What follows is an excerpt from Syrian novelist Haitham Hussein’s new autobiography, There May Not Be Anyone Left: Agatha Christie…Come, I’ll Tell You How I Live. It’s framed as a letter to fellow novelist Agatha Christie, who lived for a time in Hussein’s hometown. She traveled throughout the region with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, and wrote a memoir of her time there, Come Tell Me How You Live (1946):
Are You Happy That You’re Here?
By Haitham Hussein
Translated by Ahmad Al Saleh
Dear Agatha Christie, were you happy here? Were you happy there? Were you happy in your life?
In your book, you wrote about that part of the world called the Middle East: “This is a simple and, I think, consequently a happy part of the world. Food is the only consideration. If the harvest is good, you are rich. For the rest of the year, there is leisure and plenty, until the time comes to plough and sow once more.”
You mentioned how hard it can be for Westerners who’ve been exposed to wicked ideas about the importance of life to adapt their beliefs to a different system of values. Yet the Oriental mind is so simple: Death is inevitable, predetermined, just like birth. Death either visits early or late, and this is up to God. You think that this mindset, this surrender to fate, keeps us away—restricts us. You find that people in the Middle East may not be free of poverty, but they certainly are free of fear.
You say that you started writing a non-chronological memoir before the war, and found that, after four years of war, memories brought you back to the days you spent in Syria, and you felt the drive to return to your diaries, to finish what you’d started. You say it was great to recall those days and places and to remember, in that precise moment, the flourishing of flowers and elderly white bearded men walking behind their donkeys, maybe without even being aware that war exists. Those were happy moments, right?
Let me tell you about questions I’ve been asked about happiness.
These are questions I’ve been targeted with from time to time, by random people I’ve met, and you notice that, after asking about my country and its chaos, after bringing up horrendous pictures synonymous with Syria, there comes the question about my alleged happiness that I must surely be experiencing away from home, in this paradise in which I’m supposed to be living.
Although I try to avoid depressing those who ask me, I can’t lie to myself, and I come up with pretentious answers that allude to some sense of happiness and fulfilment. I give a smile that can allow for many interpretations, but the sadness in my eyes cannot be hidden.
Should the answer to these questions to be yes or no? What is happiness?
When some insist that I answer, I come up with questions about happiness and its meanings. I say that happiness is man’s impossible dream, and that of course there are happy moments that a man can distill from his reality, but it is almost impossible that these moments could be so powerful as to bring about some measure of sustained happiness. These moments arouse different kinds of happiness, emanating something of life’s splendors and hopes, and its surprises.
I say happiness is relative. There are moments when I feel happy because of good news – they’ve been few lately – or as a result of a situation or experience through which I’ve lived. Happiness occurs in a non-linear fashion, and does not reveal itself as the full picture of imagined happiness, which we so hopelessly romanticize.
I see I dodged the questions by philosophizing, but at least I’m true to myself—I see things as they are. For me, language is an arrow I use to target the heart of what I believe, which in itself is relative from one person to another.
When I deflect the same questions back to my eager audience, I notice their confusion, bewilderment, and embarrassment. It’s as if I handed them back the same grenade but took out the safety pin.
So, are you happy? I say. Then I might hear answers filled with sorrow and confusion.
In the schools here, I notice how they make sure pupils repeat that they’re happy. Sometimes, I tease my daughter by saying: ‘Are you happy?’ Then she answers with a childish innocence that I adore: ‘Yes, I am happy.’ I repeat the same question more than once until she is bored and agitated, answering: ‘I am happy.. very happy!’ When I ask her: ‘Are you sad? Angry?’ She responds with anger: ‘Dad, I am happy.’ I say: ‘Are you angry?’ She shouts: ‘I’m happy. Now please go away.’
No doubt, there is a huge difference in how we raise our children. Since I was raised in an environment where emotional expression was constantly suppressed, I was inclined to indulge such emotions only when I was on my own. If you were happy, you were not supposed to show it. You did not want to appear arrogant or jinx your good fortune. If you were sad, you had to swallow you sorrows and hide them, to avoid being the target of criticism or pity.
Here, it might be fitting to recall the saying, ‘Happiness is a habit.’ For when you keep telling yourself that you are happy, you will lessen the impact of negative feelings in your life, such as sadness and oppression.
Some might think that being in Edinburgh, I might face the mythical Loch Ness monster, and that while noting down my observations, I’ll ask the monster to fulfill my wishes. Or I might perhaps bump into William Wallace, who was more liked and admired as Mel Gibson in the movie “Braveheart” than he ever was in real life.
There are no limits when you believe in a myth, as myths transcend history, time, and geography.
Is happiness a question or a dream? Is it the ultimate goal?
I must be happy from the perspective of the people who ask me. I’m aware of all the reasons they have to believe that indeed, I must be happy, forcing their own assumptions upon me before I even say a word.
In fact, I am not happy. When I say this, that doesn’t mean that I’m sad and depressed. I keep busy in the endless cycle of life. I experience fleeting and brief moments of relative happiness, and long moments where I’m absorbed in life’s daily mindless rituals, which don’t allow me the luxury of thinking of either happiness or sadness. Feelings loosen at the edges, indifference dominates, and I find myself guilty of avoiding any honest acknowledgement of my feelings toward reality, the past, or myself.
My happiness exists in the minute details. When I accompany my daughter to kindergarten and hear her sing some of Fairuz’s songs that we listen to in the car. When I see her jumping in front of me, describing what we see in the street, searching for the moon by waving her hand at it, happy that she’s found it. When she runs ahead of me and asks me to follow. When she jumps on the lines drawn in the schoolyard, and asks me to do the same: jump! When she asks me to promise that I’ll take her to buy chocolate on our way back.
I am happy when my daughters Heve and Roz ask me to read them stories before they sleep and say, “Love you, Dad” after each paragraph I read.
I am happy when I accompany them to the nearby beach to feed the seagulls. We take breadcrumbs and set off to play with the noisy gulls. They both start throwing breadcrumbs, seagulls swoop toward us, and they both run ahead before throwing themselves in my lap. It is there that I experience moments of peace and happiness. I feel delight and take a breath of fresh air.
I am happy when I finish writing a chapter of a book or novel, happy when I read a profound line in a book, happy when I sense the beautiful minute details here and there.
Moments of happiness are the commas in the language of life, punctuation that shapes the currents of the everyday, helping me finding a rhythm in a cycle of routine repetitions and indifference.
The most minute details of life give distinctive moments of happiness. These are some manifestations of real happiness for me. These are the little gains I manage to steal from the imagined sea of happiness in this bitter reality.
About the book:
The book is based on several interviews that the author Haitham Hussain, one of the beneficiaries of the third edition of the Laboratory of Arts programme, conducted with refugees. The book depicts many everyday details of refugee life in the United Kingdom and the dislocations between their current situation and their memories, as well as attempts to adapt and integrate.
In this biographical book, Hussein documents paradoxes of his journey to seek refuge for himself and his family. Throughout, he’s in communication with the English novelist Agatha Christie, who wrote a chapter in her diary, “Come, Tell Me How You Live” when she lived in Amoudah, in the north of Syria, in the 1930s with her husband, archaeologist Max Malawan.
About the author:
A novelist born in Amoudah, Syria in 1978, Haitham Hussein currently lives with his family in Edinburgh. Hussein worked as an Arabic language teacher for many years before leaving Syria in 2012. He’s lived in a number of countries, including UAE, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey. Hussein writes articles for a number of Arab periodicals and magazines and has a weekly column in Al Arab Newspaper issued London. He is a member of the Society of Authors in Britain, Scottish PEN Club, and the Syrian Writers Association. His novel Hostages of Sin was translated into Czech by Yana Bergiska and published in Prague in 2016. His published novels include Aram – Descendant of Sorrows, Hostages of Sin, and Horror Needle.
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