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What Happens When We Sleep?

By Haytham El Wardany
Translated By Robin Moger

Egyptian writer Haytham El Wardany's The Book of Sleep, translated from Arabic by Robin Moger, is out today with Seagull Books. Throughout the book, and in the four fragments below, El Wardany blends genres, drawing on philosophy, poetry, and narrative to interrogate the nature of sleep.


Night falls and the earth turns. A world departs and another appears. In this other world, the dark blots out features, dulls edges, softens boundaries; it repairs what the lights have spoiled. By day, labor flows like a force. It toils and strives and fills the mortal elements with clamor. By night, another, quieter force is at work. It spreads its palms over the things day made and liberates them from their destinies. It returns them to themselves. At the height of day, a metalworker beats sheets, a carpenter works at a table. In the dark of night, a fruit is ripening, an idea is fermenting. Night’s industry takes place under the wings of darkness and remains anonymous, unattributable; by day, the doer is always defined. As the fetus develops in the womb’s darkness or the fruit swells at the flower’s center, as the worm grows in the gloom of its cocoon or the idea ferments amid clouds of intoxication, so the night: knitting its womb to shelter those who sleep. In their seclusion from the brute brightness of the lights, they are purified and made ready to enter a new day. Then morning breathes and the earth turns. A world departs. Another takes its place.


New Land

I buried my mobile on the median strip. We did this every time we left home and headed into the city: buried our phones in the flowerbeds facing the intersection where our little street met the main road, then headed unburdened into the city to recover them on our return. But when I got back this time I couldn’t find the phone. I was scrabbling at the earth with my fingers when someone approached and told me that the authorities had come along and replaced all the barren earth along the median with fresh soil, that more was on its way right now, and suddenly there was a whole convoy of trucks driving down the main road, laden with bedding soil in which lilies stood rooted, tall as reeds. There was a smell of damp straw. The trucks were small and drove slowly, and on the cab of each flashed orange lights. We stared transfixed, my mother and I now side-by-side, and, amid the joy of local residents, who had never before witnessed such interest and concern shown to our little street, we watched as the transfer took place. The earth in which I’d buried my phone had, I knew, been mixed up with the first load of fresh soil and had now found its way to a different bed. We watched as the laborers first mixed the new soil with the old, then divided the mixture between the median’s beds. We would find the phone, my mother assured me, and proposed that we call my number from hers as we walked by the beds: if it buzzed or blinked we’d find it. We began to walk down the street alongside the flowerbeds, calling and calling the lost phone, but it was no use. The road was long and there were an infinite number of trucks. Then my mother took my arm and we went over to a man to ask for help. He was the gravedigger, the man who looked after the family’s plot at the cemetery. For a while we made small talk, then we asked about the gate to the family plot, to which we had instructed him to apply a fresh coat of paint, and he replied that he’d heard about what had happened at the median, how lots of people were complaining that they’d lost their things there, but there was nothing that could be done to help them now. My mother took a sum of money from her bag and handed it to the gravedigger, the way she did whenever we visited the cemetery, and we thanked him and withdrew. Then we wandered back out onto the road and stood, at a loss, by the flowerbed, which faced the entrance to our street. My phone contained the numbers of all my friends and all my work texts, and that wasn’t all, and the thought of losing it was weighing heavily on me. And then, suddenly, a man reared up off the ground. He had the appearance of a government clerk. He had been asleep and we hadn’t noticed him. As he clambered to his feet, brushing the dirt from his safari suit, he asked if we were looking for anything. We told him our story and he said that anything found buried in the beds had been handed over to a man nearby; that he’d personally witnessed five people turn up and recover their possessions. Extremely pleased at this we asked him where this man was, and he replied that he was meant to be sitting right here. That he’d gone off on some errand and would soon be back. He made space for us beside him and we sat.


A Patch of Shadow

In a world built on holding attention and focusing our awareness, a world in which every moment can be captured, recorded, and shared with others, in which every moment is material suitable for live broadcast—in a world like this, sleep is the last remaining place in which death can be encountered. Contact with the living is the presiding obsession of our waking hours, but our dead stand around us, waiting for the grip of our focus on the moment to slacken that they might get through. Faced with a fixity of attention that holds them in perpetual exile outside us, they have no choice but to visit us in our dreams. Our dead don’t want memorials or ceremonies of remembrance. They don’t ask us to exact punishment or revenge. They don’t even ask that we remember them. Our dead, their numbers swelling day by day, want nothing more than leave to remain among us, for they have no other world to go to. They tell us that the reality in which we live is not ours alone, that it is not the sole preserve of the living, for their powers operate here just as ours do; it is moved by their absent energy just as by our present energy. Our dead, whom we now permit to appear only in dreams, are telling us that we, the living, are not alive because we live in a different world to that of the dead but because we still possess the capacity to die: to cross, that is, from one state to another. Death, whose existence our jittery consciousness denies, does not take place somewhere other than this reality: to the contrary, it is death that turns its soil and brings forth the new. One by one, individually, our dead steal into our dreams. As the days pass, our absence in them grows, and their presence in us. Our dead do not want to remain in our dreams as individuals, mythical figures; they want to dissolve inside us, so that our fear is stilled and we learn how to wander and withdraw, to be free, to reclaim reality from the prison of the present moment.


What Happens When We Sleep?

Our brows bead with sweat. Spittle runs from our mouths. A salt crust precipitates on our lips. From our bodies a faint odor drifts. A film gathers on our eyes. Our members stiffen. Our heads break open. An emptiness spreads through our souls. The ache in the shoulder fades. The cut fuses on the finger. Creases form on the right cheek. Small pimples appear on the brow. A mole sprouts on the arm. By the knee the skin splits. A muscle grows. A new memory surfaces. The bowels grow still. Blood brightens in the veins. Growth hormones flow. The hormones of exertion wane. The eye’s muscles slacken. The anklebone twists. A lock grays. An idea ferments. The thumbnail sprouts. The gum parts before a fresh molar. The eyelid trembles. Hairs fall from the head. Skin puckers beneath the eye. The mood clears. Vision clears. Bile cuts a path to the gorge. The jaw muscle relaxes. A tooth cracks in the upper row. How did all these things happen? We do not know. We awoke and found ourselves this way.


From The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany, translated by Robin Moger. Published October 2020 by Seagull Books. By arrangement with the publisher.


Related Reading:

"Like Any Messiah Taken Unaware by Death" by Aisha al-Saifi, translated by Robin Moger

"Please Come for Me!" by Misrak Terefe, from Songs We Learn from Trees

The City and the Writer: Special Series from Egypt

Published Oct 15, 2020   Copyright 2020 Haytham El Wardany

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