For My Father, Not Yet Dead.
WHEN I SEE YOU, I remember Lazarus emerging from the tomb in is graveclothes, bound hand and foot. You re wearing a thin gown, andthere's a mask covering your face. I remember, too, how years agoyou showed me your shroud, a thick wad of white cotton, unstitched,pristine. You kept it in the wardrobe among shirts, handkerchiefs,socks. Folded, quite neatly for you. You didn't give me the word,but I found it easily enough. Kafan.
This is what you wore in Mecca, you explained. This would beyour final garment when they put you in the ground.
I must have shuddered or shivered, because you told me allchildren fear the death of a parent more than anything else. Or perhapsthat was another occasion. I may have reached out my hand to stroke thewhite fabric before you put it back in the wardrobe, still foldedrespectfully, and maybe I was old enough to think of you wearing it, theterrifying cloth with which you seemed to be willing your owndeath.
Where will they bury you? My mother worriesthey'll take you back to the village where you were born.They are the men, your people, the ones who understand you and yourlanguage. She wants your remains to remain nearby, somewhere to visit,she says, it'd be nice.
But he will be gone.
Did he ever write down his wishes?
No, says my mother. You did not write down your wishes.
Then how do we know you want this, the tubes running from yourneck, wrists, groin, the monitors, the drip? I bend down to ask you thequestion, leaning into your face so you'll be able to hear what Isay.
I CAN'T STOP THINKING: about the twelve minutes during which youwere mostly dead, the catastrophe to which you were returned, thecaution with which the doctors tell us to entertain any hopes for yourlife. If you were now to die it wouldn't be the catastrophe; inone sense it wouldn't be death. I thought I understood thedifference between the going-out-of-the-world that's dying andthe going-out-of-the-world of that which merely has life. The end ofbeing and the end of mere life are not the same: one is perishingwhereas the other is dying. Leaves perish, dogs die. I eat leaves; Idon't eat dogs, and I cannot agree with Heidegger when he makesdying and death the preserve of humans only. Human beings are calledmortals because they can die, he says; to die is to be capable of deathas death, and only humans have this capacity. (1) But times have changedsince Heidegger wrote these thoughts, and having seen you, I'mconfused. I don't know the difference between life, being,perishing, dying. Who dies, and who or what merely perishes? Twelveminutes with a heartbeat stopping and starting would ultimately haverendered you A Thing in Heidegger's day, dying, dead, very dead,utterly dead, eventually altogether gone. Or else a miracle. For you, onthe other hand, the exit isn't final. This hospital, the ICH andall its machinery, are the means through which we've pulled youback into life--but as what? As that which lives or as that which merelyhas life?
A leaf perishes; a person dies.
This is a kind of techno-dying whereby death seems to have beenpushed aside or even overcome, but still, I want to know whether you aregoing to die or to perish--perhaps it would be correct to saybe terminated --by and with machines.
If your life ends while you're being breathed for, fed,pumped into, sucked out of, trembled by the mattress, I believe you willperish.
I want the machines to recover you so you can die.
PERHAPS I'M THINKING FOR YOU, the original thinker in my life.There s nothing else to do; I do what you can't. Is it possibleto die for another, thoughtfully? Is it possible to diethoughtfully?
The last time we spoke face to face, you were thinking aboutsomething. Eventually you asked me in that mock serious way of yourswhat was happening in contemporary theory. You wanted to know what thenew movements were, and (it was late at night, your questions wereintended to disconcert) I could only bluster something about the human,which is what I've been thinking about. Life, I said, who countsas one and who doesn't; who has a life to lose, whodoesn't, and who decides. I used you as an example. You aredialyzed three times a week (I gestured towards where I thought yourkidneys might be, both of them shrunken now, to the size of walnuts);you are living by and with a machine. What kind of a Life does that makeyou? Are you more or less of one? Some people would say you're acyborg. (2) If the machine stopped functioning, so would you. Would thatbe dying, death, or merely a power cut?
You laughed as my mother shifted uneasily so she could lay herhand on my arm. ! stopped talking, but you didn't seem to mind.You weren't paying attention. It's those Frenchphilosophers, you said absently, they'd led me astray, especiallyFoucault, Derrida--and who was that other one? You couldn'tremember, didn't see the appeal. They're unreasonable, yousaid, illogical, nihilistic. Postmodern.
And yet, I'm wondering what those postmoderns would tellus about the silent, painless (so the doctors repeatedly reassure us)dying to which you're subjected in the ICU. Perhaps Foucaultwould say that the hospital staff are collectively, intensively, engagedin regulating your dying, your death, so that this is an execution ofsorts, not the life-giving we still hope for. He would tell us, Iimagine, that the doctors and nurses are as much a part of the carceralcontinuum as judges and prison guards who mete out and enact punishmentsin other, more obviously penal, institutions. On seeing youroutstretched body, Derrida might rediscover his questions about puttingoneself to death as a way of assuming responsibility, committing suicideand sacrificing oneself for the other, dying for another and therebyaccepting the gift of death. He asks: "How does one give oneselfdeath in that other sense in terms of which sedonner la mort is also to interpret death, to give oneself a representation ofit, a figure, a signification or destination for it? ... What are therelations among sacrifice, suicide, and the economy of thisgift?" (3)
I can imagine your response to all this. You'd bebaffled by the invocations of gift and sacrifice and punishment.You can't really believe I'm beingexecuted? you'd exclaim. Ridiculous! I told you those Frenchphilosophers were crazy. How could punishment take place in a hospital?Or an execution? (At that point your amusement would shift to disgust).That's sordid.
Still: it occurs to me that this is an execution of sorts,although perhaps in reverse. Your death happened quickly andunexpectedly, which means you must have life--the Foucauldian soul and adamaged body--restored to you so that you can die again soulfully ratherthan merely perishing. Is that what all this is for? You mustn'tbe allowed to perish because that would denote you animal, no longerhuman? In which case, the doctors, nurses, orderlies scurry around thebeds in the ICU as though their lives depended on it, not just becausesomeone somewhere has decided human life is worth preserving at allcosts, but because the very notion of the human is compromised,threatened at the point of death which, it is said, is never conscious,never rational, never "good." (4)
This is what you told my mother before they gave you theanaesthetic for the routine procedure that caused your cardiacarrest:
They kill you so they can cure you.
Now as I stare at you I think:
They're curing you so they can kill you, so that you cankill yourself, give yourself death (se donner lamort).
TO DIE ON THE MACHINE ISN'T DEATH; it's the perishing ofbare life stripped of almost everything by which we know it. Only thebody remains, although it's hardly yours; you wouldn'trecognize yourself either. Nowadays I find myself wishing you would dieor be died for. It takes me a while to acknowledge a desire that seemsshocking, inadmissible, patricidal, but with shame I finally admit it.When the phone rings late at night or early in the morning it's amixture of terror and hope that causes my pulse to quicken, my palms tosweat as I anticipate that this is the bad news, at last; you are dead.
It would have been better if you'd simply not woken upone morning. It would have been better if they hadn't brought youback to life from the interval (nearly a quarter of an hour!) duringwhich you were dead. Now we're forced to keep up a wonderingvigil, not knowing exactly what or who it is we are witnessing.
Barely alive, you're at the threshold or limit beyondwhich is your death, the absolutely unforeseeable, ultimate instant--thefuture you'll never reach, the one I wait for so anxiouslybecause I want it to be my own past. (5) They can cure you, kill you, orboth, and no murder will have been committed. You are sacred, oursacrifice, deprived of your sovereignty. In this thanatopolitical unit,sovereign decisions cannot be made by you or by us. One day they mightask my mother whether she agrees you should no longer be kept alive, buta decision will already have been taken to invite her to agree to thisforegone conclusion. How easy it is to grow comfortable here, to welcomethe directives about maintaining, sustaining, supporting, which seem tocome from nowhere. The nurses decide nothing; they react only accordingto the commands they receive. In an emergency, a crash team will appearin seconds, before anyone has time to think or reflect--Do we want toprolong this life? What would it mean if we didn't? Who will mourn if wedon't or if we do? Who will be sacrificed if we do or if wedon't?
IT COULD BE THAT YOU ENVISAGED a writer's dying, and perhapsthinking it may still be possible my mother brings your books into thehospital and installs them at your bedside. She jokes: "It mightimpress the staff," meaning, I suppose, that when they notice thename on the spines, the doctors and nurses will comprehend you assomeone who has not always had a damaged brain, a mind that isabsolutely other to us now.
Socrates believed that true philosophers are not alarmed bydeath. They make it their profession; they practise death throughouttheir lives in such a way that dying is easy for them. He asked for thecup of poison several hours early and received it cheerfully into hishands, having bathed in order not to put the women to the trouble ofwashing him after he was dead. He had already said goodbye to his sonsand given directions to the women of the household regarding his wishes."How shall we bury you?" his friend Crito asked."Any way you like," replied Socrates, "that is, ifyou can catch me and I don't slip through your fingers."He meant that it was only his body they were burying; his soul would begone, and since he would not be there even to slip through theirfingers, they could dispose of his corpse as they saw fit, as pleasedthem best and gave them comfort. (6)
In Plato's account, Socrates dies calmly in fullpossession of his senses. The philosopher's dying is a gift tohis friends, a bequest, exemplary in what it leaves behind for theliving (a bad death is the death that leaves me with nothing?)--apristine body, clear directions about what's important. Give upthe life that's being taken from you, and speak what yourelinquish; even so the Duke in Measure for Measure will counsel Claudio to be absolute for death, and Rilke will advise usto be before:
Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were behind you, like the winter that has just gone by. Sei allem Abschied voran, als ware er hinter dir, wie der Winter, der eben geht. (7)
At this point there is no way you can speak or be ahead ofanything, and so at best we may have to settle for a writer'sdeath rather than a writer's dying. But what kind of death willit be? How would you write it? What is there to say about death withoutdying? Here are your books where my mother left them amidst the clutterof vials, swabs, plastic bags thick with someone else's blood. Iopen your novel at the wrong end as if I'm going to readsomething in Arabic, a language of which I have the merest knowledge. Ican't read what you wrote, only the words a translator has usedto ferry your meaning from one language into another.
On the penultimate page I find your narrator turning away fromdeath without dying, a near-suicide, since the man has entered the Nileas naked as when his mother bore him. He intends to drown, but there,"in the midst of life and death," he experiences a violentdesire for a cigarette--a desire you've known too well; a desire(I want to say, but this isn't the time to rebuke you) that hasput you between the same two shores as your narrator, although you arenot exactly floating here by choice. This desire, so strong it feelslike hunger and thirst, raises the man from his watery grave. Herealizes that if he dies now he'll die without volition, or, wemight say, he will enter death without dying. Instead he chooses life.(8)
You cannot cry out for help as your narrator does immediatelyafter his realization, but I want to believe there's a life wecan choose for you in your unchosen death, a life we can give you byreading you, opening your meaning--perhaps it is not too grandiose tosay it--as Lazarus' tomb was opened by Jesus. (9)
It could be that life and meaning are entombed in this book,waiting for release.
I should go back to the beginning.
It was, gentlemen, after a long absence--seven yearsto be exact ... that I returned to my people. (10)
Have you already died in your writing? Is your writing the gooddeath we've been wishing for?
In that case, what is it I witness when I see you die?
Afterwards, barely twelve hours later, three men arrive at mymother's house to beg for your body. You do not belong to us,they insist; you are a native son; thousands, millions are mourning you,so you must be given a proper burial in the proper place, which is nothere. I argue our case as strongly as I can, and then we give youup.
We choose not to make the journey. Muslim burials are for menonly, and we feel we would be unwanted, out of place, consigned togrieve indoors with women we don't know in a language wecan't speak. More than that: we have understood from the threemen that your funeral is to be a matter of state, and yours is not astate with which we wish to be associated. When my mother and sisterseem to waver that morning on the day the men come to persuade us, Iremind them (we are speaking quietly in the kitchen, while the men waitnext door for our decision) of the genocidal regime you opposed for solong, depriving yourself of a homeland until you finally went back fiveyears ago for no good reason, or so I thought, for I didn'tbelieve you were dying. How can we participate in a public mourningsupervised by this government that kills and doesn't mourncountless numbers of its own people? I ask. Irrelevantly, I think of thephotographers. I don't want to be pictured with the President, Isay, as if such a representation might shade the truth of the grief Ifeel for you, for the others I don't know who have been killedand continue to be killed in the birth-land you insisted on loving nomatter what.
And so we allow you to travel as cargo from Europe to Africa ina last migration to the south, as a journalist in one newspaper quips.When my mother is asked to hand over your passport, I'm dimlyaware of the comedy in the demand. Or perhaps it's relief:you're in a coffin, in a white shroud (we have seen you at theundertaker's), but you're still a person requiring traveldocuments--never mind that the passport my mother gives up has a redCANCELLED stamp across the photo page.
Several hours after your plane touches down, you are interredin sandy ground in a city that was never your city. They put you nearthe grave of the first president of your country, proclaiming it anhonour, a day of national mourning. We miss you, but we haven'tlost you yet because now you're scattered across the Internet, inobituaries, newspaper and television reports, blogs, Facebook pages.Buried in a Reuters article we find a single line about the small groupof women--journalist-activists, it seems --who paid their respects atthe cemetery, an unusual occurrence in this Islamic state, so thereporter says. During the following weeks my mind is haunted by thisgroup. They are, I imagine, Arab versions of Antigone and her sisterIsmene, come to bury their brother in defiance of the King'sorders. These women, the ghosts of me, my mother and sisters, haveperhaps risked their lives to ensure the smooth passage of your ghost.The thought of their presence at the burial ground where only mengathered around your body brings with it an unexpected solace,but--
We should have gone with you?
We could not have gone with you.
THIS IS MY OFFERING; these thoughts are for you, which means I'mthinking about you and your work. I'm dedicating this writing toyou knowing it will never reach you. Surely it alters the logic ofsacrificial responsibility that it's a woman--I--who makes theoffering, daughter to father? If language and meaning are a kind ofresurrection, then, strange as it may sound, you're Lazarus to myJesus, even though my biblical namesake is "the woman, Sarah ...she to whom nothing is said." (11) This lack of address may nothave stopped the woman from speaking, as it doesn't stop me.Resolving nothing--those awful questions about responsibility andsacrifice, the thousands of dead I invoke but don't have thecourage to address--I can only say, your death is not nothing. Here areyour words. It's for me to present them, not exactly as funeraloration, obituary, gift, but in a translation of a translation where areader might find your death, your corpse, and something of the youwho's no longer there. Or else, nothing at all.
It was, father, after a long absence that you werefinally returned to your people.
(1) Martin Heidegger, "The Thing," inPoetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 2001), p. 176. Cf. Heidegger,"Building, Dwelling, Thinking," in Poetry,Language, Thought, p. 148.
(2) Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science,Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late TwentiethCentury," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: TheReinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-181.
(3) Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, translated by David Wills (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), p.10.
(4) Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die: Reflections onLife's Final Chapter (New York: Vintage, 1995), pp. 8-10.
(5) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essayon Exteriority, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,1969), pp. 233, 235.
(6) Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, translated by Hugh Tredennick (London: Penguin, 1984), pp. 113, 133,182, 179, 180. See also Derrida, The Gift of Death, pp. 12-13.
(7) William Shakespeare, Measure forMeasure, Act III, Scene i, 5-8. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets toOrpheus, in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage, 1989), pp.244-45.
(8) Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to theNorth, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (London: Penguin, 2003), pp.168-69.
(9) Maurice Blanchot, The Space ofLiterature, translated by Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982),p. 195.
(10) Salih, Season of Migration to theNorth, p. 1.
(11) Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus and OtherLiterary Essays, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Station Hill Press, 1981), p. 45.Derrida, The Gift of Death, p. 76.
With very many thanks to Ibrahim El-Salahi for permission touse The Vision of the Tomb, to Katherine El-Salahi for corresponding with me about this, to RobertMcGill for the title, and to Olivier Bouillon for help with the photoand for useful advice.
SARA SALIH teaches in the Department of English at theUniversity of Toronto. This essay was written during the months afterthe death of her father.
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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