Newly Translated Fiction: Emile Habibi’s ‘At Last the Almond Blossomed’

At Last the Almond Blossomed

By Emile Habibi

Translated by Salma Harland

…………………………….Take me back, spring,

…………………………….To my homeland,

…………………………….Even as a flower

…………………………….– A song by Fairuz

“During the romantic years of my youth, I read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I idolized Sydney Carton, who gave up his life to save the husband of the woman he loved by taking his place in the Bastille and under the blade of the guillotine. 

“But idols rarely stand the test of time, and mine were no exception. They came and went with the seasons and with the greying hairs on my head. The exception to prove the rule was Hugo’s philosopher, the petty self-aggrandizing Gringoire from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When confronted with a similar set of circumstances to Carton’s, and forced to decide between his own life and that of Esmeralda, the beautiful Roma woman, he couldn’t bring himself to make the sacrifice. When asked what attached him so strongly to life, he said, ‘I have the happiness of passing all my days with a man of genius, who is myself, which is very agreeable’.”

“But what about pan-Arabism?”

“You kidding me? Just stop patronizing me, will you? We haven’t seen each other in more than twenty years!”

            Me, kidding him? Mr. M was the one who suspiciously turned up unannounced late one night after twenty years without any contact, begging me to listen to him patiently while going on about Dickens and boyhood heroes. But the reference to pan-Arabism had the desired effect.

            We were close friends throughout our education. Together, we founded the first anti-British underground society in our school, even though we remained the only two members to ever enlist. On reflection, our sole achievement was to turn us both into chronic smokers, a habit that we considered indispensable to covert operations. The day we celebrated the end of secondary school, we hid our tears—like men—behind sunglasses, and we parted with the hope that we might meet again one day.

But after that, our paths diverged. M moved to Jerusalem to attend The Arab College before eventually returning to our birth city, where he still works as an English teacher in the local secondary school.

When the State of Israel was declared, our relationship reached an impasse. Increasingly, he would find ways to avoid me and would rarely even say “hello” when we crossed paths. This rift pained me, until I finally came to terms with it. I cut him out of my life after realizing how much he had changed—like a maiden who avidly read books only to stop reading altogether after marriage, not even touching a sheet of newsprint in the bathroom if it might displease her husband. 

My friend, with whom I used to take great delight in conversing about Khalid ibn al-Walid’s campaigns, Al-Mutanabbi’s elegies, Al-Ma‘arri’s heresies—about pan-Arabism—has married his job. For how could he maintain one in Israel, if not by severing all ties with each and every friend and relative who might be a subverter of the state, even if it were his own brother born of the same father and mother?

Yet, during one of those nights that weighed long and dark upon us following the Six-Day War, he came knocking on my door. He sat before me, following a twenty-year break, and said, “Listen to me until I’m done.” What made him gather his courage and advance—like a lion—so boldly to my doorstep?

“Sydney Carton fell out of the album of my idols as soon as hair started to appear above my upper lip,” Mr. M resumed, “but the title of Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, never ceased to haunt me, to captivate me, to shape my taste all those years. This influence manifested in ways that perplexed me in the beginning, until I gave in. I’ve now come to carry it along with me, out of compassion and affection, like you might go on carrying a charm your mother hung around your neck when you were a child.

“At the onset of this curious influence, I started writing a tale of two cities of my own, about two cities from our homeland: Haifa and Nazareth. I wrote the first chapter, but by then the story had already come to an end, so I abandoned it. Then I decided to specialize in two subjects, English and law, yet I never did. I even tried to compose poetry, in English and in Arabic, but every verse trailed into thin air in either language. And even though I have only one son, I’ve always wished from the bottom of my heart for two. You only have to ask your son—I teach him at the secondary school—and he’ll tell you that I always give them two books to read, two poets to study, two literatures to compare, and two-hour examinations. Many other things in my life, without delving into details, demonstrate the influence of this duality, this magical title, A Tale of Two Cities, on my thinking and personal preferences. You must have noticed this yourself when we were childhood friends. Don’t you remember you used to call me Abu al-Dhaqnayn?”

“Well, you were big, and you had plump cheeks—”

“And yet I only had one chin, just like everyone else. I got this nickname because I used to say, ‘I don’t care whether a person’s chin is rough or striped’—that is, whether one is male or female, two chins, A Tale of Two Cities, two. This is my duality, the charm that I’ve had around my neck since childhood.”

He had always been an organized person, this old friend of mine, be it in the way he dressed or talked. He’s also talkative, but never ceremonious. That is why I let him talk as much as he pleased, just like in the old days, and even more because his abrupt visit surprised me. I wanted to figure out the reason behind it, and I thought I was starting to. I thought, It must be one of two things—either that the war has pricked his conscience, which led him to visit me now, after twenty long years, to account for his absence by that duality, or that someone has sent him to me for some reason, thus trying to renew our friendship by speaking of some magical duality. I decided to be cautious and see what he had to say.

He said, “This is why I wasn’t in total disbelief when we drove up the winding road of Al-Lubban Ascent for the first time since the June War, on our way from Nablus to Ramallah.

“A soft gasp escaped me as we made it past the first turn. My lips quivered and so did my hand on the stirring wheel. ‘Twenty years!’ I cried out to my colleagues, who were with me in the car, ‘I’ve been dreaming about this winding road for twenty long years. This ascent, it never faded from my memory, not even for a day. I remember every turn, every twist. There are four of them, count them. And these lofty mountains guarding the green plains. There are ten of them, count them. And this fresh air and its all-pervading redolence, I know it. I’m breathing in the fragrance that has been with me my entire life. This place is mine!’”

Only then did I understand why my forlorn friend came by after twenty years of absence. Time has been unkind to us, my childhood friend, I thought. Pardon my doubts. I almost sprung up to embrace him, but he did not give me a chance.

For he went on, “After much insistence on my part, my colleagues finally agreed that we stop the car at the fourth, and last, turn. They stepped out with me to breathe in the air and take in as much as we could of the view of the mountains, the graceful plains, and the almond trees crowning both. (Wouldn’t it have been more befitting if it was called the Almond Meanders?) Something inside me was calling me to prostrate before it all; something in my eyes melted into tears. I felt like an observer compelled by the awe of a wonderous event: I was reliving my past youth, the prime of my life; I wasn’t simply watching some distant memories, I was reliving them in flesh and blood, feeling their youthful vigor in my veins, mixed with the smell of dried figs and freshly baked taboon bread. 

“But my friends didn’t give me long. Soon they brought me down from the heights of my meanderings to the rock bottom of reality. One wanted to keep on moving, since our permits didn’t indicate that we could stop by Al-Lubban Ascent. Another cracked jokes about my memories of this ascent, saying that I’d probably pissed by one of its meanderings twenty years ago. The rest went about more of the same banter, the kind that us teachers often engage in when we aren’t with our students or wives.

“I was lost in reverie all the way from Ramallah, through Jerusalem, and to Bethlehem, and then on our way back, dwelling on that magical encounter, praying to the muse of memory to remind me of the details of that one incident that had happened right there, at that ascent, in my youth, that caused me to stand there, wonderstruck and unable to leave. 

“But to no avail. On our way back, we drove down without making a second stop. Upon noticing my sulky disposition, a friend laid a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It just looks like Al-Abhariyya Ascent, on the way from Nazareth to Haifa. Maybe you just got mixed up.’

“And like that, he took a heavy weight off my chest.

“I’ve been commuting to Haifa twice a week for the past twenty years, more or less, where I teach some extra classes in one of its secondary schools. And I did pass through Al-Abhariyya Ascent every single time. I was certain that the two don’t even bear the faintest resemblance to one another, yet my colleague hit the nail on the head with this simple explanation. I know it struck a chord with me, since I have a weak spot for the tale of the two cities.”

What a piece of work is man! Would he rather mar whole memories just because he can’t bear their weight? I thought somebody with a dead conscience would rather let his heart turn to stone so as not to feel its prick, but reality proves otherwise. There he was, living proof that if man fails to silence his conscience, he butchers his memory altogether. Why did he even come to tell me this story, then?

 My old friend said, “If you recall, I had many friends and contacts from my school days in the West Bank—professors, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, politicians, ministers, minister wannabes. I’ve visited them all. We pieced together our old memories and friendships so that they’ve become a cherished part of my life again, just like they used to be twenty years ago. And now, not a week passes without us visiting each other. I was mistaken to assume that they’d forgotten about me, that they’d grown ashamed of me, that they’d cut us from their tree the same way a tree is pruned of its dry branches to encourage growth and originate new buds.”

“But we are part of the budding branches of life.”

“True. My stomach was in knots when I went to visit them, uncertain how they’d greet me. To my surprise, I found that they harbored unexpected nostalgia for our good old friendship, and that they’d left no stone unturned for a piece of news about us. As it turns out, they thought of us more highly than we thought of ourselves. I’d intended to hide the fact that I’d been withdrawn in my own introverted bubble for twenty years, yet not only did they know about this, but they also thoroughly justified it. They held me in such high esteem, exalting me to higher grounds, and so I rose, above and beyond the strokes of adversity. 

“And this is how they’ve become a cherished part of my life again, just like in the life I once knew twenty years ago.”

“And did you come to visit me tonight, with your sky-high stature, in the open?”

“Do I dare do otherwise?”

“Is this why you came to visit now?”

“No—there’s this one question that troubles me. I told you that I wasn’t too surprised that Al-Lubban Ascent and its winding road stirred my emotions. I thought my feelings were sparked by the charm that has traveled with me my entire life, the duality of my logic and thinking, and my familiarity with another ascent, Al-Abhariyya’s.

“I’ve since driven up and down Al-Lubban tens of times. And whenever I was overwhelmed by that vague melancholic euphoria, I’d return to that rationale and clear my conscience. 

“Until one noon last Shevat. I was on my way back home with my wife and son, after visiting some friends in the Old City in Jerusalem, when we drove down to Al-Lubban Meanders. The almond blossoms had just started to bloom, its red and white hues entwining in a spring euphoria. All ten mountains were swaying in ecstasy.”

“And in what language did you compose this poem?”

“In the language of my eyes and heart. And you’ll listen to me until I’m done.

“My wife kept on nagging me to pull over so she could pluck some sprigs of flowering almond to take home with us. But I didn’t yield to her wishes until we’d reached the last turn, where an ancient almond tree has sturdily sat since as long as I remember. 

“We got out of the car and plucked four sprigs. They smiled at us, and we smiled back.

“And when my wife asked whether an almond sprig planted in the earth grows into a tree, my heart sank with a sudden remembrance. 

“Do you recall, when we were young, we had a friend who fell in love with a girl from Jerusalem or Bethlehem, from there, and we fell in love with his love story?”

“We all fell in love at one point, and we were happy for him.”

“But this particular friend, his love was far more romantic than ours. And there was a story behind it. One day, we were on a trip somewhere, and we stopped by that tree that sits at the beginning of Al-Lubban Ascent. And there was a house. And chicken and cows. The house still sits there, but I can no longer see any chicken or cows. We were asking the residents for some water when we saw some girls on a trip from Jerusalem plucking some sprigs of flowering almond. One of them was our friend’s sweetheart.”

“And what happened after that?”

“I recall this one charming anecdote about him, but I have no idea how I came to know it. His sweetheart plucked two sprigs from a branch, giving him one and keeping the other. And they promised they’d both keep their sprigs until they met again next spring, when the almond tree blossoms, and he’d bring his family along and ask hers for her hand in marriage. Any idea how their story ended?”

“Why do you care about them so much?”

“I don’t know. Some inner spur is driving me to breathe new life into my old friendships, all of them, as if it wants me to rebuild all the bridges that once connected my present with my past so they’d never fall apart again. The past was full of hope. It received everyone and everything with open arms. It was pure, uninhibited, like a child’s gaze. Today, I’m clutching at its straws to save myself from the present. Do you think I’m grasping at straws like a drowning man?”

“Then what happened?”

“Since the June war, I’ve been wandering about like a madman in search of my old friends. Each time I found one, I burned with desire to meet with the rest. I’ve been looking for that particular friend of ours ever since I came to remember his story, but none of my friends seems to recall it. This spur has landed me in trouble, since whenever I met with any of them, I always press to know how they came to know their own wives!

“You’re the only one left I haven’t asked about that old friend of ours. This is why I came to visit. Would you just remember him and lay my mind to rest?”

“You’ve always been strange, my friend. And yet you’ve never been as strange as you are tonight. Why are you dying to know about a side story?”

“A side story, you say. I’ve come to realize that I only withdrew into my own introverted bubble and grew weary when I cut my ties with my past. And what is the past? It isn’t a period of time. It’s you, him, I, and all our friends. Together we drew up that past, each adding their own colors, giving it its youthful zeal that welcomed the world with open arms. I won’t be able to reconnect with that past unless I assemble all the individual pieces and colors to form a complete picture. And this friend of ours, his beautiful love story, is the missing smile that sits at the heart of that picture. What kind of past remains without him? What remains of La Gioconda if you take away her smile? His story, whether it had a happy ending where the lovers met and consummated their love, or a tragic one where they broke up, is the most honest representation of our past. Just like spring, too often fleeting as it’s full of bloom. I want it to return, like spring does after every winter.”

“I see you’re alluding again to the tale of the two cities, the two sprigs, the lover and his beloved, the happy and sad endings. Life isn’t made of parallel lines, but of interwoven webs that intersect and entwine. Did you ever consider the possibility that your imagination, provoked by a euphoric moment of spring-induced nostalgia to some lofty mountains, might have made up this entire story?”

“It did breathe new life into my imagination, and I don’t want it to slip into slumber again. This is why I’m looking for that friend of mine. Am I right to think you don’t remember him?”

“Let me try. I’ll let you know if I do.”

Mr. M left, despondent and woeful as I had never seen him before. And I stayed where I was, despondent and woeful like I’d never been in my life. I had to stay put for a few minutes after he went out, forcing myself not to go after him and shake his memory out of its ashes. But can the dead ever come back to life?

How can I not remember the beautiful love story, whose protagonist Mr. M is yearning to remember? Of course I do, and I have lost count of the number of times I wondered how a person could erase such love from his heart.

After the June War, I visited the good faithful lady, either in Jerusalem or Bethlehem—there, like Mr. M says. She showed me the dry sprig, which she still keeps. It almost flared up with red and white when she told me the story behind it. She told me he came to visit with some of his colleagues one day, where he had a talkative, cheerful disposition most of the time. And that she showed them to her study, to see her collection of books and antiques. Upon noticing the dry sprig, he asked what it was. She told him that the almond blossoms in Shevat, but to her surprise, he went on to talk about apricots and the harvest of Apricot Fridays.

But now that Mr. M visited me, and after I had listened to all that he had to say, it all dawned on me. I do believe that Mr. M is honest about his forgetfulness and his desire to remember. For some subconscious reason, he has indeed forgotten that this beautiful love story is his, and that he is the smile that brightened up our youth. Should I remind him and lay his mind to rest like he urged me to? But why should I lay his mind to rest? Will this even give him any peace at all?

If he is of a higher standing now, like he said he is, then he will find out about this story, and he will read it. Will he then be able to remember? Will he put together his fragmented past and save himself from a fragmented present?

At last, the almond blossomed and we met. Spring was smiling, and fate chuckled with glee.

*

Emile Habibi was a prominent Arab writer and novelist. His 1974 novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist is frequently listed as one of the greatest Arab novels ever written and has been translated into numerous languages. Habibi was buried in Haifa as he requested in his will, with the words “I remain in Haifa” inscribed on his headstone.

Salma Harland (salmaharland.com) is a professional translator who works between Arabic and English and a translation editor in The Oxford Anthology of Translation (OAT). She has been formally studying both languages since 1998 and translation since 2008, most notably at the American University in Cairo and the University of Sussex.

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