The story began for me when I fled a family marriage arranged by my mother’s brother. In rebellion, I accepted a post in a forgotten village at the city’s far perimeter. But my troubled conscience, and the longing I felt for my artist uncle, yielded the uneasy feeling that I must hold myself responsible for his sorrows, his disappointment and his pleas. He had invested all his hopes in me, having seen my attentiveness-mouth hanging open-to his projections and sketches and his fingers playing the oud. “You should have been my son,” he would say sadly. “You’re the artistic one.”
His own sons were very nearly retarded, and so he sought compensation by insistently planning my marriage to his daughter. The girl’s eyes were as blue as marbles in a bowl of milk. She was pretty like a doll of gypsum. But I ran away from my uncle and his daughter and dolls of gypsum. I left my mother-already once abandoned-and my sister Sara in the heart of Jerusalem, and rented a dismal room in the village. I no longer went to visit the family home except in school vacations and religious holidays.
Mine was a big room–practically the size of a whole dwelling, for it was of a different epoch. The structure was built of massive stones held together by nature’s mortar, mostly manure since at that time no one had yet figured out how to make cement. The roof was domed like a mosque ceiling, and the windows were so tiny that almost no light came in. I learned to keep the lamp lit day and night so that I would no longer have to grope my way. As for the raised stone platforms and basins that in time past had stored water, fodder, and chicken feed for the hens and Abyssinian roosters, I covered them with wood planks and mattresses and used them as seats and shelves and storage bins. And in that chicken coop I lived the life of the blind, hardly emerging, never studying my surroundings.
Only when spring arrived would I come out of my room. I waited until the warmth came, the earth grew green, and I could see an explosion of buds. Then I made my way through the twists and turns of the village, discovering the surrounding rises and valleys. Staring from the summit or a rocky slope of the mountain to the long horizon above the coastline at Netanya and Jaffa and Tel Aviv, I dreamed of writing a long novel that would narrate this land and the history that had passed across it. And that would lead me to concoct a vision of my uncle as he celebrated my easy circulation in the world of arts and letters where he had first led me to drink. But I’d recover my senses to recall how gloomy and negative and weary he’d been at my refusal to marry his brainless daughter. I would return to my room, hiding there for days at a time until my depression lifted and the spring called me. Breathing in the scent of the orchards, I reemerged to wander in the village lanes and my dreams, and the singing of the birds.
One day my feet led me to the southernmost margins of the village, where I found something new-a graveyard that had escaped my notice. The graves there were low and leveled out, marked by crosses and odd, unfamiliar names: Michel, Antun, Antoinette, Simone. Then I began to hear the church bells, and I realized that every Sunday half the village population disappeared and half the shops in the village were shuttered. I discovered the existence of another school. It wasn’t a government school, nor was it run by the relief agency. It was attached to the church and directed by a priest with the triangular beard of an artist. He spoke Arabic without the shaky accent and mispronounced words. In fact, he could deliver sermons in an idiom all but superior to mine, intone the history of the Arabs, and recite pre-Islamic odes. He taught his pupils songs and anthems of a patriotic warmth. I got those anthems from him and made my own pupils learn them by heart.
So it was that I began to acquaint myself with a society that existed inside my own, with its distinct characteristics and ways, its unique imprint. And I have to admit that this society was more refined and more pleasant than the one I knew, so much so that I wished I had no native soil and could push my roots into this patch of ground. I got into the habit of going every Sunday to sit on a rock atop the hill overlooking the church courtyard and cemetery, watching the young women and young men as they headed for worship in their bright-colored Sunday clothes, laughing merrily. At a distance behind them plodded the old women in their black gowns and worked headcoverings, swaying to both sides like flocks of ducks who had stuffed themselves from the granary. The chanting rose in a collective voice, timbres of women and men mingling to create a solid ray of sound that streamed from the tile roof of the church building and floated above the olive trees and clouds of pines. The column of voices seemed to shoot upward to circle at the horizons of the universe. And I felt my soul pulling me upward, to soar with the birds atop the clouds.
I don’t know exactly when and how I came to love Maryam. Perhaps I was simply dazzled by that atmosphere, by a magic and an inscrutability in the scene itself. Or maybe it was Maryam herself; perhaps she and the odd stories that hovered about her person were responsible for the dreams plaguing my imagination. I became a lover without any sequence of events to sustain me.
But I came to my senses abruptly, aware that I was a besotted dreamer unable to focus on anything. I was disjointed, anxiety-ridden, full of longing and grief without any logical reason that I could make sense of. I had not seen her close up, had not heard her voice, had not spoken to her; it would be months before she even knew who I was. Those months, and that spring-those flowers and poems and church anthems and the strains of the organ-perhaps they were all to blame for my affliction and the state I’d fallen into. Or maybe it was the bewitching effect of the sunset over the hilltop, the tones of the sky and red glow of the twilight, and the sight of her looming like a black phantom, coming out with the shadows as the light drew back from the world and yesterday’s graves. She was like a dot in history, unmarked by dates. In a graveyard crowded with crosses, the remains of Roman columns, and an ancient olive tree from the time of the Messiah whose shade, it was said, Nur al-Din al-Zanki had sought during his campaigns to liberate al-Quds. How did all things mingle and mix until the world appeared a paradise, a temple of secrets, a heaven akin to my dreams, my poems, my legends, and the stories of writers from the fifties?
The story began on a Sunday. As usual I sat down on the hillside to follow the worshippers’ rituals. After they’d walked the converging paths of the village to gather in the church courtyard and file in for the service; after the organ had played and I’d heard the roar of the priest’s homily; after the chanting had mingled with the fragrance of the spring and shadows of the pine trees; and after the worshippers had emerged with the first streaks of sunset, I caught sight of a phantom figure detaching itself from the crowd to walk alone to the graveyard. The figure stopped in front of a particular grave. My eyes saw a speck, a black dot moving in absolute silence. The voices and shapes and knots of worshippers vanished and she remained, a black dot moving in the reddish glow. I felt a sort of confusion deep inside. Was it an intimation of standing on the edge of some unknown crater? Was it the opaqueness, the bewitching quality of the air, the melancholy of solitude and longings of youth? Was it my imagination? She wasn’t crying. She was reading from a small book, a delicate rosary hanging from her wrist. I could see the cross, a small one about the size of a butterfly, and her veil of black worked with a needle. One of the nuns’ girls, I thought, or perhaps a novice still at the beginning of the path. I wanted to cross the distance between us, to leap from the hill and land right where she stood, to comfort her and say to her: You are a picture. You are a poem, an angel, a love story that deserves to live-so let’s go, now, let’s flee. But where, and from what, and how? This girl, who is she? What is her story, what makes her her? Who has she lost? Is her name Salma? Fadwa? Or Najwa, maybe?
Maryam. I learned her name after a long search. And I learned as well that she was mourning her younger brother. And that she was virtually alone. Her older brothers were in Brazil and she was here in the village with her near-blind mother, wholly dependent on the support of brothers, relatives, the clan. It was a large and substantial family, owning property all the way to the mountain. Olive groves and vineyards and orchards. Figs, pomegranates, quince. She lived below the mountain slopes in a new house built on the proceeds of emigration, bounded by the furthest reaches of the village. The house was surrounded by a thickly planted arbor and a grove of pomegranate trees and pines, cattle and chickens and a grain store and olive press that had fallen into disuse. Long ago the father had emigrated, some time after the family married him off to his cousin. The couple had produced a slew of boys and a single daughter. When the father died, the sons took over his business ventures and his revenues. When the girl reached puberty they agreed to send her back to the village, in the company of the mother and youngest son, while they stayed in Sao Paolo.
Where did I get all of those details? From the grocer and a steady stream of volunteers coming from all parts of the village. All you had to do was to sit there on the pavement in front of the grocer’s shop drinking coffee, then you would order a waterpipe and inhale its gurgling draws as you opened your ears to drink in people’s words. That fellow died . . . that one is still alive . . . he married that girl *Š he divorced that woman because there were so many daughters. And then, what about her, you know the one? God spare you! And protect you from her evil! If she’d been my sister or daughter-someone there someone would say-I’d have put my hands to her neck and stopped her breathing forever. What stock we have here, and what behavior! What a village we are!