It was a quite morning like the others, peaked with grey clouds, as Hussein was woken by the soft ringing of the bell. But as usual, it did not arouse his curiosity at all, as who knocks at the door in this city without an appointment, except Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the gasman, or..
Sleep drew him into its vast chasms, and he surrendered himself to it, sinking under the velvety touch of the quilt into its translucent realm. There he was, once again with his father in the middle of a wasteland, wide, and covered with salt. Now and then one of them trampled on the seedlings of arid thorns, and a strange rustling came from them.
His father’s clothes had not changed at all; the Aqal, the Kuffiya, and even the Saya* itself. But instead of his tobacco pouch, he was carrying a pipe, and instead of talking about his cattle and his plantations, he was discussing a very important scientific matter. All that Hussein was able to understand from his father’s long lecture was that the credit for the discovery of the Theory of Relativity was due to Napoleon, and not to Einestein, and that the speed of light varies according to changes in the weather. Suddenly, his father’s hand reached out to grab his arm. He shouted a warning to him of an adder darting under the thrones, but at the same time his body lunged forward to crush the snake’s tail with his foot.
He woke in terror and the friendly gloom greeted him. Bit by bit he acclimatized to the room, the soft daylight was seeping through the thick curtain, and the shapes of large flowers appeared, adorning it. But the colours remained pale in his eyes in spite of their boisterous nature. With the resplendent songs of the blackbird, things regained their solidity and reality. How greatly the nature of his father in the dream different from what it was in reality; instead of his dull and severe character, he now found another person, mild-mannered and easy to get on with, and instead of limited thinking and narrow vision there was a passion for debate and a vast range of view. One thing remained an object of Hussein’s amazement; his father’s continual use of English in all his conversation- since his father was an illiterate man who, through all his life, was only proficient in the dialect of rural folk.
While he was coming down the stairs to the ground floor, Hussein saw a piece of white paper peeping out from the letterbox in the front door. It was a note about a registered parcel which he must pick up from the local postal centre. The blood trembled in his veins as he examined the paper. For years he had longed for a personal letter, but all he ever reaped were electricity or telephone bill, and sometimes a letter urging him to open a new bank account or to choose a more lucrative insurance policy. Nevertheless, at the moment he woke up, going first to the front door became an involuntary ritual he repeated every day, to search among the advertisements invading his home fro his heart’s immeasurable desire.
He would not be able to collect his “treasure” from the Post Office until Barbara returned from the supermarket. His little girl was in her angelic sleep after an exciting evening spent with the children of friends celebrating her third birthday. So instead of going to bed at seven, her day stretched out until ten. How this had caused his wife to worry, it made her snatch Nadine from the table filled with cake and drinks, and move Nadine’s hand a little: “She’s saying goodnight to you all”. Through the tears she echoed what Barbara wanted her to say, waving her tender hand to them. In protest he said cheerfully: “In our town the children go to bed after the adults.” It made the others laugh, but his wife, always serious, threw him a look of mild rebuke, as if saying to him: “When will you stop your childish behaviour.”
Barbara had the purest soul. When he looked into her small eyes he found nothing but her absolute attraction fro him. Then he would be tempted to confess to her his little disloyalties and would get from her only understanding and justification for his follies. She would drive him to a session of intimate psychological analysis, during which she overwhelmed him with questions about his recent dreams, about his childhood and adolescent experiences, and he would be engaged in reshaping his past according to whatever form she could comprehend; since what kind of answer could he give her when she asked him whether his mother tucked him up in his bed at night. He who only knew about sleeping on the floor, surrounded by his ten brothers. What would he say to her about the cruelty of his father; “Did he play with you?” “Sometimes.”
From time to time a strong feeling accosted him that the past had changed, as the course of his life had changed after meeting Barbara. It was as if the blows from his father’s stick and his hateful scolding were confused dreams. “Did your mother help you to read?” “A lot.”
A strange feeling had flooded through him that he had been incarnated, unawares, in the form of a mature man, and then thrown into the middle of this peaceful island. Those images pervading, the depths of his soul were nothing but echoes of another life, happening to someone else alien to him in a very distant time and place. But forgetfulness also had its disadvantages; sometimes he found himself unable to recollect the chain of yesterday’s events; what he had for dinner; what did he talk about with his wife before making love; what he discussed in a conversation with his elderly neighbour in the morning. It was as if the world he was experiencing resembled a silent film; no rage, no quarrels, no upset, no complaining. “How beautiful the weather is today,” his retired neighbour would say, “it’s the right time to plant daffodil, isn’t it?” “You’re right,” Hussein would answer him with fake enthusiasm, “I must buy plants at the weekend as well.”
The idea suggested by Barbara to study video photography was very appropriate for him, to ease the monotony of work, and to document important events in his life before a whirlpool of forgetfulness swallowed them up. He had only needed to attend an evening class once a week, and to buy a camera.
Nadine’s birthday party had been a significant occasion to put the test he had learnt in the past few months. He had shouted kindly to his little girl, after aiming the camera at the group of children gathered in a circle around her. “Now, blow out the candles,” then the singing and clapping followed. But the scene, on viewing a little later, didn’t appeal to him; Nadine seemed scared, and putting out the candles took a long time, and then his daughter’s sharp coughs permeated the sound. All of which compelled him to re-enact the entire scene.
How the video gave him the ability to compose the past according to what he wanted it to be. It was possible to alter events at the moment they took place, then record them the way he wished. With the video the past became more a fabrication than reality. There he was, following the party scenes on the screen, the selected songs, the movements of the slender bodies of the little ones and the smiling faces of the old, the coloured balloons and ribbons, the large round cake. It was as if there was no room for disarray to break in to the order of things dwelling in the corridors of the splendid past; there was nothing but that which was elegant and beautiful…
He dozed a little on the sofa, before his wife’s fingers brought him back to consciousness, stroking his thinning hair. “You might get cold like this. Shall I bring a cover for you?” she said gently. He asked her about the supermarket. “Incredibly crowded.” He mumbled , getting up, “It’s usually like this on Saturdays.”
On the way to the Post Office anticipation began to bob around in his head without mercy. The street of monotonous Victorian building seemed to him brighter and more radiant, but the parcel the clerk placed in his hands caused his enthusiasm to wane. On his way home he kept looking down from time to time at his name and address written on the large brown envelope, his fingers pressing down on the file of papers stuffed inside it.
The contents of the parcel awakened a secret yearning inside him for that phase of his life buried in timelessness when he had been a leading member of the students organization of the Party. “Our dear comrade.. We invite you to attend our function being held tomorrow..” He was examining the printed leaflets of various dates; wars and famines which had occurred, earthquakes and ordeals, new party rifts and disputes. He called to mind, with extraordinary clarity, the last months he had spent with the organization which had been breaking away from the original group, and the destructive battles he had fought against those resisting the secession. His removal from the leading position was inexplicable, after all the sacrifices he had mad for the organization, the indifference attitudes of his comrades drove to nervous breakdown.
He had met Barbara at the hospital to which he was taken, and in the hands of his doctor he began the steps to his baptism toward another path, step by step moving away from that obscure clique, and bit by bit the intensity of the anger and bitterness faded, and in conjunction with it, his journey of gradual assimilation with this world began. After the departure of their friends she would say to him apologetically: “The people here don’t pass dogmatic judgments on any thing,” a reminder of the opinions he had meted out that evening with them. At that point he would erupt, and smash the cups and plates, then leave the house, indignant, enraged. He would return several days later to find everything as it was before, his wife greeting him as if his absence had not been more than a few hours.. “The rough laughter might frighten the children, darling,” she would say to him, referring cryptically to his passionate outburst with some of his friends at their last meeting.
Suddenly those times steeped in the past unfold before him, a deluge of emotions swept him away, and he was shaking hands with his comrades of yesterday, recapturing their old images scattered in the extinct corridors of his memory; images blending with the monotonous hubbub in the hall and the penetrating glow of the lights. They seemed to be illusory figures, unrelated to those adolescents who came one day to this island to study. It was as if aeons had passed in the short time he had broken away from them, leaving behind deep wrinkles, white hair, and necks thick with layers of fat. But they were still enjoying the same vitality, for there they were, gathered around him. Patting him on the shoulder enthusiastically. “The course of events has proved the soundness of your ideas,” said on of them apologetically. “Because of this we have decided to choose you as a leader of the organization,” said another. “Our attitude toward you was a strategic error,” said a third person, and the first one answered him: “We were dogmatists”.
Bit by bit the group urged him toward the podium and the murmurs of some of the audience crept into his ears: “He is the new leader.” When the master of ceremonies introduced him the applause burst forth resoundingly, and cheers and songs interrupted him. At that moment the memory of the fiery impromptu speeches which he used to give to their rallies flew through his memory like a spark. His present situation must be nothing but a film from the past which a primitive video lens had recorded. But the cold touch of the microphone, and the silence which enveloped the auditorium when he stood up in front of the crowd, brought him back to the firm reality, and it caused the sweat to pour over his eyes. He pulled a few tissues from a box in front of him and wiped his face. He would resume his enjoyment in the crowd, searching among them for his dead father, for what he saw now was nothing but another troublesome dream. But instead of his father, Barbara was sitting in the first row beside his old comrades, unaware of what was going on around her. Behind her the crowd was utterly, dreadfully silent, waiting in apprehension for what her husband would say. At that moment, seeking deliverance, he tried to summon his rebellious spirit once more for the satisfaction of that tense human sea, but he only mustered broken words which had a strange musical rhythm. He looked around him, and he noticed the disarray in which the tables and chairs. Everything around him was repugnant, inappropriate for the video camera; the crowds gathered around every table, the spaces separating them, the colour-clashing clothes. He would tell them about the need to consider the aesthetics of the present time so that it could be preserved by filming it. He would ask them to attend to closing the buttons of their shirts and jackets, and adjusting their ties, and combing their hair. Then, when he was about to speak the words collided with each other in his mouth. Suddenly, a feeling of lightheadedness overwhelmed him, all at once making him throw off his shackles, and when he clapped his hands once, the loudspeaker returned the echo several times. The voice of that folk singer overcame him, emanating from the depths of time like a mist rising from the abyss, to endow him with unclipped wings. There he was, at last liberated by the folk song, unrestrained, he clapped his hands, and stamped the floor with his feet, and a tremendous volcanic strength swept him away, and threw back from his path thick layers of rock.
He could not remember what happened after that. All that remained in his mind was the image of his wife, unraveling herself quietly from the hall, and before closing the door behind her, she raised her hand, consigning to him an everlasting farewell.