The Sea Facing North


This child told him that she had lost her father a long time ago. He told her that he had lost his mother, too. They cried together. She did not dry his tears and he did not ask that she stop crying. They stayed in one place, silent, gazing into the distance, waiting for the storm to pass.

Each of them was reminiscing with marked compassion, and a mysterious need to see the other more peaceful through their walk together on the shore, full of pebbles. The hem of her pink dress attracted his attention, woven with a thin thread of lace. The hem of the dress touched the pebbles. He had a feeling that the pebbles were happy since they were touching the dress.

“All of us have something to confess. To cleanse us of our wounds.” –what she told him.

He had heard this expression repeatedly, but he felt this was the first time he’d heard it said without sounding monotonous. He did not ask her how she had lost her father and he did not reveal his story to her, yet he told her that he would recount to her the tale of his encounter with the sea.

When I was young, my mother took me with her to the sea. We didn’t necessarily go at any specific time; maybe she wanted to take advantage of the days when my grandfather was gone or he was traveling to Damascus. Then she asked me not to say we had gone to the beach in front of him.

Arriving at the sea required us to travel great distances across our country, from Baalbek to Shatura, on to Zahle, and then Daher Bader, Sufer, and Bhamdun and Alia, passing along the long mountain roads before we arrived in Beirut, where we met a seaman. The man who bought me chips and chocolate, and prepared a meal of fried fish in his small house, which extended along the sea. It was not really a house from what I remember–it resembled a hut.

Once we had gotten into the taxi, she took a cassette from her purse, extending her hand toward the driver, asking him to play it. She was singing about the sea also, a song by Wadih El-Safi–from the words as I remember them: “You have sailors…. Ya Captain. Tanned and handsome men. Ya Captain. And the sea is great, Ya Captain. My darling has arrived.”

I could see her eyes radiant with happiness, and she hugged and kissed me on my forehead and cheeks, asking me if I was hungry or thirsty. She gave me a bottle of pineapple juice and a piece of chocolate and told me to eat it.

When the seaman saw me with her, he raised me high onto his shoulders and ran with me along the beach before putting me down on the sand and taking off my clothes. He told her I should learn how to swim as a child, but she asked him to let me be. My clothes were not right for the sand, or even the beach, I was a fashionable child, just the way my grandfather wanted me to be.

The last time we visited the seaman she told him it would be a while before she would come to him again–maybe a long while, because my grandfather would not be leaving soon, unless to supervise the crops. The seaman asked her if she would leave her father and come to live with him. She looked toward the hut and then told him I would go to school this year.

The seaman held my hand and compared his huge hand to my small one. Then he told me my hair was like his. My black, thick hair was like his, but his hair was long, reaching the beginning of his neck.

When we returned to our house in Baalbek, we found my grandfather waiting for us. He had returned early from his trip this time. I was singing the song of the sea, and trembled when I saw him.

Usually, he didn’t speak with me much or play with me–he was silent most of the time.

He came over to me and asked: “Where were you?”

I told him I had been near the sea.

“Who did you see?” he asked me, sternly.

I told him about the seaman and about his strong hands that had carried me and his black hair, which resembled mine.

His eyes became like blazing coals and he moved towards her and grabbed her by the hair, shaking her violently.

He said: “For five years you went to him…. And this is the result.”

He said that pointing at me. I was scared and cowered in a corner.

“I will kill you,” he said, putting his hands around her neck. She was kicking him, trying to slip out of his grip, while screaming in his face, “You destroyed my life…. Destroyed my life.”

He was pulling her, trying to strangle her with his hands and she was trying to escape.

From the wall exactly behind her, she took an axe, hung there for decoration–the axe that my grandfather took pride in because he had inherited it from his father. He had hung it in the parlor, like a rare masterpiece.

Strike. A second strike. A third…. Blood dripped onto the floor.

She killed him.

This is how the murder happened.

And this was the last day.

The last day I saw the man of the sea, and saw my mother, and my grandfather.

My mother went to her prison, my grandfather went to the grave, and I never saw the seaman ever again–my maternal uncle took me with him to Brazil to sever all of the threads of my memory, shaping me the way he liked. I am the one witness to what happened…I am the child of the seaman and I still remember my mother’s singing this maritime song about sailors, but here I am now in front of the strange, faraway sea–that has nothing to do with the memory of the other sea.

“Are you pained by my story, girl?”

She did not answer. She bent over to collect little pebbles along the shore; she smiled and extended her right hand towards him. Between them, in her right hand, she was clasping the pebbles.

Then, she said: “Let us walk away from here, from in front of this strange sea. We will head towards the sandy beach, but let me toss away this handful of pebbles before I tell you what also happened to me at the sea.”


Lana Abdel Rahman

Lana Abdel Rahman is a Lebanese writer who works as a cultural journalist in Cairo. Her novels Mango Gardens (2006), Contact (2008), and A Song for Margaret (2011) were published by Arab Scientific Publishers in Beirut. She has also published two collections of short stories: Oriental Illusions (2004) and Dead Men Never Lie (2006). She was selected to participate in the International Prize for Arabic Fiction Seminar in 2009. An excerpt from her novel A Song for Margaret was published in the Emerging Arab Voices Anthology in 2011. The Snows of Cairo, a novel set in Cairo, was published by Afaq Publishers in 2013. In 2016, Under Investigation, a novel about the social fragmentation caused by the Lebanese civil war, was published by Dar Adaab Publishers in Beirut.

Gretchen McCullough, assisted by Mohamed Metwalli

Gretchen McCullough is a fiction writer. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Archipelago, The Barcelona Review, NPR, storySouth, Guernica, Mediterranean Poetry, The Literary Review, and The Common, among others. Her translations in English and Arabic with Mohamed Metwalli have appeared in Nizwa, Banipal, Al-Mustaqbel, and InTranslation. Afaq Publishers in Cairo published her bilingual English/Arabic book of short stories Three Stories from Cairo (2011), translated with Mohamed Metwalli, as well as a collection of short stories, Shahrazad’s Tooth (2013). Currently, she is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo. Her work is posted on her website:

The Sea Facing North. Copyright (c) Lana Abdel Rahman, 2016. English translation copyright (c) Gretchen McCullough, 2016.