On the sixth anniversary of his wife Samira al-Khalil’s abduction, Yassin al-Haj Saleh says uncovering the truth about her whereabouts must be an indispensable part of the Syrian cause.
“Do you see how beautiful the moon looks?” I ask you while we’re on our way home at night, crossing between the last minibus stop and our house in Qudsaya Suburb. “You’re even more beautiful!” I rush to answer my own question before you do. Other times you don’t let me finish the question, finishing it yourself straight away, biting on your lower lip with a smile, winking. You indulge your partner’s modest powers of flirtation, which more or less end at that.
“Bye Habbooooub!” you say when I’m going out; and, “Have fun, Habboub!” when I call to say I might be home late. Or, “No habibi, nothing’s needed!” when I call on the way home to ask if you, or we, need anything. You have the ability to radiate love into everything, Sammour. You do it generously. You overflow with love, and how it warms my heart that this spring never stopped gushing forth throughout the thirteen years we spent together.
You like the coffee I make. I prepare it on the stove, and wipe away the drops that spill over every time, crying out in complaint: “Life is hard!” You feign sadness, in a motherly way, and declare solidarity with the grumbling complainant.
We talk about our days; about whatever there happens to be to talk about—matters of no importance in most cases, but they create our private domain. They include a degree of (rather malicious) mockery of friends and acquaintances. Do you remember “Mrs. Depression”? The nickname we gave to our friend whose face almost always looked depressed. Do you remember “Where Are You?” The friend whose first words whenever he saw one of us were “Where are you?” This harmless harshness is one of the many things I miss, Sammour. Private, little things that help us put together our shared world.
You would push me to leave the house; see friends; “change the scenery;” move about. Your problem wasn’t a husband who spent most of his time out the house, but rather a husband who looked for excuses not to leave the house. It’s true he didn’t speak much, but he had the impression his non-verbal communication reached you. It cheered his heart that you told him it did.
I too would encourage you to leave; to travel; not just to Homs, where Najat and Fatima and your brothers were, but also to visit our friends in Aleppo and Latakia, or my people in Raqqa. You didn’t like to travel alone—you preferred us to travel together. Yet on the few occasions you did travel alone, mostly to Homs, I would grow lonely after just two days without you. Having insisted on you traveling, I’d then phone to say I hoped you were having fun, and… when were you coming back?
Do you remember the time I went to greet you at the bus station when you were returning from Homs? I accidentally took the wrong minibus and arrived late, after you’d already left for the house in Qudsaya Suburb. On my way back, disappointed, I passed by the mail company’s office to collect a package that had been sent there, forgetting it was a Friday until I found the place closed. When the absent-minded decided to do something good, he tired himself and failed. But, as usual, you took it well, and never let me stay disheartened.
In your absence, I waver between a terribly lonely solitude and various kinds of socializing from which I often want to escape back to my hermitage. I think family is the solution to this oscillation: it’s the small part of society in which we’re both alone and together at the same time; the part that both protects privacy and fulfils the need for company. I would talk to you about things or people, and would know that in your presence I had the right to be mistaken; to overstep; to be unjust and to be lenient; to be uncertain and contradict myself. Soon afterwards I’d change my mind, backtrack, as though I needed to say it to you to try it out before going back on it. I would read your facial expressions: dissatisfied with what you hear; opposed to it; you would always find the kindest way to facilitate my retreat. The family is a place for tender reproach as well; an extra conscience. Was I playing a similar role for you? I hope so, and think so. We were helping each other overcome our preliminary reactions.
You were my family, Sammour, and I was yours; an oasis made up of two. A solution to both loneliness and the need for privacy. Two shared consciences.
There’s a phrase you used to say to the neighbor whenever she knocked on our door to ask you to join her for maté1; one which now pains me and makes me chastise myself when I remember it: “Yassin’s visiting me!” This was a statement to the effect that the person mentioned was spending his days in his room, preoccupied, working and barely speaking.
And barely saying anything emotional. I’m from a people whose men aren’t adept at expressing what’s in their hearts. This isn’t necessarily because we’re cold, Sammour—you know this well—but rather because we veil our inner fragility in silence, fearing the exposure that comes with love. It can reach the point of us fearing love, and women themselves, in fact, for the latter are well aware of our weakness, which cannot be concealed from them indefinitely. And it appears they don’t protect their hearts the way we do. I’ve noticed time and again that women, in our milieu and in others, are more courageous than men, and not only in love.
In your absence, my life is divided between solitary time spent working, and a social life among friends and acquaintances, and then my life with you. This is when I’m alone, which is most of the time, yet it blends with the work and even my social and public lives sometimes. I manage a combination of love and sorrow when I’m alone, just with you. I manage it with greater difficulty when I’m not alone, especially when I happen to speak about you in front of people.
The loneliness is never more oppressive than when I go shopping to buy food and other household necessities. It’s as though the attachment to life inherent in this act sharpens my feelings of guilt in your absence. I choke up like my mother when one of her sons was absent: she was unable to enjoy food or drink; truly she choked. At times the sorrow weighs heavy. But don’t worry, Sammour. I haven’t become “Mr. Depression,” like our friend who disappeared years ago. My sorrow is a shadow of a mortal struggle. In your absence, I’m fighting harder than before. I think this mortally desperate struggle is a meeting of courage and sorrow; sorrow at the enormity of our losses. We weep as we fight. The person fighting this fight knows he will never stop. In himself, and in your image as he pictures it, and in his friends, he finds the energy that helps him endure.
I hope for your name to become a heroic, mortal struggle; a symbol for the fight for freedom, justice, and dignity. I hope the sorrow is no more than a passing moment in a courageous and honorable battle. And that this epic absence of yours makes our cause one of truth and knowledge, above and beyond one of justice and freedom. You know that what I always demanded for myself was knowledge above all else. Since your absence, I’ve come to question the wisdom of that. What ought to be demanded are dignity, and an honorable life, and good deeds. This is supposed to be the purpose of knowledge, and its meaning. For me to search for you, and gain knowledge about you, fulfils that meaning; grants it the most powerful impetus; and turns knowledge into an act of justice and dignity. In the past, perhaps the quest for knowledge took me far away, made me restless. But the quest for knowledge is what you’ve become synonymous with, Sammour. Your name has become the name of what I want to know. You are the unknown absentee whose knowledge is so viscerally demanded.
Knowledge may bring salvation to the person seeking it, or it may destroy him. Yet the nightmare of that person is that he will not know.
That he will never know.
[Editor’s note: The above was originally published in Arabic.]
- 1. A tea of Latin American origin popular in Syria and Lebanon.