Ahmad Ali El-Zein
Ahmad Ali El-Zein
Excerpt from The Edge of Oblivion

Part One of

The Trilogy of Abdul Jalil Ghazal

Translated by Thomas Aplin

I found a bag and filled it with all the bread and dates I could carry, along with some tins of meat I’d found in the guards’ room under the rubble. I collected water from the blue water tank and filled some canteens, the ones soldiers carry to the frontlines or on long missions into the desert. Then I doused my head under the spout of flowing water, relishing the sensation as I washed and rubbed my face and hair. I wished the water could seep inside me and cleanse the blackened depths of my soul.

I shook my head rapidly from side to side like a wet dog . . .

I looked into the sublime expanse . . . the desert stretched out before me with all the majesty of its desolation.

I trembled . . .

I had neither the strength nor desire to walk. I didn’t know which direction to go in: west or east, north or south. There were no directions there. All directions had been erased in that moment. They too had been lost to the desert . . .

There wasn’t time to think anything through.

Things were done without planning. There was only something obscure within me, like the desire to walk or plunge into the emptiness. . . I assumed it came from what remained of the shepherd in me, from my days in Suleiman Hill, the homeland of my people, our second homeland after our dispersal from Tears’ Valley . . .

I left through an opening in the wall, through which poured huge beams of light. And I walked . . .

I heard barking behind me like the sound that used to tear through the night silence during the breakout attempts that were set up for the prisoners with the aim of getting rid of the surplus and those who had gone mad . . .

The barking was less fierce, and less insistent, but it frightened me. I redoubled my determination, filling my spirit with a desire for life that I drew from a tree of abundant green that in my memory swayed in the blowing of the wind . . .

And I turned my face towards no place . . .

My left foot didn’t help me. It was a weakness, or a “burden” as they say. Excess baggage. It had absolutely no use. I dragged it behind me like an old rag, or like a dry branch . . . and I lent on my crutch.

My crutch came from a doorpost torn free during the bombing that night. Most probably it was from the door to the guards’ room. I knew the wood from its smell. I love the smell of wood.

I don’t know how it came to be in my hand or how it became my crutch. I made a grip so it would be comfortable to hold. I picked it up to test its weight and renewed my resolve. I became intoxicated, like a knight prepared to enter the final battle . . .

A thin piece of wood to compensate for my emaciated form!

I smiled and told myself: “Writers rely on the use of metaphor to strengthen their texts. I have borrowed a crutch to strengthen my body. The crutch is a substitute for being lost.” I found this comparison pleasing; I was pleased by it being in my mind while I was in a state of bewilderment. Outside of time and space . . . I continued to limp, taking my first steps into the desert as a test of my capacities and of my scorn at the failed project that is me, Abdul Jalil Ghazal. The barking sounded hostile . . . hunt and attack. A familiar scenario.

I began to imagine my broken body as prey between the claws of that bastard if my determination were to flag or I were to give up.

I doubled my pace. I failed, and cursed my leg. I swore at it, despising both it and myself. I continued to walk as best I could. After a little I was troubled by a pang of regret, and I thought about going back.

But what was I going to do there?

There in an abandoned prison practically in ruins, from where the smoke of death rose as ghosts of men moaned in its cells.

What would I have done, had I stayed there?

Who was I to wait for?

Who would have come to or passed by that destruction?

There were only clouds of regret that had come from the unknown and floated above me. I began to weigh up the chances of my survival or my death; of remaining in a prison without jailors or prisoners except myself, or walking into the unknown. They were the same: both held slim chance of survival and there was little possibility that someone would find me, or that I would encounter anyone in that utterly deserted world, abandoned to dust and oblivion.

Here and there were the same in the middle of that desert, to the extent that I didn’t know how I had been brought there or from which direction they had carried me years ago, in that truck of which I recall only the roar of its engine and the voice of its driver who would sometimes sing:

I will walk to you by night, you stubborn thing

My father

I will come, I will come

And if my legs become tired, you stubborn thing

My father

Then I’ll walk on my hands . . .

There were four other men beside myself. I estimated their number from their coughs and their moans as we were all blindfolded, with our hands and legs bound by the same chain.

We walked for a whole day. In the evening we were exchanged with others at the border.

I know the border from its scent. I know it from its accents. I know the scent of my first country, my first homeland and the accent of my people. These are some of the things that time has not erased.

There are many things I can recognise by their scent. This is one of the qualities or one of the gifts I have inherited from Suleiman Hill. The first scent that was engraved on my soul and remained there was the scent of Damask Rose between Maryam’s breasts. Maryam died and the scent remained. I used to be able to tell who was approaching from their scent, even before they reached me and opened the cell door. And I was able to distinguish between the scent of the prisoners and that of the jailors.

I could detect the smell of change in the air, when they dragged me from my cell to the interrogation chamber. I knew the rooms by their scent, and I would know immediately the type of torture that had been practised, whether it was by hand or machine. When they put a bag over my head I could tell if the bag had held post – I could recognise the scent of the ink of the postal marks – or whether it had previously been put on the head of Shayban or Mustapha or Amer al-Duleimi, or whether it had contained grain or fruit . . .

Once they put something over my head and I failed to discern its scent. It was something a bit hard. A hardness that was yet fragile, liable to shatter.

I discovered later that it was a hollow skull. The prison warden in his hours of boredom used to amuse himself by placing skulls over our heads. He would guess who we were from our forms.

He could recognize me easily from my distinguishing mark, my limp.

He would make a mistake and call someone by the name of another, Falih instead of Amer, and he would burst into raucous laughter, clapping his hands. I was more afraid when he laughed than I was during his treacherous silences.

Soldiers, soldiers are the same everywhere . . .

Before they exchanged us at the border, on the evening of that day, the situation had sunk to the lowest depths of depravity. I experienced and heard things I will tell of later if I am saved from this labyrinth of mine. Such depraved, base things . . .

After they had transferred us from the back of one lorry to another, the level of depravity dropped. Perhaps they were wearier, those soldiers who accompanied us on the truck to the desert prison. Their questions were brief and mocking and their punches lighter, even though one of them did cause a trickle of blood to flow from my nose.

I held my pain in the cage of my soul and crushed my anger between my teeth. A quarter of a century had passed since that day, twenty-five years ago; the day I disembarked from the ferry from Beirut to Cyprus. After that I don’t know how fate brought me to this end. Perhaps it was desire.

It was my desire for Huda that had led me back to Beirut. But it wasn’t able to hide me as Huda had done that first night, when she held me close while I burnt with desire. Desire was to no avail and neither was Huda when they came knocking at the door. They carried me like a crippled sheep, rolling me down the stairs to the boot of the car. They closed it on me and drove off. For me to spend my life in that wretched prison in the midst of that emptiness, over which I dragged my leg, leaving a furrow in its wake that was like the hole left by the years in their fatal passing. A deep hole in the self, like the furrow of age. An incurable pain, twenty-five years that had passed very slowly in the counting of their days . . .

* * *

Nothing changes there. It is chance that stirs the stillness of time and space. Like the chance of my escape and my haphazard movement across the desert. There are no changes there except for those caused by the wind as it reconstitutes the sand dunes, erasing and composing. Like how I erased and wrote love poems for Huda, in Wadi Abu Jamil, in Beirut during those days . . .

I noticed that I began to be visited by sudden moments of contemplation that would take me out of the situation I was in. Like my thoughts on the illusion of time, or my comparison between the act of writing and that of erasing, or the breeze blowing on the sand dune stretched out before me like a sacrificial woman . . .

I thought of the companions whom I’d left behind. They were dead without a doubt, even if some of them still looked towards the light with lustreless eyes. The holes in the walls caused by the bombing became visible when the sun emerged from its night’s resting place, cascading torrents of light and smoke, giant belts that had fallen to Earth.

As though God had shone the lights to inspect the scene of the crime, and count the number of dead . . .

I saw them, I saw all of them. Only one was still alive, Shayban al-Hamsi. I don’t know if that was his real name. When he saw me picking up the tins, he looked at me imploringly. But what can a dead person do for another dead person, Shayban? He lifted his hand a little, gestured and then collapsed onto the corridor floor, not ever having known what he was accused of, but for which he had been given a life sentence in the desert prison. He used to tell me he was a shepherd. He had nothing to do with anything. He was herding his sheep in the seclusion of his village when the fatal hour struck, as they say. Hassaan, his nephew, came to him to entrust him with some books and letters that he would retrieve after he came back from military service. Shayban couldn’t read or write and he didn’t know what he was to do with the stuff or where he was to hide it except in his shed. During one of those nights on which the state security services searched for “hostile forces and traitors”, they discovered the books and letters. They were enough, in their view, to make him one of the “top organisers” and one of the leading planners of the coup movement. “An organiser concealed in the form of an illiterate shepherd.” That was how it was put in the investigator’s report.

I would often tease him, when boredom reached suicidal levels, by repeating this accusation. Shayban used to laugh and curse his nephew, who had disappeared without a trace . . . “A dangerous organiser concealed in the guise of an illiterate shepherd . . .”

I left them all, Shayban, Adnan al-Asadi, Mustafa Shibli and . . . , and the ghost of a woman crucified on the window. I don’t know what happened to her after that distant night, during which, as usual, they brought me blindfolded to a darkened room. There had been no need for them to blindfold me in that pitch blackness. When they removed the blindfold, I couldn’t see. I thought I’d gone blind. I screamed at the pain that tore through my spine, the savage jab of a bayonet, and found myself on my knees. With my scream, the lights came on. I saw a woman fixed to the metal frame of the window, as though she were crucified. Her head lent against her left shoulder while her loose hair covered half her face. Her flowered dress was torn at the breast, naked. There was a long trickle of blood running down from her thigh. It was as though she were dead . . . Do you know her? Do you know this whore, the uncouth voice blasted me. He walked up to her and flicked the hair from her face. Do you know her . . . ? The earth spun . . . I wasn’t conscious of what happened . . . that night . . . when I woke up I found myself naked . . . and close to me was the wreckage of that woman.

I found out later that she was Haifa, the wife of the prisoner, Farhan Daoud. Who doesn’t know the tale of Farhan and his poem?

Who entrusted you with what you could betray?

And even if you were a traitor . . .

The poem came to be repeated on every tongue . . .

Imagine, Mustafa Shibli told me, that those bastards had brought her to the prison, and stripped her in front of her husband and . . .

That day he didn’t finish the tale for me. He was overcome by one of his fits of imploring, calling upon God to put an end to this degradation.

Are you testing my faith in you, O God . . . ? And he screamed. The prison shook. Are you testing Ayoub in the wreckage of that lady? And . . .

Later he finished the tale of Farhan Daoud. I found out I was among those who had been brought that night to take turns in raping her in front of her husband . . .

All I did . . . and all I recall.

I screamed at that animal that stripped me in front of her . . .

How can the dead eat the flesh of the dead? Do you want me to eat my own flesh, O creature of God? . . . And I entered a realm of unconsciousness after the bayonet had torn my spine and penetrated to the marrow. My consciousness was paralyzed. Then when I came to and tried to get up, I learnt that my leg was paralysed too. I began to drag it behind me, like my days . . .

Mustafa said: I’ll finish the tale for you . . . Now leave me to rebuke my Creator.

More than twenty years had passed since that night, but it turned into a permanent nightmare that pursued me even in my waking hours. That image never left me, and when I emerged towards my second birth in that desert, she emerged with me, crucified on my retinas . . .

And the remains of my companions remained there . . .

* * *

Should I have buried my companions? I didn’t consider it when I was searching the guards’ room for anything that might help keep me alive. I hadn’t even planned that or the route I’d take a little later, when I’d picked up my bag and seen Shayban in the last agonies of death. I hadn’t even intended to leave from that opening in the wall. I could have left from the door that led to the courtyard. But I found the opening waiting before me. Beams of sunlight and dust pulled me towards it like a rope of gravity pulling me outside. I found myself in the open air . . .

A cloud of smoke on the horizon suggested the aftermath of a battle. As far as I could see lay the wreckage of machines and other objects, and from the barbed wire that topped the walls dangled human remains. On the horizon a heavenly incandescence glowed, at least that was how I saw it . . .

It was as though what had happened had occurred in my absence. I woke to that enormous destruction and death . . . When I emerged into the light and began walking, I didn’t know where I was walking to, it was as though I had simply stumbled upon an opportunity to escape.

In this way, it was as if what happened had happened without me being aware of it. Even the distance I had travelled seemed impossible for a lame creature like me. The barking alone brought me back to my senses . . . and reminded me of my fragility . . .

I began to walk as though I were walking in a dream . . . the desert stretched out before me.

After I had walked some distance, I looked behind me for the desert prison to appear prostrate like some creature of legend breathing its last. For the first time I saw it with such clarity. The last clouds of smoke rose to the accompaniment of the sounds of collapse . . . and a wailing, the source of which I couldn’t at first discern . . .

I began to walk a little, slowly. Then I stopped again to look behind me. I don’t know why I stopped and looked behind me . . . There was no one left for me to be afraid of, and the barking that had sounded vicious had become indifferent and intermittent, suggesting failure and defeat . . .

I was certain that no one had survived and that my own survival was a miracle. For a long time I continued to doubt that I had actually survived. I examined my body, feeling it all over. I spoke to myself in order to hear my own voice, to prove to myself that I still existed. Despite all of this, I was not reassured. I thought I’d gone mad. But I knew the mad cannot know they’re mad. I knew this but how could I prove it to my own mind?

Therefore, my stopping to look back to where I had been was not the result of fear at being exposed, or my escape being discovered as I wasn’t escaping. For the first time in years, I was freer than was desirable. Freer and more alone than I wanted to be. But my choices were virtually non-existent. I was free to make one of two choices, to remain and die, or to walk and die. There was no third choice and there was no-one to make me choose between the two.

Naturally, I chose to walk and die, this being in my nature. Something I did instinctively, unconsciously. My mind had almost shut down, even as I tested it by trying to recall an expression or a thought . . . I thought about when Shayban waved at me. I realised later that he was saying goodbye. I didn’t go near him. I passed over the bodies of my companions like a terrified animal. But in all honesty, I wasn’t terrified when I saw the “Hyena”. The “Hyena” was my “favourite” torturer during the first years of the “taming process”. With one slap from his right hand, which resembled an oar, he would knock me to the ground unconscious. When he began to torture me he would be overcome by a fit of rage accompanied by both laughter and crying. No-one knew if he was laughing or crying. When I saw him stretched out like a dead animal at the top of the stairs leading to the balcony that overlooked the prison courtyard, he seemed a fragile creature, who had lost all his capacity to inspire terror. I looked at him for a long time. His eyes were closed. He was the only one of them I’d seen with eyes closed. His features suggested he had died painfully. His left hand was wrapped around his neck. He looked like an orphan. It was as though I were experiencing sympathy and forgiveness for him . . .

I began to walk a little, slowly. I stopped. I turned to look behind me. The prison was growing distant as I moved away. I don’t know why I thought about desire. A thin cord of sadness was coiled around my neck, and another of longing pulled me backwards. I felt a mixture of fear and confusion at my predicament, at these conflicting emotions. Then I began to open the windows of my mind to say: perhaps longing for what I knew is a natural thing, before this great unknown into which I am headed alone, with one leg, half a soul, half a mind and half a body . . .

I told myself, this analysis is crap, and drawing on my capacity for self-ridicule I said: “Boy, you felt longing, not for the place itself, but for those who died, for the faces you left behind the wall, illuminated by shafts of sunlight suffused with dust and smoke falling from the holes in the walls and the ceiling . . . ”

I thought: “When I reach a resting place I will descend from it towards the sunset.” The desire to take one last look at my prison caused me to stop again. I was amazed when I felt that place to be mine, my prison! What a hideous thought! I turned around like a soldier about to take a final look at the graves of his comrades. I dragged my leg forward to take its place beside my right one, and I looked at the prison for a long time . . . I dwelt on it like one bidding farewell to the family home, or the house they have built with their own hands and are about to leave forever . . .

In the distance it was signalling to me from behind the desert dust. Plumes of smoke seeped from it, dispersing into the sky. As for the wailing that I continued to hear, it was but an echo I had stored away in my head and which had accompanied me for many long years.

From Hafat al-Nisyan [The Edge of Oblivion], the first volume

of the author’s trilogy

Thulathiyat Abdul Jalil Ghazal,

Dar al-Mada, Damascus, 2007

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