Taking advantage of a rare opportunity, I drive like a maniac to Najeeb Haqd’s house from my workplace, the headquarters of the only English newspaper in the country. I speed past cars on my 2002 Suzuki Volty. This is the first time he agrees for an interview, the J.D. Salinger of this country, the isolated writer with the critical eye; he’s given me a one hour window. I whiz past cars driving slowly now that the new traffic control cameras have been ghostly installed.
The wet ground makes me hesitant to break, so I just twist my fist and speed up; there is no time to lose. In the inner city of Beirut, where the cramped and tight streets force me to drive agonizingly slow, I manoeuvre in dark alleys and side roads like an experiment rat trying to find the way to my reward through a labyrinth made to make me suffer in my search.
But I find it; an old, lopsided building, ominously standing like an aged man fighting gravity. It lives up to its reputation; the only reason it has not been touched by excavators and bulldozers is the promise of it being a national landmark in the future, The Home of Haqd. I park the motorcycle next to the entrance of the building and press the button next to the “Mr. Haqd” label. I hear someone lifting the handle, a presence at the other end of the interphone line, but no sound, just a buzz which opens the door. I feel like a tomb raider as I enter the building, the smell of dust permeating through the entrance, and the elevator too old to function. I climb the stairs two steps at a time although there’s no light to guide my way. Three stories up, I knock on the wooden door which can be easily broken.
I think of the questions I want to ask him: How do you create your characters? The supernatural is essential for you in your writings, what do you think it adds to your work? What is your favourite environment to write in?
The door opens quickly and a bit of light seeps from the inside, but then it’s gone. A gaunt figure wearing a hoody comes out and tells me to follow him in a solemn voice, not commanding, and not subservient, simply menacing, like the scratching sound of a quill on a parchment; the clicking of the keyboard.
“Mr. Haqd?” I ask, but of course it’s him. Even in the darkness as we descend the stairs, I know it’s him, I can strangely feel his eerie ambience taking control of our night-time meeting. Taking control of my movement, of my words, of my being.
“Come, just follow me,” he says again, a slight irritation in his voice.
I don’t ask questions, I just do what I’m told for fear of wasting the opportunity. I mentally record every little detail of every step he takes, the way his right foot slightly curves inward as he steps on it; how his right arm doesn’t move, but how his left arm keeps his balance as he pounces with every step. Every minute or two, he looks back at me, checking if I’m there, and occasionally, he utters a warning, “keep up, I won’t wait or come back for you!”
Ten minutes into our walk, a gloomy solitary promenade, met with the eerie blowing of the night wind, we arrive at what seems to be like a metal fence, withered and rusted. Najeeb Haqd starts climbing and hesitation strikes my head like a scythe as I realize that we’re breaking into a cemetery.
“Are you coming? Don’t be afraid, there’s no one inside,” he says and quickly jumps to the other side of the fence.
I start climbing and images of men with sheep’s feet, of little dwarfs with wrinkly skin, overlapping over itself like sandy dunes, of mutilated bodies and limbs walking around haunt my mind. The darkness of imagination and the darkness of the night mingle, and the result is fear, as I wobble behind the mouth of critical words like a dull tail, not knowing how to progress in the darkened depths of night.
Inside the bounds of the dead, the gravestones, dull and convenient, burst like hidden stars as I make my way behind a contemptible thin body, barely existing if it weren’t for his sporadic and random manuscripts.
We stop at a grave and he brings out a small gas lighter which has a lead bulb on the bottom side. He lights the gravestone and reads out the name. Wafiq Ghanem. He writes it down on a small notepad he also digs up from his pocket. He turns around and lights another headstone. Bilal Hijazi.
“What’s on your mind?” he asks, his voice not rising above the sound of the wind’s playful dance around the channels of marble headstones.
“Nothing. I’m just waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“For you to tell me what to make of this.”
He doesn’t reply. He simply sits on one of the stones, the wind becomes fiercer and wet with the residue of rain hanging on the trees surrounding the cemetery. I keep my gaze at the place from where the infamous author spoke, waiting for him to utter and tell me what to do next. An unnerving sound echoes in the pitch black surrounding and breaks the silence.
“Mr. Haqd?” Sheep’s legs, small dwarfs, limbs are projected on the screen of darkness. “Mr. Haqd?”
“Do you remember anything before I called you?”
I try to. I try to remember events that happened at work, but I draw blanks.
“Don’t be scared, this is what we’re here for.” He says, still very calm as the noise around us heightens, definitely not the wind. “Okay, get ready,” he tells me. I sense him move.
“Get ready for what?” His gas lighter is on. He is standing up, his arms aloft.
“Do not run away,” he shouts, as if preaching.
“Are you talking to me?” I ask, but he does not acknowledge me.
“I have come to watch you play.” He looks at me and says, “You have to know that I only write about the dead because it’s convenient to give them a voice. I need to find out how old you are.”
And the light is gone. A pull. A shove. I’m on the ground and I’m mentally recording every little detail, the sound of breaking stones, the intricate fizzing of the worms in the damp soil, the movement of snails on the moist tombstones. I am mentally recording everything. The trotting of sheep legs and the voices of males with rough voices above me. Little djinns laugh like babies full of malice, their mouths full of crooked teeth; their skin rough and rugged like canvas. I mentally record everything my imagination gives away. Everything is recorded, written down. Mr. Haqd is absent.
A flame runs through me, and light hits my eyes, the light of the sun. I wake up, still in the cemetery. My eyelids burn when I blink, as if my eye fluid has turned into an acidic compound. But everything is clear. The tombstones, the trees, the fence. I look around, I see the names, Wafiq Ghanem; Bilal Hijazi. And next to them, I see a familiar name, my own, and next to it, the inscribed years, 1976 – 2004.
I run. I run away. I jump over the fence and make my way to the old withered building with amazing speed. I see my Suzuki Volty. I climb three floors and knock on the door fiercely. The wooden door opens and I see Mr. Haqd sitting in one of the rooms, writing. He turns to me and says, “I’m glad to see you once again.”
He chuckles as I look down and see my sheep legs shiver.