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from the October 2003 issue

from Outcast

Dreams don't come to us without being provoked externally, which is what happened to me yesterday when I woke up at five in the morning, precisely the hour I had intended to get up. I found myself on someone's trail and soon I saw Kassem and said something as I approached him, even though I was astonished that I would be able to talk to him while he was no longer among the living; then I realized that it wasn't Kassem but my faithful servant Sha'aban and that I wanted him to come by and light the fire since the Sabbath had already begun, but he handed me something that I couldn't quite identify, a book or a sheaf of papers that turned into a distant inscription bearing strange and blurred letters, and I struggled to tell him that I couldn't read it, and he smiled at me strangely as he nodded his head. I was just on the verge of waking up when I went back and said to myself that Sha'aban too, after all, had been dead for a long time and he hadn't been in al-Hila and it couldn't have been him that I was looking for to come and light the fire.

The strands of this vision still bound me for some time as I was coming to and when I actually got up I decided to write it down before it fled from memory or became confused with all kinds of addenda that appear in the wake of the relentless machinations of consciousness. Clearly this dream was not unconnected to what I had been preoccupied with in those days, when I spent most of my time checking the translation, incessantly thinking over the preface that I had to write for the English edition. Laid before me now is Part Four, dealing with the Biblical narratives in light of archaeological discoveries. I had intended to get up early yesterday and finish checking it before the messenger came in the afternoon. But I didn't check the translation, and instead found myself absorbed in reading a packet of my letters to Jane. This packet was kept in a file folder bound with a lace clasp and remained on the bottom shelf of the writing desk for some twenty years, from the day Jamil gave it to me on the visit he had paid us after his marriage. He came with Ursula, his wife, and we spent two happy weeks together. We went up north with them to the Kurdish parts and spent several days at Hotel Salah a-Din, at the foot of Mount Sfin; afterward we went down to the site of ancient Babylon, toured al-Hila and cruised down in a sailboat right up to the entrance of Basra. "I took the liberty of peeking into the letters," Jamil told me as he has handing them over, "I knew of their existence, but I never dared to loosen the clasp until I moved into the new apartment. You wrote mother beautiful letters and I thought that they should come back to you."

I found this gesture very moving - as happy as I was to get the letters back, I was even happier at the attention I got from Jamil. Nor did I dare to loosen the clasp on the packet - I hadn't touched them since the day I put them down on the bottom shelf of the desk. But life provides an odd amalgamation of events that sometimes seem to act like the writers of cheap novels. In the evening I sat with Hamida and Butheina after she put Sarah to bed and we all looked at a map of Athens together. I had already had the chance to visit that splendid city three times, and I am no less familiar with it than with New York. I pointed out all the places worth visiting and I suggested to Butheina that she skip going to the shops and make an effort to see everything that wasn't included on the round of tours prepared for those going to the conference. She said that she wouldn't feel comfortable walking around alone in an unknown city whose language she didn't even know, and here Hamida hastened to caution her about wandering around unaccompanied; she reminded her of the visit to London, when I waited for her at the entrance to the underground just a block away from the hotel and she, for some reason, strayed from the route even though we had gone the same way a number of times, ending up in a real panic. Although Butheina knew this story down to the minutest detail, she always asked her mother to tell it again, exaggerating more and more until she was brought to bursts of laughter. Meanwhile, I was also drawn in to tell the story of my going astray in the alleyways of al-Hila when I was four or five. My mother had sent me to deliver a message to a house that stood at the head of the neighborhood and I decided to go a little farther, past the house, and suddenly I found myself in unfamiliar alleys with a gang of kids surrounding me and harrassing me. And as I was telling the story, I had a faint memory of having told of this incident once before, but then I had also described the fear I had as a Jew among the hostile Muslim kids. This fear, I must say, sometimes visits me in dreams.

We went back to speaking about Athens and the preparations for the trip, but I was already overtaken by anxiety over my inability to remember whom I had told the story of my getting lost to and whether or not I had told it all. It was only after we parted and I went back to my room, while I was getting undressed and preparing to get into bed, that a spark went through my brain and I remembered the letters that I had sent to Jane.

A strange combination of events, attended by a disordered array of substance and delusion, discrete memories and astonishing revelations. If I hadn't told the story of my straying off in al-Hila, I wouldn't have remembered the letters to Jane, and if I hadn't remembered them before going to sleep maybe I wouldn't have dreamed the dream that left me in such great distress, and if it wasn't for the dream I doubt that I would have found the packet in its hiding place and gotten caught up in a reading that took me out of my world and brought me back to that of my lost youth. After all, isn't that the story of my life? A love story in letters, of what value is all the rest, the struggles, the disputes, the search for honor, the recognition? This is the story of Harry, as they used to call me and as I used to sign the letters, the story of the Jew who has passed from this world where only his spirit remains bound in this sheaf of a great love, sublime, hopeless. I read and I wept, I read and sunk to the abyss, I read and was surprised by the polished English whose perfection I can no longer achieve.


I am standing at the banks of the Euphrates, gazing at the kids playing with smooth pebbles, listening to the fisherman's sweet song and in my heart the words of another song reverberate, an ancient song of praise that the Babylonians sang in their rituals of sacrifice to the holy river:

O great and powerful river your beds were dug by the hand of gods river unlike any other crowned in adoration and power your shores are the gods' tabernacles and your waters restore the soul accept me with mercy take from my body to nourish the earth with abundance and blessings take me, then, into your very depths . . .

Yearning for love and yearning for the soil of his homeland, isn't the rending between these two loves the essence of Haroun Soussan's life? I found the letter in which I wrote of my going astray, dated 4.6.34, two months after Jane's departure. A four-page letter, describing the Jewish Quarter of al-Hila and the ways of its residents, with an abundance of illuminating details, long consigned to oblivion in my heart. Letters from that period and from the following years, arranged according to the date they were written, the first ones on the bottom and the last on top, recount at length the events that concerned me, my meetings with my sister Naima, who brought me news from the family, the relations of the leaders of the community toward me, Ruben's attempts at reconciliation and Assad's efforts to support me. I also found letters from my first days in Baghdad, after my return from America, describing my work for the municipality, the house that I rented, my feelings of alienation in my country and among my friends, my reminding Jane of conversations and meetings, moments of sorrow and high spirits from our great days at the university. Six letters from the boat after my first visit collapse under the burden of philosophical reflections on self-consciousness, on freedom and solitude, on the human being who discovers he is bereft of roots and is nourished by sources in the air, like a plant torn out of the soil of its growth. A whole world is concealed in those letters, my world, a world that deserved to be brought into the pages of my memoirs instead of burrowing back into the depths of trecherous memory.

I didn't read the letters in order. Skipping some and lingering over others, I moved to and fro with the reins extended until I came upon a letter from the 7th of February, 1931, that astonished me. For a long moment I found myself gripped by a strange feeling, like someone who has undergone a mystical experience. It wasn't the contents of the letter that affected me but its connection to the dream I had dreamed, when I was asked to read an inscription and couldn't. In the first part of the letter I told of the heavy rains that had fallen on Baghdad, causing major flooding, and in the second part where I presented a comparison of the folktales of different peoples, apparently in answer to something in Jane's letter, I found the following lines:

In the Quran we encounter many folktales whose sources can be found in the Hebrew Bible, but there is one particularly significant tale in the Book of Genesis which can be found in quite a different version in the Islamic tradition. This tale narrates the story of Jacob, who is Israel, and who encounters an angel of the Lord and wrestles with him the whole night without giving in. In the Islamic version we are told of Muhammad, whose custom it was to seek seclusion in a cave near the city of Mecca. It was there that the angel Gabriel first discovered him and commanded unto him: "Read!" But Muhammad, who knew not how to read, answered: "I am unable to." The angel grasped him in a tight grasp until he was greatly pained, only to, upon letting go, repeat his command: "Read!" His breath cut off, Muhammad mumbled: "I am unable to." The angel grasped him again until it seemed to Muhammad that his spirit was about to flee from him, and when he was unhanded the angel again repeated his command: "Read!" Again Muhammad replied: "I am unable to." Then the angel moved away from him and taught him the first portions of the revelation: "Read in the name of your Lord who created; Created man from clotted blood; Read, for your Lord is the most benificent; Who has taught by the pen; Taught man what he did not know."

The symbolism of these two versions is most illuminating. For while Jacob wrestles with the angel without submitting, Muhammad did not even try to defend himself; thus can be found the difference between Islam, whose meaning is reconciliation and submission, and the children of Israel, stiff-necked and ever rebellious against the Lord!

How can one explain that which goes beyond logic? In the dream I was asked to read something and I couldn't. And here I am, at a story I noted down forty-nine years ago! The discovery agitated me and only after reconsidering things did I grasp that my unconscious had come to help me write the English preface that I had been preoccupied with for days. The story of the angel would serve as a point of departure through which I could explain not only the difference between Judaism and Islam, but also my own views on genuine Islam, that primal and pure Islam that came before power and before disputes and divisions and bloodshed. Faith in the word and not the sword is the message that Muhammad bore at the beginning of his mission, and it is this message that the Muslims of today must bear to their people and to the world. Only through the might of the word, which is wisdom and knowledge, can people find salvation from the despotism of rulers, from those lusting after power and from the ignorance of zealots addicted to malice.

The riddle of the dream was solved. I sensed myself freed in a way I never had before. Aziz Laham carried out his threat. In an interview marking his appointment as a member of the delegation to UNESCO, he found an opportunity to aim his darts at me. "It was with great interest that I read Dr. Ahmed Haroun Soussan's book," he said, "a serious book whose appearance must be congratulated, although it seems to me that his argument in favor of the Islamic revolution is liable to mislead, to turn honest readers into opponents who might interpret his claims as support for the Khomeini regime. I am also surprised that the author omitted his first book from the long list of his publications, My Path to Islam, which, to the best of my knowledge, was his first book in Arabic."

Thus, with the elegance of a future diplomat - and adding on my childhood name - did he cast the venom brewing in his twisted soul at me. But I no longer care about any of this. On the contrary, I find it preferable for my readers to know precisely from where I came, and whoever hasn't heard of the book can find it in the library and see for themselves that Ahmed Haroun Soussan has not strayed one single iota from what I wrote forty-five years ago. I am calm, as the proverb says: "If my slander issues from the mouth of a blemished man, does he not therefore serve witness to my remaining intact!"

I kept the paper away from Butheina's sight since I didn't want to worry her just as she was leaving, but she found out about the interview while talking to one of her friends on the phone and came back trembling. "Such things don't even deserve a response," I told her. "I have nothing to hide, but everyone knows who Aziz Laham is."

"He will be our representative to UNESCO!"

"Whoever sent him should be ashamed of themselves and not me."

"But he is accusing you of supporting Khomeini!"

"Apparently that will be his line of defense when it comes to Zuhair."

"And you're keeping quiet?"

"If my book will lighten Zuhair's sentence, I'll be happy."

She was surprised by my resolve. I told her that Zuhair needed to be defended, that our youth needed to be defended, that Iraq needed to be defended, not me.

I accompanied her to the airport and on the way we spoke of Athens and all its beauty. She was calm as she departed, and I could only hope that as she went up into the plane she had freed herself from worries about her father and begun to concentrate on what was awaiting her at the conference.

Afterward I sat in the cafeteria and ordered tea with a piece of cake. Soldiers stood in every corner, suspiciously following the crowd as it moved here and there. A group of tourists, their faces tanned, bags strapped to their shoulders, wandered past the check-in counters. A mixture of dress, a mixture of races, and the announcer's voice thrashing in your ears. A way station. A border spot not on the border. A magnificent building that is nothing but a station, requiring only a ticket bearer and a name written on some passenger list. An airport is a kind of no man's land, governed by people who can't be seen, turning numbers and letters on the board of arrivals and departures, announcing orders on high-powered loudspeakers, as the passengers glance furtively around themselves, standing in line and waiting, carrying their luggage and hastening their steps. A crowd in perpetual motion, and only the one sitting in the cafeteria and having tea with cake has the free time for his arrogant opinions. He is not traveling or rushing anywhere. He has exhausted his paths in life; having just now parted from his daughter, he will soon go back home where he will write the preface to the English edition and complete the book of memoirs that will never see the light of day during his lifetime.

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