Home » Palestine » Ahlam Bsharat الاار للناس الغائبين(Trees for the Absentees)

Ahlam Bsharat: الاار للناس الغائبين (Trees for the Absentees)

This is a very short book – a novella – but well worth reading. Philistia is a young Palestinian woman living in the village of Deir Sabra. My dad loved Palestine so much that he called me Philistia. She has grown up helping her grandmother Zahia, who is both a corpse washer and a midwife, which also involves washing the new-borns. Both grandmother and granddaughter are therefore accustomed to seeing naked bodies.

She lives with her mother and younger siblings. Her father is in jail, presumably for some action he took during the intifada. She misses him and writes to him but he had refused visits for a year. Now she is getting older she wants to study and opts to study at the Al Quds university in Nablus. She has also informed her mother that when she starts studying, she wants to work. Her mother had already expressed her disapproval of her choice of place to study and now disapproves of her daughter working but Philistia gets her own way. In a mirror of her (now deceased), grandmother’s profession, she gets a job at a hammam (public baths) in Nablus washing and scrubbing the female visitors. This was not a a full-time job as the baths were only open to women two days a week, Sundays and Tuesdays, so she attends university the other days.

Gradually she persuades her mother that she is going to stay overnight in Nablus with her female friends on the days she works, particularlywith her best friend Fathia (I don’t trust you with the girls there!, her mother comments). While as we shall see she may have no reason for disapproving of her daughter’s behaviour, though that can be questioned, we learn that Fathia has her first love and discusses him with Philistia. Why have we suddenly grown up so much, Fathia? “Because we started to make sense of things early. I mean we learned about a lot of things that don’t make any sense.

But, as we shall see, Philistia lives in the real world but she also lives in another world. Her grandmother had taught her the secrets of life and death. This world was mine and mine alone, this world I had inhabited since Grandma Zahia first took me with her. In the baths her grandmother is still there, guiding her (Grandma was looking down at me from behind the woman: a pale ghostly image appeared on the wall above the large tiles that the water splashes against.). The owner of the baths is full of praise for her, telling her that she never receives a complaint about her. But there is someone else.

That someone is Bayrakdar. First she sees him in her dreams and then she sees him in the town though loses sight of him when she tries to follow him. For us, no doubt, Bayrakdar is what we might called an imaginary friend, but for Philistia, he is very real and they go out together holding hands. Bayrakdar and I were real as far as we were concerned. We were a world for us alone. A life for us alone. She tells Fathia who comments Don’t be silly! He’s just a boy in your dreams, you daft thing! He’s not even real!

When the Israelis come to their village and destroy all the olive trees, despite the best efforts of the locals to stop them, Bayrakdar reassured me again that no one, not even the Israeli occupiers, would be able to demolish our house as long as it was built in our imaginations. Where do you plant trees for people who aren’t here?” I asked. “For absentees.

This book is quite short but very imaginative and very well written. Doubtless with the the horrors that the Palestinians face such as, here, the destruction oof the olive trees, the imagination is often all that is left.

Publishing history

First published in 2013 byTamer
First published in English in 2019 byNeem Tree Press
Translated by Sue Copeland