Salman Natour is a well known Palestinian author who lives in Israel. In the early 1980s he interviewed dozens of Palestinians who had become refugees on their own land. At first they refused to talk. Although the military regime had ended, they were still afraid. But once they started, they couldn’t stop. Their stories were dry, condensed, pendulous and often told in a stream of consciousness. Here, Salman Natour channels the figure of the wrinkled-face Sheikh – an archetypal Palestinian storyteller – to weave their stories together, and to describe the displacement and the ethnic cleansing of 1948 from the point of view of the Palestinians.
Sheikh Abbas passed away thirty years ago, but memories of him are still with me. I remember him wearing a white robe and riding a white donkey, travelling from one village to another with a bunch of keys rattling on his hips. When we asked: ‘What are those keys, Sheikh Abbas?’ He would answer: ‘These are the keys to our aircraft, may God be with you. No plane can take off without someone getting the keys from me first.’
Sheikh Abbas was not a fool. He had a great wit and loved wordplay. Once, while riding the white donkey in his white robe, he bumped into another Sheikh who also loved to joke. He asked: ‘Tell me, Sheikh Abbas, who is the donkey: the white on top, or the white underneath?’ Sheikh Abbas responded without any hesitation: ‘The donkey is the one who does not know who the donkey is.’
Sheikh Abbas was a shepherd in his youth. He had a firm hand and excelled in throwing stones. As he said of himself, he was a fine marksman. During the 1936 Arab revolt he joined the rebels, and was given an old Turkish rifle to topple the British aircraft. The Sheikh returned at dusk to the village and said: ‘God knows, people, today I hit ten aircraft.’ The next day he came and said: ‘God knows, today I hit only seven aircraft.’ On the third day he said: ‘God be my witness, nine aircraft. In every passing day I hit seven or eight aircraft.’ His indignant fellow villagers complained: ‘Oh Sheikh, can you bring up any witnesses other than God? If what you say is true, there would be no British aircraft left.’ He shook his head and answered: ‘God knows that every word I say is as solid as a rock. Every single bullet shot down a plane. But these Brits have more planes than we have mosquitoes.’
Then came the war with Israel. This time around he was given a machine gun to protect the village of Ayn Ghazal, off the coast of the Mediterranean. Apparently he heard that Jewish aircraft were going to approach the village from the sea. He barricaded himself in the village and fired at the sky until he ran out of ammunition. He dropped the gun and ran back to the headquarters for bullets. When he returned after six or seven hours, he found the village deserted, its inhabitants forced out and their homes left empty, the doors wide open. He went from house to house, locking the doors, collecting the keys, linking them together with a copper wire and fastening them around his waist.
No other inanimate object retains emotion as strongly as keys do. Fingerprints are engraved on them as if the laws of wear and tear do not apply. We can identify hidden traces of sensations, the feelings of people who carried the keys before they were displaced – ebbs and flows, as on an ECG machine recording anger, sadness, joy and serenity.
These keys have inspired countless songs and legends. Legends woven from lost keys, keys left behind, stranded in open gates and doors. Rust-eaten, they await the return of bearers who believed they were only leaving for a few days. But the days grew longer, stretching into weeks, months and years. They never returned to their homes.
Years later, the Sheikh visited his old friends from the time of the Arab revolt in Shefa-‘Amr. While sitting and staring at the skies he noticed a flock of fighter jets. Sheik Abbas leaped up, grabbed his keys and got on his donkey. His friends, perplexed, asked him: ‘Where are you going, oh Sheikh?’
‘I have to get to the village. The planes are bombing and I hold the keys to our aircrafts! Our pilots are probably looking for the keys. I have to go help them beat the enemy.’
The sun was about to set. He spurred the donkey and drove away. Two days later his body was found on the ground, dismembered and strewn alongside his many keys. A few steps away was the corpse of the donkey, dismembered too. The villagers said that hyenas devoured him. They said that he had lost his way, that he had lost his memory.
I am not sure whether anyone bothered to collect the keys lying next to Sheikh Abbas’ body. Why would anyone collect the keys to doors that had long since been torn from their hinges?
Perhaps no one picked up the keys of Sheikh Abbas since we had lost all hope. Thousands of keys disappeared during the Nakba year. Many remained stuck in doors. Many others were lost along the arid roads, or sunk in the depths of the Mediterranean. For many years their owners sat waiting for return, with the utmost patience. They replaced the iron key with the key of hope. The first glimmer of it was evident immediately after the bulldozers demolished the houses and the mosques.
A tank and a heavy bulldozer made their way into the village, and started plowing the soil, until they arrived at a mosque where an old Imam was waiting. He was in his seventies – blind and hunchbacked –and spoke classical Arabic with noticeable eloquence. The soldiers broke into the mosque and ordered him to leave. He refused. The officer approached the Sheikh and yelled at him with all the air in his lungs until the mosque’s walls trembled. He shot a bullet in the air, and thick dust dropped from the ceiling.
The blind Sheikh grabbed the officer’s arm, pushed it down and spat on his face. The officer wiped himself off and ordered the soldiers to serve him ‘dinner’. They carried him out, and the bulldozer started uprooting the mosque’s ramparts. The old Sheikh disappeared.
The village was wiped off the surface of the earth. Only the olive tree remained, deeply rooted in the soil, awaiting the return of its landlords. The burning sun scorched the olive tree’s trunk, and the dew drops nestled in its leaves. It was undeniable evidence of the renewal of life.
The Wooden Box
My grandmother kept a small wooden box that was always locked and no one dared to open. Not even her. My grandmother said that the box would be opened only on the Day of Reckoning. Once, when I was five years old, I tried to open it. My grandmother caught me, but neither beat nor reprimanded me. All she said was:
‘Listen to me. Be careful not to open the box. If it breaks, the house will collapse over our heads.’
‘What’s in the box?’ I asked with fear and bafflement.
She passed her hand over my soft hair and said: ‘This box is for the Day of Reckoning, when God, may he be exalted, records our good and bad deeds.’
‘Where’s the key?’ I asked my grandmother.
‘It’s in Egypt! On the Day of Reckoning the prophets will arrive from the East and take us with them to Egypt to settle accounts. Every aircraft, ship and car will be stopped until we complete our journey with the box on our shoulders. Then the White Angel will come, open the box and balance out our deeds in the world. Those whose good deeds outweigh the bad ones will go to heaven, and those whose evil deeds outweigh the good ones will go to hell.’
Since that day I never dared to open the box. I stared at it before bedtime, sifting through my actions and deeds. For many years it remained locked and I did not have the courage to go near it. The possibility of God recording my deeds terrified me, particularly the memory of one hot evening in June, when I had stolen fruits from the orchards of Sheikh Abu Ahmed, although at the time I comforted myself with the idea that it was my older brother who had talked me into it.
Then came another evening in June in 1968. A little before sunset, an old Sheikh entered my grandfather’s house. I had never seen him before. He wore a white robe, his head was wrapped with a keffiyeh, and his beard was full-blown white. My grandfather shook his hand warmly and led him to the big room, pointing to the wooden box. My grandmother followed them, faltering, as if she did not believe her eyes. I froze with shock and awe. Then I saw the Sheikh reach into his pocket, take out a small key, open the box and pour its contents onto the ground. I wanted to shout: ‘The Day of Reckoning has come!’ but my tongue clung to silence.
The box was filled with clothes and fabric. The Sheikh pulled out a long necklace and a large piece of paper. ‘This necklace belongs to Um-Muhammad. I gave it to her on our wedding day. And this is the land deed. I’m going to take them with me, and leave the box with you.’
Abu Muhammad was originally from Ayn Ghazal, which was not far from our village. In 1948 he was expelled along with the other villagers. He carried the wooden box on his back until he no longer could, and decided to leave it with my grandfather, an old friend from the days of the Turks. He locked the box and took the key with him. He returned after twenty years to get the necklace and the land deed. And possibly to refute my grandmother’s stories about the Day of Reckoning. Abu Muhammad stayed over that night, and left the following morning. He never returned.
The Artists’ Colony
The village of Ayn Houd was transformed into a Jewish artists’ colony known as Ein Hod. In the old days, there was a grand mosque whose spire rose high above the ground. In the artists’ colony the mosque had been converted into a highbrow restaurant. At the entrance stood a female host who catered to the artists’ needs, and to those of their respectable guests.
A few years ago, an old Sheikh arrived at the artists’ colony from Siris, a village located in the Jenin district. He headed to a house, inhabited by an artist who had immigrated from Europe or America. The artist’s wife opened the door and was startled at first, seeing the strange keffiyeh-wearing man staring back at her. The man was silent as a stone, as he had never seen a half-naked woman opening the door of a house. The woman recovered quickly and gently invited the man inside. She summoned her husband, the artist, who was also apprehensive when he saw the keffiyeh and the thick mustache of the visitor. But the artist also recovered quickly, particularly after he saw the smile spreading across the visitor’s face.
‘What brings you here?’ he asked.
The Arab man answered without hesitation: ‘I was born here. This is my home.’
‘This is your home?’ The artist’s voice expressed great amazement. ‘What do you mean? Tell me. What happened?’
The guest seated himself on a comfortable armchair and told his story from beginning to end. The artist served him a cup of coffee. He even offered him a glass of whisky. He sat next to him and begged to hear the details. The artist believed every word.
The Arab man went back to his village in the West Bank. The artist, however, was seized by guilt, sadness and irritability. He decided to leave the house and moved to another. But the ghosts kept pursuing him to the new home. Every day he woke up expecting another Arab man to visit the house where he had been born. The nightmares and ghosts never vanished.
A staircase decorated with chiseled stones separates the Haifa of today from the Haifa of yesterday. The past is buried downtown, while the vibrant present takes place uptown. The sea has retreated. The surrounding mountain peaks grow balder, year by year. Haifa has turned pale, shrouded in the thick smoke of industry, and upset by the long cries of ships coming and going in the port.
The chronicle of the wrinkled-face Sheikh, whom we have been speaking of in his various guises, reflects the history of this century. While the years move confidently forward, the life of the Sheikh moves slowly backward, in swelling sadness, in pain and sighing.
The Sheikh wakes up at sunrise and leaves his home, wandering around alone. The soles of his shoe are not accustomed to city streets. He enters the municipal garden looking for a bench. His friends gather around him. While he had spent his best years as a coachman in the streets of Haifa, his friends built luxurious palaces for themselves in Baghdad and Alexandria. Their children attend the best schools, preparing for lives as managers in the department for immigration and population.
He says: ‘During the Nakba I was forty-eight years old. Their artillery was placed at the top of the tower. Then they fired a yellow sulfur bomb which struck the clock tower near the al-Jarina mosque. The clock collapsed and fell to the ground, and I said to myself: If the clock has fallen our homeland has too. I went looking for my business partner, Abraham Shmido. The thug betrayed me. He sold our business and disappeared.’
The Sheikh stared out intensely at the sea. A wave rolled up and smashed into the rocks of the bay. The jets of water made their way back into the sea. Water contracts and converges; then, suddenly, it scatters and explodes. This is the way of life. Why is the sea never calm?
He opens the car door and sits in the front seat. The journey begins anew. Ayn Ghazal yesterday. Jaffa today. Today. The Sheikh calms down. He signals for us to leave, like a military leader, and the sun begins its descent into the sea. Shadows replace the remnants of sunshine on the old houses and forlorn alleys. The deep silence is disrupted only by the sound of waves pounding on the rocks and the walls.
The wrinkled-face Sheikh stops. His two eyes survey the city of Jaffa. Old Jaffa and new Jaffa. For one moment, he looks like an eagle watching the city from above. In the next, he seems like a small child facing a tearful farewell, his two eyes watery. He keeps walking, as if intending to leave forever. He leaves us with a legacy, but not before he checks it carefully, house by house, stone by stone. When he stops and listens, it seems like he is focusing on the sounds interfering with silence. He listens to the way the roar of the sea mixes with the new sounds of the city. Today, it has a new name: ‘Yaffo’.
A group of tourists proceed along the large avenue, stopping for a shade under the huddle of trees by a school fence. Where did they come from? Who knows?
Among them is a tall man in a gray suit. You can smell his aftershave mix with the scent of French perfume from the women on the sidewalk. They stand and listen to the man in the gray suit speak about ‘Yaffo,’ and then about the need for education, equality and democracy for the Arabs.
The wrinkled-face Sheikh cannot control himself. He needs to extinguish the fire burning within. He needs to do what he has not dared to do his entire life. To do what he had not had the strength to do on the day Palestine was lost. Or during all the years he travelled from village to village, from shelter to shelter, from wilderness to desert. He screams: ‘He is a deceiver! A liar! This is Jaffa! Jaffa was. Jaffa became. Jaffa died. But Jaffa – Jaffa remains.’
The man in the gray suit stops. The ladies look puzzled, and watch the heavy movements of the Sheikh. He yells as loud as he can. His hands shake. His eyes blaze as if he is about to storm into a crusader’s fortress. He approaches them and says: ‘Look what they did in Jaffa.’
The man in the gray suit puts his hand on the Sheikh’s shoulder, pushes him back and screams: ‘Go away or I’ll call the police, you rude, filthy Arab!’ It was an intense moment. The ladies whose cheeks diffused French perfume were shocked. The Sheikh calmed down. He signaled for us to leave. As if he were a commander and we were a group of soldiers. We were not armed with weapons, but we had faith in the Sheikh, in his anger, his wounds and love for this land. We walked away.
We belong to a tormented generation. Afflicted by the curse of Sisyphus, we are destined to live through ordeal and distress. We had no choice but to rebel.
Our biographies are dull and dreary. They are all the same, as we were all born at the same time and in the same place. We were all born with the Nakba and were therefore destined, against our will, to become witnesses. We became carriers of testimony, not because we had seen the horrors of it, but because we had heard about them from our predecessors, who said they had sacrificed themselves for us. We claim that we, too, throw our lives away for future generations, convinced that only this can give our existence grounding.
We live, however, in an absurd reality: a vicious circle with no beginning or end; an endless nightmare that borders on insanity and death. We were born after the war, yet we are obliged to carry its weight and burden; fated to live under the spotlight.
We love this tale about our lost childhood. We love to say that we sacrificed our childhood for a noble cause. We boast and brag about our bravery, claiming that our suffering is timeless to demonstrate our devotion to the cause. Yet, how could we forget the innocence we felt in childhood?
Let’s face it. We had many happy days in the barn, or on the threshing-room floor. We expressed our freedom in lengthy alleys and immense fields that stretched on to infinity. And there was, of course, spring water and the village well. We remember days when sand and dust coated our bare feet. There can be no doubt: we were happy. We chased black ants, demolished their colonies and celebrated their defeat. It was a routine childhood in an unusual time. Then we lost that innocence, and like everything that gets lost, it never returned. Now we have come full circle, we load childhood onto our backs like cargo, and we complain.
No doubt my memory deceives me. I blame my memory for betraying me. I blame my memory for refusing to betray me. If I only knew how to treat it: with compassion and love, or with a burning hatred?
I am losing it, day by day, waiting for the moment when I find myself devoid of any memory, a zombie moving in no particular direction. I wander hectic streets. I search the woods for a rabbit, hoping it might show me the way home. I pursue a rabbit that keeps running away, hiding in increasingly dense thickets of trees. I continue the chase until I bump into a hunter, a former childhood friend. He has managed to keep his memory intact, for he accepted what life bestowed upon him. He takes my hand, leads me to the house where I was born and delivers me to my family. Then he returns home and tells his family the story about the Sheikh who lost his memory. He tells them, proudly: ‘If not for me, he would have been eaten by the hyenas.’
The above story was first published in Granta Israel 1: גבוליות (Borderline).
Photograph courtesy of Ian McKellar