Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in a state of desperation engineered by late capitalism, within which his mind is a mere subset of a much larger hallucination wherein men are machines, machines are men, and the world and everything in it are mere dreams whose eddies and currents poets can channel briefly but cannot control. Perhaps it goes without saying that he lives in Los Angeles.
Red Night in Damascus
A child dreams. Dreams, of:
A red night in Damascus. A red night in Damascus! Flying, flying in the sky, like a bird! A bird with great wings, an angel a demon! In the sky! Flying over Damascus!
A red night in Damascus. A fountain in heaven. A light, red, fomenting, fuliginous, ochre, red, blood, a woman’s blood, fountaining in the blood red night, here, here in the stone city of Damascus.
“To war!” they cry, in Damascus.
And the children sleep, and the red night shines.
Why a red night? Why a red dwarf? Why a cousin or a friend? Why do we sleep, here, under these bright stars? What man was it told me this, so long ago, my friend, my lover, my companion in this desert.
A red night. A red night in Damascus. Where will we go then? South? North? East? West? The Greeks, you say? We haven’t warred with the Greeks for centuries. Who are you, little storyteller warrior with your talk of war you do not and cannot understand?
And what of the Jews?
Yes, the Jews, an ancient people, our cousins. We hate them, for they are our cousins. Why do we speak of them at all? They are annoying, and bony.
But the Jews listen, they listen to that red sky, you see, and would have it speak! Speak to them like Moses listened, like it is another of their clouds over the Red Sea.
Red, red, red. But why?
Let us examine it. Red is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is slower than blue, slower then violet. Slower than ultraviolet! Red is slow. Red moves slowly, like coagulating blood. Red is like you, you see, a slow man, learning, learning in the deep ocean, like a Greek.
And where is the Greek? Off in Los Angeles, sleeping, with their own reds, their own electromagnetic spectra, their own demons.
Red, red night in Damascus.
The children sleep and out of their mouths in the cutest beautiful Arabic words come the sweet sounds: “To war! To war, Daddy!”
“Hush, child,” says the father, “Now is not the time for War. Now is the time for storytelling.”
Storyteller, storyteller, tell me a story of Damascus.
There was a man in a cat and he grew a bat in a rat.
What did the storyteller say? Is he serious? How can we believe this story? And what if we did? And what if we should? And what grey old hag will come calling when we go? A fate? A gadly? Perhaps a melody for me and mine, a song to guide my missiles to your country?
No, no. The storyteller must tell us himself. What does it mean, storyteller, this fable of yours about a man in a cat? Can a man live in a cat?
He does not live, he speaks, he is part of the cat. He knows the cat, and loves the cat. Do not hurt the cat. He is the cat.
And so the man is a cat, the people say, laughing, let us pet him and feed him milk!
No, no, says another man, there is more to the story still. But let us give him some goat’s milk anyway. He is thirsty.
Sipping the goat’s milk, the storyteller continues.
“I grew a bat in a rat,” he says. “What do you think of that?”
The people grow afraid. “The priests will be angry,” whispers one of them, “We shall go inside. Come inside with us storyteller,” and he does.
The storyteller is given a blanket and some yarn, for the cat that he is.
“I wanted to eat the rat,” the storyteller says. “Both me and my cat, together. We would share it. But I loved the rat too much, handsome, with dark fur like my own, and I thought to myself, since I am both cat and man, why not let the rat be a bat too?”
And the rat flew. It flew into the sky. Into the red night sky.
Washing Town is listening.
“Washing Town, what do you want to do with us, here in Damascus? We are settlers here, pioneers in the dust bowl of Iraq, or whatever place this is. Why are you being so silly?” say the people of Damascus.
“We know that you are in Syria!” says Washing Town.
“Yes, that is where we are,” say the people of Damascus, “Let us sit for a bit and discuss it.”
Washing Town sits down to tea, hot tea at night under a red night sky.
“Thank you for coming to tea, Washing Town. We were discussing where we are. Syria.”
“Yes, let us talk of something else. Geopolitics or something.”
“No, this is boring to us. Let us speak of storytelling. You have a storyteller in one of your cities. A storyteller writing a story about us. He is converting to Judaism, and we hate the Jews, for they are our cousins. We would have him killed. Do us this please, and we will serve you.”
“This is absolute nonsense!” says Washing Town. “The British will be upset. They love storytellers.”
“And so do you, Washing Town, you and your many towns of storytellers, always telling this and that story about this and that person, from here and from there, and where do they all go, eh? Where do all the stories go?”
“To Damascus,” says President Obama. “They go to Damascus.”
“But you do not believe it, you are merely aping us. Why should you believe that all stories go to Damascus?”
“Well do they?”
“We know and you do not, leave it at that.”
“Fine. How are things in Damascus?”
‘They are well, sir, and how are things for you?”
“Your city frightens me. Too many Muslims in it.”
“We are Muslims, true, but we are ancient people, and you offend us. And Damascus is not easily offended. Why do you speak to us about our religion?’
“Sorry, sorry about that. I didn’t mean too many Muslims. I meant, too many dangerous people.”
“We are dangerous, true. And we will grow more dangerous if you do not listen. Listen to our storyteller.”
And the man with goat’s milk in his mouth comes out of his house, standing like a man in his cape, shouting at God and Man, cursing in a thousand languages, and bowing before the Emperor of Washing Town, Los Angeles, and New York, like a God, shouting.
“I serve you, I serve you, Madam! For you are a sky and wind! You are a knife in your enemy’s throat! You are love and hate, and emptiness, found deep in the earth, like a geologist would find, some ore we cannot wreak into any useful metal!”
“I am welcome here,” announces Obama.
The people go inside and leave the storyteller to his business.
“Come, sit with me, President, and let us speak together. You know stories too, tell us one of them. Tell us a good Hawaii story.”
“Very well, very well. I was a boy in Hawaii, a black goy boy. And I will always be a black goy boy in my country, not a Jew, not a white man, you see, neither one nor the other and yet I lead a nation of people as my ancestors did, as Abraham Lincoln did, though I am lesser than he, less wise and brave. But I lead anyway, sir, as you do, here in your ancient city. What would you have of me, poor storyteller? What Hawaii story would you have?”
“A good one, sir, a good one!”
“Very well. Once I made love to a woman in Hawaii. Her beauty was as the ancients say, lips like blood, skin like ebony, hair like gold, her eyes diamonds, and she grew into me like a weight, her cunt a vise, her mouth a serpent, and I knew her for hours, there in the sand in the night, and it was my second time with a woman. My most lovely time. And when I left her she was changed and so was I, and I tell you this story so that you may remember, do not founder Aesop with your bells. He is alive still, with his cat.”
And Damascus shouts!
And the bells ring, they ring for Aesop.
And a child weeps in his bed. And his mother comforts him.
And Robert dreams of a red night sky in Damascus. Alice has left him again, off with her French lover. And he dreams of a red night sky in Damascus.
What does he know of Damascus? Why some random Middle Eastern city in his head? Because of his goat, you see. His goat named Hezgorry, a wild goat he met only the night before.
What is a wild goat, you ask? They say they are no more? They exist still, sir, madam. They exist still, in the wild of the night.
O Wild Night! O Wild Aching Night! What eyes and paths! What gods and gnomes! What lurks and perks for the work with a dirk or a kirk? All still awild, and aweaned, and hungry.
Robert’s goat is weaned, and she is wild. He met her because of Kalish. Kalish.
Kalish! You old murdering Jew! How did you bring this goat to Robert, this strange storyteller?
But Kalish is asleep. I am asleep.
Let us say the goat found him, and the goat led him in his imaginings and dreamings to a city of dreams and stories, to Damascus, with his Alice in tow, always out for an adventure on the Grapevine.
Where will we go now, America? Where will we go, Jews? Where will we go with Damascus? They can travel as well as we. They have sandals and tennis shoes and boots and wrappings and wheelchairs and even a pagoda or two that they can stand on Baba Yaga chicken legs and make her dance, cackling, carrying a Damascus nobleman, woman or two.
Into a red sky, Damascus. Into some old red sky I would bring you, for no reason at all. Or because I want to. Perhaps there is some greater reason too, a reason hidden from me by those wiser than myself, which would make sense, as I am only a young storyteller.
Well, let us leave that for another hour in my narrative.
Back to Washing Town.
Washing Town has been doing its washing as usual, and they have washed well, many goats and many loads of laundry, many old and greedy goats and many many loads of rich men and women’s laundry, ready for another day on the Hill, another day dressed to kill, another day with another footing the bill, for a trill or a whippoorwill or a mill, milling, milling, milling a new aes.
Reagan on the aes! Reagan on the aes! It has finally been decided. America has decided to take the loving memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and replace his strong and handsome face with the face of the Gipper!
Eyes are opening and steps are swinging and cabs are honking, gently, as is the way in Washing Town, and President Obama awakes to the clarion horns and the many shining goats as is his fancy, strong Middle Eastern goats with naked ladies fanning he and his beautiful wife Michelle with palm leaves.
“Bring me my grapes!” says Obama, and good Greek grapes are brought and he eats one or two, before dressing and going into the next room for coffee.
“Damascus is on the red phone,” says his aide.
“Damascus, again?” says Obama. “What do they want now?”
“I don’t know, Mr. President. They’re waiting.”
Obama goes into the Oval Office in his bathrobe and picks up the red phone.
“Thiiiiis eeeeez Damascusssss,” says a voice on the phone.
“Who is this?” asks Obama.
“It’s Damascus. I’m telling you it’s Damascus. Don’t you believe us? The people of Damascus are calling you. We want to speak to you. What are you doing there in the White House? Are the people asleep? We are worried.”
“What are you worried about, Damascus? Some bad dream you had?”
“Yes, it was a bad dream, that is all it was. We are sorry for calling. But listen, we have a secret agent in your porthole, one who knows you well. We would know who might be listening to this conversation. Tell us, Mr. President, what is the average wind speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”
And Damascus hangs up.
President Obama is fatigued. It is rarely good news from Damascus. Always something peculiar. He sips his coffee and looks at his schedule.
Damascus is listening.
Word, word. Word out, brother. Lightning bolt or sky, midget or stallion, wanderer, wanderer, wanderer, Jew wanderer more ancient than the Jews, more ancient than the Assyrians, date-dwellers with their knives in their hands and their smiles on their faces and their gazes at the sky. Word, word, you gerd in a herd of nerds. A bird in a yurt. And let it speak.
“I am Damascus,” says the bird in the yurt. “I need some yoghurt.”
And the yoghurt is brought by a puzzled Syrian politician.
“Words anger me today, man,” says Damascus, the bird in the yurt.
“Why is that, Damascus,” says the Syrian politician.
“I am angry,” says Damascus.
“This puzzles me,” says the Syrian politician.
“I puzzle you!” says the bird in the yurt, and pecks out his eye, and he screams.
“Yummy!” says Damascus in her yurt.
“I cry! I cry at sea!” shouts the Syrian politican.
“You anger me!” says Damascus. “You anger us all with your foolish ways. Listen to the USA, they know what to do, kill us! They even think it’s funny, why give them the burden of slaughtering more Muslims, let the Muslims do it themselves to themselves, whatever their color, eh? We sob for you, man of us who is a fool, and we eat your eye because it is good to eat the eye of a fool, so that he may see!”
“Who am I?” asks the Syrian politician.
“You are yurt, and we live in you,” says Damascus.
And so it is. Things are afoot, old citadelle, old city in a dell, old date-dwellers, old Washing Towners, old Angelinos and New Yorkers, things are afoot and abroad in the land, for the Grapevine is calling us all, I wager, calling us all, into something new under the sun.
Damascus! Damascus! Wherefore art thou Damascus? Damask. The first city where fabrics were woven. 6,000 B.C.? 7,000 B.C.? Damask, weaving, stories upon stories upon cloth upon stories upon cloth upon stories upon storied damask cloth, folks, and so we go into Damascus, a city of weaving.
Weaving, weaving blind. Weaving blind by the eye. Weaving and time to die, there in the dusty haven of some old memory, some old factory of the gods, there in the dust and the dream in a city upon a city upon a dream there in the Lebanon, there in the Levant, there among the cedars, Damascus.
Weaving, weaving in the dark and in the light. Weaving, weaving, weaving for a thousand years, ten thousand, weaving, watching, learning, watching the pattern take shape, making the pattern take shape, letting the pattern take shape, pattern and story, folks, and what of ours here, what woof and weave have we?
Washing Town, the City of Angels, Versailles-Manhattan on its way to Jerusalem, and Damascus, city of weaving, city of story, some many miles to the north, or many kilometers, if you prefer.
Some would say, and some in fact do say, that Damascus is too big for this little story of ours, too old, too ancient, too arrogant, too fierce, too powerful with all their ancient stories.
That perhaps Damascus is the portal from whence we came and all shall return there. Certainly Damascus with all their million and one and more stories may claim to have heard it all before, but, you see, this would be anathema to them, this would be the death of story, for there is always something new in Damascus and elsewhere, folks, always something new under the sun.
So even if you believe that Damascus is some kind of master-sentient, like the terrifying white-bearded God-thing in the Wachovki Brothers’ Matrix who finds something new, something challenging, some new warrior or conqueror or storyteller or field or valley or love or loss and takes it in, takes it in to make it part of “the system,” and the system changes because of it, stories can still change the world, folks. They can still overthrow governments. They can still change the minds of men and women, even the thousands of years old memories of Damascus, even those who would say “There is nothing outside Damascus!” “We are never leaving the shtetl.” There is always something out there.
Only a city, after all. Only an old city with its million and one stories.
Let us see what is happening to the yurt.
Our Syrian politician is a yurt! And the people of Damascus live inside him. Where to draw, where to fire? What line to move? What staff to join? What ancient emperor’s hat to thrust onto your head and what Damascus old steel to draw then, if the yurt is yours and you can move?
Are they ready to move? Let us move them, folks, let us put Damascus on the move.
Damascus! Damascus! Rise up, for you the flag is flung, for you the bugle trills, for you we call, your brothers and sisters, our eager faces turning, and hark, hark, O hark, what shofar calls from the south, what warpeace horn is sounded in the night and in the day, to call you southwards?
The people of Damascus do not know quite what to do with this information. Are we Lincoln? Are you cursing us to death? Surely not. What then? Well, let’s examine it, storyteller, old Damascus storyteller.
The shofar is a kind of bugle. And Jerusalem is eager for you, eager to see your old cousinly faces, eager, eager, not for war, but for an old Jewish habit, conversation.
How to get Damascus on the move? Unlike the island of Manhattan, we cannot un-oar her and sail east through Gibraltar and land at the Gaza Strip! Nor should we levitate the city in some obscene and alien fashion, the city of Damascus is happy where it is for the most part. But the people can move.
There so long, Damascus, without a rest at your weaving! So many beautiful tapestries, so many beautiful carpets, so many beautiful stories there for your countless cruel princes, to tell their tales of savagery, death, and conquerage. All woven, woven, woven, there by hand in your city. Set down that woof and wheel and wail and weal and wool and wane your light for a moment, let us speak.
Jerusalem is to your south, and has been there for some time. Ruled by one king and then another, like your city. Now, as was once the case a few centuries past, the Jews rule it again! Ever since the Holocaust. And the Jews rule you too, as perhaps they might have wanted to back in 555 B.C.
And so Damascus speaks to Jerusalem:
Ruler, ruler, ruler, you with your rules. Are you summoning us? Are we commanded to move? Is this some Trail of Tears, to have us die by the road in our weakness and in our strength?
And Jerusalem speaks to Damascus:
We rule you. We would not summon you. Manhattan is coming to Jerusalem. Much has happened. Please come. We beg of you, our ancient cousins.
And Damascus speaks to Jerusalem:
Then we will come.
And Jerusalem speaks to Damascus:
When will you come?
And Damascus speaks to Jerusalem:
And upright boats, sails to tips, old fomentous vision of the light and shadow in our time from time to time in time on time not time but truth, you old messengerly wanderer with your visit and ex-creations and re-creations, we are up and on our feet, and out, out of our ancient city to visit the city of the Jews.
Thank you, Damascus. I am only Kalish. Only one Jew. But something is happening and I need your help.
The Red Cross, Red Crescent, and various other strong NGOs are summoned by President Obama, the Jews of Israel, and other interested international parties to assist the people of the city of Damascus on their ridiculous visit southwards. The visit of a city to a city, unlike any in history. Who will care for our cats?
I do not know, Damascus. You must move, bring your cats if you want, or let the farmers care for them. I will be shot for this, perhaps, or tortured in one of your dungeons, but please, please walk and push your elderly in their chairs, south. We will provide plenty of water and plenty of food and plenty of rests along the way and if you wish any sort of music we will provide whatever sort of music you may wish, perhaps some I-pods if you like, for those who want those, also your animals should come. Fine, bring the cats too. For some of you are cats, I have heard, you in your ancientness.
And Damascus moves. Damascus moves, slowly, but it moves. South. South through Lebanon.
But not all. Three men remain behind in Damascus to care for the cats. For they need food. And they need water. And, folks, the cats of Damascus need stories.
What is a story to a cat? Is it a river? Is it a fountain? Is it a bubble in the water? Is it one of their nine lives painted in motion, like Cinemascope, threaded through the eventime of day under the nightday, in the lightsun, for the tightcroak, with the Adam’s apple, while the She speaks and the sea weeps, what is a story to cat? Only Damascus knows for sure, but we will find out a little, I promise you.
And umbrellas are provided for the people of Damascus, should they want some, to shield their beautiful women from the sun’s rays, and the men too, if they like, a pretty yellow or pink umbrella, perhaps with a picture of balloons drawn on it, as on the walls in Palestine, with a child floating up above, holding her balloons.
And shoes, and boots. And the NGOs in their wisdom and technological and organizational controlled mayhem deliver them by the bucket load, shoes of all colors and sizes, strong shoes, shoes for walking hundreds of miles.
And the strong people of Damascus take their time, stopping from time to time to enjoy a cigarette or the view, and to enjoy a sandwich or a falafel sold by vendors along their road south, and to find the right pair of shoes.
Sorry, no vehicles are allowed, Damascus. It must be on foot, for as you can see this is some kind of ancient story I hardly know why I am telling it, but it must be told anyway and it must be told, on foot.
And wheelchairs are provided en masse for those who need them, all those infirm and elderly who do not walk as strongly as they used to, and their families push them.
South, south, south through the cedars of the Lebanon to the border with Lebanon, a border controlled by Syria.
But when the people of an entire city decide en masse to walk south to Jerusalem, borders become a bit fuzzier. And the people of Damascus, some with a few small arms hidden away, but leaving their larger automatic weapons behind them, walk south into Lebanon, a nation torn by so many recent wars, between Syria and Israel.
Some of the people of Lebanon jeer as they pass and some watch silently at this strange brigade, and some of the people of Damascus stop to talk with their southern neighbors.
And a man of Lebanon speaks:
“What are you doing? What is happening?”
“We are going south to Jerusalem. We have been summoned there by our God, the Jews.”
“What, is it war? Are all of you attacking?”
“No, no attack, man. A visit. A royal visit. One city to another, real family style.”
“I say truth, man. Listen to me, come if you want, but I’ve got to get going, this is madness.”
And they walk and walk south.
Some of the people of Damascus decide to stay in Lebanon for a few days and let their fellow citizens move on ahead a ways.
God, Adonai, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, O One God in Your Thousand Names on High or Below or In Between, Roving and Moaning in Your Thousand Voices, a city is on the move in your name! Or in their name! Or in both! Or in no name at all, goddamn it, it is a city! It is the name of Damascus, damask, the red welted cleft and woof and meld and wend and rind and sad and sail forsooth. South.
The city is a slave. The city of Damascus. The slave sleeps, sleeps for a long time.
And then some Assyrian, some Assyrian taps me, Kalish, on the head, with his knife, twice, to indicate as in perhaps 3500 B.C., that the people of Damascus should be the ones to kill me, for the Assyrian lord cannot be bothered with such nonsense.
And the echo of this little knife-tap is heard in Damascus, beneath the dungeons, beneath the dudgeon, beneath the wheel, beneath the serpent and its lair, beneath the wind, it is heard there, heard to the slave in its salving sleep. Boom. Boom.
In the boom boom room, baby. What sleeps? What large rest? What old press? What fond mess? What wild dress? What golden vest? What terrible chest? What silver cress? What cress knocks or walks or balks at this boom boom? What turn, O Joyce, in your echoing hill there by old dirty Dublin, what turn, Joyce of that man in the hill?
What turn, Damascus? What turn, slave?
And the slave roars!
I am awake! Says Damascus, the city of Damascus. Where are my cats?
They are here, sir, we are sorry you are awake. An American has awakened you.
What is an American?
An old thing, perhaps. An old thing you knew.
What old thing? Is it a good thing?
Yes, a good thing, sir, go to sleep.
No. I am awake now. I am Damascus with my cats.
Yes sir. What would you have of us. Your cats are well.
Where are the people who live in me?
They are gone sir, gone south. We did not know you knew of us, only of us cats. We cats are here for you.
Yes, cats. Cats! Cats! I am like a cat, asleep, listening for stories. What is this American’s story that he would awaken me from so long a sleep?
I am Kalish, Damascus. Walter Isaac Kalish. I am writing in Los Angeles.
Yes, a Jew, Damascus. I am no cat. But I love cats. And I love your cats, for they are so vicious and so wise in their terrifying slow beauty.
Yes, you are right in that, American Jew named Kalish, so they are. What would you have of me, a whole, emptied city, with my cats?
I was merely thinking of the Assyrians, sir, and an old Assyrian knocked me on the head with his dagger as his ancestors were wont to do.
An Assyrian! HA HA HA HA HA! I know them. Assyrians. So many of them for so short a time. Their armor and their swords and their blood in me. Their blood in me, American. What blood is in you?
English blood, Damascus. Perhaps some other bloods too.
English? Whatever. I am sleepy and my cats are tired. What would you have of me?
I will awaken you later, Damascus. Now that I know that you can speak. The people of your city, if you love them as well as you love your cats, will need your help. They are journeying south, through Lebanon, to Jerusalem. Jerusalem has begged the favor of their visit and they may well need your help, for you are their slave.
And the city cracks in the night, foundering, felling, filling, vesting, venting, wanting, waiting, welling, worming, westing, westing, westing, young old being who is Damascus, you are awake and alive and asleep.
(And so I am, young man. Be careful how you speak to me in future.)
Let me skip forward a bit. Damascus and Jerusalem have a storytelling competition, amidst the holiest monuments of the city, the Wailing Wall, the Hagia Sophia. Spread out amidst the streets, the people listen to the storytellers, a Christian woman of Jerusalem, and a cat of Damascus.
The cat speaks first:
Yowl, yowl, yowl. Oh my ancestors. Oh my many ancestors. Furry, furry, furry. I am cat. I am woman cat. It is war in Lebanon among the cedars. The cedars smell good, and it is too noisy. The blood is yummy. I lick it up and it is sweet on my tongue, human blood. I love it. I lick it up and feel sleep, but it is noisy here and I go back to the house that is mine, where I sleep. No one is home. But they have left me my food, as is my right, as the cat of this house. I sleep and dream.
Yoooooooooowl. Yooooooooooooowl. Yowwwwwwl
Oh, a man! I must catch him.
I am awake. That damned man is in my head again. Why all this noise? Noisy, noisy, too much noise. I cannot sleep. Maybe somewhere else is quieter.
A man holding a boy is outside, they are angry. I slink around the corner and there is more noise and the humans are weeping and crying and shouting and laughing and there is more noise.
I go into a cellar.
It is dank. I am listening. Sound, sound like a den of old. What sounds? What voices?
A man’s voice.
“Cat, how did you get in here. It’s dangerous in here. Here, come here. Let me pet you. There, I will pick you up.”
People always grabbing me for no reason.
He puts me down back upstairs. I want to go back down to the cellar but I cannot. He has closed one of those tall things, with the metal circle on it. I do not like those things.
“Here, sit, cat. Here is some water.”
He gives me water as is my right as a cat. I lap some of it up and purr, he is a friendly man, a nice man, and I rub against him to remember which man he is, so I can smell me on him, so I can walk through here again and know it is my spot.
The man is nervous. This makes me a little nervous but men are always nervous about something and so I think about my tom and my hair stands up.
Now the man is more nervous.
I scratch at the door.
The man is screaming. I am so afraid!
I am so afraid!
Let me into the goddamned cellar that’s where I wanted to go anyway!
Someone opens the door and I run downstairs.
The cellar is better.
No screaming, dying men.
I curl up and listen. I listen to the voices.
The Cat Grapevine, baby, where does it go?
The people weep in the streets of Jerusalem to hear the cat speak. It is a horror of war, a remembered war amidst the cedars of Lebanon.
The cat continues:
When I awoke it was better. The voices had gone to where they go and I remembered lots of good cat stuff. I will not tell you about that. But I will tell you one thing. I am not only a cat, I am a woman. I have seen many things. Many things in Damascus. Many old things. Many young things. Many people and cities mowed by through time, like a wasteland. I am a city cat and I like my city, but I miss the country. I miss the grass. This story of the war in Lebanon in the 1960s was told to me by a cat who heard it from another cat who heard it from another cat who was there during the war in the 1960s. That cat was a woman cat like me. I will continue.
I am in the cellar. I have always been in the cellar in a way. Because a cellar is like me, old and young, full of dreams, and I dream a lot, for I am a cat, full of dream, full of sleep, waiting to kill. I kill. I am cat. There are strange things in the cellar. They smell greasy. Like cars. Men come into the cellar and pick them up carefully and I hide in the corner, I want the cellar to myself. They take them out of the cellar and I decide to follow them up the stairs, I am hungry.
I lick up some of the blood from the wall, it is yummy and makes me feel like a strong cat. I go into the kitchen, there is no food there. I go into the parlor, there is no food there. An old dried mouse turd, though, so I smell around for a fresher mouse. He may be outside.
I go to the door and look out at Lebanon.
It is day time. I like day time okay, but I like night time better, better for hunting. The cedars smell good, I like them. There is still that angry noise nearby that I do not like, but I go slowly outside and smell for the mouse.
A boy runs by, crying.
I scowl at him.
I smell for the mouse. He is nearby. I move slowly. Where is the mouse? I can smell him now. He smells me too. He is running! Goddamn it.
I run after the mouse but he is too quick and he gets under the house and my paw cannot reach him.
“Hey, cat!” says a young Lebanese man.
I look over at him.
“See a mouse?” he says.
I watch him.
“You’re a pretty cat,” he says.
I take a step towards him. Maybe he has some food for me.
“Are you hungry?” he asks.
He puts a tiny crumb of bread on the ground. I sniff at it. This is not food. I look up at him and meow. Maybe he has actual food.
He runs away.
This is annoying. All this noise and men screaming. I am hungry. I go into another house I have not visited for a while. This house smells nice. I can smell myself here, from a week ago. There is another cat here. A man cat, an old man cat. He is quiet.
“Meow,” I say.
He looks at me and I am afraid. I go over closer to him and smell him. Then I bite him and hiss and he hits me in the face. I run over into the kitchen away from him and then he mates with me and I am yowling!
Oh I am yowling!
It feels horrible and delicious. When he is through I hate him.
“Where is the food?” I ask him.
“Find it yourself,” he says.
Damnit. No food. I go over to the couch to sleep for a little bit. It is a good couch and things are a little quieter now. The old man cat comes and sleeps next to me, which is nice.
I awake and I am sad because I have had no food, and I am lonely cat, for the man cat is gone. It is colder, and night.
I go outside, my eyes awake and alive. It is quiet. I go to another house, where there are people, crying. The door is open a crack for me, and I go in, and the people shoo me away. I stay at the door and they bring water for me. I drink some of it, and go over to rub against one of the women’s legs and she scratches my fur gently and I purr for her.
Then she grows angry and kicks me away and I flee and I am sad, sad in the cedars of the Levant. I go into the night and watch, I watch the sky, for I am a cat and I see much.
People of this city and others. I am a cat and I have seen much and so have so many other cats over these many centuries. We know things you do not. We have seen things you will never see. We are cats, and you are not. In Damascus we commune. I am a cat of Damascus. Let me tell you what I have seen in Damascus.
I have seen a butcher laugh in the street, with blood on his apron, and I wanted the blood. I have seen children laugh at me, and scold me, and children lost in wonder at the sky. I have seen bread. I do not like its smell. I have seen so many things I cannot speak to you of in your languages.
Let me try anyway, though, for I am the storyteller for Damascus in this competition. I am a pauper. I know things. I know poverty. I know grief. I know slow, slow, slow time, in my stone city that sleeps.
In our sleep, we wake. We see. We dream. We, out of some being or god or weather or rhyme or dance or sleight or feint or waft or rake or mud or rest or wake or wall or pond, and I am especially fond of ponds, being a cat, or scratch, or hurt, or fondness, or love, or hate, or wilderness, here in our dawn and dusk, we know what other cities do not.
We know cats. I am a cat and I am known in Damascus. What is it to know me, to know who I am, a cat? Are you like me? Do you pet me? Do you smile at me? Do you feed me? Do you dance for me? Laugh for me? Do you hate me, for I am a cat?
I see the wonder in your eyes, and you want to be like me, you want to be a cat. You cannot be a cat. You are men and women, humans. Why do you want to be us? What is it you have lost? Damascus knows loss, you see. Loss of these many centuries. Loss of thousands and tens of thousands of stories that have been forgotten, but we remember them, for that is our job in Damascus, to remember. To remember as much as we can, we cats, to keep the city safe. That is what you other cities have forgotten, how to share your memories with a cat.
And the cat jumps off the Wailing Wall where she is speaking.
The people wait attentively for the next storyteller.
A woman of Jerusalem approaches the monument to speak.
I am a woman of Jerusalem. I was born in this beautiful city. Thank you for being so generous to come all this way to our city to tell stories. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, even though it is causing us much pain.
I was born in 1973. I am a Christian. My family has lived in Jerusalem for many centuries, and I love this city for I was born here and I know it is a very complicated city and a hard city for people to love, even for me. The Jews control this city, as you know. But this is an ancient city, not as ancient as Damascus, but ancient. And people always come to this city to seek knowledge, wisdom, and love. I still love people despite the hatreds that have burned, and do burn, and will burn in this city of many religions and many tribes.
If I may comment on the cat story, it was beautiful, but it confused me. It is true, we do not think of cats in quite the same way in the city of Jerusalem as you do in Damascus, and I do not know why that is.
I am married to a Muslim man in this city. Because both our families are very traditional, this caused them both some pain, as they hoped that I and that my husband would marry someone within our own circles, but we did not, and this continues to confuse our families, confuse them as to why we would betray them, as though a marriage can be a betrayal. I weep for this ancient city that I live in as a modern city, and I believe in peace. Peace is so hard, it always was. We do not understand one another. We speak many languages. We come from so many different places. We still hate each other, remembering all these old wounds, all these old wounds, and new wounds. And we cannot forget them, for this is Jerusalem, a city that appears to be unable to forget anything.
It seems I am speaking for my city, which terrifies me. Why should one woman represent one whole city, of some many? It makes no sense to me, but I will continue to speak. I would have peace between Jerusalem and Damascus. I suppose we have it now, in 2012, but not quite. We hate each other, because of our wars.
I am a woman and uncomfortable some ways in cities, as my ancestors were. What is a city? Why do we live in them at all? How did we come to be here, in Jerusalem? Why this city? Why in this place? I do not understand. But it is where we live, and I accept that, as I must, being a woman. But I long for other things. I long for the stars, and to see other cities. I long to know why we are here, on this Earth. Is it for God? For some reason I cannot understand? I live for my children, but I still wonder. I still wonder.
I am done speaking.
And the child wakes. And the cat sleeps, in Damascus.