Old Man, New City

Second-Hand Body: Story #4 by Liza Mounzer

Second-Hand Body is a writing project in which DOTE commissions five writers from the MENA region and The Netherlands to write a text collectively. An invitation and a journey traversing different bodies, temporalities, locations and references of the writers and the worlds they inhabit and imagine. The proposal is based on the concept of second-hand, the re-using of what has already been used and has a history.

To read the first story from Second-Hand Body, click here.
To read the second story from Second-Hand Body, click here.
To read the third story from Second-Hand Body, click here.

Old Man, New City

By Lina Mounzer

The old man, whose given name was Rawad but who had gone by Rawi since his release from prison, sat on his balcony to drink his morning coffee, settling himself carefully among the unraveling strands of the wicker chair.  Across the way, the old villa, as usual. Surveying him with eyes no less fierce for their blindness; its sides and roof festooned with gaudy, tumbling frills of jasmine and bougainvillea. The garden was growing always, vines and trees lusher and thicker, and the garbage that people dumped over its collapsing walls likewise piling higher and wider. Like the nails and hair of a dead person growing while the body decomposed and slowly collapsed in on itself. Though he’d heard that this was a myth, an optical trick of receding skin. Time seeming to move ever onward taking what it could, leaving others behind, but this, too, was an optical trick, or rather the result of a dully optimistic way of understanding time. He surveyed the quiet street, the shoemaker sleeping open-mouthed in the doorway of his workshop, waiting for customers that hadn’t come for years. Once, a foreign journalist had come to the neighborhood, wanting to interview its residents, to write a profile, he said. The journalist had wanted especially to speak to him, since his past had made him something of a neighborhood celebrity. But Rawi had refused. He hated journalists in general and foreign ones in particular.
When he saw the headline in the newspaper that someone left on his door, he felt vindicated: The Neighborhood That Time Forgot. The journalist had proven just as idiotic as Rawi had suspected. Time forgot nothing. Forgetting was the stuff of memory, and memory had only the most formal of arrangements with time.
A movement in the villa called his eye and his heart lurched. But it was only the calico cat slinking across the crumbling remains of a balcony, her nipples drooping and heavy. She disappeared into a window. The last time he’d seen her she had been so pregnant she’d missed a jump he’d watched her make a hundred times. Had she safely had her litter or had she lost it? Regardless, he needed to remember to put more food out next time.
Deep within the villa, under the fractured light falling through broken roof tiles, he could see tangle of rusted metal scraps and a mattress leprous with mold. He stared intently into the deeper gloom, daring something to move. But the tall shape in the back—probably, he had decided a while ago, an old hat stand—remained immobile. He sagged with relief and blinked to relieve the strain. His eyes were bad; the optometrist said it was inevitable, considering everything he’d been through.
He held the coffee cup by its rim and brought it to his lips. Something floated in the tarry liquid. He fished it out with a yellowed finger: a flake of plaster. The ceiling above his head bloomed down in wide petals, like someone had shot bullets down through the floor above but left behind no holes, only the starburst effects of shrapnel. He tossed the coffee over the balcony railing, startling an old woman trudging up the rubbled incline. She searched the skies, admonishing them with a raised fist while Rawi crouched behind the railing, his knees whimpering like a shamed dog. Still, what a splendid caricature of anger she made! He watched her until she disappeared behind a passel of parked cars, muttering all the while. It took him a full minute to rise, pulling himself up with the help of the wrought-iron banister and getting scales of rust all over his hands. He shuffled into the humid gloom of the interior, and, barely pausing at the kitchen to survey the empty packet of coffee crumpled in the wastebasket, stuffed his feet into his shoes, his cigarettes and keys into his pocket, and left the apartment, slowly making his way down the uneven stairs.
In an hour he had to be home, just in case his daughter decided to visit. She had only come to see him once in the last sixteen years. She’d rung his doorbell at 11am, and when she left she said she would be back, as though she truly meant it, as though she meant tomorrow. And so he always made sure to be home at that time. He didn’t know when she would come next, but he knew that when she did, it would be at that same time. He was certain.
And so now he had an hour. A whole hour in which to pace the cage of his thoughts, stalking a shadow beyond the reach of the bars. There was nothing to do but give himself the illusion of movement, through the neighborhood and around its narrow streets, moving, moving the way he hadn’t been able to move the entire thirty years he’d spent in prison.
Once he’d gone to see a psychologist, because he thought it might teach him something that could eventually help him sleep. She’d said that the hardest prison to leave was the one inside one’s own mind. He hadn’t gone back. He didn’t need to pay money to hear such banal and obvious things.
He went past the shoemaker, past the baker, dragging his bad leg through the dust. “If a bone is broken too often, it never heals.” That was another obvious truth he’d had to pay good money for, this time to a doctor of the body, not the mind.
Around the corner he went and past the vegetable stand, the tomatoes soft, the apples rubbery, only the eggplants burnished and bright, the deep, complex color of a fresh bruise. Off to the side was parked a truckload of gas canisters, waiting for the right alignment of leak and spark, the beautiful face of the young boy unloading them only a temporary mask over burn scars waiting to be revealed. He shuffled past the wall of the furniture warehouse. There was a car parked on the sidewalk beneath the no parking sign, necessitating a detour into the street. He narrowly missed a pile of dogshit and then stepped back up with difficulty onto the sidewalk, a tangle of graffitied words keeping pace with him on the concrete wall. He didn’t even have to turn his head to read them, they had been memorized: Down with all dictators; F.M. + S.R.; I die for you, Bilo; Freedom for all the world’s prisoners; Your love is fire; We are all poets. The last one edited down with paint to say: We are all hair. Everyone’s heart aching for another or else the world, but all of it a dirty secret, furtively scrawled in the lightless streets.
He got a coffee from the stand at the parking lot on the main road and drank it down along with a cigarette, alternating gulps. He liked the young man who served him coffee because he knew not to make any small talk. Silence was a rare skill, especially among the young, and Rawi appreciated those who practiced it. Onward he went down the hill, his leg forcing him into a sideward gait, moving against the direction of traffic. For a moment the mountains were visible beyond the chaotic thrust of buildings. From here one could imagine that there was a place where the city ended and some sort of wilderness began, but this was only because from here you couldn’t see the machines that were at this very moment, he knew, tearing out chunks of mountain with their jagged teeth.
He turned down a side-street, away from the dizzying lurch of the changing horizon, a building going down, another one going up, short and squat replaced by tall and massive, and cranes everywhere spinning overhead.
Here the hum receded somewhat, where the main road had to fall back from its chase. Here he could play the old game to help calm himself, in the neighborhood that progress had not forgotten, but overlooked for the time being. Funny how when people said time they meant progress, funny how when they said progress they didn’t know they meant destruction, funny how when they said destruction they meant only war, and not these other machines that also chased people out of their homes and changed geography according to the will of powerful men enacting itself through metal and steel.
He paused before an old house that was much like his own across-the-way villa. Pulled at by vines and trees that whispered to it conspiratorially, come away with us, come away from the city that left you behind. For a moment he had the nauseatingly familiar seasickness of bobbing between moments. He felt himself sliding, shifting. Was this now or then, a reality he was living or the dream he used to have? Was this the city or a longing for it? He hated these sorts of days, when he couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t still inside his cell, dreaming all this up.
But then would he have dreamed his lame leg, his failing eyes, all the beloved places marked by ruin? Perhaps he was indeed still in his cell, drifting in and out of consciousness, his only awareness that of his disintegrating body, and so out of that rubble he’d created a city disintegrating at the same pace.
No, no, he knew this wasn’t true. He knew the only way to bring himself back to the present moment was to go back into an imagined past. To tell a story, another story. To play the sorts of games he’d played with his sister as a child as they walked past the houses of an unfamiliar street: who do you think lives here? What do they look like? What are their lives like? What do they eat?
He looked up at the house again. It was particularly huge. Let’s see then. Who once lived here? Father, mother, four children, and? Too big for them alone, that was certain. So, the grandparents lived upstairs, and there was a spinster aunt haunting one of the lower rooms, adjacent to the garden. Once she’d had a lover, a fighter. He’d promised her everything and then disappeared. Swallowed whole by the street, which reached up one night and pulled him into its dark belly, leaving only a gun behind.  She cried and cried but her family had no sympathy for her grief. They had always thought him beneath her, and now he truly was, buried somewhere in an underground prison cell beneath her feet, and she could feel his heart pounding every time her feet hit the ground. Or perhaps she never thought of him at all. Perhaps she was as glad as her family to be rid of him. She’d been too cynical for all his promises anyway—to change the city, the country, the world, and he’d only had a gun to guarantee them, and now that was gone from him too.
There had been four children in this family, the nieces and nephews of the spinster aunt, all of them at the university overlooking the sea, where their parents had gone before them, where their parents had met and made promises to one another and been able to keep them thanks to that house. Books once filled the home, overflowing from room to room, so many books it became hard to navigate their corridors and corners. Books that murmured constantly, so loud it became difficult for anyone to sleep. They told the children of bigger houses, bigger countries than this that would be better able to accommodate them.
And so across the sea the children went, one after the other, and then, when the war had proved to be without end, they’d sent for their parents as well. Their grandparents had died, driven mad by the muttering of the books, in a language just out of reach. None of the grandchildren had been able to make it back for the funeral. The house had been cut up into equal pieces, one and a half rooms each for their father, their aunt, and their three uncles, who each got a hallway besides. Each one of them who died then after that cutting up their share for their own children, including the aunt, the woman who’d loved the fighter who’d disappeared. She finally married just before it was too late, a gentle man, a doctor, with soft, clean, capable hands.
Of course, she’d eventually married. Of course, she’d found someone else to love.
Eventually after all the burials and all the wills, the house had been cut up into too many pieces to be of use to anybody. A window for this one, two faucets and a vent for that, a kitchen counter for the third and so on. Nothing anyone could call a home. Anyway, they all had lives now across the sea, disparate, different lives with foreign men and women and children of their own, who knew their parent’s country as a collection of strange, over-seasoned dishes, a set of mother-of-pearl inlaid nesting tables and two photographs of an old house from different angles. The house itself now bore little resemblance to those photographs; on this, those who’d gone back to visit could at least agree. Otherwise they quarreled over long-distance lines, not entirely sure what they were fighting about, square meters or heirlooms or money or love. Impossible to guarantee equal shares of any, so everyone decided the others should have none.
This was how the house had arrived into the present time. Survived, rather. Kept intact by fury and resentment, at least for the time being. Behind every stately facade of a grand old house or building still standing there was a force of fury and resentment and tangles of red tape keeping it upright. Thank goodness for inheritance squabbles. Thank goodness for the rich who bred like the poor, who gifted their children with equal allotments of self-righteous greed to go with their land deeds and asset shares that ensured an ongoing fight over who was the best, the favorite, the most deserving.
And what of the aunt? Where had she gone? Should she have died of longing or gone on living somewhere, happy in a new home and desiring for nothing? Had she ever heard that her fighter had been released?
It was time, it was time. The hour was up; the question would remain, as one always did. Rawi turned away and headed for home, where his daughter might already be waiting.






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