When I crossed the large iron doorway of the hospital, I must have still been alive. At least that’s what I believed since I could smell on my skin the scents of a city that I would never see again.
As naturally as could be, I had fallen in behind one of the slow death employees, I had added my name to a yellow sheet already covered with flyspecks, I had said thank you four or five times to the heads nodding behind screens in miniature spaces where decades of paperwork and x-ray films were piling up on dusty shelves, and as naturally as could be, I hadn’t bothered to turn around in the large hallway to hail life one last time. I had abruptly found myself in another silence–later I will call it the silence of a fishbowl–on a planet inhabited by caricatures of aging men, ghosts cloaked in coarse linen, happy as trees or rocks, resigned even to their vomit. The nurse leading me to wing C was proudly sporting a Swiss watch on his wrist, no doubt purchased on the black market. As we walked he had announced the time on two occasions to groups of invalids slumped on the ground or straddling the low walls. I absurdly felt that that was where he drew his reason for being. Not only did he shout out the time but he also took care to specify the seconds and thousandths of seconds to people frozen here for days or weeks and who, apparently, harbored all the necessary indifference to the passage of time and changes in the calendar. Was it his way of distancing himself from this ailing humanity? To show them that he belonged to a realm filled with greater energy, vitality, life?
I kept moving as if in a fog at the end of which a mass of men in white lingered, I kept moving in a day that could not exist, telling myself: I am not afraid of hell, not the hell promised by the holy verses but a hell without flames, without cannibalistic cooking pots, where they inject you, in small doses, with a slow death. Here, everything is foreseen, custom built for us, it’s only natural that we are rewarded with a pitiful death, under tons of indifference and oblivion.
A drowned cadaver, rejected by the waves, takes on before those watching the attributes of a monster from whom we turn away in disgust, or observe from a distance, silent and respectful. Under the summer sun, it is protected by anonymity. In horror, we imagine the multitude of creatures that fiercely tore into the skin and eyes, the small fish with sharp teeth who in amazement slid between strands of hair still alive.
The child who once answered to my name, now having taken charge of my sickly body, my face, my memory, resembles in every way this heaving form that the ocean, after removing all substance, offers up to the astonishment of the living. I can only describe him with photographs in which he invariably adopts an awkward and timid pose. Before such flimsy accounts, it’s hard not to smile, or to feel an emptiness in your gut. The obsequious imposter drapes, for his part, the cadaver in a silk shroud. It’s rare that he shows his true face. Instead his dates, his places, his stories glisten like enamel, the pure chrome of an engine.
My cadaver doesn’t bother me. I examine his festering wounds without self-pity. I can’t resurrect him–I’ve forgotten too much. I suspect that, at the threshold of a poorly moored adolescence, my younger self destroyed his tiny world with a brutal kick in the teeth.
A labyrinth awaits me, all exits closed, trapped by the efforts of that damn wisp of straw whose cadaver, out of time, taunts me with the smile of an unshakeable death. In this hospital, will I end up like the pilgrim dreaming of riches who, upon waking, shows his penniless hands, minus a phalanx or a finger?
I admit that I am a great amnesiac. My memories resemble ruins carved down by erosion day by day. The child that I used to be within that distant structure has nearly erased all the faces, carefully rubbed away the events, the words, but he couldn’t entirely destroy the memory of winters where the water freezes like a torment, and that of magical seasons where the ocean beckons like a pleasure now forbidden my fragile and sensitive body. Despite him, the homes of my childhood linger on in smells that refuse to dissipate, in subtle noises, muffled until they’re nothing but silences, infinite stretches of silence along which I struggle to put myself back together. And even when the miracle works, when a faint glow pierces the bedroom curtains and I see myself prostrate on a sheepskin stained with henna, miming one of the five daily prayers with a frightened fervor, my eyes blink, suddenly damp; the reflection of my image framed in the oval rectangle of the mirror then softens in the heat of the mirage. The child stops his prayer, lifts his head. Lines interrupt the serenity of his forehead. For a moment he searches himself, the taste of salt in his mouth. Something gave way in the silence, with a motionless brutality. The child repeats the Koranic phrases in his head, turns them around in his mouth; their logic acquires the bland taste of things incomprehensible, it opens a void where nonetheless true hope is born, rid of the scoria of legends. I rejoin my body at the same time that the boy is seized by a wild joy. On the sheepskin, scarcely an eternity ago, an ancient wisdom filled me; I break out in laughter that only I can hear, I stare at a ceiling that doesn’t collapse to punish me, and in the darkness of my childhood, I see, for the last time, God’s grand stature fissure, crack without majesty, scatter in fragments around my laughter.
I’m stretched out in my bed and I’m looking at another ceiling. Between the two cement surfaces, time passed by furiously, draining my life like an anonymous shell, faded, empty.
It’s cold here too, like in my memory. No chance of nestling into the soft belly of an illusion. The hospital is frozen, all its horizons walled off. Nothing remains here except bones and men pale as lice.
I rub shoulders with death every day now, that’s why I no longer fear him. I see him in my companions’ eyes, dressed like them in a squalid blue pajama, smoking crappy tobacco like everyone else, shooting the shit while waiting for dusk. He doesn’t hide in dark corners, behind embankments, under beds, in humid, stinking latrines, he joins us at the dinner table, he laughs when we laugh, he shares our follies, then he leads us to our beds the same way you’d lead a troublemaker who refuses to go to sleep. Is he waiting at the wing’s threshold for our eyes to close and our bodies to doze off in the dark? Only the dying truly recognize him when he materializes. He arrives at the restless sleeper’s bedside, he listens to his labored breathing, he invites the invalid to follow him, without cruelty, without solemnity. One week after my admission to the hospital–I say one week even though I now have only an approximate idea of time–death took a small, old man from the neighboring room. It was the first death of my stay, or more precisely, the first death in wing C. Later I’ll describe the hospital. For now it seems immense to me, having perhaps been imagined and built without any initial plan at all in the middle of a forest on the outskirts of town. The number of wings itself is questionable. To know more, I would have needed to go on more walks, to push them a little farther each day. But, since my arrival, as I wait for someone to prescribe me a specific treatment, I’ve stayed in bed practically every day and every night. I only leave the room the time to stretch my legs and quickly eat my meals on the veranda.
I rise to go see my first death.
When his end was announced, the old man’s roommates immediately set to robbing him, scrambling for the meager loot: threadbare babouches, a few, intact mandarins, and a barely touched chocolate bar. “Hey now, cocksucker!” It’s a tall guy yelling, he straightens up, and there’s a free-for-all to divide the loot and avenge oneself with a manly brawl. “To hell with Satan, come on all you Muslims, to hell with him, damn Satan!” A Koranic schoolteacher intervenes, but the Muslims don’t have time to damn anything, since now two other jokers are throttling each another over a pack of Casa Sports discovered under the pillow. In the fray I see the astonishing image of a teenager leaning over the corpse and playing with its lifeless penis. Finally two prison guards show up. “So the old man croaked?” While one of them pulls the dirty sheet over the dead man’s face without bothering to close his eyes, the other, god bless him, sinks his teeth into the commandeered chocolate bar.
I returned to the bed that I regretted leaving. I closed my eyelids tightly in the absurd hope of erasing my surroundings, their cruel reality. “You’re going to have to get used to it,” I tell myself. “After all death is banal, didn’t you write that it’s custom-made for us, hopeless as can be? If you shit a brick every time one of us extinguishes like a fart, it’ll kill you for sure. And anyways, honestly, you never paid any attention to the old man’s existence, you don’t even remember seeing him alive, and so what? Isn’t he lucky to die at his age? Get it together, for god’s sake, and follow me. Station yourself in the hallway, listen to the gurney squeak by, and voila, an empty bed for a future candidate. Come closer, touch the spot–you can still see it–where the old man used to lie, the dead don’t give off any heat, nothing but a smell that they’ll be hurrying to get rid of soon enough. And look, here they are, back already. Whenever the removal of a corpse is involved, the nurses turn into magicians. Step aside, they’re going to take the mattress out into the sun. Now the little guy is definitively dead. Let’s light a cigarette, take a deep breath, avoid looking at the mattress, and laugh hysterically for no reason.”
The corpse stayed at the morgue for several days. I can no longer remember if anyone came to claim it. When I questioned the kid from Salé, the one who was fiddling with the dead man’s penis, he burst out laughing and started talking about the wild animals at the zoo in Témara. Then, serious: “In three months he only ever received one visitor–an old peasant woman from the South. His mother or his wife. They camped out under that tree, over there, to drink some tea. I haven’t seen her since. But every Friday, the old man would go drink tea at the base of the tree.”
Sorrow over there at the base of that tree. If only I could find myself at the very top and touch a horizon, a bird, a cloud, inhale down to my lungs the sweet smoke of a eucalyptus fire that rises, and rises in the blissful silence of the countryside! Well fuck it. Do I need my recollections, my bleach-flavored memories to survive, calm as a lizard? Why not do like the others and listen to the tedious and mind-numbing songs on the transistor radio, engulf myself in this insignificant present where tombs lie in wait, surrender myself to the hands of a merciful marabout–why not?–claw at my cheeks until they bleed, wallow in the ashes like a mule? What do I need with the memories of rotting, human wrecks, the shambles of the year of my birth–a 1938 populated by the damned, the plague-stricken, the paralyzed minds of the starved and sex-crazed? Well fuck it. Through interstellar clouds and silences, here I am, once again prisoner of the street of my childhood, the street in Monastir where rag sellers used to rub elbows with lepers! Who’ll toast a glass of red wine or spirits to the phantom zeppelins waking as they passed through a low sky the warning sirens of a war whose children would trace chalk hopscotch squares or swastikas like cabbalistic signs on the sidewalks and walls? Our heroes were living tanks with slangy nicknames from Faubourgian novels that weren’t worth a wooden penny, facing off between two invariably memorable benders before rushing into a colonial brothel and into dreams where their damp gazes would confuse the angels with the whores with ten thousand franc bills pasted to their foreheads, angels who had escaped from a cruel paradise and second-rate whores in rags badly hiding their poor, aching bodies kneaded by generations of legionnaires, drunk sailors, starving Bedouins, teenage explorers who snuck out from movie theaters and purgatory-mosques. One by one, then in bunches, the madmen float back up to the surface of forgetfulness, wearing djellabas, jeans, rags, shirtless, biceps and chests thrust forward, puffed out like brioches, posing for a ephemeral eternity before the lens of an itinerant photographer. And what legendary men glistened in their 18-year-old eyes, bright as fireflies! Glory to the god of the vagabonds and their concubines with pubis crowned in cloves, I applaud you who inhabit new adventures and the city jail alike, I applaud you, princes of Arabian nights that no one will every write, let’s shake hands, let’s have a seat here between these gutted trash cans, and imagine the impossible dialogue above the gutters draining, through their gleaming sludge, the skies that once were, when everything was in harmony, unless you’d simply rather puke out your cold insides? As for me, I’ll keep you company, no hard feelings.
My dreams are over, brutally drawn to a close, they’ve retreated just below the surface like beaten dogs, my cruel golden dreams where I thought I would remain until the day I died! But I haven’t left my present. Like a drunken Buddha I barely manage to emerge from the spindrifts of dust, I ask myself whose hands I’m using right now, what fever is feeding me. The night weighs heavy like a donkey’s body, mangled by my claws and teeth. The trees, the sea, the town, a crystal city and the desert, a desert is watching us, you and me, and all the others. It’s in this desert that they constructed, almost as if laying an ambush, a hospital stinking of trash and vomit, the sharp odor of pharmaceutical products. I tell myself like a refrain: they built this hospital to heal you, buddy, heal you of your rotten ways of living, of blathering without end about death and a life ill-digested and ill-fated, here where the old man will die a thousand thousand times…
Except for a student in his second year of medical school, to whom the microbes seemed to have dealt a rotten turn, all my cohorts are illiterate. Their collective libraries contain fragments from the Koran, shabby scraps from The Perfumed Garden, A Thousand and One Nights seasoned à la Marrakesh, and Jha’s anachronistic stories. They’re porters, stevedores, storekeepers, the unemployed, smugglers of every kind, the cast-offs of incomprehensible wars and an aborted nationalist resistance, peasants without land, without bread, left behind by chance like febrile, routed castaways, with their cargo of off-seasons, and coarse language, still smelling of corn bread and cow dung. Sickness has transformed them into diurnal specters, wobbling, spitting, always a spirited insult on their tongues.
“They’re poor bastards,” the kid from Salé tells me (later I’ll start calling him the Rover). “But careful, there’s also some real pigs. You see the guy scratching his belly button over there, he looks like an Arabic schoolteacher straight out of a dusty novel by Al-Manfalouti, and yet he’s capable of selling his mom and dad for ‘a fart in the wind!’ The other one, sitting on the bench, owns a greasy restaurant; he used to hunt the cats of Salé at night with his two kids, both expelled college students, and his customers were always happy to eat rabbit for cheap! Look at that beanpole walking between the trees, he’s looking for a quiet spot to smoke his hash in secret. They say that he surprised his wife in the arms of the barber-circumciser, and do you know what he did? No, no, you’ll never guess what he did. Armed with an axe, he forced them to continue, honestly, he threatened to chop them up into little pieces if they didn’t reach orgasm! You can imagine the scene. Me, in a similar situation, I would have been incapable of getting it up!”
I look at this babbling fetus and ask him his age. He smiles.
“You’re right,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll say anything, it must be the medicines that are screwing up my head…unless it’s congenital!”
He smiles again and continues, “When I was born no one bothered to write down the day and time on any kind of register. I think that an unknown mother had me clandestinely, that a benevolent father raised me clandestinely, and that today it’s my turn to live clandestinely. Yesterday, I thought that maybe I’d hit puberty…
“While fiddling with the old man’s prick?”
“I thought he hadn’t been circumcised…”
In his eyes, the surprise of a dog backing away to avoid a blow.
Here’s where I let myself be swept up by anger and contempt. I’m not safe from contagion. Without a doubt, without even noticing, I’m shaky on my feet too, I’m pitching like a drunken boat, pupils yellow, my facial features crazed. I think: the hospital administration didn’t just forget to put mirrors in the washrooms. For that matter, what would be the point of dolling yourself up every morning in this closed-in universe?
I didn’t leave my bed this morning. While the bottle of serum emptied drop by drop into my veins, and instead of gazing at the ceiling and imagining living, elusive figures in the wet stains that bear witness to past winters, or taking an interest in the carousels of flies whirling without end around the one naked light bulb that goes out inexorably every night at nine o’clock, plunging us into a semi-darkness which illuminates sorrowful landscapes where my body drifts in vain in search of a merciful memory that will protect me from dissolution, I reread these pages without recognizing my handwriting; then I understood that my hope to remain intact is a lot like a drop of salt in the ocean. The air in this place facilitates the growth of bizarre mushrooms in my imagination. I am at all hours caught between vertigo and delirium. Every day I feel my memory heal over its scabs, it’s reduced to a skeletal being unappetizing even to the crows and vultures I sense circling around me in my nightmares. I’m going to have to get used to living with my companions of misfortune in this world no stranger than any other, where only, on occasion, the silence can resuscitate, well despite myself, painful seasons. My companions? For the most part they no longer have a good reason to leave here, lost as they are in the vastness of their dreams. As for me, it feels like I came here for the day, two weeks or a century ago, and that I forgot to leave. Where would I go? To another time, beyond the hospital walls, there where I had a name, an occupation, a reason to exist. Today, my name is a number, I live in bed no. 17 in wing C, I am a rumpled blue pajama amongst other rumbled blue pajamas, a member of a melancholic and joyful brotherhood that hasn’t asked any questions for a long time. I don’t confess, and I don’t claim to talk about that which I don’t know. I’m not trying to ease my conscience the way you ease your bowels or your bladder, I don’t flatter myself, for the most part I don’t pretend like my shit doesn’t stink, so, if you are waiting for me to start whining, to spin infantile flights of fancy about my people and our Middle Ages, then hurry up and pawn me off on to your usual middleman and let’s be done with it.