Below is an excerpt from Fadi Azzam’s 2017 novel Huddud’s House, which was longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, translated by Ghada Alatrash. The art they have chosen to accompany the excerpt is by Yaser Safi, with permission from the artist.
‘From Behind the Camera’
By Fadi Azzam
Translated by Ghada Alatrash
He positioned the camera in front of him and dimmed the background light.
“Whenever you’re ready, you can begin. You can talk about anything you want,” Fidel said as he hid his head under the cloth to block any light from the camera screen.
He put on his headphones and stared at the monitor.
The man’s face appeared on the screen, staring into nothingness. He began to speak, his voice quivering, soaked in memory, stained with pain. He insisted on speaking in classical Arabic, in honor of his profession as a teacher of Arabic literature:
“Imagine your twenty-month-old daughter’s feet burned until charred.” He paused for a few long seconds. “The place smelled like grilled meat. You had not eaten in two days. Your reflexes make you salivate at the smell of your daughter’s burnt body parts. Your hands are tied behind your back. You are unable to wipe the drool running down from the right corner of your mouth. A thick hand forces you to turn your face to the other side. You close your eyes so that you do not helplessly stand witness to two men taking turns raping your wife, one of whom you know well, since he’s from the neighboring village. He was nice, poor like yourself. Many times, we sat together and complained about life. You feel a thick hand slapping your face and forcing your eyelids open. You see a tattoo of the immortal Commander in Chief carved onto his bicep. You try to distract yourself in every way possible, thinking of a way to die. The grunts of your thirteen-year-old son taking his last breaths demand your attention. He is bleeding in the corner of the room after having been stabbed seven times. He moves toward you as if he just wants to touch you, his eyes panic-stricken, pleading that you do something. You begin to blame yourself. You regret all the times you held back your affection and demanded respect for your fatherhood. You hope that soon you will wake to discover that all this is but a passing nightmare. You dream of fleeing with them into the woods, to the farthest point in time, before man stood on two legs, to the stone ages, to the sea, even if, in the end, you were to drown. Before you can begin to think about shouting your complaints to the sky, a mutilated mumble comes out of your baby’s mouth: Baba. You turn your face, your son’s hand had fallen, your wife jolts in shock, no one says anything. The noise subsides, the silence deafening. They leave you alive and they leave. Imagine what would be ‘on your mind’ if you were to post a thought on Facebook. Would you care about how the world would classify you—terrorist, sectarian, Islamist, shit? A world that has abandoned you. Your gun is the only object left, the only thing you can count on. Your only wish becomes attaining justice so that you can die with a little less pain. Justice that can only be attained through a gun.”
He fell silent; it was the silence of a man staring at the phantom of nothingness; a silence that spoke the full truth.
Fidel stood frozen; he could not pull his head out from under the black cloth. He did not have the courage to look in that man’s eyes.
All words melted. He was stricken by a flock of unsheathed feelings, which tore into his chest. He felt angry. He tasted the poison crawling in his blood.
He stood face to face with the absurdity of this demonic world, with the absurdity of his work—of documenting the truth and telling stories to an indifferent world.
But he had to continue. He pushed the thoughts aside, calmed his enraged feelings, and listened to another ear-destroying story.
“I’ve never in my life carried a weapon.” These were the words with which the pale-faced young man began to speak. His paleness did not reflect the confidence with which he spoke as he gracefully moved between colloquial and formal Arabic:
“As a matter fact, Syrians were the last to know about weapons. They didn’t even know how to hold a pistol. As for me, I will never carry a weapon again, no matter what. I’ll find other ways to help fighters. I could serve in their field hospitals; but carry a weapon, never again. Why? Well, it’s simple. About 15 years ago, I carried a hunting rifle. We made its ammunition at home, and my brother boasted to his friends of its accuracy. During one of our hunting trips, I saw a bird on a grapevine, took the rifle from his hand, and pointed at it. I pressed the trigger and the bird instantly fell to the ground. My brother’s friends applauded and never again did they mock my hunting skills. I left my rifle with them and ran toward my prize, glowing with pride. This was the first time I had felled a bird. Under the canopy of grapes in our vineyard, the sparrow was dying. In its beak was a little worm, and above us was a nest of three chicks screeching, crying softly; one of them was looking down at me.”
The next volunteer asked to be masked before he began to speak:
“Look, we’re all poor, and both sides are dying. Whoever tells you that this war is for the sake of the poor is lying to you. This war cares for none of us. I miss my friends in the Syrian army, even if they’re fighting on the opposite side. Syrians are very brave, even those who are with the regime. Sure, I’m upset with them, but they are nonetheless brave. If it weren’t for them, Bashar Al-Assad would not have lasted a minute. They didn’t have a choice. I am going to tell you a story about them, something I witnessed with my own two eyes before I left the battalion in the north and returned to my village.” He sighed. “Our men once enclosed a Syrian regime army battalion. Most of the leaders in the battalion managed to escape, but the rest of the soldiers had no path to escape. We gave them four hours to turn themselves in and assured them that, if they came out without their weapons and waved white handkerchiefs, they would be safe. After a quarter of an hour, dabke songs echoed on their loudspeakers. They began to mock us. They knew that they were at our mercy, since there were over three thousand of us and only about two hundred of them. They began to sing and dance to dabke music. They shouted insults at us, and at Bashar al-Assad and his officers who had left them to face their fate on their own. They were poor like us, fighters like us, and as idiotic as we were. Each time we addressed them, they responded with bullets and turned up of Al-Hawara’s music even louder. We could hear their laughter as they danced, and later we came to find out they were also drinking arak as they sang. Among our ranks were mujahideen who had participated in the jihad in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, and Iraq; they were not Syrian. They told us that never in their lives had they witnessed anything like what they saw on that day. As the four-hour deadline approached, we heard the Syrian national anthem resounding on their loudspeakers, “Guardians of the homeland…” I swear to you, I cried. I was afraid that someone would see me. I looked at my comrades, and they were just as astonished. But the mujahideen did not feel anything. They invaded the headquarters, blasted the doors open, and began to fire at everyone inside. When we arrived at the battalion, everyone had been shot dead. Not one of the soldiers attempted to run away or escape. They continued to dance until the very last bullet. When the mujahideen began to search the corpses, they found that most of the dead were young men under twenty-five. They were from all over Syria, from all the towns and regions, not only religious minorities as everyone seemed to believe. They were Syrians, and they died as Syrians. They were children of the same motherland, poor like us, meagre like us, and they were oh so very brave.” He calmed himself down, wiped his nose and eyes, and apologized, “Sorry, Sir.” Drenched in pain, he continued, “Damn those who got us here. I have nothing else to say. Fuck this war and those behind it.” And he left, full of anger.
The camera continued to record the empty space he left behind; in the background, his curses could be heard.
Fadi Azzam is a Syrian novelist and writer, and is the author of Sarmada (2011), longlisted for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as well as Huddud’s House (2017), longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. He was the Culture and Arts Correspondent for Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. His opinion columns have appeared in the NY Times and a number of newspapers across the Middle East and Arab Gulf.
Ghada Alatrash, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada. She holds her PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree is in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.
Yaser Safi is a Syrian artist who lives and works in Berlin. He studied Fine Arts at the University of Damascus. He later taught in the Engraving Department of the College of Damascus before becoming a lecturer at the Adham Ismail Institute of Printmaking and a supervisor on Graphic arts at the Sharjah Institute of Art in the United Arab Emirates. His painterly, graphic and sculptural work has been shown internationally in solo and group exhibitions, including Damascus, Beirut, Qairo, Dubai, New York, Paris and Berlin
Essays and interviews with the author:
From IPAF: An interview with Azzam about the Huddud’s House
In New Europe: In Syria, the World’s Democracies Failed Us
Poetry by the author: