Authors: Selma Dabbagh
For my parents Claire and Taysir for teaching me how to observe and to feel respectively.
These were terrible times, but the email changed everything.
The night before the flares had started at around eight, Rashid was sure of that much. Before them, there had just been the insistent tattering of gunfire somewhere in the background. His perception was cushioned and brightened by Gloria’s leaves by then, so that when the flares actually kicked off, he had been stoned making the dry air fill with toxic smoke and the falling lights squirm around on his eyeballs long after they had faded.
By the time the heavy stuff (
) had pounded in on them he had been well and truly blitzed and in that state he sometimes found himself almost willing those bottom-of-the-stomach explosions to burst forth after all that stuttering gunfire:
Just do it, why don’t you? Go on, come out with it!
There had been a missile with a
light so bright it lit up the whole strip, right up to the fence. Smoke had blown back at the sky and seeped along the ground close to the lights.
The strike on the hospital was possibly half an hour after the flares, maybe more. It felt as though it had taken out his guts with it. That could have been when he had really lost it. There was a vivid point of being where he had let himself go. It was imprinted on his mind, an instant of reaching in his soul, when he had found himself leaping up on the roof next to the water tanks, teasing the locust heads of the helicopters.
Hey you! Can you see me? Here on the roof! Can you see me?
That was the moment. He could not remember anything after that. That was it. Blank. Stoned, utterly stoned. The thickness of it was still there like a fungus under his forehead.
He had awoken with his legs splayed out under his bed in imitation of a shot man, face and floor tiles sealed together by a membrane of spittle. He came to with a headache, that told him that he should suffer as he was a disgrace, was good for so damn little and so on and so forth.
This had been when he woke up.
But now, fifteen minutes later, he was something new and somewhere different. He no longer cared about any of the indignity that could be associated with passing out under his bed. All that was before he had logged on and downloaded. Before finding it there. Having it here.
The email had changed everything.
He had been transformed.
Now he stood in front of the bathroom mirror, bare to the waist, face wet, arms spread. Supreme.
Here he was, reflected back at himself: the eternal man in a body of youth. His forearms, face and neck were darker than the rest of him, but Rashid ignored the sallow skin that created the ghost of a T-shirt over his chest, the one that cut across his arms. He disregarded the underdeveloped muscle tone and there were days when he would think the word wasted,
, and feel his flesh shrinking under the surface of his skin. This was a morning when he saw only his collarbones that framed it all, the swoop of biceps and triceps on his arms, the stomach definition that needed no work for it to stay like that and the scrub of dark hair from his navel down to his jeans. ‘Pathway to heaven,’ Lisa had said tracing along it with her fingertip, ‘pathway to heaven.’
And at the thought of her, her laugh,
It exploded within him again and he could feel himself fly, up, up, out of all of this. See himself fly, an Olympic diver in reverse, Icarus in the sky, Jesus on a hill – it was all confused – fly up, out, over all this.
All this what?
. He knew how the earth would look from up there: like dried-out coral, ridged, chambered and sandy. He knew as he had traced his finger over the satellite pictures of it when dreaming of escape. From up there it was hundreds and thousands of habitations reduced to scratches on a bone. At that height, the line that fenced them in would barely be made out, nor would the checkpoints, not from up there, but even from that stratospheric distance, the contrast with the other side would be stark. On the
other side, that
side, the place they came from, that had been
, the one that they weren’t allowed to even
any more, it wasn’t bones, but a blanket: an elaborate blanket of modernist design. It was patterned with rows, circles and stripes, each shape coloured absolutely as though painted with the tip of a cursor and the press of a button. Mud brown here, a dash of hunting green there, some rust-coloured lines for border definition. That side glinted. Solar panels and swimming pools twinkled in the sun.
To hell with them.
To hell with them
He was out of there.
Flip, flip, flip for he doesn’t fly, he is flipping now over the sea, the White Sea,
al bahr al abyad
, the Mediterranean, and it’s so blue and alive with fish and dolphins leaping, leaping like him: over, up, out of it all, into the sky and away.
Right the hell out of there.
Out of here.
Well, at least for a year.
The comment came from nowhere, but after it was said Iman had been unable to treat the meeting in the same way. The chairwoman had smiled approvingly at her notepad and that was that.
‘But you’ve just turned up here,’ was all the woman had to say, ‘you’re new to this.’
Which was where it was. Where, Iman felt, it had always been, although no one had said it before. Iman was the outsider, the returnee and as a result she did not deserve to so much as comment on what was going on there.
,’ someone was saying behind her, Switzerland. They were talking about her schooling. That was completely unacceptable. Iman turned on the woman who had spoken, but instead of being intimidated by Iman’s stare, the woman was now explaining Iman’s background to the women near her. ‘Her father was with the Outside Leadership,’ the woman was saying. ‘She teaches at a school. Only been back for a year or so.’
‘But what if I have? That doesn’t exclude me does it? Maybe I have something to add anyway?’
She had to handle herself as though he was watching her, she thought.
‘This is how I dealt with it,’
she would tell him if he were to ask later, if she saw him again.
‘I stood there and I told them.’
But told them what? They were watching her now, not all of them hostile, some of them encouraging, most of them curious, but none of them seemed to appreciate the magnitude of the insult. Didn’t they see that she was being pushed out?
‘I may not have been here long,’ she strained to be dignified rather than haughty, to be calm rather than hysterical, ‘but I am here now and I am not planning on leaving. I should still be able to have my say.’
Umm Nidal, who Iman and her twin brother Rashid, referred to as Grande Dame, now usefully decided to deploy her clout, ‘
She’s right. She should have her say.’
‘Your point?’ the chairwoman asked, scratching between her roots at her scalp with the end of her chrome pen and squinting. She always needed to squint to take Iman in.
‘My point is that we can’t keep waiting for one great opportunity to present itself, because it won’t.’ Iman took a breath
. ‘We need to decide on small, manageable steps that are realisable and doable. It is better to do something, no matter how small—’
‘Thank you,’ the chairwoman said. ‘Thank you, Miss Mujahed.’ She nodded at Iman for her to sit down.
The Women’s Committee’s fortnightly meeting was being held in an unfinished, windowless basement room in one of the newly built universities in the city and they had been there all night. The walls were bare breeze blocks, the floor uncovered cement. It was the type of room you would find in a holocaust museum, Iman thought. The plan had been for the seven o’clock meeting to last no longer than two hours, but the bombing had started unexpectedly at eight and the decision had been for them to stay. And to stay. And to stay some more.
Iman had, for the most part, embraced being stuck there. She had gone upstairs and found the caretaker’s wife in a closet-like room on the second floor, and, armed with a bag of keys, they had together found a couple of rugs in one of the offices that they brought down for the Committee members to sit, lie, or sleep on. They had boiled water in a saucepan and found cups for tea and sugar (
Bravo, Iman! Bravo!)
which she had brought in on a tray. She had helped with the sharing of the working phones between the women. She had complimented a couple of the women, joked with others. She had done so much. She did not deserve that comment (
You’ve just turned up here
), that reminder of who she was. That she was not wanted.