Karim Kattan: “The Gravedigger”

15 June, 2022

 

Tarek Al-Ghous­sein (1962–2022), Unti­tled, (D Series) Lam­da print,mounted on alu­mini­um 100 x 150 cm, 2009 (cour­tesy Kalfayan Gal­leries). In per­for­ma­tive pho­tographs and evoca­tive images of land­scapes, Tarek Al-Ghous­sein explored per­son­al, as well as more wide­spread, asso­ci­a­tions with the Mid­dle East. A Pales­tin­ian raised in Kuwait and the Unit­ed States, Al-Ghous­sein ini­tial­ly worked as a doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­ph­er and pho­to­jour­nal­ist. His images posi­tion dis­tinc­tive­ly Mid­dle East­ern sites, such as Kuwaiti con­struc­tion projects or Ara­bi­an deserts, against the charged sym­bols of his her­itage, such as walls or the kef­fiyeh. In his “D Series,” Al-Ghous­sein pho­tographs him­self dwarfed amidst desert expans­es, or against fab­ric walls demar­cat­ing new build­ings. The wall func­tions, in his work, as a ref­er­ence to the Israeli-Pales­tine con­flict and a metaphor for dis­place­ment and bar­ri­ers to cul­tur­al heritage.

 

Karim Kattan

 

The beau­ti­ful young woman’s face felt famil­iar. She had start­ed com­ing a few weeks ago, and every time, he was left pon­der­ing. A famil­iar face. He didn’t exact­ly rec­og­nize it, but he know he had been inti­mate with some­thing that lurked beneath the grey eyes, the thick eye­brows, the olive com­plex­ion. She paint­ed a strik­ing pic­ture, in her white dress, stand­ing straight and stiff, in front of the white shrine that marked the entrance to the grave­yard. Behind her, the end­less yel­low and blue expans­es of the desert and the sky stretched to infinity.

Even in the con­stant fog of his mind, he under­stood that this grave­yard was some­thing of a mir­a­cle. Here, in the mid­dle of this blight­ed, sun­burnt bar­ren­ness of a coun­try; here in this blis­ter­ing waste­land where col­ors were like the ash­es of old pic­tures, here where men came to throw their dead like trash, flow­ers bloomed. It was mag­i­cal, he con­ced­ed. Per­haps the sheer num­ber of rot­ting bod­ies made the soil par­tic­u­lar­ly fer­tile; per­haps it had been so pre­or­dained before exis­tence itself by God; or maybe a trick­ster spir­it had spread these flow­ers, this fake oasis, to ensnare the souls of men. He had many the­o­ries; he enjoyed spend­ing the morn­ings when no one vis­it­ed him pon­der­ing on the ori­gin of flowers.

Few of his the­o­ries were joy­ful; most­ly, he believed these flow­ers were the result of a cat­a­clysm. Every sin­gle one of them, like a hex hold­ing him hostage. This the­o­ry made sense; he liked it. It explained why he had nev­er mus­tered the courage to leave the grave­yard. It would have been a sim­ple mat­ter, he imag­ined: he only need­ed to push open the small metal­lic door next to the shrine, take a few steps, and he’d be out. That was the only way: on the oth­er side, where he buried the bod­ies, the desert was — strict­ly speak­ing — infinite.

As far as he could tell, no one had ever asked him to dig graves. He couldn’t remem­ber when it had all start­ed. He could not recall any­thing that hap­pened before. He knew he’d had a life before this life. In the first years, he used to try to remem­ber. Now, when he focus­es on the time before, he quick­ly grows tired and his mem­o­ry bumps into an invis­i­ble wall. Some­thing was behind it; an answer, a rec­ol­lec­tion; he can see it in the dis­tance, but he can­not access it. Recent­ly, he had stopped try­ing. And, even­tu­al­ly, most of the attrib­ut­es of his per­son­hood had start­ed fad­ing. Some­times, he won­dered if he was a shad­ow of a per­son; but some things — his vision dis­tort­ed by the heat at high noon, the rough edges in his thoughts, the way his lungs felt like they were shrink­ing and he would choke — remind­ed him that he was more than a shad­ow; he was a body that could feel pain. He knew, dark­ly, that he had been famil­iar with bod­ies that feel pain.

He only dug at dusk and in the ear­ly evening, when every­thing turned orange, then pur­ple, then black. Before that, he would sit in the shade of a palm tree, with the shrine loom­ing behind him, and drink tea. He often had vis­i­tors. Over the years, he had start­ed under­stand­ing things about them, accord­ing to the hours at which they arrived. Those who came in the ear­ly morn­ing were the brisk kind; busi­ness-like and wound up, they sat straight on the chair and took small, per­func­to­ry sips from their teacup. They knew why they were here and left quick­ly. They made sense of their emo­tions and dis­posed of them like tasks on a list. Where­as those of the after­noon were slow­er, and uncer­tain. They were the messy ones. They were weak, timid, and their emo­tions were ocean­ic, messy.

As for the bod­ies he buried, he fig­ured they came from the coun­try he had belonged to. He knew that because the vis­i­tors spoke his lan­guage and because he rec­og­nized how they had died. Often, they were maimed and con­tort­ed. He knew the method. He had — it was a light shim­mer­ing in a cor­ner of his brain — seen it done to bod­ies. Chok­ing, spit­ting up, turn­ing blue.

Mem­o­ry was a tricky thing, he’d tell the vis­i­tors. God has a way of mak­ing you for­get. You could spend your life think­ing you remem­bered all the details of your past and wake up one day and there you are, a guy with a shov­el, dead bod­ies that turn up every morn­ing, and all of eter­ni­ty to bury them. Yes, dim­ly, he remem­bered bod­ies tor­tured like that but could not, for the life of him, tell whether he had been a per­pe­tra­tor or a vic­tim. These mem­o­ries emerged and dis­ap­peared as if under the ten­ta­tive light of a bulb dan­gling from the ceil­ing and bare­ly push­ing the edges of shad­ows. He knew he had been up close and his body seemed to remem­ber some­thing, a move­ment he made mechan­i­cal­ly, some­thing he did or could have done to bod­ies that made them writhe in pain. These mem­o­ries were wedged some­where in the crevices of his mind. Groans, elbows, fin­gers and eyelids.

No one had told him what the huge, rec­tan­gu­lar white build­ing at the entrance of the grave­yard was. It just made sense that it would be a shrine. He nev­er went in. Over the years, it had start­ed becom­ing some­thing of a friend; a giant who watched over him. Maybe that’s why he had nev­er felt lonely.


The very beau­ti­ful young woman came every morn­ing, before the sun set the air ablaze. He rec­og­nized beau­ty, still. He didn’t know why, he didn’t know the use of it, but he rec­og­nized it like the dis­tant taste of some­thing with which he had once been famil­iar. And so, on her first vis­it, she sat, near the entrance of the grave­yard, shad­ed by the loom­ing white giant and the palm tree. She ran her fin­ger on the sur­face of the small, white met­al table to remove some dust. She shuf­fled on her small, white met­al chair. There were only two chairs, one for her and one for him. He was nev­er vis­it­ed by groups.

He enjoyed hav­ing a cup of tea with the vis­i­tors. Some came once, and paid him a year­ly sum to upkeep the graves, change the flow­ers, water the plants. He was not very dili­gent about the flow­ers and plants. His was the domain of corpses, not flow­ers. Yet, they had to pay him every year. After all, he was the only one they could count on. He had no use for the mon­ey — every­thing he need­ed was right here — but it amused him to swin­dle them like that. It gave him plea­sure to see them think they could own him with mon­ey. It made him real­ize how far from the realm of humans he now was.

He knew what he looked like to them: an ancient gnome, as ancient as the land, with a face like a prune and eyes so black you thought he was blind. He knew it unset­tled them when he looked at them and it seemed he was study­ing their souls with sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion. Some­times they paid him just so he would stop look­ing. He remem­bered using that look, both vapid and deep, in his old­er life. He could use it to strike fear in people’s hearts.

He had buried her father recent­ly, she informed him, and she had come to vis­it. He felt she was scared, or upset, by this lit­tle shell of a sun­burnt man with whom she found her­self alone on the edge of the earth. He could not remem­ber all the corpses, he answered. “I under­stand,” she said but her demeanor indi­cat­ed that she, in fact, did not under­stand, sus­pect­ed him of lying and would press him to tell the truth. She smiled at him: “What is your name?” She asked this in the way a lady will ask her porter his name; to extend both her benev­o­lence and her author­i­ty on him.

Some­where in the cor­ners of his brain, a light flick­ered occa­sion­al­ly, remind­ing him that his name had been Amin. “Amin,” he said. “An hon­or to meet you, O believ­er,” she answered her eyes hold­ing his gaze. “Are you sure you do not remem­ber where you buried my father? It must have been only a month ago.”

He did not remem­ber. “Look,” he said, “see how big this grave­yard is? How do you expect me to remem­ber?” The flow­ers rus­tled soft­ly in the wind. “I under­stand. Thank you, Amin,” she said, tak­ing his hand. “If you hap­pen to recall, at any time, where my father is buried, please let me know. I will come back.” She spoke like a lady; her accent was all sup­ple vow­els and sub­dued con­so­nants; the singsong of cities of the north. There were syl­la­bles that were so harsh she did not even pro­nounce them, as if the words had come down from the moon and remained light as feathers.

He resent­ed that she made him feel like a work­er, like her own per­son­al bell­boy. He was the gravedig­ger, who struck fear in the hearts of men and before that he had been — some­thing. Some­thing no less ter­ri­fy­ing than a gravedig­ger. This flash of pride was new; a feel­ing he had been unfa­mil­iar with for decades.

The young woman came back every day. She brought lilies. It was very unimag­i­na­tive, she coy­ly con­ced­ed, but she had no idea what sort of flow­ers to bring. She didn’t feel brave enough to go look­ing for her father’s grave yet, so she laid the flow­ers at the entrance before sit­ting for tea. Every morn­ing, wear­ing her wide-brimmed hat, she drank a small cup of tea and gazed at the dis­tance. Some­where, over there, was her father’s grave. Did he remem­ber today, where he buried him, she asked every day. And every day he said he did not. She looked at him, like he was a kid. She had a way. They did not speak much.

But ever since she had start­ed com­ing, a search­light had lit up in his mind. He came to under­stand that she tru­ly felt like some­one he had known in his pre­vi­ous life. As if that person’s soul had slipped into her. He want­ed her to leave. He explained that the grave­yard was huge. Out of scale, real­ly. He couldn’t remem­ber when it had become so huge. He did remem­ber that, at some point, years ago, it was only a mod­est square of flow­ers where a mere dozen of peo­ple were buried. But peo­ple kept dying, and the flow­ers spread­ing. Con­tort­ed bod­ies, bod­ies tor­tured and thrown here, day in and day out by an invis­i­ble hand, fod­der for the flow­ers. Today, the grave­yard was a labyrinth. His domain. His life’s work. The young woman sat on the floor, near the entrance of the grave­yard. She gazed into the dis­tance. “How far,” she asked aloud, “to my father’s tomb?”

This is my life’s work, he felt like answer­ing. And some­where, in my life’s work, is your father’s grave. I do not know where. He is one body among mil­lions. One wrenched, bulging, dis­fig­ured car­rion among the flow­ers. Yet, the search­light in his brain con­tin­ued look­ing in every fold of his mem­o­ry for that sense of some­one she embod­ied. Ever since she had start­ed com­ing in his gar­den, the out­line of his half-for­got­ten mem­o­ries was slow­ly becom­ing more spe­cif­ic; sounds and col­ors arose. They were much clear­er than before, though he could not make sense of them. Faces dis­fig­ured by pain, and screams and eyes eyes eyes look­ing at him sear­ing his brain. He could feel how the pain spasmed and throbbed. Was she one of those eyes from long ago?

One day, he remem­bered some­thing. It was mere­ly a some­thing he could bare­ly for­mu­late. A gen­er­al direc­tion of where her father might be. His sense of time and dis­tance had been warped over the years. He only knew the ris­ing sun and the set­ting sun. The next morn­ing, she arrived, car­ry­ing her usu­al bou­quet of lilies. “Good morn­ing,” she said. He point­ed in the gen­er­al direc­tion and said, “some­where over there.” She looked. “How far away from here?” she asked. A day, or two per­haps, to the grave. Eyes eyes eyes etched clear­ly in his brain, opened up in sur­prise and pain, and the dark­ness sur­round­ing them.

“A day, or two per­haps,” she repeated.

“You bet­ter have tea first,” he sug­gest­ed. They sat at the table. It was a sur­pris­ing­ly fresh morn­ing. He could tell she con­fused the morning’s crisp­ness with hope. Weath­er, he want­ed to tell her, is not an emo­tion. She asked him if peo­ple often came to vis­it. They did, yes, but most often they stayed here with him, drink­ing tea and look­ing wist­ful­ly at the hori­zon. She asked what the shapes were, that she saw swing­ing in the distance.

Well, he answered. More death. You see, those who set out to find their loved ones — they rarely ever came back. He nev­er was curi­ous enough to won­der what they had become. Many of them sim­ply van­ished. Some, he assumed, over­whelmed with grief, were swal­lowed by their loved one’s grave. Or per­haps the anger, the resent­ment they felt and could nev­er express any­more, made them explode. Oth­ers, he imag­ined, died of thirst some­where along the road and became one with the flow­ers. He saw her clutch the bot­tle she brought with her. He also guessed — but how could he be sure? — that in this out of scale ceme­tery, some just lay down after walk­ing for hours, tired, and turned into dirt, into the ground, into flow­ers. It wasn’t his job to know, or care.

There were trees, too, lin­ing the lit­tle paths that con­nect­ed one grave to the next. He’d often stum­ble upon one of the vis­i­tors that had hanged them­selves, above the grave of who­ev­er they had been vis­it­ing. He nev­er saw them hang them­selves. It always hap­pened far away, or behind his back. He would not have inter­vened any­way. Who was he, he mused, to decide who gets to die and how? Keep­ing some­one from dying, he reflect­ed, was as dan­ger­ous as mur­der­ing them. Both actions dis­pos­sessed them from their lives. But occa­sion­al­ly he would dis­cov­er a new body hang­ing from a tree. The hori­zon, in fact, was dot­ted with them. “What a hor­ri­ble sight,” the young woman had remarked. He did not think so. It filled his heart — what­ev­er was left of it — with a sense of won­der. That peo­ple were able to thus take charge of their lives. He usu­al­ly left them there. When­ev­er, in the ran­dom itin­er­ary of his walks and buri­als, he came close to one, he would cut down the rope and add the body to his list of buri­als to come.

He didn’t know which bod­ies end­ed up here exact­ly. He sus­pect­ed it was those whose lives were unim­por­tant to those around them and those who remained ungriev­ed. There was a gen­er­al aura of mal­ice to this place, which he’d been breath­ing in for decades. So many of these bod­ies turned up alone, washed up like trash on his shore. The vis­i­tors, often, reeked of guilt and regret, of things unsaid. He told her that. “Don’t we all feel guilt and regret?” she asked. “Even the most well-adjusted…”

He tried to muster the most mys­te­ri­ous gaze he could and inter­rupt­ed: “You did not like your father very much, did you?” She looked slight­ly aghast. It was a wild guess. If her father was buried here, her rela­tion­ship to him was bound to be com­pli­cat­ed. “He prob­a­bly wasn’t the best father there is,” she said, and, with a flash of sud­den guilt, she added “but he was my father and I loved him dear­ly.” The gravedig­ger had learned, in this place, that say­ing that one loved some­one dear­ly was a sub­sti­tute phrase used to express the wish that they had nev­er exist­ed; it was code for, “I have been sad­dled with the exis­tence of this per­son, liv­ing or dead, they will weigh heav­i­ly on my chest forever.”

The gravedigger’s brain seemed to have been split in two. His own mem­o­ries, his sense of self, had long ago dis­in­te­grat­ed. Only these eyes in the shad­ows, and the flames, and some­times the shrieks, remained. But he was able to under­stand oth­er people’s minds with great ease. “How did he die?” he asked, and the young woman did not answer.

“Did you kill him?”

“I did no such thing!”

She was not lying. They remained silent for some time. “You wish you’d had the oppor­tu­ni­ty, don’t you?” he asked. The young woman looked at the hori­zon and sighed. She did, yes, if she was being hon­est. She smiled at him: “Well, I guess that’s why I am here. I might have pro­voked his death by wish­ing it.” He thought that was rather stu­pid but did not say so. “I will see you tomor­row,” she said. He watched her leave, her white dress bil­low­ing among the flow­ers, a blue para­sol in one hand and a bot­tle of water in the oth­er. In her trail, he saw the eyes emerge, in the shad­ows of the flames, ask­ing for help or plead­ing with him to stop. He could hear cries of anguish com­ing from unseen mouths. Then, he stood up, fin­ished his cup in one gulp, and grabbed the shov­el which he had left upright on the wall of the shrine.

 

Le Jardin d’Afrique (pho­to Rachid Koraichi).

He had no idea where the woman went when she left the grave­yard. He did not know what exist­ed around this ever-expand­ing place. He real­ly did not under­stand where exact­ly he was sit­u­at­ed and did not real­ly care. He saw the sand swirling in the dis­tance, and the heat, which made him assume he was in some kind of desert. Some­times, it also looked like the sky. He imag­ined her get­ting in a car, a con­vert­ible, and dri­ving down a pris­tine high­way, sus­pend­ed up in the clouds, until she reached a small bed and break­fast where she stayed every night.

She had start­ed telling him about her father and her­self. Her recent mem­o­ry had been wiped clean as soon as she set foot in the grave­yard. How she had got­ten here, she did not know, nor why her father was buried here. She rec­ol­lect­ed every­thing in her life up to the point where she arrived in this place. She knew she could remem­ber, if she’d only tear down the wall in her mind that kept her from remem­ber­ing. He rec­og­nized this. The first time she arrived, she had looked at the patch of dirt for what felt like hours. On the hori­zon, the winds of sand swirled, eddied and whirled in shapeshifts all around the desert gar­den. Then, she had tak­en a breath and pushed the small metal­lic door. And that’s where the recent mem­o­ries started.

Her father had been in prison for as long as she remem­bered. A polit­i­cal pris­on­er; her father, the hero. They vis­it­ed him with her moth­er, when they were allowed to. It was rare. Her father, the hero. Yet, she nev­er could help it: she resent­ed his absence. She hat­ed him for it.

A prison: the gravedig­ger knew what that was like. It echoed in his mind, some­thing of his past life. Chil­dren and adults brought in the dead of night. The young woman was blab­ber­ing on, “What’s the use of being in prison, I want­ed to ask him, if you can’t be there for your daugh­ter?” but he want­ed her to stop talk­ing for a minute, he was try­ing to focus; there were dark cor­ners and liv­ing, trem­bling bod­ies brought to him in the night. As a child, she had assumed her father want­ed noth­ing to do with her. And so, she had built her adult life, on the assump­tion that her father’s absence, there­fore, her father’s pol­i­tics, had shaped her and — he couldn’t fol­low the thread of her thoughts, and did not care. It struck him, now, that these bod­ies were not from his coun­try. They were from the oth­er one. He remem­bered now, boots in the face, in the groin. He had been in charge of — no, he hadn’t been in charge of any­thing. He had been a handy­man, an unthink­ing, com­plic­it tor­tur­er. He remem­bered he took excep­tion­al, vicious plea­sure in — she hadn’t stopped talking.

“So, I was relieved when I learned of his pass­ing,” she was say­ing. And then, she said, she felt robbed; robbed of the neat­ness of come­up­pance; the rib­bon-tied end­ing she deserved with her father. His head pulsed, as he remem­bered. Yes, she came from that oth­er land, the one from where the bod­ies came back in his pre­vi­ous life, and in this one; the land where he and his kin spread death like a mil­lion col­or­ful flowers.

Now, in this half-remem­bered world, she gave her­self up to her rage. She felt her body grow more incan­des­cent by the day. She had been taught to breathe in and out when rage took over, she told the gravedig­ger. It had nev­er worked: she focused on the breath, trav­el­ling from her chest to her head and all the way down to her feet. The air seemed to car­ry her anger, to the inner­most parts of her body, as if she were feed­ing on rage.

What did she hope to do, the gravedig­ger won­dered aloud as if she weren’t here, when she found her father’s grave? She did not know, she answered. She was moved by rage beyond her con­trol. It was some­thing that fed itself, that grew and took over as if her body were riot­ing against her mind.

A riot in the body. The phrase flick­ered in his mind all day; he had heard it a long time ago, in his pre­vi­ous life. Polit­i­cal pris­on­er. This is a word he knew well too. The feel­ing that he knew some­thing of the woman per­sist­ed. For the first time in years (cen­turies? He did, some­times, believe that he was in hell; it made sense that hell was an insipid eter­ni­ty where the sens­es and the self were erod­ed and dulled beyond recog­ni­tion) he was unset­tled. His body felt off; and the world he lived in creaked. Eyes eyes eyes plead­ing and look­ing at him.

Some­times — very rarely, and those were the worst times — the grave­yard would lose a bit of its geog­ra­phy; every­thing would shift, for a cou­ple of min­utes, ever so slight­ly and his head would reel, and the uni­verse would start slid­ing and these were the moments when he was prop­er­ly ter­ri­fied because, he would start hear­ing yells and shrieks and plead­ings and heavy breath­ing com­ing from the graves and from the flow­ers. This is when the grave­yard felt malef­i­cent. This is when he would curl up close to the shrine, eyes wide shut, hands behind his head and elbows cov­er­ing his ears and wait for the grave­yard to set­tle, for silence to creep back in.

She came ear­li­er still the next day. She brought no lilies. The wind was fresh, and the world was silent. Time spread before them both, like a promise.

“There is hope,” she declared and, once again, he want­ed to remind her that it was not because the flow­ers were vivid today and the wind fresh like a kiss that there was hope. Hope was of anoth­er order entire­ly. “There is hope,” she repeat­ed, with deter­mi­na­tion and, open­ing her umbrel­la, she bid him farewell and walked in the direc­tion of her father’s grave. He remained in the chair, watch­ing her walk, a del­i­cate walk, a walk for the­atre stages and movies, a walk for leisure­ly sun­ny after­noons in well-tend­ed and demar­cat­ed gar­dens. It was a polite, ridicu­lous walk. He watched her become small­er and small­er for what felt like hours. Even­tu­al­ly, as the sun reached its zenith and seared the land, she dis­ap­peared over the horizon.


Days passed. The gravedig­ger went back to his usu­al life. His name fad­ed back to the recess­es of his brain. No one came. It was the first time that no one had come along for weeks and months, he felt. He revert­ed to the unthink­ing thing he was. He shov­elled. He dug. He placed bod­ies in the earth. He watched the flow­ers, which held no beau­ty for him, grow. No one came. Bod­ies piled up and, as if they were the most pre­cious of fer­til­iz­ers, they gave birth to increas­ing­ly more col­or­ful flow­ers. His grave­yard, he reflect­ed, was a con­ti­nent. Every morn­ing he saw flames and from the flames eyes that begged him to — stop, help them, save them, kill them?

Some weeks or months lat­er, as he was mak­ing his way to a fur­ther plot of land, the gravedig­ger hap­pened upon her body. She lay, as if curled asleep, near a tree. He rec­og­nized her. He remem­bered his own name. He was amazed that he rec­og­nized her, amazed that he remem­bered his own name. The believ­er. She was the first vis­i­tor he had ever remem­bered. It struck a pro­found fear in his body, mem­o­ries rever­ber­at­ing. He plant­ed the shov­el firm­ly in the ground next to her and, grip­ping the han­dle, knelt close to her face. He knew it should have been impos­si­ble, but he swore he could hear her breathe.

There was only one thing to do. He pat­ted the earth around her father’s grave. He was soon on all fours, pat­ting the earth, look­ing for an appro­pri­ate spot. And then he found it. It was only a meter away from her father’s own. The earth was slight­ly wet. It would be easy to dig a grave right here. He got up, grabbed the shov­el, and start­ed digging.

 

beautydeathdesertGodgraveyardwasteland

Karim Kattan is a Palestinian writer, born in Jerusalem in 1989. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from Paris Nanterre and writes in English and French. In French, his books include a collection of short stories, Préliminaires pour un verger futur (2017), and a novel, Le Palais des deux collines (2021), both published by the Tunis-based Éditions Elyzad. Le Palais des deux collines was awarded the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie in 2021 and was shortlisted for many other awards. In English, his work has appeared in The Paris Review, Strange Horizons, The Maine Review, +972 Magazine, Translunar Travelers Lounge, The Funambulist and others. Kattan was one of the co-founders and directors of el-Atlal, an arts and writing residency in the oasis of Jericho (Palestine).