Translated by JONATHAN WRIGHT
They came at four o’clock in the morning and I was too sleepy to get out of the way in time. They trampled on the big trash bin and planted their heavy boots on the mass of bodies. My hand was crushed under someone’s boot, along with Emad’s arm. I gasped silently. Then someone started lifting my leg, which was stuck under Youssef’s stomach, and then my body too. I clung on to Youssef’s clothes, but the hand lifting me was much too strong for me. I suddenly found my head swinging through the air. I stiffened my neck to try to control it, but it was no use. I couldn’t make out where the voice giving orders was coming from but it was definitely from above.
“Get up, you filthy bastard. Get up, you piece of shit. Get up, get up,” it said.
As he pulled me, my head trailed through piles of trash. I started waving my arms and trying to grab hold of anything, but nothing I touched held firm. Whenever I gripped onto anything it fell apart in my hands. I picked up tissues and dirty diapers from the pile we had sifted through the previous morning, pages from school children’s exercise books and the books we had arranged on the floor to sleep on top of. I got scratched by empty tin cans and found sticky substances all over my fingers. As I was dragged along the floor I grabbed bits of chicken carcasses I had seen the poultry man throw away a few hours earlier. I panicked when my body left the ground and I started writhing in the air. I automatically clenched my teeth and bit my tongue in anger. Usually when I go to sleep I try to stay half awake in order to be on guard for moments such as this, but this time I couldn’t escape. I could feel the ground shaking beneath me and hear old bits of wood creaking, bones crunching, and bags rustling, but it was too late when I came to my senses. I opened my eyes only when I caught a good whiff of the rotten smell from the stuff on the wet ground, stirred up and turned over by people’s feet.
I could hear Youssef and Emad’s screams, stifled and hoarse, and I realized we were moving in the same direction. My head, hanging loose, banged against someone’s bony knee and kept swinging back against it with every step taken by the titan carrying me, but unlike my friends I didn’t utter a single sound, not even a cry to show I was there. I just tried to draw some air into my lungs so that I wouldn’t die. I felt very dry inside and I wanted to throw up. Something was hitting me violently in the chest. All my weight seemed to be concentrated in my brain, which felt hot and squeezed so tight it was about to explode. My tears fell in the wrong direction, running over my forehead instead of down my nose and cheeks. I felt certain that all these things were signs that the end of the world had come, and I wished I could lose consciousness and not know what was happening until the moment of reckoning came.
It was pitch dark and the titans who were carrying us didn’t seem to need any light. There were no lamps or torches or even a beam of light from a streetlamp. I heard what sounded like a hand hitting hard against something hollow, and then a short burst of cursing, which I made out to be from Emad. Then there was another bang, but no one’s voice this time. Youssef didn’t cry out in response to the sound and I kept silent too. I was shaking violently, in anxious anticipation for the next bang. A long time passed with no more sounds and eventually I wished they would hit Emad again so that he would make some noise to reassure me, but the blows stopped and I was left waiting in alarm. I longed for Youssef to shout out again, but he didn’t. In vain I listened for the sound of my friends breathing, but I couldn’t hear anything. A sudden screeching pierced my icy skin and the hand gripping my foot threw me sideways and slapped me against a wall, causing a loud booming noise, then an invisible door closed and I lost consciousness.
They threw us to the ground one after another. We curled up next to each other and didn’t move. This time it was a tiled surface, hard and firm. I could hear the sound of each new body landing as they threw them on the floor. It was reassuring to know I was not alone and that there were plenty of us. Someone came around taking the blindfolds off our eyes and I saw that the titans had herded us into a large room that contained only a large table. I looked around and saw blotchy walls with the whitewash falling off. But pale lines of sky appeared between small bars at the top. They left us alone in the middle of the room, surrounded by walls at a distance. Now we could see, but our hands were still tied behind our backs, our feet were shackled, and our mouths were gagged. The only way we could communicate was by exchanging scared looks. I stared into the faces one by one. I couldn’t find my two friends among the kids who were there. I would have cried if I hadn’t thought of Emad making fun of me when he turned up, and he was bound to turn up. Time passed and we sat there in deep distress. We were totally powerless in a way that maybe none of us had experienced before. Some of us tried to sit up straight and others wanted to lean against the walls, but these simple actions seemed impossible at the time, though under ordinary circumstances it would never have occurred to us that we might be unable to perform them. Some of the children tried to speak, but the drawling voices, coming from gagged mouths and distorted like the meowing of cats in heat, amplified my fear and my sense of helplessness. I recognized some of the boys who were with me in the room. Most of them hung out in the same area as Youssef, Emad, and me. There were also some kids I hadn’t seen before, though they looked very much like us three. There was no difference at all between the boys trapped in this room and there was nothing special about me compared to them. I didn’t understand why we were all there.
Two of the titans arrived when the sun was high enough to come in through the roof openings, strong and scorching. Most of us had been wailing and howling, which made the situation worse. My tears were mixed up with the snot from my nose and I had taken to swallowing the acrid mixture so that I wouldn’t look so disgusting to the others. I thought it was for the best that the titans had arrived, although the possible consequences were uncertain. It was better than waiting. As my mother always says, “Either disaster strikes or you wait for it to strike.” Without glancing at each other, the two men gave us a hard look, unthinking and unquestioning, as if our presence in the room were an accepted fact and they had organized everything and knew everything, as if our fate had been decided in advance and there was nothing to discuss or negotiate. I didn’t notice the bundle of newspapers that one of them was carrying until he referred to them.
“These newspapers are about you,” he said sharply. “You may not have a chance to find out everything that’s in them, but I’ll fill you in now on what’s important.” He pulled out a page from a newspaper and spread it out in front of us. He put his finger on a picture of a man, surrounded by lots of words. I could see that the man in the picture was bald with glasses and shiny cheeks. I looked at the picture as the titan continued.
“This is an important man,” he said. “He creates a stir wherever he goes. He’s well-connected and knows important people. And he loathes you with a loathing that knows no bounds. You’re insects as far as he’s concerned, insects that pollute and defile the country. There isn’t a pleasant place in the country that has escaped you. You smell disgusting. Vermin feed on your bodies and lay their eggs on you and inside you. This man knows that you thieve, take pills, sleep with each other in trash cans, and so on. He knows you well and everything he says about you is true. The man spoke to the ruler himself when he met him at the last celebration. He went up to him as he was cutting the ribbon, whispered in his ear, and asked for a private meeting about something important. Aware of the man’s merit, the ruler didn’t blow him off completely. He asked the general to stand in for him because he himself was short of time. He asked the general to meet the man as soon as possible and handle his request. And then, without hesitation, the man headed for the general’s office the very next day and showed him documents about you, and then suggested an all-out hunting campaign that would put an end to your disgusting existence. The man persuaded the general that you had to be kept off the streets, so we’ve hunted you down as a first step.”
We kept our eyes wide open, unable to relax for a single moment. We stared at each other for a while, then each of us chose a spot on which to focus, as if impervious to what was going on around us. Then we retreated into ourselves, whimpering incessantly. It was terrifying. The pangs of hunger in my stomach and brain reminded me that I was still alive and that I might soon lose even that advantage. I don’t know how many hours passed until finally the door opened again. This time one of the titans came in and demanded in a loud voice that we pay attention, stop sobbing, and stop trying to take cover by the wall, which a small number of kids had done as soon as we arrived, in the belief they could keep out of harm’s way that way. In reality, most of us no longer had the strength to try anything, even to cry, so we submitted completely to our fate.
“You know we’ve been studying your problem for years,” said the man. “As soon as he took office the ruler set up a council of advisers to look into it, and this council has endeavored to work out integrated strategies and has allocated a large budget to study the problem. Remember Dr. Abdel-Samie Mukhtar, whose picture you saw yesterday? He’s one of the country’s greatest scholars and he’s done extensive research and has numerous students. After much thought and a painstaking search for a solution, he suggested we consider you to be non-existent, that we eliminate you completely, that we remove your names from the official records, if your names are even there, and that we treat you in the same way we treat stray dogs—and the only solution for them is to kill them.”
The man snarled and scowled as he continued: “The country is poor and many people are out of work. It cannot afford the extra costs for which you are responsible, but you do not appreciate the crisis. We have received thousands of complaints. One citizen complained that you harass his children daily on their way to school and university. Another complains that you vandalize his car. He sees your dirty fingermarks on the car windows every morning and from his balcony he has watched you jumping on it in the early hours. People are fed up with seeing you on the sidewalks, at the metro stations or bus stops, or outside the restaurants where they eat and the supermarkets where they do their shopping. What are these places to you? They can’t stand the senseless, inhuman way you pester them. They are so fed up with you begging for money and food that they can’t stand looking at the things they buy, because they feel you are looking at them enviously. You have started to ruin their shopping expeditions and their enjoyment of life wherever they go.
The titan stopped talking and started to examine our faces, which looked stunned and had turned white. We looked like we had joined the ranks of the dead before they had even carried out their death sentences on us. At that moment the man’s narrow eyes could have harvested our souls just by staring at us a while. Our wide eyes bulged in anticipation of our imminent demise. They had clearly gathered us together to spare themselves the trouble of killing us in batches, which would take too long. They were going to exterminate us right here and bury our bodies in one mass grave. No one would ask after us and not a soul would ever know what had happened. Our lives, everything that had happened to us, would be forgotten. We would cease to exist. The idea frightened me more than before, and Youssef’s old musings on the subject didn’t help me make light of it. I wasn’t frightened of death in itself. I could almost hear Youssef describing it as a long sleep, a perpetual dream. I wasn’t afraid of death, but I was frightened of what would happen before I got there. It was only then that I lost my sense of hunger and thirst and no longer had any desire to piss or shit. I think I had already pissed and shat myself anyway, and I wasn’t the only one. The next morning the titan pushed the door hard to open it. Some of us fainted while others shuddered in expectation of imminent death. The room smelled like a sewer. There was shit everywhere. We couldn’t make jokes about it because we still had gags covering our mouths. There was a slightly playful twinkle in the titan’s eyes, but I could hardly see him because my vision was clouded and he was mostly a blur. He folded his arms on his chest and started shouting roughly. He told us we had just escaped a death sentence. Escaped? Had I lost consciousness and slipped into a limbo world of pleasant dreams? Had they in fact killed us already? Would I have to start a new life alone or was I hallucinating about the prelude to my own death?
I turned my head right and left and started shaking it violently and squirming in my place. I was wide awake and around me everyone was wide awake too, though so surprised that their eyes were almost popping out of their heads. So what we had heard was real! But since we were still tied up, we had no way to express the crazy joy we felt or our feelings of deep gratitude toward the titan. We had survived, we had survived! Suddenly one boy, unable to believe the news, started jumping up and down, and the others followed him. People shouted out things I didn’t understand, but they were ecstatic and wildly happy. I didn’t jump up and down like them. I was so tired I couldn’t move. I felt like I’d been running and jumping ever since they’d tied us up. I noticed another kid who, like me, hadn’t budged. I noticed the room looked like the tray on which my mother used to spread rice to clean out bits of grit from among the grains. The other kid and I were like two grains of rice stuck to the tray among a mass of moving grains. One of the kids, overcome by the relief of surviving, crawled along the ground and rubbed his cheek against one of the titan’s massive shoes. The titan looked at him for a moment, then bent down and pulled him toward him with one hand. He undid the strap on the boy’s wrist and let it fall to the ground.
“Take the gag off your mouth and untie your feet, you ‘body.’ Use your hands. Take the gags off the others too, and none of you ‘bodies’ are to stand up until I tell you to.”
The boy moved around from one boy to another, obediently shuffling on his knees. When my turn came and my hands were free, I grabbed the cloth that had covered my mouth. It was soaking wet. It was some minutes before we were all free, but no one dared to move. Our eyes were pinned on the titan, who put a wireless device up to his mouth, and then our necks swung round toward the door when he ordered that bottles of water be brought. We were desperate for a single drop.
“Look here, you bodies. Look at me, not at anything else, or else I’ll gag you again and tie up your hands and feet. Look at me and listen carefully.”
We sat up straight at the sound of his loud voice.
He stared at us pointedly for some moments and then began to explain, “We’ve reviewed the research that Dr. Abdel-Samie Mukhtar submitted and yesterday evening we met with the council of advisers and scholars. We found a loophole that saves you from certain death. Credit for that goes to General Ismail, the officer in charge of the camp, who decided against moving on to the next and final step before we have exhausted all possible ways of rehabilitating you. The general shared his insights with us and asked us to draft a detailed memorandum that set out what he had explained, and then to put it into effect. In short, Dr. Mukhtar had overlooked certain important aspects, which made his conclusions inaccurate and unreliable. It’s true that he met some of you and asked questions and made inquiries and wrote papers that filled dozens of shelves, but he hasn’t dealt with you as we have done and he didn’t know you as we have known you over the past few years. On top of that, he doesn’t understand the aspects that we’re interested in. Although he has plenty of information, it still has a limited perspective and is confined to his area of expertise. Dr. Mukhtar ignored the distinctive features you’ve acquired as a result of the long time you’ve spent on the streets. He took no account of the natural qualities that you possess and was not aware of their value. Only we understood that. It’s not the right time to explain more. Suffice it to say that you are in a better position than you or he imagined. He seems to have overreached because of the narrow scope of his theories, which made him overlook the public interest. He studied your circumstances in isolation from other problems, but he accepted the outcome when we debated your case yesterday, and today the general endorsed the decision and sent a copy of it to the ruler, and it will be broadcast on all the media. You are truly lucky. From now on you won’t be sleeping in ruins. We will give you shelter in the camp and we will look after your scrawny bodies and you won’t have much need for those rotten heads that you carry on your shoulders. You’ll be valued and you’ll be strong, smart, upright citizens as good as any others. Stand on your feet. Form a line with your colleagues and none of you try to stretch or brush the dirt off yourselves. You’ll go to the cleansing unit imminently and then you’ll be fed.”
We reached the bathroom escorted by a titan, who stood by the open door. We went inside in groups and water came pouring out of powerful hoses. He told us to pick up the hoses and wash each other down. He said we didn’t need to take off our clothes, which were so torn that they fell apart easily from the pressure of the water. We ended up almost naked, with most of us only in our underpants. Dripping wet, we followed the titan like trees with drops of rain running off them, and then he made us stand in a line. He gave us a few towels that we passed around, as well as identical clothing and rubber shoes. We took them gratefully. Our desire to acquire things had subsided. We didn’t fight to get the best stuff the way we used to when desirable goods fell into our hands. We were still very tired and content with whatever we were given as long as were safe. We were all about the same size, so we were ready within minutes.
The titan led us to a place where there were rows of metal tables and handed us warm meals in cartons. It was like a miracle had taken place in front of me, right out of the blue. I had never in my life held a Kentucky Fried Chicken box that was unopened and untouched. It contained a whole chicken thigh, a bread roll that no one else had already bitten, and some French fries. I thought about Youssef and Emad and felt sad. If they had been with me, we would have made a party of it and shared the box between us. Two days had passed and I still didn’t know where they were. I lost my appetite for a moment, but I soon got over it. They must have gone off in another vehicle and been dumped in another room. Maybe they were eating now, like me. The food distracted me from thinking and I started stuffing my face with the fries and chicken. I left the bread to the end. I didn’t look up from the box till I had finished. I didn’t know when they would bring us food again. I looked around and saw that one boy was pushing his carton away toward someone else, rejecting the food. It was the same boy who had sat still with me when the others jumped up and cheered. I regretted I had been so distracted. If I had been sitting next to him, I would have gotten more to eat.
They counted us in the morning. We had to file out through the dormitory door one after another to the sound of the titan’s booming voice. He stood outside the door holding a small piece of paper that I guessed was a list of our names: they know everything here. The dormitory emptied out completely and the titan was still by the door. Then he stepped back inside to check.
He soon returned and said, “One of you is missing. You two, count how many of you there are. . .Or rather don’t bother, because you’re useless. You can’t count, of course. You’re still young.”
We began to murmur fearfully. One of us wasn’t there. How had that happened? We could only move around when the titan was there, when we were within his sight. I looked around at the boys and my heart skipped a beat when I realized who had disappeared. It was the boy who, like me, hadn’t jumped up and down when we learned we weren’t going to die—the same boy who had refused to eat his food the day before. Maybe he’d noticed that they hadn’t locked the door on us that night or put a padlock and chain on it, as they had the previous night. He’d given us the slip and caught them unawares. Really, he hadn’t needed to give us the slip. After the horrors we had been through most of us had slept like logs. I certainly hadn’t seen or heard him in the nightmares that had tormented me. Even if I had heard any noise, I would have been too frightened to move. I wasn’t going to risk dying now.
When it was certain that the boy was gone, we were so afraid we didn’t dare speak. Spontaneously we started using sign language, waving our arms and heads behind the titan’s back so that he wouldn’t know we were communicating. The titan didn’t throw much light on the boy’s fate: he said the boy was bound to turn up and didn’t add another word. I had expected him to get angry and call the other titans to tie us up again. But none of that happened. I couldn’t understand how the boy had dared to leave. Where did he think he was going? I was sure they would catch him straight away. His escape added to my anxiety. It was a strange feeling that came over me—a feeling that we were close companions. We had never exchanged a word and our eyes had met for only a fraction of a second, but we did both keep still when everyone else was jumping around to celebrate the news that we weren’t going to be executed. That moment had created some bond between us, and in my mind I called him Rice Grain because of the idea I’d had at the time. He would have become my friend if there had been more time. I wondered how he would be punished if they found him.
We tucked into breakfast and all we could talk about was the boy who’d escaped. The titan didn’t stop us talking, though he didn’t leave the room. We started in whispers, and then the whispers grew louder as we got excited and in the end people were shouting, either attacking or defending the boy.
“The son of a bitch never thought about what he was doing. He didn’t think about the fact that they saved us and they might change their minds because of him. He didn’t care what might happen to us after he escaped. Anyway, he’ll go back to the streets and die there.”
“If that guy gets back on the streets, he’ll soon get killed. People are on the lookout for us and someone might carry out the sheikh’s fatwa.”
“No, the boy must know a place to hide. Maybe he has a house he can go back to and lie low for a time.”
“He’s definitely braver than us. He’s a free person who doesn’t like to take orders.”
“He’s a traitor. He’s been with us from the start and then he tricked us and ran off on his own.”
“Would you have gone with him if he’d woken you up?”
The titan shouted to warn us that eating time was over. We had completely forgotten he was there.
We moved to another room where they put us in rows of wooden chairs like the ones they have in marquees for funerals or weddings. A titan called Allam stood in front of us like a statue in a public square, towering, his eyebrows knitted. His feet were slightly apart, fixed to the floor like lamp posts.
“I’m Head Allam. That’s what you call me. Head is the title I prefer, because I’m the boss here and you’ll obey me. All the staff in the camp are superior to you, so obey them too.”
“None of you bodies are to sit up straight in your seats or open your traps at all. General Ismail has come from his office and will be here shortly. General Ismail is the head of the whole camp, the main head and the top leader of all the heads. The ants here can’t leave their nests without his permission, and whenever one of you bodies breathes, the general knows how much air you’ve inhaled. You may not know it, but he’s just taken on the highest office in the government for defending the whole county. Yesterday I told you what he had done for you: today he’s set aside his other commitments and responsibilities and has come to address you in person to explain to you the situation you’ve ended up in and the future that awaits you.”
We all stood when General Ismail appeared. He made a gesture with his head and hands, and we all sat down. He wasn’t how I had imagined him. He was as short as some of us children, but he was fatter of course. He had thinning hair, a broad forehead, and sleepy eyes. His cheeks were red, rounded, and chubby like those rich people’s kids that drink milk in the ads. He stood with his legs together, his hands clasped over his crotch as he scanned our faces, turning his head steadily in silence. I felt compelled to stay stock-still, terrified of what was to come. I thought of passing the time in some diversion, as I usually did when I faced danger, but I couldn’t find anything around to divert me except for the general, so I looked at his camouflage fatigues and lost myself in the mixture of colors.
His voice seeped into the room, soft and low. He told us we were like his children, or that we really were his children. He said it with a smile, his eyes half closed, and the lump in my throat began to go away. I waited for his voice to shake the rafters when he scolded us for what we had done in the past, but nothing like that happened. He stayed calm and I stayed on alert.
He spoke at length. He spoke about the tragedies that befall children like us, sweep them away, and destroy their futures. He told some amusing stories, though he didn’t pursue any of them to the end. I identified with him and listened attentively.
“You have many problems, I know,” he said, “but, as you have seen, I also know the solutions. Everything will go well, inshallah. I promise you I’ll do what I can as long as you promise to help me, and I hope that the rehabilitation program that I’ve worked out will succeed in helping you see your country as it should be seen, and that you’ll come to understand the challenges and difficulties it faces, so that you’ll find out how to deal with them and overcome them.”
I realized that some time had passed and so far he hadn’t singled me out with a glance that would expose my secret and destroy my fragile existence. Even so, I started fidgeting in my chair, unable to stay still. I leaned back, then rested my elbows on my knees and splayed my toes inside my new shoes. Then I brought them together again suddenly as if I had been pricked by a thorn.
The general continued with a smile: “I tell you, you’re our kids. This country’s kids. You have to believe what I’m saying. I would never lie to you. I’m being honest with you, so that no one can do any harm to our country.”
“I’ll meet you often and follow your progress closely. For now, I thank you and leave you with Head Allam for a few minutes,” he said.
The hall fell silent for some seconds. At the time I wondered whether we were meant to clap or keep quiet. Silence seemed more likely, but Head Allam started clapping loudly, and we started clapping even louder than him. I was amazed how big his hands were. His fingers were fat and thick, too, and his forearm was the size of my thigh or bigger.
In few words Head Allam explained the rehabilitation program. Then he turned to face the wall and briefed us on what he called the “activities schedule.” He followed that up with a large map of the camp, showing the buildings we would be using. His face was expressionless when he turned to us and his voice was monotonous. He spoke in a strangely emphatic way when he pronounced the name of each place and pointed it out on the map.: “This is the training area, this is the dining hall that you’ve already used, those are the bathrooms, and the big hall for lectures, seminars and cultural events, and likewise the room we’re in now. As for the small square you can see at the top of the map close to the camp perimeter, that’s the lockup for those who disobey orders.”
“No, no, don’t frighten them, Head Allam,” the general interjected. “Don’t worry, kids, and don’t take what he says seriously. Head Allam is rather strict. He likes complete obedience and commitment, but he has a big heart. Thank you very much, Head Allam. I’ve said enough now. I hope God grants you success and I wish you a useful stay here. You’ll be a pillar of strength for the country and one of its main lines of defense.”
“Bend. Stretch. Jump. Press. Get down, boy! Get up, quickly! Your arms are like a girl’s. There’s no point making an effort with you. How did you sleep on the street on your own? I bet the other kids pushed you around. Push the weight forward! Push as if you were fighting off an infidel!”
Head Salem soon took us in hand. He set about dividing us into groups according to age, or rather height, fist size, and chest size. He pointed at me and I took off my undershirt. He examined my body for a moment and then consigned me to the second group, the middle-height group, not the weaklings or the big guys. Some of the children in the camp limped in one leg or had old injuries: Head Salem put those kids in a separate group and didn’t look at their chests or their fists.
I ran with my group until I was out of breath. I jumped twenty times to touch the sky, as he had ordered, and then I hung onto a pole stretched between two posts. I climbed a tree and jumped to the ground from the top. I picked up one of the other boys and carried him, and then we reversed roles. We repeated the exercises, and then the first group took our place and we went to do what they had been doing. Head Salem watched over us and bellowed in a voice that almost deafened us. In his notebook he wrote down things we couldn’t see. I think he was measuring our strength and sometimes he would insult one of us or throw a stone at someone if he tried to avoid doing what he’d been told to do. All that mattered to me at the end of the day was to survive and still be standing on my wobbly legs, so that he wouldn’t mark me down as a failure and a weakling. At the end he made us sit on the floor and he walked around shaking his head.
“Your bodies aren’t tough enough. They should be hard like real men. You’re no longer children, so don’t expect us to feel sorry for you. None of you will be men until you can do what you have to do without complaining.”
He paused, looked around at us and then roared: “Get up, you bodies, and run some more! We’ll make men of you despite yourselves, as long as I’m in charge. Run to the dining hall and don’t leave anything on your plates. Anyone who stops running before they arrive won’t get a meal until tomorrow. And don’t imagine you’re ever out of my sight, however far you go!”
I was nodding off between one mouthful and the next. I came round several times to find my head bowed so low it almost fell onto the plate. The training exhausted me and I could hardly walk to the dormitory. My whole body was in pain. The pain wouldn’t go away and it didn’t diminish with time. As soon as the bedding arrived, I threw myself down on it, a complete wreck. I felt bloated with all the food I had stuffed down my gullet without chewing it. My head slipped off the pillow and my eyelids drooped, but I didn’t fall asleep. My mind was full of all the things that had happened since the morning. General Ismail’s face constantly appeared, and the words of Head Allam and Head Salem echoed in my head like a recording.
They said we’d come to the camp to save our lives. They’d done us an invaluable favor and were going to give us an opportunity we would never have dreamed of. We’d learn new things, find out how things worked behind the scenes. People would treat us with respect. All we had to do was listen carefully, remember as much as possible, and do what was required—nothing more and nothing less.
They’d designed the program especially for us. They said it would take several months of intensive training, and we would apply what we learned carefully and faithfully. And then?
“Then we set you free, qualified for a better life.” That’s what they said.
“When you graduate from the camp, you’ll still report to us. We won’t abandon you. You’ll get a regular salary and when you reach the age of majority you’ll be given identity cards with an address and a profession. Most importantly, it will be a step up for you—you’ll be respected in a way you never knew in your earlier life. From now on, no one will remind you that once you were street kids.”
We were the children of General Ismail personally, children of the System. We would serve the country honorably and responsibly, like important, respectable people. We would defend the national interest and the security and stability of the country. There was nothing better than that. They were really interested in us, but would they give us a choice? Would it be possible to walk away and go back to the street?
I dreamed of General Ismail. He looked like my father and I had the same feelings toward him: discomfort, disgust, and an urge to disobey his orders and break the rules he laid down. In the dream I punched him on his red cheek. He soon recovered and didn’t punch me back. In fact, he invited me to punch him again and, when I told him he was a stupid idiot, he drew a sword and made a cut in my neck. The blood poured out and I woke up. I could still feel the pain. I started twisting and turning in bed and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I stared at the ceiling a long time in the hope that my insomnia would wear off, but it didn’t. I sat up and cursed the fact that I had woken up so early when all the other children were asleep. I was tired and drained and my limbs were sore. I felt like I’d been given a nasty beating and couldn’t stand up. I looked around at the faces of the sleeping children. We were still as we had been the day before—one person short. The boy, Rice Grain as I called him, hadn’t come back yet.
Excerpted from Here is A Body: A Novel by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Jonathan Wright, published by Hoopoe, an imprint of AUC Press, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Basma Abdel Aziz is an award-winning writer, sculptor, and psychiatrist, specializing in treating victims of torture. A weekly columnist for Egypt’s al-Shorouk newspaper, she was named a Foreign Policy Global Thinker, and a Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute top influencer in the Arab world. A long-standing vocal critic of government oppression in Egypt, she is the winner of the Sawiris Cultural Award, the General Organization for Cultural Palaces Award, and the Ahmed Bahaa-Eddin Award. Her critically acclaimed debut novel The Queue won the English PEN Translation Award and has been translated into Turkish, Portuguese, Italian, and German. She lives in Cairo.
Jonathan Wright is a British literary translator and former journalist currently based in London. His numerous translations into English most recently include, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, winner of International Prize for Arabic Fiction. He studied Arabic, Turkish and Islamic civilization at Oxford University and served both as Reuters’ Cairo bureau chief and as Reuters’ U.S. foreign policy correspondent based in their Washington, D.C. office.