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The Palm’s Poem

by Dina el-Abd

Ali always tried avoiding work whenever possible. He despised waking up early, putting on work clothes, spending hours in the fields, and returning hungry at night. You see, Ali lived with his family on a large date farm, at least a couple of kilometers in length. It was in the basin of the Nile delta, nestled between the green fields of other farms. Every autumn, Ali’s entire family would leave their mudbrick home every dawn to collect dates for the day, and hence earn their humble family a living.

As Ali was the youngest, no one was too harsh on him. Yet, as his eldest brother would leave some mornings, carrying his brown cloth sack on his back, he would say, “Oh Ali, come climb the palms with us. There is no view as beautiful as when you are at the top of a palm, the fresh dates in your hands, the sun rising above a quiet city. And if you’re lucky enough to have picked a tall palm, you can see the Nile sparkling like a jewel in the distance.”

Whenever Ali would hear his brother’s speech, he would pretend to be asleep. He would just keep his eyes closed, breathe slowly, and snore loudly. Who cared about how the city looked, he thought. He didn’t live there. Lucky enough to have picked a tall palm—why, that was Ali’s nightmare, those never-ending palms which kept going up—up—up!

It was much easier to sleep or play, why work? So while Ali would have liked to continue his life like this forever, it was at the age of fifteen, when his father shook him awake one morning.

“That’s enough! I can’t stand your laziness anymore! Your whole family is working while you laze about. Even your sister started working from thirteen! It’s about time you carried your own burden.”

And with that, he handed him a brown cloth sack and drew him by the hand right out of their home. Ali looked to his brother pitifully and started following him to the fields. But, his father called out, “No! Don’t go with your brother. He is too kind, and I know you’ll never get any work done! You go to the distant fields at the east side. And don’t come home till dusk!”

Dragging his feet, Ali made his way through the palms until he reached the east fields. They were quiet and empty. He waited for an hour for someone else to show up, but it seemed he was working on this side all by himself.

Finally approaching a tree, Ali attempted to climb. He put his hands above his head, as he had seen his brother do, and reached for the stubby trunk to hold onto. Then he hopped with his feet, strongly gripping the tree. Ali tried to keep this up for a minute but quickly fell to the ground.

This tree is weird, Ali thought. It must be a bad tree, as it is too difficult to climb. Let me look for another easier one.

So for the next hour, Ali walked around the palms, observing their height and girth, and deciding whether they were worthy of his climb or not. Too fat, he would think, or too tall.

Suddenly, Ali stopped in surprise. He stared at the trunk of one tree. Someone had carved an oval onto the trunk, and written something inside it. Ali stepped closer and started to read,

“This magic palm will be a gift
To the kind, honest, and in deepest need,
But forget not it holds a curse
If you should work for just yourself or greed.”

A gift, thought Ali excitedly. This is the tree I will climb.

With great enthusiasm, Ali began to climb the magic palm. Without a doubt, he fell several times, but on his seventh attempt, he finally reached the top. Glancing around for signs of magic, Ali saw nothing but brown dates.

Where is the magic? He thought angrily. Did I climb all this for nothing?

Ali looked off into the distance and saw the sun was beginning to set over the Nile river. The sun momentarily reflected on its waters, causing Ali to squint and look away. He filled his sack with dates and climbed down the palm, relieved he could finally return home.

“How was your first day!” his brother asked him as Ali walked through the door. Everyone was already home as the sun had set minutes before. “Did you manage to climb any palms?”

Ali saw his father’s tanned face look up and pay attention. “Yes, I did,” Ali said. “And I even brought some dates with me.”

“How wonderful!” Ali’s mother exclaimed, “Then we will start our meal with Ali’s first dates.”

Ali split the dates evenly amongst his family, giving everyone a handful. They wiped them carefully, then took a bite. Suddenly, there was a cry of surprise.

“These are the best dates I’ve ever tasted,” his sister said, her hand at her mouth. “In fact, I don’t even think they are dates. This is chocolate!”

Everyone started to agree and eat more of the dates. Ali himself tried one and realized what his sister said was true. The dates were chocolate! It was a magic palm!

The days went by with Ali climbing the magic palm and returning to his home with the chocolate dates. His whole family would await Ali’s return from the fields every day at dusk and happily eat the chocolate. No one seemed to mind where the chocolate dates were coming from as long as they simply came. No one except Ali’s father.

One night, he took Ali’s older brother to the side and voiced his doubts in a whisper, “How is it that lazy Ali climbs a palm tree on his first day? And not just any tree, but a magic one! One that gives him chocolate!” Ali’s father leaned in closer. “Well, let me tell you something. I’ve been working on these fields my whole life, and I tell you, there is no magic palm tree!”

“What do you mean?” the eldest son asked in shock. “Do you think that Ali is stealing?”

But, the father did not reply and only broodily watched as his family happily ate the dates.

Yet, eventually fewer and fewer chocolate dates would make it to the table. Instead of returning with a full sack, Ali would return with half of one or even a quarter. The reason for this was that as Ali climbed the magic palm, he could not resist eating some chocolates while sitting up in the tree. As he would pop one after the other into his mouth, he would think there were still many left when in reality they were almost all gone. As he would look out towards the twisting Nile, he would also think that, anyway, no one was watching him.

One day his mother commented, “Be careful, Ali. You’re putting on some weight. It’s not good for a boy your age to have such a belly.”

His father looked his way, “No overweight person can climb palms. Even magic palms.”

As though to prove these words right, the next day when Ali went in search of the magic palm, he could not find it. The poem engraved on the trunk was nowhere to be seen. All day, he searched the trees but his efforts bore no fruit. All the trees were one and the same, completely normal.

For the next few nights, Ali returned empty-handed, unable to find the magic palm, and incapable of climbing another without motivation. No one questioned what happened, and it was just as well, for Ali would not have liked to explain the answer.

Suddenly, his older brother rushed into the house, “I’ve been accepted! I’ve been accepted!” he cried, holding a large white envelope above his head. His sister jumped up,

“To what?”

“To Cairo University—to study mechanical engineering!”

Yet as the entire family celebrated for the first time since the chocolate dates, Ali saw his father slowly leave the room. Angry, Ali asked, “Where is he going?”

But, his mother gave him a look and replied in a quiet voice, “He is upset. He knows he cannot afford your brother’s tuition.” Ali looked around and saw the sadness in his brother’s eyes.

“Then why are we celebrating?” Ali asked before standing up to sit outside. He leaned against the wall of their home and kicked at the dry dirt surrounding it. Ali knew his brother deserved to go to university, and he wished there was some way to help him. Why hadn’t his family saved up money from the dates they sold? True, they didn’t sell for very much, but over time they would have undoubtedly made enough.

Like water, a question suddenly slipped into Ali’s mind. Why hadn’t he sold some of his chocolate dates? They would have undoubtedly been worth more than the normal ones. Instead of eating them, he could have put them to better use. But, now the magic palm was gone, and he was left with nothing but weight around his belly and on his heart.

Unable to stay still any longer, Ali started to walk away from his house towards the fields.

“Where are you going?” his sister called after him, but he didn’t answer.

Back inside their home, his sister told his mother, “Ali left.”

“Leave him,” said his mother. “Give him his space.”

Their father walked back in the room. “He’s probably going to his magic palm,” he said sarcastically. He looked towards the older brother, “And of course you know what that means.”

Quickly, the older brother stood up. “No,” he said, “I will not let Ali steal for me.” And like Ali, he left the house and ventured into the dark.

Ali walked the path he had become so familiar with towards the east fields. The sky was dark, full of stars, though the moon had yet to appear. The fields were quiet and wider than he recalled. There were some distant noises and sounds from the city, unintelligible to him. A wind blew at his cotton shirt and he ran his hands up and down his arms. Winter was soon approaching, and all the dates would be gone.

Eventually, the path led Ali to his fields and to his great surprise, on the trunk before him was the engraving of the magic palm.

“This magic palm will be a gift
To the kind, honest, and in deepest need,
But forget not it holds a curse
If you should work for just yourself or greed.”

Without a second thought, Ali dropped his bag and began to climb the tree. He hadn’t climbed in weeks so it was far more difficult than before. His rounded belly was also weighing down on him.

Slowly, Ali kept climbing. Eventually, he made it so high he was ten meters above the ground. Then, he was the height of the other palm trees. Then, he was ten meters above them. What’s going on, Ali thought. How tall is this tree?

Looking away from the ground so far below him, Ali continued to climb. He had no choice. He had to reach the chocolate dates. In the distance, he could see the Nile, yet unlike before it was lit with several small colorful dots of reflecting lights. Ali kept his eye trained on it as he continued to climb, until finally he reached the top.

He stepped up and found himself surrounded by a soft expanse of white clouds. Ali looked around for the dates, but could only find the twinkling of stars and the distant shape of the Nile. Yet, as he looked at it, it started to move, rise, grow, until a massive twinkling snake stood before him.

It opened its wide mouth with jewel-specked fangs and hissed, “There are no dates here for you.”

“No,” Ali cried, “There must be! I found the tree!”

“You do not find the tree,” the snake hissed. “It finds you.”

And as it spoke, Ali noticed that behind the snake hid the dates. He cried, “Then I will prove that I was worth finding.” With a mighty lunge, Ali reached for the dates and grabbed hold. Yet, somehow, the clouds dissolved from beneath his feet, and for the first time, he was falling with nothing to hold onto.

“You do not find the tree, It finds you.”

With his eyes on the stars, he fell. The air whooshed around him, surrounding him, leaving him with nothing to hold onto. In the moment, Ali could not wonder how many meters he was falling, or how he could fall just after reaching his prize.

Then, he hit. But, the ground was soft, until it started talking and he realized he had fallen into the arms of his older brother. “Ali!” he cried, “How could you fall? What would you have done if I wasn’t here? You’re lucky I saw your pack on the ground and could tell you had climbed this tree!”

“I got them!” Ali cried in happiness, barely believing he did. “Now we can sell these chocolate dates to make sure you go to university!” He looked down into his hands to examine them, then stopped dead.

They did not have the smooth texture of the chocolate dates, nor even the smell.

“I think these are normal dates, Ali,” his brother said slowly. Ali looked at the trunk of the tree to confirm it was the magic palm, but found no engraving. Where had it gone? He looked up at the tree, but found it the same height as all the others.

Disappointed, the two brothers made their way home to their waiting family.

“You brought dates,” their sister cried. “Are they the chocolate ones?”

“No,” said Ali, laying them on the table. His sister eyed them anyway and brought one to her mouth.

She took a big bite, then, “OW!”

“What’s wrong?” asked their mom in worry. Everyone turned to look at her.

“The seeds,” she said, spitting one out. As it rolled into her hand, instead of the soft wooden color, it was a bright, glowing gold. Quickly, the whole family peeled the rest and found twenty gold seeds.

“There really is a magic palm,” their father said as everyone cheered. “Where did you find it?”

“It found me.”

 

All artwork is courtesy of Eman Osama.

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