t was intensely hot. I could feel that the sheet underneath me was completely soaked through without even opening my eyes. I was having trouble breathing it was so hot, as sweat accumulated in pools that would trickle down my neck. I wiped the spot just above my lip where I was accustomed to finding sweat collected in thin little rivulets. I rolled over onto my left side to look up at the clock hanging above the window; dazzling light streaming in made it impossible to see its hands. It turned out to be eight thirty, though the hubbub in the street made it seem as though the day was already half gone.
I peeled off my sopping wet undershirt and sighed, a sigh that betrayed my irritation at having to go out and buy a fan. I was annoyed at myself because I had already asked my mother for money several times, but instead of actually buying the fan I would always spend it all on food and tobacco. I preferred to stay in bed, refreshing myself by pouring a bottle of water over my head and bare chest. This was a trick Lama taught me. She would also moisten a towel and press it against my naked body until I cooled down. Then, with two fingers, she’d slide it across my chest, gliding over my midsection and all the way down to my feet. Until the water soaking the towel warmed up I felt an invigorating coolness, at which point either I got hard and Lama would respond, or else I played dumb and pretended not to know what she was up to with this towel game, which would only make her succumb to pampering me even more.
Barely eight thirty in the morning and the sounds outside were all chaos. Sounds turned into noise as a bullhorn amplified a goddamned voice reciting inspirational poetry, utter gibberish that was only interrupted by the occasional barked instruction. The meaning of all those words got lost because another loudspeaker was simultaneously blaring motivational anthems. Meanwhile schoolchildren parroted the refrain, “Long live . . . Long live . . .”
Why didn’t I get some kind of a curtain to shade my eyes from the blinding daylight instead of taping white paper against the glass? My mother had told me on more than one occasion that she was willing to sew one for me; all I had to do was take the measurements of the window. I promised to do so just as soon as I could get my hands on a measuring tape, but I couldn’t find a single person who had one of those contraptions that reels the tape back up with a spring mechanism as soon as the measurement has been taken. My mother suggested that I could even measure the window with a long thread but I never did that either.
One of these days I’ll just lug the wardrobe over and use it to block the window so I can get some relief from the noise and light.
Lama’s flat is warmer than mine because its only window faces south. She has a bigger bed that doesn’t squeak the way mine does. Her bathroom is adjacent to the kitchen, that is, at the opposite end of the two-room flat. One room for sleeping (the one with the window), the other for living, and a spacious hallway connecting the two that leads to the bedroom at one end and the kitchen and the bathroom at the other. My flat has three rooms: one where I sleep, another where I work and a third where I entertain my friends when they come over. Each room has a window and the kitchen has a door leading out onto a small balcony. My flat gets a lot of light and has good airflow; still, whenever I am here I’m always hot and incessantly sweating. I wake up drenched in my own sweat. Light and street noise and the loudspeakers all flood the flat because my building overlooks two streets with a number of mosques, a government building and a school. Whenever I complained to my mother about the heat and the noise, she would tell me my flat is in an “articulate” neighborhood. I never quite understood why she would describe a neighborhood as articulate! I think what she meant to say is that it’s a desirable neighborhood, that it gets a lot of foot traffic and that it’s located at the junction of several main thoroughfares. Our neighborhood is not articulate, though. No, it’s just loud because of the tremendous amount of noise that fills it up, piercing it, piercing my eardrums, obliterating my calm. Not only is Lama’s flat quieter, it’s also more serene. She can barely hear the sounds of her neighbors’ footsteps. The sounds of cars and muezzins don’t travel very far inside and none of the building’s residents has any children. Her bed doesn’t even squeak. What a luxury! Here when I shut the windows in order to block out the noise, I end up roasting in an infernal desert summer.
I wished Lama were with me so that I could ask her to moisten the towel, hold it between her thumb and forefinger, and slide it over my naked body, but she wasn’t; she was in her own private oven. Whenever I slept at her flat she was amazed at how sweaty I got. Imagine her going to the bathroom every once in a while, getting in the shower and then coming back without drying off. She would rub herself against me in order to cool me off and then start sobbing because I was too hot to do anything, least of all to be caressed in that hellish climate. I would always get dressed and slip out before dawn.
I got up at five minutes to nine. The din quieted down for no apparent reason. I believe that people are more sensitive to noise while they’re horizontal, so I make a point of getting out of bed immediately upon waking. As soon as I get up I focus on household matters. I see the chaos: my clothes strewn all over the floor, on the bed, the chair. I stare at myself in the mirror. I close the bathroom door behind me and the noise recedes. The bathroom is the least noisy place in my flat because it resembles a sealed box. Whenever the noise becomes unbearable I seek refuge in the bathroom. At Lama’s flat I strain to hear the sound of someone else’s breathing; in mine I can’t even hear the sound of my own.
In the bathroom I took stock of what I did yesterday. For some time I have been suffering from unhappiness and self-loathing because I don’t actually do much of anything. Yesterday was like the day before and like the day before that and like any day months earlier. I don’t do anything any more. I don’t write. I don’t read. I don’t even think. I lost the pleasure of doing things some time ago. And so while I’m in the bathroom today my mood gets even worse for not having done anything yesterday. In the past I used to make sure to do something in order to reap the pleasure of achievement the following morning. The pleasure of doing something leads to the pleasure of accomplishment. Pleasure begets pleasure and all that good stuff. A kind of cascade is initiated through the simple act of doing. But I have no idea how to empower that act because I lost the fuel for it somewhere, sometime, and I don’t know how to get it back. I haven’t found the right occasion to get it back. Action is something of the past while the present has become a continuous state of unhappiness or self-loathing that I suffer as soon as I set foot inside the bathroom. If it were up to me I would stay in bed and spare myself this daily accounting but the noise coming from outside forces me to get up.
Noise. Derived from the foul verb to make noise
. I haven’t come across another verb in the Arabic language that is quite so foul. I prefer the word roar. In my story I will use the two words interchangeably, so I should explain myself more precisely by getting a little more intimate and recounting a dream I once had. I am up on stage wearing a black suit and a wine-colored tie. String musicians take their seats and begin tuning their instruments. The orchestra conductor hasn’t arrived yet and the sounds of tuning grow steadily louder. The instruments produce their sounds all at once, without any harmonization or arrangement keeping them together. Loud, ghastly noise is emanating from these musical instruments that, upon the orders of the conductor, will soon play the most beautiful melodies in unison. But the conductor never shows up and the noise just goes on and on, without rests or intermission. Melody is sound; tuning is noise. I try to block my ears with both hands until my head nearly caves in. I continue dreaming of noise throughout the night. When I finally wake up my ears hurt, my head is heavy and my room drowns in street noise.
Without shaving I left the bathroom and went into the kitchen. I drank a glass of cold milk and spooned some jam right out of the jar. I gazed out at the building across from mine. Veiled women on their balconies or at their windows were looking down at the street in silence. There wasn’t a single woman or child who had not come out to gawk lazily. I cautiously approached the balcony door and when it opened the fury of the roar caught me by surprise. I wasn’t dressed yet. I was still in my underpants. Wrapping myself up in the balcony curtain with one hand and holding the empty glass of milk in the other, I stepped outside. Looking down at our corner where the two streets intersect, I saw a remarkable scene. Both streets were packed with crowds that undulated and surged as hundreds of pictures of the Leader fluttered over the heads of the masses like waves on the sea.
I got dressed and left the building. I wanted to escape the heat and the noise by going outside but it was the same hell out there.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs, the entire scene was visible before me. Because the converging hordes had blocked the entrance, that was where the shouting was at its most intense, seeping into the entryway and echoing louder because of the hollowed-out space inside the walls and the ceiling. I stood on the first step wondering how I would ever be able to shove my way through and out into the street, past those noisy throngs of people organized into rows that surged forward. In fact, I was seized by the sudden fear that grips a swimmer who has just come face to face with a giant shark.
Some young men carrying portraits of the Leader congregated in the entryway and lit cigarettes, leaning against the cool walls and exhaling smoke out of their filthy mouths. Apparently they had left the hordes in order to relax in the shade and cool off a bit. They stared at me derisively, as if there was something funny about the way I stood there on the first step. As I stepped down and got closer to them, other people lost their balance and surged inside like a human torrent from the tremendous pressure of the crowd outside, causing some to fall down on the ground and knocking me forward. This spectacle captured the young men’s attention so they forgot about me, making fun of the others instead. A few seconds later two of the organizers, dressed in khaki with red insignias on their shoulders, pushed their way through and started shoving people back outside the entryway. The young men stood up straight, which made the work of the organizers easier, as they seized them and started forcing them back outside as well.
This was all happening just a step away. An organizer stared at me with bloodshot eyes and just as he reached out to shove me along in front of him I held out my arms to stop him. He mistook me for one of those who had tried to sneak away from the march. He didn’t try to stretch out his arms any farther but he didn’t pull them back either; he just stood there, frozen, and even though he hadn’t asked for clarification, I detected the inquisitive look on his face.
“This is my home.”
“You live here?”
“So why aren’t you participating in the march?”
“I’m not a government employee and I don’t belong to a union. I’m a writer. Fathi Sheen.”
This piece of information seemed to make him even more hostile.
“Identification,” he demanded fiercely. I showed him my ID and he looked it over. His comrade finished expelling everyone from the entryway and then walked over. He took my ID and read my personal information in silence.
“Fucking cunt traitor,” the first one said with the same ferocity.
I thanked him. The second one handed back my ID and looked at me the way one might look at rubbish. Then they both turned around and stormed off, roughly pushing their way through the hordes to get out. I swallowed the insult and just stood there, calm and silent. I could no longer bear the swelling noise so I moved closer to the bellowing horde that had been shaped into rows. As soon as I took one step outside, the crowd pulled me along, whisking me far away from the entrance to my building.
After two hundred yards the sidewalk became less crowded. I stopped outside a pharmacy to watch the crowd. The pharmacist’s awning shielded me from the sun and a breeze started blowing that dried my sweat. It was a decent spot, one that allowed me to monitor one person who was particularly raucous. In spite of his weight this Comrade was being carried on someone else’s shoulders as he chanted, toward what must have been nearly a hundred and fifty people, clapping at them while they repeated whatever he had just chanted. I noticed how badly he had been scorched by the blazing sun. Sweat coated his reddened face, the veins in his neck were bulging and taut, his mouth wide open. He shouted slogans; he didn’t just recite them, shouting in a booming voice that shot forth from his iron throat that seemed to have been created for this very purpose.
Some people are born to belong to the ruling party, which loves organizing marches such as this one, people whose corporeal abilities are tailor-made to guide the masses. People like him. If I tried shouting like that I would lose my voice after fifteen minutes, but this Comrade, who I suspect had been carrying on like this from the very start of the march, still had strength and solidity in his voice. The Comrade who has been bearing him on his shoulders this whole time must have a sturdy body that is capable of carrying two hundred pounds for a while, relying on his two hands for balance even as he also strains to yell out the chants at the top of his lungs. Straining like this must make his burden even heavier, and if we add on top of that the heat and his suffocating position, with his head sandwiched between the thick thighs of the man on top of him, and if we add on top of that
the noise and the clapping and the chants being repeated by a hundred and fifty throats, I do not envy this man who carries a greater load than any bull in the world ever has. All for the Leader.
From a certain angle I could just make out the face of the carrier Comrade. When the procession stopped the chanter was right there in front of me. I felt a kind of lightness watching the carrier’s face squashed between the thighs of the chanter on top, and I say that I felt lightness because there wasn’t even a small bird pressing down on my shoulders. I was standing on the pharmacy doorstep, enjoying the shade with my arms folded across my chest. The carrier was chanting, too: should I say I was amazed or found it strange or was surprised? It wasn’t enough for him to carry his Comrade in that suffocating position; he thought it incumbent upon him to chant as well. A hundred and fifty throats participating in this convoy isn’t enough for the Leader—he needs that one extra throat to chant along. The slogan has a rhythm and the hundred and fifty people were clapping loudly and jumping up and down as they repeated those slogans that were belted out by the man being carried around. Everyone holding up pictures of the Leader started waving them around as some skipped to the rhythm of the slogan, raising the picture up as high as their arms would go.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: in my country slogans are arranged into lines of rhyming poetry. I’m sure that the Party has a research institute somewhere dedicated to drafting and crafting slogans according to the particular needs of the era. The masses, our masses, are raised on metered slogans. Every era has a slogan that is repeated nonstop. A few moments earlier I heard a brand new slogan that had been drafted in order to make the people praise God for having created them during the Age of the Leader. The man being carried started off his slogan like this, “R . . . R . . . Our Leader,” and the crowd would repeat after him, “R . . . R . . . Our Leader.” What does that “R” even mean? So long as it rhymed, they would repeat the same line over and over again with ecstatic pleasure. In my country people love rhymed speech and rhymed prose and inspirational metered verse. Just watch how they will repeat phrases that have no meaning whatsoever but that rhyme perfectly well. In the end this means that if the ruler wants the masses to adore him he must immediately set up a center dedicated to the production of new slogans about him, on the condition that they resemble poetry, because we are a people who love poetry so much that we love things that only resemble poetry. We might even be satisfied with only occasionally rhyming speech, regardless of its content. Didn’t someone say that the era of mass politics is the era of poetry? If so, then the reverse is also true, because poetry is geared toward the masses, just as the prose that I am now writing is intended for the individual. This must be why the slogans of the French Revolution weren’t composed as poetry, Mirabeau notwithstanding; rather, prose was the mainstay of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Prose is oriented toward rational minds and individuals whereas poetry directs and is directed toward the masses. It isn’t strange that the curtailment of poetry began in the West. Poetry inspires zealotry and melts away individual personality, whereas prose molds the rational mind, individuality and personality. Finally, I would like to point out that my country still lives in the Age of the Masses, which is why metered speech and rhyming verses are a fundamental requirement in our life. My works and prose writings are the imaginations of a traitor and a fucking cunt, as the man in khaki was kind enough to remind me a little while ago.
But let’s return to the hundred and fifty people being led by the carrier and the man on top, because the march was on the move again as that noisy human mass started pulling away from my resting spot on the pharmacy steps. A large group of secondary school students approached, all dressed in matching pseudo-military uniforms that we call khaki. They roared even louder than the first group and were led by another man being carried on the shoulders of a volunteer, or perhaps his carrier was an athletic coach, as I’m inclined to believe. The organizer was shouting slogans into a battery-powered handheld megaphone. They were repeating the same slogans but in a more distinct manner, which might have had something to do with the fact that they were educated students, pronouncing the slogan correctly, without mumbling its words, “One, two, three, four, we love the Leader more and more.” I would like to describe this roar for you, if that is even possible for me because the megaphone the student leader shouted through was but one of a total of three assorted noisemakers that were blasting my eardrums at that moment. There were two loudspeakers suspended high above us that I had heard from my house, but now one of them was broadcasting inspirational songs while an announcer with a loud and decisive voice that inspires enthusiasm and affection for the Leader in the hearts of the masses was speaking through the second.
That voice addressed the masses—“O citizens, O citizens”—and then proceeded to describe the affection the masses have for the Leader—also known as the Boss—and the affection the Leader has for his people. In his opinion, the masses were merely a small fraction of this world that adores the Leader because there are also trees and birds and clouds and… by God, even the stones and the dirt tremble as the Leader’s feet tread upon them. The announcer also declared that the Leader would guide the people to divine victory.
Now I’d like to make a comparison here between the loud speech the announcer made through the megaphone during the march and the sports commentary during football matches that are broadcast on television. Both commentators talk for the sake of talking, just to say something to the audience, to get them riled up to the point of zealotry. Even if the difference between the two may seem substantial, the similarity lies in stirring up the enthusiasm of the masses. While the sportscaster describes what he is actually seeing on the field, our marchcaster describes something that isn’t there at all but strives to make the masses believe in it. The sports announcer must take into account the existence of two competing teams, while there is only one perfectly united team present at our marches, a consummate team that must eliminate all traces of individuality in the crowd and turn all those individuals into droplets in a raging human flood. Any hint of individuality is a threat directed at the Leader’s supremacy—what else would be the point of bringing together those crowds if not the elimination of every trace of individuality? Besides, the formation of these marching torrents of humanity is not merely the aggregation of specks in order to make them flow in a particular direction; no, the megaphone announcer is rather meant to help bring together the psychological and intellectual flow of the crowd. When he says that human beings and stones and trees all love the Leader, he is addressing every single speck in that crowd; making each and every one of them believe what they are hearing in that moment, without the use of any logic whatsoever; eliminating any judgment about thought or personality or love among the individuals in this human stream; and corralling the raging emotional flood toward the Leader.
The roar produced by the chants and the megaphones eliminates thought. Thought is retribution, a crime, treason against the Leader. And insofar as calm and tranquillity can incite a person to think, it is essential to drag out the masses to these roaring marches every once in a while to brainwash them and keep them from committing the crime of thought. What else could be the point of all that noise? Love for the Leader requires no thought; it’s axiomatic. And the Leader doesn’t ask you to enumerate the reasons driving you to love him so. You must love him for who he is, simply because he is, and any thought given to the reason why might cause you to—God forbid—stop loving him one day because you might find, by chance, for example, that his eyes blink continuously whenever he speaks and that you have disliked that habit ever since you were young, and your love for him may start to diminish, which is, after all, a very grave sin indeed.
Even though I mentioned a reason for these marches, getting the masses out into the streets requires no special occasion. The justifications are always there: the Leader likes marches and can designate any given day for the people to descend into the streets in some particular city so he can sit back and watch it all on TV. This doesn’t have to take place on the same day in every city. If the occasion happens to be, as it was in this case, the twentieth anniversary of the Leader’s coming to power, the marches must begin a week before the anniversary and end one week afterward. Every city has to come out on a certain day so the television crews can film the marches, air them live and then archive them. Some people say that a copy of the recording is sent to an archive in the Leader’s palace so he can watch them in his spare time.
So we were in the season of celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of the Leader coming to power, nothing more. While I stood on the steps outside a pharmacy, under an awning that protected me from the scorching sunshine, the march went on and the noise climbed to a crescendo as pictures of the Leader were hoisted higher above the heads of the masses.
Off to my left I detected an unusual movement and saw three Comrades in khaki uniforms rushing inside a building, shoving everyone they bumped into out of their way. As soon as they went in some secondary school students came running out. They were frightened and easily managed to melt back into the stream of the masses. Some people stopped to watch what was going on inside the building and I moved in to have a closer look. The glare from the sun blinded me at first. I couldn’t make out anything more than the anguished cries of someone being subjected to a violent beating. As I drew closer the scene came into focus. All three men were pummeling one of those students even as he tried to deflect their punches and protect his body. He knew how dearly it would cost him if he tried to defend himself by actually fighting back. The young man collapsed onto the ground and they proceeded to stomp on him with their heavy boots. After a moment, once the film had completely evaporated from his eyes, I found him staring up at me with tortured and beseeching eyes. How can I describe that gaze? He was imploring me to step in and save him because he wasn’t sure that his friends or the soldiers were going to do anything. He had already lost a tooth. Blood was gushing out of his mouth, staining his face and his neck, then his clothes and the ground they dragged him across. Unmoved, he continued staring up at me even as he was kicked all over his body.
I had spent twenty years trying not to get involved in affairs involving the Comrades, purposefully avoiding them, but the sight of that young man’s beseeching eyes pressed me to do something. Drawing closer, I grabbed the arm of one of the Comrades until he and the other two stopped their stomping. The young man writhed in pain and spat up blood.
“What did this young man do?” I asked the one whose arm I was clutching.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I want to know what he did!”
My big mistake at that moment was to let go of the Comrade’s arm. The three of them quickly tried to figure out my rank to know how they should treat me. I should have held on to his arm. I should have squeezed harder instead of letting go. They left the young man there flailing around on the ground and surrounded me instead. Trying to correct my mistake, I held my ground and didn’t back away. One of them asked to see my identification but I ignored him. In my country you have to create as much ambiguity as you can to get out of situations such as this one, and if you’re bold enough you can even conjure some kind of imaginary rank to protect yourself. I tried to surround myself with ambiguity even though it’s my custom not to pretend to be something I’m not.
“You better have a convincing explanation for what’s going on here.”
“You want an explanation?”
“That’s right,” I said. “I want a convincing explanation.”
“He’s a traitor, he tried to get out of the march,” said the same Comrade, who appeared to be the others’ superior. “Is that convincing enough for you?”
“You could have just written him up instead of beating him like this.”
“And just who might you be, sir?” the third one interjected. Up until that point they still hadn’t been able to crack my riddle. They had been dealing with me cautiously.
“A citizen,” I said.
At that moment their uncertainty dissipated and one of them smiled sarcastically. They returned to their natural disposition.
“A citizen?” asked the second, getting ready to pounce on me.
“ID,” the boss said, reaching out his hand.
I took out my identification and handed it over. He snatched it from me and then motioned for the other two to join him as he walked away.
“Where are you going?” I asked. “My ID.”
“Come on down to the station and pick it up,” he said, without turning around.
They left. I was furious at myself for getting mixed up with them, but the young man was still there, writhing, bleeding. I crouched down next to him and examined his face. He looked up at me again, this time in gratitude. I tried to pick him up and could tell that he needed an ambulance. Two young men who were part of his group had congregated by the door and now came over, thanked me and then took him away. I received one more look of gratitude before they disappeared. A young woman alerted me that there was blood on my collar but I walked away unconcerned.
I backed into the side streets, fleeing the crowds and the noise. The shops were all shuttered and there were only a few people around who had managed to slip away from the march, but they were holding pictures of the Leader in their hands. The next day they would have to return them to the organizers. I wandered aimlessly for a long time because I hadn’t decided whether I was going to my mother’s or to Lama’s yet, bearing in mind that it wouldn’t do me any good to go down to the station right away to pick up my ID because the one who took it wouldn’t get back there before nightfall. Besides, I hadn’t even asked him which station he meant, the Party building or the mukhabarat
headquarters, and if it was the mukhabarat
, which branch of the security services? I tried not to get too obsessed with figuring out the answer to that question because all I wanted to do at that moment was run away from everything connected to the march and everything that had just happened.
I decided to go see my mother because her house is on the outskirts of town. Going to Lama’s would mean heading back in the direction I had just come from, crossing over to the other side of the city by passing through those crowd-clogged streets, the very thing I had been trying to avoid in the first place.
Excerpted from The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees. Copyright © 2013 by Nihad Sirees. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.