“With the loss of the books, the actions of the men of former ages sunk into oblivion, and all the efforts of modern times to retrace them are fruitless, these ancient monuments having disappeared with the revolutions of the world from the memory of men, like hail or snow lost in the waters of some rapid river, and flowing onward, past recovery, in its mingled current.”
— Ordericus Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica, book 4, ch. 9 (c. 1140 CE, trans. Forester)
Dear Ms. Scott,
I hope you will forgive the belated nature of this note; it has been over a year since you published “‘Always I Was Saved’: The Journalist, the Hierophant, and the Disappearances.” When a friend recently recommended your article to me, I was impressed by your journalistic diligence and your crisp writing style. You made a splendid effort at surveying the known facts about the disappearance and reappearance of Matthew Rose Sorensen — and their evocative connections to the mysterious cult of personality around Laurence Arne-Sayles. I also admire your willingness to allow a mystery to remain unsolved; as you admit, the recurring and consistent imagery of a flooded house among various observers is difficult to explain, yet philosophers and physicists alike have dismissed Arne-Sayles’ theories as mystical nonsense.
I was particularly struck by one paragraph of your essay, which I will take the liberty to reproduce here, because its point is so important:
One notable aspect of Arne-Sayles’ theories — notable, but hardly unusual for his time — is their Eurocentrism. In his purported visions of a labyrinth, one encounters statues of minotaurs, pegasi, and fauns: the very picture of a mythic past, if one’s myths extend no further than the Greco-Roman milieu. Rose Sorensen’s mysterious house, too, was populated by images from purely European origins. (When I asked Rose Sorensen, who is English, whether he had encountered any images that reminded him of stories from his Ghanaian mother, his face shifted to the odd blankness that recurs any time his family is mentioned. “I don’t know,” he said, and changed the subject.) This strikes me as a rather glaring hole in Arne-Sayles’ reasoning. If his labyrinth is a place “into which everything forgotten flows,” as Arne-Sayles claimed in 1979’s The Half-Seen Door, then what of the forgotten civilizations of Asia, of the Americas, of Africa? Nor am I the first to raise this criticism; a half-dozen postcolonial critiques of Arne-Sayles can be found in the academic realm.
Ms. Scott, I want to tell you a story. I don’t know whether you will believe me, but I promise that I am not speaking in allegory or metaphor; everything that I describe happened to me, just as real as the other formative events of my life.
(This is not easy, by the way — I know that the most likely result, if you even read this letter, is that you will consider me psychotically delusional. But I care little about the judgment of others, and the respect that you accorded Rose Sorensen makes me hope that perhaps, perhaps, you will believe me.)
I was raised by women; my father was a baker in Aleppo, and he worked very long hours to provide for my mother, my siblings, and I. My grandmother — my mother’s mother — lived with us, and I think I was her favorite grandchild, for I loved to spend long hours listening to her stories, far beyond the patience of my siblings. I was insatiably curious, and the lessons at school were dull and simple for me; my grandmother — Nane, we called her — offered glimpses of a distant and magical world. Sometimes her stories were folk tales, passed down from her own mother and grandmother; sometimes they were anecdotes from her own youth; and sometimes, when she described her interactions with talking animals or wandering jinn, they seemed to be both. When my older siblings retorted that she couldn’t be telling the truth, she would simply smile and repeat, “You are wise, little ones, but our ancestors were wiser.”
When Nane saw that I believed her, soaking in her stories like a parched sapling soaks up rain, she began to teach me more — only when my siblings were not around. She taught me how to ward away the evil eye and the night-demons, how to write spiraling incantations in clay bowls to keep a home safe (though my handwriting was childish and shaky indeed!). Then, on a sweltering day in mid-June, I had my first flow. When I told Nane, she pulled an amulet over her head — I had sometimes caught glimpses of the chain around her neck, but never seen the amulet itself — and handed it to me. “This is the most precious thing I own, darling one, and now you are old enough to care for it. I received it from my mother, and she from hers. Your mother had no interest in it, but you — I think you will.”
The amulet had a glass bulb — thick, uneven glass with an iridescent sheen to it — and a lock of hair inside the bulb. Metal bands, more practical than decorative, wrapped around the glass to shield it. It was small but lay heavy in my hands.
Nane explained that the amulet contained hair from a long-distant ancestor, a woman named Gushnazdukht, who had been adept at crossing the boundaries between the human and spiritual worlds. She then described a ritual and an incantation that would allow someone to follow Gushnazdukht into these other worlds. She had me repeat them back to her until I had them soundly memorized, and she made me promise to practice them every day, until I could recite them without even thinking.
I obeyed her dutifully, but at the end, I couldn’t resist asking a question. “Nane, if you can travel to other worlds, why don’t you? Why do you live with mama and baba atop a bakery?”
She smiled, but I saw a wistfulness in her eyes. “I did travel, when I was much younger. But the other worlds can be dangerous, and they are very lonely, and they can make you forget who you are. You must only perform the ritual when you absolutely need to escape. You’ll know if the time comes — and I pray it does not.”
Ms. Scott, you are a clever person, and you have no doubt guessed that the time did come. My final days in Aleppo were — well, if you will forgive me, I would rather not discuss them yet. But the really important part is this: my Nane was right. I went to another world — to the world where forgotten stories go. I do not know whether my world was the same place as Rose Sorensen and the others visited, for I saw the statues and reliefs of my own long-distant ancestors, not those of a Western origin. Perhaps they are the same place, separated by countless long halls; perhaps the worlds are separate echoes along similar lines.
But know this. I have stood in the shadows of the lamassu. I have explored a Palace of unending rooms, utterly silent beyond the rushing of waters below and the caw of birds above. Your stories are true — and more than that, they are only a fraction of the stories that can be told.
“Come,” so says Thoth, “Why have you come?”
“I have come here expressly to report.”
“What is your condition?”
“I am pure from all misdeeds. I excluded myself from the strife of those who are in their days. I am not among them.”
“To whom, then, shall I announce you?”
“To him whose roof is of fire, with its walls of living uraei [sacred cobras], and the floor of whose house is in flood.”
“Who is he?”
“He is Osiris.”
“Proceed, then. Behold, you are announced.”
— Egyptian Book of the Dead, excerpt from spell 125, trans. Ritner
Dear Ms. Scott,
I was pleased and surprised by your very kind response to my last letter. You asked several pertinent questions, and I shall do my best to answer them all.
First: yes, I am very well. I am living in London these days, and aside from the dreary weather of the past week, I am content and safe.
Second: I indeed neglected the traditional biographic details in my introduction. I am thirty-six years old, and still unmarried, to the great dismay of my mother. (I suppose you might call me a lesbian, as my only romantic inclinations have been toward women, but even those impulses are rare indeed. Given my family's beliefs, I have found it easiest simply to avoid marriage, and I have yet to meet the woman who would change that resolution.) I am currently employed by the British Museum. In appearance, I am rather petite, with a mass of curly hair and a prominent mole on one cheek. My grandmother called me pretty, but few others have. I grew up with three siblings — two brothers and one sister — though only one brother survives to the present. He writes to me that he is rebuilding our family's bakery, with help from our mother, and I wish him all success.
Third: I regret that I cannot tell you the details of my grandmother's ritual. This is for several reasons, some of them intensely personal, some of them quite practical. But perhaps the greatest reason is this: the archaeologists of Western Europe have already divvied up my people's legacy and history, an allotment of artifacts for each venerable white man of every museum and university. Little enough remains, and less of that has endured the recent turmoil. Given these losses, if I wish to keep my grandmother's greatest heritage out of Western hands, I feel no guilt about doing so. I hope you can understand.
Short of journeying to the Palace with you, then, I recognize that I cannot prove my claims. I have attached a couple of photographs of the more interesting halls, and you are welcome to show them to any Assyriologists of your acquaintance — but they will surely dismiss them as modern reproductions or digital compositions. I can tell you stories that I have read in the Palace, but by their very nature, they are otherwise forgotten, and thus cannot serve as proof. Besides, my goal is not to trade my knowledge of the Palace for fame; I have read your biography of Arne-Sayles, and he seems a deeply unhappy man, one whose paths I have no desire to follow. My goal is simply to share my truth with one who might appreciate it.
Fourth: were I to recount all my memories of the Palace, this would be a book, not a letter. But here is one example.
Twenty minutes' walk from the Entrance Hall is a room that I call the Chamber of the Date-Palms. It is a rectangular room, perhaps twenty meters by fifty meters, with several doors and two staircases. One staircase goes down to the Chamber of the Murex, named after the spiny sea-shells that scatter across the floor when the tides are low; the room is, however, ordinarily flooded and prone to fierce riptides. The other staircase rises high into the realm of clouds and birds, where the cold and damp discourage me from following.
Between the upper and the lower worlds is an oasis of tranquility. At first glance, the room seems simple in comparison to its neighbors; carved reliefs of date-palm trees, in various stages of growth, line the walls at even intervals. Yet between these trees, sculpted images of almond-eyed attendants abound. Some tend to the trees: watering their roots, grooming their blossoms, harvesting the plump dates. Others sit in the trees' shade, or open their mouths in conversation, or make love with each other, entwined on the ground. (Some of the images are quite inspiring!) Tame animals join the throng, dogs and foxes and frolicking monkeys. Higher up is the domain of winged creatures, from little swallows to enormous griffins that glide above the canopy.
My favorite relief is a child of indeterminate gender, though I have always thought of her as a girl. She stands alone, next to a palm tree budding with young shoots, and holds up her cupped hands. Within them is a small sparrow.
Joy radiates from the face of every person and creature. There are no kings in this garden, no slaves, no captives; all are equal beneath the graceful trees, and all are content with their lot. Inscribed in the gaps between the figures on the wall is a story; the script is Old Persian cuneiform, and my Old Persian is weak, so I have been able to translate little of it. As far as I can tell, it speaks of the turn of seasons and the beneficence of the ever-watching Sun.
At night, the moon traces fingers of silver light along the walls, illuminating small glimpses of the scene. Sometimes, the shadows make it seem as if the figures are looking at me companionably. I know that I am welcome in this garden, though time and tongue may separate us.
I think about my grandmother's words sometimes, when I stand in the Chamber of the Date-Palms. She warned me that the other worlds were dangerous — and she was right, too — but she never told me how many moments of peace have been forgotten by our world.
That leads me to my fifth and final answer. You quoted Arne-Sayles about how the other worlds drive one to forgetfulness and madness. He is correct, in a way. I have read stories of people born blind or deaf who underwent medical procedures that gave them sight and hearing, and they all spoke of a period of disorientation, of being overwhelmed by the rush of new sensations that their brains lacked the experience of interpreting. Now imagine that the startling new sense is broader, deeper: that it comprises the very relationship between mind and world. At first, the disconnect is utterly disorienting. Then, over time, the more that one becomes accustomed to it, the further one drifts from the ordinary world.
I try to bridge the worlds as much as I can; I spend hours at a time in the Palace, but not days, and even that has led to gaps and lapses in my memory. My coworkers laugh at my hopeless lack of modern cultural knowledge, but the truth is that the details of politics and pop stars dissipate like dust, each time I enter the Palace. Like Rose Sorensen, I keep a regular and detailed journal, and it helps me trace the details of my liminal life. It is a compromise that I am willing to undertake.
Although we sometimes consider historical training to be training in the production of knowledge about the past, it is salutary to think of it also as training in the practice of loss. It may even be the case that the historian should be better at losing things than at finding them, for the intense richness of the past is by definition more gone than it is here. The intellectual habit of producing historical loss, however, is also the practice of training oneself to experience the force of the past’s otherness, since the context of deep loss is what generates the radiance, the overwhelming otherness, of what is found. The more richly we can learn to imagine what is lost, the more other the past must become.
— Catherine Michael Chin, “Marvelous Things Heard: On Finding Historical Radiance,” p. 482
Dear Ms. Scott,
I would be delighted to meet with the three of you. I admit an undeniable interest in comparing my own experiences with Mr. Rose Sorensen's, and I suspect that it will be easiest to answer your numerous questions in person. You are very kind to offer to travel to the city to meet me; would Catalyst Cafe on Gray’s Inn Road be a suitable location?
Clearly, the Mexica and other conquered native groups did not endorse the Western true/false, visible/invisible divide. They admitted no ontological distinction between human and nonhuman creation (i.e., ritual/ "nature"). Rather, for the Mexicas, human creation participated in the dynamism of the cosmic order. Nature was ritualized just as ritual was naturalized. Mountains and temples shared the same cosmic function of mediating between cielo de arriba (the sky above) and cielo de abajo (the sky below). This concept has little to do with the theories of representation, mimesis, and isomorphism that underwrite the Western separation between the "original" and the once-removed. The performances — rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices — were not "just" representations but (among other things) presentations to the Gods as forms of debt payment. They constituted the is as well as the as if. These performances were, of course, also political: they cemented and made visible a social order, remapping the known universe, with Tenochtitlan as the ombligo or center.
— Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire, p. 38
[Transcript: Conversation, 11 November, 2021.]
[Present: A. Scott, S. Qabbani, M. Rose Sorensen, S. Raphael]
AS: Thank you again for letting me record this for my notes. I don’t have a specific agenda for this conversation — I just thought that you might want to speak directly with each other about your experiences. I’ll try not to interrupt, except for clarification.
SQ: You’re very kind, Ms. Scott.
AS: Oh, please do call me Angharad. Now, I thought we could begin by introducing where you’re at these days. Sarah, you’re still with the police?
SR: Yes. Quite frankly, I still can’t believe you got me to talk about this at all. I’m mostly here to support Matthew. And, I suppose, because I’m curious about Samira’s experiences. But to answer your question, yes, I’m still working as a detective. I can’t discuss my current cases, of course, but none of them are as … [pause] ... unusual as Matthew’s.
MRS: [laughs] Sometimes I can hardly believe that you found me. But then I think of your persistence, and yes, then I can believe it.
AS: And what are you doing these days, Matthew?
MRS: Writing and researching, mostly. I’m still on personal leave from my university, although they keep asking me when I’ll be well enough to teach classes. In their eyes, if I can talk to journalists, then I can talk to students. Thankfully, my therapist is quite firm on the fact that I’m not ready to teach — although her reasons and mine differ somewhat substantially.
AS: How so?
MRS: Well, in her view, I haven’t yet let go of my fanciful complex of delusions that I invented to cope with the trauma of captivity. And in my view, I simply don’t remember everything that Matthew — that I used to know. I am reading through my bookshelves and relearning theories and case studies, and I am doing new research, but I still often run into facts that “everyone knows,” except me.
AS: This new research — can you tell me about it?
MRS: Certainly. I’m continuing the project of researching Arne-Sayles and his beliefs. I feel that my time in the House is actually a benefit to this project, considering — well, considering my latest theory.
AS: And that is?
SR: Matthew, you know you don’t have to tell her.
MRS: I know. And I don’t mind, as long as this stays “off the record.”
MRS: Here’s the theory, then. Arne-Sayles says that when he first regressed to a state of credulous innocence, he saw many doors — but he chose to go through the door to the House, “the one into which everything forgotten flows.” That’s what he called it. But when you stop and think about it, that’s an awfully big coincidence, isn’t it? That there are countless doors to other worlds, but he happened to immediately see the most important one, the one he most wanted to discover? So here’s my theory: the door was right there because it was his door. His entrance into the place where the things he valued had vanished. And Arne-Sayles, for all his later transgressiveness, had a perfectly ordinary childhood, an English boy reading E. Nesbit at home and memorizing Greco-Roman myths at boarding school, wandering the statue halls of the British Museum on his holidays. He found his own personal labyrinth, and then he manufactured a ritual to take the rest of us straight there, without bothering with all the other possible doorways. So by learning the corridors of the house, I was learning the shape of Arne-Sayles’s beliefs.
AS: My goodness. That’s quite a theory.
MRS: It is. I think it’ll be an interesting book — once I actually finish writing it.
AS: And Samira, what do you think of all this?
SQ: [pause] Well, I haven’t Matthew’s breadth of knowledge in philosophy and psychology. But — yes. I think I rather like that theory. It would explain all the statues in the Palace. They always bothered me a bit, because in the past, most interpretations of Islam forbade creating representations of living beings. So if this was my people’s history, why was it full of statues and of languages that I didn’t know? But if the ritual I learned was old, old enough to precede aniconism — then I’m really visiting the forgotten world of one of my ancestors. It makes sense, I suppose.
MRS: So your regions of the House have statues too? Please, do tell me about them.
SQ: I’m … sorry, I’m not even sure where to start. Let me think. One of my favorites is a scribe — maybe she reminds me of myself a little. She’s sitting on the ground, cross-legged, with a clay tablet in her lap, and she has a look of frustrated determination on her face, like the moment that comes just before a big realization. I’ve always imagined that she was doing some sort of calculation on her tablet, and that the answer was only seconds away.
AS: It sounds lovely. I wish I could see it.
SQ: Oh, well, I —
AS: Sorry. I kept telling myself not to push, and here I am, pushing. I know that I can’t see it. I just wish I could.
[Transcript continues in “TRANSCRIPT111121 PART 2.DOCX.”]
The historian is no longer a person who shapes an empire. He or she no longer envisages the paradise of a global history. The historian comes to circulate around acquired rationalizations. He or she works in the margins. In this respect the historian becomes a prowler. In a society gifted at generalization, endowed with powerful centralizing strategies, the historian moves in the direction of the frontiers of great regions already exploited. He or she "deviates" by going back to sorcery, madness, festival, popular literature, the forgotten world of the peasant, Occitania, etc., all these zones of silence.
— Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, p. 79
Dear Angharad (if I may),
It was lovely to meet you and the others last week. (I expected you to be erudite, but I didn’t expect you to be so charming!) Please pass along apologies for any awkwardness on my part to Matthew and Sarah; I’m not very accustomed to discussing the Palace aloud. Or with anyone, really.
At any rate, thank you for giving me the opportunity to contemplate your request before responding. I’ve had a lot to think about. But I’ll cut past all that navel-gazing, and simply say yes: yes, I will take you to the Palace and show it to you.
I’ll let you suggest the date and the place; as long as we have some privacy, I can open the gate from anywhere. You are welcome to bring a camera. All I ask is that you do not record the words I recite to get us there.
I may regret this. But I think I would regret not showing you more.
… if history did not besiege memory, deforming and transforming it, penetrating and petrifying it, there would be no lieux de mémoire . Indeed, it is this very push and pull that produces lieux de mémoire — moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded.
— Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”
I owe you an apology.
I should have told you about my sister.
I should have —
Let me tell you a story.
This is a story about two little girls. Once upon a time, they lived with their mother and father and brothers in a flat above a bakery. Every day, the scent of baking would drift through the house as they rose, dressed, and ate their breakfasts — the aroma of fatayer and mouajjanat, of yeast and za’atar and spiced meat. Every day, their mother kissed them good morning, and their father kissed them good night.
The older sister was proud of her status: first to wear makeup, first to pick out a silky-soft hijab, first to whisper of boys, giggling and blushing. Her younger sister was the baby of the family and the favorite of their Nane, and for this she teased her incessantly, laughing at her childish credulity. The older girl was beautiful (too beautiful for her own good, her aunties chided), and when she grew up, she married the handsomest of her many handsome suitors. Her sister had far fewer suitors — which was fine, she declared. She set her mind to schooling, winning awards and scholarships to study her country’s archaeology. And both sisters were happy, in their own ways.
Then the civil war came. What started as fear and rumors of unrest turned to the buzzing of airplanes and the whir of helicopters, the sound of bullets in the distance, the sight of blood-splattered survivors, and the terror that this time, the bombs would hit someone you knew. The sisters became accustomed to the new soundtrack of life: the reverberation of a blast, then screaming, then sirens, then sobbing. The older sister’s handsome husband died, and she refused to talk about what had happened, but she moved back into the apartment above the bakery. She haunted their dwelling and flinched at each distant gunshot, pale-faced and quiet.
The younger sister had never stopped living in the apartment, even when she had traveled across town every day for her job as an assistant researcher at the museum. (Eventually, it became too dangerous to travel across town, and her supervisor handed her a letter of recommendation with a serious gaze. “Leave, if you can. You will do our country’s heritage no good when you are dead.” So she wrote application letters to faraway museums, and studied dead languages from her parents’ dining table, and waited.) She tried to comfort her sister, to cheer her with favorite foods and silly stories, to little avail. Their parents often exchanged hushed words, but sometimes their voices rose into an argument — whether they should move to the village where their mother grew up, whether the countryside would be safer, whether to abandon everything they had built in Aleppo. Months passed. Years passed. The newscasters spoke of “Operations” and cease-fires and offensives, but the fighting never really stopped.
And then —
And then one day the fighting reached their street, brutal and desperate, heedless of civilians. At first they all huddled around the kitchen table, listening and praying quietly, but when the soldiers began pounding on their door, the girls’ father looked them in the eyes and nodded at the younger. “Take your sister to your bedroom. Lock and barricade the door. Whatever you hear, don’t come out.”
So the girls did what they were told. They ran to their room and barricaded their door with all the room’s furniture, and they clung to each other, even when the shouting began to come from inside their building, even when they heard their mother’s scream. The younger girl couldn’t stop thinking one single thought, over and over: I want to go away. I want to go away.
Then she shifted in place, and she felt the amulet around her neck. She remembered the stories that her grandmother had told about a door to other worlds, and the magic words came swiftly to her lips. She didn’t really believe they would do any good, but in that moment, feeling her sister’s body shaking like a sapling, she didn’t really believe in anything.
And then the world went silent.
She opened her eyes to the sight of lamassu looming above her; she recognized the human-bull-eagle hybrids from her studies, but she’d never seen any this close. Their carved eyes stared at her, cast in shadow, from every corner of the enormous room. In the distance, she could hear the rushing of a vast ocean. And — most remarkable of all — in her arms, her sister had stopped trembling.
They stood up together, still touching, and looked around. The room had several large, heavy-mantled doorways, and the rooms she glimpsed through those looked as though they continued in every direction. But I don’t need to describe it in detail — you have seen it.
Perhaps the sisters should have been scared. But it felt as though the intense fear had bubbled up and through them, leaving behind numb receptiveness to whatever would happen next. So they explored the Palace for hours, arranging little signs in gravel to guide themselves back to the first room. They saw birds and fish from afar, but nothing close enough to catch, and eventually they grew hungry and weary.
“We have to go back,” the younger sister said. “I think I know how to change the ritual so that it —”
“You go back,” her elder sister interrupted. “I’m staying.”
“But what will you eat? Where will you sleep?”
The elder grasped her sister’s arm so tightly that it began to hurt. “I don’t care. I can’t go back there.”
Silence fell between them for a moment. In the distance, a sea-gull cawed. “Fine. I’ll bring you food. Don’t go too far.” And the younger sister began preparations to return home.
(It wasn’t the end.)
Angharad, I didn’t expect to see Leila there; she roams far in the Palace, and we didn’t go at one of our prearranged meeting times. That’s why I didn’t tell you about her. But now you know my secret.
Leila doesn’t remember much of life before the Palace; she just knows that she doesn’t want to leave. So I bring her what she needs, and she tells me stories about her explorations. She’s so happy there, happier than I remember her being since her wedding day. I hope you can understand.
She liked you, by the way. If I haven’t frightened you off or appalled you, I’d … I’d like to bring you to see her again.
This book, like all others, springs from the desire to have something survive, to bring the past into the present, to call to mind the forgotten, to give voice to the silenced, and to mourn the lost. Writing cannot bring anything back, but it can enable everything to be experienced.
— Judith Schalansky, An Inventory of Losses, Preface
I am still in shock, but not for the reasons that worry you. Your sister seemed lovely. I’d like to meet her again.
What stuns me is the Palace. It’s real. It’s all real.
I suspended my disbelief, do you see? It’s what I do to get into my subjects’ heads — I try to understand the world as they see it, without imposing my own judgments on the process. So while a part of my head said, This is absurd!, I set it aside and listened.
But that’s not the same as believing.
When I see you again (and I hope that it is “when,” not “if”!), I want to tell you about my grandmother Susan. She reminds me a little of your own grandmother, and she used to tell me stories, too, stories that I never fully believed. (How much wisdom do we dismiss because it comes to us through women’s stories?)
Your Palace is breathtaking. I feel honored that you showed it to me. I also feel numb at its implications.
I don’t know what’s next. I can’t write about the Palace, obviously — but I want to write about you, if you’ll let me. (You are remarkable. You know that, right?) Your sister is lucky to have you.
Please write back. This isn’t an end.