The Scent of Sleep: excerpt from the novel

Mazen  SA’ADEH (novelist, playwright, screenwriter, director; b. 1960 Jordan, living in Ramallah/Palestinian Authority) has published two novels, written five plays and worked on several films as writer and director; in 2005 his screenplay The Last Hour came out. He is a co-founder the Open Workshop for Culture and the Arts in Palestine, an organization that encourages cultural exchange between Palestine and the global community. He has just completed his third novel, Rukab Street.

Chapter One

I was lying down surrounded by whiteness; I didn’t know who I was. I felt like I was floating in space, moving between different times between atoms of light that mingled and scattered in an endless white void.

I opened the eyes of my soul to which there was no body; I was an empty space of nothingness. Further away I saw apparitions moving. They came closer, invading the void at the speed of light. Moving swiftly, they formed a world devoid of shadows and imagination.

I said to myself: He who is without a shadow does not exist.

Suddenly, I felt voiceless fury and cries. Souls were shrieking, souls were moaning. There were voices I felt but could not hear. They shook my soul. The voices were alien and swiftly shaped as though weightless. I felt as if everything, including myself, were light and weightless. I was encircled by souls coming and going, who glimpsed at me then drifted into the space that stretched between us.

They were transparent souls. Looking through them was like looking through a glass wall. Some were as white as snow, spinning in a world crowded with void and apparitions. Others roamed madly and were shaded more yellow.

Inspired by the apparitions and the invasion of minutiae of the world of death, I started to think about absolute extinction. And to my surprise, I was neither frightened nor touched by fear. Yet I realized in that same moment I couldn’t feel my body. Absent were my hands, my wide chest now without any muscles, and my once perfect nose, twice broken in wild childhood days. I could vividly remember the details I had abandoned and thus felt my color change. My body began to transform into a transparent whiteness. It looked like a glass wall. And that drew me in.

I was overcome by the sensation of being a free soul floating in an abyss of death, desire, and madness where there were no boundaries of place or time. As if I were somehow walking through the ancient Ukaz market *, I was overwhelmed by a drift of voices and of words read before. Long poetic verses swelled with the unfamiliar words of the ancients, word clusters resembling clouds drifted towards me as if pushed on a breeze. They contained melodious laughter, distinct in form and rolling like sand dunes across an endless desert.

I realized that the very words were laughter. I heard the music of long-unplayed tabors and a strangled cry I associated with Imru’-al-Qays. I heard a battle – sword clashes, horses' hooves, and flying clusters of foreign words.

I landed like a soap bubble; I felt as if I was returning, recovering, bit by bit, some weight and mass. As I sensed the heavy weights, the voices, or the apparitions sadly waving goodbye, I grew pale.

I felt my body. Time started moving, and things adopted a wan coloring. It overwhelmed me, this cloying heaviness. I started to lose my lightness. Old images and ideas invaded my head. A fever burned behind my eyes and in my chest, while the past pleasantly tickled my body. I tried to relax and restrain myself from disappearing into a labyrinth of thought. My body sighed to my soul, announcing that it still existed, and my soul resounded so loudly and with such force that my ears rang.

A fierce vibration shook me. I imagined heavier waves pulling me to another plane, even pushing me to move my long legs.

I was lying on a cold, wet floor, and I felt a cold blood moving in the remaining cells of my thin frame. My hands shook where I’d stuffed them, under my worn-out army jacket, and I perceived myself as if I had returned from an expressionless, colorless darkness, a space lacking all things.

I longed to continue floating with apparitions close to the sun, but I was back, back from that. I hadn’t bathed in ten days, not out of laziness but for lack of water. A British Howitzer missile, launched from the heavy artillery sitting behind the king's palace, had hit the central water distributor.

I was covered in the dust of a battle I didn’t remember clearly. I couldn’t fathom my own visions at first. Photos and apparitions lingered in memory, but they were quickly disappearing, drifting away even as I tried to grasp their ends. My shoulders were numb, and also my legs, but I struggled to my feet. I tried to open my eyes, to study the details of this place, but I couldn’t. Fragments of a dream came to me.

Fear and ideas bombarded me until I was exhausted from the anxiety.

I hovered between consciousness and dream, suffering tremors of various sorts, visions and the scent of a far off distant chill. The visions lingered in my head like a cold, a cold that was slowly fading. At one point, a fear of blindness overwhelmed me, and I raised a hand to my eye, and discovered a lump there the size of a small egg as if my eyes had become hard and swollen from the cold. A chilly breeze passed through. My right shoulder was stiff and my thigh – in the spot where a stray bullet had entered my leg while I’d been standing before the shack – felt frozen.

Still on my back, I began to think that maybe I had fallen when, like a bolt, it struck me, that maybe I had died from the violent explosion next to the neighboring post office. Springing to mind came the images of countless friends whom I had left just a short time ago: Abu Al Ala'a Al-Ma’ari, Al- Mutanabi, Omaiah Bin Abi Al Salt, Ibn Rushd, and Omar Al Khayyam **. I heard Imru’-al-Qays lamenting in heaven. I felt the long soft cry in the voice of his soul.

Daylight made me weary. But the waves weren’t as bright as before. They moved at a frenetic speed in that tiny space inside my skull, like arrows darting through my head, darting a distant, eternal movement.

These images weren’t the falsifications of an exhausted mind. I raised my head off the floor, and pressed my palms against my temples to stop the pain from these arrows. I felt a sting of coldness, as if I were living in another season, far from this summer.

I lay in utter silence. The cold was worse than a bee sting. With the palm of my hand, I touched the dust covering my body, the holes in my army trousers and then my toes, poking through the torn shoe. My hands got tangled in a spider’s web that had spread over the different parts of my body.

My hand went down my belly to my thigh, where I felt a healed-over wound covered by dust; I felt the ground beneath me.

A nauseating smell caught me by surprise and pushed the loud light waves in my head to a dark corner. In horror, I touched my eyes with my left hand; with my other hand, I touched dampness, still fresh, on the collar of my army coat.
Suddenly, warmed by the light, I knew dawn was over. Blood ran through my veins, life renewed itself within my body. I limped on my sleepy feet and with outstretched hands started touching the things around me. Cautiously, slowly, my slightly lifted foot felt the emptiness separating it from the ground in a movement very much like that of Armstrong landing on the moon.

Chapter Two

The sun had not yet risen above Mount Al-Jufa. From his shack across from Ragdhan palace and the ancient Roman castle (the main headquarters of King Abdulla the first), Kar’oush observed a high building. He sensed that this high building in front of his shack was blocking the sun. It seemed to Kar' oush as if the dewy world was calling him. Turning to the east, he pulled on his coat and shook the dust and spiders off his jacket and squatted down to wait for the sun to chase from his clammy body the humidity that belonged to a different time.

The sun rose above the building, warming Kar’oush. His body soaked up the heat like parched earth would water. Waves of heat ebbed inside him, thawing his frozen body as the sun rose higher. Bit by bit life seeped into his eyes. Once the sun had settled in the middle of the clear blue sky, he raised his face to its familiar warmth. His eyelids closed. His heart pounded, his soul unwound, and images from the past came to him in all their vibrancy. As these images crumbled, he felt himself reborn and returning from translucence.

Kar’oush opened his eyes. The street was busy. People passed without regarding him. He listened carefully. There was no panic or booming of cannons. It seemed that the world was not the one he knew. What he was seeing did not resemble past reflections. In his state of weakened vision, he saw instead pale images. Before him was an empty fort at midday, no trace of soldiers or shields, its stone walls fallen. Mount Al-Jufa seemed covered with cement, the green grapevines buried beneath the foundations of tall buildings. He saw Al-Jufa's base camp, but now without the stones that had once prevented its tin roofs from flying away.

Amman should have spread before him. On all sides it had stretched beyond his range of vision and touched the point where the sky met the horizon. Now the wall of his neighbor, the UNRWA school principal, blocked his view, for it stood ten meters high. He remembered the broken chains scattered around the blacksmith's. He remembered Mount Al-Ashrafiyeh, the edge of the mountain stripped of green ever since it had been struck with construction fever.

In his neighbor’s backyard, behind the barbed wired fence, he spotted shady almond trees and two young women. The younger one snuck a long glance his way and whispered to the older. She giggled loudly before vanishing inside the house. He felt hot, his desire awake to the young woman who now lingered. It was as if he had been roused from a dream. All of a sudden he was clobbered by the stench of feces and garbage piled behind the post office building’s courtyard wall. He noticed the grapevine that he had brought along with a handful of soil the last time he had visited Hebron, before the June War of 1967. The grapevine stretched across the yard, open to the sky. His shack seemed abandoned and forgotten; the door lay in the back yard piled with soil and dog shit. The shack resembled a tomb inhabited only by genies and spiders. He beheld the skeleton of a bird that had fallen from its nest at the same moment he had fallen, as a result of the explosion. Kar’oush gathered the dispersed feathers between his palms and lifted the skeleton, gently placing it aside. With his finger, he dug a tiny hole under the vine tree and laid the skeleton in it. He covered the remains with the feathers and sprinkled some soil on top. Then, he reentered his hut.

Kar’oush wandered in confusion through his old abode. He studied the long wooden table with plates of moldy food. The reek of fermented oil seized him. He saw piles of scattered books and scraps of paper rats had gnawed. In the middle of the hut, under the wooden table a cat was staring at him, perplexed. Spider webs covered all the upper corners of the shack. On the right wall: an old desiccated painting of Che Guevara, which he had hung up after news of his assassination. On the opposite wall a painting that had turned yellow, of Omar Al-Khayam being served wine by a beautiful woman with infatuated eyes. Through the wide-open window he saw a boy in rags urinating against the wall. The boy, seeing Kar'oush, fled without pulling up his trousers. The ghost of Kar’oush – the long beard, bushy moustache, frigid astonishment – had terrified the boy. The child’s panic was discouraging. He asked himself: What has become of the town? Indeed, he answered himself, a lifetime has passed.

Chapter Three

Kar'oush was not able to distinguish between past and present. When trying to recall details of the past, he found himself adrift in a sea of oblivion. A headache evolved into a fever that left him weak and exhausted. He reached into his pocket and brought out a handkerchief that fell apart at his touch. Pressing his hands to his head, he remembered his loneliness, the waves of emptiness, the spectra of light, the walls of silence, and, standing on the edge of his memory, the last two friends he had seen on the second day of the September battles, Zaydoon and Sha'ban. The possibility of their deaths amid those immense events and battles now occurred to him. Moreover, he could conjure up the Howitzer shells whose fire might have chilled their insides. The idea overwhelmed him for a moment; he shook his head. The silence terrified him. He felt bittern. He felt he had aged. Sitting with his back against the frame of the shack's entrance, he stroked his beard, and realized for the first time that it was long, very long.

Suddenly, he heard a helicopter hovering above the royal palaces. The afternoon call to prayer was coming from the Abu Darwish mosque, and at the same moment he heard the voice of a girl, a girl he could not see. The voice was coming from the house opposite the hut. He wondered if the war had ended.

Doubt seized him. He didn't dare think that the war had ended, because he remembered what had happened the last time he thought that. Three days after war had broken out he had taken his chances and left the hut in search of cigarettes. Near the market, bullets erupted in the silence of a truce he had only imagined, and he was forced to spend two successive nights under the prayer niche in the Al-Husseini Al-Kabeer Mosque, in the heart of the market in Amman. There he stayed until a temporary ceasefire was announced. It was said at the time that a neutral Arab party had convinced both sides to temporarily lay down their arms, and this had permitted Kar’oush to wander cautiously around the market and to check the areas the news had named as being dangerous near the Al-Ashrafieh hospital. He helped bury some of the dead in a basement built as a shelter.

That a dead body dissolves into soil was the first truth that he discovered about death: the feet and legs, the parts bound to the body by joints dissolve when exposed to the sun for a long time. How exhausted his imagination. He saw himself helping a man to carry a girl's corpse. Looking at the man facing him, he bent down, reaching for the girl's body while looking at the man facing him. The man didn’t say anything. Yet he indicated with his eyes, I'm ready, let's lift. The body, however, stayed on the ground. He was carrying only the corpse's left leg. His heart sank. He threw the leg and took off at a run, sprinting towards a shelter, a cave at the foot of a mountain near his shack.

Near a pile of sandbags in front of the cave, he fell as a bomb exploded. Hidden by the sandbags, he crawled on his elbows until he reached the shelter, filled with the agitated voices of women, the terrified screams of children, and the prayerful mutterings of the elderly; with the stench of human sweat, and with bodies hard-pressed together. In the severe darkness he sat in a corner, shrinking like a tortoise into his shell. His eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, and he saw the man beside him, over fifty, decrepit, pressing his leg against the thigh of a young woman. Taking advantage of the darkness and the crowdedness, he nuzzled close to her and, with his eyes, started devouring the breast she exposed as she fed her child. The woman stared at him scornfully, but still he reached for her thigh. She grabbed his hand and pushed it towards Kar'oush. “Shame on you!” she said.

At that same moment, a bomb whizzed overhead. The adults looked upward and for another moment there was silence and terror, but they vanished once the bomb fell and exploded, as estimated by the experts in the cave, a thousand meters away. He lit the cigarette he had been saving, his last cigarette. A metal bucket propped in the other corner of the cave emitted a horrible stench. The children’s urinal. He choked on its smell and the reek of bodies that seemed not to have bathed for a century. In a minute far away from the snoring of an old man, away from the screams of children, and the grumbling of wives fed up with everything, he quietly masturbated.

The canon fire faded and ceased as the Voice of the Arabs Radio announced that the High Arabic Committee in the Arab League had reached a ceasefire agreement between the two warring parties. Movement shook the cavern and the grumbling wives relaxed. Someone opened the door and Kar'oush took a deep breath of fresh air.

On the moaning wind he heard the weeping of a distant city, of an era gone astray. He burst onto the street in search of tobacco. As he was walking in the shade, along the smashed pavement, he tripped on a loose electrical cable and fell in a hole in the middle of the street. An old woman was sobbing near the rubble of a house. Terror overcame him at the thought of another bomb exploding on those who were gathering and burning the unidentified dead bodies. Through the dust, he saw fire and smoke and the damage of the bomb that had fallen. He stumbled along the shaded sidewalk, trying to avoid the burning rays of the September sun. He could barely contain his grief. He smelled gunpowder on the people scurrying about the market in all directions; merchants were selling at war prices and citizens were buying, and beggars crouched, petrified in the corners of Al-Husseini Al-Kabeer Mosque.

The horror of another bomb falling had ended the chaos in the market, leaving nothing in the streets except for corpses of the people who had died from shock, empty bullets, and scattered limbs. As Kar'oush started running towards Al-Joufa, a canon nearby announced the collapse of the truce, the end of the ceasefire; he threw himself on the ground near a young woman cuddling a rifle. Her eyes, wide-open, scanned the street. He examined her closely for a moment; then placed his hands on his head expecting a torrent of shattered glass, rubble, and splinters to fall on him at any moment.

When the firing ceased for a moment, he tried to stand, but a gentle hand tugged on his army coat. She pushed his head back down on the ground and muttered, “Are you crazy?”

She didn't say anything else but kept her hand on his head to keep him from lifting it up again. He relaxed under the warmth of her hand. He felt that the raging world around him lay far from the borders of his heart, which was beating to a pure blue melody singing through his head. He felt his body move to the rhythmic beats of his heart, which fell suddenly silent, overcome again by the rumbling of canons. With terse waves of her strong hand, she cleared the dusty, smoke-filled air around them.

She spoke wearily. “Let's get out of here before it starts again.”

She stood, not straight, but with her shoulders rounded, so he did the same, and they ran through a street full of potholes. They ran through the market, over sidewalks reeking of gunpowder, covered with dust, and filled with corpses and bullet casings. In her khaki uniform, she appeared young and oblivious to what was happening around her. She seemed relaxed, as if taking part in the war simply out of a wish for adventure. She brushed some strands of hair from her face, and pointed without speaking, “Down on the ground!” She lay on the ground, covering her head, and explained, “A bomb is going to drop somewhere close by.”

A violent explosion reverberated in the vast emptiness. Shrapnel whizzed around them. Other canons fired, promising new death, doubling the size of the emptiness, and clogging the air. Glancing at him, she indicated that he should look at a window. “There.” She pointed to the third floor of a tall building, where a sniper perched at the corner of a window. He placed the mouth of a rifle on the window sill, watching, waiting, ready to shoot anyone who moved in the street or adjacent alleys. “Careful,” she told him, “They don’t show any mercy.” She spoke like an expert, “To them anything that moves is a target.”

He watched her crawl on her stomach toward a house wall near the sidewalk. She stood and waved goodbye. Before she walked away, she threw him a pouch of tobacco. He rested his head on his elbow, following her with a vague emotion, with lustful images. The desire would consume him for many hours.

He changed his mind about his earlier decision to search for Zaydoon. Trying to find him would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Snipers perched in the windows, the crowds were dispersing, and the young men who had resisted until the last moments, the inclusion lines of King Hussein’s soldiers – they had been completely exterminated. He knew he should hurry towards his shack, for as the young woman disappeared, the air had already transformed, filling again with bombs and bullets. Every corner had been barricaded. He observed a woman in her forties, veiled in a kaffieh, a tea pot in hand. She crossed the street towards one of the barricades, oblivious to the clamor of the canons. He shouted, “Careful,” but it was a shout not even he heard.

He felt alone in this war. He understood that with sunset would come his chance to sneak through the darkness to his hut.

By the third day, he was no longer irritated by the reverb of the canons; his ears had grown accustomed to the vibration and tone. As soon as the silence of night arrived, he ran towards the hut. He ignored the possibility of a sniper behind a dim window eager to track him down.

Back to the wall, he moved quickly, staring at the high balconies and the windows. Breathlessly and on shaky legs he reached his door. He entered and lay down on the cool floor. Folding his right arm under his head like a pillow, he recalled the scenes of the third day, one by one, until his soul started disconnecting from his body. Slowly ascending in nothingness, he fell into a deep sleep.

Translated from the Arabic by Samar Qutob
Edited by Margaret MacInnis


All my memories are cluttered with war. Now, the cycle of blood around us has been kick-started again. Another deadly rotation spun by those fighting over language, land, air and water. Fighting for the best route to heaven.

All my memories are cluttered with war. Life adapts and the unimaginable becomes mundane. As one war ends, a people go the full circle and begin again. No space remains so the world's beauty can be embraced. The bullets pause, we grab some bread and milk between the deaths. Cease-fires are negotiated so that war-makers can restock and prepare.

Ours, theirs, and the world's media prepare as well, equip us for their mission. Each seeks a strategic position to begin counting the dead. Modern wars don't distinguish between battlefields and playgrounds. They burrow deeply into the heart of entire populations who now walk to work through freshly dug, unmarked trenches.

Today’s wars fill our souls with the depression of a fading flame. They hold us crucified at the small screen. Nightly, war invades our dreams and we wake wondering, what was all that lethal fighting for? And those who have died, what was it they were defending? Who won... was it a victory of the sword over the blood, or did blood triumph?

As the sun rises we see, however, that our question was neither innocent nor neutral. We see that impartiality between the killer and the killed is not an option. Light and darkness re-invade our soul, and close the gates that birth dreams, fears, sadnesses, rejection, revolt, madness. We don’t suppress the question, "what was the deathly fighting for?" We discover it is vital, a key to understanding that which surrounds us, jumbled, muddled and unclear. Was it a victory for the sword or for the blood?

In answering it we might come to understand how all this has developed. We might then know who moves the gears, see the beneficiaries of this chaos, and comprehend where it is they are dragging us. The one thing I am sure of right now is that no-one has won. Catastrophe is the only champion, and existence-- here and there-- is growing ever more bitter.

Until we find the answers, the questions continue to spin in our anxious skies, to haunt us. For this we cling to global politics, searching for keys, for justice. We, and especially the Gazans, follow the politicians’ words who seek this key. Gazans, most of all, long to witness the winds of justice at their shores. They deeply believe in these winds and in their ability to defeat all catastrophes -- even as disaster races towards them, a disaster specially cut to the measure of the “Holy Land.”

I myself had put my hope in the new global system, believed that reason would win, that global powers would agree that justice is something more than the vehicle of their own dreams. With the wide open gates of light, national and international spheres are now more interrelated than any other time, allowing every individual, regardless of their sex, color, and race, capable of enjoying a just life and head towards fulfilling their dreams in freedom. My own wish is that not one grain of sand in Palestine were deemed “holy.” Perhaps then the agonies of occupation would cease. All my memories are cluttered with war. …

Mazen Sa’adeh, Ramallah,  January 2009