Elena chapter from a novel by Syrian writer Mohammed Y. Burhan Translated by William M. Hutchins

محمد برهان كاتب سوري
Mohammed Burhan

Elena placed her suitcase on the bed and dropped into the brown wooden rocking chair by the window. Nothing in this house was to her taste, and her initial reaction to it was negative. She hoped this would soon change.
Glancing down at the courtyard, she noted with interest the size of the pool in the center and its glistening fountain, which made a pleasant, monotonous murmur that reminded her of Sabbath evening chants.
How had she succeeded in devising such a precise and masterful comparison so quickly? She repeated the phrase “Sabbath evening chants” to herself. Her former skills must have returned in a fresh form. Had the view from this window helped her become more poetic and less discursive?
She sat up a little straighter to see more of the courtyard, where Basilio and Matthieu were making a row, moving around. As they checked out their new lodgings their shadows lengthened to shade the water in the circular pool at times and then retreated. Matthieu’s shrill, annoying voice cut through their bustle.
With a cute, fawning smile Basilio had suggested earlier that Elena and Zakariya should take the rooms prepared for them on the upper floor; he and Matthieu would occupy the two rooms on the ground floor. The large iwan, three steps up from the courtyard, was a common area they would all share. “Fawning”—Elena hated that their expedition had started in such a deferential way.
She did come from a land more than three thousand kilometers away and she was the only woman on the team, but these were not sufficient reasons for her to a be patronized—especially if Basilio had intended that smile for her. Her self-esteem and scientific achievements prevented her from accepting patronizing treatment.
She was a professor of Research Technologies at the Mandel School of Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Hebrew University. Albert Einstein and Nahum Sokolow had served as on the first board of trustees for this university!
She realized full well that she represented not only herself here but all the great teachers she had learned from—even some she had never met in person. Elena remembered how she had progressed with them and how her consciousness had developed.
Sokolow had inspired her initially, and she became even more attached to him when she discovered that—like her—he had Polish roots. Once she embraced a more spiritual Zionist philosophy, her enthusiasm for him had cooled. Then Ahad Ha’am had taken his place in her mind and heart.
Subsequently, what she liked to call “currents of moderation” had swept over her and carried her far from the ideas of political Zionism. She had actually come to hate the lofty but threadbare claims on which that movement had been established. Then she had worked intently for many months and produced two extraordinary studies on cultural Zionism.
Over time, those two studies had proved an embarrassment to her, and she had deliberately withheld them, even from her students. Then her faith in her university had been shaken by the chance discovery she made in its archives that eight of its professors had helped plan the Iraqi forced emigration to Arab villages. They had prepared maps of targeted cities and neighborhoods for Ben-Gurion. Some professors had even served as consultative commissioners on the committee that drew up the plan and oversaw its execution.
That discovery almost shattered Elena’s relationship with the university. Eventually she had cited pains she was suffering as an excuse to take a leave of absence from teaching for many months.
When she recalled that ordeal, a prick of pain teased her lower back. “Brother, gracious disc, you’ve slept for a long time, my friend. The weight of the suitcase must have awakened you!” Elena repeated this out loud as she massaged her lumbar region with a circular motion.
She had grown accustomed to treating all her physical ailments in this way. The worst was the pinched fifth vertebra of her lower back. Over time, her acceptance of and familiarity with her pains had developed into love. That was the most successful way to deal with chronic maladies.
She rose from the chair, unfastened the button of her jeans, and loosened the zipper a little to diminish the pressure on her aching disc, which had just awakened. She shoved the suitcase out of the way and lay down on one side of the bed.
The plaster design on the ceiling attracted her attention. There were geometric patterns–but not ones she could “read”—composed of sinuous lines. Some kept curving indefinitely and others stopped in a way that made no sense to her. Was that a flower, a pear, or a woman’s breast swollen with passion?
The decoration seemed a pathetic attempt to replicate the brilliance of the original builders. This pallid imitation revealed the craftsman’s lack of imagination or skill. She tried to picture what the ceiling would have looked like five hundred years earlier. She could not believe the pattern had been so pathetic and repulsive.
Perhaps it had been a mosaic of a mother–whose eyes shone with vitality–embracing her children in a grove of olive trees. Perhaps the ceiling had been marble—a bas-relief of an angel streaking across the blue sky, holding the sun in one hand and a cloud in the other. Perhaps the ceiling decoration had been interlacing Arabic letters recording the stanza of a poem by Ibn Zaydan or Ibn Khafaja.
It definitely would have been prettier than this trite work, no matter what it looked like! Elena thought. She turned her face toward the far corner where a wide wood chest stood behind the door. Horizontal copper strips reinforced its sections.
She smiled and reflected: That must be my armoire where I’m supposed to pile my clothes. They hope to provide such an authentic experience we forget what century it is!
She would not be able to wear her formal evening gown. After lying in that chest it would look no better than tattered rags. No one in this group is worth dressing up for anyway! She reviewed the mugs of the three men with whom she would live during the coming weeks but could not drum up much enthusiasm for any of them. Elena made a point of treating her body to the very best. She never lowered her standards.
She believed a woman could encounter a man at three different levels: with her intellect or spirit or simply for fun. Since growing up she had never met a man she considered more than risible. So fun was the best she could hope for.
A spiritual relationship was unthinkable without some intervention from the Lord—especially now that she was approaching forty. An intellectual bond required the other party to acknowledge their mutual interests and her competence. That would be really hard!
For all these reasons, Elena avidly pursued fun while respecting her body’s high standards, since it deserved the best. It was inconceivable that she would sacrifice its perfection and ripeness for an unworthy cause. Her jaunty breasts were as round as pomegranates, and her seemly torso looked like marble. Her hips were so feminine they made men gasp, and her legs seemed cast in glossy stone.
This treasure wasn’t available for purchase; it was merely displayed to astonish viewers—like masterpieces in a museum. Her lips smiled with satisfaction as she admired her bosom, which peeked out from gaps between the widely spaced buttons of her blouse.
Orly, her mother, had taught her how to think about her body and how to treat it. She had frequently told her daughter: “You are not your body. Your body is just your friend. The more love you lavish on it and the more tender affection you show it, the more profound your friendship will become and the more loyal your body will be to you. If you don’t disappoint it, it won’t disappoint you.”
People who treated their bodies like slaves, like possessions—hats, wristwatches, or even socks and shoes—thoroughly disgusted her mother. The bodies of such people would hunt for opportunities to rebel against them and fight them, and her mother evinced no sympathy or compassion for them. She would affirm that they simply got what was coming to them for being so very selfish.
Elena initially had trouble in adopting this viewpoint or the lifestyle it dictated. As a child she had merely obeyed its dictates without attempting to understand it. When she grew up and her body’s fruits ripened to assume their adult shape and coloration, Elena began to grasp the full meaning of her mother’s stance.
She remembered how frightened she had been when she had her first period. That had made her feel closer to her body. She had been playing with her friend Avigal in front of their old house in Givat Shapira. Nearby, pine trees grew on a hill and offered splendid natural hiding places for playing hide-and-seek.
Elena was peeking out from beneath her arm to watch where Avigal was hiding when she noticed two drops of blood fall between her feet. The unfamiliar dampness she felt also alarmed her. She screamed from fear, and Avigal, whom she scared, screamed too. Elena raced to her mother, and the boy fled for fear of being accused, as usual, of hurting her.
Orly welcomed her terrified daughter in the kitchen with an affectionate hug, rocking her back and forth. She told her exactly this: “Your body is talking to you, Elena. It has grown up and learned to speak!”
Even though her mother’s composure and pleasant smile calmed Elena a little, she continued to tremble as she listened to more of this explanation. “From now on, at this time every month, you will listen as it tells you it is fine and loves you. You need to pay attention to what it says and reciprocate its love.”
At first her love was tinged with fear, but as months passed and Elena devoted more time to reading quietly instead of to rowdy play, both emotions guided her to her new personality. Then her terror faded to be replaced by self-confidence.
The two topics closest to her heart in every conversation she had with her mother were her body and the State of Israel.
In the center of the courtyard, beneath a lofty pine tree that Orly called Grandmother Umma, the mother told her daughter tales of her harrowing migration to Jerusalem. Orly still remembered vivid details of the death trip on a ship called the “Angelica,” even though she had not yet turned seven then.
The war had intensified, and its flames were consuming the green wood along with tinder. The Nazis and Fascists had begun expressing their savagery wherever they gained power—especially against Jews. Orly’s father—Elena’s grandfather whom she had never met, decided that, since each hour they lingered in Kutno brought a new danger, they had to leave.
Most doors of escape were closed to them, but suddenly one opened when the British Labour Party donated a ship to the Jews of Poland. An announcement said it would sail from Gdansk for Jerusalem in two days.
The trip from Kontow to Gdansk was fraught with dangers, and the family traveled there in the back of a dilapidated truck. The cold and the frightening journey proved too much for Grandmother Umma, who fell ill. Each time the truck reached a checkpoint, the family members would bid farewell to each other as they wept and embraced each other and the little girl.
Orly, Elena’s mother, still remembered how her grandmother Umma had fainted and collapsed from fright when the ship’s captain announced that there was no room on board for anyone over sixty.
He stood in his awe-inspiring white uniform on the gangplank and ordered his men to stop anyone who looked old. The rigors of the lengthy voyage would be too taxing for invalids and the elderly to endure. Such people would merely deprive teenagers and young people of a place on the ship and an opportunity to live.
When the captain gestured for her to turn back, the grandmother tripped and fell unconscious to the ground. She hit her head on the edge of a metal barrier and started bleeding. Orly’s parents were forced to leave her grandmother to an unknown fate, because turning back would have meant they all died. They were sobbing as they boarded the vessel. The scene of blood spreading over the gangplank still played in Orly’s head when she remembered that day or discussed it.
Elena’s mother had vivid memories of excruciating minutes of their hundred and five days at sea. Weeping—she would say—continued nonstop among the four hundred plus passengers. Each carried with him two tragedies: what he had left behind and the unknown fate before him. They all realized they were heading to a land that offered nothing more than a refuge from certain death—it was not the Promised Land naïve folks anticipated.
By the third week, diphtheria started spreading among passengers on the vessel. Since it was dangerous to dock at most ports on the way, the captain decided to throw overboard those with symptoms of the disease.
At night, in the open sea, sailors would drop into the water passengers who were seriously ill while their families sobbed and wailed. The sound of their screams and lamentation became part of the night’s routine terror. It was interrupted—if only temporarily–by the roar of the waves and groans of the ship’s structural members. Hunger, thirst, and seasickness were the passengers’ traveling companions the entire way.
Each morning, members of the ship’s crew conducted an inspection to select new prospects for quarantine, and this terror was even worse than the nocturnal executions. Three or four hulking crew members would enter cabins below decks unannounced and demand to see each person’s neck–looking for red, swollen necks. Some passengers tried to escape quarantine by swearing the mightiest oaths that a mosquito or horsefly had bitten them, but those boorish inspectors could not ignore any symptom. They would drag off a person suspected of having the disease—as he foamed and frothed—after putting a bag over his head to keep his spittle from reaching them.
Quarantine was an early death announcement, since people placed in quarantine were held beside the engine rooms and received no treatment for their fever or vomiting. They were also denied access to fresh air and placed in dank rooms with moldering walls till their illness became more acute. Anyone mistakenly quarantined would become infected in a matter of hours and join the ranks of those waiting to die.
Despite the passage of years and her changed circumstances, Elena’s mother was still able to narrate details of that migration dozens of times without so much as altering a word—as if this were part of a sacred book she had memorized.
Elena recalled those stories now because thinking about the Sabbath and Sabbath evening chants had roused that part of her imagination. She wondered whether this house might have belonged to a Jewish family that had also been forced to endure a comparable migration five hundred years earlier.
She hastened to the window again and looked down with fascination. Her imagination showed her a clean cloth spread in a corner of the courtyard with a contented family gathered around it.
The father sat at the head of the dinner cloth. He wore a black skull cap and a tunic with attractive white and yellow stripes. His wife has hurrying from the kitchen with plates of pancakes and a tureen of garlic and almond broth. The white shawl that enveloped her and her scuffs with pointed toes made her look like a woman who had emerged from the tales of The Thousand and One Nights.
In the far corner of the courtyard a boy and a girl were playing with a lazy cat that was stretched out on the ground. Each time it responded to their attentions with a meow they leapt with delight. The father called the two children to dinner. Before anyone reached for food, the dignified patriarch recited melodious chants.
The scene changed suddenly as a passing cloud blocked the evening’s remaining light and harbingers of the dark crept in. Now the members of same nuclear family, overcome by obvious panic, were heaping their belongings in piles on the same cloth. The parents’ faces look glum and the children’s were alarmed. For her part, the cat was jumping here and there as if she had lost her little mind. Her prolonged meow resembled a wail.
Elena lay back down on the bed to finish the scene. The same family was on their own death trip. They struggled along a rugged trail over mountains and across arid plains. They were buffeted by the sea’s crazed tempests. Their trip resembled her family’s migration from Kontow to Jerusalem!
She drew her legs to her chest and assumed the fetal position while rocking herself back and forth. This let her feel again the warmth of the womb and allowed all her bones to become so supple they seemed to be made of rubber. Her nerves relaxed into their original fluid tranquility—before her birth. She felt loved as she floated in the invigorating fluid, experiencing calm and security. Her fifth lumbar disc fell asleep again.

Mohammed Y. Burhan is Syrian Novelist and Journalist was born in Zabadani, Syria in 1974. In 1996, he graduated from the Faculty of Media and Mass Communication at the University of Damascus. After University he worked as a journalist in several newspapers/magazines/and Arab TVs. He has also produced and supervised various programs and dozens of television documentaries and shows for different Arab TV stations for over 20 years. He is currently Chief Executive Officer at CNBC Arabia TV in Dubai-UAE, a role he has held since July 2010. He has a published numerous articles and studies in Middle East newspapers and magazines on political and cultural affairs.
He has published five books in Arabic:
House of Hatred: Historical Novel (2016).
Taste of lightness: Poetry and short stories (2016).
Apothecary of Hearts: Historical Novel (2014).
Priest of Sin: Historical Novel (2013).
Incomplete Texts: Poetry and short stories (2004).
Historical Drama: an academic study in TV production (1997).