The Horizon Beyond the Gate
Translated by Annie Weaver
Before reaching the top of the ladder, he stopped to catch his breath. No, it’s not possible that he could be so worn out...he knows well that he’s not tired at all. Carrying nothing more than a small basket and his ladder, the car had dropped him off at the door of the hotel. The ladder wasn’t as tall as he had imagined, but these last three steps. . . they’re always the ones that crush him, melt his legs, and smash his determination into pieces.
He placed the basket on the ladder and leaned his shoulder to the wall. . . should he go back? The question seemed strange to him but he couldn’t seem to get rid of it. It was ringing in his head like a bell...should I return? And in the whirlpool of hesitancy that started wandering through his veins, he remembered suddenly that he had stood in this same position two years back asking himself that same question. In that instance, he went back to the car and left Jerusalem shortly after. Once again, should he go back now? He reached out to the basket and seized its handle violently while shooting up the ladder as if he were uprooting himself from of a sea of mud. . .
No! This time I won’t return! It’s shameful that I’m such a coward!…I’ve carried this thick, ugly fate on my shoulders for ten years and now I have to wash it in the shade of the Mandelbaum Gate that towers as a stone barrier between the occupied land and the rest of the land. . .
No, this time I won’t come back. . . I have to put an end to this big lie that I’ve repeated willingly or unwillingly for, I don’t know, ten years. . .
When he arrived in Jerusalem two years ago, he made up his mind to meet with his mother and tell her everything. . . but at that moment standing on the ladder at the hotel, he felt that he wouldn’t be able to get rid of the big lie that he told his mother when he sent a message over the radio saying: “Dalal and I are doing well, tell us how you’re doing. . . ” This lie grew throughout these ten years until there was no good reason for him to tell the truth one concrete, conclusive, and maybe fatal, time. And that’s why he preferred that day to stop climbing the ladder. He retreated, returning to the car. No doubt that his mother was standing at the mouth of the gate throughout the morning craning her neck searching through the crowds. No doubt that she was inflicted by the bitter, tormenting disappointment. . . but it’s all still a lot easier than standing in front of her there, after ten years, to tell her the fatal truth.
He lied down on his bed and crossed his arms under his head. The darkness started stretching its hand out over the sleeping city. There was nothing in the room but a single definite idea: I must go to Mandelbaum tomorrow!
Tomorrow, she’ll wave at him with her bony hand and rush towards him with her gray hair and aged face, wet with tears that will rain heavily over his chest while she trembles like a small bird trembles over the imminence of its death. She’ll nuzzle her exhausted head into his own without finding the words to express her forsaken love. So what would he say to her while she palpitates on his chest like the heart that palpitates inside his own? Where should he start?
He turned over in bed and it seemed like he could hear the beat of his heart like a taut string throughout his entire body. He will start from the beginning, since he left Jaffa for Acre to see the girl who his mother had chosen for him to marry. He remembers all of the details of that moment: how his mother stood on the stairs wishing him well-being and luck, and his aunt was standing beside her pointing to him assuringly. He knows that she’ll cling to her throughout his absence. He was pulling on the arm of his sister who wanted to accompany him—Dalal, a sweet girl of about 10 years old leaving her house with her brother for the first time in her life.
But the circumstances turned out differently than what they had both wished for. After he left Jaffa a few days before, the road was blocked and returning would be impossible. So he worried a great deal during the dark days that he spent far from his mother, not because of him but because of Dalal, who means everything to her. She is the one who gives the old woman her zest for life when death is in the vicinity, and she’s the one who signifies life when everything else signifies death.
No…this part of the story wasn’t important to his mother anyway. She definitely doesn’t want to know the more obscure matters from this part of the story.
And once again, he turned over in his bed perplexed. A faint, sick light wavered in the room and the small basket rested against the wall like a living thing. Why not start the story from its ending? Why doesn’t he tell her how the Jews entered Acre and how things happened after that?
He was in the room when Hell erupted right in front of him...he retreated with all who did so when the darkness seemed to swallow up Acre. His gun vomited all that was inside of it, then it turned into a cane, merely a desiccated cane that wasn’t good for anything. He went to his room and took Dalal into his arms, who was crying in the shadow of fear that encamped the city. And before he realized it, shoulders barged through the door and a garrulous machine gun unfolded in the room, planting bullets like rain. Then, in front of his own two eyes, four men appeared out of the smoke blocking the room’s wooden door, but he didn’t move. Dalal was shaking in her blood by the puffs of her last breaths. And when he pressed her to his chest, as if he wanted to pour his own heart and blood into her, she gazed at him and raised her eyebrows as if to say something, but death blocked the path in front of her words.
Did he cry? He doesn’t recall anything now, all that he remembers is that he carried his slain sister in his arms and hurried out to the road, raising her up to the eyes of the passers-by to plead for their tears as if his tears alone weren’t enough. He didn’t know when the people could have snatched the dead body from his arms, but he knows that when he lost his dead sister, when her cold, stubborn body was lost, he felt like he lost everything--his land, his family, and his hope, and the possibility of losing his own life didn’t matter to him anymore. From here he left to roam around the mountains, leaving his land and running away from the destiny that chased him like a whip.
If he said all of that, then he would put an end to the grand lie that he built for ten years, and his mother would come to know at that moment that Dalal had died ten years ago and that her son lied to her for a long time, persistently reiterating that cold sentence through the radio wires: “Dalal and I are well, tell us how you’re doing”
He ran towards the window, opened the black curtains and started gazing at the road. . . he has to liberate her from the lie and liberate himself from the black fate that he alone carries. He has to say to her that Dalal is buried there, and that her small grave can’t find someone to put a bouquet of flowers on it at each feast, and that she, her mother, is a few feet away from the dear grave, but she cannot visit it.
They met in the shade of the big gate early in the morning the next day. He didn’t see his mother whilst scrutinizing the faces, only his aunt was there. Ali didn’t recognize her at first, but she recognized him and directed him to her spot in the crowd. And in the midst of the meeting, she asked him the question that he came specifically to answer:
In her two, small, expectant eyes, all the determination he carried with him melted as if a hidden force stuck to his throat and started shaking him mercilessly.
-But you didn’t tell me where my mom is?
Their eyes met once again. Ali moved the basket from one hand to the other and tried to say something, but his throat was obstructed by a flat lump like a crooked blade. His aunt reached out her hand and placed it on his arm, her voice charged with incredible sorrow.
Once again he felt a weakness eat away at his legs and get the best of him, feeling like he’s going to faint. . .He raised his hand and extended the basket in his aunt’s direction:
-Take this basket to my mother, there are some green almonds in it…
He wasn’t able to finish and a catastrophic look was streaming out from the old woman’s two eyes. Her lip started to quiver. He looked beyond her shoulder and finished spiritlessly:
- She loved him. . .
And during the long period of silence that opened up between them like a grave, he felt a tremendous desire pushing him to run away. And his aunt was turning her fingers around in the small bag that she had put Dalal’s green dress in. A direct feeling of pity linked their chests, and she was standing there with her eyes glistening of a silent tear while he was feeling the glistening blade leave his throat. He extended his hand and raised her head and saved himself with a subdued question:
-How did you leave Jaffa?
His aunt tried to say something but she couldn’t. Floods of words thronged in her throat, so she fell silent, then a pale, meaningless smile. Then she extended her shaking hand and patted his shoulder out of crippled affection while he took to looking silently at the horizon that stood beyond the Mandelbaum Gate.
[Translated from the Arabic by Annie Weaver. “Al-Ufuq Waraa al-Bawwaba,” in Ard al-Burtuqal al-Hazin (Beirut: Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation, 2011) pp. 23-28.]