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Excerpt from Novel "Sunrise from the West"

Chapter 9 – Lacerated Feet 

The summer night is calm and quiet except for buzzing crickets. The barren, empty mountains are made even lonelier by moonshine. And so was the car that made its way on an aging road. The passengers were gloomy and silent, with their breath faltering scared and timid as the vehicle went down the road. What they intended to do was beyond all words, so they all fell silent. 

 In the moonlight, a metal sign appeared by the roadside with clear, visible red phrase: 

Jericho 40 km 

Marwan placed his hand on hers without looking at her. Did he feel as she did, that what separated them from the land was a few kilometers? And hasty steps? Does he, like her, feel the fragrance of life coming forward from the west, with the summer breezes that would eventually scorch the earth when the sun rises over the deep ghor ( ). Could he, like her, suppress the desire to stand up and speak out, shouting and covering his head with the soil? 

The frightened woman in the back seat whispered, "Oh God almighty, protect us." Thus breaking the silence. Her husband added, "Almighty, we rely on you." 

The car turned off the road along the steep expanse to the Jordan Valley, taking a dirt road leading south in between banana trees. It went on in violent rattling and the hissing of the banana leaves, making it a forlorn place in the night. There seemed to be no end to the road south. 

The side road ended in a field where they all got out of the car. They waited for a few tense moments, and when the driver felt a bit confident, he led them through the trees  with professional knowledgeable skill. Marwan gave her a helping hand as the young man helped his mother to move among the trees. The southern direction seemed to have no end. 

<!--[if !supportLists]-->- I'm tired of walking, the woman said to her husband. Let's rest a short while.

 The guide was furious. He shouted despite his caution.

 - We have to cross the river before dawn! Before anyone spots us. Only then can we have some rest. I was against bringing the women with us from the beginning because, brother, they can't bear the trip. Now, move slowly and don't make a sound! If you hear anything, split up. The signal you hear to move again will be a bird chirping.

 He imitated the call of a stray nightingale, as if he had trained himself on this for some time. He was followed by five other men and their guide, who appeared from the banana grove.

The two men whispered to each other, then one of them gave a bird call and was answered from off in the distance. Another man came to join them.

The driver and the guides divided their earnings amongst them. Fifty dinars a head for crossing the river, and thirty for the cars, including the cars that would take them inside to their towns. The passengers met the new guide, a thin, dark-skinned young man from the Jordan Valley. His eyes were as white as his teeth with his face bathed in moonlight. He looked at them closely and smiled to Marwan as if he knew him, whispering:

-The road is safe. Don't be scared. We've used it twenty times. The river water is quite shallow. Let this night pass in peace. The most important thing is to stay alert and don't be afraid.

 In the moonlight, sugar cane drew boundaries for the bank of the river, while tall, scattered poplar trees extended up to the sky in apparent solitude, casting their shadows on the distance between the group and the water. The guide galloped, hunched down, until he reached the sugar cane, and waved at them to crawl toward him.

The shadow of Hind and Marwan was reflected on the still surface of the water among the sugar cane. Marwan held her hand in order to cross the water.

-Marwan, she whispered. I can't swim. I never could.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->-I know.

Here at this moment, and in this place, she loved him even more. He was holding her hand to take her back westward, to a town separated from her by dark shallow viscous water that flows in dull monotony. The guide assured them in whispers that the water was only waist high, and that they should move carefully and silently. She saw the five men crossing the water with great ease until they reached the other bank and their bodies disappeared among the dry reeds.

With her hand in his, they moved into the water. The quiet surface pushed her up. She must now fix her feet to the riverbed in order to walk. The water resisted far more than she expected and the steps grew heavier and colder. The night around her concealed silence, soldiers and death. The cold water crept up her dress and reached her waist. The sharp jagged rocks in the riverbed tore into the soles of her feet. Marwan kept holding her with firmness, determination, love and silence.

Jesus of Nazareth, she recalled, was once baptized in this water. The cold water now covered her breast and reached her neck. Marwan held her hand as if he was baptizing her in the River Jordan. The sharp rocks now shifted abruptly from under her feet and she slipped down into the water. She felt it fill her mouth and almost choke her. She struggled against the urge to cough. Marwan pulled her up, trying to steady her, putting his arms under hers as the guide whispered again:

-For God's sake, be careful! Or else we're done for!

This time a cough escaped her.

-This isn't the time to cough, sister! For God's sake, pull yourself together! Keep quiet or we're dead!

Hind clung to Marwan's neck. She felt his breath close and warm as never before. She stopped coughing and placed her head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her waist, pulled her up on the bank and set her down among the bamboo reeds.

The land and everything around her was quiet and tranquil. She waited for the soldiers to appear but they did not. She expected to face them but they didn't show up. The barren rugged land stretched out before her, dotted with a few cacti and thorny plants.

The heat of the early morning sun began to set in. Their steps grew heavy and slow. The pain in her feet was searing now, and becoming unbearable, as she tried to move ahead. The other woman in their company would collapse every now and then, only to be brought back to her feet by her tired husband and son, with Marwan supporting her with great love and compassion. A familiar smell greeted them. It was the fragrance that she used to smell on nearing Jericho in days past. It was the perfume of jasmine and tamarind coming in from the right side. Jericho seemed so close, with green banana groves stretching into the distance. They all suppressed their cries of joy and rushed forward to reach their destinations.

 No one stopped them or asked them any questions. The road was safe and easy, but very long. The palm trees and orange trees were within sight.

She looked at her watch as she threw herself on a mat in one of the two small mud brick rooms together with Marwan and the family. The five men and the guide stayed in the other room. There were bananas, bread and water by her side. It was two o'clock in the afternoon. The exhausted woman looked at her and then asked Marwan,

- <!--[endif]-->Your sister?

<!--[if !supportLists]-->- <!--[endif]-->My fiancée!

<!--[if !supportLists]-->- <!--[endif]-->May God protect our way home. My four daughters are alone there. We went to see our son who's studying in Iraq. We have only him. He was sick. We left home a few days before the war. Who could ever have imagined what would happen? We left the girls alone. It breaks my heart to think of what might have happened to them.

Her husband ordered her to stop when she started wailing.

- <!--[endif]-->God is great! Keep quiet, woman, we'll be home today, God willing. And they'll be fine.

It was in the early afternoon that two cars approached them. A new guide poked his nose through the car window and looked them over at length. The five men bid them farewell and wished them well before heading back in another car. In the other, she sat up front with Marwan, with the family in the back seat.

The road was still there, as it had been, unchanged. Some Israeli soldiers positioned at check points stopped the car and commanded the passengers to get out. After scrutinizing them, they let them go. The road to her house in Beit Aman was empty and quiet, yet full of anticipation. The car pulled up in the yard in the evening, and near the outside gate Marwan stood with a familiar question in his eyes. He was passionately waiting for her to say something. She held her hand out with excitement to his. He pressed her hand, still waiting.

- <!--[endif]-->Hind…I think you are now capable of taking the decision.

She lowered her head but gave no answer. She was afraid to raise her eyes to his face, but she heard his saddened voice.

- <!--[endif]-->Nevertheless, I'm patient and I'll wait for you to grow up.

Marwan moved back to the car. He waited for a while, holding the car door open. He was expecting her to look back, but the driver shouted,

- <!--[endif]-->Come on, doctor. We have to go.

As the car sped away on the narrow, crooked road, sound burst out from her dry vocal chords. It was a desperate, helpless giant. She wanted him, in defiance of all the debris and smoke around her.

- <!--[endif]-->Marwan!...Marwan!

She ran after him to tell him that she had grown up and would be with him on the road he had chosen for himself, but the car had disappeared around a bend. He would neither hear her, nor return.

In the dim narrow lane, she cried silently in the evening. Marwan did not hear her decision or even know that she had made it.

 She dragged her feet back to the yard, exhausted, bewildered and lost. The steps to their house seemed steep and high. She recalled how she would take them two at a time. From the kitchen window that overlooked the yard, the broken wounded voice of her mother reached her as if it were coming down the steps. The sad tune was mixed with sobbing:

- <!--[endif]-->Woe to the bird whose wings they have cut

      How can a bird fly without wings

When will be the day of return
for those who have bid us farewell and left

      And You, great God almighty, bring them to us?

The sobbing grew louder and the agonized choke came up from the depth of her soul, but halted in her throat. Why did she put off the decision? Why did she let Marwan go? Why did he leave the hand that baptized her in the river and allowed her to grow up? Why didn't she take him up to them and face herself, her family and life?

Her mother's voice was still sobbing and repeated the poignant refrain. Her harnessed choke burst out and as she climbed up the stairs, she called out:

 - They can never cut the wings of the bird! All our birds have wings.

Mariam al-Najjar was trying hard to understand and to believe. She gathered up what was left of her will and determination and took two steps in the kitchen. She couldn't continue. She crumpled and collapsed. The captive giant in Hind's chest was unleashed and with two shivering hands she opened the kitchen door:

- <!--[endif]-->Mama!...Mariam…I'm back!

Hind threw herself around her mother's frail body and embraced her. She kissed and cradled her forehead, face and hands. Her mother's voice was at once filled with weeping, sorrow and joy.

Her father cried as he had not even done at his own mother's death. She moved to take the hands of her brothers Bassam and Atallah…The men who lived on in the era of defeat and occupation were all crying their hearts out now.