The water tank covered Abu Qais on all sides. He sat in the dark, the truck rocking across the desert as fast as it would go. The tank was boiling, heavily dehydrated. It reflected Abu Qais’ heartbeat with tired throbs.
“It’s the sound of your own heart,” a voice rang through his head.
The throbbing was in his ears too. It was so strong it moved his chest.
“You can hear it when you lay your chest close to the ground.”
This what his neighbour had told his father ten years ago when they sat together on the farm they shared. There was nothing left of that land now. The olive pit that Abu Qais kept in his hand, moist with sweat, he had impulsively scrambled to get after the invasion was over. He had raced to pick it up against a dog that was not competing with him. It was cracked. Abu Qais didn’t know why he wanted it.
When the invaders approached, his neighbour had said to him “What do we do?”
“Nothing,” he had replied.
They had watched the men with the axes and the chainsaws. There was only four of them, but they worked methodically through the olive farm, chopping and hacking and stamping too.
“I said what we do?” the neighbour had said again. He was shuffling against the window, but Abu Qais stood perfectly still. They watched their livelihood be destroyed by the Israeli men.
“What do you want me to answer?” Abu Qais said to his neighbour.
He got no answer.
He had seen the cracked olive among others primer and riper. But he picked it up from the ground. He mushed the skin of the olive until slipped from the bone. It glistened clean like he was preparing a body for salah, and tucked it into his pocket. That, for him, was the heat of the moment. And now it was the heat of this moment, and his neighbours were not talking now either. He didn’t ask them why. He didn’t want them to answer. He couldn’t see them through the dark of the water tank, and he was glad because he was sure of what he would see.
“We should be drowning in this water tank; not boiling,” he rasped to the tank.
Nobody said anything back to him.
Abu Qais moved his hand down the rims of the ladder he had been holding to say upright and lowered his body to the floor of the tank. He pressed his face against the hot floor of the truck’s tank. It hurt his ears; the heat of the tin, the noise of the truck as it drove. But he didn’t care. He wanted to smell his wife’s hair one last time. He used to sniff the ground of the olive farm and imagine it was her. The damp earth. The oil in her hair. He took the cracked olive pit from his pocket and cradled it by his nose. The truck bumped against his face and his vision changed.
It had never smelt so strong of olives then it did after the Israeli men had left. He and his neighbour walked through the field. The ground had not been so wet for a very long time. The oil, a yellow flood around them, had footprints and hoofprints to hide. The only path now walkable through the farm was where the chopped trees had not landed. He brought a sack with him and filled the bottom with four olives. And then five. And then he took in the scene around him and stopped searching. He sat on top of a hacked log and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He watched his neighbour muttering something, filling his sack.
His horse, with his head down, greedily lapped up the crushed fruit. The horse looked so happy. Abu Qais didn’t know whether he ought to take joy from this sight or not. Or whether the horse ought to run before more attackers came back. Abu Qais could startle it himself. He could make that decision. The horse could make that decision for him too. He got back to his feet, wiped his forehead once more. In the movement through the heat he felt a cold breeze on his neck. He didn’t know whether to enjoy it or not.
Abu Qais felt the bumping of the horse beneath him. He managed to swivel himself and see behind him. His neighbour screaming at him. Their broken olive farm. He put his hand on the horse’s heart and felt it surge through him. Ba-bum, ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum. Below the horse, yellow olive hoofprints stained to ground. The sun was hot. He couldn’t open his eyes. He grabbed a hold of the ladder and the olive pit rattled against the tin floor. It rolled away from him before he could stop it. He put his hand out but could not find it in the dark of the empty water tank. He didn’t let go of the ladder again. If he did he wouldn’t make it back.
“Perhaps we can buy one or two olive shoots,” his wife had said. “When you get to Kuwait.”
Abu Qais shook his head. He took the dinars from his pocket and offered them to the water tank. He put them on the floor and they were invisible to every one of his senses. “The olive pit,” he said. “I do not deserve it. I have put myself in this tank. I was not forced. I am out of place like many people – but what other place could I have ended up in? I had to do something. The olive can grow without water and under very poor soil. I am no olive.”
His wife nodded. “Very true,” she said.
“And the olive cannot grow without the land, and neither can you.”
Abu Qais laughed to himself. His raspy noise vibrated off the metal tin of the water tank.
His wife said to him “Your father lost the farm. You were not born. Do not blame yourself. We did not have the land. And yet here you are, grown to a full man.”
Abu Qais held his stomach. It started to hurt more than his head. It beat louder than his heart and it echoed louder off the water tank. He looked up, from black to black his view did not change. He knew the driver was not going to let him out until they reached Kuwait. But that was too far away.
“My father did not lose the farm,” he moaned. “It was taken from him.”
“Then why do you feel his pain?” said his wife’s voice.
Abu Qais could not respond.
“You are not your father,” she said.
“Then why do I feel his pain?” he said.
There were no windows nor holes in the water tank but Abu Qais could feel a breeze blowing. He didn’t know whether to enjoy it or not.
Ustaz Qais thought back to how he imagined his father’s final moments all those years ago. He wanted to ask him: “Why didn’t you knock on the side of the tank?” He didn’t understand. He had never understood. “Why? Why?”
Ustaz Qais stood up and his pupils fell silent. “When the two great rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, meet, what happens?” He gave a piece of chalk to a boy closest to the blackboard and told him to label the diagram before him.
“They form one great river called the Shatt al-Arab,” the boy said.
Ustaz Qais nodded. “Tell the class what happens next.”
He sat back down at his desk. He was not feeling well today. He rubbed his stomach. He looked out the classroom window and remembered that his father had once looked through it, watching him study. Ustaz Qais got out of his chair and walked outside to the other side of the window.
“I know what happened to your father,” Ustaz Selim had said him.
“Which means I know you do not have the funds to attend this school,” Ustaz Selim said.
“I know,” young Qais said. He looked at the dirt on his feet.
“Which means there should not be a place here for you, young Qais,” Ustaz Selim said.
“I know,” he said again.
“You know a lot of things for a boy out of school.”
Qais looked up. “I also know that my father gave his life travelling to Kuwait. He tried to get me into school. And I know that if you give me the chance I will give my life too. Every day in class, every evening cleaning for you, every night revising.”
Ustaz Selim breathed deep into the silence. “Resistant and grows despite poor soil. What am I talking about?
“I know that too,” Qais said. “An olive.”
Ustaz Selim shook his head at the young boy. “I’m talking about you.”
Ustaz Qais found himself staring back through the window of the classroom he had been brought up in. The kids on the inside watched their teacher. It was a hot day and a breeze had picked up against Ustaz Qais’ neck. He didn’t know whether to enjoy it or not.