Khalil Sweileh (Suwailih)
Zuhur, Sarah and Nariman

Translated by Elliott Colla

The first time I saw her was in a contemporary theatre performance. She was like a dagger jabbed into my soul – a mixture of longing and shock, pain and dazzle, capture and release. Her body arched with convulsive expression. Later, Sarah Qattan would admit she had departed from the script during the performance, the premiere, and that she had given her body free rein to more or less fly. She was no butterfly, or shy bird – or even sudden downpour of rain. No – she is a supernatural being, I said to myself as I took out my pack of cigarettes on the steps of the Qabbani Theatre.

I stop at the theatre gate, not waiting for anybody – just her. Fixing my eyes on her as she exits the theatre, I study her glance up close and catch the scent of her body. I throw down my cigarette butt and walk away slowly. I decide to wait for her at the street corner, near the bus stop. But what if she goes off in the opposite direction? My eyes are glued to the theatre gate. Stupidly, I begin to think I should barge into her world, suddenly and without any introductions.

At last she comes out. And now here she is – standing only a few feet away. She and the other actors from the cast are making quite a racket as they talk among themselves. They are trying to agree on where to go for the rest of the night. The name of the place rings in my ear – Marmar. As soon as they climb into a taxi, I decide to go there too.

When I walk into the bar, I glance around here and there, looking for her. I don’t see her anywhere. A few seconds later, I find the other members of the cast, sitting around a table in a corner at the back. I choose a table almost next to theirs. I feel a sudden sense of comfort when I notice her blue shawl hanging over the back of an empty seat. Maybe she’s gone to the bathroom to fix her makeup or something, I say to myself. As they talk excitedly about the performance, the director listens to their praise, relaxing back in his chair with something of a swagger.

I was not entirely convinced by the performance. There were clear holes in the text, as there are in most contemporary pieces. Most have a provocative premise that soon dissolves. If the direction and visuals fail to shore up the wreckage of the dramatic structure, the performance fritters away to nothing. Only Sarah Qattan, with her possessed, arching body, had been able to hold my attention on the stage. As I wait for her, my eyes burn through the weak shadows around the door to the bathrooms. I want to look on her fine features, the way she moves her body, her glances, her long black hair.

Was I really searching for an actress for my film? Or was it that I desperately needed an extraordinary woman like her? How often I’d seen her in my dream – they looked so much alike they could be doubles. I reached into my pocket, took out the programme, and threw it on the table. While her picture lay in front of me, she herself was only a few feet away. In the flash I’d been distracted by her picture, I suddenly became aware of her walking confidently toward her table. She is in a great mood, though there is a melancholy look in her eyes. She sits down in her chair and thirstily gulps at her beer. I watch her profile surreptitiously, then feel a sudden pain in my gut as the director puts his arm around her, resting his hand lightly on her shoulder. He whispers something in her ear and she bursts out laughing. I swallow the rest of my drink and get ready to leave, admitting to myself that I’d been naïve and stupid to chase after a woman I didn’t know and who didn’t know me.

I deliberately pass directly in front of her on my way out – my version of a tragic farewell. I imagine in my heart that she glances in my direction. Then, with mixed emotion, I go out. I breathe in the late September air of the alleys of ancient Damascus.

Taking a taxi to the outskirts of town, I am in a deplorable state. Was she really the woman of my dream? Or am I spouting nonsense?

I continue through the slum alleys toward my house. I decide to brush the dust off a draft screenplay I wrote nearly three years ago, before abandoning it. I do this with most of my cinematic projects – postponing or neglecting them for reasons difficult to explain. I pause in front of the shop of Salem Najm Abdallah, who sells alcohol and smuggled tobacco. He is sitting in the door of his shop, directly opposite my flat. As I feared and expected, he repeats the same old stuff about the importance of my writing a screenplay that will tell the story of his life. Ever since I’d rented a flat next to his house and he learned I was a film director, he has never stopped chasing after me, telling me the story of his life. Telling me how he destroyed two tanks in the war, before being struck down by the shrapnel of an enemy shell. Recklessly, I answer: “Your story might work as a film for the military. I have no use for anti-tank missiles in my films!”

I walked through the alley, dodging the piles of garbage in front of the doorways, being careful not to let the retired soldier’s wife see me, either. That woman is a tank made of white flesh. I don’t deny that I sometimes long to tussle with her again ever since that incident that took place in the madness of spontaneous desire. But now I try to suppress my cravings, and I ignore her lascivious glances so as not to slide even further toward rock bottom. Her glances, as she hugs the wall of her house directly opposite the window of my flat – they invite me to repeat the experience just one more time.

I go into my flat and close the door. I immediately face my computer and turn it on. I fix a glass of araq and decide to start writing anew, spurred on by a strange intuition that I will exit this tunnel into another space where floats the mad butterfly Sarah Qattan.

I open up the draft of the screenplay that’s in the documents folder of my computer and begin to read: Actual love stories never enjoy resolution. Giving them a conclusion entails killing them off – it means taking the moon out of an otherwise gloomy night sky. The story I will tell hangs on a dream that has pursued me for years. A dream about a woman who is travelling over deserts by train. Before she disappears, she stares out the window.

I don’t like the set-up at all. It needs clarification, for one thing. Above all else, cinema rests on the image. The story needs a more realistic and clearer beginning. A more gripping premise. I have to seek inspiration in the vocabulary of the desert as long as the first scene takes place in that oblique and mysterious universe. I say to myself, sarcastically, Why so eloquent, Khalil? Do you want to wake your namesake the old grammarian from his grave? You don’t need this kind of rhetorical flourish. Aren’t we in the digital age, man? It’s become extremely easy to snap a picture without embellishing it, without figure or metaphor. Say, for example, “What is this shit? – It’s broadcasting!”

I get up and breathe in the air as night comes to an end. I’m still holding what’s left in my glass as I light another cigarette and stare at the ugly rooftops hemming me in on every side. I study the faint lights scattered across the darkness, and the clamour that never subsides. My neighbour stands watching me from the crumbling wall that separates my flat from her house. No doubt she’s waiting for her husband to return from his late-night vigil at the shop. She hazards a bold and deliberate feminine manoeuvre – adjusting her nightgown – without leaving her spot. My thoughts are solely on Sarah Qattan.

Was I really waiting for her, just like in the dream that has never once come to a conclusion? But sleep has its ambiguous laws and dreamy improvisations. The ever-recurring scene always takes place in a train crossing the desert. And she sits at the window of the last car. She wears black. Her cap is red. She stares at me with a blank expression, as if she finds my presence there strange. As if she were unsure what exactly I was doing in the open desert. For my part, I wonder, too: “What has brought me to this desert? What am I doing here?” In the dream, I am sitting near the tombstone of an anonymous grave. Is this the grave of one of the ancient Muslims? Or the grave of a bandit? Or the tomb of this mysterious woman whose spirit now hovers over this place?

At the time, I was considering making a film about the desert. And my desk and computer were covered in many drafts – sketches of desert wars and nomadic life, Bedouin tribes and the rattling of swords and the neighing of horses. I went out and got a copy of Abdelrahman Munif’s novel, Endings, which takes place amidst sand dunes, in a world that captures the imagination. I got hold of Ibrahim Al-Koni’s works glorifying the desert and its rough and brutal laws, and The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati – in addition to other books on the history of the Arab tribes and Bedouin genealogy – all with the intention of faithfully rendering the wide tracts of the deserts. But what was that mysterious woman doing in my dream? Did she want a role in that postponed film of mine, or was she a curse hounding me?

I’d drawn many sketches of her face, but something about the features would elude my grasp at the last moment – so I’d wait for her appearance in another dream, with the rumble of her strange train as it crossed over my desert. She glared at me harshly, though never for more than a few seconds. Seeing her through the glass of the train window distorted the otherwise perfect picture. The glass clouded the image and the clarity of the desert. The stunning contrast of the scene – this is what I was trying to get at, though without success. And what was the train doing here? A train amidst sands that had never seen iron or hard metal, other than a few rusty rifles of Bedouins engrossed in hunting and gathering and the pursuit of raids and blood feuds!

The first scene in the proposed reel was anti-descriptive and connected to character driven events. Or rather, to two events that had provoked my thoughts so much that I found two ideas for my screenplay, each of which required a detailed presentation:

A police patrol tears apart a Bedouin tent in the desert as it searches for contraband weapons. The father’s ruse is truly cinematic – he hides his rifle in a dug-out cache covered by a carpet, and has the invalid grandmother sit on top of it with a five-year-old boy in her arms. When the patrol finishes its search, it leaves the place empty-handed. As the patrol rides off, about five hundred metres away, one of the horses hesitates and the officer turns to look around. He’s surprised to see the invalid grandmother standing in front of the tent. She and the boy with her are watching them. The patrol wheels around and the officer heads to where the grandmother was sitting. He lifts back the rug and finds the rifle in the hiding place underneath. Behind a caravan of horses, the men lead the father – now bound with rope – to an unknown location. Men and horses walk until they vanish like a point in the desert.

The second idea is written with less detail, that’s because it’s there in my head, ready to be filmed immediately. A mother is fast asleep on a brass bed in the courtyard of a house in the countryside. The legs of the bed are nearly two metres high, designed to prevent reptiles and scorpions from creeping up into the bed sheets and stinging one of the family. The season: desert summer. The time: just before dawn. The mother sleeps at the far left of this broad family bed. A flock of chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese ambles toward the bed. They gather directly beneath where the mother is sleeping. They let out a collective squawk, demanding their breakfast. Without grumbling, the mother wakes up and slowly climbs down the iron bed-ladder. She heads to the pantry. She comes out carrying a platter filled with barley, bread crusts, melon seeds. The flock of birds clings to her as they walk to the patio. There, she scatters the contents of the platter, then alone heads back towards the members of her family.

I discover a comment on the margins of the page that alludes to a scene about the brute mating of a bull and cow. The scene takes place inside an enclosure behind a rural house. I find a remark: needs more work.
This scene demands I define it better in my mind! At the very moment a woman has her throat slit for committing a sin, or indiscretion, these same characters are now here, in broad daylight, leading a bull well-practised in inseminating cows. After being fed special fodder, the bull is brought toward the cow in a closed area. The bull approaches the cow’s hind quarters, then backs away. He approaches again and sniffs, then backs off. Suddenly, he charges her – like a warrior with sword drawn – and mounts her. The scent is the secret potion that induces desire, arousal and intoxication. While reading this draft, I think of my neighbour Zuhur, the wife of the retired soldier. Maybe it’s because she’s full-figured – almost cow-like?

Later, Zuhur would sneak into my room in a brazen way that leads to my surrender: stunning me with her daring and her questions. She invents the pretence of washing my clothes. In fact, I need it done. I attempt to beg off and thank her. But she ignores my excuses while pulling off the bedcover and pillowcases. After putting them to her nose and smelling them, she says they need washing. Her behaviour disturbs me and I mumble something unintelligible about her husband getting angry, or something to that effect. She answers with bitter sarcasm – and alludes to the fact he is an invalid. She sighs softly, melancholically – a moan gushing from long abstinence.

My state is like that of the bull. I am overcome with a violent sense of longing, especially when she turns toward me at the door, lets out a seductive laugh and wiggles her hips provocatively.

After she leaves, I think about her husband and his feeling of being on-hold, his waiting for someone to care enough to write the story of his life in the war. The story of how he destroyed one or more tanks in an arguably meaningless war. Maybe it was 1973 or 1982? The story of a war that brought about disabled limbs and the gift of a car, care of military command, that he was then forced to sell at a ridiculously low price back to one of the car dealers. The story of how, with the money, he opened a small one-room store carved out of his house in the Kashkoul neighbourhood, just one of the slums ringing the Damascus city limits. I never once let him finish telling his story. Yet, he never loses hope that I will make a film about that life of his, which he considers so rich and so worthy of being told on screen. And here he is, drowning in alcohol and news bulletins in a dark corner of his shop.

Zuhur was herself a film that never got produced – one I often thought about. In one of my notes, I’d written about the soldier who’d destroyed a tank during the war, but was now losing the long battle in bed. As for Zuhur – she’d lost her war twice: once in real life, and once again in bed. She’s a woman who waits for nothing. She finds herself always behind walls like those of a maximum security prison. The rooftop railings and the bars across the window. Behind bars – that’s how I forever imagined her. On another morning, I was making my first coffee and thinking about the woman of my dream. This time her black hair was braided in one long plait, and she wasn’t wearing her cap. It was as if she were trying to wave to me from the train. Zuhur walks into the room carrying the clean laundry. She makes the bed with the clean sheets and slips a new cover on the pillow. I fetch my cup from the kitchen and am surprised to see her stretched out on the bed. “What do you think?” she asks.

I stumble for a second. “Thanks,” I mumble, then: “Shall I make you a coffee?”

She signals for me to come over. I walk over in fear – a sudden trembling in my knees.

“Smell it,” she says, pointing at the pillow.

I smell the trim and say: “It smells sweet.”

She pulls me by the neck: “Don’t you want to smell me?”

The bull in me awakes amidst the fragrance of the coffee, the perfume of Zuhur, and the scent of clean sheets. For a moment, I remember the woman of my dream. Why wasn’t she wearing a cap? My fingers spread to frame Zuhur’s face, my mouth slides to her neck, then breasts.  
The train rumbles away, vanishing across the desert.

My fingers creep to her belly, then below. I am playing with her coarse hair and feel a gentle moistness gush forth. The desert sands begin to fly, nearly snatching me off my feet.

I kiss her on the mouth and she clutches my hair, pressing my head toward her. In my dire thirst, in my desert, I seek a watering hole.

She moans like a wild animal that has been wounded. Her cries begins to subside and soften. She embraces me like a mother and I fall asleep across her chest.

From the novel [Zuhur, Sarah and Nariman], to be published 2008, this chapter having been published in