Silkworm: The Thoughts of a Cleaning Man

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Artwork by Jumana Alshami

After an evening full of dust, rustling plastic bags, and other waste from passersby, I stand on the pavement leaning on my broom. I feel the fatigue crushing my joints and think to myself: that’s enough…

Yes. Enough for today, it‘s late, the streets feel lethargic, and I need a cup of tea to organize my thoughts. I lean against a wall, reaching high into the sky. I had looked elegant and clean a short while ago, or at least that is how I looked to my wife, who complimented me – and she hasn‘t done that in a long time. When I left home she said, “You look nice.”

I felt an inner glow extend towards her warm eyes. For a moment I imagined myself elegant; but now my mind is set ablaze with the thought of my clothes, now dirty…

At that moment I had thought of giving her a long kiss. To let her know how ecstatic I felt by her compliment, and perhaps I wanted her to repeat those words again. Honestly, I don‘t know. I looked closely into her eyes, and I could see that she expected a kiss from me, a kiss I had wished for too.

I hesitated, and suddenly snapped back to reality.

It was like a bubble had formed in my mind, and I imagined someone prying on us from the window of a tall building.

Maybe I did not want to reveal myself to my wife as an emotional man. If one nice word sprouted a kiss, I would easily be overwhelmed by her endless demands. I settled for a short smile.

I look at my new orange suit with enthusiasm, although I know it will last for at least half a year, and I will not get another before then. By then it will resemble a threadbare pile of the world‘s waste.

As I walk along the street, my body is pounded with disgusted looks. A ring of dust surrounds me, and as people pass by, they turn and face another direction, avoid approaching me, cover their faces and move past swiftly. I am absorbed by my broom. I gently polish the face of the street. I stare at the passing faces, and sprinkle more of my sweat on the earth to calm the dust.


The street’s waste accumulates in front of me as my broom sweeps up mountains of discarded objects: plastic bags, crushed cigarette butts, rolls of paper, old newspapers, chewed lumps of qat, cars honking, motorcycles roaring. Bewildered stares catch the ring of dust as it gathers around me, laughter and curses of young people crowding around, girls giggles that I cannot understand, sensual scents from women who animate the pavement, footsteps of idle adolescents dragging out time, a wave of clamor rippling through the place…

Artwork by Jumana Alshami

The sound of a passing voice, offering his services from afar and waving his hands, disappears into the crowd. I observe the container as it fills with waste. I lift my head and I feel sweat race down my back and chest, and my nose almost burns as it catches the scent of my labor. It is the right moment to have a cup of tea and rest.

The street is quiet now. I will park the waste container. I pause to think, and suddenly something springs to mind.

“I will park, or put something aside” is a phrase used by businessmen, intellectuals, writers in newspapers, with arrogance when they write or speak: I will park the car, I will put the book aside, I put my thoughts aside

Hahaha, it’s okay, I will use the phrase in my own way and “park the container”.

I clap the dust off my hands and feel the full weight of exhaustion that hangs over my shoulders. As I sit down to celebrate the clean street with a cup of tea, drops of rain begin to fall, the rain too seems to celebrate the elegance of the street.

My glances alternate between the cardamon that is floating on the surface of my tea and the street, which now seems to me graceful and elegant under the orange lights, with drops of rain adding a final shine.

I discreetly look at my clothes, examine my elegance, and quietly go back to sipping my tea, and contemplate my elegance against the street’s glow.

Cool winds begin to blow, and the rain drops cheerfully and lightly bounces off the face of the asphalt. A few drops splash into my cup. The streetlights contemplate their reflection in the puddles, uninterrupted by the rapid steps of passersby with sleepy eyes. There is the faint sound of a familiar song coming from the door of a nearby shop. I extend my listening capabilities, convinced it is the sound of an old wooden radio: “The more I smile to hide the pain of love, the louder I hear the tears falling from my heart.”* I merge with the sound, and start to feel the warmth of the song pass through me as the wind hits the pavement.

It is as if I was sitting between the strings of the oud; as if it were years before; hours away from these concrete forests, I reached out to the stars calmly… singing.

Artwork by Jumana Alshami


The cold cup of tea stings my lips, and I wake to the sound of a car that has broken through the silence and ripped away its elegance. For a moment I see the sky pouring with familiar things. Before the waste and debris scatter again, it rises up into the sky and then pours down again and lands near me, splashing my eyes and slapping my ears. Echoes of sporadic thumps of debris, of waste falling from the roofs, spread across the asphalt, against a sound left behind by a frantic car: You worm… You insect…

I rub my eyes and think about the sound. I examine my elegance in silk, layered over the waste-filled street. I crawl to the pavement like an insect and lean against a wall that extends to the sky, and on my shoulders rests a long street lined with debris.




*From the song by Ayoub Tarish, with lyrics by Abdullah Abdulwahab Noman-Al Fadoul.


Photo courtesy of the author

Hisham Mohammed is a Yemeni writer and researcher. He earned his BSc in Chemistry and researches public policy. He began his writing career by publishing poetry in local newspapers and has since expanded into prose and published his literary works in several newspapers and magazines. Mohamed has participated in numerous literary and political seminars and is a member of the Yemeni Writers’ Union. In 2008 he received the President‘s Award in Story Writing for his collection Color Metaphors. He has published two collections of stories: Half a Woman Temporarily (2012, Dar Merit, Cairo) and Color Metaphor  (2015, President‘s Award, Sana’a) and has a forthcoming collection due this year.

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