Dima Mikhayel Matta: “This Text Is a Very Lonely Document”

15 June, 2022
Louma Rabah, “Reflec­tion,” oil on can­vas, 100x200 cm, 2021 (cour­tesy Louma Rabah).

 

In mem­o­ry of my father

 

Dima Mikhayel Matta

 

These are sto­ries I rarely tell. These are sto­ries I keep close to my per­son. Not in my pock­et. No, clos­er. I keep them on my chest the way my grand­ma kept mon­ey under the strap of her bra. They are unspo­ken because of the fear that what is spo­ken might be spo­ken into being. But this is not how sto­ry­telling works. I have to share this sto­ry so that you can stand in it with me.

My dad has cog­ni­tive impair­ment. This means that he los­es his short term mem­o­ry. I’m okay with my father for­get­ting what he had for lunch, but I’m not okay with him for­get­ting that I told him the sto­ry of where the say­ing ‘عالوعد يا كمون,’ ‘promis­es to cumin are not kept’ comes from. I tell my father short sto­ries that are famil­iar to him. Short so that he remem­bers the begin­ning by the time we reach the end, famil­iar so he can con­jure the images in his mind. The sto­ry about cumin is one of them, and I must have told it to him three or four times, when­ev­er I want us to appre­ci­ate the beau­ty of the Ara­bic language.

This sto­ry excerpt­ed form This Arab is Queer, edit­ed by Elias Jahshan, pub­lished by Saqi in London.

Cumin does not need a lot of care, it doesn’t real­ly need to be watered. The sto­ry goes that, see­ing the gar­den­er water the oth­er plants one day, cumin became jeal­ous and asked the gar­den­er for some water. The gar­den­er said “tomor­row, tomor­row” but nev­er fol­lowed up on his promise. Dad thought it was a beau­ti­ful sto­ry when he heard it. I know that his mem­o­ry of sto­ries that he hears fades, but the feel­ing of enjoy­ing it stays with him, which con­soles me and gives me solace. In Old French and Latin, “solace” means “plea­sure, enjoy­ment,” but I wouldn’t go that far. It gives me solace as in it helps me not fall apart as much. Cumin is a very lone­ly plant.

Dad’s mem­o­ry is him hold­ing his sto­ries like water in his palms. Every time he holds them, details get lost and the sto­ries change. But this sto­ry about mem­o­ry loss has nev­er been about pre­ci­sion. This has always been about griev­ing. I am los­ing these sto­ries because I didn’t gath­er them ear­li­er. I see the emp­ty spaces that they used to occu­py in my father’s mind. They make me sad and scare me at the same time. They make me sad because I see how it frus­trates him to for­get and then he becomes upset with him­self. There is for­get­ful­ness, cog­ni­tive impair­ment, and there is the aware­ness of it, and that is a harsh­er space to inhabit.

A friend in med school told me that, on one of her rounds, they met a woman with advanced demen­tia. She was hap­py. They didn’t need to give her med­ica­tion. She had no wor­ries and did not remem­ber sad­ness. The doc­tors said she was deliri­ous, con­not­ing mad­ness but also, and per­haps equal­ly, happiness.

“Did she speak?” I ask my friend.

“No, she was all eyes, and made lit­tle sounds. Her fam­i­ly had left her alone at the hos­pi­tal and did not visit.”

“Then how did they know she was hap­py?” “They said she was in her own world.”

Her name was Nadia. Her name means ten­der and del­i­cate. Right now, for­get­ful­ness seems any­thing but that. Right now, what I think it must feel like for my father is a con­stant slip­ping, a tear­ing-away of. Or maybe this is what it feels like for me to wit­ness it. Either way, I am not happy.

My lover sends me their music. They fol­low it with, “It’s not done yet, but these are the main ideas.” Sounds are their ideas and I tell them it’s mag­ic. They don’t believe me, but I know. Maybe that was what Nadia was doing, cre­at­ing lit­tle sounds, ideas of happiness.

I don’t have this skill. I need to find the right word for every­thing I want to say. And, when I do, I feel the sat­is­fac­tion of a work well done. No, I feel the reas­sur­ance of hav­ing con­trol. As a the­atre mak­er, I spent years tak­ing a lot of act­ing work­shops and some clown­ing class­es, and in many of them we would be asked to make ran­dom sounds, or some­times more specif­i­cal­ly, the sound we felt like in that moment. Mine was often a sad moan, of an ani­mal in pain. I’m afraid I can’t make sound ideas. I’m more afraid that this is the only one I have. And I’m afraid of what this says about my words. I told my lover that I have all the words to say specif­i­cal­ly what I think and feel. I’m clear and easy to under­stand. Then I told her that I also have all the words to cov­er my unwill­ing­ness to say what I specif­i­cal­ly think and feel, and that is anoth­er gift — though it doesn’t feel like one when it serves to gild the sad sound. There are no paint­ed lilies in mem­o­ry loss.

Mag­gie Nel­son wrote: “I gained an out­sized faith in artic­u­la­tion itself as its own form of protection.”[1] I know what she means.

Now, when I think of the pause my dad takes in the mid­dle of a sen­tence, I don’t think of it as a slip­ping-away any more. I think of mem­o­ry loss the way I think of a black hole, a place where grav­i­ty is so strong that it pulls every­thing into it. Objects are stripped of their agency. My father is being stripped of his stories.

The mind is a very lone­ly organ.

What will I be when I am stripped of words? Not this.

Who will my father be when he is stripped of sto­ries? I don’t want to think about it.

When we leave things out, the space they inhab­it­ed stays. The things my father leaves out because he has for­got­ten them; their space is filled with silence. Like a star’s cen­ter falling in upon itself, collapsing.

Let’s say you are read­ing this while sit­ting on your bal­cony. And let’s say you look up and you find a con­stel­la­tion that looks like ellipses. That’s Orion’s Belt. You will think of silences, of sen­tences left unfin­ished, of mem­o­ries you have for­got­ten, which real­ly you can’t think of. We can’t remem­ber what we don’t remem­ber. Then you will think about that time when you were a kid and you were in the back seat of your par­ents’ car. You looked out the win­dow at night and thought the moon was fol­low­ing you. One day, you will read an arti­cle about how the bright red star in Ori­on might be dying, the title will read, “A giant star is act­ing strange.” You will read this and read about how so many stars burned them­selves out. You will know that there is a sig­nif­i­cant like­li­hood that the stars you point­ed to as a kid — the ones that form ellipses, and the ones that don’t — are no longer there. And you will real­ize that by point­ing upward, to the sky, you are mark­ing the past with your index.

A star is a very lone­ly celes­tial body.

Mag­gie Nel­son writes, “I have been try­ing, for some time now, to find dig­ni­ty in my lone­li­ness. I have been find­ing this hard to do. It is eas­i­er, of course, to find dig­ni­ty in one’s soli­tude. Lone­li­ness is soli­tude with a problem.”[2]

We con­struct our queer­ness, don’t we? Mine doesn’t look like yours. My friend explains that a queer space is one where you don’t have to explain your­self. But I find myself explain­ing myself to myself. Is my mind not a queer space? Is my body?

I tell my ther­a­pist that I know when I’m unwell because that’s when I can’t stand being alone. I turn on the TV if I’m home; I need to hear dia­logue, even if I’m not part of it. I make so many phone calls, I call who­ev­er has time for me. Tell me every­thing about your day. Did I tell you that I can only mem­o­rize one joke at a time? Want to hear it? I find it impos­si­ble to read. The silence gives too much space for thoughts that I’d rather not wel­come. This also means that it’s impos­si­ble to write. I tell my friend that I’m watch­ing Christ­mas movies in Sep­tem­ber and I invite every­one over for cof­fee. I don’t mind not being a writer dur­ing these times, but it is painful that I don’t find com­fort in the writ­ten word.

I don’t know how to find dig­ni­ty in my lone­li­ness. Most days, I don’t think there is any.

Dur­ing the Lebanese rev­o­lu­tion in 2019, I cut my hair short, I stopped wear­ing lip­stick and I start­ed wear­ing but­ton-up shirts. Some days I wished that my breasts were small­er, so small that the but­ton-up shirt would hang loose over my chest. Dur­ing lock­down, I would often look at my naked body in front of a mir­ror. I would look at the curves, admire them and then some­times wish they would dis­ap­pear. Some days I would cel­e­brate them and oth­er days I would move around, stand side­ways, then shift, bend my knees a lit­tle, and imag­ine what it would be like if I had more mus­cles, few­er curves, broad­er shoul­ders. What was it that I want­ed? The pos­si­bil­i­ty of being both. Nei­ther. Bend gen­der to my will. Gen­ders. Plur­al. I call a friend, they tell me that they’re con­sid­er­ing start­ing HRT. Then they say: ‘It’s hard to per­form our new gen­der iden­ti­ty when there is no audi­ence.’ It’s hard to rehearse it when no one is watch­ing. Am I “they/them” in my own bed­room, alone?

I vis­it my par­ents. I sit on the bal­cony, with a mask; they stay indoors, their sofa turned towards me, four meters away. My moth­er tells me that she found the books she used to read to us when we were kids and that my sis­ter didn’t want to take them for her son. My sis­ter tells her: “These books aren’t for boys.”

I say to my par­ents, “I real­ly don’t know how I turned out to be so …” I paused. I was search­ing for the words “rad­i­cal­ly fem­i­nist” in Arabic.

My dad vol­un­teers to fin­ish my sen­tence: “Man­nish?”

I laughed. He didn’t mean to crit­i­cize or offend me, he meant to help me fin­ish my sen­tence. I nev­er thought I’d hear this word said with so much sweet­ness, with such a gen­uine want to find a way to describe me, to offer me to myself at a time when I couldn’t do that just yet.

We con­struct our queer­ness, don’t we? Mine doesn’t look like yours. My friend explains that a queer space is one where you don’t have to explain your­self. But I find myself explain­ing myself to myself. Is my mind not a queer space? Is my body?

Strangers talk to me less and frown at me more now that I look the way I do.

A queer body is a very lone­ly structure.

When I was five years old, I found a rock in a gar­den. The rock was the size of my two adult hands, and it looked like a cres­cent moon. The kind of moon that looked like the side of someone’s face. One eye. One nos­tril. Half lips. I took it home and cleaned it with a tooth­brush, which is what I assumed archae­ol­o­gists did; I real­ly want­ed to be one at the time. I want­ed to hold the rock while I slept. It felt like such a dis­cov­ery, but I’m not sure why I want­ed it next to me in bed. As you can imag­ine the rock was too rough, and dreams of sleep­ing with a cres­cent-moon rock were soon aban­doned. I had trou­ble let­ting things go when I was a kid. Maybe I still do. I remem­ber cry­ing when my moth­er want­ed to throw away my old sneak­ers. I fished out my lit­tle pil­low from the trash can when I came home after school and didn’t find it on my bed. The pil­low belonged to my three sib­lings before me. It was so old and so used that what­ev­er was in it had turned to pow­der and was spilling out of the pil­low­case. I hung on to it for a few weeks before the mess it made became unbear­able and I threw it away myself.

I remem­ber moments like these ran­dom­ly. When I’m hav­ing cof­fee, show­er­ing, going to the bath­room in the mid­dle of the night. I remem­ber keep­ing a raw egg under my pil­low, think­ing I could make it hatch. I remem­ber wear­ing a dress with pock­ets and putting plas­tic cook­ies in them so I could pre­tend to eat them and either grow very large or shrink to fit in a glass bot­tle, like Alice in Won­der­land. I remem­ber tying a string to the back of the couch, climb­ing on it and pre­tend­ing I was rid­ing a horse. Then I remem­ber some of the times I wished I had a couch near me when I told this sto­ry, so I could show peo­ple where I tied the string and where I climbed. I cre­at­ed a tidy nar­ra­tive that spend­ing all this time at a young age mak­ing up sto­ries, act­ing them out and pre­tend­ing to be char­ac­ters from books and movies, made me the writer and per­former I am today. This is what I tell myself. But real­ly, I was a lone­ly child who couldn’t stand the silence.

Louise Bour­geois wrote: “You pile up asso­ci­a­tions the way you pile up brick. Mem­o­ry itself is a form of architecture.”[3]

These pages are my build­ing. I built it for us. Come in. Tell me a sto­ry. I love you. Stay.

 

Notes

1. Mag­gie Nel­son, The Arg­onauts, Gray­wolf Press, 2015, p. 113.
2. Mag­gie Nel­son, Bluets, Wave Books, 2009, p. 28.
3. Joseph Helfen­stein, “Louise Bour­geois: Archi­tec­ture as a Study in Mem­o­ry,” in Jer­ry Gorovoy and Danielle Tilkin, eds, Louise Bour­geois: Mem­o­ry and Archi­tec­ture, Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia, 1999, p. 26.

Alice in WonderlandArabicBeirutLebanese uprisingmemoryqueerradical feminist

Dima Mikhayel Matta is a Beirut-based writer and actress. Matta, a Fulbright scholar, holds an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University. They have been acting for the stage since 2006. In 2014, they founded Cliffhangers, the first bilingual storytelling platform in Lebanon, and host monthly storytelling events along with parallel events such as storytelling workshops and performances. Their first play, “This is not a memorized script, this is a well-rehearsed story,” an autobiographical play on queerness and their relationship with the city toured in London, New York, and Belfast, and their work has been published in the likes of PEN Transmissions amongst others.