World heritage, you said. If it was al Aqsa that burned, no one would give a shit. But surely al Aqsa is already our never-ending sob story. The impossibility of us, our fake grief. I think of you being Catholic and Palestinian, I think of the Notre Dame being Jewish and Catholic, I think of other people’s Islam. Then I think, But what do I mean by “us”? I suppose it’s the language we call home, but really I mean our imprisonment: al Aqsa, an electronic tag that sticks no matter how far from Palestine.
I remember buildings dwindling over the snake-like river in the viscid ovoid of takeoff. Unpaired clouds look on hopefully but no one pays them heed. I remember the promise buckling a seatbelt holds, that promise’s parsimony.
World heritage, ah! And where we live some say the flames chose not to hurt the cross—God saved the crown of thorns belonging to His only Son—just as others gloatingly proclaim divine justice: a mosqueful of New Zealanders avenged by fire. Nor should an oceanful of Muslim-murdered Muslims doomed to walk the night disprove them, for how could God requite that blood without fucking up more Muslims? Besides, no one doubts Paris is in the world. It’s the same world whose edge we’re trying not to fall off, but no one’s sure of that.
I remember Tolkienesque skies framed by vampire towers, smoke caterpillars climbing out of stone tree trunks to resolve into monarch butterflies. I remember the spire spectacularly caving in, roof planks in the nave like spent firewood on a hearth.
Once you were delayed in transit. Alone at the vending machine you turned to ask if “ohne” meant “without”. You were pointing at a bottle behind the glass. But the woman who nodded perfunctorily couldn’t help reeling as she looked at you. Her face—a vision of apocalypse. In a shop window you cringed at your brown blubber, your serrated skin. You’re—what? well—neither believer nor immigrant. But you thought you must be what the Islamic Invasion of Europe looks like. Since that day you haven’t stopped salving and dieting.
Notre Dame makes me think of “nostrum”: sun-borne spray along the Corniche, gelati by the Piazza di Pietr. In an overcast Nice, the rhythms of Algerian Arabic. And suddenly it hits me—you’re the link. Notre Mer! By your swell’s grace Napoleon arrived at my mashrabiya bearing mille feuille and firearms. Ahead of him, the lie that he’d converted to Islam. On your sands’ carpet they sodomized my brother, pale-faced androids who, though I daily drown in your embrace, still question my belonging. Mare meum!
Once I was shot at on the asphalt. Women fell bloodied by my feet. The tear-gas breeze had me tethered to a grate and I dreamt of being on a plane forever. On the footrest my calves, my lats wouldn’t hurt. I’ve seen slums where Lampedusa’s watery graves are a sensible life choice. I’ve known immigrants who survived then set fire to themselves. Below the surf, blue flames shelter cherubim and seraphim who spend happy eternities in Gothic conflagrations.
Notre Dame makes me think of motherhood. A church, like the grave, is a womb. Ibn Arabi says God is a womb. Impregnated by the word—that too is Him—He gives birth to the universe. Ibn Arabi was probably certifiable but what does it mean for a womb to catch fire? For variously criminal billionaires to pledge money to the restoration of a womb? I learned the Lord’s Prayer by heart but I still never know what to say when I cross myself before an icon.
O Mother whose toenails are heaven’s meadows, let us walk on the water or bless us with submarine sleep.
O Mother whose glance is nirvana, give them eyes that they may see us praising you at the world’s edge.
Youssef Rakha is a bilingual writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Based in Cairo, his birthplace, he graduated from Hull University, England, in 1998. He has worked in mostly English-language journalism since then.