by Pierre Jarawan
At the Festival Neue Literatur, A Crash Course in Contemporary German Literature
Pierre Jarawan will take part in this year’s Festival Neue Literatur, March 28–31. To reserve your seat, click here. The following was translated by Sinead Crowe and Rachel McNicholl.
How was I to know I’d be haunted by that photo forever?
Bright lights, throbbing sounds. Beirut by night, a sparkling beauty, a twinkling tiara, a breathless trail of flickering lights. As a child, I loved to imagine myself here someday. Now there’s a knife stuck in my ribs, and the pain shooting through my chest is so intense I can’t even scream. But we’re brothers, I want to shout, as they tear the rucksack off my back and kick me till I sink to my knees. The pavement is warm. The wind is coming in from the Corniche; I can hear the sea lapping at the shore and music drifting out of the restaurants along the street. I can smell the salt in the air, and the dust and the heat. I can taste blood, a metallic trickle on my lips. Fear wells up inside me, and rage. I’m no stranger here, I want to shout after them. Their echoing footsteps taunt me. I have roots here, I want to cry out, but all I manage is a gurgle.
I see my father’s face. His silhouette framed in the bedroom door, that last shared moment before my sleepy young eyes closed. I wonder whether time and regret have haunted him.
I remember the verse the old man with the beard had muttered: … then no one responding to a cry would be there for them, nor would they be saved.
Then I remember the rucksack. But it’s not the money or my passport I’m thinking of—they’re gone. It’s the photo in the inside pocket. And his diary. All gone. The pain is so bad I almost pass out.
I am responsible for a man’s death, I think.
Then, as the blood seeps out of my chest: Pull yourself together. It must mean something. A sign.
The men’s footsteps fade and I am alone; all I can hear now is my own heartbeat.
A strange sense of calm comes over me. If I survive this, I think, it will be for a reason. My journey won’t be over yet. I’ll make one last attempt to find him.
Father was standing on the roof—balancing, rather. I was standing below, shielding my eyes with one hand and squinting up at him, silhouetted like a tightrope walker against the summer sky. My sister sat on the grass, waving a dandelion head and watching the tiny seed parachutes twirl. Her legs were bent at the kind of unnatural angles only little children can achieve.
“Just another little bit,” our father shouted down cheerfully as he was adjusting the satellite dish, his legs spread wide to retain his balance. “How about now?”
On the first floor, Hakim stuck his head out the window and shouted: “No, now there’s Koreans on the TV.”
“Yeah, and ping-pong.”
“Ping-pong. How about the commentary? Is that Korean too?”
“No. Russian. Koreans playing ping-pong, and a Russian commentator.”
“We don’t want ping-pong, do we?”
“You might be too far to the right.”
By now my head was also caught up in a game of ping-pong, looking back and forth to follow their conversation. Father pulled a spanner out of his pocket and loosened the nuts on the mounting. Then he produced a compass and skewed the satellite dish a bit more to the left.
“Don’t forget—26 degrees east,” shouted Hakim, before his grey head vanished back into the living room.
Before going up on the roof, Father had given me a detailed explanation. We had been standing on the small strip of grass in front of our building. The ladder was already up against the wall. Sunlight shimmered through the crown of the cherry tree and cast magical shadows on the pavement.
“Space is full of satellites,” he said, “ten thousand of them and more, orbiting the earth. They tell us what the weather will be like, they survey earth as well as other stars and planets, and they relay TV to us. Most of them offer pretty awful TV, but some of them have good programmes. We want the satellite with the best TV, which is just about there.” He looked at the compass in his hand and kept rotating it until the needle lined up with the 26-degree mark on the right-hand side. He pointed at the sky, and my eyes followed his finger.
“Is it always there?”
“Always,” he said, and bent down, stroking my sister’s head before picking up two cherries that lay in the grass. He put one of them in his mouth. He held the other out at our eye level, and, holding the stone of the eaten cherry in the fingertips of his other hand, revolved the stone around the whole cherry. “It travels around the earth at the same speed as the earth spins on its axis.” He drew a slow semicircle in the sky with the stone. “That’s why it’s always in the same position”.
The idea of extra-terrestrial TV appealed to me. I was even more taken with the idea that somewhere up there a satellite was in orbit, always in the same position, always following the same course, constant and reliable. Especially now that we too had found our fixed position here.
“Is that it now?” Father shouted again from the roof.
I shifted my gaze to the living-room window, where Hakim’s head appeared instantly.
“Ice hockey,” shouted Hakim, “Italian commentator. You must be too far to the left.”
“I must be mad,” answered Father.
In the meantime several men had gathered on the street in front of our building, offering pistachios around. On the balconies opposite, women had stopped hanging out their washing and were watching the action with amusement, their hands on their hips.
“Arabsat?” shouted up one of the men.
“Great TV,” shouted another.
“I know,” replied Father, as he loosened the nuts again and adjusted the dish a bit to the right.
“Twenty-six degrees east,” called up one of the men.
“Too far to the left and you’ll get Italian TV,” said another.
“Yeah, and the Russians are just a bit to the right of it, so you need to watch out.”
“They’re all playing sports, the whole world—I should play a bit more myself,” said Hakim with a hint of desperation. Then his head disappeared back into the living room.
“My father-in-law fell off the roof once, trying to rescue a cat,” said a man who had just joined the others. “The cat is fine.”
“Want me to come up and hold the compass?” said a younger man.
“Go on, Khalil, give him a hand,” said an older man, presumably his father. “Russian TV is a disaster—have you ever watched the news in Russian? It’s all Yeltsin and tanks and an accent like crushed metal!” He popped another pistachio in his mouth, then shouted up, half-joking: “Should I get out the barbecue? Looks like you might be up there a while yet.” The men around me laughed. My father didn’t laugh. He paused for a moment and smiled the mischievous smile that always played around his lips when he felt a plan coming on:
“Yes, my friend, go and get the barbecue. When I’m finished here, we’ll have a party.” Then he looked down to me: “Samir, habibi, go and tell your mother to make some salad. The neighbours are coming to dinner.”
This was typical of him, the spontaneous ability to recognise a situation that ought to be savoured. If there was any opportunity to turn an ordinary moment into a special one he didn’t need to be asked twice. My father was always cloaked in an air of assurance. His infectious cheer enveloped everyone near him, like a cloud of perfume. You could see it in his eyes (which were usually dark brown but occasionally tinged with green) when he was brewing mischief. It made him look like a picaresque rogue. He always had an easy smile on his face. If the laws of nature dictated that a plus and a minus make a minus, he simply deleted the minus so that only the plus remained. Such rules did not apply to him. Except for the last few weeks we spent together, I always knew him to be a cheerful soul, tipping along with the good news in life while the bad news never found its way into his ears, as if a special happiness filter blocked it from entering his thoughts.
There were other sides to him too, times when he was stock still like a living statue, set in stone, imperturbable. He was buried in thought then, his breathing slow and steady, his eyes deeper than a thousand wells. He was also affectionate. His warm hands were always stroking my head or my cheeks, and when he was explaining something, the tone of his voice was encouraging and infinitely patient. Like when he told me to go in to my mother because he’d just decided to have a party with people he’d barely met.
I went in and helped my mother chop vegetables and prepare salad. The apartment building we had just moved into seemed very old. There were fist-sized hollows in the treads of the stairs, which creaked at every step. It smelled of damp timber and mould. The wallpaper in the stairwell was bulging. Dark, cloud-shaped stains had spread over the once-white walls, and a naked bulb that didn’t work dangled out of the light fitting.
To me, it all smelled new. The boxes we’d moved our stuff in were still piled in the corners of the apartment, and the smell of fresh paint drifted like a cheerful tune through the rooms. Everything was clean. Most of the wardrobes and cupboards had already been assembled; odd screws and tools still lay around—an electric drill, a hammer, screwdrivers, extension leads, a scattering of wall plugs. In the kitchen, the pots, pans, and cutlery had already been stowed. We had even polished them before putting them away, and the rings on the stove were gleaming too. We’d never had such a big and beautiful home before. It was like an enchanted castle, crumbling a little with age but steeped in the splendour of bygone days. All that was missing was some bright curtains, a few plants, and some photos of my parents, my sister, and me. I could already see them hanging beside the TV wall unit. There’d be a blown-up family photo by the living-room door too. You’d see it every time you went out into the hall, which is where I was standing now.
I stuck my head into the living room. Hakim was sitting in front of the TV, which was showing nothing but snow and static noise. He saw me, smiled, and raised a hand in greeting. Hakim was my father’s best friend. I had known him my whole life and I loved his idiosyncrasies. His shirts were always crumpled, and his hair stuck out every which way, lending him the appearance of a scruffy genius you’d love to take a comb to. His inquisitive eyes darted around in their sockets, which gave him the slightly startled look of a meerkat, only more rotund. Hakim is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, always willing to listen and never short of a joke or some friendly advice. These aspects of his personality are foremost in my memory, despite the things he kept from me for so many years. He and his daughter, Yasmin, had been daily visitors in our old apartment, and when we moved to this address they took the apartment below us. To all intents and purposes they were part of the family.
When Mother and I went out with the salad and flatbreads, the smell of grilled meat was in the air. Some moustachioed men were sitting around a shisha pipe on the small patch of grass. The smell of the tobacco—apple or fig, I don’t really remember—was pleasant, though it made me slightly dizzy. Two men were playing backgammon. Someone had found three sets of folding tables and chairs and set them up in our courtyard, and some of the women were setting them with paper plates and plastic cutlery. Kids were playing in front of the shed amid repeated warnings not to go out on the road. There were at least two dozen friendly strangers milling around in front of our building. Gradually, more people from our street came along. Some of the men had children in their arms. Women in ankle-length dresses arrived bearing huge pots of food.
There’s one thing you should know about my father, a rule I saw proved many times—no one ever refused an invitation from him. Everyone accepted, even if they’d never met him.
It was a warm summer afternoon in 1992 when we moved in. I remember it well. We’d left behind the tiny social-housing apartment on the outskirts, where we’d never really felt at home. We had arrived at last, bang in the middle of the town. Now we had a lovely spacious home, and Father was up on the roof tightening the nuts on a dish that was pointing at a satellite orbiting the earth at a fixed position in relation to us. All was well.
“Are you ever coming down from that roof?” Mother called up to him.
“Not till we get it working,” he called back, taking the spanner Khalil handed him. The men around me nodded politely at Mother.
“Ahlan wa sahlan,” they said. Welcome.
A man tapped me on the shoulder.
“What’s your name, young man?”
“Let me carry that for you, Samir,” he said, smiling and taking the salad bowl from me.
All of a sudden we heard Arabic music coming from our living-room window. A few seconds later, Hakim’s face appeared, bright red.
“Are you sure it’s not tennis?” Father shouted from the roof.
“It’s music!” shouted Hakim. “Rotana TV!”
“Music!” shouted another man, jumping up. And before I knew it, this stranger grabbed me by the hands and had me dancing in circles, hopping from one leg to the other and twirling like a merry-go-round.
“Louder, Hakim!” Father called down. Hakim disappeared from the window. Moments later, Arabic music was reverberating from our living-room window out onto the street. Drums, tambourines, zithers, fiddles, and flutes blended into a thousand and one notes, followed by a woman’s voice. People began to dance, clapping to the rhythm. The children twirled in unsteady circles. The men picked them up and spun them around while the women cheered and trilled with excitement. Then everyone lined up, arms across each other’s shoulders, to dance and stomp the dabke. It was crazy. It was magical! At this moment, there was nothing that would have indicated we were living in Germany. This could have been a side street in Zahle, the city where Father was born at the foot of the Lebanon Mountains. Zahle, city of wine and poetry, city of writers and poets. Around us, nothing but Lebanese people, talking and eating and partying in Lebanese fashion.
Then Father came out of the house. He was limping a little, as he always did if he’d been exerting himself. But he was smiling and dancing in quick little steps, whistling to the music, with Hakim and young Khalil in tow. The other dancers created a path for him, slapped him on the back, hugged him, and welcomed him too with an “Ahlan wa sahlan”.
I looked over at my sister, who was clinging in wonder to our mother’s leg, her big round eyes taking in all these people who greeted us like old friends, like a family they knew well, a family that had been living here for ages.
I lay in bed some time later, satiated, sleepy, and exhausted. The music and the babble of voices still rang in my ears. Snapshots of the day kept flashing through my mind—the dishes of vine leaves, olives, hummus, and fattoush; the barbecued meat, olives, pies, and flatbread; star anise, sesame, saffron. I saw all the different families. The women wiping the mouths of children wriggling on their laps. The men stroking their moustaches while they smoked shisha, laughing and chatting as if this street was a world of its own, a world that belonged only to them. Hakim telling them his jokes. Yasmin, two years older than me, sitting to one side with pencil and paper, her unruly black locks falling into her face as she drew. Every now and again she would brush them across her forehead with the back of her hand, or blow the strands of hair out of her eyes, giving me a wave whenever I looked over at her. And Mother, smiling that private smile of hers. The happy feeling of having arrived. This was our place, our home. Here people helped each other. Here no one needed a compass. All the satellite dishes on our street pointed 26 degrees east.
And in the thick of it all, Father, who loved a party and limped in circles around all his new friends, like a satellite in orbit.
A few days later, the two of us were relaxing by the lake. The mountain range on the other side etched a restless cardiogram on the sky, spiking into the clouds. We were at rest, though. Father-and-son time. A day to ourselves. At the water’s edge, the densely cloaked fir trees seemed so firmly rooted that nothing could topple them. The two of us on the grass, each holding a sharp stone, with a couple of dozen walnuts on the grass in front of us.
“Careful—try not to damage the shell too much,” Father had said. “Ideally, we want both halves to stay intact.”
I didn’t know what he was planning to do, but it didn’t matter. I was just happy to be here, with him. The days had flown; now the packing boxes were all folded up in the basement, everything had been put away in the cupboards, and the smell of fresh paint had faded. Now the living room smelled of fresh laundry. And if there was no laundry on the line, the living room smelled of my parents, since they spent a lot of time in it. The kitchen smelled of washing-up, or of spices, or of the flour Mother sprinkled on the rolled-out dough when she was making flatbread. The bathroom smelled of soap, lemon-scented cleaner, or shampoo, often with the smell of damp towels mixed in. It all smelled of home. The halls smelled of shoes, but that didn’t matter; it showed that someone lived here, someone who was always going in and out, who came back here, took off their shoes, and walked around the apartment, absorbing the smells of this family. And all around us: more families. Whenever I left the house, someone would nod or give a friendly wave; moustachioed men in berets would be sitting at folding tables near the edge of the pavement, playing backgammon or cards, eating pistachios and blowing rings of shisha smoke around our neighbourhood. I felt at home.
We cracked the walnuts open with our sharp stones, doing our best not to damage the shells. It was a warm afternoon in late summer. Scattered clouds created strange, fanciful shapes in the sky; a gentle breeze whispered secrets across the water. Two dragon flies circled above us. Father noticed that I kept looking over at the fir trees on the water’s edge.
“Shame they’re not cedars.”
Cedars. Even the sound of the word set me dreaming.
“But you like them all the same?”
“Then you would love cedars. They’re the most beautiful trees of all.”
“I know,” I whispered. Not that I’d ever seen any—a fact that bothered me. I desperately wanted to be able to join in the conversation when the men sat around together, wallowing in memories.
“Do you know why the cedar is on our flag?”
“Because it’s the most beautiful tree of all?”
“Because it is the strongest tree of all. The cedar is the queen of all plants.”
“That’s what the Phoenicians called it.” As always when he spoke of Lebanon, his voice was charged with secret longing and imbued with the undertones of someone speaking about a lover they missed very deeply. “They built ships out of cedar. It made them very powerful traders. The Egyptians used our cedar to embalm their dead, and King Solomon built his temple in Jerusalem out of it. Imagine—our cedars on Mount Zion, and in the pyramids of the Valley of the Kings …”
I conjured up images of everything Father described, as vividly and colourfully as any seven-year-old does when their father tells a story with passion and conviction.
Father often spoke of Lebanon’s magnificent cedar groves. In his childhood and youth he must have spent a lot of time in the Chouf Mountains. He would sit in the shade of the giant, centuries-old trees and inhale the reassuring, resiny smell of a secure future. In the shelter of the conifers, beneath a dense needle canopy, he would sit with his back against a cedar trunk, his gaze wandering across sparsely populated mountain valleys towards the coast, where the Mediterranean lay silver and glittering and Beirut shimmered in the curve of its bay. As I grew older, I often imagined him like this. And again and again, I mistook this image of him for the image of a happy childhood.
From his shirt pocket, Father produced a few toothpicks. From a cloth bag, some red crepe paper. He tore off some and handed it to me.
“For the flags,” he said, and began to tear the paper into small, narrow strips.
We patiently attached the paper strips to the toothpicks, which we then stuck into the nutshells that were still intact. At some point we stopped and looked at the grass, where lots of little nutshell ships lay between our feet. A whole fleet, complete with red flags, ready to set sail.
“Come on.” He stood up, and we went down to the water, which was lapping at the shore. The sun and the mountain chain were mirrored in the malachite-green lake. For a while we just stood there, holding the little ships in our hands, breathing together. “A cedar can grow to be several thousand years old,” he said. “If a cedar could speak, it would tell us stories we would never forget.”
“What kind of stories?”
“Lots of funny ones, I expect. But lots of sad ones too. Stories about its own life. Stories about people who passed by or who sat in its shade.”
“Like me. Give it a go. Try it with the fir trees.”
As we stood by the water, I thought about the wind swishing through the needles. The sound it made was the fir trees whispering, telling each other about their lives. I hoped that one day they’d remember how we stood here by the water and I tried to imagine what they were saying about us.
As a boy, I felt an insatiable longing to see Lebanon. It was like the enormous curiosity inspired by a legendary beauty no one has ever seen. The passion and fervour in the way Father spoke about his native land spread to me like a fever. The Lebanon I grew up with was an idea. The idea of the most beautiful country in the world, its rocky coastline dotted with ancient and mysterious cities whose colourful harbours opened out to the sea. Behind them, countless winding mountain roads flanked by river valleys whose fertile banks provided the perfect soil for world-famous wine. And then the dense cedar forests at the higher, cooler altitudes, surrounded by the Lebanon Mountains, whose peaks are snow-capped even in summer and can be seen even from an inflatable mattress on the sea far below.
We stood on this lakeshore, breathing the same air and sharing the same longing. In my opinion, after love for one another, there is no stronger bond between two people than a shared longing.
“What would the cedar on our flags say?” I wanted to know.
Father smiled briefly. I could almost sense the words on his tongue as he struggled to find an answer. But he just pressed his lips together.
We launched our little ships. Only a small number lost their flags a few metres along the way; most flew them proudly in the breeze. Father and I stood and watched. He had put his arm around my shoulders.
“Like the Phoenicians,” he said.
I liked that. Me, Samir, captain of a Phoenician walnut-shell ship.
“May they sail for a thousand years!”
“May they return with heroic tales!”
I have often thought back to that day in the late summer of 1992. I know that he wanted to do something to make me happy, and it did indeed make me very happy. Hardly any of our ships sank. Some of them rocked dangerously, but none capsized. We stood there watching until the very last nutshell was no more than a tiny dot, and I remember how proud I was.
But I also remember how his arm felt heavier and heavier on my shoulders. His breathing became deeper and deeper, his gaze more and more trance-like, as if he were no longer looking at the ships but at some point in the distance. The reason I remember it so clearly is that it was one of the last days we spent together.
About the author
Pierre Jarawan was born in 1985 to a Lebanese father and a German mother and moved to Germany with his family at the age of three. Inspired by his father’s love of telling imaginative bedtime stories, he started writing at the age of thirteen. He has won international prizes as a slam poet, received the City of Munich literary scholarship (the Bayerische Kunstförderpreis) for The Storyteller, and was chosen as Literature Star of the Year by the daily newspaper AZ.
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