Hilal Chouman’s ‘World of Dogs’

The short story ‘World of Dogs’ was originally written in Arabic, by celebrated Lebanese author Hilal Chouman (Limbo Beirut), and adapted into English by the author, with editorial support. It first appeared in English translation on ArabLit in July 2019:

By Hilal Chouman

Ousama Baalbaki / Fire, Works (2018)

He couldn’t believe his dream was happening right before his eyes.

In the dream, which came to him often, he walks aimlessly down one of the city’s streets, empty of people, the buildings on either side drowning in rubble and garbage. Only the dogs walk near him. As they approach, his fear grows. He can hear his heartbeats pulse louder. Careful not to show fear, he continues his slow pace. Running might attract their attention. They should feel I’m at one with them, and, for that to happen, I have to keep moving at a steady pace. Yet the dogs pass as if they can’t see him. Is it because he’s an outsider in this world, the world of dogs?

He keeps walking. The buildings, rubble, and garbage around him duplicate and multiply. It feels as if he is stuck in a closed space that ends at the beginning and begins at the end. But the animals prove him wrong. If he were in a loop, the dogs would reappear, approach, and sidestep him again. This doesn’t happen. The dogs are way ahead of him, so that he has to hurry to keep up. Another idea haunts him: that this world is made up of small units that repeat around a never-ending road.

Suddenly, when he looks ahead, he doesn’t find the dogs. I made them disappear because I was too preoccupied with my thoughts. Next time, I’ll be more focused.

But in the nights that followed, the scene recurred with the same elements: buildings, rubble, garbage, dogs, and no trace of people. And while his feelings varied from one dream to the next, his thoughts remained the same, as did the moment when he lost the dogs. Then the dream ended.

He would wake up in his bed and look to his side to find her asleep. As if time had got stuck in the night. As if he was unable to skip things. As if their relationship was reaching a dead end. As he mused about the dream and tried to interpret it, he would stay in bed. Carefully, without a move, he would look at her, until the continuance of this act absorbed the memory of the dream and quietened his heartbeat, leaving no one and nothing else in the room but them.

He didn’t consider his dream a nightmare. His sleep was always smooth, he never made a sound, and she—a light sleeper—was never woken by him. For him, nightmares, unlike dreams, made him sweat in bed. As for his heartrate, he attributed its increase to mere excitement. Although this reasoning wasn’t particularly solid, something within assured him he was right.

The night before his dream came true, he saw a new ending. This time, after the disappearance of the dogs, he was met by an open range where there was nothing: no buildings, no rubble, no garbage. It was suffocating. The feeling grew, yet he was unable to go forward or retreat. There was no way out, and he couldn’t think clearly. He stayed there, standing, for an immeasurable amount of time before he finally woke up crying, drenched in sweat. “This is a nightmare,” he said. “This is a nightmare.”

Rolling to his side, he was surprised to find she wasn’t there. He saw her disappearance as part of the dream’s transformation. His thoughts, accompanied by his rapid breathing, were interrupted by the sound of the toilet’s flush. He took off his t-shirt, picked up a nearby towel, dried his sweat, and removed the damp bedsheet. He then moved to the kitchen and threw everything in the washing machine. He returned with a fitted sheet of the same colour. He could hear the sound of rushing water from the shower as he re-made the bed. He picked up a notebook from his bedside drawer, lay back in the bed, and wrote:

Buildings – Rubble – Garbage

He stared at the words, trying find a link between them. He added two more words: “Me” to the left, and “dogs” to the right, and circled them. Failing to reach any conclusion, he returned the notebook to the drawer, only to look up and see her at the bathroom door, smiling.

The next day, he was watching a livestream on television when he saw his dream on the screen. The streets of Beirut were flooded with mounds of garbage. This was the first step, he thought. Next, the piles of rubble would appear, and the people would vanish, leaving the buildings deserted. He watched closely, waiting to see the street from his dream, but it didn’t appear. 

“Is everything okay?” She asked, noticing his distraction. He pointed to the TV and answered that he’d seen this happening in his dream.

“You’d better dream about winning the lottery next time.” She laughed.

He laughed with her and decided not to disclose his new theory: He’d lost the dream because it had come true. He was confident he would never have it again. This was disturbing — not the loss itself, but his persistent lack of understanding. He could tell he knew something, but he couldn’t define it in any way. Even more irritating was seeing his dream cross into this world without inspiring any meaning.

He decided to do something to kill his thoughts and assuage his irritation. He ended up in the kitchen. There was a big pile of dirty dishes from yesterday’s dinner, and he immersed himself in washing them, unaware of his surroundings.

“I’m done!” he said, after placing the last plate on the drying rack. He called out her name, but she didn’t answer. He walked toward the bedroom to find her holding his notebook, open. Had she found his scribbles?

She lifted her head, and their eyes met.

At that moment, he was certain she understood what he could not.

With editing assistance from Yasmine Zohdi, Bekriah Mawasi, Ziad Dallal, and M Lynx Qualey.

Hilal Chouman is a Lebanese novelist born in Beirut in 1982. He is the author of four novels in Arabic: Stories of Sleep (2008), Napolitana (2010), Limbo Beirut (2012), and Once Upon a Time, Tomorrow (2016). Anna Ziajka Stanton’s English translation of Limbo Beirut (2016) was longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize (2017) and shortlisted for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize (2017). Chouman currently lives between Dubai and Toronto, and works as a software architect.