This Means War: Zouheir

Short story by TPQ editor Carrie Twomey inspired by Zouheir S. Al-Najjar.

He asked about the small spaces, the gestures that went unnoticed. Why, he wondered, did the loss of little things, inconsequential, a tear of faded photograph, an electric bill from 2009, the coating of concrete dust on a dresser top, stagger the heart? He had observed it in many places, too many homes, the shutter clicking, documenting, always a barrier, a buffer, an aura that protected him, he saw but was removed, he watched but did not understand, not fully.

The old man sitting dazed on a plastic garden chair. The mother, pot in hand, not cooking, just standing. What were they thinking? No matter how often he stood with them, a shadow in the room, he knew it was powerful, he understood that, but what, what, why not the wailing and gnashing and rendering for the obvious horror, the death, the destruction, the devastation that led them to their ruined homes? Why was it always the items of nothing, look, here is a part of a syllabus from an old school course, of what import is that? The teenager did not care about it when it was issued – he knows her grades reflected a lack of attention – but he catches the welling of her eyes as she surveys where she used to study, the remnant of her education.

She did not cry when she stood next to her mother who explained the deaths of her brothers.

Nor did the old man shout when he described the missing; it was possible that his son, his uncle, his nephew, his friend, were right now supposing, hoping, lying to themselves that he, too, was merely missing, unaccounted for, somewhere else, somewhere that would allow for reunion that includes clenched hugs and grateful kisses. Why mourn the possible, which is where hope resides?

He could show you many old men, teenagers, mothers, the range of humanity, across the world he has been, where the drones hover like flies around the dead, never letting it be forgotten that they are feasting with their incessant noise, a hum that stays, that becomes an internal balance, that makes sleep impossible first with it, then without it. He doesn’t know which is worse; to lay awake windows open – closed windows become shattered – the white noise unending, a sonic map of targets, the knowledge of tomorrow’s landscape being altered; or when he has finally pulled the blanket of drone over his body and turned onto his side now unable to sleep without the warped sense of security it offers – how quickly what is abnormal becomes normal; the worst when the drones stop and the chatter of night birds return, he is more afraid of the silence, the relentless silence, the silence he no longer trusts.

He is no stranger to this, makes his living off of presenting the testimony to the eyes of the untouched, his desire is proclaim humanity as a protest against it all, because he knows the fuel of the engine that turns buildings to rubble is dehumanization; it is not a person under the stone, it is a limb; an arm, a careless leg, not a man, not someone’s son, just part of the detritus of destruction.

Yet now it is more. There is no buffer, no barrier, nothing that protects him, for he is at home. It is his sister packing the pathetic bag full of what little is left to take with them where ever they can go to be not here. It is his father on the green plastic garden chair. It is his cousin that it is hoped is merely missing, with friends, not here, anywhere but here.

Every group of men ferrying a half folded rug, a bulging blanket – the only shot of colour against the backdrop and silence of the new ruins – carries someone who has been found, what remains. They too are not crying, or shouting, wailing or weeping. They are intent, mindful of where they step.

He knows what is being carried in the blanket is a memory of his, the smiling neighbour that gave him sweets when he was a boy, the fat shopkeeper who haggled, the awkward teenager who swaggered, the child who was always whining. A cousin in the carefully patched hand-me-down jacket that used to be his brother’s. The baseball cap of the American team. He knew those fingers once; they had curled into a fist that threatened him over a girl, had pointed at a car that was beautifully flashy; handed him a plate of food in the café where he took his breakfast, led to an arm that had clasped him in an embrace of greeting.

Even the shoes spoke. No longer shiny, once worn with pride, tasselled, buckled, leather slip-ons, expensive trainers, sandals that slapped each step, everything had meaning, had memory, had a galaxy of stories, each a star guiding its way to the mystery of person, even the now-stained blanket that held their remains told a tale; had rested on a marriage bed, had covered the sick and the old, had been laid upon the grass under the sun of a day twenty lifetimes ago, and would be laid to rest with this grotesque and necessary journey as its final tale.

Did the pallbearers of the broken dead think these thoughts? Were they conscious of the universes they bore? His eyes bear witness, in his work and in his protest he captures the humanity, he has to mark the moment, but does it tell everything? Can it all be told? Even in life he knows the mystery of each man is unspoken; love is seeing the story in others, love is knowing the story is told, love is making someone an epic, and becoming theirs. Their story this moment is rubble; is loss; is the smell of death.

He walked into his childhood home, where the real became surreal, it is his childhood home as he knew it and it is anything but, crossing the threshold is entering into a nightmare, for nothing exists as it did. The familiar unfamiliar and each step further just brings another quiet gasp of shock. It is not empty so much as destroyed. What was simply is no longer – not even the walls are unscathed, those that are still standing bear the markings of the occupiers, who rifled through possessions and took what they wanted, abandoning the rest without care or thought, leaving their waste behind, empty tins and torn wrappers, packets of food, discarded in a demonstration of disdain for the ruination they had created. Every room is upside down, without order, without sense. He was awake, this was no dream, not a nightmare; he understood madness. How does one cope with the disintegration of reality?

In the kitchen his mother beseeched the international cameras that had found their way to her. She supplicated with arms held to heaven, present and future rooted in this new hell. The spotlight illuminated her confusion. He had been in other kitchens with other mothers who railed against the unseen destroyers but this was his own kitchen now, his own mother with a wild and fearful look of panic in her eye. He had no buffer to insulate himself from her grief. He was as exposed as she was, raw, a walking, gaping wound, he could not bear much more.

His parents’ room had been ransacked. Once folded clothes erupted and frozen like molten lava formed the new terrain. A still-wrapped blanket, a baby’s blanket, encased in plastic that crackled when touched, floated along the volcanic river of refuse. It was being saved for his new born. He lifted it to his chest, held it tight, while it crinkled and snapped and popped as he walked on.

His step became quicker, he had to hurry, he needed fresh air, he had to get out – and he realized now he knew, he finally knew. He knew the answer to his question. He looked up and down the street outside his childhood home, no longer recognizable as a street, and the silence he had become so afraid of was broken by the sound of an F-16. “This is my home, this is my house, this is my neighbourhood, this is my country,” he had no other words for the tightness in his chest. “This is my war.”

He clutched the baby’s blanket tighter, it was probably purchased at the market for buttons, as cheap as the plastic that covered it, not worth much if anything at all, it would most likely have been accepted with good grace but little interest, a nice but fleeting thought, it may well have never escaped its plastic, left in the back of the wardrobe unopened, unused. It will never be used. It was worthless before and is priceless now.

His eyes welled up, he could not stand. He had his answer to the small spaces, the gestures that go unnoticed. He sobbed and could not stop. What staggers the heart, this means war.


  1. I remember the origins of this story so clearly and how the theme developed. How those people suffered at the hands of Israeli war criminals. Great piece Carrie.

  2. "It was worthless before and is priceless now." So evocative. This really is a great piece.

  3. I agree it is a great piece building a picture from what was needless ruin so much loss and devastation whilst yards away people on the other side enjoyed life as normal with a minor irritation of sirens an odd lobbed mortar. The lethal high tech bombs raining down on a people with nowhere to run or hide what use would a warning be. Never loud enough for the powerful silent nations to hear as these were not people dying only Terrorists surely a religion would not lie.