Y ou didn’t notice a single distinguishing feature that might help us ID this guy?” the investigator said.
“No, I told you. I was walking up the stairs with my head down as he descended,” Fateh replied.
“When he attacked you, though, the two of you were alone there, face-to-face.”
“It all happened so fast.”
“You must have seen him, it was the middle of the afternoon.”
“I couldn’t see very well. The staircase and the landings between floors aren’t well lit.”
The case had been assigned to a young investigator who was accompanied by four armed men. He had been granted unlimited privileges to look into the matter. The investigator’s job was to determine whether the incident had anything to do with terrorism, which was the claim made in the petition that, as of the night before, more than 30 people had signed.
Before reading the official report, the investigator announced his intention to use every tool at his disposal to protect Fateh. He kicked out everyone who had gathered—the journalists, political activists, civil-society organizations, and curious onlookers—and forbade them from coming back. When they balked, he rebuked them and refused to let them get near the door. After a while, they regrouped and tried to break back in, but he threatened to have them all arrested. Before they even had the chance to disperse into the hallway, he ordered that they be evicted from the hospital, warning them not to say a word about what had happened. Their chattering created an atmosphere of grandiloquent gibberish in which they batted about clichés concerning religion and fundamentalism and civil liberties. They hadn’t rallied together and shown up for this. No, they came to support the victim of the forces of darkness and takfir,* as if they were the forces of light and tolerance!
“Before the assault, this guy strolled through the market asking shopkeepers about you,” the investigator said, talking more to himself. “They pointed out your building. He hung around inside waiting for you and then… well, you know the rest. He moved freely, took his time. He didn’t make much of an impression on anyone. Isn’t that strange?”
“He didn’t take any special precautions, either,” the investigator continued. “Many witnesses in the market saw him. Some even talked to him. But he didn’t raise any suspicions. All the descriptions we have of him are quite unremarkable.”
He enumerated on the description of the suspect: middle-aged, tall, powerfully built, narrow forehead, thin mustache, thinning black hair, and a barrel chest.
This contradicted Fateh’s testimony. He had stressed several times in the official report that his forehead had been wide, his mustache and hair thick, and his face round.
“Had you ever seen him before, maybe noticed him somewhere?”
“And he wasn’t wearing a robe.”
“I never said that.”
“Was he clean-shaven?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means he wasn’t a terrorist.”
“They wouldn’t send someone with a turban and a beard.”
“He didn’t run. He left confidently, just smoothed down his clothes and walked away.”
The investigator was trying to insinuate something through this line of questioning that contradicted what the people outside were whispering.
“Do you really believe he was a terrorist?” the investigator prodded.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“A well-dressed terrorist, without a machine gun or grenades?”
“Who was he, then?”
“He sounds like a businessman, or like those young men who get hired to protect them. More like a bodyguard.”
The victim’s mouth fell open, astonished.
“There’s a lot of difference between the two.”
“They both wear black suits and white shirts and dark glasses.”
“He wasn’t wearing glasses.”
The investigator drew away and sat down on a chair near the closet. He wanted to tell the victim, whose head was wrapped in white muslin, to stop pretending his injury was some kind of major event in the ongoing struggle against the forces of darkness.
Cherchez la femme! If only the victim revealed whatever it was he was hiding, things could be cleared up in no time. Besides, people disagree about all kinds of things. But terrorist operations had become commonplace, and with them came phony victims, who rushed to link themselves to incidents.
The investigator stared into the distance, his gaze piercing the windowpane, watching something coil upward, rising very slowly. It wasn’t a cloud, but smoke curling into the sky.
The Last Visitor
As his visitors dwindled the following day, Fateh prepared to check out of the hospital. That evening, he called Haifa to arrange for a driver to pick her up from work so she could escort him home.
A little before noon, a visitor arrived. He didn’t bring a bouquet of flowers or a card, but instead slinked into the room as if trying to enter unnoticed, his broad smile contaminated by a tinge of deep sorrow.
Fateh looked up, surprised to see this stout man whom he didn’t recognize standing in front of him. His cheerful features and sorrowful gaze overlaid each other in an odd way, giving the impression that the men knew each other—why else would he exude pain, so capably and convincingly, for what had befallen Fateh and, simultaneously, joy for his having survived? This was enough to convince Fateh that he knew this man, even if who he was didn’t immediately come to mind. He apologized with a shake of his head for not remembering, trying with a perplexed gaze to excuse himself for not properly welcoming him. The silence was an invitation for this man to step forward and introduce himself.
Even though he had expected Fateh to recognize him, this man was undeterred. He conveyed his generosity with a broad smile, without failing to notice that the victim had indeed forgotten him in the 30 years that had passed since they had seen each other.
“We were childhood friends.”
Fateh grew tense and straightened himself up in the bed, wondering, Did I share a childhood with this man?
“Back in elementary school,” the man clarified.
His mind reeled back to the Sheikh Muhyiddin neighborhood of Damascus, immediately remembering the boy who had been by his side for five years, from first through fifth grade, but he couldn’t come up with his name. It was right there on the tip of his tongue. Perhaps he was able to remember this man’s face so quickly because his childlike features had hardly changed; they remained stamped on him in spite of the fact that he was now bloated and middle-aged.
“What made you think of me?”
“When I heard about what happened, I decided to come and see how you were.”
“But why didn’t you ever come looking for me before?”
“Too busy—I mean, you were too busy, so I never bothered getting in touch. But I followed what you were up to, reading whatever you wrote. Forgive me, my friend; honestly, what I used to read and hear about you didn’t make me very happy. After I heard about the assault, duty called, duty alone, to come and see how you were. I cut things off with you. I’m the one to blame. I should have looked the other way about a few things, just some of them, mind you, not all of them. One mustn’t dishonor friendship, no matter how much time has passed.”
Fateh didn’t feel like asking him what he had read or had heard that displeased him. Sometimes his opinions didn’t even satisfy those who were closest to him, so why should it bother him what a forgotten childhood friend whom he hadn’t seen for years thought? In all that time he hadn’t remembered him or thought of him, not even for a second.
“Don’t blame yourself. Time just got between us,” Fateh said.
He was flooded by old memories. This man had been his close and loyal pal, a boy who was always doing good deeds. One prime example of his exceedingly kind heart was how he would give his daily allowance to whatever beggars he crossed paths with on his way to school in the morning. He would share his food with his less well-off friends. Even though he was an exemplary pupil, he had never competed with his schoolmates for the highest spots—he studied not to rise above them but rather to extend a helping hand when it came time for oral and final examinations, sharing his work sometimes even if he were punished as a consequence.
Fateh was stunned by the presence of this forgotten past and the rediscovery that he had once been a little boy. He somehow believed that he had never passed through that stage.
“You were a model student,” his old friend said. “Back then I expected brilliant things for you.”
After such a long separation, it seemed appropriate for Fateh to ask his friend certain unavoidable questions all at once: Where have you been? What do you do? Are you married? How many children do you have?
With both hesitation and humility, his old friend summarized 30 years of his life. He had never pursued a university education. After his father’s death he took over the shop selling housewares wholesale in the Asruniyya market. He married young and had five children, two sons and three daughters; two daughters had been married the year before. Now he had left the shop to his eldest son and retired.
He wondered in astonishment whether his friend had contracted a terminal illness and was forced into premature retirement in order to focus on prayer and prepare himself for death.
“Are you sick?”
“No, not at all.”
He spent his days volunteering for charitable organizations. He helped the poor, the widows and orphans, and anyone in need, acts he struggled through with God as his only reward. That was the best he could hope for in the end.
After summarizing his life story, it was his old friend’s turn to ask questions. He pointed to the white bandage wrapped around Fateh’s head.
“My friend, what have you done to yourself?” he said reproachfully.
“I haven’t done anything. I was attacked.”
“I’m afraid you’ve incited someone against you.”
“I wouldn’t know. The investigation hasn’t reached any conclusions yet.”
He kept his reply brief so as not to spoil the mood. But his friend drew in close and spoke in a hushed voice.
“The people who they say did this to you, they’ve got nothing to do with it. Your crowd is making unsubstantiated accusations.”
“What do you know about it?” Fateh asked, now on edge.
“I know much.”
Fateh’s agitation diminished, and he couldn’t suppress a laugh. That kind-hearted little boy used to say the very same thing in extremely unusual situations, back when his knowledge still had an innocent side. He was just as he always had been. He had become even more what he once was.
“What is it that you know, exactly?”
“A lot, more than you might expect.”
“You’re the same as ever, you haven’t changed a bit.”
“And for so long I had hoped I would.”
Fateh marveled at how he could maintain such simplemindedness, much like his childlike features, which appeared not to have undergone any noticeable change indicating his advanced age, aside from a creeping tuft of gray hair and faint wrinkles that drew lines under his eyes. Otherwise it seemed as though he had been frozen in time.
Life generally cannot tolerate a man of this nobility and largesse; honest interaction with people can have unintended consequences. He was nothing more than a little boy in the rough-and-tumble world of grown-ups. How had death not found him during one of his do-gooding fits? He was willing to sacrifice himself for others and had probably been duped on more than one occasion.
“But the world has changed.”
“Let’s hope we never do.”
“Still, we have changed, we’ve changed a lot.”
“If you need anything…”
“I don’t need anything,” Fateh said quickly, revealing his exasperation.
His friend turned toward the door, but then wheeled back around.
“I want to say to you that what you’re calling for is bad, very bad.”
He meant what Fateh had been calling for in his lectures, and what he sometimes wrote in the press.
“That’s right. It doesn’t sit well with many people. You’re right, this is what I’ve become. I’m not the way I used to be. And you won’t like it, but no matter what you say, this is who I am.”
His old friend took out a piece of paper and wrote down his telephone number.
“I’ll pray for your speedy recovery. Feel free to call if you ever need anything.”
Fateh took the paper, folded it up, and placed it in his pocket. No, he wasn’t going to call him, no matter what. In the sunny past, he had been the perfect boy. But in this unhappy present, he was nothing more than an unpleasant and insufferable man. The world was progressing while he continued to live in a dusty era gone by.
One thing Fateh should have asked him for, though, was his name. He couldn’t remember it, and his old friend hadn’t written it down next to his phone number. He took the piece of paper out of his pocket and tore it up.
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.