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Portrait of a Libyan Scream

By Najwa Bin Shatwan
Translated By Sawad Hussain

Later this month, UEA Publishing Project will release Mo(a)t: Stories from Arabic, an anthology of short fiction by Arabophone writers from the African diaspora, edited by Garen Torikian and translated by Sawad Hussain and Nariman Youssef. In the humorous story presented here, Libyan author Najwa Bin Shatwan follows the unlucky Ikhmayyis as he searches for a replacement for his lost glass eye.

The sole lamppost in the village decided to keel over onto Ikhmayyis’s head while on his way home. Usually, no one could make their way home, or their way out of the village, without passing by the post. Not only was it munificent in lighting their path, day and night, but it also became, of its own accord, a traffic light, whenever it felt that a car was about to knock into it. Those who were lost found their way, thanks to said lamppost, and it also defended the village from locust storms, whilst providing much-needed shade from the unrelenting sun.

Ikhmayyis was neither annoyed nor upset with the historical lamppost’s choice to fall on him. In fact, it was a privilege worthy of thanks, even if it made his glass eye pop out, cutting out both his sight and all electricity in the village in one fell swoop.

"A blessing in disguise. Ye may despise something while it is good for you," Ikhmayyis murmured, reminding himself of the Quranic verse, whilst crawling on his hands and knees, groping here and there, left only with his feeble other eye, hoping to find his glass one. He replayed the scene in his mind. Either it sank into the sand, or rolled under the lamppost and shattered.


It was also possible that someone would find it and return it to him, though that wasn’t what the villagers were known for, declaring it would bring them bad luck to do so.

Placing his palm on the cavity left behind on his face, he made his way back home, woebegone. From the window, his mother spotted him shielding half of his face and knew that her son had lost his eye, again. She rushed to the door with the platter of couscous she was carrying rather than making her way to the table, and yelled, agitated, "What happened to you, unlucky lump? Lost your eye again?"

Thinking she had come to pour couscous over his head, Ikhmayyis stuck to the wall, shrieking as if electrocuted. His father came charging out with a cane, convinced his son needed to be disciplined; the household swirled, a maelstrom of sounds. Furniture smashing, doors slamming, howling. Neighbors stood at their windows, craning their necks, trying to make sense of the family commotion they were hearing.

As for the platter of couscous in Mama Ikhmayyis’s hand, it tried to wriggle out and push Baba Ikhmayyis away from his son with whatever heat it had left.

"Woooooh unto me, don’t you dare hurt his other eye! On your mother’s life, just leave his face alone," Mama Ikhmayyis pleaded. The CIA would probably surmise that the steaming couscous platter had played a pivotal role in breaking up the brawl by singeing Baba Ikhmayyis’s paunch. Otherwise, they’d still be quarrelling today.

Ikhmayyis had always been anxious about being in a crowd with his glass eye, cupping his hands around it. He had always been cautious, considering what usually happened in a crowd, something or other being dropped: wallet, phone, keys, words, tongue, the color from an outfit…

He had had his delicate glass eye for years. What would he do if he were to lose it? The factory that manufactured it had shuttered, declaring bankruptcy. Maintenance required travelling abroad. Travel required a lot of money. And a lot of money meant stealing. Stealing money might as well have been considered a real career. Everyone was doing it. How else was a person meant to get rich, even if they toiled from dawn to dusk?

The surface of Ikhmayyis’s glass eye had been scuffed during his teenage years, when he couldn’t stop leering at girls. As a young man, when harassing women, many times his eye had fallen out, creating nothing short of a public scandal. And so, everyone came to know why Ikhmayyis’s eye would pop out, or why it would be dangling by his cheek if it didn’t fall out completely. When the lamppost fell, it put an end to any such future embarrassments once and for all, folding this dark page from Ikhmayyis’s life, leaving people’s tongues wagging about the story of the radiant lamppost rather than of him. The blessed lamppost had saved Ikhmayyis from their sharp tongues, no matter whatever he had lost.

“Aren’t you the esteemed official in charge of new eyes?”

Ikhmayyis was forced to tolerate the biting morning cold penetrating his eye socket, standing in front of the garage, issuing optical licenses and permissions for new eyes in one of the city’s old streets, a place where there were countless things that could infect his empty socket. Crud here and there, filthy restaurants, overflowing sewers, polluted air, cars that couldn’t drive without spitting out black fumes. There stood Ikhmayyis, waiting for the arrival of the government official who had the keys to the license office.

Ikhmayyis spotted him standing at the falafel and beans eatery, ordering his usual. "Hey you bayumi, Nile-boy, make it one bean sandwich with harissa, and two falafel. Don’t forget my cold Pepsi."

The official started to devour what the Egyptian server brought him, as if he had been in a famine, not simply a man who had just rolled out of bed. Unable to endure the cold any longer, Ikhmayyis went to ask for assistance. "Good morning, khuya."

"Khuya? How am I your brother?" the official responded, his mouth stuffed with pieces of beans.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry. I mean, aren’t you the esteemed official in charge of new eyes?"

"What do you want?" he snapped.

"My eye, my eye," Ikhmayyis moaned, his hand placed where his eye should have been. "I mean, my eye fell out and I need a new one."

Ikhmayyis had made a mistake by interrupting the man’s hot meal. The official shook, and roared, "Can’t you see that I’m busy?"

"Sorry, sorry! I can’t see too well. Dig in, dig in."

Ikhmayyis left the official to wipe his plate clean and yelled out to the server, "Hey Nile-boy, two spoons of harissa for the big man here and a cold Pepsi on me."

After an hour of beans, falafel, tea, talk of sports, politics, religion, the supernatural, and of course the Palestinian issue, the official moseyed on over to the garage. He sluggishly pulled the shutter upwards, as if he didn’t see Ikhmayyis standing, waiting, frozen in place.

A man with a glass eye came forth from the farthest corner of the eatery, the smell of fresh glue wafting off him. He asked Ikhmayyis if there was work today or not.

"Ask the big man," he responded, tears falling from his eye because of the bitter cold, and other things. "I swear to God, I’ve been here since seven o’clock and still don’t have a clue."

The man was one of those nosy ones, his type having been around since the fourth century AH.

"Why are you here?" he asked Ikhmayyis.

"My eye, O, my eye," Ikhmayyis groaned.

The man burst out laughing, as if Ikhmayyis had said something funny, then revealed the other half of his face. "If this face gets an eye before you, you can have it! Look how I’ve had to keep gluing my eye back in because they never have new ones."

The man had one cold eye and one hot eye. The cold one would focus on hot things, while the hot one would focus on cold things. In his youth, the man would help his mother heat up things and cool down others. Say for example, alleviating his brother’s fever, heating up bath water in the wintertime, warming the clothes iron, cooling down what was left of the food, then heating it up. When prosperity and well-being set in the country, and the electricity was no longer cut off, clothes arrived ironed from the clothes line, food arrived cooked from the kitchen, and vegetables had merely to get to know each other before cooking themselves—the man’s glass eye became unemployed and started to fall out, during prayer, or whilst playing football. And here he was in front of the garage of licenses—because of what prosperity had reduced him to.

“Each family member has taken their piece of him, for their own livelihood you know.”

Ikhmayyis nearly got frustrated, hearing this drawn-out history of the eye, but he postponed his blowout till later, waiting for the official to settle down in his chair, turn on the heating, the television, the three 350-watt bulbs, and finally light his cigarette.

"Tell me again, what do you want?" he finally asked Ikhmayyis, frowning, without looking at him.

"To get a new eye, kind sir. And a movement permit, please. May God bless you."

The official let rip a cracking burp, bits of falafel and beans spewing out his nose. "Well, getting a new eye is one thing, and getting the movement permit is another."

"May God give you long life sir. Just give me whatever you have and I’ll come back later for the rest."

The official opened one of his drawers, sloth-like, fishing out a pen. It then occurred to him to turn on the computer. Ikhmayyis stole a glance at him, saying to himself, "Ayeeeee! Now he’ll start looking for a piece of paper, and stall even more!"

But the official didn’t do any of that; he just sat contented with his pen. "Getting a used eye has different requirements than getting a new eye."

He started to tap on the keyboard, the pen between his fingers, throwing Ikhmayyis some questions before deciding his fate.

"For a used one, you need a certificate proving you have no priors, stamped of course, your family booklet, your national ID, four witnesses, and 500 dinars along with the application form. For a new one, in addition to all that, just 100 dinars from one hundred men in the tribe, and you will need to take a new driving test down at the traffic department, the vehicles section, and a certificate of weapons saying that you have passed the shooting test for pistols and long-range rifles."

"But I haven’t shot a gun in my life!"

The official laughed so hard, gas burst out his backside. Ikhmayyis's cheeks grew hot. Then, calming down as his gas slowly faded, the official said, "Deal with it, these are the regulations."

"Can’t you help me out with a used one?"

"Well, I do have one that some people gave me a while ago; their father died, they buried him without it. The daughters wanted to keep it as a memento, but the sons sold it to make some money and start their own business. It comes with strings attached you see."

"Strings attached . . . No, no, I don’t want any of that."

The official opened another drawer and took out a can. He put his hand on top of it and started talking about it so sacredly he might as well have been swearing on the Quran. 

"This is from someone who lost his eye in the war and afterwards was martyred. Allah yarhamu, his body hasn’t been found, even to this day. A proud eye it is, you can walk with your head held high."

Ikhmayyis had goosebumps all over. "Yes, God rest his soul," he stuttered. "But, the eye of someone who died in a war? I’ve had one of those before and death is all I saw. I’m not a fighter. I’m a sensitive man who works in a bakery and only knows the fire of love and the fire of the oven. Give me something else, something less tragic, on your father’s life, please."

“Sure, he needed to shoot a pistol, a rifle, a machine gun, and a cannon, but they would then determine the kind of eye that he needed.”

"Hold on, let me call one of my friends in Taykah."

Taykah is the place that time forgot, thought Ikhmayyis to himself.

"His grandfather is just about to give up the ghost in a few days. A real treasure box he is; he’s got gold and marble teeth, and a green glass eye. Each family member has taken their piece of him, for their own livelihood you know, afraid to even leave him in the hospital, because who knows what might be stolen from him there."

"What if he takes too long to die and I’m just hanging around here?"

"BAH! There’s no pleasing you it seems! What can I tell you? Hold on, I may have one in the trunk, it’s been a while since I looked in there. I think I used it as an indicator at one point. Hold on, let me go check and see if it fits you."

The official disappeared for a few moments, then came back with a plastic bag in hand. He took out the eye and blew off the dust from it, in several different directions, then wiped it with his sleeve before giving it to Ikhmayyis. Ikhmayyis popped it in, saying, "Bismillah," then left to test drive it in front of the garage.

"So, what do you think? It’s not that expensive," the official said.

"I can see people clearly, and the whole street is very clear. But everything behind it is black, as if it wasn’t day at all."

The official got closer to the eye. He tried adjusting it, blew on it, wiped it.

"And now?"

"The background is still black."

"Uff! You’re just seeing the black life that we live. Here, here, give it back, give it back."

Ikhmayyis took out the eye and threw it in the bag once more. And thus, it became necessary for Ikhmayyis to join one of the militias to get an eye test done for free. Sure, he needed to shoot a pistol, a rifle, a machine gun, and a cannon, but they would then determine the kind of eye that he needed, its size, the dimensions of vision, and everything related to the technical details that were required when aiming a bazooka.

Ikhmayyis’s healthy eye jiggled in its socket; he had never handled a weapon before. It jiggled before all the weapons. He then felt it rolling down his cheek and fall out in front of him, leaving his face empty.

"O God, help me!"

His yell could be heard everywhere. It entered the Red Castle and left through one of the throats of the statues hidden there, then it entered one of the ears of the Libyan Venus statue, destroying love as an axe does a mirror. Ikhmayyis himself, left where he was for the coastal road, wandering, repeating, "Are you all happy now? Are you all happy now? Even my good eye is gone now! Nothing’s ever enough for you!"

From Ikhmayyis’s eye socket the contents of his head slipped out, his memories spilling on the road, his ideas disordered, scattered everywhere, his secrets running among the sewers, mixing with the rainwater and the sewage on its way to the sea. It’s even said that his scream can still be heard on the coastal road between Tripoli and Zawiya—the contentious road which is closed at times and open at others—till today.

Eyewitnesses add that they saw Ikhmayyis’s scream there, pulling at its head and wailing; the sheer intensity of his scream sending camels into cooking pots, men into the grave, making djinns visible, humans invisible, and all lampposts felled by the wayside.

"Portrait of a Libyan Scream" © 2019 by Najwa Bin Shatwan, translation © 2021 by Sawad Hussain. From Mo(a)t: Stories from Arabic, published by UEA Publishing Project, 2021. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.


Related Reading:

"Run, George" by Najwa Bin Shatwan, translated by Sawad Hussain

Coming Into Focus: Sudanese Women Writers

"The Spectator Sentenced to Death" by Matéi Visniec, translated by Jozefina Komporaly

Published Nov 16, 2021   Copyright 2021 Najwa Bin Shatwan

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