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To Be In a State of War

Let’s go back to the beginning.
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In those days, as the story goes, the world was at war; and when there’s war, things take on a different shape. The air was different, the people were different, and the smells were different. War smells like the absence of the things you once loved. I long for the smell of pine-sap and the fragrance of incense that surrounded the Villa Gardenia. War becomes the ghost of, say, a construction worker that seeps into people’s clothes and walks among them. It becomes different but not uncommon. War itself doesn’t often resemble its own name. Everyone thought it would be like the war tales of their ancestors where mighty armies were defeated and victors went into bright, new offices. This was not to be. That’s why we’d left in the first place.
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Because we were smarter than them. So we’d taken our studying to the Sorbonne and learned everything there was to know about Kafka and Akhmatova and Camus. Then we gave voice to the new works of Mahmoud Darwish and Najiba Ahmad when they came out as if they were our own. We even took them to Beirut and held conferences at the AUB on La terre nous est étroite1)The name of a poetry collection by Darwish and The Poetics of Politics – or had it been The Politics of Poetics? We had panel discussions and taught lectures. Then we had children and wine and more dialogue. Ghazala even planted gardenia on our balcony in Ashrafieh so she could pick petals for the girls’ bedsides in the mornings before they woke. So we had that too.

*

Everyone warned us not to return. In places like Barcelona and New York, former colleagues told us not to come back to this zone where we had always lived before we’d never wanted to go back. But there was a ceasefire, and the longer it lasts, the less vigilant one becomes. So I told myself that there was no more danger coming here than there would have been, in normal times, crossing the street. There died pedestrians in Palestine as many as would in Paris before what they call nowadays, again, The War. But, cars were the precedents of katyushas2)Soviet rockets and Israeli drones and missile-guided murder weapons. They were driven with the same unpitying exasperation as Volkswagens or mini-vans. We drove cars just as unsympathetically as everyone else drove cars. Now, no one here cares whether there are new Benzes on the market because they know they will be driving the old ones for a long time still. And no one elsewhere cares what kind of cars we have at all – just whether or not we’ll continue being shelled and how we’ll take it. Mostly, of course, we take it by dying.

*

I’d been Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Université Saint Joseph de Beyrouth, publishing works such as The Semiotics of Voyage and Les Problèmes Thérique de la Traduction before retiring four years ago. I couldn’t have imagined myself an immediate choice for an entry level Ethics course and yet it had been worded to me thus, “It’s the least you can do. Akeed, you must remember what it’s like here.” This was how I found myself among students again. My vanity had been stung. Akeed,3)Translation of “naturally” or “of course” in Arabic I could remember, I told the Dean. My brain, despite my age, hadn’t failed me yet. I was still smarter than them, I was sure. So I found myself among them again, mostly children trying to find Meaning, while my own were far from the other side of the Euphrates wondering about theirs. I knew Yasmine and Leyla couldn’t hear the guns from Paris, but I knew their space, too, was violated ceaselessly on newsfeeds and Facebook. Still, it is different for the children here. They know that buildings fall because they walk over the debris. They’re doubly walled in by the events that have closed their country on itself, and by the walls of their own minds. They know that
people are dying.

*

People can be pathetic when they’re dying. Sometimes you’re made to feel guilty by their deaths. For instance, only a few years earlier, Mohamed Bouazizi had doused himself in a can of gasoline and set himself on fire in protest. Or when nine people were killed watching the World Cup in a Khan Yunis beach café on Friday, we were made to know about that too. In hospitals, it’s worse. When I visit Fadi at al Shifa, I see it. They resuscitate and operate and stitch together. There’s an eighty-year-old man here who won’t stop breathing. His doctors keep inserting tube after tube into his throat. The rights have been waived for patients to die naturally and still their relatives wail in the waiting rooms. Hospitals are full of people who are trying to grab hold of our souls. They haggle over them like women haggling over Cartier Love Bracelet replicas in Qissariya Market boutiques while the mortars fall outside. In the end, of course, some philanderer living a dolce vita announces that suicide is the only real philosophical question.

*

This town has no escape route. It is a oneway city. On one side there’s the sea, but the sea is not safe either. Ghazala, my wife, and I were coming home, down the only street that leads past Welayat mosque directly to our apartment building. We were coming home with our weekly water supply in qarrába4)Carboy or large jug used to transport water when the Rafah shelling began to fall, so we ran into the nearest building. It was already full of people. Ghazala put her qarrába down, but I didn’t let go of mine when nothing happened to me, untouched by what happened. She was lighting a cigarette when the place exploded. People fell to the ground. Then, one by one, they stood up again. All except Ghazala. At first, because there was no trace of blood, I thought she’d simply fainted out of fear. I lifted her head but it didn’t feel right; it was as though her neck were made of rubber. Her hair was covered in dust from the ceiling. I cleaned it off with my fingers. The emergency doctors rushed up in white coats and a boy with a face like Kafka’s tried to find the pulse on her neck. He was slow and methodical, as if he were playing the flute. I saw his fingers dance on Ghazala’s neck. I wanted him to stop. I didn’t want her being touched like this; but there were lots of people around, so I didn’t say anything. I think I was jealous. They put her on a stretcher and carried her away. Nobody spoke to me all the time I was there.
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The crowd began to disperse. I was left on my own between the four qarrába. I picked up the two I had been carrying. Water was pouring out of them, like the stream of water from those statues of little boys in Brussels. Her qarrába were still intact, so I picked them up and went outside. It was a beautiful Spring day and by now the sound of gunfire had vanished. I covered the ninety footsteps or so to our apartment building then decided to go for a walk, unthinking but trying to find a new way, so I turned back and went in the opposite direction.
.

Near the Sheikh Radwan cemetery grounds, I saw a zaatar5)Thyme plant and it seemed to be growing very straight to me; it seemed to know where it was going. I couldn’t figure it out, but I wanted to be like it. I did not want to be like the dying. Could I grow above this city, this country, and the continent to which they belong? I had devoted myself to observing them up close. I identified even with their aims; their studies were like mine had been. And, from Paris and Beirut, I’d surveyed the currents which cross this part of the world, following some, opposing others, dismantling, false alliances, and smelling out traitors like garlic in cooking. I knew what was going on. I’d read the Felesteen Daily newspaper online. But in fact, I knew I was not like the plant. I went along with my head always to the ground.
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Two Golani soldiers raced toward me, running along the bank. I looked up only at the sight of them. Some boys were kicking a football near the Erez Crossing by the seaport. One of them kicked the ball awkwardly, and I caught it on the volley. To be honest, if I hadn’t, I think it would have ended up in the Mediterranean.

*

“Is it true that the nearer we come to our paroxysm of violence, the more we become ourselves?”
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I returned to teaching days after Ghazala had died, but my lectures had lost their direction. No longer did I read directly from the philosophy texts. I lost hope in the strict answers given by philosophers.
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“Do we love destruction because it’s a process of peeling away? Are we closer on the path to truth the longer we are bombed? I can’t tell. Everything which blocks the horizon encumbers us. If we can’t see out, if the smoke hasn’t cleared or the dust settled then at least are we safe from knowing what is coming next?”
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The students don’t give themselves over to these sorts of thoughts or long-term distractions. All they do is run headlong into life, which is their death. Pain might encumber them. But when it is someone else’s pain, it can never be their own exactly. Pity, when it exists, is tribal. In other words: I feel sorry for you because you are not like me.

*

I met my old friend Fadi by the Delice Café & Narghile after his appointment at the hospital. He smiled and asked me about the girls, then the students. I was afraid that he’d ask me about Ghazala. But we hardly talked about her anymore. It had only taken weeks for Fadi to know it was better not to. We sat down on the wall in front of the eatery, and he cut a cigarette in two with his penknife. He took the half with no filter. He rolled the masbaha in the palm of his other hand.
.
“Wittgenstein was afraid of going mad,” I told him, “and that’s why he became a philosopher. I don’t remember what he’d wanted to be in the first place. A gardener or something.” Fadi shrugged his shoulders and exhaled the smoke. Fadi was convinced, despite the one lung, the lip blisters, and the ketoidal track across his ribs, that ultimately he would regret the cigarettes he hadn’t smoked more than the ones he had.
.
As we walk together, I see some of my students behind sandbags. Or I see their bodies (like Ghazala’s) fall in silence. It’s like when we dream. There’s no noise in this world. That’s why the war doesn’t stop. It continues, with all the bombings and gunfire and molotovs and katyushas – in silence. Who would be listening anyway? France before they head to their boulangeries or America on the days that we are a spectacle? We understand: Life is busy with the theatre and the stock market. So we just keep it up. Someone has to. From the Gulf to the Atlantic, on your geography maps, the Arabs are all silent. Shhh. The streets are stained with blood like the floor of a butcher’s shop. Don’t forget the thyme for your lamb tonight. We call it zaatar here.

*

Ghazala’s funeral had been brief and rather cursory. There are too many funerals here to make time for. The imam could as easily have been talking about any other woman who had died that day. He didn’t know that Ghazala’s eyes were dark like a valley on a summer evening. That she warmed milk and took vitamins. That she was a part of things. That she loved them in a way I couldn’t. I am not trying to make her sound simple. I am not meaning to. To really love things is the most complex a person can be. I am not educated in it enough. She had been the horizon on the sea I can no longer see. You thought I didn’t love her? She was the only thing I loved. When I could no longer love my wife, I became pointless. It’s as clear as that. I might even have been pointless before it.
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The imam told me, noticing my inattention at the service, that words had lost their meaning here. Then he told me to recite the Koranic verses with him in his morning mutterings. I had stopped being stunned by hypocrisy. He had hardly noticed his own contradiction, but when he did, he continued on. My wife would have looked at him with her heart torn to pieces.
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When the funeral was over, had I gone to the market and found seeds for tomatoes, zaatar, radishes and lettuce among the old shoes and the ludicrously expensive re-sold WFP tins of beef. I had bought a few seed packets and went home along the back streets in order to avoid meeting people I knew. The laundry Ghazala had done a couple of days earlier still hadn’t dried. The weather was a pendulum between drizzly and muggy. I buried my head in a damp, white shirt. It’s odd – even when the sun shines, nothing dries. I cooled my face and pondered what I would tell my students about life now: Heraclitus only cracked jokes at his own expense, but Zeno made jokes against the world. Plato was a transvestite who dressed up for humanity. None of these things were wholly true, but somebody should have bumped off Socrates to stop him from making such a performance of his death. And Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi warned of the spillage of blood for asking questions of death. Did anyone have answers that were satisfying? I put the shirt back on the line. My face hadn’t left any tears on the fabric.
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I hadn’t spoken to the girls for months, and I didn’t know how to break the news that their mother had died. They were safe and I’d wanted to keep them that way – but I knew in some way it must be wrong to let them go on thinking she was still alive. I didn’t want to change their maghrib,6)Evening or sunset prayer for Muslims if they still said them, from their cursory hopes for humanity to specific injustice done to them. I knew they had a right to know so that they could mourn – and then forget. One life and one worry less. But I couldn’t bring myself to call them. I wondered if perhaps the best way to keep them free was to free them of me.

*

I wanted some other way to feel free.
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The water had lasted for days so I hadn’t gone out. I sat at the table by the window and stared at the concrete slabs below. If you looked closely, you could already see blades of grass growing in the cracks. I leaned out of the window as far as I liked without my heart beating faster. Was this what it meant to be free? I didn’t have to write messages or make phone calls, I didn’t have to suffer or explain myself to anybody. The world vanishes if you don’t talk. In the mouneh7)Food preserves pantry, I found a little bag of fertilizer. I mixed the fertilizer with the infertile soil from the children’s playground. There was something hypnotic about touching the damp black-brown dust with my fingers. I could have kneaded and stroked the soil for hours. I scattered the seed into styrofoam containers and then marked the containers. I placed them under the window and watered them.
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I was still trying to come up with the next class lesson. I read in a book for the course materials that Wittgenstein didn’t in fact want to be a gardener but an aeronautical engineer. Does that mean a pilot, or something else? The answers were becoming less clear. I returned to the window and looked down again with a kind of resignation. Maybe Ibn al-Rawandi had just wanted to be alone. All I’d have to do is persuade myself I’m a sunbird. Nobody would believe that I’d jumped out of the window immediately after planting the seeds. I can already see people whispering that somebody had pushed me. Otherwise why would he have planted the tomatoes, zaatar, radishes and lettuce?

*

I didn’t go to the Sheikh Radwan cemetery anymore, as I explained to Fadi, because there were too many fresh graves there. It seemed vulgar to visit them all one by one. He pulled out a cigarette, which he snapped in two, giving me the half without the filter. His lip blisters had been there for weeks now and he couldn’t really manage the tiny cigarette ends and loose tobacco bits any more. I put my half away in my pocket, for later. He looked at me and shrugged. As he smoked, I wondered if he could feel the smoke wriggle through each brachial track in his one lung, slowing as it went into the smaller shoots. I wondered if he could feel it eek pointlessly out into the cavity left in the other side. I wondered if the meaninglessness was comforting somehow.
.
No one can claim that he’d done me a favor, or I him, by sharing  our cigarettes, but it felt that way. “Life and me, we’re even now,” he said to me. “If you put us on the scales of a balance, we would balance out. That is why I have no pangs of conscience or regret over what I have done. Not because I am pleased with what I have done, but because it was bought with my own suffering and blood.” We sat together, staying together while only one of us was dying of lung cancer.

*

The imam from Welayat had sent word to the girls that Ghazala had died. They asked about me, but I don’t know what he told them. I quickened my pace when I passed the mosque on the street to our home, but he stopped me briefly. “Whatever happens, they should know that I’m okay,” I told him as I hurried onward.
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Akeed,” he said; his voice trailed after me, aware of its own lost meaning.
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I continued to flip through books, read, and wait for the tomatoes, zaatar, radishes, and lettuce to grow. Humans live out of curiosity. That’s the most humane way anyway. Anything else is just a false way of courting other people’s tears. Camus demanded and gave melodramatic explanations. I was coming to my own conclusions. For those whose death isn’t accidental, the situation is as follows: women and homosexuals slit their wrists; soldiers and athletes shoot themselves in the head; actors and romantics swallow pills; the clumsy and the neurotic shoot themselves in the heart; the ignorant and the perverse hang themselves; the ambitious and weak jump off bridges; the disconsolate and intellectuals jump from rooftops or top floors. I couldn’t tell the students any of this. Teaching Philosophy in Gaza was like trying to find peace after Akhmatova’s son was taken to the gulags. It would not be possible for the rest of one’s life.

*

The radishes were the first to sprout, followed by the lettuce and finally the zaatar. The tiny leaves are as soft as a newborn baby’s hair. I watered them before I went to visit Fadi in the hospital. He has shrunken to half his size. I offered him a cigarette as we sat on the bench in front of the hospital. He took a penknife out of his pocket, divided the cigarette in two and gave me the end with the filter. He’s got used to having the other end, he says, it doesn’t bother him any more. We sat and smoked. We didn’t talk about Wittgenstein anymore.

*

The lettuce was the first to be ready for picking. I pulled off two heads, washed them, wrapped them in newspaper, and took them to the market. I gave them to the first woman who came along in exchange for two cigarettes. A Syrian construction worker said he would have given me two whole packs of cigarettes for the lettuce. Akeed, I replied, but the woman obviously didn’t have two whole packs of cigarettes. The construction worker swore under his breath at me and went off. I didn’t want to haggle like the women in the jewelry boutiques, like relatives in hospital waiting rooms. Besides, I’d only needed two cigarettes.

*

This is the story as I have set it out in detail, sure, but I am losing track of time.
.
I pulled out three small, unripened radishes and washed them. I put the two cigarettes in my other pocket and went to the hospital. Almost timidly, the doctor asked me if Fadi had been a relation of mine. I said, “No,” and knew that my friend had died.
.
“I’m sorry,” replied the doctor, extending his hand, “but you will no longer be able to speak with him.”
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Akeed,” I said, pulling out the cigarettes and radishes. “I understand.” I paused. “These are for you because you looked after Fadi.” He shivered in disgust at the cigarettes and withdrew his hand. “Don’t be silly,” I smiled.
.
"Take them.”
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“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just tired,” and he took the three radishes and the two cigarettes.
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“It’ll be okay,” I said, turning away and going down the stairs.
.
At the bottom of the stairs, I felt the doctor’s hand on my shoulder. We went outside and sat on the bench. Two girls waited for a shared taxi to arrive. An old Benz nearly careened onto the curb they were waiting on, and they yelled obscenities as the driver sped off. The doctor offered me a cigarette and put the other in his mouth. As we sat there, people were running about in blood-stained white coats. I remembered the white coat of the emergency doctor touching Ghazala’s throat.
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“I’m very sorry for your loss,” the doctor said finally.
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Akeed,” I replied again. I told him the whole story from the beginning about the seeds, the fertilizer, the white styrofoam containers, and the sprouting plants. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, just nodding his head. I think he really was a tired man.
.
On the way back to our home, the darkness was dense – no, it was not the darkness, but smoke that bore into my eyes creating patches
of darkness and light. I closed my eyes in order to see, as I always did; I closed my eyes in order to let the light retreat from the darkness. Then I opened them to see. I tried to recall the smell of the Sycamore. I longed to long for the Villa Gardenia.
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I stood in heavy silence that resembled darkness.
.
What is the difference.

*

The lettuce, radish, zaatar, and tomatoes continued to grow. I often relaxed as I leaned out of the window. The grass between the concrete slabs was already getting dry. Autumn was on its way. The white styrofoam containers will remain empty. It’s not easy to get rid of unwanted things.
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I’d made a promise to go back to the beginning and I’ve kept it, but I cannot resolve the subject or answer the question. What is required of me is truth, not imagination. I have said what I can on the subject, but I cannot imagine more (anymore). Now I am remembering and not imagining, and there is a great distance between the two. Remembering is imagination, too, as memories come back to me like Darwish’s Requiem and bring me into a long night, but I cannot lead to the location. I am not writing a story, but the truth. You should know that sometimes there is more than one truth. Najiba Ahmad believed that a bird is not a stone, but I know that sometimes a bird is a stone. I know that if I point you to any specific place, you will go there and search, and if you do not find anything – and of course you will not find anything – my punishment will have consequences.
.
Right now you are looking at the window’s ledge. There’s nothing there.

Contributor
Alexei Perry Cox

Alexei Perry Cox is a Montreal-based writer, currently dividing her time between Lebanon and Canada. Her work has been published in Matrix, Vallum, and Cosmonauts Avenue amongst others. Her first poetry collection Under Her (Insomniac Press 2015) was largely written in Beirut. Her next works are always in the works, including a novel entitled Autoportrait, Suicide and a collection of short stories entitled To Utter a Life’s Sentence.

Footnotes:   [ + ]

1. The name of a poetry collection by Darwish
2. Soviet rockets
3. Translation of “naturally” or “of course” in Arabic
4. Carboy or large jug used to transport water
5. Thyme
6. Evening or sunset prayer for Muslims
7. Food preserves
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