Authors: Robin Yassin-Kassab
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First published 2008
Copyright © Robin Yassin-Kassab, 2008
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For Rana Zaitoon
It is only when you know the Higher Factor that you will know the true situation of the present religions and of unbelief itself. And unbelief itself is a religion with its own form of belief.
Atheism indicates strength of mind, but only up to a certain point.
The Other Path
A Mirror for Sami
Sami Hurries Home
A Family Visit
Death Number Two
Gabor at the Ta’ziya
Death Number One
A Great Leap
It Soon Come
Brother and Sister
Following the Heart
To Be Touched
Reclaim the Streets
Uncle Mazen drove Sami into the city as far as the parliament building, then shrugged and peered out through the windscreen. ‘The car wouldn’t make it up there,’ he said, pointing an ear at the mountainside. ‘There aren’t any roads anyway. Just steps. Perhaps you can walk.’
Sami disembarked and straightened on the pavement. A man of average height, somewhat hunched, with a pale complexion, a sensitive, moving face, black eyes flashing with an intensity called beautiful by those that love him, and thick and curling hair, also black, grown longer than in his youth to distract from climbing baldness. Still handsome. But a body ageing quickly, increasingly swell-bellied. Thirty-one years old.
And feeling foreign now, unsteady in the heat, among balloon salesmen, bootblacks, cassette stalls, exhaust fumes. Sami searching for breath in the smothered heart of Damascus, home of his ancestors, the former city of streams and orchards the Prophet had refused to enter, not wishing to commit the sin of believing himself in Paradise. But Sami, unconcerned with Paradise, for better or worse, had entered. Damascus was supposed to offer him answers.
He’d been here for a month, in order to (he listed): reconnect with his roots; remember who he was; find an idea. And the tourist stuff too: to bathe in the wellsprings of the original city, the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. A city that had briefly ruled the world. Wherejasmine and honeyed tobacco scented the evening air. Where Ibn Arabi wrote his last mystical poetry, where Nizar Qabbani wrote ‘Bread, Hashish and Moon’.
Years ago Sami thought he would write a doctoral thesis on Qabbani. Not thought; assumed. It had seemed inevitable, and it had never happened. Nothing remained of whatever that idea had been. So he was here to find a new idea, gather material – and then return home, write the thesis, become Dr Sami Traifi. As a proper academic, like his father before him, he’d be able to get it all back on course, his place in the world, his marriage, his mother. So he believed. A new idea, a turned leaf. It was time, it was perhaps his last chance, to leave childish things behind.
In front of him the mountain was sandy red and imposing, shiny with whitewashed shacks and satellite dishes. One of those buildings, his maternal aunt Fadya’s house, was his destination. To his right as he walked there was the rubble of destroyed four-storey Ottoman homes: tangled wood and plaster and a back wall still intact with a mosaic of dead rooms printed on its surface. You could make out the hitherto private squares of paint, entire inescapable universes for their inhabitants, now brought borderless into promiscuous intimacy. On one patch there was some religious calligraphy. On another, what looked like family photographs. Though the demolition was some days old, white dust motes swirled thickly. History refusing gravity.
Just about all the women Sami could see were wearing the hijab, many more than on his last visit. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like supernaturalism, nor backwardness in general. And in this country a return to religion meant a return to sect. It was just under the surface, just under the smiling face of this hospitable people, the secret loathing of the other path. They don’t respect each other, Sami thought. They fear the strong and despise the weak. This cacophonous country: each individual playing from his own score, ignoring the others. But it was his country too. His father’s country.
Struggling upwards against the descending swell of well-wrapped ladies, across Corncob Square with its melancholic bronze president, Sami imagined roadblocks, men with armbands and guns and armed identities. That’s what it could be like, very easily. The wrong identity would end you at the intersection. Dead for wearing a cross. Dead for wearing a hijab. Dead for Ali’s sword swinging from your car mirror. It had nearly happened in the eighties when the Muslim Brothers took over the city of Hama, and the government had stopped it, rightly. In the face of the Brothers’ fanaticism the government stood unwaveringly firm. Sami’s father, Mustafa, safe in London, had explained it to him. Beards disappeared. Surely a good thing. The headscarf tide was reversed. Hair breathed freely. What rational person would disagree with that?
And as he bobbed past coffee merchants, past careening taxis and minibuses, past a line of shawarma furnaces flaring the afternoon into more surreal heat, he asked himself what his father would think if he could see this determinedly Muslim population, hairy and hijabbed not twenty years after the Hama events. What would his father say? It would represent the very end of the world he’d hoped for.
Back in London, Sami’s own wife was threatening to wear the hijab, which somehow seemed to represent the end of everything Sami had hoped for too.
The road stopped as Uncle Mazen had said it would. Up here mucky children replaced traffic, children loud as traffic, smudge-eyed, tangle-haired, brandishing bleeping plastic weaponry. There was the occasional fruitless mulberry tree. The ground was dust, mud where something had spilt. In the winter it would all be mud. Mud and dust alternating, flesh and bone, life and death.
He breathed outside Fadya’s wooden door, then swung the knocker. Fadya opened up with a show of surprise and welcomed him, thanked God for his safety, told him he had illumined her house. Her family crowded around him, everybody kissing solemnly and shaking hands. Fadya welcomed him again. Her hair was collected under a white scarf which she didn’t remove, despite her blood relationship to Sami, even after the door was shut. His two cousins asked him dutifully for his news, and asked him to make himself at home, following the formulas. Then they sat on the floor in front of the TV, their large backs to him, their lined and stubbled faces immobile.
When Fadya brought Turkish coffee with sweets and joined him on the sofa, Sami’s eyes hadn’t yet adjusted from the glare outside, so he saw in black and white, with patches of blindness, as through a photographic negative. The room was windowless and dark, lit dimly by the Intifada on the TV screen. Boys throwing rocks and flaming bottles at armoured cars, the cars shrugging it off, dispensing the occasional efficient bullet.
Through the door to the darker interior of the house Sami sensed something shuffling.
He unslung his shoulder bag and brought out a notebook. He had a page of questions already prepared for this interview. Fadya and sons would provide the responses of ordinary people, ordinary Syrian Arabs, to Sami’s poetic enquiries. Doctoral material.
‘Aunt,’ he began. ‘Let me ask you a question. What kind of poetry do you like?’
Fadya aimed at him the eyes of someone used to staring through storms. She staged a smile. They watched each other, stalled. And then a cousin stood up and faced Sami, with blue chin raised, slight moustache quivering.
‘I’ll tell you, cousin, which poetry is important to us. Probably not to you, but to us.’
‘Tell me,’ said Sami. But why the defiance? Sami hadn’t had anything to do with these boys since playtime in the distant past.