Basrayatha: The Story of a City
By Muhammad Khudayyir
paperback, 176 pages
List price: $15.95
The distance between the city and the man was no longer even a wall's span. — Paul Éluard
We had not yet learned all the nooks of the city where we lived — only our school buildings, the playing field, the nearby river, the garden alongside it, and the neighborhood market. The city was not a place one went to without making preparations and getting help. Later on, though, we began to explore it, bit by bit,in carefree rambles, impetuous raids, or wary excursions. By the time we had learned our way around and come to understand it, we had matured, our legs had grown tired, and our desires had diminished. We no longer felt like leaving our neighborhoods for distant jaunts through the streets. This city had exhausted us, and we no longer had the heart for new discoveries. Today, though, we feel that our knowledge of its secrets has accumulated to such an extent that we cannot keep them from those who come after us. Others — following us — will begin to sweep through it, although they will not reach any hidden location or street our feet did not reach before them. Indeed, they will not even succeed in discovering those places and streets, because the new city extends farther each year, consuming and gutting the old city. Multi-story buildings, tourist hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, business establishments, and firms rise quickly, and people immediately master all their attractions. What for us was a hard-won knowledge of this city resulting from a cautious, ritualistic series of expeditions into its bowels has today become a normal outing, assimilation, and a crush of humanity engaged in overwhelming, speedy transactions carried out amid a din that rises from every side.
In this chapter, I will describe those first steps, our disorganized excursions, reckless raids, satisfied retreats, and frightened withdrawals: how we explored our city by night and day, in sunshine and in the dark, with avidity and love or hatred, how we felt — fugitive, stealthy, timid, and crude — and how we went: in groups or alone. I will speak on my own behalf, but the narrative of my emotions applies to the others too. I sense that faces are peeking stealthily at my notebook and that figures are skirmishing with each other around my sentences. Fine: I will allot you your due share in these impressions, all you absent friends, whose appearance and names I have forgotten. You are here. So let us begin the excursion and the raid. Do you remember that city?
We used to leave our homes in the outlying regions and head toward the city's heart. Then we would return to our houses early. Later, the distances we traveled from our homes increased day by day. We began to consider ourselves residents of the city, even if we did not know who ruled it, how its institutions functioned, or how the rest of the people lived. The city was developing and expanding without our realizing that this was happening. There were more buildings and people were changing. They would go and return or disappear suddenly. We guessed that situations and events of a frightening, clandestine type were transpiring behind these walls and deep below the earth. There were secrets from which we needed to keep a safe distance. Aliases were concealed behind names publicly displayed on signs by the streets, squares, public gardens, rivers, bridges, markets, cinemas, and neighborhoods.
We entered through many gates, heading in all directions, through the tentacles of darkness and beneath the swords of noonday. These were the city gates and historic arches that raiders and scowling, armed conquerors had breached, carrying within their helmets the plague, syphilis, poisoned amulets, and dark lusts. From their cloaks dust and the scent of spices shook free. From their mouths came barely comprehensible shouts. They advanced down desolate streets that reverberated with the sounds of drawn swords, spurs, and hoof beats. The same city gates through which passed caravans of prophets, pilgrims, slaves, prisoners, migrants, and refugees were those we entered to worship, during epidemics, in times of good fortune and ill. They were open to the rays of sunlight and to sandstorms, to names and dates, and to the declarations and directives posted on them over the course of centuries; we passed through these gates each day and at midnight.
Beneath the gates there were nightmare figures — very dark, with thick beards and mustaches, bristling with weapons – who watched us enter and exit, examining our identities and studying the features of our innocent faces: us, the trembling civilians, workmen, and tramps or beggars, bootblacks, gamblers, prostitutes, agents, thieves, and peddlers. We arrived from the deserts, fields, cemeteries, huts, prisons, quarries, underground vaults, low-ceilinged rooms, damp schools, and narrow lanes — leaving behind us our mothers' kerchiefs and cloaks and our grandmothers' veils, the clothes of our sweethearts, and the shared family bedding. From every cranny and lair we arrived and exited — the innocent, the wretched, and the complacent.
We would pass through the gates, exchange quick greetings, dirty jokes, curses, and smirks – or whisper to one another the password (al-salam alaykum) that we kept on the tip of the tongue as a watchword or a living charm: everlasting peace with life, the peace that implies a tie to the earth, which we will never quit for any other earth — the word of final demise.
Once had we left the gates we would fan out through the streets and alleyways. Then we would reunite in the corners of the squares and in coffeehouses. We would inspect our faces and limbs and then separate, roaming the streets, our steps regular and following in stride: one step back into the history of an open space, on the highway of a memory forged by thousands of wayfarers before us. Then we marked it by a single echo — that of the tiles of the porticoes, halls, public baths, and hospitals. We would lose one another but soon would be surprised by our faces when we bumped into each other and mingled together, because our faces were spread out through all the neighborhoods, peering down the entries to alleys, at the access points of bridges, at lampposts, market benches, restaurants, gardens, cinemas, boats, and statues. These were relaxed or reserved faces, veiled or unveiled, laughing or distraught.
In that crush of bodies, that human congestion, suspicions could shower people's heads like salt and never reach the ground. We were all in it together, but it was every man for himself. We had impregnable armor that clanked when we collided. Complacent amiability expressed through looks and touches attempted to soften the offense. We withdrew inside our armor and did not interact save with anxious, fleeting glances. Our eyes watched, as though their only occupation was to look — or, as Sartre said, "Their innocent eyes saw me and had no mission save to look at me." Our eyes, though, were not
innocent. Those burning eyes, which were dry from excessive staring during insomnia or from shedding tears, showed a terror of unknown dangers and disasters, as well as our suffering, tribulation, questioning, appeal, and entreaty. Similarly, our eyes did not possess the ability to retain for long the images of the world displayed before them, because they cast back the images and scenes before these could be relayed to our leaky, saturated memories. We did not remember the faces of our mates, not even the next day, although we were always crowded together. Each of us told himself, "Whenever I don't see him, he's looking at me." Our eyes colonized nearly identical silent faces. "Amazing! How can faces avoid being importunate and aggressive?" Beautiful faces — ones whose radiance and revelation
were provocative — were snatched, cherished, and enslaved in secret, demeaning liaisons: beauty pageants, wedding bonds, sexual slavery, until gradually their radiance was extinguished and buried by the shadows of selfishness and pride, beauty potions and premature aging, or isolation and denial. Then they would soon sink to the status of disgusting, common faces. Neither desperate pride nor daily review would revive the lost youth and specificity of these images and representations.
Excerpted from Basrayatha: The Story of a City by Muhammad Khudayyir, translated by William Hutchins Copyright © 2008 by Muhammad Khudayyir. Excerpted by permission of Verso Books. All rights reserved.