art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: The Librarian Of Basra.

librarian/image © The Librarian of Basra/

Here is a real-life hero story. Alia Muhammad Baqer was the chief librarian in the Al Basrah Central Library in Basra (Iraq). Baqer saved around thirty thousand books from destruction during the Iraq War, including a biography of Muhammad from around 1300.

Her story inspired two children’s books, one of them being The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter (illustrated by Winter in bright acrylic and ink). It might be presented as a children’s book, but this lovely story is out there for everyone.

The book is written in a simple style and it’s very easy to understand, but the story it describes is not a simple one – it took a lot of courage to do what Alia Baqer and her friends did.

Baqer worked at the library for fourteen years.  As the war spread out, she tried to make sure books from the library would be safe, but the government officials denied her requests that the books be moved to safety. That is when she started to smuggle books out of the library.

The-Librarian-of-Basra-image

Soon after the 2003 invasion Basra was suffering from a humanitarian crisis in which residents lacked both water and electricity. The city was suffering, its people were suffering. Not long after Alia smuggled most of the books, the library was also destroyed.

Her new mission at the time was to raise funds to rebuild the library. The library was rebuilt a year later and she was reinstated as chief librarian.

One thing you could say is missing from this book is showing the sides involved and responsible for the war – that is not represented. It definitely doesn’t want to burden children (and adults) with US involvment in the war.

Some people would say that’s a good thing – beacuse it shows a war story, and all war stories are alike and show how wars never work, how they destroy societies. That is the most important thing, I guess.

On the other hand, you could say there needs to be an awareness, a burden of responsibility, for this is a war that is still going on, and it is a war that didn’t just happen. Our lives are political (and politicized) from an early age, and we do not need to run away from that fact or protect children from it.

I am also aware of that fact that more people enjoyed this book without the political stuff in it, because it makes them feel better and it doesn’t open the space for criticism, anger, doubt, protest. This book could have given more if you look at it that way.

Still, I appreciate it for introducing me to Alia Baqer, a woman who thought about more than her own safety and well-being in the worst of conditions. She thought about the future, did something heroic for the land of uncertainty that is tomorrow.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Hand Full Of Stars

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

Night Draws Near

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: Night Draws Near.

tumblr_mxq7ppmmuh1rouua1o10_500/photo © Jehad Nga: Something in the WayIraq, 2010/

I often search for books on Iraq written by reporters who’ve spent a lot of months and years writing, understanding, witnessing – trying to come as close as possible to the truth of it all. Anthony Shadid was one of those reporters.

Shadid was a Lebanese-American writer, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Baghdad and Beirut. He died three years ago, from an acute asthma attack while attempting to leave Syria.

I finally read his book Night Draws Near: Iraq’s people in the Shadow of America’s War. The book was published almost ten years ago, and it might seem I am really late for reading this. The sad truth is that Iraq today is not much different from the one Shadid describes in the book – in it, the night draws near fast and everything is ghamidha, ambigious.

Shadid writes: “Baghdad is a city of lives interrupted, its history a story of loss, waiting, and resilience. In the days before the American invasion in March 2003, the capital scarred by war after war felt torn, aggrieved, and filled with longing for the greatness it once possessed and has never forgotten.”

jead/photo © Jehad Nga/

He is great at observing how the greatness Baghdad once possessed plays a formative role in Iraqi culture of memory:

Rome can still see its past, the magnificence of its ancient empire gracing the modern cityscape. Paris and London, storied cities reinventing themselves as they age across centuries, live in their histories, which surround them. Baghdad, its ancient grandeur utterly destroyed, cannot see its past, its glory. It can only remember. Baghdad’s is a culture of memory, the city that draws strength and pride from the myths to which it continually returns. But the curse of recalling is the reminder of what has been lost.”

This book is a rare accomplishment because its focus is almost entirely on Iraqi people and the way this long war cripples their lives. Unlike many reporters, Shadid doesn’t forget that and doesn’t end up writing a book about himself (which is what many journalists do). He went independently through Iraq, detached from US forces, and on daily basis he asked the Iraqi people how they feel about the state of affairs in their country.

The dichotomy of the war (Washington vs. Baghdad, media vs. reality) becomes very obvious in this book. The war that is at the same time proclaimed a liberation and an occupation, is after all and before all – a war. Shadid notes all the little frustrations of the people – who cannot understand the efficiency of a superpower (US) that can take out their leader in couple of weeks, but is so inefficient in keeping the electricity running.

Throughout the book, we meet Iraqi people, different people with different backgrounds (social status, education, religion), and see how all their lives became similiar – reduced to war. We meet, for example, fourteen-year-old girl, Amal, who kept a diary starting around the beginning of the war. We see how she changes with time, how war changes her.

Shadid alo explains how fundamentalist used the growing hatred of America and found a way to appeal to young people – mostly desperate, without work and sense of purpose (and future) in life. At the same time when I read this book, I was also reading The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra, and it is just incredible how similiar these books are in their atmosphere – although Khadra’s book is a work of fiction.

Night Draws Near is a truly important book – for all of us to understand, for all of us to bare witness. That is the fair thing to do, that is the least we can do.

Through its storied history, Baghdad has had many names. Its medieval Abassid rulers knew it as Medinat al-Salam, the City of Peace. I hope it returns to that.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Edward Said on Parochialism and Palestine.

edward said/Edward Said, photo via reformancers/

In ten days, on 25th of September, will be twelve years since Edward Said died. This month Middle East Revised will publish excerpts from Said’s books, interviews and films about Said and his work.

The following is an excerpt from Culture and Resistance, Conversations with Edward Said, Interviews by David Barsamian (South End Press, 2008.).

• • •

After you visited Israel, you went to Egypt, where you encountered some parochialism. Did that take you by surprise?

No, because I confronted it before. That is to to say, what you notice amongst Palestinians, whether inside Israel or on the West Bank and Gaza, is a sense of isolation. There’s no question that they live under the shadow of Israeli power. What is missing is easy and natural contact with the rest of the Arab world.

As a Palestinian, you can’t get to any place in the Arab world from Israel or the West Bank and Gaza without going through a fairly complicated procedure, which causes you to think three or four times before you do: crossing the border, you need permits, you go through endless customs. I must say, for Palestinians traveling throughout the Arab world – and this is also true of me, and I have an American passport, but the fact that it says on it that I was born in Jerusalem means that I’m always put to one side – you’re automatically suspected. So traveling and being in contact with the Arabs in the Arab world for Palestinains is very difficult.

More important even that is that very few Arabs who are not Palestinians come into Palestinian territories, and hardly any at all, practically none, go to Israel. One of the themes – and this is kind of complicated thing to explain, amongst the nationalist and radical intellectuals of most Arab countries, which would include the Gulf people, it certainly includes Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan – has been the opposition to what they called “normalization,” tatbee in Arabic, meaning the normalization of life between Israel and, in the case of Jordan and Egypt, Arab states who have made formal peace with Israel.

The peace with Egypt is described, as it is with Jordan, as a cold peace. The peace with Egypt is described, as it is with Jordan, as a cold peace. In other words, ordinary Jordanians or Egyptians, don’t go to Israel, have nothing to do with Israelis. Israeli tourists go to Jordan and Egypt and visit the historic sites in buses for short periods of time. But beyond that, there’s very little in the way of the kind of intercourse, say, exchanges between universities, learned societies, businesses, and so on, that occur between European countries or neighboring countries otherwise at peace in any other part of the world. One of the reasons for this has been the general refused, as an act of solidarity with Palestinians, of these intellectuals to have anything to do with Israel.

The problem this poses for Palestinians, trying to build institutions, is they are being cut off from the kind of help they can get from Arabs. For example, physicians and other medical professionals from Egypt, Syrian, Lebanon or Jordan could come and assist Palestinians in setting up clinics and hospitals. They could be involved in a whole range of activities from administration to the production of pharmaceuticals. But it doesn’t happen because of this stance against normalization. Similarly, university students who read important scholars, journalists, writers, and poets from various Arab countries don’t get the opportunity to meet them.

When I now encounter Arabs and go to those Arab countries, I say to them, especially to to the Egyptians, you can go to Palestine. You can go through Israel, because Israel and Egypt are at peace. You can take advantage of that to go to Palestinians and go to their institutions and help them, appearing, speaking, being there for some time, training them. No, they say, we can’t possibly allow our passports to be stamped. We won’t go to the Israeli embassy and get visas. We won’t submit to the humiliation of being examined by Israeli policemen at the border or their barrier.

I find this argument vaguely plausible on one level but really quite cowardly on the other. It would seem to me that if they took their pride out of it, if they did go through an Israeli checkpoint or barricade or border, they would be doing what other Palestinians do every day and see what it’s like. Second, as I keep telling them, by doing that it’s not recognizing Israel or giving Israel any credit.

On the contrary, it’s going through that in order to demonstrate and be with Palestinians and help them. For example, as Palestinians face the Israeli bulldozers as they expropriate land and destroy houses for settlements, it would be great if there were a large number of Egyptians and Jordanians and others who could be there with Palestinians confronting this daily, minute-by-minute threat. And the same in universities. Well-known writers, intellectuals, historians, philosophers, film starts could go, but they say, We don’t want to have to request visas from the Israeli consulate in Cairo. I said, You don’t even have to do that. You can ask the Palestinian Authority, which has an ambassador in Cairo, to give you an invitation to go to Gaza, and then you can go to the West Bank.

So there are ways of getting around it. It’s not so much only parochialism as also a kind of laziness, a kind of sitting back and expecting somebody else to do it. I think that’s our greatest enemy, the absence of initiative [my emphasis]. We’re always expecting that the Israelis are out there, the Americans, concocting conspiracies, the Ford Foundtion. Many people want to work with these people groups but are afraid to do it publicly. They do it surreptitiously.

And in public they express opposition and say, We are going to remain untouched by this. We are not going to normalize. We refuse to have anything to do with imperialism. We refuse to sit down and plan something that could actually help Palestinians and actually deal with Israel, not as a fictional entity but as a real power that is in many ways negatively affecting Arab life.

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art of resistance

Abd El-Hadi Fights A Superpower.

syria_slideshow

/Drawing by a Syrian refugee, via PBS/

I love to think of poetry (and writing in general) as a journey to the deepest of depths, as a way of exposing open wounds, as a way of healing – in the end. While Europe ‘battles’ with refugees, poems and poets, novels and writers, keep on coming to my mind.

I think of Taha Muhammad Ali’s simple man, Abd El-Hadi, who fights a superpower. I think of Nadezhda Mandelstam and the way she survived through the worst of times so that she could talk about the worst of times, the way she lost everybody and lived to keep them alive – to save Osip’s poetry, to make sure nobody forgets the way he and thousands of others died. So here it is – pain, wars, exile – a small refugee blues, in a way…

“And after his death – or even before it, perhaps – he lived on in camp legend as a demented old man of seventy who had once written poetry in the outside world and was therefore nicknamed The Poet. And another old man – or was it the same one? – lived in the transit camp of Vtoraya Rechka, waiting to be shipped to Kolyma, and was thought by many people to be Osip Mandelstam – which, for all I know, he may have been. That is all I have been able to find out about the last days, illness and death of Mandelstam. Others know very much less about the death of their dear ones.”

Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam

“Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because they do not belong, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortable lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth lest they be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as theirs. Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves.”

We need new names, NoViolet Bulawayo

“I said, what is a homeland? I was asking myself that question a moment ago. Naturally. What is a homeland? Is it these two chairs that remained in this room for twenty years? The table? Peacock feathers? The picture of Jerusalem on the wall? The copper lock? The oak tree? The balcony? What is a homeland? Khaldun? Our illusions of him? Fathers? Their sons? What is a homeland? Is it the picture of his brother hanging on the wall? I’m only asking… Once again, Safiyya began to weep. She dried her tears with a small white handkerchief. Looking at her, Said thought: How this woman has aged. She squandered her youth waiting for this moment, not knowing what a terrible moment it would be.”

Returning to Haifa, Ghassan Kanafani

In his life

he neither wrote nor read.

In his life he

didn’t cut down a single tree,

didn’t slit the throat

of a single calf.

In his life he did not speak

of the New York Times

behind its back,

didn’t raise

his voice to a soul

except in his saying:

“Come in, please,

by God, you can’t refuse.”

              

Nevertheless—

his case is hopeless,

his situation

desperate.

His God-given rights are a grain of salt

tossed into the sea.

 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:

about his enemies

my client knows not a thing.

And I can assure you,

were he to encounter

the entire crew

of the aircraft carrier Enterprise,

he’d serve them eggs

sunny-side up,

and labneh

fresh from the bag.

Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower, Taha Muhammad Ali

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no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

 

your neighbors running faster than you

breath bloody in their throats

the boy you went to school with

who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory

is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay.

 

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms

under trains

beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled

means something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences

no one wants to be beaten

pitied

no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching

or prison,

because prison is safer

than a city of fire

and one prison guard

in the night

is better than a truckload

of men who look like your father

no one could take it

no one could stomach it

no one skin would be tough enough

the

go home blacks

refugees

dirty immigrants

asylum seekers

sucking our country dry

niggers with their hands out

they smell strange

savage

messed up their country and now they want

to mess ours up

how do the words

the dirty looks

roll off your backs

maybe because the blow is softer

than a limb torn off

 

or the words are more tender

than fourteen men between

your legs

or the insults are easier

to swallow

than rubble

than bone

than your child body

in pieces.

i want to go home,

but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home told you

to quicken your legs

leave your clothes behind

crawl through the desert

wade through the oceans

drown

save

be hunger

beg

forget pride

your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying-

leave,

run away from me now

i dont know what i’ve become

but i know that anywhere

is safer than here

Home, Warsan Shire

To the families and lovers at the bottom of the sea, trying to reach Europe.

I.

How do we overcome war and poverty only to drown in your sea?

II.

Misrata, Libya
Habeebi just take the boat.
In front of you : Bahr.
Behind you : Harb.
And the border, closed.
Your Sea, Mare,Bahr. Our war, our Harb.

III.

Augusta, Italy
Where is the interpreter?
This is my family.
Baba, mama, baby all washed up on the shore. This is 28 shoeless survivors and thousands of bodies.
Bodies Syrian, Bodies Somali, Bodies Afghan, Bodies Ethiopian, Bodies Eritrean.
Bodies Palestinian.
Your Sea, Mare,Bahr. Our war, our Harb.

IV.

Alexandria, Egypt
Habeebi, just take the boat.
Behind you Aleppo and Asmara, barrel bombs and Kalashnikovs.
In front of you a little bit of hope.
Your Sea, Mare, Bahr. Our war, our Harb.

V.

Maps on our backs.
Long way from home.

No search, No rescue, Jehan Bseiso

The Day I die

My killer will find

Tickets in my pocket:

One to peace,

One to the fields and the rain,

And one to humanity’s conscience.

I beg you – please don’t waste them

I beg you, you who killed me: go.

Travel Tickets, Samih Al-Qasim

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art of resistance, Lebanon

The Book To Read: The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine.

blog_OP_bubbles_hakawati/illustration by Ayloul, for the article ‘The Hakawati, a story in pieces‘, The Outpost magazine/

“A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables. A storyteller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns. Like the word ‘hekayah’ story, fable, news, hakawati is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki’, which means talk or conversation. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine has had a good number of notable works by now, but this is his first book I (finally) managed to read. The rain was pouring most of the days last week, so I sat on my little balcony, letting myself go where Alameddine takes me. It was a good journey – I was bewitched and wanted more with every page.

In its essence, The Hakawati is an hommage to all the great storytellers of the Arab world and the art of storytelling itself. It is a story about the magic of stories and it was done so well it became magic in itself. And really – where would we be, what would we know, how would we feel – without stories? There’s no life, no memories, no history without stories. Like Alameddine writes:

What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”

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/The Hakawati, photo via Leonard Shoup/

The Hakawati is a mixture of stories that unravel throughout the book –  it is a historical novel and a family saga, and an impressive short story collection told at the same time. It takes its inspiration from everywhere – old Arab folktales, the Bible, the Qur’an, modern Lebanese storytellers, etc.

Music also pulls its strings here – particularly the oud, an instrument that was so important for Osama (the main character). And there’s more than one reference to the great Umm Kalthoum and the notion of tarab – known in Arab music as a musical ecstasy, the merger between music and emotional transformation.

The book is also a sort of a love letter to Beirut and Lebanon. Which doesn’t mean their relationship is perfect – like all great lovers, they went through a lot of turmoil. Osama returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. The Beirut he finds is a shell of the Beirut he remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that have always sustained them: gossip, laughter, and – stories. Alameddine writes:

“Like all cities, Beirut has many layers, and I had been familiar with one or two. What I was introduced to that day with Ali and Kamal was the Beirut of its people. You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.”

You’ll come to know the diversity of Beirut through this book – there’s Elie, the neighbourhood bully and a militia leader, Osama and his half-Druze family (his mother is Christian and his sister Lina too), Jewish childhood friend Fatima, and a lot of other striking characters.

They are all lost – being the young generation during the Lebanese civil war – like their lives have been on hold for too long and now it’s hard to press the play button again. But if there ever was and is comfort, it is found in stories. Osama digs through the stories of where he came from – at times it is to know that he was and is at all, and at times it is to know where he can go or that he can go (on) at all.

And that is the beauty of stories – no matter how lost you are, you can always find your place and your people there. It is the eternal shelter –  you can just sit there and wait till the storm passes.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

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art of resistance, Lebanon, Palestine

Elias Khoury: Gate of the Sun.

The following is an excerpt from Elias Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun (translated by Humphrey Davies). Drawing on the stories Khoury gathered from refugee camps over the course of many years, Gate of the Sun has been called the first magnum opus of the Palestinian saga.

gate-of-the-sun

Umm Hassan is dead. I saw everyone racing through the alleys of the camp and heard the sound of weeping. Everyone was spilling out of their houses, bent over to catch their tears, running. Nabilah, Mahmoud al-Qasemi’s wife, our mother, was dead. We called her mother because everyone born in the Shatila camp fell from their mother’s guts into her hands. I too had fallen into her hands, and I too ran the day she died.

Umm Hassan came from al-Kweikat, her village in Galilee, to become the only midwife in Shatila – a woman of uncertain age and without children. I only knew her when she was old, with stooped shoulders, a face full of creases, large eyes shining in a white square, and a white cloth covering her white hair. Our neighbor, Sana’, the wife of Karim al-Jashi the kunafa  seller, said Umm Hassan dropped in on her the night before last and told her her death was coming.

“I heard its voice, daughter. Death whispers, and its voice is soft.”

Speaking in her half-Bedouin accent she told Sana’ about the messenger of death. “The messenger came in the morning and told me to get ready.” And she told Sana’ how she wanted to be prepared for burial. “She took me by the hand,” said Sana’, “led me to her house, opened her wooden trunk, and showed me the white silk shroud. She told me she would bathe before she went to sleep: ‘I’ll die pure, and I want only you to wash me.’ “

Umm Hassan is dead. Everyone knew that this Monday morning, November 20th, 1995, was the time set for Nabilah, Fatimah’s daughter, to meet death. Everyone awoke and waited, but no one was brave enough to go to her house to discover she was dead. Umm Hassan had told everyone, and everyone believed her. Only I was taken by surprise. I stayed with you until eleven at night, and then, exhausted, I went to my room and slept. It was night, the camp was asleep, and no one told me. But everyone else knew.

No one would question Umm Hassan because she always told the truth. Hadn’t she been the only one to weep on the morning of June 5, 1967? Everyone was dancing in the streets, anticipating going home to Palestine, but she wept. She told everyone she’d decided to wear mourning. Everyone laughed and said Umm Hassan had gone mad. Throughout the six long days of the war she never opened the windows of her house; on the seventh, out she came to wipe away everyone’s tears. She said she knew Palestine would not come back until all of us had died.

Over the course of her long life, Umm Hassan had buried her four children one after the other. They would come to her borne on planks, their clothes covered in blood. All she had left was a son called Naji, who lived in America. Though Naji wasn’t her real son, he was: She had picked him up from beneath an olive tree on the Kabri-Tarshiha road and had fed him from her dry breasts, then returned him to his mother when they reached the village of Qana, in Lebanon.

Umm Hassan died today. No one dared go into her house. About twenty women gathered to wait, then Sana’ came and knocked on the door, but no one opened it. She pushed it, it opened, she went in and ran to the bedroom. Umm Hassan was sleeping, her head covered with her white headscarf. Sana’ went over and took her by the shoulders, and the chill of death flowed into the hands of the kunafa-seller’s wife, who screamed. The women entered, the weeping began, and everyone raced to the house.

I, too, would like to run with the others, go in with them, see Umm Hassan sleeping her eternal sleep and breathe in the smell of olives that clung to her small home. But I didn’t weep. For three months I’ve been incapable of reacting. Only this man floating above his bed makes me feel the throb of life.

For three months he’s been laid out on his bed in Galilee Hospital, where I work as a doctor, or where I pretend that I’m a doctor. I sit next to him, and I try. Is he dead or alive? I don’t know – am I helping or tormenting him? Should I tell him stories or listen to him?

For three months I’ve been in this room. Today Umm Hassan died, and I want him to know, but he doesn’t hear. I want him to come with me to her funeral, but he won’t get up. They said he fell into a coma. An explosion in the brain causing permanent damage. A man lies in front of me, and I have no idea what to do.

I’ll just try not to let him rot while he’s still alive, because I’m sure he’s asleep, not dead. But what difference does it make? Is it true what Umm Hassan said about a sleeper being like a dead man – that the sleeper’s soul leaves his body only to return when he wakes, but that the dead man’s soul leaves and doesn’t come back?

Where is the soul of Yunes, son of Ibrahim, son of Suleiman al-Asadi? Has it left him for a distant place, or is it hovering above us in the hospital room, asking me not to go because the man is immersed in distant darknesses, afraid of the silence? I swear I’ve no idea. On her first visit Umm Hassan said that Yunes was in torment. She said he was in a different place from us.

“So what should I do?” I asked her.

“Do what he tells you,” she answered.

“But he doesn’t speak,” I said.

“Oh yes, he does,” she said, “and it’s up to you to hear his voice.”

And I don’t hear it, I swear I don’t, but I’m stuck to this chair, and I talk and talk. Tell me, I beg of you, what should I do? I sit by your side and listen to the sound of weeping coming through the window of your room. Can’t you hear it? Everyone else is weeping, so why don’t you? It’s become our habit to look out for occasions to weep, for tears are dammed up behind our eyes. Umm Hassan has burst open our reservoir of tears. Why won’t you get up and weep?

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art of resistance

Centenary of the Armenian Genocide: Goodbye, Antoura.

Middle East Revised marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide until the end of this year – with various reports, books recommendations, articles, testimonials.

The following is an excerpt from Karnig Panian’s Goodbye, Antoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide (English translation by Simon Beugekian).

pid_25996/photo via sup.org/

At night, elderly Turkish women patrolled up and down the rows of beds, trying their best to make sure we were all asleep. Some of us slept four to a bed, others eight to a bed, covered by one single blanket, breathing into each other’s faces. On cold nights, boys sometimes pulled the blanket off the others, starting an argument. The commotion would wake up everyone in the dormitory, and the women would do their best to restore order.

Often, the boys cried out in their sleep, or they woke up from a nightmare. When that happened, the Turkish women took their hands, escorted them to the lavatories, washed away their tears, and brought them back to the beds.

I often dreamed of my mother. During these dreams, we had long conversations. I was told that I often whimpered and repeated the word “mother” in my sleep. Her nightly visits were essential to my sanity and survival.

When morning came, we couldn’t help but feel a little bit cheerful. The days were often bright, and out the windows we could see the peaks of mountains in the distance to the east. To the west, in the distance, was the glittering Mediterranean Sea. Around the orphanage were scenic greenery and the beautiful songs of the birds. Despite everything, we had not given up on life yet.

Another thing that lifted our spirits was the set of statues of saints located high on the roofs of the buildings; they seemed to be constantly blessing us. The orphanage had been Turkified, but this place had been a religious school for decades, and even the Turks could not erase every trace of its past. We felt like those statues had successfully fought off any attempts by the Turks to change their identities, and thus, every time we went out to the courtyard, our eyes were drawn to them.

One morning, we heard a terrible noise, and we saw that the Turks were finally destroying the statues. The saints had lost their battle against the orphanage administration.

It was difficult to destroy the statues. By the second day only a few of them had been removed. We saw two of them crash down into the courtyard and shatter into a million pieces. That day, every time the bell rang, we poured out of the classrooms and ran to the shattered pieces, picking them up and fretting about them as if they were true relics of the saints.

“I’ll miss them,” murmured one of the boys.

“They were so lifelike,” added another.

“One of them looked exactly like my grandfather—same height, same mustache,” said a third, picking up some of the rubble.

The boys kept circling the smashed statues. Nobody played in the courtyard that day. We found noses and ears, arms and legs, scattered all over the place. Mindless destruction. The orphanage staff didn’t even bother cleaning up the rubble—the orphans had to collect it all into pails and dispose of it outside the orphanage walls.

Only one statue survived. It was a heavy one, made of bronze, and stood on the altar of the small chapel. But the door of the chapel was always kept locked, so we had no chance of seeing it.

In the first days of our stay in Antoura, the chapel had been a consolation. In the winter it was warm, and in the summer it was cool and breezy. The stained glass windows, decorated with biblical scenes and likenesses of saints, kindled memories of home in our minds.

But the project of Turkification was reaching a new level of intensity. On a daily basis, we heard lectures about Islam, its victories, and the virtue it imparted to the faithful who followed the way of Allah. Some of the boys had succumbed to the pressure already, while the others were under constant assault from the staff and the headmaster.

The administration started locking the chapel doors. It saw the building as a threat to its mission to convert us to Islam.

The orphans cast furtive glances toward the locked doors. “When will they let us back into the chapel?” asked one boy.

“To pray? We can pray anywhere,” answered another. “Remember, boys, we can pray in our beds, in our rooms, or even here in the courtyard.”

“I know that, but I wish I could see the statues inside one more time,” a third added.

“We can’t break down the door, but there are other ways to get in,” insisted a boy named Murad. “I’ll find a way and I’ll let you in, just follow me!”

The bell rang. It was the end of recess, and we had to return to the classrooms. We formed rows and walked into class under the watchful gaze of the teachers. During history class, the teacher asked whether Muhammad traveled on the back of a camel or on the back of a donkey. One of the more daring boys stood up and replied: “Miss, we all know Muhammad traveled on the back of a camel, and he must have really struck a sorry figure. As for those statues, they were beautiful. What was the point of smashing them to pieces?”

The entire class burst into laughter.

“How dare you? What blasphemy!” cried out the teacher, and struck her desk with her ruler.

For the crime of insulting the prophet, the boy had to face the wall and stand on one leg until the end of the class. But the classroom was now out of control, with all the students making a terrible amount of noise.

That night, Murad, as promised, led a group toward the back of the chapel. There we found a tiny door that was unlocked. Once through it, we found ourselves in a secondary room full of drawers, closets, and other furniture, covered by a thick layer of dust. But that didn’t interest us. We crept into the main nave. It was completely dark, save for a glimmer of light peeking through the window. As we approached the altar, we spotted the statue—it was lying on the ground, on its back.

The Turks had managed to dislodge it from its plinth, but they had failed to destroy it. It had only a few nicks here and there. The metallic statue had been too strong for their hammers and anvils. The serene expression on the statue’s face was still the same. In the visage of this statue we found more beauty and dignity than ever.

We all sat solemnly around the fallen statue. There was a silent, holy conversation going on between it and us. We weren’t even quite sure who the statue was supposed to depict. But we knew it was another link to our pasts, another key to our memories.

• • •

This excerpt was first published on Jadaliyya. For more on the centenary of the Armenian genocide, see:

Centenary of the Armenian Genocide: Denying Genocide Means Continuing Genocide

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