Orbits of Loneliness
I have to sneak by them to get a break. I push apart the drawn curtains in the living-room and hide between their heavy folds, facing the now lifeless garden. The fence still looks odd to me. We had it raised because of the security situation, but it didn’t help us protect the house. No one had expected this state of affairs.
Salwan’s health had worsened. His increasingly frequent relapses mimicked the rhythm of events and as time went by we discovered new and unsuspected hardships. Had we left it too late? Tormented by the idea that we had neglected our only son, his father – like me – sought comfort in smoking. We avoided discussing the topic, lest we blame one other.
My eyes roamed over the garden. It had been invaded by all manner of insects that had left their ghostly traces on the once vibrant foliage. Like us, the trees were gasping for breath. They were barely alive, their fruit and greenery half what they had once been. From behind the pane of the window where I stood the trees, which I knew so well, seemed completely remote. The distance between us could be measured in units of fear rather than in metres.
After 2003, Salwan’s mental state had steadily declined and his health deteriorated to the point where his father could no longer deal with him. Frightened, overnight Assaad lost the ability to communicate with his son. The two of them withdrew into their shells, leaving me like a guard on duty, my eyes darting between them. Their growing estrangement was yet another burden for me: what was happening in the country wasn’t enough, I also had to be the glue that held things together at home.
Assaad said very little when he couldn’t figure out what was going on in his son’s head. I wasn’t much wiser but I could tell that Salwan’s decline was accelerating and cutting him off from us. What I did and continue to do is to try and understand. Initially, I accepted what I couldn’t change – that my son was no longer the person I once knew. Trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, Assaad fled to his room. He sought refuge in his books and in his dried-up old paint brushes and yellowed paper, but he never had much to show for his efforts.
Although I couldn’t put it into words, there had been something peculiar about Salwan ever since he was an infant. At times, it feels as if I’m choking, as if the words are literally stuck in my gullet; I have no idea how to share any of this with Assaad, so I say nothing. There was no diagnosis, and those who knew Salwan casually wouldn’t notice anything. Later, a heart condition was suspected, and then a disorder of the blood. He was tall and skinny, and his pallid skin would become almost translucent whenever we kept him home or he didn’t get out in the sun. Although he wasn’t treated for anything, he alternated between periods of stability and agitation, resulting in all sorts of conjectures being made. He was born at the end of the 1970s, and looking back, I realize that we really didn’t follow any kind of plan. Events unfolded quickly, and we were neither able to avert them or change their course.
We really tried but the only thing we succeeded in doing was to isolate ourselves. In this country, the political comes after you and insinuates itself into the minutiae of life without you being aware of it. In order to avoid getting sucked into the political quagmire, isolation was the only course.
My father had learned this early on and his isolation extended to me. Other than to scorn the subject, politics was off limits at home. My father’s attitude had been tinged with bitterness, and I had inherited it to some extent. His scornfulness was like an endlessly echoing cackle which permeated my being, and I began hating something vague inside me which I couldn’t define and whose origins I couldn’t even pinpoint.
Although Assaad also distanced and isolated himself, it didn’t do him any good. As a young man, he had fraternized with the Communists briefly and it had left him branded. That he wasn’t able to shake off the Communist stigma wasn’t a surprise – it was like a curse, it followed people to the grave. He continued to be identified with the “Silent Left” and the Independents, and as a result, the only recourse was isolation. In our life together this translated into complete silence, incessant thinking, and a profound feeling of alienation.
After he’d become familiar with Salwan’s condition and accompanied us to see various specialists, Dr Hussam had been categorical. “Forget everything the doctors have been telling you,” he said. “One doesn’t have to fight a war to suffer this kind of mental illness!” It was always the same – the office reeking of cologne, the round, clean-shaven face, the carefully coiffed hair, and the same words, repeated time and again. Why keep going back? Dr Hussam told us Salwan didn’t suffer from any physiological ailment and that his condition resembled that of hundreds of others who’d been called up and had fought in military battles. “You can’t have such experiences,” he declared, “and emerge sound of mind – and that’s not even counting what we face in our everyday lives.” Salwan just belonged to an unfortunate generation, he added. Turning towards me, he went on agitatedly: “How is one expected to have any kind of appetite after one stumbles across a dead body on one’s way home, freshly shot by a sniper?” I felt besieged by all his questions and grew increasingly upset. He got so carried away, he waved his arms in the air causing his shirt tails to fly out of the waistband of his trousers. He told us that the previous evening he had left his office to go and look for his nurse. The man had disappeared without explanation and what would become of his wife and their five children sitting waiting for him at home??!! Would we have remained calm when an explosion went off just a few metres away? Or when he was caught in the crossfire between two vehicles? Or when an American soldier shoved his shoulder and threw him to the ground and the barrels of five guns were trained on him for no reason whatsoever? He unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and as he rolled them up one fold at a time, the stench of his cologne hit my nose. “Why wouldn’t your son, who is in the prime of youth, feel suffocated and despairing, given all the misery surrounding him? And when he has absolutely no prospects, at least none worthy of the name?”
I had had it. I could not stand being inside that room another minute.
“And what about us? Are we really any saner?” he pursued relentlessly, again turning towards me. “Aren’t we all suicidal just by virtue of leaving our homes every morning?”
I jumped to my feet and refused to see him ever again. I didn’t understand why Assaad kept suggesting going back there whenever we felt bewildered by Salwan’s condition. All I wanted was some kind of medicine that would cure Salwan and solve the problem, not for him to be turned into a subject matter for discussion.
We dragged him to every doctor and hospital in town, to no avail. The prognostications that Salwan suffered from “nervous and psychiatric disorders” left us none the wiser. Still, we persisted in trying to obtain some kind of satisfactory explanation. But it was the same every time, and I would always end up feeling I had to get away. Like illiterate old couples who shuffle from hospital to hospital clutching their medical files, their X-rays and their sedatives, Assaad and I traipsed through bare and gloomy corridors, feeling heartsick and avoiding each other’s gaze. Then, we would head home.
We spent our days living in a kind of voluntary curfew. We had mastered the gesture of surrender to what others had made an art of imposing on us. I stayed at my post in the kitchen, Assaad kept to the bedroom, and Salwan lived a cave-like existence, going from one crisis to the next. The two of them were like listless lovers, in a state of permanent stupor, growing more incapacitated day after day. They stopped responding to anything, or doing what needed to be done, or even showing each other any affection. Not to mention their sexual frustration, which set the one ablaze and rendered the other increasingly dejected. Inwardly, I cursed my mother’s candid tongue.
I tried easing Assaad’s frustrations, but my heart wasn’t in it. He was a sensitive husband and he quickly picked up on my signals. He made a couple of attempts but neither worked and the second time around was almost comical. I guffawed as I tried to make light of the situation . . . I couldn’t help making fun of the anxiety written all over his face. He rolled to the other side of the bed and got up to light a cigarette. “There’ll be other times,” I said impulsively, trying to humour him. But then I felt bad and wondered why he took it so seriously. And so what if it had been a fiasco twice in a row? Honestly, his thinking baffled me. Didn’t he see how we were living, with the constant screech of bullets whizzing by and the deafening roar of electric generators? And me, doubled up with period pain and bleeding, feeling this gaping void inside me, as my life slipped away before my eyes – wasn’t all that enough evidence of the chaos and turmoil we were in? Although I tried to keep things in perspective – given the gravity of what weighed on Assaad – I almost shared my thoughts with him. I really wished everything between us could be out in the open. But he was so sensitive, and I put it off to another time, knowing in my heart of hearts that there wouldn’t be another time. Had he forgotten we had aged? I didn’t believe him when he hinted that he’d been trying to please me. I had withdrawn into the farthest recesses of my mind, into nothingness, where there was nothing but nothingness. Deep down, all I wanted was to feel the force of two hands resting firmly on my shoulders because my body was a wreck. The two of us remained frozen in place. My good humour evaporated and I sat up on my side of the bed. He didn’t move or say anything and I felt so uncomfortable that I put on my robe and left the room.
I was up most of the night. I enjoyed doing housework in the stillness of the late hours: I’d get the dishes done, transfer water from one laundry tub to another, wipe down the cabinets, set bottles of water to cool in the fridge – an endless stream of minutiae guaranteed to drown out the noise in my brain. A plate of dates here, a distressed plant calling out to me there, an army of ants crawling right under my nose, a passing flicker of light outside the window, and the night was half over. When I went back to bed, I found Assaad reading by the dim light of the lamp; his face buried in the book, he feigned deep absorption but I could tell what was bothering him. There was no point in trying to conceal it. However, at that point, the only thing I cared about was that another day should go by peacefully. I collapsed onto the bed beside him without a word and stared up at the ceiling until sleep swept over me.
The “musical” outburst that night was so loud it rattled the bars on the windows and shook the large doors. Accompanied by the steady unbroken beat of drums, the wind instruments rose to a climax of orchestral madness. The tremors reverberated through the entire house and my head, still facing the ceiling, sank into the pillow, frozen rigid. Assaad thrashed around. Although I felt as if I were suffocating, a wave of tenderness and affection for Salwan washed over me. The live night-time show had our teeth chattering and our limbs convulsing but the wind instruments continued on their crescendo. I turned onto my right side, flipped onto my belly and buried my head under the pillow.
Whenever Assaad got up early in the morning, he was careful not to wake me up. He would put on his pyjama shirt, light a cigarette and slip quietly out of the room. The first thing he did was to check on Salwan. Then, he would open the door to the garden and inspect all the accesses to the house . . . to the early morning meowing of the neighbours’ cat. If Assaad wasn’t turning on the generator that day, he would come back to the kitchen and make tea. Invariably, that was when I was most sleepy, when my body felt like a ton of lead – life seemed bearable then and it felt good to linger in bed. It would be the best hour of my day as long as there were no explosions nearby and the sirens of emergency vehicles didn’t permeate every recess of the house. My limbs dissolved into numbness.
Dismantling the old regime, banishing the pall of terror from our lives, that’s how we were proselytized, but fear had returned in other guises. Were we doomed to live without hope? What an impossible notion! A change had occurred and surely there was the prospect of something better. Whenever I tried talking to myself like that, just to feel a little hope, the shadow of my father would rise before me, mocking, disparaging and scornful. Even though it was only the barest whisper, the tiniest ray of hope which only lasted a few months, it was my very own. Soon enough, however, life came back to the charge with a vengeance, uncovering unimaginable horrors. How I wished that I could bury my head under something so heavy that my eyes would stay shut and I could sleep a little longer!
Assaad padded back into the bedroom, with his customary deliberation. He began fussing with the painting materials he had moved into our room. I could hear him, first putting something down, then moving it away from the window, and then moving it closer. His failure in life was audible in those heavy dawn footsteps. My throat felt dry and with my eyes still shut, I swallowed some undigested thing that had stuck in my throat. He was humming a ditty like a kid, playing with his art materials, engrossed in organizing them, putting them away, then pushing them back to where they had been; closing the curtain to mute the light; breathing, humming, leaving the room.
Salwan is almost thirty. His beard is so overgrown that it conceals half his face. Besides his wilted hazel eyes, nothing in him speaks any more, and his white undershirt just hangs on his skeletal frame. He is so tall that his feet dangle from the foot of the bed, which he’s outgrown. Like his father, he doesn’t shave his bushy armpits and I can smell the two of them even from a distance.
“The girl you marry won’t like it if she sees you lying in your mother’s lap,” I say to him only half in jest. I feel sad as I smooth back his long, soft chestnut hair.
A volley of gunfire erupts outside. Getting closer. Shouting. Coarse people uttering unintelligible words. Salwan shakes like a frightened bird by my side.
He hardly ever comes out of his room. Masked faces could barge into the house, a bullet might pierce through the wall of his room from the garden, bulldozers under American orders could mow down the fence. He hardly dares get out of bed. I always have batteries for his small radio because it is our saving grace on his bad days. In the grip of his fear, he impatiently snatches the radio from me while I’m changing the batteries. He puts it to his ear on the pillow and turns up the volume. He fiddles with the tuner knob feverishly, going from one station to the next, shaking the radio to get a clearer signal, switching stations again until I explode. “Stop it! Calm down!” I shout, and he subsides with his head in my lap. Seeing how feeble he is only stokes my anger.
I feel I must remain nearby and so go and lie down on Umm Ahmad’s bed in the den. We named it after her when she was alive. From there, she could keep an eye on all the accesses to the house but also be on hand if my father needed her. It was rare for her to laugh and she weighed every word carefully. Everything about her was concentrated in her eyes and the movements of her head. She was a woman of few words and I never wondered whether she was happy living with us or if the shadow of sadness that clouded her face was just her natural disposition. She was withdrawn, and seemed as though she had always been part of our household. I never asked her where she was from, what she thought about, or what she wanted in life. She was there when I went into the delivery room, and it was her strong hands that pinned my shoulders down to the bed. Salwan came out blue, with the cord wrapped around his neck. She said I had practically strangled him when I pushed him out. I don’t remember how long it was, but I slept as if I had accomplished my mission in life. She carried him into my room saying he looked like me, and held him out so that I could take him into my arms. I just stared, moving my limbs in accordance with her instructions, until the realization hit me that I was now a mother. I had moved in with my father after Salwan’s birth and it was Umm Ahmad who helped me unravel the mystery of this strange little creature who cried for hours on end and alternated between our laps. As soon as I see the bedspread, her smell comes rushing back to me, the pungent odour of her joint salves taking me somewhere deep inside myself. I smooth down the now empty place that had been my unwavering support.
I imitated her. Like her, I would be sick and keep it hidden, and said nothing when I was in pain. I’d take up position on the day bed as she used to do, watching whatever was happening in the direction of his room. She had placed herself at my father’s disposal, ready to do whatever he wanted, and now I’m doing the same with his grandson. Endless silence. It dawns on me that I’m on the verge of madness. I toss and turn, get off the bed and sit cross-legged on the bare tile floor, swaying from side to side. My back feels as if it’s about to break from being so bent.
His chest pains worsen, he’s breathing rapidly, he’s panicking, and he clings to me for dear life. I try and read his face. His episodes have become severe, we’re treating them with strong tranquilizers, both pills and injections. I don’t like the effect they have: they leave him motionless as a corpse and he lies there for days on end while we watch over him. I hold him close in my arms, wishing that the earth would split open and swallow us alive. I feel my soul is being wrung out of me, and I blame myself. Lips parched, he looks out at me from deeply sunken eyes, his sweet and gentle face crumpling. The power is off, silence stalks the darkened house, there’s gunfire in the distance, shots go off nearby, and my son is laid out before us as if we were a funeral cortège about to move. Staring at his son fixedly, Assaad becomes hysterical. I shove him out of the room, screaming like a madwoman, telling him to snap out of it and to conquer his fear. And help me.
After the invasion, Assaad went back to his job. Initially, we thought he would be compensated for all the years of hardship and deprivation. It took us a while to assemble all of the innumerable documents required – certificates, diplomas, originals of this, photocopies of that – but it soon became clear that it was too much for him and he wasn’t going to get it all done.
Years earlier, he had been relieved of his duties. Even though the letter gave no reason for this, it was clear to us a that it was a politically motivated decision and a punitive measure. We were in dire straits and the job paid well, if he could get re-employed. Even if it killed him, our friends insisted, he had to get through the red tape and start a reinstatement procedure, like countless others who were in the same boat. Although he hesitated, he did go back to teaching at the Art Institute after a hiatus of many years.
Getting out of the house revived him – time had gone by at a snail’s pace before, the hours dragging endlessly. And I felt better with him gone. As I would wait for him to come home every day, our household regained a semblance of rhythm. The teaching job was something that suited his temperament. He’d spend evenings at the computer, which he was able to buy after the market was flooded with reasonably-priced electronics. The respite his job provided soon faded, however. He’d return from work and tell us horror stories. His features as he spoke, the way he smelled when he passed me in the kitchen, and the smell of newsprint he had brought back into the house were all portents of the gathering gloom outside.
Not a year went by and he had grown restless and dissatisfied. The idea unravelled that there was a congenial setting for him outside the house. I figured this out from all the muttering he did. His old fears began haunting him again and whenever he tried to express himself, the words eluded him, and he threw his hands up in the air wearily.
I know Assaad, he’s not in the least politically astute and he evaluates things carefully. For him considerations of justice, of ethics, of right and wrong, are paramount. Those who know his forbearance, his kindness, and his calmness would be surprised by the severity of his judgements. The chaos everywhere, the rampant corruption, and the barbarity that filled the streets left a bitter taste in his mouth. “Familiar faces have donned new masks. Everyone is on the take, and everything has a price now.” He couldn’t relate to this alien and unscrupulous environment. There was nothing enjoyable left.
My scorn for the standards of right and wrong keeps growing, and I occupy my kitchen. I wish I could do something that would transform our lives at one stroke. I counsel patience, but he chafes and complains.
“Don’t you see that nothing has changed?” he asks.
“But aren’t we together and haven’t we gone through everything together?” I retort.
He says he doesn’t know.
And me, am I asking him to give the new government another year to prove its competence? Or am I pleading for a little more time to fully comprehend the destruction of his spirit and the parallel decline of our son?
Translated by Maia Tabet for Banipal 48 – Narrating Marrakech
Excerpted and translated from the novel Manazil al-Wahsha [Orbits of Loneliness], published in Arabic by Dar al-Tanweer, Beirut, and Editions Med Ali, Tunis, 2013.
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