Jordanian writer Kafa al-Zoubi took part in Alta’ir, the 2019 Durham-Amman creative exchange. She spent two weeks in Durham on a writing residency at St Aidan’s College, Durham. The Alta’ir cross-cultural exchange was established in 2018 to help raise the profile of British writing in Jordan and of Arab writing and culture in the UK. Here, Kafa writes about some of her experiences in Durham.
A Walk Through Durham
Every last thing in Durham wants you to know that it’s been here a long time. This information is communicated through a haughty silence. The bricks that make up the walls of the cathedral and the castle have been hollowed out over centuries by a constant gale. The arches that support the bridges look as if they’ve had their many legs planted firmly in the water since time began. Vegetation grows high atop the walls. There are layers of moss and dark hedges. Even houses newly built attempt to trick you by blending in with the old.
I reach out to touch a brick in the castle wall nervously. Why am I nervous? It isn’t until my hand is moving that I realize that I’m nervous. Am I worried that another hand is going to emerge from the wall and bat mine away? Or that the wall will recoil in disgust? I don’t know why I feel there’s a distance between me and everything else here. A distance it can’t be breached. I wonder whether it’s just the language barrier or something else.
The driver they’d sent to pick me up from Newcastle Airport asked me what it was that had brought me to Durham. I tried to explain, in my broken English, that I was a guest of St. Aidan’s College and the Durham Book Festival as part of the Durham-Jordan Al-Ta’ir Cultural Exchange Program. This was in the evening so all I could see out of the car window were trees lit up by passing headlights. The driver started telling me about Durham. Everything he said seemed to run together. He left no space for commas, periods, or any other punctuation when he spoke. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me because I failed to understand most of what he said. It was as if one very long word simply unfurled from his mouth like a ribbon. ‘I’m sorry’, I said, ‘but my English is not very good’.
‘Oh well, never mind’, he said and then just kept on talking.
‘Never mind’, I said to myself as I watched the windshield wipers do battle against the rain that streamed over the glass.
The rain never stopped. It, too, was like a sentence without commas, or periods, or punctuation of any kind. It’s worth pointing out that it’s a gentle rain. A haughty rain. It falls softly. It doesn’t bring with it any thunder or the kind of wind that could topple a tree or end a life. Life here is sacred. People are sacred.
Death is still shrouded in tragedy here; we greet it with panic and disbelief. The graveyard that I walked past each day persuaded me that my suspicion was correct. It, too, was old. It contained only a few graves and they were old. Suffering must take place somewhere else then since this isn’t a suitable place to die. I congratulate the city on the peace that hangs over it like a translucent fog, soaking through its pores and enduring, so that everything here can age slowly and serenely, become historic, and never die. Traffic accidents and stray bullets claim no victims here.
Where I come from, or there—it occurs to me suddenly—death is a part of our everyday existence. Wars have stripped it of any solemnity it once had. People have grown used to it. They encounter it every day, either in the streets around their houses or in the body count of the unnamed dead that appears on their screens each morning when they wake up. Good Morning, Death.
You could look at it another way, though. Doesn’t death save young people from the discomfort of getting older, the gloom of winter nights, the unfortunate symptoms of forbidden love, which include heartache and the impulse to compose sad poems? There things happen the way that heaven wants them to; the same heaven, which occasionally promises us that the sun will rise in the west one day.
Walking here is like walking on waves. Up, down, ascend, descend. Over and over. I didn’t realize that the city was going to be hilly and that the best way to get around was on two feet.
I was a child when I heard it for the first time. I came across it in a poem by the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926–1964) and I just assumed it had no meaning. I thought he needed it for the rhythm and sound.
Reach out and embrace me
Down into the pit of darkest nothing.”
I didn’t realize it was a city in the north of England, where al-Sayyab, the tragic poet mired in pain and romanticism, had arrived in deepest autumn, on an October day like this one in 1962. He’d come to be treated for a disease in his legs that had rendered him unable to walk, but he couldn’t stand the cold fog, the incessant rain, and the isolation. Al-Sayyab wanted his dark poem to resonate with the sound of a city shrouded in a dark fog, to resonate with the sound of his own despair, loneliness, and suffering, to resonate with his premonition of death.
Within a few days of arriving in Durham, all the places that I walked past acquired a “the” as though they were the only ones of their kind in the city. Applying the definite article to places and things is a trick we play when we’re trying to build a relationship with a new city. I knew that, but I did it anyway because it was better than giving into an autumnal depression, which could only make me feel more out of place. Using the definite article was like shaking hands with an old friend.
The castle. The cathedral. The bridge. The wooden bench on the mound beside the cathedral. The river. The sound of the rushing river, almost like a waterfall, that I could hear through the trees. The moss. The moss covering the historic walls, the bridges, and the bricks, spreading everywhere like the eternal green breath of the fog and the rain.
The wooded area that I walk through on my way to the city center gets its own “the”. The plants that grew against and around the scaffolding of the tree trunks fascinated me and got me thinking: there are plants that grow tall so that they can reach the light and there are plants that live only in shade. Some plants are parasites; they damage the plants that they live off of and eventually kill them. Some plants grow in order to facilitate the lives of other plants. Some are the real thing and others disguise themselves among the plants that surround them. Some plants split open rocks as they grow, others thrive in swamps. Some plants struggle and fight back, others live or die depending on chance.
People are the same. Human history is what has resulted from all these differences and conflicts. That reminds me. I must visit some museums while I’m here. The tablets that contain the Epic of Gilgamesh, which came to influence the religions that followed (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), are kept in the British Museum in London. I’d seen a statue of Gilgamesh himself in a museum in New York, whereas the Ishtar Gate was divided up across museums in Germany, Sweden, New York, and Turkey. It’s sad that so few of our historical objects remain in our own museums. And it’s sad that much of those that remain were destroyed or stolen during the conflicts currently taking place in Syria and Iraq.
The wall of the cathedral stretches out before me as I walk alongside. I don’t understand why I’m too nervous to touch it. Maybe it’s because there’s a specific distance that separates one object from another, one person from another. A distance that shouldn’t be crossed. That distance allows people and objects to interact according to the rules that have been set for them. It keeps the rules intact.
Time passes according to the clock. There is no stalling it and no mistaking it. No one thinks to ask what the nature of this age is that we’re living in. Is it happening now or has it already been? Everyone here thinks it’s bad if someone else is late, or if someone violates the strict division between morning things and evening things, or if the seasons get turned around and the spring appears in autumn. People are vigilant about smiling at strangers, about taking every possible opportunity to show just how much they respect other people. It makes you proud, regardless of whether you happen to be the I or the other in the scenario, just to be a human being.
This could be a novel, I think to myself. A protagonist who has been run down by hunger, poverty, colonialism, and war is ecstatic to discover that someone else respects him just because he’s a human being. The news delights him, but he can’t figure out how to use it to convince himself that he is in fact a human being. This idea lends itself to a satirical novel, I can see that. Perhaps the novel should end with the protagonist recognizing himself among a nameless number of dead scrolling past in the ticker at the bottom of the television news.
I take a look around me. I don’t know what or who I’m looking for. I imagine a man, drunk and disheveled, stumbling around, cursing the rain, asking passersby for a cigarette. Or a child walking ploddingly behind its mother, swirling its finger around inside its nose. Or some obnoxious person, singing loudly and badly about a star in the sky called the sun. Someone making that leap from the train down to the platform like we all do as though we’re leaping out of ourselves.
None of that actually happens. Things carry on just as before, calmly and slowly. There are no mistakes, no interruptions, no emergencies.
I, too, carry on walking, calmly and slowly. The graveyard is to my right. To the left is a wood and straight ahead of me, in a clearing, I can see that someone has installed a washbasin. It has been piped in and is still connected. A washbasin directly across from the graveyard. It quickly acquires the definite article. The washbasin.
In Arab culture, the body of the deceased is washed thoroughly before burial. It’s as though they hope the white foam will wash away all the dead person’s sins so that they are pristine when they meet their creator. It seems to me that the living perform this ritual for their own sake. It really can’t make much difference either to the deceased or to the earth that will soon receive them.
The washbasin, a symbol of cleanliness and hygiene, right across from the graveyard may just be a coincidence, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It follows me as I walk down lanes, which also never fail to remind me—calmly and silently—that they have been here a long time. The front doors of houses are painted green or black. The asphalt is cracked. A patina covers the wings of the Angel of the North, which the taxi driver points out to me as he takes me to the airport. It was a different driver; this one was young. When I’d arrived in Durham, it was already evening and as I leave now it’s the morning, as though all the time I’d spent here was just a single rainy night.
Translated by Adam Talib