Translated by WILLIAM M. HUTCHINS
The world was still, and Yunus felt alone in existence. He walked along the shore beneath a sky studded with stars. It was his birthday, and he was finally returning home, after his drinking buddies had departed one by one. What was the essence of his solitude? A void and waiting… waiting for what? The end that no one can escape. All he could hope for was that the end be without pain or suffering, as if he were sleeping, roaming the seashore, leafing through a book, listening to one of his favorite symphonies, lost in thought, or recalling memories from his happy past.
The void was frightening, dark, and weighty. All his reading, writing, walks, conversations with friends, and all his other activities and endeavors wouldn’t suffice to fill even a little of its alarming emptiness. When he had chosen to settle in Neapolis, he had thought that writing might be more beneficial than at any previous time. Therefore he had decided to devote himself to it seriously; perhaps it would relieve him of his torments and pains and restore serenity, vitality, and hope to him. But whenever he picked up a pen and brought it toward a white piece of paper, words fled from him like birds flying away from a hunter.
According to Kierkegaard, life makes sense only when a person looks backward, but the only way to live is to look forward all the time—in other words, toward something that does not exist. The future also alarmed Yunus because all he could envision was a bleak, desolate, thorny desert. The past, though, was an enjoyable, comforting expanse. There he was—sixty years ago—a baby. His mother delivered him at dawn on a Thursday. It was the day of the weekly market in al-‘Alla. While screaming in labor, she was able to hear the clamor of men exchanging their morning greetings and preparing to head to the market. Yunus’s father had hosted a magnificent banquet for the village’s dignitaries to celebrate the new baby. His mother’s sister Salima, who was an expert cook, oversaw the preparations. The guests ate couscous with mislan. They stayed up late that night, enjoying panegyric songs, Sufi chanting, and Qur’anic recitations. The Qur’anic sura “Yunus” was recited more than once, because when his mother was pregnant with him, she had had an amazing dream: She had seen herself swimming in the sea in her green wrap that she wore to feasts and weddings. Around her waist she had fastened a brilliantly colored sash. She was as light as a butterfly, and the sea was calm, blue, and as vast as the sky above. Her dream was amazing because she had never seen the sea and the tales she had heard about it would not have sufficed to create a clear image in her mind.
She told her dream to her friend Dhahabiya, who was renowned for her skill and expertise in deciphering the riddles of dreams. Dhahabiya thought about it for a long time. When she failed to interpret it, she suggested his mother seek out Ammar, the teacher at the Qur’anic primary school. He was a thin man who was said to resemble a scorched piece of firewood. Cross-eyed, he spoke extremely slowly—as if the words were imprisoned inside his chest and could escape only with difficulty. He pondered her dream silently, his brow furrowed, almost oblivious to her sitting before him covered with the green cloak she had worn in her dream. Her heart was pounding quickly and powerfully. It was winter, and Kesra Mountain was covered with snow. A camel was wailing in the distance, because they had slaughtered her calf to celebrate the ample olive harvest.
Then Master Ammar cleared his throat and—with the slow delivery for which he was renowned and loved by the people of the village—began to tell her about a prophet called Yunus, who was a generous ascetic. “God sent him to his people, and he began to preach to them, counsel them, and guide them to goodness, although none of them responded. When he gave up and left them, he was extremely angry, promising them a painful punishment that would befall them in three days. When he reached the sea, determined to quit his people for good, he boarded a ship that was sailing to a distant land. He did so without realizing that God was displeased with him because he had not shown the patience it takes to deliver a divine message. Even so, despair and hopelessness quickly spread to his soul for not properly performing the mission entrusted to him. Back in the village, God granted belief to the hearts of Yunus’s people before He punished them. So they repented, and the men, women, and children wept.
“Meanwhile a violent storm rocked the ship on which the Prophet Yunus was a passenger. The waves raged high around it and began to toss it about, threatening to drown those on board. They considered this storm to be a sign that one of their fellow passengers had sinned. For this reason they decided to throw the sinner into the sea; perhaps that would decrease God’s anger and He would save them from imminent destruction. After discussing the matter, they drew arrows. Yunus drew the losing arrow, and they were all astonished, because he was renowned for righteousness and veracity. Then they drew arrows twice more, but each time Yunus drew the losing one. So he cast himself into the sea, where a whale swallowed him whole.
“God, however, commanded the whale not to harm His prophet. During the course of three nights, Yunus remained shaded by three degrees of darkness: the darkness of the whale’s belly, the darkness of the sea, and the darkness of the night. This was a divine test for him. After the third night, the whale spat him out. He stood naked and emaciated on the shore. Over his head grew a gourd plant with large, tender leaves that shaded him and were unmolested by flies or other insects. Once the Prophet Yunus regained his health, God sent him back to his people. All of this was part of God’s plan, may He be praised and exalted.”
This strange story enthralled his mother, who continued to gaze at Master Ammar with fascination, as if she were in the presence of an angel who had delivered her from darkness and shown her the light. Master Ammar spoke again; he admitted he had not understood her dream well but advised her to name her baby Yunus, if it was a boy. Then he placed his hand on her belly and prayed for her and the Muslim community, hoping they would enjoy goodness and blessings, health and happiness.
When she gave birth, his mother followed Master Ammar’s advice and named her son Yunus. Once he became conscious of the world around him, his mother liked to entertain him from time to time with the unique tale of the Prophet Yunus. It was the most captivating story he ever heard. When she finished, he would close his eyes to see himself first aboard a ship rocked by the waves, next in the whale’s belly enveloped by the three darknesses, and finally standing stark naked on the beach with a blessed gourd plant over his head while his people stared at him, fascinated and astonished. When he was five and had begun to memorize the Qur’an, he was in a hurry to reach the sura “Yunus.” With a speed that astonished the schoolmaster, he memorized the short suras and then the long ones. Whenever he finished one of the Qur’an’s sixty sections, he would parade through the village with the slate on which he had written the revelatory verses with resin, decorating the center and margins with egg yolk. Then men and women would bless him, stroking his small head with their hands while praying for his success and achievement, by the grace of God, of His Messenger, and of the righteous saints.
After he finished memorizing the sura of Yunus, his heart overflowed with all the rapture of a voyager who has reached a verdant oasis where he hopes to rest after the hardships of a long journey. Whether he was alone on the footpaths, watching the sun set behind the hill, or wandering through the fields, his eyes moist with tears, he would repeat in a whisper: “‘If only the town had believed and benefited! Only the people of Yunus did. So, when they believed, We freed them from the punishment of ignominy in their worldly pursuits and allowed them to enjoy their lives.’”
Two years before she died, he brought his mother to the capital. Accompanied by his wife and their daughter Maryam, he took his mother to the seashore for the first time, at the harbor beach, early in the summer. They spent three hours there. When they were preparing to return, he asked her, “What did you think of the sea?”
She smiled and replied, “Exactly like the sea I saw in the dream when I was pregnant with you!”
How he wished he might recall only happy memories. But his memories were constantly threatened with annihilation beneath the weight of time. Rilke was wrong when he believed that old age could bring happiness. No, it was hideous and unfair. The satirist Swift, who created incredible worlds—after he was placed in a care facility he himself had founded when he was younger—liked to stand before the mirror, contemplating his face, and shout with self-loathing, “What a miserable old man you are!” Perhaps, before long, Yunus would do the same thing. Then he would fall over dead amidst the heap of his defeats. The victories he had encouraged his soul to anticipate had never been achieved, and his marriage had failed miserably.
Suddenly there was a commotion on the beach where Yunus was walking alone, and figures approached him rapidly. He stopped walking only to find himself surrounded by a group of young men, all of them drunk. They were glowering, and sparks flew from their eyes.
“Didn’t I tell you?” one of them said in a harsh voice coarsened by rage and rancor. “He’s one of those dogs!”
The others replied, “You’re right!”
“Son of a bitch! He strolls along the beach in a fancy suit!”
“In fancy shoes too!”
“Yesterday he and his brothers were picking up cigarette butts and eating crumbs. Today they’ve become the lords of the country!”
“They piss on us from dawn to dusk, and no one can punish them.”
“Their sister, the whore, protects them and spoils them!”
“She’s become the mistress of the country. She gives speeches, she commands, she appoints government ministers.”
“Not to mention ambassadors, and she builds mansions and buys private planes!”
“Without any limits, as if buying children’s toys.”
“And her husband, the general, obeys her like a dog!”
“This wretch—what shall we do to him?”
“We’ll fuck his mother and his sister.”
Yunus broke his silence and shouted at them, “Listen, guys!”
But they attacked him and began kicking him. They shouted gruffly while cursing and insulting him, spitting at him. Then they ripped his suit off and cast it into the sea. Blood began to flow, and he was about to pass out.
“Not so fast, fellows,” he heard one of the young men say. “This isn’t one of them!”
“How can he not be one of them?”
“I know this man!”
“Who is he?”
“He’s that sad professor who sits in the Albatross and prowls alone on the beach.”
“Ah, true, true!”
“The poor man, you’ve treated him badly.”
“What shall we do now?”
“Let’s get out of here. He’s to blame for strolling on the beach in a fancy suit at this hour of the night!”
They departed. He remained where he had been dumped on the cold sand, unable to move. Bruises covered every part of his body, and blood smeared his face. With difficulty he opened his eyes. The world was black: no sky, no sea. He was falling into a deep, dark void. He remembered Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi’s words:
Life is short. The hours fly past. Motion is perpetual. Opportunities glitter brightly. When strings play music, they approach each other and then separate. As souls expire, they dissolve and catch fire.
Hassouna Mosbahi is a contemporary Tunisian writer, literary critic, poet, and journalist. In Arabic he has published five collections of short stories, eight novels, and some nonfiction. Mosbahi was awarded the Tukan Prize in Munich. A Tunisian Tale was his first novel to be published in English translation.
William Maynard Hutchins, a professor at Appalachian State University, was awarded two National Endowment for the Arts grants for literary translation. He was co-winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize and won the American Literary Translators Association National Prose Translation Award.
From the novel Yatim al-Dahr, published in Arabic by Dar Al Jadawel (Beirut, 2012)
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Mislan is a cut of lamb taken from the upper part of the sheep’s hind legs. The meat is considered a choice cut, because it is tender, tasty, meaty, and fatty. It is cooked almost exclusively with couscous and served on special occasions, as a treat or in honor of guests.
The fruit of this plant can be eaten raw or cooked—like its rind and seeds. It is beneficial in many ways (Qur’an, “Saffat” [“Rows”] 37:146).
Qur’an: “Yunus” (“Jonah”) 10:98