″Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life,″ Pessoa wrote. But the best thing about literature – about good literature – is that it helps us to understand the world while we think we′re ignoring it. At least on a metaphorical level, it helps us to escape in times of violence. Over the past six years, I have realised that I seek refuge in books when reality lets me down and leaves me in the lurch. Is it explanations I look for in them? Comfort and consolation? I don′t think so.
If I read and wrote to excess during this time, then not because I believed in the power of words and the importance of literature. Quite the opposite. What drove me were profound doubts in both.
Literature doesn′t work like a drug
Charles Bukowski wrote: ″Find what you love and let it kill you.″ It seems to me that I was trying – absolutely unconsciously – to drown in what I loved, to numb my disappointment at failures in real life through reading and writing. But literature doesn′t work like a drug. We realise abruptly that it has sharpened our senses, multiplied our sensibility; that it unfolds reality and reveals its structures so that we can discover what is hidden and silenced within it.
As well as the tales of 1001 Nights, what helped me in that time was above all revisiting the work of Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and W. G. Sebald. Sebald′s books especially touched something deep in my soul, for his rescued individuals are never really saved; memory ruins them. The Holocaust is entrenched forever in Sebald′s work and the war lives on for decades after its end in memory – as though the writer′s eyes saw the hidden ruins behind the facades of every city.
That literary world fitted well with the reality in which I was living. Over the past years, I had the feeling of drowning in hundreds and thousands of dark images and scenes, suffocated by decay and the dust of destruction, plagued by cities that had become graves for their inhabitants.
Sometimes I ask myself: can words ever rebuild ruins? Everything I′ve written since 2011 reflects that question.
The lament over the ravaged home was an essential motif in pre-Islamic poetry. Yet I don′t want to write elegies, nor weep over metropolises sunk into dust and ashes; instead I demand, with childlike defiance, that the power of imagination re-erect what has been destroyed.
A vain demand, of course. For me, though, writing is an attempt to make sculptures out of ice on the equator; or to chase a fata morgana, to play with it, even to create it oneself – to dissolve reality into an illusion and pretend that mirage is the appearance of a reality, just waiting for us to quench our thirst with its fleeting waters. That′s how I put it in my most recent novel.
The calm after the terror
And still I am trying to save myself by quenching my thirst from the fleeting waters of the fata morgana called writing. But is it really a rescue? In terms of my body, I narrowly escaped death on that ″Friday of Anger″ in 2011, then again in the fighting on Muhammad Mahmud Street that November. Or on the day when a bomb went off shortly after I′d passed its location – the thought of it still sends shivers down my back.
Have I saved my psyche? I′m not so sure. Perhaps, like Sebald′s characters, I will have to live with my destructive memories, no matter how much I try to fool the ghosts through my writing. Or even through the mere intention of writing. I console myself by saying:
One day I′ll write about the calm that descends after the bomb has gone off. About how the people vanish from the streets and the city holds its breath while the cars almost fly to get away from the site of the attack.
″After the attack, this place will be safe for a few days at least,″ I tell myself against better judgement – the atrocities in our city have never been calculable. Aimless, I roam the empty streets and try to see the positive . . . the calm that descends after the bomb has gone off.
© Neuer Zuricher Zeitung 2017
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Mansoura Ez-Eldin, born in the Nile delta in 1976, is a writer and journalist. Her novel ″Beyond Paradise″ has been translated into German and ″Maryam′s Maze″ was published in English in 2007. Her most recent book, ″Jabal al-Zumurrud″, has appeared in French under the title ″Le Mont Emeraude″.