"Third letter", by Atiq Rahimi

Country : Lebanon

Tags : Palestine, Literature, Refugees

I open a second letter, written like the first on loose sheets of paper. I love this paper and the way it moves and shifts, as befits not  only my nomadic spirit but also the precarious state of those I encounter in the refugee camps of Bourj el-Barajneh. I think of the correspondence between Nancy Huston and Leila Sebbar, both exiled in Paris, one from Canada and the other from Algeria. Leila, like you, writes on paper she finds in bars or hotels. She says: I think the instability of exile can also be felt in these fickle, febrile pieces of paper, borrowed at random from the places that tie me to a city.

You surprise me, as always, with your letter written well before mine, the one I wrote yesterday and that you haven’t yet read. Your letter answers it in the most extraordinary way.

I understand your rage and your protest at not being with me to discover the land of your ancestors for the first time, this land whose heat, wind and smells… you do not know. You will just have to dream of them! And imagine my sleepless, you-less nights in Lebanon. How can I dream of you, if I do not sleep?

You know that I, like every exile, am an insomniac.

I have already told you of that saying by Victor Hugo: exile is a kind of long insomnia. He was in exile for nineteen years and nine months; nineteen years and nine months of sleepless nights. He should know.

How does an exile dream, and of what?

Of clouds, says Baudelaire,

"The clouds - the clouds that pass - yonder - the marvelous clouds!"

The exile dreams primarily of freedom, of peace, dignity, tenderness… He loves the clouds, to leave with the clouds, become the clouds, travelling over the earth and its arbitrary borders. Becoming ex-solo, outside the earth, torn from the earth, or exilium, leaping from… or an ex-il - no longer the same person.

At least then he could sleep!

Yes, he dreams of a sleep without nightmares, in the words of Zaynab Bilal, a young Syrian refugee in Bourj el-Barajneh, Tower of towers… She says she is afraid to sleep. Her sleep is haunted by the destruction of her house in the bombing, the loss of her dolls, the theft of her dreams… Now she can dream only while awake: Every morning, she writes, I sit for a moment, dreaming of a return to my precious country, to the house that brought  my family and me together… a dream that this endless nightmare soon renders absurd!

Here, in the Tower of towers, after sixty-six years of insomnia, dreams are no more than memories of hope, the hope of being able to sleep for a night on a bed - as soft as a cloud -, inmolested by demons, or rats!

What are the dreams of Zobaida Elnatour? She has lived in exile since she was twenty-eight; she is now ninety-four. She says that she is old, old like her land, and therefore no longer dreams. She sings her land, laments it. She sang it for her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren, all born here, in the Tower of towers. Zobaida no longer dreams. She waits. I am waiting for death, she says. She wonders if she could be buried in her village, in Palestine, along with her suffering. She does not want to leave it here, with her children. But her land is no longer big enough to bury all that suffering, she thinks with despair.

And the land of your forebears - which offers and refuses to give of herself, and which neither offers nor refuses to give of herself - this land, too, no longer knows how to lay anything to rest. 

Last modification the 8 December 2016