I left the country about a year after the outbreak of the revolution and arrived in Paris. Throughout the journey, a terrible feeling that the plane could crash any minute did not leave me. The passenger sat next to me was a Kurdish, Yezidi woman from Georgia. The whole the trip she did not stop talking about death, resurrection and spirits. She told me she had left Tbilisi with her family 40 years ago, because her brother had killed a Christian man. They have not been back since, despite their strong longing for the city.
“And isn’t that painful?” I suddenly asked.
“We will go back soon,” she said with a clear conscience. “If not in this life, then in some other life.”
I envied her in silence, asking myself: “And what if one did not believe in more than one life?”
I arrived at Orly airport at midday. I sat down with my small bag watching thousands of people moving, hurrying, absorbed. None of them had the time or curiosity to even look at me. I don’t know how I arrived at the transit hall. The black policeman looked at me and talked to me in French, of which I did not understand a word. He pointed to me to follow him to the room next door. About ten minutes later, the interpreter arrived. For more than half an hour I answered questions about where I had obtained this special entry visa, why I had obtained it, where I was going and so on. Almost all my answers were “I don’t know” and the whole time I only looked in the eyes of a big dog that sat relaxed in the corner of the room. Like my mother, he had big, black eyes overflowing with tenderness.
A Lebanese butcher, whom I accidentally met at the airport, accompanied me to the city centre. I waited there for three hours. I did not sit in a café, even though I had enough money on me. I had this feeling of not wanting to do anything whatsoever. In those long hours, during which I just stood on the side of the street and watched things and passers-by attentively, I did not speak to any one, which was unusual for me. Well, except when I overheard two young men speaking Turkish. Without thinking, I threw at them the only Turkish phrase I knew: “Hoşgeldiniz” (Welcome). I don’t know what made do that. Perhaps it was that terrible mixture of fear and serenity that you feel when you discover that there are other people here too; others who, like me, are “from the faraway there.”
The place of the person who took me to his home was strange. It was on the sixth floor, but the one-person lift only went from the second to the fifth floor. For the rest you had to climb a very narrow staircase. He led me to the room, almost without talking the whole way there, and left straightaway. He said he did not know when he might be back.
For about half an hour I stared at the street from that very small room. There was a corner dedicated to sleeping. Then everything started rushing through my mind with unspeakable intensity: What am I doing here? How will I live? How will I manage? What job will I do? and so on. The intense train of thoughts and premonitions was suddenly interrupted by the terrible question: “What if suddenly died here?”
The question stayed with me for days, months and years, to the present day. It was not a philosophical question about the meaning of death and existence and so on. It was a way of thinking about my situation and my fate. Ever since that night, the question has never left me, nor has the way in which it was presented changed.
That night, for example, I imagined myself a dead corpse in the morning. How would others know that I had died if the guy were late? How many days would pass before anything happened or someone realized that there was a corpse in that lonely, small, cold room on the sixth floor? In what state would my corpse be if two or three weeks passed? I imagined the types of mold that would invade my body from the corners of the room; different insects ravaging my parts, my eyes in particular. The most terrible thing was to imagine how, if my corpse was to be returned home, my parents and many siblings would shout as they open the coffin for the first time and examine what remains of their eldest son.
Not far from that, I imagined my host entering his room a few days later to find this decomposing corpse. He would turn it over with his hand, perhaps with his foot. I imagined him rushing down the stairs, not knowing what to do with this corpse, whose owner he cannot even name. What could he tell the others and the police? Would they believe him? Someone he met on the street and brought home, only to come back a few days later and find him a decomposing corpse?
Oh, Lord in the Heavens! How would they bring me down in a coffin in that building, that narrow staircase and that lift that can only accommodate one person? They would have to hold the coffin vertically, in which case my corpse would collapse on itself, like that child in Homs who collapsed when a soldier hit him on the nose with the butt of his rifle. I looked out of the window and imagined a police crane bringing my coffin down to the crowded street. I will die in a street where nobody knows me, not even the homeowner or the concierge.
In Paris, I sought to establish strong friendships, but I knew deep inside that I only sought that somebody there knew me, asked about me and called me, missed me and asked about me if I did not contact him or her for a while; someone to search for me and find me if I suddenly died, before I turned into a decomposing corpse.
But life and the web of connections in that “liquid” city went against those wishes. Like all things there, people, friends and relationships were hurried, temporary, passing. They would only come to spend a few moments with you, in cafés and other public places. They would talk about general things, abstract and cold. Nothing personal or special; nothing warm and cozy. No family and sharing of secrets and pains; no tales that can only be told to friends.
It is not a coincidence that all the people you can meet in Paris you meet in cafés. People exactly like the cafés: public and general. They could sit with anyone else just like they would sit with you; they could talk to someone they have just met just like they talk to you. Because, in their world, you are not someone; you are anyone.
It is not a coincidence that all cafés in Paris are open onto the street; open onto the outside, with no inside world. You feel as if you are sitting with the passers-by in the same way that you sit with the person facing you on your table. In fact, it is rare to sit opposite someone in cafés in Paris. Parisians often like to sit next to each other and watch the street and talk about it, not about themselves. In one word, these people you meet in cafés will not miss you if you disappear. You may suddenly die and your corpse decompose and nobody will ask about you.
All of this only added to my feeling of ‘loneliness’, meaninglessness and loss. The fear of dying lonely all of a sudden, without anyone noticing, was but an emotional intensification of that feeling. And all my constant vagabonding in the strange worlds of Paris – in libraries, museums, theatres and cinemas, particularly at the George Pompidou and Francois Mitterrand libraries – did not help soothe that feeling.
For what is this terrible, so astonishingly big and unbearable world that we live in?! What is this rich, vast and diverse world to which, on the one hand, I do not belong, but with which, on the other, I am forced to interact and connect due to my circumstances? How insignificant, neglected, marginalised and invisible I am to this vast, strange world! Everyday as I passed by those public Parisian libraries, I would remember Abu Danish, the manager of the Cultural Centre in Al-Qamishli. He had known me since I was a child. He always smiled when he saw me, even outside of the library. It was a signal that we belonged to the same world; to the same books, tables and silence in that small place.
Throughout the winter of 2013, I happened to sit in the Foreign Literatures section at the Francois Mitterrand library, for only there I could find some useful Arabic books. It happened that, for over three months, an old man sat right opposite me. He always arrived before me, and I always left before him. Quite a few times we exchanged smiles and head nods as a form of greeting. A few times I helped him open and close the big book drawer from which he used to bring books to read. I also discovered he was German because I heard him once talking to someone in the corridors with a German accent. In short, I thought this was the only person that I knew and who knew me in that city. For the two of us sat facing one another everyday, for more than six hours a day. That is more than any daily connection any of us has with anyone. I felt he was the only one who might miss me if I disappeared one day. Well, until one day we bumped into one another at the buffet of the library, when I asked him reluctantly: “Can I invite you to a cup of coffee?”, to which he smiled and said reservedly: “No, thanks.” I was surprised by his response and wanted to explain: “I’m sorry, sir, I sit across the table from you everyday in the Foreign Literatures section on the third floor.” He replied without a smile this time: “Maybe.” I left without even looking at him, with a deep, disturbing feeling that nobody, nobody will ask about me if I suddenly died.
Meeting the Lebanese writer Bashir Hilal was an exception. He came from those same worlds to which I belonged, not only in a geographical sense, but also in terms of memories, interests and details. He was a simple ‘Oriental’ man, warm and fully dedicated to the causes and the place from which he came. Like me, he lived here as a passer-by in a place that did not bring him meaning or tranquility, except through connecting with the things there. If you left him for a moment to himself, he would immediately immerse himself in a state of absent-mindedness and travel to all those things from which and for which he had come here. Bashir was my only friend in the old sense of friendship. A friend of serenity and self-revelation, even when it came to lowliness and mean behaviour. A friend with whom you do not fear that you may suddenly die and your corpse decompose without anyone noticing. But it was Bashir who suddenly died.
I left Paris after three years of temporary, postponed life; of hastily arranged homes, unironed clothes and passing ‘friends’. Three years of a deep, hidden fear of sudden death, which was an intense expression, or perhaps a culmination, of loneliness and meaninglessness. And so I decided to leave in the hope that I may overcome that feeling. But only going back home could have achieved that, and home is a postponed dream. So I decided to leave somewhere close.
Beirut was very appropriate. It a city I knew very well. The organic relationship with Syria, the buzz, the like-minded friends. I lived in Beirut for several months and, without thinking, I decided to stay at the Abu ‘Atef hotel at the beginning of Hamra Street. I blended in and reconnected quickly with my memories of the city, the places of studies and work, the friends and circles, the internal codes and lives of the city that do not reveal themselves to outsiders. And the warmest thing was that I stayed in the same hotel room in which I used to stay years before, when I came to Beirut from Syria. That simple place felt very big and welcoming. A small room on the first floor, to which sneaked the eternal noise of Hamra Street, that world filled with old friends, project partners and drinking mates. In short, I had a life in Beirut; a life at odds with that deep fear of sudden death.
Everything went well until I went back to the city for the forth time. I had all the correct papers that entitled me to enter Lebanon. At the entry gate I handed my passport to the police officer. After typing my name into the computer, he looked at me with despise, then called another officer in the room next door: “Haj Ali, come take this one. He’s banned from entering the country.” That’s what he literally said.
In the room next door, officer Haj Ali told me I was banned from entering Lebanon according to a memo issued by the Lebanese General Security. All my questions about the reasons and procedures were left unanswered by the officer. He just took all the official documents I had on me and took me to a room on the third floor full of insects and cigarette butts. I was there for more than ten hours without anyone asking about me. I shouted and banged on the door. A strong, deep voice came from the other end of the corridor: “You, shut up. And if you’re bursting, there is a toilet in the corner of the room.”
I noticed two broken mobile phones and thought their owner or owners who were here before me must have reached such a degree of boredom and hopelessness that they smashed their phones. A few more hours passed. I stayed in that room for more than 24 hours without feeling sleepy, despite my exhaustion. I was afraid of falling asleep. Eventually an officer came in and told me they were going to return me to Istanbul airport, and that I was absolutely banned from entering Beirut. As he went through my documents, he said with a despising look on his face: “Welcome, Mr hero, welcome. Hopefully we’ll see you in Damascus soon.” I boarded the plane in a very bad weather. There was a sand storm in the whole region. But despite the difficult take-off, flying and landing, I did not feel worried. I did not feel any worry or fear. I was just a person whose ‘feelings had been hurt’.
The following year I tried living in Antep, Turkey, and Erbil, Iraq. Both were full of friends and of Syrians in general. Both had deep links to the Syrian question in various ways and forms. Moreover, both were close to the Syrian borders. Both could have been a place where I could have overcome the deep meaninglessness that I felt in my faraway exile. But in both places, for complicated reasons I have not yet understood, I did not manage to obtain official permission to stay. It was the same story with Beirut in this sense. All three cities were places close to home that could offer you life and meaning, but on the condition of imposing their language, logic and choices on you. Imposing their own meaning on you, while taking your own meaning away. In order to provide you with security from the fear of sudden death, they would have to kill you.