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
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
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
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
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."
"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
"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
"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
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
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
Published by Heinemann, Dar al-Fata al-Arabi and Three Continents
Reprinted by permission.