At the Border of Zolmestan, By AbdulHadi AlKhawaja

2012-04-08 - 3:31 م

وصلة النص العربي

At the Border of Zolmestan

AbdulHadi AlKhawaja
Landing at the airport, Hassan was anxious about the changes that had taken place in his homeland. After seventeen years in exile in a far north country, he would never have thought of coming back to Zolmestan, if not for the changes he had heard about.

“Welcome to Al-adlia airport,” he read on a sign which hung at the huge, nice-looking building.
Al-Adlia was not merely a new name for the island, but a declaration that the country had changed. It meant justice and fairness, which was exactly the opposite meaning of the old name. When Hassan left the airplane he heard the beatings of his heart and got butterflies in his stomach.

Without having had the chance to put his feet on the soil that bore his footsteps as a little child and as an energetic youngster, he arrived in the airport’s building. The suspension tunnel, between the airplane and the arrivals building, was so well designed that he could neither feel the fairly hot sun before dusk on that day in January, nor could he breathe the fresh moist air which, he thought, still had that special smell of the mud houses by the sea, and the mixed odor of date trees and winter wild roses.

Now that he was in the airport building, following the signs and moving smoothly amongst other passengers, he felt relaxed. The highly modern design, the lively colors of the decoration, and the artificial cool air, all went in harmony with the soft western classical music, which changed his mood. He felt proud noticing that the place matched airports of the most modern cities of the world.

Among the crowd, anyone could point him out as a native of the island. From his ancestors, he inherited the light brown skin, dark hair, thin body, fairly big eyes, and the light touch of sadness on his bony face.

His grandfathers used to sail four months a year, half naked under the glaring hot sun, to dive for rare precious pearls. They would desperately look for the pearls of their dreams, which were guarded in the bottom of the sea by the murderous sharks, and awaited for on board by the greedy shipmaster. Whilst, for the rest of the year, those forefathers were toiling barefoot to plant in the inhospitable, saline land so as to avoid starvation and paying heavy capitation to the invaders who had been dominating the power, passing it from fathers to sons until it reached to the current rulers.

However, it was not the old days anymore, he thought. Neither was it the near past when he himself, as a member of the politicized student movement, was detained many times and subjected to physical and mental torture leading him to flee the country and to undergo long-term mental treatment. Now, after seventeen years, it could not be the same. Yet, he was not sure how much the wounds of the past would influence his destiny.
At last it was his turn at the desk of the immigration officer.

“Your passport is expired long time ago,” said the young officer while checking the document.
“I have been to the embassy many times but they refused to renew it for me, you know how things were before,” said Hassan, looking at the officer and waiting for his reaction.

The man in the olive-green suit checked his name on the screen and looked at him with inspecting eyes.
“I am afraid you have to wait to complete some procedures,” said the officer politely; “someone will lead you to the waiting hall,” he added.

Obediently Hassan followed a policeman. Not only because he had been expecting some routine interrogation but also because, deep in his unconsciousness, he bore scars of beating and humiliation as a result of disobeying men in similar uniforms.

At the waiting hall, he was amazed by the bloom and the beauty of a row of a green plant covering the hard-glass walls that were separating the hall from other parts of the arrivals building. Trees and plants in Zolmestan were never as bright, he thought. Maybe, he wondered, these plants were provided with better soil and protected from the burning sun of the island.

The cool air and the light sound of the classical music were working on his body and soul. He stretched himself out on a row of chairs at a corner and fell asleep.
It was dawn when he awakened, the next day.

“Prepare yourself, they will call on you in a few minutes,” said the armed policeman who kept a distance.
“Immigrations?” asked Hassan.

“No. The Secret Police,” answered the police man in a lower voice.

The waiting hall was now full of people. The newcomers were mostly young females coming from poor Asian countries. Dressed in traditional light Sari, they were shivering in the cool air. He noticed that some of them seemed very young, maybe as young as fourteen or fifteen years. After a short talk with one of the guards he learned that he was witnessing a huge business run by high rank people.

“… they bring these poor creatures to work like slaves for the rich families in Zolmestan. Before they bring them here, the agents in their country take all the money they have and provide them with passports showing that they are over eighteen. Sometimes they deport them back after leaving them in this hall for many days with no blankets or food,” said the guard discontentedly in an accent that revealed his Asian origin.

The new things Hassan had just heard about his country were still not enough to prepare him for the next scene. A man, who seemed to be an Asian employee in the business, organized some of the young servant girls in a line, and then brought in one costumer after another. The customers in traditional long, white clothes, checked the teeth, hair, and shape of the females, each of whom seemed desperate to be the chosen one, ignoring the way she was handled and sometimes laughed at.

Hassan was astonished. He had thought that such things occurred only for cattle at the market or at the slaughter house where he had worked for the past few years. When he turned away his face the beautiful plants covering the glass walls caught his eyes. ‘Are they used to covering what is going on in this hall?’ he wondered with disappointment.

An old man came into the hall and started removing dust from the green leaves. Hassan approached him: “beautiful plant. What is it called?”

“I don’t know,” answered the old man without looking to Hassan.
“How often do you give them water?”

The man turned his face as if he wanted to be sure if the question was serious: “why they are artificial, don’t you see?” said the man. “They spend a lot of money to bring them from another country,” he continued, “I have my own farm, but it isn’t enough to live on in these bad days, so I have no choice but to take care of these stupid plants”.

With the first light of the sun, and through the huge sheet of glass overlooking the runway, he saw in the far distance a set of small white houses with date trees in between. But, something was preventing him from enjoying the beautiful view. He noticed that some of the trees were merely trunks with no palm-leaves on. He remembered what his grandfather said once, “a date tree is like a noble man; it requires very little but gives many useful things in its long life and, unlike other trees, it never survives if its top is ruined or chopped off.” The view of the date trees was ominous for Hassan who was now following the policeman to the interrogation room.

“Why did you come?” asked one of the two unofficially dressed men who were interrogating Hassan in the small, dim room.

“I heard about the changes. I though it is time to put the past behind me and to have a new start,” answered Hassan, feeling like a schoolboy in front of a headmaster holding a thick stick in hand.
“Well, you thought wrong,” said the other man while moving his heavy body slowly to be right behind the chair on which Hassan was sitting.

“Unless you prove your loyalty,” he added.

“I have always been loyal to my country,” said Hassan in a protesting tone without looking back.
“So you still insist that you were right and we were wrong! Is this the new start you are thinking of?” asked the man standing in front of Hassan.

Before Hassan could find the right words to answer, he received a sudden blow from behind on his right ear that knocked him off the chair against the hard wall. He almost fainted when his body hit the floor feeling severe pain in the ear and the neck, and while trying to rise up, the fat interrogator who hit him pressed with a heavy shoe on the fingers of his right hand keeling Hassan kneeling before him and said:

“You are just a dirty coward. You escaped from the country like a woman, thinking that we couldn’t reach you. Well, we didn’t bother, for we knew that you are a failure and you would come back yourself to beg for mercy.” He spat on Hassan before removing his shoe from Hassan’s cracking fingers.

“You must realize that you have committed a crime by fleeing the country and staying abroad all these years,” said the other interrogator in a friendly tone while helping him to sit on the chair and handing him some papers: “you will write a request for mercy and a commitment to be loyal to the Sultan,” said the same officer in an ordering tone, “and to prove loyalty you will inform us about the other outlaws who still live abroad, then we will write a good report about you so you can enter the country, and while living in Zolmestan, you will regularly keep us informed about what you see and hear.
When Hassan was brought back to the waiting hall he was in bad shape. He was trembling and, despite the artificial cooling system in the building, the sweat ran down his face and beneath his clothes. Looking around, he saw himself surrounded by the strange plants, while the hall was becoming tighter and tighter on the rhythm of the irritating repeated western music.

He was asleep in an easy chair breathing heavily when a policeman came to call him again to the interrogation room. He was tired and nervous. His heart was beating fast and his wide eyes were burning. He thought o more of the actual reason which had brought him back to his country. Only one thing was on his mind: the ugly smile of the secret police officer while describing in detail how they would torture him if he did not cooperate, reminding him of what happened to him a long time ago. His soul was filled with hatred, a monster was awakened in him. Fear was replaced with a desire for revenge. The door of the tiny room was closed after him.

“I’ll speak,” he said to the officer, “I’ll answer all your questions about myself and my friends, but on one condition. I’ll speak to you alone”.

He saw the officer make a gesture to the other men to leave. When the door was closed again, Hassan found himself sitting on a chair close to the small desk of the officer while searching with his right hand for the knife hidden in his pocket. He leaned on the desk with his left arm and bent forward as if he wanted to whisper something to the officer. The officer, who was on the other side of the desk, stretched his neck in a reflex action in order to hear, and in the twinkling of an eye the sharp blade ran across the throat of the officer as accurate as it usually did to a sheep in the slaughter house where Hassan used to work.

The scream of the officer gurgled in his mouth. The other men rushed in, but they were so startled by the scene that they did nothing to stop the phantom which left the room with a face splattered with blood.

Reaching the hall, Hassan found himself pulling up the root-less plants one after the other. When he finished the job, there was a tremendous wave of handclapping. The woman-servants, scores of native children, and even some policemen, all formed two rows making for him a narrow path leading towards the huge sheet of glass which was now broken to pieces. A new sun was rising in the horizon and he could finally feel the fresh breezy air and enjoy a better view of the white houses that had grown bigger, and the date trees which had recovered their palm-leaves. But, there was something wrong with the leaves! Their color was not pale green as usual. It was dark red! And the narrow stream running through the field was not water, but thick blood.
Somebody was shaking him.

“Hey, wake up. Wake up.”

He sat up shivering and looking around with great fear in his eyes.
“come,” said the policeman with a smile; “it seems that it’s your last day at the airport.”
He followed the policeman until they entered the office of the chief of immigration.
“Please, have a seat,” said the officer in a very polite tone. “We have issued for you a new passport and a one-way ticket to the country you came from.”

Hassan turned his eyes from the officer to the policeman who was standing right beside him and back again to the officer, but he did not say anything.

“As you see the country has witnessed great changes,” said the officer, “but there are some consequences which you must understand and which are out of my hand. I mean, it’s not my decision, you know.”
Hassan looked over the head of the officer, where there were three large photos in golden frames of the Sultan, his son the crown-prince, and his brother the state minister.
Hearing no answer from Hassan, the officer rose from his chair and handed the passport and the ticket to the policeman. “He agreed to leave,” said the officer to the policeman: “the flight is in ten minutes. Follow on to the airplane,” he ordered.
Hassan was restless looking through the window while the airplane was taking off. When a steward came to ask him to fasten his seatbelt he did not pay any attention. The man, who was wearing a uniform with a cap, knelt to fasten the seatbelt himself when suddenly Hassan seized him by the collar with one hand while searching for the knife in his pocket with the other hand. Failing to find the knife, Hassan said to the man who was taken by surprise: “I have finished with the devil who sent you here, if you don’t keep away from me you will be the next to die.”

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