William Tamplin here translates a 1984 story from ‘Ali ‘Ubayd al-Sa’i:
By William Tamplin
Published in 1984, this story tells of the effect that a group of alien pests has on the communal life of an Arab farming village. Locusts are advancing eastward, destroying crops and displacing people in their path. The local committees organized to fight them are ineffective and end up creating internal divisions within the village. Given al-Sa‘i’s concern with the plight of the Palestinians, this story is almost certainly a national allegory told through the life of a village. The story’s dialogue has a folksy quality, and, as in Kafka, the colloquial expressions contain the metaphors from which the narrative springs. Locusts appear twice in the Qur’an: once to describe the multitudes of bodies that will arise on Judgment Day and again to describe one of God’s punishments of Pharoah for his people’s ingratitude and unbelief during his oppression of the Jews.
Born in 1940, ‘Ali ‘Ubayd al-Sa’i is a short story writer and vernacular poet from Jordan. He has served in the Jordanian army, edited various newspapers (al-Wahdah/UAE, Shihan/Jordan) and literary journals (al-Dhafrah, al-Shira’), and presented TV programs on Jordan’s Bedouin heritage. Now retired, he has organized local cultural festivals in his hometown of Khalidiyyah and has served on the panel of Poet of Jordan, a nationwide poetry competition.
Locusts Leave No Field Green
By ‘Ali ‘Ubayd al-Sa’i
Translated by William Tamplin
News reports told of a dense swarm of locusts wiping out the green fields of central Africa and advancing east. People in the locusts’ projected path let on that the Locust Resistance Committees weren’t effective at all. In fact, they were more dangerous than helpful.
Locusts spread over the crops like ashes, leaving not a single green stalk behind them. The farmers’ faces sunk in tragedy every morning, as if the locusts were devouring not their green fields but their own livers. The color gray gradually began to cover the plains surrounding the village, and the same gloomy color covered their unsightly faces.
Today Abu Jad‘an’s field was a wasteland, just like those of Abu Faris and Mahmud. But the neighboring villages’ tragedy had been even worse—the locusts had started in on its fields at the beginning of their march, when they were hungrier. Now that its fields were devoid of greenery, some of its villagers headed for the surrounding villages the locusts hadn’t yet reached. They were going to join the official Locust Resistance Committees and fight back.
However, as Abu Khalid said one night in the town hall, those committees weren’t exactly concerned with resisting locusts. And they certainly weren’t trying to protect healthy crops the locusts hadn’t reached. When Abu Khalid reached this point in particular, he calmed down a bit before proceeding with passion, “What the hell are these Resistance Committees anyway? They don’t have insecticide! They don’t have shit! They don’t even have the ability to spray the fields where the locusts hatch! Look at their employees coming and going all day like the mother of the bride, busy then free then busy then—meanwhile, the locusts have finished us off! What the hell?”
Abu ‘Adnan was the only one who responded to Abu Khalid’s words by shaking his big head and letting the nargilah pipe rest on his lower lip. He exhaled the flavored tobacco and rearranged some of the coals.
A few days before, Abu Khalid’s neighbor and friend Mas‘ud got into a fight with the head of the Locust Resistance Committee. Mas‘ud told him, “I actually doubt that you came to help us drive away the locusts. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that you haven’t said one word about our disaster? I think you actually want the locusts to eat our crops so you can turn our villages into a nice profitable market for big business. You’re all working hand in hand with those big-city businessmen. And we know what you’re after! We know your intentions, and we know that you can do whatever you want right now. But you haven’t seen the last of us!”
The head of the committee didn’t say anything. They say he kept a sardonic smile on his lips, but his eyes revealed that he had other plans for Mas‘ud.
When Mas‘ud’s corpse was later found in one of the fields, the farmers started muttering amongst themselves and even crying in secret. The women, too, began wailing, especially Mas‘ud’s wife, his mother, and his sister Fatimah. Fatimah ripped her clothes, tore at her hair, and became effectively catatonic. After a few days, though, an eerie silence began to reign over the village. Farmers would come and go looking like rag dolls, emaciated figures moving like robots. Or instead like marionettes with their bulging eyes and hunched backs. They didn’t utter a word. But whoever looked closely could see a tumult raging inside them on the verge of exploding.
The village’s town hall became deserted. The farmers stopped meeting there like they had before. But Jadu‘ the mute, or Mute Jadu‘as the locals called him, would sometimes make an impromptu visit and light the lantern. Whenever he left, he would raise his arms to the sky and splutter in his rough voice: “Ah…ah…al…ya…ay!”
It was Abu Khalid who had initially found Mas‘ud dead, a long rope around his neck. Abu Khalid went to close Mas‘ud’s eyes but couldn’t—the flies had already eaten them, and his eyelids had dried out. After that, there was nothing for Abu Khalid to do but cry for him in silence and agony.
Nevertheless, he found the strength to wipe away his tears, unwound the rope from Mas‘ud’s neck, and hid it. Then he started for the village to tell the farmers, who were uneasy about Mas‘ud’s sudden disappearance.
After this incident, some of the farmers tried to coax Abu Khalid into telling them just exactly how he found Mas‘ud’s body. But his answer was never more than his chest’s rise and fall into an anguished sigh. Then he’d stand up and walk around aimlessly. He stayed away from the guesthouse along with the rest of the farmers, but he also wasn’t seen relaxing outside with anyone. When he was spotted in one of the village’s lanes, he was always in a hurry and appeared to be talking to himself.
Abu Khalid’s wife told one of her female neighbors—after making her swear not to reveal her secret—that her husband possessed a rope the like of which she’d never seen before in her life. At one end of it there was a noose, as if it had been made specifically for killing. Last night, when she tried to open the box where he kept it in order to see it up close, he caught her, screaming in a voice that almost ripped her heart out.
“Leave it be!”
She asked him, trembling, “But Abu Khalid, how did Mas‘ud die? And what does the rope have to do with his death? Dear God, please, I just want to understand!”
“Then why don’t you tell me how Mas‘ud died if you already know? Dear God! You never understand anything! Go to bed!”
Then he closed the door, turned out the light, and pulled the covers over both their heads.
Abu Khalid’s wife continued, saying, “But by God, sister, my heart wouldn’t let up ‘cause…” She went silent and looked around her carefully.
Her neighbor prompted her, “’Cause what? Keep going.”
“Afterwards, hon, afterwards. Now’s not the time. Good night.”
While the farmers were marching in Mas‘ud’s funeral procession, Abu Khalid walked alone and refused to mix with anyone. Even after the bier had reached the grave, he sat far away from everyone, crying silently and breaking up dirt clods with a stick. No one from the village dared approach him except Abu ‘Adnan. He walked over to him while Abu Khalid was still seated and patted him on the shoulder. But Abu Khalid wasn’t able to say even a word. Abu ‘Adnan said his face looked like a tattered piece of black cloth.
The village knew that Mas‘ud was Abu Khalid’s only real friend and his constant companion since childhood; they knew Mas‘ud’s death was hardest for him to bear. But the man crying loudest and hardest at the funeral was Flayyih al-‘Atiyyah, the mayor. His sobbing was loud and clear, and tears poured from his vulpine eyes. The only person who knew the truth about Flayyih al-‘Atiyyah was Abu Khalid, who glanced at him furtively now and then and shook his head in grief. He’d seen him a few days before, meeting with the head of the Committee in one of the village’s nearby caves.
While the group of farmers was finishing up its prayers over Masu‘ud’s body in preparation for burial, Mute Jadu‘ began to splutter in his coarse voice and flap his arms about, saying, “Ah…ah…al…ay.”
One of the farmers asked Abu Khalid, “What’s that idiot blathering on about, Abu Khalid? I hope the poor man hasn’t gone crazy.”
At that moment, Mute Jadu‘ turned instinctively toward Abu Khalid and gesticulated at him with distinct movements. “Ah…ah…al…alal.”
“Seriously?” his friend said. “All the best, man.”
Abu Khalid’s eyes overflowed with tears. He let them run down his cheeks before suddenly dashing off to his house. He stumbled in, opened the box, took out the rope, and made for Mas‘ud’s house next door.
“Congratulations on your son, ma’am. Mas‘ud was like a brother to me.”
“God bless you, Abu Kha—”
But Abu Khalid cut her off, saying, “Did she already tell you about the rope I found around Mas‘ud’s neck?”
“Yeah. Yeah, she did.”
“Here, take it. I’m entrusting it to you. Guard it with your life and pass it on to Mas‘ud’s son when he grows up.”
The Locust Resistance Committees were still engrossed in overcoming difficulties that would influence the progress of the future struggle. And Mas‘ud’s wife was still holding onto the rope.
 maḍāfah, an building for village meetings and for entertaining village guests
 a popular expression (amānah ‘alā raqbatika) that means “guard it with your life” or, literally, “guard it as you would your own neck”
 the words for rope (ḥabl) and pregnancy (ḥabal) are indistinguishable in writing
William Tamplin is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He studies Bedouin poetry, the Andalus, and literary translation. He translated political Bedouin poetry in 2013-14 on a Fulbright to Jordan and has lived, worked and studied in Jerusalem, Amman, and Alexandria, Egypt. He blogs here.
Categories: short stories