The Tale of a Wall Buy from other retailers

Publication Date: Apr 30, 2024

320 pp


List Price US: $19.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-387-7

Trim Size: 5.25 x 7.95 x 0.85 in.


List Price US: $10.99

ISBN: 978-1-63542-388-4

The Tale of a Wall

Reflections on the Meaning of Hope and Freedom

by Nasser Abu Srour Translated by Luke Leafgren

Thus Spoke the Wall

Dear Reader:

At first glance it may appear that the pages you hold in your hands are the timid offering of an imprisoned man who decided, after long hesitation, to take the plunge and write. But no! This is not my story. I am merely a witness, providing my testimony to the events I have seen and heard. This is the story of a wall that somehow chose me as the witness to what it said and did. The sentences of this text could not have been composed without the support of that single, solid source: the wall. They would have broken apart and scattered to the winds but for the wall’s abiding care. Since the beginning of my journey, the wall has given me all my defining traits and all the names I have been known by—in the camp, on the outskirts of the city, in prison, and in the heart of a woman.
I am the voice of this wall. This is how it decided to speak. It is a prison narrative, with all the illness, chaos, and confusion of such a tale. This text is not the child of any late-night discussion in some intellectual café, seated around a table crowded with drinks and stories. No! It was birthed from the womb of a concrete wall, a wall so hard it barely shows the words I etch upon it. It is a text born of iron and concrete.
I wrote using all the words and phrases I possess. Sometimes I separated them, and sometimes I tied them together. As I wrote, I held fast to every word of the wall’s dictation, following the rules that apply to it alone. I wrote like someone come to deliver a few final remarks before the clock stops ticking. I wrote without any literary devices, apart from those that the wall insisted upon. I wrote because reading in a time of sterility has become a cowardly act.
And I wish you all a rugged time of reading it!

Nasser Mazyouna Abu Srour

Me, My Lord, and a Most Confining Place

Letting Go and Holding Fast

Two weeks ago, I emerged from an extended bout of apathy and decided to read a book by Kierkegaard. In the book he talks about love, arguing that the best way to preserve it is to release the beloved and to deny all possessive instincts, such as dependency and egotism. He also claimed that this letting go is only possible through the irrationality of faith.
Reading that piece was not easy for me. My prison cell was suddenly filled with the question of “how.” The cell had to expand to create room for the flood of questions that surged from the man’s argument. That kind of stretching was something my cell did only rarely—and I never knew if it was for my sake or its own. After an hour, the doors were still closed and locked. Yet somehow, being locked up with those questions became an invitation to seek possible answers.
As I see it, everything begins with a question, and certainty is the child of doubt. How is it that we let go, by the power of irrational faith, all that is transitory for the sake of an infinite Supreme Being? How do contentment and acceptance arise from letting go? How does clinging to a wall become the shortest path for crossing through to the other side? Is it truly rational for your own hands to tie your bonds? For your heart to be filled with love directed toward no specific object?
What follows is the reply that came to those questions and to many other wonderings that arose during my long years of detention. This is the answer that came when the instincts for control, domination, and clinging were countered by an act of letting go.
The journey begins by letting go of everything you once believed: you, who have worn a thousand “I”s. Each of them spoke through you, and you believed each of the countless narratives, even as you changed with each “I” that you pulled on. Sometimes you kept the faith, and other times you shook off the religious heritage that weighed you down. A freedom fighter one day, and the next day a slave to a reality that allows you to glimpse heaven’s gift, even if its details shatter your existence. You sanctify every object around you, without any holiness left for yourself. One minute you are master of your domain, which you fill with your own words and meanings. The next you are held hostage to an alphabet invented in some other time, for someone else’s purposes. Then all your wondering gets buried deep inside you, your questions turn into doubts, your doubt becomes error, and your erring bursts into a flame from which you cannot escape. You are lost in the darkness of past eras that refuse to end. You are enveloped by the gloom of cultures that possess no sun to illuminate their darkness, no moon to give them beauty.
So where do you turn? There’s no escape from yourself except into yourself, for you only become you when you let go of your secondary selves and hold fast to your single unique identity. That self steps forward to bestow names and descriptions upon the elements of your existence, suffusing them with meaning. Now you are firmly established within yourself as a self that has been liberated from the religious, social, and political repressions that formerly conferred a sense of protection. Each of those repressions performed violent acts upon you. They drew up charges and forced you to defend yourself until all your defenses faltered and you became the first to condemn yourself.
Once you let go of all of that, it becomes possible for you to reconcile with that which you really are, something you previously thought was a deformed copy of yourself. Now it is possible to arm yourself anew with a mural of yourself, painted with all your selves. You find a place for it within an internal geography containing no contradiction, no strife, no rivalry. None of your selves denies the others or passes judgment upon them. None insists that its voice is now you, all that is within you, all that you say and hold back, all that you communicate, all you are forced to conceal.
As the questions got bigger, so did the apprehension I felt on behalf of my cell. But that didn’t stop me. I went back to the winter of 1993, back to cell number 24 in the interrogation block of Hebron Prison and the two words I etched on the wall there: “Farewell, world!” At the time, I knew nothing of Kierkegaard and his letting go. But it seems I’ve known from the beginning that I had to let go of the possibility of freedom and embrace that wall if I hoped to survive. Without realizing it, I was letting go of freedom as a question that demanded an answer. Yet by doing so, I preserved it as a dream, forever beautiful until the moment it failed to be realized. In this way, I was like every other Palestinian aware of their bondage, who has to lose their freedom in order to be free, who has to die in order to live.
My flirtation with the wall began early. Throughout all the years of a confinement that kept moving as though life depended upon it, the wall remained my single point of stability. I made it my stable point of reference, by which I calculated the location, speed, and distance of every element around me. And no, I did not become the center of that universe. Instead, I found my place within it. From that stable place, a person is able to grasp the position of the stars, the grains of sugar that go into a morning coffee, the quantity of sunrays that steal through a window looking out to nowhere, or the diaphanous fabric of a beautiful companion’s dress when the night falls.
And so, in the moment that I embraced it, my wall abandoned its physicality and safeguarded all the intentions and aspirations I planted within it. It was at a loss, for how could a wall restrict the freedom of someone who has already relinquished his freedom? A person who clings to the wall so hard he almost chokes it, who flirts with it like a lover, and who practices all his usual habits, even his most private ones, under its wing. Someone who recounts incredible deeds that the wall might believe, not knowing any better. Other times, that person explains Kant’s noumenon to the wall, arguing that the reality of things is not outside our perception and sensation. If he fails to convince the wall, he scatters the board and sets the pieces anew, for things are what we want them to be. I thought that when I finished reading Kierkegaard’s book, I would escape all the uncertainties and questions that it sparked within me. But suddenly, carelessly, it launched my thoughts on a journey through time, so far I believed there was no coming back. Across luminous distances, I gazed upon the various stages of my life, with all their details, events, and figures, some real and others mere figments of my imagination. I was suspended between the present in which I lived and another time that told a familiar story, in which all the faces resembled my own. In that multidimensional time, I floated weightlessly for days. No sensations reached me, no physical laws imposed their customary definition of things. With a feverish instinct of self-preservation, I resolved to fall, clutching everything that had been hung upon me and everything that I had hung on to for nearly half a century. Mechanically, without thinking, I dropped the account of that plunge upon these pages, as though something there might restore my sense of safety.
I came to see that everything that happened in my life—and is happening still—was part of a grand design to unite me with that wall in that cell.

In the Beginning

None of us chooses his beginning. But through the efforts of our short lives, as we discover our immediate environment and expand the boundaries of that circle, each of us begins to ask questions about when, how, and whither.
The quest for beginnings proceeds from our doorsteps. The prologue to our first deeds can only be written with reference to our surrounding environment and the prevailing moral systems and social structures. Starting with our parents, some of those around us treat us as an object of guardianship, and they exert various types of authority, control, and oppression upon us. As we grow older, the familial and societal authorities multiply, choking our path with rules and signposts. Long lists of cautions, resentments, and affections are imposed upon us, together with conflicting instructions about how to apply them. Every attempt to elude the time-worn shackles of family, society, and tradition is foiled. There is nowhere to hide from a discourse in which the imperative mood is the first, last, and essential form of the verb.
I was born in a refugee camp near a place that is still called the City of Peace, even though all Bethlehem has known of peace is its absence. When the prophet of love departed that city with his gospel of glad tidings, he abandoned the city to a forest of spears. My father knew nothing of this city’s history, and had he known, I don’t think it would have bothered him all that much. In my father’s eyes, the Messiah was like all the other prophets, who said many things he did not understand. Nor, I think, would he have been interested in their words had he understood them. My father had other things to worry about, and the only prophets he recognized were the ones who foretold the need to flee their village two hours before the invaders arrived. Two hours, that is, before he began his own barefoot march, leaving behind in a single day everything he had ever known, and carrying nothing besides a naive faith that heaven was watching over him.
The Messiah’s city of Bethlehem was the place that received my father. It had eaten its last supper, and there was nothing left on the table for a young man in his twenties, who until the day before, was accustomed to eating the fruits of his own labor after washing the sun’s scorching heat from his brow. That young man did not expend much effort understanding the psychology of the land or analyzing the chaos of seasons and their revolutions. As a boy, he had learned to accept whatever fell from the sky, just like the prophets, and he saw no use in complaining. Within a few months, Bethlehem built him a camp, financed by the joint efforts of kings, sultans, and presidents—figures who, until the previous day, my father believed to be imaginary characters in the rambling stories of my grandfather.
A few years passed as my father moved from one job to another, working for people who spoke a language he didn’t understand, and built odd-looking houses. In the end, he was able to save enough money to get engaged. My mother was not yet fourteen when they got married, and she needed my father’s help to complete her education in managing a household. Starting with five senses sharpened by the coarseness of camp life, that village girl quickly became mistress of the tent, acquiring all the necessary experience and skills to begin her difficult task.
My father, for his part, performed his manhood expertly, and I was the fifth child who testified to his virility. Between the first Nakba in 1948 and the second in 1967, my father chalked up eight victories. The birthing cry of each tiny replica testified to the survival instinct and a desire to compensate for losses that my father knew could never be recovered. In this way, and with conscious forethought, my father burdened us with requiting everything that had been stolen from him: his past and his present, his land and all the creatures that crawled upon it, his dreams—both the small and the medium ones—and many other things that never even crossed his mind.
At the same time, my father suffered under the pressure to provide for a household whose numbers exceeded his modest abilities and skills, even before the addition of my grandfather and grandmother. The burdens of life would have been too much for him were it not for the sensitive female intuition of my mother, who belonged to a long line of women who perceived the inability and failure of their husbands and went out to join the labor force, ignoring the social disapprobation that their minor rebellion aroused. Thus, on account of new economic factors in the 1980s, our family entered a matriarchal era under the authority of the mother.
My father exercised his authority and sought to direct our lives according to instinctive drives as well as methods inherited from time-honored and still-flourishing social structures. Yet, by applying those laws, customs, and traditions—which were reinforced by the anxiety of the Occupation and its threat to the social fabric—my father became their victim. I observed the consequences of his parenting methods on my older brothers and sisters. But poverty tempered my father’s masculinity and his domineering nature, and he submitted to my mother’s appropriation of authority that, until just a few months before, had been his by rights. He did not show any resistance to speak of, and the transfer of power occurred peacefully.
After my father lost so much of his control to my mother, he began to uncover new aspects within himself, which benefited my younger siblings and me the most. He became closer to us and he no longer looked at us with fear in his eyes. He acquired a renewed ability to listen and hear; he began to marvel at the things he saw. I was the luckiest of all my siblings. After spending many long evenings close by his side, I became his favorite, something my oldest brother never failed to bring up whenever our father was mentioned. My father wore his new roles with the expertise of someone deprived of other options. Fully conscious of the reversal of roles, he continued to watch my mother as she embarked upon her pedagogic and economic initiatives. Meanwhile, my mother noticed the looks he cast her way. Socioeconomic transformations had suddenly made her the person in charge, the one to whom all questions were addressed. Without any special knowledge or training, and guided only by a mother’s intuition and the consciousness of her weighty responsibilities, my mother quickly developed the ability to make shrewd decisions and employ money for a variety of goals and needs. Contradicting Marx’s dictum that freedom is merely a concern of the bourgeoisie, my mother set about expanding the reach of her freedom to new domains, confident that her little ones would be able to put the space she provided them to the best of uses.
For a second time, I was fated to become the prime beneficiary of the atmosphere of freedom that came to prevail in our small house. That time coincided with the beginning of my adolescence, with all its youthful rebellion. I set about exploiting every opportunity to break familial and social strictures. New possibilities for youthful escapades were not the only thing my mother provided to a boy whose appetites exceeded the restrictions of camp life. She also expanded and diversified the food on our table, which in turn developed our sense of taste. Our vocabulary for food was gradually enriched with words to describe the new types of fruit that diversely filled the basket propped in the kitchen corner, a basket that almost sang under the inspiration of the intense colors and smells that passed through it. Meat graced our table one additional day each week, no longer being limited to a single dish of maqluba on Fridays.
My father continued his small job as a used-clothes vendor, selling items that had already known three or more owners before they came into his possession. Every Saturday, he would wake me early in the morning to help him pile his metal cart high with clothes. My task was to deliver the cart to the city market after my father went on ahead to claim a place to exhibit his goods. He could never comprehend why I arrived late each time, and he gave up asking me the reason. How could I explain the two streets that led to the market? One was the short way, and taking that direct route afforded my father many anxious minutes of waiting for a boy weighed down by all the dreams of escape heaped upon his cart. The other road was long, but it skirted far around my school, which reduced the risk of running into my classmates. That usually saved me from futile attempts to hide the tears of shame that wet my face every time I ran into one of my friends—or several of them, if I was particularly unlucky. I don’t know what embarrassed me more: my father’s cart, filled with false promises, or my father himself, whose impotent hands lacked the means to fulfill them.

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