I: Ex Nihilo
I dreamed about her,
What did I dream?
What hell or heaven did beam,
From that glossy moon,
My lost love’s tomb?
I walk through the violet-veiled Mediterranean Sea, following a line of sparkling light. The path of light leads through thick dark water toward an island of jagged heaps of stone, then leaps like a gazelle into a purple sun. My feet carry me forward—little steps—through the micro-waves that knock at my abdomen. I feel as if the sand bar I tread upon continues infinitely, as the start of a journey into a desert. I stop. Why have I stopped? My thoughts weigh me down. This must be what that generator of Genesis saw, as he imagined the world before creation: A primordial ocean, oozing a purple mist that exists and does not, that is breathed and is not, whose waters are a dark wrinkled curtain over the abyss of non-existence. I laugh. He who imagined the world for all was a lonely man.
I submerge my body by bending my long legs, placing my knees on the sandbar. Ashen hair dangles and floats about my head. I brush the hair aside and cover my ears. I am filled with the ocean, the purple mist, and the purple sun. The light on the dark wrinkles is fading, shimmering out of being. The crack in the universe is closing. Dare I look back? Dare I straighten my knees and rise? Dare I Rise above this darkness floating around me, and turn to see. Turn to see what? To see the true source of this prison-sea, which stabs infinitely and heals perpetually. That emits an a-minor key. On the golden sand, two silhouettes they would be. Why is it golden when everything is purple, grey and dark? They are breaking from the key. How cruel is this world that even music turns against us. So it is. I cannot erase the golden shine that enshrines them. Their fingers are touching, wrapping, entangled. Their eyes are the same. Do I dare turn to see that? I can hear my knees creaking under water. I am being slowly unhinged by a vicious tide that overpowers my will–my only will!–and steals my knees.
In my imagination, Tel Aviv stretches out behind the young lovers: First wooden pavilions, then a crowded boardwalk, then hotels, malls, cafes, filled with shirtless Moroccan men who walk in gangs of four. Russian women walk with sad blue eyes beneath the purple glow of neon lights, though to where I don’t know, and Russian men drink beer at the Little Prague pub and play chess. Amid the promenade in front of the outdoor market, a group of people, once strangers, clap or stand in awe of a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair who is dancing. She is dancing to the Phrygian sounds of a keyboard-playing vagabond, who has dark hair, red leathery skin, and black eyes shrouded in black sockets. The woman in the wheelchair turns herself around in circles with one hand while gracefully waving a thin yellow scarf in the other. She smiles so wide and so blissfully that a young man from France who was recently divorced and has run to the Holy Land, believes in God again and knows all will be well.
An Arab fisherman is standing before the ancient Jaffa harbor that traps the evening’s beauty within its jagged rocks. His eyes are fixed upon a crescent moon that is slowly breaking through the purple. He cries. He cries because he is alone and cannot share the moon’s beauty with someone he loves. All around him couples are sitting outside at tables with white tablecloths and glowing candles, enjoying the fresh fish he caught. He howls inside. I hear his howl. I wish to comfort him, to howl with him at this evil beautiful moon. The dimly lit rocks behind me are like the rocks before him: sanctuaries with no entrances. Fish me from the sea my comrade, before the sun has fully perished and this evil moon kills us both.
I focus my eyes on the enshrined lovers. They sit at the edge of the water, their thighs and torsos pressing together. His right arm is wrapped around her body, locking into her left hand. They tease the reaching waves with their love. I turn again to the rocks. These stone structures are already a monument in my memory, a memorial to this moment. Like the primordial purple mist, they now exist but are also an illusion. I turn again to see the young lovers. This is a memory too. When on a bleak autumn evening, I reunited with my Lumma. She had been forbidden from me. We could but send letters through friends. She tried to comfort me. She said: I want to see your alif and your resh, the curves and falls of your very own handwriting. Each form of ink will be your own, with your own feeling and soul behind it. I included love sonatas, though I knew she could only imagine their sound. I dreamed of playing these songs for her, as she slowly fell asleep.
On that day of reunion, we reclined and hid our bodies behind a wall of sand on the shoreline, which rose like a bunker dug by the ocean in preparation for war. We let the cold water chill our heels. She said: I love you like the size of the ocean. I love you like the distance to the sky. From where does all this love come from? She replied: the words are an Arabic song, but the love comes from you. I thought of what poetry I know. I had longed to tell her: Yah, aghlah min hayati. Inte ‘Omri, illi ibtada b’nourak sab’akh. Oh you, more precious than my life. You are my life, which starts its morning with your light. I stumbled over the foreign words. A look of terror first grew on her face. What was that terror? I looked into her eyes: she was lost at sea in thought. But her face quickly changed into a look of desperate longing. She took my hand, and led me into the water. The water was cold, but not cold enough to stop us. We walked together into choppy breakers. She turned me into her, squeezed my body and I squeezed hers. Our heads rested on each other’s shoulders. The ocean swelled around us, combining us. Without ever taking her head from my shoulder, she slid her hands down my back, onto my pelvis, and slid off my shorts. I did the same for her. She jumped and wrapped her feet around my thighs and swung her arms over my shoulders. She clung to me with all her force. I breathed hard, and held her tightly.
I exit the sea near the young lovers. I feel compelled to look at them. I stand tall enough and close enough that my shadow dims their enshrinement. A calm wind travels between us, carrying the silence. He stares at me first, and I see jealousy in his eyes. Then I catch her stare. It is full of painful compassion. I can hardly recall a sense of my own self. I look at my hands, long and bony, tattered from stretching between distant notes. Her eyes seem to ask: Where are you going and what are you doing here? I cannot tell you, sweet sister. I don’t know how I got here and where I go.
I feel I should not linger. My fear bangs on bombastic drums. But the path of light is angled in a new direction, and beckons me southward toward Jaffa. As I walk away, my footsteps are like notes B to C, little room in between, each producing a melancholic hum.
Before I begin, I feel I must first say this: If love is a myth, then I too was a myth. Whatever the sum of human imagination has defined love’s essence, I experienced with my Ori. How such love can disappear in a single moment, I feel is the eternal bane of love-seekers. But let it never be said that love was non-existent.
Since I was a little girl, romantic stories led me to dream of wayward love, of a distant prince or passionate shepherd that would steal me from Jaffa, and imbue my life with vitality. When I first saw Ori, floating on the dust of the marketplace of Jaffa, I was sure this man, with long dark hair and sea-blue eyes, who played an eerie beautiful tune on the guitar, was my shepherd. I was a lost sheep, and with his magical music, he lured me in.
When we were forced to part, I believed we would hold. In fear, Ori quoted a Hebrew saying: far from the eyes, far from the heart. I believed we were different, beyond time and space. His letters were sad but beautiful. He described everything through the lens of “without you.” “Today a song I wrote was played before 500 people in the Tel Aviv Opera House. (I’ve included the song inside. It is obviously dedicated to you. My every breath is dedicated to you). It was sweet to see my music come to life. How much sweeter would it have been with you!” I longed to be with him again. My anger with my family grew insufferable. I starved myself. I hid in and cherished the scorn of silence. I used my sadness as a weapon to tear at my parents’ hearts.
When I first saw him again, I felt an overwhelming joy. We hid our bodies behind the sand, and I let my body rest against his. At that moment, I truly felt I loved him like the size of the sea and the distance to the sky. If only he had just remained silent. If only he had been content to let his eyes express his thoughts. But with a few simple words, a sincere gesture of love and faithfulness, he destroyed everything. How could it perish so suddenly? Yah, aghlah min hayati. Inte ‘Omri, illi ibtada b’nourak sab’akh. Icould tell he had practiced the words. It should have been something sweet. But it was not. His attempt at Arabic, at the immortal words of Umm Kalthum, was monstrous. His voice was like a stranger’s. How had I let this outsider, who could not pronounce the ghayn of aghlah, or the a’yin of ‘omri, so deep into my heart?
I tried to overcome this intruding feeling. I concentrated my energy into loving him. I needed to feel close to him. To be as close as I could be. I reached for his hand. I squeezed it with all my strength. I needed more. I needed his whole body. I led him into the water. I pleaded with the sea to unite us. I was rabid inside. I squeezed his whole body with mine. I needed more. I slid my hands into his shorts. Naked, pressed together, I leapt. I squeezed his body with my legs and arms as if trying to force our bodies to mesh into each other. But they would not.
Where did that love go? One line of poetry swept it away like a Herculean broom.
The purple has all but faded, giving way to black and white. The light of the strengthening moon gleams on the water. I pause to watch the gleaming. The light is dancing, tenderly swaying and refracting to the sound of a tune. Dum da dum dum. What is this eerie tune? It is Beethoven. He took an image of gleaming moonlight and transformed it into a sacred sonata. I took a guitar off a table crowded with dusty instruments, and played his sonata for a woman holding a red apple. She said her name was Lumma.
The way to Jaffa is clear, until I come upon a skinny Arab boy rummaging through a garbage bin. He looks up at me, and there is a blank stare in his eyes. His eyes don’t know what to say. He returns to rummaging through the trash. First he pulls out a crumbled bag of chips and turns it over on his hands. He licks the bits of chips and oil residue off his palms. Without a pause, he puts the empty bag back into the trash, and continues rummaging. Next he pulls out a red apple. He cups the fruit in his hands and holds it up towards the moon, and allows the white light to kiss its shiny skin. Bathed in the crystalline light, he slowly turns the apple in his hand. When his eyes have seen the whole apple, he clutches it in his forearms and squeezes it into his stomach. He lifts it again to the light and gently caresses it with his fingers. He murmurs. I recognize the word on his lips: al-hamdulilla. I cower like the devil before the praise of God.
It was a busy summer afternoon in the outdoor market of Jaffa. It smelled of dust, rust and an orgy of Arabian spices. She was wearing a thin white shawl that draped over her wide shoulders and curved down to the waist of her cotton dress. Her face was wide and round, but pointed at her dimpled swelled cheeks, which were connected by wide thin lips that burrowed into her face, forming a valley below her nose. Her dark brown hair was loose around her back and face, and bangs fell into her thin eyebrows.
I followed her to a fruit stand guarded by a lanky teenage Arab boy. He watched her eyes carefully scour over his colorful merchandise—yellow mangoes, brown dates and figs, green grapes, oranges, tomatoes, yellow peppers—until they finally fell upon a stack of red apples, and she suddenly became still. She broke her stillness by reaching her hand out and grabbing a plump apple from the center of the bunch. She brought the flame colored fruit close to her face and stared intensely at it. A small black blemish in the apple’s center had caught her eye; its presence on the otherwise perfect apple seemed to have saddened her. She rubbed her thumb over the dark mark repeatedly. It looked like she was taking pity on the apple: on the loss of perfection and beauty it suffered. She continued to rub the blemish like the death-wound of someone she loved. Both the boy and I watched her, captivated.
All the memories swell and linger, as I follow the sparkling light on the water.
What was it I once told her? A myth invented by a friend. Look at the moon, at its tremulous light. It fills the night with romance and tempts the tiresome to dream. Everyone knows souls are luminous pearly ethereal things. What can it be then but a planet of souls. Not any soul, but only the souls who died still in the thrall of love. These souls watch over their living loves, and are content with continuing their relationships in dreams. She thought it was a strange but beautiful idea. I told her it was not. I told her we cannot accept the idea of love beyond the grave. In love’s brevity is its urgency, and in its urgency its passion. Would you have a moon of souls rob love of its passion? She smiled her long thin smile, and said, you say that now, but what would you say if I died. How then would you look at the moon?
The light guided the boy to an apple. Where will it guide me? Again I am not alone. There is a man ahead. He too is following a light. It is strapped to his head, burrowing through the darkness. He walks stooped over. His light illuminates the seashore before him. He stops suddenly, and bends further. He gropes through the wet sand with his hands. He rises, but only takes a few steps forward before he bends over again. This time he descends to his knees, and places his hands on the floor. He crawls and crawls. Dying waves glide through him, and he crawls and crawls. He seems to trust the light. His eyes are searching. His hands are searching. He crawls and crawls. I walk past him, but he pays me no mind. I turn to watch him from behind. What insanity. It is madness to search the shore with one’s hands. You’re more likely to bury yourself then unbury what’s lost. But he trusts the light. He crawls and crawls. His crawling stops. He stands erect on his knees. He is facing the sea, and his hands are cupped, as if in prayer. Sand is slowly falling through the crack. He opens his hands, pauses, and looks at his palms. He closes his hands again, but this time, he keeps the crack wider. He watches the sand slowly fall, and scatter in the wind. When the sand ceases to flow, he opens his hands from the top. A small metal cap catches the light as it falls. He points his light northward, and continues on his knees.
My sympathy urges me to crawl with him, but my empathy knows I should not. How does it know? Because I have searched. I have searched along this shore. I brought her again to the sea. I wanted it as a witness. It was always here and always will be. But before I could give her the ring—the ring, where is that ring?—she was gone. The searchers that swarmed asked: If we find her, how will we know? A tattoo, I said. A crescent moon on the nape of her neck. Didn’t it always shine through into her eyes? You don’t know because she hid it. She draped her hair over her neck and down her back. But she showed me. I rested my hands, then my lips, upon that silver curved sliver. Why the moon? I once asked her after making love. She looked at me with sad and angry eyes, as if to say: How can you not know? I searched, and crawled up and down the seaside. Where did she go?
IV: The Maiden of Jaffa
As I watched my Ori play the Moonlight Sonata, I felt both joy and fear. I knew this was both the beginning and the end of my life. In the stories I’d read, wayward love was always proclaimed a delicious poison. He put down the guitar and said, meet me again tomorrow, in Tel Aviv, and I will play for you the most beautiful music.
I went to Tel Aviv glad I would be a stranger, a wayward maiden of Jaffa, in need of saving, in need of a hero. I sought the safety of his little white home, in a sea of little white apartments.
When he played the piano, he left the room, and entered the world of the music. I knew I was no longer there. But when he finished, we were immeasurably closer. It was as if the music had become a part of us, and after, we had in common all of its power. The music sped our love, and took us from strangers to lovers in a single moon.
Two weeks after we met he played Liebstraum, his favorite piece, in honor of our “anniversary.” I was lying on the couch, in a daze of happiness. After he finished, he walked over to me and knelt on the floor by my side. I said: My whole life I have waited for someone like you, and have lived in endless disappointment. And one day, a day like all days in the market, there you come, floating on the dust of Jaffa into my life. He smiled at me, and asked for my hands. I cupped his hands in mine, and caressed his long bony fingers. He said, love is not something to be searched for, because it is not something that inherently exists. Love arrives ex nihilo, out of nothing. Therefore, the searcher is searching for something that does not exist. I asked: can something that exists ever return to non-existence? He answered: what exists never leaves the universe; it can only change into something else. I smile. Then that myth of the moon isn’t so crazy, is it?
What happened to our love, which grew from dust and fruit and music? One line of poetry, then suddenly it was swept away by a Herculean broom.
After reuniting, I spent one year with this stranger, on whose tongue even my own name sounded foreign. When we met new people or he introduced me to his old friends, he would hold me close to his body with his long arm. This is Luma, he would say, a smile across his face. He was proud of his Arab lover. Back at home I would say, Please, we’ve been through this Ori. It’s Lum-ma. There is a hamza over the M. You must pronounce the M twice. Elongate the sound. He would respond: it’s a Latin based name; why do you have to be so tough on me? Yes, it was a Latin based name. But now it was my name. Now it was an Arabic name.
I was no longer his lover, but his slave. But please, don’t judge my Ori harshly. This was self-enslavement. I became obsessed with pleasing him, with fulfilling all his desires, of following my duty as a lover. Whenever I detected he looked tired, I quickly brought him coffee with fruit and crackers. I spent hours preparing his meals: rolling grape leaves, and making humus from scratch. The fruit, vegetables and spices I used came from a garden I tended. He begged me to make simple meals, to buy what I needed from the market. It drove him mad that I served him incessantly. Why don’t you ever ask anything of me, he would cry. Let me fulfill my love for you. But I never asked anything of him. My will was always silent.
What drove him most mad was my constant repetition of al-hamdulillah. At first he sighed and said: Why are you saying that? You’re not religious in the slightest. I would respond: when I’m grateful, I’m religious. He would counter: Do you curse God for every bit of evil and cruelty you encounter? You’re naive, a fanatic, conveniently passing over the infinite miseries that fill this world. You’re a fanatic, too, I said. You’re a love fanatic. At this he laughed, and said, to you it is a crime that I love you fanatically. The worst of all crimes, I thought.
He brought me back to the sea. I had guessed why. He loved to celebrate anniversaries. I wasn’t sure though until I saw the little black box lying in the sand, after he left for a quick head-clearing walk. That little box contained shackles. I thought: I could not refuse him. I had sacrificed so much to be with him. I’d cut ties with my past. I could no longer return home. Yet, I couldn’t dread spending my life under a foreign dictator. I grabbed the little box and sprinted down the shore. I tossed my shackles into the sea and the box was immediately devoured by a wave. As soon as the box disappeared from my sight, regret exploded through me. I was Ori’s. I had never brought my freedom. How long could he remain a stranger? I once loved him deeply. Could I not one day love him again? What exists can never leave existence. I plunged into the sea. And swam, and scoured, and smashed through the waves of water and despair. I tried to follow the tide, to float to where the box may have been swept. But the sea has no master, only servants. My final hope was to stay alive long enough to float to Jaffa. To die in the waters of my home.
I can see Jaffa. She lies like a shapely breast on the seaside, where it has given sustenance to the Egyptians, Canaanites, Jews, Seleucids, Romans, Christians, and Muslims. Now, like a lighthouse, a minaret stands over her, over the crumbled stone buildings and walls, over the seawall, and over the pier. The wind travels about her stones like a lost and mad spirit. Can it be because this city is Jopa, daughter of Aeolus, god of wind? In the gulf of the harbor, the crescent moon hangs like horn over a temple of stones that rise from the dark sea. They are bathed in light of the moon.
I follow the wind through the stony vistas toward the harbor. I feel a terror brooding in the sanctuary of my memory. My memory itself speaks to me: This moon I mistrust. Her light I strangely mistrust. Ah, fly—let us fly—for we must. In agony it sobs, trailing through the stony dust. Tears sorrowfully trail in the dust.
I reply: Let us follow this tremulous light. Let us be nourished by this crystalline light. Its prophetic power is beaming, with hope and beauty tonight. We can surely trust its gleaming, since it flickers up to heaven through the night.
Thus I pacify my memory, and enter the sea. The gleaming light is calming, as I swim through the cold dark waters. I come to the great vaulted doors of the temple. I fear I am locked out. Locked out of what? What lies hidden within these grey walls? But the doors suddenly open. A great pointed rock stands at the center, bathed in the crystalline light. The light is taking form. Suddenly, my soul is filled with gloom. Drums: volcanic bursts of Boom! Boom! The bassoons are heaving and strings screeching of doom.
A naked woman. She is chained to the rock. By her hands she is chained to the rock. Her breasts sag. She is stooped over, her body bent at the center. Wet hair covers her face. Can it be, this temple her tomb in the sea? My dear Lumma has swapped fates with Andromeda. From the shallow water that surrounds the great rock, sprouts scores of reaching hands. Their arms grow as they reach up the rock. They rise like a growing fire around my Lumma’s body. They grab her feet and shins. Their fingers remind me of my own, long and bony. She yells to me in terror. I cannot save you. My only power is music. Then play a fierce song that will frighten these ghouls, she says. Fill their souls with gloom, and send them back into the water. But I have no instrument. How I can play such a song without an instrument. I can only watch in horror as the hands creep up her thighs. Their fingers are clinging to her dark skin, pulling and tearing her down, as though she weren’t chained to the bolder. Their fingernails are gripping tightly and bruising, painting lines of white and red. Sing, she cries. Howl, she cries. Make music from your insides. And I do. I howl and moan notes that tear and rip like a pack of wolves on meat, a Wagnerian feast. With her chained hands she conducts my song, swinging them wildly toward the four corners of the world. I howl low, and I howl high. I howl form my gut with the gusto of Apollo, and summon that strength that is non-existent in body until summoned by man, the Herculean strength of man that is Godly but made of human spirit. My music shakes the stone, and the stone shakes the temple, which shakes the sea, whose waves reach the moon and shake the omnipresent light. But this spirit-strength cannot persist, and I cannot sustain its force within my lowly instrument. Her chains are grabbed by the fire-of-hands, and her swinging palms are forced to her side. My voice is dying and I am powerless to help her. I can only scream from my mutilated throat. My Love, my Lumma, I am no Perseus. Please, forgive my weakness.
I hear footsteps at the door of the temple. Through the vaulted doors enters the lonely Arab fisherman, who was howling at the moon. He rushes to my side. He stands tall and slightly arches his back. He raises his head and opens his mouth wide. He howls. His howl is a pure deep note. A loud smooth slide of a bow. I try to emulate. The same deep note bursts from my chest. And the echoes of our unified howl comfort my soul. Come, he says. And suddenly my Lumma and the fire-of-hands are gone, and we are left alone in a cold cavern of stone. He wraps his arm around my shoulders and steers me out of the temple. He leads me towards the shore’s edge, but we stop at a flattened rock. He climbs up first. Then he gives me his hand, and pulls me onto the cold stony surface. He rests his body on the stone. I lie down next to him.
The fisherman asks: what has brought you howling to the harbor of Jaffa? Though his presence consoles me, there is still agony in my voice when I respond. You must know who I am. All Jaffiens know the story of that devil who stole a pure Arab maiden from their city, and lost her by the sea. I expect him to slay me upon the rock. I wish for it, to share a tomb with Lumma. Instead, he says: You must know that love is something to be lived, not remembered. Now please, would you just lie here with me? Yes dear fisherman. My fellow howler. Though I am afraid. Though I fear this evil beautiful moon. I will be your comrade, your brother by the sea.