The Frightened by Dima Wannous

A chapter from the novel
Translated by Julia Ihnatowicz


Dima Wannous

Naseem put the phone down and withdrew into himself. I could hear nothing but silence. I felt at peace. Like someone who had suddenly shut their eyes. And in this case, the shutting wasn’t just a physical action. Rather, it was like someone who was closing their eyes, their heart and their soul, so that all the anxiety and all the fear was extinguished and replaced with a feeling of lightness, and of freedom from everything that had been and everything that would be. A freedom from memory. How many times have I dreamt of shaking my head in the wind so that all memory streams out of it and I can relax. How often have I wished to forget who I am, what I’m called, where I was born, who I live with, who I’m friends with, where I’ve been, in which street exactly I have found myself, who I love; I wished to forget, to lose all of my memory in one go. Because I know that memory either is or isn’t. You either reconcile yourself to it, with all the pressures it brings, all the happiness, joy and fear, or you give it up completely, to the point where you forget your own name. I want to forget my name. Forget my name? Really? Or do I want them to forget my name? Am I aching because of myself or because of what others expect of me? I lived for many years convinced that I hated my own self. Then I woke up one day and discovered that I love and esteem her, but what keeps me up at night is other people. Except, in reality, it’s only self-longing for who I am. I miss her, my lonely, fragile self, who exists only in her obligations. Why do we tire our souls so that other people’s demands can live, and they are at peace and live in peace ? What good is giving other people peacefulness when at the same time we live in terrible fear?
Naseem put down the receiver, withdrawing into himself, and I felt a strange kind of peace. As I got off the bed, a dreadful ache seized my stomach, as if I hadn’t savoured a single morsel for days. Really, I don’t eat much any more. I’ve become a creature against eating. An enemy of eating. I take a piece of bread, as if I were picking up a rock that I would swallow, that would stick in my gullet, making its way to my stomach, choking me and making me tired. I’m no longer brave enough to swallow much. As soon as the food brushes against my stomach I feel tired and fatigued, as if I’ve eaten a whole sheep. Hunger makes me feel safe. It’s as if the emptiness in my belly betrays the emptiness in my head, my memory, and my soul. I like this emptiness. I’m beginning to gallop through it like a lonely little cloud in the wide open sky. The hunger makes me feel light, it frees me from overbearing duties, even the need to digest. Digestion takes a level of effort I can no longer stand. The heart is forced to beat more than usual, the intestines scrunch up and then relax, and the belly makes noises. I got off my bed, enjoying my hunger this time, and knew that despite my great hunger, I wouldn’t eat much. I left my room for the living room. My mother is sitting on the red sofa, clutching a book that she started weeks ago. I swear she’s been staring at the same page, page 24, for days. My mother, who has become a crumpled little heap beneath a soft blanket on the sofa, reads a sentence, repeats it, and re-reads it. No sooner has she moved on to the next sentence than she discovers she has to re-read the last one, which she’s read over and over. She’s been gazing at the same sentence, reading it, and re-reading it. I don’t know whether she’s really been reading for hours, or whether she’s staring at it so as not to stare into emptiness. The emptiness increases her sense of madness. She hasn’t lost her mind, but she’s under the delusion that she has. She tells me she’ll get Alzheimer’s very soon. I jokingly tell her to hurry up and get on with it. She looks wearily at me and smiles an odd smile, the nature of which I don’t understand but I feel a sort of bitterness seeping out of that closed, fleeting smile that lasts only a few seconds. My mother’s charm was in her smile. It was she who was good at laughing and making merry, she who is an emaciated pile of a body under a soft blanket. I tell her that Alzheimer’s eases the weight of death. It makes us wish for her death rather than waiting for it in fear. It makes us swap obsequies for festivities. It makes us? “Who’s “we”?” my mother asks me, and I am silent.
Sitting on the sofa, reading the same page 24 as she has been doing for days, my mother was suddenly old. I haven’t grasped how my mother grew old. We went to sleep and she was young, we woke up and like that, she was old. Had she aged over night? Is one night enough? Is a handful of dreams from a single night enough for a person to get as old as this? I say that it’s lucky she became old at night and not in the middle of the day, for instance, as I would have been terrified. If, for example, she’d gone into the kitchen to make breakfast and come out a few minutes later and she’d been old. Or if she’d said to me quietly and a bit annoyed: “Sulayma, I’m going to have the bath,” and then come out of the bathroom old. It’s good luck that my mother aged at night and we woke to find her old. Who’s “we”? Just her and me. Even when Fouad disappeared, she didn’t age. She cried a lot, but didn’t age. Are the tears the reason? Maybe. As my mother says, tears wash the soul. Or maybe tears took the place of ageing. She could either cry or get old. She cried a lot, and fiercely, until her tears dried up, as she tells me over and over again. When her tears dried up, my mother went to sleep a young woman, then woke up old. I haven’t told her that I haven’t slept since he disappeared. I haven’t told her that I wish for his death every evening, every morning, every moment. I pray to God, worshipping and memorising verses from the Qur’an, so that some lord will grant my prayers. I try in vain to put his image out of my mind.
In the first months of his disappearance I thought that shutting my eyes would call his image to my mind, so I didn’t shut them. For many nights I resisted closing them, until I was exhausted and fell asleep for a long time. I awoke with renewed energy and kept them open again day and night for a week, and so on. I haven’t spoken to my mother, and she hasn’t spoken to me. I was sure she was hoping he was dead, too. How could a mother’s heart be so calm and cold when her son is alive and being subjected to torture all the time? To soothe my soul, I told myself that a mother’s heart is her guide and that my mother could feel that Fouad had departed from this life, and that’s how she slept soundly. She must have known, or how could she have gone on all these months? It’s true that she grew old all of a sudden over night, but she’s sitting quietly now on the sofa reading page 24.
Once, I told Kameel how, when I was young, I used to imagine my parents and only brother being subjected to abuse, or beatings, or torture. I’d imagine them drowning. Not naturally, in the way that Naseem fears, but rather I’d picture some evil people taking pleasure in drowning and torturing them. I used to cry at night, alone in my bed, in the knowledge that they were all fine, tucked up safe in their beds. We examined, Kameel and I, the reasons for these thoughts and ideas. For how could a child of nine or ten, living in a quiet home that lacked neither love nor calm, have such violent thoughts as these? I don’t remember Kameel’s reaction exactly. But I remember he described what was happening to me as self-flagellation. Yes, I was self-flagellating, and I still am. I see my father down on his knees, kissing someone’s boots. Today, I think that person was an officer. But I’m not sure I pictured an officer in my childhood, or whether the idea of an officer was acquired with the passing of an age of similar, but real images. These images are no longer imagined! There’s someone kissing an officer’s boots every moment now. Is the idea as simple as that? Do you believe it? Don’t we say in our conversations that a person dies every moment somewhere in this wide world? Don’t we say that there’s a woman giving birth every second? And we’ve also got to the point where we say that there’s now a Syrian down on his knees every minute, forced to kiss some officer’s boots.
After Fouad disappeared, I blamed myself. What good was spending my childhood self-flagellating? When now I have to do the same thing, for plausible reasons and not just for a fantasy. If I had known. If I had predicted what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have spent time on those thoughts at an earlier point. I would have enjoyed peaceful sleep, undisturbed by a sick imagination. Then I consoled myself with my father’s death. My father died ten years ago. He didn’t die under torture and wasn’t subjected to abuse in the way I always used to imagine. My mother says that fear killed him. But I don’t believe her. Maybe I don’t want to believe her. My father died. He was sixty. He fell asleep and didn’t wake up. Just like my mother, who went to sleep and woke up an old woman. He wasn’t able to make the leap between the two states, so he fell into death. Perhaps he didn’t want to get old, so he preferred to die. In any case, he died and took with him the associated self-flagellation. I no longer imagine him except in all his elegance and delicacy, standing or sitting, not kneeling.
I was five when we left our city for Damascus. I don’t remember that time except for a few snippets, which I think aren’t from my memory so much as my mother’s as she related them. I get lost in my memories of childhood between what I actually remember for myself and what’s been recounted either to me or in front of me. My mother tells a story of how my father pissed in his pants and went on to beg her to pack their belongings, take their children, and leave for Damascus. My mother couldn’t find the words. My father’s brown trousers became dark around the crotch and thighs. My father pissed himself. Today I think about how my mother told us that story one morning after his death. Why did she tell it after he died? Why did she want us to know? Was it to convince us that it was fear that killed him? She also said that he decided to leave their city of Hama, even though he was a doctor! She said it exactly like that. When her sentence finished, an exclamation mark appeared to seal her lips. She raised her eyebrows and shook her head with a sneer. To this day, I don’t know if she missed him. I’m beset by the feeling that she was pleased about his death. She never told me that his death made her happy. But I saw it in her body, her soul, and her eyes. She once said something to the effect that fear is draining and exhausting. She said she had lived with him for thirty-two years of fear. When my mother says the number, she bites down on the letters and separates them from one another so we feel the effect of the years, and their weight: “Thirty. Two. Years!” Yes, my father left his city out of fear of the death and destruction he saw in the streets. He fled with his family to Damascus and stayed there until after the massacre had finished and everyone who survived had returned to their homes and their lives. They certainly went back to their homes, but did they really go back to their lives? Was life the same and did it go back to its rhythm as if nothing had happened? Does one who has breathed in the scent of death recover their sense of smell? My father didn’t talk, except once, about Hama. He was able to do what I couldn’t. He was able to wipe it from his memory. He preserved the memories he wanted.
We lived in the Ain al-Kirsh district of Damascus, and my father rented a clinic in the same building that we lived in. “How can he treat the Damascenes after running away from treating his own people?” This question goes round in my head like an echo of the many times my mother repeated it in front of me. I used to feel sorry for my father. When I imagined the torture parties that he, my mother and Fouad were subjected to, the one that troubled my heart the most was my father. Of them all, he was the most affected by the pain. I see his face contorted in agony. What most overwhelmed me were the begging and imploring words that escaped his injured mouth in the form of tired whispers. I would picture him saying: “For God’s sake, kill me. Release me. I can’t bear any more.” And I would cry. I would long for him at night, so I would steal out of my bed into their room and go to the right side of the bed where my father used to sleep. I stood by his head, stretching out my little finger towards his nose, to reassure myself that he was still alive, despite the bloody torture party. (When I read the manuscript for Naseem’s latest novel, I saw myself. Naseem robbed me when he wrote that novel. I haven’t told him that.) As for my mother and Fouad, they were also more resilient! Their features didn’t plead for pity. On the contrary, they had a bravery and stubbornness. Only my father’s appearance captured my soul. Luckily, he died and hasn’t been forced to produce his ID at one of the checkpoints and answer embarrassing questions.
Did Kameel make the link between my passion for self-flagellation and the Hama massacre and our move to Damascus? I don’t remember but I don’t think so. Because I don’t know exactly what happened and in Damascus I’ve lived nothing but a stable life. I remember that a picture of Hafez al-Assad used to hang in my father’s clinic. I remember it made my mother extremely angry: “You hang up a picture of the man who killed your people? Does that make you happy? Isn’t it enough that you ran away? Do you know who kills the victim and walks in his funeral?” She would ask him this without bothering about his answer. She didn’t say, for instance: “It’s you who kills the victim and walks in his funeral.” Rather, she’d most likely leave him confused and upset at her relentless insistence on his culpability. She’d often add in something close to a whisper: “I don’t blame the other Syrians for shutting their doors in our faces.” Here, again, she wouldn’t say that she couldn’t blame them in this case because some of their own people (my father most of all) had run away, leaving his own countrymen to die alone, without treating them or at least standing by them, inhaling the scent of their deaths, gazing on their corpses tossed into the street, the blood flowing out of them. My father, wretched, would reply: “Yes, it’s because I’m from Hama I’ve hung up the picture! Because my sin is so great.” He would say this, or something similar, and leave the house to go to the clinic, or the café where he met his friends. In some way, the picture was a confession that he didn’t belong to that place. That he had broken his tie and deleted what had happened from his memory, he had forgiven, forgotten and made peace. My father only wanted to live and nurture his little family. So what did my mother want throughout those long tired years of blaming and relentlessly reminding him of his high treason? What did she want other than to foster hatred in us? Did she wish, for instance, that we had stayed in Hama and that her husband had been killed? Would her husband’s death, like the rest of them in Hama, have helped her to find peace in a memory where her other countrymen live? Is death, in some cases, a stimulus for life and hatred? Would my mother have preferred the life of a widow, with all its dignity and bravery, to living with a “cowardly” and “submissive” husband for “Thirty. Two. Years” – with her stress and separation between the letters.

I jokingly told Naseem to write my father’s story. But he didn’t get the joke, even in the context. Yes, Naseem is serious to the point of tedium. He’s not even good at telling jokes. He tells them in an overly serious way, keeping his brow furrowed so that the knot between his eyebrows has become a part of the lines on his face, as if it was born with him, and he with it. A knot has formed between them and vehemently stayed put, as if it is the point from which his soul issues, and not from his breast or his mother’s womb. As if it is this knot that expresses his soul. Naseem didn’t write my father’s story. Nor could my mother find it in the manuscript of his last novel. But he has stolen mine. I haven’t told him that. Even if I did, he would absolutely deny it. He’d say that the story of his novel’s heroine doesn’t converge with my story in any shape or form. And I’d get confused and stumble over my words because no matter how painfully I tried I wouldn’t find any tangible evidence that I am her, that nameless girl. Why did he leave her with no name? Is it because he wanted to write about me? But he wouldn’t dare to call her Sulayma, of course, and if he chose another name for her, his imagination would be obstructed and fall into disarray. That’s probably why he left her with no definite name. But she’s me! It’s true that she belongs to another family, and lived a completely different memory. But our souls glide through the same constellations. I haven’t told him. I don’t have a strong enough argument. Perhaps he’ll tell me that we belong to the same generation and live in the same city, and share some general details common to all Syrians, as well as both visiting Kameel. I wouldn’t know how to explain to him that our resemblance doesn’t stem from these things, not even our visits to Kameel. There’s something deeper than generation, country, and doctor. I noticed the language of his novel. I found nothing but diary entries written in a journalistic language that has no freshness. As if, in his inability to write a novel about the revolution, he chose to write a diary to justify his own inadequacy to himself.

About The Frightened

A novel about fear – not just about fear itself, but the very fear of fear – cannot be brief. It is something that has permeated the souls of most Syrians for many decades. It has become part of their very body tissue; it shapes the very contours of their temperament. It is a fear I lived with – on the street, in school – as one of the “Ba’athist vanguard” generation, the “revolutionary youth” of a regime-manufactured revolution encompassing every form of injustice, oppression, intimidation, pacification and subjugation the mind can sense of that brutality in whose shadow I spent my whole childhood. I turned into a creature bodily estranged from all others; one’s body becomes all that belongs to the space and time that one is forced to live in.
Naseem – one among 23 million other Syrians – fears fear itself; he avoids or runs away from it as much as he can and whenever he can. He is just one of many millions living alien, brutal lives in a nation regulated by terror, suspicion, and a self-belief diminished to the point of almost vanishing, of almost ceasing to exist. Sulayma, who loves him, is likewise alienated, a physician in the grip of fear just like her father, who is scared and anguished, like she imagines men to be, tormented like those she meets in the clinic of Kameel the psychiatrist.
Sulayma decides to complete Naseem’s unfinished novel from her own perspective. She is almost certain he wrote it about her, rather than about some other young woman living a different life in a family unrelated to her own. Fear itself is concentrated in the strange young woman that Naseem made his novel’s protagonist. She is Sulayma’s double in her fear, her anxiety, and her alienation. Sulayma tries to find her, to prove that someone such as this, bodily and spiritually other than her, yet who resembles her to this extent, really exists distinct from her, someone whom she may not know at all.

Dima Wannous

Dima Wannous is a Syrian writer, born in 1982. She studied French Literature at Damascus University and the Sorbonne. She has a short story collection Details (2007) which has a German edition, and a novel, Chair (2008). She has written for newspapers such as Al-Safir, Al-Hayat, the Washington Post and the online outlet Jadaliyya. In 2009, she was selected as one of the 39 most talented Arab writers under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project. She currently works as a researcher and presenter of the “I’m From There” programme on the Syrian Orient TV channel based in Dubai.
Ecerpt from the novel fusr appear in Banipal 57 Syrian in the geart 2016 translted by Julia Ihnatovich.