DevMode
It was afternoon and Jaffa - except for al-Manshiya - was still just the way Faris al-Labda had known it twenty years ago. He felt that those few moments which had passed between knocking on the door and hearing the steps of a man approaching to open it had only prolonged the ages of anger and weak, crippled sorrow. Finally, the door opened and a tall dark man wearing an unbuttoned white shirt extended his hand to greet the unknown arrival. Faris, however, ignored the outstretched hand and said with a quietness that carried the full weight of his anger.
"I've come to take a look at my house. This place where you're living is my house. Your presence here is just a sad comedy which is going to come to an end some day, even if it means using force. If you want you can open fire on me this instant, but it's my house. I've waited twenty years to return to it... and if...."
The man remained standing on the threshold, his hand still outstretched. He laughed loudly as he drew near to Faris al-Labda so that he was directly in front of him. Stretching out his open arms, he embraced him…
"There's no need to pour out your anger at me. I'm an Arab too, and from Jaffa, just like you. I know you. You?re Ibn al-Labda...Come in and have a coffee!"
Perplexed, Faris went inside. He almost didn?t believe it. But it was the same house, with its furniture and arrangement and the colors of the walls and all the things he remembered well. The man led him towards the sitting room unable to restrain his broad smile. He opened the door and invited him to enter. Faris stood as if nailed to the spot. Then, suddenly, the tears began to pour from his eyes!
The sitting room was exactly as it had been, as if he had just left that morning. The same aroma suffused it, the fragrance of the sea which had always raged inside his head, eddies of unknown worlds ready to be invaded and challenged. But it wasn't this that had nailed him to the spot. On the wall facing him, painted in a glowing white color, the picture of his brother Badr still hung, defining the entire room, with the broad black sash attached to the right-hand corner. It was still just as it had been.
All of a sudden an air of mourning flowed into the room and the tears returned to Faris's cheeks as he stood there. Those were old days, but now they came rushing back as if the long-closed gates had been thrown wide open.
His brother Badr had been the first to carry a gun in the al-Ajami region during the first week of December in the year 1947. From that time on, the house had been transformed into a meeting place for the young men who at that time filled the playground of the Orthodox church each afternoon. But now everything had changed. Badr had joined in the combat. It was as if he had been waiting for this ever since his childhood. Then on 6 April, 1948, Badr was brought to the house on the shoulders of his comrades. His pistol was still at his waist, but his rifle had been broken to pieces,
along with his body, when he was struck by a shell on the Tel al-Rish road. Al-Ajami had paid its last honors to the body of Badr, just as his comrades were obliged to pay honor to the martyr. Then a large portrait of him was brought and one of his friends went out to Iskandar Iwad Street where he presented a small plaque saying that Badr al-Labda had been martyred in the struggle for national liberation. A child carried the plaque at the head of the funeral procession and two other children carried his picture. When evening came, the picture was returned to the house and the black ribbon of mourning was attached to the right-hand corner.
He still remembered how his mother had hung all the pictures which were there on the walls of the sitting room. She hung the picture of Badr on the wall facing the door and, ever since then, the fragrance of mourning had filled the room. People continued to come and sit in the room and gaze at the picture and offer their condolences.

From where he was standing, Faris could see the nails which used to hold the other pictures twenty years ago, their heads protruding from the empty walls. They looked like men standing expectantly before the large picture of his brother, the martyr, Badr al-Labda, clad in black in the heart of the room.
The man spoke to Faris: "Come in. Come in and sit down. Let's talk a little. We've been waiting so long. We want to see you all on some different occasion, not like this."
Faris went in, as if he were walking through a dream which he didn't believe, and sat down in a chair which faced the fraternal picture. This was the first time in twenty years he had seen his brother Badr's picture. When they left Jaffa (they were taken by boat from an area north of Shatt al-Shabab, and had gone in the direction of Gaza; his father, however, had returned and emigrated to Jordan), they had taken nothing with them, not even the small picture of Badr which was still there.
Faris was unable to speak until two children entered the room and started to run about between the chairs. They departed in a clamor just as they had entered. The man spoke:
"That was Saad and Badr, my sons."
"Badr?"
"Yes, we named him after your brother, the martyr."
"And the picture?"
The man stood still and his face changed. Then he said: "I am from Jaffa, from al-Manshiya. During the 1948 war my house was destroyed by mortar shells. I don?t want to tell you now all about how Jaffa fell. And about how they all retreated and about those who came to help us in the moment of crisis. That's finished with now. The important thing is that when I came back to the abandoned city with the combatants, they arrested us. I spent a long time in the detention camp. Then when they released me, I refused to leave Jaffa. I came upon this house and rented it from the government."
"And the picture?"
"When I came to the house, the picture was the first thing I saw. Maybe that's the reason I rented the house. It's a very complicated thing and I can't explain it to you, but when they occupied Jaffa, it was like an empty town. When I left the prison, I felt like I was besieged. I didn't see a single Arab here. I was alone, a tiny isolated island in a raging sea of enemies. That's a torture you've never experienced, but me, I lived
with it.
"When I saw the picture, I found something consoling in it. I found a friend who spoke to me and talked with me and reminded me of the things I held dear and the most wonderful things in our life. That was when I decided to rent the house. And it's the same thing now. It seems to me that there is no man richer than the man who has a friend who dies for the sake of the nation. This is something priceless. Maybe it's a kind of belief in those who were killed, but I felt that if I left him, I would be committing an act of treachery for which I would never forgive myself. This is what helped me not to go away but to stay...so the picture is still here. It remains a part of our life. Me and my wife, Lamia, my son Badr and my son Saad. And him, your brother, Badr. One family. For twenty years we've lived together. That?s something very important for us...."
Faris remained sitting there half the night looking at his brother Badr smiling in the picture, full of youth and vigor underneath the black sash, just as he had been doing for twenty years. When he stood up to leave, he asked the man if he could take the picture with him, and the man replied: "Of course you can. He's your brother after all, and before anything else."
He got up and took the picture down from the wall. The square space it left behind was pale with a meaningless whiteness, like some disturbing vacuum.
Faris carried the picture with him out to the car and returned to Ramallah. All along the road he looked at it propped up on the seat next to him. Badr appeared in it, smiling that youthful radiant smile of his. He went on watching like this until he had passed through Jerusalem and entered the road leading to Ramallah when suddenly the feeling came over him that he had no right to keep the picture. Nor could he explain it to himself, but he asked the driver to go back to Jaffa, and arrived there in the morning.
Once again he went softly up the steps and knocked on the door. As he took the picture from him the man said:
"I felt a terrible emptiness when I saw the square left on the wall. My wife was crying and both my children were horribly frightened and I was sorry that I had let you take the picture. In the end this man belongs to us. We lived with him and he lived with us and he became part of us. During the night I said to my wife that he was destined to be with you, that you wanted to take him back, that you were taking the house and Jaffa...The picture doesn't solve your problem, but for us, it connects you to us and us to you."
Faris returned to Ramallah alone....

Excerpts from "Return to Haifa." Translated from the Arabic by Barbara Harlow.
Published by Heinemann, Dar al-Fata al-Arabi and Three Continents Press, 1984.
Reprinted by permission.

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