Fear [excerpt] — Youssef Rakha

I haven’t been dead forty-eight hours but I can tell you what will come of this revolution. I trust you will manage to forget these spoilers, otherwise as the movie of your life progresses you’ll second-guess yourself insane. You’ll probably have to purge your memory of me entirely, but the truth is I can see the city’s future. I can see its past too, as far back or forward as I like, and whatever I focus on becomes present. Who would’ve thought. A year after your thirty-fifth and final video, nobody remembers your name. People still talk of the End Night, they say all kinds of things about what happened at the city center, but no one seems sorry it failed. When you watch them closely, you get the sense even your militant followers are relieved that it’s over. Not many things would surprise you. Torturers and terrorists still play cat and mouse while activists tweet truth to power from the safety of offshore work stations, unless they end up indefinitely jailed. Having amended the constitution so he can stay in power, your former best friend and mentor is running for leader unchallenged. Stellas look for rich boyfriends that Cowboys can blackmail while pushing drugs. Except for one little detail, everything is as you left it. The city is equally overpopulated, children grow up with the dead, but even in the busiest places, the informal economy of parking and public transport has diversified into mugging. Begging is a dying profession, and the sidewalks look clean. At any given time few people can be seen anywhere. Nobody says it in so many words but nobody doubts this is the End Night’s legacy. Over the weeks, then the months while more and more people went missing, a kind of chronic absence overtook those who remained. Everybody was scared of the police, it’s true, too paranoid or dispirited to step out, but once it became clear the police weren’t responsible for everything, there emerged something stranger, something supernatural in the outcome. It was as if the End Night had been the people’s pledge to become ghosts and, without planning or discussing it, they transitioned to that state. Who would’ve thought ghosts are so radically unlike the dead. In their homes, among their loved ones, people remained normal human beings, but wherever they might encounter the authorities they became invisible and unreal, as frightening as they were frightened, so that even if the city didn’t quite empty it still turned into a ghost town.

Copyright Youssef Rakha

Everybody was scared of the police before there was an End Night, but as my caregivers watch your first few videos while I hang hogtied by the stove like some horrible human hammock, they manage to keep their cool. I have returned to the days of my ordeal and everything is in the present again, but it’s a present that feeds on the knowledge death has given me, so that even in my dumb four-year-old state I can make sense of things. I’m being disciplined for soiling myself. Khalo is squeezing where the pee spurted out, his other hand sealing my mouth while, holding the gravedigger’s spade over the fire, Mama tells me the skin on my thighs will come off easily once the blade glows white. It hasn’t crossed their minds that their pictures might end up in the papers alongside that of my corpse while they are beaten to death by fellow inmates, literally beaten to death. I realize what’s happening to me is exactly the kind of thing people are scared the police will do to them when they try to bring down the regime whether or not a former crony of the leader’s is telling them to, and I’m struggling with my sphincter when it occurs to me that only people who can hurt other people are immune to fear. They’re good at ducking when you lunge, weeping and trembling and begging for mercy, but they know nothing of the paralysis and despair of real fear, the fear that everything you live for will turn out to be on loan from a despicable stranger who can claim it back at any time, that the meaning of life is contained in a plainclothes man’s slap. Khalo keeps kicking my tailbone with his army boot, squeezing my nose without releasing my mouth. The pain becomes unbearable as I begin to asphyxiate. My eyes are level with the spade’s flame-licked blade, upside down, so that the fire seems to descend from a miniature metal heaven, an ersatz heaven, and it’s as if I can feel the fear of every one of them over the years and the decades, the centuries, millions of people who stood up for what they lived for only to realize the regime owned their lives, and suddenly an immense sob unravels me, a sob the size of an ocean, so that, struggling to break free of the clothesline, my sphincter finally gives, blobs of poop splash my face and I quiver till I black out.

This is a short extract from ‘The End Night’ (which first appeared with Litro magazine in March 2020). It is one of ten short stories in the collection Emissaries, published with Barakunan last month. You can order a copy here.

Youssef Rakha is a novelist, poet, essayist and journalist who writes in both Arabic and English. His interests include the role of obscenity in Arab society and the possibility of a post-Muslim perspective. His first novel to be written in English, The Dissenters, is forthcoming with Graywolf Press in 2025. Twitter: @Sultans_Seal