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Ode to Not Being There
Haya Husseini

'Einak 'einak. To your face.

She was limp with fatigue. Inside, the flat was just as she had left it that morning. The coffee table with its unread books, scattered pens, a notebook, and a dirty coffee cup. The silence.

Walaw. Untranslatable.

But she meant it to cheer herself up, to lift her spirits, to say that this wasn't like her, none of it. It was not her. Her in the flesh, but not her in the soul, turning keys to enter a ghostly flat, her independence bundled up in one conclusive lift, bowled to the waiting pins, into a swaying path, a swerving trajectory...a hit and miss and then, to disappear, rumbling in its bounce, down a dark hole.

Walaw. Again.

It was her favourite time of day. (Bowling balls re-appear on the other side, don't they?) The Australian summer sun still had hours to set, migrant blackbirds were still pecking greedily at the lawn, the evening breeze was still at bay, and back home, it was almost time to get up. Almost time.

I've served my time, she announced to the kitchen. In the muddle of the past decade with peace process promises gone and broken, it had been her task to find a permanent haven. Haven, heaven, and whether here or in Jerusalem, Tokyo, or Bermuda, a haven must be sought and conquered.

Yislam rasek. Condolences.

During condolence visits in Jerusalem, she had to repeat to herself over and over again the words: il baiya fi hayatik, so she would not forget and say something as absurd as mabrook. Congratulations.

Alf mabrook. Thousands of them.

Such was her Arabic. She had looked for work, but they wanted someone who knew their own language, and she hadn't minded. There were so many Palestinians out of work, she was glad to make way. Glad to take a back seat. I understand, she'd say. I'm not here to take anyone else's opportunities. Her mother had snarled at her, that day the workmen came to cut the house into three parts.

Walek, la'eelik wasta. Find a contact.

Mother. She was painting walls, painting the divisions that tore us, tore into us. A large house that once sheltered five families. There's only your father and I, she had said, and had summoned Abu Fawzi. Cut it up, she'd snapped. There's plenty of foreigners that need to rent. She then gave him a suitcase of old clothes: for Um Fawzi and their daughters.

You don't wear them anymore, she'd said, not caring to look at her daughter.

Mother. She'd fought. She'd given the singing birds seeds on a string, she'd stood up to soldiers on a checkpoint and told them off like school boys, she'd suckled a kid goat out of a baby bottle, she'd opened her doors to university seminars during imposed close-downs. She'd watched people die, she'd washed corpses, she'd done her time, standing asleep in her despair.

Go find a life.

Where the used coffee cup awaits your arrival. Where everything is as you leave it, where the switch is the loudest noise you'll hear in the house.

Yifdah Hareeshik. What was that?

It rang in her ears. She'd heard it from her friends back there and then, a warm expression of nothingness, meaning even less. Here was a volcano of expressive eruptions, here in the hollow of Australia's red desert, jarring against its own Aboriginal sounds; a volcano of words concocted far away in the stone dry landscape of the fertile crescent, where refugees, Bedouins and expatriates mixed their throwaway utterances into the sultry night sky. It made her smile.

Not on that day, though, back in Jerusalem, when she arrived at the house of condolences. Il baiya fi Hayatik, she'd repeated over and over again to herself as she drove past pine trees and quarried valleys. Not to forget. Please, not to forget.

She'd walked up the stone steps to the metal door where three members of the grieving family stood waiting to greet visitors. She didn't know them. She'd never met them.

She'd walked straight up to a woman clad in her black hijab, straight into her arms, and had clung to her shoulder, sobbing. I'm sorry, she'd said in English. I'm sorry, she kept repeating. I'm so sorry.

In English. In her adoptive language, the only language she could reach for, the language of her childhood and schooling spent shivering in the cold, cruel corridors of Victorian buildings. It had all come bursting out. In English. I'm sorry. Sorry for your loss. Hayatik il baiya, ya habibti. Ma'lish, ma'lish. The kettle began to howl. The house echoed with the click of the automatic switch, switching off.