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Disposable Cities

They begin as rumours, snippets of exaggerated talk, too fabulous to believe, but too alluring to forget. Something has been found: gold, silver, rubber, uranium, coltan or oil. Before long, the promise of immeasurable wealth drowns all incredulity: they become barely visible blips on the horizon of prospects. The engineers in their hard hats and linens are the first on the ground, and with them come derricks, drills, platforms and dry docks. Pipelines sink their tentacles into every lucrative crevice marked on the map. The maps are kept secret.

A handful of shacks are erected to provide a few basic services. Soon enough, the handful swells into a hamlet, then a village, and finally a city. They are the perfect sort of settlement for the modern world: everything is shipped in and easily assembled. The cities have a primary and overriding purpose: to extract, process, and distribute. Just like a motorised pump draws water out of a well, they start inhaling people from all over the world, one desperado at a time.

At first, these new arrivals find their new ‘homes’ unsettling. They find it difficult to adjust to their weird climates and are frazzled by the confusion of languages. No one is under any illusions: they are ephemeral guests, non-citizens; belonging is a dream best forgotten or deferred. Most have come empty-handed, having traded their old lives for grubstakes. Lots of money sloshes around, but most of it is spent just staying alive, and when it runs out, people watch their lives fall apart. Everyone lives in a heightened state of awareness: one false move and they’re gone. The poorer they are, the more modest their gambles, which more often than not make them poorer. ‘Beggars don’t build homelands’, they tell themselves, fantasising about the day when they might return home and become someone.

Meanwhile, the myth travels to the four corners of the planet. More than cities, these El Dorados are a state of mind: places where people come to reinvent themselves and live out their most eccentric fantasies. All conurbations live out their lot and die, but these disposable cities are special: mushrooms of greed that can burst out of nowhere: Greenland, the Amazon, the Yukon, the Empty Quarter; areas of the world usually thought uninhabitable.

However, these cities’ fame is fleeting. Once bled dry, their roads go raw with potholes, chickens roam loose in the opera houses, power-lines sag, and then rot seeps in and tars all in sight. Only those unlucky enough not to make it stay in town for the decline. One day, the wind howls and the last tent comes undone. The lie has moved on to the next disposable city. When I was a child, my mother used to tell me that lies had short legs, and thus could not get very far. Somebody lied to her.

André Naffis-Sahely is the author of The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin UK, 2017). He is currently a Visiting Teaching Fellow at Manchester Met’s Writing School and is the poetry editor of Ambit magazine. He is from Abu Dhabi, but was born in Venice to an Iranian father and an Italian mother. His translations include over twenty titles of fiction, poetry and nonfiction, featuring works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Rashid Boudjedra, Abdellatif Laâbi and Alessandro Spina.

This work was selected from the submissions for “Fake“.

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