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The First Well

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 17.03.2006:

The following story is taken from the diary of the Palestinian author Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. It is about his youth in Bethlehem.

On the edge of the Valley of the Camel, a little below the New Road, a hugh azarole tree soared upwards, visible from our house on the hill above. The slopes of the valley were covered with olive trees wherever you looked, but this wild azarole prided itself on its height, its spreading branches, and its towering grandeur. No one knew who had planted it; perhaps it had simply burst out from the earth between two big rocks, too long ago for anyone to remember. We always saw it clearly from the road, because its upper branches rose up higher than the road’s edge, and it would sway with every breeze as if beckoning to us, deliberately and willfully inviting us. We had only to climb a rock or two and jump on to one of its branches, then carry on up into its dense network of branches and leaves, and fill our pockets with its sweet little yellow fruit.

During the olive-picking season we’d make it our point of entry to the trees in the valley. The croppers, with their sticks and ladders, would pick the olives with a deftness that went back thousands of years, singing merrily as they did so. “‘Ala dal’una” was everyone’s favorite song; and in autumn the valley would be filled with the sound of it, as men, women, boys, and girls shook the trunks and the branches, beat them with their sticks and climbed to the higher, more difficult branches on ladders, making the green olives fall, like pearls, on to the red earth. They’d move from tree to tree, picking up handfuls of fruit to fill their baskets and bags, and their songs and the tunes of the double reed and the flute would move on with them. Whatever the time of day, there was always someone, perhaps visible, perhaps not, sitting alone on a rock somewhere and playing the double reed or flute, pouring out a flood of tunes which echoed through every part of the broad valley like the playing of a gentle breeze.

Here and there a few olives would cling stubbornly to their branches, or lie hidden among the pebbles or between the cracks in the earth that were lined with nettles and various kinds of autumn anamone; and we’d take our school bags (school being closed for a few days, so that the students could take part in the olive harvest) and glean behind the croppers, picking up any stray or stubborn olive they’d missed, however few these might be. These were free to anyone who took them; and when we’d filled our little bags with them, we’d go back to our lonely azarole tree if there was any daylight left, and climb it, singing our own songs, happy with what we’d gathered.

I tried to understand the bedouin words of the song and took pleasure in the uncommon ones among them. I liked to imagine how the “north wind” changed the colours of lovers; I saw them, dark, tanned by the sun as it lit up their large, kohl-painted eyes, eyes that glittered and shone, gleaming white and intensely black, while the north wind blew on them and deepened their darkness – and their sweetness:

‘Ala dai’una, ‘ala dai’una,

The north wind has changed my color.

I’ll write to my sweetheart on blue paper

And send many greetings to my beloved girl.

But if, my darling, you’re bent on staying apart,

Talk to me on the telephone.

I tried to imagine the voice of this adored sweetheart as she lisped over a telephone. I’d seen a telephone once at some people’s house, but I’d never put the receiver to my ear — and many years later, when I spoke on the phone for the first time, this song and these words were the first thing that came into my mind. I wished the person at the other end had been that beloved girl bent on staying apart from her lover, while I picked olives in the Valley of the Camel and filled my pockets with azaroles; then I could have asked her, “Tell me, please, why are you bent on staying apart?”

One day I was coming back from the azarole tree, on my way home with Sulayman. Near the tree a lane turned off from the new Road and went up till it reached the top, by the garages of the Bethlehem buses whose company had recently been established. At that point the lane turned to join Ras Iftas Street as it carried on upwards; our house was on the heights above this lane, which had actually, for many centuries, been the original road to Jerusalem, before the New Road was built and paved in the early 1920s. The New Road led directly to Manger Square, skirting the edge of the valley in a wide arc and missing the old town.

One of the owners of the garages where the lane turned off was a relative of ours called Abu Ilyas. After my father’s sciatic nerve disease had forced him to leave his job at the convent hospital, he’d sometimes go to Abu Ilyas to amuse himself and talk to the two or three men who worked there and who were acquaintences of his. He’d watched the car engines being repaired, enchanted by their complexity and movements, and he’d say, “that’s the kind of work I’ve always wanted to do!”

One day Abu Ilyas asked my father why he didn’t go and work for them; and when my father said he was too old now to learn a new trade, and was too sick in any case, he insisted that my father would simply be allowed to help the workers as best as he could. The wages, he said, would be very small — one shilling a day.

My father agreed to this, despite my mother’s objections (my mother was in Jerusalem, and didn’t know what was happening at home). I argued as strongly as I could, too, because I was afraid my father would do himself an injury with the physical exertion involved. But my father insisted; the work was easy, he said, and it would give him something to do.

It was just a few days after he’d started work at these garages that Sulayman and I were, as I said, going back home up the hill from the hospitable azarole tree, and I saw my father busy carrying a number of tires inside from the sidewalk.

“Let me help you, father,” I said.

“No, no,” he said. “You go and play with your friend.”

“Let me carry the tires with you,” I said. “I’ll go home afterwards.”

I turned to my friend. “You go,” I said, “I’ll follow on later.”

Sulayman went off, and I helped my father with what he was doing. A few meters below us there was a car hoisted up on a jack, ready for a front tire to be put on. One of the workers had already fitted the tire on to the iron rim of the wheel and pumped it up, and he asked my father to carry it to the car.

I volunteered to carry it myself, and, finding that it was heavy, I stood it on its edge. It was pumped up hard, like a football, so I decided I could roll it along instead of carrying it. I fact, I only had to give it a little push and it rolled along easily in front of me.

I ran after it, pushing it once or twice, and it started to roll downhill faster. Then, when I tried to push it sideways toward the car hoisted up on the jack, my hand hardly touched it, and it went on rolling in the direction it had chosen for itself.

I ran quicker behind it, but it outstripped me like a bolting horse, going faster and faster down the road as I still sped after it with all the strength I could muster. I saw it getting further and further ahead of me, while I panted behind, vainly trying to catch it. It looked like a furious animal that was thrown off all restraint. There was a man peacefully riding his donkey up the road, and I was afraid the crazy tire would run into him and throw him and his donkey to the ground, but it crashed into the side of a stone, bounced two or three meters up into the air, and came down on the edge of the New Road. I hoped it would fall flat and finally come to a stop, but instead the cursed tire fell on its inflated rim and bounced again, with increased force, toward the azarole tree. Still I ran and panted on, unable to grasp the meaning of what I saw, and I heard my father shouting at me from a long way off, “Now look what you’ve done! Look what you’ve done!”

At the edge of the valley, near this azarole tree, the tire gave one last bounce, then disappeared into the depths.

I sprang to the edge in my turn, and caught sight of the tire still running on, being thrown from one rock to another with tremendous force, as though a genie freed from hell was inside it. I grew frightened. My God, when would it stop? When was this cursed tire ever going to stop?

The crazy tire began to land on one retaining wall after another, then fly off them, bouncing its way down the terraced slope of the valley, and, by some subtle miracle, it didn’t crash into any of the olive trees, as though it knew they’d put an end to its mad flight. Panic gripped me; I felt as though I’d committed some fearful offense, for which there was no redemption.

My father caught up with me, as confused as I was, his eyes fixed on the unjust tire — for I felt that the tire was treating us with injustice by its satanic flight. I was afraid the owners of the garage would insist my father paid for it, and that he wouldn’t be able to, and so would have to work for them for nothing because of what his careless son had done.

Suddenly the tire hit an olive tree at the bottom of the valley, and, from our point far off, we saw it fall and vanish. My father moved quicker than I did, leaping from one rock to the next like a leopard.

“You stay where you are,” he shouted back at me, “so I don’t lose my way. Do you hear me? No, don’t come down. Stay where you are!”

In a twinkling my father’s youth and mobility came back to him. He took my position as a bearing point for his descent, for it was easy to get lost in that great, deep valley; apparently he’d drawn an imaginary line in his mind, tracing the movement of the tire in its successive jumps from the place where we’d been standing. Still I watched him as he descended the terrace one after the other, looking up toward me from time to time till I could see him no longer. I was in despair, feeling that he could never possibly find the tire.

Then a little while later, although it seemed an eternity to me, he reappeared, and I saw him waving to me from far away in the distance.

He didn’t stay to rest even for a moment; I saw him lift up the tire and begin his ascent. I didn’t hear anyone singing at that painful hour, nor did I hear the tune of a flute or a double reed. The valley seemed desolate, dreary, and oppressive. My father carried the wretched tire, heavy as it was, climbing from stone to stone, from rock to rock, now appearing, now disappearing again.

At last I saw his head rise up over the edge, near the friendly azarole tree, and he looked amazingly proud. He was panting, and the sweat was running down his face. The tire in his mighty hand was like a brass bottle into which he’d returned the genie to its prison.

As I rushed up to him, he saw that tears were flowing from my eyes and that I was shaking uncontrollably. He patted my head with his free hand. “Stop it, lad!” he said. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? I’m your father, you know I wouldn’t let you down!”

I tried to take the tire from him, and found, to my surprise, that he was still able to laugh. Yes, he could still laugh and joke with me, the culprit who’d been imagining the most terrifying things! “What?” he said. “You’re not going to send it flying off again, are you?”

As we made our way back up to the garage, he pushed me gently with his hand. “Off with you, now,” he said. “Go home, and no more of this work and this nonsense! Go and study, and sing ‘ataba’!”

I hesitated, gazing at his eyes and his big black moustache. His forehead was straight and broad, his cheeks full and shining. He seemed to me like a handsome, towering giant, like the azarole tree I loved. In spite of what I’d done, he’d never lifted his hand to strike me, or raised his voice against me in anger. In those moments he seemed to me like a young man again, radiating strength and vigor despite his exhaustion.

It was the last time. When he came back home in the evening pain returned to crush him in its relentless grip, and, though he was only in his late thirties, youth began to leave him quickly. He no longer sang with his old vitality, and stopped dancing with his friends at weddings. He no longer told so many stories either; and at last, one day, he said, “It’s your turn now. You must sing to us, and tell us stories from the books you read, and you must be the one to shake the earth with your friends when you dance.”

Source: Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, The First Well (translated by Issa J. Boullata and Christopher Tingley), in: Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Modern Palestinian Literature: An Anthology, Columbia University Press, New York.

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