An old man used to sit outside my school every day, playing music on a traditional Chinese instrument. He would move a light wood stick over two pieces of metal. Most of the time the songs he played were slow, but some of the time he’d play ones that were real quick, and at those moments we kids would gather around. We had no problem making excuses to our teachers to leave class for five minutes, or take an extended lunch break.
The driver announced that Hainault was the last station. The car was empty save for him and a foreign-looking bloke sitting at the other end. It had taken him ages to make it that far all the way from East Putney. Transport is a bitch on Sundays — engineering works, limited service, delays, replacement buses. He was quite late, at least half an hour. He stood up with the bag hanging from his shoulders, and waited by the doors until the train stopped.
He had never been in Hainault before and it sounded exotic to him. He got his mobile phone out and shot a picture of the station sign. He walked towards the exit and realised the other guy was still sitting inside the carriage. Perhaps he hadn’t understood the driver’s message; he himself had found it pretty hard to figure out: bad speakers plus accented English. Henry walked towards the train and knocked on the window.
“It’s the last station,” he said.
I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.
I believe in the forgotten runways of Wake Island, pointing towards the Pacifics of our imaginations.
Meeting with an Arab poet in exile
At that outcast and lonely hour,
that hour of night when choices narrow
until each absence takes on meaning as a cloud of smoke,
between the voices of the drunken patrons in that small restaurant
and the wash of the still sea that beats, below, against its rocky shore,
at that outcast hour of night, that lonely hour,
he talked to me of the legendary poets of exile
and how he’d known them in his youth, he
who still followed the same path,
and from an ancient notebook
which bore on its cover the cedar of Lebanon
began to read aloud his long two-columned poems.
He is arrogant.
Like a Jerusalem oak—growing in the most narrow fissure, the most meager soil—that was his arrogance, at first. There was almost nothing to feed it. It was thin and pale and stood apart from the vast landscape of him—a few dry green leaves that were, at most, a distraction, a distraction from that great and beautiful emptiness. Because that’s what was most remarkable about him—that emptiness—vast and open and almost unimaginable.
Tirana, Albania — April 11th 1985
The foremost leader has died.
National mourning. Black flags flutter from the windows along side our national flag. Tears, agony, grief, everywhere one looks.
The television shows nothing but tributes to our fallen comrade.
I sit in the café, sip my coffee, watch the grief stricken faces of my fellow comrades. I look out the window at everyone just standing around, consoling one another, seeking comfort in another’s embrace.
I turn my attention back to the interior, continue to sip my coffee, occasionally watch the old films of our foremost leader when he was young, healthy, strong.
The café is crowded but most people don’t speak, most sit with their own thoughts, grieving, as if a member of their own family has passed. In a lot of ways, one had.
A woman sits by herself at the far end of the café. She isn’t crying or gazing at the television. She simply stirs a spoon in her coffee cup, smokes a cigarette, gazes out the window with no expression. She looks sad but there are no tears. Thin and pale, deep lines crease the corners of her mouth. I can tell that she must have been very beautiful once but either time or hardship had nearly erased all traces of it. It isn’t until she glances my way that I realize who it is.
I can’t look at her.
If it weren’t for those eyes, I would have never believed it.
Nourhan Tewfik reviews Ebola ’76 by Amir Tag Elsir, translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby
As Lewis entered, Ebola was all around. It hovered inches from him, anticipating its moment to pounce. The virus had already claimed the bodies of most of the people he encountered there. It coursed through the blood of the old, sunken-cheeked beggar woman as she silently extended her hand towards Lewis to receive his half franc. It had infiltrated the veins of the stern guard, who now leant against his battered old rifle, his gaze flitting between the visitors as they came and went through the main gates. It inhabited the many mourners who passed before Lewis’s distracted gaze. Even as he knelt in tears beside the grave of his lover, who had died just two days previously, the virus was there, lurking in her corpse beneath the soil.
In his short novel Ebola ‘76, a Darf Publishers title translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby, the Sudanese writer Amir Tag Elsir moulds a fictionalised account of the 1976 Ebola outbreak in South Sudan and Congo.