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“Native Country” © 2021 by Aya Ghanameh

He was fiddling with the vial his mother had given him. He had considered throwing it on the ground and smashing it in front of her before he left, just to prove how determined he was. But something in him had stayed his hand. And there he was, playing with the vial filled with the pink liquid as the train neared the station where he would get off. Maliha: a tiny dustbowl, the last desert town. As far as towns go, he’d say that this one would be best described as “curled up.” Maliha, “the big salt,” as it was known, was located in a valley surrounded by salt mines. From the window, the peaks covered in salt looked like snowcapped mountains rising, absurdly, in the middle of the desert. Beyond them stretched the encroaching swamplands, with their spectral trees and green horizons.

The desert wind provided a welcome warmth. The train was heavily air-conditioned, and he had been freezing during the whole trip. His mother had explained that from Maliha, he would have to take a collective taxi service to arrive at Sepphoris, an hour and a half away. (“An hour and a half in a service taxi full of people with faces like sardines,” his mother had said with a scowl and his father had corrected: “It could be closer than that, really, but driving in these parts is tricky.” His father, when he spoke of the swamplands, always had this glimmer in his eyes. Like insanity. This was the first time he allowed himself to think that. Now that he was far from them, it felt as if his mind was unbound, and forbidden thoughts rushed in.)

Maliha was a hybrid, unsettling place. The town was yellow desert and salt-covered cliffs but, to the east behind the cliffs, loomed the green, aqueous sky of the swamps. That two territories so close, so intimate, so contiguous could be so different was disquieting. His body—at the thought of the deep inscrutable green, the opaque waters—became electrified. But he wasn’t there yet; he was in the desert still, and the people bore all its marks: faces covered, sheltered from the sun, sand, and wind, diamond eyes peering out from under shawls. He would leave as soon as he could. He fingered the vial, deep in his pocket, like a safety talisman. A burst of pink in this yellowness. Jaundice, he thought.

He quickly found his way to the taxi station (an overstatement: it was a chaotic parking lot, loud and raucous, and he felt disoriented. People shouted, ran, bumped into each other. It seemed that they were all one great organic being, coalescing into little clusters of noise and smells here and there. He eventually found something like a platform and a service taxi with a battered sign that read: Sepphoris). He boarded the car and paid the fare. The driver, with hair a color reminiscent of algae, was clearly of his own people.

They waited for an hour, then another, but no-one else boarded the service. All the other taxis came and went. He wondered where those cars set off to. This was the last outpost of the desert, neither a caravan town nor a market hub. “Slow day?” he asked the driver, who shrugged. After another half an hour, some people boarded, and the taxi took off. He sat gazing at the scenery from the window. It changed so fast that he missed the exact line where the desert surrendered to the swamps, and the sky turned the same color as the driver’s hair. And there they were—driving carefully, plodding, through the swampland highway. He had known it not with his eyes but with the deep muscles and tissue in his body. Like a fish back in water, he knew he would move seamlessly here in the swampland. He fiddled with the vial. It had been wise to keep it. That part of his trip he had not really thought about. He’d focused on discovering the swamps, coming of age, the glowing bogs of his homeland. And now he entered the green with a burst of pink in his pocket.

After an hour or so, the taxi stopped. From the window, he could make out a couple of houses—huts, really—floating precariously in the swamps. “Is this Sepphoris?” he asked his neighbor, a gruff-looking man with a face like an anglerfish. “Next stop,” he grumbled. He asked if it was a long walk, and his neighbor said something like half an hour. He decided to get off and walk from here. Deep in his cells, the engraved protomemory of this swamp. The sparkling atoms and bacteria and cells recognized, remembered. They awoke. He wanted to give them time to awaken. And he wanted, suddenly, to delay the unpleasant part of his trip.

Another passenger, an older woman with eyes like an alligator’s, got off as well. He asked her how he could walk to Sepphoris, and she pointed to the horizon. He saw what he thought were phosphorescent palaces, the many-splendored capital of his people. And in the middle of this huddle of humid beauty, a grand tower that must be the House of the Star. “It seems bigger from afar. It’s actually pretty small,” the woman pointed out. He thanked her and set off on the highway.

There was no wind, not even the slightest hint of the possibility of wind. He felt distinctly as if he were underwater on the pebbles of a green river. As he walked, he wondered why he had come so far only to be seized by doubt. His mother and her reluctance had gotten to him. He noticed the little yellow flowers. He had heard so much of them, how they glowed in the night, how they sprouted from beneath the swamps like little gifts, starlights, an offering from the swamp to its people. Ashtar’s sandals, they were called.

In the Summerlands, they talked of the earth as a She, but he knew—all swamp people knew—that the earth was a He, an obscure, malevolent, all-swallowing He, a dark power held back only by the beauty of the swamps and the waters, opposed only by the everlasting benevolence of the genderless Star. He looked at the sky and wondered where it ended. As long as it was here, and the swamps and the seas and the oceans and the water and the rain and the fog, they would be alright. The earth was kept in check. Though his role would be lesser than that of a priestess, he would still join the beautiful task force that regulated the life cycles of the swamp and its people. That little unpleasantness he had to do was only a formality. It was tradition. This uneasy feeling was a proof of how alienated from his culture he had become, and it was his mother’s doing.

He focused on his surroundings. He was excited to see the swamplands again. He remembered, vaguely, coming once as a child. He didn’t recall much: glowing marshes (indistinct, murmuring) and his hand in his father’s. His mother, he remembered, wore something so sparkling yellow that it dazzled him amidst the deep green. He recalled feeling something he would call pride. They had come for his baptism. Though they lived far away, and though it was quite complicated to obtain authorizations to travel to the swamps, whenever a family could afford to baptize their children here, they would go. It felt especially important as a form of resistance to the Summerlands slow choking of the swamps, of their people, and their history. He recollected, vaguely, the first time the government attempted to cover the swamps in concrete, the protests that followed, the people murdered by soldiers. His family was rather well-off; on his mother’s side, the men were potion-makers and the women priestesses. His mother disliked the swamps. He remembered, now that he was here: even in her sparkling yellow dress, his mother’s stiff smile showed her disgust. She had refused, all those years ago, to become a priestess and had left with her husband and had moved to the city where the people of the swamps lived near the sea.

She had been unhappy about her son’s decision to come back, but she knew he would be bound to and had accepted it. He had been raised, as all men from her lineage, to learn about potion-making and herbs. It was a challenge, in their seaside world where most of the herbs and plants did not exist, but they made do. The occasional traveler to the swamps usually came back with enough to last the school a good couple of months. And now it was time: he would go back to Sepphoris and, there in the humidity, would learn with his uncle the sacred arts of his people. (“Sacred,” his mother had scoffed. “Faiz is just a glorified soup-maker.”) He had grown up with this ambivalence. A burning desire to see the swamplands and learn the arcane secrets of his people and, beneath it, his mother’s simmering scorn. His father, on the other hand, was devout and violent. Because his father would have never dared to be violent against his mother or sister, the lapsed daughters of high priestesses, all that devotion was focused on him. He had a few scars, here and there, to prove it. Though his mother derided her brother’s potions, she knew a thing or two about healing and managed to rescue her son after particularly brutal beatings. He felt an obscure resentment at this. It festered in him, and he had been happy to don a sparkling yellow dress of his own and to leave the house in the most painful way for her, to go back to the place she had spent her life leaving.

Finally, he made it to Sepphoris, his heart pulsating with excitement. At the center of the town, he knew, was the House of the Star. The god of his people was this, a genderless astral being that looked upon them. It had perhaps created the world. Or perhaps it had one day appeared, a force of pure unadulterated good in the world and they worshipped it for that, for the bravery of being good in a world that was bad. The House was in the main square at the heart of Sepphoris where all the shops and boutiques and taverns stood, bustling with people with hair coral or green.

Indeed, the town center was a sight to behold. The atmosphere seemed denser—as if light, tinged a greenish blue by the swamps, was trapped, warped, and made into solid, hectic rays. The light bent and refracted around strange gardens of phosphorescent flowers and many-terraced palaces, edging them in glaucous and coruscant lines. His life before, in that exile into which he had been born, struck him now as hellish: the tyranny of the sun, of the eternal summer and its accursed hot winds, the ugliness of the sea that had no limits. Here, the swamps were drawn by an exquisite hand, at once domesticated and vast. There was a sense of scale that the sea lacked.

Here the swamps muttered things to each other in the dawn and sang at night under the moon. The trees, swaying in the wind, were bathed in dew or something that looked like it. He inhaled, and the soft vapor wafting from the waters brought a bit of life in his body. He could feel throngs of magnificent, glistening, sparkling creatures teeming and swarming under the surface and above the water and everywhere around the city. What riches they had left behind. He noticed the star shining above the House: glittering, one column of light (white white white) shining down on the wooden palace. It pierced the green darkness and radiated a sleepy glow all around the House. He would live here, in the splendor of his people, and be an integral part of this beautiful, bountiful life. He would steel himself for what was expected of him.

His uncle’s house was not far from here. He remembered; his uncle had sent him countless videos of the road from his house over the years. He was sure he would recognize it. And sure enough, he saw a small road, heavy with plants and vegetation, where the swamp vapor was so thick it was like fog. In the distance, he made out the windows of his uncle’s house shimmering. Dormant memories awoke; something unnerving, humid, slid through his soul as if this town was not outside of him, but in his body, in the microscopic folds and crinkles of his most hidden organs.

“A barbaric tradition, Noor,” his mother had said over and over again, and before he left, there on the doorstep, she gave him the vial, filled with a pink, translucid liquid. “If,” she whispered—and paused—“if you find yourself to be above our barbaric traditions, and if you want to escape, slip this to your uncle.”

“I won’t need this, Ma,” he answered.

It’s not that he was excited about doing it. He avoided thinking about the specifics. Noor figured he would steel himself and would find it within himself to do it. This was nothing, and besides, his uncle was well aware of what was to happen. Faiz expected it and wanted it. Faiz had educated him all these years, by video, to prepare him for this very moment. It was not barbaric, merely a question of ensuring that he had what it took and was trustworthy. It was also a good, gentle way to make sure that Sepphoris was not overrun with unemployed potion-makers (a potion-maker with no job is a mean and dangerous man, his uncle had explained once). What he did think was barbaric, though, was that he was left no choice (potion-makers, destined for this, who refused were very politely and very insistently sent to the die in the swamps). But this did not matter since he was eager, and proud, to become a potion-maker.

He knocked on the door and entered. He knew, of course, what Faiz looked like. But seeing him in the flesh was a surprise. Unmistakably his mother’s forehead (beneath that ridiculous magenta wig he wore to hide his baldness) and, although they were hidden by the tassels, her cheekbones. And clearly those eyes were his mother’s, and his own. Quicksilver: the same color as the necklace he wore and the star-shaped earrings. This, indeed, was Faiz. The glorified soup-maker, with his tassels red, orange, and green. And there he was in a dark hut standing atop a ladder, stirring a smoking cauldron that was twice Noor’s size with one hand while he smoked a pipe with the other.

Faiz looked down from his cauldron and smiled. “Noor!” He had recognized him immediately. He stepped down from the ladder and hugged him. “Noor, my boy!” Faiz was excited and proud. He had waited years for this, to be able to pass on his knowledge to his nephew. They had corresponded throughout his life—messages and private videos every other month. Faiz was a jovial man: tall, broad-shouldered, with a big belly and an easy, twinkling laughter. “Uncle.” Noor, tired from the trip, felt fear and regret swirl in his chest. What a happy, lovable man, with this ridiculous wig.

They chatted for a while about his trip and about his upcoming work here. Faiz offered to cook up something for dinner, but it was early, and Noor was not hungry. So his uncle suggested they have a drink outside. He took him through the backdoor to a small private wooden dock. They sat on two low chairs and looked at the swamps extending as far as Noor could see. “Isn’t this wonderful?” Faiz asked. And indeed, it was. What he had wanted to experience, above all, was the singing of the swamps. And here, the swamps did indeed murmur. It was not his childhood imagination. They sang a beautiful, gelatinous godsong. As he heard the slosh and splash of these melodies wading, he knew he was home.

“What is this, on your face?” Faiz asked motioning to the left side of his face. “Seems fresh.”

“My father,” Noor answered. The scar ran in a straight line. He was not particularly eager to talk about it.

“A damn fool that man,” Faiz said. He had never liked Noor's father, whose religion appeared to Faiz as a perversion of the true, old faith. (He had said it often to Noor in his messages: “As it traveled with those who left, the religion changed into a longing for the swamps. This is not our religion. The swamps are merely where we are and where we return; they are incidental to our faith. The God is neither light nor dark. It is what was before the light, what was before the darkness, it is un-light. This pulsing nothingness is yours to embrace, Noor.”) The drink Faiz had concocted was, simply put, divine. It contained a freshness he had never experienced, like drinking a cloud. Sitting here with his uncle, enjoying this marvelous cocktail, Noor could envision a happy life in the swamps, but there was the small matter of that swirling regret, that fear, in his belly. He knew why. That was his mother’s doing, she had gotten to him. But it was merely a formality. Nothing more. Faiz raised his glass, gulped it down, and stood up. He walked up to Noor, who was still sitting, and he watched him with a huge, beaming smile. He was so happy that he seemed slightly unhinged. And then he threw himself on Noor, hugged him, patted his back, his neck, rubbed his hair, laughing. Noor felt tears rolling down his uncle’s cheeks.

“Well?” Faiz was sprawled on the bed and looking at him expectantly. One would think they were lovers, Noor thought. “You know, I’ve been waiting for this day. I’m growing old, and I’m tired. All those vapors and smells and boiling things, it’s no good past a certain age. Retirement! And by my family’s hand. A joyous occasion.” They had retired to Faiz’s bedroom on the second floor of the house. It was an empty room, save for the bed and nightstands, a perfect pristine square of serenity. If Faiz was happy about it and if he asked for it, who was Noor to deprive him of this joy? What would happen if Noor refused? How sad this man would be, how utterly useless his life would appear to him if, now, he was refused what he thought was the ultimate accomplishment.

On one of the nightstands lay, glittering, the golden dagger he’d seen so many times. Next to it, in a delicate ceramic bowl, the poison that would make the death less gruesome, swift and painless. Some regretted that they still used daggers and thought of it as obsolete (“barbaric,” his mother would say). Many groups advocated for less complicated and painful retirement processes (why not a fast-acting poison?), but for potion-makers and for priestesses, the dagger was key. In ancient times, this all took place publicly and was the occasion of a weeklong celebration. Now it was only a private affair; it was understood that it happened, like an intimate gesture, between a master potion-maker and his apprentice. It was to be a warm moment of love, a channeling of knowledge and of faith. After, Noor would have to present himself at the House of the Star, and a priestess would accompany him back to the hut, and they would send his uncle out into the swamps. A beautiful ceremony, he had been told. As the body floated away, it was said, Ashtar’s sandals would light up, guiding the body back to its home. And the priestess would bless Faiz and welcome Noor with the consecrated phrase: light into light into light. A beautiful way to go, one of the most beautiful rituals of his people. It was a privilege to be at its center.

He realized that what he was doing was a crime, and he realized there would be no turning back. He knew, above all, that he was denying his uncle the greatest gift. He opened the vial. His uncle was lying on his back, in the traditional pose of meditation, his mouth open. He had given himself entirely to Noor. He had spent years educating his nephew at a distance. There was no need to mistrust him. Faiz expected the beautiful, glowing, release of the dagger.

Noor knew how fast and effective this soporific concoction was. That burst of pink. A mere half a second was enough. When he awakened, his uncle would realize he had been betrayed. (How utterly painful, he thought, to believe that one is about to die and be liberated into the light, and wake up to find that not only was one not dead, but that he would have to face a lifetime of disappointment.)

He left. In the swamps, deaths were organized like clockwork. It made absolute sense and removed—for the most part—fear and anxiety from many people’s lives. All manners of death were bound to happen the way they would: after a certain age, or when one retires, or when one is in unspeakable chronic pain or terminal illness. It was a system built on empathy and love. Barring the unexpected accident, murders, wars, or brutal deaths, it ensured that everyone would leave on their own terms and peacefully. But if someone deviated from this system, if someone swerved away, Sepphoris was unforgiving and its empathy morphed into a wild, unhinged form of cruelty. Even far away at the seaside, where they had been bound by the Summerland government to give up their way of life, they whispered of the fate that awaited those who for one reason or another broke the laws of death and peace in the homeland. They’d heard of people flayed, impaled, left to bleed and, once the water level rose, to drown in the murk of the deep bogs. A slow painful death that was recorded in its entirety and kept in the archives of the House. What Noor had just done was deny his uncle a departure on his own terms. It was selfish. Worse than suicide. And yet, he could not, he would not.

On the small wooden docks, behind his uncle’s house, the swamps—festering, bubbly, a cauldron—called out to him: become one with the moss and the slime, one with the fireflies hovering above the surface of the water, one with the fetid air in the deepest of the deep swamp. His muscles flickered. As he walked away from Sepphoris, he noticed it was night. The swamps were humming softly, a gargling song, and Ashtar’s sandals, all around him, were glowing: little golden lights, guiding him home.

Born in Jerusalem, Karim Kattan is a writer and researcher. He holds a doctoral degree in comparative literature. His most recent books include a collection of short stories, Préliminaires pour un verger futur (2017), and a novel, Le Palais des deux collines (2021), which were both published by the Tunis-based Éditions Elyzad. He writes in French and English.
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