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I went out alone. It was mid-afternoon. Walking calmly, I went out of the little military camp next to the village of Inkhil in the district of Hawran.
I left the yellow military tent with its door flap raised, and began to walk. Three years had passed since my graduation from the College of Medicine, and I was not yet fully aware of things.
I took the dirt road descending westward from the heart of the village, the road of my evenings along which I walked daily, unhurriedly and silently, with my hands in my pockets and my heart empty and sad.
The fields of wheat and barley ran along the sides of the narrow path on which I was walking, a path that people, animals, machines, and equipment going to the front would soon take, the path of women, harvesters, and carriers of sheaves of hay and brushwood.
I was walking miserably. I knew that my new life at the front would not differ much from my earlier life. But it was a difference that devastated my mind.
The world was in front of me and it was in full view now. I had only to submit to it or to challenge it. This was the problem. The difference between submission and challenge was like the difference between motion and stillness, between life and death.
I walked for about one hour and I had now to return. In fact, I turned around and walked back. I knew I would repeat this walk for days, for months, and perhaps for years to come. This was what filled my heart with pain and delusions, pain for the rigid life I feared would continue for ever, and delusions about a salvation that could not be seen.
When I reached the little tent, my gentle orderly Zaki received me with a salute, raising his right hand to the level of his eyebrow and bringing his heels together with force, saying in a clear voice: “My respects, Sir!”
I smiled to him affectionately and entered. His look was agreeable and tender. I knew, or almost knew, the meaning of that look of his lurking under his eyebrows. The sun had set a few minutes earlier and the time for the evening’s medical rounds had come.
“The patients are waiting, Sir!” Zaki said apprehensively. And when he saw me smiling to him, he added: “And supper is ready!”
I almost asked him who had prepared the cursory supper on that night, which would again be without a horizon, but I suppressed myself and entered.
In the tent set up in the open, there was a colourless iron bed with old yellow blankets, a tin can for a chair, and a water bucket unwashed since it was first used. The earth mounds surrounding it blocked its low windows and prevented fresh air from coming in. The soldiers had dug a deep ditch, sufficient to bury several corpses, around the tent so as to strengthen it in the ground
In an uneasy situation, such as one of a possible war and similar to that of the front on which I was serving, there was a danger of justifying things with ease and cunning. On my solitary evening walks, it occurred to me there were many things that were not understood in that terrible situation.
Sometimes, I would leave the primitively paved path and enter the fields alongside it. I would lie down on my stomach on the crops growing there; the sunset dew would wet me and the evening humidity would make me shiver and return me to the distant evenings of the district of al-Jazeera when I was a child. But who could stay in that district, of which my life had been deprived?
Zaki remained standing and smiled silently. I remained quiet in my place, thinking from my heart. My thoughts had no meaning; this was what I clearly felt. With my endless silence, he too felt this. Fear had begun to overcome me, and yet I decided to face it. What did it mean to desert if dying was inevitable? In that evening condition of mine, death was nothing but the provocation of someone who would make me tremble with eagerness.
“Are there many patients?” I asked him leisurely.
“One?” I repeated, annoyed but within controlling myself.
Clear matters frighten me more than obscure ones. I think that obscurity, even if it is open, is sound. Clarity, to me and to those I consider like me, is nothing but a mistake on the part of those who do not know how to hide. In this sad condition of mine, disguise stirred me with pleasure and light-heartedness, even if nothing I wantedcame out of it. Zaki must have understood my intention.
“It’s a woman, Sir,” he added.
Zaki was a Kurd, a short and slender young man. His teeth were straight, in seeming meticulous design, and yet he had lost a large number of them without being able to replace them. He chewed words as people chew food, and when he finally spat out the letters from his narrow, pale lips, I felt he found rest in doing so, like someone who has expelled gases from his stomach that have nagged him for hours.
I knew that she would come. I indeed wished it, without daring to disclose it to myself.
It was a very hot day when she entered the first time. The sun dominated the sky and the prevailing heat prevented movement as well as stillness. And suddenly, she entered the place, I mean that isolated room on the road, a little room bound by a courtyard of earth and hay that I rented from Umm Ahmad, who gave it to me without ever raising her eyes to look at my face.
“Ten liras a month,” she said, talking to the soil.
After useless bargaining, I got it for eight and a half liras. This continued to disturb my soul, maybe hers too, for a long time. I had come here from the extreme north-east of Syria, thinking that the world had no excuse if it did not offer me enjoyable wonders. I was preparing myself for death at every moment, the main reason for that being – as I now realise – the severe repression which, in time, had become a river of pessimism and self-hate. That a woman would come to me one evening, even on a medical pretext, was a matter that frightened me, as if it were death approaching.
How would I conceal my supplications from Zaki? How would I avoid scandal on the open road? Zaki noticed my restlessness and my obliquity.
“I’ll go and check the water, Sir,” he said with cunning humility.
What water did he mean? How could I fathom the depths of his soul? And why should I, on that evening that was open to terrible things? I felt I had waited too long before entering the mud room that was flooded with sunshine. I had to decide: life or death. I didn’t care about what was being said all around me and what was being planned.
I had arrived at the front only a few weeks earlier, and had come to feel that I belonged to the soil or rather to the people of the soil. The faces of the people were full of acidity and gossip, and they split the souls of strangers like me into two, spreading their secrets around mercilessly. I was in a hurry to reach the bodies of those who seemed to me broken to pieces. To enter their world, it was sufficient for me to just stretch out my hand and walk. People here were crops! Their joy was irrigation, and their pleasure was in the arts of looking and speaking. So why then should I proceed slowly? How would I reach them, having come too late?
“Prepare supper. I’ll come immediately,” I said to Zaki without looking in any definite direction. Before I heard his answer that I already knew, I turned my back and walked out of the tent onto the open ground.
“Yes, Sir,” I heard him say as I plunged into the beginning of night.
“Good evening,” I said calmly, as though greeting a tame wolf.
Her lips quivered as she returned the greeting with some confusion: “Good evening.” She spoke bashfully, as if she had heard nothing of I said.
How were matters opening up at that time? And how would I irrigate them?
All my calculations were in disarray as I prepared to sit behind my desk, which was made of wood and steel. It was a cold desk, small in size, that seemed as if it had been especially made not to be any good for working at. Originally, it had been assigned for use in the military clinic, so I would receive at it the “sick” soldiers who came for “the morning debate”. But it was Zaki who suggested to me moving it into the “civilian clinic” where I would receive all.
I sat earnestly behind my wooden and steel desk. I waited to catch my breath, which my usual evening walk had taken away. I had plunged into the planted green fields that surrounded the little village like braided bracelets round a tender wrist; I had plunged into them while I plunged into my soul, talking aloud to myself about everything, about my feelings, about the hatred I bore towards myself, about the irresistible human disappointment, about the people I met every day, and about many other things that will be mentioned later on.
The village of Inkhil was near the front. It sat on a captivating volcanic plain. It grew grains, legumes, lentils, and other kinds of crops. Nearby rose the beautiful Golan Heights.
After the 1967 defeat, refugees encircled it. Labour was abundant and human beings became cheap: a man’s monthly wage was equal to one week’s pay, and sometimes only one day’s. The cheapest workers were the girls, the girls of al-Himma with large eyes of intense white and deep black and bodies full of nectar.
The woman sat calmly, not changing her position at all. Her eyes were intent on me. I was trying to free myself from myself, tied as I was with ropes within me. Moments passed before I asked her: “What is the matter?”
“My stomach!” she said shyly as though she was ashamed that she had one.
“Your stomach?” I repeated, moving on my seat.
I wanted to understand the matter before I embarked on the adventure that might be frightful. It seemed she did not understand my question, or rather my questioning of her response. Did she come here to be treated, while I intended to push her into death? Who of us was in need of an explanation?
I repeated the question: “I mean, which part of your stomach? What are you complaining of?”
She stood up and came closer to me. Her stomach was near my face. She would have raised her black satin robe, had I not said to her: “Please,” and pointed to the examination section of the room.
Umm Ahmad’s room that had become a small-sized medical clinic had been divided by Zaki into two sections: one for sitting and one for paying, as he said shyly with a smile. The two sections were separated by a transparent cloth partition hanging from a length of strong hemp. In the beginning the cloth was white, but in time it became a dusty grey; it used to be transparent but had now become impervious to the accumulated dust and the dirt of flies.
She walked ostentatiously to the place where she would lie on her back. She walked a few steps as though she was walking through deserts and wastelands. I almost had a hint of her scent but she finally sat down.
“Lie down, please.”
I gave her the order, deceitfully concealing a desire of mine, a desire that had begun to break free from the rein of my bridled body. I saw her looking at me with eyes shining, sparkling. Calmly and confidently, she lay on the old shawl that was spread over the metal table, Inkhil’s medical examination table. I sensed she was feeling pain because it was hard, the coverlet being without a soft thick lining. She stretched out on it unhappily, as though in her coffin.
“Where is the pain?” I asked again, as if I needed a question of this sort to reach my medical goal.
“The pain is here,” she said, with her eyes closed and not looking at the place where she placed my hand.
It was enough for me to touch her body with my hand to feel the tenderness of her body and its fragility. Damn! What were these proud clothes concealing? And at what price did this woman want to die? I almost asked her but at the last moment I stopped myself.
I suddenly discovered the inadequacy of words and their purpose. Words are an evil, and evils have their causes and qualities, but I still sought to be different. What speechlessness was it that exposed the reasons of my own self, afflicted with an indelible yearning? How could I comfort this woman, lying like a corpse before me? So I began repeating, as I touched her in vain: “Is the pain here? Is it here?”
And it is as if, by my haphazard touches, I was in fact stirring up pain within her. She began to moan, complaining of some hidden touch, the touch of a pain stronger and larger than all her inner anxieties, an unbearable pain of evening. What harm is there if one is conceited? But who is ever able to take a grain of pain from a body that does not want to give it up at any price? No matter, let me try.
I had graduated from the College of Medicine three years earlier, or a little less. I still thought of myself as a gypsy who did nothing well except play in the sand. I treated the patients according to my feelings about them, before I actually diagnosed their diseases.
At the venerable old College we learned some characteristics of diseases and their symptoms, and that was sufficient for its ruling body to send us where they wanted. That did not frighten me. But why, why did I suddenly stop examining her? Why did I start contemplating her with tenderness? O, dear mother! How strange was the feeling I had of penetrating the world like a strong wind! A few moments earlier, I wanted to examine her; and here I was now, wanting to place her gently on my palms so that she would not be broken to pieces by misery.
“You’ve finished?” she asked, puzzled.
And what puzzlement is worse than silence with no action, the silence of the ignorant person who suddenly discovers (in addition to his ignorance) the extent of his weakness in reaching where he wants to go! Only at a moment like this can one realise the meaning of “the harmful will”, the will to persist in one’s error. How can I explain this to her? How can I explain it to myself when it has just welled up in me?
Stretched out before me like a corpse, she was not really in need of an explanation. She was rather in need of a touch that would heal her. But a medical touch would mean nothing unless laden with a piercing insight that would clarify the soul’s hidden secrets and their sources. And with what eyes could I see her except the eyes of perverted repression?
During my years of study, which I had come to call “the years of domestication”, I was still close to the period of the desert where I had grown up. Perhaps because of that, in the beginning I was full of wonder, a wonder that was not to last long in the face of “the city’s organised attack” and that was not to be resisted for more than a few years. This was what made me feel like a sheep being prepared for the butcher: I would be right once, and wrong ten times!
Her anxious, wondering voice brought me out of my silly predicament over her: “Have you found it?”
“W-h-a-t?” I stammered out my response in embarrassment.
“Is the pain still there?” she asked, in anguish, as though she would be disappointed if I did not found any pain in her.
What could I do but nod silently, avoiding all useless words. She looked at me with countless eyes, as if all the people I knew, all of them, were helping her look at me with a similar pain.
Her breathing was intermittent like the water of the stone basins on the heights, the basins of Mount ‘Abd al-‘Aziz that rose upwards from al-Hamad. We used to climb the mellow terebinth trees at the foot of the mountain and collect the yellow-greenish little berries drenched with dew. With sharp axes, we used to cut the firewood of winter. ‘Arna used to load her back with firewood and carry the orpine and sedum plants in her bosom; and on her head, she balanced the water jar filled from the basins. ‘Arna died of tuberculosis, like a reed collapsing into the water. I can still hear her cough at night in the cold of winter, as she treated herself with water and patches, not concerned with any pain or cure.
“Still there, the pain is still there,” I said, repeating it in order to emphasise it to her, although I knew the absurdity of emphasising what was in the realm of ordained fate.
“Thank God,” she said with satisfaction, as though the existence of the disease was a guarantee for its cure.
Zaki greeted me, looking terrified: “Colonel Raymond wants to see you, Sir!”
“Colonel Raymond!” I wondered, without showing any sign of wonder. And yet, I ignored it as though it did not concern me. In fact, I did not know what it could be about. I thought that something new must have necessitated the urgent request. I told Zaki I be in contact with the colonel immediately, and thanked him.
Zaki turned round and walked away, certain fear on his face. It was not the first time the colonel had asked to see me, and that is why I did not understand the reason for Zaki being silently disturbed. Zaki knew the colonel’s mood from his tone. Many things might have occurred to him from the manner of the colonel’s request, and because he did not know Arabic well, certain phrases or intentions might have been confusing for him. But all that did not explain why he had come to the tent again that morning to ascertain whether I had left or not. I was still holding my head, with my eyes closed.
I knew Colonel Raymond. I had met him the first day I arrived at the front. He was a man of medium height. He spoke without listening to the person he was speaking to. He did not care whether you understood anything of what he was telling you. The important thing was that you should execute the orders. As he said, you could not relieve yourself of orders except by carrying them out. In his view, the execution of orders had rules and principles. He was like an experienced chameleon; he continued to go around you until he was sure that all he ordered was fully executed just as he wanted.
At my first meeting with him, I was overwhelmed by admiration and wonder. I saw him as an enthusiastic and effective officer who was frank and elegant. Because of the cleanliness of his office, my admiration for him increased; but the stutter of his lean orderly with his apparent discontent filled me with conjecture and other thoughts.
At our first meeting in his war office, he left me sitting and went out. He left and entered the office ten times without saying anything. I was searching my mind for an acceptable reason to explain such an absurd movement as coming in and going out but I could not find any.
The front was limited and each of us had his tasks and his restrictions. He was like a child who had too many toys and wanted to get rid of some, even by breaking them.
I listened to him silently, repeating from time to time: “Yes, colonel. Sir.” He did not appear to be interested in what I said. He told me about everything: the front, the red and green lines, the mechanized equipment, the ditches, the projectiles, the meals, the clothes, the sleeping blankets and the iron beds. He told me about everything except the human beings. Soldiers for him, as I later learned, were attachments. And in his view attachments were of no importance.
Zaki raised the flap of the tent door and, again, saluted as he entered, disturbed: “The colonel, Sir.”
He emphasised his words so that they could convey to me his great tension and some of his fear. I raised my head from my sluggish state, looked at him affectionately, and said calmly: “I’ll go immediately.”
I wanted to understand the reason for the colonel’s urgent request to see me, to understand it before I reached him. I knew that if I arrived before I had prepared myself, I would fall victim to his endless prattle. Whenever a subordinate was between his claws, he became tyrannical and displayed the courage of a lion. He often told me stories of his concealed heroics that the “naked eye” could not perceive! You had to be him to understand the extent of his greatness! But because I was always busy with other unsolvable matters, to him I immediately a person difficult to understand and to listen to. This is what incited him to put me down me whenever I resorted to him concerning some small matter, it even filled him with enthusiasm to do so.
With Zaki’s increasing fear and unusual anxiety, I had to answer his call. “Zaki,” I ordered: “Tell Hassan to prepare the jeep.”
Hassan was a man from the Syrian coast, a tall and slender young man with satanic eyes. His laugh was full of innocence and derision. He carried locks and keys in his pockets, and never ceased moving even when he drove the old military jeep, whose khaki colour was sullied with mud. Always next to him was his meticulously clean rifle. It was he who taught me how to hold the jeep’s steering wheel when driving on the rough and isolated dirt roads. Whenever he saw me happy driving, he would say joyfully: “I think, Sir, you must fly an aeroplane.”
On my return from Damascus, he would meet me at As Sanamayn and, as soon as I was sitting next to him, he would begin telling me what had happened at the camp in my absence. And although I did not ask him to do that, I found that not listening to him was more dangerous than listening, and so I would remain silent and patiently listen to what he narrated.
He used to derive great pleasure from fervently relating what he had heard and seen, even what he had not heard or seen. The world to him – and I almost said life itself – was summarised in one word: “slander”. When this tactic started to annoyed me (as it did from the first time), I tried to get rid of him by moving him to another detachment – but in vain. As I learned later on, he was prescribed for me.
At the front, backstabbing did not constitute a source of anxiety, rather of enjoyment. We did it with immense hilarity. But slander was for us a sort of dirt we were on our guard not to be sullied with. Some cadres, including my clever driver Hassan, were easy and comfortable with it (and I almost said, used it deliberately) as though they were assigned to do so.
In his shining eyes, I saw the glitter of the tales as they competed with one another to be told. I came to understand the importance of that way of talking, to him and to the cadres, although I disregarded what I heard. With time, and with the terrible cumulative effect of what I had heard, I became more tolerant of it (and, I almost said, indifferent), although I continued to listen with interest. The cadres knew that, but I didn’t. And that was my first error!
Hassan entered enthusiastically and, without saluting me as military tradition would require, he announced: “The jeep is ready, Sir.”
He then turned round and left without waiting for my response. I almost called him back to cancel everything, but at the very same moment Zaki entered. Quite spontaneously, yet with implicit collusion he gave me a half-hearted, defeated smile.. This made me abandon all adventurous thoughts.
With his unique outward appearance and his attire resembling that of an untrained clown, Zaki had a calming effect on me. This was a basic quality of the relationship that had grown between him and me, despite my military rank. His appearance and manner suggested to someone seeing him that he was pathetically weak and helpless. But, in fact, he was a person who could control his apprehensions. Not only this, he was faithful in his relationship and sincere in his emotions. And this was exactly the opposite of the colonel’s qualities.
When I went out of the tent half-buried in the soil, Hassan was sitting behind the steering wheel and the jeep’s engine was already running. He looked into space silently as though with a certain design. This unexpected intent absorption on his part aroused my wonder: could he have had something to do with the colonel’s request to see me? However, the natural cheerfulness with which he received me, despite all his other qualities that I hated, made me immediately forget the matter and prepare myself to a surprise that might not be pleasant at all. Who knew how things with the colonel would turn out?
The way was through silent, open country and we travelled slowly. The volcanic stones of the plain were piled in heaps on both sides of the dirt roads that had been opened hurriedly. Before the 1967 historic defeat, the region had been extremely neglected and, since the armed forces found emplacements for themselves in Hawran, work to prepare the roads and paths had begun, and the daily dust raised by mechanized equipment had become a familiar sight.
People walked close by us, but not one of them interested in us. It was as if we were beings from another planet or, at least, this was what we and they seemed to be. I would later understand that all appearances are deceptive, and that all beings – especially those without a horizon, such as livestock – have boundaries in life that are the boundaries of their bodies and what these bodies require. I almost laughed at myself as the military jeep drove fast on the fine soil of Hawran. “Whoever thinks otherwise, let him speak,” I repeated to myself quietly so that Hassan would not hear me – but he must have heard me!
The road was straight and Hassan was not even in need of help in holding the steering wheel. But the stones jutting up from the ground were what made driving sometimes difficult and necessitated caution. On that beautiful summer morning, I found I was enjoying the journey, whose causes I was not fully aware of. The sun was not yet high in the sky and the humidity of the previous night was still in the air, moderating Inkhil’s day, which would soon turn into a burning hell.
With the dust cloud floating around me, Damascus was spinning in my head. On Nasr Street, Hajir was walking calmly, dragging her tender form, that was specked with feathers from our chicken coop. We had arrived in town a few hours before, for the journey from al-Jazeera was very long. We were hungry and not cared for. My father kept repeating to me: “Whoever seeks high places must stay up at night.” This strengthened my will and filled me with determination. I did not want to repeat the story of his life. I wanted to get out of the cradle into which he had been put. That did not need any justification: everything was visible. But not every visible thing was necessarily understood and I would realise this only a long time later.
I wanted to change the course of the life that I had hardly started. That tragic concept, the concept of the necessity of change at any cost, was what led me from the desert of al-Jazeera to the College of Medicine. And it was also what would later lead me from the College of Medicine to the tents of the army garrisoned on the borders, where I would fall into the claws of the enormously stupid colonel.
“The hair, the hair!” repeated the man who came out of his shop and ran behind us. Hajir was walking vigorously, her thick black hair swaying in the air of Damascus that she was seeing for the first time.
Hunger and wonder combined to give her a sort of strange feeling of fullness. We did not know where to go, but we did not want to go back. My sister had accompanied me so that I could pursue my studies at the College of Medicine. She was illiterate, but not in need of an illusory literacy to truly read the world – and that filled her with immense joy.
Suddenly, she exclaimed anxiously and whispered: “Look, look at the hanging heads!” Saying this, she took protection behind me as though I was a mountain that would shield her eyes from seeing the model heads wearing with wigs that hung down inelegantly. At that stormy moment, the man appeared again, looking greedily with fiery eyes at Hajir’s hair, and said: “I want her hair. I’ll pay the price she asks.”
Hajir jumped and pressed herself against me as though to enter my body and escape from his eyes. “Brother,” she pleaded, “the man wants my head!”
On that day, we would go round and round, and we would know that the city did not have guests, and that everything in it was carefully planned. We could not sleep anywhere, but in a certain “place”. We could not eat whatever there was, but a certain “food”. I was at a loss, and Hajir was at a greater loss than mine. Either we returned empty-handed to al-Jazeera or we sold her thick black hair – we had to sell it so that I could start, or merely begin “the stage of being domesticated”.
Hajir cried when the man cut off her hair as one would shear sheep. She then kissed me as she covered her hairless head and said: “Brother, take the money and study. But I’ll return to my family, for I can never ever sleep here.”
“We’ve arrived, Sir,” said Hassan quietly before turning off the motor of the jeep and after having entered the gate of the regiment’s headquarters. I began to withdraw myself from my ill-omened memories before I had fallen into the claws of my mean colonel.
I knew that entering his office was not like leaving it. The colonel had his own method of movement and conversation: a movement with no rule, and a conversation with no content – which was why it was always too long. It was as if he was attempting to compensate with words what in his life he could not compensate for.
He would talk endlessly, rambling and roving, while he exhibited his refinement and his elegance. From time to time, he would call his poor orderly: “Come, my son.” And he would stretch out his feet for him, one after the other, so that the soldier would shine his shoes He would make him shine them more than once with a new cloth. It was as if he wanted to clean himself by cleaning his boots that shone line silk.
The colonel did not walk. He would take the perfectly camouflaged land-rover until he reached the place he wanted, and then he would haughtily order his driver: “Go forward, more forward.”
You would think he wanted the jeep to enter the very barracks he was visiting so that he would avoid walking one step on the dirt. He hated to walk on the soil and the hay. And in order not to stumble over the black stones stuck in the ground, he would let the dull coloured land-rover stop at the door of the tent half-buried in the ground and shout at the top of his slightly hoarse voice: “Where is the doctor?”
Zaki was extremely sensitive to the colonel’s voice, which he could hear in his deepest sleep, and he would run to me worried, as if a disaster had fallen: “The colonel, Sir, the colonel!”
I had arrived at the front a few months earlier, and that was sufficient for me to realise the loathsome glory that surrounded me: a “glory” that declared its own paltriness and its own superficiality at first glance. I came to love the soil and the stones, and to keep away from the phony human beings who multiplied like ants. The tears of Hajir and her beautiful black hair that had been sheared savagely in front of my very eyes were what would protect me from falling into the abyss of self-satisfaction and plunging in its triviality.
There was an important matter that made everything around me decrease. At the beginning, I thought that the decrease was within myself, and because it was indeed so, it was in all those who were around me and also in all that surrounded me like a bracelet. However, the soldiers multiplied, and every day I used to watch new groups of human beings arrive, but I did not become a friend of anyone among them. It was as if people took shelter in their clothing. It was strange, for I loved meeting people and getting to know them. And yet, only walking alone in the evening among the fields was what returned me to the fold of human beings. But, what human beings were these?
I entered the office of the colonel in a hurry.
“My respects, Sir,” I said with pompous reverence.
He did not hear anything of what I said. His head was bent over many scattered papers, and the battlefield telephone was stuck to his ear. It was as if he had forgotten why he called me. He was extremely puzzled on seeing me in his presence. Finally, he must have remembered and, as I thought, it was not of any importance; for without raising his eyes to me, he said: “Come tomorrow, doctor.”
Translated from Madih al-Harab
[In Praise of Deserting]
lil-Dirasat wal-Nashr, Beirut,2005).