She is totally alone, just as he had been after his friends betrayed him. His appearance in her dreams eases her terrible solitude, but she ultimately has to wake up and face life not knowing whether it is the life she has chosen. She doesn’t want to know.
“Do we choose life or does it choose us?” she was asking. “Do we create our own destinies, or do we simply make our way patiently and submissively according to some pre-ordained fate?”
When she raises her eyes from the glass and meets his gaze, she knows the answer, and she knows that her questions don’t amount to much. As if she’s poking a tiny hole in what is the brick-wall of her powerlessness—and an illusory hole, at that.
“If only I could erase everything behind me, if only I could live in the present moment, here, without having had a life I didn’t choose…”
Did she mean what she was saying? If she hadn’t chosen that life, then who had? Was she just some invisible shadow … mere uncondensed vapor?
“I loved music, especially the violin. What a divine instrument it was … its four strings could carry me so far away without ever breaking. I’d managed to get a scholarship to study in Budapest thanks to a communist friend I’d met at university. She had been on the side of the revolution, the one whose red flags are dyed with the sweat of laborers and peasants toiling for the attainment of their sacrifice. ‘You’ll fill our new lives with melodies,’ she had said. I was so happy I was floating on a cloud. I was in seventh heaven. But they all said no. Who? My father’s brother, my mother’s brother, our relatives, the entire clan, all of them came crawling out of some damned hole just to rip the pages of my life apart. ‘What’s that you want to study, music?’ they said. ‘So you can end up working with dancing girls and crooners and other flotsam? And thanks to whom, those godless atheists, those unbelievers the government is hunting down like the plague? You’re set to go straight from university to Al-Jafr! This girl of yours will be the shame of us…’ When I looked over toward him, my father was stony-faced. Silently, his heart was breaking, he wouldn’t look me in the eye. As if talking to the floor-tiles, he said: ‘What they’re saying is true, dear girl, it’s all for your good.’ … Et tu Brute!”
[Page from the memoirs of a free officer]
Al-Zarqa’ military base, 11:30 PM, 13 April 1957
Everything has fallen apart before we even got started. Our dreams haven’t had a chance to trickle down from our minds and into our hands, and it seems like it’s already over. Is it true that we are really done?
He must’ve known about us, I’m sure he did, or else how could’ve he delivered the pre-emptive but fatal strike?
Right now we’re surrounded, and tomorrow we’ll be tried and thrown in jail. The lucky ones who manage to escape by stealing across the border like brigands will forever be exiles.
Al-Nabulsi was forced out several days ago, martial law will be proclaimed in a few days, and they’re rounding up all the Arab nationalists and the communists. They used us, twice not once: the first time to get rid of Abu Hunayk, when we fell for it and told ourselves that it was our chance to get a seat at the table; and now, to rid the country of Arab nationalists—basically, to rid it of ourselves! Goddamn, what a miserable situation.
They say we’ve encircled Amman, so how come I’m still sitting here with all the roads blocked? The troops of the Alia Brigade crept up on us from Khaww, they burned down the trucks on the road, took over the munitions depots, and surrounded the Officers’ Club. I can just hear them chanting: “Down with Abu Nuwwar! Long Live the King!” Yeah, really! If Abu Nuwwar led a coup, hell has frozen over.
We received no orders, no cables, we hadn’t even coordinated among ourselves yet … We were just pawns flung across the chessboard, we hadn’t matured or ripened yet, we were still cooking … Seven years, and the heat of the forge in our chests has yet to temper the steel in our heads.
What should I be doing, I wonder? I can hear cannon-fire from inside the base and the news from the outside is that large Muslim Brotherhood-led protests, in solidarity with the soldiers besieging us, are at the gates.
I was just told that Maan fled after his troops mutinied, and Ali is on his way back to the palace to await his certain fate; Nadheer and Khalid have reached the Syrian battalion at Mafraq, and I’m stuck here. The deal is done: first they booted us out of the government, and now from the army. A new leaf has been turned.
[The family home, 1979]
‘What they’re saying is true, dear girl, it’s all for your good.’ He couldn’t believe that he’d said that. As he lay on the ground, mortified, the procession of familiar ghosts passed before his eyes: those that had stood fast and those that had sold out, and also those who had switched their rifles from one shoulder to the other. At the end of the day, he was alone: the banners of the revolution had fallen, and the masses that had revered Abdel Nasser as a saint went to the grave with him. How had it come to this?
He felt too weak to lift his head off the floor. He could hear distant voices all around him. And he could also hear the thud of the girl-woman’s heart, as if it were his very bones breaking. He was familiar with that sinking feeling, he knew the unhealed psychic wounds it left. He clutched his prostrate head with his fingers, but the breaking went on, random as a feather caught on a gust of wind.
He could see them in his mind’s eye, all his old comrades-in-arms: the ambassador, the minister, the director of intelligence. Director of intelligence—dear God, he went from being a free officer to heading the intelligence department! How could’ve I been so blind? I wasn’t alone, mind you. The [Suez] Canal was successfully nationalized, land was distributed to the fellahin, the dam was inaugurated, and after Nasser was gone, they witnessed both his killing and theirs; they all hurtled to proclaim the innocence of the sons of Isaac from the blood of Ismail on the altar of the temple, announcing that what belonged to the temple was the temple’s, and what belonged to them also belonged to the temple.
Such a vertiginous fall … and all for nothing. I will bury myself alongside those interred in his grave. We failed, there’s no denying it, but maybe with our death something new will arise and go forth. So let me die, let me die now before my time, so that my body becomes the fertile soil for the one that wields the sword after me, let me die. “What they’re saying is true, dear girl…” May you rebel.
“Two more years, and then I’ll follow my dream…”
“And what’s stopping you from doing it now? You say you’re free…”
“I am free. My father taught me to hold my head high, and to express myself without guile or dissimulation.”
“If what you’re saying is true, surely you wouldn’t depend on my friendship so much. Only with me are you unreservedly you, without airs or protocol, no red carpet to tread on, no ceremony… I accept you as you are. If you were truly free, you could dispense with me.”
“Son of a gun! You should feel honored to be sitting here talking to me!”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying, and you’re confirming it. People who are free are not by their mere presence doing someone a favor or conferring an honor on them. They’re there because they’re free!”
“You’re right. I admit it, I remain bound by my chains, and I’ve come here to be with you in order to loosen them just for an instant. I am not the same me as the one who lives abroad, I mean: the me who lives over there, some of her is not me. It was much worse before. Do you know what it means to make compromises with someone you don’t love? Do you know what happens to a human being when their face is frozen in a fake smile for hours? I would frown for days afterwards just so that my face could go back to looking normal. Things are much better now: I go out on my own, I speak my mind, sometimes firing off words like an automatic weapon. I holler and yell, I no longer care, I’ve become brazen, as they say! But there’s still a chain around my feet.”
“Why the silence?”
“I’m thinking. You said you married him to get away, after your family refused to let you study music abroad. And now this too has become an anchor weighing down your runaway ship!”
“He wanted to emigrate to the United States. ‘This is my opportunity,’ I thought. Here, I was bound to the chains of my family; the very air I breathed was heavy. He was my ticket to freedom: I would escape and become myself. Over there, I enrolled in university and played the violin. He didn’t object or anything, but when the first baby arrived, followed by the second, the third, and then the fourth, there was no more escaping to be done. And now twenty-nine years later, they too have become another long-term bond.”
“In two years, the last of the kids will be grown and gone, and I will jump on the first plane back to Amman, to sit with you here, in this very place; and we’ll sip on cold Mexican beers, and laugh at the wreckage I left behind. And I’ll marry you!”
“Really? You’re too much of a coward to do that.”
“Oh, if only I had met you twenty-nine years ago…!”
“Nah, that’s wishful thinking … I wasn’t then the man I am now.”
“Son of a gun…”
This time wasn’t like all the others. She was flying on air as she walked down the boarding ramp to the plane crossing the Atlantic. He would no longer appear in her dreams because he would be there, before her, in the flesh, the real thing. And even though she would continue to collide with a life that she was unsure she had chosen, now she wanted to know—and she made sure she wouldn’t be alone.
Books@Café: a bookstore and café with a full-service restaurant in the old Jabal Amman neighborhood.
Al-Jafr was a notorious penitentiary in the southeastern desert region of Jordan, where communists and other leftists were imprisoned. It is now closed.
The Free Officers: a group of officers within the Jordanian army accused of attempting a coup against the monarchy in 1957.
Sleiman al-Nabulsi was the prime minister of Jordan from 29 October 1956 until 10 April 1957. His was the first and last Jordanian cabinet to represent a party that had won the majority of votes in an election. He was forced out of office less than six months after being sworn in as prime minister. Martial law was declared in Jordan shortly afterwards. and lasted until 1989.
Abu Huneyk was the Jordanians’ nickname for John Bagut Glubb, aka Glubb Pasha, the British officer who headed the Jordanian army until early 1956. The moniker was coined because of a mild disfigurement to his lower jaw (hanak in Arabic) from a bullet wound.
Khaww is a region in eastern Zarqa where several divisions of the Jordanian army were based.
Ali Abu Nuwwar, the chief-of-staff appointed after the removal of Glubb Pasha in the process of Arabizing the Jordanian army, was blamed for the alleged 1957 coup against the monarchy.
Hisham Bustani is a Jordanian award-winning author of four collections of short fiction. Hisham’s short fiction has been translated into five languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the US, UK, and Canada, including World Literature Today, Los Angeles Review of Books and The Literary Review. In 2009, he was chosen by the German review Inamo as one of the Arab world’s emerging and influential new writers. In 2013, the UK-based cultural webzine The Culture Trip listed him as one of Jordan’s top six contemporary writers. His book The Perception of Meaning, won the 2014 University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award, and was published in 2015 by Syracuse University Press. One of Hisham’s stories was recently chosen to be featured in the inaugural edition of The Best Asian Short Stories anthology, forthcoming in 2017.
Maia Tabet is an Arabic-English literary translator living in Washington DC. Her translations have been widely published in journals, literary reviews, and other specialized publications, including The Common, the Journal of Palestine Studies, Words Without Borders, Portal 9, and Banipal, among others. She is the translator of Little Mountain (Minnesota University Press, 1989, Carcanet, 1990, and Picador, 2007) and White Masks (Archipelago Books, 2010, and MacLehose Press, 2013) by the renowned writer Elias Khoury; and of the winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Throwing Sparks (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012) by Abdo Khal. Her translation of Sinan Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist is forthcoming (Hoopoe Press, Spring 2017) and she is currently finishing her translation into English of Hisham Bustani’s The Monotonous Chaos of Existence.