Summer of Lock-in Lit: Hisham Bustani’s ‘Eyes without a Face, or: Waiting with Billy Idol in Jordan’
A preliminary format of this essay was published in Arabic in The Sultan’s Seal as part of “The Quarantine Chronicles” series, curated by Carol Sansour:
By Hisham Bustani
Something is missing in the translation of this word into Arabic. إغلاق translates more closely to “closure.” But that does not convey the “lock,” which immediately takes us to chains and shackles. Nor does it include the “down,” which is necessary to avoid the barrage of bullets.
I repeat that word and scrutinize it, enjoying the relative tranquility it leaves behind, and I thank the randomness of existence which placed me in a city whose inhabitants do not venture onto balconies to sing, or celebrate a neighbor’s birthday from windows, or bombard us with a surprise party that is inconsiderate of a humanity taken by surprise, one that is wailing, crumbling, yet persistent about walking the same destructive path again and again.
I think about the banality of this spectacle, its obscenity, and the tons of “positive thinking” propaganda that paved its way. Martial laws are not a long holidays for the purposes of deep breathing. La romantisation de la quarantaine est un privilège de classe, a banner in Spain bluntly declares, and I agree as I think about those long quarantined in refugee camps, prisons, and shantytowns.
Near my house is a café whose regulars never stop exhaling smoke into the air. A ventilation system –– fans coated with thick black grease –– throw the filth into the neighborhood. I was immensely pleased when that cesspit was compelled to shut down. Nature’s partial salvation will surely appear on an image taken by a satellite probing our deteriorating ecosystem, leaving behind metal excrement in an orbit around the Earth.
I am not the slightest bit afraid, but my partner is horrified about the possibility of criminals and robbers running wild, about the revolt of the hungry, about the crumbling of the economy, about the collapse of it all. How wonderful this novel corona is as it strips bare the fragility of our existence, condensing it to the mere necessities of survival in a world (we were continuously told) that is “stable,” that is “the end of history,” that is capable of “remedying its own crises”.
Behold a sample: Private hospitals in one country refused to admit patients infected with the virus because they feared they would lose customers; leaders of another free-market country nationalized private health facilities as the free-market mechanism failed to self-correct; the blonde, tanned leader of the free world wants to monopolize the vaccine; and here, in the never-realized Singapore of the Middle East, a 500-person wedding takes place in spite of the severe restrictions, initiating a still-expanding circle of infection, while the groom blamed Allah personally for the incident — praised be the Lord, forger of destinies, actor behind actions.
I tell my partner: “If the hungry rebel, I will join their cause against us,” and she is not reassured.
It was frightening to receive from my mother, via Facebook Messenger, comprehensive prevention instructions, whose source was Um Sameer, or to see my father, an octogenarian dental surgeon who graduated from the University of London, and who, up until two years ago, refused to use a smart phone, repeating and resending the endless nonsense broadcast on WhatsApp. My dear father, who still does not know how to log into the internet, has adopted WhatsApp as his holy truth.
It was frightening to watch as a failed regime gained popularity by condemning its subjects to house arrest, the latter celebrating the militarized declaration of martial laws, while the citizens of another country broke the compulsory “stay home” order, went out to picnic and tan, compounding the catastrophe that required army trucks to evacuate the bodies that crematoriums were unable to accommodate.
I contemplate all this from inside an enforced curfew, announced by the Prime Minister who read “The Defense Order Number 2,” and adhered to by my own precautions to prevent picking up or spreading the disease. It is a rare coming-together of contradictory wills.
Living alone, or almost alone, is something I was accustomed to from the first quarantine I was subjected to: My dear father quarantined my teenage-self in an independent flat away from his novel wife. The quarantine further intensified when I moved to study in a different city where I lived on my own.
When I returned six years later, my quarantine continued. My apartment –– sterilized of any internet, TV or wife –– was the home I would return to every night after my compulsory noise-dose of humans. Or perhaps I’m exaggerating, for my home does contain innumerable books, films, and music discs. They talk to me but I usually stay silent, thinking; I converse with them on some occasions, and on many others they seep from the tips of my fingers to take form in words and sentences.
In my company now is none other than Billy Idol, humming in the background the lyrics of White Wedding, commenting gently: “There is nothin’ fair in this world, nothin’ safe, nothin’ sure, nothin’ pure. Look for something left in this world.”
At the Station*, one of the only two people present was saying: “I tried. I grasped handfuls of earth and smelled it. I played hide-and-seek with the neighbors’ children. I visited my grandmother every week –– she used to make me cake. All of that didn’t mean a thing. And over there, where there are no children, grandmothers or earth, it also did not mean a thing to me. My real homeland is: waiting.”
Nothing much has changed at this station, except for some quiet, the result of decreased movement outside, and Billy mocks me: “Les yeux sans visage.”
As the human race waits for its deliverance back into grime, noise and pollution, I am waiting for the calm to expand.
٭”At the Station” is a prose/poem/hybrid text from the author’s book Preludes to an Inevitable Demise, the Arabic original of this text can be found here, a French translation by Nada Yafi can be found here, and the English translation by Thoraya El-Rayyes, excerpted here, is yet unpublished.
The author wishes to thank Stephen Morison Jr. for his editorial assistance with the English version of this piece.
Hisham Bustani is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. His fiction and poetry have been translated into several languages, with English-language translations appearing in journals including The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, The Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, World Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly. His fiction has been collected inThe Best Asian Short Stories, The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human: Tales from Many Muslim Worlds, The Radiance of the Short Story: Fiction From Around the Globe, among other anthologies. His book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. Hisham is the Arabic fiction editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common and was the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers in 2017.
Short stories in our stay-at-home series:
Tareq Emam’s ‘The Tale of the Woman with One Eye,’ translated by Katherine Van de Vate
Zakaria Tamer’s ‘The Flower,’ tr. Marilyn Hacker
Lock-in Limited Release: Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘The Man in the Picture’, tr. Karim Zidan
Ali el-Makk’s ‘Forty-One Minarets’, tr. Adil Babikir
‘Eyes Shut’ by Rami Tawil, tr. Nashwa Gowanlock
Bushra Fadil’s ‘Phosphorus at the Bottom of a Well.’ tr. Mustafa Adam
Poems in our stay-at-home series
Ghareeb Iskander’s ‘A Letter to Adil’, translated by Hassan Abdulrazzaq
4 Poems by Jan Dost, translated by Mey Dost
Issa Hassan Al-Yasiri’s ‘A Primitive Prayer for Uruk,’ translated by Ghareeb Iskander, with thanks to Hassan Abdulrazzak
‘A Street in the Pandemic’ & Other Poems by Jawdat Fakhreddine, tr. Huda Fakhreddine
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