Pre­am­ble ~ Com­ing to here

Room Magazine - - CON­TENTS - HIBA ZAFRAN

Rewrit­ten diary en­try, May 1994 Sharjah, United Arab Emi­rates

Grad­u­a­tion in one month. I get to leave this place that isn’t mine—that won’t let me of­fi­cially be­long. The place that tells me I am sin­ful for not cov­er­ing my­self. Where I liked Alexandra when I was seven, a girl lik­ing a girl, and I haven’t had a friend yet that I could gig­gle with about her. There are only the books I’m not al­lowed to read that my par­ents leave un­locked for me. The voices and ideas in all those pages show me that I can come from an ocean of sto­ries, tread­ing in open wa­ters and vis­tas with no clothes. To breathe in the words I choose, to sink be­neath their sur­face where things re­ally hap­pen.

An­other con­ti­nent en­tirely. That should do.

Let­ter to a child­hood friend, April 1995 Univer­sity of Miami, Florida

Over here, men rollerblade hold­ing hands wear­ing noth­ing but match­ing rain­bow-coloured Speedos and pet chameleons around their necks. Over here, my room­mate’s car gets smashed into twice in one week. Over here, classes take place on boats and I can read 1920s women’s lit­er­a­ture. Over here, peo­ple have no im­ages of where I am from. Over here, I don’t know how to tell any of my sto­ries us­ing any of my words. So over here, I learn about beer, which tastes acer­bic and needs its edges rounded by weed. Over there, my par­ents do not un­der­stand why I can no longer speak with them. I can only grouch and bawl.

Piece of a re­jected sub­mis­sion, May 1997 Down­town Mon­tréal, Canada

How is there still snow on the ground? Na­ture is re­lent­less here. I hon­estly thought my pee would freeze in this first out­ra­geous win­ter. I still feel so apart in

this box with peo­ple walk­ing above me and be­low. Space and peo­ple crammed here, for­ti­fied against weather. And why is there only ever one bath­room no mat­ter the size of the apart­ment?! I hear whis­pers in the walls, and can al­most dis­cern words in the hum­ming elec­tric­ity, branch­ing all around me. I know they aren’t real, but they clam­our. My hair, shorn in a mo­ment of not want­ing to rec­og­nize my­self as an Arab daugh­ter any­more, is grow­ing back. Hu­mans re­sume re­spond­ing to me as a non-haz­ardous fe­male.

The days get longer and my weight evap­o­rates. I miss study­ing on a boat. I choose a class on at­mo­spheric weather sys­tems, an­other on un­der­wa­ter car­tog­ra­phy, and an in­ten­sive sum­mer course on Dante’s Di­vine Com­edy. They put me twenty cred­its over the re­quire­ment for my de­gree. The univer­sity trans­fer was to stay with my younger brother who was de­nied the U.S. stu­dent visa I had al­ready ob­tained. He is male, with that na­tion­al­ity. So, only a lit­tle bit more of this freez­ing cold, for a Cana­dian pass­port.

Pre­am­ble to doc­toral the­sis, May 2007 Ouareau river, Raw­don, Canada

I was thir­teen when we first went to Beirut. Chaos, mil­i­tary, loud voices off the plane, push­ing, bustling, undis­guised hum of fear and ex­pectancy: crowds com­ing home. I’m shoul­der-to-shoul­der with my younger brother. Both of us eyes wide open. Mov­ing slug­gishly in the crowd.

The peo­ple look dec­o­rated. High fre­quency ex­cite­ment. Post-war (not quite though). A de­spaired per­for­mance of be­long­ing to coun­ter­act the guilt of leav­ing and thriv­ing, of hav­ing cho­sen not to stay.

We look to our par­ents for cues. Dad is joy­ous. We’ve never seen him like this be­fore. He in­hab­its his skin, his space, his coun­try. He has no fear. He is home. He is play­ful, birth lan­guage bub­bling un­re­strained out of him. I don’t know this man but I al­ready love him more than the dad who works twelve-hour shifts for us in a desert not our own.

Ma­man is tiny, her blond hair is be­low my shoul­der level. She is am­biva­lent. Her eyes dart from find­ing the man she mar­ried years ago to us, lost and un­sure. Her ban­ter is edged with ...? She’s jit­tery around all the dif­fer­ent guards. She’s try­ing to cen­tre the fam­ily and it’s hard. The mil­i­tary is ag­gres­sively play­ful. Provoca­tive.

Some wel­come the crowd home, mak­ing sure they un­der­stand who is in charge now. Oth­ers are unashamedly re­sent­ful. They scare me. I stay close to my brother. I for­get who picked us up out of the chaotic con­fu­sion of the air­port’s exit. I can’t look around, I’m so jolted by the lack of lanes, cars driv­ing on pave­ments, up one-way streets, mopeds in be­tween, cars honk­ing in­ces­santly, crude in­sults shat­ter­ing my fa­ther’s con­ver­sa­tion, mil­i­tary check­points ev­ery few min­utes, car swerv­ing, dust, brother sunk in the mid­dle seat. Ma­man looks out of the win­dow. Her face is set in a mask of stone. Teeth clenched grimly, eyes melt­ing. I look out, I turn by my win­dow, to see what she sees.

Even now, the words don’t come. I think light­ning split me, I think I dis­so­ci­ated. I can’t find that feel­ing but I re­mem­ber the im­ages. Ev­ery­thing was bro­ken and crum­bling. Ev­ery­thing. Bul­let-rid­den walls. Fallen-over stat­ues, leak­ing foun­tains, shat­tered pave­ments, torn walls. The sky was a blue-blue, soft clouds tear­ing at the opac­ity of it. This is where we are from?

It’s hot. My panic be­gins to well and I start to feel nau­seous as the car con­tin­ues its un­rhyth­mic mo­tion. My pants stick to my legs. My breath­ing gets shal­lower. I keep look­ing, my hands fid­get­ing in my lap.

The walls are all a sun-kissed yel­low, mus­tard yel­low, aged-white yel­low; pock­marked with bul­lets, jagged black holes, ripped façades, no frontage the in­sides ex­posed un­will­ingly; walls with forged me­tal bal­conies cling­ing to the con­tours, wait­ing to jump away.

I feel the world slide in­side me

There is no ground. It is lit­er­ally bro­ken There will never be a ground again

I for­get to breathe. I feel wet all over

There are no sounds or words in this mem­ory

Peo­ple are ev­ery­where. Rum­mag­ing, talk­ing, push­ing. Carts in the street. Mat­tresses in build­ing holes. Mus­lim cov­er­ings and not. Beau­ti­ful plants tended in the ru­ins. Laun­dry un­du­lat­ing in the dust. We ar­rive.

We ar­rive to my dad’s cousin’s house. Small and clean. We eat on a rooftop gar­den made of sal­vaged bricks, bar­rels, buck­ets, and a tarp. We sit on crates and stools and a home­made ham­mock. I am only con­scious of my fa­ther’s joy and

emo­tion. Noth­ing else. And my anguish, ris­ing, at the loss he has cho­sen to keep us safe.

We are driven to my grand­mother’s house, where my fa­ther was born. I re­mem­ber fruits, ripe and fresh, sold on the pave­ment. It is a torn house, bul­let paths and ric­o­chets on the in­ner walls, but the outer walls are stand­ing. I know this place. He’s never talked about it be­fore, but I re­mem­ber the lad­der and the two bed­rooms for par­ents and four kids. I even know where to point to where my fa­ther slept. How do I know this? The world is shat­ter­ing, cut­ting me.

I find out years later that it wasn’t my first time in this place, that Dad had taken me there when I was three, dur­ing a cease­fire. Just the two of us. My par­ents look for the pho­to­graphs that were hid­den be­fore leav­ing. They’re all gone. I’ve only ever seen a hand­ful of black and white pic­tures of my par­ents’ child­hood.

Sound comes back.

I don’t re­mem­ber get­ting on the plane to Beirut or the days be­fore that. I don’t re­mem­ber how we got to the ho­tel. But I re­mem­ber feel­ing the crum­bling as we en­ter our san­i­tized ho­tel rooms over­look­ing liv­ing de­struc­tion. I re­mem­ber the sob­bing start­ing, but not end­ing.

Ma­man bale­ful at my dad.

My dad stoic yet lost.

My brother small, more scared of my cry­ing than of Beirut.

Later that night (or an­other night much later?) over­hear­ing my par­ents talk­ing. Ma­man is wor­ried about me. Very wor­ried. She talks about see­ing a psy­chi­a­trist or a ther­a­pist.

My dad re­fuses. I sense through the walls the feel­ing of “This is her story, her peo­ple.”

I was mute for three days.

I re­mem­ber the si­lence and the wet.

Eyes open, tired, sleep­less.

The in­som­nia and waves of mood were there be­fore and stayed for a long time af­ter.

Much later, back in the coun­try we were liv­ing in, I am taken to see a spe­cial­ist of some kind, to whom I tell very lit­tle. I don’t have the words. He sug­gests “ac­tiv­ity,” some­thing I can get wrapped up in. I ask for paints. Night ar­rives, and

sleep doesn’t. This time, I get up and un­pack my new paints, and be­gin to paint on my bed­room wall. I paint for hours through the night—an un­der­wa­ter scene re­plete with or­cas, starfish, dol­phins, sea­horses, coral reefs. A calm de­scends with each stroke as I cover the wall I can see from my bed with a softer world.

I have learned that it takes prac­tice to shift the fo­cus from the vis­i­ble to how mean­ing un­folds, to lis­ten to what lies be­neath ac­tions and be­hav­iours, and that si­lent or inar­tic­u­late im­mi­grant teenagers carry worlds and worlds within them, well be­yond lin­ear ex­pla­na­tions. I did grad­u­ate in marine bi­ol­ogy, ex­plor­ing an un­der­wa­ter world with no walls to frag­ment. Yet, I am a ther­a­pist of­fer­ing clay and paint to im­mi­grant youth as the ground of their selves and worlds slips and tears.

A mem­ory from Au­gust 2012 Pully, Switzer­land

Tell me a story.

Which one?

Any one.

How you met Papi. How you came to live in Switzer­land. How I fell asleep in the tree. What it was like grow­ing up on the coast of Syria with the pecan trees. The Paris trip on which you bought the Dior clutch purse and green silk dress that brings out the jade in your eyes.

Ooooooh wait. Tell me again about the time Papi took the high-speed train to France one af­ter­noon just to buy an ice cream and wan­der on the Champs-Élysées. That cone cost him six hun­dred francs. I like that story.

Once Û-pon a tay-méh.

Shared gig­gles at my grand­mother’s English open­ing. She switches back to French.

He was sup­posed to be on his way to present at a con­fer­ence, and then some­one at the air­port told him about a casino event—I can’t re­mem­ber if it was a pri­vate ta­ble of roulette or black­jack. In any case, he switched his plane ticket and headed to Switzer­land. And he won the board­ing school by the lake. Do you re­mem­ber that school? We ran it for a few years un­til he lost it—also at the ta­bles.

I re­mem­ber he called me af­ter a few days of no news. “Ger­maine! Pack the bags and bring the girls, we’re mov­ing to Switzer­land.” I told him he was crazy and that I’d had enough. But two months later, civil war broke out in Le­banon. Your mother had met your dad, so I packed the bags, grabbed your aunts, and moved.

Once upon a time. In Ara­bic: there once was, or there was not; a woman who fell in love with a uni­form and a man who mar­ried her against his fam­ily’s wishes. And her daugh­ter, my mother, did the same. There once was, there will con­tinue to be, a fam­ily myth grown pol­ished and beau­ti­ful with the telling. Be­stow­ing the abil­ity to risk and in­dulge on all the grand­chil­dren.

They died two months af­ter our gig­gling, my grand­par­ents. Each one of us had just passed through from Le­banon, Canada, Sin­ga­pore, Eng­land, Ger­many. Bella got ill first, and asked us to let her go. When I called him, right af­ter, Papi told me that my grand­mother al­ways gets the din­ner ta­ble ready first, then she calls for him. He asked me not to be an­gry or sad, and was gone that night, in his sleep. I will learn to en­trust all those I have lost to their ta­bles.

Stilled af­ter a phone chat with my mother, May 2009 Mon­tréal, Canada / Broum­mana, Le­banon

We are danc­ing on the palm of the devil’s hand, she chirps. Kaff el shai­tan. That’s the say­ing. Kaff, mean­ing the palm of a hand, or a slap. And kafa. Enough. Just had enough. Of be­ing away from home, so my par­ents moved back af­ter thirty years. They landed in the air­port that was bombed in 2006—just one day af­ter my mother had trav­elled. That air­port. My dad’s com­pany did the sig­nage af­ter the dam­age, point­ing the way to go. The signs are su­per­flu­ous be­cause it’s not a big air­port and you can just fol­low the crowd, press­ing you on to pass­port con­trol.

So many emails to my love, Au­gust 2016–June 2017 Broum­mana, Le­banon

A year.

A year in my par­ents’ coun­try, in Le­banon, by their side, as they age. It isn’t Ber­lin, but the cen­tre here also has a di­vid­ing line, a green one, be­tween east and

west. The ar­bi­trari­ness of bound­aries and di­viders is em­pha­sized here, and I am pea­cock-proud of my driv­ing com­pe­tency in down­town Beirut, where traf­fic lanes and lights and one-way signs re­main a hy­po­thet­i­cal sug­ges­tion rather than an im­per­a­tive.

The vil­lage I live in has a main road and an east­ern road. We are on the sunny side, up the wind­ing road from where my par­ents met forty-five years ago, across a dif­fer­ent kind of di­vid­ing line, across re­li­gions. There are also lots of squig­gly side streets. They’re long, and the houses don’t have num­bers on them, so they go by build­ing or fam­ily name—but you must lo­cate them in re­la­tion to a known site (like the ho­tel in front of our build­ing that was big­ger than the Ritz in its hey­day and my grand­fa­ther used to love hav­ing high tea there). The gro­cer knows whose daugh­ter I am, and the guy at the car wash won’t let me pay for the ser­vice be­cause he comes from the same re­gion in Syria as my grand­par­ents. If you send me a post­card, you must in­clude my fa­ther’s name in the ad­dress.

Broum­mana is or­gan­i­cally bound by where the lo­cal pines grow. Those are the trees I see out­side of my win­dow. They are par­tic­u­lar when it comes to cli­mate and wa­ter, and given the num­ber of moun­tain ranges and shifts in al­ti­tude, there is a high va­ri­ety in cli­mate (sun, fog, soil, rain). Ev­ery­thing here ex­ists in mi­cro-cli­mates. They can change dras­ti­cally in just a few kilo­me­tres. This mi­cro-cli­mate is echoed by mi­cro-re­gions and neigh­bour­hoods, and of course mi­cro-pock­ets of re­li­gions, and mi­cro-at­ti­tudes at times. To­pog­ra­phy be­comes cul­ture and gets echoed on bod­ies criss-cross­ing the fault lines.

I find these sur­face traces echo­ing in my belly­aches and in the rest­less­ness of my hands. Fin­gers vo­cif­er­ously rip­ping—a re­lent­less ges­tu­ral telling. I’ve been see­ing spe­cial­ists since I was five years old: home­opath, psy­chol­o­gist, os­teopath, acupunc­tur­ist, and then bioen­er­get­ics, yoga, and EMDR . . . noth­ing’s changed. My ragged hands, wear­ing gold, are part of a cul­tural prac­tice. To dec­o­ra­tively build over the ru­ins, to dance over where it hurts the most. That con­cert I took you to at the fo­rum. It was built over a mas­sa­cred refugee camp. To for­get, how dare we, this ac­cu­sa­tion com­ing from the out­side. How dare we drink and dance in high heels on for­got­ten graves? But no one has for­got­ten. Ev­ery few steps, ev­ery street marked with its own name, own flavour, own his­tory, own tribe. Only shared in the telling, in the ask­ing. And when you get the name wrong, when you in­cor­rectly say the neigh­bour­ing street’s name in­stead, you are swiftly and firmly cor­rected. Be­cause

things hap­pened here that didn’t hap­pen in the other place. And the names, those are words you can­not get wrong. And fin­gers-wrists-arms, they twitch and tell and dance cease­lessly. No one has for­got­ten.

I have one eye on the pines as my cousin, sit­ting in a far­ther-away east­ern cof­fee shop, shares her com­ing to terms with never hav­ing learned our moth­ers’ tongue. Her own trilin­gual daugh­ter ac­quir­ing yet an­other colony’s words. We both do not speak of our ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents, whose own coun­try is now strug­gling to move out of five years of war. We talk of where she might move to next, where her hus­band’s work might take them. We dis­cuss the pros and cons of her ex­pe­ri­ences in five coun­tries so far.

When at least four gen­er­a­tions have be­gun in dif­fer­ent places, and the pasts you draw on are only partly known or even yours, what hori­zons do the chil­dren carry? I re­al­ize that at the pe­riph­ery there is less traf­fic, the sights are kalei­do­scopic, and you stay close to the exit sign. And no ther­a­pies have changed my night­time im­agery.

My friend and I in­tro­duce our well-dressed moth­ers to each other at an Ara­bic diner down­town. There is aque­ous move­ment across gazes while serv­ing thick cof­fee and sweets, in the know­ing of each other through their chil­dren’s shar­ing. When my mother is asked about liv­ing away for thirty years, she shares for the first time the story of my fa­ther dis­ap­pear­ing for five days. Taken in by a Min­istry of Se­cu­rity for ques­tion­ing, not know­ing where he was or what was hap­pen­ing un­til they dropped him back home to sleep af­ter al­most twenty-four hours. How she re­mained anx­ious for the next twenty-five years un­til they moved back. My hands be­come still as I lis­ten, the noc­tur­nal im­ages be­gin to co­a­lesce into a con­tour of some kind.

The other wartime sto­ries, the po­lit­i­cal ones from be­fore I was born that make for great scripts that get nom­i­nated in the cat­e­gory of “In­ter­na­tional Films,” the ones that be­gin with a close-up of a white-haired man with a cane and a belly, whose mouth con­tracts at the world. My fa­ther fi­nally shares those at a small gath­er­ing for his sev­en­ti­eth birth­day. He is hon­oured to be wit­nessed by a ma­ter­nal great-aunt who was har­ried out of Le­banon along with her six chil­dren in the 1980s for her po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment, only al­lowed to re­turn a few years ago. I did not know, be­fore this year, that all these are who I am from.

I come to close this story and the ideas crys­tal­lize, but when I sit to write, they float away. It hap­pens sev­eral times be­fore I re­al­ize it. I am left trail­ing “. . . ” and

with the re­cur­rent need for a man­i­cure. Best to go out for evening drinks un­der a moun­tain vil­lage sky with friends known since ele­men­tary school. So many dove­tail­ings in and out of this coun­try—fi­nally re­ally avail­able to us over the sum­mer.

“We weren’t able to come see my par­ents un­til we fi­nally got our Bri­tish pass­ports.”

“My Do­mini­can pass­port only cost me $100,000, now I can come and go more eas­ily.”

“They won’t re­new my res­i­dency pa­pers, it’s a Syr­ian pass­port.”

“I’m wait­ing for my im­mi­gra­tion pa­pers, al­though the lawyer said I should file as a refugee.”

That could have been me.

Frozen pee, pro­tec­tive parental mute­ness, dis­as­trous in­tu­itive re­la­tion­ships with aso­cial apoc­a­lypse-sur­viv­ing men, and the un­named el­lipses. They all seem a small price to pay.

Next morn­ing, I’m wait­ing to have a cof­fee with my mother. I’m wait­ing in an in­ter­na­tion­ally lo­cated vir­tual queue that in­volves both her sis­ters, a first and a sec­ond cousin, and on any given day be­tween two and five long-time friends. Weav­ing, con­stantly weav­ing the ev­ery­day telling that binds and keeps close. Her gen­er­a­tion has stayed in Europe and around the Mediter­ranean. For a long time, I main­tained the prac­tice of hand­writ­ten let­ters from them, al­though right now there is no mail­box near my god­son in South Amer­ica. My gen­er­a­tion has spread fur­ther, and my mil­len­nial cousins be­rate me for my lack of so­cial me­dia. I write long emails in­stead, the in­ti­macy mat­ters. The sin­gu­lar­ity of each of these con­nec­tions is the only real raft.

“Where are you from?” Is al­most, but not quite, as queasy as “are you stay­ing or go­ing?” What if we are banyan trees. We only seem to stand among oth­ers of our own will. The in­som­nia and waves of mood re­main.

Foot­note July 1, 2017 To Geneva Air­port, Switzer­land

My aunt and I are driv­ing down the steep hills of Lutry. The night be­fore was an elec­tric thun­der­storm with hail­stones. Lac Lé­man is sparkling blue against the back­drop of France. The view washed clean. She has been liv­ing there for forty years, yet she sur­prises me by ex­claim­ing: “It’s just so beau­ti­ful . . . thank you Papi Toni, but re­ally pro­foundly, thank you.” For mov­ing some fam­ily West on the eve of a war.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously with my fa­ther tak­ing a bet on un­de­vel­oped East­ern desert sands. Teach­ing us all that home is any­where your lov­ing and bless­ings lie.

I’m fly­ing back to Beirut with my cousin and her kids. At the bor­der­man’s desk, the four-year-old asks, “What’s a pass­port?”

His mother: “It’s a doc­u­ment that con­firms that you are who you are.” He doesn’t get it. We smile at each other.

I mut­ter, “It’s a dis­crim­i­na­tory doc­u­ment that de­lin­eates the edges of your pos­si­ble paths.” And she chimes in, as she hus­tles the kids into line, “And that weighs your value based on which­ever piece of earth your an­ces­tors hap­pen to have been born on.”

We look at each other. Floods of sac­ri­fices pass qui­etly be­tween us. While our eyes are turned away, her son pulls the se­cu­rity lever and stalls the es­ca­la­tor. Now comes rush­ing back in.

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