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An excerpt from the novel Al-Tall (the tell) by Suhail Sami Nader
translated by William Maynard Hutchins
Layla burst unexpectedly into my bedroom and caught me sitting on my bed with photos from my latest dig spread around me while blood-red light flooded me and the room. She gasped and retreated. Once she realized that I was alive if clumsy, she asked with astonishment: “Dad, what are you doing?”
I was staring at a large photograph I had taped to the wall in front of me. It showed a sublime view of a wide horizon. Some flying object had left a glimmering trail behind it. The red added depth to the horizon and a unique reality to the glimmer, making it seem like a delicate streamer that appeared and disappeared in space, like a final wave farewell. Layla was certainly not concerned with these details. In fact I suspect she did not see anything in particular, because everything had happened so rapidly. All the same, her facial expression suggested that she had caught her father in a compromising position. My guilelessness and failure to mask my shock at her sudden appearance, which had stripped me naked at a moment of intimate solitude, only increased her suspicion.
I quickly stood up from the bed and extinguished the lamp. She was waiting, terrified, with a hand over her mouth. I smiled and reassured her: “Why are you alarmed? I find the red light easier on my eyes than bright white. But what brings you at this hour?”
She gazed into my eyes and saw that I was misrepresenting certain facts. It was afternoon, the room had no direct sunlight, and the curtain was drawn. As a matter of fact, I didn’t really know whether I was in a compromising position that should concern me or whether I was training myself for a flight to Tell al-Za‘lan.
I immediately adopted the mien of a jovial father. “You thought I was a ghost, heh?”
I kept my distance from her and she was still sceptical. I wondered whether her mind had connected other incidents to this red spectacle.
I asked her to make some tea and this allowed her to be alone. My request for something physical also calmed her terror. When she left for the kitchen I felt her troubled look penetrate me, even though I sensed that she subconsciously experienced a degree of cheerful acquiescence. I think she energized me and freed me from having to hide my wretched experiments. In a dream sequence, I saw myself reaching, or attempting to reach, a waving streamer, like that in the picture. When she returned with the tea, I was eager to avoid any slip-up. She wore an earnest smile while bringing in the tray. For a moment I thought she had become my accomplice in the secret and that I had made her my partner for future flights, as if she were a vibrant hub in contemporary life, which I don’t understand and fear.
As we drank the tea we began some discreet, verbal skirmishes. I chided her for driving too fast and expressed my fear for her safety. In response, she began to tell me about her day, medical studies, and difficulties, and how she excelled in all her studies except for a few subjects about which she had psychological blocks. An extraordinary fellow student, who loved drawing, had, however, promised to help her.
Since she had described her classmate as extraordinary, I inquired, with raised eyebrows: “Extraordinary?”
She jumped to her feet: “What do you mean?”
I was teasing her, but she continued the battle: “Are you becoming a reactionary, like Mother?” I told her her mother had been the most progressive person of her generation but had suffered a relapse because of her, her daughter.
“Because of me?” she shouted back.
I said: “Because of your beauty and youth. A mother fears for a daughter who is beautiful, young, and independent.”
She replied that actually her mother was neither progressive nor reactionary but suspicious, and that this condition led to insanity. So I defended her mother as a serene woman who loved her.
Love! It leads us in some circumstances to doubt and fear. I reminded her that we had discussed these issues before when she was young and had been diagnosed incorrectly with cancer. She remembered and told me that even so, those days had been beautiful. I mentioned that they had been terrifying for me, because I had been fearful of her cancer at the same time as I had been treating a cancer at Tell al-Za‘lan; everything leads back there.
I saw Layla’s nostrils quiver and her eyes fill with tears. Like her mother, her emotions were quick to surface. She was different from her mother in that she did not hold on to any emotion she didn’t understand. She did not worry about anything that did not at that moment concern her. She retained an ability to forget, forgive, and speak her mind clearly and spontaneously. She raised her lovely head towards me. The light in her eyes shone, and she seemed ready to cry. She approached, hugged me, and toyed with my grey hair. She asked whether she could stay the night with me if she phoned to tell her mother. I kissed her and told her her mother needed her more than I did and, also, that she would take the world by storm.
I finally led her to the door to say goodbye. On my way back inside, while her car’s engine roared, I noticed the garden, that autumn was here. How could I have missed that?
Experiments in closed rooms fail, but a sharp blow to the head succeeds. A man needs to be stung when he is absent-minded. A raw autumn day is the best informant. At that moment, autumn was displaying its strange potential and its inherent contradictions. In the past I had known when it began, because my magical journeys began with it. It had taught me dynamic excavation.
I had a mental image of this season and compared it to my personal life. It was confirmed by personal setbacks and defeats. This “video” showed a door opening in two directions. You couldn’t tell whether it was an entry or an exit and when it would move one way or the other. Reflected light struck it while the sounds of someone entering and retreating were audible through open, fluid, narrow slits. These sounds were followed by noticeable vibrations, a powerful concussion, and a mournful stop.
Inside the house I renewed my exploration of autumn’s manifestations, which I had overlooked even though they had forced me to take certain steps. I no longer heard the drone of the electric air conditioner, which I had turned off when the weather changed. Silence had settled in. It spread through the house, filling a whispering void, especially since the house was almost empty after I had given most of the furniture to my divorced wife, leaving only the necessary pieces. My investigations into the sounds continued. My movement through the house, since I was always prowling through the empty rooms, began to reach back to me from some depth, echoing back and forth slightly and occasionally growing louder. Sounds from outdoors I perceived as intermittent waves. Sounds no longer seemed a barrier but were instead transformed into distances and densities that reinforced rooms, things, and the world around me.
Hours after Layla left, autumn released powerful gusts, since the weather was unsettled, with fast bursts of warm air that soon subsided. I listened from a distance to the rattling windows and rustling trees. These sounds were followed by an alarming stillness. My entire house began to breathe with mysterious apprehensions as if it had entered a wild state in which cries coming from afar were transmuted by the wind, distance, and echoes. At times they were explosive, at others choked, and at still other times empty, forcing a physical search for them.
I spent an entire week after that flooded with happiness and buoyancy, sensing that my contingent personality was a diaphanous existence capable of movement and flight, like a streamer, a bird, or a river. Even so, I lacked something, something I could not identify but to which I felt entitled. I began to spend most of my time in the garden, waiting for it. Occasionally I would exhaust myself digging, watering, and fertilizing the garden in order to fall asleep quickly, as I was wary of any thought that might have upset my new regime. Layla visited me almost every day to reassure herself about my health. She smuggled delicacies for me from her mother’s varied cuisine. She was happy with my collusion. I did not conceal my delight when she told me how she had slipped into the kitchen and filled small pots, carrying them secretly to her car, using her white lab coat as a cover. She asked me once whether her mother was still as good a cook as she used to be. Because I didn’t remember, I prevaricated: “Don’t you see me eating with gusto?” Another time, she crept into my room and found the red light on, although I normally did not do that any more.
After this new adventure, she observed: “That picture in your room is really stunning. I don’t know whether it represents night, dawn, or sunset: that faint light and dense gloom. I don’t know!”
That was my secret reason for holding on to it. I told her so, adding: “It invigorates me, a sublime moment witnessed only by worshippers and painstaking workers.”
She looked up at me sadly and said: “I know you’re a painstaking worker. Do you enjoy your work?” I turned my head away to study a dazed red rose.
That night the sounds began to emerge as voices. In addition to a distant roar that sounded like a gas burner on a cooker, or a truck moving off without the noise of its engine dying away, I heard sounds that began to take shape as distinct sentences. For example, I heard two different voices. The first said it was too late and that what mattered now was notification and deliverance. The second said that the only power the dead possess is to scare us and to poison life. Then I heard this sudden cry: “Let’s be demons or poisons!” It was more like a call or even an invitation.
It seemed to me that I recognized these two voices. I knew precisely what they were getting at. Perhaps I had heard them occasionally since the excavations at Tell al-Za‘lan had ended. The two voices were exchanging cryptic secrets I both understood and didn’t. They reached me from profound depths, from behind wrappers and rags, from behind massive gates, and from among my papers and photographs, which I flee from whenever I consult them. They both approximated my own speaking voice. To some extent, I denied them and failed to differentiate them from bouts of reflection that seized hold of me and left me broken and fearful.
The following night I heard whisperings like those made by wakeful children on a moonlit night. I imagined that they were my neighbours’ voices, but my bedroom is in an isolated part of the house and the window at the back overlooks a wide open area. The whispers were interrupted by different voices and sounds, in which the consonants s, sh, and kh predominated. There was silence too in suppressed bursts, as if in a debate, discussion or dispute. When I fell asleep, the voices crept into my head so I still heard them as I slept. Then I saw myself sitting in a large room, reading aloud from a massive tome. My own voice reached me, mixed with a glassy drone. When I woke at dawn, I found myself beset by unearthly voices, as if I had only just finished reading an abstruse book that challenged my mind – even though I felt refreshed.
A faint light glimmered at my window, which was open to a soft grey sky, from which emanated a sweet smell that I imagined had wafted down from the mountain passes along with the diffuse light of dawn.
I got out of bed, overwhelmed by a feeling that I was safe and sound. I imagined a woman busily baking using an outdoor oven, as goats snuffled at the bottom of her skirt, chewing on it. The woman tugged at her skirt, laughing, and shooed the animals away. I reflected that only dawn provided such familiar intimate scenes. Two hours later, those scenes would become torments. I fixed a cup of coffee and went out to the garden with it. Then a tyrannical dread frightened me, settling over the weather and the plants. I was conscious of a panting that rose from inside the earth. I expected and sensed something was wrong. The mature green leaves of the trees and the roses with raised heads assumed grave expressions even as new buds appeared. The flowers shrank back in alarm, not understanding what was happening around them. Was it summer, autumn, or spring? It was the very same question that had occurred to me that day I set off, when I was also carrying a cup of coffee. Who could say? Perhaps it had been the same day of the year. I did not fail to notice the movements of the perplexed vegetation. I also could not imagine that solely a cry or a touch was responsible. Autumn had yielded me its extraordinary strategies, potential eccentricities, and charming deceits. Autumn had adopted its climate from spring, its powers from summer, and its devastating behaviour from winter. It might take root at one moment while making us perspire, alternate between a hot day and a serene night, or speed ahead with an unexpected leap and crash down upon us.
Then I was there, in that autumn, in this garden, at dawn. I went inside but returned repeatedly to the garden. I stocked up the Agency’s Land Rover, which I still had, with supplies for the expedition. While I was coming and going, two phrases I thought I had read in some book came to mind: “Let him appear!” and “Let him err!”
It was a first distressing skirmish in a night when I slept for only an hour and then woke from an unsettling nightmare. I was a corpse which Layla was cutting into small pieces and then covering with soil as she said: “I’ll hide you. I won’t let them take you away from me!”
Whom was she hiding me from if I was dead? Was it possible that a verdict handed to a living person would be meted out to his corpse? I did not usually examine my nightmares for long, even though they cast a pall over my day, but this one continued to oppress me till dawn. Then I went into the garden, carrying my cup of coffee. Autumn’s manifestations alarmed me. The dawn was gentle. I anticipated an early bedtime that night at the campsite.
After I finished loading the vehicle with everything I needed, I went straight away to the house of my friend and assistant Zuhayr. I found him waiting for me at the front door of his house with a suitcase and a satchel. He climbed in beside me, expressing his surprise that I was driving. “Wouldn’t it have been better for you to bring a driver?”
He knew I hated driving but did not know for certain that I was driving now of my own free will. I was in fact driving this morning solely because of a scenario dreamed up by my conspiratorial mind. I would confess and apologize – while being obliged to drive – hiding, no doubt, behind the responsibility of being the man in charge. Then my confession would be rattled out as if I was tossing something out the window while my eyes were on the road.
I said: “You know our problems with drivers who aren’t our employees and, besides, who would take him back from such a distant place, when the team still needs the vehicle?”
That was a bad beginning – me lying. It had ruined my plan to start the trip by asking forgiveness. But all beginnings are bad. And endings? Let’s have a pleasant trip. Till tonight. Over drinks. What’s happening now will be hidden behind a glass then. We covered some distance in silence, but I felt my silence was suspicious, so I chatted about some unrelated topics. I described the previous night’s nightmare in detail. Then I switched to intimate memories. I made predictions about our new excavations and offered cryptic observations about the site. I jumped to the Theory of Relativity and the concept of motion and the observer. I was observing my own motion. He was restless and turned around. He wasn’t prepared for this sudden mission. Looking behind him, he inspected the cargo and remarked sarcastically: “Did you buy out the whole souq?” I smiled and gestured with my hand, pointing out a large item in among the others. Then an elegant sentence to explain it all came to mind. “The best refuges are those no one will attack and from where we won’t want to return.”
I didn’t think he would analyse this sentence. It was simply something I had heard. Half an hour later I realized it came from our classical heritage. I pressed on the accelerator, and the roar of the wind in my ear came in through my open window. At the same time I rested my elbow on the window, which felt colder and colder. We went for a long way on an asphalt road and then descended into a desert where we were guided by tyre tracks imprinted in soil spattered with black tar. We crossed a plain and some low dunes. The black tar marks disappeared, and we turned into a side road that led to a village. We drove through gaps that opened up suddenly into dirt ravines. We entered tortuous dips where the ground rose to surround us and the horizon narrowed to a point before widening again. With my eyes I followed distant shadows, not knowing whether they were camels or men. At a moment that was so empty it seemed to have fallen from the sky, my head struck something solid and I heard a bump: nothing! I imagined I had lost the road markers and turned my head in alarm. I made a 360 degree check that ended with my companion’s face. He had been numbed by all the jolts. I hadn’t lost the way but my level of concentration could not be kept up any longer. I realized I had kept going but in a cowardly fashion, driven by a necessity I no longer seemed to understand. I thought: “This is the end of an escape that was not well planned.” But what flight is well planned? I continued driving, feeling angry with myself.
During my previous trips to excavation site, I had accorded sympathetic attention to the road and had watched things flee quickly away behind me, bidding them farewell, convincing myself that I would rely on them on the return trip, using them as landmarks. My trips back and forth had meant more than covering distances. They had been a return to things in themselves with all the concern of a researcher who reviews and verifies. But this route I was travelling now, even though I had driven it twice before, in both directions, still seemed unfamiliar to me. I hadn’t accorded it any place in my memory. It had, rather, embraced and enfolded me. But what could I believe? Here I was, despite my feeling of being lost and despite my misgivings, penetrating ever farther in the right direction while expecting that I wouldn’t be able to find my way back once we got there.
The sun, which had been setting on my right, was now behind me, and the desert, which stretched in front of me, had become a fluctuating red when I turned left, following the road signs and Dirt Ocean. I didn’t lose my way. I have the instincts of a migratory bird, but my spirit wanders.
I turned on the radio, hoping to breach the silence and keep the stillness of the frightening expanse from terrifying me as it grew ever redder. I switched the radio back and forth between numerous stations: love songs, a loud mouth, a Qur’an reciter, a health programme, news of a fire, an air crash, and ethereal whispers. The world seemed very far away. Its existence was comparable to that of those whispers, like the existence of this desert with its whispering air rushing into my ear. I left the radio tuned to a din that came and went, rose and fell, as if it were transmitting a secret code. I thought: now!
Zuhayr’s shadow fell on the windscreen, the shadow of a man lost in a desert, who did not choose it and has never seen it before. I was passing through the windscreen, crossing the desert, cutting between high walls, entering dark, silent passageways, to a toilet with blood-red lighting. Some figure outside was asking the man inside to hurry up. This man sprang to his feet, pulled his pants up, and began to walk bowlegged. Now! I’ll tell him: “These are my reasons.” What a story! It must be told in its entirety, with its terror, and its disappointing ending. But it will never justify this moment in which his dizzy shadow is reflected by this frightening void. Should I turn a story with the colouring of dark blood and the taste of shit into a joke? If he didn’t understand, he would laugh. If he did not laugh, he would weep. But here a second opportunity for confession escaped. The summit appeared in the distance, some of the body, its foot, and then the whole mound was revealed, naked, like a large tumour in a bloody desert.
I accelerated fast, stirring up a panicky dust storm behind us. I stared at it, astonished at its unique, clumsy existence. My amazement increased when it showed a new aspect. The tumour had a deep wound in it; in fact it was the huge rump of an earthen giant lost in eternal slumber. Was this a coincidence? Why hadn’t I noticed this during the two previous digs? As I neared it, I gazed at the cleft between the buttocks, whose depleted flanks were revealed to be nothing more than the effect of the wind, which had widened its path over a thousand years. Turning off the engine, I asked Zuhayr: “See that butt? We’ll enter the belly of the hill through there!”
Then the team’s truck appeared behind us. I lit a cigarette and put my hand out of the window, gesturing for them to go on. I asked: “What do you think? Should we start with the butt?”
The truck stirred up a storm of dust as it passed us, lurching from side to side. I wound up the window and we were isolated. In front of me I saw men’s heads swaying to and fro, surrounded by equipment and camp furniture. The sight made me feel alive. As I turned to Zuhayr, my suggestion swelled in my head till it became a whisper: “What do you think?”
He looked at the rump – and that’s what it was – a circle split into two roughly equivalent parts by the slanting cleft. Wide and high, it hid the body of the hill behind it. He protested: “But you said you wanted to start from two different places!” Twisting his lips into a sly smile, he added: “I mean from the belly and the breast!” He moved his hand to a contour map he had published and pointed to two spots. At that moment I could give only a clumsy explanation. I found its height challenging. Its shape made one think it had grown over an ancient settlement and then become corpulent and flabby. I didn’t like this. I don’t like sedentary people. I wanted to have some fun.
With this sudden change, I was pushing our excavation to another front. We wouldn’t work the hill from top to bottom, thinking of it as layers and successive levels. Instead, we would bore a path through it at ground level, from the outside in, through a long trench. The circle of the hill had determined the first method, according to a previous technical survey that had been resurrected. I had participated in it and at the time, I had been restrained and downcast, surrounded by snares, so I had not thought beyond it. Now, in this desolate, barren area, who could question me or impose conditions on my approach and reactions?
I wasn’t certain whether this was a sound decision, but the hill I was seeing now wasn’t the hill I had explored twice before. So let this be the plan for the moment. The chips could fall where they would. If some error ensued, then I would know better than anyone else the circumstances of the excavation; once we began, and encountered any clear stumbling blocks, then we would change course and rectify the error. Which of the two was better: a direct entry or continuing with a method I no longer felt would work in this decrepit location? Later, we would make corrections. Now, however, we should submit to this moment. I said, “Let’s humiliate him and enter his butt.” I turned on the engine and sped towards the hill as Zuhayr laughed. He had experimented with similar crazy ideas with me at other sites. Tossing the map behind him, he cried: “Just like the old days.” Pressing down the accelerator, I yelled: “Long live the old days!”
Excerpted from the novel al-Tall [The Tell],
published by Dar al-Mada, Damascus, 2007