band annie's Weblog

I have a parallel blog in French at



40 Years Gone: The Literary and Social Legacy of Taha Hussein

This is the third and final day of events commemorating the 40th anniversary of Taha Hussein’s passing at Cairo’s Taha Hussein Museum:

200px-TahaHusseinThe author, sometimes called the “Dean of Arabic Literature,” died on October 28, 1973.

Since the official list of Nobel nominations aren’t opened until 50 years after they’re made, Hussein is the only Arabic writer officially known to have been in Nobel consideration, outside of 1988 winner Naguib Mahfouz.

Hussein has several works that continue to be read and loved forty years after his death. These include the novelwhich was turned into a celebrated film; his controversial autobiogaphy, The Days; and his also controversial On Pre-Islamic Poetry. There have been several attempts to remove The Days from the Egyptian school curriculum; according to some it tarnishes Al Azhar’s image.

The Days was originally serialized in Hilal and then published as a three-part book. Unlike Hussein’s novels, The Days — a landmark of Arabic autobiographical writing —is available in English. It was published as a single volume, translated byE.H. Paxton, Hilary Wayment, and Kenneth Cragg.

This month, the Egyptian General Book Authority published an English version of  Hussein’s The Fulfilled Promise, translated by Dr. Mohammad Enani, although it wasn’t clear whether the book would be distributed beyond GEBO’s official shops and book-fair stand.

Hussein’s legacy includes scholarship, literature, politics, and advocacy for the blind. Hussein los his eyesight at the age of three, but went on to earn his PhD in 1914 with a focus on the poetry of the also-blind al-Maari. He worked as a professor of Arabic literature and was later Egypt’s Minister of Education.

Helen Keller wrote of visiting Hussein in Egypt in 1952:

For years I had read about Taha Hussein Pasha, and I cannot express my delight one day when he visited me at the Semiramis Hotel, bringing his wife and son, and stayed a whole hour. I was privileged to touch his face, and how handsome, scholarly and full of inward light it was! His responsive tenderness warmed my heart, and I felt as if I had known him always. We discussed many topics — Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato and Socrates, the liberating power of philosophy, Taha Hussein’s studies of the great blind Arab philosopher of the tenth century [al-Maari] and his work for the blind.

The museum in his name is at 11 Taha Hussein St, off Haram St. in Giza. According to Al Ahram, the Taha Hussein days will be an annual event.


Meet James Salter

“I decided to write, or perish. It was like starting life from scratch.”

James Salter is a novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter. He grew up in New York City and was a career officer and air force pilot until his mid-thirties, when the success of his first novel (The Hunters) led to a fulltime writing career. Salter’s potent, lyrical prose has earned him acclaim from critics, readers, and fellow novelists. His novel A Sport and a Pastime was hailed by the New York Times as “nearly perfect as any American fiction.”

In this video, Salter speaks about his unforgettable experience of taking off alone in the pursuit of writing: “You suddenly feel a pair of wings on you. . . .”

Ghaib Tu`ma Farman: The Old Man’s Word


[Ghaib Tuma Farman. Image from unknown source][Ghaib Tuma Farman. Image from unknown source]

The Old Man’s Word

Ghaib Tu`ma Farman

Translated by Khaled Al-Hilli

[As a pioneer of contemporary Iraqi fiction, Ghaib Tu`ma Farman (1927-1990) may have been too geographically removed from the literary center to enjoy the critical acclaim offered to authors of his stature. Born in Baghdad 1927, he came of literary age in the 1950’s with the publication of his first short story collection in 1954 and formed friendships with other literary figures of his time such as Fuad al-Takarli and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati. He studied Arabic literature in Cairo and worked for several newspapers and publishing houses in Iraq and Egypt. After a number of perilous encounters with the state and its censorship, leading to his citizenship being revoked temporarily in 1957, Farman left to Moscow in 1960 where he spent the remainder of his life in exile until his death in 1990. While in Moscow, Farman supported himself by translating to Arabic the works of European writers such as Silone, Gorky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Pushkin.

Farman’s fiction is characterized by its brilliant artistic treatment of the turbulent and transformative years of the 1940’s and 1950’s. In their variegated portrayal of Iraqi society, his novels often feature the exiled, the downtrodden, and the poor, whose lives have been tragically and irretrievable shaped by social and political upheavals.

Very little of Farman’s work has been translated to English. The following is a short story from his collection, Ālām al-Sayyid Maʻrūf. This book, published in 1982, includes an eponymous novella and a number of other short stories written over a span of a few decades. Many thanks to Chris Stone, Beth Baron and Nova Robinson for their valuable feedback on earlier versions.]

The Old Man’s Word

He woke up at dawn; he was ready for them. He sneaked out of his bed leaving the twilight breeze behind him, and walked down the stairs leaning on the wall. As he crossed the bottom step, he raised his eyes to make sure he did not wake his wife. He walked across the rectangular courtyard, now under a waning cloak of darkness blending with old scents, and he brought a chair to the passageway and sat down to wait for them. Yesterday he stayed up and waited for them until midnight … but they never came. He did not hear their movement outside the door, nor their voices whispering. Today he was determined to be ready for them at dawn. He sat with his cheek resting on his palm. He listened attentively and waited. He would stay until he heard the rustle of their footsteps outside the door, and then he would pounce and clutch at their necks, and shout until he woke up all the neighbors. He’d show them who he really is; I’ll make them cry uncle

The air in the house was stifling and sultry, unlike the rooftop’s twilight breeze. He wrestled with sleep and dragged himself out of bed, and now drowsiness came back as he sat behind the door. He opened his heavy eyelids and raised his eyebrows defiantly. He placed his ears against the wood of the door and examined, under a canopy of darkness, the lower level of the courtyard, the narrow windows of the cellar, part of the clay water pot, the last three steps of the staircase, the lower part of the bathroom door, the kitchen, and the bottom part of the sink. Silence enveloped everything. Darkness was starting to dissipate gradually before his eyes. Inside his chest something was itching him, an unrelenting urge to cough, which he suppressed lest he might alert them to his presence. When he dozed off again and his eyes grew heavy, he shook off this unexpected drowsiness with a jolt of his head, and he coughed in spite of himself. He scratched his graying chest as if to pluck out something scraping inside of him.

A few minutes later, he heard the bellowing of a cow. He knew it was Sakina, the milk woman, leading her cow to the end of the alley where she sold her milk. But he hasn’t heard their voices yet; he hasn’t heard their hands scratching the door. Everything went silent except for his heart, which sounded like a pendulum of an old clock. Once again, the unshakeable urge to cough came back. He clenched his teeth and smacked his thigh. A moment later, the night-guard’s whistle broke through the silence. Then he heard the rustle of the sweeper’s broom and realized that morning had arrived and that they will not show up. 

The darkness in the passageway was like smoke with a smoldering glow. As he stood up, he clutched at his left knee, which was afflicted by rheumatism, and he noticed that light was starting to filter through from above. The green of the shanasheel on the upper floor appeared faded. He said to himself, “They’re not coming today. It is as if they knew I’d be here waiting for them. They know who I am. They know better than to mess with Abu Haidar.” Then he pondered to himself, “It was around this time that I heard the scratching yesterday,” and he imagined that he was hearing it now, but he could only hear his heart thumping in his chest like a broken drum. Then he heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. He knew it was his wife. As he turned around, he saw her heavy feet, then her black gown and plump body. When she came close she whispered, in a tone of gentle reproach, “You thought I didn’t notice when you woke up, did you?”

He coughed and said in a low voice, “I have to find out who they are.”

“But what’s the point? Who are you going to complain to?”

“I’m not going to complain to anyone. I have my own hands. An Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered. Fattouma, an Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered.”

Then he had a coughing fit. When he looked up at his wife again, he caught a glimpse of tenderness in her eyes. A broken old man? Never, Fattouma. He stifled another urge to cough and it burst through his throat. Then he was clam. He heard a car’s engine, then another one, and he knew for certain that they were not coming. He raised his head to the rectangular sky, which the rooftop balusters seemed to penetrate. It was a glowing blue, and this added to his certainty. Behind his door all was silent, while outside, beyond the little bend where his house was located, life was returning to its daytime pace.

He could hear the footsteps of passersby, the intermittent coughing, and even the softly whispered, “Allah Kareem,” God is Most Kind, which he had heard uttered everyday by the kubbah vendor. The courtyard lit up with morning light, and things returned to their former state. He grew tired of waiting. 

“So they’re not coming. All right, then. Tomorrow Allah Kareem, as Hassani, the kubbah vendor would say.” He came close to the door and glared at it with resentment. Its back with its geometrical concavities looked shaded now, with sharply defined lines. He lifted the latch with a squeak, stepped across its threshold and stared vacantly at it. With the light from the corner, he saw something occupying the upper part of the door. He moved closer and peered at it. It was a reddish smudge, the color of crimson blood. He dug his finger into it. It was still sticky. 

He yelled from his spot, “Fattouma, come see this!”

She came strutting, like an old woman brought back to a younger age. She said from the passageway:

“What is it? Did they put another cat?”

“Even worse. Look at the red scribble.”

The old woman stepped cautiously over the threshold. She stood next to him and saw the writing.

“What is written there?”

“How would I know? I’m as good as blind.”

The smudge stood before him like a curved tail. He stood there with his wife staring at it, as if with some long reflection they could decipher its meaning. It was puzzling and abrupt, reddish black, wavering between an incantation and a transgression. The old man regretted that his mother and father never taught him how to read and write. He regretted this now more than any other time in his life. And as his eyes grew tired of staring blindly and pleading to the walls around him in the alley, he walked out to the street, turning left and right, pleading like a confused supplicant while people walked by untroubled by the smudge, as if they had no knowledge of its existence. One young man looked at the old man’s long underwear and smiled kindly. He started to ask him, raised his hand a little, and then dropped it on his thigh. Words of entreaty died on his lips.What on Earth does this unsightly scribble mean? It was also written in red paint, which by itself is reason enough for much anguish. The old man headed left, to Hussein al Attar’s shop. He alone could read this ominous writing, and if there were something offensive in it, he would not embarrass him in front of other people. But the metal shutters were pulled down and the old man went back to his corner. He stood before the door and the red writing appeared in all its intensity.

“How did they write it?” He asked his wife, who was sitting on the chair now.

“They just did. You can’t wait for them all night.”

“Are they going to keep messing with us like that? 

“I hope they get what they deserve.”

“No, Fattouma, an Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered.”

Then he coughed as he labored to breathe. She said with anguish, “Water is boiling. Come inside and drink some hot water.” But he declined, preferring to wait for Hussein al Attar to open his shop so he could learn the meaning of this writing, before which he stood flustered, helpless and agitated. One time before they had hung a dead black cat, and then a mouse. Another time they smeared his door with something putrid. They did all of that and he understood the insult and was determined to catch them and take his revenge. But now he didn’t know what they meant by this writing, which they scribbled in brazen red paint that covered the upper part of the door. How did they write it, much less in the dark? His tiny eyes kept squinting at this wretched writing. 

His wife came with a glass of hot water. He sat to drink it. 

Then the old woman suggested, “Should I get you a cloth and hot water to wipe it off?”

“How can I wipe it off? I need to know what it says.”

“God Knows,” the old woman rolled up her sleeves, “it could be something obscene”

“No, I need to know,” he said with determination, “but al-Attar is late today.” “Where are you, Abu Ali?” he pleaded. 

His wife answered, “If our sons were here, they would have read it for us. They wouldn’t leave us in such confusion.”

The old man said with irritation, “They drove them all away, left a big empty void.”

He sank into a deep melancholy; he awoke from it at the sound of shop shutters wailing from around the corner. He stood up promptly and said with the eagerness of a child, “Hussein is here!” as he ran off leaving behind the water glass on the chair.

Two minutes later, he came back with a man of medium height, an oval-shaped face and grey hair. He bid the old woman good morning and inquired about her health, but was soon interrupted by the old man, “Let’s leave health aside for now. First, tell me what it says here.”

The man raised his head at the door and peered at the writing.

“So, what does it say?”

He moved closer to the door and pointed his finger at the writing, as if trying to spell it out.

“What does it say, Hussein?”

“What does it say? It says, ‘sheel,’ leave.”

“What … What?”

“It says ‘leave.’”

“That’s it? Just like that, leave?”

“Yes, that’s right. Leave.”

The old man fell silent, pondering to himself. Then, with a different tone, he said, “I knew it all along. They want me to leave.” 

Hussein’s eyes were still fixed on the door, as if trying to confirm one more time what he had just seen. The old man observed his face with eagerness and anticipation. Perhaps he would change his mind in the end. That’s it? “Leave,” just like that! It is inconceivable that one word could take up so much space on the door. Leave!

“Leave, that’s all?”

“Yes, ‘leave.’ It’s right there, clear as daylight. L E A V E.”

“Are they in their right mind? Leave the house where I got married? The house where my father and mother drew their last breath? Leave? Just like that? It’s absurd!”

No longer staring at the door, Hussein, whose aging face betrayed visible signs of distress now, answered, “It’s best to steer away from evil.”

The old man became irritated and said, “This is not steering away from evil. This is bowing to the devil and … and … and kissing his hand. What if someone came up to you tomorrow and asked you to leave your shop that you’ve had for twenty years. Would you leave it?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Why don’t you just go back to your work? What is this, the rule of Qaraqosh, or Hulagu?”*


Sensing that he might have offended him, the old man turned to Hussein. He had already started moving, his head sunk low, “If you excuse me now … I left the shop … It will all pass …” The old man did not say anything; he stood fixed in front of the door. He saw the red word mocking him, scoffing at his old age. I’ll teach them how to mess with Abu Haidar.

“Come inside, dear.”

“If I could just find out who wrote it,” he said through clenched teeth. 

“Come inside, dear. Your chest will act up.”

He entered the house following his wife. The sunlight shone with all its intensity on the courtyard, and through the green latticed windows of the upper floor. The old man and his wife climbed up the two stairs to the living room and he sat on a wooden daybed, while his wife chose to sit on the floor behind the tea heater, her same spot for almost thirty years. Back then, the living room was covered with carpets, and Hadi used to sit next to her. Then the kids came. They went to school, to college, and got jobs. Then chairs were brought into the living room, but the old woman had gotten used to sitting on the floor. She would sit cross-legged on the carpet for hours without her legs going numb. She would never think about sitting on a chair.

And it suddenly occurred to the old man to ask, “Fattouma, do you remember how many times we’ve painted the living room?” 

“I don’t remember.”

“More than four times. When we got married, that was the first time. When we circumcised the boys, that was the second time. When Haidar got married, that was the third time. When Shakir got married, that was the fourth time. And right before the boys left, that was the fifth.”

The old woman did not respond. She was busy pouring a cup of tea, which she then offered to him, and brought close to him a small bowl of walnuts soaked in water. The old man glanced around the walls as if trying to decipher them. One summer he built this wall from nothing. He brought a builder and for two days was at his heels observing how every brick was laid in its place. He would tell the builder, “I want this to endure for the children of my children … I want it to be sturdy.” And the ceiling? He looked at it mournfully. It was not covered with boards before Haidar got married. When Haidar got married he covered it with wooden boards of particular shapes and patterns and painted it light green. When sunlight filtered through in the morning, the entire living room would appear soaked in emerald green. Oh, and the wedding bed used to be here, the clothes cabinet there, and the toilet table with its big mirror. That night he was too shy to enter the room. Then, after a short period, otherwise known as the honeymoon, the bride and groom moved up to the second floor.

“I don’t want your tea to get cold.”

He left the daybed and walked down the two steps to the courtyard. The sun had descended on the latticed windows of the upper floor and touched the bannisters of the hallway leading to the room where Haidar and his wife once slept. This is where he once stood as he called out to Haidar on his wedding day, “When it was my wedding night, I didn’t take that long. Oh, young people today!” And he chortled in his joy. The earth itself could not contain his happiness. Then his second son got married, and he swore to marry off his third son before he would die. He swore on his grey hair. I would even cut off this rheumatic leg of mine, the root of all my affliction and misery. Then Haidar’s wife became pregnant, and when one morning his second son’s bride kissed him on his forehead asking for his blessings, he was about to say something inappropriate but felt embarrassed. His son was watching him. He wanted him to make a mistake. But I am your father, how dare you. It was the summer season and he was sitting on the chair in the very spot he is contemplating now, between the water pot and the stairs. Sunlight had also filled the courtyard, and he shouted at him, “Get up, your bride is coming down!” Now his old bride was coming down, with her hand leaning on her knee. 

As she came close to him and asked, “Is your chest going to act up on you again today?”

The water pot was still in the same place, green on both sides, and the stairs from which the bride descended were dusty, the wooden planks at the edge of each step corroded. On the other side was the bathroom.

“Fattouma, do you remember how hard I worked to build the bathroom?”

“Yes, very hard.”

“I didn’t want them to leave. The house is big enough to shelter an entire clan. They wanted a bathroom and I built them a bathroom fit for kings. I built it with these scruffy hands. I did it all with my hands. I did it all for them.”

Next to the bathroom, the kitchen was covered with floor tiles. At its center, there was the table where Haidar used to eat his lunch. Now it was deserted. For the old woman food always tasted better on the floor and the kitchen felt stifling. Here are the kitchen floor tiles, and the traces of smoke on the wall. There, on the west side of the house, where the traces were even stronger, he, Hadi al Hajj Rashid, used to cook harissa for the poor in a big cauldron that occupied the entire west segment of the rectangular yard. The house was always heaving, always bustling with its own people, and visitors would come in and out. He would stand like a chief of a clan, looming larger than life. He would say, God bless this house … I will make the smoke rise to the Seventh Sky… Astaghfirullah, God forgive me! They made me curse and it is not even morning yet. 

“Fattouma, it is one more month before it’s time to cook harissa, if God keeps us alive. And why wouldn’t He? What have we done to Him? Have we stolen people’s money? Fattouma, get it out of your mind – I’ll never leave this house. I will stay here, and this year’s harissa will be legendary, and everyone will swear by my name.”

“And they will.”

“Of course they will. Who’s not going to let me stay? What nonsense is this to leave my own home? Fattouma: one’s home is one’s country.” 

* In popular culture, these two names are associated with arbitrary judgement and despotic rule. The former was one of Saladin’s palace administrators who was later appointed as minster of Egypt at the end of the 12th century. He became a popular figure parodied in Arab folklore for his bizarre rulings and capricious behavior. As for Hulagu Khan, the destruction of Baghdad in 1257 earned the Mongol ruler his reputation for unbridled brutality.


[From GhaibTu`ma Farman, Ālām al-Sayyid Maʻrūf: Qiṣaṣ (Beirut: Dār al-Fārābī, 1982. Translated from the Arabic by Khled Al-Hilli]


Syrian Poet Al-Ma’arri: Through the Lens of Disability Studies


This interview with Dr. Tom Shakespeare first appeared on the Library of Arabic Literature website:shakespeare1-300x300Scholar, blogger, and public-health advocate Tom Shakespeare recently did a five-part series on “The Genius of Disability” for BBC Radio 3. The first radio essay in the series focused on the blind poet and writer Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, whose The Epistle of Forgiveness was recently edited and translated, in two volumes, by Geert Jan van Gelder and Gregor Schoeler for the Library of Arabic Literature.Shakespeare is a sociologist focused on disability studies who currently lectures at the Norwich Medical School and is also keenly interested in disability arts. His interest in al-Maʿarrī began with a post on his blog, “Our Statures Touch the Skies,” where he writes about disabled people of consequence throughout history—that led to more reading and research, and the essay on Radio 3.

For the LAL blog, Shakespeare talks about how he engages with al-Maʿarrī’s work through the contemporary lens of disability and how he hopes the LAL volumes “are the beginning of a longer engagement with him,” as, with the new translations, “suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.”

ArabLit: How did “The Genius of Disability” originate, and how did you settle on profiling al-Maʿarrī?

Tom Shakespeare: The background is that I have been running this blog for a number of years called “Our Statures Touch the Skies,” which is a quotation from Emily Dickinson. And what I wanted to do was write short biographies of famous disabled people.

I think that people need to know that disabled people have made all sorts of contributions throughout history. So, I was doing this blog, and one of my colleagues at the WHO [World Health Organization] was an Iranian psychologist, Taghi Yasamy. I was telling him about my blog and he said: “Obviously you should do al-Maʿarrī.”

I wrote the entry on the blog and, fastforward a couple of years, Radio 3 accepted a proposal to do five broadcasts. And I wanted to cover a range. I wanted men, women. I wanted a range of art forms. And, particularly, I wanted a range of impairments.

Al-Maʿarrī speaks to us today in a way that many more orthodox Muslim thinkers may not: he was a vegan, he was a pacifist, he was a freethinker, he was a skeptic. By including him, not only was I saying, Look, somebody with visual impairment can be at the forefront of the poetic tradition. But also that somebody from the Muslim tradition can be a freethinker and challenge our idea of what Islam includes.

[In 2013, Syria’s] al-Nusra Front beheaded a statue of al-Maʿarrī. So a thousand years after he lived and worked, he’s still a threat. This presumably fairly frail, old, blind guy, who lived to the age of eighty-something, and all he did was write poems—this poet was a challenge to the orthodoxy then and now.

AL: As you read through his body of work in translation, were you able to connect with the poems and prose as much as with his personal story?

TS: The truth is that I could connect with the ideas, but the actual poetry was harder to connect with, and I think that’s because the versions I was reading were by Reynold Nicholson, who obviously was this pioneering Arabist of the first half of the 20th century, so credit to him. But I don’t think he was a great poet himself. So what we read is in that slightly stilted early 20th-century style and so it was difficult for me to connect with it as poetry. Some of it more than others.

What’s really helpful about the new volumes of The Epistle of Forgiveness is that they’re very modern and you can read it as a story. It’s fresh. And suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.

I really hope that what’s been done with his prose, in The Epistle of Forgiveness, is also done with the collections Tinder Box and with The Unnecessary Necessities. Because I think that would bring this poet to a much wider audience.

I know that it’s not true to say that The Epistle of Forgiveness inspired Dante, but there is a comparison in that previous translations of Dante have been somewhat cumbersome. And then you get a fresh translation, by a poet, and suddenly it comes alive. And I think it’s the same with al-Maʿarrī. We have to have a translation for our own contemporary time.

Of course, there are poems in this prose [of The Epistle of Forgiveness], and they come out much better than they ever did before. What I hope is that these volumes reach beyond scholars of Islam or the Arab world. We need an accessible volume of the prose and the poetry. He can certainly appeal to a much wider audience.

The idea that this poet is writing in the eleventh century! Now, I studied Old English at Cambridge, and I read Beowulf, and I read other works of that time, and they are nowhere near the sophistication and the philosophical and dramatic interest of these writings. I think it’s a shame that we don’t hear more of these sorts of poets and prose writers in our Western tradition.

AL: It’s interesting to think about al-Maʿarrī in this category, “disabled,” which as you point out is a very recent one. As you said in your radio essay, he would’ve been viewed differently in his time. How do you think looking at him through the lens of “disability” or “blindness” can help us see him afresh or connect to his work?

TS: It’s interesting: Immediately you’re using a visual metaphor, “looking at his work through that lens.” That’s an example of the way that all our language is taken up with visual metaphors. I think it’s an interesting question: What does it do to us? Maybe we might look at his metaphors. Maybe we might look at his language and descriptions, and maybe we might say: How many times does he use a visual metaphor? We can ask, as critics and readers, questions based on our knowledge of him. I think that what’s really interesting is that he would’ve memorized vast amounts of the poetic tradition.

He must’ve composed huge strands of poetry or prose in his head. I think he had four or five amanuenses who he dictated to. He had many, many students, and people came to study with him from all over the place. We know that various later scholars were trained by him.

I don’t know the extent to which [blindness] informs his works in a very direct sense. Other people I’ve written about—for instance there’s Virginia Woolf, who had depression, and I think you can say that that’s informed her work. With other writers, their physicality or their mental state doesn’t necessarily directly inform their work, but it does say something about the state in which the work was composed.

What’s interesting is that his prose and his poetry are very technically complex. So we have here an extraordinarily scholarly person who couldn’t read any of that, but he must have had at his disposal an immense range of references.

Maybe when you are blind or you lack a sense, you concentrate on other parts of your sensory apparatus. I think this is very commonly the case, that people who are restricted actually go much deeper with what they have left.

If he wasn’t blind, he wouldn’t be the poet he was. I’m almost certain of that.

AL: You said, in an interesting short moment in the radio program, “I imagine his needs were met.” That would’ve been key.

TS: Yes, he was a man who was very venerated. He came from quite a noble family, so that would’ve been a help. I suspect he put his hand on someone’s shoulder, and he wandered around and was guided by somebody.

He lived to the age of 84, and when he died, apparently, 80-some poets created poems in his honor. This guy would’ve been rather a celebrity. He’d written a considerable amount of poetry and intervened in the political debates of the day. He’s a really fascinating figure and of course remains famous to this day. And he did all this despite beyond blind.

We also know that right at the core of the Islamic tradition, there is an acceptance and an inclusion of blindness, which must’ve helped.

AL: How would you place al-Maʿarrī’s disability in a context of how blindness is and was seen elsewhere? You said it’s often, across places and times, been seen as a blessing.

TS: Yes, it often has been. Obviously, Homer is said to have been blind, and I don’t know if he actually was, but that’s the tradition. And some of the Old Testament prophets were said to have been blind. It’s almost like a trope that blindness doesn’t stop you, that people with blindness maybe even have additional insight. There’s almost like a special status. Right up to the present day, blind people have had a special status which other disabled people haven’t had. And sometimes blind people don’t want to be lumped in with everybody else because they might lose of their specialness.

AL: On your blog, you wrote, “Throughout history, disability has led to isolation, either because people are excluded and shunned by their community, or else because their mobility or communication problems make it hard for them to participate. The upside of isolation can be a blossoming of creativity …” Did you see evidence of this in al-Maʿarrī’s case?

TS: I don’t think disabled people have always been excluded and shunned. I think they often have been. But on the blog, I talk about a lot of people from different eras who did manage to be accepted and included, and I think you have to be quite exceptional to manage that. If [al-Maʿarrī] had been a kid who’d gone blind at the age of four and had not shown any particular talent, we obviously would never have heard of him, and his life might’ve been far more short and brutal. But the fact was, at an early age, he showed that he had something to offer.

If you are disabled, you’re much more likely to have fallen by the wayside, to have not been able to make a contribution, to have been excluded. Unless you had a particular talent, in which case there are these few people in history who, because of their abilities or talent, do survive and do make a contribution and are remembered.

For example, on my blog, I talk about an Egyptian called Seneb. We only know about him because there’s this funerary monument, and it’s wonderful, and he’s a dwarf. And we have this beautiful rendering. He’s a little guy and he’s sitting on a bench next to his average-height wife and his two children. And he’s a civil servant in the pharaoh’s household, and he clearly lived, thrived, survived, had a happy life, was accepted and venerated. And you think, well, isn’t that great. And every now and then, you get a figure like this. But they’re not many and we must think that disability was actually very common.

We don’t hear from 99.99 percent of them, but every now and then, in the pages of history, we find that despite whatever ailed them, they were nurtured and did thrive. We can’t be sort of Pollyanna-ish and think that maybe it wasn’t a problem. It was a problem. But every now and then, disabled people managed to overcome the obstacles and make a major contribution. And he’s one of them.

I think from a Disability Studies point of view, and a Disability History point of view, it behooves us to remember, celebrate, and popularize these people. Because otherwise we end up with some glib assumption that, ‘Oh, it was always impossible, oh there was never hope for people.’ When that’s not quite true.

And today [it’s much the same]: one third of the children out of school are disabled. If you are blind in Syria today, or in many parts of the Arab world, you’d have real trouble getting an education. You would be at risk of exclusion. There are blind people who flourish, of course, but they’re facing additional barriers today as they would’ve done then.

AL: You found evidence of al-Maʿarrī’s blindness possibly affecting his relationship to the body, for instance in, “The Body is Your Vase”?

TS: “What matters is inside,” is what it says. It’s not that he ignores it completely, but he’s not defined by it. Disability was different in those days. It wouldn’t have been a sense of identity. If you were a modern American poet with a disability, that would be part of your identity, and you would probably talk about it. You would probably affiliate with other disabled people. It would be part of your makeup. It might not be the theme of your work, but you would have made a conscious choice to avoid it. Whereas in those days, it was just one of those things. God had sent you an ailment, and it was up to you to deal with that.

AL: What do you hope next for al-Maʿarrī’s work?

TS: I hope that these volumes are the beginning of a longer engagement with him. I sincerely hope that more of the poetry will be translated and that these efforts that the publishers have made will lead to a wider appreciation of his work. If my small little broadcast is part of that, I’m really, really pleased.

Palestinian Poet Mourid Barghouti: ‘Tomorrow Is What Matters’

Palestinian Poet Mourid Barghouti: ‘Tomorrow Is What Matters’

At his popular talk at this year’s Emirates LitFest, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti said that he writes poetry to preserve his ability to criticize:By Sawad Hussainbarghouti

The Seventh Emirates Airline Literature Festival featured a session with Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti titled Out of Place. While the introductory part of the session focused on what place means to Barghouti as a poet, the remainder delved into other ideas: including the obsession with the past, the use of hyperbolic language, and aesthetics in Arab poetry. Barghouti shared his wisdom with a sizeable audience, making them laugh at times, and leaving them pondering his heartfelt statements at others, not least because they could – and should! – be applied to life as we live it. Spontaneous applause after such statements was not uncommon, and attendees were left wanting more.

The following expands on key themes Barghouti touched on while responding to questions posed during the session.

What does place mean to you?

Barghouti started by saying that thirty years of exile have taught him that there is no one definition of place. The idea of “place” was taken away from him a long time ago, he said, as he pointed out that he is four years older than the state of Israel. He played with the idea of “time as place, and place as time.” The past is a place, he said, before sharing that he has learnt over time that barriers do not define a place.

He asserted that the sole difference between the horizon and the prison cell is our feeling towards each of them. 

He then posed the question: “What happens when the difference between here and there becomes blurry?” He asserted that the sole difference between the horizon and the prison cell is our feeling towards each of them. In both personal and national cases, these two contradictory places can be the same place, or can even become one place.

What makes you write poetry?

Translations of Barghouti's work. Photo credit: Sawad.

Barghouti responded that he wanted to preserve his ability to critique. In poetry, he clarified, you have the ability to critique the self: your family, your nation, your life, your party, your religion, your work, your president…

Today, he said, man has lost the ability to critique this individual and collective self. True critique, Barghouti went on, is when one critiques oneself. “It’s not when Hamas criticises Fatah, or vice versa,” he expanded by way of an example. “Rather, true critique is if Hamas’s leader would criticise himself … everything under the sky is open to critique. This is what led me to poetry.”

With relation to how criticism has played a role in his life, Barghouti said: “I cannot coexist with the ‘ugly’. My life, its standards are not right and wrong, not halal and haram, but the standards I have are the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘ugly’ … There is such a thing as a beautiful mistake and an ugly correctness.”

When asked to give examples of each form, he specified that a beautiful mistake is something he can be happy in committing. For example, lying in order to give someone hope to live another day is a beautiful mistake. On the other hand, an ugly mistake he explained through an illustration: If an audience member — being a friend of Barghouti — asked to borrow a hundred dollars, he would lend it to him; if the money has not been paid after a year passes, Barghouti posited that he would be well within his rights to file a complaint against the borrower. However, Barghouti sees this outcome as wrong. “There is a friendship, circumstances not allowing people to pay,” he said. “People see this as crazy, but it’s better that I forget the matter altogether.”

The UAE is a young country, forty-three years old. Poets have said that with the skyscrapers and increasing development, the only place for cherished childhood memories of grandmother’s house is in the poem. What do you think?

Barghouti said that houses have changed, families have changed, the world has widened and it has advanced. “We are a people who have almost forgotten how to think of the future. [There are] political parties [that] want to go fifty years back and live there. If the past is our dream for the future, then when will we live? The past isn’t a dream. What[ever] from it [that] deserves to continue in the present will do so, and what doesn’t deserve to continue will disappear on its own.”

Leave the past where it belongs and go forth to tomorrow … think of tomorrow’s morning.

“I’m for human and architectural progress, and not looking at the past with excess consecration or romanticization. Tomorrow is what matters. What happened to us yesterday, we don’t live today. Leave the past where it belongs and go forth to tomorrow … think of tomorrow’s morning.” Barghouti’s response was thunderously applauded by the audience, which marvelled at how a man who has lived through such a tumultuous past could be so optimistic about the future. Numerous tweets were hurriedly posted to share this statement with the wider world.

You’ve talked previously in other forums about tabriid al-lugha, literally a cooling of the language – what do you mean by this?

Barghouti responded that he speaks in a tangible language that any Mohammed on the street would understand. He avoids speaking like the intellectuals on TV, who he says perhaps do not even understand what they are saying themselves at times with their roundabout ways of expressing simple ideas. “When I say ‘a wall’ in poetry, I mean a wall. Choose language that is shared between [us].”

He went on to refer to his experience as the Chair for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction panel this year, and the type of writing he witnessed in some of the novels that came before the panel. “In some of the books I read, there were phrases such as ‘brutal aggression’, as if all aggression isn’t brutal!” The use of such modifiers for nouns that are already clear points to lazy writers, he said. Hyperbolic language makes writing ‘heated,’ Barghouti continued, before making clear he prefers to ‘cool’ it down, to make it simple.

He then offered the following sentence as an exemplary illustration of his point: “‘Ahmed entered. I looked at his face, and saw that he was very tired.’ I, as Mourid Barghouti, when I read this sentence, I get rid of the ‘very;’ it weakens the idea of how tired he is. ‘I saw that he was tired,’ is much stronger than ‘he was very tired.’ The writer who puts ‘very’ in his writing loses the ability to convince you just how tired that person is.” He concluded his answer with the thought that the more detailed he gets in his writing, the less hyperbole is needed.

Is the aesthetic in your poetry always political?

“We writers write about two things, nothing more: life and death. When death is violent – caused by criminals, invaders, settlers [and] dictators – then you are writing a poem you could label as political. But when death is caused by say … what happened with Romeo and Juliet, then we can’t call it political. We are living in a place where we are almost eager for natural death; this is a strange place for us to be living in.”

Barghouti then walked the audience through his writing process:

“My aesthetics are dictated by my rough copy. By my first leading lines. When I start the poem, with one or two lines, they are my theoretical guides. I don’t follow any literary theory. I follow my first lines. These would lead me to a book-long poem; these would lead me to a narrative poem, an epic, a haiku, a three-line poem … I am faithful to the way I start my poem. The rhythm comes with it, the rhyme, the music, the philosophy, the length, the temperature of the poem are all suggested by the way it starts. If you follow literary theories, you cannot be a genuine writer. The first rough copy will guide you […] I hate labels. I don’t use the term political poem, love poem; those labels say nothing. It’s akin to a label that you put on your luggage when you are leaving for the airport: it says whose luggage it is, but never tells what is inside.”

Remembering Radwa

Mourid Barghouti ended his talk by reading a poem dedicated to his late wife. The rhythm of his syllables and the cadence of his phrases gripped the audience, who could not help but feel that they had witnessed the recitation of one very long yet engaging poem. Many were struck by his immense humility, and how he continually thanked the audience not only for their attendance, but also the very intellectual nature of their participation.

Labelled as a Palestinian poet, we know where he hails from and what his profession is, but sitting through Barghouti’s session at the Emirates Airline Literary Festival assured the audience that what they witnessed was a mere scratching of the surface of a literary giant who goes far beyond the casing of conventional definition.

Sawad Hussain is an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur residing in Dubai.

New Syrian Novel Expresses Distrust of Storytelling


Syrian novelist Maha Hassan was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for the second time this year, for her Al-Rawiyat. The book didn’t make the shortlist, but reviewer al-Mustafa Najjar makes a compelling case for why you should read it nonetheless:

By Al-Mustafa Najjar

Female-VoicesIn her most recent novel, Al-Rawiyat (Female Narrators), published last year, Syrian novelist Maha Hassan explores the realms of oral and written storytelling through a set of female characters, who are not necessarily connected, but are all obsessed with the art of narration.

From the book’s dedication to the unpublished “female raconteurs [who] . . . lived and died in darkness” to the last sentence highlighting the “emancipatory” powers of writing, a celebratory, almost naive tone dominates the novel.

The first narrator, Abbadon, says she lives two lives: A superficial, “typical” one concerned with the satisfaction of mundane day-to-day needs, and a “rich and dense” one centering on fiction writing. “[I was] born to tell tales,” she says, echoing the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir.

“Telling tales is the only entertainment and pastime she has to pass the days in peace,” the narrator says. Even when someone steals the manuscript of the character’s debut novel and publishes it under their name, she does not seem too bothered.

“What’s the harm? What is important is that my characters have a chance to come out to the world, that tales come out for people to read. What is important is the novel, not the novelist.”

When she grows up, her relationship with her husband reaches a dead-end when she confesses to him that “the only moment I feel the ecstasy that resembles orgasm is when I tell tales.”

Rama, the last of the narrators, lives in a parallel, imaginary world, overflowing with fictional characters. Concerned about Rama’s sanity, her mother tries to “suppress” her imagination by exhausting her with all sorts of physical activities. Rama, who was born in India, inherited from her grandmother “the magical ability to tell stories.” Compared to her peers who find in bedtime stories a passageway to sleep, Rama waits for her grandmother to end the story so that she can deconstruct and reconstruct it from scratch. When she grows up, her relationship with her husband reaches a dead-end when she confesses to him that “the only moment I feel the ecstasy that resembles orgasm is when I tell tales.”

small-Maha-HassanThere are many similarities between these two narrators: both derive sexual pleasure out of storytelling. Abbadon says: “A sexual energy is generated inside me when I write.” But it would be a mistake to think that this is what Al-Rawiyat is all about, that the female protagonists are the 21st century version of Scheherazade, who tamed Shahryar after a thousand and one nights of storytelling. Al-Rawiyat is deeper than just a cry against patriarchy, or a manifesto calling for a feminist revolution. Beneath the bluntly “revolutionary” surface of the novel, there is a complex narrative structure threatening to subvert it.

Each of the book’s stories culminates with a twist in the plot that contradicts the narrator’s expectations and thus raises questions about their credibility and familiarity with the stories they tell. While Abbadon finds in Sabato the man of her dreams who does everything in his power to help her write her first novel, we discover at the end of their story that he has been using her for purely utilitarian purposes.

The same is also true of Rama, who realises — albeit too late — that Aravind, the musician whom she thought would liberate her repressed soul, is nothing but “an idiot who lacks imagination.”

“To tell a story is to claim a certain authority, which listeners grant,” writes American critic Jonathan D. Culler in his Literary Theory. Faced with the narrators’ celebratory tone about the ability of storytelling to undermine patriarchy, readers have no choice but to take what they say at face value, and thus submit to their narrative authority.

Unlike One Thousand and One Nights, which highlights Scheherazade’s mastery of the art of storytelling, Al-Rawiyat sheds light on the narrators’ failure to have control over the stories they tell.

However, following the disappointments the characters/narrators face, we start to doubt that they are worthy of our trust. The dramatic twists in the novel implicitly raise questions about the credibility of the narration and whether or not the narrator deserves the authority that the reader grants. Unlike One Thousand and One Nights, which highlights Scheherazade’s mastery of the art of storytelling, Al-Rawiyat sheds light on the narrators’ failure to have control over the stories they tell. The novel does exactly the opposite of what it preaches. Hassan’s female narrators give a fake impression of Scheherazade.

In what seems to be a diversion from the plot, Alice — a PhD candidate in “philosophy and its relation to art” — visits Cairo, having been “possessed with the spirit of Pharaohs.” The chapter overflows with references to the success of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Alice says she “has trust in the Egyptian people. Those who toppled Mubarak are capable of toppling the Muslim Brotherhood, and will not accept a new dictatorship.”

For all the failure that the Arab Spring has proved to be, such remarks — which we now find as either cynical or naïve — are said by Alice with the utmost seriousness. Based on what has been written about Al-Rawiyat in the Arab press, there seems to be a consensus about the chapter’s irrelevance to the rest of the novel. In fact, the chapter is highly significant in that it underlines the discrepancy between reality and narration.

Alice, the narrator, is merely offering her “narrative” of the Arab Spring, which stands in stark contrast to reality.

We all heard about the events in Tahrir Square on television, or in newspapers and magazines. In other words, what we know about the Egyptian Spring is nothing more than “narratives” that express the views of their authors. We are surrounded by narratives. Take newspapers, magazines, TV channels, YouTube and social media; they are all platforms for multiple voices and narratives. But do all of them reflect reality? Al-Rawiyat answers in the negative.

The structure of the novel is confusingly divergent, with the frame narrative resembling a Matryoshka doll that encases four stories. The multiple and overlapping narrative voices mean readers never stop asking: “Who is speaking?” and “What are they talking about?”

Added to this confusion is Hassan’s tendency to give several names to each of her characters. Abbadon is both Miriam and Maha, while Sabato can be Ernesto or Franco. “Our names have no significance  . . . We are mere virtual creatures.”

A similar uncertainty surrounds the place in which the novel is set. It is “that big city which resembles Cairo, New York, Tokyo, Paris, London or Beirut.”

Al-Rawiyat is a well-crafted work whose turbulent form gives it the uncertainty and ambiguity of great works, such as Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and Ulysses by James Joyce, novels that raised more questions than they offered answers.

Al-Mustafa Najjar is a Syrian journalist/translator at Asharq Al-Awsat. He holds a master’s degree in Post-1900 Literatures, Theories and Cultures from the the University of Manchester. He is based in London and we still hold out hope that some day he will take over the ArabLit franchise. 


‘Immortal’ Algerian Novelist Assia Djebar Dies, 78

by mlynxqualey

Algerian novelist Assia Djebar — frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender and one of the “immortals” of the Académie Française — died in a hospital in Paris:


According to Algerian state radio, Djebar — whose given name was Fatima Zohra Imalayène — will be buried in her native Cherchell, where she was born in 1936.

Djebar wrote novels and short-story collections striking for their wide historical sense and their female focus. They included: The Thirst, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, A Sister to Scheherazade, So Vast a Prison, Algerian White, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment and The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. She also wrote poetry.

She moved to France to study at 18 and began her life as a bearer of many “firsts” when she became the first Algerian woman to be admitted to the country’s top literary university, the Ecole Normale Superieure. She published her first book in 1957, at just twenty-one.

Dejbar, like many Algerian authors, was criticized for continuing to write in French after her nation’s independence.  Although she never wrote in Arabic, she did study the language, and attempted to use French to “reproduce Arabic rhythms.”

In a 2010 interview, Djebar said that she writes “against erasure”:

In some of my earlier books (So Vast the Prison, Algerian White, etc..) memory was often the first impulse to write, or rather the sudden urgent need to record the spontaneous testimony of someone close … Because a sudden fear seized me of seeing this shard of life, this moment of real life – with its grace, or the hollow of despair in an anonymous story, yes, sometimes fear grips me that these fragile moments of life will fade away. It seems that I write against erasure. Most often, in this flow of a past life, of desperate or brilliant experience, illuminating, a spark, shy at first, then hardened obstinacy makes me say: “this must be fixed, this should not plunge into the night, into oblivion or colorless indifference! This need to inscribe: at least it doesn´t matter if it’s me who takes the pen, or some other suddenly arising to whom I could pass the lightning glimpse (pain, rebellion, or short joy) …

She won a number of other prestigious prizes for her writing and cinema including the International Critics’ Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1979, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1996, sometimes called the “American Nobel,” and the Frankfurt Peace Prize in 2000.

In 2005, Assia Djebar became the first woman from the Maghreb to become an “immortal” — or life-long member of the prestigious Académie Française.

Works available online:

L’Amour, la fantasia — Excerpt of the novel in English translation

Algerian White — Excerpt of the novel in English translation

“Poems for a Happy Algeria”

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment

mlynxqualey | février 7, 2015 à 4:20 | Catégories: Algeria, women | URL:
Commentaire    Voir tous les commentaires    J’aime

The Man Who Planted Trees ( L’homme qui plantait des arbres )

The Man Who Planted Trees (French title L’homme qui plantait des arbres), also known as The Story of Elzéard Bouffier, The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met, and The Man Who Planted Hope and Reaped Happiness, is an allegorical tale by French author Jean Giono, published in 1953.

It tells the story of one shepherd’s long and successful singlehanded effort to re-forest a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps in Provence throughout the first half of the 20th century. The tale is quite short—only about 4000 words long. It was composed in French, but first published in English.



A Night in Casablanca


A Night in Casablanca


 The Antagonist Dreams, by Faizaan Ahab

By Muhammad Zafzaf

Translated from Arabic by Mohammed Albakry

You could barely view the sea under the night’s darkness and heavy rain. Cars would careen around the road uncontrollably because their drivers were too drunk. Accidents were frequent and the police always arrived late and asked the same question to the inquisitive crowd who gather around the accident scene: “Was the driver drunk?” The ambulance would often come even later, and then, finally, the crowd would disperse. Sometimes, one of the nosy bystanders might receive a kick or a punch, or get shoved inside the Jeep by the police, but after he paid a fine, he would then be thrown back out in the middle of the road.

You could hear the strong roar of the sea, but the sound of thunder was even stronger. The rain added to the noise as it fell on the surface of the cars parked next to the pubs and hotels.

Blaring music was coming from the “Oklahoma” nightclub. Close to the nightclub was a pub where groups of people would come in and out constantly. Loud groups would stagger out from the pub every night and often get into fights with other groups; whether with fists or sharp razors. Often a female victim would be left bleeding on the sidewalk and people who had nothing to do with the incident would gather around her. When the police arrived, the ones who remained could not even vaguely bear witness to what happened. Then the police would usually say, “That’s the fate of prostitutes. They bleed on the sidewalk as much as they bleed men of money.”

Now the sea was rumbling in the thick darkness, and rain was falling less intensely. Suaad dashed out from the narrow “Oklahoma’s” door and the sharp sound of the door bolt followed. She tried to tighten her coat belt and moved a little forward to the small round plaza surrounded by large mud vases. Then Said came out talking with the well-dressed doorman who seemed to know him well.

“You are drunk tonight; will you be able to drive?” the doorman asked.

“I didn’t drink enough! That prostitute out there drank the whole bottle and of course she’ll pay for that.”

“Are you going to do it again tonight? Be reasonable, Said.”

“I’ll do it all nights! I’m King Schahriar.”

Then he laughed and stuffed a ten-dirham note into the reluctant doorman’s hand.

“We are friends, why waste your money?” The doorman asked.

Said expressed his impatience while looking at Suaad, who looked tired standing in the small round plaza. He put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her towards him.

“The car is over there.”


“It’s close by.”

“Where are we going?”

“Wherever your heart desires. There are still other places open. Tonight is our night.”

After they stumbled into the car, she pulled a cigarette stuffed with hash out of her handbag and started to turn it in her fingers.

“Said, let’s drop by to see a friend of mine. Poor woman, I’m sure she doesn’t have anything to smoke tonight.”

“And why doesn’t she? There are many dealers selling hash on the Corniche promenade.”

“Poor thing, if she doesn’t get it, she will die or commit suicide. She is a close friend of mine, but she has many problems with her stepfather and with her boyfriend. She has a beautiful baby girl, but her boyfriend doesn’t want to acknowledge the baby. He is from a rich and powerful family, you know?”

“I know these families; women like you seem to like them too.”

There is something else about you, maybe something you yourself don’t know… few are the people who know themselves.

“I don’t like them, but I like to live.” She said that with a lazy tone in her voice while he was driving through the empty streets separating the villas from each other, elegant villas with gardens illuminated with various colored lights. She lifted her hash cigarette almost with closed eyes and asked him, “Do you smoke?”

He picked the cigarette from her to take a puff and gave it back to her.

“And now what do you say? Where is my girlfriend?” She teased him.

“I don’t know, maybe she is somewhere in this world.”

“And us, where are we?”

“Among them.”


“Those you love.”

“I don’t love anyone. I used to love Almutii, but I left him, because he didn’t have money.  He used to steal my money to buy drugs. If he didn’t get the money, he’d go mad and threaten to kill me. We went to high school together, but we were kicked out. His father tried to kill his mother many times, you know. I don’t know his father, but he told me about him. No doubt, like father, like son, and if I married him, he’d try to kill me too. But I don’t want to die. I love life.”

The music was loud inside the car, which was moving very slowly. The windows were closed. It was rainy and cold outside and the car became like a closed box, suffocating with the hash smoke. But Said did not want to open the window. In the meantime, a large motorcycle raced in front of them causing Said to tremble a bit. With his hand, he wiped the front windshield.

“I wish I had a big motorcycle like that one,” Suaad said.

“So that when you get stoned, you’d mow down all the trees on the road in front of you?”

“Ha, ha, don’t exaggerate. All those who own motorcycles of this kind smoke hash.”

They passed the villas area and the city looked calm after the rain. Some puddles formed by rain were glittering under the night’s lights. From time to time, some night patrols would cross slowly with their lights off and stop next to the sidewalk searching for vagrants. Suaad was feeling warm inside her coat, leaning her head back and feeling relaxed. Her eyes were closed and she could hardly open them. She mumbled something and Said understood that she wanted something to eat. He was also feeling hungry. Usually after a night like this, he wouldn’t eat and sometimes would even sleep with his clothes and shoes on.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.


“Let’s go and have Harira soup.”

“Harira is sour and the humus and lentil in it taste like stones.”

“Hash gives you an appetite, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, once I ate a huge pot of couscous that big all by myself,” she indicated with her hands.

“Don’t exaggerate!”

“I swear with my honor.”

“Do you have honor, you…” he paused abruptly

“Say it; let it come out of your mouth. For the record, I have more honor than the daughters of those villa owners. I know them; we smoke hash a lot together.”

“All right, it doesn’t matter. So you don’t want to eat Harira?”

“No, I would rather eat kufta hamburger with eggs and sauce. It’s cheap at the Tanjawi restaurant that is close to Cincinnati Beverages.”

“But it gets busy there and often at the end of the night fights between the drunk men erupt over girls. The police patrols also go there and check for ID’s. Do you have an ID with you sweetheart?”

“Do you think I came from another planet or something? I’m Moroccan too and I have a father and mother like the rest of the people. Do you despise me because you picked me up easy? If I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t go out with you. I can smell men’s type, you know. Do not think that I just liked your suit and tie. No, there is something else about you, maybe something you yourself don’t know. You know, few are the people who know themselves.”

She shut her eyes completely. She didn’t fall asleep, but was lost in listening to the music and the sound of chirping small birds. In her half-awake state, she saw a beach surrounded by palm trees, and on the beach naked people bathing and basking in the sun. Some women had beautiful flowers hanging in their hair, flowers that glittered under the glow of the sun. When Said turned to his companion, her face looked dreamy and innocent like a small child’s. He picked up another cigarette, lit it for himself, and with some difficulty found a parking place for his car. Suaad opened her eyes and asked him to light up a cigarette for her too. The rain had almost stopped now, but when Said looked up at the sky, it still looked pitch black to him.

No doubt, it will rain again in a moment, as well as tomorrow, and after tomorrow, he thought, the land needs rain. All people complain about the lack of water including his father who owns lands in the “Almuzakara” area, an area still without irrigation canals. The digging of the canals stopped at the lands of a rich person related to an important official in the government. Said wished with all his heart that it would rain but not for his sake. He owns an apartment and a car and his wife also owns a car, and he also has a bank account; all this is not easily available for people his age.

Suaad left the car and closed the door lazily and indifferently while trying to wrap the collar of her coat around her neck.

“You need to close the door hard; it’s not that cold and it also stopped raining.”

She opened the door and closed it again violently this time to make sure it was shut. Then they walked toward the Tanjawi’s. The voice of Stevie Wonder was coming from inside, quietly spreading into the corners of the place, which was small and decorated with many colors. Some girls were sitting on the benches in front of the counter, but men outnumbered women. The workers in their clean uniforms were fast and agile. One of them was flipping a piece of steak in the air, dancing to the Stevie Wonder song.

A girl who was leaning on her arms raised her head. She was beautiful but looked tired from lack of sleep and overdrinking. It seemed that she was lonely. She called the waiter who was dancing, but another waiter who was not dancing jumped over to her.

“A glass of ice water here,” she ordered.

“You drank a lot of ice water tonight. What’s wrong with you? Did you smoke a lot of hash?”

“Mind your own business, or I’ll go up to Tanjawi upstairs.”

“Go to him. Tanjawi doesn’t like your kind.”

“Get me a glass of ice water and mind your own business.”

The waiter brought her a glass of water and put a piece of ice in it and she drank it all at once and then went back to leaning on her arms. The waiter said: “If you’r getting sleepy, just go home.” But she ignored him.

Said and Suaad were standing in the crowd after ordering two sandwiches. Some people were eating rapidly while standing. He picked up the sandwiches and they left to eat inside the car because little drops of rain were still falling here and there. Suaad opened her wrapped sandwich and started devouring it. While she was busy chewing, Said asked:

“Didn’t you eat anything today? Why are you eating so ravenously?”

She didn’t answer. Her mouth was busy chewing her food. A piece of tomato fell on her coat and she picked it up and quickly put it in her mouth. A shadow passed behind the car and Said turned around to see a policeman knocking at the window. When he opened it, the policeman greeted them and asked for Said’s papers. He looked inside the car in the backseats and examined Suaad’s face without asking for her papers:

“Who is she?” He asked.

“A friend.”

“Go to bed. It’s getting late. Otherwise you could spend the night in the police station.”

The policeman gave him his papers back and left. “Those pigs are like flies everywhere,” Suaad commented.

“Shut up or I’ll send you to him. The guy was a gentleman and yet you say “pigs”. If you were not with me, you’d have spent your night in the police station.”

“And what for? Did I kill somebody?”

“What do you do at night? They are patrolling the area to crack down on suspicious activities. There are many thieves nowadays, and the rate of crimes has gone up,” he explained.

“I’m just a…” she shrugged her shoulders, “the real thieves sleep quietly in their homes.”

“Don’t talk about what doesn’t concern you.”

“If you were not with me now, I’d say that you are one of them.”

He lit a cigarette for her and she laughed and stroked his right thigh after throwing the torn sandwich paper outside the car. The crumpled paper was now lying on the pavement after rolling on the wet ground.

“I always like to smoke after eating; a cigarette has a special flavor then. Tell me where you are going? Don’t tell me to a hotel, I’m afraid of the police. Do you have an apartment?”


“I know an empty place near The “Hazem Alkabeer” area.”

“The Hazem Alkabeer is far away.”

“But it’s a safe place. It’s good to enjoy ‘the fresh air’ there. All people go there for the fresh air.”

“Do you always go there to enjoy the fresh air?”

“Only with people like you of course, when there is no apartment available. I also have a friend who owns an apartment in the area of “Ferdan”, but her boyfriend spends four nights a week there. I don’t want to cause her any problems.”

The car passed slowly down the dark road where there was nothing but empty space and nighttime darkness. Said could feel his heart pounding…

The car drove towards the “Hazem Alkabeer” area. Eros was incarnated as a human being, puffed as a peacock behind the driving wheel, racing through the city streets. He stopped at a gas station for fuel. The cashier there woke up with difficulty at Eros’s persistence and no doubt, the honking horn woke up the whole neighborhood as well. The cashier rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, and then went back to his sleep. When the car left, he switched off all the station’s lights to avoid anyone bothering him again.

The car passed through all the deserted streets at this late time of the night. Surprisingly, some light poles were still on, but that was unusual. Usually, these lights were turned off after midnight. The road became darker, but some light came out of a few buildings while most buildings were hidden in the dark.

“In a short while” Suaad said, “you will turn right, to get to the place where we can enjoy the fresh air. Have you come here before?”


“It’s a wonderful place and you should know it. Everyone who likes fresh air comes in here.”

“I suppose the ‘air’ there must be special, not like the other kinds of air.”

“Exactly, and you’ll see for yourself.”

The car passed slowly down the dark road where there was nothing but empty space and nighttime darkness. Said could feel his heart pounding and he put his hand under his seat to get out a small bottle of “Black Label”. Suaad took it from his hand, opened it and took a little sip before giving it back to him. He took a sip to summon some courage and to allay the fears he instinctively felt on this dark, empty road.

“We must stop now, aren’t there police patrols around here?”

“No worries, I know the place very well.”

A little later, the car stopped and Suaad said, “I feel terribly cold here, give me that bottle again.  Actually, I’ll go out for the breeze.”  She took a big sip this time and opened the car door to get out.

Said lit a cigarette and watched her walk in the dark.  

No doubt she is not a regular girl, and the hash she smoked must have affected her. She is such a heavy smoker, he thought.

In a moment, four men appeared out of nowhere and surrounded him. One of them was wearing a wool hat, and a scarf covering his face and neck. He then heard Suaad’s voice from a distance:

“Don’t hit him Abdul Qader, he is a kind and generous man. Take everything you can, but leave him his official papers. Let’s not repeat what happened the other goddamned night with that stupid man. And don’t forget that he has a whisky bottle if you want to get warm.”

Muhammad Zafzaf (1945-2001) was regarded as one of Morocco’s foremost novelists and poets. He lived in Casablanca and his work includes short stories, novels, poems and plays, in addition to translations from French and Spanish. He received the Grand Atlas Prize in 1998.

Mohammed Albakry is an Egyptian-American academic and translator of contemporary Arabic literature. In 2011, he lived and taught in Morocco on a Fulbright fellowship.  Some of his translations of Egyptian drama have been performed in major U.S cities including theaters in New York, Boston, and Chicago. He is currently a professor in the English Department at Middle Tennessee State University.

Extract from the Cockerel’s egg



Blog at

Up ↑