That’s how Safa knew his name. Every morning Areef would bring his modest herd of sheep for grazing to this patch of lush green pasture on the lee side of the hills. He never played around like the other boys, never tended his cattle. Every morning he would come and sit on this stone outcrop and gaze at the lovely valley below. The valley was indeed beautiful. The thin line of deep blue stream of River Banias sleazed though the green grass, meandering like the gymnastics’ body on the bar. The folds of the mountains cast a plethora of opulent shades of green, punctuated with the rhythmic movement of the red and yellow flowery trees. Small patches of wheat fields shook their golden heads in unison conceding to the wishes of this beautiful day. In the distance the sunflower fields were glowing in full bloom craning to look up to the setting sun. The crimson sky in the late afternoon, painted with streaks of white clouds created a perfect welcome for the majesty of the moonlit night.
Safa never realized when she fell in love with Areef, not even why she fell in love. Perhaps that is how all love stories begin. She had never spoken to him, never known how he was - only this sensation by providence. She remembered that day she looked at his eyes the first time. She picked up her hijab which had blown way towards Areef. Clutching her hijab in one hand she had one cursive look at Areef. His deep blue eyes met hers and she saw the angular features of his face, the curly dark golden locks spread carelessly over his broad forehead. He moved his eyes away perhaps more out of embarrassment and a bit of shyness. Areef must be more than ten years older than she was. Since then Safa had stole a few surreptitious glances from between the herds of cattle or the small trees that dotted this patch of land.
The war had changed the lives of many in the surrounding hamlets, some outrageous, some bloody, some torturous, some lost and forgotten, but every one with a tale of despair. Nobody, absolutely nobody got anything from this war. For Areef it had taken away his life, his words, and his ability to react or even cry. Time had frozen for him like a merciless monolith cluttered with bloody tales of oppression and carnage. He did not have a tale to tell anybody.
The tranquility of golden sunlit valley was suddenly filled with roars from the Hamas Rebels and clattering of gunfire. A smoke bomb landed just behind where Areef was sitting and dark white smoke enveloped the place around. Areef seemed oblivious of what was happening around him and Safa managed to see him through the transient cracks of this white smoky shroud. She could hear the screaming of the children, braying of the cattle, the confusion of scurrying footsteps interspersed with gunshots and screams of death, many voices she recognized even in this
She reached Areef, got hold of his hand and shook him vigorously, but still he did not move; only gave a stupefied look at Safa. She could hear more gunshots and could hear the footsteps advancing towards them. She put her arms around Areef and pulled him down to the ground. She could hear the clattering of bullets against the stone. With Areef wrapped around her they began to roll down away from the stone outcrop on which Areef used to sit. She remembered the edge where the cliff went down to a small step like recess a few meters below the edge. They reached the edge and dropped down. After dropping down, they disentangled, not aware of the discomfiture of the moment. The screaming voices and the footsteps began to wander away and recede. The smoke was still in the air, only graying into clarity at places. Darkness began to descend and Safa studied the wounds left in her hands and feet and fell into slumber. A lonely footstep could be heard above them with the metallic sound of a gun barrel searching for survivors. As the sound reached the edge above them, a barrel stuck out and Areef could see a covered face leaning down at Safa, with a despicable surprise smeared in his eyes. In the fading light the person could not see Areef, who was guarded by the stone projecting above him. The man leaned down a bit more and tried to wrench at Safa’s blouse with the barrel of his gun with obvious covetous desire. Areef moved a bit more inside and positioned him directly above the man. Unaware of Areef, he left his gun on the ground and lowered his legs to jump down. Areef caught both his legs and pulled him away from the cliff edge. The man slipped off the edge and was whirled into the air and he plunged down the cliff into the valley below, rolling and crashing his way down to the bottom. This noise shuddered Safa from her sleep and she saw the man rollicking down the edge. She noticed the metallic barrel sticking out above them and gauged what must have happened. She was horrified to believe what Areef had done just now and looked at him in gratitude. The fire in Areef’s eyes softened like a volcano subsiding in the deep blue sea. Tears rolled down Safa’s cheeks ripping though the dark layers of dust which had plastered her face beyond recognition. Areef took off his stroll and gave it to Safa. By then the place was engulfed in darkness and there was no chance of escape. They could hear the crackling noise of the fire of their village and the air was filled with the smell of burning wood and clothes scattered with the stink of burning corpses. They spent the night sitting on the stony refuge, catching intermittent bouts of sleep.
Safa was a strong lady and never let things slip off from her hands. For the last twelve years Areef had not said a single word, his stony eyes did shed a few tears from time to time. Safa could feel that he enjoyed staying with her. But that was all. During the travails of living a nomadic life, scuttling from place to place, crossing streams and borders innumerable times, Safa and Areef lost all vestiges of affinity with their nation, creed, custom, religion and livelihood. It seemed like a mad run from the claws of death and survival was of paramount and the only concern. Without any compulsion, any social bond they chose to stay together; a divine spiritual bond seemed to bind them or was it necessity and lack of alternative.
The civil war had its negotiated truce, not sure how long it would last. The dusty horizon was replaced by the blue skies once more. At least they could afford to breathe for a while without being afraid that somebody might hear them. They began living in some settlement, not knowing which side of the border it was in. Every evening after the usual chores, they would sit by the river bank, dipping their feet in the water.
That Juma evening was no different from any other day. Safa kept on saying things she had said a million times, not expecting any answer; only an occasional turning of the head and a deep intense look of loneliness in the eyes. Just then a thunderous sound shattered the serenity of their life and western sky was illuminated with the light of a rocket. Suddenly Areef turned and cuddled into Safa and she held him closely; never did she see this happening to Areef; not even when they had been through more torturous times. There were no more rocket fires that night. Areef loosened his embrace and looked into Safa’s eyes. He caressed Safa’s cheeks with the back of his hand and then took her face in his palms. Safa recalled the days in prison camps and the innumerable times she had been ravished and plundered, and violated, even in her tumultuous marriage with Abdul; but for the first time in her life she could feel somebody so close, a touch so intense………………………….She buried her face in Areef’s chest and began to cry inconsolably. Areef patted her head till she was drained of all tears.
They both looked up at the sky. Time is indeed the essence.