23 December 2012

Shai at the checkpoint: My burnt arm

For those of you who are following my experiments with new characters in my new novel, "Shai at the Checkpoint" - here's more of Suhad. Again, only raw writing, incomplete scenes that need to be developed more... needless to say, your feedback is valuable! again, not on the structure-level, but on how the characters make you feel, and whether they're credible enough, and can you relate to them emotionally? So, here we go:

There you are again. With that self-centered, self-assured walk. Like the world belongs to you. That jumpiness when you walk tells it all. The way you carry the kanun – bare, without a cover to protect it. But I can tell you have great respect for it, though you try to be casual about it. Again, you’re unshaven today. The same jeans, with that imprint of a thick wallet on the left back pocket. And you’re always either rolling a cigarette or smoking one. You must smell like an ashtray. But I see you take care of your body. In that white tank top o can clearly see the well-defined muscles of your dark shoulders and arms. Full of contradictions, aren’t you?

Oh yes, I see the way you look at me, like a hungry animal lurking for prey. And I don’t like it. you want to devour me in one piece.
At the same time, you probably think I’m too much of an intellectual for you. Or too proud to even talk to someone like you. Or too sophisticated with my leather briefcase.

Mother always told me I need to marry someone who would challenge me intellectually and let me grow. And I listened to her. Married a real intellectual. Dr. of Political Science, no less. Head of the department. And oh did he challenge me. Heated discussions into the night about the nature of the nation-state, the political identity of a people, what defines a nation, why democracy has failed, and what not.
I don’t deny it, they were indeed very challenging discussions. Intriguing even. I learned from him, and he even enriched my thought. Often, I found his ideas spilling into the lectures I was preparing, reflected in a different way in class discussions with my students.

Sometimes I miss these talks of ours. He was a good friend. A close one, even. There was mutual respect between us. We cared for each other deeply. When my migraines would completely disable me for several days, he always made sure the blinds were drawn all day long, and even kept my father away with his loud chatter. He made me shai three times a day and brought me my favorite fruit in the summer – khokh abu wabar.

Yes, we lived like good friends. We shared household chores, spent relaxed evenings in the garden reading through each other’s notes for the upcoming lectures, giving feedback and constructive comments.
I could tell from the way he was settling comfortably into this life that he was happy. Content that he reached his destination – the final end point.
But not me. I wanted more. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I weren’t selfish for wanting more than that for myself – for us.

But still, I wanted more. Oh yes, much more. My insides were burning, my throat dry, thirsty. I was yearning for something greater. But I didn’t know yet what it was I was in search of.
I wanted the ground to be swept from underneath me. I wanted to experience something so intense it would leave me filled with so much energy enough to set me on fire. Leave an eternal mark on me like a hot iron sizzling on the skin.
I wanted to be set on fire and burn like the phoenix. To die an intense death and be reborn all fresh and new all over.
I thought at first there must be something wrong with me for wanting this fire intensity.
But there was something in me craving to experience the utter opposite of intellectuality. Raw, unhinged savageness.
At that time, I was immersed in teaching a course on the erotic works of D. H. Lawrence.


And just when I made the decision to break free, all hell came undone. Well, not exactly, but it sure did feel like it when I hit the ground. I don’t remember much of that day, only fragments. I remember walking to Um Tayseer’s house. I remember the ground shaking under my feet. And something burning my flesh. Then, just half a second before everything turned into blackness, the smell of the earth.

I woke up in a hospital bed. Baba was sitting next to my bed in a black vinyl reclining chair, snoring softly. In the white light of the hospital room, I remember thinking that he somehow aged overnight. He was unshaven, the short bristles snow white. He slept with his mouth slightly open, Darweesh’s Diwan open on his lap. I studied him, moving through all his body with my eyes. I needed to concentrate hard, because I didn’t want yet to move my attention to the burning pain in my right shoulder, going all the way to the tips of my fingers. His right leg jerked and the book fell off his lap. He opened his eyes wide and was surprised to see me glaring at him, with a screwed up smile.

“Susu… you’re awake, habibti.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but only a croak came out, which at first I didn’t recognize as my own voice.
I saw he was struggling not to let the tears out, but his lips were quivering.
“Ba… baba, ween… Hi… sham…?” I looked around the room in search of white roses, for he always brought me only white roses.
Baba’s face wrinkled up in anger. “You just had to wake up on my shift. Couldn’t you wake up two hours ago when mama was still here?”
My mind started racing. Something bad happened to Hisham. I squeezed my brain, but couldn’t remember where he was when the ground shook. Was he hurt really bad? I looked at baba with pleading eyes, my mouth dry, “Hisham?” Baba realized what I must have been thinking, and he put his hand on my good arm. “He’s fine, Susu. It’s just that… he left. This morning. For London.”
Wonderful. The ground shakes under his wife’s feet, and he flies to London!

Three weeks later, he came back to an empty house. I had baba pack my library and move the eight boxes of books back into my old room. Mama packed my clothes and my art pieces. Nothing else was mine in that house. Hisham didn’t even call. Our marriage dissolved without words.

It’s been four years now, and I can still feel the dead flesh on my arm burning every now and then.
I’ve seen his since – in the souk, meticulously picking his fruits. Parking his can close to the bakery on Khoury street, while I waited for the bus. I had made up my mind to see right through him. Nevertheless, every time I glimpse him, I get all worked up and become all self-conscious about my disfigured arm. It starts burning all over again, and all I want to do is run. Run away from this burnt flesh. So I focus really hard on the soles of my feet, planting them more solidly on the ground, so that they don’t take off. And I wince from the pain.

Neighbors tell me he’s always and obsessively asking about me. Even now – four years later. He holds on to every piece of information. When he sees me, I feel his eyes piercing my body. He watches every movement I make, until I’m out of his sight. Yet he never makes a move in my direction. He knows he’s made his choices and now has to live with them. There is no forgiving his abandonment.
Teta made me the most beautiful glove to wear on my disfigured arm in the summer. People who don’t know I’ve been burnt think it’s a weird way to make a political statement. The colors of our heritage – black with the small hand-stitched designs that adorn traditional Palestinian dress. Yahud think it’s a fashion statement. One glove, all the way up to my shoulder, in the smoldering hear of Haifa’s Tammuz. I smile for their stupidity.

So, ultimately, in some distorted way, it was Hisham who made it possible for our marriage to end. Or maybe it was my burnt arm. Or the University of London for inviting him to give a course on geopolitical changes in the Middle East over the last decade. It’s not important. What is important is that I was weak and didn’t dare leave the prison of that marriage when it became suffocating.

My students think I’m a hero. For learning to write with my left hand. For being too proud to ask for any help. For struggling with the coffee machine with my one good arm. Every simple task has become a challenge during that first year, but I refused to give up.

Mama thinks I’m stupid. For refusing compensation money for “victims of terrorism.” But I could never compromise my values. How can I be categorized as victim of terrorism when I can’t accept the mere fact my arm was burnt by terrorists? It doesn’t make any logical sense. Therefore, I simply cannot accept the money. Medical care – yes. But nothing beyond that.

Um Maysara doesn’t think I’m a hero. Nor does she think I’m stupid. These superficialities don’t concern her. she is concerned only about me continuing with my life “after” in the same way as “before.”
“Society needs to acknowledge that people come in different colors and shapes.” At first, I didn’t quite understand her obsessiveness about this notion. But she opened up when I asked her about it straight out. It had been a slow day.

(c) all rights reserved to khulud kh, 2012.