Seeking The Details That I Fear
I devote myself to the reading of Iraqi novels. I gain familiarity with the East Karrada district and learn to distinguish it –in my mind's eye— from Karradat Maryam. The latter has been partially absorbed into the Green Zone, dedicated to housing those with diplomatic, media, or financial privilege.
I can picture the shops on al-Mutanabbi Street, its old charm and the changes undergone by its bookshops.
I feel like I know Palestine Street. My heart skips a beat whenever it’s mentioned, because that’s where Raoudy—one of the characters in Inaam Kachachi's Tashari –was kidnapped.
His mother searches everywhere for him until she finds his remains, which she takes to be buried in the cemetery assigned to his sect. In a city where the living die many times before death, she feels better once part of him is allowed to run free with his predecessors into the depth of the earth.
I also know the Kazimiyya District. I heard it mentioned in some modern Iraqi songs, but it has become particularly familiar to me because it is home to the washing & burial mughisl that Jawad Kazim inherited from his father.
Jawad, a young man marginalised and crushed by the death-thirsty city, is a character in Sinan Antoon's The Pomegranate Alone.
Having completed a Fine Art degree in Sculpture, he tries to follow in the footsteps of his namesake, Iraqi visual artist Jawad Salim. He really wants to be an artist, and to that end he haggles with life and makes a number of compromises. He accepts less artistic substitutes for his vocation, for instance, taking on house painting jobs. But it’s all in vain. In the end, he is still forced to return to his father's profession: washing dead bodies in a place that the novel brings so much to life that its humidity almost seeps through the pages.
I read the stories and imagine Baghdad’s heat and its cold winters. I can picture its university campus too.
I learn what vowels Iraqis add to make affectionate nicknames out of each other's names: mostly o's and y's. So Hala becomes Halawy, Kazem - Kazoumy, Jawad - Joudy, and Raad - Raoudy. I use a yellow marker to underline some phrases in each novel, the details I don’t want to miss. When I feel overwhelmed, I put it aside, always to return to later.
My mind tries to imagine the present and the future of Syrians by reading about the people of Iraq. In struggling to apprehend our Syrian tragedy, I am aware that it all lies in the everyday details. But I can only bear so much of Syria’s details. And so, I read about fictional characters in Baghdad.
I live in a smug, indifferent city, and from the comfort of that distance, I search for the meaning of war. Safe in a tower –where no one has heard of Waer, Sakhour, or Kazimiyya –I try to grasp the meaning of the destruction of the cities I love, the reality of those neighbourhoods turning into rubble. I find myself avoiding the news. Instead of staring at photos of Aleppo, I read the novels of Iraq. When the pain becomes too real, I can remind myself that the characters are fictional.
I don’t remember the individuals I meet and interview in the course of my job, and during the day I may well forget their stories, but at night they sometimes return to visit me in my dreams. And then I can console myself that it's only a dream that I will wake up from.
Sometimes, the pain of details becomes most intense in passing conversation. My friend Mina tells me about her uncle and his family who are under siege in Mosul. I listen attentively but cautiously, stepping over details like they were mines in the ground. But when I hear how a shrapnel bore into the only water tank in the house that they have not been able to leave since Daesh entered the town, I feel that detail bore into my heart. We get to the end of the conversation, and I drink a glass of water and try to forget what I have just heard.
Almost as a tangent to a general conversation, my student Baraa, whose pale skin is full of freckles, tells me that his father and grandfather have been detained in Damascus for the past three years, and that the family does not expect them back. There is no pause in the conversation to mark this piece of information. I shake it off and return reading that evening to the novel I'm. Baraa's father appears in my dream, but then I wake up.
The details are terrifying. Some of us confront them, others evade them, but we all certainly fear them. The truth is, as long as we keep our distance from the day-to-day details of the people of a city living through war, we remain ignorant about that war.