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"Lanterns in the Dark" is Aida Afifi's tale about growing up in Palestine, her semi-autobiographical story of family and history.

"Lanterns in the Dark" is Aida Afifi's tale about growing up in Palestine, her semi-autobiographical story of family and history. Read more
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About this project

Reboot Feb 27, 2013:

Originally I launched this project with a lengthy "Story Behind the Story." I think we lost people there because we were not getting great traction. So all that stuff is now at the end. But let's jump into the story (Intro plus first two chapters) and let it speak for itself. Thanks. -- Monir

Introduction: Receiving the Legacy

The young man descended from the cab in an evening that was dark and forbidding. He walked slowly through the tortuous streets and alleys of the Old City, as if weighted down by the dark yet urged on by the modest lights of lanterns swaying gently in the gloom of night on ancient stone buildings. He hoped that he could find the elder who summoned him, Sheikh Abdel Fattah, for though he was born and raised here, he had been away from the City for years and it was such a labyrinth that there were still alleys unknown to him. The old man had sent him a letter from the misty city, asking that he come to receive a family legacy that was kept in trust for their descendants. There was a certain tone of urgency to the letter. But he would have answered the call even if there were no urgency, for he understood that the subject was his family and his city.

He continued on the stony streets, noting that no stone matched its neighbor yet all somehow fit together nevertheless. He wondered whether there was much difference between pavement and asphalt anymore. Was Jerusalem so very different generations ago from its regrettable condition today? Jerusalem is the city of the Revealed Religions. Though new buildings and streets were beginning to sprout like fungi on its hills, Time had not changed the hearts of its inhabitants, or their customs, or their attachment to a past long since gone. The old teach the young by word of mouth, and their teaching is a legacy kept in trust: “Jerusalem is ours and it will always be ours.”

A historical city it most certainly is. With its cold buildings, humid alleys, large mosques and churches – it is not something out of books or printed maps. It is unique, in form, in origin, and in history. How many times did it drown in tears and grief? And yet, how many times did it know joy and happiness too?

A few more steps and the young man reached the destination: one of the older buildings, surrounded by an eroding wall barely holding a metal gate on which was a large handle. Unsurprisingly, there was no doorbell or electricity here; the young man had to bang the handle on the gate to be heard. And bang it he did, many times, before a distant and feeble voice trickled out of the building: “Who’s there?”

“It is me, Omar, Mr Abdel Fattah,” called out the young man in the cold of the night.

Omar waited patiently for several minutes before Sheikh Abdel Fattah opened the door of his little home. The light of the lanterns was soft in the dark of night, the door small. He could barely make out the features of the elder, but he saw enough to realize that his days were numbered. Sheikh Abdel Fattah walked with difficulty to the gate. In his hands was a folio of loose sheets, many as worn and sallow as their bearer. He could see that the cab was waiting, and so there was no need to invite the young man in. In any case, he had nothing to offer him save the book in his hands. And Omar, too, could see that.

“This is a history of Jerusalem, my son, and of its families, yours in particular,” he said, handing him the book with a slight glistening of the eyes. “The forefathers left it for you; perchance you can continue the chronicle of the city of sorrows.”

Omar solemnly received the legacy given him in trust. He did not know what to say, and the old man, shivering from the cold, turned back to his little home, having nothing more to say.

Omar returned to the cab and asked to be taken to a hotel. He arrived there late at night. Though it was a modest place, the glare of the electric lights of the lobby hurt his eyes. He paid for a room for one night, then sat under a soft lamp to peruse the papers he received. His first impression was that it seemed to be a book about lives as fragmented as the pages he was leafing through. Nevertheless, it was genealogy or history, and he would write that history. But first he needed to study the legacy in detail.

Early the following morning, the young man left the hotel and went to a solitary, relatively sheltered, and public courtyard in the misty city. There he began to read, by the light of the sun during the day, and by the light of lanterns during the night...

Chapter 1: A Beginning - Omar the Tax Collector

The weather was very cold that winter night of 1910, one of the colder winters in the nearly 400 years of harsh Ottoman rule. Storms followed one another, shaking trees and rattling window shutters. Omar the tax collector had to leave early tomorrow, and there was no sign that the weather would improve. The gentleman with red hair, fair complexion, and often fiery temper, appealed to the Ottoman lords as a good choice of tax collector for the vilayet of Jerusalem. He was a relatively young man and looked Turkish or even foreign, though to make the latter claim to his face would have elicited an angry reaction, for he was neither; his family line in Jerusalem dated back many generations.

The gentleman put on his robe and went out to the shed to check on his horse, affectionately named Antar. He found the horse greatly disturbed, his hoofs pounding on the ground as if protesting to Mother Nature and sensing that tomorrow would be a dismal rainy day. Omar gently stroked Antar to calm him and added a little feed to his trough. “We have to go tomorrow, my friend; there is no choice. The Turkish wali is a boor and knows no mercy.”

He returned to his little two-floor home and climbed up the steps slowly, feeling a sudden heaviness of heart that he did not know before and could not explain. He approached the bed of his daughter Sawsan, the oldest of his three children, and shook her shoulder: “Sawsan, I will be going to work before dawn. Take care of your brothers.” The 8-year-old opened her eyes drowsily and nodded. “And do not forget your prayers,” her father added solemnly, “never forget your prayers.” She smiled, nodded again, and returned to sleep. The father knew he could always rely on her and so he let her rest. Ever since her mother died from yellow fever, little Sawsan was the mother of the house. She scrubbed the floors, cooked the meals, washed the dishes, did the laundry, and mended the clothes. In the evening she would relate to her little brothers news of the neighbors’ children, then describe the flowers of springtime and summer, which told her that they would make many colors of themselves just for her and her brothers. Yarns from her imagination were nearly all Sawsan could narrate, for she never went to the elementary school in Jerusalem and she had no friend to share her joys and sorrows with.

Omar left home on his horse Antar at 5 in the morning. He checked the bag strapped to his horse to see if the revolver the authorities had given him for protection and deterrence was still there. It was there, an old and corroding weapon that posed as great a risk to its user as its target. It seemed that the authorities had as little confidence in the locals as the locals had in them. Yet he was in their employ, and not even an animal bites the hand that feeds it. But as he continued on the muddy make-shift roads between worn and dilapidated homes and across crumbling bridges, he wondered how conquest after conquest of this land had undone instead of done. The domain was atomized, and attachment and loyalty were reduced to extended family or town at most; going to another town these days was like journeying to another land. It was as if God had forsaken his world, and only through Him could it ever be redeemed.

“Come along, Antar my friend,” he said. “Daylight approaches, and I can see the first village. Let’s bring the aging neighborhoods and narrow alleys our bad news again.” He looked up to the sky briefly and added, “God grant this day will be less of a strain on all of us.” A cold rain then began to come down on the small civil servant and his horse. He lifted his robe closer to his neck. “I should have kept silent, shouldn’t I, my friend?” he said apologetically. “Fate doesn’t like to be told what to do.”

The tax collector did his daily work, demanding the tax from those he knew could pay, quietly postponing or overlooking the amounts of those who could not. It was a day like any other. But on this one his mind turned to another matter. He thought about his three little motherless children, their hard life, and he decided that perhaps he should remarry. It had been two years since their mother died, and on him alone, and more often on Sawsan alone, fell the responsibility of supporting the family. Things could not continue like this. Ali was four when his mother died, Sawsan six, and little Issām 12 months old with no recollection of his mother at all. The young widower decided that he should remarry, for the sake of his children. What if one day he went to work and met the fatal fate of his predecessor? Who would take care of his children after him?

He thought about the young ladies of his relatives, one after another, and wondered which would love his children after him. Who would be their guide, their savior, until they grew up and achieved some of their dreams in a better and happier tomorrow, God willing? That they would invoke God’s mercy on their father, and enjoy the gift of motherhood? But the fact of the matter was that only one young lady at the time was regarded as a spinster, that is, had reached the age of 20 and found no suitor. She was his cousin, Lubna. But would she accept him for a husband? She would perhaps be happy to finally find a husband.

Throughout the road home he thought about this matter. He was so absorbed by it that he did not notice the storm had subsided and the weather improved. Then and there he decided that he would immediately pay a call to his uncle Jawād’s home.

It was sunset when Omar reached the home of Jawād and knocked on his door. His uncle welcomed him with enthusiasm. As both sat in his sparsely furnished sitting room, he asked how Omar and the children were coming along.

“They need a mother,” Omar said to his uncle, “and I am seriously thinking of marriage.”

“Good thinking,” said his uncle with approval, “it is the right thing to do.”

At that moment Lubna entered carrying a small tray on which were two cups of coffee. She walked slowly and modestly and set the tray near the two men. She was pretty but had a slight limp, the result of polio in infancy that partially paralyzed the right side of her body. Because of that minor matter of appearance, suitors shunned her. But it was not entirely a matter of discrimination. In those days the wife was combination mother, sister, friend, servant, housewife, and manager of every detail of life, and so it was important that she be healthy and strong. Lubna handed one of the cups to Omar with a smile, but without looking him in the eye. And Omar smiled back.

Jawād was not a man lacking for wit, but he was as blunt as he was quick, particularly when it came to family. “Lubna,” he said to his daughter, “would you accept marriage to your cousin Omar?”

Omar felt a little awkward over the sudden and quick turn of events, but Lubna only murmured modestly “as you wish, Father”.

The uncle looked at Omar, amused by his slight blush, and said to him: “Tomorrow we will give you our answer. Drink your coffee and return to your children for now.”

Omar wasted no time in doing both. After bidding his uncle farewell, he quickly climbed Antar and proceeded home, wondering how it was that he would receive an answer tomorrow when he had not yet asked the question. Yet he was most pleased by the outcome. After he arrived home, put Antar in his stall, and washed up, he hugged Sawsan excitedly. “You know what?” he said to the startled little girl. “I am going to bring you a mother soon to take care of you.” Sawsan was a little confused but pleased, murmuring “I hope she will love me and my brothers”.

“God willing, she will,” answered her father.

“Shall I prepare you something to eat?” said the little girl.

“Thank you. But take your time. I have many prayers to catch up on. The weather was so bad today that I missed most of them.”

The following morning, Sawsan told her brothers that a mother would be coming for them soon. Ali looked at his sister quizzically: “What kind of talk is this? Is our mother coming back from the grave?” He was a smart little boy, remembered his mother well and would accept no other. When Sawsan clarified the matter, his father could hear his shouts of “no, no” and quickly came to calm him. He took little Ali in his arms and said, “It is the mother that your mother sent us to take care of us and feed and clothe us.” Ali looked at his father and Sawsan, both of whom showed no indication that they were patronizing him, and he calmed down; if this was his mother’s wish, then he would accept it.

A week passed before Jawād gave his approval to the marriage, and wedlock came soon after. But there was no wedding. As was customary in those days, when a widower married a spinster, the celebration was small: a few relatives and neighbors came and conveyed their best wishes, then quickly departed.

Soon enough Omar found himself alone with Lubna and the children. She went to little Issām to feed him his supper before putting him to bed. To her pleasant surprise, the scrawny infant threw himself on her and said “thank you, mama.” It was a happy beginning for Lubna.

Omar was 30 years old when he married Lubna. He feared that she would never really love him. But the young lady with a limp who hid from the eyes of the inquisitive and cynical, who were most distressing for her, did in fact come to love Omar. For he looked at her eyes, not her limbs, and he would tease her with modest adulations, never pressing his advantage. In any case, she had pledged on the day of their marriage to make him and the children happy.

Life proceeded calmly in the little house. Omar had his daily job. His son Ali would go every morning to the kuttāb beginners primary school, his clothing always clean and neat, his modest provisions under his armpit. As for Sawsan, she remained at home to help her stepmother in caring for Issām, preparing the meals, doing the laundry, and mending clothes and linens. In those days a girl’s academic achievement was slight, except among wealthy families who boasted of being modern, traveling abroad, and seeing and hearing many things, whereupon they would, on returning home, apply some rights for their daughters, such as permitting them to complete elementary education.

Things remained much the same in Omar’s household for about two years. But slowly, Lubna began to regret taking care of the children. She was not blessed with a child from Omar, and she began to regret her life: serving daily into the late hours of the night, and what was there to show for it but wrinkles that were marring the beauty of her youth? Regret turned to resentment, particularly towards the children, and Omar could see this. He began to urge the little ones to help their stepmother more. He became moody and irascible, losing his temper far more often and over the most trivial things. One night an argument so loud broke out in the bedroom of the father and mother that the children wept in fear.

The following morning the tax collector rose like an erupting volcano. He quickly dressed and put on his robe, said he was “going to work” and proceeded to leave without a meal or saying goodbye. It was nearly sunrise, but there was no sun. The winds of winter were howling again, and a very heavy rain began to pour. Lubna grabbed her husband’s arm at the door and cried, “How can you go out on such an ill-fated day?”

Omar turned and looked at her with a hard stare. “Do you remember? It’s like the day I knocked on your door to ask for your hand, isn’t it? It was on a day like this that I met you; it will be on a day like this that I will leave you. If anything happens to me, take care of the children.” The children looked at him with fear and bewilderment, and he only reciprocated with a brief rueful smile, then dashed out into the storm.

Omar left his home that stormy day at daybreak. He returned at day’s end on the shoulders of several men. A lightning bolt had taken his life, as it had taken the life of the tax collector before him, and without even a word of farewell to family and loved ones.

Chapter 2: Crossroads without Roads

The only thing the tax collector left his wife and children was a small house; that, and a sorrowful emptiness. Lubna was bewildered and anxious. What was she to do, and who would support the children? Sawsan, standing in a daze before the throng of mourning family and neighbors, wanted to see her father, but no one gave her a chance to reach him. The 10-year-old expected her father to tell her, as usual, what to do. Lubna took her by the hand into her room and told her to remain there.

After the funeral, everyone departed except the nearest kin. They spoke with Lubna and promised to help. During the first week, things went reasonably well. Family did their duty for the young ones in food and clothing. Even Ali’s attendance of the kuttāb did not change. In any case, he was a smart and diligent pupil. He understood that every life comes to an end; parents leave and do not come back, and the little ones must grow up and work. But he did pray that Lubna’s life be a long one and that she would not depart like the others.

A second, third, and fourth week passed satisfactorily. But in the fifth week all help came to a sudden stop. Everyone complained of want and poverty, and they could no longer help. Lubna sent an urgent message to her father, asking that he come to her. The aging Jawād, suffering from an unusually severe cough, braved the cold of winter and made the trip to his daughter. He arrived exhausted and listened to her sad story while reclining under a blanket. But he had anticipated what she was to say. He withdrew from his wallet some money and said to her: “I borrowed it from a friend, my daughter. We are on the brink of war, and there is famine in Jerusalem. Do not be harsh on the family. Everyone is destitute. They young have been drafted into military service. The military dictator Jamal Pasha has taken them away, and now everyone is without a breadwinner.”

The following morning Jawād departed for Abū Dīs, the village where he lived. It was the last time father and daughter spoke to one another. Two days after he arrived home, he passed away. After the funeral, his widow, now alone, left their home and went to her daughter’s house, to share with Lubna their mutual sorrow and grief.

During this time of hardship and destitution, Lubna sold her jewelry, and her mother helped by selling her dowry. The latter gave money to Lubna and said to Ali: “You, my son, will help make my work a success. Go with your mother and buy a sewing machine, and 20 meters of white linen, and seven spools of white thread and blue thread.” Ali was a little confused by the request. He turned to Lubna and said, “Is she going to sew clothes for us?” Lubna smiled and said, “No, my son; she is going to feed us with them.” For a moment there, the boy wondered whether they would be eating linen, like stray goats eating pieces of paper off the ground. But on thinking about the matter he caught on to the plan of his stepmother’s mother: “She will sew, and I will sell,” he said. The two women assented with a nod and a brief smile.

On the way to the marketplace the streets were bustling with people talking about rumors of the British approaching Jerusalem and the Turks incurring defeat. Ali did not know what to make of that development, but he had more pressing matters to attend to. The sewing machine and materials proved to be very reasonably priced, for even merchants needed money these days. When he brought them home, Lubna’s mother got right to work.

She would sew caps and send Ali to sell them at the mosques for two piasters each, one piaster to cover the cost and one to pay for food. Although this modest family enterprise did not always work, they continued at it for nearly two years, all the way until the British did actually move on Jerusalem in 1916 and began to shell the city with artillery. Shells began to fall on the marketplace, on the orchards, and on some homes too. Ali was frightened and did not want to go out to sell caps, but Lubna scolded him and demanded that he go “even if the whistling of bullets reached this house.”

“If you were really my mother, you would not demand that of me,” lamented Ali tearfully.

Lubna gave the little boy a hug. “No, my son, I am your mother, but we need food to eat, and you are the man of the house.”

The boy silently carried a collection of caps and left the house. He kept to the narrower, more sheltered alleys, so as not to be struck by shells or bullets, but he was barely able to sell any caps at all that day. It was a day he never forgot: risking his life for so little. “‘Man of the house?’ And what good is a man of the house if he is dead?” he muttered to himself. There was a man of the house before, and when he died, only suffering followed. That man was his father, God rest his soul. No, Ali could no longer trust Lubna or consider her as family. He wished that he and his sister and little brother could go somewhere far away without her. Unlike other children, however, he did not stop at just wishing; if he was the man of the house, then he would act like a man.

One morning soon after that day, Ali decided he would pay a visit to his maternal uncle, or to his paternal uncle, without telling Lubna. As he walked, however, he overheard some people say that the Turks intended to kill the men of Jerusalem as co-conspirators with the British. Then there were others who said that the occupiers would destroy people’s homes and take the young men captive for being supporters of the Turks. That year of 1916 British troops had overrun the coastal Egyptian town of al-Arīsh. Ali feared for his sister and little brother, because that meant that all of Palestine was now endangered by the war. He returned home and remained there, but he was still determined to get the three of them out of that house.

For two months, he would walk the streets of Jerusalem during moments of lull, hoping for a break sufficient for him to somehow reach his maternal uncle’s house. He wanted to tell him that the three of them wanted to stay with him, away from Lubna and away from his father’s home. He did not want Lubna to leave it and become homeless; she was a widow and should have the safety of shelter. He did not want anything bad to happen to her. She did, after all, raise the three of them and endured a great deal so that they could all have a decent life. Ingratitude is wrong, and Ali was not an ingrate. But he could no longer relate to Lubna. She was a stranger, not family. He wanted to be with people he could trust, people who would appreciate his aspirations and dreams. Lubna no longer met that expectation. It was therefore time to leave.

At the end of those two months, the 10-year-old boy saw his chance. It was December 9, 1916, and the sounds of artillery fire and rattling armor were very faint that morning. There were more people in the streets. Some people were shouting, “Turkey is gone forever; the British have occupied Jerusalem.” The cry was prescient, for 1917 would witness the disappearance of a State and the start of a new era that only God knew what harm would come in its wake. But Ali was heartened by the development, for it meant that he could reach his uncle’s home and ask him to take him in along with Sawsan and Issām.

Ali walked for many hours before he reached the home of his maternal uncle Muhammad. The boy arrived hungry and exhausted, his face bathed in sweat. He knocked on the door of the “big house,” as people in the area called it. The uncle was a prominent person and held an excellent position in the Ministry of Education. When he answered the door, he was shocked to see his nephew alone at his door and in such a state.

“What has happened, Ali?” he cried. “And how did you manage to reach here when your home is so far away?”

“I came walking, uncle,” said Ali. “I want us – me, my sister and brother – to live with our cousins in your kind home.”


The Story Behind the Story...

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to experience life in a different time and place, through a different culture, with a whole different mindset, in a time of change between old culture and new? I'd like to share such an experience with you today. Please help me bring my 88-year old grandmother Aida's first novel to life. It's called Lanterns in Dark Corners. This semi-autobiographical tale of her family's journey in Palestine and Jerusalem spans the last years of the turn-of-the-century Ottoman empire until the present day. My grandmother wrote this book in an incredibly creative style, taking the point of view and getting "inside the head" of several of the characters. So when I say it's a semi-autobiographical novel, that's about 60% true. The fabric consists of a carefully interwoven collection of vignettes that touch upon the tales of many lives, narrating a gorgeous tale of a family told through time. 

What we're Kickstarting...

Aida wrote this book in pencil, in Arabic. It took her the better part of two years. It came out to around 200 pages. She wanted to write more and more but her family encouraged her to finish it up and get it done! Our Kickstarter project will fund two major final steps: the translation of the book into English, and final editing, and printing. To provide our funders a taste of the final book, we have translated and annotated the table of contents, introduction and the first two chapters. There are 26 more chapters to go. Based on our rate of progress, we've determined that upon reaching our fundraising goal, we'll be able to complete the translation, editing and final proofreading process with two months. Fast and focused. At that point, we will publish the book to print and ebook formats. Help us bring this story to life. We are driven to share it. We invite you to support this project. We've assembled a series of rewards as a token of our sincere and endless gratitude. We hope you will find them as compelling as we find Aida's story.

Risks and challenges

Overall, we think this project is pretty low-risk at this stage. My grandmother has already written her story, which took over a year (written by hand before we had it typed up into manuscript form), and that is the most risky part of any publishing project I'd think.

Now it's in Arabic, so the main challenge is completing a top-notch translation to English, and tying it up with a bit of proofreading.

We've gotten a very experienced translator with a history of handling stories do the first couple of chapters; we are happy with his work and we are going to stick with him for the rest of the story (great quality and speed and value for money).

From there, we just need to choose a decent self-publishing company to print physical books for our supporters. After doing some preliminary research on the web, we have located several with good prices and reviews. So we are confident we can work out the printing stage.

Overall, we are super-motivated to make this project succeed, we've made TREMENDOUS, steady progress so far, and we are determined to make sure everything comes together in the end.

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    HELLO! In addition to our sincere gratitude, you'll receive special limited-time access to our book web site where you can read the book for a 30-day period upon publication. In addition, you'll have the option to apply the purchase price to a full copy of the ebook.

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    WELL, THANKS! You will receive a full digital copy/ebook of Aida's complete, translated, edited novel, as well as our sincere gratitude for bringing Lanterns in Dark Corners to light.

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    WELL, THANKS AGAIN! You will receive a full digital copy/ebook of Aida's complete, translated, edited novel, as well as our sincere gratitude for bringing Lanterns in Dark Corners to light. In addition, we'll add your name (or nickname) to our a special web-site thank you page when we publish the ebook.

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    WELL, MANY THANKS! We will send you both ebook and print editions of Aida's novel Lanterns in Dark Corners within the USA, and add your name (or nickname) to a special web-site thank you page. International friends, please add $20 more for international shipping.

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    WELL, SUPER-THANKS! Your name (or nickname) will be permanently enshrined in a special thank-you list of Aida's supporters at the beginning of the book. You receive all benefits above as well, including a printed copy of the book. Friends outside USA, please add $20 for shipping if you wish to receive a hardcopy edition.

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    WELL, A HUNDRED THANKS! Such a generation contribution would go a long way towards defraying our production, translation and editing costs. We'll send you 3 copies of the book, and we'll add your name (or nickname) to a special list of supporters printed in the book's Thank You section. International friends outside USA, please add $20 for shipping.

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    WOW! We'll add an illustration to the book for each pledge of this amount... plus you'll get 10 print copies of the book. And we'll add your name (or nickname) to a special list of supporters printed in the book's Thank You section. International friends outside USA, please add $20 for shipping.

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Funding period

- (30 days)