The following texts are part of a series of letters I wrote while I was grieving my first true love, Numan, who passed away from cancer in 2017. You can find the previous ones here.
So it has been less than a week and I’ve already missed a day; I’m not so sure about this one-letter-a-day thing. I didn’t want to miss today’s, so here I am, although I don’t feel in the best place to write to you right now.
I’m freaking out. I don’t even know why, sometimes I just let my mind get out of control and I think of all the choices I have to make, the person I could be… and then I think back on the past few months and I feel guilty. I wonder what you would advise me to do. When we were together, there wasn’t such a problem, since I had convinced myself I had it all figured out. My studies, my travels, my volunteer work… Remember when I told you that ever since I was a girl I had the dream of becoming a writer? I think it’s the way you were so passionate about dancing that reminded me of that. Now I’m so lost. I’m so fucking lost, Numan.
In December, when your brother contacted me to ask if I could help, if maybe a hospital in Switzerland could do something for you and I had no choice but to tell him I couldn’t, when he told me you only had one month to live according to doctors… something changed in me. I think the depression had been building up in me for a while, I mean even before you got sick, but there was no turning back at that point. The same day, I poured myself a glass of vodka and turned my emotions off. It was a little creepy, as if I was watching myself from outside of my body. I asked a religious man staying in the hostel I was at in Beirut what he thought about his God giving cancer to a 20-year-old person. I was completely cynical. Anyway, that day the hope disappeared, and it took a part of me with it. A few weeks later, I quit my studies, because I could die tomorrow, because fuck that. I convinced myself I was doing it so I could give professional writing a shot… except I didn’t pick up a pen more than three or four times between that moment and these letters. Shameful, isn’t it? I lost myself, habibi. I just couldn’t deal with what was happening to you and I shut down. I think it’s better that I didn’t come to see you after that, because I don’t think you would have recognised me.
I’m gathering everything I have that reminds me of you and I’m turning it into some kind of memorial for you. A friend who also lost someone young recommended me to do it. It’s silly, but I think there’s a ceremonial aspect to it that I crave. I don’t know, Numan, some days are easier than others and this is one of the hard ones. I found a card from the hostel we stayed at in Nazareth, and it reminded me of a lot. It’s going in the ‘memorial’, if I can call it like that. I’ll go through that day in details tomorrow, I think it’s important. I just don’t have the courage now. I’m sorry this is all about me… I talked about you yesterday. Maybe that’s why I’m so sad.
I’m sorry I haven’t written to you in a few days, the idea that I could do it everyday was bound to fail, I guess. It’s not that I’ve forgotten you, on the contrary. You know, not a day goes by when I don’t think about you. I guess I was dreading this letter, this time, because I’ve been feeling a bit better and I know that remembering that day will make me sad. I’ve been so sad all the time, you know, that I wanted to enjoy this newfound, fragile happiness.
Nazareth. I always associated that name with the Bible and quite frankly, I realised much later than I’d care to admit that it is an actual city that still exists today. It’s on the Israeli side, so I hadn’t visited it yet when the idea of going there with you came up, since I didn’t leave the Palestinian side for several weeks after my arrival in Nablus.
For you, it was more complex. You had been waiting for two years to get a permit for the other side. At the time you wanted it to visit your ex-girlfriend, who was a Palestinian living in Haïfa. You finally got it: two years of waiting for a one-day pass. I think I don’t need to point out the injustice here. You wanted to spend that special day with me and it was a real honour. Although we were already seeing each other almost every day and our bond kept growing stronger, we hadn’t really verbalised it yet and I still felt a bit insecure at times, as I tend to do with men. A newly arrived, breakdancing Belgian girl had views on you and I felt quite jealous; I was afraid she’d steal you away from me. Anyway, those two days were a marking step in our relationship and I remember it clearly.
We left early in the morning and took a bus to Jenin, close to the border with Israel. We were discretely holding hands without anyone seeing, as we usually did. From there, we took another bus to the actual border. At that point, I was already familiar with quite a lot of forms of the occupation, such as the endless checkpoints on the roads, the Israeli flags everywhere, guns pointed at us, etc. That day though, I got to experiment it as if I was one of you. Very few foreigners take that road from the West Bank to Israel; most people come through Jerusalem. I was the only ‘white’ person there. We were dropped off in front of a building that looked like some sort of prison; guards and cameras everywhere, grey walls, narrows corridors. We were guided towards a room completely packed and informed that we had to wait. So we waited and waited and waited. Two, maybe three hours. The people working for that place were all there, apparently, but it’s common practice to make people wait and stress for no other reason than cruelty. I say stress because they can reserve the right to cancel all permits for the rest of the day, or even close the border altogether.
I was worried that would happen to you. I could always go back, but you had waited for that day for so long. It was humiliating, I felt like we were all just animals in a cage, and our owners were having fun playing with us, watching us lose time and patience. I was feeling very claustrophobic. When the line finally moved, we went through the different security checks. It’s a step-by-step process where you wait behind turning gates until the light above you turns green. A very unpleasant woman checked my passport. Another one did so once again, right at the end, after my bag had been examined. She saw it was foreign and she pushed me to the side. You were in front of me, so you were already out. I had to wait another half hour, for the line to end, until she agreed to look at my passport again. She stared at it for 5 minutes, and then at me as if I were a criminal. She got up to call some colleagues. My heart was racing. A man came back and asked me loads of questions, about where I was from and what I was doing there. I lied, of course, saying I was just a tourist and praying they wouldn’t figure me out. He left, again. I waited a while longer. The whole time, there was a soldier pointing a huge gun straight at me, from above. When the man came back, he asked ‘what the hell was I doing in this shithole’ but he let me go. As much as I wanted to answer him that this shithole treated me way better than all of them shit heads, I shut my mouth, smiled and said thank you. I think I rarely felt as relieved as that moment. I couldn’t believe some people had to go through that hell everyday to go to work.
Freedom! After another car ride, we finally arrived in Nazareth. Habibi, wasn’t it amazing to be able to hold hands without fear of consequences? Walking down the street like an innocent couple. We visited the city and met up with some friends of yours. In the evening, we sat in a bar, enjoying a beer freely and still publicly holding each other; it would seem natural here, but it was so surrealist where you came from. I had a very nice day habibi, but it wasn’t so special to me to be able to do those things. I will never forget what you said, that night. You told me it was the happiest day of your life. It’s so beautiful and so wrong, all at once. If only I had known how short your life was going to be, back then…
Your permit was valid only for one day but we had decided to risk going home the next one, because they’re not so strict on border controls the other way round. So we found a nice hotel in the old town and lied to the owner about where you were from. He was very nice though, and I have a very fond memory of that night, of our bond and our intimacy. We could be ourselves and not have to stress about not being seen. We were both a bit sad to leave, the next day, after having tasted such a short freedom. I’m sorry for what I’m about to say, but fuck that society where I would have supposedly lost my honour for loving you without being married. Love is a right and it also happens to be always right. If it’s true love, it can never be wrong, and that’s what your culture was taking away from you. I refuse to feel ashamed for loving you in secret. It was natural, and that day in Nazareth was what it was supposed to be like everyday.
You could have gotten in real trouble for overstaying your permit, but thankfully the return was pretty smooth. They don’t care who or what goes into Palestine, as long as you don’t come out. I did a mistake, as we were driving away from what felt so much like a prison and I tried to take a photo of the place. The driver saw me and yelled: “Do you want to get us shot?” The way he said it, it felt like it would have actually happened it they saw me. It terrified me.
We talked a lot, on the bus. I mentioned that girl I was jealous of and you told me that if I knew you, if I really knew you, I wouldn’t have any doubt at all. I do know now, how loyal you were to me and how much you loved me. I had absolutely no reason to feel insecure. Oh Numan, I don’t think you know how much you made me trust in love again. You were the key.
I closed my eyes and when I opened them, we were approaching the hills of Nablus and it felt like coming home. It has its bad sides, but it’s still a pretty awesome place. 🙂
Thank you for that day.
Read the next letters here.