A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
The sun sits in the middle of the sky as the students scramble to buy ice cream. The ice cream tastes refreshing in the sweltering heat. When one girl holding her ice cream confidently takes the number of the handsome young man behind the counter from the shop door, a voice behind her says, “What will you do with the number?” She looks back and says, “That’s none of your business”.
This is how the young man gets into trouble circulating his phone number among the girls who come by his shop.
Still, his business is doing well and he can finally enroll in the university and continue his studies. He is an only child and his mother has no one but him after she lost her husband in the Saada war ten years ago. One day when he was selling fruit at the market, an air strike hit the market, targeting rebel forces.
He still remembers his father laying on the ground, his face covered in blood, calling him, “Abdul Karim! Come!” This was the last time he heard his father call his name. Nothing remains from that picture except the shattered fruit cart. Soon his hometown turned into rubble, and today the picture extends across the country.
At the end of the day, he sits in his small shop to catch his breath. He watches the sun setting into the horizon as his hopes and dreams flicker against the colorful red sky. One day he will graduate with a university degree, but his mother wants him to protect himself and get married first. She fears that as a young man he could face harassment and will meet many young women. The capital is full of beautiful women who go out, study and work, but he cannot distinguish between them except from their eyes or their voices, or through the shape or style of their veil. Sometimes women who have his number send him photos of themselves.
He feels tired at the end of every day and tries to sleep after he turns off his phone, but their pictures continue to appear in his mind.
Should he propose to one of them, or should he leave this to his mother? It is difficult for him to guess who is behind the veil. He loses sleep and picks up his phone. Messages and photos continue to flow. He wonders who is the most sincere and who should he fall in love with. How will love strike his heart in this flood of messages? He feels overwhelmed and cannot bring himself to answer or flirt back. He turns off his phone and tries to fall asleep again.
“Mother, I’m telling you that I do not want to get married or involved with someone now because I want to finish my university studies, and marriage is a responsibility.” Her eyes met his beautiful smile as he caressed her hand.
“I know you meet many young women and enjoy it when they call you Karim.”
He laughs loudly and says, “It’s much lighter than Abdul Karim.
Mom, let me continue my education and then we will see.”
“All you say is everything will be okay! That is how you end our conversation every time. How is this okay? We have been suffering from war for years. First in Saada and now it followed us here.”
The planes were flying heavily today, but what was bothering him were the long blackout periods. He could no longer make ice cream. Months had passed like this, since the war spread across the country. Earlier they had escaped the war in Saada. Finally he had been able to breathe a brief a sigh of relief, his dreams seemed closer; but now everything had gotten worse, and the war had spread to the entire country.
Even his phone no longer filled with messages and photos. The power outages meant there was little time to charge phones. Most of the nights were spent in darkness, and in the mornings he would sit in front of his shop, which he could no longer afford to pay for.
A young woman passed in front of him and asked shyly, looking at the floor and then at his beautiful face:
He looked up with a pale smile and said, “No, there is no ice cream here anymore”.
She let out a sigh of consolation, and said, “What a loss… this war did not spare anyone. Well, why don’t you make something other than ice cream?”
Her eyes carried him away from the images of ruin and smoke rising from the high mountains following an airstrike. In her eyes he could see the possibility of a new house, a house other than the destroyed home in Saada.
The conversation between them continued and he could sense her compassion. She asked about his name, his region and family. He was almost certain that they had not spoken before. He had lost contact with the other women because of the power outages.
His heart would beat faster every day when she passed by in front of his closed shop. He waited for her passionately and felt a sense of longing. Her eyes had a sparkle that made him feel alive again. Should he sell their remaining land in Saada to the corrupt man who also trades in arms and keeps feeding the conflict in his city? How could he save the amount needed to propose to her now?
His mother interrupts his thoughts, “Now?! The situation is difficult son and you are out of work because of the war. You will have to postpone this a little. We don’t want to sell our land in thesedesperate circumstances”.
The days go on and the war continues, and every day he hears about the young men who join the army to defend the country. Those men are faced with tempting benefits, including salaries from the new government and personal arms that they keep until they are called to join the battle.
The voice of the woman refuses to join with those ravaging the country.
“Don’t worry, I will only register my name… I promise I won’t go.”
The sky filled with clouds as she looked at her phone screen and felt things come to an end. If only she didn’t like ice cream. If only she hadn’t passed his shop that day or stopped to watch him as he sat by the closed door.
The days passed by heavily and the nights seemed to get darker, night after night, with bombing destroying most of the city.
The streets were no longer as they were before. Now they were almost completely devoid of movement. Shops and restaurants were closing their doors and people were abandoning their businesses. Many workers in the private sector, companies and factories, were dismissed because there were no resources to support their work. People ran around chasing generators to charge their phones, which barely lasted a few hours. Everyone was struggling with the process, and people started buying car batteries and using wires to connect small light bulbs, as if the other world was ready to solve these small crises.
A day later, he grabs his phone to send her a message, having failed to contact her the day before.
“Don’t go, please you don’t want their salary or their weapons. You have to be patient. The war will end soon and you can go back to work.”
“Everything will be okay.”
He turned off the phone but couldn’t turn off his heart. He was still trembling from the sound of her voice repeating a well-known tomorrow.
In the early morning, before the sun could shine, a missile struck and shook Sana’a. Her phone dropped from her hand before her message could reach him. She was standing at the door of his closed shop, where the sign that read ‘Ice Cream’ fell alongside her tears.
Soheir Al-Samman is a Yemeni author and journalist. She is the head of the publishing department at the General Book Authority and is an academic researcher in modern literary criticism. Suheir has published many social, political and critical articles. In 2011, she published the short story collection Another Date, and in 2017 she published Part of the Text Missing. Currently she is finalizing her forthcoming collection of stories.