Raghad was thin and her appearance was as spare as the room that had become a new home to her and to her mother, her six brothers, and her uncle’s family.
Her thinness resembled the stem of basil she carried with her to the refugee camp. Her mother had yelled, “We have no place for the basil. Leave it!” But Raghad didn’t listen. “If I leave it here it will die, ma!” She carried it in one hand and a bag full of possessions in the other… no toys.
She didn’t brush her hair today. She was sad. Her hair was the color of coal, and, like her, it was sad. It touched her shoulders but didn’t cover her waist – a waist like an hourglass. Everything about her was tiny, except for her large eyes.
Her mother announced, “We`re having guests.”
Lost in thought, she hid behind the curtain to change clothes – a new blue sweat suit, her gold dangling earrings, and her sister’s slippers. Moving to the corner of the room, she dipped her hands in the basil leaves and came back to welcome us.
Her hand was cold and there was a restlessness in her almond eyes. They were the same color as the dark black fabric covering the floor. They seemed nostaglic for the warmth she might have known in a previous life… she sat across from us and looked our way, but her mind was somewhere else.
One of the visitors from the rescue team photographed her. She didn’t mind. She sat still as she posed before the bright flash, and then softly whispered, “Hand me the mobile for a minute. I will only touch it. I won’t ruin it. Take a photo with it in my hand and I will return it to you right away.”
Her mother was embarrassed. “Where does this little girl get her ideas from?” she said. “When we used to sit for dinner, the entire family ate from one plate on the floor. But she would go into to the kitchen and use a plate, knife, and fork that I only brought out for guests. She would daintily dish her food onto the plate and divide it into bites. She then would hungrily eat without noticing the spark of anger in her father’s eyes,” complained the mother.
She continued, “once when I gave the children watermelon seeds, she took her a couple and gently cracked the shells with her teeth and placed them on the plate. She ate each seed with the fork and wiped the corners of her mouth even though there was no trace of food. She never tired of it. I swear she’s giving me such a hard time.
“Her father is no longer with us, so she has no one to fear now. He was taken by them months ago, ever since “the terrorists” took shelter in our home. We have heard no news of him since. And now stranded here without plates or a father, Raghad’s sadness has doubled, and she will not eat.”
Raghad left the room. Carrying the stem of basil, she slipped away towards our car and stood admiring it. Her hands explored the metal and stroked it as a spiritual man would touch his Holy Book. She opened its rear door, staring at the leather seat. She caressed it with care before sitting on it. Like a Hollywood star in front of the camera, she gave us an averted glance and slipped into a daydream. She didn’t exactly know what she was imagining, but as the dream ripened she opened her eyes and placed the basil in the front seat. With that, she exited the car as elegantly as she had gotten in.
Turning to us, she said, “Water it every day… Don’t neglect it!”
Raghad was a young daydreamer. She found little consolation in her family or school work; her notebooks were not filled decorative stars from teachers. Her heart was not in her studies or with her family, but instead was with her first love.
“Saif” was his name. He was her cousin, two years older than her. But he was no longer with her. His life was taken in a bombing two weeks ago. And her sadness had now tripled: no plates, no father, no Saif. Her fourth sadness was the new exile.
A few days before their exile, they had gone together to their relative’s wedding. Many relatives were there, although their numbers had begun to shrink. In the courtyard of the wedding they danced for a very long time. They didn’t even notice when most of the dancers left upon hearing about the death of the groom’s brother; they hardly noticed the electricity outage which followed shortly after. The courtyard was empty except for the two young dancers. No one noticed them, nor did they notice anyone else; they couldn’t hear the news or see the darkness.
Saif held her hand, supported her waist, and soothed her by saying, “Aah Rughaida.” He taught her to stomp her foot and move her waist as she danced. He said, “Rughaida, dance like this… stomp your foot like that… come on Rughaida, again, from the beginning.”
…On the ground, in the courtyard, stomp it! With a resounding step, stomp it! Let it scare away the vermin of this earth and its dormant worms.
On the journey of exile, stomp it, so that it can awaken the frightened faces behind their windows of silence and fear.
Continue to stomp it in exile so that the refugees never give up their dream of reuniting with those detained and returning to the front porches of their homes.
Stomp it resolutely so that Saif can hear you from there, and so that he is happy to reap the fruits of his lessons, and to reward himself with a star in his school notebook, the one he was to receive next September.
Translated from the Arabic by Ghada Alatrash
August 6, 2012