She was lying nude on her back on a marble bench in an open place with no walls or ceilings. There was no one around and nothing in sight except the sand, which reached all the way to the horizon where clouds crowded the sky and took turns blocking the sun before rushing to disappear. I was nude, barefoot and dumbfounded by everything I saw around me. I could feel the sand under my feet and a cool wind. I moved slowly to the bench to make sure it was she. When and why did she come back after all these years? Her long black hair was piled next to her head. A few of its locks covered her right cheek, as if guarding her face, which the years hadn’t changed at all. Her eyebrows were carefully plucked and her eyelids, which ended in thick eyelashes, were shut. Her nose was guarding her lips, which had pink lipstick on them as if she were still alive or had just died. The nipples on the pear-shaped breasts were erect. There was no trace of the surgery. Her hands were clasped over her navel and her fingernails and toenails were painted the pink of her lipstick. Her pubic hair was shaved. I wondered if she was asleep or dead. I was afraid to touch her. I looked into her face and whispered her name, “Reem.” She smiled without opening her eyes at first. Then she opened them and the blackness in her pupils smiled too. I couldn’t grasp what was going on. I asked her in a loud voice, “Reem, what are you doing here?
I was about to hug and kiss her, but she warned me: Don’t kiss me. Wash me first so we can be together and then. . .”
“What? But you are still alive. Why would I wash you?”
“Wash me so we can be together. I missed you so much.”
“But you are not dead!”
“Wash me darling. . . Wash me so we can be together.”
“With what? There is nothing here.”
“Wash me darling.”
Raindrops began falling and she closed her eyes. I wiped one drop off her nose with my index finger. Her skin was warm which meant she was alive. I started to caress her hair. I will wash her with the rain, I thought. She smiled as if she’d heard my thought. Another drop settled above her left eyebrow. I wiped it off.
I thought I heard the sound of a car approaching. I turned around and saw a Humvee approaching at an insane speed and leaving a trail of flying dust behind. It suddenly swerved to the right and came to a stop a few meters away from us. Its doors opened. Four or five masked men wearing khaki uniforms and carrying machine guns rushed towards us. I tried to shield Reem with my right hand, but one of the men had already gotten to me. He hit me in the face with the stock of his machine gun. I fell to the ground. He kicked me in the stomach, side, and back a few times. Another started dragging me away from the washing bench. None of them said a word. I was screaming and cursing them, but I couldn’t hear myself. The two men forced me to get down on my knees and tied my wrists with a wire behind my back. One of them put a knife to my neck, the other blindfolded me. Their laughter mingled with Reem’s screams and her throat rattling, both of which I could hear very clearly. I tried to run away, but they both held me tightly. I screamed again, but could not hear my screams. I could only hear Reem screaming, the laughs and groans of the men, and the sound of the rain.
I felt sharp pain, then the cold blade of the knife penetrating my neck. Hot blood spilled over my chest and back. My head fell to the ground and rolled like a ball on the sand. I heard footsteps approaching. One of the men took off the blindfold and put it in his pocket. He spat in my face and went away. I saw my body to the left of the bench kneeling in a puddle of blood.
The other men were returning to the Humvee, two of them dragging Reem by her arms. She tried to turn her head back, but one of them slapped her. I cried out her name, but couldn’t hear my voice. They put her in the back seat and shut the door. The engine started. The Humvee sped away and disappeared in the horizon. The rain kept falling on the empty bench.
I woke up panting and sweating. I wiped my forehead and face. The same nightmare had been recurring for weeks now with minor changes. Sometimes I saw Reem’s severed head on the bench and heard her voice saying “Wash me, darling,” but this was the first time there was rain. It must have slipped in from outside. I could hear the drops on the window next to my bed.
I looked at my watch. It was already 3:30 in the morning. I’ve only slept three hours after a very long and grueling day. I am worn out. It’s either insomnia or this nightmare, which I haven’t tried to interpret or understand, but which keeps coming back. Perhaps it’s death laughing at me and saying: “You thought you could run away from me, you fool?”
Death is not content with what it takes from me in my waking hours, it insists on haunting me even in my sleep. Isn’t it enough that I toil all day tending to its eternal guests, preparing them for sleeping in its lap? Is it punishing me, because I thought I could slip away from its talons? If my father were alive he would mock me and my silly thoughts. He would dismiss all of this as child’s play, unbecoming of men. Didn’t he spend long decades doing his work, day after day, never once complaining of death? But death in those years was timid and not as prolific compared to death these days, which is addicted and obsessive. But perhaps humans, particularly men, are the ones who’ve become addicted to death when it became possible to be with it day and night with no one keeping watch? I can almost hear death saying:“I am myself and I haven’t changed at all. I am no more than a postman.”
If death is a postman, then I am one of those who receive his letters every day. I am the one who takes them out carefully from their bloodied and torn envelopes. I am the one who washes them, who removes the stamps of death and dries and perfumes them, mumbling what I don’t entirely believe in. Then I wrap them carefully in white so they may reach their last reader: the grave.
But letters are piling up, father! Tenfold of what you saw in a whole week passes before me in a day or two. If you were alive, would you say that it’s fate and God’s will? I wish you were here so I could leave mother with you and escape without feeling guilty. You were heavily armed with faith and it made your heart a fortified castle on a mountaintop. My heart is an abandoned house whose windows are shattered and doors unhinged. Ghosts play inside it and the winds wail.
I looked for the second pillow. Ever since I was a child, I used a second pillow to cover my head so I wouldn’t hear any noise. It had fallen by the bed next to my slippers. I picked it up and buried my head under it trying to reclaim my share of the night. The image of Reem being dragged by her hair kept returning. What is she doing in this scenario? Does she represent false hope, guilt, or perhaps the past whose head will be severed too after the present has died? Perhaps she stands for the women whose stories of rape and death I keep reading about and whom tradition forbids me to wash?
Reem hadn’t played any central role in my nightmare until a few weeks ago. Where could she be now? The last I heard a few years ago was that she was in Amsterdam. I`ll Google her again tomorrow when I go to the Internet café after work. I’ll try a different spelling of her name in English and maybe I’ll find something. But can I just sleep for an hour or two?
[An excerpt from Wahdaha Shajarat al-Rumman (The Pomegranate Alone), published this last July by al-Mu`assassa al-`Arabiyya lil-Dirasat wal-Nashr, Beirut. Translated by the author.]