A Tin Ball
By Adania Shibli
The war, it seemed, was over, after it had reached the far extremes of violence. In short, it had reached a peak, and here were the soldiers packing away their possessions and collecting their equipment, tired, exhausted, and spent, having given all their energy to battle. Therefore they went on tossing everything without much care, into their kit bags and vehicles. There were vehicles for carrying the troops, then others for carrying military equipment, for the crates of bullets and grenades, for transporting tanks, and for the tins of food, some past their expiry date. As far as the eye could see, these were the only things that had survived undamaged. Buildings all around, however, had been shelled and were now riddled with haphazard holes, lumps of them dropped onto the streets and pavements, and paint peeled from their facades and interior walls, which still surrounded the furniture that those fleeing the bombardment had been unable to carry with them. Less visible were the corpses of all ages scattered around the place. Or, maybe more accurately, they should remain invisible. Instead, focus should be limited to their numbers, and if there were enough time, it would be possible to mention their names and ages, then the circumstances of their deaths, including what they were doing at the instant they were killed, and what they would nevermore be able to do. Except this would be an arduous task. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to gather all this information, which would most likely be forgotten at the nearest available opportunity, regardless of the considerable amount of sympathy, even sadness, it may elicit. Nothing of the sort will be done here, though, eliminating the possibility of this text being read as political propaganda that may provoke the ire of certain readers, particularly those from the ranks of the intellectual middle class. Anyway, these bodies, if they mean anything to anyone, other than those to whom they belonged, it would be to those who were closest to them, and perhaps their killers as well. Not now, but later. Most likely, many years later, because now these killers are tired, exhausted, and spent, and are using whatever energy they still have to collect their possessions and their equipment, to leave this battlefield and get back to their homes without delay. So they must collect everything that has survived undamaged or hasn’t been used, and put it either in their kit bags or in the appropriate vehicle. And everything that has not survived or has been used, they must collect into huge garbage bags, a task which they perform without the care they give to collecting their possessions and equipment. Nevertheless, when they leave the place at last, they will leave some of it behind, and not only the garbage bags. In the meantime, distant voices will be heard, claiming that love and peace will triumph in the end, and medical teams will get ready to enter the place, followed by the international press, humanitarian aid convoys, and human rights organizations, and slipping in behind them, a group of mischievous, curious children. As soon as they’re in, each group will go on searching the place for anything that might fall within the scope of their interests. No need here to spend too long going over these interests, since they are well known. Therefore the text will turn directly to that group of mischievous, curious children which this time numbered among its ranks Mohammad, Mounira, Moneim, Mazen, Maysoon, Mukhles and Maya, all of whose names, by sheer coincidence, begin with the letter M. Apart from that, and although they were born to families with different economic and social backgrounds, they have one other, fundamental thing in common: poverty. Mounira was the eldest, but Mohammad was the strongest, and the pair led the group through the almost abandoned battlefield, with Maya, youngest and smallest, always at the rear.
Every age and size has its advantages and disadvantages, but Maya was currently experiencing the downside only. While other members of the group rifled the soldiers’ refuse for wonderful, rare and valuable things, she was finding things that were plentiful and that nobody cared about, like empty sardine tins and bullet casings. She went on to collect them, tossing one away whenever she found another in better condition, keeping the shiniest and least battered, until, at last, she found a sardine tin with the lid only slightly peeled back, though it was totally empty. And Maya immediately began filling it with the little bullet casings she’d collected and kept. Slowly and carefully, she slotted them in one-by-one, until the tin was full of casings stacked widthwise, at right angles to the way the sardines are usually arranged. Then, all of a sudden, shouts of surprise and admiration came from the group up ahead, who then started running, with Maya following after though she had no idea why, except that in the current circumstances she, like them, was driven by an instinct to stick together always, as much as possible.
They all ran until they came to an area clear of buildings and people, where they used to play during peacetimes. Mounira sat down, and Mohammad followed suit, while the others stood clustered around them. As silence reigned, Mounira took a disc-shaped metal tin from beneath her shirt. There was writing on it, which none of them could decipher, though they knew exactly what it was from the image beneath it. An image of dull green cucumbers. Mounira began wrestling to open the tin, while Mohammad gave his instructions on how to do that, before he soon intervened, pulling the tin from her hands. Not that this meant that Mounira lost control of the tin. Not at all. Meanwhile, drool had started to build up in the clamped mouths, swallowed back whenever the dammed mass rose too high to breathe. They, for certain, did not think of themselves as extremely poor children, but tinned pickles were a rarity in their food basket or, for that matter, in the landscape of their daily lives. Sometimes they’d spot them in the refrigerators of newly married couples, or at a lunch or a dinner party. But to find them like this, while they were playing around, was unimaginable. The question now was how many pickles were in the tin, and the number that each would get. There must be at least seven in there. Ten, perhaps. And it would be acceptable by everybody that Mounira and Mohammad, who’d found the tin, got the biggest and the most once the rest of them had been evenly divided, with the smallest pickle going to Maya. Her body, being the smallest and the youngest, did not really need so many. These thoughts, inner wonderings and imaginings, continued to occupy the tiny heads until, at last, the tin broke open. At first a ting, the sound of its opening then grew into the rasp of tearing metal, as the reek of pickling juice reached their nostrils, growing sharper as the tin was passed between Mohammad and Mounira. It was a process not so much of passing the tin as of a reluctant parting, until it came to rest at last in Mohammad’s hands, while Mounira went on taking out its contents. Pickle by pickle, they were distributed first to Maysoon, then to Mazen, then to Mukhles, then to Moneim, and, finally, to Maya. And truth be told, after much inspection and examination, there didn’t seem to be that much difference in size. With Mohammad and Mounira keeping hold of the tin and whatever was left inside, everyone began to gobble down their share. And while most of them finished off their pickles, despite trying to eat as slowly as they could, Mohammad and Mounira did not. So murmured pleas started to be heard, begging a bite from one or the other, just a little one, and Mohammad and Mounira rebuking the pleaders, but even so, granting them the tiniest of bites, until the group had finished off every pickle in the tin and only the juice was left. So they started to drink that, each in their turn, and no one drinking more than everyone else, and if anyone did, as was the case with Moneim, then Mounira would snatch the tin away. Fairly, we said!
Afterwards, Maya excluded, they split up into two teams of three, and began punting the tin back and forth between them. And whenever the tin was kicked too far away, Maya, who was standing on the side too young and too small to know how to play football, would rush to fetch it.
It was a truly beautiful day that none of them would easily forget, ever. They were happy.
Adania Shibli was born in Palestine in 1974. Her first two novels appeared in English with Clockroot Books as Touch (tr. Paula Haydar, 2010) and We Are All Equally Far From Love (tr. Paul Starkey, 2012). She was awarded the Young Writer’s Award by the A. M. Qattan Foundation in 2002 and 2004.
And Lit Hub has re-run “Stories Too Awful to Believe: Adania Shibli on Bombings in Ramallah,” tr. Wiam el-Tamami