At an artists’ collective near the Polish border about an hour from Berlin, I’d been taking a break from translating texts into English, a task I once enjoyed but was beginning to resent, as I was beginning to feel invisible—or was it burnt out?—in any case, I was glad to get away for a few days: it was my first vacation since I-don’t-know-when, and I’d begun to feel my soul was spent. Over lunch on my last day there, a woman from Seoul who went by the nickname Hae—a transliteration of the word “sun” in Korean, she said—asked what the word in German was for “soul.” Actually, the woman sitting next to her asked, but the woman sitting next to Hae came from Spain and was shy about her English, so when she directed the question at me I heard the word as “sol”—we’d spent the week speaking both Spanish and English—and said, in reply, “Sonne.”
It’s the last day of school, and I get home with butterflies in my stomach. My mouth already tastes like summer, like heat outside and air conditioning inside, like the darkness of my cave, like cloister and crypt. I turn on the television and change the channel, change the channel, one to the next, discovering the lineup for the beginning of the end of the week, the beginning of my three-month rest, the beginning of a new wave of televised hunger, the same that ensues from another year of school.
When the Tiger slinks around the house, she leaves behind chess sets and violins and dictionaries that swirl above our heads like birds. Her orange fur disappears from corners and her ink-stained footprints press against the floor, and it is through these moments that we know she is watching us.
Her presence is a pause; she appears the same way commas appear in sentences, bringing a brief moment of silence before the day continues.
The first time I tried to see Judge Florence, I employed the same strategy as most petitioners: I camped out at the entrance to the courthouse in the administrative district next to the lake in the capital to try and grab her as she walked in. But that just showed my ignorance of the winding, inner workings of the judicial system—as soon as the magistrate appeared, I was thoughtlessly shoved aside by at least thirty others racing toward her with similar ideas. The only glimpse I managed to catch of Florence was a wisp of jet-black hair and a flash of golden glasses slicing a path through the scrambling masses.
She devoured tiny Americans that slid out of a vending machine. Their thin metallic plastic packages almost opened themselves when punctured. Emerging with their tiny hands on either side of the rip, they declared their nutritional value (calcium, sugar, fat, 350 mg of synthetic protein). So many times she decided to diet and promised: no more Americans. But she always walked by, with an eye on the spot between the Ruffles and the Doritos, salivating. And before thinking, there she was again, inserting the coins, hot and sweaty from her palms, into the machine’s mouth.
The blackout falls over the neighborhood like thick ink, darkening everything, forcing things into slow motion. It is like night on night—a doubly deep darkness. There are no stars lighting the block in the rainstorm.
Heavy rain hitting the roof runs off the metal awning over the terrace. The rain insulates the house in a liquid static that blocks out all other sounds. The musicality of this static brings peace to the house. Inside the house, the refrigerator ceases its loud humming. Fans stop whirring. The buzzing of the overhead lights grows silent.
“Mr. Federenko come soon,” the driver said, lugging Fearless’s duffel up the stairs.
Above, on the landing, he saw a blur of pattering feet and what looked like a cowled figure disappearing through a door—but it must have been his mind playing tricks, he told himself. And the rain was disorienting; it hammered on the stairwell’s skylight like a hundred hundredweight of masonry nails tossed from above. Fearless’s work as a war photographer had taken him everywhere save Asia, so the sheer speed and volume of the monsoon surprised him. When the driver led him through the open door of a whitewashed apartment, he was stunned to see the water reaching pedestrians’ knees from its balcony, the thoroughfares now canals traversed by cars and tuk-tuks that left parabolae of foam rippling in their wake. Clothes stuck to people’s skin. Ropes of water twisted from awnings.
The dry spot on the pavement vaguely resembled a human shape. “Where’s the body?” Detective Brenda Smith asked.
The residential street was lit with soft yellow lights floating over a long hedge. The moon sat on top of a building on their left. The air smelled of water: rain, rot, autumn. It was 6:17 a.m. Brenda was cold, her skin tight from the sense of dread and responsibility.
Excerpt appears below in English. To read the original Arabic, click here.
One of the things I like about Shady Lewis’s writing—and the reason I’m so glad it’s appearing in The Common of all journals—is that it’s global in its imagination, and yet deeply rooted in specific places and experiences. The place is Cairo, and the experiences are those of Coptic Christians and young people on the left. From this vantage point, Lewis offers a biting critique of Egyptian society, but one that’s filled with affection for its people. But Lewis has also lived in the UK for a long time, and in the novel excerpted here, On the Greenwich Line, he turns the same critical yet compassionate gaze on its capital city. His setting is a run-down East London borough, and his characters an unlikely cast of desperate migrants and frustrated local government employees. The premise is simple: as a favor to his friend, the protagonist finds himself roped into organizing the funeral of a young Syrian refugee named Ghiyath. The protagonist himself is an Egyptian immigrant who’s lived in London for many years and works as a housing officer for the local council, so he knows all about the absurdities of racism, austerity, and bureaucracy in the UK; he just doesn’t think they concern him, until the fateful day his life collides with Ghiyath’s, and he’s forced to acknowledge just how much he has in common with those who’ve fallen through the cracks. The result is a painful interrogation of how a decade of Conservative austerity has hollowed British society out from the inside, and a devastating portrayal of the migrants and outcasts who are forced to live permanently on the brink of destitution. It’s also a profoundly human story about London and its many lost souls, and for a reader like me who loves the city, Lewis’s writing about London, in Arabic, feels both familiar and arresting. Translating it into English, I hope both to honor its intimate, quotidian London-ness, and to preserve the outsider gaze which enables it to offer up such striking observations as the protagonist’s musing on the “Mosque of the White Chapel”—his Arabic rendition of Whitechapel Mosque. It does us good to return to old sights with fresh eyes.
The woman took a seat on the bench. She was wearing a little black dress and a coat that was also black, brightened up with a pale blue scarf around her neck. Long blond hair framed her rather beautiful face, which her eyes, drowned in dream, bestowed with a unique absence.