It was Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. I had been staying in the village of Wad al-Kababish, the one closest to where Wad al-Nar used to be, but separated from it by a vast desert. Exactly forty days had passed since the funeral I described. Quivering, I made my way through the crowds that stood in the shade like palm trees leaning over a riverbank in the morning. They were standing all in a row, as if they were waiting for God’s mercy to bring a ram down from heaven for them. But that didn’t happen. Walking through the village in my flowing white robe, I looked like the mast of a ship whose sails are caught in a gust of wind. Wad al-Kababish: of the twenty-seven villages in the area, this was the last that remained. The mere mention of its name aroused sorrow. The elders said that this village was once an oasis that stretched to the horizon, a vast green disc against the yellow of the desert, and that it supplied rams and goats and camels to the north, east, and west. They said that no other village raised such large numbers of animals, and none had broader pastures, for none of them had any lakes that were as big or had such sweet water as the one that had been here. Sometimes the treacherous currents in its deep basin would cause it to overflow in rage, wreaking havoc on the surroundings, but that lake provided every living creature grazing in that vast valley with ample water the whole year round.
The next valley over was called Wadi Malkamani. One afternoon, as I was on my way to the tombs, that handsome artist Khalifa Wad Nafisa joined me for a bit and asked me if I had ever visited the valley, which I hadn’t. This was the same man who told all the splendid stories about people in distant countries, and who told me that planes can move faster than sound. He later left the village, vanishing into the wide world. That was the only afternoon he ever came with me to the tombs, and I remember him talking to me about the adjacent valley, whose edges we could make out in the distance. He said that its real name was not Wadi Malkamani, but rather Wadi al-Malika Amani Shekhtu, the Valley of Queen Amani Shekhtu. He told me that she was a glorious queen, exceedingly tall, and that ‘Shekhtu’ was a title reserved for men, for kings. She was the first and only woman to be given this honor in the history of those dynasties. Some people now mistakenly call her Sheikha Amani, but her actual name was Amani Shekhtu. Khalifa told me that her beauty was renowned: her enchanting eyes, her long thick hair, her lovely breasts. There’s a statue of her that’s been largely worn down by time, and around which many legends were woven. It still stands there on a great crop of stone that juts out from Jabal al-Rutab, the Mount of Ripe Dates. That mountain is a marvelous sight: there’s a green meadow on its plateau that’s covered with grass and bushes and roses, and entirely surrounded by sand and massive boulders. Everyone who sees it is always amazed at how there can be so much green in the midst of all that rock and sand. Her statue towers over the place, and is visible from all directions. Some say that the pharaohs built that enormous statue for her and her father, and others say it was for her husband. Still others claim it was for her son Sirandub, whose name means ‘the one who walks among the people,’ and who always wanted to converse with his subjects. Toward this end, he refused to ride on any mount so as not to elevate himself above his people, and so he could walk with them.
The queens of that kingdom were not your usual slender queens, but rather the custom was to have large powerful queens to show they were from powerful houses. They were to avoid slenderness at all costs, for they also needed to be strong enough to perform the divine rites and undergo the rigorous coronation ceremonies that were prerequisites for any ruler.
That day, I thought of my dear friend Uthman Darab Sidru’s mother and how she used to call him in that powerful voice of hers. She was a strong, solidly built woman, and I remember the heavy loads she used to carry without a word of complaint. Perhaps she was of the same stock as these pharaohs, and my dear friend Uthman Darab Sidru—who died so young—was the last descendant of Queen Amani.
It was Eid al-Adha that day, the Feast of the Sacrifice, and the people were congratulating one another on the holiday in spite of their weakness and sorrow. The village imam, Sheikh Hamad Wad Atbar, was the owner of the only goat in Wad al-Kababish, and was unsure of what to do. Should he slaughter it in obedience to God and be rid of the animal at the festival, or should he let it keep trickling out the little milk it had? I could hear its sad bleating over the murmurs of the men and women and the cries of the children. The people were looking at it voraciously, with eyes that were practically eating it alive. It appeared that they would spend the Feast of Sacrifice eating kisra, a dish made out of cornmeal, with nothing but a bit of salt and water on it—if they even had any kisra left, that is. They used to top it off with sharmut or weeka , but these were long gone.
It was about a third of a day’s walk from Wad al-Kababish to Wad al-Nar. I had filled a waterskin with silty, turbid water from the deep spring of Ain Bilal, and flung it over my shoulder along with a few dusty dates from the remnants of last year’s crop. I was neither hungry nor thirsty, and I did not feel like asking anyone to take me to Wad al-Nar on the back of an animal. I wanted to make the pilgrimage to my family alone and on foot. Perhaps I would even be following in the footsteps of Sirandub, the king who walked among the people. I set off in the direction of my mother Habiba bit Nour al-Din al-Shilani and my sisters Karima and Halima.
The people kept congratulating me on the Eid, and I absentmindedly did the same. “Happy Eid to you, Hamza!” they kept saying, and I replied in kind, “And to you too, Khal Jafar. And you as well, Amm Ayub. And Khala Thuraya.” I didn’t see any of my old friends there: it was mostly either children or elderly people, and a very small number of people closer to my age. They all looked like sticks, so gaunt and weak. I noticed that the phrase “Many happy returns!” had disappeared from people’s tongues—it had once been a very common felicitation here.
At first, everyone thought I was heading to visit Anbar Bab al-Khayr’s family, whose house was at the end of the village, but I passed it by at a distance. Abd al-Karim called out to me, “Hamza! Hamza! Where are you going?”
“I’ll be back before sundown,” I replied.
He looked at me in surprise, unable to fathom why I would want to head in that direction. Of late, the people of the village had come to consider the north a place of evil, and they believed that whoever went that way would bring back penury and misfortune, for Wad al-Nar was a land of death now. The elderly would ask God to have mercy on it with harrowing words. And people—especially the children—began to make up horror stories about the place. They told stories about demons and owls—the servants of the jinn—that came from the north and made their nests in the ruins of Wad al-Nar. Any owl that stopped on top of one of their own homes was regarded as an ill omen that would bring a curse upon them for forty days. Some disaster or other invariably befell the afflicted house, vindicating the belief. But in truth, these disasters were happening to everyone all the time, owls or not. They said the same of the white-necked ravens, the ones they call “corpse ravens” here: those birds had never been seen before in these parts, but now here they were in large numbers, taking over the place. . . .
I could almost see the village dancing in the distance, along with all its people. I could almost breathe in that smell that brought me back to those far-off days: the smell of molasses. Confused voices were carried on the wind, and I heard distant felicitations: the words “Many happy returns!” repeated over and over again. I could hear the shrill voice of Karima: she’s three years old and trying to say my name. “Amza! Amza!” she says softly, before bursting into laughter. And I thought back to the weaning of Halima, that poor child who clung to my mother’s breasts for two whole years without letting go. My mother felt sorry for her and kept putting off the weaning until Batool, Abd al-Malik’s wife, reproached her, saying it was bad for both her and the child. A week later, my mother brought home a cactus. As Batool had advised her, she breast-fed Halima a little before breaking off a spine from the cactus and smearing its bitter oil all over her nipple in disgust. She was in tears as she let Halima, who was eager and smiling, finish suckling her breast. I looked on as Halima suddenly cried out in disgust and started to vomit. She writhed and quivered as if she had just been poisoned, while I grabbed a cloth to wipe up the last of my mother’s milk, which Halima had just thrown up. She beat at my mother with her tiny fists and bit her while letting out loud sharp cries. She fell silent as she stopped to gasp for air, but immediately started up again with those excruciating screams, her face glistening with tears. Her pain hurt my mother much more than her blows. She let Halima finish venting her anger, then tried to kiss her while Halima pushed her away, still trembling from the shock.
I carried her outside that day and tried to distract her. I carried her on my shoulders, and even on my head. I threw her in the air. And I played the waterwheel game with her too, spinning her round and round in the air. Even her laughter was sorrowful that day, a kind of laugh I had never before heard from her, and that was punctuated by intermittent crying. I hugged her tight, hoping to squeeze this sadness out of her. I made up a story for her about a one-eyed genie with three legs. The genie wrote words on the ground with one of his three feet and spit on them, and whatever he wrote came into being for a moment before disappearing. If he wrote the word “camel,” then a camel would appear, and if he wrote “tree,” then a tree would appear. Every now and then he’d make a mistake in his writing, and some wondrous creature that had never been seen before would momentarily come into being. I gave that story my all, hoping to make Halima forget her pain: she loved it.
Excerpted from The Palm House by Tarek Eltayeb
First published in Arabic as Bayt al-nakhil, 2006
Copyright © 2006 by Tarek Eltayeb
English translation copyright © 2011 by Kareem James Abu-Zeid
The Palm House will be published in Egypt by the American University in
Cairo Press (www.aucpress.com) in early 2012.