Responsive Literary Writing in Two Acts / Hisham Bustani

Hisham Bustani discusses the creative process behind his two poems in Issue Twelve of The Lonely Crowd.


Act I

We met in front of the closed door of a martial arts training centre, in a drab building located in the heart of what was (at that time) a haven for well-off Iraqis who fled the 2003 US-invasion of their country. The upscale al-Rabiyeh neighbourhood in Amman had been transformed into Little Baghdad.

She had the keys.

Inside, hanging on the walls, were many pictures of the same man: light-skinned, medium build, otherwise ordinary looking, proudly posing in the centre of each frame. Around him, like a pair of massive, strong wings, spread different formations of army personnel, special forces, anti-riot police, men in different colours of fighting attire, all putting on dangerous stares and raising – in mid-air – threatening clenched fists. ‘Graduation ceremony memorabilia,’ she told me. It was impressive, in a twisted way.

The studio, owned by her cousin (the ordinary looking guy in the centre of the photographs), was a strange place to start a collaboration with Shireen Talhouni, the woman with the keys, an architect-turned-contemporary dancer and decorated Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter, then just freshly arrived from London and wanting to connect with ‘local’ artists. It was her practice space outside working hours and during holidays, and I was there – an obvious outsider – to experiment with what I now call: responsive literary writing.

In this instance, and technically speaking, it was not really writing. The writing came at a second stage. What I did was to speak into a recorder, create – in words – images and sequences that emerged in mind as I watched her dance.  It was something like what the surrealists called ‘automatism’ but here: there was action instigating the formation of sentences, then the sentences – in turn – influenced the form of her actions which then inspired more sentences. It was an exercise in a reciprocally engaged, mutually interactive, creative nexus of responses, each response of one artist influencing that of the other, forming an intertwined interaction of events.

A lesson in collapsing and attempting, once more is one of the main outcomes of this session, which yielded another six of the 42 pieces of my book: Preludes to an Inevitable Demise (published 2014 in Arabic, and still unpublished in English translation). Some of those pieces were born severely deformed, others a little more complete, but after many attempts at rewriting and editing them, the results were very satisfying: The Maestro (published in winter issue, 2017 of The Poetry Review); Life after death (part of The storyteller’s final hours duet, published in Summer 2019: Issue 93 of Poetry London), Balancing Act (featured in Asymptote’s Translation Tuesday, March 17, 2020) and Harakiri (forthcoming in The Georgia Review), in addition to Solitary confinement for two and The inevitable age of sand (both unpublished in translation).

Another one of the book’s pieces was conceived in a totally different session, this time in collaboration with Alaa Tawalbeh, a painter who would reprimand you if you described him as one. In his flat/studio, as he painted the deformed heads he is known for, his hand-rolled cigarettes burning, the prototypes of the eight parts of the story A few moments after midnight (published in Issue 11, Spring 2016 of The Common) slowly came into existence.

Although I am always collaborating with different artists on stage, in recordings, in performances, in discussions, these sessions, which are both spontaneous and impulsive improvisations, generating the literary output as the interaction’s medium and result, were the deepest creative exchanges I have ever had with other artists.

For the occasion of writing this essay, I have revisited those recordings.

In the studio, one can hear the sound of cars honking in the nearby street, a baby crying in the flat next door, the scratching noises of the painting tools, and towards the end of the recording, me saying to Alaa: ‘you’ve changed your usual colors.’

In the martial arts studio, one can clearly hear Shireen’s deep breathing, and at some point, us having an argument, or –to be more precise– her objecting: ‘you need to be sincere, to speak only when you need to speak, when it’s relevant’ she was saying, ‘you have to make me dance, I’m not dancing, you have to let go of that grudge.’ As for me, I obviously went on the defensive: ‘I can’t make you dance, you have to make me speak;’ and a bit later, I started whistling to muffle her scolding me.

Obviously it went badly for Shireen and although we’ve collaborated afterwards, on stage, in a different project entitled Fluid, I’m not sure if she benefitted artistically from that orphaned session which we never repeated. Alaa went on to exhibit his work, although only once, and he still refuses to call himself a painter.

As for me: I can’t complain.


Act II

A family weekend holiday at a five-star resort by the Dead Sea.

It was evening and I was having a drink in the lobby with my brother, my sister and her husband. Like many five-star hotels around the world, it had a proper grand piano.

At one point, and out of nowhere, a woman, probably Russian, dressed in formal black concert attire, sliced through the room to the leather upholstered bench. She didn’t give anyone in the lobby any attention, and they gave her none. It was a one-more-night-as-usual for all.

She played, really played, for herself. I watched her submerged in her music. I watched the lobby goers being inattentive. It was painful.

She finished her performance and stood to leave for her break, sharp as a scalpel. A faint, hollow clapping sounded from somewhere in the back. She quivered, so very slightly, smiled, and nodded, before regaining her composure, and floated out in the same way she entered.

Gill Deluze said that we always think in response to an outside impetus; Alain Badiou takes this further: ‘in order for the subjective elevation of the individual to really occur, something must come from the outside (…) the individual can be diverted from his/her purely animal existence by an outside event that will propel him/her in the direction of a truth procedure [in our context here: art], and this will allow him/her to touch the infinity of being.’ ٭

I was propelled by the pianist’s impetus. I asked my companions to keep it quiet for a bit, and wrote what was to become A hand crushing the heart, halting its beat on the bill, in an attempt to touch the infinity of being.


٭ Gill Deluze’s and Alain Badiou’s quotes are from: Alain Badiou and Peter Englemann, Philosophy and the Idea of Communism, translated by Susan Spitzer, Polity, 2015.


Hisham Bustani is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. He is acclaimed for his bold style and unique narrative voice, and often experiments with 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 it has been said 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 fiction and poetry have been translated into many languages, with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, including The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, The Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, World Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly. His fiction has been collected in The Best Asian Short Stories, The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human: Tales from Many Muslim Worlds, The Radiance of the Short Story: Fiction From Around the Globe, Influence and Confluence – East and West: A Global Anthology on the Short Story among other anthologies. 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 U.K.-based cultural webzine The Culture Trip listed him as one of Jordan’s top six contemporary writers. His book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) won the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. Hisham is the Arabic fiction editor of the Amherst College-based literary review The Common, and the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Fellowship for Artists and Writers for 2017.

Image by Jo Mazelis.