The houses on Rothschild Street, where I live, line up like a column of soldiers. Since I was born, Tel Aviv’s houses have been washed up in the city’s whiteness, or vice versa. There are things that are born all at once. A building is memory. Cities and places without old buildings have no memory. Maybe I say this because I am from an old city. Bedouins will see memory in other places. What matters is that I am the son of an ill-fated city. Jaffa is my ill-fated city. But what about cities that are born all at once? Are there such cities?
Tel Aviv is full of Bauhaus architecture. Its memory is buildings and houses washed in whiteness. Memory is a choice. Memory is gray. That’s what Ariel says when we discuss this subject. Lies, I say. There is no gray memory. There are flashes that come in one burst and are as clear as a sword’s blade. Either black or white. There is no gray in between. But white and black come in shades. Gray is what is confusing, and we confuse what we want to confuse. Didn’t I say, time and again, that there is a fissure in my memory? Your memory, which inhabits mine, has a fissure. The fissure doesn’t mean obscurity. The fissure is pain.
Why do I always imagine Baron Rothschild cutting the ribbon at the street’s official inauguration? I don’t even remember seeing such a photograph. But he was here on some spot in this street. When I walk the city’s streets, I touch its houses with my looks. I hear myself screaming out loud. As if a clear glass separates me from the people around me. Glass that shields sounds. I rarely see it, but I know that it is there when I scream and no one hears me.
When evening creeps in, the lights of houses and cafes around me appear, and I wait. That’s not a dream. That is what I actually do as I sit on the benches that are surrounded with giant trees in the median. As if the buildings around me, from which lights and shadows appear, are also waiting for someone, or something. Everything is beautiful from the vantage point of the bench. As soon as night falls, I begin to wash the houses around me with black memory. I wipe the whiteness off the facades of buildings and paint everything black. I take black from the night’s kohl and draw the city black. As if I am afraid that the white memory will possess me, so I wipe it with the blackness of a moonless night. I love the color black because it resembles us. It is us.
Sometimes I leap out of the bench like a clock spring and walk in stammering steps to the sea. I see nothing around me, because I’ve colored all the houses with black. Even the moon is black. I often go through Shenkin Street. I greet the people sitting at coffee shops. They smile and call out, “Alaa! Come sit with us! Let’s chat and have a glass of wine...tell us about Jaffa and your Jaffan grandmother. Come on!” I imagine them being genuinely interested and asking what never crosses their mind...How do we feel? How do we live? But questions no longer have any meaning. I leave them without responding. I no longer care to tell them anything. Everyone welcomes me. They all want to hear my stories and yours. Yes, your stories! My stories are fissures of your stories. The ones you told me, and the ones you never did. What a big lie. I pay them no attention and go on. I leave Shenkin Street and pass through the small streets of al-Karmil Market until I reach the sea. This is not a dream. I do this time and again. I imagine and hear people saying what they say. I imagine that I paint everything around me black and see no other color. This black is beautiful.
I reach the sea to catch a glimpse of your city as it shimmers at night. But its lights are faint. Like a corpse cast on the seashore. You will say that Jaffa hasn’t died. I didn’t say it has. “Corpse” is used to describe a pulsating body in Arabic. Don’t we say, “He has a huge corpse”? The youth in Ajami say, “Man, his corpse is like that of a mule.”
Here, on Jaffa’s shores, the sea looks exhausted. Jaffa doesn’t scream the way I do. It stammers. But those who inhabit it don’t hear what it says. There is something in this corpse, Jaffa, that no one in the White City understands. Is this what you felt when you said that the city’s mornings were tired and had left “that year”? You didn’t say it exactly like that. But you said, “Our morning was like a widowed man. His beloved died and love disappeared.”
[Excerpted from The Book of Disappearance, a novel by Ibtisam Azem. Forthcoming from Syracuse University Press in June 2019. Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon.]