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translated by Maia TABET

The place had changed.

It wasn’t in the old city neighborhood anymore. No longer an apartment in a dilapidated building with crumbling walls, where the antiquated fan produced an occasional and feeble breeze as it creaked around collecting dust. No more rusty chairs hardly big enough to sit on, nowhere for dreams to soar.

The place had changed, flown off to a new neighborhood. Instead of one story, now there were two. It had become a villa with a yard in the front and a swimming pool in the back, plus a guardhouse, a red-tile roof, and air conditioning—and a closet for dreams.


His writer-friends had invited him over. “A gift from the sultan,” they’d said, “with no strings attached.” So he went.

When he opened the glass door and poked his head in, a blast of cold air tickled the droplets of sweat beading on his forehead. He was struck by the large open space, vacant but for a hanging chair swinging from the ceiling, in which the silhouette of an otherwise invisible person sat holding an electric saw in one hand and a sheaf of papers in the other.

Hanging from butchers’ hooks were the headless carcasses of lambs of different sizes. The walls were white but for bright splotches of red.  

The silhouette pointed to the newcomer.

“I see land-mines in his head,” said one carcass.

“I see pencils and pictures and questions,” said another.

“I see headless carcasses hanging from butchers’ hooks in his head,” said the third, as all the carcasses swung to and fro, humming, tails raised, spattering the walls with blood.

The silhouette pointed to the newcomer.

“That one needs a small frame so that his head can look big,” said one carcass.

“That head has a golden spoon in its mouth, to make us feel beholden,” said another.

“That’s the head of a poseur, of a womanizing intellectual,” said a third, as all the carcasses swung to and fro, humming, tails raised, spattering the walls with blood.

The silhouette sharpens the electric saw with the sheaf of papers, hitting the pages with the saw, and the red splotches on the walls move around, coalescing and separating: a hammer and sickle appear, no, it’s a five-pointed star, or maybe a stylized, arrow-like jeem next to an elongated map ... Is it a victory sign? A sun? A peasant? A laborer? Students? The patches of color and the shapes tumble and turn, forming a river that seeps along the corners of the room, through the hallway, and to the back door. The red river spills into the swimming pool.

The silhouette sharpens the electric saw with the sheaf of papers. “Come and get baptized,” he says to the head poking through the glass door. “We are the salvation,” the carcasses repeat, swinging to and fro, spattering more blood. “Come.”


[Mental whirlwind]

The pool’s slimy water is reddish after the river of blood spills into it. A fire is lit underneath, and servants standing along the edges of the pool stir the liquid with a pole until it turns into a thick sludge, which is then cooled and ladled onto paper plates that were once books. In the evening, the carcasses gather around the pool table to eat the frozen sludge with a dollop of cream and a strawberry.

[What is churning inside the head poking through the door]

You’re just fighting with yourself. From deep in your gut, jagged words erupt, and like the boy who fell from Grandad’s balcony, they hurtle down onto the pages of the lexicon, the revolutionary one that the liar carries around and spits on: “Let him have a chair” the sultan says. The chair, a roll of tissue with which to wipe his shit.

Who are you? What are you? A phantom prancing inside an illusory body?

The silence of the slaughtered lambs alone will hold up the sultan’s throne.


There is a large mirror across from the outer door as he is leaving. In the reflection, he can see he looks just the same as when he came in. Behind him, the place gradually transforms into a semblance of the sultan’s palace.

He spits on the mirror until his mouth runs dry. “How stupid I was.”

He makes a fist and slams it into the glass, and his hand goes right through. He kicks the glass and his foot comes out the other side. He leans his head in, and crosses over. When he turns around, the transformation is complete: there before him is the sultan's palace with its golden doors, its guards, and its surveillance cameras. He looks about, finds a stone and hurls it at the mirrored glass. It shatters. He turns on his heels to make the difficult escape but finds himself in the old neighborhood where children played soccer with a beat-up old ball and laundry hung from the balconies.

He smiles, scratches his head, and goes on his way, slowly. Ever so slowly.


The Arabic letter jeem (جـ), and the elongated map with an arrow make up the logo of the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The jeem is the first letter of the group’s name in Arabic (jabha), the map is that of Palestine, and the arrow signifies the right of return. The design was the creation of the Palestinian writer and artist, Ghassan Kanafani, whom Israel assassinated in Beirut, in 1972.

Hisham BUSTANI is an award-winning Jordanian author of four collections of short fiction. He is acclaimed for his bold style and unique narrative voice, and often experiments at the boundaries of short fiction and prose poetry. Much of his work revolves around issues related to social and political change, particularly the dystopian experience of post-colonial modernity in the Arab world. His work has been described as “bringing a new wave of surrealism to [Arabic] literary culture, which missed the surrealist revolution of the last century,” and that he “belongs to an angry new Arab generation. Indeed, he is at the forefront of this generation – combining an unbounded modernist literary sensibility with a vision for total change…. His anger extends to encompass everything, including literary conventions.” Hisham's short fiction has been translated into five languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the US, UK, and Canada, including World Literature Today, Los Angeles Review of Books and The Literary Review. In 2009, he was chosen by the German review Inamo as one of the Arab world's emerging and influential new writers. In 2013, the UK-based cultural webzine The Culture Trip listed him as one of Jordan’s top six contemporary writers. His book The Perception of Meaning, won the 2014 University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award, and was published in 2015 by Syracuse University Press. One of Hisham’s stories was recently chosen to be featured in the inaugural edition of The Best Asian Short Stories anthology, forthcoming in 2017.

Maia TABET is an Arabic-English literary translator living in Washington DC. Her translations have been widely published in journals, literary reviews, and other specialized publications, including The Common, the Journal of Palestine Studies, Words Without Borders, Portal 9, and Banipal, among others. She is the translator of Little Mountain (Minnesota University Press, 1989, Carcanet, 1990, and Picador, 2007) and White Masks (Archipelago Books, 2010, and MacLehose Press, 2013) by the renowned writer Elias Khoury; and of the winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Throwing Sparks (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2012) by Abdo Khal. Her translation of Sinan Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist is forthcoming (Hoopoe Press, Spring 2017) and she is currently finishing her translation into English of Hisham Bustani’s The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, which includes ‘Quantum Leap,’ as featured here.


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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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