THE PICTURE STOPS Bassem from whatever he was doing.
"Marwan Hamoud has tagged you in a photo."
The photo is of his first daughter, Souri. She is standing on a balcony, flowers blooming behind her in bright colours over metal twine.
Next to her is a plastic patio chair and table. The table, just cleared from lunch.
A pink Facebook frame in the shape of a heart has been superimposed around the actual image.
And then there is Souri. Pictured alone but not quite in the middle. Her hands clasped in front of her, the light in her eyes.
She is smiling, it seems, not for the camera, but through it, at the person behind the lens.
The immediacy of her. He does not know how to respond to it.
His finger must have brushed against the trackpad because a name appears, the name of a cousin, tagged as a flower behind her.
He runs his finger over the pad again and the names of other people flutter up.
He moves the cursor until it settles on his own name.
HIS BROTHER MARWAN posted the picture on the Sunday night.
The tab stays open in Bassem's browser over the next week. It is there in the background beside his other tabs when he checks his email in the morning, or finds a cartoon for his second daughter Nora to watch after work, the comment field still blank.
The next day, he logs on to his terminal at work. He is on a random feed. For the first hour or so, he processes his resolutions, permitting (⥥) or removing the content (⥢), without it really registering. Continuing to click through it even as his mind strays from the screen onto some thing he has to do when he gets home, a more general thought about the content he's reviewing or a word he wants to look up.
He makes a mental note to look up the word 'quote.'
It occurs to him that he has been understanding it incorrectly. Has always thought that to quote something necessarily meant to remove it from its context.
He reasons it out. There is a difference between the English and the German. He tries to remember what the German for it is.
Then gives up and searches it on another tab. It is zitat. Referring to the technical act of citing.
Whereas the English quote must refer to the act of asking "who?" ("quis?")
He thinks, really for the first time, about the Arabic, aiqtabas, meaning to obtain knowledge from something.
Each supposes a different relationship to context.
Context as a process of referring.
Context as a person you could name.
Context as resource.
What is the context of this?
When the resolutions are easy, he gets into a certain rhythm. As though he is skimming through the content, parting it like a keel.
The supervisor noted Bassem's computer science background when assigning him to the text-only feeds. That decision spared him from the worst part of the job which is the videos. Beheading videos, vivisection, dashcam footage of car crashes in unidentified foreign cities. But he knew at the time that the real reason was his English. His English was fluent, which made up for the fact that his German was still poor.
Having struggled at first to know how to interpret the posts, despite his good English,
having found them garbled and interruptive, always seeming to allude to some prior knowledge that he was missing, he had gradually come to understand them as queries, such as you might enter into a search engine.
Questions or partial phrases or maybe statements. But if statements, statements that do not bear the full weight of assertion,
that are mainly tests, like testing the echo as you enter a cave.
What are they imagining out there in the darkness? Is it something like this?
This office, its rows of desks, its trailing cables and perforated ceiling tiles?
The unmistakably human outline of the figures in your peripheral vision,
slumped and shifting in attitudes of half-concentration?
Is it this pruritic background sound of scrolling and clicking?
The scrolling, like a field of crickets, indefinite, impassive, non-committal.
The clicks, the opposite of scrolling. Staccato scissor-cuts. Swift, decisive, irregular as thought.
Is it the moronic breathing of people with headphones on?
Probably it is something else.
THAT EVENING, NORA is sitting on the kitchen counter while he cooks. She is describing a book about cats that she was shown at the neighbour's. Cats are different from dogs, she tells him, because they will choose to leave a human who treats them badly. Her legs bounce against the cupboard door as she tells him this. One of her shoelaces is swinging loose. As he bends to tie it for her, he gets a message from his wife, Nesrine.
—You two home? x
He fills the kettle and turns it on.
—Any post, sweetheart?
—No, sweetheart x
Both of them are still wearing their outdoor coats. Bassem's coat, short and blue. Not quite fit for the weather. Nora's coat, a green, puffy thing which used to belong to her sister.
After they have eaten, Nora plays while Bassem logs on for his German class.
His teacher, Salma, shares her screen. A Microsoft Word document containing a stock image of a family, stretched slightly out of aspect ratio, and labeled with the German words for father, mother, brother, sister.
Listening to her explaining some aspect of German grammar, he remembers something that he already rationally knows. That all this—grammar, written language—is only an approximation of speech.
That speech comes before script. Except in a second language, where you must work through it labouriously like this, the other way around.
He is thinking this while the others on the video call take their turn at the exercise. Nora plays on the rug at his feet, talking to a toy cat that she is using to interact with a fire truck. He notices that the fire truck and the cat are the same size.
Finally, Salma calls on him to form a sentence about his family. It doesn't have to be true, she says.
Ok... he clears his throat. I have a wife (eine Frau...) and a daughter (eine Tochter...) ...
He pauses. The indefinite article in German sounds somehow blunter than the English.
Good! And what is the name of your daughter?
Sie heißt Nora...
Nora takes this to be her turn, leaning over his knees into the view of the screen, she says, Ich habe einen Vater namens 'Bassem' und eine Mutter namens 'Nesrine' und eine Schwester...
Okay, Nori—sh sh. He laughs and strokes her head.
He fusses over her somewhat as the class continues.
Secretly, he is grateful for the distraction. Out of view of the camera, he picks up his phone and looks at the unread messages in the group chat from that morning.
—Hello my friend
—Hello asif, my beautiful friend
—Good morning brother
—Good morning my friend. I hope you have a blessed day
—a blessed day to all of you.
—Brothers, it is a beautiful morning in Damascus. I wish you all a beautiful day
The last message is from his brother Marwan. It is accompanied by a photograph of a city at sunrise. He opens the image, zooming in on the sky, the dark line of buildings, a bus stop.
Then he closes the image and starts to type.
WHEN HE HEARS the front door, he realises they have fallen asleep. A cartoon is playing on the laptop. Nora's head is resting on his thigh. She puts her arms around his neck as he lifts her up, but doesn't wake. A slight frown passing over her face momentarily like a cloud.
They meet Nesrine in the hallway.
Hello sweetheart. My babies fell asleep.
Yes we did.
Nora feels heavy in his arms. His mind goes to how heavy she will be in three, six months.
He remembers his own father carrying him from the car to the house after a long journey when he was very small.
Remembers holding his eyes tightly shut to pretend he was still asleep.
In the morning, Nesrine will have Nora until her shift starts at the hospital, then she will leave her with a downstairs neighbour until Bassem gets home from work.
They stand in the kitchen.
I have a feeling she's going to ask if we can get a cat, Bassem tells her.
Oh will she now.
I was going to take her to the zoo on Saturday to look at some of the big cats or I don't know maybe see if we can find a pet shop, just to look.
Nesrine gazes off, her hands in the sink.
I don't like how they keep them all indoors like possessions.
He starts putting things away.
I think the winters are too cold for them to live outside.
HE HAS STARTED feeling his age in various ways.
He feels it in the way memories occur to him, catching him off-guard and unsettling him for a few moments, the difficulty he has in placing them chronologically. And in the number of times he has to get up in the night to pee.
When he gets up, he leaves the light off so the fan won't wake the others and pees sitting down.
In the darkness that night, he comes to from whatever dream he was having when he woke up and then he thinks about the photograph of Souri.
The picture tells you everything and nothing about the situation, he thinks.
Everything: in the picture, she is there, which reminds you that she is not here.
And nothing: nothing about how you could account for it.
THE WORD COMES from a name. From Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian mathematician, he remembers from school.
The "rithm" part was a later addition.
An adaptation of the Persian rizmi that allows you to imagine a different etymology: one that is European, Greek.
He thinks of this as the part that misleads people, makes them think of it as something necessarily mechanical.
-rithm like rhythm.
The rhythm of an autonomous function playing out.
The rhythm of a machine.
HE IS READING a recent article from an American journal in the break room that lunch time when his phone buzzes.
—What are you eating for lunch brothers?
His half-typed message from the night before is still unsent in the send bar:
Thank you Asif. My friends, many kisses to you all
He deletes this and positions his phone to take a picture of his food. Some leftover maqluba with cabbage and a few pink pickles. The picture comes out blurry the first time, so he goes to take it again.
What are you reading? a colleague, whose name he doesn't know, asks in German.
He puts his phone down and clears his throat.
It's a...computer science article.
What is it about?
It's about a piece of software, a new piece of machine learning software that makes images from text.
You read English? another colleague, Jendrek, asks.
Ah, slowly, he gestures, smiling.
Is this for work or...
No, not this work. This is what I do back home.
Can I see? Jendrek asks.
He hands him the phone.
Wow, look at this, Jendrek says to the colleague sitting next to him.
This is photoshopped, no? the other colleague asks.
He shakes his head.
A computer made these?
From a caption.
Is this what you'd call artificial intelligence?
That's what you'd call it, but ah...
The colleague taps the phone and says to Jendrek, I've read about this stuff, it's incredible.
It's not intelligence as such. The program, it... (he founders for a moment before slipping into English for the word "elaborates") it elaborates a task set out for it by a human. Animal intelligence is creative. This (he gestures to the phone) looks good but it's not creative.
Your English is very good, Jendrek says and passes the phone on. A female colleague is looking now.
He has no neck.
She holds up the phone and shows him the picture of a giraffe. The textures of the image are convincing. But there is no distinction between ground and figure. And the figure itself is ill-defined, not contiguous. She is right about the neck.
She takes it back and scrolls a little more.
And the people on the sofa.
She holds the phone up again.
THE ARABIC FOR "to quote," aiqtabas, is related to the root "to borrow." Literally, "to light one's torch from a burning source."
That night, he dreams of two burning torches, side by side. The task being to figure out which was lit from the other.
And then of two twins in high chairs. The task being to remember which one he has already fed.
This feeling of needing to solve some impossible puzzle is always with him when he gets up and pads down the hall.
HE HAD MET the stray on a dark street between work and home, some months earlier when there was still snow on the ground.
Arriving at the front door, he realised he didn't have his keys. And so, having searched everywhere on his person, and having then spoken to the neighbour to tell her he was back but could she watch Nora a while longer, he had gone back out into the cold to retrace his steps.
Following his route back to work through the amber streets, he found himself also retracing his train of thought. The rush to get home, the decision of what to make for supper.
In reverse, he recognised his own distraction. The urgent hum driving him on to the next thing, the next task, the next thought.
The keys were the sort of object that you could imagine seeing anywhere until you actually needed them. The shape was imprinted on the back of his eyes. A small, strewn mass, spider-shaped, dark against the snow, that he had to pan for across the whole width of his vision.
The cat was watching him from between two parked cars.
"What?" he heard himself say out loud.
Then, feeling foolish, he stopped walking and crouched. The cat came over eagerly, slowing to sniff his hand.
Bassem watched it, thinking with its nose. The convex gleam of its eyes. Behind them, the dark extent of another being.
He thought of his daughter's eyes moving as she watched the laptop screen.
In a reflex, he had reached out to stroke the cat with his other hand, but the movement startled it and it ran away.
HE SHOULD HAVE replied straight away, he realises, as he lifts the cover and sits. Other people have commented. Even Nesrine has. Why can't he?
The picture, in the format in which he encountered it, had an inherent pathos. It had produced a strong feeling in him, the moment he saw it.
Had he replied straight away, although his response wouldn't have said all he wanted it to, it would have conveyed a certain truth.
But as soon as he had stopped to think, he'd been overcome with uncertainty about the circumstances surrounding the picture.
What anecdote was attached to its taking? What was said immediately before it was taken? What happened immediately afterwards?
All this is inaccessible to him.
Now, as the days tick by, his failure to respond has itself begun to feel pregnant with meaning.
What could you say that would address the situation in full?
ON WEDNESDAY, A new type of post starts to appear in his feed.
People have found some way to use diacritical marks to camouflage words or phrases that would otherwise trigger the filter.
Each message is only just discernible in the vertical spray of markings.
And each of the marks counts towards the character limit, meaning the authors have to be more concise. This makes the messages seem urgent.
He recognises some of the markings as Arabic vowels, tashkeel.
In written Arabic, these are left out. You are left to deduce the vowel sounds from the context of the surrounding word.
These diacritics do the same. They are not a language, only a vulgar code,
but like the unmarked vowels in Arabic, they assume another mind,
one that could complete your meaning,
bypassing the crude instrument of text.
A QUERY IS the natural way of engaging with a world in which everything has already happened. In which it is taken for granted that every fact is already out there, attainable with just the right prompt.
In his idle moments, he makes his own queries. Some word that has stuck with him or something practical about their immigration status. Like the photograph of Souri which he is meaning to reply to, his enquiries are open-ended, rarely leading to any clear resolution.
Getting into the lift, he opens a tab and searches, diacritical marks wiki.
As he leaves the building, he opens another and types subsidiary protection status
Diacritic is European. The Greek, diakritikos, meaning able to distinguish.
Subsidiary is also European. It has a Latinate root.
It means supportive, serving to assist.
But also, secondary, subordinate.
The tabs stay open in the background as he carries on his day.
RIDING THE U-BAHN later, Nora asks him who came up with the music.
What music, sweetheart.
I can't hear anything.
Yes, you can. Listen!
He strains to hear a melody but can't hear anything over the sound of the train, its tempered drone and the jostle of contact. He concentrates for a moment until the effort makes him laugh.
I'm sorry, habibti. You have younger ears than me, he says, patting her knee.
The jostling slows and the brakes whistle as they pull into the next station.
Sweetheart, that's just the sound of the train, he tells her.
She thinks for a moment, then asks him,
Who came up with the sound of the train?
AFTER THE TASHKEEL, he starts seeing watermarked stock images, with restricted messages embedded in the alt tags, and then elsewhere, deeper in the properties of the files.
It is a relatively simple fix for the companies to apply the filters to the metadata once they realise what is happening. But it occupies him for most of Thursday, looking for some sign of intent stirring in the detail of every image that scrolls past.
The whole enterprise seems paranoid, furtive. He can not see the value in the scraps of information that they are trying to smuggle through. If anything, it is most legible as a game.
The humans trying to trick the machine by sneaking information through its filters.
The machine trying to trick the humans into thinking it is one of them.
Two sides, feeling out the limits of the other's intelligence.
THEY ARE HOPING that the obsession with cats is a phase. The plan is to do nothing that might encourage it and hope it will pass.
He and Nesrine have a way of dealing with Nora when she is upset about something, or failing to behave, which is to change the subject. To propose something entirely new to her that might capture her interest. It is remarkably effective. Bassem feels guilty when he does it, as though he is seeding some betrayal that she will one day be old enough to understand, but Nesrine uses it mercilessly.
Instead of the zoo, after work on Thursday he takes her to the park.
Nora is on her scooter, racing ahead of him. When she doesn't respond to his calls, he has to break into a dash to catch up with her. And when they reach an intersection, he holds onto her hood as a brake while he checks the route on his phone.
In the park, she orders him around.
She wants him to carry bark chippings to the slide, to role play in some game where they are tigers building a den. Then to hold her scooter while she climbs over a new part of the playground, some small hills with wooden bridges and a great nest of rope webbing.
She is like a cat, he thinks as he watches. Her way of understanding something is to walk over it.
The playground is noisy. Something important is now being negotiated on the rope bridge between Nora and some other children. Her German must be good, he thinks. Better than his. She has picked it up already from this mass of confusion.
In three months, she will be the age that Souri was the last time they saw her. Beyond that lies some vast unknown.
Another parent, a mother, guiding her child by the arms catches his eye and says something pleasant-sounding to him.
He answers agreeably and then feeling self-conscious, gets out his phone.
The last tab he had open was a set of search results: subsidiary protection refugee difference. He exits the browser without closing the tab.
There is another message from Marwan in the group chat: a picture of a bed of red and yellow tulips.
—Another beautiful day in Damascus, habibis. Spring is truly in "full bloom" I wish you all could be here
Nora reappears at his side asking for the scooter again. He gives it to her and looks at the replies.
—So lovely xx
—Beautiful spring weather in as-Sham. Of course it's been raining all day in Lille!
Someone has replied with a picture of some chocolate cake on a paper plate.
His thumb hovers for a second then he starts to type.
Marwan, it looks so lovely there.
He feels he is keeping to a formula, choosing from a limited set of words, letting those words decide what he has to say.
I wish, he types.
Then he stops and retypes,
I hope that if
He stops again.
If what. What do you wish?
Amid the background noise, he realises he has been hearing the sound of a child crying.
He looks up and sees Nora sitting on the ground next to her scooter at the bottom of a slope.
He runs over and consoles her, checking her knees and her hands and her face. Her hands are grazed, he opens them up and brushes the grit off her palms and strokes the hair at the side of her face, which is now helplessly crumpled.
Poor sweet girl. Does it hurt? You will be okay.
He kisses her hands but she continues to cry.
I'll tell you what, he says. He almost stops himself before he says it. Because you're so brave, this weekend we'll see about going to the zoo.
HE SEARCHES, tolerated status waiting time
zoo near me.
He has dreams in which he is searching. And sometimes when he wakes up he searches the content of his dreams.
Tolerate has a European root, also Latin. But with the Middle English cognate, thole, meaning to bear. And also a type of peg, or pair of pegs, pushed into a gunwale, to provide the fulcrum for an oar
That night he dreams about two tholes, which he pictures as skittle shaped, pegged into place. Braced against the knocking movement of the oar. The sound of wood against wood.
Who came up with the music?
SOON AFTER THE filter has been applied to image metadata, people start to encode their messages directly into images.
The resulting posts look something like a captcha, a distorted block of text designed to be readable for a human but not a machine.
Most images that exist must be like this now, he thinks as he trawls through them.
Not photographs, or even pictures in any real sense, but graphics, screencaps, placeholders, reified text
The mind can read the characters and pass the test, but it can not sort all those stimuli into any workable perspective, distinguish what is important from what is not.
It is all foreground. A constant present, streaming past.
Once again, the whole thing lasts only a few hours. The sites people use to create the images are free. Whereas the most advanced image scanners are proprietary, and have been licenced by the companies.
On certain forums, people try to develop new tools that will keep them a step ahead but are unable to find the sweet spot of legibility, and soon those people move on to something else.
BY FRIDAY AFTERNOON, his feed is finally quiet.
Most of the content for moderation is user-reported. It tends to be viral posts, which garner a large number of reports purely because of the scale of engagement they attract
Their relationship to context is always casual and allusive. They tend to refer to something ongoing but indefinite. The dropped personal pronouns make their claims less particular, more universal. Some of the most innocuous of these posts have been liked tens of thousands of times.
They are craving, feeling, thinking for everyone.
THAT EVENING, THEY are all home for dinner at the same time.
When Bassem gets back there is an official looking letter on the doormat, which he puts on the side in the kitchen. He pares an apple and splits it with Nora, then puts the shopping away and starts to cook while she plays on the rug.
Nesrine gets home at seven and they all eat together, a casserole.
When Nora has gone to bed, he and Nesrine sit on the sofa and she reads the letter. Bassem watches her face as she reads. After a couple of minutes she turns the letter over to check there is nothing on the back and starts going through it again.
Well? he says.
They're asking for some other pieces of evidence. And it mentions something about, where is it, begrenztes kontingent... have you heard of this? A monthly quota...
I'm not sure... I think I have.
We have to make a new appointment at the ministry.
Another six months.
It says that? Good lord, he says.
From where they are sitting in that moment, the whole process feels inconceivable to him.
We can speak to Magda on Monday, she says.
Yes. Yes, you're right.
HE TAKES HIS phone with him when he gets up that night. In the light of its screen, he sits and searches begrents contingent
begrenztes kontingent subsidiary protection
subsidiary protection quota 1000 people
The quota is an arbitrary limit, he thinks. A round number that someone somewhere has arrived at, off the top of their head.
There is a procedure. But not one you could comprehend to cite. No "who" that you could name. Just the letter, its flat screen of language. All of its distinguishing marks are meant to throw you off, to give you the impression of an infallible computer logic, to hide the human power behind the machine.
What does the machine want?
It wants what all power wants, he thinks. It wants you to give up.
THE NEXT DAY is a Saturday.
Bassem walks with Nora down to the station. He is finally taking her to see the big cats at the zoo while Nesrine runs some errands. They plan to meet up later in the morning.
The day is bright, the traffic on the pavement leisurely. He holds her hand as they walk through the market.
When they get down to the main street near the station, the roads are all cordoned off. At the barriers, they ask a police officer what is going on.
He looks past them from behind his shades and says, "a demonstration."
Bassem is unsure what this means for their journey but thanks him and they go a different way.
When they get to the U-Bahn station, however, that is also closed. Trying to read the sign on the gate, Nora asks him, Why is it closed today?
Sometimes they have to do repairs on the tracks at the weekend when the trains aren't as busy.
Why don't they tell people before?
I don't know sweetheart, they probably did.
She is inspecting the plaster on her hand. He can tell from her expression that her mood has changed now, her thoughts have turned in on themselves. When he asks her what she wants to do she doesn't answer.
He looks around and sees the top of the tower near his office.
I'll tell you what, come with me. We're going on an expedition.
IT IS A long walk. Forty-five minutes around side streets made up of bland precincts and residential blocks. Bassem is not sure he can remember the way but Nora is excited at the prospect of a surprise.
He is considering what he may have to say to let her down when they see the stray up ahead on the pavement.
Nora scoots to a halt, which startles the cat who runs away and hides under a parked car. She stops there for a moment on her scooter. Bassem crouches down.
See? I saw this chap on my way home from work one time. He's a boy cat. This is where he lives. I think he's wild.
Nora is silent, watchful. The cat is a few cars down, only visible when he moves to shift his weight.
They scare very easily, Bassem says. Nora keeps watching.
After a minute or so, he looks at his watch.
Shall we go and see what Mama's doing?
Very carefully, she sets her scooter down on its side and walks over to the car. She perches on the curb and, without extending her arms, starts talking. Bassem stays back, unable to hear what she's saying.
When the cat comes out from under the car, she doesn't make a move but keeps talking as he winds around her. Finally, she puts out a hand in a loose pinch and offers it to the cat who sniffs and then nuzzles it. Then arches his back as she strokes him.
She seems undaunted by the cat's wildness and unpredictability. Seems to see it only as something to coax and to play with.
Watching her, he realises something. Something about the photograph of Souri.
He has made the same mistake as the people in his feed. He has been imagining some kind of machine-god, out there in the darkness, some unthinkable force, beyond human intervention.
The opacity of the format has thrown him, made him unable to distinguish what was real.
What was real was his brother and his daughter, testing the echo. Saying hello. Letting him know they're there.
The cat is laid out now, letting Nora make long careful strokes along the length of his side. He starts to clean his arm.
Okay over there? Bassem says.
Nora looks back at him beaming.
Shall we go and meet Mama now?
She nods happily.
While Nora scoots off ahead, Bassem finds the photograph of Souri on his phone and starts to type a comment. He types as he walks, without thinking.
He calls her his darling Souri. He tells her that she looks beautiful and happy in the picture and that he hopes she is having a lovely time back home. Asks her to be good for her uncle. And tells her that they think about her every day and will come to get her as soon as they possibly can.
He presses send without reading it over or checking for mistakes.
When he looks up, he can't see Nora at first. Then he spots the back of her, far ahead, stopped at the edge of the pavement. She is watching as a procession of people stream past in the road in front of her. The demonstration, he realises.
When he catches up to her, he is about to tell her off, but then sees that her expression is already pensive. He lifts her up onto his hip.
Many of the people in the demonstration are wearing masks. He can't quite make out what the signs say but the atmosphere is oddly hostile.
Someone in the crowd lights a flare and people jeer.
Nora turns away and squirms for a moment. She presses her face into his shoulder. He mutters something gentle into her ear.
The masks don't appear to be a precaution. They seem ironic, a claim of victimhood. People without a face, he thinks. A giraffe without a neck
Nora has turned her head back around now to see, blinking, her eyes moving over the faces and the signs.
He holds onto her while she watches.
The illustrations, A giraffe standing on dirt ground near a tree and Two people play video games while sitting on a couch are from Jaemin Cho, Jiasen Lu, Dustin Schwenk, Hannaneh Hajishirzi, Aniruddha Kembhavi, "X-LXMERT: Paint, Caption and Answer Questions with Multi-Modal Transformers," presented at the 2020 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing, Online, November 2020. Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania: Association for Computational Linguistics. [https://arxiv.org/abs/2009.11278]