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.
The Danish writer creates a meta-text of mourning as she grieves the loss of her son in "When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book."
A dream. It’s a foggy afternoon. I am in a forest, playing a ball game with my granddad. I am three or four years old. My mom has gone somewhere and I don’t know where she is. I feel abandoned and scared. I don’t want to play the game. I can barely see through the fog anyway, so I cannot catch the ball when my granddad passes it to me. Then everything disappears and I am all alone in the forest. I don’t remember much else, I have no idea how much time has passed; it’s just this heavy feeling of nothingness that has enveloped me and I feel almost strangled by my own anxiety.
This dream stayed with me for years, and I would always evoke it subconsciously when feeling anxious, or abandoned and unworthy. One day I came across a photo album and there, on one of the pages, was a picture of me in the forest, playing a ball game with my granddad. I froze—it was as though someone had entered my dream and captured a snapshot. A photo of a nightmare that had followed me for years.
My mom then explained that this event did indeed happen and that she had left me alone for a brief moment in that forest. A brief moment, that’s what she said. To me, that time had stretched to an eternity.
I realized how dreams and memories had become jumbled, how the imaginable had entwined with reality to create something new—a powerful and unsettling feeling. Although the picture showed a seemingly happy moment, the thought of that day triggered an unpleasant sensation in me. Somehow, I’d managed to distance myself from it, to bury that memory deep inside me. And yet, this single recollection had a huge impact on so many events in my life.
So I started asking myself: What are memories? How trustworthy are they? Are they supposed to be true or are they some form of deeply inverted reality? And how much of this past information locked in our minds affects the way we live?
1. the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.
2. something remembered from the past.
From Latin memoria (“the faculty of remembering, remembrance, memory, a historical account”), from memor (“mindful, remembering”), from Ancient Greek μέρμερος (mérmeros, “anxious”), μέριμνα (mérimna, “care, thought”).
The power of remembering, the power to be mindful, to care about someone, but also to be anxious. To be anxious while thinking of someone, while remembering them.
Power. Thinking. Remembering.
I approached When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt almost blindly, not knowing what to expect, not digging into book reviews; it was the text in its pellucid form that mattered to me. With the very first pages, I sensed it was something special—unsettling, intense, and beautiful at the same time. I was fascinated by the way trauma is exposed here, the way it’s narrated—through fragments, borrowed voices, and memories. This book itself creates a meta-text of grief, giving context to all these voices: other writers, poems written by Carl or by his brother after his death. Going through the pages was like pressing myself toward a sharp edge—painful and unbearable, though there was no going back.
If my own experience with trauma could appear to be connected to a somewhat minor childhood incident, Aidt’s memoir is a response to what we immediately recognize as a catastrophic blow. The book was originally published in Denmark in 2017, two years after the harrowing event it tries to grapple with: the death of the author’s twenty-five-year-old son in a tragic accident. Mostly known as a writer of poems and short stories, Aidt was driven to this autobiographical account in an attempt to work through the event, to narrate her grief and accept the loss. The book won the Weekendavisen Literary Prize in Denmark and has just been longlisted for the National Book Award. It is also a finalist for the 2019 Kirkus Prize.
This memoir tells the story of a mother grieving her lost child through a text that seems broken but somehow perfect in its imperfection as it tries to recount such overwhelming pain. The narrative begins with the telephone call that brings the devastating news and proceeds to reveal the reasons behind the event. Aidt’s writing is anything but straightforward, however. It stretches over the pages, delaying the end, lingering in the sudden abyss of emptiness as if she is reluctant to admit to herself the inevitable outcome.
Although centered around Carl’s death, the book is much more about his life and the way he exists in his mother’s memories. This is the world Aidt constructs, while coming to terms with the loss and acknowledging it. Exposing the traumatic experience—not only the event but the following days, weeks, months, and years, enveloped in nothingness, in no-time—is the only way for her to begin to accept life after this unimaginable event, while keeping her son close to her.
In a recent interview for Louisiana Channel, Aidt mentioned that the only thing she believes in is poetry. And this is her prayer, a kind of repeated mantra—the poetry she’s left behind, the language, the constantly repeated memories—just like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” plays on loop in Carl’s hospital room during his final minutes. Aidt repeats the story in a loop too, so she can get used to it, create distance, and accept it in herself at the same time.
The structure of the text resembles a tree: there’s the trunk, or the main story from the moment of receiving the phone call until pronouncing Carl’s death, and all the additional branches sprung from it: quotes, diary notes, poems. In order to write about her tragedy when her own language is suddenly permeated by nothingness, Aidt resorts to different registers and other writers’ works, quoting authors as various as Joan Didion, C. S. Lewis, Anne Carson, Mallarmé, Plato, and Nick Cave.
The book follows the mind’s impulse of evoking past events and searching for their meaning, which is conveyed in bursts, reordering the chaos caused by the initial shock, creating a patchwork of imperfect shapes, unfinished work, unsaid words, stitching them together. Each fragment in the text seems to exist in a limbo of its own, in the cracks of time—much like Aidt does in the days and months following the devastating loss. Just as the mind reconstructs the traumatic events in memories, going back to them over and over again, the narrative constructs meaning through repetition, borrowed fragments, flashbacks.
What are memories? How true are they? Are they supposed to be true or is this a deeply inverted reality? These questions are not important. The only thing that matters is that they’re true to the person remembering them at that very moment. And so Aidt evokes these memories, laminate cuts of past life, of precious events, to save them from eroding (as our memory often does) and leave them on the pages like a herbarium for the days to come. These memories, like dried flowers, collected and assembled, carry Carl’s spirit, preserved for eternity.
“We are part of each other.
Are you part of me?
Distinguished with the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, this multi-generational novel confronts traditional taboos to tell a late-in-life love story between two Palestinian refugees living in Jordan’s Baqa’a camp.
Ours is an age when criticism often celebrates fat-free sentences, restrained ironies, and hope that’s caged in self-awareness—novels that walk before us like sunken-cheeked, unsmiling catwalk models. Huzama Habayeb’s Velvet, by contrast, is unafraid of its fullness: its gold jewelry, its fleshy abundance, its black velvet, and most of all, its melancholic and romantic lyrics, as sung by legendary Lebanese diva Fairouz. Velvet is a novel crammed with love and loss as it follows the gripping late-in-life love story of Hawwa and Munir, Palestinian refugees living in Jordan’s Baqa’a camp. Yet as their romance unfolds, Habayeb casts a wider look at the world around them, deftly inscribing and disassembling powerful mythologies of motherhood and exile.
Velvet, which won the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, is a multigenerational novel with a wide cast of characters. Yet it is Hawwa’s story from beginning to end. “Hawwa” is the Arabic word for “Eve,” an allusion that, unfortunately, isn’t carried into Kay Heikkenen’s able translation. Although born in poverty and exile, Hawwa has talent. She is attractive, strong, and clever; she is a gifted dressmaker. We might expect that she or her children will rise up from poverty, or that motherhood and hard work will have rewards. Yet Habayeb confounds any such expectations.
As the novel opens, the rain is coming down as though sent by God. This rain hurls itself into the action, much as all of Habayeb’s characters do: “Daggers of water pierced the dusty flanks of the ground, thrusting rapidly and in quick succession, as if laden with emotion, or haunted by ancient sorrow, or filled with deeply buried rancor.” The rain is not just one thing, but a hundred, and it “poured down like a hail of bullets on terrified windows.”
This sensory-overload precipitation doesn’t stop for seven days. “At times the rain was rushed, as if it wanted to empty everything in the womb of the sky and be done at last with its burden, or perhaps its sin. At other times it slowed, as if its will were feeble, the space between one raindrop and the next becoming wider and longer, as if the sky’s mouth had gone dry, before the water once again reclaimed its anger, its lash, and its bluster.”
While others are huddled in their homes, middle-aged Hawwa rejoices in the rain. After all, the rain gives cover to her romantic transgressions, although we don’t yet know that. Before we get too far, she remembers an expression of her father’s, and we are yanked back into her freezing childhood of violence and toil, unrelieved by affection. Daily, we see Hawwa protect her late-blooming brother Ayid. She washes his urine-soaked sheets and throws herself over his body to take his beatings. Yet there is no one who protects Hawwa; she is treated as a mature woman and a mother figure from the tender age of eleven.
Hawwa finds some relief in working as an apprentice seamstress for Sitt Qamar, who, unlike Hawwa, lives outside the camp. Here, Hawwa is respected, learns a trade, and has her first crush. To young Hawwa, Sitt Qamar seems to have the ideal life—that of a respectable businesswoman who is husband- and child-free—but she later uncovers Sitt Qamar’s secret, passionate grief.
All the novel’s most beautiful literary allusions and quotations seem to come from Sitt Qamar. There are echoes of Sahar Khalifeh’s classic novel Bab al-Saha in the scene where Sitt Qamar’s home becomes a refuge for a fedayee fighter. One of her clients is “Durrat al-Ain” (Pearl of One’s Eye), whose name hints at classic Arabic folktales. And it is Sitt Qamar who gifts Hawwa “a leather case containing dozens of tapes of Fairouz’s songs,” the lyrics of which are laced throughout the novel.
But hard work in Sitt Qamar’s house does not lift Hawwa out of the camp. Indeed, she is pulled from Sitt Qamar’s safe haven and married off to a smelly, violent butcher, a man who could hardly make a sharper contrast to her careful, thoughtful midlife lover, Munir.
Motherhood offers her little and takes a lot. Although Hawwa is a mother figure to her brother Ayid, he is not grateful, but rather becomes a surly dependent and overlord, particularly after her husband leaves her. Hawwa’s own children are mediocre and turn against her. There is only one member of Hawwa’s family who carves out a decent life for himself: her brother Lutfi. He does this neither by hard work nor by filial devotion. Instead, it’s by marrying his boss’s daughter and keeping his distance from family.
Thus it’s not by hard work nor by duty that you escape the nightmare of poverty, oppression, and exile: it’s by luck and by shirking your family. And forget about your children doing you any favors. “Paradise is under the feet of mothers,” or so the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have said. In Velvet, paradise and motherhood could not be further apart.
This may seem a grim, materialist realism. Yet it comes in a book swathed in the richest of royal velvets. Every moment in this book is so fully lived as to be magnetic—even the hideous bedbug infestation—like having a person sit in front of you to reveal all the shameful and beautiful details of their life story, weeping as they speak.
This English translation appeared quickly, less than two years after the novel won the Naguib Mahfouz medal, and it does not have quite the sentence-level urgency of the Arabic. But the novel should not be missed, in Arabic or in English, for its sentences crammed to the brim with life in a refugee camp, for its sophisticated picking apart of narrative tropes about motherhood and social mobility, and for the rollercoaster-like pleasure of Hawwa’s ups and downs.
In the winter of 2003, I was on a first-ever visit to Beirut. I’d come from Cairo, where I was living, and was a bit stunned by the cold. So it happened that I found myself in a shop, trying to buy a heavy sweater. I don’t remember what I said to the proprietor, although I’m sure I must’ve spoken in a heavy Egyptian Arabic. In my memory, he raised a finger and pointed at me, laughing: “Adel Emam!”
Although I’m approximately the same height as the Egyptian comic actor, I’m fairly certain I look nothing like the man, who was in his sixties at the time. But hearing an Egyptian accent coming out of the mouth of a hapless American sweater-buyer must have signaled something to this Lebanese shopkeeper. Namely: a funny bit was about to happen.
This anecdote—me asking for a sweater, the shopkeeper shouting “Adel Emam!”—probably isn’t as funny to you as it was to the friends who immediately knew Adel Emam, pictured the actor’s broad face, and knew why the shopkeeper would call out such a thing. By the time I’ve explained the joke, it’s already lost its essential element: surprise.
Humor has that paradoxical quality of being absolutely universal (or even more so, as chimpanzees also apparently appreciate a good joke) while also being deeply embedded in linguistic wordplay and sociocultural zeitgeist. This is a constant challenge in translating. In a talk at the American University in Cairo in 2010, acclaimed translator Jonathan Wright said that he removed a Viagra joke from his translation of Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi because he couldn’t find a way to make it funny in English. “I couldn’t see a way to convey the pun on the two aspects of wuquuf, stopping and standing. [The joke] referred to a warning on the packet that read: wuquuf mutakarrir [makes frequent stops], the warning they put on the back of buses."
Wright is hardly the only one. M. M. Tawfik wrote, in his essay “Self-Translation: Faithful Rendition or Rewriting?” that while translating his novel Murder in the Tower of Happiness, one character’s jokes gave him no end of headaches. “I was faced with the decision of whether to replace them with completely different jokes in English, or to delete them entirely. . . . Had the original text not been my own, each of these decisions would have probably been excruciating.”
Heba Salem and Kantaro Taira give an example of just such an excruciating-to-translate joke in their essay “Al-Thawra al-daHika” (The Laughing Revolution). For background: in the popular Egyptian film Ga'ana al-Bayan al-Tali (We Have the Following News), Muhammad Heneidi disguises himself as a prostitute who confuses the “b” and “p” sounds, a common class marker. One punchline in the movie is “Byeeee, mopailat ba’a,” or, “Bye, let’s stay in touch via our ‘mopile’ phones.” When Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, one of the many jokes floating around was “Mubarak, mopailat ba’a.” Not only is this a lot to digest in order to appreciate a rather thin joke, but so much has happened since February 2011, it’s hard to find Mubarak’s departure from office funny.
In Ahdaf Soueif’s 1992 novel In the Eye of the Sun, a much-quoted passage has Asya put in a tape of Sheikh Imam singing lyrics from “Nixon Baba” by colloquial and sometimes-satirical poet Ahmed Fouad Negm: “Sharraft ya Nixon Baba, / Ya bta’ el-Watergate—”
At this point, a character named Lisa, noticing both “Nixon” and “Watergate,” interrupts to ask what the poem is about. Asya gives a translation of the first seven words that runs to more than two hundred and fifty, explaining each of the terms, phrases, and their histories in turn, and touching on grammar, rhythm, and register. As with the Mubarak joke, such detailed explanation tends to wring whatever humor there is from the original. All this is to say that humor can feel impossible to translate beyond its cultural context, and yet the Lebanese shopkeeper definitely found Egyptian cinema hilarious. Sometimes it’s up to the listener to throw ourselves into a joke.
To that end, we’ve chosen pieces from a diverse range of Arabic humors, both salty and sweet, starting with the classic humor of Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200), who’s known for poking fun at scribes, schoolmasters, misers, and general human foolishness, and ending with contemporary Arabic-language humor that still wrings a laugh from mocking power, pride, and other human foibles.
In this month’s issue, we include Ahmed Fouad Negm’s “Important Announcement,” translated here by the ambitious Elliott Colla. Both poet and folk hero, Negm (1929–2013) had a decades-long partnership with the talented musician Sheikh Imam, who would compose music to which Negm’s poetry was set.
As in Negm’s work, politics is often a space for humor in Arabic, in part because it’s shared cultural territory, and also because there’s an enjoyable frisson to punching up at political figures, historical moments, and sacred cows. Muhammed Mustajab’s “Blood in Flames,” translated by Robin Moger, was published around the same time as “Nixon Baba” and reads as a satire of self-important mid-twentieth-century Gamal Abdel Nasser–era nationalism. Mustajab (1938–2005), born in upper Egypt and with little formal education, became a rare master at satirizing both countryside and city.
In her satiric story “Run, George!” Libyan novelist and short-story writer Najwa Bin Shatwan—here translated by Sawad Hussain—builds on both Libya’s colonial history and its contemporary civil war in a tragicomic meeting between the living and the dead. “Run, George!” is the opening story in Bin Shatwan’s 2019 collection An Ongoing Coincidence, which moves from the absurd to the absurder, borrowing from the news and folktales, inhabiting the minds of humans, animals, and, naturally, the dead.
In Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal’s short play The Colonel’s Wedding, translated by Katherine Hennessy, military men come under satiric—and actual—fire. While there are Yemeni specificities that may not come across exactly as al-Ahdal likely intended, it’s still funny, as most any of us can understand why opportunism, betrayal, and a T-72 tank make a humorous mix. Al-Ahdal is a novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, but it is his theatrical work—as here and, for instance, A Crime on Restaurant Street—where al-Ahdal is at full comic throttle, satirizing all segments of society, as when the bank teller says: “What you need to understand is that truth is directly connected to our wallets. And since your wallet is empty, and mine is full, that means the truth isn’t in your wallet. It’s in mine.”
Popular Lebanese-Egyptian writer Sahar Mandour is known for portraying relationships, Beirut, and the (sometimes ridiculous) social expectations that limn our lives and our understanding of self. I’ll Draw a Star on Vienna’s Forehead (2007), from which our selection "Vienna" is taken, was her first novel. Through its cheerfully self-invented narrator, it examines the ways in which we try to reshape ourselves for others.
Nearly all of the comedy in this issue sits on the razor’s edge between funny and tragic.. Perhaps we are at a particularly funny-tragic moment in human history, or perhaps that is simply our human condition. But comedy need not be so close to misery. One of my favorite (wordless) jokes is from September 2010, when the stakes in Egypt seemed much lower than they did a few months later. Ahdaf Soueif might give you eight hundred words of context, but I’ll just leave it here:
© 2019 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.
India’s vast and varied story traditions continue to exist orally across languages, cultures, and religions. Folktales featuring village deities and spirits, riddles that reference local flora and fauna, songs of specific marriage customs and rituals sit side by side with the grand narratives of pan-Indian epics and myths. But even the epics are brought down to earth, as it were, when we are told that the god-human heroes and heroines rested a while under the village tree during their exile, that an unlikely stream was actually created when they were thirsty, that these were the very flowers that the princess put in her hair. Thus, a local landscape becomes part of a sacred geography, touched by the gods who walked, talked, ate, and slept in our small corner of this otherwise vast and unknowable universe.
Oral narratives that are categorized as being “folk” and part of the so-called “little traditions” are highly localized and very particular to place. In them, the conflicts are not on a cosmic scale, good is not battling evil. Rather, a local farmer might encounter a very attractive stranger by a well at night and have to face the consequences of being seduced, a miser might bury his money by the roots of a tree and have it stolen by a passing traveler, fish can give you advice, a snake might fall in love with your wife, the night-singing bird yearns for the scar-faced moon. Folktales abound in lessons that might be learned though they rarely preach morality and ethics. But despite their specificity, these tales transcend the places that produced them and throb with a universal appeal. We may not always be able to comprehend the ways of gods from different religions, but we are always able to feel familial with human beings from faraway times and places.
These stories are from the Kinnaur and Spiti districts of India’s northern state of Himachal Pradesh. With Tibet nestling comfortably on its eastern flank, this region of high mountains and deep valleys that are often cut off from the rest of the world has sheltered Bon, Buddhism, and various smaller tribal and local religious practices within its ancient, craggy arms. In the mountains, the gods are always close and so it is that sacred places are often shared, different traditions and religions all acknowledging their power and energy in stories and songs.
Winters are fierce in Kinnaur and Spiti. There are storms and blizzards; people stay indoors as their fragile huts are battered and bruised by snow, hail, and howling winds. Firewood is scarce and often the only way to get through the perilous dark hours is to tell stories—stories of summer days and sweet breezes, of love and hope, of prosperity and abundance. While the stories might be from the past, they are never from far away; they happened right here, in this village, by that stream, on that mountain slope. The people in them are familiar, the places are known.
Between 2002 and 2014, Noor Zaheer collected stories from the many oral traditions that animate the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys, traditions that knot the people of this sparsely populated area into tight little communities. Noor, a writer, theatermaker, and political activist, traveled to the northwestern Himalayas in order to learn more about local theater practices. While she was there, she realized how endangered the old stories, passed on from teller to teller, from mouth to ear to mouth to ear, had become. Speaking of the paradox of documenting a living, breathing, fluid, and dynamic tradition, Noor says, “I did realize that documenting the oral traditions was taking the life out of them, in a way, by making them static. Documenting a version of a story that develops and transforms with each telling was putting a stop to the most fundamental aspect of creation within the oral tradition. But changing lifestyles and the ever-growing presence of the mass media had already made drastic erosions into these forms, even before our work had begun. There was no other way to preserve these forms other than to document them.”
Noor gathered her stories from men and women, from senior lamas in monasteries and from nomadic shepherds who moved with their flocks according to the season. Languages and dialects vary from valley to valley and from community to community. Also, the language spoken by a learned lama is bound to be different from that of a wandering shepherd. Sometimes, Noor transcribed the stories herself; other times, they were repeated to her by an interpreter. In each case, however, Noor translated the stories into English.
Noor also performed another act of translation for these endangered stories. Disturbed by the process of having to “stabilize” the stories by presenting them in a single version, she says, “Perhaps as an apology for what I was doing, I developed six full-length plays from the stories and tales that I collected, hoping to keep the forms moving, changeable, alive.”
The region in which Noor lived and worked is Buddhist, but its Buddhism is deeply influenced by the Tibetan Bon religion and other local cults. In the stories, you can see how different worldviews and ways of being are held simultaneously, how they inform lives and practice with no apparent contradiction. Take, for example, the tragic love story of Sunni and Bhunku from Kinnaur. The catalyst of the story, which is set in an obviously Buddhist milieu, is a fraudulent sadhu who appears to be Hindu. The Buddhist Zhering has no problem appealing to him for help. But, there is also another way to read this Buddhist story, and that is to see it as a critique of a rival religion whose holy men cannot be trusted.
Folktales told around the world also display readily identifiable tropes that allow the stories to resemble each other. “The Girl Who Turned into a Crocodile” brings to mind the tales of swan maidens who were so poignantly transformed by Hans Christian Andersen in the nineteenth century and the Selkies that lurk on edges of Scottish lore—these are women who can move between human and animal form by taking on and shedding their skin, who are elusive, mysterious, dangerous to love. The love and mutual dependence of the brother and sister in the Kinnauri story also recalls the close bond shared by Hansel and Gretel, for example, or the relationship between the sister and her brothers in Andersen’s “The Twelve Wild Swans.”
“When the Deer Moved Away,” a story from the Spiti region, fits nicely into the category of an origin story which tells us why things are the way they are in the place where the story comes from. “Why do the deer never cross the river and come to our village,” a little child might ask. And someone will reply, “Let me tell you why. Once upon a time, long ago, a herd of deer would stay around our village even though other herds had moved further south for the winter. But then . . .”
These three stories share the idea of migration. We can see that the story of Bhunku, who is himself a nomadic shepherd, is told by other nomads who move with the weather, seeking the high grassy meadows in the summer and moving down into the valleys in winter. So, too, the herds of deer move to the lower slopes in the winter, counting on food and sustenance from the villages they pass. These are the gentle, natural migrations made necessary by the seasons; they involve periods of work and periods of rest and recovery for both humans and animals. Together, the stories sit firmly in the physical and spiritual cultures of the Kinnaur valley, where migration is not only about crossing space, but also about crossing time and even about crossing bodies. Love makes Chering move into the body of a crocodile, leaving her human life and world behind. Sunni and Bhunku now inhabit an afterlife, their separation being played out night after stormy night as their restless souls reach for each other. The majestic male deer in the herd seems to embody the consciousness of an enlightened soul, perhaps of the Buddha himself. He sacrifices himself so that his herd might live. This migration of souls is also a natural movement in a world where all forms of life are connected and sacred.
Noor Zaheer’s sensitive and conscientious translations presented here are a small part of a much larger collection of oral stories from Kinnaur and Spiti. We are fortunate to have such a delightful sample of oral culture from such a remote part of the world, from a region where traditional lives, livelihoods and cultures are fast disappearing.
© 2019 by Arshia Sattar. All rights reserved.
Note: All translations in this feature were created and edited in 2018 through the Yali program for Indian language translations.
Translated by Noor Zaheer, this folktale of treachery and thwarted romance—from the Kunju Pass Area in Lahoul, eastern Himachal Pradesh—explores the question of whether love can survive after death.
Outside a cave, three men crouched around a fire on that fateful night.
Winter is severe in the upper Himalayas, but nowhere is it as harsh as when you have crossed the Great Himalayan ranges and reached Lahoul. Dotted with fields of potatoes and maize in the summer, when each mountain is carpeted with irises that contest the clear blue of the skies, Lahoul turns into a frozen desert in the winter. If it was just snow and frost one would stay indoors, light a fire and, like a bear, sleep through the winter, waking only to eat. But winter here comes with howling winds, hail and powerful storms. Blizzards rush down mountain slopes, and because they can’t smash the rocks that stand in their way, they bang their heads against the mud huts built low to the ground in an attempt to escape the blizzard’s cruel eye. But the blizzard has sharp eyes, and many a house finds itself without a roof or a wall by the time the storm is done with it.
People who lose their homes and are left to fend for themselves as best they can are usually the poorest of the poor. Often, they did not have houses at all. These are the shepherds, but they know of caves where they can shelter when such a mishap befalls them.
The three men were sitting curled up tightly. They knew that they should move into the cave, but they were loath to leave the warm, comforting circle of the fire. Two of them were shepherds traveling down to the green valleys of Kullu with their herd. The third man had befriended them because he was lost in that icy desert. An old proverb says, “ . . . so cold as to freeze even the tears of the sorrowful,” but in the wilds of Lahoul, it is so cold that people stopped talking to one another. What was the use? The words would freeze and fall before they reached the ears of the listener!
The three men were praying silently for the night to be over because a morning, even a misty and cloudy one, brings its own cheer. Suddenly, a male voice rose out of the dark, cold night. It was loud and clear. “Sunni—!” it called. The shepherds were alert in a trice and reached for their staffs. The voice cried out again and the outsider became restless. He said, “It sounds as if someone needs help. Why don’t you call him here? He will freeze to death in this cold.”
“No, he won’t, he’ll be fine,” replied the elder of the shepherds and the younger one nodded his head in agreement. Both of them stayed exactly where they were. But the outsider could not sit still. He jumped up and ran towards the voice that was still calling “Sunni—Sunni!” Suddenly, he felt himself in the grip of strong arms. His companions had caught up with him and had pinned him to the snow-hardened ground. He stopped struggling and was led firmly back to the fire. Meanwhile, the cry from the icy wilderness became softer, as if the caller had moved further into the dark and stormy night.
“Bhunku is at it tonight!” remarked the younger shepherd.
The outsider was shocked. “You know who he is! You know his name! And you let him perish! What kind of human beings are you?”
“Sit down, son, and I’ll tell you a story, the story of Sunni and Bhunku,” said the older shepherd as he stirred the twitching embers.
“On the way to Spiti, just as you cross the Kunzum Pass, lies the village of Gadhakal. It’s a prosperous village, situated between two rivers and facing east. The people who live there are warm and generous, and everyone works equally hard to contribute to the village output. Their land is well-irrigated and has lots of sunshine. Their crops are plentiful and their houses are strong enough to withstand the rainstorms and the blizzards. They eat well and are contented, and they say that the girls of the village look like the celestial dancers in the court of the king of the gods.
“Now, as we all know, the gods are temporary visitors to earth; they come here only for pleasure. The people of Gadhakal know that gods have their own enticements, and so they accept the beautiful girls born from the follies of the gods and respect the women who are their mothers.
“One such girl was born to a rich landowner in the village. Her beauty was so luminous that it lit up the room even as she slept at night. She was named Sunni, which means ‘ray of sunlight,' and as she grew older, she became ever more beautiful, if that was even possible. Her fingers were nimble enough to weave carpets, her arms could manage the huge, cumbersome looms, her back was as strong as a yak’s so that she could carry loads of corn from the fields to the threshing ground.
“As word of her beauty and skills spread, there were many families who wanted her as their daughter-in-law. They sent her father proposals for her hand in marriage, with promises of generous bride money, but Sunni’s parents were not willing to marry off their daughter in a hurry. No other child had been born to them after Sunni, and they did not wish to be separated from her so soon. The summer when Sunni turned sixteen, a goatherd arrived in the village with a flock of long-haired Himalayan goats. He was called Bhunku, and his name proclaimed that he belonged to the caste of professional shepherds, men who did not own the flocks they cared for. They took other people’s animals to graze and were paid in wool for their work. Surefooted and nimble as his goats, Bhunku would climb to the higher mountain pastures, where the grass was greener and juicier, where his goats would have space to run, play and eat their fill. He would sit in the sun and play his reed flute. The goats knew all the tunes he played. They recognized the tune that meant it was time to go home and they would return to Bhunku when he played it. Together, goatherd and flock would climb back down to the village.
“Sunni was amazed at the power of Bhunku’s flute, and she began following him higher up the slopes. She kept her distance and would hide behind a tree as she listened to the songs that Bhunku coaxed from his simple reed instrument. Before long, she had succumbed to the lure of the flute and was dancing and swaying to the music. Bhunku saw her and came closer. She smiled when she saw him so close, for he was a good-looking man. Love bloomed as easily as mint takes root beside gorges. But mint spreads its fragrance and is soon discovered. The village got to know of Sunni and Bhunku’s love, not because it kept a watch on its girls, but because Sunni was missing when the potato fields were being dug and cleared, when they were being sown and the saplings thinned, at the time of the first watering, and then again at the time of the weeding. Love is a time-consuming business, and lovers treat all other work as unimportant; that is how they are usually found out.
“Sunni did not have any reason to hide the truth. She knew her parents did not wish to part with her, and Bhunku, who did not have a home, was willing to give up his nomadic life and settle down in Ghadakal. The village elders met and decided to let them marry the following spring. This suited Bhunku very well. He would have time to tell his employers that he was giving up grazing their goats, he would collect his payment in wool and sell that to buy gifts for Sunni. Sunni’s parents were also pleased, as it would give them time to build another room for the newlyweds and to brew enough wine to celebrate the wedding of their only child in style.
“With the first snow, Bhunku gathered his flock to make the journey into the valleys. Sunni went with him as far as the Rohtang Pass. As they said goodbye, Bhunku asked Sunni if there was anything special she wanted from Kullu because that was where he was headed. Sunni mentioned Mojris, the special shoes made only in distant Jaipur by shoemakers who were, in reality, magicians. The shoes they made took the shape of the wearer’s feet so sweetly that those who wore them forgot that their feet were shod at all. Lahoulis wear shoes made from hemp that is rough and very uncomfortable. They say that a Lahouli woman might have a face as pretty as a fairy’s, but her feet are as hard as the hooves of sheep. Bhunku laughed at Sunni’s request. He teased her for planning to sit pretty and make him do all the hard work. But he promised to bring her the shoes and ran after his flock, which had smelled the juicy, green grass of the lower mountain pastures and was scampering down the slopes without him.
“Months passed and winter settled in. Sunni stayed indoors spinning wool and tales; wool to make Bhunku a wedding coat and tales to entertain him during the night. She learned new songs to please him, and new dance steps because she did not want him to dance with any other woman. She ate frugally and frowned at visitors who had to be fed because she wanted the granary to have ample grain in case Bhunku returned before the harvest.
“It was a harsh winter, but nothing is difficult for the one who waits for a beloved. The thaw set in—you could tell from the water moving under the ice in the streams and rivulets. The banks of the smaller streams turned green, first with moss and then with the new leaves of the snow lotus. But when the snow lotus bloomed, Sunni’s vigil became painful. Like the lotus, the vigil burst from her heart and teased and mocked her with doubts and suspicions. Each day, she finished her chores at an almost electric speed, and then she climbed to where she could see the path that the goatherds usually took and waited. Each evening, she returned with a heavy heart and spent the night filled with misgivings. But every morning, the dawn brought her new hope.
“Zhering Thopo lived in the same village as Sunni and her parents. He was a rich man who traded in salt and oil. He did not own land, but he possessed a beautiful house. His ailing wife had died recently, and he was looking for a suitable woman to take her place. He had been planning to talk to Sunni’s father, offer a bride price so huge that it could not be refused, but Bhunku had spoiled his plans. Zhering nursed his anger and bided his time.
“We know that all kinds of people make their way up the Himalayas—some come for a change of weather, others to hunt for rare herbs, some to run away from personal responsibilities, but all of them come to seek peace. Though the Himalayas hold the answers to all human questions, they rarely reveal their secrets. Those who come to gain something claim that they have attained enlightenment and they are sought out by those who seek shortcuts to solutions for their problems. But some paths in the Himalayas are rough and rugged, they have no shortcuts. Sometimes, it’s better to stay on the longer routes to reach one’s destination.
“Anyway, Zhering befriended a saffron-clad, long-haired, filthy-bearded hermit and told him of his heart’s desire and how difficult it was to obtain. The hermit told him to convince Sunni to come to a lonely mountaintop in the middle of the night. Together, they hatched a plan to spread the story of the hermit who could see the future in the flames of a fire. By now, Sunni was desperate to meet Bhunku. The sun had started to rise early and set late, the corn was turning golden, rivers gurgled with the melted snow from the high mountains. Preparations for the second crop were underway, and people, as is their wont, were beginning to make fun of Sunni and her endless wait.
“It was at this desolate moment that Zhering asked Sunni to consult the holy man who lit a fire every night on the mountaintop and could see visions of the past and future in its dancing flames. Sunni swiftly agreed, thinking that if she knew when Bhunku might return, she would be able to concentrate on the tasks before her. In the middle of the night, Sunni stole out of her house. The flickering flames at the top of the mountain guided her in that night as dark as pitch, and she considered that a good omen. She approached the fire and found the hermit and Zhering sitting there. Silently, the hermit motioned to her to sit down and to repeat her beloved’s name seven times. As Sunni pronounced ‘Bhunku’ the seventh time, the hermit yelled, ‘I can see! I can see Bhunku! There he is, I can see him!’ Sunni and Zhering moved closer and peered into the fire, but they could see nothing. The hermit seemed to go into a trance and he began to wail loudly. He writhed on the ground and thrashed around, bawling and howling. Zhering held him fast and asked, ‘What is it you see, learned sage?’ In between sobs and moans, the sadhu said, ‘I see Bhunku, but he is dead. I see Bhunku, but his body is being cremated! I see Bhunku, but his soul is leaving for the heavens!’
“Sunni lost all sensation in her limbs when she heard the hermit’s words. As if in a dream, she stood up and walked away. The hermit and Zhering nodded and winked at each other. Zhering was now sure that he could send a marriage proposal for Sunni, that it would be accepted, and that the wedding would be over and done with before Bhunku returned, if at all he did. Suddenly, Zhering and the hermit realized that Sunni was not heading towards the path that led downhill. She was walking in the opposite direction, towards the precipice. They set off behind her, calling out as they ran. But Sunni had had a head start, and now she ran faster. Before they could catch up with her, she screamed ‘Bhunkuuuuuuu’ and jumped off to meet the death that she believed had taken her beloved.
“Zhering was overcome with grief and remorse. He could not confess to anyone in the village, even though everyone was searching for Sunni everywhere. He took to waiting on the path taken by goatherds to enter Lahoul. Sure enough, Bhunku arrived in a few days. He was happy that someone from his beloved’s village had come to welcome him.
“Embracing Bhunku, Zhering asked, ‘What took you so long? ” Bhunku laughed and replied, ‘My work was done before winter ended, I had been paid for my work and I was able to sell the wool in the market.’
“‘Then why, oh why, did you not come back immediately?’ cried Zhering.
“Bhunku smiled shyly and said, ‘Sunni wanted a pair of Mojris, and this year the Mojri makers did not come to the market fair in Kullu. I heard that they were camping in Kangra, so I walked all the way there. That took several weeks, but I bought the Mojris and came back as soon as I could. Look how beautiful they are! Imagine how lovely my Sunni will look wearing them.’
“Zhering began to sob loudly when he heard this and told Bhunku everything, cursing himself and the hermit. Bhunku dropped all the gifts that he had brought from the lowlands. He even took off the new shirt that he had bought to wear as a bridegroom and removed his new shoes. He fell to his knees and bowed low, touching his head to the ground before Zhering. Then, he stood up and extended his right hand. Zhering had no option but to put his hand on Bhunku’s, acknowledging the pledge that he would give whatever was asked for. Bhunku looked Zhering in the eye and said, ‘Show me the place where I will find Sunni.’
“Zhering had to escort Bhunku to the mountaintop, across the plateau, and show him the precipice where Sunni had last been seen. Bhunku stretched out his arms as if to embrace something and then, as his body hurtled downwards, he cried, ‘Sunni—.’
The old shepherd had reached the end of the story. He sighed and said, “Death does not unite lovers. At least, this time it didn’t. On some nights, she calls for him, and on others, he longs for her. Maybe lovers unite only as embodied selves and earth itself is heaven. When we are no longer of the earth, there is nothing left but yearning, endless yearning.”
Translation © 2019 by Noor Zaheer. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Najwa bin Shatwan, a Daesh attack forces George to flee the Christian cemetery and take refuge among the Muslim dead of Benghazi.
It was customary for the dead of Benghazi to visit their families whenever they pleased, sticking their noses into every affair—big or small—and, if a revolution were to break out, they would join its ranks, having no qualms about dying twice over. Such was, without fail, the habit of all the dead in Benghazi: those whose final resting place was in the Christian cemetery would invariably step out in the evenings dressed in their finest, impeccable, as if on their way to a wedding, bumping into those of the Muslim cemetery returning from their leisurely sit-downs in cafés, as if retiring after a day’s work.
George Arter George was among those whose graves were in the ancient, manicured cemetery in the neighborhood of Al-Fawehat. George carried on through death with trimmed nails, clad in a fashionable Gucci suit, silk socks, and clean shoes. This was before he sought refuge in the Muslim cemetery in Al-Huwwari, right on the heels of the Daesh attack on his own burial ground that shattered the tombstones, insulting the dignity of those resting there.
Toward the end of an exhausting walk, George almost missed two roses on the Al-Safsafa plot—a patch replete with alfalfa for the cows—that caught his eye. He picked them up to take to his father for his death anniversary. He was counting the remaining steps to the cemetery when he made out the bulldozer, the jellabiyas fluttering in the wind, and the long, unkempt beards.
George knew it was the end; with his foresight, he didn’t even have to think about it. He threw the roses on the road—where they were crushed by cars that weren’t used to stopping even if they ran someone over—and started to run, fleeing this damned black day in the course of his death, running away from a second death without knowing where he was going. He was already in the hereafter; he couldn’t escape it to go back to the world of the living. Nonetheless, whoever had been chewed up by the jaws of life would never go back to it, no matter how painful the torture in the afterlife.
George Arter George squatted by the side of the road leading to the psychiatric hospital, crouching beneath the sole tree there, wishing for a truck to pass by that he could cling to, to take him to the Muslim cemetery. Not a single one of the drivers stopped to give him a lift, believing that he was a mental patient on the loose. And if a Good Samaritan were to stop, he would most likely be bundled off to the hospital so that he wouldn’t harm anyone on the “outside,” God forbid.
As such, it was better to run away from the tree, from Daesh, from the trucks, and from the Good Samaritans, too. He stopped and stood by the stalls of the immigrant salesmen to give the impression that he too was one of them after several years of integration, or that he was a white eggplant—an utterly undesirable soul; in either case, no one would be concerned in the slightest.
Posing as a white eggplant, he finally succeeded in reaching the Muslim cemetery. As soon as word spread to those buried there that there was a strange man among them in an elegant suit, they began to take advantage of him in every way.
As a supposed eggplant, he rushed here and there; he didn’t have to share who he really was until he knew them better.
“Hey George, go and lock the gate, would you?”
“George, go and buy us some smokes, at least you’ve got some clothes on!”
“Go on, George, get us some lunch and dinner. We’re craving some fruit and roast chicken.”
Finally, George got fed up and yelled, “Enough! I want to go back to my own cemetery. My suit’s worn out from walking under the blazing sun, my shoes are filthy, and my beard’s a bushy mess. There’s no electricity to iron my clothes or wash my suit, the whole day the power’s out. And on top of that, you all tell me to get you things from really dangerous neighborhoods where the war is on!”
“Slow down there, George. Take a breath. You want us to treat you nice and good, eh? Have you forgotten that you’re just a white eggplant? Hah!”
Some years later . . .
George’s clothes were threadbare, his hair unkempt, dusty. His shoes had been stolen. What’s more, the owner of the grave next to him had made off with his tie but denied stealing it even though he wore it brazenly round his neck. George stood on wild rugged thorns in the graveyard, his feet bleeding, while he pondered—as a depressed philosopher would—the impossibility of life and death in Libya. No rest for the living, no rest for the dead. Perhaps, in both cases, because of the people. They always found something or the other for him to do, leaving him perpetually on tenterhooks. They would never be satisfied.
When the cemetery’s residents couldn’t find anything else for him to do, they dispatched him to bring them news. “Go on, you eggplant, and bring us some news from the outside.” No sooner had they asked him than he was on his way.
“There’s talk of a Turkish freighter called Andromeda, seized in Greece, carrying 410 tons of explosives, coming from Turkey to the port at Misrata. Because of this, several cases about the war in Benghazi have been opened, as if the investigation will be impartial in the first place. If this ship actually berths here, a lot of the dead will be anxious about their graves. They might be thrown out in order to make space for the new bodies. What shit! RIP my ass!”
Once done speaking, he turned his face toward Europe, envious of the dead over there. Surely there’s no dead person getting up over there simply to die all over again. How many times could Greece intervene and come to our rescue?
George’s friend Mohammed came back from court after finalizing his divorce. “What’s with you, George? You seem more down than the judge. Isn’t there anything on this side that you like?”
“I miss my first grave. I want to go back. The years are passing without any hope in sight.”
“Why are you so worried? You’re welcome here, you know that. Sure, your tie was snatched, and your shoes pass by in front of you every day on another man’s feet, and the old lady occupying the grave over there claims you’ve been harassing her, but you’re still much better off than those people who’ve been kicked out of where they were living. Take the town of Tawergha, for instance.”
“The truth is that I just want to go back to where I was, not because it’s grassy, shaded by trees, or free from litter, but because the cemetery there is full and no one new can come in. As for this cemetery, bodies keep flocking in, in droves really, from all over. Civil war, car accidents, stray bullets, electric shocks, mines, medical negligence, shoddy buildings collapsing, expired food; the list goes on. What will the future be like? It’s making me think about migrating to Europe.”
Mohammed offered his friend some comforting words, then invited him to draw closer to the graveyard fence to watch the wedding procession going past: the cars’ honking mingled with the traditional songs, growing to a crescendo as celebratory bullets freely shot skywards.
“There is hope. There is joy. Come on, George, let’s grab a slice of some of that fun and happiness for ourselves!”
Both of them stood on their tiptoes to get a better look. George finally smiled after not having done so since he had left the cemetery of his father and forefathers, seemingly more joyous than the couple getting married, chiming in with the song they were singing:
The fire of your love, God destined for me,
Scorching like the dusty winds of Al-Ghibli.
While on his tiptoes, consumed by the fire of love, its scorching heat, and Al-Ghibli, Mohammed’s voice pierced through. “Run, George . . . Run!”
George ran without knowing why or in which direction he should go. He just ran, in the same way that a confused fountain would spurt water in all directions. Behind him was a stray bullet from the celebratory wedding shots, dogging him. He ran in a circle as he tried to outwit it, but it continued its pursuit, leaning on its experience with fast chases. He went round the only tree in the cemetery. Fearlessly, the bullet pierced straight through the trunk: one half fell on the head of the old lady who’d complained about being harassed and the other transformed into a coffin from the shock of the impact.
He wove round the graves, first on his feet, then on his belly. Though engaged in a struggle to stay alive, George noted that the dead were clinging to their graves, gripping the edges, white-knuckled, only their heads poking out to watch the fugitive.
He trampled the fingers of one of them while zigzagging through and heard a voice cry out, its curse hunting him alongside the bullet. “Ow, OW! My fingers, you infidel . . . my fingers, you pig! Son of a . . . ”
What the man had said was more painful than the deadly bullet, but George didn’t have the time to set right such wrong ideas, and such people died with their uninformed views still intact.
If the bullet would just give him some room to breathe, he would speak to the Muslims to let them know that he too was of the holy book, not an infidel; that the God these Muslims monopolized for themselves had actually revealed Himself to his community first. But unfortunately he was on the run; no time for anything, even death.
The bullet continued to hound him. He heard Mohammed’s voice trying to rescue him from afar by guiding him to a grave freshly dug that morning. “Take a right, George! Now turn left! Jump into the hole by the cement factory!”
His innate GPS deceived the bullet. It whizzed over the new grave, losing sight of its target. George finally heaved a sigh of relief, opening his eyes as wide as they would go to see God’s beautiful sky. He got the opportunity to see it clearly, a wondrous azure, birds soaring freely. He looked to the walls of his new home and was happy with the quality of the soil. He ran his hand along it: cool, clean, no one had decomposed in it before. Before he could thank God for such a blessing, he heard the sound of the bullet slicing through the air once more, accompanied by the curse of the Muslim, damning him, his religion, and his mother. Horrified, he tried to crawl out of the grave, but the bullet wrapped in the curse circled the grave opening twice before sinking into his forehead with such precision that if its maker had known, he would have increased its price.
Now it was the bullet’s turn to breathe a sigh of relief. Why had George insisted on taking off at such breakneck speed? As for the curse, it was finally silenced once it plunged headlong into the lower half of George’s body, sticking it to him where it would hurt the most.
Yes, indeed, George had died a second time . . . but this time it was at the hands of a wedding bullet, not like the first time; in other words, he died happily ever after!
© Najwa Bin Shatwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.
A young woman finds love where she least expects it in this folktale from the Kinnaur Valley, translated by Noor Zaheer.
This story was narrated by an old man of the village to a group of young people to make them understand that all living beings are inherently equal.
“On the way to Rekong Peo, if you take a diversion off the road onto the goat path and climb uphill for about five miles, you arrive at an unexpected expanse of blue. Still, clear, shining: this is Nako Lake, and you are standing on a flat beach of clean sand, almost white. Nako village, with its small houses, pastures, and fields, lies across the lake from where you are. With lake on one side and high mountains on the other three sides, the village is protected from intruders and from outside influences.
“Many years ago, when the moon had a beautiful face, the sun often became jealous of her beauty. Once, the sun was so jealous that it became hot enough to burn down the forests on the mountainsides. A young brother and sister lived in Nako village. Their names were Gyalpo and Chering. They had a small piece of land that the brother tilled and a tiny house that the sister took care of. They were devoted to each other and one would not eat unless the other was also eating. The girl was beautiful and the boy was hardworking. Somehow, they managed to keep body and soul together.
“During the hot summer months, after the men had left for the fields, the girls would go together to bathe in the lake and dry their washed clothes on the sand. One day, it was exceptionally hot and Chering wanted to go for a swim, but all her girlfriends were busy with household chores. At first, she waited for her brother to return from the fields, but she knew that he wouldn’t be back soon because he was weeding and thinning out the millet crop. So she decided to go to the lake alone.
“Gyalpo came home and found his sister gone. He asked the neighbors about her, he checked at the water mill, he inquired at the marketplace; he also visited the old woman who lived alone and was said to possess an inner eye. But all to no avail. Some people had seen her leaving home, some had seen her turning toward the beach, there was also a witness who swore that he saw her wading into the water; but after that there was no news of her. Gyalpo was sure that Chering was not dead, for half his soul would have died with her and he would have known it. The old woman, using her inner eye, had also assured him that Chering was not dead. If she were, her body would have surfaced on the lake.
“Gyalpo waited for seven days and then decided that since his sister had last been seen by the lake, that was where she must still be. He decided to build a boat. It took nine full moons to cut enough trees, strip their bark, saw them into planks, and join them together to make the boat and two strong oars. With a new boat and new oars, new strength and new zeal and a heart yearning for his sister, Gyalpo set sail on the lake.
“He rowed to the north and then to the south, he scoured the lake, first facing the rising sun and then with his back to it. He searched the lake for a year and then for another year and then some more. At last, on the sixth full moon of the third year, he saw his sister sitting on a rock in the middle of the lake. He rowed quickly to the spot and called out to her. Chering was overjoyed to see her brother. The two embraced and wept and spoke of how much they had missed each other. And finally, Gyalpo asked Chering what she was doing there.
“Chering told her brother she had come to the lake to escape the heat, that she had only intended to get in the water till her ankles but had been tempted to go a little farther till she was shin dee, and then it really was so hot that the rest of her body cried out for relief and so she moved a little farther, till she was wading in knee-deep water. She felt a tug on her ankles, and the next thing she knew, she was being pulled under.
“She struggled and fought back and tried to save herself but could not overcome the great crocodile that had taken hold of her and was dragging her down to his home under the water. When they got there, he professed his love for her. He said that he had been watching her for some time, that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and that he wanted her to love him. Though she was his prisoner, he treated her well. He was kind and gave her enough to eat, and once every week, he even brought her news from the village because she missed it so.
“Gyalpo decided to test this information and asked Chering for the latest news from the village. Chering surprised him by saying that one of her best friends, who had been married across the mountains, had returned to her father’s house because her mother-in-law treated her badly. This was true, so Gyalpo had to believe her. Then he inquired about the crocodile and Chering told him how powerful he was, able-bodied and strong, but also that he was gentle and liked to hear her sing and see her dance. Gyalpo asked when the crocodile would be back and Chering said that he would return only after midnight. Gyalpo was pleased to hear this, and he said to his sister, ‘I have a boat and it is still light. Let us escape while the crocodile is away, because if he comes back, it’s unlikely that I will be able to overcome him, and I will be killed!’ Chering was also sure that the crocodile would kill her brother if he found him there. So they decided to escape while they had the chance.
“Gyalpo said, ‘Hold my hand and come to the edge of the rock. My boat is large enough to hold both of us. Come!’
“Together they walked to the edge of the rock. Gyalpo jumped into the boat and held out his hand to help. Chering came right to the edge of the water and put one foot into the boat. She was on the verge of stepping in when she suddenly exclaimed, ‘I cannot go with you, dear brother! I love the crocodile!’ The moment those words were uttered, Chering shed her human form and turned into a crocodile. She jumped into the water, vanished for a while, and then surfaced. The she-crocodile looked so happy that the brother decided to let her be and rowed back home even though his own heart was heavy.
“No life is superior or inferior. Being reborn as a human is no great achievement. What matters is finding love and sharing it with other living creatures.
Translation © 2019 by Noor Zaheer. All rights reserved.
A side hustle among a group of quarry laborers balloons into a bureaucracy of shocking proportions in this short story by Muhammad Mustajab.
Whatever else the case, we wish ill on no man, not even those who give us orders, and I would like to begin here by saluting, enthusiastically, any person who is given the chance to do good and takes it. Good being, in its fullest sense, much like these far-flung red wastes studded with rocks and stones and camel thorn, in drifts of which lie cloistered their fierce and tender (and scarce) inhabitants: the rats and lizards and snakes, that is. From time to time one of us might spot a jackal. And Abou Awaja tells the story of the officer at the checkpoint who emptied his magazine at a hyena—that’s right, a hyena!—and then, having missed it entirely, tossed his gun aside and threw himself bodily upon the beast to wrap it in his arms and crush its ribs. Though we—and without wishing to label Abou Awaja a liar—have honestly never laid eyes on a hyena. Or an officer, for that matter. A rat, yes. Lizards, foxes, policemen up to the rank of sergeant, a handful of border guards, horned vipers (tiny, arched, and deadly): all yes. But discounting the officers and hyenas, the stones and camel thorn, the personal scandals passed on by tongues whose truthfulness we cannot vouch for, then this broad and spacious site can be said to harbor only this: us.
Which is to say: three hundred laborers, four engineers, and five clerks, and then tents, mechanical diggers, clouds scattered across the sky, a water truck, an asbestos office block, a small prayer room with mats to pray on, barrels of oil and barrels of diesel fuel, plus the small, wild zephyrs that whip up sand and deposit it over our heads.
What do we do here? I shall tell you. We quarry rock. And when we get down to it, when we get right down there beneath the sands, we can almost tell ourselves that we are digging a tunnel, a huge tunnel that will lead us to some other, underground world. Only to reemerge onto the barren surface, to be grilled by the sun and, well: then it doesn’t really feel like we’re doing anything at all.
The sign at the quarry entrance says the site is run by Somebody and Sons Contracting, which in turn is overseen by the Institute of Contractors, which in turn (forgive me) belongs to the Public Institute of Contracting, Construction, and Building Work, which in turn is part of another agency whose name escapes me. I say escapes me: to pursue this chain to its bitter end we would need to quit this quarry located on the Tropic of Cancer and travel all the way up to Cairo. But the quarry’s most proximate administrator—the first-named company—is located in the nearest town, which can be reached by a variety of modes of transport, among them the passenger seat of a truck: you rattle down a north–south road, then an east–west road, then a north–south track, then round a hill, and finally end up rolling along by the side of the Nile: the drowsing, delicious shade, the waters. Forty kilometers in two hours.
All right, but why that note of complaint in your voice? Doesn’t the company pay your wages? Doesn’t the company give you a paid day off? Well, about that. Concerning the matter of the company deducting weekend wages from those who don’t work weekends, we sent a letter dated February 12 requesting clarification from management. Look, I told the quarry manager, so long as the people in charge are looking into it, no complaints; all I’m asking is that you make an exception for Abou Awaja. At which the manager fixed me with a stare and, coming round from behind his desk (His Excellency has a large and well-furnished desk), laughed.
No no no no, he said.
The story’s simple as a fairy tale. Abou Awaja got it into his head that one way to make some extra cash would be to set up as a butcher, and though his scant resources fell somewhat short of fulfilling this dream, he did manage to acquire a goat, a nanny goat, which he slaughtered and sold to his brethren at the quarry. That is: to the innermost of his inner circle. Then the week after that, he butchered them another goat. And the week after that, the third week, the manager was conducting an inspection of the site and, as he was passing the tents, he happened to observe a goat carcass pegged up outside the entrance to Abou Awaja’s.
When had this happened? During official work hours, was it? I’m begging you, sir. Sir, I’m kissing your feet. God protect your children, etc. etc. No use. This is a crime. This donkey has gone and slaughtered a goat that could well be carrying disease—that’s almost certainly diseased; has slaughtered it on-site and sold the meat during shift hours. I’ll fire him. Please sir, no! I’ll fire him.
All that, and then the crisis was settled by deducting fifteen days wages from Abou Awaja’s pay packet, with each of his clients chipping in to cover two days of the deduction. And Abou Awaja, Mohammed Youssef, and Rifaei Mialawi were transferred to the night shift.
This is when it came to me: the most fearsome idea to enter my head in all the many years I’d spent between the deserts and mountains and villages and coasts of this land; pierced my brain the way a misfired arrow might hit a thing that turns out, after all, to be its target.
Look, I was in the quarry myself. I lived there, I mean. The engineers come through and hand out orders and punishments, and write reports, and drive their cars all the way back to town, and the laborers drive diggers and grease gears and shovel dirt and (once every three months) pack dynamite into holes and blow it up, and they drink water out of barrels, and eat lentils and onions and dust and salt and filth, and the manager, for his part, passes through very rarely and very briefly, glancing over a report or a digger or a tent or a punishment order, then drives himself away, it’s said, to another quarry that he oversees God knows where, and I . . . well. Sometimes I regard myself as part of the quarry workforce: I eat with the men and I drink with them; I join them in their councils of war and peace. And sometimes I find that I’m perhaps more like an engineer: screaming and cursing, demanding reports and recommending punishments and, of course, reporting back to the quarry manager.
But sometimes the hills and valleys flatten, the world smooths out, and I lose all sense of depth. I sit by the entrance to my asbestos cubicle, the far horizon held in my gaze, and something magical enters my being. Like a fixation. And then I’m almost a poet.
What if we bought a medium-sized bit of livestock—a calf, say—and butchered it for the whole workforce?
So, this arrow was cutting its way across my mind and I was trembling where I sat, and at the same time one of the men was standing in front of me, holding a mug of water and telling me about an adventure in Yemen, some story involving his cousin and an ambush and a broken-down bulldozer—how even as one of the crew was trying to get the bulldozer started and another man was emerging from the engine cowling with the machine’s guts in his hands, the cousin had swarmed halfway up the brick-red Yemeni mountainside to fight off the assault, had killed five (or was it nine?) of their attackers—and the man was shaking with excitement as he spoke, and the water was slopping out of the mug and onto the man’s hands, then onto his clothes, and in my skull the calf had settled down to stay. This had to happen! And I felt a kind of ecstasy.
Set romance aside. The desert loves the truth and despises tears and lies, and the truth was that anyone among the three-hundred-strong workforce to whom this thought had ever occurred (and every one of them could call on a friend to bear witness to prove to me, impartial observer and sometime engineer, that they had indeed discussed the issue) had to contend with another truth: the considerable difficulties that arose when their delegates were sent to town to buy beans and onions and cheese and meat. Ibrahim Al Badei had something to say about the time the meat had been spilling maggots, and Saber Abou Ras about the time the meat was nothing but fat and gristle, and Abdel Zaher of the many, many times they had suspected their meat was—begging your pardon—ass. Or donkey. Dog. Swear to you on my marriage, sir, there’s meat gone into these bellies of ours that comes from animals we wouldn’t know a name for.
This time, though, you’ll be filled with flesh you’ve slaughtered yourself.
We were sitting together at sunset outside Al Hagg Abdetawwab’s place, tea glasses in our hands and a fine dust gathering in drifts against the tent’s walls.
How many of us are there? Three hundred, right? So, everyone whose Friday pay packet is one hundred and fifty qirsh or less contributes a quarter lire, anyone who makes up to three lire pays a half, and so on and so on: contributions calculated by wage. Agreed? Agreed. But the manager might find out and object. No, no, don’t fret. There’s no problem so long as the ones doing the buying and butchering don’t do it during their shift hours. And the engineers? They won’t object if the manager doesn’t. At which point it became evident that at least three-quarters of those present had, at some point and in some form, worked as butchers. I’ll do the slaughtering! Let me skin! I’ll take the tripe! I’ll buy the head! And joy swept the company and the banter fell like rain. You’ll forget what carrion even tastes like! Hey, Abadi! When your father had a pound of meat in the house he’d bolt the door with his own neck! We should fast before we clean the entrails! We’re basically fasting already!
Men can be angels when joy is in the air.
Then a song started: Muawad departed and left his heart with his friends . . . And Shukri Younis got to his feet and shut the singer up. Said, Sing something happier, man.
Sweet boy picking blossoms, gathering them in his kerchief. Long life’s a gift from God, so gift it to him ya Karim. . .
Enough singing! But our host Al Hagg Abdetawwab, seduced by the rhythm, had joined it: swaying and bending and begging the singer for more, and refusing to countenance the calls to stop.
The best livestock in the area comes from the Draou market, and the best two men at the quarry (the most trustworthy, that is) were Samir Samak and Ali Okasha. Neither of them, however, knew anything about livestock, while the pair that understood livestock best (that is, Qaoud and Mohammed Abadi) were trusted by nobody. And there was the money we’d collected at the last whip round: one hundred lire on the nose. The quarry manager had put in two pounds, the border patrol had contributed one lire and twenty-five qirsh (five men at a quarter lire each), and even the company cashier who stopped by once a fortnight had given half a lire. And then came the suggestions. Someone thought we should hire a butcher from town, someone impartial to ensure the cuts were fair, and another was of the view that we give our first animal to the poor in the name of Sayyid Al Badawi, so the saint might bless our venture, and a third believed . . . and so on.
But none of this slowed our momentum.
On Monday evening, four men rode the shift truck into town so that they could be at the Draou market early Tuesday morning. But buying the beast wasn’t the issue. The difficulty, as it turned out, was getting it back. The men bore the trials of the road as best they knew how—saintly patience, then songs, then stories, then gossip about the shortcomings of the clerks, then mockery of an engineer by the name of Mahmoud Hamdan who couldn’t tell a plow from a bulldozer—and made it back to the quarry just as Ibrahim Al Badei was concluding the sunset prayer. We were sitting outside our tents or hovering round Abdel Baqi’s tea stall when we first saw the mighty beast staggering up the track toward us, four shouting men trotting behind, and a wreath of roses round its horns.
The first to greet the rose-wreathed calf was Abou Awaja. A whoop of joy had gone up from the men, but the emotion had not moved them, so much as held them rooted to the spot. It was Abou Awaja who claimed the right to step forward and welcome the delegation in, as though his prior experience in the goat sector—for all that it had culminated in official sanction—lent him the necessary authority to take on a calf. Grasping the halter and waving at the crowds, he proceeded to lead it into camp, and when he reached the tents the men all gathered round him, clapping and capering and clashing their staffs together, dealing dizzying smacks to their neighbors’ napes out of sheer unbridled joy. And then, in the midst of all this, a thin man’s sudden cry: But we need scales!
Back in the days of the goat, Abou Awaja had cut the meat and weighed it out by hand, by feel, juggling it on his palm and narrowing his eyes and swearing he’d divorce his wife if that wasn’t upward of a kilo and a half, even though he, out of the goodness of his heart, was only charging for a kilo. Faced with a calf like this (and what a calf!) there was no way we could keep on with such a primitive and patently ridiculous approach. But (and now I was addressing the men) I can’t believe a lack of scales will stop us. Let us get scales! Steal them or rent them or buy them. Every one of you, I’m certain, must have scales at home or at least knows how to get hold of them. Surely all of you, at some point, have sold tomatoes and eggplant and cucumbers and potatoes at a stall. You all must have gone wandering through God’s fair land buying and selling. Are we going to let scales stop us? And the men roared, then applauded, and then the offers: I’ll bring the scales. I’ll bring the block. As God’s my witness the only way that calf’s being portioned out is properly wrapped in paper.
To a tent peg we tethered our calf, settled ourselves down on the rocks and lit cigarettes, and then the stories began to flow, of previous attempts at similar enterprises in other quarries, some of which we sought to learn from and some of which we mocked. A couple of the men slipped out among the desert shrubs and grasses. They ran their fingers through them by the deep dark starlight, and they picked them, and the next thing the calf was champing and chewing, lapping and lowing.
A kilo of meat (boneless) for twenty-eight qirsh. A kilo of tripe for four. Liver at thirty-two. Rifaei Mialawi bought the head for one lire twenty-five, and his brother got the hide and marrow for the same.
God destroy your houses: the skin alone should go for two!
The above a complaint, which we countered: lest they forget, a kilo of meat like the one they’d just bought went for eighty qirsh back home.
The Calf Committee comprised myself (chair), Abou Awaja (scales), Mohammed Abadi (butcher), and Rifaei Mialawi (skinner and butcher’s assistant). Thirty qirsh to rent the scales, thirty-five for the market delegation’s transport costs, plus another thirty for out-of-pocket expenses. Dawn was on the doorstep and outside the tents the coals were glowing in the grills. Only a very few were saving their share until they returned to their homes in town. The representative of the border patrol had been to collect his colleagues’ share and then departed, and some basic rules had been established. That everyone who wanted meat must pay again: the monies previously collected were considered a contribution to the enterprise’s starting capital. Some had paid in full, others had deferred settlement until payday.
The quarry manager turned up and strolled over from his car. I thanked him and explained what had happened. He didn’t say a word, kept quiet as I spoke my piece, then he laid a hand on my shoulder and said that just so long as the men weren’t distracted from their work, well, that was all that mattered. So I went over it all again, told him about all the strange and amusing adventures that had taken place, and he smiled. Then he looked carefully through the work reports, debated with an engineer the possibility of exploiting the left-hand side of the quarry, turned down a number of laborers’ requests for holidays, and finally went to his office, where he removed his glasses and asked me straight: when was the next one going to be? Next week, I said. God willing. For a while he said nothing. Then he stuck his hand into his pocket and, producing a heavily folded lire note, he spread it flat. If there’s any left over, look after me.
I sensed a pointed rebuke. The manager had contributed more than any man among us: how could we not look after him?
The next time round was less successful. The calf was bigger and, for the first time, we saw that our men were having difficulties deciding just what it was they wanted. You’d find one of them standing baffled before the butcher, mumbling for minutes on end before giving his order. Frequently, they’d order a kilo of chuck ribs when they’d meant to get shank, and this was because their fingers could never point out accurately enough those cuts that their tongues were misnaming. Which was entertaining.
Mahmoud Hamdan (an engineer of limited merits with a mortal aversion to the night shift who, after receiving news of the slaughter—and to everyone’s surprise—was suddenly to be found overseeing the repair of digging equipment in the dark) cautioned us not to forget to burn the refuse (the blood and the bones and the contents of the stomach), at which there was much grinning and winking between the men because the engineer—elevated by the occasion—was finally using his brain. And one sly onlooker saw fit to congratulate the engineer on this development, at which Mahmoud Hamdan began to relate a number of stories to the assembled company, all of which concluded with packs of wild desert beasts descending on piles of discarded offal. It was clear Hamdan was suffering from overexcitement, an unfortunate mental surge that had caused him to forget to so much as go near the repair workshop. A religious man swore—swore on his marriage—that the meat he’d eaten last time had been the finest meat he’d eaten in his life, to which another troublemaker commented that, well, didn’t that beg the question? And then it was time to settle the accounts and tidy everything away, at which juncture we realized—joy!—that we’d cleared a three-lire profit.
And when the quarry manager arrived and one of the men went over to hand him his parcel, the manager made a point of ignoring it. He conducted a tour of inspection round the workshop, then round the tents, then round the slaughter site itself. And here, finding men busy incinerating the refuse, he requested that a list of their names be drawn up. Once back in his office he proceeded to check whether these men were on shift or off duty, and having established that none of them were listed on roster for the night shift, he unwrapped the parcel, turned the lump of meat over a couple of times, and asked his driver to put it in his car. Then he remembered Mahmoud Hamdan, and summoning him to his office, he inquired why it was that an engineer was up at night repairing diggers. And then a painful scene, as it became clear that nobody had been near the workshop all night.
Mahmoud Hamdan, standing there soaking up the manager’s abuse with a parcel of meat and a parcel of bones tucked beneath his arm.
There are certain issues I would love to expand on at this juncture, but I don’t want to lose sight of our story. To wit: fresh meat turning frowns upside down.
By this time the quarry worked to our time: so-and-so took a holiday ahead of the slaughter, X had a stand-up row with Y two days after the black calf was killed, Khalaf Tantawi got married the night of the short brown calf, and the first round of repairs on the mechanical graders was completed in time for the medium white. We made a loss on two occasions, but we broke even on eight. One of the guards was detained with meat in his possession that he was unable to account for, prompting the manager to issue an order banning Engineer Mahmoud Hamdan from the quarry site on slaughter nights, followed by a second order limiting the engineer’s share to a kilo and a half. The armed forces saw fit to strengthen the border patrol, whose numbers now swelled to seven, though we refused to accept contributions from the two new recruits, which we regarded as a mark of deep respect on our part, a signal honor.
A still greater honor: the approaches made by certain company directors with a view to obtaining our meat. Around the time of the fourth slaughter we received instructions from the quarry manager to take care of the director of works, and when asked how much the director of works might be wanting, he said three kilos of liver. By the time the seventh calf was bleeding on the ground we had five directors on our list: the director of works, the director of planning, the director of works planning, the senior engineer, and the director in chief. I won’t pretend I ever laid eyes on any of them: all five placed orders and paid either through the manager or one of the engineers. We were informed that one of them had attempted to offer just twenty-six qirsh for a kilo, claiming that his wife had weighed it and found that it came up light, but the complaint failed to sway the committee, whose refusal to give it a hearing was based principally on the fact that it had not been formally submitted.
Such obstacles notwithstanding, the project was a success. Indeed, the project was famous: the chairman of the board in Cairo, we learned, had mentioned us in the course of a friendly chat with Engineer Bahgat—though, less encouragingly, this had been news to Engineer Bahgat. And with the list of our triumphs growing ever longer the manager of the quarry granted us permission to use the shift truck to transport the calves back from Draou. To date, the most magnanimous of all the manager’s many gracious and extraordinary contributions to our cause. Now the delegation could leave the quarry in the morning and be back with the goods by the afternoon, though this led in turn to a necessary expansion in the provision of free cuts to our partners: a kilo for the truck driver (without which the truck would be unable to make it up inclines) and a kilo for the policeman at the checkpoint (to discourage him issuing either one of two potential tickets: one against the vehicle, one against the driver). Then the works inspector requested the head, and the quarry manager instructed us to give it to him and not to ask for payment, which request quickly became a rule, with the head dispatched immediately after slaughter.
By the fourteenth (or was it the fifteenth?) calf our subscription list furnished ample evidence of the venture’s flourishing fortunes, including as it did a public prosecutor who lived in the same building as the works director and a judge on the criminal bench. Which last came to visit the quarry on the pretext of inspecting the type of rock we were mining, but who, once on-site, was unable to find a moment to make it to the rock face. And soon afterward this eminent visitor wrote a letter in praise of our project to a national magazine: four lines in Our Readers Write.
A member of the town council was next to become enthused, and in a speech to the council put our project forward as a potential solution to the meat crisis in the governorate—and we were about to express our thanks to this councillor in material terms, when one of our number observed (the idiot) that perhaps we shouldn’t overdo the presents? The upshot of which was a surprise visit from a slaughterhouse inspector who descended on us one dawn, completely unannounced, and commanded his men to remove all the butchered meat from the premises and then to remove us, into custody, for operating without the necessary licenses.
We were transported, along with the product of our labor, to the nearest police station, where we faced interrogation after interrogation, our hearts quartered in our chests, and our meat heaped in a corner of the prison yard. But interested parties intervened—the judge, the prosecutor, the works inspector, the director of regional planning, the head of a department at the Ministry of Justice—and before the sun had reached its zenith a police van from town was pulling into the yard, pulling up beside the pile of meat, and disgorging the imposing figure of a sergeant, who took the unbending inspector to one side. They talked for a while, then smiled, then lit cigarettes, and then the inspector turned to us and started shouting, calling us idiots for not letting him know—though what I was supposed to have let him know I’d no idea—and the sergeant motioned us to load our meat into his van. We were going back to the quarry. Wild excitement, and Abou Awaja began to chant: first, Long live the sergeant, then, Long live justice.
Twenty-six kilos stacked in the manager’s office for Shukri Younes to pencil on names before they were passed to the truck driver to distribute among our friends in town. Plus five kilos and the head, earmarked for special friends.
A laborer shouting that this wasn’t his usual share was slapped down by a member of the Calf Committee who explained that since he had turned up late it hadn’t been possible to fulfill his order as requested. The man continued to carp. He’d never attended a single slaughter or hung around the carcass the way some people did, he said, but that had never stopped him getting his share before. I explained that a change in circumstances had forced us to consider an overhaul of the share system as a whole. Starting from now we were putting a cap on the size of individual orders. If you’d been down for two kilos, you were now permitted a maximum of one and half. One-and-a-half-kilo orders were reduced to one. But we made no move to cut into the kilo orders: they stayed as they were.
And these new measures meant that we had to learn how to plan things out prior to distribution. We also restricted meat sales to men who worked their shifts. There was no way we could set cuts aside for people who weren’t turning up to work, no matter what the excuse. Some of the men refused to accept offal as a temporary solution. They claimed they’d paid their contributions for fresh meat, not entrails—an ill-mannered and ungrateful attitude that threatened to unpick what good fortune our enterprise had hitherto enjoyed.
All this quibbling over God’s blessings: it filled us with foreboding. We decided to return their contributions and barred them. But profits had been accumulating and now stood at forty lire, so we had held our tongues when it came to the behavior of certain outliers.
A man’s mother passed away, so we gave him a couple of lire by way of assistance, an act which met with the wholehearted approval of the other men. Another had a child, so we sent him a lire by way of a gift, but in place of the lire the man requested three and a half kilos of meat, which request we promised to meet, only for circumstances to intervene and prevent us giving him either the meat or the lire. We arranged to have a modest notice published congratulating the chairman of the board of directors for completing seven successful months in the post—five lines in a national daily with my name among the signatories—and His Excellency sent us a letter of thanks by return, praying God that He might grant us success in contributing to the greater good of the nation.
Then we uncovered a conspiracy.
Certain elements—the outliers, strangers in our midst—were hatching a plot which aimed at the very foundations of our enterprise. Friendly eyes and ears brought word of a word, a dangerous proposal making the rounds of the quarry: that the workforce demand the return of their subscriptions, and the profits, too. We had no choice but to regard these elements as a fifth column, and when one of the agitators (Ibrahim Abdel Badei) began to address the men openly, we reported him to the quarry manager, who immediately—and to his credit—spoke out strongly against the individuals involved and their deplorable conduct, then placed Ibrahim Abdel Badei in (temporary) detention to persuade him of the futility of breaking rank. But having given assurances that he would not return to the error of his ways, the bastard promptly did so, and we were about to (were about to have to) report him to the manager for a second (and final) time, when the border patrol, in the course of a random search of his person, found him to be in possession of a quantity of hashish, and in accordance with due process and the rule of law we were forced to relinquish him into their custody. The manager of the quarry then gave further proof of his sympathetic nature by ruling that everyone who participated in the purchase and slaughter of the calf, and the burning of refuse afterward, should be exempted from work duties on the day of slaughter itself.
The imam from the town mosque drove in to lead our prayers on the day of slaughter, delivering an eloquent and learned sermon peppered with sayings of the Prophet then joining us for an afternoon redolent with the fragrance of true faith, following which we added his name to the list—along with the names of the local supervisor of sermons and the inspector general of mosques—and pressed him to come back any Friday he chose.
A journalist came escorted by the company’s head of public relations, and took photographs of us (us slaughtering, us skinning, us burning the blood and guts) and two weeks later the publication arrived and inside it we found a photograph of the chairman of the board, then a photograph of the vice-chairman, then one of the director general of quarries, then of the manager of our quarry, then two pages of dense text about the company’s various projects. And then, up in the left-hand corner of one page, a tiny column about us, although the journalist had managed to confuse our story with the quite separate matter of company-led initiatives to combat problems facing the workforce. We didn’t find the photographs we were looking for, and yes, we were a bit downcast, but we looked forward to their appearance in future issues.
Anyway, the manager made up for the disappointment by arranging an interview with the presenter of a famous radio program. And although when we actually spoke to her we were sitting together in the manager’s office, we were surprised to find that, on listening to the broadcast itself, she had in fact encountered us on a street corner in town, leading a calf by its halter, which charming oddity had attracted her attention in the first place. But listening to our voices coming out of the radio that afternoon we were in a forgiving mood, and couldn’t have cared less whether the presenter had met us in the street or over a table laden with grilled meat in a room.
On the radio, the manager had managed to sound far more enthusiastic about the project than us. And another surprise: Abou Awaja’s voice turned out to be both more powerful and more melodious than my own. Indeed, the presenter seemed quite taken by Abou Awaja’s assurances that he slaughtered chickens and duck as well as calves, and that he was a mere twenty years old, which favorable reception prompted a disquisition from Abou Awaja in which he attributed the admiration of his clients to his innate fairness in weighing out his cuts.
Our tale, it seemed, was drawing to its conclusion.
Certain matters had begun to take on an unpalatable hue. Understand that we won’t stand by and allow ourselves to be traduced or accused. There’s not a man in that quarry can deny the improvement that those calves brought into their lives, but if the backbiters will insist on having their say, if they must try to talk us down, well: measures will be taken.
Yes, Mahmoud Ibrahim. You. What’s your problem? Don’t you get a kilo of prime beef for twenty-eight qirsh? All right, sure, you used to get your kilo deboned, but changes have been forced upon us and there’s going to be a quantity of bone in every measure. Perforce. And as for the prices . . . Brother, listen: prices are up in every market in the governorate. If you weren’t so close-minded, such an idiot, you might have noticed. Like, the cost of clover alone has doubled. And anyway, you won’t find better meat than ours anywhere. Wasn’t that you complaining to Rifaei about the meat from town?
The manager proposed a solution, one that he would be happy to abide by himself: anyone who takes a share this week forgoes his cut the next. That way we’d be able to meet all our orders. He, personally, would be taking his share now, but next time? Nothing. Somebody (tiresomely) wanted to know if this solution would be enforced on those special friends of the enterprise who resided outside the quarry, but since the question was posed by an individual without any official capacity (without the capacity for official capacity) we didn’t trouble ourselves to answer. At which three, maybe four, of the assembled workforce began to voice some very regrettable sentiments. The manager heard them perfectly clearly but for a while he held his tongue, and then, breaking the silence, he declared that we had to be men, to be strong; that we had to ignore those who would cast doubt on our abilities. Words that demonstrated his comprehensive and deep understanding of the circumstances in which we were operating. He was sympathetic, courageous, enthusiastic, and we applauded him.
Now the manager was down for three kilos, and Shukri Younes whispered, why didn’t I make it six? I sat back and stared at him. Why? The manager’s hosting a banquet? And Shukri Younes just stared back at me, willing me to use my brain, but I couldn’t work out why the manager’s share should be doubled and moreover, I disapprove of issuing executive orders in whispers. Anyway, I tried to understand, and failed, and then I was called over to help the butcher prepare the orders for the head registrar of the criminal court, the head of the licensing department, and the head of legal affairs on the town council. At which point Abou Awaja approached me and (another whisper) notified me that the fifth columnists were hovering about our current location and looking at us out of the corners of their eyes. When the eyes of that sort of person start looking at you sideways, they give off sparks. Pure evil. What did he think they were up to, I wanted to know. Abou Awaja made no reply.
Shukri Younes said, Leave it. Rifaei Mialawi said, No good ever comes from people like that. And Abou Awaja had raised the cleaver aloft and brought it down, straight through the meat and smacking into the block, when suddenly—despicably—one of the lurkers ran forward and chucked dirt all over us. Over our faces, over the carcass, over the cut meat on the block. The dog had heaped dust on God’s blessing. And he was shouting, too, swearing and cursing our fathers. Asking God to destroy our houses.
We were, I will confess, a little startled. Our hands froze and our tongues froze and the cleaver halted midair, and then the block crashed over and the trestle table collapsed into the refuse. The bastard had bombarded us. Someone would later describe this behavior as a sign we were on the right track; for one pious witness it brought to mind nothing so much as the Prophet’s treatment at the hands of the unbelievers. The trials of Ali Ibn Ali Talib. Even so, I would like to reserve a word of praise here for the efforts made by the manager, the engineers, sundry observers, the border patrol, and the meat distribution crew, to ensure that the perpetrator was identified and held to account for the disruption and disturbance he had caused.
Now it has been alleged that we beat the man about the head and face and fractured his skull, but this is not the place to waste more words on the wretch. Suffice to say he was—he must have been—an agent of one of the butchers in town. The quarry manager was exemplary in his attempts to safeguard the project, conducting a series of (scrupulously fair) interrogations with anyone that the aforementioned perpetrator had named in the course of his own confessions. And he was decisive: seventeen men barred on his orders from partaking of the quarry’s meat and their financial contributions to the project confiscated. As for the perpetrator, his contract was voided and three other workers from the same village were transferred to other quarries.
As for the meat, well, we were able to rescue it, and with it our smiles, and a celebration was held by the light of glowing coals.
For a fortnight after that our operation experienced no problems worth mentioning. Then we had to cancel it for a week because the men were busy righting a crane that had overturned in the storage depot, followed by another week’s delay because the men hadn’t moved quickly enough when a fire broke out by the barrels of diesel.
The manager of the quarry reached an agreement with the border patrol that the latter would safeguard the former from the actions of the troublemakers. The border patrol responded by setting up an observation post next to the slaughter site.
This, the eighth chapter of our story, finds us preparing the cuts destined for our more distinguished friends: Umm Kultoum trilling from a radio belonging to Rifaei Mialawi, while to our right an assortment of felons was clearing out the trench in which the dung and refuse and bones were to be incinerated.
A light wind sprang up from the north and the stars in the clear night sky first glowed, then dimmed, then tucked themselves away behind the hilled horizon line. A border guard on lookout was sitting by the carcass and taking bites from a chunk of grilled liver, and a particularly unrepentant felon, in charge of the flaming blood, was warbling a sad song about a woman white as marble who had taken a lover and betrayed her husband, and then, when her husband had left her and abandoned her to her lover, had betrayed her lover with the husband. Every so often he would break off to wipe away tears brought about by the rising smoke. Then he would tell a joke, and laugh. Would heft his shovel—God curse all kings, their sires and scions—and heap dust and dirt over the smoldering gore, and the dust would be everywhere, filling the air, carpeting the slaughter site, blanketing the meat and the butcher and the border guard and the man at the scales and me.
Then he could do no more. The fire had died and he tossed the shovel aside, and everyone was silent. And when the silence had peaked, only then, the butcher hefted his cleaver and brought it down through the meat. The last of the embers cracked and popped amid rivulets of blood. The radio gave a dying rattle. And when nobody came to its aid, there was quiet.
“Haraq Addamm” first published 1973. From Muhammed Mustajab, Qiyam Winhiyar Aal Mustajab (The Rise and Fall of Clan Mustajab), 1998. © Muhammed Mustajab. By arrangement with the author’s estate. Translation © 2019 by Robin Moger. All rights reserved.
Tradition and modernity clash in this folktale from the Spiti region of the Himalayas, translated by Noor Zaheer.
There is a village named Tabo in the Spiti region of the Himalayas. The village is shaped like a cup, a huge tract of flat land surrounded by high, rocky mountains. The Spiti river cuts this cup-shaped land in half, gushing and rushing for a couple of miles before slowing down to the leisurely gait of a pregnant woman as it reaches the flatlands. The Tabo monastery, known for its wall paintings, is situated above the village, about halfway up the mountain slope.
As autumn ends, herds of deer come down from the high mountains in search of food. Their arrival is the sign that snowfall is just a couple of days away. Grain, vegetables, and firewood are quickly stored indoors, clothes are washed and dried, wine decanted for the last time. Though most of the deer continue their migration to the lower ranges, one herd remains in Tabo because the village and the monastery take care of them.
Once it so happened that an outsider, a certain Deeku, was visiting Tabo. He was a photographer and also seemed interested in some of the ancient artifacts that were held in the thousand-year-old monastery. This Deeku made fun of the traditional customs and Buddhist rituals. He tried to impress the local people with his scientific knowledge, his tape recorder, and his camera. He had managed to persuade one young boy, Sonam, that everything about the village was backward and outdated.
Deeku was planning to leave in a few days when suddenly he heard the sound of gentle hooves in the distance. The sound echoed around the bare slopes of the hills, and the villagers came out with small offerings to welcome the herd of deer. After the ritual welcome, the villagers got busy with the annual chores of preparing for the winter, knowing that it would snow in a day or two. But Deeku’s radio told him that there would be no snowfall for the next four days. The villagers did not believe him, as they trusted the deer, who were said to be the incarnation of Buddha. Along with the usual herd, this time there was a much larger deer. He had long, beautiful horns and large brown eyes, and he kept a close watch over the herd as if he were protecting it.
Sure enough, it snowed heavily two days after the arrival of the deer, and the exit road from Tabo to Kaza was blocked. Deeku was unhappy at this state of affairs, and worried too, because it meant staying in this remote village through the winter. The villagers made fun of his weather forecast but were generous enough to offer him a place to stay and hospitality without charge. After some time, the village faced a shortage of firewood and things to eat. The monastery announced community cooking to save on the wood and food. Naturally, this meant that the community kitchen made food that was simple, like porridge, which did not use much fuel.
Deeku soon tired of this food and was amazed to see that the villagers saved a portion of even this frugal meal to share with the deer. One day, he jokingly remarked that since the deer were being regularly fed, surely they would be eaten soon. He was almost beaten to death for even making such a suggestion. It was the lamas who saved him, but they warned him to treat all life with respect. Deeku refused to understand the close bond between the humans and the deer and their dependence on each other. The deer lived and slept outside in the cold, assuring human beings that winter might be severe but had to be borne and that it would soon give way to spring and summer.
One night, Deeku did not eat any of the coarse meal and he could no longer bear the pangs of hunger that rumbled in his stomach. He persuaded Sonam to accompany him and showed him a gun that he had stowed away in his bag. Sonam asked what he intended to do with the gun, and Deeku told him that he was planning to kill one of the deer. Sonam was reluctant to be part of the hunt, but Deeku convinced him, saying that when the deer had been killed, everyone in the village would eat fresh meat and that they would all be grateful to him for having given them a good meal. Sonam continued to resist and Deeku tried to bully him into submission. Meanwhile, the large deer stepped out of the area where the herd was resting and into range for Deeku to shoot. Deeku grabbed the chance. He took aim and fired. The entire village woke up when they heard the shot and surrounded Deeku and Sonam. The lamas also came down from the monastery.
Fearing for his life, Deeku broke out of the circle of villagers who had surrounded him. He turned in the wrong direction, and though the villagers ran after him, calling to him to stop, he continued running and fell down a precipice. Sonam’s family surrendered him to the monastery for punishment. The head lama announced that Sonam was dead to the village and that no one should have any contact with him. He would be the “living dead”—that was his punishment.
Strange as it may sound, the deer waited until the announcement of the punishment was made and then they moved as one body, walking away from the village and from human beings. They still come down every winter, but they do not venture anywhere near the village. They stay on the other side of the river, where they are often chased and hunted by the leopards, but it seems as if they would rather face the dangers of the forest than trust the human beings again.
Translation © 2019 by Noor Zaheer. All rights reserved.
This witty, irreverent poem by Ahmed Fouad Negm takes aim at the corruption and hypocrisy of people in power.
Your oldies but goodies station.
Coming to you from Cairo and Kordofan
From every Arab country and Japan
From Venezuela and even Iran
And any country open to the rule
Of tourism à l’américaine.
Your good ole radio station.
We present to you, in every language
Plays and movies and all the arts
And press and speeches and televisionings
And mosque sermons, cheese and olives.
We show up in your home uninvited, riding on
Studying and grasping all issues
No matter the occasion, we’re bright and loud
No one listens, and no one cares
Listen or not, it doesn’t matter to us
You see, we’re the types who get paid either way.
Keep to yourself and don’t make us give you a pen
and tongue lashing.
The oldies but goodies station.
It pleases us (even if it doesn’t please you)
On this occasion (to which you haven’t been invited)
To bring to you—and don’t be disgusted—
Sheḥḥāta al-Me‘assal, totally unvarnished.
The Chief Broker of the Developeding World
Educator of Croupiers
Destroyer of Farms, Pawner of Crops
And—may your wishes come true—Commander of
You can’t deny it, can’t say you don’t know him.
Can’t say you’ve never heard of him.
Sheḥḥāta al-Me‘assal, beloved by all hearts
He gets out the stains, the worries and fears,
He tokes, he snorts, he pops pills
You won’t understand him as he blathers on
Understand, or not—we don’t care.
Because you understand, even if you pretend you don’t.
You can deny it and swear it, but I tell you:
Don’t bother. You’ll give us both a headache.
Your place for oldies but goodies.
Because what was hidden has been revealed, clear as
The issues are out for all to see
Stories have been told, even in print
About the smuggling and shirking and about this and
About the influence peddling and deceit
That have appeared in the city like a flood
Sinking boats and inundating fields.
More boats are yet to sink.
And the crisis in housing, and the crisis in public safety.
While some eat well off a hungry world
The place is filled with a stench of conspiracy
And planning treason with the Americans
To slaughter the people and burn down the neighbors
People are chattering about it, so an announcement is in
As the ears have reported to us
For this reason and that, and the other one, too
We present to you a sugar moulid doll and horse
Sheḥḥāta al-Me‘assal, and this announcement.
Your good ole radio station.
In the name of God.
A peace upon you, and salmon and bananas.
As far as everything’s going, it’s all hunky dory.
O Brethren, O Brothe . . .
Here is my announcement, as what follows:
Everything is A-okay.
And all that talk that’s going around is just talk.
Verily, Don’t be impatiently! And don’t worry—
It’s the stuff of small-minded people, and I won’t
Nothing is wrong.
I swear most solemnly, most solemnly thrice,
There is nothing wrong, nothing at all.
And know this: even if there was something
There’s no reason to talk about it or nag me.
And shame on kids
Who go on with their churlishness
Making me pay them attention, forcing me to
By my very nature, I am against big dealers
For the sake of free competition and neighborliness.
But, it is not in my character
To expose the scandal
Of an associate of mine who’s pocketed a few bills.
Everybody puts things away for themselves
The new ones do it, just like the old ones did before.
O People: Zionize yourselves and go with the flow!
Have a good toke and a good evening.
My good Iranian buddy, the Prince Bazramīṭ
Wrote me this year to invite me to a big party,
I accepted, of course, and we went to the bash,
It was the kind of banquet that would never happen twice.
My God—what fried foods, and the puddings!
What stews and platters!
To be frank, my head began spinning
From all the luxury and Persianate trimming.
There, for instance, when you drink second-hand
They serve it with sweetmeats and veal pastrami as
Over there, I never saw anyone envying anyone
Or people insulting anyone
Who happened to purchase two farms on the cheap
Because he was such a smart entrepreneur and
developed them into housing.
After the feast we collected our presents
Silver plated and gold plated, and faience, too.
And of course, my good buddy the Prince Bazramīṭ
told me something
Which I’ll tell you about at some appropriate time.
Some punks will come after me without cause.
Getting up in my face, sitting to judge me.
That is socialist resentment, and I will not tolerate
If they were my sons, I’d ground them at home.
Talk about wheeler-dealers, talk about whoring—
Fake news and tired old slogans!
They want to turn the whole country into chaos!
They have long wanted me to leave the country
But I will not give it up, or let security slip
Not by the police, nor by the public prosecutor.
O People, do me a solid and hang tightly
Stay the course and the money will come.
Eat and drink according to what comes to
Let yourself drown in a sea of slaves and
Paint your life as you like
As brothels and palaces fill the streets.
Say your prayers and thank God
For the blessings of garbage and sewer
In closing, peacely,
And finally, in terms of words,
Necessitarily, calm and harmony must
Or else, and if not, I will smash it to bits, or
I will take all my money and leave this
country at oncely!
A peace upon you, and salmon and
By my authority as president, and father and
Translator's Note: This translation is based on a recording of the November 14, 1977, performance of “Bayān Hāmm” at ‘Ayn Shams University. Negm composed and performed versions of the poem in the first months of 1976. These, along with others, exist in multiple guises across different print and electronic media. The print version closest to this transcription can be found in Aḥmad Fu’ād Najm, al-A‘māl al-kāmila (Damascus: Dar Tlas, 1986), v. 1, 133-58. An earlier print version of the text can be found in Aḥmad Fu’ād Najm, Bayān hāmm: ghanā’ Shaykh Imām; dirāsat al-Ṭāhir Aḥmad Mikkī (Beirut: Dār al-Fārābī, 1976). For more information on Negm’s legal troubles with this poem, see: Ṣalāḥ ‘Īsa, Shā‘ir takdīr al-amn al-‘āmm: al-milaffāt al-qaḍā’īya li-l-shā‘ir Aḥmad Fu’ād Najm (Cairo: Dar al-Shorouk, 2007), 205-42.
Translation © 2019 by Elliott Colla. All rights reserved.
In an excerpt from his twelfth-century taxonomy of morons, Ibn al-Jawzi proves that idiocy is always a current event.
The terms “stupidity” and “nitwittedness” refer to miscalculation in the means and ways to a goal, although with good intentions, as opposed to “insanity,” which refers to a fault in both the means and in the intentions. For the stupid person has good intentions, but the manner he goes about achieving them is rotten, and his plans to reach his goal are faulty, while the insane person has rotten ideas to begin with, and chooses to pursue what should not be chosen. By way of example, I shall tell you about one of the nitwits: Once a bird escaped from a prince, and he commanded that the gate of the city be closed. His intention was to trap the bird!
There was a stupid person named “Hanbaqa” . . . and one of the stupid things that he did was that he put a chain on his neck made of seashells, bones, and pottery, and said, “I’m afraid that I will lose myself, so I did this so that I will know myself by it.”
But that night the necklace was moved from his neck to his brother’s neck, and when he woke up, he said, “O my brother, you are me, so who am I?!”
Al-Ḥusain ibn al-Sumayda‘ al-Anṭākī said, “In Antioch we had an employee from Aleppo who had a stupid secretary. One day two Muslim warships deployed against an enemy sank in the sea, and that secretary conveyed this news on behalf of his employer to Aleppo, writing, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate: Know, O blessed Commander, that two warships, meaning two boats, have foundered at sea, meaning sunk in the high waves, and their passengers were destroyed, meaning perished.”
And the commander of Aleppo replied, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate: Your message reached me, meaning it arrived, and I understood it, meaning I read it. Punish your secretary, meaning slap him, and dismiss him, meaning fire him, for he is an idiot, meaning stupid. Goodbye, meaning this is the end of the letter.”
A nitwit was eating a sheep’s head with his son, whose father was even stupider than he was. And the son said, “Daddy, if you get the ankle bone, will you give it to me to play with?”
“Damn your eyes,” said his father, “It’s not a grilled fish! It doesn’t have ankle bones!”
Translated from Abū al-Faraj ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn ‘Alī ibn al-Jawzī’s Akhbār al-Ḥamqā wa-l-Mughaffalīn, edited by ‘Azīzah Fuwāl (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-‘Arabī, 2005). Translation © 2019 by Emily Selove. All rights reserved.
Despite her family’s disapproval, a young woman pursues her career ambitions and resists monogamy in this piece by Sahar Mandour.
I was twenty-two and my husband, Yussef, was five years older than me. I always liked his first name but not his last, Bazaza, which made me Mrs. Bazaza. Me? Mrs. Bazaza?
His house on the waterfront used to overlook the Raouche rock before someone stuck a building right in the middle of the view. He also had a ton of money before inflation turned it into pennies.
Besides being an architect, he managed a department at the Architecture House and wanted, someday, a daughter to call Tatiana. He’d liked that name since he was a kid, kind of the way I loved the name Steve, except I grew out of it and he didn’t. I mean, sure, Tatiana is a pretty name. I had a friend in high school named Tatiana, so I get it. But Tatiana Bazaza?
To be fair, any name you put in front of "Bazaza" is going to sound ridiculous, even something like “Jade” or “Lynn.” Still, I fought with him about it. Argued with logic and failed. Tried religion and failed. Even suggested either of our moms’ names—and failed.
He always deployed the same dumb tactic when we reached an impasse. He’d say, “But, Vienna, I’ve dreamed about naming my daughter Tatiana forever. I’ve never asked you for anything, have I? Why would you deny me this one request?”
He used this syrupy voice that made it sound like he was about to cry. A grown man. God, I hated that voice.
So I’d go quiet and then say something like, “I guess I can’t refuse your one little request, Yussef,” while reminding myself to never get pregnant.
And I never did.
I used birth control for a while, but then he started nagging me when I went to the gynecologist, so I got off the pill and stopped going to the doctor. And I still didn’t get pregnant, thankfully, though it made me the black sheep of the family—his and mine.
In the eyes of my family, I failed at everything, and his family saw me as the barren wife who’d end the bloodline, but I was thrilled to be infertile.
My brother was happy about it too. He couldn’t wait for me to get a divorce. Ahmad never liked Yussef because my husband had a temper, never went out, and didn’t drink. Their conversations always stalled after some inane chitchat like:
“How are you?”
“Great. And you?”
“Fine, thank God.”
Ahmad never understood why Yussef lived that way. I used visits to my brother as an excuse to sneak out and party without Yussef knowing. Ahmad would pick me up, drop me at the party, and come back and bring me home at the end of the night.
I never kept it a secret from Ahmad that I cheated on Yussef.
When it became clear that I wasn’t going to get pregnant, I started going to a million different doctors, who all said that even if I wasn’t very fertile, it was still possible for me to have a baby. Actually, it was more Yussef’s fault. They figured out that he was entirely sterile. His swimmers were weak, lazy, and slow, not to mention dead on arrival. (Which also pretty much sums up our sex life.)
Their conclusion: Yussef will never have children.
Of course, Yussef didn’t believe them at first. He blew off the first five doctors and eventually, after four years of this, killed himself.
So then I was a widow and clearly very broken up about it. I had to stay at home for forty days, but Ahmad kept helping me sneak out at night, bringing me back at dawn to play at grief. I tried to negotiate the mourning period—I mean, isn’t the widow or divorcée supposed to stay home long enough to know for sure if she’s pregnant? Which, clearly, I couldn’t be. (I smiled a little slyly when I said this.)
My ears are still ringing from the family’s response. “Show some shame! Your husband died! He treated you so well!” and whatever.
Around the same time, my dad’s health declined. He started showing signs of heart problems—probably, if I’m honest, because he worried so much about me. But he was also old.
I love him so much. He’s the reason I’m named Vienna. He’d hum Asmahan’s song to me when I was small and I’d feel like a feather bobbing along to the rhythm. Is there anything more adorable than a father gently singing the song that inspired his daughter’s name? And my mother would get jealous of us—God, I miss those moments.
I’d hug and tease him, and we’d get into debates, but over time his playfulness dried up and he didn’t want hugs or jokes from me. He’d suggest my arguments were superficial. His tone went condescending, like, listen up and I shall bestow a sliver of my great wisdom upon you.
And of course that was super boring. I stopped debating anything with him, which made him feel guilty because he thought he’d raised me wrong. That guilt never really went away. It kept him from me for the rest of his life.
Sometimes I wish I’d finished my degree in psychology. But regret is pointless, and all of it was behind me. Yussef was gone and I was free. My friends stayed in contact and life went on.
I decided to go back to college and finish that degree and was surprised to see how much the psychology major had changed since I’d dropped out. I would have to study hard if I wanted to pass, but I was tired of dedicating myself to one thing, so I gave up on the idea of school to become a cable news anchor instead.
Look at me! I am very beautiful. My name is beautiful. I am so funny.
I invented a resume testifying to my professional experience in news and television. My friends hooked me up with references from companies I’d never heard of before. Ahmad was especially helpful. One of his patients was a prince from the Gulf region and Ahmad asked him for “one little favor.”
So I became a news anchor:
“Good evening, everyone . . . we now go to our reporter on the scene in . . . thank you for watching.”
Then I was the weather girl:
“The temperature will be . . . chance of rain . . . elevations.”
Then the host of a TV show:
“The Lion released a new album . . . the performer Zeezee was caught on film in a catfight with . . . Najwa Karam has retired once again.”
Naturally, I became famous. I had my own show, Romance in the City, where I’d go to all the hot places to party and talk to strangers about their lives. Why were they out? Were they trying to meet people or were they sticking with their friends?
I’d ask them everything—the price of admission and how expensive drinks were in the club, their favorite songs, their college majors. I’d dance with them while interviewing them, sparking a trend in Arabic TV.
Yes, you heard that right: I started a new genre of Arabic television.
On one of my nights out, I decided to change it up and stuck with the same table all night to ask deeper and more detailed questions than usual.
One of the men at the table told me Haifa Wehbe was his favorite singer.
I said, “What’s a line from one of her songs that you think is iconic?”
He sang, “Ouch my boo-boo, kiss my boo-boo, and make it feel better.”
In my early twenties, I’d loved Haifa Wehbe, and I was psyched to hear him bring her up. (My interviewee’s favorite song was played at the club once our interview was over, so I got to hear it again.) He told me the “kiss the boo-boo” song reminded him of his nephew, Zozo, who stood on the living room couch as a kid and sang along while pointing at his own boo-boos.
My interviewee added that his nephew was in a self-discovery phase at the time, and the song helped him a lot.
“You really understand children,” I said.
“Oh, I don’t,” he said. “We took him to a psychiatrist because of his hypersexual behavior. We thought maybe he was turning gay. But the doctor said Haifa was helping Zozo love himself and eventually love girls, so.”
That was an especially good episode and everyone congratulated me for it. My fame grew and I started publishing magazine articles. My name became really well known, but only my first name. "Bazaza" would end my career in a heartbeat. I mean, I know I wouldn’t watch a show hosted by Mrs. Bazaza, so I buried it.
My late husband’s family tried to ruin me because of it. They said, “She killed our son! She rejected our name! The whore!” and whatever.
I went by my maiden name, Al-Shamee, and according to gossip about me, I arrived late to the drug scene. It’s true that I wasn’t addicted to anything, but I did stuff that electrified me at night without exhausting my body. It added to the humor of the situation, I think—a famous thirty-three-year-old woman dancing freely, smiling with the sort of happiness that only blooms deep in the heart.
It’d been three years since my dad died of heart disease, two since my mom died of boredom and loneliness, exacerbated by anemia and sudden complications, a quiet parting.
That was the first real period of sadness in my life. I’d just finished mourning my dad when I lost my mom. I thanked God the griefs combined into one great loss so that I’d only experience it once, but in truth, it all left me terrified to lose Ahmad. He was the only stable and certain thing in my life, the only one who laughed with me and loved hanging out without feeling like he needed to interfere in my life.
I started calling him like five times a day and having dinner with him often, every week sleeping over or having him over. I tried not to lose our parents’ house, but the landlord took us to court and made us give it up. He wanted to raise the rent, a present to himself after our parents died.
I’d had a lot of lovers by that time in my life, and there were always problems with our relationships, like with Ramy—he loved me, but his family couldn’t stand the thought of him marrying a widow. Pierre adored me, but his wife would’ve killed herself if he’d left her. Another, Mazen, emigrated. Then there was Danny, who, let’s say, uncovered my infidelity on the same night he proposed to me (very romantically, might I add).
The Danny story is wild. I did cheat on him, but only early on in our relationship. How was I supposed to know our love was the enduring kind? After I fell for him, I never cheated on him again, except that time in Paris when Danny was away, giving a lecture on Islam and terrorism. And that other time, when he became a recluse because his brother, who was only twenty-five, died in a car crash.
In my defense, I cheated the first time because I thought he was cheating on me. I was very drunk and it was a one-night stand. The second time was because I was too empathetic—I didn’t know what to do with all that pain. I also didn’t know what to do with Danny in that awful time, but I had to do something. So I did.
We broke up on a Friday night. He’d asked me to reserve the evening for us to be together, alone, because he had this secretive plan that would be unveiled step by step throughout the night. He insisted on romance—he blindfolded me with a red satin cloth for the half-hour car ride. I wore my sexiest purple dress and my highest heels, sultry but not slutty. (Maybe a little slutty across the chest and waist, but those heels work wonders, seeing as I’m already pretty tall.)
My hair was loose over my shoulders, a casual look that’d taken all afternoon at the hairdresser to achieve. I’d said, “Make it look beautiful but unstyled.” I picked complementary pale green eye shadow, and when I was done, I looked and felt irresistible, a natural bombshell.
Danny took off the blindfold and I found myself standing in front of the mountain cable car in Jounieh. He laughed at my discomfort—my clothes weren’t the best for riding a cable car—and I wished I could find it funny, too.
As we glided above the Lebanese landscape, he enfolded me in his arms and kissed me deeply. I’ll remember that kiss for as long as I live.
We talked about my outfit and hair, how good I looked, and his work. When the ride ended, he blindfolded me to preserve the surprise, and we started the two-hour drive to the next destination. He tried to make the drive less boring with wine and conversation, and of course he played some songs, mostly Julio Iglesias, Dalida, and Hany Shaker. (I hate Hany Shaker.)
I opened my eyes after we arrived to see Tyre Beach. My feet sank into the sand with every step toward a table loaded with fish, appetizing side dishes, and a bottle of wine from 1980.
Overwhelmed, I almost cried. He slid a fish onto my plate and when I picked apart the flesh, I found a ring inside. It was unbearably cute, and then I cried for real.
I said yes and we laughed through the night. Only at dawn, drowsy, did I start to fall asleep.
The alcohol hit me on the drive back. I dreamed of a wedding by the sea, where a pink elephant picked me up and brought me to a paradise so sublime I didn’t hear my phone ringing in real life. It was Ahmad, too curious about how my evening had gone to wait until I called him. (He worked the night shift at the hospital.)
Danny wanted to know who would call me so late at night (or early in the day, depending on how you look at it). He dug in my purse for my phone. Relieved to find it was my brother calling, he told Ahmad I was “passed out drunk” in the passenger seat and they laughed before hanging up. But Danny is the jealous type. He doesn’t trust news anchors—or himself, either.
I heard this story later from people who heard it from him.
He pulled over to the side of the road to go through my text messages, sent and received. He was thrilled because I don’t let anyone touch my phone, especially not my lovers. Danny used to say he liked that about me, that I acted like a cute little baby. He didn’t think I was a cute baby after he read those messages and compared the dates they were sent to when we started our relationship.
There was one, especially, that exposed my unfaithfulness. I hadn’t deleted it because, aside from some jokes Ahmad had sent me, it was the best message I’d ever gotten, a relic of a relationship that felt suspended in time. Relationships like those remained suspended in time for both parties, who murmur sweet nothings in the morning about their time together, feel nostalgic about their separation, and then feel nothing at all.
I never expected one day to read from Danny the sort of message I’d receive from a random lover. No husband or fiancé would write to his bride what this man (Patrick? No, Jim, or maybe Gisele—no, he was a man, Je-something. Jeal!) wrote to me in French:
“Vienna, a peaceful life resides in the flavor of your body. I live fully when I touch you. Better to welcome death than to live in your absence.”
Imagine! One reads such words in novels, wishing to be the one addressed. And these words were for me, Vienna. How could I possibly delete such a message, for God’s sake?
Anyway, in short, Danny read my messages and (as others told me later) drove the car in a blind rage. I was impossible to wake, so he parked and carried me to my brother’s front door, dumping me like a sack of potatoes (batata, not Bazaza).
Danny took off and I don’t remember a single moment of it—not even how long I was asleep on the doorstep before my brother came home from his shift. I woke up in bed, Ahmad smiling at me as he relayed the news ending that chapter in my life. He took the day off so we could triage at home. We laughed and tried to analyze the psychological and sociological factors at work that would drive Danny to dump me on my brother’s stoop instead of my own.
© Sahar Mandour. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Nicole Fares and Sarah Ramey. All rights reserved.
In this short play by Wajdi al-Ahdal, the colonel’s wedding night is hijacked by an assassination attempt and a case—or two—of mistaken identity.
Translator’s Note: Wajdi al-Ahdal’s The Colonel's Wedding won first prize for scriptwriting at the Ninth Arab Youth Theatre Festival in Alexandria in 1997. At that time, its central trope—the struggle to consummate, or to avoid consummating, a marriage between two characters who are deceiving each other about their true identities—would have been obvious to Yemeni audiences as a metaphor for the deeply flawed reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990. Similarly, the play’s military allusions would have recalled the South’s subsequent attempt to re-secede, culminating in the civil war of 1994 and the brutal invasion of Aden, the South's former capital.
But the play, like much of al-Ahdal’s work, also grapples with issues that remain relevant to Yemen and around the world today, like corruption at the highest echelons of national authority; the immunity of the powerful from prosecution for criminal behavior; and the fragility of the state in the face of unscrupulous coalitions determined to enrich themselves by any means available to them.
ASKAR, an army colonel
AFAF, daughter of a high-ranking government official
HATEM, the colonel’s bodyguard
NAWAL, AFAF’s personal assistant
Set: a darkened bedroom. Left, a sumptuous bed with red sheets, on which sit a tape recorder and speakers. Just above the bed, two rifles hang vertically on the wall, barrels pointed downward. Next to the bed, a small nightstand. Right, the bedroom door. Center, a coatrack; an imposing military uniform adorned with medals and red ribbons hangs on the rack, with an army cap above it and a long military coat next to it. Next to these, a corkboard, with photographs of varying sizes pinned to it, depicting around twenty people. Three small arrows, the kind used to play darts, protrude from three of the photos attached to the corkboard.
A traditional Yemeni wedding song plays, faintly at first but gradually increasing in volume.
SINGER Welcome, welcome to Bader Al-Tamam![*]
In the dark of night there shone a crescent moon (sound of trilling and ululation)
Dance and sing, girls, and you’ll win a handsome groom (sound of heavy gunfire)
All blessings on the bride! Keep envy and evil from her! (both sounds together: festive trills and intermittent gunfire)
The rams are on their way to be slaughtered at Al-Azhar (the sound of loud explosions rattles the bedroom walls)
The rams are on their way to be slaughtered—(the singer screams in panic. A muffled clamor, then complete silence).
The bedroom door opens slowly and carefully, and a slender column of light seeps into the room. A man in his mid-thirties enters. He is wearing dark glasses and an elegant black suit. He crosses to the left and turns on the lights, which flood the room with brightness.
MAN IN HIS THIRTIES Afaf . . . Afaf . . . (raises his voice, yelling) Afaf, come here!
A young woman wearing a white wedding dress runs in and closes the door quickly, as if being chased by a monster. She fixes her gaze on the door, her eyes wide open and glinting with fear. Her chest rises and falls heavily, her gasping breath audible from afar.
COLONEL Why are you so frightened? (lights a cigarette)
AFAF Are you kidding? What kind of question is that—and coming from you! You’re supposed to be the great military officer! (wipes perspiration from her brow with a white handkerchief) Did you not hear those explosions?
COLONEL (laughs) Oh, baby, those are just my friends—army officers demonstrating how happy they are that we’re getting married.
AFAF With hand grenades? I was so terrified I nearly fainted!
COLONEL Stun grenades don’t do any real damage (grins broadly). You’ll have to forgive them—they’re just excited for us, and this is how they celebrate. It’s festive, even if it’s a bit much (walks over to the board and picks up a dart). And in any case, you should be grateful that I didn’t allow them to come in their tanks!
AFAF (under her breath) Goddamnit, how did I let myself get dragged into this mess? (The walls of the room shudder at the sound of a massive explosion. Afaf falls to her knees and cries out in fear) What was that?
COLONEL (throwing darts at the “Most Wanted” photos, clearly enjoying himself) That’s an armor-piercing RPG, and as noted on the wedding agenda, that shell is the signal for disengagement. In other words, we’ve just let our guests know it’s time for them to leave.
AFAF (stands up, crosses her arms, and stares angrily at him) Are you trying to tell me you’re deliberately making our wedding look like some military maneuver?
COLONEL (speaks while aiming darts with great precision) I am a colonel in the army, and I thought it would be fitting for our wedding to end with a bang. To fire me up for—
She flashes him a look; he meets her eyes for a moment but then looks away, embarrassed. Afaf shakes her head as if in disbelief, her mouth wide. A pregnant pause, fraught with tension. Then Afaf purses her lips, turns her head, and approaches the dartboard.
AFAF Who are the people in these photos?
COLONEL (pauses mid-aim) Those are our most wanted criminals.
AFAF (looks more closely at the photos) Really? Why are you throwing darts at them?
COLONEL I’m working on my aim, and those guys help keep me motivated.
AFAF (walks around him, eyeing him closely) This game is giving me a bad impression of you.
COLONEL (smiles, keeps playing) That’s great. What sort of bad impression, exactly?
AFAF (stops in front of him, looks him in the eye) I'll tell you, but promise me you won’t get angry.
COLONEL I promise. Go ahead, say it.
AFAF I think you’re aggressive, frankly, and that you enjoy violence.
COLONEL (moves her out of his way brusquely, and goes back to throwing darts) Thank you.
AFAF Thanks for what? Those are bad qualities, frightening qualities. They make me afraid of you.
COLONEL So my prayers have been answered.
AFAF You mean you want me to be afraid?
COLONEL That’s right—I like my women that way.
AFAF Are you are serious? Because unless you’re kidding . . . (walks away from him and grabs the doorknob, as though gesturing for him to leave) you’re sadistic. You’re sick in the head. You think it’s fun to torture people. Which explains why you’ve organized this whole military display—because you figured you’d enjoy watching me scream and shudder. Every bone in my body is shaking with shock at the horror and the din!
COLONEL (indifferently) It’s good you’re seeing who I really am, right from our first night together. That way you’ll never be disappointed.
Afaf opens her mouth, searching for a response, but remains silent, except for a heavy sigh. She perches on the bed and examines the tape recorder. When she presses the play button, soothing music plays, slowly diminishing the tension.
AFAF (biting her lower lip) Darling.
AFAF (poses seductively on the bed) Shall I turn off the lights?
AFAF (surprised) Why not?
COLONEL (turns and the dart falls from his hand. He bends down to pick it up.) Sorry, but I can’t see my targets without the lights. How am I supposed to aim in the dark? (laughs curtly, throws dart).
AFAF (looking down at herself, smoothing her dress, with mounting excitement) Great colonel—
AFAF Why don’t we entertain ourselves?
COLONEL Entertain ourselves how? You want to play “bride and groom” games?
AFAF No—get those dirty thoughts out of your head! Come over here, and I’ll explain what I have in mind.
COLONEL (suspiciously) Just innocent entertainment?
AFAF (crosses her legs, rests her hand on her thigh) Of course! Now come over here!
COLONEL (sticks the darts in the corkboard) Fine . . . but (approaches the bed, cautiously) but . . . (sits on the edge of the bed, visibly tense) Don’t you . . . I . . . I’m warning you . . . I—
AFAF You what?
COLONEL (gulps and blushes, suddenly shy) I . . . Listen, you shouldn’t be afraid of me . . . Um, what was the entertainment you were talking about?
AFAF Ahhh, I was thinking we should tell each other about our dreams. You tell me the most wonderful dream you’ve ever had, and I’ll tell you mine.
COLONEL But I’ve had so many dreams.
AFAF Pick one—the best, the most beautiful one!
COLONEL All right. But on one condition.
AFAF (sweetly) What condition?
COLONEL Nothing too sexy.
AFAF (exhales, irritated) I don’t have the patience for this.
AFAF (clasps her hands, petulant) Fine, go ahead. You first—tell me your smarmy dream. I mean “charming.” Your charming dream.
COLONEL (bows slightly to her, as though responding to a command from a superior) At your service. (happily, as though recalling a fond memory) About three years ago, I had a dream that I was a passenger on a cruise ship docked in the Fiji Islands. We were on a lush green island with beautiful tropical weather . . . (lights fade slowly to blackout)
We hear the roar of ocean waves, the cries of seagulls, and the sound of a ship’s horn.
The lights come up slowly, and rhythmic music plays.
Four young women enter carrying a throne, which they place midstage. A man enters, masked, wearing a regal robe and a golden crown, and holding a scepter adorned with precious jewels. He sits on the throne. The young women begin to dance. The colonel joins the women, dancing with them.
After a short time, the colonel approaches the king and shoots him in the head. The dancers scream in shock and grief. The music stops.
The colonel takes the crown and places it on his own head. He pulls the king’s corpse off the throne and throws it to the ground. He sits on the throne, holding the scepter, and rests his feet on the king's body.
He points his pistol threateningly at an unseen target, and the music comes back on. Then he aims toward the dancers, who begin to dance again.
Lights fade. We hear the roar of ocean waves, the cries of seagulls and the sound of a ship’s horn.
Lights come up slowly.
COLONEL Oh, what a fantastic dream! It felt like I spent ten years there, in total happiness, ruling those lush, gorgeous islands, reveling in women, wealth, and absolute power.
AFAF My dear colonel, my stallion, would you mind if I try to interpret your dream in psychological terms?
COLONEL I don’t mind at all. Proceed. And take your time.
AFAF Your dream is a reflection of the evil urges that you repress, like your desire to act violently toward others. Your subconscious mind burns for revenge against society, so your dream shows you the fulfillment of your urge to destroy things that are good and just and humane. Your dream reveals your twisted soul, and its secret desire to sabotage people’s normal existence, and to sow seeds of conflict among different parts of society. Your dream demonstrates that there’s a dangerous criminal lurking in the deep recesses of your psyche.
COLONEL (smiling) What have I done to deserve such praise?
AFAF (stares at him with disgust) What the—I don’t think you’ve heard what I’m saying. Let me boil it down for you: I think you’re a criminal. One hundred percent, a criminal.
COLONEL No, my naive little bird—I am a colonel. When people call me a criminal, I take it as a compliment. I’m proud of it—proud as a peacock. (paces, thoughtfully) You must be able to see how calling me a criminal is like a promotion. Like brigadier general.
AFAF I don’t feel proud to have a criminal for a husband.
COLONEL I, on the contrary, am quite proud to have a criminal for a wife.
AFAF (stunned) I—I don’t know what to say to that. Are you on drugs? You must be either drunk or high, because no one in his right mind would spout this sort of nonsense. (comes close to him, to smell his breath)
COLONEL (backs away from her) Please, don’t get so close. You’re getting on my nerves.
AFAF (follows him, tries to hold on to him) I just want to smell your breath. I want to know what you’re using.
COLONEL (retreats to a corner) Request for proximity denied. (glances at his watch) It’s time for you to live up to your part of the deal. I told you my dream. Now it’s your turn.
AFAF I don’t know what to tell you. I feel like you’re trying to run away from me, my sweet little colonel.
COLONEL Don’t try to get out of it. Tell me your favorite dream. Now.
AFAF (rests her chin on her hand) Give me a minute to remember it . . . Right . . . A couple of years ago, I had a dream that I was living in the Fiji Islands. I was the wife of the ruler.
COLONEL (skeptically) What a bizarre coincidence—I had a dream about Fiji, and you did too. And I dreamed I became the ruler, and you dreamed you were the ruler’s wife . . .
AFAF Look, buddy, this is my dream and I’m free to talk about it. So listen and don’t interrupt me. (He covers his mouth with his hand, as though promising not to speak.) I dreamed I was living a life of pleasure, comfort, and extravagance. I was spending money without ever having to think about it . . . (lights down slowly)
Festive sounds of music, fireworks. Lights up gradually. Four girls carry in a couch and place it midstage. Afaf stretches out on it. The girls place a crown of gold on her head and dance around her.
AFAF I am the First Lady. My days are filled with parties, dancing, and singing. And when the people protest (sounds of an angry crowd chanting), I just give them one of my dancing girls. (points to one of the young women. The others seize her. She resists, but they drag her offstage.) They’ll tear her to pieces, because they think she’s the wife of the ruler. They think she’s me. (laughs)
The dancing continues; the angry crowd screams again, and another dancer is sacrificed. This series of events is repeated until Afaf remains alone.
The music stops, and the lights go out.
AFAF What do you think of my dream, my splendid colonel?
COLONEL You—in your dream, you sacrificed those poor girls to save your own skin. It’s too vile a dream for a woman like you to have. Your face is like an angel’s—there’s no way there could be thoughts like these behind it.
AFAF My dream contains a message for you. Did you not understand it?
COLONEL (turns and paces with great anxiety) I don’t know what message you’re talking about. But I need you to do me a favor.
AFAF Just ask.
COLONEL My dream has an ending I didn’t share with you. Can I tell you the rest?
AFAF The night is ours, colonel, and you’re my knight in shining armor. Do as you like!
Lights brighten gradually throughout the scene.
The four girls enter and dance to the music. A soldier enters, carrying the throne, which he places midstage. He stands at attention next to it.
The colonel approaches, dressed in his royal robes, wearing the crown and carrying the scepter. The soldier salutes. The colonel sits down and crosses his legs, enjoying the music and dance. The soldier stands guard just behind the colonel.
Suddenly we hear the sound of an exploding bomb. The music stops, the lights flicker, the colonel falls from the throne, the dancers drop to the floor. Only the soldier remains upright.
Hearing the sound of gunfire, the soldier takes up a protective stance in front of his ruler, who is still lying on the ground. The gunfire stops and the colonel stands up. He takes off his royal cape and drapes it over the soldier. He takes the crown from his head and puts it on the soldier's. Then he hands him the scepter and seats him on the throne.
Again the sound of gunfire, much heavier than before. The colonel gets down on the ground, crawls toward the bed, and hides beneath it.
The high, screeching sound of an explosive shell. The soldier dies, as do the young women, all killed by the shell.
The lights fade to black as the gunfire continues.
Bright light. The colonel comes out from under the bed.
COLONEL So . . . what do you think of my dream?
AFAF What do I think? I think you’re an asshole. You just abandon the people you rule at the first hint of danger? Your bodyguard did his duty; he acted with honor. Why didn’t you?
COLONEL (laughs) You’re really taking this seriously. It was just a dream!
AFAF (sits and fixes her gaze on him) No. Your dream wasn’t just a dream. I feel like . . . like you’re trying to tell me a secret. Like you want to send me messages in code, through your dream. It’s clever.
COLONEL (throws a dart at the corkboard, misses by a mile, grunts) Don’t let your imagination run wild. If you do, you’ll spend your whole life tormented by doubts and little voices in your head.
AFAF (falls silent. Fidgets, watches the colonel, and sighs) So . . . are you just going to keep playing?
COLONEL (aims again, with his back to Afaf) I’m not playing.
AFAF What are you doing, then?
COLONEL I’m thinking.
AFAF What are you thinking about?
COLONEL (smiles): The same thing you’re thinking about.
AFAF (with a coy laugh) That’s good. Why don’t you come over here, so we can think together, out loud?
COLONEL No, sorry—the army taught me to keep things top secret. Confidential.
AFAF (sighs) Hmmm . . . I may have misjudged you—perhaps I’ve been too hasty, assumed too much. But now I’m getting a better read on your personality.
COLONEL I hope one day you’ll understand me completely, little lamb.
AFAF (gets up from the bed, goes toward him) I think I should play with you. It’ll help bring down the psychological barrier between us.
COLONEL (eyes her as she approaches. Holds up a dart, threateningly, as though to throw it at her if she comes any closer) Retreat. Back to where you were. I’ll be the one to come to you . . . once I’m through.
AFAF (retreats, puts her hand on the bedpost) Through with what? Your game?
COLONEL No—I told you, I’m thinking. (wipes his brow with the sleeve of his jacket) I’m devising my strategy.
AFAF What strategy?
COLONEL (turns his back on her, throws a dart) For the . . . invasion.
AFAF The invasion?!? (sits on the bed, uneasy) Our relationship isn’t a guerrilla war! You don’t need a strategy, you’re not invading. If it helps, I’ll wave a white flag. I surrender, unconditionally.
COLONEL If I weren’t such an experienced soldier, I’d believe you. But I can sense an ambush.
AFAF (sighs audibly, exasperated) Fine. Have a good night. (lies down, covers herself with the red coverlet)
COLONEL (lets out a sigh of relief) Good night to you too. (Sticks the darts in the corkboard and tries to tiptoe out of the room)
AFAF (sits up) Where are you going, Colonel?
COLONEL (dances around, as though he needs to pee) Um, I need to use the bathroom.
AFAF Shall I come with you? Do you need a hand?
COLONEL (panicked) No! And don’t go snooping around here while I’m away.
The colonel leaves the room, closing the door behind him. Afaf lies down again, but feels something unusual under her pillow. She lifts up the pillow and finds a revolver. Examining it, she realizes it is loaded. Her expression changes; she clearly has had an idea. She gets up quickly, strides over to the light switch, and turns off the lights. The colonel opens the door and pokes his head through.
COLONEL (speaking in a low voice) Afaf . . . Are you asleep? (She does not respond.) That’s better. (He shuts the door slowly, but just before it closes, Afaf taps on the bedroom wall. He freezes, his hand on the knob, and listens. Afaf taps again, louder this time) Afaf . . . Are you making that noise?
The colonel enters and moves toward the light switch. As he turns the lights on, he feels the barrel of the gun pressed against the side of his head. Right next to him, her back pressed against the wall, Afaf looks at him seductively.
AFAF If you don’t obey my orders, I’ll be forced to shoot you.
COLONEL (raises his hands in surrender) Damn. Who’d have guessed that my wedding night would end like this—with me a prisoner!
AFAF (in a brusque military tone) Face left.
COLONEL (obeys) Exactly the ambush I was afraid of!
AFAF Forward march! (The colonel takes a few steps forward. Afaf prods him till he reaches the bed) Steady . . . At ease . . . Steady . . . Lie down!
COLONEL I’m truly sorry, but that’s the one order I can’t carry out.
AFAF Why not? Did you tear a hole in the back of your pants during the wedding ceremony?
COLONEL Don’t joke. I won’t sleep with you. My honor as an officer is at stake.
AFAF That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Now get into bed and let me get on with it.
COLONEL Before I do, there’s something I must confess.
AFAF (raises an eyebrow) What must you confess?
COLONEL I can’t perform. And I don’t love you.
AFAF (starts to lose her grip on the pistol. Thinks for a moment, then digs the barrel into his back, angrily) Then why did you marry me?
COLONEL (indifferently) Because everyone gets married.
AFAF (disgusted) So you don’t need me—you just want to conform to social expectations?
COLONEL (sighs with relief) Exactly . . . So you have understood what I’ve been trying to tell you this whole time.
AFAF (walks around him, watching him with disgust) So I’m just a mask—you’re just using me to cover up your inadequacies? Is that what you’re telling me?
COLONEL (looks down, as if embarrassed) The truth leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. But I’ve consulted doctors about it, and I’m confident that they’ll be able to solve the problem soon.
AFAF (walks away from him slowly, upstage) Is this why you’ve been acting so weird? You thought if you frightened me, that would distract me from your . . . problem?
COLONEL (sighs) Yeah, but my strategy failed. Instead of sowing terror and doubt in your heart, I’ve just made you feel pity for me.
AFAF You think I’ve taken pity on you?!? Absolutely not. I loathe you, more than I’ve ever loathed anyone in my entire life!
COLONEL Pity or contempt—look them both up in a woman’s dictionary and you’ll find their meanings are exactly the same.
AFAF That’s a nasty lie . . . Where’s the phone?
COLONEL In the next room. Why? Who are you calling?
AFAF (walks backward, carefully, toward the door) None of your business, you impotent jerk.
COLONEL (sees that she has opened the door and is about to leave) If you’re thinking of calling your father, I’d advise against it.
AFAF (looks at him with scorn) Save your advice for the doctors who can’t figure out what’s wrong with you.
COLONEL My dear, if people learn that you went back to your family's house on our first night, you know what they’ll think: that I discovered you weren’t a virgin. (shakes his head as though in sympathy, as she gazes at him, stunned)
AFAF (slams the door violently) Shut up, you piece of garbage! (tosses the gun aside, covers her face with her hands, and sobs)
COLONEL (sits on the edge of the bed and lights a cigarette) If you think crying is going to cure my . . . problem, you’re wrong.
AFAF Goddamn you. (walks over to the bed, perches atop her pillow) You should douse yourself in kerosene and set yourself on fire. Rid the world of you.
COLONEL I had the same idea.
AFAF (looks into his eyes, interested) Have you really thought about setting yourself on fire?
COLONEL No, but I’ve thought about setting you on fire (laughs).
AFAF (punches him in the back) Wretch. And put out that cigarette. The smell is unbearable.
COLONEL OK, OK. (puts out the cigarette and stares at the bedroom wall).
AFAF (watching him, perplexed) Hey! Why are you staring like that at the wall? It’s like you’ve never seen it before.
COLONEL I’m thinking, Afaf, my dear—I’m thinking.
AFAF (leans over and grabs him) You’re only thinking about one thing: how to avoid looking in my eyes!
COLONEL (moves away, still sitting on the bed) I’m afraid you’re like the sun: staring at you could make me go blind.
AFAF (moves toward him again) I swear, I think that’s the first true thing you’ve ever said to me. (The colonel stands up, alarmed. He faces the audience; his lips move in confusion, as though he is trying to say something.) You’re in love with me.
COLONEL (struggling to control his emotions) No.
AFAF You love me, but you’re resisting it. (stands up, walks over to him)
COLONEL (sotto voce) This is a disaster. (moves away from her) So tell me—what did you study at the university? What was your major?
AFAF Why are you trying to change the subject?
COLONEL I’m not changing the subject. I just want to know something about the woman standing in front of me.
AFAF That makes no sense. How could you have married me without knowing the most basic facts about me?
COLONEL Your father’s to blame for that—he’s still living in the Dark Ages. Wouldn’t even let me see your face. Not once. How could I have learned anything about you?
AFAF You’re a colonel in the army. You could easily have gotten information on me.
COLONEL (paces aimlessly around the room, trying to control his anxiety) I admit I thought about it, but your father’s a powerful member of the government. If he’d ever gotten wind of the fact that I was spying on his daughter, he’d have hit me where it counts. Everyone knows he’s malicious and won’t let go of a grudge.
AFAF (angrily) My father is a successful man, so of course envious men like you try to slander him.
COLONEL That’s an empty defense. What excuse can you make for him marrying you off to a man you’ve never seen, and know nothing about? (She sits down on the edge of the bed, silent.) Nothing to say to that? Your father told me how he treated you when you begged him to at least show you a picture of me. (walks toward her, raises his voice) He brought out a blank piece of paper, drew a bird and two stars on it, and told you (imitates the father’s voice) “Look, there’s your future husband.” Isn’t that right? (Afaf stretches out on the bed and pulls the coverlet over her head. He chuckles.) Nighty-night! And by the way—I know you graduated with a degree in psychology. (Afaf pulls the coverlet down, revealing her face.) Ha! The price of a girl with a degree is pretty cheap these days!
AFAF (disturbed) What are you talking about, you moron?
COLONEL (smiling sarcastically) Hmmm, how to put this? You’re perishable merchandise, and your vendor was worried about your expiration date. So we were able to make a deal fast, your father and I. One phone call was all it took.
AFAF (doesn’t believe him) You clearly suffer from some mental illness.
COLONEL (in a firm, serious tone) Nope. I know you’ve studied psychology and want to analyze me, but I’m just giving you the facts, pure and simple: it took a grand total of three phone calls for your father and me to come to an agreement on every last detail of your marriage to me. (Afaf shakes her head in denial) At this point, I’m sure you see how little you mean to anyone.
AFAF (weeps) Are you throwing it in my face that I had to marry you?
COLONEL (puts his face right in front of hers, as if to provoke her) Like you threw it in my face that I’m impotent.
AFAF (stares at his crotch) Except you’re not! (This startles the colonel, who turns his back on her in confusion.) Why turn your back on me? What are you afraid of? Why spend all this time jumping around from one topic to the next, trying to ensure that we don’t get close to each other? If you have some sort of phobia, tell me what it is and maybe I can help you. (He puts on his military coat, which comes down to his knees.) And what the—why are you putting your coat on? Planning to go out?
COLONEL (trying to avoid her gaze) No, I’m just a little cold.
AFAF (sweetly, coaxing) If you’re cold, why don’t you stretch out here on the bed, and warm yourself up under this nice thick quilt? Come on, take off your coat and some of those clothes, and come over here.
COLONEL (turns his back on her again, suppressing a nervous laugh) You’re a clever little witch.
AFAF (with a broad smile) And you’re trying to keep a secret from me—but I promise you, it won’t take me long to figure out what it is. Come over here.
COLONEL (trying to hide his anxiety) Give me just a minute.
AFAF Never in my life have I seen a colonel disobey so many orders. (gets up, picks up the gun, and aims it at the colonel) Come here, and don’t try any funny stuff. (She pokes him in the back with the gun, and he puts his hands up, as though by reflex. He takes a few steps back to the bed, until he is standing beside her. She prods him with the pistol) Come on!
COLONEL Damn it, what am I doing?
AFAF (jabs him again with the gun) Strip down.
COLONEL No—I can’t. Honestly—I’m a very shy man.
AFAF What if I turn the lights off? (moves toward the light switch)
COLONEL (with an unexpected degree of fright) No! I . . . I’m also terrified of the dark.
AFAF Then I’m afraid we have no choice, Colonel. Come on, clothes off. (She presses the pistol into his back and he squirms.)
COLONEL All right, all right. Can you just give me five minutes?
AFAF What for? You need to do some warm-up exercises?
COLONEL No . . . but (takes a book out of a drawer in the nightstand) I have a book here that provides tips about what to do on your wedding night, and I just want to skim through it again. I’ll be quick.
AFAF Oh for God’s sake. You’re already in the middle of this exam—if you pull out a book now, you’ll be cheating.
COLONEL Yeah, I know, but (sweating profusely; pulls a handkerchief out of his coat pocket and wipes his forehead) if I don’t do at least a quick review of the information, I’ll go blank when I see the . . . when they pass out the exam!
AFAF (tries not to laugh) All right then, reread your lessons. Maybe they’ll remind you what “virility” means.
The colonel pages through the book quickly and nervously, mumbling to himself in a low voice. Afaf paces in a circle around the bed, then sits by her pillow, still training the gun on him.
AFAF (harshly) Sit there and reread quietly. You’re getting on my nerves!
COLONEL Sorry. But don’t interrupt me; it breaks my concentration.
AFAF (fiddles a bit with the gun, then looks at her watch, irritated) Your five minutes are up.
COLONEL All right . . . Will you allow me to take just a short walk, to the next room?
AFAF No. If you leave this room, it’ll be over my dead body.
COLONEL But there’s an important text there that I need to consult before I take any further action. Otherwise, I might do something I’ll regret.
AFAF You’d spend days, years, poring over your “texts” . . . While you’re at it, why don’t you write a dissertation on how you manage to keep putting me off?
COLONEL (the ghost of a smile on his lips) That’s a great suggestion.
AFAF (pulling the book out of his hand) Arrrgh! I’ve been much more patient with you than you deserve.
COLONEL OK—could you give me just one minute (pulls a pile of papers, held together with a paper clip, out of the nightstand drawer) to quickly skim through this summary?
Afaf lets out a cry of intense distress. She rips the papers out of his hand and tears them into pieces, then looks into the drawer, where she finds more instruction booklets.
AFAF All these manuals?!? (picks them up and throws them into a corner of the room, then strides over to him and digs the gun into him) This time, I swear, I’m going to shoot—you’ve hit my very last nerve. I gave you an order. Follow it. Now.
COLONEL Easy . . . easy, my love . . . Remember, you haven’t figured out the secret yet. Aren’t you dying to know what it is?
AFAF Liar. There’s no secret here except the mystery of your lack of . . . a spine.
COLONEL Oh, there’s a secret. A dangerous secret. A secret that forced me to invent all of these silly tricks, just to keep me from responding to you.
AFAF (removes the pistol from his back) I bet this “secret” is just another one of your tricks, but what difference does it make? Go ahead, I’m listening, you weirdo.
COLONEL (breathes a sigh of relief) Five months ago, my love, I got a tip-off about the location of a gang of thugs who were blocking roads. They were near our camp, and our security forces weren’t able to take care of them, so I had to send a battalion of my soldiers to attack the gang on their turf. We killed two and captured nine of them, but the rest escaped. Unfortunately, the gang turned out to be much stronger than we realized. After just a short time they busted the nine prisoners out of our camp prison. They killed a guard, and then assassinated the officer who led the operation. And now they’re trying to take me out.
AFAF I don’t believe it. Your men killed two of theirs, and they killed two of yours. Problem solved. It was a blood debt, but now the score is settled.
COLONEL They used to think like that, but lately they’ve been watching Hollywood blockbusters and it’s gone to their heads.
AFAF So you’re saying I could be a widow any day now?
COLONEL You could become a widow on your wedding night.
AFAF Are you serious? Are you telling me the truth?
COLONEL I thought it was better for you not to know that members of an armed gang were planning to assassinate me during the wedding ceremony.
AFAF You are seriously demented.
COLONEL No, I’m not. I was given top secret information, just three days before our wedding date, that the gang had planned to assassinate me during the wedding. I did everything I could to convince your father to push back the date of the ceremony, so that I could take additional precautions and countermeasures. He investigated the matter, but then absolutely refused to delay the wedding—which forced me to take steps that I would never have imagined.
AFAF You mean those crowds of soldiers and their weapons?
COLONEL No, my love. I’ve taken steps to disguise myself from this gang that would never even cross your mind.
AFAF Tell me what you mean, and fast—this is making my head spin!
The deep voice of a man issuing orders.
COLONEL Oh, thank God. Do you know whose voice we hear, roaring out there?
COLONEL That's your husband. (calls) Colonel, sir! (bows to Afaf politely) Excuse me, ma’am.
Afaf puts her hand over her mouth, trying to rein in her astonishment. The decoy colonel takes off the military coat and hangs it up, heads toward the door and opens it, and then stands at attention, prepared to salute. The real colonel can be heard speaking outside the room.
COLONEL’S VOICE They’re in my grasp. And when I get through with them, they’ll wish they’d never been born.
The real Colonel enters, wearing an elegant black suit. He is around fifty years old.
COLONEL (addressing the decoy colonel, who is his bodyguard): Ah, Hatem. Is everything all right?
HATEM Sir, yes sir!
COLONEL And you didn’t lay a hand on her with corrupt intent? Or even with virtuous intent?
HATEM If my actions had in any way transgressed the boundaries of my mission, I would dispatch myself on the spot, sir.
COLONEL (as though a dark cloud of anxiety has been lifted) Good man, Hatem. Expect a promotion in the near future. You may withdraw.
HATEM Thank you, sir, and good night. (leaves, closing the door behind him)
AFAF (lifts the gun and aims at his face as he approaches) Who are you?
COLONEL I am your husband, Colonel Askar. Did my bodyguard not explain to you that I asked him to stand in for me during the wedding ceremony in order to protect myself?
AFAF (her face burning with anger) You asshole—you protect yourself, but you leave me and that poor guy exposed? We could have died! We could have been shot!
COLONEL Don’t be so melodramatic. The gang’s snipers are highly skilled, so the only way you would’ve been in danger is if they sent a suicide bomber. But they weren’t interested in you.
AFAF I’m being melodramatic? You’re the one doing despicable deeds like a cartoon villain! You put me in danger! You turned me into a human shield! You used me as bait for your enemies! How dare you? You know who my father is. And I swear to God, I won’t sleep till he puts you in prison!
COLONEL (tries to approach her, but she moves away from him toward the bedroom door) Try to see things from my perspective. I was with the two of you for the whole ceremony, buzzing around you like a bee, with my soldiers—all in plain clothes—and we succeeded in arresting numerous suspects. So it was impossible for anything bad to have happened to you.
AFAF (suddenly realizes that he has come closer and closer to her while speaking the previous lines. Opens the door, and prepares to leave) No, what’s impossible is me agreeing to remain married to the biggest coward on the face of the earth. I want a divorce.
The colonel pretends he sees someone behind her who is about to strike her.
COLONEL Nooooo . . .
Afaf whips around in fear, and the colonel seizes his opportunity. He grabs the pistol with his left hand and strikes her hand with his right. Afaf lets out a loud cry of pain and drops the gun, which the colonel catches with a practiced motion.
AFAF (falls to her knees in pain, clutching her hand) You broke my hand, you son of a bitch!
COLONEL I’m only going to say this once: insult me again and I’ll rip out your tongue and give it to my soldiers to use for target practice.
AFAF (terrified) You’re a monster!
She tries to run but he grabs her left hand (not the broken one) and throws her onto the bed. He closes the door, then turns to the light switch and turns off the lights.
AFAF By all that’s holy—on your mother’s soul—or what would you swear on? On your T-72 tank?—you need to hear about the mistake your bodyguard made.
COLONEL (hesitates for a moment, then turns the lights back on) You’re a little snake, aren’t you, trying to turn me against one of my loyal soldiers? I assure you, I trust my men completely. And to prove that, I’d take out all the women in the world, if I had to.
AFAF (sits on the edge of the bed) His extreme loyalty to you caused him to betray us both.
COLONEL Your words are like poison in my ears—but by God, I won’t fall for any woman’s tricks!
AFAF Well, you’re the one who concocted the poison, so don’t pretend this isn’t your fault. Aren’t you the one who left me alone with your bodyguard, who impersonated you so well that I fell in love with him? He stole my heart, and now he burns like fire in my blood!
COLONEL (devastated. Sits on the bed) You slut—you just sit there and admit that you’re in love with my bodyguard? You just say that, to my face?
AFAF And you gave me the poison yourself. You ordered him to treat me politely and respectfully; if you’d told him to behave violently and cruelly toward me, I’d hate him every bit as much as I hate you. With all my heart.
COLONEL Enough. That’s enough. Say another word and I’ll kill you on the spot, you cheap whore.
The colonel buries his head in his hands, while Afaf starts to cry silently, wiping away her tears with a blue embroidered handkerchief. The colonel stretches out on the bed, pulls up the covers, and stares at the ceiling.
COLONEL Get out of my room. I never want to see your wretched face again. Get out.
AFAF (gets up reluctantly, opens the door as if to leave, but hesitates) You’re a powerful man, Colonel. If you treat me a little better, I could be a loyal friend of yours.
COLONEL Well, well, well—look how quickly this chameleon changes her colors!
AFAF Sometimes friendship is more powerful, and more enduring, than love.
COLONEL What are you suggesting? That we should just be friends?
AFAF Anyone can get married—but true friendship is a rare thing.
COLONEL Oh, great—so we’ll be friends, and you’ll save your love for my bodyguard? That’s ridiculous!
AFAF Look, I realize I’ve wounded your pride, and I’m prepared to keep apologizing until you forgive me.
COLONEL Save your apologies for your father. I divorce you!
AFAF (closes the door, stands next to the colonel, and smiles at him) Thankfully, sir, you can’t really divorce me.
COLONEL (dumbfounded) The insolence! I said I divorce you. So we’re divorced. You think you’re immune to this? You’ve been vaccinated against divorce?
AFAF No, but it seems my father was smarter than you in planning for these disasters.
COLONEL (sits up) Planning for these disasters? How?
AFAF When you asked my father so urgently to delay the wedding date, he suspected something. So he asked his personal contacts to find out what the emergency was.
COLONEL Aha! So your father had heard they were threatening to assassinate me tonight?
AFAF Yes. He’d also heard about all the steps you’d taken to protect your own safety.
COLONEL (grumbles) Goddamn security forces. Can’t keep a secret.
A cheerful knock at the door, like a drumbeat.
AFAF Do you know who that is, knocking at the door?
The colonel is speechless. He gestures toward the door with his hand.
AFAF That’s right. It’s your wife Afaf. The real Afaf is the one who’s knocking—I’m just her personal assistant.
The colonel stands still for a moment, stunned. The decoy Afaf shakes her head.
More rhythmic knocking at the door. The colonel opens it, and a beautiful young woman enters, wearing a white wedding dress.
AFAF Good evening, Colonel. (shakes his hand, self-possessed)
COLONEL (dazzled by her beauty) It’s a beautiful evening, ma’am. Majestic.
AFAF (strolls around the room, examining its contents) I hope my personal assistant Nawal hasn’t won too much of your admiration, Colonel.
COLONEL (following her around, like a child trailing after his mother) No, no—on the contrary, she made me detest her so much I divorced her. She executed her mission perfectly.
NAWAL I would be honored to consider you a friend, Colonel—and I do hope you don’t disapprove of my love for your bodyguard Hatem.
She heads toward the door, while the colonel pulls his bride toward the bed.
COLONEL Not at all—I’m delighted to have made such a clever, loyal friend. Consider yourself a part of our new family. And as for Hatem, I’ll throw him a real wedding ASAP.
NAWAL (beaming) Thank you, sir. And a very good night to you both. (exits, closing the door behind her)
AFAF I think, sir, after everything that’s happened, you can’t really blame me or my father for what we’ve done.
COLONEL (euphoric) Of course not. In fact, I can’t think of a more fitting family for an army colonel to have married into!
AFAF (nods her head) We could actually turn out to be quite compatible.
COLONEL Yes, I think we could. (glances at his watch) Uh-oh, we only have fifteen minutes till prayer time at dawn. What do you think we should do?
AFAF Well, let’s not waste any more time with small talk. The only thing we’re missing is a crowd of well-wishers.
COLONEL And in any case, it’d be wrong for us to accept congratulations for a wedding that didn’t actually happen. Right?
AFAF (coyly) That’s right.
COLONEL So let’s get to it!
The colonel and his bride jump on the bed and begin to undress. The colonel takes off his jacket and tie; the bride takes off her gloves and her gold bracelets.
Two men armed with automatic rifles crawl out from under the bed. They are dressed alike in striped, knee-length sarongs, bare-chested except for bandoliers bristling with ammunition. Cotton scarves cover their heads, turban-style, and partially hide their faces. One is fat; the other is thin. They take up positions to the right and left of the colonel and Afaf, pointing their guns at them menacingly.
SKINNY THUG (sarcastically) Hello, Colonel. You’ve been looking for us all night, while we’ve been right here, waiting for you.
COLONEL (angry) Goddamnit! Couldn’t you have waited a few more minutes?
FAT THUG Actually, we were going to wait till you were right in the middle of things—you know, to make it as embarrassing for you as possible. But then you tipped us off that it was almost daybreak.
SKINNY THUG (sees that the colonel is moving to pull out his pistol) Put your hands up. (The colonel puts his hands in the air; the Fat Thug strips him of his gun) Too slow, I’m afraid. Maybe you’re getting too old for this?
FAT THUG I’ll just take my picture back, if you don’t mind. (pulls his photo off the corkboard) Hey, someone put a bunch of holes in it—I can’t use it like that! (turns angrily to the colonel) You know what? I’m going to put a hole in your skull. Just one tiny little hole. One little . . . endless . . . empty . . . space. (scowls at the colonel and Afaf) Stand over there by the wall.
The colonel and Afaf take a few frightened, unwilling steps toward the wall. Afaf covers her face with her hands, weeps, and babbles inaudibly.
SKINNY THUG (to his partner) I’ll kill the colonel; you kill his wife.
The thugs get down on one knee to take aim.
COLONEL Wait . . . I have an amazing idea. An idea that’ll make you two of the richest, most powerful men in the world—if we can come to an agreement.
SKINNY THUG (doesn’t lift his gaze from the machine gun sight) Go on—we’re listening.
COLONEL You know if you kill us, you’ll be wanted criminals for the rest of your lives, and the state will hunt you down. But if you’ll agree to be my allies, we’ll use the army to overthrow the government. I’ll give you powerful positions in the new government, and you’ll have more money than any bank can hold.
FAT THUG (still aiming) Ambitious plans, particularly for a guy with a gun to his head. It’s like watching an ostrich try to launch an election campaign with its head still in the sand.
COLONEL Maybe. And I may be crazy. But I assure you, I can turn this dream into reality. With my forces and your gang, I can execute a successful coup. And if we succeed, I’ll appoint one of you vice president, and the other prime minister. You have my word as a military officer.
SKINNY THUG (addressing his partner) What do you think?
FAT THUG Sounds good to me.
SKINNY THUG Let’s give ourselves a minute to think it over.
Lights down gradually, accompanied by the sound of a ticking clock, quiet at first, but rising gradually to a terrifying volume. Curtain.
© Wajdi Al-Ahdal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Katherine Hennessey. All rights reserved.
"Tomboy" is one of four winning poems selected by Mónica de la Torre for the Words Without Borders—Academy of Americans Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen to Robin Myers read her translation of Argentinean poet Claudia Masin's "Tomboy"
Listen to Claudia Masin read "Tomboy” in the original Argentinean Spanish.
I don’t understand how we walk around the world
as if there were a single way for each of us, a kind
of life stamped into us like a childhood injection,
a cure painstakingly released into the blood with every passing year
like a poison transmuted into antidote
against any possible disobedience that might
awaken in the body. But the body isn’t mere
submissive matter, a mouth that cleanly swallows
whatever it’s fed. It’s a lattice
of little filaments, as I imagine
threads of starlight must be. What can never
be touched: that’s the body. What lives outside
the law when the law is muscled and violent,
a boulder plunging off a precipice
and crushing everything in its path. How do they manage
to wander around so happily and comfortably in their bodies, how
do they feel so sure, so confident in being what they are: this blood,
these organs, this sex, this species? Haven’t they ever longed
to be a lizard scorching in the sun
every day, or an old man, or a vine
clutching a trunk in search of somewhere
to hold on, or a boy sprinting till his heart
bursts from his chest with sheer brute energy,
with sheer desire? We’re forced
to be whatever we resemble. Haven’t
you ever wished you knew what it would feel like to have claws
or roots or fins instead of hands, what it would mean
if you could only live in silence
or by murmuring or crying out
in pain or fear or pleasure? Or if there weren’t any words
at all and so the soul of every living thing were measured
by the intensity it manifests
once it’s set free?
"Tomboy" © Claudia Masin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Robin Myers. All rights reserved.
A Stockholm apartment where two children live with their mother is the main setting for this book, an intimate portrait of a family in crisis that won the prestigious Swedish August Prize and has been described as a chamber play.
Welcome to America is a sad lament, a tale of a family in private crisis told by an eleven-year-old girl who has decided to stop talking. Reluctance to interact with other people seems to run in the family: her brother nails his bedroom door shut and urinates into bottles so that he can be undisturbed in his room, alone with his music. Their father is dead, as we soon discover, but mourning is only part of the reason for the children’s behavior. We gradually piece together a picture of their lives through a series of episodic fragments from the family’s past that lead up to the present day.
Welcome to America is Linda Boström Knausgård’s second novel. It was originally published in 2016 in Sweden, where it was praised for the beauty of its prose and received the prestigious Swedish August Prize. The book has been translated into ten languages thus far.
In an interview with Adam Dalva in Publishers Weekly, Boström Knausgård mentions that Swedish critics have described the book as a chamber play. It’s an apt comparison. The Stockholm apartment where the two children live with their mother is the main setting for the intimate interactions of this small cast of characters. There are no chapters, the prose flowing seamlessly on in the young girl’s unspoken words. We are presented with detailed descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life and household tasks. The outside world impinges only rarely, as when the school is on fire, for example, an event that is a turning point in the narrative. The title of the book suggests broader geopolitical concerns, but it actually refers to a role the children’s mother performed as a “fallen Statue of Liberty welcoming the immigrants to America.”
The novel’s minute scale allows Boström Knausgård to carefully develop a pattern of intricate conflicts and contrasts. “We’re a family of light,” says the children’s mother, even as an inner darkness threatens to engulf them all. She is a beautiful actress who is vibrant and full of joy, but one who is also given to moments of despair. As we observe the friendships and fun the girl used to enjoy in the chaotic house, filled with laughter and games, we are also aware of a pervasive fear, of both her father and her brother, and of the unnerving sense of order she used to feel in other people’s homes. Although she lives with a brother who can do whatever he wants, somehow she doesn’t know what she wants. “The thing is my own will is too weak to surface. If I had to probe into my life and ask myself questions, I wouldn’t be able to answer.”
The girl’s silent passivity and ambiguous sense of self permeate the novel, and therefore it comes as no surprise that the book is nearly over before we find out that her name is Ellen. She wonders at one point if her own decision to be silent is genetic. “The genes come down hard in our family. Hard and without mercy.” But perhaps not from her mother’s side. “I could have been like her. Dark, with a kind of sparkle [. . .]. But somehow I fell short.”
Her father is a constant, haunting presence throughout the book. He makes ghostly appearances by her side, speaking to her and filling her mind with memories of the anxiety surrounding his illness, his rapidly changing moods, his drunkenness, his rage and desperation. She recalls visiting him in the hospital on her own, her mother waiting outside. And she acknowledges the immense stillness she felt the first time he was locked up. In the interweaving threads of light and dark, there are vestiges of happy memories too, especially of the times they spent at their cabin by the lake. “That was how I liked to think about my dad. At the boat, fishing. He was good at that. Everything else was a mess. It was frightening.”
Ellen remembers praying for her father to die—this is the act she calls her first collaboration with God. Later she asks God to let her die too and to keep her mother safe and happy. Her father’s death affected her mother and brother, but for Ellen it was painless, or so she writes. Yet despite her own relief that he is gone—she even describes it as a kind of ecstasy—she has a nagging feeling that the family is being torn apart now that he is dead. And no one knows that she is the one responsible for his death.
The girl asks herself why she made the decision to stop talking; was it her desire to stop growing, to stay as she was? Was it to punish the mother she adored? She used to tell lies, so was this mute existence a way to live the truth? “I used to say things that weren’t true. I said the sun was out when it was raining.” Rather than escape, her silence acts as a defense, a means of self-protection. “Peering ahead in time is dangerous. You never know what you might see. I needed to stay where I was.”
She muses on the relationship she has with her mother and brother and is strikingly conscious of both its strength and vulnerability. “It was as if the calm that sometimes descended on us was dependent on such a fine-grained network of understanding and good will that no one felt inclined to break with the implicit order of things.” They all have a part to play, but she knows that her silence is stretching the family to the breaking point.
Boström Knausgård’s careful exploration of mental illness is restrained and entirely unsentimental. She passes no judgment on her characters, whose pain she reveals through Ellen’s musings. Her prose is unobtrusive in its simplicity and minimalism. The result is both powerful and lyrical, qualities beautifully rendered by translator Martin Aitken’s concise, pared-down English text. Boström Knausgård has also written collections of poetry and short stories, and two of her works have previously appeared in English: her first novel, The Helios Disaster, was translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles for World Editions in 2015, and her short story “The White-Bear King Valemon” was translated by Martin Aitken for Pushkin Press’s 2017 anthology The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and Other Stories from the North, edited by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson.
"Pillow" is a poem by 2019 Poems in Translation Contest winner Lee Young-ju, translated into English by Jae Kim.
Listen to Lee Young-ju read her poem "Pillow" in the original Korean.
Listen to Jae Kim read the English translation of Lee Young-ju's "Pillow."
Down in this sewer, have I become my friend? By the manmade waters where my school principal killed himself, geese cried. On the other side of the barbed-wire fence is a large cloudchimney. I put on a straw hat I picked up in the gutters.
When the clouds bent over, the geese cackled their beaks wide-open. The cry of the machine as it pushed the clouds through the conveyor into the chimney. Where are the better suicides?
My father built his house on the waters’ edge, and every day he packed the clouds in, spun the machine. Those who wanted to sleep bought Father’s pillow. All night, eyes peeled, I bent my body and straightened my body, over and over. Each time my bones popped, snapped, I escaped through the chimney. I thought about what kind of crying to do.
Near sundown, I urged him, let’s go where there’s a crowd, but in the machine the geese were bleeding. For a good night’s sleep we need wet feathers, said Father. I sucked on my lips while counting the tags on the pillows. I believe the essence of those who died better deaths must go to the sewer, where innumerable sleeps flow.
When spinning the cotton machinery, I wore my hat. White feathers rose from the waters where those who killed themselves lay facedown. I took my hand, stepped on the feathers and went to school in the mornings. Waddling, I forged ahead.
"Pillow" © Lee Young-ju. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Jae Kim. All rights reserved.
"Roommate, Woman" is one of four winning poems selected by Mónica de la Torre for the Words Without Borders—Academy of Americans Poets Poem-in-Translation Contest.
Listen to Lee Young-ju read her poem "Roommate, Woman." in the original Korean.
Listen to Jae Kim read the English translation of Lee Young-ju's "Roommate, Woman."
On waking, I see my body has been rearranged. I’m reminded of the tongue you, having cried so much, dropped under the cypress tree. From then on, you began to speak with your left hand. One of my eyes, stuck to my thigh, closed and opened toward the obsolete picture. When your ovary, full of blood, keeps moving down, you open the window. A whistle sounds. The police touches the face of the rat the cat never finished. There behind your back is my pain, isolated from my knees. You knew the house would be rearranged when we woke up—I hold your hand. While we watch the pale clouds, sitting on leaking fuel tanks, our joined hands slip out the door. You pick up one of my eyes worming under your foot. It may snow. Snow (not an eye) like the bandage around my hand, smeared in crimson light.
"Roommate, Woman" © Lee Young-ju. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Jae Kim. All rights reserved.
"An Apocryphal History of the Discovery of Migration, or The Sacrifice of the Pfeilstörchenn" is one of four winning poems selected by the editors and guest judge Mónica de la Torre for the Words Without Borders—Academy of Americans Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen to Jacob Rogers read his translation of Galician poet Alba Cid's "An Apocryphal History of the Discovery of Migration, or The Sacrifice of the Pfeilstörchen."
Listen to Alba Cid read "An Apocryphal History of the Discovery of Migration, or The Sacrifice of the Pfeilstörchen” in the original Galician.
I, wearing heron symmetrically opposed over my chest,
swore to the five emperors that there was no such thing as balance, that if herons upheld
the rivers on all Chinese porcelain it was
simply due to
a locking mechanism in their joints.
they awarded me for risking everything in my defense.
I wrote to you a few years later. I said:
Rostock, sixth of July,
it’s awful of me to interrupt, but I just
need you to understand how certain kinds of wounds can be useful.
I’m finishing up an essay
on pre-modern explanations for bird migration,
and all the species seen since Aristotle’s time as either moon travelers
or sailors that very rarely return.
I even studied a pamphlet from 1703
that argues for the communion of swallows,
that they gather in wetlands
and follow a specific choreography to perch on top of the rushes
until they sink.
they spend winters underwater, in the hypnotic calm of the muck,
and that’s why they emerge so klein damp in spring.
but in 1822 (I carefully attached the photograph),
an arrow pierced the neck of a stork in central Africa
and the bird began its flight bearing both weapon and wound.
when it reached Germany, someone identified the origin of the projectile,
and went on to form a scientific hypothesis.
I don’t remember much more of the letter, except:
pain and brightness are distributed in equal parts,
and lightness only exists because of past excess.
Since it’s the migratory season (I concluded)
I hope you don’t mind if I bypass the formula for farewells—
Atlantic in between us,
every anemone is fluttering along with the currents.
"Historia apócrifa do descubrimento das migracións ou O sacrificio das Pfeilstörchen" © Alba Cid. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Jacob Rogers. All rights reserved.
In Fu Ping, one of Wang Anyi’s great feats is her ability to eschew narrative conventions and usher the background players to the fore.
Wang Anyi’s novel Fu Ping is a coming-of-age tale set in the midst of the turbulent years of China’s Cultural Revolution. Its narrative arc—that of a young girl who learns to challenge convention and follow her heart—may not be wholly original, but its presentation, full of detours and side stories, makes for a memorable, smart study of the lives of ordinary people in Shanghai in the 1960s, during the second decade of Communist rule in China. Wang’s frequent digressions create an engaging novel overflowing with narrative threads that succeeds both as a character-driven story and as a commentary on the shifting belief systems between generations over the first two decades of the People’s Republic of China. Shanghai appears in the novel as a city filled with people from other places who share folkloric stories of their villages with each other as they toil as maids, handymen, scow captains, and other blue-collar professions.
The daughter of revered writer Ru Zhijuan, Wang Anyi was born in 1954 and grew up in Shanghai. She began her literary career in the late 1970s, and like most of her work, Fu Ping continues Wang’s interest in studying women living and laboring in her home city. The novel can be seen as a companion piece to Wang’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, itself a tale of growing up in Shanghai after World War II. Yet while Sorrow spans decades, shifting from alleyways to aspirations of stardom, Fu Ping is far more compact, focused on the daily lives of those who serve others.
Orphaned as a child, Fu Ping is raised by her aunt and uncle in the country. When she reaches her late teens, in the early 1960s, her family begins the process of marrying her off. Suitors looking for a traditional housewife come calling, but Fu Ping quickly rebuffs them, refusing to meet or engage in conversation. This changes when a matchmaker presents Li Tianhua as a potential mate. Though she never sees his face, stubbornly refusing to make eye contact, Fu Ping can tell by a glimpse of his shoes that he is “not someone who made a living by the sweat of his brow,” so, bowing to family expectations, she accepts his offer of marriage and is shipped off to Shanghai.
Before the wedding, Fu Ping is sent to live with Li Tianhua’s adopted grandmother, a housemaid referred to only as Nainai, the informal term for “grandma” or “paternal grandmother.” The pair share a bed in Nainai’s employer’s home, where Fu Ping helps the older woman with domestic chores, learning the skills she will be expected to master in her new role as a housewife. Before long, however, Fu Ping takes on her own jobs and weaves herself into the lives of neighbors and colleagues. The longer she lives in the city, the more she sees herself as an individual responsible for her own fate, leading her to reconsider her impending nuptials. All the while, Li Tianhua patiently waits for her to be ready for marriage, unaware of Fu Ping’s budding curiosity.
One of Wang Anyi’s greatest feats in the novel is her ability to eschew narrative conventions and usher the background players surrounding her protagonist to the fore. After the first chapter, for instance, Fu Ping does not make a memorable appearance again until chapter three, nearly thirty pages later. In this space, Wang tells the backstories of Nainai and her employers, which in turn establish the backstory of Shanghai in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Other digressions inform the reader of secret relationships, landscapes, and histories around Fu Ping’s own journey, painting a tangible setting for each character to occupy. This lax sense of direction quietly builds a sympathetic and complex world that pays off once the author again narrows her focus to Fu Ping’s story arc for the novel’s second half. It also allows Wang to detail the everyday actions of blue-collar workers, vignettes that come to life via Howard Goldblatt’s skillful translation. Take the following passage, in which Fu Ping watches the proprietress of a tobacco shop go about her routine:
The proprietress rested against the counter as she ate out of a fine blue-edged porcelain bowl; when a customer entered, she tucked her chopsticks under the bowl, held both in one hand, and handled the purchase with the other. She greeted familiar passersby, who paused to chat.
Or this brief description of a woman whom Fu Ping sees regularly on the street:
[The face] belonged to a slender, reasonably attractive woman with wavy hair whose looks were spoiled by an unhealthy appearance, an unhappy look. Most of the time she wore a white woolen cardigan over a Western-style skirt and carried a handbag, like a schoolteacher or office worker. But she was outside rushing around when most people were at work.
While both characters have no bearing on the novel’s main storyline, such descriptions allow Wang to construct a tangible and arresting fictional portrait of Shanghai. As the city becomes more concrete, the hardships and adventures faced by its residents also seem more palpable. These detours, which rarely employ dialogue, provide the narration with qualities similar to those of a storyteller like Nainai and other characters in the book, who tell tall tales to pass the time and therefore often ramble in their narration before reaching the end of a story. Wang’s narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly, as well, adding to this effect. In returning to a shantytown after Fu Ping’s initial visit, the narrator comments, “We have seen how night fell earlier here…” Likewise, when shifting focus to a previously mentioned location, the narrator says, “We have already seen that this was a theater with rudimentary facilities.” By including these small nods, Wang makes the reader part of her story, if only in spirit, but does so enough to intertwine her audience with the copious names and faces that pass through the novel.
Fu Ping is a story of breaking with tradition, of facing consequences for such a rebellion, yet ultimately of finding contentment in life. Near the novel’s end, a great rainstorm floods part of Shanghai, and Fu Ping, settled and happy, is forced to leave her home and take shelter at a watertight sanctuary. As Wang writes in her foreword, to her the storm shows that “in the chaotic changing of times, normal life remains unchanged, and in normalcy lies a simple harmony.” This reflection on the status quo beautifully encapsulates Fu Ping’s journey, for despite China’s Cultural Revolution and budding Communist regime, the everyday existence of Wang’s characters depends upon their own wits and desires. Fu Ping’s fragmented structure may not be for every reader, but it nevertheless is a fruitful, clever ode to China’s blue-collar population.
"Cloth Birds" is one of four winning poems selected by Mónica de la Torre for the Words Without Borders—Academy of Americans Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen to Natascha Bruce read her translation of Hong Kong poet Dorothy Tse's "Cloth Birds."
Listen to Dorothy Tse read "Cloth Birds” in the original Cantonese.
There's no cloth hawker in the bazaar
willing to make dirty deals
with the health inspector
neither will they confess the link
between those bolts of flyaway fabric
and ancient birds
(lo a sage appeared
drilled fire from sticks
transformed the stinking food
and the people were happy)
after the ban on cooking smoke
glug glug swallow
the secret of seawater and its fish
tile cities built up and pulled down
at four in the afternoon
a routine inspection
into the cleanliness of laughter
a hand spread wide in the dark is
splattered with light
a carambola tree sprouts branches from stumps
its remaining fruits sour and shrivelled to stardust
swaying in the void
the sky so dull
and the city official
at the newly-sterilized entrance
a spy hole onto the blankness
"布鳥" © Dorothy Tse. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Natascha Bruce. All rights reserved.
This year, we partnered with the Academy of American Poets for our first ever poetry in translation contest. We received 717 poems from 282 poets from 87 countries translated from 55 languages. The four winning poems will be published in Words Without Borders and the Academy of American Poets’s “Poem-a-Day” throughout the month of September. Published alongside the poems will be the original language texts and recordings of both the original poems and their English language translations.
The winning poems and their date of publication are:
“Cloth Birds” by Dorothy Tse, translated from Chinese by Natascha Bruce—September 7, 2019
Judge's citation: “‘Cloth Birds’ sustains a compelling tension between highly bureaucratized life and life forms resisting control: a hawker, happy people, branches shooting from tree stumps. Thanks to Natascha Bruce’s light-handed rendition, the poem is strange and ominous, and the narrative it tenuously sketches out stands in sharp contrast with the hard language of city officials and health inspectors.”
“An Apocryphal History of the Discovery of Migration” by Alba Cid, translated from Galician by Jacob Rogers—September 14, 2019
Judge's citation: “Alba Cid’s poem is two or three poems, given its nesting structure, reminiscent of Borges. Fragments of a misremembered letter speak of storks so resilient that they bore ‘both weapon and wound’ as proof of their long-distance migration—they almost seem fictional. Like the Pfeilstorch, the letter in the poem travels a vast physical distance, as does Jacob Rogers’s luminous translation from the Galician. I read it as a poignant meditation on exile and translation, where ‘pain and lightness are distributed in equal parts.’”
“Roommate, Woman” by Lee Young-ju, translated from Korean by Jae Kim—September 21, 2019
Judge's citation: “‘Roommate, Woman’ presents a darkly symbiotic relationship between the speaker and a roommate allegorized through detached and dislocated body parts. Lee Young-ju’s poem’s concision defies the larger narrative it suggests where bodies and houses are rearranged and disfigured, perhaps violently, and Jae Kim’s translation captures the poem’s grotesque yet tender overtones with remarkable precision.”
“Tomboy” by Claudia Masin, translated from Spanish by Robin Myers—September 28, 2019
Judge's citation: “I’m drawn to the way in which Claudia Masin questions our acceptance of our bodies’ limitations. The body is ‘what can never be touched’ and a ‘lattice / of little filaments.’ The speaker imagines bodies defying the forms they were given, and that seems perfectly apt for what translation manages to do. While in transmission, the poem’s gone past language and changed form. Robin Myers’s version of ‘Tomboy’ points to a beautiful conundrum.”
This Norwegian edition of Words Without Borders has been put together to coincide with Norway being Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2019. And that honor could not have come at a better time for Norway, when there are so many good books being published and more translation rights being sold than ever before. Norwegian literature just seems to go from strength to strength.
And what an honor to be asked to make this selection. And what good fortune to be offered a place in the translator hotel program of Norwegian Literature Abroad (NORLA) last autumn, giving me two weeks in Oslo to read and read my way to this selection. The hotel lay within spitting distance of some of the main publishers, so I could dash out and get more books when my pile was running low, and it was easy to meet and talk with the agents without losing too much precious reading time. Work doesn’t get much better than that.
NORLA’s slogan for Frankfurt 2019, “The Dream We Carry,” comes from “It Is That Dream” by poet and translator Olav Hauge. In 2016, it was voted the greatest Norwegian poem of all time by readers and viewers of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). And while it may not be immediately apparent, the idea of the dream we carry is a red thread running through the selected texts. However, most of the dreams in the chosen texts are either unfulfilled or broken.
Norway is in many ways living the dream; one of the poorest countries in Europe at the start of the last century, it is now one of the richest in the world. It frequently tops surveys and indexes for quality of life, equality, and happiness. And the Nordic model is an oft-heralded counterweight to hard free-market capitalism. Norway is a dream that many people carry. When something shines so bright, it is often easy to forget the tarnished edges, the less desirable places and dusty, forgotten corners.
Many of the pieces I have chosen are from such places, both physical and psychological. I have tried to make the selection as representative as possible of contemporary Norwegian literature in terms of content, gender, and style. To my disappointment, limitations on the number of pieces and the availability of rights prevented a fuller representation of Norway’s many voices, including those of second-generation immigrants.
Strikingly, five of the six fiction pieces have a first-person narrator. There is a long tradition of first-person narration in Norway; Knut Hamsun in his day said it was the future of literature, and his first novel, Hunger, was written in the first person, with shifting tenses, also preempting a preference for a present tense narrative. Shortly before then, in 1886, Hans Jæger published From the Christiania Bohemians, an autobiographical story. So, the literary phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard did not come out of nowhere, but autofiction has become a dominant trend in the past decade since the first volume of My Struggle was published. It has even spilled over to popular science, where some of the greatest nonfiction successes to come out of Norway in recent years mix fact and science with personal anecdote.
In January this year, the literary critic Marta Norheim published an article looking at the main trends in Norwegian literature in 2018. While the overarching characteristic was crisis, she identified historical fiction, the future, birth, and old age and death as the four main trends. I was delighted that I had picked up on these, and managed to represent at least two: birth/motherhood (Rage by Monica Isakstuen) and aging/death (All the Way Home by Levi Henriksen). Another voice that I would like to mention is that from less desirable suburbs, where there are multiple social issues, some of which come to the fore in Linn Strømsborg’s Suburbia.
Of the authors, Anders Tjernshaugen, Roskva Koritzinsky, Monica Isakstuen, Linn Strømsborg, and Jan Kristoffer Dale have all been included in the New Voices program, which started in 2017. This development program is run by NORLA, Talent Norway, and the Norwegian Publishers Association and was designed to highlight new literary voices from Norway and focus on the international dimension of being a writer in the run-up to Frankfurt 2019. Twenty-five authors have participated in the program. The two remaining authors, Levi Henriksen and Mona Høvring, are both well-established authors who have been translated into a number of languages, though Høvring has not, to my knowledge, appeared in English.
From the moment I started to read A Whale Tale by Anders Tjernshaugen, I wanted to include it. Whaling is a controversial issue and some of the descriptions are brutal, but the fact remains that whaling played such an important role in Norwegian history that the possibility of some upset should not be allowed to disqualify the book. This is a beautifully written account of the development of the whaling industry, which gave the possibility of a better life to many families. And while it is clear to us now that the hunting of the blue whale drove it to near extinction, we also see the dreams and aspirations. I would also like to add that Tjernshaugen bucks the current trend in Norwegian popular nonfiction, where fact is interwoven with personal reflection.
Working Hands is Jan Kristoffer Dale’s first short story collection and first full publication, for which he won the Tarjei Vesaas Author’s Debut Prize in 2016. And as the title suggests, the stories are about workers, unskilled workers, who have often not finished school and have no training. They come from a small rural community where opportunities are already limited. “In a Ditch” observes a much-anticipated weekend at a cabin which is ruined when one of three old friends brings along a new colleague from Oslo who has very different values and aspirations. The main character, Kenneth, does have his own dreams, but lacks the courage and conviction to follow them through. The story is as deeply Norwegian as it is universal.
Which is also true of “All the Way Home,” from Levi Henriksen’s eighth collection of short stories, Iron & Metal, published last year. His stories share a similar social demographic as those of Dale. Here a man whose life is no longer what it used to be goes the extra mile to make sure that others can enjoy theirs. Why did I choose it? Quite simply because it made me cry.
Roskva Koritzinsky’s third publication, the 2017 short story collection, I Have Not Yet Seen the World, was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Award. There are some excellent stories in the collection, and I could happily have used two or three of them, but in “From the Other Side,” about a young ballerina, I found a personal connection. The events of the story run parallel with the fate of Sture Bergwall, who was also known for a period as Thomas Quick. While in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane in the 1990s, he confessed to more than thirty murders in the Nordic countries and was eventually convicted for eight of them. One of these was that of nine-year-old Terese Johannessen, who had disappeared in 1988 from the street outside her home in Drammen, a couple of streets away from where my grandparents lived. The Sture leitmotif adds a sense of lurking menace to the events of this story.
Monica Isakstuen has published three novels, all three of which have received critical acclaim. Her previous novel, Be Kind to the Animals, won the Norwegian Book Award for Fiction in 2016. In Rage, a woman with a daughter from a previous marriage gives birth to twins, and is horrified and frightened by the anger this unleashes. Desperate to be a good mother and to be loved, she cannot control her rage. The book is structured in a series of episodes or sections that range from one line to several pages, from present to past to present; both effective and disturbing, it makes for uncomfortable reading at times.
Mona Høvring has previously published both poetry and a number of novels. Her third novel, Camilla’s Long Nights, was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and Because Venus Passed a Cyclamen on the Day I Was Born, which was published last year, won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize. The title—evidence of her lyrical style—could be the answer to the question: why did this happen, why did things turn out the way they did? Well, because Venus . . . . Ella has accompanied her sister Martha to a hotel in the mountains, to help her recover from a breakdown. Ella also nurtures the hope that they might recover the trust and devotion they shared when they were children. “It is a story about the many distractions of the heart,” as Høvring’s literary agency put it, and there is a dreamlike quality to the book. I am so delighted that the book was published last year and I can include her beautiful, poetic writing.
Finally, Suburbia by Linn Strømsborg is a gem of a book. Published in 2013, it follows the life of Eva in the months after she has completed her master’s degree. This is when the life she has anticipated would start—her dream certainly did not include moving back in with her parents in the oft-vilified suburb where she grew up. This quiet, uneventful novel about a suburb and a group of friends is at the same time joyous and life-affirming. A second novel about Eva, You’re Not Gonna Die, appeared in 2016.
For a comparatively small nation, Norway offers an incredible wealth of literature. The reality of daily life there is more complex today than ever before and this is reflected in contemporary Norwegian writing. Given the quality of this writing and the energy and drive of the publishers and literary agencies, I think there will continue to be a buzz around Norwegian literature for a long time to come, well beyond the Frankfurt effect. My personal dream, the dream that I carry, is that in these turbulent times with so much division and hate, translated literature can help us to understand each other better and to see what we share, so that we remain positive and resilient, and never give up on our dreams.
© 2019 by Kari Dickson. All rights reserved.
In this extract from Monica Isakstuen's novel, a wife and mother of three struggles to contain her fury.
The story of us, how did it go again. You say: Why do you think I left work so early that day, why do you think I felt such a sudden urge to read up on ginkgo trees and primeval forests, why do you think I got into my car and drove to the neighboring town when I could just as easily have borrowed what I needed from a library closer to home, why do you think I visited your library, of all libraries, at that time, of any? I say: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, tell me! You say: Maybe it’s because I had a feeling there was someone extraordinary there.
Please, you say. Sit down, relax. As if there’s any time for that, I say. My God, look at all this, look at us! you say, it won’t be long before we disappear completely what with all the painting and plastering and budgeting and planning applications and pest control and bidding. What are you talking about, I ask him, placing my paintbrush down on the kitchen worktop. We can’t let that happen, you say, we can’t let our things own us, or our desire for more things, or our worries, or this house, I don’t want to lose us, I don’t want to lose you, what we have. That’s all very well, I say, it sounds good when you put it like that, but I can’t relax until I’ve made this house our own, that’s just the way it is, you know that, I’ve told you how I feel about it. But when will it be ours, how many coats of paint and repair jobs will it take! you say, don’t shout, I say, you’ll wake the children. We can’t let our things own us, you repeat. What are you talking about, I say, we don’t own anything, not really.
How many arguments will it take for you to walk out on me?
One night, all three of them threw up, one after the next in the space of two hours. First on the stairs, then in bed, then all over the hallway carpet. Only the first comes as any surprise, but after that it’s business as usual, buckets and cloths and fruit squash and antibacterial hand gel at the ready. Imposing order amid the squalor. Do you remember how well we worked together that day. Do you remember that? How unflustered we were. Completing tasks, offering comfort, mopping up. Exchanging glances, each of us instinctively aware of what the other was doing, of what we had to do next. There was vomit all over your legs, and you brought one mattress after the next down to the living room, one child after the next, and there they lay, three washed-out petals clustered around the bright yellow bucket. What do you reckon, think we could manage with another five, I said. The two youngest threw up once again, neither of them hitting their target. Oh, at least, you said, and ran off to fetch extra towels, more paper towels. My heart pounded so warmly in my chest. Everything that meant anything was here in this room.
We play Good Cop, Bad Cop, it’s as if the roles have already been assigned. Not that it matters all that much who plays which part, the trick is to stay in character until the end goal is achieved. The end goal is the complete and utter surrender of the target. By which I mean the child. But all of a sudden you’re not around, you’re working late or on a course or out buying something to replace something else that’s been broken. I have a go at being Good Cop, of course, I’m patient, I speak slowly, quietly, tenderly, and I try to stop and listen at least as often as I speak. What do you think about what just happened, why did you hit your brother. Nod. Take note of my little ones’ words and hide them away in my heart. Take a civilized tone, present my arguments calmly, but then all of a sudden they refuse to answer or turn around and wander off or stick out their tongues or start giggling at completely the wrong moment in time, tiny shifts that cause things to veer off in the wrong direction, and then I remember that they’re children, damn it, I think to myself, putting all this energy into taking the right tone and they can’t even be bothered to listen to a single word I say, and then we’re off, and I cast off my kind expression and reach for a different one altogether, then I'm BAD BAD BAD, and we hurtle into the rougher half of the interrogation, the scolding, the punishment, and then nothing can stop me, not the wobble of chins or the tremble of lips, not the eyes that fill with tears, because now they have no one but themselves to blame, without you I can’t remember where the line is or if it even exists at all, without you I lose my grip.
What is it that actually occurs? When my rage gets the better of me and every ounce of patience kindness warmth is driven out, does it happen gradually, or is it more like the flipping of a switch? Am I more the former than the latter? What if I’m more the latter. What if my rage has filled my core and transformed it, what if it’s become the very essence of my approach to all things, something that is only very occasionally stifled. Recurrent attacks, each worse than the one that came before it, a syndrome without cure. What is it that actually occurs? I think something, do something, say something, ask for something, promise something, expect something. Whatever I expect fails to materialize. They stand or sit or lie there and refuse to cooperate, insist on contradicting me. After everything I’ve done for them, after everything I’ve put up with, after all the patience I've exercised. A caring tone, predictable actions, gentle hands. I’ve followed the rules, I have. So what? What now? Will I once again be denied my evening, that time I’ve longed for, the opportunity to think in peace, to cook alone, to be a lone body. Yes? The hammering of my heart is fierce and menacing, they come too close, ask too much, gorge themselves on my ever-shrinking existence with an insatiable greed. What’s a person to do? How do other mothers do it? I think of the little group I found myself seated opposite on a train heading south, a mother with two young children, somewhere between four and six years old, I assumed. They wanted this and wanted that and needed this and needed that, their demands were never-ending. And, if it’s true what they say, that young children make around three demands per minute, then this woman, over the course of the two hours I observed her, was bombarded with around twelve hundred such demands. Over the course of those hours she replied to their questions and whinges and wails with quiet composure, occasionally ignoring them, occasionally smiling, and every so often she honored their requests, around ten times all in all, I think. All the time I watched her, I thought NOW. This is it, this will be the thing that tips her over the edge. Little brats, can’t you just leave her alone. Can't you see she’s on course to explode? But she didn’t explode. And I couldn't understand it. I thought to myself: what is she doing? Is this a trick? Perhaps I should take my children on train journeys with me, because witnesses keep you in check, the movement through the landscape seems to have a soothing effect and helps you maintain your composure, your dignity as a mother, it helps you be someone else for just a few short hours, the person you hoped you might become.
I scalp them one-by-one, no mean feat, the largest of them is surprisingly heavy. Are they ready? Are they ready are they ready are they ready? they shout, just five more minutes, I hiss, just five minutes, YOU SAID IT WOULDN’T TAKE LONG! one bellows, and I reply by telling them that if they’re going to be like this about it, screaming and hollering and impatient, then we’re just as well not bothering, it makes no difference to me if we have to ditch our preparations because they can’t keep their mouths shut for a single second, can they manage that, do they think? Alas. No. It’s for your sake I’m doing any of this in the first place, I say, your sake and no one else’s, unless you think this is my idea of a bloody good time, you said a bad word, Mummy, she says, Yes I bloody well did! I say, I’m spending my evening scooping the insides out of a vegetable, do you think this is the kind of thing I’d choose to be doing, do you really think that’s how it works? No. She doesn’t think that. Two hours later, we carry the hollowed-out, decorated vegetables out onto the front steps and light candles inside them. We’ve dressed up as ghosts, Dracula and an evil, old witch. We wait. Someone’s coming! one of them whispers. I nod. The sound of voices outside, laughter and hollering. Put on your masks, I whisper, and place a hand on the doorknob, let the door slide open, slow and creaky, BOO! we scream, as agreed, and the two monsters on the steps jump back, one drops a decapitated head straight onto the granite, it bounces down the steps and stops on the gravel. Oh, he says. Trick or treat, the other one mumbles. VERY GOOD! I say. Dracula holds up the bowl of treats. Three pieces each, she says firmly. We haven’t ever come to this house before, the headless one says. No? I reply. He shakes his head. It’s scary here. Nonsense, I say, then roar long and hard with laughter before slamming the door shut. Everything falls silent. The skeletons hanging from the ceiling shake, the spider webs quiver, the candles on the chest of drawers are blown out, Dracula is furious. Mummy! She stares at me. Why do you have to say those things? We’ll never make friends if you keep being like this! That’s enough, I say, tearing off my witch’s hat. The ghosts are in tears. I was only joking! She shakes her head, blood trickles from the corners of her mouth and down her chin, her throat, her chest. God, you’re so bloody ungrateful, I say. Why do you always have to be so cross! Dracula shouts, spitting out her fangs, and they fly out of her mouth and hit my foot, and that’s when it all becomes too much, I open the door and crouch down beside the pumpkins, pick them up and toss them down the front steps one-by-one until they’re all gone. Bed—NOW! I bellow. Skin and flesh and candlewax and sweets and snot and tears everywhere.
There was a time when they were calmer as I put them to bed, they smiled as I hummed, their eyes shining darkly from their beds as I turned out the lights, holding my gaze, and I could sit there and witness their surrender, the drowsy shuffling of limbs, as if underwater, eyelids that succumbed to sleep, their breathing eventually slow, steady. When you love someone, they can feel it. I have it in me. There was a time that different versions of you and I and the children existed. Don't say that we’ll never find them again.
I march from room to room, slamming doors behind me. Be careful, you say, those doors are old, they’ll break if you carry on like that, you know that as well as I do. Now you mention things breaking, I say, have you seen the chunks of plaster that come away from the outside walls when anyone touches them? Have you been in the loft lately and noticed that rotten smell, as if something’s died up there? Have you seen where something has been eating away at the rafters, tiny holes everywhere, the evidence all over the floor, piles of wood dust an inch high? Have you noticed the musty smell in the hallway between the bedrooms? Can you feel the way the floorboards are beginning to sag beneath our feet? Have you noticed the roof tiles coming loose and the ratholes all over the lawn and the stench of urine in the bathroom?
You stare at me, perplexed. What do you mean, what piles, what smell, what stench, what about the floorboards? Stop pretending that I’m imagining all of these things! I shout. You need to calm down, you say, the children are sleeping. No! I shout. I’m not imagining things! I’m not imagining the stench of urine or the mice in the walls or the pigeons in the loft or the damp, crumbling walls or the woodboring beetles in the timber or the salty deposits on the walls in the basement or the ivy creeping into the loft or the screeching magpies in every tree or the sparrows darting around the corners of the house, they're nesting in the eaves! I’m not imagining these things! Please, you say. Can’t we take things one at a time.
No, no, no, no, there’s no such thing as one at a time, one thing drags the next thing along with it, worries refuse to slot into place in orderly rows and columns, worries become tangled up in one another, single thoughts accumulate, they stack up, sway to-and-fro. What if we've been tricked, what if the previous owner knew that this place was falling apart, what if that was why she sold it to us, what if that's why nobody else wanted it. That’s nonsense, you say. But nobody else put an offer in, I say. Not high enough at least, you say. What if you get sick of all this, I say, what if you find someone else, someone younger and softer and prettier at one of your stupid seminars, someone with a green thumb and an interest in aesthetics, what if you take her up to your room and leave me behind, what if all this, the house and the kids and the garden and everything we thought would bind us together, what if it’s actually our undoing, what if we’re their undoing, what if we spend too much time scolding them and too little time listening, what if I can't stop myself, what if I become dangerous, what if I turn them into something they’re not supposed to be, what if, what if, WHAT IF! I say, I can't stop myself.
But! We’re not supposed to feel troubled by our decline. We’re not supposed to be concerned at the thought of aging. We’re not supposed to feel ashamed of wobbly thighs, flabby upper arms, stomachs that will never be toned again, yellowing toenails, we’re not supposed to compare our skin to the oversized cover of an increasingly rickety piece of garden furniture. We aren't to become hung up on such details. We aren't to curse the river of time, we aren't to grieve. Only shallow people grieve over youthful pictures of themselves, opportunities never taken. Only shallow people find it difficult when confronted by the sight of their own mature reflection in the mirror. Come on, now. You’re supposed to view everything that comes to light over time with curiosity. You’re supposed to embrace your age. Even so, for the odd nanosecond now and then, I catch myself reflecting on things: there should be someone much older here with me, Grandma, for example, someone to educate me in these things, to teach me to take heed, to accept. Wrinkle cream? she would have commented. Superfood? she would have chuckled. Dentures? What are those? she would have asked. First come the wrinkles, then the teeth fall away, and eventually the mouth collapses and leaves a gaping hole behind it. What's done is done, life goes on.
Stop all that, you’re beautiful, you say, turning your gaze toward the bowl. I can't work out if it's the bread dough or me you’re addressing, but it's the bread dough that you’re touching.
How do you love someone so that they feel it?
From Rase. © Monika Isakstuen By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Rosie Hedger. All rights reserved.
Andreas Tjernshaugen details the new industrialized whaling of the nineteenth century and early warnings that the industry might lead to extinction of its quarry.
Early one Sunday morning in October 1865, a fisherman called Olof Larsson was hunting small game among the smooth rocks on the coast at Askimsviken outside Gothenburg, Sweden. There he spied something unusual sticking up out of the sea some forty meters from the shoreline. At first he thought it was wreckage. But as soon as he reached the water’s edge his doubts vanished: it was a living creature lying out there, struggling to free itself.
Olof had never seen anything like it before. But he realized it could only be a whale. He rushed off to fetch his brother-in-law, Carl.
Carl Hansson had been to sea. He had seen whales out on the North Sea and he knew they were terrible monsters that might, in the worst of cases, try to swallow up your vessel. So for safety’s sake, he opted for a large boat. The two men hoisted sail and tacked towards the beast until they were about twenty-five meters away.
The whale lay on its belly, listing slightly to one side. It was motionless for the most part. About every fifth minute, it would draw in breath, give a jerk and try to hurl itself up into the air. Its tail would rise a man’s height above the water, then slap back down again. Its flippers flapped like wings. Its spout was like dense fog and sounded like a clap of thunder or “a deep bass voice, but with the force of a ship’s steam whistle,” as August Wilhelm Malm would describe it. The echo rang against the mountainsides.
Olof dared not proceed. He returned to land and could not be persuaded to attack the brute. Carl attempted it alone. But when the boat was three or four meters away, he too became afraid and turned back. Close to shore, he summoned up his courage and set out again. He attacked the whale with a knife fastened onto a long boathook, just in front of the two blowholes. To no avail. The whale barely noticed it had been stabbed. It continued struggling to get free but instead its efforts carried it ever further into the shallows.
When Olof saw he could safely approach the whale, he went out in the boat too. He was the one who discovered that the whale’s eye had emerged from the water. The whale blinked like a human being.
The two fellows decided to poke the whale’s eye out so it couldn’t see them. The knife and the boathook sank more than half a meter into the eye socket. A thin stream of blood spurted out. It ran out the way beer does when you poke a hole in the barrel, Carl thought, and it carried on that way for half an hour. The sea around them was dyed red. The whale struck out violently with its tail and fins, but it could no longer lift its head. It merely sank deeper into the sand.
Now Carl took to hacking at the whale’s head with an ax. As long as he stood in the boat, he achieved no visible results, but eventually he clambered up onto the head and from there, he managed to hack a deep notch just behind the blowholes. Blood welled up from the wound, running down into the blowholes and coloring the spout red. Soon, Carl was totally drenched in blood as he stood there, hacking away with his ax. The ax blows caused the whale to jerk so forcefully that Carl was obliged to return to the boat on several occasions until it had calmed down. The whale responded especially violently if touched close to its mouth.
From ten o’clock until half past three in the afternoon, Carl worked away with the ax up there on the whale’s head. Then the men secured the whale to land with a hawser and went home. They told nobody what they were up to out in Askimsviken.
The whale was still breathing when they turned up the next morning. Its attempts to break free had carried it even closer to land and the tide was low, so the men could reach it more easily now. Carl slashed the animal in the eye and the belly with a scythe. The stream of blood that gushed from the eye was as thick as an arm and lasted at least an hour this time. At around eleven o’clock, Carl made a deep wound behind one of the flippers. Air began to come out of the wound as the breathing through the two holes on top of the head stilled.
As the afternoon wore on, the whale lay almost motionless, although it continued to bleed. At around three o’clock, the whale’s body abruptly rose in a great arc. The whale lifted clear of the surface of the water, supported only by its head and tail. Then it thundered back down again, “so that the waters parted with a terrible crash.” After that, it lay quite still. It had been thirty hours since Olof Larsson discovered the beached whale.
If you buy a ticket, you can still see it. Even after 150 years, the blue whale of Askimsviken is the biggest attraction at Gothenburg Natural History Museum, and it’s still the world’s only stuffed blue whale.
Since it was just over sixteen meters long when it died, this was a whale calf that had recently stopped suckling its mother. It had been born the previous winter, probably somewhere south of the Azores. At that time it would have been about seven meters long, and weighed two or three tons. Over the spring, it followed its mother north. Mother’s milk, with the consistency of yogurt and containing up to fifty percent fat, gave it the necessary strength. Its mother showed the calf the best grazing spots. Some of them were probably far out to sea, but perhaps they also visited Iceland, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, or the coast of Finnmark, Northern Norway. It is possible they were unlucky enough to be shot at. In those days, a few pioneers were trying out something quite new: catching blue whales with the aid of steam power and explosives.
On the autumn migration back south, the young male calf took an unusual detour to the east. Perhaps, being inexperienced, he lost his way. He must have rounded the southern coast of Norway, then Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark, and set a course into the Kattegat between Denmark and Sweden. And then he ended his life in the shallows of Gothenburg’s skerries. If he had survived it would have taken him several years to become capable of reproduction. A sexually mature male is at least twenty meters long and at least twice as heavy as the whale that ended up in the museum at Gothenburg.
August Wilhelm Malm of the Natural History Museum thought the whale he had bought from the two fishermen was a hitherto unknown species. In a grand gesture, he christened it after his wife, Caroline: Balaenoptera carolinae. The name was not adopted by other zoologists.
The truth was, in fact, that there had already been numerous scientific descriptions of the same species. Each time one of these gigantic whales was found in civilized parts, it caused a sensation. Zoologists who got a chance to examine a beached specimen had seldom seen anything like it before. Like August Wilhelm Malm, they often imagined that they had discovered a creature hitherto unknown to science. The result was that as many as twelve different scientific names had previously been proposed for animals that were probably all blue whales. Today the blue whale is called Balaenoptera musculus, as originally proposed by Linnaeus based on a description of an animal he himself had not seen.
The shortcomings of the anatomical descriptions and sketches that accompanied the suggested names did little to lessen the confusion. They reflected the unmanageable size of the creatures, the difficult working conditions on the beaches where the carcasses lay, not to mention the decomposition that was often far advanced before the arrival of a scientist with more or less expertise in whale-related matters.
But regardless of its species, August Wilhelm Malm had laid his hands on a rare zoological treasure. He got straight down to organizing the salvage work. It took three steamships and two coal barges to transport the carcass into town, where thirty workers were employed to flay and dismember the animal, in a stinking race against decomposition—and the gawkers who kept stealing scraps of the whale as souvenirs. The sheets of skin were fixed to a specially designed wooden frame using 30,000 zinc and copper pins. The structure was built in four separable sections, which made it easier to transport the whale.
The museum whale was equipped with hinges in its neck, so that the upper jaw could be flipped open. This allowed visitors to study the remarkable baleen up there. It was even possible to climb into the belly of the whale, just like Jonah in the Bible. The interior was cozily furnished with benches and wallpaper and all. The decision to fit it with a moveable upper jaw may have been made on practical grounds, but it is hardly consistent with baleen whale anatomy. When a living whale opens its mouth, the lower jaw is the one that moves.
The whale was exhibited in Gothenburg and Stockholm with great success. However, a planned tour of Europe got stranded in Berlin, and the wealthy burghers of Gothenburg had to open their wallets to buy back the whale from the creditors.
August Wilhelm Malm wrote up the tale of the museum whale’s discovery and preparation and had it printed, together with photographs and an exhaustive scientific description, in a fine, deluxe edition in French. The Malm Whale, as it was known, enjoyed a brief moment of scientific stardom. But experts’ interest rapidly waned when the launch of industrial whaling offered access to plentiful supplies of blue whale carcasses. Nonetheless, the blue whale in Gothenburg remained a popular museum artifact. On one occasion in the early 1900s, a couple were discovered making love inside the belly of the whale, which prompted the museum to place restrictions on entry into this unusual space. Nowadays, visitors to the museum are only allowed to clamber in through the jaws of the grotesque, blackened treasure on special occasions.
The sixteen-meter long stuffed whale is enormous. And yet it would pale into insignificance beside the world’s largest preserved whale skeleton—a twenty-seven-meter blue whale shot off the coast of Iceland. This record-holding skeleton is exhibited in the small town of Tønsberg in southeast Norway. Tønsberg’s Slottsfjell Museum stands by the hill where Norway’s medieval kings had their great halls and fortified walls built, and where they besieged one another when civil war broke out. Before getting to the whalebones, you pass through exhibitions displaying the remains of Viking ships, along with bronze jewelry and swords.
Right at the end of the building, beyond a section containing artifacts from Tønsberg’s days as a whaling and sealing town in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, lies the whale hall. The giant mounted skeletons are packed tightly together. The blue whale, which dominates the room, was shot with a harpoon cannon from a steamship, then hauled into the Norwegian-run whaling station in Hellisfjord, Iceland, in the summer of 1901. At the busy factory the blue whale bones were not, for once, sawn up and boiled down to produce oil. Instead they were cleaned and taken home to Tønsberg.
At the far end of the exhibition room, beside the tip of the giant skeleton’s snout, a small brass plaque explains that this particular blue whale skeleton is the largest preserved specimen of a living species anywhere in the world. The reason for the reservation about it being a “living” species is that some long-necked dinosaurs were longer from their snout to the tip of their tail than even the largest blue whales. As for body mass—the dinosaurs didn’t even come close. And the bones either side of the blue whale’s lower jaw are the very largest bones ever seen in the animal kingdom. These dimensions would be normal for a tree.
No employees are to be seen in this corner of the museum. The exhibits are not roped off and directly beneath the blue whale’s ribcage is a bench where visitors can sit.
If things had gone the way many people feared, the world’s largest whale skeleton might have been better guarded. At the time when it arrived in Tønsberg, there was some doubt about how much longer there would still be blue whales in the oceans of the world. Perhaps the whale would soon belong among the “museum animals,” warned one member of parliament during a debate on whaling in 1903: “Practically speaking, the blue whale has vanished from our coasts,” stated another. He thought the species should now be conserved and protected, for its own sake, as a kind of remnant of the giants of the past.
But would people really miss the whales, any more than they missed extinct giant sloths and mastodons? Did they really matter to the well-being of humanity? These questions were posed by one of the speakers in a previous parliamentary debate as early as 1885. He admitted that it would be a disadvantage to lose the opportunity for whaling, but otherwise, he said, he did not know “whether the Whale plays such a role in the world that it would be any great calamity if it were to wholly depart the ranks of Living Creatures.”
This is where modern whaling began. It was people from Tønsberg who established whaling operations using the fast, steam-powered boats, grenades, and harpoon cannons that made the possible extinction of the blue whale a topic of debate. Over the course of seventy years at least, Vestfold County—including the towns of Tønsberg, Sandefjord and Larvik—was the world’s whaling hub. Whaling expeditions headed first to the Finnmark coast. Later, they went all over the world.
In the Antarctic in particular, the blue whale nearly died out. This was where the majority of the world’s blue whales originally lived, and the Antarctic subspecies, which is today considered critically threatened with extinction, was the biggest. The largest individuals were around five meters longer than the one that ended up in the museum in Tønsberg. They were several dozens of tons heavier.
Dozens of tons. We still share the planet with animals so huge that we struggle to imagine whether ten or thirty tons would make any discernible difference. We nearly finished off the very largest of them, and the yellowing wooden bench beneath the whale’s ribcage in Tønsberg is a good place to mull the question posed by that member of parliament in 1885.
Would it have been any great calamity?
From Hvaleventyret. Hvordan vi nesten utryddet det største dyret som har levd. © Andreas Tjernshaugen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Lucy Moffatt. All rights reserved.
My Norwegian ex-boyfriend always accused me of selective comprehension. If he said something I didn’t want to hear, he claimed, I would forget the vocabulary necessary to translate it. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps that is the chief luxury of socializing in a foreign language: it’s easier to pretend ignorance. We were living together in Oslo, on his turf and in his mother tongue. I’d argue that I was being extra cautious in order to avoid a potentially hurtful mistranslation. I know you know what I said, he’d insist. Usually, I did. And then I’d begin the steps that follow knowing: understanding, translating, thinking, translating, and speaking my split mind.
For the better part of two years I operated entirely in Norwegian, in a self-taught and unstable form of the language that the locals humored. One of those years I spent dating this man from the heart of the country, a man whose regional dialect compelled him to call inanimate objects by “he” or “she” even though formal Norwegian, unlike French, didn’t require it. Selecting a jar of mustard at the supermarket, he’d say, “We’ll take him!” I dislike mustard, but I loved the phrasing.
I often wondered whether my relationships and friendships abroad were boosted by this kind of linguistic pleasure. He liked it when I messed up prepositions. He’d put our hunk of Jarlsberg near the sink, then in the sink, then behind. Then there’d be a quiz. Nær, i, and bak all resembled their English equivalents, but only if I looked closely: the “e” and “a” in “near” switched order; the “c” in “back” and the “n” in “in” disappeared. The words “over” and “under” were the same in both our languages, which felt like having so much in common.
I’d begun studying Norwegian during my first solitary summer in the far north, years before I’d relocated to the more bustling Oslo. I’d become enchanted by the introverted-but-swashbuckling novels of Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize-winning national bard whose malignant politics as a ninety-year-old have complicated his legacy. It was a thrill to read his novels while living in the same towns and territories where Hamsun had lived a century earlier—reading first in English, then terribly slowly in the original. I couldn’t get enough of his sweeping but detailed accounts of isolated emotional lives.
I loved best the passage toward the end of his early novel Hunger, in which the protagonist begs his beloved for permission to kneel before her on the carpet:
Nu går jeg! Nu går jeg! Kan De ikke se, at jeg allerede har Hånden på Låsen? Farvel! Farvel, siger jeg! … jeg viser Dem det Sted, hvor jeg vilde knælet for Dem, der borte på den røde Rose i Tæppet. Jeg peger ikke med Fingeren engang, jeg peger slet ikke, jeg lader det være, for ikke at forskrække Dem, jeg nikker bare og ser derhen, således! Og De forstår meget godt, hvilken Rose, jeg mener, men De vil ikke tillade mig at knæle der…
I’m going! I’m going! Can’t you see I already have my hand on the lock? Farewell! Farewell I say! … I showed you the place where I would have knelt before you, over there on the red rose in the carpet. I’m not pointing with my finger, I’m absolutely not pointing, I’m leaving it be, so as not to frighten you, I only nod and look toward it, like so! And you understand me entirely, which rose, I mean, but you will not allow me to kneel there…
Hamsun relied upon frustration, neglect, and the deep inner recesses of his protagonist’s private personality to express a universal romantic longing. The heroes and heroines of Hamsun’s novels missed each other, more often than not, but their fleeting exchanges built rope bridges between one loneliness and another.
My Norwegian girlfriends told me that my boyfriend belonged to a breed of Norwegian man called kjekk og greie, literally “hot and OK.” It meant that he was upstanding, energetic, idealistic, well-raised, and essentially ordinary—something akin to a Norwegian “bro.” But kjekk og greie didn’t translate to “bro” in my mind. It had more to do with finely knitted sweaters and the Holmenkollen ski jump than baseball caps and frat houses, and in my boyfriend’s case, more to do with a reticent playfulness than a party personality.
I had always been excessively effusive, excessively affectionate—in other words, a touchy-feely breed of New Yorker. In Oslo, I would compliment strangers on their platform sneakers and their ponchos. I soon learned that Norwegians deliver praise in the past tense. It seemed an extension of the country’s social modesty and its cold weather. Så fin du var (“How fine you were”) was the only way to say, “Right now you look beautiful.” The Crown Prince Håkon had gotten married a few years earlier and included in his speech the phrase, Jeg elsker deg (“I love you”). The Norwegian media was shocked by this explosive declaration of passion.
When my boyfriend and I later wanted to make declarations, they came in phases. First there was Jeg liker deg—“I like you.” Then, a big step: Jeg er glad i deg. Literally, “I am happy in you.” It’s romantic, but noncommittal; sincere, but not serious. It’s as far as most dating couples get. Norwegians can be glad i lots of things: it is common to be happy in waffles, happy in cross-country skiing, happy in tomato mackerel paste. The closest English translation is “fond”— it’s doting, but flexible.
The day my boyfriend used the verb elske, as the Crown Prince had, he immediately added: and that’s something I never say. New couples have similar queasiness about confessing love in the States. But this elske moment made an impression commensurate to the rareness of the word—I can’t think of a word in English used as sparingly. We’ve been broken up now for eight years, but I still remember that he said it on May 4. It felt to me like an international Norwegian-American holiday.
I continued to pore through the major Norsk poets, looking for a guide to northern relationships. Inger Hagerup lived from the start to the end of the twentieth century and filled her time and her country with sensitive, wistful, resistant, romantic, conscientious lyrics that glorified her internal and external landscapes.
klø sine ferske myggstikk
med doven ettertenksomhet
og være ung og meget rik
på uopplevet kjærlighet.
scratch fresh mosquito bites
with lazy contemplation
and be young and very full
of unexperienced love.
Hagerup sketched in negative space: unexperienced love, unwritten letters, unlit hearths, and unwalked paths frequently called forth and described what she most desired. In pairing what she lacked with what she needed, she’d found a poignant and understated way to celebrate the whole.
I walked in that same lazy contemplation through the Vigeland sculptures in Oslo, taking in their mammoth grace. Vigeland’s human figures had succeeded in expressing the most raging and saturated emotions, day in and year out, against every color of sky and weather, without uttering any kind of word. I felt so devoted to them, so attached to their company, visiting the sculpture park became a compulsion.
There were moments of silence in Norwegian daily life that English would have chatted straight through. Then again, there were moments of physical communication that made up for it. I suppose the differences between these love cultures—these alternating sources of pride and shame and lust and withholding—are all made moot by the fact that love is not, at bottom, verbal. What happens to a physical relationship in the absence of a shared spoken language? Does physical contact become supercharged, as hearing does for the blind, or is it burdened with misplaced significance? Do we hold sex responsible for communicating more than it ever could? I felt an exaggerated physical eagerness in my foreign relationships that matched the converse terror: if we didn’t have good sex, we had nothing. Depending on the quality of our sensual experience, postcoital silence either transcended language or desperately lacked it.
In June following that memorable May, my brother got married. I left my boyfriend’s apartment for what I’d imagined would be a quick trip to Los Angeles, and got arrested at the Oslo Gardermoen airport. Schengen Area laws forbade U.S. citizens from spending more than three of any consecutive six months in Norway; I’d been there for three months and five days this time, and in total, for more than two years. The border control officers scanned my passport and prohibited me from entering Norway again for fifteen months. My boyfriend and I tried to stay together long-distance, but here our communication was put to a four-thousand-mile test and failed.
It didn’t surprise either of us that the mutually entertaining little discrepancies of our culture clash weren’t enough to support a real connection. In retrospect, it was wrong of me to conflate person and place, to funnel the discovery of an entire new geography into our single household. Over the near decade since our split, I’ve relied on the wide canon of Nordic literature for more permanent and instructive expressions of romance in the Norwegian language—a language I truly love.
All couples assemble a unique vocabulary, no matter which languages they start with. But the search for fluency has stuck with me: a relationship, anywhere, still feels like a gathering and sharpening of all possible tools, and the coming together of two minds still feels like an act of translation.
© 2019 by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight. All rights reserved.
Roskva Koritzinsky's short story portrays a young dancer's alienation in a Stockholm gripped by a lurid trial.
At the age of nineteen, I went to Stockholm to attend the Ballet Academy. It was around that time when people had started doubting whether or not Sture Bergwall had really committed the murders he had been accused of. The TV reporters followed him from crime scene to crime scene. He went around in a daze, bug-eyed behind thick lenses and looking like a dying giant insect that had lost all sense of orientation and its ability to fly. Bergwall was discussed during school breaks, in the dance studios with legs propped up on the bar or on the floor during stretches. When the pianist sat down to play, we grew quiet. I remember standing for a long time in front of the mirror in the mornings without doing much. It was a long, cold winter. I was restless and bored. In the streets of Stockholm, the air was crisp and clear, the air in the dance studios smelled intimate and dispassionate, of sweat and rubber. I thought of brothels and hospitals; that was the winter I came to understand I would not be a dancer after all.
In the afternoons, I read French literature. The books were very thin. I didn't care much about what was written; I liked the melody of the sentences, it calmed me. In the evenings, I went to the top of Skinnarviksberget, I was wearing mittens and a knit hat pulled down over my ears. It was freezing cold and the streets were empty. I stood at the top of the hill and gazed down across the city without feeling homesick.
She appeared one afternoon. We had started practicing for the annual Christmas performance and did not stop until the darkness pressed in hard against the windows of the dance studio. The darkness made me think about unchartered deep waters; I usually walked home quickly while trying to hold my breath.
She stood in the doorway to the dance studio with her arms crossed, looking at us. Her face was empty of expression. Her unbound hair hung down over her shoulders onto a suede sheepskin jacket. When the music stopped, she took a step into the room. Our teacher turned to face her and extended her arms.
E-riiiika. It sounded like a revelation. She walked over to the girl, placed a hand on each of her shoulders, and turned to present her to us like a luxury clothing item.
Erika did not smile. There was something dismissive about her appearance, an innate disregard, I could immediately sense she was the kind of person to fall silent in an argument, who would watch her opponent build themselves up and flatten out again without uttering a single word. She had nothing to defend. She took off her jacket and hung it over a chair. She laced up her winter dance shoes. She didn't seem to care that we all stood there, watching her quietly. She straightened up again, took a hairband from her wrist, and pulled her reddish hair back into a bun. Then she walked with long steps over to the corner of the room and began to warm up, keeping her eyes fixed on her reflection in the mirror.
I won’t describe the way she danced. Let’s just say it was obvious why our instructor had asked her to come show us how it was done. But I have to say something about her face. I have never seen anyone dance with a face like that. It was something that could not be learned, it belonged to her being, it was nothing simpler or more complicated than that. It made me feel sad, but also hopeful. Perhaps it meant there might be something about me that was indescribable and therefore irreplaceable. Something I myself didn’t even recognize and which could never be taken away from me.
I saw her a few days later. It was morning and I was on my way to school. A heavy wind blew through the streets and I looked down as I walked across the cobblestones. Something made me look up, and then there she was, behind the window of a passing bus. Once again, I was filled with the sense that she wasn’t quite human. She was staring straight ahead, not seeming to register the other bus passengers or the city rolling by outside the window. She merely was. Like a doll, or an old photograph pasted into a collage.
What happened next, I will never quite understand: I turned around and went home. I locked myself into my apartment and climbed into bed. Images flamed up and burned to bits before my eyes, and from the ashes, new images bloomed. There was her face, her hands on the table, her hair falling across her forehead. I must have stayed in bed like that for several hours watching these images, without knowing what to do with them or what they meant, but listen: on the street where I grew up, there was an abandoned house, and once Bea and I climbed in through an open window and tiptoed carefully through the rooms, and there is a likeness here, between Erika and that house, both places apparently abandoned, the atmosphere of having been left, as when the soul has just left a room, left a garden, left a body, it’s only then that you notice it. You can ask yourself what are you supposed to do now. The overgrown beds, the faceless mirror above the bureau, the eyes void of thought, void of emotion. Maybe it’s something macabre within us, a need to fill these dead things with our own spirit. No. The garden and the body and the rooms. It wasn’t myself I was looking for there, and it was also not myself I found. It was something else. I didn’t believe in God, and yet I could sense there was a wall in the world and when I shut my eyes and put my cheek up against it, I could hear muffled sounds from the other side.
Advent came, it would be Christmas soon. The day before our performance, I pulled a tendon in my thigh. I couldn’t dance. I sat in the front row eating oranges and scarcely noticed when a family sat down in the empty seats beside me. A woman’s voice snapped out orders to her son who was running through the rows. I looked up disinterestedly. My body went cold when I saw it was Erika. Her cheeks were red with exasperation and she dug around in her purse and pulled out a little stuffed animal with which she coaxed her son back to her. He couldn’t have been older than two. Next to Erika, closest to me, sat a moderately attractive man with his arm on the back of her chair. After she calmed down her son and pulled him onto her lap, Erika turned to the man and quickly stroked his cheek. Just then, she saw me and smiled.
Aren’t you going to dance? she asked.
A moment ago, the thought of Erika’s gaze, her voice, would have made me feel wild with ecstasy. Now I felt cheated.
I pulled a muscle, I replied.
She nodded slowly, and then smiled again before turning her attention back to her son.
The performance began. I knew it was beautifully choreographed and that the dancers were talented, and yet—
I only saw skeletons. I saw twitches in tendons and muscles, toe tips that fell heavily against the floor, bruises on elbows and knees, the work that lay behind all of the beauty, the grit beneath all of the magic. Here was the body-work, the beauty-work, the love-work, I felt dizzy.
That night I slept fitfully.
I dreamed I was walking and walking toward a tall mountain against the horizon. The mountain was covered by a layer of clouds, but when the clouds broke up, the mountain was gone, and the only thing that remained was myself and the other people on the road.
I had never felt so lonely.
And then it was spring.
Sture Bergwall was acquitted and I went home to my flat and packed my things. I locked the door. I left Stockholm in the belief that I would return in the fall, but I did not.
"Fra den andre siden," from Jeg har ennå ikke sett verden. © Roskva Koritzinsky. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Becky Crook. All rights reserved.
Jan Kristoffer Dale's short story follows a weekend trip derailed by an unexpected participant.
They picked him up on Friday afternoon. Kenneth had thought it was only going to be Terje, Tor André, and him on the trip to the cabin in Kverve. But sitting down in the backseat, he saw that Tor André had brought along his workmate, Espen. He looked a few years younger than Kenneth and the others, and dressed differently too. Not to mention his posh, Eastern Norwegian way of speaking. Kenneth noticed Tor André had even started to dress like him: skinny trousers and tight-fitting shirts instead of his usual plaid. Terje was in the back, too. As Kenneth climbed in, Terje grinned and smacked him on the thigh.
“Get out of it,” Kenneth growled.
He threw his bag on the floor and it landed with a clink.
Tor André turned around. “Just bung your stuff in the back, mate. There’s tons of room.”
“Yeah, but give us a beer first!” Terje teased, giving Kenneth’s leg another slap.
Kenneth opened the boot and tossed his bag in.
“You lot bring your skis?” he asked, getting back into the car.
“Just them two,” Terje replied, using his beer to gesture towards Tor André behind the wheel, and Espen in the passenger seat.
“Yep,” said Tor André. “We spoke ’bout it at work.”
Espen turned round to face them and swept his shoulder-length hair behind his ears.
“Would you rather go back and get yours?”
“Nah,” replied Kenneth. “Don’t have no skis what’d work.”
Espen shrugged and turned his attention back to the road. Tor André started the car. Terje cracked open a beer bottle with a jerk of his keys. He took a swig, closed his eyes, and leaned back against the headrest.
Kenneth sighed. “Ahh . . . Yep, that’s the taste of weekend.”
Terje agreed and Tor André nodded. Espen stayed quiet. Stared ahead, with his eyes trained on the narrow, freshly-ploughed gravel road ahead.
“I’d forgotten you lived so deep in the forest,” Tor André said.
“Yup. But it ain’t that bad,” Kenneth replied. “Only twelve minutes and you’re in Osedalen.”
“Twelve minutes?” cried Espen. “It feels as though we’ve been driving forever!”
“Bah, just you wait till we get to this cabin,” said Kenneth. “That’s far into them woods!”
Espen didn’t respond.
Terje drained the last of his bottle and threw it on the floor.
“Oi,” yelled Tor André. “I don’t want no beer on that floor. Beer smells. And I’m not the only one what drives this car.”
“Bah.” Terje wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I’ll pick it up when we get there.”
They stopped off at the Spar in Osedalen to buy beer and food for two days. They couldn't make up their minds about dinner. They usually just made a big pizza when they arrived, but this time Espen and Tor André wanted to roast a lamb shank with potato gratin.
“Espen says he’ll make the lot from scratch,” Tor André explained. “And on Saturday he reckons he can make some kind of pasta.”
“I didn't think we’d be spending so much cash,” said Terje.
“Can't we just get something simple?”
“Oh come on, you lot!” moaned Tor André. “We always have pizza. Let Espen make us something different. You won't regret it.”
As Espen picked up meat, cheese, cream, potatoes, onions, garlic, and greens, Kenneth was reminded of his TV license bill, and the looming car insurance renewal.
“Let's divvy it up at the till,” said Espen.
Just as Kenneth was ready to pay, Espen heaped two joints of lamb, a bag of potatoes and a carton of single cream on top of Kenneth’s shopping.
“Wait up,” said Tor André, coming over with his own basket. He plonked in tomatoes, garlic, fresh pasta, and two bottles of something Kenneth didn't recognize.
“Am I supposed to be shelling out for all this?” Kenneth asked.
“Terje pulled out,” said Espen. “He got himself a pizza.”
“So you and me and Espen’ll split the rest,” explained Tor André.
Kenneth glanced at Terje, waiting at the back of the queue with his own basket. He was getting beer, three frozen pizzas, and a bag of pick ‘n’ mix.
The girl on the till looked up at him. Tor André and Espen glanced at each other.
“Are you feeling like pizza?” Tor André asked.
“Nah,” said Kenneth. “It’s fine.”
Terje took his six-pack into the backseat and cracked open another bottle. Kenneth did the same.
“Take it easy back there,” warned Tor André.
Terje shook his head and took another swig. On the way up past the old factory in Frolands Verk, Tor André and Espen chatted about a seminar they both attended. Kenneth opened another beer, glaring at Terje.
“You could’ve chipped in,” he hissed.
“Nobody told me we were gonna have this bloody posho food,” Terje grumbled.
“Me neither,” Kenneth muttered, gazing out the window. It was starting to snow.
Tor André left the motorway at the turn-off for Kverve, turning onto a narrow gravel road with high snowbanks on either side. Kenneth cast a sideways glance at Terje, who was checking his phone. Its background was a photo of his partner, Charlotte, and his three-year-old son. Charlotte was out of work, and they lived in her parents’ basement. Terje had a job making blasting mats for construction work. Kenneth looked at Terje’s hands: The ends of his fingers were black. Nails ground down to his fingertips. Kenneth regretted saying yes to the trip. He could have stayed home with Heidi this weekend. She had been doing night shifts at the hospital, so this Saturday she would sleep the whole day through. When she woke up late that night, she would be all hot and sweaty. Her blonde, curly hair running wild. He liked her like that. They hadn't slept together for more than two weeks, and he felt his belly getting warm at the thought. The two hundred kroner Kenneth had set aside for the trip should really be going towards the cost of all the food Espen had picked up, but Kenneth had brought along his poker set. Besides, Kenneth had been looking forward to playing cards and, if all went well, he might be able to get back some of the money he lost down in Osedalen.
“All ready for a rand when we get there?” he said, seeing Terje nod.
“A rand?” Espen asked, swiveling round in his seat.
“A rand of poker,” Kenneth repeated.
“You all play poker?”
“You know, I've never played,” Espen said, adding: “But I do play a bit of chess.”
Kenneth just nodded, and Espen turned to face forwards again.
“He's a right Magnus Carlsen,” said Tor André.
Kenneth could see Espen was grinning.
“The fact people even talk about that like a sport really gets on my nelly,” said Terje.
Silence. Then after a pause, Espen spoke up:
“But you know, it actually is a sport.”
“Nope. No sweat, no sport,” Terje declared, dropping another beer on the floor.
Tor André spun around.
“I told you, not on that floor!”
Espen shrieked, “Hey! HEY!”
Tor André spun back to face the road, and jerked the wheel, hard. Kenneth felt his seat belt clamp across his chest and his stomach somersaulting as the car careened off the road. Everyone screamed. The radio cut out. Kenneth felt himself bite his tongue, and tears sprang from his eyes. Tor André cursed and wrenched the door open. The others followed him out, and Terje had to crawl out from Kenneth's side. Kenneth stayed there in the ditch, gazing up at the road. They had narrowly missed driving straight into a group of birch trees, and only now did Kenneth realize how steep the ditch was. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He spat into the snow, and noticed it was red. He could taste iron.
“Bloody Nora,” said Tor André.
Tor André wandered over to the car and climbed inside. When he started it and tried to reverse, its wheels spun in the snow. He tried again, but it wouldn’t budge. Kenneth watched him thump the steering wheel.
Terje had lit a fag and was blowing smoke in Espen’s direction.
“Well, come on lads!” Tor André was waving them back to the car. Kenneth followed Espen and Terje. The snow reached their knees.
“You lot go round the front and shove, and I’ll give her some gas,” he said.
Kenneth gave Terje a pat on the shoulder and gestured for him to follow. The car was buried in snow up to its headlights. Terje brushed them clean.
“She’s in deep,” Kenneth said.
They lined up shoulder to shoulder. It was steep, so Kenneth had to dig his feet into the snow as he leaned against the bonnet with both hands. On one side stood Terje, while Espen was on the other. Tor André counted down from the driver's seat:
“One, two, three!”
Kenneth put all of his weight in. He heard the revs rising. The tires spun and sprayed snow high into the air, but the car refused to move an inch.
From inside the car, they heard Tor André yelling “Push!”
“Give it some, then!” Terje shouted. Kenneth could see he was looking towards Espen.
“I am pushing,” Espen replied. His face was red.
“Pfft. Not enough,” Terje grumbled, turning back to the bonnet.
They took a break and Terje smoked another cigarette. Tor André gave another countdown. There was now a powerful stench of exhaust, and Kenneth was starting to feel dizzy and sick. He spat out some more blood and looked over at Terje, who was biting down on his lip and pushing. Espen slid backward in the snow and fell flat on his stomach. Tor André stopped pressing the accelerator and got out to help him up. Espen brushed the snow off his knees and readjusted his puffer jacket.
“That's too bloody steep,” said Terje, letting out a puff of smoke.
“Not half. We ain’t budging,” Tor André agreed.
“How is the car itself?” Espen asked.
Tor André zipped his jacket back up and tugged his beanie down over his ears.
“Reckon she’s fine,” he said. “It’d be tough to see nothing now.”
He fell quiet for a moment as he regarded the car. Then he said, “Me uncle lives up the road. He’s got a tractor. I'll see if he can come tow us.”
They got back into the car. Kenneth asked whether Espen wanted a beer, but he shook his head.
“He don’t drink beer,” Terje grumbled, removing yet another bottle from the six-pack. Espen turned round to face Terje.
“Well that's probably a good thing, too?” Terje made no response. Just popped off the bottle cap and took a big swig. Kenneth looked over at Tor André, who was holding his mobile to one ear. He put it down on the dashboard.
“Went to voicemail,” he said.
“Is it much further to your cabin?” Espen asked,
“A good three K,” Tor André replied.
“Well that's not too far!”
“Nah,” said Tor Andre. “But we gotta get back home again, ain’t we? And there ain’t no way we’re getting all our stuff up there on foot.”
“Would you mind turning the heating up a tad?” said Espen.
Tor André started the car and said:
“So how's school, Ken?”
“Are you still at school?” Espen asked.
“Just doin’ a couple of adult courses,” Kenneth explained. “At the people’s college.”
Espen said nothing.
“Coz I ain’t got the grades for uni,” Kenneth added.
“Well it's never too late, mate,” Tor André said. “Reckon it’s a good thing what you're doing.”
Terje had polished off another bottle. He wound down the window and tossed it out into the snow.
Kenneth could see Tor André shaking his head. Terje bent down, fished all the other bottles off the floor, and threw them out the window too.
“There!” he said. “Now you don't gotta worry about no beer anymore.” He grabbed a cigarette, opened the door and stepped out. The instant he closed it, Tor André’s phone started to buzz. He answered it.
“Hi. Yep. I did.”
He listened for a moment, then laughed.
“Well, we’ve had ourselves a little accident. Slid off the road. Right now we're in a ditch a couple of kilometers from your farm.”
Tor André paused to listen.
“Yep, that’s what I were thinking.”
He waited for a moment, his clean-shaven jaw illuminated by the blue screen on his phone.
“You there now?”
He nodded and cast a few glances around the car.
“So we'll wait then,” he said. “Cheers, uncle.”
He hung up and turned to face Espen.
“He’s down Arendal right now, but they were away to head up soon anyway. He said he’d be up as fast as he could.”
Espen slumped back into the headrest and groaned.
“That's an hour, easy.” Kenneth said.
“Yeah I know,” Tor André replied.
After half an hour of waiting, Kenneth went to the boot and dug out a bag of crisps. He shared it with the others. The salt burned the cut on his tongue. The bleeding had stopped, but it still felt swollen.
“Which subjects are you studying?” Espen asked.
“Social sciences, Norwegian, and math.”
“And what would you like to study at university?”
Kenneth thought for a moment.
“Wasn’t you thinking of being an engineer?” Tor André asked.
“Yeah, maybe. Dunno. We'll see.”
He thought about the books that lay unopened at the end of his kitchen table. It was so much easier to do anything else but open them. Yesterday he had decided he was going to start his Norwegian language textbook the moment he came home from work, but before he knew it he had mopped the corridor, gone upstairs, and run a bath. Then he had prepared some dough and popped it in the oven. He liked housework. It helped him relax, and he liked seeing things through. When he flicked through the Norwegian textbook after buying it, it had hit home that he didn't even know the difference between masculine and feminine nouns. Or the difference between regular and irregular verbs. More than nine years had gone by since he had left secondary school. That was where he had met Tor André. They had grown up as neighbors in Jomås. Terje hadn't finished high school, instead training to be a welder, and had got a job straight out of school in a factory in Arendal. He had worked there right up until the day it was knocked down. Which was when he got this job making blasting mats. Tor André hadn’t known what he wanted to do after school, so he spent three years doing odd jobs. He worked behind the counter at a Shell in Arendal and delivered copies of the local paper, Agderposten. But one day he made up his mind, and applied to study business and management studies at Agder University. Now he had a career in Arendal. A house and a good wage. All while Kenneth had been skipping from job to job ever since secondary school. Lately he had been working at a warehouse in Skeidar, out near Stoa.
“It takes time to sort your life out,” said Tor André. “Spent a few years working myself.”
Kenneth looked at Espen, who nodded.
“And what’s your story?”
“Me? After school I went straight to university,” Espen said.
“Yeah? What’d you do?”
“Well, I read various things, but my master’s was in business management.”
“Same as Tor André?”
“Well, yes. Almost.”
Terje let out a snort. Tor André stared at him.
“What’s your problem?”
Terje didn't respond. He just opened the door and got out.
“He's pretty sloshed,” Espen said.
Kenneth agreed. “Yep.”
“It's good you're holding back a bit, Ken,” Tor André said. “Can't all get off our faces.”
He checked his watch.
“Reckon my uncle’s gonna be here soon.”
Kenneth opened the car door and got out. Up on the road, Terje was talking into his phone.
“Just get over here, mate,” said Terje before hanging up. Then he looked up at the sky, opened his mouth and caught a snowflake on his tongue. For a fleeting moment, Kenneth thought he looked like a little boy.
“Nah, think I’m alright,” said Kenneth. “Actually, go on then.”
Terje held out his lighter and a red packet of Prince. Kenneth took one and lit it. He hadn't smoked for over three years. He felt a tickle in his throat, then the smoke warming his lungs.
“I'm off,” Terje said.
“Yep. No way I’m about to waste another second of my bloody weekend with them two. Tor André ain’t the same when he's here.”
“Espen, you mean?”
“Yeah. I can't stand it! He gets too fucking big for his boots. You remember the last time we went on a night out with them? The only stuff they spoke ’bout was school and work. You should’ve heard ’em when we drove up to get you. Espen’s brought cava with him. Tor André did too! And he was even saying how he had to go out of his way just to get hold of some beer he could actually drink. Time was, when he used to drink exactly what we drink now.”
“Oh come on! We’ll play cards. Screw what they’re drinking.”
“They ain’t gonna want to play no cards.”
“Well how you getting home?”
“I phoned a mate what’s coming to get me. Could probably take you up to Jomås at the same time.”
Kenneth took another drag. He looked down at the car in the ditch.
“I can't fucking stand them sorts of person. And Tor André’s turning out just the same. Posh pricks. Are you gonna end up like them as well?”
“When your studying’s done? Gonna go and give up poker and homemade pizza?”
“I was looking forward to kicking my feet up this weekend,” Kenneth said.
“Yeah, me as well. But I didn’t know he was bringing along that little shit.”
Kenneth went back to the car where Espen was showing Tor André pictures of a girl on his phone.
“I met her last week. She’s a very sweet girl.”
“Not half,” Tor André agreed.
“Although perhaps she was a little bit . . . simple.”
“How do you mean like?” asked Tor André.
“Just you know, simple. A little bit . . . provincial.”
“Well that's no surprise if you met her in Arendal,” laughed Tor André.
Kenneth spoke up: “Both you and your bird are from Arendal.”
“Yeah, and your bird’s from Froland,” Tor André replied.
“Well so’s me and Terje,” said Kenneth.
The boot opened. They turned around. Kenneth watched Terje getting his bag out.
“What’s he playing at?” Tor André said.
They got out of the car. Terje was walking toward the gravel road. Kenneth and the others followed him. When they got to the turning, Terje dropped his bag to the ground.
“What’re you doin?” Tor André asked. “You going walking on ahead?”
“Nope. Waiting for a lift.”
He had a half-drunk beer bottle in his hand. He held it to his lips and chugged until the bottle was empty.
“Have a good’un,” he said, tossing the bottle into the ditch.
“You’re leavin?” asked Tor André.
“Yeah, I’m fed up of all this.”
“Well it’s your sodding fault we’re standing here, ain’t it?” said Tor André.
“You’re the one who drove into the ditch,” Terje replied.
“Just let him go,” said Espen.
“And who the bloody hell asked you about anything? None of us even invited you!”
“Nah, I invited him,” said Tor André, “And it’s my cabin.”
“No, it’s your old man’s cabin,” Terje spat, picking up his bag. “So go have fun with all your fucking queer food.”
Tor André laughed.
“’Kay, now you’ve gotta pull yourself together, mate.”
Terje turned to look at Kenneth.
“We’ve got room for you, too, Ken. I think those two probs wanna be alone.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean!?” Tor André shouted.
“Don’t matter. Can’t be fucked.”
“Wait,” Kenneth shouted, but Terje was already turning the corner.
“Fuck him,” said Tor André. “He turns into such a fucking dick when he’s drunk.”
“He was looking forward to this.”
They went back to the car. Kenneth found himself a beer, opened it, and drank it as quietly as he could in the backseat.
“You know, I think the trip is going to be a lot more enjoyable now,” Espen said.
That was when they heard the tractor. A quiet, far off grumbling. Kenneth lifted the bottle to his lips and drank. The sound got louder. He turned around, looked up at the road, and saw the headlights shining through the snow and the bare birch branches.
“I ei grøft,” from Arbeidsnever. © Kolon forlag 2016. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Bruce Thomson. All rights reserved.
On Christmas Eve, a bus driver transports a fragile passenger in Levi Henriksen's short story.
Listen to Levi Henriksen read "All the Way Home" in the original Norwegian.
I don’t know how she managed to get out, but suddenly she’s just standing there. Again I am struck by how well she has aged. Every time I look at myself in the mirror, my face looks like a photograph of drought-stricken flatlands in Africa, where the earth is full of cracks and nothing can live or grow any longer. Else’s face is like a savannah where everything looks just as it did twenty years ago.
“I’m going home,” is all she says and hands me five hundred kroner.
I know only too well where home is and look at my cell phone lying in front of me beside the steering wheel. I accept her banknote and smooth it out, even though it has never been folded, while I search for signs that she recognizes me. But her face is like a page in a diary that has never been written. No questions asked, no attempts to find any answers. Her mascara is brushed on perfectly, her lips are shiny red, and her eye shadow is, as usual, the same color it was back when I thought she could have been one of the women from ABBA.
I look at my phone again and glance into the interior of the bus behind me through the rearview mirror. About a half-dozen people are seated there. High-spirited stragglers, but also some who have just ended their shift and had a drink with colleagues before catching the last bus home before Christmas. I know I should call. I know I should stall while I try to get someone to come. But I am reluctant. I don’t think I can handle the looks, the way something evasive will slide over the eyes of the other passengers, something a bit patronizing, while Else’s eyes will just become helpless. Maybe even reproachful.
“No charge on Christmas Eve,” I say and hand back the banknote along with a ticket. Else nods and smiles and moves all the way to the back of the bus. I swallow and think back to the time when she would always sit in the front seat.
The snowfall started this morning as a silent sifting. Like when you lift up a bag of sugar in the store and there are almost invisible holes in the packaging. Now it looks like the bottom has broken apart completely and the snowflakes are as large as moths seeking out the headlights of the bus. For me, it’s been many years since it made any difference whether Christmas was white. The ground could have been covered only with beads of rime and the spruce trees along the road been as stiff as pokers, like blue-green souvenirs the autumn couldn’t be bothered to clear away, or all blanketed with snow, as they are now. It makes no difference. The Christmas spirit is something a person has within and there are no longer any seasons inside me.
I stuck the bottle of aquavit from the bus service company in my bus driver bag. Should all else fail, at the very least the taste of it will remind me of Christmas. Both Arne and Berit have invited me over and expressed genuine concern about my spending Christmas Eve alone, but I said that it wouldn’t cost me anything to drive the last run of the day again this year. That the old drivers did the same for me when my children were small. Both of them said that they understood, and I will see them all anyway at Christmas breakfast tomorrow. They will save some of the presents, at least the ones that are from me to my grandchildren. I told them I’m looking forward to it, and it’s true, at least in a way. I also told them that I have put their presents under the Christmas tree at home and that I will think of them when the time comes to open them. That’s not true. At least not the part about the Christmas tree. I couldn’t find any reason to have a Christmas tree this year, a sixty-one-year-old man alone in a huge house. But I’ve hung up the star in the window and put out what I have in the way of Christmas elves and angels, so at least from the outside it looks like Christmas.
When the children were little, yes, until they were teenagers and also on a few sporadic occasions after they’d moved into studio apartments in Oslo, we had a tradition of going out to find a tree together. Eventually, as they grew older, they went alone, but at first they always sat on the big sledge my father had used for hauling in wood from the stockpiles he had throughout the forest. Their mother was always dressed in her red Christmas cape, while the children wore red stocking caps that reflected whatever Christmas program was popular on television that particular year. I’ve always been a pretty poor fisherman and have never even held a rifle in my hands, so these times with my wife and children out in the forest filled me with a sense of connection to my parents, the first Forest Finns to settle in the town of Skogli. There was something about going out into the woods with a saw over my shoulder that made me feel self-sufficient. It’s another feeling altogether to sit behind the wheel of a bus. But even though I was the one who sweated away with the saw, the one who got his face full of snow when it sprinkled down from the branches, it was always the children who chose the tree. We agreed about that. Many of our friends shook their heads when they saw the spindly tree branches we’d decorated, but if Christmas isn’t first and foremost for the children, who is it for? I remember one year in particular when Arne insisted we take a warped spruce tree because it reminded him of something from Lord of the Rings. I have never read Tolkien and don’t know what or who the spruce tree supposedly reminded him of, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finer Christmas tree.
I pull up at the last stop before the city limits and let off two men who I believe are nurses. I smile, nod, and wish them a Merry Christmas.
There are street lights illuminating the road headed out of Kongsvinger now, all the way to the turn-off down to Skogli. It wasn’t like this before and I remember we drove here, just the two of us, after we got married. That was also in December. I felt oddly shy in a way I’ve never felt since. It had nothing to do with my expectations about the wedding night; we had essentially got all that business out of the way and it was precisely for that reason we had to get married when we did, before the bulge under her wedding dress became too conspicuous. Nonetheless, I was tortured by a kind of feeling of inadequacy, by a sense that I lacked all the qualities a good husband should have. What did I know about being a father? I had never picked up a child, never held one close to my body, and kids had always made me feel a little ill at ease. Children seemed fragile and my hands better suited for gripping things tightly than for lifting something with care. But it all worked itself out and I believe I was the first man in the village to take paternity leave, at least in a manner of speaking. Of course no such schemes existed back then, but I spent my holiday learning how to be a father.
I try to swallow away the salty taste in my mouth and think about the time I carried my wife over the threshold of our new house. Although we didn’t make love that night, we slept with our fingers intertwined. Since then my hand has never stopped searching for hers at night, not even now when she’s no longer there.
I stop at the turn-off leading to the abandoned railway station and let off a guy I went to school with. When he shakes my hand and wishes me a Merry Christmas I can smell the alcohol on him and I think that he’s the kind of man who never makes it all the way home, even though he managed to catch the last bus this evening.
Only one more stop remains. I glance into the rear-view mirror and Else is sitting and looking out the window as if she’s never been here before. I pass Lake Flyktningsjøen where the children learned to swim and stop in front of the abandoned store where in the early years we used to do our Christmas shopping. At Eben Ezer Church all the lights are on, but this year there’s no nativity scene out front. The sheriff never did find out who set it on fire on New Year’s Eve last year.
“Last stop,” I say and the young couple seated halfway back in the bus stand up. I have to avert my face a bit, so they won’t see how touched I am by the way they hold hands as they step off the bus. Else also gets to her feet. I reach for my phone, but turn around instead.
“You can just stay seated, tonight I’ll drive you all the way home,” I say and Else does as I say without any apparent misgivings. I think about my car which is parked outside the bus garage and know that I am committing a serious dereliction of duty. But it’s Christmas and after forty-one years on the job, I don’t have a single blemish on my driving record. Once upon a time that was something that filled me with pride.
Through the driving snow I can see the lights blinking on the trees along the road, and I hope I left the lights on in the house so it won’t be waiting there like a snowbound tombstone in the night. I take the turn up by Lake Flyktningsjøen and almost graze one of the lights at the railway crossing. On one single occasion I drove a truck up these hills. That was when I transported cement for the foundation wall, but I’ve never driven a bus here and skid my way into first gear. I did forget to turn the lights on in the house itself, but our old Star of Bethlehem is shining hospitably in the kitchen window.
“Here we are,” I say and turn toward the back of the bus.
“How dark it is,” Else says and a look of bewilderment comes over her as she gets out of her seat.
“That’s just because the lights aren’t on,” I say and turn off the ignition.
“Are you getting off too?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say and nod. “I’ve parked the bus now. It’s Christmas Eve.”
“Yes, of course,” she says. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
I lead her off the bus by the hand and into the house, help her take off her coat, and show her into the sitting room.
“I just have to make a phone call,” I say and go into the kitchen and close the door behind me. Then I call the home and let them know where she is.
When I come into the sitting room, she’s taken the wedding photograph down off the wall.
“What a beautiful bridal couple,” she says.
“Yes,” I say and wrap my arms around her. “People always used to say that you and I looked like a couple of film stars when we were young.”
“Hele veien hjem” © Levi Henriksen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Diane Oatley. All rights reserved.
In this extract from Linn Strømsborg’s novel, a woman just out of graduate school moves back in with her parents and resumes her adolescence.
Høybråtenveien 23 K
It starts again, this feeling in the pit of my stomach, as soon as I’m alone in my old room at home: the feeling that time is standing still, that I’m the same as when I was eleven and fifteen and twenty-four. I lie on my bed, then get up and walk around a bit. I look out of the window and draw the curtains so I can’t see the windows on the other side—all the lights from kitchens, bedrooms, kids’ rooms. I open the closet and toss my bag in, shut it again. I can hear Mom and Dad talking in the living room. The sounds are so familiar, my room so small that I feel like I’m being filled up with nothingness. With that feeling you get when you think that everyone is out there experiencing things except for you, that everyone else has started living their lives for real, is going to the parties you only see in movies, kissing the boys you don’t even dare say hi to in the schoolyard. They go to bed with a smile on their face, while you lie awake and write in your diary about everything that isn’t happening. From when you start school and start seeing other people, from when you’re trading stickers with Nina in her room and dreaming of one day being just as cool and pretty as her, with just as many stickers—you long to be an adult, to be bigger, older, prettier, and cooler, you long to decide things for yourself, you long for a kind of new start, or maybe just a kickstart. You long for the life you know from late-night TV, and you believe that’s how it should be. In just six years, four years, two years it’ll all start, but then when you get there, when you’re standing there like an ordinary fifteen-year-old and you don’t look like the posters on your wall, you think you’ve failed and that you’re the only person in the world who hasn’t managed it, and you want the world to end, and you want the world to start again.
Where are the parties you saw on TV, where is Johnny telling your parents that nobody puts you in a corner, where’s the guy asking you to prom, where are the proms actually, those things in the gym here are just stupid, and you still spend your nights lying alone in your room and writing in your diary about everything that isn’t happening, and then you go to high school, and when the ball finally starts to roll, when the boy says hi to you, when you no longer cringe at the sight of your own face in the mirror, when the nights are beer cans and graduation parties, when you’ve forgotten why you longed for all of this, when you’re sitting in your own apartment, completely alone, watching your friends moving abroad, getting boyfriends, getting engaged, graduating and starting jobs, when you get up each day and go to the same place, whether it’s to a job or a spot in the library, when you realize that things are starting to be as they should, that things are starting to fall into place, then maybe you long for the bench you liked to sit on when you still didn’t know the person you are today, when everything that hurt was the worst thing that had happened to you, when everything that was good was the most beautiful thing in the world, when your feelings filled you up, and at least your heart was still warm.
Right by Haugen School
I swipe through my contacts and realize I don’t have Jo’s number. When did it disappear though? I don’t remember having deleted it. Maybe I lost it when I switched phones. I swipe on. So many names. Think if I could call them all at once. Think if everyone I know, everyone whose number I have for some reason—minus Jo—all said at the very same time: Hi, Eva.
I get up and pace the floor, sit down on the bed, then get back up again. Before I can dwell on it any further, I put on my jacket and go out into the hall, start lacing up my shoes, and shout to Mom and Dad that I’m going on a walk. It’s just like before, as though I never even moved out: I don’t wait for a response before grabbing the keys from the entry table, putting on my headphones, and disappearing out the door.
The cold hits me as soon as I open the door downstairs, but I pull my hood over my head, put my hands in my pockets, and just start walking. I walk toward the bench, toward the school, toward the schoolyard that’s empty over Christmas break, along all the apartment blocks with light glowing from the windows. Mist hovers in front of me and I slowly start to warm up as I speed along. It takes me four and a half minutes to walk to our bench, the place we used to sit, every recess, every evening. When I turn the corner of the block I can see it a few yards ahead of me. It’s covered with snow; I guess no one has sat here in a while. I approach it and kick off a bit of the snow, which is hard after it’s already thawed and frozen again a few times, even though it’s only December.
I brush off the backrest and crouch on the seat, put my hands back in my pockets, and look out over the schoolyard, over Furuset, over Haugen with the gravel pitch, the trees, the streetlights and the apartment blocks on Maria Dehli’s Way. It’s lonely sitting here now, without Jo. I never sat here by myself growing up. It was always the two of us, sometimes more. The bench was ours from first to tenth grade, almost every day for nine years.
It takes seven minutes and twenty seconds to walk from the bench to where Jo lived throughout our childhood. I always measured distances in songs. I measured everything in songs. From my house to the bench was “Hate This Place” by the Goo Goo Dolls, from the bench to Jo’s was “När det blåser på månen” by Kent and the first half of “Slide,” from Jo’s to my house was the rest of “Slide” and almost all of “747”—not the radio version, but the original. The long one. The one that lasts for seven minutes and forty-seven seconds.
I guess I walked faster than I used to since I’m already ringing Jo’s doorbell as “Slide” is starting. I haven’t heard this song in as many years as the last time I stood here. I clear my throat as the door opens. Jo’s mom is standing there.
“Hi,” I say, and she smiles.
“Hi, Eva! Are you looking for Joseph?” she asks. I nod and ask if he still lives here.
“No, but he doesn’t live too far away.” She gives me directions and since I more or less know where I am, I thank her and turn to go.
“Aren’t you cold, honey?” She looks at me and my jacket. I shrug, but she opens the door wide and tells me to come inside.
“Just for a bit, Eva. Get warm. I’ll make you a cup of tea,” she prattles as she heads toward the kitchen. I untie my shoelaces and take off my shoes. It smells like it always has here: food and something sweet. Something I don’t know, but that has always been here, in Jo and his mom’s house.
“Have you eaten?” Jo’s mom looks at me sternly. I shake my head and she sighs loudly and chatters to herself. It’s just like when I was fourteen and would come here after school. She opens the fridge and takes out some leftovers. It looks like benachin, a Gambian stew that we’d eaten together many times before.
“Sit down and we’ll get you tea and some proper food.”
She looks content, and I smile and sit down by the kitchen table as she fusses with the stove.
“It’s been a while since I saw you,” she says as she serves the food. I start eating right away and nod as I chew. It’s spicy. I’d forgotten how spicy she made her food.
“Do you want some water, honey?” She laughs at how quickly I nod and puts a glass of water in front of me. I can see in her eyes she’s enjoying herself.
I take a drink and keep eating. I get used to the spiciness quite quickly and it’s better now. I loved benachin when I was little. Jo never really liked it. He preferred meatballs. We used to joke that I was really the one from Gambia and he was the Norwegian.
“It’s good to see you eating, sweetie. You’re thin as a rail.” Jo’s mom stands and starts to tidy up. I drink another glass of water and thank her for the food. She waves me off and tells me to say hi to Jo.
“Tell him to visit his mom and that he promised to mount my new bookshelf!”
She gives me a hug and I go back out into the cold.
It takes a few moments before the lock turns and Jo opens the door. I can hear Lil Wayne in the background, probably from the living room, and it smells like food.
“Do you already have visitors?” He hasn’t said anything yet because he’s chewing. Jo likes to chew. He swallows and says no.
“Now you do!” I say and walk into his hallway. I kick off my shoes and hang up my jacket. Jo heads into the living room and I follow after him. There’s a pizza on his stove that looks homemade. It smells good. His living room is messy—clothes and DVD covers are lying all over the sofa and floor. In the kitchen, next to the oven and the pizza, I can see that there’s a ton of dirty dishes, empty soda cans, and a milk carton. There are more empty cans on the floor. I remember how his room looked when we were young, and that it wasn’t all that different from this, just that now the mess is on a larger scale. No mom to tidy up the kitchen and living room here.
“Are you hungry?” Jo asks. I look at him and tell him I just visited his mom.
“Ah, so you’re not hungry anymore, then,” he laughs and sits on the sofa, still eating the piece of pizza he had in his hand when I arrived. I glance around his apartment, walk over to the CD rack, and look at the albums. There isn’t much new here, but I’m guessing he downloads most of his music now. Lil Wayne fades out and I hear the start of a Timbaland song.
“I like this one,” I say, turning toward Jo. He nods and keeps eating, then gets up and goes to the kitchen to grab another piece. It smells so good that I wish I were hungry.
Next to the CD rack there’s a shelf full of DVDs. I glance over them and pull out The Notebook. It’s in my hand when Jo comes back from the kitchen.
“So is this your favorite movie, or . . . ?”
Jo sets his place on the table and finishes chewing before he answers.
It takes a while.
“Eva, you don’t mess around with The Notebook, OK? That movie there taught me what love is.” He walks over to me quickly and takes the DVD as I laugh. He puts the movie back before sitting down on the sofa and asking me if I’ve thought about coming to the party the day after tomorrow. I shrug and ask if there will be a lot of people there.
“Yeah, probably, but you know those big parties, New Year’s Eve and all that, they never end up how you think they will.” He takes yet another bite of pizza.
I nod and pick at the cuticle on my thumb.
“I could call you or something once I know what’s happening at home,” I say and look up from my hands. “I think my mom and dad will at the very least want me to eat with them since I wasn’t home for Christmas.”
“You weren’t at home for Christmas?” Jo is talking with food in his mouth and I laugh since he never does that. He always waits to talk till he’s done chewing, no matter how long that takes. Sometimes he even takes an extra bite to buy himself some time or just to irritate me.
“No,” I say and tell him about my Christmas, and it strikes me as I’m telling him that I haven’t spoken about this with anyone else.
“Wow,” Jo says, and I don’t really know what he means by that.
“Yup,” I say.
“But, uh, wasn’t that like, kind of sad?”
“Not really,” I say. “It was kind of sad not to be with my mom and dad I guess, but it was nice to be alone, too. They’re there, after all. Or, here.” I correct myself at the last second, and Jo keeps nodding.
“Yeah,” he says. He gets up to go to the kitchen, and asks if I want anything to drink. I say yes, and he comes back into the living room with a beer for each of us. Tuborg. Christmas ale. He finds the remote control and turns the TV on and the music off. Home Alone 2 is on and we sit there without talking.
Later, before I leave, I remember that I don’t have his number and he puts it in my phone for me. Then I stand in the snow again, on his steps.
“By the way,” I say, turning toward him. “The reason I came, really, was to ask if you wanted to go to the bench this week?”
"Cool. I’ll buy the beer. All you have to do is come.”
“Deal,” he says. “You need a proper winter coat, Eva.” He hugs me, and I feel his hand stroke my back through the thin jacket. Then I hop down the stairs—all three steps in one fantastic hop—and continue across the snow. I manage “Sundance Kid” two and a half times before I get home.
From Furuset. © 2012 by Flamme Forlag. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Olivia Lasky. All rights reserved.
In an excerpt from Mona Høvring's novel, two sisters gingerly renegotiate their relationship after one's breakdown.
Martha had managed to convince Father to drive her all the way up to the hotel. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps Father was the one who suggested it. He loved going wherever the wind blew or visiting places where he’d heard there was a grand old bureau, a rustic writing desk or some antique decorations.
When we were children, there were times when Martha and I were allowed to join him on these trips. We learned early on that we mustn’t disturb him while he was haggling. It was one of the few things that could irritate him. One summer afternoon, we were with him in a crammed secondhand shop out in the country. He was interested in a painting and a rocking cradle which was decorated with traditional patterns. He had spoken warmly about these objects when we were in the car, but in the shop, he wrinkled his nose and just wandered around, scrutinizing all manner of clutter and junk. When, after a great deal of toing and froing, he took the cradle and the painting to the counter to pay, he noted nonchalantly:
“So it was 500 kroner for the painting and 800 for the cradle?”
“That’s right,” the shopkeeper said.
Father pulled a wad of notes from his inside pocket.
“That’ll be 1,200,” he said.
“No, it’s 1,300,” the shopkeeper said.
“Sorry, I’m so bad at mental arithmetic,” Father said.
“So you could just as well have said 1,400?”
“No,” Father said, winking at me and Martha. “I’m not that bad.”
I was reading on the sofa when Father and Martha came. I heard the key in the door and shot up, looking quickly around to see if any of Dani’s things were still lying around. But of course, there was nothing there that could betray her visit.
“Lovely, you’ve bought tulips,” was the first thing Martha said when she came into the room. She hugged me sincerely, holding me while Father set down her bags and waited. When she finally released me from this overwhelming embrace, Father grabbed around my waist and lifted me up.
“You look good,” he said. “You’re as light as a feather.”
“It’s because my hair is all gone,” I said.
Father put me down and ran his hand carefully over my head. He started to wander about, as he tended to do, with his hands behind his back. He went from room to room and from one piece of furniture to the next, turned a chair round, examined the base of a lamp, lifted a bowl.
“You guys have it good here,” he said, pointing at the stucco on the ceiling and the headboard with the neat carvings. .
“Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all. Is the food good as well?”
I hastened to state that I thought we should find a place to eat down in the village.
Martha looked curiously at me.
“Why?” she asked. “They have a wonderful menu here in the hotel.”
I hadn’t prepared a good explanation. It was just a desperate attempt to avoid bumping into Dani or Ruth. I needed time. I was afraid I would make everything known with just one wrong breath. It was only now I realized that what Dani had set in motion was a betrayal of Ruth and that I had recklessly allowed myself to be pulled into it. Not for one moment had it crossed my mind to ask Dani if Ruth was aware of our nightly meetings, if the two of them had an open relationship, or if there was an agreement between them, a trust that Dani had broken.
No, of course Ruth didn’t know about it, I thought. Of course it was a betrayal.
I came out with something about how the staff were almost certainly busy preparing for the event that evening, and fortunately Martha agreed. In any case, we could both get some air before the party. We’d be able to grab a bite as long as we didn’t linger.
For the second time that day, I was on my way down the winding slopes. Martha sat in front, beside Father. She got carsick so quickly. I leaned in between the seats and asked Father how it was going with Mother. She had got it into her head that she wanted to go to Japan, he told us. She wanted to visit the Ama women. She wanted to learn to dive for pearls.
Father kept a straight face as he came out with this peculiar information. I poked him on the back of the neck and said he was lying.
They had a strange relationship, Mother and Father. They hardly spoke at home, especially not to each other. Even as a child I had understood that a shadow rested between them, a vague, ever-present shadow, which separated them from each other. Once, I heard Father say that he would have given his life to get Mother. It was a mysterious declaration.
“Oh, life is way too much,” Mother replied. “Give me some peace of mind instead.”
The only place to eat that was open in the village was a fast food café. Martha and Father each ordered a cheeseburger. I settled for a milkshake and a salad.
I didn’t say much, but it was good to be in their company. Father seemed so young sitting there.
“I’ve noticed something strange while I’ve been traveling around,” he said. “When it comes to women, it seems as though men in one country always think that men in another country are luckier than them. For example, Italian men like Swiss women. German men rate Spanish women the highest. And men from Greece, they love Nordic women. Yes, that’s how it is across the board, no exceptions.”
Martha laughed at Father’s comment. She was shining, her radiance almost stretching out toward me, and she repeated that short hair really suited me.
Martha. Martha, with her divine, seductive features. Martha, with her voice like a trickling stream. For weeks she had behaved as though she were the only person to have ever had a nervous breakdown. She had disturbed me. She had devastated me. I thought I couldn’t stand her. I wanted to distance myself from her, to protect myself. Why couldn’t I do it? Because I was afraid of her? Because I loved her? The thought scared me. But now, she was both devoted and trusting. Nothing threatened us. I was tempted to suggest that Father stay at the hotel for a couple of nights. It would do him good, I was sure of it. But then the spell was broken. Father checked his watch and scoffed the rest of the burger. He really had to get going.
Even though he was clearly busy, he insisted on driving us back up to the hotel. I didn’t say one word during the journey. Father gave us a brief lecture on mining, while Martha sat and whistled.
When we swung in front of the main entrance, the newly shoveled parking area was packed with cars.
“Where there is dancing, there are people,” Father said. “That’s how it is, out here in the provinces.”
Before getting out of the car, we hugged him. Martha first, then me, a little awkwardly over the seatback. Then we got out. Before driving off, he rolled down the window and shouted to us:
“I’m all for shenanigans, but with the right people. Remember that, girls. Remember that.”
We stood there and waved until the car disappeared behind the large mounds of snow which had been pushed to the side of the road’s sharp turn. To my astonishment, Martha grabbed my hand and led me. It took me so much by surprise that I didn’t even consider tearing myself away. Even when we walked past the reception, I let her keep hold of me. I caught a glimpse of Ruth behind the desk. She was busy welcoming some newly arrived guests. Her eyes darted up. I tried to smile at her but only managed to grimace, thinking my face must have looked like some sort of Asiatic demon mask.
I stopped in the middle of the stairs and pulled my hand away. I had lost control. And I hated it. But it didn’t seem like Martha noticed my irritation. She pointed at a portrait, commenting on the jaunty bonnet the young woman had on her head.
“I’m looking forward to the party,” she said. “I’ve brought three new outfits with me. You have to help me choose one.”
I didn’t reply.
Outside the door to our room, Martha stopped and grabbed my hand again.
“Thank you for being so lenient,” she said.
Lenient? I thought. Where did that word come from? And where had her sudden mildness come from? I had acknowledged, with relief, that I didn’t have responsibility for Martha. There were no longer any oppressive obligations between us. But I was responsible for myself, and now I just wanted to sleep, lie down, close my eyes and disappear. All of my audacious decisions were gone. I touched my head. Had my hair turned gray? It felt so lifeless. And my eyes? Were they yellow? Of course, I knew they weren’t yellow. They were about as yellow as the sky. As yellow as the glasslike surface of the mountainside. But still. Those yellow eyes. That yellow sky. That yellow snow.
I was more predisposed to drama than I wanted to admit. The thin air up in this altitude had made me childish and unpredictable. I realized that I was going to have to fight hard battles in this place. It was a fundamental truth. Or was it Martha’s sudden generosity that had unnerved me?
I let us in.
“It’s wonderful to be back,” Martha said.
She opened the sliding doors to the bedroom and, in one movement, leaped onto the bed.
I stood looking at her.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You have a nosebleed,” Martha said.
I wiped my nose with the back of my hand. I really did have a nosebleed, which was unusual for me. I found a tissue in my handbag, sat on the couch, tipped my head back, and stuffed a rolled-up strip up my nostril. Everything was flickering peculiarly toward me as I sat there with my throat tensed. I realized that I had been chasing life all these years, or more precisely, that life had been running away from me. I was full of emotions I couldn’t stand. And, as if it were the moment of my death—yes, I was predisposed to drama at the time—I pictured Mother, raking leaves in the garden. I was seven years old. I thought that we worked well together, Mother and me. I stood on my toes, lifted one arm, and let my index finger glide along the hem of her jacket. She leaned forward so that I could sniff her hair. Mother smelled like apples and rain and mint. A cloud moved over the sun, narrowing the light.
“Surely it’s stopped bleeding now?” Martha said.
I removed the paper carefully. The blood had dried. It looked black.
“We have to get ready for the party,” she said.
She took garment after garment from the suitcase: a shimmering gold dress, a pink silk blouse and a red skirt, several pairs of high heels.
I went to the bathroom and tried to flush the bloody paper down the toilet, but it bobbed up again like a fishing bobber. The water turned red.
Martha came in after me. It wasn’t possible to hold her back. .
“Remember that time we won five hundred kroner on that scratch-card you had?” she asked. “Remember we spent it all on sweets?”
I flushed the toilet again and the water rushed out from the cistern. I looked down into the toilet bowl. The bloody mess had finally disappeared.
While she continued trying on clothes, Martha reminisced about our childhood and our mutual love of treats. Did I remember how we used to eat loads of banana chocolate? How we would take huge handfuls and chomp until we drooled? And yes, I remembered. I remembered the luminescent jelly babies we stuffed into our mouths. It was as if we were both crazy. But when the nauseating sugar rush reached the muscles of our hearts, it was as if everything inside us was vibrating, and the trembling was almost unbearable.
“What do you think of this?” Martha said, twirling in the tight gold dress.
“You look lovely,” I said.
“Aren’t you going to change?” Martha asked. “Time is marching on.”
“Is it OK if I shower first?” I asked.
“Just leave some hot water for me,” Martha said.
I was quick. It felt wonderful to lather shampoo into my short hair. There was something calming about being able to feel the shape of my head so distinctly. I rinsed myself with cold water. And after I had toweled myself dry and warm, I pulled on a pair of grey woolen bell-bottoms and a petroleum-green polo neck.
Martha studied me, placing herself in front of me and frowning, like a model scout. And I knew what was coming. Now came the criticisms. Now came the small, subtle remarks which I hated protesting against. But no—she just told me I looked smart. I was so perplexed. I took a peach from the fruit bowl. I had always believed it was important to keep a certain distance from compliments like that, flattery which aligned with one’s nature, but now I was happy, even though I wasn’t sure if Martha meant I actually looked intelligent or if I just looked fashionable in this outfit. One could be more or less as good as the other. Surely it wasn’t the case between me and my sister that we suspected each other of betrayal all the time?
“What are you eating?” Martha asked.
“A peach,” I replied.
“But aren’t you allergic to peaches?”
“Perhaps my body has changed,” I said.
From Fordi Venus passerte en alpefiol den dagen jeg blei født. Copyright Mona Høvring. Published 2018 by Forlaget. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Rachel Rankin. All rights reserved.