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ONLY WHEN WE

Photograph by Margaux Chalancon
Photograph by Margaux Chalancon

i.

We're picking out a name for you again. Shamsah, Badiʿat Al-Jameel, Ashaʿ, Siʿlat. We tussle with the name, looking for something grated, a song that scratches the throat. Ruqaya, Zawʿabah, Sughal. We finish and start again, feeling for a name that slices like a blade, a razor to the tongue. Rayḥāna, Ruwaha, Tiamat. But nothing hits and we need to find a name for you because the jinn, like most things, are impossible without one. 


We had one name before. Hashem, from Al-Hashm, meaning to crush, or crumble. It's the nickname of the prophet's grandfather who broke bread for Mecca's pilgrims. It's also the name of my great grandfather, a Mouslawi mogul from the tribe of Hatem Al-Taqi, nicknamed Al-Taqiya, implying the generous. This genealogy of grandfathers gave me my namesake. Hashem, the breaker. Hashem, the crusher. Hashem, the crumbs. 


What we know of the jinn comes from Nana, grandmother, who we never call by name. Long before the ebb and flow of our becoming, she would tell stories late into the night of the prophets mentioned in the Quran, the winged bulls of Mesopotamia, the hanging gardens of Babel. She often mentioned the jinn -- how every child born in our world has a twin made of wind and fire living among them. And while their domain is fenced off to us, the jinn can cross into ours, their footsteps soft as a suggestion. "How will I know when they come Nana?" “Istaghfarallah,” she would say. The jinn have no business with us. 


But you came. 


Hundreds of tons of haphazardly stocked ammonium nitrate fertilizer had exploded in a pinkish bloom that pulverized Beirut when your force bolted up inside, filling me up, so my body could hold. Outside, a white mushroom cloud soared skywards, intensifying like moss, at the end of a simmering summer day. Clumps of glass crunched underfoot, everywhere, like a carpet of single slivers. The sea, having absorbed most of the shock, could not save anyone else. 


On a balcony overlooking the blast-hit city, I called out for my friends and family, shoveling through their syllables like a search and rescue. Arabiyah. Nabih. Rakan. Amal. Fawzi. I paused and continued. Margaux, Cheryl, Kim, Nazih, Soha. I paused and continued. Sari, Sarah, Kinda, Gabriel, Salim. I stopped. 


It wasn’t death that called you, but the finality of surviving inside of it, as I was. The “I” you came to straddle was slim as stalk, frail and wilting, even before one of history's biggest explosions hit the city. I was 27 and barely holding on, my life marked by a new loneliness. S. had left me only weeks before, with the parting wish that I rot in hell. Until then, we had spent every minute of the past year together, sleeping in the same bed, sharing the same shower, using the same bottle of perfume. I apologized profusely to my cat. Because of me, we were alone. 


The blast was a reminder of how separate S. and I had become. At the exact moment of the explosion, I had no idea where S. was or what he was doing. I ran through scenarios in my head, picturing every route S. would likely take on any given day and then measured that against the likelihood of death. I envisioned a car toppled over in Badaro, a shard of glass lodged through his body in a Gemmayzeh bar, a bloodied sock on the other side of the city. I had no way of knowing if S. was okay until I picked up the phone and called.

S. declined at the second ring. Then, I felt you. 


In a single snap, our spine straightened, our chest opened, and our heart suddenly seemed to ease. You brushed up against me like a startling breeze, reminding me how much I had left to do, how I needed strength and not tenderness, how a single life would not be enough. I felt you last in my eyes, but that is also where I most felt the hardness, the stillness, the coldness, that you carved inside of me, neutralizing a world I did not want to know, did not want to step into. We looked on together for the first time -- a curtain of char, shards of glass, a crater where a road once passed -- and felt nothing. I disappeared into you. Hashm. 

 

ii.

The jinn, Nana used to say, come in variations. The Nasnas, the Ifrit, the Marid, the Ghoul, are ones to fear and avoid. They are couriers of the Shaytan, his fingers on earth. Death, deviance, and disease could all be explained away via their devices. "I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind, The Sovereign of mankind, The God of mankind, From the evil of the retreating whisperer," she used to recite, fortifying our protection. But other jinn, Nana used to say, live along the Sirat Al-Mustaqim, the Righteous Path, as subservient subjects of God. Healers, lovers, muses, seers, they also have a home in heaven. After all, the Quran is written for them too. 


In the days after the explosion, we would come to know each other through a lexicon of death. That is, to know each other, we first needed to know of dying, how its darkness blankets everything like a burial sheet.  We discovered that nothing about our city-turned-desecrated wasteland moved us: missing people, dead people, people who lost their homes, their kids, their eyes, gutted museums, mangled districts, it was all the same: a shapeless mould of misery, not a thing we would dwell on.  


Around this time, emotions started resembling drag. Our eyelashes thicker, our eyes droopier, our face folded into a pretty pout, we wore our sadness expertly.  It wasn't hard to pretend to be the same as everyone else, living a single life, feeling as they felt, in this giant death of a city. In conversation, we just had to keep our eyes locked, and nod occasionally, shake our head, disapprovingly, only if something sounded like it was hard to listen to, and lean in, only once, for maximum effect. We would repeat as needed.  


Behind the performance, in the back porches of our mind, the emotions registered as cool drifts, brushing through softly, not asking anything of us. We liked it this way, so we dodged M. with determination, M. who knew Hashem better than anyone, saw Hashem better than anyone, who married him at 24 and divorced him two years later, but stayed on as his wife. The day after the explosion, M. called, her voice muffled and cracking: "I need to see you." Under her building, she took us into her arms, to hold us but also to keep herself from falling. We remember her fingers digging into our back, the way her arms could barely squeeze. "How are you feeling?" M. asked. We couldn’t handle the question.  "I'm sorry, I can't do this." 

 

iii.

Nana once told me of a jinniyah who came to the holy city of Madina and said to a man: “We have come to live in your neighbourhood, please marry me.” The man married her. After years together, she came to him one day and said: “I must leave now, please divorce me.” With no other choice, he agreed. On their last walk in the city, she picked up grains from the ground to eat. “Do you like these grains?” he asked her. She stared at him, raised her fingers towards his eyes, and made them melt instantly. The jinn, Nana used to say, are brutal creatures.  


We wanted to be loved like a monster, felt for our fury, our body a field to forage on. Together we did things I never would: midweek threesomes, pandemic orgies, six a.m. hookups with the nearest hole. After the blast, this kind of hunger stalked us. Our therapist called it a life drive. We thought of it as apocalyptic anal. 


On the longest night of the year, we met E. He wanted nothing but to die inside of us and then leave with everything he came with. We liked him for how little he liked us, for seeing us as we wanted to be seen, for making us feel invisible. We first saw him at a sex party where he seemed starless, a dim sky, so we immediately angled our body for his anguish. He fucked us long, fucked us good. We came as one person. 


We saw E. more after that, always during odd hours, the world around us widening, swallowing us whole, leaving us swollen and throbbing like bruised beasts. We wanted his rawness, his rattlesnake of a temperament, this fury we could lean on. E. was not S. nor was he M., meaning we could not hurt him, this man who can chew us with his teeth. Knowing this, we felt invincible, like we could do anything, be anything, and call it fair play. Monsters kissing monsters, fiends frolicking with fiends, both of us snakes coiling around each other’s feet, begging the other to bite first. 


“I must leave now, please divorce me.” 

 

iv.

Nana’s instructions on exorcising jinn: 

  • Write the letter qaf on the palm of the possessed and draw seven circles around it. 
  • Compel the jinn to smell a blue cloth inscribed with the Sufi invocation of God huwa (He). 
  • Recite the divine names of God in this order: the Vigilant, the Preserver, the Merciful, the Living, the Gentle, the Great, the Gracious, the Generous, the Everlasting, the Steadfast. 
  • Hang beads, bones, and charms in the bedroom. 
  • Write healing verses from the Quran on a piece of paper, place it in a cup of water, then gulp once the words are erased. 


Sometimes I search for myself inside of us. 


"You know better," you would say, "than to go digging." And I do. But it's hard to resist the tug, the sadness, the evidence that I had been in my other life, a softer thing.


I think of Hashem, the name, the idea, the trace of an absent thing. I think of what made him happy: the sea, a beautiful color, fresh flowers, cold sheets, crowded club bathrooms and easy mouths opening like windows into some distant dream, his city in August, on any other year. 


I think of Beirut, too hot and too humid to sleep, how I wake up in a puddle of sweat every morning, poor but alive, having waited long enough to lose everything, to feel doomed and despaired, filled with little shrieks, a soul screaming. 


I think of the blast, the Port engulfed in fire, my feeble body, and all that smoke, a cloud of it, carrying away the soul of a place, its very fabric, leaving us, survivors, scavenging for life between granite crumbs.


I think of names, people who left, who are leaving, who might as well. I want to call these names, wet them with my mouth, feel their invisible mass shifting on my tongue. I want to scrape my throat saying them, over and over again, believing somehow, that this could bring people back.


I think of you, of us, the weapon we made of ourselves, and disappear again. Hashm.


We're picking out a name for you again. Shamsah, Badiʿat Al Jameel, Ashaʿ, Siʿlat. We tussle with the name, looking for something grated, a song that scratches the throat. Ruqaya, Zawʿabah, Sughal. We finish and start again, feeling for a blade of a name, a razor to the tongue. Rayḥāna, Ruwaha, Tiamat. But nothing hits and we need to find a name for you because I can’t do this alone. 

 

 

*Credit: Tile Photograph by Malak Jaafar

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Hashem

Hashem is a Beirut-based writer.

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<p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-3398ea5e-7fff-591a-384c-932d3fdfbf5d">Hashem is a Beirut-based writer.</span></p>

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