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from the December 2020 issue

The Birth of the Spirit

A young woman is captivated by a mysterious book about the history of the Nile as she searches for a disappeared friend in this excerpt from Sarah Al-Jack’s novel The Mites. 

I flipped through a small booklet with a worn-out cover. The title was covered in the white marks of a corrector pen. Beneath it was a drawing of the Nile, from its source to where it drains into the Mediterranean. The first page was torn out; there was no author name, no mention of a publishing house or copyrights. The paper was dry and yellow, with just a little carelessness it could disintegrate into powder; a handful of dust. There was no dedication, no preface. The language was delicate and rich. I read it on the bus that I took to the dorms in Bahari, where I looked forward to resting after a long, exhausting workday filled with endless details.

Qayshun was flowing right beneath me when I opened the book, as the bus crossed the Blue Nile bridge. 

The first page read:

He was flowing in peace, through God’s highest heaven, next to two other rivers in Paradise—Al-Kawthar and the Euphrates—when God first shaped Man. He watched as Iblis slithered through the dough, in through one opening and out through another, wondering what that creature was. Until God breathed His soul into it, and it became Adam. Then God asked Iblis to kneel before Adam: Iblis refused Him, and he refused Adam, so he was expelled from God’s mercy and was deemed cursed, which further deepened his resentment toward God’s new creation. And so Iblis stalked Adam, and he deceived him, and they were both forever banished from Paradise. 

But before they were driven out, he was. And his was a violent descent; he slammed against the face of the Earth, horizontal and rigid, and he slept for a lifetime. When he woke from his slumber he tried to rise; he dragged his right leg, digging Qayshun––the Blue Nile, while the heel of his right foot created Lake Tana. He dragged his left leg and that was Gayjun––the White Nile, and where the heel of his left foot had been Lake Victoria came to be. His head: the Mediterranean; his arms the branches of Damietta and Rashid, his neck a third stream that slipped through the pages of history books, forgotten. He stood like a giant in splendor; he screamed for the first time, and down poured the rain. 

He left fragments of his soul behind and he roamed the Earth, tilting his face toward the sun. To prepare their earthly exile for receiving Adam and Iblis, God put him there first, ruining his game with the Euphrates and Al-Kawthar. They stumbled and they fell, and he bore witness to it all. 

***

I stepped off the bus, enthralled by the author’s language and his strange theory about the origins of the Nile. I didn’t go to the dorms as I had planned; my feet led me to the river. 

As soon as Sareya arrived⁠—with the cloud that surrounded her, whose colors changed with the time of day and the shade of the sun and its reflection on her legendary neck, guarded by the pendant with the blue bead⁠—the Nile’s name changed, and it became the Spirit. The sounds of the river creatures began to fade as a strange language formed between her and the waves. She turned the book to face the water; the water held it in its memory. She placed her bookmark where she had stopped, closed the book, and placed it in her large handbag⁠—“Aleppo’s Basket,” her mother had called it. Sareya remembered her coarse features, her delicate heart, and the corals of Port Sudan. She returned to the banks of the Spirit, she asked him about the author’s claim.

“Do you spring from the heavens?”

The sunset call to prayer rose from one of the mosques nearby, and she noticed for the first time that the sun was no longer there. And as soon as she posed her question to the Spirit, the moon shone, smiling down on the water’s surface, and the waves reveled in its light, as though answering her question: “Yes, he is one of the rivers of heaven.” 

I entered the dorms, still captivated by the poetic language of the book. The supervisor wasn’t at the front desk; I was grateful I didn’t have to talk and interrupt my train of thought. From my pocket, I took out the keys to my room, swiftly unlocked the door, and walked in. I threw Aleppo’s Basket on the floor and plopped down right next to it. I looked up at the clock on the wall before me: the time for the sunset prayers had passed (they always say maghrib is like a swift visitor). Rushing to the bathroom, I washed and prepared for prayer. I read the chapter of Al-Fatiha, followed by Al-Kawthar––a river of Paradise, just like the Nile and the Euphrates. I finished praying, lay down on my prayer rug, opened Aleppo’s Basket, took out the book, and immersed myself. 

Adam

Adam descended in the city of Sari. Iblis accompanied him, invisible to Adam but following him incessantly. Adam found himself in the midst of a barren desert, a scorching sun beating down on him. Eve wasn’t there, he’d forgotten her upon his fall from sky to Earth. Barefoot and naked but for a mulberry leaf, he wandered, until he encountered life. 

What is life? 

And He Taught Him All the Names

Life results at the intersection of two coordinates—a horizontal one: place; and a vertical one: time. It progresses with the movement that takes place within those coordinates, X and Y; happening across various internal points within this space. Several activities occur there, creating a rhythm that enables Adam and his children to perform a specific act for which they were made, a long time ago. 

The summoning, the calling, the inspiration
aids them in finding a rhythm 
an attempt to reach
the perfect tune 
because complete harmony 
is impossible…

The Voice

—Listen. 
—Where is this voice coming from?
—It is coming from the depths at the heart of this darkness.
—Where? I can’t see the place you’re pointing toward.
—It is there, to the South. Look at the source of the sound. 

The voice comes from above, from where you came. She screamed; she was looking for you. The seven skies echoed her scream, as did the earth. 

The pigeons wondered, the hoopoe asked: What is the purpose of this stranger’s visit to the earth? Qayshun and Gayjun filled with water after the giant stood up and screamed and the rain poured down. The sun hid behind the clouds, in fear of that which was to happen and which they did not know. The moon was eclipsed and did not reappear, the earth shook and sent lava shooting out of its volcanoes, and there was nothing the creatures could do but wait. 

Weightless neutrons floated, praising God in an unprecedented first. Adam felt his soul swimming through him, moving to the age of impurity. It was done to him, when God decided that he should fall. And fall he did, vertically, but then he landed horizontally, positioned like a cross; naked but for the mulberry leaf that covered his being. 


The Calling

—Listen. 
—Where is this voice coming from?
—It is coming from the depths at the heart of this darkness.
—Where? I can’t see the place you’re pointing toward.
—It is there, to the South. Look at the source of the sound. Follow the voice; do what it commands. Plunge into the heart of the Spirit; you know him, he knows you well. Then leave him at the navel. You will forget him, he will forget you. Sail across Gayjun to the South. We bear no relation to you; follow your intuition; the calling, the summoning, the inspiration. Go deeper into the South, through the waves of Gayjun. You will find weeds tangled with serpents and snakes, swamps where lethal golden frogs croak. The crocodiles of the river will meet you with open jaws—do not fear; they are cleaning their teeth with the rays of the sun. They are ugly and forbidding; their backs scaly, their tails carrying the promise of death. Their teeth glint in the light of the sun that cleans them; arrows that pierce the heart of anyone who’s a stranger to the swamps. And you, you are definitely a stranger. 

He wades through the swamp, the bones of the dead fish lying in the mud tear through the skin of his feet, stabbing at his flesh. The stabbed foot sticks to the mud, the earth clings to it, and finally, painfully sucks the thin, lodged bones out of him. He is waist-deep now; the insects of the swamp are feasting on his blood and there’s no way out. He is hindered by algae and rootless plants he can’t see, on this journey for which he knows no purpose. He keeps moving through Gayjun, southwards, against the current. In the forest, he is assaulted by the trees, their branches whipping him across the back. The monkeys toy with him; throwing ripe mangoes at his face. He walks and walks and trips on banana leaves and walks again. He walks for years; his nails are long, his hair unruly; his soul wilts, his body weakens. From pleasure to pain, from wealth to weariness. He continues on his way south, one wave handing him to the next. 

Who is he?
Who will he be?
Where did he come from? 
And how did he end up here? 

© Sarah Al-Jack. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Yasmine Zohdi. All rights reserved.​

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