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 answer.
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 car.
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 same place….
Now our driver was saying, "Batn al-Hawa! The purest air in the world!"
He breathed deeper, filling his lungs, and my father did the same.
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 me.
"I was at the sea!"
"What sea?" she'd return, angrily. "What muddy sea are you talking about?"
"In Bitunya."
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 coast.
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, Ustadh?"
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 Bait Nuba."
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 exclaimed.
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 breath.
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 place.
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 panting.
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 a life!"
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 the question.
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 neutral words!
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 sea….
We were walking among the stones, trying to avoid stumbling on them. Father stopped suddenly and I stopped behind him….
[…] 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 all desire.
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.