We do not see the hut when the lights first come up, and then we see it. Its inhabitants are not interested in us, perhaps because their problems do not concern us. These women spend their days waiting for a man, and they know that one day he will come. Lights shine upstage from the front of the stage, illuminating a door in the back wall. Neither fully open nor quite shut, it swings gently on its hinges, creaking intermittently, as though the fitful wind outside the hut is knocking to make its presence known within. Then the light sweeps downstage and to the right: we see a flight of stairs rising to the princess’s room, mirrored by a flight on the left leading down to their larder. Centre stage is an old-fashioned, rectangular dining table—or rather, it is simply old: it has no identifiable fashion. Around this table there are four chairs, the back of one slightly higher than the rest. The chairs are not neatly arranged but are scattered about as though hastily vacated. Between them wend the backs of two women dressed in black, cleaning the shabby furnishings and complaining.
“Rizwan, it’s you, it’s you. Is that you, Rizwan?”
“Yes, it is me. But who are you? I know your voice but I can’t put a face to it.”
“Ah, never mind. Your father… your father has been looking for you. Where were you? What took you so long?”
She lives on the twelfth floor
where there lives too
her wise fleet fingers
her grey hair
her sixty years.
The tower has six lifts
three to the right of the lobby
and marble like ivory
with daylight dwindling
till shadows swallow
and three lifts to the left.
In wait are doormen.
He makes before them
a veil, a veil
and slips within
with all of twenty-eight years.
— The first time Carol Sansour saw Jaffa
“In court I once met a person I had never seen before,” the prince said, “but who reminded me of all the people I have ever seen. He said he had something magnificent in store for his head. But I must not think he was going to cut it off himself. He put a knife into my hand and said: Cut my head off, my dear fellow. I have long waited for you to turn up to cut off my head. For I have something magnificent in store for my head. Don’t be afraid, this eccentric said, I have calculated everything in advance. It cannot go wrong. Here, cut! He gave me three minutes. Here, he said, this is the spot where I want my head cut off. I’ll continue to stand, because it seems to me thoroughly undignified to have your head cut off while lying down, let alone sitting. I won’t embarrass you! the stranger said. Incidentally, the knife is manufactured by the Christofle Company, he said. And I actually saw the name Christofle engraved on the knife. I seized the head and cut it off. I was quite astonished at how easy it was. The head then said: You see, you had no difficulty cutting off my head. But then I see that I haven’t cut off his head, and the stranger said: You didn’t seriously imagine you could cut off my head, did you? Or did you? Let us go on, the stranger said. He was my cousin. Actually,” the prince said, “I did not dream the story to its end. That was a pity.”
— from Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Richard and Clara Winston
They ate at a place called El Rey del Taco. At the entrance there was a neon sign: a kid wearing a big crown mounted on a burro that regularly kicked up its hind legs and tried to throw him. The boy never fell, although in one hand he was holding a taco and in the other a kind of scepter that could also serve as a riding crop. The inside was decorated like a McDonald’s, but in an unsettling way. The chairs were straw, not plastic. The tables were wooden. The floor was covered in big green tiles, some of them printed with desert landscapes and episodes from the life of El Rey del Taco. From the ceiling hung pinatas featuring more adventures of the boy king, always accompanied by the burro. Some of the scenes depicted were charmingly ordinary: the boy, the burro, and a one-eyed old woman, or the boy, the burro, and a well, or the boy, the burro, and a pot of beans. Other scenes were set firmly in the realm of the fantastic: in some the boy and the burro fell down a ravine, in others, the boy and the burro were tied to a funeral pyre, and there was even one in which the boy threatened to shoot his burro, holding a gun to its head. It was as if El Rey del Taco weren’t the name of a restaurant but a character in a comic book Fate happened never to have heard of. Still, the feeling of being in a McDonald’s persisted. Maybe the waitresses and waiters, very young and dressed in military uniforms (Chucho Flores told him they were dressed up as federales), helped create the impression. This was certainly no victorious army. The young waiters radiated exhaustion, although they smiled at the customers. Some of them seemed lost in the desert that was El Rey del Taco. Others, fifteen-year-olds or fourteen-year-olds, tried in vain to joke with some of the diners, men on their own or in pairs who looked like government workers or cops, men who eyed them grimly, in no mood for jokes. Some of the girls had tears in their eyes, and they seemed unreal, faces glimpsed in a dream.
“This place is like hell,” he said to Rosa Amalfitano.
“You’re right,” she said, looking at him sympathetically, “but the food isn’t bad.”
“I’ve lost my appetite,” said Fate.
“As soon as they put a plate of tacos in front of you it’ll come back,” said Rosa Amalfitano.
“I hope you’re right,” said Fate.
— from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer
One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.
The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.