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the International Prize for Arabic Fiction
this excerpt is translated by Paula Haydar
I was nine years old and had no idea what was going on around me or inside me the day my brother and I set off, along with all the other displaced people, into the unknown. It all happened according to the plan my uncle Majid had made right after the massacre when he decided, following the example of numerous other children who had met the same fate, to send us out of the country through an international organisation that took in orphans from all nationalities and looked after their education. The decision was not in our hands. We were like two puppets whose strings were being pulled by a stranger’s hands, submitting completely to their control after everything came tumbling down. All I was able to salvage of my vanquished childhood was my tongue, imprisoned in silence with my blood-covered mother hanging in its knot. My fingers were intertwined with my brother’s; gripping tightly so we would not be separated, not lose our way back to our demolished, vacated house. That was what I was thinking as my brother and I wended our way into exile, not exactly comprehending the terrible extent of our tragedy. The gap in my comprehension widened when we reached the port of Beirut. I did not realise what was happening until I was actually on one boat and my brother was on another, screaming for me to hasten to him, exactly as he had screamed that night when my mother protected him with her own body as it bled itself to death and I hid behind the curtain holding my breath so the killer would not detect my presence. I didn’t move. I didn’t say a word. Something down in that place from where my voice once sprang had been extinguished. His wailing from the boat that rocked with the weight of all the passengers travelled with the waves into the distance, while my screams crumbled into heaps inside me. Fate was fiddling around with the grape cluster of my life, plucking it one grape at a time.
I was in a state of extreme caution, unaware of how much time had elapsed since getting on that boat as it propelled us towards a dark estrangement from our homeland to where strangers who, driven by pity or politics, were taking it upon themselves to shelter us and secure our continued survival. That was what my uncle was saying to us on the way to the port, along with promises to bring us back to our homeland as soon as peace prevailed. However, despite the innocence of my young age, my intuition told me not to put much trust in his words, not to trust a person who, upon his brother’s abandonment of us, had done nothing but shower us with abuse.
Crouched in my corner, I heard a woman say, “Give the mute girl something to eat.” A young woman handed me an apple. I nodded my head in thanks, or gratitude, and put the apple on my lap. The taste of blood on my tongue was putrid, stinking with the stench of death. My eyes gazed into the horizon, not troubled by any question, and not begging for solace. It was as though a void had opened up on everything around me and within me. In their rush along the surface of the sea, the waves scratched out the howling of the wind with their razor’s edges and effaced the traces of a howl that sank and settled at the bottom of my depths.
A day, a sunset, a pitch-black night, and finally a dawn passed as we voyaged. Dawn, that thing which is designed for new births, was ready to deliver me as a new person from the womb of the sea onto the writing of my destiny, though I didn’t know a single letter of its alphabet. I was completely surrendered to it. Had there really been any possibility of my asking, my shouting, my digging into the rising dawn to find my brother who had slipped from my hands and my childhood, which had become lost in the autumn fog and the muddle of forced emigration?
My mute tongue had sentenced me to a deceptive silence. Would there really have been anyone among the hundreds of people crowded at the port of exile who could stop the roar of the sea and hear my screams had I been able to speak?
My pain had been held in check until that moment, for fear of giving myself away as I crouched behind the curtain, watching my mother’s demise and taking my brother’s cries like a pummelling of bruises upon my chest. As I sat on the dock of the port awaiting my fate, a burning grief leaked out, like sparks from a sleeping ember that had reawakened, and with each spark I lost one more cell of my childhood and a chapter of the story that had held us in its warm embrace only yesterday.
One of the benefits of death is that it extinguishes memories, snuffing out their lanterns little by little, and leaving in their empty folds illusions of faded images, half of them taken from pale reality and the other half from vivid, multi-coloured imagination. As the two became mixed together I began writing in pitch-black ink. I wrote as if I were imitating myself, as if I were discussing a matter from another time, and so bubbles of scenes would rise up from deep down inside me along with indistinct features that would begin to flash in my mind only to die out, leaving behind on the white pages unfinished marks which, in order to heal, required the courage to delve into the deep well of sadness.
How strange is the memory. It retains the insignificant things and everything else it tosses out into the great pit of fate.
This handful of insignificant memories in the recesses of my mind, like dregs in the bottom of a wine bottle, were compensation for my impediment, for the words I wished I could use to bring the events back to their beginnings through the trusted spoken word.
Out of the substance of darkness and death, the lines began to pulse with life and light. Like a patch of irrigated soil I waited for spring to come so the sleeping seeds could sprout up as wheat stalks reaching for the sun. The thorny brambles and vines, with which I had fenced in my past and allowed to grow high as adolescence busied itself with my developing body, my studies and all those achievements that I trusted would free me from the iron bars of the orphanage, I now started to tear away. The thorns bloodied my fingers as I latched on to a memory I had deliberately forsaken before, for my aim was to come to a clear reconciliation that would not fail to restore the scattered pieces of the past to what they had been. Not some descriptive composition on a hypothetical page. Not illusions or shadows of realities. Rather a shock that would pierce the channels of my mind, become deeply embedded in it, and ferment in its vats. Then the journey of writing would become an unavoidable, painful, existential act.
The words that often times crept unconsciously onto the page were painful to my hand – my tongue’s substitute – and my soul. I was compelled to make that astonishing transition from the tangible to the intangible, until the act of writing became my only method of expressing things that could not be said with movements and gestures, or even the right word – that unique pearl we choose from among all the others and set in the shiny metal of the page.
In my feverish attempt to bring back what once was – the features of my father who left us when we were young, my mother’s face, the house girded with orange trees, loquat trees and the wild persimmons with their shockingly sweet fruits – I searched inside the recesses of my mind for that child I used to be. More than a search for her eyes and her dress and her hair, my search was for her voice. A word from her, just one word, no matter how insignificant it might have been at the time, just as long as I could catch it between my fingers like a shooting star, would be the fulfilment of a vow. I needed that word that was soaking in my brain so it could bear witness to what I once was, to a gleam of light that carried in its sparks my own voice rolling off my own tongue, my own lips, like a bird soaring on its wings in the skies.
* * *
Everything had been semi-organised the day we were divided up – children and grown-ups – at the port to estrangement. The signs of the catastrophe were all over our faces and inside our hastily stuffed suitcases. My muted voice had strengthened my sense of hearing. Silence sounded to me like screaming and chaos. That was what I eventually tried to embody in my writing. I tried to write the screaming the way musical notes describe the exclamations of the soul.
International aid delegations came to us that early morning charged with humanitarian orders to protect those who had survived the massacres and were carried off by the sea into an unknown that might be more merciful than death. We set foot on the land of that unknown involuntarily, each one of us surrendering to our ultimate fate.
The woman who was in charge of us – I tried to explain to her with desperate hand gestures that I had a brother who was taken by the sea on another boat and that I had completely lost track of him.
It was as if I hadn’t said anything. As if my internal bleeding hadn’t leaked a single drop of blood that might make her understand what I wanted. I departed with her and those sea companions of mine who just yesterday were youngsters living the age of recklessness, playfulness, and merriment. We reached the centre for émigrés, for cast-outs, with wrinkled souls, aged souls, greyed by the disastrous course of events. We were taken in by benevolent people from humanitarian organizations ready to console human beings after their disasters. That reality became clear to me over time when the oppressive workings of that world became evident, the way the politicians of great nations contrived plots to separate and scatter flocks of people and use them to test out their experiments which were more brutal than an earthquake.
When writing came over me, like severe labour pains I could not help from pushing forth with all their blackness and thorniness, I challenged all my mental prowess to face what had really happened on that day when my family bonds were severed to pieces, and when I became an exile, like a new person with no past, no roots, and no language. Time had made sure to cut off my natural impulse to react, leaving my imagination to venture an impossible task.
The image before me was futile, the work of the devil. In an instant there he was in our own yard, breaking our world into little pieces and pulverizing them into dust and blood. It wasn’t the devil from myths and legends that entertained us along with the jinns and the sorceresses. This one was the real thing, trained in unforgivable sin.
Can someone who is asleep, dead to the world, get any rest? There was a woman who came secretly to me every night in my dreams. She had no face and no distinguishing features. The house we met in was dead; time had stopped in it. A house with no smell, no footprints on its floor, no sounds echoing in its corners, and no rumours about it in the past tense, no sighs.
She would say to me, “I’m waiting for your letters.” And I would answer her in the language of the country I used to be from, promising to write soon. The dream kept recurring. And that woman, I would hear what she said even though she didn’t have a voice, while the sounds of my own voice came to me in a quiver deep inside me. I never imagined that I would one day return to that house with its stones piled up like a grave. The souls buried under it couldn’t ask for a better resting place than in its rubble.
Many times she asked me where we were going as the caravan traversed the city streets, carrying young girls and boys of a tender age who had surrendered themselves to a present with neither a tomorrow nor a future.
She was a lamb, part of that flock of sheep on the speed train to exile. Her recurring question went unanswered, and her eyes stayed nailed to my closed mouth, waiting for some movement from my lips that might appease her fears.
She was from the same country as me, another one of its victims. Yesterday we suffered together the same catastrophe and now here was my muted tongue opening up distances between us to the point where we had become two strangers on a bench crossing the destined line with all its unknowns and our foolishness. If only words could have been exchanged between us and each one embraced the story of the other, despite our youth and innocence, then we could have constructed a homeland that suited us in that exile. Together and with others like us we could have created a co-operative society in which our concerns would increase but which we could conquer by dividing them amongst ourselves.
She was older than me, or so she seemed to me with her short haircut and her black dress that was lightened up by a white belt. She turned away from me when I gestured with my hand that I couldn't speak and went to search among the faces void of youth’s bloom, lowered like flags at half mast after death, trying to find an answer to appease her fears or find a familiar glance that might encourage her to release the suppressed tears that I could detect on her trembling lips. She did not find anyone to share the burden of her grief. All the eyes were staring into nowhere; they had become arid, their sprouting wheat stalks harvested before the season and their springs ran dry even though springtime had just begun.
In the courtyard of a tall building with a white flag fluttering atop its roof we piled up, waiting for the next episode of our fate to begin. The hands that offered us cups of juice and sandwiches restored moisture to our dried out eyes. I wept salty tears of gratitude.
A voice inside me urged me to be resolute and brave.
After a few hours of rest, we split up into cars bearing the same white flags, so that by the time we reached the airport there were only four of us children from among the dozens who had come from my country’s inferno. Numbers and names had been distributed here and there while we were busy satisfying our hunger and our thirst.
Our next stop was France and the start of a new life.
With my few belongings and my impediment I entered humanity’s orphanage. It was run by lay nuns who had devoted their lives to taking in orphans, educating them, and building their moral character.
This harsh transitional phase at first was like entering hell, with no alternative but to get used to it and walk over its hot embers without feeling the burn. That hell taught me not to compare it to death, but rather to life when it opens up wounds in our flesh that bleed and never scab over. I tried, with an unconscious drive, to give birth to myself out of its fire, to yield to its flames and rise up high, so I would never shame myself by being too weak to face my fate, and in order not to surrender to some blind obedience forced on me by my disability, in order not to use my exile as a kind of obstacle before my right to exist.
That was what I learned from being in that orphanage, in that chemical concoction with all its occupants. Children from all races and nationalities had been uprooted from their homelands by wars and revolutions and massacres and natural disasters only to land in this institution that had branches on every continent. Within months of their new birth this carefully planned experiment would do its job on their memory, straining out the sediments of a painful past, traumas that most often would plant the seeds of mental illness, but also the yearning for mother, home, school, and friends.
But the chopped off past always leaves a trace, no matter how faint, just like an amputated leg that sometimes calls out unconsciously for a hand to rub it and lessen its pain. The hand reaches out to find an emptiness more painful than pain.
* * *
In the playground that twice a day was transformed into an arena for battles, games, and races, I isolated myself in a corner, protected under a eucalyptus tree that over time had become my own little palace. From there I would track the amazing ability of children to overcome their afflictions and cover up their feelings of estrangement with that mad dance atop the volcanoes of their fates.
The knot in my tongue wasn’t the only thing impeding my ability to express what kinds of fear and confusion troubled me. There were many psychological problems that restrained my body parts and robbed them of their spontaneity. I needed every boy and girl to tell me the story of their miserable childhood, but my tongue was too useless to help me penetrate into the inner layers concealed behind all the recklessness and excited commotion. Though the forced seclusion that hounded me coincided with a silence that suddenly stood at the brink of the void, I tried filling it up with reading while the others poured into it their unconscious despair and a roar that purged the terrors raging inside them.
At that time I did not have enough of an ability to really comprehend the chemical effect disasters have on the behaviour of children. I was, with my impediment, on the other river bank. While I was an orphan just like them in that place that took us in so we could heal and maybe even forget, and equal to them in our striped navy blue uniforms, in order to join in with them I lacked a tongue and words that we could weave bonds of friendship with and lighten the burden of a memory laden with nightmares.
Every once in a while, a Cambodian girl named Amalia would leave the playground and come to me. I would sit her beside me on the stone bench and she would hold my hand. I would shut my book and try to read in the blackness of her eyes the secret of that comfort she found with me. She would talk to me with her Asian accent in the correct French she quickly picked up in our school, and I would talk to her with movements of my lips and my hands which now echoed what my tongue wanted to say, though less clearly than the pen. My hand would go up spontaneously, propelled by an internal intuition, obeying an urgent impulse, to the point that often I felt it was ahead of my thoughts. Maybe the reason for that hastiness was its concern for me and its desire to be ready to express what was raging in my mind without scrutinizing its contents. Many times I wondered if there was an actual connection between the brain and the body parts and if the commands of the brain that were obeyed and carried out were what characterized the human body as an ideal creation. I used to attribute that difference to the chaos that destroyed my existence that day when all the furnishings and the inhabitants of my house were turned upside down.
Without any trouble, I found in writing what had been lost to me. The scenes that were stuck in my mind like soot, that were intent on adhering to my memory, became works of descriptive art on the page, as our teacher attested to by writing encouraging remarks below the grade in red ink. The images I wanted to erase from my mind in order to keep my balance became the matter from which the text was woven and adorned with that bright black ink from which all colours radiated. Even when I entered the field of journalism and covering daily events became my occupation and concern, I never recovered from that obscure infatuation I had with the letters of the alphabet that were so strange looking and strange sounding from each other. It is amazing when those letters join each other how they are able to embody what passes through a person’s mind, be it fear or joy, tranquility or disorder, jubilance or anger. The repeated miracle in each word transformed me into writing’s captive: I would wake up sometimes to a rustling sound under my covers, the source of which was my index finger continuing to write through the night in place of my pen. That captivity flung open before me the doors of freedom and travel without having to leave the institution that gave birth to me as a citizen without borders. I had a debt to settle for the cost of my patronage and my education and the gift of self-confidence that warded off my tongue’s affliction.
With a strict system of order and frowning faces that had been charged with caring for children who had been swept to that institution by the ebb of crime, that same institution took on the role of embracing the tragedies of childhood and planning their future. It aimed at making us forget maternal affection and the semblance of prosperity we had felt in our former homes. The phrase I was greeted with by the directress of the orphanage the day I arrived with the chattels of exile, orphaned of my mother and my father and my brother, was meant for a nine-year-old girl at the beginning of a new path from which she had no escape. “Forget the past, Maria, and move forward with your whole heart and your whole mind so that you can pass the unfair test of fate. Don’t let it get the better of you. We’re watching out for you.”
What I hadn’t understood at the time became clear later on when I was at the onset of a new life studying journalism during the day and working nights at a press, which was my inroad to the newspaper that later appointed me to the investigative reports section. My signature on that page eventually became proof of my existence in this world.
Excerpted from the novel
Anta'il al-Ghubar wa Amshi Walking in the Dust],
Published by Riad El-Rayyes Books, Beirut, 2006
Short-listed for the 2007-2008 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, that is popularly known as the Arabic “Booker” Prize