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Tafsir al-Jalalayn

a short story by suha

My grandfather lives and breathes Arabic literature.


In his favourite chair, next to the window with a comfortable view of the flowers he watered every morning and the stray kittens he fed every afternoon, he sits listening to recitations of his favourite poems, longing for the sparse moments where he has the opportunities to share them.


Every summer I choose a book that I knew I was hardly going to actually read as mere pretence to join my grandfather in his seat by the window, where he would be sitting after waking up for Fajr until it was time to pray Ishaa and go to bed.


I flip through a few pages of my copy of Mornings in Jenin while Sedo is busy scrolling through Facebook, forwarding random bits of Islamic and Palestinian trivia that he deems worth sharing. I tell him about what I’m reading, hoping to start a conversation about anything. I tell him about Susan Abulhawa; how she wrote my favourite book but how I feel she fails me, sometimes. I’m trying to learn, you see. After a lifetime of pure and devastatingly blissful ignorance, I’m trying to learn. I can’t seem to hold his attention, though.


‘What’s your favourite book, Sedo?’ I ask him. He is not interested in the question.


‘The Quran’ he answers, his tone betraying him.


My grandfather lives and breathes Arabic literature. I am not satisfied. I keep probing. ‘I know you love Arabic, I’m sure you’ve loved plenty of books’


He tells me the name of a Quran tafseer book, still hardly looking up from his phone. I raise my eyebrow, thinking he’s still avoiding the question. After a moment of silence, he realises I don’t think he’s being serious. A smile quickly draws itself on his face and he lights up. I’m not sure if that glint in his eyes is the afternoon sun swimming in through the window, or if it's the pure joy of realising he had a story to tell and someone eager to hear it. He leans forward in his favourite chair and lowers his voice slightly in the way he always does in the beginning of a story. I immediately return his smile, excited to have asked the right question that would unlock a new chapter from my grandfather’s history for me.


Sedo’s father was illiterate, you see. But in true Palestinian fashion, he adored poetry. In our world poetry transcends any and every art form. Poetry is a craft, you see. Poetry adorns a story with jewels of emotion and wraps it in the smooth silk that is the Arabic language while adhering to structure. While obeying every rule, poetry still pushes every button, still moves rivers and mountains. While obeying every rule, poetry still brings about riots and revolution. Poetry still brings tears and anger and utter joy. Poetry is a craft. A name not to be bestowed upon just anything, you see.


As a young boy, Sedo would memorise Arabic poems and recite them for his father. His father, who had attempted on more than one occasion to pull Sedo out of school as he did not see the value in an education, hungred for their poetry sessions every evening.


At the age of seven (it could have been eight), Sedo demonstrated his recitation skills at school, where he was applauded and awarded with a Quran tafseer book - Tafseer al-Jalalayn. He cherished that book, a tangible reward for being able to read and write, for everything he did for his father, for loving Arabic poetry as much as a Palestinian should.


For the remainder of his childhood, he cherished that book. While the Nakba devastated his family, he cherished that book. As he rebuilt his life from the ground up in Jordan, he cherished that book. As he studied abroad, as he got married, as he became a doctor, he cherished that book.


I picture Sedo as a little boy, beaming with pride but desperately trying not to show it as his teachers praise him. I imagine his bashful smile as his mother pats his little head and says ‘this right here is the head of a future doctor’. I wonder if he read the book later that night and fell in love with the Quran like poetry.


When I think of young Sedo, pre-1948 young Sedo, it's hard to imagine him playing and laughing like young boys do; untethered and unburdened. When I think of young Sedo, I have to imagine him as a bird, with big beautiful decorated wings that he took flight with without concerning himself with anything on the ground. It’s hard to even conceptualise a time where Sedo could have afforded that kind of freedom, but I like to think that he could have been a bird at least for a little while.


‘I have no idea where that book is now’, he abruptly realises, tears quickly springing from his eyes. It takes me aback. Sedo has gotten a lot more emotional ever since his retirement, but I’d never seen him cry before. That book had survived Sedo’s thousand lives. It had lived through every storm that hadn’t drowned him and every battle that failed to kill him. But here, comfortable in his favourite chair that he never had a reason to leave, his book was lost from his memory. ‘I have no idea where that book is now’, he says again, and this time tears sting my eyes.


I know he is thinking of his father, who loved to hear him recite poetry, who must have been so proud of him in spite of everything. I know he is thinking of his mother, who fought tooth and nail for his education, who carried a family on her shoulders, who gave and left without waiting to receive. I know he is lamenting his youth, from before he was bound to his favourite chair, his wings broken and featherless. I know he is thinking of Palestine. I know he is thinking of a past life, a past generation he might have failed. I know he is thinking of a million poems.


We smile at each other as something unspoken passes between us. Or maybe that’s how I choose to remember it. Maybe he smiles at me in relief, knowing I will never understand the depth of the ocean in his chest that had let a few tears escape. The conversation naturally changes, but, for a while, I can’t stop thinking about how my grandfather will probably never see that book again. Of everything he will never see again.


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