| Al khaifoun
Dar al adab, Lebanon, Beirut, 2017, 176 pages
The Frightened announces one of the great young talents in the Middle-East; Dima Wannous.
Contemporary, unique, and totally fresh, The Frightened captures what ordinary life is like under a dictatorship in a voice that is both captivating and spare. Elias Khoury has written with a personal endorsement as well as written a review in Al Quds newspaper calling the novel ‘captivating’ ‘excellent’ and ‘brilliant’.
When Suleima meets Nassim in the reception area of her psychiatrist’s office, they become involved in a tenuous relationship for years. When the war breaks out and he emigrates to Germany, he suddenly goes quiet. Until one day he sends her his latest manuscript. She reads with increasing interest, only to realize that the story he tells is very close to her own.
The reader switches from Suleima’s narration of her present and her past, to Nassim’s narration of what appears to be Suleima’s life, looking in turn both at her and her reflection; not exactly the same, but so similar it is dizzying.
Is she really the woman in the manuscript?
All of the trouble from her past comes bubbling up; her relationship to her mother, her attachment to her father and her incapacity to accept his death, the difficulties of growing up as the daughter of an Alawite father and a Sunni mother. A family crushed by the tyranny of dictatorship.
Everywhere around her, and within her too, life seems to fold back into itself – just as the story does. Trapped, broken, anxious, Suleima goes on a journey with the manuscript to make sense of what happened, who she is, and what she’s become.
She sees her fear of death, her fear of loss, her fear of crowds, and realizes that ultimately there is only one kind of fear; the fear of fear. The fear, not of punishment, but of being afraid. The fuel of dictatorship.
In the backdrop of her own personal drama, the violence of Syrian history and the current war resonates and unfolds.
The Frightened is an immersive and captivating novel that speaks of this generation and in its voice.
By Elisabeth Jaquette
Exactly fifteen years ago I was sitting in Kamil’s clinic.
I was sitting in his really tiny clinic, which stretched and swelled and expanded to fit dozens of patients. A few of the people came for appointments they’d made weeks before, or even earlier. Most came from outside Damascus, without an appointment. Some sat on the scattered chairs, others spilled onto the narrow steps outside. I smoked and watched the people around me. The secretary, who was unusually sweet, read her printed lectures and studied diligently for midterms. Every so often, she’d steal a glance at me and smile. Leila. She probably had things on her mind, even though she was sweet. A person can be both sweet and troubled. A young secretary working her way through college. Supporting her family, which was suffering like so many others.
When Leila’s father died a few years ago, her mother came down with all kinds of health problems. Her mother had been an active woman, pretty, flitting through life with her svelte fifty-something body. Then her husband died and she got high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, and hypothyroidism. She transformed into a limp bedridden thing. Leila’s divorcée sister and her two-year old daughter also lived with them. And their brother who had lost his mind years earlier.
The brother was twenty-one when he fell in love with another student at the College Of Fine Arts. That’s where I studied too. His girlfriend was the daughter of a low-ranking officer who lived in the Mezzeh 86 neighborhood. One day the son of the chief of an intelligence branch happened to see her at college. Leila didn’t tell me which branch it was. That part wasn’t important. The point was he had eyes for her too, and wanted to take her on a date to his father’s ‘break.’ ‘Break’ was what kids of government officials called the gardens on the edge of Damascus given to all high-ranking officers. Where they could go in their free time and spend days off with their families. But she turned him down. By this point she and Leila’s brother were already dating. Then one morning, Leila’s brother was kidnapped while out of the house. He disappeared for a whole week. And returned an empty body. “They hung him from his feet for days, dangling upside down, until his mind poured out, down to the last drop.” I remember the phrase well. It’s what Leila told me once when no one was in the clinic except her and me. She said he came back without his mind. From then on, her brother shut himself in his room. He’d sit there next to the open window, look out onto the crowded street in Masaken Barzeh, and holler at people. “Have you seen Hafez Assad?” He’d ask them. “If you see him, call him over. Tell him I won’t leave my room until he comes to visit me in person.” No one paid attention to what he said. Crazy. Lost his mind. He’d urinate out the window and point his penis right at whoever was passing by, oblivious to their insults and curses.
Leila spent her days in that tiny clinic, around people who resembled her brother in one way or another. People with stories just as strange. She studied, scheduled appointments, drank plenty of Nescafe with milk, and smoked voraciously.
Then she went home to care for her mother, that limp bedridden thing; her only sister, the divorcée; her niece; and her brother, who was confined to his room and his madness. I often watched Leila and thought about her sweet nature. She had a twinkle in her eye despite it all. It must be hard for someone to act as mother, father, doctor, and husband, and keep a steady, straight face. You’d think their expression would show the strain of the heavy burden they carried. That they’d look upbeat one minute and gloomy the next. That their eyes would glow with tenderness then suddenly glaze over, cruel. But not Leila.
I sat there scanning the other people waiting, one after another.
A young man in his early thirties came in. Tall. Broad shoulders. Strong features, as if they’d been drawn or sculpted on his face. Thick hair, jet black. He had a broad chest, and I envied him because his ribcage could expand to hold so much air. I didn’t feel jealous then, in that first brief encounter, only after we’d known each other for months. I was desperately afraid of suffocating. The idea that the air around me might run out terrified me. I wouldn’t be able to take in more, and I’d die of asphyxiation while this man watched and took deep breaths to fill his own lungs. He had more spacious lungs than ordinary people. Our rib cages have atrophied. Even at their best they protrude no further than our stomachs.
I didn’t notice his muscles that day: how harsh, winding, and prominent they were. When he flexed, you could see that he was obsessed with each individual muscle. He worked to develop each one in isolation. At the time, his heavy winter clothes hid most of this. But at one moment he rolled up his sleeves and bared his forearms. I glanced down at them. They were so solid. I’m crazy about the area between the wrist and elbow. That short stretch of skin sends me to a place that always has enough space and enough oxygen. I’m enamored with bones. Especially prominent bones. I’m not convinced by bodies whose bones are hidden beneath soft flesh. I hunt for bulges on hands, wrists, and throats, the base of the neck, the collarbone – the collarbone? How can such an unwieldy word refer to such a warm, tender area?
When he sat down and bared his forearms I saw the protruding contours of his wrist, under soft skin lightly dotted with black hair. I dropped my gaze to his feet. Jeans, slightly hitched up because he was crossing one leg over the other. Between the top of one sneaker and the bottom of his jeans another bone budded. There’s no clear or rational explanation for this obsession, and I didn’t tell Kamil I loved bones more than anything else.
[Longer translation excerpt available upon request]