Authors: Nihad Sirees
Al Samt Wal Sakhab
Copyright © Dar al-Adab, Beirut, 2004
French translation: Editions Robert Laffont, S.A., Paris, 2012
English translation © 2013 Max Weiss
This edition first published in 2013 by Pushkin Press, London.
Other Press edition 2013
Production Editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas
This book was set in 11 pt Baskerville by Tetragon, London.
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
[Al-Samt wal-Sakhab. English]
The Silence and the Roar / by Nihad Sirees.
1. Dictatorship—Syria—Fiction. 2. Dystopias.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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.