That’s what my mother calls from where she sits on her low stool, which seems to long for the earth of my father’s grave, when she sees me kick an onion between two of the legs supporting the large earthen water jar. My vegeta-ball bounces off one leg and lands in the smoke pit, crying hot tears from the wound she sustained when she struck the sharp leg.
The smoke pit is under my grandmother’s wooden bed, so I bend down to retrieve my vegeta-ball, but when I see that the ground under her bed is wet with water dripping from the jug, I immediately forget what I was looking for. I love mud, and so donkeys, sheep, lions, elephants, and chickens emerge from the mud thanks to my fingertips, and then I take my new flock to graze in the courtyard, where they all eat grass, and even the lion’s stomach is fine with it. The two pebbles I use for his sad and happy eyes are like lovely girls’ eyes in my country. The elephant is smaller than the goat; it wasn’t born, doesn’t reproduce, and won’t die, just like the goat, and like me, I think, and the matches make for straight tusks. My mother is looking at me with a lot of love, not because I’m little and without a father, but because I’m ugly and skinny and poor, and my mother thinks this trinity will crucify me on sturdy beams before the age of thirty. But she doesn’t notice that the lion I’ve made is like an officer in plainclothes, that its mouth looks as meek as the beak of a bird, as if Christ has come down into my fingertips, then out through my hands. “Don’t worry about him,ˮ my grandmother tells my mother. “He’s been watching water drip from the jug for four hours, perfectly happy.”
He spotted her slender body, whipped by the hot air, on the verge of being flattened by the wheels of the racing cars. Without hesitation, hedecided to save her. He glanced around, then rushed to launchhimself deftly into the air, while behind him fluttered the hems of his tattered rags and the rope he had cinched around his waist in place of a belt to hold the threadbare rags against his thin, feeble body. For an instant everything was still; for a moment his mind went numb.Then bodies leaned, necks elongated, eyes widened, breaths quickened, and a panicked cry of warning escaped: “Hey, watch out!”
The entire scene instantly transformed into a boisterous one-man show, a masterful performance. He just managed to reach out and grab the edge of the empty cardboard box before roughly colliding with the asphalt. He looked around for an instant, then lightly stood, clutching the box, astonishing bystanders andcausing drivers to gasp and swerve to avoid running him over.
Amid the chaos, shouting, laughter, and exclamations of “Thank God!,” some people were awestruck by how terribly wrong things could have gone in that astounding moment. Meanwhile, mouths began to quickly—and freely—recount what had just occurred, adding some details, analysis, and a few imaginative embellishments to the life of the former high school teacher, who had ended up the skinniest and dustiest man with the most protruding ribs, absentmindedly wanderingthe open-air museum of Omdurman’s city streets.
Every Friday morning, all the residents in the simmering neighborhood of Wilat in this drab African city waited for the General to appear, to officially open the narrow street that passed between their houses. They had paid for the street’s construction themselves. And they could have used the road without any fuss, but neighborhood authorities had informed them, six months earlier, that His Eminence would be arriving to open the street himself. These authorities, and several other authorities, had ordered the residents to line up in the early morning on the first Friday of the month, but the General did not arrive, and so they repeated this scene on Fridays for months, in hopes of greeting him. Then an order was issued that forbade residents from driving their cars on the new street before it was officially opened. The residents kept lining up as usual for this tiresome wait, whispering and murmuring, but the opening did not happen. Many cursed the day on which the idea arose to build this now-postponed street, and after a long wait, they eventually dispersed in time for prayers, without having been cheered by the sight of His Eminence cutting the ribbon. That act was expected to last only seconds, at which point the neglected street would become well-known, and the media would add the street to a list of the government’s accomplishments. Really, any local official could do the job.
Your father died. We buried him yesterday in the new cemetery by the cliff. The priest spoke about him in Amharic and the imam spoke in Arabic and then we all prayed, each in our own language and religion. And in the evening Debrezeyt thronged with your father’s gypsy friends. They sang and danced until morning broke over them.
How can I console you when you’re so far away? But nor do I wish you to come home. Everything has changed. Debrezeyt is not as you left it. So much has happened, and in no time at all. The town exploded, became so crowded you cannot breathe, and we are no longer able to walk here in safety.
On every corner there’s a tourist grinning like an idiot and taking photographs of our lives, like our lives are something remarkable. The town’s lost the soul we loved.
In the not-so-early morning, the beach enjoyed a calm troubled only by the swishing of the waves and the murmur of the sea against a rocky spit that extended into the water. At the foot of the white bakery, the waves broke in a monotonous sequence. The Nile Valley café, next to the bakery, shared in the morning calm—Abdul Farraj was snoozing lazily, and the waiter was having a temporary rest from his labors. Everything was calm. The sun crept slowly up the sky and poured light onto the surface of the sea and the roofs of the wooden houses, while a kite squawked on the minaret of the Askala mosque. On the western side of the horizon, the mountains lay in their blue calm, and between the sea and the mountains lay the city.
It was early in the night, and the village was shrouded in darkness. The uneasy calm heightened the darkness, and he could hear the throbbing of the water pumps all the more clearly as they drew up the Nile water in concert with the moon, which kept out of sight on the grounds that the weather was poor. In this gloomy weather, which presaged an imminent storm, Humayda was battling the laws of nature all on his own.
He shook the reins and raised his whip to bring it down on his donkey’s back whenever he felt it wasn’t pulling the cart hard enough. The poor donkey looked as if it was pondering how it could ever pull the damned cart and where it would have to pull it to. Being away from home so long, beyond its usual working hours, also made the donkey somewhat confused. It began to twist and turn on itself. Its back leg held its body firm, like a stake stuck in the ground, while the donkey raised one front leg, anticipating digging it into the path to move forward.
The oldest boys in the neighborhood—“bullies,” as our Egyptian neighbors would say—chased that boy… chased me.
I’d long been obsessed with watching Egyptian TV shows and films, sneaking into the cinema to see them because in our house it was forbidden… “forbidden, boy, to go there.ˮ According to my mother, grandmother, and the other women in the neighborhood, screens are the devil’s handiwork: they corrupt good boys and girls. Of course, they’re poor women, without an ounce of luck.
Nothing parallels the effect left by the nightmarish atmospheres in the writings of Haidar Haidar. His novels and stories drill deep into our illusory serenity: a serenity we often use to trick ourselves into continuing our lives even when surrounded by death, destruction and injustice. Despite changing times, Haidar has not been defeated by censorship—either imposed by others or himself. He has kept a fierce, critical distance from all sides: the dictatorship of the ruling regime in his country of Syria; the dictatorship of public taste and “conventions”; the oppression of dogmatic ideology and the ruling party; the tyranny of power derived from religion. The literary “School of Haidar Haidar” is not dystopian but one that considers our reality to be far more miserable than any dystopia. Art is realized through the transformation of this reality from inside out, and by directly confronting decay with creative and avant-garde writing forms.
Haidar Haidar was born in the village of Hussein al-Baher on the Syrian coast. He taught Arabic in Annaba, Algeria, then settled in Beirut where he worked in publishing. At the start of the Lebanese civil war he joined the Palestinian resistance movement—when the resistance left Beirut in 1982, he moved to Cyprus to work as a Culture Editor of Al Mawqef al-Arabi (The Arab Stance) and Sawt al Bilad (The Voice of the Homeland). In 1985, Haidar Haidar returned to his hometown, and has remained there since. He has written seventeen books of fiction, short fiction, essay, and biography. His short story “The Silence of Fire” appears in Issue 17 of The Common.
Hisham Bustani, Arabic Fiction Editor of The Common, spoke with Haidar this year about nightmare visions, Palestinian resistance, the migrations that have carried Haidar “through deserts, cities and seas” back to childhood, and “boldness… always boldness.” This interview is translated from the Arabic by Raed Rafei.
I Am the Fire Starter: an Interview with Haidar Haidar
The uniformed conscript led the way, bearing aloft, on a small pink velvet cushion, a shabby-looking woman’s shoe. The leather was faded, stretched, and torn. Part of the sole had come off, and the heel had been roughly hammered back on with protruding nails. None of the repairs that had obviously been carried out in an attempt to restore the shoe’s former glory had succeeded. Behind the conscript came the cavalry, weaving their way through the houses of the city, searching for a woman’s foot to fit the shoe.
Once I’d been stripped and forced to stand naked before the gaze of the military medical examination board, for the purposes of identifying any defects that might prevent me receiving the honor of being conscripted, the examiner seated on the right-hand end of the bench rose, approached me, and circled me three times, inspecting every inch of the body before him, then turned back to his fellow board members and, stroking my ear with a disconcerting delicacy, said, “Sound. Big ears.”