As Nabil lay dying in his little Mars house, looking at the oxygen gauge and realizing he didn’t have much longer to try and persuade Sam to let him walk over to his house and share his air, he couldn’t help but waste some oxygen laughing at the odyssey that led him from Gaza to this blighted Mars colony. Gaza wasn’t looking so bad now.
“What are you laughing at?” Sam asks via the monitor.
Nabil hopes his brain isn’t suffering from oxygen deprivation. How disappointing if his last thoughts and feelings, his final utterances weren’t actually valid, or genuinely his, but consequences of a brain failing. Brain farts as neurons flame out and sputter a medley of nonsensical emotions and word salads. But perhaps that would be an appropriate finish to a life that had often felt arbitrary, and out of his control. Even if he could trace every step that led him from the moonscape of Gaza to the rubble of the red planet. The choices he made to sign up for an E.U. program for unplaceable refugees. Or even further back: memories of laying flowers at his parent’s and sister’s burial site in Gaza. Or at another grave for his brother in Syria where they had both initially sought refuge, before heading for Greece on a dingy. Memories of tossing flowers into the sea for friends he had lost. And finally in London, laying flowers for Amina, a woman from Ramallah he had fallen in love with, and who had been so excited about the Mars program being offered to enterprising immigrants.
“All The Land You Want,” the internet and TV ads had proclaimed. “Only Pioneers Welcome.”
After the first successful E.U. orchestrated manned mission to Mars there was a rush to exploit the planet by several governments for various reasons, including as a way to deal with the unsustainable influx of peoples from southern and eastern nations fleeing wars and hunger.
The initial outcry by some NGOs that governments and affiliated corporations were exploiting the powerless — using them as guinea pigs to test the viability of a sustained life on Mars — was countered by a media blitz that extolled the possibilities of Mars. Editorials spoke of “…the powerless empowered…”; “…rather than be taxi drivers and waiters, these refugees, a lot of them educated, could now become scientists, astronauts, history makers, and rich…”; “…refugees have already shown their true grit in risking the perilous journey to the West. The safer and soon-to-be streamlined flight to Mars will seem like a first class passage in comparison.”
“I know it’s a crazy idea, which is why we should do it!” Amina said, jumping up and bouncing on the bed. “Imagine laying claim to a huge chunk of land and having two planets acknowledge it’s yours. And! we’ll help birth a planet! You with your engineering skills, me with my medical training. We’ll make it into the history books. And just the journey to Mars itself, tell me that doesn’t blow your mind. And if we don’t like it we can always come back to this shitty temporary housing. And the evil stares of people who don’t want us here.”
They made love quietly in that rented room with the thin walls, she saying how they could scream as passionately as they wanted to if they lived on Mars (photos of the Red planet’s proposed living quarters had been widely circulated). “Making love on Mars! How cool will that be? And we’d be birthing Martians. Palestinians on Mars, for God’s sake. Palestinian-Martians, or Martian-Palestinians. Or Pali-Marts.”
He resisted being a part of the first wave of people who’d shipped there. But when glowing media reports came back about the sense of adventure and community engendered by the enterprise, in addition to the surprisingly low fatality rate, he had slowly warmed up to the idea and was on the verge of telling Amina he was ready to get on board with the whole thing when Amina died from a freak accident. She had missed a step getting off a London bus. She stumbled forward and hit her head against an iron railing. Her death was instantaneous.
For several days after that he walked around like he’d lost everything all over again. His sense of loss felt like a palpable, living creature crawling under his skin. A dark, morose thing that alternatively sneered, howled and banged its head against his rib cage and skull. He collapsed in Hyde Park one day and stared up at the sky. He wondered how it was possible to possess flesh and blood, but still feel like an absence in the fabric of everything around him. Like he was just some heat shimmer that some sensor could pick up, but otherwise invisible to others.
He remembered what Amina had said as she continued to try and sell him on migration to Mars. “Haven’t you ever wanted to float through life? Don’t people say that of people who have it lucky. ‘They just seem to float through life’. Well: we will literally float through life with this trip.”
“Won’t we be abandoning our home, Palestine. Our hope for it?”
“We’ve already left. We just haven’t reached where we’re supposed to end up yet. Besides, why aren’t we allowed to walk away? We’ll still honor our past, the good parts, where we come from. But wouldn’t it be amazing to just free ourselves from all that? Start fresh. Oh! And! Maybe they’ll start issuing Martian passports. I’ll bet we’ll be able to go anywhere with those.”
Nabil looked at his beautiful girlfriend, her head cradled by the pillow, her eyes aglow with all the possibilities that such a migration promised. Then Nabil said:
“The thought of making love to you weightless. . .that alone. . .”
He buried her on a Saturday, and signed up for Mars migration on a Monday. One full year of training later, he was shipped out to Mars.
“I wouldn’t waste your oxygen laughing. Help is coming,” Sam says.
“You know I don’t have enough to keep me going.”
“They said they’d be here within the hour.” Sam is angry that he’s being put in a position of having to choose. Risking his and his wife’s life by sharing their own limited supply.
“You’re trying to make yourself feel less guilty for not letting me come to you,” Nabil says.
“I feel no guilt towards you for anything. It’s you who should feel guilty.”
Sam’s wife, Kate, has her hands over her mouth as if trying to squelch the howls building up inside of her. She’s furious at the goddamn company that said they had protocols for all kinds of crises. A rapid loss of oxygen due to a pebble-sized meteor shower that destroyed the O2 delivery system to their compound seemed like it would be at the top of the “Things-To-Do-When-A-Shit-Storm-Hits.” As soon as she got back to Earth she was going to deliver a swift kick to the CEO’s scrotum and have him gasping for air.
“Fucker,” she thinks, except she also says it out loud, making Sam think it’s directed at him. Sam shoots her a look, his eyes glinting an extra sheen of ill will as if to fire right back with an accusatory “fuck you” of his own. He wants to say something nasty but knows this isn’t the time for a marital squabble.
“That wasn’t directed at you, it’s that bastard CEO. Everyone of the back-up plans have failed.” The O2 pipes were supposed to have been buried deep enough to protect from all inclement occurrences, including small meteors. The emergency escape shuttles were also supposed to be safeguarded. The twenty three other individuals on their compound had been lucky their shuttles had not been impacted by meteors. They got off the planet, apologizing profusely to Sam, Kate and Nabil for not having enough room to take them along.
At least those who bothered to apologize.
By the time of the meteor disaster the compound had devolved into petty squabbles over meager resources, resentments over who the company seemed to favor with bonuses, and sundry interpersonal crap that happens to colonists whose dreams of a better world don’t pan out. The Mars project, at least in this iteration, had been in its last throes. The promised riches from mining minerals had not been realized. Other corporations and sponsorship had dried up a while ago. The only colonists who remained were the stubborn, the outcasts, and those who had cut off all contact with Earth. Nabil stuck it out for the sake of his beloved Amina’s dream of Mars. Sam and Kate because they had truly believed in the vision of this enterprise.
Sam had his own tale of migration, starting with his great grandparents who had fled the pogroms in Russia to Berlin; only to flee Berlin to Paris with the rise of the Nazis. And then flee Paris to Lisbon when the Nazis invaded France. And from Lisbon to Akron, Ohio. When Sam was eighteen, he was invited to tour Israel and fell in love with the country — with the sheer audacity of finally having so many Jews gathered together and empowered with a government of their own. As soon as he finished college in the States, he migrated to Tel Aviv, set up shop as an IT consultant. Ironically falling in love with a non-Jew — a visiting Lutheran and former college tech nerd from Akron: Kate. She had asked him so many questions about Tel Aviv that he had finally invited her to visit. Formally just friends, Sam found himself falling for Kate for all the reasons he had fallen for Israel: she was a reminder of something that had been shoved aside. In this case, the nostalgia of his youth, or of how he remembered it: the unburdened, non-Jewish concerns of an American teenager, free of national mantras and existential questions about survival. Kate was laughter, hamburgers and movie dates. He wanted that back in his life. For Kate, Sam was a cowboy pioneer whose daily mundane acts were transformed and elevated by being part of something larger than himself. When he proposed, and she accepted, she walked away from finishing a post-graduate degree in engineering from MIT, and a family freaking out that their daughter was migrating to a dangerous part of the world.
But twelve years later, they began to flinch at the ever increasing right-wing drift of the country. Their attempt at even-handedness when it came to Palestinians was met with increasing hostility. When Sam began to post his opposition to settlements, and the periodic bombing of Gaza, he was shocked at the level of vitriol directed his way. He soon morphed from just posting his opinions to physical protests — which led to physical confrontations and beatings by hard-right supporters. The police not only didn’t intervene, they arrested him and his fellow protesters for marching without a permit and a bunch of other false charges.
Sam’s fury at all these assaults went from a vow to stay on and fight for the country he believed in, to finally saying, “Fuck it, enough.” Kate had long despaired of finding a comfort zone for herself in her adopted country, realizing the excitement of being a part of something bigger than herself could not match her ultimate desire for wanting a place she could wholly feel at home in.
Sam was therefore all the more surprised when she started advocating for the Mars settlement program. This wouldn’t just be a fresh start, she argued, but an opportunity to potentially alter how people related to each other — how people related to institutions, and vice-versa. The opportunity to be at the ground level as a new society formed its governmental bodies. Mars could be a means not only for unburdening planet Earth of its overpopulation problem, but, if they got it right, if they formed a more perfect union, an example for how people right here on Earth could better govern themselves. They could become not just the shining beacon on the hill, but in the sky.
Many weeks of such discussions. The more they talked, the more their spirits lifted. Sam and Kate were nothing if not idealists.
At one point Sam countered, “But Mars won’t exactly feel like home for you either. I know how much you’ve been struggling with wanting to feel like you belong somewhere.”
“We can’t go back to Akron. That life’s gone. And we can’t really stay here — well, we can, but at what cost? And this Mars program is truly pioneer stuff. Perhaps if we want to unmake the mess we’ve made of our home here on Earth, we can start by trying to create a sense of belonging for lots of other people on a new planet. Everyone would be an ‘us’ on Mars. How can there be an ‘us’ and ‘them’ when everyone will have just got there?”
Both Kate and Sam knew how overly optimistic that sentiment was, obviously. Neither of them had to be cynics to know how fragile attempts at human discourse and community could be. What they couldn’t have anticipated was how short a time it would take for things to devolve into separate camps and individual feuds. Irritability alone — seeing the same faces every day, hearing the same jokes, even listening to someone over headphones chew gum in their space suits — will poke holes in the most sturdy of ideals and friendships. Added to that: when the governing principal of the corporations bankrolling this endeavor was, understandably, profit, that pressure alone of the “bottom line” effectively started to pollute the ideals and the adventurous spirit that had prompted people to sign up. The glamor of being on a new planet wore off all too quickly.
And affairs. Extra marital affairs began to pollute things as well.
Sam and Kate were actually thrilled that their next door neighbor was a Palestinian. And of course they laughed at the irony. “Millions of miles and here we are with a Palestinian as a neighbor! How freaky is that!” Sam said. Nabil was not so thrilled. “All the way to Mars and I have fucking Israeli settlers as neighbors. Shoot me already.” (Luckily for the colonists no firearms were allowed on the planet.)
But they got on well enough. And when discussion drifted to politics, as it quickly did, and Nabil began to see they weren’t just liberals (progressives on everything but Palestine) but “radicals” (as they might be viewed by liberals et al.) things warmed up considerably. They would often go prospect mining together. They would share meals and entertainment shipped from Earth. Kate and Nabil joined up with a newly formed theater group — “Shakespeare in Space” — and put on plays for their compound. They were so successful other colonists from other compounds would drive in. (Eventually those compounds began to set up their own rival theater troupes: “The Mars Shakespeare Co.,” the experimental “We’re-The-Aliens Theater”, and the Cirque du Soleil-like “The Philip K. Dick Traveling Circus.” Though the theater critics on the planet [they sprung up very quickly] agreed that “Shakespeare in Space” was the best of the four theater troupes.)
The affair between Nabil and Kate began before either of them fully acknowledged they were having one. Though Sam got an inkling of what was happening early on, seeing their sometimes flirtatious banter as more than just kidding around between neighbors. When Sam remarked to Kate, “You and Nabil seem to be getting along very well,” delivering his observation in a tone that was unmistakably chilly, she still viewed her banter and body language with Nabil as just playful. She ascribed Sam’s faint jealousy to his having to witness their turns as Romeo and Juliet; or watching the remarkable intimacy they managed to convey, even through space suits, when they played Othello and Desdemona outdoors for the now annual “Shakespeare in the Mars Park” festival.
But it was when Sam was laid up with a migraine, lying on his couch, eyes closed, only half listening to Nabil and Kate out in the mining area, did he definitively couple his suspicion with the sudden awareness that - eyes opening wide now - that they’d stopped talking. “Oh God, they must be screwing.” They weren’t chatting the way they usually did when picking at rocks. For the past ten minutes or so: silence. Which led him to think that they must be in an air booth. But, he quickly calculated, they hadn’t been out long enough to need an air booth (small, phone-booth like compartments set up in outlying areas to give workers time-out from their heavy protective suits. An opportunity to relax without having to drive all the way back home).
The mikes were attached to their helmets. If he couldn’t hear them, they must be out of their suits. If they were out of their suits, they were standing together in their underwear in an enclosure no bigger than an actual phone booth. And if they could convey that intense level of sexual intimacy through the tough fabric of space suits they wore while doing “Othello” outdoors. . .
Sam rose unsteadily from the couch and made his way to the monitor. The ugly thought of Arabs-always-lusting-after-Western-women bludgeoned its way into his mind before he bludgeoned it right back into the dark recesses from which it emerged. He couldn’t be certain of anything; but in his bones he was pretty sure they were at it in the air booth.
“Kate? Kate? Are you there? Come in, Kate?” He heard the sound of rustling fabric, which he interpreted as Kate struggling to clothe her naked body. Her voice came in shakily, then more clearly as she secured the helmet on.
“What’s going on?”
“Oh, we’re just taking a break. In the booth.”
“I knew it!” Sam didn’t mean to say that out loud.
It was an observation made by many on the red planet that their sense of intuition seemed to have been sharpened since coming to Mars. As if the diminution of all those noises that usually assault one on Earth had enhanced some sixth sense. Even though what it actually ended up heightening was a general level of paranoia about all sorts of things. As if the planet was stripping people down to some elemental core peculiar to the human species. And that core — a quivering, hyper alert mess of fears and needs — did not reflect well on the species.
“Know what, honey?” Kate repeated.
Sam raced through all the scenarios that might result if he confronted her. An end to the marriage and to their life on Mars, probably. He would face the ridicule of friends and strangers back on Earth (the first affair and divorce on Mars — though there were intimations that at least five other couples might also be on the verge of calling it quits), and decided now was not the time to say anything.
“Nothing. I was just worried about you.”
Sam kept his suspicions to himself that day and in the subsequent weeks. If he was going to bring it up, he had better be sure. He couldn’t come off as some cuckolded fool suspecting his wife over nothing. What if unacknowledged prejudices were coloring his judgment? A guilt meme popped into his mind about how he, Sam, might deserve this as just retribution for the sins perpetrated on the Palestinians. This Palestinian was taking something that was his now. Except the non-sequiturs in that logic quickly dissolved the thought. But then he thought, “Well, what if Nabil is doing this to get back at me for — for who knows. For being a Jew? For emigrating to Israel? For being viewed as a settler even though I was against settlers in the West Bank. Kate is attractive and that’s reason enough, but what if Nabil is operating on some prejudice of his own?”
There was also some weird thrill — “thrill” is probably too strong a word — that Sam couldn’t articulate, but that nonetheless played around the edges of all this, and that was this affair was at least a distraction from the soul-draining boredom of living on a desolate planet.
For this planet was not bending to the will of the humans. It was not being made green, or profitable, or made culturally alive. It was just a rock inhabited by humans engaged in a futile endeavor, as it was turning out. And the humans seemed to be absorbing this sense of desolation into their very beings, and acting more dispirited with each passing year, in spite of all the poetry and plays they performed. Or any number of creative pursuits they engaged in, such as rock sculpting; or sports activities like pole vaulting. While certainly not wished for, this affair was at least a break in this onerously regulated life. A regularity which insured their safety, but did little for the soul which missed the potential for emotional carnage that comes from a life unscripted — the messy outcomes of a heart free to roam and get into trouble. Where there were many safety checks to avoid the thousand things that could go wrong, an affair felt like a lived challenge that engaged the heart in a profounder way than trying to live in a hostile place. Negatively, perhaps, like a thirsty man rushing into sea water to quench his thirst. But engaging the heart nonetheless.
Nabil and Kate were not unaware that Sam suspected something, but they too felt this unspoken call to engage in this enlivening drama. Again: an outcome of the planet’s almost active sterility on the hearts and minds of Mars’s new inhabitants. A sterility that dug deep into each of them, creating an almost febrile need to fill those cavities with anything resembling life. Nabil and Kate found in each other’s arms a reawakening of their messy humanity. A reintroduction of naughtiness and playfulness, of living on the edge of their well-ordered lives. Nabil was not sleeping with Kate as a political act to get back at Sam, either for being Jewish or for being an immigrant to Israel. Nabil liked Sam. He appreciated his politics once he got to know him. He was sleeping with Sam’s wife because she was gorgeous and he hadn’t felt a warm body since Amina.
Kate engaged for similar reasons. Sex with Sam had waned, as it often does in long marriages. Now in her forties, she wanted to feel young and wanted again. And yes, Nabil being Palestinian did add a certain frisson to the union, but honestly, any decent looking neighbor would have done. She wasn’t going to leave Sam, but she wanted to feel alive again now. She was going to fill up that emptiness with flesh and sweat and the thrill of an affair. She was sure Sam knew and that it would all come to a head eventually. There would be a big blow-up, threats of divorce, and perhaps even a physical altercation with Nabil. But it would more than likely end with long talks and reconciliation. And perhaps even reignite their sex life. But that was in the future. Right now she needed to feel Nabil screwing her like crazy if she was going to spend another day settling this goddamn planet for future generations.
But before Sam got around to confronting his wife and Nabil, the meteor disaster happened.
“This must feel like sweet revenge,” Nabil whispers, his voice dragging with the dwindling reserves of air.
“Maybe you get off on revenge, not me.” The upset in Sam’s voice is audible through the monitor.
“That’s right, we Palestinians just get off on that kind of stuff.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You get to feel virtuous while killing me. Why does that feel so familiar?”
“This is not my fault! It’s disgusting you would bring that up!”
“I don’t know when my dying breath is going to be but, in case I miss it, let me just say, ‘fuck you, Sam.’”
“Fuck you too! Fuck you for fucking my wife and putting us in this position!”
“Honey.” Kate’s voice is measured. Someone had to make sure this didn’t dissolve into the inanities of a playground dispute. “Are you absolutely sure we don’t have enough oxygen for all three of us?”
“If they get here tonight, if the dust storm doesn’t hit our area this evening and delay them, we will barely have enough for two people. If we get into our suits after the oxygen’s gone we might, just might make it. With another person in here, we won’t. Period. You want to invite him over now? Maybe you two can make out with your dying breaths while I watch.”
“I’m game,” Nabil says.
“Why did you two have to destroy everything?”
“Honey?” Even more attempted stability in her voice. “Whatever you think Nabil and I got up to, we didn’t bring down the meteors.”
“Maybe you did! Maybe this is God punishing our settlement for not creating a more perfect union for everyone!”
“That’s very biblical of you. I never took you for a vengeance-of-God type guy.” Nabil is thankful he can still manage levity. He was dying as he hoped he might: with humor.
“Sam? I’m not going to confirm your suspicions one way or another, but - .” Then Nabil interrupts Kate and says: “I can confirm. We fucked like we wanted to populate the whole planet ourselves.”
“Do you want to die? Because if you don’t, you need to shut the hell up.” Nabil in his state couldn't tell if that was Kate or Sam speaking.
“I believe your husband. There isn’t enough oxygen for all three of us.” Nabil was beginning to slur his words.
Kate says: “Nabil, you’re getting delirious. You need to put on your helmet now.”
“On the contrary. My life is coming into focus. I grew up in a devastated home. I die amidst a big rubble of stupid rocks. With Israelis as neighbors denying me something as simple air to live. Perfect. That’s a perfect circle. And the moral is, you can’t run away. The crap that is your lot will follow you across the fucking galaxy.”
“Put on your goddamn helmet!” Sam barks. Then Kate says, “You have enough air in your suit to get you to the nearest air booth.”
Nabil’s eyes blink open at the thought, as if he hadn’t already considered that option, which he had. “How do we know that air booth wasn’t destroyed by a meteor? That sector got hit pretty hard,” Nabil says.
“We don’t know; but that’s your only option. Please. You have to try. For my sake.”
Then: “If I survive, can we make love again?”
“Sure.” Kate turns to her husband and shakes her head “no” emphatically.
“You’re just saying that.”
“You’ll never know if you don’t put on your helmet.”
Nabil stares around his house and imagines Amina puttering about the kitchen, sprinkling za’atar on pita bread to put in the oven. Then he decides to put his helmet on in case he no longer has the energy to do so later. He was pretty sure he wanted to live, but dying didn’t seem like such an awful thing now.
Several seconds of oxygen-flow later, his survival instinct kicks back in.
Nabil: “The ranger is out, right? No functioning wheels on the compound?”
“They’ve all been totaled,” Sam confirms.
“So walking to the booth would take, what? An hour? An hour fifteen?” Nabil was thinking out loud as much as he was asking Sam and Kate.
Kate: “Your suit gives you more than enough time to get there and back if necessary.” Nabil doesn’t tell them that in his panic he had remained in his suit long after the last meteor had struck, still fearful that part of his house might yet break apart. He’d remained in that suit using up its oxygen until he realized he needed to take advantage of what oxygen remained in the house first.
“Back to what? If the booth’s destroyed. Back to us?”
“Can we worry about that later,” Kate says.
“You’re all just trying to get rid of me.”
“We want you to live!” He could distinguish Sam’s pissed off-tones now.
“Okay.” Then: “Okay, goodbye.” And just as abruptly Nabil stands up. He walks over to the front door, opens it, and walks out onto the Martian landscape without closing the door or glancing back at his home of six years. He was certain he wouldn’t see it again. But he held no nostalgia for it. It had been no more than a temporary shelter. Like a refugee tent, which in a sense this whole Martian enterprise had been. A means to settle a mass of restless, homeless people.
“You’re going for it?” Kate asks. Nabil could now see in his periphery Sam and Kate at their window staring at him. He walks past them without turning to look or wave at them.
“You’ll make it. I know you — .” But before Kate can finish Nabil switches off his communication device.
Nabil experiences a sudden determination to live. Not one more word would be expelled wasting one more ounce of oxygen. Nor does he want to waste one more calorie on unnecessary thoughts. This determination to live almost felt feral. And yes, also political. His need to survive now felt very, very political. He had to get to that air booth. And if there wasn’t air there, he’d walk back and with his remaining breath he’d break into Sam and Kate’s house and they’d all just have to see if there was enough oxygen for the three of them after all. He was not going to end up dead on this wasteland. Another victim, another Palestinian refugee victim washed up on this far-off shore. Enough with this wandering. He belonged back on Earth. Earth was not going to make him feel unwelcome. He was going to stop being at the mercy of other people and head back to Gaza. Gaza was where he belonged. Why put all this energy building another world when there was a world that needed his labor and love and attention. “With all due respect, Amina — ,” but stops when he worries an inner dialogue with Amina now would use up too much energy. He’d have that chat with his beloved after he survived this.
“I’m going to survive this!” is the last verbalized thing he says to himself as he surveys the wreckage of the compound, the desolation of the landscape, and the all-round ruined dreams of the first colonists. All he focuses on now is taking the next step. And the step after that. He had to make it out of this alive. He had to.
Yussef El Guindi is primarily a playwright. Recent productions include The Talented Onesat Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland (Santa Barbara Independent Indy Award); Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat at Golden Thread Productions (American Theatre Critics Association's M. Elizabeth Osborn Award); and Threesome at Portland Center Stage, ACT, and at 59E59 (winner of a Portland Drammy for Best Original Script). He has had stories published in Mizna and the Seattle Review; and plays published by Dramatists Play Service and Broadway Play Publishing Inc.