Fiction from “Free Fall”: I fled the city as a murderer whose crime had just been uncovered

15 January, 2022,
View from the Burj Khal­i­fa, world’s high­est sky­scraper, Dubai.
 
Free Fall the novel is about the dispute of a Christian family over a 250-year-old Damascene house in the 5000-year-old Damascus. It opens with Yasmina returning home from the clinic with her father who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, going through the streets of a city that has become frenzied with the war. In keeping with the madness, Yasmina has to kill someone. She therefore kills her father, or thinks she has. She, then relates her story, in a feverish stream-of-consciousness. After moving around from Dubai, to Beirut, to Montreal, Yasmina returns to Damascus to die on the same stone steps where she watched her father fall. The selections below are taken from the beginning and the middle of the novel. —Nouha Homa, translator.

 

Abeer Esber

trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Nouha Homa

 

In the autumn of 2012, I fled the city as a mur­der­er whose crime had just been uncov­ered. But Dam­as­cus did not wait for me to leave the city with grace: every­thing in it seemed to turn on me. The nights shrank, shriv­elled like an ama­teur­ish­ly dyed cot­ton shirt; the drea­ry autumn day became as cold as a frost­ed dawn; the evening winds that tarred the pave­ments with dust and lone­li­ness, forced peo­ple into their homes and left a dark­ness that fore­told worse to come — an alarm­ing dark­ness pierced by the flash and thun­der of gun­fire from near-by shelling.

Nev­er­the­less, phys­i­cal fear was not the only thing that drove me out of the city, which had lost all mean­ing and became a soul­less pub­lic prop­er­ty. Even the sol­diers were afraid in their own way, and, on sleepy days, instead of stay­ing alert, they drank maté to relieve the tedi­um at their cement check­points, hold­ing bags of pop­corn or eat­ing ice cream. As night approached, they seemed to remem­ber where they were and asked you polite­ly and soft­ly to turn off your car lights for fear of snipers. We were afraid in a way that pro­voked us: we had to prove our pluck. Thus, we walked along Al-Hamidiyeh mar­ket streets, with friends, and took pic­tures at night, with unnec­es­sary rash­ness, and, in a rare show of courage, we returned from the jour­nal­ists’ club replete with non-alco­holic beer at eleven o’clock, pleased with our courage and down­cast by the dark­ness of alleys emp­ty except for a hand­ful like us.

All this was not enough for me to leave until a “gang” broke into the flat I had rent­ed in Al-Tiliani neigh­bor­hood, com­ing into the build­ing in their civil­ian clothes, a mix­ture of black mili­tia “tank tops,” fatigue trousers, shirts streaked with foul-smelling sweat, proud­ly dis­play­ing weapons and sniff­ing out cor­ners in search of no one in particular.

The land­lord, whose sur­name was Ayoubi, was the son of one of the old­est Dam­a­scene fam­i­lies. The pic­tures on the walls of his home bore wit­ness to gen­er­a­tions of Ayoubis, to the valiant leader Salah al-Din. This 80-year-old Pro­fes­sor Yass­er Ayoubi, an ex-judge and inter­na­tion­al arbi­tra­tor in Switzer­land, walked into our flat, chok­ing with out­rage at the sur­re­al­ism of what was going on. He knocked on the doors of his ten­ants’ homes, accom­pa­ny­ing a foul-smelling gang car­ry­ing weapons, look­ing for peo­ple flee­ing from hot spots.

 “It isn’t right to let them heat up the area.”

This is what one of them said, in a thick accent — as coastal as pos­si­ble in defi­ance of all that remained Dam­a­scene in a city that was no longer Dam­as­cus. He was load­ing a hate­ful sec­tar­i­an sig­nif­i­cance onto a cher­ished nation­al accent. He want­ed to assert the Alawi ‘qaf’, which had not always been Alaw­ite. But in these times of mad­ness between loy­al­ty and oppo­si­tion, the accent was made to car­ry an unhap­py his­to­ry of sec­tar­i­an tragedy and tales of abuse and killing among Alaw­ites and Sunnis.

At the time, I was liv­ing with a new lover who had been detained and ques­tioned in the lob­by of my build­ing. He had escaped their unwel­come inter­ro­ga­tions by refer­ring them to me. He showed them a forged iden­ti­fi­ca­tion card which exempt­ed him from oblig­a­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice. After a brief call to me on his mobile phone, in which he remind­ed me of his fake per­son­al data, I real­ized from the urgency in his voice that he might have escaped cer­tain arrest.

My blood cur­dled as the phone call end­ed with the knock­ing on the door of my flat. I opened the door to the armed group and saw that our land­lord the judge had been dragged in by the armed intrud­ers. His face was a bright red from a com­bi­na­tion of age and out­rage, and the veins of his tem­ples were throb­bing. His anx­i­ety sur­pris­ing­ly had a calm­ing effect on me. Thus, I wore a mask of stu­pid­i­ty as I laugh­ing­ly opened my lap­top to them, and still laugh­ing incon­gru­ous­ly, I explained that the oth­er com­put­er belonged to a male friend. As I was being sub­ject­ed to a search and a con­ver­sa­tion that was seri­ous to the point of tears, I made it clear that I was writ­ing a Ramadan series along with a friend, and that we com­posed it here in this flat. Shuf­fling with grow­ing alarm between the bed­room and the lounge, I would remem­ber some small thing and bring copies of doc­u­men­taries with my name print­ed on them as a pro­duc­er, and my nov­els as tes­ti­mo­ni­als to good behav­ior, as well as trans­la­tions of my work that showed my name in Eng­lish. As they became more open­ly hos­tile and tire­some, I laughed ner­vous­ly in my col­or­ful morn­ing pyjamas.

The land­lord gave me looks to shut up while I con­tin­ued to chat­ter like some­one touched with mad­ness. I was afraid and they were brutal.

“We saw your hus­band at the door of the build­ing, what does he do?” 

“I’m not married!” 

There was a watch­ful silence and search­ing stares. My tongue dried out and sweat trick­led from under my arm as it does on a ter­ri­fied frog’s skin. I tried to say some­thing then looked for help towards Mr. Ayoubi, the land­lord. Like some­one undress­ing on a pub­lic road I said: 

“Yes, that’s Osama, the friend I write with here. He told you he is my hus­band to explain his leav­ing my home at nine in the morning.” 

They looked at me, then at the judge, at the books with my name on them, then at my pic­tures in bathing suits on the lap­top. They stared and stared. Then one of them said cun­ning­ly, like one who has under­stood it all and has arrived at the secret of the cre­ation of the universe: 

“He shouldn’t have lied. We don’t inter­fere in ‘per­son­al’ mat­ters. The ‘boys’ do not inter­fere in ‘per­son­al’ matters!” 

The ‘boys’ drank cof­fee, and I drank my idi­ot­ic gig­gles. That inva­sion was not what real­ly fright­ened me, nor my run-away hus­band, who was not my hus­band at all. It was the com­e­dy played out when I was asked by one of them about the qual­i­ty of my books, and I answered, still in my buffoon’s pyja­mas with the stripes down and across, in self-defence, that I was a nov­el­ist. I shut up com­plete­ly when they asked me if I had writ­ten about the homeland. 

“You have writ­ten about the home­land of course?”

The ques­tion rang in my ears like a church bell at a funer­al. I car­ried it with me even in my night­mares. That night, my father’s body came to me; I saw his hand out­stretched towards me, and I saw that I had not let him down. I tried to extend my hand too, but my arm was cut off from the shoul­der. I could not focus, as if I knew what was to come. I was silent. My throat was not con­strict­ed by hor­ror, I did not scream sound­less­ly and wake up trem­bling, sweat­ing the water of my soul. I did not do any of this. I fell silent wait­ing for shots from a hid­den gun, or the edge of a sledge­ham­mer to fall on my neck, my breasts, my right knee, on my head that remem­bers the corpse liv­ing in its con­scious­ness, the body of a mur­dered father, in a coun­try that has turned entire­ly into mur­der­ers. I did not wake up from that dream; its sub­stance nev­er went away. Fear enveloped me like the spit of a frog: the more I flicked it away the more it stained me with filth. It attached itself to my throat, to the walls of my heart and the coils of the grey mat­ter of my brain. 

I want­ed to escape from all of this as I was used to doing, but I need­ed mon­ey, for it was the anchor to my safe­ty, the only coun­try where I did not feel alien­at­ed. The more I had, the more doors would open to me. Nei­ther lan­guages, nor iden­ti­ties, nor affil­i­a­tion, nor ten­u­ous feel­ings are suit­able for researchers in soci­ol­o­gy. Mon­ey was cre­at­ed to set­tle all non­sen­si­cal prob­lems relat­ed to phi­los­o­phy and ethics. But Khalil and Mar­la con­trolled me now from their grave with the lega­cy that was no longer mine. It was this that had led to my mad­ness and turned me into a murderess.

But was I real­ly a nov­el­ist, did I love words, test them, car­ry them like a weapon, dan­di­fy myself with them?  Did I mas­ter con­ver­sa­tion, shel­ter with lay­ers of inter­pre­ta­tions, hide among the walls of images, and the metaphor of thoughts lost in a lin­guis­tic delu­sion? What did words add to my life, pro­tect me from? Because noth­ing in my life was real­ly fright­en­ing, a life that was not even wor­thy of a nov­el: every­thing in it was shame­ful, very triv­ial. Par­ents spoiled by overindul­gence, raised with­in entire fam­i­lies who fed their arro­gance. A rur­al father from titled coun­try ‘Aghas’ and big landown­ers, who had nev­er expe­ri­enced pover­ty or suf­fered in any way so that he had to clear his rep­u­ta­tion or puri­fy his con­science. He was the star of his vil­lage for his uni­ver­si­ty dis­tinc­tion, and for being the first physi­cian in a very small cold vil­lage, fenced by the wind and shel­tered by clouds. He came to Dam­as­cus to meet my moth­er, a lady of breath­tak­ing beau­ty, a woman steeped in wealth and abun­dance. She grew up doing what­ev­er she want­ed, learn­ing lan­guages, trav­el­ing, danc­ing, smok­ing and falling in love over and over again. She lived to walk through life in hous­es of ele­gance and mar­ble tiles, among foun­tains, minia­ture etch­ings, and open spaces of sky in the old­est hous­es of Dam­as­cus and its breath­tak­ing prince­ly buildings.

 

Street art, Dubai.

 

I arrived in Dubai at five in the morn­ing, the hour of grace. It was like a moist fog walk­ing with you on the pave­ment on a day of leisure­ly liv­ing. Have you ever seen the fog at dawn in Dubai, a city that rose out of the fog, from a wish that became true when some­one blew into a cloud? Ever since then, the rain car­ries its thun­ders every win­ter and goes to water that land, and every win­ter there is rain.

Water is the sto­ry of this land, fol­lowed by farm­ers and pur­sued by shep­herds. The city that rose from desire was beau­ti­ful, the young city lack­ing mem­o­ry and wis­dom escaped the curse of time. It was not bur­dened with the weight of the tales of the res­i­dents, it threw them off from its sky­scrap­ers and scat­tered them to be shared by the wind and the deserts.

Old sto­ries belong to the old and those who inher­it the dead. It is a city with no time for mem­o­ry, a city that is dif­fi­cult to cap­ture. It can­not speak about the past. You need to live its present. A float­ing city, indif­fer­ent to being an easy sub­ject for satire and resentment.

There is no hypocrisy nor com­pas­sion in Dubai. There are those loved and those damned, the rich, and those who gaze at the rich. No anguish here, every­thing is tem­po­rary. Dis­ap­point­ment is a gen­tle prick to the heart … for none of this is yours: the place does not allow you to seize things, pos­sess them, bequeath them. You can­not pass the city on to gen­er­a­tions after you and cre­ate descen­dants. There are no grand­par­ents in Dubai. The tired cities of the East retain them, with their death and demen­tia, and a his­to­ry of vio­lence is engraved with hot iron on the walls of their homes demol­ished by nos­tal­gia and treach­er­ous times.

This is a city with­out a history.

From the first gust of the heat on a humid evening, I fell in love. The metrop­o­lis with its lan­guages ​​and nation­al­i­ties gath­ered on the pave­ments and cafés, the cap­ti­vat­ing build­ings, the crowd­ed streets, the lav­ish light­ing of the glo­ri­ous city with its danc­ing build­ings filled me with a feel­ing of light­ness, the desire to walk around the face of a gen­tle god. The city was a beau­ti­ful young girl with­out mem­o­ries eat­ing away at her, no unhap­py his­to­ry to rav­age her face made beau­ti­ful by a car­ing lover.

In the streets of Dubai, dream­ers walk, nou­veau tourists, nou­veau trav­el­ers, with their shorts and open san­dals, their ele­gant gait, their expen­sive cam­eras, their fast cars, their night yachts and their music pul­sat­ing with a hun­dred rhythms. It is a city with a deep riv­er, near­by sands, and beach­es for night swim­ming. The beach is a city open for hur­ried love and “rushed” rela­tion­ships. Every­thing in Dubai is easy and tem­po­rary: enjoy and run away before the city entices you from your­self and you think to make all this yours. Even if you are seduced by an appetite for pos­ses­sion, abstain. Dubai will escape from you like the air; it is a city of dreams out­side real­i­ty, too beau­ti­ful to be reduced to the mate­r­i­al. It told me this when it gave me the gift of its light so that I saw in my blind­ness a dis­cernible path for pedes­tri­ans and passers-by. I under­stood all this from the first trem­bling of the warm evening.  I will not share its strange music. I will hum my melody soft­ly so that it har­monis­es with its care­ful­ly dis­trib­uted orches­tra. I will dance and live to its music with the light­ness of a cat. I will run away before the city wakes up to my exposed face and flees from me then drops me from its slip­pery edges into a sand cemetery. 

In Dubai I lived in a hotel for six months. My delight­ful room looked out from the eleventh floor on Sheikh Zayed street, along an infi­nite stretch of build­ings with irreg­u­lar shad­ows. The build­ings with their grace­ful archi­tec­ture seemed to be always danc­ing, they moved towards the hori­zon like the body of a woman, stretch­ing. The agree­able metro build­ing makes you feel that every­thing is as it should be and does not fright­en you by tak­ing you under­ground. The Dubai metro moves from light to light. It ris­es a lit­tle like spring air, in a sin­gle line toing and fro­ing. Get­ting lost is not per­mit­ted in Dubai. The direc­tions are arranged accord­ing to your whim and being lost is a mean­ing­less word in a place open to all places. 

There, in a lux­u­ry hotel suite, I lived in a place big­ger than a room and small­er than a house. I wait­ed for some­thing to change after dozens of meet­ings with tele­vi­sion sta­tions, actors and direc­tors of pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies. My life was an act of wait­ing and dull­ness, a sim­ple sum­ma­rized life with­out details, gos­sip, or mem­o­ries of a vio­lat­ed home­land, and a rel­a­tive who stole my house and exiled me out of all the places, a dead moth­er, a mur­dered father, and a lover who might have died under tor­ture. In my safe hotel, I was com­plete­ly reduced to easy “data.” My iden­ti­ty and my name were no longer impor­tant. Hotel rooms do not give you that dis­tinc­tion. It was enough to know the num­ber of your room to wash away prob­lems effort­less­ly: food, clean­ing, cof­fee at all times, ser­vices pro­vid­ed by strangers to strangers. Your nation­al­i­ty, neglect­ed in the suit­case, does not sting you with its iden­ti­fy­ing fea­tures. You leave it in the suit­case for a while. You cry quick­ly, get angry quick­ly, starve, get cold, grieve, exer­cise all your feel­ings quick­ly, none here cares about hav­ing your feel­ings flow over them while they brush them away for you, slow­ly. These are the respon­si­bil­i­ties of the home­land and those who live in it: you over­flow and flood your home, your loved ones, your friends, the inhab­i­tants of your street, your neigh­bor­hood, your city, and the coun­try you belong to.

In Dubai, you must prac­tice your human­i­ty in a hur­ry. Hotel rooms teach you to use your time effi­cient­ly, to cur­tail the small talk. For­tu­nate­ly, your fea­tures do not reveal your iden­ti­ty and they pro­tect you from casu­al busy­bod­ies. You are relieved. No one has cot­toned onto your tale and asked you about your strange blood-soaked coun­try. Every­thing here is rushed except sleep: you do not know how to buy it nor who stole it from you. Time is drawn-out. It erodes all of your strengths: your nos­tal­gia, your elo­quence. It might even make you feel immor­tal. The howl­ing sandy breeze per­suades you to rush back to your hotel room and final­ly feel that you have a shelter.

I lived in that room for a long time but then became tired of the delays, the lying, the dis­hon­est apolo­gies. And hotels were no longer roman­tic. After six months, even the spa­cious twin cir­cu­lar beds, with or with­out a part­ner, had lost their mag­ic, their pow­er to a aston­ish. Noth­ing excit­ed any longer. I spent my time in get­ting to know Jennifer.

Dubai is a city that should be ‘remote’ so the music of the word could be felt, and the decep­tion of migra­tion con­firmed. Here in this “remote­ness,” a hotel room, arbi­trary in shape and size, man­aged to accom­mo­date the chaos of an entire life. The maid, who did not notice that I had fol­lowed her into the room to get my mon­ey that was scat­tered in all the bags, gasped. Her gasp told tales that were not bib­li­cal and did not aspire to be that. It was a gasp with an Ara­bic rhythm, a rhythm that had been crushed by a train.

 

Abeer EsberBeirutDamascusDubaiescapemurderwar

Born in Damascus in 1974, Abeer Esber is a writer and filmmaker. She read English literature at Damascus University, worked as a literary critic for eight years, and has published four novels: Lulu, Manazil al-Ghiyyab (House of Absence), Qasqis Waraq (Cutting Paper) and Suqout Hurr (Free Fall), published in Arabic in Beirut in 2019. She has written and directed documentaries, fiction short films, and TV series. She lives in Montreal.

Nouha Homad has had a career as university professor teaching English and comparative literature, and French and Spanish language and literature. She is a writer, editor, translator and artist. Syrian by birth and parentage, Homad grew up in Paris, Rome, Cairo, Lisbon, Buenos Aires and Damascus, absorbing languages and cultural experiences along the way. She has since lived in Beirut, Amman, Washington DC, Tripoli, London and Montreal among other places and this has continued to enrich and influence her cosmopolitan vision. She resides in Montreal, Quebec.

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