I watch Baba, unconscious in a hospital bed.
He looks thinner. His face is gaunt, a sprinkling of a white beard.
I feel blank, but full. Like a scream that needs to be emptied out but won’t come.
In Baba’s hospital room, only Mama’s bright blue prayer beads have a voice. Arabs are obsessed with fate. We live in a world bound by superstition, powerless below the gaze of the evil eye. But there are no answers to be found in any of this. No ritual to turn to that can undo my mother’s grief, too real and shapely for a mind connected to the unseen.
My parents never shared a great love story. The thing they had in common was dissatisfaction. Restlessness.
A taxi on the way home. Thunder and rain batter the windows. I close my eyes. I’m flooded with images of my father’s home, a place I’ve never seen. Does it rain there?
The smell of the earth after the rain. There’s a word for it. Petrichor. It stings my senses.
This isn’t ordinary grief. My sorrow comes burdened by other emotions. Guilt for being an imperfect daughter. Pride, because I want to maintain that I’ve done nothing wrong. Hope for a moment, because something tells me Baba is not done here yet.
I have lost more than something once possessed or known. I have lost what I never had but longed for. I have lost the possibility of something. I am uncertain if it is normality or simply the dream of it.
The disappointment in my sister’s face. You’re a Muslim. Think of all the good you can do representing the truth about us. She doesn’t understand that ‘good news’ isn’t news. But I try. A feel-good piece about the local community centre. It only leads to trouble. You’re not a Muslim. What are you wearing? You’re a spy. You’re not welcome here.
My sister. Who always liked to tell me: I love you for the sake of Allah.
I visit every day. I’m remembering things. The way I folded myself into the box they assigned me. The way they, too, existed in small spaces. What place of emptiness did this obedience come from? Were my parents always afraid?
When I was young, a teenage girl was murdered by her father for having a boyfriend. It kept me awake at night.
I find a strange comfort in the sound of the machines keeping my father alive, at rest. I stare at them, entranced by the waves on the screen, a strange language I can intuit without knowledge.
I drift into sleep then fall into dreams where I find myself in a place of dust and hard earth. I lie on the ground, blinded by the sun. I know I am dreaming. I know it’s my father’s home.
Mama is wide awake, carefully moving the beads between her fingers. She recites the names of God, each bead a different name. Al-Rahman. Al-Raheem. Most gracious. Most merciful.
“He always wished he would be buried at home.”
I hear ‘home’ and think of the house in which I grew up. The sterile home with two lounge rooms, one for everyday use and one for guests, the suitors who would stop coming as I grew older and less obedient. As I grew more into myself.
“Lifta. Where he grew up. Before the war.”
My father never speaks of Lifta. A fractured story that can never be put together.
“He wouldn’t even go back. Why would he want to be buried there?”
“He never left.”
I look at my father’s inert body. I worry about his soul swimming away from it in the ether somewhere. The true self, my father’s being; not his long legs and broad shoulders, but his piercing expressions and soulful eyes. It’s an energy that speaks to me more than the chest that slowly rises and falls. I imagine my father finding his way home this way, free to wander, unbound by his humanity. No traumatic exits. No checkpoints to stop him. No destruction. I feel a wave of panic, the need to pull him back.
Mama mumbles invocations in Arabic. Then lamentations on the harshness of fate. Her words smash into each other, contradictory and punishing; at once the victim and the oppressor of her own life.
“Abu Saeed was buried with soil from his village. His son brought it for him. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.”
To God we belong and to Him we return.
It’s not a future loss of my father that sits heavily on me. It’s the idea that I have lost him already that ruptures my insides. My father, a man who for so long seemed little more than a polite, detached gatekeeper.
I can do something for him. It’s in Mama’s words. A request. A son delivered soil for the father. Buries him in foreign soil with a sprinkling of home.
I don’t want to deliver soil for a burial. I want to prolong life.
The way Baba’s hand tightens around mine.
I tell his unconscious figure that I will go to Palestine. That I will retrieve something that was once stolen from him. That I will bring him home.
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based author and screenwriter.
Image by Paul Rich via Flickr.