The Dam

By JAMAL ALDIN ALI ALHAJ 
Translated by JONATHAN WRIGHT

 

It was early in the night, and the village was shrouded in darkness. The uneasy calm heightened the darkness, and he could hear the throbbing of the water pumps all the more clearly as they drew up the Nile water in concert with the moon, which kept out of sight on the grounds that the weather was poor. In this gloomy weather, which presaged an imminent storm, Humayda was battling the laws of nature all on his own.  

He shook the reins and raised his whip to bring it down on his donkey’s back whenever he felt it wasn’t pulling the cart hard enough. The poor donkey looked as if it was pondering how it could ever pull the damned cart and where it would have to pull it to. Being away from home so long, beyond its usual working hours, also made the donkey somewhat confused. It began to twist and turn on itself. Its back leg held its body firm, like a stake stuck in the ground, while the donkey raised one front leg, anticipating digging it into the path to move forward. 

This angered Humayda. “Giddyup, God damn you!” he said. After the tip of the whip landed a painful lash on its testicles, the donkey and cart started into motion again. The donkey knew that its owner had a soft heart, but that in moments of rage he was a stupid bastard. Humayda shook the reins with one hand and waved the whip threateningly in the donkey’s face with the other hand.  

When he felt sure that his plan had worked (the donkey was now running as fast as it could, pulling the cart behind it), Humayda put his whip aside and pulled his daughter, who was sitting beside him, onto his lap: “Isn’t it better like that, father’s girl?” The child’s dull eyes looked up with difficulty, and Humayda’s heart leaped for joy. “Thank God she’s still alive,” he said to himself. He then shared his joy with the rest of the world and said out loud: “You know, Fateen, my girl, a scorpion’s sting is trivial. Stings from humans are what you want to worry about.” He smiled scornfully and said, “When humans sting, they’re lethal. Ask me.” 

Fateen swayed to the donkey’s movements, back and forth as it negotiated the many potholes and bumps that lay along their path. Suddenly Fateen felt nauseated and lay on one side, like one of those pots turning on a waterwheel. Humayda put the reins onto the donkey’s back and, carrying the ten-year-old girl on his lap, leaned her over the side of the cart. As if emptying a jar into a cistern, he let Fateen empty her burning pain onto the sand. With the swaying of the cart and the way it shook when it fell into potholes or hit bumps, the rest of her stomach’s contents soon came out from the bottom of the jar. When Fateen had finished, Humayda felt that she had emptied out all of her short life, and that his soul too had spilled and flowed from all his organs.Humayda wiped away her tears and the remains of the fear that flowed from her eyes by looking at her and cursing the times. “I ask God Almighty for forgiveness,” he added. He laid the girl’s frail body on the cart and rested her head on his lap. “Almost there, Fateen. We’ll be at the health center within an hour. Giddyup.” He shook the reins and gave the donkey’s back a barrage of painful lashes with his whip. The donkey leaped like an unruly horse and set off with the cart. 

 

The flashes of lightning had been teasing him ever since the moment he saddled the donkey, attached it to the cart, and left home. Now the thunderstorm was in full swing. A strong wind had risen from the south, and thunder was booming in the east. The sky soon caught fire. The lightning was like a whip that started in the east, wrapped around the girdle of the sky, and then sank below the horizon in a belt of flame. The clouds wept copiously. As soon as one cloud had dumped its water and departed, the lightning attacked the sky mercilessly. It attacked again, another fiery whip striking and gathering the clouds from unknown parts of the distant horizon, as a herdsman drives a herd of sullen camels from the edges of the desert to a watering hole.  

Humayda took his shawl off his head and wrapped it around Fateen, who was shivering from the cold. He raised his arms and arched his back, and his waistcoat filled with the wind. Humayda’s bent back and the inflated waistcoat formed an umbrella for the girl’s body.  

“You know what, Fateen? In the old days, we never had heavy rain like this, and in the date-harvest season too! Rain’s a blessing from God, but rain during the date harvest is miserable. I ask God for forgiveness.” As if remembering something, he continued: “It’s all because of that bloody dam. Rain’s a blessing from God, but the dam is the work of man, and some people are scorpions. In the old days our family would say, ‘Still waters run deep,’ and, Fateen, apparently we stirred those waters, and out from under came black mountain scorpions that spread across the country.”  

He wiped the rain off his face and looked at his daughter. Her face was pale, and an innocent smile played on her lips. “Oh, Fateen, if only you knew the effect of that smile. I used to come home exhausted and hungry at the end of the day, and when I saw that white smile floating on your lips, it filled me with joy, and I no longer felt tired.” He smiled and added, “Even the donkey was in love with that smile. I could hear it laughing in the stable as it chewed its fodder with relish.” He leaned forward as if to whisper in the donkey’s ear and said, “Isn’t that right, my dear friend?” The donkey pricked up its ears in agreement and staggered on, pulling the cart through the mud.  

“When we said people need healthcare and education, they said the dam’s the answer. We said the strong current has washed away the soil. They said the dam’s the answer. We said that cancer and emigration have left the towns and villages empty. They gathered loads of people in trucks and buses, trains, planes, and on animals, and shouted over our heads all night long: ‘The dam, the dam, the answer, the answer.’ Your father, Fateen, was the misfit. I stood up to the machine and told the truth.”  

He smiled in sorrow and said, “The land and the palm trees were swept away by the water, and with the compensation money, I bought this donkey and cart and began a life of drudgery in the lanes.” 

The lightning had ceased, and the clouds had stopped weeping and sobbing. A gentle breeze, laden with the fragrance of acacia flowers and guavas, started to blow from the direction of the valley. Humayda’s face looked relaxed for the first time: his daughter was lying next to him on the cart as peacefully as a little angel, washed by the divine water that came from the sky. The donkey also seemed energetic as it pulled the cart along a track strewn with gravel and sand, washed by the rainwater till it shone like a carpet of gold.  

“Your grandfather, Fateen, when I went to him to ask permission to marry your mother, said to my mother, ‘Humayda’s a tough guy, but he does have two faultshe’s always looking for trouble, and he’s crazy about singing. Singing’s no way to make a living, and trouble-seekers end up in trouble.’” He laughed scornfully. “God have mercy on you, uncle. Is anything more trouble than this damned dam?”  

He turned to his daughter, whose body, wrapped in the shawl, swayed like a blanket on a saddle. “Hey, father’s girl, you don’t seem to believe that your father was a singer once upon a time. You’re right, my girl, because you never heard me sing in the prime of my youth, but never mind.” He cleared his throat and crooned away in a voice rich with nostalgia: “Drive me with you, doves, drive me to where my beloved is nearby, tending love. We may be poor, but these clouds make us rich.”  

A faint light shone in the distance. Humayda stopped singing his song and said in an earnest voice, “Here we are, thank Godwe’ve reached the health center. Listen carefully, Fateen: The doctor might shout in your father’s face. He might insult us and curse our name and the hour in which he saw us. Don’t be surprised at what he does, Fateen. I’ll be silent, my head bowed, and when I speak, I’ll implore him, ‘Hey, doctor, hey, be quickmy child’s been stung by a scorpion. Get an injection ready as soon as possible and insult us and curse the day you saw us later.’ He’ll lose his temper, and he might accuse me of interfering in his work. When you see all that happening in front of you, don’t think your father is a coward, God forbid. Not at allit would be very easy for me to draw my knife from my sleeve and kill him at the door to his office, but that wouldn’t do any good and wouldn’t solve the problem. It would make it much more complicated. The problem is the government, which sent him to us without any equipment or medicine. They might as well have said to him, ‘Go to those wretches to study how people die.’ He’s a helpless wretch like us, but he acts the way he does to vent his impotence and sense of injustice.” 

As the cart barrelled along, it hit the outer gate of the health center. The gate fell to the ground, got tangled up in the cart underneath, and was dragged some distance along the stony ground, making a horrible noise that made the doctor and his assistants wake up in alarm.  

The donkey stopped at the threshold, its head bowed and its penis limp, with liquid dripping onto the neem tree nearby. Humayda stood next to his donkey, dejected and numbed. He tried to speak, but his tongue wouldn’t obey him. He started trying to gesture with his eyes, hands, and feet. The doctor and his assistant rushed down the stairs. Humayda had removed the shawl from his daughter’s face. 

When the shawl fell off the daughter’s body, revealing mercilessly what fate had wrought, the doctor swallowed the insults and curses that were on the tip of his tongue. He patted Humayda on the shoulder as the father stood there holding the shawl, his eyes swollen from crying. “I’m sorry. You’re much too late,” the doctor said. “Unfortunately, the ambulance has broken downotherwise we would have taken you and the body back to your home,” he added. 

Humayda turned the donkey around by the neck and climbed back onto the cart, leaving the reins loose because the donkey was well aware of the way home. Humayda lay next to his daughter and whispered in her ear: “Hey, Fateen, shall I sing you a song?” Then the doctor and his assistant heard a sweet, heavenly voice singing: Even the shadow is gone, and it left me with nothing to console me. 

 

[Purchase Issue 19 here.] 

 

Jamal Aldin Ali Alhaj is a Sudanese author who writes short stories, novels, articles, and literary criticism. He has published three novels: Janukuru,Willow Root Cork, and Albatra, Brother to the Birds. Many of his short stories have been published in magazines and newspapers. He won the Altayeb Salih Prize for Creative Writing.

Jonathan Wright studied Arabic, Turkish, and Islamic history at St. John’s College, Oxford University. Between 1980 and 2009, he worked for the Reuters news agency, mainly in the Middle East. He began literary translation in 2008 and has since translated about a dozen novels, as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poetry. He won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation twice, for The Bamboo Stalk, by Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi, and Azazeel, by Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan, as well as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014 for his translation of The Iraqi Christ, by Hassan Blasim. His latest literary translations include Jokes for the Gunmen, short stories by Mazen Maarouf, and Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.

The Dam

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