Unsafe Haven, An, page 2
Yet he had felt stifled by this closeness at times, and recalled occasional moments of aloneness that stood out as bright and exceptional: the sun on his back as he bent down on the terrace to play, undisturbed, with a new toy, the joy in that anticipation, or at night, a little while before sleep, shutting his bedroom door and sensing in this instantaneous, temporary solitude the opportunity to be utterly himself, feeling the relief in that, the release. He has always understood that it is exactly this ability to disengage, with fluidity and without notice or regret, that makes way for the artist in him, that defines his deepest being.
He remembers the joy his parents had felt when in his final year at school he passed his baccalaureate exams with distinction, the pride and the boasting, their expressions of hope for his future – medicine perhaps, or law, they advised him –and then their disappointment when he had refused, their despair that he would be willing to give up the opportunity to elevate his standing and that of his family in a watchful and highly critical society. But the urge in him to create, to portray in shape and in colour what defined his essential being was too strong to ignore, and for several years, during which Anas and his parents hardly communicated, he had taken on menial jobs that allowed him to pay for occasional art classes and materials, until the day he was able to announce to them that he had won a scholarship to study art in Germany and their resolve was finally broken.
Anas is aware that in defying his parents’ plans for him as the only son in a traditional Arab family, he became stronger and more determined to succeed as an artist. But this is not a fight he wants to engage in with his children, not the path towards fulfilment that he wishes for them. He sees instead a flexibility in their outlook that they have gained from their mother; this pleases but also at times frustrates him. It is a mirror he is not always willing to look into.
He works on the top floor of an ageing three-storey building, once the pride of Syrian design, with an open stairwell that looks on to a garden overgrown with plants and a small pond that is long dry; and standing right outside his front door, growing in a huge, ancient pot, is a beautiful jasmine bush that dies gracefully in winter and in spring fills the evenings with its perfume. Inside the spacious, high-ceilinged rooms of the apartment are the light and shadows he has always sought, a weightless glowing, and at its edges, a muted gloom, the suggestion of colour that serves as his inspiration.
He spends the best hours of his day sitting at a wooden table placed directly beneath a large, open window, painting with colours he has painstakingly blended together or sculpting materials which he manipulates with nervous hands, slowly but surely drawing the outlines of his better self, he knows, the man he sees clearly in his mind’s eye but who in lesser moments appears dulled and ordinary.
Anas has finally found the recognition that a handful of Syrian and Iraqi artists now enjoy thanks to a greater interest in their work around the world, a recognition that is deserved. However, he comforts himself with the thought that increased material comforts and growing demand for his pieces have neither influenced his outlook nor made him change his work habits. He prides himself on that, trusting that his instincts will continue to carry him through what might turn out to be only a temporary rise. He knows that art is the one thing, above all else, that gives him life.
But if his work has achieved success, his personal life – more specifically his relationship with his wife – has not fared well. That too is a long story which he cannot bring himself to talk about, even to his closest friends.
He had been at art school for almost a year when he met Brigitte at a gathering in the home of a mutual friend. She was tall and attractive, like many of the women he had met since his arrival in Germany, and fair: a striking contrast to his own colouring that appealed to him. Yet he had sensed something about her from the first: a willingness and humility he admired; an interest, too, in him that went beyond that initial attraction. Their affair had been passionate and serious in a way that was unfamiliar to him, demanded from him wisdom that his upbringing and consequent experience had not prepared him for, a view of relationships, of women, that was new and challenging. They had joked once about their closest moments being as lessons in love, with Brigitte as the teacher and he the willing student.
When they married not long after meeting, she had told him she looked on the prospect of moving to Damascus to live and raise a family as a welcome adventure. If she loved her husband so much, she admitted, it was in large part because she was fascinated with his culture, longed to discover a world far outside her own European upbringing.
Syria had lived up to all her expectations at first, as an authentic Arab country that remained largely faithful to its heritage, perhaps – and the irony of this did not escape her – because it had lived so long under dictatorship that Western influences were few and far between. Anas had been charmed, in those first few months after their arrival, by his wife’s wonder at the peculiarities of life in Damascus, at its manifestations of old-world sophistication alongside an innocence that he could see moved her greatly.
Once, using a cashpoint at one of the bigger banks in the city, Brigitte had at first been alarmed when a small group of what were clearly labourers came to stand beside her, apparently watching what she was doing. When Anas explained in German that the service was very new to Damascus and that the onlookers were merely curious, she had smiled and gestured to them to come closer and asked Anas to translate as she gently explained exactly how the machine worked. What she had not known, what Anas did not have the heart to tell her at that moment, was that the men were unlikely ever to need the services of an ATM since bank accounts were a privilege that only a wealthy few enjoyed.
She marvelled also at the daily proximity of people one to the other, the houses in the old neighbourhoods attached to one another in rows, their walls porous, voices and emotions filtering through them in the breathing air, people moving through the crowded alleyways that represented streets, bodies touching as if in a shared dance, the spaces above them filled also with anticipation, and everywhere, at tables eating, in rooms punctuated by conversation, by deathbeds and in silent prayer, the presence of an unseen but nonetheless all-powerful notion of God.
She told him, in those early days when they talked about their almost daily excursions into the heart of the city, that she had never known such clear evidence of vitality, of the feeling that she could, whenever she wished, dip her heart into it and come out overflowing, of the certainty that in loving and being with him, she had finally found her way home.
And if he were to be truthful with himself now, he would have to admit to his wife’s influence on his view of their relationship, the honesty with which she insisted they communicate, the transparency in their dealings with each other.
But neither of them had reckoned on the difficulties Brigitte would eventually encounter in trying to fit in with Anas’s family. His mother, he knew, had been devastated at the news that he would be returning from five years studying abroad with a foreign wife and did not hesitate to show her disapproval at every opportunity. And while his father and sisters tried to make Brigitte feel at home, there was no question as to their disappointment in his choice.
His family’s feelings about his young wife, he was certain, were not personal. Had she been merely a girlfriend who would later return to her own country, they would have found her delightful, would have welcomed her with open arms; but marriage being, to their minds, a lifetime’s commitment, they could not see her playing that long-term role with the dedication to social convention that it deserved; worse still, they could not see themselves settling comfortably with the thought of it.
Anas had been confident that once grandchildren came along the conflict would naturally resolve itself, but the birth of his son and daughter served only to complicate matters further. Brigitte mistakenly believed that she and Anas would be exclusively in charge of their children’s upbringing; she had not reckoned on the role of the extended fa
Disagreements became especially heated over the influence of the family over the boy, Marwan, who was generally considered more important because he would eventually carry the family name.
Anas remembers especially one Sunday lunchtime when, as was their custom, they had all gone to his parents’ house. Once lunch was over, Brigitte had asked Marwan and Rana to help with the clearing up but Anas’s mother had been horrified when she saw her grandchildren at the kitchen sink washing dishes, had ripped the apron from around Marwan’s waist and pushed him away.
Anas had been surprised to find himself taking his mother’s side even though he was aware that Brigitte would find this unforgivable.
—How could you let her do that, Anas? Brigitte had begun. Is this how you want our son to be brought up? To think of himself as superior to women and believe they should be relegated to menial tasks?
—That’s not what I want at all, Brigitte, and that’s not what my mother meant. She’s an old woman and she’s set in her ways. Why won’t you give her the benefit of the doubt?
—Your mother effectively told Marwan he was better than his sister, that it was all right for her to do the dishes but not for him. How do you think that made Rana feel? Are her feelings less important because she’s a girl?
—When have I ever acted as if Marwan was more important? You know that’s not how I feel, Brigitte, so stop accusing me like this. Haven’t you learned anything about our culture in the years you’ve lived here? Or is it just that you think your Western ways are better?
—Western or not, Brigitte said, what happened was not right and you know it.
She took a deep breath before continuing.
—What’s happened to us, Anas? Why don’t we talk like we used to? You’ve changed so much recently that I feel I can no longer get through to you.
At these words he had been conscious of a resentment towards his wife’s foreignness that he feared he might never shake off.
—Do you mean get through to me or get me to think and do what you want? he retorted. You refuse to get on with my family and you are constantly trying to turn my children into something they are not. My children are Arab and this is their culture. When are you going to accept that?
If Anas is not able to ascertain exactly how the trouble between them had started, then he is honest enough to admit to himself that his own behaviour after that Sunday had done little to minimize it. With the growing pressure of work, he began to spend less time at home, travelled a great deal, was secretly relieved at the opportunity to avoid conflict, and left Brigitte to cope on her own. But she had not coped, he realizes now; she had become more isolated than ever, until the day the war in Syria began and all she could talk about was leaving. He had tried to make her see the conflict as he then perceived it: a challenge the country would have to go through before it could move forward, a disintegration that would eventually lead to renewal. Brigitte accused him of naivety, of being unwilling to admit to himself that with the escalation of violence, the conflict was headed towards disaster, had even told him once that he was willing to endanger the lives of his own children to maintain the illusion of Syria as home. His intransigence on that point, his insistence that they remain in Damascus, had driven them even further apart. Other matters came to light for him – and no doubt for her as well – as to the extent of their differences, matters which had not been personal at first but which eventually became so significant that they threatened to compromise their love for each other. It was clear that, faced with difficult circumstances, their backgrounds had led them to contemplate different solutions. For Anas, staying on in Damascus was not only a demonstration of his solidarity for his country but also an act that would serve to reinforce its existence, make it somehow resistant to break-up, while Brigitte maintained that a nation was not defined by its borders but by the unity and common vision of its people.
Thinking of his predicament now, despite the anger and frustration he feels at what Brigitte has done, it is almost impossible for him to imagine a life without her, though he admits to himself that there have been moments when he has hoped for just that, when he has sensed the probable inner peace that different life decisions might have afforded him. Where and at what juncture could I have done things differently? he asks himself.
There is great release for him in art; even now, at the news of his family’s departure, his first instinct is to go to the gallery where an exhibition is to be held of his work and spend the day there, among the canvases and away from worry. He is grateful for the support of his friends but for the moment, he knows, there is only one place for him to be.
Hannah walks with Anas to the gallery in Beirut’s downtown where his exhibition will be held. On their way, they stop and sit on a bench on the Corniche, admiring the beauty of the Mediterranean, which, on this cool, sunny day, is smooth and deeply blue.
—I could never live anywhere but by the sea, Hannah says.
—This particular one, you mean?
—Probably, yes. You see how quiet and silky the water is now? Don’t be deceived by it, though.
—I mean, Hannah continues, during thunderstorms, the waves are massive. It’s impossible to walk here then because you’d be swept out to sea.
—Have you ever imagined living anywhere else besides Beirut? Anas asks after a pause.
—Well, we lived in Cyprus for a while during the war …
—Yes, I know. I meant now, when you can make the choice.
—I know many people who have the means and the opportunity are choosing to leave right now, but where would we go? Work is good here and I don’t know that we would want to start all over again anywhere else.
—You get satisfaction from your work, Hannah, but the same can’t be said for Peter.
—What do you mean?
—We were talking about it only the other day, Anas continues. He’s stuck in an administrative job he doesn’t enjoy and I think he misses being a doctor.
Hannah turns to him.
—He hasn’t said anything like that to me. Surely he would tell me if he really feels like that.
—Maybe he’s not sure how to approach it. After all, if he weren’t living here, he would be able to practise medicine.
—I didn’t ask him to come, Anas, she says impatiently. He wanted to be here.
—He wanted to be with you and you insisted on staying in Beirut.
She shakes her head and looks out over the water again.
—But that’s not what I meant to talk about, Anas says. I was asking you if things got worse and some kind of civil war breaks out again, would you be willing to leave Lebanon? It’s a possibility, you know, that our conflict will spill over into this country.
—A possibility? A war of attrition is already going on in Tripoli in the north and in the Bekaa, in the towns bordering Syria. It could all spiral out of control, I agree.
But Anas persists.
—You haven’t really answered my question, Hannah. What if you had children. Would that make you think differently?
—I suppose we’d have to think about it seriously then, she replies. I suppose we would be concerned about their safety … Then something lights up in her head. Oh, you’re asking me if I approve of what Brigitte has done, aren’t you?
—Do you think she did the right thing?
Hannah realizes that she’s treading on dangerous ground here.
—I don’t think she should have made the decision on her own and then left without telling you. But I can perfectly understand her wanting to take the
She puts a hand on his arm to reassure him.
He gets up and she follows.
—What if she never gets in touch? he asks her. What will I do then?
—Why would you say that, Anas? What makes you think that? Brigitte wouldn’t do anything to deliberately hurt you. I know she wouldn’t.
He moves ahead of her and Hannah, trying to catch up, trips and almost falls over.
—Anas, please wait. What’s really going on here?
He stops and turns to her.
—The truth is, Hannah, the truth is things haven’t been going well between us for some time now. I think she’s left me for good.
They fall silent and Hannah wonders, not for the first time, how much longer they will have to endure the repercussions of years of war on their relationships, their family ties.
In 1982, as invading Israeli troops were closing in on Beirut, our family was evacuated on a ship taking Westerners out of Lebanon. My father used his connections with one of the embassies to get my mother, my brother and myself on board the ship. Throughout the journey to the island of Cyprus, the sea surging beneath us, Mother had clung to me and Sammy and cried. I was ten years old and felt a finality in that grief, a suggestion of relief that scared me. How can we possibly leave home? I wondered. Will we ever be able to return, and without Father, are we still a family? These questions, that initial dread, have never left me.
We spent, along with thousands of Lebanese like ourselves, a number of years on the island, during which we lived in a small apartment near the school that my brother and I attended. I remember that time as an interlude between real life in Lebanon before the war and life there once the conflict ended, mimicking my parents’ attitude towards this displacement as a period of anticipation regardless how long or how damaging the waiting to return might be. Whenever there was a temporary lull in the civil war and speculation mounted that the conflict was over, Father would decide we should return home and we would prepare to uproot ourselves, only to be told, days or weeks later, that it may be a little longer before we could pick up from where we had left off what seemed a lifetime ago. Even the friendships that I managed to make during this hiatus had hesitation in them; they predicted their ending even as they began, sacrificing the promise I might have derived from them had they endured. It was not until fifteen years after the conflict in Lebanon began that the warring factions finally signed an agreement that ended the fighting and we were able to return and be a family again.