New Fiction: An Excerpt from Abeer Esber’s ‘Free Fall’

Syrian author and filmmaker Abeer Esber’s سقوط حر (Free Fall) was published in 2019.

From Free Fall

By Abeer Esber

Translated by Nouha Homad

Sleep, little one. Our guilt will leave us soon…

So here I am now, Yasmina, my mother’s daughter, returning home just as she did — after years that flowed like a mighty river between the two returns.

In Maqlass, in the village of Dr. Khalil, where I’ve been settling my accounts with this gentle past of mine, I could only sell an abandoned piece of land that had once been an apple orchard. After years of a raging revolution, which human history had turned into a war, the Syrian exodus was roaming the earth like its lost conscience. Syrians died on the seas, in the snow, at the borders; they were killed with toxic gas, raids, bombs, missiles. They choked to death, they were slaughtered, burned; and they died of defeat.

In that happy exile, I lived in a child city called Montreal. I was a refugee in a place where even the wretched smile and drown you in kindness, and it scares you. On the flight that took me from Beirut to a military airport in Amman, then to Montreal, I learned the meaning of downsizing. On that odyssey, we were allowed one suitcase weighing thirty kilograms. We were allowed to gather our entire lives into one suitcase. I came to the land of snow with only one pair of shoes and a heart brimming with memories.

When I awoke from my coma — thirty hours spent unconscious on planes — I thought that I would never again suffer the existential questions of life, which clamored in my head like tourists on a train. I thought that I would never again be pursued by any of my anxieties. I had gulped down five Ecstasy pills and a bottle of gin, and floated in a suspended heaven, hoping that what I had done would be enough to comfort me. But it wasn’t. Neither did any of the other attempts at escape that I had tried over the years. I was saved, after each attempt, from an unconsciousness that I did not truly seek. I lived in an arbitrary wakefulness, without appointments or schedules to organize my days. I would wake up at odd times. Time elapsed in a haze. The harshness of reality shattered me. In this involuntary state of consciousness, I had to learn quite a lot: I mastered the art of telling my fortune, of reading the lines of my crazy destiny. I’m the daughter of my father and my mother. I have no other identity; I own no land except that which they owned. I’m a mother-tongue orphan, but I’ve mastered five. I’m nobody. The suitcases that were never completely unpacked, waiting for another notice to leave, swallowed me whole. The suitcase became an identity card, attached to my skin. I heaved it around in a never-ending move, from sea to sky to land, which left me bound up in chains of remorse. I believed that being in this coma was less painful than the questions without answers.

When I was younger, I didn’t realize the depth of the isolation I was living in, and I wasn’t afraid of my family’s insane story. I worshiped the colored capsules, enslaved by their speed, entranced by their charm. I used everything that my friends slipped me. From the time that I was twelve, I took refuge in sedatives and lived in a world of hallucinations. It wasn’t because I refused to remain alive, as everyone believed—but because I loved living on the cusp of fear. I loved it to death.

*

So, I arrive in Montreal, with an influx of other Syrian refugees, through an agreement made with a prime minister considered handsome by his own people. We tread upon the new land, covered with snow, icy cold in spirit. I stumble along the edge of unconsciousness; I attempt to forget. But I don’t know who I am without the memories that I carry around like lost sailors. After months of trying, I find myself possessed with the ancient spirit of Damascus, even at the edge of the planet, on the farthest horizon of the eternal snows. My most intimate relationship was with that sun-drenched place. Damascus — al-Sham — the city of the sun, appeared to me with its gates, its buildings and alleys, its damask roses like deep velvet; its cats, and its Omayyad Mosque doves, promised to the prophets. In the snowy desert of the city, in a solitude imposed by stories about refugees and asylum, I found myself drowning in immigrant clichés. In the invisible rejection, the condescending kindness, the superiority bathed in understanding, and the struggle with perfecting French, the land of a thousand rivers, polar lakes, and eternal snows confined me to a large room, where I lived for two full years. During this period, I mastered all the dishes of Syrian cuisine, copied videos from the ‘Sham Al Aseel’ FB page, and melted kilograms of Arab ghee with a pinch of bulgur. In an experimental attempt at a party, I invited my half-senile elderly neighbour for mujaddara, lentils and rice; shakrieh, lamb cooked in yoghurt; herra isba’o, lentils, pasta, garlic, and coriander covered with fried onions; sheikh al-mihhshi, fried courgettes stuffed with ground meat and pine nuts. I let her make appreciative noises and praise my food, which was stolen by the Arabs from the Greeks.

My senile neighbor attributed all of humanity’s achievements to the Greeks, and let me talk about al-Sham while she helped herself to another serving of muttabaq batenjan, fried aubergines cooked in tomatoes, for her cat.

In Montreal I lived an existence that was lonely to the point of terror. I got used to crying in the street, to not using my voice for days. I began smiling at women in the park and flirting with public bus drivers. Giant tears would roll down my face whenever a stranger asked me: ‘How are you?’

In Montreal longing was a play of the senses, the tragic taste of a homeland sliding into oblivion. It was crying and eating and gaining weight; it was a slow leak of time, watching the never-ending snowfall. It was the insistent tracking of absurdly plunging temperatures: minus 44 Celsius was unfamiliar in the temperature dictionary. These figures were posted, with a kind of bewildered astonishment, on FB refugee groups, along with pictures of striped squirrels.

But what brought me there, to the farthest reaches of the world? What tossed me into that abyss called asylum? I write this story without being able to define it—it slips away like a rabbit burrowing itself inside a magician’s sock. It demands new definitions from me; it escapes me, like oil slithering over marble. It appears easy. It ignores, with false innocence, all the corpses that have fallen along its path.

Two years on in that child city, I still had not managed to scratch the surface of its gentleness, its naivete, its immaturity. It doesn’t reject you—the city is too mindful to do that. But it doesn’t accept you, either. Your impression is imprinted on its streets, then cleared away like sea foam every winter.

You can spend your whole life in Montreal without speaking a word of anything but Arabic. The outer layers of the city are pure Arab: bank employees, hospital nurses, pharmacists, cooks, mechanics, drivers of taxis and public buses, teachers whose students are foreigners and non-foreigners. They all speak Arabic: Moroccans, Lebanese, Egyptians, Iraqis, and of course Syrians. A lot of Syrians.

*

Born in Damascus in 1974, Abeer Esber is a writer and filmmaker. She studied English literature at Damascus University, worked as a literary critic for eight years, and has published several novels. She has also written and directed documentaries, short fiction films, and TV series. She currently lives in Montreal.

Nouha Homad is a professor of literature, as well as a writer, translator, editor, and artist. She lives in Montreal.

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