The Awkwardness of Luxury in a Region of Tragedy

My family and I have just gotten back from a few days in a resort in the sea-side city of Aqaba in Jordan. We swam, we sat on the beach, we ate good food, we slept on clean, white sheets. It was lovely. it was luxury – and it was a little awkward.

To be able to travel even outside of one’s own city is a blessing, but being able to do so with peace of mind and security is just an added layer of fortune. Often, when I travel to these somewhat luxurious places, where staff tend to me while all I have to do is sit and enjoy myself, I feel a sense of underlying discomfort. I start to think…why is it I get to be here, on this beach, complaining about the speed of the hotel breakfast service, while others in Yemen eat paste made of grass just to survive? Why do I get to leave home and go back whenever I please, while Palestinians have been clutching their house keys for decades, waiting to return?

I won’t lie to you and say that these thoughts stop me from enjoying myself. I indulge in the luxury when I’m in it. Of course I do. But I try to keep in mind just how fortunate I really am. On this particular trip, I tried to maintain a healthy level of discomfort by watching a four-part documentary about the 1948 Palestinian Nakba. It was one of the first times I’d ever watched anything about the conflict happening in my region. This fact alone is pretty concerning. I’ve watched a bunch of documentaries before, but only ever about Western history. It made me realize how deeply I’ve internalized the idea that Western history is the only history, and how out of touch I really am.

As was intended, the documentary made me very uncomfortable – probably the most uncomfortable a documentary has ever made me feel, perhaps because I was learning about the tragedy endured in my own bloodline. Watching it only highlighted how strange and awkward it felt to see these establishments of luxury erected in the center of our war-torn region. I sat on the beach of the Red Sea and to my right could see Israel shimmering in the distance, beautiful and terrifying. It looked so real…like it had been there all along.

To sit and simply stare at it can make one feel pretty helpless, not to mention passive and useless. There is little the average person can do to change the circumstances of war, but we can at least educate ourselves, so that if we do indulge in these perhaps ill-timed luxuries, if we do lounge on a beach and happen to stare our ancestors’ oppressors in the face, we can at least see what stands before us with a little more insight.

See you soon.

Before Sleep

Here is your bed
which smells of you
you wouldn’t know it
but the people who love you do

Here is the curve your body made over time
here are two rows of lashes
meeting in a single dark line

Here is the quiet
the hush
the hum
here are all the thoughts you try to run from

Here passes the face of the person you miss
here comes the sudden phantom of that kiss

Here is the wondering what it means to be you
the answer changes nightly
but every answer is true

And here comes the stillness
may in it peace you find
look, there goes your soul – upwards
and your heart 
mingling with your mind.

A Brief Description of My Quarantine Body

(written on april 30th, 2020)

It’s the same as my normal body – it is my normal body – just thicker. When I lay down, I can reach my hand up my shirt and grab at the skin below my ribs, and it packs between my fingers soft and pillowy and thicker than I remember it  being in a long time. I’ve picked at the stars on my thighs; they’re red now, inflamed and bursting. There are jungles growing, with new species emerging, making sounds like obscenity in the most holy of hours. I’ve cut crescents off my finger tips; one got caught in the sky and now it’s Ramadan. My curls are slept on and silly, like little me in a rectangular picture, smiling carelessly with small, new teeth.

New Star

I miss the sounds of engines
tearing through the night;
do you remember when you went 100
on that dark road beside our secret
and I gripped the seat and laughed?

The silence isn’t so bad
sounds reach me from every corner of the hills
dogs barking and insects chirping and children screaming;
spring is still spring, even now

The sirens don’t disturb me much anymore;
I forget about them until they seep in through the screen windows
and I stop at the kitchen sink with a suddy plate in my hands and think,
“Oh,
that’s right.”

Mama found a new star in the sky
she sees it when she’s on the balcony smoking
at first, she thought it was a plane
and watched it and waited for it to move but it didn’t;
she tells me to take a photo of it
I say my camera doesn’t go that far

I don’t know when I’ll see you again
I think about it sometimes — often
the weight of my body hitting into yours
and the way you’ll stumble backwards when you catch me;
if that star is still in the sky when we meet, I’ll point it out to you
and maybe
if we both reach together
we’ll be able to grasp it.

A Wind that Won’t Stop Blowing

Since February 8th
I have felt as if I were sitting on my knees in a garden in which all the flowers have been ripped out;
there is nothing around me but overturned soil and leftover petals
and a sweet perfume
that every moment gets swept away more completely
by a wind that won’t stop blowing.

Desert (A Short Story)

In the biggest desert in the world, there was a candle; cream-colored, forever lit, and unmelting. It stood on a copper plate that was placed in between two, red sand dunes. Every night, Jawaad watched the flame through the flaps of their tent, that small bead of light reflecting in his bleary eyes. It was only by watching the steady burn of the candle that he could get to sleep. One night, he and Aminah – his little sister – had bickered before bed, and as punishment their mother had them turn away from each other on the narrow, embroidered mattress which they shared. Jawaad had no choice but to give his back to the candle, and as a result did not sleep soundly all night. In fact, he kept discreetly peering over his shoulder to make sure it had not been snuffed out, as if his constant watch was what had kept it burning all this time.

His grandfather, who always slept with his eyes open on a mattress at the mouth of the tent, noticed Jawaad’s unrest. “It won’t go out, ibni,” he said, voice strong like timber. “It does not go out.”

Jawaad, who was startled that his grandfather was awake (and slightly afraid that he would tell his mother he had been looking over his shoulder) asked for the very first time, “Why not?”

Jawaad waited a few moments for his grandfather to reply, but the old man simply stared off, unblinking, and began to snore.

Although his grandfather was right and the candle was still lit when Jawaad woke the next morning, he was struggling to believe that the flame could never be extinguished. All fire went out – it was what fire did – and so Jawaad’s fear never truly subsided. He gazed into the candle all through the night, and checked on it periodically throughout the day. Its presence gave him peace of mind; it allowed him to enjoy his meals, to focus on games, to laugh – it allowed him, essentially, to be a child, secure and unbothered.

That security shattered the day of the storm. Clouds accumulated above their tent all morning, dark and looming. Jawaad was so overcome with worry that he could not eat or play or even talk. He wrung his hands like laundry and hovered so close to his mother that he could smell the oud in her perfume. No one noticed his uneasiness. His mother cooked and washed. His grandfather sat confidently in his throne at the mouth of the tent, watching the landscape and feeding prayer beads through his calloused fingers. Aminah, having given up on trying to convince her brother to entertain her, played silently with her invisible friends. And all the while, a single, irrefutable fact repeated ceaselessly in Jawaad’s head: it will not survive the rain.

Thunder erupted throughout the swooping dunes, shaking the first raindrops from the clouds. They fell silently at first, leaving dark spots on the sand, but as the rain grew harder and louder, Jawaad’s panic climbed higher. It occurred to him suddenly that he would not be able to bear life without the candle, and was certain that the sight of the smoking wick would kill him. Feeling close to death, he began to sob and hugged his mother hard. She held him, both confused and concerned, and whispered God’s names into his hair.

“Jawaad,” it was his grandfather’s voice, “Jawaad, leave your mother.” Jawaad felt his grandfather’s seismic hands pry him away from the warmth of his mother’s breast and drag him outside the tent. “Ibni, open your eyes,” he said, firmly. Jawaad sobbed and pleaded, eyes shut tight. His grandfather shook him violently, “Open your eyes!”

The fear invoked by his grandfather’s voice forced Jawaad to obey. What he saw before him made his breath catch in his throat, for reflected in his big, wet eyes was the warm light of the still burning candle.

Tearful, Jawaad looked up at his grandfather, “But how?

His grandfather released him and crouched down to meet his gaze. With every syllable, he prodded the place on Jawaad’s chest where his heart lay, “It. Does. Not. Go. Out.” And then, pushing off his great knees, he stood and strode back through the flaps of the tent.

Jawaad sat there on the ground for a long while, massaging his chest. Thunder and lightning crashed above his head, rain soaked him through, the sand turned to mud beneath him, until at last, with a final glance over his shoulder, he stood and walked back to the tent, leaving the candle standing in its copper plate: cream-colored, forever lit, and unmelting.

Space (a short story)

My whole life I felt odd among my people. I didn’t fit. I didn’t agree with them. There came a time, even, when I was sure I hated them. This feeling got so intense that eventually I took my things and moved up north, where the rain was heavy and there was no one to argue with. All my life I thought turning my back on my people would be easy. And then he came: the man dressed in the cloud.

It was raining that day. I sat at the foot of a cave with my dress over my knees and listened to the raindrops – the stones – ringing off the mountains like music. As the song played, I saw something shifting nearby. Lines drawn in the shape of a body. It was a man, dressed entirely in a white and puffed up suit, like a cloud. He looked towards me and the face behind his glass orb washed with shock. Carefully, he raised a hand and moved it. Side to side.

I paused. I waved back.


He told me he was from Earth, and asked me if I had ever heard of it. I said no. He asked if it always rained like this. I said yes. He laughed and shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe it. He said that the rain on Earth wasn’t solid like this. It came down in droplets of water, not stones. With a gloved hand, he picked up a stray raindrop.

“Do you know what we call these stones back on Earth? Diamonds. They’re very valuable. People have killed each other over them.”

“Killed?” I asked, a little shocked. It seemed a bit excessive to kill each other over stones, whether they fell from the sky or not. But the man only nodded.

“Mm, they kill over just about anything on Earth. Sometimes I think I took this job just to get away from it all.”

These words would echo in my head in the days to come. The man stayed for three, throughout which he told me all about Earth and its people. He told me about green grass and blue sky. It sounded beautiful, and I thought about asking to go with him. But I didn’t. For some reason, I didn’t.

On the day that he was leaving, I watched as he readied his ship. He was putting his things away, and among them was a small, clear bag of raindrops. Of diamonds.

I hesitated.

They kill over just about anything on Earth.

Uneasy, I told him that I didn’t think it was a good idea to take the diamonds back with him. His people would no doubt come back for more, wouldn’t they? They may even bring violence, or war. He told me that they wouldn’t. I told him to promise me that they wouldn’t.

He couldn’t do it.

Still, he was refusing to leave without them. I reached over and tried to take them from him, but he shoved me to the ground. He told me he was sorry and, strangely enough, he looked it too. As he moved towards his ship to leave, I imagined otherworldly men fighting over the rain. I pictured my family – my mother and siblings in the south – getting caught in the crossfire. I pictured clouds forming over the villages. All laced with red.

These images were so frightening, that all at once I found myself with a leg at either side of the man’s body, gripping a rock in my strong hand. With all my force, I came down on him. I broke his glass head and I broke his real head, too.

As he bled, I sat beside his body and shivered. It began to rain again, and as the stones filled the valley with song once more, I thought: maybe it’s time to go home.  

The Goblin

In Social Ethics class we were asked to make a creative project about a social issue that mattered to us. I decided to write a short children’s book about domestic violence in Jordan, told from the point of view of a child. My hope for this book is that it will raise awareness on the issue, as well as offer solace and strength to the children living in these abusive households, despite the fact they may not yet fully understand their circumstances.

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback!

 


 

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‘Good’ Writing

Today in Writing 3 we were asked to turn in a reflection of what we believed was ‘good’ writing. Our professor gave us complete freedom and told us to choose any format we liked. I went for the creative-fiction-prose approach and wrote up a scene of a mother who discovers the body of her son. Pretty dark, I know, but I wanted to test the emotional impact of the writing.

To do this, I drew up two samples. One was the scene written in a way that I felt was ‘weaker’, and one was written in a way that I felt was ‘stronger’, i.e. the way I would ideally write it. Here are the two samples:

Sample One: 

I entered the house and took note of the silence. But then again it was always this way. My son, who was always home when I arrived from work, was not one to make noise. Usually, I would walk by his room to check on him. He would greet me with a weak smile, and I would look at him and think about how much brighter his smile used to be before he was diagnosed with depression.

“Hi mama,” he’d say.

“Hi habibi,” I’d reply.

Today was no exception. I walked up to his room to check on him, but things were different. My son was not in his bed. I took in the sight of him hanging. He had taken his own life.

Sample Two

Let me tell you about the moment my son became a statistic. I walked into the house, and all was quiet. But that wasn’t odd, really. Rami made as much noise as someone who spent all day swaddled in bed scrolling through Instagram could make. Every day when I’d come back from work, I’d pop my head into his room to check up on him. He’d look up, pull out an ear bud, and try to smile in a way that was meant to fool me into thinking he was doing better. Just once I wish I could’ve fallen for it.

“Hi mama.”

“Hi habibi.”

Today, I went to check on him as always. I walked across the hall, pushed open his door, and there he was. But he wasn’t on his phone. In fact, his phone was on the side table, and his ear buds – much like Rami at that moment – dangled off the edge, hanging silently in midair.

Okay, which one hit you harder? My intention was that the second one would have the stronger impact, and I thought without a doubt that my classmates and professor would agree. But they didn’t.

I explained my reasoning for why I originally believed the second one was stronger; I gave the characters more of a personality, tried to show readers what kind of relationship the mother and son had… The grief, I believed, was in the details. But, according the class, the details served more as a distraction.

My professor said that because the first sample was so stark and mechanical, it reflected the chilling nature of the truth this woman was about to uncover in her son’s room. It reflected the general ‘wrongness’ of the atmosphere, and ultimately the simple, blunt language pierced the heart more acutely than sample two.

It’s never easy to take criticism, but having heard their thoughts, I do sort of agree with them. There are strengths in the first one that the second one could have benefited from. Perhaps it would be better to write more in the style of sample one. Or, maybe I should try to merge the two styles and apply the strengths from both?

I’m not sure yet. I’ll definitely need to think about it more.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t be afraid to place your work under other people’s microscopes. Feedback does help you grow, as a writer and as a person.  Learning to let go of your ego and listen to what others have to say is actually really humbling once you surrender to it. So bring your work to class, show it to people, and take what they have to say into serious consideration. It’s worth the risk, and you’ll probably end up discovering weaknesses in your writing that you never noticed before. (Also, nothing equates to seeing people get emotional over something you wrote, so if it does goes well, it’ll be really nice and you can feed off the validation for a while…just saying).

If you like, let me know which sample impacted you more and why. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

See you soon.

Resolutions

There’s about five or six of us enrolled in Modern English Literature. It’s such an intimate class, we don’t even take it in a lecture hall. Instead, it’s held in our professor’s office, where we scatter ourselves among her couches and prop notebooks up on our laps. Modernist literature is known for focusing on the internal mind, on the consciousness of its characters, and so maybe that’s why it feels so much like a group therapy session whenever we come together. It’s as much a study of ourselves as it is of literature, and we’ve learned a lot about each other.

So, it was no surprise when, the other day, our professor interrupted class to ask us each what our resolutions were for the upcoming year. We sat in silence for a moment, thinking, not sure what was too personal to share. And then a friend of mine spoke up.

Her resolution, she said, was to give up overthinking.

Oh, I thought, that’s a good one. And I could see a similar realization wash over the other students, as well. Perhaps it’s just uni culture, but we really are just a group of anxiety-ridden young adults. Our collective fear is something we bond over – joke about even – but we all know it isn’t always so easy to laugh about.

Our professor, who has the perceptiveness of a loving mother, took note of the faces in the room. She could see that we related to my friend, and she began to tell us about how she, too, had been an anxious student. However, with time, she had trained herself to  take things more easily. She took a moment to remind us that nothing is worth a sleepless night, that we should learn to say ‘so what?’ more often, and that, most importantly, we should never allow other professors – who have forgotten what it’s like to be young and inexperienced – to bully us into feeling inadequate.

It’s funny how we think we already know these things, that we don’t need anyone to remind us, but when you hear them after being in your head for so long, it can be like having a fog you weren’t even aware of lift suddenly. All at once, you’re aware of all the nails you’ve bitten off, lying in a heap in your lap, aware of how vigorously you’re fidgeting in your seat, of how fractured your mind is, thinking days, weeks, even years ahead. It’s good to work, to excel, but it’s also okay to not constantly be doing something.

I’m writing about this because it’s Christmas break, and for the last two days I’ve done nothing but lie around in various positions and think about all the things I should be doing. Coursework, projects, writing – even leisure reading has become a chore. I attach urgency to everything in my life, and it’s exhausting. I do think being ‘productive’ is healthy, but only when one is able.

So, yes, I do want to work and create – of course I do – but not in a way that constantly makes me feel like I’m being chased. There are no teeth yapping at my heels. I have time. I’ll get things done. And even if I don’t do as well as I want to, well then – so what?

See you soon.