As told to Hosam Aboul-Ela, Oct. 7, 2016
I left my home in Damascus for a life in Europe decades ago, long before the migrant waves of today. At the time, I was an active member of the political left in a country run by the military and the secret police, so I had no real future in Syria. But my main motive for going to Paris in my 20s was to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and become an artist.
Compared with the Syrians coming to Europe today, I was very lucky, but I still experienced many of the struggles that go with being an exile. You have to become comfortable with a new language and culture. You don’t have your old network of friends and family. But eventually I settled into a small apartment in a neighborhood where other artists lived, not far from the Montparnasse Cemetery. Although the apartment is modest, there’s enough space to paint. I have made it a regular practice to invite people who are passing through town to drink tea and see my work — they get my name from friends or relatives or fellow artists. Usually they are charmed by how cramped my place is. (My paintings sometimes take up an entire wall.) With friends, the same space inspires long discussions, often about current events or the paintings in progress.
About 10 years ago, when a Syrian friend named Louai came for a visit, I found myself in one of those discussions. Louai left Syria a few years after I did. Of my many friends in France, he is one of the few who understand where I come from and how that shapes who I am. A highly educated Syrian who studied cinema in Paris, he lived in Lyon for a few years. His visits were precious occasions when I felt free to talk about almost anything.
The topic that day was the rampant vandalism unleashed by poor youth in certain French cities. Young men who traced their roots back to places like Algeria, Morocco or Senegal, and who lived in slums outside the cities, had a habit of celebrating New Year’s Eve, for example, by going down to the center of town and setting cars on fire or smashing storefront windows. Lyon had a lot of this kind of vandalism, so Louai knew something about it. I listened for a while, then could not help making a comment: how useless that kind of random violence is, how it could never make things any better for those young men.
“Why do they do it?” I asked. He assured me it was hard to understand how difficult life can be for people of color in the French banlieue. Then he quoted a line from a novel that would stick with me: “I cannot live on the bank of a river and wash my hands with spittle.”
Several years later, protests against the government in Syria began, and when the government tried to crush them, a civil war broke out. The war and the quest for freedom that started it began to infiltrate my paintings. The line of Arabic that Louai quoted came back to me at all times of day and night. It eventually appeared in my paintings, and even became the epigraph for a cycle of pieces about the trouble back home.
Before I displayed these paintings in Paris, I called Louai and told him that I needed to know the name of the novel where I could find this sentence. All he could remember was that the author was a famous Nigerian. That narrowed things down but was not enough to go on. He remembered the color of the book, but he didn’t have it in France, and no one could get to the Syrian copy.
“Why?” I asked.
“It is buried in the garden,” he answered. Louai comes from an educated family living in one of the central cities that has been savaged by both sides in the war. In Syria, families with books or art had started to bury them to protect them from bombs. Within all that carnage, trying to find the book with my sentence seemed silly, and he felt too embarrassed to bring it up with his family.’
Then last spring, I agreed to exhibit my paintings at a show in Los Angeles; at the time there was a cease-fire in Syria. By now, everyone’s life there was so absurd that anything seemed possible. I called Louai again and begged him to have his family dig up the novel. Somehow, given the dark routine of life that had evolved back home, he was no longer hesitant. The cease-fire lasted just long enough. Some weeks passed, but one day he called to tell me that the line belongs to the Nigerian warrior Okonkwo, the main character in “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe.
That is how I finally learned the source of the sentence that haunted me for so many years. Soon I learned the context: Okonkwo is planning a feast for all the people of his mother’s ancestral village, in thanks for hosting him during a term of banishment from his home. Okonkwo, too, was an exile. He knew how it felt to have things fall apart.
Syrian artist Ahmad Kaddour, 54, has exhibited his work internationally, most recently at the BOA Art Gallery in Beverly Hills, Calif. He told his story in Arabic to Hosam Aboul-Ela, a translator and literature professor at the University of Houston.
Source: The New York Times Magazine