March 1, 2015 [Sunday]
It is hot inside this building, and we are in a small classroom that has been set aside as a space for us to conduct workshops. It is the third day of The Muslim Protagonist, a conference I am attending that is described as follows:
Columbia University’s third annual symposium of Muslim and minority writers, artists and scholars on literature and art as agents of social, intellectual and spiritual change…
The idea is that we can see, and use, art as protest, in “pursuit of challenging and reimagining protagonists and their narratives.” Art takes many forms: the splashing of watercolor and acrylic across large white canvasses; the making of short, raw films with carefully shot closeups; the creation of music that speaks to people’s souls; but art is also the dancing of words across a page, and the crafting of stories and of narratives that carry powerful meaning.
The classroom is almost square but for a column that juts out from the back, and the desks are in casual disarray, a projector set up at the front and a lectern off to the side. We are here for creative workshops, and we are going from discussions on how to craft the perfect pitch to explorations of what it means to write journalism, literary fiction, and first person narratives.
We pull our chairs and desks together to sit in a wobbly circle, and the instructor talks a little bit about literary fiction before asking us to think about an experience that has affected our perceptions of life in some way. We sit quietly. I rack my brains for an appropriate incident. The July war of 2006 floats to the forefront of my mind, but it feels almost stereotypical, an easy answer to a question like this. Do I think of big events, like surviving the war, or moving from one country to another, or attending an international boarding school in the middle of nowhere for two years? Or do I think of smaller events, smaller moments perhaps, details that color my existence and make me grateful to be alive: the month I spent in the south of Lebanon when I was younger, soaking in the fig trees and the olive trees and the snaking grapevines above our heads, or the summer I spent discovering the villages of jnoub with my friends, everything around us tinged orange in the fading daylight, or the four days I spent in the Grand Canyon, hiking and camping with my classmates in a haze of cold morning cereal and overhanging red rock and warm, fitted sleeping bags?
I find that it is so much more powerful to focus on detail than to focus on what is general; to remember the late nights reading Paradise Lost and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or looking over old Polaroids while drinking grape juice, rather than to remember Love, War, and Loss. My memory of both positive and negative details such as these creates the collage that is myself.
I am still thinking about what it means to choose a life-changing event when the instructor asks us to write a short piece on anything that crosses our mind. I write this:
The streets are filthy, the alleyways dark and winding with gray-brown cobblestones making for an uneven road and faded mosaic decorating the outsides of doorways at various intervals.
I am walking quickly, trying to make my way through the houses unnoticed. The air is heavy and hot, the sky above me overcast, and as I reach a place where I can go right or left, I hear the pitter-patter of tiny running feet behind me.
I turn around, and there is a small brown child running my way, his shoes torn and his hands sticky from the pieces of candy he has stuffed into his now-purple mouth. He smiles when he sees me, and trips and falls, hands outstretched to cushion his fall.
“Why are you running, habibi?” I ask, scolding him as I move to help him up. “Don’t tell anyone I was here, alright? It’ll be our little secret. Go play with your friends.”
The boy’s eyes light up at the idea of being entrusted with a secret so important. He puts his sticky hands in mine before he runs off to play, and as he leaves, the sky grows a little darker, the houses on either side a little taller.
Perhaps we tell stories because the mundane reality of the events and descriptions within makes it easier for us to connect, and to understand. The details evoke emotion, and somehow it is this emotion that stays with us, long after any memory of the story itself is gone.