Rawi Hage writes a letter to the neighbour he doesn’t know
In this personal story of belonging inspired by the 2014 Massey Lectures, IMPAC Dublin Award winner Rawi Hage reveals the uneasy state of non-belonging that he shares with an unknown neighbour.
A Letter to a Neighbour
By Rawi Hage
Dear man in the long black robe,
I walk the streets of Mile End, our common neighbourhood in Montreal, and whenever I see your multitude of layers, your hat and your long robe on these summer days, I feel concern for your well-being. We pass one another and you disregard me. You avoid me like the plague but I pity you, love you and despise you. I pity you because I recognize your grand quest for oneness, a quest I see in the thickness of your glasses which I admire because you are, like me, a diligent reader who spends his life excavating signs in archaic texts and prophecies. I continue, nonchalantly, and enjoy the most delicious bagel, brilliantly prepared by your God, and that is why I love you. But I also despise you for avoiding the discrepant histories which intertwine us. We share the same neighbourhood and the same streets, and the gentrification that is taking place in our neighbourhood is making us both nervous about our future. One of us is soon to be expelled. You, perhaps, again. I, certainly, now that that my landlord has given me notice. You, who sees your community grow in number, are looking to expand despite the expensive mannerisms of real estate agents and the coming of the fancy stores.
But what I really cherish, my dear neighbour, is the paradox of us, a paradox which permits our only meaningful existence. You, seeking so hard to preserve, and to belong solely to, a way of living that was once grand, just and holy. Me, seeking so hard to remain above all that is shallow, superstitious and religious. But who are we kidding, my dear man in the black robe and the furry winter hat! We are both seeking the state of non-belonging. We are both aware and terrified of this oppressive world whose magnitude, gravity, and constant growth obliges us to ignore it and pretend that we are free of it though, one day, fatally, it will engulf us. Eventually it will swallow us and, if we are lucky, spit us out again. I could assure you that there is no salvation, no resurrection, no afterlife, no stories passed down from our tribes worth telling, especially now that we are left with so diminished a number of whales to swallow your prophet should he ever choose to live here, among us, again. Yes, all we are left with is paradox, which is the only resistance open to both of us. Here I am, the atheist, begotten by Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Canaanites, Mongols, Pharaohs, Hittites, Crusaders and Hellenics, an artist who seeks to believe in a world of my own creation and in no other; and here you are, the pious purist, yet one who craves the material world despite its decadence and materiality. I saw you coming out of the theatre that summer day… inevitable acts of heresy consume us all.
Forgive my belligerence, my snobbish attitude. But there is no single faith that holds the truth and no faith on earth that is the guardian of a celestial, omnipotent world.
I have decided that, one day, I will stop you in the street and touch your robe and I will beg you to acknowledge that moment. I shall kiss you and even embrace you. And then we will both acknowledge how repulsive that was. To combine these binaries and reconcile our differences and ultimately become one—what a catastrophe, what a meaningless romantic act of reconciliation and unification. Our stories are both tales of expulsions and exclusions, and if we embrace one another, then who are we?
There is no word that I despise and loathe more than the word belonging, there is no act I fear more than the embrace of mankind. To belong is to meekly seek the homogeneous. To desire belonging is to desire a submissive acceptance of loyalty. To belong is to gather and get bigger, stronger and meaner, to invade and pillage and consume and rape…
I therefore urge you to keep ignoring me and to never acknowledge my presence. Avoid me like the plague, I say to you again, and cross to the other side of the street when you see me coming. Let’s not belong to this fatal event of belonging. Oh, and I forgot to mention your black, leather shoes…
Rawi Hage is a two-time finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction: for De Niro’s Game (2006) and Cockroach (2008). Hage was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war. His debut novel, De Niro’s Game, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, was a finalist for both the GG and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and has been translated into several languages and published around the world. As well as being a GG finalist, Hage’s second novel, Cockroach, won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It was also a contender forCanada Reads 2014. His latest novel, Carnival, won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Rawi Hage lives in Montreal.