The book was published in Arabic in 2017 by Al-Karma Publishers, Cairo.
The Arabic title is: Kitâb al-nawm. Translation: Robin Moger
History does not wait for the sleepers to wake; it is written by the wakeful alone. What, from those hours of sleep, is worth the history books taking notice of and setting down? Surplus hours of no benefit or purpose; and yet these hours do not wither and fade away like pointless superfluity but grow in number, night after night, to become a strange assemblage. Strange, because unlike other assemblages these hours take on no weight worth mentioning however numerous they become, hovering perpetually in the background to no effect, unaddressed; a neglected nook that all know and never speak of. And so, down the years, sleep remains thus, cast over the pages of history like scattered dust. It might be condensed into the form of a dream here, or there a vision, but otherwise it lives outside these pages, a spirit that haunts all that is unwritten. The response sleep gives to this distancing is repetition. Like all authentic things, sleep returns to the fray night after night, creating from repetition a law. It comes back at us every evening with all its negativity and loss and failure, its insistence on continual squandering, reasserting its affiliation with the tragedies of the past. Expelled from history, sleep neither moves things forward nor holds them back, neither produces nor accumulates, and even so it marks the line beyond which progress’s arrow cannot pass. What can the subject in history do, confronted by this daily squandering? What can she do with all these hours of sleep? Reduce them as much as she can? Forget them utterly as soon as she wakes? Press them down, one atop the other, like pastry layers that she then eats? Walk among them like autumn leaves? Abandon herself to them? What to do?
Beyond the social as space for negotiation and struggle, for the exchange of views and dialogue, another hidden aspect emerges: the social as an arena for shared silence. Sleeping on public transport, in squares and lecture halls, at work, is a redoubled rejection of the social act, for it takes place not in the bedroom but in the traditional sites of social interaction. The sleeper at work prevents himself from working, the sleeper on the bus fails to view the roadside advertisements, the sleeper in the square aborts his communication with others. Sleep taps the public sphere with its wand and transforms it from a space for negotiation and struggle into a site of silence and absence, both of which become a collective activity and not a private matter. Yet for all its social inadequacy, sleep does not transform the public sphere into a place of coldness and deliberate disregard, but—how strange!—into a site of trust and reassurance; for there, at the heart of the social disengagement created by sleep, a new trust in others can be discerned. A trust whose origin remains mysterious, for the public sleeper neither negotiates nor struggles with others, does not ally or interact, but instead surrenders himself, reveals to them his weakness, his insubstantiality, his incapacity. Sleeping in public is, therefore, a declaration of faith in the random other. The other of the public square, beside whom the sleeper lies contentedly, is not one individual but a group of strangers, a group whose members the sleeper has no desire to know but whose plurality he finds reassuring, allowing him to become, like them, a stranger.
The delicacy of radicalism
Bodies that walk in public are primed, their veins charged with the exact quantity of tension that enables them to interact with their surroundings and deliver the appropriate responses. The radical public act requires bodies that are more highly strung, ready to confront any dangers that may bar its way. They are bodies that have entered into open conflict with the authorities for the purpose of reshaping public space. Among the many varieties of radical act, the sit-in stands apart in its extreme complexity. On the one hand, it constitutes the most extreme manifestation of the protest movement and its riskiest act, because it seizes the initiative and manufactures a new reality by “occupying” public space. On the other hand, it can only be made complete by another, deeply fragile, act, an action that is almost its antithesis: to fall asleep at the protest site. Sleeping at the sit-in is the very essence of it, the act that all participants are seeking to perform. A sit-in without protestors carpeting the ground is on shaky foundations, which is why there is always a battle to prevent sleep from taking place; once they manage to do so, the sit-in has political consequences. The act of staging a sit-in, with the clear risks it poses, only becomes radical when it denies its own nature and is replaced by an act that denies the very principle of action. Sleep is that low-energy act; it is this “sluggishness” that has the power to meld public and private: to make the public sphere private and vice versa and thereby realize the sit-in’s objectives. The radical body, tensed and primed, unwinds and slackens; it drops its defences, reveals its weakness and frailty. Through this accumulation and contiguity of weakness and frailty, the sharing of weariness and pain and their exposure to the public, sleep becomes a source of strength and a means for change. The sleepers at a sit-in do not return singly from the field of battle. Lying side by side, they become brokers of a new reality, and their dreams the language of this reality, which they strive to decode.
The Kingdom of Things
The room is full of its things. There is a little desk by the door and a lamp beside the bed. There is a suitcase against the wall and a flowerpot on the window frame. In the desk drawer there is a passport and a marriage certificate and, lying in the dresser drawer, a gold earring, a bracelet. A bright shirt has been carelessly tossed over the chair and abandoned on the floor is a sock inverted. We leave all this behind and are drawn towards the gulf which is called sleep. There, for a moment, time stops and we imagine that we have moved elsewhere. But as soon as we enter it we are cast back into the room itself, this time not as a presiding force but as one thing among its many, the thing which we’ve become in sleep propelled by irresistible sympathy towards the other things and seeping now, bit by bit, onto the pillow, then onto the bed, then out into the room. And just as we are transformed into things during sleep, so the things in our rooms transform into beings other than those we know. They lose their passivity and gradually return to themselves. No longer objects and implements, they are now bodies through which a secret inner motion flows. They are our things, which we resemble and which resemble us, and the deeper we fall into sleep the more we settle into these things, or they into us, or all of us together into the room. In the fraternity of sleep we do not encounter things along the lines of power but rather in the primordial matter, in the heart of its becoming. The flood of its first forms runs through us and in us beats a pulse as old as the universe.
If revolution is awakening—a long-awaited aberration that follows a deep mass lethargy—then is not sleep a return to dispossession? A synonym for failure? The failure to reshape reality? The inability to alter the circumstances of life? Defeat in the battle to redefine the self? But a close look at what happens in the moment we enter sleep tells us something different, for this moment does not herald the beginning of a failure, it simply concedes it. It is the moment in which the sleeper surrenders to his drowsiness and his inability to remain awake. The failure comes first, whether it is the failure of the self to maintain control or the defeat of the group in its battle for change. After this comes the moment of actual sleep: the moment of failure’s concession, and not its cause; the moment of defeat’s acceptance, and not of its production. The individual’s sleep is the act of a self that has dropped the reins, and shared slumber is the act of a group that knows the battle has been decided and that to remain on the field is suicide. The self that does not sleep is a neurotic self, plagued by itself; the group that does not sleep is willful and proud, unable to alter reality because it lives cut off from it. For it to reconnect to reality, for it to gather itself again, to wake, it must doze a little. The sleeper who comes to bed with an unrealisable hope soon wakes into reality inspired with a new dream. The failure to change reality is a failure that can be overcome and escaped, but the failure to apprehend this initial failure and to accept it is a complex failure: not a sleep from which one may wake, but a coma.
The Hanging Garden
Who could have anticipated that the city which blooms in sleep would be the garden in which we sleepers stand like trees between earth and heaven? Floor tiles crack apart to reveal green shoots. Windows shatter and give out branches. Asphalt subsides and over it flows water. Buildings break down into dens and dives. Walls shift and streets change. The city itself has cast off obedience to its masters, has entered another time, has surrendered to another power. And unlike the scurrying city of the visible, here all things happen slowly. In the hanging garden of sleep the sun’s rays fall slowly on the leaves, slowly the roots worm through the soil, the flowers open slowly. Continual transformations so slow they are hidden from the naked eye. The city of sleep, at once devoid of people and seething with life: the many people who each night silently surrender to the same sleeping, though thousands of miles might lie between them, become a garden inhabited by plants and insects and birds. Inhabited, too, by the souls of the dead. They flee the din of the cities of the day and are drawn to the garden’s stillness where death finds its place amid the unseen changes with which the garden hums. The dead walk freely about. They drift through the flowers, diffuse through trees’ branches, pass through their trunks. We hear their whispers and they hear ours. We touch them and they touch us. We mix with them and they with us. And so we stay till day dawns and the tiles heal and the trees sink into the ground and the buildings rise and the walls return to their places and the roads smooth out and over them flow cars. People return and the dead flee.
Unconsciousness is sleep’s corruption, occurring when sleep has failed to extricate itself both from the binaries of its environment and from the function assigned it, to become no more a brief dousing of consciousness. Industrial capitalism reduced sleep to a function, its task to grant a measure of relief to the collapsing consciousness. It regulated it as a shift, eight hours long, followed by the shift at the factory. But high capitalism, which no longer produced anything at all, came to regard sleep as a black hole. Sleep was a short swoon, a begrudged break in the flow of uninterrupted communication, and as such had to be quickly shaken off and a rapid return made to a state of contact. As the attention economy replaces the production economy, consciousness becomes neurotic, turning endlessly about itself and fired by a promise forever unhonoured. How can such a consciousness sleep? It is constantly afraid that it might miss something, that the promise will be honoured while it is absent. All it can do is remain alert until it drops into unconsciousness. Capitalism’s night grows shorter and shorter until it almost disappears altogether, and in it sleep is one long coma dispensed in small doses.
Haytham el-Wardany is writer and translator, born in Cairo and currently living in Berlin. His interests at this time are the concept of truth and how it relates in the post-revolutionary context. His recent books are The Book of Sleep (2017, Alkarma Publishing House, Cairo) and How to Disappear (2013, Kayfa Ta Publications, Cairo/2018, Sternberg Press, Berlin/NY).