Skip to main content

A message from a man who is seeking a reason to live, to those who have too many

When we headed towards the journalism, we met Yaroub Aleesa (born 1969 in the Syrian province of Hama). He picked us out of the confusion of the streets and led us into the house of journalism where he looked after us, fostered us with a father’s tenderness and a master’s authority. Then he left us to do what we wanted. What he did for my generation was no exception. He treated all generations equally. I venture to say that every Syrian journalist in the past twenty years has learnt something from Aleesa. During his active years as a publisher, he started up and managed several newspapers and magazines. Even though the censors again and again forced him to close down, he refused to compromise in two things, no matter the cost: the quality that even his opponents respected and the critical stance. This man’s tragedy is that he is living in a country where not only journalism but life itself has died. Some of his friends have left the country. The rest are drowning in a futile battle to survive. In order to not succumb to being silenced he has written the fantastic novel The White Minaret. Filled as it is with knowledge and enlightenment, this novel manages to defy all the death that surrounds him—especially the death of journalism. The novel captures the essence of his experiences as a citizen, a reader, an observer, and a journalist living in the eastern outpost of the Arab world. But while it is possible to read his text as a novel, I notice it can also be read as a journalistic text—even as his longest article. A world of people, journalists, and writers such as Aleesa is a world that one can live in.

Raed Wahesh (b. 1981) is a Syrian-Palestinian poet, journalist and critic living in Hamburg.

Credits Text: Yaroub Aleesa Translation from Arabic: Wael Sawah Introduction: Raed Wahesh Translation of introduction: Christina Cullhed May 05 2021

“What makes life 'worth living'?

I stumbled on this sentence in a volume of selected writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Stunned, I paused over the question wondering, like any of the millions of admirers of Mahmoud Darwish – the most brilliant Arabic poet of our time – who had heard him recite this line in his deep, touching voice. He even used it as the title of one of his poems: “We have on this earth what makes life worth living”

“Aha,” I said to myself, ‘so the man stole the phrase from Nietzsche.” But life has since taught me that Darwish did not steal the maxim, - but much worse – he understood it.

Darwish gave us his answer to Nietzsche’s question, his own list of what makes life worth living. His list includes, “Mothers’ coffee, the smell of bread at dawn, the invaders ’fear of memories, tyrants’ fear of songs, the first love, Sophocles’ poems, April hesitation, and women entering forty with their full apricots.”

Then I realized that each of us should have our list of “What makes life 'worth living'? The list should be with us always and should be extended whenever we see, taste, learn, experience, smell, hear, touch, or embrace something new that belongs on the list. Upon death, the law should oblige the family to surrender the personal ID to the Civil Registry, and the list of “What makes life 'worth living” to the National Bureau for Reasons to Live.

Even better would be a joint resolution of the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council under Chapter VII obliging all countries to create national bureaus of Reasons to Live. The bureaus would collect, examine and organize the lists of all who have died then transfer them to the “Global Bureau of Reasons to Live on This Earth". This bureau would circulate and promote the most convincing reasons, melding them into a contemporary global culture. It could embellish them with some joy, celebrate them, and use them to save humanity from extinction, by diluting our great existentialist questions, and occupying us with small pleasures, thus distracting us from the search for meaning, purpose, and destiny.

Generation after generation we will have a final or almost final list of what makes life 'worth living', and by doing so, we will get rid of some of our questions and most of our facts, and find relief from some of our suffering.

Many years ago, I fell in love with a woman who made me seal my list of what makes life 'worth living'. I took my list out of my pocket, added six items on it, and then sealed it, as I no longer wanted to learn or discover anything more or savor anything new. I had all the reasons in the world to be happy.

My list has been sealed for years. All that was worth living for was a spin around a single center, a repetition of previous joys, recalling songs that were already on my list but this time with her, preparing food with and for her, reading the same beautiful poems but into her ears only, and visiting the same endearing places with her.

The penultimate item on my soul's sealed list was to read with her everything I had done in my life. The last was my ultimate piece of joy: to die, while seeing her tears for me.

Later, as everyone does to everyone, that woman did everything she could to free me from that captivity: she did all that a human spirit could do to free me; she helped me overcome my bonds without mercy, smashed my bones with a hammer, and protected me from feeling pain ever again.

Trying to heal, I tried to retrieve all the things that make life 'worth living': listened to the same songs, alone; re-read the same books that dazzled me; chattered with my old friends after we all had aged and begun to fall apart one after the other. I tried to recover my ability to detect the beauty of the books, the streets, the clouds, the women and the trees. I was simply trying to peel off the transparent adhesive with which I had sealed my list and to resume my mission as a human being who had crossed this world once, with reasons for living.

I failed. Of course I did. Damn me if I did not. When I used that adhesive, I did not want to seal my list; I wanted to seal my soul – my soul, which is no longer capable of testing more or savoring more. How painful it is to rip the adhesive tape off the soul. How much it distorts its remnant, when snatched cruelly. That woman closed my soul and left. With her, she took the key; she took the knife needed to remove the tape from both papers and spirits, and with her, she took the screwdrivers, crayons, disk drives, reading glasses, tasting glands, hormones, and groans of joy.

Just over 50 now, I am a man without a reason to live. As per the World Health Organization, I have, statistically, a chance to live some twenty-two more years. But how can I live all those years without a real reason? I cannot remove the tape from my list and am incapable of beginning a new one.

I thought the best I could do was to copy other people’s reasons for living, to seek help from souls that have not been torn apart by a broken heart or been captured by the illusion of love and the idea that impermanent things can be immortal. Because they cannot; lucky are those who have never fallen in love and therefore cannot be abandoned every autumn.

Did I, for a moment, seem like a normal person, addressing normal humans? Did that work for you? I know that you love to listen to the stories of tormented abandoned lovers, and you even think Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky are the greatest writers in the history of humankind, because they have supplied your emotions with so much tragedy. Now let me tell you the truth.

I am writing to you from the bottom of the world. From a place in which you need to be as skillful as a master restorer, as naive as a treasure hunter, as pure as a fasting person, and as stubborn as a goat, in order to find a reason to continue living.

I did everything I could in order not to seem like a lazy beggar who relies on other peoples’ reasons to live. I knocked on every door. I tried all the known reasons to live and all theoretical ones that I know of. I downloaded them into my life with all sincerity, in an attempt to find just one adequate reason. I started with little ones such as listening to a song from an old, beautiful time. I found one, but it was uploaded to an application that always gave me the same message: "You may have lost your internet connection”, or “This service is not available in your country." Yes, yes. This service is not available in my country, for why would it be available? What would those who only hate do with a song about love?

I reviewed all the simple aspects of life that may make it livable: Beautiful trees? They have cut them down. Birds? The sounds of war have frightened them away. Warm family home? Our homes are cold. A sprinkle of black pepper over a plate of truffles? Landmines have blown up truffle pickers, and even pepper has lost its flavor and pungency in the war. Childhood memories? We knew they were fake.

I tried Mahmoud Darwish's list: The smell of bread at dawn? At dawn, the line for bread will be very long, and the smell of the bakery will not reach that far. April hesitation? How ugly is April coming back every year to the same earth, the same life. How ugly is this month that makes you say, ‘What a beautiful day! If only we were alive to enjoy it.’ Mothers’ coffee? Our mothers are mourning our fallen brothers and have no time to make coffee. Women entering forty with their full apricots? No more they do. War has wrinkled their cheeks; loss has changed their breasts; and sadness has dried their wombs. Invaders scorn memories and giggle; tyrants seize the songs and use them to glorify their deeds.

Love? Give me a break. I live in a land about which T. E. Lawrence said the day he first saw it: "What an ugly land! It is good only for the appearance of prophets." We have been killing each other for ten years and we will not stop, because we do not really know what price we should ask for all this blood. We kill each other only because we want to offload the hate we have stored for so long. It happened as simply as this: we beat the drums of war and were given a gun of hate and a tank of fear, and stood on the line of contact between them.

Questions? I have always believed that the questions that curiosity generates are a wonderful carrot that leads us in life systematically. Some questions have a magical ability to keep us tied to the millstone for a longer time, so it is unreasonable for us to die before we find answers to them. However, I simply had a good bunch of questions. In fact, I was born in a country that is devoid of questions, a country that for centuries had not asked one correct question, because it was indifferent to understanding itself, or to understanding what was happening to it.

Hope? It is a great reason for life, but unfortunately, it occurs only in the future, and I live in a country that lives mostly in the past and thinks it needs no more. A country that feels it retains a few thousand years, so why would it need to think about twenty or thirty years of the future? Why would it think that it needed to know anything new about itself or about the world? You must know that old man who does not stop giving his perspective about everything simply because he was sitting in the basement of his house when WWII broke out. You know at least one or two of this kind. I know countries that behave like this old man, and have lived my whole life in one of them.

My country feels that it is old enough to be anything else. It cannot believe that it is only a bad jug of wine, but it just so happens that someone forgot it in a cellar too long. Of course, the country that is free of questions must be free of fun. Where the ultimate answers dwell, roughness automatically follows. Personally, I have not laughed for four or five years. I have even begun to think that this world must be the hell of another world. Otherwise, what are we doing here? And why do we have cloudy memories of another world that has issues that make life 'worth living? A world that has autumn and spring and clouds and trees; young women whose eyes light up when they receive love letters; a young couple who start a quarrel, looking at an echo image of a fetus in its sixteenth week, and they have yet to agree on a name for it; a world in which people can be divided into two soccer teams, two music bands, or differ about the best way to chop meat or slice vegetables.

We must once have been in a fictional world like this. The memory of our genes must bear some of it, or maybe the scriptures have told us about it in vague revelation, or perhaps it is merely a mysterious dream we believe was real one day in the past, only because we saw it several times.

Hundreds of times every day, I think of a line of your favorite writer, Shakespeare. He says in Henry VI, “Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed.” I bet you no longer know this verse. Some of you may even think that I have fabricated it. My confidence comes from the fact that you do not need it anymore, and your minds cannot even understand what it means. Death is the only thing you fear. From where I write now, it is life that we fear most.

I conjured up good ideas and people that I know, hoping to have something or someone to live for. I remembered being here in the first week of the war. I even was a witness of the fall of its first victim: the truth. Then, in the following weeks, victims were killed; the honest people were killed, then the poor, then the concepts, then the voice of reason, then identity, then the semantics of language, then the means of livelihood, then hope, then the rest of the poor. Now the final episode has begun, written by a weak scriptwriter devoid of imagination. He could find no exit from the dilemma other than killing all the characters.

Neither people nor ideas benefit the dead. Is it faith then? I have no argument for faith except this dialogue from Aristophanes’ The Nights, in which Demosthenes says to the servant Nicias:

DEMOSTHENES: Do you then believe there are gods?

NICIAS: Certainly.

DEMOSTHENES: What proof have you?

NICIAS: The proof that they have taken a grudge against me. Is that not enough?

How about obtaining new things? None of the things I want out of this world can be obtained with guns. And guns are all that I see around me.

Simple, carefree, safe life? Garcia Marquez’s main theme was loneliness; Emil Cioran’s theme was suicide; Dostoevsky's, despair; and Chaplin's was mourning. Our major theme is anxiety. Wherever we go, we will carry our anxiety with us. Is the reason for that geological? I do not know, but we have been living from time immemorial above the African fault, and we are waiting for the great earthquake that will destroy us and plunge the rest of our land into the sea. This is what the scholars tell us. But scientists have yet to tell us where the other lines of collapse are located – the human, cultural, faith, and psychological lines of collapse. Do they fall above it or below it? Are they preceding the geological one or following it? We do not know, but everything beneath us is shaking, not only since the last war broke out, but from a much longer time ago, perhaps since this country was born. This tremor, this war, is just a graduation ceremony.

The only thing available to me among all the things that make life 'worth living' is to support my head on a shoulder capable of understanding me, a shoulder of a good friend, good for the life we ​​live in, good for the worries that I will reveal. To such a friend I will say the following, “How much I need you now, oh Judas! How much I need, my friend, to cry on your shoulder, and entrust you with what all those traitors who were encouraged by your audacity, did to me. They simply slashed my flesh with their teeth after I was alone away from you. Who will understand me but you? Who will feel the tongues of hyenas licking my blood that spilled from the wounds you caused? Who will caress my head, my beloved hyena?

This message may not persuade Judas to talk to me, so I will be left only with these verses by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Life must go on;

I forget just why.

I have cracked your heads with many questions, yet one I still have: can the woman I talked to you about earlier be a country? Indeed she is.

I am writing to ask you to contribute to giving me a few extra days, by telling me your reasons for living, the things that make your life 'worth living'. I will read them all, and will read them all again. Should I have my own book of reasons for life, I will share it with others, for we all have hearts that have been smashed by hammers – It does not matter by whom: women, friends, or countries.

Like what you read?

Take action for freedom of expression and donate to PEN/Opp. Our work depends upon funding and donors. Every contribution, big or small, is valuable for us.

Donate on Patreon
More ways to get involved