translated from the Arabic by Alice Guthrie
Fiction from NER 42.3 (2021)
on’t ask me if I was planning to swim across the sea. The only water I know—at least, the only water I am really certain of knowing—is the uterine fluid I shed on arrival, the sweat that pours in the blistering heat of summer, the sporadic spurting urine cutting itself a path, the sediment seeping out of the tap once a week known as “council water” . . .
. . . and the sea in school textbook pictures. It’s dry and austere, and I can scribble all over it. There’s also the Dead Sea, so salty that it doesn’t even feel like liquid, and the sea at the crowded public beach in Aqaba, where the women plunge in in their hijabs and baggy clothes, immediately turning into giant black jellyfish.
What other water is there? There’s the broken neighborhood pipe making a temporary flood that children play in, and the puddles pooling in the vacant roadside plots after a heavy rain, the taxi drivers lining up beside them to wash their cars. There are fountains in public squares that work for just a few weeks before neglect allows algae and weeds to take over and reign supreme, only to die back in turn when the water runs dry and the vessel that once contained it is transformed into a rubbish dump . . .
. . . and the pool at Sports City. I saw it once, from the top of the wall, when I tried to sneak in without paying (where would I have got hold of fifteen dinars, plus a club member to invite me in?). My attempt failed, ending abruptly with the appearance of the security guards. I fled unperturbed, armed with the indelible images I had managed to snatch of the many young women in swimwear, images that stayed with me for a long time. I would summon them up at night, until eventually they faded from my memory, replaced by others. There was no public pool at Sports City. The only area people like me were allowed to access was outside of it: the swath of trees that extended from the outside wall of the club towards the inner sanctum itself. I used to go there every weekend, not to swim, but to get the kids to run off and play and let me rest my head from their endless cruelties—and the worries that grew as they grew—and stretch out on a lounger beside a hookah and their mother, who would chat to her neighbor, giving my head a rest from her, too.
The only time I tried a swimming pool was at the Union of Professional Associations Complex, where there were men’s days and women’s days, and verily it is by turns that the days are apportioned unto people, as you well know—you win some you lose some.
“Life’s a cucumber,” as my uncle used to say. “One day it’s in your hand and the next day it’s up your bum.” He was certainly dealt his fair share of cucumbers, and he died. In those days I had a job—the cucumber was in my hand—and I paid no attention to my uncle’s weird sayings. Anyway, whatever, let’s get back to our subject. At the Union of Professional Associations Complex swimming pool I got into the water and I didn’t swim: my luck was cucumber of the second kind. I felt revolted at the sight of that place jam-packed with people striding around in white underwear hoisted right up over their navels. I won’t lie to you, I was just like them—I myself was wearing white underwear pulled up above my bellybutton—and when I got out of the kids’ pool (where I could be sure, beyond any doubt, that I was in my depth, as I couldn’t swim, and as for the smell in there, I will spare you that description) my genitals—sorry if this is too much information—were clearly revealed through the cloth clinging to my crotch. I left, never to be seen again.
Maybe that’s why I stand in fear before this sea, this extended expanse where deliverance is to be found—salvation lying over there, someplace I can’t make out, even though you showed me in what direction it lay. Lesbos, you said, and the word meant nothing to me. Europe, you said, freedom, pressing your point, a life of dignity, elaborating, but I’m still thinking about the kids, the kids I left behind and the kids scattered on the shore in front of me here, kids and their parents, kids who will set sail with us. They look like my kids. It was the right decision not to bring them. There’s no point in their witnessing this torment, and no point in their comparing the rock and the hard place, like I do, because the rock and the hard place have merged into one now, they’ve united to form a fist. A fist punching us from one coast to another, from one fear to another, from one death to another, and I can’t swim, as I told you, but I’ll set sail in a boat that hardly separates us from the sea underneath it, a mere inflated rubber rug, like I’ve seen on TV. If it goes down between two waves it will disappear and the jumble of heads on it will pop up like floating corks, then some bodies for the heads might reappear, if the waves send Sindbad’s flying dinghy back upwards again.
I bought a life jacket, don’t worry. A safety device. But what safety awaits us if
we return to the same shore from which we set out? And also, I have heard a lot about
people drowning with a life jacket on—what a laughable matter, really; the greatest tragedies are funny, sometimes—and the force of my pathological obsession with swimming and drowning has driven me to look deeply into this phenomenon, online. You could say that I have become an expert on the causes: losing consciousness whilst floating face down; losing your body heat in the cold water; panic making you flail your limbs until you lose your strength. Humans drown quicker in sweet water than in salt water. The thighs can be drawn up towards the trunk by bending the legs, to conserve body heat. A drowned body regains buoyancy quicker in warmer water, in a couple of days or so. In colder water it can take weeks.
Then I read about the unnamed drowned who lost their papers, their bodies peeling swelling up being pecked at and picked apart by the creatures of the sea, diced by ship engines, until identifying them would be like scrutinizing a piece of bread that has been fought over by many hands. I know, it’s a weird simile, perhaps it’s the hunger putting words in my mouth.
But check out my recipe for not letting the piece of bread get lost: I have tattooed myself with my full name and date of birth, my wife’s phone number, my village, and the province. As for the country, I kicked it to the curb, it was the least I could do after it threw me to the dogs. I tattooed all of it twice, as a precaution—on the back of my shoulder, here, and over my heart, here—so that I would not become an unidentified corpse. A corpse with a name and address is always better than a corpse no one knows anything about, don’t you think? They will be really surprised when they discover that I am not from Syria. But what does it matter? I wasn’t really lying that much when I said I was from Syria, because actually we are all from the original Syria, that’s how it was before colonialism. And now here we are, reclaiming the region, smashing open its borders in the journey of refuge, upon this sea, in this boat of ours, where boundless possibilities are ahead of us—die, or survive. Look how united we are now under the banner of refuge: men, women, and children; Syrians, Iraqis, and Palestinians; Algerians, Afghanis, and Nigerians; Arabs and Kurds and Amazighi and Africans and me—the only Jordanian. We can devote ourselves to killing each other later on.
Do you have any money with you? I’m broke. The smugglers empty your pockets of the last coin. They bleed you dry, then keep on sucking until you’re brittle as kindling. And the Governments of Freedom (didn’t you use the word “freedom” just a little while ago?) guarantee booming business for the smugglers, by ensuring the route gets more and more difficult. Walls and razor-wire and police. All of that jacks up the prices, but the smugglers’ profits are not affected—we’re the ones who die on the way, or turn into killers. It’s as if they’re all working as a coordinated team, those bastards.
The boat is moving. Who would believe that a small rubber dinghy could carry this many human beings? The key is for everyone to remain in their place, so that the weight is equally distributed across the space—and for no one to sit on the edge. It’s difficult for a rubber boat to capsize, that’s what the websites I consulted informed me. With this many people, a big wave could throw some of us into the sea, but the Aegean is not usually rough. I looked into that online, too.
Look, look, that bit of the boat is deflating. It looks like it has a leak, maybe a sharp piece of wood punctured it. Those pimps gave us the worst boat. They knew it was going out and not coming back, they won’t be using it again. It’s better if we die than for them to see our faces again; we would come back destitute, and more insistent than ever. It’s in their interests that we die. In fact it’s in everyone’s interests—it would relieve our countries of the burden of our ragged existence and our troublesome return, the Countries of Freedom prefer us on the sea bed than on their land, the smugglers have taken what they wanted from us, and that’s the end of it.
It’s deflating even more. Hey everybody, no one move. The dinghy has many separate air chambers, it can still float even if one of them is punctured. Everyone, stay together in the center . . . Ohhhh, no one is listening, the boat is taking on water. It seems like it’s punctured in more than one place. We are going down for real. This will be my first time swimming in the sea!
Remember the info I gave you, and let’s hope some Greek fishermen pick us up. If the Turkish coast guard comes I’ll turn face down into the water. Don’t worry about me. After holding my breath for a while I’ll involuntarily take an inhalation of water, making my throat contract to keep the water out of my lungs, then automatically open again to expel air as carbon dioxide will be building up in my blood by now and making my body demand oxygen, but finding only seawater my respiratory system will be put under such stress that its muscles will begin to contract and relax in successive spasms without understanding where the air has gone, until my lungs fill with water and I die. The whole thing will take less than five minutes. Better than a lifetime of torture. Didn’t I tell you? I’ve researched this subject thoroughly.