Hisham Bustani, translated by maia tabet, The Monotonous Chaos of Existence (Mason Jar Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Hisham Bustani (HB): This question is very hard to answer. For me, literary writing is the outcome of a nagging internal urge to express, respond to, dissect, or create something. This urge is related to the outside world, and my inevitable and inescapable interactions with it. Many writers (when describing the creative process) tend to ignore that basic fact: that writing is a “historical” process, it happens within the confines of the material world, in response to it, and using and manipulating its contents and relations. Writing happens within and as a result of the observable universe, not outside it—irrespective of how surreal or abstract the writing is.
This book, and much of my writing, is the result of a direct existence in and engagement with a turbulent Arab region—a part of the world that suffers still from the direct impact of colonialism and lies still under the heavy hands of intervention, settler colonialism, and corrupt, externally-supported regimes.
All these motivations result in an artistic form that is also influenced by quantum physics: concepts and techniques that open up the potentialities and possibilities of a text, “democratizing” it, so to speak, and involving the reader as a coauthor, a cocreator. The book puts these concepts into practice. Firstly, it is a translation, so maia tabet, the translator, “authored” the translated text, as she attempts to reinvent my Arabic writing in another language: English. Secondly, I have opted to include one story in the book in the form of comics instead of actual text; Mahmoud Hafiz Eissa’s visual interpretation of that story, another creation made with a totally different medium, displays—at times—a completely different rendition of the events, diverting from my own original intention. Thirdly, in addition to the main text, I mobilize other elements like footnotes, archival photographs, archival texts, historical references, non-fictional characters, and real events, so that the reader is empowered to experience the subversion of both reality and fiction.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HB: The Monotonous Chaos of Existence is a personal favorite among my publications (if I am allowed to have a preference between my own books!) with its pieces of short fiction verging on poetry. The contents of this book touch on gender roles and societal pressures; identity politics in Jordan and the Arab region; neoliberalization, transformation, and commercialization of urban spaces under the fake banners of cosmopolitanism; the different representations and incarnations of repressive regimes; Palestine and settler colonialism; critique of some contemporary Arab “intellectuals,” slaves to mass media, chained to their dreams of fame, awards, acknowledgement, and their actual subordination to the ruling regimes; and modern-day ecological existential concerns—all with influences from chaos theory, quantum physics, cosmology, and a wide range of arts.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
HB: So far, I have (in Arabic) five books of fiction or poetry (or a hybrid format), the more recent of which was released in 2018. Two of those books are currently available in English translation: The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015, translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes), and The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, just released from Mason Jar Press, and the focus of this interview. English translations of two other books from the remaining three are almost complete, and stories, texts, and poems from those books are widely published in leading journals, such as “Packing for a Trip to the Sea” (translated by Alice Guthrie) in the New England Review; “Flash. Fade.” (translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes) in the Kenyon Review, “Harakiri and Treatise on Passion and Adulation” (translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes) in The Georgia Review, and “Suspended in midair, one-third flexion in the knee joints” (translated by Alice Guthrie) in the Massachusetts Review. The latest of these publications is a piece attempting to translate the word “home” into Arabic. Alice Guthrie has counter-translated the piece into English under the title “Settling”, and it found a home in the latest issue of The Markaz Review. I am currently considering the right publisher for these two books.
Readers of all these books and works will never fail to notice—despite the huge variation of writing styles, subjects, and techniques—the meshwork that brings together all those “fluctuations” into a “field,” if we were to borrow from the jargon of quantum physics—this field being the complicated web of factors that lead to what I call the dystopian experience of postcolonial modernity in the Arab region.
In contrast with that literary body of work, and yet somehow in continuum with it, is my most recent publication: a scholarly work, in two volumes, of critical postcolonial / decolonial politics, entitled (Dys)Functional Polities: The Limits of Politics in the Postcolonial Arab Region, published in Arabic by the much-respected Arab Institute for Research and Publishing.
I think both lines of writing inform each other, contribute to each other’s development. While research and scholarly work give me access to a deeper understanding of phenomena and social, political and economic relations, transforming text to a tool of discussion or historical engagement, literature enables me to transform phenomena and relations into a sort of open contemplation, where the dialectics of the lived and the experienced, the real and the imagined, the emotional and the material, become a creative, deeper exploration of our existence.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HB: The Monotonous Chaos of Existence will be interesting to a wide range of readers: it is a work of experimental, artistic writing, intentionally bending genres, fearlessly crossing boundaries, and freely using multiple media, so it will capture the imagination of readers who enjoy literary writing and look forward to being a creative partner in the process of generating meaning(s). In the same notion, it will be interesting to fellow writers of poetry and fiction who want to explore techniques, subjects, forms—the technicalities invested in literary writing. I always find reading the works of other creative writers exceptionally enjoyable and benefitting to my own writing.
It is also a book in translation, hailing from a marginalized, under-represented language (in relation to the English-language publishing world), and sprouting from a prejudiced culture, so it will be interesting to those who wish to explore writing beyond the US-European centric stereotypes, imagery, and imagination. In addition to that, and considering the art of translation itself, maia did a wonderful, really creative work, so the book will be interesting for translators to look at as well, especially given I consider translation an unofficially recognized literary genre in itself.
The book will also be interesting to scholars, researchers, teachers, and students of the so-called Middle East, as the book explores a wide range of political, societal issues, and literature has the power to bring forth angles, depths, and perspectives that are difficult to reach or touch otherwise. Having said that, I am very uncomfortable with using literature as a sociological or anthropological guide, an introduction to studying peoples and societies. My hope for this book is that the form of artistic writing I utilize will not just act as a deterrent against such superficial use of literature, but will contribute to the opening of eyes, the expansion of perspectives, and the shattering of stereotypes.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HB: Projects are endless, time is limited; that is one of the main frustrations (and motivations) of human existence which keeps me going. I have many projects in progress, and I hope they will all see the light in the coming four years. One is a book of comics based on The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, done in collaboration with Egyptian artist Mahmoud Hafiz Eissa, and is scheduled to be released (I hope) in the 2023 Cairo Book Fair; another is a French translation of my book Preludes to an Inevitable Demise, (brilliantly done by Nada Yafi—check out a sample here) which I hope will be published in France soon.
In Arabic, I am working on a collection of my poetry texts, a book of literary non-fiction, and a monograph on writing as art / the art of writing.
My most recent book, (Dys)Functional Polities: The Limits of Politics in the Postcolonial Arab Region, has just been accepted as the core thesis for a PhD by published work offer that I have received (and appreciatively accepted) from the University of Westminster in London; so, for the remainder of this year, I will be writing the required commentary towards fulfilling the PhD requirements by next January. This commentary (basically a 10,000-word condensation of the book in a thesis format) will form the baseline for translating and publishing the book in English.
In addition to that, I have other ongoing monthly and annual projects. I curate and edit an annual portfolio of Arabic fiction in translation for the Amherst College-based literary review, The Common. Starting in 2018, we have published portfolios from Jordan, Syria, Sudan, and Morocco. This year, we are featuring Palestinian stories, and for 2023, I will be soliciting work from Kuwait. I also curate a monthly reading / talk with a writer at Fann wa Chai, a gallery space in Amman, Jordan. Both are aimed at featuring artistic and creative writers who are often lost in the midst of the media noise and the mediocrity of awards and official sponsorship.
An excerpt from the book (from pp. 75-80)
To Ayed Nab’a
The stone masonry wall is damp and covered in a musty film of mold. There is a faint, fetid smell. Colored lights rotate continuously, and there are faraway-but-close sounds of car tires, cheap music, and indistinguishable conversation.
They sit side by side on the sofa, his hand in hers. Skinny and bushy-haired, their drooping eyelids are swollen. They’ve been sitting here, in hibernation mode, for a very long time, covered by a thick coating of dust. In the crannies of their immobile bodies, spiders have woven webs that no breeze disturbs.
Their chests rise and fall and the quiet sound of their inhalations alone belie the certainty that they are dead. There is not even the flutter of an eyelid: their eyes, permanently open, are fixed on the opposite wall.
All the walls are bare except for the one with the liquid crystal display TV flashing ever-changing pictures: a dubbed Turkish series, nude women cavorting to the tune of some vulgar melody; the Oprah Winfrey show; commercials advertising cooking oil, feminine pads, and a mobile phone; Who’s A Millionaire, a news program whose two relaxed anchors shake their heads in a deliberate show of gravitas; Star Academy; and a Hollywood action film being replayed for the nth time with the obligatory car chases, guns, and “fuck” translated as “damn.” The colors flicker endlessly, mirrored in their sallow eyes.
Complete obscurity abruptly descends following the crackle of an electric short circuit overhead. Before the screen dies, the flickering colored images are momentarily distorted, and as the last one briefly fixes onto their eyes, total darkness envelops the room.
The silence is brief.
“Hey. Get up and open the window,” she says.
“How would I know to do that? I’ve been sitting on this sofa like you ever since I’ve known I was sitting on the sofa watching the window. I only know what you know, we’ve watched it all from this window together. I don’t know how to open or close it, and we’ve never closed the window—it’s always been open. Shouldn’t I know how to close it in order to know how to open it?”
“Didn’t you hear what I said, dammit? Get up and open the window,” she says.
“I’ve learned so many things from the window. I’ve seen magical worlds and beautiful women, god-humans and machine-humans, massacres and defeats, victories and broken hearts. And sex, oh the sex! Did you see how that girl in the commercial was humping the chocolate bar? Now that’s what I call a commercial! But the window didn’t teach me how to close or open it. It’s always been open. Don’t you think that’s strange?”
“I’m tired of your excuses, you loser. Don’t you understand that we will suffocate and die with the window closed? I’m suffocating right now. Suffocating,” she says.
“Well, why don’t we try seeing what it’s like to have the window closed just this once? That’s exactly what I’m thinking right now and, to be more precise, I’m wondering why we didn’t try and extend our arms and heads from the window? Why didn’t we call out to one of those people sitting outside or passing by? I could’ve asked one of those women humping on the sofa for a bar of chocolate. I could’ve joined the protest at 10 Downing Street. I could’ve invited that singer to sit with us. Some singer she was! The only thing you could hear was the sound of all that silicone! I could’ve helped the emergency medics with that kid who was riddled with shrapnel holes. What was he screaming? I don’t remember anymore. But we remained silent, just watching. I should’ve poked my head out of the window.”
“Ohhhh, I’m suffocating here. You asshole, just open the window. You’re jailing me here, killing me.” She was screaming by now, and her screams grew louder and louder until they disappeared up the big opening in the ceiling, reverberated through the large pipes, and then the smaller ones, smaller, and smaller, and smaller…
The glass almost broke after slipping from between the housewife’s soapy fingers as she heard a voice coming up through the sink. “Ohhhh, I’m suffocating here. Open the window.” In his brand new suit and with a laptop in his briefcase, the twenty-something man recently hired by a large financial company lost his footing and almost tripped over the voice coming up the manhole, “You asshole. You’re jailing me here, killing me. Open the window.” And the old man who had popped a Viagra pill and was lathering up with scented soap under the hot shower almost slipped over the voice rising up between his feet, “You’re killing me. Open the window.”
“Hello, 911? Yes, hello. There’s a voice coming up the sink drain. Yes, yes. Incomprehensible words, something about a closed window…OK. You’re going to take care of it? Thank you very much.”
“Hello, 911? Yes. I was walking in the street and I heard strange voices inside the manhole…Something about suffocation and death and a window…OK, I knew you’d look into it. Have a good day.”
“Hello…I want to report something that happened earlier today. There were strange voices coming up the drain in the shower. A window, and jail, and things I didn’t understand. You say there are other similar reports? It’s not just me hearing those things? And you’re addressing the problem? Oh, OK! You sure move fast. Bye.”
In the midst of the large valley in the city of hills, the bodies of exhausted foreign workers shuddered as they bore down on the pneumatic drills rebounding against the pressure of their arms. Nearby, a large yellow earth-digger drove its huge metal boring-post into the ground, and bulldozers cleared the accumulated debris.
The crater was ten meters deep, and the crew sent out by the authorities used special ropes to scale down to the bottom. From there, they followed the city’s massive sewers.
“Drop the hose,” one of them said, speaking into a microphone dangling in front of his mouth, as two others examined a tangled mass of wires. An ear-splitting scream came out of the large opening to the side: “Open the window, you loser…I’m suffocating…I’m going to die.”
Four of the crewmen fixed wooden planks over the opening and crisscrossed them with metal rods. No sooner had the two guys with the wires called out, “Ready now, sir,” than the screaming from below stopped. The faraway-but-close sounds of car tires, cheap music, and indistinguishable conversation rushed in as faint and flickering colored lights filtered through the wooden planks and the metal rods.
“Start pumping,” said the dangling microphone guy, and everything was drowned in liquid concrete.
[Excerpted from The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, by Hisham Bustani, translated from the Arabic by maia tabet. Published by permission and in arrangement with Mason Jar Press. For more information, or to buy this book, click here.]