Hisham Bustani’s “Nightmares of the City” was originally published in The Monotonous Chaos of Existence (Dar al-Farabi, 2010), and in translation by Thoraya El-Rayyes in the summer/autumn 2012 (print) issue of The Saint Ann’s Review. Now, online:
Nightmares of the City
1. The Building That Sees, Hears and Speaks
The building is dark and dismal, haunted by ghosts of people who used to drift through its rooms and apartments and stumble up and down its stairs. The building also sees, hears and speaks: its eyes stare through the windows and wall cracks, it hears through the drainpipes and bathroom windows that open onto the airshaft. And as for its speech… Ahhh, its words!
On the second floor, I could hear my uncle and his wife yelling as if an old record was stuck on the scratch of their endless disagreements: “you bitch”, “you lowlife”, and the sound of glass smashing and doors slamming and the building shivering as if it were in a freezer.
I was always alone, sitting on the front stairs every day as if I was waiting. Waiting for a bus to take me far away, a bus that never came. Once I imagined it would fall from the sky, but what fell was a tile that grazed my perfumed smell and shattered on the ground. I sprang up and looked upwards: there was no one on the roof, and the roof wasn’t tiled anyway. I’d remember this moment when it would rain tiles someday soon.
My uncle and his wife hit each other. He has a lot of debt and she has to polish the glass of her framed photo in front of everyone. But the wall cracked, the nail slipped and so the photo fell breaking the frame, the glass and everything. My uncle ran away from home, his debtors and everyone. He slinked out from under the eyes of his sleeping wife to Cairo, slinking until he died.
That morning, the noise of the wife hitting the children broke out and when she passed by me with her handbag, I was still sitting on the front stairs waiting for the bus. She spat on me, as the sound of children crying descended from amidst the wreck.
2. The Bus That Never Comes
It is green like the grass of meadows, its door doesn’t close, its windows have no glass and its seats are roses. Its passengers are all of my friends: Dante, Stendhal, Yann Tiersen, Mureed al-Barghoti, Zuheir abu-Shayeb… Ah, and it is full of cats, and birds. It runs on wheels made of music with no driver and no fare collector.
Every time it stops at a station, everyone gets off. They spread a mat and circle around cups of wine, pieces of cheese, garlic yoghurt and dark bread freckled with nuts. To one side, there is a garbage bag: soldiers throw in their boots and rifles, the informer throws in his eyes and ears, the tart throws in her high heels, the student throws in his teacher, the opportunist throws in his position, the prostitute throws in her society, and the deified leader throws in himself.
Only then does everyone drink for love and freedom. They undress and each describes the details of their faults, deformities and neuroses. They converge in a huge orgy becoming one body and then disintegrate into their own selves again. They climb back into the bus, hand in hand, and head to the next station.
But the bus never comes.
3. The Room of Ghosts
Ahhh, the words of this building…
The home of my widowed grandmother is on the ground floor. She was widowed before I was born, and she has stayed in the building even as it emptied of its other inhabitants.
“I made friends with the traces that their fingers left behind next to the light switches on the wall, and with their dust building up under the sofas. If I leave, I’ll have nothing left of them. Here, at least, I have their ghosts.”
“Here, the first of my children tripped and bled. And over that cupboard your father hid from his father after he’d broken the window and seen a black belt in an angry hand seeking him out.”
She walks past corners and pieces of furniture telling stories. Only the second floor brings her to tears. “I’ll never see him again,” she said when he slinked away to Cairo, and when he died there. It was only the locked room at the end of her hallway that she never talked about, and that I wasn’t allowed to go near.
Some days I’d wait until she wasn’t looking and stick my ear to the keyhole. A heavy sound would seep into my ear, the heavy sound of speechless pain.
One day when I was bored of waiting for the bus and my stomach began to grumble, I went to her. But there was no one on the ground floor. “Grandma…” I called, wondering where an old woman, barely able to walk, would go and where she could have passed from, since I’d been glued to the building’s entrance since the morning.
The house was very clean: the walls and floors shone brightly. There were no finger traces around the light switches, and no dust under the sofas. Everything was very new as if had been just unwrapped. As for the door of the forbidden room, it stood open.
When I tiptoed closer and peeked into the room, I was shocked by the darkness and the clear sound of speechless pain. When my eyes got used to the darkness, I saw my grandfather sitting next to a bed, back bent like arches of an old bridge, leaning his head on a hand pressed against his eyes as he choked back tears. On the bed, a small black creature lay unmoving. It was me, charred and stiff.
With all the terror stored up in my memory about haunted rooms, rooms full of mice and rooms under the stairs, I exploded out of the room, running from the apartment, out of the building, to the street.
Behind me, sobs of heavy pain were still clear, still speechless.
4. A Fly-By Visit To What Had Been
I ran out of the room, running from the apartment, out of the building, into the street. My breath was fast and my pulse was banging like the drums of war. I felt it pricking in my veins, in my ears, in my temples and I almost exploded. In a moment, I gathered all my strength and looked back. I was standing, dressed in black, at the building’s entrance. As my eyes met my eyes, I ran after myself and almost tripped. Suddenly, a dark nightfall fell and I collided with a high wall. “This is the end of the road” a rough voice shouted.
I turned quickly and found myself in front of myself, face to face. My adrenaline surged, my pupils dilated to the maximum, I started to shake – meanwhile I was completely silent, calm like a grassy hedge, my facial expressions wiped blank with an eraser and dyed with lemon concentrate.
I was struggling to open my eyes. I wanted to wake up. Invisible fingers closed my eyes tight. I gathered all the strength left in my body, turned it into a chisel and hammer that I slammed to open my eyelids. Haaaaaahhh, I inhaled withdrawing all the air in the room, and exploded in tears.
I almost died from sleepiness, but I didn’t want to go back to that room, that street, the wall blocking the road, the other me, and the feeling of not being able to open my eyes. I was shivering.
* * * *
She heard children’s voices from a distance. She dried her tears and looked out the window…
There were four of them, leaving their school, next to Jabal Lweibdeh’s water tank overlooking Jabal el-Qal’a. They were wearing shorts made by a prudent housewife and later inherited by their brothers. She read the sign: “Islamic School of Science – founded by Tayseer Zebyan”. The year was 1946.
The kids walked along the dirt road until they reached the stone hedge that encircles Tash’s orchard. They jumped over it and filled their little empty stomachs with green almonds and figs. They also filled their pockets, for the day was long. As they crossed to the other side of the orchard- jumping over the hedge again- a field spread out before them overlooking Wadi Saqra with Jabal Amman rising behind it. In that field, they arranged stones and split into two teams to play. She heard them say: Gird o shara. She didn’t know that game.
When they had finished the game, they sat on the hill looking far towards the bull-drawn wagons of the Circassians as they climbed a dirt road winding up between the orchards from wasat-il-balad and curving towards Wadi el-Seer. They started to play again, conspiring against large stones and rocks and pushing them over the hilltop to the belly of the valley, then converging on what slid out from underneath: a snake, a scorpion, a lizard. The lizard, they knew, was more valuable than other reptiles, for its blood could be painted on the palms to acquire exceptional immunity against the teacher’s stick.
When the descending sun approached the horizon, the children searched for their wild dessert: furgo’. They ate it with relish and before the sun sank behind the hills, they would have already gathered grasses from the earth for their dinner: dandelion, purslane and rocca. A mother’s request is never ignored.
At the water tank, and before scattering home, the four children looked at her, waved goodbye with their small hands and as darkness fell they vanished.
Reassured, she closed her window and faded away into a deep sleep.
5. The Day It Rained Tiles
At the building’s entrance I was still sitting, totally naked, waiting for the bus when the sky became overcast with clouds I’d never seen before: gray-white and so close to the ground that their fine particles were visible to the naked eye and made you sneeze. Their thunder was a constant metallic screech.
Moments passed and then the first drop fell: a tile shattered next to me on the ground. “But the roof is not tiled,” I said to myself as a second tile fell, followed by a third, and a fourth, then a heavy shower of tiles, stones, windows and pieces of furniture.
I ran to take cover from the downpour of tiles. I crossed the street to our neighbors’ house and jumped on their porch, looking back at the opposite side. Thick grey fog rose up from the ground, covering everything.
When the grey cloud dispersed, I saw a yellow monster with metallic teeth and round feet of black rubber sitting over the building, or what used to be the building.
With the glass eye at the center of his small head, he winked at me roaring with a voice that produced a tail of smoke. Then the sky became overcast with clouds that I’d seen for the first time in my life only moments ago, and the metallic thunder clapped.
Welcome to Abdali.
Welcome to large holes in the ground, and thin metallic giraffes rotating about their axes carrying boards of concrete and piles of brick and iron.
Welcome to what will become the ‘New Downtown’ of Amman. As it happens, Amman never had an old downtown; Amman had a ‘wasat-il-balad’. But in the age of canned things and canned beings, Amman will have a ‘Downtown’, and maybe even a ‘Centre Ville’ like Beirut. The umbilical cord with Beirut is tied from both ends. Beirut’s Solidere is the same as Amman’s. The silky glove that demolished and develops is the same. The profits-by-the-billions pour in the same pocket. Only the commissions go to different pockets, as do the people.
Welcome to Abdali.
At the edges of historic Jabal Lweibdeh, bulldozers started their work. The project is expanding even before the property has been bought from the people. Everything is pre-determined. The destiny of the people is relegated to an authority that cannot be resisted.
In a bygone era, Amman’s mischief-making boys pushed large stones and rocks over Jabal Lweibdeh and into the depth of Wadi Saqra in search of snakes, scorpions and lizards underneath. Their happy screams rang out when they found a new friend under the stones and chased it with their small feet.
Today, it is the stones and blocks of concrete that roll people over Jabal Lweibdeh and send their memories, history and photographs crashing to the bottom. Once the old buildings are overturned, what’s underneath is smashed by a huge foot leaving a mark dozens of meters deep.
Welcome to the new Downtown of Amman.
Behind the giant colorful billboards that fence the area with illusions of the future, there is nothing but dust, cranes, holes and workers shipped in from faraway countries, their sweat rung out of them without consequence.
Under a burning sun that slaps the flat ground stripped of its trees, people, and memories, a beautiful girl- scorched by the yellow rays- is running terrified in no specific direction as if someone is chasing her. She suddenly stops to say: “This is where the building used to be” then runs again and once more stops: “No, this is where the building used to be.” She runs, and runs, and runs. This is where the building used to be, no it was here, no here.
After a short while, there are actually people chasing her: the security group commissioned to guard the elite investment.
When they catch her and ask what is she looking for and what she wants, she replies, gasping for breath: “the stop of the bus that never comes.”
Yann Tiersen: A musician and composer from the district of Brittany in France. Le Phare (The Lighthouse) is one of his most astonishing works.
Mureed al-Barghoti: One of the most important Palestinian poets. He was born in Deir Ghassaneh near Ramallah in 1944. His book of poetry Midnight and his memoirs I Saw Ramallah have been translated into English.
Zuheir abu-Sahyeb: Despite his few published books, he is considered one of the prominent poets to emerge in Jordan during the 1980s. He lives in Amman.
The four kids in 1946 are A.H. Shuqair, A.F. Bustani, Muhammad Khamis and his brother Shafiq Khamis.
Amman, the capital of Jordan, was located originally on seven hills, three of which are called Jabal Lweibdeh, Jabal el-Qal’a and Jabal Amman. In Arabic, jabal means mountain or hill, and wadi means valley. The valley between Amman and Lweibdeh hills is called Wadi Saqra.
Wasat-il-balad: The Arabic word for downtown.
Tash’s orchard: An area planted with fruit trees located on Jabal Lweibdeh, and owned by Muhammed Tash. It vanished under residential blocks.
Gird o shara: A now extinct game played by boys in old Amman. The literal translation is ‘monkey and banners’. Two teams play this game, each put a small flat rock on its edge (the monkey), and behind it stand three larger flat rocks (the banners). Each team tries to drop down the opponent team’s monkey and then its banners by throwing stones at them.
Furgo’: An edible wild plant. The edible part is a piece the size and taste of chestnut and is buried underground like a potato. It is known by its distinct white flower.
Abdali: The name of the project of Amman’s ‘New Downtown’.
Solidere: The company that ‘developed’ Beirut’s downtown area. Downtown Beirut is now known as ‘Downtown’ or ‘Centre Ville’ in English and French. But it is never referred to using the Arabic name. Solidere was largely owned by the Hariri family, who also owned the company that is ‘developing’ the Abdali area in Amman. In Arabic, Hariri means ‘silky’.
7. The Album of Forgotten Photographs
An Indian construction worker found these photographs in a torn album found under the wreck of the building. It was deposited at the Jordanian Archaeological Museum in Jabal el-Qal’a. The text underneath each one is copied from what was written in blue ink on the back of the relevant picture.
Muhammed Khamis (first row, first from the right), Shafiq Khamis (first row, second from the right), A.F. Bustani (first row, second from the left), and A.H. Shuqair (first row, third from the left), with their teacher Akram al-Khatib (middle) in front of the Islamic School of Science.
Picture of the four friends and other members of the boy scouts of the Islamic School of Science. The school building appears in the back.
The honorable visitor Sheikh al-Tayyeb al-Okabi al-Jaza’iri from Algeria (middle of the picture). To his right is Sheikh Nadim el-Mallah. The founder and principal of the Islamic School of Science Tayseer Zebyan appears on the top right side of the picture.
A.H. Shuqair (right) and A.F. Bustani (left) and other friends
A.F. Bustani in front of Jabal Lweibdeh’s water tank
Hisham Bustani was born in 1975 in Amman, Jordan. He writes fiction and has three published collections of short fiction: Of Love and Death (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2008), The Monotonous Chaos of Existence (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2010) and The Perception of Meaning (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2012). Bustani is acclaimed for his contemporary themes, style, and language. He experiments on the boundaries of narration and poetry, using the internal music of language as a driving force. He often utilizes philosophy, physics, biology, cosmology and visual art in his fiction. The German review Inamo has chosen Bustani as one of the Arab world’s emerging and influential new writers, translating one of his stories into German for its special issue on “New Arab Literature” (No. 60, December 2009). He was also featured in the March/April 2012 issue of Poets & Writers in the report “Middle Eastern Rhythms: A Report from Literary Jordan.” His translated fiction has appeared in The Saint Anne’s Review and World Literature Today. Read the story on WLT: “History Will Not Be Made on This Couch.”
Thoraya El-Rayyes is a Palestinian-Canadian writer living in Amman, Jordan. Her translations of Arabic short stories have previously appeared in World Literature Today and The Saint Anne’s Review.