Two from Freiburg by Yasmin Helal

 An Epiphany in the Land of Plenty

May 15, 2018

“An Epiphany in the Land of Plenty” by Yasmin Helal

Far away from home, I walked down a nameless street, in and out of nameless shops, buying products I never believed in. Weeks after, meaningful words have left me. Just when I needed them the most.

I’ve always been a talker, playing with words until they succumbed to my will. But now they have abandoned me. So did my healthy appetite and peaceful sleep.

Left to my own devices. I remain in the dark. Here I am where kids attend music classes after school. Drinking clean water from the tap, long after the sewage has left my kidneys. Eating clean food with a stomach of steel that can digest stones. Rolling my tobacco and counting my Euros.

Is this what life is about? Is this what my fellow Arabs have crossed the Mediterranean for? All the way from the land where our ancestors built sky-high pyramids and dug deep canals.

I roamed the streets of Freiburg, a city not as white as I had thought. With new friends I never thought I would meet. I longed to get lost in big crowded streets where no one knew me. I missed the home I could no longer recognise.

And so I walked down that nameless street, struggling to catch the words that have left me. Suddenly, they slip out of my lips. Words that capture a realisation so strong, for years it captivated my entire existence.

It all started with you, back in 2012. But now you are a nameless character in an unknown text. You opened the books for me and told me to read.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. The relationship that she described as the biggest achievement of her life. Crazy sex, crazy love, and crazy heartbreak.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” she said.

Have I become a woman?

So many years later, those words come out of my lips on that nameless street. Words I never used before. I hadn’t even noticed them when I said them.

Until I revisited Michel Foucault. I shut the windows and the doors. Deactivated my Facebook and went off the radar. Spent four days with him; ate with him, slept with him, talked with him, all the while meticulously rolling my tobacco.

“It is through sex — in fact, an imaginary point determined by the deployment of sexuality — that each individual has to pass in order to have access to his own intelligibility (seeing that it is both the hidden aspect and the generative principle of meaning), to the whole of his body (since it is a real and threatened part of it, while symbolically constituting the whole), to his identity (since it joins the force of a drive to the singularity of a history),” he told me.

“What about the snowy days of Chuar Qurna? The massacre that my mother survived while I slept soundly in her arms? Where is this sleep now? And the war that stripped my father of his soul? What about my young days in those dusty streets by the Pyramids, jumping from balcony to balcony? What about that grey street by the Faisaliah? And those pristine beaches and shiny Maseratis of the City of Gold? What about Mirissa and the bright full moons of Poya?” I said as it suddenly dawned on me.

I broke the gender within me. I now know that my realities are a series of social constructs and that my sexuality is man-made.

Here I am, playing “colored” in Freiburg after I played “white” in Sri Lanka. With a grim past far behind, revisiting Foucault. Reading words that ignited my passion. Words that make me reconstruct my realities and recall my past with a new pair of eyes. You opened those books for me and now I can’t close them. The realisation that I have struggled with for so long started boiling up. And, along with Foucault, I revisited those words that slipped out of my lips on that nameless street. 

“This color would look so good on you,” my friend said.

“But this is too girly. I prefer more gender neutral colors,” I said.

Words that I never even used before slipping out of my lips. Planting a seed that grows into a blossoming tree. Until this realisation finally dawned on me.

The books that you opened my mind for have never left me. The Second Sex. Testo Junkie. Writing on the Body. The Anthropology of Menstruation. Modon El Melh. Ya Tale’ El Shagara. ‘Azazil




May 30, 2018

“Landlocked” by Yasmin Helal

Off I go. Up and down that nameless street where on every corner there is another soul, probably as trapped as my own. Far away from the shifting sands of my reality, the constant gaze that shaped my soul.

I walk in steady steps. Running from the past that defines me. Trapped in a body that dares to conceive and a mind that dares to think. The body that dares to bleed every month, oozing hormones that shape its round edges. Functioning under labels I will never know what I might’ve been out without.

Off I go. Walking in defiance. But every once in a while, I slip in words with hidden warnings. This is not who I am. This is who I have learnt to become. Within this body is a broken soul. Emancipated, but broken.

I try to reach out, in between all the statements that define my days. Shifting in confinement, within this mind, this body. None of them are really mine. They have been given to me with no choice of my own. 

I stop. I turn. I leave everything behind.

The past creeps in, lurking from a dark corner when I least expect it. It pokes me with a needle, on time, German time. Sharp and punctual. Not a minute too early. Not a minute too late. A needle that took millions of lives to protect me. I can hardly face the time that failed me. It feels too early and it feels too late. Never right for my own pace.

The past keeps coming back. We exchange broken smiles. It reminds me of my struggle to find out who I would have become had it not been for the institutions that turned me into a file with a serial number. It reminds me of the struggle that I confront every night when I admit to myself that I am more of a conformist than I pretend to be.

And then I stop. I turn. I leave everything behind.

I look beyond the trees, ignoring alien signs and traffic lights that I don’t understand. I see the prayer flags hovering over Thamel Street. I carefully walk under their shade as if I understand all the signs. Living among the locals like I always have.

I revisit the epiphany I never wrote about—on that day, through the morning mist, while I looked out of the window at the dizzying number of rickshaws. Through the fog in the air and the clouded thoughts in my mind. I had already forgotten the exhausting flight that landed me here and the freezing bed in which I trembled all night. I had already forgotten the thousand miles that took me away from home in search of the exotic land where reality doesn’t sting just because it’s not my own.

It was late last year. No month. No date. And no time. Just you and me. The temperature had dropped to eight degrees, fatal weather for a desert dweller like me. In the early hours of that morning, the travel book lay beside me nearly untouched. A quick search had already told me that Nepal was a landlocked country in the Himalayas.

Landlocked. That’s all I needed to know.

This is where climbers have been lured for a century, many of them disappearing, never to be seen again. “Death in the clouds,” a newspaper had once called it, “tragic but unavoidable” in the view of mountaineers.

Across the table from you, after our meeting with the elders of the Tibetan Muslims, that dinner changed something in me. Downing steamed Momos and Tibetan tea, talking about a religion I had renounced seventeen years earlier. For Buddha. For Sri Ramana. For the Dreamers. Anywhere exotic that can take me away from my unforgiving past.

“My father left us when we were kids,” you told me.

“I felt it! Me too,” I answered, surrendering to the past that you confronted me with.

“Your mother struggled too?”

“Deeply,” I said, not even knowing what that meant.

Firm handshake. Broken smile. No hugs. No turning back. Just like the locals.

Here I am, months away from that dinner. Revisiting the epiphany that I never wrote about. Running away from the Spring and the Cause that I should write about. But what words can describe the dead and the lost that left me so sore inside out?

I bleed. I write. I shift from laughter to tears, not knowing which is which. Not knowing when the moment will strike when I stop and turn and look at all that I’ve left behind. And all the tears that I shed for the home that rejected me.