Saturday, January 19, 2013


For A.A.

"While standing on the sidewalk
waiting for someone or something,
a man I do not know comes from behind.
He stabs me in the back with no reason or motive.
Breathing my last breaths,
I beg him not to reveal my secret.
My life was a well-known game,
so my death must be a mystery
this is how I long to die." -Qassim Haddad

"Have you ever seen the sun?" No one has truly seen the sun. No one that hasn't been here before. "The place where the sun rises", they say. "Do you still remember that?" It wasn't him who told me, but Khaled, the artist from Aleppo, on a very cold night in Istanbul, standing right outside Cevahir, smoking, waiting. Waiting to be saved. Waiting to wait again, for anything. But unlike Omar, Khaled never smiled, he was like the burning oaks, outside his parents' home, fading away so dryly. Tonight though, while preparing dinner - a dinner I did not attend -, Omar told me bluntly that it is the saddest people who make you laugh the most; it is like a reflex. And while all our cities are burning, there we were, thinking about seeing the sun; it was perhaps the smoke rising out of the buildings, rising out of the wet earth, coming out of the mouth like foam, what reminded us, what made us look up with fascination. But it was nevertheless true, no one had seen the sun before. Cézanne had clarity about this: "No one has ever painted the landscape. Man entirely absent but within the landscape". But Cézanne had never been there. I wondered about this there only, that had Monet been called up for military service here rather than Algeria, the whole Impressionist movement would have looked so different. "Light spread throughout!" was the demand of the painter; but he would have been blinded by the light! The light was uniform and transparent, and it was only after it entered the bones that it became yellowed and withered, like everything else. Every morning I walked, armed with nothing but a briefcase, along Al-Fateh into Bani Otbah, pretending not to look at the hotel tower where my life was supposed to begin, and took pleasure in the agony of the cars, wondering why people wouldn't simply stare for a moment into the horizonless transparency, as I found my way through Osama Bin Zaid into the road 3601.

Once I lost myself into Muharraq on the way, and what could have taken fifteen minutes, it was an long journey on foot back into a Manama I no longer wanted to see; finding it overblown with memory checkpoints. And had I been careful about details, I wouldn't have failed to notice the green gate of the painter's house where I eventually would end up that same day. But there was no way to get possibly lost in this island, because in order to get lost, you must know what you're getting lost from. I was simply travelling. That is what I told myself under the vague illusion that you simply need to continue walking ahead, because mathematically speaking, straight lines will always meet at some point. The realization that he would never enter the tower, after travelling for three entire days and three entire nights, taught him the disadvantage of travelling without maps. All the indications were vague; a picture taken years ago in the United States, some old paintings, and the address of a woman on road 3601. But Abdulrahman said that he would come too. And what a surprise it was to me to discover that he would stay in Adliya, even though I hadn't chosen to stay there. But in the garden, there were other colors, especially in the early morning, and one was still surprised to see trees blossom, rising out of nowhere, like topographical mistakes. He remembers the violet leaves, that grew into the palms of his hand, encrusted in a painting that he never meant to paint. I had to leave it in the island. No one would have believed him that he traveled all the way there just to make a painting. And I began to look for Abdulrahman in Adliya, by day but also by night. He put a scrap of paper in his pocket, with his words jotted down. His sayings. His laughter too. That was the map. Some books contain maps, like Mrs. Dalloway: "He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished - how strange it was - a few sayings like this about cabbages." And indeed, all those things had utterly vanished, but the sayings.

But the more I looked for him, in the big restaurants, and in the smaller ones, the more I began to realize that I had prevented him from coming to Adliya after all. He wanted to come, but I didn't let him. And there was one fine morning, when Abdullah wasn't there, that the morning was pink, and the palm trees seemed to be waving their hands, that he took the scrap of paper and put it on the table, lying next to the wet canvas and glued it on it. And from the words, an ailing waterfall began to form; first it appeared like foam and then like little rivers, covered with leaves, from a nearby within. I was afraid that he would see me across this one painting. "Did I tell you that he loved Istanbul?" And he did love it, with the eyes of a child, as if meeting love for the first time. I would like to repeat certain mornings. Not the entire day, not even an hour. But the moment itself. There was a morning when I went on a boat trip with a stranger, across the Bosporus and the Marmara, from Europe into Asia, admiring little things. Looking at them the way they would be looked at for the first time. This is how Monet saw everything, in full wakefulness. But this wasn't enough. It was as if you began to see things immediately after you wake up, like Magritte. And Abdulrahman might have been there. The words encrusted in the painting repeated themselves, out loud, in the mouths of other people, in the flash lights of tourists, and in other languages. He didn't see himself as a tourist, but as a refugee. I wanted to write you a letter saying, "Don't come to Istanbul! There's no Istanbul. There's only Syria, Syria is here. Syria is everywhere." But I didn't have an address to send the letter to. And you know why I left half my books at 3601? It was the only possible way to promise that I would ever be back. And it was Syria everywhere, in Istanbul. Just like it is there, every time he spoke about her. The woman. How can you return to places that you never left?

And so it is with the Syrians. The children weaving their passports, as a flag-post of disaster. But when you ask around in Istanbul, no one has seen the Syrians. Only we see them. In a secret language of lips and eyelids, we recognize each other. The language is primitive and evasive, doubtful, but we already know all the answers. Just like no one has ever seen the sun. How could they? The Bible says that no one will see God and live. And this is perhaps what exile really means, to finally see, to finally see the limits... "You're not permitted to die, you're not permitted to die, you're not permitted to die". The boundary, in which death does not spell the end of life, a marker, but simply nameless extermination; transformation into nothing but bodies, no history, no memory, no voice. What is to lose your voice? This is the biggest crime. When you're robbed of the possibility to tell your own story. And they're voiceless. Worse than dead. There was another time when I met Abdulrahman, even though I had already lost the scrap of paper. It wasn't far away from here. There was a day when I was at the museum, looking for Amal. And so it was that I didn't find her, so I started exploring all the cabinets, tilting my head around the cigarette butts, and the sounds, the newspapers cuts from a military coup, cups of tea, old soda bottles, imaginary advertisements. "This is his Istanbul", he thought. And when he sat on the top floor with her, next to the bed of the novel's protagonist, he realized that they didn't share Istanbul. Abdulrahman's was magical, melancholy, whimsical and covered in thick layers of imagination; huzun, they call it in the Turkish language. His was but a train station. Everybody is going somewhere else, for years already, going somewhere else without moving, without leaving their crowded rooms, their basements. And they're all lying. Making up fantastic stories about the jobs they have, the friends they have made and the beauty of life they have experienced, while they're waiting to go somewhere else. All the signposts have only two directions: Aleppo, Adliya. Adliya, Aleppo. There are no other destinations. "You're not permitted to leave, you're not permitted to leave, you're not permitted to leave", scream the naked bushes of the garden, before they wither in the summer.

"When were you happiest?", I asked a soldier defected from the revolutionary guard in Iran, who was given shelter in Istanbul by a Syrian, by the Syrian I loved most, and that eventually would leave again for Aleppo, without me knowing whether he would return. Let go, let go, let go, says Amal. But the young Iranian no longer knew when he was happiest. He had forgotten already. And I had forgotten him too. When people leave Istanbul, you know they either found a safe escape or are jumping into their deaths; there's no safe middle way. But I remember the moment I was happiest, it wasn't years ago. She drove him to Seef, in another corner of the island, and he wore that jacket in opal grey that a tailor had made for him to enter the tower between Al-Fateh and the road 3801. They had lunch for many hours, and spoke pausedly about things that were like secrets, scandalous, and incomprehensible, almost in whispers. All friendships are like that. A new tower was in construction, like a palace, with secret rooms and walls papered with linoleum prints. He had seen them before. He didn't want to leave. How to make sure that the empty space carved around my presence isn't forgotten? How do you leave traces? How do you leave traces without leaving pain? It was all part of this enormous mystery that without a map led someone from country to country, looking for that one friend, based on a recollection of words. I should never let him come to Istanbul. I am afraid that he will come and then I will find out that he is gone the next morning, perhaps to a church or a little shop, in the Asian side, and I will find myself entire alone. There are other ways to remember, without touching, without holding; he knew them well, they were all painful. At some point it occurred to him that he was a refugee too. There're different kinds of refugees. Refugees from war, refugees from religion, refugees from being themselves, refuges from being others.


Ali I loved too. I had detected in him some of the qualities associated with the scrap of paper and the list of words. But this he realized only much later. Memories have a tendency to expand, to make someone beautiful, when he is no longer reachable, when he has entirely faded from view, become a body independent of cognition. But Ali would never know this. How do you go into the world and search for somebody based on their words, full well knowing that they are not there or in them? He wasn't troubled by the question, at least not for as long as there would be voices, noises, crowds; the words would repeat themselves. Ali's too.  Had all these things really happened? Had he traveled for three days and three nights to find the gates of all the towers locked from inside? This is the problem of traveling without maps; you don't receive updates about the local weather conditions, which he had tried to make up for by taking pictures of everything. "You're still here!", everything screams out loud at him from a distance too vague to be considered exile, too close to be considered the past. I imagined that I was being awaited in Janabiyah, and that those paintings spoke to me directly, saying, don't go without taking me! And slowly, when no one was looking, I carefully cut them out of the frames with a little knife and rolled the canvas and inserted them into my mouth rapidly until they were entirely swallowed by my throat and I began to choke. That was the moment when I said, "Now I can't speak. I have no voice, you painter, you will speak for me from now on!" And so it was. "Write everything away!" they said to me, we're yours now, just write everything away, and don't stop for one second, don't look back. Let go. Let go of everything. Lose everything. Burn everything. No one in his right mind would choose to write. Not here. But sometimes writing eases anger, eases hunger. Helps in growing older.

"Mafi 7ada 2a7la menak... mafi 7ada 2a7la menak..." That is what he wanted to tell the gate-keeper. But no one was listening. No one was listening in the entire island. They didn't know what I had come for. The secret was well-kept in Beirut. "Why did you believe in words?" was the reproach. But what else are people supposed to believe in? The course of our catastrophes is delineated in the shapes of the alphabet, and that is why the Syrians spoke only with their eyes, with their laughter, with a door that is always open. Why would people ever choose to leave places? That was another question that Istanbul helped in resolving. Have you tried writing in different alphabets simultaneously? That's what happens. Days get confused into nights and nights do not come out of themselves; they become comfortable shelters, that prevent decisions, and keep entire lives hanging in suspense. What if I had been there? What if I left before? What if I stayed? But those questions are usually not philosophical, but rather, of the moral kind. They are tied to the lives of other people, and how we've kept certain memories intact, before we even lived them. We spared ourselves the end. But this is what living without the right to death means. We will never know or see the end. Not in our beds, not through clean memories of having lived, but rather in transfiguration, restless and unusually free from all the debris that accumulates over time atop the clearest mornings, and in spite of them. The writing of invisible dust. There's no such a thing as moral seriousness, we would like to say. We're all innocent, pawns in a bigger game, victims of circumstances; we would like to say. Futureless we stand, us, this people without past. Dwellers of the city, experts in soaping and washing memories, replacing them by fresher ones, newer, and more understandable. Looking for the tree that is still standing, for the building that is not shelled, for the spot where the sun still shines, to take our family picture; our postcard.

There's a room of one's own, carpeted with nothing and with clean plastered walls. "You're not permitted to bring anything!" and that's how we accept our refugee fates with glee; thanks God we're not permitted to bring anything! What would we bring anyway? I would like to bring him with me from the debris of the tower that I never entered, but I can't. The tower is still standing, and this invisible dust created out of an earthquake that shattered bricks of glowing light, exists only between us. There are no faces. There are only pulsations, half-vibrations, thorough-ways that lead nowhere. There's no other place to meet again, but at the very end. It's the only reservation available. A place without all the signs. "Did you give anything that was not everything?" will be the only question, the definitive question, in that place. And there's no real place to go, you realize in Istanbul, for every place looks barely the same, for the Syrian. We're all listening to the music, one parable broken off after another, in a long sequence of rhythms without vague notions of themselves. But when the music stops, we all occupy the same places in the chain... The excess of movement equals no movement at all; it goes just too fast for us to be able to catch our breath and exhale. No one exhales. No one exiles. We live with certain illusions, above all the illusion that we will be able to stop all this, or that it will stop by itself, that it will never take us on, not us. Everything is placed in a museum-like display, and the indications are provided in notes that we have taken from the experts. I haven't washed my hair, I'm not prepared, I need to buy a suitcase, a phone call is in order. That's how traveling always begins, in reluctance. Reluctance to admit the fact that leaving is in itself illusory. But the break comes afterwards. You can never turn back. You can never return. Even if you never left. You can't bath in this river twice, says one philosopher. The other philosopher responds, you can't bath in this river even once, you fool!

But so lucky we are to have no rivers, although it is said that "For Dilmun, the land of my lady's heart, I will create long waterways, rivers and canals, whereby water will flow to quench the thirst of all beings and bring abundance to all that lives." Long time has it been since the sun rose from here, for it is nowhere to be seen in this pallid violent morning, squirting out icy bits of heaven onto the faces of the sleepers, recoiling from this land, forever unseen, and unnecessarily trodden. What is it that we're trying to build here? What is it that we saw? The distance helped a lot, to magnify the lens over the edges of decaying coastal sands being replaced by the grayer muds that still had a lightning vibration of their own and seemed beautiful to the eye that imagined them as palaces of rest for the mind, things that could never vanish, things that could never end, things that you could never be robbed of. But the waters are brighter and wiser, and with them, goes everything, nothing is ever had, nothing is ever returned, nothing is ever lost; everything keeps circulating around you without ever touching you. So many unpronounceable names, written on the walls of the forehead, blown to bits so many times, crushed, then written over, without even notifying the previous owners, while moss was growing on the skull. Make sure not to die, not before you reach the end, the very end, not before you live your very last day. Make sure not to live, no, no, never, until you live your last day. These are different times, when none of this can be taken for the granted; there are no securities, there are no safe passages, there is no determent. Sometimes we speak as if we knew things to be otherwise, and the truth is, that as the great men of religion knew, knowledge is a form of hope, the most ultimate and hopeless form. There was a day in central Manama, completely lost on purpose, when despair looked at me in the eye and said to me, "Run, run faster, because you can never run fast enough."

And a letter came too many months too late, when it was no longer necessary, like salvation. Flowers didn't wither that morning and the morning itself was not late, everything proceeded as usual, and nothing was even minimally changed. Those were just words, he thought, and we're like them, a fleeting presence leaving no traces; our traces are desires, anxieties, sometimes guilt, but they're not footsteps, unless we are being literally run-over. No one can be asked to change a feeling, not even the asker to himself, in the best of cases. The scrap of paper was still sewn to this painting, and though the painting was forgotten in an island, it was sewn to the corner of his mouth; the same one with which he smiled when the eyelid agreed and the light penetrated deep enough to reveal a dark green. There was no travel after all, no motion, no change of scenery. The boat trip along the Bosporus was not an experience as much as it was the sighting of a maquette at a museum; a museum of the mind that displayed day after day the so many ways in which it was not possible for him to die, so that others might eventually appreciate life more. All these threads are so invisible, that their reality depends not on what is possibly remembered, on a smell, the touch of a hand, the texture of war, but on the aspiration, the sole aspiration, that we didn't come into this world if only to be lost in it. We find each other along the way, mostly without maps and without instructions, so that the song never ends. Nothing ever ends in disappointment, it is us who end, nothing but us. He keeps traveling, on and on, without ever leaving his room, jotting down notes, listing words, familiar words, recognizable, so that he will turn around each time he will listen to them in the street and think of a way to circumvent them again, in a way that he will never stop listening to them, that he will never recognize the face, never touch the hand, never feel the enclosure, of the arm, of the hand. And maybe to remember, one day, where he first heard these words. "You know all the secrets / Now, tell me what to ask for in the last day. / Nor the reason for my life / Neither the reason for my death / Will I learn in this world."  

Will you ever come to Istanbul, Abdulrahman? No, don't come. I'm still in Adliya.


"I do not regret
A paradise lost.
I regret
A lifetime 
In its anticipation." -M. Mojabber-Mourani/A. Yacoub-Haddad

"Reclaim Bahrain", by Camille Zakharia

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