In the Shadows of Men : Road Map


When I left my husband, I took with me a map that I drew carefully and modestly. The most important thing was that I would never again rely on a man. I had to remember that the greatest gain from the divorce was getting away, unlocking those chains and freeing myself from the requirements of a man and his constraints on me. I was like a thirsty tree, a tree with a drained stem whose roots remain alive, holding to the earth, wishing to extend its many branches and provide shade and blossoms. I felt my own dryness. I resembled the olive tree in my country. You can uproot it, and yet it continues to grow. You leave it without water, and it is not bothered by thirst. Time and cultures and history pass through, and it continues to blossom steadfastly, giving off an inspiring glow, even though it is not the most beautiful of trees. The world notices when its flowers disappear, giving way to olives anxious to ripen. No beauty distinguishes it, yet it is there and eternal. You see its strength in its trunk. Age does not tire it or uproot it or dislocate it. Others see me in much the same way. We cannot know what the olive tree has witnessed and experienced in its long existence—earthquakes and floods and droughts. Yet it appears ordinary.

The experiences in my life changed me deeply, and yet they left no trace for the outside world to see. Much like the olive tree uprooted from a land which is guarded by a settler who doesn’t understand that land or know anything about it except its ancient appeal. I imagined men saw me much like an olive tree—beautiful, tall, pleasant. But as soon as a man drew closer, he could see in my eyes a despair that surpassed the tragedies of civilization. The moment he rested in the shadow of my branches, he would think that the olives were easy to pick and ready to eat. I am that tree, and I am also that fruit. That man couldn’t understand the difference. He wanted the shade, the amusement, and the food, all in one place. The moment he started chewing the olive, its bitterness bit him and its harsh taste roared through his raging stomach. So he spit it out with anger, thinking that he made a mistake and must have eaten from the Zaqqum—a tree that, according to the Qur’an springs out of the bottom of hellfire.

Where he once saw me as a tree of life, he now sees me as a tree of hell. He was once a glowing fire where I could warm myself, and now he is a scattering of sparks and ashes that brings tears to my eyes. I wash him from my eyes and rush to a spring to drink from the water and satisfy a thirst that has not yet reached its peak. But as this continued on, repeating itself several times with one man and then another, I became satisfied at the end with just a dry ablution. I could wipe my hands of him with a bit of water and earth.

I saw him run away when the taste tricked him-he thought the olive could be like the almond. Blossoms and fruits picked and eaten. In my country, the olive and almond share a lifelong connection that cannot be broken by the greediness of men, and no one understands the subtlety of their similarities or differences, except those who understand earth, water, and air. The experiences of human beings allow them specific expertise, but many begin to think they know it all. The man believes himself experienced and knowledgeable, specialized in the issues of women, so that he begins to think she is his exclusive creation, part of his enormous self, and that she ought to aspire to please and serve him.

The almond is compassionate, and the olive contains the secret of life. Its fruits, or the beauty of its colorful blossoms and its long-standing trunk, shouldn’t fool you. Nor should the olive trick you with its silence and steadfast roots and its unlimited expansion in the depths of the earth. It is the witness of what was and what will be.

As the late Palestinian author Hussein Barghouti wrote, “I will be between the almonds. … Nothing awakens in isolation except that which is silent within. … We have grown so accustomed to it, that we forgot that it existed.” We and the olive and almonds are like this.


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