lunes, 3 de noviembre de 2008

A short story / in english

Muhsin Al-Ramli

Translated by Adam Gaiser

The days repeat themselves like the sunrise in the East and the sunset in the West. Like daily dishes of food: tomato in oil, tomato salad, tomato with eggplant and okra, meat, grilled meat, meat with white or red gravy. Like the television programmes: same songs, same films, same broadcasters. Repeated words. The announcers wear suits and neckties, frozen on the screen in summer and winter. Like the movie houses: Indian films. Like the newspapers and advertisements. Like markets that are always the same. Nothing varies except the prices. The river flows and the bridge remains firm. The earth is stationary and the sun rotates. Like the soap I wash with every day: it doesn’t vary. Like faces and mundane conversations. The birds don’t change. People build new houses that resemble those already built: doors and windows from one blacksmith and in the style of one carpenter. Designs from one contractor. This summer is the same as summers twenty years ago: electrical cables, dust, news broadcasts, funerals, weddings and cars.
I leave by the same door I enter by every night. I eat off the same plates with the same spoons. I sleep in order to wake up, and find myself on the same bed. I begin to tire of sleep, and I get depressed when its time arrives. I go to bed forcibly, like one whose vacation has ended. After sleeping to excess, I become bored with it. And food, which I thought was my main concern, is dull. I wake and don’t open my eyes. I remain stretched out on the bed, going over the same thoughts and reviewing the same dreams until my back feels repelled by the bed. So I turn onto my stomach, and then onto my sides, and then I curl up. I put my knees up in the air…finally I slip from the sheets to have my breakfast-which is always milk.
Lately, I have begun my trips on the buses. I get on any bus without knowing its destination. Most important is that it goes around town. I don’t get off until the last stop, when the bus driver notifies me. He notices me alone in the seat, gets my attention and says, “Going nowhere?” I say, “What?” He says, “We’ve arrived at the end of the line.” So I get off the bus and get on another. I begin a new line. At times I shove with the crowd in order to find a seat. Sometimes the buttons rip off my shirt. One of the passengers cleans his watermelon on my shoulder, or stings me with the ash of his cigarette. But I get on the bus, and find a seat near the window.
The people in the markets, like the people any day and any year…they hurry, enter and exit from the stores. The cars gather at the traffic lights, which are as they always are: red, amber, green. And the person who sits near me reading the newspaper, he’s like those I sit near every day. Some of them stop by the door, waiting to take the seats of those who leave. A young boy close to the opposite window reads from a small book. He doesn’t pay attention to them or me or anything. He reads a little and then…he closes the book leaving his fingers inside it to mark his place. He laughs warmly but silently. Oh God. He’s laughing. I turn from gazing outside, which I practise every day. Everything is as I know it, dear reader, and nothing has changed except the mulberry print on the swimsuits (in the store windows). Some of the names change.
I stare at the kid, who settles down after his silent laugh. He opens the book again in order to read. He doesn’t feel the crowd jostling close to him, or those pumpkin seeds being popped, or the ice cream being liked or the bus conductors, or those reading the news, or passing on the pavements, or the flies hovering from ear to ear or to a nose. He reads a little, and then begins to laugh noiselessly. But I know the vigour of his laughter from the shaking of his shoulders and the reddening of his cheeks. He slides the window open and starts to reveal his teeth. With his head outside the bus, his laughter bursts forth without anyone hearing. The laugh is stronger and this time he can’t suppress it. But I notice his quaking shoulders…then his laughter calms down…he brings his head back inside. Then he opens the book and reads again for a few moments. Suddenly he covers his face with the book while his shoulders shake. He puts his hand on his stomach to feel the pain of his laughter and then raises it to wipe the tears from his eyes, laughing powerfully without anyone seeing or hearing him except for me. It strikes me that the book this boy is reading must be quite delightful-or more interesting than my way of spending time riding buses. What else could make him so happy, alone, without noticing anything around him?
I gesture to someone standing near him to sit in my seat under the pretext that I want to exit shortly. The man hurries and I take his place just behind the kid. He has begun reading again. I wait for him to close the book and start to laugh so that I can read the title. Despite it quivering in his hands, I read- Let’s Laugh.
I signal the driver, exit and quickly turn to the nearby newspaper kiosks. I don’t have any problem finding the book because it is displayed in the windows, copies lie on top of the piles of papers, and near cash tills. There are even copies around the kiosks, hanging over the strings that hold magazines in place. And near them, another book the same size- Laugh with Me. I buy them both and bolt back to the house.
I feel in my bones that these two creatures will transform the monotony of the days and give me pleasure. I don’t open them during the journey despite a strong desire. I succeed in convincing myself not to open them until I cross the door of the courtyard, then the door of my room. I close the door behind me and stretch out on the bed in a comfortable position. I take in a long breath, preparing to exhale, after a while, with a roar of real laughter.
I begin to read anecdote after anecdote, one after the other: Goha and the donkey, Abu Nuwas, merchants, wives, smart alecs, children, kings, princes, drunkards, mice and grocers, students and roosters…But I notice that I’m not cackling, or even laughing. I wait for the next tale. No laughter. So I say, “The next…” No laughter. Do you see me like one who goes to a game, speculating that he won’t clap or yell at the stadium, and then he finds his hands clapping and his throat ratting like one of the crowd? I leave the bed and move the chair in from on the mirror to look at myself when I laugh. I sit and read…and don’t laugh.
*Published in the magazine (Banipal) No. 8, Summer 2000 London

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