by Ghassan Kanafani
We are publishing selected excerpts from Returning to Haifa, the important novella by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, as it appeared in the collection Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories, translated and edited by Barbara Harlow and Karen Riley (Boulder & London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000). Returning to Haifa tells the story of a Palestinian couple who goes back to Haifa after the 1967 war to look for their baby, whom they were forced to leave behind in the war of 1948.
From the Introduction
For nearly a century, politics, violence, and diplomacy have all failed to resolve the complex, mythified, and misunderstood clash that since 1948 has come to be known as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Certainly it is not for lack of study; books on the subject in English alone could fill a small-town library. Perhaps what has been missing — or ignored — throughout is the quotidian human reality underlying the vital history that continues to connect Palestinians everywhere to the land once called Palestine. Often, literature can provide the human dimension that the historian’s work alone cannot. The literary works of the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani resonate with precisely that human dimension.
********About the Book
“Politics and the novel,” Ghassan Kanafani once said, “are an indivisible case.” Fadl al-Naqib has reflected that Kanafani “wrote the Palestinian story, then he was written by it.” His narratives offer entry into the Palestinian experience of the conflict that has anguished the people of the Middle East for most of the twentieth century.
In Palestine’s Children,
each story involves a child — a child who is victimized by political events and circumstances, but who nevertheless participates in the struggle toward a better future. As in Kanafani’s other fiction, these stories explore the need to recover the past — the lost homeland — by action. At the same time, written by a major talent, they have a universal appeal.
Born in Acre (northern Palestine) in 1936, Ghassan Kanafani was a prominent spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and founding editor of its weekly magazine Al-Hadaf.
His novels and short stories have been published in 16 languages. He, along with his niece, was killed in Beirut in 1972 in the explosion of his booby-trapped car. An Israeli journalist later quoted a Mossad agent as saying that Kanafani should not have been on the list of assassinations which were carried out by the Israeli intelligence agency.
Excerpts from the novella
When he reached the edge of Haifa, approaching by car along the Jerusalem road, Said S. had the sensation that something was binding his tongue, compelling him to keep silent, and he felt grief well up inside of him. For one moment he was tempted to turn back, and without even looking at her he knew that his wife had begun to cry silently. Then suddenly came the sound of the sea, exactly the way it used to be. Oh no, the memory did not return to him little by little. Instead, it rained down inside his head the way a stone wall collapses, the stones pilling up, one upon the another. The incidents and the events came to him suddenly and began to pile up and fill his entire being. He told himself that Safiyya, his wife, felt exactly the same, and that was why she was crying.
Ever since he left Ramallah that morning he had not stopped talking, nor had she. Beneath his gaze, the fields sped by through the windshield, and the heat was unbearable. He felt his forehead catch fire, exactly like the burning asphalt beneath the car’s wheels, while above him the sun, the terrible June sun, spilled the tar of its anger upon the earth.
All along the way he talked and talked and talked. He spoke to his wife about everything — about the war and about the defeat, about the Mandelbaum Gate, demolished by bulldozers. And about the enemy, who reached the river, then the canal, then the edge of Damascus in a matter of hours. And about the ceasefire, and the radio, and the way the soldiers plundered belongings and furniture, and the curfew, and his cousin in Kuwait consumed with anxiety, and the neighbor who gathered his things and fled, and the three Arab soldiers who fought alone for two days on the hill near Augusta Victoria Hospital, and the men who took off their army uniforms and fought in the streets of Jerusalem, and the peasant who was killed the minute they saw him near the largest hotel in Ramallah. His wife spoke of many other matters. Throughout the entire journey neither of them stopped talking. Now, as they reached the entrance to Haifa, they both fell silent. At that moment they both realized that they had not spoken a word about the matter which had brought them there.
This is Haifa, then, twenty years later.
Noon, June 30, 1967. The car, a gray Fiat bearing white Jordanian license plates, was traveling north, across the plain which was called Ibn Amr twenty years ago. It ascended the coastal road toward the southern entrance to Haifa. When the car crossed the road and entered the main street, all the walls came down and the road dissolved behind a film of tears. He heard himself say to his wife, “This is Haifa, Safiyya!”
The steering wheel felt heavy between his palms, which had begun to sweat more profusely than they ever had before. It occurred to him to say to his wife, “I know this Haifa, but it refuses to acknowledge me.” However, he changed his mind and after a moment a thought struck him, and he said to her:
“You know, for twenty long years I always imagined that the Mandelbaum Gate would be opened some day, but I never, never imagined that it would be opened from the other side. It never entered my mind. So when they were the ones to open it, it seemed to me frightening and absurd and to a great degree humiliating. Maybe I’d be crazy if I told you that doors should always open from one side only and that, if they opened from the other side, they must still be considered closed. But nevertheless, that’s the truth.”
He turned toward his wife, but she wasn’t listening. She was turned away from him, absorbed in gazing at the road — now to the right, where the farmland stretched away as far as one could see, and now to the left, where to sea, which had remained so distant for more than twenty years, was raging near at hand. Suddenly she said:
“I never imagined that I would see Haifa again.”
“You’re not seeing it. They’re showing it to you.”
With that, Safiyya’s nerves failed her for the first time and she shouted:
“What’s all this ‘philosophy’ you’ve been spouting all day long? The gates and the sights and everything else. What happened to you?”
“They opened the border as soon as they completed the occupation, suddenly and immediately. That has never happened in any war in history. You know the terrible thing that happened in April 1948, so now, why this? Just for our sakes alone? No! This is part of the war. They’re saying to us, ‘Help yourselves, look and see how much better we are than you, how much more developed. You should accept being our servants. You should admire us.” But you’ve seen it yourself. Nothing’s changed. It was in our power to have done much better than they did.”
“Then why did you come?”
He looked at her angrily and she fell silent.
She knew. Why did she need to ask? She was the one who told him to come. For twenty long years she avoided talking about it, twenty years. Then the past erupted as though forced out by a volcano.
As he drove the car through the center of Haifa, the smell of war was still strong enough to make the city seem to him dark and excited and agitated, the faces harsh and savage. After a little while he realized that he was driving the car through Haifa with the feeling that nothing in the streets had changed. He used to know Haifa stone by stone, intersection by intersection. How often he had crossed that road in his green 1946 Ford! Oh he knew Haifa well, and now he felt as though he hadn’t been away for twenty years. He was driving his car just as he used to, as though he hadn’t been absent those twenty bitter years.
The names began to rain down inside his head as though a great layer of dust had been shaken off them: Wadi Nisnas, King Faisal Street, Hanatir Square, Halisa, Hadar…The events mixed together suddenly, but he held himself together and asked his wife in a barely audible voice:
“Well, where shall we begin?”
She was quiet. He heard her crying softly, almost silently, and he calculated to himself the suffering she was enduring. He knew he couldn’t really comprehend that suffering precisely, but he did know it was very great, and that it had remained so for twenty years. Now it was welling up like some incredible monster inside of her, in her head, in her heart, in her memories, in her imagination, controlling her entire future. He was amazed that he had never thought about what that suffering must have meant to her, and about the extent to which it was buried in the wrinkles of her face and in her eyes and in her mind. It was with her in every bite of food she took and in every hut where she had lived and in every look she cast at her children and at him and at herself. Now all of it was bursting forth from the wreckage and the oblivion and the pain, to carry away the mass of bitter defeat he had tasted at least twice in his lifetime.
Morning, Wednesday, April 21, 1948. Haifa, the city, was not expecting anything, in spite of the fact that it was filled with dark tension.
Thunder came abruptly from the east, from the heights of Mount Carmel. Mortar shells flew across the city’s center, pelting the Arab quarters.
The streets of Haifa turned into chaos. Alarm swept through the city as it closed its shops and the windows of its houses.
Said S. was in the center of town when the sounds of shots and explosions started to fill the sky above Haifa. Up until noon he hadn’t expected that this would be the all-out attack, so it wasn’t until then that he tried to return home in his car, but he soon discovered that this was impossible. He went down the side streets in an attempt to cross the road to Halisa, where he lived, but the fighting had already spread, and he saw armed men racing from side street to main road and from main road to side street. They moved in obedience to instructions blaring from loudspeakers placed here and there. After a while Said felt he was rushing helter-skelter, yet the alleyways, closed off by machine guns or bullets or the soldiers themselves, seemed to be pushing him unconsciously in one direction only. Over and over as he tried to return to his real direction, picking out a particular alley, he found himself pushed by an unseen force toward one road only, the road to the coast.
He had married Safiyya a year and four months before and had rented a house in a neighborhood he figured would be safe. But now he felt he wouldn’t reach it. He knew his young wife wouldn’t be able to cope. Ever since he had brought her from the country she’d been unable to deal with city life or get used to all the complications which seemed to her terrifying and insoluble. What would happen to her now, he wondered?
He was lost, nearly. He didn’t know exactly where or how the fighting was taking place. As far as he knew, the British still controlled the city and this whole situation should have taken place in approximately three weeks, when the British would begin to withdraw in accordance with the date they had fixed.
As he quickened his pace he knew for certain that he had to avoid the high sections of town adjoining Herzl Street, where the Jews had been headquartered from the beginning. But he also had to stay away from the business district between Halisa and Allenby Street, for that was the Jews’ strongest arms base.
So he sped along trying to circle around the business district in order to reach Halisa. Before him was the road that ends at Wadi Nisnas and passes through the Old City.
All of a sudden things got mixed up and the names became tangled up in his head: Halisa, Wadi Rushmiyya, the Burj, the Old City, Wadi Nisnas. He felt completely lost, that he had even lost his sense of direction. The explosions intensified. Even though he was far enough away from the site of the shooting he could still make out British soldiers who were boarding up some windows and opening others.
Somehow he found himself in the Old City and from there he raced with a strength he didn’t know he possessed toward South Stanton Street. And then he knew he was less than two hundred meters away from Halul Street, and he began to catch the scent of the sea.
At that exact moment he remembered little Khaldun, his son who was five months old that very day, and a dark apprehension suddenly spread over him. It was the one taste that never left his tongue right up to this moment, twenty years after it happened for the first time.
Had he expected that disaster? The events were mixed up, the past and present running together, both in turn jumbled up with the thoughts and illusions and imaginings and feelings of twenty successive years. Had he known? Did he sense the calamity before it happened? Sometimes he told himself, “Yes, I knew it even before it happened.” Other times he said, “No, I only imagined it after it happened. I couldn’t possibly have expected anything as horrifying as that.”
Evening began to settle over the city. He didn’t know how many hours had passed as he rushed from street to street, but it was clear that he was being propelled toward the port. All the side streets leading off the main road were closed. He kept plunging down side streets trying to get to his house, but he was always driven back, sometimes by rifle muzzles, sometimes by bayonets.
The sky was on fire, crackling with shots, bombs and explosions, near and far. It was as though the very sounds themselves were pushing everyone toward the port. Even though he could not concentrate on anything specific, he couldn’t help but see now the throng of people thickened with every step. People were pouring from the side streets into the main street leading down to the port — men, women and children, empty-handed or carrying a few small possessions, crying or being floated along in a paralyzed silence in the midst of the clamor and confusion. He was swallowed up in the rushing wave of humanity and lost the ability to direct his own steps. He kept remembering that he was being swept along by the dazed and crying throng toward the sea, unable to think about anything else. In his head was one picture only, suspended as though hanging on a wall: his wife Safiyya and his son Khaldun.
He put his fingers on the bell and said to Safiyya quietly:
“They changed the bell.”
He was silent a moment, then added:
“And the name. Naturally.”
He forced a foolish smile onto his face and placed his hand over Safiyya’s. Her hand was cold and trembling. From behind the door they heard slow footsteps. “An elderly person, no doubt,” he said to himself. There was the muffled sound of a bolt creaking, and the door opened slowly.
“So this is she.” He didn’t know whether he said it out loud or to himself in the form of a deep sigh. He remained standing in the same place without knowing what he should do. He chided himself for not having prepared an opening sentence in spite of the fact that he had known with certainty that this is very moment would arrive. He stirred himself and looked toward Safiyya for help. Umm Khalid thereupon took a step forward and said:
“May we come in?”
The old woman didn’t understand. She was short and rather plump and was dressed in a blue dress with white polka dots. As Said began to translate into English, the lines of her face came together, questioning. She stepped aside, allowing Said and Safiyya to enter, then led them into the living room.
Said followed her, Safiyya at his side, with slow, hesitant steps. They began to pick out the things around them with a certain bewilderment. The entrance seemed smaller than he had imagined it and felt a little damp. He saw many things he had once considered – and for that matter still considered — to be intimate and personal, things he believed were sacred and private property which no one had the right to become familiar with, to touch, or even to look at. A photograph of Jerusalem he remembered very clearly still hung where it had when he lived there. On the opposite wall a small Syrian carpet also remained where it had always hung.
He looked around, rediscovered the items, sometimes little by little and sometimes all at once, like someone recovering from a long period of unconsciousness. When they reached the living room he saw two chairs from the set of five he used to own. The other three chairs were new, and they seemed crude and out of harmony with the rest of the furnishings. In the center of the room was the same inlaid table, although its color had faded a bit. The glass vase on top of the table had been replaced by a wooden one, and in it was a bunch of peacock feathers. He knew there used to be seven of them. He tried to count them from where he was sitting, but he couldn’t, so he got up, moved closer to the vase and counted them one by one. There were only five.
When he turned to go back to his seat, he saw that the curtains were different. The ones Safiyya had made twenty years ago from sugar-colored yarn had been taken down and replaced by curtains with long blue threads running through them.
Then his gaze fell on Safiyya and he saw that she seemed confused. She was examining the corners of the room as though counting up the things that were missing. The old woman was sitting in front of them on the arm of one of the chairs, looking at them with a blank smile on her face. Finally, without changing her smile, she said:
“I have been expecting you for a long time.”
Her English was hesitant and marked by something like a German accent. She seemed to be pulling the words up out of a bottomless well as she pronounced them.
Said leaned forward and asked her:
“Do you know who we are?”
She nodded several times to emphasize her certainty. She thought for a moment, choosing her words, then said slowly:
“You are the owners of this house. I know that.”
“How do you know?”
Said and Safiyya both asked the question simultaneously.
The old woman continued to smile. Then she said:
“From everything. From the photographs, from the way the two of you stood in front of the door. The truth is, ever since the war ended many people have come here, looking at the houses and going into them. Every day I said that surely you would come.”
At once she seemed to become confused and began to look around at the things distributed throughout the room as though she were seeing them for the first time. Involuntarily, Said followed her glance, moving his eyes from place to place as she moved hers. Safiyya did the same. He said to himself, “How strange! Three pairs of eyes looking at one thing…but how differently each see it!”
The old woman spoke then, more quietly now and even more slowly.
“I’m sorry. But that’s what happened. I never thought things would be the way they are now.”
Iphrat Koshen didn’t need anyone to tell him that the English had an interest in delivering Haifa into the hands of the Haganah. It was well within his knowledge that they had played, and continued to play, a joint role. He’d seen it for himself two or three times. He didn’t remember how he came by the information about the role of Brigadier Stockwell, but he was sure it was true. The rumor was circulating in every corner of the Haganah. He concealed the date of the British withdrawal and leaked it only to the Haganah, thereby giving them the element of surprise at the most appropriate moment, when the Arabs were figuring that the British Army would relinquish its power at a later date.
Iphrat stayed at the Emigres’ Lodge all that Wednesday and Thursday, for they had been instructed not to leave the building. Some began to go out on Friday, but he didn’t go out until Saturday morning. He was immediately struck by the fact that he didn’t see any cars. It was a true Jewish Sabbath! This brought tears to his eyes for reasons he couldn’t explain. When his wife saw this, she too was surprised and said to him with tears in her own eyes:
“I’m crying for another reason. Yes, this is a true Sabbath. But there is no longer a true Sabbath on Friday, nor a true one on Sunday.”
That was just the beginning. For the first time since his arrival, his wife had called his attention to something troubling, something which he had neither counted on nor thought about. The signs of destruction that he began to notice took on another meaning, but he refused to let himself worry or even think about it.
From the standpoint of his wife Miriam, however, the situation was different. It changed that very day as she passed near Bethlehem Church in Hadar. She saw two young men from the Haganah carrying something, which they put in a small truck stopped nearby. In a flash she saw what it was they were carrying. She grabbed he husband’s arm and, trembling, cried out:
But her husband didn’t see anything when he looked where she was pointing. The two men were wiping their palms on the sides of their khaki shirts. She said to her husband: “That was a dead Arab child! I saw it! And it was covered in blood!”
Her husband guided her across the street, then asked:
“How do you know it was an Arab child?”
“Didn’t you see how they threw it onto the truck, like a piece of wood? If it had been a Jewish child they would never have done that.”
He wanted to ask her why, but when he saw her face, he remained silent.
Miriam had lost her father at Auschwitz eight years before. When they raided the house where she lived with her husband, he wasn’t home, so she took refuge with the upstairs neighbors. The German soldiers didn’t find anyone, but on their way back down the stairs they came upon her ten-year-old brother, who most likely had been on his way to tell her that their father had been sent to the camps, leaving him all alone. When he saw the German soldiers, he turned and began running away. She saw it all through the narrow slit made by a short gap between the stairs. She also saw how they shot him down.
Said didn’t touch Miriam’s coffee. Safiyya took just one sip, and with it a piece of one of the tinned biscuits Miriam had smilingly put before them.
Said continued to look around. His confusion had lessened somewhat as he listened to Miriam’s story unfold little by little during what seemed a very long time. He and Safiyya remained nailed to their chairs, waiting for something unknown to take place, something they couldn’t imagine.
Miriam came and went, and each time she disappeared behind the door, they listened to her slow steps dragging along the floor tiles. If she closed her eyes, Safiyya could imagine exactly Miriam going down the hall leading to the kitchen. On the right was the bedroom. Once, when they heard a door slam, Safiyya looked at Said and said bitterly:
“As if she’s in her own house! She acts as if it’s her house!”
They smiled in silence. Said pressed his palms together between his knees, unable to decide that to do. Finally Miriam returned and they asked her:
“When will he get here?”
“It’s time for him to return now, but he’s late. He never was on time getting home. He’s just like his father. He was…”
She broke off. Biting her lip, she looked at Said, who was trembling as if he’d been hit by an electric shock. “Like his father!” Then suddenly he asked himself, “What is fatherhood?” It was like throwing a window wide open to an unexpected cyclone. He put his head between his hands to try to stop the wild spinning of the question that had been suppressed somewhere in his mind for twenty years, the question he’d never dared to face. Safiyya began to stroke his shoulder, for in some uncanny way she understood what he felt, the sudden impact of words colliding to bring about the inevitable. She said:
“Look who’s talking! She said, ‘Like his father!’ As if Khaldun had a father other than you!”
But then Miriam stepped forward and stood preparing herself to say something difficult. Slowly she began to extract the words, and it seemed as though unseen hands were pulling them from the depths of a well of dust.
“Listen, Mr. Said. I want to tell you something important. I wanted you to wait for Dov — or Khaldun, if you like — so you could talk to each other and the matter could end as it naturally should end. Do you think this hasn’t been as much of a problem for me as it’s been for you? For the past twenty years I’ve been confused, but now the time has come for us to finish the matter. I know who his father is. And I also know that he is our son. But let’s call on him to decide. Let’s call on him to choose. He’s of age and we must recognize that he’s the only one who has the right to choose. Do you agree?”
Said got up and walked around the room. He stopped in front of the inlaid table and once more began to count the feathers in the wooden vase perched there. He said nothing. He kept silent as though he had not heard a word. Miriam watched him expectantly. Finally, he turned to Safiyya and told her what Miriam had said. Safiyya got up and stood by his side and said, her voice trembling:
“That’s a fair choice. I’m certain Khaldun will choose his real parents. It’s impossible to deny the call of flesh and blood.”
Said burst out laughing, his laughter filled with a profound bitterness that bespoke defeat.
“What Khaldun, Safiyya? What Khaldun? What flesh and blood are you talking about? You say this is a fair choice? They’ve taught him how to be for twenty years, day by day, hour by hour, with his food, his drink, his sleep. And you say, a fair choice! Truly Khaldun, or Dov, or the devil if you like, doesn’t know us! Do you want to know what I think? Let’s get out of here and return to the past. The matter is finished. They stole him.”
He looked over at Safiyya, who had collapsed into her chair. All at once, for the first time, she faced the truth. Said’s words seemed to her to be true, but she was still trying to hang on to the invisible thread of hope she had constructed in her imagination for twenty years as a sort of bribe. Her husband said to her:
“Maybe he never knew at all that he was born of Arab parents. Or maybe he learned it a month ago, a week ago, a year ago. What do you think? He was deceived, and perhaps he was even more enthusiastic in the deception than they were. The crime began twenty years ago and there’s no doubt who paid the price. It began the day we left him here.”
“But we didn’t leave him. You know that.”
“Yes, sure. We shouldn’t have left anything. Not Khaldun, not the house, not Haifa! Didn’t the same frightening feeling come over you that came over me while I was driving the streets of Haifa? I felt as though I knew Haifa, yet the city refused to acknowledge me. I had the same feeling in this house, here, in our house. Can you imagine that? That our house would refuse to acknowledge us? Don’t you feel it? I believe the same thing will happen with Khaldun. You’ll see!”
“What did the two of them come for? Don’t tell me they want to take me back?”
In a similar manner, Miriam replied:
He turned stiffly, as if following an order, and asked Said:
“What do you want, sir?”
Said held his composure, which seemed to him to be nothing more that a thin shell barely covering a smoldering flame. His voice muffled, he said:
“Nothing. Nothing, just…curiosity, you know.”
A sudden silence fell, and through it rose the sounds of Safiyya’s sobs, rather like the creaking chair of an uninvolved observer. The young man shifted his gaze again from Said to Miriam, then to his cap lying against the wooden vase. He retreated as if something had forced him back toward the chair beside Miriam. He sat down, saying:
“No. It’s impossible. It’s incredible.”
Said asked quietly:
“You’re in the army? Who are you fighting? Why?”
The young man jumped to his feet.
“You have no right to ask those questions. You’re on the other side.”
“I? I’m on the other side?”
Said laughed heartily. And with that explosive laughter he felt as if he were pushing out all the pain and the tension and fear and anguish in his chest. He wanted to keep on laughing and laughing until the entire world was turned upside down or until he fell asleep or died or raced out to his car. But the young man cut him off sharply.
“I see no reason to laugh.”
He laughed a little longer then stopped and became silent as suddenly as he had burst out laughing. He leaned back in his chair, feeling his calmness return, fishing through his pockets for a cigarette.
The silence lengthened. Then Safiyya, who had composed herself, asked in a subdued voice:
“Don’t you feel that we are your parents?”
No one knew to whom the question was addressed. Miriam certainly didn’t understand it, nor did the tall young man. As for Said, he didn’t answer. He finished his cigarette then and went over to the table to put it out. He felt a compulsion in the process to rip the cap from its place, so he did, smiling scornfully, then went back and sad down.
At that, the young man, his voice completely changed, said:
“We need to talk like civilized people.”
Again, Said laughed.
“You don’t want to negotiate, isn’t that right? You said you and I are on opposite sides. What happened? Do you want to negotiate, or what?”
Agitated, Safiyya asked:
“What did he say?”
The youth stood up again. He began to speak as though he had prepared the sentences long ago.
“I didn’t know that Miriam and Iphrat weren’t my parents until about three or four years ago. From the time I was small I was a Jew…I went to Jewish school, I studied Hebrew, I go to Temple, I eat kosher food…When they told me I wasn’t their own child, it didn’t change anything. Even when they told me — later on — that my original parents were Arabs, it didn’t change anything. No, nothing changed, that’s certain. After all, in the final analysis, man is a cause.”
“Who said that?”
“Who said that man is a cause?”
“I don’t know, I don’t remember. Why do you ask?”
“Curiosity. Actually, just because that’s exactly what was going through my mind at this moment.”
“That man is a cause?”
“Then why did you come looking for me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because I didn’t know it, or to be more certain about it. I don’t know. Anyway, go on.”
The young man began pacing again with his hands clasped behind his back: three steps toward the door, three steps towards the table. He seemed to be trying to recall a long lesson learned by heart. Cut off in the middle, he didn’t know how to finish, so he reviewed the first part silently in his head in order to be able to continue. Abruptly, he said:
“After I learned that you were Arabs, I kept asking myself: How could a father and mother leave their five-month-old son behind and run off? How could a mother and father not his own raise him and educate him for twenty years? Twenty years? Do you wish to say anything, sir?”
“No,” Said replied briefly and decisively, motioning with his hand for him to continue.
“I’m in the Reserves now, I haven’t been in direct combat yet so I can’t describe my feelings…but perhaps in the future I’ll be able to confirm to you what I’m about to say: I belong here, and this woman is my mother. I don’t know the two of you, and I don’t feel anything towards you.”
“There’s no need for you to explain your feelings to me later on. Maybe your first battle will be with a fida’i named Khalid. Khalid is my son. I beg you to notice that I did not say he’s your brother. As you said, man is a cause. Last week Khalid joined the fedayeen. Do you know why we named him Khalid and not Khaldun? Because we always thought we’d find you, even if it took twenty years. But it didn’t happen. We didn’t find you, and I don’t believe we will find you.”
“What is a homeland?”
She leaned forward, surprised, as though she didn’t believe what she heard. She asked with a delicacy that contained uncertainty:
“What did you say?”
“I said, what is a homeland? I was asking myself that question a moment ago. Naturally. What is a homeland? Is it these two chairs that remained in this room for twenty years? The table? Peacock feathers? The picture of Jerusalem on the wall? The copper lock? The oak tree? The balcony? What is a homeland? Khaldun? Our illusions of him? Fathers? Their sons? What is a homeland? Is it the picture of his brother hanging on the wall? I’m only asking.”
Once again, Safiyya began to weep. She dried her tears with a small white handkerchief. Looking at her, Said thought: “How this woman has aged. She squandered her youth waiting for this moment, not knowing what a terrible moment it would be.”
He looked at Dov again and it seemed to him utterly impossible that he could have been born of this woman. He tried to make out some similarity between Dov and Khalid, but he couldn’t find any resemblances between them. Instead, he saw a difference between the two that verged on making them total opposites. It amazed him that he’d lost any affection toward Dov. He imagined that all his memories of Khaldun were a handful of snow that the blazing sun had suddenly shone upon and melted.
He was still looking at him when Dov got up and stood stiffly in front of Said as if at the head of some hidden army battalion. He was making an effort to be calm.
“Perhaps none of that would have happened if you behaved the way a civilized and careful man should behave.”
“You should not have left Haifa. If that wasn’t possible, then no matter what it took, you should not have left an infant in its crib. And if that was also impossible, then you should have never stopped trying to return. You say that too was impossible? Twenty years have passed, sir! Twenty years! What did you do during that time to reclaim your son? If I were you I would’ve borne arms for that. Is there any stronger motive? You’re all weak! Weak! You’re bound by heavy chains of backwardness and paralysis! Don’t tell me you spent twenty years crying! Tears won’t bring back the missing or the lost. Tears won’t work miracles! All the tears in the world won’t carry a small boat holding two parents searching for their lost child. So you spent twenty years crying. That’s what you tell me now? Is this your dull, worn-out weapon?”