How Water, Too, Keeps Us Whole
“One does not return to one’s country of origin after a long absence without bringing back some glory, and some damage.”- Etel Adnan, In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country
The first time it happened I wore a long white dress and put orchids in my hair and smiled at the camera and the orchids and the translucent veil pinned to my head. I moved to a country that was always ten hours ago, or not yet. I took his last name with its too many vowels and confused the colonizer with which vowel to pronounce first.
A decade and a half later, I am back to the city by the sea. I take photos of ancient architecture, Levantine rooftops. I had never before noticed the incredible spread of oleander trees. I sit in cafes and pretend to read but instead I spend the hours watching people.
The sky is three shades of blue, one of which is water. Here, the students release a hundred pink balloons into the campus air, it’s the month of October, and this is the way they show us how much they care about the bodies of women.
Sometimes I miss the duty of church bells, only because it makes me a child again, with no breasts to hide and no skin.
A woman tries to sell me the blood of Christ while I wait on the street for the broken down bus. She points to the title of the booklet in her hand and tells me that it’s for free, that she isn’t asking for my money, and that this, here, is the fastest way to heaven. I turn away from her hands and look at the sea in front of me, three shades of water, one of which is sky.
I memorize her olive pit eyes, moss green and kohl deep, while I look towards the low blue, expecting it to spit its fill of sunken boats. Of wrists and bones.
Yasmeen baladi grows in a pot on my balcony in a building that’s older than water. I keep a resurrected poinsettia and I’m still learning the names of these flowering shrubs. Two jars of hydrangea colour the air. I inspect them in the early hours, like newborn twins, like the children I have yet to have. Maybe it’s not the right time. Maybe it’s still terrifying. Maybe that’s what we tell ourselves when consolation is safer than what looks like defeat. When our bodies just refuse or give up. So we surround ourselves with anything that grows, that gives back, if only in petals and leaves.
Remember to leave the city when winter melts into spring. Take photos of the roads lined with chrysanthemum.
One student asks me how to spell the word Shaheed in English. I tell him the word is martyr with a Y and I write it on the board and I watch him copy each letter as if it’s the only word that matters that year.
Another asks how the word bomb is pronounced in English. I tell him to stop in the middle of it, I say, don’t announce the ending, let the word die on your lips, maybe that way you’ll forget about it.
I try to forget my body in the classroom but the boys remember and the boys are young.
I tell them about the girl who was all over the news last week, who wanted to fling her body off the highway bridge because her body got pregnant without permission, without a man to call a husband, because her parents will kill her body if she doesn’t kill her body first.
I tell them about the nine-year-old body that is homeschooled after finishing third grade because school, they tell her body, has men and boys, who will see this body and this body must not be seen.
I try to forgive my body in the classroom full of boys and bodies. One body tells me that she hates men, that they are nothing but trouble. I begin to tell her that hate is a big word, but the body tells me it is the only word, and I realize that this is the first time this body has spoken in weeks.
I once wrote a poem about naming my daughter but she never came and I stopped reading that poem after so many years of reading. People give birth everyday to other people. And the world just gets that much bigger and that much smaller. The first funeral I went to was for a lover's uncle who hardly ever said hello to me. I heard the story about his heart and the way he chose to heal it in secret, travelled to a far country, and got his chest slit open and closed again, and he was in his thirties then and about to get married, “too late too” he’d said, but he never told his wife about it, thought she might worry and maybe she did. They lived in a thick stone house built by somebody in the family or at least that’s how I’d like to remember it.
My mother would take us to the other side of the mat-haf to visit her widowed sister and four kids when the bombs stopped and the gunshots. We’d walk the ten thousand miles to get there, where people grew tails and had teeth set in the middle of their forehead.
How else do you explain civil war?
First, they let you into a small room to sit among walls painted a powder shade of blue, the linen, like a baby boy’s room is already a forced warning, and your hair is covered in blue, your stripped body, your bare feet. You wait for the doctor whose appointment passed hours ago and it’s like this every time you visit because every single married body waiting outside is in a hurry too. Finally, it’s your turn. Open wide, the nurse says. This won’t hurt one bit the nurse smiles and you think she smiles too much, you think no one smiles this much unless it hurts. The doctor arrives in a trendy pair of jeans and clean shoes, announces that his wife gave birth today and that he missed it. He tears the plastic casing that holds the cold of metal clasps, a tongue-less mouth forced all the way in.
It doesn’t matter how small the country, we are too wicked to care. The sea is a cannibal and I don’t know what we’re doing here anymore or why came back.
Remember: the girl who swam half the length of the Mediterranean. Remember: she pushed a vessel full of families to the safety
of someone else’s shore. She joined the Olympics and showed us how water, too, keeps us whole. The sea knows it is not made for drowning.
Everyone is somewhere else. The city is a pension home for the elderly. The city is bloated with tranquilizers, all eyes and bullet holes and morning breath. We wait to go back, not knowing where, or how, to forget dying.
A paper, a man of the island, a signature, a single witness. This is the way I choose to do it the second time around and the church and the sheikh and all their many children disappear into a ritual of memories.
Once in a while I visit the forest I invented on my balcony. Leaves and herbs and flower bushes, obstinately growing, adamant to fight death, to reach for the sun. They wait for the water I offer them, their entire fate in my own two hands. Rosemary cuts uneven shapes in the air, grows upwards, ignoring my occasional absence.
The kids read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. All around them bombs fall in a terror of silence and cousins lose their wives. The men are decapitated. Slain. Severed. The women cover themselves from head to toe, protect their mouths from the tragedy of gender.
When I bleed for the first time, I am in Cyprus, the nearest refuge at the time. I am escaping the civil war and my mother is elsewhere. We are at the beach and my youngest aunt, the only woman around, tells me not to worry, that once I swim, the bleeding stops.
Once I swam, the bleeding stopped.
I am a teenager. I am told to keep my hands off the cookie jar. What Arab family owns a cookie jar? A giant baking pan is more like it. A pan of turmeric cake. The breast of knefeh. A single large round breast for the whole family. I am told to keep my hands off the breast, the pan, the cake. To watch my waist: it’s the only artery feeding a man’s heart.
The permanence of naming a child. Name her a rose, a lily, a river, a prophet’s wife or a god’s mother. Name her the ultimate virgin. I couldn’t stand it. Mine, related to water, to the absence of thirst. Or storytelling. A name that keeps sounding like another, that means hill, or seduction. No one pronounces it right the first time around. Neither over here, nor over there.
How many years have we spent inside the heat of air conditioners? Losing our youth inside offices made of steel and double-glazed windows? We promise to grow a field of fig trees once we return from all this leaving.
Some of us refuse to come back from the desert, its tragic sun the only light left on the map.
We teach the origins of war, of land stolen, of resources and revelations. All the prophets huddle in the corner of the room, humiliated.
On Palm Sunday the ropes of village church bells are pulled by the strength of teenagers. The entire week awaits the resurrection.
The most sacred woman
on earth is the Virgin. The first woman to adopt a child but no one ever tells you that. The temples demand that we engage in love, and then they call it sin when love wouldn’t breed or doesn’t want to.
Before my father was born, his mother gave birth to children who wouldn’t survive, so she begged her God to gift her a child who wouldn’t die—a boy of course—whose name she promised would mean the same thing—a pleading, a desperate beseech.
My father says he considered naming me, Sama, Arabic for sky. But sometimes I wonder if it’s only because the name sounds like his mother’s, Samia, which means supreme, and sometimes Semitic.
Think: of things that linger: the scent of peeled tangerines. A blue-yellow bruise on brown skin.
Think: of things that disappear.
We eat here. We burn charcoal to smoke fruit-flavored tobacco. A cool breeze fills the room with afternoon. Outside, on bamboo chairs, elderly men sit side by side like a row of crooked teeth. They greet the cars that go by, the grandnephew of a neighbor’s daughter’s middle son. Inside, women wash tomatoes they just picked from the earth. They prepare lunch. The men and women sit together to drink bitter coffee from small white cups. In the evening, we pour strained chamomile into thin clear glass. Today, it is safe.
I don’t remember when they began sleeping in separate rooms. I remember her saying that he snored too much. I asked her once if they loved each other and I don’t recall if she said yes or if she meant that they still loved us.
It was Mother’s Day when the girl confessed to her mother that she had always loved women, that she tried to love men but couldn’t. The whole revelation happened on Skype. Her mother held the rosary in her fist and stayed quiet for a long time. Then she logged out. She needed to catch her chemo appointment. Her husband was already downstairs, waiting in the car.
When he slapped her across the face in front of his elderly parents, his father consoled him with stories of manliness and victory. This is how you stay in control, he had told him. When his young wife went into the next room to lick her wounds, his father congratulated him. Never let her cross her limits, she needs to know who’s the boss from the very beginning. His mother nodded and went into the kitchen to boil some water for coffee. This is the way boys are broken and men are made.
Firdaus wouldn’t apologise for killing the man. She wouldn’t back down, I tell the class, because she believed that she did the right thing. She did the right thing. Some are offended by the graphic parts in Woman at Point Zero. Why do we need to read, over and over again, how all these men touched her body? Isn’t once enough?
Yes, I never say. Yes, once is more than enough.
To come back to this, to run away from it, back to it again. To check the time and never find it. To walk towards the shallow sea and measure its depth, to forget all the stolen rivers and how many they were. To make a phone call from landline to landline. To wait until no one picks up. To try again. To count the number of children and show them how windows are meant to stay open. To stay as one and one and forgive yourself for the decision. To pretend that it was really your decision. To doubt all finality. To memorize your body and offer it to yourself. To pour clean water into a cup, to close the tap, and know that eventually, possibly, it will rain again.
Rewa Zeinati is author of the chapbook, Bullets & Orchids, and her work is also published in Prairie Schooner , Guernica, Asian American Writers' Workshop, Natural Bridge, Quiddity, Grist, Mizna, Best Small Fictions 2019, Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration, Making Mirrors: Writing/Righting by and for Refugees, and other journals and anthologies. She spent the last decade and a half moving countries and cities in the Arab world and US, and currently considers Metro Detroit her new home.