At the borderland between the desert and the plains, Emirate of Transjordan, early twentieth century
Two men sat near the round threshing floor in the western fields. Each with his rifle on his lap. “What a goddamn year,” Tafish said. He had a skull-like face. Small, sunken, deep-set eyes. Emaciated cheeks with protruding cheekbones. A broad forehead with dark blue veins at the sides. Skin like an aged tortoise. His hair and lower jaw were hidden behind a white keffiyeh, held in place by a black fleece cord around his head. His frame was tall, straight, lithe. He rubbed his nose with his hand, letting a low whistle out of his nostrils. By the time he lowered his hand, a pensive expression of disgust had formed on his face. Staring straight ahead, he spoke, as if to himself: “What a goddamn year.”
I sit on my old chair, scatter my multicolored toys around me, and start watching evening cartoons on TV. Cool Pancho shoots off through the streets in his car, feeling awesome. He’d bought the car back from the old lady living next door. Never mind that he’d paid too much, more than two thousand pounds. No problem. He slows down, speeds up, and finally stops at the green fields to go for a stroll. The episode ends, but I stay glued to the television, waiting for my truly favorite cartoon: The Adventures of Zaina the Bee. Zaina is a menacing creature; she has no other business but instigating pranks on her friend Nahhul. Nahhul, for his part, has no choice but to come crawling back to his bully-of-a-buddy every time.
Between France and Marrakech is a route upon which travels a single bus from Paris. The bus reaches its destination safely, as one might hope and expect. Then the passengers who so desire transfer to another bus, which takes them by an established road to Agadir.
Stand in front of the window of your kitchen refuge and prepare the following ingredients:
A welcoming, empty green glass.
A bottle of cold, fresh milk.
An orange and brown tin of Cadbury’s Cocoa.
The two large tablespoons locked in an embrace in the drawer (possibly because of your awful dishwashing skills), which have triggered your loneliness. Use them as they are; do not expend any emotion separating them.
His coffee lasts. It’s what he starts his mornings with, early, and then he drinks half a cup in the mid-afternoon. It keeps him company. Maybe the smell of it fresh is the reason he keeps sipping it, even after it’s gone cold. Or maybe he has other reasons. Maybe he feels a certain duty, a responsibility toward it. His coffee, poured into a paper cup, changes in color, shape, and size each day, depending on the kiosk he buys it from. The man and his coffee spend the whole day together, and then he leaves it on his desk or the first ledge he sees. He abandons it without a last sip, or even a word of farewell. He leaves the paper cup of coffee and returns to his world, trusting that another one will be waiting for him in another kiosk tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that.
We awoke one morning to news of a death. The person we had lost was the one we used to call the Village Idiot—that buffoon who used to make us laugh and cry at the same time, that leaping, dancing ball of energy who would hurl himself around, wild with enthusiasm, stomping on our toes and crashing into us as he went gesticulating by.
Scholars of Arabic literature were, for a time, obsessed with naming a “first” Arabic novel to stand at the head of an apparently new literary tradition. Was it M. H. Haykal’s 1914 Zaynab? Was it one of the many novels that were serialized in popular magazines that sprouted up in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon in the late 1800s and early 1900s? Or perhaps Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s peripatetic, language-glorifying Leg Over Leg (1855)? Never mind that al-Shidyaq mocked the obsessions of European writing.
In the dark depths of this pit, I try to touch the light seeping in through the cracks. My hands clasp nothing but dust, while the silence carries its nightly promise of my everlasting confinement.
On the very first night, one thousand years ago, or… wait, why do we always begin our stories with the first night? There is absolutely no difference between what happened in that distant time and what is happening now. The same columns of men march beneath the sun’s rays in the afternoon’s scorching heat, the same tear-soaked supplications and hymns: “O God, make his grave a green pasture in the gardens of Paradise—don’t cast him into a burning pit of hell.” “O God, grant him a better spouse than the one he has, a better home, and better children.” “O God, forgive his sins and those of your faithful worshippers.”