Tessellation by Anam Raheem
Wasafiri is proud to publish the shortlisted works of the 2021 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by skilled new writers from all over the globe. In this short story, Anam Raheem skilfully interrogates connection and intimacy, set against the background of a fractured and complex Gaza.
The 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 30 June. You can enter the prize and read more about it here.
She rose with the day’s first call to prayer, the melody of the adhaan reverberated through the neighborhood of Al Remal. Dawn was the only time of day Zein had to dwell in cherished solitude as her children and husband slept for a few more hours. She sat at the kitchen table and opened her sketchbook. Swirls of steam hovered over the steeped mint leaves, foreshadowing the fluid movements about to take place on her page. Navigating a terrain of loops, bends, and curves, she finessed the shape of a blossom out of the three Arabic letters of sabr, a word whose English translation lies somewhere between the folds of perseverance and patience.
The silence of the world began to unravel. The trucks that deliver gas cylinders had begun their morning rounds, haunting the streets with a synthesized version of Für Elise. Donkey-pulled carts lugging impossibly high piles of produce joined the mix, their prices incessantly repeated over megaphones: Batata, ashara shekel, batata! Yalla batata! The higher the sun inched in the sky, the wider the flood gates opened. Honking cars, revving motorbikes, and shrieking school children all competing for space in the symphony of the Gazan morning.
The chorus of chaos spilled into Zein’s home. Quack quack! She wrangled her children into their school uniforms to the soundtrack of sugary sweet children’s songs about baby ducks blaring from the television. She knelt before her youngest son and tied his light-up sneakers that were only slightly larger than her palm. With a business-like tone, she asked him if he was going to be good to his teachers today. Raising her eyes to meet his, he exploded into a grin speckled with a smattering of baby teeth. A smile erupted on her face, the creases around her large eyes mirroring her son’s, an identical pair of eyes in lockstep. Scooping him into her arms and slathering him with kisses while he squealed with delight, she delivered him to his father waiting at the front door to emerge into the day. Her husband glanced back at her with a furrowed brow. She anticipated a sterile reminder about the broken water switch or refilling the cooking gas. He said nothing. Still, she could hear his pained words from the other night’s dance in the void between them: The kids still need me even if you don’t. Their disappearance into the hallway ushered in a new silence broken only by the never-ending quack quacks.
Just as she switched off the television, Zein’s phone rang. It was Maria, the director of the humanitarian aid organisation where she worked as a translator for foreign staff. She let her phone ring a few times, apprehensive at what information was about to be relayed to her. Maria would only call this early if it was urgent, her thoughts raced, Maybe there will be air strikes today and the office is closed. Or a spontaneous donor visit where I’m needed to translate. Or maybe it’s about my… The third ring ejected her out of her inner world.
‘Hi Maria.‘ She spoke English so confidently; it would be easy to assume she grew up or went to university in the States.
‘Hey! Zein, about your permit…’
‘It’s not bad news! I called the Israeli authorities this morning and tried to pressure them to give an update. I mentioned that your workshop in New York is in three days. They said they would get back to me today.’
‘I should hear back from them by noon. If it’s approved, you would need to get to the checkpoint by one pm. You should be packed and ready to go. Okay?’
‘Wow. Yeah, okay.’
‘Fingers crossed it all works out and we get you to Jordan today!’
She ended the call, and held the phone close to her chest. Her permit had been applied for three months ago. She already had an American visa in her passport. What she was waiting for was permission from the Israeli military to travel 150 kilometers to Jordan to use the airport. She knew better than to have too much hope. Even if she had a positive outcome, it would take her at least twenty-four hours to travel that 150 kilometres, an obstacle course of humiliation punctuated by barbed fences and stone walls, hours of interrogations, and document checks from heavily armed soldiers. A process enslaved to the maze of the Israeli military industrial complex, she knew she was fighting a losing battle. She smirked, recalling a moment she had with her friends the other day.
‘Elon Musk’s company is going to send some astronauts into space,’ her friend Mona paraphrased a tweet aloud.
‘Oh yeah? Congrats to the astronauts. They have an easier time getting to the moon than we do traveling fifty kilometres,’ Zein quipped while dealing cards around the table, sparking a round of laughter even from the waiter placing fresh coals on her hookah.
Permitting herself a moment of optimism, she heard the liberating sound of a heavy metal stamp marking her passport page, its ink granting her entry to Jordan. In a matter of hours, she could be on her way to Amman, where she would spend a night before flying to New York. And then it would be a straight shot to that luxurious mattress she slept on a year ago in the arms of Jamilah. It was her first visit to America, and she linked up with Jamilah through a mutual friend. The late morning café meet-up they both expected to last an hour turned into an afternoon wiled away in Prospect Park.
‘I traveled this far from Gaza to spend the day with an American with an Arabic name,’ Zein said, sitting next to Jamilah under a tree.
‘You know, back when I dated men, my first boyfriend was named Zein, but spelled differently. So yeah, the irony is mutual,’ Jamilah responded. When the sun began to set, they made their way over to Jamilah’s apartment in Crown Heights.
‘Cheers,’ Jamilah said, handing a glass of wine to Zein, the first time in her life having a drink.
‘Sahtein,’ Zein responded, clinking her glass with Jamilah. Their intimacy unfolded well into the night, sharing stories of their vastly different lives separated by oceans and continents. Without realising, Zein found herself telling Jamilah stories she never thought she would say out-loud about the first woman she had loved.
‘We never touched, but we were together. I don’t really know how to explain it, but that’s just how it has to be in Gaza. We were so close. But she just went and got married one day and stopped talking to me. And then I got married, almost to prove to her that I could do it too. I could do the things that are expected of us, too.’
Listening to Zein’s story, Jamilah teared up. ‘Oh no, what’s wrong?’ Zein asked.
‘I was just thinking of how much the odds were against us meeting; how much the odds are against us staying in each other’s lives past this trip. You’ve got a whole life on the other side of the world, in the Gaza Strip of all places! But, here we are. I’ve known you for a day, and I’m already dreading parting ways with you,’ Jamilah said.
Zein didn’t know what to say. The feeling was mutual, but for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to express it. She leaned in and kissed Jamilah. They started undressing, sparking a fire that stayed alight for a year, fed by tender text messages and late-night video calls. It was an impossible sort of love that paused time long enough for her to believe reality was a charade. She noticed her palms get sweaty as it dawned on her that she was one stamp of approval away from having her wings temporarily unclipped.
Glancing at the wall clock, she realised that in three hours she could be on her way to the Erez checkpoint, the cursed gateway between the Gazans and the outside world. Remembering Maria’s instructions, she opened her dresser drawer and began pulling out a small assortment of items — a hoodie, several long-sleeved shirts, a pair of loose-fitting pants, extra hijabs. She double-checked the PDF that Maria had sent that specified the long list of restrictions of what items Gazans are permitted to carry — no toiletries, no cosmetics, no electronics, no food, no rolling suitcases. ‘Shit!’ she said aloud, looking at the wheels attached to her bag. She pulled a duffel out from under her bed and began transferring her items, making quick decisions along the way of which shirts to remove so that everything would fit. They make it so easy for us to pack light, she sighed.
Eager to step out of her apartment and her head, she moved swiftly to the mirror to finish getting dressed. She manoeuvred her eyeliner around her dark eyes. Picking up her hijab, she paused at her reflection, imagining herself with one of those asymmetrical edgy hairstyles she had seen on so many women in New York. She shifted her head to various angles to get a better view of her fantasised haircut. Catching a glimpse of the wall clock in the mirror, she snapped out of her dreamland and began cloaking the soft black cloth around her head, her hands’ muscle memory guiding, tucking, and folding the fabric. Engulfed in blackness, her face looked like the moon.
Pausing for a moment, Zein noticed a tightness in her chest. She inhaled for four counts, held her breath for seven, and exhaled for eight. She learned this breathing exercise in a yoga class she attended weekly. It was a hush-hush gathering held in her friend’s basement and catered to a small group of women, ages ranging from eighteen to sixty-five. Once a week, the women would gather and transition from loose-fitting garments and slip into body-conforming clothes to bend and twist their bodies in pursuit of yoga’s detoxifying benefits. One of the attendees was a sharp-tongued gynecologist – ‘Doctura Noura’ they affectionately called her – who rattled off colourful stories from her encounters in the clinic during their post-session tea party. Every week, the thick-walled basement dutifully contained the women’s howling laughter.
The tightness in her chest persisted. She couldn’t help but feel like one of those sad statistics she so often translated to high-profile consulate employees, her fate lying in a pile of paperwork on a foreigner’s desk. Pushing past the bitterness, she reached for her car keys and decided to make the morning hers. She navigated her car through the pandemonium of Gazan traffic exacerbated by a complete lack of traffic lights. She raised the volume on the radio and sang along instinctually. Ahdesh kan fee nas …her voice skated along Fairouz’s lyrics that romanticised rainy days. Spotting an opening in the congested street, she pressed the accelerator and bounded towards the only border of Gaza that’s not walled off: the Mediterranean coast.
She squeezed her car into a small space, unbothered by the faded no parking graffiti that everyone tacitly agreed to ignore. She picked up her phone – the messenger who would inform her which significant other she would sleep beside that evening – and locked it in the glove box. I’m not available right now. They’ll just have to call back, she thought to herself, conjuring the aura of a too-busy businesswoman. Trading in a shekel coin for a cup of steaming hot cardamom-infused coffee, she followed the stairs down towards the beach, the scent of jasmine hitchhiking on the sea breeze.
The beach was busy, as always. A soaring amount of unemployed youth commingled with the sense of freedom the sea offers to the besieged population made it a popular locale. Being removed from the dense, winding streets and in the presence of the vast Mediterranean reminded Zein of Gaza’s place in the world. Her mind zoomed out to reveal a bird’s– eye view of the rectangular patch of land that her home had become. Such neat, man-made lines formed a border that mimicked the predictable, formulaic existence to which her life and the lives of all those around her had become reduced. Zein reimagined Gaza’s rectangular shape into the basis of a tessellation that spanned the entirety of the Earth’s surface; clean lines and repeating prisms formed a beauty so stunning and so riddled with illusions.
Zein awoke from this dizzying daydream by the sound of young boys splashing in the sea, their glee carrying on the breeze. She thought about how children of the sea instinctively know how to play in water. They approach the wild currents with a joyful agenda, as if fearlessly teaching a coyote how to play fetch. Her eyes followed the coastline north, to a place where, in her lifetime, she’s never been welcome. She imagined the children of Tel Aviv, a mere seventy-five kilometres away, being skilled in play the same way as the children before her. She whispered a prayer asking for everlasting protection for her children, returning her gaze to the sea before her.
The glimmering water stretched to the horizon, crashing up against the silhouettes of Israeli navy ships permanently lurking in the distance. The scene resembled the state of joy in Gaza. It exists and is plentiful, and when it shines it’s almost blinding. But that joy is contained by forces with a mandate to restrict. It’s foolish to let your mind wander too far to the future, even as far as a few hours from now. Like the warships on the horizon, the future is ridden with landmines. To dwell in the future is to be complicit in the robbing of one’s current joy.
She imagined her phone ringing in the glove box. Missed calls and missed opportunities. It might be easier, she thought. I can just blame it on the occupation and carry on with how things are. Go to work, go home, smoke hookah, be with the kids, sleep, repeat. Maybe getting just a glimpse of the outside is worse than not having it at all.
She rose from the sand and walked back towards the main drag, climbing the same stairs that originally ambushed her with floral aromas. She unlocked the passenger side door of her car and opened the glove box. No missed calls or messages on her phone. Relishing the relief she felt, she slid the phone into the pocket of her hoodie and continued walking down the sidewalk. She thought of her children. They, especially her youngest, would become agitated by two weeks of her absence. If she got the permit, she corrected herself. She walked into a children’s store and let her eyes wander until they landed on a tiger figurine that would fit in perfectly with her son’s collection. A new toy would ease the sting of her absence, she told herself.
It had been two hours since Maria’s call. Sixty minutes until noon. If she was going to travel that day, she would have to go hours without eating. Several hours at the various checkpoints she would need to cross were a guaranteed fixture of travel. She decided to go home and fix herself a meal. As she ate, she wrote a note to leave by her son’s bedside to accompany his new toy. In her neat, deliberate handwriting, she wrote down some lines from his favorite lullaby, followed by some words of comfort reminding him that she was going on a trip to find his new tiger more friends, creating a hero for her son’s adoration.
Fifteen minutes until noon. She tidied the kitchen. Ten minutes. She changed into a clean set of clothes and reapplied her eyeliner. She went to her son’s room and positioned the note on his nightstand, placing the tiger on top of it like a paperweight.
Her phone buzzed. Her mouth suddenly became parched as she unlocked her phone, her finger floating in hesitance before tapping open WhatsApp. She felt a burst of excitement thinking of what the magic words would look like that would release her from her cage. She tapped the icon and opened Maria’s message.
Zein, I’m so sorry….
She didn’t bother to read the entirety of the paragraph-long message, gushing with a mix of sympathy, anger, and a commitment to appeal the decision. She felt the blood rush to her temples. A lump in her throat formed. Her vision started to blur from the tears that were forming. She put her phone aside and closed her eyes to remember the sea view from earlier that day, her mind editing out the ships on the horizon.
She went to her son’s room, picked up the note and tiger, and returned to her bedroom. She folded the note in half and positioned her two hands on the crease, ready to apply opposing force to rip the sheet in two. She paused. Reaching into her nightstand drawer she pulled out her calligraphy sketchbook and opened to the page from this morning. Her fingers traced the petals of the flower she created out of sabr. A tear rolled off her face and landed on the note as she slid it on top of the page, just in time to shield the thick ink from getting smudged.
She turned the tiger about her fingers before placing it, like a paperweight, on top of her passport. Retreating to the balcony, she picked a few flowers off her jasmine plant and cradled them in her hands, lifting her palms to her face and inhaling deeply. As the mid-day adhaan sounded, she lowered her cupped hands.
Anam Raheem is a writer and social & economic justice activist. Most recently, she lived in Palestine where she led the launch of coding bootcamps in Gaza and the West Bank, enabling Palestinians’ access and space within the global tech industry. She has since returned to the States, spending her days dreaming and writing her first book that honors the tenderness, hilarity, brutality, and pure love she witnessed in Palestine. Anam has previously published poetry in Zindabad Zine. This is her first fiction publication. She is a first generation American and the youngest daughter of Pakistani immigrants.
Cover image: The Ruins of the Great Mosque, Gaza, Palestine, 1919, by Sydney Carline, via Wikicommons under the IWM Non Commercial Licence.