Syrian Kurdish novelist and short-story writer Maha Hassan was born in Aleppo. She published her first novel in 1995 and was banned from publishing in Syria in 2000, and left a few years later:
She has since written a half dozen novels and has been awarded the Hellman/Hammett author grant from Human Rights Watch, twice longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and her Aleppo Metro was longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.
The excerpt below is translated by Sawad Hussain:
November 6th 2015: Before 7 a.m.
Heavy snow. I’m trying not to fall as I make my way to the bus stop. I’m dreading the horsing around that morons get up to when it snows; one of them might throw a snowball at me for fun, even though I’m a stranger. All because the snow gives some guys the chance to tease girls, especially if the girls don’t seem game for a laugh, and they’ll just end up upsetting my balance – me, who’s neurotic about slipping – and then I’ll fall.
I must not fall. I’ll hold it together. One step. Good. A second, a third … let’s go now, carefully.
But why haven’t they salted the ground?
Come on now, you’re in Aleppo. This isn’t Paris. Why do you always think that you’re in Paris when you’ve never even been there?
The rumbling of the metro reaches me here in the square, the ground quakes, and I see clumps of snow falling from Abu Faisal’s balcony. But is Abu Faisal’s house even in Paris?
It’s not the metro … but Mahmoud’s truck with its large, exposed engine, the ground shuddering as it arrives.
I hate those jokers. One of them launches a snowball in my direction. Oh God, it’s just as I feared, I’m going to fall.
Isn’t there someone to catch me? I’m slipping … I’ve lost control over my body. My handbag falls, my cash, my phone, my metro card … but I’m in Aleppo! I slip further … I stretch out my hand – maybe someone will grab it. “Help me … help me put the brakes on how fast I’m sliding … I hate skating … I’ll fracture my pelvis!”
They stop me … they give me my handbag, my phone, my bankcard….
I’m rooted to the spot, yelling out of frustration and fear….
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
The 6:45 alarm. Right on cue. I open one eye … I’m in Paris! Straight away I get out of bed, thinking that I’ve got to put this horrible dream behind me. My dreams always try to convince me that I’m not actually in Paris. I make some coffee, open my laptop, and jot down my dream before it eludes me.
Friday, November 6th, 2015. Dream #55.
I have two books that I write in: my dream book, to confirm that I’m in Paris; and my war book, to remind myself that I’m not in Aleppo.
Most of the time when I dream, I find myself in Aleppo. As for my Paris dreams, I feel much of the time that I’m in a war zone. I can’t escape the images that charge at me when I hear a mere bang or collision of some kind. When a plane flies overhead, I can’t help but trail it until it disappears from sight, with my mind fixated on the following thought: it’ll crash now, it’ll crash into the houses over there, and we’re all going to die. Whenever an airplane recedes from my view, I’m overjoyed as if I’ve survived certain death.
Once during Bastille Day, while watching a military parade on TV, my heart skipped a beat out of fear, and remained in a state of panic, torturing me: what if the airplane roaring through the sky crashed down on the people below? I can’t get out of my head the images of planes bombing civilians in Aleppo. I would get jittery whenever a plane flew over me, or if I simply heard it.
I write in my book of dreams and my book of war to remind myself that I live in Paris, and that the war in is Aleppo, not the other way around. I always need to confirm the location, because I forget and mix them up. Whenever I want to say, “Let’s meet in Paris,” I say, “Let’s meet in Aleppo.” Whenever I speak to my mother in Aleppo, she always has to correct me.
Paris slides into the place of Aleppo in my speech, and Aleppo too takes the place of Paris. All this isn’t Alzheimer’s, because I’m still too young to fall prey to something like that. I dub my illness exile disorder.
I’m in Paris. I repeat this to myself every morning so that I can get my bearings. I then record my dream in my dream book, as if I’m in Aleppo, while I’m actually in Paris, and I know that it’s no use – despite rehashing all these assertions to myself when awake to confirm to myself that I live in Paris. Tonight, I’ll find myself once more in Aleppo, and this other ‘me’ will tell itself, “You’ve never even been to Paris for a day.”
I scribble in my book of dreams: am I living in Paris, but dreaming that I’m in Aleppo, or am I in Aleppo and dreaming that I’m in Paris? Why Paris in particular? Why not New York, Madrid or London? I must be in Paris, because I’m not dreaming about any other place; I tell myself that I’m not imagining things, so I must be in Paris.
I get up from the couch. I take a look out from my balcony. I set my computer on my lap and write what I see:
ANNE ET MARIO
VIA ROMA PIZZERA
Below, beneath the balcony, I see the building’s entrance between two stores, one for repairing shoes, and the other for mending clothes. Then I see the café, and out come a young girl and a young man, whose waist the girl clings to. They exchange kisses then, with arms wrapped around each other, walking in the same direction of the path that I always take towards the metro.
So, I must be in Paris.
But even when I’m awake, I sometimes dream that I’m in Aleppo.
I have this feeling that when I come out of my building, I’ll find myself in Al-Jameela or Bab Al-Faraj. Or when I leave the metro and climb up the stairs to street level, I’ll find myself in Saadallah Al-Jabiri Square or in Al-Jame’a Square. This is why I write. Through my writing I try to help my mind pin down the dividing line between Aleppo and Paris.
As for my book of war, I try to write everything that helps me convince myself that the war is only happening in Syria, and won’t reach here, my bed, except in my dreams.
The idea of writing started when my aunt offered to escort me, in one of her moments of wakefulness, to the war museum in Le Bourget. I was shocked by her suggestion. But she had observed my anxiety whenever I saw a plane in the sky, which would only intensify when a helicopter passed overhead instead.
My aunt said that my phobia of planes was put down to war trauma in Syria and that the planes I saw in Paris’ skies were not trying to kill anyone, but rather help them, and that what was happening in Syria wouldn’t happen here, or in any other place in the world.
I can never forget the terror that seized me when I was in the Beirut airport on my way to Paris. Several times I thought of fleeing the airport and going back to Aleppo. My father was with me, and I was embarrassed to come across as a scared little girl, afraid of planes. My feet were trembling while I sat in the waiting hall, looking at the planes, their massive bodies behind the glass, and imagining myself in of them shortly. The journey was veritably hellish. I found myself between two young men, one of whom was Lebanese and the other Moroccan. We exchanged a few quick words before taking off. The Lebanese man, like me, was a first-time flyer and was apprehensive. When the Moroccan, who seemed to be a seasoned flyer, told him, “It’s time, now the plane’s going to move,” it seemed like he was savoring our misery. I tried to hold it together and pretended not to care. I told them both that I preferred to sleep during the flight, to escape having to talk. Just then, the Moroccan started to tease the Lebanese, telling him about airplane crashes. “Don’t worry, we won’t feel a thing, we’ll most likely go down over water, and then we’re fish food.”
I closed my eyes pretending to sleep, and the voice of the Lebanese man reached me as he stammered Quranic verses to calm himself down. I nearly threw up a few times, not only because of my fear, but also because his fear was pulling me in. I wished that I could just open my eyes and yell at him, and ask the airhostess to change my seat. But as a rational, calm, young woman, I behaved as others expected me to, and kept up my appearance of sleeping.
My aunt had really tried on a number of occasions, and in different ways, to disassociate in my mind the image of an airplane and the idea of war, just as much as she had tried to separate my terror from the image of police in France. She dragged me by the hand to show me a police aircraft that had first aiders and doctors hanging from it. There was a carefully wrapped up injured person being hoisted by stout ropes, in order to evacuate him to receive life-saving treatment. Oh God, airplanes in my country kill people, and here in this museum, I see them saving people’s lives! I was embarrassed to tell my aunt that one of the reasons I was afraid of going back to Syria was that I’d have to get on a plane for the second time.
This whole affair lasted for a while. Ever since my arrival in France, I’ve been trying to stifle my fear whenever I see a policeman or policewoman. Even till now, I still haven’t worked out the link between the safety that policemen and -women instill here, and in my country that the police are the very reason for this lack of security. What used to scare me even more were those men who’d wear civilian clothes with large handguns intentionally and blatantly displayed on their waists. Whereas here, I’ve seen some civilians with the police, but no handguns out in the open or frowning faces oozing intimidation.
With cautious and trembling steps, I approached the fighter plane in the World War II hangar while my aunt casually strode ahead of me, her gaze calm, like someone who was out for a stroll. Within my consciousness, I knew that these planes were carcasses now, and that they wouldn’t move; I mean they were imprisoned in roofed rooms, for goodness’ sake! But deep down, I couldn’t get the chilling images of military operations out of my head.
My aunt came to stop by the plane, touched it to encourage me, and then said, “Come on, come closer, touch it.” I saw myself as a child, with my aunt trying to get me to touch the cat that was in my grandfather’s house, and I being too scared to stroke it. At my aunt’s insistence, and egged on by my desire to overcome my fear, I touched the plane. I asked my aunt to snap a photo of me while I hugged it. When getting my photo taken with the plane – my adversary – I kept thinking that there are nice planes, just like there are nice cats and dogs, and not-so-nice ones.
Since coming to France, I haven’t taken any photos of the famous sights here: not of the Champs Elysees, not by the Eiffel tower, not in Le Jardin du Luxembourg, and not even in Place de la Sorbonne … my aunt’s friends took photos of me with her and with them once, when we had dinner in a restaurant in St. Germain. But aside from that, I didn’t respond to my sister and friends’ requests for me to send them pictures of me in Paris. Not for one day have I felt that I’m here to have fun, take pictures, or go shopping. I want to keep on living as if I were still living in Aleppo, and that my coming here was rather my aunt’s choosing, and I have no idea why she chose me. Every day I think that I’m going to go back tomorrow, to Syria.
I was living in a dream-like state. I couldn’t really trust if I was here or there.
I didn’t know anything. Even in the official bureaus – at the immigration office, at the bank, at the post office – whenever they asked me my name, I’d listen for some moments as if I had to think about it and remember it. Even my name wasn’t obvious to me anymore.
I had to, for example, confirm each night when I got up in the middle of my sleep to use the toilet, that the toilet here was located directly to the right of the bed, and that a few steps were enough to get me there. That I didn’t have to go to the living room then cut across the hallway to get to the toilet, as was the case in our house in Aleppo.
For some time, every time I got up to go to the toilet, especially at night, I had to correct my path and come back before reaching my bedroom door, which led outside to the hallway and onwards to the elevator.
There are a lot of details that I’ve had to wrap my head around: new people, administrative issues, the French language….
Even now, I say “Marhaba,” catch myself and then say, “Bonjour.”
All of these things, which I get fed up of repeating, render me unstable when it comes to time and place. I keep walking, behaving, and thinking the whole time as if I’m here by mistake, or that I left something behind. At seven every morning, I remember that Rola won’t pass by me imminently. I frequently gasp, surprised that I’m not at work inside my office at the Aleppo town hall.
It’s as if I left behind the real Sara there. She’s still going to work and carrying on with her life in Aleppo, and the me here is a mere facsimile that was made for a specific period of time, after which everything will go back to how it used to be. I don’t know how to describe it all. I’m there, my life is there, and I have to get back as soon as possible.
Feelings akin to how a mother feels when she leaves her child alone, and goes out to get some task or the other done, and then return before it wakes up. Or the woman that’s left her food cooking on the stove, and rushes out for something at the neighbor’s or a nearby store, to return as quickly as she can. Or that has left her washing in the machine, and needs to come back once the machine stops. Like all of these scenarios, I feel that I’ve left something hanging, or forgotten something, or lost something, and I have to get back to it.
I left Syria on a three-month visa and took a two-month leave of absence from work. I travelled here to visit my aunt. A short visit after which I was meant to return, but I never did. I’m here against my will. I can go back, yet can’t at the same time. Every time I tell my family that I’m coming back, they yell at me not to do it. “Don’t you dare,” my mother yells, as if I’m contemplating doing something unforgivable.
Even my father, during his terminal illness, was insisting that I stay. “You’ll kill me quicker if you come back.”
I had to stay. I spend my days with my head there and my body here. Like I’m on a bus and will get off at the next stop. This is how my life has been for the past two years, with me waiting to return, riding this Parisian metro, and dreaming of getting off at Aleppo Station.
As if France is the temporary emergency stop, one of succor that I’ve come to, to wait until the war is over and then to leave. All of France now, for me, is simply a hotel, or hospital, or bridge between two mountains, a station here that I’m waiting in for a train going to my country over there. I’m waiting to reclaim my life. To return the duplicated Sara to the original one. I’m here waiting for my feet to slip at every French moment, to take me to Aleppo.
While we sipped on wine during one of our sit-downs, I spoke to my aunt about my feelings of instability, my yo-yoing. She laughed, and then proceeded to recount to me the pleasures of such yo-yoing.
Maha Hassan is a Syrian/Kurdish novelist and short-story writer.
Sawad Hussain is ArabLit’s Cambridge-based better half. She’s also an Arabic translator and litterateur who holds a MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history, and literature.