Yasser Abdel Hafez: The Blind Squirrel

Translated by Khaled Rajeh

James Hennessey, Iowa, 1991. Source: artsy.net

Do any of you know that there is a missing flag on the IMU bridge? I am only a traveler here, but I think it’s only right that I point this out. After all, the presence of a flagpole suggests the non-existent flag was once intended to exist there. This will cause us all some puzzlement we can do without. Imagine the scenario: pedestrians cluster on the bridge, perplexed, unable to move toward their destination or retrace their steps, each of them doing what I’m doing, stopping to investigate the disappearance of the flag. Maybe they are lucky enough to see that the matter does not merit too much attention, being only a flag, no more than a symbol of the international diversity among students at the University of Iowa. But that is not enough for me. I have nothing to rush me to the other side of the bridge. My most valuable resource here is time and I delight in squandering it on things no one would pay any mind to. I am the only one, then, who will take on the case of this poor flag. But before I take any steps that might put me in an awkward situation, I imagine a conversation between myself and one of the administrators summoned upon my request.

“And what is that? Nearly blowing into the sky… Is it not a flag?”

I scan the space to rule out the possibility that the flag is actually flapping before my eyes, and that the fault in fact was in my vision, which has been deteriorating fast enough for illusions to begin intruding on reality. It is common, before full-on blindness sets in, for the brain to allow the eyes to envision alternate possibilities for all the things they cannot see.

Allowing illusions to impose their own logic is not a bad thing, as experts would have you believe, and actually has many benefits. For example, it has offered me various stories about the late Joannie Geifman, who was immortalized, by one of her admirers, on a bench by the Iowa River. “Beauty exists not in what is seen and remembered but what is felt and never forgotten.”

Among the most important benefits of mixing reality with illusion is that ages blend into one another. While I stand on the bridge formulating different hypotheses to explain the disappearance of the flag, I have by my side the little boy I used to be, the student who was once brave enough to sneak out in order to explore the real world outside, while devouring a popsicle, and happened to see a shirtless man wandering among the cars, dragging on the ground behind him a small flag of the United States, as some bystanders gave him a hero’s reception. The boy needed a few more years before he could understand the significance of the scene, and take part in the game everyone was playing at the time, split into two teams: the good and the evil, East and West, pleasure and deprivation, in front of and behind the wall. But the game, in contrast to the graveness with which it was taken up, still had for the boy a certain gaiety, mostly due to its association with the taste of popsicles. Or maybe because it had started as a form of rebellion against an educational institution, and stayed true to its first principle, preventing him from falling into the trap of polarization, instead leaving him dallying between the poles. He smokes fancy cigarettes and chants anti-Imperialist verses.

The popsicle-tasting image of the flag on the ground carved a place for itself in the boy’s memory, nestling in some corner of the brain after the game ended with one of the teams hurrying off the field, only to resurface in his mind years later, when that same boy became a man standing in front of the consular officer at the US embassy in Cairo, as a voice announces every few minutes that firearm training is taking place on embassy grounds. The boy smiles at the old image while the man considers how to answer the employee’s question, which she asked with a quizzical look, possibly due to all the unexplained smiling. “What do you intend to do after your program ends?” He is silent for a few seconds. He hadn’t given the question any thought until this moment and tens of possibilities flashed through his mind. He recalls a scene from an old film where two women are fleeing something or other he couldn’t remember. And because, as they say, what matters is not the destination but the journey, their drive across theUnited States becomes a journey of self-emancipation, which concludes with their liberation from the burden of life itself as they laugh and drive straight off a cliff.

I won’t go to America to die, but isn’t it only right for me to tell this officer about the man who dragged the flag of her homeland through the streets of Cairo. Our countries share strong ties, which they are both quick to affirm at various occasions, and I could contribute to strengthening these ties with what information I had, along with my suggestion to add to the American flag a picture of a child devouring a popsicle. Wouldn’t it be nice if all countries replaced the hawks and eagles and stars and swords and all the different symbols of toughness on their flags with pieces of dessert? Who knows, maybe that will stave off the specter of war from over our heads.

The benefits of filling the gaps of reality with illusions are not limited to predicting the colors of a missing flag, or constructing the life story of a woman immortalized by a bench on the river, upon which sits the man who was a boy, with no idea what he was doing there, taking a break from his thoughts. Intertwining fact and fantasy also proves helpful in conversations that are interrupted by a language barrier. Many would disagree with me on this point, linguistic rigor is a bare requirement in our lives, but linguistic rigor was of no concern to the saleswoman who said to me, after I apologized for the accent that broke down communication between us for a few moments, “Don’t apologize. I myself had an accent once. Language is not important.” I was not sure whether it was a mistake to apologize, in which case I should have offered another apology, or whether she really was in favor of a language which does not correspond to reality. Language is not important! She ought to have said that to my father. He firmly believed that teaching me the rules of the language was more important than any old father-son relationship. Later he would be responsible for my habit of taking long, silent pauses, during which I would assess the grammatical validity of whatever I wanted to say.

The saleswoman did not seem to have enough time for me to tell her a story about how the only way to break the language barrier is with wine. Wine is the best translator. That at least is the conclusion I reached after an argument I had with an American, over some lame thing, at a bar in Cairo. We exchanged expletives at first, then spent the night in friendly discussion, even though my lexicon had consisted entirely of fragmented lines from films and songs. However, when I visited Iraq after it fell, and I had begun cutting down on drinking, I found that language created a rift between me and the Blackwater mercenary with whom I could not agree on a reason for what was happening. We were standing on the same ground of death and destruction, but each of us saw a different scene. I suspect that if we met here in Iowa, struggling together up the hill, carrying with us years of our lives and defeats and mistakes, stopping a while by the dance studio that used to be the women’s gymnasium, under the weight of the silence that descends upon the city as though he and I were the last two people on Earth, we will know that we have exhausted our souls in journeying to end up at the same place as the young saleswoman, whose experience may span no farther than the few streets she crosses every day: language is not important.

I had walked up the hill alone on the dawn of my second day in Iowa before I was accompanied by the soldier. I listened to his regretful confessions and his wishes to escape from the eyes of his victims, which follow him wherever he goes. I did not tell him about the tales of my first day inIowa, they paled in comparison to what he had to say, although part of me doubted the sincerity of his confessions. His words, and the manner of their delivery, sounded as though they had been compiled from those films that depict the destruction of a country for purposes of catharsis.

I went out at dawn to wander through the streets of the city, jogging up the steps of the Old Capitol like Rocky at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I’m repaying my debt to the child who believed it was in our power to become heroes. I hand over the reins to him with no regard for the consequences. Excitement overpowers us and I lose track of the few landmarks I tried to remember for the walk back. The child goes into hiding, as is his habit in serious situations, and the man finds himself alone in a residential neighborhood, limbs stiff in the piercing cold, the streets empty of all life save for one squirrel whose eyes appeared to see straight through the man’s foolishness. They maintain eye contact for longer than is typical in the logic of relationships between their two species. But realizing that the cold was working its way from his extremities and towards his heart absolved him from the thought of the squirrel’s gaze and its significance. His memory then took him back to a time when a stranger was playing with a dog at a park in Chicago, throwing a ball in the air as far as their arm could take it. As the man’s eyes follow the ball and the dog bolting after it, the scene appears to stretch for much longer than it possibly could have. He concludes then that the squirrel’s gaze was not actually longer than normal, but that the same phenomenon was taking place. Time dilates according to a law known best to those who live transient lives, who are flung in a matter of hours from one continent to another, as though they had fallen through one of those fictional tunnels of light and emerged in another dimension. The dog picks up the ball then stops, as if noticing the unfamiliar man staring at him, and stares back. They lock eyes until the owner calls, at which point, the dog bounds away with complete disregard to the absurdity of the game they both put their hearts into.

As humans, we are committed to a conception of time as a straight line. Or at least that is what we have become accustomed to, because the notion of a time that plays around us, pulls events by the tail to delay their progression, turns each event into a life of its own, is a notion that requires great effort to manage. Time escapes, in that case, from its natural framework, and creates chaos when it intersects another timeline. For that reason, it seems difficult for visitors toa city and its inhabitants to find a third timeline in which they can meet. Events that unite both sides appear as two distinct film tapes being projected onto the same screen, while the viewer is none other than that squirrel. And God knows what he thinks about what he sees.