Translated from Arabic by Caroline Christine Benson
He said to them: “Bring me the one who failed.”
He started to refer to me that way when I flunked out of the Faculty of Agriculture; I had lost my desire to continue on that path. My failure insulted him. Failure was negligence, and negligence was reckless. I had memorized the Quran quickly when I was younger and read newspapers to guests in the reception of our house while still shy of seven years old. My failure wasted the potential of the boy from whom everyone had expected so much.
I was 18. I was averse to everything: to our system of life and the long history of our family that he had passed down to me in stories told in such rigorous detail that it seemed he had wanted to engrave them on my heart. He had entwined my journey and his such that even now I am unable to break loose. But the greatest cruelty in my eyes — and the one that turned me away from the family — was his desperate wish that we climb the ranks of society. For him, the point of education was prestige. I actually loved the family fables, except for the omnipresent ambition — that overwhelming investment in attaining elite status. In truth, I loved playing around: cinema, reading, staying up late, and chasing pleasures. At 18 years of age I no longer wanted to live the way he had planned for us. One day my uncle, Saleh, told me that my failure was the cause of my grandfather’s illness. My shock from that indictment has endured until now.
I refused to take my exams and left the Faculty of Agriculture, then went looking for jobs. I worked first at the sports stadium in Tanta and next at a glass factory in Satouta. After that I moved to Alexandria and worked in restaurants for a while until I met a friend whose brother was in the process of establishing a contracting company and needed a tractor driver.
I worked in the Western Desert nearly eight months. We were supplying sand to Bahariya Farafra Oasis road to help repave it. Sadat was going to build a resting house in Farafra Oasis, or maybe he had already. What I knew was that it had to be repaved. I went to the desert and lived there. Sometimes I went to Tanta, to our apartment on Moeed Street, not daring to return to the village. I would enjoy a short vacation, then go back to the desert. That was a good season; it calmed my spirits and gave me an energy that helped me cope with life for years after and perhaps even helped me bear that horrible day in December 1978.
Upon my final leave from work, my sister Amina told me that our grandfather was sick and that every day he would say, “Bring me the one who failed.” There was no other choice but for me to return to the house. I informed the head engineer that I would leave for good this time, and they would need someone new for driving duties.
My grandfather’s questions about me disturbed my family at home. So Uncle Saleh returned from West Africa, Uncle Naeem stopped going to school, my father left work in the fields, and my siblings settled in our house for the first time in a long time. My aunt Fatima was the one who outwardly manifested the family’s anxiety and fear; she could not stay in one place for long. She would check in on affairs in her father’s house, then, holding her headscarf in her hand, rush back to her house to resume her work there or put away something she had forgotten. As for my grandmother, Khadija, one day she arranged all her belongings by the door of my grandfather’s room and sat. This seemed to clear her troubled mind. When one of her children asked her why she stayed there like that, she would answer emphatically and irritably, “Maybe your father needs something, child.” But she sometimes abandoned everything at hand, and they would find her wandering somewhere in the house. They grew used to this behavior. They often found her listening fixedly to the walls, closely monitoring the plots of “those who don’t have names” who had planned to take over the house and live there in place of her family. Sometimes she returned with her face lit up, saying that they would give us a chance. Other times she came back looking glum to report that they had resolved to drive us out and would come to inhabit our home unequivocally.
They told me he seemed to be improving but sometimes still slipped into a daze. Delirium would attack him and he would become quite unlike himself. Amina was afraid; she told me he often had flashbacks and began to discuss matters improper to speak of in front of anyone. The illness was taking him. Still, Uncle Saleh insisted that he seemed to be getting better.
* * *
I entered my grandfather’s room on that horrible day in December 1978, and I have never left since. I am not speaking metaphorically. The encounter trapped me. That day was beyond what any boy of 18 is able to withstand. My grandfather sat on the bed, legs folded as usual, in a contemplative state. His hands were on his knees, and he stared directly at the wall in front of him. He was not wearing his trademark Azhari turban, but rather a galibaya like those my father wore. His body was wrapped in a black abaya, and his bald head shone in the gloom of the room, patterns of light filtering in through the gaps in the shutters.
I sat silently on the sofa facing the bed and did not look at him. Instead, I fixed my gaze on the four books on the small nightstand: a Quran, Al Jabarti’s Chronicle of the French Occupation, Ibn Sirin’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and Mukhtar al-Sihah*. After some time he returned from his meditation and looked at me solemnly.
“Where were you?”
I answered, “Here.”
“Liar,” he said firmly.
He looked straight into my eyes.
“You will waste your life.”
He went silent again as my heart thumped. Long periods of silence were normal around him, but the contrast between the silence and his harsh words lifted my gaze. He looked again at my face as if searching for me as I sat before him.
“Believe your grandfather. You’ll be lost. All your fun will lead you off the deep end.”
His words did not make an impact. I had already strayed from the life he had planned for me.
As if he had gone into one of the hazes they spoke of, he lapsed into silence again, unresponsive when addressed and always seated in that same way, as if he were no longer even there. I sneaked a look at his face and sensed those waves of bewilderment continue to pass over him. This man, who had inspired universal reverence in this governorate and lived an inimitably staid life, was now on the brink of departure. It was a difficult matter. His silence imprisoned me. I was unable to leave the room or even to move unless he commanded me to do so, but by then he was long gone.
* * *
He looked to me again, eyes alert. His features resumed that seriousness they always took on when he began talking to me about his life, his labors, and his opinions. I had heard his fabled stories again and again when I accompanied him as a child on trips to the neighboring village or when I took him by donkey to the train station and came back on that same donkey to await his return in the evening. He continued making those trips until his last year. Then, in that same tone he always used when demanding that I solve some quandary he had thought up, he said, “If you know what a sadeem* is, take your leave.”
The question seemed strange and solutionless. I had thought he had called for me to talk about my leaving school and wandering about. He stared at me seriously with those deep, black eyes, mournful and angry. Eyes that used to speak as he told us, during nights at the apartment on Moeed Street in Tanta under the patterned light of the cloudy yellow lamp, the story of the loss of the land. He insisted on telling that story all the time as if it were a modest garment that each of us should always remember to wear. Negligence was a waste. His father slipped up when he wrote himself a penalty clause. If he had not done so he would not have ruined his life and lost his chance at the education he had planned to spend his years undertaking. Deliberately: that is the way to live life.
He was staring at my eyes as if looking straight through them. The light from his deep black eyes watches me even now; I awake from sleep and find him staring. At that very moment in the room that day, I imagined bizarrely that his motor cortex had ceased functioning. I stayed in place like a mouse fixed stock-still in the luminous eyes of a cat, and as the afternoon stretched on I was left there, detained in his room. I heard the sounds of household activity in the living room and the rest of the homestead below, where the yard, the warehouse, and the bakehouse were. I knew that no one would dare enter the room. He would have thrown them out straight away.
At last my grandfather came to and answered the question.
“A sadeem, you ass, is a thin cloud. A cloud of dust or gas. In the astronomical sciences, stars very far away appear as a light mist or weak blots of light. Mukhtar al-Sihah describes sadam as fatigue and sorrow. A man might be saadem and remorseful.”
He went silent, then continued heavily, “We are just as a sadeem, unified and then scattered.”
* * *
I had thought that he had answered his query and was going to dismiss me, but he continued staring vigilantly into my face. Then he began talking again in a reproachful tone that could not hide his usual affection. That affection had always colored his chatter when I accompanied him on visits to his friends in Tanta: Sheikh Ismael Khader, the khawaga* Nasim from the lentil market and Mohammad Bik Shawki on Nady Street. On those outings he talked to me about everything and taught me things I have long forgotten.
He said, “I will say ten words to you. Remember them, and record them on your heart. Engrave them there. Think about them when you sleep or as you walk. Think of them and contemplate them. You will not understand all that I will say to you. You are green yet — hooked on the fresh nectar of life inside your body. You will need these words more than you will need the land or the house. Listen to me, and if you don’t understand now, you will later.”
I took heed of that authoritative tone that quilted his words more than I ever had before. He had an enchanting way of piercing the attention of whomever he spoke to, but this time I felt a hint of danger, and fear dominated my attention. He was silent again, and it seemed he had lost his train of thought. Then, leaving behind what he had started, he spoke.
“Today is Wednesday.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Friday, I will die. I have but one day left, and I have to tell you everything that’s within me.”
A faint smile flashed across his face. That smile changed his look. It gave him the appearance of someone amazed, captivated. I had never seen him grin like that before.
He had other smiles: calm or wry, indifferent or understanding. I had always liked his smile in all its transformations and had imagined that it mirrored the workings of his innermost mind. I had known its many meanings since I was just a kid, and often used it to discern his moods. As for laughter, he had only a contrived, complaisant laugh that compelled me sometimes to suspect that the heart of my grandfather had never really known joy. In his room that day, I was afraid of that distant smile. It had overtaken his familiar features and turned him into someone else, particularly as it lingered on his face for such a long time.
He jerked his head and asked, “Today is Wednesday?”
This time I could not even nod my head in agreement. He was not looking at me.
He said, simply, “Friday, I’ll die.”
The smile hardened on his face, and his features became statue-like, rigid as if he were already dead. After a while he turned, thank God, toward the window, as if he had heard a voice whispering in the void. Then he looked at me again with that gaze that saw and did not see at the same time. He began speaking without pause. That charmed smile never faded from his face; it was as if it was attached to his words. I kept close for many years all that he said to me that day — words impressed upon that smile that made his musings mysterious beyond my power to fathom, like a text I am unable to grasp.
He spoke to me of strange things, telling old, digressive stories. His words dulled until I thought he had completely lost hold of the thread of his speech, but then he reeled himself back and said, “I will say to you just ten words. Memorize them; carve them into your heart.”
Then he about-faced again, going on about matters I had not guessed he would ever bring up.
I still cannot believe that he spoke to me so plainly about his love for the Madam Kauthar, the wife of his friend Nour Eddin — how she was a perfect woman. At that moment I believed them. He was not himself. The sickness had turned him into someone else.
Each time he came back after laying bare some fragment of his heart, he said, “Look at me. Really look. Death is looking at you. Understand?”
My blood dries up in terror each time I think of that day. I cannot believe he would speak that way an 18-year-old boy, even if he believed I was able to fulfill his dream of seeking an education — the education that had been deprived of with the loss of the family land in the thirties. Even if that was the link between him and me — his thinking that I had come into this world only to fulfill his lost dreams.
* * *
I did not know a thing about the soul of my grandfather until that horrible day. What I knew before then was the mental image that had formed gradually from the ways of our household and its stories. Now I am almost fifty and have lived my life far from his teachings and commandments. But Wednesday, December 20 of 1978 lives on with me, and I have not been able to free myself from it or understand its mystery.
Indeed, everyone left. The house he had built in the early 1970s was shuttered, his picture still hanging in its guest room. His rural family perished. He had known on that day that it would scatter, reduced to fragments. Did he feel such terror of death and the dissolution of his family that he would burden a boy so beyond his strength?
I was left with stories and secrets of his that I could not bear to return to until many years later — pictures in my mind that I must try to make sense of until I figure out what happened and learn the lesson that I thought I would never understand. I had to reconcile the dignified, fearsome sheikh who rose above catastrophe and rebuilt a house from splinters with the man who confined me there in his room one day in December until I felt that he was my likeness and I his.
It feels strange that in the last image I remember of my grandfather, that silly smile is painted on his face. That image comes to me often. I wake up from sleep and find him looking at me, smiling that way. I have tried in vain to recall an earlier snapshot of him, but my memories had been overtaken by his look on that “day of raving,” as I called it in my era of youthful arrogance — the era of my aversion to the family. I have dreamed of him so much lately that I thought he was calling me to visit his grave. I awoke one from one of those dreams to hear his soft voice chiding, “Listen to me, and remember what I say.”
“Remember the khawaga Nadra?”
“Remember the day we visited him there in Tanta?”
It was a serious question that awakened my memory of that morning long ago. I needed that memory more than ever in order to separate his essence from my own.
* * *
After Friday prayers we exited with the crowd from the back door of al-Ahmadi Mosque. The summer sun shimmered brightly, and the air was hot. The clamor of sounds and colors was dazzling — colorful weather, the harmonized calls of people on the street soaring through it, blending with tender whispers and soft laughter after prayer. My grandfather adjusted his Azhari turban and fastened the waistcord of his galibaya. We steered toward a narrow, damp, shadowy alley full of small shops and warehouses stocked with goods. On the right we entered a long passage doused in water, its entrance lined with propped granite panels. There, we heard a throaty voice.
“Welcome, Sheikh Abdel Rahman.”
On that day I saw the khawaga Nadra. Maybe his name was Nader or Andrea, but in our house they all called him Nadra. I did not know the reason for this or why they always referred to him as the khawaga. My grandmother Khadija had told me bitterly that the khawaga Nadra had played a role in seizing my family’s land. She also told me that some of my relatives had crept in at dawn after conspiring with the watchman to reap the wheat so that the foreigners would not get to take the harvest as well as the land and leave us without flour for a year. The catastrophic land loss of the thirties set that period of our history apart from the rest. My great grandfather took a loan from those foreigners that he’d pay at the time of harvest, and they insisted that he write a penalty clause stipulating that he would lose his land ownership completely if he did not pay on time. “Isn’t one acre enough?” my grandfather used to ask rhetorically, “No, total dispossession of ten acres of the most fertile land.” His tone was astonished yet cryptic and always left me confused. Did he blame his father, who had signed the penalty clause? Or the foreigners who had taken his family’s land without any semblance of legitimacy? It seemed to me that if he had been there he would have been able to bargain with them; he had spent his long life mastering negotiation and agreement.
My grandfather had not forewarned me on that day that I would see the one whose name I had heard many times in our house when talk was stirred up about the hardship of the thirties and the ruin that befell my family. He seemed distracted that morning until we entered the store and I saw the khawaga. He was an enormous, white-faced man with a big, finely freckled nose and smooth white hair combed toward the back of his head. He did not look how I had envisioned him and all the other foreigners: faces white and shining like butter melting in the sun, as we used to say in kuttab*.
The man left the desk to receive us. He looked at me, surprised, and said, “Who’s the gentleman?”
My grandfather said this as if emerging from his preoccupied state to remember me.
“Wow! Time flies. The youngster who used to stand on the bench outside the house got married and had a kid too?”
He looked at me and went on, “It was just yesterday that his father was only this big.”
My grandfather’s face fell. We sat on bamboo chairs, and the khawaga sent a servant to buy bottles of cold sparkling water. Through the long, shadowy hallway I saw the light from outside shining on the basalt-paved alley.
I waited for them to tell stories like those I had heard so often on the roof of our house — stories about the difficult years after the loss of the land. But the two men spoke about things far off from that completely, discussing nationalization and state affairs.
The khawaga took up the whole chair and spoke in a hoarse voice, filling the room with disjointed words and phrases that were difficult to catch, especially when he began to speak animatedly. I could smell the pungent odor of floor-cleaning detergents. The men continued their amicable chatter about the nation. I searched fruitlessly for any sign of hostility or resentment between them. There was nothing; just talk about politics and a question about the remains of the khawaga’s land in Egypt.
He said, “If you want to buy, I’ll indulge….”
“The issue is that the money is not ready,” my grandfather answered.
“I’ll soon travel to my daughter in Greece.”
He looked at my grandfather compassionately and concluded, “I’ve grown old and can no longer manage living alone.”
Before we left, he said, “Think on it my friend. Just say the word, and the land is yours.” My grandfather lifted his eyes and passed his fingertips along the edges of his turban as if to make sure it was still there. He said goodbye, and we left. Back in the alley he muttered, “Glory be to God everlasting…”
The crowd had cleared. The sound of his walking stick echoed on the basalt.
*khawaga is the word used in Egypt for a person of foreign nationality or heritage. However, despite that many of them are ethnically indistinguishable from Muslim Egyptians, Copts and Christians are also often referred to by this term or title.
*Mukhtar al-Sihah is a famous and widely circulated Arabic dictionary compiled by Imam Muhammad b. Abi Bakr al-Razi (d. 666 AH). The dictionary is an abridgment of another called Al-Sihah by the classical Arabic lexicographer Al-Jawhari (d. 393 AH). Al-Jawhari aimed to include only authentically classical Arabic in his dictionary, and al-Razi abridged the former to make a new dictionary consisting only of words in common use or included in the Quran.
*sadeem The first use of this word translates to the English word “nebula.” The second and third forms of the word that the grandfather uses in the Arabic text (sadam andsaadam) have the same root as the first word but carry the other meaning explained by the grandfather that the word “nebula” and its derivatives do not have in English.
*kuttab is the word for a traditional elementary school where reading, writing, grammar, and Quranic studies and recitation are taught.
In Other Words is a new series of translated excerpts from contemporary Arabic literary works, by emerging or established authors, published in English for the first time. For a long time, the process of selecting works written in Arabic for translation, which gives them the opportunity to reach a wider audience and to potentially join the ever-expanding canon of “world literature” (as problematic as that term is), has been largely confined to a designated community of “gatekeepers” — mostly made up of Western publishers and translators — who decide which narratives they deem most “representative” of the region and are therefore worthy of traversing cultural borders and crossing over to other parts of the world.
By offering translated glimpses of works that we believe are significant — in their language, format, or thematic resonance — we are attempting, at least in part, to perhaps affect that selection process by bringing more attention to stories that we think deserve to travel far and wide. We hope to create more space for diverse voices from the region to be heard elsewhere, not for what they “represent,” but for the unique, singular vision each of them provides.