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“My wedding is in three weeks.”
“And it’s going to take place at the Meridien hotel, the 12th floor. Have you been there?” She wasn’t supposed to be asking me questions, not yet anyway.
“Yes, I believe I have. I’m still not sure I understand what the problem is though?”
“Of getting married?”
“No. Of elevators.”
She was wearing a denim skirt, a long denim skirt that one would have expected to reach her ankles. But hers ended suddenly, about three inches above. The sleeves of her tight white blouse played a similar trick, extending beyond her elbows but shying away from reaching her wrists. And on her head, she wore a white headscarf. A typical Damascene white headscarf, tied under her chin, covering her hair. Except that one or two strands had escaped the fabric and fell across her forehead, revealing its auburn colour. I shifted in my chair. What is it about inbetweeness that plays with me? Short and long skirts don’t bother me, I hardly notice them. Sleeveless shirts and shirts with long sleeves are equally harmless. And women with or without headscarves come and go unnoticed. But the very first patient to enter my office had managed to conceal just enough and reveal just enough to play with me.
I had rehearsed this scenario: my first patient entering my new office. I knew how I would greet them. How I’d sit. How they’d sit. What I’d ask. How they’d respond. I even knew how the room would smell (ylang ylang and lavender). What sounds would be filtering in from outside (muffled traffic, the occasional thud of footsteps from the office above). Where the tissue box was positioned on the coffee table (just off centre, so as to appear accessible and yet not obvious). Just how full the water jug would be filled (four fifths, next to a glass already full, removing the dilemma I anticipated some patients would face as to whether it was really there to be drunk by them). But in all my planning, my fastidious scripting, never had I factored into my copious mental role plays and run-throughs a disconcerting guttural wrench of involuntary attraction.
My office was carefully decorated. From the walls (light green) to the five meticulously selected pieces of furniture that filled the space: A desk and chair facing the window. A reclining chair, cream and leather, and a small round coffee table. And a couch. The couch is what really defined the room. It was dark blue velvet. Shaped like a crescent. Not quite as circular, but clearly descending and then clearly ascending. The point was to deliberately fluster patients by asking them to lie down in a manner that was unusual but surprisingly comfortable.
“Have a seat, please. Take your shoes off, please. Lie down on the couch, please. Yes, I do realize it’s a strange couch…”
Scenes from these redundant rehearsals flashed through my mind as the young woman who entered the room sat down on the couch before I could utter a word. Awaiting no instructions, she had reached down, removed her wooden-heeled slippers, and placed them neatly under the coffee table. She raised one leg, and then the other onto the couch, and lay back against the velvet curve.
I forced myself to observe her for a few seconds. Not that it was an unpleasant task. On the contrary. It’s just that my natural inclination is always to look away. Strange for a therapist, I know. But that’s what drew me to psychiatry in the first place. My own desire to avert my gaze, and my even stronger thirst to overcome that impulse. At university, I’d even planned an experiment. I would compile a montage of pictures, or even video clips, invite a group of participants into the lab, and play the sequence of images to them. I’d track the participants’ eye movements, and I’d run scans to examine the differences in their brain functions depending on their retinal responses. I had described the procedure in detail, even selected the images. But, of course, my university had none of the necessary equipment for this, so my theory remains unproven–that humanity can be divided into two groups: those who look, and those who look away. Those afraid of what they’ll see, and those afraid of what they’ll miss.
In defiance of my default, I now looked. Her skirt had slipped, by virtue of the descending crescent, to just below her knees. She didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes were closed. Her hands, one over the other, lay on her stomach.
“Yes, I’m frightened of elevators. Terrified of them.”
“When was the last time you got in one?”
“Oh, never. I’ve never been able to set foot in one.”
I looked down at the carpet, then back up at her. Her eyes were still closed. Toes pressed into the velvet. She was twiddling a ring on her left hand with the thumb and finger of her right.
“Does your husband, I mean your fiancé, know?”
“No. Nor does his mother. That’s the problem you see, it’s his mother. Maybe I could tell him. But if I tell his mother, she’ll use it against me. You see, she doesn’t want her son to get married, and she definitely doesn’t want him to marry me. And if she were to find out that I’m too afraid to get on an elevator to arrive at the hall where my wedding party’s taking place, she’ll accuse me of being mentally unstable, if not insane. And then she’ll finally have the evidence she needs to get rid of me once and for all.”
“And your fiancé?”
“Oh, he loves me, of course, and he’s very sweet. But there is only so much he can do when his mother freaks out. Whatever courage he has, he’s already used to defend the idea of marrying me. I don’t know what he’d do if she were to start screaming all over again.”
“So, how can I help?”
“Dr. Arbini, I need to get on that elevator.”
Her folder was in my lap.
Name: Lamees Jabri
Age: 27 years old
Height: 155 cm
Weight: 57 kg
Education: BA in English Literature
I looked up from the print-out of her details to the woman reclining on the dark blue crescent. Her skin was strikingly pale, almost translucent. Her feet and lower legs contrasted starkly with the fabric of the furniture. Her body was slightly tilted away from me, and her eyes were still closed, as though someone had instructed her that it wasn’t proper to open them when disclosing one’s innermost fears.
“And there’s no way you can take the stairs?”
“Of course not. They’d know. And I can’t deal with a screaming match on my wedding day, let alone arriving at my own party drenched in sweat from a 12-flight hike.”
“Perhaps there’s an alternative?”
“I’ve thought of everything, even bribing someone at the Meridien to turn off the electricity and force everyone, even my mother-in-law, to climb up the stairs all the way up to the 12th floor. At least then we’d all be out of breath. But, I mean, that would be ridiculous.”
“I was thinking more in terms of changing the venue?”
“Reservations have been made, and the deposit has been paid. So, it’s too late for that. I wasn’t even consulted.”
I was suddenly aware that the hot mid-morning sun streaming in from the windows was shining right over my lap. I felt the backs of my hands, suddenly aware of the heat, prickle. I leaned back in my chair to avoid the glare. It was time for me to say something intelligent. Something that justified the doctorate degree that was hanging in its silver frame on the wall, and the fact that it was I who was sitting in the carefully selected therapist’s chair.
“Well, Lamees, since we don’t have long from now until the wedding takes place, I’ll need to see you four, perhaps even five times a week.”
“15 sessions?” She had calculated the implications faster than I had.
“Yes. Phobias of this type take a long time to cure. The time factor is actually more important than the number of sessions, but I’ll do my best in the three weeks we have.”
“What will you do?” Again, she was asking questions. Her confidence was strangely at odds with the paralyzing fear that had brought her here.
“I’m really not sure yet.”
She opened her eyes and turned her head towards me. Her eyes were bright and inquiring. Somehow simple. And their simplicity was warm, almost sensual. It matched their colour, a honeyed hazel. I leaned further back in my chair.
“Okay, Dr. Arbini, whatever you think’s best.” She closed her eyes again and exhaled.
The philosopher Derida was famous for his process of deconstruction. Analysing both what was on the page, and what wasn’t, he would take a subject apart, piece by piece, pipe in hand, in the upper floor of his house filled with books he hadn’t read. He challenged everything, from grammar to God. I had been fascinated by this approach. And yet, to me, this process of deconstruction, of anatomising, of reducing a narrative or construct to its finest level of detail was concurrently a process of construction, of rebuilding. Not of the object itself, no, but of perception, it was a reconstruction of perception. Examining the bricks so as to truly understand the building.
Over the next week, I deconstructed the script of Lamees’s life. As she described to me the intricacies of her history and present, I attempted to piece together the cause and cure of her terror. I quickly discovered there was no obvious traumatic event or occurrence that had given birth to her fear, so I cast a broad net, allowing her to take us wherever the currents of her mind flowed. She had no difficulty talking. All she needed was a sense of structure, a prompt, a ‘once upon a time,’ a probing question, and she would begin.
I divided her life into three phases: birth to nine, nine to 18, and 18 to 27. Each session she would lie on the inky couch and narrate to me the next chapter. I learned about her mother; a gentle, simple soul, who it seemed had never said ‘no’ in her life. About her father, who shared a similar vocabulary, who only wanted the best for his children but never seemed particularly interested in what that may be. I learned about her insecurities, how she felt she’d never been brilliant, always frustratingly ordinary. She told me how she had met her fiancé, how her brother had been friends with him growing up. The panic she had felt when she turned 26, still unmarried, in a country where the shelf-life of eligibility for women expired long before 30. How the marriage proposal had alleviated the increasingly audible worry of her aunts and grandmothers and allowed her to situate herself back on the map of social acceptability. She would describe details with the eye of an artist. Her mother’s cooking, her brother’s brusqueness, the feeling of her fiancé’s stubble when he would come close to kissing her. How his hands were always cold. I pointed out to her this remarkable ability to paint such a vivid picture.
“I never noticed,” she said, her eyes still closed.
I strained to identify flaws, anomalies, patterns in her biography; anything that would point, however subtly, to when and why her fear of elevators began. She could describe graphically the sensations she experienced whenever she had tried to step into one. Nausea, sweating, a sense of panic so acute she felt like she was crawling out of her own skin, and the feeling of being slowly suffocated. Seven sessions had passed, and I still had nothing to either explain or exorcise this response.
Therapists are cautioned about taking their work home with them. We are trained to distance ourselves from our patients. To observe without absorbing. To peer into the pool without getting wet. Seven sessions had passed before I was aware that I was not leaving Lamees in my office when I locked the door every evening. The night after my seventh session with her, the recurring dreams began. I would see myself in an elevator. It was always descending. I would watch the numbers flash on the small screen above the door. Then I would look down at my feet and realise that the metal box was slowly filling with water.
There is, of course, one highly reliable, yet invariably dangerous method to overcome fear: to create a bond strong enough for someone to surrender her fear to it. This is sometimes mistaken for ‘transference.’ Coined first by Freud, transference is the process by which a patient reassigns the feelings they have towards a specific person – an abusive father, a deceased lover – to the therapist. It is the secret potion, the illegal antidote we keep locked up in a hidden closet. We are comforted by our knowledge that such a cure-all exists, but the repeated warnings of our professors constitute an inbuilt inhibition that no self-respecting therapist can overcome.
But as I sat on my chair and watched my patient’s feet press against each other, a strand of hair lying across her forehead, her eyes closed, speaking now of all the things she would have done had she not been approaching 30 in a country where women over 25 are regarded as second-class marriage choices, it occurred to me that the only way for Lamees to get into an elevator was not transference; I could not embody the entirety of the society that had abused her. It was, rather, for her to experience something stronger than her fear. Something that would push her into that elevator with more force than her fear could pull her from it.
A common sight in the Damascus skyscape are pigeons. Flocks of pigeons. Not all of them are wild. In fact, in some areas all the pigeons you see will be trained. Their flight is not free but scripted. They return to specific roofs. Trained by their owners, they overcome their natural instincts to wander. There is an art to instilling within a pigeon the memory of what is home, and there is an art, and a specific moment, to releasing a pigeon into the vastness of the sky. If you hold them for too long, the pigeon will not want to leave the roof, and if your embrace is too short, the pigeon will not have enough ‘memory’ to return.
Patients, unlike pigeons, need more than just holding to experience a bond. They have to feel embraced.
“Ask me a question, Lamees.”
“So, Dr. Arbini, am I ready to walk into that metal box?”
“You are, indeed. When exactly will you be arriving at the Meridien?”
The Meridien was possibly the first five-star hotel to be built in Damascus. It is located near the upper-class Abu Rummaneh neighborhood and its southern windows overlook the Barada River. It looks a little like a multi-storey car park. Hotels in Damascus, especially the prestigious ones and those that attract foreign visitors, are known to be monitored by members of various security branches. These individuals are not difficult to recognize. They wear cheap looking black suits, keep to themselves, and wander constantly around a specific area.
And so it was that on a warm Thursday night I drove my car to the Meridien hotel, wearing a black suit and what I hoped was my most inconspicuous of ties. At a quarter to 10, I stood in front of the hotel’s two main elevators, hoping to be mistaken for a security officer who had just arrived for his night shift. For the next 15 minutes, I stood waiting. Scanning the guests for my patient, reeling off the top 50 reasons why I shouldn’t be standing in front of these elevators, why I should be at home reading a book on the dangers of therapist-patient bonds, and why I should have found someone with more expertise than mine to be Lamees’s therapist.
I had reached reason 38 when I suddenly saw her, walking through the hotel doors. She was dressed in a flowing white gown, with delicate lace sleeves that didn’t quite hit her wrists. She was surrounded by a crowd of women, young and old, talking and laughing. I noticed Lamees’s hands were tightly clasped together. I could see the whites of her knuckles as she approached.
I stepped back quickly from in front of the elevator doors and pressed the button as if it were my sole duty to perform this task. It was at that moment, as she stood before the doors, that Lamees finally noticed me. Her face was clearly flushed and, as she once described to me in detail, she was clearly focused on trying not to breathe too fast.
As she glanced at me from the corner of her eye, I felt that familiar guttural wrench. I collected myself, focusing on the moment when I would open my hands and the bird would take flight. When the elevator doors opened, I was the first to walk in, indifferent to everyone else in the confident manner of a security officer whose job it was to make sure that even the brides of Damascus are not plotting against the government. An older woman followed me, fussing with a younger woman’s hairpiece. I guessed this was the infamous mother-in-law. Two more women stepped in, followed by Lamees, and at least three of her bridesmaids. Lamees made a show of readjusting the train of her dress which even I bought until I realised this had been a subtle, and successful attempt to maneuver her way into standing next to me. I pressed the button for the 12th floor. With a small jolt that no one who had ever thought twice about getting into an elevator would notice, we began to move upwards. As I stared at the doors, avoiding any eye contact which could be construed as conspicuous, I felt a hand brush against mine. It was reaching for me from in amongst the folds of white fabric which now surrounded my legs. It was far too late to say no now. I moved my fingers in response, and she immediately took hold of them. It was a strong intense grip and by the time the elevator had reached its destination, I realised, with a sinking sensation, that I did not want to let go. It would be Lamees who would oversee her own venture into the sky and release her hand from mine. I would go down with the elevator.
I watched as the women, one by one, stepped out of the doors. And Lamees, last of all, who adjusted her white satin headscarf, took hold of her dress, and began her walk into her new life. I stood there, forgetting not to stare now, hoping, wishing that she would at least look back and smile one more time. A parting gift to comfort a therapist who now regarded himself as entirely unqualified to ever receive another patient.
Lamees walked slowly down the corridor of the 12th floor. I watched the shrinking frame of this scene as the doors of the elevator slowly closed. The therapist by day, security officer by night was now alone. I looked down at the panel of buttons and thought of pigeons.
As I reached to the button for the ground floor, the doors re-opened. Into the elevator, the metal box suspended on the 12th floor of the Meridian hotel in Damascus, a woman dressed in white walked quickly inside and immediately pressed the button I was reaching for and took hold of my hand. With a jolt only those who have never thought twice about getting into an elevator would notice, we started our descent.
About Omar Imady
Omar Imady is an international novelist, scholar, and poet. He was born in Damascus to an American mother and Syrian father, and grew up in a world of constant, vibrant contrasts. In his creative work, Omar weaves together threads from the multifarious dimensions of his life, binding fact to fiction through thought-provoking and often controversial narratives. He is the author of two works of fiction, The Gospel of Damascus (2012) and his latest work, When Her Hand Moves (Villa Magna Publishing, 2022). This most recent work combines themes of the sensual and the sacred, the intellectual and the imaginary, the divine and the dangerous in three stories which examine, interrogate, and challenge our understanding of universal truths. In addition to fiction, Omar has also written on Syria's recent political history in The Unauthorised Biography of a Damascene Reformer (Pen and Sword Books, 2023).