Letters Unwritten

Mahmoud Jamal Ahmed Mikdadi


Dearest Mother,

I hope you are well, and are still watching the boats, wondering which will carry me to my destination. I have taken my first steps. I managed to secure part of the money, working in the stone-pits near the port. The other part I got from the grocer’s. I used to do my shopping there in my lunch breaks. He realised the reality of what I was planning, and gave me the money saying he would forgive me if I did not succeed in my adventure. But if I were to make it, and became wealthy, he would not only expect the same sum back. Rather, he would expect me to transform his little shop into a huge mall. He said so laughingly, but I caught a glimpse of a tear hiding at the bottom of his eye. And I remembered you.

I made a deal with the boat owner. He insisted on getting the cash up front, claiming there was a deal with the guys on the other shore. I didn’t like him. But if I pulled out now, I would never make progress again. With the crack of dawn, I have to be on board. Pray for me.

Dearest Mother,

I was amazed at what I saw at dawn. Maybe I was lucky because I was alone and not in charge of anyone. I thought we would be a number of people. How naïve!

I felt so sorry, Mother. I saw an old man with a woman who carried a baby. I didn’t know if she was his wife or daughter. Nor did I know if the baby was a boy or a girl. What made them venture with the baby like that? If it died, it would know no better. If it lived, it would consider us savages.

There was a young man with his adolescent brother. The young man approached me, saying what a genius his brother was. He had just completed his sixth school year with flying colours and he would exert his utmost efforts, to get his little brother the chance to pass Grade 7 in Germany. He spoke with utter confidence, believing the Germans would be amazed by his brother’s genius. In the he would future become one of their most prominent scientists.

It was weird, Mother, how this young man placed all his hopes on his little brother. As for himself, he didn’t mind living an idle life, creating opportunities for his brother. Until he grew up and became a prominent scientist in Germany.

There’s a little girl who holds on to her doll. And an old man who tapped along in rapid knocks with his crutch, as if in a hurry to get started. Why would he emigrate?

There is an obese man. Another told him jokingly, “The fish will get a feast.” And a drunkard, who looks long at the calm sea, to say in the end, “How serene this grave!”

We crowded on the boat. I sat between the drunkard and the little brother. Dishevelled hair, combed hair. The smell of booze, the scent of perfume. Frustrated dreams, encouraged dreams.

We set sail with the dawn prayers, as if we were performing a ritual. The sea was calm and gentle; it carried us on its clear surface. The waves held some dignity for us, for they agreed with the winds not to disrupt our sleep. But once the land vanished behind me, I felt a pang in my heart, ss if I had just, of my own free will, left a wealth behind me. A wealth I would never retrieve.

It’s a dreary feeling when only water rules the four corners. The space for free movement was only a couple of metres. A prison whose walls were humans who were haggling with death for a better life. The baby cried, and the woman gave it her breast, finding refuge behind the other women whose lips didn’t stop murmuring prayers. A strong gust of wind snatched the doll from the girl’s hand. She tried to catch it, but they explained to her that she would drown. She would die if she did. Did she even grasp the meaning of drowning? What idea did the child have of death? I looked at her tiny soft fingers; they aged suddenly when they lost the doll. I looked at the doll floating in the sea, before a wave swallowed it into the depths. The first victim.

Suddenly, without any warnings, the situation changed. The sea roughened, and the angry waves started tossing the boat left and right. Weeping. Crying. Wailing. All at once. The young man hugged his little brother. The drunkard shrunk at my feet. He swore to sobre up. The old man raised his crutch and shouted: “He saves you from the sea. Pray to God.” When I checked the boat’s direction, I glimpsed the silhouette of land. There was our paradise, hovering ahead of us. But we were not sure we would be able to cross to it. Dearest Mother, Half our sea. It was merciful to us. Even when we desert and reject it. It would never hurt us. The other half was very different. It did not like us. It was offended by our smell. It did not like our features, coloured with suffering and impossible wishes. What heart did that sea have! It did not soften to women’s tears or children’s crying. It sent its waves to throw us towards the shore, and at the same time it prepared the messengers of death to reap our souls. Land grew, but the sea sought to capsize the boat more and more ferociously. I told the people to remain calm, for we were very close to survival. I looked out for the people of the other shore, the ones the merchant had spoken of. I saw no one. I turned to the merchant to ask him, but alas! I was shocked to realise for the first time that he was not among us. Only then did I realise how naïve I had been. I wanted to vent the frustration within me in a scream. But a huge wave was faster. It capsized the boat, and all that surrounded me was water. I glimpsed through it black figures. My boatmates. The current was sweeping them away. Death was reaping them in front of my eyes. I was helpless to save them. Hands reached out from here and there, searching for a saviour. Do you remember when I told you of a Russian writer who once said that Man at the moment of death sees things in his mind’s eye that were farthest from the horror of the moment? That is exactly what happened with me. When I sensed the many hands, my mind wandered to Mahmoud Darwiche: “Those drowning extend a hand to protect them from drowning.” I grabbed a hand, and pulled it to the surface. It was the little brother. When he came to, he asked for his brother. He wept as he called his brother’s name. It was not the right time to console him. I went in search of the rest. Far away, I saw the fat man. The water was pulling him down gradually. He held the little girl in his arms, like the doll she had been holding. He held her above his head, hoping the sea would be satisfied in swallowing him alone. But to no avail. She drowned, too. I tried to manage. Had it not been for the waves working against me, and the little brother clinging around my neck. The baby had suckled the water of the sea. The fat man was indeed becoming a feast for the fish. I hoped the drunkard would find serenity in his watery grave. Everyone was gone, Mother. Only the little brother and I remained afloat. And the old man’s crutch. And the drunkard’s bottle. Two gravestones of this mass grave. The boat suddenly bobbed up. Just like that, Mother. You may not believe it if I told you that it was no longer upside down. But this time it was empty. I pushed the little brother to it, then I climbed in myself. It seemed spacious now, allowing me to move as I wished. But it made my chest contract. As if it crouched on my chest. The sea calmed, and the little brother put his head on my chest. I watched the land getting closer and becoming clearer. Until I fell asleep.

Dearest Mother,

We had arrived. The paradise I had always aspired to. But there was a problem. It was fenced in with an electrified fence. Behind it were men armed with the latest weapons. The little brother woke me, saying as if he did not believe himself, “Land, land.”

We ran, shrieking with happiness, calling for help. We halted when we saw the men, and the fence between us. It was more like barbed wire. They threw something on it, and it burnt. They tell us the electricity would burn us if we approached. Where should we go then? Even the boat they had shelled, and it was powdered. Had they feared that the little brother and I would return to it? Or had they feared it would bring more like us? Was it a criminal in their eyes and needed to be executed? I don’t know. What I know is that we remained for days in this tiny spot of sand. The electricity in front of us, and the sea behind us.

The little brother’s health deteriorated. He started talking of death and God and heaven and hell. He asked if his brother was in heaven. Then he cried begging me to be rejoined with him in heaven. As if I could fulfil that wish. His lips dried up. His cheeks hollowed out. He held onto my hand with what little strength he had left. I would look at the men, and cry and weep, “Please save the child. He’s dying.” But they couldn’t care less. They showed no reaction, so much so that I suspected they may be robots. He raised his head and smiled. Then he said joyfully, “Look. My brother Azzam.” Only now did I learn his brother’s name. But the little brother’s name remains unknown to me. He’s gone to his brother, and he left me alone. I dug a grave for him in the sand. As I did, a woman passing by in her car saw me. She got out and started filming me.

Dearest Mother,

The issue is not in the people but in the laws and regulations. The first woman who passed by this remote place made it a destination for everyone else. I saw the people gathering and crowding. They put up banners with a photo of me as I buried the little brother. Cameras were pointed at me from every direction. There were attempts at throwing food and drink to me. Unfortunately, the electrified fence burnt everything. And yet I felt sated. Cheers. Raised fists. But the situation did not change. The men did not allow the people to come closer. They allowed them to express what they felt, but they prevented them from offering real help. The strange thing is that the armed men joined the crowds after hours. They voiced their rejection of what I suffered from. Then they would return to their duties when it was time to work again. Can you see that, Mother? I told you, the problem was the regulations and the laws. But the people – everyone dreams of living in a world where we can all be happy. How did we ever get here?

Dearest Mother,

The people got bored. Just like what happens in the Arab World. An issue of public opinion. It echoes for a few days. Then it is forgotten as if it never was. Each returns to their personal lives. Caring for their petty problems. I don’t blame them. In this world of suffering and grief there is so much that is beyond their ability to control. Just a few days to appease their conscience. It makes them feel they have done what they can due for this cause.

Gradually the place returned to its real owners. The men. The electrified fence. Me. the cameras vanished. The people left. The raised fists were lowered. Even the men. They returned home after work, rather than standing by and supporting me.

I don’t mean to break your heart, Mother. But this is my end. I am certain of it. I am sure my lips are dried. My cheeks are hollowed. And, what saddens me most, there is no brother or beloved who preceded me to paradise to come and take me.

Only now I lay down on the sand. I don’t care about what is to come.

Dearest Mother,

I woke to the sound of footsteps. I looked at the sea and saw people running a marathon. They were heading towards me. When they reached me, they helped me up, and made me run in front of them. And I reached the finishing line. The public were cheering. Some jumped down from the seats and ran to embrace and kiss me. I ascended the platform, and received the gold medal. And flowers. I was over the moon. But I was also exhausted with the running and lost consciousness.

Dearest Mother,

I opened my eyes in the hospital. I couldn’t move or speak. It may be the anaesthesia or the lack of rest. I heard the doctor telling his colleague: “The electricity did not affect some organs. We can still make use of them.” The other doctor said sadly, “They refuse you alive, and accept you dead.” To be honest, I didn’t understand all they said. I’ll wait until I’m well again and ask them.

Dearest Mother,

This hospital is very strange. They do not check on the patients. I’ve been here for days, but no one entered my room. Today I regained my ability to move and speak. At first I called for any doctor or nurse. But I got no reply. I opened the door and walked down the corridor, which was soon drowned in darkness. I retraced my steps to the door. What I had found, I had searched for often but to no avail. Now I was in the world of darkness. I walk through it as if through a vast wasteland. I have been like that for days. Or maybe for years. What is this? Mother, dear Mother. I see much green in the distance. It is full of trees and flowers and water. I’ll walk there, Mother. But I hope you will pray for me. Pray for me that there won’t be any armed men or electrified fences. Please, Mother, pray for me. Pray for me.