The story goes that one day a cigarette lighter spoke. “I am the fire, and you are the murderers,” it said. But nobody listened. The first time it happened was when a police officer had picked up the lighter to inspect it. It was an ordinary red lighter, still half-full. The police officer was about to place it in the plastic evidence bag when it said what it had to say. He froze and waited for another sound but none came. He quickly put the lighter in the bag and sealed it shut.
It lay forgotten in the back of a cupboard at the police station, only brought out for the court hearings which went on for many years. At every hearing, the judge would request to inspect the evidence, the police officer would come forward with the evidence bag, open it and place the lighter on the bench before her. The judge would ask the standard question about the circumstances of the exhibit’s recovery, and the police officer would repeat the standard response: He opened the cell, the refugee was gone and all that was left in his place was this lighter. The judge would ask how he could explain the presence of the lighter when it was confiscated on the previous night. The police officer would say that he didn’t know.
The judge would leaf through the documents before her and say, “Could the refugee you had detained on the night before, the evening of the seventh of January, have metamorphosed into a lighter.” The police officer, smiling, would reply, “People don’t just metamorphose into lighters, Your Honour.” She would ask, “Where could he have gone then?” And the police officer would shrug and say that perhaps he had evaporated. The judge would look at the red lighter on the desk before her and hear it say, “I am the fire, and you are the murderers.” The judge would then look from the lighter to the police officer in astonishment and ask, “Has the lighter just said something?” The police officer would answer, “Cigarette lighters don’t speak, Your Honour.” To which the judge would nod, “Yes, of course” before asking him to take the exhibits and leave.
This scene was repeated at every hearing until the very last one, when the judge asked the chief of police to explain the mystery of the refugee vanishing into thin air. He had no explanation but he believed his men, he assured her. The judge questioned him about the fire alarm that had gone off on the night the refugee was detained, and why it was later omitted from the case file. The chief of police replied that the reason for the fire alarm was the tree in the police station courtyard bursting into flames on the same night. He gestured towards the window, where the judge could see the burning tree from where she sat, and said, “You are surely familiar with the tree situation, Your Honour. The fire detectors must have picked up the smoke from the burning tree because of its proximity. When we realised that the source of the fire was not related to the case, we took it out of the report.”
For the thousandth time, the judge asked to see the evidence, and the police officer stepped forward with the sealed evidence bag, opened it and brought out the lighter. This time, the judge put on a pair of latex gloves, held the lighter in her palm and looked at it. The lighter’s voice, when it came, was very weak. “I am the fire, and you are the murderers.” As usual, the judge looked to the police officer, who nodded reassuringly. For the thousandth time, she asked him, “How did the lighter get into the cell if it had been confiscated on the previous night?” And for the thousandth time, the police officer replied, “I don’t know.”
The judge kept looking at the lighter, waiting for it to make another sound, but the lighter’s slanted metal face, its red body huddled on itself, remained mute in the judge’s palm. The judge looked to the chief of police, looked out of the window towards the burning tree, back at the lighter, then struck her gavel down and pronounced her verdict: The court considered the refugee missing until found, and the case was thereby closed.
On the same day that the judge pronounced her final verdict, a group of workers arrived at the police station courtyard to cut down the tree, the final solution to that problem. Since the tree had first caught fire fourteen years ago, no one had been able to extinguish it. Every time the fire brigade came and aimed powerful hoses at the tree, the flames died down. But every time, they flared back up the next day. The perpetual burning of the oldest tree in town remained a mystery.
A research team that was assigned to investigate the phenomenon produced a number of hypotheses, for instance that the carbon-rich soil was making the tree flammable. But the flames raged on even after they replaced the soil. When the team proposed moving the tree with its soil to another location, the city council refused on the basis its historical value. The tree had been planted in this spot at the end of the Thirty Years’ War.
Months passed and every night a thin line of smoke extended from the burning tree over the roofs of all the houses in the town. Until the research team proposed a compromise: pruning the tree to get rid of the branches where the fire persisted. They assured everyone the tree would grow new branches, so the city council agreed. But then the very next day, people gathered and were shocked to see the heart of the tree trunk itself ablaze, a terrifying red glow flashing across the charred bark.
On the day that the tree was being removed from the police station courtyard, a boy and his mother stood by to watch. The boy asked his mother what was going on. “They are uprooting the tree, my son,” she answered him, her eyes fixed on the scene. “Do you know what this means?” The boy shook his head, so she continued, “It’s the oldest tree in town. Almost four hundred years old.”
The townspeople watched in silence as the workers dug the earth around the trunk, then as the big orange bulldozer, finally approved by the city council, arrived and dug its sharp teeth into the hole the workers had created and began to tear at the roots of the tree. A scent of deep earth filled the air. Then the bulldozer moved forward and struck the tree trunk. At first the tree didn’t budge. So the bulldozer reversed then hurtled forward and, with all its might, struck the trunk again. The tree shook this time and, for a few moments, nothing more happened. Then it came crashing down with an overwhelming noise that merged with the onlookers’ shrieks. Once it had collapsed, the workers set to work. They cooled the wood of the tree before attacking it with their saws. The bulldozer carried the charred corpse away. Finally, the workers filled the cavities where the roots used to be with soil and unrolled the ready-made piece of lawn on top of it all.
That night a heavy shadow descended over the town. No one could sleep much. In the morning, the townspeople woke up to a feeling of confusion and disorder. There were screams in the street, some people started running. Terrified, everyone headed for the police station and, when they arrived at the courtyard, they froze. A small stone had broken the ground open, at the same spot where the burning tree used to stand. The stone was no bigger than a medium-sized pumpkin, but out of it flowed streams of burning lava, some pouring towards the fence of the courtyard, some pooling around the stone and forming a small lake of blazing fluid. If it weren’t for the recognisable colours of lava, and the heat it emitted, people would not have believed that what they were watching was indeed a tiny volcano and not another art installation.
“One day, Donkey was trudging along under the weight of the bundle he carried, when he came upon Rat.
‘My friend,’ said Rat, ‘I see you have weakened and lost much weight.’
‘The load is heavy today,’ said Donkey. ‘I feel my back is about to break.’
Rat scampered up Donkey’s back and tore at the rope that secured the bundle in place, until the entire load of wood tumbled to the ground, and Donkey was relieved of its weight.
‘My friend,’ said Rat, ‘why don’t you follow my advice? You’d find some relief and regain some of your health?’
‘I’d be scared of losing the way.’
‘Where does that fear reside?’
‘In the heart.’
‘Then leave your heart behind and bring the fear to an end.’
Donkey was confused. ‘What do you mean leave my heart?’ he objected. ‘Weren’t you just the other day cautioning me against allowing my heart to die?’
‘This heart I advise you to leave behind, my friend, isn’t but the one that’s already dead,’ said Rat. ‘Get rid of it to make way for a new one pulsing with life!’
‘What nonsense do you speak, friend?’ Donkey snapped. ‘I have but one heart, the one in my chest. I have neither your sharp teeth nor quick wit. And I have a much bigger body to feed. If I don’t work hard to earn my fill, I’ll starve.’
‘You’ll find your heart when you find the courage to throw it away. If you never lose it, you’ll never find it.’
At this very instant, the woodcutter appeared from behind one of the trees. ‘What are you doing, you wretched donkey?’ he immediately started screaming. ‘You’re letting a full load of wood go to waste!’
Rat was small enough to go unnoticed. The woodcutter launched at Donkey and began to beat him … …”
The king motioned with his hand for the wise man to stop. “I asked you a question about a man who attains his wish then loses it,” he said, “and you told me what happened between the monkey and the turtle. Then I asked about a man who mistakes his fear of the truth for the truth, and here you are talking about rats and donkeys. What exactly are you getting at?”
“The truth, My Lord,” replied the wise man, “often reaches us from the mouths of animals and birds.”
“How so when they are mute and have neither language nor reason?” asked the king.
“You should know, Allah exalt you,” the wise man began, “that a thing is known not by itself but by its likeness. A fable resembles the thing but is not the thing itself. It is in such difference and such likeness that the truth may be encountered. And you should know, Allah’s mercy grace you, that the encounter with the truth is always a swift, unexpected one and that it may be brought about by the weakest, least significant creature. You may go out to seek the truth but it cannot be found, it can only come to you. There you would be listening to me with a lightness of heart, believing what I tell you to be nothing but play, when you begin to see the connections between your question and the story, and become attuned to what you might have missed, having never expected to receive it from animals. You should know, Allah grant you glory, that when non-sapient beings speak, it is not to be taken lightly, for it means that their suffering has overflown into words, so when it happens, sapient beings should pause and listen to what they have not heard before, for it may guide them to the righteous path.”
It was late in the evening and the divan had quietened down. For a while, the king seemed lost in thought. “All this seems to me nothing but your fear of telling me the truth as it is,” he finally said. “You bury it within a playful story so that I deduce it myself and do not hold you accountable if I am distressed by what I find.”
“Fear of kings is a form of wisdom, My Lord,” said the wise man. “However long I have served you, to you I am no more than an old man with a foreign accent. My lowly position compared to your high standing, your far-reaching authority, is like that of the animals compared to humans. Like them, my only power lies in trickery. But I trick you not to deceive you, only to let you see the truth. The truth is no mystery. It faces us clear as sunlight, and yet we avert our eyes. In order to be seen, it has to take us unawares. If you would allow me, I shall explain why. It is because no good comes from a truth that is not honoured by action. Would you have honoured the truth I speak in direct answer to your question? No, but you would honour the truth you glean out of a story that holds your attention. You should know, Allah reward you, that I only do this because you have sought my advice. My only purpose is righteous governance.”
For a few moments, the king was quiet. “He who does not dare to speak the truth cannot be trusted,” he then said. “Trickery fuses truth with fraud, and right with wrong. Trickery and lies are one and the same. Wise men of old said that a king should be wary of his servants and only trust those who speak the truth to him. Those who trick him should be banished. This is where your way and mine shall part.”
With that, the king called his executioner and ordered the wise man killed and his body thrown to the palace lions.
There’s a woman walking down the street, my mother tells me in a whisper. I jump up and join her by the window. We hold our breaths as we watch. The woman walks unhurriedly, one assured step following the other. We try to make out her face. I think I might just have glimpsed the ghost of a smile. Our hearts nearly stop as she begins to cross the street. We prick up our ears. Nothing. She walks on and out of our field of vision. We stretch our necks and tilt our heads, but there’s nothing more to see. Yet for a while we are frozen to our spots, just staring out at the empty street in the early morning. Eventually my mother heads to the kitchen, murmuring that I should watch the time if we don’t want to be late.
I go back to bed, sit down next to my sleeping daughter and resume my work. I have reached the third difficulty in the article and am hoping to finish the translation today so that my payment isn’t delayed. The third difficulty revolves around the art of using truth as a weapon. I reach the paragraph where the author criticises the kind of truth that is not honoured by action, for example the idea that barbarism has descended on certain countries like a natural phenomenon. He writes:
“Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who bewail a barbarism that arises out of barbarism, are like those who want to eat the veal without slaughtering the calf. They are willing to eat the animal, but object to the sight of blood. They can be placated if the butcher washes his hands before weighing their meat. They are not against the property relations that produce barbarism, only against barbarism itself. They raise their voices against it, and they do so in countries that are ruled by the same property relations, but where butchers still wash their hands before weighing the meat.”
For a week now I’ve been spending my days translating an article written by Bertolt Brecht in 1935, titled “Five Difficulties When Writing the Truth”. Although I have never been to Germany, or anywhere else for that matter, I have learned a lot about that country and its history from the Internet. Like all my colleagues here, I have learned the language from online courses and YouTube videos which the company shares on its website for us to download. Everything we get here, we get from the Internet. Once we master a language, we begin to take translation assignments, of mostly cultural content which is the speciality of the Gulf-based company we work for. We offer quick and adequate translations for low fees, enough for us to live on.
But even when we know all there is to know about the countries where the languages we translate are spoken, their histories and all that’s ever been said and the best translation for it, we rarely have an idea how to actually say anything in any of those languages. They are just languages we receive information in, virtual languages, no longer spoken by any living persons, just codes for us to crack. This isn’t different to how we perceive of the outside world as a whole: We know it’s there but we have no idea how to live within it, so we accept it as a kind of virtual reality, inhabited not by real people but by their images animated on a screen.
The article I’m translating is part of a feature on the return of barbarism, curated by a cultural website affiliated with the company we work for, a recurring annual theme since the beginning of the era that has come to be known as The Return of Barbarism. The article was originally written during the Nazi rule of Germany, while Brecht was in his Danish exile, and discusses the difficulties faced by someone who wants to speak truth to power, offering advice on how to ensure that the truth reaches the people. What has caught my attention right from the start is the author’s firm belief that there is a truth, the difficulty lying merely in conveying it to others. I thought this might be explained by the fact that the article dates to a past century, when the challenge faced by the truth was to find a way out of obscurity into the light.
Then one evening, at a gathering at a colleague’s house after work, chatting as we usually do about the different translations we were working on, it occurred to me to wonder what Brecht would have written in this day and age, when no difficulties exist in actually speaking the truth. What would he have written at a time when no one needs to hear the truth because everyone already knows it but has no use for it. It has become like the human appendix, a remnant from our evolutionary past that has lost its function. Everything is as clear as sunlight, as bare as white bones.
I watch my sleeping daughter, her pupils moving rapidly under her eyelids. I place the back of my hand in her open palm, put my laptop aside and slide down beside her. I hold her and listen to the calm sound of her breathing. My eyes are blank, taking in the cold light seeping into the room through the window, and I’m starting to feel peace slowly descend.
Then I suddenly remember that in two weeks it’s going be my turn to host the school. I sit up like one stung by a bee and open the laptop again. I calculate how many children will spend that week with us and the extra rations we will need for baking and cooking. There are no schools anymore, given how difficult it is to walk in the streets. Families take turn gathering the children in their homes, the one in charge every week running lessons and, of course, making sure the children are fed. This way everyone shares the responsibility.
Having done the maths, I log into my online account to check my balance before ordering the necessary provisions. I have to submit the request for extra rations immediately if I’m to make it into this month’s order. Otherwise it won’t go through until next month. The overland border opens one day only, at the middle of the month, to let in the trucks carrying food and water. These get distributed according to the rations assigned via the Strip Administration website.
I get up and walk around the room to stretch my stiff muscles, then I stand before the only window. The surrounding houses are coming to life. I can hear the commotion of children and noisy kitchens. The streets though are as empty as ever. Then a ghost of a person flashes past, so fast I barely glimpse a white shirt. Sometimes, in emergencies, people are forced to do this, but under ordinary circumstances, everyone prefers to use the safe underground tunnels, long and dark as they are. I wait in vain to see the woman who crossed the street earlier, then give up and go back to bed. But as soon as I lie down, my daughter opens her eyes and looks around until she sees me. She jumps up and asks what time it is. “Why did you let me sleep? Are we late?” she adds before I manage to answer.
I pull her close to reassure her. It’s still early. Her eyes are red from sleep. She runs to my mother in the kitchen to make sure we really aren’t late. Then she’s back in the room like a thunderbolt, putting on the clothes she prepared last night. There’s no point pretending that I’ll get any more work done now. I abandon the article at the fifth difficulty, which deals with how to use cunning to spread the truth, to slip it under the noses of its enemies during times when it’s being suppressed and distorted. I shut the laptop and go to the kitchen to help my mother.
Today is the last Friday of the month, beach day, which everyone has been looking forward to. It’s also the day of generous spreads. Every family goes out of its way to prepare the most delicious foods. My mother has been cooking since last night. As midday approaches, the streets are infused with mouth-watering smells. I carry the box of food and walk by my daughter who carries the rug we will sit on. My mother is behind us with her walking stick. This is the only time the streets are safe to walk. Crowds are emerging out of every side street, holding hands, joining the march to the beach. We arrive at the high wall they built along the sea front. It’s a glass wall, so we can see the beach but not smell the sea or dip our feet in the waves. Only on the last Friday of every month, at noon, they open the gates. People flood out to the sandy beach where they will spend the day.
As the sun begins its lazy westward descent, young people walk around the soft sand to collect the boxes each family has prepared and filled with some of the food they’ve brought. The boxes are loaded onto carts that the young people pull along the beach. Soon, with the children trailing after them, they are making their way to the sea and wading into the water, some carrying the boxes followed by others carrying wooden planks. They stop once the water is up to their chests, prepare the wooden planks by tying them together, take the food out of the boxes and arrange it on the make-shift raft. Then they stand perfectly still. The children watch from the shore. We are all holding our breaths. Until they appear in the distance, a pod of porpoising dolphins, sea spray swirling around them.
The kids push their wooden planks towards the dolphins and move back to the shore. The waves caused by the dolphins’ movements as they swim closer topple the food into the water. The children are pointing to the sea, jumping up and down in excitement. Some run to the water before the grownups pull them back. Everyone on the beach is mesmerised, as the dolphins leap and dive to devour the food.
By sunset, having eaten their fill, they move closer, so close we can see their dusky skin underwater. Their calls come at us in waves – short chirrup-like sounds, lingering trills, long sighing whistles. I’m carrying my daughter and holding my mother’s hand, listening along with everyone else to the captivating chorus. It gets us every time. Snatches our hearts and carries them out to sea, then returns them washed and purified to our chests. We take in the sounds we have come for and answer with a collective sigh, which the dolphins acknowledge with flips and twirls in the air that send the spray flying in all directions.
After that, we slowly begin to make our ways home, and the gates are closed, not to be opened again for another month.
Translated by Nariman Youssef.