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City Nightmares – Hisham Bustani

Jul 16, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Arabic by Mala Tabet
 [The building  that sees, hears, and speaks ]
The building is dark and gloomy, full of ghosts from the past. They wander around, in and out of apartments and rooms, and up and down the stairwell. Like people, the building can see and hear, and it can also speak: its eyes stare out of the windows and from the cracks in the walls; it listens through the downspouts of the rain gutters and from the bathroom windows that open onto the ventilation shaft; and it speaks … oh, how it speaks.

“Bitch!” “Bastard!” I could hear my uncle and his wife scream on the second floor, their endless disagreements, like an old broken record. Then came the sound of shattering glass and slamming doors, and the building shuddered like an old refrigerator.

I was always alone. Every day, I’d sit on the stairs outside, as if I were waiting. I waited for a bus to take me far away, but the bus never came. Once, I envisioned it falling from the sky, but it was just a tile that had fallen so close it brushed up against my scent before crashing to the ground and breaking. I recoiled like a loaded spring and looked up: there was no one up there, and the roof wasn’t even tiled. I would remember that later, when tiles rained down from the sky.
They were hitting each other. My uncle was up to his ears in debt, and his wife was expected to keep up appearances. But the wall cracked, the nail was dislodged, and the picture shattered … frame, glass, and all. Tiptoeing past her slumber-filled eyes, Uncle fled his wife, his creditors, and everyone he knew. He went to Cairo and died there.
That morning, you could hear a mother beating her children, and when she came out of the building, her purse in hand, I was still sitting on the stairs in front, waiting for the bus.

To top it all off — the children’s wailing and the mayhem — she spat on me.

[The bus that never comes]

It is green as green pastures, the doors don’t close, the windows are glassless, and the seats are made of Damask roses. Its passengers are all friends of mine: Dante, Stendhal, Yann Tiersen, Mourid Barghouti … oh, and it is full of cats, and birds too. Driverless, it runs on wheels made of music, and there is no conductor.
At every stop, they all disembark, spread out a rug, and sit around with glasses of wine and wedges of cheese, as well as garlic labaneh and seeded whole-wheat bread. They keep a trash bag close. The soldiers toss in their rifles and boots, the informer his eyes and ears, the bougie lady her high heels, the pupil his teacher, the opportunist his position, the prostitute her society, and the Almighty Leader his very self.
Only then do they all raise a toast to love and freedom. They bare themselves, detail their failings, their traumas, and their hang-ups, and become one copulating body in a grand orgy before scattering back to their separate selves, climbing hand in hand aboard the bus, and going on to the next stop.
But the bus never comes.

[The Ghost Room]

Oh, my, how that building spoke …
My widowed grandmother lived on the ground floor. She’d lost her husband before I was born, and had stayed on in the building even after all the other residents had left.
“I made friends with the imprint of their fingerprints on the wall plates and with their dust bunnies under the armchairs. If I leave, I won’t have anything left of them. Like this, at least their ghosts remain.”
“Here is where my first child fell and bled, and here, on top of this wardrobe, is where your father hid from his father after he’d broken the window and caught sight of the black belt in the furious fist bent on finding him.”
She would skirt around the corners and the pieces of furniture and tell stories. The second floor brought on a torrent of tears. “I will never see him again.” That’s what she said when he stole away to Cairo, and when he died there. Only one room at the far end of her apartment remained closed. She never spoke about it or let me go near it.
Sometimes, I managed to give her the slip and would go and glue myself to the keyhole. I could barely make out the sound of a labored and pained voice, but no words.
One day, when I couldn’t stand waiting for the bus anymore and my stomach was growling, I went to find her, but no one was on the ground floor. “Nana, Grandma,” I called, wondering where a barely ambulant old woman could go, and how she could have passed me — I’d been at the door of the building since morning.
The house was spotless, its floors and walls gleaming. No dirty fingerprints on the electric switch plates and no dust bunnies under the armchairs. Everything looked spanking new, as if it had been wrapped and the wrapping had just been taken off. And the door to the forbidden room lay open.
I approached, tiptoeing, and was startled by the darkness and the deep and wordless moans. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, my grandfather appeared, sitting by the bed like the arches of an ancient aqueduct, bent over double, his head propped in his hands, his fingers squeezing his eyes as he suppressed a feverish sob. On the bed lay a small, immobile, black figure: a charred and desiccated me.

With memories of mouse rooms, ghost rooms, as well as the dark under-the-stair closets and their accumulated terror, I darted out of the room, running from the apartment and out through the door of the building onto the street.

[A fleeting visit to what once was]

I ran out of the room, out of the apartment, out of the building door and onto the street, panting, my pulse pounding like the drums of war, throbbing through the veins of my hands, my ears, my temples, feeling as if I was going to explode. For a second, I pulled myself together and looked behind me — there I was all in black, standing at the door of the building. As soon as my eyes met my eyes, I ran behind myself, and almost fell. Night descended suddenly, and I slammed into a high wall.
“It’s the end of the road,” shouted a gravelly voice.
I turned around and found that I was face to face with myself. Adrenaline rushing, pupils fully dilated, I began to shake: silent as a stone, immobile as a wall overgrown with vines, features erased and tinted lemon yellow.
I was struggling to open my eyes, desperate to wake up, but it felt as if invisible fingers were holding them tightly shut. I managed to pull together every bit of strength I had left. I transformed it into a chisel and a hammer, which I banged so hard that my eyelids opened. Aaahhhh, I gasped, sucking all the air out of the room. I burst into tears and began sobbing.

I felt so sleepy. I was dead tired but didn’t want to go back to that room, on that street with the wall blocking it, to that other me, and the feeling that I couldn’t open my eyes. I was shaking like a leaf.

* * *

She heard children’s voices far away. She brushed away her tears and looked out of the window. There were four of them, coming out of their school overlooking the Qal’aa near the hawuz on Jabal al- Lweibdeh, wearing shorts made by capable mothers who passed them down from sibling to sibling. The sign read: “School of Islamic Sciences — founder Tayseer Dhibian.” This is now 1946.
The children trotted down the dirt road toward the Tash orchard, and when they reached the stone enclosure, they jumped the wall. They filled their empty little bellies with green almonds or figs — filling their pockets while they were at it as the day was still long. They crossed over to the other side of the orchard, leaped over the wall again and out onto an open space that overlooked Wadi Saqra, with Jabal Amman rising behind it. In the little clearing, they lined up their stones and split into two teams. She heard them crying out gird-ou-sharah. She didn’t know that game.
Once they were done playing, they sat on the edge of the bluff, looking into the distance at the Circassians’ ox-drawn carts making their way up the dirt road that traversed the orchards and wound around to Wadi al-Seer all the way from the city center. They got back up to play, standing on the rocks and boulders, rolling those they could dislodge from the top of the hill down into the bowl of the valley, uncovering a spider, snake, or lizard. Lizards had pride of place among the reptiles: painted on the palms of the children’s hands, their blood was a palliative to the teacher’s rod.
As the sun began its descent on the horizon, the children went looking for nature’s candy — the furqo’ they delighted in eating. By the time the sun had gone down behind the mountains, they had gathered mallow, dandelion, and hawkweed, wild greens they would have for dinner — their mothers’ injunctions would not be ignored.
When they got back to the hawuz, and before each boy went his way, the four of them turned toward her and waved goodbye as they melted into the gathering darkness.

She closed her window and peacefully dissolved into a deep sleep.

[When Tiles Rained Down from the Sky]

I was still sitting in front of the building door, stark naked and waiting for the bus, with nothing to toss into the trash bag before climbing aboard, when the sky darkened. The clouds were unlike any I had ever seen before: white and steely, so low you could see their particles, and it made you want to sneeze … their thunder an endless crashing of sheet metal.
It was only seconds before the first drop fell: a tile that shattered beside me on the ground. “But the roof isn’t tiled,” I thought to myself. Before I could finish the sentence, down came another, then a third, and a fourth … then a torrent of tiles, cut stone, window glass, and flying pieces of furniture.
I ran to get away from the downpour, crossed the street, and jumped onto the neighbors’ balcony. I looked across the way: lifting off the ground was a thick gray fog smothering everything.
As the cloud dispersed, a yellow monster with metal jaws and big elliptical rubber feet sat atop the building, or what was left of it.

He winked at me from the glass eye at the center of his small head, raucously belching out a plume of smoke. The sky was overcast again with the same kind of clouds I had just seen for the first time … and that same metallic crash of thunder.

[Downtown]

Welcome! Welcome to Abdali!
Gaping holes in the ground and narrow metal cranes rotating on their axes hoisting concrete slabs and stacks of breeze blocks and steel.
Welcome to what is slated to become Amman’s new downtown. Amman has no old downtown for it to have a new one. Amman used to have a city center. But now, in the era of big-box stores and packaged things, Amman is to acquire a downtown, possibly even a Centre Ville, like Beirut’s. The umbilical cord between them is the same: Solidère Beirut and Solidère Amman are one. The same Hariri silken glove destroying and “developing” in order to line the same pockets with billion-dollar profits — the difference only in whose pockets are being lined, and the cuts and contracts that ensue.
Welcome, welcome to Abdali!
All along the periphery of majestic Jabal al- Lweibdeh, bulldozers had set to work. The project was extended even before the land had been expropriated. It was all planned in advance, like an act of God, an inescapable stroke of fate.
Amman’s mischievous children used to roll boulders and rocks from Jabal al- Lweibdeh to the bottom of Wadi Saqra, dislodging the snakes, spiders, and lizards underneath (at a time now long gone). Whenever they found a new friend under one of the rocks, they squealed with delight, their little feet scurrying to chase after it.
Today, it is rocks and concrete slabs that hurl people down from the mountaintop — with memories, histories, and photos shattering in the plain below. And no sooner are the old houses brought down than everything below is pulverized by a colossal footstep, leaving in its wake a crater dozens of meters deep.
Welcome, welcome to Amman’s new downtown.
Behind the huge full-color banners ringing the area with images of a delusional future, there’s nothing but dust, excavation sites, and cranes — and workers trucked in from faraway places whose sweat is wrung dry with impunity.
A blistering sun beats down on the leveled land, now devoid of trees, of people, and of memories; enveloped in rays of gold, a lovely young woman runs, terrified and directionless, as though pursued. She stops suddenly. “The building was here,” she says, then starts running again. She stops once more. “No, it was here.” She runs and runs and runs. The building was here … no, here … or rather, here.
Soon, someone is pursuing her: a security detail in charge of guarding the project. What does she want, they ask, catching up with her. What is she looking for?
“For the bus stop where the bus never comes,” she replies, out of breath.
__
[First published in the Spring 2016 print issue of The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly]

Hisham Bustani is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. His fiction and poetry have been translated into several languages, with English-language translations appearing in journals including The Kenyon Review, The Poetry Review, World Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly among others. His fiction has been collected in many global anthologies. His book The Perception of Meaning won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. Hisham is the Arabic fiction editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common and was the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers in 2017.

Maia Tabet is an Arabic-English literary translator living in Washington DC. Her translations have been widely published in journals, literary reviews, and other specialized publications, including The Common, the Journal of Palestine Studies, Words Without Borders, and Portal 9, among others. She is the translator of: Sinan Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist: Elias Khoury’s White Masks and Little Mountain; and the co-translator, with Michael K. Scott, of the winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), Throwing Sparks by Abdo Khal.

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