This lock-in Monday, as part of our ongoing series of stay-at-home literature, Rami Tawil’s short story on closing our eyes and keeping them shut, which ran in the EYE issue of ArabLit Quarterly:
By Rami Tawil
Translated by Nashwa Gowanlock
He stopped as soon as he’d reached the corner of the street. When he opened his eyes, he looked back at the distance he’d just covered. His lips turned up in a small smile that gradually grew as he registered how far he had walked with his eyes shut. His grin was about to evolve into a full-blown triumphant belly laugh when he noticed the passersby and quickly turned back, straightened his clothes, and continued toward his office, pleased with the day’s achievement.
When he was young, this game would be his only entertainment on the way to school. Playing it would relieve the boredom of the tediously long walk. At a certain point, he would decide to close his eyes and not open them until he reached the corner shop where he would buy some sweets, all while keeping to a regular pace and tempo as he tried to gauge the number of steps left to his destination. The joy he felt—if he opened his eyes and found himself outside the shop door—was immense. So he played it again and again, relishing the dazzling color-combinations of the sun’s rays playing on his closed lids in contrast to the gummy, cosy darkness that lay beneath. The goalpost changed each time; sometimes, he would choose to open his eyes to the lamppost, or the trash bin, or the split tree trunk slumped over the edge of the pavement. His final challenge was always the school gate, which he would eventually sweep through, but not before he had stumbled a few times at the entrance and banged into the walls until he finally memorized its dimensions.
But he was over forty now, so the game was no longer a form of amusement. He was plagued by a premonition that he would soon lose his eyesight, since the war left no one unscathed, and the only certain thing in the country these days were the scenes and stench of death. Yet with each passing day he grew convinced that death, despite its scale, remained distant, and he grew increasingly convinced that he would be blinded in an accident that would not take his life. It was this conviction that motivated him to revisit his old pastime as a way of preparing himself for a life without sight. This was why he had recently taken up wandering around his home with his eyes shut, dodging the furniture and walls to search for his things, to dress, to prepare his meals and to follow the news on the radio instead of TV. When, a week ago, he managed to spend a whole day in his apartment without ever having to open his eyes, he decided it was time to move his training to the street. And so here he was, walking from the entrance of his building to the corner of the street without the use of his eyes, and without stumbling the way he did the first days he tried, circumventing the vegetable crates that Abu Mahmud had spread out on the pavement, and stepping around the eight potholes along the way. His most significant achievement was that he could finally control the temptation and desire to peek over at Suhaila’s window, which overlooked the street, and where she stood at around this time every day in front of a mirror brushing her long, damp hair, dressed in an exceptionally see-through nightgown.
Stretched out on the sofa one night, eyes shut, he listened to the endless news of death and destruction broadcast on the radio. Outside the flat, the usual background noise of aircraft, bullets, and bombs sounded. He was so accustomed to hearing it that it barely registered with him anymore unless there was an actual need. Tomorrow, he thought, he would extend the exercise and attempt to walk all the way to his office without opening his eyes. For this, he would need to recall the various markers he passed on that route each day, especially the trickier spots, since he had to cross two wide, busy roads to reach the stop for the minibus he took to work. He would then have to somehow recognize his stop, so he could ask the driver to let him off. More importantly, he would need to train himself to actually carry out his job without the use of his eyes, or else he would lose that, too, the minute he went blind.
In his mind, he sketched out a rough map of the distance he travelled each day so that he could first visualise the details before embarking on his daily practice in the morning. He sipped a hot cup of tea as he chain smoked, accustomed now to enjoying his cigarettes without seeing the smoke, as news of ongoing clashes blasted from the radio, along with statistics on the dead that varied depending on the source. Engrossed in his mental mapping, he did not hear the name of his town being mentioned, nor that of his neighborhood, which the broadcaster announced was currently sustaining violent incursions by armed men who were being countered by soldiers. Before he could celebrate having placed the finishing touches on his map, a deafening explosion sounded nearby, causing the apartment block to shake from the force; this was followed by the sounds of bullets, howls, and screams. This was succeeded by a round of shelling that seemed so close he leapt off the sofa and charged out of his front door, then raced down the stairs and into the street, where he began wandering around in confusion. All around him men shouted, women wailed, and children wept; all of them seemed to be running. As he collided with people that he either overtook or who overtook him, he heard a nearby building collapse as it was struck by a shell. Then another explosion muted the screams of the group that had been running behind him. Then it was the howling of a man who seemed to have been shot, and the wails of the child he was carrying.
He darted down the street until he reached the corner that looked out on the main road, realizing then that he was only just opening his eyes. At the municipal building, he heard soldiers marching, their weapons clanking, and then sporadic, long bursts of gunfire. Vans trundled along the road, and people jostled to reach them. He managed to grab the arm of a young man crossing beside him who helped him reach one of the vehicles, where he threw himself into the crowd of exhausted, terrified bodies. The van sped off and gradually the sound of bullets and bombs quieted down and disappeared as they arrived at the neighboring city. He opened his eyes there to a life that was carrying on as normal, as though nothing out of the ordinary was taking place in the rest of the country, except for maybe a few slogans and phrases scribbled on some random walls. Here, the streets were full of the clamor of cars and pedestrians, the steady rumble of street vendors, and the dreadful sound of singers bellowing from the restaurants. He paid close attention to the characteristics of his new surroundings as the van stopped outside a school where they would shelter until they could return to their city. The school reminded him of his own, and even more so when he stood at the gate, with its memorable proportions, and slipped through with his eyes shut.
When an end to the military action in his city was announced on TV and radio, he was one of those most eager to go back. Ignoring the advice of the people who warned him to wait, since there was no guarantee the fighting would not resume again, he prepared to leave the school. He bid farewell to a group he’d met there, promising to send them news of their city as soon as possible. As he left the large hall, he froze at the sight of a live news broadcast announcing that it was safe to return. A shiver ran from the tip of his toes to the top of his skull as he witnessed scenes of the widespread destruction his city had suffered. When the camera panned to his street, he felt his chest tighten as he scanned the footage of rubble for any sign of a street he once lived on, which used to beat with life. But all he could see were piles of rocks and earth, scraps of scorched furniture, and the scattered remains of corpses. A dizziness took hold of him as the camera hovered over a spot filled with nothing but rubble that he recognized as the location of his home. There was no sign of a large building that had once housed his apartment. As the TV presenter began to list some of the names of those who had died in this neighborhood, he closed his eyes, headed toward the entrance to the hall, and walked out of the school and into the unfamiliar streets. He walked around as a stranger who was blind and content to recall memories of a life he had memorized over the years. Every day, he used to wake up and have coffee on the balcony of his apartment until it was time to leave for work. He would greet Abu Mahmud the vegetable seller and pick up a newspaper from the kiosk next door, not forgetting to steal a quick glance up at Suhaila’s window and to smile when he saw her damp hair and whatever he could glean from her nightie. With time, he began to notice the changes taking place in his neighborhood, like the extra trash bin in one corner, or the pothole that had been filled, while others appeared elsewhere. And he would spot the growing weariness in Abu Mahmud’s mien as he arranged his crates of vegetables on the pavement, and the white strands creeping into Suhaila’s hair.
Beneath his eyelids, life went on, unaware of the death of Abu Mahmud, whose home had been shelled before he could flee, and of Suhaila’s corpse that was discovered two days later, buried under the rubble, identified by some dusty strands of hair teased by a light breeze.
He walked the streets of the city every single day, living an entire life beneath his eyelids, unconcerned by anything happening around him, and oblivious to all the others roaming the same streets with their eyes permanently shut.
Other translations in our stay-at-home series:
Bushra Fadil’s ‘Phosphorus at the Bottom of a Well’
‘A Street in the Pandemic’ & Other Poems by Jawdat Fakhreddine, tr. Huda Fakhreddine
Special Limited Publication: Stories from Muhammad al-Hajj’s ‘Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats’ (available only through the end of the month).
Belal Fadl’s 2007 satire “Into the Tunnel,” tr. Nariman Youssef,
Click HERE to read more from this author.