A Voice Crying in the Wilderness – For Tarek El-Ariss

Hoda Barakat

Ali Cherri, from the "Dead Inside" series, watercolor. 2021

Farther from the Desolation of the Wilderness

No one knows of whom Isaiah spoke in his prophecy. Isaiah said that it was coming, that voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” But Isaiah, like all of the Old Testament prophets, named no names.

Some of the Apocryphal Gospels, those that have been discredited by the Church, claim that it was Yohanna—John the Baptist—who wandered in the desert, clad in camel’s hair and subsisting on locusts and wild honey, straightening the highways of the Lord God and crying for the people to prepare His way. These Gospels say that Yohanna was surprised to see Jesus of Nazareth with a group of his followers on the bank of the river, asking to be baptized; for Yohanna believed that he himself was the expected Messiah. When Yohanna baptized the people so that they would repent of their sins, he baptized the Nazarene without hesitation and without objection. If he had believed that the Nazarene was the Messiah, he would have considered him sinless, needing neither baptism nor penitence.       

When his elderly mother became pregnant with the voice (the cry itself), the good news of this numinous pregnancy was foretold to Zakariya his father by the angel Gabriel, just as he brought to Maryam the good news of another numinous, miraculous pregnancy, out of which would be born the child who would bring salvation to the world. The two births occurred barely six months apart. As a result of how these two stories were enfolded together, Yohanna came to believe that he was the Messiah. While he was languishing in prison, he entrusted two of his disciples with carrying a message to the Nazarene, asking him if he had forgotten him in the darkness of Herod’s jail, and asking him: “Lo, are you truly the Messiah? You have lifted the yoke of tyranny from all people, so why do you not lift it from me? Am I not your relative, the son of Elsabet? The dearest of all people to you, as you have been preaching?”

We do not know what answers were given to these questions that the two disciples put to the Messiah. According to the Gospel of Luke, he gave no clear answer at all, responding with deeds and miracles rather than with words!

The story of Yohanna’s life would end with his severed head proffered on a platter, the price of that infamous dance of seduction from the hips of the teenage Salome. As for his body, it was cast into the desert, and it fell to his disciples to raise it up and bury it. These were the same disciples who would go on to announce to the Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and who would follow him as believers and evangelists. But a few years later, the “Baptists” would proclaim that Yohanna was the Messiah, saying that when he died before the Nazarene, the latter took advantage of his death to proselytize about the Kingdom of the Lord whom he called “Father.” One faction of these, known as the “Mandaeans,” went so far as to consider the Nazarene an enemy of John the Baptist.

The artists who decorated the churches and cathedrals of Europe were fond of John the Baptist. However, none of them made him blond as they did with the Nazarene—although they knew well what the people of Palestine looked like—so that he would appear more like them. I mean that none of them made Yohanna one of their own kin. He remained true to the place where he was born and where he lived; meanwhile, his father Zakariya was depicted receiving the heavenly tidings in Turkish dress. Among the great masters, only Leonardo da Vinci complemented John’s serene features with curly (if carefully coiffed) hair. In the portrait he smiles coyly, pointing toward the heavens with a feminine hand, not crying out, no wilderness in sight. The story’s other characters are not there. His head rests softly on his neck; his shoulder is bare. Whereas Caravaggio leaves the severed head with its mouth half open in speech, in an aborted cry, and with eyes downcast as though averted from the light, submitting to the affirmed might of its Power.

The location of Yohanna’s grave remains uncertain. Maybe it is in Judea, maybe Samaria. No one knows if there is a tomb at which his cry might still be heard, ringing out loud enough to rend the veils of the night.

At the heart of this story, which was intended as a guide to mankind and an exemplar of justice on Earth, there is ambiguity. Perhaps the elderly Elsabet died before her son was killed. If she had been alive still, she would perhaps have gone to Maryam, her relative and the mother of the other one. Or perhaps she did not do this and instead stayed at home, thinking and telling herself that she had not warned her son adequately about the lonely life of a prophet, and that perhaps he had not needed to cry out thus in the wild places until he became that “voice crying in the wilderness.”

The wilderness is not what is most wanton, oh Yohanna.


In Yusuf’s Well

Yusuf, like Musa, was a son of Yaqub. Between the desert and the water, each one has a story.

Musa raged against his people and shunned them when he discovered that they had broken with him and his message, there in the desert, and turned to worshipping the golden calf. Musa complained to the Lord of what his people had done, crying to Him that they did not want to follow him or go with him to the Promised Land. Then they said that they did not want to fight those who dwelled on that green patch of earth. They said to Musa, “Go and fight them by yourself. We will stay here.” So Musa asked the Lord, “How can I do this alone?” And so came the judgment sentencing them to forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert, where Musa died without ever seeing the Promised Land. Perhaps Musa did not understand how He who had parted the sea so that he and his people could escape Pharaoh would not heed his appeal, or how He who had charged the waters of the river to ferry him, an infant in a vessel of straw, to Pharaoh’s house, would now forsake him, abandoning him to the loneliness of the desert as retribution for the calf. Would that he could reverse the Lord’s sentencing of him—he who had committed no crime—to the desert, to this ultimate punishment.

Yusuf’s brothers led him into the desert. And in the desert they were beset by thoughts of wicked envy, and they conspired against him and cast him into a well. Yusuf’s brothers did not kill him, nor did the loneliness of the well. Perhaps moisture or water in the bottom of that well slaked his savage thirst and made him forget his brothers’ hatred for him. It is the brothers’ hatred that is the desert, not its fiery sands. Or it may have been that Yusuf beheld once again, from that well bottom, eleven stars and the sun and the moon prostrating themselves before him, and forgot his brothers. To forget injury is a blessing, yet it is a blessing that does not endure and may indeed be transmuted into a lethal poison. Who is more capable of forgetting? The powerful or the weak?

The many faces of evil resemble each other, and in this—in the very normalcy of evil—it becomes familiar to us, a thing of fluid borders with which we consort warmly and willingly. Its multiplicity is a kind of blessing. But Yusuf was beautiful, inexperienced in evil’s plenitude. Raised above it and thus exposed to harm. He must have been aware of his beauty, made proud and haughty by it. To the extent that his father favored him publicly over all his brothers. The self knows that such perfect beauty poses a threat to everything and everyone who lacks it. Did Yusuf reflect upon his situation while he was in that well, where loneliness was as a rope to wisdom? Did understanding his brothers’ envy make him inclined to forgive them? Did Yusuf grow up enough in that well to be magnanimous toward his brothers? Or was it his tremendous strength that enabled him to give them what they asked for from the ruler of Egypt, so as to be done with his brothers and consign them to oblivion?

Is there, in forgetfulness itself, first and foremost a hope for an escape from the wilderness? We never hear about the iniquitous brothers being brought to account for their great crime. Did Yusuf forgive them for their own sake, out of love for them and out of the largesse of his soul? Or did he forgive them to forget them, to turn the page on that relationship, to get out of the well and out of the wilderness?


The Voice Becomes Beastly

After reaching puberty, a man may forget when it was that the child’s voice within him died. He bids it farewell, sometimes with a touch of sorrow and sometimes not, and it is never to return.

It is like when the voice changes under the tyranny of male hormones, fleeing from the higher registers into the desert, the savage world of adults. Into the desert. Now the young man has no choice but to become a monster among monsters, a beast among beasts. This is what he learns as he prepares to grow up. Yet at the same time, as he also learns, he must promulgate ideas of justice and mercy and defend the rights of the weak.

He must forget the first half of his life. He must agree to say goodbye to the child so that he can attain the strength of a wolf, so that the wolves will not eat him, and so that he can be a vessel for mercy and for notions of righteousness and justice that wolves do not have. In other words: the wolf that howls out his hunger alone in the night must refashion his howls into the bleating of a ewe.

The roar of the lioness changes, turning low and soft, when she chases the ingenuous cub from her side, from her teats and from her protection. He has been tested and he does not need his mother anymore. She does the same if she sees that her cub is hurt and smells upon him the scent of imminent death. The mighty lioness does this for the sake of her other cubs who are healthy, and even his pitiful whimpers will not make her relent. She will not lick his wounds, nor will she go to him to nurse him, no matter how much he begs.

How can we recognize that it is far from easy to have one’s throat suited equally to mewling or roaring?

We are a sentimental people that prefers elegiac fables of weeping over the ruins to the crudeness of reality, and our stories are not like the stories of other peoples. In the fairytales of the Germans or the Celts, for example, the story often starts with the parents’ abandoning their children and driving them into the forest. Either because of poverty, as in the stories “Little Thumb” and “Hansel and Gretel,” or because of a father or an aunt’s predilection to mistreat the child or even sin against her: the father who wants to marry his daughter in the story “Donkey Skin,” among others. In these stories the shortcomings of the adult parents constitute an initiation to the cruel possibilities of the world, as though they were a prelude to the blows that are almost certain to lie ahead. Thus the children in the story go forth into the forest alone, exposed to the lurking beast before they confront it head-on. It is a kind of training for what comes next. I do not believe that we have anything like it in the stories that emerge from the worlds of The Thousand and One Nights or the Sirat Bani Hilal epic, for these are fundamentally stories for grown-ups.


How do we get out of the well to rejoin our brothers? How do we get from Yohanna’s head to the authorized Gospels? From the hunted animal to the predatory beast? From the desert to the humane oases rippling with greenery?

By forgetting?

Forgetting is not enough. We must go beyond forgetting, to writing. Writing for rapprochement, and for reconciliation and restitution. We must write—that is, we must invent and create anew a consummate world. And then employ all of our mental tools to believe in that world, and to come together, all of us, far from the forlorn places of our solitude, becoming familiar to each other in the proximity of our bodies and our illusions, so that we can save ourselves from the desolation of the desert.

It is as though the killer’s father were pressing his case for justice, and the father of the one killed were calling for the same justice, side by side and with one voice, from the podium of a single hatred. And for the sake of this we will come together, cohering into the eternal form of a single nation. From the mountains to the coast, on land and sea.

The land is a wasteland and a wilderness. It is that which ends at the verge of the water and summons the sea with all its might. Like the sea of Beirut that exploded and became a desert. A deserted sea. Yet it is not allowed to die, in spite of the bodies that have accumulated in its depths. Hope remains because we will it to. Look at the greenness of the wheat sprouting from the bags of nitrate.

As if the poets and singers were all mass-producing the same anthem, in which to love one’s country is to refuse to allow it to die, or to keep doubting that it is dead no matter how often it dies. If we refuse to admit that the city is dead, our consciousnesses will be relieved of any responsibility for its murder. Sated on Turkish TV serials and the miracles of the saints, we must be innocent if we are to bear together the cruelty of life. We are proven innocent when we wail for those who have been killed while also demanding rights and justice for their killers. Our innocence requires us to pen compositions of bereavement to kill the death that kills us yet again.

Death is forbidden, because if we let the country die we would have to search high and low for ways to bring it back to life, and we do not have the energy for this. We are not allowed to despair but must be hopeful. In hospitals they refer to this as the dead clinging to life, not yet trusting themselves to summon the angel of death. This is the height of cruelty.

The victims were still pinned beneath the rubble during their final moments of dwindling awareness. They could hear voices around them shouting at them to get up. To get up. As if it were in their power to do so. As if they were guilty of their own deaths, as if they had killed themselves. Guilty of leaving us alone with our grief. Guilty of causing us a loss that could not be borne. Thus hope appears as a retribution and a repudiation.

On the battlefields, once the fighting had ended, there would be a bugler. It did not matter if he was from the winning or losing side, one of the victors or the vanquished. In either case he would remain on the scene till the end, bugling a sad tune to mourn the slain of both armies and to send off the wounded left to their impending deaths. Perhaps to inform them of this death and ready them for it. The bereaved women would wait until after the ceremonies to prepare the bodies had been completed, when the dead lay shrouded upon beds or pallets, to commence their crying, their weeping, and their funeral hymns. We do not do that. We have no bugler and no dirges. There is no portal between life and the hereafter through which we pass, for we have sealed it shut with what we call hope—hope for hope’s sake, that we might remain hopeful. We place our hope in a mirage, and we hope that it is durable. We hope for the marvel of water in the desert.

We have escaped into writing. In writing we are unsurpassed by any other people on Earth. Straightaway we write, writing from within the void and writing the void, writing about its soul and writing its soul. Despite our difficult circumstances we have entrusted ourselves with rewriting the Psalms of David one by one, rehabilitating them in poetry and prose, songs and art, drawing upon entirely new data. Get up. Get up lest we look again. Get up so that we can return to our hate and our wars. Now!

The star television reporter was overcome with emotion as he said to the woman whose son they had killed: “But really by now, déjà, you must have realized that justice is but an abstract concept, an absolute value. It is like truth, a thing of the gods. We are only human. So,here is a piece of white paper. Once an issue becomes the subject of a petition it will not die. Write and raise up your rightful petition to the heavens. So, petition the heavens themselves. Cry in the wilderness and the heavens will hear you. Who else do you have but the heavens?”

Oh those heavens where we have been compelled to live out our exile. The cruelest of deserts, the most distant wilderness. A guillotine of holiness and destiny at once. A roof for one who has no house, a “final” answer to every kind of question.

In Beirut, this desert of land and sea, the air is putrid with romance. She has been afflicted with a scourge of terribly facile rhymes: Beirut ma betmoot, Beirut el-buyoot, et cetera, et cetera, anything that rhymes with oooot. Beirut won’t die; Beirut is its buildings. We cannot bear silence even symbolically, even a single minute of it. To be silent is to stand alone amid a great emptiness. And empty spaces invite contemplation. In this the prophets are our example, journeying itinerant and solitary in the desert.

The prophets, our intercessors, watched from the orphic deserts as the Lord in His wrath sent down calamities and plagues upon us so that we might be admonished. Living beings began to cry out amid the suffocating crowds, Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me, you’re always touching me. The wolf said, Leave me just a small square area the size of a notebook where I can howl a little before the moon. But we were not admonished. The wolf came down into cities emptied by plague, and paced through the galleries of the department stores and beneath the neon billboards advertising events long since passed. But we were not admonished. We began to weep as bereaved mothers do and say, Touch me. Please touch me. For I am alone and innocent and I have not the strength anymore to become beastly like a werewolf. I have not drunk from the water where the werewolf’s claws have soaked, I have not slept under the light of the full moon, and I did everything the old priests told me to. Take pity on me, oh wolf, my brother.

From now on we will turn to Facebook. We have thousands of friends standing between us and our loneliness.

Take me to your page. Add me to the numberless masses. You do not know me. I do not know you but we will help each other. Free me from my infinite desert, and let us cry together in the wilderness. Together.

Look what has become of us, oh Isaiah!

Translation: Anna Ziajka Stanton