Poetical idea pink, then golden, then grey, then black. Still true to life also. Day, then the night.
—James Joyce, Ulysses
They suddenly seized control of all the media—radio, television, and print—till I felt these men with scowling faces, long black galabias, and dusty, unkempt beards dangling down to their breasts were pursuing me nonstop, allowing me no peace of mind whatsoever. They walked the streets with me, whether these were deserted or crowded. They patrolled the public gardens and roamed through the packed stores I occasionally visit to purchase supplies. They were with me too in the depressing gray office where I work for an insurance agency. Even when I went to the shore in the evening to relax and to breathe in fresh air to help my lungs, which I exhaust by smoking, I saw them following me persistently, doggedly, and stubbornly until I would be forced to return home quickly, panting, with uncertain steps. My mind is troubled by suspicions and terrifying worries. They are like bedbugs and mosquitoes that keep me from sleeping nights during fiery summer months. I toss and turn on pins and needles till dawn, without managing to sleep a wink, while they gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood. One night, which was as desolate as a desert a traveler navigates alone, I dreamt they attacked me while I was walking down narrow, lonely streets obstructed by piles of garbage. They stripped my clothes off in a dark cul-de-sac and violated me. I lack sufficient courage to relate the details of this assault and cannot describe its psychological effects adequately. Yes, Gentlemen, they perpetrated that atrocity on me while I slept beside my beautiful wife, for whom my colleagues envy me. I was able to tell that from their looks, gestures, and whispers when she occasionally waited for me outside my office building. When I awoke from that frightening nightmare, I found that I was clinging to her and that she was as hot as a live coal. She was naked from the waist down, and my prick was rammed between her cheeks. She murmured for me to do with her whatever I wanted while releasing the shuddering moan I enjoy hearing before intercourse. My penis, however, shriveled and turned flaccid. I wasn’t able to attain an erection no matter how I tried. That morning, my wife did not kiss me the way she usually did and avoided looking at me till she left the house. My little daughter, Sana’, who is five, stopped rushing happily to kiss me when she woke and no longer threw herself into my arms when I returned home from work in the evening. She began to refuse outright for me to tell her bedtime stories before she fell asleep or for me to take her to the kindergarten or accompany her to the zoo—or even for me to touch her. Just the sight of me would send her running—as if I were a savage beast in a horror film. At other times, she would stand some distance away and stare at me suspiciously and cautiously—as if I were a total stranger. If I attempted to approach or converse with her, she would scream loudly in alarm, forcing me to desist immediately and remove myself as far away as possible. My relationship gradually deteriorated with my wife and my daughter Sana’, who is the most precious part of my life. Then I no longer ate breakfast, lunch, or supper with them. The moment I entered the house, I would feel I was a persona non grata there. Once night fell, my daughter, her eyes clouded by dark sorrow, would flee to her room early. Shortly after that my wife would quit me too, without a word. Entering the bedroom, she would lock the door securely—underlining for me the point that sleeping next to her could now only be a memory from the distant past. So I would sit alone in the living room till late into the night. I wouldn’t turn on the television for fear of seeing Islamists trekking across deserts waving black banners, slaughtering men in the presence of their children and wives, beheading people while chanting “La illaha illa Allah” and “Allahu Akbar,” terrorizing the residents of cities and villages, issuing fatwas that legalized murder, destruction, plunder, and slavery wherever they go. I went to excruciating pains to forget them and expunge them from my brain and memory but failed miserably, because they were always in front of me and behind me, on my right and left—like my shadow, from which I can never liberate myself.
This wasn’t the end of it, because my condition worsened day by day, dragging me down into dark, bottomless chasms. At work, my colleagues no longer greeted me politely and graciously as they had done throughout the ten years I had spent with them in the agency. If a colleague was forced to address me on some work-related topic, he would limit himself to such a terse, glacial sentence that I could scarcely understand what he wanted from me. Then if I requested some clarification, he would walk off, repeating something under his breath—a curse or a rebuke. When I cast a fleeting glance at my other colleagues, I would find them absorbed in their work with a phony earnestness that only doubled my rage and distress. Then I would depart, trembling and feeling like fleeing and never returning to that company. From time to time, though, I would attempt to begin a conversation on some subject with them. Then I would be rudely rebuffed. At that moment my anguish would grow even more intense, and my face would burn with shame and fury toward them and toward my psyche, which had become as despicable as that of a beggar whose pleas and plight are ignored by passersby as hunger’s knives dice his innards. I often swore the weightiest oaths that I would definitely never try that again. Then the next day, I would tell myself: Take it easy! The good times may return. My despair might disappear, and my comrades at work might recover their fondness for me, speak amiably to me, and laugh out loud at jokes I told them. But my hope would quickly evaporate as once more I sank into suspicions and fears and my isolation grew ever more pronounced. Only when I left the office for a few minutes would my colleagues’ good humor return along with their love of conversation. They would burst into noisy laughter that continued till they heard my footsteps as I returned to the office.
My nightmares began to resemble horror films then. I saw those men in black attacking the city, closing the markets, coffeehouses, and restaurants, preventing children from going to school and men from going to work, blanketing squares, streets, and public gardens with black, and spreading out along the shore till they shrouded the horizon. Then women took to the streets with their hair flying, beating their faces and breasts and weeping for their lost husbands, sons, and relatives. Yes, I saw these dreadful images in rapid succession, as if they were projected onto a screen at a cinema. I occasionally saw mountains jerk around, their peaks swaying together. The sky barraged the city with the bones of the dead and the earth split asunder, spitting out rotted corpses and severed heads. Then black clouds of locusts attacked, devouring all the crops, trees, and plants till the earth became a barren desert, devoid even of animals. I repeatedly shouted mightily and woke with a parched throat and a body so hot it was virtually on fire. My screams of terror would naturally rouse my wife and daughter. Then I would find myself cowering meekly before my wife as if I had committed some inexcusable, hideous sin. She wouldn’t tolerate this and began to threaten to evict me from the house, on the grounds that I constituted a threat to her and “her” daughter.
The day I turned thirty-eight, I headed to my place of employment through a cold, heavy downpour. I arrived there wet and feeling gloomy, because my wife had not even seen fit to wish me a happy birthday, not even icily or neutrally. When I entered the office, the phone rang. Trembling with fear for no particular reason, I picked up the receiver. Then the flirtatious secretary Siham, whom all the guys dream of shagging, informed me impassively that my boss wished to speak with me in half an hour. Putting down the receiver, I began to leaf through the folder in front of me, as a tremor spread through my entire body. Even though I attempted to convince myself that the topic would be nothing out of the ordinary and that actually a promotion might be awaiting me, fear engulfed me till I felt I was being strangled with a coarse rope. Confronting this desperate situation, I went up to the third floor as if I were being led to the gallows. Siham’s lackluster greeting, which she tossed at me while taking care not to look at me, only increased my deranged condition. My boss welcomed me amiably enough and ordered coffee for me. Then he started asking how I was and how my little family was doing. I replied tersely. After this he gazed at me for a time. Then, looking serious and stern—the way he does on official occasions and at meetings—he said, “Mr. Mansur, you’ve changed a lot lately—isn’t that so?”
I didn’t understand what he meant by this. So I didn’t respond and stared at him the way a defendant stares at a judge who has disrupted his train of thought with a question he doesn’t know how to answer.
As his expression grew ever more serious and stern, he added, “Yes, Mr. Mansur, you’ve changed a great deal. I will not conceal from you that the reports submitted to me all concur that your productivity has declined considerably. These reports also remark that you spend a great deal of time biting your fingernails, mumbling, and muttering. In fact, you occasionally utter some delirious expression your colleagues don’t understand. In a single week, you have been late for work four days in a row. You have also left the office before the designated end of the workday without obtaining permission from anyone.”
He shifted in his chair and scrutinized me for some moments. Then almost amiably he asked, “Is something troubling you, Mr. Mansur?”
His question so terrified me that I wasn’t able to utter a syllable!
Then his expression relaxed, and I heard him say gently and graciously, “Mr. Mansur, you’ve been a model employee. During the ten years I have been here, your performance has delighted and pleased us. You know full well that I’ve praised your qualities and diligence on numerous occasions—not in private but in your presence and before your colleagues. This time, however, I feel duty-bound to caution you before it’s too late.”
I summoned all my reserves to defend myself. I told my boss, “Sir, I swear by God Almighty that what has been said about me in the reports isn’t true at all. I am working as seriously and diligently as ever and have never been late for work or left before six. So I can state that these reports are merely biased slanders!”
Looking earnest and stern again, the director replied, “You know as well as everyone else, Mr. Mansur, that I ignore backbiting and slander. This has been my policy since I became head of this firm, and I shall continue to be guided by it to the end. Without going into details, Mr. Mansur, I advise you to take my warning seriously. I hope you will return to your previous level of performance!”
The director rose and shook my hand warmly. Then I returned to the office. The moment I entered, my colleagues stopped talking and became glumly silent. I buried my head in the files piled before me and knuckled down to work.
When I left the office, I walked through torrents of rain. The cold was stinging, the congestion was severe, the vehicles were honking loudly, and the anarchy was intolerable. Fleeing all this, I hastened to a bar called “The Corsair,” which was by the sea, wanting to have a drink to relieve my tension and worries, but the waiter, whose nickname was “Samson” and whose petulance was famous, blocked my entry. When I asked why, he furrowed his brow and, looking really mean, shouted, “Have you forgotten what you did two days ago?”
“What did I do?”
“Do you think I’m an idiot or have you lost your memory?”
“In this case, how can you not remember what you did here two days ago?”
“What did I do?”
He continued staring at me. Then he said, “Two days ago, after a couple of drinks, you began to utter obscenities. Then you turned over the table, and I threw you out of the bar—but only with difficulty. So that’s why you’d better never return here!”
“Brother, did I really do all that?”
“You did even more than that, but I don’t want to waste time talking to you. You’d better leave now before my blood boils and I do something you’ll never forget!”
I walked off feeling worthless and puny, wondering what had happened. My life is ruined and putrid. My enemies are growing ever more numerous, and a wall of loathing separates me from my wife and my daughter, who is the most precious part of my life. One day I’ll find myself alone—without any support or friend, perhaps without any work or shelter. This is all possible because men wearing black galabias and waving black flags are dogging my footsteps, poisoning my blood, dumping me into dark caverns, and contaminating my spirit. I’ve become a hostile, foul-mouthed boor, who is difficult to live with. I have done my utmost, more than once, to liberate myself from them but have failed miserably, whereas they remain mighty. All indications are that they will grow in strength and force. Even the Great Powers are baffled by them and have been unable to defeat them. Now they are black phantoms that pursue me day and night. What shall I do? Should I go home, where loathing and aversion await me? No, no, I had better wait till my wife and daughter were sound asleep. I need to be focused and wary. I shouldn’t cause another incident like last week when I arrived home after midnight. Without turning on a light, I groped my way through the darkness. Suddenly a fierce tremor shook the house. I froze in place, seized by intense fear. A few minutes later I turned on the light to find that our unique vase lay shattered on the floor. My wife stood at the bedroom door with disheveled hair, her eyes red with rage. She immediately began screaming and wailing—lamenting her terrible luck and miserable life. I remained nailed in place, like a thief caught red-handed.
The city quieted down, and the shops closed their doors, but the rain continued falling in torrents. I entered a bar called “al-Sa‘ada” and found that it was packed with patrons who were all drinking and smoking. They were trading wisecracks in loud voices and from time to time would explode with laughter as they pounded their feet on the floor. I ordered a beer and went to drink it at the counter as I scrutinized faces that broke like waves before me. I don’t know what happened after that. All I can say is that I found myself inside a police station. Three policemen were asking me why I started a brawl at the Happiness Bar. They mentioned that I had slapped the waiter, broken some glasses, cursed the patrons, and spat at one of them. In fact, I had insulted His Excellency and uttered obscenities.
“I’m sorry, Gentlemen. But I don’t remember any of the things you’ve mentioned.”
They thrust their heads toward me and all asked as one, “Are we lying to you?”
“No, no—I don’t mean that. But believe me: I actually don’t remember any of this.”
They exchanged glances. Then the man I thought was in charge said, “I know you very well, Mr. Mansur. I know you’re a gentleman who never causes problems. That’s why I couldn’t believe that you would have committed acts like these that could land you in prison!”
“Excellent Gentlemen, I apologize to you again for whatever I have done and declare to you that this will never happen again!”
“You acknowledge then that you started a brawl . . . isn’t that so?”
“I’m sorry, Gentlemen!”
They exchanged glances once more. Then the officer I thought was in charge said to me, “Okay, Mr. Mansur. We accept your apology, and you can return home now. We counsel you not to go into bars in the future!”
“Thank you, Kind Gentlemen!”
I returned home at one in the morning. When I woke, I found myself stretched out on the sofa in my street clothes. My wife and my daughter Sana’ were nearby, staring at me with disgust as if I were a stinky, stray dog that had snuck into the house when they weren’t looking!
My condition deteriorated day by day. I quarreled frequently with all types of people. At the agency, the secretary presented me a list that showed I had been late to work every morning, scarcely did anything at the office except bite my fingernails, stare at my colleagues, utter strange words no one could understand, and laugh for no reason at all. She concluded her presentation by saying the boss advised me to rest for two weeks in hopes that my condition would improve and I would become as energetic and vigorous as before.
I thanked her and left to wander the streets of the Old City. They were cluttered with piles of garbage, cats, and elderly women. Even though the sky was clear and the sun was shining, the cold was severe and penetrated to my bones. I asked myself more than once: What am I going to do during these next two weeks? Shall I return to my village in the forests of the country’s midsection, even though I haven’t visited it in many years? No,I wouldn’t do that. Ever since my father died, I hadn’t been able to stand the series of quarrels between my four brothers. As often as not these quarrels flared up for trivial reasons and concerned a cow, an olive tree, or even a chicken. During each quarrel they would exchange insults in loud voices as they brandished cudgels in the air. In fact they fought till blood flowed. I believe that the real reason for all this was that the blood of ancient tribesmen, who used to battle and fight each other all the time, still courses through their veins. If I went there, they would be suspicious and think I came with some ulterior motive. For that reason they would unite against me till I returned home as quickly as possible. No, no, I wouldn’t go to my village! Should I go to the capital? That idea would also bring undesirable consequences, because the bustle there was feverish, and people never stopped running around, competing with each other, and fighting. A person there could steal a bite of food from you before it reached your mouth. So it would be best for me to stay here in this northern city, where I felt at home and had sunk my roots. What was important was to prepare an excellent program to fill my days and nights so I wouldn’t feel lonely, cranky, or frustrated. It was also important for me to do my utmost to restore my affectionate relationship with my wife and daughter. Failing that, I would remain anxious and worried and the black phantoms would continue to pursue me, disturbing my life and doubling my worries and pains. Oh, how I wish I could enter the house to find my wife happy and laughing! Then I would kiss her and whisper to her sweet words that would make her even more beautiful and radiant. Then my daughter would immediately throw herself in my arms and I would hug her. I would thrust into her pocket a piece of chocolate after supper and tell her bedtime stories until sleep carried her away to a world of beautiful dreams. Then I would join my wife in the bedroom and find that she had fixed herself up just as she had done on our wedding night. Oh, how happy I would be when the blissful, happy days that had characterized my life over the course of many years returned!
The Old City discharged me to the sea. So I found myself gazing with fascination and interest at the spectacular scenery and remarkable colors that appeared before me as the sun set over the peaks of the western mountains. My soul was delighted, and the light flooded my heart and spirit. For a few moments, I sensed that the days of harsh isolation and terrifying suspicions had departed forever. Suddenly Mihub appeared before me. He wore a blue cap, a shirt the same color, jeans, and white Adidas sneakers. I wasn’t surprised to find him here, since he was someone who loved the sea, no matter the season. He was a man of few words and was always alone. I had heard people of this northern city relate strange stories about him. They said he had migrated to Europe when he was eighteen. He had spent almost thirty years there and had cut all ties with members of his family. Over the course of time, everyone forgot him and no one mentioned him. One autumn, however, he reappeared, with gray hair. Long years of exile had carved creases onto his face, and his blue eyes sparkled with the glint peculiar to solitary people. When one of his relatives sought to befriend him, Mihub fled to live in a dilapidated house in the woods near the sea. I had encountered him a number of times and discussed various topics with him, but never for long. Once, when I attempted to learn something about his private life, his expression became morose, and he walked away with deliberate steps, muttering angrily. I had to apologize to him more than once to restore my relationship with him.
Without returning my greeting, Mihub said mournfully, “Life is rotten. The whole world is rotten—isn’t that so?”
Then as he stared at the sea, which was turning dark before our eyes, he added, “Yes, life is rotten, and the whole world is rotten too. Perhaps it won’t be long till man totally loses the ability to enjoy the beauty of nature, which is methodically being destroyed. Rich and poor share responsibility for despoiling the earth. Because of all of this, forests will be eradicated, orchards and gardens will disappear, and the earth will become as bare and arid as al-Rub‘ al-Khali Desert. There will be no clean air, and people will die on their feet. The rivers and lakes will dry up, and the seas and oceans will change into stinky, stagnant swamps without any fish in them. Yes, all this will happen. What makes me angry and upset is that politicians and public intellectuals in the great, rich nations keep praising what they call “scientific and technological progress,” ignoring the devastation that is occurring everywhere in the world. Now the Inquisition has returned, books are burned again, and poets are slaughtered. The Assassins whom we assumed had gone extinct have appeared once more and are armed with unprecedented levels of blind malice, villainy, and hostility. Now they are spreading death and terror everywhere on earth so that scarcely anyone escapes their evil.”
His words frightened me, and I walked away, trembling. I don’t remember what I did after that, but when I regained consciousness, I found myself stretched out on a bed wrapped in bandages. My surroundings suggested that I was in a hospital. I wonder what’s happened? Did a car run over me? Did strangers attack me at the shore? Did I fight with someone in a pub? These questions ran through my mind as four policemen entered the room. They greeted me coldly. Then they pulled chairs toward the bed and two sat down on either side of me. The officer who seemed to be in charge questioned me about my actions of the previous day. I said I had encountered Mihub but didn’t mention what he had told me.
This officer poked his head toward me to ask, “Mr. Mansur, do you know what you did yesterday?”
“No, Sir, I do not.”
“You attacked your wife with a knife! If the neighbors hadn’t intervened in a timely way, you would have killed her!”
I released a howl of alarm and rocked from side to side as if wanting to jump out of bed. The policemen, however, restrained me. Then I burst into tears and heard the officer tell me, “Calm down, Mr. Mansur. Please compose yourself. We merely want to help you.”
“But how could I have done this? Why?” I asked, almost choking on my tears.
“We don’t know, Mr. Mansur. All we know is that when we reached your house, you were raving, uttering obscenities, and cursing the neighbors. Your terrified daughter had fainted!”
I continued sobbing feverishly. When my weeping subsided, the officer told me, “You must calm down, Mr. Mansur. Let the doctors save you from the severe psychological crisis you’ve been experiencing for several months.”
“I’m sane!” I protested, wiping away my tears.
“No, you’re not, Mr. Mansur. Your conduct and actions show you’re not in your right mind. So we advise you to calm down. If you don’t, your life will get even worse. Now we must leave. We hope you recover as soon as possible.”
They departed, leaving me alone in that white wasteland.
HASSOUNA MOSBAHI, who was born in 1950 near Kairouan, Tunisia, is a writer, literary critic, and poet, as well as a freelance journalist for German newspapers. After studying in Paris, Madrid, and London, he settled in Munich, where he lived from 1985 and in 2000. In 2005 Mosbahi returned to Tunisia. He has published, in Arabic and German, four volumes of short stories, several novels, and some non-fiction. He has additionally made a name for himself as a travel writer and a translator into Arabic, translating Henri Michaux, René Char, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet. His biography of Saint Augustine was published in Arabic in Tunisia in 2010. In 2012, he wrote and lectured in the United States.William Maynard Hutchins
WILLIAM MAYNARD HUTCHINS, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation in 2005 - 2006 for his translation from Arabic of The Seven Veils of Seth by Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing) and again in 2011 - 2012 for a translation of New Waw by Ibrahim al-Koni (the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas. He was the co-winner of the 2013 Saif Ghobash/Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal (Garnet). Scheduled for release in 2015 are his translations of French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir (ANTIBOOKCLUB), Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir (Bloomsbury-Qatar Foundation), The Scarecrow by Ibrahim al-Koni (University of Texas Press), and A Portal in Space by Mahmoud Saeed (University of Texas Press).