The City Is In My Chest by Hisham Bustani
By Hisham Bustani
Translated from the Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes
It’s no wonder the city looks exhausted. It is besieged by history, and history besieges you within it like a foot stamping down on your lungs, everywhere and from every direction. As if it is heavy water—you try to lift your head above the surface but cannot, for hovering above you is ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī, raising his curved sword in the square that carries his name; and at the corner of the Milk Bar Café, Zahra Ẓaryf-Biyṭāṭ planted a bomb, like a rose dedicated to a future love. The main shopping street is called Diydowsh Murād and at the corner of the National Museum of Contemporary Art is a framed stone plaque: The Martyr Muhammad Al’araby Ben Mahidy. And—of course—the street is named after him. The Governmental Palace is fenced with pictures of the Group of Twenty Two, and towering over the space is the Martyrs’ Memorial—a giant torrent, defying gravity so that water from the earth can inseminate the water of the sky; a torrent of white blood that rises from the Museum of the Revolution to touch the clouds. A foot stamping down on your lungs, everywhere and from every direction.
It’s no wonder that the city has exhausted me as I chased its multiplying phantoms, just as it exhausts me when I summon memories of Amman, empty of phantoms. My city is one of those cities that hates itself, does not want to have a memory. My city erases its history as it happens, with a rag soaked in delusions of progress. Forging from an annihilated void to a void that annihilates. And so, it stays suspended in the air or falling in a bottomless abyss, weightless and without mass. And nothing weighs down on your lungs but the heavy traffic and the vileness of human beings.
I sit on the beach hoping to unwind, only to meet the gaze of the French warships on the horizon and thousands of soldiers stumbling between bullets and sword thrusts as they begin their conquest of the country. Here too? The organizers of the National Theatre Festival prefer to host their guests away from the heaviness of the city, but they don’t know that those who peer closely at the edges of the resort will be pushed down further by the intensity of history.
There is a colonial port, built next to the tomb of the saint who gave his name to this area. I asked around about him but didn’t get a clear answer. Who was that sleeping behind a closed blue door, under a blanket of trees? When did he live? When did he die? Why was he buried here, next to the sea? I imagine him walking on water between the ships in a dusty old gown, carrying a stick, at the crucial moments between the death of light and the resurrection of darkness. When his gleaming eyes reveal him, he returns quickly to his stone bed, smiling. This is where he received the French and where he bid them farewell, without even flinching. He knew and so sleeps undisturbed until this day.
‘Ezz Aldiyn Mujuwby Square
The thespian who was baptized in blood imposes his presence on the French Opera House that Algerians have converted into their National Theatre. To one side Tontonville sits upright like a petulant cat, a café where intellectuals and students mix with people passing in the street. There is great wisdom in having the theatre in the middle of the city, the middle of the old city center, the middle of the crowds, and at the point where colonial Algiers meets Ottoman Algiers. That meeting / insemination / anger / merging / separation / acceptance / refusal / interaction / struggle / colonisation / liberation / independence / yesterday / today / and tomorrow. This is the true laboratory of culture. This is how it should be. Sudden, and in the middle of the city.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of him in the corner of the square. The bare chested man with bare feet. He is the logical conclusion of a theatre that imposes its space on passersby, expanding through their presence. The beautiful vagrant. He was there every day, and as soon as the musicians light up the place with their long horns and rousing chants, the dancer hidden within him emerges without reservation. Without an introduction. Without clothes worthy of the occasion. Without pretention. He is the leading man in the Theatre of the Square, and the musicians are background actors. I will not forget that ecstasy. That backward tilt in the spine, forward tilt in the abdomen. Those graceful, erratic movements of the legs and arms as they redraw the lines of the thin body. Today, my friend, you are the leading man. We are your audience, your desolate backdrop, and here I am writing you down so that you outlive me. Dance. Dance.
On the way to the Riyadh Hotel
Atop a motorcycle, a policeman and flashing light ride ahead of us. Algeria is one of those rare countries (maybe the only one) that treats visiting writers and artists like distinguished guests—real VIPs with official motorcades and security escorts who clear the road and pass through police checkpoints without stopping. In your own country, they make a point of ignoring you and here you are treated like a head of state. The bus drives along and fills up with empty chatter and people’s attempts to hook up. The window is open; air laden with seaside humidity enters the bus, colliding with my face on the way in. I try to withdraw from the inane clamour around me, two sentences flash in my head: “The air is dense. It slaps me time after time, leaving traces of its sticky fingers on my face.” I know these flashes well, it is a new story taking shape. It came to me here, at 10:30pm on a bus heading to the hotel in the company of chatty, horny artists. I ask for a pen. No one has a pen, not even the driver. The sentences are breeding in my head and I repeat them over and over as if memorizing a sacred chant until we arrive. I run to the restaurant to borrow the waiter’s pen and receipt paper, and write.
The story born on a bus
The air is dense. It slaps me time after time, leaving traces of its sticky fingers on my face. This city is exhausted, this is its exhalation. When the surgeon split my chest open, he found buildings whose color has washed away and paint has cracked. In one of the windows, a woman was telling her neighbor: “My husband isn’t up to it anymore” as she turned a demitasse of Turkish coffee upside down to read her tragedy. In another window sat a potbellied man in his underwear burning cigarettes. He looked like my mother’s husband, who died forgotten with a leg eaten away by diabetes. On the horizon is the sea, a stretch of blue covered with waiting ships. There is no one on the dock by the port, the cranes are still and steam rises, giving more strength to the hand that slaps me. And that bright light in my eyes—a dazzling sun, several suns circling and circling and then fixed in the ceiling of the operation theatre. The surgeon takes off his bloodied gloves and slaps the nurse on her ass before leaving. He leaves a few tubes in my mouth to be taken out later—then I wake up. A black cat on a fence wails, then jumps into a dumpster half full of garbage. Children close its lid, light a string of small firecrackers and open the lid just long enough for the big crackle to take place in that metallic prison. I don’t know if a universe was forming at that moment in that dumpster, or whether Schrodinger knew if the cat was dead or alive. The children have run away, and the observer is in the operation theatre, and the city is in my chest, and I am waking little by little to the sound of empty chatter.
They told me that they have replaced my heart, but I know there is something wrong. Sometimes my new heart stops beating. I take it out and speak to it, but that does nothing to ease its depression, its darkness. I take a bite out of it and chew, feeling the taste of exhaust fumes, crowds and traffic jams. I spit, cursing the misery that doesn’t stop forming within me, renewing and cloning itself in different forms. A swaying white ghost walks past a building window and then, a stabbing pain in my arm. I open my eyes and curse, the nurse steps back—I cannot tell if she is beautiful or ugly.
So be it.
Now I am a fish. The water I swim in is transparent and clear, but—unlike the pond they pulled me out of—it is surrounded by a solid wall in every direction. I swim over here and collide with it. I swim over there and collide again. A transparent jail this time. When food arrives from above I surmise there is no barrier there and jump, proving myself correct. But alas, my misery does not stop renewing itself—there is no water where I have jumped. I fall onto an alien surface and start to shiver, choking and suffocating until I become a lifeless corpse, eyes staring into a void.
It was I who carried the small, golden corpse and dug a hole for it under the giant loquat tree that was so much bigger than both of us. I hear a murmuring above, and there appear the heads of men I know well. “Hey, you up there!” I yell. But the sound stays in my mind. My tongue does not move and my mouth does not open. Their faces have disappeared now, and in their place are handfuls of dirt that keep falling and slapping my face time after time, like dense air.
I will retire to bed now.
At least somebody knows I am alive.
A note on the text: In 2012, the author visited Algiers to participate in the National Theatre Festival. This piece was commissioned by the festival for an anthology on Algeria by writers from around the Arab world. This essay was also published in the author’s latest short story collection, Inevitable Preludes to an Eventual Disintegration (Cairo: Dar al-Ain, 2014), and appears here in translation for the first time.
‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī (1808 – 1883) led the struggle against the French colonial invasion of Algeria in the mid-19th century. He was exiled to Damascus, where he died.
Zahra Ẓaryf-Biyṭāṭ was a freedom fighter in the National Liberation Front of Algeria. Her best known operation was the 1956 bombing of the Milk Bar café, which was frequented by French colonists. She was imprisoned in 1957 and released in 1962, as part of a presidential amnesty to mark the independence of Algeria. In Arabic, her first name means “flower”.
Diydowsh Murād (1927 – 1955) was a member of the Group of Twenty Two, a group that played a decisive role in fomenting the Algerian Revolution which resulted in the country’s independence from colonial rule. He was one of five members of the first revolutionary committee created by the group and was known as “Le Petit” because of his short stature. He was martyred in the Battle of Duwwār Al-Ṣawādeq.
Muhammad Al’araby Ben Mahidy (1923 – 1957) was a key figure in the armed struggle of the Algerian Revolution that led to the country’s independence. He was tortured to death by the French, and is the author of a famous epigram from the Algerian Revolution: “Throw the revolution into the street, and the people will embrace it.”
Sidi Faraj is the area from where the French launched their colonial invasion of Algeria. It is named after a local saint who was buried there.
‘Ezz Aldiyn Mujuwby (1947 – 1995) was an actor and stage director, as well as the Director of Algeria’s National Theatre. He was assassinated by Islamic terrorists near the theatre’s back door.