Gaza of the sea, of Omar Al-Mukhtar, Al-Wahda, An-Nasr and Martyrs Street. Of Shawwa Center, Arafat sweets, Al-Khazindar beans, the Legislative Council, the Palace and Abu Khadra meeting place.
Taxi cabs, traffic police, fluttering flags, slogans on walls - Fatah, Hamas, the Red Eagle - sand on sidewalks, piles of garbage and papers blowing in the wind. This is the homeland, flesh and blood - debilitated by wounds.
Storms have passed over it and destroyed everything, except the people.
When I crossed the bridge and saw the homeland, the tears welled in my eyes. I came through it and not through Rafah. I came through the wooden bridge.
It was a dry morning. Water ran beneath the bridge. Its surface reflected the mixed color of grass and trees. The wilderness - thick trees and a jungle of thoms, unpruned and untended in 27 years.
At the bottom of the bridge stood an Israeli soldier. A fat, blond soldier, carrying an Uzi gun and wearing what looked like a fisherman's cap. Next to him stood a delegate from the Liaison Committee.
Thus I came in, driven by love and longing for the homeland. I entered, together with the Jericho bus, brimming with passengers. The soldiers came up to check our papers. A small car arrived to take me to the Palestinian Authority area. I stared at the hills, my heart racing. And in my depths fluttered the bird of youth, a bird which had flown and disappeared, then returned suddenly and, with its wings, wounded my transparent heart.
An old man appears on stage dressed in an army uniform.
He is slightly hunched and fatigue furrows his face. He appears slightly hunched. A discolored pair of binoculars hangs from his neck, a water canteen at his side.
He walks across the stage in a worn-out pair of shoes, lifts the binoculars to his eyes and gazes long.
The Narrator: This is the courageous soldier, Hiro Onodo, who was an officer in the Japanese army during the Second World War. He does not believe the war is over, thus he has not given up his arms yet.
Onodo pushes the binoculars to one side; he shakes his rifle as though he were testing it. Then sits down and takes out of his pocket a coconut the size of a hand grenade; he breaks it and drinks the juice.
The Narrator: This, then, is Hiro Onodo, the soldier in the Japanese army who has rejected the cease-fire and refused to believe that the Second World War has ended, in spite of the leaflets thrown by American airplanes in the remotest areas, announcing the end of the war and the Japanese surrender.
His leader sent him in 1944 to this small and distant island on a special mission of guerilla warfare. His orders were to continue fighting even if contact was lost with him because, in the leader's words, the war would last for countless years.
This then, ladies and gentlemen, is Onodo who said "no." Did he do it because he found himself on a remote island, or because something deep down in him refused defeat?
* * *
An old sheikh 1 met at some friends' house asked me, "Are you from Gaza or the West Bank?" 1 answered immediately, "1 am neither from Gaza nor from the West Bank." "From where then?" "From Samakh, occupied in 1948, and which lies south of Lake Tiberias." "Are you from Samakh?" "Yes." "Since you're from Samakh, you're from Gaza."
That night, the decency and subtlety of that old sheikh brought mirth to our hearts and we laughed. He had tried to make me feel at home, and not a refugee from 1948. He had tried to say. .. But what does it matter? The old man with the friendly disposition can say whatever he wishes, the fact is that Samakh is still there, far away. The lake is still there behind the wind ....
Suddenly the phone rang. 1 hesitated to pick the receiver up. It was not my house, and my hosts had gone visiting in Khan Yunis. What shall 1 tell the person at the other end?
The phone kept on ringing. 1 lost my patience and picked it up. Her voice came at the other end. "Is that you?" "It is I... Yes, I."
It came from behind the mist and the gates of exile and wandering. It came
from the bowels of the wind and the pain of 27 years and from the furrows and fissures of old age.
"How did you get my number?" "I checked with the office of AI-Rais."
Whenever I stopped in a European country, I would call her and enquire about her health and her very personal news. She used to reciprocate and we would agree to meet the following summer in Amman or Cyprus or any other location close to the occupied homeland. But then summer after summer passed without us meeting. With the years of permanent tension in our lives, the words lost their luster and the enthusiasm in her voice died. I stopped calling; she, in her turn, did not try to contact me one way or the other; we remained friends. "Where are you now?" "In Jerusalem, and I would like to see you. I can come to you, but it is better that you do." I thought about the matter. Did I really feel like seeing her, or had I become addicted to the absence of faces I once yearned to see? I replied: "I haven't got an 10 yet, so you can come for a few hours only." I had no house to which to invite her. Gaza is overcrowded. The newcomers span the alleys and streets in search of apartments. I hung up, and when her voice faded, I felt a great need for silence and contemplation.
How have you passed your time all these years, Onodo? Behind the barricades, among the coconut trees and the bananas, determined to face the enemy? Was the time slow and long or was it fast and short? What kind of relationship developed between you and the blue sky? Pure and clear in summer, pitch-black and cloudy in winter?
Onodo moves a few steps on stage and speaks:
I used to wish, from the depth of my soul, to embrace space and to swim in the vast horizon there, in the kingdom of heaven, as I watched the azure sky light up with the advent of the morning, and as I peered at the glittering stars when night fell.
Come winter, the rain would stream, and I would hug the tree trunks and take refuge in banana leaves, which looked like elephants' ears. In spring I would enjoy the purity which followed the rain, as black clouds departed, giving way to cottony white ones. And so the seasons passed. I would eat whatever fell from the trees, and drink the drops of dew from the green leaves.
His tone changes suddenly:
I have not left my position. I used to wait for the enemy to attempt to penetrate our defense lines, and when the enemy airplanes dropped the leaflets, I did not take notice of them. My lieutenant told me they would do that one day, in order to undermine our morale and to assail our minds.
I waited and watched too long for that cowardly enemy who would try to land with his soldiers on the beaches of this deserted island. I used to watch the coast with these binoculars, ready to scorch them with my machine gun and my bombs and to shout, "They shall not pass, they shall not pass."
* * *
Majd came. We embraced as though we were meeting for the first time. A regular embrace, devoid of anything special. She had aged, and that distinctive sparkle was gone from her eyes and wrinkles crawled under her eyelids. We sat facing the beach in the Lido cafe. The wind caressed her henna-dyed locks. She talked and stared at my hair, invaded by white.
"How do you feel?" she asked, as the waiter placed a glass of fresh juice in front of her. I lifted my glass and took a sip. Mango juice and a beach with a white bird hovering above, and a question hanging midway between my eyes and hers. "At the outset I was overwhelmed by a feeling unlike any other. It's my homeland. I am returning to some spot in my homeland." "And today?" "I am still trying to integrate into this fabric, and I still need more time to adapt, to have relationships and a social life." Some moments of silence passed. Then it occurred to me to ask her about herself and whether she still cared for me. But I didn't and hoped she wouldn't, for then I wouldn't know what to answer.
In an hour, we had exhausted all small talk; it seemed there was nothing more left to say. She glanced at her watch and said, "I had better get back before dark. They weary us at the Erez Checkpoint...."
I spent my time roaming around. I visited Beit Hanoun, Al-Shati refugee camp, Jabalia camp. Wassim, the brother of my friend Walid, the poet, took me to his house and introduced me to the members of his family. His mother asked me eagerly about her son, Walid, who had stayed on in Tunis. I spent some good time with them - I needed warmth and a family atmosphere. That evening I phoned my brother. He asked me if I had been to Samakh yet. He insisted that I visit the place where my uncle Abdel Karim Al-Hamad was buried, and made f!1e swear to bring him a handful of earth from the village.
At first, I was eager to visit Samakh. I yearned to behold the dream which lived within the blackness of my heart. I wanted to see the station, the railway, the partridges, the lake, the boat house, the fennel and the vetch plants. I was ready to give whatever was left of my life to see the surface of the lake which looks like a deer's belly.
Onodo steps back
The narrator approaches and starts talking:
In truth Onodo spent many years in exile. A solitary figure among the trees, the birds and the forest animals for more than thirty years. The first year he kept on talking to himself. The second year he stopped talking. The third year, it seemed to him he was forgetting words and syllables. The fourth year, he thought he would be unable to form a complete sentence. The fifth year he started learning the language of the birds. He learned what proceeds from the tongue of a bird, and what comes forth from the beak of a hoopoe and the cooing that gushes from the doves. The sixth year he learned the language of nature. He started to read the weather with the naked eye, to predict earthquakes and to smell hurricanes before they arrived. The seventh year he made shoes from loofah and clothes from the skin of cats. The eighth year he discovered his weapons had rusted and that humidity had crept into his bullets and cracks covered his binoculars. He wished that Headquarters would send him news about the progress of the battle.
But at Headquarters, they do nothing ....
* * *
An epidemic of conjunctivitis was contained, and the glamour returned to the city and the cafes stretching along the beach, and the people sprawling on the sand for the first time in eight years. The occupiers have left, so there was space for a little joy and diversion.
I sat in a wicker chair and asked for a narguilah. Not far away, the corn vendor was roasting the cobs on coal; above his head fluttered the Palestinian flag.
I leafed through a daily newspaper. The pages were crammed with advertisements - exceeding the space allotted for news and commentaries. The second and third pages were devoted to congratulations for returnees or those appointed to the various posts with the Palestinian National Authority.
When I returned, there were no such notices to welcome me. There were no family members to meet me. All the members of my family live in exile, and yet I tried very hard not to feel homesick.
As the waves frolicked along the enchanting sandy beach, I remembered the lake there in the north. They occupied it in 1948 and, in spite of that, it is still there. It remained where they had left it, my father, Sheikh Hussein and my mother Khadijah, and my brother Radi and my aunt Hafizah, and Mansour, the ticket-seller at the station ....
The lake stayed at the very place to which my uncle Abdel Karim returned.
He went back to die in his beloved place, over the ruins of the homestead. He returned to it to die as do the deer. This is what my mother kept on saying when fired by nostalgia. "Your uncle infiltrated back to Samakh when he felt he was on the verge of dying. He went back to die by the shores of the lake where his house used to be. When they feel the end drawing near, the deer repair to the place they like and die a beautiful death, far from the eyes of people, so that nobody would see them agonize."
* * *
I wiped the tears and tried to change my mood. The sea kept on stretching and yawning and rising with the surges, in a succession of hillocks.
Suddenly, from a tape recorder, came the voice of the Tunisian singer, Aminah. In all likelihood, the cafe owner was trying to please his customers, those returnees from Tunis. He probably wanted to arouse their memories.
And with the ripple of her voice, full of the scent of humanity, I walked up the steps to the old city in Sidi Port Said, to the cafe of Sidi Sha'aban with the incense, the rugs, the fragrance of musk and jasmine and tea with hazelnuts or coffee with rosewater.
My friend Aisha used to enjoy spending some time in that beautiful place, overlooking the bay of Carthage. She was a genuine Tunisian. She liked poetry and Sufi hymns and Lutfi Bushnaq's voice and the playing of Anwar Ibrahim and the singing of Nabihah Karawli, and the music of Aminah Sararfi, and the wild dancing in the Nuba and the rings of dervishes ....
The Narrator returns to the middle of the stage. He is silent for a while then proceeds to speak:
Onodo became one with nature, with space and with green leaves. And he became one with the flowers, the delicate white or violet flowers and the mad pastel ones.
He used to think a lot about the leaflets the American airforce threw over the island, informing about the defeat and surrender of his country. He would refuse to believe. But when days passed without him receiving orders from Headquarters, he was assailed by doubts.
He felt something bad and worrisome was happening, but he decided not to entertain any thoughts of defeat.
Later, several tales recount that Onodo became schizophrenic or deranged.
Some say when his family found him, they tried to take him back, but he refused to go with them or turn in his weapons, unless his officer, Tanigushi, came and ordered him to do so.
And there are those who say that the government sent that man who had to retire, Tanigushi, on board a private airplane to convince Onodo to accept the idea that the war had ended.
According to one of the many tales, on March 1,1974, at 3:00, Tanigushi reached the island, met with the brave soldier, Onodo, and persuaded him to lay down his arms.
It was then that Onodo stopped his own Second World War. He was 52 years old.
The Narrator again: Do not believe this tale, ladies and gentlemen. I have a different one.
* * *
On Omar Al-Mukhtar Street, workers were removing the rubble in front of the Legislative Council building; I stood next to the monument to the unknown soldier, waiting. I did not know exactly for whom or for what. I have spent a long period of my life waiting. I, the returnee, I stand lost in one of the streets of my homeland. I feel homesick and lonely. I feel the urge to cry.
Once again Majd's voice on the phone: "What are you doing? How are you spending your time?" "I haven't got a definite job yet." "We will meet half-way between Samakh and Gaza. We will meet in Jerusalem. When are you coming?" There was a tinge of sadness in her voice. Swallows pass and the wings of dreams break and, from behind the windowpane, the Gaza sea rages, and the big waves hurl themselves and shatter into splinters of foam on the sandy beaches.
After a month I got the permit to visit Samakh. A month full of fatigue and boredom and conjunctivitis.
In the evening I stayed alone, and through the window, the moon appeared at the height of its fullness. Samakh is far, as distant as some spot on a planet in the galaxy. Samakh is both far and near, and my heart pounds and my anxiety is unparalleled.
In my mind, I was there on the shores of the lake. I walked enfolded by homesickness and nostalgia and a searing yearning. I smelt the algae and the grass and the fish in its depths, and I heard the whistle of the train departing from Haifa and the one arriving from Damascus.
I saw my father, Sheikh Hussein, open the door of the spacious house at dawn, all the while addressing the Creator; and I saw my mother, Khadijah open the attic window through which enters the breeze which awakens the wheat; and my aunt Hafizah churning milk to produce butter ....
Abdel Karim Al-Hamad came back, wasted by homesickness. He came back to Samakh to die near the ruins of his home, as do the deer that look for a remote place to die a beautiful death.
The colorful butterflies embrace the light to die a violent death. And here I am burning alone. Here I am not living, not dying.
* * *
I opened the map and started on my journey. Gaza, Jabalia, Beit Hanoun, Deir Yassin, Al-Majdal, Julis, Al-Sawafir, Al-Masmiya, Latroun.
At the Erez Checkpoint they examined our papers very carefully and opened our bags. Several passengers expected us to be turned back to Gaza, but we were allowed in. The soldier motioned us to pass saying, "You are now entering Israeli territory; be peaceful." Nobody expected matters to go well. The whole way there were gun-toting soldiers, barbed wire and helicopters.
I wasn't too worried. I was scrutinizing the places on both sides of the road for symbols or the tell-tale signs of the former existence of an Arab village. Asqalan became Ashkelon, Sawafir became Shapir and the Julis palm tree lies forlorn on top of a hill. The rest of the houses, which had not been razed by bulldozers, have died a long time ago a lonely death and stood like graves.
My back-seat neighbor said, "You are a returnee; no doubt you are seeing the place for the first time." I was then watching an airplane spray with insecticide the cotton fields they have planted along the road. After some silence he said, "Look, this is Wadi As-Sarar."
Later, he added, "And this is Al-Masmiya Al-Sughra. Look at the sycamore tree near the petrol station. It is the only thing that has remained .... "
* * *
..... What shall I write to Aisha? How shall I describe to her what is going on? What letters can replicate the warmth of blood that runs through my veins? When I bade her good-bye, she was wearing an embroidered Maghreb dress. She was beautiful, affable, warm, and fascinated by the idea of the return to the homeland. She was trying to understand me, but could not fathom my joy. She said one sentence: "Write to me." She did not say talk to me, but write to me.
What shall I write, Aisha? My hand trembles and my body quivers and my soul grieves and my tears dry and my dreams burn.
The Narrator: So the war is over and the cannons have stopped. The front is quiet. When the old officer, Tanigushi, left, Onodo stayed alone. They offered to take him with them by helicopter, but he refused.
He preferred to stay on in this distant uninhabited island. He stayed alone.
In reality he wasn't alone because the island was full of colorful birds and animals and trees and wild flowers. But the sorrow that engulfed him was unbearable. Suddenly he found himself a man without a cause.
Onodo appears on stage; his back is bent, as though he were passing
through the worst stages of his life.
Silence .. .Silence ... then darkness.
Excerpts from the first act of the play, A River Bathing in a Lake. Translated by Leila Dabdoub from the Arabic, from an unpublished version.