Here’s an extract from my novel The Road From Damascus, in which the dying Ba’athist Mustafa Traifi hallucinates the Hama massacre of 1982. Back then the regime really was fighting an armed group – the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t much like my writing of four years ago, but the passage is rustling in my mind today for obvious reasons.
What’s time to a corpse? From the moment of its death, time becomes a foreign territory, a land stranger and more distant with every minute, every decade, until soon there’s nobody left to put a face to the corpse’s name, to the name of the dust, and soon the letters of its name have sunk into the graveslab’s grain, and the stone itself is broken or buried or dug up. And the land which was once a graveyard is overgrown, or shifted, or levelled. And the planet itself dead, by fire or ice, and nobody at all anywhere to know. No consciousness. As if nothing had ever been.
Unless there is Grace watching and waiting for our helplessness.
There is no permanence for a corpse, not even for corpse dust. Or corpse mud, in this country. All this graveyard sentiment. You may as well shoot it into outer space. Into the stars.
Mustafa Traifi is dreaming intermittent dreams of war. He sees the city of Hama from above and within. Sees the black basalt and white marble stripes. The mosque and the cathedral. The thin red earth. The tell of human remains, bones upon bones. The Orontes River rushing red with the blood of Tammuz, the blood of Dumuzi, the dying and rising shepherd god. The maidens weeping on the river banks.
Life is precarious. This place is thirty kilometers from the desert. The river raised by waterwheels feeds a capillary network of irrigation and sewage channels, and agricultural land in the city’s heart. Traffic is organised by the nuclei of marketplaces (Mustafa sees from above, like the planes) where there are householders and merchants and peasant women in red-embroidered dresses and tall men of the hinterland wearing cloaks and kuffiyehs, and mounds of wheat and corn, and olives and oranges from the hill orchards, and complaining oxen and fat-tailed sheep. Where there is dust in the endless process of becoming mud and then again dust.
It is not a bucolic scene. Mustafa’s disembodied eye discerns barricades across the main streets and graffitied edicts on crumbling walls. Directives are called from minaret to minaret, drowning the alleyways. He can smell delight and horror: the smell of recently spilled blood. The city’s inhabitants withdraw into their cells, locking heavy wooden doors. Those still moving outside have the wild glint of fear and certainty in their eyes.
Tanks and trucks ring the city. Tented barracks where soldiers splash about in boredom, nerves and cheap tobacco. Buzz-fly warplanes fill the sky.
It’s no longer possible to distinguish insurgents from loyal cells. They’ve penetrated everywhere. They hide in families, among women.
Radical treatment. Excision. Then chemotherapy. There are side effects.
The flicker of twenty seven days and nights. It’s a huge noise, thundering, relentless, mechanical yet animal. The crazed purring of an astral cat. Its pulverising effect on internal organs makes ears irrelevant. The first night’s run disables roads in and out, isolating the illness. Flowers of fire bloom upwards. Artillery remakes the environment, opening it up to the tanks and bulldozers. It is rhythmic and persistent work. There go the mosque and the cathedral. There go the twisting covered alleyways. There go human bodies, bad and good cells, men and women, old and young. Bodies broken down, sewers cracked open, the bitter crackle of hair and skin.
Mustafa is clutched from neck to testicles by pain. Registers the never-extinguished yellow hospital light. Feels for the slightest moment the sensation of normality, but then the familiar spins away, smaller and smaller. I myself fall away, a little little thing, obscured by storm. I can’t be returned to.
Is it worth it? That’s what the professors in London would ask him, in 1982, when the stories were coming out. Yes, it’s worth it. Look, if Hama goes so does Damascus, and then it’s war without end, the cities against the army, the cities against the countryside. Is it worth it? Of course it’s worth it. These people would take us back to the stone age. They would destroy us. The rot must be stopped. For the sake of the future. At any cost. At any cost.