Letters to Samira (10)

In his tenth letter to his missing wife Samira al-Khalil, abducted in Douma in 2013, Yassin al-Haj Saleh recalls their earliest days together.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 26 November, 2018]

On this day, twenty-seven years ago, you were released from prison, after four years, one month, and eleven days of a shorter absence. Today, you also complete four years, eleven months, and seventeen days of a longer absence, during which time I have known nothing about you, nor have the many people who love you.

You have lived—as I have—a suspended life such as this before, during your years in prison when, like me, you never knew when the suspension would end. But today is crueler and darker. There is almost no comparison between your two absences, Sammour. The current one is much longer, crueler, and more heart-wrenching.

There was a woman waiting for me when I was sent to absence; she was the same age you were when you were sent to this greater absence. She then had to wait for another of her sons, then a third, before she left heartbroken, while the life-suspenders were still there. Today it’s me who waits for the absent woman who’s been living in the unknown for 1,813 days, after already having lived it once before for 1,482 days. She and I are on the opposite sides of one, or two, walls of the unknown.

Between your two absences, a modest and rich life of a brave woman unfolds.

After years of imprisonment, you decided to take charge of your own life, to look independently for love, freedom, and an active life. You left Homs to settle in Damascus. You didn't turn your back on a father, a mother, brothers and sisters you so dearly loved, but you wanted to make your own way and find the means to an independent life. You stayed with your friend, Nahed, a former prisoner like you, who was waiting for a detained lover. By the way, Sammour, it saddens me to tell you that Salameh passed away less than two months ago. He relapsed, and left the world unexpectedly.

After that, you lived independently in a nearby apartment. You worked in the office of a newspaper, editing and publishing articles and books. This was a job that earned you a moderate income, but a decent life is not necessarily tied to high income. You did live a decent life, Sammour.  

In that apartment, which had one room for living, working, and sleeping, a romantic relationship began with a man who had been in prison like you. In the late 1990s, you were surrounded by former prisoners, men and women, and others who were not foreign to the world of imprisonment. At that time, life in our country was difficult in every aspect for an independent woman in her thirties, but you didn't want much: a space of your own that protects your privacy, a job to live off, and, most importantly, a man to love. It wasn’t much to ask for, but it wasn’t guaranteed either: the space was a rented room, the job was temporary, hardly paying enough to cover rent and other basic expenses, and the men around you were in situations not much different to yours, seeking lives of their own.

It touches my heart, Sammour, to remember you telling me, in our first weeks together, that there were two things you treasured: your job and your relationship with me. Two certainties in the uncertain life of an independent woman.  

You thus came to have two homes for about two years; your room in Masakin Barzeh, behind Hameesh Hospital, and our apartment in Mansoura, near Qudsaya. You slept at my place sometimes, especially on weekends, and I went to yours from time to time, but mostly to go out to a cafe, restaurant, or the cinema. It wasn’t possible to stay with you as an unmarried woman in a room rented out by a family to help them sustain a living.

In my apartment, you met my brother Khalil who was staying with me, and Ali, who married us, and many other friends. You immediately became part of the household. Your lover’s family loved you, you were never a stranger among them, just as they were never strangers to you. His family was almost identical to yours, after all; and his story quite similar to your own; except that he is temperate in expression, scarcely romantic, with not so much poetry in him.

However, he used to cook for you, in those early days of love.

Do you remember how delicious the maqluba I made for you was? It had no nuts, but it was still delicious. When I tried to make it again a few weeks later after the praise it received the first time, the success was modest. Nonetheless, you always preferred to remember that rare early success. As for me, it was more convenient to remember the subsequent failure, so that you cooking would not be just a traditional division of labor. You were not, truth be told, exceptional at cooking at first. Do you remember the mutabbaq you were making for lunch when I turned up unannounced? I distracted you with my flirting. You told me: The mutabbaq will get burnt! I replied, with surprising wit: It’s not the only one burning! You liked my flirtation, and I'm still impressed by that timely success. Please don’t say it was such a rare success. It wasn’t very rare! No rarer than my successes in the kitchen at least, right?

What warms my heart, Sammour, is that you loved our life together. It wasn’t the most comfortable life, but you—we—lived it together with dignity. You made a home of a rented apartment; it was full of friends, young loving couples, and guests whom we didn’t always know well enough. And, of course, partners from our individual lives before love and marriage.

And then, even if it was late, we finally closed the remaining gaps in family ties by getting married. That was so dear to me, because it was so dear to you.

Just as your life after prison was a continuation of your struggle before and during it, our life together was a different continuation of our lives before, during, and after prison. We left nothing behind, we took everything with us, and, above all, we didn’t leave our prison years to the imprisoner.

Your friends from prison are now scattered across many countries, Sammour; they’re in France, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, and the UAE, and are exiled inside the country as well. They haven't met on this day, your anniversary evening, for some years now, as they used to do with you always present.1 They went their separate ways, like many of your friends and loved ones have, before and after your absence. The situation is difficult, but people keep fighting to rebuild their lives as much as they can. Our not-very-young generation isn’t ideally placed to resume life, but then again we’re used to hardship. Do I really need to tell you that? You, the one who knows hardship, and who’s always overcome it.

Your friends meet today, virtually, to resume what was interrupted. They are writing to you. They remember the absent woman who used to bring them together; the regular partner in their annual gathering.

You wanted us to stay in Turkey after what was supposed to be our reunion soon after I left Syria five years and a month and a half ago. You dreaded being far away from the country, and wanted a Syrian community with whom to speak in Arabic. We would have most likely stayed there, had things gone as we’d hoped. I left Turkey a little over a year ago, but I came back last summer to be as close to you as possible, after the forced displacement of Douma last spring. They were cruel, stressful, and frustrating months, but they were made more tolerable in Gaziantep, where I met Bakr and Touhama, with their generosity and good food, and played backgammon with Bakr, who received solid support from the “girl,” Diana, against me. I call her the “girl” because she insists on not referring to me by my name; she calls me the man. She doesn’t let me hear her voice, but still teases me without words.

Alone with six portraits of you, on the anniversary of your first freedom; my dream, Sammour, is that your second freedom will become a day we celebrate soon with our loved ones.

Until that happy day, “your love” is walking your path, knowing no other one.

Until we are together, always, here or there. Or thereafter.

  • 1. Samira and her friends used to meet every year on the evening of November 26, the date of their release from prison.