The First Breaths of Freedom / Hasiba Abd al-Rahman

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Haven’t you missed the sun and rain and streets?

During those long nights, didn’t you dream of these paths as you were eating ful and smoking? And how often did you torture yourself with thoughts of entering an old tavern? And dream of a man with vague features, your hand in his, your mouth open toward the sky welcoming the first showers of rain as the smell of clusters of jasmine and bitter orange blossoms linger everywhere.

Dreams to which you bid farewell and welcomed back every night while you placed your head on the pillow. And here, your dreams are being fulfilled. The streets are in front of you . . . behind you . . . perhaps in you . . . I have to call my family now.

Ten years and one waiting follows another for both me and them.

And now, going home is a must.

Don’t you remember . . . ? Only a short time ago, you were asked what you would do when you were released. You laughed: “I’ll buy a pack of Hamra cigarettes . . . a flask of èaraq, and then go to a park far away out of sight, and inhale the smell of soil soaked with blood and sweat. I’ll roll over the grass and the dew, and sleep under a blackberry bush.”

“You don’t want to go to a public place?”

“No, I’ll turn my face to the wind, to the air, to the neverending sky, to wide places without doors . . . iron ones to be exact.”

I’ll set loose different sounds; I’ll sing and imitate the voices of animals and people. If any eyes confront me and accuse me of madness, I’ll raise my voice up high, despite them.

Yes . . . I’ve dreamed a lot. Here is the wide horizon, and the apricot trees, the grapevines, and the olives. And the fountains of pure, cold water.

Here is the city that has astonished the new comer with its towering buildings. It has grown so much.

I have to go home!

What’s this? Astonished, expectant eyes look at us . . . And this restaurant is surprised with numerous womanly faces: brown . . . white . . . blond . . . tall . . . short coming in one mass to call their families. Some of them are crying in joy while fingers tremble as they turn the dial of the phone. The patrons of the restaurant . . . were they crying, laughing? Or was it that their eyes turned her to stone. Worries and ruptures. Minutes ago we were dreaming of freedom and it’s as if it was only an allusion, the imagination. A little while ago, I was riding in a carriage without time or place, an imaginary carriage. Maybe I saw it on children’s show.

The street, here it is . . . The cars are honking their horns . . . University students and lovers.

Would lovers come near this place? How would words of love come out?

Look! Their faces turn forward. Their glances are apprehensive . . . worried . . . mute.

“I need two liras, Miss, I need two liras. Brother, I need two liras. I’m not a beggar . . . just two liras to call my family.”

Clear signs of surprise.

“Were you traveling?”

“Yes, a long journey that was extended . . . a journey far, far away.”

“In America?”

“No, in the deepest depths of the earth, for a human being, in a spot where there is no room for air . . . for the sun . . . the light of the moon . . . for walking . . . running . . . for oxygen . . . a graveyard.”

Looks of amazement and astonishment. Crazy, crazy. A collective fleeing from my face. Good-bye friends . . . Good-bye places. Places of the cruel and bitter journey of my life. Good-bye to the shackles . . . to the black doors . . . Good-bye!

And now what do I do?

My father is absent . . . rather, he died . . . his death changes the current of this moment.

Going home is a must. I won’t get drunk or gamble with the future . . . I won’t . . . and I won’t. Won’ts and prohibitions are enough.

Hello to you ground. Hello, Damascene rose covered in dew. Your color is still pale and your smell is the same . . . and that white jasmine sways in joy. . . I’ll gather up a bunch of it . . . but . . . why?

The smell of the air has changed. I’ve distanced myself from the dungeons.

The smell of the air is saturated with gas . . . as well as the sky and the fog. The eyes are worried, happy. The city opens its arms hugging me while I embrace the drops of rain hidden in the sky, spread them over the ground. I rub my depressing clothes, dust them with the soil . . . Hello to you my lost and wasted childhood . . . I will reclaim you now. I play in the nearby gardens, my mother screams reproaching me . . . oh, for those days. “The dye” has invaded my hair after “the gray invaded my part,” my life has passed, and I no longer remember it. It is the moment, the moment of creation, of birth, of the birth of life, vocabulary, it’s the language of the tongue, gestures: the means of understanding between people.

Ah..the cars . . . their sounds, their noise . . . their speed.

Can I embrace all of the eyes and kiss all of the faces, and the streets and alleys? And who will interpret and understand the meaning of my behavior? No, there’s no time . . .

I want to wander in the city, to light a cigarette . . . to take a deep breath, to eat corn on the cob, to visit old houses. I won’t be able to do any of these things . . . I want to climb up the mountain . . . I want . . . I wish . . .

“Taxi . . . Taxi”

I’ll arrive home with my suitcase with all it contains in my hand . . . worn out things . . . papers . . . sorrows . . . they have the age of an obligatory residence.

How will I be welcomed? I wonder who I’ll find at home.

Gypsies are the inhabitants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries-the hidden riffraff of society, families and children that grew numerous, everyone lives in the house . . . Has anything changed? Will I know the children? The young have grown up . . . they’re no longer little . . . how frightening!

Will I know the house? On the right . . . the left, that’s the face of our neighbors’ boy, the first alley, the second, the third . . . Yes, here . . . please.

“How much do you want?”

“Look at the meter.”

“It’s a lot.”

“Don’t you take taxis?”

Many faces. Young ones I don’t recognize . . . whose children are they? Strange faces, I won’t be afraid of strangers from now on.

The city is lit up by signs . . . The city is illuminated by electricity and colored lights . . . are they greeting me? It’s grown and changed a lot. . . Here is the old alley, my alley . . . Its ancient houses haven’t changed but from the other side, the trees have been cut down and new buildings have been built . . . this is the gate of our house, the old, wooden gate that is always open. The residents have nothing worth stealing.

Damn this suitcase that I carry from one place to another and from one time to another. It’s shared in all of my travels in all the cities-north, south, west, and east. Every rip tells a story and a tale. It’s carried bitterness and joy, and now it’s coming into the house with me. Do I knock on the door? Why?

Everyone comes into the house-even strangers-without permission. They used to say that your home resembles those on the top floors but it’s still on the ground floor. Ground floor, an Arab house, the dwelling of the sons of one village fleeing from the loneliness and fear of the city and unknown neighbors.

Three families gathered together, and grew in size as each family began to need houses that could absorb the new number. Even then, every room embraced and watched over the large family with the affection of its ancient soil.

All day, the doors of the rooms are still open to the sun, to relatives, to acquaintances, and to friends, many changes in the features of the faces and in sizes . . . where is the river? They pointed me to a small dry swamp. They had dammed it up.

We were young, stealing or buying cigarettes, sitting next to it in spite of the putrid smell, smoking and telling stories, making ourselves listen to each other’s lessons.

I’ll go in . . . what kind of fear is within me . . . not fear. Joy . . . a shiver . . . various, mixed feelings . . . Let me go in . . . Where’s your courage? . . . Here I am opening the door, it’s my cousin, tall and with his blue eyes . . . He’s changed . . . Yes . . . Are you . . . ?


He said it with a smile and added:

“Thank God for your safe return.”

“Come, my dear, and let me kiss you . . .”

My uncle’s wife came out of the room and laughed. “If it wasn’t a disgrace, I’d have trilled in joy.”

“Where’s my darling, beautiful little one? Come.” She’s grown up that much? Where are the black locks that I cut? Your eyes! Their color has changed from the gray of the sky to the green of the tree in a dark evening. Have you grown up so much? You’ve become a young woman!! Where are the school jumper and the ribbons? Why did you grow up during my absence?

Children don’t wait and neither does life. Time passes everyone by.

I can’t believe it; the little princess has grown up and become a beautiful young woman!! Take this piece of chocolate I bought for you. . . Do you still like it?!! Don’t you stammer on the letter “S” any longer? You’ve grown up . . . You’ve grown up.

Only now, I have felt the weight of the years that have passed. Now I have come to know the meaning of gray hair. I should have asked for henna a long time ago. I’ve surpassed the stage of wearing jeans . . . the years have deceived me . . . and I won’t be able to imitate the lightness of my youth.

How can these years be concealed when this fake dye doesn’t replace anything?

Time didn’t stop for a single day . . . What do you think of all those lean years . . . You’ve lost your sense of time and forgotten the wrinkles on the face and in and below the corner of the eyes.

I’m over thirty years old. I’ll cut my hair-after today, I won’t leave it or fan it out in the direction of the wind or the streets. There was a time and it has passed, and now I have to get rid of old habits.

Oh, my little one, how I’ve missed you, you were the partner of all my dreams.

What is it that I feel?!!

I don’t know!!

The tiles of the house are broken, worn out from the many feet that have come in and gone out. The refrigerator has been replaced, the television is very old, funny and sad, the floor of the room has sunk, the pillows, the sheets . . . the pictures on the wall are new, pictures of the deceased, The backgammon dice are lost forever, hanging in memory with the picture of my father and uncles. Oh my god, what has happened in my absence, Death is there in the faraway distance-even death has lost its meaning with the absence of a funeral . . . mourning . . . the sound of the Q’uran . . . lament . . . singing, the movement of the absent . . . Here I am, sensing it right now.

The chair is in its same place. My father used to always sit on it with the backgammon dice in front of him with neighbors and friends.

Here’s the courtyard with solitary walls as the spiders nest in all the spaces filled with emptiness. This wide house has shrunk . . . the place of the grapevine is a kitchen and a small room, the second kitchen is in the basin of roses, and canisters of kerosene are in the place of the Indian apricot tree and the pine.

The courtyard has changed a lot; it’s no longer what I dreamed about returning to thousands, millions of times. I pluck the jasmine and eat from the grapevine.

“Hi, Samir.”

“It’s Reemi, not Samir . . . but Samir . . . ?”

He’s become a young man, wait a minute . . . Samir, come and say hello.

A mustache . . . a beard . . . what happened?

You still only remember those who were young, and you need time to get acquainted with everyone.

My mother . . . the wrinkles on her face have grown, as has the curve of her back, her body has wasted away, diminished.

“My dear, don’t be surprised that the years pass by without stopping or waiting.”

“It’s true.”

The remnants of traces are still on the walls, but the mouse holes have eroded most of them . . . and that heater.

“Do you feel cold?”


I don’t know what I feel.

The glass is in its place, it didn’t change, the clock, the tape recorder are new and the oven. The wool blankets are still kept in the best place. The small, old vanity with its broken mirror . . . That’s better than my being confronted with time every morning and evening. It’s enough.

“This is chocolate for visitors.”


This “neon” civilization enters the house very slowly, but it enters.

“If only we had a decent income . . . we would have changed many things . . . the eye sees much but the hand is small.”

“I’m sorry . . . I’ve added a lot to your worries and troubles.”

“Don’t say that . . . You’re our daughter and with us now, and that’s wonderful, and beautiful, and enough.”

“I’d like a cup of mette. I dreamed about drinking mette here in this room with you.”

The tears become petrified.

“What’s wrong?”


“Darling, are you remembering your father?”

“There’s no need to remember him. He left a scar on my heart and god alone knows when it will disappear.”

“You’re not eating?”

“No. I don’t feel like it.”

Mette . . . cold water . . . listening to Fairuz.

“There aren’t any tapes . . . we’ll buy them tomorrow.”

“The mette and sitting in the courtyard are what’s important . . . I’d like a sip of *Šñaraq.”

“There’s *Šñaraq at your uncle’s house . . . I’ll bring it for you now.”

I smelled the scent of *Šñaraq, of chamomile, but didn’t drink.

“It’s cold today. Don’t sit out in the courtyard.”

“It’s not important.”

“As you like.”

“I don’t want to see anyone today.”

“Shame on you. The neighbors want to say hello, and your friends too.”

“My friends?”

“Yes . . .”

Here is the darkness . . . the cold . . . the fear once again . . . the place for sleeping has changed . . . What do I do?

“Talk to us . . .”

“About what? I can’t speak tonight.”

Here is night . . . entering naturally . . . for years, it’s come and then fled by force . . . its threads creeping away slowly and lovingly . . . the evening retreats to make a wider space for the night.

“Where’s my uncle?”

“He’s sleeping.”

“I’ll wake him up.”

Looks mixed with joy, surprise, and loss.

The night, once again worry assails me . . . This is my bed . . . I’ll sleep on it. My sister took it over in my absence. A pack of cigarettes by my side, the wooden ceiling sketches forms that I can’t explain.

“Wake up.”

My mother’s voice trembles.

“What is it? . . . I was released only today . . . It’s still early for the nighttime visitors.”

“Your friend and her parents have just arrived.”


“Oh what a pity . . . You’re sleeping . . . were you drunk?”

“I swear to God, I haven’t tasted a drop of alcohol, but I smelled it.”

“Thank God for your safe return . . . we’ll go now.”

“A cup of coffee.”

“Another time.”


Now I go back to my worry again. This is my bed, so why do I feel alienated? I spent my childhood, my adolescence, my youth here . . .

I wish it were summer . . . I would have slept in the courtyard . . . estrangement creeps in everywhere. What has changed . . . feelings . . . feelings of joy, neutrality, surprise . . . of love I can no longer distinguish. A sudden move from a place far, far away . . . where dreams are torn to shreds and disappear, entering the circle of memory and a deep and terrifying exile . . . then suddenly, back to home . . . from cement walls that obstruct the sun from here . . . from strange faces that I don’t know, that I met by chance and lived with completely by chance and loved by chance, blond and brunette women, blue, hazel, and brown eyes I became familiar with also by chance . . . and suddenly, I left them when a voice called out “Get your clothes together, quickly. You’ve gotten used to sleeping late . . . Quickly, get your clothes, your things together.”

I get into a car; I enter places I tried forgetting for a long time . . . They followed me home with their dungeons, and the sounds of torture . . . does that make sense? Even now, I don’t believe it . . . Perhaps it was a daydream . . . a fantasy, this is my bed, my mother’s voice.

“What’s wrong, darling? Can’t you sleep?”

“I want to go out to the bathroom.”

I am at home-my mother’s voice . . . the old wooden door . . . the courtyard.

Let me open the gate . . . the alley is narrow . . . I am at home . . . Sleep is running away from my eyes . . . and the cigarettes are showing inner turmoil and painting a haze that doesn’t end.

“Darling, try to sleep.”

But where is he? . . . Into the game of the unknown once again . . . the game of place . . . my father . . . But this is our home, his face, where is his picture, in front of you. My father, please don’t try to look at me . . . I’ll turn my face away. Tomorrow I’ll talk to you for a long time. Even now, I don’t believe you’ve died although my heart is split with sorrow for you and for the young ones . . . Please, don’t be angry with me. I know that you have a good heart and always forgive my mistakes . . . I know I made a lot of trouble for you and you ran behind me, and tried to help me . . . But I don’t possess anything except your love . . . Please don’t blame me now-I’m tired . . . so tired, and I want to run away . . . Let’s put off the discussion until tomorrow.

I have to think about facing people . . . I want to sleep . . . just sleep . . . there is the call to prayer . . . I’ve missed hearing it . . . Long ago, its voice reminded me of troubles, and this time its voice comes to me in a mellow, soothing way-I haven’t heard it for so long.

Morning appears naturally . . . its first threads slip across the window. I’m sure I’m at home . . . daybreak is dawning . . . and sleep is overpowering. Dreams have intertwined with reality, with illusions . . . but all that’s important is that I am home and in my own bed.

Damascus, December 1991

Hasiba Abd Al-Rahman is a Syrian poet and human rights activist. Her novel al-Sharnaqa (The Cocoon), based on her prison diaries and writing and published eight years after her release, is the first Syrian prison novel by a former female political prisoner. Translated by Shareah Taleghani. Full text here.

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