by Emile Habiby
Thou dweller of Heaven
Allow thy gaze to fall
Bring back our brethren
We have homes and terraces
With doors open wide
O dweller of Heaven
Give wing to the doves
Grant us sweet repose
Look down from on high
on us and our lands
and restore our kinfolk.
Upper room upon room
to sunlight and to freedom
look down from on high
to span the days and nights
that is the fruit of peace
(Song by Fairuz)
The young men were returning from their usual evening stroll and darkness had just began to fall as our car approached the charcoal kilns of our Galilean village. The fragrance of the submerged wood in the kilns filled the air, and our guest exclaimed joyfully, "We have arrived".
I sounded my horn to warn the young men returning from their evening stroll to stay clear of our path. They were in need of no such warning, and I was actually blowing the horn to announce the arrival of our guest. She was returning to her village and to her old, crippled mother for the first time for more than twenty years. She had gone to live in Lebanon with her husband and children and now she was returning twenty years later. She had crossed the bridge over the sacred river with permission to visit her mother's home for two weeks.
She asked, "Is the spring still there like the charcoal kilns?"
"It is still there at the other end of the village but it has dried up,” I replied.
Our guest gave a diffident laugh that was audible but invisible and said, "Jubaynah has returned".
It was my turn to laugh but I could not.
Do you know the tale of Jubaynah, or has it sunk into oblivion among the ruins of Damoun and Igrith?*
It is the tale of a childless village woman who used to make cheese and pray to God on high to give her a daughter with a face as round and fair as the cheese in her hands.
God answered her prayer and sent her a daughter whose beauty put the moon itself to shame.
Hugo named her Esmeralda; but the village women called her "Jubaynah".
She nurtured and pampered her and clothed her in brocaded silk. She entwined her wrist with a beaded blue charm to protect her from the evil eye. Her anklets rang out to the graceful rhythm of her body as she walked, alerting pedestrians to make way for her as she approached.
To cut a long story short, she, like Esmeralda, was kidnapped by the gypsies. Her mother continued to search for her and weep for her loss until she collapsed and lost the light of sight in her eyes.
As for Jubaynah, she was transferred from one master to another until she ended up herding geese in the pastures of the prince of a far away land. She was separated from her mother and father by seven seas and seven years.
As she tended the geese, she sang a sorrowful song:
O birds that fly
Over mountains high
Tell my mother and father
That precious Jubaynah
And walks thorny paths
On mountains high
A young prince overheard her song and was touched by it. He returned next day, and the song seemed even more enchanting to him. He returned for seven more days and fell in love with Jubaynah. Seven long nights he spent without sleep until he poured out his heart to his mother. And so it was that he took Jubaynah from the pasture and brought her to the palace as his wife and princess.
After spending one year in comfort, Princess Jubaynah gave birth to a bonny boy. A second year elapsed and Princess Jubaynah said to her husband the Prince, "My country yearns for its own".
So he set her upon a camel litter and gave her perfumes, silks and gifts to take with her. She travelled until she came to the village spring. Her child became thirsty. Seeing the village women quarrelling and jostling one another around the spring, she asked them for some water for her child. One of the women answered, "There is no water in the spring. Ever since Jubaynah disappeared, the spring has been dry".
Jubaynah answered, "Go and look, and you shall find water in the spring".
And so it was. The pent-up water gushed forth from within the broken-hearted Earth.
One of the women whispered to her sister, "Jubaynah has returned".
The news spread. Girls and boys ran about shouting, "Jubaynah has returned".
A boy ran impulsively to the house of Jubaynah's mother and approached her like a goat at full tilt. Shouting so that she could hear him and panting so that she would believe him, he said, "Grandmother, grandmother: Jubaynah has returned". But she would not believe him, so he returned to Jubaynah's litter abashed. Jubaynah gave him the blue charm, that encircled her slender wrist and said, "Tell Jubaynah's mother that this is from Jubaynah".
The boy took it to her and placed it in her hands. She smelt it and rubbed her eyes again; and the tears welled up in her eyes and the light of sight was restored to them.
Then, they were united.
However, I said to our guest, "The mechanical litter is now entering the village. Will the water in the spring gush forth?"
Our guest smiled an inaudible, invisible smile.
We entered the village alleys. I asked her to guide me to her mother's house if she still remembered the way.
As she continued to guide me, I drove the car up a steep alley. Suddenly, she astonished me by crying out, "Beware of the ditch to your left at the beginning of the next alley"; for there was a ditch in the very spot where Jubaynah had anticipated it.
She became aware of my amazement and said, ''No, not everything has remained the same. We have grown older and the alley arches have aged; but the children fill the plain and the mountain. I do not know them and they do not know me; but I think they know that my crippled mother has a daughter abroad".
In this matter as well, she was right. A young man was shutting the shop beneath her mother's house. He saw that we were strangers, accompanying a strange lady in modern clothes as she alighted from the car at such a late hour in that congested alley. No sooner had he seen us that he ran towards us. Without a word from us, he turned round and shouted to his neighbors, "So and so's daughter has returned. So and so's daughter has returned".
The women neighbors quickly ran out to welcome her. I saw the crippled old woman at the bottom of the stairway, standing on her own two feet. She was trying to hear, trying to see, trying to understand. They said, "Here is her mother".
It was pitch dark, and the men were shouting to the women to bring a torch.
The old woman standing at the bottom of the stairs was smiling such a smile as I have never seen in my life, a smile that was like the traces of the waves on the beach during the ebbing of the sea.
Through the commotion, a shrill cry of joy could be heard, which froze every movement and silenced every voice.
The old mother was uttering exclamations of joy. We did not understand any of the verses she recited. Perhaps all we heard of her cry was the rustling of her lips; but her face reflected a vision of a bride's glory at the moment of her unveiling.
Then, they were reunited.
We were still helping the old mother back to her bed when she pushed us aside and sprang, like a lioness towards an old wooden chest. Raising its lid, she rummaged in it and brought out some clothes for a seven or eight-year-old child. She whispered hoarsely, "These are your clothes. I have kept them for your daughter. Why didn't you bring her with you?"
Then, she brought out a blue charm attached to a golden pennant and said, "Your father, God rest his soul, always used to say that had you kept this charm, all that has happened would not have occurred, Wear it and never take it off."
As I took leave of our guest, she said to me diffidently, "As for the new Jubaynah, it was not she who kept the blue charm". I answered her, "My way lies past the water spring at the end of the village, I will visit it. Perhaps it has overflowed with water."
As I passed the water spring, I raised my hand in salute. No one could see me, so why should I not salute the spring?
As for visiting the spring to see whether life has returned to it, I decided to postpone that until some other day.
* Arab villages destroyed by the Israelis - ed.
From The Modern Arabic Short Story by Mohammad Shaheen, Macmillan Press, London, 1989.