The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story
By Ramzy Baroud, Pluto Press, 288 pages, £75
His writings on the prison walls denoted all that was certain to Kamal. When he carved the names of everyone he was devoted to, there was not enough untouched space on the concrete surface to keep his own scratchings separate from what had been engraved by other prisoners. So he found the most faded of all the memories and over them he imprinted his own. First he etched the name of the woman he loved most: Um Marwan, his mother.
Weeks earlier, when the soldiers with their angry dogs showed up at his home in the middle of the night to throw their weight around, and began dragging his weary, injured body out to the street, his sisters cried like any siblings would. But his mother, fearing an overwhelming loss, shrieked in indescribable pain. Her screams pierced the calm of the night like a fractured arrow that somehow managed to travel miles in all directions — even beyond the Matar Orchard.
Some say they heard her howls past the dark Hirthani Orchard from where only masked fighters and soldiers ever emerged, and where others disappeared, never to be seen again. He was hardly conscious throughout most of the ordeal, and though his mother’s cries were reminiscent of ones he had heard all too often since childhood, they were still vividly different this time. Each bloodcurdling scream resembled the cries of a wounded beast, seeking mercy yet finding none. He would never forget the pain inflicted on his beloved mother, whose wailing echoed in him like a broken record. In a ring of small flowers, her name would be the first to be immortalised on his prison cell wall.
In traditional Palestinian culture, parents are given titles that carry the names of their firstborn sons. Um Marwan simply meant ‘the mother of Marwan’. Tamam Nassar was her birth name. A few years after Marwan, Kamal arrived and her love was plentiful for her second born too. The many sleepless nights he spent inscribing names on prison walls was a testament to this. Later on another boy, Jamal, appeared, followed by three girls. All were born in the same refugee camp in Gaza.
Having boys always meant more prestige for a mother in a peasant society. It did not matter that all the peasants and landlords had turned into refugees living a squalid existence, some things never changed. But Tamam was different from her sister Palestinians in one regard. In her heart she desired daughters, for the absence of her mother Hamda who was long gone, and the sisters she had always dreamed of, left a loneliness inside her that she felt could only be quashed by the female spirit. So she asked God for girls, and her body responded to her prayers with three baby girls each separated by only one year. Iman, then Asmahan and then Manal came into the world and Um Marwan was satisfied.
During the dark nights, when memories of Nuseirat Refugee Camp would come alive, Kamal would envision a beautiful flower. It grew sparsely through this second most populated camp, and though it had only three delicate petals, its intense red color exploded in simple beauty. On the wall of his cell in Khan Younis, he decorated each of his loved one’s names with a ring of these flowers, and stared at his creations when pangs of pain would resurface. That same intensely red and usually odourless flower also grew in the Hirthani Orchard, but some said that the Hirthani strain had an aroma so powerful, it was almost intoxicating.
Since masked fighters and soldiers were the only ones who dared enter the enigmatic orchard, no one could attest to the claim. One fateful day, many years later, the camp residents woke up to find that the orchard had been completely destroyed. It was a puzzle how an undertaking so brazen and violent could have happened when no one heard the sound of bulldozers carrying out the evil deed. All that was seen that morning was a cloud of suffocating dust hovering above the camp, while the orange and lemon trees lay lifeless on their sides next to dead flowers that had once perfumed the now heavy air. Alas, it would not be the only orchard in Um Marwan’s life that contained within it both tragedy and mystery, hand-in-hand. Her earliest memories were attached to another orchard that existed many years ago.
Tamam Nassar’s memory of Joulis, the Palestinian village where she lived until the age of five, was hazy. By the time she was born, the British had already colonised Palestine for decades. The few memories peeking through the naïveté of her innocence were largely about racing after military convoys pleading for candy. Once, upon returning to the family mudbrick home with a whole bar of chocolate and a big smile on her face, her older brother Salim confiscated the prize and claimed it as his own. Had it not been for Ismail, the oldest of the three, Salim would have devoured the bar in one or two bites. Though he was barely 12 years of age, a strong sense of responsibility pushed Ismail to play the role of the father at times, since Yousef was gone most of the day, either working hard on the family’s land or offering his labour to other landowners whenever his small property grew tired of yielding the same crop year after year.
Hamda, the mother, was not afraid to put in her share of manly work, never hesitating to shoulder some of her husband’s gruelling tasks while still tending to the children, loving them as best as she knew how and doing everything else in between.
Back then Tamam did not encounter Jews, or perhaps she did. But since many Palestinian Jews looked just like Palestinian Arabs, she could not tell the difference or even care to make the distinction. People were just people. Jews were just their neighbours in that southern village, and that was all that mattered. Although the Palestinian Jews lived behind walls, fences and trenches, for a while they walked freely among the fellahin, shopped in their markets and sought their help, for only the fellahin knew how to speak the language of the land and decode the signs of the seasons.
Tamam’s house was made of hardened mud, and had a small front yard where the little girl and her brothers were often confined when the military convoys roamed their village. Soon this would happen more and more frequently, and the candy that once sweetened the lives of the children was no longer offered. During those tense days, Yousef spoke often about the betrayal of their Jewish neighbours and a conspiracy between the Zionists and the British. Though each day she hoped for another chocolate bar, young Tamam knew deep in her heart that the days of candy were gone forever.
Then there was the war that changed everything. The battle around Joulis crept up all too quickly and showed little mercy. Some of the fellahin who ventured out beyond the borders of the village were never seen again. To ensure the safety of her children, Hamda told her kids about a terrifying ghoul that lived inside the orchard adjoining their home. Instilling fear in them, she insisted they should never walk past the dirt road outside Joulis, for crossing in the monster’s path would be a risk too great to take. But the ghoul, despite her occasional nightly raids on Joulis and the devouring of a sheep here or there, kept largely to herself. With time, Hamda told them, the villagers learned to respect the ghoul’s boundaries and believed that she meant no harm.
As the legend goes, when the ghoul gave birth to her first child, she wrapped it up in warm sheep’s wool, then hid it among sheep as she went to fetch water from the nearby creek to quench her thirsty body.
The flock of sheep belonged to the household of Abu Ghanim Abed. While the ghoul was away, a thunderous storm suddenly erupted, compelling the shepherd to herd the sheep back to the safety of the village. Unsuspectingly, the shepherd also herded the newborn ghoul child along with them. When Abu Ghanim’s wife discovered it among the sheep, she cared little whether it was a baby human or a baby ghoul. Motherly instincts compelled her to breastfeed the little creature as if it were her own, hold her tight throughout the storm and nourish the tiny ghoul, Zalibiya, with cinnamon and nuts.
Gripped with worry and rage when she returned to find the baby missing, the mother ghoul pursued the scent of her little one. Soon relief came over her, when she finally arrived at Abed’s home to find her baby safe and warm in the arms of a loving mother. Her anger turned to elation and gratitude. The startled Abu Ghanim stood in disbelief when she appeared and asked him to extend the palm of his right hand. She clasped it between her furry palms and whispered in his ears: “I give you my word before Allah, and if I ever betray you, I betray Allah. Hard times are ahead, Abu Ghanim, but you and your family shall pass this safely. You shall all survive, and with time you shall attain wealth and boundless offspring; many boys who will carry your name and bear you many grandchildren.”
The ghoul’s prophecies came true. When many fellahin were killed in Joulis during the war, Abu Ghanim fought a brave fight and somehow survived. And when many houses were blown up by the invading militias, the Abed family home remained intact. The prediction of hard times was certainly true — Abu Ghanim became a refugee in Gaza, a destiny he had never foreseen. But fortune was on his side when all was considered, and this was shown by the gift of nine children from the same wife, who in turn eventually each bore between seven and 10 children, mostly boys. These all married too and had flocks of their own children.
The Abed family even had enough abundance of wealth to allow Abu Ghanim and his wife to embark on a pilgrimage to Makkah when they were still relatively young and strong enough to bear the harshness of the journey, and then come back to a loving house with rooms over three floors which let in Gaza’s warm sunshine through more than 20 windows.
Tamam never met the ghoul, though. At the age of five, she left the village with her family because it was Joulis’s turn to be destroyed. She sat on the back of a cow along with Salim, as Ismail, their mother Hamda, and their father Yousef all walked the long way to Al Majdal.
Anticipating a return once the war was over, they stopped in an orchard along the way to hide their treasured harvest so that they could retrieve it upon their coming back to Joulis. But the road from Joulis was mostly one straight line that never ended and hardly ever curved or deviated from the onset of the nightmare, and the Nassar family’s exile became a permanent one.
As the family crossed the dirt road outside Joulis on that fateful day in 1948, Tamam wondered if the mother ghoul would meet the same fate as all the other villagers whose dead bodies dotted the dirt road, barefoot, bloodied and half naked. Salim whispered in her ear not to worry as they both perched on the back of the cow. He had heard from trusted sources that the mother ghoul was seen entering the orchard that bordered their village just as the war began, so it would be forever safe from the British and the Zionists. They would never capture her or her baby, nor the spirit that kept them both fervently alive.
Excerpted from “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story,” by Ramzy Baroud, to be published on February 20.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, media consultant, author and editor of the Palestine Chronicle. He is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. He is the author of My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto, 2009) among others books. He has a PhD in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter.