IN SEARCH OF A LIVE HEART
by Muhsin Al-Ramli
Translated by Samantha Lewis
(In the narrow corridor of a hospital whose doors are numbered, he exits one of them, drying his eyes. Pain and sadness affect his movements and gestures, slowly and heavily, he periodically leans against the walls of the hallway…
Nervous, before the door from which he previously exited, he opens it, several times, sticking his head inside to see and stepping outside again sadder and more pained.
Alone, in the long corridor…)
- Will you go to your birthday in a week? You have to. Because what a bitter and strange situation it would be if the candles were blown out in the absence of the one who is turning a year older! What’s more, what kind of birthday would it be? In fact it doesn’t make any sense to celebrate your birthday without your presence… You must be there, you will get better, you will recover and you will celebrate, we will celebrate… but then what gift could I give you? What gift could a person give to the most valued and loved one in his life? I have to find a present that equals the affection I feel for you, though I doubt I’ll be able to…No…no. What sense is there in talking now…Time is escaping…it is running out and I’m cornered just like in this narrow, suffocating corridor…
How?... Who would be capable of bringing it in only one day… rather, in only a few hours? (He looks at his watch.) There is almost nothing left of your day… and nothing has happened… I did nothing, I couldn’t bring it. Oh, Doctor, you are so stingy!...
You ask it of me in only one day, when women take nine months after tremendous pain in having a little heart the size of a date… And the heart you ask for…! A live heart… living, how scarce they are… (He turns toward the door.) Believe me, my dear…if I could get pregnant and have the pains of ninety months in only one hour to get you a heart, I wouldn’t hesitate a second. (He reflects.) It’s true…I beg you, Lord, that you bless us with a miracle of this caliber and that you not have mercy on me, be the cost and pain what it may, or that you divide the years that I have left between us both… On the other hand, how can I obtain a live heart from someone who just died in an accident or was murdered?... And I searched for it, I ran all day yesterday and didn’t return until now, I asked in the police stations and in all places for anyone that had died in an accident or had been murdered in a stupid fight for stupid money, for selfishness, for jealousy or for false appearances, or because they were found with an adulterous wife… or, simply because they told the truth. How many people have died for their love of truth and justice!
I looked in the hospitals, in the bone, blood, eye and organ banks and in terrible operating and autopsy rooms. I waited at the forks and intersections of roads, waiting for car accidents, I asked traffic police, one by one. I rummaged through the columns in newspapers that mention those condemned to death and I went to the prisons to look for them. I ran to the merchants… all types of merchants… and I could not find a heart to suit you. Then, I begged , I asked for alms along the sidewalks. (A begger pleading, and perhaps she leaves the stage, mixing with the public.) Who will give me, who will sell me a heart at any price? For the love of God, or for any love, you that speak of love! Who can help me donating a beating heart or, at least, can tell me where to find one? Who? Is it possible that there is not one live heart in this world? Calm…Silence, except for the bleating of some madmen that are not the owners of their hearts to give, and those that look like madmen that have nothing… they are not free…Silence, except for the news being printed, the yell of those that sell cheese, onions, smiles, air and passion…and those that sell everything, anything…Silence…this world is deaf, mute when anyone asks for anything… Silence, except for the murmur of hypocrites…Oh… of course… now I remember… yes, only a drunkard answered me. I came across him in front of a door to a bar (He imitates him.): “Take me whole! Meat and fat.” (He laughs.) No…no, he didn’t exactly say that, because the poor thing was very thin. He didn’t have meat or fat; he was nothing more than a bag of sweaty skin that had some bones. (He imitates him again.): “Take me whole, with my heart, my misery and my nails! You only have to give me a bottle of wine.” So I took him, and I carried him like this, holding him against my chest and with him I went running to you; I ran, ran and in my arms he began to sing with joy:
“Happy is he who has nothing
And, still, he is generous with others
He gives them his heart
To return to his origin without worries.”
(Perhaps he repeats it.)
But his wife and the police cornered me (Imitating the wife.): “Who will do the shopping? And who will take the trash out? And who will…” (Pointing to his chest.) Me… I told her: me. But the police also refused (Imitating the police.)…Nooo and no, it’s forbidden, because we are not our own to donate, we are the property of the Country, of the State and of the Government
(He looks at his watch.) Time passes, it escapes, it always runs out and it asphyxiates me like this corridor. Your friends have forgotten about you with the excuse that they are busy and your students do not use what you taught them to create a living heart. You taught them that the human being is the greatest, most valuable fruit in the world, and that each fruit has its juice and that the juice of men is what comes from his mind. You offered them the juice from your own mind and your life; they drank it and threw the glass away. They threw you away and they went along saying: “We only worry about our own future.” Well, who will stop them… conclude the lesson and say to them: the future is creation, creation is love and love is generosity? Even the woman that said she loved you more than her own life and would give her soul for you… Do you know what happened to that woman? (Ironically imitating a female voice.) “Oh… I’m truly sad for him.” Afterward the sad woman smiled and went to the beauty salon. Listen to me you sad woman: Do you really know what sadness is? It is as hard as the harshness of the bloody sultans. Oh, inside her, her being wilts like a plant wilts, slowly the leaves turn yellow. Her hair turns white. A drought and scorching bitterness are in her throat. She loses her taste for everything, the flavor in every food is gone and they become insipid as if she was chewing a piece of fabric or like a student with a dry throat trying to swallow his cheat-sheet from an exam. My insides feel as if my heart were a piece of fruit with a rotten, blackened and hole-ridden core, to the point of feeling the pain of any movement of the worm inside. Oh you, sad friend! My heart is like an ulcer where everything hearts and with everything; speaking, hearing, smelling, touching or seeing. It hurts when I’m waiting for something, when I dream, when I am distressed… to love, to breathe or to remember or… maybe… I’m sure you do not know that my conscience is guilty when I eat and I am extremely embarrassed when I laugh. How can I eat when he is hungry? How can I laugh when he is almost de…? (He almost said: dead.) So I go up to the roof of the house at midnight and there, alone, I beg God Almighty, I open my shirt, my chest and I look up to the heavens and with my cry I beg: My God, my God (He wants to beg, but) I ask myself how to beg you, if you are the one that knows all, on top of being Almighty…Later, I return to my dreams, I dream about him every night and, every night, one hundred times.
Sometimes, I see him naked and his delicate body threshed with wounds like a sieve or crucified with holes in the palms of his hands and in his feet. He smiles at me like before, while the parishioners around him turn toward the voice calling them to prayer. And, at times, wandering through markets, neighborhoods and alleys. (He walks along the long corridor, stopping before each one of the door.) I knock on the doors, imploring the passersby one by one… Have you seen him? Have you seen him, sir? And you?... And you, shopkeepers that even sell dust… I beg you, which of you has seen him?
The telephone poles along the streets tear at my clothes, the same poles that connect two lovers, two general managers or two thieves. The nails destroy the soles of my shoes, but I continue walking barefoot along the hot sidewalks. The shop windows undress me down to my swollen hair and soul…
I kiss their hands and I implore them… Which one of you has seen him? Take me to him… Sometimes I get far…far – like we were – on the hills in spring, we laughed at a cloud or we celebrated the wedding of two butterflies, and suddenly, I lose him…(Looking at his watch.) Time, once again… is escaping, it’s running out and it is cornering me like this asphyxiating hallway… Oh… How must my mother’s heart be? My mother that stayed by the window, day and night … smoking, with her teary eyes watching the streets… She sees him get out of each car that passes, getting out…He could get out at any moment, surely he will get out because he must return. Even the neighbors would be overjoyed to bring us news of his return to end our torment, because they know that each additional minute of sadness could be the end of us. It could be this same instant… or the next. So when will he be cured? When will he return? (Yelling.) When? When?
(He becomes quiet for a moment as if he were listening to his childhood and repeats with a certain smile)… “How long will the camel stay on the hill?” (He lowers his voice.) Notice: This expression was in the grade school textbook. They forced it onto us when we were small with knocks from the teachers. The teachers said (Repeating the word and saying it ironically.) the teeeaaachers!! “Don’t ask what it means, learn it as it is, like that, exactly as the Ministry of Culture and Education printed it: ‘How long will the camel stay on the hill?’”
Afterward, any question that started with “how long” was directly related in our minds to that camel that would forever stay on the hill with its legacy and story. He didn’t eat the grass and he didn’t abandon it, he didn’t even swat the flies away that flew around his rear or perhaps those dead and immobile things like hills, traditions, thrones and seats that freeze to those that sit on them? Seriously, when will the camel move? (He points to the door.) And when will he return? So that everything can be returned to him, the life we wish for… my mother and I, the neighbors and the palm tree that we planted together. (He raises his arms begging.) Return him, you that return the sun and the rain…return him to us, you that returned Joseph to his father Jacob… return him, you that clear the sky after the storm, clear the sky in our lives…God…oh…God…why doesn’t life have mercy on us, when we give it all of our attention and importance? He, who cared about everything, everything as if he held absolute responsibility for this world. (He opens the door and looks inside, then he begins to describe with great tenderness.) His face has become more pallid, yellow like a slice of hot bread, his thin hands over his chest… over his heart, as if they were marking the cause of the pain or trying to wrap it up, or as if he wanted to say to the world: I have given you all of the love that this heart had and now I want to give you the heart itself… I am sure that this is the meaning of the silence on his lips that smile with great consent and satisfaction…His breathing is calm… scarce…as if he were sparing it, leaving the air for everyone else...
Ah… everyone else that occupied his first and last concern, not pitying himself only thinking of others…How many times must I have warned him and argued with him about this; is there even a person that really deserves all of this sacrifice? To what point is it worth it to sacrifice oneself entirely? The others, my son, are egotistical, cruel… they are a furious sea, rough waves, they don’t care who drowns among them, or who picks the pearls from them or who tries to save them from pollution… Why have they insisted so much that you have almost drowned among them? And supposing that the people are that sea, that doesn’t care who gives or who takes, why can’t you be one of those that only take? (Remembering his voice he imitates it.) “And the sea of conscience?”… Ah… the sea of conscience despite being rough one can control it, because it’s inside oneself, it never crosses the limits of one’s being. (Imitating his voice.) “Its storms are tremendous, brother, it can rip anything up by the root that crosses its path”… That’s only for you, because you feel your conscience, you listen to it… you respect it, while everyone else ignores its calls…to the point that they don’t even remember anything by that name… They look at it as if it were out of style… Furthermore, how much could you clean of the immense amount of pollution that has dominated its seas? That pollution that produces nothing more than pollution, that disaster that generates nothing more than disaster.
How many times have you tried to save everyone else, and look at you now! You are losing your sight, your heart because of it… Your heart, and you might also lose your soul along with it. (He shuts the door.) You, that cared about everything, as if you were responsible for this world. Now no one is worried about what is happening to you or your story…The streets continue on the same as ever… the people, planes in flight, congress dates, celebrations, songs…People continue to crowd the streets, the buildings that are merely boxes of cement and along the avenues nothing is happening… no change…Why precisely today no defective buildings have fallen, there have been no car accidents, despite the fact that they are a daily problem in our day and age? Why is it today that no one has killed anyone else, when every day the police stations and hospitals are saturated with murderers? Why is it that only today no one has committed suicide or hung themselves? It is that the world has become perfect precisely today? Today when I need a heart to save the life of the person I love most (Silence… then in a low voice…) Oh…
What a pity! I’ve become like the gravediggers that wish for a rise in the number of deaths to better their own economic situation or to buy an electric washing machine… I’m waiting for the death of someone in order to save the one I love, without bothering to worry about the fact that everyone else also has someone that loves them… (He yells.) So, what do I do? (Almost crying.) What do I do? Time is passing by, it’s escaping, it’s running out which means death is closing in… and death is the end… a cavity, a ditch sealed by a handful of darkness without water, without air, without the sky, without friends, without…, (Ironically smiling, changing his expression.) and without the Internet. (Recovering his seriousness.)… Worms that devour you… the deterioration of your cheeks in a closed coffin underground. (He shudders.) Death, that sword that will arrive any minute and will rip life away from us… that terrifying mystery that has followed us since the time of Adam. We have done everything possible to forget it or so that it forgets us, to understand it or to destroy it. We have built the earth and we have adorned it, but we could not forget death. We have crossed the oceans and the skies and we have passed along the stars just as one passes along the markets, and we could not escape it. We have reached the peak of science, we have even studied ant legs in detail, and we have not known death. We have invented the most terrible methods of destruction and we have only managed to destroy those among us. (Fearfully.) No… no… Please, go away Madam Death… I know perfectly well that you never give in, though we beg and implore you, though we spend our entire lives inventing and creating ways to beg you to leave us alone; you don’t give in, not even for a mother’s tears. You are the destroyer of all, of those that have a heart and those that don’t, of those that have a conscience and those that don’t, of the rich and the poor… kings and prisoners, and that is the only thing we admire about you… You are just, you fear no one while enforcing your sentence, your secret is within reach of no one, not even of tyrants… You are the only one who refuses to accept bribes and blackmails and who is not dazzled by beauty. You do not fear armies; guards cannot stop you, nor walls, nor towers, fortresses, ships, banks, alliances, not even meetings. Because when your time has come…(He yells.) No, but I don’t want you now, death, I’m afraid of you and I wish you upon no one. So how can I accept you now for him? No… no… I don’t want him to die… no… impossible… He must be spared… I cannot imagine life without him… What keeps me next to him is stronger than my love for life… Love… he taught me everything I know and he gave me much more than what I am thinking about giving him now… and he… (He remembers.) Then… then his birthday is in one week… I’m sure he is waiting for it to come… Yes, of course I must do something something I can do alone without the help of the police, or drunkards, without waiting for any accidents or… There is no time for this, (Looking at his watch.) there is only an hour left… Time is escaping, very little time is left… I have to save him at any cost… even if it were to cost me my life. (He realizes…) Oh… that, that’s it, my life… my soul… my heart… Of course, my heart, (He contemplates.) I forgot that I have a heart… My affection for him blinded me and made me forget. I went looking for a heart among the people, waiting for a car accident or the heart of a condemned man. Oh… how did I not think of that? There is no better heart for him than mine… He deserves it… Hasn’t he sacrificed everything for everyone else? I’m not only one of them, but also the one closest to him out of everyone, so why should I ask them to sacrifice themselves in my place? If I don’t do it, what difference would there be between his friend I had been making fun of and myself? (Looking at his watch.) Oh, God! Time is becoming narrower, it’s cornering me and the sword of death is closing in with each minute. Now is the time for one to do what one says. (Pointing to himself.) We must be consistent with what we say and do, time does not wait, it’s short and it runs out. And he who boasts about having a live heart must demonstrate it. Uncertainty, indecision and doubt make us lose a lot of it. And what is shocking to us is the difference between what we say and what we do… So we must act… we know this very well, the same as know that there is no escape from sacrifices for love…Yes, I hate death, but I cannot remain impassive, I wouldn’t really love if I did nothing… time is getting thin, it’s running out… (He takes off his watch, throws it to the ground, steps on it and smashes it to pieces.)…There is no better heart for him than mine… Furthermore… furthermore my mother will be able to hug us both when he returns. (With tenderness.) Oh, God…when she hugs him it will be like she is hugging us both, his body and my heart, my heart in his body, my heart will continue to beat in his chest so that he can carry on with his life and do what he wanted to do…
(Searching in his pockets he pulls out a pen and paper, he begins writing while reading aloud.) “I give my humble heart to my brother for his birthday, wishing for a speedy recovery and the continuation of his fight.” (He sticks the paper on the left side of his chest, directly over his heart and begins to sing.)
“Happy is he who has nothing
And, still, he is generous with others
He gives them his heart
To return to his origin without worries.”
(He calls.) Doctor... hey, Doctor. Suddenly I’ve found what you asked of me. Doctor. Doctor…
(When he hears the doctor’s hurried steps at the end of the hallway he kills himself before anyone can impede it.)
*This work was translated into Spanish, interpreted and performed on several occasions, among them: in
- Festival of the North in Irbid, Jordan, in 1993, under the direction of Ahmed Al-Jalabna
- IV Festival of Philadelphia of University Theater in Amman, Jordan, in 2004, under the direction of Malek Al-Smadi
- III Festival of Alternative Theater of Kuwait in 2005, under the direction of Abdulaziz Safar (winner of four awards)
- II Festival of Oman, Sultanate of Oman, in 2006, by the National Modern Theater Company (inauguration performance)
- XVIII International Festival of Experimental Theater of Cairo, Egypt 2006, under the direction of Mustafa Al-Alawy
- Festival of Al-Damam on the International Day of Theater in Saudi Arabia 2007, under the direction of Musa Abu Abdullah.
*Muhsin Al-Ramli: Born in Iraq in 1967. Has lived in Spain since 1995. Doctorate in Philosophy and Letters, Spanish Philology. Universidad Autónoma of Madrid 2003, thesis topic: The Imprint of Islamic Culture in Don Quixote. Translator of several Spanish classics to Arabic. Published works: Gift from the Century to Come (Short stories) 1995. In Search of a Live Heart (Theater) 1997. Papers far from the Tigris (Short stories) 1998, Scattered Crumbs (Novel) 1999, Arkansas Award (U.S.A.) 2002 for the English version. The Happy Nights of the Bombing (Narrative) 2003. We Are All Widowers of the Answers (Poetry) 2005. Fingers of Dates (Novel) 2008. Coeditor of the cultural magazine ALWAH. Currently a professor in Saint Louis University, Madrid.