Notebooks of Maladies

By EMAD BLAKE

Translated by ELISABETH JAQUETTE

1—Idiot

The oldest boys in the neighborhood—“bullies,” as our Egyptian neighbors would say—chased that boy… chased me.  

I’d long been obsessed with watching Egyptian TV shows and films, sneaking into the cinema to see them because in our house it was forbidden… “forbidden, boy, to go there.ˮ According to my mother, grandmother, and the other women in the neighborhood, screens are the devil’s handiwork: they corrupt good boys and girls. Of course, they’re poor women, without an ounce of luck. 

Since we’ve mentioned girls, the truth is that I’m as afraid of them as of the boys who chase me, but it’s another type of fear. It’s more like dread, the idea of standing in front of an incredibly beautiful girl and saying to her, as people do, “I love you.ˮ I’ve practiced a lot in the bathroom while masturbating, but nothing’s changed; white water flows, mixing with the poorly made soap, and in the end, I realize that I’ve lost the image of the girl who walks to the nearby school every day, casting sweet glances my way, as if she wants to tell me, “I love you, boy.ˮ

Love was forbidden for us. But love among boys, in secret, was permissible; that’s why they chased me over the wall of the cinema. I’d gone into the bathroom to pee, and one of them grabbed my pants from behind, dragging me toward him and pressing himself against me. I shouted, but no one heard me. They often told me that my voice sounded like a woman’s, and this terrified me—that I was not the man my mother wanted me to be. 

When my mother found out about the boys who deflowered my behind, she collapsed at home. She covered her head in dirt, howling and wailing loud enough for the neighbors to hear, and then everyone knew that I’d become a “sissyˮ—that is, a homosexual. 

My aunt came in and made things worse. The only one to save me was the art teacher in school, who came and told them, “The greatest innovators in human history were like this. There’s no problem at all.ˮ

They didn’t pay attention to him, though, because he’s a drunkard and carouser who does nothing but draw naked women. He’s been arrested a lot, and given forty lashes in front of the courthouse on charges of drinking and drawing naked pictures of the local woman who sells wine. 

The “morality policeˮ descended on the woman’s house one night. They found a gang of men “playing the devil’s flute” —singing and making music, a man hugging another man without a moustache, a woman sleeping naked on the bed while a man massaged her back, and the artist drawing a thirty-year-old woman as she poured arak into glasses. 

My father said to me, “This is who you brought in to save you, you sissy?ˮ

He repeated the word again, and I felt bad, thinking about lots of things, including suicide. But my teacher met me in secret and gave me advice, saying, “Your father is the sissy. Don’t waste your life on those bastards. You have a future. One day you’ll become something valuable, and they’ll forget all this.ˮ

I was filled with a sense of joy as I left him. He was sipping arak with delight and, handing me a full glass, said, “Try this.ˮ

I refused so my father wouldn’t catch the scent, be incensed, and insult me even more brazenly. I’d become the family garbage heap, like the relative they had cast beyond the reach of mercy for years, someone they didn’t care about. That relative had failed to make something useful of himself… and they began to call him an idiot.

I was afraid of becoming like him… of becoming the next idiot they disowned. I wanted to heal quickly from my mental anguish and pain… from the boys chasing me… so at night I sat alone, reading. This was my sanctuary… the place where I escaped the pure ones.

I read what I read: 

Cleanse yourself with more pain, mate… that’s the way the real idiots are, people loved by nature, by the absolute and unknown… they are the ones who will reach great horizons with their determination… change the laws and codes, and deny themselves the pleasure and tyranny of tradition.

Despite everything, I didn’t hate anyone. I still loved my father, mother, and other relatives.

Until later, as an adult, I hated them for other reasons. 

 

2—Crystal

I loved soft, white legs, like the ones I saw in the magazine our classmate brought to school and hid in his trousers. He took it out behind the bathrooms, when we went there on the pretext of urinating. 

On that day, we transformed into other beings, discovering that we didn’t understand anything about the female body. Our entire knowledge related to males… soft, smooth buttocks, even if they featured a few pimples from a common childhood rash, and small instruments that had not yet matured, but were still able to do their jobs.

Our friend told us, “I stole it from my aunt. She brought it home from the office yesterday.ˮ

Which set off a long discussion: 

“That means her friends have really lived it up.ˮ

“But where did they get the magazine?ˮ

Badreddine knew the answer, and he told us: “I heard my aunt talking to our neighbor Sabah when she called to her from behind the wall… a man whose name she didn’t mention gets a certain number and brings a copy to each woman in the office who wants one.ˮ

We all knew who he was talking about and quickly forgot about the man… the one with the twisted moustache who was known for many ill-reputed things, first and foremost for chasing after the people who sold books and magazines on the city streets. 

Those white, crystal legs, and what lay above them, kept brewing in my brain. Until the day a boy my age took me to a lavish and beautiful building, one I hadn’t seen the likes of before; we stood beneath a window high above us.

I’d gone to a nearby city with my mother to buy some things for the upcoming Eid. On our way, we had to stop by several relatives to say hello; otherwise they would be angry with us, especially with my mother, and she was a sensitive woman who didn’t need that.

The boy was a relative of ours, although I don’t know how we were related; I didn’t really care, and neither did he. We just had fun being together, running through the alleys and streets surrounding their house, in a city that seemed more beautiful than our smaller, less-developed one. 

He told me to stand on a rock under the window of a certain building, to get a good look inside. There, I saw women standing in a straight line. There was music playing—audible hymns. 

“They’re singing,ˮ I told him.

He smiled and, having got the best of me as usual, said, “They’re praying, you idiot.”

“Praying!”

“Yes, that’s how they pray.”

I’d never seen prayers with music and rhythm, and it intrigued me, even though I was scared of what I saw. There was something wrong. And later, when I told my mother as we were going home at the end of the trip, she told me firmly, “Those are infidels. Don’t go with him again,ˮ she said, then continued angrily, “And you won’t come with me again.ˮ

My punishment was that my mother would not take me again to the city I loved. I loved the crystal legs in the church, white women made of valuable, pliable stuff, standing in front of the huge cross—they looked like the blondes in those forbidden magazines. If only I could see for myself what was behind their wonderful, colorful skirts…. I wanted to embrace one of them and sleep with her, but I was a coward.

 

3—Billiards

With an air of bravado, a twenty-year-old soldier stood in front of the city’s famous barbershop, testing his Kalashnikov rifle. He shouted, “One, two, three,ˮ then fired a random bullet into the air. At this, the men and children who had gathered to watch this event rushed off. 

But why did they run away, if this happened daily?

Simply because today it was a different man than usual, not the one trained to use the rifle, whom they called the dogcatcher, whose hobby was killing rabid dogs that the neighbors complained about in the season when rabies spread. 

As for the new young man, people didn’t know how it would end. No one would stand in front of a loose bullet and sacrifice their life; the bullet might think they were a dog and strike them in the heart, or the young man, overwhelmed with delight, might think the same and train the rifle on them.

The experiment ended about five minutes after the soldier had emerged from the cheap, local barbershop, the cheapest one at the market. “Cheap” here means that the barber’s skills were poor, as were his customers. The barber had earned a reputation and some importance about a year earlier, when the state governor went to have his hair cut at the shop during a visit to the city… and instead emerged with his head shaved bald. No one knew why he had chosen this salon, though not for lack of speculation.

The soldier finished his display, earning the trust of the rapt audience, and after becoming the focus of their attention, he continued his haughty walk. Just two days earlier, the soldier had been worthless, thought a miserable tramp and a major pickpocket who preyed on men and women alike, even on public transportation and at the station downtown. None of this was anything new. “Most new police appointments are made based on the candidate’s prior experience in crime, in order to hunt criminals,ˮ the minister once asserted in response to a journalist, emphasizing, “Experience is necessary.ˮ

So they appointed “al-Bakirˮ and handed him a rifle, after dressing him in a grass-green uniform. He had showered, applied cologne, and emerged from the barbershop, and now he was on his way to kill the first dog. A troop of children trailed after him, shouting at each other and encouraging this national mission. They had grown up in this celebratory atmosphere; dog-killing season wasn’t a fleeting event. The season peaked when the dogs’ lifeless bodies were piled, tongues lolling, into the police department’s dilapidated truck. Then they burned the bodies in an empty city lot, under the supervision of a veterinary specialist, who sat in the passenger seat of the truck, next to the driver, in order to definitively exterminate the rabies virus.

Al-Bakir advanced to the first dog and killed it with a single bullet that gave the animal no chance. Its owner was an old lady who had lived by herself since her children had traveled to countries God knows where. She had no companion but the dog, about which the imam of the neighborhood mosque had long warned her: “Nasty and filthy, a real devil, that keeps angels from entering the home.ˮ

But the old woman was stubborn. “The real devil is you,” she replied. “Do you think I don’t know what you do?ˮ

The lady was cultured; she read the stories. She’d once read one by Yusuf Idris, about an imam who looked out the window while standing at the pulpit and watched a beautiful woman who lived next to the mosque undress for him, waiting for him to finish his prayers and come sleep with her while her husband was out. The same story had happened with this imam, and he couldn’t resist the old lady’s words. From afar he exclaimed, “Only God’s power and strength keeps evil at bay!ˮ

By this he meant the lady, of course. And now she had no dog. 

She grabbed at al-Bakir, cursing him for killing her dog, stressing that it hadn’t been rabid: “You need to examine the dogs before killing them! And what’s this madman in the truck doing?ˮ

She pointed at the veterinarian with the big black glasses. 

The team piled into the truck and set off in search of other dogs, followed by a procession of children, but no adults, since they were busy with worldly affairs. Eventually, they stopped at an alley where two dogs were fornicating near a garbage pile behind the elementary school. 

The children laughed heartily, the truck driver laughed too, and al-Bakir moved his rifle without thinking, struck by this distinctive scene on his first day at work, a day in which he would achieve his first victory. His index finger moved onto the trigger, he looked through the sight, and he aimed… the two dogs felt embarrassed, it seemed, or were afraid of death… and then he pressed hard. Really hard. 

“How did they know that death was coming? No one thinks about how God cultivates such experience in dogs!” remarked the veterinarian.

The elderly schoolmaster heard the commotion; it seemed he’d heard news of the campaign to kill rabid dogs, and of the group coming to undertake a mission in the neighborhood near the school, even though the dogs in the area were peaceful. The schoolmaster doubted they were rabid; they hadn’t hurt anyone before now. 

With his long robe, his medium-sized cap, and his neck as long as a giraffe’s, the schoolmaster opened the door—and his vision was swiftly obscured. He toppled backward at the impact of something strong and incredibly fast; the bullet aimed at the two dogs had struck his right eye, and it was now streaming blood. He was silent and did not cry, because that would be shameful. Meanwhile the young soldier was aghast. He didn’t know what had happened, and couldn’t easily control himself or the bullets spraying from his rifle in a torrent; he had left the selector switch on “fully automatic,ˮ which meant the rifle discharged bullets continuously, and frighteningly fast. As the children were running away, they collapsed like billiard balls. 

It was a day wracked with blood and tears. 

Emad Blake is a writer from Berber, Sudan. He attended the University of Khartoum, where he graduated from the College of Architecture. He worked in journalism and the media in Sudan for a short period before emigrating to the Arabian Gulf, where he worked in Qatar and Oman. Blake has produced twenty-four works of literature, including novels, short story collections, and books about current affairs and development in the Gulf.

Elisabeth Jaquette is a translator from the Arabic and executive director of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). Her work has been shortlisted for the TA First Translation Prize, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, and supported by the Jan Michalski Foundation, the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, and several English PEN Translates awards. Upcoming book-length translations include Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, and The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous. Jaquette has taught translation at Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference and elsewhere, and was a judge for the 2019 National Book Award in Translated Literature.

[Purchase Issue 19 here.]

Notebooks of Maladies

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