Solo Piano Music

By Fawwaz Haddad

The Abominable Secularist

All these visitors to the hospital intrigued the young investigator, raising questions in his mind. He asked his superiors why there was so much interest in the victim. They told him that Fateh al-Qalaj was a distinguished intellectual and an independent thinker.

What had caused him to think ill of the victim and his case?

His reliance on first impressions and intuition (which are so often wrong) had been prodded along by bits of information he had recieved from the victim’s neighbor.

The information he had cobbled together didn’t cast Fateh in a positive light. His neighbor didn’t know much about him. The investigator didn’t know what he did for a living, but was aware that he was a widower who lived alone. His neighbors left him in peace because they found him to be avoidant and pretentious. 

It wasn’t hard for the investigator to understand those negative impressions. For as long as Fateh had lived in the old apartment building near Mezzeh Prison, he never paid visits to anyone and wasn’t visited by anyone. A car picked him up in the morning, took him downtown, and then dropped him off at home after work. It was a beat-up 1986 Peugeot, rarely driven after work hours, and didn’t indicate any special status.

What little official information the investigator managed to get his hands on revealed that Fateh was an outstanding mid-level manager but had no serious influence. He had been appointed to a distinguished yet powerless post in exchange for taking a series of progressive positions. 

His neighbors didn’t know that he was a noted secularist thinker; he had decided not too long ago to put his faith in science and to align himself with the rational mind, uprooting superstitions, illusions, and all beliefs that had any connection to the soul—that is, to anything that wasn’t visible or tangible.

Fateh hadn’t chosen intellectual work to make money. In some ways, he was an amateur, interested in ideas, the most modern ideas, without having to live by them or through them, giving occasional lectures and moderating discussions at no extra charge. He was known for his profound interventions and his antipopulism, and he was sincere in his defense of rationalism, questing for the truth, irrefutable truths in particular.

If his neighbors had known what he was calling for they would have certainly been against him, but they never read anything more than the police blotter; they were uninterested in ideas, which were often incomprehensible and had no value in their day-to-day lives. 

Over the years, whatever they knew about the victim remained stagnant. He was still the new guy in the building, even though more than ten years had passed since he’d moved in. He was still the man whose wife had just died, although it had been three years since her passing. He appeared to be in his mid-30s, even though he was already drifting into middle age.

He had made a limited number of bold statements in the newspaper and became well known within a small circle of celebrated readers, and suspect among the agencies that were particularly sensitive to his public criticism of domestic policies. He never proffered his loyalty to the regime, but he didn’t clash with it either. Convinced that he would only embarrass them with his bold ideas, they opted to bribe him with a managerial position. They ignored him as long as he didn’t pose a threat to them, even if ordinary people were annoyed at times by his going on and on about their traditions and dogmas.

His lectures about secularism revolved around one concept, namely, the separation of mosque and state. He would explain it ably, expounding upon profound issues at a high level, and—owing to the depth of his enthusiasm for the subject—he would chart a path from the detestable state to the regime that respects freedom of conscience and protects itself from coming under the aegis of one religion, one sect, or one school of law. 

His greatest enmity was reserved for supernatural truths. He didn’t attack them in the open or deny their spiritual status. But he would cunningly beam out atheist propaganda against them that wasn’t lost on his supporters or his adversaries. He was adamantly opposed to religion, wasn’t concerned with freedom of thought or oppositional, diverse expression, and voiced aloud his refusal to concede the veracity of anything without first subjecting it to investigation and experiment. His slogan: “No truth but the truth of science.” And although he boasted that science had eliminated magic from the world, it was only in order to demonstrate that religion is no less superstitious than magic.

When the regime was roused to caution intellectuals against articulating extreme viewpoints and attacking religious beliefs—as part of a campaign to uproot any disunity among the people and ensure public order—it succeeded in achieving that impossible golden mean.

But Fateh didn’t view such caution with an eye of understanding or prudence, and he gave up his intellectual subtlety as he sharpened his criticisms of the religious; he once nearly caused civil strife between religious and nonreligious people over a matter of tremendous legal importance, which the secularists found odd and worthy of derision. This pushed the regime to curb the secularist intellectual. They summoned him to one of the security headquarters and made him understand that if he was an infidel, they were even worse. And so they obliged him to put an end to his attacks on religion in public gatherings. After that, he limited his criticism to private sessions, which were attended only by his supporters. He sufficed with playing defense, defending secularism from the standpoint that it maintained civil peace and gave religion back its spirituality. As a result, he regained the respect of the decision-makers. They considered him a rational resource in an irrational and insecure state, rounding out the multitude of perspectives that were indispensable on television talk shows, which demanded that guests be petulant and disputatious and use fancy words lest it be thought that the country wasn’t sophisticated. He gave the networks a liberal dash of open-mindedness. 

Although he only got called out once, he learned his lesson. As far as those in power were concerned, so long as he was well in hand there was no danger in either keeping him in his current position or promoting him. As long as he didn’t ignite even small fires that would be difficult to contain and extinguish when it became necessary to do so.

His neighbors failed to develop normal relationships with him, and because they didn’t approve of his extreme isolation, they came to believe he was arrogant. His serious demeanor gave him a bewildered appearance, the kind that envelops pessimistic intellectuals and stays with them through their daily activities. Even though he was actually preoccupied with tremendously important matters that had humanitarian implications—the garbage bags thrown from the balconies, the interruption of water and electricity for long periods of time, and the interminable work being done on the roads. His facial features were discomfiting when he mulled over ideas in his mind. He would knit his brow and wrinkle his forehead, putting on a frown as disgust washed over his face and his appearance became loathsome, so his neighbors loathed him, showing no concern for whatever befell him, and anyone who showed concern only did so in order to take pleasure in his misfortune.

From time to time, whenever they brought up his deceased wife, they took pity on him and expressed sympathy for his plight. Their feelings softened toward him and were even marked with some admiration. But as they tried to get closer to him, he would surprise them with his arrogance, which wasn’t arrogance so much as an attitude he had grown accustomed to. They, in turn, would go right back to loathing him the way they had always done. 

*The declaration by a Muslim that a fellow Muslim is a nonbeliever.

Translated by Max Weiss
Artwork by Khaled Akil

Read the prelude to Solo Piano Music.

For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.