by Sonia Sulaiman
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The poet said: “Someone will know us, even in another time.” I saw him again in another life, and he was throwing stones at the army. How many lives have I lived with Hasan, the handsome, the clever? And this is the first time I saw him throwing stones. It’s in Aida, in Bethlehem, where we live between watchtowers and walls that block out the sun. His skin is covered in lesions, and his smile is cracked. The green army vehicle is turning up dust as it slowly rolls through the street and children rain stones down on its reinforced windows.
An officer with a megaphone says: “We will hit you with gas until you all die. The children, the youth and the old people, you will all die. We won’t leave any of you alive. We have arrested one of you. He’s with us now. We took him from his home and we will slaughter and kill him while you watch if you keep throwing stones. Go home or we will gas you until you die. Your family, your children, everyone. We will kill you.”
I am Zainab, my beloved: Hasan. We are a fairy tale told inside out. When the soldiers talk like that, lives separate into tangled threads, and emerge from their proper channels. They become displaced. The past seeps into the present with a suffocating force.
I am the Son of the Rose and the Jasmine, a stranger who aims to put right this story gone wrong. Dressed as a young man, Hasan doesn’t recognize me. To him, I am the charismatic stranger who walks with him through his garden, reciting poetry ex tempore. But Hasan has no understanding of poetic turns. He doesn’t see the confession in my words.
“Flower of the Henna, beautiful and sweet!
How you are exalted above every flower.
I swear by Mecca, and the prophets’ seat,
My love would be yours, had I the power.”
Prince Hasan was leading the mysterious nobleman, me, through the limestone walls that enclosed his private gardens. The sun was high, baking the stones and making them shine their light in a diffused glare. Fountains trickled, filling the air with a gentle music, and refracting the light into shimmering haloes of colour. The scent of flowers and growing things, of spices and cool water–in every respect Prince Hasan’s garden was a paradise on Earth.
The prince eyed his companion closely, as if my embroidered robes and finery could give some clue to my true identity, this man who would only be known as “the son of the Rose and the Jasmine.” The prince had never heard of such clans before, no tribes by those names. “I’ve never heard those verses before,” said Prince Hasan. “Is that a famous song where you are from?”
I smiled, a wry gesture. “No, indeed,” was all he said and walked on. The two of us passed by the ornamental gardens, the parterres and flowering arrangements climbing trellises and garden walls. Song birds flitted through the branches of the broad-leafed trees. We walked until we reached the kitchen gardens. I bent low to observe a green plant with broad, serrated leaves and crisp yellow flowers. “And this,” I said. “What is it called?”
“I hardly need to tell you,” said Hasan but seeing I was serious he replied. “It’s common mloukhieh. Everyone from the poorest to the richest in my kingdom eats it. It’s been this way since ancient times. How is it that you don’t know what this is?”
“Mloukhieh, from a lowly mouth I would kiss
the one who holds my fate in his hands.
Abandoned and scorned, by the very love I miss,
In disguise I have come to where he stands.”
The prince said, “I was never able to compose or recite poems on the spot like that.” I lowered my eyes, accepting the compliment, and walked on. A bee lazily looped the couple, its buzzing adding to the distant song of the birds.
“My mother had arranged for me to see my bride to be, a woman I had imagined was very different: a stranger, a commoner, with a face full of roses and jasmine. So lively and witty, intelligent and brave… I was so disappointed to see that it was, my cousin who appeared there. I refused the marriage on the spot!” said Prince Hasan.
I stared at Hasan for a long time and then said: “You have not been wise.”
I return to my present life—a girl in Aida refugee camp. No embroidered robes, no noble and mysterious disguise. I am simply Zainab, watching Hasan the Handsome, the Clever.
They have tied Hasan to the front of their jeep, to keep the children from throwing stones. They roll through the camp, under the Key of Return at the gates. I walk behind them, so far, so distant. For all the things that have never been, it was always like this: Hasan and I, drawing close and then parted.
I said: “Will we be equals when we grow up?”
He said: “Only then.”
“When will we grow up?”
“When we are equals.”
Hasan! Hasan, are you finally wise?