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"Second letter", by Atiq Rahimi

Country : Lebanon

Tags : Palestine, Literature, Refugees

I close my eyes, slide my hand into the saffron yellow folder containing your letters, and pull out a small envelope. It is not a letter, but a piece of cloth infused with orange blossom water! I put it in my bag.

An old quadrangular frame. Huge, like the doleful history of the settlement, rusted with the tears of its wandering people, battered by the fires of war, its naïve illusions painted over, but still standing, though worn by despair - marks the entrance to Bourj el-Barajneh, the Tower of towers.  

A guard, more weary than the metal gate, is watching you but asks neither where you have come from nor where you are going. Even your hesitant steps and anxious gaze do not bother him. No suspicions whatsoever. He has seen people like you before, passing through. He knows what awaits you when your shadow takes leave of his own to lose itself in the dark alleys of the Tower of towers.

So you press on. Step across the pointless threshold. And suddenly, time stops. You look back, there is no before and no after. You look up; above you there is no sky, no sun, no moon, no stars… You forget both dawn and dusk.

Beneath your feet, the ground becomes a labyrinth. There’s no point in reading your palm, referring to a map of the area or checking a compass… nothing will help you orient yourself now. The alleys bisect each other at random, giving you not the slightest hope of finding your way out. They even change direction as you walk…

Lost, you gaze hopelessly up at the buildings, but they all look the same. Not a single sign on any street corner, no names on the narrow, winding passageways, no numbers on the doors… except the number of bullet holes! They would be your best points of reference – if you could count them.

The houses have no courtyards. The settlement has no park. The windows look out, with neither joy nor picturesque melancholy, on walls riddled with the scars of war, and covered, on both sides, with words of hate and despair. The words are as frozen as time. The eyes as blind as the earth.

So what can guide your steps? Direct your gaze? Lift your spirits?

Electric cables and water pipes twine together, like spent nerves and empty veins, worming their way between walls, climbing windows, infiltrating houses… To no avail.

There is no more water. There is no more light. Where am I, you must be asking?

You are not in my dream. And I am not describing a nightmare of my own making. No!

I am writing for you. I am writing what I feel and what you might see, feel and experience if you were with me on this trip, in the land of your ancestors, in the settlement of Bourj el-Barajneh, Tower of towers. What an ominous name! It could be an imaginary place, a mythical nowhere land rather than a place in History, a place here in the land from which you come.

But sadly it is here, in the southern suburbs of Beirut; an unsettled place, built on a hill, currently inhabited by over thirty thousand Palestinians forgotten by History. 

Built between 1947 and 1948 to provide temporary shelter to those who were chased from their homes and their land, the camp - according to those who were here when it was created – has not changed despite the three generations of people who were born here since then. Three generations, in exile, here, in the Tower of towers; where time is forever suspended, and space reduced to nothing.

I leave you, my dear Levantine girl, to ponder the dreams of these thirty thousand exiles, before you ask me, in the words of that Afghan poet:

Which is best

A family grave in one’s native land

Or a foreign jail in a land of asylum?

Last modification the 8 December 2016