Presented here for the first time in English, the cult writer Charles Chahwan—"Lebanon's answer to Charles Bukowski"—tells a tale of rival militiamen euphoric with violence.
Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, Serge’s body appeared limp and more slouched than usual as he rested against the back seat of the shared taxi, a Morris Princess. He was the sole passenger in the service as it made its way down the coastal highway, as if other potential passengers had unconsciously decided to leave him be, perhaps so he could burrow deeper into his solitude. The light streaming in generously through the window descended on top of his broad winter jacket and baggy trousers. That very light shaded a portion of his face and his crooked hand behind the smoke of a half-lit cigarette. His face was covered in deep creases that surrounded his two small, gloomy eyes. He was a young man, not yet thirty, but with the features of an old man. Everything about him—his face, his eyes, his hands, his clothes—seemed worn out, as if whatever was inside him was remote and forgotten long ago. It never occurred to him that the pain he suffered from at night or when he woke up feeling weak was caused by some chronic illness. My body has nothing to do with all that is happening, he would tell himself, the two things are unrelated. The body has no capacity to remember pain. Everything ailing me is rooted within myself. This thought always settled it for him.
Serge bit down on the end of his cigarette and tried to recall what the place he was headed to looked like. What he could summon were scant and hazy details. He fidgeted in his seat, and pulled a large black wallet from his jacket pocket, fishing out a flimsy, cropped photograph. He peered at the photograph for a moment, then took a pair of prescription eyeglasses from his other jacket pocket. He put on the glasses and peered again at the picture like someone gazing and trying to make out a figure far away. In the picture, he could see himself and his friend Francis, scrawny and laughing. They looked like a pair of mummies in the flesh—his friend Francis with his black hair and he with his long wavy hair. They were standing facing the camera with their hands on the balcony railing of Francis's apartment with its view to the harbor. The deep red and blue colors and their smiles re-ignited the spark of a lost simplicity within him, and he could picture once again the same image replicated in other disfigured photographs. He put the picture back in his wallet and peered into the area visible through the front windshield. In the opposite direction, the sun descending below the water created a radiant glimmer that mainly reminded him of the smell of fruit. The taxi turned off the highway and entered the harbor area, continuing its journey toward the shore. He murmured something to the driver to alert him where to let him off. Having lived there for a long time, he knew the area by heart. The taxi stopped at an intersection right next to an old textile factory and he got off. When he stood alone in front of the different roads branching out, he felt a tremendous, incomprehensible sense of warmth. He felt a desire to revisit and reconnect with many places he recognized. This feeling was all he needed before arriving at the house of his friend Francis. He knew full well that all he had to do was to free his emotions and open the door to anything that could put him on a different plane of consciousness. At that moment, what he felt was not that he was reliving old memories but rather as though he were a zombie. He was certain this was the explanation. When he looked out at the small square near Francis’s building, everything he saw appeared to be just as he’d known it. This feeling gave him great reassurance, so he continued moving forward with his head down; there was no need to look, this place was more real inside his head than it was in front of his eyes.
Francis lived on the third floor above the shop of al-Beiruti, the ice cream vendor. Serge had also lived in the same apartment, no. 14, for a long time. He slowly climbed the dirty stairs, stopping now and then in front of the open-air window in the wall facing the staircase to look at the buildings in the near vicinity. Opposite the building there was a small amusement park with its colorful steel rides and a giant elevated Ferris wheel adjacent to a large brick building. He reached the apartment and twice knocked weakly on the door, then looked again to confirm. Yes, this was it—no. 14. He knocked again, this time with more force. When the door suddenly opened, Serge was leaning on the adjoining wall. He gazed straight into Francis’s eyes for more than a minute, without either of them uttering a word.
They were like a pair of pouncing wolves as they embraced. They kept holding each other while shouting each other’s names. When they finally let go of each other, their gazes glowed with tenderness. Francis was the same age as Serge, but his facial features were quite different. He was tall and dark-skinned with pitch-black eyes, and although the rest of his body seemed scrawny, he had prominent, bulging biceps—a young man full of vitality.
At sunset, the two sat down on a couple of straw chairs on the balcony that looked onto the dilapidated swimming pool. They began slowly sipping cups of tea held between their hands, then placing them on the small coffee table between them. They carried on like this for a while. When they had finished their tea, Francis got up and slipped inside. Serge remained on the balcony for quite some time, watching the evening unfold in front of him. When Francis finally came back, he grabbed Serge by the shoulders. Serge wasn’t startled at all, not even bothering to turn around. When it was completely dark, Francis ushered Serge inside, shut the door to the balcony, and they sat inside facing each other. They exchanged words every now and then, but most of the time they grinned broadly each time their eyes met. Later, it began to rain. The rain became unbelievably heavy, to the point that the raindrops obscured most of the balcony’s glass door facing them. It soon became cold and Serge asked Francis to turn on the electric heater. When he did so, Serge took off his shoes and sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. Everything was peaceful. The rain did not stop for quite some time and it made strange sounds on the balcony and on the water between the boats docked nearby. When Serge told his friend that he liked these sounds, Francis's response emanated from the kitchen: “They mean nothing to me.” The apartment had no books, just an empty birdcage. Francis appeared at the kitchen door, and then suddenly flung himself onto the cot in the other corner of the living room. Serge looked over at him and saw his face was as calm as could possibly be, just as he noticed a black revolver below Francis’s pillow, and nothing else.
Neither of them felt like sleeping, and the room had become warm, almost hot. Francis started talking about his old car. At some point, Serge got up to turn on the television but then decided against it. Each one was staring uneasily at the room in a different direction when there was a violent knocking at the door. They glanced at each other; then someone called out Francis’s name. Evidently, Francis recognized the voice. He got up slowly, muttering, “What could this guy want at this hour?” He arrived at the door, and when he opened it, he could not see anyone there (nor could Serge from where he was). Then he heard someone’s voice again call out from the end of the hallway. Annoyed, Francis stepped outside. Before he could see anything or react, bullets riddled his body and sent it flying all over the place as if it were dancing. His body did not land in front of the door; the bullets were like tremendous punches driving it farther and farther away.
Serge watched it all unfold but could not seem to hear anything. Then he suddenly started hearing everything and got as close to the door as he possibly could. The bullets coming out of the barrel of the machine gun flashed like lightning, emitting a thunderous, painful din. The gunshots ceased. He heard men jostling as they all bounded down the stairs. He could also hear them cursing filthily. He took a deep breath and picked up the revolver—the first time he’d ever held one in his hand. He felt certain he was breathing not air but hatred.
The rain outside had stopped. Serge threw on his loose-fitting overcoat and grabbed the revolver from the bed. The overcoat flapped from side to side as he charged into the hallway. With the revolver in his hand, he looked as if he’d come straight off the cover of an old crime novel. He stopped and knelt beside Francis, who was no longer alive. Serge began stroking his forehead, begging him to say something, to at least wake up. Francis’s eyes were wide open but he did not wake up, nor did he speak. Serge picked him up and held him close to his chest. He held him close to his beating heart, then pressed his face to his own and wept profusely. Then he heard the voices of the same men in the street down below. They were yelling like wild animals. He got up and ran down the staircase to a window on the landing. He took a look at the revolver in his hand, then looked at them below. They hovered around their dark-colored military jeep and appeared exactly like cold-blooded killers. The square around them was damp and glistening from the rain. It did not feel right to him, but he knew hesitating was impossible. He fired a round of shots in the killers’ direction and watched as some of them dropped to the pavement. He could hear their bodies hit the damp ground with a thud. The others returned fire, the bullets whizzing past him. When his revolver had run out of bullets, he retreated. The shots fired near the window continued unabated. In his dazed view, the brick houses across the street seemed crooked. That’s how they should be, he thought. He tossed away the revolver and knelt over Francis’s body to kiss him one last time. He could hear them coming up the stairs, screaming with a terrifying savagery. It seemed there was nowhere to escape but the roof. He started to run toward the stairs, then scurried up them until he reached the roof. The rain had begun again. He felt so frail that his body felt like a flimsy sheet of paper.
When the wind passed through his hair, he could feel it had grown slightly longer, as it was brushing against his shoulders. He stopped for a moment to look at the houses, then turned to look at the sea. He could feel both looking back at him, as if they were meant to do so. Then he suddenly found himself before the sloped brick roof of the neighboring building. Down below, he heard them again firing their guns and screaming like wild animals. Serge realized he was barefoot. It was not going to be possible for him to go back for his shoes. He hurried to the building ledge and in a single move jumped to the sloped roof, sprawling across the brick surface as he landed. When he sensed that he was all right and not in danger of falling, he started to carefully crawl along the edge of the sloped brick roof until he reached the iron ladder that led to the courtyard of the house below. He descended the ladder toward the courtyard and jumped over the fence to the neighboring courtyard. He climbed the ladder up to the neighboring house’s roof and then began jumping from one roof to the next. He looked like a white butterfly in the night flitting above a river of blood. When he reached the roof of the last building on the block, he went down its ladder into the building’s courtyard. While standing there, he could make out the sound of the heavy gunfire, which penetrated deep inside his ears with every shot. At that moment, the rainfall became heavier. His overcoat became wet and the moisture seeped through, soaking his body and chilling him to the bone.
Serge spotted a door on the balcony of one of the higher floors. He had no choice but to climb up to it on the building’s ladder. He climbed over the edge, then stepped closer and grabbed the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed the door open and went inside. Dripping wet, he continued until he found himself inside a bedroom. In front of him stood a young woman staring at him in the darkness.
“I beg you,” he said, then said in a hushed voice. “They’re going to kill me.”
There wasn’t another sound in that cold room high above the ground. There was complete silence as they stood facing each other in that cold room high above the street. The woman drew closer and gently caressed his face. “Don’t be afraid,” she reassured him.
He stood there as she locked the door. He said he could not see her well. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to discern her a little better. He repeated that he was still scared. Only when she switched on the dim lamp near her bed could he properly see her face and body. She was remarkably attractive. She drew near again and ran her fingers through his hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You have a beautiful face,” she murmured.
“You need to take your clothes off,” she continued. “Come here and sit on this chair. I’ll help you.” Serge went and sat down. Her bed seemed comfortable. She helped him remove his clothing, and when he was undressed, she brought a large towel from her wooden closet and wrapped it around his torso. “You’re so skinny,” she remarked as she tightened the towel around him, “but you have a pretty face.” Then she dried his long hair. The weak lightbulb gave off a strange purple light in the dimly lit room, which reflected eerily off her bedsheets.
When she was finished, she took Serge by the arm and led him, still wrapped up in the towel, to her bed. There, she removed the towel and covered him with a warm blanket. The sweet scent of the bedsheets penetrated deeply into his nostrils. His eyes followed her as she walked to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the sheets until their bodies were touching. She began to run her hands all over his body, which was still cold. When he could feel her warm breath right on his chest, Serge closed his eyes.
© Charles Chahwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Suneela Mubayi. All rights reserved.
Edited by Dohra Ahmad, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature puts together a challenging and insightful collection that attempts to reveal the myriad ways of experiencing human movement across nations and cultures.
To anyone who regularly gets stuck in the news cycle, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature may seem somewhat overdue. Migration issues have received an increasing amount of media coverage over the past several years, often within a context of violence and disasters, as the number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide hit record highs. Stories of migration are usually presented using imagery meant to provoke strong, and often contradictory, emotional responses. The picture of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015 will not be easily forgotten, but nor will drone-shot images of last winter’s Central American migrant caravans. The first image was used to foster empathy; the second, to incite fear.
While these emotional responses are telling, they are also fleeting. An anthology like this one gives the topic of migration a history and genealogy, a context from which we can work to find answers in the long term. Like its many protagonists, this book arrives right on time. Editor Dohra Ahmad has curated a challenging and insightful collection that attempts to reveal the myriad ways of experiencing human movement—forced migration and exile are only a part of this story, albeit an important one.
The works in this volume span many forms, including excerpts from novels, short stories, poems, and part of a graphic novel. It includes household names like Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie as well as plenty of emerging voices. No anthology can claim to be complete, so Ahmad provides an extensive further reading (and watching) list that could keep a person busy for at least a year. With such broad parameters, anthologies can sometimes feel disjointed. But reading this book from cover to cover—as one seldom does with such a work—goes smoothly, largely due to the consistency of its selection and organization.
The pieces are arranged into four categories: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, and Returns. The Departures epigraph reads “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” but the stories make clear that this is not always the case. In the introduction, Ahmad notes that “unambiguously involuntary migrations” are, in fact, rather rare. While we tend to be more emotionally generous in situations of forced migration, most migrations lie in a gray area. Many migrations—including this reviewer’s—are made freely and happily. To this end, Ahmad states that she hopes for a world in which “all migrations may be as optional and as joyous as they are enriching.”
While some migrations do indeed end in the United States, these narratives, read together, challenge the idea of America (or Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia) as the promised land. The multidirectional journeys present migration as a global issue and will hopefully undermine the hegemony the Western world believes it holds as an immigrant destination.
We begin with The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, a memoir written in the eighteenth century by Equiano himself about his kidnapping and journey from what is present-day Nigeria to the British West Indies on a slave ship. Initially, the narration is sparse and observational—a child’s-eye view—but it builds up to the terrorizing scene of the slave trade. Surviving the journey but about to be sold at auction, Equiano comments on the loss that permeates many of the anthology’s stories. His emphasis on the slaves’ lack of reservations or misgivings is particularly devastating, even more so as in some regards it still feels uncomfortably familiar today:
In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again.
Equiano’s memoir is followed by the equally distressing “Zong! #5” by Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip. This poem is based on the legal decision (Philip is a former lawyer) to throw a hundred slaves overboard on a British ship to cash in on the insurance claims. Due to navigational errors, the ship was running low on drinking water, and letting the slaves die of dehydration would have resulted in financial losses.
By the time these first two works on involuntary migration have shock us, we come to a third transoceanic story, Julia Otsuka’s “Come, Japanese!” Young Japanese women sail to meet their future husbands and an American future where
the women did not have to work in the fields and there was plenty of rice and firewood for all [. . .] And wherever you went the men held open the doors and tipped their hats and called out, “Ladies first” and “After you.”
Otsuka’s piece exposes how voluntary migrations, especially those so-called economic migrations, are sometimes tied to false conceptions about the destination. As Shauna Singh Baldwin observes in “Montreal 1962,” “this was not how they described emigrating to Canada . . . No one said then, ‘You must be reborn white-skinned—and clean-shaven to show it—to survive.’” Many false professions also permeate the Mexico-United States border. The bitter disappointment of making it past la frontera is introduced in Francisco Jiménez’s “Under the Wire” when the child protagonist explains, “This is California!” and his older, wiser brother responds, “I am not so sure.”
The anthology also includes stories of migration that do not involve crossing borders, but rather movement from rural villages to urban centers. Internal migrants face not only culture shock, but also the stripping away of ties to land and family. Mohsin Hamid summarizes this best in an excerpt from How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia:
In this history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential.
These observations can help us examine how we have changed, and continue to change, as a social species. Rural culture is characterized by strong family ties, intimacy, and community-minded behaviors, whereas urban culture is marked by distant bloodlines, isolation, and competition. By drawing lines across centuries, the authors prove that we cannot understand migration today without taking a deep look at capitalism, industrialization, colonialism, and the legacy of slavery.
Some writers included in the anthology explore the experience of assimilation and the attempt to create a sense of home in a new place. An except from Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis 2depicts the catch-22 situation of trying to assimilate without betraying one’s roots. The protagonist in Sam Salvon’s “Come Back to Grenada” isn’t so interested in such a compromise. Having left the Caribbean and settled in the United Kingdom, he forms a community with fellow immigrants and develops English habits like “drinking tea all the time” and “reading the newspaper in the tube and bus.” He even finds that “when he think ’bout home it does look so far away that he feel as if he don’t belong there no more.”
Displacement is not the only common thread in these works. Regardless of time or geography, many symbols and tropes are consistent in migration literature. These include water, both a symbol of possibility and of life-threatening precarity. The ocean is a specter in the stories that depict the African slave trade, as well as in Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea,” a heartrending story of the passage from Haiti. While Philip invokes the “perils of water” in “Zong! #5,” Danticat’s narrator explicitly draws the link between centuries when he asks, “Do you want to know how people go to the bathroom on the boat? Probably the same way they did on those slave ships years ago.” Water is equally present in our shared imagery of today’s treacherous migratory routes.
Other authors included in this anthology look at the seemingly banal aspects of migration—paperwork, bribery, administration, and seemingly endless waiting. In Salman Rushdie’s “Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies,” the criminal offer of false papers is simply a “facilitation”—but the migration ultimately never happens. In Dinaw Mengestu’s lingering “An Honest Exit,” a professor tells his students the story of how his father fled Ethiopia, waiting for weeks on end for a smuggler to arrange his passage in a small crate on a ship. The wait is excruciating, riddled with stale excuses for the lack of movement, and speaks to the systematic inertia of migration processes around the world. The students are touched, except later the professor admits embellishing most, if not all, of the story. Mengestu recognizes that the children and grandchildren of immigrants often grapple with fragmented family histories:
I needed a history more complete than the strangled bits that he had owned and passed on to me—short, brutal tale of having been trapped as a stowaway on a ship. So I continued with my father’s story, knowing I would have to make up the missing details as I went.
Perhaps it is worth remembering when reading this anthology that in many languages the word for story and history are the same.
Since it spans centuries, or maybe because it offers such a rich and varied sample of migration stories, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature lacks the sense of urgency that accompanies the real and terrible vulnerability of today’s involuntary migrants. Some people may find that the volume also has surprisingly (and disappointingly) few works in translation. And, despite its aim to come full circle, it is like a one-act play—no one can say how migration will change and evolve, and the human stories with it, in the coming years. However, this anthology invites us to listen to the voices of migrants and, through the authors’ commitment to encountering them, asserts itself as a politically powerful volume. By presenting history as human stories, it acts as a gateway to empathy and understanding. The collection succeeds where politicians, international organizations, and even journalists sometimes fail because it reminds us of our common humanity. This thoughtful and provoking anthology from Penguin deserves its spot as the new cornerstone text for anyone interested in migration—indeed, the human condition—today.
The year 2021 will mark the five-hundred-year anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in the Philippine Islands, an event associated with the first circumnavigation of the world, led by Ferdinand Magellan. Both historical points launched the mapping and invasion of many parts of the archipelago for more than three hundred years, followed by an American invasion that has furthered the country’s long, tragic history of coming under the rule of one colonial power after another while remaining subjugated throughout.
In a time when the country is enmeshed in a territorial dispute with its new aggressor China, we remember. We remember and remain vigilant in the face of the apparatus—the apparatus controlled by the state, academic agencies, and businesses—the exact same one that purports to compel us to remember. We remember the five hundred years since Europeans and their Christianity arrived at the archipelago they linked to the patron saint Lazarus, the leper, the biblical character raised from the dead. We remember the Europeans’ supposed discovery of our islands, even as the necessary struggle for self-determination rightfully continues in the southern end of the archipelago, where the Bangsamoro people of Mindanao live.
Although the history of the Philippines is often just a cursory note in or a supplemental extension to the colonial discourse that is still the go-to marker of religion and civilization, the works we have selected challenge a monolithic view of the fragmented histories and interconnected, overlapping cultures in the Philippines. That monolithic take was reinforced in the Marcos dictatorship era’s propagation of the isang bansa, isang diwa (one country, one consciousness) stasis in preparation for Bagong Lipunan (The New Society). The new writings in this groundbreaking Philippines issue of Words Without Borders are founded mostly on hope—hope for the eventual collapse of this monolithic, monopolizing, crippling structure.
Among the more than 150 languages in the archipelago, English and the national language Filipino remain dominant in literary production. In the past few years, however, there has been a vigorous stream of writing from the regions, including literatures in the languages Bikol, Ilokano, Kapampangan, Minasbate, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a Binisaya, and from other ethno-linguistic communities. One example comes in Voltaire Oyzon’s Waray-language poem, “Water.” Oyzon presents that substance as an unwanted guest, an invader that can just as easily steal our possessions; yet we still find ourselves trying to please—even appease—it, recognizing again and again our natural affinity for the water that surrounds us.
Like Oyzon, also writing in their respective native languages are Genevieve Asenjo, who writes in Kinaray-a and Hiligaynon, and Enrique Villasis writing in Minasbate. Asenjo and Villasis are also avid Filipino-language writers, and their pieces here are translated from that language. It is apparent from their writings how their common inclination to write in both their native languages and Filipino has enriched their work; their native cultures have informed how they reworked Filipino. Meanwhile, in the poems of Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles and Marlon Hacla, both Filipino poetry and language itself present as revelatory enterprises. The two poets skillfully explore the philosophy of language, the meaning of experiences—even when they are brutally frank or still steeped in the irony or absurdity of characters arching back to the site of lalang ng grabedad, the hub of either pleasure or painful complexity of a city, a city whose claws resemble that of a raptor that feeds on our light.
Instead of America or the Middle East, the typical spaces for migrant Filipinos and usual stimulus for their narratives, Asenjo’s story “Norebang” takes place in South Korea. That choice is noteworthy, as South Korea in recent years has been aggressive in its cultural forays into Filipino consciousness. The conduits, which have been effective in their infusion, include Korean telenovelas, fashion, and technological gear, as well as Korean immigrants learning English from Filipino teachers, spouses, and house help.
In a conversation with WWB, Jessica Hagedorn considers the intersections of the many languages of the Philipines with each other and with English and how that affects Philippine literature. That relational dynamic of Philippine languages with English can also be seen in the fluid way Daryll Delgado and Tito Genova Valiente have tried to own colonial language. Although their stories are originally written in English, they are fortified with their authors’ uniquely specific experiences from the islands of Samar and Ticao, respectively, both places present and very much alive in the works’ theme, style, and language. This is no longer the English of the American colonial education from the early twentieth century. Delgado’s narrative on the ruins in the wake of super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in 2013 emphasizes the Waray word dunot and the subversive jokes of Johnny Pusong. Valiente, on the other hand, neatly recounts the nursemaid Erlina’s story and her love for the mythical creature Onglo. Valiente reimagines sugilanon—roughly described as “kuwentong katulong, mga kuwento ng kababalaghan” (“stories for the house help, stories of the supernatural”)—which he uses in his construction of an ethnography for driving discussion on the logic of experience rooted in the islands where it is sourced, cultivated, or erased. Valiente writes,
I keep waiting for more tales from Ticao but there have been no tales from the place. Perhaps there are no more narrators. Perhaps, they have cut the trees where enchanted creatures take their entrance and exit to our world. Perhaps, the enchanted beings have all died . . . what Ticao has now are tales about corruption, election fraud, poverty, and killings. They are the new tales of enchantment and I do not have access to their narrators.
This violence, sometimes mistaken for backlash after the long period of colonial and imperialist aggression, remains familiar—even cozy in its predictability—because it never really went away. It simply changes shape, becomes articulated in a different language, possibly gets called a different name. M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac’s poem on the harrowing plight of the indigenous Badjao tribe and Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano’s Binisaya short story on the creeping militarization in indigenous communities attest to the near-ubiquity of this violence. In Tumamac’s poem and Serrano-Quijano’s story, laid bare is the vicious encroachment into and persistently dissolving boundaries between the confines of home and its environs, a revolutionary and a member of the state’s military complex beholden to the whims of the ruling class, a native and a foreigner.
Just like the literatures of the world, this issue’s short fiction and poetry selections impart their own set of complexities and proclivities, sense of purpose and of place. It is in literature that we find the bulk of experiences that deepen our understanding of the world, regardless of the sensitivity of the themes that get brought to the fore. Moreover, the writers in this issue have been keen on advancing their understanding of what discovery entails. And it may well be the discovery learned from the navigation that has taken us across or forced us to skirt the compulsions and cruelties of our colonial-feudal society. It may also be the discovery that comes with awe, with truly learning at last to speak our languages, to see through the manifold us, a move that might obligate us to hope.
© 2019 by Kristian Sendon Cordero and Kristine Ong Muslim. All rights reserved.
We’ve marked this season in previous years by bringing you ghost stories and tales of mourning. This year, we’re exploring excursions into the otherworldly: that liminal space where lives and afterlives mingle and merge and the quotidian gives rise to the extraordinary.
The three pieces here portray characters meeting emissaries from realms beyond our own. A detective cracks a case with not-quite-earthly help; a relentless double trails an increasingly frustrated original; a smug general discovers himself outwitted by a mysterious, yet strangely familiar, visitor. The results of these confrontations range from triumphant to catastrophic as the boundaries between worlds dissolve.
In “The Checkers Player” by Yves Rémy and Ada Rémy, a general confronts an unexpected opponent. On the eve of a crucial battle, he is visited by a mysterious stranger who challenges him to a game of checkers. The general triumphs in both the game and the next day’s conflict, and a pattern is established: the stranger appears the night before battles, his game plan foretells that of the next day’s enemy, and the general’s victory in the game predicts the result on the battlefield. But when the visitor returns after the commander’s retirement, the general recognizes the terrifying truth behind his apparent victories. The authors, a married French pair, are writers and filmmakers best known for their classic alternate European history Les Soldats de la mer (The Soldiers of the Sea), from which this piece is taken.
Robert Marcuse’s “Juan Manuel’s Shadow” also features a battle, in this case an existential duel between the title character and his sclerotic originator. Sodden misanthrope Juan Manuel decides he needs no one, not even his shadow, and sets out to rid himself of this constant companion. When his increasingly desperate attempts to shake his shadow prove fruitless, he makes one final, violent effort. Like the general, he appears to have vanquished his bête noire; and like the general’s, his assumed triumph is revealed as anything but a victory. A Belgian-born Holocaust survivor whose family fled Europe for Uruguay during World War II, the trilingual Marcuse began writing fiction only in his seventies, and went on to publish several novels and the collection of short stories in which “Juan Manuel’s Shadow” appears.
Luiz Carlos Lisboa’s “His Very Last Case” sees two police detectives collaborate on their most challenging investigation. When his best friend on the force dies of a sudden illness and leaves a generous pension to his oddly untroubled widow, Detective Clemente’s suspicions are pricked; and when he uncovers proof of her extramarital activities, he becomes determined to expose the death as a murder. An assist, and the proof of guilt, come from a most unexpected yet incontestable source. Lisboa, a Brazilian lawyer turned journalist and writer, is the author of some forty books, as well as a translator from English, French, and Spanish into Portuguese.
We hope you’ll enjoy these journeys into the beyond and their glimpses of multiple states of being. And, as with everything we publish, we trust that these ventures into other worlds will only expand and enhance your own.
© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A game of checkers has life-and-death consequences in this short story by Ada Rémy and Yves Rémy.
General Arthur Shine-Levis tells his friends he fought eight battles during the campaign of Winter ’44 to Spring ’45. Eight times over, he emerged victorious. “Because I’m a solid checkers player,” he adds. He is entreated to explain himself. He obliges.
“It was the eve of my first battle. A quiet night. Not a whisper in camp, just the footfalls of the soldiers on watch. I sat, contemplative, in my tent. A man in a black cape and top hat lifted the flap and entered. ‘Guards!’ I cried. The man shrugged, the guards came bursting in, I ordered them to arrest the intruder. ‘What intruder?’ they replied. I pointed at the man. I was met with contrived expressions, fatuous smiles. ‘Well? What are you waiting for? Carry out my orders!’
“‘It must have been a dream, sir,’ a soldier ventured.
A storm lantern burns atop a crate, casting a pale but satisfactory glow.
“‘Don’t insist. You alone can see and hear me.’
“The man wasn’t lying. I dismissed the guards, after passing it off as the foolishness of someone still half-asleep. A general who has dreams, that much they’d put up with, but a general who sees ghosts? A general never sees ghosts.
“The man in the cape took out a set of checkers. His face was so severe, his eyes so imperious, that I did his bidding without question. He was a first-rate player. He was wily and blocked my moves. At long last, I took a nasty piece of his that had been giving me a lot of trouble. An hour later, the game was over; I emerged victorious. He vanished. Outside, dawn was aquiver. Shortly thereafter, the enemy troops neared; I was heavy with fatigue. The battle began; it lasted all day. Toward evening, I captured a hill and demolished some nasty artillery that had been keeping me pinned down. An hour later, the enemy broke off and beat a retreat, leaving behind on the field weapons and baggage, the wounded and the dead.”
General Arthur Shine-Levis opens a pouch of tobacco and sniffs a few pinches. With a single slender white hand, he sweeps the scattered shavings from his frock coat.
“Eight days later, we took up a position at Prast de Cambo. I’d set up headquarters in an old house, in a large room with a mezzanine. On the table, a map of the region. I studied it alone one last time: my second eve of battle. A dry little cough made me look up. Above me, leaning over the balcony railing, stood the man in the black cape. He came down, swept the map disdainfully aside, set the checkers game down, and ordered me to begin the game. Not as crafty as during our first encounter, he let himself be cornered; I stole his men away and crushed him in under an hour.
“The next day, I crushed the Muelno’s naval infantry forces just as easily.”
General Arthur Shine-Levis stylishly purports to be boring his friends. Exclamations of protest. With a modest wave, he assures them an old soldier like himself can only exasperate his youthful company with rumpled memories that reek of regimental leather and horse lather.
“And so, suffice it to say that the eve of every battle saw the arrival of the man in the top hat and black cape. He would slip mysteriously into my quarters, wherever they were, and invite me to play a game of checkers, lose it, then vanish. The next day, I would emerge victorious. In this way, we came to the eighth battle.
“I had fallen back to the hinterland: my men were weary. I thought to stay there for a fortnight. One evening, I was readying for bed when my visitor appeared and began our game. It was long and difficult. I was distracted, wondering if his visit did not perhaps presage some surprise for the next day; at long last I gained the upper hand and, late that night, took his men from him one by one. Furious, he left me as abruptly as he appeared.
“When the sun rose, I ordered the regiment to remain at the ready. Surprised, my officers requested an explanation. I knew not what to tell them. I was ill at ease; I feared an attack. Those nocturnal visits, always on the eve of a battle . . . I sent out patrols to scout the countryside, ordered defenses to be raised. Finally, at three o’clock in the afternoon, there was an explosion: Cortez’s troops, which we believed forty leagues distant, came clambering down the mountain to fall upon our rear. A hard-won battle, heavy losses on either side, but our attackers gave up.
“There you have it,” Arthur Shine-Levis says courteously, enveloped in an exquisite and exotic aroma of essence of citron.
“Was there no ninth battle, General?”
The speaker a young man, tall and spindly as a heron but all in all a likeable sort.
“There was indeed,” Shine-Levis replies, “but just on the checkerboard. It was a draw.
“The next day, I hesitated: before me, Cortez’s assembled forces, outnumbering us. Four hours’ march behind them, in Taransca, a regiment from Laërne. I must be cautious about committing my companies, to give our forces time to fall upon Cortez from the rear. The tie game from the night before left me worried. I feared not defeat, but a rout. What was the point of losing men, weakening my forces, if not to win? I ordered us to steal away. I was met with sharp reproach: a chance like this would not soon come again. Worse yet, were we to let the men of Laërne clash with Cortez at full strength? I ordered a retreat. You know what happened to the regiment from Laërne; they never reached Cortez’s men.
“How many escaped to Oliveiro during that unaccountable massacre in Taransca? Ten, twenty men, half a company? I could have been left waiting a long time for their help had I attacked Cortez.
“There you have it,” Arthur Shine-Levis says once more, savoring a cup of tea.
“Have you never met this visitor again, Arthur?”
The speaker a rosy old man the general’s age.
“Yes, Matthew, I think I have. When I came back to Libemoth, my service complete, I passed him in the hallway of my family home, and recognized him: he was myself, the way I look in the charcoal portrait a painter made of me when I was thirty.”
“Come now! What’s the meaning of all this? You were fighting against yourself?” A sturdy sort rankles. In the prime of his life, full of confidence.
“I might reply, Edward, that a general always fights against himself and only triumphs over the enemy after vanquishing his own fears, doubts, preconceptions, and good sense.”
“Was this story then no more than an allegory?” A young woman, her pinky finger gracefully lifted.
“Not in the least, Margaret. To defeat my visitor, I had to improvise a different strategy each time, and specific maneuvers. These maneuvers, these strategies, I then applied the next day in the field—without always realizing it, true, but always to my great satisfaction.”
“Then it was a kind of disguised revelation?”
“I believe so.”
His friends withdraw. Arthur Shine-Levis pours himself a wee snifter of brandy; his doctor has forbidden him, but he vows not to have another. A knock at the door. A visitor? Is his manservant William not on call? Shine-Levis bids his guest enter.
It is a man wearing a black cape and a top hat. Thirty-odd years of age. The spitting image of the general’s portrait that adorns the foyer, the vision of a realist painter almost forty years ago. He sets the game of checkers down on a gueridon.
Arthur Shine-Levis feels his heart falter.
“I was just speaking of you.”
“I’m well aware. Come closer, Arthur.”
Shine-Levis’s voice falls to a whisper. “You’ll not have me believe I’ve a battle to fight tomorrow.”
“You haven’t aged . . . ” he hesitated. “You’re me, at thirty.”
“But I’m only a retired general now.”
“Will you not fight one more battle, Arthur?”
“My hands are trembling. I can surmise the stakes.”
“Set out your men, Arthur.”
“Allow me to call you Arthur, in turn: I may, may I not?”
“Is it possible, Arthur, that you are my own executioner, my youth?”
“Set out your men, Arthur.”
“What are the stakes, Arthur?”
“The same as ever.”
Arthur Shine-Levis topples his pieces to the floor, so feeble is his hand.
“What are you trying to say?"
“You were wrong to impute good intentions on my part. Never have I attempted to reveal the enemy’s maneuvers. I have always applied the tactic your adversaries chose the next day, which was in theory to lead to your death. By finding an effective counter and applying it on the battlefield, you saved your life and the lives of your men, hence your victories.”
“You are contemptible, Arthur.”
“Arthur, consider tomorrow’s battle from a strictly military point of view.”
It seems, to the old man, that his own youth is mocking him.
“If I win the game . . . ” he says.
He loses. The next day, he dies.
“Who are you?” they ask the young man in a black cape and top hat following the funeral procession. He straightens up and doffs his hat. A scream; and horror engulfs them. No face. Just a checkerboard.
© Ada Rémy and Yves Rémy. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2019 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Daryll Delgado, a devastating typhoon unearths an unexpected childhood memory.
Masasarop an baha, pero diri an baba.
The flood may be contained, but never the mouth.
“. . . it was pointless to search in the places
where people were instructed to look. Sense was only to be found in secrets.”
—John Berger, Here Is Where We Meet: A Story of Crossing Paths
“Less than 12 hours from a devastating impact with the central Philippines (Friday morning local time), Super typhoon Haiyan has strengthened to mind-boggling levels. It is now among the most intense storms to form on the planet in modern records.
3:00 p.m. update (EST): The Joint Typhoon Warning Center has increased its estimate of Haiyan’s maximum sustained winds to 195 mph with gusts to 235 mph. The storm is now within a few hours of landfall in the central Philippines at peak intensity as among the most powerful storms witnessed anywhere in modern times. Widespread destruction, unfortunately, seems inevitable.
9:45 p.m. update (EST): Haiyan made landfall in the central Philippines earlier this evening (early morning in the Philippines). With estimated maximum sustained winds of 195 mph, it is thought to be the strongest storm to ever make landfall anywhere in the world in modern records.”
Jason Samenow and Brian McNoldy. “Super typhoon Haiyan strikes Philippines, among strongest storms ever.” The Washington Post. November 7, 2013.
I could almost smell it as soon as I saw it—the rotting, the decay. Dunot, stress on the second syllable. The local word came to me as the plane angled and I had a better view of the festering city, prostrate on the island’s narrow tip. The once-green island looked like an enormous animal carcass, jutting out from the sea.
The plane’s position shifted, and we lost sight of the island. All of a sudden there was nothing but intense blue water, reflecting back cloudless skies and, almost imperceptibly, our military plane wavering in the ripples like a black fly. For a while it felt like we were going to make a water landing, and then the plane righted itself before tilting toward land. As the island came into clearer view, I couldn’t help overlaying it with digital images of the storm repeatedly flashed across the TV screen: blue-green-yellow-red swirls around a black dot of an eye. A perfect storm, they say, and the tiny city right in the eye of it.
Since I started monitoring the news, I had also felt a pulsating sensation on my own eyes, even when I closed them. Not that I closed them much, operating on an average of two hours of sleep per day for the last six days. But, awake or asleep, colors continued to burst under my eyelids, a rather nauseating experience comparable to a bad trip I once had after ingesting cheap synthetic stuff. Meanwhile, to the extent that I could see, ground zero, as they’ve been calling the city, looked drained of color entirely.
“Unrecognizable, this is completely unrecognizable to me.” I heard someone behind me gasp, before mumbling something else I couldn’t make out.
“This used to be such a beautiful city . . .” someone else said.
I remembered one of the commentaries I read only that morning: It was as though the fantasy lid on the province, famed for being the hometown of the other half of the conjugal dictatorship, had finally been blown off and filthy vapors inevitably released.
Decayed, dilapidated, rotten. Dunot. There’s this joke my dad always tells (used to tell) about the word dunot. Of course, it just has to be a Johnny Pusong joke.
Johnny Pusong was driving his ramshackle, rickety jeepney in the downtown area of Tacloban one afternoon. He wanted to make a left turn to P. Gomez Street to get to Highway Supermart. He hesitated when he saw a sign in the middle of the road.
He struggled to read the words: “Do, doo, not? Ah! Du, du-not. Du-not. En, en, en-ter. Enter! Du-not. Enter. Dunot enter!” He smiled, pleased with himself, when he finally got it.
He stepped down from his dilapidated jeepney, walked over to the road sign, and pushed it to the side. He returned to his car, drove past the sign, and then got out again to return the sign to its original place.
A traffic officer saw Johnny just as he was boarding his jeepney. The officer blew his whistle furiously. He approached Johnny and slammed his fist against the windshield of Johnny’s old jeepney.
Johnny started. “Ha? Kay ano? Sorry, sorry ser. May naigo? I hit something?”
The officer pointed to the sign. “Can’t you see? There’s a big sign: Do. Not. Enter! Are you blind, dumb, or something?”
Johnny scratched his head. “Aw, kay amo balit, that’s why I entered, ser, because, because—”
“Ano, what? Speak up!”
“Uhm, kay kuan, because sign says du-du-not enter. Dunot enter. Aw, if dunot can enter, puede ako! I can enter! My car, see, is very dunot . . .”
Not really a good time for jokes. And this one was particularly bad, some would even say elitist. I hadn’t heard it in a long time. Used to make my sister, Alice, and me laugh so hard each time we heard it. Especially when Dad did Johnny, and his assistant, his sidekick, Paterno (also known as Pat, Pats, Pater, Patern, Terno, but Mano Pater or Mano Pat to me and Alice), played the role of the police. So corny. So bad. Used to make Mom so mad. Still makes me laugh.
I’ve never been able to retell the joke successfully to non-Waray friends though. The pun doesn’t translate well. But, Dad, a modestly successful lawyer and former editor of a law school journal, is (was) most proud of it. He claims (claimed) that it won first prize in a local radio contest of the best Johnny Pusong jokes. He also sometimes sent his siday—short, bawdy poems in Waray—and combined Alice’s, my, and Mom’s names for his pseudonym, Alicia Anna Magdalena Suarez, just to embarrass us. He would turn the radio to full volume in the morning, when he knew an entry of his would be read, and he’d laugh heartily over his own jokes, tears spilling from his baggy brown eyes. You wouldn’t ever hear (have heard) him bragging about difficult cases won, or articles published, but he always finds (found) an opportunity to tell his prize-winning jokes.
Verb tenses, Ann. I thought I heard my sister reprimanding me, reorienting me to reality. As is her role, as her professional training dictates.
I found myself apologizing to sister-in-my-head-Alice. Sorry, sorry. I know. It should be simple: He is gone. He has left. But he still is. Is him. Is Dad. Is here. Anyway, this is not about him—
Sister-in-my-head-Alice replied, softening. Well, it WAS Dad who taught us the rules, when we were very young, we weren’t even in school. So this IS about Dad, WILL always BE about him—
OK. Stop right there, Als. I can see what you’re doing here, and it’s annoying, very condescending. I shook my head at her, only half-smiling.
One of the pilots also shook his head, looked at me.
“I know. Grabe, ano? Just look at that. They weren’t exaggerating when they said it looks like a nuclear bomb was dropped over the island. Parang war zone ito—”
“What? Ah, yes, I mean, no, no, they weren’t exaggerating at all, no space for exaggeration there—”
“Whoa, just look at that.”
“I know. Dunot.”
“Waray term for festering, rotten, decayed. No, not do-not. Dunot. Stress on the second syllable, unless you’re making a joke—”
“A what? What’s that in Tagalog?”
The pilot tried out the word, shaking his head at the scene before him. “Dunot.”
The word sounded harsh to my Waray ears, and too much like kunot, same stress, second syllable: a violent twisting, a forceful crushing. Exactly how it felt in my stomach, as I saw more of the city. Leveled, stripped of any trace of vegetation. Brown and gray, and soggy in some parts, dry and flat in others. The wreckage that outlined the coast reminded me of miniature model houses I once saw angrily trampled on by a kid throwing a massive tantrum. Might the kid in question have been me, and the wreckage Alice’s school project? Could be. The point is, in a tantrum, nothing, no one, is spared. Just like what this angry typhoon did. It made sure not to leave any room for exaggeration indeed.
I went on standing between the two pilots and tried to locate Johnny Pusong’s Highway Supermart and other places I remembered frequenting as a child. I thought I saw the top of the neoclassical Provincial Capitol Building, once the country’s seat of government for a very brief period after The War. I was positive I identified the playground, Plaza Libertad, near the Capitol, and what looked like the fallen statues of the giant Snow White and some of her outsized dwarves. I was instructed to return to my seat as the USAF C-130 Hercules transport plane made another half-round turn, before it started to descend further, and just before I could get a chance to see if our old house near the airport had withstood the storm. Just as well, it was hard to make sense of the landscape anyway. Familiar structures no longer stood. And even if the house survived, what then? It had ceased to be ours, it had ceased to even be a house, a long time ago.
Malamrag. Masilaw. More words came to me. I took out my steno pad and wrote them quickly under “Dunot” as the plane finally landed and came to a stop. Waray for bright, dazzling, I wrote. No trees, no shade. Cloudless. I took notes rapidly, as I continued to see more. Breaking down the images into bullet points seemed a good way of keeping pinned to the official task at hand, helped to make sense of the scene that greeted us as the massive door of the plane was pulled down.
Airport terminal—washed out.
Makeshift booths for arrival, departure, aid agencies, media, celebrities.
Long lines. Many, many women and children. Disheveled, distraught.
Where are all the men?
Buringon—from the root word buring, dirt, mud.
Mud, dirt, buring, everywhere.
On their unshod feet. On their clothes. On hands clasping steel gates.
On their faces. On their matted hair.
Signs of shock?
Signs of hunger?
Enlarged pupils, bloodshot eyes. Catatonia. Anxiousness. Agitation.
Crowd control. Food supplies. Ammunition boxes. Military trucks.
American military personnel. UN Refugee Agency. Australian troops. Malaysian medics. ICRC, UNICEF, WHO, USAID, MSF, WFP, PLAN, Save the Children. (Yes, please.)
Coconut trees, palm fronds gone. Decapitated.
Other trees upturned. Roots in the air.
Brown and gray. Rot and mud.
This smell. (My god. I know this smell.)
From Remains. © 2019 by Daryll Delgado. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Johnny Pusong is a character in Eastern Visayas comic folklore noteworthy for his impertinence, impudence, and silliness. The Johnny Pusong stories are part of an oral tradition, so there is no single author. They were popularized by a local AM radio station in Tacloban, which devoted two segments, one in the morning and another in the evening, to Johnny Pusong jokes. Locals submit Johnny Pusong stories to the program and the top three stories for the day are awarded prizes such as one hundred pesos, a pack of cookies, or a meal in a local eatery.
In this short story by Robert Marcuse, a man attempts to rid himself of his own shadow.
When a man looks at his shadow, it’s because he’s thinking about something else: he looks at it without seeing it, lost in thought, and his gaze barely touches it.
We’ve lived with our shadows so long that they no longer attract our attention. They’re withdrawn and rather mysterious beings often hiding just behind us, or they peek out from the soles of our shoes. They frequently mingle with and dissolve into other shadows, creating deformed monsters that don’t even resemble us. When the sky is gray, they’re barely visible. That’s why clouds only project their shadows on sunny days. They need light, an obstacle to protect them from that light, and a surface to pick them up. Man and his shadow are like Siamese brothers, but no one knows if a shadow can live without its master or a man without his shadow.
I am Juan Manuel’s shadow. I have been ever since his birth, when in the hospital’s maternity ward, the floodlights hit him fully for the first time. He was a reddish, crying, screaming baby. I was already prettier than he was, neither reddish nor wrinkled. While he screamed his head off in the crib, I rested calm and quiet, like a well-mannered shadow. That’s because we come into the world with all the good manners learned in past lives. But Juan Manuel was just Juan Manuel, he’d never been, nor ever would be, anything else. He had to learn everything.
Like a good parasite I fed on him, and I thought that with time we could come to resemble each other more closely and understand each other better. It wasn’t like that. When he became a man he acquired a very defined and stable temperament and shape. I, on the other hand, became more and more capricious and temperamental.
I follow him everywhere and never lose sight of him; he rarely notices me. At night, when we go out for a walk, I need to be everywhere and turn constantly around him. It’s because, besides the streetlights illuminating us with predictable regularity, I also must avoid the bright glare from a window or a car’s headlights that force me to run along the wall. This constant rush to make myself long, short, and split in two is exhausting.
When we go to bed, I barely sleep. Juan Manuel turns off the light. I know sometimes it takes him a while to fall asleep, and he lies awake for hours in the dark. Plus, he dreams. That’s something I don’t do. Dreams give continuity to his life, because he often remembers them in the morning. I’ve had many consecutive lives, or a life cut in pieces, since at night I fall into a bottomless pit and disappear completely. Juan Manuel doesn’t believe in reincarnation, because people don’t reincarnate. I’ve been the shadow of many throughout centuries. I have no dreams, but I do have an infinite well of memories.
I am Juan Manuel, who I’ve been since I was born and baptized with that name. I’ve never been, nor do I want to be, anything else. I live alone, have few friends, and enjoy my independence. Everything I’ve accomplished was with great effort and without help. I don’t need anyone, not my family, my girlfriend, or even my shadow. My parents separated when I was still a child; they didn’t care about Juan Manuel. My girlfriend ran away with another man. That’s why I mention my shadow; it’s the only one still with me. I had never noticed it before. It’s strange, because it was always there. It’s quiet like me, that’s why I put up with it. But I don’t need it.
It all started when Juan Manuel’s girlfriend left him and he began drinking, something he’d never done before. One day he was sitting in an armchair in the den, a bottle in his hand, with me curled up at his feet; he looked at me, surprised, as if seeing his shadow for the first time. He mumbled, perhaps addressing me: “They say I’m all alone. But it’s not true; you’re always with me.”
His words frightened me, because people should not speak to their shadows. And I was right. That day was the beginning of a long nightmare. Juan Manuel could no longer stop observing me, or talking to me, perhaps hoping I’d answer him.
That evening, when we went for our regular walk, I had a hard time following him on the sidewalks, trying, as usual, to elude the constantly intruding lights. I realized that my skulduggery made him nervous. When we returned home he opened the door, and before going in, he bowed to me and said ironically: “After you, Your Lordship.”
Sunday I decided to visit Pedro, who lives in the suburbs. It was a nice afternoon for a drive. From time to time I’d look at the scenery to my left because the setting sun blinded me. I took a curve and had the strange feeling a car was trying to overtake me. I turned around and saw a gray spot silently speeding beside me on the highway. The car and its driver mingled into a single mass. A centaur galloped across my view. The car was following me but didn’t pass me. I moved a little toward the middle of the highway, and my pursuer did the same. Since no one was coming from the opposite direction, I moved a little farther to the left to push the other car against the markers bordering the route. Unfazed, the spot began to swallow and spit with the regularity of a metronome. I accelerated to try to leave it behind. But it was no use. I accelerated more.
One day Juan Manuel decided to go see a friend who lives in the suburbs. He took his convertible out of the garage, and we left. I settled comfortably in my big gray spot to follow him. In the beginning everything went well, despite his driving too close to the middle of the highway. Then he accelerated, trying to leave me behind. Of course he couldn’t, because I don’t need to step on a pedal to speed up; it’s enough for me to stick like chewing gum to the car I’m with.
The crash was violent. I didn’t lose consciousness because it was daytime, but for quite a while I was tangled in the shadows of the tree branches. I was really worried; I knew Juan Manuel was not dead, as I couldn’t get free, but feared he was badly wounded and might die. I didn’t like the idea of having to find someone else to serve as his shadow.
I woke up in the hospital. Someone was standing next to my bed, bending over me. I opened my eyes: no one was there. The only thing above me was the ceiling. I tried to move my left leg but couldn’t. I managed to half sit up by leaning on an elbow. The other patient did the same thing on the wall. It was him. I greeted him with a hand gesture which he courteously returned. When I lay back again and closed my eyes, I had the feeling once more of someone leaning over my bed. I hesitated to open my eyes, since my desire to surprise him was mixed with a certain anxiety. Suddenly I made up my mind, and again: nothing. I turned around, there he was resting on the wall, unconcerned about me. As soon as I closed my eyes, I again felt I was being observed. This time I was faster. I was startled: a nurse was standing next to me. I asked her if she’d been there a minute ago. She replied that she hadn’t, she’d just come in.
When he came home from the hospital, Juan Manuel was better physically, but his mind was disturbed. He blamed me for the accident and started hating me. He’d lash out with all kinds of curses against me. He’d say: “I don’t need you. I’ll find some way of getting rid of you. Damn you!”
He even started telling his friends about me.
At first I thought total darkness killed it. But it’s not like that. It only makes it sleepy, and at the tiniest sunbeam it reemerges like a devil from his cage. The only way to get rid of it is to shine light on it from every angle with equal intensity, so it can’t hide anywhere. For nights now I’ve been sleeping with the light on, and it’s growing weaker. Any day now I’ll manage to free myself of it.
He’s realized light bothers me. He amuses himself by cutting me into pieces with a flashlight. At night he turns on every light in the house. He even bought a few more lamps and a couple of powerful floodlights. I bore all this stoically, not suffering too much because I still had the nights to rest. Until the day he decided to sleep with the light on. I put up with it for five days and then began to feel very sick. I turned into the shadow of a shadow.
I had to do something before it was too late. That night we went out for a walk as usual. I dragged myself behind Juan Manuel as best I could. The friendly shadows of streetlamps, grilles, trees looked at me with pity and sympathy, until the shadow of a branch whispered in my ear: “Grab it, grab it now!” I coiled an arm around the lifeline offered by my friend. And I stretched and stretched, until only a thread tied me to Juan Manuel’s tendons. For a second I thought about Achilles’ heel, and at that moment the thread broke.
That night when we went out for a walk it seemed it had a hard time following me. I walked faster than usual to exhaust it. Suddenly I felt very tired and decided to go home. When I came in I turned on all the lights. Despite my desire to torture it, I thought only of sitting in my armchair and watching some TV. The truth is, I wasn’t feeling at all well, as if I were the one who hadn’t slept the last five nights. I poured myself a glass of whiskey and looked around to see how it was. My heart stopped: it wasn’t anywhere. I thought perhaps I hadn’t looked carefully enough and made a thorough examination of the rug: nothing. I was overwhelmed with euphoria. I’d done it, I’d killed it!
When he came in the house, Juan Manuel looked for me beside him as he always did, but this time he didn’t find me. He must have thought he’d managed to kill me. He tried to share the news with someone. He went up to the large living room mirror to celebrate. But there was no one in the mirror.
© Robert Marcuse. By arrangement with Aida Marcuse. Translation © 2019 by Cristina Lambert. All rights reserved.
An unwelcome visitor becomes a coveted houseguest in this poem by Voltaire Oyzon.
Voltaire Oyzon reads "Water."
Rain, this most ungracious guest,
enters your house
without bothering to knock
he’s all over the place
messes up the house
soaks the foot rags wets chairs winnowing basket grater firewood sleeping mat
the covers even the pillows
the wedding picture, my wife’s and mine . . .
Three or four days
he hangs out in our house.
I tell myself, don’t begrudge your welcome,
but how irksome his presence—
the baby’s clothes
never dry always
dripping with his tears.
Well, so now I say, I’m mad at you,
Please leave, will you?
But once you’re gone, things
go bad for us, everything that’s yours you take with you
all our wells dry up,
our faucets stop flowing,
the plants go thirsty
we have to cajole you to return
with what charms we know, prayers
offerings, begging you please come back.
But please, please, if you do
don’t bring everyone with you—
the rice we have,
the room to keep you in
are all just enough for today.
“Lambunaw” © Voltaire Oyzon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Merlie M. Alunan. All rights reserved.
Novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and anthologist Jessica Hagedorn burst onto the literary scene with her first novel, Dogeaters (1990), a kaleidoscopic portrait of postcolonial Manila in the late 1950s under the Marcos dictatorship. Hagedorn grew up in Manila and came to the US in her early teens, and her work across genres engages with and reflects Filipino culture through the lens of diaspora, interrogating racism, the immigrant experience, and social and cultural clashes both within the Philippines and between that country and the US. WWB sat down with Hagedorn to discuss the multilingualism of the Philippines and her upbringing, the influence of this linguistic richness on her work, and the complex role of English in Philippines culture. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Words Without Borders: You grew up in Manila and came to the US at fourteen. What languages were you speaking and reading in?
Jessica Hagedorn: At home we spoke a mash-up of three languages—English, Tagalog, and Spanish. My mother could curse in Visayan and Ilokano, and spoke OK Cantonese—having lived with my father in Hong Kong and Macao during the Second World War. Living with all these languages constantly crackling in the air was not only thrilling, but really opened me up to the world and shaped me as a writer. The books, local newspapers, and magazines we read as a family were in English. Of course there were Tagalog newspapers and magazines available, along with my favorite “komiks” (Tagalog comic books peddled on the street). But my colonial, class-conscious upbringing in the Manila of the 1950s and 1960s favored mastering the English language. English had replaced Spanish as the language of education, privilege, and power. My older brothers, for example, were sent to a Jesuit boys’ school where students were fined if they were caught speaking Tagalog. The amount would be equivalent to a nickel or a dime; it was never about the money, but about the humiliation. And Philippine literature wasn’t prioritized at all in these fancypants schools. But hey—it’s 2019 and Words Without Borders is (finally) featuring a bit of Philippine literature in Waray, Cebuano, Filipino, and even . . . English! Not the aspirational English of my long ago childhood, but English with a Filipino twist. Which is, to my mind, a BRILLIANT addition to this issue.
WWB: How did those multiple languages—both of your home, and of the Philippines in general--shape you and your writing?
JH: Having access to all these languages and dialects enriched my already wild imagination and made me curious—about who I was, about the world, about the Philippines I knew and the many different ways I could tell a story. When I was writing Dogeaters, one of my goals was to capture the energy and music of multiple voices and cultures colliding/dancing/battling with each other. I sprinkled Tagalog and Spanish slang throughout the narrative in an attempt to evoke the noisy chaotic glorious Manila of my childhood. And when my editor suggested that we add a glossary, I said no. Quite emphatically, as I recall. I felt—and still do—that it’s OK for readers to be in the dark from time to time. I certainly was, growing up and reading the books that I did as a young writer. Everything was in translation! I learned to read and understand Shakespeare, Dickens, Marguerite Duras, James Baldwin, and Faulkner—by context. Sometimes I got it wrong, but a lot of times I didn’t.
WWB: And the influence of that colonizing English?
JH: I’ve lived in the U.S. of A for decades, and have to embrace the fact that I am a writer who writes in English. So what does it mean to speak, write, and maybe dream in the language of your former colonizer(s)? To reinvent that language and make it your own? And for Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano and Voltaire Oyzon to write in Cebuano and Waray in 2019? Is it a matter of cultural pride, a political act, or a bit of both? And what about Daryll Delgado and Tito Valiente, who choose to write in English?
WWB: How do you think that political aspect, and the interaction between languages, has shaped the literature of the Philippines?
JH: Philippine literature—just like the Philippines itself—is complicated, and can’t be easily described or pinned down. Over 7000 islands make up the Philippines, and over a hundred languages and dialects are spoken! (Wiki-everything correctly states that those numbers depend on how languages are classified, and who’s doing the classifying.) The Philippines has also had a rich oral tradition that continues to this day. “Erlina’s Sugilanon,” the bawdy story-within-a-story by Tito Valiente in this issue, is rooted in the folklore and scary myths of my childhood. These stories are passed down, embellished and transformed, from generation to generation. And that’s just one aspect of Philippine literature. Then there are the ancient myths and poems which are chanted or sung in indigenous languages like Tboli, for example. So it’s complicated, and this particular issue is only the tip of the volcano. I look forward to more translations in the future—from writers in the Ilocos and mountain provinces, and the vast, diverse, southern region of Mindanao. Some of these indigenous languages and literatures are marginalized in the Philippines, but there are also many literary and poetic traditions Filipino scholars and artists are trying to keep alive.
WWB: What common elements and themes do you see in Philippine writing? And what do you see in the pieces here?
JH: Yearning, and melancholy. Mordant humor, a certain kind of fatalism, love of the macabre and supernatural. A love of puns and a sense of irony. A reckoning with history and the colonial past.
WWB: Philippines literature is little known here, even though much of it is written in English. Why do you think that’s the case? Is there more involved than the typical challenges of publishing translations?
JH: The publishing marketplace is still controlled by the West. And I have to agree with R. Zamora Linmark, author of Rolling the Rs and Leche, when he says: “When it comes to translating and publishing literature from Asia, the West has created a hierarchical structure largely confined to China, Japan, and most recently, Korea.” Not enough is known about the Philippines, period—Imelda Marcos, Rodrigo Duterte, caregivers and chicken adobo aside. But that’s usually the case, isn’t it? Most of us don’t pay attention to anything outside our comfort zones, until a wildfire or a war breaks out in our own backyard. The attention being paid to Fil-Am writers like Jia Tolentino, Elaine Castillo, and Randy Ribay is lovely, but doesn’t necessarily extend to writers who are based in the Philippines. I just hope that this landmark Philippine issue highlighting the work of nine excellent poets and fictionistas stokes the world’s curiosity and hunger for more. And that’s what this conversation’s all about, right?
Jessica Hagedorn is the author of Dogeaters (National Book Award Finalist), The Gangster of Love, Dream Jungle, Toxicology, Danger and Beauty, and Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines (with photojournalist Marissa Roth). Hagedorn has edited three fiction anthologies: Manila Noir, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, and Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home in the World. Her work as a playwright includes the stage adaptations of Dogeaters and The Gangster of Love. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been widely anthologized, including in The Soho Press 80s Book of Short Fiction, Becoming American: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing, Rock She Wrote, and Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Her prizes and honors include the Guggenheim Fiction Fellowship, the Hewlett, Gerbode Foundation Playwriting Fellowship, the Before Columbus American Book Award, and the Philippine National Book Award for Manila Noir.
A homicide investigation takes an uncanny turn in this short story by Luiz Carlos Lisboa.
Listen to Luiz Carlos Lisboa read "His Very Last Case" in the original Portuguese.
"Walt! Walt! Walter!" Janice repeated in an increasingly strained voice, running her fingers through the white hair of the man lying on the bed. Standing behind him, the maid and a male nurse watched the scene unfold, not moving. Somewhere in the neighborhood a car horn had begun sounding and took several minutes to be silenced. In the large bedroom, linens lay scattered on the floor, and the night table was piled with medicines beside an old wristwatch with a worn band. The woman ceased her appeal and stood up, supporting herself on the edge of the bed. No one there doubted any longer that Walter Morandi, the most respected and best-liked detective in Rio de Janeiro's Ninth Precinct, had died from the peptic ulcer that had plagued him for the last two years and had led to his recent retirement.
His body lay in wake overnight in the living room of his home. Various former colleagues from the precinct came by, as well as some relatives informed the next morning by Janice, his second wife. She dressed in black and ordered strong coffee and hors d'oeuvres served to those who would show up to say farewell to the deceased. At 11:30 that night, the small parlor of the house was filled with people speaking in soft tones, spilling out onto the narrow veranda where cigarettes could be smoked. Only detective Clemente remained steadfastly beside the coffin, looking at the face and hands of his dead friend, stark white and crossed over his chest. When Janice bent over to remove the gold wedding ring from his finger, Clemente observed the firm movements of her hands, adorned with the diamond wedding ring on her finger.
A fascinating couple, perhaps an enviable one, thought Clemente as he stood serene and motionless beside the coffin. Walter had always been his closest companion in the profession since his transfer from the Sixth to the Ninth five years earlier, a move arranged by the veteran Walter, who claimed he needed honest people at his side. Smart and honest people, he had added, speaking softly to avoid being overheard. They would have lunch together when there was something that couldn’t be said at the precinct, like the transfer of one of the police chief's fair-haired boys, or a request from higher-ups to pigeonhole an accusation against a certain colleague. But other than that, they seldom talked to each other, and Walter never knew what he, Clemente, thought about the world and life. While Janice left to go to the kitchen, he remembered that his colleague had never made a single comment about his married life or any reference, good or bad, to his much younger wife.
The coffin would not be closed until the next morning, and the funeral was set for 8 a.m. Clemente felt tired after a hard day at the precinct and wanted to go home right away. He left without saying good-bye to Janice and without looking around. He walked for a time through the streets of the neighborhood, half-deserted at that hour, and finally hailed a passing cab. At home he fell into a deep sleep and only the following afternoon remembered that by that time his friend must already be buried. He thought about Walter several times before nightfall, and at dinnertime there came to mind someone they had talked about regarding promotions in the force, but nothing he could recall in detail. His friend's hands, however, crossed over his chest in the coffin, formed a strangely persistent image in his memory, like the hands of Christ on a crucifix that he saw each Sunday in the church of St. Ignatius during Mass.
As for Walter, he still had not understood anything that was happening. It was as if he were in a dark, windowless room. He could hear distant voices, some of them vaguely familiar, and smell the aroma of coffee mingling with cigarette smoke. He had no notion of time or space, but he felt good, free of any discomfort. In his mind floated something like a buoy on a lightless sea, known but ineffable—a frosted glass, perhaps, kept in a cupboard, among other objects, including a few thin rubber tubes. It floated before him as if trying to remind him of something that escaped him however hard he attempted to grasp its significance.
He understood little of what he saw and heard, but in some way he knew he was very ill, perhaps anesthetized, or maybe he had fainted, because he felt no pain of any kind, floating in a very peculiar way without his body being supported anywhere. Swimming in air was what he seemed to be feeling. The voices he heard were whispers, he quickly noticed, and tried to attune his hearing to discern what those voices—a woman's, now quite clear, and a man's, somewhat hoarse—were saying. They fell silent for a moment, and then he heard them again.
"He’d been feeling bad lately and told me that twice he’d fallen in the street," said the woman's voice. He wasn’t sure who they were talking about, but it certainly wasn’t him. He heard the clink of spoons in cups, along with the same voices, as well as the creaking of the old rocking chair, his chair. So he was at home, that was good, but there was something frightening in that discovery: he must be blind, because everything around him was darkness. "Twice he’d fallen in the street"—the phrase echoed in his head. Or in his heart. He didn’t remember having fallen in the street, ever. Horrible cramps, yes, almost every day, and he had lost his appetite, but other than that his health had always been very good. "Fallen in the street." They couldn’t be talking about him.
He didn’t remember anymore how long he had heard those sounds in the darkened room where he found himself, when suddenly he saw a ray of light. It came from a point beyond his feet, which still floated somewhere he couldn’t identify, and the light extended in the direction of his head, as if it were a spotlight placed under a glass floor far below him. Dizzy from the effort of trying to make out words and interpret sounds, and half-blinded by the luminous ray from below, Walter felt himself drifting off. After a time, he yielded to the pleasurable sensation of sleep.
No one disturbed Walter's desk until the seventh-day mass, commissioned by the people at the precinct. Only Clemente and Pimenta, an old coffee break and billiards friend from payroll, showed up. Clemente saw to it that Janice was advised of the mass, but she sent word that she couldn’t attend because of a doctor's appointment. Upon returning from the mass they opened their dead friend's desk drawers to deliver her husband's personal effects to the widow. A letter in a sealed envelope caught Clemente's attention. Thinking it might be from some female admirer, he opened it at once. It was a report from a private detective, hired by Walter, detailing a complete week in Janice's life.
Clemente thought about destroying the letter immediately, but then promised himself to read it in its entirety and afterward burn it so Janice would never become aware of it. In the typically hypocritical language of such reports, in which the author attempts to show his objectivity and a certain understanding of human frailty, it stated that Janice frequently met a tall gentleman with a black mustache who carried a briefcase. The report went on to say that the usual rendezvous took place downtown, at the Casanova Motel on Rua do Riachuelo.
"The tramp," thought Clemente, running his gaze over the precinct's waiting room. He read the final conclusions of the report and stuck the letter in his pocket. He sat there for a time, recalling Walter's haste to get home so as not to leave his wife alone for long. Sometimes he would take a couple of theater tickets to surprise his spouse, who liked dramatic, sentimental plays, but at times she was not feeling well and he would go by himself. And there was the will, he now remembered, that Walter had changed to make Janice the sole beneficiary, leaving her, in addition to his police pension, the house in Petropolis that had once belonged to his grandmother. She would now have a nice place in the mountains to meet the guy with the mustache. "Tramp," he repeated as he opened the blotter.
Clemente was very busy that day and the next with two assault cases to investigate. An adolescent had attacked an elderly man for scratching the fender of his car on Rua do Passeio; in the other a young woman was raped at São João Batista cemetery as she left a funeral at nightfall. The rapist had already been charged with the same crime at the same place two years earlier. Between questioning, pulling up his rap sheet, and DNA testing the afternoon went by quickly, and Clemente didn’t have time to get to the ophthalmologist to have his eyesight checked.
Walter now knew that the sounds he heard were inside his house, and the images, he realized, were everything that he thought from one moment to the next there in the dark. This he could conclude with at least some certainty in the gloomy confines where he had spent the last several days. He tried to extend his arms and stretch his legs, but they wouldn’t obey him, if they existed at all, for he couldn’t see them in the blackness.
Once the sensation of normality had returned, he tried to regain control as far as possible, such as understanding the sounds he heard or perceiving the direction of the bright light he glimpsed around him. The woman's voice he could hear humming for some time now belonged to his wife, and the repertoire was also hers, beyond a doubt. Her voice had a jovial tone, he would call it almost happy, as if everything in her life had gone well, and yet there he was, in that condition he couldn’t explain, needing someone to tell him what was going on. Janice would surely come to his aid, if she knew where he was.
This nightmare, Walter persisted in believing, might actually be a stroke, paralysis, a catatonic state, perhaps a coma. Seen from inside, from the point of view of the one suffering, it was painful and frightening for a man who had always lived a healthy and methodical life to remain like this for long. But he felt no desperation, only an immense curiosity. He remained calm, calmer than he had ever been in his normal existence.
With tenderness and concern, he listened to Janice's song, intoned between closed lips in a manner that strangely recalled the old backyard of his house and the hazy figure of his mother. Despite this, deep inside that delight lay something that pained his heart, his soul, in the darkened space of his memory, something that, without his knowing what it was, enraged him.
That night, Clemente went to bed early because he was feeling very tense. He took two sleeping pills with a glass of milk. He didn’t want to think about the rapist still on the loose, perhaps nearby in the Copacabana night, or remember details of the forcible possessing of that terrified young girl. He tossed and turned in bed for an hour before finally falling asleep. He awoke at dawn, covered with sweat and still in the throes of the dream he had just experienced. It was Walter, speaking to him from the dark corner of a room, somewhere in the house where he had lived and where his wake had taken place a few days earlier. His dead friend had asked him to talk to Janice but hadn’t explained why. In the dream, his friend's flushed face trembled and perspired, and his hand gripped Clemente's arm tightly. Staring into his eyes, he repeated, "You have to, you have to speak to her . . . Don’t leave me like this." Clemente asked, half-aware he was dreaming, what he should say to her, but his friend couldn’t answer, merely repeating his appeal. Once he woke up, Clemente sat in a chair by the bed and pondered what such a dream could mean and whether dreams were sometimes more than dreams.
Shortly before ten o'clock, he looked up Walter's phone number and spoke with Janice. But when she answered, he felt it best to hold off, knowing how she was dealing with the loss of her husband, and asked whether she needed anything. She said she was coping well and remembered to ask Clemente about receiving the pension she was entitled to as widow of a police officer and whether she would get the full salary or only part. "I’ll find out and call you later," Clemente said. He hung up and leaned back in his leather chair. The dream, that face filled with despair; he couldn’t drive that vision from his mind. To him, death was the last stop, the end of everything and the beginning of nothingness, as he liked to tell his friends at the bar to see a trace of worry in their expressions. All those tough guys trembling in the face of death. But Clemente couldn’t stop thinking about Janice. He distrusted all women on principle, something he carefully concealed. He felt they always had their eye on a very practical outcome, in a desperate search that most of them didn’t even comprehend. As for men, to be honest he thought some of them were alienated or at least detached. For this and other philosophical reasons, Clemente was still a bachelor at over fifty.
He wanted to think about all this calmly, but there was a lot of paperwork to take care of at the precinct. At the end of the afternoon he inquired with Personnel about the pension and phoned Janice. Yes, he explained, she was entitled to her dead husband's full salary. She thanked him somewhat coolly and quickly rang off. "Must be on her way to meet somebody," he thought. Clemente remained in his office, alone, for some time, shuffling papers and pondering the dream about his dead friend. Despite a Catholic upbringing, he didn’t believe in the supernatural, but the closeness of death somewhat undermined his convictions. What mattered now was the loyal and true friend, his good faith betrayed, who appeared to him in a dream to speak of his horror at his own death. It might be more Shakespearean than anything else, but there was no way he could turn his back on that call.
Clemente shifted in his chair and recalled Walter's voice in the dream—"You have to, you have to speak to her . . ."—in the tone his friend used when he was wrestling with a thought of some kind. That wasn’t a usual thing with him; in the dream, the calm, almost imperturbable man was fearful of something. Nonsense, thought Clemente, sentimentality, the death of someone close messes with your head that way. But, "You have to . . ." and his eyes staring like that. He leaped out of the chair and stood beside the telephone, gazing at the apparatus. He dialed the number, not knowing what he was going to say. "Janice, Janice, it's Clemente . . ." He might appear out of control, but it didn’t matter. "I need to talk to you about Walter."
She didn’t answer for almost a minute. Then: "Go ahead," she murmured slowly.
"I want to speak to you in person, it won't take long." They agreed he would stop by early the next day before going to the precinct.
Much had changed for Walter in the meantime. He saw clearly the rooms of the house where he had lived with Janice for eight years. But he could not see his wife. He looked at the bedroom with its large bed where they had made love so many times, saw the small room where they shared an office, and the stove where he would heat up his coffee early in the morning while she was still sleeping. And in the poorly lit hallway upstairs he could sense something throbbing, like a small ache spreading through the walls and descending the staircase. Something lost in memory that showed itself, only to quickly hide. Now he saw the bathroom door and the knot in his heart worsened. Walter didn’t walk; it was as if he were flying, and now he saw the door much nearer, and passed through without opening it, and then was inside. It was there, in that corner, in the medicine cabinet with the enameled front, all the way in back, that his heart felt the most pain.
Next to some small bottles, a brush, cardboard boxes, a package wrapped in brown paper, was a frosted glass that seemed to stand out as Walter approached it. He tried to grasp it, but it was impossible; he had neither arms nor strength, only the will to enter it, the glass, and peer into it. There it was, that dark sediment accumulated around the bottom, the source of all his suffering. Walter wept without tears, felt rage without muscles, would have shouted to someone but had no voice with which to scream. Then he thought of his friend. He must call Clemente, if he could. But then he fell asleep, and everything vanished amid his deep slumber.
In the kitchen, Janice boiled water for coffee while talking with Clemente in the living room. "It's a daybook from the precinct, with a blue cover, and inside it has some old notes in a precise handwriting," he said, getting up from the sofa to make himself heard better in the kitchen. Janice nodded, looking at the living room out of the corner of her eye.
"I never saw that book here," she said. "If it's here it must be put away somewhere, because I’ve never seen anything like what you describe."
Clemente's palms were sweating; he didn’t know what else he could make up about that imaginary book. Nor did he know how he could get away from there without appearing crazy or ill intentioned. They sat in armchairs opposite one another in the small living room, silently drinking coffee. "I dreamed about Walter," he said. Janice raised her eyes, uneasy.
"You dreamed about him . . ."
As nothing more occurred to him, Clemente stood up. "Well, if you find the book, please give call me a call. I’m sure Walter told me he took it home to work on a report, and I thought maybe you could . . ." Janice nodded, her mouth tight. Clemente took a few steps toward the door.
Suddenly, he turned and said, "Excuse me, may I use your bathroom for a moment?" She stood there silent for several seconds and then pointed to the stairs. "It's up there, you can go on up. Pardon the mess." Clemente went up slowly and walked down the hallway. When he opened the bathroom door he again thought of his old friend, this time with great feeling. He went in, locked the door behind him, looked around, and stood there. A medicine cabinet painted white caught his attention as if it were the only thing in the small bathroom. He opened it and his hand reached inside, far inside, as if it knew the way. He brought out a frosted glass, took it closer to the light, and looked inside. "HCN, hydrogen cyanide, prussic acid," he said immediately, his lips trembling. "She couldn’t have known it's not enough to just wash the glass." He took a step back and saw his face, flushed and sweating, in the mirror.
Walter hugged his friend, but Clemente knew nothing of this because he was busy putting the glass in his pocket after wrapping it in a washcloth. With what Forensics would find, it was proof enough. Walter wept without tears, wanting to say so many things to the other man, but he had no words, no mouth, no tongue or body, only a thread of memory and a sensation of great joy in his heart. At that moment, he saw a deep tunnel before him, at the end a light that never wavered. He knew the time had come to let go of everything, to move toward that welcoming light.
© Luiz Carlos Lisboa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.
Karaoke unites a group of Filipina expats in this short story by Genevieve Asenjo.
She arrived as a guest and departed as an accomplice to a crime, after sitting down to a dinner of pinakbet and sinigang with the Kim family.
At least, that’s what she tells me in between mouthfuls of peanuts and potato chips. We are at Janga Norebang in Koejong.
Listen. One night in this Korean family’s typical apartment in Busan, tap water was gushing from the faucet onto the sink. There was something being washed, something boiling, something being cooked into pinakbet and sinigang. Presiding over this, all at the same time, was Neneng Delia, the Filipina wife of a Korean.
Look at her, that guest I mentioned who is beside me right now, sitting at the table around the corner from the sink and stove where Neneng remained standing. Across from her, on the other side of the table, sat the Korean, the husband. On the other end, the remaining half of the room. On display were a digital TV and framed pictures of the Kim family wearing hanbok, the traditional attire worn during celebrations like Chuseok, the harvest festival. There was a piano. Eight-year-old Ji-eun was playing a tune she recognized, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
Anyway, she continues, she kept on glancing at Neneng. She was convinced of the woman’s beauty; more so before, but even now, with that face worthy of a celebrity, her long hair and curvaceous body. In her black slacks and blue floral blouse, the woman looked her age, well past forty-five. She tells me those glances were a plea for help, she was listening to the woman’s husband, who was speaking to her—eye to eye—in phrases that Neneng quickly translated into English, some into a mix of Tagalog and Hiligaynon.
Such as: "My husband says you’re pretty. Bakit daw I’m not more like you?"
She says she then felt the crushing of tomatoes, of squash, of okra in her chest. Even persimmon, which she had first seen in this country and delighted in.
But she says she understands Neneng, all the more now. It’s why she had invited us here. The thing is, Neneng couldn’t come. Not even belatedly, like the others. They say they’re almost here.
Neneng and I have known each other for five years. We have this group of English teachers who married Koreans here in Busan. I know her husband too, Leo (that’s his English name). Bald, a little pudgy. Smiles a lot. I can imagine his face, his eyes turning into slits as he talked to this girl. There are some people for whom a smile is the equivalent of a hello, and perhaps on that night, since his wife was again cooking pinakbet and sinigang, out of joy at having met another Filipina friend, because of that, everything was OK between them. This, despite reports from the group that her husband had been laid off by the shipping company. Despite the fact that some days Ji-eun came home from school to complain that her classmates were teasing her: “Nunon african saram ida. Pibuga sikumota!” (You must be African. Your skin’s dark!)
They had met on the subway, Neneng and this girl, whom I first encountered during Independence Day this year; she had been in my Pandanggo sa Ilaw dancing group. The two of them shared the same route—Sinpyeong, Hadan, Tangni, Saha, Koejong, Seomyeon—and the same work hours: ten in the morning until six in the evening. Their hagwon stood near each other. “Come over to my house,” the woman had eagerly invited, “I’ll cook pinakbet and sinigang for you." Turned out they were both Ilonggo, and anyway how could she decline an invitation from an older Filipina, especially one involving such scrumptious dishes? Was she also a wife? No, she had answered, a new recruit actually, here to struggle after two years of tutoring Korean students in Iloilo. Her boyfriend, a seaman, had gotten another girl pregnant. Geu saram, she had said, her drama here would involve fixing a broken heart.
Song: (그 사람) Geu Saram/That Person
Artist: Lee Seung Chul
This was how she got me here. She has already memorized it from watching Baker King. Another can of beer each, another plate of peanuts, then we play the song.
“Saranghae, I also love my husband,” I tell her. “Love can be developed too, that’s not just for photos.”
Hehehehe, she adds.
“Yes, my shi-omoni is nice enough. But of course mothers-in-law always treat you like a maid, especially during Chuseok.” I down my beer and signal for another one.
Something else happened during that visit, she adds. After dinner, after Neneng finished washing and cleaning up, still in her black slacks and blue floral blouse and still refusing her help, they had norebang on the digital TV in the living room.
Here’s the scenario. The girl, sitting over there. The Korean, on the floor beside his daughter, in his shorts and T-shirt. And Neneng? She’s the one holding the microphone, crooning and swaying to “Bakit” by Imelda Papin.
Clap, clap, clap.
Neneng’s husband was very amused. Imagine Neneng’s long hair shimmying to the rhythm of her curvy body, as if she was not the Neneng we earlier saw cooking and translating her husband’s compliments to this girl: that she’s probably very smart because she had managed to come to Korea even without a Korean boyfriend or husband, that if he and Neneng were divorced, or if he was wealthy, he would woo her and take her to Jeju Island, where he once traveled for work and where well-heeled Koreans go for vacations.
She says she replied, as a plea to Neneng to change the topic, that there are many beautiful seas in the Philippines, which is why many Koreans go there. When was the last time they had a vacation, or when will they go for one?
Apparently she sweated so much that night that if it hadn't stopped she would have developed rashes. The daughter playing the piano as her parents were committing a crime! All this because she turned up. This knowledge pinned her to her seat. There was some illicit irony in what was happening in that household at that moment: she had to help Neneng amuse a husband who’d recently lost his job, she had to be there as both viewer and witness to Neneng’s Koreanovela, because indeed what else was she to do in this country, unmarried?
Yes, she understands now, this was why Neneng had invited her, not just because they’re from the same country, or perhaps precisely because of that, the woman saw her as the perfect accomplice (the word “victim” seems too harsh). So then Neneng was able to sing her heart out, to croon and sway seemingly without a care for today or tomorrow because, isn’t it true, her husband and daughter adored her in those moments, and as for her presence there, a fellow Filipina who might give ridicule or insult, so what? You too, her swaying seemed to say, you too will experience this strange sorrow and loneliness when the trees start shedding their leaves, you too will sob during nights and mornings as if someone had hewn into a part of your throat, as if someone had stolen your gold, and you will remain restless until you take a gulp of sinigang. This will repeat itself throughout the cycle of the four seasons; will be veiled by busyness but will never disappear, so that you too will say yes, it’s still better in the Philippines, especially in the province, it really is good, unlike anything else, but your life is no longer there. So you will sing popular songs, undying songs like those popularized by Imelda Papin, and dance, sway, without a care in the world, even if you get shot like those reported cases of late-night “My Way.”
She says they ended the night with “Hindi Ako Isang Laruan.”
“Let’s just sing,” I want to tell her. This girl is too sharp, I have to call up the others we’ve been waiting for. We can hardly hear each other over the noise, but I get that the three of them are already walking toward us, they can see the signboard.
Listen, haaaay . . .
I have memorized the usual schedule of a Korean’s Filipina wife: after hagwon, hurry to another teaching commitment, for example a private tutorial for older people who want to learn English, or else run to the market or fetch the child or go home to clean and launder and cook. At night, help the child with homework, keep the husband company as he watches TV, regale him in bed. We’d be lucky to have the occasional norebang together. Like now.
I wonder if this girl understands that although Neneng and I have different situations, I too can only leave the house, my work and husband and two children, for guests. This is what I told my husband, our group has a Filipina visitor—her, this girl, and since I am the president I have to arrange things. But my husband is kind anyway, he’s an engineer.
Go on listening, because I can no longer keep myself from talking. “Of course there’s a lot of suffering at first, especially in getting along with shi-omoni,” I tell her. “It’s as if you had stolen her child, plus you don’t know Korean and she’s not good in English, and she thinks you’re an idiot in the kitchen. It’s important that you know how to fight back. That’s what I teach my two sons. Even if they don’t get teased in school like Ji-eun. But back then, it’s like they were ashamed that their classmates would see me, that they would find out I was their mother!”
Come on, she says as “Gue Saram” starts up again.
We say cheers with our third cans of beer. I sing this, one of my early favorites, this song that surrenders the loved one, that says go on, leave, be with her instead, because I love you.
Then the door opens. Here come three more Koreans’ wives.
Which came first, song or story? Or are they the same thing? Is it the allure of a new acquaintance, of someone young? Or is it because we simply want to listen to ourselves?
“That’s just paper,” someone says about switching citizenships, “but if we didn’t become citizens, if we weren’t legal, well, pity our children, pity us, we wouldn’t receive benefits and our children wouldn’t have any rights.”
“So think carefully before you marry a Korean," another says jokingly, even though it’s true. She knows we have a tendency to become dramatic during these get-togethers.
There’s also someone else who stays quiet the entire time. Who prefers to eat peanuts and potato chips and prepare playlists.
We do not talk anymore about Neneng and the other Filipinas in the group. We only have an hour left before we need to go home. We belt out everything from ABBA to K-pop to “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit,” grinding and wiggling—but no splits.
Something else happened that night. Just then, for the very first time, we did something that might even erase the girl’s memory of that night at Neneng’s: we sang “Ang Bayan Ko.”
One refrain, without videoke accompaniment, and then we laughed and laughed afterward like a bunch of lunatics, hugging each other all around. The plate of peanuts and potato chips fell to the floor, along with a bag and a few empty cans of beer. Tears also fell like kimchi that had been stored in a jar and was now being served up wholeheartedly to be tasted and judged. This was also my crime that night. The girl had been the instigator, accomplice, witness. But I know we’re all absolved, because I’m sure this girl expects it, awaits it, just as we did during our first time here, like the coming of snow.
© Genevieve L. Asenjo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Michelle T. Tan. All rights reserved.
A juggler’s performance raises philosophical questions in this poem by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles.
Swapping seven balls with his palm,
and with air. Precision inhabits the gap
between the ball’s trajectory and its anticipated
pace at the brink of hesitation—
the arc of descent. How does one grasp making
sense of timing when to hurl and when to catch?
Is it when one rehearses alone or when one rehearses
being alone? Which one holds
when there is no break from motion,
and from emotion? They thought, he makes gravity.
Then in a blink of an eye, oh! the balls are dropped.
They have yet to stop holding their breath.
© Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Kristine Ong Muslim. All rights reserved.
In a group of tales by Tito Valiente drawing on a Filipino storytelling tradition, a supernatural beast seduces a young woman.
Editor’s Note: A Sugilanon is a form of story told orally. The power of the Sugilanon or tale depends on the skill and charisma of the narrator as he weaves the details of the story.
Erlina's Sugilanon Begins
Erlina was the all-around maid in my maternal grandmother's home. We did not have a wet nurse because by the time she arrived in that house, we were all little boys of three, six, and eight. Erlina, however, took care of us three with her stories that, as I look back now, involved huge pudenda and massive genitalia from giants of yore. Even Erlina's dwarfs were strange, little men. Vindictive, they were color coded: The yellow ones could be cajoled; the red ones accepted negotiation; the blue and black ones, because they lived underground and beneath the riverbeds and wet caves, always had judgments that were final. Anyone who incurred their ire was kidnapped and brought to their kingdom and their mind never returned. This, according to Erlina, explained the many mad men and women on the island of Ticao.
Erlina had what you may call a suite of stories. These involved the Onglo, a half-man, half-horse being. The Onglo was really a man with a mane for hair but he stood upright and had strong legs that looked like those of a horse. Instead of toes, he had hooves. His face had elongated features and his eyes were sharp and keen for day and night. The Onglo could stare straight into the sun and, thus, at daytime, no one could hide from him. At night, he did not need the moon or the stars. Erlina, in fact, said the Onglo derived his strength from the light of the stars.
Something needs to be mentioned about Erlina’s cousin, Viring. When there was a dance at the town plaza, Viring would go to San Fernando. We knew when there was a dance because Erlina would whip out a dress. We never knew where she got the textiles, but they were of the kind that had the colors of orchards and meadows. By sheer design, Erlina would see to it that bulbs of flowers would cluster around the bodice. Trees and wild leaves would form the hemline. At the sleeves, Erlina reserved roots that seemed to agonize over their growth.
Viring carried her own dress, already finished by the time she arrived in the house. Where Erlina opted for bright, bright dresses, Viring preferred brown and dark forests. Her blouse would be light brown and her skirt brown also but darkened by rows and rows of leafless trees and gray and amber roots that were turned up, reaching out for the sky and not submerged in the ground.
Both Erlina and Viring had narrow waists that magazines then referred to as wasplike. Wasplike! I think Erlina and Viring were really wasps transformed by the Onglo into fine, obedient, industrious women who worked for some households in order to evangelize little boys with their tales of the Onglo.
The Power of the Onglo
Why is the Onglo so powerful? We were huddled around Erlina, who was then getting ready to cook a kolo, or breadfruit. Erlina told us the Onglo could just run and hop and fly up a kolo tree and then gather its fruits without disturbing a family of banog or hawk living up there. He was that powerful.
Erlina said, like any normal person, she did not know where the Onglo got his power. Actually, the night Erlina first saw an Onglo was the night the creature was regenerating his power. It was early morning, at about two, when they all woke up to catch the sight of a comet on the eastern horizon of the sky. All of her brothers and sisters were looking out of the window, their heads covered by a blanket, for the morning was chilly. But Erlina was Lola Abing's favorite grandchild and the old woman encouraged Erlina to go back to where the old well was. A lonesome Atimoya tree, a favorite haunt of black dwarfs, hovered over the well.
Lola Abing advised Erlina to walk slowly and avoid stepping on dead twigs and rotten kolo leaves because they made loud crackling noises. Lola Abing warned Erlina though that what she would see would be scary not because the vision would strike terror in Erlina's young heart but because she might fall under the spell of the Onglo.
So Erlina was there in her chemise, her waist even narrower than the wasp's. Half-crouching and half-crawling, Erlina reached the edge of the Atimoya tree. She knew so because she had stepped on a fallen fruit of the tree and her toes felt like she had stepped on dung.
Erlina looked up; the comet appeared to have swung low, its tail touching the crown of the Atimoya tree. The leaves of the tree sparkled; silver flames shot up and brushed past the comet's tail. A figure moved below this incandescence. Erlina looked away from the bright skies and saw the strong head of the Onglo. His head was turned up, his mouth was open. He was drinking the silver and the diamond from the comet's tail, his throat gurgling. Erlina marveled at that throat that was like the trunk of a tree. The Onglo’s chest was heaving as he swallowed some more. He was drinking infinity with a tongue that was lapping up the light that shone in his throat.
The Onglo's legs were spread apart. He was horse below and something dark and turgid was swinging back and forth. Erlina, all of fourteen, felt a sensation in her thighs as she cupped her tiny breasts. The Onglo was the handsomest boy Erlina ever saw. She fell in love.
The Onglo Sees Erlina
Lola Abing, for all her wisdom, was not wise. It was not wise to spy on an Onglo getting power from the stars or comets. Gabunan, a man who transforms himself into a witch once a year. The onglo was gabunan when it came to power-sourcing.
Lola Abing was also smart. Avoid the scandalous kolo leaves because they make loud noises. The light of the comet was dimming as the Kagbubuwas—the Star-that-is-of-the-morning-becoming—was getting stronger.
The sheen on the face of the Onglo was vanishing and his face started to come forth. Aquiline nose, eyes that were shimmering gray and deep, lips that were thin on top and full on bottom, orange and pink combined to shape the mouth that, Erlina thought, was eternally hungry. As the comet moved away from the Atimoya tree, the Onglo bristled and shook his long silver hair. His legs quivered as if he was defecating. The Onglo was flailing his arms and the hair from the hands was falling and swirling. Erlina got so scared she turned around, panicked. The dry kolo leaves crackled. The Onglo turned his head. He saw the young girl, the lovely girl that was Erlina. He knew that was his girl.
Erlina is Enchanted by the Onglo
Erlina had fallen under the spell of the Onglo. Lola Abing, an Aswang, had no power over the Onglo. The Onglo was the opposite of the Aswang: the Onglo became more beautiful when he was angry and worked his enchantment; the Aswang turned uglier as it summoned its power.
Welts and rashes covered the face, breasts, and arms of Erlina. Nanay Gurang saw tiny specks of silver hairs on the face, especially on the lips and breasts and arms of Erlina.
Nanay Gurang was the only healer who could approach the tricks of the Onglo. Nanay Gurang had lustrous white hair that reached her ankles. When she swung it around and around to make braids, Nanay Gurang was a mighty mare with the longest mane.
Nanay Gurang was now swinging her white mane back and forth. She was whipping Erlina, the hair making more welts and rashes on the face, breasts, and arms of Erlina.
Out in the woods, just behind the Atimoya tree, in a forest forever unseen by mortals, the Onglo was writhing, suppressing the screams coming from within, welts appearing on his orange and pink lips, the rashes surfacing from below the skin of his arms and chest. All throughout his agony, the Onglo had his mouth open as sap from an old tree fell into his mouth. As more sap fell into his gaping mouth, the cheeks of the Onglo turned white, then golden. He did not have wings, but Erlina, in her account, mentioned how the Onglo resembled the big angel on the ceiling of the old church. That angel came when Lolo Doroy, the last sacristan mayor of Ticao, rang the bell for the dying priest who was, as my grandmother Emilia recalled, as handsome as all encantos of Mount Diwata put together.
That afternoon, as the Onglo marveled at the power of Nanay Gurang, he cried for the first time. He remembered his mother, whose mane was like the hair of Nanay Gurang.
Tired of the mortal world, Nanay Gurang stopped turning her head. She started cursing the surroundings.
On the other side of the world, the Onglo wept. He knew he was in love.
The Love of the Onglo
Erlina was truly a funny woman. Her sense of humor was so charming, she could get away with those difficult words in her stories. Those were words that should not be uttered in front of young boys and girls.
Here is one story.
The Onglo once fell in love with a mortal woman. Her name was Maria. This woman never saw the Onglo under the stars. When the Onglo appeared to her, he was ugly as an ordinary horse. Maria avoided the Onglo, who, nonetheless, persisted.
There was something in the Onglo's manner of wooing that was odd. Every time he caught Maria, he would tickle the woman till she begged him to stop. As Erlina put it, Maria could not bear this love anymore. She came up with many counterstrategies. The Onglo would come during late afternoons. Maria decided that she would cover herself, her face and extremities, with salong, sap from the rubber tree. She had a dress the color of the trunk of an old tree. Standing with her back to the tree, Maria disappeared.
But the Onglo did not come at three in the afternoon. The Onglo did not come at four. The Onglo was nowhere near the house of Maria.
It was already early evening when the Onglo appeared with a small torch with him. Maria was already very tired at this point. The Onglo came near Maria's house but he could not see Maria. For hours, the Onglo shouted the name of Maria. The Onglo was nearly giving up. He leaned against the trunk of the tree where Maria was. The Onglo was falling asleep but he tried to raise the torch up until the heat started to melt the salong on the face and arms of Maria. The young woman screamed and the Onglo stood up in haste, laughed, and started tickling Maria. The tickling, according to Erlina, hurt, because the Onglo, if you remember, was a horse first. Fierce and unrelenting, the Onglo never knew how to be gentle.
Maria came up with more devices to escape the Onglo. One day, after a long bout of tickling, Maria was really exhausted and almost dying. She thought, this time, of burying herself in the sand. I am certain, Maria convinced herself, that the Onglo will never find me.
That afternoon, at three, the Onglo came bellowing Maria’s name. He was asking Maria to join him for fishing in the river. There was no response from Maria, who was buried under the sand, her tiny nostrils flaring but barely seen. The Onglo kept shouting: Maria, Maria. Where are you?
The Onglo was enraged. He was pacing back and forth with the hook of his fishing device raking the sand. Then, ay, the Onglo heard that faint voice. The hook of his fishing line had hit Maria’s flaring nostrils. The Onglo jumped with joy, dug Maria from her early grave, and started tickling her.
Why tickle? I thought the Onglo loved Maria.
To this question, which we never failed to ask, Erlina responded that Maria would merely scream with laughter, her eyes turning into two tiny distant stars, her stomach quivering like the big stomach of the giants in her story.
The Death of the Onglo
The Onglo did not die on us. Erlina, however, stopped telling us about him. "Did Maria die, Erlina?" This time, the question did not make her shriek with laughter. She just looked into the distance, at our own kolo tree, where green and yellow parrots resided. The banog had left the town and settled far, far from the people
Erlina began talking of ugly fairies called the Buringkantada and the Kapre and the Tambaloslos. We found these stories boring because they were told by other women too. Erlina was special and the Onglo was special.
"Can the Onglo die?" Once more, the question did not touch Erlina the way other questions from us did.
One day, Erlina was not in the kitchen anymore. There was a new helper, Yangga, a young woman who laughed always and made us laugh as well.
Some people say Erlina got married to this bad man who beat her and made her sad. Then one day, Erlina's husband beat her more badly because he saw welts and rashes on her lips. The man accused Erlina of being unfaithful.
When the husband, who was a drunkard, fell asleep one late afternoon, Erlina escaped to Poro, near the farm of Lolo Doroy. She was last seen ferrying a raft across Lagang, where the sea met the river that cut across the island of Ticao. She has not been seen since then.
When the moon is full, people talk of a woman dressed in the color of rich farms and meadows with flowers yet unnamed, with kolo leaves at the hem of her skirt. The brave ones call her Erlina and the brave ones affirm that the woman looks over her shoulder and laughs. The woman is not alone. Standing at the edge of the raft, the green water of the river lapping at his hooves, a man has his face turned toward the sky as bits of moonbeams enter his open mouth. He is the handsomest of them all, eyes clear as the sea, lips orange and pink, and hands with specks of stars. When the two realize that they’ve drawn a crowd, some say the man stomps his horse legs and the raft slides and then glides into the dark river, and vanishes.
Those who believe the story of Erlina, the brave fishermen especially, they swim after the raft and, the braver ones say, are able to gather bits of moonbeams and use them for luck in love, for love that never ends, for love that grows stronger when the moon is bright and full.
© Tito Valiente. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
In this poem by M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac, a free diver’s connection to the sea endures even as his tribal way of life disappears.
Listen to M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac read "A Planned Brief Documentary on a Teenage Boy in a Badjao Village."
also after Jade Mark Capiñanes from his essay “Abal”
We will start with the fact you are not impressed
by the depth of the Celebes Sea. Since birth,
you are tethered to the moon and sun exhorting you
to surface and sink. We will bring up the statistic
of fifty fathoms for a free-diving Sama such as yourself.
You will be shown to be within visual proximity
of the setting sun. (Your first entry: there is no exploring
the abyssal hiding place of moon and sun under the sea
and the difference between depth and breadth cannot be fathomed.)
The boat your father does not own will sound off and his voice
will cut through the din, “We are up against huge fishing vessels.”
Then he will come home with his catch—four pieces of tuna.
He will come upon you and your mother beset with the shriek
of nine children bawling for their chance to be breastfed.
We dramatize a memory: it is Christmas in the city
and you beg for alms with your mother and youngest sibling.
(Second entry: there is sorrow in the gaze of a child
that your mother always has to be pregnant.)
We pretend you are groping blindly for the coins pitched
by our companion who pretends to be captivated
by the charm of an old restaurant that once patronized you;
the view will conjure a sea of memories
that mollifies you, the man with gills, the fear
that you will not someday rise again. Like a fish
in an aquarium, you are a source of distress and distraction.
We will anticipate your breathing at the surface
applaud as you emerge holding the coin.
You will dive again to gather blessings
in the form of mamukuk, tayum, and others destined
to remind you of the bitterness of thirst.
We listen to a scholar: the city is also the sea
for your tribe—collecting only what is offered
underneath the capsized rock, after a knock on a car window.
(Your third entry: anguish corresponds to scarcity and saltiness—
cars speeding away and a slippery eel escaping from grasp.)
You surface with no food for today and tomorrow.
We review the documentary of a foreigner
breaching all the layers and corners of earth and sea
to measure the lungs’ ultimate breathing limit.
This is what he discovered in the depths of the sea:
through the dense crystal-clear blue waters, there is light
for the deep-swimming Santarawi whose hands were clasped.
(Fourth entry: no proof is needed
to reveal the full extent of sunburn on your body
and the bleaching of your hair into golden strands.)
You go around your town for proof
of the fact that houses are no longer built over the sea.
(Your last entry: you cannot say some of the names
of marine lifeforms in your forgotten language.)
You end up once again at the edge of land and sea,
not in awe of the vastness of your disappearing world.
We finish with how your diving disrupts
the flow of the waves. While you are underwater, we watch closely,
listen for your breath bubbling, breaking the water surface.
“A Planned Brief Documentary on a Teenage Boy in a Badjao Village” © 2019 M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Kristine Ong Muslim. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano, a young girl longs to see the world beyond her rural village.
Darkness falls in the afternoon. It’s going to rain again. The carabao and the goats have been herded off to shelter. The newly harvested corn has been covered. The house smells of fuel because our tiny lamp has been lit. Smoke rises from the hearth, a signal that Mama is cooking something. The five of us can’t go out. I want to go out so I can wait for Papa. I want to look out for what he brings, but I can’t go out.
The other week, Papa brought meat from hunting. Mama prepared it in a delicious broth. Rod and I fought over a large piece of wild boar meat. Mama got upset because we shouldn’t fight at the table.
But last night, she and Papa were arguing. The five of us slept on empty stomachs. I couldn’t find my malong cloth. I fell asleep in our cold corner of the forest in Datal Fitak, a mountain in Matanao.
My teacher asks if we have ever seen a TV. I’ve seen one in a picture but I don’t know what it’s for. I haven’t been to Digos or to Davao, but I’ve heard about those places. So many people, they say, so many vehicles. Sometimes I don’t feel so bad because so many people and so many vehicles might run me over.
Ma’am Edna, my grade three teacher, says that others wish on a foling estar. I’ll also wish on a star that I might visit Digos even just for once. But the stars only come out at night, and I can’t go out.
I’ve only ever ridden Uncle Basud’s motorcycle, the time we delivered our harvested corn. I haven’t been in a jeep, or what Ma’am calls bus and van, airplane, ship. Sometimes my mind reaches the heavens. Are there also cars in heaven? Is there electricity, lights in the night that don’t need fuel?
I’ve only seen and listened to a radio but our radio ran out of batteries, and our house is now more quiet. When the wind blows, our cogon roof dances and our bamboo walls snap.
Mama didn’t go to Bangkal to buy batteries for the radio because there are soldiers. Anyway, I’ve seen a selfon. Because Ma’am Edna has a selfon. You can take a picture, listen to a song, you can read. I asked Mama if she knew how to use a selfon. She said to me, she doesn’t even know how to write her name. She only reached grade one, and then she was married off to Papa when she was only twelve. How could she have gone to school if she couldn’t go out.
Mama didn’t agree to me being married off to our neighbor Randy. Mama wants me to finish at least high school. Will I finish? I’ve repeated grade three twice. In a week, I’ll skip classes to help at the cornfield. My playmates are better off, they get to go with their mamas when the 4Ps are released. We didn’t join the 4Ps because Papa wouldn’t let us. We don’t know our birthdays and Ma’am Edna kept asking for my birthday. Mama said to me, you don’t have that because you can’t go out!
Papa didn’t come home. And I can’t find my malong. The wind outside seems to whisper something. The trees outside seem to speak and the footsteps of light feet lull me to sleep. When it’s dark, even when you want to take a piss, you can’t go out because there are raiders doing pangayaw. Wild creatures lurk outside. Rod’s malong smells like piss after he wet himself on our bed because we can’t go out.
I stir to the rustling of birds. Perok-perok, maya, agila, and banog, the loud ones early in the morning. I’m wide-awake hearing Mama’s scream. I rush downstairs and see two men.
“Your Papa’s gone,” says Mama, holding my malong soaked in blood. The men leave. I understand that my Papa is dead. I want to cry and look for Papa, but I can’t go out.
I told Ma’am Edna when she asked me what Papa’s work was, I told her Papa was a soldier. He had a yuniform and a gun. There was a red crest on the side of his yuniform. I bragged to my klasmit that Papa was a soldier. That was why he hunted deer and wild boar, because he was always in the forest. Every Friday I would wait for Papa because I knew he would bring something for me. Sometimes flowers from the jungle, and honey.
Rayzan said to me that Papa wasn’t a soldier. That was why we had a fight and I didn’t want us to be friends. Sometimes there were people who came to the house with Papa. They called papa Ka Oding. I saw that they had papers, and letters, money, guns, and they were also with women who were pretty and had light skin. I didn’t know where they were from. But Papa told us to play behind our cogon hut. Whenever his companions were around, Mama would go to the cornfield.
I told Papa, “Women can be soldiers too? I want to be like you, Pa. I want to be a soldier!”
Papa stood up, went outside, and struck our dog. Papa said I shouldn’t become a soldier, because soldiers have no mercy, they are abusive and they kill.
“Aren’t you a soldier, Pa? Why can’t I be a soldier too? You even have a companion who’s a girl soldier.”
Mama interrupted, “Greshel, your food, finish up, you’ll be leyt for the bayang flag ceremony.”
I didn’t know it would be our last breakfast with Papa. Only my bloody malong is what I have left. Papa brought my malong that day he left after he and Mama and had a fight.
“Rebelde, rebelde, but your children will die of hunger?!” Mama’s voice was loud.
“This is for them, this is for you!” Papa left with his bag.
I lay back down and thought of the heaven that Ma’am Edna told us about. In heaven there is plenty of food, in heaven there is God. Papa said God is not real. Mama said there is a God. I want to believe there’s a God so I could pray to Him about what I want. I want to go to Digos, eat hatdog, ays krim, and pitsa. Ma’am Edna told us these taste good and she showed us pictures. Ma’am even wanted to bring us to Matanao but Papa wouldn’t let us, because we can’t go out.
Gunshots! Gunshots! Gunshots! At first I could count the gunfire. But there are too many gunshots and I can’t anymore count because I can only count up to twenty. People are running, others yelling, “The soldiers are here!”
Soldiers?! Maybe Papa’s with them! I’ll go out! I see at the door Mama and my siblings covered in blood. Our walls and roof riddled with bullets.
“Mama! Mama! Mama!”
Mama stirs. And she says, “Don’t go out, you can’t go out!”
© Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by John Bengan. All rights reserved.
In this poem by Enrique Villasis, faith and desire take the shape of a flock of birds.
Here is how one is seared by unspoken desire: holy and yellow,
Like this scene of a setting sun always ready to melt
Over our eyes and chests, and the departing light bringing with it an ache
Beneath our lashes. We are often taught to have our eyes closed, to ignore the weight
Of our eyelids, to let loose in throbbing want: this is the beginning of every prayer.
In the mind, a flock of birds, feathers from an unshakable, shadowy thing,
As if responding: what is the shape of god. We are sustained by faith because
The dark’s eyes are upon us. Example: the nimbus, the cold it brings.
So we search for known hands. Or some familiar flapping. In the dark,
A heightened feeling: the burning of palms intertwined, the rustling
Of down hoisted up to the wind toward the murky depths of gravity. From
Opening one’s eyes, what happens: the dawn a cluster
Of rhythmic wings rises, aiming for distant stars, carrying
The afternoon heat. Brightness dissolves their number and shadow like a comma
In a broken sentence of approaching stars. We will be left sleeping among
The echoes of their wild singing, clutching our every wish.
© Enrique Villasis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Bernard Capinpin. All rights reserved.
Religious symbolism and threats of violence loom in this impressionistic poem by Marlon Hacla.
This body, stuffed with nightmares
a nesting ground for hawks, swollen
with intractable blues, if only I could solicit
a new shape for you, if only you would scintillate
like a word.
Flanked in the middle of three sharp cops,
a rose of the purest red,
the gleaming points of sharp thorns.
Song that begets all
songs, haunts the ensuing
cult of the carillon. There’s the tolling for
the arrival of the one who would clothe us with opulence.
But, is the time right? What
are the things we need to prepare?
Table carton canned lettuce tool soup with liturgy
there is a knife there is a sign of your slow slide into smallness
small engine small calendar small sound metaphor.
Since it is once more the season of thorns,
the children are yet again wounded.
And, in the absence of inclement weather,
rooms begin to dance, books
fling themselves wildly
across the floor.
Towards the end, lives are improved,
wounds dry up fast
despite the humid heat. The memories
have already settled down as wall pictures.
From Melismas. © 2016 Marlon Hacla. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Kristine Ong Muslim. All rights reserved.
Spanning thirty years, the essays selected and translated by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes range from meditations on reading and writing to personal pieces bordering on autofiction.
In the first entry of the long, episodic essay Summer 80, Marguerite Duras asks: “And what is this concept of summer anyway?” A timely question for the arrival of a new collection of her writing—fond memories of summer with its heat and slowness and inactivity. Duras, on the other hand, comes across as a hyperactive, if not always systematic, writer throughout Me & Other Writing, a volume of her selected nonfiction works just out with the publishing project Dorothy, and translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan with an introduction from Dan Gunn.
Many of the pieces collected here are appearing in English for the first time. They span thirty years and have no clear connecting thread other than Duras’s recurring exploration of her own enduring, fastidious writerly self and the themes that haunted her for her entire life. Even as she ages, even as she is struggles with alcoholism, Duras’s sense of self in these pages as an active, never-resting being who must write persists. Duras writes this “me,” this “I,” this assured voice that lends an air of assurance to outspoken and controversial opinions. Her voice comes across as measured yet absolute, generous yet unrelenting. It is this duality in the “me” voice that makes these essays so endearing and easy to engage with.
Although more well known for her work as a novelist and playwright, Duras was also an author of nonfiction, with books such as Writing, The War: A Memoir and Practicalities. In Me & Other Writing, there are pieces of varying length and depth collected, ranging from meditations on Duras’s mother to essays on Flaubert, local news, reading, writing, Yves Saint Laurent, and so much more. In a book that is largely about writing, however, a short essay about the art and craft of translation stood out for me. Succinct and beyond modern in its attitudes, “On Translation” puts forward the idea that translation is a genre of writing unto itself, and much more than the transfer of ideas between languages:
A translated text has been translated by someone based on a first reading which is always just as personal as the writing, and which can never be erased. Is it possible to talk about a musical translation? We talk about musical interpretations. It’s a shame that when we talk about translation, we stop at its literal meaning. As if meaning could only be found in texts, and not in music. Doesn’t the convention of respected meaning in fact propagate backwards ideas that work against the liberty of a text, against its breath, or its madness?
It is not often that there is a text within a translated text that explains so well the work being done by that very translation. These are not easy essays, but they are always a pleasure to read. As I was reading, I was constantly impressed not only with the beauty of each phrase but with the detail and research that must have gone into translating this collection. Baes and Ramadan capture the liberty and madness, the very breath of Duras’s thought: moving seamlessly between ideas, the measured precise inhales and exhales of an opera singer. They make distant events, foreign ideas, and even repulsive thoughts belong to the reader herself. And through the meandering journey of these essays it is always possible to identify with Duras’s “I.”
The last piece in the collection is a longer multi-part essay made up of journal entries Duras was asked to complete in the summer of 1980 by the then editor of French newspaper Libération. She was asked to write an entry every day, but in the end, apparently after much back-and-forth with her editor, she wrote weekly observations from the seaside town of Trouville, in Normandy. The entries are a wise and worldly sort of stream of consciousness, mostly beginning with observations about other vacationers or the weather and often ending with pronouncements on global politics, the most extended analysis being about Gdańsk, Poland and the labor solidarity movement there, which helped to bring about that nation’s modern democracy. There seems be space enough in Duras’s mind for all of these disparate topics and for them to connect in surprising ways.
There are also recurring themes found in Duras’s body of work that are less simple to assimilate. In “Nadine From Orange,” Duras arrives at the theme she will become famous for, romantic relationships between adolescent girls and older men as found in The Lover. As I read “Nadine From Orange,” I couldn’t help but think of how different her vision of the world is from ours today. Written in 1961, the story recounts the love affair between a grown man and a twelve-year-old girl he meets while on holiday with his own children. She tells the story in a cool voice, goes to interview the man’s wife, withholds judgment. Her troubling notions of love may lead to larger discussions of taboo and the boundaries between the artist’s work and the artist’s life; but in Duras’s case, an essay such as this also seems to signal her need to find people who had experienced things as she had and her eventual need to write about those experiences.
There are also later essays that reveal other biographical aspects of her novels and may fuel discussions of her work as something of a precursor to the now very popular genre of autofiction. This becomes clear in “My Mother Had . . .” from 1988: “I find that in literature, no writer’s mother compares to mine . . . But she is not the main hero of my body of work, nor the most permanent. No, I am the most permanent. Writing is to write for oneself.”
For Duras the active mind is the only valid state of mind there is. At first it seems harsh, judgmental, but if anything, she is judging herself (always herself first). In her essay “Flaubert is . . .” she writes, “I’m more of a writer than a living being, than someone who is alive. In my life I am more a writer than someone who lives. That’s how I see myself.” Over and over again she shows herself to be someone who believes in what can only be called the ontological status of the writer. “Writer” could be swapped with “creator” in her lexicon, as she also considers Yves Saint Laurent a writer. Intelligence is contingent on creation, on the risk of putting oneself in the world.
Reading Me & Other Writing is a powerful experience: I’ve been compelled to tell people about it and to share her ideas and nearly aphoristic paragraphs with my own writing students. The longer I spend time with this text, the more I think of her notion of genius in the essay “The Men of Tomorrow.” She writes:
To be a genius is to take the genius outside of oneself and put it on a canvas or inside a book. It’s to feel that the outside of oneself and the inside of oneself are interconnected.
It seems that she is defining genius and then some. For her, the intellectual has a duty to the public, and to herself. Duras’s striking lack of humility in these texts and in her opinions is uniquely different from the immodesty one encounters today; hers is earned confidence and a belief that what she says and studies matters. She seems so steadfast in her beliefs one wonders what conversations with her must have been like. But then she writes: “Work is always naïve, childish. Only laziness is noble, ‘great.’” And I think she must have been great fun. That certainly she took her ideas seriously, but mostly she was just wildly curious about the world and needed to share her interpretations of it with the rest of us.
The Danish writer creates a meta-text of mourning as she grieves the loss of her son in "When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book."
A dream. It’s a foggy afternoon. I am in a forest, playing a ball game with my granddad. I am three or four years old. My mom has gone somewhere and I don’t know where she is. I feel abandoned and scared. I don’t want to play the game. I can barely see through the fog anyway, so I cannot catch the ball when my granddad passes it to me. Then everything disappears and I am all alone in the forest. I don’t remember much else, I have no idea how much time has passed; it’s just this heavy feeling of nothingness that has enveloped me and I feel almost strangled by my own anxiety.
This dream stayed with me for years, and I would always evoke it subconsciously when feeling anxious, or abandoned and unworthy. One day I came across a photo album and there, on one of the pages, was a picture of me in the forest, playing a ball game with my granddad. I froze—it was as though someone had entered my dream and captured a snapshot. A photo of a nightmare that had followed me for years.
My mom then explained that this event did indeed happen and that she had left me alone for a brief moment in that forest. A brief moment, that’s what she said. To me, that time had stretched to an eternity.
I realized how dreams and memories had become jumbled, how the imaginable had entwined with reality to create something new—a powerful and unsettling feeling. Although the picture showed a seemingly happy moment, the thought of that day triggered an unpleasant sensation in me. Somehow, I’d managed to distance myself from it, to bury that memory deep inside me. And yet, this single recollection had a huge impact on so many events in my life.
So I started asking myself: What are memories? How trustworthy are they? Are they supposed to be true or are they some form of deeply inverted reality? And how much of this past information locked in our minds affects the way we live?
1. the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.
2. something remembered from the past.
From Latin memoria (“the faculty of remembering, remembrance, memory, a historical account”), from memor (“mindful, remembering”), from Ancient Greek μέρμερος (mérmeros, “anxious”), μέριμνα (mérimna, “care, thought”).
The power of remembering, the power to be mindful, to care about someone, but also to be anxious. To be anxious while thinking of someone, while remembering them.
Power. Thinking. Remembering.
I approached When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt almost blindly, not knowing what to expect, not digging into book reviews; it was the text in its pellucid form that mattered to me. With the very first pages, I sensed it was something special—unsettling, intense, and beautiful at the same time. I was fascinated by the way trauma is exposed here, the way it’s narrated—through fragments, borrowed voices, and memories. This book itself creates a meta-text of grief, giving context to all these voices: other writers, poems written by Carl or by his brother after his death. Going through the pages was like pressing myself toward a sharp edge—painful and unbearable, though there was no going back.
If my own experience with trauma could appear to be connected to a somewhat minor childhood incident, Aidt’s memoir is a response to what we immediately recognize as a catastrophic blow. The book was originally published in Denmark in 2017, two years after the harrowing event it tries to grapple with: the death of the author’s twenty-five-year-old son in a tragic accident. Mostly known as a writer of poems and short stories, Aidt was driven to this autobiographical account in an attempt to work through the event, to narrate her grief and accept the loss. The book won the Weekendavisen Literary Prize in Denmark and has just been longlisted for the National Book Award. It is also a finalist for the 2019 Kirkus Prize.
This memoir tells the story of a mother grieving her lost child through a text that seems broken but somehow perfect in its imperfection as it tries to recount such overwhelming pain. The narrative begins with the telephone call that brings the devastating news and proceeds to reveal the reasons behind the event. Aidt’s writing is anything but straightforward, however. It stretches over the pages, delaying the end, lingering in the sudden abyss of emptiness as if she is reluctant to admit to herself the inevitable outcome.
Although centered around Carl’s death, the book is much more about his life and the way he exists in his mother’s memories. This is the world Aidt constructs, while coming to terms with the loss and acknowledging it. Exposing the traumatic experience—not only the event but the following days, weeks, months, and years, enveloped in nothingness, in no-time—is the only way for her to begin to accept life after this unimaginable event, while keeping her son close to her.
In a recent interview for Louisiana Channel, Aidt mentioned that the only thing she believes in is poetry. And this is her prayer, a kind of repeated mantra—the poetry she’s left behind, the language, the constantly repeated memories—just like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” plays on loop in Carl’s hospital room during his final minutes. Aidt repeats the story in a loop too, so she can get used to it, create distance, and accept it in herself at the same time.
The structure of the text resembles a tree: there’s the trunk, or the main story from the moment of receiving the phone call until pronouncing Carl’s death, and all the additional branches sprung from it: quotes, diary notes, poems. In order to write about her tragedy when her own language is suddenly permeated by nothingness, Aidt resorts to different registers and other writers’ works, quoting authors as various as Joan Didion, C. S. Lewis, Anne Carson, Mallarmé, Plato, and Nick Cave.
The book follows the mind’s impulse of evoking past events and searching for their meaning, which is conveyed in bursts, reordering the chaos caused by the initial shock, creating a patchwork of imperfect shapes, unfinished work, unsaid words, stitching them together. Each fragment in the text seems to exist in a limbo of its own, in the cracks of time—much like Aidt does in the days and months following the devastating loss. Just as the mind reconstructs the traumatic events in memories, going back to them over and over again, the narrative constructs meaning through repetition, borrowed fragments, flashbacks.
What are memories? How true are they? Are they supposed to be true or is this a deeply inverted reality? These questions are not important. The only thing that matters is that they’re true to the person remembering them at that very moment. And so Aidt evokes these memories, laminate cuts of past life, of precious events, to save them from eroding (as our memory often does) and leave them on the pages like a herbarium for the days to come. These memories, like dried flowers, collected and assembled, carry Carl’s spirit, preserved for eternity.
“We are part of each other.
Are you part of me?
Distinguished with the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, this multi-generational novel confronts traditional taboos to tell a late-in-life love story between two Palestinian refugees living in Jordan’s Baqa’a camp.
Ours is an age when criticism often celebrates fat-free sentences, restrained ironies, and hope that’s caged in self-awareness—novels that walk before us like sunken-cheeked, unsmiling catwalk models. Huzama Habayeb’s Velvet, by contrast, is unafraid of its fullness: its gold jewelry, its fleshy abundance, its black velvet, and most of all, its melancholic and romantic lyrics, as sung by legendary Lebanese diva Fairouz. Velvet is a novel crammed with love and loss as it follows the gripping late-in-life love story of Hawwa and Munir, Palestinian refugees living in Jordan’s Baqa’a camp. Yet as their romance unfolds, Habayeb casts a wider look at the world around them, deftly inscribing and disassembling powerful mythologies of motherhood and exile.
Velvet, which won the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, is a multigenerational novel with a wide cast of characters. Yet it is Hawwa’s story from beginning to end. “Hawwa” is the Arabic word for “Eve,” an allusion that, unfortunately, isn’t carried into Kay Heikkenen’s able translation. Although born in poverty and exile, Hawwa has talent. She is attractive, strong, and clever; she is a gifted dressmaker. We might expect that she or her children will rise up from poverty, or that motherhood and hard work will have rewards. Yet Habayeb confounds any such expectations.
As the novel opens, the rain is coming down as though sent by God. This rain hurls itself into the action, much as all of Habayeb’s characters do: “Daggers of water pierced the dusty flanks of the ground, thrusting rapidly and in quick succession, as if laden with emotion, or haunted by ancient sorrow, or filled with deeply buried rancor.” The rain is not just one thing, but a hundred, and it “poured down like a hail of bullets on terrified windows.”
This sensory-overload precipitation doesn’t stop for seven days. “At times the rain was rushed, as if it wanted to empty everything in the womb of the sky and be done at last with its burden, or perhaps its sin. At other times it slowed, as if its will were feeble, the space between one raindrop and the next becoming wider and longer, as if the sky’s mouth had gone dry, before the water once again reclaimed its anger, its lash, and its bluster.”
While others are huddled in their homes, middle-aged Hawwa rejoices in the rain. After all, the rain gives cover to her romantic transgressions, although we don’t yet know that. Before we get too far, she remembers an expression of her father’s, and we are yanked back into her freezing childhood of violence and toil, unrelieved by affection. Daily, we see Hawwa protect her late-blooming brother Ayid. She washes his urine-soaked sheets and throws herself over his body to take his beatings. Yet there is no one who protects Hawwa; she is treated as a mature woman and a mother figure from the tender age of eleven.
Hawwa finds some relief in working as an apprentice seamstress for Sitt Qamar, who, unlike Hawwa, lives outside the camp. Here, Hawwa is respected, learns a trade, and has her first crush. To young Hawwa, Sitt Qamar seems to have the ideal life—that of a respectable businesswoman who is husband- and child-free—but she later uncovers Sitt Qamar’s secret, passionate grief.
All the novel’s most beautiful literary allusions and quotations seem to come from Sitt Qamar. There are echoes of Sahar Khalifeh’s classic novel Bab al-Saha in the scene where Sitt Qamar’s home becomes a refuge for a fedayee fighter. One of her clients is “Durrat al-Ain” (Pearl of One’s Eye), whose name hints at classic Arabic folktales. And it is Sitt Qamar who gifts Hawwa “a leather case containing dozens of tapes of Fairouz’s songs,” the lyrics of which are laced throughout the novel.
But hard work in Sitt Qamar’s house does not lift Hawwa out of the camp. Indeed, she is pulled from Sitt Qamar’s safe haven and married off to a smelly, violent butcher, a man who could hardly make a sharper contrast to her careful, thoughtful midlife lover, Munir.
Motherhood offers her little and takes a lot. Although Hawwa is a mother figure to her brother Ayid, he is not grateful, but rather becomes a surly dependent and overlord, particularly after her husband leaves her. Hawwa’s own children are mediocre and turn against her. There is only one member of Hawwa’s family who carves out a decent life for himself: her brother Lutfi. He does this neither by hard work nor by filial devotion. Instead, it’s by marrying his boss’s daughter and keeping his distance from family.
Thus it’s not by hard work nor by duty that you escape the nightmare of poverty, oppression, and exile: it’s by luck and by shirking your family. And forget about your children doing you any favors. “Paradise is under the feet of mothers,” or so the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have said. In Velvet, paradise and motherhood could not be further apart.
This may seem a grim, materialist realism. Yet it comes in a book swathed in the richest of royal velvets. Every moment in this book is so fully lived as to be magnetic—even the hideous bedbug infestation—like having a person sit in front of you to reveal all the shameful and beautiful details of their life story, weeping as they speak.
This English translation appeared quickly, less than two years after the novel won the Naguib Mahfouz medal, and it does not have quite the sentence-level urgency of the Arabic. But the novel should not be missed, in Arabic or in English, for its sentences crammed to the brim with life in a refugee camp, for its sophisticated picking apart of narrative tropes about motherhood and social mobility, and for the rollercoaster-like pleasure of Hawwa’s ups and downs.
In the winter of 2003, I was on a first-ever visit to Beirut. I’d come from Cairo, where I was living, and was a bit stunned by the cold. So it happened that I found myself in a shop, trying to buy a heavy sweater. I don’t remember what I said to the proprietor, although I’m sure I must’ve spoken in a heavy Egyptian Arabic. In my memory, he raised a finger and pointed at me, laughing: “Adel Emam!”
Although I’m approximately the same height as the Egyptian comic actor, I’m fairly certain I look nothing like the man, who was in his sixties at the time. But hearing an Egyptian accent coming out of the mouth of a hapless American sweater-buyer must have signaled something to this Lebanese shopkeeper. Namely: a funny bit was about to happen.
This anecdote—me asking for a sweater, the shopkeeper shouting “Adel Emam!”—probably isn’t as funny to you as it was to the friends who immediately knew Adel Emam, pictured the actor’s broad face, and knew why the shopkeeper would call out such a thing. By the time I’ve explained the joke, it’s already lost its essential element: surprise.
Humor has that paradoxical quality of being absolutely universal (or even more so, as chimpanzees also apparently appreciate a good joke) while also being deeply embedded in linguistic wordplay and sociocultural zeitgeist. This is a constant challenge in translating. In a talk at the American University in Cairo in 2010, acclaimed translator Jonathan Wright said that he removed a Viagra joke from his translation of Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi because he couldn’t find a way to make it funny in English. “I couldn’t see a way to convey the pun on the two aspects of wuquuf, stopping and standing. [The joke] referred to a warning on the packet that read: wuquuf mutakarrir [makes frequent stops], the warning they put on the back of buses."
Wright is hardly the only one. M. M. Tawfik wrote, in his essay “Self-Translation: Faithful Rendition or Rewriting?” that while translating his novel Murder in the Tower of Happiness, one character’s jokes gave him no end of headaches. “I was faced with the decision of whether to replace them with completely different jokes in English, or to delete them entirely. . . . Had the original text not been my own, each of these decisions would have probably been excruciating.”
Heba Salem and Kantaro Taira give an example of just such an excruciating-to-translate joke in their essay “Al-Thawra al-daHika” (The Laughing Revolution). For background: in the popular Egyptian film Ga'ana al-Bayan al-Tali (We Have the Following News), Muhammad Heneidi disguises himself as a prostitute who confuses the “b” and “p” sounds, a common class marker. One punchline in the movie is “Byeeee, mopailat ba’a,” or, “Bye, let’s stay in touch via our ‘mopile’ phones.” When Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, one of the many jokes floating around was “Mubarak, mopailat ba’a.” Not only is this a lot to digest in order to appreciate a rather thin joke, but so much has happened since February 2011, it’s hard to find Mubarak’s departure from office funny.
In Ahdaf Soueif’s 1992 novel In the Eye of the Sun, a much-quoted passage has Asya put in a tape of Sheikh Imam singing lyrics from “Nixon Baba” by colloquial and sometimes-satirical poet Ahmed Fouad Negm: “Sharraft ya Nixon Baba, / Ya bta’ el-Watergate—”
At this point, a character named Lisa, noticing both “Nixon” and “Watergate,” interrupts to ask what the poem is about. Asya gives a translation of the first seven words that runs to more than two hundred and fifty, explaining each of the terms, phrases, and their histories in turn, and touching on grammar, rhythm, and register. As with the Mubarak joke, such detailed explanation tends to wring whatever humor there is from the original. All this is to say that humor can feel impossible to translate beyond its cultural context, and yet the Lebanese shopkeeper definitely found Egyptian cinema hilarious. Sometimes it’s up to the listener to throw ourselves into a joke.
To that end, we’ve chosen pieces from a diverse range of Arabic humors, both salty and sweet, starting with the classic humor of Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200), who’s known for poking fun at scribes, schoolmasters, misers, and general human foolishness, and ending with contemporary Arabic-language humor that still wrings a laugh from mocking power, pride, and other human foibles.
In this month’s issue, we include Ahmed Fouad Negm’s “Important Announcement,” translated here by the ambitious Elliott Colla. Both poet and folk hero, Negm (1929–2013) had a decades-long partnership with the talented musician Sheikh Imam, who would compose music to which Negm’s poetry was set.
As in Negm’s work, politics is often a space for humor in Arabic, in part because it’s shared cultural territory, and also because there’s an enjoyable frisson to punching up at political figures, historical moments, and sacred cows. Muhammed Mustajab’s “Blood in Flames,” translated by Robin Moger, was published around the same time as “Nixon Baba” and reads as a satire of self-important mid-twentieth-century Gamal Abdel Nasser–era nationalism. Mustajab (1938–2005), born in upper Egypt and with little formal education, became a rare master at satirizing both countryside and city.
In her satiric story “Run, George!” Libyan novelist and short-story writer Najwa Bin Shatwan—here translated by Sawad Hussain—builds on both Libya’s colonial history and its contemporary civil war in a tragicomic meeting between the living and the dead. “Run, George!” is the opening story in Bin Shatwan’s 2019 collection An Ongoing Coincidence, which moves from the absurd to the absurder, borrowing from the news and folktales, inhabiting the minds of humans, animals, and, naturally, the dead.
In Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal’s short play The Colonel’s Wedding, translated by Katherine Hennessy, military men come under satiric—and actual—fire. While there are Yemeni specificities that may not come across exactly as al-Ahdal likely intended, it’s still funny, as most any of us can understand why opportunism, betrayal, and a T-72 tank make a humorous mix. Al-Ahdal is a novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, but it is his theatrical work—as here and, for instance, A Crime on Restaurant Street—where al-Ahdal is at full comic throttle, satirizing all segments of society, as when the bank teller says: “What you need to understand is that truth is directly connected to our wallets. And since your wallet is empty, and mine is full, that means the truth isn’t in your wallet. It’s in mine.”
Popular Lebanese-Egyptian writer Sahar Mandour is known for portraying relationships, Beirut, and the (sometimes ridiculous) social expectations that limn our lives and our understanding of self. I’ll Draw a Star on Vienna’s Forehead (2007), from which our selection "Vienna" is taken, was her first novel. Through its cheerfully self-invented narrator, it examines the ways in which we try to reshape ourselves for others.
Nearly all of the comedy in this issue sits on the razor’s edge between funny and tragic.. Perhaps we are at a particularly funny-tragic moment in human history, or perhaps that is simply our human condition. But comedy need not be so close to misery. One of my favorite (wordless) jokes is from September 2010, when the stakes in Egypt seemed much lower than they did a few months later. Ahdaf Soueif might give you eight hundred words of context, but I’ll just leave it here:
© 2019 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.
India’s vast and varied story traditions continue to exist orally across languages, cultures, and religions. Folktales featuring village deities and spirits, riddles that reference local flora and fauna, songs of specific marriage customs and rituals sit side by side with the grand narratives of pan-Indian epics and myths. But even the epics are brought down to earth, as it were, when we are told that the god-human heroes and heroines rested a while under the village tree during their exile, that an unlikely stream was actually created when they were thirsty, that these were the very flowers that the princess put in her hair. Thus, a local landscape becomes part of a sacred geography, touched by the gods who walked, talked, ate, and slept in our small corner of this otherwise vast and unknowable universe.
Oral narratives that are categorized as being “folk” and part of the so-called “little traditions” are highly localized and very particular to place. In them, the conflicts are not on a cosmic scale, good is not battling evil. Rather, a local farmer might encounter a very attractive stranger by a well at night and have to face the consequences of being seduced, a miser might bury his money by the roots of a tree and have it stolen by a passing traveler, fish can give you advice, a snake might fall in love with your wife, the night-singing bird yearns for the scar-faced moon. Folktales abound in lessons that might be learned though they rarely preach morality and ethics. But despite their specificity, these tales transcend the places that produced them and throb with a universal appeal. We may not always be able to comprehend the ways of gods from different religions, but we are always able to feel familial with human beings from faraway times and places.
These stories are from the Kinnaur and Spiti districts of India’s northern state of Himachal Pradesh. With Tibet nestling comfortably on its eastern flank, this region of high mountains and deep valleys that are often cut off from the rest of the world has sheltered Bon, Buddhism, and various smaller tribal and local religious practices within its ancient, craggy arms. In the mountains, the gods are always close and so it is that sacred places are often shared, different traditions and religions all acknowledging their power and energy in stories and songs.
Winters are fierce in Kinnaur and Spiti. There are storms and blizzards; people stay indoors as their fragile huts are battered and bruised by snow, hail, and howling winds. Firewood is scarce and often the only way to get through the perilous dark hours is to tell stories—stories of summer days and sweet breezes, of love and hope, of prosperity and abundance. While the stories might be from the past, they are never from far away; they happened right here, in this village, by that stream, on that mountain slope. The people in them are familiar, the places are known.
Between 2002 and 2014, Noor Zaheer collected stories from the many oral traditions that animate the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys, traditions that knot the people of this sparsely populated area into tight little communities. Noor, a writer, theatermaker, and political activist, traveled to the northwestern Himalayas in order to learn more about local theater practices. While she was there, she realized how endangered the old stories, passed on from teller to teller, from mouth to ear to mouth to ear, had become. Speaking of the paradox of documenting a living, breathing, fluid, and dynamic tradition, Noor says, “I did realize that documenting the oral traditions was taking the life out of them, in a way, by making them static. Documenting a version of a story that develops and transforms with each telling was putting a stop to the most fundamental aspect of creation within the oral tradition. But changing lifestyles and the ever-growing presence of the mass media had already made drastic erosions into these forms, even before our work had begun. There was no other way to preserve these forms other than to document them.”
Noor gathered her stories from men and women, from senior lamas in monasteries and from nomadic shepherds who moved with their flocks according to the season. Languages and dialects vary from valley to valley and from community to community. Also, the language spoken by a learned lama is bound to be different from that of a wandering shepherd. Sometimes, Noor transcribed the stories herself; other times, they were repeated to her by an interpreter. In each case, however, Noor translated the stories into English.
Noor also performed another act of translation for these endangered stories. Disturbed by the process of having to “stabilize” the stories by presenting them in a single version, she says, “Perhaps as an apology for what I was doing, I developed six full-length plays from the stories and tales that I collected, hoping to keep the forms moving, changeable, alive.”
The region in which Noor lived and worked is Buddhist, but its Buddhism is deeply influenced by the Tibetan Bon religion and other local cults. In the stories, you can see how different worldviews and ways of being are held simultaneously, how they inform lives and practice with no apparent contradiction. Take, for example, the tragic love story of Sunni and Bhunku from Kinnaur. The catalyst of the story, which is set in an obviously Buddhist milieu, is a fraudulent sadhu who appears to be Hindu. The Buddhist Zhering has no problem appealing to him for help. But, there is also another way to read this Buddhist story, and that is to see it as a critique of a rival religion whose holy men cannot be trusted.
Folktales told around the world also display readily identifiable tropes that allow the stories to resemble each other. “The Girl Who Turned into a Crocodile” brings to mind the tales of swan maidens who were so poignantly transformed by Hans Christian Andersen in the nineteenth century and the Selkies that lurk on edges of Scottish lore—these are women who can move between human and animal form by taking on and shedding their skin, who are elusive, mysterious, dangerous to love. The love and mutual dependence of the brother and sister in the Kinnauri story also recalls the close bond shared by Hansel and Gretel, for example, or the relationship between the sister and her brothers in Andersen’s “The Twelve Wild Swans.”
“When the Deer Moved Away,” a story from the Spiti region, fits nicely into the category of an origin story which tells us why things are the way they are in the place where the story comes from. “Why do the deer never cross the river and come to our village,” a little child might ask. And someone will reply, “Let me tell you why. Once upon a time, long ago, a herd of deer would stay around our village even though other herds had moved further south for the winter. But then . . .”
These three stories share the idea of migration. We can see that the story of Bhunku, who is himself a nomadic shepherd, is told by other nomads who move with the weather, seeking the high grassy meadows in the summer and moving down into the valleys in winter. So, too, the herds of deer move to the lower slopes in the winter, counting on food and sustenance from the villages they pass. These are the gentle, natural migrations made necessary by the seasons; they involve periods of work and periods of rest and recovery for both humans and animals. Together, the stories sit firmly in the physical and spiritual cultures of the Kinnaur valley, where migration is not only about crossing space, but also about crossing time and even about crossing bodies. Love makes Chering move into the body of a crocodile, leaving her human life and world behind. Sunni and Bhunku now inhabit an afterlife, their separation being played out night after stormy night as their restless souls reach for each other. The majestic male deer in the herd seems to embody the consciousness of an enlightened soul, perhaps of the Buddha himself. He sacrifices himself so that his herd might live. This migration of souls is also a natural movement in a world where all forms of life are connected and sacred.
Noor Zaheer’s sensitive and conscientious translations presented here are a small part of a much larger collection of oral stories from Kinnaur and Spiti. We are fortunate to have such a delightful sample of oral culture from such a remote part of the world, from a region where traditional lives, livelihoods and cultures are fast disappearing.
© 2019 by Arshia Sattar. All rights reserved.
Note: All translations in this feature were created and edited in 2018 through the Yali program for Indian language translations.
Translated by Noor Zaheer, this folktale of treachery and thwarted romance—from the Kunju Pass Area in Lahoul, eastern Himachal Pradesh—explores the question of whether love can survive after death.
Outside a cave, three men crouched around a fire on that fateful night.
Winter is severe in the upper Himalayas, but nowhere is it as harsh as when you have crossed the Great Himalayan ranges and reached Lahoul. Dotted with fields of potatoes and maize in the summer, when each mountain is carpeted with irises that contest the clear blue of the skies, Lahoul turns into a frozen desert in the winter. If it was just snow and frost one would stay indoors, light a fire and, like a bear, sleep through the winter, waking only to eat. But winter here comes with howling winds, hail and powerful storms. Blizzards rush down mountain slopes, and because they can’t smash the rocks that stand in their way, they bang their heads against the mud huts built low to the ground in an attempt to escape the blizzard’s cruel eye. But the blizzard has sharp eyes, and many a house finds itself without a roof or a wall by the time the storm is done with it.
People who lose their homes and are left to fend for themselves as best they can are usually the poorest of the poor. Often, they did not have houses at all. These are the shepherds, but they know of caves where they can shelter when such a mishap befalls them.
The three men were sitting curled up tightly. They knew that they should move into the cave, but they were loath to leave the warm, comforting circle of the fire. Two of them were shepherds traveling down to the green valleys of Kullu with their herd. The third man had befriended them because he was lost in that icy desert. An old proverb says, “ . . . so cold as to freeze even the tears of the sorrowful,” but in the wilds of Lahoul, it is so cold that people stopped talking to one another. What was the use? The words would freeze and fall before they reached the ears of the listener!
The three men were praying silently for the night to be over because a morning, even a misty and cloudy one, brings its own cheer. Suddenly, a male voice rose out of the dark, cold night. It was loud and clear. “Sunni—!” it called. The shepherds were alert in a trice and reached for their staffs. The voice cried out again and the outsider became restless. He said, “It sounds as if someone needs help. Why don’t you call him here? He will freeze to death in this cold.”
“No, he won’t, he’ll be fine,” replied the elder of the shepherds and the younger one nodded his head in agreement. Both of them stayed exactly where they were. But the outsider could not sit still. He jumped up and ran towards the voice that was still calling “Sunni—Sunni!” Suddenly, he felt himself in the grip of strong arms. His companions had caught up with him and had pinned him to the snow-hardened ground. He stopped struggling and was led firmly back to the fire. Meanwhile, the cry from the icy wilderness became softer, as if the caller had moved further into the dark and stormy night.
“Bhunku is at it tonight!” remarked the younger shepherd.
The outsider was shocked. “You know who he is! You know his name! And you let him perish! What kind of human beings are you?”
“Sit down, son, and I’ll tell you a story, the story of Sunni and Bhunku,” said the older shepherd as he stirred the twitching embers.
“On the way to Spiti, just as you cross the Kunzum Pass, lies the village of Gadhakal. It’s a prosperous village, situated between two rivers and facing east. The people who live there are warm and generous, and everyone works equally hard to contribute to the village output. Their land is well-irrigated and has lots of sunshine. Their crops are plentiful and their houses are strong enough to withstand the rainstorms and the blizzards. They eat well and are contented, and they say that the girls of the village look like the celestial dancers in the court of the king of the gods.
“Now, as we all know, the gods are temporary visitors to earth; they come here only for pleasure. The people of Gadhakal know that gods have their own enticements, and so they accept the beautiful girls born from the follies of the gods and respect the women who are their mothers.
“One such girl was born to a rich landowner in the village. Her beauty was so luminous that it lit up the room even as she slept at night. She was named Sunni, which means ‘ray of sunlight,' and as she grew older, she became ever more beautiful, if that was even possible. Her fingers were nimble enough to weave carpets, her arms could manage the huge, cumbersome looms, her back was as strong as a yak’s so that she could carry loads of corn from the fields to the threshing ground.
“As word of her beauty and skills spread, there were many families who wanted her as their daughter-in-law. They sent her father proposals for her hand in marriage, with promises of generous bride money, but Sunni’s parents were not willing to marry off their daughter in a hurry. No other child had been born to them after Sunni, and they did not wish to be separated from her so soon. The summer when Sunni turned sixteen, a goatherd arrived in the village with a flock of long-haired Himalayan goats. He was called Bhunku, and his name proclaimed that he belonged to the caste of professional shepherds, men who did not own the flocks they cared for. They took other people’s animals to graze and were paid in wool for their work. Surefooted and nimble as his goats, Bhunku would climb to the higher mountain pastures, where the grass was greener and juicier, where his goats would have space to run, play and eat their fill. He would sit in the sun and play his reed flute. The goats knew all the tunes he played. They recognized the tune that meant it was time to go home and they would return to Bhunku when he played it. Together, goatherd and flock would climb back down to the village.
“Sunni was amazed at the power of Bhunku’s flute, and she began following him higher up the slopes. She kept her distance and would hide behind a tree as she listened to the songs that Bhunku coaxed from his simple reed instrument. Before long, she had succumbed to the lure of the flute and was dancing and swaying to the music. Bhunku saw her and came closer. She smiled when she saw him so close, for he was a good-looking man. Love bloomed as easily as mint takes root beside gorges. But mint spreads its fragrance and is soon discovered. The village got to know of Sunni and Bhunku’s love, not because it kept a watch on its girls, but because Sunni was missing when the potato fields were being dug and cleared, when they were being sown and the saplings thinned, at the time of the first watering, and then again at the time of the weeding. Love is a time-consuming business, and lovers treat all other work as unimportant; that is how they are usually found out.
“Sunni did not have any reason to hide the truth. She knew her parents did not wish to part with her, and Bhunku, who did not have a home, was willing to give up his nomadic life and settle down in Ghadakal. The village elders met and decided to let them marry the following spring. This suited Bhunku very well. He would have time to tell his employers that he was giving up grazing their goats, he would collect his payment in wool and sell that to buy gifts for Sunni. Sunni’s parents were also pleased, as it would give them time to build another room for the newlyweds and to brew enough wine to celebrate the wedding of their only child in style.
“With the first snow, Bhunku gathered his flock to make the journey into the valleys. Sunni went with him as far as the Rohtang Pass. As they said goodbye, Bhunku asked Sunni if there was anything special she wanted from Kullu because that was where he was headed. Sunni mentioned Mojris, the special shoes made only in distant Jaipur by shoemakers who were, in reality, magicians. The shoes they made took the shape of the wearer’s feet so sweetly that those who wore them forgot that their feet were shod at all. Lahoulis wear shoes made from hemp that is rough and very uncomfortable. They say that a Lahouli woman might have a face as pretty as a fairy’s, but her feet are as hard as the hooves of sheep. Bhunku laughed at Sunni’s request. He teased her for planning to sit pretty and make him do all the hard work. But he promised to bring her the shoes and ran after his flock, which had smelled the juicy, green grass of the lower mountain pastures and was scampering down the slopes without him.
“Months passed and winter settled in. Sunni stayed indoors spinning wool and tales; wool to make Bhunku a wedding coat and tales to entertain him during the night. She learned new songs to please him, and new dance steps because she did not want him to dance with any other woman. She ate frugally and frowned at visitors who had to be fed because she wanted the granary to have ample grain in case Bhunku returned before the harvest.
“It was a harsh winter, but nothing is difficult for the one who waits for a beloved. The thaw set in—you could tell from the water moving under the ice in the streams and rivulets. The banks of the smaller streams turned green, first with moss and then with the new leaves of the snow lotus. But when the snow lotus bloomed, Sunni’s vigil became painful. Like the lotus, the vigil burst from her heart and teased and mocked her with doubts and suspicions. Each day, she finished her chores at an almost electric speed, and then she climbed to where she could see the path that the goatherds usually took and waited. Each evening, she returned with a heavy heart and spent the night filled with misgivings. But every morning, the dawn brought her new hope.
“Zhering Thopo lived in the same village as Sunni and her parents. He was a rich man who traded in salt and oil. He did not own land, but he possessed a beautiful house. His ailing wife had died recently, and he was looking for a suitable woman to take her place. He had been planning to talk to Sunni’s father, offer a bride price so huge that it could not be refused, but Bhunku had spoiled his plans. Zhering nursed his anger and bided his time.
“We know that all kinds of people make their way up the Himalayas—some come for a change of weather, others to hunt for rare herbs, some to run away from personal responsibilities, but all of them come to seek peace. Though the Himalayas hold the answers to all human questions, they rarely reveal their secrets. Those who come to gain something claim that they have attained enlightenment and they are sought out by those who seek shortcuts to solutions for their problems. But some paths in the Himalayas are rough and rugged, they have no shortcuts. Sometimes, it’s better to stay on the longer routes to reach one’s destination.
“Anyway, Zhering befriended a saffron-clad, long-haired, filthy-bearded hermit and told him of his heart’s desire and how difficult it was to obtain. The hermit told him to convince Sunni to come to a lonely mountaintop in the middle of the night. Together, they hatched a plan to spread the story of the hermit who could see the future in the flames of a fire. By now, Sunni was desperate to meet Bhunku. The sun had started to rise early and set late, the corn was turning golden, rivers gurgled with the melted snow from the high mountains. Preparations for the second crop were underway, and people, as is their wont, were beginning to make fun of Sunni and her endless wait.
“It was at this desolate moment that Zhering asked Sunni to consult the holy man who lit a fire every night on the mountaintop and could see visions of the past and future in its dancing flames. Sunni swiftly agreed, thinking that if she knew when Bhunku might return, she would be able to concentrate on the tasks before her. In the middle of the night, Sunni stole out of her house. The flickering flames at the top of the mountain guided her in that night as dark as pitch, and she considered that a good omen. She approached the fire and found the hermit and Zhering sitting there. Silently, the hermit motioned to her to sit down and to repeat her beloved’s name seven times. As Sunni pronounced ‘Bhunku’ the seventh time, the hermit yelled, ‘I can see! I can see Bhunku! There he is, I can see him!’ Sunni and Zhering moved closer and peered into the fire, but they could see nothing. The hermit seemed to go into a trance and he began to wail loudly. He writhed on the ground and thrashed around, bawling and howling. Zhering held him fast and asked, ‘What is it you see, learned sage?’ In between sobs and moans, the sadhu said, ‘I see Bhunku, but he is dead. I see Bhunku, but his body is being cremated! I see Bhunku, but his soul is leaving for the heavens!’
“Sunni lost all sensation in her limbs when she heard the hermit’s words. As if in a dream, she stood up and walked away. The hermit and Zhering nodded and winked at each other. Zhering was now sure that he could send a marriage proposal for Sunni, that it would be accepted, and that the wedding would be over and done with before Bhunku returned, if at all he did. Suddenly, Zhering and the hermit realized that Sunni was not heading towards the path that led downhill. She was walking in the opposite direction, towards the precipice. They set off behind her, calling out as they ran. But Sunni had had a head start, and now she ran faster. Before they could catch up with her, she screamed ‘Bhunkuuuuuuu’ and jumped off to meet the death that she believed had taken her beloved.
“Zhering was overcome with grief and remorse. He could not confess to anyone in the village, even though everyone was searching for Sunni everywhere. He took to waiting on the path taken by goatherds to enter Lahoul. Sure enough, Bhunku arrived in a few days. He was happy that someone from his beloved’s village had come to welcome him.
“Embracing Bhunku, Zhering asked, ‘What took you so long? ” Bhunku laughed and replied, ‘My work was done before winter ended, I had been paid for my work and I was able to sell the wool in the market.’
“‘Then why, oh why, did you not come back immediately?’ cried Zhering.
“Bhunku smiled shyly and said, ‘Sunni wanted a pair of Mojris, and this year the Mojri makers did not come to the market fair in Kullu. I heard that they were camping in Kangra, so I walked all the way there. That took several weeks, but I bought the Mojris and came back as soon as I could. Look how beautiful they are! Imagine how lovely my Sunni will look wearing them.’
“Zhering began to sob loudly when he heard this and told Bhunku everything, cursing himself and the hermit. Bhunku dropped all the gifts that he had brought from the lowlands. He even took off the new shirt that he had bought to wear as a bridegroom and removed his new shoes. He fell to his knees and bowed low, touching his head to the ground before Zhering. Then, he stood up and extended his right hand. Zhering had no option but to put his hand on Bhunku’s, acknowledging the pledge that he would give whatever was asked for. Bhunku looked Zhering in the eye and said, ‘Show me the place where I will find Sunni.’
“Zhering had to escort Bhunku to the mountaintop, across the plateau, and show him the precipice where Sunni had last been seen. Bhunku stretched out his arms as if to embrace something and then, as his body hurtled downwards, he cried, ‘Sunni—.’
The old shepherd had reached the end of the story. He sighed and said, “Death does not unite lovers. At least, this time it didn’t. On some nights, she calls for him, and on others, he longs for her. Maybe lovers unite only as embodied selves and earth itself is heaven. When we are no longer of the earth, there is nothing left but yearning, endless yearning.”
Translation © 2019 by Noor Zaheer. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Najwa bin Shatwan, a Daesh attack forces George to flee the Christian cemetery and take refuge among the Muslim dead of Benghazi.
It was customary for the dead of Benghazi to visit their families whenever they pleased, sticking their noses into every affair—big or small—and, if a revolution were to break out, they would join its ranks, having no qualms about dying twice over. Such was, without fail, the habit of all the dead in Benghazi: those whose final resting place was in the Christian cemetery would invariably step out in the evenings dressed in their finest, impeccable, as if on their way to a wedding, bumping into those of the Muslim cemetery returning from their leisurely sit-downs in cafés, as if retiring after a day’s work.
George Arter George was among those whose graves were in the ancient, manicured cemetery in the neighborhood of Al-Fawehat. George carried on through death with trimmed nails, clad in a fashionable Gucci suit, silk socks, and clean shoes. This was before he sought refuge in the Muslim cemetery in Al-Huwwari, right on the heels of the Daesh attack on his own burial ground that shattered the tombstones, insulting the dignity of those resting there.
Toward the end of an exhausting walk, George almost missed two roses on the Al-Safsafa plot—a patch replete with alfalfa for the cows—that caught his eye. He picked them up to take to his father for his death anniversary. He was counting the remaining steps to the cemetery when he made out the bulldozer, the jellabiyas fluttering in the wind, and the long, unkempt beards.
George knew it was the end; with his foresight, he didn’t even have to think about it. He threw the roses on the road—where they were crushed by cars that weren’t used to stopping even if they ran someone over—and started to run, fleeing this damned black day in the course of his death, running away from a second death without knowing where he was going. He was already in the hereafter; he couldn’t escape it to go back to the world of the living. Nonetheless, whoever had been chewed up by the jaws of life would never go back to it, no matter how painful the torture in the afterlife.
George Arter George squatted by the side of the road leading to the psychiatric hospital, crouching beneath the sole tree there, wishing for a truck to pass by that he could cling to, to take him to the Muslim cemetery. Not a single one of the drivers stopped to give him a lift, believing that he was a mental patient on the loose. And if a Good Samaritan were to stop, he would most likely be bundled off to the hospital so that he wouldn’t harm anyone on the “outside,” God forbid.
As such, it was better to run away from the tree, from Daesh, from the trucks, and from the Good Samaritans, too. He stopped and stood by the stalls of the immigrant salesmen to give the impression that he too was one of them after several years of integration, or that he was a white eggplant—an utterly undesirable soul; in either case, no one would be concerned in the slightest.
Posing as a white eggplant, he finally succeeded in reaching the Muslim cemetery. As soon as word spread to those buried there that there was a strange man among them in an elegant suit, they began to take advantage of him in every way.
As a supposed eggplant, he rushed here and there; he didn’t have to share who he really was until he knew them better.
“Hey George, go and lock the gate, would you?”
“George, go and buy us some smokes, at least you’ve got some clothes on!”
“Go on, George, get us some lunch and dinner. We’re craving some fruit and roast chicken.”
Finally, George got fed up and yelled, “Enough! I want to go back to my own cemetery. My suit’s worn out from walking under the blazing sun, my shoes are filthy, and my beard’s a bushy mess. There’s no electricity to iron my clothes or wash my suit, the whole day the power’s out. And on top of that, you all tell me to get you things from really dangerous neighborhoods where the war is on!”
“Slow down there, George. Take a breath. You want us to treat you nice and good, eh? Have you forgotten that you’re just a white eggplant? Hah!”
Some years later . . .
George’s clothes were threadbare, his hair unkempt, dusty. His shoes had been stolen. What’s more, the owner of the grave next to him had made off with his tie but denied stealing it even though he wore it brazenly round his neck. George stood on wild rugged thorns in the graveyard, his feet bleeding, while he pondered—as a depressed philosopher would—the impossibility of life and death in Libya. No rest for the living, no rest for the dead. Perhaps, in both cases, because of the people. They always found something or the other for him to do, leaving him perpetually on tenterhooks. They would never be satisfied.
When the cemetery’s residents couldn’t find anything else for him to do, they dispatched him to bring them news. “Go on, you eggplant, and bring us some news from the outside.” No sooner had they asked him than he was on his way.
“There’s talk of a Turkish freighter called Andromeda, seized in Greece, carrying 410 tons of explosives, coming from Turkey to the port at Misrata. Because of this, several cases about the war in Benghazi have been opened, as if the investigation will be impartial in the first place. If this ship actually berths here, a lot of the dead will be anxious about their graves. They might be thrown out in order to make space for the new bodies. What shit! RIP my ass!”
Once done speaking, he turned his face toward Europe, envious of the dead over there. Surely there’s no dead person getting up over there simply to die all over again. How many times could Greece intervene and come to our rescue?
George’s friend Mohammed came back from court after finalizing his divorce. “What’s with you, George? You seem more down than the judge. Isn’t there anything on this side that you like?”
“I miss my first grave. I want to go back. The years are passing without any hope in sight.”
“Why are you so worried? You’re welcome here, you know that. Sure, your tie was snatched, and your shoes pass by in front of you every day on another man’s feet, and the old lady occupying the grave over there claims you’ve been harassing her, but you’re still much better off than those people who’ve been kicked out of where they were living. Take the town of Tawergha, for instance.”
“The truth is that I just want to go back to where I was, not because it’s grassy, shaded by trees, or free from litter, but because the cemetery there is full and no one new can come in. As for this cemetery, bodies keep flocking in, in droves really, from all over. Civil war, car accidents, stray bullets, electric shocks, mines, medical negligence, shoddy buildings collapsing, expired food; the list goes on. What will the future be like? It’s making me think about migrating to Europe.”
Mohammed offered his friend some comforting words, then invited him to draw closer to the graveyard fence to watch the wedding procession going past: the cars’ honking mingled with the traditional songs, growing to a crescendo as celebratory bullets freely shot skywards.
“There is hope. There is joy. Come on, George, let’s grab a slice of some of that fun and happiness for ourselves!”
Both of them stood on their tiptoes to get a better look. George finally smiled after not having done so since he had left the cemetery of his father and forefathers, seemingly more joyous than the couple getting married, chiming in with the song they were singing:
The fire of your love, God destined for me,
Scorching like the dusty winds of Al-Ghibli.
While on his tiptoes, consumed by the fire of love, its scorching heat, and Al-Ghibli, Mohammed’s voice pierced through. “Run, George . . . Run!”
George ran without knowing why or in which direction he should go. He just ran, in the same way that a confused fountain would spurt water in all directions. Behind him was a stray bullet from the celebratory wedding shots, dogging him. He ran in a circle as he tried to outwit it, but it continued its pursuit, leaning on its experience with fast chases. He went round the only tree in the cemetery. Fearlessly, the bullet pierced straight through the trunk: one half fell on the head of the old lady who’d complained about being harassed and the other transformed into a coffin from the shock of the impact.
He wove round the graves, first on his feet, then on his belly. Though engaged in a struggle to stay alive, George noted that the dead were clinging to their graves, gripping the edges, white-knuckled, only their heads poking out to watch the fugitive.
He trampled the fingers of one of them while zigzagging through and heard a voice cry out, its curse hunting him alongside the bullet. “Ow, OW! My fingers, you infidel . . . my fingers, you pig! Son of a . . . ”
What the man had said was more painful than the deadly bullet, but George didn’t have the time to set right such wrong ideas, and such people died with their uninformed views still intact.
If the bullet would just give him some room to breathe, he would speak to the Muslims to let them know that he too was of the holy book, not an infidel; that the God these Muslims monopolized for themselves had actually revealed Himself to his community first. But unfortunately he was on the run; no time for anything, even death.
The bullet continued to hound him. He heard Mohammed’s voice trying to rescue him from afar by guiding him to a grave freshly dug that morning. “Take a right, George! Now turn left! Jump into the hole by the cement factory!”
His innate GPS deceived the bullet. It whizzed over the new grave, losing sight of its target. George finally heaved a sigh of relief, opening his eyes as wide as they would go to see God’s beautiful sky. He got the opportunity to see it clearly, a wondrous azure, birds soaring freely. He looked to the walls of his new home and was happy with the quality of the soil. He ran his hand along it: cool, clean, no one had decomposed in it before. Before he could thank God for such a blessing, he heard the sound of the bullet slicing through the air once more, accompanied by the curse of the Muslim, damning him, his religion, and his mother. Horrified, he tried to crawl out of the grave, but the bullet wrapped in the curse circled the grave opening twice before sinking into his forehead with such precision that if its maker had known, he would have increased its price.
Now it was the bullet’s turn to breathe a sigh of relief. Why had George insisted on taking off at such breakneck speed? As for the curse, it was finally silenced once it plunged headlong into the lower half of George’s body, sticking it to him where it would hurt the most.
Yes, indeed, George had died a second time . . . but this time it was at the hands of a wedding bullet, not like the first time; in other words, he died happily ever after!
© Najwa Bin Shatwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.
A young woman finds love where she least expects it in this folktale from the Kinnaur Valley, translated by Noor Zaheer.
This story was narrated by an old man of the village to a group of young people to make them understand that all living beings are inherently equal.
“On the way to Rekong Peo, if you take a diversion off the road onto the goat path and climb uphill for about five miles, you arrive at an unexpected expanse of blue. Still, clear, shining: this is Nako Lake, and you are standing on a flat beach of clean sand, almost white. Nako village, with its small houses, pastures, and fields, lies across the lake from where you are. With lake on one side and high mountains on the other three sides, the village is protected from intruders and from outside influences.
“Many years ago, when the moon had a beautiful face, the sun often became jealous of her beauty. Once, the sun was so jealous that it became hot enough to burn down the forests on the mountainsides. A young brother and sister lived in Nako village. Their names were Gyalpo and Chering. They had a small piece of land that the brother tilled and a tiny house that the sister took care of. They were devoted to each other and one would not eat unless the other was also eating. The girl was beautiful and the boy was hardworking. Somehow, they managed to keep body and soul together.
“During the hot summer months, after the men had left for the fields, the girls would go together to bathe in the lake and dry their washed clothes on the sand. One day, it was exceptionally hot and Chering wanted to go for a swim, but all her girlfriends were busy with household chores. At first, she waited for her brother to return from the fields, but she knew that he wouldn’t be back soon because he was weeding and thinning out the millet crop. So she decided to go to the lake alone.
“Gyalpo came home and found his sister gone. He asked the neighbors about her, he checked at the water mill, he inquired at the marketplace; he also visited the old woman who lived alone and was said to possess an inner eye. But all to no avail. Some people had seen her leaving home, some had seen her turning toward the beach, there was also a witness who swore that he saw her wading into the water; but after that there was no news of her. Gyalpo was sure that Chering was not dead, for half his soul would have died with her and he would have known it. The old woman, using her inner eye, had also assured him that Chering was not dead. If she were, her body would have surfaced on the lake.
“Gyalpo waited for seven days and then decided that since his sister had last been seen by the lake, that was where she must still be. He decided to build a boat. It took nine full moons to cut enough trees, strip their bark, saw them into planks, and join them together to make the boat and two strong oars. With a new boat and new oars, new strength and new zeal and a heart yearning for his sister, Gyalpo set sail on the lake.
“He rowed to the north and then to the south, he scoured the lake, first facing the rising sun and then with his back to it. He searched the lake for a year and then for another year and then some more. At last, on the sixth full moon of the third year, he saw his sister sitting on a rock in the middle of the lake. He rowed quickly to the spot and called out to her. Chering was overjoyed to see her brother. The two embraced and wept and spoke of how much they had missed each other. And finally, Gyalpo asked Chering what she was doing there.
“Chering told her brother she had come to the lake to escape the heat, that she had only intended to get in the water till her ankles but had been tempted to go a little farther till she was shin dee, and then it really was so hot that the rest of her body cried out for relief and so she moved a little farther, till she was wading in knee-deep water. She felt a tug on her ankles, and the next thing she knew, she was being pulled under.
“She struggled and fought back and tried to save herself but could not overcome the great crocodile that had taken hold of her and was dragging her down to his home under the water. When they got there, he professed his love for her. He said that he had been watching her for some time, that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and that he wanted her to love him. Though she was his prisoner, he treated her well. He was kind and gave her enough to eat, and once every week, he even brought her news from the village because she missed it so.
“Gyalpo decided to test this information and asked Chering for the latest news from the village. Chering surprised him by saying that one of her best friends, who had been married across the mountains, had returned to her father’s house because her mother-in-law treated her badly. This was true, so Gyalpo had to believe her. Then he inquired about the crocodile and Chering told him how powerful he was, able-bodied and strong, but also that he was gentle and liked to hear her sing and see her dance. Gyalpo asked when the crocodile would be back and Chering said that he would return only after midnight. Gyalpo was pleased to hear this, and he said to his sister, ‘I have a boat and it is still light. Let us escape while the crocodile is away, because if he comes back, it’s unlikely that I will be able to overcome him, and I will be killed!’ Chering was also sure that the crocodile would kill her brother if he found him there. So they decided to escape while they had the chance.
“Gyalpo said, ‘Hold my hand and come to the edge of the rock. My boat is large enough to hold both of us. Come!’
“Together they walked to the edge of the rock. Gyalpo jumped into the boat and held out his hand to help. Chering came right to the edge of the water and put one foot into the boat. She was on the verge of stepping in when she suddenly exclaimed, ‘I cannot go with you, dear brother! I love the crocodile!’ The moment those words were uttered, Chering shed her human form and turned into a crocodile. She jumped into the water, vanished for a while, and then surfaced. The she-crocodile looked so happy that the brother decided to let her be and rowed back home even though his own heart was heavy.
“No life is superior or inferior. Being reborn as a human is no great achievement. What matters is finding love and sharing it with other living creatures.
Translation © 2019 by Noor Zaheer. All rights reserved.
A side hustle among a group of quarry laborers balloons into a bureaucracy of shocking proportions in this short story by Muhammad Mustajab.
Whatever else the case, we wish ill on no man, not even those who give us orders, and I would like to begin here by saluting, enthusiastically, any person who is given the chance to do good and takes it. Good being, in its fullest sense, much like these far-flung red wastes studded with rocks and stones and camel thorn, in drifts of which lie cloistered their fierce and tender (and scarce) inhabitants: the rats and lizards and snakes, that is. From time to time one of us might spot a jackal. And Abou Awaja tells the story of the officer at the checkpoint who emptied his magazine at a hyena—that’s right, a hyena!—and then, having missed it entirely, tossed his gun aside and threw himself bodily upon the beast to wrap it in his arms and crush its ribs. Though we—and without wishing to label Abou Awaja a liar—have honestly never laid eyes on a hyena. Or an officer, for that matter. A rat, yes. Lizards, foxes, policemen up to the rank of sergeant, a handful of border guards, horned vipers (tiny, arched, and deadly): all yes. But discounting the officers and hyenas, the stones and camel thorn, the personal scandals passed on by tongues whose truthfulness we cannot vouch for, then this broad and spacious site can be said to harbor only this: us.
Which is to say: three hundred laborers, four engineers, and five clerks, and then tents, mechanical diggers, clouds scattered across the sky, a water truck, an asbestos office block, a small prayer room with mats to pray on, barrels of oil and barrels of diesel fuel, plus the small, wild zephyrs that whip up sand and deposit it over our heads.
What do we do here? I shall tell you. We quarry rock. And when we get down to it, when we get right down there beneath the sands, we can almost tell ourselves that we are digging a tunnel, a huge tunnel that will lead us to some other, underground world. Only to reemerge onto the barren surface, to be grilled by the sun and, well: then it doesn’t really feel like we’re doing anything at all.
The sign at the quarry entrance says the site is run by Somebody and Sons Contracting, which in turn is overseen by the Institute of Contractors, which in turn (forgive me) belongs to the Public Institute of Contracting, Construction, and Building Work, which in turn is part of another agency whose name escapes me. I say escapes me: to pursue this chain to its bitter end we would need to quit this quarry located on the Tropic of Cancer and travel all the way up to Cairo. But the quarry’s most proximate administrator—the first-named company—is located in the nearest town, which can be reached by a variety of modes of transport, among them the passenger seat of a truck: you rattle down a north–south road, then an east–west road, then a north–south track, then round a hill, and finally end up rolling along by the side of the Nile: the drowsing, delicious shade, the waters. Forty kilometers in two hours.
All right, but why that note of complaint in your voice? Doesn’t the company pay your wages? Doesn’t the company give you a paid day off? Well, about that. Concerning the matter of the company deducting weekend wages from those who don’t work weekends, we sent a letter dated February 12 requesting clarification from management. Look, I told the quarry manager, so long as the people in charge are looking into it, no complaints; all I’m asking is that you make an exception for Abou Awaja. At which the manager fixed me with a stare and, coming round from behind his desk (His Excellency has a large and well-furnished desk), laughed.
No no no no, he said.
The story’s simple as a fairy tale. Abou Awaja got it into his head that one way to make some extra cash would be to set up as a butcher, and though his scant resources fell somewhat short of fulfilling this dream, he did manage to acquire a goat, a nanny goat, which he slaughtered and sold to his brethren at the quarry. That is: to the innermost of his inner circle. Then the week after that, he butchered them another goat. And the week after that, the third week, the manager was conducting an inspection of the site and, as he was passing the tents, he happened to observe a goat carcass pegged up outside the entrance to Abou Awaja’s.
When had this happened? During official work hours, was it? I’m begging you, sir. Sir, I’m kissing your feet. God protect your children, etc. etc. No use. This is a crime. This donkey has gone and slaughtered a goat that could well be carrying disease—that’s almost certainly diseased; has slaughtered it on-site and sold the meat during shift hours. I’ll fire him. Please sir, no! I’ll fire him.
All that, and then the crisis was settled by deducting fifteen days wages from Abou Awaja’s pay packet, with each of his clients chipping in to cover two days of the deduction. And Abou Awaja, Mohammed Youssef, and Rifaei Mialawi were transferred to the night shift.
This is when it came to me: the most fearsome idea to enter my head in all the many years I’d spent between the deserts and mountains and villages and coasts of this land; pierced my brain the way a misfired arrow might hit a thing that turns out, after all, to be its target.
Look, I was in the quarry myself. I lived there, I mean. The engineers come through and hand out orders and punishments, and write reports, and drive their cars all the way back to town, and the laborers drive diggers and grease gears and shovel dirt and (once every three months) pack dynamite into holes and blow it up, and they drink water out of barrels, and eat lentils and onions and dust and salt and filth, and the manager, for his part, passes through very rarely and very briefly, glancing over a report or a digger or a tent or a punishment order, then drives himself away, it’s said, to another quarry that he oversees God knows where, and I . . . well. Sometimes I regard myself as part of the quarry workforce: I eat with the men and I drink with them; I join them in their councils of war and peace. And sometimes I find that I’m perhaps more like an engineer: screaming and cursing, demanding reports and recommending punishments and, of course, reporting back to the quarry manager.
But sometimes the hills and valleys flatten, the world smooths out, and I lose all sense of depth. I sit by the entrance to my asbestos cubicle, the far horizon held in my gaze, and something magical enters my being. Like a fixation. And then I’m almost a poet.
What if we bought a medium-sized bit of livestock—a calf, say—and butchered it for the whole workforce?
So, this arrow was cutting its way across my mind and I was trembling where I sat, and at the same time one of the men was standing in front of me, holding a mug of water and telling me about an adventure in Yemen, some story involving his cousin and an ambush and a broken-down bulldozer—how even as one of the crew was trying to get the bulldozer started and another man was emerging from the engine cowling with the machine’s guts in his hands, the cousin had swarmed halfway up the brick-red Yemeni mountainside to fight off the assault, had killed five (or was it nine?) of their attackers—and the man was shaking with excitement as he spoke, and the water was slopping out of the mug and onto the man’s hands, then onto his clothes, and in my skull the calf had settled down to stay. This had to happen! And I felt a kind of ecstasy.
Set romance aside. The desert loves the truth and despises tears and lies, and the truth was that anyone among the three-hundred-strong workforce to whom this thought had ever occurred (and every one of them could call on a friend to bear witness to prove to me, impartial observer and sometime engineer, that they had indeed discussed the issue) had to contend with another truth: the considerable difficulties that arose when their delegates were sent to town to buy beans and onions and cheese and meat. Ibrahim Al Badei had something to say about the time the meat had been spilling maggots, and Saber Abou Ras about the time the meat was nothing but fat and gristle, and Abdel Zaher of the many, many times they had suspected their meat was—begging your pardon—ass. Or donkey. Dog. Swear to you on my marriage, sir, there’s meat gone into these bellies of ours that comes from animals we wouldn’t know a name for.
This time, though, you’ll be filled with flesh you’ve slaughtered yourself.
We were sitting together at sunset outside Al Hagg Abdetawwab’s place, tea glasses in our hands and a fine dust gathering in drifts against the tent’s walls.
How many of us are there? Three hundred, right? So, everyone whose Friday pay packet is one hundred and fifty qirsh or less contributes a quarter lire, anyone who makes up to three lire pays a half, and so on and so on: contributions calculated by wage. Agreed? Agreed. But the manager might find out and object. No, no, don’t fret. There’s no problem so long as the ones doing the buying and butchering don’t do it during their shift hours. And the engineers? They won’t object if the manager doesn’t. At which point it became evident that at least three-quarters of those present had, at some point and in some form, worked as butchers. I’ll do the slaughtering! Let me skin! I’ll take the tripe! I’ll buy the head! And joy swept the company and the banter fell like rain. You’ll forget what carrion even tastes like! Hey, Abadi! When your father had a pound of meat in the house he’d bolt the door with his own neck! We should fast before we clean the entrails! We’re basically fasting already!
Men can be angels when joy is in the air.
Then a song started: Muawad departed and left his heart with his friends . . . And Shukri Younis got to his feet and shut the singer up. Said, Sing something happier, man.
Sweet boy picking blossoms, gathering them in his kerchief. Long life’s a gift from God, so gift it to him ya Karim. . .
Enough singing! But our host Al Hagg Abdetawwab, seduced by the rhythm, had joined it: swaying and bending and begging the singer for more, and refusing to countenance the calls to stop.
The best livestock in the area comes from the Draou market, and the best two men at the quarry (the most trustworthy, that is) were Samir Samak and Ali Okasha. Neither of them, however, knew anything about livestock, while the pair that understood livestock best (that is, Qaoud and Mohammed Abadi) were trusted by nobody. And there was the money we’d collected at the last whip round: one hundred lire on the nose. The quarry manager had put in two pounds, the border patrol had contributed one lire and twenty-five qirsh (five men at a quarter lire each), and even the company cashier who stopped by once a fortnight had given half a lire. And then came the suggestions. Someone thought we should hire a butcher from town, someone impartial to ensure the cuts were fair, and another was of the view that we give our first animal to the poor in the name of Sayyid Al Badawi, so the saint might bless our venture, and a third believed . . . and so on.
But none of this slowed our momentum.
On Monday evening, four men rode the shift truck into town so that they could be at the Draou market early Tuesday morning. But buying the beast wasn’t the issue. The difficulty, as it turned out, was getting it back. The men bore the trials of the road as best they knew how—saintly patience, then songs, then stories, then gossip about the shortcomings of the clerks, then mockery of an engineer by the name of Mahmoud Hamdan who couldn’t tell a plow from a bulldozer—and made it back to the quarry just as Ibrahim Al Badei was concluding the sunset prayer. We were sitting outside our tents or hovering round Abdel Baqi’s tea stall when we first saw the mighty beast staggering up the track toward us, four shouting men trotting behind, and a wreath of roses round its horns.
The first to greet the rose-wreathed calf was Abou Awaja. A whoop of joy had gone up from the men, but the emotion had not moved them, so much as held them rooted to the spot. It was Abou Awaja who claimed the right to step forward and welcome the delegation in, as though his prior experience in the goat sector—for all that it had culminated in official sanction—lent him the necessary authority to take on a calf. Grasping the halter and waving at the crowds, he proceeded to lead it into camp, and when he reached the tents the men all gathered round him, clapping and capering and clashing their staffs together, dealing dizzying smacks to their neighbors’ napes out of sheer unbridled joy. And then, in the midst of all this, a thin man’s sudden cry: But we need scales!
Back in the days of the goat, Abou Awaja had cut the meat and weighed it out by hand, by feel, juggling it on his palm and narrowing his eyes and swearing he’d divorce his wife if that wasn’t upward of a kilo and a half, even though he, out of the goodness of his heart, was only charging for a kilo. Faced with a calf like this (and what a calf!) there was no way we could keep on with such a primitive and patently ridiculous approach. But (and now I was addressing the men) I can’t believe a lack of scales will stop us. Let us get scales! Steal them or rent them or buy them. Every one of you, I’m certain, must have scales at home or at least knows how to get hold of them. Surely all of you, at some point, have sold tomatoes and eggplant and cucumbers and potatoes at a stall. You all must have gone wandering through God’s fair land buying and selling. Are we going to let scales stop us? And the men roared, then applauded, and then the offers: I’ll bring the scales. I’ll bring the block. As God’s my witness the only way that calf’s being portioned out is properly wrapped in paper.
To a tent peg we tethered our calf, settled ourselves down on the rocks and lit cigarettes, and then the stories began to flow, of previous attempts at similar enterprises in other quarries, some of which we sought to learn from and some of which we mocked. A couple of the men slipped out among the desert shrubs and grasses. They ran their fingers through them by the deep dark starlight, and they picked them, and the next thing the calf was champing and chewing, lapping and lowing.
A kilo of meat (boneless) for twenty-eight qirsh. A kilo of tripe for four. Liver at thirty-two. Rifaei Mialawi bought the head for one lire twenty-five, and his brother got the hide and marrow for the same.
God destroy your houses: the skin alone should go for two!
The above a complaint, which we countered: lest they forget, a kilo of meat like the one they’d just bought went for eighty qirsh back home.
The Calf Committee comprised myself (chair), Abou Awaja (scales), Mohammed Abadi (butcher), and Rifaei Mialawi (skinner and butcher’s assistant). Thirty qirsh to rent the scales, thirty-five for the market delegation’s transport costs, plus another thirty for out-of-pocket expenses. Dawn was on the doorstep and outside the tents the coals were glowing in the grills. Only a very few were saving their share until they returned to their homes in town. The representative of the border patrol had been to collect his colleagues’ share and then departed, and some basic rules had been established. That everyone who wanted meat must pay again: the monies previously collected were considered a contribution to the enterprise’s starting capital. Some had paid in full, others had deferred settlement until payday.
The quarry manager turned up and strolled over from his car. I thanked him and explained what had happened. He didn’t say a word, kept quiet as I spoke my piece, then he laid a hand on my shoulder and said that just so long as the men weren’t distracted from their work, well, that was all that mattered. So I went over it all again, told him about all the strange and amusing adventures that had taken place, and he smiled. Then he looked carefully through the work reports, debated with an engineer the possibility of exploiting the left-hand side of the quarry, turned down a number of laborers’ requests for holidays, and finally went to his office, where he removed his glasses and asked me straight: when was the next one going to be? Next week, I said. God willing. For a while he said nothing. Then he stuck his hand into his pocket and, producing a heavily folded lire note, he spread it flat. If there’s any left over, look after me.
I sensed a pointed rebuke. The manager had contributed more than any man among us: how could we not look after him?
The next time round was less successful. The calf was bigger and, for the first time, we saw that our men were having difficulties deciding just what it was they wanted. You’d find one of them standing baffled before the butcher, mumbling for minutes on end before giving his order. Frequently, they’d order a kilo of chuck ribs when they’d meant to get shank, and this was because their fingers could never point out accurately enough those cuts that their tongues were misnaming. Which was entertaining.
Mahmoud Hamdan (an engineer of limited merits with a mortal aversion to the night shift who, after receiving news of the slaughter—and to everyone’s surprise—was suddenly to be found overseeing the repair of digging equipment in the dark) cautioned us not to forget to burn the refuse (the blood and the bones and the contents of the stomach), at which there was much grinning and winking between the men because the engineer—elevated by the occasion—was finally using his brain. And one sly onlooker saw fit to congratulate the engineer on this development, at which Mahmoud Hamdan began to relate a number of stories to the assembled company, all of which concluded with packs of wild desert beasts descending on piles of discarded offal. It was clear Hamdan was suffering from overexcitement, an unfortunate mental surge that had caused him to forget to so much as go near the repair workshop. A religious man swore—swore on his marriage—that the meat he’d eaten last time had been the finest meat he’d eaten in his life, to which another troublemaker commented that, well, didn’t that beg the question? And then it was time to settle the accounts and tidy everything away, at which juncture we realized—joy!—that we’d cleared a three-lire profit.
And when the quarry manager arrived and one of the men went over to hand him his parcel, the manager made a point of ignoring it. He conducted a tour of inspection round the workshop, then round the tents, then round the slaughter site itself. And here, finding men busy incinerating the refuse, he requested that a list of their names be drawn up. Once back in his office he proceeded to check whether these men were on shift or off duty, and having established that none of them were listed on roster for the night shift, he unwrapped the parcel, turned the lump of meat over a couple of times, and asked his driver to put it in his car. Then he remembered Mahmoud Hamdan, and summoning him to his office, he inquired why it was that an engineer was up at night repairing diggers. And then a painful scene, as it became clear that nobody had been near the workshop all night.
Mahmoud Hamdan, standing there soaking up the manager’s abuse with a parcel of meat and a parcel of bones tucked beneath his arm.
There are certain issues I would love to expand on at this juncture, but I don’t want to lose sight of our story. To wit: fresh meat turning frowns upside down.
By this time the quarry worked to our time: so-and-so took a holiday ahead of the slaughter, X had a stand-up row with Y two days after the black calf was killed, Khalaf Tantawi got married the night of the short brown calf, and the first round of repairs on the mechanical graders was completed in time for the medium white. We made a loss on two occasions, but we broke even on eight. One of the guards was detained with meat in his possession that he was unable to account for, prompting the manager to issue an order banning Engineer Mahmoud Hamdan from the quarry site on slaughter nights, followed by a second order limiting the engineer’s share to a kilo and a half. The armed forces saw fit to strengthen the border patrol, whose numbers now swelled to seven, though we refused to accept contributions from the two new recruits, which we regarded as a mark of deep respect on our part, a signal honor.
A still greater honor: the approaches made by certain company directors with a view to obtaining our meat. Around the time of the fourth slaughter we received instructions from the quarry manager to take care of the director of works, and when asked how much the director of works might be wanting, he said three kilos of liver. By the time the seventh calf was bleeding on the ground we had five directors on our list: the director of works, the director of planning, the director of works planning, the senior engineer, and the director in chief. I won’t pretend I ever laid eyes on any of them: all five placed orders and paid either through the manager or one of the engineers. We were informed that one of them had attempted to offer just twenty-six qirsh for a kilo, claiming that his wife had weighed it and found that it came up light, but the complaint failed to sway the committee, whose refusal to give it a hearing was based principally on the fact that it had not been formally submitted.
Such obstacles notwithstanding, the project was a success. Indeed, the project was famous: the chairman of the board in Cairo, we learned, had mentioned us in the course of a friendly chat with Engineer Bahgat—though, less encouragingly, this had been news to Engineer Bahgat. And with the list of our triumphs growing ever longer the manager of the quarry granted us permission to use the shift truck to transport the calves back from Draou. To date, the most magnanimous of all the manager’s many gracious and extraordinary contributions to our cause. Now the delegation could leave the quarry in the morning and be back with the goods by the afternoon, though this led in turn to a necessary expansion in the provision of free cuts to our partners: a kilo for the truck driver (without which the truck would be unable to make it up inclines) and a kilo for the policeman at the checkpoint (to discourage him issuing either one of two potential tickets: one against the vehicle, one against the driver). Then the works inspector requested the head, and the quarry manager instructed us to give it to him and not to ask for payment, which request quickly became a rule, with the head dispatched immediately after slaughter.
By the fourteenth (or was it the fifteenth?) calf our subscription list furnished ample evidence of the venture’s flourishing fortunes, including as it did a public prosecutor who lived in the same building as the works director and a judge on the criminal bench. Which last came to visit the quarry on the pretext of inspecting the type of rock we were mining, but who, once on-site, was unable to find a moment to make it to the rock face. And soon afterward this eminent visitor wrote a letter in praise of our project to a national magazine: four lines in Our Readers Write.
A member of the town council was next to become enthused, and in a speech to the council put our project forward as a potential solution to the meat crisis in the governorate—and we were about to express our thanks to this councillor in material terms, when one of our number observed (the idiot) that perhaps we shouldn’t overdo the presents? The upshot of which was a surprise visit from a slaughterhouse inspector who descended on us one dawn, completely unannounced, and commanded his men to remove all the butchered meat from the premises and then to remove us, into custody, for operating without the necessary licenses.
We were transported, along with the product of our labor, to the nearest police station, where we faced interrogation after interrogation, our hearts quartered in our chests, and our meat heaped in a corner of the prison yard. But interested parties intervened—the judge, the prosecutor, the works inspector, the director of regional planning, the head of a department at the Ministry of Justice—and before the sun had reached its zenith a police van from town was pulling into the yard, pulling up beside the pile of meat, and disgorging the imposing figure of a sergeant, who took the unbending inspector to one side. They talked for a while, then smiled, then lit cigarettes, and then the inspector turned to us and started shouting, calling us idiots for not letting him know—though what I was supposed to have let him know I’d no idea—and the sergeant motioned us to load our meat into his van. We were going back to the quarry. Wild excitement, and Abou Awaja began to chant: first, Long live the sergeant, then, Long live justice.
Twenty-six kilos stacked in the manager’s office for Shukri Younes to pencil on names before they were passed to the truck driver to distribute among our friends in town. Plus five kilos and the head, earmarked for special friends.
A laborer shouting that this wasn’t his usual share was slapped down by a member of the Calf Committee who explained that since he had turned up late it hadn’t been possible to fulfill his order as requested. The man continued to carp. He’d never attended a single slaughter or hung around the carcass the way some people did, he said, but that had never stopped him getting his share before. I explained that a change in circumstances had forced us to consider an overhaul of the share system as a whole. Starting from now we were putting a cap on the size of individual orders. If you’d been down for two kilos, you were now permitted a maximum of one and half. One-and-a-half-kilo orders were reduced to one. But we made no move to cut into the kilo orders: they stayed as they were.
And these new measures meant that we had to learn how to plan things out prior to distribution. We also restricted meat sales to men who worked their shifts. There was no way we could set cuts aside for people who weren’t turning up to work, no matter what the excuse. Some of the men refused to accept offal as a temporary solution. They claimed they’d paid their contributions for fresh meat, not entrails—an ill-mannered and ungrateful attitude that threatened to unpick what good fortune our enterprise had hitherto enjoyed.
All this quibbling over God’s blessings: it filled us with foreboding. We decided to return their contributions and barred them. But profits had been accumulating and now stood at forty lire, so we had held our tongues when it came to the behavior of certain outliers.
A man’s mother passed away, so we gave him a couple of lire by way of assistance, an act which met with the wholehearted approval of the other men. Another had a child, so we sent him a lire by way of a gift, but in place of the lire the man requested three and a half kilos of meat, which request we promised to meet, only for circumstances to intervene and prevent us giving him either the meat or the lire. We arranged to have a modest notice published congratulating the chairman of the board of directors for completing seven successful months in the post—five lines in a national daily with my name among the signatories—and His Excellency sent us a letter of thanks by return, praying God that He might grant us success in contributing to the greater good of the nation.
Then we uncovered a conspiracy.
Certain elements—the outliers, strangers in our midst—were hatching a plot which aimed at the very foundations of our enterprise. Friendly eyes and ears brought word of a word, a dangerous proposal making the rounds of the quarry: that the workforce demand the return of their subscriptions, and the profits, too. We had no choice but to regard these elements as a fifth column, and when one of the agitators (Ibrahim Abdel Badei) began to address the men openly, we reported him to the quarry manager, who immediately—and to his credit—spoke out strongly against the individuals involved and their deplorable conduct, then placed Ibrahim Abdel Badei in (temporary) detention to persuade him of the futility of breaking rank. But having given assurances that he would not return to the error of his ways, the bastard promptly did so, and we were about to (were about to have to) report him to the manager for a second (and final) time, when the border patrol, in the course of a random search of his person, found him to be in possession of a quantity of hashish, and in accordance with due process and the rule of law we were forced to relinquish him into their custody. The manager of the quarry then gave further proof of his sympathetic nature by ruling that everyone who participated in the purchase and slaughter of the calf, and the burning of refuse afterward, should be exempted from work duties on the day of slaughter itself.
The imam from the town mosque drove in to lead our prayers on the day of slaughter, delivering an eloquent and learned sermon peppered with sayings of the Prophet then joining us for an afternoon redolent with the fragrance of true faith, following which we added his name to the list—along with the names of the local supervisor of sermons and the inspector general of mosques—and pressed him to come back any Friday he chose.
A journalist came escorted by the company’s head of public relations, and took photographs of us (us slaughtering, us skinning, us burning the blood and guts) and two weeks later the publication arrived and inside it we found a photograph of the chairman of the board, then a photograph of the vice-chairman, then one of the director general of quarries, then of the manager of our quarry, then two pages of dense text about the company’s various projects. And then, up in the left-hand corner of one page, a tiny column about us, although the journalist had managed to confuse our story with the quite separate matter of company-led initiatives to combat problems facing the workforce. We didn’t find the photographs we were looking for, and yes, we were a bit downcast, but we looked forward to their appearance in future issues.
Anyway, the manager made up for the disappointment by arranging an interview with the presenter of a famous radio program. And although when we actually spoke to her we were sitting together in the manager’s office, we were surprised to find that, on listening to the broadcast itself, she had in fact encountered us on a street corner in town, leading a calf by its halter, which charming oddity had attracted her attention in the first place. But listening to our voices coming out of the radio that afternoon we were in a forgiving mood, and couldn’t have cared less whether the presenter had met us in the street or over a table laden with grilled meat in a room.
On the radio, the manager had managed to sound far more enthusiastic about the project than us. And another surprise: Abou Awaja’s voice turned out to be both more powerful and more melodious than my own. Indeed, the presenter seemed quite taken by Abou Awaja’s assurances that he slaughtered chickens and duck as well as calves, and that he was a mere twenty years old, which favorable reception prompted a disquisition from Abou Awaja in which he attributed the admiration of his clients to his innate fairness in weighing out his cuts.
Our tale, it seemed, was drawing to its conclusion.
Certain matters had begun to take on an unpalatable hue. Understand that we won’t stand by and allow ourselves to be traduced or accused. There’s not a man in that quarry can deny the improvement that those calves brought into their lives, but if the backbiters will insist on having their say, if they must try to talk us down, well: measures will be taken.
Yes, Mahmoud Ibrahim. You. What’s your problem? Don’t you get a kilo of prime beef for twenty-eight qirsh? All right, sure, you used to get your kilo deboned, but changes have been forced upon us and there’s going to be a quantity of bone in every measure. Perforce. And as for the prices . . . Brother, listen: prices are up in every market in the governorate. If you weren’t so close-minded, such an idiot, you might have noticed. Like, the cost of clover alone has doubled. And anyway, you won’t find better meat than ours anywhere. Wasn’t that you complaining to Rifaei about the meat from town?
The manager proposed a solution, one that he would be happy to abide by himself: anyone who takes a share this week forgoes his cut the next. That way we’d be able to meet all our orders. He, personally, would be taking his share now, but next time? Nothing. Somebody (tiresomely) wanted to know if this solution would be enforced on those special friends of the enterprise who resided outside the quarry, but since the question was posed by an individual without any official capacity (without the capacity for official capacity) we didn’t trouble ourselves to answer. At which three, maybe four, of the assembled workforce began to voice some very regrettable sentiments. The manager heard them perfectly clearly but for a while he held his tongue, and then, breaking the silence, he declared that we had to be men, to be strong; that we had to ignore those who would cast doubt on our abilities. Words that demonstrated his comprehensive and deep understanding of the circumstances in which we were operating. He was sympathetic, courageous, enthusiastic, and we applauded him.
Now the manager was down for three kilos, and Shukri Younes whispered, why didn’t I make it six? I sat back and stared at him. Why? The manager’s hosting a banquet? And Shukri Younes just stared back at me, willing me to use my brain, but I couldn’t work out why the manager’s share should be doubled and moreover, I disapprove of issuing executive orders in whispers. Anyway, I tried to understand, and failed, and then I was called over to help the butcher prepare the orders for the head registrar of the criminal court, the head of the licensing department, and the head of legal affairs on the town council. At which point Abou Awaja approached me and (another whisper) notified me that the fifth columnists were hovering about our current location and looking at us out of the corners of their eyes. When the eyes of that sort of person start looking at you sideways, they give off sparks. Pure evil. What did he think they were up to, I wanted to know. Abou Awaja made no reply.
Shukri Younes said, Leave it. Rifaei Mialawi said, No good ever comes from people like that. And Abou Awaja had raised the cleaver aloft and brought it down, straight through the meat and smacking into the block, when suddenly—despicably—one of the lurkers ran forward and chucked dirt all over us. Over our faces, over the carcass, over the cut meat on the block. The dog had heaped dust on God’s blessing. And he was shouting, too, swearing and cursing our fathers. Asking God to destroy our houses.
We were, I will confess, a little startled. Our hands froze and our tongues froze and the cleaver halted midair, and then the block crashed over and the trestle table collapsed into the refuse. The bastard had bombarded us. Someone would later describe this behavior as a sign we were on the right track; for one pious witness it brought to mind nothing so much as the Prophet’s treatment at the hands of the unbelievers. The trials of Ali Ibn Ali Talib. Even so, I would like to reserve a word of praise here for the efforts made by the manager, the engineers, sundry observers, the border patrol, and the meat distribution crew, to ensure that the perpetrator was identified and held to account for the disruption and disturbance he had caused.
Now it has been alleged that we beat the man about the head and face and fractured his skull, but this is not the place to waste more words on the wretch. Suffice to say he was—he must have been—an agent of one of the butchers in town. The quarry manager was exemplary in his attempts to safeguard the project, conducting a series of (scrupulously fair) interrogations with anyone that the aforementioned perpetrator had named in the course of his own confessions. And he was decisive: seventeen men barred on his orders from partaking of the quarry’s meat and their financial contributions to the project confiscated. As for the perpetrator, his contract was voided and three other workers from the same village were transferred to other quarries.
As for the meat, well, we were able to rescue it, and with it our smiles, and a celebration was held by the light of glowing coals.
For a fortnight after that our operation experienced no problems worth mentioning. Then we had to cancel it for a week because the men were busy righting a crane that had overturned in the storage depot, followed by another week’s delay because the men hadn’t moved quickly enough when a fire broke out by the barrels of diesel.
The manager of the quarry reached an agreement with the border patrol that the latter would safeguard the former from the actions of the troublemakers. The border patrol responded by setting up an observation post next to the slaughter site.
This, the eighth chapter of our story, finds us preparing the cuts destined for our more distinguished friends: Umm Kultoum trilling from a radio belonging to Rifaei Mialawi, while to our right an assortment of felons was clearing out the trench in which the dung and refuse and bones were to be incinerated.
A light wind sprang up from the north and the stars in the clear night sky first glowed, then dimmed, then tucked themselves away behind the hilled horizon line. A border guard on lookout was sitting by the carcass and taking bites from a chunk of grilled liver, and a particularly unrepentant felon, in charge of the flaming blood, was warbling a sad song about a woman white as marble who had taken a lover and betrayed her husband, and then, when her husband had left her and abandoned her to her lover, had betrayed her lover with the husband. Every so often he would break off to wipe away tears brought about by the rising smoke. Then he would tell a joke, and laugh. Would heft his shovel—God curse all kings, their sires and scions—and heap dust and dirt over the smoldering gore, and the dust would be everywhere, filling the air, carpeting the slaughter site, blanketing the meat and the butcher and the border guard and the man at the scales and me.
Then he could do no more. The fire had died and he tossed the shovel aside, and everyone was silent. And when the silence had peaked, only then, the butcher hefted his cleaver and brought it down through the meat. The last of the embers cracked and popped amid rivulets of blood. The radio gave a dying rattle. And when nobody came to its aid, there was quiet.
“Haraq Addamm” first published 1973. From Muhammed Mustajab, Qiyam Winhiyar Aal Mustajab (The Rise and Fall of Clan Mustajab), 1998. © Muhammed Mustajab. By arrangement with the author’s estate. Translation © 2019 by Robin Moger. All rights reserved.
Tradition and modernity clash in this folktale from the Spiti region of the Himalayas, translated by Noor Zaheer.
There is a village named Tabo in the Spiti region of the Himalayas. The village is shaped like a cup, a huge tract of flat land surrounded by high, rocky mountains. The Spiti river cuts this cup-shaped land in half, gushing and rushing for a couple of miles before slowing down to the leisurely gait of a pregnant woman as it reaches the flatlands. The Tabo monastery, known for its wall paintings, is situated above the village, about halfway up the mountain slope.
As autumn ends, herds of deer come down from the high mountains in search of food. Their arrival is the sign that snowfall is just a couple of days away. Grain, vegetables, and firewood are quickly stored indoors, clothes are washed and dried, wine decanted for the last time. Though most of the deer continue their migration to the lower ranges, one herd remains in Tabo because the village and the monastery take care of them.
Once it so happened that an outsider, a certain Deeku, was visiting Tabo. He was a photographer and also seemed interested in some of the ancient artifacts that were held in the thousand-year-old monastery. This Deeku made fun of the traditional customs and Buddhist rituals. He tried to impress the local people with his scientific knowledge, his tape recorder, and his camera. He had managed to persuade one young boy, Sonam, that everything about the village was backward and outdated.
Deeku was planning to leave in a few days when suddenly he heard the sound of gentle hooves in the distance. The sound echoed around the bare slopes of the hills, and the villagers came out with small offerings to welcome the herd of deer. After the ritual welcome, the villagers got busy with the annual chores of preparing for the winter, knowing that it would snow in a day or two. But Deeku’s radio told him that there would be no snowfall for the next four days. The villagers did not believe him, as they trusted the deer, who were said to be the incarnation of Buddha. Along with the usual herd, this time there was a much larger deer. He had long, beautiful horns and large brown eyes, and he kept a close watch over the herd as if he were protecting it.
Sure enough, it snowed heavily two days after the arrival of the deer, and the exit road from Tabo to Kaza was blocked. Deeku was unhappy at this state of affairs, and worried too, because it meant staying in this remote village through the winter. The villagers made fun of his weather forecast but were generous enough to offer him a place to stay and hospitality without charge. After some time, the village faced a shortage of firewood and things to eat. The monastery announced community cooking to save on the wood and food. Naturally, this meant that the community kitchen made food that was simple, like porridge, which did not use much fuel.
Deeku soon tired of this food and was amazed to see that the villagers saved a portion of even this frugal meal to share with the deer. One day, he jokingly remarked that since the deer were being regularly fed, surely they would be eaten soon. He was almost beaten to death for even making such a suggestion. It was the lamas who saved him, but they warned him to treat all life with respect. Deeku refused to understand the close bond between the humans and the deer and their dependence on each other. The deer lived and slept outside in the cold, assuring human beings that winter might be severe but had to be borne and that it would soon give way to spring and summer.
One night, Deeku did not eat any of the coarse meal and he could no longer bear the pangs of hunger that rumbled in his stomach. He persuaded Sonam to accompany him and showed him a gun that he had stowed away in his bag. Sonam asked what he intended to do with the gun, and Deeku told him that he was planning to kill one of the deer. Sonam was reluctant to be part of the hunt, but Deeku convinced him, saying that when the deer had been killed, everyone in the village would eat fresh meat and that they would all be grateful to him for having given them a good meal. Sonam continued to resist and Deeku tried to bully him into submission. Meanwhile, the large deer stepped out of the area where the herd was resting and into range for Deeku to shoot. Deeku grabbed the chance. He took aim and fired. The entire village woke up when they heard the shot and surrounded Deeku and Sonam. The lamas also came down from the monastery.
Fearing for his life, Deeku broke out of the circle of villagers who had surrounded him. He turned in the wrong direction, and though the villagers ran after him, calling to him to stop, he continued running and fell down a precipice. Sonam’s family surrendered him to the monastery for punishment. The head lama announced that Sonam was dead to the village and that no one should have any contact with him. He would be the “living dead”—that was his punishment.
Strange as it may sound, the deer waited until the announcement of the punishment was made and then they moved as one body, walking away from the village and from human beings. They still come down every winter, but they do not venture anywhere near the village. They stay on the other side of the river, where they are often chased and hunted by the leopards, but it seems as if they would rather face the dangers of the forest than trust the human beings again.
Translation © 2019 by Noor Zaheer. All rights reserved.
This witty, irreverent poem by Ahmed Fouad Negm takes aim at the corruption and hypocrisy of people in power.
Your oldies but goodies station.
Coming to you from Cairo and Kordofan
From every Arab country and Japan
From Venezuela and even Iran
And any country open to the rule
Of tourism à l’américaine.
Your good ole radio station.
We present to you, in every language
Plays and movies and all the arts
And press and speeches and televisionings
And mosque sermons, cheese and olives.
We show up in your home uninvited, riding on
Studying and grasping all issues
No matter the occasion, we’re bright and loud
No one listens, and no one cares
Listen or not, it doesn’t matter to us
You see, we’re the types who get paid either way.
Keep to yourself and don’t make us give you a pen
and tongue lashing.
The oldies but goodies station.
It pleases us (even if it doesn’t please you)
On this occasion (to which you haven’t been invited)
To bring to you—and don’t be disgusted—
Sheḥḥāta al-Me‘assal, totally unvarnished.
The Chief Broker of the Developeding World
Educator of Croupiers
Destroyer of Farms, Pawner of Crops
And—may your wishes come true—Commander of
You can’t deny it, can’t say you don’t know him.
Can’t say you’ve never heard of him.
Sheḥḥāta al-Me‘assal, beloved by all hearts
He gets out the stains, the worries and fears,
He tokes, he snorts, he pops pills
You won’t understand him as he blathers on
Understand, or not—we don’t care.
Because you understand, even if you pretend you don’t.
You can deny it and swear it, but I tell you:
Don’t bother. You’ll give us both a headache.
Your place for oldies but goodies.
Because what was hidden has been revealed, clear as
The issues are out for all to see
Stories have been told, even in print
About the smuggling and shirking and about this and
About the influence peddling and deceit
That have appeared in the city like a flood
Sinking boats and inundating fields.
More boats are yet to sink.
And the crisis in housing, and the crisis in public safety.
While some eat well off a hungry world
The place is filled with a stench of conspiracy
And planning treason with the Americans
To slaughter the people and burn down the neighbors
People are chattering about it, so an announcement is in
As the ears have reported to us
For this reason and that, and the other one, too
We present to you a sugar moulid doll and horse
Sheḥḥāta al-Me‘assal, and this announcement.
Your good ole radio station.
In the name of God.
A peace upon you, and salmon and bananas.
As far as everything’s going, it’s all hunky dory.
O Brethren, O Brothe . . .
Here is my announcement, as what follows:
Everything is A-okay.
And all that talk that’s going around is just talk.
Verily, Don’t be impatiently! And don’t worry—
It’s the stuff of small-minded people, and I won’t
Nothing is wrong.
I swear most solemnly, most solemnly thrice,
There is nothing wrong, nothing at all.
And know this: even if there was something
There’s no reason to talk about it or nag me.
And shame on kids
Who go on with their churlishness
Making me pay them attention, forcing me to
By my very nature, I am against big dealers
For the sake of free competition and neighborliness.
But, it is not in my character
To expose the scandal
Of an associate of mine who’s pocketed a few bills.
Everybody puts things away for themselves
The new ones do it, just like the old ones did before.
O People: Zionize yourselves and go with the flow!
Have a good toke and a good evening.
My good Iranian buddy, the Prince Bazramīṭ
Wrote me this year to invite me to a big party,
I accepted, of course, and we went to the bash,
It was the kind of banquet that would never happen twice.
My God—what fried foods, and the puddings!
What stews and platters!
To be frank, my head began spinning
From all the luxury and Persianate trimming.
There, for instance, when you drink second-hand
They serve it with sweetmeats and veal pastrami as
Over there, I never saw anyone envying anyone
Or people insulting anyone
Who happened to purchase two farms on the cheap
Because he was such a smart entrepreneur and
developed them into housing.
After the feast we collected our presents
Silver plated and gold plated, and faience, too.
And of course, my good buddy the Prince Bazramīṭ
told me something
Which I’ll tell you about at some appropriate time.
Some punks will come after me without cause.
Getting up in my face, sitting to judge me.
That is socialist resentment, and I will not tolerate
If they were my sons, I’d ground them at home.
Talk about wheeler-dealers, talk about whoring—
Fake news and tired old slogans!
They want to turn the whole country into chaos!
They have long wanted me to leave the country
But I will not give it up, or let security slip
Not by the police, nor by the public prosecutor.
O People, do me a solid and hang tightly
Stay the course and the money will come.
Eat and drink according to what comes to
Let yourself drown in a sea of slaves and
Paint your life as you like
As brothels and palaces fill the streets.
Say your prayers and thank God
For the blessings of garbage and sewer
In closing, peacely,
And finally, in terms of words,
Necessitarily, calm and harmony must
Or else, and if not, I will smash it to bits, or
I will take all my money and leave this
country at oncely!
A peace upon you, and salmon and
By my authority as president, and father and
Translator's Note: This translation is based on a recording of the November 14, 1977, performance of “Bayān Hāmm” at ‘Ayn Shams University. Negm composed and performed versions of the poem in the first months of 1976. These, along with others, exist in multiple guises across different print and electronic media. The print version closest to this transcription can be found in Aḥmad Fu’ād Najm, al-A‘māl al-kāmila (Damascus: Dar Tlas, 1986), v. 1, 133-58. An earlier print version of the text can be found in Aḥmad Fu’ād Najm, Bayān hāmm: ghanā’ Shaykh Imām; dirāsat al-Ṭāhir Aḥmad Mikkī (Beirut: Dār al-Fārābī, 1976). For more information on Negm’s legal troubles with this poem, see: Ṣalāḥ ‘Īsa, Shā‘ir takdīr al-amn al-‘āmm: al-milaffāt al-qaḍā’īya li-l-shā‘ir Aḥmad Fu’ād Najm (Cairo: Dar al-Shorouk, 2007), 205-42.
Translation © 2019 by Elliott Colla. All rights reserved.
In an excerpt from his twelfth-century taxonomy of morons, Ibn al-Jawzi proves that idiocy is always a current event.
The terms “stupidity” and “nitwittedness” refer to miscalculation in the means and ways to a goal, although with good intentions, as opposed to “insanity,” which refers to a fault in both the means and in the intentions. For the stupid person has good intentions, but the manner he goes about achieving them is rotten, and his plans to reach his goal are faulty, while the insane person has rotten ideas to begin with, and chooses to pursue what should not be chosen. By way of example, I shall tell you about one of the nitwits: Once a bird escaped from a prince, and he commanded that the gate of the city be closed. His intention was to trap the bird!
There was a stupid person named “Hanbaqa” . . . and one of the stupid things that he did was that he put a chain on his neck made of seashells, bones, and pottery, and said, “I’m afraid that I will lose myself, so I did this so that I will know myself by it.”
But that night the necklace was moved from his neck to his brother’s neck, and when he woke up, he said, “O my brother, you are me, so who am I?!”
Al-Ḥusain ibn al-Sumayda‘ al-Anṭākī said, “In Antioch we had an employee from Aleppo who had a stupid secretary. One day two Muslim warships deployed against an enemy sank in the sea, and that secretary conveyed this news on behalf of his employer to Aleppo, writing, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate: Know, O blessed Commander, that two warships, meaning two boats, have foundered at sea, meaning sunk in the high waves, and their passengers were destroyed, meaning perished.”
And the commander of Aleppo replied, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate: Your message reached me, meaning it arrived, and I understood it, meaning I read it. Punish your secretary, meaning slap him, and dismiss him, meaning fire him, for he is an idiot, meaning stupid. Goodbye, meaning this is the end of the letter.”
A nitwit was eating a sheep’s head with his son, whose father was even stupider than he was. And the son said, “Daddy, if you get the ankle bone, will you give it to me to play with?”
“Damn your eyes,” said his father, “It’s not a grilled fish! It doesn’t have ankle bones!”
Translated from Abū al-Faraj ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn ‘Alī ibn al-Jawzī’s Akhbār al-Ḥamqā wa-l-Mughaffalīn, edited by ‘Azīzah Fuwāl (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-‘Arabī, 2005). Translation © 2019 by Emily Selove. All rights reserved.
Despite her family’s disapproval, a young woman pursues her career ambitions and resists monogamy in this piece by Sahar Mandour.
I was twenty-two and my husband, Yussef, was five years older than me. I always liked his first name but not his last, Bazaza, which made me Mrs. Bazaza. Me? Mrs. Bazaza?
His house on the waterfront used to overlook the Raouche rock before someone stuck a building right in the middle of the view. He also had a ton of money before inflation turned it into pennies.
Besides being an architect, he managed a department at the Architecture House and wanted, someday, a daughter to call Tatiana. He’d liked that name since he was a kid, kind of the way I loved the name Steve, except I grew out of it and he didn’t. I mean, sure, Tatiana is a pretty name. I had a friend in high school named Tatiana, so I get it. But Tatiana Bazaza?
To be fair, any name you put in front of "Bazaza" is going to sound ridiculous, even something like “Jade” or “Lynn.” Still, I fought with him about it. Argued with logic and failed. Tried religion and failed. Even suggested either of our moms’ names—and failed.
He always deployed the same dumb tactic when we reached an impasse. He’d say, “But, Vienna, I’ve dreamed about naming my daughter Tatiana forever. I’ve never asked you for anything, have I? Why would you deny me this one request?”
He used this syrupy voice that made it sound like he was about to cry. A grown man. God, I hated that voice.
So I’d go quiet and then say something like, “I guess I can’t refuse your one little request, Yussef,” while reminding myself to never get pregnant.
And I never did.
I used birth control for a while, but then he started nagging me when I went to the gynecologist, so I got off the pill and stopped going to the doctor. And I still didn’t get pregnant, thankfully, though it made me the black sheep of the family—his and mine.
In the eyes of my family, I failed at everything, and his family saw me as the barren wife who’d end the bloodline, but I was thrilled to be infertile.
My brother was happy about it too. He couldn’t wait for me to get a divorce. Ahmad never liked Yussef because my husband had a temper, never went out, and didn’t drink. Their conversations always stalled after some inane chitchat like:
“How are you?”
“Great. And you?”
“Fine, thank God.”
Ahmad never understood why Yussef lived that way. I used visits to my brother as an excuse to sneak out and party without Yussef knowing. Ahmad would pick me up, drop me at the party, and come back and bring me home at the end of the night.
I never kept it a secret from Ahmad that I cheated on Yussef.
When it became clear that I wasn’t going to get pregnant, I started going to a million different doctors, who all said that even if I wasn’t very fertile, it was still possible for me to have a baby. Actually, it was more Yussef’s fault. They figured out that he was entirely sterile. His swimmers were weak, lazy, and slow, not to mention dead on arrival. (Which also pretty much sums up our sex life.)
Their conclusion: Yussef will never have children.
Of course, Yussef didn’t believe them at first. He blew off the first five doctors and eventually, after four years of this, killed himself.
So then I was a widow and clearly very broken up about it. I had to stay at home for forty days, but Ahmad kept helping me sneak out at night, bringing me back at dawn to play at grief. I tried to negotiate the mourning period—I mean, isn’t the widow or divorcée supposed to stay home long enough to know for sure if she’s pregnant? Which, clearly, I couldn’t be. (I smiled a little slyly when I said this.)
My ears are still ringing from the family’s response. “Show some shame! Your husband died! He treated you so well!” and whatever.
Around the same time, my dad’s health declined. He started showing signs of heart problems—probably, if I’m honest, because he worried so much about me. But he was also old.
I love him so much. He’s the reason I’m named Vienna. He’d hum Asmahan’s song to me when I was small and I’d feel like a feather bobbing along to the rhythm. Is there anything more adorable than a father gently singing the song that inspired his daughter’s name? And my mother would get jealous of us—God, I miss those moments.
I’d hug and tease him, and we’d get into debates, but over time his playfulness dried up and he didn’t want hugs or jokes from me. He’d suggest my arguments were superficial. His tone went condescending, like, listen up and I shall bestow a sliver of my great wisdom upon you.
And of course that was super boring. I stopped debating anything with him, which made him feel guilty because he thought he’d raised me wrong. That guilt never really went away. It kept him from me for the rest of his life.
Sometimes I wish I’d finished my degree in psychology. But regret is pointless, and all of it was behind me. Yussef was gone and I was free. My friends stayed in contact and life went on.
I decided to go back to college and finish that degree and was surprised to see how much the psychology major had changed since I’d dropped out. I would have to study hard if I wanted to pass, but I was tired of dedicating myself to one thing, so I gave up on the idea of school to become a cable news anchor instead.
Look at me! I am very beautiful. My name is beautiful. I am so funny.
I invented a resume testifying to my professional experience in news and television. My friends hooked me up with references from companies I’d never heard of before. Ahmad was especially helpful. One of his patients was a prince from the Gulf region and Ahmad asked him for “one little favor.”
So I became a news anchor:
“Good evening, everyone . . . we now go to our reporter on the scene in . . . thank you for watching.”
Then I was the weather girl:
“The temperature will be . . . chance of rain . . . elevations.”
Then the host of a TV show:
“The Lion released a new album . . . the performer Zeezee was caught on film in a catfight with . . . Najwa Karam has retired once again.”
Naturally, I became famous. I had my own show, Romance in the City, where I’d go to all the hot places to party and talk to strangers about their lives. Why were they out? Were they trying to meet people or were they sticking with their friends?
I’d ask them everything—the price of admission and how expensive drinks were in the club, their favorite songs, their college majors. I’d dance with them while interviewing them, sparking a trend in Arabic TV.
Yes, you heard that right: I started a new genre of Arabic television.
On one of my nights out, I decided to change it up and stuck with the same table all night to ask deeper and more detailed questions than usual.
One of the men at the table told me Haifa Wehbe was his favorite singer.
I said, “What’s a line from one of her songs that you think is iconic?”
He sang, “Ouch my boo-boo, kiss my boo-boo, and make it feel better.”
In my early twenties, I’d loved Haifa Wehbe, and I was psyched to hear him bring her up. (My interviewee’s favorite song was played at the club once our interview was over, so I got to hear it again.) He told me the “kiss the boo-boo” song reminded him of his nephew, Zozo, who stood on the living room couch as a kid and sang along while pointing at his own boo-boos.
My interviewee added that his nephew was in a self-discovery phase at the time, and the song helped him a lot.
“You really understand children,” I said.
“Oh, I don’t,” he said. “We took him to a psychiatrist because of his hypersexual behavior. We thought maybe he was turning gay. But the doctor said Haifa was helping Zozo love himself and eventually love girls, so.”
That was an especially good episode and everyone congratulated me for it. My fame grew and I started publishing magazine articles. My name became really well known, but only my first name. "Bazaza" would end my career in a heartbeat. I mean, I know I wouldn’t watch a show hosted by Mrs. Bazaza, so I buried it.
My late husband’s family tried to ruin me because of it. They said, “She killed our son! She rejected our name! The whore!” and whatever.
I went by my maiden name, Al-Shamee, and according to gossip about me, I arrived late to the drug scene. It’s true that I wasn’t addicted to anything, but I did stuff that electrified me at night without exhausting my body. It added to the humor of the situation, I think—a famous thirty-three-year-old woman dancing freely, smiling with the sort of happiness that only blooms deep in the heart.
It’d been three years since my dad died of heart disease, two since my mom died of boredom and loneliness, exacerbated by anemia and sudden complications, a quiet parting.
That was the first real period of sadness in my life. I’d just finished mourning my dad when I lost my mom. I thanked God the griefs combined into one great loss so that I’d only experience it once, but in truth, it all left me terrified to lose Ahmad. He was the only stable and certain thing in my life, the only one who laughed with me and loved hanging out without feeling like he needed to interfere in my life.
I started calling him like five times a day and having dinner with him often, every week sleeping over or having him over. I tried not to lose our parents’ house, but the landlord took us to court and made us give it up. He wanted to raise the rent, a present to himself after our parents died.
I’d had a lot of lovers by that time in my life, and there were always problems with our relationships, like with Ramy—he loved me, but his family couldn’t stand the thought of him marrying a widow. Pierre adored me, but his wife would’ve killed herself if he’d left her. Another, Mazen, emigrated. Then there was Danny, who, let’s say, uncovered my infidelity on the same night he proposed to me (very romantically, might I add).
The Danny story is wild. I did cheat on him, but only early on in our relationship. How was I supposed to know our love was the enduring kind? After I fell for him, I never cheated on him again, except that time in Paris when Danny was away, giving a lecture on Islam and terrorism. And that other time, when he became a recluse because his brother, who was only twenty-five, died in a car crash.
In my defense, I cheated the first time because I thought he was cheating on me. I was very drunk and it was a one-night stand. The second time was because I was too empathetic—I didn’t know what to do with all that pain. I also didn’t know what to do with Danny in that awful time, but I had to do something. So I did.
We broke up on a Friday night. He’d asked me to reserve the evening for us to be together, alone, because he had this secretive plan that would be unveiled step by step throughout the night. He insisted on romance—he blindfolded me with a red satin cloth for the half-hour car ride. I wore my sexiest purple dress and my highest heels, sultry but not slutty. (Maybe a little slutty across the chest and waist, but those heels work wonders, seeing as I’m already pretty tall.)
My hair was loose over my shoulders, a casual look that’d taken all afternoon at the hairdresser to achieve. I’d said, “Make it look beautiful but unstyled.” I picked complementary pale green eye shadow, and when I was done, I looked and felt irresistible, a natural bombshell.
Danny took off the blindfold and I found myself standing in front of the mountain cable car in Jounieh. He laughed at my discomfort—my clothes weren’t the best for riding a cable car—and I wished I could find it funny, too.
As we glided above the Lebanese landscape, he enfolded me in his arms and kissed me deeply. I’ll remember that kiss for as long as I live.
We talked about my outfit and hair, how good I looked, and his work. When the ride ended, he blindfolded me to preserve the surprise, and we started the two-hour drive to the next destination. He tried to make the drive less boring with wine and conversation, and of course he played some songs, mostly Julio Iglesias, Dalida, and Hany Shaker. (I hate Hany Shaker.)
I opened my eyes after we arrived to see Tyre Beach. My feet sank into the sand with every step toward a table loaded with fish, appetizing side dishes, and a bottle of wine from 1980.
Overwhelmed, I almost cried. He slid a fish onto my plate and when I picked apart the flesh, I found a ring inside. It was unbearably cute, and then I cried for real.
I said yes and we laughed through the night. Only at dawn, drowsy, did I start to fall asleep.
The alcohol hit me on the drive back. I dreamed of a wedding by the sea, where a pink elephant picked me up and brought me to a paradise so sublime I didn’t hear my phone ringing in real life. It was Ahmad, too curious about how my evening had gone to wait until I called him. (He worked the night shift at the hospital.)
Danny wanted to know who would call me so late at night (or early in the day, depending on how you look at it). He dug in my purse for my phone. Relieved to find it was my brother calling, he told Ahmad I was “passed out drunk” in the passenger seat and they laughed before hanging up. But Danny is the jealous type. He doesn’t trust news anchors—or himself, either.
I heard this story later from people who heard it from him.
He pulled over to the side of the road to go through my text messages, sent and received. He was thrilled because I don’t let anyone touch my phone, especially not my lovers. Danny used to say he liked that about me, that I acted like a cute little baby. He didn’t think I was a cute baby after he read those messages and compared the dates they were sent to when we started our relationship.
There was one, especially, that exposed my unfaithfulness. I hadn’t deleted it because, aside from some jokes Ahmad had sent me, it was the best message I’d ever gotten, a relic of a relationship that felt suspended in time. Relationships like those remained suspended in time for both parties, who murmur sweet nothings in the morning about their time together, feel nostalgic about their separation, and then feel nothing at all.
I never expected one day to read from Danny the sort of message I’d receive from a random lover. No husband or fiancé would write to his bride what this man (Patrick? No, Jim, or maybe Gisele—no, he was a man, Je-something. Jeal!) wrote to me in French:
“Vienna, a peaceful life resides in the flavor of your body. I live fully when I touch you. Better to welcome death than to live in your absence.”
Imagine! One reads such words in novels, wishing to be the one addressed. And these words were for me, Vienna. How could I possibly delete such a message, for God’s sake?
Anyway, in short, Danny read my messages and (as others told me later) drove the car in a blind rage. I was impossible to wake, so he parked and carried me to my brother’s front door, dumping me like a sack of potatoes (batata, not Bazaza).
Danny took off and I don’t remember a single moment of it—not even how long I was asleep on the doorstep before my brother came home from his shift. I woke up in bed, Ahmad smiling at me as he relayed the news ending that chapter in my life. He took the day off so we could triage at home. We laughed and tried to analyze the psychological and sociological factors at work that would drive Danny to dump me on my brother’s stoop instead of my own.
© Sahar Mandour. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Nicole Fares and Sarah Ramey. All rights reserved.
In this short play by Wajdi al-Ahdal, the colonel’s wedding night is hijacked by an assassination attempt and a case—or two—of mistaken identity.
Translator’s Note: Wajdi al-Ahdal’s The Colonel's Wedding won first prize for scriptwriting at the Ninth Arab Youth Theatre Festival in Alexandria in 1997. At that time, its central trope—the struggle to consummate, or to avoid consummating, a marriage between two characters who are deceiving each other about their true identities—would have been obvious to Yemeni audiences as a metaphor for the deeply flawed reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990. Similarly, the play’s military allusions would have recalled the South’s subsequent attempt to re-secede, culminating in the civil war of 1994 and the brutal invasion of Aden, the South's former capital.
But the play, like much of al-Ahdal’s work, also grapples with issues that remain relevant to Yemen and around the world today, like corruption at the highest echelons of national authority; the immunity of the powerful from prosecution for criminal behavior; and the fragility of the state in the face of unscrupulous coalitions determined to enrich themselves by any means available to them.
ASKAR, an army colonel
AFAF, daughter of a high-ranking government official
HATEM, the colonel’s bodyguard
NAWAL, AFAF’s personal assistant
Set: a darkened bedroom. Left, a sumptuous bed with red sheets, on which sit a tape recorder and speakers. Just above the bed, two rifles hang vertically on the wall, barrels pointed downward. Next to the bed, a small nightstand. Right, the bedroom door. Center, a coatrack; an imposing military uniform adorned with medals and red ribbons hangs on the rack, with an army cap above it and a long military coat next to it. Next to these, a corkboard, with photographs of varying sizes pinned to it, depicting around twenty people. Three small arrows, the kind used to play darts, protrude from three of the photos attached to the corkboard.
A traditional Yemeni wedding song plays, faintly at first but gradually increasing in volume.
SINGER Welcome, welcome to Bader Al-Tamam![*]
In the dark of night there shone a crescent moon (sound of trilling and ululation)
Dance and sing, girls, and you’ll win a handsome groom (sound of heavy gunfire)
All blessings on the bride! Keep envy and evil from her! (both sounds together: festive trills and intermittent gunfire)
The rams are on their way to be slaughtered at Al-Azhar (the sound of loud explosions rattles the bedroom walls)
The rams are on their way to be slaughtered—(the singer screams in panic. A muffled clamor, then complete silence).
The bedroom door opens slowly and carefully, and a slender column of light seeps into the room. A man in his mid-thirties enters. He is wearing dark glasses and an elegant black suit. He crosses to the left and turns on the lights, which flood the room with brightness.
MAN IN HIS THIRTIES Afaf . . . Afaf . . . (raises his voice, yelling) Afaf, come here!
A young woman wearing a white wedding dress runs in and closes the door quickly, as if being chased by a monster. She fixes her gaze on the door, her eyes wide open and glinting with fear. Her chest rises and falls heavily, her gasping breath audible from afar.
COLONEL Why are you so frightened? (lights a cigarette)
AFAF Are you kidding? What kind of question is that—and coming from you! You’re supposed to be the great military officer! (wipes perspiration from her brow with a white handkerchief) Did you not hear those explosions?
COLONEL (laughs) Oh, baby, those are just my friends—army officers demonstrating how happy they are that we’re getting married.
AFAF With hand grenades? I was so terrified I nearly fainted!
COLONEL Stun grenades don’t do any real damage (grins broadly). You’ll have to forgive them—they’re just excited for us, and this is how they celebrate. It’s festive, even if it’s a bit much (walks over to the board and picks up a dart). And in any case, you should be grateful that I didn’t allow them to come in their tanks!
AFAF (under her breath) Goddamnit, how did I let myself get dragged into this mess? (The walls of the room shudder at the sound of a massive explosion. Afaf falls to her knees and cries out in fear) What was that?
COLONEL (throwing darts at the “Most Wanted” photos, clearly enjoying himself) That’s an armor-piercing RPG, and as noted on the wedding agenda, that shell is the signal for disengagement. In other words, we’ve just let our guests know it’s time for them to leave.
AFAF (stands up, crosses her arms, and stares angrily at him) Are you trying to tell me you’re deliberately making our wedding look like some military maneuver?
COLONEL (speaks while aiming darts with great precision) I am a colonel in the army, and I thought it would be fitting for our wedding to end with a bang. To fire me up for—
She flashes him a look; he meets her eyes for a moment but then looks away, embarrassed. Afaf shakes her head as if in disbelief, her mouth wide. A pregnant pause, fraught with tension. Then Afaf purses her lips, turns her head, and approaches the dartboard.
AFAF Who are the people in these photos?
COLONEL (pauses mid-aim) Those are our most wanted criminals.
AFAF (looks more closely at the photos) Really? Why are you throwing darts at them?
COLONEL I’m working on my aim, and those guys help keep me motivated.
AFAF (walks around him, eyeing him closely) This game is giving me a bad impression of you.
COLONEL (smiles, keeps playing) That’s great. What sort of bad impression, exactly?
AFAF (stops in front of him, looks him in the eye) I'll tell you, but promise me you won’t get angry.
COLONEL I promise. Go ahead, say it.
AFAF I think you’re aggressive, frankly, and that you enjoy violence.
COLONEL (moves her out of his way brusquely, and goes back to throwing darts) Thank you.
AFAF Thanks for what? Those are bad qualities, frightening qualities. They make me afraid of you.
COLONEL So my prayers have been answered.
AFAF You mean you want me to be afraid?
COLONEL That’s right—I like my women that way.
AFAF Are you are serious? Because unless you’re kidding . . . (walks away from him and grabs the doorknob, as though gesturing for him to leave) you’re sadistic. You’re sick in the head. You think it’s fun to torture people. Which explains why you’ve organized this whole military display—because you figured you’d enjoy watching me scream and shudder. Every bone in my body is shaking with shock at the horror and the din!
COLONEL (indifferently) It’s good you’re seeing who I really am, right from our first night together. That way you’ll never be disappointed.
Afaf opens her mouth, searching for a response, but remains silent, except for a heavy sigh. She perches on the bed and examines the tape recorder. When she presses the play button, soothing music plays, slowly diminishing the tension.
AFAF (biting her lower lip) Darling.
AFAF (poses seductively on the bed) Shall I turn off the lights?
AFAF (surprised) Why not?
COLONEL (turns and the dart falls from his hand. He bends down to pick it up.) Sorry, but I can’t see my targets without the lights. How am I supposed to aim in the dark? (laughs curtly, throws dart).
AFAF (looking down at herself, smoothing her dress, with mounting excitement) Great colonel—
AFAF Why don’t we entertain ourselves?
COLONEL Entertain ourselves how? You want to play “bride and groom” games?
AFAF No—get those dirty thoughts out of your head! Come over here, and I’ll explain what I have in mind.
COLONEL (suspiciously) Just innocent entertainment?
AFAF (crosses her legs, rests her hand on her thigh) Of course! Now come over here!
COLONEL (sticks the darts in the corkboard) Fine . . . but (approaches the bed, cautiously) but . . . (sits on the edge of the bed, visibly tense) Don’t you . . . I . . . I’m warning you . . . I—
AFAF You what?
COLONEL (gulps and blushes, suddenly shy) I . . . Listen, you shouldn’t be afraid of me . . . Um, what was the entertainment you were talking about?
AFAF Ahhh, I was thinking we should tell each other about our dreams. You tell me the most wonderful dream you’ve ever had, and I’ll tell you mine.
COLONEL But I’ve had so many dreams.
AFAF Pick one—the best, the most beautiful one!
COLONEL All right. But on one condition.
AFAF (sweetly) What condition?
COLONEL Nothing too sexy.
AFAF (exhales, irritated) I don’t have the patience for this.
AFAF (clasps her hands, petulant) Fine, go ahead. You first—tell me your smarmy dream. I mean “charming.” Your charming dream.
COLONEL (bows slightly to her, as though responding to a command from a superior) At your service. (happily, as though recalling a fond memory) About three years ago, I had a dream that I was a passenger on a cruise ship docked in the Fiji Islands. We were on a lush green island with beautiful tropical weather . . . (lights fade slowly to blackout)
We hear the roar of ocean waves, the cries of seagulls, and the sound of a ship’s horn.
The lights come up slowly, and rhythmic music plays.
Four young women enter carrying a throne, which they place midstage. A man enters, masked, wearing a regal robe and a golden crown, and holding a scepter adorned with precious jewels. He sits on the throne. The young women begin to dance. The colonel joins the women, dancing with them.
After a short time, the colonel approaches the king and shoots him in the head. The dancers scream in shock and grief. The music stops.
The colonel takes the crown and places it on his own head. He pulls the king’s corpse off the throne and throws it to the ground. He sits on the throne, holding the scepter, and rests his feet on the king's body.
He points his pistol threateningly at an unseen target, and the music comes back on. Then he aims toward the dancers, who begin to dance again.
Lights fade. We hear the roar of ocean waves, the cries of seagulls and the sound of a ship’s horn.
Lights come up slowly.
COLONEL Oh, what a fantastic dream! It felt like I spent ten years there, in total happiness, ruling those lush, gorgeous islands, reveling in women, wealth, and absolute power.
AFAF My dear colonel, my stallion, would you mind if I try to interpret your dream in psychological terms?
COLONEL I don’t mind at all. Proceed. And take your time.
AFAF Your dream is a reflection of the evil urges that you repress, like your desire to act violently toward others. Your subconscious mind burns for revenge against society, so your dream shows you the fulfillment of your urge to destroy things that are good and just and humane. Your dream reveals your twisted soul, and its secret desire to sabotage people’s normal existence, and to sow seeds of conflict among different parts of society. Your dream demonstrates that there’s a dangerous criminal lurking in the deep recesses of your psyche.
COLONEL (smiling) What have I done to deserve such praise?
AFAF (stares at him with disgust) What the—I don’t think you’ve heard what I’m saying. Let me boil it down for you: I think you’re a criminal. One hundred percent, a criminal.
COLONEL No, my naive little bird—I am a colonel. When people call me a criminal, I take it as a compliment. I’m proud of it—proud as a peacock. (paces, thoughtfully) You must be able to see how calling me a criminal is like a promotion. Like brigadier general.
AFAF I don’t feel proud to have a criminal for a husband.
COLONEL I, on the contrary, am quite proud to have a criminal for a wife.
AFAF (stunned) I—I don’t know what to say to that. Are you on drugs? You must be either drunk or high, because no one in his right mind would spout this sort of nonsense. (comes close to him, to smell his breath)
COLONEL (backs away from her) Please, don’t get so close. You’re getting on my nerves.
AFAF (follows him, tries to hold on to him) I just want to smell your breath. I want to know what you’re using.
COLONEL (retreats to a corner) Request for proximity denied. (glances at his watch) It’s time for you to live up to your part of the deal. I told you my dream. Now it’s your turn.
AFAF I don’t know what to tell you. I feel like you’re trying to run away from me, my sweet little colonel.
COLONEL Don’t try to get out of it. Tell me your favorite dream. Now.
AFAF (rests her chin on her hand) Give me a minute to remember it . . . Right . . . A couple of years ago, I had a dream that I was living in the Fiji Islands. I was the wife of the ruler.
COLONEL (skeptically) What a bizarre coincidence—I had a dream about Fiji, and you did too. And I dreamed I became the ruler, and you dreamed you were the ruler’s wife . . .
AFAF Look, buddy, this is my dream and I’m free to talk about it. So listen and don’t interrupt me. (He covers his mouth with his hand, as though promising not to speak.) I dreamed I was living a life of pleasure, comfort, and extravagance. I was spending money without ever having to think about it . . . (lights down slowly)
Festive sounds of music, fireworks. Lights up gradually. Four girls carry in a couch and place it midstage. Afaf stretches out on it. The girls place a crown of gold on her head and dance around her.
AFAF I am the First Lady. My days are filled with parties, dancing, and singing. And when the people protest (sounds of an angry crowd chanting), I just give them one of my dancing girls. (points to one of the young women. The others seize her. She resists, but they drag her offstage.) They’ll tear her to pieces, because they think she’s the wife of the ruler. They think she’s me. (laughs)
The dancing continues; the angry crowd screams again, and another dancer is sacrificed. This series of events is repeated until Afaf remains alone.
The music stops, and the lights go out.
AFAF What do you think of my dream, my splendid colonel?
COLONEL You—in your dream, you sacrificed those poor girls to save your own skin. It’s too vile a dream for a woman like you to have. Your face is like an angel’s—there’s no way there could be thoughts like these behind it.
AFAF My dream contains a message for you. Did you not understand it?
COLONEL (turns and paces with great anxiety) I don’t know what message you’re talking about. But I need you to do me a favor.
AFAF Just ask.
COLONEL My dream has an ending I didn’t share with you. Can I tell you the rest?
AFAF The night is ours, colonel, and you’re my knight in shining armor. Do as you like!
Lights brighten gradually throughout the scene.
The four girls enter and dance to the music. A soldier enters, carrying the throne, which he places midstage. He stands at attention next to it.
The colonel approaches, dressed in his royal robes, wearing the crown and carrying the scepter. The soldier salutes. The colonel sits down and crosses his legs, enjoying the music and dance. The soldier stands guard just behind the colonel.
Suddenly we hear the sound of an exploding bomb. The music stops, the lights flicker, the colonel falls from the throne, the dancers drop to the floor. Only the soldier remains upright.
Hearing the sound of gunfire, the soldier takes up a protective stance in front of his ruler, who is still lying on the ground. The gunfire stops and the colonel stands up. He takes off his royal cape and drapes it over the soldier. He takes the crown from his head and puts it on the soldier's. Then he hands him the scepter and seats him on the throne.
Again the sound of gunfire, much heavier than before. The colonel gets down on the ground, crawls toward the bed, and hides beneath it.
The high, screeching sound of an explosive shell. The soldier dies, as do the young women, all killed by the shell.
The lights fade to black as the gunfire continues.
Bright light. The colonel comes out from under the bed.
COLONEL So . . . what do you think of my dream?
AFAF What do I think? I think you’re an asshole. You just abandon the people you rule at the first hint of danger? Your bodyguard did his duty; he acted with honor. Why didn’t you?
COLONEL (laughs) You’re really taking this seriously. It was just a dream!
AFAF (sits and fixes her gaze on him) No. Your dream wasn’t just a dream. I feel like . . . like you’re trying to tell me a secret. Like you want to send me messages in code, through your dream. It’s clever.
COLONEL (throws a dart at the corkboard, misses by a mile, grunts) Don’t let your imagination run wild. If you do, you’ll spend your whole life tormented by doubts and little voices in your head.
AFAF (falls silent. Fidgets, watches the colonel, and sighs) So . . . are you just going to keep playing?
COLONEL (aims again, with his back to Afaf) I’m not playing.
AFAF What are you doing, then?
COLONEL I’m thinking.
AFAF What are you thinking about?
COLONEL (smiles): The same thing you’re thinking about.
AFAF (with a coy laugh) That’s good. Why don’t you come over here, so we can think together, out loud?
COLONEL No, sorry—the army taught me to keep things top secret. Confidential.
AFAF (sighs) Hmmm . . . I may have misjudged you—perhaps I’ve been too hasty, assumed too much. But now I’m getting a better read on your personality.
COLONEL I hope one day you’ll understand me completely, little lamb.
AFAF (gets up from the bed, goes toward him) I think I should play with you. It’ll help bring down the psychological barrier between us.
COLONEL (eyes her as she approaches. Holds up a dart, threateningly, as though to throw it at her if she comes any closer) Retreat. Back to where you were. I’ll be the one to come to you . . . once I’m through.
AFAF (retreats, puts her hand on the bedpost) Through with what? Your game?
COLONEL No—I told you, I’m thinking. (wipes his brow with the sleeve of his jacket) I’m devising my strategy.
AFAF What strategy?
COLONEL (turns his back on her, throws a dart) For the . . . invasion.
AFAF The invasion?!? (sits on the bed, uneasy) Our relationship isn’t a guerrilla war! You don’t need a strategy, you’re not invading. If it helps, I’ll wave a white flag. I surrender, unconditionally.
COLONEL If I weren’t such an experienced soldier, I’d believe you. But I can sense an ambush.
AFAF (sighs audibly, exasperated) Fine. Have a good night. (lies down, covers herself with the red coverlet)
COLONEL (lets out a sigh of relief) Good night to you too. (Sticks the darts in the corkboard and tries to tiptoe out of the room)
AFAF (sits up) Where are you going, Colonel?
COLONEL (dances around, as though he needs to pee) Um, I need to use the bathroom.
AFAF Shall I come with you? Do you need a hand?
COLONEL (panicked) No! And don’t go snooping around here while I’m away.
The colonel leaves the room, closing the door behind him. Afaf lies down again, but feels something unusual under her pillow. She lifts up the pillow and finds a revolver. Examining it, she realizes it is loaded. Her expression changes; she clearly has had an idea. She gets up quickly, strides over to the light switch, and turns off the lights. The colonel opens the door and pokes his head through.
COLONEL (speaking in a low voice) Afaf . . . Are you asleep? (She does not respond.) That’s better. (He shuts the door slowly, but just before it closes, Afaf taps on the bedroom wall. He freezes, his hand on the knob, and listens. Afaf taps again, louder this time) Afaf . . . Are you making that noise?
The colonel enters and moves toward the light switch. As he turns the lights on, he feels the barrel of the gun pressed against the side of his head. Right next to him, her back pressed against the wall, Afaf looks at him seductively.
AFAF If you don’t obey my orders, I’ll be forced to shoot you.
COLONEL (raises his hands in surrender) Damn. Who’d have guessed that my wedding night would end like this—with me a prisoner!
AFAF (in a brusque military tone) Face left.
COLONEL (obeys) Exactly the ambush I was afraid of!
AFAF Forward march! (The colonel takes a few steps forward. Afaf prods him till he reaches the bed) Steady . . . At ease . . . Steady . . . Lie down!
COLONEL I’m truly sorry, but that’s the one order I can’t carry out.
AFAF Why not? Did you tear a hole in the back of your pants during the wedding ceremony?
COLONEL Don’t joke. I won’t sleep with you. My honor as an officer is at stake.
AFAF That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Now get into bed and let me get on with it.
COLONEL Before I do, there’s something I must confess.
AFAF (raises an eyebrow) What must you confess?
COLONEL I can’t perform. And I don’t love you.
AFAF (starts to lose her grip on the pistol. Thinks for a moment, then digs the barrel into his back, angrily) Then why did you marry me?
COLONEL (indifferently) Because everyone gets married.
AFAF (disgusted) So you don’t need me—you just want to conform to social expectations?
COLONEL (sighs with relief) Exactly . . . So you have understood what I’ve been trying to tell you this whole time.
AFAF (walks around him, watching him with disgust) So I’m just a mask—you’re just using me to cover up your inadequacies? Is that what you’re telling me?
COLONEL (looks down, as if embarrassed) The truth leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. But I’ve consulted doctors about it, and I’m confident that they’ll be able to solve the problem soon.
AFAF (walks away from him slowly, upstage) Is this why you’ve been acting so weird? You thought if you frightened me, that would distract me from your . . . problem?
COLONEL (sighs) Yeah, but my strategy failed. Instead of sowing terror and doubt in your heart, I’ve just made you feel pity for me.
AFAF You think I’ve taken pity on you?!? Absolutely not. I loathe you, more than I’ve ever loathed anyone in my entire life!
COLONEL Pity or contempt—look them both up in a woman’s dictionary and you’ll find their meanings are exactly the same.
AFAF That’s a nasty lie . . . Where’s the phone?
COLONEL In the next room. Why? Who are you calling?
AFAF (walks backward, carefully, toward the door) None of your business, you impotent jerk.
COLONEL (sees that she has opened the door and is about to leave) If you’re thinking of calling your father, I’d advise against it.
AFAF (looks at him with scorn) Save your advice for the doctors who can’t figure out what’s wrong with you.
COLONEL My dear, if people learn that you went back to your family's house on our first night, you know what they’ll think: that I discovered you weren’t a virgin. (shakes his head as though in sympathy, as she gazes at him, stunned)
AFAF (slams the door violently) Shut up, you piece of garbage! (tosses the gun aside, covers her face with her hands, and sobs)
COLONEL (sits on the edge of the bed and lights a cigarette) If you think crying is going to cure my . . . problem, you’re wrong.
AFAF Goddamn you. (walks over to the bed, perches atop her pillow) You should douse yourself in kerosene and set yourself on fire. Rid the world of you.
COLONEL I had the same idea.
AFAF (looks into his eyes, interested) Have you really thought about setting yourself on fire?
COLONEL No, but I’ve thought about setting you on fire (laughs).
AFAF (punches him in the back) Wretch. And put out that cigarette. The smell is unbearable.
COLONEL OK, OK. (puts out the cigarette and stares at the bedroom wall).
AFAF (watching him, perplexed) Hey! Why are you staring like that at the wall? It’s like you’ve never seen it before.
COLONEL I’m thinking, Afaf, my dear—I’m thinking.
AFAF (leans over and grabs him) You’re only thinking about one thing: how to avoid looking in my eyes!
COLONEL (moves away, still sitting on the bed) I’m afraid you’re like the sun: staring at you could make me go blind.
AFAF (moves toward him again) I swear, I think that’s the first true thing you’ve ever said to me. (The colonel stands up, alarmed. He faces the audience; his lips move in confusion, as though he is trying to say something.) You’re in love with me.
COLONEL (struggling to control his emotions) No.
AFAF You love me, but you’re resisting it. (stands up, walks over to him)
COLONEL (sotto voce) This is a disaster. (moves away from her) So tell me—what did you study at the university? What was your major?
AFAF Why are you trying to change the subject?
COLONEL I’m not changing the subject. I just want to know something about the woman standing in front of me.
AFAF That makes no sense. How could you have married me without knowing the most basic facts about me?
COLONEL Your father’s to blame for that—he’s still living in the Dark Ages. Wouldn’t even let me see your face. Not once. How could I have learned anything about you?
AFAF You’re a colonel in the army. You could easily have gotten information on me.
COLONEL (paces aimlessly around the room, trying to control his anxiety) I admit I thought about it, but your father’s a powerful member of the government. If he’d ever gotten wind of the fact that I was spying on his daughter, he’d have hit me where it counts. Everyone knows he’s malicious and won’t let go of a grudge.
AFAF (angrily) My father is a successful man, so of course envious men like you try to slander him.
COLONEL That’s an empty defense. What excuse can you make for him marrying you off to a man you’ve never seen, and know nothing about? (She sits down on the edge of the bed, silent.) Nothing to say to that? Your father told me how he treated you when you begged him to at least show you a picture of me. (walks toward her, raises his voice) He brought out a blank piece of paper, drew a bird and two stars on it, and told you (imitates the father’s voice) “Look, there’s your future husband.” Isn’t that right? (Afaf stretches out on the bed and pulls the coverlet over her head. He chuckles.) Nighty-night! And by the way—I know you graduated with a degree in psychology. (Afaf pulls the coverlet down, revealing her face.) Ha! The price of a girl with a degree is pretty cheap these days!
AFAF (disturbed) What are you talking about, you moron?
COLONEL (smiling sarcastically) Hmmm, how to put this? You’re perishable merchandise, and your vendor was worried about your expiration date. So we were able to make a deal fast, your father and I. One phone call was all it took.
AFAF (doesn’t believe him) You clearly suffer from some mental illness.
COLONEL (in a firm, serious tone) Nope. I know you’ve studied psychology and want to analyze me, but I’m just giving you the facts, pure and simple: it took a grand total of three phone calls for your father and me to come to an agreement on every last detail of your marriage to me. (Afaf shakes her head in denial) At this point, I’m sure you see how little you mean to anyone.
AFAF (weeps) Are you throwing it in my face that I had to marry you?
COLONEL (puts his face right in front of hers, as if to provoke her) Like you threw it in my face that I’m impotent.
AFAF (stares at his crotch) Except you’re not! (This startles the colonel, who turns his back on her in confusion.) Why turn your back on me? What are you afraid of? Why spend all this time jumping around from one topic to the next, trying to ensure that we don’t get close to each other? If you have some sort of phobia, tell me what it is and maybe I can help you. (He puts on his military coat, which comes down to his knees.) And what the—why are you putting your coat on? Planning to go out?
COLONEL (trying to avoid her gaze) No, I’m just a little cold.
AFAF (sweetly, coaxing) If you’re cold, why don’t you stretch out here on the bed, and warm yourself up under this nice thick quilt? Come on, take off your coat and some of those clothes, and come over here.
COLONEL (turns his back on her again, suppressing a nervous laugh) You’re a clever little witch.
AFAF (with a broad smile) And you’re trying to keep a secret from me—but I promise you, it won’t take me long to figure out what it is. Come over here.
COLONEL (trying to hide his anxiety) Give me just a minute.
AFAF Never in my life have I seen a colonel disobey so many orders. (gets up, picks up the gun, and aims it at the colonel) Come here, and don’t try any funny stuff. (She pokes him in the back with the gun, and he puts his hands up, as though by reflex. He takes a few steps back to the bed, until he is standing beside her. She prods him with the pistol) Come on!
COLONEL Damn it, what am I doing?
AFAF (jabs him again with the gun) Strip down.
COLONEL No—I can’t. Honestly—I’m a very shy man.
AFAF What if I turn the lights off? (moves toward the light switch)
COLONEL (with an unexpected degree of fright) No! I . . . I’m also terrified of the dark.
AFAF Then I’m afraid we have no choice, Colonel. Come on, clothes off. (She presses the pistol into his back and he squirms.)
COLONEL All right, all right. Can you just give me five minutes?
AFAF What for? You need to do some warm-up exercises?
COLONEL No . . . but (takes a book out of a drawer in the nightstand) I have a book here that provides tips about what to do on your wedding night, and I just want to skim through it again. I’ll be quick.
AFAF Oh for God’s sake. You’re already in the middle of this exam—if you pull out a book now, you’ll be cheating.
COLONEL Yeah, I know, but (sweating profusely; pulls a handkerchief out of his coat pocket and wipes his forehead) if I don’t do at least a quick review of the information, I’ll go blank when I see the . . . when they pass out the exam!
AFAF (tries not to laugh) All right then, reread your lessons. Maybe they’ll remind you what “virility” means.
The colonel pages through the book quickly and nervously, mumbling to himself in a low voice. Afaf paces in a circle around the bed, then sits by her pillow, still training the gun on him.
AFAF (harshly) Sit there and reread quietly. You’re getting on my nerves!
COLONEL Sorry. But don’t interrupt me; it breaks my concentration.
AFAF (fiddles a bit with the gun, then looks at her watch, irritated) Your five minutes are up.
COLONEL All right . . . Will you allow me to take just a short walk, to the next room?
AFAF No. If you leave this room, it’ll be over my dead body.
COLONEL But there’s an important text there that I need to consult before I take any further action. Otherwise, I might do something I’ll regret.
AFAF You’d spend days, years, poring over your “texts” . . . While you’re at it, why don’t you write a dissertation on how you manage to keep putting me off?
COLONEL (the ghost of a smile on his lips) That’s a great suggestion.
AFAF (pulling the book out of his hand) Arrrgh! I’ve been much more patient with you than you deserve.
COLONEL OK—could you give me just one minute (pulls a pile of papers, held together with a paper clip, out of the nightstand drawer) to quickly skim through this summary?
Afaf lets out a cry of intense distress. She rips the papers out of his hand and tears them into pieces, then looks into the drawer, where she finds more instruction booklets.
AFAF All these manuals?!? (picks them up and throws them into a corner of the room, then strides over to him and digs the gun into him) This time, I swear, I’m going to shoot—you’ve hit my very last nerve. I gave you an order. Follow it. Now.
COLONEL Easy . . . easy, my love . . . Remember, you haven’t figured out the secret yet. Aren’t you dying to know what it is?
AFAF Liar. There’s no secret here except the mystery of your lack of . . . a spine.
COLONEL Oh, there’s a secret. A dangerous secret. A secret that forced me to invent all of these silly tricks, just to keep me from responding to you.
AFAF (removes the pistol from his back) I bet this “secret” is just another one of your tricks, but what difference does it make? Go ahead, I’m listening, you weirdo.
COLONEL (breathes a sigh of relief) Five months ago, my love, I got a tip-off about the location of a gang of thugs who were blocking roads. They were near our camp, and our security forces weren’t able to take care of them, so I had to send a battalion of my soldiers to attack the gang on their turf. We killed two and captured nine of them, but the rest escaped. Unfortunately, the gang turned out to be much stronger than we realized. After just a short time they busted the nine prisoners out of our camp prison. They killed a guard, and then assassinated the officer who led the operation. And now they’re trying to take me out.
AFAF I don’t believe it. Your men killed two of theirs, and they killed two of yours. Problem solved. It was a blood debt, but now the score is settled.
COLONEL They used to think like that, but lately they’ve been watching Hollywood blockbusters and it’s gone to their heads.
AFAF So you’re saying I could be a widow any day now?
COLONEL You could become a widow on your wedding night.
AFAF Are you serious? Are you telling me the truth?
COLONEL I thought it was better for you not to know that members of an armed gang were planning to assassinate me during the wedding ceremony.
AFAF You are seriously demented.
COLONEL No, I’m not. I was given top secret information, just three days before our wedding date, that the gang had planned to assassinate me during the wedding. I did everything I could to convince your father to push back the date of the ceremony, so that I could take additional precautions and countermeasures. He investigated the matter, but then absolutely refused to delay the wedding—which forced me to take steps that I would never have imagined.
AFAF You mean those crowds of soldiers and their weapons?
COLONEL No, my love. I’ve taken steps to disguise myself from this gang that would never even cross your mind.
AFAF Tell me what you mean, and fast—this is making my head spin!
The deep voice of a man issuing orders.
COLONEL Oh, thank God. Do you know whose voice we hear, roaring out there?
COLONEL That's your husband. (calls) Colonel, sir! (bows to Afaf politely) Excuse me, ma’am.
Afaf puts her hand over her mouth, trying to rein in her astonishment. The decoy colonel takes off the military coat and hangs it up, heads toward the door and opens it, and then stands at attention, prepared to salute. The real colonel can be heard speaking outside the room.
COLONEL’S VOICE They’re in my grasp. And when I get through with them, they’ll wish they’d never been born.
The real Colonel enters, wearing an elegant black suit. He is around fifty years old.
COLONEL (addressing the decoy colonel, who is his bodyguard): Ah, Hatem. Is everything all right?
HATEM Sir, yes sir!
COLONEL And you didn’t lay a hand on her with corrupt intent? Or even with virtuous intent?
HATEM If my actions had in any way transgressed the boundaries of my mission, I would dispatch myself on the spot, sir.
COLONEL (as though a dark cloud of anxiety has been lifted) Good man, Hatem. Expect a promotion in the near future. You may withdraw.
HATEM Thank you, sir, and good night. (leaves, closing the door behind him)
AFAF (lifts the gun and aims at his face as he approaches) Who are you?
COLONEL I am your husband, Colonel Askar. Did my bodyguard not explain to you that I asked him to stand in for me during the wedding ceremony in order to protect myself?
AFAF (her face burning with anger) You asshole—you protect yourself, but you leave me and that poor guy exposed? We could have died! We could have been shot!
COLONEL Don’t be so melodramatic. The gang’s snipers are highly skilled, so the only way you would’ve been in danger is if they sent a suicide bomber. But they weren’t interested in you.
AFAF I’m being melodramatic? You’re the one doing despicable deeds like a cartoon villain! You put me in danger! You turned me into a human shield! You used me as bait for your enemies! How dare you? You know who my father is. And I swear to God, I won’t sleep till he puts you in prison!
COLONEL (tries to approach her, but she moves away from him toward the bedroom door) Try to see things from my perspective. I was with the two of you for the whole ceremony, buzzing around you like a bee, with my soldiers—all in plain clothes—and we succeeded in arresting numerous suspects. So it was impossible for anything bad to have happened to you.
AFAF (suddenly realizes that he has come closer and closer to her while speaking the previous lines. Opens the door, and prepares to leave) No, what’s impossible is me agreeing to remain married to the biggest coward on the face of the earth. I want a divorce.
The colonel pretends he sees someone behind her who is about to strike her.
COLONEL Nooooo . . .
Afaf whips around in fear, and the colonel seizes his opportunity. He grabs the pistol with his left hand and strikes her hand with his right. Afaf lets out a loud cry of pain and drops the gun, which the colonel catches with a practiced motion.
AFAF (falls to her knees in pain, clutching her hand) You broke my hand, you son of a bitch!
COLONEL I’m only going to say this once: insult me again and I’ll rip out your tongue and give it to my soldiers to use for target practice.
AFAF (terrified) You’re a monster!
She tries to run but he grabs her left hand (not the broken one) and throws her onto the bed. He closes the door, then turns to the light switch and turns off the lights.
AFAF By all that’s holy—on your mother’s soul—or what would you swear on? On your T-72 tank?—you need to hear about the mistake your bodyguard made.
COLONEL (hesitates for a moment, then turns the lights back on) You’re a little snake, aren’t you, trying to turn me against one of my loyal soldiers? I assure you, I trust my men completely. And to prove that, I’d take out all the women in the world, if I had to.
AFAF (sits on the edge of the bed) His extreme loyalty to you caused him to betray us both.
COLONEL Your words are like poison in my ears—but by God, I won’t fall for any woman’s tricks!
AFAF Well, you’re the one who concocted the poison, so don’t pretend this isn’t your fault. Aren’t you the one who left me alone with your bodyguard, who impersonated you so well that I fell in love with him? He stole my heart, and now he burns like fire in my blood!
COLONEL (devastated. Sits on the bed) You slut—you just sit there and admit that you’re in love with my bodyguard? You just say that, to my face?
AFAF And you gave me the poison yourself. You ordered him to treat me politely and respectfully; if you’d told him to behave violently and cruelly toward me, I’d hate him every bit as much as I hate you. With all my heart.
COLONEL Enough. That’s enough. Say another word and I’ll kill you on the spot, you cheap whore.
The colonel buries his head in his hands, while Afaf starts to cry silently, wiping away her tears with a blue embroidered handkerchief. The colonel stretches out on the bed, pulls up the covers, and stares at the ceiling.
COLONEL Get out of my room. I never want to see your wretched face again. Get out.
AFAF (gets up reluctantly, opens the door as if to leave, but hesitates) You’re a powerful man, Colonel. If you treat me a little better, I could be a loyal friend of yours.
COLONEL Well, well, well—look how quickly this chameleon changes her colors!
AFAF Sometimes friendship is more powerful, and more enduring, than love.
COLONEL What are you suggesting? That we should just be friends?
AFAF Anyone can get married—but true friendship is a rare thing.
COLONEL Oh, great—so we’ll be friends, and you’ll save your love for my bodyguard? That’s ridiculous!
AFAF Look, I realize I’ve wounded your pride, and I’m prepared to keep apologizing until you forgive me.
COLONEL Save your apologies for your father. I divorce you!
AFAF (closes the door, stands next to the colonel, and smiles at him) Thankfully, sir, you can’t really divorce me.
COLONEL (dumbfounded) The insolence! I said I divorce you. So we’re divorced. You think you’re immune to this? You’ve been vaccinated against divorce?
AFAF No, but it seems my father was smarter than you in planning for these disasters.
COLONEL (sits up) Planning for these disasters? How?
AFAF When you asked my father so urgently to delay the wedding date, he suspected something. So he asked his personal contacts to find out what the emergency was.
COLONEL Aha! So your father had heard they were threatening to assassinate me tonight?
AFAF Yes. He’d also heard about all the steps you’d taken to protect your own safety.
COLONEL (grumbles) Goddamn security forces. Can’t keep a secret.
A cheerful knock at the door, like a drumbeat.
AFAF Do you know who that is, knocking at the door?
The colonel is speechless. He gestures toward the door with his hand.
AFAF That’s right. It’s your wife Afaf. The real Afaf is the one who’s knocking—I’m just her personal assistant.
The colonel stands still for a moment, stunned. The decoy Afaf shakes her head.
More rhythmic knocking at the door. The colonel opens it, and a beautiful young woman enters, wearing a white wedding dress.
AFAF Good evening, Colonel. (shakes his hand, self-possessed)
COLONEL (dazzled by her beauty) It’s a beautiful evening, ma’am. Majestic.
AFAF (strolls around the room, examining its contents) I hope my personal assistant Nawal hasn’t won too much of your admiration, Colonel.
COLONEL (following her around, like a child trailing after his mother) No, no—on the contrary, she made me detest her so much I divorced her. She executed her mission perfectly.
NAWAL I would be honored to consider you a friend, Colonel—and I do hope you don’t disapprove of my love for your bodyguard Hatem.
She heads toward the door, while the colonel pulls his bride toward the bed.
COLONEL Not at all—I’m delighted to have made such a clever, loyal friend. Consider yourself a part of our new family. And as for Hatem, I’ll throw him a real wedding ASAP.
NAWAL (beaming) Thank you, sir. And a very good night to you both. (exits, closing the door behind her)
AFAF I think, sir, after everything that’s happened, you can’t really blame me or my father for what we’ve done.
COLONEL (euphoric) Of course not. In fact, I can’t think of a more fitting family for an army colonel to have married into!
AFAF (nods her head) We could actually turn out to be quite compatible.
COLONEL Yes, I think we could. (glances at his watch) Uh-oh, we only have fifteen minutes till prayer time at dawn. What do you think we should do?
AFAF Well, let’s not waste any more time with small talk. The only thing we’re missing is a crowd of well-wishers.
COLONEL And in any case, it’d be wrong for us to accept congratulations for a wedding that didn’t actually happen. Right?
AFAF (coyly) That’s right.
COLONEL So let’s get to it!
The colonel and his bride jump on the bed and begin to undress. The colonel takes off his jacket and tie; the bride takes off her gloves and her gold bracelets.
Two men armed with automatic rifles crawl out from under the bed. They are dressed alike in striped, knee-length sarongs, bare-chested except for bandoliers bristling with ammunition. Cotton scarves cover their heads, turban-style, and partially hide their faces. One is fat; the other is thin. They take up positions to the right and left of the colonel and Afaf, pointing their guns at them menacingly.
SKINNY THUG (sarcastically) Hello, Colonel. You’ve been looking for us all night, while we’ve been right here, waiting for you.
COLONEL (angry) Goddamnit! Couldn’t you have waited a few more minutes?
FAT THUG Actually, we were going to wait till you were right in the middle of things—you know, to make it as embarrassing for you as possible. But then you tipped us off that it was almost daybreak.
SKINNY THUG (sees that the colonel is moving to pull out his pistol) Put your hands up. (The colonel puts his hands in the air; the Fat Thug strips him of his gun) Too slow, I’m afraid. Maybe you’re getting too old for this?
FAT THUG I’ll just take my picture back, if you don’t mind. (pulls his photo off the corkboard) Hey, someone put a bunch of holes in it—I can’t use it like that! (turns angrily to the colonel) You know what? I’m going to put a hole in your skull. Just one tiny little hole. One little . . . endless . . . empty . . . space. (scowls at the colonel and Afaf) Stand over there by the wall.
The colonel and Afaf take a few frightened, unwilling steps toward the wall. Afaf covers her face with her hands, weeps, and babbles inaudibly.
SKINNY THUG (to his partner) I’ll kill the colonel; you kill his wife.
The thugs get down on one knee to take aim.
COLONEL Wait . . . I have an amazing idea. An idea that’ll make you two of the richest, most powerful men in the world—if we can come to an agreement.
SKINNY THUG (doesn’t lift his gaze from the machine gun sight) Go on—we’re listening.
COLONEL You know if you kill us, you’ll be wanted criminals for the rest of your lives, and the state will hunt you down. But if you’ll agree to be my allies, we’ll use the army to overthrow the government. I’ll give you powerful positions in the new government, and you’ll have more money than any bank can hold.
FAT THUG (still aiming) Ambitious plans, particularly for a guy with a gun to his head. It’s like watching an ostrich try to launch an election campaign with its head still in the sand.
COLONEL Maybe. And I may be crazy. But I assure you, I can turn this dream into reality. With my forces and your gang, I can execute a successful coup. And if we succeed, I’ll appoint one of you vice president, and the other prime minister. You have my word as a military officer.
SKINNY THUG (addressing his partner) What do you think?
FAT THUG Sounds good to me.
SKINNY THUG Let’s give ourselves a minute to think it over.
Lights down gradually, accompanied by the sound of a ticking clock, quiet at first, but rising gradually to a terrifying volume. Curtain.
© Wajdi Al-Ahdal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Katherine Hennessey. All rights reserved.