Fatal Dreams

By WAJDI AL-AHDAL
Translated by WILLIAM M. HUTCHINS

1

When the boys playing ball saw the fancy automobile approach, they stopped their game and fixed their eyes on these strangers visiting their neighborhood.

Shepherded by her husband, Ali Jibran, Tha’ira descended from the Mercedes in front of a dilapidated three-story building. They left the driver in the car to wonder what could have brought them to the most renowned center for Qur’anic healing in the city.

The couple disappeared through the low entrance, which was enveloped in shadowy gloom. Their driver took a deep breath and replaced the cassette of Qur’an recitations by al-Qariti with a cassette of songs by the singer Ali al-Anisi. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from under his seat. With intense satisfaction he began to smoke and sank into delightful daydreams.

As they climbed the steps, the couple heard a brouhaha: shouts, wailing, and Qur’anic recitation clashed with thunderous, menacing voices. Tha’ira felt depressed, and her face assumed a despondent look.

They were greeted by a boy whose crimson upper lip was topped by light fuzz and whose white thawb reached down to his calves. His turban was a white cloth, a broad toothpick resided in his mouth, and his hand held a pocket-sized Qur’an, from which he had been reciting.

Ali Jibran explained the reason for their visit, lowering his voice from embarrassment. The boy nodded and asked them to wait while he asked permission from one of the sheikhs for them to enter. From an adjoining room they could hear the screams of a woman who was being beaten, slapped, and kicked. She was calling for help from God, angels, and ordinary people, but no one could free her from the grip of the sheikh responsible for her treatment.

The fragrance of incense, mixing with the foul stench of human excrement, nauseated Tha’ira. She had trouble maintaining her composure and kept herself from vomiting only by chewing gum.

They watched a mother drag her daughter, who was almost dead from the torture, out of the center. Once they had exited, the boy returned and led them to a modestly furnished room, which contained only a bright yellow carpet; a few pillows and cushions; Qur’ans of various sizes; and half a dozen booklets about magic, the evil eye, the entry of djinn into human beings, and how to remedy all these ills through Qur’anic recitation.

The couple sat down, feeling tense. The room seemed to be haunted by evil spirits. Ali Jibran busied himself with his prayer beads, asking forgiveness for his sins, which he suddenly remembered in exquisite detail. Tha’ira picked up a pamphlet entitled “Grim Resolution in Combating Evil Sorcerers” and started reading random excerpts.

After fifteen minutes a sheikh appeared; his white thawb covered only a small portion of his hairy legs, and on his head—like sheikhs from Najd—he had fastened a red cloth with white dots. The miswak in his mouth was slender. He knelt down on one knee at the center of the room as a resounding belch, which suggested that he had dined before joining them, rose from his chest.

After an exchange of greetings and the customary polite questions, the sheikh broached the topic straightforwardly, because his schedule was tight. “I hope everything’s all right, my friends. What seems to be the problem?”

Exchanging anxious glances with his wife, Ali Jibran said, “The problem, sheikh, is that my wife has a nightmare that prevents her from sleeping. I think they’ve used magic to drive her insane.”

The sheikh, who was in his late twenties, gave her a long, searching look and then said slowly, “May God set things straight. Tell me your dream, Sister, complete with all its details.”

Tha’ira faltered at first but, in response to an encouraging gesture from her husband, loosened her tongue from its restraints.

“In my dream I saw a veiled man near me. He was chasing me and brandishing a dagger. I fled from him every which way. He kept right behind me until I tired, submitted to him, and watched him kill me.”

Fingering and then clutching his black beard, the sheikh said, “I take refuge with God from Satan, who should be pelted with stones. How many times have you seen this dream?”

As if it weren’t firmly attached to her neck, Tha’ira’s head wobbled of its own accord. “For three months I’ve had this same nightmare every night.”

To show his sympathy for her suffering, the sheikh nodded and said, “Tell me about your troubles, your sufferings…. Don’t be shy.”

Feeling more confident about disclosing her pains, Tha’ira said, “The fact is that I hate sleep and therefore can’t go to bed. Occasionally the nightmare is repeated twice in one night, if I do try to sleep. So if I wake up halfway through the night after having the nightmare, I sit awake till morning for fear I’ll have it again if I lie back down. After I awake from the nightmare, I always feel intense fear and my neck aches as if it had been severed while I slept. And when I awake, I pull myself together. Words can’t describe the psychological fatigue and complete despair about living that it causes me. Would you believe that I once thought I’d kill myself to rid myself of this dreaded nightmare? What can I do? I’m going crazy. Death would be preferable to this suffering.”

The sheikh interrupted her to express his sympathy: “Ultimate power and might are God’s alone.”

Tha’ira continued as her emotion mounted and her eyes swam with tears: “The key thing is that I’ve grown very tired and can’t take any more. I went with my husband to a renowned psychiatrist, who couldn’t help me. I’ve tried every kind of sleeping pill, but they only made matters worse. I hate my life. I’m fine during the day; I laugh, move around normally, and have a good appetite. But the moment the world grows dark, my personality changes and I find that I become very mournful, depressed, and nervous—afraid of any movement or sound. The closer bedtime comes, the more dull-witted and forgetful I feel. I attempt to fight off sleep. I try with all my might. I may sit up for two nights in a row without sleeping, but finally I’ll grow tired of the constant wakefulness and lie down. Then I’ll see the nightmare more vividly than on any ordinary night, and it will have a greater impact on me; so I’ll regret having postponed sleep.”

As tears flowed down her cheeks, which were concealed by a thick veil, Tha’ira went on, “Sheikh, I don’t know whether my problem has a remedy or not.”

The sheikh rose, opened a gilded copy of the Qur’an, and began to recite the sura called “The Jinn”[1] while his right hand rested on the crown of Tha’ira’s head.

2
Tha’ira paid successive evening visits to the Qur’anic Healing Center, but her husband, Ali Jibran, stopped escorting her; so the boy Umar was forced to skip school to escort his mistress as her male relative.

Sheikh Hilal, whose voice had grown hoarse from reciting the Qur’an over her hard skull, informed her that she had a villainous jinni in her womb. Since it was still an infant and hadn’t learned to talk yet, it didn’t understand the verses of the Qur’an and didn’t know what they were. So they didn’t harm him—or, as Sheikh Hilal put it, “He’s still a crazy little jinni!”

Sheikh Hilal told her many tales about his battles against the jinn—the adult ones—and how he had burned them with the Qur’an and expelled them from the bodies of women and men after only a few sessions.

He advised her to perform the five prayers at their proper times, to recite the Qur’an after each cycle, and to remain ritually pure all the time, so far as possible. He also counseled her to offer supplementary prayers and recite verses of the Qur’an before going to bed. He claimed that these would guarantee her a restful sleep, free of any nightmares.

When these invocations and verses didn’t make things any better, or worse, she complained about her recurring nightmare and told him candidly that all his advice had proved useless.

Sheikh Hilal frowned then and decided to use Qur’an water. This meant he would hold a vessel of water near his mouth while he recited specific verses of the Qur’an until the water became imbued with his breath. He claimed that this would set the infant jinni on fire, even if it exposed him, the sheikh, to the vengeance of the baby’s formidable mother.

The sheikh brought out a basin and ordered Tha’ira to bare her legs and hold them over it. Then, as if interrogating a defendant from whom he wanted to withdraw a confession, he began to recite.

He passed his moistened fingertips over her sleek, rounded legs while his heart leapt inside his chest. When Tha’ira felt the sheikh’s talons rise above her knees and advance toward her thighs’ fleshy parts, an electric current jolted her. She snapped out of the near-hypnotic state the sheikh had induced and firmly demanded an end to the session as she tossed a wad of bills at his feet. A minute later she was in the street, breathing pure air again.

As they clambered into the car’s back seat, Umar asked, with his customary impudence, “Didn’t we forget to ask the sheikh whether the jinni had died?”

As if to herself, Tha’ira remarked, “What difference would it make if he had? Yemen is chock-full of jinn. The next one might be meaner than the last!”

3

Humming a zamil[2] by one of the royalist leaders from the civil war of the 1960s, the watchman, who carried a Kalashnikov rifle, proceeded to make the rounds of all four sides of the villa’s garden. The grasshoppers vied with him for control of the conversation with their rude, musical chirring.

Inside the villa, lights were on in the living room, which was animated by a noisy, chattering television. Tha’ira, dressed in exercise clothes that smelled of sweat and that had salty blotches down the sides, was stretched out on the sofa, which had been exposed to the ferocity of the afternoon sun, while she changed channels with the remote control. The sliced mortadella sandwich on the table in front of her showed teeth marks from a single bite, and the glass there was half full of papaya juice. Ali Jibran descended to the landing on the stairs and looked down, leaning forward, dressed in nothing but his underwear. “Tha’ira, darling… what are you waiting for? Let’s go to bed.”

Tha’ira cast him a fleeting, disgusted look and then started changing the TV channels even faster. “I don’t feel like going to bed.”

Ali Jibran smiled and softened his tone. “Okay; so why don’t we sit on the sofa and play cards?”

Tha’ira groaned with distress and disgust. “Ugh, I’m sick to death of playing cards; I’m sick to death of my whole life. Please get in bed, pull up the covers, and leave me alone.”

Ali Jibran stood frozen behind her, where he could see her but she could not see him, casting fiery glances at the nape of her neck. He remained where he was for a full minute, contemplating terrible, Satanic ideas, but found he lacked the nerve to execute them. So he climbed the stairs with heavy, hostile steps.

Tha’ira looked behind her to make sure he was gone. Then she sighed deeply, and her head wobbled as if it weren’t firmly anchored to her neck. A mountain of ennui weighed on her breast, and the two hundred satellite dish channels failed to banish sleep from her eyelids, which had darkened from her prolonged insomnia.

The television was showing a charming dialogue between the Italian actress Sophia Loren and the internationally acclaimed author Alberto Moravia.
Moravia: I read in TIME magazine that you have a recurrent dream that never changes. Tell me about this dream.

Loren: I always dream I’m on the beach at sunset, when the sea is as calm and smooth as a blue gown. The sun, which is a fiery red, is setting at the horizon. I find myself running on the beach, running, running, and running, always running. Then I wake up.

Moravia: We’ll try to interpret the dream, not the way Freud would have, but in the ancient Babylonian fashion or in the manner of the Holy Scriptures. Would you like me to interpret it for you?

Loren: Please do.

Moravia: The sea is the stability that you hope to achieve. The red sun is your artistic success. You could have looked for a long time at the calm sea. Instead, you looked toward the sun, which is artistic success; but do you know what happens to everyone who wants to reach the sun?

Loren: What?

Moravia: They go a long way without being conscious of themselves, because although the sun is very remote, it lights the way for them.[3]
The TV went off, and the voices disappeared into the ether. Tha’ira was dozing on the sofa; the sliced mortadella sandwich was half gone, and only a little papaya juice was left at the bottom of the glass.

Tha’ira suddenly became aware that total silence had enveloped the room. Opening her eyes, she found the screen black and mute. She felt anxious and started to grope around for the remote control, but just then a brown hand, tanned by the sun and covered with lots of hair, reached from behind her and settled on her breasts. She leapt from her sofa as if a viper had bitten her and found herself face-to-face with a veiled man wearing a gray thawb and a dark coat.

Her hands fluttering by her ears, she screamed and then turned to flee. She opened the wooden door of the dwelling. He was following her with the deliberate steps of a butcher who is sure his victim will yield to him. He drew his dagger and began to dance about as if he were at a wedding.

She fled to the garden, where the sky was lit by a full moon across which oysters had spread their pearls. She ran as fast as her legs would carry her, looking back from time to time. She circled the villa several times, searching for the outside door, but the earth seemed to have split open and swallowed it. With sweat flowing from every pore of her body, she wondered: Where’s the damn door?

She spent almost an hour circling her residence while the veiled man followed her relentlessly. When exhaustion and fatigue got the better of her, she fell to her knees, gasping from severe thirst. The veiled man approached her calmly and placed the cold blade on her neck.

The veiled man pricked her with the tip of the blade, and she moaned, yielding to him.

The curved dagger’s tip attached itself to her throat just beneath her chin and sacrificed Tha’ira with slow incisions. Tha’ira emitted one last death rattle, and blood flowed out copiously.

4The hunchbacked watchman, whose face was wizened and who had only a few short hairs scattered down the sides of his bald head, was at peace with himself. He had adjusted amazingly well to his nighttime career and derived from it a secret, microscopic enjoyment to which only he was privy. He was, for example, fascinated by watching shooting stars speed through the night’s blackness with their gleaming colored tails that occasionally left behind a gentle farewell glow like a delicate kiss.

A few hours into his shift, a yellow lightbulb illuminated the house’s entrance, and dogs began to bark beyond the villa’s walls. Overhead, the full moon was challenging the darkness with its silvery light, and from the garden’s dark grass came the melodious chirring of grasshoppers.

In this harmonious assembly, only Tha’ira was singing out of tune. Her eyelids were half-closed as she walked slowly toward a distant corner of the garden. She knelt before a venerable camphor tree with interlocking branches and put her arms around its massive trunk. Then she pressed her neck against a protruding branch as sharp as a knife. Her breathing dwindled into a submissive, staggered rattle.

The elderly night watchman had seen her shadow when she first emerged from the dwelling and looked on in bewilderment, trying to understand her eccentric movements without disturbing her. When he realized she was asphyxiating herself, he approached and called out her name, but she did not respond. He noticed that even though she was moaning in a muffled way, she seemed to have passed out. Frightened, he prodded her side with the butt of his rifle. She trembled with terror and screamed. Her sudden reaction prompted the watchman to scream fearfully back at her.

Tha’ira stood up, gasping for breath as if her head had just been held underwater. She looked around her, distressed and incredulous. “Who brought me here?”

The watchman, stunned, did not reply, and she repeated the question in a loud voice. Then, giving her a piercing look, as if she were a strange animal that scared him, he replied, “No one. I saw you walking in your sleep.”

Overcome with despair and exhaustion, Tha’ira shuffled back to the house. Inside the door, she fell to her knees again. She felt a painful kick in her abdomen. Then another. Then a horrible, cruel laughter rose up from inside her, where the jinni had taken hold.

 

Wajdi Al-Ahdal is a contemporary Yemeni writer. “A Crime in Mataeem Street” was included in Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World, and “To Return by Foot” was published in Oranges in the Sun: Short Stories from the Arabian Gulf. A Donkey in the Choir was excerpted at wordswithoutborders.org, and he also wrote A Land Without Jasmine.

 

William Maynard Hutchins, a professor at Appalachian State University, was awarded two National Endowment for the Arts grants for literary translation. He was co-winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize and won the American Literary Translators Association National Prose Translation Award.


[1] Holy Qur’an, “The Jinn,” Sura 72. This chapter of the Qur’an comforts the Prophet Muhammad and Muslim believers by assuring them that—although not all the jinn (spirits midway between human beings and angels) are beneficent—not even malevolent jinn can harm true believers.

[2]Zamil (zaamil): a famous song or chant accompanied by a reed flute.

[3] See “This Is Your Life: Sophia Loren,” interview with Alberto Moravia, printed in ShowElle, and L’Europeo (1962); translated here from the Arabic version.

[Purchase your copy of Issue 11 here.]

[Read more Arabic fiction in Issue 15.]

Fatal Dreams

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