Translated by ROBIN MOGER
Not many of us knew Sharif. He had been gone from the village for more than thirty years, and the few times his name came up, the person in question would glance around and lower their voice almost to a whisper. Men’s heads would cluster together in brief and hasty conference. And should his father, Sheikh Abdennabi Wadd Saleh, appear at the head of the alley and walk their way, or his mother, Hagga Amina Bint Suleiman, approach the store, they would fall silent or change the conversation.
Nowadays, though, everyone talks about Sharif—most freely, and with a blend of respect, astonishment, and veneration. Indeed, the story of Sharif’s life has become a point of pride, a deathless epic, something the inhabitants of our village can hold over our neighbors when conversation turns to courage and heroism and glory. And how could it be otherwise? This is the man who’d stood firm against a horde of devils, had fought them till he’d wiped them from the earth.
The first time I heard the name Sharif Wadd Abdennabi was ten years ago or more. We had been playing by the riverbank, about eight of us. Abdallah Wadd Attaher was the most skilled at building sandcastles, little cupolas decorated with shells and fish scales, but another of our number, a boy by the name of Ahmed Wadd Abdennabi, was the devil himself back then. He would destroy these beautiful domes, his big feet trampling their delicate curves and leveling them flat. And this would lead to conflict, to a battle that would end in victory for Ahmed and his powerful body. One day, when Abdallah had reached a pitch of pain and frustration at the sheer injustice of it, he had shouted in his assailant’s face, “Your brother’s an infidel! Your brother’s an infidel!,” a phrase which must have touched something within us all, because we gathered round Ahmed and began to circle him, chanting in turn, “Your brother’s an infidel. Your brother’s an infidel.”
And what could the poor boy do but burst into tears, then turn and sprint back home, crowned with shame?
We had no idea who this infidel brother was, nor why he might be described so, but Abdallah, it seemed, did know. He told us that Ahmed had a brother called Sharif who had repudiated Allah and the revelation given to the Prophet Mohammed, upon him be peace, bringing down the ire of the government. Abdallah said that he’d heard his parents talking about it.
A strange and astonishingly courageous thing to have done. It terrified us.
For days afterward we turned it over, a great and sacred secret, a secret that was now ours. We would walk down to the river, away from the buildings and the eyes of our elders and, once there, would gather round Abdallah, get him to repeat what he’d said, then fall to debate and discussion, trying to imagine what this infidel must be like. And failing. This was a man from our village, brother of a friend and, in some of our cases, a relative. It was hard to square these facts with the image of an infidel in our minds.
Then we forgot all about it. Forgot that Sharif Wadd Abdennabi even existed.
And now, ten years later, the man was once more the center of events, and this time the reason was the MacMaic mansion: the haunted house.
Perhaps a year before, suspicious activity had been observed up in the mansion, a large two-story edifice put up during the British occupation to house the English inspector who oversaw agricultural projects in the village, and subsequently adopted by local inspectors. When the projects failed, the reservoir that watered them running dry, the mansion was abandoned to owls and bats.
I passed it every time I walked the road to the tombs, where the tomb and shrine of the saint Sheikh Fadlallah sat, and it never once caught my attention particularly or gave me any sense of being strange.
The building rose from the center of a great patch of waste ground which, in the rainy season, was irresistible as a place to run about, and it was shielded almost completely from view by weeds and opportunistic undergrowth, yet all the same, it never occurred to any of us that a denizen of the lower world might adopt it as a base for their activities. Yet it was so.
One night, people noticed that the deserted hulk was full of life. And what life! A little past midnight, cries issued from the windows. Terrifying cries: bellows and moans and wails and pleas for aid that rent the heart, now and then shot through with vile abuse and shouts of anger which swelled to fill the whole night. And when dawn broke and cold silence regained its throne, the mansion was quite as still and desolate as it had always been.
Not one of the village’s inhabitants was brave enough to approach the MacMaic mansion to find out what was going on. It seemed to everyone so strange, so far outside the ordinary, that the involvement of djinn could not be discounted. Subsequently, this suspicion would sharpen into certainty; government officials, no less, would bear witness to it. When the same incidents had repeated several times more, had become routine, the sheikh of the village, with several dignitaries in train, traveled down to the big city and laid the matter out before the authorities, who ordered them to warn the residents of the village against approaching the mansion between evening prayers and dawn: the damned souls of the English must have returned to occupy the place and were now fighting over which of them had the greatest right to oversee and administer it.
The sheikh and dignitaries did just as they were bid. They assembled the residents together, explained the truth of what was happening, then gave the warning to stay away, with terrible punishments set out for those who disobeyed their orders.
The Imam, Sheikh Baballah, appended a further order. The officials, he said, had told him that if the residents, en masse, directed sufficient prayers and supplications heavenward, the evil might be lifted from the village, and the unclean spirits would depart to return whence they had come. This suggestion met with a positive response in the souls of his congregation, and soon it had become a routine: the worshippers would gather in the mosque at noon, Baballah would exhort them, and then the prayers would pour forth against these strange beings.
But for a long time, things remained as they were. The infidel spirits continued to practice their abominable rites, heedless of the massed prayers, the awful supplications, Baballah’s invocations, until the day came at last, and we found ourselves erupting out of the mosque and running up toward the mansion, not a thought in our heads: the warnings of the authorities and all fear of consequences quite forgotten.
The worshippers surged forward to the mansion, from where the mad orchestra roared out its demonic, savage cries. The crowd ran toward gunfire, powder smoke, the stench of death, and there we found him, standing outside the mansion with eyes fixed on the heavens and a rifle in his hand, its clip empty. He was dark, as though buried in the soil for years, and, with his tall and slender frame, his bald head, the wild and greying beard, and the blood- and sweat-stained rags that only barely covered his shame, stood there like a monument surrounded by endless waste ground and wreathed in the crimson light that came out of the east, he seemed like a being from myth, descended that very moment from the skies.
I was the first to reach him, and when he spoke, it felt as though he were addressing me: “I am Sharif. Sharif Wadd Abdennabi.”
He fell silent, face creased as though enduring a great and fatal pain, and then he ground his teeth, clenching his jaw, summoning the strength he needed for the whisper that followed: “Tell everyone in the village I say hello. Tell them Sharif killed the demons. They’re all dead inside.”
Then he dropped to the ground, a great tumbled pillar.
Out of the back door to the mansion, emaciated men emerged in a straggling line. They trooped wearily toward the road which leads to the river. From where I stood, I watched them go until they disappeared into the grove of acacia trees close by.
Mohamed Badawi Higazi studied law at the University of Khartoum. He writes poetry, short stories, and novels. His debut novel, The Door of Life, won the 2006 Altayeb Salih Prize for Creative Writing.
Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic prose and poetry based in Cape Town, South Africa.