My dear Liwaa,
I found something wonderful at the film archive in Berlin. I was able to capture and save it with my phone camera. I called it
(la faille qui danse)
How would you translate this into Arabic?
I didn’t understand any of what was being said; I was watching the German version of the film, but the minute my eyes caught sight of it—this thing I’m going to call “the dancing rift” for now as I await your answer on what might be a better translation—I felt intense gratitude for this foreign language. It allowed my eyes to catch it: that gray brushstroke on the gray image. I didn’t capture the exact moment the rift first appeared—imagine, the word for moment in German is Augenblick, made up of the words Augen, eyes, and Blick, look. I was absorbed in the scene and suddenly it was there before me, and without thinking I immediately began recording it. It seemed to me afterwards, I mean after I’d watched that small scene over and over again, that my ability to write could be summarized by my ability to capture that or any other rift and be able to preserve it.
At the precise moment when the rift is dancing with the hands of Anna Magdalena Bach as she plays music composed for her by her husband—melodies whose notations she took down on a little Clavier booklet he’d gifted her: a small, elongated notebook, embroidered in green, with a leather spine and edges—it seemed to me like a scar, a wound that never quite healed, remaining a witness to the slowly aging body of the film. I’m writing this letter to you today to tell you about that gray scar, and how I returned with it to Beirut, where events accelerated so quickly that I almost forgot about it until, by a strange and sad coincidence, I found the French version of the film’s script.
I’d like to imagine that when writing falters and diminishes, this rift itself becomes the act of writing: it is the detail, the fragment of a thing, the fissure in which the possibilities of words lie hidden, a trembling body, its movement embodying the very process of writing. Would it be more accurate if I called it “the trembling rift”?
(la faille qui temble)
My dear Liwaa, I don’t want to postpone this act any longer: the act of writing in Arabic. This is the first time I dare draw so close to doing it, and it’s highly possible that French will leak into the syntax and details. It was inevitable for me to turn to you; you who once said this to me, and I recorded your words down next to mine:
My dear Liwaa,
I don’t want to postpone this act any longer: the act of writing in Arabic. This is the first time I dare draw so close to doing it, and it’s highly possible that French will leak into the syntax and details. It was inevitable for me to turn to you; you who once said this to me, and I recorded your words down next to mine:
When time slowed down some months ago, I thought that the time for writing had finally arrived, peaceful and whole. But the first thing I had to do was search for new words, since the ones filling my notebook are no longer precise enough; they are words without the gradations and corrugations of this sad and strange time. But before I could start my search seriously, the halt in time surprised me and ended, and everything returned to where it was before. After I’d thought that I’d finally turn into Marguerite Duras in Trouville, letting go of everything but writing, the way you did in Damascus some years ago. Two whole years, you said to me, with other people relegated to the edges of your life, and you and your writing existing in almost total self-sufficiency. But that “lost” time ended in the blink of an eye, and the time to write was gone, or was postponed. Faced with this postponement, and rather than submit to it, I gradually entered a small rift, within which was contained a new language, which was only my “mother” tongue, halting and clumsy, stumbling and stuttering as though the slow and faltering nature of this language were mimicking time itself. Here I am once again in the childhood of writing, as I always am, but this time more than ever. I won’t postpone this moment any longer.
My dear Liwaa,
Lamia sent me three voice messages after a period of absence. I got them in the evening (her morning) but I waited until the next morning to listen to them.
9:30 am, she says:
I was just on the balcony watching my neighbors. I love their slowness, the slowness of the elderly. One of them was watering her flowers and the other was cleaning her windows and the third was eating at her window while watching the people swimming. In the other apartment there was a woman reading, I love this one woman by the way. There’s two of them living together. I don’t know if they’re friends or lovers. She always sits on a rocking chair and she’s always reading a book. In the flat right below her there used to be an old man living there, during the coronavirus he disappeared and I don’t know where he went. Hassoun’s yelling really loudly, one second…
Then, at 9:48, she says:
For a few days now I’ve been thinking that I feel like telling you something, but I don’t know why I’m having trouble speaking. It’s like I’ve become this bubble of silence, there’s something inside me, something I… I don’t know the word that might describe it. Something like a city right after the end of a war. Something like… like I don’t know what. Like maybe the people there are trying to go stock up on some food and go on with their lives but the city is just totally destroyed, like, it doesn’t even look like a city and… I feel like I’ve lost the ability to describe things. I’m unable to speak and unable to write. When I finished my French lessons, the pool opened and every day since, I go with Salma and Hassan and we come home exhausted. They’re really happy, they really love the water. As for me, well I don’t have anything to say about myself and I don’t have the ability to interact with anything or anyone. I watch the news about what’s happening in Lebanon: suicides, robberies, the craziness… and the analysis. How helpless we are… and I feel like I’m drowning myself in details, you know? I’m filming sometimes but I never watch any of it later. I just feel like I did something. Anyway, that’s it.
Then, at 10:38 she says:
Your flowers are beautiful. The bougainvillea reminds me of Lebanon, of the first house we lived in in Abadiyeh. I was really moved by what you said to me, that Lebanon is defeated, like a defeated child. That you love it, even though it’s… or that you feel for it, even though it’s like this. I don’t know, I feel that despite everything that’s happening on the outside, it’s like there’s a war outside and a war inside, inside every person I mean. We… we’re living these two wars, in all their harshness and… I remember there were phases in Syria when I used to feel that I hated the country so much, that I hated how unhappy I was in that house, my family home, the home I didn’t know how to flee, I wished all the time that the country would just be destroyed… I remember so well riding the bus on my way back home, looking out the window and feeling like every building I saw was in ruins. Like a kind of projection… not premonition. But the difficult thing about Lebanon is it’s like the war never ended. I don’t know what this last period might be called… you tell me something now if you can, please keep telling me things.
My answer was late, it faltered. It seemed to me that Lamia’s words and voice—I wish I knew how to describe the undulations in her voice, her shy laugh, as though apologizing for the harshness of her words sometimes—were summarizing the last years for us all. Had we—as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote—cracked (in a movement both sudden and slow) prematurely? Were we now suspended (together?) in what he calls “the womb of time”? I don’t exactly know who these voice messages belong to; are they meant to be part of my texts or are they the voices for Lamia’s film, which went with her and then remained suspended somewhere between Syria and Lebanon and Canada, caught between the two of us, between the dreams she tells me about sometimes in all their details and my own dreams of which I remember nothing of when I wake up? They are the archives of our inner worlds that sometimes separate and sometimes converge, spinning in a vast internal space. I’m afraid these letters might get lost, and if they are lost is as though Lamia’s film will remain suspended in some unknown place above the Atlantic Ocean.
Some days later I said: It’s as if the roles have been reversed between you and Hassoun, and now you’re the one in the childhood of language, French I mean. It’s a lovely place to be in. Its slowness resembles both childhood and old age at once.
My dearest Liwaa,
About a year ago, on May 4 exactly, you wrote to tell me about a terrible disappearance. You had documented your journey back to Damascus (your journey, but above all, Mohammad’s journey back after seven years of absence). You took photos, as you described it to me, of the moment just before leaving, of the moment of travel and that of arrival. But, in a stroke of terrible luck, the images were erased. Some months later, on December 29 specifically, and some days before the second journey back to Damascus, and in the same or different stroke of terrible luck, several pages of words were erased, drafts of poems and plays. That day you wrote me a strange and sad message:
I’ve lost a meaningless remote control
And an even more meaningless part of one of Masha’s toys
I’m spending all my time searching for them all over the house
Maybe I’ll find them and find my pages
Or maybe while I’m looking for them under the bed, I’ll find the pages
Or I might find the remote as if I’d found the pages
My friend, what’s the more difficult loss: the loss of images or the loss of words? And if the loss is inevitable, how do we learn to live with it? Is that the case with all of us here? We never cease to begin after postponing the moment of beginning, and when that moment finally comes, something else comes in turn to thwart its course, returning us to the starting point. Is it the same as point zero? Do you think we always have the ability to locate the starting point within a particular given moment? Is the act of perpetual postponement a forward motion or a backward one? Does it propel us forward, erasing, or backward, repeating? What if the two motions were to align, so that we always start at the beginning, as though writing the same things again from an infinite number of different positions?
Months later you wrote to me that you were waiting for things to trickle back to you again in a different way, as though this trickling were the consolation… and the gamble. You wrote: I let things go… so that they might return.
On a sunny winter’s day—a winter that today feels so far away—Danya and I were sitting by the sea and I was complaining about the perpetual postponement of my writing and she said: don’t you think that you’ve already begun long ago? I cried a little and she said: when I’m working on a dance performance, at every rehearsal I begin all over again. I decide on a starting point, sometimes imaginary, and it’s from this point that all the movements wrestle together and come to take on their organic shapes, not the shapes that I impose on them. Otherwise, how could I communicate the tension of the movement as it seeks to emerge into existence in the face of all that which always hinders it?
My dear Liwaa,
Last year in front of the temple of Baalbek, we came upon an amazing find that Ghassan captured with his phone camera: Mohamed’s book among a bunch of other books lined up there on the sidewalk, within anyone’s reach. He didn’t have a copy of his own left, so we gave him his own book as a gift.
Why did Mohamed choose this title for his book? Was it a premonition, or is cinema always something postponed? Do you think we’re living, as he said to Ghassan this morning in French, la plus mélancolique année de notre vie? He, who inhabited melancholy, declaring it a home, saying: I am in Camelia. Do you think being in Camelia is being in the same place that Rainer Maria Rilke called Weltinnenraum, the inner space of the world? Do you, like me, see that they are describing the same state, where rifts and gaps might transcend into dancers? Can you write this sentence for me in your own hand: “I am in Camelia”? My handwriting is still clumsy, and I’d like to have it tattooed on my arm so I never forget.
Carine Doumit (born 1981) is an independent film editor and writer based in Beirut. Her work comprises a variety of feature documentaries, film essays, and experimental videos. She is also a writing and editing consultant in workshops and university programs as well as with independent filmmakers and artists. She has published a variety of texts about and for cinema. She is part of the Camelia Committee, a collective that explores hybrid forms of writing for and in cinema. The collective is a cooperative model of production and representation, investigating ways in which individual and common practices intertwine.