He is not a tightrope walker, a snake charmer, or a tiger tamer. His hands are empty no charm or sleight to them, and he does not have any puppets, hoops, pungis, or whips—his mere body is his only apparatus for a peculiar kind of entertainment, a unique sort of adventure that no one before has witnessed or experienced. If the acrobat walks lightly on his tightrope, the charmer blows into his pungi and tilts his head with the snake, and the tamer lashes his whip in the air in a scintillating, elegant gesture as he watches the eyes of his lurking tigers and harkens to their breathing, amid the eager expectation of the spectators, calculating their tension through the glistening of their irises, gauging their changing temperaments as their breathing intensifies—our friend, the entertainment man, merely shuts his eyes as he lies silently and calmly in the hole, waiting for it to be filled in.
When the hole is approximately one meter deep, and his sojourn there, covered in dirt, has lasted more than fifteen minutes, it becomes a true adventure, much as it turns into an entertainment around which people gather in amazement. They cannot believe that a man can be buried multiple times with the dirt smoothed out above him. The witty among them exaggerate and spend the fifteen minutes professionally and intently smoothing the surface dirt after sprinkling it with water, as is the habit with fresh graves. As the minutes pass amid the silence of the spectators and their solicitude, they begin to dig diligently. As they go through the first half of the dirt layer or a little more, they throw their tools on the ledge and start digging with their hands. They increase their speed as they reach lower. The man appears under their fingers as if a reclining statue of a human being. They dig around the head as quickly as possible. His face appears and he blows audibly and, as he blows, the dirt that is stuck to his nostrils and mouth flies in the air like a fountain of dust. At that moment, the cheering of the people who held their breath while gathered around the hole rises in disbelief.
He comes infrequently. People see him unexpectedly strolling alone by the riverbank, or coming out of the gate of the train station after walking near the railway tracks, trains speeding past him, be it day or night. Some of the passengers catch a glimpse of him but it does not occur to them that they are seeing a man walking in a desolate place where no trees or water can be found. Just another passing apparition, they tell themselves as they slouch in their seats.
He always shows up when the boredom of the people intensifies and when silence infiltrates their gatherings. Their feelings dry up slowly following the exhaustion of quotidian routines and the prosaic details of everyday life. Life seems as if memorized by heart, as if already lived before. The faces appear stern and hardened, like walnuts. Nothing unusual, no amazement, and no sudden winds that blow to resuscitate the trees of the soul and sway their leaves. There is no specific time or cause for people’s boredom. Each has his own time and reasons, but they usually slip into boredom in contiguous periods that intersect at times and diverge at others. They live the climax of their individual boredoms together, as if coming to a confluence at a desolate square. It is the time of collective boredom and silence, the time during which many start thinking of the hole man. They internally evoke his story, even if they have not seen him before.
His advent is a peculiar occasion, as peculiar as his entertainment. It brings men out of the monotony of their days and forces them to modify some of their habits. They pass, on their way home from the quay, by the ancient buckthorn tree near the wooden bridge, where he usually likes to rest. After getting the news of his arrival—for such news travels quickly—they go to greet him. They sound the bells of their bicycles and wave at him. He only looks back at them, without waving or answering, but they continue cheerfully on their way, and inside their homes they talk about the hole man who has returned. Some mention having seen him before. They were boys at the time. They ran toward the tree and saw him sitting under it just as he is sitting today. The years pass and he remains the same. He has not changed much, as if time does not touch him, and does not change much in him. At the time, their fathers broke their monotony—just as they do now—and changed some of their habits. They sounded the bells of their bicycles and waved, and he only looked back, without waving or answering.
Soon after, certain men begin preparing the hole by the riverbank, a few meters away from the buckthorn tree where he sits. They do not look in his direction or talk to him. They are men of labor and duty, the sort you see leading people in funerals and weddings, arriving exactly at the right time and sometimes a little earlier. They sniff the occasion before it takes place and wait in front of doors, anticipating the cries of the relatives in order to attack like a single man because the hour is theirs and no one dares stop them from fulfilling their duty. They spend the afternoon digging. Their tools are perpetually ready. They argue among themselves, scream, disagree and agree. Before the evening prayer their work is finished and the hole is perfectly prepared. This is the time when people start gathering. They come in groups, egging each other on,
Come on! Don’t be late! Minutes, only minutes!
The boredom around their spirits slightly loosens, you can be sure of that as you hear them discuss the event on their way to the hole. You might hear some of them comment as they laugh, and there go their faces softening up and their features less hardened! You can come closer to see for yourself. It is merrymaking time!
The strange thing is that no one looks at the man, as if he were not there. They pass him by without casting a glance in his direction. They are busy watching the neat rectangular hole. Only when it is time for him to go down do they turn their heads, as if suddenly remembering him. They watch him get up unhurriedly and proceed toward them. At that moment they clear a small passage for him in their midst, a passage that narrows down the closer he gets to the hole. They watch him intently. They examine his slow steps and observe him take off his leather slippers and leave them by the edge of the hole. He goes down with hardened feet with cracked heels. As if lying on a bed, fully dressed, he adjusts his reclining body a bit. When he settles and stops moving, the men of duty rush to fill up the hole. They heap the dirt on the feet first, moving up to the rest of the body. When they reach the head, the man closes his eyes and the chatter of the people surrounding the hole stops.
Fifteen minutes. They may go a little over but never under. Many spectators follow their watches, setting the time of their entertainment. With the first shout the men resume digging with their tools and then their hands while the commotion rises around them. People recall the scene in its minutest details. They talk gleefully about the fountain of dust as it rises with the fist puff from the man’s mouth. This is what they recount time and again, for a long time.
They do not allow the scene to conclude before their eyes. Rather, they turn around and leave as the man stands up in the middle of the hole, covered in dust. None of them watch him bend on the ledge as if lifting the heaviness of the dirt off his soul. No one hears him pant repeatedly before he goes up and puts on his slippers. What is more strange is that not one of them goes near him, either before or after he gets into the hole. Not one of them talks to him, even in passing, or asks him his name, although he spends the entire day among them. He is the merrymaking man. This is his name and his vocation, the man who hands out a jolly story that lasts them for a long time to come.
© Luay Hamza Abbas. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Yasmeen Hanoosh. All rights reserved.