Short Fiction: ‘Orchestra,’ from Hisham Bustani’s ‘The Monotonous Chaos of Existence’

It is publication day for Hisham Bustani’s The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, out in maia tabet’s translation from Mason Jar Press. To mark the occasion, a short fiction from the collection, of which Bustani said:

“Orchestra is one of the texts in which Maia was able to powerfully stretch and show her literary translation muscles. The piece is basically a prose poem with a narrative line interconnecting its three segments, the last of which (the”Third Movement”) is basically a non-classical metered poem (قصيدة تفعيلة, abides to a meter, but not to a rhyme), and she was exceptionally able to reproduce that form in English.”


By Hisham Bustani

translated by maia tabet

[First movement]

She was seated at the black piano. The music had evaporated from her head, and only crooked melodies stumbled from her fingers. When she turned around, his eyes were looking straight into hers, and the kiss he blew into the air teased her lips.

When she placed her slender fingers inside his mouth, the crook- edness of the melodies receded; and when their two bodies joined, the place reverberated with music.

[Second movement]

In the hall, there was complete silence—other than for the speaker’s stammering voice; and for the early protestations of a baby, whose victorious utterances propelled his mother out- side; and for the ringing of the cellphone in the back, when the audience learned of the beloved’s name and that “Encounter between Byzantine and Arab Civilizations: Samples of their Poetry” was simply the cover for the lovers’ planned tryst.

It was her turn now. He stopped noticing the heavy breathing of the couple behind him; the brassy woman’s explosive clapping at her son’s first recitation of poetry in public (never mind that he didn’t understand it, what really mattered was the extra grade in class); the feigned interest of the security detachment; and even the glaring look of the Almighty Leader staring men- acingly from the frame hanging in the middle of the hall.

It was her turn: the cadence slid into place, and the words flowed in lilac streams across the podium and between the seats. Now alone, he bathed in the fields of his childhood, scal- ing the clouds of his longing and scattering like flower petals on the warm breeze.

She carried him far away, to the distant place where tears swelled into torrents, and when he left hurriedly to go to his car, her smiling gaze bid him goodbye, blue had cleaved from blue, and color saturated everything: the speaker, the Almighty Leader’s portrait, the security men, and all of the phonies in the hall.

With him, in the back seat of the car, was the couple that had sat behind him in the hall, while she slipped into the passenger seat to scatter her colors along the pavement.

[Third movement]

Afterwards, she’d sat in his lap while they read what they could in the way of poetic verses, wrapping their bodies around the music of the words:

The ballerina, who had tumbled from her lips only moments earlier, leapt into the air and snaked across the winding river of fire on the floor. Naked, she circled the perimeter of the body swollen with desire, ascending toward her writer who sat god-like and aloof upon the sofa (or so she thought) where he counted each breath and gathered falling stars, fortunetellers’ signs, and what to the listening ear are ciphers of inspiration, packing them all into the jumble of his brain to conjure them up with ink on the desert of parched white paper.

But her writer—the one who is contaminated by minds outside his own, and chafes against bodies made of flesh, igniting the brazier’s spark that lights the coal-stack, propelling the driving wheels which overturn the rusty engine of time. That writer of hers was not the One, the Unparalleled, the Everlasting. He was hewing his way through a forest of desire, erupting from pomegranate breasts, gulping down the liquor of saliva, and biting on the stretch of alabaster that led to the promontory of bliss and down to the delta of pleasure. That writer of hers generated fire, piercing the Mother’s grass with the Father’s flint until their creamy froth mixed.

The ballerina was furious. She raged and she screamed, then realized that her feet rested on the cadence of the two bodies, that her dance was born of their climax, that the melodies she held aloft rose and fell to the rhythm of the gasps cascading from her lips and his.

The ballerina understood that her resurgence dwelled in the fevered delirium of the two joined bodies.


The night lit up by love was over. The ballerina folded herself back into the white pages and lay down to sleep between the words. She would rise again—the fortune-tellers had told her so—but only when poetry became soft fingertips prying open shirt buttons.


Hisham Bustani is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. He is acclaimed for his bold style and unique narrative voice, and often experiments with the boundaries of short fiction and prose poetry. Much of his work revolves around issues related to social and political change, particularly the dystopian experience of post-colonial modernity in the Arab world. His work has been described as “bringing a new wave of surrealism to [Arabic] literary culture, which missed the surrealist revolution of the last century,” and it has been said that he “belongs to an angry new Arab generation. Indeed, he is at the forefront of this generation – combining an unbounded modernist literary sensibility with a vision for total change…. His anger extends to encompass everything, including literary conventions.” Hisham’s fiction and poetry have been translated into many languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. His book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award in Thoraya El-Rayyes’s translation. Hisham is the Arabic fiction editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common, and the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers for 2017.

maia tabet is an Arabic-English literary translator based in Washington DC, where she is the associate editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. She is the translator of Little Mountain and White Masks by Elias Khoury, and of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), Throwing Sparks, by Abdo Khal. Her translation of Sinan Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist (Ya Mariam, in Arabic) appeared in Spring 2017. Her translations have been published in journals, literary reviews, and other specialized publications. She is currently at work on her fifth novel-length translation.


Excerpt of The Monotonous Chaos of Existence courtesy of Mason Jar Press.