FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 1: Hell from the heavens

By Khaled Diab

and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the heavens are where hell resides. People talk of taking wing, but, me, I'd rather take fin, be free as a fish.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin

The sun setting over the is a magnificent sight. It is also the perfect optical illusion. When I feel I need a moment of escape, I often return to this very spot, about as secluded as you can get around here, and watch the fading light as it shifts from a hot, unforgiving yellow, to a warm, caressing orange.

Looking out to sea, I feel myself transported from the land-bound misery on firma behind me, that land of fear, misery and hopelessness. For a few, short, glorious moments, I can even imagine myself as someone else, in another time, another place, the product of a different accident of birth – one that involves relaxed with my best friends, cocktails at sundown, of our other selves, rather than the salafis constraining our current selves, and even kissing and telling. I can see myself on a beautiful Mediterranean island, idling on the beach roasting my olive skin until it's almost ebony, dressed in the bikini that I have only ever worn in the bathroom, but which I now have on under my wetsuit, and which my mother bought me during a rare trip abroad to attend a medical conference.

“I couldn't book you that holiday you've been dreaming of but I got you the next best thing,” she giggled conspiratorially as she passed me the package, her emerald eyes twinkling in a beam of sunlight that had entered the room. Despite her evident fatigue, she reminded me of those gorgeous Red Sea lagoons I also fantasised of floating on and under, like a carefree mermaid and good friend of the rainbow nation of the nearby coral reef.

The sea is my tormenter. Like its illusionary promise of quenching the thirst of the parched desert dweller, it rubs salt in the wounds of my longing to be free. The vast oceans in their depths and breadths contain the prospect of liberation, of release from this fenced-in prison. For as long as I can remember, I've dreamed of being carried away by an irresistible current to a far-away land where people live in peace of mind and body, where the only ruins are those being conserved by the antiquities authorities. Or better still, plunging into a submerged world, an aquatic Atlantis.

Poetry and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the sky for me has lost its allure. The heavens are where hell resides, our infernal graveyards, where death rains down, where a superhuman force greater than ourselves keeps watch over us, its numerous eyes droning high above our heads, buzzing intolerably like giant wasps.

People talk of taking wing, but, me, I'd rather take fin, be free as a fish, return to the waters from which we came, even if some sheikhs say it's to believe in evolution. Perhaps I don't wish to devolve into our scaly ancestor but to evolve into a mermaid, with the boundless ocean my oyster, instead of this land-bound coffin in which I dwell.

Once, during a particularly intense bombardment of the last war, I cracked like the plasterwork in my room and something inside me snapped. The winds of blind rage carried me in a hurricane of hysterical screams to the nearby beach where I pummelled my fists and mocked the killing birds ripping through the darkness above. With explosions sounding from every direction and the cool sand vibrating, sometimes violently, under my bare feet, I saw a phantom emerge from the shadows and, at that moment, I was ready for it to snatch my soul. Instead, it snatched desperately at my arm, like the hopeless life I lead, trying to keep me away from the dark clutches of death. In the moonlight, I saw my father's panic-stricken eyes search my face for a clue to my dark madness. “Maha, have you been possessed by jinn?” he said, shaking me angrily in a way that simulated an exorcism.

But you don't believe in jinn, baba, was the involuntary thought that infiltrated my deranged brain, which was knocking about inside my rocking skull.

When I burst into tears, baba regained his senses, even though the mayhem in the sky was growing. Unrushed and apparently unperturbed by the missiles and shells, he gave me the kind of deep cuddle I could never get enough off as a child, the kind that crushed love deep into your bones.

Then it hit me. How did baba get here? Since the war before last, he has hardly been able to move his left leg, whose calf is sore and swollen, causing him bursts of excruciating pain every time he tries to walk on it, often flooring him. No doctor has been able to find anything wrong with him. A psychologist friend of my father's suggested that it was in his head, caused by unprocessed trauma and – and urged him to seek professional help. Needless to say, baba refused. He has a stubborn streak that is bone-headed even by Gazan standards. On top of that, he believes psychology and psychiatry are bourgeois dark arts, indulgences for the rich and pampered, not legitimate medical disciplines to cure the underprivileged and destitute. I think he also secretly feared the traditional “you're crazy” stigma attached to the field.

“Baba, your leg?” I yelled over the explosions, breaking loose of his embrace.

Surprised, he looked down at his swollen calf ballooning out of his trouser leg, and laughed in astonishment. “You know it doesn't hurt. The pain of my fear for you is stronger than physical pain,” he said, taking me back in his warm embrace.

As he did so, I looked out towards the Mediterranean, hearing only the rhythmic waves, obliviously lapping away, unaware of the inferno metres away on the land.

The sea taunts me. Despite my deep azure love for it, it waves at me from afar, swishing and swooshing derisively in the distance. But today I will conquer you. I will ride your tide and your blue jinn will not be able to stop me. During the last war, I regularly felt the urge to take flight, to flee, that is, into the oblivious embrace of the sea. But the invisible hand of family and community held me back. Though I could not protect my parents and kid brother from the missiles, bombs and shells shaking the foundations of our lives, again, I was determined to shield them from the emotional shrapnel ripping away at their hearts and shredding their minds.

Though the world sits up and pays attention when the explosions are audible and death dramatic, it turns its gaze away when the implosions are emotional and the deaths are of the soul, not the body. Of course, war is traumatic, everyone knows or can imagine that. But what comes after can be far worse, especially here in , where our looped history has repeated itself so much that hope too escaped from our particular Pandora's jar, to soar into the heavens, which have become our hell, unlikely ever to return.

And deprived of external hope, I have decided to create my own, to fashion it out of the abundant radioactive elements of despondency all around me, to modify genetically the DNA letters which spell despair and engineer them into hope.

I stand waist-high in water, dressed in my wet suit and a life jacket for the rest stops I'll inevitably need to take, with a lightweight waterproof bag containing snorkels and some supplies. In a bright corner of my darkened brain, the scheme I have devised strikes me as preposterous, suicidal even. I silence my doubts and fears by telling my limbs, which stand frozen in the still-warm water, that death awaits us anyway – better to die pursuing your dreams than to die pursued by your nightmares.

Read part 2: Breaking out of the fish bowl

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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