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.
Anna Lidia Vega Serova’s stories make my mouth quirk and make me wince, usually not simultaneously. The pitiless sweep of her narrators’ gazes spares no one, not even the characters they’re latched fastest to. When my own eyes are fixed on the task of translating her words, of scooting puzzle pieces around until they snap satisfyingly into place, I forget how unblinking that narratorial gaze is, how its effect sometimes abuts brutality, and sometimes tips straight in. I remember when I watch other people react to my translations, after it is too late to offer content warnings or make excuses for unlikable women. (What can I say? I like unlikable women—or, more accurately: I admire them.) Vega Serova’s stories brim with them, which is one reason I am drawn to them.
In the not-so-early morning, the beach enjoyed a calm troubled only by the swishing of the waves and the murmur of the sea against a rocky spit that extended into the water. At the foot of the white bakery, the waves broke in a monotonous sequence. The Nile Valley café, next to the bakery, shared in the morning calm—Abdul Farraj was snoozing lazily, and the waiter was having a temporary rest from his labors. Everything was calm. The sun crept slowly up the sky and poured light onto the surface of the sea and the roofs of the wooden houses, while a kite squawked on the minaret of the Askala mosque. On the western side of the horizon, the mountains lay in their blue calm, and between the sea and the mountains lay the city.
Originally published in French in the collection En enfer, mon amour, Editions de l’Aire, 1990.
Story appears in both French and English.
I first encountered the work of Marie-Claire Dewarrat when I read her novel Carême, the story of a grieving father which the author wrote following the death of her own daughter. I was entranced by the book’s sweet strangeness and the way it wove dark, violent realities into the slow rhythms of grief and healing. In the short story collection from which “Rising Sap” is drawn, that darkness often takes a fantastical, surreal turn. Dewarrat’s fiction is deeply tied to season and landscape, more specifically to the countryside of French-speaking Switzerland where much of her work is set. Her wise, often teasing narratorial voice playfully and skillfully blends poetic language with informal, local turns of phrase, vividly conjuring that particular place.