Obscure Signals

The wilderness spreads open under the sky. Two colors divided by a mirage. Blue and brown. The world is reduced to symbols. The desert acacia digs its roots deep into the barren sands. From afar, with their hunched thorny branches, the trees look like giant green beetles crouching on themselves. Bird flying in different directions, as if caught in an endless labyrinth




by Luay Abdul-Ilah

Translated from the Arabic by Hisham Matar


In  2003, after 26 years of not being able to visit the city I grew up in, I boarded a plane for Baghdad. I remember the last time I saw the family home. Its low fence and black gate, my mother tossing a bucket of water to guarantee my speedy return. When my mother had died the house was sold , then it exchanged hands several times after that. I was sure its features had altered completely.

When I returned to London I opened the notebook that had accompanied me on the trip. I was curious how, from this safe distance, I would find what I had written:  fragments quickly scribbled down under exceptional circumstances, sometimes in a stolen moment  of the day, and sometimes at night beside a lamp or a candle in some resting place. Goethe says that what occurs in our minds is by far greater than what is said, and what we speak greater than what we write. So how am I to read this diary?

One pleasure in my trip was the company of my friend, the poet Fadhil Assultani. We had left Iraq together in 1977 and parted ways in Damascus, from where he had gone on to Morocco and I to Algeria. Years later we both settled in London. And there we were now, returning home via the Syrian capital.

16 November

Today the journey begins. London’s morning sky was astonishingly blue and still. And the half- naked trees were damp with autumn dew. I was late arriving at the airport. I reached the baggage check-in lime at eight twenty; the flight to Damascus was due to depart at eight- fifty. What’s more, Fadhil was nowhere to be seen. I called his mobile phone but didn’t get an answer. I was overcome with the thought that I might have to travel alone, but them he turned up a minute before I reached the head of the queue. “it’s a warning sign,” he said, laughing.

Our fellow passengers were mostly from Syria and the Indian subcontinent- Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Many dressed in traditional clothes. Some men brought out small bottles of scent and perfumed their busy beards.

We took off at ten- thirty. It was thanks to this delay that we were able to make the flight.

17 November

We landed yesterday in Damascus. The repetitive delays at the start of the trip, coupled with the discovery at the Syrian border that both of our visas had been expired three days age, afflicted Fadhil and I with an air superstition. Perhaps we should have not come; perhaps our friends in London were right =, that it was far too dangerous to visit Iraq so soon after the American-backed invasion. But the Immigrations Office finally allowed us to enter Damascus.

I had not slept four hours when early this morning the vociferate din of the Damascus sun filled my room and woke me up. Then came  an illusive feeling of fear and doubt. We have decided  to take this trip against all the warnings, the road accidents, the thefts, the car bombs and countless haphazard civilian deaths. We had heard about these things not only form the media but through people we know who were living under the occupation.

Several times today I reread lines I had copied out from Tolstoy’s War and Peace  into my notebook:”[Men of action] were moved by fear or vanity, rejoiced or were indignant, reasoned, imagining that they knew what they were doing and did it of their own free will, but they all were involuntary tools of history, carrying on a work concealed from them but comprehensible  to us.” I continued reading, but from another passage which I had also copied into the notebook:”Providence compelled all these men, striving to attain personal aims, to further the accomplishment of the stupendous result no one of them at all expected-neither Napoleon, nor Alexander, and still less any of those who did the actual fighting.”

I rewrite the last quote again , this time inserting other names, making it read like this: Provident compelled all these men… no one of them at all expected-neither Napoleon, nor Alexander, Bush, Saddam, Blair, and still less any of those who id the actual fighting.

I reread this astonishing passage in which Tolstoy views history as  a form of metaphysics: man lives on the level of self-awareness, yet he is unaware that he functions as a tool for history’s general plan. Finally concluding that: “History, that is , the unconscious, general, swarm-life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purpose.”

17 November

Yesterday I called an Iraqi travel agency in Damascus. I got its number from my friend Muthar Abbas. Before saying goodbye in London he had pressured my hand and said, “The driver must be trustworthy.” His advice inspired a bewildering sense of anxiety in me. Iraq, the country which I had left more than a quarter of a century ago, was a model of security. And regardless of what I have heard about the changes that have taken place, my memory remains resistant . this is longing’s promise.

The driver’s voice on the phone gave me an impression that he was barely twenty years old. Still, his Baghdadi accent inspired confidence. In order to avoid the harsh heat and reach the border in good time, we agreed to set off tomorrow at 3.30 AM. He will come with his taxi car, which he referred to as the dolphin, to pick us up from in front of the Lavant Hotel where Fadhil and I are staying.

17 November

Unlike all the previous visits to Damascus, this time I am overcome with a sense of indifference toward the city. Up to now, Damascus had been the surrogate mother, taking the place of Baghdad. I had often come here , walked down the bends of these old alleyways, only to awaken memories of Baghdad, the city where I had spent the first twenty- seven years of my life. But Damascus was always a poor replacement, unable to fully awaken the particularities of childhood. And now the resemblance serves only to increase my longing. But what pleases the soul in Damascus is that its streets are always infiltrated with evergreens whereas Baghdad’s old alleyways are usually bare of any green foliage. The past is rewriting itself more beautifully.

This evening al-Hamra Street was full of pedestrians walking in a luxurious state of ease, their steps betrayed not a shade of fear. The street was vaguely lit by pools of light coming from the shop fronts, creating the feeling that mysterious things might emerge from within the crowds. Dreamily I said to Fadhil, “I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow we will long for this street.”

17 November

I detect a nebulous feeling that I have surrendered my freewill. I have set off on a journey on which my fate will be determined by factors outside of my control: the driver, his car and what we shall meet on the way. An old question returns: Why go now and not in six months, as some friends in London had advised? History demands that its witnesses be at the heart of the event. Six months from now it will be too late to observe the changes taking place on the ground, for by then those events themselves would have become history.

17 November

The trip will reveal more about me than the situation in Iraq; the inner more than the outer. I recalled Ibn Arabi’s words: “All journeys are circular.”

18 November

At 3.30 AM we stood waiting beside a mobile tea seller and his bicycle in front of the hotel. He had lit scraps of wood broken off packing-boxes for fire. After waiting for the driver for almost an hour and fifteen minutes Fadhil and I left our luggage with the hotel receptionist and went on a long walk. A refreshing coolness had permeated the early morning air.

Later when the travel office had opened, I called and got the voice of the driver. “I arrived a minute after you had left.” “why were you late?” I asked. “I over slept …Shall I come now?” We returned to the hotel and waited. After a couple of hours we decided that neither the driver nor his taxi the dolphin were ever going to turn up.

18 November

I called a friend in Damascus. She said she knew of a trusted travel agency. In less than an hour we had our plans arranged. The driver will pick us up tomorrow morning. This time the car will be a GMC saloon. Good, I thought, it must be faster and more comfortable than a taxi!

18 November

We met our old friend Talib Dawoud who had just returned from Iraq a week ago. He has lived in Damascus since ’85. And before that he and I had worked together for a few years in Algeria. Unlike the optimistic reaction of other friends who had visited Iraq since the change had taken place, Dawoud’s impression was dark but one I suspected closer to reality.

“Instead of one Saddam, now we have ten thousand Saddams. Instead of having the authority of the state in the hands of one man, now you’ll find thousands of small despots claiming authority.”

“Would you say that we are living through a civil war?” I asked.

“No. I call it a phase of encampment: lines dividing the various factions. It is a world on a time bomb. I knew a student who had tried to move back to Baghdad. After a few weeks he returned to Damascus. I asked him, ‘Is there nothing pleasing about Iraq?’ ‘Yes,’ he told me. ‘You will enjoy the family gatherings a great deal. Iraqis have found many ways to entertain themselves after having been forced for over twenty years to spend the majority of their time indoors.’”

18 November

Later, Fadhil and I went to the Journalists Club. The place was full, raucous with loud music and the chatter of its members. Fadhil and I agreed that the only way we were going to find out whether we had lost or gained our country was by going there.

19 November

Aljazeera, close to Baghdad. On the road to childhood. There is nothing but emptiness for the eye. Dust and thorns and a silent sky. We must have passed Aleppo by now. Coming close to the border towns.

19 November

The wilderness spreads open under the sky. Two colours divided by a mirage. Blue on brown. The world is reduced to symbols. The desert acacia digs its roots deep into the barren sands. From afar, with their hunched thorny branched, the trees look like giant green beetles crouching on to themselves. Birds flying in different directions, as if caught in an endless labyrinth.

19 November

At first the sudden fog was unsettling. A moist, pentateuchal fog signalling the start of life. We passed silently through it. At the border birds chirped. It was astonishing to hear them. White walls, gates, briars, barbed wire.

From War and Piece by Leo Tolstoy, Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude
Ibid, Pg.731.
Ibid, Pg 648

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