Limbo, Beirut

By HILAL CHOUMAN

Translated by ANNA ZIAJKA STANTON

 

My Japanese wife Takara told me once that she saw how I turned all things into the substance of a novel. This was fine, she said, but in my relentless pursuit of doing so, I overlooked many aspects of real life.

“The things around us are neutral,” she said. “On an equal plane. We are the ones who raise them up high or bring them down. Disgust is as we define it. Morality is as we define it too. We define right, and we define wrong. We are obsessed with defining everything external to ourselves. Yet this does not mean that we acknowledge what we have defined. Things are by their nature simple, but they coexist within a circle of complex relationships. You, when you write, complicate things and simplify the relationships among them,” she said. “Can you deny it? Even stories that are not trying to provoke social or political changes and are only meant to entertain, most of them simplify the relationships among their characters. Perhaps simplicity in relationships is what we desire in an alternate reality? Even cheap melodramas, we relate to them because they entertain hidden parts of our souls. Do you tell stories to entertain? Is life entertaining, anyway? You do not know? Maybe? No? It is not important. The point is that when you see everything as a story, you are constructing a perfect scene, so you let yourself overlook everything that has no place in your idea of it.”

[ … ]

When I remember Takara now, she appears to me coming from a remote place and time. After we were married, Takara left her work in Nottingham to come live with me in London. I felt guilty because she had left a job she liked to move where I preferred to be, but there was no other way: my phobia of trains had kept me from visiting her there. Still, in London Takara created beautiful houses. Each time she opened the door of a house to show me, I was amazed. So many houses that hadn’t seemed, from the outside, capable of bearing this beauty within them. Colors. Ceilings. Small items of furniture. Accessories. I began to feel a profound conviction that we were alike in this respect: both of us were constructing our own perfect scenes.

While she left her scenes inside houses, I would submerse myself in the scenes in my head. Yet, despite this, I was unable to write a single word of any of the projects I had told my friends I was working on. It was hard on me. My mind was a commotion of thoughts and images, but when I opened my laptop and touched my fingertips to its keyboard, everything froze. The cursor stayed blinking at the beginning of the line. I tried to write, and all that came out was scattered words, pathetic sentences. All progress in my head stopped as my thoughts entered an endless revolving cycle of limbo. It’s not easy when you manage to get a story published in one of the best culture magazines while you’re still a student, and are rewarded for it with a prestigious prize for young writers, and then find out later, when you graduate, that you are unable to write anything more.

I was the prisoner of my first story. I was incapable of going back and returning to a writing that was fresh and not weighted with the knowledge of what had preceded it, nor could I move forward and incorporate what I had learned into writing something new. Takara would watch me, as was her habit. She would come up behind me and fold me in her embrace, keeping me in her arms for a long time. Sometimes I would fall asleep then and awake to find myself lying on the edge of the bed, listening to her voice outside the room singing in Japanese.

While we were in London, things were happening in Lebanon to destabilize the status quo. 2005 passed. 2006 flew by. I began to ask myself, Is it this place? Can I really be productive in a place I’ve lived in only briefly? Can I write a story whose events take place in Lebanon while I watch what’s happening from outside? Can such a thing be done remotely, using online searches, smart technology?

I could not keep my thoughts to myself. I asked Takara, “Will you go with me to Lebanon?”

Her answer surprised me. “Yes, right away.”

“We won’t be tourists,” I said.

She replied, “I know.”

I didn’t always understand Takara.

We arrived in Beirut. We rented an apartment. She adjusted quickly. I’m not exaggerating when I say that she got to know almost all of the shop owners and workers on our street, in spite of the fact that she didn’t speak Arabic and didn’t try to learn it. I didn’t understand how she communicated with people. More than once I saw her doing it, and each time she was employing a different method, once communicating through acting, once with gestures, once by showing examples, once by drawing in her small notebook, once by speaking English slowly, once by speaking rudimentary French, and once by mixing the two languages. It was she who came up with the idea for the Mansourieh house. Suddenly, with no preamble, she said that it was a shame that we were paying all this money in rent. We had the means to buy a house, so why not? So we bought it, and she began to paint it from the inside out while I tried to write my novel alone in the apartment.

In my attempts to write the novel, I tried to start chronologically and go from the beginning to the end. But I found myself lost. The scenes would come charging from my head onto the computer screen as if they were bursting through a barrier. At first, when the gate opened, everything was fine. I began by transcribing every idea that came to mind, trusting that the picture would become clear soon and then I could rearrange things. I would do that after putting this chaos down in words, I persuaded myself at the time.

But I reached an impasse as soon as we moved to Mansourieh. I again felt distant, even though I went down into Beirut daily. I couldn’t identify the reason. Only, everything had stopped. And when I looked at what I had written before, I found it disorganized and impossible to arrange. Fragments suitable for nothing, despite their abundance. I would sit in my office without accomplishing anything, while Takara, in Beirut, rebuilt houses from the inside. She seemed happy to me. She had established a network of relationships quickly since our arrival in the country. None of the events happening down the road from us in Beirut had an effect on her. Even the numerous explosions, even the assassinations reported on television. Each thing was discrete, not forming a coherent picture for her.

Again, it seemed to me that she noticed my crisis. This time she chose to leave me alone. Once, as we were preparing to go to sleep, I moved up behind her in the bed and put my arms around her.

“What?” she asked me, turning around.

I gazed into the wide pupils of her eyes. I thought about her family in Japan. My smile broadened. She was waiting for me to speak, but I continued to smile and said nothing. Then, apparently tired of waiting, she pulled gently away from me, rolled onto her side, and went to sleep. I lay flat again. I stared at the ceiling without doing anything. Perhaps ten minutes passed before I declared, “Let’s have a baby.”

She was sleeping, and she didn’t hear.

The next day, I set off for Beirut. I parked my car in a lot on the outskirts of downtown and walked. I jogged. I ran. My body, unusually for me, was drenched in sweat. I stopped after an hour. I sat on a stone bench near the Raouché rocks. Tourists obscured the famous sight from me, but before long they returned to their bus. The Raouché seemed close, closer than usual. What now? I wondered. Where to from here? We had come from London to Beirut based on my theory that the place was the problem. Yet all I had done here was produce a jumble of chaotic ideas from which I hadn’t managed to craft even a single short story. With me, everything stopped before it started. Everything came to an early end. Then I began to ask myself: Has a single thing worthy of being narrated ever happened to me? Do I have a story? And how can someone who doesn’t have—at the minimum—even one story write a novel? Or do I have a story and I just don’t realize it? And if I have one, how can I train myself to see it?

An elderly photographer approached me. He asked me if I wanted my picture taken. I don’t know what expression my sweaty face presented to him, but the photographer thought it was an affirmative answer. I found him standing in front of me asking me to smile, and a minute later he was fanning the air with the printed photo and holding it out for me to take. I paid him what was in my pocket, barely noticing how much I gave him, but he thanked me and moved away, calling gaily, “Photo! Photo!”

I looked at the picture in my hand. I saw myself as a stranger. Weary shoulders, sweaty face, legs clamped together, a smile taking its time to appear. Was that a smile?

I thought of how I was incapable of crying. How I had been struggling for days without bringing forth a single tear, and now I couldn’t manage a smile either. Neither a smile nor a tear. Where was my mistake? What was it I kept missing?

I returned to the house and sequestered myself in my office. For a week I slept on the small sofa there. Takara didn’t come near me. I would hear only the door being opened and closed in the mornings. She gave me my privacy, as usual. Yet as much as I valued that in her, I also hoped that she would interfere. I would leave the room to go to the bathroom and return to find food ready on the desk, without my ever seeing her.

At the end of the week I emerged. My beard had grown out for the first time in a long while. Takara had never seen me like this. When she looked at me, disgust appeared on her face. She muttered something I didn’t understand and left the house. It was the first time I’d heard her mutter like this.

I went into the bathroom to wash my face. My eyes looked sunken, the circles around them dark and alarming. I threw water on my face and chose to leave my beard as it was. I wouldn’t trim it yet. I discarded my clothes on the bathroom floor and stood under the shower, turning on the hot water as high as it would go. The water poured down on me, but I couldn’t feel its warmth. I thought for a moment that the water heater must have broken.

I left the bathroom naked after discovering that I hadn’t brought fresh underwear with me. The clothes I’d tossed on the floor had gotten wet. Before I went to my room to dress, I stopped in the hall. Something drew me to the room with glass walls on the other side of the house. I headed that way, passing by the TV, which Takara had left on when she went out. The screen was crowded with news headlines and excited announcers. It looked like something serious had happened, but I didn’t raise the volume and I didn’t pause long enough to understand what.

From the room with glass walls, I gazed out at the green hills below. I thought about making a cup of coffee. I went into the kitchen, prepared it, and returned. I was moving automatically. This was the first time I had walked through the house naked. Not many minutes passed before I heard the front door bang open. I turned to see Takara before me, crying. She looked at me, and then she asked me to get dressed so we could talk. I said, “We can’t talk when I’m like this?” I felt a sense of calm as a gentle breeze stroked my naked body.

My playfulness was misplaced. Takara exploded. I had never seen her like this. She was transforming before my eyes. She began to curse me, and to curse the country and the people, and to curse herself. She shouted in Japanese, words I didn’t know. I understood her at that moment, though, even without having learned her language. She shouted in English, “I cannot keep doing this! I cannot!”

I made an effort that day to encourage her to say everything she wanted to, and then I left her alone for a little while. I left her in front of the TV watching the live broadcast of the events from Beirut and cursing in Japanese. When I saw that her anxiety was only increasing, I went to turn off the TV. She screamed at me not to. She was smoking cigarettes ravenously, and in front of her the ashtray had filled with a pile of butts. I left the room and went to sleep on my small sofa.

I remained deep in sleep until the afternoon. I awoke to find the nearby wardrobe open. I examined its contents. It seemed that many of Takara’s clothes had disappeared.

I was certain of it: she had left the country.

My suspicion was confirmed when I received a text message from her near evening: On my way to Japan via Damascus airport. I went into the office, and I remained there reading what I had tried to write in the preceding days. I started by erasing some of it. I was thinking about many things, but not about Takara. I wrote. I wrote. I wrote. I couldn’t remember ever before producing this quantity of words in a single day. I sat there tapping away at the keyboard, completely naked. I had begun to relish moving through the house without clothes.

Is this the novel I’ve been waiting for? I wondered. I finished two chapters and started on the third. I didn’t sleep. I drank a lot of coffee, cup after cup. At four o’clock in the morning, I stopped and looked at what I had accomplished. Happiness washed over me in spite of my exhaustion.

Naked in the darkness of the room with glass walls, I watched the dance of lights upon the hills, and I began to think. Who had turned Takara into that creature? How could a person defined by her ability to manage everything lose control like she had? Was it her certainty that further attempts to help me would only yield more failure? Did Takara fail with me, and did she know that she had failed, and so she exploded? Was it I who pushed her to this state?

Many thoughts assailed me. I paced through the house, colliding with furniture in the darkness. I almost tripped on a step, and I knocked something over that shattered behind me on the floor. I continued my progress toward my room, not caring whether shards from the broken object might pierce my bare feet. I was terrified by the thought that I had not adequately memorized the map of the house, although Takara had not changed the positions of the furniture since our move.

In my room, I picked up the first shirt and pair of pants that my hands fell upon. I did not look in the mirror. I found myself a few minutes later in the car, heading to Beirut. The clock showed that it was nearly five o’clock in the morning. I took the coastal road. Sleep canopied the neighborhoods through which I passed. Only rarely did I happen upon another car. Instead of continuing into Beirut, I took a turn and drove north until I arrived at the neighborhood of El Zouk.

A feeling beset me that I lacked free will, that I was advancing toward an unknown goal awaiting me somewhere. Yet some part of what was in front of me was not wholly unfamiliar. A chaos of thoughts encircled me. I began to think about scenes from the fourth or fifth chapter of my novel, about lines that needed more work, characters that asked to be better developed. By the time I reached El Zouk, I had left my novel behind and was focusing in a different direction entirely: Takara.

This was the first time I had really thought about her since I abandoned myself to writing. I saw her in the windshield of the car. The heavens rained gently down upon her. It was strange for it to rain in May. I turned on the wipers, but the image did not disappear. Takara’s presence intensified, with her narrow black eyes and her smooth hair, and she looked at me in anger. I could no longer recall my characteristic calm image of her.

How can people leave behind them, when they depart, a final image of themselves that erases everything that came before? It was illogical. It proved that things were weaker than they seemed. But not so fast: Was I speaking here about things, or about the relationships among things? With me, why did everything (simple things and their complicated relationships) become suddenly joined together into one mass?

Did complication overrule simplicity?

I don’t know what motivated me to turn around and return in the direction of Beirut. The hour was some minutes past five. I recalled Takara’s words in Japanese that I hadn’t understood. I translated them into the image before me, into the subtlest facial expression or physical movement I had observed her make during our confrontation. Was it really a confrontation? I had been weak, and she came and let everything out all at once, but did I blame her? Could one who was not responsible for her own behavior be blamed?

I felt guilty. I became certain that she was my victim. That I was the one who had brought her to the point of explosion. At the head of Hamra Street, which was empty of all life, I could hear the sound of the paving stones bumping against the tires of my car. I entered a side street and then came out again. I no longer remember the route I took. All I remember is that I returned to the main street, and there I stopped. In front of me Takara had begun to scream. She beckoned me forward. I thought that if I drove faster I might throw her image off the glass. I might leave her behind on the sidewalk, on top of one of those little golden stars engraved there.

And she might disappear forever.

I flew.

The bumping of the tires against the paving stones became louder. The din escalated, and Takara continued shrieking in Japanese, and then… he appeared in front of me.

A man in dark clothes stood pointing his weapon at a young man. It would have been possible for me to avoid him, but something inside of me convinced me that I must not, and that he had been waiting for me for a long time. I felt adrenaline throb in my veins, and I awoke from the stupor that had begun to envelop me on the coastal road.

It all happened in seconds.

 

Things take a much shorter time to happen than the period we spend preparing for them on the ground, on paper, or even in our heads. The things we are waiting for often surprise us with their insignificance once they actually come to pass. We ask ourselves, Is it for this we were waiting? Is it for this we were planning? The weightiness of such questions eclipses the insignificance of the event itself. When I struck the man with my car, it took time for me to arrive at the weightiness that would follow. My questions about myself and about Takara vanished in an instant. I was within the event, and everything passed through me, and my mind’s eye that turns everything into material for a novel put the event into slow motion.

I can recount what happened in plain facts.

The man clung at first to the hood of the car. He stared into my face. His deep-set eyes hunted for mine. His face was dyed with blood, and blood also flowed from his open mouth. The red fluid covered the glass, obscuring my sight. The man stuck to the car as if he were embracing it and did not wish to let it go. I took him with me. I drove without being able to see past him to the road, aided by the fact that this part of the street does not curve. Then I decided that I needed to see. With my right foot I slammed on the brakes, and the man flew and landed near the middle of the street.

I opened my door and got out. I looked from where I stood to the man crumpled on the asphalt unmoving. I looked behind me for the young man at whom he had been aiming his weapon. I found no one. I surveyed the street. It was calm and devoid of life. I was surprised that no one was out and about now that the sun had risen. I looked up. The sky was overcast, and presently rain began to fall into my upturned eyes. As if the sky had been waiting for me to look up. This time it was discharging its burden with violence, unlike the drizzle on the autostrade earlier. I hurried to get in my car without going over to check on the man’s condition. I took a side street, careful not to pass near the body. I drove very slowly at first, with no feeling of fear or of a need to flee. I was like a zombie who has had his meal and keeps walking as if he hasn’t done anything, or as if what he did was completely natural and he had the right to do it.

The rain had rinsed the windshield clean, and I turned on the wipers again. This time Takara did not appear. It was enough seeing the blood disappearing under the hood. There was lightning and thunder. Had I been thinking normally in those moments, I would have remembered all the cheap details that always accompany a criminal act in the most unoriginal works of fiction: Lightning. Thunder. Rain. The perpetrator runs. He hides. Then he continues his getaway. When he reaches a safe place, he cries. Or he is lashed by pangs of conscience.

But I, contrary to all of this, was driving very slowly, heading toward the Corniche. And except for the details provided by nature and outside my control, I did not do any of what would seem logical in these situations. I had not even reached that post-event feeling of weightiness.

I started to see cars around me. Other militiamen were gathered on the corners, sheltering from the rain under the shop awnings and smoking their morning cigarettes. Not much later I arrived at the Raouché rocks. The rain had lightened again into a drizzle. I parked the car and got out. I looked at the windshield. I found no trace of either blood or scratches, only a slight dent in the hood that would mean nothing to anyone who happened to notice it.

“You got a cigarette?” I asked one of the few people standing on the Corniche sidewalk. The man gave me one, and I put it in my mouth. He took out a lighter for me, and we joined our hands together trying to shield the flame from the sea breeze until we succeeded in lighting it.

“This sure is a nice morning,” he said to me in the tone of one speaking to a comrade in a secret brotherhood.

For the first time in a while I felt that I had to speak. “Here’s to hoping that yours gets even better.” I gave him my hand in thanks and went over to the guardrails. I leaned on them and looked out at the heaving sea.

This time the Raouché rocks were distant. Very distant.

I waited for a long time without fear, but the photographer did not appear this time.

I thought: In the house, when I return, I will check my passport, and I will find that the Japanese visa in it is still good.

At the Syrian–Lebanese border, I will smile at the border guard, and he will stamp my passport, and I will give him a pack of Marlboro Reds.

On the plane heading from Damascus to Tokyo, I will sleep for most of the flight.

My old Moroccan friend Ghali from London will come to me in a dream and repeat what he said to me once when I was worried that Takara would leave me: “Everything’s mizyan, my friend—it’s fine.” I will see a train passing through me. I will smell many smells. Each smell will overflow into another. I will see a strange Japanese tattoo on the chest of a man, and I will be certain in the dream that I do not know him. All the writers I like to read will visit me, and the train will keep passing through me, but I will not feel any shortness of breath. I will feel only a sense of alienation.

Only when the hostess puts her hand on my shoulder, whispering to me that we have arrived, will I awake. In the Tokyo airport, I will call Takara from a public phone. I will not say much. I will wait for her in the arrivals hall, and an hour will pass before she appears. She will stand there at first, and then she will run toward me and embrace me, and I will hear her crying, and as usual I will not be able to shed a single tear.

In bed, I will hold her. I will ask her to have a child with me. She will listen to me and smile, and then she will say, On the condition that we give it a Japanese name, and I will nod in agreement, and kiss her. As we are making love, I will not see Takara’s face. Speeding trains will overtake my vision, and I will verge on suffocation. But I will not show her that I am suffocating. I will cry for the first time, as I try to suppress my feeling of suffocation, and I will get the cheap scene that I managed to postpone before. Takara will ask me if there’s something wrong, and I will answer in the negative, and I will get control of myself, and I will continue making love.

But the bloodstain will keep growing in my head, and I will see him. I will see his eyes again, and I will think about him. I will give him a definition: he is the first story that has happened to me. My strength will give out as I arrive inside Takara’s womb.

Before I close my eyes, I will remember that I forgot my laptop, and on it the first chapters of my novel, in the house in Mansourieh. And instead of wondering whether I will return there, or thinking of a way to recover the device, I will find myself haunted by a peculiar question: What child did we just create, while I could not stop thinking about the man I killed?

I will not find an answer to my question. At least not before nine months have passed. For now I will close my eyes, and I will enjoy a little bit of darkness, and a quantity of strange dreams.

 

Excerpt from Limbo Beirut, published by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, 2016

Hilal Chouman was born in Beirut, Lebanon. He studied electronics and communications engineering in Lebanon, France, and the UK. He currently works in digital marketing and lives in Dubai. He is the author of three novels in Arabic: Stories of Sleep, Napolitana, and Limbo Beirut, which is the first to be translated into English. He is currently completing his fourth novel.

Anna Ziajka Stanton is a doctoral candidate in modern Arabic literature at The University of Texas at Austin. Her translation of Limbo Beirut is forthcoming from the publishing division of UT Austin’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in August 2016.

Limbo, Beirut

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