‘Room 6’ by Fares A. Al-Hammzani, Translated from the Arabic by Essam M. Al-Jassim

Bodies carry something of a soul…they just murmur indistinctly.

At the end of the corridor leading to the mortuary, there is a small room. Within it rest tragedies—obsolete, silent, and full of broken hearts. From beyond the vestibule, where phantoms play in joyful expectation of the inbound souls, old Egyptian melodies accost me with subtle, ethereal tunes.

Cramped beds fill the room. Old, rickety, wooden frames with flaking paint and loose nails surround dusty windows. The discolored porcelain tiles on the walls are faint, their designs long faded. The sonorous rhythms of carts holding medical equipment and electric apparatuses mingle with a grotesque smell, possibly the scent of death. Old pieces of furniture covered with white sheets feebly resist time, harboring some hope against banishment, lying in wait for those who dare enter the room.

Communications in here are through the blink of an eye or the soundless movement of a mouth. Gestures, mysterious to me, carry convoluted meanings that embody their unique method of discourse. Voices are heard only in black-and-white tales and muffled mumbles, resembling nothing I have heard before. Old patients always cry, their soulful tears dribbling down well-worn cheeks. Here, visitors are prohibited, and there are no traces of get-well-soon flowers or praying-that-all-is-fine cards. Just small bottles of water.

When I enter the room, I hear those who are able to speak whispering words that stem from the depths of their hearts, merging with biting reverberations. Sometimes, I eavesdrop on their stifled murmurs.

 ‘Fill up the earthenware vessels with clean water. Leave the door open, lest the guests see it closed and leave.’

 ‘Strange! Where are you, Ajee? Come and help me stand.’

 ‘Don’t forget to feed the camels. Put out some hay and barley for them—just over there.’

 ‘I want a piece of baked bread, soaked with ghee.’

 ‘Norah, come and wash my clothes.’

Frustration and despair is evident among them. Their fading bodies contain worlds unknown, and I wonder what they did in their youthful years.

 Diverse personalities mingle here together: the brave and the cowardly, the poet and the lonely hearts, the cruel and the kind. Had they known they would meet their end on these white beds, subsisting on intravenous drips, they would rather have chosen death on the field of battle or upon the golden sands of An Nafud. At least then, they would have set an example of bravery and gone down in history.

It’s a telling time that mercilessly crushes and places them on the graveyard admission list.

Despite the scourge of their respective illnesses and the ordeals they face, they look at each other while praying to Allah for best wishes, for speedy recoveries. They do not know the meaning of sleep. They wait for something far more important than that. They deal with each other politely, respectfully, retaining their strength. Sometimes, they smile at each other in spite of their weaknesses. Their bodies are worn out, but their hearts are still stronger than iron. Etched upon their wrinkled faces is the pain of an unjust time.

I stare in awe at the dry skin of their wizened hands, and I wonder, What did these hands do? How many people did they save? How many broken souls did these hands heal? How many times did they hold a child? How many, and how many…? Legends may have been written on these wretched countenances, events narrated by men on the tintype of the past, never to come back except through reminiscence.

They check up on each other every morning, aware that their souls are in the midst of an expeditious transition. Within Room 6, there lies a wide variety of meanings, understood only by those who enter or reside there.

When one bed is covered with a white sheet and the patient’s file, hanging in front, is removed, tears roll down their furrowed cheeks. It’s as if the Grim Reaper dwells on the ceiling of the room, stalking them, lurking in silence, waiting to snatch their souls by surprise. Death represents the caterer who offers the best service for its patients.

Strange wishes! They are racing toward their eventual departures. Watching a fellow patient die hastens their own transition, jolts them closer to the death convoy. The ailing, aged inpatients no longer beg for longevity but every day wish for imminent, dignified deaths. They have lived significant lives and wish to depart with silent grandeur—humiliation and pitying looks are options not on the table. All they ask from Allah is a swift, benign death.

Room 6 is a series of tragic incidents: an epic written by people who inherited towering statures. They make up a story told by heroic men who do not know the fatigue and boredom of the winds of poverty, who are now efficiently brought by time to leave a mark on the brow of day, informing the world of the ends of brave men.

About the contributor

Fares A. Al-Hammzani, translated by Essam M.Al-Jassim
About the writer: Fares A. Al-Hammzani is a Saudi short-story writer and an active academic researcher in the area of improving health care. Mr Al-Hammazani holds a PhD in Healthcare Management from Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. He has written three collections of short stories, which have been well received. About the translator: Essam M. Al-Jassim is a Saudi writer and translator. He taught English for many years at Royal Commission schools in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. He received his bachelor's degree in foreign languages and education from King Faisal University, Hofuf. His translations have appeared in various online and print Arabic and English literary journals.

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