My last conversation with Isaac was seven months ago. He sent me a picture of a cake with twenty-five candles at eleven past eleven. Now I have to blink a few times to make sure the notification that lights up on my phone has Isaac’s name at the top, Isaac with a four-leaf clover. For example, my mother had put it in her phone: I left the emoticon after she forwarded his number.
the harbor exploded
The video he sends is 35 seconds long. My finger hovers over the play button on my screen, and I don’t dare press until it no longer feels like my throat is being squeezed.
A series of apartment complexes appear on the screen. On the horizon is a cloud of smoke that gets bigger and bigger, it looks like a big ball of cotton wool or a sheepskin or a cloud where a little child in a fairy tale would take a nap. Then the cloud explodes. The screen turns bright orange, almost gold, a tidal wave of air shoots towards the camera. The rolling sky hits the apartment buildings, a hand slides in front of the frame, I try to pause the video just then to see if there is a scar running across the little finger, the scar Isak got when I was in a bad mood slamming the door to our bedroom, but the picture is too slurred to say. The camera goes down, everything fades to black, and there is a ringing sound: like the door to the cigarette shop where Grandpa got his cigarettes, but louder. Hundreds of cigarette shop doors open at the same time. The image remains black, the ringing stops. A woman screams, but I don’t understand her. The dull nerve that runs from my cupid’s bow to the septum of my nose stings.
Are you feeling well?
The air in the kitchen oppresses me and my palms feel clammy. I fill the sink with cold water and slowly stick my hands into it, first to my nails, then phalanx by phalanx until they are gone to my wrist. A charred piece of leek floats on the surface of the water.
Isaac and I had a computer limit: we both got a maximum of 15 minutes a day at the PC, half an hour if we had to do a project, and not until dinner was on the table. Mom said it was because her whole side of the family was very farsighted and too much screen time would ruin our eyes, but we soon learned that Dad didn’t want us to pick up the phone line. “Like you have an itchy nose but you don’t know when you’re going to sneeze,” he explained. “This is how it feels to be away from your family. Your attention is always somewhere else.’
I feel ashamed when I think of his statement. There are weeks when I seem to forget Isaac exists and our conversations are little more than veiled birthday wishes to ourselves. At Reyna’s baby shower, everyone had to bring a baby photo—it wasn’t until I was asked who the baby next to me in the incubator was that I realized I’d never told anyone about Isaac. What should I have said? This is Isaac, my twin brother. As toddlers, we squeezed our navels because we were convinced that this was how we were born. I haven’t seen him in ten years.
My fingers leave drops of water on my phone screen and I wipe them off with the bottom of my shirt.
yes is ok
Does mom know yet?
▶︎ —————— ○
He sends me a voice message. “Mom said she felt it coming,” he says. “Everything at home had been rotting for days. Even the onions”. It sounds rushed.
I don’t know when I last heard his voice, even on our birthday we just send each other pictures of cakes, memes about how old we are or a series of emojis. I think I last heard him speak in a detour – through a video on Mom’s phone last year, wishing her a happy 60th birthday. It feels like a challenge, as if Isaac is saying, ‘I gave something of myself, now it’s your turn.’ I tap my screen to record my voice, then discard the recording and try again, gritting my teeth first, breathing in through my nose. “Shall we come?” I’m asking. Only after listening to the message a few times do I dare to send it.
▶︎ —————— ○
I’ll see you tomorrow
Are you going to see dad?
I fish the piece of leek from the sink and roll it between my fingers. During one of the fights between our parents, the one I remember because it started during the Junior Eurovision final and Isaac and I were sent upstairs right after the voting lines closed, we heard mom say that it was not normal to take a child to such a place. That was the year Tess won with Stupiddespite the five SMS votes for Smilies I had sent on Dad’s phone.
“It’s up there, Abed,” she said.
We didn’t understand what she meant. In our room, Isaac climbed onto the top bunk of our bunk bed. He squatted on the mattress, leaned over the edge of the bed and jumped off, deciding to do it again and again. Like a video we played over and over again, it kept climbing the ladder at high speed and then throwing itself out of bed until mom opened the door, gave us an angry look, and closed the door again. It jumps there. Had she imagined a scene similar to the one in the video? A wave of air hitting the buildings?
I pull the plug out of the sink and watch the water disappear into the sink with a sloshing sound. For the next half hour, my mother calls me every five minutes, but each time I wait for her to get my answering machine and hang up herself. After her fourth attempt, I send her a message. Isn’t that terrible? So: I’ll come over tonight. She sends a crying smiley, sunflower and ladybug, and then Isaac replies.
Do not know yet. will call you tomorrow
Sometimes I wonder if Isaac and I made an unspoken pact when he left. Did we agree that morning to only see each other from then on if it was vital? And would we then in all other situations, as in a perfectly rehearsed dance, move around each other and not confront each other with our existence?
Appears on August 30 Shard City, the debut of the Dutch-Lebanese Hanan Faour. IN Shard City we follow the twins Nadine and Isaac, who have lived apart from each other since they were fourteen – in the Netherlands and Lebanon respectively. When Beirut is rocked by a devastating explosion in the harbor on August 4, 2020, Nadine decides to travel to her brother. In their childhood they were inseparable. Yet Isaac, as a boy of Arab background, was treated very differently from his sister by the outside world. When their parents divorce, Isaac travels with his Lebanese father to his homeland, while Nadine stays with her Dutch mother in their village in North Limburg.
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Publication date: 30-08-2022