19 January 2013

Nameless City - old writing fragment from 2007

Going over my old notebooks, I find a significant fragment I wrote back in 2007. Sometimes, you write something and, not knowing what to do with it, just lay it down in a corner for years. I think the time has come for this fragment to become alive again. I think I'll be using it as a basis for something in my new novel.

Nameless City - written in 2007

The first time they met, it was an unusually warm spring evening, while Maysa was taking the long way home through the park. As she walked through the unfamiliar streets of the strange city, Maysa tried to bring back the smells of the souq in Wadi Nisnas on a Friday morning. Za'atar and bitter Arabic coffee in tiny cups in the crooked alleyways, each leading to its own secrets, its own sad stone houses with their long gone inhabitants. In her grandmother's garden, underneath the pregnant grapevines—laughter. Stealing unripe grapes with cousins – what are they called in Arabic... Oh I’m beginning to forget… husrum—dipping them in salt and then making sour faces as they touch the tongue. No za'atar in this city. No husrum either.
He was sitting under one of the larger trees in the park, an unnoticed shadow blending into the dim light of this nameless city. He had a large black leather-bound notebook propped up on his knees and seemed to be writing something. His complexion dark olive, Maysa had mistakenly thought he, too, came from that ancient world of hers. Or was it because she was thinking of Ziyad?
He lifted his dark blue eyes to meet hers. She had expected brown eyes, not blue. He put the notebook down – and before it closed onto its contents with a finality, Maysa was surprised to glimpse in it not words – but a grey sketch of a tree.
"I'm sorry if I've interrupted you, but I just thought that..."
He was looking at her with his intense blue eyes – not really looking, she sensed, but searching for something inside of her – or was it beyond her? She could feel him gaze at something on the inside. After a few moments, he smiled faintly and shifted a little to the right, as if inviting her to share the tree-trunk with him. Maysa hesitated, we don't do this in Haifa, but something stronger than her made her sit down next to him, brushing his left arm for a moment.
A few moments passed in silence, then he opened his notebook and returned to his tree. "Which of the trees are you drawing?" she finally asked, unable to identify a tree that would come close to the one on the page. He stopped, looked at her, a faint smile brushed his face like a light breeze – she thought she could trace a slight disappointment in his eyes. "I thought you already figured that out."
They sat there, Maysa watching as he outlined the last leaves on his tree, looking up every now and then to see tired people walking back home from work – how many of them are exiles, how many call this city their home, how many are heading to one-room apartments only to sink down into their memories, for how many is this city a nameless city... how many.
She wished she had brought her notebook with her. Have to have it always with me, just like back home. She searched her bag for a scrap of paper, a tissue, a forgotten bill from a cafe, a train pass, anything she could write on, but her bag was empty of such necessities, save for a document from work she could not write on. She didn't dare ask him for a piece of paper. So she ended up reciting those words in her mind, trying to make up a melody to go with them so they wouldn't evaporate like so many words she had not guarded. Ya Allah, I’m doing it again! Ziyad was right when he said it would ruin me and everything around me. Can’t continuously transfer my life onto the paper. Gotta live it, habbuba. Gotta live it. The memory will take care of all the rest. But what about a backup? Oh, Ziyad, how I miss you—wish you knew how you fill up my body still.

He finished his tree and closed his notebook. Then he got up, and walked away, shrouded in a thick layer of silence. Maysa remained there, under the tree, trying to protect the melody in her head—so the words don’t dissipate.  

After that first time, she always took the long way home, through the park, something in his notebook – that tree – didn't leave her be. And the stranger was always there, with the same notebook, drawing the same tree. Sometimes she sits by his side, watches him drawing, other times she smiles at him when he looks up and continues on her way. But the feeling is always there. There is something about him—but what?

A week goes by, two weeks, and Maysa comes equipped. “Hey,” but she knows not to expect a reply. He doesn't even lift his eyes up from his notebook to look at her. She stands there for a moment, watching him draw some tiny leaves on his tree – an olive tree! – then she sits down next to him. Opening her bag reluctantly, like an illegal immigrant who’d been asked to produce his non-existent documents, she pulls out a small, cream colored cloth bag. From it emerges a freshly sharpened pencil. Next Maysa takes out a notebook – not leather-bound like his, just an ordinary school-kind-of-notebook. She does all this slowly, deliberately, as if waiting for his approval, but he seems not to notice her, or her notebook. Maysa opens the slightly worn notebook, puts the pencil between her lips, and sinks into deep thought – or so it seems. She skips a few pages, then writes in big, bold letters at the top of a blank page: OLIVE TREES.
A few minutes pass before she begins to write. Because for her, right now, it is different. It has to be perfect this time—tired of erasing and rewriting olive trees, the pencil moves across the page in a yawn.
His olive trees are laced in a mournful sliver of the fading sunlight of a nameless country, uprooted from where they belong.

Maysa has her very own olive trees, memories from another world, another life. A life she can’t go back to—ever. Ziyad will forgive her, but is she ready to be forgiven?  

It was the tree of his imagination. It was the olive tree that stood for all of Spain’s olive trees. “So you miss home?”

That evening, the evening remembered by them both as the beginning of their shared “olive tree” story, he told her his name – Manuel. Then, like the Nisan rain in Haifa that catches you unprepared, he invited her to his place, “just a shabby little room in a nameless city,” he added in apology.

Two total strangers, the only thing binding them together – but of which only one was aware for now – the olive tree, walking into the descending darkness, each with his own memories clinging to the shadows following them.
They reached a street lined with dilapidated, identical two-story buildings built in a time long forgotten. As they were climbing to the second floor, wooden stairs creaking loudly underneath their weight, Maysa thought to herself, I don't know this man. What am I doing here?
But when Manuel opened the door, and said, almost in a whisper, “Welcome to Oblivion,” she understood that feeling she had felt from the moment she saw him in the park. A feeling of something binding them together – sadness, or was it the need to escape from, or return to, be erased, be swallowed up into oblivion...

Manuel's one-room apartment was unlike any she has ever seen.

As they sat on low, moldy cushions on the small balcony with a view not of the Haifa bay, but of the dark street below, leaning against the wall, their bodies slightly touching, listening to Flamenco music, sharing a bottle of cheap red wine, Maysa felt that something again. Something she couldn’t quite identify as a feeling, but it was there nevertheless.
And then it flooded her like the khamseen reeh of Haifa. Memories of another night, of music of a different – yet in so many ways the same – kind, and of friends tucked neatly into the folds of a memory, guarded against intruders. But that was a night before Ziyad. It was Tayseer’s world, where she no longer belonged.