"Out of Time" is the PEN Atlas' second selection from the work of Adania Shibli, novelist, playwright, journalist and essayist. Look out for an interview with Adania on the blog later in the week: you can put your questions to her via comments on the blog.
Adania Shibli presented the text “Out of Time” during the workshop “The Politics of Images: Practices and Approaches to Art in the Middle East and North Africa” organized by documenta 12, on November 20th, 2006, in Bruno Kreisky Forum, Vienna. Thanks for their permission to reproduce it here.
Out of Time
My little watch is the first to sense the change going in to and out of Palestine. On the way there I notice it on my wrist, counting the time down to the second, waiting for the moment when the wheels of the plane touch the airport runway, and I set it to local time so it goes on counting it with an infinite familiarity. And as soon as I go out of Palestine it advances listlessly, taking its time parting with the local time there, which ends once the plane touches down in a foreign land.
It may seem to some I’m slightly exaggerating in what I’m telling about my watch, especially as it is a very little watch. People often are amazed how it can tell me the time at all, being so small. I myself could have yet shared their doubts had I not found out about watches and their secret powers.
It goes back to primary school, during one of the Arabic literature classes. The curriculum back then was, and it still is, subject to the approval of the Israeli Censorship Bureau, which embraced texts from various Arab countries, except for Palestine, fearing that these would contain references or even hints that could raise the pupils’ awareness of the Palestinian question. Hence, Palestinian literature was considered unlawful, if not a taboo, similar to pornography—except for one text, ‘The Time and Man’, a short story by Samira Azzam, which the Censorship Bureau found “harmless.”
The story, published in 1963, tells of a young man preparing himself before he turns in, the night ahead of his very first day of work. He sets his alarm clock for four o’clock in the morning so as to catch the train in time to go to work. No sooner had the alarm clock gone off the next morning than there came a knocking at his front door. When he opens it, he finds before him an old man. He has no clue who this man is and he does not get the chance to ask him, as the latter turns and walks away, disappearing into the darkness. The same is repeated day after day so that the young man no longer sets his alarm clock. It is only after several months that he discovers who that old man is, after a colleague tells him this man goes knocking on the doors of all the employees in the company. He wakes them up on time in order for them not to be late for their train and meet their destiny as his own son did, who had one morning arrived late at the station, while the train was leaving. He held on to its door, but his hand betrayed him and he slipped down, falling underneath its wheels.
At first glance, the story may seem simple and “safe,” especially before the censor’s eyes. Yet it actually contributed towards shaping my consciousness regarding the question of Palestine as no other text I have ever read in my life has done. Were there one day Palestinian employees who commuted to work by train? Was there a train station? Was there a train honking? Was there one day a normal life in Palestine? And where is it now and why has it gone?
The text, in turn, had engraved in my soul a deep sense of yearning for all that was—including the tragic—normal and banal, to a degree that I could no longer accept the marginalized, minor life to which we’ve been exiled since 1948, during which our existence turned into a “problem.”
Against this story and the multiple modes of existence it revealed to me, stands my little watch. And my watch is more similar to that old man in Azzam’s story than it is to a Swiss watch whose primary concern is to count time with precision. Rather, just as that old man turned from a human being into a watch in order for life to become bearable, my watch decided to turn from a watch into a human being.
In Palestine, it often stops moving. It suddenly enters into a coma, with which it becomes unable to count the time. On my last visit there, I set it as usual to local time the minute the plane touched down on the Lydd airport runway. It was ten to two in the afternoon. I headed to passport control. There weren’t many travelers and the line I stood in was proceeding quickly. I handed my passport over to the police officer, and she took her time looking at it. Then more time. Suddenly, two men and a woman appeared, who were a mix of police, security and secret service, and they took me out of the line, so as to begin a long process of interrogation and searches. Everything proceeded as usual in such situations- an exhaustive interrogation into the smallest details of my life and a thorough search of my belongings. Afterwards I was led into a room to run a body search on me. And while a woman walked away with my shoes and belt to examine them by X-ray, another stayed with my watch, which she held inside her palms and went on contemplating with intent and sincerity. A few minutes later she looked at her watch, then back at my watch. Then again at her watch, then at my watch. When the first lady came back with the rest of my belongings, she hurried over to her to tell her that there was something strange about my watch. It was not moving. Five minutes had passed according to her watch, whereas according to mine none had passed. They called the security chief and my heart beat started to bang violently on my chest.
I didn’t know how much time had passed before my watch, and then I were cleared of all suspicions and let go. But I discovered when I reached home that it was nine o‘clock in the evening, while my watch was still pointing to ten to two in the afternoon. Maybe my watch was only trying to comfort me by making me believe that all that search and delay had lasted zero minutes. As if nothing had happened. Or perhaps it simply refuses to count the time that is seized from my life, a time whose only purpose is to humiliate me and send me into despair. A kind of time suspension, so as to obscure the time of pain.
Opposite to this malfunctioning in Palestine, my watch has not once stopped moving outside Palestine. It is never late to count every second of the other timeof the other time. In fact, it many times moves slightly faster than it should, to a point where it seems to lose track of time. So fast it moves as if wanting to shake off this other time from it, one second after the other, so to catch up with the time in Palestine.
Thus, had it been seven hours or zero that distance my little watch from Palestine, it remains the same for it, and only to comfort me; it leads me out of time, no matter where I am.
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