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.
I was leaving El Rafidayn supermarket in Ramallah. I had bought coffee, wet wipes, and two cans of tuna. One of the Israeli occupation’s patrols was parked at El Rafidayn roundabout. I was alone in the area, and the hour was approaching midnight. The patrol blew its impudent horn. I ignored it and kept my course due home. But a soldier opened the window and called out, “Come over here, monkey.”
Abdelghaffar, owner of the tallest building in the quarter—built by the sweat of his brow, as he reportedly doesn’t tire of saying—is pacing up and down his rooftop, stressed about the stray dogs that have been disturbing the neighborhood’s sleep with their nonstop barking every night—Abdelghaffar’s sleep is more affected than anyone’s, his home being the highest in the neighborhood and receiving the noise from all directions at once.
Abdelmajid Haouasse’s transportive short story “A Hot Day” is a highlight of Issue 21‘s portfolio of fiction from Morocco. An award-winning scenographer, director, cinematographer, and author of short fiction, Haouasse is interviewed by The Common interns Sofia Belimova, Olive Amdur, Adaku Nwokiwu, and Eliza Brewer, with the assistance of Nashwa Gowanlock, who translated the interview as well as the original story. Here, Haouasse discusses his story’s unique narration, the translation process, and drawing inspiration from the Moroccan city of Asilah. This is the second of two interviews conducted by the summer interns with Issue 21 contributors; the first is with Latifa Baqa.
Language Is a Living Substance: An Interview with Abdelmajid Haouasse
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.
Morocco has long been associated in the Arab imagination with magic and superstition, casting off mystical curses and exorcising jinn from the body. The word “al-Moghrabi” (“the Moroccan”) has itself become yet another qualification claimed by those who work in this parallel world, adding it to their names, some going so far as to christen themselves “Sheikh from Morocco.” These are the men one hears about from time to time, those who help ancient treasure-seekers get their hands on spell-protected troves, perhaps of the sort guarded by serpents.
An Orient Free of Orientalism: Magic, the square, and women in Moroccan short fiction
Marzouka? She’s carrying a bundle wrapped in a cloth on her back, and her earrings sparkle. Marzouka comes closer, and I move closer to her. The sun is scorching, and her large earrings are blinding. Should I greet her? I kiss her hand, so she kisses me on my forehead. I kiss her cheek, red like the late-afternoon sun. “Let me be your son,” I say to her. “And carry me like that bundle on your back.”
Prickly pear cacti are always squat and spindly bushes—that much I know. The exception to this rule, however, is the prickly pear grove found in my grandfather’s village. It’s lofty. It towers into the sky, its foliage so dense it always struck me as foretelling of a secret that was to be hidden away for good in its myriad crevices and shadows. And what intensified this feeling in me, and brought me to the conclusion that cacti are far from innocent, was the sight of our beautiful, fair-skinned friend Heaven running to the prickly pear one day and trying to hide among its limbs and behind its broad, swollen leaves. She looked like the heroine of a fairy tale fleeing a terrifying kingdom.
Little beads of sweat were pouring off her forehead, her cheeks were even rosier than usual, and when she almost slammed into me on her way past, a shivery thrill went through my body, a strange jolt of energy. Heaven did not seem to be the same sex as me, even though I knew her well and I had seen her bathing in her birthday suit more than once; just like me, she had untamable, bouncing breasts. But deep down inside, Heaven was fundamentally different from me, as—in utter contrast to most girls in the village—she existed in a constant state of awe. She lived among us, but her almond-shaped eyes seemed to be seeing another world, about which we knew nothing at all. And what was stranger still was the color of those eyes of hers: they beamed out a brilliant sky blue that made her the talk of the entire village. Despite everything that was said about her and her eyes in the village back then, I didn’t understand anything about that awe they shone with until I grew up. As an adult I finally came to understand, with the benefit of hindsight, what the grown-ups had been hinting at about the djinns that had taken up residence in Heaven and imprisoned her in an invisible box called Desire.