Incendies: The Will of Our Mother


The Reading of Her Will

The twins thought they knew their father, but they were in for a rude awakening. Their mother had always spoken of her one true love: her face, her very being, would shift when she remembered him. The ruler of her heart, the one who died before their birth. They’d never met the man, but they owed their very existence to the love he and their mother shared.

But speaking through the Notary, their mother would negate everything they held to be true. Two blows in the form of two requests, exploding everything to shreds: Jeanne’s to deliver a letter to her father, someone other than their mother’s one true love, and Simon’s to deliver a letter to a brother he never knew he had.

Suddenly, the story of their life was changed: their birth no longer connected to the brightest moments of their mother’s life, and a brother who has equal claim to their mother. No longer was it just the two of them. In light of this revelation, their family had just grown by two.

Impasse (Going Nowhere Together)

The reaction of the twins couldn’t have been more different.

For Simon, the news is unwanted, especially since burial rights were given to another. (Notary Jean Lebel will bury me without a coffin, naked and without prayers: my face turned toward the ground, my back against the world.) Rather than her own children, the Notary controlled their mother’s fate, instructed to bury her corpse in a shroud of shame. Adding insult to injury, strangers from a previous life were uppermost in her mind when she died – asking him to deliver a letter – trumping his own need to mourn her death.

Jeanne wanted to honor their mother’s request, unwilling to simply move on by placing their mother in a tomb. Simon said she felt too much guilt: for her absence when their mother died, and for her presence in their mother’s "accident" at the swimming pool. Whether or not he was right, she insisted upon looking for her (unknown) father, for that’s what their mother had asked.

This is how the twins came to be separated – children of a woman who sought refuge from the ravages of war – giving way to two journeys that, after crossing an ocean, would finally fulfill the wishes of the dead.


Jeanne: In Search of Her Father

Advice for the Journey

While the sister and the Notary share a common name, it’s her Professor to whom she went for advice, perhaps because both were committed to pure mathematics (L. mathesis, “I learn”) and the landscape of loneliness that it requires.

In seeking his counsel, she described the basic contours of her mother’s life: where she was born, where she studied, where and when her had lover died. She also described her mother’s final request, asking that she find her unknown father. The Professor said that she should rely on her intuition, that’s where her potential for being a great mathematician resides. When she said her mother had also studied, he was filled with confidence: Jeanne’s search had a good chance for success.

But he discouraged her from beginning with her father. That’s the unknown variable in the equation. One never begins with the unknown variable. Instead, he gave her the name of a friend, another professor who lived in the country where she planned to go: the desolate landscape that was home to her mother’s agony so long ago.

The Professor's Jibberish

That other professor turned out to be an anachronism, stuck in another time. He hadn’t known her mother – he’d been teaching at another university somewhere else – so there really wasn’t much for him to say that could help in her search.

But rather than apologize and send her on her way, he launched into a lecture about the research he’d been doing at the time. Babbling on about the mathematician, Euler, the problem of the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, and the well-known anecdote about his performance in the Court of Catherine the Great, challenging the atheist Diderot with his mathematical proof for the existence of God.

Jeanne left irritated and dejected, angry that her Professor would lead her to such a lunatic. And yet, because of her persistence at the university, she met another professor who offered information more useful for her journey. The picture of her mother – that ghostly image – contained important clues. She’d been in prison, and not just any prison. All who lived there knew of its reputation. Like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the atrocities of war concentrated in a single place, sequestered from the rest of the world: the very definition of hell.

I was married ...

But before going back to that prison, Jeanne first returned to her mother’s village, as if attempting to establish an independent base of operations for herself. Once there, she showed her mother’s picture to anyone who’d pay attention, hoping the image would help in the search for her (unknown) father. Finally, she’d find herself surrounded by women, quite unlike the professors at the university. But because of differences in language, Jeanne pointed to her finger, as if already defending against the accusations she knew would come, the reason why her mother had fled: the shame that propelled her to the world of mathesis, an effort to reclaim her independence and a sense of dignity for herself.

When the translator arrived, Jeanne would speak of her search for her father, her mother met him in this very place. But as soon as her mother’s name is spoken, the mood changes, as if an ugly memory had been aroused from sleep. All civility gone, replaced by a tirade about the shame visited upon her family. No longer was she welcome in their home; neither should she count on their help.

Walking out the door, the last words she’d hear would cut to the bone, “She’s looking for her father, but she doesn’t know anything about her mother!”

The Former Prison Guard

With the university and her mother’s village eliminated, there was no place left to go than her mother’s prison. Perhaps it held answers where the others didn’t. And with this shift, her questions would begin to change as well: no longer single-minded about finding her father, she’d start to wonder how her mother came to be held in that place, and how she survived its humiliations.

If she’s to get any answers, her mother’s prison guard is the place to start, now a caretaker of the local school (his version of mathesis, perhaps). When they meet, he’s reluctant to speak, implicated in her mother’s suffering which both of them knew was great. “Sometimes, it’s best not to know.” But when she says her entire life’s been haunted by the Woman Who Sings, he’d relent, revisiting a past that he’d rather forget.

From him, she’d learn of the crime for which her mother was was punished, and the lengths to which her captors went to break her spirit. He’d also describe their exasperation: she never broke. In her defiance, she even began singing, as if she were privy to a secret her captors couldn’t grasp. That’s when they sent Abu Tarek, the specialist in torture, the man whose name translates as “the one who comes at night” and “he who uses a hammer.”

Learning of Her Mother's Fate

That’s also how she became pregnant, how her spirit was finally broken. The doctor who attended the birth went crazy, and died. (Miraculously, the nurse survived.)

As this revelation sinks in, her first impulse is to call Simon, telling him to shut up and listen to her for once. Caught up in the horror of the experience, it’d take time for its significance to sink in. She’d begun the journey to find her (unknown) father, but perhaps she’s found the next best thing: if their mother was raped in prison, this must be how their brother was born.

(When a mind’s stretched to the limit, much easier to accept torture as a sign of a brother’s origin than the stamp of a father’s curse.)

This is how the paths of the twins are joined once again, reunited to honor their mother’s dying wish. Only after he’s begun to understand her imprisonment, only then is Simon able to join in his sister’s search. Their mother had suffered terribly. It’s no wonder she’d been absent: swallowed by the confusion and pain that refused to stay in the past.

Simon: In Search of His Brother

The Notary

Simon’s journey begins with the Notary. After all, he holds their mother’s will. He’s also its executor. He was a crucial figure in their mother’s life, which is probably why she instructed him how to handle her corpse after she passed away: bury me without a coffin, naked and without prayers. As a widower, he’d take the obligation seriously. For him, the work as a notary was nothing short of sacred.

It’s almost as if he had a personal interest at stake, ensuring that the twins fulfilled their mother’s final request. Among other things, this meant helping Simon find his brother. So, as he prepares to meet his sister, we’re witness to the Notary showing Simon the room where old contracts are kept, selecting one to illustrate the nature of his work:

Here’s the will of a man who led several lives.
His heirs discovered he had three wives, all at the same time:
One here, one in Miami, and another in Honduras where he did business.
He no longer has three children. No, now there are eight.
That’s sport, my friend.
Look, death is never the end of the story.
There are always traces left behind.

The Notary insisted on accompanying Simon on his journey, based on a knowledge that lay beyond Simon’s grasp. He also gave Simon advice eerily similar to what the professor had given his sister: “If you want to find your brother, you’ll have return to your mother’s past.”

Regrouping 1 Regrouping 2

The group reassembles, this time in their mother’s land; Jeanne no longer alone in her quest. The scene’s identical to the one with which this story began, except this time the trio is joined by a fourth: an assistant to track down information about the twin’s brother and father.

He’ll confess that it’s been hard work, particularly for the father. Records from times of war are notoriously difficult to locate: often, they’re destroyed in the conflagration; sometimes they’re just lost. In war, the perverse logic of reprisal creates a climate of violence that spirals out of control. Once the lines of battle have become entrenched, it’s virtually impossible to end the hostilities, much less work towards peace, instead.

But Jeanne’s efforts provide an important starting point: the name of the nurse who helped their mother in childbirth. So, while their efforts to locate the (unknown) father had stalled, they hoped the nurse could point them to the brother who must have been born that day, in prison.

The Nurse Midwife

They didn’t know what to expect but the nurse is now frail with age, as if her prison experience had finally taken it’s toll. Standing before her are strangers speaking in a foreign tongue. They want something, asking questions politely, although she doesn’t understand. It matters little how often they repeated themselves or how carefully they choose their words. If it’s not a language she can recognize, she’d still be left in the dark.

Thanks to the translator who stands beside her, she’ll finally discover why they’ve come. They’re interested in the darkest moment of her life: the terrors she was forced to behold in a prison so many years before. One mentions a name tucked away in her memory, one she thought she’d never hear again – Nawal Marwan – and then everything becomes clear. Overcome with joy, she’d sing God’s praises, as if she’d just witnessed the second coming.

The group is stunned. Through the translator, they learn that she helped give birth to twins; she cared for them until their mother was released. So, while they came to learn about their brother, they’d actually discover something else: the prison was the twin’s inheritance, not their brother’s.

Born in Prison

They’d been weaned on stories of their mother’s love and his tragic death. So accustomed were they to that version of history, neither considered the possibility that they may have been born when their mother was imprisoned. With this revelation, the mystery only deepens, particularly since they’re not any closer to finding their brother.

If he wasn’t born in prison, perhaps he was older rather than younger than the twins. And the research assistant’s investigations seem to confirm this: according to available records, a young boy was placed in the orphanage before their mother went to the university. While unnamed at birth, the orphanage filed an application for the foundling boy, giving him the name of Nihad May. But when war broke out four years later, the orphanage was destroyed, and no records about the fate of the children could be found.

Rather than surrender to this cul-de-sac, the assistant proposes a radical strategy: if no documents can be found, why not speak to the surviving combatants of the war? More specifically: the one responsible for destroying the orphanage itself? In this region of the world, his identity’s an open secret.

Looking for the Warlord

This is how Simon and the Notary find themselves at a refugee camp, the very one around which so much of this story silently revolved, like a black hole that can only be felt but never seen. The mother’s one true love had come from this place. After his death, the camp would become the focal point in the bloody civil war: a country divided over the fate of the displaced.

Now they find themselves at the center of it all, looking for the infamous warlord. He alone was their last hope, the only one who could say what happened to the orphanage and whether their brother, Nihad, had survived.

Another guide – and translator – accompanies them for this portion of the journey, an unemployed engineer who once called this place home. Since the warlord cannot simply be summoned at will, Simon’s instructed to wait for an invitation, to tell his host that he’s the son of the Woman Who Sings, and that he’s looking for Nihad, his brother. In other words, he’s to establish their shared allegiance and kinship based on common blood. He’s there to make peace, rather than a return to war.

Waiting for the Test

Before long, the warlord summons him, a blindfold used to protect the identity of his host. The veracity of Simon’s claims will be questioned and tested, as well as the sincerity of his quest.

Why are you looking for Nihad May?
— He’s my brother. My mother asked me to find him.
How can you prove that Nihad May is the son of Nawal Marwan?
— My brother was placed for adoption. We found the registry.
— The dates, everything fits. Nihad May is my brother.

When the warlord is satisfied, his guard is let down and the blindfold removed. He’ll then begin to narrate the story that eluded the twins for so long. It couldn’t have been any other way since everything they learned about their history had come from their mother. But now, the missing piece of the puzzle is added, once buried under a cloak of secrecy since it also spoke of the origins of war.

Perhaps their mother already knew this. Perhaps this is why she asked Jeanne to find her (unknown) father and why Simon was asked to find his brother, each set on a path that would illuminate what had been hidden in the dark. Perhaps it was more important for Jeanne to learn of her mother’s imprisonment; perhaps Simon could better understand what it meant for a son to lose his mother. Whatever the case may be, in light of their mother’s foresight, Nihad’s story was finally revealed.

Nihad: In Search of His Mother

Separated at Birth

He was born without a name. The orphanage would give him one prescient of what he would later become: Nihad (“uprising”). But that name would change more than once, giving voice to the winding course of his life, the shifting fortunes and allegiances by which a journey is made.

He was born of ambivalence, at once the perfect embodiment of love and a sign of his mother’s shame. Her family did not approve and they made their objections abundantly clear. Both lovers were supposed to be killed that day. His mother would surely have died, as well, were it not for an old woman’s intervention. If that had happened, his mother would have carried the secret of his existence to her grave.

And yet, she survived, despite the horror of witnessing the murder of her love. And with her survival, his tiny body began to grow until it was time to enter the world. But because his existence was shrouded in shame, what should have been a cause for celebration turned into something else. So, in place of a name, the child was marked with ink. All she could hope was that, one day, she’d find her son and reclaim him as her own.

Recruited for War

Growing up an orphan, there’s no way he could have known of his mother’s promise. Instead, other events shaped his destiny instead, like the country coming apart at the seams, two sets of believers at each other’s throats. He was a child of war and couldn’t help but get sucked in by the violence that ruled the day.

While his mother’s village had been bombed by the warlord, the boys in the orphanage were saved. And as so often happens in family battles, the young were recruited to fight. He mastered the machines of combat, and learned how to harden emotions. And in so doing, he became the epitome of a soldier: tough, mean, and single-minded in his destruction.

Yet, beneath the stony exterior, he still yearned for his mother. As the warlord would tell the story, the boy wanted to become a martyr. He wanted to make a name for himself so his mother would take pride in her son. When denied, the boy abandoned all sense of loyalty and turned rogue, becoming the most feared marksman the war had seen.

That’s when he stopped being Nihad May and became Abu Tarek, instead.

Between Boy and Man

Little could he have known that she was looking for him, trying to discover what happened to him. Little could he have known that she planned to return from university when her studies were done. Little could he have known that, once the war erupted, she’d leave and head straight home in search of him. Little could he have known her rage when she learned the orphanage had been destroyed, nor could he have known how she’d switch allegiances in order to exact revenge for the one she loved.

In the absence of this knowledge, the war took its hold on him. His skill as a marksman, shooting at anything that moved, would become less about winning than venting his confusion and rage. Even other orphan boys like himself would become fair game, knowing that he’d never be weak like them. This had nothing to do with politics. Rather, it’s about how he channeled his anger and rage.

That’s how his reputation grew; that’s how he became embroiled in the civil war. At least until the day of his capture. For that’s when his fate came to be intertwined with the Woman Who Sings.

The Torturer

Unbeknownst to him, she committed a crime: exacting revenge for the death of her lover. Unbeknownst to him, she renounced everything she had once believed, reversing everything she had come to hold as true. No longer did she believe in the power of words and books. She wanted to teach the enemy a lesson, teach her enemy the awful lessons life had imposed on her with crippling force. In prison, she was living with the consequence of that decision. Defying her captors, yes, but also defiant in the face of her crime.

That was how they met. A prisoner and a soldier, both stuck in an awful place. She was an enigma, just as she was for her captors. Her defiance. That singing. From where did that force of spirit come? Maddening and confusing. Exasperating. Even tantalizing, perhaps. Which is probably why his talent was turned against her, punishing her for what didn’t make sense.

This is how the son became the father. Dominating her as an exercise of will over another. Her brokenness became the sign of her defeat. For him, it’d signal his superiority over what exceeded him: the Woman Who Sings.

Preparations for Journeying

Many years later, he’d find himself in a different world. He found a way out of the prison and worked hard to create a life of normalcy, no easy task since war is a difficult thing to put in the past. It’d be made more difficult by the memory of the lives that were taken by his hand.

Did he know that his mother had also escaped? Did he know that she once lived in the same neck of the woods as he? Did he know, when alive, she also suffered from the past: haunted by the memory of the one she loved, the son she relinquished out of shame, the horrors she witnessed in search of him, or her guilt for the crime she committed in avenging his father’s death?

Did he know that the woman in prison was his mother? And did he know that she finally kept her promise? That one day, while swimming, the tattoo on his heel finally showed itself to the one who gave birth to him? Did he know that his torture produced two children, a girl and a boy? Did he know that they were looking for him, their brother?

Whether he knows any of this or not, his life has changed. No longer a soldier of war, no longer the marksman who targets anything that moves. Like the former prison guard, he’s found a new vocation, now working at a bus depot, as if he had become a journeyman, helping travelers like himself. Perhaps that’s why he’s now known as Nihad Harmanni.

Letters from Our Mother

If there had been any doubt about what was to come, the uncertainties would be clear when two strangers hand him a package containing letters addressed specifically to him. Two letters from a woman written in two different hands: his long-lost mother and his tortured lover. In them were words written only for him, sentiments that could only be conveyed after her death: the hurricane of feeling that broke both heart and mind during the final moments of her life.

For the the ones handing him the package, the delivery is the final step of a long and arduous journey undertaken out of fidelity to the mother all three had shared. It was her dying wish that they meet. And now, having found him, they’ve fulfilled their promise to the dead.

The Notary will take satisfaction from this, watching the “family reunion” from a distance. He, too, had an obligation to their mother. And by virtue of his efforts, he can now rest assured that he’s completed his most sacred of tasks.

A Stone Engraved

Nawal Marwal had instructed the Notary to bury her without a tombstone and in the absence of prayer. Now that his duties have been discharged, her burial can be completed and her shame reversed.

When the silence is broken and a promise is kept,
then a stone may be placed on my grave
and my named engraved upon it, facing the sun.

When this is done, Nihad Harmanni is finally able to pay his respects to the woman who was his mother: the woman he had never known as a son even though they had already met in her prison.

It’s at that moment the silence comes, realizing that the mother for whom he yearned was the same woman that he destroyed. Those two very different people, one loved and the other discarded, were actually – and had always been – one.


~ by mistified on March 4, 2012.

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