Trafika Europe 6 - Arabesque

Arab authors in Europe! French-Algerian, Tuareg, Syrian & Catalonian/Moroccan tales, reportage and songs - plus notable new writing from Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria, Italy, Denmark & Ukraine.



Trafika Europe 6 with European Arab focus EDITOR’S WELCOME

The term Arabesque can refer to two distinct decorative styles, as it shifts from the ancient Islamic world to Renaissance Europe. So too, Arab authors in Europe may find their styles and concerns evolving, consonant with their complex, intercultural role. In the present climate, it’s also worth recalling that Arab writers have been enlivening European letters for quite some decades. The six contemporary European-Arab writers who make up the focus of this issue represent quite a range – from hip family drama to mystical tales, from semi-fictionalized reportage to popular song. What these authors all share is a keen awareness of their role between cultures – a perspective well worth sampling in the light of current events. Faïza Guène , a product of the Paris banlieues , has been hailed as “the defining new voice of a generation” (The Guardian) for the savvy she brings to French culture from her Algerian origins. Ibrahim al-Koni , currently living in

editor’s welcome


Spain, writes in an Arabic still immersed in the folklore and spirit-view of his nomadic, Tuareg upbringing. Tahar Ben Jelloun , originally from Morocco, is the first Arab author ever to garner the coveted Prix Goncourt, among other high French honors. A committed spokesman against tyranny, he is, as he puts it, “first and foremost a storyteller, a novelist, and a fabulator who plays with words and with the imaginary” (The New Yorker). In this latest work excerpted here, he intuits an inner narrative of his real- life friend, undergoing a challenging medical procedure. French-Algerian lyricist, poet and performer Alima Hamel plumbs the depths of her cultural dual heritage in the rich tapestry of song. Be sure to click at the titles of the lyrics you find here, to hear her stunning songs in original French, mixed with some Algerian dialect. Syrian-UK author Zaheer Omareen focuses his notable efforts also as an artist, editor and curator to shine a light on an entrenching culture of violence pervading the land of his birth. Finally, Moroccan-born Najat El Hachmi has become a celebrated Catalan author, writing in Catalan and representing her adopted culture abroad, while exploring the delicate line of otherness she continues to navigate. Our European-Arab focus is counterpointed by some


editor’s welcome (cont’d)

whopping works from elsewhere in Europe. Top Hungarian playwright György Spiró storms into the limelight with his magisterial novel, Captivity , excerpted here. This nearly- 900-page bildungsroman about first-century Jewish life has just been named one of the 10 Best fiction books of 2015 by The Wall Street Journal – we spoke with him about this work here (13 minutes). Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov ’s The Physics of Sorrow , in English by Angela Rodel, has just been longlisted by PEN as one of the best translations of 2015. We interviewed him about this tantalizing sort-of novel, and its reflections on present-day Bulgaria, here (35 minutes). Russian Sergei Lebedev delivers amesmerizing, intensely lyrical foray into injustices buried in the past of the Soviet countryside. Italian transplant Catherine McNamara bring us a tale of disappearance in the Italian Dolomites. We get a first-ever glimpse in English of a seminal work of Danish experimental fiction from the strange and masterful Per Højholt – this novel’s ostensible subject is a flock of ambulating ears, capable solely of self-hearing, which grew from a silence that briefly fell across Europe in 1915 – and this issue is rounded out by poetry from Ukrainian Vasyl Lozynsky . Wow. Can there be a better holiday than this? Enjoy! By the way, you can learn more about the authors & works in a separate section at the end of this issue.


Our first book collection is here! Trafika Europe: Essential New European Literature, Vol. I Choice offerings from the first year of the Trafika Europe quarterly journal, with sumptuous black-and-white photographs of Europe from former ASCAP Director of Photography Mark Chester – an excellent gift item! Published by Penn State University Press

These fourteen selections—from seven women and sevenmen, seven poets and seven fiction writers—represent some of the most accomplished writing in new translation from Europe today; this volume opens a window onto some emerging contours of European identity.

Click here for more details and to purchase in our online shop

“[D]raws rarely heard and distinctive voices from the gorgeous polyphonic chant of European literature. Occitan, Catalan, Faroese, Shetland Scots, Icelandic, Armenian and more—the languages toll like bells ringing in counterpoint to accustomed strains. These ‘trajectories of longing’, beautifully told with particulars strange and familiar, will stir your soul. —Tess Lewis, former Board Member, National Book Critics Circle


editor’s welcome_ __________________________________ i

european arab authors

Faïza Guène: Men Don’t Cry (novel excerpt)_____________2 Ibrahim al-Koni: The Scarecrow (excerpts)_ ___________18 _chapter iii - the scarecrow________________________21 _chapter vii - wantahet_ __________________________32 Tahar Ben Jelloun: Ablation (novel excerpt)___________52 _chapter iii - The Decision__________________________55 _chapter iv - The Operation_ _______________________63 _chapter v - Depression_ __________________________67 Alima Hamel: Lyrics & Poems_ _______________________82 Zaher Omareen: Tales of the Orontes River___________102 _blood brothers________________________________105 _the birthmark_ ________________________________113 Najat El Hachmi: The Foreign Daughter (excerpt)______120


other authors featured in this issue

György Spiró: Captivity (novel excerpt)_ ____________ 144 Georgi Gospodinov: The Physics of Sorrow (excerpts)_ 190 _prologue_ ____________________________________193 _the bread of sorrow_ __________________________195 _a past-time machine_____________________________199 Sergei Lebedev: Oblivion (novel excerpt)_ ____________210 Catherine McNamara: Astragal (short story)_ _______230 Per Højholt: Auricula (novel excerpt)_ _____________ 244 Vasyl Lozynsky: Five Poems_________________________266

About the Authors and Works_____________________276 A Note on the Artwork___________________________ 288 Acknowledgments_______________________________ 290


Men Fa

Faïza Guène MEN DON’T CRY (novel excerpt)


Don’t Cry za Guène


Faïza Guène MEN DON’T CRY (novel excerpt)

“What makes you say that? You don’t think we love you?” Dounia rolled her eyes and shrugged. Then, she took a swig of lemonade straight from the bottle, which my mother hated more than anything else. “And what about the glasses in the kitchen, are they just for decoration?” “It’s all right, okay, I haven’t got Aids.” “Tffffou!”


MEN DON’T CRY chapter ii - dounia Translated by Sarah Ardizzone

D uring her teenage years, Dounia had a best friend: Julie Guérin. That was when the troubles began. Julie set in motion the psychological process of my sister ’s ‘ Christine-isation’. Julie was popular with all the boys at the lycée: she was skinny, wore designer clothes and kept a diary. Her parents sent her to summer camp in the Languedoc-Roussillon. Her mum let her go to night-time concerts and pin up posters of an American boy band in her bedroom. I don’t remember the singers’ names, but they were black and bare-chested. Julie also had platform shoes,

a boyfriend, a cat, a bedroom she didn’t share with anybody else, and she got to throw parties in her dad’s garage on her birthday. AsfarasDouniawasconcerned, Julie was living the dream. My sister was mesmerised by this, to the point that she was happy to play the-friend- in-the-shadows, the one who gets told: “Hey! Look after my bag!” I should point out that my sister’s life was the exact opposite of Julie Guérin’s. Dounia wore a brace for the three years she was at the lycée, as well as a pair of glasses. She didn’t know


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what to do with her long frizzy brown hair, so she braided and coiled it tightly. Next, she twisted it in a thousand and one messy ways to form a sort of up-do. She was overweight, and hid her body under baggy polo shirts and sweatpants. She wasn’t allowed to go out, she shared her bedroom with my other sister, and as for posters, boyfriends, or holidays in the Languedoc- Roussillon – let alone parties in our dad’s garage – they were all out of the question. So Dounia’s last resort was a diary, oh yes, because of course there was no danger of my father reading it. Spending time with Julie made Dounia feel that she was growing wings. She would say things like: “At least Julie’s allowed to…” and “Julie’s so lucky…”

And then, one day: “Mum, why don’t you ever say ‘I love you’? Julie’s mum says it to her all the time.” My mother was so taken aback that for a moment she was lost for words. Her big brown khôl-lined eyes bulged. “What makes you say that? You don’t think we love you?” Dounia rolled her eyes and shrugged. Then, she took a swig of lemonade straight from the bottle, which my mother hated more than anything else. “And what about the glasses in the kitchen, are they just for decoration?” “It’s all right, okay, I haven’t

got Aids.” “Tffffou!”

Dounia was becoming insolent. And my mother, as


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usual, produced her weapon of personal mass destruction: the blame game. Aim. Fire! “Your grandfather was a revolutionary who fought to free his country. A brave and courageous man. We were ten children fed on dry bread and we walked barefoot without complaining. You only have to look at everything he did to raise us. Do you think we fretted about whether he loved us?” “All right, mum, I know that story of yours off by heart. You weren’t allowed to play outside. And he took you out of school at thirteen. So what kind of life is that anyway? A horror movie?” “That’s got nothing to do with it! We were living in a different era then. And he took me out

of school because he needed me to look after my brothers and sisters. He raised us to be good people!” “D’you really think you raise your children to be good people by locking them up?” “Nobody’s locking you up!” “Yes they are! You never let me do anything. I’m not even allowed to wear jeans!” “Is that what’s making you unhappy? Because we don’t want you dressing like a cowboy?” “It’s called fashion! You don’t understand. Take Julie’s mum, she’s got a young attitude, when she’s with her daughter, you’d think they were two girlfriends…” “Two giiiiirlfriends?” My mother loves dragging out a syllable to exaggerate


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her astonishment: it ’s the dramatist in her. “Do you think I had children to make myself some new friends? Tfffou! That’s not being a mother. It ’s being frightened.” “What I’m trying to say is, Julie’s mum’s modern. She works in an office and she drives a car.” “Are you talking about Julie’s mother or Julie’s father, eh? Do you think I’d follow the example of a woman who buys cigarettes for her daughter? A woman who kills her daughter? And who borrows her trousers?” “Why wouldn’t she? They’re the same size…” “Fine, so I’m fat. Where’s the problem? I’m not a model. Let me tell you, when we were refugees in Morocco during

the war, we used to dream at night of eating meat. We experienced real hunger. Now, thanks to God, I’m well covered.” “Julie’s mum never asks her to cook or do the washing up. You’d think it was the only thing that mattered in life.” “Your sister, Mina, loves helping me in the kitchen, but you–” “Here we go again! You can’t help comparing us…” “And what about when you get married? Eh? You want me sending you to your husband’s house when you haven’t learnt anything?” “Who cares? I’ll never get married, anyway.” A butcher’s knife plunged into her gut would have had less effect on my mother. The stand-of fs became


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increasingly frequent. Before that, we’d never heard any doors slam in the house. But then came a period when they slammed so often that my father, fuming, took the door to the girls’ bedroom off its hinges and hung up a curtain in its place. “Now trying slamming the curtain!” Mymothereventhoughtabout having Dounia exorcised. In the end, she banned her from wasting time with that Julie of ill omen, who was the cause of so much trouble. “She’s cursed, that girl. Cursed!” After her parents’ divorce, Jul ie tr ied to commi t suicide, and everyone in the neighbourhood felt sorry for her. Everyone, that is, but one.

My mother wore her sardonic smile in full view of Dounia. “Now do you see? If your friend Julie’s life was as good as you make it out to be, she wouldn’t have wanted to die!” Heavy silence, a hate-filled stare. Dounia tossed her hair and, for the finishing touch, stormed off to the bedroom with no door. “You’ve got no heart, mum. No heart.” If there had been a door, Dounia would have slammed it again, for sure. It was a scene worthy of the Mexican soaps dubbed into Arabic that my mother can’t get enough of. To be honest, Dounia and mum knocked spots off the drama queens in the telenovelas… In the years that followed, the situation with Dounia only grew worse. The outside


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later and later at night, without explaining herself to anyone, and giving very little away about her life. She almost never ate at table with us any more, but kept herself to herself, her nose buried in her books. She studied hard, always came first in everything and, after passing her baccalauréat with top marks, she began studying law as well as finding time to hold down a job. The transformation had begun. Within a few months, her curves had disappeared, her brace as well, she had traded her pair of clever-clogs glasses for contact lenses, paid for a straightening treatment on her hair, and even started wearing make up. She had become distant, dry, colourless, but I had already guessed that outside the house she was a very

world was full of Julie Guérins, and my parents’ attempts at cocooning their daughter were in vain. Threats and punishments didn’t work any more either. My mother, who was so wily when it came to the blame game, had fired all her cartridges. Her sudden palpitations or mounting blood pressure didn’t change anything. We had already lost Dounia. As for the Hombre, he became resigned to it. He avoided confrontation and started behaving as if his daughter no longer existed, he didn’t even respond to my mother’s calls for help: “Do something, Abdelkader!” He took to mending the bicycles of local children from the hideout of his hut, at the bottom of the garden. Dounia would return home


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hens, washing the laundry in the oued and fetching drinking water from the well!” “That’s enough of your stupid ideas! You know perfectly well they don’t live like that any more. They’re doing better than we are. The Algerians are the Americans of North Africa. D’you want to know what I think? If you hadn’t brought me here, I’d see my family every day, and in my garden I’d have planted lemon trees and almond trees instead of watching Stop signs and rusty washing machines sprouting.” I was just a kid busy playing at the Trojan War in the garden, but I can remember clearly that when my sister distanced herself something snapped in our family. I loved Dounia, because she askedmy opinion about a heap of things and also because she

different Dounia. The summer she turned twenty, she announced that she would no longer be joining us for our traditional family holidays back in the bled . This decision marked a breaking point for my parents. Up until then, they had both lived in the hope that it was all a passing phase. “It ’s what ’s cal led an adolescent crisis. ” “What ’s that? A virus? A disease?” “It’s the kind of disease you can only catch in Europe! If you hadn’t brought me here – and we’d raised them in Algeria instead – Dounia would never have caught this adolescent crisis!” “Yes, but if I hadn’t brought you here, then right now you’d be milking a cow, feeding the


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had a bulging wallet. There were so many notes sticking out of it, I thought she was a millionaire. She bought me my first game console and paid for me to go on trips to the cinema from time to time. While forging a brilliant university career, she was a waitress at a stylish brassiere in the centre of town, called La Cour des Miracles. One Saturday, she took me there after I’d promised not to say anything to our parents. She didn’t want them finding out, because she still felt guilty about it back then. For my father, who wasn’t short on fixed ideas, a waitress was a prostitute with a tray in her hand and an apron round her waist. I kept the secret, out of loyalty of course, but also because I was dreaming about her getting me that

pair of Adidas Stan Smiths for starting my new school. Dounia had a new group of girlfriends who were customers at the brasserie. They drank white wine and left lipstick smears on the rims of their glasses. I remember them laughing while exhaling their cigarette smoke, which seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the room. They wore short skirts and one of them kept asking another one: “D’you think he’ll call me back? Hey? D’you think he’ll call me back?” A group of twenty year-old Julie Guérins had helped my sister to reveal her inner ‘Christine’. I bet mum wouldn’t like these girls , I remember thinking to myself, as I watched them. And then, on my way back


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from the toilets, I saw Dounia hastily put down a glass of wine and pass a lit cigarette to one of the Julies sitting around the table. “Don’t make that face!” she said, looking embarrassed. Then she mimed ‘shhh!’ with a finger to her lips, followed by a conspiratorial wink. Aged ten, I was shocked. After leaving La Cour des Miracles , I was silent in the bus. “Why aren’t you talking, Mourad?” “No reason.” “Is it because you saw me drinking?” I feigned interest in what was going on at the back of the bus. I felt betrayed. “Yes. And smoking too!” “It’s your own fault, you pee too fast… Anyway, don’t

mention it to anyone, hey? Promise?” “All right, promise, I won’t say anything.” “…” “Dounia?” “What?” “D’you eat pork as well?” “Pork? Are you out of your mind? You’re sick!” “Dounia?” “What now?” “Will you buy me my pair of Stan Smiths?” “OK, I get it. So the deal is, don’t say a word to anyone and we’ll go to the sports shop next week!” And then she gave me that conspiratorial wink again, which was starting to get on my nerves.


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Six years went by like that. Dounia passed with flying colours and fulfilled her ambition of becoming a lawyer. Despite the tense atmosphere at home, my mother wanted to bring us together over a special meal. Food, always. Her way of celebrating her daughter’s success. Deep down she was proud, even if she told Dounia, who had just announced that a few days earlier she’d been called to the bar in Nice: “I don’t see what all the fuss is about, when at your age you’re still not married…!” The tagine of chicken with olives had gone cold. Dounia was hopping mad and decided not to show up. My mother was on the verge of having one of her turns, her blood pressure had shot up to

seventeen over six, while the Hombre went out into the garden and started nervously pulling out the long grass by the path. It was too much for my mother. Apart from a bit of tactlessness, she didn’t understand what she’d done to deserve this. “I’ve done everything to make my children happy! Her problem is that she’d like to have been born into a different family! She’s always been jealous of other people! She wishes she was a French girl! That’s the truth of it!” Mina, who had been close to Dounia in childhood, barely spoke to her any more. She was increasingly bitter about the sister she considered as the root of all our troubles. This was particularly the case on one day in September 2001,


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In the driver’s seat sat some kind of hotshot lawyer. He wore an enormous watch, which hung off his hairy skinny wrist and could have told the time all the way to the other end of the street. On his nose, a pair of sunglasses only meant for skiing. I thought he looked ridiculous, but it was disconcerting because he kept glancing in my direction and I had no way of telling whether he could see that I could see him. By way of a reply, he waved at me. I closed the curtain hastily. “At least he understands me. You don’t understand me, and you never will.” Dounia’s shrill voice rang out in the hallway while my mother’s hand gestures betrayed her sense of powerlessness. Mina was so jittery that her lips were trembling.

Tuesday 11th September 2001, to be precise. I was sixteen with a layer of fluff above my lips. I remember that I’d wanted to shave that morning and then, in the end, I’d decided to wait a while longer before becoming a man. The whole world was in a state of shock, and so were we. Far away from New York, another dramatic scene was being enacted, a large- scale catastrophe, a sort of attack on family life. Playing the part of the twin towers: my two parents, seemingly indestructible. Playing the part of the nineteen terrorists: Dounia. She had packed her bags. Outside, in front of the house, was a car with its engine running and the boot open. I peeked through the living room curtains.


faïza guène

“You’re the one who doesn’t understand anything. Aren’t you ashamed of doing this to our parents? You have to make everybody suffer, with your filthy selfishness. Push off with your guy then, you filthy sell-out. And leave us in peace. We’re better off without you.” “My daughter! Why are you doing this! Why?” My mother pressed her hand so hard to her chest that I thought it would go all the way through to her heart. “It’s not like anybody’s going to miss me, if I leave. You’ve never loved me.” “It’s the devil who’swhispering you evil things! Don’t leave, my daughter!” “Let her walk away, mum. She can clear off out of here.” “If I’d let you have your way,

you’d have slammed the brakes on my life. That’s the truth. I’m taking charge here, I’m free! I won’t let you choose a husband for me or lock me up inside this house.” That was when the first tower fell. Crash! Mina, who was close at hand, managed to cushion my mother’s fall and then call out: “Quickly, Mourad! A glass of water! A glass of water!” Of course, you’vegot topicture all this happening in the style of a Mexican telenovela. My father, who had remained impassive up until that point, finally spoke: “If you leave this house, you’re never coming back.” “I’ve already chosen between you and Daniel, and it’s him!” Crash. The second tower collapsed. On a chair in the living room, but it still counts.


men don’t cry

Dounia walked away, with tears in her eyes, and never looked back, her slimmed down body dragging a suitcase that seemed to weigh a hundred kilos. Instinctively, I made to help her, but my father restrained me by the shoulder. I watched her disappear into the car with her hundred kilo suitcase, with Daniel, his hairy wrist and his enormous watch that could tell the time all the way to the moon. That was how Dounia left us, after waiting in vain for my parents to love her in the right way. Nobody saw her again for almost ten years.



Ibrahim al-Koni THE SCARECROW (excerpts)


Scarecrow Ibrahim al-Koni


Ibrahim al-Koni THE SCARECROW (excerpts)

The prophecy was inscribed on soft gazelle-skin parchment wrapped in a piece of faded linen and fastened with straps of colored leather. Her messenger brought it at twilight. He said his mistress refused to accept any fee for this prophecy until the cure was effected.


THE SCARECROW chapter iii - the scarecrow Translated by William M Hutchins T hey reached the oasis at dusk but did not breach the walls

wasteland and take revenge for their tyranny. These legions returned to their homes in the Spirit World bearing booty and loot. Simpletons—people who had never ever suspected that other creatures might share the desert world— simply assumed, however, that their tribe had been attacked in a treacherous raid by some neighboring tribe. The pious ancestors were also pleased to emerge in the dark gloom from their spiritual world. They disguised themselves in the rough attire of wayfarers before visiting their descendants in this or that hamlet, where their offspring whiled away the night entertaining them

or traverse the Western Hammada Gate till sunset’s gloomhadmastered the earth. Then they crept through the land, which was enveloped in threadbare darkness that was not concentrated in tenebrous recesses but remained mysterious, excited whispered enticements in weak souls, and opened a portal to the nether reaches, which released a morose creature disguised in human raiment to lay a trap for mankind. The Spirit World’s foot soldiers rallied their allies to form legions of armies to combat the people of the


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the way desert people honor travelers, till morning drew nigh and light threatened to assail the wasteland just as drowsiness was assailing their hosts. Then the guests slipped away andmelted into the open countryside, leaving their descendants some treasures stuffed into a knapsack. In the tenebrous depths’ void, other night creatures mater ial ized, but they deliberately chose their former bodies to terrorize their relatives. They emerged to frighten and harm their former enemies. In these dark recesses Wantahet awoke to devise the project of the eternal ruse. He, however, unlike all the dark recesses’ other denizens, waited till day to accost the tribes—the better to deceive them.

In the desert gloom, creatures were generated in people’s souls—creatures those people did not recognize. Then with all the impetuousness of ecstatics, they liberated themselves from their souls, which they pawned to other people in order to gull them of their souls and to downplay their own disgrace, referring to this sacrificial offering as “passion.” In the gloom of the barren continent, inanimate objects exchanged roles and beings migrated to the bodies of other creatures. Then the desert itself migrated from the desert’s patch of ground. On nights when no moon was visible and lights were slow to appear, cunning strategists were cautious at crossroads, because they knew from experience that talking to strangers after dusk is a


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danger that always risks being a trap, an evil, or a snare.

The third sprang aside and then leaped with a gracious bound that mimicked an avian dance and perhaps also the ecstasy of folks who are obsessed by longing and who go into a trance when people sing. He recited, “We have come to entrust the matter to destiny’s hand. We have come to court danger!” The fourth specter shot off, fleeing toward the right for a long distance. Then he returned only to flee to the left for a longer distance. On both laps, darkness swallowed him. All the same, he returned from the Spirit World with a talisman: “You, master, from today forward are the master of this oasis. May all the nooks hear the news and may the Spirit World bear witness that we have conveyed the prophecy.” Stillness descended on the

2 They hovered around him like jinni specters, addressing him with incantations. The first shouted as if performing a sorrowful ballad, “We, master, are a people who have been unable to select a head of state. Therefore we have entrusted the affair to its master, to the entity we refer to in our stupid language as a Spirit World.” The second sang, “We obeyed the report that eternity sent us as a prophecy. So we set forth, rolled in the dust of emptiness, and washed our hearts with separation’s water. Then we were told that our only recourse lay in following the example of our ancestors.”


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3 In the oasis, griots and gossips have related the story of the scarecrow. They said that an alien migrant sorcerer, when he came from the Unknown and settled in the oasis, disguised himself in rough haircloth—as members of this coterie always like to do. Then he claimed he was a metalsmith whose specialties were using metal tools to carve poles, saw planks, and turn trees into saddles. Not long af ter the new immigrant rented a workshop in the metalsmiths’ market, residents became convinced that the man’s boast was not only accurate but that he was even being modest, because his saddles differed from any they knew in markets in the oases or had purchased from blacksmith shops. His were unique for their captivating

area, and the mysterious being returned from his exile to govern the oasis. Then the creatures restrained their tongues so they could eavesdrop on this creature’s whispers in a pantomime of lost time. The detestable guffaws, the lethal laughter, and the suppressed cackling that people of the oasis had often heard when they passed the scarecrow in the fields and that they glossed as the voice of the Unknown—this mysterious, mischievous rattle—immediately burst from the chest of the twilight specter. Then the stillness was at once shaken, and the place became chaotic. The mysterious being, whom people had known but never seen, fled and settled in the farthest cornerof the austere tract spread beneath the moon.


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carving. People had also never seen any as skillfully crafted. Thus his renown spread in a short time, and the oasis’s nobles—who had never lost their yearning for the traditions of mounted warriors—and other real cavaliers, who were leaders of tribes scattered through neighboring deserts, headed to his workshop. Traders from passing caravans also flocked to his door to buy all the saddles he had in stock. Then the merchants carried them to the deserts of the South and the cities of the North. So the cunning artisan offered evidence to slothful tribesmen and slugabeds of the oasis that anyone who perfected a task while alive would inevitably be rewarded by the Spirit World, which would convey his fame to the farthest corners.

The secret behind the smith’s renown among far-f lung peoples was his expertise, but it was a different story inside the oasis walls. Clever men have long realized that there is no honor for a soothsayer or diviner in a land where people do not recognize prophecy and that a product does not succeed in a land where local people view it dismissively or disdainfully. So if merchants and mounted warriors from neighboring tribes had not purchased the clever artisan’s saddles, the man would not have enjoyed any share of the respect he deserved. Indeed the market for his products would have remained tepid for a long time in a land where people hid their past and piled their old saddles in the corners of their houses, allowing them to be destroyed by moths and grit. They had also traded in their purebred Mahri camels


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(on which tribes prided themselves, celebrating them in poems) for matted, morose, behemoth camels with bodies like an elephant—beasts fit only for transporting heavy loads. But communities also knew that anyone who was loved by the Spirit World and who harbored its secret inside him would inevitably succeed in a pursuit—even if he lost in some other one he had perfected for the public good when people did not acknowledge his skill. 4 A captivating widow, whose beloved husband died on a businesstriptotheforestlands, was said to have inspired the sorcerer to construct that abominable scarecrow. She had gone into mourning,

secluded herself, and rejected suitors and prospective husbands. She lived alone in the oasis, occupying her time with crooning plaintive ballads and supervising the herd of livestock she had inherited from her deceased lord. This herd was devastated by a calamity that led her to the metalsmiths’ market, where she fell under the influence of the sorcerer. It was said that she claimed at first she thought some epidemic had infected her livestock. Wise herdsmen, however, informed her that the calamitywas caused not by somemysterious epidemic but by the ravages of the vermin that creep across the face of the wasteland. She consulted a clairvoyant, who confirmed that the Spirit World was not responsible for this bloodshed. He spoke cryptically about


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evil intentions and concluded that the crime demonstrated the existence of a culprit. So she proceeded to set up scary figures around her livestock’s corral to frighten away wild beasts. These resembled the effigies that farmers set up in their fields to scare away birds but did not save her herd from destruction. Every morning she would discover the disappearance of one or two head of livestock overnight. Outside the palm- stalk fence she would find the remaining vestiges of this nocturnal bloodbath. There were pools of blood that the dirt had absorbed till it hardened and coagulated and skeletons with their bones stripped clean of flesh with alarming efficiency—as if it had been trimmed off with a knife. Intestines were strewn about—split open and begrimed with dirt and

pebbles—as digestive juices spilled from them, mixed with cud. The skins had been flayed from the body and cut into many pieces as if the perpetrator had intentionally destroyed them to ward off suspicion and to destroy the traces of his heinous deed. At first suspicions centered on wild beasts. Many people told her that the gully the spring’s waters had created at the base of the eastern section of the city wall frequently attracted reptiles, vermin, and wild beasts from the wasteland and that it was certainly not out of the question that dieb jackals had slipped in from there too. When she asked why jackals would prefer her animals to the herds of other people, they ignored this question and claimed this aspect of the mystery pertained exclusively to the Spirit World, because


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creatures like jackals held no grudge against her and did not descend on the oasis to slay one person’s livestock instead of another’s—except to deliver a message. She would need to appease the Spirit World with sacrificial offerings if she wanted to save herself and her flocks from this calamity. Thepoorwomanhurried to the temple and slaughtered a ewe on the tomb’s threshold, but the ghoul attacked the corral that same night and slew two of the nanny goats that gave the most bountiful amounts of milk. So she despaired. She despaired without knowing that despair is the only amulet capable of conquering every calamity. She despaired, and her despair led her to the scion of the foreigners. In the oasis they said he practiced saddle

making only as a cover for the dread craft that arrogant people typically conceal whenever they migrate from their homelands. This tactician would not have succeeded in his carpentry and in fashioning poles had it not been for his mastery of that other craft—from which tribes were never secure because veils of mystery always encompassed it; its masters practiced deferential rites and demonstrated their apprehension and wariness many times. On that day, the widow heard a boast of the type that flows from the mouths of migrants. It is said that, after hearing the beautiful woman’s recital, the clever artisan offered, “With my own hands I will build you a scarecrow unlike any ever seen in the oases. I shall give my lady an idol so sacred


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that not even flies will dare approach it—if my lady will allow me to carry her to the fields in my arms and carry her back as well.” At first the belle did not understand what he meant by saying he would “carry her to the fields” in his arms. She suspected the matter was some sort of joke that foreigners enjoy or an innocent caprice that citizens encounter in the conduct of artisans and that the tribes know in the eccentricities of poets. She was offended, however, and bolted away after doubt whispered in her breast and she grasped the hidden meaning of this allusion. She confided his offer to her girlfriends, who winked at each other, laughed, mocked her, and told their grannies who then asked her, “What’s the harm in that?

Will a man do something to a woman she does not want— even if he is alone with her in the fields? Fool, you should realize that the fool we call ‘man’ is merely a puppet that only does with a woman what thewomanwants.Which is the lesser of the two evils: letting your herds be destroyed when their destruction entails your own, or going to the fields to play with a doll called ‘man’?” The beaut i ful woman hesitated for a time, but her hesitation did not last long because the nightly massacres of her flocks drove her to the cunning artisan. 5 Once the scarecrow was erected in the fields to guard over the herd’s corral, the unidentified enemy vanished.


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The enemy did not merely vanish;peoplewereastounded to find a rascal ’s corpse stretched out beside the corral a few days later. On the slain man’s neck they found blue marks that clearly showed the wretch had been strangled. Then they spread a rumor that this scarecrow differed from all the others, because it had a real creature hidden inside it. Some went even further and contended that this august body contained the person of the sorcerer himself, who had constructed this fearsome puppet with wooden poles that he clad with camel skin. Finally he stretched strips of fabric and scraps of linen over the hollow body. Then, as darkness fell, the despicable man glided through the twilight gloom to enter his vile hideout, where he spent the night, to emerge at dawn and slip back to his

workshop. Others said that slaughtering the entire herd was merely a sorcerer’s trick the astute artisan had used to conquer the poor widow, with whom he had fallen in love the first day. Her livestock corral had seemed the best way to win her, because sorcerers know better than anyone else that a person’s heart is a pawn of his wealth and that a creature’s weak point is what he possesses. When spiteful people pointed out the scarecrow’s true nature in hopes of smoking out the cunning strategist, they were surprised to hear him say, “The scarecrow is twofold. One scarecrow frightens away the wasteland’s beasts and predatory birds. The second terrifies human jackals, who would not be scared if it weren’t the real thing.” Then he released an evil laugh, which was muffled and as


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hoarse as the rattle of a man choking or the hiss of a serpent. This was the laugh they heard repeatedly from the mouth of his detestable dummy once it was erected in an empty place in the fields. Sages, trying to be fair to this ignoble man, said that the scion of strangers had not wished to cause any harm, for if his work had not been beneficial, he would not have freed the oasis from the evil of the rascal whose body was dumped at the feet of the scarecrow when it was first erected. Mean-spirited men, however, considered this action a crime of the most repulsive sort and asserted that, since the damn rotter had feared he might be discovered, he had tempted to the site an innocent fool, whom he had killed with his own hands to provide people

evidence of the culprit ’s existence (to which the seer had alluded), and to dispel doubts concerning his own plot. If narrators differed about the circumstances of the puppet’s erection and the puppet master ’s intentions, they agreed that the specter who emerged to meet the Council of Elders on that ill-omened evening was none other than the scarecrow from the fields. They offered as evidence the disappearance of the sorcerer of the Unknown from his workshop and the fact that no one saw him in the oasis thereafter.


ibrahim al-koni

chapter vii - wantahet

It is related that the hero— once he was liberated from possession by the jinn— retreated to a corner of his house and wept for his dead slave there for days. The herbalist came to treat his bloody eyes, which he had almost plucked out during his temporary insanity on that ill-omened day. He found his patient swaying side to side like a person in an ecstatic trance. His veil was dangling down, revealing the lower half of his face. From his chest rose a muffled, painful wail, and with his fist he was pounding a monotonous beat on the house floor—which was covered with skins—as if keeping time to an unknown tune no one else could hear. The herbalist hovered around him for a time and then knelt

nearby. He flung his supplies on the mat and stretched out a lean, dark hand marked with veins, creases, and old scratches, to examine the bloody eyes—even though his feverish patient never stopped pounding the hide with his mysterious beats, which he paired with a vague dance and an inaudible tune. When he loosened the bandage wrapping the eyes, he found that the linen had adhered to the eyelids as the blood dried. Then he, too, began to sway back and forth, as if mimicking the hero, and released a long, barely audible moan. He plunged his fingers into a container filled with a dark, viscous liquid and began to anoint his patient’s eyes. He continued to moan his mysterious song till he


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finished freeing the scrap of cloth from the dried blood. He pulled the cloth away, and then the damage to the eyes was obvious. They were bloody and swollen, as if a wild beast’s fangs had ravaged them. The herbalist scooted back and sighed deeply. He remarked like a diviner repeating a prophecy: “When a herbalist is perplexed about the cure, a patient is left with the choice between a sorcerer or a diviner.” He dipped a piece of black linen in another container, which was filled with a green liquid, and began to massage his patient’s eyes with that. He added, “It doesn’t harm the herbalist to acknowledge his inability to effect a cure when he sees that the malady resisting him isn’t—l ike ordinary diseases—an enemy

spawned by the wasteland, but a messenger from the Spirit World.” He tossed the rag aside and drew a leather pouch from his satchel. He untied its ribbon very slowly and sprinkled dark powder into his palm. Then he spread this suspect dust around the eyes, and the maniac responded for the first time by ceasing his muffled moaning, even though his fist continued to pound the mat with the same beat. “I haven’t concealed anything from my master. I shared my doubts with him about the affliction the first day.” The feverish hero resumed his moaning, swaying, and drumming. The herbalist soaked another piece of cloth in a liquid from another container and then wrapped the cloth around the


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invalid’s head. He started to bandage the eyes carefully and remarked in the same enigmatic tone, “I wasn’t stingy with advice for my master yesterday. I haven’t been stingy with advice for my master today. My master would do himself a favor if he went to the diviner or sorcerer today, not tomorrow. The stubbornness of heroes, master, is useless in combatting diseases from the Spirit World.” He emi t ted a l ong , heartrending groan, and tears formed in his eyes. He traveled far away—the way lovers, hermits, wayfarers, poets, and ecstatics do. He hummed as if singing a stanza of poetry from an ancient epic. “Physical pains afflicted man one day, and the herbalist

arrived in the desert. Secret pains afflicted man one day, and the herbalist couldn’t find a cure for them in the desert’s herbs. So man was about to go extinct. Then the spiritual worlds collaborated and sent the sorcerer to the wasteland. When man was afflicted by other, even more mysterious diseases, and was threatened by annihilation once more, the Spirit World intervened and man found that the soothsayer had settled in the wasteland—as if he had sprouted from the belly of the dirt like grass or truffles or had fallen from the sky like rain or specters of jinn.” 2 He went to visit the female diviner. She appeared and sat with him in the Chamber of Sacrificial


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Offerings. She said with a diviner’s tongue: “The pains of heroes are the calamity of hypochondriacs.” “And the sympathy of noblemen is the calamity of heroes.” “I thought that the sympathy of the nobles was always a balsam.” “A balsam for the masses and for foreigners but a fatal blow to the hearts of the elite men commoners refer to as heroes.” “Are you sure about this or do you merely suspect it?” “Actually, this is the normal course of events, my lady. We have typically grown accustomed to finding people gloating whenever calamities strike our homes.”

“Enemies’ gloating for the judicious man today is a treasure that will help him on the morrow.” “The matter would be easy, my lady, if this gloating was that of enemies. The gloating of boon companions, my lady, leaves an aftertaste in the throat bitterer than colocynth.” “But this is also the Law of things.” “You’re right, but I don’t know why we acknowledge all the laws, accepting even the harshest of them, and yet disparage the Law that makes yesterday’s boon companion the first to deliver a blow when calamity strikes.” “This is the wisdom of the Spirit World.” “But this is a cruel wisdom, my lady; it is a wisdom crueler


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than any other.” “The Spirit World does not offer us its wisdom gratis. The Spirit World has given it to us on the understanding that we will pay the full retail price.” “But that ’s the cruelest possible price.” “We should trust no one.” “Tribes customarily teach this lesson to their children without understanding it.” “The phrase is brief, as you observed, but exposes our life to danger if we understand it too late.” “I don’t understand wisdom’s utility when understanding it too late is a precondition for it.” “True wisdom is only understood after it is too late.” “This is what’s worst about

the matter. This is what ’s worst about wisdom.” “But let’s drop the question of wisdom and search for the cure.” “The truth is that my only reason for approaching the sanctuary has been to search for a cure.” “My tongue may possibly reveal something that embarrasses me.” “I will give my lady everything I possess if my lady will show me the sun’s disc.” “My tongue may possibly reveal something that embarrasses me.” “I will give my lady everything. I will give her even the title ‘hero,’ which became part of me, if my lady can showme the sun for a single day, a single hour, or a single instant.”


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“My tongue may possibly reveal something that embarrasses me.” 3 “In the urine of a woman who has known only her husband is found the cure.” The prophecy was inscribed on soft gazelle-skin parchment wrapped in a piece of faded linen and fastened with straps of colored leather. Her messenger brought it at twilight. He said his mistress refused to accept any fee for this prophecy until the cure was effected. “In the urine of a woman who has known only her husband is found the cure.” WhatcorrelationdoestheSpirit World see between women’s liquids and sorceries that blind the eye? Why does prophecy

keep surprising us with one marvel after another? Or— does the secret of prophecy rest in its marvelous quality? Would prophecy lose its magic if marvel were not its mate? But he knew better than to ask too many questions. He knew that what is covert is the Spirit World’s share and that he had no right to question a matter that time had not brought to the badlands. He knew that stubborn resistance to a sign differs from a hero’s stubborn resistance to enemies with spears or swords. He knew that obtaining a prophecy’s text was easier than expounding it and that the exegesis of a prophecy was easier than searching for the secret behind a prophecy. But could he find a woman in this desert who had known only her husband? In an oasis where nations mixed


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together, where a babel of foreign tongues was heard, where human nature was up for grabs—would he be able to locate a woman protected by the amulet of faithfulness? Would he discover anywhere in the desert even one woman who had never cheated on her husband—if not with her body surely at least in her heart? Would the Spirit World generously provide news from the Spirit World without inserting into the message an impossible condition? Didn’t the Spirit World say prophetically that woman could deceive even herself— as she was always happy to do—but could not deceive the Spirit World a single time? But.... But why look so far? Why would he need to hunt far away when the creature whose chastity was discussed

in poems and whose conjugal faithfulness her female companions lauded did not live in the homelands of the ancient epics, but slept beside him? Wasn’t his wife the only creature whose chastity would never be doubted—not even by the dread Spirit World— after people’s tongues had spoken of it and crowned her head with chastity? 4 Man’s liquidcausedthedispute between the sorceress and her neighbor. Ancient cautionary tales report that the sorceress heard her neighbor disparage the value of this liquid and call it polluted. So she scolded and cautioned her. But like any other chatterbox, this neighbor gave free rein to her tongue in women’s gatherings and thoroughly lambasted


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and slandered the magical liquid. It was said that she took great delight in vilifying it and spat in disgust whenever her girlfriends mentioned it. The sorceress’s patience with her neighbor was exhausted, and she decided to teach the fool a lesson that only a practitioner of sorcery can deliver. She wandered in the northern badlands by night and conversed with the heaven’s stars. Lovers tarrying in the wastelands heard her loud debate with jinn demons but did not fathom the reason for the dispute till some days later when ischuria afflicted her wretched neighbor, and this human liquid was retained by her haughty body. The herbalist drewmany herbs from his satchel and gave her lots of liquids to drink, but her urine retention persisted. So the woman was burning with

fever and began to struggle with bouts of insanity. Finally the herbalist admitted he couldnot cureher—as every desert apothecary does when he realizes that a condition’s etiology is mysterious. He told the woman that herbalists were created to treat physical ills the wasteland spawns, but that wasteland inhabitants would be obliged to search for a cure for Spirit World illnesses from the masters of the Spirit World. Then the arrogant neighbor woman was forced to descend from her high horse a second time; she summoned the sorceress. The sorceress entered her neighbor ’s tent and was surprised to find there— instead of her neighbor—a specter ...a shriveled, pale, unkempt female jinni, whose large, protruding eyeballs glowed with anxiety, pain,


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