The Last Night of a Damned SoulA Novel
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Editions Plon
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8021-1780-5
It was Eid al-Adha,
the Feast of the Sacrifice, during the third weekend of May. Athman picked me up at dawn to drive a few miles out of town to a ranch owned by a Saudi emir for the sacrifice of the lamb. I was doubly excited about this outing. On such a glorious day, I looked forward to reliving memories of the vacations I used to spend with my grandparents in Lebanon. And I was looking forward to letting my black Lab, Keytal, feast on the treat of fresh meat. As Athman honked the horn, Keytal bounded toward the door, as if sensing the pleasures that awaited him. He twitched in anticipation and leaned his snout on the doorknob while I gave a quick hug to my girlfriend Jenny, who was sulking about not being invited simply because she was a woman. She was annoyed because she couldn't understand how I could agree with such intolerance, although, as I tried to explain, "It's not intolerance. These are just restrictions of the religion, that's all." She held in her tears, I held back a kiss, and got in the elevator with the excited Keytal. As soon as Athman saw my dog, he jumped out of his car, furious. "Oh no! No dogs!" "Why is that a problem?" "In the eyes of Islam, dogs are the dirtiest of animals. If they touch you, you have to redo your ritual cleansing. What's worse is that he's black. The Prophet said, 'A black dog is a shaytan
.' No, no, no ... there's no way I'll have him in my car." Athman was so upset that I had no choice but to take the dog back up to Jenny, who couldn't make sense of this sudden change of plan. Not wanting to give the real reason, I was forced to lie to her for the first time in our relationship. "The dog's too wired." "What do you mean? He seems normal to me." "He's really pretty excited, can't you tell? He's even getting aggressive." "Maybe he's excited, but he's not wired." She took the animal in her arms and began to pet him. Keytal gave me a pathetic and accusatory look. He was sad because he knew that he would be left behind in the apartment. It pained me to do that. I could tell Jenny wasn't happy either. She didn't understand my reaction and looked very worried. I ended up admitting the truth. "In Islam, dogs, especially black dogs, are not allowed." "Are you kidding? If I were you, I'd watch out for people who discriminate against dogs and women. That leaves out a lot of people for a so-called celebration." Jenny pulled Keytal inside and slammed the door in my face, leaving me stuck on the landing. I had hardly gotten into the car when Athman instructed me to turn off my cell phone, take off my watch, my chain, and my ring, and put them all in the glove compartment. Then he said, "You have to turn off the cell phone for security reasons. If there's a cell phone turned on anywhere, all your movements are recorded. As for the jewelry, there are religious reasons. God doesn't like men who adorn themselves, especially in silk and gold. From now on, no more jewelry. As for the watch, you'll have only one time from now on: the one that God decides for you. So, buckle up and we're off!" "I really would like to stop by my mother's for breakfast." "Does she know about it?" "Yeah! Surely you don't expect me not to stop by to wish her a happy Eid
." "No, I mean does she know that I'm coming with you?" "Sure. And if you wouldn't mind, as soon as you see a florist, I'd like to stop to pick up some flowers for her." "You buy flowers for your mother?" "Of course! It's a special holiday." "But flowers aren't part of our tradition. Bringing flowers to my mother would never cross my mind." "Why not?" "Because we only give gifts that nourish, not ones that perish." "My mother has a Western side to her, she loves flowers. She wasn't born in a desert you know." "You cater to your mother's Western side and you neglect her Muslim side during an Islamic feast?" "What can I say? If you see a Middle Eastern pastry shop near the florist, stop and I'll buy her some fine baklava as well." "I know a good place with just the right gifts not too far from the florist...." At the stoplight Athman took a right toward the Muslim neighborhood. He talked me into buying prayer beads, some henna, and musk incense for my mother. "You must be crazy," I said, "she hates the smell of musk; it reminds her too much of death." "But she's mortal like all of us! She ought to get used to the idea because death is inevitable." I bought my three usual roses: a red one, a white one, and a yellow one. Then we headed for the shops adjacent to where my mother lives. My parents bought a two-bedroom condominium in a luxury development situated next door to the neighborhood shops where my mother does her shopping. It makes her feel right at home. Athman hesitated and then asked me, "Why not buy roses of the same color?" "The red one stands for my mother, the white one for me, and the yellow one for my father." "A rosy family of sorts ... do you know what those colors mean in Islam?" "No." "Red is for blood, white is for the shroud, and yellow is for hypocrisy." "You don't know how true that is...." * * *
My mother was waiting for us, with her Lebanese elegance, which was less the result of trying to look beautiful than of wishing to maintain a timeless beauty that would change little, no matter the circumstance. She has a way of dressing and wearing makeup that makes her seem ageless, so that whenever we pulled out the old photo albums during family gatherings, our favorite game was to try to guess the date of photos which contained my mother. With a little luck, we could guess within five years. My mother met us at the door, placed her hands on my cheeks, and kissed me. She was pleased and touched that I brought her the three roses. As I handed her the other gifts, I said in a low voice: "These are from Athman." Then she led us into the living room where she had set a magnificent table with traditional Lebanese pastries, as she invited us to sit down. "You know, my son, ever since I've been here, the Muslim feasts seem dull because we're far from our native land. When the Christian holidays come, we celebrate them more out of imitation than conviction. Our life is a series of empty gestures which are not really sins, because our sense of responsibility toward our distant homeland and our lack of connection to life here is unclear." In reality, I thought my mother was just trying to find a way to rationalize the fact that this was the first Eid al-Adha she had to celebrate without my father. My father was a design engineer in medical electronics who specialized in chemotherapy products. He had been stricken by leukemia, and died within a span of just a few weeks. My mother remained convinced that he died of accidental and prolonged exposure to X-rays, but she had not yet managed to prove it after ten months of investigation. Despite an autopsy and technical reports, the company would only acknowledge the possibility of a work-related illness, but soundly rejected the theory of an actual work-place accident. We waited well over a week for the return of his remains. Not knowing exactly how he died or where he would be buried, my mother, lost in confusion and grief, muttered, "We never knew how to give meaning to our joy, and now we don't know how to make sense of our sorrow. It's so unfair." As for me, I missed my father terribly. He was so much a part of my very being that his love bonded me to eternity. Each time I tried to get used to the idea of his death, I felt dizzy, I could barely stand up, I was weakened by a desire so strong that it pushed me to join him beyond death, wherever he was. As long as our parents are alive, we have the impression of being sheltered from death as if they constitute a protective wall. When my father died, I felt thrust into the front row, into the line of fire. At that moment my protective armor fell off and a flood of existential questions overwhelmed me, leaving me fragile and vulnerable. I would feel my mind go blank, and I began having knots in my stomach, and bouts of insomnia.... All of these previously unknown ailments came together. I couldn't concentrate at work and I had lost interest in my life. Time and space no longer had the same dimensions. It was as if my biological clocks had stopped functioning properly. Life and death no longer had the same meaning. I had to wonder whether I ever really understood it all before. My father had been a kind of ozone layer that rested above my world. Since his death, I feel cold, less alive. He was a big, strong man who combined a scientist's brain with an artist's heart. When he helped me with my homework, he would talk about physics and math as if they were stories, making equations and numbers come alive. And when he played the lute on my birthdays, I felt myself growing taller. His lute now lies silent in the display case in the living room. Imbued with so much celebration, it asks each passerby in the house to explain the absence of the musician. My mother was so wrapped up in her own suffering that she couldn't help me at all with mine. We couldn't come together to share our pain. Each of us was afraid of talking out of fear of hurting the other. In this space where the terror of the unspoken paralyzed us, we tried to go on living together. This pain that seemingly nothing could transcend, not reading, nor films, nor work, nor alcohol, was like a constant flatline superimposed over the regular rhythm of a normal electrocardiogram. Life seemed to be increasingly empty and painful, and I struggled to fill it. For me, time no longer had the same duration. It was short when I thought of death, long when I thought of life, fear appeared on one side, ennui on the other. In the turmoil of mounting grief, I became aware of my own ignorance, and in spite of all my years of study, I couldn't get beyond this fear, and in spite of all my cultural awareness, I was mired in ennui. I existed on a fault line that I carried within me. I couldn't escape without pulling myself apart in the process. My mother interrupted my reverie by knocking over a cup; she wouldn't dream of just asking me what was on my mind. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I don't know where my head is these days." She rushed to the kitchen to get something to clean up the mess. Athman gave me a sharp nudge with his elbow and said, "Please talk to your mother. I have no idea what to say to her." She returned with a sponge and a question: "Where will the sacrifice of the lamb be performed?" "At Jamal's. He's a friend of Athman, a prince from Kuwait." "You mean the Prince Jamal himself?" Athman interjected, "It will be held at the house of a Saudi friend of Jamal's. We're going as Jamal's guests." Surprised, I asked my mother, "You know Prince Jamal?" "Only by reputation, nothing more. This is a royal Eid, if I understand correctly." "It's more communal, since it brings several families together." "It still could be a royal community." "If you want, you can come with us." "You very well know, my son, that since your father's death we're not a family any longer." Very politely and even timidly, Athman thanked my mother, and apologized for our having to leave because we had to be on time for prayers. My mother didn't press it. She saw us to the door and said to me: "Don't forget! Tomorrow I'll be waiting for you so we can go visit your father." "I'll be there at one. See you tomorrow." The two-lane road that runs through the city for several miles reveals the changes in real estate for the last century or so. At the eleventh stoplight on the right a small road continues and crosses a cornfield, and at the end of the road is the oldest farm in the region, which still bears the name of its founder, Peter Ferguson. His heirs refused to sell off the property. They stood up to developers and politicians alike, even during the years of the worst harvests when they could barely make their monthly payments. And now these same promoters and politicians are grateful to them for keeping open this "window" of nature in the midst of an endless expanse of concrete. For the view, drivers would try to get stuck at the red light, which played right into the hands of the greedy admen and politicians because the eleventh light is peppered with billboards claiming this swath of natural countryside "courtesy of such-and-such a brand or party." In point of fact, this farm is the laboratory where my mother works as a biologist specializing in genetically modified grain. Athman and I work just beyond this "paradise." For over a year now, we've gone by this place on our way back and forth to work. This landscape gives a lift to Athman's good moods and helps him breathe easier when he's down. Trapped between two glass-fronted apartment buildings, this countryside looks as unreal as a primitive art painting. For Athman, who was taught that logic is always contained within its own closed system, this paradise is proof that one can question logic regardless of the system that protects it. A mental puzzle like this appeals to computer technicians and software developers like Athman. He likes to say that by destroying logic, a new structure of meaning could result, and that those new meanings could undermine the logical structure on which they are based. This window of paradise has a meaning that makes sense to him. When he is stopped at the red light, he clicks on his imagination, escapes within himself, and sinks into a silent recitation of verses from the Koran. Besides his reading of the Koran, Athman reads three books a week: one in Arabic, one in French, and one in English. He doesn't like films, sports or TV, and bars aren't his scene. He has only two passions: Islam and reading. As he says, "The first word God said to Muhammad was 'Read in the name of God.' Reading is therefore God's commandment. Q.E.D. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he eats little and leaves the table still a bit hungry as the Prophet's tradition recommends. His day begins with sunrise prayers, then he goes running in the neighborhood. After twenty minutes of jogging, he buys some cold milk and a croissant. When I told him that the croissant wasn't very Muslim, he protested: "You see, you don't even know your own history. The croissant and all other kinds of flaky pastry are Turkish. The Europeans got to know them only thanks to the Ottomans and the croissant was originally rolled out straight. One day a Viennese pastry chef decided to shape it into a crescent to let everyone know that the Turks were encircling the city." After his shower and breakfast of Turkish croissants, he gets dressed for work.