Shada Mustafa is the young author of the novel Things I Left Behind, translated from the Arabic by Nancy Roberts and published by Banipal in 2022. Mustafa writes in a raw and honest style, void of clichés and false sentiment. She came to Berlin, she explains, because, “I had given up on living in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and wanted a place where I could feel more free and where I could have a better chance to develop professionally. I had met someone randomly in Beirut who told me the German language was beautiful and interesting, so I got the urge to learn it. Germany was also a good option for pursuing my studies — I applied everywhere and Berlin was the only city that worked out, so it was really chance that brought me here. What keeps me here is the fact that I had realized that everywhere you go, there is some sort of societal prison that awaits you, and Berlin’s prison feels like the most tolerable for me. In a sense, it is the prison that keeps you more free. After finishing architecture school, and now my masters in human geography in Berlin, I am looking into exploring design, as I pursue writing. Berlin is also a great city for that.”
You sit there in the U‑Bahn, with two people sitting across from you — well, not exactly opposite, they’re more on the right side. A man and a woman. The man is looking at you, leaning forward, the woman is leaning back, and only half of her face is visible. You are looking at them, seeing her trying not laugh. Then they look at each other and laugh together. And then you wonder if they’re laughing at you. Or if he was even looking at you.
The reason you’re in the U‑Bahn is because you’re going to your boyfriend’s place, unannounced, to catch him in case he’s cheating. But you’re not thinking about that. You’re checking your reflection in the window of the train. To see what’s wrong with you. If you look laughable. You wonder if it’s your neck lump, or whether you’re too fat it’s funny. You finally reach your stop and you’re happy it’s over. You get up the escalator and stand in the middle of the station looking for the right exit. You shouldn’t be looking for it, you’ve been here a million times before, you should know automatically where to go, but this time you forget. Like the million other things you’ve been forgetting. You find the exit, and think what on earth are you doing? Your boyfriend has proven to you, a million times before, that he is not lying or cheating. But then what if you’re blind? What if you can’t see what is right in front of you? What if he’s too slick. Too nasty. Too much of a smart asshole, to do all of that. To really go behind your back in front of your very eyes, take the girl to the toilet of the train and fool around with her there. And you are too dumb to see it. You’re wondering if he’s with her now? If something happened between them during the festival, while you were there and then he lied about it. You’re wondering he did take her number? But then you think: “What am I doing?”
You know what this is. You should stop. But your legs carry you forward. Almost automatically. Without thinking. You’re outside. After checking the backyard and the garden, you stand in front of the window of his room and call him on the phone. And call him simultaneously by his name, so that he can hear you through the window in case he’s asleep. He picks up and asks why you’re there. “I came because I was in a meeting nearby and wanted to see you,” you lie. You tell him to come down. He does. You head to the garden, and on the way, you tell him that you came because you wanted to say sorry you got so jealous yesterday on the way back. That he was nothing but nice and caring and that you were horrible to him, even though you can see that he is making effort.
He doesn’t reply. As always. Just shakes his head in agreement. Agreement on what? You just apologized for your erratic behavior. Again. But what can he say? He says nothing. And you walk to the garden. You sit on the bench and tell him: “I think we should talk about why I have these thoughts. I think it’s about my previous relationship. That it involved cheating, lying, and leaving.” That you are scared he would leave you. Hurt you. Lie to you. Prove you right. That this is not an episode. That this is real. Which would mean that all your fears are real. That your mother is really plotting with your sister to bring you back from Berlin. That your boss is really plotting with your colleague to fire you. That you are really ugly. That you are laughable. That the police are following you. That the Israeli government is plotting against you. That this numb feeling you get sometimes is really you dying. And he assures you nothing happened. He did flirt but nothing happened. And then you get scared: “Is he going to leave me? Have I become too annoying, too obsessive, too intrusive, too needy? Have I become unlovable?”
You struggle with the thoughts that can’t leave you even as words. You hang onto them. “What! Am I really now going to ask these questions?” You can’t. Because what if by asking, you make what used to be thoughts real? What if by asking, you become the annoying, obsessive, the intrusive, the needy?
You wonder. But you know you’re better than that. Deep down, somewhere, it is there. The problem is you can’t find this place. You know it’s there but you can’t find it. Lost. You don’t know what to do? How to act, how to react, because what if you’re reacting to something unreal? You just don’t know. “What if my deepest fears are becoming true? What if I am turning into an invalid? What if I am no longer capable? What if I can’t go back to how I was? But how was I? Was this always with me? Did I live with it my entire life?” You don’t know, because you don’t know who are? Who you were? Who you will be? And there you get stuck between the past, the present and the future. You stand somewhere. Nowhere really and look onto all of the possibilities of what might be. And you think, where am I? which scenario am I in? You don’t know the answer. You’re not even close.
You check your phone, maybe sometime away visiting a friend can do you good. You check for flights. Prices. Everything and then write the friend if you can visit. He sees you sitting there in garden playing with your phone and asks you to come? “Open your phone”, he says.” What were you doing?” he asks. “I was writing my friend in Milan to see if I can visit.” He checks the messages to see if it’s true. And then you ask, “what did you think?” And he says, “that you’re writing your ex-boyfriend, wanting to get back together with him.” And you realize it. You’re not alone. Someone else has the same thoughts, same feelings, same fears. You check his phone too, like you’ve done before, but find nothing, as usual. And you’d think that would make you feel wanted somehow. Loved. That someone is scared of losing you. That someone is letting you check their phone, invade their privacy, so you can feel good. Or better. But it doesn’t. You just feel bad you lost control again. You gave in to the thoughts, even though you know they’re not real. But then the “if” comes in, and you wonder again. What if he deleted things? What if you’re dumb? What if you’re stuck somewhere, you shouldn’t be? The “What if?” You rationalize your way out of it, to find it looming there at the end. And you begin the cycle again. And then you’re stuck. There in the middle. Looking at all the possibilities around you, thinking they can all be real. “But where am I then? Where do I stand?” You don’t know.
You finally get some sense back into yourself and say that you need to sleep. You say goodnight and head to your place. You sit in the U‑Bahn, and see the two people again. Sitting there, laughing again. And you wonder, “why are they laughing at me?” “Why am I laughable?” But they don’t know. They don’t know that you put on weight taking depression medication. They don’t know that you’re going to your boyfriend’s place because you were recently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
What they don’t know is that you don’t even know if they’re real.
What they don’t know is that you wake up every day, wondering about, regretting, anticipating, what happened, what is happening, what will happen? Because you don’t know. You don’t have a clue. And because no one can tell you. Because you can’t even ask. Or because they might lie to you. And this seeking the truth, to know what’s real, is there. And it is there every day, every second, with every single breath. It is there, all of it at once. The love, the hate, the doubt, the paranoia. They don’t know that. They don’t know that you escaped to Berlin, to find a home, that made you mentally ill. Or were you like that before? You don’t know. You just don’t know.