The Diesel

Chapters 12-14


The town was suffering from the dust that blankets it. Oh, how wretched people are when dust doesn’t enter their houses to cleanse their possessions of the lethal cleanliness they invite.

I headed to our house, where I found that the breeze had entered and rested for a long time, loading up on the humidity. My sister, who was sitting beneath her wall, asked when she saw me, “Aren’t you my long lost friend?” She approached immediately and slapped me, glaring at me angrily. Then she brought out a wedding gown and slipped into it. She put her hand in mine, and we circled the house singing till she collapsed.

I learned from her later that she was working in an all-woman troupe. My sister insisted on my joining them, because they needed a male relative, and I was the most likely candidate.

I didn’t object and signed on with them. That woman with the veil was their lead singer.

During the first months after I joined, I began to train my voice for a different type of singing, one the town had not heard before. Words give the body an opportunity to express itself. I surprised everyone when I sang at the wedding of Sa‘id ibn Sa‘id. The males, with their virile scent, surrounded me in confusion while the women looked at me defenselessly. So we played a series of weddings until the Diesel’s voice and body constituted a new night that afforded time new paths that outshone the day and that swaggered down alleys as the walls watched. I had never wanted anything besides this since my trip, and here I was returning to find it, even though it had eluded me for some time.


My life started to change then. Here I was riding high. Everyone was talking about me the next morning: “Did you see the Diesel? He was brilliant last night.”

I soon gained greater recognition than the mosque’s imam. I had discovered the town folk’s secret and understood why a man might have a stronger artistic instinct than a woman. The imam was a pivot for fear as an artistic genre. These people, my friend, when they heard the call to prayer would wonder when this imam, who sells the muezzin’s fine voice in an inappropriate place, would die so they wouldn’t keep hearing his oft-repeated sermon about alms, which they needed more themselves than they needed the imam? They wanted to have many mosques available at the same time. That would lend to the voices raised from different locations at sunset a musical spirit that would free them from the blatant, daily repetition they heard in town, where it almost spoiled their day. The town hoped that the muezzin would contract a lung disease. They often prayed that God would obliterate their homes’ windows so they would hear nothing but their wives’ murmured comments while they washed on the final day of their cycle.

My friend, I was the voice that changed many things in their lives. I was able to turn my house into a small cabaret where I danced, trying to retain their attention.

Many citizens of the town began to flow to my house like trails of sand. After sating themselves with dawn’s ecstasy, they would return home carrying back in their sandals sand clotted with sweat. The moment one of them entered his home, his wife would know her husband had arrived. Frequently what happened, though, was that this smell of sweat and sand was so similar for all the men that any one of them could sleep with any woman in town, because she would think he was her husband.

In a brief period of time I was able to create a large troupe, for whom I served as the artistic director. A woman I referred to as “The Mama” was the diva. She was very daring and disciplined and made the pilgrimage every year to pray for His mercy for us. I named a man I called “The Reed” our manager. We chose the drum as our signature instrument and each member of the troupe would stroke the drum head with his hand before taking a seat and joining us in the singing. It was the Reed’s job to hit with his baton anyone who wasn’t giving his all. The Mama always complained that the Reed wasn’t forceful enough to discipline the troupe. So I gave her the right to hit him, and that’s just what she did at the next wedding party.

The troupe’s reputation spread through nearby towns and to distant cities and realms. They heard that new suns were rising in a new way. The homes of conservative and wealthy dignitaries opened their doors to us. We became the town’s kings, who could make it rejoice and weep.

I was too blissful for words. One night, however, I had a strange dream in which an elderly man came to me wearing my father’s cap and cloak. He told me, “You must stop everything you’re doing or you’ll become disabled.”

I was terrified by the appearance of this man, who began to visit me every night. This continued for many months, and he kept making the same request to me. The last time, however, he brought along another person I recognized. He brought my mother to present this request. I mistook her for the devil and rejected her plea. Then he ordered her to leave and called in an unfamiliar man, who carried a small sea and a spider. He ordered this man to beat my feet. I felt intense pain, awoke in alarm, and discovered that my feet were paralyzed.

Oh, friend, if only you knew what a turning point that night was!


I spent three months in bed. I never danced again and shunned all the wedding celebrations. The town’s inhabitants began to grumble and grew restive about my absence. Then the governor’s daughter was to be married, and he sent a representative to ask me to sing, but I refused. The following day I heard a large group of voices and women’s trills. The woman next door rushed to tell me that the governor was coming in person to invite me to his daughter’s wedding. Our neighbor hadn’t even finished her report when soldiers opened the door and lined up inside my house to salute the governor, who entered in a gold cloak and white head-cloth with gold ropes. He sat down before me, kissed my head, and then remarked, “I know that your claim that you’re disabled is fraudulent, because yours is merely a physical handicap. The Diesel’s spirit we know to be the strongest of anyone’s. Ms. Diesel, my daughter is deadest on having you sing at her wedding.”

He placed his cloak, head-cloth, and ropes on me as a present so I could wear them at his daughter’s wedding. I nodded my assent. Then he rose and ordered his soldiers to build a litter for me out of the strongest wood. He departed after expressing his hopes that the Diesel would live up to his promise.

All these governors were experiencing a new era of civil unrest. They were inching toward a more natural way of life, maneuvering in fields of faces, wrenching their trees from women’s thighs, and seating themselves on lumps of the sun.

The day for the governor’s daughter’s wedding arrived, and four members of my troupe bore me there on the litter. On the way, people followed us dancing and queued up to touch my hand to receive absolution. The governor had never drawn such a large crowd before. The members of my troupe surrounded me with song from all four directions. The plutocrats and their ladies were waiting for me there, yearning with great anticipation to see the Diesel. We approached the palace: the four bearers and me in the governor’s cloak, head-cloth, and ropes. The palace door opened to admit us. When my face peeked through it, people screamed out my name and many wept with joy. Here was the cripple, dunces, making love to you in person. They danced around me jubilantly as this town’s dawn arrived, returning once more. That night people could listen to a different kind of sermon, one totally unlike a sermon given by the man who was sleeping then in the corridors of the oratories and who tried to make the Diesel even angrier than I am now.

I’ve always said that civil unrest acts like tobacco in the blood, calling on it to fall on the fan’s ribs, covering him with a parasol that shades his feet and grants him rain.

We were close to the center of the palace, and people pressed around me like grape leaves. The members of the troupe wrapped their limbs around my body, as we approached the ecstasy of despots.

Four men carried me on their broad shoulders. I would sing shortly. Then I would propose a new tyrant and a new governor, one who would embrace insurrection and exude manly chivalry.

After years passed as if kissing a memory, the troupe’s renown continued to spread to other towns, cities, and realms. In fact, it extended so far that it became part of popular culture.

Then the governors of every town competed to found a troupe more significant than ours to wean popular imagination away from popular rebellion. These rulers passed through book depositories, calling our loudly, like a long-deceased man. Even so, no one could offer what the Diesel can. People everywhere began to want the Diesel, and this fact undermined the governors’ authority and bogus aroma. So they met and then released an edict banning this type of art. They issued laws to restrict it.

At first this edict wasn’t vigorously enforced, but once it was resolutely applied, everyone decided to gather in one place to debate and then appoint someone to resolve this crisis. I was invited to attend that gathering but declined to go. All the same, they insisted, and a site was selected.

I admit, friend, that life is a simple yet majestic creature, an uncomplicated entity that devours us with its expansive simplicity. It is better able to embrace me than a woman could. It alters what passes through my head—this lofty space that at first glance seems a sea that encompasses mankind’s breaths, gathering everyone in its blue shade, crossing the expanses of their bodies and sprinkling their folly with its moonlight.

Oh, my friend, if only you knew how solid that space is. My foot can creep toward the light while space is mute, leaving us with the impression that the blue is burning and the sea is vying to erase it from our memory.

On the day of the meeting, after dawn, we set off down the village’s outer road and then proceeded over a column of hot sand that burned our companions’ feet and set them into motion as if they were a steam engine. It couldn’t burn me, because my feet smarted with the fantastic scent of a dream that refused to bring back two new feet that could navigate deep in the water in winter’s ease, which for a long time it has donated to spring.

As the sun brought down the day’s forms and then concealed them beneath its red arm, we reached an area where the date palms had turned yellow and the dry spring had become compacted dust. We advanced on tiptoe, arriving by the end of the day. We met every son of a man, bending over, while a brown haze shaded the night, although for a long time it tried to avoid waking it.

They welcomed me with all the joy of water that gushes forth prattling innocently. Among them I felt an enormous friendship for life. I sensed this was better than all the attention I had received at the governor’s daughter’s wedding. Their joy at my presence was sincere, because they knew I was this art’s fuel and its defining outer limit, which extended to the last breaths of this defining circle within which they had frolicked and danced for such a long time—like desert gulls—while they concealed their hopes beneath the shade of palm fronds, stretching their bodies like flowering potentates and geniuses, opening their mouths to the ambiguity of bashfulness, stepping in the sands’ cultivated area, paying no heed to the Diesel’s caravan but focusing on his scent as it mingled with their own fragrance. Then their skill was a single portion from which they derived their hopes. They received the sky’s presents with a curse they used as they haggled with the earth about their suffering and denounced the grassy courses of the mountains of civil insurgency.

That day necessarily had a different light that tumbled the sun into the mazes of ecstasy—this sun that has from pre-eternity wept light while we see and warm ourselves by its tears, believing it to be laughter. It sleeps just as we do, and no one asks who falls asleep first—us or the sun—because when it sets, the sun may stretch out in bed. Its red blush may be a sign to her lover, who lives on earth, to climb up her last rays and sleep with her. Then in the morning he descends with the first rays, bringing with him color for the mountains and the drowsy trees.

They were sitting beneath a jujube tree that shaded the entire area, and the mountain descended to its outskirts. When I approached them, they rose and held their sandals on their heads while they danced to greet me, believing that the deities would walk above them and use their sandals to dance and greet me.

Once they had really calmed down, the place came to life again when the most handsome man there rose and kissed my shoulder. He said, “Even though delight overwhelms our bodies, all we can say is that you are the desert’s fertile land, the sea’s vexed face, the earth’s cloud that wipes away its dust, our eyes’ window that sees light destroy its victims, and our deities who stretch to the end of spring.

“Even if the desert had worn us down the earth’s concerns and winter’s drought, we would still throb with you, with all our smallest joints. We take things at face value and move from body to body to see you revel in the sky’s death, because you are our skiff in which we cross this wilderness, you are our mouth that speaks wisely, and you are our ears that give voices their transparency.

“For a long time we have waited for you to anoint our heads and immediately bless us, spreading over our bodies as if you were skin that hasn’t yet adhered to flesh.

“We welcome you with everything that grows within our reflections, because you are our face that does not sleep when darkness penetrates night and that night does not purloin. Instead, it returns its structures to an ailing, flawed society.”

Then he went and stroked the drum placed in the center of the assembly. After that, all those seated there lay on their bellies and began to munch the new grass, because they thought their latent passion was not directed toward the earth but toward everything green.

Shortly after that, my friend, they lined up in front of me and silently awaited my speech. I moved closer to them and had them sit on the jujube-wood bench placed beyond the tree’s shade. They believed that the sun and I constituted the space of this existence. They did not move a muscle while they listened to me.

I told them, “Let anyone who thinks I am the sky stand up, anyone who thinks I am the earth remain seated, and anyone who thinks I am the Diesel dance.”

They all immediately started dancing, except for one woman, who had been sitting behind the others. She approached and remarked, “You are said to be the sole link between the earth and space and the middle way for all of desire’s sighs. You deprive us women of men, leaving us nothing to do except play in the branches of trees. We are people who adore the first born and pray shyly in the face of religions.”

I told her, “My dear, the male is a mould within which is found a small, prattling sea that teaches him that femininity is a continuation and that woman is our original formation. So you are the way you are, a female who perfumes this day with her breaths and who receives the prayers of males to return males to their true nature and to return them to their origin—to woman.”

“Hear me, comrades. We can’t remain the tails of these jackals, who break our crutch every time we try to stand up—we who have shredded weeping’s brows and thrown them in a valley where jackals prowl with jungle-like ferocity. We merely ask that we should understand death when our heads are on the table, not beneath it, and that we should not pile stones so high our mouths are blocked by them.

“Oh, if only you knew what has possessed me so that I would be able to seize this moment.”

It began when air entered my body, breached my voice’s perforations, and then exited through my exhalations. I was normally a boundary for scattered expanses. I always look at sleep with a blind eye’s lechery. My head lifted up and then fell on the sands like rain clouds that keep reconnoitering this earth without granting it anything unless you wipe its sweat from arid ignorance.

Their faces were refracted in mine, windows collapsed, and women’s breasts dried out under my mouth’s scent until I produced a loyalty certificate for it to convince myself that woman’s fingerprints are a memory that pursues our intellects. We make it an evening boast and recount it in the morning like a city that shades the heads of travelers and falls into a silent volcano when it explodes with drops of water.

“This life, comrades, is layered with the pages of bodies. The central circle is an entrance for all the emotional representations that I used to wash with air when I chewed the water to satisfy myself that I was coming to lift the darkness from man.

“Look at my body. Here it is before you now, covered with riders. None of them wants to dismount, because within it are our conquests, songs, and tales about picking pebbles and fields filled with the white cloaks that jackals fear. Each of these wrinkles on my brow are nothing but people who die in my head and emerge, routed, from my forehead.”

Afterwards, my mute friend, they stood and began to circle me, as the drum’s beats shook the night’s stars, which fell into my pocket, one by one. Then I distributed these to them as medals so they could soar with them far from listless evenings, whenever they wanted.

They quarreled with the trees in their embrace of the earth as a life form, like the impress of a kiss they had been denied for a thousand years. They altered the burial places in order to revive extant tales of the ancients. Then they drank it in olden times, their heads like night’s arrival. All the same, they would drip down with the sky, blending their bodies with the scent of the air to reach deep under the dirt and to kiss the dark water there through roots.

“This time signals the election of the first president for this fruit. Our current location is quite far from every other realm that burns with clay’s glories.”

The first of them said, “We must grasp the problem using terrestrial logic. The reality confronting us is a new concern that we reject with all types of love. We don’t want a president who will apportion us. We want a president who will be apportioned among us, who will alter our crisis with his mighty sorcery and who will interview our bodies with his kisses and with the materializing embrace connecting alleys and streets. We are the houses that life links to man’s body.”

The second man said, “We have grown tired of counterfeit happiness. We are weary of high heaven’s braying overhead. We don’t fall asleep unless there is a pillow beneath our head. We reject this pillow, which demonstrates the head’s incapacity for sleep, however, because the head has streets that appear devoid of beds. But we are able to encounter them in the body’s midriff. With our tired bracelets we have wept that memory might record us in the scent’s fragrance.”

The third said, “Who might be able to dissemble about the body’s rupture from the intellect’s scent? The body is the desert’s mirror that reflects the body’s brownness. The sea is the body’s window that reflects our roads’ emptiness. If the sea were a blue street, we would be the desert—an artist who exploits this blue color, creating from it rain, trees, and all the other idiotic things in a time of civil unrest.

“We have contracted with the sea for all its worldly gifts. People have gone to extremes in their passion for the sea, to the point that they have almost drowned. Fortunately, your body, Mr. Diesel, was swimming then and saved the sea from the cities’ passing caravan.”

The fourth said, “The star that lives in your head, sir, must know that this existence has secret caches that the Master created for us to search out. I think that all the elements of existence form a single body, but it is a mindless entity that wakes up and falls asleep. The clock for existence, Mr. Diesel, is the sun.

“Here we are far removed from tables that furnish homes and palaces. We sit far away from the customary stage for music. We open the body of darkness with simple attempts by our eyes to see what is beyond the light, the point where light kills itself, bursting into flame with the body’s flash.”

They began to dig in the earth and drew sand tables on which they placed their bodies’ pages and small stone chairs so their buttocks wouldn’t harden that dirt. Then one of them stood up and handed everyone a tree limb and a drum. He asked each one of us to strike the drum once and then to toss his branch at the foot of the person he wanted to be president. All the branches were soon piled at my feet. I threw mine into the sky to ask for guidance.

Then I realized I had been chosen president and that I would be obliged to rescue this nation from the walls’ misery, which was scattered through the villages.

Now I bring a new rebellion and a new heart. I bring gusts of smoke on fire’s canvases. Now I awake once more and tables don’t rebuff me. Instead I lift them whenever I and the star that dwells in my head want. Now the sun rips apart night’s ear with its customary beats. I wonder why the sun doesn’t dispense with its boring yellow color. Instead of this color, it should give us a fragrance that would make our morning a substitute for coffee and would grant our roads a new smile. If that happened, I promise you that I will be the first to tread on the scent and not fall, because the scent has a blind weight that sees us, even though we don’t see it.

The town was waiting for me, waiting for evening to sift night with its candle stand. I remember that you were strolling then beneath a jujube tree and that its thorns were wrestling with the leaves while you stood telling the village lies and trying to make it believe that you had forgotten your tongue in the sea and that the sea still hadn’t returned. You were one of the sailors who stole a wave and hid it in his house. You believed that the ships you scrubbed when you were a cabin boy will certainly sink and that you will then be able to plunge into the sea and filch the tongue of a chattering mariner as a substitute for your former memory.

Then I longed ever so much for your body. I felt that my asshole needed a little coffee. I daringly walked barefoot over the sand. Behind my back, beneath that tree, you were the first fruit that welcomed me in town.

Later, when I was passing by this mosque, I was surprised to see the wayfarer again. When he noticed me, a pleased look came to his features. I remembered him perfectly, even though his features had changed completely to become part of a new memory. When I approached, he gazed at me silently, with profound calm. He said nothing and merely gestured with a finger toward the mosque.

Oh, if only you knew, my friend, who I am! I realize full well that I have exhausted your ears tonight. I can’t speak any more. Let’s go, let’s go, my mute friend. Dawn is at hand. Rise and give the call to prayer.


Thani al-Suwaidi

Thani al-Suwaidi was born in the United Arab Emirates in 1966. He has published two collections of poetry: Liyajiff Riq al-Bahr (So the Sea’s Foam May Dry Out, (Ittihad Kuttab wa-Udaba’ al-Imarat, 1991), and al-Ashya’ Tamurr (Stuff Happens, Dar al-Intishar al-Arabi, 2000). His novella, al-Dizil (The Diesel) was published in 1994 by Dar al-Jadid in Beirut, reprinted in Baghdad in 2006, and then published in 2008 by al-Maktab al-Misri lil-Matbu‘at in Cairo.

William Hutchins

William Hutchins, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing). His translations have appeared on and in Banipal Magazine of Modern Arabic Literature. His recent and forthcoming translations of Arabic novels include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press) and Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), Yusuf's Picture by the Iraqi author Najem Wali (MacAdam/Cage), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni.

al-Dizil (The Diesel). Copyright Thani al-Suwaidi, 1994. English translation copyright Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature, 2009.