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Here you are then, going back, the man who changed his name to escape the consequences of what he’d done. It’s been a long time since you left, and that was an event that mattered only to the few who took an interest in your case. As usual, those few are constantly declining in number. You’re not sure what’s left of the flame that burned deep inside you in the days of youth and hope. Your feet have worn out so many pairs of shoes, roaming the streets, walking along dirt paths and paved roads. How many more steps must they take? How much more emotion can your heart muscle handle? What’s left that will still excite you? Does the smell of coffee still promise mornings that haven’t come? After looking in different directions for so long, will your eyes ever finally converge on the same point? Can you still believe that lie about how cute your cross-eyes are, a lie uttered one day long ago by rosy lips that you were the first to taste?
Your eyes are like you. Whenever you look, you have to force them to work together. You were about to ask yourself: on the spiral, or circular, pathway that leads back to the start, who lost and who gained? This question nags you. Another question nags you too but you’ve never given it a chance to take shape in your head: did you take the wrong path?
It’s hard not to ask such questions in a situation such as yours, although you learned in your long exile how to suppress questions you don’t like or how to dodge them by procrastination or equivocation. But from now on there can be no more procrastination or equivocation. There was a time when you didn’t notice time creeping along the ground and through your body, but now the sound of it is clearly audible.
Everything is endless but nothing remains as it is. That’s a lesson your hand has learned, right down to the bones and the nerves; the hand that no longer shakes the air like a fist of bronze, but hovers uncertainly – with bulging veins – over the table, the hand that has to reassess dimensions and sizes, heaviness and lightness. Have you noticed how unsteady it is when you shake hands with people, give directions or touch things? Perhaps not, because against the background noise of flesh and blood, you cannot hear that mysterious and perfidious pickaxe chipping away, as the stones of the fortress start to work loose from the inside. But the rasping noise of that pickaxe comes straight from the lungs. It cannot always be muffled with the palm of a hand or a pocket handkerchief.
Where will you begin your long story, or rather your many stories that overlook each other like the rooms of an old Arab house? You don’t know exactly, because the years and events, the faces and voices, are mixed up in your memory. The officers who questioned you at the National Security Agency imposed a sequence of events on you, one that might be better organised from a chronological point of view. But you cannot use the records lying in the drawer assigned to you in that star-shaped stone building. Besides, those cold bureaucratic records are not interested in your inner world, your motives, in what lies between the superimposed layers of yourself. Those records contain no monologues, no waking dreams, no nightmares, no echoes, no convolutions; only uniformity, a regularity, a linear sequence of events and names. Where among them can you find your mother’s soft footsteps at night, as she hovers over the blankets spread on the floor, covering this son or that daughter, opening or closing the windows, rising before anyone else in the morning so that they can wake to the smell of coffee and fresh bread? Where is your father’s tall, lean frame, a cigarette hanging from his lip, and his inks, pens and calligraphies that explore the expanses of creation? Where are his leisurely footsteps as he descends the twelve steps to his underground temple? Where are your noisy brothers and kindly sisters? Where is your grandmother’s winged shadow, and your grandfather, sitting up straight as a bolt, who stopped writing out those proverbs and sayings when his eyesight started to fade? Where are the faces that somehow imprinted their features on your memory forever, and the faces whose details have been erased and whose ghostly passage across the screen of your memory keeps you awake at night? Where are the smells that mysteriously preserve the images and feelings you secretly treasure? Where are the pavements, the cold, life when it became just a lucky coincidence, the skies as low as a wall of grey, the long sleepless nights, the cough, the stubborn hopes, and the dancing lights of return? There’s nothing of all that in those reports, so dry that the paper crinkles, because these are things that don’t interest them. These things are useless when the accounts are settled and the harvest is weighed. You didn’t answer some of the interrogators’ questions, or you responded vaguely and coldly to the questions that no longer interested you. In short, that was the version of the story they wanted, to fill the gaps in their files, not your rambling, tangled story.
So begin here, although it may not be the right beginning, but every story needs to have some beginning.
It came to pass that a plague, reminiscent of an ancient pestilence, swept the City of Red and Grey. You recall the panic that gripped that great conurbation, built of red brick under grey skies. The anarchy, the breakdown in law and order, the great convulsion that affected everything because the plague had come almost without warning. Some people attributed it to the large numbers of immigrants, especially those from impoverished countries, and to the crowded slums or asylum camps. Others said the plague was latent in the fabric of the city itself and needed only a catalyst for it to spread. The plague’s black wing touched your wife, whom you had met on the Island of the Sun.
You almost perished at the hands of outlaws more than once. Most of your neighbours fled the working-class area where you lived. You don’t know what happened to them. The doors of their houses were pulled off their hinges. Some houses were set on fire, some were looted. You found the immigrant grocer who used to sell you goods on credit – although such a practice was unknown in this city – lying in front of his looted shop, his mouth agape as if screaming. So many perished in that unexplained plague, including some of your professional colleagues and some of your drinking companions.
Images of those struck down by the plague – in the streets, in the quarantine centres, at bus stops and on the underground – recur from time to time: of your wife looking at you with weary eyes from behind a glass screen, of the cough that tore the lungs, spitting blood, the almost primitive emotions and behaviour that people exhibited, the face masks that made people look like highwaymen, the X-signs written on walls in thick black ink to distinguish one house from another, the codes used in conversations, none of which you understood, and the weird way that people spoke, as if from the guts and not from the throat.
This memory, or nightmare, recurs time after time. You took backstreets to visit your wife in quarantine in the city centre, which was orderly compared with the suburbs where things had slipped out of control. Three masked men had pounced on you out of the blue. You were carrying a bag with some food in it. They brandished knives and the sharp blades glinted in the tense space between you and them. They told you to put the bag on the ground, that if you wanted to escape with your life you should leave the bag and step aside. You did so. What they found in the bag didn’t satisfy the savage eyes behind the masks. They ordered you to give them all the cash you were carrying. You threw your wallet at them from a distance. It seemed there wasn’t enough money to make them leave. They saw your wedding ring on your left hand. They gestured to you to take it off. It was hard, not only because you were loath to do so but because your fingers had suddenly swollen. Fear had made your blood flow and your hands were as thick as a couple of fresh peasant loaves. You tried to budge the ring but you couldn’t. One of the masked men came forward cautiously. He brandished his knife and you saw the blade. Another man coughed with a sound that seemed to rip his lungs to shreds. It looked like he had to spit. He spat blood on the ground. You could see the colour of his face behind the mask.
‘I’m the same colour as you!’ you said in the local language to the masked man advancing toward you. That was naïve but you couldn’t help saying it.
‘Shut up! Just shut up!’ he barked. He put the tip of the knife between the ring and the flesh and started to lever it. It hurt. You saw drops of blood but you suppressed the pain. The ring didn’t come off, so the masked man patiently changed his plan and was about to sever your finger when a police car appeared at the end of the street, saving your finger from amputation.
When you reached the quarantine centre they gave you a tetanus shot and bandaged the wound. Your wife’s dull eyes looked at you from behind the glass screen in hope, or despair, or reproach. You couldn’t understand how her look could be so changeable, but you will never forget it. You weren’t allowed inside the glass enclosure, where dozens of victims were lying. You stood outside it. You spoke to her. She couldn’t hear you. She seemed to understand what you were saying from your lip movements, because she nodded. Every now and then she had a coughing fit. You couldn’t hear it but you could judge its intensity by the way her thin body shook when she turned her head aside. You told her everything would be fine. You weren’t sure about that but it’s what one has to say in such situations. She moved her head slowly and looked you up and down with her dull eyes until they came to rest on your bandaged hand. You told her it was nothing, just a scratch.
Night had fallen. The night held unpleasant surprises in the City of Red and Grey even before the plague spread, let alone after! You always avoided the night. The night when people fell asleep and talked to themselves on the last buses and trains. The night when drink brought their dark secrets to the surface and they vented the anger that was hidden behind their daytime masks – the masks that made them appear so composed to those who could be taken in – or jabbered in strange languages that sounded barbaric to ears that did not know what they were talking about.
The masked staff at the quarantine centre kept you in the hallway. There were others like you who had nowhere else to go. In the morning you crept out. The new-born day was a dome of grey. The city centre, usually crowded with pedestrians at all times of day and night, was almost empty. Few shops had opened their doors. Guards stood in front of them on the alert. The cafés where youngsters would drink coffee, smoke and shout at each other in high spirits were mostly closed. Mannequins gazed out from the shop windows like frozen idols, displaying the fashions of a hypothetical summer. The air was so thick you could touch it. The tall trees crouched like mythical creatures about to pounce. In the street the manholes that led to the nether world were uncovered, and foul smells emerged from them. Soldiers armed with strange devices stood guard in front of critical government facilities. Intermittently and cautiously, spectres crossed from one pavement to the other. Police cars and ambulances ploughed through the streets that were almost empty of cars, the sound of their tyres amplified in the muteness of the morning.
There had been a time when faces from all corners of the world had cut a path along the city’s narrow pavements and down the subways, when young men and women had embraced with a physical freedom that was sometimes embarrassing, when buskers had played music, sometimes cheerful and sometimes sad, in front of the big shops and at the entrances to the gloomy nether world, in this grey-skied Babel crowned with the gold of the colonial era. It never occurred to you, even in your worst nightmares that this city would descend into ruin and see the reappearance of primitive weapons, obsolete symbols and emotions you thought you had left behind in your long journey.
In the great square and the cobbled streets that radiated out from it in all directions, the desolation reminded you of an old film of the area, deserted after some disaster you don’t recall. But you do remember the hero of the film running through the empty streets, crossing the bridge with the two stone towers, entering one building and emerging from another, being ambushed by a wild gang, getting away and being on the run throughout the film. It’s as if the film was a terrible warning, except that in reality, but not in the film, people were moving about – some wearing masks on their faces and gloves on their hands, covering anything that would give away their colour, their features or their identity. Masked against the raging storm of fear and danger. Was it similar to what happened in the City of Siege and War? No. Maybe. You don’t know, because your nightmares have merged with reality. Your ability to judge has diminished. You can no longer be sure. Time has dissolved, and the events and the faces have merged together.
So you’ve returned. It’s been twenty years since you fled Hamiya. Of course, you don’t need anyone to remind you how many years it’s been, but you believe, as you put it during casual conversation on the balcony of your family’s house, between coughing fits, that time has unexpectedly played a cruel trick on you – how is it that things that should have disappeared have survived, while many faces have lost their details? That’s just a roundabout way of talking about time, because instead of saying time, you said things and faces. But the name doesn’t change anything, because time, as you know (do you really know?), does not defer to hopes, however fervent they might be, nor to resolutions, even if they are as firm as steel. Time has its own ways, direct or cunning, of achieving its purposes, and it never fails to hit the mark. No glancing blows, or blows outside the line. Time is also a train that does not prefer any particular station, even if it lingers here or hastens there. Maybe you can’t hear its whistle until it’s left, but its effects are visible on faces, on hands, in the way people stand and in the pictures hanging on the walls. The people who waited for you saw the whole map of your long journey on your face. Twenty years is not a number. In fact, in a case such as yours, it might be a life that has run its course. But do you know what’s good about it? That the days roll on, impervious, for everyone. They hone, erode and level everything they touch. Even your double, the person you used to be, the one who was frozen in his twenties by some mysterious disease, knows what that means.
Once upon a time you were considered a hero, or a conspirator. A brave young man who either – in the eyes of some abroad – took part in a heroic act, or whose head – in the eyes of others here – had been poisoned by imported ideas and who was implicated in a reckless act. You and your double, the man you used to be, both paid the price for what you did. While he survived as a ghost or a freak, growing no older and no younger, preserving a name and a life that had been nipped in the bud, you had to tramp the pavements and face the cold – battered by winds that blew your tattered sail far away. Now that matters have changed, the names and the acts balance out on the scales of insubstantial oblivion. You’re no longer a hero or a conspirator. Just an old man, half-forgotten, coming back after twenty years of struggle, pursuing ideas that did not bring about much change in your country, and perhaps nowhere else either.
This excerpt was published in Banipal 46 – 80 New Poems in agreement with the publisher
• Land of No Rain [Haithu La Tasqut al-Amtar], translated by Jonathan Wright, is published in April 2014 by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. ISBN 978-9992194584, 264pp, pbk.
• Amjad Nasser was born in Jordan in 1955. From 1976 he worked
in newspapers in Beirut, Cyprus and in London was cultural and managing editor
of Al-Quds al-Arabi for many years. He has published several volumes of
award-winning poetry, travel memoirs and Haithu La Tasqut al-Amtar, his first
novel. He has judged many literary awards, including the Lettre Ulysses Award
and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Selected poetry has been translated
into French, Italian, English, and Spanish.
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