Written by Lilah Khoja, currently in Istanbul, this is the sixth and final of our fictional short stories. The story is illustrated by Cynthia Merhej, whose ongoing work The Atlas Hotel we’ve featured earlier. While diverse in both content and style, the narratives in the series share an interest in the ‘fate’ of the Middle East, and use fiction to make conceivable seemingly farfetched and unachievable possibilities for its tomorrow. We hope that their imaginings might spark a very real debate about what kinds of future Middle Easts are desirable and attainable.
“Shit, I’m late,” she thinks to herself, wearing her slippers, heels in hand, she runs, runs, runs, hair slipping out of her bun. She runs down the stairs, gets to the turnstile and, of course, her card is out of money. A cursory glance at her watch shows that unless something out of the ordinary has happened, the train is scheduled to leave in 3… 2… and she hears the muted rumbling begin and slowly fade away.
She stands in front of the turnstile, shoes in hand, hair half undone, shirt un-tucked, still in her slippers. She feels her eyes prickling with tears, her throat getting scratchy: she wasn’t late to her job – she still didn’t have one. She was late to an interview that her dad had set up for her through a friend of a friend of a friend – they’d all owed each other favours. Dejected, she moves to one of the seats underneath the subway map. She toys with the idea of writing an e-mail apologising for being late, but she doesn’t – she doesn’t want the job anyway. She looks around the station, which has finally calmed down after the initial morning rush, and drinks in the details.
She’s never paid attention to the station. It is one of the older ones in the city, and not as well maintained. A little boy walks in with an older woman – his grandmother perhaps – and smiles at him before a faded poster catches her eye with its torn edges. She gets up to look more closely at it, and sees that it is a poem. Or maybe an excerpt of a longer poem, she’s not really sure. She’s never heard of the poet credited at the bottom, and isn’t familiar with the text. The poem extolls the city. It talks about its beauty, the pigeons adorning the Ummayad Mosque, the tendrils of jasmine wrapped around buildings and their heavy scent in the summer. It talks about the city’s historical importance, its significance, about Saladdin’s glory, and Zainab Bint Ali’s eternal sorrow. She reads it twice, then smiles a half-smile. If her friends were around they’d poke fun at the flowery language and idealism that her parent’s generation was famous for. She’d usually agree, but for some reason she likes this poem, she likes the romanticism, she likes the idea that the city is governed by history, that each stone is tired and weighed down with epics. She pulls out her phone to snap a picture but before she can it begins to buzz with a call. She starts talking excitedly at the person on the other end, making her way out of the station, the poem, and these thoughts, forgotten.
A little boy clutches his grandmother’s hand, nervous and excited. A ride on the subway is always a treat – a rare one. His parents prefer to drive, despite the traffic and lack of parking on the streets, and his sisters who don’t pay attention to him. He listens to his grandmother explain the stops. They are going on a long journey today, down to the old train station that in its days of glory used to take people to Hajj and to Jerusalem, but is now no more than another big interchange for the subway. He looks up at his grandmother, and sees her wrinkled hands feeding money into the machine. The machine spits out a day pass, and she hands it to him. “Keep it safe,” she warns him, joking that if he loses it, he’ll be in big trouble.
He goes through the turnstile, scared that the machine will eat his pass and then grabs ahold of his grandmother’s hands once again. They sit on a bench in front of the tracks, waiting for the next train. As they sit, she begins narrating a watered down history of the crusades. A passerby hears her recounting the story, and joins in, correcting a small detail. They all get on the train together and she holds him in her lap, telling him tales of days long past and of theological myths. He marvels at what seem like the impossible stories of impossible beings.
A group of teenage girls gets on the train, loudly giggling and whispering and gossiping about their day at school. An older woman looks up from her reading, annoyed. They quiet down for a few minutes then burst out laughing again. It’s a Thursday afternoon, the start of the weekend! How can they not be excited? At the stop just before theirs, a group of boys gets on the train and sits across from them. Flirting. They know each other from before – friends of friends had introduced the two groups. A few of the girls are too shy to talk to the boys directly, and hold their book-bags close to their bodies, looking down at the dirty ground and blushing slightly. Plans are made for later – plans to meet in the Old City at one of the houses converted into a café. One of the girls wrinkles her nose in disgust and asks derisively if they’re serious. Nobody goes to those cafés anymore, they are seriously uncool. Her friends shrug – if she doesn’t want to come she doesn’t have to. The boys begin to tease her and the two groups get so loud the older woman shushes them. But it’s too late. They’ve arrived at their stop. They get off the train, and part ways in the station, heading in different directions. Promise fills the air.
It’s late. Very few people are in the station or on the trains. He’s tapping his foot, not to the beat of his music but randomly. He’s thinking about the past week at school, and hopes his parents will be glad to see him. He’s traveled far to get here, to surprise them on his mother’s birthday. An hour on the train, an hour stop in Golan to get his mother apples – her favorite – and then another hour on the train before getting on the metro. He wishes he had a car, but he knows he doesn’t need it. School keeps him too busy and besides, gas is expensive.
He is studying literature, which his parents think is a waste of time, and living away from home, which his parents think is a waste of money. He’s been in university for three years now, and has his heart set on pursuing an advanced degree. No matter how much he’s repeated this to his parents, they still think he is going to pursue medicine. He doesn’t understand it. His dad wasn’t a doctor. His grandfather wasn’t a doctor. None of his uncles were doctors. Yet his parents are convinced that he should be a doctor. He sighs and checks the time. He’d rushed to the train station after class, and hadn’t had time to rest since then. He hadn’t been home for a few months, and the last time he’d come by plane, and before that by car. He didn’t remember how tiring it was traveling by train. Every year there were rumours that construction on the high speed train linking Jaffa to Damascus would start soon and every year the construction date was delayed. When he’d picked Jaffa to study in, his parents said, “why go to Jaffa to study literature when you can stay in Damascus?” But this, like other things about him, they just didn’t understand.
Finally, his stop. He stands up and makes sure he has all his belongings with him: his overnight bag, his schoolbag, and the bag of apples. On his way out of the station, he sees a poster he’d put up three years ago, still there. A huge grin spreads across his face. He’d done this in a few stations in different parts of town – put up wheat paste posters with poetry on them, some about Damascus, some about other cities, some about love. He’d done the same in Palestine, too, but he thought that all the posters had been plastered over, taken down, or had weathered away. He’s glad this one hadn’t. This city, as old as it is still has room for him.