She told me that the Church sat at the edge of a cliff with a wall in the front and that from that point, you could see the whole port. She told me that from that point, you could see her house, all the way down at the bottom of the hill in Ajami. She told me that in her home, she used to sit on the back steps and feel the water wash up onto her legs. Orange peels fresh under her fingernails. She loved the smell of cedar wood.
There are no more homes like that in Ajami now. No more homes like that in Jaffa. The shore is lined with parking lots, cement bike paths, ‘rustic’ artesian exhibition spaces, a beautiful park with suspiciously lush grass and old warehouses that are being turned into chichi hotels.
The house that she lived in, that my grandfather lived in, that my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather lived in is gone from the geographic location but is still so strong in my imagination. There are very few who remember that house now and if I knew who they were and where they were, I would ask them to tell me about it. I want to know which parking lot, which abandoned couch, which old broken cabinet, which piece of scrap metal chicken-wire holds my heritage.
“Did you see my Teta grow up?” I wanted to ask the old trees. “What was she like as a child? Was she a stubborn little girl? Was she a serious teenager? What did she dream about before she left her roots behind? Did she smile the day before they were severed from her body and scowl the day after she realized they were gone?
Their town today would be unrecognizable to them, the omnipresence of Jaffa’s orange trees made hazy from the pretense of high-rises. Even the streets are named after famous Zionist leaders who they had never known about, had only ever heard about. Listen I just want to ask all the questions I never got to ask. Hear some of the little stories I was never able to hear. Take these dormant seeds and sprout them from my palms like the eye of Afreet-Jehanam*. Cut this Hegelian dialectic with our vision of the future. Tell the hundreds of stacked bodies in their rocky beds to rest in assurance that no more of any community will be added to their grave, no more swept to the ocean bed below.
How can you stick a memory? I need a fix of adhesive glue with a dose of letting go all at the same time. Is there a prescription for bringing the disappeared back? Holding on burns like coal and smells like tar, it drowns my senses.
What is the cure for vanished existence? The stones are layered in holes. The houses are like sponges, dry with the absence of your presence. We need you to fill them in.
Breath of the living and prayers of the dead, is anyone out there?
The west wind blows warm here. I know it is a trick.
…Seashells shredded into sand: how can we be nowhere and everywhere at once?
Come back come back come back come back. Don’t let their memory be washed out to sea. I never finished searching for their driftwood.
* Afreet-Jehanam is the 3-eyed blue jinn of the desert or, more simply, the King of the Underworld.
There are many legends of Afreet Jinn. The one put into writing by Rabih Alameddine in his book “The Hakawati”, tells of the fabled Fatima, the human lover of Afreet-Jehanam, for whom he gave up his 3rd eye in order to protect from harm. According to the story, it is the jinn’s eye in the middle of the Khamsah.
The Khamsah is also known as “the Hand of Fatima”.