The damned revolution

The thin line between the life of an individual and what is happening at large. Words juxtaposed with one person’s point of view have been the theme of some of the literature world's strongest opinions. Seldom are the words so topical and accurate as in the contemporary short story written by well-known Libyan author Razan Naim al-Maghribi.

September 10 2014 Text: Razan Naim al-Maghrabi Translation from Arabic: Ghias Aljundi

Birth pains do not always arrive at an appointed time. They can come like an unexpected downpour, with no lightning and thunder as a warning. He was sitting in his car driving home and had just received a phone call from his wife. He had listened to her sobbing on the other end of the line and felt his heart starting to pound faster and faster.

They had been waiting for this baby and had dreamed about it even amid the chaos which filled the country following the revolution and the departure of the Leader. Pictures of him had been all that adorned shops and streets. Pictures of the man dressed in foreign clothes gazing majestically at the sky.

He drove as fast as he could. Normally it only took him twenty minutes to drive home. He tried to pass the time looking at the billboards along the road. They were filled with posters of political candidates for the upcoming elections. He smiled vaguely to himself, still clearly happy that the photos were occupying space previously filled with “The One Leader”.

He used every trick he could think of to get home faster. His wife kept calling him every five minutes and he kept telling her he was on his way. He thought there would be less traffic if he took the coastal road.  The sun was high in the sky and it was getting hotter, as it does in the middle of summer. He reached out to turn the radio on, hoping to find a good song to calm him down until he arrived home. 

Suddenly he heard the sharp crack of a gun, as sporadic shooting burst out. The people in town had grown used to gunshots, and had grown accustomed to the constant battles between the young men. Weapons were used for the most insignificant reasons and residents had to flee the area or drive through as quickly as possible. But now he could hear the sounds of heavy automatic weapons, 14.5 mm guns, and the sound was growing louder and getting closer. He looked around and saw cars almost flying down the road. In an instant, the situation had exploded out of control.

This had become commonplace now; as if they wanted to create a state where chaos, it seemed, lurked around every corner; as a pretext for revolutionaries who built armed units to protect the country. Revolutionaries, revolutionaries … He repeated the word, all the while cursing. How had these young men, most former prisoners, become revolutionaries? They had grown beards, shaved off their moustaches, and donned military camouflage. These revolutionaries who could not show respect for regular people. These revolutionaries who only thought of people as fuel for their eternal hell.

He closed the windows of his car and turned on the air conditioning to cool him from the heat that began spreading through his body. This also helped to muffle the sound of gunshots, coming from who-knows-where.

There are people who, when they find themselves in such circumstances, close to armed fighting, pull out their mobile phones to take pictures to post on social media sites. Everyone wants to be a reporter or a newsman, gaining fame by publishing photos and news on the fighting, on the violence and on the kidnappings. And those who did not become newshounds became something else. They carried arms, and joined fighting units, firing their guns in the air.

Those young men who were not able to join the fighting sat around at cafés, like the unemployed. Some of them passed the time harassing the women walking by on the street, taking out their pent-up anger on them. The women of the country were so oppressed that even when they heard the lewd comments, they simply hurried past without saying a word in response. No one would protect them. Not even the police, whose doors were not open to them.

The phone rang and the image of his wife appeared on the screen. He answered her briefly, saying that fighting had broken out and all kinds of shooting and, and … He was speaking breathlessly while she was gasping at the other end of the line. Good God, he thought. The last time we visited the doctor he said that she needed a caesarean operation. The fear he felt made him more and more nervous the longer it took to get home.

Luck was not one his side this day, and looking at the fuel gauge he realized he was getting low on fuel. The filling station was not far, but the contrived fuel crises, which no reasonable person could believe would really happen in an oil-rich country, and the infamous traffic jams that congested entire roadways, struck fear in people, so everyone carried plastic fuel containers in their trunks.

He was glad he had two extra containers in the back of the car. They would let him keep going a fair distance. Suddenly a report came on the radio that militia were exchanging fire, with no reason for the violence given. Then another song came on praising the revolution.

He cursed the revolution loudly and looked around, but fortunately nobody could hear him in the car. Otherwise he would have been charged with treason and being a supporter of the former regime. Every now and then the shooting would stop and calm would return. He pushed the gas pedal to the floor to make it home faster.

He had almost reached his neighbourhood. He could see a security force checkpoint at the end of the street. They were stopping all cars indiscriminately. Everyone was obeying them. Wearing military camouflage, armed, and with two cars filled with heavy machine guns, they struck fear in everyone.

He slowed down as he approached, expecting one of them to wave him through, since he was not suspected of anything. But the car in front of him drove right through without stopping. Bullets started flying everywhere. He looked around in horror, trying to see his house, which was close by. And in the instant that separates good from evil, life from death, the instant no person expects, a bullet hit the trunk of his car. Like in a dream, he sees flames roar up in his rear view mirror.

His life passes before his eyes, like in a movie, childhood memories, his wife, how he held her while they dreamed of their first child being born at home. It was a fraction of a second, but it felt like a lifetime.

He did not know if he put his hand out and opened the door himself or if someone else did it. He only knew that he ran as fast as he could home, yelling at the top of his lungs. I want to live, I want to live as far away as I can from this cursed revolution. But no one heard him. The roar of the car exploding and grenades detonating masked his forbidden cursing. And forced the soldiers to flee.

Razan Naim al-Maghribi is from Libya and has published five collections of short stories and two novels. She is a regular contributor to the Libyan press.