The Silence of Fire

By HAIDAR HAIDAR
Translated by JONATHAN WRIGHT


Damascus 1969

The war had ended the way it ended. The defeats and victories felt much like a dream dreamt in the depths of time.

The fighter finally came home from captivity, after the war had ended, with gray hair and two scars across the center of his face.

In the middle of their small sitting room, his wife stood upright like an immovable object. Her face overcast with traces of a somber past, she chattered away.

In the next room, the children were playing marbles. The echo of their excited voices sliced through the walls like a knife, with all the savagery of innocence.

The eldest child had the loudest voice, and from the street could be heard the rumble of buses and the muffled sound of human bustle.

It was late afternoon. The walls absorbed and retained the energy from the rays of the sun, and the room radiated heat like a scorching bathhouse.

Two years earlier, the walls in the prison camp had also been scorching. The prisoner’s loneliness within those deaf walls seemed as horrible as having your fingers cut off by being trapped in a door with a sharpened edge.

“Thank God you’re home safe. While you were away, they cried for ages, and now they’re happy you’re back. When you were gone, people here were crueller than the people who held you prisoner. Tell me, did you miss us?”

Then she said other things, some of them important and others unimportant.

On the first, second, and third nights, they embraced, smiled, bathed, and then made love. In the bathroom they wanted to have sex on the white tiled floor. On the fourth day, the noises came out of the walls again, from the wind and from everything present and past.

All the former prisoner wanted was a fragment from the circle of calm, stripped from the body of noisy time. He lay down to doze, trying to rid himself of the noise and the horror of imprisonment coursing through his nervous system. With his return, the silence had returned—the silence of the deaf face, the silence of the eyes, the silence of the throat, and his empty heart.

 

“Why don’t you speak?”

The questioning had started comfortably on the first night and then grew more humiliating and noisy on the nights that followed.

“Everything you heard about us is just lies,” the interrogator told him. “Your people lie, and the daily dose of balm eases what remains of their consciences—consciences that have been suppressed and will be suppressed again. Do you want to know the truth? Even the war was a big lie. They told you you would feed us to the fish within hours. Now you can see who was fed to the fish. Then they said we were fascists who lashed out without mercy and killed and raped. Of course you know war has its laws. Sometimes these laws can get broken accidentally. This has happened, and it happens everywhere. Let’s leave that aside. What do you think of the war?”

Calmly he focused his eyes on the face of the strong man, the victorious man who now held the keys to life and death. The interrogator’s face was sorrowful, malicious, full of pride. “I know what’s going through your mind,” he said, “but these are the laws of war. If you were in my place, would you be merciful? War is war.”

War and lies. Treachery and chitchat, then vengeance. The oneness of humanity in the world and in the wounded country, love and death, the human desire to say “Be” to things and have them be, then the collapse, and these walls that leak noises. The noise of the torturers and the tortured clashing and parting, rising and falling, coming through the walls and then settling in his head. All these heavy weights were getting inside his body and turning into mountains, to heights that rose and rose inside his ribcage. Inside his head, no bigger than a football, and at the bottom, under the foundations, ran a fire of silence.

 

Little by little, the woman started to speak louder to the man stretched out on the bed. The prisoner who asked for a moment of sleep that never came. He pleaded with the circle of calm to spare him a fragment. Instead the circle of noise fused and expanded, refusing to divide. It insisted on encircling him and whirling inside him like a storm that has chanced upon fields of burning straw. The space outside was murky with the sunset and with this tragic end to the war.

The voice continued monotonously and insistently: “When her man has been away for two years, any woman becomes a whore. The law and nature of the body says that, and nonetheless you may not believe me. They said that even you admitted it. They brought you women, I know that. And I also know that the body’s resistance has its limits.”

The cry of the eldest child pierced the wall: “Hey, hey, I won—give it to me, or else I’ll slaughter you.”

 

They were waving the blade of the pocketknife in front of his clouded eyes and shining a beam of dazzling light right into them. The hand that held the knife wasn’t shaking. It was held out, steady. Glinting, cutting toward the pupil. A contemptuous smile. A smile that took shape slowly between two lips. A smile rather like a mine with a detonator that’s been activated.

And on the edges. The edges of the knife, in the dazzling cone of light, specks of light started to flicker, jumping in front of his eyes in crazy repeated flashes.

There were two circles—the circle traced by the knife, and the circle cast by the cone of light. Both were pulsing with misery, loneliness, sadness, shame, and silence.

From the neighboring walls, sounds escaped. They were carried by fragments that had no color and no mass. They grew and grew. Then they exploded like thunder in his ear. Like the light in the middle of his deaf face, the knife sank into the pupil of his eye. It dug deeper and deeper, and was then twisted, and the world looked like a hot pink night.

 

In the bathroom, he played with his wife. He tickled her nipples and ran the palm of his hand and his fingers over her soft flesh, which was like the back of green sycamore leaves. Calm and warmth and safety. The whole circle had been wrenched free from the noisy body of time and had encircled him. Encircled him and overwhelmed him with the smell of wild sex. And like a mother holding him close on cold lonely nights, she comforted him. “You had a beautiful face.”

 

“Why don’t you talk? Then you can keep your beautiful face. Do you have a wife?”

Then he heard a tremulous voice that offered the hope of conciliation in dismal times.

“Don’t worry. It’s just an amusing game called the door game. One quick slam and the fingers are cut off. You know that the doors here are made of steel. They are made of steel to prevent escapes. Oh, what’s the use? Your friends are always thinking of escaping, but they forget the armed guards along the walls. In prison it might be better to lose one’s memory.”

The hand holding the pocket knife had pulled back now. The knife was lying there quietly on the table. It wasn’t glinting. But a purple line as thin as a hair ran slowly across the surface of the burnished blade, and in the emptiness of the room there reigned a silence more oppressive than all the time full of noise.

 

He lay on the bed, with the mirror in front of him, as his wife moved slowly around the sitting room, tidying and cleaning and moving things, chattering without stopping for a second. She could see him, and he could sense her. Together they could hear the children’s wild voices coming from the next rooms and then from the balcony, to where they had moved. The sound of their footsteps on the tiles and the sounds from the walls of his room blended with the noise of the buses and the people outside.

He could see himself in the mirror, and his wife and the children and the people and the noise and the cell and the people who tortured him. The walls were power lines that brought him things he wanted and things he didn’t want, heavy and oppressive, oppressive and heavy, like a woman’s pregnancy in her last month.

As she scraped pots and pans over the glass surface, the wife asked, “Did you think about us much there?”

She went on chattering, firstly about food and clothing and sickness and debts and the future. Like the voice of an interrogator, her voice came to him through the walls and the emptiness, and in the mirror, through a cloud of disgust, he caught sight of her dark, dusty face. The noise continued unbroken, like the croaking of frogs on the edge of a swamp, carried by the emptiness in fragments, devoid of any meaning, and in his eardrum the noises converged and suddenly exploded into a noise that had no limits.

Noise… noise… noise…

 

Under the glare of the light in the middle of the closed room, she started to strip. A perfect woman. Her body was the color of a mixture of ice and fire. She was stripping for him, and when she had finished she circled around him. A flashing body that spun and brushed him. Translucent threads that glinted like the glint of the knife; threads that turned and turned, wrapping around his neck and adding to his ardor more and more. Her body challenged him, upright like a spear in the innermost part of his desire.

“Don’t you have any desire?” She went up to him. She wrapped herself around him and caressed him. She stroked his face, his lips and neck, and buried her fingers in the hairs of his chest. “It’s a game. Let’s finish it quietly.” And she kissed him. “I came here from France. You must have heard or read interesting things about French women. Haha. Frenchmen say: ‘To love or not to love, that is the question / To love means to exist.’” And she laughed. “You have no desire, and you don’t speak. Don’t you laugh either? Did they tell you that laughing wasn’t allowed either?”

He looked at her cruelly. A mixture of hatred and desire crashed like a wave hitting the rocky shore of an island, an isolated island in the middle of a rough ocean with nothing on it but desolation.

He gritted his teeth on all the anger and sadness that were in him, and the desire and the blood of the country that was bleeding. The naked, victorious woman whispered: “This is better than losing an eye.”

And inside the woman, a fire broke out. The naked woman wrapped herself around him, pressed her body to his and held him tight. She offered him her hard breasts: “Didn’t you have a mother? See me as a wife or a mother—it makes no difference. Take, take.”

With the fire, he felt the rain. The rain was in the woman, under the skin, mixed with fire and noises and the knife. And in the heart of this mixture there was a body as bright as a blade, standing in the center of desire, in the center of happiness and sadness.

“They said of you that prostitutes seduced you and you confessed. They said that here, and they said: ‘Arabs are weak-willed when faced with women, and the enemy knows that.’”

 

The naked, victorious woman sat on the table and, before his eyes, started to swing her legs. From time to time she stretched them out, and under his stare shone a rod of ice inlaid with purple: “You refuse because you’re stubborn. Ha. You want them to say you’re an honorable man. Arabs are honorable, though death is closer to them than sex. Look at yourself. You prefer to lose an eye than take a woman in a secret room. Tell me, what are you trying to prove? That you’re pure? No one will believe that when you go back. Even your family and your friends will look at you suspiciously and warily. Hehe. Chastity, virginity, honor. Those threadbare phrases that mean so much to you. In our country, these words went out of use long ago, so you can see how far we have come along the edge of the circle, while you spin breathlessly like the Magi around the fires of those mythical relics. Look at yourself and how you ooze sadness and desire. Here, have this cigarette and maybe it will help you concentrate.”

 

Silence, heavy and oppressive. The room was deaf and isolated. The walls were gloomy and gave off torturous and distressing vibes. The room—this world in which hell is mixed with heaven. And every atom in your body is full of desire and says: If only the place wasn’t here. If only you were free somewhere else. If only the war had ended differently from the way it ended. If only the country was ecstatic with victory and banners of joy, and if only it was the victor who was bleeding to death. If only these noises would suddenly die away and you could breathe the wind of home, the rain of home, the soil of home. If only you had a sword in your hand and your tormentor was now under the sword. If only… if only… if only… but you’re here, and for more than a year the mouse has been in the trap. And you can taste the blood and shame of home in your mouth, and under your skin lies all the shattered history, emerging from the noise and the walls and the putrid smells, and those faces excited by victory.

And she said: “Come on, come on—what are you waiting for when everything in you has snapped? I feel the atoms of your body trembling. I can almost see them shaking. Release the torment and the stress. My body is your sea, your sun, your freedom. Don’t be so Arab. Let things take their course.”

The silky flesh brushed his face, stroked his skin. It tickled him. Fire broke out, and it poured with rain. His nose breathed in the smell of herbs rising from the depths of the earth and from the bloody sap of roots. The specks of the shiny cone that emerged from the knife blade moved, and there was a loud inner and extended groan.

A groaning with no echo. It started to penetrate, flowing into the atoms of the high walls and the ground that trembled and shook, and the waves became more and more stormy. And the groaning grew closer and closer and then picked up pace, then flew off high and noisy with all the savagery you’d expect when freedom is stabbed. So he pushed the leg far away from his face, and the naked, victorious woman turned over and rolled, and her naked body fell and hit the bare tiles.

The doors suddenly opened and then slammed shut, and they came in. They came in as excited as bulls rushing toward the bullring, and the pocketknife glinted under the bright light.

“You’re no use,” the woman said in a loud voice. “They’ve stolen your manhood. Look at yourself, lying there like a slouch.”

From the balcony, the noise grew louder and louder and louder.

The sound of the children was mixed with the roar of the street. The tiles shook under the children’s feet, and the body lying there trembled, and its atoms shivered as if subjected to an electric shock. The woman didn’t tire of chatting loudly about food, clothes, disease, debts, and the unknowable future. She was accusing him and finding fault with him, waving her arms in stupid gestures. And the light had gone out in her dark and overwhelmingly stupid face.

He could see the fire and the rain, and the knife flashed and glinted in the mirror, and there was no grass there. And smells blew in, the smells of horrible things burning and coming up from deep in the ground, from the bloody insides of the roots buried deep in the earth. And the woman said something offensive and malicious. And the eldest child burst into the room shouting wildly: “Dad… Dad… Dad…”

 

Noise… noise…

 

Then her voice grew louder as she repeated that offensive, malicious thing, and suddenly, as a compressed spring throws a rubber ball, the body lying there sprang into action. He opened the closet. There was fire in his lifeless eyes and in his head and in his ears and in his blood. He grabbed the rifle and opened the breach, then loaded it, put the barrel back in position and aimed it toward the source of the noise, the source of the offensive, malicious voice, toward the middle of her face, and pressed once and again and heard a death rattle and then the sound of a body falling on the bare white tiles.

Suddenly, as happens after a storm, everything in the world fell quiet, and over the plains of noise, a lengthy calm reigned, very lengthy.

 

[Purchase Issue 17 here.] 

 

Haidar Haidar was born in 1936 in the Syrian village of Hussein al-Baher, which lies on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. His first collection of short stories, Tales of the Migratory Seagull, was published in 1968. Many other works followed, including short stories, novels, articles, and biographies. Some of the bestknown are the short story collections The Flash and The Flood, and the novels The Desolate Timeand A Feast for the SeaweedHaidar has lived in many places, including Damascus, Algeria (where he worked as an Arabic teacher), Beirut (where he joined the Palestinian resistance organizations), and Cyprus (where he was in charge of the cultural department of the magazine al-Mawqif al-Arabi). Haidar went back to his village in 1985 and has stayed there ever since, devoting himself to writing.

Jonathan Wright studied Arabic, Turkish, and Islamic history at St. John’s College, Oxford University. Between 1980 and 2009 he worked for Reuters news agency, mainly in the Middle East. He began literary translation in 2008 and has since translated about a dozen novels, as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poetry. He won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation twice, for  The Bamboo Stalk by Kuwaiti writer Saud al-Sanoussi and  Azazeelby Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan, as well as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014 for his translation of  The Iraqi Christby Hassan Blasim. His latest literary translations include Jokes for the Gunmen, short stories by Mazen Maarouf, and  Frankenstein in Baghdadby Ahmed Saadawi, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.

 

The Silence of Fire

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