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.
A murder mystery, told through the thoughts and voices of the inhabitants of a small town in Veracruz, lays bare the shattered hopes of a community hit by rampant violence and economic austerity, as Melchor draws on disparate traditions (from crime fiction to García Márquez novels) to create a masterpiece that is very much her own.
When it was originally released in Spanish in 2017, Fernanda Melchor’s Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season) quickly became the Mexican novel of the year. Critics praised the book’s forceful prose and compelling narrative, noting how Melchor masterfully taps into disparate literary traditions—among them, noir detective novels and modernist psychological prose—to create something very much her own.
Prior to the release of the novel, Melchor was already considered a rising star. Her first book, Aquí no es Miami (This is not Miami, 2013), collected various nonfictional pieces on politics and violence in her native state of Veracruz, earning her a place in the revered tradition of crónicas, a major genre in Mexican culture combining journalism, indirect narrative styles, and essayism, popularized by writers like Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska. Shortly after, her first novel, Falsa liebre (False hare, 2013), secured her stature as one of the most interesting young writers in the country, showcasing both her unflinching style and the tropes that dominate her work: violence, the dark side of traditional masculinity, and the oppressiveness of life in Mexico’s tropical regions.
Melchor’s origins in Mexico’s Veracruz state, which runs along the Gulf of Mexico, are central to her work. Born in the city of Boca del Río, right next to Mexico’s most important trade port since colonial times, Melchor’s development as a writer has run parallel to the quick progression of the state into one of the most intense sites of violence and political corruption in the country. In her fiction and her nonfiction, Melchor explores the social, cultural, and economic processes that underlie the contemporary history of Veracruz.
Hurricane Season spectacularly fulfills the promise of Melchor’s early works, marking a major leap in her development as a writer. The novel revolves around the murder of a character known as the Witch and the discovery of her corpse by a group of children. The Witch’s identity and her murder provide a compelling narrative that would in itself sustain a very good noir tale, including a major twist that readers will find fascinating. The novel does not follow a linear narrative structure but rather meanders through the minds of various characters, and through different historical moments of importance to the local community.
Melchor uses this narrative kernel to build a complex architecture more widely focused on the life of a town in Veracruz called La Matosa. Some reviewers have noted that La Matosa should be taken as a fictional place, thus aligning the book with the long Latin American tradition of building mythical cities—from Juan Rulfo’s Comala and Elena Garro’s El Porvenir to García Márquez’s Macondo and even Roberto Bolaño’s Santa Teresa. However, La Matosa is indeed the name of a small town in Veracruz. It is named after Francisco de la Matosa, an Angolan slave leader who participated in the early seventeenth-century rebellion that established a community of freed African slaves in the region.
Regardless of how fictional we consider Melchor’s La Matosa to be, Veracruz’s history and the continued marginalization of its rural inhabitants, from colonial times to the present, act as a backdrop for the narrative. As the novel progresses, La Matosa becomes a symbol of Mexico’s failed modernization. Hurricane Season uses the Witch’s murder in part as a departure point to trace the history of violence in Veracruz and Mexico in the late twentieth century. At several junctures, the novel takes us back to late 1970s, when Mexico discovered major oil reserves initially hailed as a fast route to prosperity, giving rise to hopes that were quickly cut short by the price shock of 1982. La Matosa represents the type of peripheral community that would have played a secondary role in Mexico’s oil-fueled development projects. It grows by creating a buoyant but precarious parallel market of brothels and bars that quickly falls victim to neoliberal austerity policies, economic crisis, and the rise of the drug trade. The novel unfolds as an enactment of the collective memory of this community—an act of social remembrance rather than individual recollection. In Hurricane Season, the characters are more compelling in their whole than in themselves.
Hurricane Season is, in literary terms, a unique book in Mexican literature, at least among those translated and published in the US. Contemporary writers like Valeria Luiselli, Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and Cristina Rivera Garza, to name a few, have staked their reputations on different forms of experimentation in fiction, and their works break significantly with twentieth-century traditions of Mexican and Latin American writing by venturing into forms of autofictional and experimental writing much different from the works of the pre-Bolaño canon. In contrast, Melchor updates a significant genealogy of twentieth-century fictional writing that is not so directly engaged by any other influential Mexican writer of her generation.
In an acknowledgment page in the Mexican edition (missing in the US translation), Melchor thanks editor and writer Martín Solares for recommending that she read The Autumn of the Patriarch. Melchor’s prose style clearly harks back to García Márquez’s great 1975 novel in the way its chapters are composed of long, single-paragraphed streams of consciousness. But Melchor also introduces a significant split within this tradition: whereas García Márquez’s prose trends towards the baroque, narrating by aggregation, Melchor’s prose is violent, tearing through the very elements that are brought together in its large chunks of thought. García Márquez skillfully constructs a lavish fictional reality, overflowing with elaborate details. Melchor presents a ravaged one, delivered in a raging voice.
Another element from García Márquez (himself a practitioner of the crónica genre) that seems decisive for Melchor is the idea of the novel as an enactment and performance of collective memory, rather than individual subjectivity. This was a feature of his short novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which finds new life in Melchor. Her characters weave together a communal memory that is no longer just unreliable, as it was in García Márquez, but also broken, subject to the fragmentation caused by years of violence and precarity.
Melchor’s writing in Spanish showcases great grammatical and stylistic complexity, populated with regionalisms and subtle variations in narrative voice. Hurricane Season owes a significant part of its success and power to its form, and, as such, its translation into English was a tall order for Sophie Hughes. One of the most accomplished translators of Spanish-language fiction into English, Hughes has become a central figure thanks to her translations of authors like José Revueltas, Alia Trabucco Zerán, and Laia Jufresa, all of them distinct in their literary difficulty, and impeccably rendered into English. Although the translation loses some of Melchor’s linguistic richness, Hughes succeeds splendidly in conveying the flow and, more crucially, the immense power, of the narrative. Other than a few occasional words, Hughes resists the temptation to pepper the book with untranslated Spanish terms, and rather delivers them into her own inventive English nicknames and turns of phrase, which allows the book to be as powerful and as readable as the Spanish original.
At the moment of this writing, Hurricane Season has already picked up various major accolades beyond the Spanish-speaking world, including the Anna Seghers-Preis and the Internationaler Literaturpreis, both granted to the German translation. In English, the book was just shortlisted for the International Booker Prize (which will be awarded in May 19). Just like its Spanish version, Hurricane Season is well on the way to becoming a book of the year in English and in other languages. This is much-deserved recognition for a formidable and mighty novel, a masterpiece of Mexican literature.
Gonçalo M. Tavares tracks the COVID-19 pandemic in this stream-of-consciousness prose poem.
NASA cancels lunar research.
Matteo eats a forkful of pasta beside the window that looks over Vittorio De Sica street.
Sica was the director of The Bicycle Thief.
In Lombardy a woman is shouting for someone called Paolo.
A sick man in a Lombardy hospital sees the faces of his wife and brother on an iPad held well up in the air by the white gloves of the doctor.
The Marriott hotel is transformed into a field hospital.
Luxury rooms are now rooms for ten.
The space all used up, divided between machines, sick people, doctors.
An urgent new agriculture sows sick people and ventilators.
The president of the Retirees Association tells the younger generations not to forget them now.
Not to forget their parents and grandparents.
A girl beside me is crying.
A minister talked about measures—weights and tape measures for what he cannot see.
Andreotti, aged sixty, mask on his face, walks a very small dog on a long leash.
186 dead in France.
My Belgian Shepherd bitch is called Roma.
Roma is intact and alive; and she wags her tail.
She gets up, looking like a black bear.
I give Roma a hug.
Roma doesn’t cry, but she is not happy.
I say to her: Roma don’t cry.
Thermometer, temperature 37.2.
Playing the stock market, the individual version.
Goes up, goes down. The temperature.
They say the graves of the dead in Iran can be seen from space.
The Great Wall of China, the mass graves.
Depends how high.
How high you dare to go to look.
A temperature of 37.3.
A temperature for each country, a biological not external temperature.
Human 2 has a very high fever.
Human 3 plays on the console, the oldest game of all: hitting balls against a wall.
Sporting games suspended.
There is a macabre scoreboard announcing a single number that no longer has an opponent.
One single number per country.
Roma is thirsty, I put water in the bowl.
Hand trembling, paw steady.
The end of the world has always been announced as a statistic.
Karl Pearson in 1901 “founded the journal Biometrika.”
The century begins when it is necessary to get the measurement of things.
Measure the verticals, the horizontals, the size of feet, of a nose, of a heart.
The big numbers lean up at the beginning of the centuries.
Martha says her grandmother is OK, but that no sooner has she hung up than she starts to cry.
In 2020 another century begins.
Martha says she can hear her grandmother crying even after hanging up the phone.
That’s not possible, I say.
It is possible, she says.
News from two days ago:
“Italian economy takes big hit in first quarter”
“Africa sees more than 900 cases in 38 countries and territories”
“Four pharmacies closed due to professionals being infected”
Director-General of the WHO warns young people: “You aren’t invincible” and that they might “spend weeks in a hospital or even die.”
Giotto is twenty years old and he stops when he hears this.
I imagine it on the loudspeaker, those words repeated countless times: you aren’t invincible.
“United States cancels the release of entry visas.”
In the Italian cities, loudspeakers from which you can hear: you aren’t invincible.
Celine describes how, in the midst of the bombing in Berlin, a crazy woman used to shout, into the ears of people going past, the sound of the bomb, boooooooom.
The sound of something that kills without making any noise.
“Standard & Poor’s downgrades TAP’s rating.”
“Authorities in Jakarta declare a state of emergency.”
The sound of a virus.
“Public transportation in São Paulo might be banned for those aged over sixty at rush hour.”
462 dead in Spain.
Roma drinks the water from the bowl, she seems thirsty or else she’s transforming into a camel: she’s drinking for the difficult days ahead.
The ends of the century and the big numbers.
Catastrophes are to do with statistics and not to do with the person beside you who is looking at the statistics.
“I miss TV,” says a Foster Wallace character.
“You’ve learned to leave,” says another Foster Wallace character.
601 dead in Italy.
They say that even the smallest particles, like the virus, atoms, etc., make a sound, they give off a sound when they knock into things.
The sound of the virus.
Imagining experts out on the street detecting the sound of the virus.
A way of killing it, first: know its music.
601, 601, 601 are the dead in the last 24 hours in Italy.
I look out the window, all empty: up above, down below, in the distance.
A line from Neruda.
“Walking down a path / I met the air.”
An Italian woman says that Europe has abandoned Italy.
I turn off the TV.
“Diário da Peste, 23 March 2020” published in Expresso. © 2020 Gonçalo M. Tavares. By arrangement wiith Literarische Agentur MertinWitt. Translation © 2020 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved. This is the first installment of a series that will appear in translation in a number of publications.
In the seventeen years Words Without Borders has been publishing, this is only the second issue dedicated specifically and exclusively to writing for children, and the first since November 2004. I can well understand the delay—children are not WWB’s main constituency of readers, after all. But I’ve been keen to work with them on this issue for a while, not only because children’s writing has been even more neglected for translation in the Anglophone world than its adult counterpart, but also because I’ve always felt the boundaries between potential groups of readers are much more porous than our overdeterministic publishing habits seem to suggest. I have not been a child in quite some time, and yet the seven pieces in this issue have all given me much pleasure. If you are reading this issue, then you, too, are probably not under twelve; the most I can hope for you is that you’ll enjoy it almost as much as if you were.
Guest editorships are usually granted to a person with an expertise to draw upon, with particular access to whatever the specific pool of possible content. This case feels different. Not that I don’t know my way around children’s books better than most, it’s just that the potential sources of commissions include the entire world and every language—anything written with a youngish audience in mind by anyone anywhere ever. This means I was not keen to simply read around and then choose, since this would have meant limiting the pool to my own reading languages, and why do that? So the process needed to be different, and the choices somewhat blinder . . .
My first step, then, was to contact not children’s writers or publishers but translators. Translators from seven languages, most of them with a particular interest in children’s books (and none of whom had translated for WWB before, as it happened), knowledgeable in this area, and all of them highly skillful; and in each case I allowed them, these translators, to steer the selection process. We were often choosing between pieces I could not myself read, after all. Indeed, of the seven pieces selected, Sandrine Kao and Maria Parr were the only writers whose work was previously known to me.
The pieces we’ve chosen to present to you have been translated respectively from French, Polish, Arabic, German, Norwegian, Japanese, and Italian, six of them originally written by women and one by a man. Between them, they span work for preschool children (Norway) to what feels like the gateway to Young Adult writing (Italy). There’s the occasional short story, but since this is a form very rarely published for children—bafflingly, to my mind—most are extracts from longer works, tantalizing glimpses of novels as yet unpublished in English translation. (If we didn’t have Guy Puzey to do the hard work for us, I would willingly learn Norwegian to be able to keep reading Maria Parr.) Many of these pieces appear in their original publications with illustrations, so your text-only reading experience will be unusual. Some are quite different from what you would expect to find in the Anglophone children’s book world; others seem curiously familiar.
“Firstclaw” by Sachiko Kashiwaba (translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa), for example, is a new story from Japan, but it feels a close kinship to very old European fairy tales—the webs of influence in children’s literature are dense and rich. This tale carries us back to a time of castles and dragons, when witches like Firstclaw still exist but live in secret—and it’s a surprising love story. (Surprising for the pair in question, but also for the way it is told and resolved.) Meanwhile, there’s another dragon in the Arabic story “The Appearance of the Dragon and Its Disappearance” (translated by M. Lynx Qualey), but this one, in contrast, is clearly not a real dragon—or is it? The piece is a chapter of Hooda El Shuwa’s The Dragon of Bethlehem, a story that also features an occupying army and a camp and military drones, and a boy who saves the life of his enemy. The borders between realist troubles and fantastical powers so often blur in children’s fiction. Children, after all, are the most open-minded readers where categorical rules are concerned. (Less imaginative adult readers can sometimes be fussy about this sort of thing.)
Our Polish piece, from Justyna Bednarek’s Mr. Gimbal’s Incredible Invention (translated by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones), introduces the inspiringly named Danny to tell a delightful story about what happens when his neighbor Mr. Gimbal comes up with his greatest invention yet. And there’s also a ghost! It’s very funny, with a lively sense of humor perfectly pitched for children and also, it turns out, forty-six-year-olds. The German story is another delight—another story that reminds me how much I loved losing myself in this sort of reading as a child (remember that feeling?), and another one for which I’ll be trying to persuade publishers that we Anglophones now need the rest of the book brought over very very soon, please. It’s another extract from a novel, Heaven Can Wait by Angelika Glitz (translated by Melody Shaw), with a lovely intergenerational relationship at its heart, a brief slice of a story about a girl and her charmingly wayward grandmother (a decidedly bad influence, I’m pleased to say). In this particular episode we learn how the grandmother found her ice skates, but to me this bit of writing is more about the relationship and the telling than about the plot. It’s deceptively simple, and I want more of it.
For the youngest readers, we have “Raur Gives His Blanket a Hug” by Maria Parr (translated by Guy Puzey), a perfect little short story . . . about a hug. It’s touching, it’s simple, and it’s totally assured, just like everything I’ve ever read from this writer-translator duo. It’s a story about a sort of monster under the stairs, but (like all Maria’s work, I guess) it’s really a story about the heart, and about kindness, and about love. Kids’ stuff? Sure. But I don’t know any adults who couldn’t learn from this, and neither do you.
Meanwhile, for the top end of the readership range, we have a couple of pieces that arguably stray into Young Adult territory, one from France, the other from Italy. The former, from Sandrine Kao’s novella The Park Bench (translated by Jane Roffe), is about a Taiwanese boy in France, but could in fact be set in lots of places. Racial bullying in high schools is not limited to France, so the setting seems almost incidental (to me as a reader, at least); the personal experience—the moving story about the loss of a culture—will be familiar to too many. Most complex of all, perhaps, we have the setup chapters of Pietro Albì’s new novel Farfariel: The Book of Micù (translated by Denise Muir). This inventive work, set against the religious backdrop of 1938 Italy, is about a small, oft-teased boy called Micú who meets a devilish creature called Farfariel, and in this opening extract we witness the latter’s first interference into our world. (There are hearts here, as there are in the Parr story; the difference is that here, well, they get eaten. We are no longer in the territory of the preschool reader, in case you were wondering.)
I often feel that adults forget what children’s stories are capable of, whether in terms of emotional complexity or linguistic and literary inventiveness; it’s easy, I suppose, to get lulled into a false sense of simplicity. Writing for kids requires such discipline. Stories might be mysterious, but they will never be incomprehensible—and they will never be self-indulgent. (I wish I could say that about other kinds of writing.) And to a reader who is six or nine or twelve, eyes still wide open to the world, the possibilities offered by this writing are mind-altering. It is a lucky adult who can still be affected by reading as deeply as a child is. To those of you who are regrettably no longer children, I hope some of these stories might serve as a happy reminder of that.
© 2020 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.
A furry creature named Raur discovers the power of hugs in this story for young readers.
This is Raur. No, not him. Him. Under the stairs. That’s the one. What’s he doing there? He lives there. You’ve trodden over his roof a hundred million times. Every time you’ve come to preschool, you’ve gone up the stairs and trampled on Raur’s roof. And every time they’ve come to pick you up from preschool, well, you’ve stepped on Raur’s roof then too. Not to mention all the times you’ve popped in and out of preschool during the day. You’ve stomped over Raur’s roof every single time, dusting his head with sand.
Have you never seen him before? Bend all the way down, then you’ll see him a little better.
Many people think that Raur is a cat. But he is definitely not a cat. Raur hates cats. If Raur sees a cat coming near his home under the preschool stairs, then he spits at it. That’s why there are so few cats at preschool.
If you had a flashlight with you, you could shine it into Raur’s home. Then you would see all sorts of things. But flashlights are Raur’s least favorite thing, after cats. Anyway, imagine you did shine a flashlight into Raur’s home. He would hiss so loudly it would send a cloud of dry under-the-stairs sand right into your face. And while you were rubbing your eyes, Raur would shout at the top of his voice:
“Flush that flashlight down the toilet! Otherwise I’ll come out and bite a hole in your rubber boots.”
Raur dreams of smashing all the flashlights in the world into flashlight-dust. Like this: bang, bang, bang.
The thing is that there are bits and bobs in Raur’s house that don’t like having flashlights shone on them. On his wall, he’s hung up the preschool manager’s beautiful long earring, and his little coffee table is made out of the missing wheel from the blue tricycle. He’s got chairs and shelves and drawers and cupboards. Everything is made out of things the preschool people have lost. Even his bed. It’s made of woolly hats. Five normal ones for the mattress, and a particularly warm and pink Hello Kitty one as a blanket. If only they knew, those folks who get cross when people lose their hats. It’s Raur who’s got them. Every single one!
Luckily for Raur, nobody peeps in.
But then came last Wednesday . . .
Raur doesn’t want to think about last Wednesday. Every time thoughts of last Wednesday creep into his hairy head, Raur starts jumping up and down to shake last Wednesday back out again. But there’s a limit to how much you can carry on jumping like that. Especially when you’ve gone to bed. At night, when it’s quiet at the preschool and Raur’s crawled under his Hello Kitty hat-blanket, everything about last Wednesday comes seeping in through the gap in his stair roof. With bells on.
What happened last Wednesday was that Noel peeped in. Of course, it would have to be Noel. After all, over the past four years, Raur has often found himself being disturbed, while in the middle of doing important things under those stairs, by grown-ups screaming and shouting:
“Noel! Get down from that tree NOW!”
“Noel! Give the bike back to Abdulai!”
“Noel! Are you crazy?”
“Noel! Let go of Mari this instant!”
Of all forty-three children at the preschool, it would have to be this little terror who came peering under the stairs. Raur wondered if he should lie down and die straightaway.
“Are you a cat?” Noel asked when he spotted Raur in the semidarkness.
That question made Raur break out in a rash on his back. He looked angrily at Noel.
“No, I am not a cat. You haven't got a flashlight, have you?”
“No,” said Noel.
“Good,” said Raur.
“But I could go and fetch one,” said Noel. “I know where they are.”
“No!” Raur shouted.
Noel lay down on his stomach and stuck his head all the way through the narrow gap.
“Who are you, then?” he asked, as a bit of his snot dripped down onto Raur’s Spiderman carpet.
“Raur,” said Raur, looking dubiously at the snot stain. Now he’d have to get the carpet cleaned.
“My name’s Noel,” said Noel. “I’m going to be picked up soon.”
“Good for you,” said Raur. “And for me,” he added, as he didn’t have the patience to stand a snot shower for much longer.
“My dad’s a bit late,” Noel explained.
“A bit?” Raur snorted. “He’s massively late. You’re the only one left in the whole preschool!”
“I know . . . ” Noel mumbled.
“Soon the people who work here will be going too. Then you’ll be left here all on your own.” Raur put on a sly-sounding voice and narrowed his eyes.
“Well, you’ll be here,” said Noel, smiling.
“No, I won’t,” said Raur.
“Yes, you will,” said Noel.
“No, because I’m going at Half Past Four,” said Raur.
Raur doesn’t know how to tell the time, but he’s heard the people who work at the preschool say “Half Past Four.” So Raur thinks that anything to do with time or clocks is called “Half Past Four.” Actually, it was almost five o’clock already. But that doesn’t matter so much when two people who can’t tell the time are talking to each other.
“Where are you going then?” asked Noel.
Raur put his hands on his sides and stuck out his stomach.
“To the Hairdresser.”
“Oh,” said Noel. “Then you’ll get a sheet round your neck, and you’ll have to sit still even if it’s itchy.”
“I know,” said Raur.
Well, actually he didn’t know, because Raur doesn’t really know what a hairdresser is. His mop of hair is untouched by hairdressers’ hands.
Suddenly Noel’s eyes widened.
“Hey, that’s Mari’s hat!”
He gurgled happily, and then he stuck his hand into Raur’s house and took his Hello Kitty blanket.
It’s when he gets to this bit that Raur really has to start jumping to get last Wednesday out of his head.
“GIVE ME BACK MY BLANKET!” Raur shouted.
“It’s not a blanket. It’s Mari’s hat,” said Noel.
“It’s my blanket!” Raur shouted.
“It’s Mari’s hat!”
Noel likes Mari very much, but sadly he often does things that make her cry. She’s got a kind of hair that’s so lovely to pull. If Mari got her hat back, she would smile at Noel instead of crying. That really would be something!
But that’s not what happened, because do you know what Raur did? He leapt out and bit Noel right in the middle of his finger, making him let go of the blanket with a gasp. And then Raur spat at him. Yes, that’s right. He spat like nothing anybody has ever seen. It was a good thing for Noel that he was wearing his waterproof pants. He got up with his finger bleeding and his pants dripping with spit.
“You’re not nice!” shouted Noel.
“Neither are you!” Raur screamed, pulling his blanket back under the stairs.
* * *
That was what happened last Wednesday. Raur spat and bit and got his blanket back.
“That was quite some biting and spitting you did last Wednesday, Mr. Raur,” he boasts to himself as he lies down under his lovely pink blanket. But he just can’t get to sleep. Everything feels topsy-turvy. When he thinks about Noel, something goes ba-dum in his stomach, or somewhere slightly above his stomach. And then his throat feels all lumpy and weird.
During the day, Raur spies on Noel. Has he got a little bandage on his finger? It’s impossible to tell, because Noel never comes near Raur’s stairs any longer. Imagine if he came back to talk a bit more, Raur sometimes thinks. When he thinks that, he hits himself hard on the head.
“I want to be left in peace,” he tells himself harshly. “It’s so wonderful to be left in peace by that silly Noel.”
But really it’s not wonderful at all. Something’s going ba-dum inside Raur, and he’s got a lump in his throat.
* * *
But then, one afternoon when Raur is sweeping his house under the stairs, he suddenly spots Noel sitting all alone, digging in the sandbox. He’s digging and digging. That tall, skinny father of his is late again! Raur starts tingling all over.
“Psst,” he says, quietly coughing.
Noel doesn’t turn around.
“PSST!” Raur half-shouts and half-whispers.
It would be impossible not to hear it, but still Noel just keeps on digging. Eventually Raur goes to the entrance to his hidden home and bellows:
Then Noel turns around.
“You’re not nice!” he shouts.
Raur is standing on the dried snot stain, right at the entrance to his house. His knees tremble as he says:
“How am I supposed to be nice when nobody’s nice to me?”
Then Noel stops digging and goes over to Raur. He does have a bandage on his finger. With a crocodile on it.
“My stomach’s going ba-dum,” Raur whispers.
“Here?” asks Noel.
“That’s not your stomach. That’s The Heart.”
“I thought all this part here was my stomach,” Raur explains, pointing to what he thought was his stomach.
It turns out to be almost his whole body. Except his feet.
“No, that thumping is coming from your heart,” Noel tells him. “Is it thumping very hard?”
Raur nods, and then he tells him that his throat feels all lumpy and weird too.
Noel looks at him seriously.
“That’s how I normally feel when I’m upset. My heart going ba-dum and a lump in my throat.”
“Am I going to die?” Raur asks, frightened.
“No,” says Noel, smiling. “Of course you’re not. You’ll be fine after some comforting.”
“Where can I get that, then?” Raur asks, because he thinks that Comforting must be some kind of pill.
“You can get it here,” says Noel, who then takes hold of Raur and lifts him all the way up. Raur thinks that Noel is about to press him right into his snot, but at the last moment he steers him toward his cheek instead.
Raur gets his first hug. It’s soft and warm, and smells of yogurt and sand. Raur feels himself starting to shiver a little. That thumping and the lump in his throat shift and change into a weak cry that comes leaking out of Raur in long streams.
“There, there,” says Noel. “You’ll be all better again in A Minute.”
Noel doesn’t know how long A Minute is, but neither does Raur, so not to worry.
Raur is astonished when he’s back standing on his Spiderman carpet. No more thumping. All he feels is warm and light.
“Where did you learn that from?” he asks, impressed.
Noel has no time to answer, because that’s when he gets picked up.
Raur hurries back into his house to spy through one of the gaps. Noel’s late, skinny dad puts his arms around his son and lifts him up.
“Sorry that I’m so late!” he says, squeezing him against his cheek.
Raur tilts his head, carefully watching Noel and his dad.
Then he goes over and picks up his Hello Kitty blanket.
“Sorry that Noel thought you were a hat,” says Raur, giving it the first hug he’s ever given.
Translation of “Raur gir dyna si ein klem,” from Trøysteboka Nynorsk stories (Skald, 2011). © Maria Parr. Illustrations © Guvnor Rasmussen. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Guy Puzey. All rights reserved.
This twist on a traditional fairy tale features a reclusive witch and an inventive young woman.
A war raged on for years. Witches had little choice but to protect themselves. Some gave up magic and passed as humans; others fled to the mountains and severed all contact with villages and towns. Still others, hoping for compensation, became castle witches and fought alongside lords of the realm at the battlefront. Through all of the fighting, the witches’ ways of coping were as varied as they were.
Then the war ended, and for twenty years, peace reigned. Green returned to the battle-scarred meadows and fields, and in castle cities and the surrounding hamlets and towns, people resumed a quiet life.
Castle witches grew scarce. Oral histories of the war seldom mentioned them; all the times when they had used magic to bring lightning or a flood upon an enemy were simply seen as times when the heavens had favored the victors. Perhaps the royal families, knights, and soldiers felt ashamed to have relied on witches. In any case, most people forgot that witches wield enough power to decide a war.
Now, many witches were living as humans and performing magic in secret—or living as mountain eccentrics who sold herbal remedies and cast the occasional spell. Those who performed spells openly were called witches, but in their hearts, people did not believe in their magic. They went to the witches for relief, and if their headaches improved or they found the objects they had lost, well, they were grateful.
The witch who was known as Firstclaw, from the country of the golden bear with six legs, lived deep in the mountains and made her living by casting spells. At a certain point, young women with love problems began sneaking off to see her. So many did so, in fact, that a path was worn across her mountain.
Firstclaw’s love spells were rumored to be unusually effective. In return for them, she required the supplicants to hand over their finest treasures. They understood that the love they sought would come in exchange for something very precious to them, and that this love would be deep indeed. The wealthy ones surrendered their most valuable gems, and the poor ones offered the loveliest items they owned. Whether the treasure was a ruby ring or a faded ribbon, Firstclaw’s spell always did its job.
Late one night, as a cold wind blew, Firstclaw heard a knock. It was faint, as if the wind had driven a leaf or some other small object at her door.
She sat up in bed, craning her neck and doubting her ears. “Who’s there?”
“Open the door, I beg you!” said a voice. “I have never walked so far. My legs ache.” The thin voice faltered.
“Very well.” Firstclaw crawled out of bed.
When she opened the door, she saw a young woman in a fine silk dress and black mantle who was fighting to draw breath. She seemed never to have climbed a mountain before; indeed, she seemed not to have ventured outside except in a horse-drawn carriage. She had fallen many times, leaving her mantle soiled, her soft leather shoes split, and her feet bleeding. More than a love spell, what she seemed to need was a salve for cuts.
“Come in, my child.”
The visitor practically fell in. She shivered, clearly chilled to the bone.
Firstclaw stirred the embers in the fire and added wood. When a log took, bright flames lit the visitor’s figure more clearly.
“Heavens, you’re the princess!”
The front of the young woman’s mantle bore an embroidered crest: a golden bear with six legs. It was the official crest of the realm, which depicted the first claw on the bear’s front paw as especially long and sharp. While flying flags with this crest, the princess’s father had prevailed in numerous battles, his courage becoming the stuff of legend.
Is she like him? Firstclaw peered at the princess’s tangle of blond hair, her cold and trembling lips, and her blue eyes, which showed her to be deep in thought. The princess seemed like, and also quite unlike, the king. Firstclaw thought that she remembered his face, but memory can blur.
“Wash your feet and rub some salve into them. It’s in the blue jar on the shelf.” Firstclaw motioned with her chin toward the kitchen well.
The princess, who seemed unused to such chores, drew water and somehow washed and salved her feet.
“How are you now?” Firstclaw asked her.
“Better. Thank you,” the princess replied. For the first time, she smiled.
Firstclaw inhaled sharply. That smile was the king’s. Yes, she has his face. Firstclaw found herself gaping at the princess, who in turn gazed at her.
The princess seemed younger than Firstclaw first assumed, and not without her charms. She seemed the sort of person who, when she discovered something of interest to her, would enjoy it to the full. Her pupils flashed with mischief, and she seemed ready to laugh at any moment.
As the princess surely expected, Firstclaw asked her, “So, what brings you here at this time of night?”
“I came for a love spell,” the princess replied, as if so much should be obvious.
“I see. And who do you love?” Firstclaw exaggerated her curiosity. She had heard a false note in the princess’s speech. The young woman seemed to be playing a part of some kind. Was she lying?
“I love the prince of the land of the soaring falcon,” the princess said, blushing. Seeing the color rise to the princess’s cheeks, Firstclaw knew that this much was true.
“Your engagement is fixed, is it not? That much I have heard, even here in these mountains!” Firstclaw replied, genuinely puzzled. The royal marriage was set for spring.
“Th-that is true, but these days I cannot tell if he really loves me,” the princess replied.
“I heard you two fell in love at first sight!” Firstclaw said, frowning. The other women who came for spells always spoke with envy of this couple: “They were made for each other!” “I’ve never seen two people more in love.” “I long for a love like theirs!” they would say.
Firstclaw believed the match to be a blissful one.
“But you are unsure, I see. Why?” she asked.
“Well, I . . .” The princess glared at the air, searching in vain for a complaint. But she could find none. It seemed that she could think of only good things about her prince, and the more she thought of him, the redder her cheeks grew.
What nonsense is this? Firstclaw wondered.
In those days, royal marriages were usually political arrangements. With a marriage between the royals of two countries, war could be brought to an end and hundreds—thousands—of lives saved. In such circumstances, newlyweds might well have complaints: “I expected someone with lovelier eyes.” “Just look at that overbite!” But they simply had to overlook such points, and many a political marriage did, in fact, yield happiness.
The princess’s parents—the late queen, who had died ten years earlier, and the king—had had a political marriage. It seemed to have been amiable. And yet their daughter was marrying for love . . . or was supposed to be.
The princess could find nothing the matter with her betrothed, no matter how much time elapsed.
“You don’t need a love spell,” Firstclaw said, shaking her head. She did not know why the princess would lie, but she believed that the prince of the country of the soaring falcon loved this princess, and she him.
“No. I must have a spell,” the princess said.
“You stole away from the castle, no? Get yourself home quickly, dear. How everyone will worry when they find you gone!
“The darkness will turn to dawn soon. You, scoot!”
Whether Firstclaw plied or scolded, the princess stood fast.
“You are more stubborn than you look!” Firstclaw said, bested. “Fine, I will cast you a spell.”
And she pretended to do so.
She pretended, because Firstclaw had already cast a spell for this princess months before.
The princess’s marriage was, in fact, a politically helpful one. But the moment any talk of it began, before the couple had even met, Firstclaw had cast a spell so that the princess would fall in love with the prince of the country of the soaring falcon, and he with her. Firstclaw’s magic had made the marriage a love match.
When Firstclaw herself was young, she had served as castle witch and fought alongside the princess’s father as his partner in battle. The king had been compared to the fierce bear in the country’s crest, and she had been likened to the first and sharpest claw on the bear’s forepaw.
Now, witches normally hide their names—especially castle witches. Names make them vulnerable to curses. Indeed, this witch had assumed a grave risk by becoming Firstclaw, but she had never objected to the name. That was because she loved the king. The war had been brutal, but it had brought her close to him. When the war ended, with the king’s marriage arranged to secure the peace, Firstclaw had swallowed her feelings and vanished into the mountains.
Because she had lost her own love, she longed for the princess to cherish hers.
The princess, thinking Firstclaw had just cast her a spell, rejoiced. Then she said, “I will bring you my treasure!” And she rushed home, seemingly forgetting her hurt feet.
Early the next day, she returned. Her bloodshot eyes betrayed that she had barely slept, but her cheeks glowed with excitement. “Here is my treasure,” she said.
And the princess produced the king.
She wanted Firstclaw to have this treasure of hers.
Before her own marriage had been fixed, the princess had learned of the king’s love for Firstclaw. “I knew from the start that I had no hope of marrying her,” the king had told his daughter. It was the first time he had voiced his feelings. “When she left the castle, she said that she wanted to be called Firstclaw for life. That was enough for me,” he’d said.
The king had known Firstclaw’s feelings too.
The princess knew the king’s habit of touching the long claw embroidered on the royal crest of his robes. She noticed that his face grew joyful when he spoke of Firstclaw. She believed that if he confessed his feelings to Firstclaw now, the departed queen would not begrudge it.
“Your courage is the stuff of legend, is it not?” the princess said now to her father. She pushed him toward Firstclaw. The king hung his head, bashful as a youth. Before long, Firstclaw had to laugh at the pitiful figure he cut.
Years ago, how many times did that laugh save me? the king thought. Even now, her laughter gave him courage.
“I want to go dragon hunting with you,” he told her. Some of his hair was white now, but the blond sovereign had finally asked Firstclaw on a date.
“I may as well go,” she replied.
And Firstclaw’s own cheeks reddened a little.
Translation ofイチノツメとよばれた魔女 in the collection 王様に恋した魔女 (Kodansha, 2016). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Avery Fischer Udagawa. All rights reserved.
A dragon gives a boy the courage to face a life-and-death situation in this children’s story by Hooda El Shuwa.
Khidr’s heart was pounding as he stepped into the house. It was almost sunset, and his mom wasn’t usually this late. Was she on an emergency visit to the hospital to see his dad?
Then a buzzing sound sliced through the sky above the camp. It was a familiar sound—the continuous whirring of a drone, the sound of the monster that harassed the camp without mercy. Its constant roar was punctuated by the whiz of bullets and the thunder of guns, which shook the windows of the house.
Khidr lifted his head to look out and saw groups of heavily armed occupation soldiers wearing helmets and fanning out through the alleys of the camp. He watched them spread out across the rooftops, leaping onto the roof of the building that overlooked the central street. He saw a slow-moving armored vehicle patrolling the main road. Behind it, military jeeps turned to probe the narrow camp alleys.
The stench of suffocating smoke rose up from the alleys . . . the sound of bombs . . . gunfire.
He muttered to himself: “Dragon, Dragon, where are you now? Where are you when I need you?”
Khidr stepped out onto the street and was filled with an extraordinary horror: his mother might be on her way home, and anything could happen during these wild raids that rained curses down from the skies above the camp.
He moved lightly down the alleys that threaded between the camp’s packed-in houses, listening to the growl of the patrol ahead. He turned and slipped into the darkness of Abu Lutfi’s barbershop, since his metal gate was open. He took in a breath . . . Through a crack in the door, he caught sight of a young guy, his face covered with a checked keffiyeh, standing on the roof of the building opposite. He was standing on top of Abu Yazan’s restaurant, the one that sold falafel, hummus, and fuul beans.
“Oh my God,” Khidr sputtered loudly. It was Marwan—he could tell from his black Reeboks with their red eagle wings. Those were the same shoes that had given him a sharp, cruel kick to the chest.
He muttered: “What is that crazy idiot doing on top of the restaurant? He’s going to get hit, either by a stray bullet . . . or on purpose.”
Marwan seemed to be hanging between life and death.
Khidr felt a bitterness in his stomach. He hated Marwan so much—so very much—but did he hate him so much that he’d wish him dead? Would he be happy if he saw a bullet pierce Marwan’s skull, knocking him off the roof?
The masked boy who stood with supreme confidence on the building’s roof . . . was he going to get hit from behind by a sniper’s bullet? Khidr asked himself: Would he be happy if he saw Marwan’s face on a new poster on one of the camp walls? Or a new painting on the side of their open-air museum, featuring him as one of the camp’s fallen? Would he rejoice if Marwan became a new hero and people wrote songs and poetry in memory of his martyrdom?
Khidr crouched in a corner of the barbershop, head pressed between his knees, trying to turn his body into a ball so small it almost wasn’t there.
He didn’t know how much time had passed. Chills raced through his body, his forehead was bathed in sweat, and his breaths sped up. He felt a twinge in his right thigh and put a hand in his pocket, feeling the wooden protrusions that jabbed into his flesh. A desolate feeling crept through him—a desolation mixed with guilt. Then, the next thing he knew, he was filled with an invisible strength.
Khidr got up, his feet driving him to the front of the shop, where he cautiously stuck his head past the edge of the metal door. He turned right, toward the end of the road. There, the situation seemed calm. Quickly, he went up a small stairway on the north side of the street, which brought him level with the roof of Abu Yazan’s restaurant, and within moments, he was standing face-to-face with Marwan. Behind the mask, he saw a spark of terror flashing in Marwan’s eyes.
As soon as Khidr took a few steps in his direction, extending his open hand toward Marwan, the street was filled with growling: loud bullhorns and popping sounds, clouds of foul smoke rising from the alleys between the houses, and the sound of shelling. Khidr grabbed Marwan’s jacket and threw his weight on top of him, dropping him to the ground among a cluster of satellite dishes.
Khidr felt a hot, searing pain in his right thigh, and he released another groan as he shoved his hand into his pocket, feeling for the pain, moving his fingers around the wooden statue of the saint and his dragon, which was deep in his pocket.
Lifting his head from its place on the roof, Khidr saw that a hole had been torn through the right side of his jeans.
Oh my God.
A bullet had pierced the fabric of his jeans . . . and it had gone straight into the body of the dragon! He touched the bullet—it was warm, satiny—and tugged it out of the tough sculpture. He ran it between his fingers, muttering: “It’s no more than a scratch, thank God . . . a scratch on the wood . . . torn jeans. Bless the spear-wielder, Khidr the Green, and the dragon.”
Khidr shifted from where he’d been lying, on his back on the roof, trying to catch his breath. His heart was beating fast, a series of violent, confused thuds striking against his cotton jacket. Inhale . . . exhale . . . inhale . . . exhale . . . . Khidr closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the smoke had risen far above, leaving a patch of starry sky that stretched out over the camp.
From this position—lying between the piles of wires, satellites, crushed soda cans, and leftover falafel bags—he lifted his gaze toward the dome of the sky. It seemed as if the moon, the stars, and the planets were all very close, and that the sky had expanded beyond his sight. It seemed as if he could stretch out a hand and touch it. And was that the constellation Ursa Major? Or was it Ursa Minor that flashed up before his eyes? And what was the name of that planet tinged with a lustrous red? He didn’t know! Where were the other heavenly bodies? Where were the constellations from the zodiac—Aries, Pisces, Leo, Capricorn, Taurus, Cancer, and Scorpio—that his dead friend Adnan had shown him from the roof of his house in the camp?
Adnan had been born under the sign of Leo, and where in the sky was Leo now? Khidr’s mom was a Capricorn . . . but his dad? He didn’t know his dad’s sign. He couldn’t even remember his dad’s birthday.
The dome of the sky was packed to the brim with images of animals, monsters, and bright and luminous beings, and they swam like meteors in an amazing panorama of orbiting radiance. The sky was so wide! For a moment, he imagined that he saw a flying dragon spreading out its two great wings, which beat with a powerful thunder along the edge of the horizon, and that out of its mouth gusted a brilliant flare that illuminated the darkness of the universe.
“Dragon!” Khidr shouted, lifting his voice and waving an arm in the air, the fist of his left hand clinging to the little wooden statue. The fingers of his right hand still clutched the bullet, the idiotic bullet, the bullet that had come to him, the bullet that had not struck Marwan.
The dragon had disappeared.
His throat felt very dry. Everything went quiet. Slowly, he lifted the statue to his lips and kissed it. “Dragon . . . you came, dragon.”
The sky shed droplets of water that moistened Khidr’s dry lips, and soon water was flowing down the heaps of metal satellite dishes, wetting the boy’s cheeks as well as his jacket and pants.
He heard a crunching sound to his side, from the darkness of the roof. Marwan slowly lifted his head, arched his back, and pulled the keffiyeh from around his neck. Khidr caught a strange flash in Marwan’s eyes, a look he’d never seen from his sworn enemy before, a look that seemed . . . grateful. Marwan reached his wet palm out toward Khidr, spreading the keffiyeh over both of their heads to protect them from the rain. In a low, breathless voice, Marwan said: “Khidr . . . That was . . . wow. Thanks.”
From The Dragon of Bethlehem (Tamer Institute, 2017). © Hooda El Shuwa. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.
An East Asian boy struggles with racist bullying at school and pressure at home in this children’s story by Sandrine Kao.
“Yes, Sybille, I would like you to back off . . .”
I didn’t allow myself to actually say it. But I really would have preferred it if she just went her own way. I needed to walk alone awhile and think.
Her chatter stopped. She was waiting for an answer. I was only half-listening to what she was saying, and she could tell. I wasn’t that interested in her latest quarrel with Ness.
“I’m getting on your nerves, aren’t I,” she asked, “going on about all this when it’s got nothing to do with you?”
I was on edge, although it was something else that was bothering me. But Sybille was being kind, and I didn’t want to annoy her, so I just said, “Of course you’re not getting on my nerves. Go on, I’m listening.”
Now that I’ve stopped having school lunches, I sometimes walk part of the way with her at lunchtime. She lives right next to the park where I eat my packed lunch. She’s been seeking me out lately—especially since she fell out with her group of friends. I think she quite likes me—she knows she can tell me stuff. Right behind us, Ness was walking between Johan and Phil, her laughter loud enough to drown out Sybille’s monologue.
“She’s doing it on purpose, just to wind me up,” muttered Sybille.
I could feel their eyes on my back, too, which I resented. Always thinking they’re smarter than everyone else. I had the same feeling, that they were laughing at us. At both of us, not just at Sybille; I’ve had this suspicion that everyone wants to make fun of me for some time now. Anyway, they’d be turning the corner soon, and I wouldn’t be able to hear them anymore.
Sybille usually goes that way too. But this time, she continued into the park beside me, still talking, as though there was nothing odd about it. I interrupted her—there was no way I was letting her follow me.
“Sybille, don’t you normally go that way?”
I pointed to the street the others were walking along.
“No, I’m going through the park with you,” she said. “I don’t want to walk in front of them, and I’ll get home just as quickly this way. You don’t mind?”
I shrugged, giving nothing away. She was free to take it as a no if she wanted. The truth was, I really didn’t want her to come with me. After school, it wouldn’t have bothered me. We would have walked along through the trees and gone our separate ways at the end of the path—Sybille turning right to go home and me going left along the wide avenue that leads to my neighborhood. But I wasn’t planning on going home right then. It’s quite a ways to where I live—about a twenty-five-minute walk. We usually only get an hour at lunchtime, so I don’t tend to go home. Instead, I sit on a bench in the park to eat my packed lunch. And I’ve got better things to do than keep Sybille entertained.
I was already nervous.
And the closer we got to “my” bench, the more uptight I got. I could see it now—it was really near—and I squinted to get a better view. Sybille’s chatter was distracting, and I was struggling to hide my irritation. She seemed to notice anyway.
“What’s up with you?”
In my head, everything was mixed up. I didn’t know what to say or how to explain to her, and my suspicions got the better of me. What if it was her? She lives right by the park, she could easily get here anytime she liked. I was sure she already knew where I ate my lunch, and that I didn’t go home.
Without any warning, I grabbed her by the arm and dragged her toward my bench.
That put a stop to her chattering. She seemed taken aback, and at the same time, her cheeks had reddened. For a brief moment, I thought she looked pretty. I realized that unless I explained myself immediately, she might misinterpret my actions. But there was no time for that, there we were in front of the bench, and I saw it—something else written in Wite-Out. I pointed it out to Sybille, but she was already looking at it. There it was, freshly spelled out—
Rice Balls Alex
Alex—that’s me. I’m an East Asian boy. And believe me, being on the receiving end of insults like this is no fun at all.
. . .
I forced a laugh that was about as joyful as a tired old smiley.
I didn’t know who’d done it. But it was no coincidence that they picked this very bench.
Yes, people often make fun of me and my typically East Asian features. And yes, strangers do sometimes snigger at me in the street, calling me “chinky” even though they’ve no idea where I’m from. Or else they tug at the corners of their eyes, speaking in a stupid accent, bleating, “ching, chang, chong.” I don’t react—they’re just a bunch of morons with nothing better to do. But it’s not surprising—with everything you hear on the news, how can anyone be expected to think well of the Chinese? They’re always saying it’s because of the Chinese that businesses are relocating, that the Chinese don’t respect human rights or protect the environment, that they’re only interested in money—and of course that there are too many of them. It’s scary. But the truth is that most Chinese people are just victims. Their government only cares about productivity, it doesn’t worry about whether things are fair. And nobody ever mentions the fact that Western countries did exactly the same thing themselves. And if all you care about is profit, well, other things don’t matter, do they?
When it comes to nicknames at school, the options are endless. Some of the kids call me “noiche”—it’s French back slang for “Chinese.” I just shrug. I don’t like it, but it’s how people talk. Others call me Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li. Sometimes, it’s even affectionate.
On the other hand, writing something as lame as Rice Balls Alex on a park bench, and doing it anonymously—that was cowardly. And another thing—whoever did this must have been spying on me. How else would they know I’d come to this bench and read it?
And it’s not the first time! Yesterday, it was
Spring Roll Alex
The minute I saw it, I pulled my scissors out of my pencil case and scraped the white letters off. I felt a bit better once it was gone—but I still hadn't been able to stomach my tub of rice. I imagined someone hiding behind a bush, watching to see how I reacted, and sniggering. But I couldn’t see any sign of anyone, so I headed back to school, my stomach in knots. I wanted to act as if it hadn't affected me. I pretended to be happy, I made an effort to laugh harder than usual. I also kept an eye on how everyone in my class reacted. I was convinced it must have been one of them who’d done it.
I was so suspicious, I even wondered whether it might be my friend Bobo—though I knew it couldn't be. I hadn't even told him where I went at lunchtime. And he knows I'm not from Vietnam—yes, that’s where spring rolls come from. People don't even know the difference between Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean: to them, we’re all “chinks.” Or else gooks, slitty-eyes, noiches, rice balls, dog-eaters, etc. I’m from Taiwan, so don’t get me started! Nobody knows where it is or what it is. When my friends asked where I was from and I said Taiwan, here’s what they said:
“Ah, you’re from Thailand!”—that was Yann.
“No, you idiot, if I was from Thailand, I would have said Thailand. Just because it starts with the same letter doesn’t make it the same country!”
“Oh yeah, like ‘Made in Taiwan’!”
“They used to make cheap stuff there in the nineties. Now they specialize in electronic components.” That was Mehdi, our very own geek. He’s always glued to his tech, sniffing out the latest computer equipment.
“Yeah, it’s Chinese, right?”
“It's the rebel island!”
That was Bobo. Not bad, geographically speaking. But politically—well, that’s another story. Since then, though, we’ve even discussed whether Taiwan should become independent!
Anyway—the point is, Spring Roll was a very poor choice of insult. And Rice Balls was no better. I forced a laugh in front of Sybille, but she was livid. And speechless, at first.
“It’s pathetic,” she said in the end. “Who could have done this? Do you think it’s aimed at you?”
I soon stopped laughing when I saw how she was taking it.
Other things were scrawled on the bench too: POLICE = SCUM in black marker, J loves M (engraved inside a heart), and a spray-painted La Cité du Parc on top!!! All common enough sights around town. But Rice Balls Alex, that was different. There was no room for any doubt. I was being deliberately targeted.
How could I possibly have suspected Sybille for a single moment? I really couldn’t see her enjoying this sort of thing. It was stupid of me to drag her to the bench. I would have been better off walking on, as though nothing had happened, as far as the park gate, and then going back to my bench alone. Now I had to admit that it was aimed at me.
Because I’m the one who eats here at lunchtime, on this bench. And the first insult was already there yesterday. If I catch whoever it is, they’ll be sorry!
[Later that afternoon . . .]
She’s such a pain, our neighbor, always going on about my dad.
“Yeah,” I told her, “he’ll be back.”
Keeping things vague, I hurried to get through the door to our building.
She was persistent. “When will he be back?”
“In December, for Christmas,” I lied.
And then, to change the subject, I quickly added, “How are things with you? How’s your daughter doing at school?”
I knew that would hit the spot. Her daughter was in my class last year and really struggled to keep up. East Asians are prouder of their children than they are of anything else, and (unlucky for her) Mrs. Huang’s kids were very, very average—both scraping through school with no sign of any talent for anything.
“Yes, fine,” said Mrs. Huang unenthusiastically.
She began an angry retreat toward her apartment. But then she just couldn’t resist.
“You should answer in Chinese. If you always speak French, you’ll forget your Mandarin. It’s not right to deny your own culture!”
Slam! She shut the door in my face.
That’ll teach me to mention her own kids to her.
The only thing Mrs. Huang has to be proud of is that her kids can speak and write Chinese. Fluently. Which is more than you can say of me—it doesn’t take long to lose a language. Yet we’re constantly told how important it is to know how to speak Chinese, that it’s a fantastic asset for our future careers, that we’re bound to find work in international trade or the import-export business. The eldest Huang kid is studying marketing at a private school—his mother’s so proud. It’s not even as if there was any skill involved—all you had to do to get in was be able to pay. But that doesn’t stop her bragging that he got in because he speaks Chinese, or droning on about how having both cultures is so enriching for him. I couldn’t care less about the import-export business, and I definitely don’t want to work in it.
As for the Huang girl, she hangs out with a group of other East Asians. Sometimes they speak Chinese among themselves just so other people can’t understand. All their parents are shopkeepers or entrepreneurs. Which means these kids are dressed in luxury brands, with the latest tech in their pockets and celebrity-endorsed eyewear . . . not to mention hair that’s been bleached or dyed. But of course I’m the one who gets accused of rejecting my own culture.
Anyway, it’s my dad’s fault I can’t speak Chinese anymore. All he had to do was stay here. I used to speak Chinese with him because there was no choice—his French isn’t very good.
I wasn’t even ten years old when my dad left. He promised we’d go on vacation to Taiwan as soon as he got a good job—he’d been out of work for quite a while here in France. Once he went back to the island, he did find a job very quickly. But we didn’t go to see him in Taiwan. And he came back here less and less often.
He usually writes at this time of year to tell us he’s bought his plane tickets. At the same time, he sends money so that we can manage until he gets back. But this year, nothing. No matter how often we write, there’s no answer. No letter, no email, and no money either. My mom says something must have happened to him, and since he’s all on his own over there, nobody’s noticed he’s missing, and that’s why we haven’t been told. Or else he’s met another woman and abandoned us, my mom and me. Maybe he’s been leading a double life for years and has another family—so he’s cut us off forever.
I did ask my mother once, “Why didn’t we go back to Taiwan together? Couldn’t all three of us have lived there? It’s not as if we have any family or ties here in France. What’s keeping us?”
“It’s not as easy as that, Alexander. I don’t have anyone in Taiwan either now that your aunt’s gone to live in America. It was a stroke of luck, being able to stay in France—let’s not throw it away. And how would you have kept up with your schoolwork from there? You can barely read and write Chinese. You would have found yourself having to repeat the year, maybe several times over. And your life is definitely better here.”
I’m not so sure. What I think is that my dad would have gone anyway. It’s just not his thing, family life. Mom knows it—she wasn’t even that surprised when he left, as though she expected it. And yet she still thinks he’ll end up coming back. The thing is, it’s been almost a year since we last saw him, and there’s been no news for months now. Let’s face it. Dad’s left us.
I won’t be heading off on vacation to Taiwan anytime soon, although I’m sure I would have enjoyed the hot, stifling humidity, the taste of exotic fruits, the mountain landscapes, the sea, and the gray sandy beaches lined with palm and coconut trees. It’s easy to imagine myself melting into the crowd, amidst the passersby as they wander among the street food stalls, shops, and evening markets. I’d fit right in, just like all the other people there. Instead of being “Alex the Noiche,” I’d just be one East Asian boy among others.
From Le Banc. © 2013 by Syros. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Jane Roffe. All rights reserved.
A girl discovers her grandmother’s hidden talents and taste for adventure in this children’s story by Angelika Glitz.
Some people are like surprise eggs. You know, the chocolate ones with a tiny toy inside. You don’t discover what’s inside them until you’ve nibbled away some of the outside. And Granny Hilde was an egg with an extraordinary number of surprises. She’d totally fooled the security guard, and that was just the start. While he was taking his report to his boss, I told Granny Hilde the whole story from start to finish: how I’d dreamed of getting in-line skates ever since I’d seen Starlight Express; how I’d found a beautiful silver-gray pair with turquoise stripes and wheels—the last pair left in the sale and still seventy-nine euros; how I’d hidden them in the most expensive rucksack in the shop display to stop anyone else snapping them up before I’d saved enough money. And now the security guard thought I’d stolen them.
Granny Hilde just sat and listened, her head slightly to one side and her hand on my knee. Finally, she nodded, pulling a handkerchief out of her cardigan.
“What keeps us alive if not the dreams in our hearts?” She dabbed at her nose, then put the handkerchief back in her sleeve. “And even when they seem as far out of reach as a star in the sky, they still light our way.”
Granny Hilde’s words warmed me like a ray of sunshine, melting the hard, icy lump in my stomach—just a tiny bit.
“And that’s why . . .” still fumbling to put her handkerchief back, Granny Hilde pointed to the door. Not the one that the two men had disappeared through, but another, opposite the first, made of heavy steel with a few shoeboxes in front. A Hawaiian dancer key ring hung from a key in the lock. “And that’s why we’re getting out of here.”
“What do you mean, getting out of here?”
“Making a break for it!”
I didn’t need telling twice. I took all the boxes blocking our way and stacked them on the desk. The door was locked, and the key stuck, but after I’d thrown my weight against the door a couple of times, the key finally turned and pulled out easily. I turned to help Granny Hilde, but she was already on her feet, standing straighter than I’d ever seen before. Her eyes were sparkling so brightly, you’d think someone had switched Christmas lights on all through her tiny body. Not two minutes later, we were out, complete with Granny Hilde’s walker, and the door snapped shut with a dull click. To win us more time, I double-locked it. Then I put my arm under hers to support her, but she shook me off.
“It’ll only make our getaway trickier.”
“OK, sorry.” I started walking.
“Wait,” said Granny Hilde, “my eyes need to adjust to the low light in here first.”
She was right, it was pretty dim in there. We’d obviously ended up in the warehouse. The only light came from a few fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. Long rows of shelves towered up to the distant roof.
“Excellent,” said Granny Hilde, “now we need to creep along here.” She was bent over like a banana again, but her eyes were still sparkling with glee.
Unfortunately, we made very slow progress. Granny Hilde was pushing her walker a short way forward, then toddling two steps after it, but she seemed to be leaning harder on the handles every second. I began to wonder how she’d ever made it to the Sportfit shop at this pace. And why on earth had Agathe, her carer, even let her go? And still wearing her slippers?
As if she could read my thoughts, Granny Hilde said, “I had such a friendly taxi driver. He even came to the door with an umbrella for me. What a stroke of luck. Agathe couldn’t do it, she had such a terrible backache. She was busy rubbing in some ointment.”
“I see. And how did you know the number?”
Granny Hilde gave me a hard don’t-treat-me-like-an-idiot stare. “Agathe had stored it in my phone contacts. Now let me concentrate on my feet.”
I glanced back at the door; nothing was happening there yet. But I was getting worried, and every couple of yards I turned my head again. Had I just heard the sound of a door handle turning, or was I imagining it? Granny Hilde was wheezing as deeply and regularly as a steam train. At shelf 42, she said her legs were getting a bit tired and she needed to sit down. I forced myself to breathe calmly.
“Can you make it around the corner here? Then we’ll be out of sight.”
“No, I think it needs to be now.”
I realized how exhausted she looked, grimly clinging to the handles of her walker. My gaze fell on a pile of boxes six feet ahead. “Wait, I’ll build you a seat.”
“Oh no, not boxes. I’d rather take that seat there.”
I looked where she was pointing. Surely she couldn’t be serious? The only thing over there was a bright red forklift truck. OK, it had a seat, with a lovely, soft fur cover too. Unfortunately, it was a good six feet off the ground.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, fervently hoping I’d been mistaken.
“That classy little forklift, of course.”
The Granny Hilde marathon was already in progress. The sight of the forklift seemed to have renewed her energy; she was already standing at the footboard.
“Give me a hand, Lulu darling.”
“Granny Hilde, no!”
“Oh yes. Now hop to it, it’ll be fine!”
She grabbed a handle and kicked her walker to one side. I sighed.
“All right, but if anyone asks, it wasn’t my idea.”
“Push!” she commanded, her right foot already waving in the air.
I shook my head and gave in. Bracing myself against her backside, I pushed with all my might. Finally, after much coughing from Granny Hilde—and a little groaning from me—there she was, actually sitting in the driver’s seat, looking like she couldn’t quite believe it herself.
“How are you feeling now?” I asked.
“Marvelous. And the seat, absolutely wonderful. And what a view!”
She bent over the steering wheel, her finger drawing a circle around a green button. “Look, this forklift even has an electric motor.”
“Lulu, could you see if you can set the seat a little lower, please?”
I didn’t ask why; I was too busy worrying. I was expecting to see Security Guard Klötzing storm around the shelving corner at any moment. The shoeboxes on his desk must have given away which door we’d escaped through—but where else could I have put them? And there was bound to be a spare key somewhere. I noticed two small buttons, one with an arrow pointing down, the other with an arrow pointing up: electronic controls for the seat height! I pressed the first one, holding it until Granny Hilde had purred to the bottom.
“Excellent,” she said. “Now I can reach the pedal. What a good thing I’ve driven tractors so often in my life.”
“Why is that a good thing?”
But she had already pushed the green button. The forklift jerked, then hummed into motion.
“Lulu darling, run and fetch my walker frame!”
For a moment, all I could do was stand there, watching her tiny figure teetering on the seat as it wobbled away from me. Somewhere in the warehouse I heard a door bang and someone shouting. I grabbed the walker and made a run for it. “Granny! Someone’s coming! Put your foot down!”
She did, too. I could barely keep up with her. The forklift veered off course, knocking a few rows of boxes sideways and sending them crashing in a heap.
“Watch out, Granny!”
The steps behind us grew louder.
“Around this corner!”
Granny Hilde careered around a sharp right-hand bend, flattening two empty boxes, and there in front of us was a huge doorway. It looked about as inviting as a dragon’s jaws, but it was our only hope. For a few seconds, as I watched her weaving her way toward it like a snake, I was afraid Granny Hilde wouldn’t make it, but she only scraped the frame. I dived after her, my lungs burning. I’d barely gotten myself across the threshold before I heaved all my weight against the steel sliding door. Our luck held: the door was well oiled and snapped shut almost without a sound. Then there was nothing but darkness, and the sound of an electric motor purring to a stop with a faint whistle somewhere a few feet in front of my face. Outside, footsteps clattered past and faded away. Granny Hilde giggled. She chuckled, choked a little, then giggled again.
Man, what a granny!
“And now,” said this crazy Granny, “now let’s make ourselves comfortable until the coast is clear.”
Not long after, I was sitting on the forklift’s footboard, my feet stretched out in front of me on a box and my head resting against Granny Hilde’s scratchy tights. I pushed one of her bitter lemon sweets around my mouth with my tongue.
“How long do you think we’ll have to hide here?”
“A long while yet.”
“Hm. In that case,” I suggested, “why don’t you tell me how you come to have a pair of ice skates at home that you’ve never used?”
“Oh yes, that’s a good story,” said Granny Hilde.
“Great,” I said, closing my eyes. It’s funny, but I can listen better with my eyes closed, even if I’m sitting in the pitch dark.
“It started when we had to get my father out of prison.”
“Prison?” I had to ask, in case I’d misheard.
“Oh yes. It was my parents’ anniversary. My father had taken us out to dinner in a proper restaurant, with tablecloths and candles. ‘Today there’ll be meat for dinner,’ he’d said. Well, meat was something we only ate now and then, as a special treat on Sundays or birthdays. We ate braised beef, holding every morsel on our tongues as long as possible so as not to miss any of that delicious flavor. Father was in good spirits that evening, too, clinking his beer against our glasses. He was in such a good mood he forgot about the hyperinflation happening all across Germany. So while we were inside, savoring every bite, inflation continued outside, doubling the price of our meal, and at the end of the evening Father couldn’t pay the bill. There was a heated argument. Father called the owner a cutthroat and the owner bellowed could he not read?! The menu clearly stated that prices would track the money rate. And suddenly there were men in uniform at the door. Father shouted at them, too, then they took him away. Just like that. And threw him in jail.”
“In jail, the full works?” I asked.
“With bars? And bread and water?”
“No way! And how did he get out? He did get out, didn’t he?”
“Oh, we had to free him, of course. My sister Martha, Mother, and I. It must have been the middle of the night when Mother woke us. She hadn’t lit a lamp, so I could only see her outline. She asked whether we wanted to help get Father out of prison. Didn’t we just!
Mother told us to put on our darkest clothes, and she blackened our faces with soot. She warned us to be quiet as we ran down the stairs, and my heart was in my mouth. Outside was a Ford Model T, and you won’t believe how surprised we were when Mother pulled a bunch of keys from her pocket and unlocked it. She had borrowed the car from a neighbor. My sister and I hadn’t even known she could drive! Well, it turned out she couldn’t. The car jumped about like a wild pony. Once, Mother even put it in reverse gear by mistake. I really have no idea how we survived that journey. But at some point Mother stopped at the roadside. There were crickets chirping, and I looked around. There was no prison—nothing at all: not a building, not a house, not a tree to be seen. No light, just the darkness and the stars above.
‘Where’s Father?’ I asked.
‘In prison,’ Mother answered. She pulled jute sacks out of the trunk and gave them to us. ‘We’re going to get Father out with potatoes,’ she said. ‘The potatoes we dig up out of this field.’”
“What?! Granny Hilde, was your mother going to KO the prison guards with potatoes?”
Granny Hilde giggled. “Ooh, that would have been a brilliant idea; but no, she was only going to bribe the restaurant owner with them, to persuade him to drop the charges against Father.”
“Really? I can imagine bribing someone with something tasty like chocolate, but potatoes?”
“Potatoes were highly valuable,” explained Granny Hilde. “Potatoes filled your stomach, and they could be stored for a long time.”
I rubbed my backside where it was beginning to hurt. Forklift footboards were clearly not designed for sitting on.
“Everything OK?” asked Granny Hilde.
“Sure, if you go on with your story.”
“So, Mother, Martha, and I climbed down into the field with our sacks. We had to be careful: stealing potatoes from a field was highly illegal. Getting the rest of our family thrown into jail wouldn’t have helped us one bit.”
“Oh no!” I realized I was shivering slightly with excitement, and I pulled my jacket tighter around me.
“I can still remember how soft the ground was under our boots, and how damp it felt to the touch. The wind was blowing around our legs, and the cold night air crept down our necks. But after we’d spent a little while rooting through the earth for potatoes, something like the thrill of the chase awoke in me. I began to feel tremendous. My mother, sister, and I had a common goal, and nothing makes you stronger. Then, with my sack half-filled with potatoes, my hands struck something. It was flexible, but tough too, and at first I was afraid it was a dead animal, but when Mother brought the lantern over, I could see it was only a big leather bag. Well, finding a bag in the middle of a field was unusual enough, but imagine my surprise when I unzipped it to discover a pair of ice skates. In the middle of summer! They were beautiful.”
I flicked on my phone light, shining it in Granny Hilde’s face. She squinted.
“What? You found your amazing skates just lying in a field?”
“No, not the ones under my bed, a different pair.”
“You’ve got more than one pair of ice skates?”
“If you stop interrupting me, I’ll explain.”
I nodded, flicked the light off, and leaned back against her legs again.
“Mother allowed me to keep the skates. Although she had no idea how they came to be in the field, she was pretty certain the owner was never going to appear to reclaim them. She handed me the bag as solemnly as if they were the most valuable gift I’d ever received—which they were. She said: ‘Next winter, you’ll be gliding over frozen lakes, and that’s almost as good as flying.’
I put the bag in my sack and went back to digging potatoes. We filled two sacks, one for the restaurant owner and one for ourselves. By the time we were finished, the roosters were already crowing in the village. That was when we realized how tired we were. Exhaustion wrapped around us like a bank of fog. Back home, we didn’t even have the energy to wash off the dirt; we crept into bed with mud still under our fingernails and soot on our faces.”
Granny Hilde paused. Since she often paused in her stories, I waited; but then an all-too-familiar sound gurgled in my left ear: shnurrrk. Unbelievable. She’d fallen asleep again. I tugged at her sleeve.
“Hey, Granny Hilde, wake up!”
She gave a loud snort. I flicked on my phone light. Her head had sunk onto her chest, and her mouth was open.
“Hey!” I shook her gently. “Don’t leave me here on my own.”
“Just a quick forty winks,” she said.
I sighed, switched off the light, and closed my eyes too. What else could I do?
From Der Himmel kommt später (S. Fischer Verlag, 2015). © Angelika Glitz. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Melody Shaw. All rights reserved.
Mr. Gimbal’s Incredible Invention follows Danny, a bright and curious boy, and his neighbor, Mr. Archibald Gimbal, who is an inventor. Since becoming friends, they have acquired two Sussex hens named Sherlock and Watson, who roam freely around the garden and can travel through gaps in space and time in search of lost belongings. There is also a cat that divides its time between the two houses, going by the name of Spigot in one and Fluffy in the other. Unbeknownst to them all, they are accompanied by a ghost, Mr. Casimir, who used to live in Gimbal’s house many years ago and was in love with his neighbor, Miss Alice. He now observes events from his position next to an apricot tree in the garden.
“And so, my boy,” said Mr. Gimbal, putting his mug of tea on the step by the back door, “the time has come for you to see my magnum opus, the work of my lifetime.”
“The Vetustas . . .” whispered Danny, his voice quivering with excitement.
“That’s right: the Vetustas. The most unlikely instrument ever made by human hand,” he said, pulling a denim cloth off a pile of junk next to the shed.
And yet this wasn’t any ordinary junk, but a machine that looked like . . . well, I haven’t a clue what it looked like! That’s the point! It looked like nothing else. The base of the Vetustas consisted of three plastic barrels that once contained cabbage. They were filled with water, and a heavy steel sheet was nailed to their lids. Mr. Gimbal got the sheet from a friend from primary school. The friend, who was once the shortest and skinniest boy in their class, grew up to be a test driver for tank prototypes. Every now and then he’d crash one, and so had become a never-ending supply of heavy, steel things. On top of the steel sheet was a round wooden box with thick-lensed rubber peepholes around the edge. You could look through them into the machine. The wooden ring looked antique, because, as Mr. Gimbal explained, it was a centuries-old stereoscopic theater. The stereoscopic theater was attached to a gray, ordinary-looking slide projector, that is, one that enlarged small photo slides and projected them onto a wall or a screen. This bit of equipment was about fifty years younger than the theater, and the same number of years older than Danny. The projector was linked up to an ultramodern computer that had transparent tubes sticking out of it, which the water from the buckets flowed through and back again. A thick fiber-optic cable stuck out of the side of the computer and disappeared into the ground. The whole thing was connected to a 3D laser scanner, the kind that could capture a picture of an object from every angle and send it to the computer. In other words, there were objects from different generations (like a grandfather, father, and son) wired together. Other little dials and switches stuck out of the Vetustas. There was a smartphone stuck on with silver tape, columns of numbers and smiley faces scrolling down the screen. Some of the components emitted high-pitched beeps, some crackled, and others clicked.
Danny closed his eyes for a moment to focus on the unusual music. Truly, anyone would have to admit it: Mr. Gimbal’s invention was impressive.
“In a moment, Danny, you will witness a historic test . . .” Mr. Gimbal’s voice cracked with emotion. “We’re going to switch it on for the first time. We just need a piece of an old object . . .” He looked around and spotted the handle of a porcelain teapot lying in the grass. It seemed old enough.
All that remained was to switch on the machine.
“Now where the devil is that remote control!” cried Mr. Gimbal in frustration, ruing his own messiness.
Unfortunately, that’s just how it is: every genius is usually surrounded by mess. Among the rolls of wires and cables, the pieces of old calculators, the broken electric razors, the botched machines for doing all sorts of things that you bought over the phone without knowing if they worked or not, and the remote controls for every kind of device, it was difficult to find the right one. But that’s what a man has chickens for!
The ever-obliging Watson toddled over to the inventor, carrying in her beak a remote control that began its life as the remote for a large television. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Gimbal seized it and pressed the button to change channels, which now activated the machine. The Vetustas lit up and a thousand little lights began to shimmer, as if it were an electronic rainbow rather than a device unlike anything else. It also began to emit a pleasant low hum, and Mr. Gimbal felt himself swelling with pride.
He stepped up to the laser scanner and placed the piece of teapot inside. A beam of light ran over the glass base on which the porcelain handle lay, memorizing its bends and curves. The scanned image traveled to the brain of the Vetustas, that is, to the computer, which immediately connected to a server room via the thick fiber-optic cable. Once upon a time, Mr. Gimbal had tried to beat the world record for digging the fastest holes in the ground, and in doing so had discovered the fiber-optic cable running alongside his house to the biggest server room in the world, which—quite coincidentally—was just around the corner, in an unremarkable gray building behind a high gray fence. Mr. Gimbal decided that since this find was on his land, he didn’t need to ask the black-suited men in sunglasses who sometimes went in and out of the gate in the dark fence for permission to connect his invention to their system. In the meantime, the mysterious electronic memory cells of the servers contained pictures, dimensions, and all possible data about EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE, including all the teapots in the world, the ones that already existed and ones that might exist in the future. Among them was also the image of the very same porcelain teapot that was missing a handle. And it came back along the fiber-optic cable to the computer. The computer buzzed, the liquid in the tubes began to flow faster, and a moment later the projector whirred to life and sent a beam of light into the stereoscopic theater.
“Now we’ll see a fully restored teapot,” said Mr. Gimbal.
It was true! When Danny brought his eye to the peephole he saw the teapot inside, as good as new.
“But, my dear Danny, that’s not the end of our work,” sighed Mr. Gimbal. “Now we have to work out how to get the picture of the teapot out of the theater, so you don’t have to look inside.”
“I have an idea!” said Danny excitedly and ran home, returning a minute later with a little old mirror that had a photo of a very pretty actress on the back.
“You clever rascal!” cried Mr. Gimbal with joy when Danny placed the mirror by the peephole. “What an ingenious idea!”
That was true too! It was an ingenious idea because the picture of the teapot inside was reflected off the mirror and outside the wooden box. And yet—to the surprise of the inventor himself—it didn’t stay flat on the mirror as usually happens with reflections, but appeared floating in the air, in three dimensions. Perhaps that was down to Sherlock, who had pecked at the computer keyboard a couple of times, changing something in the program’s settings, but who can say.
The teapot really was beautiful. There wasn’t a trace of damage, not even the slightest scratch! But you could see there was some hot tea inside, because a wisp of steam was rising from the spout. It was as though the Vetustas had in some miraculous way managed to link the broken bit of old porcelain with what it used to be in its greatness. It made you want to grab the handle and pour yourself a cup . . . which must be what occurred to Danny, because he took his empty hot chocolate mug and was just about to pour himself some when—
“Stop! Don’t do that!” cried Mr. Gimbal. “We don’t know the properties of this image our device has created. It’s a phantom, not a real thing, so we haven’t a clue what would happen if it touched living matter. Sometimes, if someone gets very close to a phantom, if they touch one, they become a phantom themselves and can’t get back to the real world. But we’ll soon find out for sure!”
Mr. Gimbal grabbed a slice of lemon in some kitchen tongs and with a brisk movement dropped it into the phantom teapot. The fruit hissed, spun around as though caught in a whirlwind, and vanished.
“Like I said!” he exclaimed. He wanted to go on, but just then a window in the house next door opened and they heard Danny’s mom’s voice.
“Darling, dinner’s on the table!”
“What a pity,” sighed Danny. “You have no idea how much I like you, Mr. Gimbal!”
And he ran home. When he’d regained his composure, Mr. Gimbal realized he hadn’t eaten anything since morning either. So he left the Vetustas and the image of the steaming teapot and went inside. Sherlock and Watson followed him.
Having observed everything from his position under the apricot tree, Mr. Casimir stood up and walked over to the machine. He picked up the teapot and drank straight out of the spout, because, unfortunately, he didn’t have a phantom teacup to hand, and as a ghost he couldn’t use a real one.
“Exquisite,” he sighed with pleasure. “I haven’t had such a good cup of tea in ages!”
And do you know what? If someone were standing next to him, they’d have been able to see his outline against the leaves of the apricot tree, still transparent, still blurred, and yet just a bit—a teeny tiny bit—visible.
The inventor and his young friend were preparing another test of the Vetustas’s potential.
“The most incredible thing about our invention is that we can’t fully predict what it will do,” said Mr. Gimbal.
Danny and Mr. Gimbal were sitting on the bench beneath the apricot tree, and just behind them stood Mr. Casimir, who was in the privileged situation of knowing exactly what was happening around him. But neither the inventor nor the boy had any idea they were in the company of a ghost. And it was a ghost who was brimming with enthusiasm and was therefore, how can I put this, more lively than traditional ghosts. The Vetustas was the cause of Mr. Casimir’s renewed liveliness, of the kind he hadn’t felt since he was . . . alive. It was simply because after many years he could finally have a good cup of tea and dance to his favorite music. Along with the music, he’d rediscovered his love for Miss Alice. And that’s why his silhouette was filling in. Mr. Casimir agreed with the inventor that the Vetustas was incredible, and he was expecting much more excitement to come of it.
“I’m very curious,” he went on, “to know what would happen if we put something on the scanner that used to be alive. We already know the Vetustas can reconstruct a whole based on a small part. Indeed—and this was the biggest surprise for me—it doesn’t just conjure up a phantom object, it’s also able to recreate the sounds it used to make.”
“I wonder what would happen if we put a slice of cake on the Vetustas . . . we’d probably get the whole cake. And then someone could live off one cake for their entire life. Isn’t that amazing?!”
“No, Danny! A grave error!” Mr. Gimbal raised his finger. “We only get a virtual recollection of a cake. Do you remember what happened to the slice of lemon in the phantom teapot?”
Danny did remember.
“Let me say it again,” Mr. Gimbal said firmly. “We must not touch a phantom, let alone bite one. If you swallowed some phantom, you’d be filled with an enormous vacuum. It might tear you to pieces.”
“Poppycock,” muttered Mr. Casimir, who had had an entirely different experience.
“Did you say something?” asked Mr. Gimbal.
“Me? I thought that was you . . .” Danny looked closely at the inventor.
“But it was actually me!” giggled Mr. Casimir, delighted with his prank. But he said it a little quieter so no one heard him this time. Well, no one except Watson, who was wandering around the garden digging things up—no, not treasure! This time they were just ordinary bugs. Watson heard Mr. Casimir, but it didn’t make much difference at that point.
“To come back to the heart of the matter, we need to carry out another test of the Vetustas. Look!” Mr. Gimbal rummaged in his pocket and produced something that looked like a sharpened stone.
“It’s a fossil! The tooth of a mosasaurus, a giant prehistoric lizard. It lived on this street back in the time when it was still the sea. About sixty million years ago.”
“Oh my . . .” Danny looked around, trying to imagine what it would be like if all the houses and streetlights, not to mention the cars, were suddenly underwater.
Mr. Gimbal stepped up to the machine and placed the mosasaurus tooth on the scanner. He pressed the button and . . . crikey! In barely a second, the most enormous and terrifying lizard imaginable leapt off the mirror attached to the stereoscopic theater! The tooth really was the smallest part of it. Suffice to say the jaws alone were about six feet long, and the whole body filled up the inventor’s garden from fence to fence. But that’s not all! The giant prehistoric creature, which of course used to live in an aquatic environment and couldn’t exist without the sea, had dragged an entire extraordinary underwater world along with it! It looked as though the small glass surface of the mirror had suddenly released a cloud of colored fog.
The air around Mr. Gimbal’s house began to shimmer like crystal clear water, spreading a blue haze more intense than anything humans had ever seen before. A layer of golden sand appeared on the lawn, with large pink shells lying on it. Inside they hid pearls the size of cabbage heads. In the sky—or rather, the upper levels of the ancient ocean—there were shoals of fantastic fish swimming around. Some had small mouths and fins that looked like wings, others had what looked like feet instead of tails, and still others were as flat as paper and had bell-shaped heads. They came in a dazzling array of colors, only some of which we know today. And behind the shoals, like an evil, voracious shadow, swam a gigantic octopus, spewing a cloud of purple ink. It was a terrible and yet enchanting picture. Danny stood there, his mouth agape, while Mr. Gimbal went weak at the knees and had to steady himself against the apricot tree.
Then, all of a sudden, a black cat came leaping out of a seashell! An ordinary alley cat! One of Spigot’s hairs had been stuck to the mosasaurus tooth, and the Vetustas had used it to recreate a complete image of the animal. The poor creature was blowing bubbles through its nose, pitifully paddling its legs and looking like it was about to drown! What did it matter that it was a phantom cat? In the image conjured up before a terrified Danny and an equally outraged inventor, the creature was behaving exactly as though it had fallen into the water. In other words, it was alive, and this life was in danger. If it were the real world, Danny could have rescued it; he’d been taking lessons since he was small and was an excellent swimmer. Mr. Gimbal would probably have also dared to leap into the watery depths. But it was too dangerous to touch the spectral ocean. They remembered what had happened to the lemon!
Fortunately, Mr. Casimir leapt into action. He was a ghost, so he could easily dive into the phantom ocean, particularly since he’d earned a swimming certificate when he was still alive. Of course, he was afraid of the huge prehistoric lizard, but he was much more afraid that the beautiful furry creature might drown! Without a moment’s hesitation, he leapt into the shimmering picture. And that’s when Danny and Mr. Gimbal saw him. Danny was struck dumb by terror, and Mr. Gimbal cried out, “Heavens above!”
You’re probably wondering how it was possible for the Vetustas, a machine for conjuring up images of the past, to suddenly conjure up a phantom image of a creature that was alive and well. It’s very simple. Every cat has seven lives, and so Spigot, a.k.a. Fluffy, was both a cat that wandered between Mr. Gimbal’s house and Danny’s, and at the same time a kitten from history that roamed from house to house fifty or a hundred years ago, or even earlier. It’s the same with all cats, including the one you have at home: it is both itself and another ancient creature. What’s more, when a bewildered Mr. Gimbal pressed his trembling finger to the button on the remote control and the whole enormous prehistoric ocean (including the shells, fish, and mosasaurus) was sucked back into the mirror, the cat was still sitting on the shoulder of Mr. Casimir, who was soaked to the skin and of course had no intention of disappearing again. How did it happen that the phantom cat stayed in the present time? To be honest, I just don’t know. Cats will always do as they please.
From Pan Kardan i przygoda z vetustasem (Bajka, 2017). © Justyna Bednarek. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones. All rights reserved.
A boy is visited by a mischievous demon in this children’s story by Pietro Albì.
Translator’s Note: Farfariel: The Book of Micu is set in rural Abruzzo in 1938. The narration shifts between the scribe who is writing the text and the mischievous devil Farfariel, whose sections appear in red. The crossed-out sections are parts that Farfariel thinks should not be included in the scribe's text.
Summon me. No, it’s too soon to summon me, or maybe it’s too late, and you’re too young, too zulli, as they say in my village.
Some think of me as the shiver down the spine when you’re walking along a dark street. You hear the noise of footsteps behind you, snap your head around to see who’s there, and a cold shiver grips you, curdles your muscles, turns your legs to jelly. That shiver would be me. Others think of me as the crazy voice that fills your head with things that make no sense, things you don’t understand and don’t know how they got there, when you feel close to shame and your cheeks burn red at the madness of your thoughts, an eight-legged horse or your mom with an elephant’s head.
I’m not that shiver and I’m not that madness, I’m something else. If you want me to come, just say my name six times. That’s all, six times, one after the other, no more. If you pronounce it correctly without a single mistake, if you think hard about me, I’ll come.
What’s my name? It’s too early to say, you’re too young, this story’s too young. You’re both too zulli. But as the story grows, you’ll grow with it, and when the time comes, if you still want me, you can say my name, my real name, six times.
For now, all you need to know is this story is not about me. More importantly, it’s not about the people from a village called Canzano.
The real story is about a Book, a Book like no other, a Book that couldn’t be more different from the one you’re holding in your hands right now.
Everyone knows the Book, the same way everyone knows about me, because at least once in their life, they’ll have opened the Book. The only problem is, they don’t remember it.
You dream about it, everyone does. You probably dreamed about it last night, it was right there in your dream, but . . . Everyone dreams about the Book at least once in their life, they just don’t remember it.
Since the Book has been in the world, only two people haven’t forgotten it after dreaming about it. One is Micù, who was nearly ten years old when he first saw it, one night in April 1938.
A heart for a heart
Rosalbina made the sign of the cross and from the bag pulled out a swallow with broken wings. The knife glimmered in the sun. The swallow was gasping, like a fish plucked from the sky, and Rosalbina thrust her earth-stained fingers into its rib cage, which oozed blood.
Micù didn’t want to swallow, but quick as a flash, Rosalbina shoved the raw heart into his mouth. Micù fought against the slimy, bitter thing pulsating on his tongue. How could it be beating? Rosalbina was still holding the knife, turning it this way and that, close to her blood-splotched forehead. “Swallerit!” she bellowed.
Micù felt the animal’s heart pulse in his throat.
He looked at the hole in the animal’s chest, a cluster of clotted blood, ribs splayed like white needles. Rosalbina waited, eyes wide, as if any minute . . .
The bird’s heart beat a few more times in the boy’s stomach and he felt his intestines cramp.
“What happens to you?” Rosalbina asked, worried.
“I have to go,” Micù replied, stamping his feet. Rosalbina finally let go of her son’s hand, and Micù darted away. The pulsing heart of a swallow was too much for his stomach.
He crouched in the cowshed, Duchess nearby, convinced a barrage of fireworks was lodged deep in his viscera. Grimacing in pain and glee, he felt himself release an endless poo. A poo so incredibly big, bigger than the cow’s. Weirder still was the color.
“Fregnaaaaaa!” he exclaimed, preferring the village dialect to express his approval.
It looked blue, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t like the blue flowers that sometimes grow in ditches. It wasn’t like grapes when you look at them against the light and they seem almost blue. It wasn’t like any of the shades of blue in the sky after sunset or in the morning before the sun.
It wasn’t like nighttime in August, when the full moon beams bright bright and the night doesn’t feel like night and the sky shines a beautiful blue, a blue that, until now, Micù had always thought was the bluest of all blues.
Micù needed to clean himself up. Straw? Too dry. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a strip of alfalfa plants by the side door to the cowshed. He had an idea: a backsideslide!
Micù lifted his behind and planted it on the alfalfa. With his hands he dragged himself along the ground, leaving a thin trail of blue behind him. It wasn’t any normal blue! It was like a slice of rainbow with the stars of the night sky crushed inside it.
How could it be that the heart of a swallow so small could produce such an enormous heap?
The truly extraordinary thing was that the blue didn’t smell bad either: it had the scent of squished blackberries and raspberries. Not unpleasant at all. Only Micù hadn’t been picking blackberries and the raspberries weren’t ripe yet. He was amazed.
He picked up a stick and jabbed it into the blue.
It hit something solid. He tried to skewer it, sink the stick deeper. In response, the pile moved. Micù jumped back.
Had he gone on top of something? A sorica that had made its den in the cowshed?
What a stupid idea! Rats, even the ones that live in sewers, all run away. And it was even more incredible to think Micù could have pooed on a rat, hitting it in the split second it was running away.
Maybe a porcupine had been keeping warm in the straw.
But hibernation was over by April. And even if a porcupine had been hiding in that very spot, it would have put out its quills. Micù then thought of a badger, but badgers are so aggressive and . . . he was contemplating yet another new theory when, his stick spattered blue, he found himself fighting off a strange creature that had leapt out at him.
The thing was no more than twenty-five inches tall and of human shape—in the sense that it stood on two legs like a human. It ran a handlike thing over itself to wipe the blue muck off its nose and looked Micù in the eye.
“The Devil at your service!” it announced in perfect Italian with no inflection, so perfect it sounded like the voice that introduced the Duce’s speeches on the radio.
It gave Micù an enormous bow.
While Micù was unconscious, the thing chanted in his ears in a childish, singsong voice, “My name is Farfariel! Long live Farfariel! My name is Farfariel! Long live Farfariel! My name is Farfariel! Long live Farfariel!”
When Micù regained consciousness, he whispered in the faintest of voices, “I g-get it. But are you really the Devil?”
Farfariel held up a hand, opened wide. He had only three fingers, the middle one the longest. He replied in all his voices, unleashing the little girl side of him, which took great enjoyment on occasions of this kind.
More than once I told the so-called scribe in his ear exactly what he should write and how he should write it. More than once I told the silly hack the exact metaphor to use for me. I’m like a cake made of many layers. I’m like my most favorite cake, the Sturgeon, a delicacy from my village that’s shaped like a fish. Whatever happens, even if the cake were to fall from the summit of the Gran Sasso mountain all the way to the ground, if a mysterious force in the cream were to attract Saturn’s rings and pull them all crashing down on top of it, even if the sun in all its immensity were to implode over the almond fin and try to dunk its superincandescent nucleus in the chocolate cream, guess what? The layers would never mix. Never ever, no way!
Farfariel (hoarsely): We’re the devil but we’re not the Devil.
Micù: What’s that mean?
Farfariel: It means I come from hell.
Micù: So you’re here to do evil to me!
Farfariel: It’s hard to explain, but it’s no fun doing evil from evil. It’s more fun to do good from evil, and evil from good!
Micù: Ah! But if you’re evil and you do good, after that good comes evil.
Farfariel: Yes, but from that evil comes good.
Micù: Um, but then comes evil.
Farfariel: Yes, and then good.
Micù: And then evil.
Farfariel: And then good.
Micù: And then evil again.
Farfariel: And then good again.
Micù: Then evil.
Farfariel: Then . . .
“Then we’ll see,” Micù interrupted.
Micù limped over to his mother, who was still waiting by the house, while Farfariel hopped and skipped endlessly around him.
Rosalbina looked at her son. She lay a hand on his forehead, fearing he had sunstroke.
Canzano’s fabled medicine woman, the Spiritosa, had told Rosalbina that Micù’s nightmares and his constant chest pains were caused by his heart, a heart so skittish and wild it would take a special force, a strong hand, to govern it. Only the pure heart of a swallow could give Micù the special strength he needed to tame his heart. Maybe the swallow’s heart they had received from the Spiritosa hadn’t been pure?
Before Rosalbina had time to speak, Micù limped off, hoping to lead Farfariel away from his mother. Playing, prodding, poking, Farfariel was enjoying himself a little too much, teasing the woman with his tail.
When they were far enough away, Micù thundered at Farfariel with all the anger in his body, “So was it you tormenting me at night?”
“Not exactly,” Farfariel replied in his little girl’s voice, showing off all his sharp teeth.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I made you have nightmares!”
Micù leapt at the devil’s neck to strangle him, but the neck evaded his grasp, became impalpable like the air, and disappeared. “Damn you!” Micú screamed at the air, and the air rasped back, “Damned I am . . . and so are you!”
“What’s it got to do with me?” the boy asked, astonished. Farfariel hopped around him, laughing his most childlike, diabolical laugh. “Oh, it has lots . . .”
The church bells of Our Lady of Alno were ringing the eight o’clock mass in Canzano when Farfariel reappeared before Micù.
“I’ll be back in thirty-three minutes!”
Micù swung a punch, but Farfariel vanished again and the boy landed belly-up on the ground like a fool.
It was eight o’clock on April 7, 1938, thirty-three minutes until Farfariel’s return.
I’ll be back!
The taste of the fog
If I had to guess, ten minutes had passed.
Micù washed his face in the pail and dressed in his Balilla clothes: black jacket, white shirt, short trousers, school smock over the top. He bid farewell to his mamma and grandma . . . it may even have been more than ten minutes.
Farfariel, if he were true to his word, would return in another twenty minutes.
Twenty minutes was also the time it took Micù to walk to school.
Down the hill, across the muddy road, men and women were digging. A mantle of fog swallowed up the diggers, blanketing everything. It had been foggy that day in November when Gennarino Pinozzo . . .
“Or maybe it was Farfariel?” Micù thought. “Maybe the devil whispered in Gennarino’s ear, told him the words to say to me that day in November . . .”
It wasn’t me!
Micù was at the exact same spot as that day in November, on the edge of the woods, near the village walls. It wasn’t long after the Day of the Dead, the feast of Saint Martin was the next day, and there was so much fog that the Canzano woods looked like they were on fire.
Micù hadn’t been wearing a coat that day. In short trousers, the cold stung his knees and his feet limped askew to stop him from sinking into the mud. Walking by his side was Dino, one foot also twisted by polio and limping a good deal, then cross-eyed Biagio, then Gennarino.
Dino coughed and spat out yellow. Biagio wrapped his mom’s moth-eaten scarf around him.
Gennarino lay his satchel on the ground and tossed a stone into the mist. It thwacked against the hollow trunk of an olive tree.
“When dogs get the thirst, they eat fog!” Gennarino said, opening his mouth wide.
The boys were entranced by the crazymad things the blond-haired bully said.
Biagio opened his mouth, and Dino didn’t wait to be told twice.
“You have to keep your eyes shut . . . it tastes better!” Gennarino added.
Micù shut his eyes, but a thought struck him: “What if he spits in my mouth?”
He opened his eyes again pronto. A bitter, wet tang slipped across his teeth. It was the taste of the fog!
Thank God no one had spit in his mouth. He had barely sighed in relief when Gennarino lifted his index finger toward Micù, smoke curling out of his mouth, and said, “Bagonghee . . . .”
Micù staggered back two paces. Gennarino sneered, piglike, wrinkling his nose, “Bagonghee! Bagonghee! Bagonghee!”
Biagio and Dino looked at Gennarino, astonished, and Gennarino hollered, “Bagongheeeeeeeeeeee!!!” with a smirk and a voice that would chill spines, like nails on a chalkboard.
At the last echo of Gennarino’s voice, Biagio burst into sudden, singsong laughter, interrupted by coughing. Then Dino, known as “Moldy-Mouth” because of his rotten teeth, also started to laugh, “Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee.”
The Bagonghee business had begun.
So where had the nickname Bagonghee come from?
It had to be a nickname, one of those stupid things that latches on like a tick when you walk barefoot in the grass. But the tick had burrowed in, hollowed out a den under the skin, and gorged itself there for five months.
It obviously didn’t mean anything. It would die a natural death, it couldn’t last forever. Micù was top of his class, after all. The only one who could read aloud without stumbling.
He was always the first one with his hand up when the schoolmaster asked a question, and Peppino would pat him on the head by way of reward. Below Micù in the class rankings, a long way below, was Gennarino Pinozzo.
Gennarino Pinozzo brought one of his father’s magazines into school one day. Inside, on the thin paper pages, the whole Bagonghee mystery was laid bare. The secret of the nickname. Only Micù wasn’t permitted to know.
Gennarino Pinozzo would gather his gang around him each morning, and before the schoolmaster arrived, he’d hold the magazine up before the heads of his trusted disciples. It was all ha ha, hee hee, hoots and howling.
Their heads would bore into the magazine like hens pecking grains from a spot on the ground, then they’d look straight at Micù and smile, commenting under their breath, and the word that snaked between the heads, repeated with shrieks and smiles, was “Bagonghee!”
Micù had tried to break into the pack on several occasions, but Pupúm and his heftybulk had kept him out: “Not you!”
So it was far from the eyes and ears of Micù that Gennarino explained and explained, read and read, shed light on the great Bagonghee mystery.
It was Bagonghee-Bagonghee every time Micù limped into the classroom. Bagonghee-Bagonghee when he took his seat. Bagonghee-Bagonghee when he opened his schoolbook. Bagonghee-Bagonghee when he left at the end of yet another grueling day.
To begin with, Micù thought that if he let it go, they’d eventually stop teasing him. Don Luigi said it all the time in his sermons: “Turn the other cheek! Persist in the face of injustice!” Sitting in church preparing for his First Communion, Micú would sometimes look over at Gennarino, who’d be gazing contritely at the altar from the front row—where the village’s most important family sat—looking like a cherub granted the infinite mercy of the Holy Spirit.
As the parishioners ate the body of Christ, kneeling with their eyes shut, Micù would chant, “I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you!” under his breath. Then he’d turn to Gennarino, who’d be mouthing quite clearly in Micù’s direction, “Ba-gon-ghee.”
Micù even asked the priest, inside the confessional as Don Luigi yawned on the other side of the cross-shaped grating.
“Don Luigi. I’m sorry to ask you this, but there’s a word, I don’t know if it’s a bad word, could you tell me if it’s . . . a sin?”
“That depends, Micù. What letter does it start with?”
“With a B, father!”
“Bug . . .”
“How many letters? Tell me the second letter, Micù.”
“Is it bas . . .”
“What the devil word is it, Micù? Tell me, for the love of God, or I shall sin myself!”
“Bagonghee . . .” Micù blurted.
“Eh?” the priest asked.
“Ba-gon-ghee!” Micù said more slowly.
Don Luigi roared with laughter. “It means nothing, Micù! Nothing at all!”
He granted Micù absolution, then laughed and laughed and laughed some more, even more than Cenzino the Crazy One.
Micù thought he’d have to ask the schoolmaster but . . . that would be ratting. And ratting was for cowards.
Maybe it had something to do with lameness. Maybe Bagonghee was another word for lame, or crooked. Or maybe it had to do with his height, the others were poking fun at him for being small. Micù felt himself slide down with his shorter leg, downdown and more down. A grinding of teeth at every tuneless chant from his classmates. A tremor, in that left leg of his, gripping it, making him limp more than ever. The younger kids had also started to tease him now. Even Santina, who wasn’t yet seven. But they were careful never to let the schoolmaster hear them.
Oh, if the master were to hear them! How he would rage, but it would only start up again the next day.
Of late, Micù had tried to arrive at school moments before the schoolmaster, but each time a classmate would be ready to greet him with a “Ciao Bagonghee!”
After that he tried to arrive late. But seconds before he’d open the door, someone would always appear from behind his back, chanting under their breath, “Bagonghee-Bagonghee-Bagonghee!”
It was as if they’d agreed to take turns.
The schoolmaster couldn’t fathom Micù’s sudden tardiness. And by then the insults had reached the most unimaginable linguistic convolutions, often dished up as questions straight to the poor bagonghee’s face, with the utmost tranquility and not a hint of malice.
“Are all the bagonghees at home doing well?”
“How about that bagonghee grandfather of yours, the Americano, how’s he?”
“What the bagonghee does your father do?”
“Can I bagong your homework, I never had time to bagong it myself?”
“Are you bagongright? You look a bit bagongwrong to me.”
Bagonghee was the everything-word, the word that meant all things to all people, whenever they spoke to Micù.
When it was Gennarino Pinozzo’s turn to lead the bagongheria, he performed it as if it were a ritualistic dance. Into the classroom he’d trot, beating his satchel full of colored pencils like a bass drum as he marched through the door. Gennarino was the only one to own a satchel, or colored pencils for that matter; he’d skip one step forward, one step back, then forward, then back again, shrilling, “Good bagonging, Micùuuuu!”
Clapping, shrieks of joy, insults, rip-roaring raspberries from Pupúm, all directed at poor Micù. And Micù grew ever more weary, ever more tired.
If only he’d bent down, picked up a stone, and thrown it with all his might at Gennarino. If only he’d done it on that first day, he could’ve stopped it all before it started.
Thirty-three minutes later
“Where are you, Farfariel? Show yourself!”
Any minute now he’d appear. Only seconds to go.
Micù was standing a few feet from the entrance to the school. His classmates had gone inside. He waited. Looked through the window into his class. The master hadn’t arrived yet. It was cold. Something rustled in the leaves.
Micù spun around. Nothing. He called out quietly.
“Farfariel!” he repeated louder. “Farfarieeeel!”
Not a sound.
He opened the door, schoolbook and jotter gripped tight under his arm. Some children stood on chairs, others were flying paper airplanes. Ever since the master had read them “The Great Italy-to-Brazil Transatlantic Air Crossing,” everyone had wanted to be like Italo Balbo.
Micù, practically tiptoeing, was almost at his desk when Gennarino flashed him a look that stopped him dead in his tracks.
“Good morning, Bagonghee! What do you make of all this bagongheeing?”
“I don’t know, Gennarino,” Micù replied.
“You never know anything, do you, Micù, except for homework. Isn’t that right, Bagonghee? Because you’re just a Bagonghee! A Bagonghee!” Gennarino snarled.
“Bagonghee Bagonghee!” He banged his fist on the desk. “Bagonghee, Bagonghee, Bagonghee!”
Micù looked down while Biagio, Dino, and the rest of the class joined the chorus: “Bagonghee, Bagonghee, Bagonghee.”
Micù took his seat and shut his eyes. Tears of rage tried to force their way out, but he held them back.
Was Farfariel behind all this?
The thirty-three minutes had passed and Gennarino Pinozzo was dancing, a sort of hop, a dance made up of lots of little hops in a circle, and he was hopping around Micù, chanting in his ears.
“Bagonghee, Bagonghee, Bagonghee!”
Peals of laughter erupted from the class.
After yet another hop, his feet seemed to hit an invisible wire, or something tripped him. Whatever it was, it caused Gennarino Pinozzo to fall like a sack of potatoes, and his nose to go, “Crrraack!”
He lay prone on the floor.
The class fell silent. Seconds later, louder than the rumble of thunder, came Gennarino’s scream.
No one could believe what was happening. Gennarino was whimpering.
The first peal of laughter came from Pupúm, then Dino, then little Santina, then everyone else laughed and yelled and delighted at the undoing of Gennarino Pinozzo, writhing there on the floor. The more he screamed, the more the children copied him, honking like geese. Only Micù wasn’t laughing. When the schoolmaster came in, alerted by the commotion, he didn’t stop to bang on the desk or pull someone’s ear. He rushed straight to Pinozzo and yanked him by the arm out of the pool of blood.
“Be quietquietquiet!” the master said over and over, rocking with laughter himself.
The whole class filed out of the room behind him, as if in procession.
They stood in a circle, just outside the school, while the schoolmaster busied himself with Gennarino’s nose, sweating, struggling to stem the tide.
Micù had gone back inside. Squinting, he spied a shadow slinking in the corner of the room. He whipped around. A cat was rubbing against the outside of the window. It bore an enormous D in the center of its forehead: D for death. The cat clenched a mouse between its teeth. The mouse was still moving its whiskers and paws, the cat sank its teeth deeper into the prey, and the mouse stopped moving, vanquished.
The cat winked, set the dead mouse on the window ledge, and tapped on the window with its paw. It licked its whiskers, closed its eyes. And kept beating on the window with its paw.
Micù opened the window, and the cat jumped in and landed on the floor.
“So it was you then! The death cat in my dreams?”
My prankster side . . . I can’t always control it!
Micù looked at the cat, terrified,
while Farfariel dissolved into silent laughter, shoulders quivering. The more Farfariel watched Pinozzo outside, still crying, the more he laughed. Then he stopped sharply, raised an arm, and, with the longest finger on his left hand, pointed to Pinozzo’s open satchel, colored pencils strewn across the pool of blood on the floor.
Micù slipped a hand inside the satchel, extracted the magazine, and hastily tucked it under his shirt. The magazine was too big, and it was obvious he was trying to conceal something. So he leaned out of the window, which was still open, and threw it into the bushes.
Micù hung back after school, walked part of the way by himself, and, when Pupúm could no longer be seen in the distance, turned back. He turned around several times along the way to make sure no one was following him. Back outside the school, he waited, hid behind a tree for a minute. There was no one around.
He reached a hand into the bramble bushes and pulled out the magazine. It was too risky to open it now, time only to scan the front page: "Scenario." He tucked it under his arm and set off at a fast hobble, as fast as he could manage. When he reached the clearing near the irrigation well on his father and grandfather’s land, he opened the magazine.
“Cursed Farfariel, where are you? Damned devil, where are you?”
It was Farfariel who had stretched the invisible wire that had tripped up Pinozzo.
It was Farfariel who had told him to put his hand into Gennarino’s satchel and take the magazine. “Where are you, Farfariel? Where are you?”
The wind started to blow, scattering the grass sheaves his grandfather had cut for the cow.
“What a fool, what a fool I am, for not realizing straightaway . . . Bagonghee’s a name!”
The name of a dwarf! A dwarf for a dwarf!
A dwarf. A dwarf’s name, a stupid, ridiculous dwarfdwarfdwarf. A dwarf clown on a horse, inside a circus tent, entertaining an audience and making them laugh with stupid dwarf acrobatics.
With all the might in his body, Micù hurled the magazine to the ground. He picked up a stone and smashed it on the page to smash the moronic dwarf face grinning at him from the photo, lunged at it with all his might to kill the stupid, insufferable dwarf. Struck the picture repeatedly, over and over, until he was out of breath.
But with two deep breaths, his strength returned, and he tore the magazine into a hundred pieces, tossed the pages this way and that. Then he rolled them into little balls, tore them to bits; he turned Bagonghee’s face to a pulp and chewed it until his teeth wore down. The taste of the paper and ink were the taste of the anger foaming inside him like spittle from the mouth. He struck the ground, gouged it with his nails, punched it until the skin of his knuckles tore open. He sighed and cried and chewed and chewed. And cried and chewed some more and screamed like a demented baby. Anything he couldn’t chew, he spat out. Then buried. He would’ve set it on fire if he’d had a match, but he had no match, so he drowned it.
He peed on it.
He glanced at the well. It was dark. A dark abyss.
A page, nudged by the wind, landed on the tree.
“Trying to get away, eh?”
He grabbed it before the wind carried it away.
His hand trembled.
It wasn’t Bagonghee’s expression as he landed on the horse’s back after a pirouette.
Or the audience, transfixed, arms raised, waving in awe, hands clapping.
It wasn’t the smell of the dirt, sawdust, sand hanging like fog in the picture. So thick he could feel it in his nose, mixing with the odor of the animals, the scent of fur coat-clad ladies in the stands gripping the hands of children who gaped, intoxicated by the cocktail of dung and sawdust.
It was the horse. The horse stopped him from destroying the page. It was huge, with eyes that were blacker than black and the caption “Bagonghee riding Atlas.”
“What’s Atlas got to do with it? Why on earth would you call a horse Atlas? Ugly little moron! You think you can call your horse after King Atlas and people will suddenly forget you’re a dwarf? Idiot dwarf!”
He was on the point of ripping up the page when the dwarf’s face flashed between his fingers: he was a bold-looking dwarf, eyes shining with joy, blazing with fun, anger, and fire. It was the fire that gave him the strength to govern the horse. It was the joy and the astuteness, the anger and revenge. That dwarf was showing off: he felt important and he wanted everyone to know.
Micù began to think about the article he’d pored over before tearing up the pages. Bagonghee excited people, he won their admiration, they marveled at his astonishing feats.
Maybe the horse’s name wasn’t to make people forget he was a dwarf, it was to make sure they remembered him! It was written in the magazine that he was the highest-paid performer in the circus.
That he could jump and vault on horseback. Do things a normal-sized man couldn’t: his height enabled him to spin and do electrifying acrobatics.
A body so ungainly on the ground acquired elegance and finesse on the back of a horse.
It was as if he’d molded it to do tricks on horseback. Those eyes were trying to tell Micù something.
But the dwarf’s eyes said nothing. Instead, Farfariel spoke, suddenly appearing on the edge of the wall that circled the well.
“Do you feel small?” he shrilled.
“Go away!” Micù bellowed.
Farfariel continued, “I’m small too!”
“Leave me alone!” Micù shouted.
Farfariel paced around the edge of the well.
“Do you remember the last time you went to church?”
“That’s got nothing to do with this!”
“There are two statues kneeling on either side of the altar.”
“Church has nothing to do with this!”
“What are those statues?”
“Think about it, there are two of them . . .”
“And what are angels like? Are they beautiful?”
“Are they like me?”
“No . . .”
Without warning, Farfariel stopped, eyes fixed on Micù. “Tell me, Micù, are you more like me or the angels?”
“You’re the Devil, go away!”
“. . .”
“Are you like me or the angels on the altar?”
Micù looked at the well, pupils throbbing furiously.
“What, you’re not crying, are you?”
“Shut up, damned devil!”
Micù bent down to pick up a stone, but by the time he’d straightened up, Farfariel had gone.
“You never learn, do you?”
He reappeared in front of Micù’s face with his tongue out. Micù didn’t try to hit him this time, only stared with such plaintive eyes that even Farfariel felt a stab of compassion.
“Will you ever learn to use your talents to your advantage?”
The legs disappeared, then the body, then the hands with those strange fingers, and last of all the head, big blue tongue sticking out. Micù reeled. He threw the last few scraps of the magazine into the well.
He carefully folded the photo of Bagonghee on Atlas and placed it in his pocket.
He wasn’t ready to discover his power, the power of the Book. He was obsessed with his height.
“You’re either taller or shorter when you have to face people,” he repeated to himself. And he’d have to get used to being the shortest. Always. But maybe shortest didn’t mean weakest. For starters, to not be the weakest, he had to be cleverer. But where was the line between being clever and being cruel?
And what if he had to be a devil to be taken seriously by everyone else? His head reeled with questions.
“When will you stop being afraid?” Farfariel’s voice taunted him. “When will you stop being afraid?”
It surrounded him.
“When will you stop being afraid?”
No matter how many stupid questions you ask, nothing counts more than the right one.
“I’m not scared! I’m not scared of anything. Do you hear me, Farfariel? Do you hear me?” Micù bellowed to the four winds, limping toward home. “I’m not afraid of anything!” he shouted some more to the wind, trying to stop Farfariel’s voice. And the voice, before finally falling silent, said one last thing.
“The Book is yours, Micù. It’s waiting for you.”
From Farfariel - Il Libro di Micù (Uovonero, 2018). © Pietro Albi. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Denise Muir. All rights reserved.
As the world battles the COVID-19 virus, Words Without Borders is commissioning new work from contributors all over the world to offer humanistic perspectives on and literary responses to the crisis. We published the first piece, from Italian writer Silvia Ranfagni, on Monday, March 16, when the extent of the wreckage this coronavirus would leave in its wake was just becoming clear. Check back often for new selections of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to accompany us through these uncertain times.
Living in a Sci-Fi Movie: An Italian Screenwriter on Coronavirus
Plague Diary, March 23, 2020
In this dispatch from Mexico, Milena Solot provides a glimpse of daily life in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rocío’s brother Carlos came back today. I wasn't worried but Rocío was, or at least she seemed to be. Maybe Rocío was worried for her mom, rather, because her mother was worried about Carlos. They hadn’t heard from him for a week. They thought he might be in prison, they wondered if he was dead. The boy he went with, Ely's brother, came back saying the officers chased them after the truck they were traveling in crashed. The boy was caught. Carlos, however, ran into the bush.
“Thank God he came back,” I say to Rocío. “I was worried about him. Last night I went to sleep thinking about him, you know what I mean, not thinking like that,”—we both laugh—“but thinking oh I hope Carlos is OK.”
“I understand,” she tells me. “I know what you mean. I also went to bed hoping he was alright.”
“Although I wasn't really worried. I mean not really worried about him; you know what I mean? He's so smart, Carlos, he has done this so many times. It's hard to imagine him being caught.”
“I know, but they did tell us he was in prison.”
“Who told you this?”
“Some cousin who lives in San Antonio, but then she called the prison and he wasn't there.”
“I don't know.”
“Oh, well . . . but he's OK.”
“Will he try again?”
“Oh, you know Carlos, he just can't stay here anymore. He gets restless.”
“I don't know why, I mean, he already has his big house.”
“And his cars.”
“He may need a woman, a very attractive woman who makes him want to stay. Not like Karina.”
“Yes, not like her!”
“More like Bere.”
“Yeah, I really like her.”
“But she's taken.”
“Did he come by bus?”
“Did Carlos arrive by bus?”
“Oh, yes, today at 5 am. He called Dani and she went to pick him up at the terminal.”
“That makes me want to cry.”
“I just find his relationship with Dani so tender. I think he sees her as his little baby sister.”
“Well, she is his little baby sister.”
“He adores her. I mean, he loves all of you, but Dani is really, really special for him.”
“I know, we all have one person who's the most special to us, don't you think?”
I stand up and pour some coffee in my cup. I glance at Rocío, slowly washing dishes in the sink.
“You know what Ely told me the other day?” she tells me.
“What was that?”
“She told me I was rich.”
“She told me: Tía, do you know you're rich? and I said, Rich? Why? and Ely said: Because you have your own house and you have enough to eat. And I told her: I guess you're right, Ely, I am rich.”
“I like Ely, bring her over one day, one day without a pandemic.” We both laugh. “I'll be working in the next room, Rocío, tell me if you need anything. Rocío? Thank you. Really. Thank you for everything you do around here. I have no idea how I could manage without you.”
“Oh, it's nothing. I like coming here,” she says and winks.
A volume of interviews with survivors of the detention camps first created by Lenin in 1918 documents harrowing abuses against dissidents and minorities that extend to present-day Russia.
They led you away at dawn. So begins the section of Anna Akhmatova’s iconic poem “Requiem,” which Monika Zgustova chose as the frontispiece for this immensely powerful book about women’s experiences in the Soviet gulag.
Zgustova was a teenager in the mid-1970s, when her family fled Czechoslovakia to escape political persecution from the Communist regime (her father was a prominent Czech linguist). She grew up in the US. Intensely interested in Russian literature, she moved to Barcelona, where she worked as a translator of Russian and Czech literature, especially dissident writings. Traveling to Moscow in September 2008, she met a group of former gulag prisoners, many of them Jewish. Seated around kitchen tables, supposedly out of range of KGB listening devices, they told their stories. As she listened to them, Zgustova realized that the men’s narratives detailed experiences that were generally much better known. She resolved to bring forward the women’s stories. And thus germinated the idea for this book.
Zgustova traveled in Russia and Europe (to London and Paris) to interview female gulag survivors. The gulags, Soviet prison camps, were first established by Lenin in 1918, soon after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. From 1930 to 1953, during Stalin’s rule, approximately 18 million people were confined; about 1.7 million of those are estimated to have perished. As Zgustova’s interviews show, however, repression did not stop with Stalin. True, people were no longer arbitrarily shot, but after Stalin’s death in 1953, the murderous terror of his regime was replaced by a police state that never really went away. During the Khrushchev (1953–1964) and Brezhnev years (1964–1982), the KGB and the gulag system kept on, and much of the brutality and indifference persisted. Some camps still exist under Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule. Imprisoned members of the feminist opposition group Pussy Riot, among others, have documented the abysmal conditions of post-Soviet incarceration.
Those Zgustova interviews tell of unspeakable horrors—the dreaded knock on the door at some ungodly hour; the callous KGB agents rifling through their belongings; the travel to the far north or some other inhospitable climate; the scarce and often repulsive food; the grueling efforts of forced labor: felling trees, moving rocks, digging ditches, repetitive and often meaningless work.
It is hard to believe that these women survived. As Zgustova notes, they live with lasting physical effects of what they were put through. For example, many cannot stand up for long, the result of years of endless lineups, unspeakable deprivation of all kinds, a diet of barely digestible slop, and solitary confinement for months at a time at the whim of those in authority.
The brutal indifference of the guards, the arbitrariness of the administration, all this is recounted. Some women came from the humblest of backgrounds, while others were connected to famous dissidents.
The harassment of Boris Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, the model for Lara in Doctor Zhivago, is recalled by Ivinskaya’s daughter. Zgustova also interviews Ella Markman, a friend and gulag mate of Marina Tsvetaeva’s daughter Ariadna Efron. Markman recounts the trials and tribulations of the great poet Tsvetaeva, lured back to the Soviet Union in 1939, only to experience her husband Sergei Efron’s death at the hands of Stalin’s secret police and the harassment and imprisonment of her daughter Ariadna. Subjection to a sort of internal exile, privation, and psychological torture led Tsvetaeva to suicide in 1941. Unlike Anna Akhmatova, who was threatened but never imprisoned, remaining in her Leningrad apartment until her death, Tsvetaeva simply could not withstand the loss of loved ones and the pressure put on her after she returned to Stalin’s socialist paradise.
Zgustova shows that Soviet-style repression extended beyond the country’s borders, ensnaring citizens of neighboring states. She interviews Poles who wound up in the gulag and who testify that they saw other foreigners, including Americans, there. All the accounts confirm that guards, camp officials, and criminal prisoners generally demonstrated callousness and random cruelty. The women were often saved by the few compassionate or bribable staff.
The stories also illuminate the broad range of people detained for political reasons by the Soviet dictatorship, from committed communists to deeply orthodox nuns and other religious believers.
This system did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The pattern of late Soviet repression is once again felt in Russia today. The gulags have enjoyed a resurgence with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power in 2000 and subsequent strengthening of the police state. Some of Zgustova’s interviewees attest to this, recounting repression extending almost to the present.
Natalia Gorbanevskaya’s presents one of the strongest and most harrowing testimonies of this continuing pattern of repression and abuse. She was active in dissident circles in the 1960s as a friend of Akhmatova’s and an editor of the journal Chronicle of Current Events. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia under Brezhnev’s orders, in August 1968, she and seven friends staged a protest in Moscow and were attacked by KGB operatives. Despite being arrested and physically assaulted, Gorbanevskaya continued her public demonstrations. A year later, she became a victim of a newer KGB tactic. State agents confined her to a mental hospital and forcibly fed her psychotropic drugs. As a result, she suffered severe long-term side effects, including Parkinson’s disease. Still, she didn’t stop protesting. In 1975, she was forced to emigrate to Israel with her two small children. Relocating to Paris, she last traveled to Moscow in 2013 to participate in protests on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Czech invasion. Once again, she was arrested for organizing “an unauthorized demonstration.” Subsequently released, she returned to Paris, where she died three months later.
No one work can provide a full picture of a system that dates to the early days of Lenin’s Bolshevik rule. One topic on which Zgustova’s informants are silent is same-sex relations among the political prisoners. Lesbianism is only mentioned once, in a list of deviants whom the interviewees encounter on their journey through the gulag system. Either Zgustova didn’t ask or she and her interviewees shared a common desire to keep this topic in the closet. In this they share the general silence and/or negative attitudes of current Russian society, very much part of Putin’s so-called “traditional values” agenda. Yet historians like Laura Engelstein and Dan Healey have shown that pre- and immediately post-1917 Russian “traditional values” included a greater acceptance of homosexuality than did Western societies at that time.
This omission aside, Zgustova has followed in the footsteps of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich in seeking out and documenting the too often invisible stories of women’s experiences in the gulag. She has made a significant contribution to our understanding of women’s experiences of repression in the Soviet Union and in the post-Soviet space.
Arabic literary traditions are rich with women telling their own stories, from Andalusian Wallada bint al-Mustakfi’s fakhr poetry—allegedly embroidered on her clothes—through the epistolary practice of Nahda writers like Mayy Ziyadeh to the autobiographies of feminist pioneers Huda al-Shaarawi and Nawal al-Saadawi, as well as the memoirs of established literary authors such as Radwa Ashour and Samar Yazbek. In this feature, we bring you a small selection of contemporary voices that expand and challenge these diverse traditions of nonfictional life writing.
Translations of women authors from the Arab world are often read in reductive ways. All it takes is a look at the rolling landscape of women in veils adorning book covers to realize that there’s a voyeuristic impulse that—at least until very recently—has governed many of the publishing trends around Arab women’s literature. And that, when it comes to writing by women from Arab countries, the assumption that women’s life writing would tend toward the domestic and private spheres still prevails. These considerations make it difficult to gather pieces under a header that contains both “women” and “Arabic” without running the risk of essentializing.
Much has been written since the early 2000s about the packaging and reception of Arab women’s writing, specifically in English translation. For instance, Margot Badran’s translation of Huda al-Shaarawi’s memoirs, titled Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1987), gives more weight in the preface and other paratextual material to the subject of the veil than Shaarawi’s own narrative does. Life in the “harem” is also foregrounded in ways that it is not in the Arabic. Shaarawi, who redefined women’s public engagement through the Egyptian Feminist Union, affords a lot more space in her text to her public action and nationalist politics. The Arabic does not even have “harem” in the title.
Nawal al-Saadawi, one of the most translated authors from Arabic into English, has been read and discussed in ways that exaggerate her subversiveness. Saadawi occupies a space in the multifarious feminist and leftist movements of her country, but editors and critics in English have repeatedly—often against her own best efforts—foregrounded sensationalist topics in her writing, portraying her as a lone fighter and the majority of Arab women as hapless victims.
The term “Arab women” itself comes with its own set of problems. It imposes a fictive homogeneity on diverse life experiences and varied contexts that have as much to set them apart as to unite them. Then there is the question of language. Not all writers identifying as Arab write in Arabic, and not everyone who writes in Arabic lives in the Arab world. But even if we take Arabic language as a defining criterion—which we do for this selection—we have to be careful not to erase literary expressions in any of the many tongues that are not the predominant modern standard Arabic, including local colloquial variations.
What is to be done, then, to give Anglophone readers a better chance to appreciate women writers from the Arab world, beyond the politics of representation and away from the public/private dichotomy? Perhaps the answer is to let as many texts as possible speak for themselves: texts that are personal and specific enough to inevitably question easy assumptions and restore the plurality missing from the representation narrative, but also topical and daring enough to show that there are countless links between the personal and the public, and many routes from the particular to the universal. We hope that the selection of texts in this feature goes some way in the direction of doing just that.
“Razor Blade Rattle and the Beginnings of Being Tamed,” translated by Sawad Hussain, is an excerpt from the autobiography Woman of the Rivers (2015) by Ishraga Mustafa, a Sudanese-Austrian writer, poet, and translator. An intimate and visceral piece that describes childhood trauma with a chilling lyricism, it deals with the physical loss of genital cutting and the emotional loss of trust in older women in the family. But this is far from a story of female victimhood: Mustafa’s voice here is strong and poetic, connected to nature and to her own body, sharp in its resistance to the controls exerted over it. It recaptures the spirit of the defiant child owning her losses and growing “the fruit of that pain [. . .] into palm trees.” Just as she grows herself into the author who inhabits a place from which she can speak about “the hundred lanterns in her mind.”
If autobiography is defined by the concurrence of the author with the “I” that speaks, Nadia Kamel’s Born: The Story of Naela Kamel, née Marie Rosenthal challenges that supposition. This oral-history-cum-autobiography is based on Kamel’s recordings of her mother and written entirely in ammeya (spoken Egyptian Arabic). In a feat of literary ventriloquism, Kamel channels her mother’s voice to tell the story in the first person: mother and daughter crossing together—as Kamel puts it in the introduction—“the threshold of telling, an act of stepping out.”
Mary’s/Naela’s voice is wise and inquisitive, embracing the multiculturalism of the generations of migrants she hails from while constantly interrogating her place in the world. In “Communism in Style,” translated for this feature by Brady Ryan and Essayed Taha, Naela/Mary shares anecdotes from her covert work for the printing press of a 1940s Egyptian Communist cell. This is a sardonic account of the cell’s work that gently mocks her own youthful naivete as well as the amateurish operations of the group. She is subtly aware of questions of privilege and class prejudice and, without taking herself too seriously, insists on going against the grain of the expectations of her milieu.
Palestinian writer and activist Sahar Khalifeh is also known for her refusal to conform. In “University Student,” excerpted from her autobiography A Novel for My Story (2018) and translated by Sawad Hussain, she recounts her reaction to receiving an offer of place at Birzeit University as a mature student in 1973, a pioneering move at the time and especially daring under Israeli occupation. It is a bittersweet recollection of that era in Khalifeh’s life, told in a tone that is steady and determined but never overconfident. Her stated ambitions are to become a writer and to be financially independent, but the obstacles are many: societal expectations, lack of funds, and the logistics of movement under occupation, to name a few. Khalifeh’s account moves beyond the initial reactions from those around her—“What was that? One of whimsical Sahar’s latest pipe dreams?”—to offer a vivid snapshot of female solidarity and mutual empowerment.
The final piece in this selection is Rasha Abbas’s “Six Proposals for Participation in a Conversation about Bread.” Included here in Alice Guthrie’s translation, it first appeared in al-Jumhuriya alongside a number of essays that interrogate the relationship of food to power and political turmoil. Poetically, it strips down the struggles of war and military coups, and questions of exile and belonging, to a focal point that is as basic as it is universal: bread in its many forms, traversing eras and geographies, from the 1940s through the 2010s in cities like Damascus, Moscow, Latakia, and Berlin. The first person is mostly implicit in Rasha Abbas’s personal essay, somewhat secondary, hiding behind the wider political upheavals, witnessing without seeming to directly engage.
In Greek tragedy, female choruses were introduced to serve the dramatic purpose of passive witnesses and commentators. A chorus of men, you see, would have been expected to intervene in the events unfolding onstage. Women, on the other hand, were not expected to act. In other, more recent European traditions, autobiography used to be considered an androcentric genre. In its most basic format, it depicted an individual hero’s journey from childhood to public accomplishments, focusing on external trials and triumphs and the role played in public life. It was assumed that to play a role in public life, you would have to be a man. Again, we see the division of what is ultimately expected of public- vs. private-sphere denizens.
But one cannot write about real-life experiences from the place of the “I” without laying claim to a place in the world. The pieces included here—like most genuine, impactful life writing by good writers of all genders or none—cut across the private and public spheres to give us stories that can be surprising, shocking, or eerily familiar and relatable. This feature is meant to broach rather than summarize a rich and diverse area of reading possibilities. We invite you to cross the threshold of telling and enjoy a discordant cacophony of voices—certainly not a passive chorus—each weaving the narrative of a life that is simultaneously individual and connected with the world around it, so that the Arabness of the writer's identity or location becomes secondary to the vital human stories she shares.
© 2020 by Sawad Hussain and Nariman Youssef. All rights reserved.
Content warning: this piece contains descriptions of female circumcision that may be upsetting.
Writer Ishraga Mustafa recounts her experience of genital mutilation in this excerpt from her autobiography.
Things didn’t stay as the toy boats of my childhood would have wished; unrestrained and free, I used to play with the boys in the street . . . the skies would open and pour down, and we would amuse ourselves to the hilt. The taming began the day I heard them, the women, saying, “The girls have grown, now’s the time for tuhur.”
“Joy tonight, sorrow tomorrow!” the neighbor’s daughter, older than me, sang with a rattle in her throat. I didn’t know what she meant until later: the terrifying leap from the delights that preceded the taming to the slaughter of a child’s innocent happiness.
It was the beginning of a winter that ended with the recitation of loss and absences.
There wasn’t much time left before I would start school. Happily, I would follow the path toward the building, searching, eagerly anticipating my learning.
My younger sister and I were beside ourselves when we were placed at the heart of the celebration; we were the center of the universe. Girls circumcised before us knew that our joy would be followed by the slaughtering of our sparrows, a day drowned in a waterfall of questions, questions about being itself.
How could my grandmother, how could my Mama Halima celebrate my pain?
How could my mothers and aunts welcome the smell of my childhood blood?
How did Riya, my grandmother, do it? Didn’t my habuba hear the mole on her nose sobbing, whispering to her, “This cluster of grapes that you’ve snipped from her childhood vine isn’t that much different from me: the miserable mole on your nose that looks like a kite’s beak!”
How could they, when these women themselves had been through so much pain—or had they grown to savor it?
Habuba’s voice scolded us. Grandmothers had always been like this, showering affection and opening doors of mercy while forcing open young girls’ thighs for the woman with the metal case, inside which different scalpels were lined up, ready to sever us from our human dreams of passion and ardor. The grandmother whose face was unfamiliar to me now. She who recounted the tales and legends of ghouls, how could she herself allow the biggest ghoul of all to butcher the gateway to my fertility while the rain drowned out the women’s calls for it?
The sound of the drums grew louder. I heard my little sister’s stifled scream. Before my legs could find steady footing in the wind, I was grabbed and brought back to a bed covered with a plastic sheet. There were scissors boiling in water atop the stove, its live coals glowing. The injection was prepared and five women assembled to witness the slaughter.
The razor blade rattled, the scalpel itching to be plunged into my tender flesh. “Everything goes! This is a filthy lalob right here!” the woman doing the deed snarled.
How the taste of the lalob fruit no longer enchanted me, and I haven’t stepped near it since that day. The anesthetic coursed through my small body, and I tried to lift my head to see what this woman was doing, but another clasping my left hand berated me, telling me to shut my eyes and not ask so many questions. I could hear the beat of the drum rising outside, the neighborhood girls and other women trilling the more the midwife dug into my flesh. I figured out the meaning of the words the neighbor’s daughter had sung softly, her voice scratchy, like a sob: “Joy tonight, sorrow tomorrow.” I was terrified. In my mind a dove was being butchered at that very moment; would I suffer the same fate? The celebration, the new dresses, and the affection from my family members—it was all in anticipation of the slaughtered dove, its feathers wet, cooing tearfully.
After I was jabbed once more with the anesthetic, the neighbor’s daughter’s voice came to me softly until it vanished with the partial cutting of my clitoris, labia majora, and minora. I then saw the midwife prepare a needle to stitch up where she had cut me. I saw her cut my tender, moist bougainvillea. She smiled as she pushed my head back down; I struggled to see what they were doing to me.
I remembered my father and called out to him. The woman pulling on my right leg said there were no men here. Not my father, not my grandfather, not even my younger brother—the twin of my little sister who was yelling out in pain. There were only women. I didn’t see my father till the next day.
In the evening, everyone was cheerful and the attention paid to my sister and me grew even more. Special dishes of pigeon soup and meat broth were served. Against the side wall, the head of a sheep lay still, the lot of the midwife—this important woman whom everyone heeded left laden with gifts of candy, sugar, tea, pastries, and the head of the poor sheep that had been a witness to the pain before departing from this world.
The time had come for our trip to the Al-Sira sea. A Babu Rjila bus and a taxi came for us . . . us, the circumcised girls.
I asked Mama Halima about that unripened date, the balaha cut from my body, and where they would bury it. I saw it lying sad and pink next to the sink. I breathed into it a great moan of pain and it soon became pregnant with the fruit of that pain, fresh fruit that grew into palm trees that would accompany me in the days to come.
And still, the grandmothers were considered kind folk, bringing pitchers of water for their men’s ablutions.
At night, the oozing started, the scorpions that they hadn’t tamed twitched, waking me. With my small hand, I touched the wound; tightly wound threads taming our sparrows that stopped chirping that night.
The smell of henna that had filled my childhood with delight mixed with the smell of my blood. My pain and screams echoed in the songs of Al-Sira, the white sea. The shrine of one of God’s pious men that lay on the banks of the White Nile remains a witness to my tears and the groans of the two other girls. Once they released us, a spark had been snuffed out within us, but in my mind, a hundred lanterns had been lit.
As we sat under the lalob tree, each of us touched the throbbing pain of the slaughtered dove between her two slender thighs.
Later I came to know that my father had been against circumcision. My grandmothers had told him that it was a women’s issue and that he should keep his nose out of it. To my father’s credit, he insisted that the circumcision should happen the less intrusive way, as supposedly suggested by the Prophet, if it was necessary at all. They obeyed him—only to revisit the entire procedure years later when they thought the midwife hadn’t pulled out the shrub by its roots. Our neighbor swore that she had heard us loudly urinating, sounding like those who hadn’t been circumcised. The satanic plant should have been pulled out from its roots. Had they not been scared of how my father would react, they would have cut off everything, breaking us in completely.
At twelve years old, I was overjoyed at the birds budding on my chest. I would stare at them in admiration, tenderly, in our small mirror. I celebrated my two bougainvillea buds, but the world besieged me until my breasts became firm doum palm fruits that only belonged to fear that I bucked against.
I rejoiced in my first drops of blood, so much so that I would smell it; like fresh rain on wheat, like drizzle and dew on a lemon tree. My mother didn’t breathe a word to me about puberty, but one of my grandmothers, Mama Halima, would always nettle me, curious, “Have you started menstruating yet?”
The day it happened, it was a crescent moon in all its beauty. It then grew round, widening out, only to narrow again when I was hit with stomach cramps. I’d eagerly anticipate this moment every twenty-eight days. It had drawn a map on the dress of the girl who sat next to me in fifth grade. She had covered herself up, embarrassed, while some other girls pointed at her in incomprehension. Those girls must not yet have encountered the tenderness of that bleeding.
The day I got my period, my other grandmother tied together palm fronds from a stripped palm branch, with Quranic verses and black cumin nested within to protect me from the evil eye. Black was to become my identity and that of every female ritual to come.
I remember well how I welcomed my breasts. On my way to school and my way home, I would dance with them. One day my father saw me and gave me a beating. I should walk in such a way as to not call attention to them, he said, not jiggle my chest as I had been.
But from that day on, I have adopted a proud, towering, dancing gait, a celebration of life . . .
© Ishraga Mustafa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from her autobiography, novelist Sahar Khalifeh describes how she and two of her friends became the first middle-aged university students in Palestine.
Birzeit University offered me a place, and I grew wings, feeling that the world was finally opening up to me. I forgot about my novel completely and cast it aside. It felt too small, too frail, to be a real source of support, one that could restore the balance I had lost because of my ignorance, my dependence on others, and not having my own money. I had to stand on my own without relying on anyone, whoever they may be. My first novel, or any novel for that matter, wouldn’t provide me with the financial or moral support I craved.
Financial independence was to be my foundation. How did those creative types even survive? Who were they, those novelists, poets, and storytellers? Like Ihsan Abdel Quddous, they had to be journalists, or influential officers like Yusuf Sibai, or government officials like Nizar Qabbani and Naguib Mahfouz; otherwise they were beggars who lived a life of poverty and scarcity, drowning themselves in cigarette smoke and the fumes of bars and cafés to forget their degrading existence, and embellishing their reality with narratives that made a sacrificial offering out of poverty and a tale of heroism out of humiliation.
In other words, novels couldn’t be a real source of income to live off. And all those artistic souls, if you dug into their histories and lives, not one of them made ends meet from their artistic work alone. They had to earn a fixed salary from a stable job, writing on the side, in their spare time: novels, stories, and verses. And so I put my novel out of my mind, as if it were an experience from my bygone past, a fleeting fling, or a whim that didn’t deserve to be indulged.
I started to prepare myself for university, physically and mentally. I chose a room on the ground floor of our family home, put in a Spartan iron bed and bookshelves, and designated a corner for reading, writing, and studying. The room was spacious; its windows overlooked my mother’s garden, abloom with white calla lilies, pansies, damask roses, and a giant jasmine tree that clambered against the western windowpane and stretched all the way up to the second floor. There, the glass veranda had the most breathtaking view of the Nablus mountains from the west, as well as the path leading to Tulkarm, Netanya, and the distant coastline that revealed itself at night in the lights of the ships and the port and the sea mist.
In that house, that room, I lived some sweet days, but some very bitter ones too. It was there that I discovered that my shackles were not temporary or limited, not something I could just shrug off by ending my horrendous marriage and alienation in Libya. I was a woman: young, alone, divorced, left without a guardian or virtue, meaning that in society’s eyes I was an easy target; after all, access to me was unobstructed, and whoever knocked on the door would of course immediately be welcomed in without the slightest dawdling. A woman in this situation, in this generation of ours, with our societal conventions, our Islamic and secular laws, won’t find freedom by quickly crossing a border or with the flourish of a magic wand. Women’s struggle for liberation isn’t much different from that of the nation. One is as political as the other. The difference is that national politics are glorified, crowned with a halo. But when it comes to the feminist and sexual struggle, there are challenges, grumbling, and arbitrary accusations that sometimes reach the heights of heresy or even treason. Yet this struggle is also political. The road to freedom is political. And freedom in any field, for any issue, has its price: as a poet once said, “Every bloody hand knocks on the red door of freedom.” Was I really prepared for such freedom and its consequences?
I enrolled my two daughters in one of the Nablus schools while I too went back to being a student. I got rid of my old attire and replaced it with clothing that had a predominantly sporty look. No high heels, no frills, nothing too tight or too loose. Jeans or linen pants, cotton blouses and wool sweaters. Then when winter came, a black leather biker jacket and knee-high low-heeled leather boots. In that getup, I could have been a guard or a traffic cop.
Two or three weeks before I started university, three young women I had known before departing for Libya—when I was still married and living on the west side of Nablus—came to pay me a visit. The first had been my neighbor and an old acquaintance. The other two were a friend and her older sister; I had known them and their family for many years. Following the painful loss of their mother at a young age, this older sister, being the oldest female among her siblings, had taken on the role of her mother and was unable to finish her university degree; she settled for a post of limited opportunity in one of the ministries that we had inherited from the Jordanian government before the occupation.
My visitors asked what I was going to do with my life now that I was set free from a marriage they knew to have been sinister and thorny. Bursting with enthusiasm, I crowed, “I’m going to Birzeit University to study, get my degree, and then a job.” Their eyes widened. My friend, who had accompanied her older sister, stayed on to fire off questions. I said that I had lived my life like a fool. That from then on, I would go back to being a stellar student: studying and educating myself.
“But you’re already educated, Sahar,” one of them countered. “No one else in Nablus reads the way you do!”
“Aimless reading is what I do, with no ultimate goal or guiding principles. I’ve got to study within a curriculum, with criteria and an objective in sight. The goal, of course, is a degree, and then a job. Then I’ll be able to write novels and be a highly regarded author.”
The three of them exchanged looks when I mentioned writing novels. They knew my hobbies as drawing, singing, music, reading novels . . . but writing them? What was that? One of whimsical Sahar’s latest pipe dreams?
I spoke to them about my novel, but they didn’t pay that much attention; they went on instead about university and my ability to study at this mature age. Would I succeed? Wouldn’t it be embarrassing to share a bench with students the same age as my own children? I let them know that their way of thinking was outmoded, and that in other, more open, more developed societies, there were hundreds, no, thousands of individuals going back to study at a later stage in life.
“But that’s in America or Europe. Here, in our society, what will people say? How do you think people will look at you?”
My friend, who was a university graduate and a teacher, stood in my corner and turned to her sister to ask, “Why don’t you go with Sahar to Birzeit?”
“Me?” she coughed. “I’m in my mid-forties!”
“But you’ve already sacrificed so much for us,” her sister said. “You’ve been a mother to us and forgotten yourself in the process. Now that we’ve all grown up, finished our studies, and have jobs, don’t you think it’s time to chase your own dreams? Go with Sahar, throw yourself into the university experience. Live your life!”
Her older sister bowed her head for a bit, and when she raised it, her eyes were glistening and she was smiling faintly. “You mean it?” she asked hesitantly. “It’s really okay?”
“Of course it is!” we all chorused. “It’s your right.”
The two sisters hugged, then I too hugged my future classmate because we were now on this journey together, this arduous journey for the sake of our education.
In the evening, two or three hours after my visitors had left, my old neighbor called to announce in her serious, matter-of-fact manner, “Me too, I’m going to Birzeit to study. I asked my husband and he’s all for it. I’ll be the third.”
For me, getting a degree was just the first step in my self-development plan. For my friend’s sister, it was a far-off wish that seemed unattainable even in her wildest dreams. She had gotten used to the idea of being a stand-in mother for a family starved of a mother’s love. She turned away many suitors in favor of keeping the family together and filling the void that her mother had left behind. She raised the young ones and took care of the older ones, and her venerable father helped her with it all, he who had refused to remarry after the death of his wife, afraid that a stepmother would mistreat his children. All the siblings went to school, including the youngest before she was martyred in one of the Palestinian resistance operations.1 A highly respected family. All of its members, without exception, were nurtured in an environment of learning and incandescent nationalistic fervor. I used to envy them for that, and for their father. And so, when the eldest sister decided to join me in achieving this dream, I was overjoyed. As for my neighbor, she was a woman with a razor-sharp analytical mind. She didn’t have kids, but she had lucked out with her open-minded and forward-thinking husband.
And then there were three. Three musketeers in a battle for knowledge. At Birzeit that’s what they nicknamed us, “the three musketeers.” Knowledge was our right, and we took the matter very seriously; foot soldiers ready to martyr ourselves for the sake of achieving our dream. We were the first mature students in Palestine, possibly Jordan as well. After us, the road was wide open for mature students to enroll in universities and learn in the main programs, not just associated courses.
We would get up at the crack of dawn and share a taxi from Nablus to Ramallah. Then we’d wait for the Birzeit bus to fill up or the minibus to reach the town of Birzeit itself. The whole thing took at least an hour and a half, sometimes two hours, and it was the same on the way back. Which meant we spent no less than three hours every day, sometimes four or even five, getting to and from the university. We didn’t see it as an obstacle, but approached it with optimism—as if we were going for a trip somewhere—and filled our time on public transport talking about big and small things, what had happened the day before or the precarious political situation. There were times, especially on frosty winter days, when we’d be forced to turn back midway because of how much snow had accumulated or because the security checkpoints had blocked certain areas off. And there were other times when my neighbor and I would grasp any opportunity, because our older companion, weighed down by her responsibilities, was too serious to join us, to go to the Grand Hotel in Ramallah and enjoy their delicious drinks with their mouthwatering mezze.
Public transport wasn’t the only obstacle we had to overcome. Our studies required a certain level of concentration and the ability to retain names, numbers, and dates. I don’t think that I was the only one who struggled with this. Us three, compared to our classmates who were all under twenty, came out wanting in the recall function department. But we still did well. Our younger classmates excelled because their minds were like sponges, whereas we excelled due to our ability to analyze, justify, make logical connections between events, and use language to express ourselves articulately. So in the end, our names were always at the top of the honor roll.
From A Novel for My Story. © Sahar Khalifeh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.
1 The young martyr was called Shadia Abu Ghazala, one of the members of the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. ↩
Writer Rasha Abbas spans countries and decades in these interconnected musings on the relationship between food and political upheaval.
“He who kills the ovenbird or breaks his house draws the storm upon himself.”1
—Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, translated by Cedric Belfrage
Damascus, 1949—Announcement #4
“We were obliged to temporarily cede the reins of power.”
The first Syrian revolutionary coup d’état was announced by back-to-back radio bulletins, starting with the basics: an introduction emphasized how reluctant the leaders of the coup were to rule the country. Apparently they had simply been obliged to take over, despite their reticence, knowing their rule was in the public interest. (This tone was to be replicated in the declarations announcing every military coup to come.) Next, the leaders requested that Syrians be “calm and serene,” warned them not to take up arms, and imposed a curfew. After that came the fourth announcement: the bread announcement. This was a warning not to monopolize the sale of bread or manipulate its prices, and a promise of severe punishment for anyone who violated this rule.
Coups d’état had not yet become a frequent Syrian ritual; people passing by the military personnel massing in the streets of the capital would stop them and ask them the meaning of the word “coup.” Three months later, the coup’s impulsive leader, Husni al-Za’im, so very fond of ostentatious displays of military prestige, was sent for execution by firing squad along with the leader of his government. After that, people grew accustomed to hoarding bundles of bread in their homes whenever a new coup or incident was announced. And in the years of slaughter to come, rounds of flatbread would be baptized with blood in the rebel areas, where bread ovens were targeted by airstrikes at the busiest time of day.
Moscow, 1990—The Black Loaf, Pride of the Peasants
“That’s what we get for supporting Communism: standing in line for this black loaf.”
Our Arab neighbor in Russia, the person making this complaint, was obviously not the biggest fan of that black bread—but to be fair to the woman and to understand her vexed mood, the year 1990 was certainly not the most delightful of periods in Moscow’s history. Just as slices of that loaf were an essential element for setting a table, good manners were a duty in the presence of your hosts: saying grace over the bitter black oatmeal bread before eating had nothing to do with thanking God. The hand that put the bread on the table was real and tangible, not some paranormal concept—that same hand that was to be seen again and again in the dismal Ba’athist murals across Damascus, the “worker’s hand” dubbed by the Ba’ath state “the loftiest hand of all.” Peace and prayers be upon the bitterness of the black oat loaf, pride of the peasants, who break this bread as a sign of friendship every time they meet someone new. Peace and prayers be upon Leningrad during its years of siege, keeping starvation at bay with this bread; and peace be upon the vagrants who break it on their vodka glasses, cursing Gorbachev’s economic reforms.
The slices of bitter bread land on the dining table along with a pat of butter and the weight of the tension in the air. Words and phrases everyone repeats hysterically: collapse, perestroika, Chechen gangs stirring up trouble in Moscow. Of course at seven years old I wasn’t able to fully understand what a decisive moment this was for the country. I was absorbed in learning Russian from books about the adventures of children called Valodia and Pyotr and Nadia, and amusing myself by watching the Soviet version of Tom and Jerry (nuu boughoudi, “Just you wait!”) and training my growing teeth to tackle the rock-hard Alenka chocolate bars. I was preparing myself for greater chewing challenges alongside my Communist and Socialist peers, their teeth so solid they ripped right through reactionary projects. On the nights my father was away from home, my mother would listen anxiously for any footsteps on the stairs of our building. She wasn’t comfortable with the constant questions from our Russian neighbors about whether we were from Grozny. It wasn’t clear whether our reply in the negative, and our insistence that we were Arabs, qualified as a correct answer: their faces didn’t show a whole lot of relief on hearing it.
I asked my mother about perestroika, that word everyone was repeating. What did it mean? She made the shape of a ball in the air with her hands: “Demolition,” she said, moving her hands away from each other, “and rebuilding,” as her hands came back together to form the phantom ball again.
The turtle extended her head from the round goldfish bowl on the kitchen table at the dramatic tone of my mother’s lesson, then went back to being bored underwater.
Latakia, 1998—Diabetic Bread (1)
After a stint in the country’s prisons during the collapse of the union with Egypt, my grandfather vowed never to set foot in Syria ever again. He emigrated to West Germany and carried out his threat: he stayed in Bonn until he died, having been robbed by Alzheimer’s of his memories of his homeland, as well as his rage at it. He did break his promise once, returning for a final visit to Syria as an elderly man, accompanied by his German wife. The former boxer and soldier’s body had grown old by then, and the ardent dream of an Arab union had gone up in smoke, so the visit was reduced to family flattery and fierce competition between the grandchildren over speaking appalling English to the poor German guest. Rummaging around (while he was distracted) in the bag he had brought with him from Germany, in search of something to eat, I found nothing but wheaten-colored discs neatly packaged in transparent plastic.
I was severely reprimanded afterward for plundering my grandfather’s provisions for his visit, which turned out to be diabetic bread.
Twenty years later and my hand was running over Beirut store shelves in search of my grandfather’s bread: oat cakes and rice cakes. Those discs that my grandfather had resorted to for his diabetes, without reaping any real benefit, were also a source of illusory help in Beirut in my fight against the weight gain guaranteed to the grieving person binging on crime series—avoiding news bulletins and any video clips marked “leaked”—for hours on end.
Berlin, 2014—Minimizing Carbs
Despite my considerable appreciation for any source of endorphin-stimulating carbohydrates, I found the idea of the increasing contemporary animosity between bread and the sons of Adam extremely palatable—no matter if this new hostility was provoked by calorie-counting or by gluten intolerance. I was enthusiastic about the sacred loaf getting divorced from the holy tables blessed with the output of organic farming and environmental activism. There was no real reason for these feelings of mine, apart from that pure and unfathomable delight some of us feel when a fight breaks out in front of us or when established structures fall apart.
When I arrived in Germany, it was hard to avoid thinking in trite comparisons: “I have followed in my grandfather’s footsteps—he left because of the Father, and I left because of the Son, and we both fetched up at the same spot.” I tried searching for his wife online, as it didn’t seem like it would be hard to track down a woman with a German first name and an Arab surname in a city like Bonn. I found a website bearing her name and displaying handmade homeware, with a postal address. I considered writing her a letter, and then I thought of the media frenzy about us here, our being the topic of a constant slew of talk, us, I mean the hundreds of thousands among whom I arrived, our causes and our problems and our success stories, whether we intend to go back or are able to integrate, and I thought that we had better leave this woman in peace with her handmade products.
Good manners are a duty in the presence of your hosts: saying grace over our daily bread has nothing to do with thanking the Lord here and now, and that’s all for the best given that as a people we have become obsessed with anything that reminds us of the Father and the Son. I removed any source of gluten from the table out of respect for the guests’ wishes. Endorphin-stimulators are widely available concentrated into small, elegant discs that you can find in parks and nightclubs, so there’s really no need for any carbs, and no need for the delusion that a search for substitute family warmth warrants inconveniencing some elderly lady.
Rukn al-Din, Damascus, Some Point in the Mid-Nineties—Ibn Amid’s Automatic Reserve Oven
In the crowded lines in front of Ibn Amid’s automatic reserve oven, one of the most famous bread stores in Damascus, it was easy for the slogans about the blessed loaf that had been around since the early years of our childhood to be demolished by the jostling, the misery, the gray winter mornings, and the bakery’s three separate serving hatches: military, men, and women. The waiting lines were similar to those that had so irritated our neighbor in Moscow. It wasn’t easy to work out whether these dismal cities were a punishment imposed by Communism, as the woman had suggested, or represented the destruction of the ovenbird’s home, something I suppose we have done over and over again.
Damascus, 2012—Diabetic Bread (2)
The checkpoints were dismembering the city, and my mother had found her way to a nearby baker who specialized in diabetic bread. With obvious sorrow she would repeat, during our walk to the bread oven, how easily one grew accustomed to the taste of this bread over time. Then she would resume talking about her plants, withering on the balcony no matter how much she took care of them. “They are withering because of the smell of death in the air.” That was my take on the subject, and as I said it I thought I want to leave the city, not witness the death of my mother’s plants and her hopeless struggle against the illness that defeated her father. Relief work had become widespread in this period, and urgent, and was usually punishingly difficult, with families who had lost their homes scattered through the ocean of the city, setting up camp in schools or public parks. Useful instructions for preparing a relief package were available online. While I browsed, a suggestion appeared before me: “How to make homemade bread in emergency conditions.” I ignored the suggestion, and thought once again about leaving the city.
© Rasha Abbas. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.
1 A bird that builds a domed nest on the ground in the shape of a traditional bread oven.↩
In this memoir/biography hybrid, writer and filmmaker Nadia Kamel describes her mother’s experience as a member of an Egyptian communist cell in the 1940s.
As the French communists left the country, they handed me over to an Egyptian cell. The guy in charge of this Egyptian cell—and by extension, me—was someone called Abdelssetar Ettawila. He was a member of the organization’s central committee, not by election and not because he’d earned it, but by rising through the ranks. When the central committee members were arrested, those next in line took over the leadership. But then this second group was arrested too, and guys like Ettawila ended up in charge. Ettawila was responsible for the “technical arm,” basically the printing press. The leaders in prison wanted the technical arm in particular to keep going. The pamphlets had to, absolutely had to, continue getting printed and distributed, so as to give the impression to the police that there were loads more communists out there other than the ones who’d already been arrested. That’s how I officially became a member of a pamphlet-distribution cell.
Supposedly, looking like a foreigner would avoid raising suspicion. I’m fairly white and my hair was in style, just like Dominique Blanchar’s, the French actress. I liked bangs because I had an issue with my forehead being too small; I was convinced that a large forehead signified intelligence and a small forehead was a sign of stupidity. At the peak of my involvement with the Italians—lectures, culture, struggle, communism, national liberation, cholera—I was also into fashion. So, I took a monthlong tailoring class at Profili and started sewing my own clothes à la mode. The communist guys took one look at me and said: “This one here would be perfect. No one would suspect her.”
I’m starting to remember how it all worked. Most of the members were still high school students and needed language lessons. I’d go to their homes and give them French lessons and leave pamphlets with them. I’d get paid for the lessons and Ettawila would take the money from me. It was volunteer work for the political cause. All of this—my parents knew none of it.
I got to know the members of this first cell. There was Aida Essehimi and Aleyya, the daughter of Mahmoud Pasha, who lived in a chic house in Garden City. Her French governess called her Aliette to make her sound French. She would take her to France in the summer and bring her back to Egypt speaking French flawlessly.
Aleyya invited me for lunch, an interesting experience. They had me sit next to “Aliette,” and the cook would prepare all the food, except for the meat. Then, while we were all sitting at the table, eating, the governess would get up in the middle of the meal to make the filet or entrecôte—à la minute—with her own hands while the butler and the cook stood by. The meat would come out hot, straight from the fire, and we’d eat it up right then.
Aleyya came over for lunch at our place, too. And she brought her dada, the French governess, who wanted to make sure everything was OK. We were still living on Naim Street at the time, a very humble part of town, but the governess liked the atmosphere of our home anyway.
I needed Arabic lessons, because as a khawaga, a foreigner, I didn’t speak much Arabic. The same for Aleyya: she practically didn’t know any Arabic at all. So Ettawila would come to Aleyya’s at around three, after lunch, to pose as our Arabic teacher, wearing his suit and tarboush. He took long strides, and the tassel of his tarboush bounced as he crossed the house—and it was a big house—until we reached the study. But he really did give us Arabic lessons and some homework. Since we were fighting alongside Egyptian communists, we did, after all, need better Arabic.
Aleyya and I went on these adventures as if we were on vacation—having lunches together, giving and receiving language lessons, going to the cinema, and secretly distributing pamphlets. What I’m trying to say is that we didn’t have a sense of how dangerous it all was.
Ettawila’s code name was Fathi, and he was one of what they called “professional revolutionaries.” This meant that the organization used its membership dues to pay for his expenses so he could be a full-time revolutionary. He left his house and lived at an unknown location to protect the printing press and organize us. Communication took place via the telephone of the company I worked for, John Dickenson Stationery. After a few Arabic lessons, Ettawila and his tarboush disappeared for a few days, and then he called me on the company’s phone: “I’m on the run. They came to arrest me. Let’s change the meeting place: next time we’ll meet on Qasr El Nile Avenue.”
“Yes, of course,” I replied.
So I went. You had to go up the elevator to the top floor, and then you’d take the service stairs to the roof. It was a plain room. And that’s where we continued our Arabic lessons. He gave me a code name, and I wrote my new name on the Arabic textbook: Fadila. I kept on giving French lessons, but to a new student. Guess where! The Citadel, a poor area where for someone who looks pretty khawaga like me to pass through there—of course, that caught people’s attention. I would go left on Muhammad Ali Street, where the wedding belly dancers live, and this new student’s house was on one of the side streets. His family was respectful; they didn’t make me feel uncomfortable at all.
Another time, Ettawila called me at work: “Don’t come to the room. Meet me at the Bab Ellouq tram station and walk behind me like you don’t know me. I’ll be wearing a white gallabeya.”
There was still a tram in those days. And sure enough, I found him walking, looking left and right, pretty shifty. He made sure that I’d seen him and was following him. I didn’t know where we were going. He told me that the police had raided the room on the roof. “And I fled down the service stairs wearing this white gallabeya; they thought I was one of the servants.”
He fled the room, leaving behind everything that was in it, including my Arabic textbook. But thank God, the name on the textbook was my code name, Fadila. That’s the whole point of code names.
Ettawila started staying with a new comrade who lived with his mother. Of course, they were hiding the printing press there. All I know about that comrade is that his code name was Abdennaby. I don’t remember his real name. We were a cell: Ettawila, comrade Abdennaby, and me.
I remember the Sayyida Zaynab house because it was the last one.
This is what political work was all about: evading the secret police, raising money through the French lessons I gave, and distributing pamphlets.
That whole year, the police were looking for the technical arm, you know, the printing press—how come I never saw it, that printing press! The print was ridiculous, by the way. In those days, I only knew a bit of Arabic, and the pamphlets were written in Arabic, of course—lots of crowded text. They didn’t print in bold, for example, with slogans and clear ideas, oh no! It was two or three pages of tiny text, stapled here and there. Yalla, whatever, but it was so primitive, the process of spreading communist thought throughout Egyptian society. I’m sure very few people actually sat down and read that publication.
Abdennaby’s house was behind the Sayyida Zaynab mosque. You entered a little alley on the right, then took a left, and it was a poor house in that little alley. There was no way you’d pass through these alleyways unless you lived there. Of course, from the moment I stepped foot in there, people noticed there was a “stranger.”
Anyway, the issue they proposed to me, two other comrades, Ahmed Errifaey and Anwar Abdelmalek, was that they wanted to rent a house to store the printing press. But a regular married couple had to live there so the police wouldn’t notice, and the couple had to agree that their house would become the “technical arm.” They didn’t find any volunteers. And supposedly that’s the reason why the marriage between Ettawila and me took place. They asked me: “Are you prepared to get married?”
I was prepared for anything. I was hypnotized by the atmosphere of adventure, of secrecy and conspiracy and struggle against the police. I wasn’t thinking things through.
“Does the person you marry have to be a Christian?”
I found the question a little strange. My understanding was that I was going to go undercover and become a professional. I’d leave public life, I’d leave my parents’ house, I’d run away from my father and mother. So how—under those circumstances—could they ask me “Christian or Muslim?” What did it matter?
I told them: “No, he doesn’t.”
The truth is, I hadn’t really noticed that Egyptians were Christians and Muslims. Egyptians were Egyptians—Arabs—and the khawagas were the ones who were Christians and Jews. It was all a mess in my mind.
They thought about it for a while, and I guess, in the end, they couldn’t find another way to hide that printing press.
Clearly, I was incredibly stupid. Ettawila was twenty-two years old, and I would turn eighteen in a month. He said to me, “But we need a marriage contract.”
“OK, no problem.”
“Let’s do an unofficial marriage contract with witnesses, because we can’t register an official marriage without papers.”
Now I’m wondering whose papers were missing: his or mine?
One day, we did the unofficial marriage contract at Ahmed Errifaey’s, in a small alleyway in Mounira: another wrong place. I shouldn’t have gone to those places because if there were any secret police surveilling them, they’d have noticed me right away. That whole marriage thing was immaturity and a form of exploitation, too. Because a foreign girl walking through Sayyida Zaynab really catches the eye. Marriage didn’t change that. In any case, we did the contract with Ahmed Errifaey present as a witness, and Anwar Abdelmalek as the second witness—he was the only one uncomfortable with this whole operation.
After a week or ten days, Ettawila told me that Abdennaby and his mother were poor, so I ought to be bringing a kilo of rice or sugar every time I came over. I didn’t have any money—I was working as a secretary and was still new at the job. I only made six pounds a month and gave it all to my parents. At home, we had a little cupboard, a kind of pantry, so I took some tea and sugar. And my mother started asking me, my father, and Berto, who was thirteen years old, “Did you take the sugar?” I said no. We all said no. It remained a mystery at home—how could sugar disappear? Wallahi, I don’t know what came over me, but I only did it once. It didn’t feel right to do that to my parents. It felt like stealing.
This period didn’t last long. On March 30, 1949—my eighteenth birthday—I was supposed to go home at the end of the day and celebrate with my parents, but just as I was about to leave work, I got a call from Ettawila saying that we had a cell meeting in Sayyida Zaynab. I arrived at Abdennaby’s house, and there were some foul and falafel sandwiches on the desk for lunch. It was a cell meeting, so maybe there were papers on the table along with the sandwiches. I had just sat down at the desk when the door swung open and four or five men entered the house. They spread out everywhere, and one of them grabbed me by the arms. I don’t remember if Abdennaby’s mother opened the door or if they broke in. Ettawila got up, and they grabbed him too. Then they started searching the house. It took me a good while to realize that they were the police—they were wearing civilian clothes. I was in shock, emotionally and mentally paralyzed. And I discovered that when I’m in shock, I stop thinking or feeling anything. I just stood there as if I were watching a movie, not events that were actually happening to me, events that I was a part of. They arrested Abdennaby, and I learned later that the poor guy was just a novice communist. He was really upset at Ettawila for ruining his life. They took Ettawila, too, of course, and I didn’t see him again, except in court at our trial.
From Born. © Nadia Kamel. Published by Al Karma Publishers. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Brady Ryan and Essayed Taha. All rights reserved.
This issue of WWB is concerned with exploring new approaches to Urdu feminist writing. The field of Urdu writing generally, and Urdu feminist writing particularly, is so woefully unknown in English that our most urgent task is to bring attention to extremely important but underrecognized writers. There is simply so much to read and translate that has not been looked at that a certain thematic incoherence is inevitable and perhaps even generative. What is revealed in this collection is true of Urdu feminist writing in general: that it has as many different faces, tones, concerns, and aesthetics as there are ways women have learned to hold one another up.
A dispiriting narrowness has defined canons of Urdu feminist writing from previous decades. These have often been explicitly and narrowly concerned with politically committed writers who were associated with the Progressive Writers Association. Such celebrated writers as Fahmida Riaz, Kishwer Naheed, Ismat Chugtai, and Quratulain Hyder are now synonymous with Urdu feminist writing. However, what constituted “politics” for these writers was often defined rather parsimoniously and keyed to the very specific and deeply felt urgencies of their time. Similarly, questions of what fell under the rubric of gender and sexuality in previous collections of Urdu feminist writing were also broached in particular ways. We admire these contributions but also feel strongly that there are many other styles, subjects, and indeed types of politics in Urdu feminist writing that have never been highlighted before. Furthermore, feminist and progressive political organizing has changed substantially since the eighties and nineties; contemporary movements like Girls at Dhabas, Aurat March, and Women Democratic Front have brought new issues and approaches into the fold of feminist politics and aesthetics in Pakistan. This issue is an attempt to move beyond the established canon and look at less recognized writers and forms of political aesthetic.
Our initial framing of this issue was as a response to Rukhsana Ahmad's important 1991 anthology of Urdu feminist poets, We Sinful Women. This is perhaps the best-known attempt at creating a canon for Urdu feminist writers in English. Ahmad is clear about her selection criteria: she pairs “feminist struggle" with “political content" and the “progressive tradition," and considers “a strong commitment to political action" as her primary criterion. This led to the exclusion of significant writers like Parveen Shakir (included in this issue). Ahmad calls Shakir's work “apolitical, sentimental, and conformist,” even, at times, “antifeminist.” This understanding of “politics” and “feminism” does not account for the breadth and complexity of feminist literature in Urdu. It feels rather narrow to us now, and our work here is to expand what we understand as feminist writing while also including important writers left out of feminist anthologies because of their sentimentality, experimentation, or seemingly “apolitical” stance.
However, it is important to note that our goal is not to create a new, rival “canon,” but to open up approaches to Urdu feminist writing that will celebrate multiple, noncanonical perspectives. We conceive of this issue as a provisional space for gathering different strains of feminist writing that allow us to engage with the radical instability of categories like “Urdu feminist writing” even as we continue to gain from this writing feminist lessons and weapons for our time.
Rukhsana Ahmad's constitution of what mattered, what counted, and what must be discounted, discarded, and discontinued from “feminism” obeyed injunctions that flowed from colonial ideas about the temporalities of history, or the facets through which gendering politics must be performed. In its framing, We Sinful Women links feminist struggle to “action” such that “inaction” and “inactivity” become feminism’s “others.” It is against these “others” that the anthology imagines itself and legitimizes itself: these fragile others have been unable to “move up” or “assimilate into” some kind of active principle that has already been naturalized as a legitimate way of doing feminism. An imperialist active/inactive or political/apolitical binary remains intact in Ahmad's anthology.
We Sinful Women, we find, also periodizes history along a straight line, in a developmentalist mode, with progress staged as a necessary transition from the “traditional” to the “modern”: poets writing in a romantic, religious/sufi idiom, or those formally working within the ghazal, are marked as “traditional.” These “inactive” subjects are locked within premodernity—locked within tradition—unable to move into modernity. Tradition becomes cognate with sentimentality, romance, or religion, antithetical to reason, politics, or action.
Another charge leveled by Ahmad is that some works by Urdu women writers are too “feminine” and therefore “not feminist enough”—such language introduces a split between femininity and feminism, placing them in opposition to one another. Such a conceptualization of femininity recodes masculine values, which are always already defined as such within genres of masculinity that are encoded as active or passive in morally driven colonial critiques of South Asia, and recodes action-oriented modes of doing politics, with activity and action as privileged principles or as teleological goods in line with the work of modernity. Nothing else will do. Recall that the Orient, too, was feminized.
Our attempts to include romantic writers, “traditional” poets, surrealist writers, contemporary poets, and Sufi poets, translated and retranslated by feminist and queer writers and poets of our own time, are partly an effort to collapse the colonial and patriarchal binaries described above.
Sascha Akhtar's translation of the oldest and perhaps most formally experimental text included in this issue, Hijab Imtiaz Ali's “A New Year For Everyone,” blends genres like memoir and belles-lettres as well as literary traditions as diverse as Persian and British to create something entirely new. Adeeba Shahid Talukder's sensitive and masterful translation of Parveen Shakir's poetry makes a home for traditional symbols of Urdu poetry like veils and fireflies in the rhymes and rhythms of English. Yasmeen Hameed's poem, translated by Mehr Farooqi, offers an important update and gives us a better sense of current feminist poetry in Urdu. Anjuli Raza Kolb's translation of Sara Shagufta's poem introduces us to one of the most original and overlooked poets of the Urdu language whose styles and symbols are incomparable to those of any other poet of her generation or before. And Khalida Hussain's story “Enemy” blurs the boundaries of human and animal, living and dead, in this translation by Haider Shahbaz that emphasizes her characteristic style of narrating hallucinations and body dysmorphia.
Geeta Patel's brilliant (re)translations of Miraji's translations of Sappho are an intimate lesson in the movement of lyric and gender, creating moments of queerness in the Urdu language in radical, decolonial ways. The work of Miraji is particularly important to discuss. As Patel's pioneering scholarship has shown, Miraji writes outside gender, folds the poet’s voice into others, including those of women, writes as a desiring woman, toys with lineages, and turns the idea of what is political on its proverbial head. Miraji marshalls gender and sexuality in his work without necessarily marking them as such—while at the same time being really attuned to the nuances of denigration and dismissal gendered subjects and authors faced. Therefore, it is important for us, as critics and translators, to pay attention to the Sufiana idiom of the work, where zaat, jism, and ruh play out reconfigurations of selfhood.
Importantly, the necessary but always irreducible work of translation orients us toward new idioms within the work itself. We hope that this issue—admittedly, a partial, scattered selection—may allow us to move beyond the exclusionary definitions of Urdu feminist writing that the work of the writers here unmakes.
© 2020 by Asad Alvi, Amna Chaudhry, Mehak Khan, Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb, Geeta Patel, and Haider Shahbaz. All rights reserved.
A woman discovers the true nature of her enemy in this short story by Khalida Hussain.
Therefore, every thought was a decision, and she hid in corners and crooks to escape the decisions. Even though she knew very well that actually every moment is a decision, and she was always standing in the witness box. She could only escape decisions if she escaped moments—if she escaped time itself—but it is impossible to escape time, absolutely impossible to both exist and escape time. The decisions, the moments, followed her. She went around trying to hide in corners and crooks and crevices. She hid in dark, silent, damp places where it was impossible to survive. But she made her way inside the narrowest and smallest places. She shrank and shrank, hugged the floor, stuck to the walls. For a few moments, the damp, dark, narrow places wove their sleepy, silent webs around her. A deep silence flooded her ears. Then she silently questioned: “Am I right or wrong? Should I exist or not?” And this decision, this great, mighty question, came and installed itself in front of her. She started speaking to escape the silence, the absolute quiet. She spoke quickly and loudly. She shrieked. But the shriek asked the same question, over and over again, like the reliable, ticking hands of a clock: Right or wrong? Speak, think, tell. And so when the place became unsafe, she set off again, searching for a new place.
My decision has no impact on her life and death, she tried to convince herself.
The question isn’t about the impact. Who’s asking you about the impact? The question is simple: Do you consider her death right or wrong? the person who was always whispering in, out, everywhere, all the time, asked her.
She replied: “Understanding is like deciding. It’s like an action. There’s no difference between thinking and acting.”
“So you consider her death right?”
“I don’t know.” She set off again in search of a new place.
The beautiful, elegant dresses hung neatly inside the wardrobe that smelled like old times—a cool and delightful smell. Gusts of evergreen air escaped the dresses and embraced her. She was surprised. These dresses, these colors, they belonged to the present. Then how did the sweet smell of people from the past, colors from the past, sounds from the past, settle inside them? But it was unprofitable to live in the past. The sensation of the past soon surrounded her like a nauseating yellow hue. Outside the wardrobe, a desolate afternoon, an afternoon full of echoes of past voices.
She was perplexed and looked away from the wardrobe. She wiped the dust off her makeup accessories, fine-looking but useless items, and came and stood in the middle of the room.
“My decisions are impacted by the decisions of many who live with me.”
“I’m not asking about them. Don’t worry about them. Tell me what you think. Do you think her death is right?”
Silence reverberated like a beating drum.
“I don’t know.”
She set off again in search of a new place.
“I don’t have any leisure time!”
She carefully started her work.
I am a busy woman who is not rich, who—after a long, busy day—gets tired and falls on her bed, who dreams of better opportunities and resources in her life. The traffic of friends’ problems, their sorrows and griefs, the unfinished plans for the children’s future. Then why am I being interrogated? Why am I being questioned at every moment of my life? Why is no one else questioned? Those who flow happily in the stream of life. They are not confronted with a decision before taking each step. They don’t have to be held accountable for their thoughts, their decisions. Nobody demands a verdict from them. They are outside this eternal web. Completely outside.
“She passed over my feet today—went creeping over them! I won’t let her live anymore,” Sajjad said.
“So the decision is made,” she breathed contentedly.
“But it’s someone else’s decision. Is it your decision too?”
Silence reverberated like a beating drum.
“Yes! Maybe it’s my decision too.” She seated herself in the armchair.
I was confused. What was the constant mayhem in my wardrobe? How did everything turn into powder?
“But the gun won’t do. She’s so quick, there’s no saying how quick. How will you aim?” Hassan asked.
“So what! A gun isn’t necessary. There are so many other things. There’s the iron rod with a pointed tip—your walking stick.”
“Yeah, that works. Oh, it’ll be fun to chop her into pieces. She thinks this house is a park. Just coming and going. Anyway, what’s the use of her?”
“Use? It’s an act of virtue to kill her! If we didn’t kill such useless things from time to time, there would be more of them and less of us.”
This is sensible. It is only right that such a useless thing shouldn’t exist, she decided in her heart. Though my decision doesn’t impact her life and death. Nor will I raise my hand against her. But it is right that she shouldn’t exist. She’s the enemy of my wardrobe, where all my attractive dresses are arranged in a neat order. So she’s my enemy. It is only right that she shouldn’t exist. But does that mean: Death? I don’t know. I really don’t know. The long claws of her own thoughts gripped her. She was restless. She quickly slipped her body out of the long claws of her own thoughts. She set off again in search of a new place.
But now all the corners and crooks and crevices of the house were useless. They were not safe. So bright, so spacious—you could see all the way through. Unsuitable for refuge, for hiding. A sea of unending grief and hopelessness flowed in all directions. Or maybe the tall, strong walls separated one person from another so absolutely that no one could know the words that pumped inside the veins of another person. Could not hear them. When she spoke, when she tried to speak, her own ears only heard a loud shriek. The voice was strange. As soon as someone heard it, they picked up the iron rod with a pointed tip and leapt. They ran toward the gun. If nothing else, they picked up their shoe and chased. Then all the corners, crooks, crevices, cracks, clefts, crannies, and chinks were searched.
“The damn thing can’t be found! She runs freely during the night.”
“Not even! She’s started moving around the rooms in open daylight now. She was creeping up the wall. You know, she even thinks and contemplates! She turns her head this way and that. Surveys her surroundings. But the damn thing got away.”
So the corners and crooks and crevices were all useless. Heaps upon heaps of decisions. Just the wardrobe was left—the smell of nostalgia. Filled with a pleasant and delightful calm, like a very old and sweet song.
Pain throbbed. Moved forward. Alive like a pulse.
Yes, sit here silently for a moment or two.
But even the wardrobe was full of grief today. She tried to hide herself in soft silk. But she was still interrogated: “Speak—decide—is it right that she shouldn’t exist?” Yes, yes! Her death is right. The silk turned into powder in her mouth.
“That’s it! She destroyed the wardrobe too. She won’t get away today.” Sajjad clenched his teeth.
So the decision was made. Though others made the decision for you. No, you made it yourself. Because such a useless, ugly, revolting, and disgusting thing shouldn’t exist. Her death is right. Exactly right.
“She’s here. She’s here under the table. Ssshhh, ssshhh. Stop talking.” Sajjad put a finger to his lips. He held the pointed rod in one hand and a broken piece of brick in the other.
“Slowly move the table. She thinks before she moves.”
Hassan moved the table. Yes, she was hiding there. And now she knew that she wasn’t hiding anymore. She was visible. She was naked. She turned her long face from right to left. Her shining black eyes popped out of her head—and spun around, searching for a new corner. She knew death was nearby. She knew death was ready to leap at her with its bare talons. She stuck to the floor. But on the tip of the pointed rod: a loud shriek—a loud, dragging, wordless shriek—spreading wave after wave, advancing, scattering, sinking, and dissolving in each and every tissue of the body, each and every pore. An unceasing, wordless shriek. Which wall now? Which corner?
“Oh! Oh! Kill her! She’s behind the curtain. Look there. She’s hanging from the curtain. After all that beating!”
Another unceasing shriek—then deep silence, peace, stillness, the deaf stillness outside time. The end of decisions.
“Look at her, look at her!” Sajjad raised the pointed rod in front of everyone.
“No!” She shut her eyes.
She had seen herself dangling from the end of the pointed rod.
Translation © 2020 by Haider Shahbaz. All rights reserved.
The physical and spiritual worlds meld in this wide-ranging poem by Yasmeen Hameed.
I spat out this poem.
Go on, lick it
with your long tongue.
I was patient
and changed your name.
I swallowed fire
And forgot you were an ocean.
I was proud of my muddy complexion
and sniggered at the color of your blood.
I drank my own tears
and became dry like the desert.
I spent the night awake
and did not wait for dawn.
I smashed clay lamps
and burned my hand
scattering their ashes
to the seventh heaven
from which no one wishes to return.
I plucked pearls from oysters
and tossed them into the ocean
clutching fistfuls of broken glass.
Have you ever seen the color of pure blood?
No. These aren’t wounds.
I covered the wound
then filled the gash with my own flesh.
Gave away my eyes—
from the pieces of my body
made a new being.
If I were God,
I too would have infused it with life.
© Yasmeen Hameed. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Mehr Afshan Farooqi. All rights reserved.
In this short essay, writer Hijab Imtiaz considers the many ways to begin a new year.
“With the advent of the new year / Old desires come back to life / The soul, worshipper of the Imagination, retires into solitude”
Today, the afternoon—today, the afternoon of the first of January, I opened the door of my house and stepped outside, intending to go to the cemetery, when in front of me, amid the bellowing of the bells of St. Andrews, I saw a very well-dressed man. His face was an ocean of limitless waves—spontaneous joy and unfettered wishes for the New Year.
It was when I spotted the delicate violet flower placed in his buttonhole that I knew. This person had taken all of life’s despair and all the failures of the world and had bid farewell to them and to the stale, old year, and was now returning from the thundering bells.
I continued to stare wretchedly at his cheerful face—a long, cold breath reminded me, yes, this was the new year of one with no anxieties.
Shortly afterward, I found myself in front of the tall and terrifying black gate with which our temporary lives have an eternal bond and which a person who chooses to forget would not want to see on the first day of the new year.
The gate that holds within it my dear companion—ah, that same dearest one with whom speaking all so briefly was my raison d’être—today, completely lost to the eternal silence, weighed down by heavy stones, hapless he lies. The flood of memories of days gone by created a restlessness in me. Grief stole my sense of time, so I stayed awhile, having conversations with those who have been torn from me forever—but—
But today was not my lucky day. It seemed each and every one of them was rapt in an all-consuming raga. It seemed to me that this earth full of emotion that had hidden within it thousands of poets, world-renowned and courageous warriors, famous critics, selfless doctors, robbers and highwaymen, was softly singing a song woven of their benevolent and base deeds alike. The ears of my being were not, however, keen enough to ascertain the true meaning of the song.
Projections of memories played on my mind, showing the faces of those who had been present in my life many a day and night, whom Fate had decided that the dark curtain of Death be drawn over, obscured from vision forever.
Just once, I longed to lay eyes on them, just once—this longing has weakened my heart, beating itself toward stillness and yet in becoming silent, still beating too. My whole being was restless to hear their voices just once, and thus desirous my being was sulking like a child crying and crying like a child sulking.
The time came for my spirit's exertions to cease. I heard not a voice, nor saw a face. I remained transfixed by the sight of the weighty gravestones defeated by the forceful hands of time.
Against the wide open blue of the sky, a kind of large, hot sun specific to the Eastern climes, the sun of Asia, was glittering fiercely. On the sorrowful old stones, the petals of a yellow rose were withering.
The words of Longfellow came to mind:
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
("A Psalm of Life," 1839)
I walked off that part of the land, so triggering, and left the graveyard. Yes, this was the new year for the inhabitants of the world of Spirits.
At the Farber’s roundabout I could only see motorcars, trams, taxis, and vehicles of different widths and girths coming and going, making their journeys. They were like the fish in the oceans, restlessly seeking their food with each crashing wave.
In their cars people were going to the Farber’s horse tracks. They were getting in and getting out of the cars, pushing and shoving each other, seeing heaping golden piles of wealth dancing like sails in the wind. A lust for wealth creation—the ears of their souls familiar only with the clinking of coin.
Some of them were returning from Farber’s grounds. Others headed there. The fortunate ones kept their bags close—Fate had decided that their once-empty bags would be made heavy. But there were others who wept into their bags, which were initially weighty before Fate decided to lighten them.
I stood to one side, lost in a rapture of my own. Completely silent. Yes, I appeared completely mad observing this activity of the human race for a while. So this is what the new year of those who worship this life looks like!
I was able to extricate myself from the rushing waves of the ocean of people and arrive safely at Hashkal-O-Langton. There I was disturbed by the sounds of the military bugles both harmonious and depressing. A cavalcade of black horses pulled a black hearse carrying the body of a hopeful young soldier toward the cemetery. Mourners in funereal garb walked solemnly alongside the hearse, speaking of religious matters. It appeared they were all patiently trying to understand the ways of the Divine. Who is this object of such great jealousy, forced on the first new day of the new year to seek out a new world? I inquire of the vast skies: What soul would want such a thing?
Yes, this is what the new year of a brave warrior looks like.
Farther on, in a dark, tight passageway flanked by the street in front of the Harrison Hotel, I saw a fakir affected by leprosy, wrapped in dust and dirt. I observed how hundreds of cars, fine women and men, went by him. Not one person felt moved. Not one person thought to hold the hand of this wretched human.
Engrossed in the new delights of the first evening of a new year—was it not possible to pause for a few breaths and contemplate this human life rendered helpless, undeserving of such a fate—the moment they did give him was to nurse their own revulsion and express their scorn—this cursed world, treacherous world—what if it was me—what if I was to go to a friend in the same state as the fakir and my friend refused to hold my hand, moved away from me—
This, then, is the new year for a leper.
I walked on, finding again the ocean of people with its breaking waves near the Rapan Buildings—I saw young men and women on this evening of the new year, dressed in frocks and shawls, expensive coats, garish neckties, full of good cheer and worldly wishes. I questioned the Creator. Is this world of Adam and Eve really, truly brimming with delights and wonder? And if so, then what a grand thing this is.
I continued my observations. Some of their faces were radiant like the moon, blush and white like roses and sugar. But I could see their cores were hardened like the ground and blackened as the darkness of night. I sensed there was no compassion for their fellow humans in anyone’s heart. They sat in the grandest shops on the most expensive chairs with their friends—friends of great stature and untold wealth whose teacups and finest bottles of alcohol they were taking advantage of.
This, then, was their new year.
Thackeray came to mind:
“Such people do live and thrive in this world . . . those who are disloyal and treacherous and of whom you can have no expectation of goodness. . . . Come friend, let’s go on the offensive with all our strength, against these people.”
Evening had fallen and I returned to my house. In my library, on the table, an oil lamp was lit in a sky-blue magic lantern, flickering like the life of an ailing person. My emotions were unreliable and the events of the day had left me disturbed and restless.
This evening, Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the philosophies of Aristotle alike filled me with ennui. Even the fine wine of Omar Khayyam was not compelling.
I moved away from the pile of books on the table. I felt repelled by these thick, fleshy stacks in which the waves of knowledge and application crashed—because there was nothing written in any of them that would teach humankind, hapless humankind, how to be compassionate. There were novels of romance and beauty, the latest innovations in the sciences, slender volumes of philosophy, all useless, meaningless—there was no prescription or way to make one person a true ally of another—
I dragged a chair over to the window and sat down. In the distance, behind the branches of the henna shrubs, the first sun of the new year was taking its last breath. I heard the spirit of Omar Khayyam speaking to me on the winds:
“The New Year brings memories of the past back to life and our spirit cannot help but fly toward those bygone days.”
This was my new year.
The translator acknowledges the vast contribution made to the Urdu language by the resource Rekhta. The manuscript Khalwat Ki Anjuman (The company of silence), one of the few copies available, is a rare text from 1936, digitized by Rekhta and published by Dar-al-Sha'at, Punjab, Lahore.
From Khalwat Ki Anjuman. By arrangement with the estate of Hijab Imtiaz. Translation © 2020 by Sascha Akhtar. All rights reserved.
A woman deflects a suitor’s advances in this melancholy poem by Parveen Shakir.
No, my veil is stained
and your turban’s every fold still crisp;
no breeze has yet dared
Your bright forehead
does not yet hold a lost hour
from days past
that’s swelled and broken
and I cannot meet your eyes
from the dark of my own.
Oh young man,
don’t gaze at me this way.
Take your fireflies,
your flowers—keep them safe.
Flowers will slip from a torn veil,
and fireflies, at first chance,
will scatter, however harsh
the light beyond.
Translation © 2020 by Adeeba Shahid Talukder. All rights reserved.
Urdu modernist poet Miraji celebrates Sappho and blends his lyric voice with hers in the essay excerpted below.
Translator's Note: Miraji (1912–49), the preeminent Urdu modernist lyric poet, who often wrote in women’s voices, was also an avid translator/transcreator and poignant, nuanced essayist. Many of those essays tussled with issues that would be seen now as strongly feminist; in them Miraji ventured profoundly political analyses on the nature of composition, on violence, on grief, on women poets whose gender and the fissures of their desire rendered them outcastes. One such essay, titled “Saffo,” is on the poet Sappho. Over of the course of the essay, Sappho’s voice bleeds into Miraji’s and Miraji’s lyric tones become Sappho’s as well. I have translated excerpts and poems from Miraji's essay (with elided sections summarized) to show how the two poets folding into one another proffer the lineaments of feminist lyric.
It is said that only nine divine muses exist, but one forgets
that Sappho from Lesbos was the tenth.
Sappho was not just, in her time, the most renowned woman poet of Greece; in scanning the past, rummaging for someone whose imagination was pure, unfettered, unflinching, one finds that she was the most notable poet in that category to date. Her lyrics were animated by two especially alluring qualities. The first: her pen was singular even as it was exemplary. Up to now, approximately sixty fragments of her poetry have been unearthed; and only one poem among them can be considered complete. There are two or three longer pieces. All the rest are two or three lines long—jewel shards—many made up of merely a few words. However, even these shredded bits and pieces glow, light up magical, captivating, dreamy, and kindle embers. The second: the vibrant, piquant events of her life.
[Miraji begins his foray into Sappho’s own writing with a short poem that presages what he is about to embark upon.]
Perhaps Sappho sensed that her poems would garner fame. She writes somewhere:
After my life has come and gone, perhaps
A spring flurry may waft in, so
A voice rebounds, echoing
My songs heard the world over.
The tale of Sappho’s life commences at the very end of the seventh century before Christ. This era has garnered a certain notoriety. It was the time when earlier civilizations were beginning to decay, fade away, and new powers began establishing themselves. Fair-skinned Westerners were preparing to test themselves against the darker communities of the East. The center of civilization was slipping away from Greece and moving westward. . . .
The delicacy, elegance, subtle sophistication of Sappho’s verse and her unencumbered social life appear to bring her close to our own time. Yet, as we speak about her contemporaries, we also come to comprehend our distance from her more clearly. She lived at a time when the Buddha’s nonviolent religion was on the cusp of being established in India, and in the wilderness of Israel the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel were spreading miracles with fiery words. At that time, Sappho was composing love lyric in the Lesbos region of Greece.
Born in 612 BCE, Sappho was the woman the world saw as its greatest poet, whom Plato anointed “divine muse” and Socrates called “beauty incarnate,” and whose entire oeuvre the earliest proponents of Christianity—those who defended and advocated rigid ways of looking at things and had cramped ideas—deemed so immoral, so ruinous to morals that it was desecrated and destroyed. . . . We estimate that Sappho was probably alive until 558 BCE. Historical authorities have established the dates of the various events of her life. Based on this, we presume that Sappho was born in 612 BCE. At seventeen, her extraordinary gravitas led her to begin focusing on poetry. She was only twenty-nine in about 591 BCE, when she was exiled. And when she was fifty-five years old, in 558 BCE, she committed suicide.
Sappho’s birthplace was Aryos. Her mother’s name was Calys [Calyx/Kleis]. What we know of her father, we can only suppose—he died young. Experts have gathered eight different possible names for him. But now, so many years later, it’s hard to divine which of the eight was his real name. The circumstances in which Sappho's parents lived, and the details of their lives, are shrouded in mystery. We can only guess that they belonged to the upper crust of Lesbos. This is also just based on surmise: that Sappho was born when her mother was young. Three boys followed. In 606 BCE, when the youngest was still in his mother’s arms and Sappho merely six years old, Lesbos’s established order began to fall apart; it was such a turbulent time that it set the stage for seemingly permanent tribulations for ten years in all the five cities of Lesbos. We assume that Sappho’s father was involved in some way at the beginning of what came to be almost unending warfare. After her husband’s death, Sappho’s mother probably realized that she and her children should travel to Mythilene, at the other end of the island of Lesbos, for their own safety.
The distance from Aryos to Mythilene is thirty-five miles and pine forests swathe the route. Harried by war, Sappho’s mother arrived in Mythilene with her children. It’s very possible that they lived with relatives in Mythilene right after they arrived. In any case, Sappho’s youth was spent in a time of strife, but it was in the calm of Mythilene that she matured enough to begin feeling and composing.
[Sappho comes into her own, surrounded by conclaves of poets, at a time when wine and love were among the four topics lyricists sang.]
Sappho didn’t have the sort of appearance that would make an ordinary person, on glimpsing her, want to marry her. One traditional account even intimates that not only was she not beautiful, she was actually ugly. Her eyes and hair were too dark to conform to the extant standards of Greek beauty. She was believed to be too skinny for the social expectations of that time. . . . But a courtier writing about her dusky complexion portrays her as the sort of bulbul whose tiny body was cloaked in hair and feathers. . . .
She had a formidable intellect and an exquisite being. In her ugliness lay a remarkable beauty. . . . People not endowed with physical assets are often compensated in other ways. . . . Her sweet smile was so enchantingly flirtatious that anyone gazing at her would immediately become hers, fall hard. A faint blue lit up, tinted, her raven, sable hair. Besides these . . . she was refined, had a pure disposition, and was graced with elegance. And one can throw in a natural blend compounded from profound and smoldering passion, which glimmered in her eyes. Of her poetry Plutarch says: "Her pen was wreathed in flames."
Because Sappho’s temperament was so unusual, people were taken by her plainness. Her everyday behavior was so phenomenally charismatic and captivating that an ardent poet, Alcaeus, wrote her the following letter in verse:
Your tender humor, violet blossoms, Sappho of the flowing hair. My heart longs to speak [to you], but shyness stays my voice.
Perhaps Sappho was accustomed to getting letters such as this from the fickle man, and she responded in verse:
If you had wanted to write something worthwhile, and your tongue wished to absolve itself of some poison, shyness and shame wouldn’t stop you from speaking and you’d say precisely what you needed.
But Alcaeus was undaunted and continued to shower her with his love in verse. . . . Despite all Alcaeus’s seductive wiles, Sappho was not interested in him, nor was she in any man in this way.
[Description of Sappho’s contemporaries and a long exegesis about the Cambridge scholar of classics, J. W. Mackail, whose published lectures on Greek literature had a wide circulation.]
We rarely read words so simple, which are given to us so straightforwardly. We praise them as we read on, as our understanding grows, and suddenly feel the magic in the poet we have just read, it ravages us and leaves us helpless when we return to it. We turn back and go on, but its charming allure ferries us right there, right back—can we even discern what special quality this ceaseless, unguarded enchantment may have?
Literary adepts of the past did not count Sappho among the poets. Rather they thought of her as the goddess of love (Rati) and the daughter of Eros (Kama Dev), the tenth muse.
[Lesbos is taken over by a dictator, Pittacus. He is both revered and fought. Sappho is eventually exiled by him and returns home in about 592 BCE.]
[Miraji speaks of Sappho as a model for our time, living as we do with dictators. Sappho continues confronting Pittacus and is exiled once more.]
This second exile must have been a huge shock to Sappho, because she was just twenty years old, and she’d never left Lesbos’s shore. [During her first exile Sappho was asked to leave Mythilene but not Lesbos.] And she was extremely attached to her country, her homeland. Many of her friends did not support, comfort, or champion her during these difficult times, during her tribulations. Their faithlessness and disloyalty are described in the two poems below:
In world of sorrow dusted with agony
I live, subsist in a semblance of loss
as though the wind’s lament hurries my tale of love onward
and callous malice bequeaths no traces.
When I bestowed solicitude,
Those who received my kindness
granted anguish in return.
[Miraji pairs the above verse with this one, which may or may not have belonged to the same time and tone:]
Despite this, the angels flowing from my voice confer such unfeigned delight
that when I pass away, people won’t forsake me.
During her second exile, Sappho chose to conform to Pittacus’s order and travel quietly to Sicily. She may have wanted to find a place among nobles from Greece who had settled there. . . . She must have recognized that Sicily would not give her the same social freedom that she had had in Lesbos. [A description of life and literary circles in Sicily.]
[Sappho finds herself in a situation of having to be married, perhaps, Miraji suggests, because she needed support.]
It’s possible that Sappho, concerned about her security and safety, felt that the shackles of marriage might provide her what she needed. Someone in the know suggested that she marry a “rich merchant trader, Kerklas [Cercylas].” In one of the fragments, she talks about the night of her marriage: “It was a night of joy that vanished quickly.” Poems written from that time:
Is it possible that even now I sit, holding on to a deep longing for virginity in my heart?
I will always remain a young girl.
“A tender-voiced virgin,” “sweet-toned virgins,” “the virgin with slender ankles,” “virgins from Mythilene,” “virgins like rosebuds,” “virgins singing songs of desire,” “virgins beyond compare,” “virgins who fire longing”: these slivers expose the attachments that caught her heart.
“Where I can never return, never come back to you.”
From the queries and the answers Sappho ventures, we can surmise that she had been damaged in some way that she couldn’t quite voice clearly.
[Pittacus changes his mind and recalls those in exile. Sappho returns and sets up a conclave of young women, a school.]
This was a gathering of women who shared each other’s lives and secrets, who loved each other. It’s more than likely that Sappho’s relationship with them was personal. But to try to explain what underpinned their patterns and routines would be simply wrongheaded. . . . Sappho found pleasure in the fact that this crowd of young women could live freely in her home. Stroll in her gardens. Be ready to converse with her about the smallest things. And like exemplary women, adore her. . . .
Among them was a poet from Sappho’s time—Erenis. Besides being a poet, she was a beautiful girl with a delicate, frail physique. She wrote a long, warlike poem of which only a few lines now survive. Sappho writes about her, “I don’t think that any virgin in the entire world can compare to you in skill.” Sappho grew really attached to her. Such a deep fondness that it slowly, step by step, turned romantic. But sadly, this young woman died young. Besides her, there was another poet, Dimophila, who composed love lyric. Her nature, like Sappho’s, veered toward same-sex desire. Dimophila went on to found her own group. Besides them, there were four other women whose names we know of. This fragment from Sappho speaks about one of them:
The virgin whose gait flows.
Many of these young women, drawn by Sappho’s brilliance, flocked to Mythilene from other places. The rest came from Lesbos. Among them was one called Atthis. Authorities are familiar with her and her circumstances. About her, Sappho writes:
At one time
Once upon a time I loved you,
In a time long gone by.
Four other girls came from Lesbos. Sappho evinced deep feelings for them, as she did for Atthis. But her frenzied romantic infatuation was focused more clearly on Atthis. The events of Sappho’s anguished, sorrowing love were marked by a few truly brutal occasions. From them we glimpse a typhoon, the storm of a river in spate, and sweet sadness weighed down by love’s gloom. Here we get a sense, even begin to feel a little suspicious, that if we look at these circumstances in a certain light we may be able to prove that thorns live alongside blossoms. To incite compassion in ordinary people, to allow them the opportunity to feel some empathy, we too should gaze upon these happenings with sympathy.
When all of this began, Atthis was merely a girl and Sappho was at least twenty-five. During that time, such an emotionally charged yet nourishing bond was established between them that people who noticed it immediately shook their heads at it; it’s possible that based on false accusations, slander, and disgrace, people later consigned Sappho’s entire oeuvre to flames. Atthis was the subject of many of Sappho’s better-known lyrics. But now, coming upon the shards and slips of reduced and often unavailable poems and scrutinizing them judiciously and candidly, who can rightly say that the world would be a better place if these slivered gems had been wasted or destroyed? We’ll say only this much: that uptight dignitaries deprived the generations that followed them of these extraordinarily valuable and gorgeous samples of literary creativity. Because what is essential for creating beauty is rarely to be found budding in tumultuous completeness. Its cause or motive lies almost always in rejection, exception, setting something aside. Moral codes and standards change daily. They are birthed over and over as time passes. But creative exquisiteness cannot be found easily. When Sappho and Atthis first met, Atthis was an unexperienced young woman. Proof of this can be seen in the lyric Sappho penned under the title “In Atthis’s name”:
Once upon a time I too loved you passionately
A time long gone by
When I was young, ripening
And the world called you naive, an unassuming child.
As time went by, Atthis grew into a gorgeous young woman and came to be seen as the most accomplished in that charming gathering of women poets and writers. Sappho’s passion matured into care. Atthis began to forget Sappho. We can see this from a letter. To find some respite from the summer heat, Sappho had gone with her daughter Calyx, Atthis, and a few other girls to a place in the mountains close by. But even though the weather had broken, Sappho showed no signs of moving or leaving, didn’t bring up the possibility of going back, though her young companions had tired of the spot and wanted to return to Mythilene. Eventually Sappho promised them that they would return the next day. But the next morning, Sappho lolled about in her bed. Atthis penned a note to Sappho and sent it off with a servant so that she would quickly get ready to leave. In it she wrote:
Sappho, on my word, I promise, I swear that I won’t desire you anymore. Come back, if only for me. And unglue the sweet weight of your body from your bed. And on the very edge of the lake, like a blameless, unblemished lotus opening, slip out of night’s dreams in which you are clothed, bathe in the water and Calyx will bring you a saffron dress and a rose robe and a black wool cloak from your bags. We’ll crown you with flowers. And you’ll glow so much that I’ll see you as divine. And then all nine of us will have breakfast ready for everyone. The gods look kindly upon us today. Today, O Sappho who we love best, gather us together like your children and escort us back to Mythilene. To the city, which is the most beloved of all cities.
After they reached the city, many of her young companions began to look up to Atthis, and noticing this, Sappho started to burn with jealousy. Her passion turned stormy. During that time, she wrote the songs for which she is famous:
Like a god manifesting before me
he gazes endlessly
attends to the luscious timbre of your voice
heeds the racy tones of your laughter
my heart precipitously jolts awake
and stuns me in how it longs for sacrifice
words fade to quiet there
were I to glimpse you
it’s as though
my tongue would hitch to silence, language empty in my mouth
fire mortify my flesh
blind when I turn to look
monstrous noise scrambles my hearing
but “no” is scripted into fate’s remorse
I endure grief as I wait, so it’s written:
my life cannot deliver me from anguish, offers no solace
I search far and wide, and can’t unearth death,
It refuses to reveal its presence.
A literary adept says that in this poem Sappho marshals an extraordinary assembly of emotions. Flesh and spirit; sound, voice, and conversation; vision and insight; sexual, subjective, and mental feelings; she has poured all these disparate elements into one jar, she has sensed them all, they are thoughtful and perceptive but also wild and intoxicating, her heart is on fire, but it is also bathed in the icy coolness of death.
At this time, Atthis was the glory of Sappho’s gatherings. Another school of music and poetry had been set up in Mythilene. Its teacher was called Andromeda. She enticed Atthis, suggested that Atthis abandon Sappho’s assembly and join her school instead. When Sappho learned of this, she wrote several poems “in Atthis’s name”—we find these fragments among them:
Who is the magician
Who captivated you?
The young girl draped in a child’s dress.
She who doesn’t even have the courtesy to clothe her legs.
But Atthis had been ensnared by seduction and was about to leave Sappho when Sappho wrote to her:
Beloved, Atthis, will you then forsake all the tender back-and-forth we once shared?
When I gaze at you, I dream you as Hermione (Helen’s child), you were never this way.
You aren’t merely mortal, you are Helen’s match
I say this to you:
My offering lays my most treasured thoughts before your beauty
And I beg you with every feeling I cherish.
Hailed by these intercessions, Atthis returned to Sappho for a short while.
You’ve come. No words knock at me anymore.
Now love’s cinders flame in my heart.
Here is another:
You! I tore myself away, now I fold into you anew.
As though the anguish once-faithful kin can bring comes back
and one loses the comfort one has in one’s skin.
But Atthis no longer loved Sappho. It’s also possible that her parents, guardians, and patrons wanted to separate her from Sappho. Sappho reveals her sorrow to us in the following lines:
Passion tethered me
Rebellious terror brought me to my knees
Bitterness steeped in the clarity of milk
Tyranny escorted by kindness
I come to see love’s respite in every heart’s ordeal
Atthis has left me
bound her soul to a stranger.
Sappho was furious at Andromeda; we see the rage she felt in the following fragment:
When you die no one will recall you,
You’ve never tended a rose to life
You’ll wander lost, nameless, traceless, decaying, infirm in death’s home.
But that mourning, those laments were of no use. In the end, Atthis, at the behest of another, left Sappho forever. The poet’s plaint is preserved in these phrases: “now I’ll never see Atthis again, better if I had died.”
But the divine muses had given the poet a gift that would enable her to find solace in her grieving. Poetry laid her feelings before the world, and in doing so, eased the wounds she concealed. Sappho learned from her deeply futile love, which births such sympathy, what triggered the passion that had burned away her soul’s repose.
We see in love’s remains
Flesh and spirit flinching in terror
As though the whorls of a tempest
Juddering, tucked deep in hill groves.
Sappho was now thirty. Pittacus had discharged his obligations with distinction and abnegated his rule. Sappho whiled away her life absorbed in domestic routines.
At the end of 557 BCE, Sappho was fifty-five. We may be able to visualize her as a tiny, dark woman, the delicate wrinkles across her face evident only to someone with a discerning eye. Any ordinary person would have been taken in by the makeup and rouge that concealed them, and Sappho’s smile still stole one’s heart and her eyes still had that sparkle that couldn’t be wiped away. There are few women who, when they age, have the sort of beauty that not even much younger women can access. Even at fifty-five, Sappho’s appearance was animated by that same stunning quality.
In her younger days, Sappho’s attention had been corralled by etiquette and social status. But now, as she matured and aged, her gaze grown and expanded, she would have found it repugnant to socialize with Pittacus’s associates and family. Sappho would have once poked fun at Andromeda, calling her a rustic, an uncouth woman. But now, more magnanimous, Sappho found herself netted by her love for a very ordinary fisherman named Phalagon—but he died quite young.
At that time, another young boatman called Phaon, renowned for his beauty, lived in Mythilene; many women had fallen hard for him. Sappho chanced upon him. And she too succumbed to his grace. We are told that it was bruited about that Phaon was in fact an astoundingly beautiful youth. Many stories have been circulated about him. The historical record does give us some clues as to how Sappho might have first encountered him. It’s possible that Sappho hired this astonishingly graceful young man to row her in his river barge. And perhaps when, on the water’s surface lit up by the full moon, under the stars’ shadows, the flat-bottomed barge flowed toward her and she saw Phaon standing by his oar, his beauty and grace made flesh, this poet, so overflowing with feeling, may have reached for love. Her saga of intoxicated desire began here, with this revelatory moment. It is said that Sappho went on to compose quite a few songs about Phaon. However, in the few bits and bobs left of her work, we don’t find many verses that we can say with any degree of confidence were about him. But perhaps we can surmise that the fragment below is a plaint to her passion for him:
Raise your eyes
let them surge into mine
take a step off that lane into my heart
drown your flesh and mind in beauty.
We know or can assume that at its inception, the vehemence of Sappho’s desire drew the young boatman to her. Perhaps his narcissism was assuaged by the attention of the most famous woman of his era.
Wrapped in a cloak, Sappho would sneak out to meet her young lover in the night’s darkness, in the caves tucked into the hills behind Mythilene. The poet gave her heart to the boatman. And as for the boatman, the poet’s music, her tongue that voiced her despairing adoration so mellifluously, whatever the words that may have been spoken then, were after all merely another song. Because once again that same love burned away the soul’s repose, subjugating Sappho’s body and spirit. That dream lasted only a short while. Phaon’s spirit was sated, or perhaps he began to think that he could not hold his own against the scorching kisses of this fiery, fierce-souled poet. So Phaon found a boat going to Sicily and fled Mythilene. It’s been said that when Sappho learned what had happened, she was struck senseless. She paled and turned mute. She couldn’t comprehend why her dream had been thwarted so. But when she came to her senses, the full bitterness of that truth overwhelmed her. And unable to hold on, she wept uncontrollably. She tore out her hair and began to hit herself. When her relatives found out, they reproached her, scolded her, and exacerbated the problems she faced.
After Phaon left, Sappho was bedeviled by thoughts of him when she was awake and whenever she tried to sleep. When she could no longer bear her misery, she resolved to go after him; after all, what pleasures remained for her in Mythilene?
The gathering of the women who were her soul mates had fallen apart. She detested her brother intensely. Her daughter had no sympathy for her, and her friends began to loathe her. She saw only old age and loneliness stretching into her future. She left Mythilene, skirted southern Italy, and traveled toward Corinth. We don’t have any of the particulars of her journey, but we can certainly guess at her deep grief, her indecision and apprehension.
Over the course of her long journey, it’s possible that she came to understand that pursuing Phaon was fruitless. Having closed in on Sicily, she may have begun to ask herself whether she would have a chance to begin her relationship afresh or not. Would Phaon care to meet her again? She was so much older than the young boatman. And the shock of Phaon’s faithlessness had wrecked her being and appearance. So when she saw an opening for some respite from her unforeseen blow, she cleared a pathway to it. She must’ve become aware that she had no other possibility left for finding joy. In the deep gloom of despair and bleakness and futility, she made a hasty resolve. Wandering onto a rocky promontory, she ran and leaped and the waves that washed the pounding endless sea gathered her into their embrace. We find a few verses about Sappho’s death in an unfinished poem by Alcaeus [her old friend]:
Ill-fated . . . I am a star-crossed woman
Whose life is anguish
Bound to the house, housebound
Agony swamps my fate
Life’s impossible cure comes to me as I decline
Dread wakes my terrified heart
And the ocean’s wintry, generous, tender wash.
In the end, Sappho’s broken corpse was salvaged from the ocean, and after she was burned, her ashes were carried onward to be buried in Mythilene. We know this because of allusions to her tomb being in Lesbos.
Earlier and contemporary authorities agree on Sappho’s suicide, her divine immolation. We can surmise it from the comings and goings, the birthing and deaths, of her poems; there is enchantment in her disparate reflections, as in the following fragment:
I sacrifice my most cherished thoughts on the altar of your beauty
And worship you with my deeply treasured feelings.
In one or two places she compares a virgin to an apple:
Dangling from the tip of a shrub
A fruit beyond the imagining of someone going to pluck it
No, not really concealed but far beyond their grasp
Never in their power, it exceeds their reach.
Sappho has said: “Desire can morph even a hapless boy into a poet.” She was a religious and educated woman who could stretch poetics to its very limits when describing love. The amorous ambience of her love for Phaon and their assignations can be seen in the verses below:
When Phaon’s boat comes flowing over the surface of the water’s skin
Impish gusts flood in from the west
I sing melodies of desire on my beguiling lute
And songs of love flourish breath
But nothing moves that saucy tyrant.
Oh, love’s anguish, leave it alone, don’t steal my delight, don’t lay it waste.
When I have no chance, don’t slake me with sighs, don’t mourn, don’t complain.
In a world suffused with anguish and pain I drift aimless, as though mislaid
and send my tale of love on the sorrowing winds
But nothing moves that saucy tyrant.
Akhtar Shirani [a contemporary of Miraji’s who was renowned for his love lyric] says:
Who do I glimpse in the feast of life?
Whoever catches my glance appears so flawless.
This, after all, is love, which enhances everything, shines it up. Sappho wasn’t just drunk on love; she was hooked on the splendors of nature. She fancied rose blooms, compared a virgin to roses: “Her arms are elegant, elusive, the fragrance of rose petals falling.”
Mirabai from Mewar, rapt by the glories of nature, sings:
The earth is flushed anew, I picket in the hope of chancing on Krishna, my lover.
The earth sits, garlanded in color
And to the bulbul, the nightingale calls: Spring’s aching voice blends every reproach.
And about the dove closing in on her nest:
My destination lies before me as she shakes her wings loose.
In another place, Sappho speaks concisely, precisely, and unpretentiously about an evening scene:
Children clamber onto their mother’s laps
crowds fold into their lanes
Goats herd to their keepers—the forlorn voice of crimson twilight
Charmed seraphs strew
Those flecks from gilded hands
You live in those shadows, Oh dusk
Your charms so familiar
And elsewhere, night’s scenery:
When the sun’s fiery streams blaze the world awake
Chaperoning the moon, the stars’ luster pales, dulls to ash.
The garden of earth’s messengers
Sap floods from the branches of apple groves, singing
On the earth: supple leaves frolic, pirouette
Unforeseen sensual gusts shadow forgiving surges, and
their magic sways my heart.
Sappho’s absorption in the natural shows up in the charismatic force of passion:
Night has wandered away
The stars as well, and
Step by step
but why do I care?
I lie here,
Quiet, flesh forsaken, forlorn.
She notices unusual features in the guise of the everyday:
Oh, your eyes darken
Sleep, daughter of the night
And in another place, rustic hues. This fragment is probably from those songs that were composed to commemorate weddings:
O mother, my breath catches
how will I spin thread out?
My hands fail me
Cupid’s arrow has lacerated my heart,
befuddled by madness
I vanish into my young lover’s yearning hunger.
Wherever Sappho has been confirmed as a respected versifier, she has no peer. Her sagacity immortalized even her scattered, sporadic axioms. Socrates counted her as a sage. But uptight, pious folk who overwhelmed people’s perception with demons, dimming their ability to discern, lost the ability to see the luster of Sappho’s music. I will conclude this essay with her generous verses on “virtue,” which reveal the tenor of her wisdom to us, but repeating one of her sayings first would not be untoward.
The petals of a flower can slice through even the heart of a diamond
Though compassionate and understated expression
Can leave an artless, naive person unmoved.
These same sentiments were expressed by Sappho before Christ was born. Lines like “An inflexible mind cannot be bent” are an homage to her acumen.
“Elderly birds cannot be trapped in a net,” “When anger floods your heart, keep a tight rein on your tongue,” “Where do we find flawlessness in this world?”
But these adages only verify her perspicacity. We see the real culmination of her ideas in her love lyric; through it we are moved, fall under the spell of her exquisitely nuanced feelings.
Mirabai imagines her lover’s bed as the amphitheater of the skies: “Who is bound to me?” And Sappho asks, “How can my two arms feel the skies?”
Listen to a song:
When night’s hours have slipped away, morning’s flame about to dawn
when fickle sleep tests one’s eyes, a god brings dreaming
these words so grim, can I withstand the sorrow and calamity they convey
Can I let my soul’s hope persist, unfinished
euphoria sates my thoughts; grief will not slip in unheeded
the sky’s poignant elation engulfs my heart
when I was young and guileless, my mother offered me playthings
I opened my hands to accept them, it wasn’t as though I could refuse
the heavens bestow rapture upon those who chance hope
And these I offer truly: my sacrifice of melody and dance.
We see her restless, troubled spirit in this song; during a time of leave-taking she tosses and turns on her bed. And in a dream, she senses in that slight haze the slow cessation of her trials, and the fresh joy that will ensue, which she then does not want to let go of.
In yet another place, Sappho gauges virtue and beauty:
One who is fetching is virtuous as well
A fetish, that is also exquisite
Someone who has no beauty
becomes virtuous, and so also exquisite.
And Sappho’s being, too, measures up to her own yardstick.
Translator's Note: I would like to thank Neloufer de Mel, Kath Weston, my sustaining soul, along with Devi, Meghan Hartman, Pervin Chhapkhanawala, Anil Menon for suggestions and thoughts on lines, moments in the text. I would also like to thank Haider Shahbaz and Susan Harris for encouraging me to translate more than just the poems in the Miraji essay on Sappho.
Abridged from Mīrājī, “Saifo,” pp. 321–56 in Mashriq o Maghrib ke Naghmen. Published 1958 by Akādamī Panjāb. Translation © 2020 by Geeta Patel. All rights reserved.
In this poem by Sara Shagufta, light and color become commodities that can be stolen or exchanged.
So evening has come
and it’s begun to steal our faces
You’re a little thief
I’m no thief, man
I stepped down into the sea
and it stole no color from my clothes
a bit of my breath, for sure
was taken by the waves
it seems she too is a saline thief
When’s the last time you dove in the dirt?
to steal soil is big tough toiling
If I took a dive into the earth
it would steal every breath in my body
and it wouldn’t be me who’s the little thief
On every road there are several colored paths
and in some unseen place
one color only saturates it all
You can take the colors of the caves
but truth be told the greatest color thief is the sun
until we arrive at its pure light all it shows is this color
and that one
See—in the mirror our eyes diverge
even the wind is sometimes called “looking glass”
catching your hem and mine
isn’t she also a little thief?
Did you come out to steal or be bathed in this raiment—
look—when the waves hurl themselves at the stony face of the coast
she blanches in the froth
and when the wind entwines the trees in a dance
nothing but green can be seen all around
When a man cries
he floods himself in salt tears
and colorfast he drowns—
how does the color of the sky climb down to our earth
If I told you these fine secrets
they’d snatch me up
steal me away
So before I tell you
Just steal the color of this stone
as much color as the force with which I smash it
It will intone the same hue
the color pulverized
all laid out
but even water’s gloss or glaze
does nothing to pull its pigments out
Isn’t it also a weeping man?
Our talk of uprooted flowers cuts like a dagger
these eve-harvested blooms
the depths of night have made black
Go slowly, slowly
they may hear our soft footfalls
but they can’t hide from us
This fire, this blaze
it can’t be extinguished—
but if the light were silenced
you would find suddenly
you are no thief
In the hour when lengthening shadows steal the light
it is their theft, not mine or yours
If I stop taking what isn’t mine
my house will be without an ember
my bread will sit like this
pale and unbaked in the darkness
My hunger beckons the life, the raiment, the color
it leads me back to the uprooted flowers
who know I’m a thief
When the dark caves of our pupils are stolen
we claw our way out to snatch our colors back
I stole the sea’s color and made a floor
I stole the colors of eyes and made walls
I stole the sun’s color and made shade
I stole hunger’s color and made a stove
I stole the color of shit-talk and sewed my garments out of it
And when fire’s color was taken
my bread sat unbaked
the stones went silent
and the little oil lamp’s flame
began again to burn the void
"Rang Chor" published in Aankhen (Tashkeel Publishers, 1985). Translation © 2020 by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb. All rights reserved.
At once funny and bleak, this novel by the Iraq-born Dutch novelist draws on his personal experiences to expose the cruel and often absurd procedural challenges that immigrants must endure.
Often associated with dramatic images of war and daunting journeys undertaken amid precarious circumstances, the experience of contemporary migration and asylum-seeking gains an unexpected Beckettian tone in Two Blankets, Three Sheets, an engrossing and exasperating novel by the Iraq-born Dutch novelist Rodaan Al Galidi. The first of Al Galidi’s works to be translated into English, the book straddles the line between fiction and memoir as it draws on the author’s own experience as a refugee in the Netherlands to construct a tale defined by protracted delays and seemingly endless waiting. Citizenship and the right to settle in a foreign country appear elusive to Al Galidi’s characters, goals that they seem incapable of attaining but unwilling (or in no condition) to give up, the geopolitical equivalent of Beckett’s existential allegory about the ever-awaited, ever-postponed Godot.
After fleeing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to avoid military service, Samir Karim finds himself caught in a seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic maze as he tries to settle in a new country. Seven years of frustrated hopes and failed efforts finally lead him to Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, where he arrives in 1998, counting on the Dutch reputation for receptiveness to asylum seekers. Samir soon discovers, however, that he is but one of many people arriving there with such expectations, and that the process for deciding who will be granted the coveted residency status is by no means as simple or swift as he might hope.
A new and strenuously long period of waiting then begins in the purgatorial limbo of the Asylum Seeker Center, where quotas on the distribution of blankets, sheets, aspirin, and condoms are carefully enforced and only very cleverly bypassed. These strictly controlled rations of basic goods give the novel its title and determine the daily life of its characters down to the most intimate details: “This meant an asylum seeker had the right to three orgasms and six headaches per day,” Al Galidi wryly remarks.
Narrating Samir’s travels, with a focus on a period spent homeless and displaced in Southeast Asia on the run from immigration police, Al Galidi exposes the underbelly of United Nations idealism by chronicling the underground world of passport counterfeiting and the black market for immigration. Two Blankets, Three Sheets charts a geographical and psychological road map through the wildest country on the planet: statelessness.
Although written as a novel, Al Galidi’s book often resembles an eyewitness’s critique of international refugee law and institutions, written with equal amounts of earnestness and style. His is a dogged assertion of the personality and humor of the contemporary immigrant, relating his survival of refugee resettlement and the trials of restarting life in a new country, something that many of those he met in transit were not so lucky to achieve. Safe but scarred, he employs a satirical edge to cut through the euphemisms of politicians and international organizations to tell a story that is at once funny and bleak.
Al Galidi judges the judges, lampooning the labyrinthine and often absurd Dutch system for registering asylum seekers. Even the most apparently trivial bureaucratic procedures expose cultural gaps and economic inequities between immigrants and state officials; matters easily resolved in Europe aren’t always so simple in migrants’ countries of origin. For example, calling his mother en route to Amsterdam, Samir realizes they do not even know each other’s ages. When he asks for hers, she responds, “Eight wars.” Later, after suffering in a cold cell, he comes face-to-face with an immigration officer to whom he must explain that Iraqis do not have family names but are rather given a first name that precedes the names of their fathers and grandfathers. “Surely a civil servant working for the immigration services should know that among adult Iraqis, half have July 1 as their birth date, and the other half has January 1,” Al Galidi writes acerbically.
To avoid deportation, Samir flushes his passport down the toilet after landing in Amsterdam—destroying his documents is an attempt to leave the past behind and begin life anew. But as Al Galidi remarks, immigrants are, as ever, stuck between an impossible return and a painful birth into a new life in a foreign country.
The novel’s colorful range of characters allows Al Galidi to depict the multifarious (and often unsavory) experiences and opinions of detainees, migrants, leisure travelers, and locals in Amsterdam, Baghdad, Bangkok, and elsewhere. They collectively inform and enrich the emotional subtext of the Asylum Seeker Center, where the interminable wait is alleviated by the temporary relief of sex or instantly and tragically terminated by suicide.
Al Galidi lays bare and attempts to cut through the veils of ignorance that separate the refugees he spotlights from the officials and state agents who cling mechanically to bureaucratic procedures, rarely swayed by compassion.
Al Galidi wrote the novel in Dutch, which he taught himself despite being forbidden to attend language classes as an undocumented asylum seeker. Two Blankets, Three Sheets is a work of clean, spare prose, written in a matter-of-fact tone. The story sometimes feels less like a narrative than an essay, meandering through loose threads of thought toward a resolution as anticlimactic as much of the plot, or lack thereof. It is a labor of patience as dogged, we may think, as the experience of waiting for asylum for nine years.
“People might ask me if this is my story, to which I will say: no. But if I’m asked if this is also my story, then I will say wholeheartedly: yes,” Al Galidi writes in the foreword to his novel, denying exclusive rights to the suffering that he details. Through this homage, as it were, to his tragicomic immigration to Europe—one darkened by human rights abuses the world over, whether in broad daylight on the streets of Iraq or behind closed doors in Holland—Al Galidi fearlessly tells the tale of one man’s departure from all that is familiar to him and his attempt to find a new home. Two Blankets, Three Sheets is a tale of belonging and what it means to be human in a world that deems people less important than government protocols.
In the first of a new series of quarterly columns, Maya Jaggi, our Critic at Large, explores how Lebanese literature has been a vital space for personal memory in a country seemingly intent on bulldozing its past. The October 2019 protests that led to the fall of then-Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, Jaggi suggests, augur not just a new political moment for the country but a new national literary chapter.
In the National Museum of Beirut, an exquisite Byzantine mosaic with animal motifs bears a gaping hole in one corner. The wall-mounted mosaic, The Good Shepherd, was damaged by a sniper during the Lebanese civil war of 1975–91, as militias overran this Egyptian-revival landmark on Damascus Road. Many Phoenician, Greco-Roman, and Byzantine treasures from the country’s multilayered past were safely bricked up in the basement or encased in concrete by the museum’s resourceful director, Maurice Chehab. But after the museum reopened in 1999, the battle-scarred mosaic was left unrestored as a fragile totem of the madness of war and the dedication of those who resisted it.
The Good Shepherd mosaic in the National Museum of Beirut (detail), its left corner damaged by a sniper. Originally from a church in Jnah, Lebanon, 5th–6th century CE. Photo credit: Maya Jaggi.
Known simply by the Arabic for museum, “Mathaf” sits on the wartime Green Line that divided Christian East Beirut from the capital’s mainly Muslim West—a lethal strip of no-man’s-land where rival militias faced off. Farther north, toward the Mediterranean port, the yellow sandstone Beit Beirut (Beirut House) reopened in 2017 as the Museum of Memory. Built in the 1920s, this elegant neo-Ottoman apartment building became notorious as a snipers’ den. Saved from postwar demolition by a dogged campaign, its bullet-ridden structure has been scrupulously frozen in time. Upstairs, the gunmen’s sandbagged nests give a chilling insight into how militiamen, immune to incoming fire, would shoot clean across the building’s interior and out the other side, omnipotent lords of the streets they terrorized.
Yet such salutary reminders of the civil war are rare in a city seemingly intent on forgetting. Beirut’s ruined Ottoman heart was razed, not renovated, to be replaced by concrete souks and Dubai-style high-rises. This sanitized, soulless downtown is known to many Beirutis as “Solidere,” after the controversial company that transfigured it. The blackened ruin of the Holiday Inn still towers over the Bay of Beirut with its palm-lined Corniche. But it is officially forbidden to photograph the charred remains—a fiat defied by artists.
In Lebanon, “we’ve been champions of forgetting in a most negative way,” the novelist and essayist Dominique Eddé told me at a cafe in Clemenceau, western Beirut, this past fall. “The country has no inhibition toward destroying its past like a bulldozer. It’s merciless and fascinating—it speaks of a huge vitality. But how do people’s minds and memories adjust?”
The civil war was suspended some thirty years ago without a formal peace or reckoning. School textbooks leave off in 1943, with Lebanon’s independence from the French mandate. Even “civil war” is a moot term to describe a succession of wars and massacres among proliferating militias in shifting alliances, sponsored by foreign powers including Syria, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Yet, with no consensus on history, and an official amnesia imposed from above, Lebanese literature—in Arabic, French, and English—has been a stubborn repository of personal memory; a space to question the formation of history, as well as sectarian identities made more rigid by war.
That the remembered past weighs heavily on the present was clear from the protests that began, in fall 2019, in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square on the former Green Line. Spreading throughout Lebanon, they mobilized people across sectarian lines in an unprecedented rejection of the postwar status quo. The so-called October 17 Revolution—the country’s biggest demonstrations since the Cedar Revolution of 2005 ousted the occupying Syrian army—prompted the resignation of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, on October 29. Ostensibly sparked by a youthful rebellion against a tax on WhatsApp calls, it was stoked by widespread anger against corruption and economic mismanagement, amid the daily attrition of power cuts, lack of clean water, and festering trash heaps. But the mood was caught by men and women of all ages, Sunni and Shia, Maronite and Druze, joining hands in a 170-kilometer human chain that ran through Beirut, from Tripoli in northern Lebanon to Tyre in the south. Targeting an entire ruling class—some of whose sect-based parties are still headed by wartime militia leaders—these demonstrations have been hailed in some quarters as the definitive end of the war, and the beginning, at last, of a healing process of memory and reconciliation. As one slogan against those in power ran: “We are the popular revolution. You are the civil war.”
On the eve of the protests, I spoke with Elias Khoury, one of Lebanon’s leading novelists and formerly global distinguished professor at New York University, who has described Beirut as the “capital of amnesia.” We met near his home in eastern Beirut after tire-burning protests—a harbinger of the October 17 demonstrations—had erupted in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in south Beirut. The 1982 massacres in these camps—among the worst atrocities of the civil war—are at the heart of Khoury’s 1998 masterpiece Gate of the Sun (whose English version by Humphrey Davies won the inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2006, when I was a judge). The novel—which now has a sequel, Children of the Ghetto: My Name is Adam (2016; translated by Davies in 2018)—wove a tentative oral history of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 from the persistent memories of love, flight, and dispossession that Khoury heard in Beirut’s camps.
Writer Elias Khoury at a café in Achrafieh, Beirut, fall 2019: "The civil-war collapse of the nation-state exploded the Lebanese novel." Photo credit: Maya Jaggi.
“The dominant amnesia is not really about forgetting,” Khoury cautioned. “The militia leaders now in government imposed a collective amnesia, but that doesn’t prevent each community from having its own memory. It creates separate memories that can emerge at any time and cause another war.” In Gate of the Sun, he wrote that “memory is the process of organizing what to forget.” Yet, “especially after terrible wars like ours, that work wasn’t done,” he told me. “You have to forget in a decent way; to mourn so you can live. But you need to feel the victims are respected.” Instead, “when the Syrians imposed peace, there was a general amnesty [in 1991] so none of the war criminals governing us could be questioned. At least 17,000 people disappeared during the war. Till now, we don’t have a hint of where they’re buried.”
We were sitting on a café terrace in traffic-filled Sassine Square, in Achrafieh, the hilly district known as Little Mountain where Khoury was born in 1948 into a Lebanese Christian family. A leading journalist and critic who worked with the poets Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis when prewar Beirut was a dynamic hub of Arabic publishing, he said the war reinvented Lebanese fiction: “The novel is the outcome of the bourgeois nation-state. But here, the collapse of the nation-state exploded the novel. Civil war opened the windows of reality, bringing in colloquial Arabic and an avant-garde stylistic approach to the details of daily life.”
Khoury’s wartime involvement with left-wing and Palestinian forces (Christian and Muslim) had exiled him to West Beirut. Little Mountain, written in Arabic in 1977 in the midst of the fighting (and published in Maia Tabet’s English translation in 1989), was one of the war’s first novels—along with Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose (1977) in French. A picaresque narrative of a youthful urban guerrilla, his family home raided by militiamen wearing crosses who target him as a traitor, it expressed the author’s disillusionment as all sides became implicated in atrocities, and melded memoir, pastiche, and fable into a restless, fragmented, postmodern form.
First edition of Elias Khoury’s novel Little Mountain in English translation (Maia Tabet; University of Minnesota Press, 1989) with later novels. Photo credit: Maya Jaggi.
Khoury is among Lebanese novelists whose fiction unsettles sectarian identities. His novel Yalo (2002; translated by Peter Theroux in 2008), exploring memory and truth through a man’s unreliable confessions under torture, has an antihero who is Syriac and Kurd, Muslim and Christian. In Jabbour Douaihy’s Chased Away, Nizam is born a Muslim and raised a Christian. In Rabee Jaber’s punningly titled Confessions (2008; translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid in 2016), the narrator, Maroun, is the adopted son of a man from Achrafieh who orphaned him, killing his parents at a roadblock before kidnapping the boy and naming him after his own dead son. Maroun pieces together an unspoken history of his adoptive father’s atrocities—including the Karantina massacre of 1976 near Beirut port—from fragments of hearsay. Blanketed in silence, and without a solid framework of historical facts, such characters struggle to make sense of their own memories.
The Paris-based novelist Amin Maalouf traces fluid identities back to the region’s pluralistic past in novels such as the Prix Goncourt–winning The Rock of Tanios (1992; translated by Dorothy S. Blair in 1995), set in early nineteenth-century Lebanon as the seeds of sectarian bloodshed were sown. Jaber, too, looks beyond living memory for clues to the present. His novel The Druze of Belgrade, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the “Arabic Booker”) in 2012, is set in the aftermath of the 1860s civil war, as 500 Druze rebels found guilty of massacring Christians are ordered to a Balkan jail by the Ottoman pasha. When one bribes his way out, a hapless hawker in Beirut port—ironically, a Christian—is incarcerated in his stead. An unlucky innocent, he could just as easily be of the wrong faith or sect at a checkpoint a century later. Jaber, a major novelist and journalist who rarely gives interviews, once told me that, to him, such books are not historical novels, because “the world doesn’t change as much as we like to think. The same violence gets repeated,” including “arbitrary arrests though people are not guilty. This is our world. Though it may be imaginary to other people, to us it’s real.”
This absurd quality can loom larger in childhood memories, as in Lamia Ziadé’s graphic memoir that breaks the comics mold, Bye Bye Babylon: Beirut 1975-79 (2010; translated from French by Olivia Snaije in 2011), or the macabre surrealism of Mazen Maarouf’s Arabic short stories, Jokes for the Gunmen (2015; translated by Jonathan Wright in 2019). Both reveal a child’s-eye bewilderment at violence. But Ziadé’s wry commentary and vivid inventory of all that is gone, including cinemas and sweet shops (“I’ll remember it always”), contrasts with Maarouf’s darkly oblique take on lingering trauma. His Beirut—though transformed on the surface—is haunted by repressed memories. In one story, a man “unable to smile” stops the heart of a homeless person “who lived under a bridge that had acquired a bad reputation in the war” simply by announcing himself as the angel of death.
By ossifying religious identities, the civil war also stymied women’s rights. The memory of a sniper terrorizing her Beirut neighborhood on the Green Line was the trigger for Hanan Al-Shaykh’s influential Arabic classic The Story of Zahra (1980; translated by Peter Ford in 1986)—a novel that shocked many readers (including the nine publishers who turned it down) by refusing to take sides in what Al-Shaykh saw as a “men’s war.” A prominent journalist when war broke out—and recognized as a founding rebel in a special issue of Banipal magazine last year—she once told me that “there were two wars happening: the civil war, and the one fought all the time with family and traditions.” Her self-harming antiheroine, Zahra, experiences rape, back-street abortions, and electroconvulsive therapy at the hands of men in peacetime before finding sexual pleasure with a stranger she suspects is a rooftop sniper. Written forty years ago in London, the novel was groundbreaking not only in its richly colloquial language and sexual frankness, but for its insight into how warlords of all stripes mirrored the power of fathers and clerics.
Writer Hanan Al-Shaykh: “There were two wars happening: the civil war, and the one fought with family and traditions."
Decades after the ambiguous liberation Zahra seized in wartime—and despite Beirut being one of the Arab world’s freest cities—women still grapple with straitjacketing notions of femininity and honor. Al-Shaykh revisits these themes with scathing humor in her novel The Occasional Virgin (2015; translated by Catherine Cobham in 2018), whose protagonists are Lebanese women in the diaspora. In Alexandra Chreiteh’s Always Coca-Cola (2009; translated by Michelle Hartman in 2012), the main characters are Beiruti women in their twenties—a generation steeped in global brands, and for whom the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 looms larger than the civil war. Yet they face many similar constraints to their mothers and grandmothers. Women’s rights have been held back, not simply by custom or religion, but by a sclerotic confessional system that enforces archaic laws—such as that preventing mothers from passing their nationality to their children. Women’s freedom has been a potent rallying cry in the recent protests alongside the icon of the “kick queen”—a viral image of a protester’s defensive kick at the groin of a politician’s bodyguard.
First edition of Hanan Al-Shaykh’s wartime classic The Story of Zahra in English translation (Peter Ford; Quartet Books, 1986) and her latest novel, The Occasional Virgin (Catherine Cobham; Bloomsbury, 2018). Photo credit: Maya Jaggi.
If the collapse of the nation-state reinvented the Lebanese novel, its reconstitution could galvanize literature. Eddé commends young historians charting the civil war one day at a time, striving to encompass multiple memories and points of view—rather as fiction has done. But as she wrote in Le Monde before last December’s intensifying crackdown, Lebanon could face “much suffering” at the hands of a “vicious circle of manipulators” before the sectarian system falls or a consensus on history is reached.
“You agree on history when you create a secular democratic state,” Khoury said. His words to me as dusk fell on Achrafieh carried both warning and hope: “Every community here has its memory. When we arrive at a collective memory of the war, we’ll have a country.” In massing together as individuals under the Lebanese flag, the protesters not only proclaimed the end of the civil war. They also brought the prospect of a shared memory—and a new literary chapter—a step closer.
© 2020 by Maya Jaggi. All rights reserved.
A mother sheep tries to protect her lambs from a devious wolf in this Qatari folktale, translated by Rana Elmaghraby.
In the name of God the Merciful:
Pray to the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Majana1 ela kheer lafana w lafakom w shar ta’adana w ta’adakum: May nothing affect us but goodness for us and you, and may evil stay away from us and you.
There once was a small sheep with children. The innocent sheep would take care of her lambs. She woke up every morning, told her children to wait in the house, and went out to gather grass for them. She left early in the morning to eat and fetch food. She would return home only when she had enough food for her lambs.
The mother sheep would warn her children of the wolf that prowled the town. She told them not to open the door for anyone who knocked on it, except their mother. The children agreed to obey their mother’s orders.
The next day, the mother sheep left the house to get the food. When she came back, she said, “Ya Fatoum, ya Hamoud, and ya Hamed, open the door for me. I am your mother and I brought you milk and grass to eat.”
The lambs recognized their mother’s voice, so they opened the door for her. While she was talking to them, the wolf came and listened to everything she said. (Even the king had warned everyone of the notorious wolf!)
The following day, the mother left to get food for her children. Then the wolf came and said with his growling voice, “Open the door, I am your mother and I brought you grass and milk and lots of food.”
The lambs said, “No, you are not our mother, because you have a growling voice and our mother’s voice is soft!”
Then the wolf said, “I am your mother, indeed. I am just sick—that’s why my voice changed.”
But they refused again. Then the wolf went away and drank oil and covered his tail with oil. He knocked on the door again. He told them with a softer voice, “I am your mother, open the door.” Then the wolf slid his tail under the door and said, “You can even touch my tail, and you will find it smooth. This will prove to you that I am your mother.”
So the lambs said, “Yes, indeed, it is our mother,” and they opened the door.
The wolf attacked them, eating Hamoud and Hamed! But when he was about to eat Fatoum, she clawed him, and he bled and ran off.
Later that day, the mother returned and said, “Ya Fatoum, ya Hamoud, and ya Hamed, open the door for me.” But no one answered. She quickly entered the house to find two of her children missing.
She went to the king and told him her story. The king immediately called a large gathering with lots of food and invited everyone, including the wolf.
When it was time to go, the wolf couldn’t leave because his stomach was full. So the king asked him suspiciously, “Why didn’t you eat, and why can’t you leave already?”
The wolf answered, “No, it’s just that I have a stomachache.”
The king sensed that the wolf was lying. He grabbed a knife and tore the wolf’s stomach open, and out came the two sheep: Hamoud and Hamed. They were alive, alhamdulillah.
The mother thanked the king and returned home with her three children. Then she told them, “Didn’t I tell you to listen to your mother and not to open the door for anyone?”
They replied, “Yes, Mother, we’re sorry. We’ve learned our lesson.”
W rohna anhoom w jeena w ma atoona sheey: And we came and we left, and they brought us nothing.
1In Qatari dialect, the “j” turns to a spoken “y.” So majana in this case would be pronounced “mayana.”↩
Told by Umm Khalaf. Translation © 2020 by Rana El Maghraby. All rights reserved.
A magical fish helps a young woman escape the clutches of her evil stepmother in this folktale from the Qatari oral tradition, translated by Kholoud Saleh.
Translator’s Note: The fish in this story—a two-banded porgy that lives in the Arabian Gulf—is known as Al Fisaikra in Qatari dialect (and Fusijaira, Fusikaira, and Bint Al-Nowakhtha in standard Arabic). In Gulf Region folklore, Fusijaira is a supernatural being who helps deserving people in need.
In the name of God the Merciful:
Pray to the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Majana1 ela kheer lafana w lafakom w shar ta’adana w ta’adakum: May nothing affect us but goodness for us and you, and may evil stay away from us and you.
There was, my dear, a fisherman. This man was very good and kind, and he was married and had a daughter named Hamda. But by Allah’s will, his wife passed away, and the daughter was left alone with her father. The father went fishing every day, and the daughter would cook his catch for the both of them. They lived in joy.
One day, the father said to his daughter, “My darling, I want to get married.”
Enthused at the idea, the daughter said, “Dear father, that would be nice!”
The father explained, “I want someone to be with you at home. My wife will help you and be a mother to you. And when I’m not around, she will keep you company.”
The daughter said, “Father, we have a neighbor who's very sweet. I will go and ask her to marry you!”
The beautiful daughter went to the neighbor and asked her to marry the father, and the neighbor agreed. Soon they were married.
By Allah’s will, the woman became pregnant. She delivered a baby girl. Soon after the child’s birth, the woman began to despise her stepdaughter. She made her cook, clean, wash, and do all the household chores, while she treated her own daughter with love and dignity.
The daughter complained to her father about the stepmother’s behavior. But oftentimes he did not believe her.
By Allah’s will, the father passed away, and his daughter lived alone with her stepmother and stepsister.
One day, their neighbors brought them some fish in a basket. The stepmother took the fish and told Hamda to go to the sea and clean them by the shore.
Hamda said, “Oh, Stepmother, must I really go now, in the middle of the night?”
The stepmother answered, “Yes, go clean the fish now.”
The poor girl went to the shore and began cleaning the fish. Before she left, however, the stepmother warned her to be careful. “I counted the fish, so don’t lose a single one.”
Hamda cleaned all the fish, and the last fish that she needed to clean was Al Fisaikra.
Al Fisaikra spoke to Hamda and said, “Set me free and I'll make you rich.”
Hamda replied nervously, “No, I'm afraid of my stepmother.”
“Let me go and I’ll make you rich,” Al Fisaikra repeated.
But Hamda replied again, “No, I'm afraid of my stepmother.”
Al Fisaikra grew impatient, bit Hamda’s arm, and slipped from her hands. Then the fish hid in a hollow between the rocks, beyond Hamda’s reach.
Hamda went home with all the fish except one. When the stepmother saw the fish, she said in anger, “There’s one missing!”
“Oh, Stepmother, one of them slipped away into the sea.”
“Go and bring it here now!” said the stepmother.
Obedient Hamda asked, “Will you save some lunch for me?” The stepmother assured her she would.
Hamda reached the shore and looked for Al Fisaikra but was unable to find her.
She returned to her stepmother and said, “I couldn't find the fish. May I have my lunch?”
“Of course; it’s in the kitchen,"2 her stepmother replied.
In the kitchen, Hamda found only bones. She went back to her stepmother and said, “Oh, Stepmother, you left me nothing but bones!”
“That’s all you deserve,” said the woman. “Yes, we left you nothing but bones. The fish you lost in the sea is the one that would have been yours!”
Dejected, Hamda took the dishes to the beach to wash them. She sat on a rock and began to cry. “Oh, Fisaikra, oh, my dear, they ate all the lunch and left nothing for me.”
“Didn’t I tell you that if you freed me, I would make you rich?” the fish answered. “But you said you were afraid of your stepmother.”
Hamda repeated, “Oh, Fisaikra, oh, my dear, they ate all the lunch and left nothing for me.”
Al Fisaikra answered again: “Didn’t I tell you that if you freed me, I would make you rich? But you said you were afraid of your stepmother.”
Then Al Fisaikra felt sorry for Hamda, and brought her rice, mashkhool, and biryani.
The poor girl ate until she was full and content. Then she finished cleaning the dishes and went home. On her way, she overheard an announcement that the sheikh wanted his son to get married and was looking for a beautiful girl for his son.
When Hamda reached the house, she found her stepmother adorning her daughter in makeup and fine clothes. The stepmother planned to take her to a party that the sheikh was hosting. But before leaving, she took Hamda, locked her in the tanoor, covered her, and then went with her daughter to the party.
When the stepmother was gone, Al Fisaikra came to Hamda and said, “Hamda! Why didn't you go to the party?”
Hamda replied sadly, “They didn't take me!”
“Come, come, I'll take you out and get you ready.” The fish cleaned her up, put makeup on her, and brought her beautiful clothes. Al Fisaikra told Hamda to go to the party. She put a bracelet on Hamda’s hand and told her not to drop it.
“Insha'Allah,” said Hamda.
And so Hamda went. The sheikh’s son saw her, and he liked her beauty and her long hair.
The stepmother never recognized Hamda, who was transformed. She enjoyed a good time with her daughter, believing that Hamda was still in the tanoor.
Hamda ran home before her stepmother returned. In her hurry and fear, the bracelet fell off.
The sheikh’s son found the bracelet and said, “I want the girl who wore this bracelet. Whomever it fits is the girl I will marry.”
His servants hunted for the girl from place to place and from home to home.
They finally reached Hamda's house, knocked on the door, and waited for an answer. When the stepmother heard the knock, she took Hamda and hid her again in the tanoor.
Luckily, the family had a rooster. The rooster saw what the stepmother had done to Hamda.
The servants tried to fit the bracelet on the stepdaughter’s wrist. They asked, “Don’t you have any other girl here?”
“No, no, no, there is no one else,” the stepmother said. “This is the only daughter I have.”
The rooster cried: Ko-ko ko-ko, Auntie Hamda the Beautiful is in the tanoor!
The servants tried to listen, but the stepmother said, “Kish, kish, kish!” to frighten the rooster away.
The servants said, “Wait! Let us listen to him.”
“No, no, the rooster has nothing to say, nothing!”
But the rooster cried again: Ko-ko ko-ko, Auntie Hamda the Beautiful is in the tanoor!
This time the servants heard the rooster clearly, and they stepped into the house and opened the tanoor to find Hamda inside. They brought her out and tried the bracelet. It fit perfectly!
They rushed to tell the sheikh about finding the girl. The sheikh’s son ordered them to go back to her house and ask her family for permission to marry. The stepmother, however, demanded a dowry. “I want a beeb of seawater, a galat of dates, and a beeb of small fish.”
The servants were surprised by her orders, but they agreed, and brought the dowry on the eve of the wedding.
Al Fisaikra—who was really a djinni—came to Hamda in the form of a woman. She cleaned her, made her beautiful, and put kohl and henna on her. When the stepmother saw Hamda, she was shocked and angered. She asked Hamda, “Who did that to you? How did you do it?”
Hamda was not allowed to say, so she just replied, “I don't know.”
Once Hamda had completed her bridal preparations, the stepmother brought the sheikh’s gifts to her and forced Hamda to drink and eat it all.
"Oh, Stepmother, I'm really full!" Hamda cried. But the stepmother ignored her complaints and forced Hamda to finish all of it until the poor girl’s stomach bulged.
Now when the sheikh’s son arrived to take his bride, he came in the form of a black dog! He took her home, and the stepmother was jubilant. "Oh, I really hope he eats her, I hope he tears her apart!” she prayed.
At home, alone again with Hamda, the sheikh’s son turned back to his human form. Hamda wept, telling him of the pain in her stomach. He took off his ghutra, placed it on the ground, and said, “Try to empty everything in your stomach out onto this.”
Hamda vomited, but all that came from her stomach was pearls and corals. Beautiful!
Filled with joy, the sheikh’s son brought her to her very own house, where Hamda lived with love and dignity3 in her husband’s home.
Now the sheikh’s son had a brother, and the jealous stepmother said to him, “My dear, I would give you my second daughter to marry.” She asked for the same dowry she had requested for Hamda.
She forced her daughter to eat it all, exactly as she had done to Hamda, expecting her daughter to vomit pearls and corals as well.
That night, a terrifying black dog came for the daughter. When they were alone, however, he did not turn back into a man. The daughter cried of her stomach pain. The dog said, “Really? Your stomach hurts?” And thinking that she would produce pearls and corals, he took his ghutra and put it on the ground for her. This time, however, the daughter vomited only digested food! This angered the sheikh's brother—and he ate the girl and tore her apart.
When the mother came in the morning to visit, she found her daughter eaten and her bones lying on the floor.
W rohna anhoom w jeena w ma atoona sheey: And we came and we left, and they brought us nothing.
1In Qatari dialect, the “j” turns to a spoken “y.” So majana in this case would be pronounced “mayana.”↩
2The Arabic term is al merfarah, which can also mean a shelf or a plate for leftovers.↩
3Muazzazzah mukarramah, a common saying.↩
Told by Umm Khalaf. Translation © 2020 by Kholoud Saleh. All rights reserved.
A pious merchant confronts a difficult business decision and an untrustworthy friend in this Qatari folktale, translated by Tariq Ahmed.
Once upon a time, a Sunni man in Qatar had an ungodly friend who was a seasoned merchant. The Sunni was just an ordinary person. One day, the Sunni inherited a large estate with which he bought a large ship named Saphar.
Saphar was built for long voyages, and had sailed to Oman and Aden, then from Aden to Mombasa, and from there to as far as India.
One day, the Sunni visited his ungodly merchant friend and said, “I bought Saphar. What’s your advice? What goods and merchandise shall I take with me to sell in Africa and exchange for others on my way back to Doha?”
“Well. Let me think about it. Give me one day and I will come up with a great idea!” the friend replied. However, he didn’t really want to help; instead, he had a will to harm.
Two days later, the Sunni came back and asked, “Any luck?”
“Yes, of course.”
“So what sort of goods shall I take aboard?”
“Cats. Carry cats!”
“Cats?!” the astonished Sunni wondered.
“Yes! Go and catch as many as you can, load them onto your giant vessel, and sail to Africa. There you’ll see the benefit.”
The Sunni gathered workers to help him catch a load of cats, and once the ship was full, he set out on the long journey.
In Africa, naforje traders populated the high seas. Whenever the traders caught sight of a flag, they would approach the ship to see what it carried.
The traders stopped the Sunni’s ship and asked, “Where do you come from? What do you have on board?”
“From Qatar,” he answered. “I brought cats.”
“Welcome, you’re welcome,” said the traders. “God has brought you to us! How did you know that rats have been bothering us, eating our harvests and stocks, and emptying our stores?”
The Sunni started out selling his cats at ten riyals per head, and then the price rose to as high as fifty. It was a lucrative deal, and the man took the money and bought wood, robes, and a variety of goods for the people of Doha.
The Sunni returned to Qatar, where his envious friend had been waiting. The friend was startled when he saw the vessel full of fine cargo. Curious to investigate, he shook hands with the pious sailor and asked, “How was your journey?”
“May God reward you for your sincere advice,” said the happy Sunni. “Believe me, the moment I arrived in Mombasa, I was warmly welcomed, and the men asked about my merchandise and then said that Allah had sent me, because rats had been troubling them! I sold my cats until the price reached fifty riyals per head.”
The friend was taken by surprise. “Well then, next time I will travel on your behalf, and you can stay here and collect rent. What do you say?”
“Of course,” said the Sunni. “You’re my friend, and your advice was so kind.”
The ungodly man gathered friends and collected cats from Qatar and abroad until the vessel was full, then started the long journey. Off Mombasa, naforje traders stopped his ship and asked, “What do you have on board?”
“Cats,” he said.
“Stop where you are!” they shouted at him. “The cats we bought last time befriended our rats and now they play with one another.”
“Impossible!” he said. “It took me a whole month to get here.”
“You can’t enter the town,” they insisted. “Go back now!”
“If so,” said the ill-intentioned sailor, “give me proof of my arrival, so my people believe me.”
“We will give you the letter, but we don’t want your cats!” they replied.
The man returned to Doha, and the Sunni owner asked him about the experience.
“Not good. When the traders learned I had cats, they stopped me and complained about the cats befriending the rats. Here is the proof.”
The Sunni said to him, “Indeed, he who digs a pit for his brother often falls into it!”
Told by Khalifa Al Sayed. Translation © 2020 by Tariq Ahmed. All rights reserved.
Doha is a city in the midst of swift transformation. Between the wind-etched dunes of the Qatari desert and the bright shores of the Arabian Gulf, luxury towers, art museums, shopping malls, top-tier universities, mosques—new, old, and in construction—bloom beside tailors, shawarma vendors, shisha cafes, cafeterias selling intriguing juice blends (the Rolex, the Computer), construction barriers, and morning fish markets. Traffic whirs down streets necklaced with roadwork, debris of a small and newly rich country surging forward at breathtaking speed. Yet beyond the humming city remain traces of a vanishing era: trackless desert, abandoned fishing boats, grazing camels, sprawling date farms, and eroding stone and mud houses emptied to sand and wind.
Qatar’s ambitious modernity is rooted in a diverse cultural inheritance passed down from pearl divers and fisherfolk, traders and merchants, and Bedouin nomads with complex family clans and tribal alliances. These regional and ancestral histories are deeply etched in Qatar’s intangible cultural heritage—its songs, poetry, dances, jokes, proverbs, and especially its folk stories. Known in Qatar as hazawi, folktales are the oral stories of everyday life, transmitted within families for education and entertainment in the home, the majlis, or the desert camps. Common characters in Qatari folktales include donkeys, goats, magic fish, jealous wives, orphaned children, sneaky thieves, sea monsters, djinn, folk heroes, and clever old women. Details change with every rendition as a storyteller adds their own flourishes, so that each tale is a dynamic, evolving performance. The stories are abundant with social wisdom, moral instruction, and cultural knowledge, and reflect the lessons and concerns of the past and present. They may begin with a prayer to Allah and a ritual opening:
May nothing affect us but goodness for us and you, and may evil stay away from us and you.1
And end with a ritual close:
And we came and we left, and they brought us nothing.
Stories passed down from nomadic tribes illuminate survival in the austere inland desert: tales of ailing camels, unreliable strangers, and Umm Hamar, the donkey lady, who prowls in the dangerous noontime heat. Families descended from coastal villagers recount stories of pearl diving and a life tied to the perils of the open ocean, of long, grueling trips away from home, and encounters with Bu Darya, the Father of the Sea. One such tale presented here, “The Sunni and His Friend,” humorously depicts the practical tribulations of a high-seas trader while also imparting sharp moral commentary on dishonest motives. Tales of Persian origin may recall landscapes never seen in Qatar: wolves and deer, forests and lakes. The stories can be witty or tragic, dark or even bawdy, and frequently concern themselves with familial relationships, particularly those most fraught in a time when girls married young. Such tales depict malicious stepmothers, envious wives or sisters-in-law, and unheeding fathers or brothers, and may involve abandonment in the desert or forced feeding of the bride or daughter—or the consuming of them. So is the final, dire fate of the jealous stepsister in “Al Fisaikra.”
Folktales are not contained; they take on the flavor of a place, they migrate and cross-pollinate over time. This is why similar folktales are often found in very different parts of the world. Just as the mother sheep in “Fatoum, Hamoud, and Hamed” who warns her children against the wiles of a sneaky wolf in her absence recalls the Brothers Grimm tale of the wolf and the seven little goats, so “Al Fisaikra” shares much kinship with Cinderella. Yet the tale remains very distinctly Qatari: no glass slipper but a bracelet, and instead of a prince, a sheikh who transforms into a black dog.
As in many other traditional societies propelled by rapid modernization, lifestyle changes have led to a decline in Qatar’s oral storytelling tradition, and folktales that have been passed down for generations are now told and recalled with increasing rarity. Moreover, in their colloquial rendition, Qatari folktales often transmit tribal dialects and ancestral vocabulary, another aspect of nonmaterial heritage. As the older vernacular and its “grandparent words” slip from common usage, the bygone materials and practices they describe also fade from memory.
Qatar’s folktales have not been extensively documented, although recently, state-driven national interest in preserving oral literature has led to a surge of individual and institutional efforts. Collections that share a few folktales of Qatari origin among other regional stories include Tales Arab Women Tell (El‐Shamy, 1999), Folktales from the Arabian Peninsula: Tales of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, and Yemen (Taibah & MacDonald, 2015), and The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf (Paine, Ulmer, & Hersrud, 2013). In Arabic, Ḥikayat shaʻbiyah min al‐Khalij (Ṣayyagh, 1994), reprinted in English as Folktales from the Arabian Gulf: A Selection of Popular Tales Collected in the Field (ibid., 2003), includes stories from the Qatari tradition, as does Myths from Qatar Heritage (Al-Ghanim, 2015). The now-defunct Arab Gulf States Folklore Centre formerly published a quarterly journal, Al-Ma’thurat al-Sha’biya, presenting a number of Qatari folktales, selections of which have recently been reprinted in English as Studies in Qatari Folklore 2 (Qatar Ministry of Culture and Sports Public Libraries and Heritage Dept., 2019). Finally, a few folktales appear in illustrated children’s books through local publishers, such as Ghosoun and Her Brother, the Gazelle (Al-Ghanim, 2016).
To date, however, the most comprehensive collection of Qatari folktales is Mohamed Taleb Salman Al-Duwayk’s al-Qaṣaṣ al-shaʻbi fi Qaṭar (Folktales of Qatar), a substantial two-volume book locally printed in 1984. It is now difficult to find and remains untranslated to English. In his research, Al-Duwayk collected folktales from pearl divers, fishermen, and students who recorded folktales within their own families. When faced with multiple variations of the same folktale, or a folktale with missing or forgotten elements, Al-Duwayk collaborated with the storytellers to select or complete the most representative version. He published the stories in Fusha (literary Arabic), rather than in the colloquial dialect of the storytellers. While this validation is valuable and important, it loses the orality of the narrator.
The three stories presented here were gathered with the support of an Undergraduate Research Experience Program grant (UREP 08-081-6-006) awarded by the Qatar National Research Fund. At the time, I was a writing faculty member of Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar, and my interest in Qatari folklore was first piqued by stories of djinn in abandoned houses, and the donkey woman who devoured straying children. As I sought to hear more local folktales, I also learned of their increasing scarcity and the accelerating decline in the tradition. With the support of the UREP grant, two colleagues and I trained a team of nine students from Qatar University and WCM-Q with the aim of reaching out to local storytellers and documenting their stories. Our research method followed a code of ethics that protected the rights and wishes of the storyteller. Each researcher recorded their interviews in Arabic, transcribed them in colloquial dialect, and translated them to English, retaining the orality of the narration as much as possible.
The Qatari family is a private sphere, and collecting these stories required sensitivity and respect for local traditions. Some women did not wish to be recorded, so a female interviewer transcribed the story by hand; in other cases, permission to record was granted, but only on the condition that no men would be allowed to listen. Some elderly interviewees could not read, so the researchers read aloud an oral consent form. An interview ideally began not at the first meeting, but at the second or third, over tiny cups of fragrantly bitter coffee and the sweet, sticky dates beloved in Qatar.
While our project sought to document folktales and ultimately publish them, detaching these stories from their social, performative context and transferring them to print arguably only serves to memorialize them. With that in mind, I collaborated with the Qatar Heritage and Identity Centre (QHIC), a government organization that hosts cultural exhibitions and school programs, an archive library, and publication and research on Qatari folklife. Together with the QHIC Director, Dr. Khalid Al Mulla, and its Director of Heritage, Sheikha Noora Bint Nasser Bin Jassim Al Thani, who has deep experience documenting Qatari folktales and traditions, we created the “My Identity, My Story” project: a workshop series that aimed to invigorate Qatar’s oral storytelling tradition by raising awareness and engaging the community as partners in preservation. Over the six-week event series, local storytellers and folklorists delivered free public talks about Qatar’s folktale heritage, oral storytelling, ethical fieldwork, and translation. Participants who wished to document folktales within their own families were equipped with audio recorders and mentorship.
The three tales presented here offer a glimpse into Qatar’s folk storytelling tradition as it exists today—diminished, perhaps, and endangered certainly, but as yet still alive. The tales now told in Qatar are the ones that have endured, that speak the most meaningfully to the people who tell them, and are in turn enriched with each new telling. We are grateful to the storytellers who shared their time and their stories with us, and hope these folktales and their treasures will live on not just preserved in books, but in the way they have always lived: organically, affectionately, from memory and by mouth to listening ears.
1Another variation: Majana wala yakom illa alkhair lafana w lafakom, waash-shar ta’adana w ta’adakum, man lah nabee yasalee alaiah: Whatever came to us or to you was good, and the bad escaped us and escaped you. And whoever has a prophet, let them praise that prophet.↩
© 2020 by Autumn Watts. All rights reserved.