There Remains a Farewell
As poetica by Adel Bishtawi
The rickety wooden boat rocked dizzily on a sudden wave that crept shyly towards the beach, and almost touched their feet before the gently surging sea pulled it back. Nader was lost somewhere in the innermost depths of his soul when, as if in sympathy with his great admiration of the sea, his chest heaved, accompanied by a deep, tormented sigh that flooded the surrounding silence.
“For the past five years,” he said, watching the receding wave, “I’ve tried to keep as far away as possible only to find myself drawn back by a strange, incomprehensible force. There are a thousand things that force themselves on my mind but all I seem to want to think of is peace, probably because it is absent. There is no point, though. If you can’t find peace within, you’ll never find it anywhere else.”
I joined him at his favourite spot opposite the Golden Beach hotel for two important reasons. The first was to listen to his feelings, but his revelations certainly weren’t what I wanted to hear. I wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about the second thing, and I wasn’t sure I could bring it up either. “There’s nothing like good hard work to help you find peace, and perhaps forget,” I said. “I’ve spoken to the Editor and he will take you back provided I hand over the literary supplement to you. This I’m happy to do because I feel I need to do some reporting on the beat for a change.”
Nader thought for a while and shook his head. “It wouldn’t work,” he said. “Besides, I would like you to remain editor of the supplement for now. I have a big favour to ask of you.”
“Any time, but what wouldn’t work?”
“They’ll keep pressuring the editor until he asks me to leave or moves me somewhere else, where I can’t write what I must write. That would probably be even worse than getting fired.”
I didn’t agree. “Ismail is different. He won’t allow them to interfere.”
Nader wasn’t so sure. Having previously worked with the government, he knew things I didn’t, but he probably decided to keep that knowledge to himself. “They’ll find a way all right,” he said. “They always do. A long time before you joined us at the newspaper I was accused of being a political reactionary. Later they said I was an Islamic radical, then an agent for the Americans, then a spy for the Sheikh of Qatar. What will their next accusation be? That i am a terrorist? The editor knows it’s a false accusation, but there will come a time when he can’t protect me any longer. The minister of information is very powerful. If Ismail persists they’ll eventually accuse him of something and force him to resign in disgrace.”
A sharp whistle escaped from my mouth almost involuntarily. “That’s hard stuff.”
He laughed. “Last Saturday they tried to arrest me at my mother’s house. They claimed that certain topics discussed at my meetings are not conducive to national conciliation and that a permit must be obtained for any future gatherings. When I pointed out that I was advised by lawyers that such gatherings are private and legal, and insisted that they will continue as per my democratic right, they wanted to arrest me. Luckily, it appears that I have some admirers in the upper echelons of power and I was cautioned instead.”
“This is news to me,” I said. “Did you tell the editor?”
“What for? Nothing happened. They literally left with their tails between their legs. The next time may be different, however. Things are not going their way and they know it. It’s their last stand and they know they are fighting for their economic and political survival. Think of the influence they’ll lose, the money, the palaces…it’ll be a new world they have no place in and won’t know where to turn or what to do.”
Apprehension and excitement held hands in my mind but the latter’s grip was stronger. “This is a cause worth fighting for but someone must lead the struggle.” He didn’t answer my subtle invitation, so I pushed further: “Why don’t you?”
He shrugged his shoulders, remained silent for a while and shook his head slightly. “I tried that,” he said, “and paid the price. Under different circumstances I would have been glad to delve deeper, but getting further involved in this course of action would take months, resources, a widespread audience, evading the watchful eyes of the authorities…it would be slow, risky and ineffective. What’s needed now is a sudden shock. It may or it may not work but I can’t think of a better way.”
“What sort of shock?”
Nader said, “I don’t know. People need a powerful shock to jolt them out of their comas, so it has to be substantial.”
“Who will create it?”
Nader gazed at the sky and stretched his arms out in front of him, but he didn’t answer. He looked at me and noticed I was still waiting. “All right,” he chuckled. “Not the mob. We won’t resort to demonstrating in the streets for as long as it takes to bring this tribal regime down. It won’t happen. They need leadership. They need to lose hope once and for all of the regime’s ability to mend its ways. They need to know it can’t because if it does, it will be committing suicide by loosening their grip on power and information, and they don’t intend to commit suicide. Not unless they know the alternative will be even worse.”
I thought of what he’d said thus far. It was interesting, even provocative and courageous, but it was mostly a vague generality. He may have something vital and decisive to say, but he hadn’t done so yet. Maybe he didn’t, I thought to myself, but it is more likely he just doesn’t want to say it, not now. Whatever the case, it was time for me to move on to something else. “Whatever happens, I said, you can still write your weekly column, can’t you? I expect that, the readers expect it and mostly importantly of all, the advertising department needs it. Sales go up by a quarter with your column on the front page of the literary supplement. So far, I haven’t had the new column and it’s getting late. I must tell you that I have a replacement ready but you wouldn’t want me to use it, would you?”
He waved a finger in front of my face. “Absolutely not,” he said smiling. “This one, I believe, is the most important column I have written but I’m not a good judge of my writing, no poet or writer is- it’s you and all the other good editors, the forgotten information soldiers of- what should be- the free world.”
I stretched out my open palm and gestured to him to hand the papers over.
He smiled broadly. “Don’t worry. I have it with me and in twice the usual length. I could’ve e-mailed it to you but I wanted to see you first. That’s why I called you.”
A sense of urgency made me impatient. “Let me have it. I know you are the most important poet in the country but your column will have to be processed and like any other and sent to the production department. It all takes time, and it’s getting late.”
“Slow down,” he said. “I was the editor of the supplements for years. I know the deadline for the front page, and I know it wouldn’t take the production department more than a few minutes to splash all that ink across the paper. I can also accurately guess how long it will take you to read and proof it. So there’s time, relax.”
Relaxing was the last thing on my mind. “I thought you said it’ll be twice as long. I know you’re famous, but I still can’t fit it all on the front page. I need to find extra space on the inside pages to put in the whole thing.”
“Relax,” he urged. “I know that. I would like it in two parts-the first for tomorrow and the second for next Saturday. I hope you can do that.”
The sense of urgency diminished a little but the prospect of relaxation wasn’t even entertained for a second. Still, a more enjoyable feeling was emerging- anticipation. It was clear to me now, as much as it was to him probably a long time ago, that this column was different. How so, I didn’t have a clue. I could ask him but I was confident he’d let me know sooner or later.
He sat up, outstretched his legs on the sand to their full length, and turned his head slightly towards me. “I will talk for a while,” he said solemnly, “and you will have your own interpretation but I doubt whether you will know why I’m doing all this. You will eventually though. Not later tonight, maybe, but know you will. Tomorrow or the day after. But I want you to tell me now that you’ll keep it to yourself. If I have any doubt you can’t, tell me and I’ll ask you to use the replacement column instead.”
I had no choice. He left me none. I’ll have to bide my time for a while, then I will ask the questions I need to ask. I nodded. That wasn’t enough for him and he waited in anticipation. “I will,” I said.
“Fine,” he replied. “Let’s do it.”
Nader gathered his thoughts first. Not gradually, but all at once. He was a poet but somehow he remained an editor too. And like an editor, he held the sides of the newspaper and pulled it open quickly to reveal the spreadsheet inside. “Don’t look at the details first,” he said. “They are meaningless unless you see you can see the big picture. That’s what I do. If I like somebody, I open up like a spreadsheet. If they are interested, we can move on to the details, issue by issue, paragraph by paragraph, and sometimes word by word.”
“Most of what I wanted to write I have written already. There are a few more pages I spent the last few nights reviewing. These you will have. The rest is a barren heap that will go up in flames the moment you leave me tonight. The past six years were mostly spent in soul-searching expeditions but I never set out to learn anything in particular. We shouldn’t expect to learn lessons from everything we do. For me it was a conscious attempt to unlearn. To free the mind in the hope the soul will be freed in the process. I want to forget everything I have learned, or was told, about life. Only then, I believe, will I be able to understand what life really is, and what it is about. Only then will we be friends, not enemies like we are now. Out of these expeditions I wasn’t expecting dramatic results. Just something to confirm to myself, and any readers who are interested. But then what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before – deeper, and wiser? My years of enforced destitution taught me a great deal and also taught me nothing. It was more to explore myself than to explore the world. I discarded my bed for rough seats at airports all over the world, my home for railway stations and cheap hostels in almost every capital on the planet. I exchanged my family and friends for the faceless multitude, the warmth of this country for the coldness of the weather and souls of others, the sun for the dreary, overcast skies of the north- all in the hope of transforming myself into someone I would be content to live as, for the rest of my days.”
Nader closed his eyes and ears on the world, and scanned the open spreadsheet of the past six years of his life again. “I have a home here,” he said, “a family that seems to love me, memories both good and bad, friends I like to be with and a coffee shop that makes the best cappuccino I have ever tasted, but I have nothing,” he added, opening his clenched fists as if to emphasise his point. I have this real world around me but I don’t belong to it. There’s nothing in this country that I can call mine. Everything is theirs. ‘We have no border guards anywhere on this island,’ the Minister told me once. ‘Anyone who doesn’t like it here is free to leave. If he can’t swim, we’ll give him a boat. If he, or any other citizen of this country, thinks this place will be empty and crumble without them them, they’re wrong. The airport’s gates will be open and the country will be re-filled in no time.’ Then I said to him: But you’ll only have Kerelans and Pashtuns in our place, is that what you want? ‘Why not?,’ he said. ‘Anyone is fine as long as he gets it into his stupid mind that he can live in this country, work in this country, make money in this country, have a future in this country and do all other kinds of things, as long as he leaves running it to us as it was originally intended.’ By whom? I asked him, by God? ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘by God. Go ask him. He wouldn’t share the running of the universe with us, so why should we share running the country with you?’ ”
Nader fell silent. I waited. A minute later I thought a little nudge might be necessary. “It’s not up to him,” I said. “It’s our country and we have rights.”
“We are supposed to have rights,” he corrected. “Whether they let us exercise them is something else. Unless they decide to sometime, we don’t really have any. But they’re not going to let us unless we force them to. Right now they don’t find it necessary because the pressure on them to do so is still manageable.”
Nader adjusted his posture and inched closer to me. “I have no doubt in my mind that one day they’ll flee the country wailing. In a few months they would be forgotten as if they had never existed but the damage they have to us over the past 50 years is incalculable. Worse still is it incurable and we’ll take the disease with us to the grave, regardless of how we reach it. By rejecting the status quo, I was rejecting myself because I was somehow part of it. But look what happened: instead of becoming someone I can live with, I became more attached to what I already am. There was simply no other Nader to find. I spent most of the time trying to understand the conflicting forces that were pulling my mind apart. My need to get away was always battling with the other need to come home. Consciously I’d travel as far as my strength and money could take me but a month or two later I’d be drifting back twice the distance. This is usually the case when you try to run away from something that deep inside you are dying to come back to, and there’s really nothing difficult about this realisation. I could’ve arrived at it over a coffee one morning, long ago, and saved myself years of torment.”
“For you maybe,” I said, “But other people are interested in understanding these conflicting forces. People like to read about things they can associate with, but they rarely find the ability and the creativity to express themselves meaningful, stimulating and above all truthful terms. You’ve been doing that for a long time, with spectacular results, so your experience wasn’t a waste after all.
“And the price?” he asked.
There was a price. Everything has a price, but that question wasn’t for me to answer. Nader did. He sighed deeply, linked his fingers behind his neck and slowly leaned back: “I hope you’re not suggesting that people are champions of truth. I’m sorry to say I don’t find them as such, myself included. Like prospectors who may spend years heaving piles of rocks and debris before they find a good gem, somebody you least expect may be silent for a second and come out the next with some of the wisest things you could ever dream to hear, in the most eloquent fashion imaginable. But this is one off, maybe the one off. The rest is hollowness, banality and peace of mind. There is no price to pay there. We are the professional thinkers. Like the miners who expect to pay with their health for their wages, we too must expect to pay. The price is not higher at the end, but the haemorrhage of time and patience is unstoppable. Still,” he continued, “I’ve met people so different in everything that they don’t have anything in common with the rest of humanity; others appeared to me so similar I wondered why the human race is not one family yet. Now, try to explain the underlying motives that mould people into either cast. It isn’t that I haven’t tried – I did nothing else for a long time, because it was through studying people I sought to study myself. I’ve observed as keenly as I could, but their actions either seemed to me too complex to put in words, or too simple and commonplace to warrant writing about. I was struck by how identical their worries, dreams and ideas were, yet looking at the same people from the slightest different angle produces an amazingly different picture. Having reached this obvious conclusion I became aware that there’s nothing more to see or learn out there. To be able to judge objectively I felt I needed first to view myself objectively. To do that I needed to be where I belong- right here. But look at me,” he added with desperation, “it’s hardly three weeks since I came back and I’m already questioning the wisdom of my decision. There is a great and expanding human margin out there and maybe that’s were I belong.”
“You are being unnecessarily gloomy and pessimistic,” I said somewhat sorrowfully. “This isn’t just another city, it’s your home. Here you have your mother, friends, your past, future and the life-style you are best familiar with. In good time everything will be all right, believe me.”
“Only this stretch of beach reminds me I’m home. The rest of the city is a lifeless collection of buildings and streets. As for my mother- well, she’s barely aware of the world anymore. She has been lonely for a long time and I’m afraid she has become used to being lonely. Half an hour following my arrival I heard everything she had to say a dozen times. I love her but I can’t stand listening to the same things over and over again.”
“You are being cruel.”
“I was alone for a long time,” he said sadly. “Loneliness is not a feeling, it’s a state of mind. It’s a living thing genetically programmed to build endless walls to shield itself from the world. If left to its own device, the walls intended for protection become a prison. The longer the loneliness, the thicker the walls, until they smother the heart and soul. This was frightening for me at first but you soon learn how to adapt to it. I was also struck at how little importance people give to emotions. They encounter too much steel, and like compasses, they become disorientated by its magnetism. When you find yourself in a situation where you can’t communicate with language because you can’t speak it well enough, what else but emotions can you use? Watching tens of thousands of people rush frantically in and out of dark, little openings leading to the subway, waking up very early and returning home very late, and the other countless things that people do every day of their lives; I became intrigued to know what drives forwards. Mere survival, I thought, wasn’t a very convincing factor on its own. There were others, but what were they? What makes some give up the race of daily struggle at the first hurdle, and what makes others carry on bravely for the vague prospects tomorrow may hold? Some men and women I met along the way tried to explain as best as they could. But I had a problem with almost each argument. They just didn’t make sense. They used the wrong argument for the correct cause or the correct cause for the wrong argument; belittled major problems and magnified minor ones. Taken individually, they seemed quite impressive, but collectively they appeared over-simplistic and occasionally naive. There was simply no consistency, but then human beings are not normally consistent. Anyway, this was the motivated minority who agreed to talk. It didn’t really matter whether I agreed with them or not. The idea was to exchange views, not to pull each other this side or the other. I was glad for the opportunity to talk and felt extremely grateful. The majority, however, lived their lives without bothering too much about its true meaning. Some were even astonished to discover they never really thought about it deeply although they enjoyed all its fruits be it social or economic success, knowledge, piety, good health, children or merely peace of mind. Without much fuss they went about their usual activities, enjoying life and feeling it had been especially kind to them. Each seemed to have a simpler answer to enjoying life than the other, each had learned how to handle their daily problems differently and each seemed to have advice on handling such problems if you happened to be in the mood of asking for it. It is one huge human resource for which no bank is available. Every human being goes through almost the same problems and every human being has personally to suffer from them before being able to solve them. The accumulated knowledge for solving most of the problems is called experience and this is the reason why I came to regard experience as the ability to handle your problems faster and more efficiently. The scale and urgency of people’s problems may be different but ultimately they are all the same because human suffering is the same, because human feelings are the same, because we begin and end exactly the same. Yet, stand at another corner and look at the same people and you may be struck at how different we all are. People thought I was only carrying my small suitcase so I looked like most other passengers, but look closer and you will find where most of the differences lie. Here,” Nader said touching his chest over his heart. “I once dropped a pebble in our well and my father stormed over to me and asked me to get it out. ‘How do you get a pebble out of well?’, I said, ‘It’s impossible.’ He agreed and asked me not to do it again. Nineteen yeas later I discovered that getting a pebble out of a well is nothing compared to getting a bad experience out of your mind-
“Or your heart,” I interrupted.
Nader wasn’t surprised. “I know Noora talked to you,” he said. “Had you waited a minute, I, too, would have given you a message to take to her. Everything must be made clear tonight. If I have talked too much already, it’s because I wanted to help you understand what exactly I’m saying in the column, and why. So,” he continued, “there I was, prospecting for wisdom not to be wiser but to be happier. And out there is an immense quantity of human wisdom built event by event via suffering of immense magnitude over the span of human history, but no cure, no comfort, no forgetfulness, nothing. Nobody had an answer as to how I could delve inside and extinguish the fires that have been burning inside me for so long. Every second of our lives we pump our brains and hearts with nourishment but we can’t remove a single painful memory. Neither organ is ours really. But if not ours, whose? Who has control over them, and why? For what purpose?”
Nader closed his eyes as if to get that extra strength he needed to dare open his heart again. Whether he did, I can’t say but that brief attempt was clearly tormenting, and his face screamed in silence. “That is what I said to Noora two evenings ago. I have no control over my heart and my heart is telling me it’s too late. Go ahead,” I told her, “go ahead and marry Ibrahim. Most women love the wrong man and marry the right one. You won’t be blamed by me for any mistake you make,” I said to her. Fate might be a little more cruel maybe, but you are not totally responsible for your actions because you can’t control your heart.”
What he said surprised me. Noora wouldn’t lie, but nor would Nader. “Couldn’t you tell her simply you’ve stopped loving her? It would’ve been painful but surely less painful than what she’s going through now. That girl is suffering and you owe her an explanation, a good one.”
Nader looked equally surprised, and probably felt hurt. “Did I say I’ve stopped loving her? If you understood that then I didn’t explain myself well and I owe you an apology. But let’s be clear. I love that girl but there’re other things I love even more. These you will know later so let me tell you now that although all women are made for this world, Noora is more so than any girl or woman I know. For me, love is an end in itself. There’s nothing beyond love. The poet in me craved for a great, inspiring relationship, and great love can’t merely survive – it has to triumph. She, on the other hand, was perfectly satisfied with a mere working relationship. Love for her is just the means. I loved like a poet; she loved like a woman. And like a woman, her love was a gateway to a house of her own, to children, healthy and numerous, and to the security that a loving man can provide. Don’t get me wrong. That’s their right. They should demand it with strong conviction because there’s nothing wrong with wanting all this and more, but I’m not suitable.”
I asked: “Just because you are a poet? Many poets have wives and the quality of their poetry doesn’t seem to decrease after marriage.”
He nodded. “Absolutely. A wife is a woman after all. Many become even more inspiring after marriage. But again I have to say I’m not suitable for her. Can I say I haven’t thought about marriage? I can’t, but that comes later, much later. In the beginning I thought of nothing but writing poetry. It was, and still is, an obsession. I can’t live without writing. For me it was the ultimate achievement of love. Other things were either irrelevant or could wait, sometimes indefinitely. A new stage of my life followed. After a few hours rest from work, all I wanted to do was to sit down and write. She wanted to eat out, introduce me to yet another group of her friends, or simply to go into the smallest of details about the house she wanted, the furniture she was advised to buy and the names of the children we would have. ‘Don’t get upset when I mention all this,’ she used to say. You don’t have to do anything. ‘It’s just conversation.’ It’s the typical case of the man who, thinking only of honey, was totally oblivious to bee stings. Slowly both of us grew restless, and slowly it became obvious that this couldn’t go on. The night before my last trip she said: ‘I know how important it is for you to write and I will always encourage you to keep writing. I want you to understand that. But I also want you to understand as well that I am a woman and women find it equally important to be loved, looked after and occasionally spoilt. Later, no matter how much later, I want you to marry me and I want us to start a family of our own. My womb cries to be impregnated by the man of my choice; my hands are eager to cook for my husband and children. I want to scrub the floors of my house and do everything married women usually do. For that I’m ready to wait as long as it takes but I want you to promise me that this will happen. I love your poems but I also love you. I want everybody to know that you’re mine. I want security. I made up my mind when I first saw you; it’s for you to make up your mind now. Either that or you give me the freedom to look for it with someone else.’
“Did she tell you all that?” Nader enquired in disbelief. “No, she didn’t,” I answered. “Nor did I expect her to tell me something very private like that. Noora is a very proud girl.”
Nader turned around to the sea and gazed at the pulsating waves. “I thought about her a great deal during my trip. I’ve met many girls in the past but Noora is very special. I also discovered how important to me she became. If children were not the natural outcome of love and marriage I would have called her and asked her to prepare for our wedding. But I can’t have children, and I mustn’t. My mother will be more than happy to give me her house. I have money so I can give my children good education, nice clothes and as many toys as they want provided I can get in the house unhindered. But I can’t give them a country, I can’t give them the freedom to choose, I can’t give them security but above all I can’t go into their hearts and take the fear away. Do you understand that?”
I did, but I wanted to know what sort of fear he meant.
He pointed his finger at the floodlit palace visible in the distance along the coast: “The fear of them. Our ancestors needed fear to survive in the jungle. There were lions and tigers and hyenas and all the other predators. Fear was essential for survival but the fear these bastards have instilled in our hearts is not for our survival but theirs. During my last trip I noticed something I never noticed at airports before. When a German or a Swiss hands the immigration officer his passport, they don’t seem to say that they have only a nationality but also a country they are proud of. It’s so natural you hardly notice it. Maybe they don’t notice it because they have no doubt whatsoever that their country belongs to them. My country,” Nader said prodding at his chest, “is not my country. It is theirs. We are lodgers. Like lodgers we can be kicked out at any time. We can be made exiles any time and for whatever reason they can come up with. Worse still, the lodger can be thrown into prison, tortured, denied all universal rights and most of us won’t complain. Why? Because we have this immense fear inside us.”
Nader turned quickly to face me and looked at me straight in the eye. “Now,” he said full of anger. “Can you say confidently that this country is yours?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. “You can’t. God damn it,” he cried, “if I can’t give my children a country they can be proud of then I don’t want them. If they can’t grow up without having this crippling fear inside them, I don’t want them. If they can’t choose freely, I don’t want them. Why should I accept for my children what I refuse to accept for myself?”
Nader rubbed his face but then kept his hands there, his head resting in them. When he looked at me again he smiled faintly. “Things will change. I can feel it. When they do I will run to Noora, no, not run, I will crawl to her and beg her to marry me. I will beg to have as many children as she can look after. If my poetry stands in the way I will not write another word. My writing time I will spend making my children breakfast and helping Noora to get them off to school. That’s when things will change. That’s when we will have our country back. Not until then. ”
He fell silent, and attempted another smile but failed. “This is my message to Noora if you want to pass it on and if she wants to hear it. I have nothing else to add. If you want to say something I’m ready to listen.”
I shook my head and sneaked a discreet look at my watch. It was much later than I had thought. He understood. He stood up and walked slowly to the boat. “Here it is,” he said, “but before you leave, I want your help.”
I got to my feet and followed him as he stood up and starting walking.
He handed me a ream or more of written papers: “Spread them around please,” he said.
I glanced at some of the papers and baulked. “This is your work. How can I spread them around?”
He took a bundle and threw it up in the air. “Like this,” he said. There was more in the boat but these he reserved for a “special bonfire”.
Suddenly he jumped up in the air and exaggerated his descent, kicking the sand in all directions. “Let’s dance,” he cried, and jumped again, moved sideways then in all directions. I did likewise. First to please him, then because I felt like kicking something. We both did for a couple of minutes. When we stopped, the stretch of sand between the sea and the main road looked like the scene of a major fight.
“Clamour at dawn,” Nader began. “Clamour at dawn.” Words – indistinct, sad and broken, ring through hollow walls and partly opened doors and cease abruptly as small locks of small suitcases click noisily amid faint sobbing of an old woman.
Footsteps – staggering, tired and hesitant, shuffle over broken pavement stones of mostly deserted streets marking the beginning of a long journey towards daylight, while tired eyes with haggard looks cling firmly to the night.
Clutching painfully her chest, the old woman listens attentively to the fading footsteps, wipes her tears and closes the door gently. Something in the mind shuts simultaneously. Only long-past memories of a little boy carrying proudly his first school bag remain.
Clamour at the airport.
Passengers laden with heavy suitcases, expectations, fears and tickets to homelessness pass quickly through metal doors anxious not to be left behind. Mechanical moans of the conveyor belt, piled high with suitcases reeking of the scent of little houses tucked away in little, tucked away back streets; all rumbling along dull, rubbery floors nudging hesitant passengers doggedly on.
Eyes from behind barriers, tinted windows, small electronic lenses and magnifying glasses scan suspiciously for potential suspects while restless fingers rest on restless triggers anxious to shoot to kill.
Further on more eyes still – old, young, small, wide, black, brown, blue, and grey gaze colourlessly at black and white travel documents seeking unauthorised victims of homelessness, and eating mercilessly away at people’s vulnerability, privacy and pride.
And there was this moan, or was it a sigh, that tore away from the chest and broke the heavy silence of a long-held breath. The long-feared exile is at last a reality. Everything comes to an end. God said so, so it must be right and admitted freely.
Why weep in silence? You are neither the first exile nor the last. As long as they remain in power there will be exiles, so get ready for the longest flight of your life. Your turn will come soon, or sooner. The equation is simple: To have some more, we have to have some less. To reduce the pain, we have to have some more. To be above, we have to be below. The choice they give is ‘neither’, ‘nor’, their answers are ‘never’ and ‘nowhere’.
Despite your pleas, the moment of farewell approaches. Your heart may ache forever; your eyelids may bite on the few remaining tears that plead to be released; your longing may be forcefully entombed inside you for a while but you can’t hold on! A thought, bitter and sudden, will manage somehow to trigger a scream. A mental explosion will follow. The past, present and future will be shattered to bits. Your road to the unknown has just begun.
But you are not alone. Living in a toilet overlooking the high street, you can still see the faces of a thousand soul like yours – suffering and living and waiting while precious moments continuously slip away from ever tightening fists.
The man behind you in the queue whispers and you move forward reluctantly. You shake your head and sing a mournful song heard only by the mind. The lips tremble slightly, muttering and complaining of overcrowded roads, ports and airports. You hold on for as long as you can before the barrier comes down. Tears roll down dry cheeks and throat lumps grow like tumours.
Luckily you attract nobody’s attention. The falling tears make no sound. The sobbing is faint. The sorrow falls inwards and burns without smoke. And all this because I love. I love my country, my mother and the face of the woman I love. And all this because I hate. I hate dictators, the unjust, homelessness and persecution and torturers of little children. I hate them all. Thieves of souls and smiles. Like a thirsty sponge, they go around and suck the juice of life and wipe the smiles off faces.
Look again. Open your eyes and look again, then hear my words. The heart yearns for the East and bleeds. My eyes, forever drawn to the sun, fly over tall minarets, bustling old souks, muddy, little narrow streets, and tiny overcrowded rooms. My eyes are graced with watching hard-working fathers battling for the day’s bread and the children’s education. Faithful mothers aging prematurely under the heavy burden of mere survival; children eager to grow despite the persecution.
And there, behind a closed window I see two bright but sad eyes blinking the sweetest words ever whispered. I see two trembling lips plead for his return. I see the trace of a smile trying hard to remember how to stretch, curve softly and draw a sign of life on those fine features that have turned pale with longing.
‘Oh, my love!,’ I can hear her say. If I could hold your hand again I’d tell you how much I love you. If again I have the chance, I’ll fly into your arms and tell you how much I missed you. To say: out there there’s no life without you, no joy, no future, no tomorrow and no dreams. To tell you: the day I don’t see your beautiful eyes is not a day, the night that goes without your arms around me is not a night, and a life that doesn’t shine with your smile is not a life.
If I have the chance again I’ll take your palm, press it gently into mine, and confess that man will never know a chain heavier than love; that man will never know anything that chains his heart than a woman, nor anything that chains the soul of a woman than a man. I’ll say that man became aware of love only when he became aware of his need for others, and that he who knows not how to love will not know how to live. I’ll say there’s nothing finer than the line that separates absolute joy from absolute grief. Indeed the shadow of both is a blend. Indeed the heart that doesn’t know the true nature of grief is not capable of knowing the true nature of joy, and he who can’t give has no right to take. Indeed, love does not turn into an infinite source of giving unless the giving itself is infinite.
If you feel lost one day, look around and you’ll find me to help you find yourself again. If the present tastes of bitterness I’ll be there to remind you of the sweetness of things to come. If the evening sadness descends upon your loving face I’ll be there to help you smile; when you cry you’ll have a comforting shoulder, and when the darkness falls, my love for you will be the light that guides you back to me.
When you choose to be my sorrow I’ll be your joy. When your voice rings of misery I’ll be an echo of happiness. When you run away I’ll be your shadow. You are everything I love and everything I fear, but my heart sees in you only the beautiful, the captivating and the supremely good. Together we will sow longing and reap togetherness. Hand in hand we will walk towards the future because you are the desire I never want to stop craving for, the tune that I’ll always hum, the illness to which I seek no cure, the sin I’ll never repent, the light when all is darkness, the solace when the heart chokes with its many dreams. You may love me forever, or you may tire of me the day after next. But like the shadow, I may be far away, close by, melt into your body, but I’ll never disappear. “I fear you not, my love. I fear the world. I fear that fate may become too jealous of our love. I fear the “farewells”, the “good-byes” and the depressing “adieus”. I fear that your hands may cover my face one day and feel cold.
And, ah, love. I have a secret too.
My biggest fear is not old age or death,
My biggest fear is not a tearful eye,
My biggest fear is not a jilted heart,
My biggest fear, Oh, help God, is I.
So, why is it that when I take my girl in my arms and I hug her so close to the heart I don’t hear it moan lovingly any more, nor do I hear nightingales sing, nor see the face of the moon at night, nor trees swaying, nor dry riverbeds resounding with the living drops of rain? Is it because behind the suit, the collar, the glasses and the book there is a Bedouin who thinks it’s time to move on; time to fold his tent and leave before the sun yawns and shifts to another place? There are a billion things I don’t know but the longing does feel mortal – that I know. The memories can- and do- destroy a loving heart: that I know all too well.
Will you cry with me? Like you I miss my home, my mother and the face of the woman I love. Like you I look to the future while millions of fine threads pull me to the past. Like you I die a thousand times each day without a single moan escaping my mouth. Like you I fear to tell her that I love her and that she won’t understand exactly what I mean. Like you, I’ve allowed a flood of experiences to deform the face of the little child behind the face of the man, and a price will be paid before the sun rises again.
But there’s another price that I don’t have to pay. The thieves must, the assassins and the unjust. Like living corpses, they spread fear, suspicion, and repulsive putrid smells. Like ghouls, they feed on children’s flesh and peoples’ hopes and dreams. You think you are immune in your hole. You’re not. You will be given a choice: either with us or against us. Which one will you choose? Which whore should the saint choose? Is there a way out? You may think so but there isn’t. How could you preserve your innocence in the brothel around you?
Inside there is tumultuous anger. There is a scream that tears the heart to bits. Inside there is fear, bitterness, sadness, and worries, and the rising dust of a desert that has never seen rain clouds since it was formed. Inside there is also love, and a bleeding heart and softness you wanted to hide from all the wolves outside but they came to know of its existence and now they are hungry, and they want a bite. They want a share of your life, of your wife, of your child, of your future, of your freedom and of your dreams.
They will have none of this. Life is precious but it’s not the most precious thing.
So let them come and take it. All is said and done and there remains a farewell.
Life begets life but let’s see. Let’s see if death can do likewise. Let’s see if the death of one is life for many.
So, let them come. I’m ready. I’ve held my heart in my hand and show it to them. “Take it,” I said. “Take it and give me back my country. Give me back my life. Give me back my freedom. Give me back my love. You’ve taken all and nothing is left but my blood.”
I’m ready. My blood is spilt already. And if you search you won’t find it where you think it is. You won’t see it. You have eyes but your heart is blind. Men whose hearts are blind are truly blind, and may as well be dead.
And, ah, love. I have a secret too.
My biggest fear is not his royal self,
My biggest fear is not a gun or knife,
My biggest fear is not a cell or two,
My biggest fear, if they remain, is life.
So come to me, my door is left ajar,
My lights are off, a shroud is neatly laid,
My body’s pure and my coffin is my bed,
So come to me. I am prepared,
The last farewell is said.
Two or three minutes had passed and I was waiting for the lift to take me down to the parking lot when I heard the telephone on my desk ring. It was just past 2:00 after midnight. I was tired and the vision of my right eye was totally blurred from reading the small print of Nader’s column. I also wasn’t expecting any calls so I pressed the button of the lift repeatedly to hurry it up. Suddenly it occurred to me the printers may have had a problem with the supplement and wanted help. I had promised Nader before leaving him that his column would be in the supplement and that the first edition of the newspaper will be sent to the distributors by 2:30am as usual, and I was determined that this would be done.
By the time I reached my office the telephone had stopped. I waited. Suddenly it rang again, but at Noora’s desk near the entrance. I rushed and picked up the handset.
“Where are you?”
At Noora’s desk answering your call, I said to the editor.
“Nader’s column is in tomorrow’s edition?”
I answered in the affirmative and explained that it was far too long and would be continued next week.
“Fantastic,” he yelled gleefully. “Can we flag it on the front page?”
Not in the first edition, I told him. It’s already plated and the run must have started. The second, if you want.
“Do that for me, please,” he said. “and tell Amjad to print 10,000 more copies- better still 15,000. Did you get that?”
I was intrigued by the editor’s call at this unusual time but a run increase of that volume was very unusual. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“OK, listen,” he said. “Captain Anwar phoned to ask if we are running Nader’s column tomorrow as usual. I wasn’t sure so I told him I’d speak to you and come back to him as quickly as possible. I thought you would be at home. Obviously you were not. I called all your friends but none of them knew where you were. It was my desperation that inspired me to call your desk and there you are- a testament to your dedication as usual.”
“What did Captain Anwar want to know,” I asked. “His department cancelled their subscription to the newspaper six months ago so he shouldn’t ask for favours.”
“Did they? Nobody told me that. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, not tonight. He didn’t dare say it but I suspect he wanted to know what Nader’s column is about. Did Nader blast the government to hell again?”
I told him it was powerful but he named no names.
“No names at all?”
“Captain Anwar can go to hell, then. That liar…he knew when he called me that Nader had killed himself but I had to find that out from other sources. You can’t trust these people with a paperclip. Alongside lawyers and businessmen they are now the new breed of professional liars.”
“No! I’m not leaving,” Ramzi yelled back. “I was dragged out of bed by my editor to report on Nader’s death. I am a reporter and my job is to report, so report I must.”
Captain Anwar waved his finger angrily. “You must wait for the official statement like all other reporters. The doctor said Nader committed suicide so Nader committed suicide. There’s no scoop, and there’s no breaking story. There is nothing to report at all.”
Ramzi wasn’t swayed by yet another outburst. “It doesn’t make sense. Nader enjoyed fame and fortune. He comes from a large influential tribe, he was young, handsome and talented. All the girls loved him. Why would he kill himself?”
“He was a poet,” the captain said. “Poets kill themselves all the time. What’s unusual about that?”
Ramzi pointed to the hotel. “What’s unusual is that there are six foreign guests and a Saudi prince who told me something else besides suicide may have taken place here tonight.”
“How would they know? They were all asleep. The prince was drunk and he had two whores in his room. He wouldn’t have noticed an earthquake. I talked to them as well, you know.”
Ramzi shook his head. “A Swiss couple were at the balcony and others were in bed, but they said six or seven gunshots were heard. How is it possible for someone to shoot himself six or seven times-two in the head?”
Captain Anwar’s eyes opened wide in alarm. “Who told you that?”
“One of the paramedics.”
Captain Anwar looked for the two ambulances on the left side of the main road. Both had left an hour or more earlier. “Paramedics are not forensics experts,” he said. “Let’s leave all this to the official statement and stop the conjecture and insinuation.”
Ramzi took offence and shook his head in contempt. “Is it conjecture to say no gun was found where he lay dead in a pool of blood, or is it fact?”
The captain’s eyes widened in shock. “Who told you that!? Tell me who your source is, damn it.”
“I told you who. One of the medics.”
“There were four. Which one?”
“I can’t remember,” Ramzi said.
The captain bellowed: “Nothing you claim is true. You can’t quote that medic. He didn’t say a word to you. It’s the figment of a tired mind. Go and get some sleep.”
Ramzi shrugged his shoulders. “I’m here to report on an important story. When I have it I’ll leave.”
“You’ll have it from the official statement. It will faxed to your editor in the morning. Now go!”
Ramzi was furious. “What’s going on?” He said as he pounded his fist on the desk. “I can’t quote the medic, I can’t quote the hotel guests, I can’t take pictures of the scene-I can do nothing. When the official statement comes out, if it comes out at all, it will contain nothing worth printing. All your statements are like this. I feel there’s a big story here; you are telling me there isn’t. One of us is…wrong.”
Captain Anwar thought of ordering him to be escorted out of the area but decided at the last second that it would be better to ignore him. He turned round and waked away three or four steps, stopped suddenly and turned round. “I am not going to be drawn into a useless argument with you or anybody else about something that’s not worth talking about,” he said. “Wait for the statement, read it carefully and if you have questions we’ll try our best to provide you with answers.”
The captain waited for Ramzi’s response but none was forthcoming. As he joined two policemen manning a temporary checkpoint, Ramzi took a small camera out of his pocket and stealthily crossed the main road. He lifted the blue crime scene strip and crossed the cordoned-off beach. A policeman saw him and alerted the captain. Anwar spun around suddenly and saw the white flashes of pictures being taken, and darted across the road onto the beach. Ramzi had taken a dozen or so pictures of the scene when the captain caught up with him. Ramzi turned around to flee the enraged captain but it was too late. He held Ramzi firmly from both shoulders and pulled him back with force. Ramzi fell on his back and screamed in pain. Next to him lay his camera. He grabbed it and put it in his pocket, then took out it again and pointed the lens at the enraged captain. The captain snatched the camera off and sent it flying off into the sea.
Ramzi’s blood boiled with poisonous anger. He cursed, jumped up cursing and lunged at the captain. Before he could reach him, a policeman appeared in his path. Another rushed to help, and both ushered him away from the scene, but to their surprise the way was suddenly blocked. Joined by up to 10 reporters and cameramen, we stood between our colleague and a waiting police car and demanded his immediate release. A condition to keep Ramzi away from the crime scene was accepted, and he was freed.
Ramzi moved amongst us in circles like a caged and angry lion. And like a lion, he roared non-stop with curses and abuse. He tried to climb atop a car to see the captain so he could hurl more abuse at him the officer wasn’t in sight. He moved further along the street, peeped through the window of another parked car and climbed on top of that but a line of trees blocked his view. Yelling still and fast becoming desperate, he jumped off and stood under a tall electricity pylon and went round it to see if there was anything he could hold onto to climb up. There was nothing. Frustrated, he went around in a circle again, yelled a bit more and sat down on the pavement. When he lifted his head, he saw me and jumped to his feet.
“Where the hell were you?” He screamed. “It’s your story. He wrote it for you.”
“Do you have on you a copy of the column?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “but even if I had a copy I couldn’t give it to you without my editor’s permission and that’s very unlikely.”
“It’ll be between us,” he said. “Give me a copy and nobody will know. I’ll keep it a secret,” he said. “You know you can trust me.”
“Of course,” I said, “of course I can trust you but trust isn’t the issue. I promised Nader before he committed suicide that his column would be published in tomorrow’s edition and nobody else will read it before it hits the newsstands.”
Ramzi’s face froze. “You are repeating what captain Anwar has been telling us all night. Are you in it as well?”
“In the conspiracy. Are you?”
I was baffled. “What conspiracy?”
“What conspiracy, what conspiracy, what conspiracy,” he mimicked. “You are also saying Nader committed suicide. How can you be so sure? Did you see him kill himself?”
I stopped to think but there was no need. I know what must have happened after I left him on the beach. “I have no doubt in my mind that Nader killed himself,” I told Ramzi.
He raised his voice: “How can you be sure? Did he tell you he was about to kill himself?”
I couldn’t answer.
“Could he have shot himself in the head- twice?”
I shook my head. I couldn’t say. I was positive he killed himself but I couldn’t tell Ramzi what I knew.
“Could he also have shot himself in the shoulder…and leg? Could he have bled in three different locations? Could he have pulled the trigger six or seven times before he fell dead?”
I was puzzled. I didn’t know what to say.
Ramzi had had enough of my silence. He held me by he shoulders and shook me violently. “Wake up! Nader put up a good fight before they got him at the end. There was a big fight out there. It’s a full moon and I could see it clearly. The stamping of frantic feet was evident on the sand. His papers are strewn all over the place, and a large pile was burnt and bits of charred paper were floating on the water.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “It doesn’t make sense. Nader killed himself. I’m sure.”
“That,” he said poking me in the chest as if to wake me up,” doesn’t make sense. The only thing that makes sense is that they’ve been trying to get him. Tonight they succeeded.”
Ramzi would do anything to get a good story. He would lie to anybody, he would steal documents, he would bribe anybody for information, but his stories are meticulously researched and credible. However, if I were to choose between my version of what could have happened and Ramzi’s, I would still choose mine. But I wasn’t 100 per cent confident that his version of events was the only thing that took place on the beach. Proof, hard and uncontested, was needed and Ramzi couldn’t provide that.
I told him so and he smiled.
“You have proof?” I asked in astonishment.
“Are you willing to give me a copy of his column, not just tomorrow’s part but the second, if I tell you?”
He looked around, and then came closer and whispered. “I have taken pictures.”
I shook my head. “Come on, Ramzi. We saw the captain hurl the camera into the sea.”
“He hurled a camera but not the one with the pictures. That one didn’t even have any film in it. It didn’t work. It’s something I saw in a film once, so brought two identical cameras tonight. He’d kill me for it but I am sure-“
A colleague working for The Voice interrupted him. “Look guys,” he said tilting his head towards the beach. “A police detachment with shovels tried to sneak onto the beach but Mariam spotted them. Let’s go and ask Captain Anwar about this,” and he hurried away.
I looked at Ramzi but he started whistling softly and moving his body as if dancing. “We know what they’re doing,” he said. “Fantastic. Our colleagues will be invited soon to take pictures of the scene, let’s contrast them with our pictures in tomorrow’s late edition.”
My mobile phone rang suddenly. “Where are you?” my editor enquired, a tone of agitation in his voice.
I told him.
“Leave the area now,” he said. “Something big is happening. I don’t know exactly but ministers are being awoken and summoned to the Palace. Apparently one of the paramedics is a distant cousin of Nader and he’s going round telling any member of his tribe he meets that Nader was assassinated. Did you pick up anything at your end?”
“Get out, then,” he said anxiously. “Leave immediately and head straight for my villa. You know where it is?”
I answered in the affirmative, and when he said his next sentence I felt a creeping sense of alarm in his voice. “Something big will happen,” he said. They’ve gone too far this time. His assassins will not go unpunished, and things will never be the same again.”
Like cadets preparing for the most important parade in their lives, questions lined up in my mind and cried to be heard. All were answered except two.
“Is it possible,” the one before the last said, “Is it at all possible that Nader faked his assassination?”
That I could ask to myself but I couldn’t answer it. Nader had to.
The final one then enquired: “Is he alive?”
I was convinced that he wasn’t, but my conviction wasn’t important.
And as I looked at the sea, I thought I saw a figure emerging out of the folds of soft waves. “Is it possible?” I asked.
Nader smiled, closed his eyes as if dreaming, and faded away.
Image credit: Sonia D., private share