Hakim Bishara

The Others: When Life Refuses to Imitate Fiction

Vision reveals a bundle of handsome cottages dainty juxtaposed on the fringes of a great thick forest. A herd of retired horses, still in good shape, loiters peacefully nearby, feasting on the grass. Bisecting this spring canvas, a leaved path climbs to an ornate castle sown majestically on top of a hill. A tended carpet of green grass slopes under. Then the elms and the pines, the poplars and the ashes, brushed onto the horizon framing a small city unfurling behind. The land of poets and thinkers at its most picturesque.
He pulls his head out of the window back into the room. Inside, the languid agony of writing. Jostling through a mass of clouded thoughts, he wonders if it’s only in his case that heartfelt things suddenly lose their meaning once formed into words. That inquiry remains hovering above the debris of sentences that he piled up on the page. An accidental glance at the bathroom mirror provides its daily dose of horror. His face looks like a battered eggplant and a tangle of unkempt hair is sadly randomized on his head. A shy sun beams in and reveals a fat winged insect supine on the wooden floor, fluttering two of its six legs in despair. The black creature, the type of which he could not classify, is beautiful and curious upon closer look. He leaves the insect there unaided in its misery. A tape recorder lying on his desk beckons him to rewind. He thinks it might lend him a memory of more creative times. Her rolls the tape, the insect still in sight. 
“You look scared,” he hears Julia’s voice on the tape.
“This could end really badly.”
“You don’t have to do it that way.”
“I don’t know, I feel I owe it to myself.”
“To strip naked in front of the whole world?”
“It can’t be good unless it’s real.”
“Let’s be careful of the word ‘real,’ okay? You can do it in so many different ways; you have the talent to fictionalize anything. Why sacrifice your life for the sake of a story?”
“Because I have no other story to tell.”

His voice sounds slightly younger to him. Hers hasn’t changed at all. A cesspool of flashbacks begins whirling in his mind and thrusts him to three summers back. In a room small and bare, an air conditioner grunts and coughs, protesting its old age. Tel Aviv was obscenely hot. Julia – wide eyes, bronze skin, brown hair – sits in front of the desk gnawing a pen while he trudges restlessly around her, bemused and lost. She’s here to help him disentangle the threads of a script that has to be completed. In his dreams, the film was to be a project of a lifetime, the summit of his ambitions and wilder dreams; his seminal contribution to the world. The tape recorder is running, the clock is ticking and the deadline is pressing.
“Let’s start again. What’s your story about?” says Julia.
“Don’t you know? It’s what you see. More or less.”
“Wait, don’t forget we’re talking about a character in a story here. Use third-person narration.”
“What? Why? It’s a documentary film.”
“You’ll see the difference.”
Julia believed in his story and wanted to take part in it. She thought it to be her story as well, or in her words, “the story of a people with a twisted sense of identity in a terrible cultural decline.” She made it sound promising indeed. Still, she wasn’t going to spare him her sharp tongue.   
“Okay ... So, the film tells the story of a Palestinian living in the heart of Tel Aviv.” He pauses to ponder and says, “But it’s not the classic victim narrative. The protagonist is an empowered individual dealing with a life full of contradictions.”
“Oh. How? By hiding?” she teases.
“Very funny.”   
“I know,” she says with a cynical smile.
He wasn’t the only one to find Julia difficult to grasp. Her blunt truthfulness gained her more foes than friends. She had the destructive quality of always hiding her good intentions behind a wall of fire. Life made her this way, she would explain to him, but he didn’t always have the strength to endure her shelling. She had just returned from another aborted attempt to base her life abroad and lodged with him and his girlfriend in their flat. The alternative was to be sucked back into the Arab town she came from. He did not want that to happen to her. He knew what regression that would cause. When they first met, he remembers, they both agreed that making films was the only way to tolerate life in that place. Frustration and hope brought them together; and it was to go a long way from there.    
“What happens in the story?” she asks.
“Hmm ... ,” he stalls for time and eventually says, “At first we see a guy very much in control of things. He lives at the center of the city with a girl he loves (he says looking directly into Julia’s eyes), he knows all the right people and goes to all the right places. He’s hip, he’s involved in the scene, and he’s invited to parties, and so on.”
“Yeah, an Arab happily assimilated in Tel Aviv, you mean?” she asks.
“No .... Why would you say that?” he asks back with growing impatience.
“What is the story then?” asks Julia, ignoring his question.
With some effort he replies, “The idea is to portray the Tel Aviv society through the eyes of an outsider living within. Someone who maybe cannot but also does not wish to belong. That’s a point of view that’s rarely seen.”
For a moment he looks pleased of himself for phrasing a coherent idea until his eyes meet Julia’s deadpan, who in turn says, “True, but that’s not a story.”
“Why not?” he says beginning to doubt if it was a good idea to involve her in the first place.
“What do we see beyond a sad sarcastic clown?” she blasts at him.
He replies with a furious gaze.   
It was hard to admit it then, as it is hard now in retrospect. That indeed he was living a life of performance, in which there was a particular role for him to play. Having many acquaintances but not a single friend, he mimed a life of an unaffected bohemian. At the time, he was almost unemployed, scratching measly sums from small jobs. An editing job here, a translation job there. He preferred those kinds of sporadic freelance jobs to the full commitment of a defined career. Writing for the Israeli press, as he did for years, was no longer an option. He was writing in a language that wasn’t his to an audience he didn’t care to impress. So he kept his potential on hold, growing ever more critical and sarcastic toward other people’s work while loitering between the cafes and bars, doing basically nothing.
Still in her trenches, Julia continues her attack, saying, “Let’s face it, it’s a story about escape. That’s the reason we’re both here. Why aren’t you living in your hometown?”
“Is that a serious question? You know why.”
“I can ask whatever I want.”
“How is it helpful?”
“Why can’t you just answer the question?” she shouts, then quickly calms downs and says, “It’s for your own sake.”
“Where else can I go?”
“So is Tel Aviv your default?”
“Listen, I’ve lost the desire to belong to any side a long time ago. If anything, I wish to live in a place where I would be a complete stranger, instead of feeling like a stranger at home.”

He was daydreaming of immigrating to a better place, without making a real effort to realize such a plan. Inside he knew that a new place wouldn’t necessarily change much. He went on to tell Julia about the miserable township (only half an hour from Tel Aviv) called home. A frustrated community frozen in time. He comes from a family of moneymakers and diploma collectors who steer away from politics to avoid troubles with the authorities. At home, he has a well-meaning father and loving mother who gave their lives to their children. As he grew older, he became (as they reported) their sole source of suffering. With tears and shouts they claimed that he abandoned them and betrayed their trust. They did not miss an opportunity to strongly demand that he get a normal job, marry a good girl and settle down in his hometown. His time is running out, they would say. Yes, escape was the word.
“It’s not such a unique story so far,” says Julia, with a sigh of boredom.
To rekindle her interest, he thinks of implying a visual style. “Okay, picture this. We use different shooting styles in the two places. A shaky camera at home versus steady shots here. Here versus there. The urban Jewish environment versus the suffocated Arab town.” Julia doesn’t seem impressed, but he continues, saying, “Both places mean estrangement and neither feel like home. It’s a story about a double life ....”
Julia chills his pretentious burst of creativity asking, “What happens when the character visits home?” He swallows his agitation this time and answers, “He goes there and people look at him like he’s a tourist. At home, he hardly speaks to his parents to avoid their questions. They know nothing about his other life. They don’t know what he does for a living; they don’t how he lives. They don’t even know my address,” he says, emphasizing that last part.
His address,” Julia corrects.
“This is my life we’re talking about!” he bursts, pauses for a second, and continues to follow her instructions. “When the preaching begins, he feels an immediate need to flee back to Tel Aviv.”
“So the story is about the sharp contrast between the two worlds that the character lives in.”
“No!” he shouts, unable to contain himself, and thinks he cannot deal with her anymore.
“I know, but you’re only telling me the background to the story. What about your girl over there, do they know about her?” says Julia, pointing towards the other side of the flat, to which he mutters,
“Of course not.”
All the while, Alma sits in the living room, where she spends most of her time, puffing a joint in the company of her three spoiled cats. She loved those spoiled creatures more than anyone, and claimed they had saved her from madness many times. He met her one hot summer in the past. Her dimpled face and dreamy gaze suggested a kind of cuteness. But there was something in her that distinguished her from all the rest. Her impeccable childlike features, yet to be drained by her “hash therapy,” as she called it, were a smart cover for the reserved anger that fermented inside. It was love at first or second sight, and it didn’t take long until she took him into her home (for the lack of alternatives on his side) and wrapped him with her timid love.
It didn’t matter that Alma was Jewish and he was Arab. They believed they were above those narrow-minded categorizations. He read her many books of theory and critique and adjusted himself to her lifestyle. It so happened that she was discovering feminism at the time and he, who was beginning to understand the fallacies of his inherited male patterns, was eager to be a feminist just as much. She, who had served as an officer in the Israeli army, in time became a radical leftist, fighting for the rights of oppressed Palestinians. He let her do the struggle for him, thinking she needed it much more than he did. In moments of tension, he would protest some certain ironies and hypocrisies in her actions. For instance, he never understood why they should speak only in her language. His attempts to teach her Arabic were futile. Still, they fit together in many other ways, and eventually became the chic couple of Tel Aviv. They created their own version of a Salon, they organized demonstrations, wrote piercing articles, and at some stage also challenged monogamy. Taking themselves to be the local Sartre and de Beauvoir, they kept throwing slogans into the air until love itself became a slogan. Fascinated by their lifestyle, which looked so brave and exotic, Devil Films signed them to a contract. Their love was now to be featured in a story titled “The Others.”
“Did she tell her parents that she’s living with an Arab man?” asks Julia, failing to utter Alma’s name.
“Her parents are diehard right-wingers,” he replies.
“She didn’t, you mean?”
He shakes his head without looking at her.
“So what we have here are two adults hiding from their parents in this filthy hole.”
Julia couldn’t stand the cat hair that carpeted the floor and clung to nearly everything. Neither could he, but love taught him tolerance, until Julia came along.  
In her heart, Alma knew that the long recurrent sessions in the other room weren’t only “brainstorming” conversation. When she asked to be included in the conversation, being a major part of the story, the two rejected her under the pretext of being a character, who therefore shouldn’t be too aware of the writing process. As time went by, the co-writers spent most of their time secluded in the other room, laughing and debating, fighting and hugging. Alma would get most jealous when she would overhear their fights. To her, that indicated an entire relationship being formed far from her sight, but not far enough. Still she camouflaged her jealousy. She couldn’t possibly appear possessive. That wasn’t their style. A reluctant love triangle started forming and he found himself split between the two.  
“So will you tell your parents the truth on camera?” says Julia, defying her third-person rule.
“I know, they can’t find it out in a movie.” he mutters. “It will break their hearts, among other things.”
“Are you ready to take such a risk?”
“I’m sick of hiding,” he says with dismay, not really considering the full consequences of this statement.
“Then it’s a coming-out-of-the-closet story,” she concludes.
“No, it isn’t!” he says raising his voice.
“So what is the story?” she shouts back.
A queer silence follows and the tape stops. The unknown insect on the floor slow-motions a remaining leg, as if gesturing a last goodbye. Living things never remain idle. The nature of relationships is that if untended, they will wither. And problems, if ignored, will expand till they finally explode. His fatal error was trying to pause life in order to document it. While doing that, another life started to replace that one that suffered from negligence and died. The narrative of his film was slipping out of his hands. His so-called double life was doubled inside, and the story that he wanted to tell was self-nullified.
Following that reflection, a spiral of events reverses through his memory and reels through his mind. He secluded himself at home, paralyzed by anxiety, neglecting all his obligations and breaking all the deadlines. Then it all came at once. His parents, Devil Films, the bank, the landlord, and Alma dogged him with their threats and ultimatums. Julia, who by then had seized his heart, went back to her hometown. Alma, who was mysteriously absent most of that period, finally confessed to having a new lover. He could not write a word. Little remained to be written about. With no story and no money, the unthinkable happened. He ended up standing with a suitcase at his parents’ doorstep. Tel Aviv was behind him, and the documentary was gone. The year of promise was painted all in black. “Oh, simple,” he thought, stricken by a sudden epiphany. “It’s a German roach.” The poor creature had wings but it could not sustain flight. The Web explains that the insect is found mainly near human habitats, especially heated buildings, due to its low tolerance to cold climates. And with that acquired knowledge, the torrent of damning memories stopped.
Magazine-like brides and grooms freeze to camera flashes in front of a big white castle, each couple followed by an entourage of cheering relatives. A band of muscled bikers, their bodies cast into tight polyester suits, wheels by. It’s getting colder now. A choir of birds performs its daily postlude. The crows line up on the branches, ready to go. Dusk fades in. Soon, the birds and the people will all be gone. It then comes to him without a sound and rises above any doubt – that he knows what should be done. He sits and writes his complete story. The one that was never told,  until now.

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