Issue 222, Fall 2017
It happened like this. A week after the Six-Day War, Sam walked to the eastern bank of the Jordan River. He was working as a counselor that summer near Karameh, at a day camp for boys. Although the fighting occurred further upstream, camp activities had been suspended. Then came the cease-fire, and the usual schedule resumed: football in the morning, literacy after lunch, assorted games in the afternoon, orange juice and croissants in plastic wrap, and a bus to take them back to the city.
That Tuesday it was sweltering. After taking the register and sending the boys outside, the supervisor told Sam that a new counselor-in-training would referee the match that day, which gave Sam the morning off, if he wanted it. At first Sam considered hanging around all the same. He could watch the football and smoke. But the air was so thick with heat that even the boys faltered as they ran after the ball. By the time he set out, his shirt was sticking to his back.
The walk took perhaps an hour. He heard the river from some distance away, and when at last he climbed over the tussocks that crowded the bank and saw the water slicing through, a breeze reached him and the torrent sounded out in the clearer air.
He had arrived at a bend. The water coursed down over a natural dam of rocks, cascaded and slowed into a shallow pool, then fell again through a second, narrow channel and pushed on. As he stood there watching, something came into view. From around the corner on the far side, a long shape was carried forward beneath the low-hanging trees. He watched this enormous colored bundle transported downriver, and guessed, long before he could make out its features, what it was. He held his breath as the body sailed toward the rocks. The face was bearded, the arms flaccid. But the dam, alas, would not admit the cargo, and the body was caught. On either side, the water rushed white. A curtain appeared underneath, a solid curve reflecting sunlight. The curtain became wider and wider until finally, with one hefty surge, the corpse fell into the pool. It wore a white shirt. The parted legs wheeled.
Sam did not move immediately. He could see the mouth, though dunked momentarily underwater, was populated with flies. The stomach was bloated, the neck a dark bruise-blue. The hair on the head waved in the current. Sam removed his shoes and slid down the muddy slope, bracing himself against the water, which twisted like a muscle around him. He reached out and grasped the feet with both hands. The sodden plimsolls oozed under the pressure, and he resisted the urge to vomit. He fastened his grip on the ankles, the ribbed socks. He dragged, and finally hauled it up onto the bank. The white shirt was stained with red across the chest, still bright.
“And his eyes,” said Sam. “They were open.”
“And?” said Jibril. “What did you do?”
This was in Beirut, several years later. Sam and Jibril were sitting on the beach as the light faded after a long day of classes.
Well, of course he had buried him. He searched the body, holding his breath against the smell, found in the back pocket a wallet and an Egyptian document folded into a half pulp that showed the man was Palestinian. Then he removed his own shirt and ripped it into pieces, used the pieces to stuff the orifices. He performed the ablutions with the same water that had brought the corpse, the abdomen huge and white, the hairy navel visible in the stretched gaps between the shirt buttons. He shrouded the torso with his keffiyeh as much as was possible, then left the body concealed under a bush while he ran back for a spade and one of the other counselors. They dug a grave on the hillside. They offered prayers and supplication with the sweat running down their cheeks.
Sam looked at Jibril beside him and waited for a response. He wondered if he should have told the story differently. Jibril said nothing. He looked out to sea, where an oncoming fog was starting to overwhelm the Corniche.
That was at the beginning of their friendship.
Sam and Jibril first laid eyes on each other in the basement of Penrose Hall, at the inaugural meeting of the Monopoly Club at the American University of Beirut. Sam was the shoe, Jibril the top hat. The other players were soon joking that the two of them looked like brothers—and it was true: Sam and Jibril had a similar build, similar eyes and mouth, skin a similar golden dark. So where did you guys grow up? the others asked; and which one of you’s older? And everyone laughed, and Sam and Jibril rolled their eyes and exchanged smiles. In the way that the meaning of a name can occasionally appear to prophesy, or at least to have some influence on a person, the two young men had, after that night, become quite good friends. It turned out they lived in neighboring buildings in Hamra, and Sam caught sight of Jibril a day later in the supermarket aisle. He waved, blushing, as he picked a mana’usheh from the counter. Although Jibril studied history and Sam engineering, they began to cross paths before and after classes. Then Jibril invited Sam round for coffee, and the accidental became fixed: Let’s meet here at six and I’ll show you the lab. I know a good new bar near the seafront; meet me by the market at nine.
Jibril Tamimi came from Haifa. He was the type of guy women smiled at on the street. In bars, Sam watched their eyes fall on his friend’s glossy dark head and angular body. They approached him. At night, Jibril would sip a nightcap while leaning over the edge of his balcony, staring at the lights of Beirut, and tell Sam stories about his childhood. He described the sense of mission that propelled him and constituted the central theme of his life.
“There are five types of Palestinian,” he said. “West Bank Palestinians, Gazans, East Jerusalemites, Palestinians in exile, and Palestinians from the inside. That’s what I am. Falastini fi dakhil, Arab Israeli, whatever you want to call us. And we are the quietest type. Haifa is actually the most peaceful city in the region. Except for Amman, I guess.”
Sam had spent his whole life in Jordan. He did visit Dubai once, for a holiday, stayed with a cousin, spent a night in the Marriott and sat by the pool—but other than to Beirut, he’d never gone anywhere. He had never visited Israel or the West Bank. Nor would he: when he saw Jibril over subsequent years, it was always in Amman. Sam and, eventually, his wife, Aziza, would insist on hosting Jibril when he traveled, or when there was an uprising or unrest, and took offense at the suggestion that he might ever stay somewhere else. When a Palestinian militant bombed a bus near Jibril’s house, he came to stay at Sam’s for three months, and flicked all day long between news channels. By the time he left, Aziza had renamed the guest room “Jibril’s room.”
As a child, Sam knew the Palestinian refugee kids at school by the cheap plastic sandals they wore. He first learned the nickname Beljiki in the school playground, when a child wearing these shoes asked for the ball and an older boy, resting his eyes on the younger’s feet, asked with a sneer, Did he come from Belgium? Soon Sam heard the word from his own mother’s mouth: she hissed it at poor boys walking the pavement, and later, stopped in traffic, at a well-groomed businessman whose little flag on his windshield lacked a white star. Everyone Sam asked about the name had a different theory, but most said it was because of European aid after ’48. And yet in Sam’s mind, the name remained tied to those cheap plastic shoes. They were Beljiki shoes. And to his later shame, when the fedayeen appeared on television, he shouted “Beljiki” at the screen and his uncle cheered.
But then here was young, bony Jibril Tamimi, standing on a Beirut rooftop, telling Sam about his relatives in the Jordanian camps and in South America without shame, and even with some pride. Freely he discussed his opinions of the different factions, positing pros and cons, explaining the guerrilla movements and Nasser and the splits in the PFLP. In a measure, this openness was at the heart of Jibril’s charm, and Sam was just as captivated as the girls were.
Yet it was only that evening on the beach, when the sea was gray and fatigue had worn off what remained of their shyness, that, sitting on the sand, Sam finally told Jibril the story of the body. For once this was Sam’s tale to confide, Jibril’s to listen to. Jibril’s to be convinced by, of Sam’s commitment and goodwill. Or so, at least, Sam always hoped.
“You know, I think we are probably all obsessed with our own cities,” said Jibril.
It was their last evening in Geneva. They sat, two silver men, sharing a steak frites near the Saint Pierre Cathedral. From across the square, the night brought the strains of a lone cornetist into the murmurs of the restaurant and the clinks of steel tines on porcelain.
“I don’t know, I don’t have that obsession,” said Sam, dipping four fries in mayonnaise. They hung from his fingers like giant matchsticks. “Amman? That piece-of-shit town.” He laughed.
“You never wonder about Amman, her history?” said Jibril.
“Not really. I have my home, my wife. My kids are in America.”
“Well. You know, I think I envy you.”
Sam did not seem to notice Jibril’s irritation. He patted his chest for
“Come on man,” said Jibril. “We’re still eating.”
Until last month, Sam had worked at the same engineering firm in Amman since graduating in 1974. When he called to announce his retirement, Jibril, who was already planning this trip to Switzerland, invited him along to celebrate. This, therefore, was Sam’s first journey to Europe. Nor was it insignificant for Jibril: he was on the hunt for a man named Mr. Can’aan, whom he hoped would be the final source of information for the book he had been “finishing” for the last ten years. The working title: “Haifa, An Arab History.”
Sam sucked on his cigarette and stretched an arm across the empty chair of the adjacent table, as if relaxing at a café in Weibdeh. Jibril’s phone made a noise. He looked at the lit screen, stood up, and walked out into the darkness of the square.
Sam beckoned the waitress—could she tell him the Wi-Fi password? Snapshot of the café, its diadem of fairy lights. Another of the pink stucco wall and the chalkboard menu. Send—Aziza—delivered. Kteer pretty! she wrote back at once.
“That was Mr. Can’aan.” Jibril set his phone on the table. “He won’t be back in Zurich until Tuesday morning. Family emergency.”
Today was Sunday. Their tickets to Zurich were booked for tomorrow at noon.
“Oh. That doesn’t matter. I’ll get us a hotel.”
“No!” said Jibril. “No way.”
Sam waved his hand at him. “Are you kidding me? You’ve brought me on this whole trip with you. It’s the least I can do.”
Jibril said nothing. For two days they had walked around the city, drinking melted sorbets by the lake and the Jet d’Eau, inspecting the clock made of flowers, the pillared cathedrals and museums, with Mont Blanc eternal on the horizon, ice-white under a blazing sky. Through it all, he watched Sam for any crack in his performance of ease. Nothing, bar the requests that Jibril translate a sign for him, or a custom. At most Sam might complain that it was all rather a lot at once, and perhaps they could sit a while longer in this café, have another glass of lemonade, are those macaroons? It annoyed Jibril that Sam refused to admit how estranged he felt: by the buildings, the voices, the texture of light. Jibril wanted his friend to feel uneasy. And he wanted him to admit it. He was the one who knew the terrain; there was no need for Sam to pretend he was his equal.
Now that they were in their sixties, Jibril was still almost as slender as he had been at twenty-three. Sam was heavyset and losing his hair, and where it sprouted on his jowls he shaved it imperfectly, leaving little wisps under his ears. He moved more slowly than Jibril and required frequent stops for narghile smoking, or, failing that, he would rapidly consume a couple of Marlboro Reds on a park bench. This was another source of irritation. Mild by nature, Jibril became exasperated as Sam asked passersby in bad French if they knew of any hookah bars nearby, or at least where there might be a newsagent. And now Mr. Can’aan was delayed, and Jibril could not even share his dismay, because Sam was waving it off like it was nothing.
As a local historian, Jibril spent half his time compiling catalogues of displaced Haifa families, their names, their professions, their houses, combing old newspapers for clues; drawing old maps of the neighborhoods, collecting oral histories, and so on. The other half of his time was spent writing applications to European bodies for grants. He was a figure about town, Jibril Tamimi, as recognizable from high up the mountain as from below on the beach: tall, sloping shoulders, tanned forehead, a shock of white hair; and up close, his slightly fanged teeth, his crow’s-feet, his gentle manner—ah, the historian Jibril, they would say, the angel! Of course I know Jibril, of course I have his number!
He had spent forty years in this business. Was it even a business? These days it felt like more of a sad compulsion. Preserving fragments—what for, exactly? Making brass rubbings of what was still being washed away, even now, so that to walk around Wadi Salib was to miss any trace of the old “Arab Haifa” of his notes. Not to mention the murky longing which drew people out to sea and off to far shores and airport terminals. How can you leave? Jibril wished he could say to those who were packing their bags for Canada. How can you leave Haifa? You actually have a house!
As far as Jibril could ascertain, Mr. Can’aan had been a child when his family fled the “liberation of Haifa” in 1948. Unlike most families, the Can’aans seemed to have been blessed with a strange foresight, for with them on the ship they were alleged to have taken a number of photographs and several boxes of family records, the like of which had since become quite rare. Usually a family either believed what they were told—that their departure was temporary—and left everything; their libraries were confiscated, the contents labeled A.P. for “Abandoned Property” in the stacks of Hebrew University. Or else they did not believe the injunction, and remained steadfast amid the gunfire—as Jibril’s own family had done.
Jibril first heard his name from an elderly interviewee who recalled that, based on this family archive, Can’aan had developed his own interest in Haifa’s social history. About fifteen years ago, this Mr. Can’aan came back to visit. Already an old man, he had gone around town in a taxi collecting testimonies and asking after letters and family papers. Although people gave their stories and showed him their photo albums, no publication seemed to have transpired from the enterprise: Jibril could find nothing of relevance under the name “Can’aan” on the academic circuit, or anywhere else on the Internet.
Mr. Can’aan’s name had since begun to crop up with peculiar frequency. First in a story about a café narrated by old man Floros, who died shortly after the interview. Then in a story about a French schoolteacher in the twenties who became involved with the Shehadeh family—the Can’aans of Haifa knew the teacher, they were neighbors, and Jibril should definitely talk to Sherif Can’aan if he could find him. Again and again this vortical name had reappeared, so that sometimes, when Jibril tried to attack a question by a different route, trampling through the woods in the hope that he might reach the back gate, he would still find himself at the foot of the same inscrutable name. But after two years of intermittent searching, he had finally found him through a cousin’s cousin in Chicago who supplied Jibril with an email address, and voilà, here he was at last, on his way to meet the man, in the middle of Europe, among all this lavish greenery.
Except that Mr. Can’aan had called him on the telephone to say he would be delayed. Well. What was a day after years of searching? He threw Sam his windproof coat. They would meet him in the morning, at nine o’clock, on the corner of Anna-Heer-Strasse.
The concierge ordered them a taxi to the station. The train was on time, the cabin empty, and Sam and Jibril watched the window scene rattle past in silence. Flat green fields, livestock, rivers, back gardens of unhappy villages—the black mountain range always keeping the distance, wreathed with little clouds, phantom-close.
Sam had booked them a night at the Häberlin Hotel, two twin beds. They left their bags with the attendant and stepped out of the lobby into the old town, the Niederdorf. Colorful winding streets banked by café tables and tourists, baseball caps, toggle jackets. Above them the balconies spilled over with potted flowers; ahead a church pierced the sky with a turquoise steeple. The gold clockface showed four o’clock.
It was Jibril’s turn to be exhausted. He smiled in spite of himself. “Narghile?” he said, with sheepish irony.
Sam clapped him on the shoulder, and Jibril turned to address a waiter in a café doorway, his arms full of plates. Could he tell them where to find . . . ? The man replied in Germanic French: The nearest was a taxi ride away. Turkish, couldn’t remember the name. They served pizza.
They found the bar. The name was Kervan. Inside, it was tastefully decorated; flame-colored tapestries hung between ceiling-high mirrors, striped cushion sofas half-mooned across the floor, sidelined by reflections that turned the little room into a vast hall divided by curtains. And the room was surprisingly full: all but two of the half-moon booths were occupied, and the noise of chatter nearly blotted out the voice warbling over tambours from the sound system by the bar.
They chose the booth nearest the window and ordered a grapefruit narghile. It was a real grapefruit—wonderful!—covered in foil, punctured with a toothpick. The waiter with his black shirt and skinny arms tonged the coals onto the silvered calyx, unwound the armored pipe. And a glass of arak? Two glasses. Celebrating! What exactly? Retirement, said Sam, and the end of all things.
Sam watched Jibril look around the room, suck the pipe, pass it back, exhale. After all these years, he thought, they two were just like siblings; sometimes they didn’t even need to talk. He was moved when Jibril had invited him on this trip, and had tried to hide it. But looking now at his old friend, whose tired gaze was tipped to the ground, Sam felt a sensation of pity that was becoming familiar. Jibril’s hair was so white. He had never married, was still working—if he had a plan for the future he never shared it with Sam. Who knew what would happen once he finished his book.
The arak, pearly with water, was strong. The clientele were mostly young people, Europeans. Sam squinted through the smoke at one of the long mirrors. He needed a haircut. He ran a hand through the wisps clouding round his skull.
The reflection showed a woman sitting behind him, by herself. She might easily be Arab; black hair twisted into a plait, big eyes, olive skin. Green “Ciao Bella” T-shirt and skinny jeans, white around the knees. Early twenties he would have guessed, though she could be older. No wedding ring.
“Lo samaht,” her voice behind him, he saw her reflected hand in the air. “Lo samaht!”
Sam leaned over the sofa back.
“Turks,” he said. She turned round. “They don’t speak Arabic.”
“An jad. Min wain inta?”
Jordanian Jordanian? No one ever asked that. Sam peered at her: she didn’t look drunk. The dim lantern waved shadows over her face, colored in her top lip dark red for a moment.
“On your own?” he asked.
She blushed. “La’, bas as-habi hunak.” A couple whispered together on the far side of the room, their hands on each other’s ribs. “Samira Abdul Salam.” She extended her ringless hand.
Sam laughed. “And I’m Samir. Samir al-Bayati. And this is my friend—”
But at the other end of the couch Jibril’s mouth was hanging wide open. He was asleep. His head was tilted back and sitting heavy on his neck, skull balanced, chin exposed and doubled. Sam was silent. The grapefruit smoke tasted sweet and clean.
“Wa inti?” he asked. “Min wain inti?”
“Wa keef jiti hon?” And how did you get here?
“Minha . . . min aj-jam’ia. Ya’nni ba’d wa’et, tab’an.”
Jibril was stirring.
“You feeling okay?” Sam addressed him. “You want to go back?”
“No, no. I’m just exhausted. Wow.” And in French to the woman: “Hi, I’m Jibril.”
“Your name,” said Sam, “your name is important to me.”
Jibril said, “What are you doing, man?”
“No—really. Not Samira,” Sam shook his head jokily, already intimate; “No—Abdul Salam. It’s a name I always remember. Because I once buried a man called Abdul Salam.”
“Oh yeah,” said Jibril. “Yeah, I know this story.”
Jibril’s tone was not dismissive: he had taken up the pipe with choral solemnity, assumed a thoughtful silence. Mira said nothing.
“So, at the end of the ’67 war,” said Sam, “I walked to the bank of the Jordan River. The eastern bank.”
This story was passed on to me by a cousin of Mira Abdul Salam. According to that cousin, Mira’s encounter with Sam al-Bayati at a hookah bar in Zurich ended a long period of mourning for the Gazan branch of the Abdul Salam family.
In 1967, Samira’s grandfather Mahmoud Abdul Salam was martyred near Wadi Far’ah by the Harel Brigade of the Israeli army, and that loss was handed down through the generations. For years, Mahmoud Abdul Salam’s children had petitioned the State of Israel to return his body. The State informed them it was already interred, in an unmarked grave in the Jordan Valley. Nevertheless, the Abdul Salam children embarked on a legal battle, which ended up lasting almost twenty years. It was a battle of endless forms, of the same questions, of small, overcrowded rooms with views onto building sides and the whitening sea, hours of waiting to enter a larger room of blank walls and high cameras, to meet another face behind a desk, to file another paper, to be told to wait. In 1987 they decided to stop trying. The Intifada had begun.
But the story of bereavement, and the duty, somehow, to give him a proper burial, was passed on. First to the eldest son, Mira’s father, then to the second eldest, the father of my friend, and on down. My friend said he already felt it had fallen to him.
The moment Sam saw the look on Mira’s face—that was for him a moment of near-religious ecstasy. He was transported back to that earlier scene, forty years ago, before the event became a story. He was there, the waters were rushing, the rapids swarmed toward him in a frenzy. Presenting to him, Sam al-Bayati, a corpse discolored verdigris and swollen with the Jordan River, the white shirt red like a symbol.
Jibril also witnessed the few wordless seconds that brought the story of the body to its crisis. He watched as the color left Mira’s face, and realized at the same time as Sam did what it must mean for her.
“And then I dug with my hands,” said Sam. “And a stick—I took a branch from a tree. And I placed him in the grave. And then I covered him with earth.”
Jibril remembered this story well. And he remembered Sam telling him how he ran back to the camp for help. He waited for his friend to correct himself. Sam simply continued gazing at the girl.
However, Jibril did not disturb them. In fact, he waited for Mira to weep, as in a film he knew the plot of. She was quite beautiful, with a prominent forehead and a warm skin tone and nicely shaped breasts contoured by the lettering on her shirt. But although her mouth fell open slightly, Mira didn’t cry. This was in some ways a victory, he felt.
She spoke, and then Sam. Like newlyweds: cautiously, softly, reverently.
“Where is the body now?”
“By the bank, near Karameh.”
“Is it marked?”
“It is marked.”
“And you prayed?”
“Yes, I prayed.”
“Will you draw me a map?”
“It was forty years ago . . . I . . . Well, pass me a paper—that napkin. I mean, I hope . . . ”
“It doesn’t matter if I can’t find it. You prayed for him, he had a burial—that is all that matters. I can’t . . . ”
“Thank you. God . . . God bless you, a thousand times God bless you.”
And it went on like that for a while, until they had nothing left to whisper, and at last they shook hands goodbye.
Outside, it had turned cold.
“You didn’t even ask for her number?”
“No,” said Sam. He inhaled, as though to speak. Then he let the breath go.
The following morning, they had an early breakfast and placed their luggage in the trunk of a cab. They got out on the corner of Anna-Heer-Strasse and Beckhammer. On the pavement, beside their bags, they waited. Sam lit a cigarette and leaned on the handle of his suitcase. Both of them wore pressed shirts under their sweaters, and the stiff plackets showed beneath the wool. The sky above was thick with blue-shafted clouds; people in work clothes hurried out of the colored houses, holding briefcases, breakfast remnants in napkins. Jibril took out his phone and dialed the number for Mr. Can’aan, and a woman answered. Sam heard the voice faint from the receiver: Yes, she was saying, he is on his way, yes, I am sure he is on his way. They waited. They were close to the source now. The sun, already up, surged slowly overhead.