Who Chopped van Gogh’s Ear Off?
(Short story from Clock Ticks)

– Hey there, how are you? I called you a bunch of times. Are you still living in the dream?

– Give me a break, please. I’m trying to forget, and you’re dragging me back to …

– I’m not dragging you anywhere. I want you to find your inner peace and get over your grief. Maybe if you talk about it, you’ll find some relief. That’s my goal.

– And you’re also keen to hear my story for the tenth time over. No. I won’t tell you all about it again. It was enough that I …

– Listen, like I said, I want nothing but for you to find your inner peace. If you feel like there is no need for you to open up and talk, then that’s good.

– Alright, Sami, you do realise that my stories and yours are ours to keep. I told you about everything, and I have reason to believe that I’m now on my way to recovery. On my way to getting rid of this pain. You want me to laugh? Ha ha ha. Aren’t I in high spirits now? I just laughed. Now you try. If you laugh I’ll buy you an expensive dinner.

– Ha ha ha ha.

Sami and Halim are childhood friends. They grew up in the same neighbourhood, into the same social class, went to the same school and graduated from the same university. Sami is into trade; Halim is an English literature professor at the university. I won’t say anymore about them. They will take care of that on their own – later in the course of their conversation.

But it must be noted here that Halim, on his flight to France a couple of months earlier, had met someone, his seat neighbour, a certain Ms … Well, he doesn’t even remember her name. Anyway, they talked throughout the flight, the whole four hours which, according to him, “whizzed by like four minutes”.

- “Do you mind me smoking?” she asked.

- No, not at all, please.

- Care for a cigarette?

- Nah, thank you.

Halim felt that his neighbour was in the mood for a chat, so he threw in an easy question, the one that sometimes leads to harder questions.

– Where are you going? To France?

He realised that his question was kind of stupid. She was on an Air France aircraft, departing from Beirut and bound for Paris. Was he expecting her to jump off-board and parachute into Greece? Or the shores of Italy, say in Genoa? Or perhaps land in the high sea? That was really stupid. That’s what Halim thought, but his neighbour answered casually, without reading too much into it.

– No.

– Where to, then? Sorry, I mean, the plane is headed to Paris, isn’t it?

– I have a one-hour layover at Orly Airport, and from there I’ll fly to Amsterdam. Planning to spend 10 days there.

– Ah, I see. Why Amsterdam? Sorry, I don’t mean to pry.

She laughed, then smiled, then said:

– That’s alright, it makes travel more entertaining. So, why Amsterdam? Well, I study the life of van Gogh. Vincent van Gogh.

– The painter who chopped his ear off to give it as a present to his beloved?

– That’s him. The painter who gave his girlfriend his ear for a present.

As she said this, she produced an innocent smile to match the innocence of the question. She had realised that all her neighbour knew about van Gogh’s life and work was the story of his cut-off ear.

They remained silent for about 10 minutes, during which the expression on her face bespoke nothing but serenity. Halim couldn’t afford that. He was busy rummaging through his head for another question to keep the conversation alive. He also started taking peeps at her as she gazed through the window at the clouds.  

A gypsy-brunette, with black hair braided like a woman from Andalusia. A smallish head, dark eyes, plump lips, and a very prominent neck – a neck like a pedestal carrying the head of a woman that no one can describe without needing the word “beautiful”.

Halim couldn’t come up with any questions, feeling too self-conscious about his simplicity. But she took him by surprise:

– And you, sir, where are you going?

– I’m going to Paris. The plane is going to land in Paris, and I’m going to land along with it. This is the third time I travel to this magic city.

He stopped right there. He couldn’t add one more word to that. “Magic city” and that was it.

– True, a magic city. I’ve lived in Paris for eight years now.

His mouth was agape with surprise and joy.

– How then? After landing, you’re going to take another plane to Amsterdam and not go home? I’m really sorry, all these questions, I shouldn’t …

She laughed femininely, in a way assuring him that she didn’t mind his questions. She laughed like she had known him for ages.

– I will spend a few days in Holland and get back to Paris after that. To my small place. My little cage.

He could see now that she was chatting without pretension.

– You’re flying from Beirut to Paris, then from Paris to Amsterdam, then back from Amsterdam to your cage – like a bird looking for something, for the secret that …

– What secret? No. I’m going to Holland to learn, to visit places where van Gogh had stayed and study the paintings he made before his French period, during which the lights of the French countryside would influence his work.

– You must be a writer, then.

– Not really. I studied art history at the Sorbonne and the Louvre, and I always wanted to write about this painter and say something new about him and about his work, despite the fact that plenty of papers and books have been written about him. My book, if I ever manage to write it and get it published, may be …

– I don’t really have a particular interest for art. I mean, I never had a chance to get in touch with art in Lebanon.

– Why not? Ah, I know. Lebanon is poor in this respect. There may be a few artists and poets out there, but Lebanon is still poor. And art life thrives in a country that is economically, culturally and politically solid. 

– You can’t expect such thing to happen for as long as your next-door neighbour wants nothing but your death and ruin. Israel is not just our problem; it’s the world’s ordeal. Still, that doesn’t prevent us from making some progress. I guess, more accurately, only our arrogance matches the real progress that others actually achieve. Did you know that? I can’t compare Lebanon to any other country, because I think that the Lebanese people’s sense of superiority and sense of being smarter and better informed than all the people on this earth has downgraded them to rock bottom.

She answered him with a smile, teasingly:

– Just don’t forget that you and I are Lebanese just as much, but …

A flight attendant interrupts them:

– What would you like to drink, mam?

– Water, thanks.

– And for you, sir?

– Orange juice.

The pilot’s voice over the PA informs us that we are flying over Italian shores. She looked through the window, and Halim leaned a bit closer to be able to see as well. He managed to see nothing, but his shoulder tapped against hers. He was genuinely interested in the view from their vantage point, but all he saw was the clouds.

– So you’re spending 10 days in Amsterdam?

– Yes.

– Then you’ll return to Paris, where I would have spent 10 days and have 20 more left.

He had put some thought into this calculation. He wanted to see her when she gets back from Holland.

– A month in Paris! You’ll be able to see a lot of things. Planning some sightseeing? What would you like to see in Paris?

– Now, as of now, I’ve decided to become more interested in art.

– Only as of now?

– Thanks to you.

– But what places do you like to visit usually?

– I go to concerts a lot. I go once to the opera, and once to the Louvre Museum. Like that. I love parks in Paris, and so I go to a park pretty much every day. I walk a lot, too, and my ultimate joy is getting lost in the streets of the city. I go out of the hotel at around 11 in the morning. That kicks off my daily schedule. Ah, it would be great if I could really explore the arty side of Paris with someone – someone who knows Paris well.

– Alright, I get it. If you want you can take my number.

– Yeah?

– 0143374205 … Give me a call in a couple of weeks. I’ll show you around museums and some historical places that haven’t been infected yet by the fast-food chains.

– Coke and hot dogs.

– And McDonald’s and other inventions.

– And music. All these things have conquered nations around the world, rich and poor. It’s like America buys up brains and then sells merchandise that effaces the defining character of people anywhere, in terms of how they eat, drink and their habits in general. I’m not against the English language – I actually study English-language literature – but I don’t like the use of Americanisms in my everyday conversation. Words like “yes”, “ok”, “hello”, “right”, “please” – our language has smooth and beautiful words to convey the same ideas.

By now, after the plane had travelled some distance and reached the Italian skies, he felt that he is starting to make some sense, sharing some clever opinions worthy of the university scholar he is. She, too, started to listen more intently and turned her body to face him. She said:

– True, this is the shape of the world today, as it has always been actually. In Andalusia, for instance, Arabic was the primary language, the language of thought and art. An official back then felt he had to urge the Spanish youth to keep their own language alive, to speak and write it so it doesn’t slip into oblivion. The Andalusian civilisation was just powerful. Arabic was the language of science, translation, medicine and all the arts. Arabic calligraphy was an art of high aesthetic appeal.

– And still is.

– No, please. It has become disfigured, thanks to the work of some Arab painters who thought that to revive heritage, they had to use Arabic calligraphy in their paintings. They think it makes it purely Arab. Whereas the truth is that one of the first ever to use Arabic calligraphy in their work was Paul Klee, the Swiss-German painter. And his art has always been a western, world-class art.

– Paul Klee?

– Are you familiar with some of his work? Or perhaps read something about his life and art?

– Never heard of him, sorry. Sorry for myself.

– Don’t be that sorry. You’ve still got plenty of time to catch up.

This she said almost consolingly.

– Thanks Ms …

– My name is Salma. And you, Professor …?

– Halim.

The plane landed at Orly Airport and they said goodbye. Salma took a turn at the transit sign and Halim walked out of the airport and took a taxi.

The hotel is in the Latin neighbourhood, on St Jacques Avenue. That’s where he stayed the first time he visited Paris. He’s gotten used to it. A two-star hotel.

A week passed, and just a few more days before Salma returns. Halim had a feeling that he came to Paris this time around just to know her. He couldn’t get her out of his head. He spent the ninth day hanging out in cafés on St Michel and St Germain, excited, anticipating what he knows not.

Whatever it was, he felt that he was doing something new and different, something he never did before on a trip like this: wait for someone. And not just anybody – a pretty, smart, insightful, free writer of a woman. It was her idea, too. She didn’t hesitate when she said they could catch up later in Paris. It was her phone number, her face, her hair, her eyes.

In anticipation, he dreamed up so many stories, to the point that he started dreading her return and the idea of seeing her again. Will she be the same one he met on the plane? Would the end of that flight be the end of their conversations? But she’s not like that, she’s different.

– Hello, hello … Hello …

Not a sound, and no answer. It was morning. So he called back a second time, then a third time, in the afternoon and in the evening. But not a sound, and no answer.

His high hopes and dreams were falling to bits. The following day he waited for the clock to hit 11am to call again.

– Hello …

– Hello? Bonjour oui. Ah, it’s you. Ha ha … How is it going? You’re having a good time? Sans doute, you know Paris … Not at all … Alright, great, oui oui, d’accord. Tomorrow then.

She was asking questions and giving answers, and he didn’t really know what he was saying or what she was saying. What stuck with him, though, was the nervousness in her voice, as if she was talking while running. At 11am the next day, they met at Café Les deux magots.

She was wearing an elegant, fluffy dress, and he saw her knees. In their burgundy glow, they were barely covered by her golden dress. A red leather belt tied up her waist, red shoes, red lips.

His mind smiled, like someone looking at a lush bowl of cherries after a long and cheerless famine.

– So tell me, you’re happy at the hotel?

– Yes, I stay there every time, and I know the landlady and the staff. I feel free there, and very much at ease. Plus, I love the neighbourhood, I’m kind of used to it.

– Le quartier latin est superbe, j’y habite depuis des années.

– Oh, really! Where?

– Rue 15 de l’Odéon.

– Near the Odéon Theatre?

– Yes, thereabouts.

– Garçon, s’il vous plait!

– Bonjour.

– Un café.

– Coke, please.

Salma noticed that Halim was gazing a bit too much at women. She thought: Well, at least he’s not gazing at men.

– What were you up to? Tell me.

– This time I went to Le Luxembourg park quite often. And I read a book by Paul Klee, and I liked it a lot.

– Which one, Le journal de Paul Klee?

– Yes, a book about his life, from childhood until later on in his life actually. It’s about painting and music, and about how he really discovered colour in Tunisia. He said he actually became a painter there. He also wondered about his dark-coloured skin and dark eyes, and the shape of his head. The trip got him thinking whether he was of Arab descent. He became fascinated with Arabic letters, Arab architecture, mosque gates and decorative ornaments.

– This makes me really happy. I gave you incentive to do that, didn’t I?

– You gave me incentive to do a lot of things.

– Museum visits and discovering artists!

– And more.

– Like what? Do say. Quoi?

– You’re nice, and it makes me happy to see you again.

– And what if we hadn’t met a second time.

– I would have travelled to every corner of Holland to find you, and find out all about the paintings of van Gogh, the guy who cut off his own ear.

– As a gift to his girlfriend.

Halim laughed, realising how reductive his comment was.

– Lesson learnt. But I won’t grab my ear and hand it to you, instead I’ll grab two tickets to the opera tomorrow. Are you free tomorrow?

– I’m free at all times.

– So, it’s a deal, I’m taking you to the opera tomorrow?

– What’s the show?

– Gounod’s Faust.

– Ah, formidable.

– Salma, I bought the tickets yesterday.

– You mean you decided that I was going before asking me?

– I just felt that we will be together watching this opera.

They agreed to meet the next day at the entrance of the opera house.

Halim decided to greet her the Parisian way, by kissing her on the cheek. He wondered whether one kiss would be enough, or if he’d better go for two, one on each cheek. He got there first and stood at the metro exit, attentively watching men and women waiting for their friends or dates.

Men and women greeted one another in a variety of ways, he noticed. Some kissed softly, and slowly, on the cheeks. He became confused, not knowing which kind of greeting Salma will choose.

He kept looking alternately at his watch and at the entrance of the opera. As each minute elapsed, the muscle of his heart pounded one beat faster. With his back turned to the staircase leading to the metro station, he stared at the entrance of the opera.

– Bonjour Halim.

She sprung up from behind, extending her hand for a handshake. All his mental preparations for a Parisian peck on the cheek went down the drain.

– C’est tôt encore, nous avons le temps de prendre un café.

– OK.

They walked into Café de la paix, like all the other Lebanese folks who go to this pretty mundane café to enjoy nothing but how overpriced it is. There was a smile on Halim’s face, the kind of smile that said something.

– I see you’re in high spirits, which is good. Most people out here suffer from a chronic bad mood.

– I’m actually laughing at myself.

– Why?

– Because I like honesty.

– And who’s preventing you from being honest?

– That’s what I said to myself.

– Say what you want to say. Don’t hesitate to say it, or do it, for that matter. Life’s too short.

– What are you trying to say, Salma?

– It’s true, we shouldn’t hesitate to do what we want to do and wait until it’s too late.

Here, Halim drew closer to her and kissed her right cheek. She turned her left cheek as well, and then offered her lips. He pictured the good old lush bowl of cherries and got down to it, like a homeless munching on the best fruit of the season.

They spent one and a half hours at the opera, hand in hand, enjoying the acts and the music. She found out that Halim, though not big on painting, was pretty well versed in music. She liked that, and liked his company.

In a way, she could say she almost loved him a little, or that something, a relationship of sorts, was starting to happen. She could also say that a relationship in Paris is different from one in Beirut.

As for him, he was so overjoyed he could lose his sanity. He became a piece of music, a bird, something light, gentle, a poet of Arabic expression, of English, French and Love expression. As if he made it through a much-anticipated entrance exam, although she was not his first.

There was one chair in his hotel room, one table, and one bed. They set a date at 5 o’clock the next day at his hotel. They stayed in until 10am the following morning. Neither of them used that lone chair, which just sat there bearing witness to what went on.

They agreed they will allow two days before seeing each other again. But Halim phoned her in the afternoon of the next day, and they met at Café Le flore.

Sitting at a table near them was the Spanish-Parisian fashion designer, Paco Rabanne. He was sitting with a young, elegant fellow – perhaps one of his models – and a brunette.

– I wear a Paco Rabanne perfume, by the way. What a coincidence! I love his taste.

– Gosh, look at how charming Paris can be, look at the beautiful St Germain.

– That’s the magic no one has been able to crack.

– I think I now can.

– Go on.

– That magic, my dear, is you, your fragrance and the night.

– Wow, quel poète!

– I think I’m getting back to Beirut with my pockets stacked with poems on love and magic.

– I’m happy. I’m glad I met you.

– Me? I don’t know who I am anymore, or what happened. All I know is that it makes me miserable to think that, at one point, I will be going back to the concrete desert that is Beirut. But, wait, the Seine is the place to be right now. What do you say?

– Let’s go if you like.

They spent the rest of the evening on the banks of the Seine, walking, loitering, then resting some, and all the while caressing each other to keep the night chill at bay. At times they would glue themselves to each other, in loving and carnal desire.

That was the first night Halim slept over at Salma’s. The summer rain will lock them up together for two whole days. They couldn’t tell when they went to sleep and when they awoke. The grey skies of Paris helped them turn that little cage into a heaven of pleasure.

Halim is now supposed to leave in four days. Sometimes he’d chase the dismal thought of having to leave this life and this city, and think instead of staying – staying with her alone.

As he walks the streets of Paris, he feels like he’s flying through. He’d look down at the ground, at the people, at the facades, humming a Bach or a Mozart tune. He whistles, smiles, scurries, and looks at people’s faces, as if welcoming them into his joy, or bidding them adieu.

Today, he stays alone. They will meet up tomorrow at 10am at Café Le select. But, between this minute and the big tomorrow, many an hour lies. He’ll spend those hours at the museum looking at van Gogh’s work. He wanted to stay around van Gogh’s paintings for several hours so he could talk about them later, so Salma could hear his impressions. Isn’t van Gogh an impressionist?

“Why don’t I give my own impressions on the art of an impressionist painter who cut off his ear and presented it as a gift to a woman?” He smiled, then laughed at his own thought. Two women walking past him laughed at his laughter, which made him feel like he owned Paris. He felt like all pedestrians knew he was in love; they all knew that if he were to leave, the Seine will dry up, the museums will close down and the music bands will be quiet. Parisians will stay in their homes for as long as it takes, mourning his absence.

He kept on smiling, in a sorry, cheerless way. What was he going to do back in Beirut? Next summer looks too many nights and days away. 

They’re on their way to Salma’s place now, after spending about an hour at Café Le select.

– Halim, I must travel tomorrow to Holland, to finish my research. I will stay five days and after that …

– After that, I’ll be in Beirut.

– I know. I’m aware just as much as you are that the days are slipping away. Actually, you don’t really know how fast days can elapse.

– I beg to differ. I’ve given up sleep to make sure I’m not missing out on the air of your Paris. I don’t want to miss one hour of breathing it in. I’ve been saying my goodbyes, and you are travelling …

– I have to, I really can’t postpone it. I want you to be sure that I’m sadder than you are about this, and time will prove it to you.

That would be their last encounter. The gentle drizzle only heightened the desolation that consumed them. Nature shed a few tears.

Soon, the drizzle turned into a full-blown shower, filling up the cafés with pedestrians. Halim did not want to go inside a café, so he flagged down a taxi to her place. They stayed there until dawn, and exchanged addresses in Beirut and Paris and agreed that they would do all they can to meet as soon as possible.

The months of October and November were over and he hadn’t heard from her. He often turned to the books he bought about van Gogh and his correspondence with his brother, Theo. He developed a desire to speak about him; he became a fan of the man and his life and an admirer of what he did for human expression and art.

– Hello, Mr Halim?

– Yes.

– Hi sir, this is Salma’s brother.

– Oh, hi, how is she doing? Where are you?

– If you can, we could meet tomorrow evening.

– Of course, it would be my pleasure. What time? Salma is in Beirut?

– Salma is not in Beirut.

– Mr Halim?

– Hi, yes. Please, take a seat.

The waiter arrives.

– What would you, gentlemen, like to drink?

– Coffee.

– Coffee.

They took the time to talk about this and that, stuff that is too local, too superficial, uninteresting.

– But how is Salma doing? Where is she? Has she completed her research in Holland?

– Salma started her research on van Gogh two years ago, but she couldn’t finish.

– Oh. But why?

– Mr Halim, this is a letter from Salma.

Paris, September 12, 1997

Dear Halim,

We’ve spent some unforgettable moments together. You’ve brought me joy and happiness, you made me rediscover music, and in your company I had a great time, days that words can’t describe. Now, I can’t go on my next journey without letting you know that I haven’t been to Holland of late. In fact, I’ve stopped going there for about a year now, since I learnt that I was sick, that I had the disease that no one likes to name in our culture: cancer. Instead of going to Holland to discuss van Gogh, I went to the hospital to discuss treatment options with doctors. Don’t be sad now, Halim. I thank you for the great time you’ve given me, and I know that I don’t have much time left.

My kisses and love.

Farewell. Salma.

Halim’s eyes couldn’t help it, and their soundless tears poured. It wasn’t long before he and Salma’s brother said goodbye and left.

Until this day, Halim is still trying to get over his grief, and still lives with Salma in his head. Often, he sees her in other people’s faces, and it makes him warm up to them.

– Do you get it, Sami? I’m trying to forget. But this story for me will always be a bittersweet symphony, like everything else in this life. Isn’t it so?

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