Hisham Bustani’s The Crossing

Hisham Bustani’s short story “The Crossing”  has been translated into English by Maia Tabet and appears in the current issue of Newfound.  The short story was originally published in Arabic in Bustani’s The Monotonous Chaos of Existence (2010). In Newfound, it appears in both Arabic and English, as in Bustani’s previous work, The Perception of Meaning, previously reviewed here.
The story is framed by the description of crossing a series of checkpoints “in the long succession beginning with the one right outside Cairo and ending at Checkpoint Impossible: Rafah.” The first line addresses us in the second person: “You cross the bridge suspended over the canal.” The story then switches voice throughout, from “you” to “we” to “they”.  As the narrative unfolds , we see how those trying to cross the checkpoints have become inured to the inevitability of barriers: “It was inevitable they would be stopped. And they were.”
This sense of inevitability is however mingled with the hope of being able to cross:

The encounter was warm in spite of the no-go order.

“Too bad, you were turned down. Try again tomorrow.”

Even though tomorrow is an eternity to those who wait, we went back to El-Arish, hopeful.

There’s also always the recognition that the barriers and checkpoints are meant to control and regulate the movement of particular groups of people, while presenting no impediment to others. In the story, those who are attempting to cross are described as “trying to conceal themselves amongst the fair-skinned people, some Frenchmen, so as to slip through the metal bars like the desert dust.”

Interwoven with this stop-and-start-and-begin-again border-crossing journey are annecdotes about the death of Muhammad Hamad al-Hunayti, which are given a magical and epic twist, the events becoming larger than life, like Hunayti’s presence in cultural memory. In the end, Hunayti is one of the figures that return and come together to cross the border: “They all met on the shore of Haifa, all those who had crossed border posts and boundaries, roadblocks and walls, and all those who had come from the sea, sailing on ancient boats.”

Throughout, the many different attempted crossings become threads of this single story, recognising all borders as metaphorically one border,  between here and there and between past and present: “The line that separates here and (t)here. The line between who we were and who we are” leaving the characters to live a life in between, in a state of “passage, wilderness, dispossession.”

 

 

 

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