Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

Borders: An International Exquisite Corpse

By Basma Abdel Aziz, Fouad Laroui, Karolina Ramqvist, and Maria Cabrera
Translated By Elisabeth Jaquette, Emma Ramadan, Saskia Vogel, and Mary Ann Newman

Words Without Borders partnered with SLICE to produce an International Exquisite Corpse story, written by four writer/translator teams from around the world. Below is the resulting story (in both the English translation and the original languages), which was published in issue 22 of Slice Magazine.


The first thing you should know is that an Exquisite Corpse is a game. Here’s how we play: One writer pens the first segment of a story. The final line of that first segment is handed to the second writer, who continues the story. And so on, and so on. The end result is a story stitched together by a group of writers, each one not really knowing what came beforehand. Once again, SLICE has partnered with Words Without Borders to produce a multilingual Exquisite Corpse. We asked four writers and translators to play. The story unfolds in Arabic, French, Swedish, and Catalan. The writers were given only two instructions: stick to one page and use this issue’s theme, Borders, as inspiration. The Exquisite Corpse is a story that reinvents itself over and over. Each new voice at once builds and dismantles, resulting in fiction that, like any lively conversation, is full of synergy and conflict.         
—Celia Blue Johnson, Creative Director of SLICE

Words Without Borders is thrilled to again partner with SLICE to present a multilingual Exquisite Corpse. For an organization committed to breaking down borders through the translation, publication, and promotion of contemporary literature from around the world, it is thrilling to witness the creation of this Borders-themed narrative by four writer/translator teams whose collaboration transcends languages and nations. You can find more work by these talented writers and translators in WWB’s free monthly online magazine and on our blog, WWB Daily. We hope that you’ll enjoy this dynamic and richly layered story and that you’ll keep reading and supporting remarkable literature from around the globe.
—Jessie Chaffee, Editor of WWB Daily, Words Without Borders


Borders: An International Exquisite Corpse (English Translation)

Part 1
By Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

Nadia opened her eyes and looked out the window. The streetlights were still on, even though it was past sunrise. She smiled with a heady delight. She would be going to work shortly, where today the staff was planning a celebration in her honor. She was going to pretend to be surprised, just as they were going to pretend to have surprised her. She’d made the arrangements, plans, and preparations, and she’d asked them to pool money to buy the food and drinks that would be laid out on long desks for the party. They’d all done as she’d asked. No one had dared to object, despite their collective distress at throwing money away.

She was the one who had decided that she was the boss: there was no question that she was the prettiest, cleverest, and most important, and that she was capable of leading the institute the way she wanted. In preparation for the party, she had asked Shaheen, her loyal servant and right-hand man, to produce a gift befitting her position. She planned to be astonished, let out a soft gasp, and squeeze out a couple of tears when she accepted the precious round crystal plaque engraved with her picture. This was also going to be a surprise, even though she herself had selected and sent them the photo.

Her reverie was interrupted by the superintendent shouting downstairs. “Son of a bitch . . . where are we supposed to buy bread? A pound only gets you three lousy pieces now!” She immediately thought of his sturdily built wife. As if she needed any bread! The woman’s massive, thick body; the arms she bared while wiping down the tenants’ cars early in the morning, plump and white. She didn’t need sustenance; there was enough stored in her ample flesh to last for months.

Nadia got out of bed, wishing herself an absolutely splendid day filled with words of praise. As she washed her face and inspected the fine wrinkles that spread like deltas from the corners of her eyes, she remembered something she needed to tell Shaheen. Attendance was mandatory for the entire staff, and that meant everyone. It was unacceptable for a single person to be absent from the party; she would not tolerate reluctance or negligence from anyone. They all needed to show how much they loved and admired her; it would be useful for her.

A baby shrieked and then began wailing, and Nadia sighed with pure disgust. Ever since the super’s wife had given birth, the sound of the baby’s crying had been ruining her life. The boy had turned out disabled; there was something wrong with his head that made it impossible for him to interact with people around him like other children. The only things that came out of his mouth were incomprehensible and terrifying noises. Without a doubt, he was going to grow up and become an idiot employee like the ones she supervised. She closed the door behind her and set off for the institute.


Part 2
By Fouad Laroui
Translated from French by Emma Ramadan

She closed the door behind her and set off for the Institute.

She decided to walk instead of taking a taxi or bus. After everything that had happened, she needed to think. Walking would help her get her thoughts straight.

After all, it’s not every day that . . .

The trumpeting of an elephant interrupted her thinking. An elephant? In the middle of the city? No, it was a 4x4 (what a monstrosity those things are . . .) that was disturbing the peace. There was a cattle catcher on the grill. The huge number of cattle wandering the streets certainly justified such a thing.

The driver cried out through the lowered window: “Pretty girl!” He was talking to her.

She walked faster, without responding.

If he only knew, the creep . . .

If he only knew what she had left behind her, back there . . .

Again, she was assailed by confused thoughts. She took a deep breath. Should she stop, turn around, go back there and . . .

“Hey you!”

The yell, furious, was aimed at her. She froze.

It was a cop.

Here we go.

She stopped moving, convulsively squeezing her bag, her heart racing.

The man approached slowly. He greeted her by bringing two fingers to his cap, then asked dryly:

“Is that a habit of yours?”

Her throat dry, her heart still racing wildly, her eyes slightly bugged out, she remained silent.

The man seemed to be chewing something; he continued to stare at her. Then:

“Are you mute?”

She swallowed painfully then managed to murmur:

“Excuse me?”

“Do you make a habit of crossing on a red light?”

So that was it.

She closed her eyes. The light . . . She thought again of . . . No! She couldn’t think about it. She glanced discreetly at her watch. In a half hour, she had to be at the Institute.


Part 3
By Karolina Ramqvist
Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel

In a half hour, she had to be at the Institute. She could already hear how it would sound when she came in, a few minutes late. The excuses that would come out of her mouth, and how they’d immerse themselves in the cold small talk that always preceded this kind of meeting, and which, in her eyes, made them seem all the more absurd; people so willingly allowed the decisions being made there to be framed by accounts of how they were thinking about cleaning their desks, their morning sessions at the gym, plans they’d made for the weekend.

There’d be a touch of compulsion to her tardiness, as though being late was the only way she could protest what was happening there, and well, that’s how it was now.

She’d never wanted anything to do with this part of the organization. Ever more often, it was occurring to her that she could refuse, she could learn to say “no” even in this context, learn to “own her No,” as they said in the groups she took part in. But it wouldn’t change a thing.

Her therapist had offered her a suggestion for when the feeling of being invaded overwhelmed her. It was about imagining yourself sitting in flowing water surrounded by a fence with a locked gate and imagining being there without letting anyone else in. Or maybe you did let someone in—the important thing was that you were the one calling the shots. It was actually quite effective. All the way there, that’s how she pictured herself, and once she was standing at the door of the Institute, she could feel the strength of her resistance.


Part 4
By Maria Cabrera
Translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman

All the way there, that’s how she pictured herself, and once she was standing at the door of the institute, she could feel the strength of her resistance.

She had stopped for a moment to take a deep breath, and the contact of the cold air with the pain in her mouth had spread like a whiplash inside her cheek. Driven by this impetus, she had opened the door with resolve and plunged into the institute of odontology.

It had all started midmorning, when she was trying to gnaw on some soft, sad morsel, and she had heard a crack and knew right away: it was him, the Molar, sending her a message that said, yes, dear, I am giving up, I am definitively breaking in two after thirty years of buccal battles and episodes of all colors and textures. Everything had moved quickly from then on: the fainting spell, the whirlpool sprint through Barcelona galloping on the shiny haunches of a taxi, and suddenly there she was, at the door of the dental clinic, and there she was, inside, being led grudgingly down the hall by a receptionist moving so slowly that, instead of walking, it seemed as if he were rowing through very dense waters, until they reached an elevator where he dropped her off, my name is Charon, he had said, and she got on and pressed number six, one floor down, then another, and yet another infernal circle, and the doors had opened and she had settled into the chair, and the dentist had come in with a perfunctory greeting and now he was looking at the Molar from close up, very close up, while a more legal and less playful cocaine was carrying her lips and a small lump of her consciousness far away, then the next thing was for the doctor to focus a very thin very very thin ray of light on the Molar, burrowing into the hole, yanking the poor tooth out with one tug and from that blackish well extracting globs of blood, a rabbit with pure white ears, and a nun dozing off on the counter of a pastry shop saying sorry, so sorry, I’ll be right with you. When it was done the doctor had carefully leaned over to peer into the hole and, white with shock, had called his assistant over: look, down there, you can see the customs house at the La Jonquera border! And making a megaphone with his hands he had shouted, sir, sir, can you hear meeeee? And the guard had raised his head, hand to
his chest, white with shock, and with a tone of annoyance and a trace of a French accent he had said, come on, you don’t have to shout so loud, you know? What’s all this hullabaloo up there? Haven’t I made it clear you have to get in line like everyone else? And the dentist, caught by surprise, had mumbled, no, look here, we were just up here in the dental clinic . . . Oh, sure, mister, don’t look at me, or give me any nonsense, surely you understand that we can’t be making exceptions even for doctors, you must take a number and wait your turn, if you can’t reach the tickets from up there, I will hand one up to you, and you just get in line like everyone else, and we’ll have plenty to talk about, you and I and the chief inspector, regarding this illegal entry you’ve opened up, on the other side of the Catalan border.


Borders: An International Exquisite Corpse (Original Language)

Part 1
By Basma Abdel Aziz


Part 2
By Fouad Laroui

Elle ferma la porte derriere elle et se mit en route pour l’Institut.

Elle decida de marcher au lieu de prendre un taxi ou l’autobus. Apres tous ces evenements, elle avait besoin de reflechir. La marche l’aiderait a mettre de l’ordre dans ses idees.

Apres tout, ce n’est pas tous les jours qu’on . . .

Le barrissement d’un elephant interrompit ses reflexions. Un elephant? En pleine ville? Non, it s’agissait d’un 4x4 (quelle plaie, ces voitures ...) qui troublait ainsi la paix du monde. Il etait muni d’un chasse-buffle au niveau de la calandre. Le grand nombre de buffles errant dans les rues justifiait sans doute qu’on s’equipat ainsi.

Le conducteur venait de crier, par la vitre baissee: “0, jolie gazelle!” C’etait a elle qu’il s’adressait.

Elle pressa le pas, sans repondre. S’il savait, ce cretin . . .

S’il savait ce qu’elle avait laisse derriere elle, la-bas . . .

De nouveau, des pensees confuses l’assaillirent. Elle respira un grand coup. Fallait-il s’arreter, tourner les talons, retourner sur les lieux et . . .


L’interjection, furieuse, la visait. Elle se figea.

C’etait un policier.

Nous y.

Elle ne bougeait plus, serrant convulsivement la laniere de son sac, le coeur battant.

L’homme s’approcha lentement. En guise de salut, it porta deux doigts a la visiere de sa casquette puis demanda sechement:

“Ca vous arrive souvent?”

La gorge seche, le coeur toujours battant la chamade, les yeux legerement ecarquilles, elle resta muette.

L’homme semblait macher quelque chose tout en la fixant du regard. Puis:

“Vous etes muette?”

Elle deglutit peniblement puis parvint a murmurer:


“Il vous arrive souvent de traverser au feu rouge?”

C’etait donc fa.

Elle ferma les yeux. Le feu . . . Elle pensa de nouveau a . . . Non! Il ne fallait pas penser. Elle consulta discretement sa montre. Dans une demi-heure, elle devait etre a l’Institut.


Part 3
By Karolina Ramqvist

Om en halvtimme maste hon vara pa Institutet. Hon kunde redan hora hur det skulle lata nar hon kom in, ett par minuter for sent. Ursakterna hon skulle a ur sig och hur de skulle sanka sig ner i det kalla smaprat som alltid foregick den har typen av moten och som i hennes ogon fick dem att verka annu mer absurda; att folk sä villigt lat de beslut som skulle fattas dar inramas av deras redogorelser for hur de funderade pa att stada sina skrivbord, vilka traningspass de varit pa den morgonen, planerna de gjort infor helgen.

Det skulle vara nagot aningen tvangsmassigt over hennes lite sena ankomst, som om att komma for sent var det enda sat pa vilket hon kunde protestera mot det som skedde dar, och sa var det ju ocksa numera. Hon hade aldrig velat ha med den har delen av verksamheten att Ora. Pa sista tiden hade det hant allt oftare att tanken kom, att hon skulle kunna vagra, att hon kunde lara sig att saga nej aven i det har sammanhanget, lara sig att “aga sitt nej” som de sa i grupperna hon var med i. Men det skulle inte forandra nagonting.

Hennes terapeut hade gett henne en suggestion som hon skulle anvanda nar hon overvaldigades av kanslan av att bli invaderad. Det handlade om att tanka sig sig sjalv sittande vid ett vattendrag omgivet av ett staket med en grind som var last, och forestalla sig hur man satt darutan att slappa in nagon annan manniska. Eller sa kunde det vara sa att man faktiskt slappte in nagon—det viktiga var att det var man sjalv som bestamde. Det var faktiskt ganska effektivt. Hela vagen tankte hon pa sig sjalv pa det dar sattet och nar hon stod i porten till Institutet kande hon ett starkt motstand inom sig.


Part 4
By Maria Cabrera

Al Ilarg del cam, s’anava imaginant aix , i quan es va trobar a la porta de l’institut, sentia la forca de la seva resistencia.

S’havia aturat un instant, havia alenat i pel contacte amb l’aire fred el dolor a la boca s’havia estes corn una fuetada galtes endins. Moguda per aquest ressort, havia obert la porta decidida i s’havia capbussat institut odontologic endins.

Tot havia comencat a mig matf, quan intentava rosegar alguna cosa molla i trista i tot de cop havia sentit un clec i ho havia sabut: era ell, el Queixal, que li enviava una missiva, era ell que li deia que si, noia, que claudicava, que es partia definitivament en dos despres de trenta anys de lluites bucals i d’haver-les vist de tots colors i totes les textures. Despres tot havia anat molt rapid: la gran marejada, el remoli de curses per Barcelona galopant les anques llustroses d’un taxi i tot de cop ja era plantada alla, a la porta de la clinica dental, i ja hi era dins i caminava essent guiada per un recepcionista que l’acompanyava amb parsimenia passadis enla, aquell homes es movia lent corn si en comptes de caminar remes per unes aigiies molt denses, havien arribat a un ascensor i alla l’havia deixada, em dic Caront li havia dit, i ella hi havia entrat i havia premut el sis, un pis avail i un altre i encara un altre cercle infernal mes, les portes s’havien obert i s’havia acomodat a la butaca, despres el dentista havia entrat amb una salutacio protocol-aria i ara es mirava aquell Queixal de prop propet mentre a ella una cocaina mes legal i menys juganera se li enduia els llavis i un mig trosset corn de consciencia a passeig, despres havia vingut que el doctor havia enfocat un raig de hum primet primet cap al Queixal, havia burxat pel forat, havia apartat la pobra dent d’una estrebada i d’aquell you negros n’havia tret gleves de sang, un conill d’orelles blanquissimes i una monja endormiscada al taulell d’una pastisseria dient ai per& perdu ja els atenc tot de seguit; en acabat el doctor s’havia afinestrat amb cura per l’esvoranc i, blanc de l’ensurt, havia fet venir l’ajudanta: guaita, que per aqui es veu l’oficina de duanes de la Jonqueraaaaa! I fent de megafon amb les dues mans havien cridat senyor, senyor, que ens seeeeent?! I el policia que havia alcat el cap, amb la ma al pit, blanc de l’ensurt, i amb veu d’enuig i un accent afrancesat havia dit noi, potser no cal que cridin tant, eh? Que es aquest rebombori que han armat aqui dalt? Que no els tinc dit que facin cua corn tothom? I el dentista, sorpres, havia mussitat que no, guaiti, es que som aqui, a l’institut dental . . . Oh, ni guaiti ni punyetes, senyor, ja comprendra que encara que sigui doctor no podem fer cap excepcio, agafi tanda i esperi el torn, si des d’aqui no arriba al tiquet ja l’hi atansare jo, i ara faci cua corn tothom que ja en parlarem prou, ja, l’inspector en cap, voste i jo, d’aquest pas illegal que han obert, frontera catalana enlla.

Published Aug 27, 2018   Copyright 2018 Basma Abdel Aziz, Fouad Laroui, Karolina Ramqvist, and Maria Cabrera

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.