Translated by JONATHAN WRIGHT
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.
All was quiet at the Nile Valley café. But it was a superficial calm. There was something like a hissing or a mumbling, like the swishing of distant waves, that a sharp ear could pick out. Because behind the market, beyond the gravel road, there were warehouses, dusty giants with corrugated iron roofs that caught the glare of the sun. Mercantile, Bou Kasoul, Abdul Moneim and Sons—the names were written in large letters, thicker than Fanjari’s hand and blacker than Abdul Farraj’s flabby face. There were trucks rumbling, and the shunter locomotive scratched the face of the silence. The singing of the Hadendoa team grew louder the more contorted their faces were from fatigue.
At the door to the warehouse sat Bibi, or Labib, at his desk—a man of towering stature, with a stout body, a red face with fresh stubble, and a luxuriant handlebar moustache. He was issuing orders to the clerks and giving out tasks to his junior staff. At the door stood a group of teenaged boys. They looked impatient and expectant, watching Labib’s gestures. His colossal physique and healthy red face reminded the poor workers of an automated bread oven.
In the depths of the warehouse, Fanjari’s group had started work. There were nine of them. They came from a forgotten village in the north and stuck together under the leadership of Fanjari, the eldest of them. He led them on their path through all the machinations of the Hadendoa, the Jaalin, the Berbers, and others. Ethnic warfare over earning money. Labib was happy with that. He would come in the morning, all active and energetic despite his giant body, and throw a quick glance around him. The groups of men were heaped in dark piles in the shadow of the warehouse: heads with jungles of thick, curly hair. Machetes and daggers. Spitting tobacco and playing sija, a board game with stones. Oaths would fly, some of the men swearing casually that they would divorce their wives. Black coffee and red tea. Dreams of returning to deep in the mountains or to the villages in the north. Feverish desires for journeys into the dark, to Deem Suakin and al-Ramla.
Suddenly the leaders of the groups broke from their work and gathered around Labib.
“We’ve got a steamer with sesame and grain. It’s one millieme a sack. If you like it, get into the warehouse,” Labib said.
There were subdued murmurings from the heads gathered around Labib. There were ten groups, and each group had ten men. Deep down they agreed that one millime was unacceptable, but each of them had lost trust in the others and didn’t dare to reject it openly, for fear the others would let them down, as had happened on numerous occasions. Some of them wanted to earn a penny at any cost, because they had long been waiting to see their women, children, and old folk in their distant villages.
“A millime’s fine, guys. We agree.”
“But hey, man, where do the other millimes go? Millime after millime, a thousand sacks on top of two thousand sacks, and how much does that come to? It comes to pounds, Abu Elwa, and where do all those pounds go?”
“What is it, Abu Halima, and you, Fanjari? Why don’t you say something, guys? Two teams are needed. Ibn al-Qadiima and Halabi the hulk. You’re smart—tell it straight that you want Fanjari and Abu Halima, so you can finish it off and we can move on to other warehouses.”
Ten heads looked down at the damp, salty ground, then up expectantly to meet Labib’s red face, so full of health and showing traces of cavorting in the savage forests of the night.
Everyone jumped to. Labib went to his office; Fanjari and Abu Halima went into the warehouse, followed by the men from their two teams; and the grindstone started to turn. Hundreds of sacks came in, and others went out. The truck engines wailed, and the sun crept up the sky. Feet sank into spilled sesame and grain. Sweat poured, and the air was stifling. A warehouse is like the stomach of a shark, squeezing and grinding living creatures.
Morning advanced, and the grindstone slowed down. Men came out exhausted by the dismal work. They started shuffling to the Askala market and to Abu Hashish—a line of stores along the shoreline. Dozens of loaves of bread disappeared, and beans in oil, and vegetable stew. Iced water gurgled down throats burning from the heat and the dust. The sea sank into a state of blue drowsiness, and the backwash of the waves swished and died on the limestone rocks where the refuse of the oceans piled up.
The Nile Valley café woke up from its morning somnolence, especially when Fanjari and his team arrived. It was their favorite place. As they arrived, the waiter sprang into action and Abdul Farraj’s eyes lit up. He opened his large mouth in expectation of a crude joke from one of the young men on Fanjari’s team. All the men there were tied “in harness,” as the English say: all of them carried their fates on their backs, in the form of a sack of beans, grain, or sesame seeds, except for Abdul Farraj. His face showed suspicious signs of affluence, and he wore clean clothes and possessed big, sausage-like lips that opened to reveal white teeth. When Fanjari’s men came in, he stretched himself, his face and senses opening up in readiness for conversation, especially with the young men among them. But he was frightened of Fanjari. His piercing looks. His strong, calm, dark eyes. The prickly moustache. He knew what was going on in Fanjari’s mind. He knew Fanjari understood the game.
Yet it was not only the game that aroused Fanjari’s rancor: Farraj’s suspect softness and his languid voice also awoke in Fanjari his long-ago hours under the roof of a madrasa, around the Qur’an fires lit by Hayran al-Fikki Hamad Abu Asa in his village. How do you make a living, you descendant of slaves? Why is your voice so soft? Every day you slip quietly into the warehouse, and you and Labib Habashi whisper to each other. You pave the way for him by night, prepare for him beds for debauchery, bringing pleasures to him from within the city walls. Every time, you make pounds. Millime on millime, times thousands, adds up to pounds. You and Labib live off the surplus of our sweat. However you make your money, you’re also in it for the fun.
The sea whispered in the ear of the sleepy morning. The tea was wonderful, and the young men were busy teasing Abdul Farraj. One of them leaned over to him and whispered in his ear:
“Abdul Farraj, brother, could you give us some work in your place?”
“Why? Don’t you like standing in the sun to find work?” Abdul Farraj retorted with a resounding laugh. Fanjari frowned and furrowed his brow.
“No, I want something special, like the kind of work Labib Habashi offers.”
Abdul Farraj roared with laughter again. “Be careful,” he said in a low voice, “Mind your livelihood.” The young man poked Farraj at the waist, making him jump slightly and gasp.
The men started going back to the warehouses. The café sank back into its previous calm, and Abdul Farraj went back to his dreamy relaxation. The sea wind stopped blowing. The sun rose to its zenith. The sea turned green, and the birds began to soar far away over the watery wilds.
Farraj looked far out toward the horizon, where the spectral silhouette of a ship was visible in the haze. In the old days, he had dreamed of sailing away on one of the ships that left the port. In the old days, he had worked as a waiter in Ramona’s place, among the foreigners and the senior civil servants. He’d latched on to them, followed at their feet. They found him genial and liked the proficient way he served them. He came to know clever Bibi, a big spender who gave money away.
The shadows grew shorter. Two o’clock approached. Today was payday. Time for a new tryst. Tonight at Kilo 5, in the softness of the southern districts beyond the old creek, with girls recently arrived from the mountains of Eritrea and the depths of the continent. He would be their guide along their troubled path.
Midafternoon threw a slight shadow on the sea. The weather was hot, and his steps took him through the market and along the gravel road.
There the grindstone was turning. Sweat and dust. He didn’t like to watch the men at work. Something like a hint of guilt nagged at his thoughts, but you have to be quick-witted in this world, Abdul Farraj thought, so don’t let it worry you.
Farraj sneaked warily into Labib’s office.
“Welcome, friends,” Labib said. “Have some lemonade or coffee.”
A few steps away, there was a pile of sacks. In the dark, Fanjari looked on with tired eyes. He had asked his colleagues for permission to have a few minutes’ rest. His nerves were rattled from the heat, the exhaustion, and the burning thirst. The only water in the warehouse was the salty water in sweat.
His senses went on the alert as Farraj came in. His nerves tensed in anger. He felt very irritable—the thirst, the stifling air, Farraj and Labib chatting. So that slave is going out, Fanjari thought. I see no reason to argue with him. Fanjari went out by another door, and the sun hit him on his face till he felt dizzy. And then there was Farraj, flirting with a Falata woman sitting in the shade, like a chick pecking at a handful of seeds. Eventually she started to get annoyed with him.
“Farraj, leave the woman alone.”
“What? What’s it to do with you, Fanjari? Are you the police or what?”
“Take this hand on your black face.”
“You’d hit me, you, you—”
“You deserve more than a beating for this insult.”
From inside the warehouse, the men gathered around the scene. They started trying to unlock Fanjari’s grip on the throat of Farraj, whose eyes were popping out and who had saliva drooling from his mouth.
Labib heard the hue and cry and looked through the doorway. When his eyes fell on the scene, he grinned from ear to ear. When Fanjari saw him, he loosened his grip on Abdul Farraj and gritted his teeth more angrily. At the same moment, the men took him away from the scene. They took him far away and tried to calm him down. Others sat around Abdul Farraj, who had collapsed in the shade of the warehouse, with a film like tears on his eyes. Raucous laughter broke out from Labib’s office and continued as he resumed his work.
The place calmed down, and the men went back to their work. Fanjari recovered from his outburst of anger and started to feel a sense of remorse. He started to withdraw into himself little by little. His blows had not fallen in the right place, so he had two reasons to feel regret.
He dismissed his men and walked over toward Farraj.
“Farraj, my brother, I was wrong—I swear I was wrong. I sincerely apologize, for those who forgive are generous.”
He bowed to Farraj as a gesture of goodwill, but Farraj didn’t respond. His face drooped in sorrow. He looked far out to sea and felt a sudden nostalgia for the idea of running away aboard a ship.
Osman al-Houri studied at Khartoum University and then went into teaching. He started writing short stories in the early 1960s. He has had one novel published, Mount Hassaniya, and several of his novels and collections of short stories are in the process of being published.
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.