Author: Abdalla Al-khateeb
Photographer: Hamada Hamid
The camp’s streets lie utterly bare, nothing relieving the loneliness of these ruined walls piled one atop the other like books tossed down unread. The plants that have sprouted and grown in the middle of the road, they made the place more desolated, like some additional sign that much time has passed since anyone last came here. Even the cats have abandoned this street.
In the distance the sun makes its daily drop to the horizon.
A last ray lights the scattered dust of this arid sunset. The place is wrapped in a deep silence disturbed only by the buzzing of an insect attempting to cling to a withered bloom.
In the middle of the road, and facing directly into the sunshine, the man appears.
Mounds of dust piled here and there leave the road trembling in fear beneath his firm tread. Proud and haughty, he walks slowly over the rubble his huge shadow trailing him like a line that stretches endlessly into the distance.
He wears clothes whose every detail, from his head down to the soles of his feet, hark back to the era from which he comes: to the Middle Ages; to be exact, to the age of the great medieval barons of England.
His hat which looks like he was born with it on his head, the stick in his left hand, with its brass pommel cast in the shape of a horse’s head, the hard raised heels of his black leather shoes, a gold chain hanging from his waist down to the gold timepiece concealed in his pocket:
These details dominate his surroundings. The boom of artillery fades and the machine guns make sounds like an equatorial downpour hitting the still waters of a blue lake.
He removes his watch from his pocket and with a flick of his thumb it gives a soft pop and opens. Out of the corner of his eye he steals a glance at it before his forefinger restores the cover to its former position with a sharp click that lends the pregnant silence another lease of life.
Several times he stops and looks at the destruction with a touch of indifference in his gaze. His eyes inspect the furnishings of the burst buildings like a surgeon’s cool appraisal of his patient’s innards.
He halts for a time by these ruins then continues on his way like a proud fool walking his palace gardens without once raising his head to look about him. To an observer it seems as if he’s wandering aimlessly, with no fixed goal in mind.
Suddenly he pulls his gold watch from his pocket and this time examines it carefully. Then he shuts the case with his finger, noticeably nervous.
The appointment for which he’s come is nearly upon him.
Quarter to eight
Slowly but surely his strides lengthen, racing the clock’s hands to reach the place of his mysterious appointment. His gathering pace increases his splendour, the tapping of his stick on the ground drowning out the sound of bullets and lending his body a fearsome fixity, as though it were his stick making the ground tremble beneath him and not the mortar rounds falling at random down the length of the street.
The closer he comes more the gunfire fades, first into scattered bursts, then altogether. His shadow, panting after him, gives up and falls away. There he is, in all his glory, a man without a shadow toying with death in the streets of the camp.
The scent of pepper in his clothes conceals the foul damp stench of death. He picks up his pace when he spies a mortar round arcing towards the girls’ high school on the left of the road where he’s walking. The stick taps harder as he tries to get past the school before it drops, but the round’s a dud and lands without exploding. He steps over it. He hears the sound of laughter muffled behind the walls of the abandoned school.
He turns right. The street is full of buzzing flies. He’s never seen anything like it. He loathes flies. He considers changing route but then the flies swarm in a great grey cloud that vanishes in terror into the innards of dead cat lying by the heaps of oozing rubbish.
He turns left. A vast fig tree stands halfway down this the alley, its branches overspilling the house where it first grew. Grey wingless songbirds hide beneath its green leaves. This ancient tree is the only thing to have retained its colour—despite everything.
He reaches Tarboush Square. On the other side of the street a great earth barrier rises up before the building where he is heading. The towering plants that have grown up on the edges of this barrier lend the impression that it has been here longer than the building. Maybe forever.
Bursts of gunfire back-and-forth lie between him and the building behind its barrier of earth, hinting at the imminent outbreak of some decisive battle. There is no colour anywhere. The houses lie open to one another in a scene that two world wars failed to match. The dust covers everything.
A siren starts to wail again, rifles start to spit rounds from the two opposing fronts, and men murder and are murdered in a moment of boredom, provoked by the extreme heat.
He senses Death roaming the square, searching him out. As usual, he pays no heed. He takes out his watch once again.
Then he leaps to the other side of the street.
Five to eight
There’s a large sign over the entrance to the building with the big gates. The huge iron gates have been removed from their hinges and tossed aside, as though some giant’s hand was playing wantonly. In front of the building, some on ruined walls, others torn and burnt and lying on the ground, are the old movie posters which once adorned the lobby that was filled with men selling gum, beans, tobacco, and toasted sunflower seeds.
A small trench rampart slopes up to an opening in the north corner of the lobby and over this opening he can make out with the aid of the sun’s last light, a phrase in cursive: Ticket Counter
Shrapnel from mortars falling repeatedly outside have dislodged some of the letters from the large sign over the entrance. Sniper rounds have done their best to disfigure the appearance of the place, but have not wholly succeeded.
On the pavement beneath the sign he finds the remnants of a broken I. His feet stumble over another letter as steps inside. Bending down, poised and graceful, he tenderly retrieves it and with a single puff clears the dust away. Though not all the crosspiece has survived he tells himself it must be a T. The remains of other letters lie on the floor. A light summer breeze stirs the dust and rocks a dangling A.
Some hidden force has prevented all the letters falling from the sign, which the stranger reads not with his eyes but with his heart:
He enters with a looping stride, wary lest he damage the other letters lying in the rubble, then goes through the little doorway alongside the ticket counter now turned into a firing position. He sees spent ammo cartridges littering the floor. He scales piles of rubble that have been deliberately heaped up, as though climbing a mountain whose summit looks down over an abyss. He slips from corner to corner without losing any of his poise or splendour. The stick fails to find solid ground and slips. He digs it in. His sharp-brimmed hat almost falls off but he expertly pats it back in place.
At last he reaches the theatre. He plucks out the watch on its golden chain, rubs roughly at it and the metallic cover springs open with a sound that fills the place with echoes.
Eight o’clock exactly
He has reached his destination at precisely the appointed time. It is very dark. Suddenly, in the middle of the theatre, a white light is flung out by a huge old-fashioned television, a black-and-white model placed there specially to replace the projection screen which has been shredded by a tank shell.
With great propriety he sits in the sole surviving seat, facing the television screen. He pays no attention to the fierce burst of machinegun fire that sprays in through the rear window of the auditorium and strikes the hall’s already defunct set of speakers. He holds his breath so as to catch the ancient set’s poor sound. He thrills to hear the voices of the characters he knows so well, whose smiles he has not seen for a while, though only a short one.
As the director directs his lens towards a house that resembles his own, his eyes widen in surprise. He tries to guess where it is, as though he is seeing it for the first time. He thrusts his head forward to catch more detail, but a gang of armed men burst into the auditorium making for the front line at the entrance to the camp. They run in front of the screen and for a few seconds block his view, enough for the scene with the house in it to end and another one to begin.
With the screen back in sight he resumes his initial position, leaning back in the auditorium’s only seat. The director has joined his actors onscreen. He looks exhausted. His voice emerges loud and clear from between his brown lips: “It’s tough! Tough and bitter! What am I doing, brother? Tough and bitter!”
He can make out his voice despite the din of an exploding rocket that some unknown aircraft has launched at the roof of an adjoining building at precisely this moment. He pays it absolutely no attention. His whole being is focused on the fates of the characters in the movie.
Now an armored car drives through the theatre on the way to the fighting. The battle outside the cinema is growing fiercer even as the film describes ever-wilder fates for its protagonists. For an instant fear gleams in the eyes of this man, a man who has never known fear before. He fears for what will become of these characters. He feels a flash of anger towards the director who has assured him of a happy ending.
The film is almost at the tragic denouement he has feared from the beginning but the mortar round’s detonation brings down the ceiling over the old television and it never happens. Pieces of broken ceiling drop onto the set, which emits a faint sound then stops completely. He takes out his watch again, looks at it carefully, then his lips part in a broad smile when he sees that it is the time given as the end of the screening in the announcement he read. As though the director conspired with the mortar battery to produce that very ending.
He gives the watch a violent downward jerk and the cover snaps shut. No echo this time.
In a single movement he stamps both his heels on the ground at the same time and shoots upright like a lance. With the backs of the fingertips of his right hand he very gently brushes a little dust from his clothes.
He tucks his stick under his arm and his eyes roam the hall for a moment before settling on the director. He makes a minor adjustment to his clothes then strides confidently away.
The pale moonlight outside is insufficient for his to make out the posters hanging on the wall, which is on the verge of collapse after bullets have chewed away most of its lower half.
He removes a silver lighter from his pocket and lifts it to eye level to make sure of his grip on it. He presses down hard with his thumb and there’s a sound like chalk on a blackboard then the damp wick flares. The sound of gunfire grows stronger.
He brings the flame towards the broken glass of the announcement board. He puzzles out the date of the next screening. He writes it in his pocketbook. Then he departs.
He stops one last time beneath the sign of whose letters the fighting has left a lone S, on the verge of falling.
As he watches the letter trembles, and he lifts his stick, pressing the brass horse down on the nail that holds it in place.
He presses with all he has.
He bears down with all his memories.
A sharp cough from deep inside almost tears his throat. The drawn-out whine of a shell flying overhead blends with his guttural hacking. A line of fire follows the shell, and for a brief moment illuminates this stranger, defying history with a brass-headed stick he seeks to stop the last letter falling.
The shell lands by the entrance to the cinema and completely hides it from view.
Thick dust everywhere.
"This piece was translated from Arabic" click here for the Arabic text.