C O M I N G H O M E
We’ve all got to find our way in the world, and it took me some time to find mine. Having grown up in a village in the northeastern part of Belgium, under the loving wings of a mother who thought marrying an engineer was a career, and a melancholy father who hoped I’d become a pharmacist’s assistant, I wasn’t really prepared for an adventurous life.
Every now and then my granduncle, who was a missionary in Congo, came to visit. He’d be sitting in an armchair in my grandmother’s house, smoking cigars and drinking whisky while we listened to his stories about boys with frizzy hair walking to the mission school barefoot through the red sand of Lower Congo. After his departure, our life would sink back into its usual dullness.
Luckily, I was a child of the sixties, when boundaries of class and education were challenged and a young, provincial woman with the ambition to defy her destiny was met with benevolence.
I was still at boarding school, wearing a green apron over my clothes, when a friend asked me to join him on a trip around the world. I wonder if he himself ever got as far as Turkey, but to be sitting in my tiny sleeping room at night, doing my homework, dreaming about leaving it all behind, was rather liberating.
I wanted to become a writer, but I hadn’t started reading yet. Bless the teacher who, after reading my juvenile, self-centered prose, suggested: ‘Why don’t you go out on the street and listen to what other people have to say?’
At the age of twenty I was living in the United States, a country trembling under the effects of the Watergate scandal, when a few miles from the White House, in an apartment that smelled of incense and Arabic spices, I met Kamal Boullata, a Palestinian artist who’d grown up in Jerusalem. He’d been a gifted young man and sitting out painting on the streets of the old city, he’d been discovered by an American lady who’d given him the chance to study abroad.
The war of 1967 had dislocated Kamal’s family: one brother was living in England, another in Libya, yet another in Canada. And then there was his mother, an old Jerusalem lady with a good heart and heavy legs, who kept her family together by cooking dishes from their childhood days. At Christmas, the Boullata family would gather in her small apartment in Hartford, Connecticut. When she opened the door of the fridge, I’d wake up on my mattress in the living room to the smell of cardamom, mint, thyme, almonds and rose water. Soon her stiff fingers would try to tune the radio to the Christmas bells of Bethlehem.
All morning the women would be in the kitchen, hollowing out eggplants and zucchinis, sewing little pouches of intestines and filling them with rice, vegetables and pine nuts, while the men sat smoking in the living room, telling stories of the days when their late father had been a postman in Jerusalem and their mother had stored watermelons under the bed to keep them cool.
There I was, in a family that was a blueprint of mine, and yet, as they talked, a world of loss, nostalgia and cruelty came gushing in.
When Kamal took me to Lebanon, I walked around the Palestinian camps in Beirut, puzzled by the bullet holes in the walls – remains of an attack by the Lebanese army. So Israel was not the only enemy, Arabs were killing each other as well?
Up to then, my world had been unbroken. Kamal showed me the cracks. I’d spend the rest of my life trying to draw a map of the multiple bruises I encountered on my journeys.
Kamal and I went our separate ways, but I continued to explore The Middle East. At a conference in Bagdad I befriended Hala, a young Syrian woman. We were both twenty-five, full of dreams and projects. Soon after that – her daughter had just been born – Hala’s life took an unexpected turn when the mukhabarat (secret service) brutally entered her house, looking for her husband, who belonged to a communist party.
Eleven years later I visited Hala in Damascus. I remember stepping into her small house – a jasmine tree at the entrance, a fig tree in the courtyard – with my big suitcases. I felt like an elephant. Ahmed was still in prison and his disappearance had scarred Hala, curtailed her ambitions and thrown her back into the nucleus of her family. She had been turned into the wife of a prisoner; she had lost her friends, the right to travel.
The next half year I would not only make a journey into the complexities of Syria, but also another, inner journey. Hala was like a sister I’d left behind when I fled the future my parents had in store for me. She was the woman I might have become if the regime of my country had punished me for my rebellion, instead of being indulgent.
Towards the end of my stay, a Dutch professor of Islamic Studies visited us. He was tall and loud and Hala and I stood there like the parents in that famous Diana Arbus picture, looking up at their giant son. It was a somewhat awkward moment and yet I suddenly realized with joy I’d succeeded in entering Hala’s world: I was looking at my Dutch friend from the inside out.
Hala will always be a part of me. Her destiny is throbbing in the back of my mind wherever I go. She’s a fighter, but what an uneven fight it is. Her husband died of leukemia eight months after he was finally released from prison. You would think that was enough suffering for one life – it wasn’t. The past two years Hala was a close witness to the war that ravaged Syria. She had to flee the country when the mukhabarat came to her house once again, this time looking for her.
My early heroes were the American novelist Norman Mailer, who’d stepped into reality by writing about a convicted killer, and the journalist Truman Capote, who’d written the crime novel In Cold Blood. But it was only when I started reading V.S. Naipaul and Ryszard Kapuściński that my subject and the way of writing about it started to converge.
‘There is a particular beauty in the fact that something is true,’ Naipaul once said – although he himself constantly navigates between fiction and non-fiction. Kapuściński was a poet in disguise. He worked as a reporter for a Polish press agency, but in his books he was deliberately vague about dates and numbers. Describing the mood of a place was his motto. In Another day of life, about the independence war in Angola, Kapuściński is standing on the balcony of his sleazy hotel overlooking the port of the capital Luanda, when he smells the crates the fleeing Portuguese are building to store the furniture they’re taking with them. ‘Inside the Luanda of concrete and bricks a new city began to rise,’ he writes. Finally, the wooden city ‘sailed out in to the world, in search of its habitants.’
I imagine there’s a little exaggeration in the buildup to this image, but what an image it is: it takes you way beyond the independence days of Angola into the deceptions, the bitterness and delusions of colonials all through history. It’s a writer’s image.
‘So when are you going to write a novel?’ a foreign editor once asked me. ‘When are you going to climb that mountain without oxygen?’ – meaning my notes. As time goes by, I become fonder of the genre I’m practicing. My characters stick out of my books heads, arms and legs. They are an ever present incentive to leave my comfort zone and discover the world beyond mine.
Following the trail of my granduncle, I went to Congo – another story that would play an important role in my life. In On The Wings of The Dragon I venture from Africa to China and back again, interested in the relationship between people who don’t share a colonial past.
‘Watch out,’ my friends warned me before I started my journey, ‘in China you won’t find the generosity of the Arabs, nor the spontaneity you experienced in Africa.’ I wrote the beginning of my book in the house of my Chinese friend Li Shudi. One floor below me, Chinese life was unfolding. I’d hear Shudi’s mother laughing while watching Chinese serials, I’d feel the tremble of joy that went through the house when Shudi’s wife and sister were visiting from South-Africa and other family members were flooding in to see them. I’d hear the excited rattling of stones when they were playing mahjong.
Different sounds, different smells – and yet, I was reminded of the time when my granduncle from Congo visited us in my native village, the time when the Boullata family gathered in that cramped apartment in Hartford, the time Hala’s brother had come from Qatar and we’d all meet in her mother’s house. More than five thousand miles from the place where I grew up, I came home all over again.