Photograph of fog on a window
Photo by AJ Jean on Unsplash

I’ve shrunk, and I no longer recognize my city’s features. It seems to have morphed. It was an open courtyard I used to steer my bike around, and is now a solitary confinement cell with a small window, up to which I can’t even jump to cling to the rim.

In my childhood memory, stifling traffic jams don’t exist, and there’s no constant noise in the background — gas cylinder sellers, scrap metal and junk buyers, police sirens, motorcycle exhausts; there isn’t even any AC. My adolescence recalls the modest, cocooned Hashem Restaurant completely differently from the tourist-attraction monstrosity of the same name that exists now; it recalls half-an-ounce of kanafeh from Habiba’s, followed by the obligatory stop in front of the guy who sold pictures of famous Western singers — especially the women, standing or lounging in not-remotely modest clothing, next to the shared taxi stop at Daheyat al-Hussein.

I was infatuated with Samantha Fox, or, if we want to be precise about it, with her enormous breasts. I had bought the whole set of pictures, of which the crown jewels were the two that revealed the sacred nipple. Despite this purchase, I would always pause at the man’s stall, which looked like a lottery-ticket-seller’s stand, to examine the pictures again, just in case a new nipple had slipped out of Samantha’s shirt in my absence.

I still have those pictures in a cardboard box specially designated for memories that — as is their wont — have departed for good. Sometimes I think that Amman itself resides in that weird box, and that the Amman I walk through today is another configuration, a roll of a different dice bearing new numbers that don’t exist on any actual dice I know: instead of the local park, there stands two unfinished glass and steel towers, rusting; in the place of warm one-story limestone homes are blocks and blocks of cold, boxed residential concrete, the stonemason’s ringing rhythms drowned out by the din of jackhammers and bulldozers.

I don’t know this new city. I don’t want it, and I can’t overcome my childish urge to chuck it away.

In my box, though, my city is snowy. My father drives us in his red Citroen. He parks on the upper level at Sports City, then we dive into the heated swimming pool adorned with an enormous mosaic of a blonde woman in a red bikini, leaping into the sea. She jumps sideways, as if reclining on the air, freeze-framed so that we can see her whole body. She’s looking cold-eyed over everyone in the pool, as if admiring her own curves reflected in a mirror. We dry off next to the floor heaters blowing out hot air, while on the other side of the window, snow settles on the densely wooded ground, sparsely intersected with walking trails and little streets.

My city is hot: In early mornings the adolescent me steps onto the “corporation bus” (real name Public Transport Corporation), and steps off at the central post office downtown (now a Starbucks coffeehouse and a Carrefour supermarket), and hangs out looking for books and clothes (all secondhand). A large section of my personal library is made of used books found stacked on top of each other on Saqf al-Sayl Street, slurping up dust.

My city stands on the snow in front of a bleak wall, blindfolded and handcuffed, living those crucial, intense, anxious moments before the trigger is pulled, where seconds weigh tons. And I stand behind the pool window, flattening my nose against the glass, my palms printing sweat. Behind me, my father dries my younger brother with a towel. I wonder where Mom is?

The poor did not exist in my world at that time. My childhood memories include no trace of poverty, nor of East Amman, even though the neighborhood known to all as the Egyptian Quarter was right there, just behind our elegant stone house, beside the Second Circle. Was that neighborhood poor in those days? Did Egyptian migrant families live there, like the Yemeni, Bukhari, Circassian, and Armenian families before them, who stamped some of the city’s locations with their family name or the name of their original homeland?

There was nothing for it but to ask my father.

My father was born in the winter of 1937, when al-Sayl (the Torrent) still brimmed, at times bursting its banks. Kids learned to swim in that river, which needed a column planted into the riverbed to measure the danger level. Even my father didn’t know the reason for the name of the neighborhood, nor when exactly the Egyptian Quarter had become poor. Middle-class families used to live there, he told me; even the Qasem family (Marwan al-Qasem was head of the royal court in the late eighties) used to live there. One of my childhood friends lived in a big stone house at the edge of the neighborhood, on the Aqleh Hospital side. When did poverty set in? No one knows. No one knows how the middle-class families that lived in elegant neighborhoods became poor and destitute. No one knows how the big downtown traders’ shops turned into pavement stands, and not a trace of the traders themselves remained.

I hear shots being fired. There’s a line of men carrying guns, but not all in the same uniform, as they wear in films. Only one of them is in camouflage fatigues; the one next to him wears a shiny suit. His shoes reflect the light, his hair is the color of dirty snow, and his jacket pocket froths a garish handkerchief. And the one beside him? I can’t make him out clearly, but he’s dressed in black, and has black sunglasses on (even in winter? asks my childish mind) and a small wire spirals out from his ear then disappears between his neck and the blackness encircling it.

The blindfolded city staggers a little without falling. Meanwhile, my father and younger brother call me to come over here and have a banana.

I’m the one who falls. From that thing in a playground that spins and spins around its axis, what’s it called? A merry-go-round? The children’s feet kept kicking my head. I thought it would never end. I’m dizzy and the ride is spinning and the spinning feet are kicking my head and from out of all those vortexes emerges the school principal. She’s a marble statue. A line of little children immediately gets into formation to stand and chant to her, their leader:

“Sitt Omaima, she’s so dear!

Her lemon-yellow clothes bring us cheer!

In our classroom, when she draws near,

Her loving heart is crystal clear!”

Her heart was not remotely loving. She was a sullen, stony-faced woman who always had a thin cane in her hand, and she ran the nursery and the first two years of elementary at my school, the Scientific Islamic College. Her surname makes me think of our chanted hymn to her as the “omaimi” anthem — just one letter different from the omami, the stirring anthem known to many around the world as “The Internationale.” When someone of my father’s age talks about their schoolteachers, their eyes shine. They lovingly recall their full names, and list their virtues: “They taught us everything. They were master scholars in their fields, they were elegant, politicized: real leaders. They were strict, but they were learned.” My teachers? I don’t remember their names. I don’t remember anything about them except their demeaning treatment of us, and how small it made us feel.

I do recall the other principals: Sitt Omaima’s sister Da’ad Toutah, principal of the third and fourth grades in primary school, who exercised her tyranny in a different way — omnipotently, she seemed to rule from beyond our realm; the skinny Khamis Ayesh, principal of part of the secondary school, with his spur-of-the-moment slaps and his thin bamboo cane. (What’s this fetish for thin canes all about?) Each one of them recruited a squadron of student informants and disciplinarian prefects. Lining up in military formation in front of the flag in the morning, filing into the classrooms queue after queue, the bell ringing: rrrrrnnnn — class has begun, Attention! rrrrrnnnn — class is over, at ease! And the dogs in their rooms only move and speak on the bell’s command.

I witnessed all of this through a bullet hole in the body of the city that staggered a little, but did not fall, so it was sprayed with further rounds of fire.

I used to really love summer: the holidays, the Haya Cultural Centre, the beautiful girls at Sport City pool, my scarred older namesake Hisham, a young man we used to both admire and fear at the club, who became — years and years later — an officer in the secret police. (He would arrest me one day in the far future for organizing demonstrations against new taxes and basic commodities price-hikes, and confiscate my computer and books.) But nowadays winter is my favorite season: not so many cars honking, and the throngs of annoying neighbors with their narghiles are back inside their houses, with no parties in the building next-door (its apartments are rented by the day, week, or month, and are right opposite my bedroom), no kids let loose to amuse themselves in our street until two in the morning, and no flocks of sheep let loose to amuse themselves and leave shreds of broken shrub and a thin coating of spherical shit all over it all.

Snowflakes fall, and my father leads us to the car. I glimpse — from the corner of my eye — the city slumped on the ground, and the three men standing above it, turning it over with their feet.

Hisham Bustani

Hisham Bustani is an award-winning Jordanian author of short fiction and poetry. English translations of his work have appeared in many journals, including the Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, the New England Review, Black Warrior Review, The Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, and World Literature Today. His book, The Perception of Meaning, won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award, and he is the recipient of the 2017 Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers. The Monotonous Chaos of Existence has just been released from Mason Jar Press.

Alice Guthrie

Alice Guthrie is an independent translator, editor, and curator, specialising in contemporary Arabic writing. Her work often focuses on subaltern voices, activist art and queerness/queering, winning her the 2019 Jules Chametzky Translation Prize. She is currently compiling the first anthology of LGBTQIA+ Arab(ic) literary writing, set to appear in parallel Arabic and English editions. She teaches undergrad and postgrad literary translation at the Universities of Exeter and Birmingham, and her translation of the complete short stories of the maverick Moroccan gender activist Malika Moustadraf is out now from Feminist Press NYC and Saqi London.