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.
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.
now that your dad’s gone your mom gets lost in the dark a lot; lost mid-stairs, or in the walk-in closet, or deep in the pantry, lost in the dark sub-terrain of the basement; or here, now at the kitchen counter, glaring out the lost window at the lost backyard, an array of convex and concave mirrors, rigged foil panels, little jet booster engines idling; sun pours in shimmering off her shoulder, crests around the gloss of her face; and you watch as she slowly turns now that your dad’s gone—
Translated from German [“mein lieblingstier heißt winter”] by NEIL BLACKADDER
The piece appears below in both English and German.
Ferdinand Schmalz was already well established as an award-winning and widely produced playwright when, in 2017, he took part in the annual Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt. Schmalz won the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for the unpublished story he read aloud at the event: “mein lieblingstier heißt winter.” Over the next few years, Schmalz developed the story into a novel which was published in 2021 by Fischer Verlag—and his first book of prose was shortlisted for the Austrian Book Prize and longlisted for the German Book Prize.
My sister used to make me watch her slaughter rabbits, until I could observe without crying. I was eleven; she was thirteen. She’d carry one up the bluff behind our house each afternoon, hind legs noosed in her grip, then kneel in the scrub grass and order that I watch her wishbone their necks. The sound of it—that mucusy snap—found me when doors slammed, when resin popped inside the pines. My eyes glassed so I watched the slaughter through a kaleidoscope, and she’d tell me that if this was enough to break me, I had no chance in this world.
The next day, another rabbit. Another. Another. This was how she’d make me strong. She was skinning me of my softness. Peeling girlhood from girl.
What I feared most was the day she’d hold a knife out to me in one hand and a rabbit in the other and demand I slot blade into animal. I could not do jigsaw puzzles because it conjured this inevitability. I could not peel carrots. But she never did, perhaps so I would always need her.
Every day at four, my grandmother listened to the radio, as her enemies died around her one by one. The disembodied voice on the radio shared in her delight, singing to the next world those who had departed us.
“In the Fog” is taken from Le Solitarie (1917), Ada Negri’s first collection of stories, astute portraits of marginalized women struggling with poverty, exploitation and loneliness. Raimonda is a young woman who was horribly disfigured by a fire in her childhood. Only in the dense and murky fog of Milan, her face concealed by a “nebulous mass of vapors,” does she feel free.
We decided to work together at the close of a week-long Italian translation workshop at the British Centre for Literary Translation and we chose this story because we were captivated by Negri’s richly evocative prose. Much of our lively collaboration, helped along by Tuscan reds, seppie in zimino, minestra di fagioli and lesso rifatto, took place in Lucca and Florence.
December evenings, his wife and daughter would linger at the kitchen window to watch the deer come down their switchbacks. There was a stand of chinkapins. The deer would prize the nuts from the urchin-shaped husks. He can see his wife leaning over the sink. His daughter on a stool beside her.
He once cherished this time of year. Days of red sumac and rime, days when the rock walls along the mountain parkway bared swags of gray ice. The rhododendron would curl up like tubes, near blue. Everything on the hillsides would be exposed, including the deer. He sees them standing there still, two images of each other across time, their red aprons on, matching bows at the back of their waists, watching the deer. Such a small, true pleasure, to watch something wild and vulnerable. He rides along the parkway, heading home, knowing his wife and daughter will not be there. He watches the roadbed for ice, for rocks that broke free in the first hard frost. It’s an old habit, the way a parent drives, wary of any threat.