this is a blog for short stories and other things which we may call short writings. for now the writings are mine, but if you are willing to add yours short stories or comments, please do.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Right To Dream
by: Hassan Bahri

They called it ‘Palmyra’, a land of palm trees, with a big oasis. The ancient Palmyrians were a proud desert people, and the location of their kingdom, at the midpoint between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, gave them thriving trade routes to the far East and west as far as Britain. But Rome was not happy when their queen Zenobia crossed the Nile with her army, heading for North Africa. The Romans destroyed her palace, and Diocletian, the victorious Roman emperor, pitched his camp on its ruins.
Not far from Diocletian’s camp is another camp, built by the French army at the beginning of the 20h century, to house their horses and foot-soldiers. Like the Romans before them, the French eventually left. The relics of the ancient past became the most picturesque ruins in Syria, a magnet for tourists. But the more recent - and less picturesque - relics of the French camp were turned into a big prison, where political detainees are locked in the former stables, behind heavy doors and walls pierced with small windows, under a faint yellow light.
In that black abyss many lives withered away unconsoled, and thousands of vigorous dreams vanished, shattered against those yellow walls as they tried to reach loved ones far away, in cities and villages of broken dreams. But in there, more than two years after we arrived, we finally had access to some books from the prison ‘library’.
Prison, the master of annihilation, can kill even books. It gave these books its muted yellow colour. Mites feasted on their pages, and moisture eroded them. Nevertheless, the great thoughts captured in written words refused to die away, resisting many years of oblivion, waiting for us, as we waited for them.
If the importance of books can be measured by their impact on the reader, those books were the best. Three books, three breaks in the walls, gave meaning to our empty days, and a new horizon to our shared existence, already losing its pulse. The first book was from the Andalucian philosopher Ibn Rashid (Averroes), the second was ‘The Bridge over the Drina’ by the Bosnian writer Ivo Andric. And the third, ‘Adrift in Soho’ by the English writer, Colin Wilson.
We were about seventy men in there, in a stable re-named a ‘ward’, half of us teachers and doctors, as many graduates of foreign universities. All eager to read whatever was readable. At first, when we arrived, everyone was eager to talk, to exchange ideas, to show off their relative wealth in the currency of the mind. But after a year of full-time lectures and heated disputations, when all the information had been exchanged in all directions, from personal details to every fact we possessed, we settled down into stagnation. You speak – I know what you’re going to say. I have a thought - you know what it is. All knowledge has been evenly distributed, everybody knows everything everybody else knows.
Eventually, we were even dreaming alike. Dreaming of each other. Even in your dreams, the others are you, are inside you and there with you. In dreams you visit your family home with your fellow inmates, and after the visit you can’t forget to return to the ward. The freed souls are reminded of their earthly bodies behind bars. So people killed time looking for new discoveries, new information anywhere. ‘Okay, I’ll read the lines on your hand, on your face, I’ll even interpret the intricacies of your dreams’. A kind of struggle against death.
When the books came, it was a new injection of life, of air, to refresh our stagnation. Everybody tried to read as into them as much as possible, to get out of them everything he could – even things the author didn’t know were there.
Three books – seventy readers. We divided up the days from six in the morning until twelve at night, and made a schedule for who would read which, in what order. And suddenly a change came over our lives; they centred round those books. Lucky the man who was ten pages ahead of another; he knew better, and more. We ran seminars about the books, and suddenly people who worked in their previous lives as teachers or professors – and as I said, there were many of us – found a way of reminding the others how successful they’d been in their careers.
And always there were people competing to get ahead. A group of us would take a nap by day, and wake up at three or four in the morning to win a book and two or three hours of free reading, while the others lay, rolled up in their military blankets like long rows of mummies, or sardines in a huge can .
In that mysterious air with its faint yellow light, I opened the doors of prison to find myself hand in hand with Colin Wilson, walking in the heart of London; being introduced to the mysterious streets of Soho. Sure, I still remember that corner where I sat, a breath of blue in my mood, with my friend Colin. And we smoked, and he invited me to watch the passers-by, and wonder why they go where they’re told, and what freedom can mean in this pointless life.
So when, finally, for the first time ever, a plane touched down on the runway at Heathrow with me among its passengers, London was a place I knew. I was eager to see Soho, to kill my dream with reality Eager too to be in the freest place in the world, Speakers’ Corner, eager to see the theatres, and the museums which still house most of Queen Zenobia’s treasures. I thought my reference point would be Speakers’ Corner. I would recognise it as soon as I saw it. It must surely be huge, long and wide and crowded firebrands. And Soho would not be far from there. I knew the Soho streets, I had strolled them before, with him, when my body was still locked up. I knew London through a lover who wrote about her with that touch of bitterness, that sense of deception and failure, of a great romantic who somehow cannot get satisfaction from his beloved.
That was the dream. In reality, I spent the first year looking at underground maps, drawing and connecting grids of lines between refugee centres, the Home Office, solicitors, tube stations and my hostel. The second year added some colleges and schools, and new hostels, changing the points where the lines converged. But the third year forced me to forget all those places and map London all over again, with new lines leading from Councils, housing agencies, yet more solicitors and benefits offices to ever-changing addresses in bad-smelling hostels.
Even letters had difficulty in finding me. And some of them eventually gave up. I was adrift indeed, not in Soho with Colin, but on the way to yet another hostel. And London rejected me, before I had a chance to add my name to her neglected lovers.


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