A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
A Man’s Tears
I was sleeping deeply, having recurrent dreams, which I can hardly remember now. But I do remember the state of panic I and my family were in when we were woken by a deafening crash, creating big cracks in our house and pulling some of the corners apart. It was a heavy shell explosion. As well as affecting our house, it would have shaken all the houses nearby. Parts of our roof collapsed next to me, creating dust all around, and my little brothers cried loudly. I could see my mother’s face as she cradled my brothers in her arms and looked at me. I didn’t know whether she wanted to console me or whether she was trying to draw strength from me. Fear filled my heart but, fortunately, I was patient: I neither cried nor showed panic.
I remembered the promise I had made to my father before he left, some days ago. I remembered what he said to me. “You are now a man, the head of the house! Care about your mum and your little brothers. Can you promise?” he had asked me. “Yes, I promise,” but I held him by his shirt. “Please don’t go! Stay with us!” I appealed to him. Smiling, he gently pushed off my hands, “I am travelling for your sake, and I will come back for your sake, too!”
When the shelling began, I was only 10 years old, and my little twin brothers were four. I remembered my father’s words: “You became a man. You should not cry. You need to take care of your little brothers.”
I stood up, took a torch and moved towards the door. I tried opening it, but could not. It was blocked heavily by the rubble. I came back to the room. My brothers were quiet, yet my mum’s face looked terrified, as though she was saying, ‘How has another shell landed?’ “Don’t panic, mum, thanks to Allah, we are safe,” I said. She nodded, but remained speechless.
I heard moaning behind the door, and I went back to try to open it, but couldn’t. My mum came and tried the door, until it broke. I followed the moaning, keeping the rubble away until I reached. I was shocked – it was Hind, our neighbor’s innocent and beautiful five-year-old daughter. She was crying; her forehead was bleeding. I tried to lift her, but failed. One of her legs was stuck in the rubble. I thought for a while. I went to seek help from my neighbors, but it was too dark. I would not be able to use a torch, because if I did, I would be shot by snipers who targeted everyone. They target us mercilessly, day and night. During the night, they shoot everyone who holds a light. So I had to feel my way out slowly, until I managed to get out of the rubble.
I called to my neighbors and they came immediately. We lifted Hind out of the rubble, and then we searched for her family. We found them all, but they were dead. Hind was crying, but her crying will not stop when she knows that her family has all gone. Certainly, she will never ever forgive the person who destroyed her life.
Our house had almost been demolished. So we travelled to the village and lived in our old 100-year-old mud-made house. Next to the house was a well from which we got water, just as my grandfather used to. In my village, I ploughed the land, raised sheep, rode camels and donkeys, and climbed mountains. I enjoyed freedom in the village, but sometimes I got terrified by the roar of airplanes, which, as my father says, belong to our friends. Yet they often miss their targets, and ‘mistakenly’ kill the innocent.
I looked after my sheep near the main road. Before Houthis were forced to leave the area, they planted huge numbers of landmines. The village people often warned me about the mines; many had exploded and killed shepherds, sheep and donkeys. So I had to take different routes alongside the mountains to avoid mines.
In the village, I was shocked by the large number of funeral processions coming from war fronts. Each procession stopped for a while next to the house of the victim’s family, for them to have a final look at their deceased, before continuing to the graveyard. The sorrowful news of the dead filled the village. I could hear the cries of the people and earth.
One day, I rode my donkey to the market to buy flour, oil and tuna to make lunch. We would, very often, pay on a monthly basis as my father sent us money when he received his salary. This time, I could hardly convince the shop owner to give me the food which would be paid for later. I lied to him that my father would send me money the next day. This felt bad, but what was worse was that my mum and brothers were hungry.
I had to rush back home, but my donkey was slow. I beat it to hurry us home. When I arrived back in the village, I saw three cars and some people beside my house. I felt anxious. My heart started beating. I got off my donkey and the food fell to the ground. I ran to see what was happening.
It was forenoon but there was darkness looming around our house. I was rushing distractedly, asking myself, ‘Is it my father this time?’ ‘He promised me he’d comeback though.’ ‘No, it could be the funeral of someone else?’ ‘But the people are next to our house…’ Many questions raced through my mind while I was running, till I saw it was my father’s funeral. His body was covered by a white cloth, except for his head. My mum was crying over his chest while my uncle was holding her, saying, “Enough! May Allah have mercy on him. He is a martyr.” I stood in front of my father’s body and burst into tears. I then remembered my promise to my father. I promised him to be a man and that I would not cry. I tried to restrain myself, but I could not. He, too, had promised to come back for my sake, but he had not.
A Warm-hearted Man
At the corner of the road, you were calling, “Three kilos for ten Riyals!” and sometimes, “Two kilos for five!” You were pushing a wooden cart with your hands, easily and tirelessly. The first time I saw you, I greeted you and bought some oranges from you for three Riyals only, and you gifted me one orange more. I became your regular customer then, not for the orange you gifted me, but because you had a cheerful smile and kind words.
Whenever you saw me depressed, you often said to me, “Ask Allah for forgiveness, and everything will be all right. Ask Allah for forgiveness, and everything will be easy. We are sinful and that is why our life is difficult. Asking Allah for forgiveness cleanses our hearts, and so we become content.”
Every time you saw me walking down the road we both lived on, you would call out, and we often had chats. Often we just had ordinary talks, but sometimes we discussed serious issues. Some might have looked down on us as we touched on serious issues, as they believe we ordinary people lack critical thinking or we may lack the right words to express ourselves.
One day, I got something for you, and we sat together on the sidewalk. You told me that you come from a village in the Pashtun mountains. The village is green almost all the year around. You told me about the common traditions in your village and the traditional agriculture. You whispered to me that some people in your district cultivate drugs. Certainly, you are not amongst them. “If I were one of them, I would not sell oranges using such a battered cart,” you laughed.
But you did not tell me that your wife passed away. You did not tell me that though you were a trader, you had been deceived by your trading partner, who had taken your share. You did not tell me that you had chronic pneumonia. I was only told by your relatives and flat mates.
You told me that you have four children, three sons and a daughter. Although you told me all their names, I only remember Aishah, the name of your daughter. The one who often greeted us by waving her hands through the phone camera. Anyone who looked at her would like her because of her sheer innocence.
Affection can start on a sidewalk. Among people passing here, I was your friend, not because I was unique but our souls were close to each other.
One day, I shook hands with you. I noticed that your hands were warm, and I heard some buzzing from your chest. “What is wrong?” I asked. “It is a mild infection in my chest,” you replied. “Let’s go to the clinic,” I offered. “No, no. I am ok… I already had some medication from the chemist,” you interrupted me.
I left while you were whispering, “Oh Allah, I seek your forgiveness. Oh, Allah, I seek your forgiveness repeatedly.” You coughed sometimes as you resumed your whispers, asking Allah for forgiveness. Every time I looked back, I saw you sitting on the sidewalk leaning against your cart, holding your head in your hand.
When I finished work, I used the same road, hoping to see you and see how you were doing. But you were not there. I asked the store owners, in front of whom you usually worked, where you were. They told me that you left earlier that day, and that you could hardly walk. I tried calling you dozens of times, but there was no answer.
I waited till dawn before I went to your apartment and knocked at your door. Your flat mate, a huge man with a flat face and fleshy hands, opened the door. He welcomed me in and let me into your room. You were half asleep, but you got up and raised your head when you heard my voice. “I am all right, my friend, thanks to Allah,” you whispered. You flashed me wonderful smiles, despite the fatigue you were suffering.
I missed the great comfort you brought me when we used to meet, since your Kafeel, the local guarantor, forced you to leave the country. I feel so delighted when I remember your words: “Ask Allah for forgiveness, and everything will be all right.”
“Things are not always the best of the best, and they may not always be as good as we want them to be… but everything will go and we will be contented. Seeking forgiveness is purity, satisfaction and hope, my friend,” you said.
You are now in front of me, standing behind your mobile phone screen, and your children are around you.
Happiness shines from your eyes. My heart is rejoicing for you, but I cannot utter the words I wanted to say.
Everyone and everything in our neighborhood misses you: me, the sidewalk, the lampposts, the red tea, and your wooden cart.
The best thing I experienced in my life is your company, and the thing I always recall is your commandment: “Ask Allah for forgiveness and everything will be all right.”
Aidarus al-Dayani is a Yemeni short story writer. He has published a set of short stories entitled Little Revenge (LUTS Publishing, 2019). He has also published short stories in several online newspapers and magazines. He has written a novel which is still in production, but will be published in 2021.