When Waking Begins


Arts & Culture

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy (detail), 1760, oil on canvas, 15 1/4 x 26 1/4″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Glowing brighter and brighter. Slowly the eyes open. Rays fall across retinas. Drowsily they roam about and, for a brief spell, memory of reality meshes with this most current impression and the space becomes both familiar and strange. Then waking begins.

Walter Benjamin writes that every true waking is a reshaping of reality. He describes this waking as a technique: the reclamation of what is past, not as complete facts or truths but as a period of time that can be reshaped simply by making contact with the waker’s present. Benjamin’s interest is focused on sleeping and waking as collective acts. In this sense, revolution—or awakening—is to wake from a prolonged collective slumber, and Benjamin’s moment of waking is the moment in which memory is shaped anew, in which the group—the masses—gradually reclaims its self-awareness through political action and becomes capable of reformulating reality, of providing an explanation of the dream in which it was caught, and emerges from collective absence into a new reality.

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin writes, “The coming awakening stands, like the Greeks’ wooden horse, in the Troy of dreams.” Waking waits for the right moment to attack the land of sleep and liberate it. The wakers want to be freed from sleep’s grasp and the only way this can happen is to invoke the incomplete past so that it might be renewed beneath the gaze of the present moment, changing both past and present. For history is not a succession of finite moments but a chain of breaks. And waking, in Benjamin’s understanding, is memory’s rebirth at the fleeting intersection of past and present, an instant that flares like a spark: reality ceases to be a stage on which history repeats itself and becomes a living substance in which the gunpowder of history detonates.

—Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger


Haytham El Wardany is an Egyptian writer of short stories and experimental prose who lives and works in Berlin.

Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic prose and poetry who is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

From The Book of Sleep, by Haytham El Wardany, translated by Robin Moger. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Seagull Books. Distributed by University of Chicago Press. First published in English translation by Seagull Books © 2020.