The protagonist in this story abandons reality for a life in songs:
By Sherif Saleh
Translated by Enas El-Torky
The Key: “It’s terrible that no one listens to your songs, and that your love for the secret of existence dies out, so that existence itself loses all mystery.” – Naguib Mahfouz
The Door: Some people use the word LOL without knowing its meaning. It’s a disaster that some say it’s an abbreviation of the phrase Lucifer Our Lord, meaning we worship the devil! However, it’s an abbreviation of Laughing Out Loud. If you don’t believe that, you can refer to the Oxford Dictionary. -Adapted from the internet.
My dad woke me up at dawn, asking if I’d done anything stupid. He repeated his question as if he were addressing me from another world, about the nature of the calamity I had caused.
The light that filled my room took me by surprise, and before I could shake my heavy head,indicating denial, three investigators appeared behind my dad, upturned everything in the room, and seized my cassette tapes and guitar. They even took down the posters that were on the walls and rolled them up under their arms. I glimpsed my father by the door, his head hanging in surrender, as if he were waiting for those three to finish ravaging my room. I remember nothing but the shadows of their hulking bodies and their bulging eyes, empty of meaning.
They were fiercely angry, and my dad was understanding, trying to apologize on my behalf with his silence. At that moment, my body was lying asleep in the bed in front of my dad, while my soul was wandering through the song “Cemetery.”
It took time for me to leave any song, return to reality, and get dressed. I felt my body split into seven clones, each of which rose slowly, one after another.
One of them threw my clothes at me, so that I could quickly get dressed. I was used to sleeping naked, aside from my cotton briefs. I relaxed, shutting my eyes in the police vehicle. My palms were sweaty between my thighs. What would happen to me? Did my dad say he would get dressed and follow me, or had I imagined that? The car jolted us over potholes and bumps in the road, and the soldiers by the door blocked my view. Their disgusting smells nauseated me. I pinched my nose shut. Then I practiced holding my breath for as long as possible without using my hand. Little by little, I found myself smelling only the music, not their stink. I don’t know what the smell of music is, but it’s warm and dewy like the leaves of trees in the morning.
Some calamity must certainly have occurred, even though neither my dad nor I knew exactly what it was. It was too serious for my dad to be able to ask a friend or acquaintance to step in, so that they wouldn’t take me away in such a degrading manner.
A faint murmur arose from those who had been arrested, reassuring themselves.
“Are you okay?”
I closed my eyes and didn’t respond. The vehicle would stop for a few minutes, and others would join us. The siren went silent, then resumed wailing through the empty streets, happy to be on its way to a new suspect, until a pale dawn rose up over us. I tried to escape and hide in any song, to occupy myself with it, away from all that was going on around me.
The soldiers’ eyes reflected the euphoria of accomplishing their mission each time they grabbed a new suspect by the scruff of the neck and shoved him inside.
“Get in there next to your comrades, moron!”
It was enough for me to shut my eyes for just ten seconds, accompanied by a loud song. Then I’d open them and see the faces of all who surrounded me joyful, the same color as the song. Why did they arrest me? They begrudged me joy!
“Get out, you demon spawn!”
I cursed them heartily under my breath. I met the rest of my metalhead friends in custody: Hisham, Andrew, Angie, and “the Hammer.” I feigned humor, asking them: “Who snitched on us, you filthy dogs?” Angie responded sarcastically: “The music disturbed Baron Damian, so he reported us to the vice squad.”
Oh, Angie! Angie was the only one of us who remained cheerful, and the only one who got out after a few hours, thanks to the connections of her mother, the actress Susie Farid, who declared that her daughter had fulfilled her civic duty, having reported the Satanists to her school’s administration.
“Satanists? Angie’s mother, you bitch!”
My mom was always worried because I’d sit for hours in my room, with the headphones over my ears. Because of the total silence, she thought I’d evaporated and disappeared from the room. She’d glue her eye to the keyhole, staring through it. She insisted on coming in and sitting with me for a few minutes, to see me for herself while I ate the plate of fruit she’d brought me. My dad pretended he didn’t listen in on my calls with my friends.
They wouldn’t believe me if I told them I didn’t live in reality like them, but instead I lived in songs. I liberated myself from my dreary room, from our apartment, from the entire world, and I traveled. Don’t we all travel with music for a few moments? Let it take us to another world? That’s what happened to me. I’d enter the passages of the song, wander with the ripples of the melody, then exit any time I wished. The key to entering any song was a chill that made my whole body quiver. Unless the tones shake you, the song won’t give you permission to enter it.
I’d travel for hours, then return. I’d take the headphones off, smiling stupidly at my dad as he called me.
People on our street would look at me as if they were seeing a ghost. As if I were with them, yet not with them at the same time. They made fun of my strange clothes and hairdo. These demons, who longed for a stranger demon who they could stone to death!
The best kids were the metalheads. We met in far-off places once a week, till we found the abandoned “Baron Damian” palace—a scary, Gothic-style palace. We were satisfied to light just a few candles, so that we wouldn’t catch the attention of passersby. Because it was so big in there, no matter how loud our voices were, nobody heard us at midnight.
There, at the Baron’s Palace parties, my body trained itself to slip into a song, dance, and leap over its lyrics. One track was enough to drug me more than a joint of Moroccan hash! There are unknown areas of my brain, unreachable save by guitar and drum beats, and by the vibrations of violent, rough, and dizzying chords.
We thought of naming our band “Bats of the Baron’s Palace,” but then we kept it nameless. During one of our nights at the palace, I saw Angie, the Hammer, and Andrew like ghosts, dancing and leaping around me. I was ecstatic, transported to another world. That night, I drew my consciousness out of my body, letting my limbs go numb as I lost feeling in them. I shut myself up inside the doors of the song, and no trace of me remained in reality. I can’t describe how exactly I felt. I wore the song, like a man wearing an invisibility cloak. I didn’t wake up till I was violently biting Angie’s rosy cheeks. I’m not sure if I did that in reality. Maybe that had been my repressed desire, ever since I’d first fallen for the fullness of her cheeks.
More than eighty metalheads were being held in custody. Afterwards, they started taking us outside, one by one. We heard screams and thumps. If I’d had my guitar with me then, it would have helped me disappear from between their lifeless hands. With each scream, images and memories flowed within me: the image of me with my dad and mom during the first day of Eid, listening to them argue about which place would make me happy; certainly, not jail. I saw all my happy moments floating in a dark lake, mixed with images of crocodiles and snakes with bloated bellies, dead in the desert.
Was it really possible that they’d arrested me because I grew my beard three inches and let my long frizzy hair loose? I used to walk with a backpack that held my books and cassettes. A traveler. Aggressive. I don’t care what they say. I play my guitar roughly, and I answer no one. All humans are nothing more than despicable ghosts, from whom I am separated by a hundred light years.
When they brought us to the prosecutor’s office, the prosecutor wasn’t worried about the bruises on my face. He scattered the evidence bag full of my belongings on the desk, took out a couple of cassettes, and asked:
“What’s your relation to Pink Floyd, and Savatage?”
“I listen to them.”
He nodded, as if he’d gotten a serious confession. Then he read off of the paper in front of him, asking me about “the hit bangs, and “spadora.” I understood that he meant “headbanging” and “Sepultura.” I didn’t bother correcting him, and he didn’t bother to follow up. He took a photo out of the file and held it in front of my face. He pointed at what was written under it in bad handwriting: “Snoop Dogg, Satanist leader, American branch,” then asked me:
“Are you receiving funding from him?”
I smiled and didn’t answer. What could I tell this ignorant man with the shiny hair about the invisible cities within music? The rushing fire, the clamor and the screams? The rain, and how I plummeted alone at the end of the night? Music is the essence of everything. It never leaves my soul.
Half of us were released, and the other half left the prosecutor’s office in handcuffs, headed to Bostan prison. I was still wearing the same clothes that had become filthy: blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and a leather jacket. The officer eyed me with sarcasm and contempt.
“Adding insult to injury, and wearing a black T-shirt, you mother’s cunt? God willing, you’re going to have one hell of a night.”
I didn’t understand why he’d singled me out for this greeting, and why he’d mentioned my mother’s private parts in public.
They asked us to run to “the fridge,” which was a wide, dark, extremely cold warehouse. While we were running, each soldier we passed slapped us on the backs of our necks and kicked us. One of them pulled me aside in the dark and tried to force me to take my pants off.
After this reception party, they gathered us and forced us to take off our T-shirts, and then they blindfolded us. They made us stand in the prison yard in the January cold, our arms raised from ten in the morning until three in the afternoon.
Metal songs were the only weapon I had against everything that happened to us. They were capable exacting my revenge. I took them with me to the Lake of Death, and there I drowned them in its green, sticky, moldy water. I kick, and I scream, so that I don’t feel pain and the weight of time.
We lived in the filth of the “fridge” for two weeks. Meals alternated between plates of lentil soup and fava beans. I couldn’t chew the bread with the thick, cold lentil soup, and so I found myself unwittingly pissing in the plate. Whenever you got the chance, you shouldn’t hesitate to piss anywhere; that was my motto. Pissing that way kept me from weeping.
During the first week, we were visited by Sheikh Malawany. Without any concern for our wounds or for our bodies, which trembled from the cold, he lectured us about the importance of having faith in God, and the prison management forced us to read his articles. They enlarged them and distributed them among us. They were all bullshit, about the internet being a Western weapon against Islam, and the spread of Satanism under the illusion of freedom of thought. He said that he debated with misguided youth, and that he’d succeeded in guiding three of them to the path of righteousness—although he didn’t actually debate with anyone. He just gave a soulless lecture in the prison mosque, and we found it was a great opportunity to sleep, snore, and enjoy the warmth of the winter sun.
In the second week, we were visited by the famous TV announcer Labib Fawzy, and he asked me:
“What do you feeel when you hear the sooound of a caaat?”
He stretched out his words, relishing the overlapping vowels.
“Dooo yooou think of slaughtering them, ooor drinking theeeir blood?”
The masses watching TV were now preoccupied with describing my feelings when I slaughtered a cat? The famous TV announcer held a telephone receiver as he tossed me a sly, disdainful glance. He phoned the number 666, as if it were the Devil’s number, then he handed me the receiver and asked me to chat with him.
“Good evening, dear Satan!”
I was able to bear all the dreary days of the “fridge” thanks to the song “The Fire, The Steel, The Tread,” and thanks to how the music moved my consciousness out of my body. Just as waves of water or air can lift us, waves of music had the same effect on me. Pissing also made me happy, and it helped me feel relief and the pleasure of revenge.
Finally, my dad was able to call in a favor and have me released. My mom remained in a state of shock greater than mine. She followed the newspapers and TV carefully every day, and then asked me nervously if I was planning on committing suicide when I reached the age of 25.
“And what’s so enjoyable, son, about drinking glasses full of blood, and slaughtering bats?”
They had published news that dozens of slaughtered bats had been found in the Baron’s Palace. Even after our release, dozens of newspapers and magazines had no concern besides us. There were comparisons between Satanists in America, Yazidis, and Freemasons; caricatures of horned people; and some priest appeared on “The Talk of the Town” show with Labib Fawzy himself, accusing us of listening to Tom Araya, who glorified Satan in his songs, instead of listening to songs that glorified the Lord in Heaven.
Programs like that made my mom go even crazier, until she didn’t leave a single suspicious thing in my room without tossing it in the trash: masks, drawings, horror movies, black T-shirts, and cassettes. She even insisted that my dad should take me with him to the mosque. I prayed regularly, in hopes of decreasing her shock, and so she would rest assured that I was a normal human being, and that I didn’t drink the blood of cats and bats after midnight.
She set me a strict diet: a glass of milk, orange juice, and two boiled eggs, which I had to eat in front of her. I didn’t understand the meaning of what had happened to me, and I couldn’t get over it. My feelings of fear, humiliation, and isolation increased after my dad and my mom insisted that I shave my beard and cut my hair. Metal singers were real magicians to me with their long hair, the crucifixes, iron tridents, white face paint, angry eyes, and their thick, cracked voices. How would I return to the lake of Metal with such a broken spirit?
Even after I shaved my head, who could guarantee that I wouldn’t run into the same officer who’d insulted me by mentioning my mom’s private parts in public, and that he wouldn’t ask me: “Why have you shaved your head, you son of a…?” And if I went out anywhere with my guitar, wouldn’t any upright citizen volunteer to report the devil worshipper he’d seen wandering in the park?
This city hates music. It hates that you’re distinct from the lost herds wandering its streets. So what’s forcing me to walk those streets? Most of my friends have dispersed; Andrew travelled against his will to study in America; others immigrated to Canada; Angie disappeared without a trace, and “the Hammer” told me that she’s living in Italy with her dad. We all colluded in forgetful silence. Silence doesn’t mean forgiveness. We tried as hard as we could to forget, even though we felt that we lived in a mad society. A society terrified of its delusions about the world.
The sound of metal still rang inside me: “Go fight for your life… go fight for your life… go fight for your life.”
If my friends had immigrated to Canada, America, and Italy, I too, immigrated to songs. There, I won’t be kicked and insulted, and I won’t have to stand for hours in the January cold.
Songs were no longer merely a small carpet that I sat upon to fly; instead, hundreds of songs and tracks were interconnected, extending in front of me like an infinite magic carpet, taking me to all the airports of the world, all the parks, coffee shops, beaches, metro carriages, cars, bedrooms, and bars illuminating the night. There’s nothing better than drunken songs. Those drunks are as innocent as children, as they communicate through song. All the speech hidden in people’s chests passed in front of me, on the tapes of the songs to which they were listening. The greatest secret of music lies not in what it tells us, but in what we tell it. I heard their voices and their secret conversations with their songs, simply by leaping from one song to another, like a ghost. I sit in the song of some girl in a taxi, then I leap to the song of the elderly driver in front of her.
I saw reality in front of my eyes, but I no longer lived it, nor was I governed by its laws and prisons. I remembered when I was at the zoo, protected by the arms of my mom and dad. That day, I glimpsed a blue butterfly fluttering around me, which then rose up and disappeared. I told myself that it had vanished; it wasn’t dead. Butterflies can be everywhere in the world, and now I was like them, leaping from “Born Like This,” to Shadia’s song, “I Swear, We Miss You,” which my mom was listening to as she sat alone, with a scarf tied around her head. She’d been gazing at my smiling photo on the wall, with my guitar hanging over my chest. In the picture, she saw me like any teenager who was happy in his youth, but she can’t see my ghost walking through her favorite song. I wanted to tell her about the legend of how, when the spirit leaves the body, it becomes a butterfly. A small butterfly, free, possessing the entire world. I don’t know where I read that. And I have no right to tell her a single word, aside from the lyrics of the song. For the song says nothing except for itself.
I wished I could visit my dad in his song, to tell him that I’m not mad at him, but he’d grown out his beard and forbad himself from listening to any songs. That was what I understood from my mom’s conversation with her song. I don’t know how my dad could bear life without remembering a single song!
Was the last moment I lived in reality when they were kicking me in my stomach and testicles, or was it when my mom forbad me to grow my hair out? No black T-shirts, no Metal. That day, I shut my door and swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills and played the guitar with all my strength, till I faded away like notes fade in ethereal space. The note that nobody bothers about is capable of penetrating water, air, and impregnable walls. I was positive that I hadn’t died; I’d simply disappeared, just as I’d simply come to life. Each song delivered me to another, and in a manner I couldn’t describe, I became the messenger of music, whispering into people’s souls what they should hear. I was their inner voice, warning them against becoming slaves to any musical color. Perhaps my crisis wasn’t worshipping Satan, as they claimed, but worshipping a single musical genre, though life offered endless musical promises.
To live in songs means that, to you, both joy and melancholy are equal. Rap and Metal. In this spectral life of mine, I realized the weight of having your experience open to all the suppressed desires and sorrows of humanity. It wasn’t easy to suffer along with everyone’s pain. I spent a night crucified in a final song, whose owner received the Angel of Death all by himself. Another night, the songs of strangers caught me like a stray dog on an unknown road. When I fell into a bleak funerary tune, I felt suffocated for the first time, and I screamed: “Help me, help me!” But nobody could hear me. No one can pick up the vibrations of a spirit. I tried to move a word from its place with both of my hands to set myself free. All the words were repetitive, glued together like the stones of an ancient temple.
Distress and pain were more than I could bear. I might have taken my final breath in a funerary tune, accompanied by a corpse, were it not for the miracle of a cheerful song that appeared nearby.
What was even more deadly to me was when ten thousand people across the entire world were listening to the same song at the exact same time. I’d hear it with them, amplified thousands of times with thousands of emotions. Who among us could bear all that pain, and all that joy, multiplied a thousand times?
I grew tired of my invisible life in a passing song; to live and die, with the life and death of songs. Between pausing and playing, leaping from one song to another: a joyous world, a gloomy world. I didn’t feel as though I’d experienced each song with its correct rhythm. I always drifted away with the music to some unknown place, to the infinite mirage of songs.
Because of my impulsive frivolity, I ruined my life’s melody in exchange for a lonely eternity. I can see, but can’t be seen. Every time I imagine that I’ve found the song in which I’ll live forever, I discover that I’m nothing more than a wandering ghost. A butterfly with a wing of melody, and a wing of imagination, so that my fluttering wings led me into Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life.” I shouted: “That’s my song!”
In the song, there was a city with enormous black buildings where wind was howling and a police siren was wailing. Windows were open, illuminating the night. Amy Lee was singing. Amy Lee was lying in bed. Amy Lee’s body jumped from the open window, and flew like a butterfly. If I committed suicide like her, perhaps I could get rid of my ghostly life and return to reality. Amy was in bed, in pain. Amy’s body was still floating endlessly. If she woke up, the nightmare would be over. She woke up and stood on the window ledge in a see-through white nightie, then leapt and flew. Amy Lee, like me, saw the lives of people through their open windows, and nobody saw her. An enormous force pushed her into another world, and a hand reached out to save her.
Yet this person lying in bed in front of me wasn’t Amy Lee, but Angie with her full cheeks and her soft black hair. We’ve finally met, Angie! I saw that she was thin and pale, and by her side was a glass of water and a few colored pills wrapped in a tissue. I hear her heartbeats, and the sound of her thinking of suicide. Instead of plunging into a frenzy of kisses, these lips would swallow deadly pills! She would die before giving me a chance to bite her cheeks! Could that be possible, Angie? Where was all the joy and buzz? Were we in two different worlds, or were we in Amy Lee’s head as she was singing?
She pressed the pause button, so I hid in a corner in the shadows of one of the words of the song. After wiping a tear from under her eyes, she pressed play once again, and I went back to walking with angry steps inside the melody. If she closed her eyes and drew her consciousness outside her body, she might sense the power of my ghost. She would see me swaying my head and torso along with the rhythm. I was dancing, impersonating Amy Lee’s voice as she sang: “Save me from the nothing I’ve become.”
When I forgot a word, I felt as if my whole being was about to collapse. I’d walk quickly until I found the stray word, fluttering over my head: “My spirit’s sleeping somewhere cold.”
All I cared about was that I didn’t want the song to end; I wanted to draw her away from the idea of suicide. Do you remember, Angie, our nights at the Baron Damien’s Palace: the hash, prison, and your mom, that bitch of an actress?
I saw her paint two lines on her cheeks for the first time: black and white. She was staring into the void with her wide eyes, outlined with kohl. Her full arm had a tattoo of a scorpion, or perhaps a beetle, I’m not sure.
Her consciousness wandered, not fully surrendering itself to the sadness of the song: “Call my name and save me from the dark.”
“Angie… Angie… Angie.”
No, Angie—don’t make the same stupid mistake that I did! It’s terrible to pause a song more than once, to end a melody before its time. But my murmurs didn’t reach her. How could she hear my spectral voice, eluding her in the song?
Slowly, she rose from her bed and stood in front of the mirror in her see-through blue nightie. She gathered her long hair at the back, then stood on the ledge of the open window. The window’s curtain fluttered, and her blue nightgown fluttered. She fluttered, too. She clung to the outer ledge, and I reached out to her with all my strength. No, Angie! She stretched out her arms and legs, taking flight. She flew, belly-up, and I leapt after her.
An ambulance siren wailed nearby. We dropped to the street with remarkable lightness, hand in hand. She smiled and gave me her cheek to bite. Then we ventured off together, touring all the songs of the world, each holding an iron trident, stabbing anything we didn’t like.
Sherif Saleh is an Egyptian journalist and academic who teaches Arabic literature at Badr University. He worked as an editor and correspondent for a large number of Egyptian and Arab newspapers and has published 13 books, ranging from short stories to novels to drama to criticism. He has won several awards, including the Sawiris Award, the Dubai Award for best short-story collection, the Sharjah Innovation Award for the monodrama “Rooster’s Dance”, and the best playwright award from the Festival of Theater Days for Youth in Kuwait. He has a forthcoming YA novel, Stealing the Smartest Brain in the World.
Enas El-Torky was born in Cairo, Egypt. After graduating from the department of English language and literature, she earned her MA (1999) and Ph.D (2003) in English literature. She worked as a lecturer from 1996-2008 and has translated several books into Arabic, including Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (2018), Michael David Lukas’ The Last Watchman of Old Cairo (2020), John Lanchester’s The Wall (2020), and Jane Austen’s Persuasion (2020). Her Translation of Samar Nour’s short story “A Room of Sabry’s Own,“ from the Sawiris award winning collection In the House of the Vampire, was shortlisted for the 2019 Arablit story prize.