Fourteen Winters Old
When we lived at home, winter used to be my favorite time of the year. It was almost like a personal accomplishment that I wanted to show off. I remember bragging about the weather on Facebook like it was something I owned. I would post photos of our charming city with its bustling streets and write something like, “Who cares about Swiss snow when the snow here is alive with the hustle.”
I would take photos of neighborhood kids having snowball fights and upload them next to photos of dreary European cities overflowing with unfriendly snow, their empty streets occupied only by snow plows. I’d add some poetic line like, “Snow visits our streets and sidewalks just long enough for us to take photos in our special winter gear before melting away and revealing the old gray and green colors of the landscape beneath.”
Winter used to be my favorite time of the year. I spent those months celebrating online with posts about how “winters at home were the most magical winters of all.”
I had no idea winter could be just as cruel as humans. Then again, everyone else betrayed us, so why would winter be any different?
We were drowning in fear. We wandered, lost, through vast spaces. And all the while, winter’s rains poured down on us, as if we needed more obstacles in our way. We had no idea where we would end up. The constant bombardment left us without options. The attacks banned us from seeking the temporary shelter of awnings and the rain denied us access to God’s exposed streets. Through the thunder and lightning, the confusion and disorientation and madness became worse.
It stopped raining for about two nights, enough to make room for bitterly cold weather that left the women and children crying. We wandered endlessly and chaotically in search of a place without bombing.
Soon after that, my favorite time of the year revealed its sharpest weapon yet. Snow came down on us like nails from the heavens that blanketed the streets and sidewalks, penetrating our feet and eating at our decaying flesh like the jaws of hunting traps.
My cherished winter didn’t care that we left our houses barefoot, stumbling down staircases to escape the collapse of ceilings pockmarked with signs of unrelenting shelling. Winter was demanding repayment for all those childhood delights, savoring our misery. Not a single scene of our exodus drama went by without winter’s guiding hand.
Our limbs decayed. Our throats dried up like wood. Our lungs filled with turbid dampness. Walking was like cowering through shelling, maybe worse. Every footstep started to feel crueler than a bullet.
In that great wandering epic, children tried out for every role. They played every trick they could to gain the comfort of an arm to carry them. But my body was fourteen years old. I couldn’t play the role of the child.
I remember how I waited for the day when I’d dress like a fourteen-year-old girl, when I’d put on the right kind of make-up and start walking like a woman.
My mind was a pink box full of teenage love stories, dreams that ranged from the pangs of first love to the joys of illicit adventures.
I had been learning the language of maturity, the words to use in the face of constraint, the secrets of the art of charm.
From the time my father had called me a young lady on my thirteenth birthday, I had been weaving my dreams from the yarns of womanhood and preparing my body for that new chapter.
A few months later, I found myself in an open-air prison, surrounded by flames from every direction. There were no markets to explore and no friends to meet in my new feminine outfits.
I had barely enjoyed being that young lady for a few days before I discovered the bliss of childhood when my mother chose to give my younger sister the last scrap of bread.
With the entire city under siege, we had been holed up inside for days. We lived according to the whims of factions whose loyalties and masters were unknown to us. Finally, the earth itself erupted as the unending deluge of bombardment turned the city into flowing lava. So we decided to leave.
The heaviness would only get worse as my body grew. That was the reality I came to see as I wavered from hunger and weakness among the exiled masses.
No one carried me. I alone carried my body as I found myself and my family living in a war-torn city where siblings killed each other, supposedly for love of the homeland, leaving me without one.
I sat in the corner of the tent, folding my body onto itself, trying to infuse it with some warmth, and I whispered to my favorite time of the year.
“I hope you leave us forever. Your presence is death. Wind coming in from every side. No blankets. How stupid was I to spend my childhood thinking you were beautiful, my executioner in this naked place between places?
I closed my eyes, my last defense against the cold and hunger and loneliness. I don’t know why I remembered my Facebook page then after months of forgetting. I remembered the last photo I uploaded. It was one of those about the beauty of winters at home. I smiled and wondered.
What’s really surprising about this betrayal — it’s not like anyone cares. Didn’t we spend our childhoods memorizing songs about a homeland that in the end turned out to be a tent as cold as a coffin?
“Fourteen Winters Old” is a condensed history of displacement and exile told in the voice of a fourteen-year old refugee. The narrator laments being betrayed by her favorite time of the year, winter, through fragmented recollections of the end of her childhood and the arrival of womanhood. In this compact account, Sadaa Al-Daas juxtaposes the innocent nostalgia for childhood experiences of snow and the adult shock of nationalist disenchantment.
If the young narrator’s voice appears markedly poetic in English, it is much more so in Arabic. The speaker resorts to a high literary register in narrating her experience as if to distance herself from her lived reality, as if to write a tragedy into which she can escape from her even more tragic abandonment. In doing this, her voice becomes that of a generation of children stripped of their innocence and forced to reckon with the world of adults.
Instead of trying to make the narrator’s language seem more plausible or realistic for her age, I preserved much of Al-Daas’s vivid descriptions, similes, and ostensibly mixed metaphors in order to call attention to the unnaturalness of the child-narrator’s forced maturation through the incongruity of her speech. Similarly, I read the narrator’s frequent mixing of metaphors and exaggerated use of alliterative diction as a reflection of her struggle to find ways to describe and process her incomprehensible reality. And so, I resisted the urge or expectation to achieve, by way of flattening out the diversity of metaphor, greater realism in tone.
I suspect that I have accidentally introduced an allusion in my reliance on words like “wandering” and “exile” where one did not exist in the Arabic, but I chose to leave it in nonetheless as it helped demonstrate the narrator’s recognition of the communal extent of her calamity.
In the story’s final section, where the speaker sits in her tent mourning the hostile reversal of her fortune, folding in on herself in search of some comfort, I tried to recall the complexity of the Arabic’s image. There, the speaker describes her body as a separate being, reminding us of her psychological displacement from her corporeality. I therefore tried to personify the body and show the speaker’s powerlessness over it.
In the child’s final words, we see a heartbreaking and shockingly mature cynicism that registers the certainty of a gruesome fate that brings with it no reprieve, for the coffin is not a final resting place, but the everyday place of shelter.
Omar Qaqish teaches English at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York and is a doctoral candidate at McGill University. He teaches and researches literature by Arab authors writing in English, Arabic, and French (and sometimes Italian). He has also translated al-Daas in World Literature Today.
Sadaa al-Daas is an award-winning Kuwaiti playwright, author, and literary critic. Her works include Li’anni aswad (2010, Because I Am Black) and the short story collection, Ma la ta‘rifahu ‘an al-ameerat (2017, What You Don’t Know about Princesses.) She heads the Department of Criticism at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Kuwait.