Sisyphus El-Masri: A Short Play by Hazem Fahmy

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

Sisyphus El-Masri

(Apologies: audio unavailable for this piece.)

Scene I
[Lights off. In the dark, the overwhelming screeching of the street can be heard through the speakers. Sounds of car honks, pedestrian yells and the scorching sun are blasted from all sides. They fade to a whisper. Lights on. There is a single two-person public bench in the center of the stage. Sisyphus sits alone in the middle of it. He is a handsome, but tired middle-aged mustachioed man in a drab-looking carreaux button-up and faded jeans. His flip-flops are mildly torn. He is leaning back on the cold metal, but his back is hunched. The sounds eventually die out and a pebble is thrown at him from one side of the stage followed by another from the opposite side. Pebbles begin being thrown from both sides at an escalating speed. He does not react. When the floor is reasonably covered in pebbles, the throwing stops. Enter SAFIA. She is dressed in a loose fitting black dress.]

SAFIA: Sisyphus, habiby, why do you sit like this? The nightingale will not cry for you and the breeze will forget your beautiful face.
SISYPHUS: There is no breeze here.
SAFIA: That’s because you’re not listening hard enough. Have you heard the sun lately? It cries for you; a gentle whimper. I have held it in these palms and they are calloused. Forget not my blood.
SISYPHUS: I haven’t tasted blood in years.
SAFIA: It’s always been on your tongue, you’ve just forgotten the language.
SAFIA: Not that kind of language.
SISYPHUS: Ahha, I say.
SAFIA: You need not.
SISYPHUS: It’s all I have left.
SAFIA: Ode to the female orgasm, to the child finding his tongue again, to the wind slapping the dirt out of your mouth.
SISYPHUS: My mouth opens, but only dust comes out, Safia.
SAFIA: Have you brushed your teeth recently?
SISYPHUS: No, I’m all out of sand.
SAFIA: The sand will kill you if you eat too much of it.
SISYPHUS: [Leaps up and starts collecting the pebbles in his palm.] I once brought a spoon to the beach. It might have been in Marsa Alam, or maybe Alexandria, I forget what the difference is. My mother said I tried to eat the sand. I remember the coarse taste in my mouth. I washed it down with sea water.
SAFIA: That’ll make a great cocktail.
SISYPHUS: Alcohol isn’t allowed in our culture.
SAFIA: Speak for your own. I once had a culture that loved me. It held me late at night and fought off the tide when it tried to take me.
SISYPHUS: The culture or the tide?
SAFIA: Both, I suppose.
SISYPHUS: I never liked the beach.
SAFIA: I always found it alien.
SISYPHUS: It doesn’t belong here.
SAFIA: It should go back to its country.
SISYPHUS: Where it belongs.
SAFIA: [Pauses.] Do you remember where you belong?
SISYPHUS: Not really. [Balancing the pebbles in one hand, he reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a standard-issue Egyptian ID card.] It says here I was born in Mansoura.
SAFIA: I never liked Mansoura.
SISYPHUS: How come?
SAFIA: Too chewy. Doesn’t go down the throat well.
SISYPHUS: [Continues picking up pebbles.] Do you remember when you had a throat?
SAFIA: [Starts playing with her dress.] It climbed out of my mouth some time back. The smell of my insides overwhelmed it. It was too sensitive.
SISYPHUS: I liked being sensitive.
SAFIA: Ahha.
SISYPHUS: Ode to the female orgasm.
SAFIA: Ahha.
SISYPHUS: Ode to the child who spits on the ground and calls the world his own.
SAFIA: Ahha.
SISYPHUS: Ode to the third time I held a carcass and called it my own.
SAFIA: Ah- which time was that?
SISYPHUS: The third time.
SAFIA: What time?
SISYPHUS: Around three.
SAFIA: Ah. Time for lunch.
SISYPHUS: I’m not hungry.
SAFIA: It’s okay. I’ll make you something. [She goes off stage and comes back with a bowl of salad. Begins stirring the bowl with a pair of tongs.] I’ll make you a Caesar Salad.
SISYPHUS: That’s not in my culture.
SAFIA: Neither am I.
SISYPHUS: I disagree.
SAFIA: I digress. Let me make you a Caesar Salad.
SISYPHUS: I’d rather have kushari.
SAFIA: It’s too fattening. And you have weight issues.
SISYPHUS: I have never weighed my issues.
SAFIA: That’s why they’ll weigh you down. Please, eat this Caesar Salad. [SISYPHUS pours his palm of pebbles into the bowl. SAFIA pauses.] Why’d you do that?
SISYPHUS: The same reason we do everything.
SAFIA: Don’t say the Army.
SISYPHUS: I wouldn’t if I dared.
SAFIA: [Drops the bowl.] Damn the daring.
SISYPHUS: Damn the Army if you dare.
SAFIA: I wouldn’t.
SISYPHUS: I couldn’t.
SAFIA: That’s why I’m here. [They pause and look at the ground. Beat. They burst into laughter. She picks up the bowl and throws it off stage.] You’re a free man now.
SISYPHUS: As free as can be.
SAFIA: The earth will not stab your feet. The sun will send you a giggle.
SISYPHUS: I will laugh the night away. The crickets will call me lantern, the cockroaches bathroom tile.
SAFIA: Tell me, have you tasted the moon lately?
SISYPHUS: Coarse as sand. I don’t like it.
SAFIA: What if I brought it for you?
SISYPHUS: Packaged?
SAFIA: Wrapped in gaff tape.
SISYPHUS: I don’t like it.
SISYPHUS: The cinema was never a part of our culture.
SAFIA: I disagree.
SISYPHUS: You digress.
SAFIA: You disgrace.
SISYPHUS: You divulge.
SAFIA: Only as much as I want.
SISYPHUS: I want nothing.
SAFIA: That’s not true. [A pebble is thrown from one side of the stage followed by one from the opposite side. As before, they escalate in speed and quantity until the floor is similarly covered in them.] See?
SISYPHUS: I need my glasses.
SAFIA: Burgundy bifocals.
SISYPHUS: My favorite kind.
SAFIA: Too chewy. I couldn’t eat them.
SISYPHUS: No wonder you have weight issues.
SAFIA: It’s in my culture.
SISYPHUS: I have none. [Begins picking up the pebbles again.] Would you like to dance?
SAFIA: Like the old days?
SISYPHUS: There’s no other way.
SAFIA: How do you know?
SISYPHUS: I’ve tried them all.
SAFIA: How did they taste?
SISYPHUS: Like the earth; rich with waste and blood. I swam in blood once, you know.
SAFIA: How did that feel?
SISYPHUS: Invigorating. I found myself again.
SAFIA: When did you lose yourself?
SISYPHUS: When we stopped dancing.
SAFIA: Right! [She stands up straight and courtesies to him. He bows low dropping all the pebbles in the process. He curses and picks them up quickly.] Ready?
SISYPHUS: For you, no.
SAFIA: How about for God?
SISYPHUS: Depends on his taste.
SAFIA: What if I put barbecue sauce on him?
SISYPHUS: I would love that.
SAFIA: What about tahini?
SAFIA: Fine. Pretend I’m God slathered in barbecue.

[A oud is played gently from backstage. They mechanically approach one another and each places one hand on the other’s waist and shoulder. He is still gripping the pebbles in one palm. They begin moving to the music.]

SISYPHUS: Safia, do you love me?
SAFIA: I always did.
SISYPHUS: Did you?
SAFIA: I don’t know.
SISYPHUS: This is really upsetting.
SAFIA: So was the War.
SISYPHUS: Which one?
SAFIA: I forget.
SISYPHUS: Were you there for it?
SAFIA: No, I watched a documentary.
SISYPHUS: I don’t like documentaries.
SAFIA: This one was good. It was part of the New Wave.
SISYPHUS: Which one?
SAFIA: I forget.
SISYPHUS: I don’t like the cinema the way I used to.
SAFIA: That’s very classicist of you.
SISYPHUS: Please don’t insult me, I’m very sensitive.
SAFIA: I can’t stand people who don’t like the cinema.
SISYPHUS: But I like you.
SAFIA: Then watch a documentary with me.
SISYPHUS: I don’t have any.
SAFIA: We’ll go make one.

[The music stops. They turn towards stage-right and attempt to exit. However, before they can leave a loud gunshot is heard and SAFIA drops to the floor lifeless. SISYPHUS stares blankly at her body. He kneels down and holds it. Without him noticing, OFFICER MALIK enters from the direction where the shot was fired. He is also mustachioed and is dressed in a beige Army uniform. The eagle on his cap is oversized and a plethora of medals adorn his chest. He is holding a shiny .45 flintlock pistol.]

SISYPHUS: Fourth time.
MALIK: Won’t be the last time.
SISYPHUS: I suppose not.
MALIK: You do know you’re coming with me, right?
SISYPHUS: Is there anywhere else to go?
MALIK : You wish.
MALIK: Ahha.
SISYPHUS: Ode to the female orgasm. Ode to the silence.

[MALIK grabs him by the arm and drags him off stage. A pebble is thrown on stage from one side followed by one from the other side. They escalate in speed and quantity until the floor is similarly covered in them. Blackout.]

Scene II
[Lights off. Rapid footsteps can be heard walking all over the pebbles. The footsteps continue, but are steadily drowned out by the sound of the scorching sun. The sound escalates till a crescendo. Silence. Lights on. Enter MALIK dragging SISYPHUS, blindfolded, by the arm. MALIK is wearing the same outfit, but SISYPHUS has switched shirts. This one is the same pattern, just a different color. The bench is still there. MALIK guides SISYPHUS towards the bench and forces him unto it. MALIK takes off the blindfold and moves towards stage-right. On his way, he slips on some of the pebbles and falls on the floor. He gets up and brushes off his uniform.]

MALIK: You have a rough life.
SISYPHUS: I don’t really think about it.
MALIK: I guess you deserve it.

[MALIK exits. Enter WILLIE. He is a very white man. He is dressed in a dark blue suit with a dark blue tie and is carrying a dark brown briefcase. He is very clean shaven.]

WILLIE: Ah! I see you’ve stepped into my office.
SISYPHUS: This is a public bench.
WILLIE: Exactly.
WILLIE: You know me so well. You’re in trouble, habiby.
SISYPHUS: Don’t say that.
WILLIE: Why not?
SISYPHUS: I don’t like the way it sounds.
WILLIE: Would you rather I play music?
SISYPHUS: Only if it tastes good.
WILLIE: What about looks?
SISYPHUS: I don’t have any.
WILLIE: I can dress like Fairuz for you.
SISYPHYS: That won’t be necessary.
WILLIE: How about Sheikh Imam?
SISYPHUS: He’s not your style.
WILLIE: You can’t see me wearing a fez?
SISYPHUS: I prefer a tarboosh.
WILLIE: How about a black dress?
WILLIE: Would you like it if I wore a black dress?
SISYPHUS: [Leaps up.] I SAID DON’T! [He begins feverishly collecting the pebbles.]
WILLIE: Struck a nerve, did I?
SISYPHUS: You wouldn’t know a nerve if it went down your throat.
WILLIE: As it happens, I don’t have one.
SISYPHUS: Funny, you look like you have the insides for it.
WILLIE: On the contrary, I have nothing.
SISYPHUS: On the contrary, you have everything.
WILLIE: [Pauses. SISYPHUS gives him his back as he continues collecting the pebbles.] Why did she wear a black dress?
SISYPHUS: She was mourning.
WILLIE: What exactly?
WILLIE: Which one?
SISYPHUS: She forgot. It was in a documentary. Some New Wave production.
WILLIE: That’s a strange thing to mourn.
SISYPHUS: There’s always something to mourn.
WILLIE: I choose to laugh.
SISYPHUS: That, too, is a privilege. [Pauses.] Willie, have you ever tasted the moon?
WILLIE: Once. During an orgasm.
SISYPHUS: What did that look like?
WILLIE: [Ponders.] A gun pointed at a bare chest. A fox skipped over a chain fence and a landmine exploded. I was in the desert and the sand loved my feet.
SISYPHUS: I think I tried to eat sand once. With a spoon.
WILLIE: That’s foolish. I would never do such a thing.
SISYPHUS: That’s because you’re clean shaven.
WILLIE: You could be too.
SISYPHUS: I can’t. I have too much sand.
WILLIE: Can I buy it off of you?
SISYPHUS: It’ll cost.
WILLIE: How much?
SISYPHUS: I don’t know. I haven’t heard an offer.
WILLIE: But have you heard the sun?
SISYPHUS: It mocks me daily.
WILLIE: I think that’s how it expresses love. Would you rather the wind hug you?
SISYPHUS: God, no.
WILLIE: Then I’ll make you an offer. [He opens his briefcase and pulls out three fezzes and the gun that killed SAFIA. SISYPHUS stops picking up pebbles and looks at him. WILLIE places the fezzes in a horizontal line and places the gun under one of them. He proceeds to shuffle them around.] Pick. [SISYPHUS points to one, WILLIE removes the fez and the gun is beneath it. The fezzes are shuffled again.] Pick. [SISYPHUS finds it again. WILLIE shuffles.] Pick. [SISYPHUS finds it again. WILLIE shuffles.] Pick. [SISYPHUS finds it again. WILLIE smiles.] Fourth time.
SISYPHUS: Always. [He picks up the gun, sits down on the bench and points it to the side of his head.]
WILLIE: Do we have a deal?
WILLIE: Will you make good on your commitment?
WILLIE :Did you love her?
SISYPHUS: We’re about to find out.
WILLIE: Good. Proceed.
SISYPHUS: [Pauses.] What happens if I win?
WILLIE: [Ponders.] You get a projector.
SISYPHUS: What kind?
WILLIE: I’m not sure, but I can tell you it won’t be chewy.
SISYPHUS: Excellent. Can I screen a documentary on it?
WILLIE: It will be just like the War.
SISYPHUS: Can I swim in a river of blood?
WILLIE: Only if you want to.
SISYPHUS: Okay. Thank you, Willie.
WILLIE: I wouldn’t if I were you.
SISYPHUS: I am what I am.
WILLIE: Don’t give up on me, now.
SISYPHUS: I wouldn’t dare.
WILLIE: Damn the daring.
SISYPHUS: At least they sleep at night.
WILLIE: Who needs sleep when you have a moustache?
SISYPHUS: Who needs a moustache when you have a gun?
WILLIE: Who needs a gun when you have a black dress?
SISYPHUS: I never did.
WILLIE: You never will.
SISYPHUS: Oh, well.

[Gun pressed to his head, SISYPHUS pulls the trigger and a thunderous bang is heard. WILLIE drops dead. SISYPHUS lowers the gun to his side. Enter SAFIA. She silently walks over to SISYPHUS and places a gentle kiss on his cheek. She takes the pebbles from his hand and, with her other hand, drags WILLIE’s limp body off stage. She pauses before she exits.]

SAFIA: You have a rough life.
SISYPHUS: I don’t really think about it.
SAFIA: [Is about to speak, but stops.] I have no odes left.
SISYPHUS: Maybe you should make a new one.

[She smiles, nods and drags WILLIE off stage. SISYPHUS is left alone. A pebble is thrown from one side of the stage followed by one from the opposite side. As before, they escalate in speed and quantity until the floor is similarly covered in them. SISYPHUS bites off the barrel of the gun and chews in silence. The lights fade to black. There is no sound left save for that of the scorching sun. That too fades into silence. Blackout.]


Photo of Hazem Fahmy

Photo of Hazem Fahmy

Hazem Fahmy is a poet and critic from Cairo. He is currently pursuing a degree in Humanities and Film Studies from Wesleyan University. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in Apogee, HEArt, Mizna, and The Offing. In his spare time, he writes about the Middle East and tries to come up with creative ways to mock Classicism. He makes videos occasionally.