Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Syngué sabour

I could not recall having ever heard of Atiq Rahimi when a friend of mine in nearby Avignon, whom I visited the other day, told me about a book he had just read that he felt I shouldn't fail reading myself as well. The scanty details he provided about the story itself were unconvincing, but something in his voice that words cannot describe told me that I had no choice but buying the book. So, back at home, already past midnight, I ordered the book online and found it in the mail two days later. Another three days and I had read the book.

Atiq Rahimi is an Afghan novelist and filmmaker, exiled in Paris, France, whose previous work was written in Farsi. Singué sabour - Pierre de patience (not translated into English yet, as far as I know) is his first novel directly written in French. It landed him the prestigious Prix Goncourt, an honor rarely bestowed on other than French nationals.

Rahimi writes a powerful prose. Low impact short sentences that together create a cumulative effect that is different from, but not less potent than some of the famous opening lines known from the literature that resonate in the mind long after they have been read. In a short opening paragraph Rahimi leads his readers into a room that will be the setting for most of what happens as the story unfolds. Its various features are painted with broad strokes of the brush. The second paragraph focuses the readers’ attention on a man’s photo portrait in that same room, which is otherwise devoid of ornaments. In the third paragraph the camera pans to a man, lying on a mattress against a wall opposite the photograph. The same man as the one depicted in the portrait, but older now and exhausted. In the fourth paragraph we see the man being nursed by a woman, his wife. We gradually learn that the man is a fighter with some religious cause. Nothing out of the ordinary in a country like Afghanistan, where most people adhere to some religious cause and a fair proportion of the men translate such adherence into violent opposition to those who share different convictions. It so happens that he got wounded, can no longer move or speak, and is being kept alive thanks to the care of the woman.

In the course of the events the woman becomes convinced that the man listens to her and can understand her, despite the fact that he cannot speak or emit any signal that would show comprehension. But any such proof is not really what she is looking for. According to a Persian myth there exists a magic stone, the ‘patience stone’ (syngué sabour), that you need merely put in front of you to entrust to it all your misery and suffering. The stone will, like a sponge, absorb it all until, one day, it bursts into pieces. On that day you will be relieved. The man having become the woman’s singué sabour, the novel turns into a monologue that the reader overhears. The monologue reflects some of the specificity of the man-woman relationships as they are embedded in Afghan culture. However, that cultural context is only the setting that one may expect to be the natural choice of a writer who grew up in it. The reader does not have to be familiar with that particular culture to absorb and process the messages contained in the monologue.

The book is a small miracle of transcultural communication about the intertwined, connected, yet separate worlds of male and female human existence--full of complexity, pain, and occasional tenderness and beauty. There is much to be learned from imbibing this monologue, whether you are a man or a woman.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


What follows is the only slightly edited text of a contribution I made yesterday (January 13, 2009) to a discussion on the LearningSocietiesConference list. In what I write I make reference to thoughts expressed by two other list members. As the list is for members only, I quote below two fragments taken from posts by Khalida Qattash and Katrien Dupont.

Among other thoughts about the current events in Gaza, Khalida had contributed a poem that ended as follows:
Nevertheless, you are gruesomely lucky,
'Cause despite your fortunate being,
You must survive the coincidental guilt
Of being yourself and not
A condemned, tracked, and raided,
Nobody, 'cause you're not Gazan!

Katrien had contributed with the following thoughts:
Could we send action pamflets around somehow to distribute the message that the war is over and people WILL have to live together always ? Maybe this way everyone starts to believe peace is possible !! . . . .What if a soldier entered and you started hugging him massively telling him the war is over ? There's nothing crazy enough to try if it lights up a spark in his/her soul. Just never let yours die !!! For peace !

Following is my own contribution that I was encouraged to share with a wider audience via this blog.

These are hard times for those who want to retain a useful balance between emotions and considered argumentation. I have a special relationship with the lasting conflict in the Middle East and its immediate background. Here is what explains that relationship.

I was a child during the Second World War and grew up amidst the ruins of what was left of the city of Rotterdam after it had been destroyed on May 14, 1940, by what was then considered unprecedented massive bombardment during the first days of the German invasion of The Netherlands. Our house stood at the perimeter of the wasteland that remained. As a child I witnessed the atrocities of war, saw my Jewish neighbors, among which a girl roughly my age, being deported to never come back; I saw my father being taken away and was glad to see him reappear seven or eight months later after the war had ended; I vividly recall the sound of the blast when one of Werner von Braun’s missiles, destined for London, didn’t make it to there but hit Rotterdam instead, a few streets away from where we lived; and I can still access imagery stored in my neural network of planes in the sky overhead engaging in air combat with shrapnel dropping all around us.

I also witnessed reconstruction and reconciliation in the years following the war. It’s difficult to erase childhood memories, but one can learn to live with them and love and appreciate former enemies.

It was a good preparation for later in life as I lived through a couple of other wars and forms of violent conflict, often feeling morally and emotionally associated with those who committed violence against violent oppression. The liberation struggles in Southern Africa are the setting of that experience. I became the mature adult that I believe I now am while living between 1971 and 1993 in that part of the world, almost 13 years of which during ugly armed conflict, fomented largely by foreign interests and financing, in Mozambique, as well as being in relatively close touch with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, many of whose principal actors operated at that time from within Mozambique.

Palestine is in between the above experiences. I was a molecular biophysicist in the mid-1960’s. Molecular biology was still an emerging scientific field under development at but a few places around the world: Cambridge, London, Paris, Uppsala, Haifa, Rehoboth are some of those that come to mind. I ended up spending a year at the Theoretical Chemistry Department at the Technion in Haifa as a research fellow, having been awarded a prestigious scholarship to do so. My perceptions of the state of Israel were naïve when I accepted the offer. They were influenced by how the creation of that state had been depicted in Western Europe (still from a perspective that perceived colonization as something quite normal) and the pain that never disappears of having witnessed the slaughter of one’s fellow human beings, particularly those with which one holds relationships of proximity as those that exist between children who live in the same street and play together. Against that background the survival of a people destined to be totally exterminated by means not at all remote from those that industrial societies invent and develop to advance their capitalistic goals, was--and still is--reason for joy. It was reason for joy to me.

We had no money and the only way to reach Haifa from where we lived in The Netherlands was to drive there by car. On the way we had a bad car accident just outside Aleppo, Syria, where we consequently had to stay for several weeks before continuing our journey. It was the beginning of an eye-opening experience. Through conversations with the people we met we became aware of alternative perceptions and realities. Uninterested in politics then I had never heard the name of Balfour and discovered, feeling ashamed to be so ignorant, that any school kid in Syria knew that name (school knowledge of course, probably not very profound, perhaps even with strong elements of indoctrination, but it contrasted with my own total ignorance).

Life in Israel at that time wasn’t as bad as it is now. It was still before the 5th of June 1967, the time when things started changing quite dramatically (in my view and that of others I’ve read about it). Discussions were open and enlightened, at least in the circles in which I moved among my Israeli colleagues. But I also moved in parallel circles, those of the Arab citizens living inside Israel’s borders. Among them was the poet Samih Al-Qasim. Conversations with Samih opened my eyes further, awoke in me the recognition that, though I don’t like politics, I couldn’t ignore political realities, and through him I got to know others.

I was still in Haifa when sirens sounded again. It had been some time since the war of my childhood. I was still in bed when we heard the sound. During at least a month prior to it I had witnessed and become irritated by the psychological build-up to a war that was still to happen but had meanwhile been firmly implanted in the minds of people. Days prior to the event I had been attending a lecture by a visiting Israeli scientist who bid farewell to us, the audience, with the words: “See you after the war.” Rather than joining the people we heard rushing down the stairs of the apartment building where we occupied two rooms and a kitchen at the top, we stayed in bed, annoyed, waiting for things to happen that never happened. Stupid, perhaps, but that’s what we did. In fact, what happened, we soon found out, happened across the borders. I stayed in Israel during the six days of that short war that many in Europe applauded while it filled me with sadness. Those six days seemed to have changed the minds of many of my Israeli friends and the colleagues with whom I closely collaborated on scientific matters. I stayed for another month before returning to Europe. When I finally left, Samih said: “I hope to see you again in better circumstances.” In 1973 we met again in Jerusalem. He repeated the same words.

You don’t have to be a poet for those words to become an integral part of your continuous discourse. Any Palestinian will likely feel that way and so will many other people on this planet. In fact, I think any Israeli in his or her right mind should feel that way as well. Surely, I feel that way when I think of the many people I have met in the countries and territories whose history and current realities have been marked by events that should have never happened. Yet they happened. Anyone can become a victim. Anyone can become an oppressor. Those who have once been victims seem more apt turning themselves into the opposite; adopting the logic of those at whose hands they once suffered.

The arrow of time points in one direction only. It’s forward. You can’t undo history. We are all the product of injustices to which our ancestors fell victim or of which they were the perpetrators, or both. After the apartheid regime finally ended in South Africa, the parties to the conflict of the past subjected themselves to a process of unearthing truths and reconciling what had seemed impossible to reconcile. It’s an encouraging example of what can be done. Somehow the madness must stop. While the conflict still rages, we must be clear and lucid in condemning the crimes that are being perpetrated, in the first place to avoid that they will happen again. We must understand the past and recognize what went wrong (Khalida’s point--well taken), not in an effort to point fingers at those who did it, but trying to comprehend fully the picture we are looking at. From that perspective we must not look back, and certainly not look back with a view to reconstituting the conditions of the past, which has never been a great success, the creation of the state of Israel perhaps being an enlightening example, in retrospect, of what should not have been done. We must look forward imaginatively and creatively, envisioning new futures (Katrien’s point--equally well taken). Surely, such futures are futures of peace. That’s why I like Katrien’s bold idea to just waking the world up to an awareness of ‘Hey, the war is over.’ This may be difficult for those Gazans who have become ‘condemned, tracked and raided nobodies’ (Khalida’s poetic words). It’s the gruesome luck of us who have been spared that condition that we are still somebody, perhaps feeling a sense of guilt because we are so much more fortunate, but, as we are not yet ourselves buried under the rubble we are the ones who can help clear the mess and collectively construct new ways forward.

I’m using the word ‘rubble’ literally, as I watch the events in Gaza unfold on my TV screen, and figuratively. What I have learned is that you are under the rubble both while you are dominating others and while you are being dominated. There are people ‘not under the rubble,’ ‘non-Gazans’ in the figurative sense, in the camp of those who are being dominated as well as among the dominators. In addition, there are lots such people not party to the conflict in the immediate sense, though we are all somehow connected to it by varying degrees of association. It helps if those not under the rubble get to know each other better. That’s what I find significant and encouraging in reading the correspondence between Katrien and Khalida. Allow me to join you.