In November, a few days after Donald Trump won the presidential election, I flew to Arkansas to give a reading at the Fayetteville Public Library. I landed just before sunset. The earth was the colour of rust, the trees fiery with the end of autumn and the cattle, which grazed with seemingly no movement at all, were black. I didn’t know anyone there. A Libyan friend had written to say that there was a Syrian poet who taught at the University of Arkansas. But I couldn’t remember her name, and the email he sent me seemed to have vanished.
On the drive from the airport to my hotel we passed ranches. Even after centuries, much of American architecture, with its hurried certainties, still looks temporary. Each farm was separated by long stretches of nothing. I thought about the disgraced Austrian seaman, a minor character who appears briefly in Lord Jim. He loses his temper and, spitting and huffing, cries out in broken English: ‘I vill an Amerigan citizen begome.’ Conrad’s narrator tells us that as he said this, the seaman was ‘fretting and fuming and shuffling his feet as if to free his ankles from some invisible and mysterious grasp that would not let him get away from that spot’. The image of a grown man struggling to break free while emphatically declaring that he will, against all the odds, cleanse himself of history, had made me laugh on the plane.
Why had I brought Lord Jim with me? I had read it several times before and when I put it in my bag in London it felt as if I were packing a good luck charm. I had been looking forward to this series of trips, to visiting places in America that I had never been to, places such as Arkansas, and doing so at a time of great political division in the United States. And yet, despite the fact that I was born in America, and that America is where my wife is from, and that it is where my parents spent the first years of their marriage, and that, like most Arabs of my generation, I grew up when it was already impossible to escape American films and books and music, no country fills me with more melancholy. Nowhere do I feel more foreign, more out of place and out of time. It’s as if the moment I land in the country the gates shut behind me.
Maybe this is why I had brought Lord Jim along. Conrad’s sentences make me feel less dislocated, which is odd given that they are themselves miniature illustrations of dislocation, often about men at the whim of circumstance, governed by personal codes rather than collective cultures. The deepest outrage that drives Lord Jim comes not so much from the dishonourable act he commits, when in a moment of weakness and fear he abandons the passengers aboard his sinking ship and chooses instead to save his own life. His despair belongs to a deeper order. He is unsettled by what his failure reveals about human nature: its vulnerability to fear and its unwillingness to forgive. Ultimately, it’s a novel about shame.
It’s often noted that what is exceptional about Conrad is that he managed to write several great works neither in his mother tongue, Polish, nor in his more readily available second language, French, but in his third language, and, furthermore, invented a prose in it that was both wholly his own and among the finest ever written in English. But what is more fascinating to me is how – whether intentionally or not, whether out of a habit earned by his years at sea or, once he had settled in Bishopsbourne in Kent and made England his home, because of a bloody-minded reflex against the national character that can make the English seem impermeable – he managed to retain and develop in his fiction what one might call the art of doubt, of the suspended verdict. Reading him, one gets as close as possible to seeing what it might have been like if human history were different and we belonged less to nations and more to nature.
I checked into the hotel and walked to the library. I was to read from my new book, The Return, which describes my return to Libya after 33 years of exile. I had, as usual, thought too much about which section to read and, as is also usual, continued to doubt my choice even as I walked up to the podium. Looking out at the audience, I saw people of different ages. I could see several Arab faces. Arabs in Arkansas. Why should that surprise anyone? After all, this is a new place, a place to which people have been running for years, whether to escape or to find some invented self.
After the reading I took questions. Then the moderator announced that there was time for only one more question. A woman, who had been standing the whole time at the end of the large room, with her back to the wall, spoke.
‘I am Syrian,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how to ask this, but … I mean, I have read your work and the thing I don’t understand is how you manage to write in a time like this? Given all the horrible things going on – in Libya, in Syria, all over our region – seeing the pictures, hearing the stories, everything,’ she said and stopped. ‘I have not been able to think about anything else, let alone write. I think I’ve lost my faith. Is there anything you can tell me?’
I don’t know why – perhaps to express my appreciation towards the questioner, or to make myself more vulnerable to her question, or maybe the opposite – but I found myself involuntarily stepping out from behind the podium and walking to the edge of the stage to come closer to her. I wondered if she was the poet my friend had mentioned.
I began by saying something about her instinct, that the way she had formulated the question seemed to take for granted that there was a relationship between literature and life and that that relationship matters. ‘What I find interesting about your question,’ I said, ‘is how it answers itself.’
As I stood at one end of the room and she at the other, with all those people sitting in between, Conrad’s Jim, unable to escape his fate, returned to me, along with some lines describing him which, on this rereading, had caught my attention. I had underlined them to help memorise them:
He stood there for all the parentage of his kind, for men and women by no means clever or amusing, but whose very existence is based upon honest faith, and upon the instinct of courage. I don’t mean military courage, or civil courage, or any special kind of courage. I mean just that inborn ability to look temptations straight in the face – a readiness unintellectual enough, goodness knows, but without pose – a power of resistance, don’t you see, ungracious if you like, but priceless – an unthinking and blessed stiffness before the outward and inward terrors, before the might of nature and the seductive corruption of men – backed by a faith invulnerable to the strength of facts, to the contagion of example, to the solicitation of ideas. Hang ideas! They are tramps, vagabonds, knocking at the back-door of your mind, each taking a little of your substance, each carrying away some crumb of that belief in a few simple notions you must cling to if you want to live decently and would like to die easy!
And then, standing there in the library, I saw in my mind the image of men, women and children on small boats in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The Syrian – who might or might not have been the poet my friend had told me about – continued to speak. She said that the humanitarian and political urgencies of our time, the horror – she repeated the word – the horror had made it impossible for her to write. As she said all this I remembered a girl I had recently seen interviewed. She was perhaps eight or nine, standing outdoors, near clothes-lines stretched among rubble. Her face was covered with pale dust, thicker on her cheeks, as though she and her playmates had been pretending that sand from a bombed-out building was face powder. Her eyes were older, belonging to a tired woman. They didn’t smile: the mouth made all the effort. The journalist, a man, leaned down with a giant microphone and asked her name. You could see that she had decided to play a game with him. She straightened her back and made an effort to appear available, as though this was an interview about her holidays, or perhaps about the beauty of her hometown, Aleppo, or her favourite colour, or what she wanted to be when she grew up. But the journalist’s first question was about none of these things.
‘How is your father?’ he asked.
‘Thanks be to God,’ she responded.
‘Where is he, your daddy?’
‘Your father, your daddy, where is he?’
‘What?’ she said again and then, as though realising she had exhausted the credit of her pretence, she volunteered, ‘Daddy?’
‘Yes,’ the journalist said – and for a moment I thought maybe he was her father, teasing her in front of the camera.
‘He’s not here,’ she said, and just at that moment something extraordinary happened: her eyes widened and grew darker, as though willing the journalist not to pause too long here, to go on, if at all possible, and take her to a different place, a question about her favourite food perhaps, or whether she prefers dogs or cats. And in this expression there was also the heartbreaking acknowledgment of her defeat. ‘My daddy,’ she said. ‘He died.’
‘Died?’ the journalist continued. ‘How, where did he die?’
‘Well,’ she said and here she could no longer keep it in. Her head tilted to one side and her face, youthful until now, collapsed around her old eyes. ‘He was killed,’ she said. ‘They killed him.’
‘Who? Who killed him?’
‘What do you mean?’ she said, crying. ‘The regime, of course. Who else?’
‘Then he’s a martyr,’ the journalist said, and proceeded with the usual platitudes. ‘He is in heaven, be strong, have faith.’
But the girl was already looking away.
‘In this time,’ the Syrian woman in the Fayetteville Public Library said, ‘in these days of war and destruction, what can literature do?’
I waited until she was done. ‘Your instinct …’ I began again. I wanted to resume my argument, regain my balance, be as rigorous and patient as I could, because there was a lot at stake here and we could easily end up in the wrong place. ‘Your instinct,’ I said, ‘that politics and literature are connected is right, I think, but I would be careful about assuming the connection to be a direct or a straightforward or even an obvious one. If we say that at one extreme there are those who believe that literature has nothing to do with politics, and at the other end those who insist that everything, literature and even the way a child speaks, is a political act, then to hell with both. Both positions are tyrannical.’
My mind was still with the girl from Aleppo who’d lost her father. She was running off now to be with her friends. She whispered something to them and then quickly looked back at the journalist. What was odd was that the tears in her eyes didn’t fall. They didn’t wash clean lines through the dust on her cheeks.
‘In other words,’ I went on, ‘one of the dangers I think writers from our region must avoid is adhering to the logic of the discourse on offer. The greatest danger the tyrant can inflict is to limit us to his range of options, not only for how to live but also for how to exercise our imagination.’
Just then I became the journalist, and the girl was now looking at me. I had all of her attention.
‘One, in his daily life,’ I said to the Syrian woman in the library, ‘must find a way to remain engaged with what is happening. We have to find a way to remain attentive to the reality of our times.’ Words like ‘one’, ‘must’, ‘have to’ all stuck in my throat.
‘But –’ I heard the woman say just before the moderator stepped in to tell us that we were out of time.
The Syrian came up to me afterwards and said, too kindly: ‘Thank you. You’ve inspired me.’
I mentioned my friend and she smiled.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘He told me you were coming.’
‘I believed what I said but it wasn’t exactly what I meant,’ I told her. ‘Or not all of what I meant. What I really meant to say is that it is exactly because of all the horror that’s going on that we should write and why we should liberate ourselves from any obligation, even the noble ones – to write about the suffering, for example – and I say this not because I believe writers are free of obligation, but because I know that the best way for literature to thrive is for it to be free. You must be surprised by what you write, and if any of us have a chance at that then we must write without hindrance.’
I had allowed myself more freedom speaking like this, privately, not in front of an audience, and, as I spoke, I watched her face change and become more sympathetic so that by the end of our encounter I felt good, like I had won. But at night, unable to sleep, I thought of her voice, the way she had leaned against the far wall, the words she had said, and I felt as though she and I were standing at the edge of a cliff, trying to muster the courage to look down.
I don’t think people realise how hard things are for Arabs now. And how hard they have been for a long time. I don’t, for example, think people truly understand how horrible it has been to grow up watching Palestine being eaten away with each passing day. I don’t think even we Arabs understand the full psychological effects it has had on us as a people, the despair and anger, the self-loathing it has inspired, expressed in the Palestinian-bashing that many Arabs sadly engage in. And I don’t think we realise to what extent that long and drawn-out corrosion has distorted our politics. This is not a reductive attempt to pin all the complexities and disasters of the Middle East onto the Palestinian issue, but to show the depth of the influence it has on the present. Other acts of invasion and occupation, of intrusion and manipulation, not only by Western powers but also by our own authoritarian rulers, all seem variations on the same theme. And I don’t think it’s easy fully to understand the effects that watching one’s own people butcher and be butchered by our own has on our societies. Civil war is a national trauma, but it is also, and perhaps more powerfully and lastingly, a personal tragedy. It colours every hour. It fills one with endless bewilderment. In a civil war, there is nowhere to turn.
I didn’t tell the Syrian poet living in Arkansas about the many times during the Libyan revolution when I had thought of putting down my pen and picking up a gun. I didn’t tell her that writing only works when you stop using it as a weapon. That whenever I had found myself attempting to get it to bend to another purpose I felt treasonous. I wish I had told her that. I wish I had told her that writing is intransigent about its liberty, and that it is always, by its nature, against oversimplification and against tyranny, that it favours complexity, is interested in men and women running against their own hearts, interested in the possibility of being the other, interested in the Conradian state of being – beyond and above anything else – human.