Fragments from The Book of Sleep, by Haytham El-Wardany (trans. Robin Moger), Part One.
The Kingdom of Things
The room is full of its things. There is a little desk by the door and a lamp beside the bed. There is a suitcase against the wall and a flowerpot on the window frame. In the desk drawer there is a passport and a marriage certificate and, lying in the dresser drawer, a gold earring, a bracelet. A bright shirt has been carelessly tossed over the chair and abandoned on the floor is a sock inverted. We leave all this behind and are drawn towards the gulf which is called sleep. There, for a moment, time stops and we imagine that we have moved elsewhere. But as soon as we enter it we are cast back into the room itself, this time not as a presiding force but as one thing among its many, the thing which we’ve become in sleep propelled by irresistible sympathy towards the other things and seeping now, bit by bit, onto the pillow, then onto the bed, then out into the room. And just as we are transformed into things during sleep, so the things in our rooms transform into beings other than those we know. They lose their passivity and gradually return to themselves. No longer objects and implements, they are now bodies through which a secret inner motion flows. They are our things, which we resemble and which resemble us, and the deeper we fall into sleep the more we settle into these things, or they into us, or all of us together into the room. In the fraternity of sleep we do not encounter things along the lines of power but rather in the primordial matter, in the heart of its becoming. The flood of its first forms runs through us and in us beats a pulse as old as the universe.
The Time of Return
When darkness descends all return whence they came. The tiny forms of platynereis dumerilii pass their days by the sea’s surface, feeding on seaweed and flotsam, beating their fine hairs to move about through the water, and when the sun sets one of these hairs detects the difference in light and triggers the release of melatonin, the hormone which announces that the time of return has come. In the human body, melatonin’s release causes physiological changes that prepare it for sleep: steadied, even breathing, a lowered pulse, a slight drop in body temperature. In the microscopic worms of platynereis dumerilii the hormone causes their hairs to stop moving and, slowly but surely, they drop down into the darkened depths of the ocean where they pass the night. Every night for millions of years, clouds of these minuscule creatures have migrated downwards to an unchanging rhythm: the dark hormone stops their hairs moving and they free-fall into the deep. At dawn, as the first rays of the sun cut their way down, the hair responsible for light is alerted to the change and ceases the production of melatonin. The hairs stir and start to beat and the worms’ journey to the surface begins. And a new day turns.
Every night for millions of years, clouds of these minuscule creatures have migrated downwards to an unchanging rhythm: the dark hormone stops their hairs moving and they free-fall into the deep.
If revolution is awakening—a long-awaited aberration that follows a deep mass lethargy—then is not sleep a return to dispossession? A synonym for failure? The failure to reshape reality? The inability to alter the circumstances of life? Defeat in the battle to redefine the self? But a close look at what happens in the moment we enter sleep tells us something different, for this moment does not herald the beginning of a failure, it simply concedes it. It is the moment in which the sleeper surrenders to his drowsiness and his inability to remain awake. The failure comes first, whether it is the failure of the self to maintain control or the defeat of the group in its battle for change. After this comes the moment of actual sleep: the moment of failure’s concession, and not its cause; the moment of defeat’s acceptance, and not of its production. The individual’s sleep is the act of a self that has dropped the reins, and shared slumber is the act of a group that knows the battle has been decided and that to remain on the field is suicide. The self that does not sleep is a neurotic self, plagued by itself; the group that does not sleep is willful and proud, unable to alter reality because it lives cut off from it. For it to reconnect to reality, for it to gather itself again, to wake, it must doze a little. The sleeper who comes to bed with an unrealisable hope soon wakes into reality inspired with a new dream. The failure to change reality is a failure that can be overcome and escaped, but the failure to apprehend this initial failure and to accept it is a complex failure: not a sleep from which one may wake, but a coma.
We stood and watched the wondrous machine and the particles of dust shimmering in the air for the brief moments of their passage between the cold metal of their mouths.
A Wondrous Machine
I was walking with my friend in places that were like unto the places, speaking of Rabia and wandering without aim. He said to me that what is built on falsehood is false for sure. Then suddenly the road before us split open to reveal a strange machine consisting of two small pipes, their openings facing one another, the first puffing out dust and the second sucking the particles in after they had made their short journey through the air. We stood and watched the wondrous machine and the particles of dust shimmering in the air for the brief moments of their passage between the cold metal of their mouths. The machine was cleverly made, for not a speck was lost on the way, each and every particle drawn neatly from one opening to the other and, as it went, changing colour from yellow to red to gold then back again to yellow. Yet we could not understand the machine’s purpose. All it did was transfer dust from one mouth to another. Did it have another purpose we could not divine? We stood there, taken aback by what we saw. Then, gradually, we were possessed by something like bewilderment.
Part 2 of The Book of Sleep is coming next Monday.
Haytham El-Wardany is an Egyptian writer of short stories and non-narrative prose. His most recent publications include The Book of Sleep (2017) and How to Disappear (2014), which was published in translation by Kayfa ta/Mophradat/Sternberg Press.
Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic prose and poetry. He has translated several novels from the Arabic including Nael Eltoukhy’s Women of Karantina (AUC Press, 2014), Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles (7Stories Press, 2014), Mohammed Rabie’s Otared (Hoopoe Press, 2016) and Ma’n Abu Taleb’s All The Battles (Hoopoe Press, 2017).