Translated from Arabic by A.D. Osta
I wrote this in response to the Arab woman that lived in Beit Safafa. Behind what is now the Israeli border. As I stood behind the tape that separated the Palestinian side and me, I asked the woman, “How does it feel to live in a cage?” She responded, “How do you feel in your ‘freedom!’” Her answer shut me up. It was as if a rock were weighing down on my tongue and preventing me from replying.
It was a matter that should have taken no more than a single glance to understand. The Haj’s face looked like a hospital overrun with patients.
As the Haj sat next to a reporter whose eyes were fixed on the hill of empty glass bottles piled on the Haj’s white-stoned patio, Suleiman Abu A’kef shook his head and told the reporter while hiding behind his Palestinian scarf:
“Haj Mohamed sold his pilgrimage.”
This was a saying adopted by the Haj’s village, as an explanation for the tragedy that had left the Haj mute. The locals were quick to accept the saying with no discussion. However, naturally, theories began to spiral. They finally determined that the Haj’s selective mutation must be the outcome of murder or illness, or even of the fact that he had become a recluse and chose to spend his time hidden away from people.
The Haj’s grief surely must have erupted in a way more dangerous than the silence that fell upon him. Something far more dangerous.
More dangerous than that blank stare into the horizon. Something more surprising than fresh tears on eyes that seemed too dry to produce them. Tears that would create a new body for Farris. A clean corpse that wasn’t drilled by ten bullets and buried under a tombstone. Though it brought the Haj comfort that the bullets could no longer shoot pain into anyone, the marks they had left remained.
People had become addicted to grief. Moreover, death was a reasonable and acceptable ending. Fondly welcomed by all ages. For the dead only had to experience the pain of death all but once. Certain and final. Unlike the living, the dead know what killed them. While the living are forced to live each day. Uncertain as to why they are alive and what it is that is killing them.
People envied the dead; they envied the fact that the voices of the dead weren’t suffocated by the metal clinking of the tractor, as it parted of the stolen the chest lands. For what was behind the tape was the sorrow of the living being drowned in the sunlight, since they had to grieve with open eyes.
“Haj Mohamed sold his pilgrimage.”
Unexpectedly, an idea came to Suleiman Abu A’kef. An idea unlike his previous ones. This one seemed to come out of nowhere. Usually, his ideas came in the form of a thought that crossed his mind while talking to locals in the Divan. However, there was not a divan any longer since it was eaten by the settlers’ tape and transformed into a Jewish police station. Today, Suleiman Abu A’kef’s idea came to him from Haj Mohamed. The Haj was sitting on the same spot he sat on every day, and behind him on the patio between the black and green cauldrons and the dust-covered mortar was a pile of glass bottles. The Haj had recruited four boys to collect glass bottles for him. He paid the boys a dime or two for each bottle. As to what he did with the bottles, all it did not take an intellectual like Suleiman Abu A’kef to figure it out. The Haj started collecting the bottles the day three men made him promise that he would pick the grapes from the vineyards that the settler’s tape had not claimed. Farris’s friends feared that the wasps would eat the grapes, or that the winds of November would blow the grapes from their stems. They made him swear on his parenting of Farris to do the right thing. They did not leave him until he promised that unforgettable promise. For it was one of the few words the Haj had spoken all those months.
“Haj Mohamed Sold His Pilgrimage.” So then, Suleiman Abu A’kef, keeper of the secret of the bottles, tighten your scarf, and go to your people, and tell them about this discovery. It will take their minds off grief. The Haj sold his pilgrimage—no, all seven of his pilgrimages, one after the other. Four of them he did alone, the fifth with Farris’s mother, and for the sixth and seventh he took with him two less fortunate men. The first wished to go on behalf of his late father and the second on behalf of his late mother. Seven pilgrimages; they were more like seven weddings. Do you remember, Haj? The village erupted in happiness, and the people gave you dozens of festival laces, and then herded dozens of sheep to walk behind you as you made your way up the rice hills. Do you remember how beautiful the rice hills were? They were like golden carpets, spread across the land.
When the Haj returned, the tape had taken more land, and the “treaty committee” had agreed to take the rest of his land and leave him with only five acres out of the twenty-five he had in the eastern vineyards, and ten out of the fifty on the mountainside. As for the vineyards he had in Zanie, the tape ate them all.
The Haj intended never to return, just like a migratory bird whose wings fail and leaving it stranded where it falls. But Farris’s body embroidered with ten bullets kept calling him home.
He must have seen the settler’s tape eat away the place-marker he set before he left. He even saw the tape divide the four white rocks that marked Farris’s grave. He thought to himself, “That’s what Farris’s friends wanted. They did not want him buried in the graveyard with those who died in their beds.” So, they buried him three steps away from barricades where he used to hunt the Jewish settlers with his rifle like birds. The first thing the committee did was move the bags of sand away from the barricades. Then they rolled away the stones the Haj used to mark Farris’s grave with. But if he looked closely enough, he could see exactly where Farris lay. The Haj patiently waited before he lifted the marble slab, to see how far the tape’s greed had reached, and to see if all the things he loved were now lost. The land he had nurtured was now a wasteland. The Haj’s vines were mangled and bruised. He lifted the marble slab, carved on it everything he had to say, then fell silent in his chair. His gaze clung to the horizon, always surprised by the tears that came out, and for the first time in his life he was not holding his prayer beads.
“How was the harvest, Haj?”
Then the Haj would kiss his hands front and back, a habit he had learned from his father, whenever asked about his fortune or his blessings.
“Haj, your hand’s cut.”
“Yes, the blade grazed me while I was mixing the grape juice.”
Even though the Haj had hired workers to trim the trees, rake the fields, and collect the vines from all three of his vineyards—as well as everything that surrounded the village—he himself was not above working the land. The Haj loved to fill his deep lungs with the scent of the land. Even though he was the village’s spokesman, and he ought not get his hands dirty. At night, the Haj sat in the Divan passing out coffee as he listened to everyone who had made their way there, and when his prayer beads stopped rattling it meant that the night had ended. He was tired, sleepy, and he missed his bed in the attic, which he would fall asleep on to the sound of grape leaves rustling in the summer night air.
“Are you up to five hundred tanks of molasses yet?”
The Haj never lied, but sometimes he preferred not to say the exact number (something he learned from his father). Men’s eyes burn a blaze from greed. he would look for an answer to dodge saying the exact number. Nevertheless, he knew that five hundred tanks of grape molasses were not a lot. If the Haj had followed up with plans for the mill and had started to expand it like he planned and hired more workers, then surely, he would have filled a lot more tanks. He had begun to think that Farris was not a pedant just showboating the opinions he had discovered while studying in Jerusalem. The Haj remembered when Farris had said, “Dad, we can’t keep making our molasses the same way we did three generations ago. The world has evolved, and your axe has become a laughingstock to the tractors in the Jewish colonies. We need a mill.”
The Haj had shaken his head. In front of Farris, he was strong and weak at the same time, but this time Farris had asked too much of him. The Haj would be lost if he were to give up the mortar, his artists, and the rake. He would not feel the same pride he felt when he paraded his tanks, as he evaluated with his own hands the stickiness of his pride and joy.
The label read, “Produced by Haj Mohamed A’atyeo,” and underneath it in a bigger font, “May you eat in bliss.”
“Product of your oil presser? Did you call that hole in the ground a presser? You call it that to fool yourself, Dad.”
“Don’t be ungrateful Farris, all the blessings that have come to us have come through that mortar.”
“Do as you please,” Farris said. “But let me look for a job.”
The Haj was almost convinced. No, he was completely convinced of Farris’s idea. He had scouted the area where he could build the mill; it would not cost more than not taking another to Haj and buying half-a-dozen braided gold bracelets for Farris’s mother, and some jewelry for his daughters.
All this for his beloved Farris’s eyes, his only boy among four children He would do anything to please him, even take his own name off his product, and redesign it. He would package the molasses in rigid plastic molds and wrap them in gold paper. The same way those Jews that lived in those manufactured houses that did not feel like homes packed their molasses in the meadow close to him.
The following autumn, the tanks weren’t filled with molasses, or wrapped in gold paper. Things were clouded in a wave of anger that had swept the land, and the Haj withdrew the money he had saved in the bank. Money he was going to use as a down payment for the new machines. It had to be done. Farris and his brothers needed rifles and bullets, as well as barricades that could withstand and face the colonies that had grown cannons like fungi along their edges. Even the topics talked about in the divan had changed. The National Guard now organized the divan, and they handed out weapons and missions every night. That autumn was crueler than any winter. The Haj started to rattle his prayer beads in anger. He was angry in a way that the locals had never seen before.
Nevertheless, he tried to hide it. The Haj tried to pray with his beads in a way that seemed confident. At least in front of the youth. The Haj made it a habit to check on the boys posted behind the barricades at three in the morning. The Haj watched in horror as their fingers froze on the steel triggers of their rifles ready to fire. And every time the Haj saw the boys hiding behind the barricades, he forgot his mortar and he forgot his artisans. He forgot to collect the tanks and clean them. The Haj traveled once or twice a week to negotiate with the city council for more ammunition. And when he took all the council had to offer, the barricades started to look like bags of cotton and the men behind them like scarecrows when compared to the armored vehicles that came in the dark of night for their hit-and-run missions. And oh! On the night Farris went mad and moved in front of the barricades and feed himself to the shining spotlights that came from the vehicle. He sprayed bullets until he was certain the arm cars had retreated—but only after it had etched ten bullets in his chest.
The car stopped, the Haj got out, and he glanced at the village from a distance. The sun had started to set slowly, and the white houses, covered in the shadow of silence, seemed almost empty to him—it was the same shadow that left things ill and desperate. The Haj started to walk back home, stopping only steps away from his house but right before his hand reached the wooden beams, he had set up to barricade his door against the settlers. Leaning on the stone wall surrounding his house, the Haj pulled out his key out and walked towards his backyard patio overlooking the village until the tape appeared in front of him. That tape that had eaten half of his village’s land, and some of its houses. The same tape that had stolen the village’s hopes of expanding to the nearby vacant meadow.
This is what the tape had left him: a broken village, and the skeleton of a vineyard. Overlooking the vineyard, the Haj saw what the settlers had done to his once lush hills. He saw wild berries that were trampled, covering the land with all shades of yellow. And hidden behind the tape, the Haj saw empty hills whose fruits had been stolen and stuffed into the bellies of cars. Cars that belonged to settlers who neither raked the land nor plowed it.
The Haj turned away and shed his tears into the edge of his scarf: before the child sitting next to him noticed that he was crying. The Haj proceeded to gather people to carry the marble tombstones and planks he had asked for. The Haj hoped that the marble would help remind the village of the price they had paid for their heroics!
Days later, the Haj buried his son. Men swarmed around him telling him how crushed they were by the peace treaty, and how they felt the tape’s sharp edges closing in on their necks. The Haj did nothing but shake his head and fix his gaze on the horizon. He saw how the grape leaves could not flutter in the wind as the heavy vines anchored them, vines heavy from absence of human picking. The village awaited his return, so he could spend the night talking about his sorrows to his brothers. But these people did not understand him. It had only been days since he had come back. Days since he had built the grave. So why didn’t he move, and why did he leave what land was left to dry? Why didn’t he reply, even by saying no, when they begged him to do something? They had mourned like him, but as long as they were alive, they refused to die sitting down. Here comes the cloud of rain, leaning on the village’s shoulder, waiting for wind to blow it to the vineyard. The rain started to fall, and each raindrop developed a cosmic bond with the first leaf it touched, leaving the vines black and damp. People swore that the Haj had not tasted or let anyone taste one of his grapes. Some also swore they saw the Haj ripping the vines from their roots tossing them into his fireplace, something no farmer who knows that rebirth is a miracle of life would ever do. The vines were reborn, from the accumulation of clouds and their bare green roots swayed in the water. Then their leaves grew in the warmth of summer. And for the first time in a while, the Haj’s silent eyes were sparkling with slight excitement. Farris’s friends saw this spark and decided to raise their voices—maybe then the Haj would react more and give them a nod or two. The boys thought that two nods from the Haj would be enough for them to take it that he agreed to their plea. Two nods would tell them that the Haj promised to do something this season. The boys left it at that. They left the Haj’s home feeling that when they looked towards the Haj’s fields the next morning things would go back to how they were.
The boys knew that they would see him picking vines with the sun in his face, washed by the dew on leaves. They knew he would wake up and pick the fallen vines with his stick.
They knew his faith would save him. And that the land would awake his old lust for farming.
“So, the boys understood all of this?”
“But they didn’t understand why the Haj was collecting bottles and paying kids a dime or two for each bottle.”
“Could that be true?”
Could Suleiman Abu A’kef truly be as smart as he thinks he is? Could he be the one to solve the mystery? Until this year Haj Mohamed A’atyeo, the spokesperson for the village, the father of its men, the self-reliant man. Could the heart and mind of the village have truly sold his faith?
The merchant of molasses, a soil-of-the-earth man, the reasonable Haj, the man who fasted for all of Ramadan, the pious man, the man who bought his salvation seven times over— that he of all people would sell his faith, only to find it again in farming?
And what does he do with the bottles? How do you debunk the villagers’ theories and put their heavy hearts at ease? He is not even bothering to hide these bottles from people—he just lets them the pile of them grow and grow in his backyard, visible to anyone who would glance in their direction.
“He sold it— his pilgrimage—for money, which is scarce nowadays, to buy empty bottles that only God knew what he filled them with. He must have made plans to make wine, God forbid.”
But Suleiman Abu A’kef and others like him would not dare say something like that especially when all of them could still remember down to the date when the bus driver was fired by the council for drinking two glasses of arak in a bar in Jerusalem, while on the job.
The Haj’s riddle swirled in the heads of the locals that whole summer and fall, and one that was later confirmed to be true when he collected all his vines and stashed them in his house, did not give anyone a basket, and left the mortar and pestle untouched for two years.
“He sold his pilgrimage?”
“What, were they waiting for him to say it aloud? For him to shake his head at the children who profited from the dimes and have them split into two teams? One would say “Haj Mohamed” and the other, “Sold his pilgrimage!””
It hurts me what has become of you, Haj. We no longer see or hear you since your last harvest. You have closed your door in plain sight and locked the bolts. For two months no one saw you unless they saw you sneakily buying what few groceries you needed, and then escaping the same way you went out.
During these two months, one season had made way for another, and the earth became white, while winter started knocking the village doors with its wind, but no one opened.
But, for once, they did.
One morning, a group of four boys knocked on every door in the village, the same four boys that had collected the bottles for the Haj. The boys did not miss a door and gave every single person who waved at them from the window two or three bottles filled to the brim with the most deliciously well-balanced vinegar—vinegar that was both sour and sweet at the same time. It was a gift from the Haj.
Now the mystery was no more.
They no longer needed a smart person like Suleiman Abu A’kef to explain it.
31 July, 2023