By Hisham Bustani.
Translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet.
I’m tired of turning the dials of History…There is nothing there but the motion of mouths opening and closing as an anesthetizing saccharine solution is dropped into them. I look at all of them: they are motionless and shackled, sap sucked dry, faces covered in imbecilic smiles. Who are these people all around me? Do I know them? Why are they here? Why am I here? Where have they gone? Where did the picture go? Where am I? What. Is. Happening? There’s … cz-cz-cz-cz-cz-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh…
The second law of thermodynamics: Physical systems tend toward change from being highly ordered to more disordered formations. The entropy of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium tends to increase over time. The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.
* * *
“Why am I here, in the midst of all this destruction?” was the question running through his mind when he glimpsed dark grey clouds threatening overhead. People looked at him strangely as he yelled at the top of his lungs, “They’re just the fallout from a massive nuclear explosion.”
“Crazy guy,” someone said, hurrying past.
“You idiots, sneaking your way through air that is polluted with car exhaust, and all that hookah and cigarette smoke. Look at the bare ground between the concrete mounds: the soil is red. Red soil, do you hear? Soil that is fertile and that you are paving with asphalt and cement, and mounds of stone so that you can facilitate the flow of your garbage and the dissemination of your abominable noise.”
The only person that dared approach him was a beggar child, his nostrils crusty with dry snot. “Sir … You got a smoke for me?”
“You’re knee high to a flea,” the man responded, gesturing with his index and thumb stacked on top of one another, “and you smoke? Why don’t you wait a while … until you’ve grown taller and more foolish?”
“Human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague (…)”
* * *
“Viruses.” When the sound of that voice hit her ear, the young woman stumbled and almost fell over, dropping her cell phone to the ground. “Over the course of tens of thousands of years, viruses have invaded us and their genes have co-mingled with ours. We have become like them, only worse. Extinction—mass extinction—awaits.”
He went on his way, thundering past her and kicking a young man about to climb into a four-wheel drive. “We will all be extinct, you fool,” he exclaimed as he turned toward the passers-by who had begun to gather around.
“Dear biped fossils, you think you are intelligent creatures? What kind of intelligence has evolved in you that you are addicted to petroleum, uranium, and electromagnetic waves? They say that intelligence is the property of highly complex matter. What complexity is it that you boast about when you sleep in your own radioactive shit? Maybe if we went back to being unintelligent matter we would avert the bloodbaths, the mountains of garbage, the huge and viscous maritime oil spills. Everyone wants a happy ending. Here’s a happy ending for you: may you all become extinct.”
* * *
He remembered a woman who not long ago had been his wife. She wanted to have a baby.
“Aren’t there enough wretched people on earth?” he’d tell her. She’d get upset and start crying. And then, she’d go and complain to his mother.
“Don’t you want someone to carry on the family name after you, my son? Do you want all trace of you to disappear?”
My name? It is with my nails that I will engrave my name on the face of this wretched history. I would change its course by even fraction of a degree if I could. Would that I could dissolve and be soaked up by the flowers planted in the soil over my grave. A son would immortalize me, you say? Ah, the wretchedness of the selfish gene! Let him save himself, if he can! Who am I to make decisions for him? What kind of free being is it whose existence is brought about by someone else? No, that can’t be right. How would I know whether he wanted to exist in the first place? Shall I say, “Be!” that he might come into existence at my command and in spite of himself so that I enjoy being a mini-God? This planet doesn’t need any more people. Don’t you worry, the species is safe and sound … We’re going to be the death of the planet before we’re done dying.
“Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?” he was screaming now.
Carl Sagan’s voice rang out. “We are nothing but a handful of stardust,”
* * *
Sirens sounded. Police cars arrived, more bystanders gathered around. A man lay on the ground shouting, “Destruction. Red soil. Viruses. Stars. We will be extinct, you fools.”
Two policemen overpowered him and dragged him off, kicking and screaming.
“Just a crazy man,” a woman told her neighbor looking out of her apartment window.
The police sirens subsided and disappeared into the distance. She drew the curtains closed.
* * *
Before closing his eyes for the last time, he felt a warm liquid seeping from the tip of his nose; his tongue, between his front teeth, felt like it was a small window, while his wrists, handcuffed behind his back, felt as if they were going to explode.
One of his eyes was swollen, he couldn’t fully open the eyelid, but the other eye was fine. He could see the policemen whispering behind the bars in front of him. He figured they were talking about him because there was no one else in the lock-up. Soon afterwards, there was the awful sound of metal scraping against metal and slamming: the door opened. Two men in white coats appeared. Why were they here?
When he saw the large syringe one of them was holding, he understood. The stabbing of his buttock and the pressure of the injected liquid were the last things he sensed before passing out, his indignant cry silenced.
“Oh, what a beautiful place!”
He turned toward the sunlight glinting off the glass high-rises. His eyes followed a large black car. The smell of grilling titillated his nostrils and his hormones erupted when a young woman winked at him. The large digital advertising screens kept flipping overhead: You deserve more; It isn’t rocket science: Increase your investment and grow your profit; We can make your dreams come true: live the American dream right here; Only three days left for you to win the JD 250,000; We’ll build your dream with this housing loan; Opportunity doesn’t knock twice: own your dream car now; It’s your world alone: enjoy it with our special offers”…
HERE. A light glimmered ahead and his excitement rose as he set off towards it. He noticed the people around him for the first time and they were all walking in the same direction. He quickened his pace, broke into a run, but felt he was running in place. When he looked at the others, he noticed that the distance between them remained unchanged.
For a moment, he almost thought he should stop but just then, as if about to collide with his head, HERE lit up again in front of him. It went off but then it drew closer, he was sure it was closer. He spurred himself on. He licked his upper lip with his tongue and bit down on his lower one, the sweat beading on his forehead. He wiped off the droplets trickling into his eyes with his shirtsleeve. He could feel himself getting hotter and his heart beating furiously: apartment, car, cell phone, sexy girl, shiny glass buildings … threshold to HERE.
It all looked so close but he didn’t seem to be making any headway. Looking at one another, the others hurried on past, quickening their pace.
* * *
It was a dark, cold, and damp space. The air was heavy with the breath of so many others. He couldn’t tell how many. Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? Billions? Gazing into the distance, everything looked blurred, and the harder he tried, the more spots there were … black ones, white ones, and grey ones, accompanied by the dull, buzzing noise: cz, cz, cz, cz, cz, cz, cz, cz, sh, sh, sh…
Looking in front of him, he can see the sewing machine and the pieces of fabric quite clearly, his hands catching hold of the fabric in an involuntary, reflex gesture, and running it under the needles bobbing up and down, turning it into shirts. On the tag, he can make out the name of the famous international brand, and the words, ‘Made in QIZ-Jordan,’ written underneath.
Looking in front of him, he can hear talking, but can’t understand what’s being said—just the way it was when actors spoke in those Indian movies he watched as a teenager. He didn’t understand a word and there were no subtitles. He listened and listened, but he still couldn’t understand. The large hall was dark, cold and damp, its air thick, so thick, with everything in the distance looking blurred.
For a second, he entertains the thought of stopping. “Focus on what’s in front of you,” booms a voice from overhead speakers. “To make progress, you must mind your own business.”
“Yes, that’s right, there’s no one else but me here,” he murmurs under his breath. “It’s just me, and hell is other people,” he tells her. “I…” he’s shouting at her now, weaving between the glass buildings, the luxury cars, and the woman who had winked at him. He stretches out his hand, he can almost touch her, he quickens his pace, for an instant it appears that he’s not making any headway, so he runs even faster, dripping with perspiration…
[Fifth and Last Answer]
Amidst the clamor of women and children, like static in the background, the voice of Jim Jones rises up loud and clear: “To me death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s cursed … We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
Second Answer: the text that follows this heading is a rearranged passage of dialogue from The Matrix, the film by the Wachowsky Brothers.
The term selfish gene is taken from the book of the same name by Richard Dawkins.
Carl Sagan (1934-1996), American astronomer. This sentence is the author’s paraphrase of Sagan’s famous statement, “We are made of star stuff.”
QIZ stands for Qualified Industrial Zones, tax-free industrial zones established in Jordan under the U.S.-Israeli free trade agreement drawn up in the wake of the so-called peace treaty between the Jordanian and Israeli governments in 1994. Goods manufactured in such zones are permitted to enter American markets free of duty so long as at least 8% of their value added originates in Israel. The overwhelming majority of Jordanian QIZs are textile manufacturing facilities where over half the workers are not Jordanians but contracted guest workers from South Asia and China who often pay lump sums of several thousand dollars to get hired by a garment factory. Working conditions are notoriously bad and wages pitifully low. Egypt later followed the Jordanian example.
“Hell is other people” is a well-known phrase of the French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, which appears in his play, Huis-Clos (No Exit).
Jim Jones was the founder and leader of the People’s Temple in the USA. He and 900 members of his sect committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, on 18 October 1978. The quotation is from his last speech to his followers, moments before the mass killing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hisham Bustani is an award-winning Jordanian author of four collections of short fiction. He is acclaimed for his bold style and unique narrative voice, and often experiments at the boundaries of short fiction and prose poetry. His short fiction has been translated into five languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the US, UK, and Canada, including World Literature Today, Los Angeles Review of Books and The Literary Review. In 2009, he was chosen by the German review Inamo as one of the Arab world’s most influential new writers. In 2013, the UK-based cultural webzine The Culture Trip listed him as one of Jordan’s top six contemporary writers. His book The Perception of Meaning, won the 2014 University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award, and was published in 2015 by Syracuse University Press. One of Hisham’s stories was recently chosen to be featured in the inaugural edition of The Best Asian Short Stories anthology, forthcoming in 2017. This story, Stardust, is part of a forthcoming translation of his book The Monotonous Chaos of Existence.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Maia Tabet is an Arabic-English literary translator living in Washington DC. Her translations have been widely published in journals, literary reviews, and other specialized publications, including The Common, the Journal of Palestine Studies, Words Without Borders, Portal 9, and Banipal, among others. She is the translator of Little Mountain (Minnesota University Press, 1989, Carcanet, 1990, and Picador, 2007) and White Masks (Archipelago Books, 2010, and MacLehose Press, 2013) by the renowned writer Elias Khoury; and of the winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Throwing Sparks (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012) by Abdo Khal. Her translation of Sinan Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist is forthcoming (Hoopoe Press, Spring 2017) and she is currently finishing her translation into English of Hisham Bustani’s The Monotonous Chaos of Existence.
ABOUT THE ART WORK
All images are details taken from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data accumulated over a period from September 3, 2003 through January 16, 2004. The patch of sky in which the galaxies reside was chosen because it had a low density of bright stars in the near-field.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017.