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22nd October 2015

Short story: Return to Rafah

Featured prose: Joely Thomas writes a moving short story set in the southern Gaza strip

Finally, it seemed, the end had come. Or rather, the dark crimson dye that had stained their lives had gradually run to leave a murky fuchsia in its wake. The crushed remains of once-believed-in hope lay remnant like the piles of stone that now littered the streets, once parts of faithfully-built, if unstable, homes. Funerals were once again held for individuals, but the grief left behind remained collective. A different leader and new factions, empty words and false promises signalled steps back for many, but others philosophised that at least the rhythm of the dance had changed.

Familial ties had been pulled and twisted, their resilience stretched to a point at which many, though unbroken, now sagged; and it was within such a loosely-fitting household that Salwa now sat, listening to plans to make the now-possible journey to visit the family in Gaza—with neither excitement nor anxiety but, at most, a mild curiosity. It would be interesting, after all, to see if Reema’s black curls now drooped as Shayma’s did, to see if hers and Ahmad’s bellies had shrunk along with the economy— or if they in fact protruded further, casualties of diets reliant on supplies of flour and sugar.

She would be keen to see if Mahmoud, their eldest, who shared his age with Omar, carried the absent look that her brother now so often did, to see if the family still built their days around jokes and laughter—or rather dragged them through an endless anguish, to see too if the brown door still hung steadily from its hinge or if it now stooped sadly, as did with theirs. And, she supposed, she would also be interested to see Mohanned. She wondered if her cousin, now 18 years of age, embodied the beginnings of adulthood or still clung to the remnants of childhood, if his broad shoulders had continued to develop into a short but sturdy frame or if the rest of his body had caught up so that a lean figure now stood in his place. She wondered, too, if he would remember her, or if she had merely been a leaf on the orange tree of their childhood that had blown away with the coming of the storm.

Her father was proposing that they left the following weekend, but the proposition was more of an announcement. In the past, he would have asked Shayma what she had thought, and normally would have been swayed by her opinion—but he no longer bothered to ask, and Salwa sensed that. Having forgotten the old rhythms of life, he was now trying to play along as best he could. New notes had been added in the place of lost old ones in the hope that no one would notice. And even if her mother noticed, she would never have said so. Her joy at his return had so far meant that she was happy to allow him to take control, as those grandchildren whose visits who were seldom, were typically spoiled more than those who visited frequently. And behind everything—behind the pretence that life had returned to normal—lay Shayma’s self-constructed shame at having not fulfilled the most primary of her traditional maternal roles in Ahmad’s absence. It was not that Ahmad did not value her opinions, but that she no longer valued her own.

Omar’s self-resentment was less transparent. Hidden behind layers of blunted emotions, one could have also attributed his lack of self-expression to a simmering anger or a low discontentment—but Salwa, who believed herself to be more in tune than most with her brother’s feelings, sensed that a silent guilt continued to plague him.

It was in this atmosphere that they made the journey to Gaza. There was too much room in the car for the four of them and they felt it. The drive passed without event, as if even the soldiers had tired of them and their lives, and Salwa wished that she still had Majed to pull in towards her, to place an arm around her for protection; but their empty protection had not been enough.

The difference was immediately noticeable. Entering through the outskirts of Rafah, parts appeared as if an earthquake had hit. Some buildings with stronger structures remained as empty skeletons amidst the wreckage, whilst those who had been lucky enough to escape, teetered on the edge, awkwardly standing by the fallen. It was like Jenin camp—only magnified. In fact, so unrecognisable to Salwa were the roads leading up to the house, that it was only once they were directly outside and at the metal door, with flakes of brown paint still hanging on, that she realised they had arrived.

The family had aged. Yet it was more than the physical ageing that could have been expected to have occurred within the five years since they had last met. Their expressions drooped, and their bodies slouched, as though physically weighed down by grief—their faces bore the scars of fallen tears; but what shook her the most, was Mohanned’s gaze, how it scanned her as though unrecognisable, how it told her that the Intifada lay etched upon them too.

As his eyes lingered upon her, and as their gazes finally reconnected, she feared that she had become unknown to him—that it was not the passing of time that mattered, but the horror of moments that they had both seen but did not share that now stood between them. And were it not for his subsequent approach—the hand, surprisingly firm, that tightened around hers, as he leaned in to kiss her on each cheek—telling her that he was now hers, she would have dropped her defeated gaze and accepted, as simple as that, that things had changed. But before he backed away, she realised that the events, in fact, did not stand between them but entwined them, forcing them together in spite of themselves. For before, they had the time to properly understand one another, they had held in their minds their own image of the other for whom they had longed and grieved for so long, that the reality now incarnated the imagined.

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