Lying suspended over a lake. She can see her entire self on the surface of the water. Every now and then circles appear and expand, distorting the image. At times she looks at her reflection with sadness, at times she chokes with bitterness and tries to escape, to turn over or stand in the air. But it’s no use, she is totally fixed—as if fastened with unseen ropes.
Thick fog passes underneath. When it shrouds the view below, she feels euphoric, she feels herself turn inside out, revealing attractive short hair and two ears with seven rings in each, revealing her perfectly feminine form. She is fragrant with the scent of lemon.
The fog clears, revealing a deep chasm beneath her. The invisible ropes break. Still lying flat, she falls with incredible acceleration to the bottom and shatters.
* * * *
Raising her head from the pillow, she examined herself. She was still herself, in one piece. The piece of cloth was thrown on the chair opposite her. Just a piece of cloth. It could be colored with the joy of children or solid like the banners of invading armies, but it was always as soft as the flow of water and as cutting as the blade of a knife—a blade that dives through the head and exits at the divergence of the thighs.
She rose from bed. As she threw the piece of cloth over her head, it wound around like a snake and almost strangled her as it encircled her neck. She looked at herself in the mirror and a tear fell from her left eye as the seven earrings disappeared and her short hair became invisible. “You are not me . . . ,” she said to her reflection, wondering if it was the image that was her true self.
“The appearance or the essence?”
She affirmed, “Appearance must express the essence, except among hypocrites. But they are many. . . .”
When she opened the door, they were all sitting around the breakfast table: father, mother, brothers, sisters, neighbors, relatives, the neighborhood, and the entire city. “They are many. . . .” she ground her teeth.
* * * *
The light above is a large circle made of different colors. Sometimes they shine like stars. Sometimes they are laid out like a Mondrian painting. Every now and then, heads appear. She knows these heads, she calls on them. “You stay down there, at the bottom,” her father’s voice says, as the sound of her mother’s suppressed wailing creeps into her ears. She turns her face.
She tries to climb up. She digs her nails into the surrounding walls in vain. As her fingers touch them, the walls turn to jelly—pushing and pulling becomes futile.
* * * *
[Argentinean Tango for One]
The empty space is a white cloth, and the body is a brush and paint. The right half begins to move. The arm on her right half gently circles around the back of the left half, the hand pressing lightly, asking her to respond. So the left half responds. The bandonéon music crescendos in the background, yet there is no one there but her (Her and Her).
Under the glare of flashing colored lights the two halves meld together, shoulders opposed and chests tight. Nothing moves except the hips and legs, rotating around the axis with calculated looseness. The legs swivel and intertwine like branches of neighboring trees, then quickly unravel.
The tango dancer enters from the wings, walking assuredly towards Her and Her. “Nobody dances the tango alone. It takes two.” He extends his hand to her. She stops. She turns towards him to put her palm in his, but her two halves don’t fuse, and she keeps tripping over herself.
He says, “Do you realize how similar we are? I have a mad passion for dance. When I hurl my body into the river of rhythm I am not carried by the current, I converse with the flowing water. Dancing is like sex. No, more beautiful. I climax over and over, releasing an energy that enthralls. It is a secret that can’t be understood, a Sufi experience that raises me above myself—but every time, the rope breaks. I travelled to the end of the earth, to Argentina itself, but never understood it. Does magic still hold you in thrall once it is understood? Maybe. Maybe it becomes more enthralling. . . .”
“Maybe not . . . ,” her left half says. “When they came to understand me, they switched my life around as simply as if they were turning an hourglass. My father said: ‘You will not study abroad. If you are like this here, how will you become when you go outside?’ Outside where? This fool doesn’t realize that even here I change from inside to outside every day. He doesn’t realize that the filth within him is performed thousands of times behind veils of false purity. Prostitution on Jean Genet’s balcony is more virtuous than all of these liars.”
“Do you realize how similar we are?” he says again as he bends forward. He arches her two halves over his arm awkwardly and pulls her up again. “I have a mad passion for dance. But you don’t know that when I went to tango school for the first time, I drowned up to my ears in cold sweat before getting out of the car. What if somebody saw me? I have my social standing, my respectable profession, a wide circle of acquaintances—and I dance? They wouldn’t understand. So I slithered with the skillfulness of a lizard to the third floor. And there, I chose the only room with a wooden door to take private classes; the other rooms have glass doors. Six months passed until I summoned the courage to participate in a group class. And here I am today, throwing off my capes and masks for one night a week. I materialize here and dance until I am dizzy. Before sunrise, I put on my capes and masks, and outside I evaporate once again.”
When he turns to sweep his leg around hers, he trips. This is strange, for he—the dancer searching for a secret—is not a beginner, nor is he a fake. He holds the keys to a body that has the will to shape empty space. So why did he trip? The Maestro’s voice resounded: “I want to see one body with four legs.”
When he holds her hand and gently pushes her backwards, he is surprised that the distance between them does not stop growing. To his amazement it grows to the side and back. From the corner of his eye, he can see his other half calmly moving away with her half. “How similar we are.”
The music crescendos, while four halves dance feverishly.
* * * *
He said, “You are grey. Or, let us say, you live in grey areas. You are afraid to go up or down. You are afraid of confrontation. You spin in the middle, slowly disintegrating. Grey in your attitude: living in two worlds, a veiled one with your parents and an uncovered one with everyone else. Grey in love: never close enough for me to kiss you, never far enough for me to forget you. Grey in your education: you didn’t like your university major, so you finished it with the dreariness of a government bureaucrat. Grey at work: you toil away just to get paid, not to produce or contribute or for enjoyment. You are as dizzy as a dancer spinning swiftly around her axis without fixing her eyes on a single point. You are making me dizzy!”
Duaa’ put down the glass of orange juice, straightened herself in the chair, and looked at him. “Everything in due time,” she smiled. “It isn’t appropriate to hurry things. When the time is right, I’ll revolt. I’ll throw that rag in their faces and live my desires. It’s more complicated than taking a decision and walking away. The problem is not society’s harshness towards me. My soft skin that you always look at with lust—I see you when you do it!”—she winked— “turns into crocodile skin with sharp teeth. The problem is I don’t want my family to suffer from that harshness.”
“You know . . .”—she looked him straight in the eye, and a tear fell from her eye—“yesterday I was talking to my mother about my dreams, and she suddenly said, ‘I hope I die before I see the catastrophes you’ll bring upon us.’ Can you imagine? My dreams are catastrophes, and my mother chokes on me. I almost suffocate her . . .” and she choked on her words.
He placed his hand on hers. “History does not move forward by getting entangled in the past,” he said, “and the time will never be right on its own, we need to transform it to become right. Your revolt won’t be necessary when the time is right, because it will have already become right. Or the time will never be right, since it will never find those to transform it. You should chase your dreams and realize them instead of chasing society’s shadows and the imagination of your parents.”
“All I have left is one dream: to move abroad. . . .”
* * * *
[Grey Girl Chasing Shadows]
He sits on the stone wall of the balcony, orange streetlights behind him.
His shadow is reflected on the wall opposite. Holding his glowing cigarette, he smokes interruptedly and thinks of her.
She sits opposite him on the chair. She doesn’t speak. Her seven earrings flash in the dark, and she looks at him.
He moves the hand holding the cigarette in the air: its shadow advances slowly along the wall, then climbs her body. The shadow of the cigarette is on her face, its ashen-grey tip near her eye.
A poet said: “Shadows are not masculine or feminine / they are grey, even when set on fire.”
The shadow of the cigarette tip suddenly glows into a red ember. She cries out, covering the right half of her face, her eye burning.
* * * *
Right half: “Calm down and listen to me. We clashed with our father and our mother, were split into two, and that damn devil burned my eye. We can’t go on like this. If you can’t beat them, join them. Defiance doesn’t work. What will we benefit? We’ll trouble our heads and break their hearts. They’re our family, they love us very much, and we have no one else. A piece of cloth wrapped around our head, and we’re done with it.”
Left half: “I have myself, my mind, and my convictions. I want to mold the world and be molded by it. Am I here so someone else can write my story? So another mind can invade me? So mindlessness can invade me? What defeat. . . .”
Right half: “So let’s move abroad. I know they didn’t let us study abroad, but we’ll find a guy, a husband, one of those men who come home from abroad to get married and go back where they came from. We’ll marry him. He’ll be our escape plan.”
Left half: “Jump out of the frying pan and into the fire? From one patriarch to his replica? How will I know his prison is less cruel?”
Right half: “Ohh . . . we have to get out of this ditch at any price. You are killing us.”
Left half: “No, it’s you who’s killing me. And if I die, you won’t live.”
* * * *
Lying suspended over a deep chasm. She sees her two halves fighting below. At times she looks at them with sadness, and at times she chokes with bitterness and tries to escape, to turn over or stand in the air. But it’s no use. She is totally fixed—as if fastened with unseen ropes.
Translated from the Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes
Hisham Bustani was born in Amman, Jordan, and has four published collections of short fiction. Renowned for his contemporary themes, style, and language, he has been described as “bringing a new wave of surrealism to [Arabic] literary culture, which missed the surrealist revolution of the last century.” Bustani’s work has been translated into five languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. He was named one of the top six contemporary writers from Jordan by the UK-based webzine The Culture Trip. His third collection, The Perception of Meaning, was awarded the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award.
Listen to Hisham Bustani and Jamie Edgecombe read and discuss “Freefall in a Shattered Mirror” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.