Flesh when mutilated called God
By Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, University of Oxford and Refugee Hosts Writer in Residence
Time is God’s journey to his shadow.
An incomplete sentence is the place.
In the non-occurrence of birth, aborting the camp becomes the only possibility.
Might the dialects be the place that will be?
The hole is its hole, wailing and waiting for the green to sprout.
In a brass bowl with dangling rings as raw as young earlobes, my mother would pour us water whenever a plane broke the sound barrier, thinking that this would calm our fears and interrupt the deafening cries.
There, they interpret life as a sign of life, no more, no less. When their old wall collapsed, they erected another using their house plants.
In betraying the static, we narrate water with water.
What we pour on ourselves is also called narration.
The neighbour’s tattoo inflicted by another neighbour still bears the faint name of another neighbour’s daughter.
Sometimes I wonder how a god would look like if he were to have my mother’s broken veins.
A god with broken veins is a god who has ultimately given birth.
The Lebanese shopkeeper on the edge of the camp who used to buy our UNRWA tomato paste tins, once said: I was sorry to hear about your father’s death. That was what my mother decided to tell the man to make him pay her on time.
The meaning of time is the meaning of what can and cannot move in time and at the same time.
The elderly woman by the mosque once claimed to have seen time in the flesh.
My camp’s gravedigger neither prays nor fasts, he is only capable of digging.
Skinning is separating the skin from the flesh, never the flesh from the skin.
My mother tells me that the butcher who sells her meat still swears on his daughter’s life that he slaughters his cows with his own hands.
The same butcher who still sells meat to my mother is, according to our distant relative who knew him from another camp, neither married nor does he have a daughter.
Eye, the orifice of oblivion, the camp is certainly before you.
Ageing in the camp is a rehearsal for ageing in heaven. Neither acts require proof to sustain their time.
Whose consciousness is more reliable: the animal that rarely kills or the man who rarely dies?
When the war ended, my father washed the blood off our threshold and gave us a bath.
And what shall we call a camp that is completely there?
The camp’s genesis lies in its consciousness of itself.
My mother used to bake us bread and deliver it to school so we could eat, so we could stop looking with envy at our friends holding their bread filled with things. On that day, the school gate was closed but a hole was there. Desperate to reach us, my mother’s hand got trapped clutching the bread. To this day, we do not know why my mother, to free her hand and alleviate the pain, did not let go of the bread.
The camp never ceases to exist. A place it is not, but time inhabited by time’s selfishness.
Is it not the visceral which binds us to the camp? The feeling in its rawness which drags us to it – to a breast or a lap so dry, as fossilised as our time?
In our home, in the piles of books and notebooks left to their time, I spot my school book: half-faded letters, lines smudged by dampness and traces of rust, my name thinly written on its own on a line.
In total darkness, with no eyes to see me or faces to lament the non-presence of light, I held her hand tightly, thinking that, sooner or later, that light would be back and our eyes, open and shut, would once again return to guard our hands from our hands.
Nothing arrives in the camp. The neighbour with the prosthetic leg once said: I swear by God (pointing at the artificial limb), it feels like mine.
The camp is grasped in its absence.
To kill time, the camp sheds its innards.
The inhabited and the inhabitant share the same limbs.
Once their sweat was the same. He would throw his jacket over the school wall so his brother would wear it after him. As siblings, their main arguments revolved around whose smell the jacket had kept.
My mother’s hands, distant as they are, would intertwine, the right above the left, to press the devil back into her tummy and pronounce the end.
In writing the archive we submit to the perishable in writing.
Yet there is something to hold… The women in the long lines, above their invisible legs, outside the UNRWA distribution centres, with hair hurriedly tied up underneath the headscarves, cannot write. In anticipation of their names being called and their thumbs inked, they would tread slowly holding their hands as if cradling premature babies.
The teacher, who asked me to swear by God three times that my father did pray when he handed me a sealed envelope with a bit of money collected by the school for the poor, did not know that my father never accepted that money but instead returned it to the mosque, claiming that he had just found it.
She would always insist on giving me some. In her hands, she would gently rub the dry mint to softness. From lightness, to falling shades, to lightness again. A sighting of sublime dissipation: the leaf, a fragile wing, becoming its own fragility.
The tree in your name, we will recite. The name chosen hurriedly by your father. You were barely a few hours old when he recited it to himself in front of curious strangers as a beginning for something which would never age to die or die to age. Then, neither of your parents knew how to read or write, it sufficed for them to utter the name for the name to be carried across the arid fields of May into the absolute. The letters are now long dead and the wailing, which has never ceased reverberating in those distant furrows, has come home.
What is it that is not a camp?
When the war ended and before leaving the bomb shelter, my mother asked us to check we had everything.
I am writing the fragment within me, the incompletion I behold as a sense.
In the camp the barest attachment to earth becomes the ultimate survival on earth.
A pending mourning in the name. A pending mourning is the name.
For the concrete in it, for what is there for it from times past, the monumental speaks. It speaks to itself, in its own voice, to what once was. In the hope of an ageless silence, it speaks – a silence which is as imperceptible as time.
There, whenever time comes, we cross from age to intention. We seize speech from behind our ears like overripe fruit, with care, and once caught we start again.
Flesh when mutilated called God.
In dying, flesh prefigures flesh.
As precise as the body is the wound.
On my uncle’s floor, the one who sells second-hand clothes to his Lebanese neighbours, I shook my tooth until it fell out, to make a window like my mother’s.
Crossing the threshold is to confess without speech.
In the camp, confessing occurs before knowing.
An avowal to an avowal is silence.
Tense as a tense, persuasive as a mask is the camp.
I once saw her imploring God to rid her of her husband while exposing her old breast to heaven.
In the camp, the foot which outlives the other is called a witness.
Featured image (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, April 2018.