My darling mother,
I write to you from the airport before they can take me, before I go through the security barrier. They’re worried about terrorism, you see. Watching the slightest movement. Soon as you’re through the main entrance they’re there, everywhere, patrolling about in civilian clothes.
It’s under control, though. I’m going to act like someone come to meet a passenger. I’ve no bag, and my shirt’s unbuttoned so they can see I’m not strapped with a bomb.
I don’t know if this letter will reach you. That is: I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to stay here. How much time I have, that’s what I don’t know. I’ve bought myself a newspaper so I can pretend I’m reading, checking my watch repeatedly all the while, then over to the illuminated boards that display the landing times, and back to my seat again. Anyone watching me is going to think that the plane carrying my visitor is late, and they’ll leave me be.
Not much here for me to do, here on this threshold, people stepping quickly past me, in and out, and no one lingering for long. They come to wave good-bye, then they leave. They check their watches against arrival times and, even as they spot their passenger in the distance, they’re heading for the exits. They don’t linger. I can entertain myself for a bit watching people, all the shapes and sorts: the ways they bid goodbye to family or loved ones, each according to color, or origin, or creed. On appearance alone I can tell what they’re going to do. This woman, I tell myself, is Sudanese. She’ll cry when her son, the scowling young man at her side, leaves her standing and goes to the gates. And this plump blonde, fretting and rocking on her heels, never still, will leap for joy into the arms of the one she’s come for.
Not that I’m writing to you just to seem busy. No: I want to let you know what happened to me before you hear it from someone else. You won’t believe me, mother; you never do. Not never, perhaps, but in any case you’re all I have. You won’t be able to defend me, I know that. No one can defend me. But if I write to you you’ll know at least how dear you are to me and that I think of you when things are hard. This is the weakest kind of faith, perhaps. It is, perhaps, the only way I have of apologizing. Even if you won’t show me kindness in return, as you never did. From the time they first took me from the house you never showed me kindness. I told you, before they took me out, beating me as they went, that it was just a hashish case, that there was no need for you to worry. You didn’t believe me. You didn’t believe me, and you spat in my face. Maybe you wanted to make them see that I was a decent boy, that his people had raised him right and spat in his face because they were good citizens who took soldiers at their word. So I’m telling you now: I’m not angry at that gobbet of phlegm. You spitting in my face is the most beautiful memory I have, since what happened to me afterward, well . . . You can’t imagine what I went through.
I should have listened to you. I should have hung my head and always done as I was told. I can’t tell now if Father’s repeated beatings with a leather belt or stick benefited me or if, to the contrary, they built up a kind of rage inside me. Not just rage. A persistent humiliation for which, to this day, I see no justification. To this day, my body aches from his blows. I was young, you see, and innocent. Never once did anything to deserve it. And he always beat me in front of others. Would drag me outside to show people that he was beating me, that he was raising his son right. That, sure, he might be poor, but that he was a decent man and took care of his family.
The time for blame is past. Even for blaming you. You never protected me from him once, did you? Why not? I know: because he would beat you, too; because it would only make him angrier. I know. But many a mother would stand up to the father, would hunch over the children to ward him off, and the blows would land on her. Except you. You’d wash the blood from my head and murmur, He’s right, you know, he’s right. He wants you to become a man, a man of principle. To be proud of you.
My father beat me by choice and with conviction, as though he was preparing me for all the beatings that lay ahead. God alive. And with time he really did manage to toughen my skin and bones against assault, to lessen my sense of pain. I could steel my nerves against the agony of the coming blow. I learned the importance of preparing for pain when I started going to the gym. The gym! We called it the gym but there was nothing gymlike about it: just the sack of dirt we’d launch into with half-wrapped fists. We’d wrap them with the inner tubes of tires that the coach would bring in and cut up into strips. Boxing, too, was in order to raise us right, to drive destructive thoughts from our heads, to dispel images of women’s bodies from our minds—obscene images that made us masturbate, made us practice the filthy habit which, if it didn’t do away with our sight altogether, might drain the strength from our muscles and sap the energy we needed to fight. Might kill our faith in higher ideals.
Why am I revisiting all this? Because I’ve so much time on my hands here and I don’t know what to do with myself. And because it occurred to me to write: you haven’t seen me for years, have heard nothing about me from the time I went out—was taken out—of the house that first time, and then the time after that, when I came back to stay and didn’t stay.
I should say that the idea of writing this letter was prompted by a woman.
She was just here. Middle-aged or maybe slightly older. She stopped just here beside the big plastic bin. I was people-watching and her confusion caught my eye. She looked around and then sat down. Pulled some folded pages from her handbag, opened them and began to read, and then, for about half an hour, she sat there staring into space. Then she ripped them up, tossed them into the bin, and walked quickly inside toward the departure gates.
I waited a moment and slid my newspaper into that same bin. A simple matter to trap the pages she’d thrown away with the same hand that held the paper. As though I’d changed my mind. I mean, you see, in case anyone was watching me. I didn’t hang around. Went to stand over at the arrivals board for an age. Techniques I’d studied closely at one time. Sooner or later everything finds its use.
And then I was startled to see the same woman back at the bin, hunting for the papers she’d tossed, and she looked so wretched when she saw they were gone that my desire to know what was in them only grew. Wretched—and extremely confused, because the cleaners the woman was now swiveling her head in search of had not changed the bins and the bags were full of rubbish.
The point. The point is that these pages—which she tore cleanly in two with a single rip; they weren’t hard to reassemble—contain nothing really important. To sum up: a woman waiting for a lover (or an old flame?) and disappointed because he didn’t show. But, in a moment of inspiration, I decided to keep the letter. Because she says she’s going to go after another man, in Paris, and track him down, but then she went to the wrong terminal: none of the airlines in that part of the airport fly to Paris. Odd. And then if there was nothing underhanded going on, why did she come back to look for the letter? This woman, who said (I mean, wrote) that she could never go back to her own country. From what she says I get the impression that this country might be Lebanon. And there’s something else. Another big secret. None of the gates in the terminal she went to have flights to Beirut. I checked this by reading and rereading the arrival and departure boards. So, I decided to use this letter to my advantage if they should track me down and find me here.
But enough of that. I want to tell you now that I’ve missed you, Mother, despite everything. It’s been a long, long time since we last laid eyes on one another, so long that I doubt you’d know me if you saw me. I have changed a great deal. My appearance has changed. I’ve become thin. Teeth have fallen out. A bald spot sits atop my head. You will say that I deserve all this. You’ll reject me, because I’ve become a child of the devil. And you’d be right. After all I’ve seen and done, is there any point in my asking you for forgiveness? I know you won’t forgive me. I know I’ve no hope of that. But at the very least, if this letter reaches you, you’ll know I’m still alive. And amid reports of the dead that batter down on us from the radio like stones from heaven, I stay hopeful that you are still alive, that you got away in time. By land or by sea.
So: I write my letter with no idea where to send it. With luck, I’ll be able to bring it with me and come and look for you, and if I find you I will place it in your hands and leave. To speak would be so hard, too hard, and harder still if I were to tell you my story, as they say. And if fate wills it that I must pay the price for what my hands have done, then it will be you who decides: forgiveness or punishment. You who’ll be my angel or my executioner. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or erasure but compassion for a son gone astray, who cannot understand how the rough wind came to knock him off course and make him what he is.
Darling mother: I am changed so much. Changed from the son you knew. I’m sick. Sick in body and sick in soul and no hope now of being cured. My only wish is to escape so that I do not die in prison. I dream of escaping to die in the open air; like a candle, flickering and dying on the wick out there in God’s wide world. Then the devil can claim my soul, my sick soul, and do with it what he will.
From Barid al layl. © 2017 by Hoda Barakat. By arrangement with the Raya Agency. Translation © 2018 by Robin Moger. All rights reserved.