Translated by Ghenwa Hayek
I was occupied with my memories. Grown-ups would tell stories about so-and-so whose eyes had turned white after being tortured at the Intelligence Bureau, and another who had been led out of his house naked after they had fucked his wife, and the man who had been dragged around town with his shoes between his teeth. As a child, I’d listened to these stories and shuddered in fear; and, shuddering, I’d lift my blanket over my head and declare that they were liars, swearing that it was all made up. Being a Syrian in Martyrs’ Square in Beirut means that I am a Syrian who remembers, and there is nothing worse than a Syrian who remembers. This is why I write what I do. I walk and recall . . . yesterday. Yes, yesterday, I remembered my granddad, who’d died the year before, and I wept. The day he died, though, I was seized by a wave of hysterical laughter when I heard of his death, the death of that old man, whose face was as furrowed as a scorpion’s body, whose solitary tooth dangled like a spoon over a sinkhole and whose tongue resembled a hedgehog’s guts. That day, I laughed uncontrollably with all my strength, repeating, “The fire’s out, the fire’s out”, just as he used to curse when he heard of another’s death. But yesterday, as if I’d just heard of his death, I cried and remembered him wiping his moustache on a blue and tan striped handkerchief, telling me that freedom was made by prisoners, just like medals and worry beads.
That was a defining moment in the life of a dazed boy: I saw myself imprisoned in a large, airy cell – I must confess that that’s how I imagined it, with bars bent, ropes torn, handcuffs broken and chains unshackled. I used to quiver with excitement as I imagined the iron chains on my hands, legs and neck, relishing their heavy weight on my neck as people outside the prison walls chanted my name and I grew stronger and more desirable. I had to stop myself from telling those who asked that my future ambitions were to be a political prisoner.
But I didn’t really think of all that, the day I went to prison. It was terrifying, and it occurred to me that senses were a terrible thing to have. I was in a circular cell with a low, domed, whitewashed ceiling with scribbles and scratches, and the occasional slipper marks, all over it. Dirty, barefoot creatures huddled under blankets, in toilets and leaned against walls, blankets with human souls, hollowed faces, tiny close-together eyes; there was a cockroach crushed by a sleeper’s knee, lots of nose hair, broken-toothed spitting, gobs of phlegm and blood, a wobbly toilet hole, primitive designs made with nails, insipid proverbs signed with initials, charcoal drawings of fat naked women, dark green dried snot; and, on the wall facing where I slept, a gigantic Ba’ath slogan saying “Hafez al-Asad until eternity”.
At first, I was disturbed by the fact that the cell was a circular room with no corners, just one white wall and one white window. I would look around and choke: what was I supposed to look at? I tried focusing on the ceiling, but my gaze faltered. On the wall, it faltered. On the window. On the ground. I felt my breath tightening. I started thinking about spiders. I hoped to see a spider. I felt I was a spider, and had no corner of my own. Then the slogan hanging on the wall and bearing down upon my chest suddenly lost all meaning: randomly, it became personal. Until eternity, prison narrows. Until eternity, eyes widen. Until eternity, the dream of corners. Suddenly, I was absolutely starving. It attacked me completely and vengefully, just like inspiration: I was breathless, my mouth afire, my arms over my stomach. For a moment, I thought my heart had stopped, and I saw the dome collapsing over me. I thought I was breathing from my abdomen, and that the other prisoners hated me, and that it was all the fault of the slogan. So I changed my sleeping area and spread out my blanket right under it. But a few minutes later, I noticed that it was right over my head. I felt it, hanging and heavy, I saw it hanging there like a bag of rocks, I saw the rope snap . . . A few days later, they moved us to a bigger prison with no slogans and plenty of corners. That’s right. But the corners were violent and unrealistic. I don’t know if they really were that way, but that’s how they seemed to me. Every time I looked at one, I felt I would crap in my clothes: my legs would weaken shamefully, my arse would itch and my mouth would go dry. At that prison, I started telling the other prisoners about the importance of sleeping with the lights on. The only good thing about prison was that they kept the lights on all night. They did that to torture the prisoners, so the prisoners thought I was mad. I began to tell them the story of my addiction to sleeping with the lights on, which had started in childhood, the day we left the city of al-Haska and moved to al-Shadadi, which was controlled by the Syrian Petroleum Company, where my dad worked.
In truth, we hadn’t lived in Hasaka, but right on its periphery in a frightening neighbourhood called Ghuwayran: a suffocating mixture of Dayri families, who were originally from Dayr al-Zur and made up the majority, some Kamishli Kurds, and a few Druze refugees from the Golan, in addition to scattered state employees from Aleppo, as well as Alawites and Idlibis, and many Shawaya (Bedouins) who claimed they were Dayris because of some inferiority complex they had. The Dayris loved beating up the Shawayas, and would push them, in their dark robes and thick moustaches and red-and-white patterned headdresses, into the mud. Thus, the northern Shawayas who came into the city had to deny their origins, and rearrange their tongues when they spoke so that they could emphasize the letter “t” just as the Dayri families did. The neighbourhood’s sewage system was as open as its houses, and dirty sanitation workers would often leave the sewers’ contents inside it. The roads were lined with fences of garbage, pools of mud and dirty water in the wintertime and with empty cesspools in the summer. Human debris such as garbage and plastic bags was strewn all over the place. Filth was a quality the inhabitants flaunted, just as Assyrians flaunted their cleanliness.
I was terrified of the neighbourhood children because they hunted me down wherever I went and thought I was Christian. Whenever they cornered me, they would line me up against the wall and have a spitting contest. The winner whose spit hit my face got to beat me and rub dirt into me. They were truly astonishing. Skinny-faced, they had huge black eyes that seemed coloured in with charcoal. They had gold specks of dust on their long eyelashes. Their wide smiles and constant spitting revealed magical rows of bright white teeth and shining noses. They kicked the stones on the road about with glee, and spat through their teeth then ground it under their feet like cigarette butts. After their bare feet got washed by the dusty roads, and sweat dampened their dark skins, while chattering about raping Christians and foreign tourists, they would stick their heads under broken water pipes and then let the sun dry their wet hair with its gigantic towel. All of this was a source of anxiety for my father, who forbad us from going out into the street or spending time with them, or even mimicking the Dayri accent.
When the book, Dayri Proverbs, fell into my hands, I spent three sleepless nights in its company. In this fevered state, I drew an imaginary picture of my teacher’s vagina. It was the first time that I had seen the word “cunt” in print, as well as other words, like “dick”, “prick”, “arse” . . . all preserved in that book. It was as captivating and magical as money on the pavement, a moment of inspiration similar to the first time I saw my name in print in a newspaper. Or the time I sneaked a peek at my parents bathing together, after they had asked my siblings and me to burrow our heads in our mattresses until they had finished.
The gangs of Ghuwayran and their boys would wait all day for a stranger, preferably Christian, to pass by so they could ambush him, tearing off his clothes before beating him, wiping their dicks on his behind before forcing him to kneel and repeat that “There is no God but God and Mohammad is the Prophet of God.” Not that they were at all religious – they were more atheist than anything, with God and his Prophet constantly the objects of their curses. And then they would just as quickly settle down, in a manner that was itself quite unsettling, their steps becoming slower and shorter, when they reached Station Street, which was a mainly Christian area that they visited every night in order to spy on the fair girls and “chicks”, their term for young Christian girls. They also laughed a lot, usually for no reason. During the 1991 Gulf war, which Syria participated in to drive Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait, the Ghuwayranis put neckties on some of their mangey stray dogs and stamped the names of certain Syrian officials on the dogs’ bodies. The poor dogs were killed on the street with no idea why they were targets for Syrian police officers’ fire.
At the time, the government had to occupy the northern Sunni, who were Iraqi Ba’ath supporters, in one way or another, so it distracted them by creating miracles: and the billy goat of Albou Kamal was the most famous of these miracles. At first, they reported that there was a billy goat giving milk in Albou Kamal, then they attributed magical properties to its milk, then they said that it was a miracle itself: the billy goat’s milk was a panacea, curing the mentally ill, a medicine for stroke victims, a blessing for traders and eliminating the evil eye . . . This was all covered by state television. Hundreds of thousands of people from the area and all around spent their money on this billy goat’s milk. Sarsouh demanded his parents bring him some of the miraculous milk. Sarsouh was a deaf boy who was good at writing and squeezing girls’ hands, whose parents had refused to let him undergo surgery to restore his hearing in order to keep his brother from doing military service. One day he took the German rifle down from the attic and shot them all. Unfortunately, he didn’t kill a single one of them. Sarsouh would to write to us about all he saw, trying to add a magical dimension to his vision. When he looked at us it was as if his eyes could hear and speak fluently. When we sat with him and watched his steely gaze and fluttering eyelashes up close, we felt our own eyes were rough. Rough vision. Just like that. A roughness of vision that gave everything sharp corners and whittled edges, we felt our eyes encrusted whenever we looked. Every movement was a shock that hurt our eyesight. I don’t know how to describe it exactly. Rough vision is like a pile of locust legs or a set of scorpions’ tails neatly stacked into a cigarette box, like a chopped tongue lying over a bar of soap, like a woman’s vomit in a plate of food, a nipple sliced by knives, like fluid oozing out of a broken head. Maybe it was his staring, bloodshot eyes. Sarsouh was simultaneously sad and evil, and I empathised with him and feared him. One day, he grabbed me by my balls until I fainted. He was the wild child of Bedouins who lived in concrete homes and who had no talent or pleasure save in uprooting the tree saplings the government had planted outside their homes, breaking street lamps, grabbing strangers’ balls and mimicking the Dayris. Those Shawayas hated seeing the trees around their homes, feeling that they were a bad sign. On the other hand, the fruit trees in other people’s gardens were a constant target. Sarsouh’s father had done his military service in al-Suwaida, and whenever he saw me would bore me with stories of the strangeness of the Druze; and all because of a grapevine that grew in the middle of the road, whose fruit withered on the boughs because no one would pick them, ashamed of what the neighbours might think. “In front of all of them I bent down and picked the fruit,” he said, twisting his thumb and forefinger into a question mark. I felt strange when I heard that.
Hasaka was an overwhelming mixture of Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Armenians, Mardillians, Kurds, Yazidis and Shawayas. The town’s Christians were its native strangers. “They dried up the Khabur river,” Nersi the Assyrian would say of the Shawayas, who’d been implanted in the area by the government to Arabise it. He never tired of saying that a Shawi made rich by a harvest would do one of two things, and often both: he’d either marry for the fourth time if he had three wives, or for the fifth after divorcing one of his four wives, or kill a random person as an honour debt to his parents. My first love was the city’s Christians – because of their girls. I heard the Ghuwayran louts making their way to Station Street, boasting about triangular Christian nipples, round vaginas, and out-turned navels, toasty thighs and raw necks. We only felt sophisticated and civilised whenever a Christian family came to visit. My father would brag about my failing grades in Islamic education as much as he boasted that I had got full marks for arithmetic. We spoke to them about everything, and swore in Christ’s name just as they did, and my father would let out an artificial laugh if one of them expressed surprise at the Shawayas having called his son a “donkey”. “And a donkey’s father is what?” he’d say, and we’d all laugh, forgetting the names he would rain down on us when he was angry. He would speak of sophistication, of one leg crossed over the other, and I’d remember the outhouse at my grandfather’s house. It had no ceiling and no door, and we would drop our trousers and sit against the basalt wall whenever we needed to go, using pebbles to wipe our behinds. A magical feeling still washes over me when I recall the metal broom in my grandmother’s hands as she washed our shit from the outhouse each morning and evening. Our shit, composed of bulgar wheat and lentils, the tops pecked at by the chickens, who only gave up their eggs to us after going through it.
But when we moved to Shadadi town, it had very few Christians, and was very loyal to the government. The sun never rose over it without a few curses directed at Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Syrian flags flapped over its rooftops, as if all its homes were government offices. It was a small, expensive city, made out of pricey red brick. The houses were all connected, with gardens and yards for the animals and chicken coops and places to piss, in the middle of a vast shiny desert. It would often get lost in the sandstorms and red fog, which we used to go out in, eyes closed, mouths open wide, drinking in the dust, screaming “Fizzy drink!”.
Everything there was free: bread, meat, vegetables, gas, electricity and water . . . the company gave things away to some of its managers and workers who were lucky and Ba’athist and to hordes of country people, mostly minorities who filled their elegant homes with their muddy eyes and their big flat feet and their stinky hair and shit-stained legs. They would attack the supply vans as if they were enemies, and eat the meat raw, the vegetables covered in earth, stuffing onions and garlic into their pockets. Dozens of children and rats lived in each home. People bred like cats and rabbits, fat women carrying their infant children in their strong arms, with their bowed shoulders and giant heads, laughing as they squirted their liquid shit and urine onto the children. Bellies and bugs and pregnant women bringing forth strong girls and boys – and thieves and spinsters and cripples and beggars.
The beggars ruled the streets and pavements of that town, and they were all Shawaya women or Kurds: ugly old women or beautiful young girls with emerald eyes, braids like a goat’s and lips as cold as a butchered liver. Each one of them specialized in begging for one item, and would only beg for that single thing. One would beg for sugar, one for meat, one for stale bread, others for rice or ghee. They were as rude as they were spontaneous: we’d give them meat, bread and sugar without daring to look at their beautiful faces or their henna-dyed hair. But when we followed them into the wilderness, we’d find them lying on the ground in their long embroidered dresses and their loose scarves, fucking men with thick waists and fingers. Her name was Wadh’ha, that beautiful beggar whom I saw on her back, bare legs wrapped around the waist of one of the men who got her pregnant. She was a delicious girl. Her breasts, which threatened to pop out of her colourful Bedouin dress, were like almonds, figs and honey. Her arse was so tight you’d think she was hiding a dick between its cheeks. And her mouth was indisputably evocative of her vagina. But it was her legs, like two fat fish in the air that day emerging from the thick dress bunched around her pumpkin-coloured thighs, that stormed into my life, becoming its most important event. Because of it, our small, secret bathroom became a container for my semen. Every corner of that house became an ideal spot for masturbation, and every slit in a woman’s skirt was a couple, or three afternoons’ pleasure. I began to drag my engorged balls around behind me like poisonous bags.
Finally, one day I found myself alone in a clean, empty house with that rotten beggar: I heard her usual loud knocks on the metal door, and saw her dark head perched over a neck ripe for the slaughter and two breasts as prominent as a wolf’s teeth. I ran to the fridge to get her a meal’s worth of meat, since her specialty was finely ground lamb. Her steps were slow and short as she crossed through the doorway to where I stood, four metres away, holding out the bag of meat in my hand, rather greedily. Her look was icy, as if she had been tied down by nails, and her lips were as dry as if someone had scattered dust all over them, her chin rounded like an infant’s cradle. She surprised me with a quick grin, then rolled up her eyes which ate up a large segment of her face in a gesture of coquettishness and desire, and grabbed the bag of meat from my hands. I stood there like an idiot after she ran away, my erect penis stretched out in front of me like a blind beggar’s hand, dwarfed by the giant black trees. I smelled a scent that would have invigorated all the shaved billy goats, the fresh scent of a virgin’s cunt. In the bathroom, semen spraying everywhere, in and out of my fat body with every grunt and moan, breasts rose up like balloons and popped in my mind. A breast like a pomegranate, one that was as cracked as salty earth, one made out of white rubber, another made out of evaporated milk, one that could break like a plate, one that kicked, one as woolly as a sheep. After that, I only saw Wadh’ha in my wet dreams, which infused my clothes and bed with an odour of fish. Stories of her pregnancy, her swollen belly and her escape. Stories of her murder with daggers, her throat slit from one end to the other. Stories of her new lovers and her new owners and her new clients.
Meanwhile, we ate and drank and slept and vomited and filled the bathrooms with shit and piss and worms in that strange city. Dogs were strangled with copper wire, cats were sprayed with gasoline and set alight to explode like dynamite; children without underwear, well-endowed donkeys carrying sticks, mops and flags, cockroaches as large as rats, lice the size of our fists, noses trickling mucus and blood, arses filled with freckles and food. Yet our house was so sparkling clean, it was sad. The cracks in the bathroom floor tiles smelled of soap, and the hole in the ground was the colour of our baby teeth, the pillows propped up and covered with clean old clothes. Her entire life, my mother’s prime sources of pride were her cleanliness and her brother’s military uniform. For that reason, I hated cleanliness, and wished, violently and aggressively to strip that pride from my mother. Hence, each Friday was a miserable day, the smell of boiling underwear and the pounding of the enormous washing machine dragging us out of bed early on the weekend. How I despised my mother when I woke up and found her wringing out the washing with her powerful arms, a ripped cloth wrapped around her head to keep the steam out. I would imagine the sweat filling up her bra and soaking her swollen legs. I also hated the vile smell of boiling beetroot, which would fill our home on winter nights. All my life, these two have been my least favourite smells: boiled laundry and boiled beetroot. My organs would light up with desire when I walked into our neighbours’ dirty homes, and inhaled the smell of goats on their pillows, clothes and bedding.
I never managed, though, despite my best efforts, to share their breakfasts, not even once. The aluminum plates they served their food evoked dandruff and other secretions. The yellow squares of cheese looked like their underwear. I imagined that they boiled their eggs in urine. Bleugh. Acting on long-held principle, I imagined my lame friend to be a goat the day his dad hung him from the bent eucalyptus tree. The goat, a sinful creature, betrayed Madame Sarah – but the spider, a holy creature, helped her. Or so went the moral of the boring, monotonous lecture given by a Druze Sheikha who visited us in Shadadi, invading the television room for over four days. I hated spiders, and all perfect creatures, much preferring goats.
The lame boy in the tree could wiggle his ears like a goat, and some mutilation in his right leg made his gait like a goat’s leaps. He was also a wonderful hazelnut thief. Hazelnuts were not on the distribution lists of the petroleum company, and I was one of those whose childhood dreams often revolved around hazelnuts although I lacked the money to buy them and the courage to steal them. I even – shame on me – used them in a metaphor about my beloved’s eyes. The little lame boy would walk into Muthanna’s shop every day and steal the dark brown nuts with an astounding dexterity. “Your mission is to cover my back,” he’d tell me; and I would refuse, assuming he would be caught.
The store was throbbing with perishable goods and veiled women, bearded men and boys wiping their noses on their sleeves the day I determinedly clamped down on my teeth and purposefully focused on my goal: a large, transparent plastic box, as long as the rectangular counter, divided into small square compartments, each containing one kind of nut or candy. Square containers of pistachios, of salted roasted chickpeas, almonds, roasted corn, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried figs, golden seedless raisins, large whole walnuts, and hazelnuts. I gave the rest of the store a sweeping once-over, and at that moment, realised that a thief truly did need someone to cover his back. Then, I turned back to my target, eyes squinting as though I was staring into a lamp, and attacked. At first, my entire concentration was focused on the surrounding sounds, picking up clues, so much so that I could have accomplished the rest of my mission blindfolded. Then, I was suddenly struck by a wave of terror, induced by the thought that the shopkeeper might ask me what I wanted and that I didn’t have a penny in my pocket. I ran a quick mental inventory of all the things I could ask for that the shop would not have, but failed. The shop was well-stocked with anything that an amateur thief could want. My thighs hardened, my fingers loosened, my hearing turned outside-in, and I began to hear my heart pounding like a giant drum, thuds like heavy mortar-fire in the barrel of my ribcage. My stomach began to fail. Then, I thought about pastel colours. Yes, pastel colours; but the inanity of the thought soon struck me. About to hand myself in and confess to everything, my fingers sunk deep into the box of hazelnuts – I don’t know why it was that deep – and the clerk stared at me incredulously. He said: “Stop right where you are!” and I did. He said: “Take them out of your pocket!” and I did. He said: “You mangey dog, son of a mangey bastard!” and I felt the air around me transforming into hands and fists and shoes. He slapped and kicked and bit me; he took off his belt, and I heard someone say “No!” as the leather belt struck my back. I scrunched up my eyes and covered them with my hands, protecting them from the neon lights in the ceiling. The lights were blindingly strong, and the more the blows hurt, the more annoyed I was by the lights. Indeed, I concentrated on the light, and forgot that I was being beaten. The electricity supply in our free city was strong and terrifying, because it was on the same supply line as the giant quarries. To me, it was terribly sexual: the light bulbs were like pregnant women’s bellies and often exploded due to the force of the current. During wintertime, we sold our supply of fuel and used electric heaters hand built by my father. The heat, as it flared up to the point of bursting, was magnetic, and I imagined it sucking people up. Free. Free. Free. Water, electricity, gas and people. My mother, like all the women in the neighbourhood, would leave the bathroom tap on all day and say: “It’s free.” The lamps were left on all night, and she’d say: “It’s free.” Since looting was a constant fear in our town, we got used to sleeping with all the lights on; and that’s why, when I was imprisoned, my consolation was that at least the lights were kept on all night. I was pardoned 45 days later and went wild with joy. Indeed, I must confess that I went wild with joy. I yearned to shout out slogans about the Ba’ath and Hafez al-Asad.
I stood at the door of the jail, my hand in my trousers, scratching my pubic hair, telling myself I had lice. Oh, the delicious pain when my fingers accidentally brushed against my prick and it bucked like a horse, dragging me behind it as if I were a cart. I ran behind it, my hand holding onto it like a rein. I have no idea how, for a few moments, I found myself in a pine forest, and how I imagined a woman as dark as my grandfather’s coffee offering up her behind. Her back was smooth and sculpted, as soft as a bar of soap melting in the sun, but her arse was as white as eggs and as warm as milk. Her thighs. I saw her vagina through her legs, like a bud, plucked with care, smelling like sawdust. Faster, she spread her legs apart, and I felt hot and sweaty. Faster she swayed, her hair like black butter. I felt the sperm explode through my spinal cord, as if it would never stop, making me feel like a spring. Faster, the tops of my leather shoes got shinier. Um . . . why did I thank them? That’s right, I thanked them, I have to admit. I was grateful at that moment. I felt grateful, and don’t know why I cried when they told us that we’d been pardoned. I cried as if I’d been guilty, and thanked them. I felt like an insect who had been given a reward it didn’t deserve. I felt like trash, like the son of a bitch they said I was.
All right. I’ll re-arrange this story, and begin from here. From the moment they called me trash and cursed my mother. I was standing in a line of drafted soldiers, looking like tubes of dung, the noon sun turning us the colour of a castrated testicle. A green sea of algae. Soldiers, goons, dwarfs, thugs and simpletons, all donating blood. A mound of ignoble faces, scarred by small pox or chicken pox, noses flat, the size of fists, bloodied and riddled with giant acne. A trash heap of poor faces, the goodness all sucked out of them, memories blunted; faces like parasites, like ferns, like giant moths or ticks or drunken mosquitoes. Sheep. Sheep. I smelled red wool and fermented sweat. Lined up for hours and hours, shimmering in our sweat under the sun and dust. “In spirit, with blood”, we chanted. Not one arm, not one throat could tire, and the midday sun pounded mercilessly upon the faces of these exhausted souls. We had to prove our loyalty in sweat and blood, or so they told us. I didn’t particularly want to prove anything, or say anything. I stood lonely and silent near some Kurdish soldiers, their red faces looking like bags of veins. They chattered on in broken Arabic, appropriately since they hated the language.
An officer stood there, holding a needle in his hands to puncture fingers. “Answer yes or no: Do you elect Comrade Warrior Hafez Assad to be the president of the Syrian Arab Republic?”; and that’s how we voted, marking the ‘yes’ with our blood. Yes. Yes. Yes. That damned needle jumped from finger to finger. Our bloody fingerprints over the word ‘yes’ were like a criminal’s fingerprints at the crime scene: but for the first time, it was the victim’s hands that were splattered with blood. More afraid of AIDS than acting out of strong principles, I didn’t vote in blood. That little pin that pierced hundreds of fingers before reaching mine scared me; I pictured it, full of AIDS. I saw AIDS dripping like poison from those inflamed fingers. I have no idea why I thought of sardines at that moment, sardines and Misha’an. He was a vapid child who had ruined my big dream of becoming president of the Syrian Arab Republic. At the time, we kids had made ourselves hoarse from shouting “we don’t want to learn/we don’t want to be taught/ all we want is to vote” at school. Skinny, scrawny Misha’an then turned around and confessed that his dream was to be President. Later on, I discovered that all the boys in Syria shared the same dream, but never spoke of it, not from shame, but from fear. Syrian children dreamt of the lofty balcony from which the President appeared to salute the crowd screaming his praises and their fealty.
Everyone was qualified for presidential power, but they hated talent or qualifications. I knew that; the rabble mocked talent. “Your lordship, our theatrical director, arrange the chairs on the podium for us,” the officer said to the conscript who had, from the beginning of his military service, insisted upon reminding the officer that, as a theater director, he be given tasks specific to his skills. “O my lord, our theatrical director, arrange the chairs” . . . “O my lord, our director” . . . “O my lord,” “O my lord,” “The chairs, O Director” . . . I hid my poetry notebook throughout my service, afraid of being discovered and then forced to write long adulatory poems on every occasion: my poems became a secret shared with very few friends. The June sun was beating down one afternoon, the sky swept through with clouds and birds when the security officer called me in and interrogated me. “Are you a poet?” he asked, and I told him that I wasn’t. “But if what I’ve heard is true, you’re trying to avoid eulogizing the President in a poem.” After that, a cup of coffee cost 400 Syrian lira.
Now, I know I’m ranting. And that I’ve gone mad. But we’re a backdrop people who should not be seen. And when we are pushed out into the open, we vote with our blood. “War is around the corner,” they told us. We were as exhausted as diseased chickens. The President’s picture was in our homes, on the bus, on the streets and in our dreams. “War is around the corner,” they told us. I hoped it was, so that I could kill an officer who had insulted my sister, and another one who had spat on me, and another one who had robbed me and then thrown me into jail. I’ve never hungered for, or welcomed war, but I was filled with vengefulness: I imagined the vats of acid that I would melt their bodies in, and the electric chairs where I would solder their blood, and the saw whose teeth would cut their fingers off, before throwing them into a blender. I imagined their bodies cut into shreds by tiles and nails, and saw their wounds fill up swimming pools, smelling their hair burning and listening to their vile blood trickle away. But I never wanted war. In my childhood, I played at it, like all the other children. I played at war because I was afraid of it: I had to transform the monster into a game in order to enjoy it. I used to take advantage of my father’s absences in order to run around barefoot, a rusty metal stick (my sword) in my hand, with other barefoot boys carrying similar items. I felt like a hero. I would tell my playmates, often unprovoked, about the Sultan Basha al-Atrash, telling them that he was a warrior, which is what my dad used to say.
When Syrian television stopped broadcasting “Grendizer” in the 1980s, I was more bitter than the others. My bitter sadness was laced with anger. I wanted to know why that cartoon hero had been sidelined, but then my younger brother told me “Grendizer is Druze!” Whenever I told my friends the story of Sultan al-Atrash, I’d elaborate in great detail, making drawings of the child grinder that looked like a giant manual meat grinder, describing the sounds of bones being crushed and ribcages cracking, skeletons and spinal chords getting ground to mush. I would pause to explain that the grinder mixed bone and meat and shit all together. In general, the Syrians are obsessed with the human grinder that Saddam Hussein used to grind the bodies of Persians, Kurds and Shiites.
Iraqi television would broadcast live from the battlefields of the Iran–Iraq war, as if it were a football game. We were supporting a war in much the same way that fans support football teams. “Iraq will win,” we’d say. The screen became a container for corpses: one with a crushed head, another with oozing intestines, one without limbs, one that looked like a mound of meat with no definable features, a solitary charred arm, a leg with a shoe but no thigh, and Iraqi women squawking over the bodies, tearing off their bracelets to fund the precious spectacle. A mass audience of destruction. Buildings completely gutted, like slaughtered animals, buildings whose metal insides and broken pillars spewed out helplessly, cement pillars mixing with curtain fabric, torn sheets of zinc, electric pylons that appeared to be lining up on both sides of the street merely to prop up the buildings and keep them from falling onto passers-by: we almost lost our imaginations. Iraqi television told us: “The Khomeini followers are our enemies.” I thought that the Khomeini followers were different from the dead soldiers I saw on screen; I thought they had black feathers, and keys hanging on their chests. When our mothers wanted to scare us, they’d say: “Khomeini is coming to get you.”. Eventually he started coming into our dreams, carrying a large bag over his shoulder to collect small children. But war would quickly become silly again, when my dad got home and knights and soldiers were the stuff of heroic entertainment, like Abou Zeid al-Hilali and al-Zir Salem.
And then, war became a family affair. At the time, war was raging in Lebanon and my father returned from a visit to my grandmother, dying in the Druze mountains, and emotionally told us: “She has passed away.” My mother cried, saying, “God bless you, mother-in-law” but she was also happy, and worried, about her brother in Lebanon, though afraid of asking my father for news of him. My uncle was the troop leader of one of the Syrian army units that had attacked General Michel Aoun in Baabda. I had no idea who Michel Aoun was. They said: “He’s a collaborator.” They said: “He’s the enemy.” They said: “He’s a freemason.” I was so shocked when I heard one of our Lebanese relatives describing Michel Aoun as a patriotic man, the proof being that he had seen him eating sardines out of a can for lunch, and punctuating his story’s ending with “Just imagine that!”. At the beginning, I didn’t really pay attention to the causal link between patriotism and sardines. My brothers and I thought of sardines as a luxury, bourgeois meal. Whenever we heard our Lebanese relative tell that story, we forgot all about Michel Aoun and thought of sardines. When someone mentioned Michel Aoun, our mouths would water. After that, we started contrasting Syrian patriotism, baptized by blood and the Zionist enemy, with Lebanese patriotism, structured around eating sardines. We began thinking of the Lebanese as cowards and blowhards, and we puffed up with pride when Iraqi television spoke of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. But, in secret, we dreamt of visiting that country: we loved Lebanon and hated the Lebanese. During a drawing competition at school, I drew a tree with fifteen branches, the number of Syrian provinces, including Lebanon; I did not include Iskenderun or the Golan, but I drew in Lebanon. In my mind, I never associated Lebanon with war but with wealth and spies. When grown-ups spoke of it, they’d talk of goodness and smugglers and Sykes-Picot. It was something like the US these days, simultaneously the enemy and the fantasy. Military service in Lebanon was more of an accusation: whoever served there got rich. So my mother used to talk of my uncle’s integrity before his heroism. When we questioned her about his affluent lifestyle, she’d reply that he received two salaries for serving abroad. To us, the Lebanese war was not really a war, more like a made-for-TV battle. To us, war was systematic, the war of two countries’ armies colliding. The Lebanese war lacked crew-cuts and helmets. We wanted armies but we saw fighters. Anyhow, my mother cried and said: “God bless you, mother-in-law”, but she was also happy. Finally, she plucked up the courage to ask my father about her brother, and his reply berated her for the little spectacle she had staged: “His wounds aren’t fatal,” he told her rather cruelly. Thus, we saw true weeping and mourning: my mother became a crazed woman who ripped her dress from top to bottom, her green-veined breasts spilling out over her waist as she knelt at the feet of a large man, begging him to tell her the truth. She cried: “I was certain,” “I dreamed of him,” and “He’s a hero.” But my uncle’s injury was indeed not fatal – he had been shot in the shoulder. My dad had just wanted to expose the falseness of her grief for my grandmother. He wanted to show her what real grief looked like. Then my uncle died of cancer. When he died, my grandmother wept that his car would no longer pass by her house any more. She said that it was as white as a bride, as stealthy as a champion horse and had magical mirrors. My grandmother spent more time talking about his car than about my uncle.
Then she started on death, describing it as a coward. My grandmother said that death didn’t fight fair, sneaking up on its prey from behind. For several weeks, she tried proving to people that death was a coward; they’d congratulate her on the metaphor and tell her that she was right. They said: “You’re a believer,” “Be patient” and “That’s not right”. But my grandmother didn’t want to listen to them because she was occupied with her vision of death sneaking up behind her son’s back and stabbing him. She saw death tiptoeing slowly, slowly, a dagger in its hand. She told us that her tongue was struck at that moment, that she had wanted to shout out to her boy to watch out, but couldn’t. She also blamed herself, but no-one believed her. They said: “She’s gone mad.” Her eyes watered but didn’t shine, and she was more embittered by the fact that it rained throughout that day. My grandmother walked round in circles, muttering that the sky was not ashamed of itself and that it was rude. The sounds of mourning, heavy and wet, came from the wake, where the women had gathered around the body singing to it: my uncle had once again become a child, lulled to sleep by songs. A sea of flowing black, a tide that didn’t ebb. The scent of armpits and thick white hair. We pushed and pushed to reach the coffin, arms tense and tears at the ready. The women attacked. The coffin rose. My grandmother swore that she saw my uncle in his wedding suit, and cheered. She said: “He’s as beautiful as a bride,” “As angry as justice.” She said: “Shabooosh.” The sadness is unbelievable, unimaginable. Women were slapping their heads with their hands, and others mourned the dead in litanies whose tunes they had taken from popular songs by Fuad Ghazi and Mayyada Hannawi.
They looked so appealing that I remembered the hair removal parties we were allowed to be at in my childhood. In those basalt villages, I realised that childhood was a sensory treasure trove for anyone who aspired to write: as a child, your cousins took their clothes off before you unashamedly, and heedlessly spoke of their sexual adventures, walking above your head as you lay on the floor, allowing you to catch a peek of soft white ghostly objects under their shadowy dresses. But the best was a group depilation session for legs, vaginas and armpits. One day, at the start of wedding season, the women suddenly sneaked off. I followed them to an oven-hot attic, with ramshackle straw and colourful plastic bags scattered along the floor, copper pots, metal containers, new buckets, a large aluminum pan; eyes wide, sweat mushrooming, fingers popping the sugar with bullet sounds, loaves of warm legs getting redder, and women wringing the air with their fists as they screamed, sneakily looking at each other’s vaginas. They were sitting in that attic, eyes streaming like hourglasses, red legs straddled like compasses, wrenching the golden sugar paste from their fat legs and screaming. To me, it seemed like they were having fun: they laughed as they screamed.
Excerpted from Maher Sharafeddine’s novel entitled Abi al-Ba'thi [My Father the Ba’athist]
, Dar al-Jadid, Beirut 2005