‘The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion’ by Akram Musallam: An Excerpt

On a plastic chair in a parking lot in Ramallah sits a young man writing a novel, reflecting on his life: working in a dance club on the Israeli side of the border, scratching his father’s amputated leg, dreaming nightly of a haunting scorpion, witnessing the powerful aura of his mountain-lodging aunt. His work in progress is a meditation on absence, loss, and emptiness. He poses deep questions: What does it mean to exist? How can you confirm the existence of a place, a person, a limb? How do we engage with what is no longer there? Absurd at times, raw at others, The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion explores Palestinian identity through Akram Musallam’s extended metaphors in the hope of transcending the loss of territory and erasure of history.

Translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain

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An Excerpt

We were teenagers. She came to me; to the ‘dance hall’ at the start of the night; suddenly she came to me, and after a brief chat, she said she had come to show me her freshly tattooed scorpion, just below her spine.

Faded blue jeans and a brick-red blouse revealing a strip of flesh atop her navel is what she had on. We sat on the edge of the platform designated for the band in the dance hall— where I would sleep on a modest mattress. She swivelled round and hunched forward, trying to show o the tattoo, her fingertips tugging at her jeans. I couldn’t see much, which she understood, so she loosened her jeans to reveal a small cobalt-blue scorpion lying on a body the colour of the shore; a body that had much to say, a body bubbling with recklessness.

I stroked the scorpion, spending some time doing so, a mysterious puzzle inviting more and yet more consideration. As for her, she came into focus for me; I mean, things progressed that night truly in the way they do in such situations, her scorpion tattoo the preface to her body.

All performances took place on this wide stage: a semi- circle 5 metres in diameter, upholstered in red carpet, right in the middle of the large hall. The wall overlooking the stage was a mirror. I don’t know what came over me at the end of the night. I made her stand up naked, and pressed her body against the mirror, with her back to me. In her small hand- bag, I found a lipstick and traced her hips. Tenderly I pulled her back to me, leaving behind an evident space between two red strokes outlining her curves with the utmost precision. After that she went to her room on one of the floors above the dance hall, and the next day (just as she said she would when she kissed me goodnight) she returned to her home, to Paris.

She disappeared into thin air. No address, nothing. And if it hadn’t been for the lipstick lines on the mirror in the morning, I would have thought it all a dream.

During the day, my supervisor came round, saw the lines on the mirror and diplomatically gave in to his curiosity.

‘You’re an artist?’ he asked.

‘I’m trying.’

‘With lipstick?’ he continued, his curiosity now bare-faced mockery. We smiled, he for his reasons, me for mine, and with a tissue I wiped away the remnants of the night before.

After some time had passed, she began to reappear in my dreams. Often, she would come back, sleeping beside me as she did that night. As soon as I would start to touch her tat- too, it would slip through my fingers like a real scorpion, cobalt, small, sliding quickly along the curves of her back- side. Hastily it would scurry along the red carpet, running, running towards the mirror until it would come to a halt at its bottom edge and begin to persistently attempt climbing towards the figure outlined in lipstick.

The scorpion would try, try a dozen times, as if it wanted to climb up to take its rightful place on the body as a tattoo— a real scorpion on the outline of a body! But the mirror’s smooth surface continuously foiled its repeated stubborn attempts to do something seemingly impossible, nonsensical, crazy, foolish. I don’t know what it was, but it was exhausting and painful, more like deadly.

While I watched on, the scorpion tried and tried with a peculiar stubbornness, scrambling upwards, only to slide back down until, overcome with fatigue, until it dripped sweat, it fell down, flung onto its back, moving his head and limbs with a desperate slowness, movements almost seemingly mechanical, as if they were its last . . . at that exact instant I wake up from my dream, my throat dry, drenched in sweat, sapped of energy.

Isn’t this a novel-esque dream or a dream of a novel? I’ve asked myself so many times. Always, I’ve thought the answer is yes and often I have had the desire, to try and try again . . . only to hesitate and put it off, always for another day.