Bushra al-Maqtari’s ‘A Locked Room for Loss’: An Excerpt from ‘What Have You Left Behind’

This excerpt from Bushra al-Maqtari’s What Have You Left Behind is a companion to our discussion with translator Sawad Hussain: “On Translating Trauma, and What To Do After Reading About Yemen.” It appears here with permission from Fitzcarraldo.

We would like to let readers know, beforehand, that this makes for exceptionally difficult reading.

A LOCKED ROOM FOR LOSS

By Bushra al-Maqtari

Translated by Sawad Hussain

I don’t go to that corner of the house; the kitchen is next to that room. But when I have to go to the kitchen now and then, I don’t stop by that room. It’s been locked for a year now. I quickly walk past it without turning back. Sometimes I think I hear the girls laughing in there, or some movement inside – most of the time, though, I hear nothing. Our first day back at the house, three months after it happened, my husband unlocked the room. ‘Let’s leave it open so you get used to them not being there,’ he said. But it was more than I could bear. I saw their bedroom door open for the first time since that day, and I was terrified. I tiptoed inside. Their things were exactly as they had been – time hadn’t changed a thing: school uniforms still hung on the rack, a pencil on the table, certificates up on the wall, and pictures of them with me hanging in a corner of the room. Dust covered the frames; both of their beds were tidy as before. I slipped out, and locked the room never to open it again.

What I clearly remember about that day is holding both of them by their hands. The children were playing on the street as they always did at that time, and the sun on its way to setting. The way Rawan and Ula were laughing, it was infectious. I’d been waiting for them to come back from school so we could go for our weekly visit to my mother’s. They were looking forward to visiting her at my brother’s place and getting the chance to play with their cousins. Once they’d finished their homework, we headed out. My brother’s house wasn’t far at all. Time flew by and it was four-thirty by the time we left. On the way back home, Rawan and Ula were wrapped up in chatting about school, pulling me into their conversation now and then.

I didn’t hear the shell explode. All I remember is turning behind me to finish what I was saying to them, then seeing them sprawled on the ground. I was in another world, it was like someone was shining a light straight in my eyes. I screamed and heard my own voice echoing in my ears. I was behind frosted glass, voices fighting for space, and then it was as if I was floating on air. But I wasn’t – I was rooted to the spot, standing there looking at my two girls, not able to even take one step towards my brother’s house to get help. I stared at them and wondered when they slipped from my hands. How did I get distracted? [She falls silent.] I don’t know if they let go of my hands or if the explosion snatched them from me. There was less than a step between us. I always ask myself those questions and fail to piece it all together. I remember try- ing to finish what I was saying, then the next thing I knew they were on the ground. I didn’t see how hurt they were, or how there had been a man behind me who’d been hit by the shrapnel and killed on the spot. I wasn’t even aware of my own injury. I stood there, my eyes darting between Ula and Rawan’s bodies, trying to move my feet, to take one, just one step towards them. But my feet had turned to stone. I tried with all my might to walk, and when I looked about me, it seemed that everything was frozen in time. My feet trembled and failed to carry me. Then I caught sight of my son. I remember his face as he made his way out from the smoke left behind by the shell.

I didn’t think of all the strange coincidences that day; the change from our usual routine to visit my mother, us leaving the house late, how tense I had felt for some days. I thought it had something to do with the loneliness I felt after losing my father. He had been killed two months earlier by a sniper – we still don’t know who did it. The phantom of death remained unseen, controlling our lives,without us daring to speak about it.

On our way to the hospital, night began to fall; I gazed at passers-by like a lifeless ghost. The blasts of the shells and rattle of gunfire brought me back to the war that had taken my daughters. I had no more tears, only pain lodged like a rock in my heart. In the hospital hallway, I saw my youngest daughter Ula, and when I started to approach her bed, the doctor took me out of the room telling me, ‘We have to move her to al-Thawra Hospital, where her sister is. We’ve run out of oxygen here.’ I remember my husband’s sobbing lasting through the night, and I didn’t know what had happened. None of them told me Ula was dead. They kept making excuses to keep me from seeing her. My back was bloody, but I didn’t feel the pain of my wounds. I only learnt of my daughter’s death on Friday, two days after her murder.

I didn’t cry; I lost the ability to cry that day. I hung on to hope that my eldest daughter Rawan was still alive in the ICU unit. From behind the glass I’d stare at her end- lessly, chasing away any negative thoughts, telling myself, ‘She’ll live, my girl will live.’ They told me afterwards that she had opened her eyes just before passing on 10 January, four days after her sister. My grief is greater than my ability to face the emptiness left by their absence. I just keep staring into this absence, into the void that re- mains, mushrooming around me. I have no tears left to cry over how much I miss them; they dried up the day of their murder. I tried to get better for my only son and my husband. They were so relieved I had survived; I feel their anxiety for me. When my son wakes up at night, I hear him make his way towards my bed – he stops there and makes sure I’m asleep. In those moments I push down my grief.

I don’t know how other mothers cry. I have no tears left; I have nothing except defeat. I look at the locked room all the time, and think of how I’ll keep it closed to preserve their precious souls forever: their small dreams hanging on the walls, pictures of them scattered here and there. The room is locked, I think of them and challenge myself to pass by. I hear their voices coming from somewhere far away and it gives me the comfort to carry on.

Intizar Radman al-Qabati

At 4.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 6 January 2016, the Houthi- Saleh militia dropped a shell near the Jordanian University in Taiz, where a group of children were playing. Two children were killed instantly: Ula Arif Ali Murshid (10 years old) and Mohammed Waheeb Abdallah (16 years old). Intizar’s other daughter Rawan Arif Ali Murshid (14 years old) was fatally wounded, and died on 10 January 2016, four days after her sister. Intizar was also wounded by the shrapnel. At first, she refused to be recorded or give her testimony; she was in severe shock.