weekend-reads On East-West Dialogue

Adania Shibli

Translated from Arabic by Suneela Mubayi

I arrive at Lydd airport. At passport control, I present my passport through a small opening in the glass panel to the officer sitting behind it. We wait a little until first three security personnel arrive, then four others—two policemen and a policewoman, and an interrogator from the Israeli intelligence services accompanied by a young woman who remains with us during questioning, most likely for the same reason that male doctors summon a female nurse to remain in the room when a woman’s reproductive organs are examined. The intelligence services want to examine my private world, in an interview that will not take long, the interrogator assures me, if I “cooperate” with them. I have just arrived from Berlin. I stayed there approximately two months, participating in a project called the “West–Eastern Divan” that aims to foster dialogue between the East and the West. Why should the subject of East and West concern me? I let my thoughts flow like water over sand, spontaneously sneaking between the grains, so they may find an answer to the question.

Two issues. The first is my overwhelming love for light, which I go looking for every morning in the east, to shake off the weight of the night’s darkness. From there, I wander and accompany the sun, whenever possible, on its trajectory toward the west, where it disappears. Herein lies the second issue. When the sun disappears, darkness descends upon me, bringing with it a sense of loneliness, anxiety, insomnia, heat or cold, mosquitoes, and a perpetual desire to know what time it is and how much time remains for me to sleep. Some say that lying with one’s head pointed north and feet pointed south, or sometimes the opposite, helps one fall asleep. And so, upon my arrival at any place on earth, I rush to discover which directions are east and west, so as to determine where north and south lie. Then I turn my bed toward the latter as if it were a compass. Thus I get rid of whatever could technically hinder my sleep; now any other obstacle will be purely psychological.

Concerning East–West dialogue: I try again to push my thoughts between the grains of sand. And nothing happens, as if the water supply has suddenly been cut off. Drought and emptiness. I pose the question to myself again, time after time. In the end, I resort to science instead of nature. I recall what my nephew told me several years ago. In one of the medicine classes he was attending at university, the lecturer asked the students what they thought was the primary cause of lung cancer. Smoking, replied one of the students. The lecturer commented that that was the correct answer, then asked, what was the second most common cause of lung cancer? No one answered. “Smoking,” he responded. What was the third? Smoking. The fourth? Smoking. The fifth? Smoking. The sixth? Smoking. The seventh? Smoking. The eighth? Smoking. The ninth? Smoking. The top nine causes of lung cancer are smoking. It may be said that at least the top four causes of my participation in any activity whose subject is East–West dialogue are money. And if the amount were doubled, it could then be said that the top nine causes of my participation in activities of this kind are money.

Still, I should indicate that, whether male or female, one need not be particularly materialistic to think this way. It is simply that nothing else surpasses the importance of money in such a case, since, generally speaking, I do not know how to engage in dialogue, and am not even inclined to it as an idea. I know better how to write in silence; occasionally, I am tempted by the desire to engage in a monologue without being interrupted by anyone, or to listen to others engage in the same kind of monologue without interrupting them. I prefer that. And luckily, even though this good luck sometimes frightens me, when I arrived in Berlin as part of the West–Eastern Divan project, I discovered that the German writer who was supposed to be my partner in dialogue was not in Berlin, and that it was not clear when she would come or for how long she would stay. So I went on sitting alone in a sixth-floor apartment whose gray color and neutral furniture resembled those of airports. Usually, the clouds outside also covered the sky, making the view through the window seem like part of the apartment’s design. These clouds would begin to rain from time to time, which justified my remaining inside sitting on the couch more or less throughout my stay in Berlin. During this time, I continued to search for a minimum degree of happiness and to cling to it tightly. Of course I went out of the apartment a few times, mostly to get food. The first time I did so, the owner of a hair salon with no customers on the street on which I was living accompanied me outside so she could direct me to the nearest grocery store. It was called Rewe, which was written on the storefront placard in yellow outlined by two red lines; or the opposite, I forgot which moments after she told me. Red or yellow double lines, between which the word Rewe was stretched out in yellow or red. I walked. I crossed street after street, beneath a load of anxiety that gripped me after half a minute of searching. Where are you, Rewe? I know you are here, somewhere . . . Reeeeeewwweee?

Rewe. I walk through the door and the warm smell of the place floods my nose. Actually, I do not know what I want to buy, and as soon as I do know what I want, I do not know where to find it on the shelves. So I wander around the shelves continuously, repeatedly, as a lack of self-confidence grows inside me, especially in front of the calm, white dairy refrigerator. All the products on the shelves see me hesitate before them, which betrays my unfamiliarity with them and my foreignness in this place. I look at them, move my eyes from shelf to shelf, trying in my mind to create a meal constituted from all these products. I avoid thinking of pasta, which could only aggravate my sense of loneliness and poverty.

Veal with apples, tomatoes, onions, salt, pepper and oil, with pasta on the side, and maybe a green salad as well, with lettuce and tomato. I also have to buy vinegar and I want some wine. For breakfast tomorrow, cheese, eggs, bread and butter, and for dinner there will most likely be leftovers from today’s meal. I’m bored. I look at my shopping basket, which is now filled with things to the point of irritation. Ultimately, everything I have bought and will buy in the next fifteen years is boring. And in Rewe it also becomes colorless, as the white light that floods the store makes the products look completely pale. I head to the cash register and stand there like an imbecile, scanning the face of the lady who works behind it, looking for a smile, following her as she scans what I have purchased with the barcode reader. If only she would look at me and smile, even a tiny smile. Or if she would just look at me. The beeping of the items as she scans them over the screen is unbearable. She must hear it every day, from morning to evening, for days and years on end. Dear heavens. She does not smile at me. I walk back home. I climb up to the sixth floor. I enter the kitchen and when I begin to take the things out from the bags the smell of Rewe floods my nose again, just as I suddenly realize that I am missing love to a monstrous degree.

The following day it begins to rain even more heavily than it had in the previous three days. I continue to follow the movements of the car’s wipers, engaged in wiping the rain off the front windshield, as we make our way to a small literary festival being held in a large house on the banks of a lake near Berlin. During the festival, my face begins to hurt from so much smiling. But in this harsh world, it is nice for one to smile at one’s fellow human; do you understand, Ms. Rewe? The only two breaks from smiling are when I eat some sausages and when a journalist asks me if I, as an Arab woman, am facing death threats from my family.

I find myself unable to resist the idea, and begin to think about who in my family might kill me. It could not possibly be my father, since he is eternally busy and would not have time even to listen to the idea. My mother only cares about the plants around the house, but in her free time she would surely mourn my death. My eldest brother would not be able to leave town, as it is now the almond harvesting season and he is the only one left in the family who can supervise this operation, since his eldest son broke his leg. My second eldest brother is a sad story; he distanced himself from the family years ago because of family disputes. Possibly he would call whoever finally kills me to congratulate him, since this is what he has started doing lately: calling family members to congratulate them or offer condolences according to the occasion, but nothing more. How sad it is, and how much I have missed him. My sisters are out of the question, as they are nonviolent and completely reject the use of violent methods, or at least I hope so. Other than that, I have two paternal uncles. One, whom I have not seen for fifteen years, and whose children I have not seen for twenty, is in Houston, Texas. None of them would even be able to recognize me in order to carry out the murder. They would have killed the director of the DAAD, who is standing a meter away from me, especially as she is not blonde and her hair is curly like mine. My second uncle is very sweet but also somewhat strange; I have the feeling that he would not do it. There remain his four sons. The eldest is also eccentric and does not like people at all; he will not even meet them. The second is impossible. I categorically refuse to let him get involved in my murder, as he has the worst political views imaginable. That leaves two, and in reality they are my only two friends from that side of the family. I prefer the younger one. He is still a university student. Right now, he must be enjoying his summer vacation after finishing his exams. It would most likely be possible for him to carry out the task. Maybe the middle son of my eldest brother, who, to tell the truth, is my most beloved family member, would come with him. He is a wonderful, crazy person, and owns a bar as crazy as he is. He is an even better candidate than my cousin for the task of killing me, as it would be a shame for the latter to destroy his future like that, after having successfully made it to his fourth year of studying dentistry; which is, for those who don’t know, one of the most boring subjects you can study, to the point that it makes you want to commit suicide. However, I think that this cousin would not let my middle nephew kill me all by himself, as they are very close friends. He would come along, at least to entertain him on the way here. And since they will not have been informed of the mission far enough in advance, they will not be able to obtain a gun inside Germany. They will pass by Rewe and buy a kitchen knife, then head directly here. For my part, when I see them, I will stand up to embrace them, since I know nothing of their intentions. But as I draw closer to them, I will notice the anger and harshness in their eyes, of which I know they are capable, but not for a day did I think they would direct it at me. Ever. I will be startled. I will ask them, in a sad, scared, trembling voice: “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?”

They will say: We’ve come to kill you.
            —Why?
            —Because you’re a terrible disappointment.
            —Me? How?
            —What are you doing with these people, smiling at them like an idiot? And how can you let this idiot ask you a question as idiotic as he is? You’re free to accept being insulted like this, but why do you accept an insult directed at us, your family, as well?
            — . . .
            —What even brought you here?
            —There is this project that has to do with dialogue between the East and the West.
            —What is this rubbish?
            —Nothing serious, I just needed some money.
            —You’re insane! (My nephew shouts.) Money?! You could’ve asked me or my grandfather (i.e., my father) for however much money you wanted!
            —But you know me, and how I need to be financially independent in order to liberate myself.
            —Oh, we get it. Yes, we get it. Now will you now get it yourself?

I bow my head. They say they will let me reflect for a bit. They will wait for me behind that distant tree. Suddenly, I remember the journalist who asked me the question. With sad eyes, I turn toward him and point in the direction of the tree. There, do you see that tree, that one? My nephew and cousin are standing there with a knife. They might pounce on me at any moment and slaughter me. What do you advise me to do?

Other than that, there was no noticeable opportunity to participate in any kind of dialogue between East and West. With the writer with whom I was supposed to conduct such a dialogue, half a dialogue may have occurred. At the start of the trip from damn I forget the name of the city to Cologne, she said to me that when she came to visit me in Palestine, I should not expect that she would spend the whole day sitting and chatting with my mother. Actually, and I say this with severe embarrassment, I felt relieved after she told me this, as my mother likes neither people nor conversation, and has made it clear to me, ever since I entered nursery school, that none of my friends were welcome in the house, even those I was close to to the point of suffocation. But what is this whole obsession with my family?

After a few days, my English brother-in-law, who also happened to be one of my dearest friends, died, something that I can only blame on such obsession.

On my way back from the airport after the funeral, I walked into a small bar that gave the impression that it was frequented only by an elderly crowd from the working and unemployed classes. I ordered a Jameson. The bartender did not know what that was, so I ordered a J&B. They didn’t have it. What is there? Red Label and Jack Daniels. Do you have a cigarette? Let me look. The bartender looked and looked, and two elderly men also began looking. Then, finally, he remembered. One of the customers had once left behind a pack of unfiltered Gitanes. Never mind. We kept on thanking and bidding each other goodbye for about five minutes, and I never went into that bar again. I think that was my last contribution to the dialogue between East and West.

Of course, there are a few old friends of mine in this city from the East. I do not know how much the project that I am participating in aims to facilitate dialogue between the East and the East. But what can I do, this is what happened! And I am not a racist who will only engage in dialogue with Westerners.

In the context of East–East dialogue, I meet an old friend of mine from Jerusalem, a smart and handsome photographer. I believe that many of my lady friends concur with this description. “How’s the photography? Do you have any new projects?” I ask him, taking the initiative. He responds that he has not photographed anything for a long time.
            —What are you doing now?
            —I’m a security guard at a car park.

Suddenly, I see his handsome face shrink. Then I notice the couch on which he has curled up into a tiny ball; you can hardly distinguish his small head, which has turned into a single black spot in a place full of immigrants, of whom he is one. The reality of the misery of migration frightens me to the extent that I do not call him again, nor does he bother himself with calling me.

Finally, there is my friend Franz Biberkopf, the only one who has continued to visit me from time to time and to encourage me to go out and walk around in some of Berlin’s streets and neighborhoods. Tiegelzestrasse, Rosenthaler Platz, Rosenthalerstrasse, Alsacestrasse, Invalidenstrasse, Ackerstrasse, Charlottenburg, Neukölln, Schöneberg, Tempelhof, Potsdam, Spandau, Friedrichsfelde, Karlhorst, Wannsee (the neighborhood I live in), Gronerstrasse, Alexanderplatz, Lutherengerstrasse, Friedrich-Karlstrasse, Brunnenstrasse, Karlstrasse, Oranienburgerstrasse, Hackescher Markt (which has granted me some love at different times and in different situations), and the zoo.

At the entrance to the zoo a young man sits in a cage, selling tickets with a picture of a laughing monkey on them. In reality, though, what prompted me to enter the zoo was not the monkey, but rather the lion and the gazelles. I imagined I would find the lion in the open-air section that a sign indicated was designated for him, the lioness, and their two cubs. After searching carefully among the brown rocks, I was finally able to pick out the lioness and the two cubs, but not the lion. A slight pain struck me, the kind that afflicts someone when they go somewhere specifically to see someone, but do not fully know the extent of their desire to see this person until they do not find him. A slight pain. I continued my tour for a little while, without really concentrating. Then I passed by a small building with glass boxes on its sides that contained small animals resembling cats, squirrels, mice, bats, and the like, many of them. Suddenly, from several meters away, I saw him. He was lying down by himself behind the bars that were there instead of glass, on a patch no larger than two or three meters square, if my idea of a meter’s length is correct. In front of the bars was a throng of children, each accompanied by at least one parent. When I came to stand beside them, the lion turned to me and lowered his eyelids, blinking at me. I in turn responded by lowering my eyelids, blinking back. After that, we began directing long gazes at one another, gazes that I was not familiar with and that I would not dare to give or consent to receive from anyone in the world. And I do not know why, but it was as if the monstrosity of this wild beast somehow seemed close to my monstrous solitude. I wished that I could extend my hand through the cage and stroke him, but the large piece of raw meat thrown beside him prevented me from doing so, so we contented ourselves with gazing and blinking at one another. After the waves of visitors had renewed themselves several times, I became somewhat afraid that the guards at the zoo would take notice of us, so I moved away from him, leaving him behind me in the cage. I did not look back. Sadness had completely overwhelmed me by the time I arrived in the deer section, so I did not bother to think about them as more than meat to eat for dinner in a restaurant on Wrangelstrasse. What a pathetic attempt to express my affection to him, he who had touched me deeply. Well, there are also the mines in the area around Bochum, which also touched me deeply. Dark tunnels that extend for hundreds of miles within the bowels of the earth, under calm, clean buildings and streets. Good luck to whoever comes back up from there.

Other than that, not a single being infringed on my silence as I sat alone and wrote, day after day, on the sixth floor at number twelve on a miserable street whose name no one cares to know. And so the days in Berlin went by until the day came for me to depart, onboard a morning flight to Lydd.

I go to sleep that night at three in the morning and wake up at four to wait for the taxi that will take me to the airport at five, except that it does not come until six, and my flight is in less than an hour. But we arrive, and I am dripping with sweat. I head to the security gates. Three officers are standing near them. One of them treats me in an openly degrading way. I ask her to speak to me politely, but she tells me that this is how she speaks and that I must comply with her orders. I refuse to pass through the gates and her filthiness increases. Then I look at her calmly and say: “You don’t even know what the things you’re doing remind me of. Do you know what my nationality is?” I hold up my Israeli passport in front of her face. She falls silent. Another guard comes forward and speaks courteously. He conducts the security check quickly and everything is over. On the way to the plane, I reflect upon the whole episode. I am Palestinian, have brown skin and completely Arab features. Maybe the security guard sees that, or maybe this is simply how she talks. But my Israeli passport suddenly makes me worthy of different treatment—courtesy and respect. Well then, what should I prefer? For six million Palestinians or Arabs to be killed at the hands of the Nazis so that I might get better treatment, or for them not to be killed, and consequently for me to accept being treated atrociously? I do not succeed in reaching a decision.

This is everything I was able to recall for the Israeli intelligence, except of course for the episode with the security officer at the airport in Berlin. The interrogator concluded the dialogue between us by asking if I had a Visa or MasterCard. I answered no, after which I was released, until the next time.

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