From the RAIN Issue: Mohamed Makhzangi’s ‘The Water Cords’

This short story appeared in the RAIN issue of ArabLit Quarterly, which you can order through Gumroad, Amazon, and at select bookshops, including Aaliya’s Books in Beirut.

You can listen to the story, narrated by Inas Nassar, or read it below.

The Water Cords

By Mohamed Makhzangi

Translated by Enas Eltorky

It will be a small miracle if you receive this letter of mine, which I’m writing on a day I skipped from our tour in the forest. I feigned illness to take a day off so I could write. I’ll take you to the bank of the Mekong and slip my message into your multi-pocket travel bag as the boat takes off, and then I’ll return. It’s obvious that you have completely forgotten me, perhaps because my features have changed so much, as has my appearance since you last saw me fifteen years ago. But I recognized you from the very first. It was with difficulty that I suppressed my cry of surprise, and I suffered a great deal so no word in Arabic would escape my lips. I remember you worked as a doctor in the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry at Mansoura General Hospital. When I jog your memory, you’ll be surprised at my presence in this remote corner of the world, but I’ll explain. As for me, I’ll remain amazed at your arrival in this place. What’s even stranger is that you don’t seem to be working in psychiatry any longer; you’re moving around accompanied by a photographer, suggesting the shots he should take, and scribbling brief notes in a small notepad. That’s a job for journalists, most likely, and what does psychiatry have to do with journalism? And in this unfamiliar spot in southwestern Cambodia, which many people in the country themselves do not know? Perhaps you’ve become a journalist. It’s a strange career shift, but then again, you were also a strange psychiatrist. That is, you didn’t behave like ordinary psychiatrists. I remember how you used to take the patients out to the shade of a lush old acacia tree behind the hospital, in that secluded place between the outpatient clinic and the surgical wards. I can recall that tree’s tiny orange blossoms as if I were seeing them right now. I thought of those flowers as miniature suns. I remember how you pointed at them, when you noticed me studying them, and told me that they are blooms of seduction: sedative, vertiginous, and also toxic. You were always laughing, and you worked as if you were meeting with friends and acquaintances in a familiar café. You looked young, and maybe that’s why, unlike your colleagues, you always wore the doctor’s white coat. When I asked you once, during one of my appointments, about the secret leading you to wear the white coat, you laughed: “So that the patients remember I’m a doctor. I’m afraid someone will think I’m some nosy kid and beat me up.” You went on laughing, then added sorrowfully: “Perhaps it’s a fortress of white fabric, in which I take refuge from the infectious sprays of madness.” I remember you well, for you were one of only two doctors—among the dozens to whom I presented my case—who set out a different possible explanation for the symptoms that I myself thought were “signs of madness.” Perhaps you might now remember the “case” which surprised you so much that it made you get up in amazement and ask one of your colleagues in English, perhaps his name was Ahmad or Hamdy, to take the rest of the patients so that you could devote yourself to the experience of an “amazing case.” Your enthusiasm made your colleague, who was also apparently your friend, smile with resignation, signaling for the rest of your patients to join him. The Medical Board had referred me to you with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. When you heard my complaint, your eyes widened with astonishment, and you pushed back your seat, rising to ask your colleague to take the rest of the patients so that you could devote yourself to my case. You might remember this case. The case of the man who no longer bathed or washed himself, and who became so depressed when it rained that he could not eat. The man who, whenever water was running from a tap or a shower, would hear children’s cries, women’s wails, men’s groans, vague and shrill voices, the stomp of running feet, and terrified panting breaths, all of which led to my diagnosis of schizophrenia. They said the symptoms were auditory hallucinations. You and another doctor from Austria—for I had taken my case to the ends of the earth—were the ones who put forth the possibility that the case might involve some kind of paranormal or extrasensory perception. You once asked me a question no other doctor ever did: “What do you think about the nature of your case? How do you explain it?” That day, I had no explanation. Yet I was sure they weren’t hallucinations. These were real voices that I heard, though, at the time, I didn’t succeed in determining their source. The Higher Committee of the Medical Board diagnosed my condition as advanced schizophrenia. And indeed, I had deteriorated to a degree that suggested the diagnosis was correct. I neglected my clothes completely until they became rags. If I didn’t dare bathe, and filth accumulated on my body, then why should I change my clothes, shave my hair, beard, and moustache, or cut my nails? I never married, of course; how could I dare think of it, my condition being what it was? I was forced into an early ill-health retirement, applying Article 4 of the Mental Illness Act. That was like a social death sentence. But it was also an open door, allowing me to emerge a little from the ambiguity of the situation. Retirement provided me with enough to live on, without the burden of going to work and suffering the consequences. I was an engineer at the Talkha power station. It was a delicate job, and, during some of the shifts, I bore the responsibility of lighting hundreds of thousands of homes, factories, and workshops in and around the city of Mansoura. Of course, I had borne the consequences any power outage had on the lives of several million people in this vast area, even if only for a second. I felt relieved.


Days stretched before me with no end. People’s pitying and inquisitive looks pushed me even more to stay at home. I only ventured out to buy necessities from the stores that remained open at midnight. Within my own four walls, I started the journey in search of an answer to the question you’d struck me with: “What do you think about the nature of your case? How do you explain it?” I’m an electrical engineer, and I’ve always been interested in physics. I was anxious to find an explanation for my case among the works of modern physics, which I found in the library of the Mansoura Faculty of Engineering, from which I graduated. The only time I changed my clothes to look acceptable, and not appear eccentric, was when I went to that library. But I didn’t bathe or shower. Instead, I wiped my body with 555 Cologne. Its strong scent nearly suffocated me, but it was enough to convince me that my smell wasn’t off-putting. I didn’t find in the papers on modern physics a thread that would lead me to anything. I almost gave up, surrendering to the idea that I was crazy, and that what I heard were simply hallucinations that didn’t exist in reality. But then a fleeting idea suddenly lit up in my mind. I felt that I’d hit on an explanation nobody else had suggested, stemming from the simple laws of physics we were taught in high school. You know that sound consists of waves of compression and disturbance in the air, structures that flow around us and don’t disappear or dissipate as most people think. It’s energy that remains, lurking in hiding places commensurate with its strength and compact space. It is embedded in the pores of wood, in the cracks of walls, and in gaps, wherever they are, and it’s set free only when it’s effectively pulled out once again. Herein lies the crux of my issue. When water comes out from the thin holes of the showerhead or the sink tap, tightly compressed, or when the mass of the earth attracts rain showers, the water in these cases is like taut cords, which can vibrate with the faintest breeze or the slightest breath. In the case of a resonance box, its cords vibrate without being touched when a tuning fork is struck and then set against the wood of the box; the cords vibrate at the same frequency as the tuning fork. In the same manner, the vibration of the cords of water summons hidden sounds, bringing them out of their hiding places. Each vibration summons its counterpart. The cords of rainwater, as well as tap and shower water, summon with their vibrations the sounds of screams, cries, wails, and laments. The sounds causing my terror of water? I haven’t yet been able to answer this question. I thought perhaps the place was only filled with hiding spots for sounds of sadness and pain. Perhaps there were no sounds of joy in the first place, or the sounds of joy were too weak to implant themselves in those delicate spots. I moved from one place to another, in search of some location where the cords of water didn’t summon sounds that terrified me. I left the house in Mansoura and moved to an old house we owned in the countryside near Sherbin. Then, I left Dakahlia completely and moved to Alexandria. After that, I sold most of what I had inherited from my parents, as I was their only son, and left Egypt. I traveled west in Arab lands, as far as Tangier, and east as far as Salalah. I passed through Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad, but didn’t stay long. I traveled the northwest from New York to Gdansk. In Asia, I started from Izmir to Manila, then Southeast Asia attracted me, and I finally found myself in Cambodia. I wandered with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, touched by their call to ruralize the cities and escape from the yoke of imperialism by returning the whole society to agriculture. The poem’s imagery was sweet, but the poet was extremely blunt and brutal. 

I wasn’t required to bathe or wash in the midst of the commotion of ruralization and its reverence for the color of mud. When pressure increased on the Khmer Rouge, poetry evaporated and only platitudes remained. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge moved westward in the shadow of the Thais. They let them rob Cambodia’s riches of frankincense and sapphire mines in exchange for protection. The Maoists allied themselves with the Yankee agents, and I fled south, with my mud. I crossed the arc of the Green Elephant Mountains and the fragrant Cardamom Hills, finding myself deep in the virgin forest. The north with all its conflicts and deceptions was erased, and the southwest opened for me its forgotten pristine embrace. A world outside the boundaries of our own, isolated by the mountain range in the north and guarded by impenetrable mangrove swamps along the coast on the Gulf of Thailand. Its rainforests were inhabited only by dense vegetation, animals, free birds, and the remnants of isolated and scattered tribes. Humans living intuitively in the peace of the jungle, covering their nakedness only with fabric woven from the branches of vines. They survive by gathering wild fruit and fishing from the green valley’s transparent streams. They light fires to grill their food by striking two stones together amidst straw and firewood. They’re not barbaric; they live in small, close-knit, loving families, and I have married one of their daughters. They are now my family, and I speak their language.


I won’t reveal their secrets, or lead anyone to them, so that this virginity remains in the world. Even you—despite the amazing surprise and joy of meeting you after all these years, in that place at the edge of the world—, I didn’t lead you to them. I did with you what I did and will continue to do with the few tourists who have begun to arrive to the outskirts of this place; we just wander at the fringe of the virgin forest without penetrating its secret twists and turns, and I warn of the danger of any breach. This forest is capable of swallowing up those who aren’t sincere and true in their desire to seek asylum in it, who appeal to its virginity. I was sincere and true as I threw myself weeping in its green embrace. I bid farewell to a lifetime of agony from screams, cries, wails, terrified panting, and frightened fleeing footsteps that rang in my ears whenever the water cords vibrated. Now, the water here rarely scares me. I bathe with my soul’s prolonged longing for water, my body’s burning thirst, which has lasted more than fifteen years of resonating echoes. I must have told you during our tour that the main rainy season here extends for six whole months, and it doesn’t wholly cease during the rest of the year. Half a year of brutal downpour. Half a year of cosmic vibrations of the water cords, yet no sounds of screams or wails or even children crying reaches my ears. Only the sounds of birds, rustling leaves, crackling small branches, rushing tigers, leaping monkeys, and pacing elephants. These are the sounds of the universe’s resonance box here. They aren’t live voices; they’re what the rain cords summon. Birds and animals all stop singing or screaming and perhaps even moving under this rain. What I hear under the rain is something from the jumbled sounds hidden within the pores of the forest. These sounds don’t frighten me, so I can bathe whenever I want now, even to the depths of my bones, from heaven’s taps and generous showers. Outside the rainy season, nothing suits me more than bathing under the waterfalls that tumble down from the high springs. As if I’m confident of the innocence of what the water-cord vibrations will bring here, and relish bathing without the old, distant sounds of pain. I found a new beginning, which may explain my motive in writing to you. It may be to confirm my certainty that I’m healed. It may be a desire to glance at old memorabilia in a remote, locked vault. And it’s definitely nostalgia, or part nostalgia. I miss Egypt and Mansoura, but the sounds summoned by the water cords there terrify me. I yearn and hold back, and I’m undoubtedly tormented, caught between nostalgia and reluctance. The memories of my pain remain heavier than the repercussions of my nostalgia, while the virgin forest still grants me its generous solace. I have a hut in the twisted heart of the forest, reached only by the wings of butterflies and birds, and my wife’s simple and peaceful parents. My food lies in the clear streams, and on the branches of bountiful trees. I don’t need much for clothes in this weather, which is warm and humid all year round. I’ve been bored, but I’ve found an opportunity to block any crack from which boredom might seep in; it’s the same opportunity that led me to meet you, and which will prevent you from coming back to meet me. During one of my fits of boredom, I came out of the forest and crossed a valley through the Cardamom Hills. I came to a small remote town, and I discovered that the civil war was over. A dusty peace had come to Cambodia, and Sihanouk had settled in his old palace in Phnom Penh, and the country had two prime ministers. Ships returned to the tributaries of the Mekong River, and tourists have begun flocking to see the Wat Pho temples. Relief agencies and missionaries were active in providing those with amputated limbs with artificial hands and legs, and religions and creeds of every stripe. I was looking for a book to read to kill the boredom spreading within me because of pollutants of my old life. I reached a deal with the owner of a small wooden shop that rested against the trunk of a coconut palm, hung with a sign for a tourist agency called ‘Tonlé Sap’. At first, it all seemed farcical, but it resulted in a tangible deal: I work as a guide for tourists in the forest, and, in exchange, the man brings me books and newspapers in English or Arabic, if he can, from the capital. There had been no place for money in my new life, and that remains the case. Tourists began to arrive. Each time, I was summoned using a method of my choosing, so that no one would creep deeper into the forest. It’s the same way I was summoned to accompany you and your photographer. The rainforest doesn’t have an easy disposition, like any other forest. It’s composed of tiers upon tiers of lush, dense vegetation, climbing over each other, enveloping each other, starting from a ground covered with trunks and ferns and rising to the top of the forest, tightly intertwined with high branches, through which it is difficult to see the sky, so that the sun’s rays barely infiltrate its minute gaps. The man from the town climbs to a certain peak of the mountain, calls my name three times, and then returns to his shop. After about an hour and a half, I reach the shop to pick up the tourists, as happened with you. The sound of the man’s call never penetrates the thick forest. It doesn’t reach me as a sound. The sound, when it’s released, hits the forest’s wall of vegetation with its waves. Wildflowers vibrate, and the air stirs, moving other flowers and the tender leaves of ferns, till I see it where I am. When the flowers and fern leaves tremble three times, I know he’s calling me.


Before leaving the forest, I peek through its green screens to make sure that no one is watching the path I take. In my tours with strangers, I lead them no farther than the edge of the forest’s periphery. I didn’t even let you see farther than the edge of this periphery, despite your great amazement at what you saw and despite the old place you occupy in my heart. I’m afraid of losing the peace of this forest, which grants me rain without weeping or terror. There are strange noises that have started to appear recently, since the arrival of tourists. Small things, but they summon some of my old fears. The vibrations of the rain cords are now summoning sharp sounds that frighten me. The sound of a branch being cut; a sound that might be a muffled shot or a sudden punch; the sound of malicious gossip, or the sound of spiteful pessimism. But the peace of the forest is still a clear ocean that isn’t disturbed by these specks of dust from “civilized” people. I hope I haven’t tempted you to come. I wish you wouldn’t. I feel your curiosity is intense, and that the force of your amazement is difficult to resist. You might think of returning to “examine me” and review “the whole issue” once and for all. Please don’t. When you finish reading this letter of mine, I will have disappeared into the heart of the forest. And if you return, your curiosity won’t lead me to guide you to this heart. I heard you murmur in Arabic, while we were in the shadows of the forest, wishing you could live amidst this unspoiled land. I know that you can’t, and the forest won’t grant you its tenderness unless you give it your whole heart, extend your roots in its moist soil, and live in harmony with its branches, birds, animals, and even insects. You won’t be able to separate yourself from your family and your life there, and you can’t bring them to live here. You don’t suffer from a pain that will bring you, in all sincerity, to seek refuge in the tenderness of this forest. I feel that my letter, which I wrote on the day of rest amidst our seven days of wandering, is about to come to an end. Writing it—just writing it—seems to have contained the justification and motive for writing, because I feel a great comfort now. I don’t want to be the cause of anxiety in your soul, which I don’t doubt is confused. Live with your loved ones as long as the sounds of pain don’t prevent you from quenching your soul’s thirst for water. And if you envy me, growing weary of your world, yet can’t come to the forest completely pure (and you won’t be able to do so), then stay there and close your eyes on what remains of the fringes of this forest within your soul.  

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