It has been 25 years since the imperialists last attacked me. Today, my Hana, you would’ve been a young woman. I would like to have seen your 30th birthday. We would’ve celebrated in a Bedouin tent in the desert, not in this hell of a city. A man can’t breathe when he’s lost in the streets of this city, never mind how he feels hiding in these tunnels. They attacked from the air, my Hana; I could not protect you from their cowardice. Hana, my other children are traitors and failures. But I have forgiven them. They squander their inheritance on football and cars and making incomprehensible movies. They beat their girlfriends and get caught beating servants. They plot against me. (Even then, I forgive them.) Now all my children, it seems, are ungrateful and turn against me. The world has never known such an act of forgiveness as I’m asked to make. And they ask it of a poor Bedouin without even a birth certificate, a Bedouin who began his journey with only his staff and his dignity, a poor, solitary Bedouin who has tried to lead his children out of this hell of a city and now must flee it alone.
Hana, when the planes came screaming overhead, I tried to run to you, to rescue you from the bombs. Had the Italian not alerted me to Reagan’s treachery, we would all have been martyred on that day. But there was no time, and my other children rushed me away; they exhorted me to hide in safety. When all along they would like to have seen me buried in the rubble. Perhaps the blood of their mother has corrupted them. Hana, when I adopted you, you were motherless, fatherless, an orphan. I saw that you had the same fierce Bedouin blood possessed by own mother. You were only five when they attacked me. The imperialists claimed that I’d never seen you until that day I held your little body in my arms, that I didn’t adopt you until you were already dead. But how is such a thing possible? This is the madness they spread. Their madness will engulf us all.
A Bedouin party: Dance, poetry, camel races. We drink tea all night around the fire. I would like to have sacrificed a goat in honor of your birthday. A thousand goats. The way the sun comes up over the desert as the fire flickers and dies and the yellow sand turns, for a few moments, as black as the oil that comes purling up out of it — I would like to have shown you these wondrous things.
When the bombers roared overhead, I heard someone shout, “Get Gadhafi to safety, get the King to the tunnels!” One of my lieutenants, I think, or one of my sons — in the chaos, who can tell these sycophants one from the other? I knew by the too-loud tone of his voice that he said this only so that I would hear it. We were already on our way to the tunnels, and he hoped I would hear and someday repay his loyalty. But I stopped. I turned to one of my bodyguards and asked her, “Where’s Hana?” I turned to my wife. “Where is she? Has she been taken to safety?”
They say you can never love an adopted child as you love your own blood.
My wife had a hand on my shoulder. My bodyguard or my lieutenant or one of my sons held onto my arm, shielding me, holding me back. But I broke away and ran into the open, toward the tents.
I could hear the planes cracking the sky overhead. I could feel the air parting before the bombs as they rushed toward me. You must escape to hell, I thought, you must walk into the fire that melts your bones; you must flee the choking, filthy air of this city. I could hear your cries coming from the tents, but then it seemed your cries were everywhere, that all my children were crying to be freed from this hell on earth. And I was about to rush into the flames, when they pulled me back, dragged me away to the safety of the tunnels. “Father, please,” they said (for they all wish to call me father), “think of the revolution.”
Hana, if you were never my daughter, then why this ache at the sound of your name?
My memory of you grows dark. The fires are coming nearer, and everything is confused. They even say you are alive. They say you have become a doctor. A doctor! I would be so proud, Hana — I would like to have been a doctor myself. Instead, I am a king. The sky is cracking above me. The children are shouting and clamoring for my forgiveness. In these tunnels, which lead to hell, all the heat of the desert gathers and chokes the breath from my lungs. Yet, even here your cries reach me. In a moment, I will regain my strength. This old Bedouin without even a passport will break free again and come to your rescue. Reagan, Schwarzkopf, my traitorous children — none of them will hold me back. I will run into the flames, my bones will char, and I will know what became of you when you were abandoned by these fools that surround me, when you were encircled by the arms of the fire. Yes, my bones will melt as your bones did, and together we will flee this city and escape to hell. A train of camels stands waiting. The sands are turning black. Hana, lead me away from here. Hana, take my hand. Hana, don’t leave me alone.
Hana, before we leave, please, tell me your name.