Short story by Luay Abdul-Ilah
The famous paradox of Zeno of Elea states that, in order for Achilles’ arrow to fly from point A to point B, it must first fly halfway to point B. But for this to occur, it must first reach half the distance to that halfway point, and half the distance before that, and so on ad infinitum. Accordingly, the arrow can never leave point A. When he read this, Hassan Karim scoffed: “Sportsmen are the sole exception to the law of momentum. Football players move from right to left toward the goal and continue to do so in spite of the obstacles that eleven adversaries throw in their way. Once they score a single goal, Achilles’ arrow has reached point B.”
Yet, Hassan’s movement from East to West strongly resembles the motion of Achilles’ arrow, as described by Zeno. Before ever leaving the Iraqi border, the West had entirely taken possession of his soul. He had grown introverted at an early age due to torments sustained from classmates in the new school in which he was enrolled after his family moved from one city to another in Iraq. However, he soon found a suitable outlet for his mercurial mood and a safe alternative to contact with local peers: the “pen pals” page in an old English-language magazine that his uncle had given him. His first letters, written with his uncle’s help, were sufficient to unleash hereto unsuspected latent talents. Within a month, much to everyone’s surprise, he was able to recall any page from that magazine – once told the issue number – and recite the text by heart, including some entire paragraphs that eluded his comprehension.
Little by little, the West began to infiltrate into his small bedroom through photos of his pen pals, their charming homes and families, and their elegant towns and cities. Hassan pinned these on his bedroom walls alongside the clippings from travel magazines that his distant buddies would enclose in their letters as a means to encourage him to visit them.
It was not long before those images began to penetrate his sleeping life and form the settings for his dreams: houses with pointed roofs instead of flat ones, church spires instead of minarets, streets or fields blanketed in snow or shrouded in fog instead of bathed in bright sunlight.
Just as quickly Hassan discovered how little his friends knew about his own country. He lost count of how often they asked him how many camels his family owned or how many wives his father had or whether his house was made of reeds or camel felt.
With the help of a few books in English that his father had purchased in Beirut, Hassan constructed an imaginary world that conformed with his friends’ preconceived ideas. Thanks to Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights, he forged a bond between past and present that enabled him to resurrect the ancient city walls of Baghdad and to coax Sinbad the Sailor’s ships back into the Euphrates where they glided back and forth on the river’s glistening surface on which played the flames of the boatmen’s torches and the rhythmic splashes of their oars. Particularly useful, as well, was Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. From this he drew much of the imagery he needed to transform his father from midlevel government bureaucrat into well-to-do merchant who owned thirty camels on the humps of which he transported his wares across the vast desert expanses. How often he would accompany his father on these journeys!
That innocent game he invented at this early age gradually turned his life into an illusion. Later, after many years in West, it was only natural that Hassan would come to forget the names of even his closest relatives. When he tried to recall events he had once experienced with his family, they would only flicker before him like wisps of dreams against the backdrops of European landscapes or intermingled with fragments from Arabian Nights.
Helen was his most faithful pen pal. The pictures from her that hung in Hassan’s bedroom reflected different periods of her life, from her infancy through adolescence to her early adulthood. In her letter inviting him to visit her, she only asked for one gift: just a small stone from Babylon.
The gap between two of them was palpable from their first encounter. Helen was drawn to the Oriental past as much as Hassan was drawn to the Occidental present. She would speak to him at length about Hafez-e Shirazi and recite from memory lengthy excerpts from the celebrated Sufi poet’s verse in translation. Every corner of her house displayed antiquities from the East, every epoch represented by watercolours or oils, miniature statues or life-size busts. An ancient Sumerian zither and a winged bull faced a dancing Shiva and a squatting Buddha. Arabesque tiles hung next to pharaonic reliefs.
“Your house is a veritable museum,” Hassan remarked in amazement. But inwardly he felt as disappointed as he was fascinated.
As Hassan discovered in that first meeting, his journey to the West had not yet begun in spite of his deep sense of familiarity with it. As for Helen’s attraction to Hassan, it passed through that diaphanous veil of romanticism that stood between virtual and concrete reality. It was as though her connection with him, by dint of the coincidence of having obtained his address and corresponded with him for so long, held the promise of a karmic significance: behind the material world there is another world governed by ideals; behind the chaos there is an exquisitely manufactured design.
Hassan would continue to build his private world separately from that of the woman who became his wife. While Helen remained in the thralls of the mystique and the chimera of the everlasting, Hassan would remain beguiled by the taunting, illusive present.
Freed from the need to earn a living, he dedicated himself full-time to the study of photography. In Helen’s spacious home, which she had inherited from her grandmother, he equipped his personal darkroom.
After trying his hand at this genre and that, he eventually focused on portrait art. Somewhere between Degas’s ballet dancers and Toulouse Lautrec’s whores and cabaret artistes, Hassan found his calling: capturing the moment of beauty between the etherial and the terrestrial. He thus embarked on a kind of quest between aesthetic poles: the abstract and ideal versus the physical and sensual.
Through the connections of one of his instructors, Hassan entered the worlds of glamour and pornography. Working initially as an assistant photographer, he did the rounds from the theatre stages to sleazy nightclubs until, eventually, his photographs began to attract the attention of some journalists and photo agencies. His success in winning a prestigious award in a major photography contest marked a turning point in his career. In fact, the prize-winning photo was the fruit of serendipity. Just as he was about to snap a photo of a ballet dancer, a bright light flashed into his face. In his darkroom, he discovered that the subject had dissolved into several dancers, pirouetting in interweaving circles. The black and white film enhanced the contrasts between the shadows and the layers of white satin. By eliminating all extraneous details from the negative and refining his vision, Hassan succeeded in grasping that moment of refraction and projecting it in its finest articulation.
Hassan’s colleagues regarded him fondly as a likeable if eccentric character. The reason, perhaps, was his effusiveness towards them. Year in, year out, he would regularly invite them home on weekends despite Helen’s silent grumbling. Should he meet them in pubs or restaurants, he was always the first to reach for the bill with a dramatic flare, gripped by the elation stirred by the magic of the convivial moment.
The true West would reveal itself to him in its most splendid forms in the dimness of his darkroom in those instants when the features of the models would spring forth beneath the quivering surface of the liquid in the developing tray and gradually coalesce between his trembling fingers. What feminine beauty he beheld dispersed across hundreds of frames beneath the particles of the red light! What cruel labyrinths he was drawn into: between every two faces, there was another; between one breast and another there was a third. When the excitement became too excruciating, he would flee to the world of ballet where the body became an instrument for pure form and gesture.
The models, for their part, found his presence encouraging. In spite of his leering eyes and clumsy jokes, the childish grin on his face put them at ease and created a sense of intimacy. It was as though the man behind the camera was a somewhat imbecilic monk. He could efface himself among them for hours, to the extent that they would almost forget he was there. Then, when the shooting session began they would be swept by a mysterious desire to become one with his lenses.
The models were never physically attracted to him. That is, if we discard that ruse to which he would sometimes succumb: a model’s feigned attraction in order to seduce him for his generosity. He would shower the object of his affections with gifts and flowers. But there would come a point where the girl would find that the only way to bring a halt to his persistent phone calls, bouquets and love poems was to give him a sound telling off. After several of such dismaying experiences, Hassan learned to avoid such traps and content himself with the alternative: relations with the more mature women who worked with the girls – the dance trainers, costume designers, and the like. Through their sexual affairs with him they served as the intermediaries between his dreams and the young women in his photographs.
Helen never once uttered a word of protest. Nor did he ever take the trouble to discover how her ideas were changing. She chose their 20th anniversary to notify him of her firm resolution: she would emigrate to Australia once the divorce proceedings were over and the house was sold.
Hassan would gradually discover how attached he had become to Helen’s world once he had completed the hasty move into cramped quarters and Helen vanished from his life forever. Before she left, she took from him everything that had anything to do with her: the old letters and pictures she had sent him, her gifts to him, their photos together. She lit a fire in the garden out of dried autumn leaves and fed these items to it. To his angry protests she responded wryly, “Rites of passage”.
She would surface in the stream of his thoughts, like a recurrent musical phrase amidst long stretches of silence, leaving a heavy melancholy in her wake. There were times when he found himself swinging between the suspicion that his relationship with her had been a figment of his imagination and the doubt that she had really left him forever.
His way to escape the torment was to move from one flat to the next. He would persuade himself with the feeblest excuses: the walls were too humid, the traffic was too loud, there were too many street dogs. With every new abode, he would unwillingly forge a short-lived bond of comfort and familiarity which he would then impulsively wreck by renting a flat somewhere else.
Precisely around this time, signs of defeat began to surface on Hassan’s face combined with a suppressed anger. It was also in this period that he struck up a few superficial relations with some easterners. To these, when he met them, he would gripe and grouse without end: about the weather, the oppressive fog, his western friends who had never once invited him to their homes.
When the East reappeared to him, it would not be through a pure yearning from within, but rather through the medium of Paul Klee. From the Swiss artist’s paintings and his diaries from Tunisia, Hassan learned how he was affected by the light of Kairouan, the minarets, trees and houses of which acquired new and fresh chromatic dimensions under his brush. The artist’s world revealed to Hassan, for the first time, dormant creative energies.
During a brief trip to Tunisia, Hassan followed Paul Klee’s route from Tunis to Hammamet and then to Kairouan. The Arabian Nights would reawaken within him blended with the bright Tunisian sun. As soon as he returned he developed his photos.
His bedroom wall would experience his rupture with the present in one fell swoop. One morning, the moment he awoke, he flung himself at his girls and tore them into tiny pieces.
While in Kairouan, Hassan had developed a close friendship with the proprietor of his hotel. In that man’s home he tasted the warmth of a familial welcome. There was nothing they would not do in order to please him. How is host’s wife kept refilling his plate, urging him to eat more!
It was there, in that setting, when the past suddenly awoke within him, not as events experienced but as a sensation that defied definition, that Hassan had his epiphany. The pungent aromas of the fruits and vegetables, the colours of the furniture and carpets, the jumble of people and things in the room – everything around him became familiar but in an extraordinarily unfamiliar way.
It was a mythical past, timeless, free of monotony and ugliness, that came to Hassan in Kairouan and that he would project onto another present in another distant city.
Hassan arranged with the hotel proprietor so that he could forward his darkroom equipment and some items of furniture to Tunisia and then follow them within a month. Back in Europe, he proclaimed the marvels of the East: the perpetual sun, the freedom from boring letters from the bank, the escape from the restrictions and regimentations of time. In Kairouan he would open a photographic studio and the hotel proprietor would foot the costs in exchange for half the profits.
Hassan wound up his affairs in record time, especially given the many years he had spent in that Western city. After only three weeks since his return from Tunisia he was totally free and unattached, with nothing but a small suitcase and a one-way ticket. Then, just the day before he was due to return the keys to the flat and catch the plane, the unexpected happened.
When the doorbell woke him, he thought that it must be someone who had lost their way. He looked out from the window and, instead, saw one of his former photography agents planted on the landing at the front door. He let him in. After a sip or two of coffee, the visitor explained the purpose of his early morning visit: An international fashion show was being staged the following day and by a stroke of rotten luck the photographer who had been scheduled for the shoot had a heart attack. The visitor only had to mention a few names of the models for Hassan’s heart to start throbbing.
Hassan convinced himself that the reason he accepted was the magnanimous fee he was offered. He would need this money in order to settle down once he moved to Tunisia. Afterwards, coincidence conspired to make a number of his former agents, whom he had not heard from in years, show up with more offers. Then it was the new nubile bodies he had not seen before that gradually lured him toward the glittering present.
At first he rented some equipment, but in the end he was forced to purchase the full paraphernalia. Meanwhile, the girls gradually invaded, not just the walls of his flat, again, but also his bed, his closet, and his bookshelves.
Eventually he lost count of how many years had past since he had sent his old equipment to Tunisia. Then, one day, he received a notification by post of its return. A letter from the son of the hotel proprietor followed several days later. His father had passed away, the son wrote, and he would be arriving in month’s time. He would be extremely grateful if Mr. Hassan would help him establish himself in a Western city.
By now, Hassan’s de facto life unfolded in his darkroom marked by the frozen moments when the features of his girls congealed beneath the liquid in the development tray. The intervening years since his separation from his wife had etched their furrows on his soul and outwardly he had withered and stirred nothing in women but pity. Most of his spare time he spent at home, in his flat, avoiding contact with others as much as possible.
After he finished reading the letter, Hassan sensed all his ties to the West snap as a powerful force propelled him eastward, again, without giving advance thought to the destination. The more he pictured the hotel owner’s son turning up in his flat the more his lungs felt constricted and unable to take in air.
He went to the kitchen and stood before the framed facsimile of a medieval map. He closed his eyes and hovered his left index finger over it for a few seconds. When he opened his eyes, he found his finger fixed on Samarkand.
He would set off for there tomorrow. He would leave his photographic equipment with a friend and send for it once he settled down in the land of wine and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Translated by Peter Daniel