Translated from the Arabic by Samuel Wilder
Illusion of Distinction
After finishing my secondary school degree, and receiving with distinction what they call in Syria the “Baccalaureate,” I entered the college of human medicine, where I spent five failing years of my life. They were “failing” in terms of academic distinction and in terms of my absorption in study -- and they were “failing” too in terms of the fashioning of my personality into that of a doctor.
During the first three foundational years, I skipped the lessons on diagnostics and organic chemistry and dozed off during theoretical lectures (I could count on one hand the number of theoretical lectures I actually attended during my entire time of studies). When it came to clinical medicine, I went to the hospital only when attendance was compulsory – that is, as a result of the chronic illnesses within me that needed treatment: psychological despair, existential nothingness, and a feeling of pointless absurdity.
In this state of constant weariness and boredom, I went through the books that piled up before the exams. In doing this, I developed a little pastime, which I titled ‘Poetic Aspects in Books of Medicine.’ It is a text that I put together from some old notes comprising literary glimmers extracted from my scientific books – an accidental, unintentional poetics, a literature without authors. I did this while I was packing up my books to move from a small house to a relatively bigger one in Berlin.
It is not scientific information that contains some poetic aspects, but rather poetic elements that contain some scientific information. The notes were collected on the edges of green paper. I remembered having wanted to gather them because I couldn’t stand it that they would remain mere information. In my enthusiasm I brought them together, producing overlaps between them. I hope it is not too rough:
— the matter of small surgery: the area of the entrance of the bullet inside the matter of the living body, the depth of the wound.
— the matter of immunity: in auto-immune diseases, the immune system undertakes to reject a member of the body itself, loses the ability to recognize members of the self. It is the loss of identity and the struggle of self against self.
— the matter of viruses: the power of the AIDS virus is its minuscule size. Infiltrating invisibly the immune system, invisible to the human body’s defenses. Only this virus can defeat everything without a battle. AIDS viruses do not resemble each other within the body. Every person in the universe has their own virus, and their particular traits of disease. Outside the living body, all AIDS viruses are alike. Inside the living body, no AIDS virus resembles another. They depart from one another within the body, in the unit of absorption, which occurs between the genes of the virus and the genes of the person, the stable genes of the virus converging with the transformative genes of the human, in transformation and difference, moving what is stable in the virus, transforming it, exchanging it, disseminating a new annihilating spirit in the virus, engendering individual diseases according to the genetic code of the victim. The curse of the imprint, the truth of difference, absolute dissimilarity. This is AIDS.
— the matter of inheritance: the stem cell has its formative capacity in its substance, which is so full of void and so undifferentiated and unspecialized, as in fetus and embryo cells. The stem cell can become any other cell - a bone cell, a muscle cell, a heart cell. With the passage of time and the onset of old age, differentiation increases, generality declines, void declines, and the cellular principals that push a cell in the direction of certain differentiated functions increases. Human cellular differentiation advances in one direction only, there is no return. The stem cell is capable, for example, of becoming a bone cell, but the opposite is impossible. Specialization is the death of renewal. Differentiation is the path of nothingness. Void is what gives things meaning. Void is what makes a room livable. Old age is satiation. Childhood is void. In the final cell there is always only the instinctive desire to return to the first.
— psychological medicine:
—first directive: at the stage of the patient’s return from the state of memory loss, he remembers things vaguely, and sometimes claims to remember things that have not happened at all.
— second directive: in the event that the sufferer of depression is contagious and convincing, it is necessary for the psychological doctor not to be affected by his questions concerning the point of action, the importance of void, the glorification of leisure, the sanctification of slowness, and the aesthetics of staring, about which the sufferer of depression might constantly speak to the other, who may become depressed.
— nervous physiology: the eye does not see things, things see the eye. The brain correlates with what things emit toward it, and what exists in the memory.
— diagnosis of illness: in the grave, a person’s hair is the last thing to disintegrate. Retinal cells disintegrate first. Hair is already dead cells, while the cells of the retina are the most alive. Under the last sentence, I wrote with a red pen: ‘vision decays first.’
Finally, I recorded the following text on the empty page in the pharmacological textbook:
In the laboratory of the college of medicine in the University of Damascus, in the second year, they place in front of every student a pigeon; we are supposed to deviate it and delineate its heart. Deviation is a medical term that denotes the killing of the spinal phlegm with a fine needle. The needle is entered into a tiny puncture in the pigeon’s back, or more precisely between its head and its back. It loses all feeling immediately, but its motor apparatus stays intact, and its heart is still working. The pigeon moves between my hands. Its resistance increases, and my grasp grows more intense. I take the needle out of the container of sharp medical instruments, in 2008, and seize the pigeon’s neck. My right thumb is near its right eye. The pigeon moves between my hands, refusing the medical experiment. It is the nearness that oppresses. I put in the needle, looking for the supposed declivity, the point that was supposedly soft and fresh, where the needle might engorge immediately. I muffle its wing so that I won’t have to hear it flutter. It had to die without making me sad. The moments were long. I rend the pigeon’s flesh, searching. Finally the needle settles in the hole, and the neck of this deviated creature is released. There is a moistness on my right thumb. A clear fluid. I am terrified, and I ask the supervisor. He answered immediately: “these are her tears.”
Illusion of Freedom
Time has no meaning in a darkened place where light cannot enter. Or in an illuminated place where darkness cannot enter. Time is just the eternal exchange, on the level of being, of day and night, light and dark. Solid gloom or constant shining light would be a mere freezing of an instant, like faces in a photograph, the denial of time. This is basically the essence of eternity.
In a condition where exchange is denied, the original normal nature of the human body becomes a sudden invention. The body’s emission of dead, superabundant cells is the chronological compass of those who live in a place with one light: the length of the fingernails, the density of the beard. Your nails and your beard keep time for them; the nails and beard of the other keep time for you. The “you” when his nails are short is not the “you” when his nails are just a bit longer, nor the “you” when they’ve grown a bit longer still; and he is also not the same self when your nails are longer.
You feel time by way of its deep effects on the bodies of others: tiredness, dilapidation, regression and decline. Your tallying of time marks the nearing of their bodies to nothingness.
The dreadful design sketches the cells of the prison with faithful symmetry onto the sides of the narrow passageway - it is like a giant stable full of horses. The place is designed to allow in only a single, orphaned beam of light. It pours through the main door of the prison like gossip through a slanderer’s mouth or a breeze through a crack in the door.
The ray of sun pours from outside and meets with the pillars hewn in the passageway. The shadow is thrown on the opposite wall. The shadow is the lone emissary to the inside from the universe, which it represents within. It is the attempt of the expansive to enter the enclosed. It is freedom’s blemish on the prison wall.
The shadow adopts endless forms, adapting to the sun’s position in the sky. Each prisoner watches the flowing, transforming form and interprets it as he believes, or sees, or desires. The shape is like spit splashed on the wall, unlimited, without edges. It is like a snail sprayed with salt.
Because the forms generated by the impressions of clouds and cigarette smoke are not random, and because the forms that come from the hewn columns are also not accidental, they carry a precise language to each one of us. A private language of being, a tongue of the state of being, a speech of being.
It becomes the total shadow.
Each prisoner safeguards some form generated by the shadow, a result of the combination of the place of the sun in the sky at a given moment in connection to the hewn column. The column is stable, and the moving sun generates the forms. Outside the prison, the earth revolves around the stable sun. But inside the prison is a major exception: the sun revolves around the prison’s stable column.
Each prisoner discovers his own form in the shadow. One sees a child’s face, another sees an old house. Another sees a dagger impaling an apple. I see my private form: a river running.
The form only appears once each day. When the form has appeared twice, that means a day has passed. You can only be tired enough to sleep when the form has passed. Each prisoner has a private form, a private day, a private clock.
One of those obsessed with the shadow was able to pinpoint the location of the sun in the sky through the changing forms of the shadow. The ray is the entrance of the outside to the inside. The shadow is the penetration of the inside to the outside. But then how is there freedom?
Illusion of Safety
After I moved to Berlin, I came to have a fairly decent network of German friends. I rarely go out with friends or stay out late. There are numerous reasons for this, including a lack of shared interests with the Germans of my generation, and the lack of interest in current events and politics among western young people (this is of course a generalization, not an absolute value judgment.) In a country like Germany, politics is optional, not compulsory, and interest in politics is generally limited to the university students who study political science. Interest in politics seems to decrease as comfort increases. One day in winter, I received an invitation from one of my friends to go out to one of the intense dance clubs in Kreuzberg, which is a neighborhood in Berlin. It’s a neighborhood known for its somewhat radical lifestyle, and for resisting the sweeping capitalist regime of the country. The culture there is tinged, of course, with leftwing liberatory ideology positioned against modern neo-liberalism. The lifestyle there is marked by heightened environmental self-consciousness (it is mostly vegetarian), and a reverence for feminism, gay rights, and defense of immigrant rights. Kreuzberg is notable also for having a great number of artists, and a lot of available drugs. The club was three floors underground. There was intense dancing, some strange rituals being staged, and you could see people of all different kinds. It was the world of the ‘underground’. To say this in Arabic, it was ‘a world under the ground.’ I couldn’t stay more than fifteen minutes, and I left crying.
The Hegelian imperative insists that the degree of security in any temporal-spatial moment in history depends in the first instance upon the density and extent of the middle class. Which is to say, that the middle class’s need for security is the basic pre-condition for its existence and continuation. By security, what is meant here is security in all its forms: economic security (welfare institutions that give social assistance to the unemployed, and a system of retirement pay), health security (institutions for health insurance that provide free healthcare), and physical security (the communality and impartiality of the state apparatus of violence), and political security (the transformation of conflicts into politics, and not of politics into conflict).
I fled a temporal-spatial moment in Syria in which there was no security in society. There, we are facing reality in its naked, cruel from: there is no medium between us and it. We face sickness alone, we are abandoned to face state violence, and we look at poverty in isolation. We fear our own opinions, because our own struggles are unutterable – they are raw material in the streets.
Although I hate quotations, a quotation from Hegel will give some foundation to what I am saying: ‘the feeling of security denies you the capacity to touch and sense half of the truth.’ The Western underground is in that sense a profound class trick. It is an attempt to transgress the conditions of security, while the firm grasp on security remains the one criterion dividing man from the sheer naked reality. This escapist approach remains touristic, false, orientalist and weak. It is a failed attempt at distancing, or a ‘bringing near’ that only entrenches the conditions of distancing. It is the utterly exasperated, exhausted despair of the state of security. What we live above ground in Syria, is created under ground in the West.
I cried, because the politics of the modern state derive, in some form, from the life conditions of the middle class, the forms of life of its individuals, and the continuity of their security. It seems that the life conditions of the middle class in the West, and the historical continuation of their security, is nourished in a basic way by the insecurity of our life, by our continuation in a state of isolation and abandonment. Is not the desire of the underground to carry out this superficial and ineffective breakdown of the conditions of security a narcissistic attempt to simulate what they are doing to others? Is it not a shameful and fleeting travesty in the guise of those whose life supports theirs, enabling them to remain so, and to continue their existence?
Why are you trying to come to us? Can’t you see we’re trying to come to you?
Illusion of Integration and Refuge
In a book titled Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Wiley, 2012), researcher Manuel Castells highlights a notable phenomenon in the contemporary world: the role of the market, and of public commercial taste, in defining the formal features and themes of cultural production. He describes the subjection of cultural production to the desire for profit, fame, and glory (Walter Benjamin wrote more elegantly and profoundly on this subject). Castells compares two things: the role of the contemporary European public’s taste for the literary productions of immigrants and those newly arrived in these societies, whether refugees or emigrants, and the production of thought and literature in correspondence to the preconceptions and facile stereotypes of European readers. These stereotypes stem for the most part from the prevailing political discourses. Secondly, he discusses the role of public taste in social media, especially on Facebook, in the formation of the public writer, concomitant with the disappearance of the figure of the individual, private writer. Indeed, because the individual writer has grown accustomed to fame and renown, he is addicted to producing speech that will only bring fame and renown (and here scientific studies speak about addiction to fame and social media, and the degree of the release of neurochemicals through social media stimulation). This speech consists, usually, merely of whatever populist ideas, whether sectarian or nationalist, will gratify the present instincts — and it avoids uncomfortable complexity and nuance. Over time, the writer becomes the prisoner of the conceptions of his readers, leaving behind individuality and independent criticism, slowly but surely, in favor of generalities, the cultivation of populism, over-simplicity, and unconditioned ingratiation. Thus, we are confronted with two symmetrical conditions: the immigrant writer in the West, with his subjection to the demands of the taste of the European reader, and the writer on social media, with his subjection to the reader who is constantly viewing him. Castells, who examines the case of the Arab Spring and social media, attributes responsibility for the spread of sectarian, populist ideas through uncritical writing to the ‘addicted’ person of culture who enters this unscrupulous game, and who forfeits the ability to say anything to the contrary, if it will not bring him an equal degree of ‘glory’ and renown.
For the first case, there a number of paradigms of writing by immigrants here in Germany, who write, in my view, simple populist stories that lack depth, sometimes being even devoid of all credibility, which are suited to the prevailing European conceptions of Islam, the Arabs, the Arab woman, the East, and other nonsense. Let one of them try to translate any of these narratives published by an immigrant in Europe into Arabic and submit it to serious criticism. I don’t think it will stand up.
As for the second case: there is Syrian Facebook. Most of us, for example, cannot voice criticism on many subjects, because we will be immediately subjected to waves of attack and mocking and offence—this is the condition in which we live now.
The cultural imperatives that Syrian writers face demand that they speak about exile, refuge, migration and homeland; war, pain and loss — ultimately these subjects serve the popular mood. Yet, to take one of these subjects as an example, exile is not an accurate concept in the Syrian case. Previously, to leave one’s homeland meant to be cut off meaningfully and psychologically in a complete way from one’s original homeland, and to enter newly and absolutely into a different world. But most of us are still bound, down to the tips of our toes, to the events in Syria, at least in some meaningful sense. Current social media and the internet have allowed constant meaningful communications and daily interaction with the ongoing events in our place of origin. Exile as a concept denotes severance and departure, not connection and ongoing communication with the events in e the place of origin. Likewise, the concepts of nation, identity and country have changed in a basic way, especially among the youth of my generation. As for the nation, it has shed the qualities of place and materiality, and has become an aggregate of meanings, ideas, and conceptions. I have a German friend who feels entirely like an ‘exile’ in a remote country village in Germany pervaded by xenophobia and Islamophobia, but who feels truly in his homeland in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin, among the immigrants, artists, refugees, and students, where there are active leftwing, gay rights, and feminist movements. In the same way, there are conservative religious people from Syria who feel truly in exile in the West. Exile is connected, in my view, to the structures of prevailing values in the new place, and to the values of the immigrant. All the same, there is some conflation between ‘foreignness’ and exile. Foreignness is a longing for people and friends, for relatives and places. As for exile, it is the entrance into a world with new values, changed, and entirely different. There are Europeans with whom I think alike, and among whom I feel truly like I am in my ‘homeland’, and there are people from my country with whom I share no ideas or philosophy, and among whom I feel I am in ‘exile’.
Exile is a narrative that prevailed in the first half of the last century, and it has completely fallen apart.
Finally, let me give a snapshot related to the issue known as the ‘assimilation’ of Syrians in the West. This event unfolded in one of the coffee shops of Kreuzberg in Berlin. I was sitting near a table where two Syrian refugees were having coffee. Their whole conversation concerned the difficult bureaucracy they had to confront in registering with the employment office, which is called the “Job Center.” It is an office that offers social assistance to the unemployed, providing just enough assistance to allow one to live. The funding for this office comes from taxes on working citizens. In other words, the workers assist the unemployed to find work. The two young Syrian men were talking about how broke they were because of the slowness of German bureaucracy, and were grumbling about the delay in providing them assistance. When the woman working at the café approached, a worker who paid her taxes, she asked the two young Syrians to pay for the cups of tea. The two young Syrians scrambled to pay the bill, fighting over who could pay it first.