A Season of Stories – Michigan Quarterly Review

A Season of Stories

This is the season of seeking friends’ faces, retrieving memories, and exchanging kind words, in places drenched in light and joy. It’s the season to celebrate people in train stations enacting scenes of meeting and departure, and to acknowledge our feelings of estrangement at home and away. It’s the season to celebrate the glow of slick sidewalks after rain, the emptiness of deserted roads on winter nights, and the sense of solitude.

Yes, this is the season . . .

When the coffee shop closes its doors, and all the customers leave in small groups, darting like sparks through the wretched winter rain seeking the nearest warm sitting room, you have nothing to do but to return to room 211, your nook dangling above the earth, on the top floor of the little hotel. There you’ll gloss over your bundle of papers, reread your friends’ letters, and gaze again at their photos, dedicated to you. Your thoughts will drift like cumulous clouds until you find yourself standing by the window overlooking the lifeless street, and gazing at the little streams of rain on the glass. There are thousands of words pulsing in your chest, straining you, and you wish there were someone to talk to. Suddenly, a shiver pierces you and you feel it sifting through your body. Only then will the stories begin a season of stories.

The First Story Says . . .

There was a creature who lived in a hotel in the impetuous city of Benghazi, and his room had only a typewriter, a stack of typing paper, an ashtray, and some old furniture. He was silent most of the time, but when the night stretched to the point that he wished to talk to someone, the metallic sounds of the typewriter would begin to resound from his room, tearing the night and the dreams of the occupants in adjacent rooms.

These other occupants began to complain because they wanted to dream uninterrupted. Our writer, however, persisted in telling his tales to his typewriter, convinced that the jingle and plot of his words would somehow harmonize with the rhythm of the sleepers around him. In the end, he had to leave his room. The complaints continued and he moved from one room to another in the hotel. Nothing changed in his behavior, but he did discover an important truth: All rooms everywhere are the same, whether in hotels or in relatives’ or friends’ homes, even the rooms in abandoned houses in the countryside that one sees while on a trip. All rooms are the same.

The only thing that changes is people.

When you open your eyes in the morning in a new room, you feel a sudden sense of confusion. You try hard to remember where you slept the night before, to see if you recognize the walls, the furniture, and the location of the window and the door. Then you realize you’ve slept in yet another room or another house, and not in your usual place.

At this point, our creature, the writer, no longer had this recurring feeling, no longer felt confused when he woke up, because he realized that the roof is one, that the earth is one, and that only man imposes differences between rooms, houses, and cities, and between human beings.

The Second Story Says . . .

When the old man was sailing across the ocean, trying unsuccessfully to catch a fish in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, he felt a sharp feeling of loneliness. The author writes:

He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.

When your heart swells, you can embrace everything, and everything begins to pluck at certain emotions inside you. Everything. Trees, birds, houses, dirt, the moon, mosques, toys, old coins, books, train stations, and coffee shops. And especially people!

The Third Story Says . . .

There was a woman who sold merguez sausages during World War II. Her one and only son had been conscripted and went to the front. Then as the war dragged on she heard no more news of him. No one knew whether he was killed, or went missing, or if he fled the army.

In the first years of the war, this mother used to buy meat to make merguez and sell it on the street, hoping the war would end soon as she patiently waited for her son’s return. But the war went on and on and people began to have a hard time finding something to eat. All staples became scarce, especially meat, and our old merguez maker could not earn a living anymore. Desperate, she started hunting dogs to make sausages out of their meat.

Her treachery worked. And despite her feelings of sadness and loss, her good intentions, and her hatred of the war, she got on. All she wanted was her son to return. One day as our old woman worked, she felt a sudden shock, a bewilderment that felt like death coursing through her. She had opened the intestines of one of the dogs, and there she found the ring she had given her son on his birthday shortly before the war. It was there before her eyes, in the dog’s innards.

The same story says: Do not deceive anyone, not even dogs. But our mother realized this too late.

The Fourth Story Says . . .

Everyone knows Al-Rayyes, that disheveled man often seen roving the city streets. What people don’t know is that he was once a pious man, devout to the extreme. He used to memorize numerous hadiths and prayers and joined with others in reciting the poems of Baghdadi on the Feast of the Prophet’s Birthday. His mother was an old usurer and one year he decided to take her to the Hajj to wash away her sins with the waters of Zamzam. But the old woman died under the blazing sun while she performed the ritual stoning of the devil.

The sun was hanging low, naked and burning as if suspended above people’s heads. No one would dare look up to even glimpse at it.

That’s how the beginning of the story went, but what happened later was truly strange and unexpected. Al-Rayyes returned alone to Benghazi from the Hajj. He began to drink heavily, and soon after could be seen roving and stumbling through the city streets.

The Fifth Story Says . . .

Most people only know Maradah simply as an oasis in the south. Some call it a village, others imagine it a bag of sand flung on the vast desert. But everyone agrees that Maradah was a place of exile during Italian colonialism.

There was a man named Muhammad who hailed from Maradah. He was born and raised there but was forced during Italian rule to leave his hometown to seek his livelihood in Benghazi. He was engaged in several jobs, the last one as a waiter at a coffee shop. By all appearances, Muhammad led a good life in Benghazi, despite the restless wrinkles lining his forehead. Then one day, he and some of his comrades were accused of supporting the mujahideen and of trying to provide them with supplies.

He was expelled with his group and sent to live in exile in Maradah. On the way there, his companions were full of anxiety and dread. One of them fell silent and did not utter a single word throughout the journey. Muhammad did not feel any of these trepidations.

He was returning to his hometown.

The rest of the story says that in many cases exile can become a homeland, and the opposite is true as well.

The Sixth Story Says . . .

There was a man from the city of Imsa’ed who used to cross the border to the Egyptian city of Sallum every day, and every time he carried with him a bag full of sand. The border guard searched through the sandbag, grain by grain, to make sure there was no smuggling at all, as his orders dictated. But the guard was always disappointed. He never found anything in the bag of sand and had to let the bicycle man cross the border.

Now, this crossing occurred many, many times, with the same traveler and the same border guard. Several years after the guard had left the border service, he met the bicycle man in the city of Benghazi. After greeting the traveler gently, the guard said to him: “I know that you were smuggling something while crossing to Sallum in those days. As you know, despite my repeated searches through the sandbags you brought with you on the bike, I never found anything. So do tell me, now that it’s all in the past, what were you smuggling?”

The man simply said, “I was smuggling bicycles.”

The Seventh Story Says . . .

Sometimes I have marvelous dreams, of a strange world full of moons, eyes, wings, speeding cars, laughter, and weeping. I sometimes see a world of vast dimensions, wider than the universe itself, crowded with startling things. I experience these visions in sleep and in waking, and I’m often perplexed by them.

Last night, in a passing dream, I saw the murdered Suhrawardi, for I’d just read his treatise, The Sound of Gabriel’s Wings, a few days earlier. He was wrapped up in a luxurious cape, brilliant white. He was glowing and seemed like a divine spirit woven of lightning rays, suspended directly over my head like a giant seagull. I felt a sudden sense of awe and fear, but he looked at me with exquisite tenderness. I hesitated for a few seconds, then asked him: “What did you mean in your book when you wrote, ‘The land that has nowhere in it, so much so that your index finger can never point to it?”

He was glowing and seemed like a divine spirit woven of lightning rays, suspended directly over my head like a giant seagull. I felt a sudden sense of awe and fear, but he looked at me with exquisite tenderness. I hesitated for a few seconds, then asked him: “What did you mean in your book when you wrote, ‘The land that has nowhere in it, so much so that your index finger can never point to it?”

He did not answer, but closed his eyes as if he’d become comatose, then recited this holy verse from the Quran, “And Lot believed him, then Abraham said I will migrate toward my Lord.”

Suhrawardi suddenly disappeared. A divine spirit made of sparkling threads of lightning.

He left me alone, and I can’t remember exactly whether I saw this vision in a dream or while awake.

The Eighth Story Says . . .

One day I was barred from entering Germany.

This was after the events in Munich. I was coming from Italy through Switzerland when they made me leave the train at dawn. The cold bored through my skin to my bones; I thought I would die there and then. There was no way to go back where I’d come from as I had no visa to return to Italy. The German policemen’s eyes were like the eyes of dead fish, and while I was shuddering from the cold, one of them advised me to go to hell. At first, I resolved to go nowhere and to stay instead on the outskirts of Basil in the area called “No Man’s Land,” which was not in Germany or Switzerland but somewhere in the middle, an area no one claimed. The only choice I had was to walk for a long while to reach the Basil Central Station to take a train to France.

After a while, I did walk, and walk and walk, until fatigue caught up with me. I slumped exhausted on the grassy dirt. The first flickers of dawn began to blaze up, and soon the rays of the sun began to pour, drenching me with warmth, opening my eyes with alertness. I saw the lay of the land around me, the light, and the sky, its sharp clarity, and immense depth.

I was filled with a sense of comfort and relief.

I was not in Switzerland now, or Germany, or in anyone’s homeland. Not in my home either. I felt a thrilling sense of emancipation, a feeling of joy and euphoria. But afterward, thoughts began to swirl within me, and I felt an immense sadness rising inside my chest.

I was alone with no one to hear my story.

The Ninth Story Says . . .

When I was young I used to pass the time hunting birds and looking for bait in dump sites and in the buildings destroyed during the war. All I owned was a handful of traps, but I always went back home with a hat filled with dead birds in my hands.

I was young, but I was killing time, and killing birds and bait. I managed to improve my traps so that the birds were not harmed when caught in my funnel and mesh traps. I started to make sure that the birds didn’t die after I heard that Si Slaiman, owner of the grocery store on our street, paid two pennies for each bird, on the condition that the birds were unharmed and could still fly.

I heard many things about Si Slaiman, but I didn’t believe any of it. One day, when I brought him a few birds, he gave me the money and released them right there and then, letting them soar into God’s sky before my incredulous eyes.

The same thing happened every time I brought him birds. In the beginning, I thought he was a fool and an imbecile, and repeated the thought to myself many times, for I felt a sense of embarrassing defeat every time I saw my birds taking off from his store toward the sky above our street.

Si Slaiman used to make me feel disgraced, and as I grew older this feeling grew with me. But when I stood by his dead body after he was run over by a speeding driver two days ago, I remembered everything, and suddenly this shameful feeling became love, an overwhelming sense of love and gratitude.

The Tenth Story Says . . .

One time I kept an amulet for love.

I had bought it from a faqih, Si Abdul-Rasul, who was called “the long hand” for his ability to change people’s fortunes. I drenched the amulet with orange blossom water and soaked it in clouds of burning incense. I put it in the left pocket of my coat, close to my heart, and went to see the one I loved.

On the way there, I comforted myself with the image of embracing my beloved, checking every now and then that the amulet was pressed tight against my accelerating heartbeat. I was soon shocked when I was told that she was worth her weight in gold, whereas I was a mere rat who fed on shorn hair and rotting paper.

Then one day, as I was looking for a room to rent, I discovered that Si Abdul- Rasul, the faqih, had married my beloved. He bought her with money from his amulets—with my money—and added her to his three other wives.

I disavowed amulets.

I began to seek love in the eyes of children, and ants boring through walls, and grasses wet with dew at dawn, and the sensation of the earth’s breathing under my feet, and the sky, and scattered light, a mother’s kindness, the purring of warm cats, the migration of birds, the yawning of children in winter, and the tumble of rivers toward the sea.

I continued my seeking and roving until I felt nauseated with fatigue. In the end, I was told that for someone to love, he must die, must die in love. I mean like this, in the way of butterflies, and rivers, and Halaj.

The Eleventh Story Says . . .

And the road is long . . .

The Twelfth Story Says . . .

Halaj, who wanted to annihilate himself in God, found in Sufism a means for revolution to achieve social justice. This led the authorities to whip him, crucify him, sever his limbs, kill him, burn his body, and toss his ashes from the tallest minaret in Baghdad. This was in the Hijri year of 309, or exactly on the 26th of March, 933 AD.

The poet Abdul-Wahab al-Bayati wrote in the voice of Halaj:

In the years of impotence and starvation
He blessed me, embraced me, spoke to me
And stretched his arms to me.
He said, the poor have placed their crown on you
And the road robbers
And the lepers, the blind, and the slaves.
Then He said to me, “Beware, Beware!”
and closed all the windows shut.

Therefore, there isn’t anyone who has no use for God, or the sun, or revolution. Isn’t that so?

The Thirteenth Story Says . . .

First Rhythm

When you speak to yourself out loud, people will tell you’re crazy. And I, in truth, am speaking all through the night in a very loud voice. I mean that each letter of each of my words coming through the typewriter is causing a ruckus. And even though I’m here alone and my words are loud, the residents of the hotel do not say I’m mad. They only say that I am annoying.

Second Rhythm

When we see someone’s face in the mirror, doubtlessly he must also see us as well. I try to see people, all people, in my heart’s mirror, yes, there. But I don’t know if they want to see me, I mean, if they want to see a creature like me who feels indebted to the whole world for his life.

Third Rhythm

I always imagined that when you see someone in your dream, he also sees you in his dream on the same night. I’ve thought about this a great deal, and imagined it for a long time. But if this were true, then my image would be found nestled in everyone’s dream.

The Fourteenth Story Says . . .

The great poet Pablo Neruda died in the recent events in Chile. It’s said that his memoirs have been passed down to the world through his friend, the poet Rafael Alberti. I want to stop chattering and listen, alongside you, to what Neruda says: In Lake Budi, swans were brutally hunted. They were stalked quietly in boats and then, rowing faster, faster . . . Swans, like the albatross, take to the air clumsily, they have to make a run, skimming the water. They lift their huge wings heavily, and so were easily caught, finished off with sticks.

Someone brought me a swan that was half dead. It was one of those magnificent birds I have not seen again anywhere in the world, a black neck swan. A snowy vessel with its slender neck looking as if squeezed into a black silk stocking, its beak an orange color and its eyes red.

This happened at the seaside, in Puerto Saavedra, Imperial del Sur.

It was almost dead when they gave it to me. I bathed its wounds and stuffed bits of bread and fish down its throat. It threw up everything. But it recovered from its injuries gradually and began to realize that I was its friend. And I began to realize that homesickness was killing it. So I went down the streets to the river, with the heavy bird in my arms. It swam a little way, close by. I wanted it to fish and showed it the pebbles on the bottom, the sand the silverfish of the south went gliding over. But its sad eyes wandered off into the distance.

I carried it to the river and back to my house every day for more than twenty days. The swan was almost as tall as I. One afternoon it seemed dreamier; it swam near me but wasn’t entertained by my ruses for trying to teach it how to fish again. It was very still and I picked it up in my arms to take it home. But when I held it up to my breast, I felt a ribbon unrolling, and something like a black arm brushed my face. It was the long, sinuous neck falling. That’s how I found out that swans don’t sing when they die.

The Fifteenth Story Says . . .

In the hotel, there are permanent occupants, and other temporary ones who come for a night or two, some for a week or ten days at most. But the permanent occupants stay there forever, spend many hours in the coffee shop on the ground floor.

And as usual, friendships and affection grew among them. One never had to sit alone when entering the coffee shop but sat with whoever was there and joined them in conversation.

We, the permanent residents, had a chance to meet and talk with a marvelous mix of people who came from different cities and countries. The reception clerk used to refer to us as a bundle of driftwood. We were a small group, but we talked about everything, about love, the black market, and the illicit liquor racket, poetry and philosophy, Zionism and refugees, America and migration, and lovers and their love letters. We talked about the changing seasons, the rain, the sun, the cloudless sky, and the ever upcoming vacation.

The coffee shop was only open during the day, but we still sat there in the evening, always welcoming the new residents and their stories.

There was one person who was always there, but he never spoke, and none of us ever heard him say a word.

That was the waiter.

He was happy to simply bring you your drink, nodding his head cordially, then turning back to his station.

As usual, we stopped talking when he brought our drinks, hoping that he’d talk to us, but to no avail. We looked at him and he looked at us meaningfully, as we attempted to live these brief moments together.

Our friend the waiter, deaf and mute, did not speak in words.

The Sixteenth Story Says . . .

There is a book titled Revolution in Perspective by Mary Charlesworth that chronicles the world’s revolutions since 1775. In it, she mentions these statistics:

The United States holds the world record in annihilating people. Kublai Khan killed 10% of the people of East Asia.

Spain killed 10% of the natives of the Americas.

Joseph Stalin killed 5% of the Russian people.

Hitler killed 5% of Europe’s citizens and 75% of Europe’s Jews.

The US killed 6.5% of the Vietnamese people and 75% of the native people of North America.

That’s in addition to Guevara, Martin Luther King Jr., Neruda, and the idea of Palestine.

The Seventeenth Story Says . . .

It is Eid al-Adha.

It’s the season when the people of the city bring out their old knives to sharpen them at the blacksmith’s or buy new knives in preparation for the Eid. I remembered just now how I once wept when I was young as I’d never wept before.

One time, when I was a boy, I spent a long time taking care of the sheep my family bought for the Eid. I used to take it to the sea every day, and there washed it and scrubbed its wool until it became pure white like the eye of the sun. I used to feed it from the food I ate and took it with me everywhere I went. I felt such a glowing sense of pride when it followed me down the alleyways like a friendly puppy.

They let me play with him and take care of him as much as I wished. But when the day of Eid came I could not find anyone to pay any heed to my distraught weeping. They slaughtered the sheep right in front of me, as it kicked about like my shocked and quaking heart. When they cut its meat into strips and hung them to dry in the sun, I did not want to leave my house, so that I would have to see them.

They sacrificed the sheep to eat him, and I used to give my bread so that the sheep would eat. What feast is this, where people celebrate by killing your friend and then eat him before your tearful eyes?

The Eighteenth Story Says . . .

I recalled this as I followed the events of the October War.

When an ordinary person tells you something bel-mafshari, you should expect him to briefly give up his manners in order to communicate something of utmost importance. This is exactly what happened when someone talked to me about the war and the Eid al- Adha. He told me bel-mafshari that the Egyptian soldiers were killed as a blood sacrifice on the altar of Sinai so that diplomatic relations with the US could be restored. And that was the only reason for their death.

There too I wept like I’d never wept before.

The Nineteenth Story Says . . .

When the Ghibli winds blow on the ill-tempered city of Benghazi, the faces of its people darken and grimace. And when rain falls, these same faces leer with indignation because of the many puddles and muddy ponds that fill the roads. But there’s someone somewhere who remains jubilant throughout the rainy days, thinking only of the harvest season. As you stand behind the window in room 211, looking at the tiny streams of rainwater on the glass, you hear the first sounds of the city as dawn commences, the cries of the roosters, the barking of the dogs. In the dark silence, you dream that the rain has washed the city clean, along with its people, and has rendered them loving and kind.

You watch, listen, and dream. Then the rain winds down, and as the sun begins to rise, you remember that you too must rise and seek your fortune on God’s earth.

The Twentieth Story Says . . .

London is a bothersome city, stacked to its icy ceilings with people, its outskirts stretching to eternity. The first feeling that strikes you there is that you are a stranger. You see people crowding against each other everywhere, pushing on in a hurry. Some bury their heads in newspapers, others busy themselves with their pipes, none of them wishing to share a word with you.

But when you take to London’s streets in the early morning, that feeling dissipates immediately. The city is nearly deserted then, and if you happen to meet a street cleaner or a waiter at a restaurant or a cafe or any laborer, they will look you in the eye warmly and wish you “Good morning!”

Or you may run into a drunk wobbling his way home. He will immediately stop the song he’s singing and turn to you saying, “Good evening!” his night clearly not over yet.

One day, I traveled to London from Bournemouth with my friend Verena to visit a friend and to find work. But we discovered that our friend had left town, and there were no jobs to be found. This was a few days before Christmas. We ran soon out of money and wanted to go back to Bournemouth on Christmas Day. But we found Waterloo Station closed for the occasion, and all other stations and forms of transport were also shut down, everyone around us busy celebrating Christmas.

That was in the early evening and we had to wait till morning for a train to take us back to Bournemouth.

We had nothing except our train tickets.

We trudged through the snow-covered streets, fighting fatigue in the cold wind, fortified with the knowledge that there would be a train tomorrow. Echoes of songs and snatches of music late that night came at us from everywhere as we slogged through the white sidewalks, our bodies clasped side by side as if we were one body, the anticipation filling us with contentment.

Not a moment of sleep for either of us.

At last, as we made our way to Waterloo, many passersby greeted us, smiled in our faces, and bid us good morning. When we finally pushed into the station, absolutely exhausted, we flung ourselves on the first row of seats and waited for the first train— two hours away— that would take us to Bournemouth.

Verena nodded beside me. She then rested her head on my chest and fell immediately asleep, like a bird who tucked its head under its wing and slept.

We were hungry and shivering.

But we were together.

And the Final Story Says . . .

May every year find you and your loved ones well, with peace and goodness abounding.

January 1, 1974
Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa

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