Story-From the Insides Out – Part 1

Part 1:

Ahmad went to work soon after the night his uncle was taken. After one night in the hospital, he was released. The pain lingered for days, but he ignored it as much as he could. For hours each day, the side of his head would throb. He could feel his stitches trying to undo themselves, his scalp tender, swollen and bruised on much of the side of his head. 

He did his best to ignore it, even when his vision blurred under intense pressure. 

Three days after the incident, Ahmad helped his father repair the door. They reset the door on new hinges. Ahmad felt nauseous the entire time. 

We should burn this damned thing, he thought. His anger only fueled his dizziness. 

Ahmad’s father had at first asked their neighbors to help reset the door. He did not want to put his son through that experience—fixing and rebuilding the very object that nearly killed him. 

Ahmad had insisted, though. And after all these years, Ahmad’s father knew it was futile to argue with his son. Ahmad would help reset the door. He would help his sisters feel safer, even if it killed him. 

In the two weeks after Mazen’s death, Ahmad began to help his father inquire about the roads south to Jordan, about the process of crossing the border in any number of places. They had no passports and no time to get them. They would have to be smuggled across. 

Ahmad and his father worked on this plan in the late evenings, when Isra’, Hoda, and their mother had fallen asleep. The silence was too heavy, and the risk was too great were the girls to find out.

Ahmad worked robotically and efficiently with his father as he made calls to distant relatives and friends who had made the journey south. Of course, those rambling conversations did not even begin to bridge the chasm of silence that had grown in the house. Neither Ahmad nor his father had any idea what to say to each other. 

Less discussion, less knowledge, felt safer. Both men knew that there was no use in feeling anything in each other’s presence. Words about the incident would open up too much possible space for a conversation neither of them wanted to have, and neither of them could even have. 

Ironically, both men were most concerned about how little they felt. Working on the door, working on those phone calls to Jordan, filled time that would have been spent searching for the response that they wanted to have but somehow could not.

They wanted to mourn and mourn together, but whatever feeling that would allow them to do so was buried, impossible to unearth. Ahmad had not cried since his uncle died. He had not cried about anything at all. He felt very little of anything. 

An occasional rumble of hunger. 

An occasional bout of nausea on seeing the iron door that had smashed his head. 

An occasional rush of anger and blood flowing to his fists as his stitches throbbed. 

An occasional swell of tears that started in his throat and ended in the back of his eyes, always stopping before making themselves known to the outside. 

But for most of the time, he felt absolutely nothing. 

Like his sister, he felt groggy. 

He helped his father, or sat silent, until it was time to eat or sleep. Only mealtime or sleep time would bring him into contact with the rest of the family. For an entire month he kept to himself. 

No one ever asked Ahmad how he felt after that night. Nor the next day. Nor the next month, or months after. They could sense his numbness, and no one wanted to disturb whatever giant was deeply sleeping in his memory. 

Years later, Isra’ built up enough courage to ask him over the phone why they never talked about what had happened that night, why the house was so silent for an entire month, why she and Ahmad did not sit under the tree and talk. And years later, Ahmad still had no answer for her. All he could tell her was, “Why bother talking about it? What happened, happened.” 

Had someone asked him at the time when it had happened, he may have answered differently. Had someone sat in that numb space long enough, perhaps he would have shared. But now, years later, he felt it made no difference. Ahmad is grateful no one made him talk—what had happened was personal. What had happened was sealed in the eye contact between his uncle and him in those final seconds. 

The scar on Ahmad’s head guarantees that he will never forget that night. Indeed, the occasional and rhythmic pain he feels under the surface of the scar throws the incident back in his face at times when he would rather not remember. Even today, when the pain comes, Ahmad rubs his hand back and forth across the scar—a homage to Mazen and an admission of the choice he made, willingly or unconsciously.

Ahmad’s most vivid memory of that night is the glance he held with Mazen as he was dragged away, and the limpness that fell over Mazen’s body as their locked eyes bid farewell. That limpness—that moment of surrender—now feels like a stake in Ahmad’s heart. 

The numbness Ahmad felt in the immediate aftermath has given way, years later, to small but intense moments of memory. And always, the same thoughts arise. 

Why did he give up? Was I supposed to try to save him? And with that thought, nausea sets in, to this day. Ahmad always pushes it down, avoiding whatever will gush out if he lets the nausea reach the surface. 

Was he saving us? And his eyes grow moist, his chest bursting with love and sympathy for his dear uncle. 

What did he want me to do? A chill. Bewilderment. Still no answer, years later. 

It is hard for Ahmad to conjure the exact feeling he experienced in those seconds in the living room. Indeed, he fears now that time has corrupted the memory towards spite and anger. His regret has grown, as has his doubt about the truth of his own memory.

However true, Ahmad recalls being pulled apart—pulled in two distinct directions—as he said goodbye to his uncle, to the man who had taught him to pick olives from the top of that tree in their garden. 

In that moment, Ahmad wanted to stay alive. As the soldiers stormed the house, Ahmad was bound by a cowering and submissive smallness that knew silence and stillness would keep him alive. 

At the same time, he wanted to sacrifice himself for his uncle, to claw and tear at the masked man who had his uncle by the collar. 

It was a battle between that roaring protectiveness that had always gotten him into trouble and the instinct to stay alive. 

That night, as Ahmad’s uncle was dragged across the floor right in front of him, the instinct to survive won. Ahmad said nothing—embracing his uncle with his eyes alone, and hoping to God that he would be forgiven for his sin, or his error, or his choice that was neither right nor wrong. Or perhaps it was not a choice at all. Something deeper, more primitive than Ahmad, was in charge in that moment. Whoever or whatever force made that choice towards inaction does not change the deep guilt that accompanies the throbbing of his scar.