Selected and introduced by Nour Jajuli
What follows are the opening pages to Akram Musallam’s powerful novella, A Girl from Shatila. In the aftermath of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, we walk through the memories of a survivor, the Mermaid, and follow her journey in Hamburg, Germany recollecting the pieces of her past. More characters emerge, revealing a map of Palestinian tragedy and interconnected fates.
By Akram Musallam
Translated by Nour Jaljuli
Opening Scene: A dark stage with no audience or actors. The only audible sound is that of a piercing female shriek that comes from behind a sky-blue curtain:
“Don’t move,” the Western-looking photographer said. He spoke with a foreign, yet intelligible accent. A fly was trying to land on my sweaty forehead, right below my sticky bangs.
The fly was very heavy. Corpse flies are like that. I’ve come to know this well.
I wanted to move my hand to brush the fly away. But the photographer’s insistence that I not move overpowered my instinct to brush it away. I listened to the photographer and sat still, so the fly remained on my forehead, appearing in the photo.
Corpse flies are rude and dull. Their buzz is strong, sharp, and foul. And they often appear in the photos of massacres.
I don’t know if the photographer saw the fly through his lens and chose to keep it in the shot out of necessity, asking me not to move so the insect wouldn’t fly away. Or maybe he didn’t see it. I don’t know, and perhaps I never will.
I know that corpse flies are filthy. They must be banished because they creep into the noses of the dead and lay their eggs there. I’ve come to know this well.
I was sitting on the doorstep. The step was a little too high. The thick wooden door was open. The corpse of my mother and the corpses of my sisters and brothers lay behind me in the yard. The photographer had to go back into the yard across from ours. He wanted to stand back far enough to get all of us in the photo. The step is right by the road, and the Camp’s alleyways are very narrow.
It is difficult to take a group photo in the alleys of a refugee camp where a massacre has just taken place. To do so, you have to go through the neighbor’s yard. I’ve come to know this well.
My memory of him is vivid; a one-eyed war photographer. An oval white medical patch covered his missing eye. The patch looked rough. As soon as he took the photo, there were dreadful screams. A new pile of corpses had been discovered. He stumbled, looking first at me and then in the direction of the noise, hesitating, as if he didn’t want to leave me. He moved closer and gave me the camera.
I now had a real camera, not a toy one, but I had lost my family. When you have a fancy camera but no family to take photos of, your agony grows deeper.
It felt as though he were giving me his eye, a third eye to cry with. He gave me his only eye and left himself blind. I hugged the camera and cried and cried as he turned to go, feeling for the path in front of him, stumbling over the corpses. I didn’t even know his name.
In times of peace, the dead one sleeps alone, surrounded by many crying people. In massacres, the many dead sleep while the lone survivor stands amidst them crying, in need of a third eye to weep for them all. I’ve come to know this well.
Humans are strange. Some will give you their only eye, while others will reap the souls of your entire family.
Behind me in the photo all the corpses appear, but the camera is extremely stupid. The most beautiful thing about my mother was her smell, but it turned rancid after that night. When a mother dies, her smell dies, too. It becomes rotten. Cameras can’t capture such horrific things. I’ve come to know this well.
That was our first family photo, I think, and no doubt our last.
A color photo.
My aunt kept the photo in a box way up high because I’d tried to rip it, or at least scratch the fly off from underneath my bangs. The fly bothered me. My aunt was confused and said she couldn’t see any flies, even though the fly was clearly there. She told me that when people are faced with difficult experiences, they might see things that are not there. But I say that people might stop seeing the things that are in front of them when they go through difficult experiences. I’ve come to know this well.
I can still hear the photographer’s voice, as if he’s now telling me in a strange yet intelligible accent “don’t move, don’t move.” I was actually still. I defeated my urge to brush off the fly, but he was the one who was shaking and trembling. I was small; a six-year-old girl. I felt that if I told him I was still, that it is you who are in fact trembling, my voice wouldn’t carry. The voices of small children in large massacres don’t carry. I’ve come to know this well.
The Mermaid of Alster Lake
If the German Frau hadn’t died, and instead had looked down from her balcony, she would have seen the Young Gentleman who caused her death. She would have recognized him because he hadn’t changed out of his maroon shirt and olive-green cargo pants.
A wide street separated the Frau’s building from the same corner of the lake that had captivated the young man’s attention during his stay in Hamburg.
He didn’t know that the Frau he had met yesterday was dead, and what he had said in front of her, and to her, had perhaps caused her death in some way or another. He didn’t know she lived by the corner he liked, and he didn’t even know her name. But her features and the short conversation they had shared were imprinted in his memory.
After their talk, she went back to her apartment, where she then ceased to breathe forever.
If the Frau hadn’t died and instead had looked down from her balcony, she would have seen him crouching every now and then, tossing potato chips onto the surface of the water as a raft of ducklings gathered around. He crumbled the pieces with his fingertips while she gripped the remote control with her stiffening fingers, her extinguished eyes staring at the muted television screen. At the moment of her death, her channel of choice was ARTE. The channel continued to display its usual programs, as if no death had taken place.
The dead Frau was sitting on a wide-backed bamboo chair next to a shorter grass-green sofa. She used to alternate between the two chairs as a kind of change, believing it would benefit her spine.
The Young Gentleman was sitting on a plastic bag on the ground. The sun was about to set. September evenings grow cold in Hamburg. The warmth of the day had fooled him, and he wished he had brought a cardigan as the beautiful scene enticed him to stay; the happy shrieks coming from tourist boats, an overlapping of music playing from afar, people running around the lake, and red double-decker Hamburg Tour buses laden with tourists peeking their eager heads out to take photos of everything.
An attractive girl appeared to the left of the Young Gentleman. He hadn’t noticed her arrival. To him, she seemed as if she were a mermaid the lake had produced, sitting on a concrete bench for two that he had not seen earlier.
The girl’s splendid body and the curve of her waist mimicked a mythological painting of lounging mermaids; her legs bent underneath her to one side, her torso was tilted slightly to the back, while her eyes stared off into the distance.
The young man decided to act on impulse and invade the girl’s world. He emptied the remains of the chip bag onto the water’s surface, the ducks rushing to collect what he’d scattered. He got to his feet, grabbing the bag he was sitting on, and walked to the trash can near her bench to dispose of the empty plastic bag, creating an intentional disruption. But his movements didn’t catch her attention.
So he asked her, in English, “Excuse me, what do they call this lake?”
She turned her head slightly, eyes blazing with confidence, looking into the center of his inquisitive eyes. “Alster. It’s called Alster.”
“You’re Arab, then.”
“Palestinian from where?”
He was dumbfounded by her answer. To feel drawn to a girl in Hamburg, who seemed like a mermaid, only then to be slapped by the name of a massacre.
He fell silent. He quickly calculated that they were of the same generation, which meant she might have been there. He hadn’t been there. But there had come to him and lived with him. The timing of the massacre coincided with the arrival of the first television to his home. He had been six years old, and his shocked father stood deliberately between him and the screen. The father’s caution, however, didn’t succeed in curbing the son’s curiosity. He saw the bloated corpses clearly. He saw piles of dead people and heard the screams of the bereaved.
The television was black and white, but the redness bled through.
The massacre came to his house in the form of pictures on a screen, and now here came a body from the massacre to surprise him on the shore of a lake. A body, which at first seemed brimming with life, suddenly became an omen of death.
“I’m from Ramallah,” he said, and then he sat beside her on the wood-backed concrete bench after she shifted her posture so they could both fit.
She gave him a reassuring but tepid welcome.
“What brings you to Hamburg?” she asked.
“Bin Laden,” he answered jokingly.
Indifference appeared on the visible side of her face. He sensed from her silence that his joke hadn’t landed. After the attack on the twin towers in New York, bringing up Bin Laden’s name could cause a lot of trouble, especially in Hamburg. Or perhaps his joke made him sound pompous, and she chose not to collude with his pompousness.
When he asked her about what had brought her to Hamburg, she reciprocated his joke, replying that “Madame Laden” had sent her, improvising a nickname for her aunt at the Camp.
She sensed his slight shivering from the cold and casually offered to share the long olive-green shawl covering her shoulders, to which he didn’t object. There he was, enveloped in a single shawl with a body from a massacre.
If the Frau hadn’t died, and had watched the scene from her balcony, she would have noticed the Young Gentleman’s back enveloped in an olive-green shawl with a girl who had appeared suddenly. Perhaps she would have been surprised at the rapid progression of events. If she had had playfulness left in her heart, she would have imagined a more scandalous ending to this meeting, but she was deeply dead.
The young man’s glances towards the Mermaid’s profile allowed him to absorb the details of her features: her elliptical face, the plumpness of her lips, the roundness of her black doe-eyes, her pale olive complexion, her medusa hair.
He wished he was facing her. There was a distance in sitting side by side, and it disrupted their communication.
But despite their lack of contact, he felt the warmth of her body embracing his own warmth underneath the shawl.
He tried to overcome his daze, to sound natural.
He told her he hadn’t noticed her arrival, that when he saw her, he had thought she was a mermaid produced by the lake.
She turned her entire face toward him, revealing the remains of a long irregular scar on the invisible half of her face.
Her biggest fear was realized when someone met the unharmed part of her face and complimented her beauty—then these compliments quickly dwindled once faced by her other half. It happened time and again, and it pained her, so she grew accustomed to voluntarily revealing her wound, especially before her reconstructive surgery.
The remains of the repaired scar didn’t detract from her beauty, nor did they shock the Young Gentleman.
Addicted to assumptions as he was, he assumed the scar to be a remnant of the massacre. He didn’t know how to start the conversation or how to end it. She helped him by asking why he was in Hamburg and what Bin Laden had to do with it.
He told her he was a graduate student in Cultural Studies at Birzeit University participating in an academic exchange program, and that many similar projects had emerged after the September 11 attacks. The attacks had fueled the West’s curiosity to know more about the “country of origin.”
“Perhaps this curious quest would’ve worked out better if they’d invited those who are from Bin Laden’s culture and not a cultural studies student. Oh, and don’t forget the Americans! No one knows as much as they do,” she said, her tone sarcastic.
Her remarks made it clear that he wasn’t dealing with an easy person. Nothing she did made him assume otherwise.
What had first seemed to him like a mermaid, unfolded into a massacre, then into a wounded body.
Had he known that only a few meters away from him a dead old woman was sitting with her back turned to the lake, staring at a screen, and that her death was linked to him, the circle of ill-omens around him would have been complete.
He told the girl things about himself. He displayed his academic excellence, which had granted him a semi-free education and guaranteed his place on this exchange. He delved into his self-made success and how he’d worked until recently as a security guard for a new car dealership in Ramallah. But he would soon discover that the girl was more well-versed in her own experience than he was, describing it with a delectable offhandedness. While he turned every conversation into what sounded like a cultural studies lecture, she spoke of her loss with a simplicity that only added to her depth. This was evident to him when he asked about her job, and she told him she was working as a “camel’s leg.”
This was not a joke; it was her job title. Coincidence had led her to meet a few young Moroccans who had immigrated before her and founded a band called (Art-East). The Mermaid thought that the band’s connection to art was as humble as its connection to the East, but it had at least allowed her a suitable work opportunity at that stage in her life. Despite graduating with a degree in media and being an arduous follower of all theater-related matters, she needed space to think about her life before determining her destination.
The band played melodies on oud and tablah, while the Mermaid’s role was confined to a section called “the Camel’s Show.”
The founders of the band had designed, at some stage of their work, a life-sized camel, with a fabric exterior and an interior wooden frame.
Two people hid underneath the fabric while carrying the frame. When they received the cue to begin, they walked out from under a curtain to the beat of oriental music, imitating the gentle run of a camel as it moved its head right and left using short strings and spools. Bright wool tassels and small brass bells danced on the camel’s body. The Mermaid took her place underneath the frame in the legs. At the end of the show, she sat on the floor in tandem with the man in the front at the arms, to imitate the sitting of a camel. They would stand up with the camel afterwards and bow its head, as if it were greeting the enthusiastically applauding audience.
A truly strange occupation, incomparable to that of a security guard at a car dealership.
The cold Hamburg night and the flow of the conversation drew their bodies closer. He felt her warmth beneath the shawl, although a warmth made dubious by virtue of the massacre.
She had no shows tomorrow. She suggested that he come in the morning to the same spot where she spent most of her evenings and mornings on her days off, so they could set out together for lunch. She wanted to introduce him to a special kind of restaurant that would benefit him greatly, as it would allow him to meet people and listen to them directly, away from what she called “official targeted programs.”
He eagerly agreed. He had no commitments and was extremely curious about her in particular, and also the massacre that haunted him. He had consumed even the smallest scraps written about the massacre. The memory of his father’s large body blocking the scene of corpses on the small screen remained etched in his mind as if it had happened the day before.
And now he was stuck with her. She had distorted his perception of himself, which he had always measured by his academic excellence. But it had failed him in their conversation. He hoped to find an opportunity to repair the image he had of himself in their discussion. He wanted to surpass her, but, over the course of his ten-day-stay in Hamburg, he was drowning more by the second.
They walked together, crossed the street to the opposite side, and walked underneath the dead Frau’s balcony, passing by the gigantic Kunsthalle, the landmark he used to ensure he hadn’t lost his way back to his apartment.
They passed the central train station’s many homeless strewn across the sidewalk, noise, empty beer bottles of various brands, the smell of urine mixed with the sound of classical music.
When he pointed out that his way was to the left, she excused herself and reminded him of the possibility of meeting tomorrow, before turning to the right.
He assumed she wasn’t interested in telling him where she lived when he had mentioned that his apartment was very close.
In the apartment, he glanced at his clothes, which hung arranged and well ironed, and planned his outfit for the following day.
He prepared a cup of sage tea that he had brought with him from Ramallah and went out to the balcony. He sat on the wooden chair where he’d had his coffee that morning.
His balcony overlooked another balcony opposite, the two separated by Lange Reihe Street.
Two chairs rested on the opposite balcony, where a girl had sat on one of them that morning, an hour before sunrise. Her upper half had been covered by a black bralette, and her lower half was in a pair of black satin shorts. She held her violin and played. Her performance had woken him up. He prepared a cup of coffee and sat opposite her, and she went on playing as if he wasn’t there.
Remembering the morning scene, blood rushed through his veins as he realized that the violinist looked distinctly similar to the girl from Shatila. The only obvious difference was that the Mermaid’s hair was loose while the violinist tied her hair back. Was it possible they were the same person?
He was told Lange Reihe meant the long street, but the street was not truly long, and would have better been called the “Wide Street.” If only it weren’t wide, then the opposite balcony would have been closer.
He sipped some of his tea, went into the apartment, and placed a seat next to his to imitate the two chairs on the opposite balcony, just like that, for no particular reason.
A calm light snuck through her apartment window.
He decided to have his morning coffee on the balcony, wishing for a return of the morning recital.
Sleep evaporated as he thought of the girl’s breasts damp in the early morning dew.
He went back in, and the four chairs on the two balconies remained empty, seemingly without meaning. So remained the concrete double-bench by the lake, and the dead Frau’s sofa. Only the bamboo chair carried, without complaint, the corpse of an old woman, dead because of a young man from Ramallah.
Akram Musallam was born in Talfit near Nablus in the West Bank in 1972. He graduated from the department of letters and holds an MA in International Studies from the University of Birzeit. He writes for the daily al-Ayyam and is editor of the political quarterly al-Siyasa. His The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion won the A. M. Qattan Award in 2008 and has been translated in French, Italian, and English (Sawad Hussain, Seagull Books).
Nour Jaljuli is a Palestinian-Jordanian translator and poet traversing between the worlds of Arabic and English. She holds an MA in literary translation from the University of East Anglia and is the Arabic translator of Rana Dajani’s Five Scarves. She has a deep appreciation for peculiar earrings, and tweets @Noorjaljuli. You can reach her through her email: firstname.lastname@example.org.