Paris, 2022; Dessert
Sitting at the other end of the table, she observes the person she had considered her best friend during their youth, the years of prépa, then college, before she left for the United States. She scrutinizes his every gesture, his language tics, his intense and provocative looks, as if they could reveal to her an explanation of their friendly dissension. She remembers the idyllic time of their half-intellectual, half-belated teenage correspondence, those years of prep’ school when they exchanged letters almost daily that spoke of Nietzsche, Duras, classical tragedies, the pre-Socratics, Lautréamont, sometimes even Kant and the transcendental. She admired him, who, in addition to his witty humor, wrote with all the culture of a family of left-wing intellectuals, anthropologists and sociologists, against whom he had enacted a war of disciplines by choosing philosophy, literature, and finally linguistics. And what did he admire in her then, she asks herself today with greater acuity? Because now he no longer likes what she writes. The discordance between them, latent since her American years, became manifest when, the previous year, she published in a “Jewish magazine” – as he had said in a reproachful tone – her story “Mamie-louche” about her grandmother and her Marrano Jewishness. Since then, a fault line has opened up, gradually separating two people who believed in the eternity of their dance together.
Her ten guests do not notice her absence in the conversation for some time, the hour is late and she would like this dinner to end. She then interrupts the din of the political discussions, this sometimes joyful, sometimes nervous atmosphere emanating from her Saturday night dinners.
“Who wants dessert again? Or maybe a square of chocolate?
– Oh, you’re going to kill us with all that sugar!
– All right, pack up your green talk, you.
– Green? I’m not talking about the planet, but about my glycemic index!
– And I’m talking about my waistline!
– Well, who’s motivated to go running tomorrow?
– But wait, did you put sugar or agave syrup in your cake? You know, agave is fantastic, I recently discovered…
– By the way, did you hear this story about the sugar shortage in Tunisia, I heard that…
– Oh, it won’t hurt them to eat less sugary crap!
-Nor us, by the way…
– Then stop, if the doctor starts… we won’t invite you anymore. Last month you bored us with your speech about cancer cells, I didn’t sleep all weekend!
– Personally, tomorrow I’m going to do a fast, not an intermittent one, a real diet, all day long.
– Listen, I’m going to call you down, you know that Jewish joke that our dear host’s colleague told her the day before Kippur?
– What joke?
– I don’t know it, tell it, but be concise, it’s late.
– There were many… give me more wine instead, here.
– Ok, ok, the one about hiking, does it tell you anything? “Four Europeans go hiking together and get terribly lost. First they run out of food, then of water.
‘I’m so thirsty,’ says the Englishman. ‘I must have tea!’
‘I’m so thirsty,’ says the Frenchman. ‘I must have wine!’
‘I’m so thirsty,’ says the German. ‘I must have beer!’
‘I’m so thirsty,’ says the Jew. ‘I must have diabetes!’”
Laughter; but not from everyone. She, of course, remembers it, but she barely smiles. Probably because hearing this story from a goyish friend is not as funny as from her old Jewish colleague. Perhaps because, depending on the gathering, the joke becomes a mockery, as Desproges says. Or maybe because, like the Jew in a famous Yiddish joke, “she”s heard it before, and she can tell it better.” Looking around the table, she waits to see who, tonight, this joke will awaken, the social anti-Semite, the dinner philosemite, the occasional offended soul.
“In any case, your cake was excellent.
– I hope it was kosher!
– Stop being ironic, you’ll get confused again.
– It was organic hallal, okay? Don’t start looking for it.
– Oh, it’s okay, it was a joke, we can’t laugh anymore! I’m like the Jew in your joke among the Europeans, ready to eat me!”
She does not laugh. Has she lost her sense of humor? Can one lose one’s sense of humor when it becomes sarcasm? She does not answer anything. She knows exactly where the friend from before wants to take her, from his “you want to kill us” to the “kosher” cake and the “I’m like the Jew”. She doesn’t even ask herself if her silence is legitimate, if her tied tongue is a symptom of a more general malaise. No, she hammers away at herself that she is not the hypochondriac Jew, she is not paranoid; the sick Jew is precisely what he would want. They don’t understand the joke in the same way. She would like to hiss at him that his humor is being frayed by its insistence, that if a stereotype can be laughed at it is because it is not being dwelt upon. But tonight, as for several months, perhaps even years, he, the joker, has broken with brevity, he is sinking into the mud of resentment. He, the most brilliant linguist in his class, who could spend hours explaining the mechanism of displacement of anxiety in this Jewish joke, nights expounding on the double meaning of the verb ‘to have’, to possess or to be afflicted with…, he no longer discerns the subtleties, he does not perceive that if she is the Jew in this joke, it is because of her anticipation of disaster. But it is precisely this that he refuses her, with all his unconscious he maintains: she has no right to care about Jews. No, she cannot be concerned about the Jews: when one has an Arab name, the camp is already defined before oneself, and he, the Neutral Friend, neither Jew nor Arab, poses as the Guardian of the Borders. He, the “pacifist”, who has always voted on the left, who defends oppressed peoples, today the peoples without states, especially one, he who is inhabited by this Christian charity of employing a Syrian cleaning lady, but whose conscientious unconsciousness has prevented him from recruiting a young doctor of Algerian origin in his research laboratory, In short, he who tonight calls himself “like the Jew among the Europeans”, by his belligerent imposture reverses with a slap in the face history and their friendship, the trust she had placed in him vis-à-vis the complexity of minority identities.
She thinks of her children sleeping in the room at the end of the corridor, peacefully unaware of the war being waged at the other end of the apartment. She would like to take refuge in their hut, the teepee tent filled with toys that sits in the corner of their room. “I tried this anxiolytic, it is very light, you still see the problems, but it affects you less, it slides on you”, she remembers this advice from a friend on whom chemistry had worked miracles. In the midst of her inner revolt, at this “kosher” cake dinner, she hopes for a moment for this magic, “things slide over you”. But, in reality, this thought stirs up her anger, because, she says to herself, this old friend that she can’t stand any more is trying to make her sick, he wants to pathologize her, whereas he is the one who has a problem. He is the one who became angry when she, the girl who is a little Jewish, not really, with an Arab name, started to worry about the Jews, to defend the Jews in her speeches, her positions. It was he who could not bear the fact that an “Arab” was re-creating a half-assumed Jewish maternal ancestry and blurring the boundaries. His entire immune system went into a panic when he diagnosed that she was getting Jewified, through her readings, her company, her interests. Deep inside, he trembles with fear, envy, hatred, desire at the thought that this girl with an Arabic name, with a complex family history that he thought he had mastered from his French peak, might one day serve him “kosher cake” – a nightmare fantasy of the crumbling of his control, a slice of poison that she would serve to him while whispering, teasingly, the worst taunt he could hear from her: “I’m Jewish if I want to be, I’m Arab when I want to be, you can’t help it”. Since their meeting, during the preparatory classes, their friendship sealed in the hardships, their laughter, their smiles, their tears, he slowly, patiently, nourished an unavowable erotic dream, to take her and to turn her over against a wall, to fuck her with all his manly force, by murmuring to her, suavely in her neck, that he finds Oriental women seductive and sybaritic.
At the moment of saying goodbye, in the hall, coat in hand, he glanced at the shelf of books behind her, and in a provocative tone: “Look, you kept Orientalism? I’m glad Edward Said still has a place in your house.” Then, immediately, in confession: “Frankly, I do not understand why you have to throw a wrench into the works”. Crumbs of a poisoned dish, these piquant sentences perpetuate the shock wave which spreads fatally between the two friends. Flabbergasted, more disgusted than ever, she impulsively tries to saturate the epicenter: “I’ll give you a piece of the leftover cake, for your breakfast?”
Cambridge, Massachusetts., 2016; Main Course
As soon as she entered the elegant lounge of the Harvard Faculty Club, she looked for her companion with her eyes, as if to fix a horizon. Tired, she had been reluctant to accompany him to this party, but had finally agreed not only to support him in his role as a new professor, but also because she still had a delicious memory of this place where she had been invited two or three times by her thesis director during her PhD. A glance at the canopy formed by the waiters’ trays tells her that she is not too late, the aperitif is still being served, the main dish will wait for her. She sees her lover crossing the back of the room, taken in a discussion with a colleague. She thinks again about his proposal of a wildlife hike in Alaska, always extreme ideas which do not enchant her much. As if he needed to be radical in order to experience love. To sleep under the stars, she agreed, but to wake up in front of a grizzly, as it had happened to friends, no thank you. She rushes to join the one she loves in spite of their holiday disagreement, but slightly collides with another man, apologizes. “No problem ! Hi, how are you, hmm… what’s your name ?” He looks for her name on the label carefully stuck on her jacket but hidden by its flap. She, she immediately recognized the face of this illustrious law professor. The man in his sixties was as famous for his ardent Republican commitment as for his eloquent intellect, and she had a vivid memory of his political diatribe against the Democrats during the presidential election. These two characteristics made him both unfriendly and intriguing to her. She hesitated for a moment to show him her name, but was forced to do so, given the context of this cocktail dinner at her alma-mater. The reaction was immediate, and – unexpectedly – very warm: “Oh I had a dear friend with the same last name! A fervent Maronite, a righteous patriot, and a supporter of Israel.” She tempers the enthusiasm by pointing out the commonality of this Christian Lebanese surname, while appreciating the finesse of this American who can distinguish the religious denomination from the Arabic names. For, with this Arabic name with a particle, how many times had she been mistaken for a Muslim, students and colleagues alike, or even for an expert on Islam – identity politics obliges, in the United States – she who knew almost nothing about this religion and who was struggling with the bitter heritage of a divided Maronite paternal family torn apart by the civil war.
The exchange goes on. The professor tells her, in a nutshell, American style, his family history of Ashkenazi immigration, Romania, Poland, Russia. And continues with some remarks about his youthful stay in Israel, the wars, and the one he wants to get to, Lebanon. She dreads the words he is about to say. Talking about this war is like walking on a minefield, even if the cocktail party under the Faculty Club’s magnificent solarium makes it look like a safe meadow.
“We did some good work together in 1982.”
“Damn. That’s it,” she says inwardly, “the problem.” These damned associations of the name, these immoral loyalties, these carnages without names but with accomplices, this abyss in which she does not want to look. Imagination is stronger, the grizzly looks at her in front of her tent of campers.
He does not say “the Phalanges”; he pronounces, in a remarkable Arabic sound, “Kataeb party”, “Hizb al-Kataeb”. He knows Arabic well, he claims, the language, the people. He speaks of friendship and proximity, of the 1970s, of shared visions. He quotes Max Weber, in politics there are only bad solutions, from the worst to the least worst. Evokes the tragic, reality is always frustrating. Punctuates some sentences with “alas”. He does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, he reasons in terms of demographic balance.
He does not name Sabra and Shatila, he refers to the “dirty camps”.
Grizzly. She sees only him. She is pale.
Her boyfriend has joined her, he stands slightly behind her, listening. Without seeing him, but knowing him well, she feels the anger welling up in him and gradually assailing him. An invasion of heat on her right flank. She thinks of the grizzly, hopes that an arctic chill runs through him. No gaffe is allowed for a newly appointed young professor.
But the old professor continues; he does not know that this man who has joined them and who could be his son, fights every night the ghosts of his years in the IDF, and that every day he confronts the image of the deserter. He cannot know that this handsome Israeli, under his air of detached European intellectual, suffers from a persistent post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other wars, other generations, same territories.
Above all, he cannot guess that the father of this young professor was not only one of the thousands of demonstrators of Peace Now on September 25, 1982, but that, as a magistrate, he worked to set up the Kahan commission.
“Kahan”. The word, dropped by the young man, explodes like a bomb. She freezes, the grizzly disappeared, or she does not see it any more because she is already in its mouth, she says herself; she concentrates on the man whom she loves, as if the mental effort could ensure a stable contentment to the discussion, as if her attention could delimit the conversation in a cordial outline. Nevertheless the profusion of the signifiers thrown by her companion signals to her that it is an illusion, the breakage can become unlimited. She catches then his hand, hopes to communicate to him a little of this tenderness so necessary and of which they made their couple. However she feels that the volcano is beginning to erupt.
Above them, the incendiary cloud covers the shadow of a name, that of “Bashir Gemayel”, the breaking point cracking the Christian Lebanese families, hers in particular. The fractal image of the young president imposes itself on her, a liminal ghost of internal wars. Archival memories telescope in her mind, photos from family albums, the floating words from his last speech before his assassination, his raised fist, a stone fracturing the reality of his determination. Abstracted from the conversation between her fulminating companion and the placid professor, she revisits a common geography, the superimposition of Gemayel’s places and her own family’s, the Notre-Dame de Jamhour school, the Saint-Joseph university, the University of Texas, and, inevitably, the premises of the Kataeb party in the Achrafieh district of Beirut.
She thinks of her two uncles, camped on either side of the still open breach. On one side, the Phalangist, the youngest of the brothers, on the other, the elder, a high-ranking military officer supported by the Syrian Popular Party of the Christian Antoine Saadeh, and close to the Baath party. A banal family tragedy: the youngest, on the extreme right of the Maronites, on the side of those who entered the camps, who killed, raped, dismembered, disemboweled, trampled; the eldest, a general with egalitarian and secular ideals, imprisoned for his failed coup d’état, who fought on the side of those who defended the camps. Between them, silence, the merciless law of criminal abysses, of the abyss where hatreds are unleashed, “Palestinians”, “Israelis”, “Christians”, “Muslims”, “Sunnis”, “Shiites” — branchable terms of an equation with variable geometry divisions. The political fork is inexorably a family drama, because in the land of the Cedar, where power is a private property, violence has eaten everything, even the brambles.
The sentence that saves what’s left of appearances finally arrives: the meal is served, the professors are invited to sit at the table in the great hall.
“Well, it was nice to meet you both. Bon appetite, as you say in French,” concludes the law professor.
She is no longer hungry, he is nauseous.
It’s past midnight, they can’t sleep, trying to be on the right side, then the left, hugging each other in every possible way.
“You know what would make me really happy?” she asks.
“To hike in Alaska.”
They laugh in connivance.
“Let’s go see the grizzlies then.”
They kiss, hoping to dream, tonight, of non-human landscapes.
Beirut-Tel Aviv, 2021; Starters
She sees a +972 number appear on her screen. She immediately rejects the call. She’s crazy, my sister, she thinks. She writes a text message to her via WhatsApp.
Don’t call on the line
you want me to end up in Roumieh?!
You are paranoid!
Of course, she knows that in this nest of spies one has better things to do than to keep an eye on a French woman who has come to visit her family, but the sentences of this general that she had heard as a teenager have become permanently embedded in her mind: “Lebanon is officially at war with Israel, and Lebanese law forbids any contact with the Hebrew state and its citizens”. She also thinks of the director Ziad Doueïri, and of some others, friends or personalities, who were convicted under article 285 of the penal code “forbidding any visit to enemy territory without prior authorization”. And then the law of boycott of Israel dating from 1955 which condemns any person or entity to enter into contact with Israelis, or anyone residing in Israel. As a small compensatory satisfaction, she remembers as a reflex all her Israeli, Franco-Israeli, Israeli-American, Argentinean and other friends and lovers, and she tells herself that the history of states is always a step behind what individuals weave, that some states are a dinosaur skeleton whose brain cavity has been haunted by the same echo for decades.
How are you doing, did you get there okay?
Yes, I’m already at the wedding,
I didn’t have a minute before
to call you, sorry.
We just finished the starters,
There’s a break,
I was taking the opportunity to call you.
How was the entrance into the territory… ?
As always put aside,
seven hours of interrogation,
questions to make you go crazy,
one little prick in particular who was overzealous
It’s degrading, and you lose a day!
She thinks of her Mamie-louche, of the one whose name is erased twice by the patronymics, of the genealogical line that she had laboriously reconstructed, and of this distant cousin of Mamie louche, one of the founders architects of Tel Aviv.
How is the family doing?
Very bad, like the country.
They are beyond the point of catastrophe.
Everything has collapsed, nothing works anymore.
What a calamity…
She closes her eyelids, tries for a moment to imagine this country that had been nicknamed the Switzerland of the Middle East to ward off what is now before her eyes, men and women shooting at banks out of desperation, children dying of hunger, sick people dying in hospitals without continuous electricity, babies lacking milk and diapers.
All the binationals have left.
And the expats who come to blow their dollars
in bars and nightclubs,
this unalterable sense of festivity, it’s indecent.
Well, tourism is resilient. But what a disaster…
Did you bring the suitcases to give away?
Yes, I did.
Well, you can say mazel tov from me
to your girlfriend and her husband, ok?
They are settled in, right?
Yes, I’ll tell them.
It’s ok but they had a hard time finding a place to live,
life is very expensive here.
There are even people who rent tents on the roofs
of buildings for more than 5000 shekels !
Don’t talk to me about tents, you would see here,
the refugees are almost more numerous than the locals…
Well, they are singing
the siman tov, I’ll go back.
You take care of yourself, okay?
Pensive, she looks at the horizon. From the balcony of her apartment, in the Gemmayzeh district, not far from the Martyrs’ Square, she sees the sumptuous and immense Al Amine mosque, next to which the old Maronite cathedral of Saint George now seems tiny. A little further, on Wadi Abou Jmiel Street, she guesses the Maghen Abraham synagogue, magnificent since its restoration, but still inaccessible, barricaded, in this governmental district, in this country where there are no more Jews. The beauty of the juxtaposed stones of the three religion does not hide the violence that has been lurking for centuries, the brutality of the living-together of men who do not know how to live together. Camps, counter-camps. The dreaming blurs the vision, the landscape becomes a stain made of the assembly of thousands of small squares and triangles. Tents, camps, other tents, other camps, endlessly, from Beirut to Tel Aviv.