Short Fiction: ‘Living in Songs’

I grew tired of my invisible life in a passing song; to live and die, with the life and death of songs. I’d enter the passages of the song, wander with the ripples of the melody, then exit any time I wished. The car jolted us over potholes and bumps in the road, and the soldiers by the door blocked my view. And I have no right to tell her a single word, aside from the lyrics of the song. If I committed suicide like her, perhaps I could get rid of my ghostly life and return to reality. As if I were with them, yet not with them at the same time. He scattered the evidence bag full of my belongings on the desk, took out a couple of cassettes, and asked:

“What’s your relation to Pink Floyd, and Savatage?”

“I listen to them.”

He nodded, as if he’d gotten a serious confession. *

Sherif Saleh is an Egyptian journalist and academic who teaches Arabic literature at Badr University. One track was enough to drug me more than a joint of Moroccan hash! During one of our nights at the palace, I saw Angie, the Hammer, and Andrew like ghosts, dancing and leaping around me. I play my guitar roughly, and I answer no one. We all colluded in forgetful silence. I remember nothing but the shadows of their hulking bodies and their bulging eyes, empty of meaning. Amy’s body was still floating endlessly. I saw reality in front of my eyes, but I no longer lived it, nor was I governed by its laws and prisons. The rain, and how I plummeted alone at the end of the night? It hates that you’re distinct from the lost herds wandering its streets. Music is the essence of everything. They made fun of my strange clothes and hairdo. I didn’t feel as though I’d experienced each song with its correct rhythm. Her Translation of Samar Nour’s short story “A Room of Sabry’s Own,“ from the Sawiris award winning collection In the House of the Vampire, was shortlisted for the 2019 Arablit story prize. Silence doesn’t mean forgiveness. No one can pick up the vibrations of a spirit. In this spectral life of mine, I realized the weight of having your experience open to all the suppressed desires and sorrows of humanity. I saw all my happy moments floating in a dark lake, mixed with images of crocodiles and snakes with bloated bellies, dead in the desert. I remembered when I was at the zoo, protected by the arms of my mom and dad. She would die before giving me a chance to bite her cheeks! They were fiercely angry, and my dad was understanding, trying to apologize on my behalf with his silence. When they brought us to the prosecutor’s office, the prosecutor wasn’t worried about the bruises on my face. One of them threw my clothes at me, so that I could quickly get dressed. He worked as an editor and correspondent for a large number of Egyptian and Arab newspapers and has published 13 books, ranging from short stories to novels to drama to criticism. Whenever you got the chance, you shouldn’t hesitate to piss anywhere; that was my motto. Because of my impulsive frivolity, I ruined my life’s melody in exchange for a lonely eternity. We dropped to the street with remarkable lightness, hand in hand. He repeated his question as if he were addressing me from another world, about the nature of the calamity I had caused. 

The light that filled my room took me by surprise, and before I could shake my heavy head,indicating denial, three investigators appeared behind my dad, upturned everything in the room, and seized my cassette tapes and guitar. I wore the song, like a man wearing an invisibility cloak. She clung to the outer ledge, and I reached out to her with all my strength. I was their inner voice, warning them against becoming slaves to any musical color. Finally, my dad was able to call in a favor and have me released. Pissing also made me happy, and it helped me feel relief and the pleasure of revenge. What was even more deadly to me was when ten thousand people across the entire world were listening to the same song at the exact same time. Was the last moment I lived in reality when they were kicking me in my stomach and testicles, or was it when my mom forbad me to grow my hair out?  No black T-shirts, no Metal. A faint murmur arose from those who had been arrested, reassuring themselves. Butterflies can be everywhere in the world, and now I was like them, leaping from “Born Like This,” to Shadia’s song, “I Swear, We Miss You,” which my mom was listening to as she sat alone, with a scarf tied around her head. In the picture, she saw me like any teenager who was happy in his youth, but she can’t see my ghost walking through her favorite song. Rap and Metal. Even after I shaved my head, who could guarantee that I wouldn’t run into the same officer who’d insulted me by mentioning my mom’s private parts in public, and that he wouldn’t ask me: “Why have you shaved your head, you son of a…?” And if I went out anywhere with my guitar, wouldn’t any upright citizen volunteer to report the devil worshipper he’d seen wandering in the park? 

This city hates music. I took them with me to the Lake of Death, and there I drowned them in its green, sticky, moldy water. “Satanists? I don’t know where I read that. We heard screams and thumps. I don’t care what they say. Every time I imagine that I’ve found the song in which I’ll live forever, I discover that I’m nothing more than a wandering ghost. There’s nothing better than drunken songs. -Adapted from the internet. Slowly, she rose from her bed and stood in front of the mirror in her see-through blue nightie. If you don’t believe that, you can refer to the Oxford Dictionary. I might have taken my final breath in a funerary tune, accompanied by a corpse, were it not for the miracle of a cheerful song that appeared nearby. I tried to move a word from its place with both of my hands to set myself free. Aggressive. What could I tell this ignorant man with the shiny hair about the invisible cities within music? The window’s curtain fluttered, and her blue nightgown fluttered. I can’t describe how exactly I felt. Maybe that had been my repressed desire, ever since I’d first fallen for the fullness of her cheeks. I prayed regularly, in hopes of decreasing her shock, and so she would rest assured that I was a normal human being, and that I didn’t drink the blood of cats and bats after midnight. 

She set me a strict diet: a glass of milk, orange juice, and two boiled eggs, which I had to eat in front of her. I can see, but can’t be seen. Angie was the only one of us who remained cheerful, and the only one who got out after a few hours, thanks to the connections of her mother, the actress Susie Farid, who declared that her daughter had fulfilled her civic duty, having reported the Satanists to her school’s administration. Afterwards, they started taking us outside, one by one. She stretched out her arms and legs, taking flight. Their disgusting smells nauseated me. During the first week, we were visited by Sheikh Malawany. Unless the tones shake you, the song won’t give you permission to enter it. There are unknown areas of my brain, unreachable save by guitar and drum beats, and by the vibrations of violent, rough, and dizzying chords.    

We thought of naming our band “Bats of the Baron’s Palace,” but then we kept it nameless. But my murmurs didn’t reach her. I was used to sleeping naked, aside from my cotton briefs. If she closed her eyes and drew her consciousness outside her body, she might sense the power of my ghost. I saw her paint two lines on her cheeks for the first time: black and white. I didn’t understand the meaning of what had happened to me, and I couldn’t get over it. Windows were open, illuminating the night. Then he read off of the paper in front of him, asking me about “the hit bangs, and “spadora.” I understood that he meant “headbanging” and “Sepultura.” I didn’t bother correcting him, and he didn’t bother to follow up. Enas El-Torky was born in Cairo, Egypt. Just as waves of water or air can lift us, waves of music had the same effect on me. One of them pulled me aside in the dark and tried to force me to take my pants off. They even took down the posters that were on the walls and rolled them up under their arms. We tried as hard as we could to forget, even though we felt that we lived in a mad society. I used to walk with a backpack that held my books and cassettes. They were capable exacting my revenge. He has a forthcoming YA novel, Stealing the Smartest Brain in the World. In the second week, we were visited by the famous TV announcer Labib Fawzy, and he asked me:

“What do you feeel when you hear the sooound of a caaat?”

He stretched out his words, relishing the overlapping vowels. 

“Dooo yooou think of slaughtering them, ooor drinking theeeir blood?”

The masses watching TV were now preoccupied with describing my feelings when I slaughtered a cat? An enormous force pushed her into another world, and a hand reached out to save her. Half of us were released, and the other half left the prosecutor’s office in handcuffs, headed to Bostan prison. Why did they arrest me? It never leaves my soul. She followed the newspapers and TV carefully every day, and then asked me nervously if I was planning on committing suicide when I reached the age of 25. 

“And what’s so enjoyable, son, about drinking glasses full of blood, and slaughtering bats?”

They had published news that dozens of slaughtered bats had been found in the Baron’s Palace. Instead of plunging into a frenzy of kisses, these lips would swallow deadly pills! I didn’t wake up till I was violently biting Angie’s rosy cheeks. However, it’s an abbreviation of Laughing Out Loud. There were comparisons between Satanists in America, Yazidis, and Freemasons; caricatures of horned people; and some priest appeared on “The Talk of the Town” show with Labib Fawzy himself, accusing us of listening to Tom Araya, who glorified Satan in his songs, instead of listening to songs that glorified the Lord in Heaven. 

Programs like that made my mom go even crazier, until she didn’t leave a single suspicious thing in my room without tossing it in the trash: masks, drawings, horror movies, black T-shirts, and cassettes. People on our street would look at me as if they were seeing a ghost. Were we in two different worlds, or were we in Amy Lee’s head as she was singing? A small butterfly, free, possessing the entire world. I felt my body split into seven clones, each of which rose slowly, one after another. After this reception party, they gathered us and forced us to take off our T-shirts, and then they blindfolded us. I don’t know how my dad could bear life without remembering a single song! When I fell into a bleak funerary tune, I felt suffocated for the first time, and I screamed: “Help me, help me!” But nobody could hear me. I kick, and I scream, so that I don’t feel pain and the weight of time.  

 We lived in the filth of the “fridge” for two weeks. We met in far-off places once a week, till we found the abandoned “Baron Damian” palace—a scary, Gothic-style palace. Let it take us to another world? What would happen to me? She fluttered, too. Metal singers were real magicians to me with their long hair, the crucifixes, iron tridents, white face paint, angry eyes, and their thick, cracked voices. Those drunks are as innocent as children, as they communicate through song. The note that nobody bothers about is capable of penetrating water, air, and impregnable walls. They begrudged me joy! Don’t we all travel with music for a few moments? I wished I could visit my dad in his song, to tell him that I’m not mad at him, but he’d grown out his beard and forbad himself from listening to any songs. A butterfly with a wing of melody, and a wing of imagination, so that my fluttering wings led me into Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life.” I shouted: “That’s my song!”

In the song, there was a city with enormous black buildings where wind was howling and a police siren was wailing. While we were running, each soldier we passed slapped us on the backs of our necks and kicked us. My mom remained in a state of shock greater than mine. Songs were no longer merely a small carpet that I sat upon to fly; instead, hundreds of songs and tracks were interconnected, extending in front of me like an infinite magic carpet, taking me to all the airports of the world, all the parks, coffee shops, beaches, metro carriages, cars, bedrooms, and bars illuminating the night. I told myself that it had vanished; it wasn’t dead. How could she hear my spectral voice, eluding her in the song? I liberated myself from my dreary room, from our apartment, from the entire world, and I traveled. Did my dad say he would get dressed and follow me, or had I imagined that? It wasn’t easy to suffer along with everyone’s pain. Could that be possible, Angie? I always drifted away with the music to some unknown place, to the infinite mirage of songs. That’s what happened to me. Most of my friends have dispersed; Andrew travelled against his will to study in America; others immigrated to Canada; Angie disappeared without a trace, and “the Hammer” told me that she’s living in Italy with her dad. The soldiers’ eyes reflected the euphoria of accomplishing their mission each time they grabbed a new suspect by the scruff of the neck and shoved him inside.  

“Get in there next to your comrades, moron!”

It was enough for me to shut my eyes for just ten seconds, accompanied by a loud song. More than eighty metalheads were being held in custody. I couldn’t chew the bread with the thick, cold lentil soup, and so I found myself unwittingly pissing in the plate. Amy Lee, like me, saw the lives of people through their open windows, and nobody saw her. So what’s forcing me to walk those streets? “Get out, you demon spawn!”

I cursed them heartily under my breath. My dad pretended he didn’t listen in on my calls with my friends. 

They wouldn’t believe me if I told them I didn’t live in reality like them, but instead I lived in songs. The key to entering any song was a chill that made my whole body quiver. I tried to escape and hide in any song, to occupy myself with it, away from all that was going on around me. After wiping a tear from under her eyes, she pressed play once again, and I went back to walking with angry steps inside the melody. I met the rest of my metalhead friends in custody: Hisham, Andrew, Angie, and “the Hammer.” I feigned humor, asking them: “Who snitched on us, you filthy dogs?” Angie responded sarcastically: “The music disturbed Baron Damian, so he reported us to the vice squad.” 

Oh, Angie! My feelings of fear, humiliation, and isolation increased after my dad and my mom insisted that I shave my beard and cut my hair. He just gave a soulless lecture in the prison mosque, and we found it was a great opportunity to sleep, snore, and enjoy the warmth of the winter sun. She’d glue her eye to the keyhole, staring through it. She would see me swaying my head and torso along with the rhythm. Short Fiction: ‘Living in Songs’

The protagonist in this story abandons reality for a life in songs:

By Sherif Saleh

Translated by Enas El-Torky

The Key: “It’s terrible that no one listens to your songs, and that your love for the secret of existence dies out, so that existence itself loses all mystery.” – Naguib Mahfouz

The Door: Some people use the word LOL without knowing its meaning. Where was all the joy and buzz? Perhaps my crisis wasn’t worshipping Satan, as they claimed, but worshipping a single musical genre, though life offered endless musical promises. 

To live in songs means that, to you, both joy and melancholy are equal. He took a photo out of the file and held it in front of my face. A society terrified of its delusions about the world. All the words were repetitive, glued together like the stones of an ancient temple. 

Distress and pain were more than I could bear. He said that he debated with misguided youth, and that he’d succeeded in guiding three of them to the path of righteousness—although he didn’t actually debate with anyone. Because of the total silence, she thought I’d evaporated and disappeared from the room. It was too serious for my dad to be able to ask a friend or acquaintance to step in, so that they wouldn’t take me away in such a degrading manner. It’s a disaster that some say it’s an abbreviation of the phrase Lucifer Our Lord, meaning we worship the devil! God willing, you’re going to have one hell of a night.”

I didn’t understand why he’d singled me out for this greeting, and why he’d mentioned my mother’s private parts in public. Another night, the songs of strangers caught me like a stray dog on an unknown road. With each scream, images and memories flowed within me: the image of me with my dad and mom during the first day of Eid, listening to them argue about which place would make me happy; certainly, not jail. For the song says nothing except for itself. Angie’s mother, you bitch!”

My mom was always worried because I’d sit for hours in my room, with the headphones over my ears. Pissing that way kept me from weeping. He phoned the number 666, as if it were the Devil’s number, then he handed me the receiver and asked me to chat with him. 

“Good evening, dear Satan!”

I was able to bear all the dreary days of the “fridge” thanks to the song “The Fire, The Steel, The Tread,” and thanks to how the music moved my consciousness out of my body. There, I won’t be kicked and insulted, and I won’t have to stand for hours in the January cold. They made us stand in the prison yard in the January cold, our arms raised in the position of ten and three o’clock. She pressed the pause button, so I hid in a corner in the shadows of one of the words of the song. Her full arm had a tattoo of a scorpion, or perhaps a beetle, I’m not sure. The best kids were the metalheads. A traveler. I wanted to tell her about the legend of how, when the spirit leaves the body, it becomes a butterfly. I was ecstatic, transported to another world. I’d travel for hours, then return. She worked as a lecturer from 1996-2008 and has translated several books into Arabic, including Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (2018), Michael David Lukas’ The Last Watchman of Old Cairo (2020), John Lanchester’s The Wall (2020), and Jane Austen’s Persuasion (2020). I’d take the headphones off, smiling stupidly at my dad as he called me. I don’t know what the smell of music is, but it’s warm and dewy like the leaves of trees in the morning. 

Some calamity must certainly have occurred, even though neither my dad nor I knew exactly what it was. If I’d had my guitar with me then, it would have helped me disappear from between their lifeless hands. “Are you okay?”

I closed my eyes and didn’t respond. The famous TV announcer held a telephone receiver as he tossed me a sly, disdainful glance. She woke up and stood on the window ledge in a see-through white nightie, then leapt and flew. Little by little, I found myself smelling only the music, not their stink. Amy Lee’s body jumped from the open window, and flew like a butterfly. If she woke up, the nightmare would be over. Because it was so big in there, no matter how loud our voices were, nobody heard us at midnight. She’d been gazing at my smiling photo on the wall, with my guitar hanging over my chest. These demons, who longed for a stranger demon who they could stone to death! He pointed at what was written under it in bad handwriting: “Snoop Dogg, Satanist leader, American branch,” then asked me:

“Are you receiving funding from him?”

I smiled and didn’t answer. Who among us could bear all that pain, and all that joy, multiplied a thousand times? The sound of metal still rang inside me: “Go fight for your life… go fight for your life… go fight for your life.”

If my friends had immigrated to Canada, America, and Italy, I too, immigrated to songs. Metal songs were the only weapon I had against everything that happened to us. Between pausing and playing, leaping from one song to another: a joyous world, a gloomy world. Amy Lee was singing. Then I’d open them and see the faces of all who surrounded me joyful, the same color as the song. The siren went silent, then resumed wailing through the empty streets, happy to be on its way to a new suspect, until a pale dawn rose up over us. I pinched my nose shut. She flew, belly-up, and I leapt after her. 

An ambulance siren wailed nearby. Meals alternated between plates of lentil soup and fava beans. We were satisfied to light just a few candles, so that we wouldn’t catch the attention of passersby. How would I return to the lake of Metal with such a broken spirit? I hear her heartbeats, and the sound of her thinking of suicide. I relaxed, shutting my eyes in the police vehicle. I’m not sure if I did that in reality. Yet this person lying in bed in front of me wasn’t Amy Lee, but Angie with her full cheeks and her soft black hair. We’ve finally met, Angie! I saw that she was thin and pale, and by her side was a glass of water and a few colored pills wrapped in a tissue. There, at the Baron’s Palace parties, my body trained itself to slip into a song, dance, and leap over its lyrics. No, Angie! All the speech hidden in people’s chests passed in front of me, on the tapes of the songs to which they were listening. That day, I glimpsed a blue butterfly fluttering around me, which then rose up and disappeared. That was what I understood from my mom’s conversation with her song. The rushing fire, the clamor and the screams? My palms were sweaty between my thighs. Do you remember, Angie, our nights at the Baron Damien’s Palace: the hash, prison, and your mom, that bitch of an actress? He has won several awards, including the Sawiris Award, the Dubai Award for best short-story collection, the Sharjah Innovation Award for the monodrama “Rooster’s Dance”, and the best playwright award from the Festival of Theater Days for Youth in Kuwait. The officer eyed me with sarcasm and contempt. 

“Adding insult to injury, and wearing a black T-shirt, you mother’s cunt? Amy was in bed, in pain. Then I practiced holding my breath for as long as possible without using my hand. Was it really possible that they’d arrested me because I grew my beard three inches and let my long frizzy hair loose? Even after our release, dozens of newspapers and magazines had no concern besides us. I sit in the song of some girl in a taxi, then I leap to the song of the elderly driver in front of her. At that moment, my body was lying asleep in the bed in front of my dad, while my soul was wandering through the song “Cemetery.”

It took time for me to leave any song, return to reality, and get dressed. They asked us to run to “the fridge,” which was a wide, dark, extremely cold warehouse. I was positive that I hadn’t died; I’d simply disappeared, just as I’d simply come to life. She gathered her long hair at the back, then stood on the ledge of the open window. I’d hear it with them, amplified thousands of times with thousands of emotions. After graduating from the department of English language and literature, she earned her MA (1999) and Ph.D (2003) in English literature. I shut myself up inside the doors of the song, and no trace of me remained in reality. I heard their voices and their secret conversations with their songs, simply by leaping from one song to another, like a ghost. My dad woke me up at dawn, asking if I’d done anything stupid. I was still wearing the same clothes that had become filthy: blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and a leather jacket. The vehicle would stop for a few minutes, and others would join us. She smiled and gave me her cheek to bite. They enlarged them and distributed them among us. Then we ventured off together, touring all the songs of the world, each holding an iron trident, stabbing anything we didn’t like. I’d walk quickly until I found the stray word, fluttering over my head: “My spirit’s sleeping somewhere cold.”

All I cared about was that I didn’t want the song to end; I wanted to draw her away from the idea of suicide. Her consciousness wandered, not fully surrendering itself to the sadness of the song: “Call my name and save me from the dark.”

“Angie… Angie… Angie.”

No, Angie—don’t make the same stupid mistake that I did! The greatest secret of music lies not in what it tells us, but in what we tell it. She was staring into the void with her wide eyes, outlined with kohl. She even insisted that my dad should take me with him to the mosque. That day, I shut my door and swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills and played the guitar with all my strength, till I faded away like notes fade in ethereal space. That night, I drew my consciousness out of my body, letting my limbs go numb as I lost feeling in them. Without any concern for our wounds or for our bodies, which trembled from the cold, he lectured us about the importance of having faith in God, and the prison management forced us to read his articles. She insisted on coming in and sitting with me for a few minutes, to see me for herself while I ate the plate of fruit she’d brought me. They were all bullshit, about the internet being a Western weapon against Islam, and the spread of Satanism under the illusion of freedom of thought. It’s terrible to pause a song more than once, to end a melody before its time. All humans are nothing more than despicable ghosts, from whom I am separated by a hundred light years. I spent a night crucified in a final song, whose owner received the Angel of Death all by himself. Each song delivered me to another, and in a manner I couldn’t describe, I became the messenger of music, whispering into people’s souls what they should hear. I glimpsed my father by the door, his head hanging in surrender, as if he were waiting for those three to finish ravaging my room. Amy Lee was lying in bed. I was dancing, impersonating Amy Lee’s voice as she sang: “Save me from the nothing I’ve become.”

When I forgot a word, I felt as if my whole being was about to collapse.