When My Mother Narrates History

"Ahmed Youssef Aquila"

I often asked my mother to tell me about the concentration camps. She’d close her eyes and shake her head: 

“It’s a long story. May no Muslim ever have to go through this again. We ate Juniper berry and weeds. We were reduced to skin on bones. We had to sift through dung to find the barley grains, then toast them and eat them. Years of hunger. Even the wolves in the valleys were starved. I was about fifteen or sixteen years old in El Magrun. No mother or father. My father died in the war and my mother died with me on her back. We cried over the lids of pots, a piece of black dough, charred by smoke. Every morning, they would distribute the ration among us. Every tent would get a cup of flour for four mouths. There was a cemetery in every mouth. We were buried day and night. Those who weren’t executed, died of hunger. They buried the bodies in the night, under the beam of the lighthouse. Whenever we saw the pigeons, we would say:

‘O pigeons flapping towards our mountains 

Tell our families 

You saw us in El Magrun.’

And he elderly would say, ‘Nothing is left for you here in the mountains. They’ve all wasted away in El Magrun.’”

My mother also told me that children were taught to read and write using the tandoor’s coal as pencils. That was before the Italian authorities allowed them entry to their schools, or as they called it, “La Scuola.”

She would laugh as she said: “Two Italian planes hovered over the road heading south towards Al-Hulayqimah…” She never tired of telling this story. First, Mohamed Al-Hanakri would try to collect his nerves as he aimed at the plane: 

حَوِّد يا طَيْر ... على أم الخيْر.

And Maso’uda, who resorts to singing in the harshest of times, would urge the men to fight:

هذول هم اللي يا عين ... يحَاموك والنار والعة. 

My mother says: “Become one with the rifles and blow away the men. One bird protects another. Eradicate the bullet that killed your uncle, Mohamed Aquila Al-Hankari, and split him into two. Find him in the night, gather his pieces and bury him.” 

In another story, my mother would point to the mark a shrapnel had left on her neck, right under her chin, and say, “A bomb landed in our village and killed my mother, Mabrouka Al-Qanduliyya. Its shrapnel hit my neck. My aunt, Umm Al-Kheir wrapped my head in a handkerchief. The men returned later and found a beheaded woman, her newborn still breastfeeding on her chest.” 


The Germans famously retreated from Alamein to Tunis via Libya, leaving behind much of their weaponry. Trashed by the desert before being spoiled by the war, their fuel had dried up and the tires had burst over the sharp rocks. Or perhaps they were just slower than the British armored vehicles that chased them across the desert, so they just left them behind, without taking the time to destroy them. 

Encountering the remains, one bedouin leaped on a forgotten trike, and tinkered with it until it took off. He held onto the handlebars for dear life. The womens’ screams filled the air, stunning the men–the donkeys flinched, and the camels scrammed in every direction. The marvelous trike disappeared behind a hill, its engine dissolving into the distance. Then it sped right back. They screamed at him to get off, but the trike was flying at a terrifying speed, disappearing then reemerging. One man lost his mind and screamed:

ـ نزّلوا الرّواق، نزّلوا الرّواق من فوق الناقة.

زَلوا الرّواق، فكوا طيّاته، مدَّدوه، نصبوه بينهم. يصرخ صاحب الحيلة مرةً أخرى لقائد الدرّاجة الذي لم يكن يعرف أكثر من أن يُدير المقود فيتَّجه ناحيتهم، نطحت تلك الآلة الشيطانية الرّواق، انقلبت، أطلقت أنيناً، دارت عجلاتها قليلاً في الهواء ثم سكنت.

ـــ مالَك ومال مخروبة النصارى، اللي مَي فرس بوك توَقّعَك.


The Bedouins made mizmars out of some of the leftover weaponry, including the army tanks. Despite all the hardships experienced by the bedouins, they still find it within them to play the mizmar as a soundtrack to the surrounding destruction.

Born in the Green Mountain region, he is a short story writer and a researcher in heritage and folkloric traditions. He has released numerous collections of short stories, many of which have been translated into English, Turkish, and Persian. Additionally, he has published encyclopedias on folk poetry, scientific songs, proverbs, and folk tales.

Ahmed Youssef Aquila
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