All Fairytales Are About Longing
Words By Gordon Brown, Art By jplenio
If Um Ali’s house was any taller, she might almost see the ocean. She knows it only from pictures, which she is assured cannot express its majesty. To see it even from a distance would be enough. She was told such things by Um Hassan, a dear friend, and always honest. Um Ali believes this with all her heart.
Um Ali must climb two flights of bare stairs, exposed to the world, to reach her house. This, of course, is perfectly natural. Whenever they begin building, the money runs out, or concrete is no longer allowed past the checkpoint, or the architect is jailed for incitement. All around, skeletons of houses open their ribs to the sky. Um Ali’s house was built in reverse. Its third floor is completed, but not the second or first. Since houses built from the ground up are never completed, it was reasoned that a house built from the air down might be more fortunate. This was not so. The building balances on spindly threads of cinder block and rebar like the legs of a hen. It stands almost flush to the barrier wall. Um Ali has received multiple injunctions that her house poses a security threat and must be torn down. At least three times the bulldozers have rolled through the streets, only to become trapped in a narrow alley or lost in the tangle of roads. The man tasked with the demolition swears to his foreman it is as if the house moves.
Um Ali does not think so.
She descends the same concrete stairs every morning. Walks the same winding path through streets, past the same scorch marks left by the tear gas can. She hurries from storefront to storefront, wading through clouds of cigarette smoke and inquiring: Does Abu Taha require any bookkeeping done? Does Um Musa wish for any help cleaning her house? Do any of her relations or neighbors?
When she walks home—always more slowly than when she set out—she accepts an invitation to drink tea with Um Hassan. They sit together on the balcony, behind the privacy of sea-colored curtains, unwrapping their hijabs and letting their henna-dyed braids hang down the cushions and stretch on for miles. This is the only meal she will have. She sips slowly, only once every half hour. She holds words in her mouth like a feast. How the air this spring is colder than the air last spring. How Um Hassan’s underwear was blown from her clothesline by a strong wind, and how she leaned down in time to see some pervert running off with it. How her cousin has sent her pictures. These Um Ali looks over lovingly. The ocean is in every one.
The soldiers at the checkpoint let the winter in without asking for its papers. It creeps through the crooked streets, invading Um Ali’s joints. They ache and swell. They throb through the night. They shriek at every tortured step Um Ali takes down the stairs. She goes to the pharmacy to beg for medicine. The pharmacist is being detained by security forces. They accuse him of smuggling cinnamon and hairbrushes in aid bags from the UN. His assistant works the counter and gives Um Ali the wrong bottle by mistake, and wrong instructions besides.
Returning to her house-on-legs, Um Ali drinks the bottle and lays down to sleep for a thousand and one nights. She misses the return of the pharmacist, who slaps his assistant for his error. She misses Um Hassan, who shouts that her niece is in need of a mathematics tutor in Bayt Fajar. She misses the tourists who wear Che Guevara t-shirts and stare at everything around them with a mixture of horror and pity.
She does not wake when the barrier wall slithers around the legs of her house, enclosing it on all sides. If she woke, she would not care. Every night that she sleeps, she dreams. Every night she dreams, she dreams of the ocean.