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Old October 20, 2011, 02:34 PM
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mufi_02 mufi_02 is offline
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Default Touching Short Story

Bread of Sacrifice

Samira 'Azzam (1925-1967)

When Ibrahim handed him the tobacco-filled pipe, he wished he could break down and cry like a child. He felt tears welling in his eyes and turned his head aside to wipe them away on his sleeve. In an attempt to hide his sorrow, he raised his head to peer over the barricade, but when he turned back to face Iris companions their grief-stricken silence brought the tears back into his eyes. The night, presided over by a distant, cloudy moon, seemed to grieve with them; everything in tile universe seemed to know his story. He longed to be able to give himself up to the luxury of sorrow, but could not. He longed to shake his friends, to throw away the armor of toughness and cry--cry without shame. He raised his sleeve to wipe his eyes, and felt the woolen shirt irritating them, reminding him of that talisman of hers he was wearing, that would protect him--as she once said--from every treacherous bullet.

Yes, he could remember that night.

It had been a night of stinging cold like this one, with a thin crescent moon. He had been ordered to guard the small hospital the Arab Legion had set up in a town house that consisted of four stone rooms and a small garden. The eight hospital beds were occupied by eight wounded

men brought in following a battle between the Jewish Nahariya settlement and the Arab villages around Acre. Yes, it had been cold that night, and neither his kaffiyyeh nor his heavy overcoat were enough to shield him from the biting chill, so lie had taken to walking about in order to keep the blood from freezing in his veins. When he tired of this, he returned to lean against the hospital wall, near the door, gazing at the distant houses of the city which slept uneasily, fearful of sudden attack. He did not know what time it was exactly. The only remaining lights were the streetlamps on the main thoroughfares, and the night was silent save for the sound of a distant jackal.

Yes, he did not know exactly what time it was when he sensed her standing near him in her white nurse's uniform, asking him whether lie wanted a cup of tea. He had not given thought to tea, nor to anything else; nevertheless, he felt it would be nice to have a warm object to hold against his chilled fingers, and accepted her offer gratefully. When she returned with the tea, he finished it off in four gulps so as not to oblige her to wait long, and gave her back the empty cup, murmuring some word of thanks. And after she left, he thought it would have been polite if he had talked to her a little more. He turned Iris head, searching for her shadow behind the window. He saw no one. He decided to thank her in the morning‑but who could she be? There were two female nurses, and he had seen nothing of her except her white uniform. The second night he was determined to be less rigid when she brought him tea. He waited a long time, but she did not come. He told himself that she must be too busy with those who really needed her care to see to his tea. Why shouldn't he, therefore, knock on the door and ask for his own tea? He hesitated, not wanting to be a nuisance. The lights went out, the city slept, leaving him and his comrades the responsibility of keeping vigil. It was about this time last night that he drank her tea. He flexed his fingers, frozen by the gun‑barrel, and wished for something to bring them warmth. No sooner had he lifted his hand to his mouth to blow on his fingers than her white uniform suddenly appeared p at Iris side and he heard her saying, "I've brought you your tea without asking; you won't refuse it, will you?"

He raised his eyes, looked at her, and extended his cold hand to take the cup. He decided it would be nice to speak to her before drinking. "Don't you find the work here hard?"

With a gravity he had not expected, she replied, "Do you think I'm not good enough for duties like this?"

"I . . . No, not at all . . ."

At a loss for words, lie raised the cup to Iris lips and drank quickly,

scalding his throat. He returned the cup to her without a thank you, and when she had moved a few steps away, he called out, "Miss" why shouldn't he ask her name? There was no harm iii that. She stopped, and he approached her. "Excuse me, I wonder if I might know your name?"

She laughed before replying: "And why not? We are all comrades I( here. My name is Wad.

"I am Ramiz. My buddies call me Sarge. Should we shake hands?"

She laughed and gave him her hand, then slipped away as lightly as she had come.

Su'ad. How strange--another Su'ad. He seemed to have luck with this name. Some days ago the Acre Women's Committee had presented a gift of hand-knitted woolen shirts and blankets to the Arab Legion. In the pocket of each was a card bearing the name of the young woman who had knitted it, along with a word of encouragement. He still kept his. He felt for it in his pocket, pulled it out, and lit a match by which he read the words "Su'ad Wahbi," and below the name "May this shirt be worn by a hero."

The match went out and the words vanished. He put the card back

in his pocket. Could it be her? If it were, wouldn't that be a pleasant coincidence? He turned to the door, and found it locked.

The third night he arranged to begin his shift of guard duty earlier

in order to have an opportunity to enter the hospital and ask after the wounded. The door was open, and he went in. He saw her carrying a dinner tray to one of the soldiers. He greeted her and asked if he might visit them. She replied, "Why not? I'd like you to meet Hassan so he can tell you the details of the battle. I've heard it myself dozens of times, but it won't hurt to hear it once more."

He followed her.

He stood next to her in front of Hassan's bandaged head, and they both laughed to hear the wounded man say; "Su'ad is a strict nurse who wants me stretched out like a corpse. She won't even let me sneak a cigarette."

As she laughed, Ramiz noticed that her teeth were very white, and her eyes shone with an indomitable will. The mood in the room en

couraged him to ask; "Still, you'd agree with me that she's a good one?"

"Good? She's the best of them all. She's better than my old mother. She's always around, giving this one something to drink, that one something to cat, answering the bells that ring in all the rooms. If ever she finds a moment to rest, you'll find her sitting by the door with her knitting."

"Knitting?"

He remembered the shirt. His hand moved, finding the thick buttons of the overcoat that covered it. Opening the coat to show his shirt, he turned to her and said, "Do you recognize this shirt?"

"Yes. So you were the one who got it."

"Don't I deserve it? I still have the card. This way I will always remember my duty to perform as a hero."

A persistent bell summoned her ail(] she left him with Hassan, who asked him for a cigarette which he promised not to smoke until Su'ad gave him her approval.

Two weeks went by, and the wounded began to recover and leave the hospital, all except one who was transferred to another hospital. Ramiz's guard duty there was over, and he returned to his job training recruits. He would meet new recruits and release others until darkness fell, then he would take his rifle and go for his nightly guard duty. Only when dawn lit the sky did he go home and throw himself on the iron cot in his one room house. There he found time to think about her.

An entire week went by, during which he did not see her. Where could she be? Why did he feel driven to think about her, and to treasure the shirt she had knitted? Yesterday morning he had discovered something as he got dressed. She had knitted and knitted without knowing who would wear the shirt. Maybe she had a picture in her mind's eye of what the man who wore it ought to look like. Obviously she wished him to be tall, with broad shoulders--a man she hoped would be a hero. He turned to look at himself in the mirror oil the wall and felt his muscular arms. He laughed at his own foolishness as he gazed at himself. But what harm would it do if he acted a little silly, burying his face in the shirt, for example, or kissing it?

On the eighth day he chanced upon her in the street. She was not in her nurse's uniform. I He stopped her, saying, "I almost didn't recognize you out of uniform."

She shook his hand and said; "'file hospital has moved and I couldn't think of anything; to do today. What are you up to?"

"Training recruits during the day, and guard duty at night‑nothing much' And no teal"

Her silvery laugh rang out. She caught him gazing at her and blushed. She started to walk away, and he rushed to speak to her before

shyness overcame him. "I hope you don't think I'm being out of line. Couldn't I meet you somewhere?"

"Our town is too small for that."

"But we're comrades in arms. I train recruits, both men and women.

Come to the Port Club. We can talk a little bit after I'm finished with drilling."

They agreed to meet there at three. He was in the middle of demonstrating to a women's squadron how to stand firm holding a heavy rifle without faltering, when he caught sight of her. He continued with his job, and did not talk to her until the exercise was completed. Then he dismissed his class and turned to greet her, offering her a chair.

"Aren't you exhausted?" she asked.

"Who Isn't? But once I realized what sort of mobilization and prep­arations arc going on in the Jewish settlements, I wished there were sixty hours in a day. We have a tough job ahead of us."

"Aren’t you afraid?"

"Wary. It won't be easy. I think the Jews have stockpiled a great many weapons in their settlements. We've found out many things."

"Have you gone there yourself?"

"Yes, I used to go a lot before relations became strained. Now I can't go. I'm on their blacklist."

He saw her observing him. Presently, her lips parted and tile determined look flashed in her eyes. "You know, I'm starting to believe that you are something of a hero."

"A hero? No way, though your card has given me the inspiration to be one."

"Do you still have it?"

"Here it is."

He handed it to her, gild as he took it back, lie pressed her hand briefly then released it. Then, to give her a chance to conceal her embarrassment he looked out over the blue sea in front of' him.

It was spring. Springtime iii this part of Palestine is a sparkling sea, traversed by white sails during the day .lied lit by the twinkling Limps of fishing boats at night. The fragrance of the orange groves tills the air. That spring, Ramiz learned about two things--love and war--and the first gave meaning to the second. War was not simply an enemy to kill voraciously. Rather, it was the assertion of the life of the land he loved and the woman he loved. Palestine was clot only a sea with fishing boats, and oranges shining like gold, and not just olives and olive oil filling the big oil jars. It was Su'ad's black eyes as well. III Su'ad's eyes he saw all of Palestine's goodness. I, too, saw the image of a happy home for him, and a wife who would bear him young heroes and make her love the meaning of his existence.

Each new day her image accompanied the news of battles in the morning papers. The battle of Qastal.1 The Palestinian counterattack from the Triangle of terror2 on enemy settlements. His and his comrades' raids on the infiltrating Jewish armored vehicles rolling down the road from Haifa to Acre to Nahariya. The heroism of his people in Salama, in every town and village.

Then came the fall of Haifa.'

He would never forget that evening.

He was busy training the recruits. When he turned toward the sea, he saw dozens and dozens of boats filled with refugees. The people of Acre gathered at the city walls to learn about the new situation. They had been aware of the battles that were being fought in Haifa, and they knew that the British authorities had secretly helped the Zionists with fortified positions. Although the British had publicly declared that they would not leave Haifa until a few months after the end of the Mandate Period, they now suddenly announced that they had to leave the city.

The terror poured down Mount Car Carmel onto tile Arabs who lived on the slopes. Tile British authorities spread terrifying rumors that caused panic. At the same time, they opened the port, and made their ships available to carry off anyone who wished to flee. So people crammed into them while gunfire spit out at them from the mountain.

The boats dumped them on the shore of Acre, a human mass, some stunned by their wounds, others by hunger, still others by terror.

The homes, the mosques, the monasteries, the plazas of his city were jammed with them.

They brought Ills small city the burden of providing food and shelter for so many.

That night he saw Su'ad with dozens of women volunteers, receiving the wounded at the port and assigning them to hospitals and homes. At the same time, the war of rumors began to play on everyone's nerves.

He awoke the following day to a loud knocking at the door. He opened it and was astonished to see her there. She was crying.

She said that her brother had got hold of a truck, loaded it with everything that would fit, then crammed his wife, his children, and himself onto it and drove to Lebanon. Twenty families in tier neighborhood had already done the same thing. Her brother had tried to make her come with them, but she had refused. She had argued with him and he had slapped her oil the face. All she could do then was run away.

She would be the last to leave.

He was startled and remained silent, not knowing what to say to her. When she tapped against Ills chest with her fist lie asked; "Have you done this because of tile?"

She blurted out; "No, not because of you. Yes, I love you, It's true. Still, you're not everything!" And she left.

He opened the door and went out into the city. Dozens of cars, both large and small, full and empty, were speeding off, like the wind. Baffled, lie did not know whether to weep or shout or start pelting them with stones.

After a week the city was empty, except for the fighters, a handful of woman nurses scattered among the small hospitals, and refugees from Haiti or the surrounding villages. There was no more time for meetings with Su'ad. 1o the north and south, the enemy was lying in wait for a chance to attack. By day lie slipped Into the villages to gather rifles and ammunition; his tights were spent with five others crouched behind barricades set up of the roof of a disused cigarette factory. The city had to hold fast until the Mandate ended and the Arab armies could come in to fight the battle.

These were his duties as assigned by the National Committee of Acre. When he had time to rest, he thought of Su'ad wondering how

she was living and under what circumstances. One day lie was startled to see her suddenly; he stopped in Iris tracks.

She was wrapped in a coat and was carrying a large basket.

He did not know how to greet her, but she solved the problem by opening the basket and directing her words to all his comrades. "The National Committee was afraid you might run out of, food, so they sent me with these things."

There was bread, cigarettes, and candy in the basket. Her eyes were filled with love. He wished he could embrace her in front of all his comrades. He felt lie alone had the right to walk a little way with her on her way back, and to take her fingertips in his trembling hand. Then he raised her hand to Iris lips, begging her not to do such a crazy thing again. She went off; and he stood watching her until a bend in the road swallowed her. She visited them repeatedly. She always stayed just a few minutes, but they were enough to arouse Iris emotions in a way that made him both tired and happy. Until the beginning of the week.

The fighting grew more intense, with shelling going on for an entire day and two nights, and for part of a second day. The enemy's armored cars were advancing along the main road to Nahariya The fighters had to ambush them with artillery placed on the roofs of houses near the road.

The battle did not subside until three the next afternoon. Some of the men lay on the barricades to rest, and others lay on the ground. He went down to wash at the garden faucet before heading to the city to find out what plans the Arab Legion had for hauling the wrecked cars into town. His face was covered with soap, when he heard the sound of a bullet, then another. As he quickly wiped the soap from his eyes, the sound of her voice rang in his cars.

Turning toward the garden door, he saw that she had darted in. Her basket was in one hand and she held the other against her chest. At the beginning, he did not see anything wrong as she was standing, but then she fell into Iris arms and blood began to flow from her chest. He stopped her wound with his hand and called out to his comrades, who quickly threw their shirts to him to absorb the blood that came pouring out.

She opened her mouth to speak, but a rattle in her throat choked her words‑then, with a single groan, it was all over.

It happened so fast he could not believe it. A single horrible instant put an end to everything. How could time not have stood still, how could it have marched on, allowing her to die? Why did she not revive under his kisses and his anguished cries, and how could those eyelids not tremble with life as lie whispered Iris love to her?

She was dead. How, when the fragrance of her hair still lingered in the air, the warmth of her hand could still be felt on Ills palm, and lie could still taste her lips against his own? Her eyes had never spoken of death, only of love and the promise of life.

Rubbing Iris eyes to banish the nightmare, he gripped tile pipe Ibrahim had handed him, so that Iris fingernails would not bore into Iris palm. He stared at Iris comrades.

"Yes, she is dead," their eyes seemed to say. We must take her from you and bury her on the hill over there. We'll mark her grave with a flag and proclaim tier a heroine.

She loved you and became a symbol for all of us, Ibrahim and Wadee` and Salih, Ahmad and `Abdullah.

A thin yellow moon and a few stars. Nothing but the darkness and the glowing ends of cigarettes. Behind the barricade they had neither food nor drink, and they had not slept.

The rest of the night passed peacefully except for a skirmish or two at dawn. Then things grew quiet, and tile tired heads surrendered themselves to a sleep broken by hunger and fear.

At dawn `Abdullah rubbed tits eyes and looking over to the piles of wooden boxes nearby asked; "Isn't there anything to eat?"

Wadee` replied, "Sure, there's our hunger."

He fell silent.

There were Su'ad's loaves, stained with her blood. What a wretched dip for their bread!

Their hunger became unbearable, and they were soon unable even to stand up.

Ramiz felt that the situation was turning into a humiliating ordeal, and that he alone of his comrades could dare to consider eating the loaves. He covered Iris eyes with his hands. Could anything be worse than his being forced to feed her blood to Iris friends? He looked over at Iris comrades. `Abdullah lay on a blanket, as did Salih. Ahmad sat on a sandbag, pressing his hands against Iris stomach. They were ready to cat a dog's corpse, but no one reached fur the loaves baptized with blood. He would have to set things in motion. What would he say to his comrades? Tike it, for Su'ad has given us the bread and the dip?

He bowed Iris head for a moment, then dragged himself to Iris feet. If the idea was too awful for him, he must go to the city and get them something to cat.

He tried to stand tip, but lie was too weak. His comrades realized what his going to the city would entail. Any bullet would catch him like a little bird‑the open countryside between their post and the city center was wide and exposed. Armored cars protecting themselves by spraying out bullets in all directions could be expected to pass 'at any moment. So Salih took him by the shoulders and made him sit down.

He sat down, and once again the battle between the blood soaked bread and their hunger began.

There it was, still piled in the corner, in the basket, just the way Su'ad had brought it. It would hurt, but it would save five lives.

What price would he pay? Could he bear to see the hands tearing off a piece and the teeth chewing the bread she had stained with her blood? His eyes clouded over‑no, it would never happen, even if they all had to die. They weren't any better than she had been, so what if they, too, died? She had died carrying bread to them, but they would die because they would not touch her bread. Her death would not save their lives. They would be rejecting the bread of sacrifice, offered to them to test their humanity, or his own humanity at least. What had they done that they should starve? But what if they did starve? They could just forget the bread was there. In any case, they were not considering it. They had abstained, willing themselves to wait for another source of nourishment, or to die, and with them would die the chance to avenge her death.

Revenge? Yes, how could he have forgotten that? How could he choose to die of hunger like a dog, and to let five others die with him? So many encounters with death had insured 11111 to the thought of it. But if he could choose the death he wished, lie would not choose to die of hunger. Su'ad herself would never allow that of a hero.

He shuddered in pain.

He realized that throughout this last night he had thought more about his hunger than about Su'ad. Hunger had suspended all other sensibilities. What a horrible experience!

He called to his comrades, and they were barely able to open their eyes. He would call them one by one: Ibrahim and Wadee` and Salih and Alimad and `Abdullah. They would form a circle around him. Then he would rise and bring the loaves of bread. As he put his hand out to open the basket he would tell them an ancient story known to this land and its people, tile story of the redemption of life by flesh and blood. Then he would bring the loaves and, with all the solemnity of an Eastern Orthodox priest offering the bread of Jesus he would tell them: "Eat, for this is my body; drink, for this is my blood." He would also cat some himself, and something of Su'ad would remain in him. How did this thought escape Iris attention before? Something was now nudging him, shouting and demanding, reminding him that lie had to do something for that body now buried in the corner of the garden.

He pulled himself tip and walked to the other corner, his movements followed by five pairs of eyes. He could feel their gaze fastened on Iris legs. With a trembling hand, lie took the basket, opened it, and brought the bread to his lips. Then he approached Iris comrades, fell to his knees, and handed tile loaves out, saying; "Eat . . . Su'ad would not have wanted its to die of hunger." Then the world grew distant, and lie fell senseless to the ground.

(Anthology of MODERN PALESTINIAN LITERATURE, Edited and introduced by Sara Khadra Jayyusi, translated by Kathie Piselli and Dick Davies)
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