By Nadim Abdul-Hadi, translated from the Arabic by Madeline Edwards.
I remember, and I forget…
I’m happy when I sit down again with my Amnesia. He is a dear friend. He is kind and tender. He prefers to listen, rather than speak. He comes to me when I’m feeling nostalgic. Sometimes he dresses up like some sort of court jester. Other times he wears a preacher’s cloak. We sit together in my living room, where he delights simply in stepping out of his silence for a while, and speaking. He has a kind of magic when he talks.
The house is near First Circle, where the Jabal begins, and the new Amman that sprouted up in the fifties and sixties ends, where you look out over neighboring Jabal al-Lweibdeh Hill. We knew our own hill as the last little romantic haven for artists in the capital, and for the city’s original inhabitants. There’s a little piece of land there that hasn’t been built up yet. It sits between the main street and a staircase of thirty steps descending from the sidewalk with their backs to the traffic, looking out over the city’s skyline. There is a scent of basil. Between those trees, and the hills, and the tame little streets, is the beautiful house we left behind. It was our family’s first real home.
Ever since my aunt’s husband bought the house, we filled that garden with little archeological remnants of our childhoods. If you entered it today, you’d know it by the green vines clinging to the walls of the house, where I played with my cousin Muayyad and the other kids in our family every time I’d come on long visits from Saudi Arabia those years my parents and I spent outside Jordan. You’d see the palm tree standing in one corner of the garden. My aunt’s husband insisted on planting it there so the house would look properly Arab. Palm trees are properly Arab. In the lemon and almond and fig trees, you’d see our long-lost lovers. You’d pick our roses and jasmine.
But what good is the house anymore, without our family in it? It wasn’t even a tall house, just two floors. Our next door neighbors were a restaurant. The restaurant was big: it had four stories, each one with a different special theme. Every day after sunset, the restaurant was full of loud noise. Cars arrived, people greeted each other at the main door, and music wafted from its huge speakers all the way until midnight. The clamor drained our peace and left us out to dry.
Before he died, my aunt’s husband filed a formal complaint against the restaurant. The court decreed that the restaurant must stop annoying its neighbors with loud music. It worked for a day, then two days, then a week, then two weeks. But the order ended up melting away into obscurity, until we needed to muster up a new determination, and seek a whole new edict from the court.
We got tired of fighting the restaurant, which was armed with money and lawyers. The palm tree eventually lost its first caretakers. Nobody bothered anymore to water it. My aunt’s husband was sad about the state of his garden by the time he died. And so the tree died too, no longer able to bear its sickness. It left us suddenly. The palm tree didn’t die the same way my aunt and her husband died.
I don’t think of the house as having been destroyed in one sudden blow. But there was a gust of wind that finally shattered the windows we had tried for years to patch back together. As children we did our best to repair the electrical wiring and water pipes that had started to decay. We attended to the house’s winter and summer needs, following its every order. I got tired of it. One morning we woke up and discovered that the house was a pile of rubble.
We left for the last time, and moved into a rental apartment. We took the cash we had sued the restaurant for, as a sort of blood money. The restaurant had finally won.
Before we left, we only lived on the house’s first floor. Jacqueline lived on the ground floor with her brother Asmat, who, like her, was unmarried. Even from the first day we met them, they were very old.
Six years had gone by since we first met, or maybe more. I was living in the house full-time now, not only visiting on holidays from school in Saudi Arabia. I was walking up the steps of our garden on the way to university. Jacqueline was dragging (and at times pushing) a heavy garbage bag. She was short and had a hunched back. For a second it almost looked like she was embracing the bag. I was running late, like usual.
“Good morning,” she said.
I said the exact same thing back to her, and then she asked me for help. I picked up the trash bag, even though I knew she normally just left her garbage in front of her apartment for my cousin Muayyad to deal with. He was out of the house today, at class.
“How is university?”
I thought about my university, my classes and my friends.
Jacqueline waited for me to say more. I had to slow down so her short steps could keep up with mine. I was too young to be walking so slowly. I didn't say anything else. We climbed the stairs, and walked the flat sand path that led to the street. Above us was that tree Jacqueline hated for the way its leaves scattered everywhere each fall. We never used to sweep away the leaves, figuring the wind would carry them away and take care of things. They ended up covering the ground until you couldn’t see it anymore. Jacqueline was going through her own autumn, but she held onto the colors of spring in her short-sleeved blouses and her wide linen pants.
What is this silence? I asked myself. I was walking at a turtle’s pace. When can I go? An orange leaf drifted down onto my face, and I wiped it away. We were about to part ways wordlessly, but then Jacqueline broke the silence.
“How rude you are!”
I didn’t say anything. I tried to smile, as if to forgive her outburst. What she said still echoes in my mind today: How rude you are! Now I write down my memories of her as if the words will forgive me.
The house had two entryways: the main door out front, and another out back. Between them was a long corridor that zigzagged its way from the bathroom to the kitchen to the garden. We would sprint and play, and teleport from room to room through that corridor. When my aunt got sick and had to stay in bed all the time, she moved into the hallway so she wouldn’t be shut off from the world. That didn’t stop us from transforming ourselves into butterflies and fluttering past her. The giant glass windows at the end of the corridor seemed to open out right onto the front garden.
I was in year two of my middle school back in Saudi Arabia. My cousins in Amman were mostly the same age as me, though a few of them were younger. The older ones aren’t important here: they were always outside the house anyway, with their friends. At that age, in that place, and in those conditions, I met Jacqeline for the first time one visit back to Amman. Muayyad had warned me about her. Maybe he was trying to incite some sort of feud. I imagined her as a real-life Miss Minchin, the strict anime headmistress from Princess Sally. Or as Gargamel, the evil wizard who hunts down Smurfs, especially when she popped out of nowhere and materialized in the middle of our house one day. Muayyad and I found her in the corridor, standing in front of my aunt and my mother. She didn’t even know yet who Muayyad and I were, that we were the children of the owners of the very house she had just entered. Still, she shouted:
“That’s enough running around! Good God!”
Her voice was sharp and unpleasant. Her thinning red hair was all frayed out in a fringe from sleeping, which we had apparently just woken her up from with all of our running over the ceiling of her bedroom. She was still in her pink pajamas. I turned to run away, and crashed into Muayyad, sending us both falling to the floor. My aunt, who was used to our hallway screeching and shouting, simply laughed at her downstairs neighbor. Mama was still confused over Jacqueline’s sudden appearance. I tried hiding my own little fury, while Muayyad said something about swearing he’d teach her a lesson she wouldn’t forget. Then the two of us disappeared and fled from the three women, hiding where we could still steal glances at Jacqueline sitting there chatting with my aunt and mother as calmly as if she was a friend of the family. We were a bit mystified by this social side to Jacqueline’s personality. Not that we understood why she was so mean, either.
My cousin was true to his word. When Jacqueline left, and walked back home through the garden to her apartment, we found ourselves perched directly above her path. Muayyad had a mischievous streak. He drank his tea, and waited until the rest of the kettle had cooled down before pouring it out the window right onto Jacqueline’s head, immediately ducking down before she could catch sight of us. We stayed frozen in place until her shouting had stopped and things had calmed down.
We made sure to lock the door to our house before going through with that particular plan.
Childhood, adolescence, youth, middle age—everything I remember from my past seems far away from me now. Who will guide us to the place where we can exchange our long forgotten loves, to bridge our distances?
Asmat was Jacqueline’s brother. He lived with her, in that same house. And yet through all those years that he lived in our basement, I never once saw him talk to Jacqueline. I never really saw the two of them together at all, except on holidays when their family sat together in the garden all night. Each one of them was lonelier and sadder than the other.
There were rumors that Asmat was Muslim. Nobody had any actual evidence, except for the one time he spoke with my aunt’s husband about the teachings of Islam. We never saw him pray. He never declared any sort of conversion to Islam, and he never stopped celebrating Christian holidays. Despite all that, we kept our tantalizing little rumor alive. My cousin Muayyad kept pushing his own piece of evidence down our throats: every Friday, when Muslims attended their afternoon prayer, Asmat was out of the house. Muayyad kept asking us, determined to find an answer: Where could he possibly be except the mosque? The truth was that Asmat left the house every morning, including Fridays and Sundays, and didn’t return until nighttime. But he was old, retirement age, and couldn’t possibly be leaving the house to go to work.
When we grew a little older, Muayyad and I caught him one day walking in Wast al-Balad, Downtown. We followed him. We saw him walk into a hardware store, the kind that sells everything from nails to windows. He said hello to the man sitting at the counter. Asmat had a hunched back like his sister, and white hair, and he didn’t clasp his hands behind his back like most old men. He let them hang by his sides instead. We watched him from around a corner as he made his way to the salesman and sat down next to him. We saw his cleanly shaven chin, his thick eyebrows and wide eyes, and we knew it was him. Not that there were any reasons to doubt that in the first place. But what was Asmat doing here? Could he be the owner of the shop? And if he was, why didn’t he and his sister seem to make any money?
The mystery surrounding Asmat only intensified. We grew a little older again, and my aunt’s husband died. Things changed. We started paying for the house ourselves. Asmat started coming up to our house every three months to sit in our salon between Muayyad and me, and say excitedly, “I was sitting here just yesterday,” as if those three months that passed were only one day. He’d let out a little laugh, then pull a little notebook from the pocket of his jacket, and gently rip out a page. He’d give us a pen and dictate to us: “I, Muayyad Adel Muayyad Abdellatif, in all my powers of reason, have received the amount of two hundred and forty dinars, as rent for the months of such-and-such, and as the representative of my siblings, the survivors of my father Adel Muayyad Abdellatif. Signed, here.” And then, of course, he’d ask for my signature as witness. Then he’d mumble a bit about the weather and rising prices, then leave. I don’t remember him once drinking tea or coffee with us. He never told us anything about himself, as if he didn’t have a life he wanted to tell people about. But, despite everything, he seemed to be a gentleman.
We never broke that routine, except for once. We decided to ask him why he went to the same hardware store every day. At first he was surprised. He explained that he went there each day, and to other shops, to offer his services as a translator. Sometimes he’d find a shopkeeper needing him to translate messages coming in from countries where their supplies were manufactured, so he’d translate. If not, he’d simply wander into another shop, and another. That was his work.
We still had questions about him. Did he really convert to Islam? We never found out.
You know what a cactus flower looks like?
She’s a little giraffe towering over the garden, or a bride in a white gown. She only rarely shows her face. For months, the cactuses stay as they are: plain green domes threaded with thorns, stacked on top of each other. Then, one evening, without warning, a long stem climbs up from the thorns. Her white wedding gown blooms overnight.
We picked them and planted them in front of the house, and on the short wall separating our garden from the stairs leading down to Jacqueline’s apartment. That was in our third year of university, when we started to mature a little. Something had begun to blossom inside of us, but it was different from the flowers we looked after in our garden.
The flowers woke us up one morning. One of them surprised us at the front door. It was all we talked about that day. When we returned from our classes, we didn’t find the flower where we had left it. Someone had cut its stem from the very point where it had poked up out of the earth. We all knew how much Jacqueline loved flowers. It must have been her. And we also knew she would never confess.
But we had grown older, and we had started to wonder. What does she think of us? Maybe she thought she deserved to take the flower.
Does that wild family upstairs even care about gardening?
Even in flowers we had our disputes.
Death came with his scythe. He took my aunt, then refused to walk back out the door.
For more than a month, he stayed with us, sitting in the house. He waited until my aunt’s husband returned from Palestine, where he had insisted on burying his wife on the family plot. My aunt’s husband walked into the house and saw Death’s face reflected in the faces of his children. They got two days of reprieve. Then Death took my aunt’s husband too, before the forty days of mourning for my aunt reached their own end.
The house lost its mother and its father. Death’s work was done, so he left, a guest with no words.
It was a long time before I found out what Jacqueline’s apartment looked like on the inside.
The courtyard outside her door was clean. She swept it daily. After sweeping, she hung her clothes to dry on a wire. That was something normal. What wasn’t normal were the plastic bags she also hung up, after washing them, too. She had arranged her flower pots around the walls of the house in the shape of an L, and chosen them according to her fine tastes, arranging them by color and size. Looking down from our balcony, we saw our neglect for our own garden reflected in the care Jacqueline put into hers. We loved planting things tree by tree, sprout by sprout, flower by flower, our greenery spread out in a sort of chaos surrounding the house. She, on the other hand, took the whole picture into account, with her trees and sprouts and flowers.
One day, Jacqueline bought a receiver. The thing made her so happy she floated up the steps to our house, which she entered, as usual, without knocking, to find my cousin and I sitting in front of the TV. She squealed about her new receiver, how buying it forced her to then buy a new TV because the old one refused to work any longer after she had set up the device.
Her brothers who lived in America had sent her the money for the TV and the receiver as birthday gifts, she told us. “Which birthday? Forty, or forty-five?” We played around with her, knowing she was in her seventies at the very least. She didn’t respond, instead beaming like a young girl. Then she turned around and left without another word.
She came back to us less than an hour later, disheveled. The receiver wasn’t working. She asked for help. It was the first time she had invited us into her home. The only of us who had visited her before was my oldest cousin, who was now married. She relayed stories about Jacqueline’s apartment, that it was like a museum filled with artifacts and paintings. The apartment required special care. This caused constant disputes with Asmat. He’d throw himself onto the couch, he’d place his glass of tea on an expensive embroidered tablecloth, sometimes he’d bump into a statue of a bird made of wires and feathers, damaging the bird and igniting a battle that ended with him fleeing from his sister to any street with a shop that might need his translation services, even if for free.
When we entered the apartment, we found a real museum. Everything was old. Nothing new had entered the house in maybe twenty years, except the TV and the receiver. But what really grabbed us was a huge painting of a sun, setting behind the hills of Amman, before any buildings or houses or citadels had suspended themselves from its slopes. Jacqueline gestured at the painting.
“That’s Jabal al-Lweibdeh, in the old days! One of my own paintings.” We told her it was beautiful. My cousin was skeptical. Jacqueline got up close to the painting and pointed at the signature, her name. She handed us the TV remote.
In our heads, we asked ourselves if Jacqueline had been some sort of famous artist. We got an answer when she told us to sit, and showed us a huge, old photo album. She opened its pages, full of photos of her at art shows in Amman. We saw a pretty young woman. Visitors circled her, admiring her paintings. We saw her grow older, reach middle age. Jacqueline seemed happy watching us scour her photos, as if she was that same young woman, smiling at us from the pages of her album.
The photos reached their end, and we looked at the receiver. There was nothing wrong with it. She just didn’t know how to flip the TV screen to the same channel that the receiver was displaying. We fixed it, and she stared at us like we were sorcerers.
“It’s all Asmat’s fault. When I went upstairs to your house, he had the remote in his hand.”
“This is really normal, it’ll happen again,” we told her.
Jacqueline was furious. “If it happens another time, he’s never allowed to watch TV again.”
We felt a heavy silence, and left.
Between the day we bought the house in Jabal Amman and the day we sold it, we lived the hardest days of our lives, and the nicest. We entered as a family and left orphans. Children, then grown men. Many stories happened in that house that no doubt crossed paths with those of Jacqueline and Asmat, both up close and from afar.
Now that many years have gone by since we left that house, I can let myself say that we loved the two of them. Jacqueline cried the day we told her we sold the house. Was she crying for us, or the house? It didn’t matter. The house once belonged to her sister, who lived in it with her husband and children on what later became our family’s floor. Jacqueline and Asmat were renters.
Jacqueline was unhappy about that first sale, which she only learned of after it had happened. But her sister sold the house anyway and left for America. Jacqueline stayed with her brother Asmat, and with us. We sold it to the restaurant. The restaurant was going to make it into a storage room and a back kitchen and dorms for the workers. When it was time to say goodbye, Jacqueline said she would miss us very much. Asmat, as usual, said nothing. He lived in his kingdom of silence, a huge window hiding his eyes with curtains that never rose.
We were sad about the house’s fate, and the fate of its first two residents. Our sadness stretched itself over some years, and, with time, softened to a tender nostalgia. One day the house called on us to visit it. We were sitting in Rainbow Street, not far away, my cousin Muayyad and I. We drove the car down our old street. By chance, we saw Jacqueline crossing that little piece of land between the house and the street, where the sidewalk was, under some ornamental trimmed tree. She looked much older than we had ever seen her. True, four years had gone by since we left the house, but Jacqueline seemed like she reached that age where people can no longer grow any older, or become even more decrepit than they already are. She could die right there as she was, or go on surviving for a little bit longer. That’s what we thought, or maybe it’s just what we wanted to think. We waited until she had walked closer to the car, then we pulled up to where we figured she could see us through the windows. I rolled down my window. “Jacqueline!” We wanted to get out of the car and greet her properly. I waited for her to respond, taking in the contours of her aging face. Her hair was still dyed with the same henna, edging toward blonde. Her curls were the same, no more and no less. Why didn’t she turn to us? I raised my voice. “Jacqueline!” Finally, I knew. The colors of her clothes were what had changed. Pink and red and yellow and indigo and purple and violet and orange, her colors that she loved. They were gone. Today was just black. Her white blouse was still there, as it was before, though covered this time in hundreds of little black flowers. Her pants were black, too. My heart paused. Jacqueline kept walking calmly away from the house and away from us. I told my cousin to pull the car up closer. “Jacqueline!” I shouted this time. Finally she turned around. She looked at us, squinting her eyes at the car window, at me. She turned back around and kept walking away. I think she didn’t recognize us. Or maybe her eyesight or her vision were getting bad. “Are you getting out of the car?” my cousin asked me.
Jacqueline walked further from us, and we watched her leave, and we thought about Asmat and about the color black.