Written by Dubai-based Dania Al Husseini, this is the second of six fictional short stories we will be publishing as part of our inaugural fiction series. While diverse in both content and style, these narratives 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.
For the third night in a row, Amina slept soundlessly without the muffled noises of crying babies, sad conversations and torchlights crashing inside closely placed tents. She was grateful for the return of windows and doors that had become luxuries since her arrival at the camp in Jordan many months before. She opened the aluminum door to her new trailer. The mornings, streaked with soft yellow and hazy orange, were her favourite because they added colour to her otherwise drab life as a refugee. She imagined she could roll up the sky, the glow of the early sun, the still air around her, and pack it all up in a tiny little box to free at will. Amina’s four boys were still asleep, all crammed on the same mottled mattress. Their arms, feet, elbows and heads entangled. The image forced a smile to her face. Lamenting her own loss, she grabbed her walking aid and hobbled out of the trailer.
As her frayed sandal met the makeshift wooden step, Amina almost slipped. Resting there was an envelope whose whiteness shone brilliantly. She tightened her headscarf then picked it up, sensing its thinness between her fingers. Could Umm Ahmad have left this here? No, where would she get an envelope? She would never pay for one. Amina’s forehead crumpled like a freshly washed piece of clothing. She looked around but saw nobody. The sand around the limitless stretch of tents in the vast camp appeared undisturbed. No dust clouds, just stillness.
Before she knew it, a familiar face interrupted her line of vision.
“Good Morning Amina!” And then noticing Amina’s gaze, “Why do you have the look of the wounded? What’s happened to you, are you hurt?”
“Sabah el kheir to you Umm Ahmad, I don’t know, my dear friend. I found this right on my doorstep.” She held out the envelope for her to see.
“Well, who is it from?”
Amina examined both sides of the envelope but aside from a sequence of numbers and her initials printed neatly in the top right corner, it was completely blank — no sender, name or address. Not even a postage stamp. Their eyes contorted into question marks that bounced off one another’s faces.
“Should I ask the others if they know?”
“Not a word, Amina. This could be a trap!” Umm Ahmad lowered her voice as if they were being spied on. “The Jordanian camp administrators are going to force you out of the trailer, and throw you back into the tent, just like they did with me. Don’t open the envelope, just pretend you didn’t see it. Or even better, burn it!”
Amina laughed away her friend’s skepticism. “Don’t be silly Umm Ahmad, they’re helping us. They’re upgrading all the tents to trailers, this is what they announced, remember? And anyway, didn’t they explain that the new family had a badly wounded son and that’s why they gave them the trailer you were issued just that morning — and which you agreed to?”
Defeated by her own theory, Umm Ahmad replied, “Khalas. Do what you want, Amina… Come, let’s have some tea before the water turns cold.”
Amina tucked the envelope into the pocket of her black thobe, unsure what she should do with it, and the two women made their way to Umm Ahmad’s tent, Amina limping a few steps behind. The canvas tops had collected incredible amounts of dust and almost blended in with the brown hue of the earth beneath their exposed feet. When they first arrived, these then new homes stood sturdy and taut. Now, the wooden stakes and ropes holding their four corners down had loosened, and their tops were starting to wilt. Amina almost laughed at the absurdity of this sight. Not only had their skin started to sag and crinkle from the changing season, these lifeless, soulless objects had experienced their share of aging as well. Umm Ahmad’s attention was turned to teenage Mustafa who sat atop the cylindrical metal water tank. It wasn’t the first time they saw him there — it was like he had discovered his own place of refuge up there. Mustafa’s mother was crouched down by a makeshift grate which she was using to wash clothes. The bottom of her dress was soiled and she kept moving the items up and down incessantly. A bird descended just then, and sipped happily on the discarded, putrid liquid.
As the women arrived to Umm Ahmad’s tent, Amina’s curiosity about the contents of the letter resurfaced, buzzing in her ear like the drone of a nearby plane. She wondered if her friend could be right. What if this was something really bad — how would I get out of it with four boys to take care of? The women settled into the two plastic green chairs whose backs had cracked from the dry heat of Amman, causing them to convulse and twist whenever anyone tried to lean back.
“Ufft,” whined Umm Ahmad, as though it was her first experience with a bruised and beat-up chair. “Even our chairs are not normal.” She crossed her legs and folded her arms across her chest, slumping in her seat like a disgruntled child.
“What should I say then, look at me! I am 40 and limping like a sick old lady! God willing something will change. Have some faith Umm Ahmad.”
By now, the sun had already taken its place in the sky and the rest of the camp was waking up. Like a harmless beast rising from hibernation, the stretching, shifting and shuffling of children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters could be felt as entire families emerged from their dwellings. In the limitless horizon, tufts of smoke rose upwards followed by orange showers of what looked like rusty rain.
While the women sipped their tea and chatted, the mysterious envelope returned to Amina’s mind. She could almost feel its tug in the pocket of her black thobe pocket and imagined tearing it open and manically scanning the paper. Around them, ill-clothed, ill-fed children scurried around the camp. Snot ran down their noses and blotches of dried dirt were smeared across their faces. They chased each other, squealing and shrieking with laughter, oblivious to the turmoil they were living in.
“Come on boys! Your father is waiting in the car, we’ll be late again, yalla yalla.” Amina’s famously cranky and impatient husband kept pressing down on the horn. He yelled up toward their third floor apartment and the winds instantly carried his shrill deep voice through the open window and into Amina’s ears. Curse this man and his impatience!
“We’ll be down in a minute habibi, the little one needs to go to the bathroom,” she called back with a sweet smile. Amina was looking forward to spending the day outdoors with their cousins. She could almost smell the fresh zesty lemons and oranges, which they would pick off the trees in their garden. “Little one, are you ready? Your baba doesn’t want you eating cold food and you can play on your cousin’s nice swing, remember it? Yalla ya ‘omri.” The four of them pulled on their shoes and ran to the elevator, hitting the “down” button persistently, wishing it would make the elevator hurry. Amina’s husband’s shouts had faded but she knew he’d have a sore throat again by the time they reached his sister’s lunch. Why does he always have a flame heating his behind? “God give us all patience.” she sighed.
As the elevator finally made its stop at the ground floor and the doors opened, she felt a force pin her back into the wall of the elevator. She instinctively grabbed hold of her children and didn’t let go. All she could see and smell before her world went black was smoke and fire. When she opened her eyes, she was told that days had passed. She was covered in bandages and one of her legs hurt. “You are being taken to the refugee camp in Amman where your children are already waiting. You will be taken care of there,” was all she was told by the driver.
Amina arranged the stacks of flour, sugar, yeast and wheat in neat rows at her designated “dry goods” station and neatly piled her allotment of vouchers on the small counter. If only Umm Ahmad was here with me, she thought. She would be laughing at herself for wanting me to burn the letter. Her own worries took her away. She took in a deep breath, allowing the tears to slide down her cheek. The day moved quickly with many familiar and some not so familiar faces approaching her for a bag of this or a bag of that. That it was all actually coming to an end felt surreal. Amina surveyed the room of 40 or so employed refugees and how busy and content they looked. She wondered if she also looked as different as she felt.
The last two months had brought tremendous stability to the many years Amina had spent in the camp. She had become used to trailer life: no more squatting in makeshift bathrooms outside, no more trying to keep the flaps of tents closed tightly while her family changed and slept. But today was unique because she was just days away from leaving the camp. She calculated her earnings in her head: 5 JDs per day multiplied by 30 days equals 150 dinars, multiplied by 2 equals 300 dinars. She couldn’t remember the last time she smiled as much, but the sounds and images of the past years would not let her go so easily: crying children, tired adults, people wheezing, people bleeding, bones aching, families arguing, old memories lost, new memories tainted, birthdays forgotten, occasions evaporated, no books, no laughs, no jokes, bad food, bad water, dirty clothes, not warm enough, not cool enough, never clean enough.
Amina was ready to work her way back slowly into life and bring her children home where they belonged. Even though their last memories of Syria were the pounding of metal, the crumbling of brick and mortar, and the smothering flames that never seemed to clear enough for them to see their dying father, she would take it day by day. On her way out of the supermarket, Amina’s wrinkled fingers found the tattered corners of the envelope in the pocket of her thobe. Negligible pieces of paper disintegrated in her fingers. Each time she touched the envelope, she was pulled back to 2014 and to that day when it almost made her fall over, when her friend’s anxiety almost made her destroy it. But by now, she knew its contents by heart:
You are receiving this letter based on the sequence of your arrival here. We are happy to announce that as the Conflict has ended, this refugee camp will eventually close down. The ARABS (Arab Refugee Assistance Benefit for Syria), is managing the transition of refugees to help families earn their way and integrate back into society. Starting Sunday, you will begin working in the camp supermarket at a minimum daily wage rate for two months. After that, you will be transported to a longer-term dorm in Amman where employment opportunities and better living facilities will be available. Your children will also be tutored by volunteer educators until you find work. With your earnings, you will be able to move back home. You will also be given a document confirming fulfillment of your employment duties here in the camp.”
Amina’s heart was about to shatter from the pace of its beating. She felt as though the ground beneath her was shaking. Her arms flailed around until she realised that she was the one being shaken… by Umm Ahmad.
“Amina, Amina! What’s with you? Are you not feeling well?”
In her disorientation, Amina looked around and saw the istikanas and the rusty teapot on the small square table where they had been sitting. Her walking aid had fallen off her lap. She reached into the pocket of her thobe and her fingers found it! The envelope was still there, and its edges were still crisp. She drew in a deep breath and looked squarely into Umm Ahmad’s eyes. Pulling out the envelope from her thobe, she announced, “I’m opening the letter.”
Umm Ahmad laughed, shaking her head. “What a sense of humor you have Amina,” taking another sip of her tea.
Holding it to her chest, Amina whispered to herself: “I dream a dream. Simply, of a future.”