Al-Ahram Ueekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Distant explosion

By Ibrahim Aslan

Ibrahim AslanYoussef El-Naggar got drunk on the small bottle of rum he had ordered and asked Sayed to bring him another. He didn't remember Fatma except when he searched in his pocket for a box of matches, his fingers touching the key to the flat. When he remembered her, he also remembered the echo of slogans that hummed incessantly in his head. He couldn't know exactly what was wrong with him, or what had brought him to this bar to drink alone.

He thought of the dark young woman with a scarf on her head being carried on the shoulders of the demonstrators, and he was bemused by how daring she was --something he would never have thought her capable of-- and he thought of the anger on her face, which completely altered her features, as she was carried on the men's shoulders. That child-woman.

He remembered Mansour, Fathi, Fayyad and Abdel-Qader and counted the years since that time -- five years. He said to himself: on that night [five years ago], Abdel-Qader invited you, and you drank as well, but in another bar. He felt very distant now. But he told himself: Others have distanced themselves too. He swallowed a handful of bean sprouts, poured another glass of rum, and thought of the novel he wanted to write and the pages he had written of it. He said to himself: Despite the passing of years, and your being drunk, you can still remember every word, because you wrote things ten times over without knowing how to proceed.

It was raining. You started the novel by talking about the rain and about how you left your house after talking to your father, who was alive then, and about how, after going to the Awadalla café, you took the trolley-bus downtown, and you walked to Tal'at Harb Square, where you saw people clustered in circles around the students. There was one big circle, and in the middle of it there was a white man with short brown hair arguing with one of the students about the condition of the country and the Occupation, and about how this required that everyone concentrate on his or her own work and not stir up trouble. His eyes were wide open, and they had a threatening look. You'll never forget that look. You could recognise that head now even if it were buried in a mountain of severed heads. But you didn't write about that in your novel.

[...]

Later Abdel-Qader told you that people who enter into such debates are members of the secret police [...] Abdel-Qader knew that, even though he had neither seen the man, nor left his seat in the café. You saw everything, but you didn't know, and you never wrote about that. Instead you wrote that the graffiti that people had written on the walls was still wet. You didn't write about the people crowding in to see the students, but you did write about those at the back of the crowd, rocking backwards and forwards on tiptoe to watch the big demonstration; you wrote about the file of Central Security police in front of the offices of Air France carrying batons and clean riot-shields. You also wrote about when your leg was bruised hitting a rubbish bin on the way to the café. What made you write about those things, which you would never have remembered had you not written them down ten times over, when you didn't write about other things? When you didn't write about the man talking to the student and looking menacing, though you now vividly remember him without having written a word about him? You wrote about certain things, but many other things you didn't write about.

[...]

You went to Al-Tahrir square and saw the students staging a sit-in there, and you saw the foreign men and women standing in front of the Izavich café with their cameras [...] You were walking forward with Fathi, as he distributed copies of the [Writers' Solidarity] Manifesto to the students, exchanging humorous remarks with them. You gave out manifestos as well, but you felt perplexed and confused. You didn't write about that, but you wrote about the people, about their sizes, clothes and their shoes. There were shoes with high heels, and others with heels that were not so high; there were new shoes and others that were old, wrinkled, and titling to one side; there were black shoes, red shoes, yellow shoes, shoes with laces and shoes without.

[...]

Later you met Abdel-Qader, and he invited you to go to the Venezia Bar with him, and, when you had got drunk, he told you not to expect much. Student movements never lead to the downfall of the regime, he said. At most they force it to put on new make-up, but, in our late-capitalist age, every regime has a fresh supply of that to meet every situation. He said that the real problem lay with the onlookers, who just watched and assigned blame, and that he himself had heard poor people saying that the students were only doing what they were doing because they were young and because they had their parents to support them. As you left the bar together, he said that the whole country was in a process of transformation, and that we were the inheritors of it. The important thing, he said, was not to lose what we have in our hands, otherwise our homeland will no longer be ours.

[...]

Damn Mansour, Fayyad, Fathi, Qasim, Abdel-Qader, Abdel-Fattah and Khalil, and damn their ancestors! Damn the whole country and everyone in it. He swallowed another handful of bean-sprouts and said to himself: you are totally drunk. Don't write about those people, but write about the things you know. Write about Omran and Abdalla, about the café and about your father who died. Write that the death of the poor is not really death but is more like assassination.

Better still, don't write about any of these things. Try to write about the river, and about the houses built of stone by the river, describing how each house has its children outside -- boys fishing and swimming, and girls washing the mats and kitchen things. Write about yourself on your way to the river through Al-Effendi Alley and then Hawwa Alley. You've fished every spot along that part of the bank, and you never went to the river without descending those steps, carrying a small piece of dough as bait, which you would soften by rolling it between in your palm. Then, once in the river, you would bare your legs and sit on one of the stones that you knew only too well. Remember? That was twenty years ago.

You're drunk. No, he told himself, you're angry. Damn you too, he was saying to himself, when Youssef El-Naggar heard a distant explosion.

Extracted from Malik Al-Hazin, translated by Mona Anis

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