The Tumult of Whitley Street
The machine burns its words into the voids of the cloth, droning the conversation stitch by stitch into the triangles of the shoulder and the indentations of the waist, as concentric circles in a legendary organization of whatever is clamoring in the heart.
“Fabric is your destiny just as it has been mine,” the glistening person says gently.
“You must sew it and redo the narrative of its threads, which have been in the fabric of our story since we left the ocean and its scattered islands.”
I listen to the voice and its discourse, which has become my own. I prolong the syllables in my mouth with the coy kinship of the spoken word to music and the ring of ambiguity. When I pledge my body to the wind’s undulations—deducing from the captivating motion of the haunches of the creature when passing time with domestic chores—I know that a divine light has touched me, that I am the perfection of her coffee-color shadow, and that my heart is shattering out of sympathy for my destiny, which is like this.
I resemble this creature, who dissolves in moments when I’m distracted and when doubt struggles with me. I penetrate beneath her skin and follow her temptation, which is the same as mine. She conceals her light, which is the same as mine, so I see through the substance’s diaphanous veil. I sew with extreme tenderness—like the hand that preceded mine—coats, undergarments, long and short dresses, and torn, previously mended garments that residents of Whitley Street’s bend—who known for their volatile temperaments—fling at me.
I follow the lead of the creature who used to shake her head sorrowfully and then gesture with her hands—as if dominated by the nihilism of the anger cozying up to her encounters—while refraining from looking at the discord smashing the glass of the shop’s façade for the fifth time in two prolonged months, and to cope with the anxiety of calendars on which this stifling heat became muddled.
I collect shards of glass to show to my visitor, who is delayed this evening by brooding while he walks on enthralling streets and tortured paths that are pockmarked by shards. As they totter on my palm, I shiver at the brush of the gaunt hand.
I sit here weaving certainty, confronting patterns for lines on which to embroider a basmala filled with promises for a story that will reveal its riddle—like a fabric with its interlacing designs—a labyrinth awaiting discovery. In the stifling noon stupor I mend the wrinkled skin of the whiff of a memory that arrives like hilarity denuded of joy.
I am not in the midst of the questioning and fail from tedium. If you come, I will inspire you with thirst’s yearning, so you will see what weakness inclined toward this body and broke the mirror of concord. But you—like the specters that keep me company with their images in an array of misgivings—you know that in my embroidery, when the garments pile up in heaps, worn out at the hems of corners bustling with ennui, I merely mend without leniency the gaps of a memory in the swoon of its everlasting mirror.
I echo the recitation of the story the way it was chanted by the creature who blessed me with her time and afforded me a femininity that dribbles distress and delight. Who besides you will understand? I see myself repeating to the face that disappears and manifests itself in other visages. You or they come, stigmatized by the burn of guile. So we meet in the same saloon, faces after faces, in a moment when I know that the scent of the body opposite or beside me will sweep over me like a sublime windstorm. Then I tremble and see my voice glide sweetly into your throat—you who are revealed in every face.
Here, I give the fabric its due and gather the mismatched tufts and odd bits of cloth that my hand scattered along with the scissors, which attract me at times and surprise me at others, to sew together something to enchant my visitor, who has motivated me with a deceptive hallucination in my fiery breathing when he groaned loudly and the neighboring houses surprised me by wailing, “That’s enough, you dirty old man!”
In order to observe the sob, I reach into my lungs. My friend above me, in a flaming motion, curses and kisses my body, which bears scars attesting to his fires.
These resemble a portrait of the creature sleeping carelessly, abandoning her limbs to the captivity of the soft gloom. I sneak up to her to savor the scent of her breath so its fragrance can become my breath and I can sacrifice my body, which doesn’t resemble hers. I never tire of this sort of thing, when my fingers are obliged to guide the needle through narrow gaps that the machine cannot sew; this is a task for someone who enjoys the way they explode between her hands. The creature experiences the intoxication of placing the slender thread between her teeth and forcefully yet circumspectly severing it when she is surprised by the rapid constriction of fabric and needle.
Is he listening to me? Perhaps I question myself during the seconds that separate my narration of the different incidents so I can see the same look imprinted by imagination on a face with different features, taking that seat as a commode for him, here and at a distance of two steps from the machine that outstrips me and tries to reach the clamor before I do.
Who is this person who looks at me with a tired and emaciated face without seeing me while I disclose to him the transmutations of the trip that brought the creature from the island of San Pedro Soana, which lies at the doorstep of the Dominican Republic, on board a passing steamship that harbors sucked in and spat out until the voyage ended for her. This creature daubed all distances with color and plunged my face into the copper tone of things.
I listen in turn to the voice that slips from truces folded with monkish care into the memory, to the voice that possesses a sweet lilt as she whispers and laughs as her conversation, which is heavy on monotony and daring that are two sides of the same coin, says, “Oh, Foster! Oh my dear Foster. . . .”
Then my lips move in response to the echoing syllables. The sound pulses in my throat. A shiver overwhelms me at the terror of the deed’s ritual, and you see me whisper to the earnest face opposite me and occasionally scream words that broadcast their defeats and that stab with some story about an exile revealed in moving through islands that are held hostage by oceans or gulfs and that in turn held the creature hostage with repeated seals on papers granting her permission to take refuge in such and such a residence —at the intersection of Whitley street with its slightly rounded corners, which offered whatever they did over four decades that left their patches booby-trapped with revolting racist machinery, which seared the interior of this refuge and this body that you see squatting before you in transparent equilibrium and in a play of light that doesn’t highlight him—you who are an evening visitor, wrapped in shadows and in a dream that you roll with your stumbling steps to the threshold of my door, which promotes your scheme.
I can predict your next fidget when the place’s paint harshly and angrily absorbs the moisture of your strapping gestures and when the lashes of the belt convey the novice’s practice blows that delight the anxiety of my bounding spirit, which fears your imminent departure—you who will appear in another face after I track down your signals that the creature will disclose in conniving dreams that drive me to the bars again, and in the investigation of the moment of consciousness’ infiltration, a moment as gripping as the moan that takes me by surprise with a force that summons it from another quarrelsome wail tarnished with pain’s potency and with attributes that vie with the neighborhood, all of it, in its substitutions, oblivious to a familiar form of haggling about a body whose image hadn’t arisen, when it remained confused in the shadow of what I choose for it, like divine experiences.
Is there any behavior that can candidly confront this creature’s missteps? Here I stitch and mend—and fasten cardboard over the shop’s façade, which was damaged by the anger of a group upset by my color or perhaps by my body, which is imprisoned by its procrastinating character. I’m just a clumsy Caribbean who dissolves in a mirror of charming femininity for the exemplary creature with submissive breasts who gave me her milk one day with extraordinary tenderness and who sorrowfully confided to me that my future life would be: “Fabric, and more fabric.”
She repeated, like someone caught up in the frenzy of an echo, “That’s all we have.”
I am taken by surprise by familiarity’s sorrow sketched like a humble Greek statue in the shadows of what we recount and oppress with fear’s spontaneity. I’m not restricted to the truth, because here and around you, as you see, are memory’s corridors and another maze for the imagination. I’m the one who is lodged in a condition that’s hard to describe. I plead with you every night to strip me of this body. I scream to you to take it prisoner, to tear it to shreds, and to snuff out your burning cigarettes on it, but you persist in small forms of torture—inspired perhaps by stories of the creature, who told the everlasting story and left it hanging in my throat. But you never tire. You narrow your eyes and twist a beer bottle in your fingers. When I resort to you and display my body’s weave to you, I am surprised by your disgust.
“What a wretched old man you are!” you say, oppressed by my face’s tranquility, not realizing the inclinations toward despair that forcefully assail the contradictions of this body of mine and my yearning for an embrace. At that, I retreat to my old chair behind the tenderhearted machine, fondling its parts and curves as I listen to your departing steps, which are synchronized with the barking of the dog Junior, that defenseless, exemplary companion.
In your heavy steps I can almost read your tyrannical decision; I whisper to the machine, “He won’t return.”
My voice is hoarse; your gracious voice takes on the shape of my words, just as your identity is mine and every departure is yours. Solitude stings.
“Look at me.”
I ask entreatingly, “Look at me a little.”
“Oh, Foster, oh my little Foster.”
The creature slipping like mist into my body says, “Put your head on my chest. Have no fear.”
I rest my head on the wheel of the machine, turning to face the other presence and the transparency of captivity. Then the contradictory images die away, and my gaunt face is caressed by a breeze overflowing with gentleness. My soul tumbles toward the wave that propels its froth toward me, and I know at that moment that I am in the presence of the creature. “Oh my God, all this tenderness! All this affection!”
For the Voice, For the Fragile Echo
My knees were bent back all the way while my torso remained attached to the gravitation between head and brow. A vast epoch of time has passed while I have stayed planted in the ground like this, observing successive eras as cycles that follow each other. The heavens reach down to my forehead the instant the rock is cracked, and a prodigious storm appears through fissures that have splintered, opening their treasures in an expanse that disappears between the veins. An unknown hand pats my shoulder, and nearby the voice comes, mixed with a liquid gurgle that cleaves the silence. Consonants echo as the ring of words spring back and forth in the void around me while I strive to fathom the meaning of the story’s talisman.
Torpor had seeped into my whole body and seemed transformed. At that time, the thunderbolt struck and split me in two, leaving its intense flash between my two sections. Venerable, wise creatures clutched me, disappearing into the mist of the expanse of a time that resists the spirit’s unity, patiently celebrating the notion that my arrival brings, divided in half like this. The flash of lightning plays back and forth in the pliability of the void that the diffractions of the first spark of life granted me.
The specter fluctuating in the distance wouldn’t approach any closer, and I could not make out his features clearly. All the same, his presence had caused the blossoms to release their nectar till it overflowed the rugged paths. Passersby marked by the scent of departure sipped it in their temporal sojourns when permitted by night-watchmen dedicated to the portals, which are swollen with polished wood, to admit them. Then the green grass was clearly visible with its earthy ambrosia while, with its reeling, it combed the crumbs of pain from my members, which were scattered in the adjacent hollows, over which the rains’ salt was plastered as they spilled toward me.
I saw that my body was filled with secret signs that continued to accompany my agitated breaths while the cooing of the pulse of my skin gushed out, leaving its echo in the inner sanctum of my heart, in the blossoming of the breast with possibilities of what will be spilled forth in the rosiness of a small mouth sucking the nipple, in a lull between drowsiness and wakefulness, in an examination of time and its struggles with glasses of tea and with dreams that rouse the buried part of what is growing in the compassion of the interior, in the face that selected me to show in the little hand when it pointed toward the stream of blood.
When I look up a little, the clouds have drawn their tails quickly toward another hill, and the shadows of my face have printed the lip’s path on the edges of the surrounding stones.
In this valley, which is stark in its nudity, lying in ambush in the womb of the hills, I and the obedient existence inside me are molded. Each of us apologizes to the other for the time and the anxiety of the embrace; each of us awaits the scalpel, fearful of breaking apart a fusion that has encircled us with its water through this eternity.
“But we want to understand your tendency to scoff at us this way, averting your eyes from our space, and your exploration of this mist.”
“I think of this companionship during the rustle of fall breezes, while cramming my world, despite isolation, delving in ethereal, familiar whispering that reviles and takes liberties with the spirit’s windows.”
“Did news of our condition reach you when you were devoting yourself to the sojourn and to solitude? While we were betting against time over maps of continents with all their intricate details and the boundaries drawn with bright colors?”
“Scattered stories and a desire that totters in chilly buildings till I could almost touch it!”
“Didn’t you know that your desertion of us served as our own desolate migration? Didn’t you see us stumble?”
“One evening when the snow was brittle beneath my feet I watched my breath freeze as the cold massaged my cheeks.”
“Are you listening?”
“That was the snow’s seduction: the sudden shiver, the flakes flying everywhere, a blanket of white. That was how I got lost when I strayed down the corridors of sidewalks with placards in many different languages. Later I recognized how crooked the paths home would be and how deceptive the slick roads were.”
“We became prisoners of this place, repairing our fractures incessantly. We traced decrepit manuscripts as larvae stuck in our lashes and our fingernails. Here, do you see? The concatenation of our stories that your silence embraced! We stand before you now, baring our chests so you can see who envies the attack we suffered.”
“In my daze, I became a habituée of bars scattered down alleyways. I would swallow my thirst, which was strongest down in my throat. I forgot conversation, and no liquid moistened my saliva. What rift sinks into the breast as a result of all this exile?”
“We appeal to you. . . .”
“People knocked on my window!”
“Look at us—you will see the critical situation we are in.”
“An arid gulf, a penetrating splinter.”
I hide in the vestibule of time, a gift of bygone time, the veil of what disappeared in the haze of a present that dies slowly while I collect necessities that have surrounded me with the familiarity of tranquility in an ancient dwelling the wood of which sinks with a loud creak beneath the weight of our feet, which drag across it night and day.
Green branches heavy with rain’s fragrance lean against my window, observing both the preparations for my departure and the door I close now to shut out my three companions, who gush in my blood through distant centuries. Inside them, they dandled the struggles of pain toward me and gently contemplated my trembling body in its perpetual transit from one realm to another, from one oblivion to the next, and from a development, formation, and an extraction that restores itself so it appears faintly in the greatest throbbing, when fingertips descend to caress my forehead in times of perplexity.
I delay their conjectures by deferring myself. I shroud the trap inside me and remain exposed to what will toy with my existence. I crash into images that disclose the seasons of return so I won’t look misty-eyed in the transparency of what is revealed to them in their inclination toward me.
In this house that afforded me some comfort during my lengthy meanderings and that opened its little caches to show me how life is originating around me in my silence, which lowered its lids in my heart, I experience not being seized by the contentment of their broad shoulders pressed together as they experience the emptiness of the spirit without it. Perhaps I become conscious of this drawing that is traced on my body, colored purple, green, and blue in what resembles an ancient inscription traced by a hand that wanted this expert mix for me.
I stand before the mirror to observe the reflection of the letters both in their waves as one member leaves another and in the meeting and conjuncture of the end of one letter with the next. I hope the intellect will glide toward what will explicate, interpret, and restore the exegesis of the stories with which the porticoes, the small chamber, and the bare surroundings of this house—currently denuded of their thick grass—clamor.
“There’s no time for anything except departure,” I think with a despair that suddenly attacks me concerning the meaning of a talisman that rests on the edge of my bursting forth toward the breach that has for so long embraced in its desolate wringer the impress of the flame that smelted me. I return accompanied by the man who is gradually changing gender to the feminine, which will afford him a docile existence. One summer by happy coincidence we were in the area of Dulwich at the intersection of the road with Whitley Street, which is known for its virulent racism and the flickers of alarm in blue eyes and which forms part of an expanse that stretches to dwellings that have adorned themselves in a glass womb where foreigners dare not tread. Each of us carries his story like a tattoo on his skin, where extensive memory is snuffed out and each person becomes visible in the hedge of an estrangement that offers the wisdom of native intelligence. Like the first drop of sperm manifest in creation, he is a union of what was severed in the body’s turmoil.
“How has all this happened to you?” he asks as his fingers trace the rhythmic syllables and symbols revealed by circles and spirals while my body is in a swoon of nakedness before his eyes, casting out the visions that tyrannized me in the dream that raises its voice with the cockiness of faded perplexity about particulars that slink away and branch out till they lie dormant in the heart’s dismay.
In my preparations, which chose stillness in this desolate void, I stand in the same environment, sheltered by the south room, which I left a lifetime ago out of wanderlust. Their breaths envelope me delicately in velvet touching while they lean their heads against the sturdy wood of the door, which is closed upon his affairs. Meanwhile Foster’s voice vies with the murky distance between me and his deep river, in the confines of torn and worn-out clothes onto which the machine has pressed some embroidery, sneaking around the holes, weighing their depth and gauging the size of their ragged rips against his anarchic desire that runs every which way.
Concerning Passion and its Mate
Since we yielded to the arrival, which has roamed in its solitude, when it was kindling a distance that we imagined had frittered away with her surprise arrival, we have been in a faint fervor and a gasping submission, examining the ageing presence of the woman, who has begun to camouflage her body with a stream of sashes and long stoles that trail behind her with a fluttering that causes the edges of the corners and the crumbling walls to vibrate in their architectural tendency to sag against each other. We discerned from this her advances and sudden moves from nook to nook and from one familial room to another, basking in the glorious emptiness, while filling the air with time’s frivolity through clashes between enumeration and imprecation.
This was not how she had previously treated a body that was equipped for seduction, that was tyrannical in its exploration of bargaining, that struck casual glances with maneuvers of intertwining itself with a face that typically highlighted a breast’s fullness or the liberation of a hip in a fluidity that elicited sighs from nearby mouths while their hot breath—directed at her—scorched our faces, which encompassing shadows concealed.
We were hopping back and forth gaily while observing her eyes, which fixed on us from time to time, often enough to cause us to trail behind her while humming around her hymns of a passion that contained our bafflement over her. For this reason we were seized by wonder at the oddness of an act that did not harmonize with our visions of nudity in which we imagined that premature existence in its wakefulness daubed our pupils with her scent that has clung to our skins all these years while she expects a pile of fabrics to feel pliant to the touch and to stretch in a universal stream around her feet and legs, whose orientation we noticed in the remote past.
We rely on evidence just as we observe the incantations that retain concealed secrets inside square and rectangular glass boxes, inside buildings the nature of which is obscured for us by their visitors, who scattered through their dusty arcades that display the details of their inscriptions to eyes that swim over them through heavy clouds that aren’t kind to lives that had vanished and others that would vanish in the advance of the wheel of time that challenges our ambitions, and the compounds in the defect of the notions that float to the surface at times and sink to the depths of a night watch while souls gaze in tranquil moments toward a twilight that disperses delicate details involved in the very skirmishes from which we turn our heads now while we brood about Wisan’s body, which has been concealed from us behind heavy, sand-colored clothing that conveys the scent of the earth.
We attempt to understand the meaning of the rupture with its hard, interlocking bars in a path that protects our fragile spirits from asking ourselves what is inflaming this environment that encompasses us with our blood that transcribes in our veins, which are connected to each other in a pattern like that of the celestial spheres swimming in their certainty. And here she is—leaving us now in an exile of suspicions and with a dizzying vision of what awaits it. Then our gasps resound while we spread out the prickly part of a thorn until the motives for this lethal extravagance become clear to us while it slays morsels of the dreamy contentment that we had known for an era.
The body pulled back the veil of its difference one evening when the light swimming in the sky withdrew to the edge of the large bed embracing our four bodies in their eloquent development to follow the eruption of the femininity that distracted us from her surroundings and that distributed her characteristics around us, till we noticed the dark stains that overlapped scattered drawings of lilac and bright yellow flowers, and next the disappearance of the bedspread together with Wisan from our familial gathering, as we began our constant, painful search for Wisan’s secret nooks, where she liked to retreat, discouraging our advances toward her.
We used to wish to whisper to her that the body’s certainty consists in its repose on the bud of emptiness while it unfolds, spreading its total tranquility in an existence that turns and revolves around itself, and that our scars, which have settled in the confines of the breast, mimic the feminine pain from which Wisan hopes to divert us by a momentary disappearance. But jealousy gnaws on us when we see her allow the foreign man to witness the pain we feel for her, swaying over the captivating skin’s smoothness in close correlation with rows of icons that tattooed the hidden meaning stamped with the amulets with which the house’s wall are adorned in their expanses and ongoing lapses into the Unknown.
Despite all this, the whole truth wasn’t disclosed to us while we were fluctuating between the slender thread tying us to the heart’s queen and the certainty of the scandalous scars—an unknown cruelty against a body the members of which twinkle like the flickering wings of a butterfly during its brief temporal transit from its first surge into life and its final surge into nonexistence. We investigate the growth of the scars with our fingertips that now slip into the darkness of the gloom and its black expanse that envelops Wisan’s body in resigned sleep. Perhaps we gather what scattered traces of the consequences of an age that blemishes the woman of our affection with the excesses of his rudeness when he falls with long-lasting bruises on particles of what clings to him of a fantasy resembling a mill that grinds and pulverizes, which we study and which she studies from the vantage point of solitude. She does not hope for pity and does not spread out her hands to pour out the existence that flows from our environment to hers during mellow hours when doves’ wings rise from the edges of the roofs, escaping to their space.
Nothing can distract us now from the path of what is drawn on the submissive skin: furrows that alternate in depth as they glide from the shoulder’s top to the forearm and from the thigh’s juncture to the knee, which looks as if a hand has quickly darned the threadbare section of bifurcating veins and tissues that spill out in the surprise of an intimate event when mature rebellion resists the body, copying the vein in a gushing toward the outside or reminiscent of enticing pictures of the delicate rim of an eyelid to an arrowhead that spreads from the present moment to the moment of captivating absence, when its silver hiding place is revealed in a radiance that resembles the instant’s dream that appears to us in the spark of an obliviousness that falls over our temples to distract us from a mouth we have always been drawn to.
We fall before the breast, sitting together like this, reconnoitering its topography as its nipple brushes the tip of our noses, which perish in its nectar, in tense qualms, and in the gift of the expanse that arrives in concentric rings like the wave rising inside us that casts its fully viscous foam toward the dry barren land. We like the tranquility in the calm of the thighs’ coupling, their inconsequential contact, the breasts’ sagging from the paths of sweetness, the throat as it spreads toward the ridge of the shoulder, the meniscus muscle that rebels tumultuously, the back’s slopes that ponder the stages of an impudent outpouring of its fondness for what our obedient departure reveals of it in the sparkling quarrel.
Thus we take on colors when touched by the body’s folly as we read with our fingertips, in the dark, the lines carved into the skin that is opulently smooth and that attracts our tales, which time has stretched and that the winds have played with at the boundary of the incline of the dream that frees itself from our foreheads.
What is this passion that consumes us? What is this pain that futilely materializes in wounds that traipse across the body before settling into the mist of our cells? Our girl raises her hand humbly while our bodies show deference for the pyramid of the shelter around her, a shelter that is an extravagant defense matched only by our impetus toward her.
I saw Foster years ago when I was on a short visit to London. I stayed with a friend and he was her neighbor. I remember waking up late at night to the shouts of the neighbors cursing him for what seemed to be masochistic tendencies. I would also hear noises and yelling from Foster’s side. It was summer, people kept their windows open, and the semi-detached houses limited privacy; so probably everyone could hear what was happening in Foster’s bedroom. When I inquired the next morning, Sue told me in a sarcastic voice: “Foster is a reminder for all of us in this middle-class neighborhood of what it is like to be in the gutter.” I was really moved by her description of him and became preoccupied by the idea of inflicting pain on one’s self or another. I have a strong conviction that no one has the right to cause pain in any form to another person, but what happens if this urge comes from within. When, in a twisted way, a person creates situations where he/she is subjected to physical or mental suffering. A strong sorrow gushed within me, and I felt like cradling rather than dismissing this stranger. So I kept passing by his house every day, where he had turned the front lounge into a tailor shop. I remember that the front glass was broken, and the gaps were covered with cardboard. I never spoke to him, but sometimes I would pretend to be looking at the clothes through the shop window while in reality I was soaking in his face and his gestures. I didn’t feel that I was welcome to enter; in fact I remember clearly the hostility on his face every time he glanced at me. But standing there, looking at his face, I could feel the chaos, pain and confusion surrounding his every movement when he gestured and talked to himself.
I remember on my last day when meeting another friend and sitting on the grass in one of the parks surrounded by noises and a delicate touch of London’s summer sun, I said that I would write a story about Foster. He asked me who Foster was, and I said Sue’s neighbor. As I sat writing later on in Bahrain, I realized he was more than that, because he made himself central to the weaving of the events in the novella, especially in his relationship to Wisan. His condition of total estrangement, of not fitting into his body or skin, and his longing for an ideal moment when one sees a complete reflection of one’s self in another’s eye make him the perfect outsider who mirrors each and every character in my novella.
Published in Arabic as Lil-Sawt li-Hashashat al-Sada (Beirut: al-Mu’assasa lil-Dirasat wa-al-Nashr, 2000)
Chapters 1-3 of the English translation were published in The Brooklyn Rail, October 2011, pages 101-104, and chapters 4-6 were published in The Brooklyn Rail, October 2012, pages 85-87.