For an image to appear, light must fall. Everything which is visible depends on a source of light. In a diner, dimly lit by lamps suspended above the tables, a man can be seen at work. He is vacuuming the floor with a vacuum cleaner that barely makes a noise. He sways as he goes, stepping one foot toward the other then back, in time with a song that’s playing. “Where do clouds go after they pass by,” the singer’s voice wonders, “are they just like people, that go on and then die?” The man is Black. He steps and sways with the vacuum cleaner as he cleans the floor of the empty diner. Then he lifts his head to his right shoulder and looks in that direction for a moment. Just then, we see another man, seated at one of the tables on the other side of the diner. He appears to be the manager of the diner. He’s holding a stack of bills. He watches the first man, who now disappears, then goes back to counting out dollars. On his table is a piece of paper with the word “Social” visible on it. This second man is white. The song fills the diner, extending between the two men. “When you see the small cloud passing by,” the singer asks, “do you ever stop to wonder, if he is lonely, like you and I?”
The diner, which may or may not be called the Social, is located in a small town where all social life has died and all social distinctions have been blurred. Some catastrophe seems to have struck the town, and its residents no longer speak. Whenever a person appears on screen, any others disappear. If ever two people happen to be in the same place at the same time, they are silent. A long night reigns over this stricken town, which is dark save for the white light of police cars, the silver light of television screens, and the blue light of personal electronic devices. The white light of the police is the harshest: as it crawls past the houses and falls upon human eyes, it fatigues them, a particular kind of fatigue that empties out the eyes so that they see nothing but memories. Life in its entirety is caught in the glare of surveillance and violence, where it dissolves into a limp slush of memories. Nothing but cold memories.
Desire will expand and become a pool in which figures recline.
Nobody is awake during this long night, and nobody sleeps either. Those who live in houses sit inside them with strained, exhausted eyes, staring into the light. They do not talk. Even when, from time to time, they try to telephone their friends, the only answer comes from a computerised voice. In the beams of the police cars that shine through the windows, life inside these middle-class homes resembles a crime scene. Their soft furnishings, tablecloths, photographs, chairs, books, clothes, houseplants, goldfish, children’s toys: under that light, every last thing is captured and frozen, becoming a miserable piece of evidence to be bagged up and exhibited for investigation. And yet the crime is that such a mindless life can continue intact. It is a special kind of crime which the police do not attempt to prevent or solve; instead, their night patrols are out in force to ensure it can take place unhindered.
There is no way out of this crime other than by counter-crime. The counter-crime is called desire, for in this long night, bodies stand no chance of freeing themselves from social glaciation unless they go out into the dark, away from the blue and white light. For the plan to succeed, desire must put on roller skates so it can move swiftly and softly, evading the eyes of nosy neighbours. It must escape the desperation of houses without attracting attention, and screw its eyes shut against the harmful light. It must navigate by sound alone. Then it can head out of town on signposted roads, await the moment when it can give the slip to those surveilling, and all of a sudden turn off the tarmac and into the fields. Desire will expand and become a pool in which figures recline. Here, out of sight, warmth spreads once again through silent bodies. Bodies which have left the crime scene behind them pulse with life now that they have returned to “nature.”
But in this nature, another recedes, swathed in darkness and unheeded by those bodies. It is a nature which can only be seen by the light of sources other than police vehicles or electronic devices. A kind of anti-light, as Sean Bonney calls it. A faint radiance that shines out of pasts that are still present, out of sudden uprisings against the violence of a settled, stagnant life. Faint, and yet its rays are fine and sharp, so sharp they can slice whole continents apart. Under this light, new senses awaken; creatures stir which are not visible to the eye. Crowds throng the escape route, exchanging words not audible to the ear. Two owls perch on the branch of a tree near the field.
The police are chasing us and killing our siblings.
They won’t let them pass.
The forest is pitch-black.
Snipers are everywhere.
Borders are crossed in the dark.
Nature is for humans, history is ours.
Bears will obliterate their footprints.
Squirrels have hidden food in every corner of the forest.
The ground is rough on their feet.
If they can find their way safely through the forest, they will arrive at the town.
Will they find work there?
We fled a catastrophe without end.
We crossed the sea, we crossed the desert.
We did not have enough water.
The earth swallowed our bodies.
We spoke and we spoke but nobody listened.
We are bears. We are butterflies. We are clouds. We pass, we cross. We are alienated.
We are words no one has ever uttered.
Loneliness is for humans, but alienation is ours.
Then they fall silent, and at dusk they spread their wings and fly out over the stricken town.
There is a diner called the Social which is lit by anti-light. A cleaner is vacuuming the floor, swaying and stepping one foot toward the other then back again. The man is listening to the noise of the vacuum cleaner. The nozzle of the vacuum is sucking away the dust that clings to the short pile of the carpet. Then it sucks up the carpet, then the floor itself, and the seats, along with the people sitting on them. It sucks up passing police vehicles and the roads on which they drive. It sucks up illuminated signs and walls. It sucks up the white light and the blue light. It sucks up television sets and mobile phones and home CCTV systems. It sucks up commemorative photos and trophies. It sucks the brackish water out of swimming pools, it sucks up swimming pools, it sucks up houses. It sucks up the whole town. The man sways with his vacuum cleaner, which is now making an unbearably loud noise. But the man listens calmly to the deafening roar, stepping one foot toward the other and back.
Haytham El-Wardany is a writer and translator. His most recent publication in English is “The Book of Sleep” (Seagull Books, 2020).
Translation: Katharine Halls