Aliyah Mamduh, Catherine Cobham

Paris, September 2004.

Translated By Catherine Cobham


During the burning of Baghdad by American missiles last year, my eyes, my body, my bones became swollen with weeping. I had kept silent as my soul disintegrated, but now weeping was my sole pleasure, apart from her, Hélène. I picked up the phone and shouted down it: "Hélène, my city's burning. Baghdad, which deserves to be saved because of its contribution to human civilization is being battered by long-range weapons, and aeroplanes from hell. So what are we going to talk about tomorrow, my dear, when we're kindly invited to address the International Parliament of Writers? How will you introduce me to the French public? What's the use of words? What's the point? No writer has ever been able to stop war in the past, nor will be able to in the future." Hélène is an expert on annihilation and carnage. When I saw her for the first time, I felt she had just emerged from under the rubble, and smoke was still coming out from somewhere between her temple and her long eyelashes. I didn't record that in my last novel—al-Mahbubat (The Dear Ones)—which I dedicated to her, and which won the Naguib Mahfouz prize for the best novel of 2004. Hélène has always got me entangled in subjects and images which I couldn't write about straightaway, but which it would be impossible to avoid writing about eventually.

When the smoke was rising into the sky over Baghdad, Hélène's face and my city were becoming acquainted inside me. She'd lived in ruins and rubble before me and known fear at close quarters for a long time, and now she was accompanying me to the theater, and not trying to avoid making excuses like me. Baghdad was being destroyed and Hélène's words calmed the mood of the audience and let me keep my feet firmly planted in Iraqi soil. She introduced me with the love which Iraq itself craves. The terrible thing is that some of my friends were amazed to hear that my novel was dedicated to her. They mentioned it cautiously, a little embarrassed. How could you do that? She's a Jewish writer. Haven't you seen what Sharon's doing to the Palestinians? Their reaction made me sorry and sad, and I said nothing. I see Hélène—and I did include this in the novel—Hélène, on the basis of a carefully worked out principle, and because of all her brilliance and genius, growing up and blossoming in Babel. She's a Babylonian and, I continue in the same vein, Babel is not a word like other words, like other early cities. She can understand this, and I can be a good listener. Why shouldn't the two of us be Babylonians? It suits us both. I meet with her there in Babel and would like to think that she remembers me coming from Babel too, giving off smoke that evening in Paris, March 22, 2003, just as I'd seen her on fire the first time we met on December 28, 1998, at the University of Paris.

The Generosity of Friendship

Even though we are no longer young, in the limited temporal sense, every time I see her I say how lovely it is that she doesn't change, as if she has an understanding with time. This is not something very precise, but she seems almost to have achieved an existential understanding with time, to have made of it whatever she pleases. (It's possible I'm making too much of her relationship with time, or misinterpreting it.)

But on another level, how arrogant of me to talk or write about Hélène Cixous at all, unless it's with the arrogance of the friendship...