“We were…just leaving behind Eid al-Fitr,” Egyptian novelist and poet Omar Hazek wrote in one of his open letters from prison. “It is the hardest stretch of time for any prisoner, and only those who have experienced prison know what it means to spend the holidays far from family and loved ones in those filthy cells filled with insects, stifling humidity, and impoverished prisoners”:
Hazek was pardoned shortly before his two-year sentence was over. But this Eid al-Fitr, Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji remains in prison on his three-year sentence; Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh remains in prison in Saudi Arabia, serving his eight-year, 800-lash sentence; Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour remains under house arrest in a city not her own, awaiting her next court date, kept from family. There are, of course, others.
In remembrance of everyone who is and will be kept apart from family this Eid al-Fitr, a brief excerpt from Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief, trans. Ibrahim Muhawi, published by Archipelago:
For several long months you have not visited your mother and father and brothers in a village that is no more than an hour’s distance away. This time you make a real effort to choose your words in the letter you send to the police. You write, “Please take into consideration the sincerity of the human feelings that lie behind this request and my hope that you will not see in them anything that goes against the careful efforts you exert in guarding the security of the State and in fulfilling the requirements for defending the safety of the public. In seeking your assent for a permit to visit my family during the holidays I am hoping that you will see the point that the security of the State does not in the slightest degree contradict human feelings.”
Your friends leave the city, and you remain behind to drink your coffee and feel sad all alone. There will be family reunions everywhere tomorrow, and you have no right to go to anyone’s home. You remain by yourself.
The solution lies in the sea. Early in the morning you head for the beach by yourself to put out your fire in the blue water. The wave drags you away and does not carry you back. You have to return on your own. In solitude you lie on the warm sand in the open air. Why does the sun squander so much of its energy, and why do the waves break? There is a huge amount of sun, a huge amount of sand, and a huge amount of water. All around you people speak a language you understand, but your sadness and your loneliness and your alienation intensify. A desire possesses you to describe the sea to your girlfriend, but you feel lonely. With reason, or without, they curse your people, yet they enjoy what your people have left behind. Even while swimming or joking or kissing they damn your people. Is the sea not capable of granting them a single moment of innocence and affection so that they can forget about you for a moment? How can human beings feel hate while they are stretched out on the sand? Saturated with sun, salt, and longing you head for the beach snack bar. You drink a beer and whistle a sad song, and all eyes turn to you. You busy yourself with lighting a cigarette that has no taste, and you buy an ear of corn and eat it all by yourself. You wish to be able to spend the whole day at the beach in order to forget that it’s a feast day and your family is waiting for you. But the time of your daily appointment at the police station is approaching and you remember all that is happening to you. And in the blink of an eye the color of noon, the sea and sky turn even more blue. Then you leave.
At the entrance to the police station your younger brother is waiting. “Hurry up!” he says. “Prove you exist quickly. Your mother is waiting for you in your room.” You forget your pen and paper and hasten back, short of breath. Your mother has refused to eat the holiday meal without you and has come to see you, bringing the food with her from the village, even the coffee and the straw-basket tray full of bread. She has even brought olive oil, salt, and condiments.
When your mother bids you farewell in the evening, you close the door behind her. You cannot accompany her even to the street because the sun has set, and the State of Israel does not allow you to leave the house after sunset, even if the reason is to say goodbye to your mother. On this day of celebration, you feel your loneliness once more. You sit in an ancient chair, and you listen to a concerto by Tchaikovsky, and all of a sudden you start crying as you had never cried when you were a child.
For many years you have been carrying these tears that are pouring down now. Dear mother, I’m still a child! I want to carry my sorrows and run with them to your bosom. I want to close the distance so you can hold me while I cry.
All of a sudden your neighbor calls out to you, to let you know your mother is still standing at the door. You open it, and fulfill your wish of crying in her arms.