost our way,
then could not help saying, "This is it?"
I wanted the question to be neutral, perhaps kind… but my
mouth was suddenly dry. What cruelty could two small words embody?
"This is it?" and what guilty eyes faced my father's reaction to
He glanced at me hard, as if he sensed in my question the hint of
denial of all the beautiful descriptions he had, over the past
years, bestowed on this place. What cruelty could make of these two
Such a rude and stupid question!
But his face looked simple, transparent as dew as he answered. For
twenty-five years I had known this face with its sad wrinkles, its
clarity, its tender eyes that examined things with strange
compassion. But never before had it seemed purer or more tenderly
eager than it did now. Also, it was sadder and more tired than I
had ever seen it. His hungry eyes scanned the old dust, the stones,
the fallen walls and dry trees, submerging them in that strange
tenderness, bestowing on them the longing of a lover who had
finally laid his head on the breast of his beloved.
After a long silence he said, almost apologetically, "That's it!
But it was not like this."
The apology felt like a stab in my heart. I had thought his face to
be answer enough.
I breathed deeply, trying to find some fresh air to inhale. The
native son knows his village and surroundings better than I or the
driver; even Bait Nuba, which I could recognize after they had
wiped it out in its entirety. I could see Yalu's wall that was
there no more. I am a teacher, supposed to know history, and a
driver who knows no history says they've left the seminary standing
because it supplied them with wine. We used to drink wine under the
holy trees in the Latrun seminary gazing at the names we had carved
on cactus leaves and tree barks. Yusuf would see the sea and I
would not, and I'd feel isolated. A driver may know no history, but
he knows the secrets of geography. Now I felt isolated again,
isolated, falling into the second sin because my mother's seas were
not separated, were never separated, would always remain one sea
stretching along the country. My father's face was answer enough.
Therefore, his words hit hard, slapping my face, and burdening me
with the cruelty of my question, "This is it?" No, it was never
like this, just like so many other places that are no longer as
they were. The street of 'Imwas used to be a human river on a
summer evening, and now it is wiped out. Houses and bus stops, and
graves and the café all wiped out. What a sin to feel so
isolated, when my mother's seas were one continuous
We were walking among the stones, trying to avoid stumbling on
them. Father stopped suddenly and I stopped behind
[…] Then he jumped, startled, fixing his eyes on a faraway
tree with broken branches. He began scrambling toward it like a
chased locust, and I was leaping behind him, curious about what had
prompted such sudden energy, what discovery had suddenly burst
forth. He ran as if he were young again, dodging stones and
approaching a tree against which he pressed his palms, palms worn
out by longing, age, and fatigue. He shouted, "This was our new
house! I knew it from this China tree. God! The China tree neither
grows old nor dies….
[…] His voice sounded amazed, like a surprised, cool wind
rising up from the valleys of past life; he pointed at everything,
his forefinger piercing the air with great fondness, as if he had
just discovered the outlines of the place for the first time.
"There… there's the Yemen well. We used to call it that.
Water? No! it had no water… Look, the za'atar now covers its
mouth… On this side was the old town and our old house was
there. And there, far away, was Lidd. Muzair'a is in the Lidd
district. Next to those trees below was Quliya, our neighboring
village. In it Hasan Salama taught us how to make explosives from
sugar and potassium."
He pointed out the remains of several other villages. Then his
voice began to falter a little. I saw defeat weaken his posture. I
seemed to hear waves rolling across the green spaces. Distance
narrowed, pulling me toward the sea. Then I heard his voice saying,
"Our land was famous for its sabr."
His fingers peeled the thorny skin of the delicious fruit as I
watched. He bent to eat it with relish. A great sadness whose
source I could not fathom overwhelmed me. It was a sorrow that
arose from gazing into the face of an old man eating his fruit with
so much passion, as if by gripping it he gripped life. He offered
me a fruit that he had peeled for me. I shook my head, saying I
wasn't hungry. In fact, I wanted it very much; but sorrow dominated
I dug my feet into the ground, leaning against the China tree. My
father's voice repeated that the China tree neither grows old nor
ever dies. I felt its bark pressing against my back. My eyes gazed
out toward the coastal plain and moved toward the sea like a colt
bolting abruptly. I realized the sea lay there, covered with fog.
My father lay down on the ground, breathing the earth's fragrance.
Suddenly, the place came alive for me, overflowing with houses and
trees and people who used to be there. The stones rose up in front
of me rebuilding themselves, and I could see the place with a
different intimacy, a familiarity borne in the bones. I wanted the
stones to speak, to carry on a dialogue with me. And I felt
overwhelmed by the flavor of cocoa in the belly of Ramallah valley,
by the rich smell of Jerusalem's humidity, and the aroma of za'atar
breaking up out of the well of Yemen. In the brilliance of the
horizon behind the fog I could see my mother's seas all joined. One
single sea, to which my eyes were trying to find a passage.
From Modern Palestinian Literature. Translated from the Arabic by
Mai Jayyusi and Naomi Shihab Nye.