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from the July 2011 issue

from “The Grub Hunter”

Translator’s Note:  The Grub Hunter is the story of a former secret service agent who, on being forced to retire after an accident costs him his right leg, becomes obsessed with the idea of writing a novel. He starts to visit a coffeehouse frequented by literary types, including the renowned author A.T. The grubs, or larvae, of the title are characters and plot ideas that—in the right hands—will develop into good novels

I approached Qasr al-Jummayz (Sycamore Fig Palace), the capital’s oldest, rowdiest, and busiest coffeehouse, which also serves as an expo of suspicious characters, at least seen from our professional point of view—that of our daily reports, which we draft with a strange glee.  Here you find established authors and other folk who are struggling to achieve a status that seems out of reach to them.  There are dapper poets wearing trousers and splendid shirts, barefoot poets who don’t even have torn sandals, desperate journalists, and politicians.  Everyone is smoking, talking gibberish, vying with one another, and sketching for their audience a nation unlike the one we inhabit, know, and love—with all its qualities and defects.  Women are always hovering around the clamor or helping to fuel it with multiple bursts of laughter, which in our security reports we characterize as the chortles of vipers.

My right leg, which was manufactured locally from very smooth wood, hampers my ability to get around, but I have grown used to its weight since it was made for me, and now it follows when I lead.  After a little practice I have learned to cover several kilometers at a time with it, walking at a moderate pace.  I’m able to squeeze with it onto buses packed with poverty and people, and once even swam in the Nile for two whole hours without it causing me any problem.  I counted that a huge triumph.  I remember the first time I entered the ancient coffeehouse.  I was just at the beginning of my career—a rough young man trained to extract the elements of a conspiracy even from a breeze, the wings of a fly, or smiles.  Back then I was assigned to tail the late A.S., a political activist who belonged to a banned party.  He was a great windbag, and masses of people would congregate around him, even if he were babbling at the bottom of a well.  He was known to recruit poor and marginalized people, drill them in the language of insurrection and revolt, and enlist a large number of them in his banned party.  Then he suddenly fell silent.  He would walk silently down the streets, greet people and acknowledge their greeting silently, come every evening to Qasr al-Jummayz, where he sat silently in a remote corner, and then leave silently.  Officials of the National Security Agency interpreted his silence as a shameless conspiracy against the fatherland and felt it inevitably portended dire consequences unless we nipped it in the bud.  That particular day I found him sunk in his profound silence; he hadn’t touched the full cup of tea before him or the hookah, which had gone out.

I tracked that silence and embedded myself in it for hours until he left the coffeehouse.  I continued to follow it and immersed myself in it for more than three years, delivering to my superiors a daily report filled with the most sophisticated interpretations of this silence that my limited imagination could produce—until the man suffered a fatal heart attack, without leaving in our notebooks a single, pertinent syllable.  Even so, I was honored the day he died, and my mission was deemed a success.

Qasr al-Jummayz was filled with customers at that hour.  The old sign with peeling letters had been replaced by a new one, resplendent with color, decorations, and neon lights, after the elderly founder died and his heirs sold the coffeehouse to one of the new entrepreneurs.  I didn’t find any of the former waiters—men like Antar, al-Shafi‘, or Speedy Rambo, who had become as renowned as the coffeehouse and had attracted customers to it in the past.  I discovered instead spotless young women—refugees from Ethiopia, which was experiencing a meltdown at the time—clad in dark-brown uniforms.  Their hair and eyelashes were tinted brown, and they welcomed patrons in broken Arabic that left their lips reluctantly.  With delicate, tender hands they served coffee, tea, incense, and regional sweets or provided a live coal for a hookah that had gone out.  One of these waitresses welcomed me with an enticing greeting.  She wanted to guide me to a remote, isolated corner since she had noticed I was alone, but I was searching for the novelist A.T. and wanted to sit at his table, which I knew, from previous surveillance there when I was tailing various politicians, he rarely left.  Perhaps I would gain some insight on how to begin the project that obsessed me: writing a novel.

Fortunately, this author, who had been a luminary for many years and whose name was always being mentioned in the media, was present that day.  He was at the center of a rather large group that was sitting at two tables that had been pushed together, most of whom were elegantly attired women who wore makeup and addressed him respectfully.  One of them was describing his latest novel—Eva Died in My Bed—as one that a jinn must have helped him write, since a mere mortal could not have penned it.  Her statement was no doubt intended as a huge compliment, but I took it as criticism.  The luminary, A.T., sat up straight, raised his head, and smiled in a way I did not find especially enchanting, even though it enchanted the others, and then declared, “That’s right!  Yes, writing by the jinn.”

My knee-jerk reaction was rage at having been forced to retire after my leg was amputated due to the accident in which a fellow agent lost his life.  In the past an affair like this wouldn’t have ended with a smile and a head thrust back arrogantly.  I would have gone searching for Eva, who had died in a bed that was almost certainly flush with intrigues and conspiracies.  I would have torn off its sheets, pillows, and covers and dragged this idiot to another destiny.  But I soon calmed down.  I wasn’t on an official mission.  In fact, I’m no longer affiliated with any security agency.  Instead I’m seeking a way to write a novel.  Apparently this is how novels are written and then praised as crafted by the jinn rather than by human beings.  I repeated the novel’s title to myself several times to be sure to remember it and vowed I would get a copy later from the Christian R.M. or some other bookseller to find out how Eva died on someone’s bed and that one of the booksellers might have killed her.  Perhaps this would serve as my introduction to writing, or I might imitate the novel and produce something that would boost my morale.  I was very close to the world of writing now; the wooden chair I had dragged from an empty table and pushed among those at the luminary author’s table seemed very close to the man’s chair.  With some scrutiny I could glean from this arrogant face, which was beaming confidently, many reactions that might assist me once I became a luminary like him and people flocked around me.  No one paid any attention to the ruckus I made by moving the chair and attempting to edge closer to the writer.  They were all too swept up in their rapture to care.  The woman who had said that the jinn must have helped write the novel appeared to be opening her lips again.  She asked, “But, Master, where did you get the idea?”

A.T. leaned back in his chair, then, to create space for the question to make the rounds of all their minds—or so it seemed—before he sat up straight again.  The questioner kept her eyes trained on him while he relaxed and then tensed his muscles.  She was a young woman of a type we classify in our security folders as a rash girl capable of poking her foot into a beehive, knowing full well it’s full of bees.  In the past it would have been very easy to follow her and write dozens of profuse reports about her conduct and appearance.  The faded blue jeans that she wore and that delineated her body with stunning clarity seemed to violate common decency and to constitute a severe provocation for a stern verdict from the judges of the Public System—either prison or a whipping.  I would not give much thought to her identity now that I was out of the service.  I would pursue my personal mission—that of learning how to write.

The author declared, “Plot ideas are present at every time and place, my friends.  Actually they are present even in our lungs when we breathe and in our intestines when we digest food, on the public road, in TV ads, in water jugs, the meowing of cats—in everything.  But many of these ideas are lost because they fall into the hands of shifty instead of gifted people.  I have a laundry list of novels that would have been much better if I or some other special person had written them: Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese novels or even ones from the Comoros Islands.  All the same, the idea behind Eva Died in My Bed isn’t an ordinary one.  It puts life and death together in one bed, where they sleep together under the same blanket and wake together the next morning.  I wrote that novel approximately two years ago after returning from a trip to Moscow.  I’m still proud I wrote it and fear I’ll never write another novel as good.”

This was an extremely difficult statement.  I couldn’t understand how thoughts could exist in the intestines, which are designed to digest food, or in a lung designed to breathe, a water jug, or a cat’s meow.  Life and death covered by a single blanket, sleeping and waking together?  Writing must be harder than I had thought when the idea that I should write a novel first started to obsess me.  Perhaps it’s some chronic, incurable disease.  Those writers must be madmen needing someone to treat them or to put them in asylums where they and their ideas can be isolated from the rational world.  My eyes scrutinized the people gathered around him as I searched for looks of concern prompted by his cryptic words, but no dismay was visible—just more admiration.  The woman who had asked the question was smiling profoundly now.  From her leather bag, which was scuffed at the edges, she pulled a huge manuscript wrapped in rose-colored paper and, after rising from her seat and displaying her inspirational body, handed it to the writer.

“My first novel . . . A Moment of Love . . . would benefit from your introduction, master.  I finished it just yesterday and feel sure you’ll like it.”

A.T. didn’t seem too thrilled but took the manuscript from her hand, which was adorned at the wrist with a pewter bangle and on the thumb with a ring featuring a green gemstone.  He cast a pessimistic glance at it and placed it on his lap.  He didn’t thank her, and I gathered that he regularly received manuscripts like these from novice authors.  They probably annoyed him more than they made him feel flattered as a sought-after writer of prefaces.  I thought that once I’ve written my obsessive novel I’ll present it to him in a similar wrapper and watch his pessimism and disgust.  But my novel certainly won’t be a love story like the novel by the woman who wears faded jeans and asks questions.  Even though I’m not a cultured person, I believe that this type of story no longer impresses anyone, because love has now become a daily routine practiced even by beggars and homeless people.  My novel is different—even if all I know about it is that I’ll write it very soon.

One of the Ethiopian waitresses lunged at us—the same girl who had greeted me seductively and tried to lure me to a remote, isolated corner.  She placed a live coal in a customer’s water pipe that had died out, released a barrage of smiles that clearly expressed her vexation and forbearance, and then departed.  I discovered that I was clearing my throat forcefully in order to ask a weighty question I never would have thought I would put to a luminary writer surrounded by his infatuated admirers.

“What rituals do you observe when writing, Master?”

The word “rituals” was totally new to me; I don’t ever remember using it before.  I don’t know how it leapt to my mind at that moment.

I was suddenly besieged by all their faces, even the writer’s, which I thought, at that moment, resembled a she-camel’s.  I don’t know why a she-camel’s face as opposed to a mare’s or anything else.  They were scrutinizing me with interest, looking up at my face and down at my foot.  Some of them may have felt a certain anxiety about a stranger appearing among them at a session where they knew exactly who did and did not attend.  They must have noticed my wooden leg, which my tunic didn’t successfully conceal, despite the garment’s length.  The girl in faded jeans trembled visibly as she looked away, off into the distance.  I noticed that her gray polyester blouse was throbbing violently on the left side of her chest.

“Would you kindly tell us your name?” A.T. asked.

“Abdullah Farfar.  I mean Abdullah Harfash.  ‘Farfar’ has been my nickname? since I was young.”

“Your name and  nickname are both inspirational, Farfar-Harfash.[1]  Are you a writer?”

They were all so focused on me then that one man burned his fingers with his cigarette and a girl wearing a short violet linen tunic opened her knees and forgot to close them.  I felt proud at attracting the attention of cultured people seated at a culture table.  If only I really had been a writer and could have brought out my book just then to sign with my old Parker pen, which I had filled with ink, before handing copies to everyone while enjoying their envious glances at the cover.  But my novel would definitely be written one day, and I would sit at this table or a similar one in another coffeehouse.  Then someone with a wooden leg, artificial eye, or dentures would enter to inquire about my rituals for writing and where I get my plot ideas.  Perhaps a girl, dressed in a way that violated common decency, would hand me a love story in need of a preface.  I would receive it pessimistically and not thank her.  A.T. had relaxed now and closed his eyes as if picturing his rituals in his mind before revealing them to the assembled throng.

“I’ve made a stab at it, Master.”

“Excellent, veteran of writing stabs.”

Finally he opened his eyes.  “My writing rituals differ from one text to the next.  I write some novels while elegantly attired and seated in the lobby of a swank hotel or the departure lounge of some airport.  Some texts I compose naked in a closed room with the drapes drawn and not a breath of air.  Some texts won’t come unless I wander the streets and sleep in alleyways, panhandling from passersby.  When I wrote the novel before my last—The Sa‘d District’s Residents Under Occupation—I stole a wallet from the pocket of a livestock dealer in the working-class market called Miswak and spent an entire month in jail, where I finished the text.  Read that novel, veteran of stabs, and see the depth of this experience.”

No doubt this was all madness, madness that heightened the awed admiration of his audience.  I felt peeved that I was no longer a security agent, because if I had written an excellent report about this and added some spice to it, that would have helped me gain a promotion or a raise.  Was this eccentric writer actually telling the truth—or was it merely a joke he was using to enchant his besotted admirers and put a beginning writer off track?  But could I call myself a beginning writer when even now I didn’t know how to begin?  I wanted to ask him the date of that incident, the name of the livestock dealer whose wallet he had stolen, and which of the capital’s miserable prisons he had served time in.  How could he have written anything when he must have shared his cell with other men who hadn’t gone to jail for the experience?  It didn’t seem prudent, however, to ask these questions, especially not then. 

A young man with an untidy beard and a woven palm-frond hat that had slipped almost halfway down his face, and holding  two books, one remarkably large and the other so slender it was almost a pupil’s copybook, asked, “For Eva Died in My Bed—your brilliant, latest novel—what writing ritual did you employ?”

“A different ritual.”

Then the writer added, “Very different, because I wrote it in the house of Ammuna al-Bayda’, who is known to all of you.  I rented her establishment, her ceremonies, and her zar sessions for two entire months while I produced the novel.  I wrote with uncanny speed, which increased whenever I looked at the face of al-Bayda’. You certainly won’t believe me, but this is what happened.”

In the home of Ammuna al-Bayda’, the Ethiopian-heritage zar singer who enjoyed wide renown in our country?  Crazy charismatics from all walks of life clustered around her!  This man wasn’t merely mad, he was a danger to writing itself—soiling it with such filthy locales: prisons, alleyways, and Satanic zar houses.  If I sat there listening any longer, I would probably hear about a novel this luminary had written inside a public latrine.  I looked at the green dial of my old West End watch, which I have worn for thirty years, and rose to leave, using as a pretext being late for a meeting.  I would shut myself up in my room to think for a while.  I might return another day—after I had armed myself with some insanity—to ask questions or listen some more.  I was dragging my wooden leg as I moved away from that madness.  Then I heard the voice of the luminary novelist calling after me, “Wait, veteran of stabs.  I’ll tell you about a novel I wrote in a public latrine reserved for conscripts while I was performing my military service.  That’s one of my best.”

[1]Both Harfash and Farfar mean something like “guttersnipe,” but this sarcastic comment is also a reference to the use of the plurals of these words as the title respectively of the novel al-Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz and the play al-Farafir by Yusuf Idris.

 From Sa’id al-Yaraqat. Copyright 2010 by Amir Tag Elsir. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.

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