Authors: Nada Awar Jarrar
Later that day, sitting in the armchair in the living room with one leg bent underneath her, Aneesa takes a writing pad and pen and begins to write.
My darling mother and sister
I hope you haven't been unduly worried. It's been months since I was last able to write. I've been moved, along with the other prisoners, and again I'm not quite certain where I am. I only know that we are too far away to make our way home. They have put me to work in the fields. I enjoy being outdoors for much of the day, and sometimes even manage to forget that I have lost my freedom. I hope that you are both well, that you are also happy in your lives. I am certain that you have taken good care of each other over the years. This thought has been a great comfort to me. I love you both very much and pray that we will one day find one another again
Aneesa lifts the pen off the page and rereads what she has written. The letter is shorter than the previous ones she has written and does not really sound like Bassam. She wipes a tear from her cheek, folds the paper and places it inside a white envelope. Then she puts on her cloak and goes out.
Now that spring is here, Aneesa and Waddad have their morning coffee on the narrow balcony outside the sitting room. There are four chairs around an old table that once belonged in the kitchen of their mountain home. They sit in their dressing gowns, sipping their coffee and looking out at the noisy thoroughfare that leads to a rocky cliff and down to the sea.
âAre you going out somewhere,
?' Aneesa asks as she comes out on to the balcony one early morning.
Waddad is dressed in a black trouser suit and her hair is brushed back to reveal a well-scrubbed face. She pours Aneesa a cup of coffee.
âI've got lots to do today before I go to the orphanage.'
Aneesa sits down, picks up her cup and notices a pile of official-looking papers on the table. Waddad folds the papers and puts them in her handbag.
âIt's just some business that I have to take care of, that's all,' she says.
âBut maybe I can help you with it.'
Waddad takes a deep breath and looks anxiously at her daughter.
âI have to do this myself, Aneesa.'
âWill you tell me about it, please?'
âI read about it in the paper yesterday,' Waddad begins.
âWhat is it? What's happened?'
âThey've passed the new law.'
Tears begin to fall down Waddad's face. Aneesa leans towards her but the older woman shakes her head.
âThe one that gives the relatives of the missing the right to have them declared dead if they've been gone for more than seven years.'
Waddad sniffs loudly and pulls a tissue from beneath her sleeve cuff. Aneesa watches closely.
âAre you sure you want to do this? You do know what it means,
âIt's been a long time now,
, nearly nine years.'
Is that why you're wearing black today, Aneesa wants to ask? It makes you look even smaller, almost like a child in adult's clothing.
Aneesa gazes at her mother, at the lines in her face and coarse, short hair and feels her own pain shift to another part of her body, to a permanent, deeper place.
âJust give me half an hour,' Aneesa says getting up. âI'll dress and come with you.'
Ramzi tries at first to teach the bird to speak, simple words like marhaba or habibi or even his own name. But the bird just looks at him vacantly, its head jerking nervously from side to side, as if to say, You're asking too much of me. So Ramzi takes to whistling to it instead, tunes he has heard on the radio that plays in the orphanage kitchen during mealtimes and which he repeats again and again to the bird, or songs he remembers from home. He whistles, takes deep breaths, and looks into the cage at
the tiny creature, at its curved beak and the neat fold of its wings
Soon, Ramzi begins to notice recognition in the bird's eyes as he approaches, something in the way it suddenly starts to flit along the length of its perch and the hint of excitement in its insistent chirping. Until one day, as he dresses to go down to breakfast, Ramzi hears his own song coming from the cage on the windowsill, four notes repeated again and again as if to call him nearer. He peers into the cage and sings back to the bird in a low voice. La, la, la, la, la
Salah, whenever I think he is not looking, I observe Ramzi closely but all I see is a sorry child adrift in loneliness and misguided hope. Our elders here tell us that in the forward movement of our souls is certain salvation, limitless opportunities to stand nearer to the true nature of our selves and to a forgiving god
The village is very much as Aneesa remembers it: old stone houses alongside grey, concrete structures with balconies and rusty clothes-lines hanging from their balustrades. But the roads are better maintained and the umbrella pine forests are there on the outskirts of the village, visible and beautiful still.
She drives into the
and stops the car by the village spring.
âI'm getting us some water,' she says. âWould either of you like anything else?'
Waddad shakes her head.
âCan I come with you?' Ramzi asks from the back seat.
âAll right, come on.'
The spring water comes out of the spout in a thin murky rope. A lone woman bends down in front of it, filling a large blue plastic canister. Aneesa and Ramzi step into a musty-smelling, dark shop.
,' says a man from behind the counter.
âIt's difficult to see in here.'
âThe electricity's been cut off again,' says the man. âHappens almost every day now.'
âI'll have three small bottles of water,' Aneesa says. âRamzi, why don't you get yourself some sweets?'
Ramzi absently reaches for a bar of chocolate and hands it to her.
âIs that all you want?'
Aneesa grabs a handful of chocolates and several sticks of chewing gum.
âI think I'll get some for myself as well.'
Once outside, she takes two bars of chocolate out of the plastic bag and gives one to Ramzi. They busy themselves with opening the wrappers.
âIs this where you grew up, Aneesa?'
She shakes her head.
âNo, I only came here in the summer as a child. It's my father's village. The rest of the year we lived in Beirut.'
âYour brother too?'
âYes, Bassam did too. He didn't much like it here.'
They begin to make their way to the car.
âI'm from a village on the other side of the mountain,' Ramzi says. âI wasn't born in the orphanage.'
âAneesa?' He says her name softly. âDo you think they like me there? At the orphanage, I mean?'
She hears a car start up at the other end of the square and the sound of running feet in the distance. She pats Ramzi on the arm and pushes him gently towards the car.
The drive up to the house takes only a few minutes.
âThis' â Aneesa points through the windscreen â âis our house.' The green shutters are closed and the plants in the garden are all dry and brown. âDid you bring the key,
âYes, I did. But I don't think we should go in.'
âWhy not?' Aneesa takes the key from her mother and walks up to the front door. âI want to show Ramzi Bassam's room. There'll be lots of things in there that he'd be interested in.'
She steps inside. Waddad grabs hold of Ramzi's arm as he attempts to follow Aneesa indoors.
âRamzi doesn't need to go inside,' she says with urgency. âI don't want him going in there.'
Ramzi looks at Aneesa and then back at Waddad.
âI'll stay out here with you,' he says to the older woman. The house is dark and damp. Aneesa tiptoes through the rooms, afraid of recalling too much. Standing in the doorway of Bassam's old room, she suddenly understands her mother's fear. What if Ramzi remembered nothing at all? She hurries back to the front door, steps outside and locks it behind her.
In the back garden, Waddad and Ramzi are sitting on a stone ledge where the rose bushes had once been. Their heads are bent close together and they do not hear her approaching.
âFather was a good man,' Ramzi is saying. âBut he just didn't understand.'
Waddad nods, puts her hand through his arm and waits for him to continue.
âBassam followed him around with that bucket whenever he pruned the roses, hoping to be praised for what he did, but all along the boy knew it was Aneesa his father wanted with him.'
We were in the house once and you told me you needed to have your hair cut. You picked up the newspaper on the coffee table and put your hand on the front of your shirt and patted your chest. I rummaged in my handbag and handed you a black ballpoint pen. I moved to the sofa and watched you draw a wide, oval-shaped arch on the corner of the paper where there was no print
This is what my hair should look like,' you said. âOn the right side, it's exactly right.' You turned your head and smoothed back your hair. âSee
I looked at you and nodded
Then next to the first arch, you drew another, this time in a square shape
But on the other side, it's all wrong, like this,' you continued
I stood up, crossed over in front of you and looked at your left profile
You're right,' I said
I know I need a haircut, but they can never seem to get it right here.' You put down your pen and shook your head. âI miss my barber in Beirut
I put my head back and laughed loudly
Come to Beirut with me then,' I said. âCome home
with me and we'll get your hair cut the way it should be
But when I looked back at you again, there was only sorrow in your face
Aneesa does not remember the last time she saw Bassam. Instead, there is a persistent image in her mind of a day they spent together only a week before his abduction.
It is summer and they are at the beach in the south with a group of their friends. The fighting seems to have come to a temporary stop and the war is far from all their minds.
Bassam has brought with him a young woman whom Aneesa has not met before. She is petite and very pretty, with fair hair and startlingly green eyes. Bassam introduces her as Leila and the two spend much of their time sitting together on the sand or jostling each other at the edge of the water. Aneesa wonders if her brother has fallen in love. It is not something they have ever talked about and she feels a momentary distance from him, as if he has changed in some way, as if there are many things in his life that she does know about.
The sea is especially beautiful today because rather than being its usual still self in the heat of summer, Aneesa can see ripples of waves in the distance that move down to the shore lazily and end in a frothy foam on the wet sand. She watches Bassam and his friend step into the water and swim out into the distance. They come to a stop and move closer to one another so that their shiny heads seem to be touching. Aneesa looks away and turns on to her stomach and tries to listen to what a friend next to her is saying.
Later, as they prepare to leave, Leila comes up behind
the car where Aneesa is getting out of her bathing suit and putting on her clothes.
âHello,' says the young woman. âDo you mind if I get dressed here too?'
Aneesa shakes her head and pulls a blouse over her head. She does not look at Leila.
âWe didn't really get a chance to talk, did we?' says Leila. âBassam has told me so much about you.'
Aneesa puts on her denims and takes a pair of sandals out of a plastic bag.
âI guess Bassam didn't tell you about me?' Leila's voice is quiet but when Aneesa looks at her she is smiling. âWe haven't known each other very long but I like him a lot. Maybe he doesn't feel the same about me?'
âI'm sure that's not why he hasn't mentioned you before,' Aneesa says hurriedly. âHe's just very private about things like this.'
âYou're sweet,' she says, making Aneesa feel slightly embarrassed at the compliment.
When they've finished dressing, they walk away from the car and join the others once again. The sun is beginning to set and Aneesa feels a shiver run through her body. She looks around for Bassam and sees him coming out of the water.
âI can't believe he's still swimming,' Leila says with a shake of her head. âHe must be freezing. I'll take a towel out to him.'
Leila runs down towards Bassam waving with one hand and holding a towel with the other. Aneesa watches her brother's face. He is smiling. The sky above him is beginning to turn a slow, soft red and the sea is moving
fluidly and silently behind him. He grabs the towel from Leila and wraps it quickly around his body, then he puts an arm over the young woman's shoulder and pulls her towards him. As Aneesa prepares to turn back to the car, Bassam looks up and waves to her. He cups his hands over his mouth and calls out.
But she only turns and walks away.
Leila left the country only weeks after Bassam's disappearance and Aneesa never got the chance to talk to her about him. Now, she wonders what her brother had wanted to say to her on that day. Sometimes she thinks he had been trying to point to his own happiness on such a perfect day. At others, she imagines he had been about to say something of such significance that she would for ever remember it. But most of all, she will always be ashamed of having refused to share what might have been one of his final joyous moments.
hen they come for him Bassam knows that there is no escape. He sees them standing at the front door with his mother as he comes out of his room. There are four of them, looking very ordinary, although the ringleader is dressed in fatigues. Bassam recognizes one man who stands in the hallway, half hidden by the door. He is short and thin with a bushy moustache and Bassam is certain he has seen him at one of the many political meetings he has attended. Perhaps he is the informer, Bassam says to himself as he approaches the men.