In this story, "almost twenty years" probably refers to the
period between 1948 and 1967, when refugees in a camp near Jericho
became refugees in Jordan again.
Removing the kufiyya and iqal from his gray head, Abu el 'Abd
tossed them onto the dirty blanket beside him.
He heaved a deep sigh, for the heat was unbearable and he did not
dare to strip the Agency uniform off his thin body. The tent had no
door, and there were girls and woman across the way. Undoing the
laces of his heavy boots, he flung them into a corner; then,
stretching out his legs in exhaustion, he lay on an old coat,
carelessly folded under his head, resting it on the palm of his
dry, chapped hand. Of necessity, he tried to rest from the
weariness of the ten hours he'd spent in construction work on the
neighboring mountain. Imm el 'Abd1 was at the neighbor tent,
talking about the water being perpetually shut off and a life that
was more than half spent.
Abu el 'Abd's hapless daughter Khadijeh was out learning to be a
seamstress. But his son Hasan, a young fellow of twenty who had
finally learned to curse people for no reason, was at this moment
smoking and drinking tea while winning and losing at cards.
" Or he may be somewhere else. Who knows?" Abu el 'Abd yawned and
wiped off the bead of sweat that hung from the tip of his nose. His
ears, filled with thick hairs, picked up the sounds of a song about
Jerusalem coming from a radio whose batteries seemed new. Unable to
sort out his feelings about the song, he turned over onto his other
side. He felt a pain like a hammer striking the sides of his head,
and he said to himself, "Life be damned!" His eyes were heavy; and
so, there being nothing to prevent him, he surrendered himself
completely to the possibility of sleep.
Ever since leaving the Nuweimeh Camp, where he had lived for twenty
long years, he had been sleepy all the time. Hasan had been born
there, and there he had built a three-room house with dahlias and a
white poplar tree in the courtyard. Some of the wise men in the
crowd with whom he spent his evenings told him frankly that his
sleepinss was an evil and unfortunate disease. Others told him
frankly that it would lead him to the final sleep. What, however,
should this matter to Abu el 'Abd?
Little by little, drowsiness overcame his consciousness, so he
closed his eyelids while the scorching, dusty breeze played with
everything in the tent. He heard the clamor of the children outside
like buzzing. The air on his face made him imagine he was traveling
endlessly, traveling, but never arriving at his destination. The
palm of his hand under his head was soaking wet. He withdrew it.
The coat was coarse, made of camel hair; he felt as though he were
sleeping on thorns, alone in an unknown land, cut off from the
world. The cheese and tobacco had left his mouth so dry that he
could not swallow his saliva. Rising sluggishly for a drink, he
looked around hopefully for the water jar, afraid that he wouldn't
be able to find it. He finally discovered it near the entrance to
the tent, but the water, drained almost to the bottom, was warm.
Tipping the jar straight up into his mouth, he swallowed the few
A small pebble scraped his teeth and spoiled his enjoyment of the
water. He spit it out, then spit again, but the taste of dust was
still in his mouth.
Once again he threw himself down on the blanket, as though he
wanted to escape from some unknown thing that was lying in wait for
him. He was determined that he would sleep for a long time, even if
it did lead to his final sleep. However, the fatigue in his legs
thwarted his desire. He tried shifting his legs around into
different positions to drive away the discomfort, but all he
managed to do was to annoy and exasperate himself. Convinced that
his efforts were fruitless and that he was going to remain
suspended between the world of awareness and the world of blissful
sleep, he became depressed, fearing that this might be the
beginning of some ailment that would come between him and the half
dinar he earned from the owner of the building on the nearby
mountain. He cursed his son Hasan, that good-for-nothing who did
not look for work and was never at home. Mustapha, who'd been
working in Kuwait for five years, bore them in mind only at the two
feasts2, when he would send a green banknote that Hasan would get
his hands on and spend in any way he liked. Then the damn fool
would say he was going to get married, even though Khadijeh still
didn't have a husband to provide for her yet!
Outside the tent the sun seemed to be on the verge of completing
its daily journey, and he still hadn't been able to doze off for an
hour or two. His mind was so weary and confused from too much
thinking and remembering that he had reached the point where he
would no longer think of any one thing or bring any memories back
into his mind. This state made him feel better, for usually it led
to deep sleep and forgetfulness.
Within a few minutes, Abu el 'Abd was in a sound sleep. His
high-pitched, staccato snores sounded like an animal that had just
been slaughtered. A huge, persistent fly flittered over his face,
making him seem totally unwholesome.
The way from the Nuweimeh Camp to the east bank of the river is
long and thorny. And when a whole family travels it on foot, in the
middle of the summer, it is a much more painful hardship. There is
a good chance of dying. Imm el 'Abd wanting to rest for an hour
every half hour had filled him with exasperation. The way was long,
and the planes had shown no mercy.
Behind them, Jericho had been engulfed in billows of smoke, and his
heart had been so full of grief that he could hardly speak. O God,
what a cruel world! What cursed times! How had this happened? Imm
el 'Abd, on the other side of fifty, had vaguely dissatisfied
questions in her eyes. Hasan, tense and high-strung, had not quite
dared ask his father why they weren't staying behind like others.
Khadijeh had been afraid, and the blankets on her back were heavy;
when she told her mother that she had forgotten the radio turned on
at home, the latter had silenced her with an angry look. "Well, did
Abu Haleemeh's family leave?" Khadijeh had asked, but the weight of
the blankets forced her to pay more attention to where she was
stepping. Despite Abu el 'Abd's disbelief at all that had happened,
it seemed, as he hurried on his way, that he had been expecting
Agitated and grieving, the soldiers around them were slinking off,
some toward the river and others further to the east. In the
fighting, life and death seemed to be the embodiment of two diverse
energies that fuse into each other. The battle was not over, and
the chances of dying were still strong. It left a peculiar taste in
Abu el 'Abd had been afraid that the family might get separated,
that he would lose Hasan, his youngest, or poor, sad Khadijeh, or
his spouse, with whom he had fallen in love one day in Bayt Dajan.
In 1948 a bullet had ended the youth of his first-born, 'Abd. For
how many years had he been grieving, tormented by nightmares and
attacked by misgivings.
At the foothills of Suwaylih, a tractor had given them a lift. This
was very lucky; the driver had been their neighbor in the camp. As
he was getting up into the trailer behind the tractor, his trousers
caught on the edge of the door, and he almost stumbled. With
bitterness he thought of gypsies, who never settle down in any
home; he felt an instinctive sympathy for them, fearing greatly
that in the end his destiny and theirs might be the same. Hot tears
had risen in his eyes, but he had mastered himself as he hid them
from Hasan's sight.
As the tractor bore him away, his eyes had remained fixed west. He
suffered a great and agonized hatred of those men who cut down
their trees. When the mountains of Amman came into view, he began
imagining how his relatives would receive him. When the vehicle
stopped, he jumped down and sprawled in exhaustion on the nearest
The shade of a towering building had given him a sense of
relaxation, mingled with a longing for some obscure thing that
despair had taught him he would never attain.
No one knew as Abu el 'Abd did the details of black days. Nor did
anyone understand as he did the impact of the khamasin,3 and how he
had wound up owning nothing but a cramped blue tent, symbolic of
vagrancy and transient life.
"Hasan hasn't come yet."
"He'll come for sure."
"He may have gone to a movie. Or, he's just hanging around
"But he was determined to come! He was the most insistent one of us
"He may be in the blue tent."
"I went there myself. His father's there, sound asleep."
"Only the one who is absent knows what his excuse is."
"He may be needing us."
"He may have lost his way."
"No one knows how to get here better than Hasan."
"It's been half an hour. I'm worried about him."
"My God, when is he going to come? Where can he be?"
"Anything could have happened! Who knows?"
"I say, maybe he's waiting for us now."
They talked at odds until they realized they were wasting their
time. They agreed that this was no time for idle speculation. As if
carrying out a prior decision the three of them disbanded, each
having in his mind an idea that was simultaneously both clear and
obscure, an idea as translucently radiant as a dream. For one
intense moment their eyes met, the language of their eyes voicing
their agreement. They went on their separate ways, filled with the
sensation of a promise that they would meet again.
Abu el 'Abd awoke as if he were climbing out from the bottom of a
dark well. Darkness shrouded the confines of the narrow tent also,
making it difficult for his veined fingers to find the box of
tobacco. The fact that the tent was deserted, that no one was
there, alarmed him. This total silence made him realize that
something had happened. He got up sluggishly, began searching
without much hope for the lamp, stumbled over the kerosene can, and
fell to the dry dirt floor.
Again he felt something unsettling about all this. Ever since going
out to work that morning he had been conscious of bitterness in his
mouth, and that he was depressed, not feeling like himself. Where
was Imm el 'Abd? Hadn't she had her fill of talking yet? And
Khadijeh - what was keeping her out until this hour? No doubt she
was with her mother. As for Hasan, who could control him?
They had never left him alone before, so what was going on? A sense
of stifled sorrow, its origin obscure, rose deep inside him,
awakening dark apprehensions in his mind. He had to go out and ask
Puzzled at seeing the whole camp quiet in sleep, he became aware
that it was very late, and his fears increased.
"Abu Yusuf! Abu Yusuf!"
The man rose out of his bed in alarm. After a brief exchange of
greetings Abu Yusuf said, " Why did you deprive us of your presence
"Never mind that. Where are Imm el 'Abd and Khadijeh?"
"Ah yes. I saw them looking for Hasan. Someone said he didn't see
him, but someone said that he'd been seen sauntering through the
camp wearing the uniform of our young fighters, with a weapon on
his shoulders. Then, he went into town. Neither Imm el 'Abd nor
Khadijeh believed this. Each insisted that he had had an accident
God forbid. Why do you find it strange? My son is with them. Don't
you understand that yours is too?"
But Abu el 'Abd did seem to find it strange. Thoughts of 'Abd his
son whose youth had been cut off by a bullet and of the long years
he had grieved for him came immediately into his mind. He was aware
of a burning longing for 'Abd, and the contours of Bayt Dajan
appeared before him as though he were in the presence of a dream.
His good land, in faraway Bayt Dajan…
He was on the verge of tears, but he withdrew to his tent. This
time, the overpowering darkness did not bother him for he was cut
off from the place, gazing into his memories. It didn't occur to
him to find out what time it was. He would sleep a long time, and
morning would be near.
1. "Imm" (colloquial for umm, mother); "Abu" means father in
Arabic: a common way of addressing wife and husband in reference to
their firstborn child.
2. Muslims have two major feasts, 'Eid el Fitr to celebrate the end
of Ramadan, the month of fasting, and the 'Eid el Adha to celebrate
the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
3. Hot, southerly wind that blows usually in spring.