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Issue 18 Cover by Cass Garrison.jpg

Fahmidan Journal / Issue 18 

Somebody Else Would Have

By Mays Kuhail

They didn’t give her trouble at the airport. Not that she expected them to, for not many people flew in anymore. Her father, Saleem, had advised her against the trip. There’s nothing to see, he’d said. But Salma was adamant to learn about her family’s heirloom. To fulfill a generational promise she’d made. After her great grandmother, Mira, had passed away three years ago, Salma stopped hearing about the homeland. For good reason, her father would say. Give it up.

“I want to know,” Salma argued.

“Khalas, enough,” Saleem dismissed her. 

Disregarding her father’s disapproval, she boarded two flights from San Francisco to Lod Airport. Once she was through with baggage claim and customs, she exited through the glass doors and was greeted by the overlap of chants and yells for taxis and other transportation.

“Taxi?” someone asked her.

“AC?,” She asked back. “Mokayef?” 

The driver nodded and she got in the car with him to go to Yafa. It took her seconds to realize that the AC barely worked, and she had to muster her instincts to comment on it.

“What brings you here?” Tamer, the driver, asked her. He must have figured she wasn’t from the area. Salma’s olive complexion, dark wavy hair, and green eyes weren’t strange features to the Mediterranean. It must have been her broken Arabic, or perhaps her relatively rested body, hadn’t known what it meant to dig a life out of the rubble yet. 

Salma thought about Tamer’s question. She had returned to a deserted country. Those who were able to, those with double citizenship or citizenships which allowed them access to Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, had fled prior to and after the great Mediterranean earthquake in 2046. Those who couldn’t leave, a Palestinian majority, had either died or were now left to rebuild. The land had finally seen the last of its destruction. Part of her believed she’d come here because her father told her not to. She was as stubborn as her great grandmother, after all. Salma had returned for her teta Mira, for what Mira had called home and for what Salma had learned to think of as home. 

“I’m from here,” she said in broken Arabic. “Well, my family is.” She corrected once she saw him squint his eyes at her in the rearview mirror. 

“Where did you come from?” Tamer asked “What’s it like out there?”

“I flew in from Amreeka.” She said in an Arabic English accent. “Things aren’t great. But we’re surviving, you know?”

He scoffed. “Well, wait until you see what things look like here.”

She immediately regretted her comment about America. At least there were means to survive where she came from. She knew what remained of Palestine was barely habitable. She thought about her family, her people, how tragedy seemed to follow like its own shadow. I’m sorry. She whispered, not sure if addressing the driver or the ghosts of her ancestors. Twenty minutes later, she eyed the deep blue Mediterranean behind the windshield, admired the way the water hemmed a distinct line against the light blue sky. She rolled down her window. Teta Mira was right. Humidity does absorb you here. She felt nestled in the air.  

“This is as close as I can bring you.” The driver parked and pulled out a rolled cigarette. He lit it and inhaled deep into his lungs. Salma waited for him to exhale a cloud but he never did.  “The Old City is closed off. No one cleared the Mosque’s rubble after the earthquake.” He coughed out the rest of his words. Salma thanked him, and offered him fifty dollars. She wasn’t sure whether it was worth much here, but he smiled and nodded and she smiled back, closing the car door behind her.

At the boardwalk, she held her map in one hand and her journal in the other. A few hundred meters to her left, she eyed the rubble of the mosque on the hill, a mix of warm colored limestone and blue debris. She recalled the mosque’s blue dome from her grandmother’s descriptions. Mira had been born in Yafa in 1940. She’d been only eight when her family was exiled from the city and sought refuge in Jordan, and later Kuwait. Mira’s parents eventually moved to the United States during the Gulf War and after several failed attempts to return to Palestine. Mira, not having stepped foot in her home until much later in her life, never went a day without longing. For her city, the warmth of its people, and the embrace of the Mediterranean. She told Salma how she wished America’s cold oceans would consume her, carry her to the shores of her city. 

The mosque’s dome matched the accents of the city, blue panel windows and blue iron doors. Salma paced toward the entrance of the Old City, taking in her surroundings. She’d made it. For you, teta. She thought. Yafa, though, could not have been further from what she’d envisioned. Instead of lively crowds, cafes, and markets, she walked empty streets. The cosmopolitan city, the “Mother of Strangers” as it had been once described, had become a stranger to itself. The stairs proved more difficult in the summer heat, not a single cloud in the sky except for a persistent layer of dust that had meshed with the humid air. She flipped through the pages of her journal, filled with instructions teta Mira’s had passed down. She decided to discard the map into her backpack, and instead followed the details of the stories she remembered all the way to her ancestral home. Map lines meant nothing here, not anymore it seemed.  She reached the top of the stairs and took a left as instructed, facing teta Mira’s house. Salma found that the blue had faded, instead revealing rusty iron doors and windows. The two orange trees by the entrance were not in sight, nor was the jasmine that used to envelop the house. Salma hoped that at least their roots still curled in the earth below. Above the door frame, she brought herself to her toes and traced the engraving with her fingers. 1882. She walked in.

 Salma detected the two small columns that had fallen due to the earthquake, but the structure, in general, still stood strong, like many of the old limestone buildings deep into the old city. She imagined the people that had settled in the house that had replaced her family after the Nakba. She pictured a wife, a husband, and their daughter, just like her grandmother’s family, move in. She named them David, Carla, and Annie. They walked into the house covering their noses. No one had put the food away. They brought bags of their clothes, big suitcases, and belongings they hauled into the Yafa harbor. Tired from the long journey on the ship from Europe. Their photographs taken disembarking the boats, celebrating their first steps into the land. Footsteps replacing those that were just forced out. The city still warm with their presence. 

Salma had inherited a photograph and she came back for an album. She reached into her backpack and flipped through her journal again until she found the faded photograph. Mira and her parents, Samar and Fares, sitting on a green couch in their living room on Christmas morning. She remembered the first time teta Mira had shown her that picture. Salma was eight and just starting to grasp words like refugee, occupation, and exile. She hadn’t comprehended the significance of the tragedy, the place, and the house just yet. But she understood the bearing loss had upon her teta, and upon herself by extension. Salma looked up from the picture to the house like she was playing spot the difference. The house was altered, the furniture mostly there, but nothing looked like it belonged. The green couch, her great grandfather’s armchair, the rosewood dinner table, the persian carpet Mira went on and on about. Salma brought herself to her knees and traced the dark blue, yellow, and green lines in the deep red carpet. She felt the knots of thread, still soft. Did they keep their shoes on in the house? She wondered. Did they invite people over, did they host gatherings like Mira did. Did this house remain the heart of community in the neighborhood? She would never know.

Salma stepped outside, rubbed her eyes and leaned against the wall, covering her palms with dust. She needed to sit her anger down. She fell into a squat to balance herself, face in her hands. Dust marked her face like she’d lived here for years. She wished she could text her father, call him. Tell him he may have been right. Tell him it was more difficult than she’d imagined. Salma fished out her water bottle and took two big gulps. She proceeded to devour a protein bar she’d bought at the airport. Took three long breaths, and thought of her grandmother again. When Mira eventually made it to her home in Yafa in 2014, she had knocked on the blue door for fifteen minutes before a couple opened the door. When she tried to explain who she was, the couple said they would call the police on her for trespassing. “If our family hadn’t moved in, somebody else would have,” the woman mumbled as Mira walked away. Mira was pregnant with Salma’s grandmother, the stress almost caused her to lose her baby. 

“You have to return,” Mira instructed Salma before she passed. “You have to find a way to go home.”

Salma pushed herself up and walked back inside. She found every room as Mira had described it. Every arch in place. Every crenellation to pitted stone. She made her way to her great grandfather’s bookcase and browsed through the books.  She picked one up and fanned its pages, stopping at jasmines pressed in the middle. Their smell faint, barely there. She slammed the book shut.

She walked into the hallway and toward the first room to the left. Mira’s room. When orders came to evacuate in 1948, Mira was organizing photographs in an album in her bed. Only nine years old.  Salma recalled her family’s catastrophe,  just as Mira had told it, and now, looking around the house, she saw it unfold in the space. From the window, Salma witnessed the ghost city erupt in the close distance, the sirens, screams, car exhausts or bullets, or both. She watched her great grandmother as she scrambled to pack some clothes for a few nights. What they thought would be a few nights.  She saw her great grandfather, Fares, run past her to get Mira from her room. Mira hung onto her father’s arm as he raced around the kitchen stuffing bread, bananas, oranges, and chocolate into a small canvas bag. Samar, Mira’s mother, threw two small bags near the door.

“This should be enough for a few days.” she said. “We’ll be back soon.”

Fares held Samar against his chest, caressing her back, Mira between them. Salma stood there, almost a century later, staring at her ancestors, living their Nakba. 

Loud banging interrupted the family’s embrace. 

“I’ll be right back,” said Samar, running back to their room. 

“There’s no time, Samar!” He held her by the arm. “We have enough. Take Mira and run out, now!”

The banging continued, until it didn’t. An armed militia stormed in, shaking the floor. Salma noticed the rifles across their chests, then noticed the fear in Samar’s eyes upon seeing them. Samar picked up the bags, clasped Mira’s hand, and moved toward the door.

“We’re on our way out,” She trembled, addressing the militia, not sure if they understood her. 

“Out, barra, now,” one militia man yelled in heavy-accented Arabic.

Mira stopped, disregarding the entire armed squad. She looked back to Fares and mouthed the photo album. She needed her family’s memories. She was the only one who sensed,  on some level had known, this was her last time in this house. Fares looked at the lead militia soldier and said, “Please, one more moment.” He sprinted toward Mira’s bedroom and came back, clutching the album. A member of the militia tossed it out of his hands and pushed him outside their home. Screams echoed in the house, Samar’s, Mira’s and now Salma’s reverberating into the walls. Samar held Mira by the waist, and dragged her outside the cerulean door, and into the clamor of the city. Without time to process, Salma found herself moving after her family. 

Inside, lunch steamed on the rosewood table. 

Salma immediately lost her family in the sea of people headed toward the blue horizon. Thousands mounted boats, previously used to export oranges, now about to export refugees to unknown destinies. She resisted the direction her legs were taking her. She knew the end of this story. She marched against the waves, bumping into mothers searching for their children, crying babies, people hoisting mattresses and bags on their shoulders, and others wandering with nothing at all. 

Once Salma made her way back to the house, she found it as it had been, as the city had been. Abandoned. She ran back into Mira’s room, hunting for the album. Not there. She paced back to the living room. Table drawers, kitchen cabinets, under the rug, in the bathroom, under the sink. Nowhere in sight. Exhausted, she fell into the couch, causing dust to rise and cover her pants. What’s the point of all of this? But before her mind surrendered, she went back to the bookcase and scattered its shelves, sending one book flying after the other. Behind the mountain of books, shoved in the back of the book case was an old photo album. 

Salma sat down in her grandfather’s armchair and began to page through the album, to trace her family through the photographs. In one, at the beach, Samar ran after Fares, terrified, as Fares dipped Mira’s toes in the water. In another, her family gathered around a pot of grape leaves in the park. The rest of the photos in the plastic sleeves bore witness to the Yafa her great grandmother had spoken of. Bustling streets, fish markets, orange groves, beach picnics, family portraits. 

Salma spent the next four days in Yafa. During those days, she imagined herself in the space. Wished. Wanted. Yearned. For it to feel like more than inherited memory. She sat on the couch and studied the house. Thought about teta Mira and wondered if she, too, would have felt conflicted, returning after all these years. Would her roots have found their way back into the soil? 

On day two, when her discomfort wouldn’t ease, Salma decided to put everything back into its place. She reviewed the photo album, recalled Mira’s memories, and got to work. She began by clearing the book case, leaned it back on the east wall, reorganized its shelves, and dusted its books clean. The green couch, back in the center, in front of the coffee table and between the two end tables sido Fares carved. She jumped on the cushions until the dust ran clear. She lined the living room floor with the carpet. Cleaned the floor tile until its mosaic pulsed into life. She sat in Mira’s playing corner, returning every stuffed toy back into its place. She imagined the next three generations of her family in this space, preserving what was theirs. She imagined herself. Having been able to call this home all along.

On day three, she found a way to go online and contact her father. 

“Baba,” Her voice broke when she heard him on the other end. Her anger simmered. “What we lost,” She paused, realizing the lump in her throat was gone, replaced by a ball of fire. “It’s… Seeing what could have been, what never was for teta. For us.”

 This was her personal Nakba, catastrophe. Finding her like a ghost almost a century later. She let anger wash over her, let herself weep.

“I know my daughter,” he said after what seemed like an endless silence. She realized this was his concern all along, but he didn’t say I told you so. Instead he said “It’ll be okay my Salma. Just come home, habibti.” 

On her way out of the house, Salma stopped to look at the pressed jasmines again. She took them out of the book and placed them in one of the album pockets. She can bring those back, too.   

Mays Kuhail

Mays Kuhail

Author / 

Mays Kuhail is a writer and storyteller born and raised in Ramallah, Palestine. Mays writes fiction inspired by her lived experiences at home and abroad. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at BGSU, and is an assistant editor at Mid-American Review (MAR). You can find her on Twitter @mayskuhail

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