Tamara says that I am constantly on edge; she says that for people like me, meditation can help. “Meditate on what?” “On yourself,” she replies. “Look inside yourself.” There’s nothing there, Tamara, nothing to see; everything that crosses my mind lies outside me: Goya’s caprichos, the appalling translation of Bertrand Russell’s essays on epistemology I was reading yesterday, the over-vinegared salad I ate today. Perhaps this is my self, Tamara: nothing worth contemplating.
I sprinted towards them as they battered away. Tried, but could not open the bolted door. I shouted out, called at the top of my voice for those around me to help, but to no avail. And when at last I despaired, and turned my back to come away, my head knocked against the wall of a water tank, greater still, shut fast against me.
She takes off her clothes and covers her chilly, naked body with a heavyweight green gown. She steps into the white plastic slippers and gets up onto the birthing chair. She leans back, gulping hungrily at the air and mumbling a plea for help in the form of the Quranic ayahs she’s been told will ease the pain of her contractions: “When the earth is leveled out, casts out its contents, and becomes empty… casts out its contents and becomes empty… casts out….” Her words are silenced by a new contraction slamming into her from behind, then bursting out from the middle of her back and wrapping its monstrous arms around her, engulfing her, linking its hands under her belly and squeezing, clamping down, pushing down, down, down. She bites her bottom lip and clasps her hands over her chest. She digs the nails of her right hand hard into her left palm, streaming sweat, a tear escaping the corner of her eye.
The uniformed conscript led the way, bearing aloft, on a small pink velvet cushion, a shabby-looking woman’s shoe. The leather was faded, stretched, and torn. Part of the sole had come off, and the heel had been roughly hammered back on with protruding nails. None of the repairs that had obviously been carried out in an attempt to restore the shoe’s former glory had succeeded. Behind the conscript came the cavalry, weaving their way through the houses of the city, searching for a woman’s foot to fit the shoe.
Once I’d been stripped and forced to stand naked before the gaze of the military medical examination board, for the purposes of identifying any defects that might prevent me receiving the honor of being conscripted, the examiner seated on the right-hand end of the bench rose, approached me, and circled me three times, inspecting every inch of the body before him, then turned back to his fellow board members and, stroking my ear with a disconcerting delicacy, said, “Sound. Big ears.”
“They’re here—” she was about to scream,bolting upright, her heart pounding in her chest. It was as if a snake had brushed against her bare skin under the comforter. He snatched his arms away from where they lay against her neck and her cleavage. They were both naked: beads of sweat quivered on the hairs of his broad chest, and her breasts trembled over thevolcano that had erupted in her heart.
We woke up at five o’clock in the morning and ran to the Hophop bus that was waiting at the school gate. It was colored and beautiful and had the words Scania speaks and the Volvo hurts written on it. The children stood in line in an orderly fashion as they boarded the bus. Teacher was carrying a stick made from a pomegranate branch given to him by the son of a local official, who is lazy but who always comes first in class. Sheikh Khadir, the driver, was washing the bus, and as they boarded, the children splashed the children behind them with water.
When popular uprisings against the Baath regime started in Syria in 2011, Odai Al Zoubi was in the United Kingdom working on a PhD thesis in Philosophy. He quickly became involved in the revolution, writing political essays to defend the right of Syrians to self-determination. But his literary passion was fiction. Since 2011 he has published tens of stories and literary essays in journals such as aljumhuriya and Romman and most recently “Silence” in The Common’s forthcoming Issue 17. “Silence” marks Al Zoubi’s first appearance in English translation.
Al Zoubi’s short stories capture feelings of transience shared by many displaced Syrians. They are often set in spaces of transition: a balcony overlooking the sea in Beirut or a mall in Dubai. There, characters caught between a past in ruins and an uncertain future have fleeting conversations, sometimes about matters that might seem trivial considering the gravity of Syria’s situation. But from the attempt to resume the banality of everyday life springs a profound existential anxiety linked to irremediable loss and a striving for survival.
Silence in the Syrian Limbo: an interview with Odai Al Zoubi
I last spoke to Abu Musa in March 2003, the week the Iraq war began. It was late afternoon, Syria time, when I called from my apartment in Washington, DC. I waited several minutes while the shopkeeper across the hall—the only resident in Abu Musa’s building with a telephone—summoned my former music teacher from his apartment.
I might have caught Abu Musa in the midst of a nap; he made me repeat my name three times.
At last, he laughed. “It can’t be,” he said. His voice, low-pitched, buoyant, was thick with cigarettes and fatigue. “Where are you? Are you still in America?”
When I said I was, I felt him smiling in disbelief. “You could be next door,” he said. “You could be down the street.”