Every Friday morning, all the residents in the simmering neighborhood of Wilat in this drab African city waited for the General to appear, to officially open the narrow street that passed between their houses. They had paid for the street’s construction themselves. And they could have used the road without any fuss, but neighborhood authorities had informed them, six months earlier, that His Eminence would be arriving to open the street himself. These authorities, and several other authorities, had ordered the residents to line up in the early morning on the first Friday of the month, but the General did not arrive, and so they repeated this scene on Fridays for months, in hopes of greeting him. Then an order was issued that forbade residents from driving their cars on the new street before it was officially opened. The residents kept lining up as usual for this tiresome wait, whispering and murmuring, but the opening did not happen. Many cursed the day on which the idea arose to build this now-postponed street, and after a long wait, they eventually dispersed in time for prayers, without having been cheered by the sight of His Eminence cutting the ribbon. That act was expected to last only seconds, at which point the neglected street would become well-known, and the media would add the street to a list of the government’s accomplishments. Really, any local official could do the job.
It was a marvelous, fine-looking street, the planners had made it as stunning as could be, and it cut through the middle of the neighborhood with a dark metallic sheen, between dusty dirt houses the color of uncooked camel liver. A street built thanks to the forearms and savings of its own residents, both those residing there and those who had moved away. A sparkling new road that ran through the poor, dirty neighborhood like a modern electric fitting inside a car as old as internal combustion itself. The road began as a patch of dirt and led to an inevitable fate among the potholes.
Meanwhile, the General was too busy with his annual hunting trips to open the street; he was off staying at hunting camps with leaders of neighboring counties and other important figures. The General was rotund, and the more successful the hunting, the shorter he appeared, since he and his companions ate the good meat from the hunt, and he grew ever fatter and heavier. And so he kept hunting, and eating, and growing fatter, and thus shorter. He increasingly became attached to the nation’s soil. And so he set off on his triumphant journey from west to east, penetrating the patient, ancient, virgin continent, until he and his companions fell into the Great Rift Valley. A convoy of bulldozers and other heavy equipment was summoned to save these important figures. And the bulldozers, which could have been filling potholes in every city street if they hadn’t been transported overland to the valley, dug all day on a Friday when the street was meant to be opened, in an attempt to open a passage out of the valley for the procession of cars carrying the General and his friends.
The neighborhood residents had grown bored with this mendacious delay, so they decided to search for someone to take the General’s place. In the end, the opening ceremony happened in an unusual way: people lined up all day Friday as usual, waiting for an alternate to the General, who did not arrive either. The drudgery of waiting had lasted into the afternoon, when a slender little boy tossed a brightly colored glass marble into the air. The child’s eyes gleamed like the rising glass, and beams of afternoon sun glinted off the marble. It seemed massive to the onlookers, mesmerizing to thousands of eyes as it rolled down the street alone, confirming how beautiful the marble and how well-constructed the road truly was. As the neighborhood residents watched in collective astonishment and expectation, the marble proceeded along, thousands of eyes watching in amazed delight as it made its way across the asphalt like a skilled spaceship. The road’s engineering was exemplary. The glass ball rolled farther with impressive speed, still watched by rapt eyes, until it dropped into a hole at the end of the street like a golf ball. The hole swallowed it up. And so the neighborhood residents observed the glorious opening of their illustrious street. But when they turned toward the boy, he was gone without a trace.
Bushra Elfadil is a writer, translator, and columnist. He is the author of five short story collections, three novels, and a book of poetry. In 2012 he won the El-Tayeb Salih International Prize for Creative Writing in Arabic, and in 2017 he was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story “The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away,” translated by Max Shmookler, which appeared in The Book of Khartoum.
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.