The PEN Atlas blog is thrilled to be publishing two new pieces by Adania Shibli. Hovering between memoir, essay and meditation, "Little Girls of Jenin" and "Out of Time" are investigations into the unreal realities of Palestine, the strange place of the border and the complex, bruising state of exile. Later in the week, I'll post an interview with Adania -- if you have questions for her, you can leave them in the comments box on the blog.
Adania Shibli is "the most talked-about writer on the West Bank," says Ahdaf Soueif. Her works have been published in literary magazines in the Middle East and Europe and she has been awarded twice the Young Writer’s Award of Palestine by the A. M. Qattan Foundation. She is the author of two novels: Masas and We Are All Equally Far From Love, both published by Al-Adab in Beirut.
Her writing has been translated into many languages (including French), with English translations of her stories appearing in the anthology Qissat, and in the magazines Words Without Borders, Documenta (where "Out of Time" originally appeared), and Banipal. She contributed an essay to a book on Palestinian artist Emily Jacir.
Adania Shibli is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East London, researching media coverage of the "War on Terror".
"Little Girls of Jenin"
I feel happiness, like a light, dubious pressure on the bones of my chest, while the rest of my body has vanished into languor. I don’t find it foolish, as happiness usually is, but rather, strong and persistent; a happiness that doesn’t doubt itself, not even for a second.
And the reason for this happiness is that I’m going to give a reading in Jenin refugee camp. My happiness is certain that—and because—its source is the desire to put an end to pain; preventing it from going on like that, monopolizing my soul, for some years now, after my first and last visit to Jenin camp in the spring of 2002, even though Jenin itself is the city of my childhood.
As a little girl, I used to accompany my father on his weekly visit there every Friday. I watch the shops and their colorful items dangling from their ceilings. The scene dearest to my heart was watching a shop-owner bringing down one of those items hanging from the ceiling of his shop. With the light-handedness of a magician, while still engaged in a conversation with a client, he’d bring down the ball or the money box from above with the help of a stick that had a hook at its end. And I, the little person down at the other end, used to think until that moment that birds alone could touch those items dangling from Jenin’s sky.
When I grew up, my cities grew up with me, while Jenin remained little, and I didn’t visit it except in transit, on my way from Jerusalem or Ramallah to my village, near Jenin, traveling to visit my family. However, since the year 2000, as a result of closing and blocking the roads and the spread of checkpoints, it has become impossible for Palestinian cars to use that road, so I no longer could take it. And now, in this spring, seven years later, I will take it as a passenger in a German diplomatic car.
I try to recall the sections of that road that are dearest to my eyes. And the choice is very difficult. As a final compromise I choose a section between Nablus and Jenin, where the road while bending right it slopes down. There some almond trees are hiding, overlooking, in turn, vast fields of wheat. But suddenly I’m struck by a filthy fear which I don’t know how it found its way to me- What if those trees are no longer there? Seven years are a very long time, during which thousands of lives were terminated, and thousands of homes were destroyed, and thousands of acres were confiscated, and thousands of trees were uprooted. A slight pain is back, dismantling the pressure in my chest and denying a measure of my happiness. So I cajole a feeling of indifference into brushing aside the feeling of pain and happiness as well. And, clutching at my indifference, I tell myself that those three or four almond trees might still be there, or might not.
I then turn to thinking about what I should wear. A black shirt I love a great deal, given to me as a gift from my brother, and new pants I bought recently, in light brown. Now the shoes. I try to imagine the ground that I’ll step on. The only time I was in the camp the ground consisted of rubble. I remember the shoes I put on during that visit, in the spring of 2002. I hate those shoes immensely. After that visit I threw them away, along with all the destruction they stepped on. I never talk about that visit. I can’t and I wouldn’t and I don’t care to do so or maybe it tires me or ruins me to talk about that or even to write about how I can’t talk about that. Briefly put, I call the whole matter: “Pain.” But I remind myself one more time that I’m going this time to the camp as a guest writer and not in the company of blood-sucking journalists. I choose a pair of elegant, black shoes. But in no time I become the prey of a new fear. What if the road to Jenin is still flanked by destruction. I imagine myself being forced to climb mountains in order to avoid the checkpoints or roadblocks that will stand in my way. I even imagine the bullet that will puncture my body. I assign its place. It will be either in my leg or in my chest. And though I prefer it to be in my leg, I say that if it hits my chest and I die, there’s nothing to it. There’s nothing to loose in this filthy world, except for entering Jenin camp today. Then, in anticipation of all the perils and hardships I imagine standing in my way, I put in my bag a shoe brush and black shoe polish. I want to stand in front of the audience of Jenin camp, while wearing a clean, shining pair of shoes even over my dead body.
We arrive at the camp. I don’t recognize anything in it or in its alleys. The death that prevailed all over it five years ago to the day, was lifted by a quotidian, languid afternoon. Two men sit outside a poultry shop, while a little kid pushes a pink pram into the street. Suddenly I scream loudly as I imagine the wheels of the car we are riding running over him. Death smell still hits my nose. It’s nested forever in this square.
The reading will start shortly in the “Freedom Theater” that has been opened recently in the camp. Young people fill the yard outside the theater. At the entrance I bump into a group of little girls, arms crossed, fury in their eyes. I ask, “What’s wrong, pretty ones?” And they answer that the man at the door wouldn’t let them in. In their furious eyes I suddenly glimpse my childhood in Jenin. They want to go in and I’m the little girl with them, to where the adults, including me, are. I talk to the director of the theater, begging him to let the girls outside be allowed entrance, and he insists, “No”. He says the event isn’t meant for their age group, and so they would only cause a commotion. The girls and I promise him that we would keep the order and would sit quietly in the back of the theater, but he still declines.
I go back to the little girls and promise them, from the bottom of my heart, that I would come back to Jenin just for them, and that we wouldn’t admit any adults. But they keep looking at me with eyes that have no patience nor belief; for how many promises have been showered on them and at their parents and grandparents before. Before I enter the theater I hear them screaming in the direction of the door keeper from a distance, “We shall enter, means we shall!”
They do not know that they have, instead, entered my weary soul and breathed new life into it, true life.
Jenin, spring 2007
"Out of Time" will appear on the blog tomorrow.
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