A chapter from the novel
(Bab el-Lail) GATE OF THE NIGHT
Translated by Julia Ihnatowicz
“Everything needs prostitutes,” Abu Shindi tells you. He’s sitting on one side of his table in a secluded corner, directly under a picture of the President. He sees you, but you don’t see him. The seat may have changed, but the years haven’t, and neither has the President’s picture.
A neutral face with no clear expression. It seems as though he has run his course in life, as if he no longer hopes for anything any more. He urgently puffs through one cigarette after another, often forgetting one halfway before going on to the next.
For years he’s sat in the same seat. He doesn’t leave his table. If it’s busy, he sits nearby until it’s free, and if he knows the people sitting there have only just arrived, he goes for a little wander and comes back. Mostly he doesn’t come back.
He’s usually alone, except for the rest of the Palestinians who keep him company or are friendly with him. Together, they offload what’s left of their anger and resentment, meeting in an assembly of solace. They come, one after the other, and sit together spread around a single table with a despair so obvious you can feel it just by looking.
The Palestinians were going back to Ramallah and Gaza, having already spent years imposing on Tunisia’s hospitality after the great exodus from Beirut in 1982. They had quickly gathered up their history, taking as much as they could carry in their bags, before lining up to confirm their names.
A few individuals couldn’t find their names on the official list of those allowed to return. He was one such. His name was on the Israelis’ black list: banned from returning, his hands stained with their blood. The Israelis pointed them out one by one – and him first of all – declaring: “There is no life for these men either with us or with you.”
Those on the white list departed, leaving the others old gas stoves and maqloubeh1 pots.
He sits in the café with a satisfied expression on his face. He has no position, no work or money to speak of except for the allowance he gets from over there. He casts his eyes far and wide, passing beyond all the barriers in front of him, all the stories and justifications. He takes a deep drag on his cigarette and, without sorrow, says: “By God! Our side, they’re listening. But them? They won’t be happy unless they kill us, or bury us alive, wherever we are.”
Don’t force him, or he won’t talk at all! Let him talk as he likes.
Twenty years of struggle under the flag of the Palestinian Revolution in God’s own country. Then the same thing again in Tunisia, after the flag had flown away or been changed.
He didn’t get to play children’s games or fall asleep at night listening to cheerful songs. He knew nothing but the names of martyrs and his only companion was his rifle, which he held to his bosom to sleep. There was no playing. He divided his faith in two: half on his back and half between his eyes.
When he grew older and tougher, his father took him by the shoulders and said: “Don’t come back unless you’ve killed them, or died trying.”
The road is long, the struggle a choice.
He always remembers how the first operation tasted. It was in Bucharest against one of the Haganah gangs that had organised the Deir Yassin massacre, which was carried out against unarmed Palestinians. The Haganah slaughtered them in cold blood, and made fires of their remains so their bones couldn’t grow again in the earth. After that, those same gangs had no problems, happily dispersing across the land. And they grew, just as Israel grew. So they were no easy target for quick revenge.
As for the four hundred or so of the Haganah who were still alive, they scattered, having drunk enough blood to defy an empire. But they were identified and their locations marked out.
The revolution coursed in our veins, but the blood of our people has still not dried. One of the Haganah was happy and planning to enjoy the rest of his life in Romania, when Abu Shindi approached him. With a comrade behind him for back up, Abu Shindi screamed in his face: “In the name of the Palestinian revolution!” He fired, and killed him. Once he was quite sure he was dead, he placed his weapon on the ground and gave the victory sign. Then he too was quite happy to surrender himself to the Romanian authorities.
Scratching his cheek gently, he says: “After that operation, we didn’t wait for orders any more. We started looking for work by ourselves. We felt we had come of age and could find our way alone.”
He had moved into preparation and planning, forming groups, training them, loading them up. And he moved from country to country, hunting down the persecutors who had evicted his people from their homes. From morning to night, he planned the deaths of those killing his people. Suddenly, he turns towards you and says: “Whores.” And he presses the point: “Everything needs whores, even the revolution.”
He points, his finger almost touching your eye, and with an unexpected seriousness says: “The real Palestinian revolution began in a whorehouse.”
I told you that Abu Shindi talks as he likes, according to his own mood. Don’t expect anything from him other than these hints or puzzling expressions and sudden outbursts.
Keep calm and don’t hurry. Abu Shindi will inch his fingers towards the point: long, thin, clean fingers like you imagine those of a pianist. He says: “At that time, the theatre of operations against Israel was Europe. There was no question about having a foothold there, a point of contact with the central command that was then in Lebanon. The centre needs a cover to stay hidden.”
He bought a brothel in Germany, a whorehouse, or market as he prefers to call it, like the Lebanese. It had two floors: the lower was a gambling hall frequented by Germans and foreigners of all stripes, the upper had twelve rooms for licensed hookers. This was the field of operations, where people came and people went.
The basement was a storeroom: the bombs and machine guns, the maps, the wireless, and the other equipment.
Operations upstairs and storage downstairs. It was the idea of a double agent – between us and Israel – who had been complaining about the distance between the decision-making centre and the place where things actually happened.
“And we were busy . . . Hooker Number Twelve died suddenly. We paid our respects, as befits a true lady at arms, and when we came back, we put flowers on her bed, and took over her room as an additional store for our bombs and machine guns. She’d been lucky enough to land an Israeli who was trying to hunt us. We hunted him down in her room, with her help. He killed her, so we killed him. And buried them together in a single casket. We cremated him so that not a one of his bones could grow . . . She was a good girl, bound to us by the intimacy and affection of living together. She could not have betrayed us.”
He leaves you for a long time, even as he sits in front of you, as if his gaze is reaching out towards her bed.
He says: “Imagine! Warrior Number Twelve was hanging there in her room and directly above her bed – since before we bought the brothel – was a picture of Yasser Arafat. We didn’t know.”
He turns silently towards you, gazing at you with clear almond-shaped eyes that speak by themselves: “We bought a whorehouse for five kilos of heroin. It was prepared by one of the fighters holed up in Lebanon. Imagine! I got the cut in Bonn, and the double agent sold it in Berlin. With a share of the profits, I bought the brothel. Afterwards I bought a restaurant and a nightclub, and we spent the income on our operations in Europe.” He knits his brow. “The enemy was winning. They owned over twenty-five locations in Germany alone.”
His face clouds over, so you almost think it’s battling with itself.
“I was furious. My heart burned every day to see their strength and my own weakness, to see how narrow our leaders’ vision was – the leaders we worked under. With the heroin’s help, I was able to track the enemy, using their own weapons against them, hurting them where they hurt me.
“For nights on end, I didn’t know the taste of sleep or even the smell of it. I forgot it. I would only sleep when we had succeeded in robbing them of sleep, when we had pushed them down into their burrows and seen the fear of their hearts in their eyes. When we had seen their tears. They made us cry for so many years that our eyes could never be dry.
“But after our side opened a line with the Americans, they fooled themselves that they’d reached the finish. All of a sudden, they ordered us to sell everything. Happiness was gone in the blink of an eye. And, glory to God, our people obeyed!
His heart would not submit to selling the whorehouse himself so he left Germany and fled.
He feels that each hooker, each shameless laugh, each roulette wheel on the gambling table is a part of him. He holds on to them, cannot forget them.
“I had hoped to say goodbye to the hookers, one by one, to sleep in all of their arms. It would have made me so happy and I could have kept a token from each of them. The only thing I forgot was to put a last flower on the bed of Number Twelve.
“I couldn’t sell it again. The double agent did it.”
The only thing he made sure to stress was not to sell it to any Israelis, no matter how much they paid. He wouldn’t have them take his place.
When he dies, he won’t leave a house, or a shop, or a piece of clothing, or an olive tree, or a hooker’s bed, or a plot of land, for any Israeli to have after him.
“They told us to sell everything, once and for all. Thank God, we had no shortage of tissues to dry our eyes.” On his face is a rare and colourless, bitter-tasting sorrow. He thumps the table, almost pitching the ashtray into the air. “Our side cooks day after day, leaving no milk for tomorrow. They leave no opportunity for later and never plan for the future.” The sorrow lessens and his face opens up as he says: “The last gift came from the double agent years later. I was afraid it would be a booby trap from the enemy but, to my surprise, it was Number Twelve’s underwear and her bed.”
The Palestinians left for Ramallah and Gaza – he never says they returned, he considers it a kind of random departure, but always finds them some kind of excuse. His eyes almost eclipse him with sorrow as the absence of hope shows on his face. Yet, the presence of his name on the Israelis’ lists lightens his days and his soul, soothing his brow and his temples.
They left, leaving Abu Shindi and a few like him to careen round and round in circles, being violently kicked from all sides. One minute crashing into the ceiling, then just as suddenly finding themselves on the floor.
In a moment of despair and longing, like talking to a brick wall, with a woman laughing in his face and then walking away, he married a Tunisian. They had two daughters, both with the map of Palestine hanging round their necks. Nothing stood in the way of him begging so that he could buy a toy for them to play with . . . or for him to play with them.
“Israel has imprisoned me and my children.”
Alone at his table, he spins out his days and fidgets with his phone. He opens it every other minute, examining it morosely as if he’s waiting for some call. When he hears it ringing, he practically leaps from his seat, then declares: “God rest his soul. God rest his soul.”
He collapses inside himself, sinking down on his chair.
He may wrestle with himself and turn to you, to say in a deep, low voice: “I’m no longer capable of friendship. The last of my friends died in the ’90s. For years, the sentence I’ve said most often is ‘God rest his soul’.”
With half the world’s scorn on one half of his face and pain on the other, he says: “Israel has imprisoned all of us where we are.”
He has no work. He wakes up restless each morning and makes breakfast for his girls. He dresses them himself and goes down with them to the neighbourhood school. He goes back to them at break time, carrying the sandwiches he also made for them himself. He plays games with them that he never played when he was little. He goes to the café until they are done, goes back to collect them, and returns in the evening. This is how he spirals about himself throughout the day. He finds nothing to do, has no money to console him, no hope to drive him on, and no children growing quickly enough for him to relax. There is no ray of hope of returning to his father’s house, and no death to save him from all these endless games. Even when tranquillity steals over him and he sings, there’s no one to hear him. If he were to chance upon someone, they would not even listen to him or understand him.
Tunisia has contracted around him, the circle shrinking. The country has compressed its walls and become arid, its streets have grown tired with the relentless traffic. Time doesn’t pass. He tried to go to Jordan, the only remaining legal door. There, perhaps, he would find friendship and companionship amongst the Palestinians, eat maqloubeh, find children to play with his own, children who would tell similar stories. Maybe he would find someone to tell him about his father.
He might find a traveller going from Jordan to the West Bank who could take a message. A single line: “Die and be at peace, I’ve done as you wished.”
But the plane that took him to Jordan brought him straight back to Tunisia. In the waiting lounge, he flicked idly through a paper to kill the miserable time, and found his father in the obituaries from the Occupied Territories.
“Israel has imprisoned me within two square metres: one at home and one in the café.”
His features are flooded with defeat, a gleaming black defeat that leans heavily on his body. He hopes that if he leaves it on his chair they’ll sweep it up day by day.
He buries a broken face in his hands. After a moment or two, he opens them a little and says bitterly: “With this face I can meet both God and Satan but I can’t enter another country . . . We are just leftovers. All the stories are leftovers, leftovers from struggling and from living. Here, I’m neither living nor dead.”
Luckily for him, he lives in an area populated by people from Sfax. They came and took this place blank and filled it with life. They don’t like to deal with anyone unless they have to . . . They learned from the Jews. It’s hard to find someone who says: “God forgive him.” Instead, they say: “God, let’s fuck him up!’ – and they’ll say it with malice. It really is sad, but they think of everyone else as foreigners, even other Tunisians, and their cash never goes to a foreigner. If one of them needs something, even something simple from the spice stall, he’ll look for a vendor from Sfax, someone of the same origins, even if he has to go a long way out of his way. They trade in commonplace things that bring quick profit and no risk of loss: glasses, gold, and the like . . . They take after the Jews, having been intimate with them and drunk their fill.
“I’m neither living nor dead.”
Abu Shindi has disdained death ever since he picked up a rifle at his father’s behest. He has trampled on death in more than one place and more than one country. He tossed it under his foot and kept walking. He’s completely done with it, as if it is just a dinosaur, certain that when his time comes, he’ll ascend, flying up on high, having bid his friends goodbye. He won’t die completely.
“There was no contract between me and Palestine, and no stipulations. It’s all on her. I did my bit and I left.”
He twists his key ring around his finger and taps it, making a steady, cheerful rhythm. “When you love a woman or a song, you don’t see any flaws in her. You see her crystal clear. You love her and give her your soul, gladly giving up what’s left of your life for hers. Even when you love an idea or a song, the sails of your heart unfurl with contentment and joy . . .
“How are things with your homeland?”
“But the Palestinian Authority, no, the Palestinian Salad,” he says, making a play on the words2, “God give them honour! They broke the crystal, gave it another colour. And to finish off their good deed they reduced our allowances, pensioning off the living, after they’d already thrown us out onto the street of the living dead . . . we can barely make it through half the month.”
He snorts, his face expressing a rage that’s almost smoking as it leaves him. A cloud burns over him. It is as if a train has had its engine stoked and then suddenly hurtles off. He says: “Whoever rebels is pensioned off. Whoever rebels goes hungry. Whoever rebels no longer knows whether he’s supposed to pray four or five times. Nothing is certain. The only thing he knows for sure is that he should pray towards the West, and towards Israel, and the other benefactors . . .” Then, with a face draped in wisdom, he goes on: “Don’t tire yourself. No one will reduce me to a dog yelping at himself.” He leaves without saying goodbye.
If you are lucky, you might run into Abu Shindi in the café at night when he’s clean-shaven, looking like an elegant bastard, the grace practically pouring off him. But if you run into him during the day, you’ll find adversity flooding his being and his face drowning in defeat.
He has been gone for days. Perhaps his money ran out. Maybe he went to the shore from where the Palestinians’ ships set sail to return to Ramallah, so he could make sure the coastline was still in its place. One time, he disappeared entirely. He came back, but his face was completely absent, as if he wasn’t himself. He said: “I was there.” He was silent a moment, then added: “I was afraid I wouldn’t find the shore there, that they had carried it off . . . I was afraid the sea had eaten it.”
He comes down from his house, morning and evening. Out of his allowance, he takes sixty dinars each month for his share and leaves the rest for his children.
“Death isn’t singular, it’s a whole bundle. I defeated it inside me a long time ago and said a prayer for its soul. Now it’s defeating me, it’s embodied in the fear I feel for my girls.”
Sixty dinars. Two dinars a day, one in the day and one at night to pay for two cups of coffee. If someone runs into him, shares his table and pays for him, he won’t go back in the evening or the next morning.
Abu Shindi loves this café – The Lovers’ Assembly – for its name, for its lovers, for its owner, for its whores. Other cafés breed misery, he says. “And there’s no need to take that to bed with our own misery.”
He loves the café for its rebels who come from all over pulling out their weapons, for its ladies at arms who come and pull out their asses, for their movements that take him back to the brothel he bought and was wrested from, that pull him back towards a love of life.
He looks at the rebels’ money, the fighters’ money, as it passes in front of his eyes into the pockets of the female warriors.
He watches by himself.
He watches one of the combatants rapturously eyeing up the women. As for himself, he adores them, gets to know them, spends his time flattering them over their trinkets. He turns to you at the end of the night, saying goodbye before he gets up: “We’re like whores, believe me, but they’re better than us. The only difference is that they know more than our leaders.”
Stunned by his frankness and comparison, you think perhaps he’s mocking you or being sarcastic. But he pre-empts you, saying: “At least they get paid. We don’t.”
From the author’s novel Bab el-Layl (Gate of the Night),
published by Difaf publishing, Beirut, Dar al-Aman, Rabat,
and Editions el-Ikhtilef, Algiers, 2013
1 Maqloubeh (upside-down) is a dish of lamb, rice and vegetables that is turned upside down to serve.
2 The Arabic word for “authority” and for “salad” are spelt the same but pronounced differently.