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The Sleep Thief

[The cover of Ibtisam Azem's Sariq al-Nawm (The Sleep Thief). Image by Dar al-Jamal] [The cover of Ibtisam Azem's Sariq al-Nawm (The Sleep Thief). Image by Dar al-Jamal]

The Sleep Thief

I will never forget that the interrogator called me “The Sleep Thief.” The name stuck in my mind whenever I used to steal a few seconds of sleep, to hold it together before them, even if for a moment.

But this name never left me. I even started to dream about it. I had the same dream every night and would wake up drenched in sweat not knowing what to do.

I cry every night until my eyes are puffy. My eyes become bigger than my face and cover it. Every night the gods descend tirelessly to wipe away my tears and console me. But nothing works. I cry so much that my eyelids cover my eyes, and I can barely see. I ask them to give me back my yesterday. They refuse and are adamantexcept for one who was the most loving. He is the one who gave me the gift of stealing sleep, so that I could dream. "The dream," he said, "is the seed of the long path still before me."

Had the loving god not given conditions, he would not have been a god. The tender god would repeat the same words every night:

“You have your usual share of sleep every day which is one third. Then, you need another third of the day to sleep and continue your dream of retrieving your yesterday. But you will not be able to sleep in this second third unless you take the life of another human. All you have to do to take the life of a human is search for someone to stare into your eyes. If he does, you will have his life and will dream of whatever you desire and inch closer to retrieving your yesterday.”

The gods depart without hearing me accept or decline what they had offered. I do not like their gift. I do not wish to steal sleep from anyone. Nor do I want anyone else’s life. The life I have is enough. If I were to live it with enough tears in my eyes to cry, that would be sufficient for not dying of thirst.

I go out on the road and forget the gods’ gifts. I see my family gazing together at me: happy to see me. I steal their lives despite my will and remember that I have become "the sleep thief." I shut my eyes over what remains of the dream. I only open them again in a dark room so that no one could stare into them.

Every night I spend the rest of the dream gazing at the night’s kohl (darkness).

The same dream recurs every night. The dream recurs. I am still a sleep thief. When will I have a different dream?

Gharib Haifawi,

The Sleep Thief


Gharib Haifawi

No one knows exactly who gave Gharib Hifawi his name “Gharib” and for what reason. Some say it was his mother, Alya Haifawi, because he was born in strange* times. Others claim that she felt estranged in the village of Alaf in the Galilee where she had resided after her marriage. Gharib was her firstborn, and she gave birth to him during the Six Day War and gave him that name. She did not live there for long and returned soon thereafter to Haifa, because whoever lives on Mount Carmel in Haifa must return or else they would die of sadness.

It was not strange that war was raging in the country. That is very normal. What was strange was how brief the war had been. No sooner than people had gotten used to it, it departed. Some malicious ones claim that the people of Haifa and surrounding villages had come out with placards protesting the end of a war they had gotten used to.

What is important in our story is Gharib Haifawi. No matter how divergent the opinions are as to the genealogy of his name, what is certain and unequivocal is that “Gharib” in Arabic is from the root “gh.r.b.” The following words are derived from it: estrangement, west, to set, strange, to find as strange, stranger. .. and so on. It is a rather telling etymology for a name.

Gharib Haifawi was born on the 11th of June to Adil and Alya Haifawi. In common parlance, “Haifawi” is the name given to those hailing from Haifa. So, the name has a geographic significance. But this usually begins with the definite article “al-“, and one is called al-Haifawi. Meaning “Gharib of Haifa.” It is also used to distinguish one person from another with the same first name. There are those who say that the name goes back to Gharib’s maternal grandfather. Arabs, after all, used to bear their mother’s names in olden times.

Gharib’s grandfather was a merchant. Like all his ancestors since the day the Greeks boarded their ships and docked at Haifa, falling in love with it just as it did with them. They only departed to roam the sea and to yearn for Haifa. What is also certain, according to sound evidence, is that Gharib’s origins go back to Greek merchants and to Canaanites. This was proven by archeology, genealogy, and other evidence in our archive.

The word “archive” has a strange resonance for Gharib. It is an undisputable proof for grasping truths that can neither be ignored nor disproven or falsified. He has a soft spot for it in his heart. He had worked at the university archive and spent long hours poring over documents and has many fond memories in the dark.

Gharib was obsessed with names and the meanings of words. After searching for a long time for the possible meanings for “Palestine” at the archive, he decided to choose a tale that has the scent of sea waves. He would repeat the name out loud to himself, as if he were touching every letter with his tongue, tasting and smelling it then looking at it not knowing what to do with it. Each time he repeated “Palestine” out loud he felt he was saying it for the first time. He liked the tale that attributed the name to sailors from Greek islands who had settled in the place and so it carried their name. Gharib liked this story because it had the scent of the sea. When he was a teenager he would always tell his friends: “See how much these Greeks love us, and how they raise Palestinian flags during Maccabi Tel Aviv’s matches in the European Basketball championship.” Maccabi had qualified and won the cup more than once and played against Greek teams. Gharib used to cheer for any team that played against Maccabi because its players were so arrogant. But what really bothered him was something else. What drove him mad was seeing the Israeli flag fluttering after the team won. Moreover, Gharib hated seeing anyone chewing gum with their mouth open. Tongue and teeth could be seen rumbling and moving, as if in battle and this is what many basketball players used to do. But Gharib was only concerned with Maccabi’s players.

“The Year of the Naksa” was the name his family called the year of his birth. Gharib could have felt some resentment for having been born in those circumstances and in that particular year. But he used to console himself saying: “That is OK. If I had to set eyes on this world during a war, then what would follow must be better! But this excessive optimism was often followed by dark pessimism.” Our friend, his family and people, swung between these two extremes. As if the pessoptimism once used by that writer with the raspy voice and penetrating look to describe his people did not wish to part company with them until today. This should not be surprising because their circumstances have not changed. They are still swinging back and forth. They have not moved and are imprisoned in that spot going around in circles just as their prophet had once said.

His eyes were honey-colored, not big enough to be described as big nor small enough to be deemed small. His eyelashes were thick, as if a painter had just finished tracing his kohl. His hair mixed sun and earth in its colors and had curls like rings. His height was medium despite his constant attempts and his hope to grow taller by playing basketball. He was eventually convinced that the wasat (middle)as the Arab proverb had itwas the best place to be.

What follows, dear reader, is Gharib’s story or, to be more precise, the story of a few days in Gharib’s journey. Gharib is still strolling on Haifa’s shore and teasing its sands until some sinister waves come and steal the grains of sand squatting on his feet. You can distinguish Gharib on the shores of Haifa by the slight head tilt: that tilt which he has tried hard to get rid of or to hide.

Dear readers, because Gharib does not like others to speak for him, he has taken matters into his own hands. He has told us a few things he wanted us to know about those days. All I did was collect them here and put them in the form of a story. I will not deny that I have used my authority as a narrator. I interfered here and there to describe matters Gharib could not or did not wish to describe. But these were very few and far between.

[An excerpt from Ibtisam Azem’s novel Sariq al-Nawm: Gharib Haifawi (The Sleep Thief) (Baghdad & Beirut: Dar al-Jamal, 2011). Translated from the Arabic by Diyala Najjar]

* Gharib means both “strange” and “stranger.” 

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