Was it merely deception or something more?
The paths were so exhausting, and the days were so hard!
Wouldn’t it have been better to take the short-cuts?
Nothing is of any use now. All that matters is that he’s home at last, and his eyes have embraced the sea after an arduous journey of which he recollects little, and that took up two ages of his life.
Nothing has changed. Everything is just the way you left it when you were dragged from this world.
Knock on the door now. It’s all over. Knock!
At their first reunion, every barrier and limit melted away. The frozen time of separation melted. Yet the homeland, the dream, became a song burning with passion in head and heart.
She rested her eyes over his and collapsed to settle in his body. Inside her eyelids she drew him as an ideal beauty despite the stench of blood exuded by his briny limbs.
Open your eyes wide. Can you see her? Your wife, whose features you are now delineating so you can remember clearly. She sleeps like a wound lodged in your joints, which are branded with the scars of imprisonment. You loved her. You weren’t a romantic hero who won the hearts of the neighborhood beauties. Yet each of you settled in the bleeding of the other, a homeland rearranging its face. The first time you saw her, you were a sailor eking out a life in squalor, his only possessions hunger and dreams to fight for, and hoping against hope for a wife to warm his nights.
As he stood there thinking, the sea leapt before his eyes in its infinite grandeur. Discovering these aquamarine worlds for the first time, he placed his hand on the closed door on which he had still not dared to knock.
“What on Earth? Only an inch separates the sea from the prison cell, but it’s still so far off.”
Don’t you know? You’ve scaled your third decade, and now you’re afraid that the one who loved you when you smelled of hunger and the sea and who shared your dream won’t recognize you anymore. It’s been six years, long enough for entire dynasties to fall and rise. You’re coming back to her from exile in cold prison dungeons. Eternity is etched in your flickering eyes. How did you get out with your limbs still attached to your body? The torture was brutal. In the city, kids ran after you shouting. Streets, seedy cafes, and filthy alleyways pelted you with stones. You were written off as a madman, because your features were clothed in nakedness and fear.
“All your exacting questions remain unanswered.”
That time, you were Jean Valjean, buried alive in jail for the sake of a crust he’d stolen when starvation lay siege to the four quarters, and when death lay down with thousands of rebellious hungry mouths.
Wolves. Wolves. Wolves.
You remember them well. They were a night of black beetles. They led you away, drenched in sweat, like rabid beasts. Then your friends carried you, like a crack in the head and a mine ready to explode in the heart.
You knew very well that you would be led off to a place from which no visitor returned, because your body exuded the scent of the night, and they hated that sort of person. For the twentieth time you faced the sea in search of work, your eyes bathed in sadness. You accepted grudgingly in exchange for a few hungry Francs. Years later, a flood of warnings swept down on you because you had stepped out of the circle of silence, arming consciousness with an explosive device.
You were suspect.
You were a wanted man, accused of disturbing the peace of the city and distributing clandestine pamphlets.
The shackles bit into your wrists with a strange longing. Your little dreams from childhood were savaged by horses of fear and beetles of the night. The sinister police herded you onto a jeep that roved the narrow streets and quarters of that infested city. Your comrades of the sea saw you off in silence, the wound in their chests as deep as the heart.
They threw you into a dark dungeon and shrieked in your face. You’d become nothing but merchandise to be sold in the torture chambers.
“Wipe the blueness of the sea from your memory.”
“But the sea is the soul of my starving city.”
“You’re not from there anymore. You have no city.”
Defiance showed on your broad features; kicks rained down from every side and the whips engulfed you. Copious blood flowed from your limbs, murdered in broad daylight. You were no mythic hero and you tried in vain to wipe the colour of the sea from your eyes.
“Beware.” you thought, “Colours are part of you. If they’re erased, you’ll disappear with them.”
With a jolt, you remembered you were nothing but the colour blue.
Not far off, the train burst into a high-pitched shriek. He well knew that between a train coming and a train going were ages of struggle with death. The dream had emerged from his memory maimed and paralyzed. Against the contours of his face and his trembling body there formed a tragedy that recalled its every moment with its wails and groans. The whistle of the train and the shrieks of prisoners were superimposed into one, yielding a situation charged with death and destruction and moments of overwhelming terror.
When they flung you into the ring of interrogation and torture, the cold was a shaft lodged in your body. You held your tongue, maintaining a glacial silence despite the deafening screams. But they were too strong for you.
“Bid yourself farewell in this dungeon.”
One of them was in your face, his eyes those of a cat, and his face scarred from smallpox. Fear flickered in your eyes like a gazelle being pursued by an aged wolf.
They laughed among themselves when they put a bottle of wine under your nose.
“I only drink on special occasions and with friends,” you said.
One of them laughed, saying. “And we’re friends too.”
When with your vacant eyes you discovered that the bottle was empty, you understood the charade.
They made you, naked as a new-born mouse yet to open its eyes, sit down on the bottle.
In front of you a woman, a comrade, fainted, and went limp as a rag. She had clung in desperation to one of them, but he showed her no mercy. He pushed her down, sending her sprawling onto the freezing floor. Blood trickled out from between her parted thighs, forming surreal images. You, like a vanquished hero, turned your eyes away from her lacerated body and shut them tight. In vain you tried to erase the scene from your mind.
You swore, “Sons of bitches. They know the most painful and cruellest spots,” and were afraid they might have heard you.
One of them woke you up, his hand stained with her blood. “You’re all the same when the silence hollows you out,” he said. “Your friend is dead. Your woman comrade has fallen. You’re in so much pain, you’re about to scream. You know you’ll succumb soon, just like all the others. Talk, and before you know it, we’ll bring you back to life.”
A deceived black man, he devoured your limbs and more as maggots hatched in your hands and knives sprouted in your torn body.
Between an imminent death and a life now distant, you mumbled words that bounced back into your gut.
“Ah, if only I could meet him in a deserted forest …”
“And what would you do with him?”
“I‘d banish him from life forever. I’d kill him without the slightest remorse. A woman’s body is sacred. How could he take pleasure in lacerating and mutilating it? He must be sick and crushed inside.”
The whip cracked again on your hands. The knife carved a deep furrow in your chest.
“You‘ll die right here if we don’t get the list. Tell us, and you’ll be free of us.”
“What list are you talking about?”
“The one in your head.”
“There’s nothing in my head. Do I still have a head?”
Before you finished the sentence, the whip writhed like a serpent over your body. You hid you head between your hands and let it devour you slice by slice, relishing the pleasure of cutting you to pieces.
It was a black day when you received a telegram that said: “The streets uprooted themselves this morning, but the demonstration was routed and the sailors withdrew. The governor expects a repeat, so communiques were issued and different posters put up in the days that followed. Khabra was hanged at a public display. KS, Mohamed al-Himm, fell under torture because he wouldn’t talk. Little Larbi was caught at sea distributing clandestine pamphlets, so they shot him. Hussein Busafaia was found bloated one morning on the seashore with critical documents lying unread in his stomach.”
The comrades had kept the commandment.
The city took it upon itself to spread the news via dispatches and the radios planted along the sides of the road.
When you were in prison this was happening. The names of people who had shared with you the joy and terror of the sea had dropped off the list of those who had incurred wrath.
It’s said that when the demonstration erupted again, it was fiercer than the ones before.
Now you’re standing there like a soldier not brave enough to knock.
“Just knock, and you’ll see.”
Homesickness is killing you. The sea is just a hand’s breadth away. You can plunge into your dream through its wide-open gates. You can throw yourself in, bathe, and heal your bleeding scars with its salt. You can do anything without fear. Be quite convinced of that.
Ooof. Don’t be scared. Nobody’s watching. The eyes of the dogs who have been allowed to return to their distant cities will not follow you anymore.
Everything he saw seemed strange: the house hunkered by the sea that had spewed it out, its eroding roof and walls. The sea salt had eaten away at its wooden frame, which had begun gradually dissolving.
“From these shacks your son emerged consumptive from the damp. He embraced the verdant forest, carrying the same dispatches and orders that lie sleeping now in your brain.”
He ran his hands slowly over the door. It was as heavy as the grief of the one who had carved it.
A thousand and one times your heart told you to run away, and your nose broke against the rough metal of the door. How often did the blows rain down on your temple and the whip scourge your back? The guards threatened to kill you and make an example of you because you were an outlaw whose blood could be shed with impunity.
When they threw you in the dungeon, they confined you between four walls that oozed with damp. They made you clean clogged sewers and toilets and pick up cigarette butts despite the gaping wounds left on your back by the scourge’s gluttonous feasts.
“Dogs and sires of dogs, that’s all they are. Where did they come from? How did they rob the country and turn it into a secret arena for the daily taking of life? Where did they come from, and where were they before?”
All wishes are unacceptable.
You dozed off once and dreamed another dream the size of the buried moon. The night guard’s rifle came down on your head. He dragged you like a carcass and locked the door to your dungeon. You slept involuntarily under the impact of the vicious beating.
“To dream is forbidden… It’s forbidden to dream.” Those were the only words you heard before you fell.
Your clothes went stiff on your body. A six-year regime of attrition is no easy matter. During those years you dreamed yourself to exhaustion. Other things you faintly regretted.
The deserted streets of your city, which were your constant companion and upon which you spread your frigid nights, clearly recall your face’s sea-chiselled features.
He curled up inside his body like a frightened snail.
“You’re dissolving in your own blood now. In your guts howl the barrels of soapy water they forced you to drink so that you would confess the list in your head. Your dream that has fallen into the dustbin nestles among your open wounds. When the blood flowed from every part of you, you realized that before daybreak you would die in this filth.
“If you die, so what? Will the Earth start spinning in the opposite direction? A dog is better than you. The law will suffer no defeat after you, because it exists to protect those greater than you.”
He ran his hands over the wall again. The house had become old and decrepit, haunted by time, and furrowed by quotidian trials.
“Come on, be brave. Knock on the door. Knock! You won’t lose anything by it. Behind these boards eaten away by the sea’s blind woodworms lies your other face. Inside is a glorious culmination on a scale with these sufferings and this memory. Knock! Knock! you won’t lose anything.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
You don’t know how your hand fell so heavily on the door.
Suddenly, it seemed as if you were hearing a song of the sea coming from somewhere nearby. Your eyes slid towards the light that inhabits the sea. It seemed as if folk melodies were ringing out, sung by the blue people of the sea and the boats.
Then a great silence fell. He felt a deep sadness disfiguring what remained of his features. The first time had died, leaving behind a plague-stricken time.
“What? The big fat boss might have been itching, in this darkness, to add the last fishermen’s boats to his fleet and sell their labour on the market. Years ago, a fortune teller predicted: “When Jacques leaves, the boss will still be here.”
Departing never ends.
(You turned slightly. The dream seemed to expand and take on the shape of a new map shaped like the sea.)
The streets, departing with their shouts, were shut fast with split-open corpses in the press of the night. The hands of the fishermen interlocked in what can only be called a wonderous way to bring back the boats, the colour of the sea, and the beautiful songs.
Grandfather, who was swallowed up by the sea one night, used to repeat a wise old saying: “The river is the dream of the poor; the sea the dream of the stranger; and the night the memory of lovers.”
“You learned that by heart and repeated it as a unity because you combine exile, poverty, and the greatest love of life any person could have.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
You knocked again more urgently. The door opened ever so gently.
“Sir? Do you need something? Like you, we have nothing to give except a little warmth, if you’re cold from the rain and afraid of the thunder.”
On the doorstep, a worn-out woman was speaking, her days exhausted and decayed by the years. Between her wheat-coloured wrinkles dwelt ages resisting death. The glow of a candle and the jet-blackness of the night outlined her features.
“Her! She’s only changed a little.”
He alit on the surface of her eyes like an incandescent star that illumined all the dreams and cities of blue.
In vain you tried to wipe out your memory.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes. Behind the thick beard that had stolen the light of your face and beyond the many wrinkles, she saw you. She clasped you violently and curled into a ball to settle in your chest as a green tattoo. She collapsed onto your body as a sea and sails billowing in the wind.
At their second reunion, at a time when both of them hauled a train of weary years behind them, all the barriers and limits fell away. She rearranged his face, and he hers, both of them, forming in their eyes a sea and a map of the fugitive homeland.
“Departures will never end.”
“That was the first age. This is the second age. The beautiful age will come.”
Their sea eyelids widened in an effort to forget the years of loss and deception.
“Was it just a nightmare that resembled deception, or was it something more?”
Perhaps it was something else. They stole everything from you. The homeland; your life; your spouse; and your children who died in your absence. They stole your ability to love.
Now you have to relearn everything afresh. You have to teach your killer how to become human. You will tell him: “The war is over. You have to devote yourself to rebuilding a land that turned to ashes, and whose heirs made it a widow.”
Heirs? Beware of saying that word. You’ll be accused of being a Communist, an infidel, an atheist, a nationalist, of manipulating the faith, of treason … No matter. Say nothing, but just teach your killer to see you as a human being like him.
You heard her murmur: “You’ve come back, and that’s all that matters to me. We’ll mend ourselves over time.”
You shut your eyes, and she plunged into a vortex of bitter sobs whose source you couldn’t identify.
*[Written in 1977, this story was published in the collection, Asmak al-Barr al-Mutawahhish, [The Fish of the Savage Land], Dar al-Jamal, 2010.]