Paths of Desire
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Emmanuel Kattan
Translated from French by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Daniel finally fell asleep. Despite the shaking of the bus, despite his neighboursʼ animated conversations, despite the thunderous horn-honking of the trucks rushing by in the left lane. When he boarded the plane, he stopped thinking entirely. He simply repeated the next steps to himself: once in Jerusalem, I’ll leave my bags at the hotel and then jump into a taxi to go to the university. There, I’ll meet with the assistant dean. I hope he’ll have news for me.
Earlier, on the plane, he hadn’t touched his meal. For the past two days, he’d eaten almost nothing. His seatmate watched him from the corner of her eye. She was perhaps in her thirties, but the long hair dyed a vibrant red, the silver hoop dangling from her right nostril and the skull-shaped ring on her index finger gave her the look of a rebellious teenager. All these details, however, were lost on Daniel, whose expression seemed to say he was somewhere far, far away.
The young woman tried to engage him in conversation. “Is this your first trip to Israel?”
He shook his head. So as not to be impolite, he added, “I was there several times when I was a child but I haven’t been back since.” Intrigued, the woman studied his face, as if she could learn more from his features, which were ploughed with furrows and wrinkles, than from his meager responses.
“Do you have family in Israel?” What could he possibly answer? Yes, my daughter. She has disappeared. No one knows where she is. It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve had any news.
But why confide in this stranger? He would only manage to embarrass her. She would have stammered out some insignificant words. “I’m so sorry… I… if there’s anything I can do—”
It was better to lie. “No, no family. I’m just visiting, that’s all.” And after a long silence, he pushed his earbuds into his ears.
Now, on the bus taking him to Jerusalem, Daniel reconsidered the conversation he’d had with the university’s assistant dean, Doron Shemtov, five days earlier. He had been ready to leave the apartment and was just about to close the door when he heard the telephone ring. He was late but answered anyway, in case it was Sara. It had been over a week since he’d heard from her; she hadn’t answered his emails or her telephone. Worried, Daniel had contacted the university. He learned that Sara had not been attending her classes. The next day, the assistant dean had called to tell Daniel that the security service had launched an investigation. A few days later, the police were alerted and Daniel took a flight to Jerusalem.
The bus moved ahead slowly. “Road work, always more road work, the bane of our existence!” His neighbour caught his eye and took the opportunity to share her frustration. Daniel nodded in agreement, then took his cell phone out of his pocket and called Sara again. Still no answer. Since speaking with the assistant dean, he had tried to reach his daughter dozens of times. Even on the plane, he had shut himself in the lavatory to secretly dial her number.
“I must not panic, I must not panic.” He had repeated this little phrase to himself almost non-stop since leaving Montreal. It had become his compass, his haven, like a reassuring bit of music sung to a child to help him fall asleep. But despite his efforts, Daniel could not stop thinking the worst.
Jerusalem, October 8, 2008
My father is Jewish. My mother is Muslim. I am both. I’ve lived a long time without asking myself any questions.
At home, Mama prayed every day. Sometimes she invited me to join her. She showed me how to wash my hands, then my mouth, nose, ears and feet, and I faithfully imitated all her actions. Then I knelt next to her and recited the few suras she had taught me. I never understood but I let her lead the way; I exhaled the modulations of her voice, and I, too, took pleasure in singing each word. I found in those moments a certain comfort and the consolation of a discipline. But what mattered above all else was feeling close to Mama, without having to speak to her or even having to look at her.
It was different with Papa. He celebrated all the major holidays – Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Pesach – and he loved telling me Bible stories, but religion didn’t have a very important place in his life. Once, during Mama’s illness, I asked him if he believed in God. He gazed at me with that tender look, a look that spoke only of the powerlessness of love, and said, “You know, Sara, God doesn’t need us to believe in him. All He wants is for us to act as if He were there.” That answer so disappointed me that I had a hard time holding back my tears. What I wanted was for Mama to get well. I wanted a giant “Yes.” A frank and firm “Yes, God is there. He watches us, He listens to us, and He will save your mother.” But Papa didn’t understand what I needed. He believed in doctors, in their knowledge and their determination. He put himself entirely in their hands. I don’t think I ever saw him pray, I mean really pray, with fervor, letting the words penetrate him. The rare times he took me to synagogue, he followed the progress of the service in his prayer book and showed me the proper pages, he bent his head when everyone else did, he chanted the praises and hymns like the others, but his face and voice betrayed no emotion. He was performing a duty and that was all. For Papa, God is only an idea. He’s not there, He never was.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008, 11:31 p.m.
Good evening, Papa,
I arrived safe and sound. I hardly slept on the plane, I was too excited. I started to read Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. You’re right, it’s very moving.
I have a room in the dorm on Mount Scopus. The weather is mild and I feel like I’m on vacation. Tomorrow: meeting at the registration office. Classes start next Monday. I can’t wait.
I’m exhausted so I’m going to bed – hope I won’t wake up at 3 a.m. I’ll call you on Saturday.
Thursday, October 9, 2008, 7:18 a.m.
I was happy to get your message. I would have liked a call when you landed, but I thought maybe your phone wasn’t working. In any case, I feel more reassured now.
Yesterday morning, after I left you at the airport, I took a walk in Parc La Fontaine. That was a bad idea. The place is overflowing with memories: it’s where your mother and I used to take you to play before we moved to the place on Édouard-Montpetit. After 15 minutes, I couldn’t stand it anymore so I went home.
I miss you. I’m waiting impatiently for your call.
Your loving papa
Jerusalem, October 9, 2008
This morning I went to the registration office to get my student card. The clerk, a lady in her fifties with a dour, unwelcoming face, studied my file for a long time. With knitted brows, she slowly turned the pages, examining my picture, lingering over a detail that seemed to hold her attention, taking down my passport number in a big red notebook. Then she looked up at me and suddenly her expression softened. “Do you speak Arabic?” She must have noticed my mother’s name, Leila Hashim, and had decided that surely I knew at least a few words of this language. So I answered her in my best Arabic and her face immediately lit up.
You’d think she had suddenly found a long-lost cousin. She started asking me a million questions, curious to know where I was born, what I had studied. She told me she had worked at the university for more than twenty years and that she came from Tira, a village halfway between Haifa and Jerusalem. In contrast to the bitterness and fatigue of her features, her smile showed her gratitude at having been recognized. This complicity, born of nothing but a language, perhaps reminded her of some invisible connection, made even more precious because it was so fleeting and fragile.
Meanwhile, our little chat had aroused the curiosity of the other students waiting on the other side of the office. As I made my way to the exit, I could feel them looking at me, not in envy (why would they be jealous that I speak Arabic?) but with suspicion: if the clerk was showing me so much kindness and concern, it must mean that I merited some sort of special treatment, right?
The meeting left me with a bitter taste – and a measure of uneasiness, too. I felt I hadn’t been honest, that I’d betrayed myself a bit. I should have explained to the lady that I am also a Jew, that I know my prayers in Hebrew, that my father used to take me to synagogue when I was little. But I’m sure she wouldn’t have understood. The spell would have been broken, her expression would have hardened and I would have felt that if I tried too hard to remain whole, she was the one who would be betrayed.
“Did you have a good trip?”
Taken aback, Daniel looked at the assistant dean. The question seemed inappropriate, but his extreme fatigue had left him addled. Without thinking, he replied, “Yes, thanks, I had a good trip. Everything went without a hitch.”
“I’m afraid I still don’t have any word about your daughter. When did you last speak to her?”
“Almost two weeks ago.”
“And since then?”
“Nothing since then… she seemed worried lately. She wasn’t calling as regularly. I blamed it on her classes and exams. And then suddenly she stopped answering her emails. She stopped answering her messages. The last one I got from her was dated April 24th.”
“Do you have any idea where she might be? Did she talk to you about a trip of any kind?”
“No. I think that if she’d planned to go away, she definitely would have let me know.”
“Of course. In the meantime, we’ve turned the matter over to the police. The officer in charge of the investigation established a list of people likely to give us information about her. He’ll certainly be able to tell you more about it. In any case, he wants to talk to you as soon as possible.”
The assistant dean gave Daniel a piece of paper on which he’d scribbled the police station’s address. He raised his head and produced a brief smile. “For our part, we have put a ‘missing’ notice in the university newspaper and on our Website. Sara’s professors and friends are already working with the police. We’ll do everything we can to find her.”
The assistant dean stood and offered his hand to Daniel. His energetic handshake was meant to be reassuring, but Daniel could not stop himself from reading the unsettling concern in the man’s eyes.
Jerusalem, October 11, 2008
This morning, a long walk through the alleys of the Armenian Quarter. I had breakfast in the university cafeteria but then I walked out onto the terrace to enjoy the view of Jerusalem before my class. Even from so far away, I felt like I was in the centre of the city, in the midst of its narrow streets, its noises and smells.
Jerusalem, October 13, 2008
Last night on the way back from my classes, I took a walk through the Yemin Moshe neighbourhood. Since I was too tired to think, I let my eyes wander over the alleys that wind toward Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Not far from the Montefiore windmill, I stopped at the entrance to a synagogue. You could hear the melancholy lament of “Lecha Dodi,” the song that announces the beginning of the Sabbath. I never really understood those words of love, where the man is the lover and repose is the fiancée that welcomes him. Aren’t we in fact united with God through want, hardship and uncertainty? “And you shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy might.” Even during my most pious period, when I prayed every day that Mama would get well, I never felt close to those words. Love is what humans give to each other. But God, that’s a question, the presence that I desire and about which I still know nothing. It allows my distress to dwell within it, perhaps it accepts all my doubts and anguish, but it is not love that unites us. To love, you have to exist for the other, and for God, I don’t know if I’ve even begun to exist.
I stood listening to that sad song for a long time. Its accents, marked both by pain and hope, remained suspended in the stillness of the falling night. I almost went in. It would have been the first time in several years that I’d set foot in a synagogue. I changed my mind but it wasn’t because I was afraid to confront the stares of strangers or because I would have had to go up to the women’s section and stay hidden behind the wooden lattice that would keep me from seeing the prayer service. Instead it was because I feared the feelings that this rapprochement would have aroused in me.
Finding myself there, singing with the others of the joy of resting, would have seemed incongruous, even absurd. This celebration was for those whose entire life is filled with prayer; it was the culmination of a week spent remembering the divine presence in even the smallest daily acts. It had been a long time since I’d given up this discipline. “God” is a word that still occupies my thoughts but one that I can’t connect with anymore.
Detective Nathan Ben-Ami did not look at the man facing him. When Daniel had entered the office, Ben-Ami had shaken his hand and pointed to the tattered leather armchair facing him. He then offered Daniel a cup of coffee, which was refused with a wave of his hand.
Even as he spoke to Daniel, the detective was casting distracted glances at his computer screen. He moved several files, lifting them up and piling them on a low table next to his desk. He took his BlackBerry from his jacket’s inside pocket and scrolled down to check his messages. Then he returned to his files, took a sip of coffee, grimaced and turned his head back to his computer, blinking his eyes as he did so.
He still hadn’t looked at Daniel. What good would it do? He looked like all the others. Those who’d just been robbed, who’d wrecked their cars or toppled a cyclist. They all had the same worried expression, the same haggard face, the same intense desire: that everything should be put back in order as soon as possible. That he, Detective Ben-Ami – as if he had the power – respond to all the questions bombarding them and then have them sign a few papers so that they could return to the peace of their everyday lives.
Daniel observed the man restlessly moving about in front of him. Rotating in his chair like a weathervane, one eye on a pile of paper and the other on his telephone, Detective Ben-Ami seemed to have little interest in Daniel’s presence. His head, enormous in comparison to his small, chubby body and miniscule hands, gave him the appearance of a stray tyrannosaurus, an effect accentuated by his pointy teeth and protruding eyes.
Daniel answered all his questions: when was the last time he had spoken to Sara? Had she been planning a trip? Who did she know in Israel? What did he know about her friends or the company she kept? The questions poured out, one leading into the next, overlapping, as if the police officer already knew all the answers.
After a few minutes of this, Detective Ben-Ami stood and came to sit near Daniel. Elbows planted on his knees, his voluminous head resting on his fists, he looked fixedly at Daniel. “Do you think Sara had any enemies?ˮ
Shocked, Daniel stared back at Ben-Ami. “Enemies? Just what, exactly, are you trying to say?”
“In her entourage, might there be someone jealous of her, someone who might want to harm her?”
“No, why? At least, she didn’t tell me anything like that… really, no, I don’t get it. She told me about her classmates. She seemed to get along well with them… And no, she’s not the type to get involved with drugs, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
The detective pushed his chair back and crossed his legs. He slung his arm over the back of his chair in an attempt to appear relaxed. With an insinuating tone, as if he suspected Daniel of lying, he continued, “What about the romantic side? Did Sara have a boyfriend?”
“She was going out with a guy named Avner for a while, but they broke up a few months ago.”
“I’m not sure… it didn’t work out, that’s all she said.”
The detective took a notebook out of his pocket and jotted down a few notes. "And since then?"
“Uh, well, did she have a relationship… someone in her life?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Ben-Ami raised his head, frowned, then looked back down at his notebook and began nervously turning its pages. He watched Daniel from the corner of his eye. “Does the name Ibrahim Awad mean anything to you?”
“No, should it?”
“He was seen with Sara shortly before she disappeared.”
“Who… who is he?”
“It seems that he and Sara are very close. Several of her friends mentioned his name. His family hasn’t heard from him either. We’re trying to find out more.”
Daniel’s face, which until then had masked his anguish, suddenly froze, revealing that behind the bewilderment was an undeniable fear. His formerly placid voice now gave rise to an imperious and hostile accusation. “But… just exactly what do you know? Even so, it’s… Someone must have seen Sara… You don’t just disappear like that, from one day to the next―”
“Listen, Mr. Benzaken, we’re doing everything in our power to find your daughter. We’ve questioned her professors, her friends, her classmates, everyone who knows her. We checked the contents of her computer and retraced all the calls from her cell phone and at this very moment, an all-points bulletin is circulating in every police station in the country. For now, there’s no point wasting energy on speculations.”
The telephone rang. Detective Ben-Ami turned back to his desk to answer it. Daniel caught a glimpse of a schoolyard through the open window behind the police officer. The cries of the children at recess rose up in a melodious brouhaha, like the languorous thrum of instruments being tuned before a concert. Daniel again gave in to fatigue – it took no more than a moment of distraction – and voilà, the memories came flooding back, submerging him, carrying him away on their capricious tides. The bell has just rung; he is waiting for Sara outside the schoolyard. She doesn’t run to him or jump into his arms, not in front of her schoolmates. But once seated in the back seat of the car, she raises her face to him and, placing a coquettish index finger on her cheek, she demands a kiss. It is the beginning of summer vacation and Daniel is transported back to Saint Adolphe d’Howard and the shores of Lac Vingt-Sous where, a few metres from their chalet, he and Leila had planted a lilac to celebrate Sara’s birth. Then suddenly, another memory: back in Montreal, Sara is sitting under the porch of their house on Édouard-Montpetit. She invites Daniel to join her and, with a bunch of lilacs in her hand, she shows him how to detach the flowers to suck out their nectar.
But his impatient spirit prevented him from savouring the scene. Quickly, another image emerged from an even more distant past: close-up on baby Sara. In her bath, she laughs and splashes Daniel. In response to each provocation, he invents a new name for her that she repeats without understanding, and he splashes her with renewed vigour: Saradio, Saravenous, Saratatouille, Saravioli, Saravishing… Daniel pulled himself together. No, he had to stop this immediately. The slippery slope of memories was too dangerous. Especially now.
The detective finished his phone call. He got up and stepped toward Daniel with his hand extended. “Trust me, we’re doing everything we can to find your daughter,” he repeated. “And obviously, if you hear anything…” Daniel let himself be guided out, thanked the policeman and went down the long corridor leading to the exit. The office door that closed behind him, the receptionist who gave him a compassionate look, the taxi driver who insisted on putting his suitcase in the trunk himself: it all seemed like a conspiracy to remind him that his life was now in suspense. He appeared to others, and even to himself, as no more than that: a man whose daughter has disappeared, a man who is worried, a man who waits.