Unsafe Haven, An, page 1
AN UNSAFE HAVEN
Nada Awar Jarrar
The Borough Press
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2016
Nada Awar Jarrar asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
First published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2016
Cover layout design: Holly Macdonald © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2016. Cover photography © Mario Ramadan/EyeEm/Getty Images (steps) and Shutterstock.com (texture)
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books
Source ISBN: 9780008165017
Ebook Edition ©July 2016 ISBN: 9780008165031
With all my love.
Table of Contents
About the Author
Also by Nada Awar Jarrar
About the Publisher
They are still on daylight saving and the light, soft and hesitant, comes early, through the gap in the curtains and on to the bed, shaping itself to the contours of their bodies, gently waking her.
Peter does not stir when she sits up. She looks at him, his features in repose beautiful to her, fair skin unblemished, his greying hair fine as silk, an implied calmness to his demeanour even in sleep that still moves her after so many years.
She gets out of bed carefully, puts on her dressing gown and looks back to make sure she has not disturbed him. In the kitchen, Anas is already sitting at the breakfast bar, hair ruffled, his eyes, when he looks up from behind his glasses, uncharacteristically flat.
—Anas, Hannah says quietly. You’re up early.
He does not respond.
She places her hand over his and feels a slight tremor in it.
—Is everything all right?
He squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head. She puts an arm around his shoulder and, feeling him shudder, realizes that he is crying.
—Anas, please tell me what’s the matter. You’re scaring me.
He finally looks up at her.
—It’s Brigitte, he says in a whisper. She’s left Damascus and taken the children with her.
She lifts both hands to her mouth.
—I don’t understand, she exclaims. Where did they go? What happened?
There is a pause before he can reply.
—I telephoned them several times yesterday but no one was in. I’d been worried since that car bomb exploded in our neighbourhood after I left. I wanted to make sure they were all right, but when I called my mother late last night, thinking they might have gone there, she said they were gone.
A thought occurs to Hannah though she does not say it out loud. Please God they haven’t been kidnapped, she thinks. It is not unusual for people to go missing in Syria. Since the revolution and consequent civil war began, there have been tens of thousands of abductions.
—It’s not what you think. Anas has read her thoughts. Our neighbour downstairs saw the taxi we always use parked outside for them. They had lots of luggage. When my mother asked the driver later, he said he’d taken them to the airport.
—Thank God. She breathes a sigh of relief. Where do you think they went?
—I’m sure she went to her parents in Berlin. Where else would she go?
—So you’re going to call them?
He shakes his head.
—My in-laws moved recently and I don’t have their number. I didn’t think I’d ever need to get in touch with them without Brigitte there.
—At least you know they’re safe, Anas. Hannah is not sure what else she can say in the way of comfort.
—She waited until she knew I’d be coming here for the exhibition and left without saying anything about it. There is bitterness in his reply. She knows I would never have agreed to it.
—Brigitte has talked about leaving before?
—Since the fighting began, whenever the subject came up. I always told her Damascus is home and I would not abandon it no matter what happened.
He waits for a moment until Hannah begins to feel a hint of his anguish.
—I also said I would never allow the children to leave. I reminded her that they would always be Arab.
—But, Anas, you can’t be surprised that she would want to get the children out of a country at war? Surely, you can’t.
—She doesn’t feel the way I do about Syria, he says. Why should she? After all, it’s not her country.
Hannah begins to ask him if he really believes any mother, regardless of her nationality, would not choose to remove her children from danger, no matter the cause, but decides to remain silent.
She sits down and feels a now familiar hopelessness rising through her chest, gloom that comes from her many years as a journalist writing about the affairs of a region constantly in turmoil. Silently, she gathers together the thoughts that she will later write down to use in the stories she is always working on.
In the past five years, the Arab world has swelled and raged as dictators have fallen and people in their hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions of others displaced. In Syria and in Iraq, in Egypt and Libya, and in the farther reaches of the Arab Gulf, we have looked on in horror while humanity appears to stumble over itself; and Lebanon, in the wake of all this turmoil, teeters on the brink. There are moments when it seems too big, too unfathomable and overwhelming a reality to take on, when I feel as if I – along with the region I once believed in – am moving through mud, fearful and hesitant, unable to take that next step towards release.
Living in Beirut can be deceptive; it offers a false impression of safety and permanence in the midst of all the upheaval. We feel the direct consequences of the tragic events in Syria, but it is hardly by choice. Is Brigitte wrong in distancing her
There is something else to be learned from the experience of this situation, something to do with the conflict’s essential incongruity, even to those of us who are closest to it. Nothing about brutal battles is acceptable, nor are they a normal function of human interaction. This is how people diverge in their perceptions. For the suicide bombers who have been striking in the heart of Beirut or Baghdad, in Benghazi or Sanaa, in heavily populated areas and at times of day when ordinary people are getting on with their lives and the highest number of casualties is likely to occur, for these extremists, there is no such thing as everyday life, nothing in their psyche that points to normality and recognition of the other as legitimate and worthy.
She sighs and places a hand on Anas’s arm.
—You’re in despair, I know, habibi, she says quietly. You have the sensitive soul of the artist that you are and are feeling overwhelmed right now. But things will work themselves out, you’ll see. We’ll find your family. I know we will.
During those foggy moments before complete wakefulness, Peter hears murmurings, imagines himself going outside in search of them, feet bare and his eyes, unbelieving, squinting in the breaking sunlight that bathes the furniture and floors.
It is only Hannah and Anas talking, he realizes.
Getting out of bed slowly, he stands still for a moment and listens further, the voices beyond gently rising and falling. He smiles to himself. It pleases him that his wife and good friend should get on so well.
When he joins the others in the kitchen a short time later, he is already showered and dressed.
—Morning, hayati, says Hannah. Sit down and let me pour you some coffee.
Peter looks at Anas but he has a hand over his eyes.
—Is everything all right? Peter asks. Anas, are you OK?
Hannah hands him his coffee and tells him what has happened.
He sits down and waits for his friend to look up. Anas is an extraordinarily handsome man. He has the brooding features characteristic of many Arabs, Peter believes, but in him they are softened by luminous eyes and a palpable quietness of spirit.
—How did she manage to get them out without your permission? Peter eventually asks. Surely they would have stopped her at the airport.
—If anyone did try to stop her, she would’ve paid them to keep quiet, Anas says. Anyway, they’re not too strict about things like that these days. Lots of people who have foreign passports and can afford it are leaving.
—At least we know they’re safe, Hannah interrupts the ensuing silence. Brigitte will get in touch soon, I’m sure.
—Do you have any idea where she might be? Peter persists.
—I’m pretty certain she’ll have gone to Germany to her parents. Still, it depends on whether or not she wants me to find her at this point. She’s got lots of friends to stay with.
Peter senses hesitation in Anas’s voice.
—We can try to find her.
Anas puts his cup down on the bar in front of him.
—I’d rather she got in touch first, he says. I don’t want to rush her. She’s probably confused and very angry with me right now.
—No matter how she feels, says Peter quietly, they are your children, Anas, and you have a right to know where they are.
A moment later, he wonders if this was the right thing to say to a man in such a vulnerable state. Perhaps empathy, rather than rational thinking, is what he needs right now.
Peter looks at Hannah but her expression tells him nothing. He sighs and lifts his cup to his mouth.
There are times when he harbours doubts about his true nature, wonders whether or not being a physician has made him impervious to the pain of others, or if, even with those to whom he is closest, he has developed a studied indifference, a metaphorical second skin that protects him from the dilemmas of compassion. Some of this disconnection, he knows, he brought with him from America and a childhood home where a show of emotions was discouraged. During periods of clarity, he has seen that, in trying hard over the years to adapt to a culture so different from his own, he has lost the ability to appreciate the subtle ups and downs of human relationships, a shortcoming he is reluctant to acknowledge openly but which nonetheless shapes his everyday dealings with others. Once or twice, when he has tried to approach Hannah with his suspicions, the fear that she might confirm them and judge him further for his apparent indifference has stopped him. At times distrustful of his feelings, he has become adept at avoiding them, working too-long hours to pay proper attention to anything else or simply putting on a façade of detachment that leaves him only in sleep.
As the situation in Lebanon has worsened and Hannah’s anxieties continue to increase, he has been close, at times, to admitting a distance even from her, a pulling away from the concentrated passions she harbours, which are a good portion of her essential self. And although he is troubled by Anas’s sadness now, he is inclined to leave the dealing with it to Hannah, for whom extreme emotions are an everyday occurrence.
It is often like this, he thinks, my true self appears to me only in bits and pieces, like flashbacks in a film, incoherent but sharp-edged, revealing as much as they manage to hide from me. That surely is why I am bewildered at times like these.
He looks over at his wife again before continuing.
—Look, Anas, I have a friend who is with the International Red Cross here. Maysoun is Iraqi and works mostly with refugees from there, but I’m sure she can find out for us. She told me they have a register of people fleeing war. She’d be able to trace anyone who has left Syria. What do you think?
—I don’t suppose it would do any harm to find out, Hannah says, looking at Anas. Let Peter do this and then we can figure out where to go from there.
—You are good friends, he says. Once the exhibition opens and I can go back to Damascus, I’ll be able to think more clearly and decide what to do …
—Wait a minute, Peter interrupts him. You don’t have a German passport, do you?
Anas shakes his head.
—I’m pretty sure the embassy in Damascus will have closed down. If you decide you want to go to Germany to find your family, you’ll have to get your visa from the embassy here.
—He’s right, says Hannah. You can’t possibly think of going in and out of Syria just yet. Besides, there have been battles going on very near Damascus the last few days and it’s dangerous. Stay on with us for a while longer, until we can work out what to do.
Anas hangs his head. Peter looks on as Hannah puts her arms around him and, for a brief moment, is conscious of the rhythmic beating of his own heart.
When Anas goes inside to get ready to leave for the gallery, Peter turns to Hannah.
—I can’t believe Brigitte would leave like that without telling Anas about it, he says.
—Maybe she was worried he’d use the children as an excuse and prevent her from leaving. He could have contacted the authorities and had them stopped at the airport. She wouldn’t have been allowed to take the children away without his consent.
—I can understand her wanting to save the children from the war, Hannah. But she should have found a way to let him know she was planning to escape. She could even have come here with the children instead of disappearing like that.
He grabs his jacket and starts for the front door.
—By the way – he turns to ask her – are you visiting another refugee encampment for your articles today?
Hannah shakes her head.
—I can’t do any work after what has happened. Anas is absolutely devastated and I need to be with him.
—I realize he’s upset. But nothing we do at this point is going to make him feel better.
She looks at him with what seems like reproach.
—He can’t be left to deal with this on his own, Peter.
—Anas is going to feel up
—Whatever you might think, I will not leave him today. I have to make sure he’s OK. Then, frowning, she continues quietly: You know, there are times when we seem so different, you and I.
Before he can be alarmed by what she has said, he decides to make a joke of it.
—Just as well we are and I can help tone down your angst, he says.
But she only turns away.
From the beautiful residential neighbourhood of Abou Roummaneh in Damascus, Anas drives his children to school every morning, stopping the car to let them safely out, then placing their bags on their backs and watching them walk away, his heart leaving with them, the tug of separation lingering as he drives on to his studio on the outskirts of the city, as he sets to work and anticipates release from the everyday, as he dreams.
With Marwan and Rana, he has tried to cultivate a quietness that had been largely absent in his own childhood, in which his parents’ love had been too intense at times, too enveloping to allow him breath. Growing up, he had had the comfort of knowing that whatever the challenges, whether it was anxiety over schoolwork or rejection by friends, whether he got disapproval from strangers or simply felt disconnected from the world around him, whatever the break these experiences caused inside him, there would always be someone or something to put him together again. His mother making his favourite sweets and the pleasure in her eyes as she watched him eat them; his sisters, both older, helping him with homework, often doing it for him while he went out to play; his father insisting, at the end of the school week, that he walk down with him to the old souk to help with the shopping. Once there, Anas became so engrossed in the surrounding activity and displays, felt so much a part of them, that he forgot his troubles.