The blue pen

The blue pen

Publication Date: 2016

Publisher: Dar al adab

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 208

Al macha'a

Rima is a girl from Damascus who cannot stop walking.  She has no control over her legs that are automatically set in motion the moment she is free to walk. This strange characteristic has determined her life. Because her mother was always afraid of losing her, Rima grew up tied to her wrist by a thick rope. Or, when her mother was busy cleaning the school, she was confined to the school’s library under the supervision of the librarian. When she got a little older and her mother couldn’t take her along anymore, Rima was tied to her bed at home, this one room where she lived with her mother and brother. The rope was long enough for her to explore the entire room, but it was short enough to ensure she would never leave it. Rima is a hungry reader, continuously nourished by the friendly and generous school librarian, but she refuses to speak and her tongue has a mind of its own. It will not utter a word or scream when she wants it to. Rima draws skillfully, and her favorite stories are Saint-Exupery’s “Little Prince” and “Alice in Wonderland”.

Rima was content with her life in their neighborhood in Damascus, despite the raising tension she could sense between her brother and mother, and the faint sound of far away explosions she could hear from time to time. But one day, everything changes. A soldier shoots both her and her mother at a checkpoint. Her mother dies. Rima is injured. When she awakens, she isn’t sure where she is. It looks like a hospital, but there are bars at the window, and she is handcuffed to the bed. The nurses are rude and nasty, and all the other girls are mistreated. Her brother is called upon to take her home. He comes to take her, but instead of going home, he takes her someplace else. This other place is hell on earth.

Is it possible that this new place and their home are in the same city? Here, people are torn to pieces by shells that fall from the sky. Here, people disappear one after the other. Here, one night, it rained stink bombs that liberated a strange fume. It tinted the buildings purple, and made people sleep in the strangest postures, with orange foam coming out of their mouths. Eventually, her brother also disappears, and she finds herself in the care of Hassan, her brother’s friend.

Today, Rima is in the basement of what must have been a print house. She waits for Hassan who said he wouldn’t be long before tying her to the metal frame of the ceiling window. But Hassan is late, and Rima is scared. While she waits for him, she writes and draws her story with the only blue pen she found. She will write as long as the ink in her pen allows.

The blue pen is a unique, moving and powerful tale from Syria. Rima’s tale is a simple and straightforward one: she wants to go home, use her crayons to draw, and read her favorite books. Rima wants to live, and walk freely. But wherever she is taken to, she is constrained, and there is nothing but destruction. Trapped in Rima’s head, the reader gets a first hand sensory and emotional take on the Syrian war. There are no politics, and no sides to that story, except Rima’s.

Though people usually think she is crazy or mentally ill, the reader can see how Rima is the wisest of them all. A genuine defender of life, Rima does not understand the violence, and continues to seek beauty in people and the mundane details of life. The reader desperately wants her to survive, a fragile little butterfly that floats above horror, as if she were the last remaining piece of beauty in this world. The last omen of hope.

With The blue pen Yazbek offers a surreal depiction of the horrors taking place in Syria, giving the reader a palpable grasp of the large scale tragedy that still eludes most of us.

Shortlisted for the National Book Award (2021).

Translated by Leri Price

I don’t know if you care how the paper feels, or whether you are like me and run your fingers over its surface, and it is no use adding anything else about my fingers and how I trace them over the lines my hands have written.

I am thinking something now, and it is that if every sheet of paper piled up in these card- board boxes were laid out at, they could make a paper aeroplane the size of the plane circling over my head. But don’t think that my worries might mean much to anyone but me. Everything I’m writing to you could vanish, and it wi be a strange fluke if you have the chance to read it, like the fluke that made me so different from other people.

I was born, and I can’t stop walking. I stand up and I set o and I keep walking and walk- ing. I see the road, and it has no end. My feet take over and I walk—I just follow them. I don’t understand why it happened, and I’m not expecting you to understand either. is enchantment of mine doesn’t care what people might understand.

If you want a good way to get rid of the aero- plane’s roar, you can try this. Take a blank piece of paper—do it gently, don’t let the pile co apse, take it out like it’s an artery. en put it on a hard surface. Persona y, I turn over the coffee tray and make it into a desk, then I pick up the blue pen which I found among the stacks of paper, and I begin. You must not set o before the sound has started. Don’t stop unless you are faint from exhaustion, but it must be exhaustion and not fear. If a this isn’t done properly, I mean using the blue pen to play with words on a blank page, then my instructions wi fail, the blank page won’t like you, and the roar of the aeroplanes won’t disappear.

Don’t think I’m afraid. I don’t know who you are, or even whether anyone wi read these words. Maybe a this doesn’t mean much to you right now, because you don’t know me yet. Please don’t get annoyed at a my digressions, I didn’t study in school like most children do, but I read every book that came my way, even if I learned it by heart without understanding it. ere were many books I didn’t understand, and Si Souad used to burst out laughing when she saw me opening the huge leather-bound books and squeezing my way into them, especially the books on art history.

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The blue pen