Readings — From the June 2019 issue

The Tortoise and the Hedgehog

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From his novel Remorse Test, which was published in 2017 in Lebanon and won the 2018 Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature. A translated excerpt was published in April in Banipal, a literary magazine based in London. Sweileh is a journalist, novelist, and poet from Syria. Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright.

Remorse? Maybe it means a belated apology for acts we committed at a time when we thought we were doing the right thing, or for acts we failed to carry out at the time we thought about them. Like me putting my arms around your waist at the junction of Firdaws Street and Mutanabbi Street on that October afternoon, on the grounds that the rain called for intimacy. What there was between us was expected to end in the Picasso restaurant when we had a meal of chips with mayonnaise. On the way, you told me firstly that you were hungry, secondly that you were vegetarian, and thirdly that you loved potatoes. I had to look for a place that would meet your requirements. All the tables and chairs were red. That was significant pretext for delving into the derivatives of that color in the domain of desire and deciphering our mysterious relationship through ambiguous flirtatious remarks interspersed with fleeting references to the blood feuds that the war left behind, which also featured the color red. You had been going to put off your second visit to Damascus because of the heavy rain in the south. I didn’t pin great hopes on this visit and I couldn’t seriously imagine any special reason that would bring us together again. Maybe boredom was one of my reasons, but I did see your unexpected visit as a good omen or as a time-out that relieved the boredom of days that were all much alike. Offhand I had told you that your phone call that morning had greatly reinvigorated me and that you were like a sudden rain cloud that had slaked my inner thirst. A late-night chat on Facebook dispelled my expectations of loss, since writing in cyberspace gives us a dose of courage that enables us to come out with things we cannot say face-to-face. Similarly, evasive eloquence using enigmatic expressions, references that are open to interpretation, or lines of poetry borrowed from popular blogs will gradually break down the barriers of reserve through slips of the tongue that at first appear to be unintentional. You were setting random traps for me too, but not as vigorously as I was storming your impregnable walls and trying to probe into dangerous areas and murky waters that you were wary of exploring—those that challenged the limits of modesty. To be more precise, let’s say that you lit the fuel with an invisible match, then put out the fire with a counter-expression that had nothing to do with the firewood the two of us had gathered in the nearby forest of beguilement as a kind of escape or as a declaration of surrender. Our first acquaintance came about through a phone call from you, exactly five years ago. You were somewhat flustered. You told me there was something in your life that concerned me and you would explain what you meant when we met. I didn’t take much interest, or I forgot about it completely. Five years? It’s practically equal to the years of hell that haven’t finished yet. In that stormy period, there was someone who shook the branches of the tree and the fruit fell around it, then other people came and crushed the fruit with their heavy shoes, and then burnt down the tree.

What happened later wrecked my plans completely.

In a telephone interview I had told a journalist that my next novel would be about love. I told her this with full confidence, like a tennis player who has finished his warm-up exercises and only has to rush onto court. The fires of war threw my thoughts far away, and it was no longer conceivable that I would write about “carefree love affairs” amid the daily hell and the news of the dead and the debts of hatred that we had to pay to the barbarians every day.

But first I had to answer you on the question of hatred, not on the question of remorse. Hatred that was wrapped in rotten chocolate and buried resentments with a taste as bitter as gall and poisoned daggers in the back at the moment of embrace. Hatred that abandoned the guise of forgiveness in favor of revenge.

The first move in this imaginary game of chess came when I suddenly moved my knight into the square that belonged to you, by making an unexpected remark that overstepped the bounds of caution. “The smell of you invades my isolation,” I said. The reserved nature of our previous nocturnal chats meant that we could not handle such a sudden change. I was testing how flustered you would be when faced with a sensual remark of this kind. I was so fed up with wandering around in the paradise of spiritualities where you had entrenched yourself in order to save yourself from straying into my domain of expressing myself candidly.

Right after reading some of your poems, I had advised you to liberate your diction from the morass of ready expressions that didn’t add a single apple to the orchard of desire and to purge your obscure feelings of the overinterpretation that weighed them down. I added an improvised phrase that somehow suddenly popped up in front of me like a squirrel: “We can’t go into the intensive care unit without a stretcher.” By way of explanation, in response to the exclamation mark you then sent me, I said that writing is the moment that separates life from death, or the white stretcher that takes us to the intensive care unit, where we can breathe in enough oxygen to survive. So we write in order to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and to convert coal into wild fruit with a sharp taste, and to tame the pains and sins of the body.

She tried to suppress the phrase “the smell of you invades my isolation” by not responding with a decisive phrase of her own. Instead she chose a ready-made emoji from those available on the menu—an emoji with eyes in the shape of little hearts. But this attempt did not last long. Three days after that chat the dialogue box lit up with the words “I miss you,” and, after evasive comments by the two of us, she ended her chat with the words “have a good night, with love in the morning.”

At this point I realized she had started to sink into the quicksand of iniquity, leaving the teachings of our master Jalaleddin al-Rumi far behind her. She had abandoned forever the lexicon of Sufism, which, like a tortoise’s shell, had concealed her feelings. The game we had been playing, with her as the tortoise and me as a prickly hedgehog, had been amusing, maybe exciting. She had been sticking her neck out a little and then withdrawing, while I displayed my hedgehog prickles.

You had chosen to be a butterfly in the language games we played in times of boredom. I likened you to a gazelle when I commented on a picture you sent me, with you spreading your arms on top of a rock in the mountains, and then among the ruins of a castle abandoned a thousand years ago, with long curly black hair, as if you were embracing a nearby cloud. But you insisted on flying with the wings of a butterfly.

In a later comment with no particular context, she wrote: “Do you prefer my hair or my poetry?” It took me some time to find an appropriate response: “Your poetry needs the madness of your gypsy hair.”

Her hair really was gorgeous, and I very much wanted to bury my fingers in its curls while she was busy devouring what was left from the plate of chips in front of her. I imagined the scene again as we had tea in the Trattoria Café in the Shaalan district, this time inserting another detail—a beauty spot at the bottom of her neck that I discovered when she turned her head to watch Whitney Houston singing an old song, broadcast at high volume on the TV screen. Then my eyes moved down toward her cleavage, where I noticed faint freckles in the shape of an upturned pear. But I did not have any great expectation that our relationship would develop any further than that, since she shied away like a gazelle from any ambiguous flirtatious expression. At sunset on that October day, as we left the café, I asked myself: “What is remorse?”

On our way to the bus stop, I was telling her the plot of the film Repentance by the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze, as an interim response to her question, though what she wanted was a response to the question of whether she had been wrong or right when she chose to leave her husband after seven years of love, then jealousy, then slow death. Half of those years had been an intolerable hell, judging by the events she described to me in the café. A man selling chestnuts from a cart at the wall of the Madfa Garden disrupted the scene a little: she made asides about her passion for chestnuts. I was trying to describe the scene in the film in which the mayor’s corpse keeps reappearing after every attempt to bury him. It was a stupid idea to bring up the Stalin era in all its cruelty and violence at an intimate moment, but I was carried away and finished describing the whole plot of the film. My hands were stained black by the chestnut shells—the hot chestnuts she was consuming with relish, absorbed and listening to the rest of the story:

“One of Stalin’s victims, a woman, lives near the house. She was the person who dug up the grave and took the body out every night, kind of in revenge for the killing of her parents on orders from the general who had no scruples. Because such a man, weighed down by sins, rancor and brutality, did not deserve the dignity of burial, she said. After the woman was detained and put on trial, she asserted in her testimony that a man who had massacred innocent people should not be buried. For his part, the grandson was shocked when he found out how cruel his grandfather had been, although the son denied the charges made against his father. But the woman insisted on her position that a criminal could not be buried until his crimes had been revealed in public, because burying the past meant forgiving the people who had destroyed the lives of others by brutality, cruelty, and savagery, so the grandson went and committed suicide in remorse for his role in a fabricated version of history, while the son had to throw his father’s body off the cliff that overlooks the village.”

She gasped several times as she listened and thought about the metaphor of remorse and the meaning of silence about similar crimes, even if it was about the sins in an abortive love story that ended in separation.

That evening the minibuses on the Muhajireen–Bab Touma route were crowded with passengers. They all went past without stopping and, after twenty minutes waiting, she still wasn’t able to find an empty seat, so she decided to hail a taxi so that she wouldn’t be any later than she already was in getting to Jermana, where she was staying temporarily with her friend Jumana Salloum, who worked as a photographer at a government news agency, and so that she could avoid the crowds waiting to be searched at the military checkpoints that were common at night all the way there. Through the back window of the taxi, she waved to me with the complete works of Giuseppe Ungaretti, the greatest Italian sculptor of words, like polished marble, as I had described him to her. She thanked me again for my valuable present. I was trying to undermine the rigid concept of poetry she believed in by offering her a counter-­conviction, my belief that poetry flourishes in another seedbed, not in the one she was used to in her readings. I told her that as a butterfly she should try nectar from all kinds of flowers and breathe in the secret smell of all plants, not drown in the mummified texts imposed on the Arabic literature syllabus by the academics at the university. “Listen, poetry means imagination gone mad and running riot, just as it is an archive of sense data, from al-Mutanabbi to the latest dropout poet no one has yet discovered.” About ten minutes after she’d left the place, as I was looking in my jacket pocket for the key to the door of my building, my mobile phone rang with a call from her. As I went upstairs, with again another power cut, and using my lighter to find a path through the darkness, she told me she was listening to Umm Kulthum sing “It’s Too Late” on the radio in the taxi. She put the phone close to the speaker to prove to me she was telling the truth, and also to point out the coincidence. We had been talking about regret a short time ago. I had a terrible headache so I took a Panadol, then I relaxed, fully dressed, on my chaotic bed. I put the earphones of my mobile phone in my ears and scanned the radio stations for the song. Umm Kulthum was still singing in full throat: “What use are you, remorse? Oh remorse, remorse.”

Around noon the next day I was waiting for you to call, either under your assumed name, Amal Naji, or your real name, Asmahan Meshaal, before you went to your village in the south. I was unbearably bored by the conversation of the people sitting at the table in the Roda café. I no longer had the patience for talk about dead people, shells, displaced persons, or the state of the weather. I had told you that over the past five years I had tried to be patient in all kinds of ways, and I didn’t fully know how I had put up with the arrangements for the movable feast of killings, massacres, mass graves, famines, and lethal violence. It makes me feel uncomfortable, and my spirit has been worn down by the enormity of the loss. I want to breathe different air, but there’s no haven other than this café. When I lost hope of you coming, I left the place so angry that I left my packet of tobacco and my lighter on the table, which often happens to me when I’m upset.

Without any preliminaries, she sent me an email that night: “A woman wakes and sings / Wind follows and entrances her / And stretches her upon the earth / And the true dream takes her. / This earth is nude / This woman is a paramour / This wind is strong / This dream is death.” I read the lines, from the poem “Bedouin Song” by Giuseppe Ungaretti, several times, trying to work out why she chose these lines rather than any others. Was it an overture to seduction or just a random choice from the book? The sensuality was obvious here, and it might have been a clear hint that she wanted to enter a tempestuous phase in our relationship, going beyond our original agreement that we would be just friends without any emotional baggage and that I wouldn’t begrudge her my advice on her writings. “I will be your pet cat, sit close to your feet, and listen to your valuable advice,” she said. I objected to the idea and promised I would read her writings seriously and then sort the flowers from the weeds. She immediately wrote: “Very well, my teacher and master.” I replied that I didn’t want to hear such words from her again, or anything associated with the idea of subjugation.

She sent me her writings almost daily and I read them as personal messages, confessions or expressions of pain: over time I noticed a different tone intruding on her language, with blatantly sensual words and phrases that suggested sighs of deprivation and a hidden lasciviousness that wasn’t common in her previous writings. She finally seemed to have realized that poetry operates in another domain, where all the senses are mobilized and where one “takes pleasure in violating language” as I wrote to her in a philosophizing vein, with the intention of inciting her to explore terrain that needed more aggressive treatment—“with an axe and not with a wooden stick.”

“An axe!” she wrote in amazement and disapproval, and then added cunningly: “How could a butterfly like me put up with such cruelty?” I improvised another phrase intended to fill in the gap further: “Writing about love needs fangs too.” Once again, she disapproved of the word “fangs.” At this point I realized the depth of the chasm between us. She had long lived in isolation in a forgotten village that no shell had touched throughout the years of war, keeping herself busy discovering varieties of wild plants—marjoram, sage, lavender, and rosemary, as well as birds, reptiles, and insects, drawing on the walls of her room by day and testing her determination to silence the howling wolves of desire in her breast at night, while I was wandering around the south of the city, burying the dead in funeral processions every day, maybe every hour.

Yes, an axe, I replied, thinking back to dozens of scenes where an axe had been raised over the neck of someone who’d been forced to kneel, or of a decapitated man whose body was hanging from an electricity pole in a square in a city a thousand years old. Of course, I meant our need for an aesthetic lexicon that explains how to combine on a single page the weight of a sharp axe left over from the Middle Ages and smart-bomb technology, in the same way as those barbarians found divine fatwas for killing people with axes, swords, or suicide belts. In case I got carried away with other examples of violence, she asked me, “What are you reading now?”

The Writer and His Ghosts,” I said.

“Damn ghosts, axes, and suicide belts! Who’s the book by?”

“Ernesto Sabato, an Argentine physicist who turned to writing to confront the brutality of the world and to accelerate the disaster that’s staring at humanity, as he puts it. He thinks a writer’s mission is to ‘vomit up his inner world.’”

“I don’t know any other Argentines, except for Maradona the footballer, and maybe some yerba maté brand names. Oh yes, now I remember Borges. He’s Argentine, isn’t he?”

Then, without any breaks, she added: “I miss you.”

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