Settling: Towards an Arabic translation of the English word “Home”

15 January, 2022,
“Domes­tic ten­sion,” instal­la­tion by exiled Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal (cour­tesy of the artist).


Hisham Bustani

Translated from the Arabic by Alice Guthrie


The fugi­tive keeps mov­ing from one place to anoth­er: his home­land is move­ment. The uneasy keeps con­stant­ly ques­tion­ing: his home­land is doubt.

1 |

You have no place to retreat to the way defeat­ed armies with­draw into the arms of their sol­diers’ wives. Noth­ing casts shel­ter­ing shade over you like those arche­typ­al shad­ow-of-a-man hus­bands in Egypt­ian soaps. You don’t even have the shade of a wall.

There is no one to lull you into believ­ing that every­thing is as it should be, no respite in which to restock your anger resources ready for the next day, and no say­ing that the explo­sion det­o­nat­ed by the dregs of the night / your scoured-out sta­mi­na will be soothed by cold com­press­es soaked in blos­som infusions.

And so you’ve dis­cov­ered that you are in fact a home­less orphan, a state­less orphan. An uncer­tain orphan. Lost in the back­ground of the pic­ture, a blur­ry and cacoph­o­nous place. In the fore­ground are many things that have no real val­ue to you, that mar your tran­si­tion into a state of full sen­so­ry depri­va­tion: walled into white, shroud­ed in silence. Will my alarm go off now? Will the phone ring? Will the door­bell ring? You teeter on the brink of what will hap­pen, as you think about the last time you saw a moon­less sky, a sky full of stars.

The main street is beside the house, cars stream­ing along it end­less­ly. A sound like an explo­sion; red and blue lights reflect­ed on the walls of the build­ings; the police raid­ing a near­by house. You smile to your­self: the door to your apart­ment is pro­tect­ed by anoth­er out­er door to which no one but you has a key.

A felled tree, dumped next to a trash­can where cats eat. They creep under just-parked cars at night, drawn to the engines’ warmth. You were lopped off from that very tree, since it was so dry and wilt­ed, and the tight space under a car isn’t quite suit­able for your huge corpse.

You keep on walking.

2 |

Only when nat­ur­al semi-dis­as­ters hap­pen — snow­drifts, tor­ren­tial rains that make gush­ing tor­rents of the roads — does that rare warmth set in, and that deep silence, and you sleep like a baby.

3 |

After sip­ping a lit­tle from his cup of cof­fee, he says: I don’t like any­one shar­ing my bath­room. I don’t like for any­one, no mat­ter who they are, to smell the socks I take off after a long day at work. I want my things to be put back exact­ly where I left them, where they should be. He breaks off, momen­tar­i­ly dis­tract­ed, then con­tin­ues: Per­haps… per­haps it was a mis­take to invite you here. You are doubt­less dream­ing of kids now, and of us run­ning around after them, and of a week­ly gro­cery list, and a framed fam­i­ly pho­to on the wall in the hall­way. I apol­o­gize for involv­ing you, real­ly… I can only apologize.

Her eyes widen in aston­ish­ment as he gets up to rush out of the café. She has not yet uttered a sin­gle word when he draws his coat closed across his bel­ly and hur­ries away.

4 |

“Where I lay my head is home.”

Try quot­ing this line to a refugee who begins his jour­ney in Alep­po and does not end up in Ger­many; a refugee who plunged into the sea and hasn’t come back up yet to draw breath; a refugee dying of cold in the forests along the Croa­t­ian-Hun­gar­i­an border.

“Announce­ment: Hun­gar­i­an are friend­ly peo­ples known for their hos­pi­tal­i­ty, but Hun­gar­i­an state take will the most strin­gent mea­sures against any­one who tries to enter its ter­ri­to­ry ille­gal­ly. Tran­sit­ing and cross­ing the inter­na­tion­al bor­ders of the Hun­gar­i­an state ille­gal­ly is a crime in Hun­gary and is legal pun­ish­ing by impris­on­ment. Do not lis­ten to what the peo­ple smug­glers tell you! Hun­gary does not allow migrants to cross­ing its ter­ri­to­ry illegally.”

Wel­come to your new home: fear.

Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear. Those are our four com­pass points, and fear is our com­pass itself. There is no home­land for the fear­ful, and nowhere to set­tle. For the fear­ful there are just occa­sion­al cor­ners in which to seek sanc­tu­ary, to curl up in, to per­haps be missed by that bul­let or spared by that glacial night, and see one more new morning.

For the fear­ful there is hope; but hope is delu­sion­al, phan­tas­magoric, and often evap­o­rates, leav­ing an acrid odor in its wake.

This is why Scheherazade keeps on talk­ing, for her neck is on the line: her home­land is the word. The fugi­tive keeps mov­ing from one place to anoth­er: his home­land is move­ment. The uneasy keeps con­stant­ly ques­tion­ing: his home­land is doubt. As for the corpse, it found a place to set­tle down wher­ev­er it laid its head: it swooned into a deli­cious peace­ful repose once it stopped search­ing. It no longer suf­fers the agony of the break­down that accep­tance brings on.

5 |

Loca­tion: Istik­lal Jed­dasi, Istanbul.

You are drawn to this spot by famil­iar music and a crowd of peo­ple applaud­ing. When you reach it, you dis­cov­er most of those present are speak­ing a lan­guage you know very well, and singing in it songs of long­ing for the home­land that they left behind, and danc­ing: “Take me to my coun­try…” Is that what they gen­uine­ly wish?

A suc­ces­sion of thoughts slams its way through you now: they would nev­er have sung in the streets of their for­mer cities, if they had done so they would have become prison fod­der, been feast­ed on slow­ly and leisure­ly — and now here they are, danc­ing with wild aban­don in the free­dom of a coer­cive home­sick­ness, yearn­ing for a coun­try that tor­tured them then spat them out onto the open road, left to beg by invok­ing home­lands that take on val­ue only in exile.

You rec­ol­lect Mah­moud Dar­wish’s def­i­n­i­tion of long­ing: “When a spar­row perch­es on the bal­cony and seems to be a mes­sage from a coun­try you did not love when you were in it as you love it now that it is in you.” So you lob a coin into the open gui­tar case, and get swal­lowed up by the flood of peo­ple mov­ing in every direction.

6 |

Knock knock knock. You get ner­vous when peo­ple knock on your door. You think no one has the right to wrench you from the warm cuboid womb into which you retreat. You know that the word “warm” here is an exag­ger­a­tion, because the place is cold in the win­ter and hot in the sum­mer, it has no capac­i­ty — and nei­ther do you, in fact — for moderation.

You will ignore the knock­ing like you did before, and you will give thanks to every last god and to Moth­er Nature her­self for hav­ing illu­mi­nat­ed you pre­vi­ous­ly with that genius flash of inspi­ra­tion that you imme­di­ate­ly put into prac­tice by dis­con­nect­ing the elec­tric­i­ty from the door­bell, con­sign­ing it to a coma from which it has not yet wok­en up.

You remem­ber the spi­ral shape of the shell into which that slimy crea­ture with­draws. You remem­ber the Chi­nese nest­ed box­es, the Russ­ian matryosh­ka. “None of you will be able to reach me,” thus address­ing — at one and the same time — your­self and the per­son stand­ing on the oth­er side of the door wait­ing on any sound from inside. Hold­ing your breath, you silent­ly say: I can­not guar­an­tee a safe outcome.

Check your per­ma­nent fang: When it falls out, you can leave. But it is sta­ble and immo­bile, and the envelopes are still arriv­ing, with tapes iden­ti­fy­ing the words:

Today’s new words are: sea, motor­way, pic­nic, gun.

The sea: a leather chair with wood­en arms, like the one in the lounge. Exam­ple: “Don’t stay on your feet, sit your­self down on the Sea so we can have a chat.”

Motor­way: high winds.

Pic­nic: a very strong and durable mate­r­i­al used in floor­ing. Exam­ple: “The chan­de­lier fell to the ground and shat­tered, but the floor was not dam­aged because it was made from Picnic.

Gun: a beau­ti­ful white bird.

7 |

Home: a swing with an old rub­ber tire for a seat. Exam­ple: When the boy went to the park with his moth­er, he insist­ed on play­ing on the Home, even though he had fall­en out of it the last time they were there.

8 |

Search log: A tape was found with the spec­i­men that had not arrived inside the usu­al enve­lope in the known way. The spec­i­men notes that the tape was found in the roof crawl­space used for stor­ing old, dis­card­ed mate­ri­als. Tran­script of the record­ed material:

“Home: the place you set­tle for rather than set­tling in, but it set­tles you down.”

The tape was destroyed under the super­vi­sion of the rel­e­vant authorities.

9 |

The time has come to depart.



Where I lay my head is home is a lyric from Wher­ev­er I May Roam, track 5 on Metallica’s 1991 LP The Black Album.

The Hun­gar­i­an state announce­ment quot­ed in sec­tion 4 was pub­lished in Ara­bic in all the Jor­dan­ian dai­ly news­pa­pers, on Sep­tem­ber 21, 2015. There were a num­ber of lin­guis­tic errors in the orig­i­nal text, repro­duced ver­ba­tim in the orig­i­nal of this book, and imi­tat­ed here in the Eng­lish translation.

 “Take me to my coun­try” in sec­tion 5 is a lyric in Fairouz’s song “The Wind Whis­pered to Us” (nas­sam ali­na al-huwa), words and music com­posed by the Rah­bani brothers.

Mah­moud Dar­wish’s def­i­n­i­tion of long­ing in sec­tion 5 is from his book In the Pres­ence of Absence, quot­ed here as trans­lat­ed by Sinan Antoon (Arch­i­pel­ago Books, NY, 2011).

The def­i­n­i­tions in ital­ics in sec­tion 6 are tak­en from the 2009 film “Dog­tooth” by Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos, in which chil­dren who are kept in their par­ents’ home in order to be utter­ly iso­lat­ed from the out­side world are told that they will be allowed out when their adult canine falls out.

This text was com­mis­sioned by The Out­post mag­a­zine to intro­duce the word Home in Ara­bic, and was first pub­lished there in a short­er version.



Hisham Bustani (b. Amman, 1975) is an award-winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and 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. Critics have described his writing as "bringing a new wave of surrealism to [Arabic] literary culture, which missed the surrealist revolution of the last century,” and “[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.” His work has been translated into many languages, with English-language translations appearing in such journals as The Kenyon Review, The Georgia 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 such anthologies as 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, and Influence and Confluence – East and West: A Global Anthology on the Short Story. Bustani's story collection The Monotonous Chaos of Existence (trans. Maia Tabet) was published in 2022 by Mason Jar Press. He tweets @H_Bustani.

Alice Guthrie is an independent translator, editor, and curator specializing in contemporary Arabic writing. Widely published since 2008, her work has often focused on subaltern voices, activist art and queerness / queering (winning her the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize 2019). Her bilingual editorial and research is part of the growing movement to decolonize Arabic-English literary translation, its evaluation and publication. As a commissioning editor she is currently compiling Sabah el Meem, the first ever anthology of LGBTQIA+ Arab(ic) literature, set to appear in parallel Arabic and English editions. Blood Feast,  her translation of the complete short stories of the maverick Moroccan gender activist and literary genius Malika Moustadraf, was published by Feminist Press NYC and Saqi London in February 2022. Alice has programmed the literary strand of London’s biennale "Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture" since 2015, and has curated queer Arab arts events for Edinburgh International Book Festival, Outburst International Queer Arts Festival and Arts Canteen. She occasionally teaches undergraduate and postgraduate Arabic-English translation at various universities including the University of Birmingham and the University of Exeter.


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