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I finished your magnum opus [Kitab at Tugra] two days ago, with tears in my eyes, and I’ve been intoxicated since, in the most Faridian sense of the word. Among other things, no one (REPEAT: NO ONE) has ever written so wondrously about love and sex in Arabic the way you did in the last two chapters of the novel, i.e. — making the Arabic language make love as it has never done before. Ibn al Farid should feel so comfortable, and so privileged, and so sexy in your company. But that’s not your major achievement, No Sir. You managed to write a perfect (REPEAT: PERFECT) Arabic novel, on so many levels. Very few writers have done that, and to enter the Hall of Fame with a first novel is nothing short of miraculous. Your meticulous attention to what turns a text into a stunning novel is absolutely amazing, and your masterful control of all the aspects of your text is something that should be taught in writing programs. But above all, I think, your major achievement is in being what Foucault would call “a discourse initiator” — someone who single handedly changes a discipline, and in this case the discipline of the Arabic novel. You are my al Jabarti of the Arabic novel. — Anton Shammas in a private e-mail Continue reading

Indoors: Hipstamatic Tintotypes with a Poem

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Alexandria

For Mohab Nasr

All these years my friend

As though we’re here by mistake

Waiting until the roads clear

To drive unlicensed trucks

And face the border guards

With forced laughter and cash.

We dream of places that were they found

We’d be no good for, my friend,

Forced to mix with the statues

To swap their talk with them

To be jammed in among them

With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,

Our heads bowed down at home

We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries

That we might try reproducing in secret,

Mourning our endangered line.

All these years plucking up the courage

To declare we are not statues

And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,

Dead with flattened heads,

With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,

With holes in our bones.

How is it, my friend, after all these years

All we can utter is croaking?

Trans. Qisasukhra

Four poems by Ahmad Yamani

The Two Houses
I wake in the same room to find my hand splashing the lake that lurks under the bed, to find the thick wall of my old house with its dusty window where a main wall of this apartment should be. I opened the window and the evening was still there. And my father was in the kitchen, his hand on the light switch and his leg which is missing five centimetres looking longer than the other, I called to him and he did not reply, he only smiled and invited me with gestures of his hand to go on sleeping. ‘The universe is a handkerchief’, they say here. Over there we say ‘Small world’. At night I go to my parents’ house, through the opening I made behind my new house. I stay there an hour or two to check on the family’s medicine, on my parents’ sleep and their breakfast. At dawn I set up my vehicle and go back again.

The Big Escape
They had sentenced me to execution with two of my friends and it was by what they called euthanasia which had already killed a fourth friend of ours. We did not understand very well what they meant by these statements and so they left us free without guards or cells and sentenced us instead to a kind of death they called a mercy killing which is carried out by a middle aged lady who has a benign face and which is painless but is death anyway. I consulted with my mother and my friends a little while before the execution and I decided to escape. They all agreed I should go while my two friends remained to wait for the lady. As soon as I went out after they gave me all the money they had I met with the merciful lady face to face next to my home. Neither of us looked at the other. She avoided me and went off and I went past her and started to run looking over my shoulder in other countries.

Tobacco Seller
Her hand is on the box, my foot outside the house. Suddenly it grows dark, while she continues rubbing the tobacco on her shiny thigh.
She stops a little to move half the tobacco to her other thigh, while I enter the tunnel and start smoking.”

The Book
How can she not
read what I write
How come she waits by the door
until someone passing
gives her a few words
those strange obscure words
Yet she listens and smiles
as if she was there with me
at five in the morning
as if her hand
relocated some of the words
moved them from the wrong places
moved them and went to sleep
But how can she not
read what her own hands inscribed only yesterday
How come she cannot open the balcony
in the morning
to receive the sun
with a copy of the book in her left hand
that she reads slowly
winking at the neighbours
pointing to her son the wordsmith
waving the book in their faces
five times
while she mutters
strange and obscure words.

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سفر مَرَاثِي إِرْمِيَا

الأصحَاحُ الأَوَّلُ

1كَيْفَ جَلَسَتْ وَحْدَهَا الْمَدِينَةُ الْكَثِيرَةُ الشَّعْبِ! كَيْفَ صَارَتْ كَأَرْمَلَةٍ الْعَظِيمَةُ فِي الأُمَمِ. السَّيِّدَةُ في الْبُلْدَانِ صَارَتْ تَحْتَ الْجِزْيَةِ! 2تَبْكِي في اللَّيْلِ بُكَاءً، وَدُمُوعُهَا علَى خَدَّيْهَا. لَيْسَ لَهَا مُعَزّ مِنْ كُلِّ مُحِبِّيهَا. كُلُّ أَصْحَابِهَا غَدَرُوا بِهَا، صَارُوا لهَا أَعْدَاءً. 3قَد سُبِيَتْ يَهُوذَا مِنَ الْمَذَلَّةِ وَمِنْ كَثْرَةِ الْعُبُودِيَّةِ. هِيَ تَسْكُنُ بَيْنَ الأُمَمِ. لاَ تَجِدُ رَاحَةً. قَدْ أَدْرَكَهَا كُلُّ طَارِدِيهَا بَيْنَ الضِّيقَاتِ. 4طُرُقُ صِهْيَوْنَ نَائِحَةٌ لِعَدَمِ الآتِينَ إِلَى الْعِيدِ. كُلُّ أَبْوَابِهَا خَرِبَةٌ. كَهَنَتُهَا يَتَنَهَّدُونَ. عَذَارَاهَا مُذَلَّلَةٌ وَهِيَ فِي مَرَارَةٍ. 5صَارَ مُضَايِقُوهَا رَأْسًا. نَجَحَ أَعْدَاؤُهَا لأَنَّ الرَّبَّ قَدْ أَذَلَّهَا لأَجْلِ كَثْرَةِ ذُنُوبِهَا. ذَهَبَ أَوْلاَدُهَا إِلَى السَّبْيِ قُدَّامَ الْعَدُوِّ. 6وَقَدْ خَرَجَ مِنْ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ كُلُّ بَهَائِهَا. صَارَتْ رُؤَسَاؤُهَا كَأَيَائِلَ لاَ تَجِدُ مَرْعًى، فَيَسِيرُونَ بِلاَ قُوَّةٍ أَمَامَ الطَّارِدِ. 7قَدْ ذَكَرَتْ أُورُشَلِيمُ فِي أَيَّامِ مَذَلَّتِهَا وَتَطَوُّحِهَا كُلَّ مُشْتَهَيَاتِهَا الَّتِي كَانَتْ فِي أَيَّامِ الْقِدَمِ. عِنْدَ سُقُوطِ شَعْبِهَا بِيَدِ الْعَدُوِّ وَلَيْسَ مَنْ يُسَاعِدُهَا. رَأَتْهَا الأَعْدَاءُ. ضَحِكُوا عَلَى هَلاَكِهَا. 8قَدْ أَخْطَأَتْ أُورُشَلِيمُ خَطِيَّةً، مِنْ أَجْلِ ذلِكَ صَارَتْ رَجِسَةً. كُلُّ مُكَرِّمِيهَا يَحْتَقِرُونَهَا لأَنَّهُمْ رَأَوْا عَوْرَتَهَا، وَهِيَ أَيْضًا تَتَنَهَّدُ وَتَرْجعُ إِلَى الْوَرَاءِ. 9نَجَاسَتُهَا فِي أَذْيَالِهَا. لَمْ تَذْكُرْ آخِرَتَهَا وَقَدِ انْحَطَّتِ انْحِطَاطًا عَجِيبًا. لَيْسَ لَهَا مُعَزّ. «انْظُرْ يَا رَبُّ إِلَى مَذَلَّتِي لأَنَّ الْعَدُوَّ قَدْ تَعَظَّمَ». 10بَسَطَ الْعَدُوُّ يَدَهُ عَلَى كُلِّ مُشْتَهَيَاتِهَا، فَإِنَّهَا رَأَتِ الأُمَمَ دَخَلُوا مَقْدِسَهَا، الَّذِينَ أَمَرْتَ أَنْ لاَ يَدْخُلُوا فِي جَمَاعَتِكَ. 11كُلُّ شَعْبِهَا يَتَنَهَّدُونَ، يَطْلُبُونَ خُبْزًا. دَفَعُوا مُشْتَهَيَاتِهِمْ لِلأَكْلِ لأَجْلِ رَدِّ النَّفْسِ. «انْظُرْ يَارَبُّ وَتَطَلَّعْ لأَنِّي قَدْ صِرْتُ مُحْتَقَرَةً».

12«أَمَا إِلَيْكُمْ يَا جَمِيعَ عَابِرِي الطَّرِيقِ؟ تَطَلَّعُوا وَانْظُرُوا إِنْ كَانَ حُزْنٌ مِثْلُ حُزْنِي الَّذِي صُنِعَ بِي، الَّذِي أَذَلَّنِي بِهِ الرَّبُّ يَوْمَ حُمُوِّ غَضَبِهِ؟ 13مِنَ الْعَلاَءِ أَرْسَلَ نَارًا إِلَى عِظَامِي فَسَرَتْ فِيهَا. بَسَطَ شَبَكَةً لِرِجْلَيَّ. رَدَّنِي إِلَى الْوَرَاءِ. جَعَلَنِي خَرِبَةً. الْيَوْمَ كُلَّهُ مَغْمُومَةً. 14شَدَّ نِيرَ ذُنُوبِي بِيَدِهِ، ضُفِرَتْ، صَعِدَتْ عَلَى عُنُقِي. نَزَعَ قُوَّتِي. دَفَعَنِي السَّيِّدُ إِلَى أَيْدٍ لاَ أَسْتَطِيعُ الْقِيَامَ مِنْهَا. 15رَذَلَ السَّيِّدُ كُلَّ مُقْتَدِرِيَّ فِي وَسَطِي. دَعَا عَلَيَّ جَمَاعَةً لِحَطْمِ شُبَّانِي. دَاسَ السَّيِّدُ الْعَذْرَاءَ بِنْتَ يَهُوذَا مِعْصَرَةً. 16عَلَى هذِهِ أَنَا بَاكِيَةٌ. عَيْنِي، عَيْنِي تَسْكُبُ مِيَاهًا لأَنَّهُ قَدِ ابْتَعَدَ عَنِّي الْمُعَزِّي، رَادُّ نَفْسِي. صَارَ بَنِيَّ هَالِكِينَ لأَنَّهُ قَدْ تَجَبَّرَ الْعَدُوُّ».

17بَسَطَتْ صِهْيَوْنُ يَدَيْهَا. لاَ مُعَزِّيَ لَهَا. أَمَرَ الرَّبُّ عَلَى يَعْقُوبَ أَنْ يَكُونَ مُضَايِقُوهُ حَوَالَيْهِ. صَارَتْ أُورُشَلِيمُ نَجِسَةً بَيْنَهُمْ. 18«بَارٌّ هُوَ الرَّبُّ لأَنِّي قَدْ عَصَيْتُ أَمْرَهُ. اسْمَعُوا يَا جَمِيعَ الشُّعُوبِ وَانْظُرُوا إِلَى حُزْنِي. عَذَارَايَ وَشُبَّانِي ذَهَبُوا إِلَى السَّبْيِ. 19نَادَيْتُ مُحِبِّيَّ. هُمْ خَدَعُونِي. كَهَنَتِي وَشُيُوخِي فِي الْمَدِينَةِ مَاتُوا، إِذْ طَلَبُوا لِذَوَاتِهِمْ طَعَامًا لِيَرُدُّوا أَنْفُسَهُمْ. 20انْظُرْ يَا رَبُّ، فَإِنِّي فِي ضِيق! أَحْشَائِي غَلَتْ. ارْتَدَّ قَلْبِي فِي بَاطِنِي لأَنِّي قَدْ عَصَيْتُ مُتَمَرِّدَةً. فِي الْخَارِجِ يَثْكُلُ السَّيْفُ، وَفِي الْبَيْتِ مِثْلُ الْمَوْتِ. 21سَمِعُوا أَنِّي تَنَهَّدْتُ. لاَ مُعَزِّيَ لِي. كُلُّ أَعْدَائِي سَمِعُوا بِبَلِيَّتِي. فَرِحُوا لأَنَّكَ فَعَلْتَ. تَأْتِي بِالْيَوْمِ الَّذِي نَادَيْتَ بِهِ فَيَصِيرُونَ مِثْلِي. 22لِيَأْتِ كُلُّ شَرِّهِمْ أَمَامَكَ. وَافْعَلْ بِهِمْ كَمَا فَعَلْتَ بِي مِنْ أَجْلِ كُلِّ ذُنُوبِي، لأَنَّ تَنَهُّدَاتِي كَثِيرَةٌ وَقَلْبِي مَغْشِيٌّ عَلَيْهِ».

الأصحَاحُ الثَّانِي

1كَيْفَ غَطَّى السَّيِّدُ بِغَضَبِهِ ابْنَةَ صِهْيَوْنَ بِالظَّلاَمِ! أَلْقَى مِنَ السَّمَاءِ إِلَى الأَرْضِ فَخْرَ إِسْرَائِيلَ، وَلَمْ يَذْكُرْ مَوْطِئَ قَدَمَيْهِ فِي يَوْمِ غَضَبِهِ. 2ابْتَلَعَ السَّيِّدُ وَلَمْ يَشْفِقْ كُلَّ مَسَاكِنِ يَعْقُوبَ. نَقَضَ بِسَخَطِهِ حُصُونَ بِنْتِ يَهُوذَا. أَوْصَلَهَا إِلَى الأَرْضِ. نَجَّسَ الْمَمْلَكَةَ وَرُؤَسَاءَهَا. 3عَضَبَ بِحُمُوِّ غَضَبِهِ كُلَّ قَرْنٍ لإِسْرَائِيلَ. رَدَّ إِلَى الْوَرَاءِ يَمِينَهُ أَمَامَ الْعَدُوِّ، وَاشْتَعَلَ فِي يَعْقُوبَ مِثْلَ نَارٍ مُلْتَهِبَةٍ تَأْكُلُ مَا حَوَالَيْهَا. 4مَدَّ قَوْسَهُ كَعَدُوٍّ. نَصَبَ يَمِينَهُ كَمُبْغِضٍ وَقَتَلَ كُلَّ مُشْتَهَيَاتِ الْعَيْنِ فِي خِبَاءِ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ. سَكَبَ كَنَارٍ غَيْظَهُ. 5صَارَ السَّيِّدُ كَعَدُوٍّ. ابْتَلَعَ إِسْرَائِيلَ. ابْتَلَعَ كُلَّ قُصُورِهِ. أَهْلَكَ حُصُونَهُ، وَأَكْثَرَ فِي بِنْتِ يَهُوذَا النَّوْحَ وَالْحُزْنَ. 6وَنَزَعَ كَمَا مِنْ جَنَّةٍ مَظَلَّتَهُ. أَهْلَكَ مُجْتَمَعَهُ. أَنْسَى الرَّبُّ فِي صِهْيَوْنَ الْمَوْسِمَ وَالسَّبْتَ، وَرَذَلَ بِسَخَطِ غَضَبِهِ الْمَلِكَ وَالْكَاهِنَ. 7كَرِهَ السَّيِّدُ مَذْبَحَهُ. رَذَلَ مَقْدِسَهُ. حَصَرَ فِي يَدِ الْعَدُوِّ أَسْوَارَ قُصُورِهَا. أَطْلَقُوا الصَّوْتَ فِي بَيْتِ الرَّبِّ كَمَا فِي يَوْمِ الْمَوْسِمِ. 8قَصَدَ الرَّبُّ أَنْ يُهْلِكَ سُورَ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ. مَدَّ الْمِطْمَارَ. لَمْ يَرْدُدْ يَدَهُ عَنِ الإِهْلاَكِ، وَجَعَلَ الْمِتْرَسَةَ وَالسُّورَ يَنُوحَانِ. قَدْ حَزِنَا مَعًا. 9تَاخَتْ فِي الأَرْضِ أَبْوَابُهَا. أَهْلَكَ وَحَطَّمَ عَوَارِضَهَا. مَلِكُهَا وَرُؤَسَاؤُهَا بَيْنَ الأُمَمِ. لاَ شَرِيعَةَ. أَنْبِيَاؤُهَا أَيْضًا لاَ يَجِدُونَ رُؤْيَا مِنْ قِبَلِ الرَّبِّ. 10شُيُوخُ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ يَجْلِسُونَ عَلَى الأَرْضِ سَاكِتِينَ. يَرْفَعُونَ التُّرَابَ عَلَى رُؤُوسِهِمْ. يَتَنَطَّقُونَ بِالْمُسُوحِ. تَحْنِي عَذَارَى أُورُشَلِيمَ رُؤُوسَهُنَّ إِلَى الأَرْضِ. 11كَلَّتْ مِنَ الدُّمُوعِ عَيْنَايَ. غَلَتْ أَحْشَائِي. انْسَكَبَتْ عَلَى الأَرْضِ كَبِدِي عَلَى سَحْقِ بِنْتِ شَعْبِي، لأَجْلِ غَشَيَانِ الأَطْفَالِ وَالرُّضَّعِ فِي سَاحَاتِ الْقَرْيَةِ. 12يَقُولُونَ لأُمَّهَاتِهِمْ: «أَيْنَ الْحِنْطَةُ وَالْخَمْرُ؟» إِذْ يُغْشَى عَلَيْهِمْ كَجَرِيحٍ فِي سَاحَاتِ الْمَدِينَةِ، إِذْ تُسْكَبُ نَفْسُهُمْ فِي أَحْضَانِ أُمَّهَاتِهِمْ. 13بِمَاذَا أُنْذِرُكِ؟ بِمَاذَا أُحَذِّرُكِ؟ بِمَاذَا أُشَبِّهُكِ يَا ابْنَةَ أُورُشَلِيمَ؟ بِمَاذَا أُقَايِسُكِ فَأُعَزِّيكِ أَيَّتُهَا الْعَذْرَاءُ بِنْتَ صِهْيَوْنَ؟ لأَنَّ سَحْقَكِ عَظِيمٌ كَالْبَحْرِ. مَنْ يَشْفِيكِ؟ 14أَنْبِيَاؤُكِ رَأَوْا لَكِ كَذِبًا وَبَاطِلاً، وَلَمْ يُعْلِنُوا إِثْمَكِ لِيَرُدُّوا سَبْيَكِ، بَلْ رَأَوْا لَكِ وَحْيًا كَاذِبًا وَطَوَائِحَ. 15يُصَفِّقُ عَلَيْكِ بِالأَيَادِي كُلُّ عَابِرِي الطَّرِيقِ. يَصْفِرُونَ وَيَنْغُضُونَ رُؤُوسَهُمْ عَلَى بِنْتِ أُورُشَلِيمَ قَائِلِينَ: «أَهذِهِ هِيَ الْمَدِينَةُ الَّتِي يَقُولُونَ إِنَّهَا كَمَالُ الْجَمَالِ، بَهْجَةُ كُلِّ الأَرْضِ؟» 16يَفْتَحُ عَلَيْكِ أَفْوَاهَهُمْ كُلُّ أَعْدَائِكِ. يَصْفِرُونَ وَيَحْرِقُونَ الأَسْنَانَ. يَقُولُونَ: «قَدْ أَهْلَكْنَاهَا. حَقًّا إِنَّ هذَا الْيَوْمَ الَّذِي رَجَوْنَاهُ. قَدْ وَجَدْنَاهُ! قَدْ رَأَيْنَاهُ». 17فَعَلَ الرَّبُّ مَا قَصَدَ. تَمَّمَ قَوْلَهُ الَّذِي أَوْعَدَ بِهِ مُنْذُ أَيَّامِ الْقِدَمِ. قَدْ هَدَمَ وَلَمْ يَشْفِقْ وَأَشْمَتَ بِكِ الْعَدُوَّ. نَصَبَ قَرْنَ أَعْدَائِكِ. 18صَرَخَ قَلْبُهُمْ إِلَى السَّيِّدِ. يَا سُورَ بِنْتِ صِهْيَوْنَ اسْكُبِي الدَّمْعَ كَنَهْرٍ نَهَارًا وَلَيْلاً. لاَ تُعْطِي ذَاتَكِ رَاحَةً. لاَ تَكُفَّ حَدَقَةُ عَيْنِكِ. 19قُومِي اهْتِفِي فِي اللَّيْلِ فِي أَوَّلِ الْهُزُعِ. اسْكُبِي كَمِيَاهٍ قَلْبَكِ قُبَالَةَ وَجْهِ السَّيِّدِ. ارْفَعِي إِلَيْهِ يَدَيْكِ لأَجْلِ نَفْسِ أَطْفَالِكِ الْمَغْشِيِّ عَلَيْهِمْ مِنَ الْجُوعِ فِي رَأْسِ كُلِّ شَارِعٍ.

20«اُنْظُرْ يَا رَبُّ وَتَطَلَّعْ بِمَنْ فَعَلْتَ هكَذَا؟ أَتَأْكُلُ النِّسَاءُ ثَمَرَهُنَّ، أَطْفَالَ الْحَضَانَةِ؟ أَيُقْتَلُ فِي مَقْدِسِ السَّيِّدِ الْكَاهِنُ وَالنَّبِيُّ؟ 21اضْطَجَعَتْ عَلَى الأَرْضِ فِي الشَّوَارِعِ الصِّبْيَانُ وَالشُّيُوخُ. عَذَارَايَ وَشُبَّانِي سَقَطُوا بِالسَّيْفِ. قَدْ قَتَلْتَ فِي يَوْمِ غَضَبِكَ. ذَبَحْتَ وَلَمْ تَشْفِقْ. 22قَدْ دَعَوْتَ كَمَا فِي يَوْمِ مَوْسِمٍ مَخَاوِفِي حَوَالَيَّ، فَلَمْ يَكُنْ فِي يَوْمِ غَضَبِ الرَّبِّ نَاجٍ وَلاَ بَاق. اَلَّذِينَ حَضَنْتُهُمْ وَرَبَّيْتُهُمْ أَفْنَاهُمْ عَدُوِّي».

الأصحَاحُ الثَّالِثُ

1أَنَا هُوَ الرَّجُلُ الَّذِي رأَى مَذَلَّةً بِقَضِيبِ سَخَطِهِ. 2قَادَنِي وَسَيَّرَنِي فِي الظَّلاَمِ وَلاَ نُورَ. 3حَقًّا إِنَّهُ يَعُودُ وَيَرُدُّ عَلَيَّ يَدَهُ الْيَوْمَ كُلَّهُ. 4أَبْلَى لَحْمِي وَجِلْدِي. كَسَّرَ عِظَامِي. 5بَنَى عَلَيَّ وَأَحَاطَنِي بِعَلْقَمٍ وَمَشَقَّةٍ. 6أَسْكَنَنِي فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ كَمَوْتَى الْقِدَمِ. 7سَيَّجَ عَلَيَّ فَلاَ أَسْتَطِيعُ الْخُرُوجَ. ثَقَّلَ سِلْسِلَتِي. 8أَيْضًا حِينَ أَصْرُخُ وَأَسْتَغِيثُ يَصُدُّ صَلاَتِي. 9سَيَّجَ طُرُقِي بِحِجَارَةٍ مَنْحُوتَةٍ. قَلَبَ سُبُلِي. 10هُوَ لِي دُبٌّ كَامِنٌ، أَسَدٌ فِي مَخَابِىءَ. 11مَيَّلَ طُرُقِي وَمَزَّقَنِي. جَعَلَنِي خَرَابًا. 12مَدَّ قَوْسَهُ وَنَصَبَنِي كَغَرَضٍ لِلسَّهْمِ. 13أَدْخَلَ فِي كُلْيَتَيَّ نِبَالَ جُعْبَتِهِ. 14صِرْتُ ضُحْكَةً لِكُلِّ شَعْبِي، وَأُغْنِيَةً لَهُمُ الْيَوْمَ كُلَّهُ. 15أَشْبَعَنِي مَرَائِرَ وَأَرْوَانِي أَفْسَنْتِينًا، 16وَجَرَشَ بِالْحَصَى أَسْنَانِي. كَبَسَنِي بِالرَّمَادِ. 17وَقَدْ أَبْعَدْتَ عَنِ السَّلاَمِ نَفْسِي. نَسِيتُ الْخَيْرَ. 18وَقُلْتُ: «بَادَتْ ثِقَتِي وَرَجَائِي مِنَ الرَّبِّ». 19ذِكْرُ مَذَلَّتِي وَتَيَهَانِي أَفْسَنْتِينٌ وَعَلْقَمٌ. 20ذِكْرًا تَذْكُرُ نَفْسِي وَتَنْحَنِي فِيَّ.

21أُرَدِّدُ هذَا فِي قَلْبِي، مِنْ أَجْلِ ذلِكَ أَرْجُو: 22إِنَّهُ مِنْ إِحْسَانَاتِ الرَّبِّ أَنَّنَا لَمْ نَفْنَ، لأَنَّ مَرَاحِمَهُ لاَ تَزُولُ. 23هِيَ جَدِيدَةٌ فِي كُلِّ صَبَاحٍ. كَثِيرَةٌ أَمَانَتُكَ. 24نَصِيبِي هُوَ الرَّبُّ، قَالَتْ نَفْسِي، مِنْ أَجْلِ ذلِكَ أَرْجُوهُ. 25طَيِّبٌ هُوَ الرَّبُّ لِلَّذِينَ يَتَرَجَّوْنَهُ، لِلنَّفْسِ الَّتِي تَطْلُبُهُ. 26جَيِّدٌ أَنْ يَنْتَظِرَ الإِنْسَانُ وَيَتَوَقَّعَ بِسُكُوتٍ خَلاَصَ الرَّبِّ. 27جَيِّدٌ لِلرَّجُلِ أَنْ يَحْمِلَ النِّيرَ فِي صِبَاهُ. 28يَجْلِسُ وَحْدَهُ وَيَسْكُتُ، لأَنَّهُ قَدْ وَضَعَهُ عَلَيْهِ. 29يَجْعَلُ فِي التُّرَابِ فَمَهُ لَعَلَّهُ يُوجَدُ رَجَاءٌ. 30يُعْطِي خَدَّهُ لِضَارِبِهِ. يَشْبَعُ عَارًا. 31لأَنَّ السَّيِّدَ لاَ يَرْفُضُ إِلَى الأَبَدِ. 32فَإِنَّهُ وَلَوْ أَحْزَنَ يَرْحَمُ حَسَبَ كَثْرَةِ مَرَاحِمِهِ. 33لأَنَّهُ لاَ يُذِلُّ مِنْ قَلْبِهِ، وَلاَ يُحْزِنُ بَنِي الإِنْسَانِ. 34أَنْ يَدُوسَ أَحَدٌ تَحْتَ رِجْلَيْهِ كُلَّ أَسْرَى الأَرْضِ، 35أَنْ يُحَرِّفَ حَقَّ الرَّجُلِ أَمَامَ وَجْهِ الْعَلِيِّ، 36أَنْ يَقْلِبَ الإِنْسَانَ فِي دَعْوَاهُ. السَّيِّدُ لاَ يَرَى! 37مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَقُولُ فَيَكُونَ وَالرَّبُّ لَمْ يَأْمُرْ؟ 38مِنْ فَمِ الْعَلِيِّ أَلاَ تَخْرُجُ الشُّرُورُ وَالْخَيْرُ؟

39لِمَاذَا يَشْتَكِي الإِنْسَانُ الْحَيُّ، الرَّجُلُ مِنْ قِصَاصِ خَطَايَاهُ؟ 40لِنَفْحَصْ طُرُقَنَا وَنَمْتَحِنْهَا وَنَرْجعْ إِلَى الرَّبِّ. 41لِنَرْفَعْ قُلُوبَنَا وَأَيْدِيَنَا إِلَى اللهِ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ: 42«نَحْنُ أَذْنَبْنَا وَعَصَيْنَا. أَنْتَ لَمْ تَغْفِرْ. 43الْتَحَفْتَ بِالْغَضَبِ وَطَرَدْتَنَا. قَتَلْتَ وَلَمْ تَشْفِقْ. 44الْتَحَفْتَ بِالسَّحَابِ حَتَّى لاَ تَنْفُذَ الصَّلاَةُ. 45جَعَلْتَنَا وَسَخًا وَكَرْهًا فِي وَسَطِ الشُّعُوبِ. 46فَتَحَ كُلُّ أَعْدَائِنَا أَفْوَاهَهُمْ عَلَيْنَا. 47صَارَ عَلَيْنَا خَوْفٌ وَرُعْبٌ، هَلاَكٌ وَسَحْقٌ». 48سَكَبَتْ عَيْنَايَ يَنَابِيعَ مَاءٍ عَلَى سَحْقِ بِنْتِ شَعْبِي. 49عَيْنِي تَسْكُبُ وَلاَ تَكُفُّ بِلاَ انْقِطَاعٍ 50حَتَّى يُشْرِفَ وَيَنْظُرَ الرَّبُّ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ. 51عَيْنِي تُؤَثِّرُ فِي نَفْسِي لأَجْلِ كُلِّ بَنَاتِ مَدِينَتِي. 52قَدِ اصْطَادَتْنِي أَعْدَائِي كَعُصْفُورٍ بِلاَ سَبَبٍ. 53قَرَضُوا فِي الْجُبِّ حَيَاتِي وَأَلْقَوْا عَلَيَّ حِجَارَةً. 54طَفَتِ الْمِيَاهُ فَوْقَ رَأْسِي. قُلْتُ: «قَدْ قُرِضْتُ!».

55دَعَوْتُ بِاسْمِكَ يَا رَبُّ مِنَ الْجُبِّ الأَسْفَلِ. 56لِصَوْتِي سَمِعْتَ: «لاَ تَسْتُرْ أُذُنَكَ عَنْ زَفْرَتِي، عَنْ صِيَاحِي». 57دَنَوْتَ يَوْمَ دَعَوْتُكَ. قُلْتَ: «لاَ تَخَفْ!». 58خَاصَمْتَ يَا سَيِّدُ خُصُومَاتِ نَفْسِي. فَكَكْتَ حَيَاتِي. 59رَأَيْتَ يَا رَبُّ ظُلْمِي. أَقِمْ دَعْوَايَ. 60رَأَيْتَ كُلَّ نَقْمَتِهِمْ، كُلَّ أَفْكَارِهِمْ عَلَيَّ. 61سَمِعْتَ تَعْيِيرَهُمْ يَا رَبُّ، كُلَّ أَفْكَارِهِمْ عَلَيَّ. 62كَلاَمُ مُقَاوِمِيَّ وَمُؤَامَرَتُهُمْ عَلَيَّ الْيَوْمَ كُلَّهُ. 63اُنْظُرْ إِلَى جُلُوسِهِمْ وَوُقُوفِهِمْ، أَنَا أُغْنِيَتُهُمْ!

64رُدَّ لَهُمْ جَزَاءً يَا رَبُّ حَسَبَ عَمَلِ أَيَادِيهِمْ. 65أَعْطِهِمْ غِشَاوَةَ قَلْبٍ، لَعْنَتَكَ لَهُمْ. 66اِتْبَعْ بِالْغَضَبِ وَأَهْلِكْهُمْ مِنْ تَحْتِ سَمَاوَاتِ الرَّبِّ.

الأصحَاحُ الرَّابعُ

1كَيْفَ اكْدَرَّ الذَّهَبُ، تَغَيَّرَ الإِبْرِيزُ الْجَيِّدُ! انْهَالَتْ حِجَارَةُ الْقُدْسِ فِي رَأْسِ كُلِّ شَارِعٍ. 2بَنُو صِهْيَوْنَ الْكُرَمَاءُ الْمَوْزُونُونَ بِالذَّهَبِ النَّقِيِّ، كَيْفَ حُسِبُوا أَبَارِيقَ خَزَفٍ عَمَلَ يَدَيْ فَخَّارِيٍّ! 3بَنَاتُ آوَى أَيْضًا أَخْرَجَتْ أَطْبَاءَهَا، أَرْضَعَتْ أَجْرَاءَهَا. أَمَّا بِنْتُ شَعْبِي فَجَافِيَةٌ كَالنَّعَامِ فِي الْبَرِّيَّةِ. 4لَصِقَ لِسَانُ الرَّاضِعِ بِحَنَكِهِ مِنَ الْعَطَشِ. اَلأَطْفَالُ يَسْأَلُونَ خُبْزًا وَلَيْسَ مَنْ يَكْسِرُهُ لَهُمْ. 5اَلَّذِينَ كَانُوا يَأْكُلُونَ الْمَآكِلَ الْفَاخِرَةَ قَدْ هَلِكُوا فِي الشَّوَارِعِ. الَّذِينَ كَانُوا يَتَرَبَّوْنَ عَلَى الْقِرْمِزِ احْتَضَنُوا الْمَزَابِلَ. 6وَقَدْ صَارَ عِقَابُ بِنْتِ شَعْبِي أَعْظَمَ مِنْ قِصَاصِ خَطِيَّةِ سَدُومَ الَّتِي انْقَلَبَتْ كَأَنَّهُ فِي لَحْظَةٍ، وَلَمْ تُلْقَ عَلَيْهَا أَيَادٍ. 7كَانَ نُذُرُهَا أَنْقَى مِنَ الثَّلْجِ وَأَكْثَرَ بَيَاضًا مِنَ اللَّبَنِ، وَأَجْسَامُهُمْ أَشَدَّ حُمْرَةً مِنَ الْمَرْجَانِ. جَرَزُهُمْ كَالْيَاقُوتِ الأَزْرَقِ. 8صَارَتْ صُورَتُهُمْ أَشَدَّ ظَلاَمًا مِنَ السَّوَادِ. لَمْ يُعْرَفُوا فِي الشَّوَارِعِ. لَصِقَ جِلْدُهُمْ بِعَظْمِهِمْ. صَارَ يَابِسًا كَالْخَشَبِ. 9كَانَتْ قَتْلَى السَّيْفِ خَيْرًا مِنْ قَتْلَى الْجُوعِ. لأَنَّ هؤُلاَءِ يَذُوبُونَ مَطْعُونِينَ لِعَدَمِ أَثْمَارِ الْحَقْلِ. 10أَيَادِي النِّسَاءِ الْحَنَائِنِ طَبَخَتْ أَوْلاَدَهُنَّ. صَارُوا طَعَامًا لَهُنَّ فِي سَحْقِ بِنْتِ شَعْبِي. 11أَتَمَّ الرَّبُّ غَيْظَهُ. سَكَبَ حُمُوَّ غَضَبِهِ وَأَشْعَلَ نَارًا فِي صِهْيَوْنَ فَأَكَلَتْ أُسُسَهَا. 12لَمْ تُصَدِّقْ مُلُوكُ الأَرْضِ وَكُلُّ سُكَّانِ الْمَسْكُونَةِ أَنَّ الْعَدُوَّ وَالْمُبْغِضَ يَدْخُلاَنِ أَبْوَابَ أُورُشَلِيمَ.

13مِنْ أَجْلِ خَطَايَا أَنْبِيَائِهَا، وَآثَامِ كَهَنَتِهَا السَّافِكِينَ فِي وَسَطِهَا دَمَ الصِّدِّيقِينَ، 14تَاهُوا كَعُمْيٍ فِي الشَّوَارِعِ، وَتَلَطَّخُوا بِالدَّمِ حَتَّى لَمْ يَسْتَطِعْ أَحَدٌ أَنْ يَمَسَّ مَلاَبِسَهُمْ. 15«حِيدُوا! نَجِسٌ!» يُنَادُونَ إِلَيْهِمْ. «حِيدُوا! حِيدُوا لاَ تَمَسُّوا!». إِذْ هَرَبُوا تَاهُوا أَيْضًا. قَالُوا بَيْنَ الأُمَمِ: «إِنَّهُمْ لاَ يَعُودُونَ يَسْكُنُونَ». 16وَجْهُ الرَّبِّ قَسَمَهُمْ. لاَ يَعُودُ يَنْظُرُ إِلَيْهِمْ. لَمْ يَرْفَعُوا وُجُوهَ الْكَهَنَةِ، وَلَمْ يَتَرَأ َّ فُوا عَلَى الشُّيُوخِ. 17أَمَّا نَحْنُ فَقَدْ كَلَّتْ أَعْيُنُنَا مِنَ النَّظَرِ إِلَى عَوْنِنَا الْبَاطِلِ. فِي بُرْجِنَا انْتَظَرْنَا أُمَّةً لاَ تُخَلِّصُ. 18نَصَبُوا فِخَاخًا لِخَطَوَاتِنَا حَتَّى لاَ نَمْشِيَ فِي سَاحَاتِنَا. قَرُبَتْ نِهَايَتُنَا. كَمُلَتْ أَيَّامُنَا لأَنَّ نِهَايَتَنَا قَدْ أَتَتْ. 19صَارَ طَارِدُونَا أَخَفَّ مِنْ نُسُورِ السَّمَاءِ. عَلَى الْجِبَالِ جَدُّوا فِي أَثَرِنَا. فِي الْبَرِّيَّةِ كَمَنُوا لَنَا. 20نَفَسُ أُنُوفِنَا، مَسِيحُ الرَّبِّ، أُخِذَ فِي حُفَرِهِمِ. الَّذِي قُلْنَا عَنْهُ: « فِي ظِلِّهِ نَعِيشُ بَيْنَ الأُمَمِ».

21اِطْرَبِي وَافْرَحِي يَا بِنْتَ أَدُومَ، يَا سَاكِنَةَ عَوْصٍ. عَلَيْكِ أَيْضًا تَمُرُّ الْكَأْسُ. تَسْكَرِينَ وَتَتَعَرَّينَ.

22قَدْ تَمَّ إِثْمُكِ يَا بِنْتَ صِهْيَوْنَ. لاَ يَعُودُ يَسْبِيكِ. سَيُعَاقِبُ إِثْمَكِ يَا بِنْتَ أَدُومَ وَيُعْلِنُ خَطَايَاكِ.

الأصحَاحُ الْخَامِسُ

1اُذْكُرْ يَا رَبُّ مَاذَا صَارَ لَنَا. أَشْرِفْ وَانْظُرْ إِلَى عَارِنَا. 2قَدْ صَارَ مِيرَاثُنَا لِلْغُرَبَاءِ. بُيُوتُنَا لِلأَجَانِبِ. 3صِرْنَا أَيْتَامًا بِلاَ أَبٍ. أُمَّهَاتُنَا كَأَرَامِلَ. 4شَرِبْنَا مَاءَنَا بِالْفِضَّةِ. حَطَبُنَا بِالثَّمَنِ يَأْتِي. 5عَلَى أَعْنَاقِنَا نُضْطَهَدُ. نَتْعَبُ وَلاَ رَاحَةَ لَنَا. 6أَعْطَيْنَا الْيَدَ لِلْمِصْرِيِّينَ وَالأَشُّورِيِّينَ لِنَشْبَعَ خُبْزًا. 7آبَاؤُنَا أَخْطَأُوا وَلَيْسُوا بِمَوْجُودِينَ، وَنَحْنُ نَحْمِلُ آثَامَهُمْ. 8عَبِيدٌ حَكَمُوا عَلَيْنَا. لَيْسَ مَنْ يُخَلِّصُ مِنْ أَيْدِيهِمْ. 9بِأَنْفُسِنَا نَأْتِي بِخُبْزِنَا مِنْ جَرَى سَيْفِ الْبَرِّيَّةِ. 10جُلُودُنَا اسْوَدَّتْ كَتَنُّورٍ مِنْ جَرَى نِيرَانِ الْجُوعِ. 11أَذَلُّوا النِّسَاءَ فِي صِهْيَوْنَ، الْعَذَارَى فِي مُدُنِ يَهُوذَا. 12الرُّؤَسَاءُ بِأَيْدِيهِمْ يُعَلَّقُونَ، وَلَمْ تُعْتَبَرْ وُجُوهُ الشُّيُوخِ. 13أَخَذُوا الشُّبَّانَ لِلطَّحْنِ، وَالصِّبْيَانَ عَثَرُوا تَحْتَ الْحَطَبِ. 14كَفَّتِ الشُّيُوخُ عَنِ الْبَابِ، وَالشُّبَّانُ عَنْ غِنَائِهِمْ. 15مَضَى فَرَحُ قَلْبِنَا. صَارَ رَقْصُنَا نَوْحًا. 16سَقَطَ إِكْلِيلُ رَأْسِنَا. وَيْلٌ لَنَا لأَنَّنَا قَدْ أَخْطَأْنَا. 17مِنْ أَجْلِ هذَا حَزِنَ قَلْبُنَا. مِنْ أَجْلِ هذِهِ أَظْلَمَتْ عُيُونُنَا. 18مِنْ أَجْلِ جَبَلِ صِهْيَوْنَ الْخَرِبِ. الثَّعَالِبُ مَاشِيَةٌ فِيهِ. 19أَنْتَ يَا رَبُّ إِلَى الأَبَدِ تَجْلِسُ. كُرْسِيُّكَ إِلَى دَوْرٍ فَدَوْرٍ. 20لِمَاذَا تَنْسَانَا إِلَى الأَبَدِ وَتَتْرُكُنَا طُولَ الأَيَّامِ؟ 21اُرْدُدْنَا يَا رَبُّ إِلَيْكَ فَنَرْتَدَّ. جَدِّدْ أَيَّامَنَا كَالْقَدِيمِ. 22هَلْ كُلَّ الرَّفْضِ رَفَضْتَنَا؟ هَلْ غَضِبْتَ عَلَيْنَا جِدًّا؟

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Suicide 20, or The Hakimi Maqama

http://www.hayfestival.com/beirut39/anthology.aspx?skinid=6

Suicide 20, or The Hakimi Maqama[1]

by Youssef Rakha, Egypt

English translation by Nader K. Uthman (2009)

Rashid Celal Siyouti recounted as follows:

Imagine! You open the hood of your car after it breaks down on you in the middle of the street, and where the engine should be you find a corpse folded in the fetal position! That’s not exactly what happened to me, but considering that this was my first visit to Cairo in three years, what happened was almost as strange.

Afterwards, when I found out what my lifelong friend Mustafa Nayif Çorbacı had been through, what had made him leave Cairo a week before I arrived, things would fall into place. I was not to know Mustafa’s story until after I resumed my normal life as a backup doctor at Bethnal Green Hospital in East London, when I received an email[AM1] with a huge PDF file attached, containing the manuscrpt in which Mustafa wrote about his separation from his wife and what followed. There was a single line in the message window wondering whether, after reading the attachment, I would think he had gone crazy.[2] The PDF would prove to me that I didn’t make up that night on the way to Salah Salim Street under the stress of my matrimonial plans, thinking too much about the largest obstacle ahead. I live next to my job in Bethnal Green, and since I moved there in 2005, about two years ago, I’ve been living with a Druze co-worker whom I love. I would have married her long ago, if not for the fact that her family would never let her marry a non-Druze. So, when a ghost appeared to me in the flesh, saying that he was the nineteenth incarnation of God’s Anointed Ruler, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, whom the Druze worship, I wondered if it was a hallucination brought on by reading about that obscure religion, and thinking about getting married, or the reason why I was forbidden from starting a family with my girlfriend. For a few hours I panicked, doubting that in having a relationship with this girl, I might really be desecrating something.

Although the contents of the PDF in Mustafa’s letter could not have crossed my mind during my time in Cairo, I remembered after my second phone call to his mother (the only person remaining there with a genuine connection to Mustafa) that what happened to him might resemble what I saw with my own eyes on that night.

“He who acknowledges that there is no god to worship in the sky,

nor imam[3] to worship on earth save for our Lord Al-Hakim, may

he be exalted, is one of the Monotheists.”

From The Covenant of the Druze Faith, by Hamza bin Ali, known as The Covenant of Induction into the Religion of the Ruler of the Age.)

That night I discovered that the imams of the line of Ubaydallah (the dynasty we know as the Fatimids) knew of a sixth and stranger disappearance. Al-Hakim, their most famous representative, was an austere tyrant who forbade people from eating the popular stew made from Jews Mallow named mulukhiyya and prohibited women from leaving the house, then committed a minor genocide in the first Muslim city in Egypt known after the country itself as (Old) Misr; he would liquidate anyone who came near him. The disappearance of this inspired madman, as I discovered that night, was nothing but a suicide, which followed by the appearance of the Druze faith, which claimed that he was the human embodiment of the One. “If you’re convinced that you’re God,” – this is what the man who killed himself told me – “this must necessarily lead to suicide. For how is God to live among the people, even if He was their Lord?” “This suicide,” – he explained to me – “is repeated once every fifty years, dating from the first time it happened in 1021: the soul of Al-Hakim will have been incarnated in the body of an ordinary person with roots in Al-Mui’zz’s Cairo[AM2] .[4] And after he kills himself in his turn, he appears to his heir – precisely fifty years having passed since he killed himself – to inform him that he is next in line.” At the time, I remembered that up until they married, my mom and dad were born and lived their lives not far from the Mosque of Al-Hakim, the one with the minaret that resembles an erect, circumcised penis, looking out over a wall that spreads out like a sheet. I remembered also that my grandfather used to claim to my father that he was a descendant of the shaykh of Borgwan Alley (that place named after the most famous of Al-Hakim’s eunuchs, and one of his victims). My grandfather used to say, half jokingly, that our history in the neighborhood goes back to the days of the Mamelukes. This was the way it went on my first trip, after an absence of three years, to my birthplace and my sweetest days, the subject now having fallen in love a Druze woman. Now I had to imagine killing myself by the Sword of Al-Imam Al-Aziz Billah, the father of Al-Hakim, given that I was (woe is me!) suicide number 20.

Rashid Celal Siyouti digressed, speaking in the voice of the ghost:

“He who dies alone, does not know. He does not quiver in surprise nor does the bright flash blind him.” (This is what suicide number 19 said to me on the way back, when my car stalled in the Qarafa parallel, as if it lost power. It was a dark place, yet I pulled the handbrake and went out to open the hood, and then suddenly the light in the sky changed for an instant, as if the morning had dawned or as if morning could dawn for only a moment, only to vanish. Meanwhile, the rocks from the[AM3] Muqattam hills flashed above me as though fluorescent, while something like the palm of a hand bore into my shoulder. When I looked around me, there was no trace of him left. Had he left no trace? Eventually I returned to the driver’s seat, trying desperately to start the car, when a neatly-groomed young man appeared next to me in a retro-style, three-piece suit, holding prayer beads in one hand.

He started speaking immediately: “He who dies without having control over his death will never know the fabulous rapture of departing this life.” Then[AM4] :

Only he who kills himself is the Immortal, the Everlasting, and who else can ever have the joy of certainty? I speak to you from experience, believe me: you will not die like other people. You will kill yourself with your own hands at the decisive moment, and the decisive moment always includes others. I tell you this, despite the fact that I didn’t make preparations for it, since I died in the presence of my father and sister and best friend, in the courtyard containing my mother’s tomb, also behind Bab Al-Nasr,[5] where the Cairo of Al-Mu‘izz was located a long time ago. Now, of course, there is nothing called time, yet there is no way to make you understand me except that language of yours. My sister thought I was going to kill her with the Sword, while my father lay ill. Yet I was to call him too, so that he emerged one minute before my death. All those itinerant spirits around my soul, I tell you, witnessed me pass. By your measure, my age was twenty-four at the time, and if not for the fact that I – exalted be my name – was of divine lineage, I would not have realized the magnificence of disappearing early on, or learned that all that happened, happened in order to lead up (in however illogical or murky a way that does not make it any less inevitable) to a single moment in the year 1958, the moment I plunged the Sword’s tip into the spot my previous incarnation had precisely marked for me: under my left breast, about a thumbnail’s length to the right. My arms were outstretched, as were my hands gripping the handle. It was as if my thin torso, in its black robe, had become a taut arc. And bracing my bare feet on the sandy ground, all at once, I held firm, I, the Perfect One, whose death comes by His own hand – and from that time onward, the One who carries the Sword of Al-Aziz Billah. Listen to my tale.

And mimicking the great maqama masters Al-Hamadhani and Al-Hariri (in rhymed prose with two traditional bayts of verse in the middle, as per the tradition of the maqama), Rashid returned to the beginning of his tale:

(underlining indicate rhyming words in original[AM5] )

I came to Cairo, so to speak, for a visit. And in the company of my true friend Mustafa, I intended to walk from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. With him, that’s what I agreed: to see what is left of the Islamic heritage in Cairo, its glory and deeds. It had been seven years for me in England, during which I had cut the nerve of nostalgia. That was a long time ago, when I agreed to meet with Darsh[6], and like a Sultan returning to the throne, you should see what happened to me then. I was appalling not to find him in the land, as if my city had been bereft of human dwellings. Our agreement, the bastard had erased; and because of the resulting shock, awesome sorrows I was made to face. Nostalgically, I imagined us among dusty and dirty alleywas, in Al-Mu‘izz’s Cairo going from gate to gate. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I said, “Damn Mustafaenough, I’ll replace his company with that of cigarettes and camera. And I took my father’s car, heading out one night, when no sooner did I set out than I returned contrite. Were it to be revealed – what I saw in Bab Al-Futouh[7] – it would give the Sphinx himself a fright. And if Mustafa has his own excuse in madness, I realised then that it was my turn to be mad. (You will not understand what happened to Mustafa until you have read the PDF and its fiction[AM6] .) As my limbs are struck with apathy and dread, without prior arrangement or scrutiny I say to you:

He who suffers the spectre of death

Is on the path of resurrection

The purpose behind killing myself

Is to quicken my crossing over

After the event, I spent only five days in Cairo; the encounter shook me to the core, the shock and horror of it. I fell into visits and family gatherings; at the tables I would stay, bottling up my hardship all the way. The whole time, nothing hidden nor revealed could stop me thinking about Mustafa and how he disappeared. Since I found his mobile phone switched off the night of my arrival, there was no one but his mother onto whom I could unload; I called her at once, late one night, and in her voice there was a shade of confusion and despair. Then, I called her again after the heir of the Imam showed up, when it was only three days before I was to go back to England. And so the thought has often returned to me: how in April, Mustafa suddenly left, three weeks after he found his way to his mother’s house. He had gone back to live with her after separating from his wife whom he hastened to divorce as an expression of his indignation. After his departure, as she told me, he only called one time – to reassure her that he was safe and to confirm that he would not die. “She senses that she has lost him for all eternity,” I thought, as she spoke to me, weary with agony. His suspicious disappearance was confirmed by this matter and the fact that my e-mails to him remained unanswered, to the letter.

And then Rashid returned to what the suicide said to him:

My name and my lineage will not matter. The important thing is that my corpse disappeared at the time of my death by the Sword of Al-Aziz. So that you know that the Sword will reach you too, and when you plunge it into its place, there will be no trace of you left. Eighteen suicides and I prove it to you. You can find out if you ask, since something that happens every fifty years does not attract a passing glance. You’re afraid because you are not yet certain that you are Immortal, the Everlasting One, nor are you sure of everything that happens in that narrow room you think to be your life, including the likes of me, with your disbelief in my being here, and your bewilderment at the sight of the mountain in the light of your eyes. The light will not be reflected again until you die, when your divine vision begins to take over. Everything that happens takes place in order to lead up to one moment in the year 2008 . . .

The suicide kept on in this way, talking to me – as terror shook my being, then paralyzed me. I was still in denial that he was right there next to me, so I didn’t look at him as I insistently kept turning the ignition to start the motor. The suicide chuckled briefly – one, short laugh – then stretched out his hand to indicate the spot in which to plunge my Sword. Right after the touch of his finger on my chest, I felt a tingle I had never experienced before in my whole life. There was pleasure in that touch – effortless, without instigation, endless, like an orgasm. “You must take the studded gold handle in both your hands. You will have pointed the edge of the blade to your chest, under your right breast but a thumbnail’s length to the right. You must then bend over like a bow, brace your feet on the ground – and then all at once, thrust!”

As soon as he withdrew his hand, he began to sing, saying:

I did not begin to understand until I thought I already understood,

then I saw things as if with the eyes of the Buddha:

that childish drawing of large forms, gazing out

from the frontiers of buildings,

which sees everything in everything.

Maybe my sister and my friend thought I was stunned at the sight of them, since my posture with the Sword followed my discovery the two of them precisely one night before, in the dark of the courtyard. I had come in barefoot, the gas lamp in my hand, only to find my sister’s thighs propped up as if on something low, underneath her hiked-up robe. It was impossible to see her top half from afar: she was lying on her back on the floor, moaning heatedly, as if sobbing. I recognised the two of them, my sister’s thighs.

And so continued the suicide, after he ordered me – with a lukewarm smile – to start the motor. Now the car did take off – on Salah Salim Street, which did not seem to end. I was driving very fast in order to get out of this dark area, but however much I drove I did not get a centimeter further. When he finished speaking, without my knowing it, Salah Salim would go back to normal, and I would now know that I truly escaped from the spot in which I met him. And without my knowing, too, that he had disappeared.

I[AM7] didn’t make out what was propping them up from underneath until I got close and kneeled down. My friend was slithering on his belly like a snake as his head was buried between the two of them, his shoulders under her thighs. When I gasped, he lifted her up and I saw my sister’s shaved sex, swollen and red in the light of the gas lamp, as my friend’s saliva clung to the hair[AM8] and leaked down around it. I screamed at them, “Get married! Go get married!” and then turned around. They actually did get married without my father finding out what happened, but they had to wait seven years after my unexpected suicide. Until they die, they will wonder if their buried secret was the reason for that wait.

Then, returning to the beginning of his story, Rashid said:

From the first day, I had decided to put off family matters that awaited me with each visit, so I would make excuses, saying that since I have not seen them for so long, I prefer to spend time alone with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers. In truth I spent a week going from bar to bar in Zamalek and from café to café downtown. I would use my father’s Renault – parked most of the time – but only after the mechanic had inspected it, tried it out for a week and guaranteed its performance… until I felt like going on my own to Bab Al-Futouh and what happened happened.

We live in Heliopolis,[8] in a building built at the end of the fifties, when suicide number 19 lived in Bab Al-Futouh, right next to my father, who turned seventy-five years old [AM9] last year. Yes, that’s what I thought of at first, until I remembered a story that was repeated in different forms on both sides of the family, without my knowing if it was true. My mother would deny it angrily every time the subject was raised, while my father would deny any knowledge of it with a curtness unusual for him. My mother’s brother, Uncle Fathi: the only one of my parents’ siblings whom I never saw even once[AM10] . He died young; he is supposed to have died [AM11] in a car accident, yet there is a level of mystery surrounding his death, the kind of mystery that evokes a scandal or something frightening. There is nothing decisive to refute that he had taken his own life. My uncle had spied my mother and father together in an awkward position while they were still young and not committed in a relationship; meanwhile, my uncle and my father were friends and soulmates. There are those who say that he died in anguish after he learned of his friend’s betrayal and his little sister’s wantonness. And there are those who say that he fought with my father, who killed him, and the two families covered it up, since they were close to one another and keen to avoid scandal. I’m not one-hundred percent sure of the memory, but I thought I heard someone say that my Uncle Fathi was a blessed man, and that when he died, his body evaporated and directly soared up to the sky. And so God had raised him up as he raised up the prophet Jesus[9].  What confirmed my suspicion was that my maternal grandmother died when she was a young girl, and that her grave was on land my grandfather owned in Bab Al-Futouh. (During my trek, I wasn’t able to reach my maternal grandmother’s grave.) Honestly: I was afraid. And the fear grew in my heart to the point where I didn’t dare to mention anything to my father or mother during my last five days in Cairo. We live in Heliopolis, I’m saying. One of the things I miss most in England is the atmosphere of Salah Salim Street – which I have to traverse, even if just on a part of it, on any trip I make from or to our house. You’re truly on the body of a serpent that slithers on Cairo’s entire back – from the north, where we live, to Roda Island in the south, parallel to Old Cairo. It’s like a spine susceptible to dislocation. I parked quite far, on the opposite side of the street, near Zizo’s, the restaurant famous for its sausages. Then I crossed cautiously, taking bigger and bigger steps; and I didn’t return for three hours. I was gazing at the ancient buildings as If I had lived in them in their glory days. I felt a violent familiarity for a place I only vaguely knew.

“The leader rode one evening, on one of his night treks… He headed toward Muqattam[AM12] hills, then, he was not seen after that, neither live nor[AM13] dead, his fate unknown, his body

never found. Nor did any modern nor contemporary story come to us – no decisive story on his death nor on his disappearance”

From Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah and the Secrets of the Fatimid Call, by Muhammad Abdallah Anan (1983).

Three months have passed now, and there is more joy in my relationship with my girlfriend than ever.

That night in Bab Al-Fotouh I had thought about her for a long time as my hand came into contact with the walls she has dreamed of seeing since she was a girl in Suwayda, Syria, and even after she came to Manchester with her family at the age of fifteen. (She had never visited Egypt, even though the story of Al-Hakim was of course present – specifically, his end: he departed on his donkey, looking up at the stars in Muqattam hills and never came back. Later, they found no trace of him, except for the seven capes he wore; the buttons, caked with blood, could not be unbuttoned. (They were dumped in the open air[AM14] , and some claim they were found wet in Helwan.) Yet, until now, I still avoid talking to her about my last visit to Cairo. At first, it didn’t occur to me that the emergence of the suicide could be more important to me than our marriage, yet as time passed – after I finished reading Mustafa’s PDF, to be precise – I became almost convinced that it truly was more important.  What didn’t please me – after recalling one or two memories of things that didn’t happen to me in the first place – was to find myself increasingly enthusiastic about the idea of killing myself, just as the suicide had predicted. The day before yesterday – the second anniversary of our decision to live together without her family’s knowledge – my girlfriend brought me an unexpected gift which I also never expected to make me this happy. I was busy on the computer when she entered the apartment, so I said hello without lifting my eyes from the screen, only to end up with a rectangular piece of metal sparkling before my eyes. She had snuck up behind my back and snared my head between her two arms. And in her hands was what almost made me faint as I uttered its name: the Sword of Al-Aziz. Then, she put it on the table, saying that her father actually believed that it belonged to Al-Aziz bi-Allah. She added that it couldn’t possibly have been made over a thousand years ago, it was in too good a condition to be the imam’s. She had found it in her father’s large safe and kept begging until he gave it to her. She hid it in the trunk of her car until the day of our anniversary. Slowly, I reached out and lifted it by its studded gold handle; it looked new, as if it had been crafted yesterday. I looked closer at the edge the blade; it appeared sharper than anything made by human hands. I grew distracted for a bit. And bringing me back to reality, the angelic beauty of my girlfriend’s face appeared, asking “Do you like it?”


[1] The maqama is a medieval literary genre featuring rhymed prose – a stylistic device employed in some sections of this piece. Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah – Abu Ali Mansur Tariq al-Hakim (996–1021) – was the 6th Fatimid caliph, the 16th Ismaili imam and the inspiration of Tawhid (“monotheism”) – the Druze name for their faith. (Translator)

[2] The attachment refers to the Kitab Al-Tugra or Book of the Sultan’s Seal, an as yet unpublished novel by the same author.

[3] Muslim spiritual leader (Translator)

[4] Al-Mu‘izz, or Ma‘dh Abu Tamim al-Mu‘izz li-Dinallah (ca. 930 – 975) was the first Fatimid caliph to rule from Egypt, and his reign was the most remarkable. His armies conquered Egypt and defeated the Abbasids; he founded Cairo and made it his capital in 972-973. He ruled over much of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Sicily.

[5] One of the major gates of Fatimid Cairo, built in the 11th century. (Translator)

[6] Darsh is a common and traditional sobriquet for Mustafa.

[7] The north gate of Fatimid Cairo, built in the 11th century. (Translator)

[8] Also called masr al-gadida, or “New Egypt,” a suburb of Cairo. (Translator)

[9] Orthodox Muslim belief holds that Jesus was never crucified but was physically raised into the heavens by God’s invisible hands.


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Ibrahim Fathi’s Review of Azhar Al-Shams

Wheatfield with Crows (1890), Van Gogh Museum,...
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Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143
Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi

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January 2000

Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143

Summer torments

Azhar al-Shams is Youssef Rakha’s first collection of short stories, yet it constitutes a mature beginning, containing none of the faults characteristic of many young authors’ early works. His thematic framework is robustly formulated, his language elaborately multilayered and evocative, with the interplay between connection and association, and its resulting resonance, effectively portraying “misfits” who relate to the world only through fantasies that both connect and separate them from the flow of “ordinary” life.

“Jails”, for example, the first story, hints at an ambiguous force that delights in putting young people in jail and thus in “ruining their future”. The story begins following the dispersal of a “gang”, only two members of which now remain in contact. The first of these, who is the narrator of the story, is himself about to serve a prison sentence, while his friend is on trial and is terrified of going to jail. It is spring, and the remembrance of past springs — of family, Easter eggs and salted fish in public parks, beer and the secretive talk of girlfriends — is all that makes life worth living. Not only physical jails await the two young men however: frustration and isolation make an entrance into the story too, and they are shown clinging to fleeting moments of light as a refuge against existential solitude and their dreary lives. Here as elsewhere in Rakha’s stories a dreamy narrator-protagonist is shown to be suffocating under the weight of reality: the very air of the city where he lives is still, and all that is left to him are the shreds of human contact. All his attempts to engage with the human or natural environment are shown to be doomed, apprehensions and obsessions haunting him as he sinks into fantasies of fear or failure.

“Fire is nothing but elongated orange shapes”, a key phrase in another short story, “Tea Leaves”, would seem to sum up this condition. In this story, the narrator finds himself in a boat on a lake, “the boat is very black, the lake is green as olives, the wood of the boat in flames” — a nightmarish hallucination that aptly represents Rakha’s sense of being-in-the-world. The narrator of the story, a newspaper boy deserted by his Upper Egyptian family, is prey to such hallucinations, which resemble abstract paintings in line and in colour, and these become more frequent following the death of his only friend in a motorcycle accident. The friend leaves him nothing but “a stone bringing luck” that in sunlight glows in “a hundred thousand shades of colour”, such colour being represented, for example, in the fire that surrounds the boat. This is described as being without flame and merely a mass of bright orange polygons surrounding a patch of darkness.

The hero of this story is devoid of heroism, his daily early-morning bicycle rides to deliver the papers offering him a view of the city clad in one enormous cloud. Unsurprisingly, he pictures himself swimming in this cloud, as if seeking an impossible shore. The house in which he is staying with his lover, a servant, does not belong to him, since she has only been given the keys to clean the house while its owners are away and, as the story progresses, their return, which will force his departure, becomes increasingly immanent. Towards the end of the story the lovers are shown clinging to each other, as if eager to squeeze out the very last drops of vitality from their relationship, though, as their lovemaking becomes noisier, the narrator envisions an undesired baby in his partner’s belly. Despite these fears, shortly before being expelled from this momentary paradise, the two protagonists stand on the balcony drinking tea. The protagonist has lost his good-luck stone, and the wet tea leaves at the bottom of his glass, though they too manage to glow “in one hundred thousand shades of colour”, seem faint and subdued, like many of Rakha’s moments of remembrance.

Another story, “Blackberry Bushes”, shows the narrator attempting to break out of this miserable condition, a parallel being drawn between the contents of the narrator’s psyche and the bushes. Against a background of deepening sky and dimming stars, the narrator comes upon an old blackberry bush with dried-up branches and no blossom, and this, “together with the façade of a yellow building… made up an ugly painting.” An image of blackberry bushes swaying in the wind brings to mind his old father against the backdrop of the sea, since, outside the old house in which they had once lived, had stood a half-dead blackberry bush. Thus the bush the narrator sees in present time is a kind of “double”; a parallel between the dying bush and the narrator’s aging father, with his wrinkled face and white hair, is established, fleshed out by the roaring of the sea and the sound of the bush swaying in the wind. Failing to rid himself of the bush’s image, together with the disconcerting roaring of the sea, the narrator is shown to be similarly incapable of ridding himself of the people and relationships associated with it. The oppressive conditions under which he lives are internalised as an obsessive feeling of “surveillance”, or chase. “Blackberry Bushes” in its lack of linear time and developing plot well represents the essence of Rakha’s method. Instead of these he posits symbolic relations and a tightly structured web of themes employed to represent characters against their respective realities and to give concrete form to the life of the mind.

“Flowers of the Sun”, the title story, though it does not depart from these general features, represents a special locus slightly removed from this framework of suffocation and dreams of revolt. The longest and also the most elaborate of the stories in the volume, it sets the tone for the rest of the collection and illuminates it. The narrator-protagonist here is a wannabe artist who loves poetry and music and lives a suspended life, based on memories and fantasies from the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist’s letters to his brother Theo form a sub-text to Rakha’s tale. The protagonist describes himself as a person of no consequence who will leave no mark on people or on things and, in what seems to be an inversion of the familiar idea of mimesis — the view that art “reflects” a prior reality — life here is shown to be imitating art throughout, as the narrator’s life takes on the shape of Van Gogh’s. Images of death haunt the protagonist: images of his aging father, a kitchen knife, a “vase capable of crushing my skull at any moment, its shrapnel penetrating my brain cells” seem strangely powerful, and yet on arriving at an Alexandria beach before sunrise and watching the light grow while lounging on the sand, “the happy moments in the life of Van Gogh” are also brought to life for him, causing him to sprint along the edge of the sea. When such physical effort has exhausted him, he feels rejuvenated despite his fatigue, and his fears ebb away as the skyline changes colour, giving way to the clear blue light of dawn. This is a primary instance of moments of pure joy that permeate the collection, despite its otherwise sombre tone.

The next day the narrator decides to paint the sunrise in an attempt to ‘solarise’ the world around him, as Van Gogh is thought to have done. Things are still not altogether cheerful, however, and the darker side of Van Gogh’s world, portrayed impressively in the paintings, is likened to the narrator’s own field of vision. A Paris café in red and green is evoked by places where the narrator’s friends and colleagues gather; a disproportionately attractive girl who loves paintings reminds the narrator of the English woman who refused to marry Van Gogh, in turn reminding him of a brief and abortive love affair in Switzerland; the Nile resembles Van Gogh’s final, suicidal wheat fields. Human endeavour acquires a Sisyphus-like quality, made bearable only through things like flowers and the sun, and particularly by the sunflower that Van Gogh himself had famously painted. This brings with it “the memory of a boundless field, a spring of water, Van Gogh to one side painting the big flower which opens up towards the sun, the light emanating from inside it, as if it were itself a little sun”.

The story ends with the narrator walking from his house to the Nile before sunset, waiting on the bridge until “Cairo’s noise returns”, and throwing away a cigarette-end that symbolises all the hidden torments of summer.

“Flowers of the Sun” represents in condensed form many of the narrative features of the collection. Events are few and insignificant, while Rakha is able to orchestrate a variety of images and symbols in subtly repetitive patterns, and it is the movement of these as they interact that testifies to the author’s skill, giving him a distinctive voice of his own. The narrator moves from a domain of darkness to one of light — or from cold to warmth, death to life — with the business of living invariably triumphing in the end. That said, one is reminded that such a movement takes place only in the realm of imagination. It is a desire that forever seeks fulfilment without the certainty of ever achieving it.

Reviewed by Ibrahim Fathi

Nawwah

Two cellphone SIM cards (bottom and top)
Image via Wikipedia

And verily We had empowered them with that wherewith We have not empowered you, and had assigned them ears and eyes and hearts—Koran, xlvi, 26

 

My instructions are to deliver the corpse to Nastassja Kinsky. We are to meet at nine tomorrow morning in the lobby of the Cecil Hotel, just off the seashore in downtown Alexandria. The corpse is a lightweight microelectronic bolt that looks like a miniature coffin; Nastassja Kinsky is an agent of the Plant. If I revealed what the Plant is, I would die.

Five weeks ago, a bearded boy came into my office and took his clothes off. Later that night I told my wife we had to be separated by the end of the year. She mouthed the word divorce interrogatively and cried. I stayed in the office until I found an apartment, seeing the boy every day. He tasted of sand and vine leaves, groaned like a reed flute, and made me so happy it didn’t even register that I was sleeping with a man.

Since then I’ve learned many things. One: that sexuality is a silly mental construct, but so is almost everything else in this world; who would have thought a thing like the Plant was possible? And two: that the Plant is so powerful and fair, no one would have to kill me if I was to die; I would just contract an illness, have a car accident, something. The Plant can make things happen so only you are responsible; it can alter the constitution of the air.

The boy proved lithe and tender, a divine sensualist, but it turned out he was on a mission to recruit me. His name was Allen Ginsberg, he said; mine was to be Joseph Koudelka. My post would involve making weekend trips to deliver microelectronic parts around the region. He explained to me what the Plant is doing to change the world, why I was chosen for the vacancy, and how those deliveries matter.

The term of the contract was unspecified, but he assured me about the Plant’s employment philosophy: No one will serve for longer than a very small portion of their lifetime. In that brief period people have what he called adventurous skill accumulation. Payment is made only once at the end; it never involves money but, Believe me, he said, it is worth it.

You’re not serious, I scoffed.

It’s like the trip of a lifetime, he ignored me, except you learn a lot too. And you get a very valuable present at the end, something to treasure forever.

Learn about what, you howling faggot?

He was crouched on the floor tying up his shoelace; I couldn’t help ogling his perfect buttocks, barely believing they were in my hands just a few minutes ago.

I already said—no questions!

Okay, I drawled. Whatever. So, what do you say, he looked up. Will it be yes or no?

Something made me nod, vigorously, though I knew it meant I would never see him again.

Later on the thought of psychosis repeatedly crossed my mind. Had things failed to correspond with people’s testimonies or gone wrong, I would’ve given in to it, too. As it is, everything is consistent: my work as an attorney, down to the bearded teenage client whom I met with so intensively for a few days last month; my monthly visit to my mother in Damietta; weekly drinking binge with two school friends; the divorce proceedings; moving house; everything.

The third thing I learned is that it happens to everyone, at least once or twice in the first week of work: you think you’ve gone mad, that all you’ve been experiencing is a string of hallucinations. The thought still dogs me, a temporary comfort, because what’s actually frightening is it’s real. The way things happen, they happen by order of the Plant.

And so I’ve made four journeys on the job, all safe, straightforward transactions, with the opportunity for a little sightseeing on the side.

Tonight, switching off my cell phone the way I’m supposed to for the duration of every assignment, I board the train to my favorite weekend destination for the first time.

It is more complicated because I haven’t been in Alexandria for months; and it always stirs up difficult emotions when I go. Not once did I board this train with any goal but to relax, usually after a big case or another extramarital affair: with a woman. Before Allen Ginsberg—believe it if you will—I had never touched a man in my life.

So far it seems no different from any other time, though: the stiff-backed seat, neon lights, chug-chug of iron-clad progress as we pass a sequence of empty sandlots, slowing at the dimly lit crossroads of some outlying shanty town before we pick up speed.

Only, after the bedlam of Ramses Station, the coach feels eerily quiet. I’m thinking of Allen Ginsberg: the way his spine would curve to pre-empt a particular caress; his biceps stiffening while one hand cradled his balls, the other pushing his face down. Suddenly it strikes me that we’ve passed both Cairo stations and I’m still alone on the coach.

I get up and scale the entire iron horse, hand on corpse in my asbestos-padded pant pocket while I cross from one coach to the next. Maybe it’s the Nawwah, a kind of mini hurricane that ruffles the coast once or twice a winter, but there are fewer passengers on the Cairo-Alexandria line tonight than I’ve ever seen. I must dismiss the idea that this is the work of the Plant.

Frequently, on performing a task — that’s what the guidelines said to the word, as far as I can recall them: instructions are transmitted through a packet-switching information grid like the internet but without hard drives or cache; all files are self-deleting, they appear for three minutes at a time, and you’re expected to commit their contents to memory — you will notice that particular events develop in an unusual or salient manner, generally in such a manner as to facilitate or conceal elements of your undertaking. You will not stop to think about such developments… At certain, higher branches of the Plant, it is possible to control the range of eventualities in a very limited portion of the space-time continuum; in your experience, however, it may or may not be the case that such control has been exercised. It is pointless and marginally less efficient to attempt to find out if it has…

The corpse writhing and beaming imperceptibly on my groin, I take the book out of my rucksack and start reading. It’s an eleventh-century Sufi text, an interest I’ve kept up since doing my MA in Islamic Law; it talks about the unity of existence.

Every number is reducible to the one, it says; and in like manner, all things are reducible to their oneness, however much they multiply, or differ. No thing can exist without a sense of its value, but no value can be sensed without a unit: all, in the ultimate exhalation of the holy breath, is one…

But a passenger just came into the coach and the sight of him is distracting me. He is young and brawny, the passenger, the shape and color of Allen Ginsberg, but broader shouldered and clean shaven. If you multiply one by one you will obtain one, the book says, but if you multiply it by any other value you will obtain no other but that value. From my seat I can only see the back of his head, but I know he is inwardly staring at me.

There was eye contact when he passed: I made a note of the tiny fish-shaped scar above his eyebrow, how abruptly the fuzz behind his ears gives way to curls, his nebulous grin.

I haven’t had eye contact since. Somehow I just know he is staring at this bald, fast aging lecher, following the fingers with chewed cuticles as they turn the pages, reveling in the sheer libidinal need contorting the chapped lips. I do know, because the moment I get up, he turns his head and signals with his eyes, that same grin promising my deliverance.

Excuse me, he breathes; his voice is higher than I want it, but his jawline is chiseled, spare stubble glittering in the fluorescence like some black-green savannah in miniature.

Yes?

I was wondering if you might know what this is. He holds up a piece of card, black, whittled into an immaculate octagon: an item I’m familiar with. I just found it in my pocket, he laughs diffidently, shrugging. No idea where it’s come from.

Oh? Now I remember that, when he came in, the train had not stopped since my tour of the coaches, nor had I seen anything like him while my eyes scoured the seats, freaked out by the inexplicable scarcity of passengers.

Maybe you can help me? Oh to trace the fish with the tip of my tongue, to lie back and feel the savannah punishing my plains. I know it sounds whacky, but there has to be an explanation.

Is it just me, he adds suddenly, or is this train empty like mad? It is, I mumble, trying to steady myself. Empty… yes. I was… just thinking that.

Then I’m striding ahead, balancing with difficulty, his breath on my shoulder and nothing else in the world, until we are face to face in the toilet cubicle and the door is locked.

Let’s see, I hiss, clutching at the soma that torments me.

Before I realize it, I’m not sure where he’s gone. The cubicle door is ajar and I’m crouched in the corner gathering together my clothes. I do it fast, wiping the semen off my thighs and picking wet hairs from my face, even though it’s clear there’s no one around to watch me. In half an hour or so the only thing he said is his name, panting and grinding: Jim Morrison.

Straightening, at last, I slip my hand in my pocket to make sure the corpse is there, but what stands out against the cold, packed grain of the asbestos is warmer and more angular, wider on one side; it is perfectly stationary, too: it doesn’t give off waves or beams.

I take it out: the black octagon. Must be a message from the Plant, I decide, hoping it will explain. Can’t wait to get to the hotel, though: in the room, I can bring its edge into contact with a naked wire and absorb what it says before it bursts into flames.

No point worrying, I know, but how can I be sure Jim Morrison really works for the Plant? If he doesn’t—no joke—I will probably be maimed.

The fourth thing I learned: plans change spontaneously as often as not; sometimes the least expected thing is the thing that’s supposed to happen. And the fifth: only end result, not intention, is judged; say I managed to hold onto the corpse, and it turns out this guy is supposed to have it, then I’d still suffer the consequences alone.

Masr Station is as busy as Ramses. I file along toward the exit, steadily gathering speed as I picture the message in a haze of light. Dodging clusters of baggage and refreshment stalls, I can’t help wondering where all these people came from. Intimacy is such a fickle thing, it only takes a quiet train ride for the perfectly familiar prospect of a busy station to look strange.

Already I’m having to block out thoughts of my wife now I’m in Alexandria: I’ve always come after the end of something; a whiff of sea air is all it takes for reflections to start trickling through my head. The only reason they’re relatively at bay is I need to know what the Plant has to say to me. Then there is this sudden, unexplained hunger and I just know the best way to ignite the octagon has to do with food. Should I stop and eat on the way to the hotel?

At the exit the grubby-green polystyrene prayer mats have been rolled into columns and stored upright to one side. I recall how much it used to bother me when the faithful would block the way out, microphones blaring above their heads. Until five weeks ago I never understood why anyone believed it was necessary to pray.

Lesson number six: there are only two things in life—your body, and the possibility of something else. Without that possibility, your body might as well just wither away and die, which it will in either case, sooner than later. The possibility rather turns it into an instrument or a tool, something to work with in a slightly more meaningful setup. That’s why it’s necessary to pray, unless your something else doesn’t require prayers, or you have a post with the Plant.

Only one mat is still spread out on the floor. On the edge of it sits an old peasant woman smiling charmingly into the void. Legs crossed, back bent forward, she mutters in the same level tone, unperturbed by lack of attention; for some reason neither police nor station staff are making any effort to remove her, even though she is clearly a beggar woman and, by order of a widely publicized campaign, they have to excise street characters from public space.

You will eat in a minute, she happens to be saying as I pass. Give me something to eat with.

I bend over and hand her a note, much bigger than I intended. Something about her face is drawing me to her; I realize it is this, not benevolence, that made me stop. Crouching down there, beyond layers of tattered black muslin, beyond the haggard female form, I can make out the contours of my father’s face. It’s a fleeting impression, but haunting.

May He give you without calculation, her tone doesn’t change as she slips the money into her bosom, with frightening alacrity, nor her smile.

It’s hard to tear my eyes off that dark, sculptured visage, familiar and far away at the same time, but my legs are starting to hurt and I’m confirmed in the decision to drop by Andrew’s on the way. Out of habit, not for a logical reason, I ignore the middle-aged men yelling Taxi as I charge ahead. A taxi would save time. Except that I want to walk toward the sea, not seeing it, just knowing it’s there: in fifteen minutes I’ll be inside my Greek client’s fish restaurant sipping beer.

The thought of beer preoccupies me while I slip into Prophet Daniel Lane, where Alexander the Macedonian is thought to be buried, past the used book stands and the used camera store, all closed; and it starts, softly, then ferociously, to rain.

Three minutes from the station, emptiness has already gripped the streets, but it’s less freaky now because the Nawwah is raging. The rain keeps people indoors; actually it’s so absorbing I’ve almost forgotten my troubles: Allen Ginsberg, my wife, the corpse, whether I’m on the right side of the Plant. By the time I push the glass door and head for the table I always take, I’m drenched. A pretty young woman comes up with the menu.

Andrew isn’t here? No, he is away in Matrouh, she says confidently. You are his friend? I nod: And you? I’m seeking out her eyes, the way I used to do it with my wife, before we got married. When you’re a man addressing a woman you don’t know, this is the cruelest, sweetest way of saying: I like you; or so my wife used to say.

His little sister. She looks down. I used to study in Athens…

I wonder if I still have an appetite for women, though. Deliberately, I’m picturing my client’s sister naked in the toilet on a train.

Suddenly the thought of beer brings on this searing need to urinate. I can barely stay still while I blurt out my order: Grilled mullet and a plate of squid. Salad and bread, no rice. You can decide on the sauces, but can you get me a beer while I’m indisposed?

The chances are she’s still nodding uncomprehendingly while I lock the bathroom door. It’s like a ground-floor apartment, this restaurant; its bathroom is spacious and homey, unisex, without cubicles or peepholes. It’s not until I’ve relieved myself that I notice a slight break in the electric circuit of the sink light. Then I realize what brought me here.

I look closer: a tiny length of wire is exposed. I ply it out with my Biro. Holding the octagon in both hands, I take a deep breath before I let the current run through it.

JIM MORRISON CLEAR, it says, the letters shimmering in a subdued glow, like the last few embers of a charcoal fire about to die. NK: RECEIPT. REWARD FOR FIFTH SUCCESS TONIGHT. And in smaller type: enjoy grilled mullet, squid.

Before I have time to gape, I’ve managed to burn my finger. No matter how amazing what an octagon has to say, it’s always more amazing the way it disappears: a clear blue flame and nothing, absolutely nothing else. Once it’s gone out, your hand is slightly wet; that’s all. You never have the luxury to mull over the message. I sometimes think it’s this that makes it stick.

After the second beer I practically run to the Cecil Hotel. I want to look at the sea but I’m dying for legitimate privacy; and I promise myself I’ll be back in good time.

The fish seeping gently into my bloodstream, egged on by alcohol, I’m warm and tired and I need to sit still. The rain has gotten harder and the wind whistles through my pores, as if in counterpoint to the fish settling in there, quietly, calmly, a musical expression of arrival at the sea.

It takes a little while before, rushing alongside the seashore, inhaling the sea air in long gulps, I realize this is nothing but relief: knowing that I didn’t get it wrong on the train, that in five weeks I’ve been good enough to be rewarded; but I’m not at all impatient to find out about my prize. I’ve played guessing games with the Plant before now.

Checking in feels that tiny bit smoother than I’m used to. Finally I’m on my back, revising the contents of the message one last time. I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her. I am to expect more madness tonight, happy madness.

I close my eyes and repeat what I have to do, a habit I’ve acquired since the third week. The rain rap-rapping against the panes, delayed and overpowered by the cawing of the wind, I rest my arm on the pillow and just go on repeating the words in the dark.

I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her; I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her; I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky… I am to receive something… I am… Kinsky…

When I wake up there is cold coffee by my bedside: a room service order. It’s been years since I fell involuntarily asleep. Overjoyed, I sit up and light a cigarette, remembering the promise I made to myself. For a while I savor the intermittent sound of the rain. Gradually trouble is returning, though: the sad story with my wife; so long as I can turn it to melancholy I’ll be fine. I exert myself to turn it to melancholy while I shower, shave, change my clothes. It’s not working.

I prop myself up in bed and take out the book, a grim attempt to get distracted; I don’t know why it never occurs to me to switch on the TV. From the unity of existence, though, we’ve moved abruptly onto the afterlife; and something about the business of death is taking my mind off it all.

When religious people tell you that life on earth is temporary, a brief sojourn and never the dwelling place, it’s normally to scare you into practicing their rituals or repeating what they say; as far as I can make it out, this guy is not about that at all, even though he’s using the same language. He’s simply drawing your attention to lesson number six.

When you die it’s just like being alive, he’s saying: the difference is mere detail. All that stuff about heaven and hell, eternity and judgement, it’s all already here. Life and the afterlife, in other words—they’re practically the same thing. I put the book down and close my eyes.

Lesson number seven—a memory of words shimmering in a subdued glow, or was it one of those fleeting text files on my computer screen?—The Plant is both factory and flora. It manufactures, it grows. It holds the copyright to being as well as life, for being is intervention while life is merely flow. It is the sight that startles, the sound that soothes, the odor that induces nostalgia. As of your release from service you will think of the Plant repeatedly on having such hitherto ordinary encounters; and dying, you will be grateful for having been of service to the Plant… The funny thing is, it works. However momentarily, I’ve forgotten my wife. But I’ve ordered two more coffees before I step out onto the wet asphalt, and the words are already fading on my memory plane.

Dawn is descending on Unknown Soldier Circle when I run into my father. He is huddled at the bus stop with his back to the shore, squinting at tomorrow’s paper in the streetlight. It is still windy, an indeterminate respite from the rain. The sea spray reaches all the way to the curb, where I’m bracing my calves when I catch sight of him.

In Alexandria on a weekend, I’ve always waited to watch the sun rise out of the water. That’s why I’ve been tramping downtown, but I couldn’t go back to sleep if I tried. Aside from the usual anxiety of being on the job, I am still brooding over leaving my wife. No amount of Sufi literature is going to put an end to that. I see the backs of her sneakers bouncing effortlessly away under the great bulk of her parka, farther and farther away on the asphalt, such tiny things so effortlessly daring gravity, and it is the saddest image in the world.

When I become aware of an indistinct figure at the bus stop, it’s been a long while since I’ve taken anything in. All I know is I’m crossing the road to the esplanade, where that bus stop happens to be in front of me. The azan for the dawn prayers just sounded. Any minute now, the sun will slice its way through that black-and-white quilt with a monster tossing under it; and when it does, it will hand things back their shape and color, as gradually as my wife’s ankles stepping away. Whatever I do, I don’t want to miss that. Everything else is a blank.

At this point it occurs to me that I haven’t seen a soul since I stepped out of the hotel; and if not for the little man sitting there, the bus stop would’ve been a blank too. I stand back and jiggle my head before I cross over.

I don’t recognize him right away—for some unknown reason, still, nothing could be further from my mind than my father—but before I know it I’m dithering, edging closer. I want to know what kind of street character could brave both Nawaah and esplanade; at night the shore is policed even in the best of weathers, to root out beggars and madmen. What kind of desperado, I want to know, managed to intercept my brooding?

When I first catch sight of his face, I think of the beggar woman I ran into at the station—how come he looks so like her; she too looked like someone, didn’t she… but, for the same unknown reason, probably, I can’t for the life of me remember who.

Involuntarily, almost, I’m sitting next to him on the bench. It is supposed to have three wood planks but the middle one is dislodged and my buttocks sink uncomfortably into the gap; I want to readjust my position but I’m mesmerized by his clothes.

In the house Baba always wore what used to be known in Egypt as a robe de chambre: the same brownish garment, shrunken by years of washing, threadbare at the seams. In summer it covered his underwear, in winter two layers of pajamas. As he grew older he took to going out late at night for tomorrow’s paper in his house wear, something that genuinely saddened Mama.

Now as he looks up, coughing, I recognize the spluttering, elongated, slightly exaggerated squeal that punctuated so many of our evenings.

Then I make out everything at once: the Kastor fabric of his winter pajamas, filthy cuffs giving way to hands barely thicker than the blue veins they contain; ancient sandals exposing a similarly emaciated pair of feet, their incredibly meaty, sharp-edged toenails taking on a whole spectrum of hues as they jut out, looking healthier than everything, and the base of his legs a mesh of diabetic scars and damaged tissue; then the tight, hard rump like roots to the permanently curving spine, dandruff overtaking the wrinkles on the back of his neck; smooth bald spot flanked by willowy silver hair; and the face, my father’s face, toothless, coffee-stained lips and heavy, pinhead stubble, all white, like the loose, leathery skin on some long dead monster; and his reddened nose looking enormous. Somehow his eyeglasses make it even more enormous than it is: the glasses?

Only now, gazing into the blotched enamel of his glasses, do I remember that my father is dead. Some two weeks after I got married, five years ago almost to the day, Mama had phoned from Damietta with the news. She sounded unusually calm, I remember. I didn’t want to spoil your honeymoon, she said, but I didn’t have a choice. When I asked her if she was alright she said, May He make this the last of the sorrows; not, she added, the first.

All through my time with my wife I was battling against that enigmatic premonition, pondering over the fact that he hadn’t liked her, and my ever growing doubts about the possibility of happiness in marriage. Somehow grief over my father became linked with the conviction, however secret, that I would one day leave my wife. It was harrowing in other ways, of course. I had never suspected his death could shake me so hard. But it was this that I thought about the most…

Baba? He looks up; instantly, it becomes hard not to burst into tears. Ahh-lan, ahh-lan, he intones his usual welcome: a very commonplace expression that,

through sheer warmth, he managed to make entirely his own. Looking delighted, the way he did every time I called him, he grabs my hand and touches his lips to it: a reversal of the patriarchal convention that he alone championed; I can’t think of any other father who did that.

What on earth are you doing here?

Just reading the newspaper. I glance down to make sure it really is tomorrow’s paper—and it is—but I have to raise my hands to my eyes. Can you believe they’re redrafting the constitution again, those sons of a horny woman? Hysterical laughter muffles my tears. He won’t stop ranting about the government even now. It’s like the country is the ranch of their grandfather, the filthy pimps. Then he takes off his glasses. His eyes are clouded. They are round and very small; and it’s as if I peered into them only yesterday. How much more do they want to pilfer?

But, Baba, no one is paying any attention.

Naturally not.

How will the corruption stop if all we do is sit and complain?

You’re beginning to sound like them, Fouad. Listen, what’s all this business about classes?

Classes? My name sounds strange now that I’ve learned to think of myself as Joseph Koudelka.

I’m told you’re taking classes. Deep beneath the murk, I can make out a subdued twinkle: the one I saw when he first caught me masturbating, and again when he smelled my reefers. That twinkle was the extent of his disapproval; it always gave an impression of complicity, as if he was telling me that he knew and didn’t mind, but that we could both get into trouble for it. It made him incredibly lovable. Schoolboys, and such. You know what I mean.

Busted, your Honor.

At least you’re free of the stick insect—that’s how the old man referred to my wife, because he found her very tall and very thin but mainly, he said, because she had perfect camouflage: She always appears where you didn’t know she was there, you understand, he would say—and that’s always a good thing. Naturally there will be happiness in your life from now on.

You don’t disapprove? Dis-what, he bawls, easing into his favorite insult: Curse your father, son of a shoe! Destroying the family, and all that. We were trying for a baby, you know. None of this

bothers you at all? To tell you the truth, Baba, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty. Fuck off, he says. Naturally, the twinkle comes across in his tone now, there’s reason to feel

guilty if all there is to it is the classes. That, maybe, you should think about. Not that it makes you any less of a donkey to feel guilty at all. What’s there to feel guilty about in this world?

Botching my secret work?

If you did that, you would be instantly dispatched to where you can’t feel a thing. At least, he adds equivocally, not in the way you’d expect to feel it.

up?

You mean—right, I stutter… but… how do you know what would happen to me if I fucked

Same way I know about the stick insect and the classes.

I almost say: Is it true you can’t feel anything once you’re dead?

There are certain questions I’m not allowed to answer, he stops me just in time. And one thing you mustn’t mention while you’re with me whatever you do, you understand?

Okay, I nod. I think I know what that thing is.

Naturally!

Shall we have a little walk then?

As far as I know that’s allowed—hands on knees, he is heaving himself up with a mighty sigh, the way he did every time he had to get up in his lifetime, as if there was nothing more difficult in the world—so long as we both act normal. It’s very exaggerated, but that’s what makes it touching. At some point I will just go, you understand, and you act as if nothing happened.

There is no rain still; even the wind has let up. Only, as we move along the shoreline at his excruciating pace—it always used to annoy me how deliberately slow the old man walked—sea spray keeps splashing our faces. He has the same old tendency to lag a step or two behind, head bent slightly to one side, hands clasped together over the small of his back. As I slow down and stop to keep pace with him, it surprises me how little death changes in a man.

You remember Tante Faiza, Baba?

Whatever became of the midget? She must be ninety this year.

Ninety-two, in fact. But she’s alive and kicking. Mama says she’s got a suitor.

Didn’t I tell you she would see everyone to the grave, the witch?

Eventually I put my arm round his shoulders and leave it up to him. Humming and laughing, we plod along the seashore, my father and I, and it’s as if we haven’t stopped doing it since I was three. In Alexandria, all through my childhood, we would often have this same walk in the evening while I drank my carton of milk: the prerequisite for getting a new matchbox car. His hand on my head, Baba’s pace was too slow even for my tiny steps.

Barely perceptibly, the black water is taking on color. In the distance, a faint orange tint infusing the blue gray turning gray white, the outline of the citadel begins to appear. Ahh-lan, ahh-lan, my father greets the red disk coming up behind the minaret, beaming at me. Naturally, he adds, daybreak makes no difference at all. I can barely stop myself from laughing.

Fouad, he sounds devastated. You must kiss your mother for me. You’re not serious?

Believe it or not, I miss the old bitch.

How I wish Mama was with us, I suddenly think, out loud.

You can never tell your mother of this—

Naturally?— Any more than of your secret work. Curse your father, he begins— Son of a shoe! The oddest part of this is there’s nothing uncanny about it. It’s as if I never married, as if he never died, as if I really was in Alexandria on a weekend. Birds, white and streamlined, are circling the stone hedge and fluttering out to sea. Their calls seem to echo the Nawwah; a car or two whizz past and, before I appreciate the fact, it’s light. We walk on a little. The streets have filled up when I suggest we have a breakfast of coffee and croissant at the Trianon Café. The rain has returned and my father is slowing down even more, oohing and ahing all along the esplanade. He stops to light a cigarette, but every time the wind blows out his match; when he finally manages to bring the tip of the cigarette in contact with the flame, a fat drop of rain lands right on top of it.

I glance at him impatiently, but he keeps trying. You’re a good boy, Fouad, he suddenly turns to me, mumbling. I am your reward. What? But it’s as if he didn’t say anything; he just struggles on with the matches. So are we going for croissant or what? Always impatient, he says, like that fat mother of yours! Then we’re sitting opposite each other by the rain-splattered window, there is bright sunlight outside, and the aroma of coffee fills my nostrils. The croissants are hot and crisp, but my father is smoking. I am about to tell him that I love him when he winks, nodding toward the waitress. So I look up: she is beautiful; for the first time since Allen Ginsberg, though I don’t realize it yet, something stirs in my groin while I look at a woman.

Yours if you want her, he says, naturally. Baba, I scowl. Please! Anyway I am going to go to the toilet, he mutters to himself, getting up. Curse the father of your mother, my good man. It is barely audible. The son of a bitch is going to discipline me… Baba! He looks back.

Are you sure it’s okay to up and leave the stick insect? Yes, Fouad, he smiles suddenly, my little donkey. I’m sure.

The waitress smiles back very sweetly, anyway. Later, when I slip her a scrap of paper with my number, she will even blow me a kiss. Now my watch says eight thirty and Baba is not back from the toilet. I get up and follow inside to look for him. All the cubicle doors are open. There is no one there. Back in the Cecil Hotel lobby, I’ve barely wiped the tears off my face when my coffee arrives. I sip it slowly, grazing the place with my eyes. For once the anxiety of being on the job is overpowered by a different emotion—grief. I feel exactly the way I felt in the second two weeks of my marriage, but somehow I know it is temporary. There’s a tremendous sense of gratitude, too, which helps, but where on earth is Nastassja Kinsky?

When I open the door to my room at nine thirty, exasperated, there is an elderly woman on the edge of my bed. She is dressed very elegantly in an auburn three-piece, her long, snow-white hair tied back in a bun. In the way she sits and especially after she starts talking, I appreciate her regal bearing. She has the well-heeled composure of a princess, haughty and upright.

Strange, I’m thinking, that she looks so incredibly familiar: I am sure I know this face; and her voice, I know I’ve heard it before. These recognition games are getting tiring—I mean: maybe I’m just projecting—but I can’t help noticing a resemblance between her and my father.

Nastassja Kinsky?

I dare say you mispronounce my name, Monsieur Koudelka. She grins. I have brought you a small gift, rather valuable I may add. I do hope I haven’t kept you waiting for long. You were generous with your money last night, I didn’t think you would begrudge me your time today.

While she stares squarely into my eyes—is it my imagination or is she snickering?—I realize she is the beggar woman from Masr Station.

Oh my God, I begin.

You will excuse me, Monsieur Koudelka, but I must catch a train in half an hour. Here, she hands me what looks like a giant termite. It is the isoptera, she enunciates. It will instruct you as to what you should do with it on your return to Cairo.

Only now she gets up, striding straight to the door. Monsieur Koudelka, she stops and turns, her hand on the doorknob. Yes? This will be your last assignment. My… for the— Safe journey, Monsieur Koudelka.

While she shuts the door behind her I let myself flop onto the bed. I don’t know how to feel about the fact that it’s over, that there will no longer be a Plant in my life. Neither wife nor Plant, I mumble, getting comfortable and peeling off my clothes. Before I fall asleep it also registers that the prospect of another boy is vague and mildly repulsive. Memories of Allen Ginsberg, Jim Morrison and all those in between seem to come from a different world, alien and isolated. Without wanting to, I am picturing the eyes of Andrew’s sister: the way they glistened in the tungsten light, and when she averted them, looking down…

I wake to the sound of the rain, the isoptera describing a perfect circle next to my head on the pillow. For a while I simply watch it, wondering, with relative calm, what it might be saying to me. Then, just to see if I can make anything of the faint buzz that accompanies its motion, I place it on the bedside table and bring my ear in contact with the wood, pressing hard. At first I can only hear static, but gradually something else is coming through.

What are you doing, you donkey? I can make out my father’s voice, weak, barely audible, but undeniably his. You are to keep this peculiar mouthpiece for when you have a real situation, classes and such. Then you can consult me. If you try and listen to it all the time you’ll wear it out. And no, he adds, as if he could hear me thinking, we can’t have a conversation through it. Now switch off the tiny button at the back and keep it safe. At that the voice fades; there is nothing but static.

I am naturally spellbound for a few minutes, then find the button he mentioned, hidden where the last segment of a termite’s abdomen would be, I get ready for departure. On the way out, my assignment over, I switch my cell phone back on. I don’t notice it at first but gradually, insidiously, an unbearable joy is taking hold of me. I don’t think downtown Alexandria has ever looked so beautiful in the early evening.

Once again I will walk to Masr Station: I want to take in the streets.

I am reading about the straight path—the one that, mimicking divine oneness, connects life with the afterlife and back again—when my cellphone startles me. There’s a young man eying me but I haven’t been paying much attention. I guess that, in five weeks, I’ve developed a particular look; not all my male lovers have been agents of the Plant, and Egypt is full of young men seeking out middle-aged lechers like me: they get a useful connection if not money; they get a desperate, consuming passion. There’s some desire—I won’t deny that—but I can’t be bothered to act on it at all. I’m far more interested in the characteristics of the path.

Hello? Hi. The voice is soft and coquettish; I put the book down. I just thought I’d get your name. Who is this? Forgotten already? We met this morning at the Trianon Caf?— Alright, I exclaim, grinning from ear to ear in spite of myself. Well, I didn’t get your name either, did I? I’m so happy you called. My name is Mohgah, the waitress says. You may not be aware of it yet, she giggles—as I am picturing her—irresistibly. But I am your destiny.

 

Youssef Rakha

Published in Miranda Literary Magazine

http://mirandamagazine.com/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=250&Itemid=27

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