North Africa, West Asia

A ghost with red nail polish

"Now begins another day in the days of war. It’s not a new day; there’s nothing new about war, even if the suffering changes." عربي

فرح يوسف
19 November 2017
Anas Alkharbotli/Zuma Press/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

June 14, 2017 - Daily life in the Syrian town of Duma amidst the rubble and destruction. The town was the site of several demonstrations at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, and then turned into a battleground between the Syrian government and the opposition. Anas Alkharbotli/Zuma Press/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.It’s eleven o’clock at night outside the borders of war, or two in the morning according to war winter time: time here doesn’t bow to natural circumstances, or actually it does and to nothing else.

The sun sets at four during the winter, with no other source of light for this bleak spot of the world in the 21st century. We sit all together in one room, and we shut the door even though three out of four of us suffer from claustrophobia.

It’s funny to assume that the war would appease such terrors of yours. Your share in your ancestors’ remains and their civilisation isn’t enough to warm open spaces; so, we must sit together in this room. This share of warmth is very cold, mixed with deep-set guilt: you are warm while the children of your country die from the cold. We are evil beings, void of any conscience.

I won’t talk about our lack of conscience: you can find this truth everywhere, in all places and all texts. But first I must say that I have a deep-set hate for white neon lights; I never knew that there was anything worse before I endured long evenings under led light. The lights’ cords hang from the ceiling, spreading depression and misery throughout. Each of us carries a book of some form or other, and whoever has power left in their e-book is the luckiest of all.

I have an e-book, but I prefer the paper version of books, and I don’t know what ties me to the spot closest to the heater, where I love to curl up and lean against the cold wall. There is a beauty in the duality of hot and cold. Every now and then a sound emanates from the heater, which means the heater’s fuel isn’t clean; but that’s the least of our concerns now: at 2AM after the shelling, this repressed scream doesn’t matter.

There is no smell of gunpowder inside this room. You can smell the orange peel burning on the top of the heater, and you see the rest of the peel on a plate on the table, waiting for one of us warriors to carry it to the kitchen.

You will hear my sister asking about the smell of ironing, and you’ll see me move away slightly because that smell is the scent of my last pair of pyjamas to not have burned – and now it too is burning. I want to keep the plate of peel here, not out of laziness; but in the scent of oranges lies the intimacy of winter.

In winter you hold onto that sense of affinity as you would to the train of your mother's dress as a child. Everything is strange and designed to make you feel like a stranger to yourself. You think you were born in the age of progress: people are voyaging to other planets, and yet we can’t even move to the kitchen without planning the trip. And so, the dish must stay, and let that homeliness fill up the room if it can.

My father never tires of repeating his observations on reading paper books in dim lighting. I could have understood his strictness when I was six, but now it seems absurd: my head could roll off in front of us at any moment now because of what is happening outside. How does he have such faith that I won’t die before my eyesight is ruined?

I think it’s a force of habit; if you do something forbidden and look around you, you’d understand what I mean. There are still glass windows in the room that haven’t been broken yet, there is a TV screen, vases, a bookshelf and a fireplace, and a painting hangs above my head as I sit on the heavy wooden window sill.

All these are deadly weapons than can turn into shrapnel in a moment.

My father only wants to believe one truth: his little daughter will grow old and won’t wear glasses before her fifties. All this death at the door, and the fact that I’ve worn glasses since the second year of the war means nothing to him: his daughter is ruining her eyes by reading in the dark, and this is unacceptable.

"Sit on the couch, or you’ll hurt your back that way.”

My mother is beautiful; she still has the heart to pay attention to the pain in my back: she’s afraid my back will stoop, and always tells me to straighten it – both literally and figuratively. With her phone always in her hand and her red spectacles on her nose, my mother is beautiful; but the same applies to her comments as to my father’s observations.

I broke my back in the second year of the revolution. One day, it suddenly happened, and I was far away, it brought me back to my country with an irreparable crack in my soul. They say the wounds of children heal quickly, but then why doesn’t this wound stop seeping like the rusty winter gutters? The couch won’t heal me, mother, it won’t.

It’s eleven o’clock and we’ve all started to fall asleep in our seats. We can’t stay in this room much longer, we must move to the other part of the house, the coldest part, after washing our faces with liquid snow seeping from the taps, and after we grow tired of waiting for the shelling to subside so that we can sleep through the night peacefully.

What were the rituals of going to bed before? How do they seem outside the borders of this war? Do people sleep without delaying the washing of their faces and extremities to the point that it can no longer be delayed? Does the power of a battery charger determine their bedtime? Do they hate their cold beds because sleeping in a thick pullover is torture and uncomfortable? I don’t think mist seeps out of their mouths when they exchange good nights. Do they have rituals, or is sleep so easy that they don’t require them? I wouldn’t know, but whatever habits they have must be different to ours.

Did you know that there’s an important calculation to make in the nights of war, where you have to fall asleep before the shelling intensifies in order not wake up when it worsens, but then again you could. But you will never fall asleep when the bombing increases. And since I don’t use my e-book during the evening, I ignore this balance, and regret it later.

The window above my bed spreads dust and plaster particles throughout the room, so I must clean again in the morning. Can you imagine having to clean a thick layer of fragmented cement off your books and clothes every morning? It’s a Godforsaken, horrible, Sisyphean task; I think of Sisyphus throughout my days and wonder: was he so foul as to deserve such a punishment? He exposed the foulness of a fornicating god, yet such foulness doesn’t matter; what matters is that no one dares to expose this. Thoughts on this tough punishment keep you distracted from the possibility of the window - and the wall containing it - collapsing on top of you.

Did you know that in this moment, the wall is gradually collapsing? Of course, you do, but you can only think of the morning and the new task of cleaning off the dust that awaits – to clean the dust and only dust is a blessed luxury at a time where blood pools fill up the morning.

The bombing has worsened, and the window is now violently shaking; now it opens: the narrative has turned serious, then. My hair is tied back with a rubber band, my face bare except for a trace of waterproof eyeliner, and I’m wearing fuchsia pyjamas. I hate that colour.

I stand up hurriedly and light a thin, strange-looking candle on a saucer. Its wick burns before the candle burns out, and then it disappears without any trace, evaporating into thin air, leaving behind a clean saucer save for a small black mark. What are these strange candles? Well, they fit the purpose and the price you paid for them.

The noise outside is less terrifying than the calm inside, but that doesn’t matter now. I loosen the rubber band, and let my hair down. It’s hard to fix my hair after a whole day of keeping it tied up. It’s stubborn, like me: I brush it and cover it in oils, sprays and small pins, and it doesn’t look too bad now given my limited means.

I draw kohl around my eyes, detect an annoying spot on my cheek, lengthen my eyelashes with mascara. I look more beautiful now. And now, the most important step: perfume. There is nothing worse than a woman without her own perfume scent. I spray myself generously.

I pull on a navy sweater and get back into bed after I’ve made sure that the nail polish on my toenails is completely dry. The good thing about this cold weather is it dries nail polish quickly; it’s dried the blood in my veins, why shouldn’t the polish dry? It will.

All this isn’t normal stupidity, as it doesn’t end in a long bout of crying. I went back to my bed and read another chapter. I thought about existential questions – not questions related to existentialism in general but to my existence in this moment, under this shaking window in this bleak spot of the world where fighters don’t sleep or freeze. I cursed the dust and the smell of gunpowder, and then I slept.

What truly terrifies me is that I would die at this hour. It’s not death itself that terrifies me, but the complete opposite: what terrifies me is that I don’t dissolve after my death, and that I would remain eternally in my fuchsia pyjamas and traces of waterproof kohl.

I’m scared of remaining with my hair tied back with a rubber band; the idea of an eternal headache terrifies me. I couldn’t stay forever a ghost without perfume and perfect nail polish, at least on my feet – the nails on my hand are a whole other story.  

It’s enough for me to think that my ghost will roam the corridors of this house that I hate. At the very least one of the children will find me in my navy-blue sweater and my neat, cascading waves – as neat as could be given my limited means. The child will smell my perfume scent clearly and won’t be distracted by the traces of my waterproof kohl or ugly fuchsia sweater.

I will give him many butterfly kisses with my long lashes. This child will love me, and I won’t tell him about the war. I’ll read to him the first chapters of The Time of White Horses, and he will love it. This child will love me.

In the morning, I will wake up, so we haven’t died then. My God, why do these stupid birds have such a strange ability to sing? They taught us in school that birds migrate in the winter - migrate then! Could anyone even think of leaving this country without visa or trouble? Migrate, please, and leave me to sleep another hour! They won’t leave, they sing tirelessly, as if what happened last night was a calm recital of winter in the Four Seasons, as if the remnants of fighting outside don’t concern them. I hate birds.

I wash my face with frozen water. They say it tightens large pores; it tightens my heart; not just my skin’s pores. I clean up the dust and shreds of cement. The size of the shreds shows the force of the fighting outside; it was moderate.

I pull off the cover from the mattress: it looks like a pitiful surreal painting: sleeping with a fully made up face isn’t a wise choice; the makeup stains extend beyond the cover to the mattress, which is also stained with kohl and mascara. I wash the mattress, I can’t throw it out; it’s the only one I can sleep on. It’s delicate and kind to the back of my neck, its colour doesn’t matter now.

‘I love you, and may God bless that smile; it liberates prisoners and motivates rebels.’ My phone flirts with me every morning, distracting me from those annoying, energetic birds. I really hate birds.

Here, you condole yourself by thinking of Dostoyevsky’s hell and the forty years he spent on hard labour. Don’t fool yourself, you’re not Dostoyevsky: this suffering consumes you, and you won’t suddenly vomit a great person out of your wreckage. You’re miserable, that’s a fact. And now what?

Now begins another day in the days of war. It’s not a new day; there’s nothing new about war, even if the suffering changes.


This piece was first published in Arabic on 13 September 2017.

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