Following yesterday’s interview with best-selling Kuwaiti author Bothayna al-Essa, an excerpt from her best-selling Maps of Wandering, which — as she discussed last year — had suffered a ban in Kuwait for violating the “preservation of public morals”:
By Sawad Hussain
The Maps of Wandering opens with the ordeal of a couple on Haj that loses their child in a flood of pilgrims. The ensuing chapters chronicle their son Mashari’s wanderings as he is confronted by “forgotten” worlds and stories of human negligence taking place across the region. The reader hears the voices not only of those who have been marginalized in the holy city, but in surrounding countries as well: those of unknown parentage living in camps; poverty-stricken individuals who traversed the Sahara in search of a better life; and children who have been trafficked or molested, among others. Underpinning the novel is the question of what pushes individuals at the margins of society to turn to crime, and readers will be forced to wonder what it would take for them to repudiate their own moral compass. So visceral are the descriptions that The Maps of Wandering has been banned in Kuwait, al-Essa’s home country.
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The Maps of Wandering
By Bothayna Wail al-Essa, translated by Sawad Hussain
The First Day
Mecca. The Grand Mosque
7 Dhu Al-Hijja, 1431
… Before that moment, everything was fine.
Sumaiya was on the verge of completing her fourth time around the Kaaba, taken in by the majesty of it all as she moved in sync with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, her lips drenched in sweat, praising Allah.
She was growing weak, her gaze hanging above the hundreds of thousands of heads that filled up the place. The entire world was one rotating ring. “I am at your service Allah,” she whispered repeatedly. She shot her eyes to the right, catching sight of the back of Faisal’s neck — he was a few steps in front of her. In between all the drooping heads, the shaved ones, the bald ones, the hijab-covered ones, black heads, grey heads, white heads, and sweaty heads, she could see him. She looked to her left and beheld the sacred Kaaba, its cover rolled up, the stones compressed together at its base, above it a white fabric leading to the black, gilded, silk kiswah, the cloth that draped over the Kaaba. She felt a sweaty little hand in hers, and looked down at him. He sped up to keep up with her pace. “Ah Mashari…are you tuckered out?” He shook his head.
Their pace slowed as they approached the southern corner of the Kaaba, the Yemeni corner. It was congested. “Allahu akbar!” she said as she raised her right hand towards the Kaaba, held dear in the hearts of Muslims the world over, repeating, “God is great!”
She was gripping Mashari with her left hand.
An Asian delegation walking with linked arms collided with them, and Mashari’s hand slipped from hers. Sumaiya felt her shoulder almost dislocating, and her body launched forward two steps. She got caught up in the hem of her abaya. When she regained her balance and straightened, she couldn’t see him. She turned around and surveyed her immediate surroundings. He had vanished.
As Sumaiya looked around again, the human flood raged and swept her away in its waves. She started yelling, “Mashari! Don’t move! Don’t move! Stay where you are!” Then, when she remembered that he could be trampled to death, she hesitated for a beat and then shouted, “Mashari! Walk! Walk! Walk!”
Her eyes darted from one opening between the massed bodies to another; a tiny boy like him could be anywhere. Her legs stiffened, her heart beating madly. She crashed into a bare shoulder and felt the stranger’s wetness on her cheek. Her feet were run over by a wheelchair, and her path was blocked by a human bottleneck formed by thousands of bodies wearing ihramat – white pilgrim garments, and black abayas. “Faisal! Faisal!” she screeched. Between the hundreds of thousands of heads, she could see him.
Faisal magically whipped around in that moment. He saw Sumaiya yelling, her face drained of color, her eyes red. He rushed towards her, carving a path between the bodies like someone swimming against the current, receiving blows and slaps to his face and shoulders. When he finally got in front of her, she started pulling at his white wraparound garment, her eyes absent, reflecting her worst fears. And even though she wasn’t able to put together a single comprehensible sentence, he understood everything; Mashari had vanished into thin air.
A group of Africans jostled between the two. They were driven apart involuntarily, and Sumaiya was forced to exit, against her will, the ring performing tawaf – the circling of the Kaaba. Faisal raised his arm in the air, like a ship mast. “Sumaiya! Sumaiya!” he cried at the top of his voice. They both rowed their way in the direction of the other, their hands met, and he grabbed her wrist, pulling her towards him. They escaped the rotating mass of bodies. “Don’t worry, we’ll find him. You look for him in the areas around the courtyard of the mosque, and I’ll look outside, by the entrances.”
Faisal thought he ought to follow the current; without a doubt his son got swept away in it. Scrawny Mashari, tiny Mashari, what a fragile kid! How easy it would be for him to be washed away in this river of human flesh. He started to race between them all, running and screaming. Like Faisal, Sumaiya charged and screamed through the crowd. They collided with tens of backs and arms. They suffered knocks and smacks to their faces, but kept on running.
They ran from their hearts, releasing terrified screams, as if the mouth of hell itself had swallowed them up.
Mecca. The Grand Mosque
7 Dhu Al-Hijja, 1431
After an hour, Faisal thought he should do more than just run around in a haze of torment. The wave of bodies that heaved around him encompassed the entire world; white, black, one wave after the other revolving around the Kaaba, and, standing at its fringes, Faisal feared the circles would keep going round and round for all eternity. The human vortex danced around him; if only everyone would stop tawaf for just five minutes… The circle won’t stop rotating, and, even at the furthest point, the fear sweeps you away.
His eyes surveyed the space; the little guy could be a mere two meters away and he wouldn’t know it. He brought his hands to his mouth and bellowed, “Mashari! Mashari!” He rushed in the direction of the throng at Maqam Ibrahim, where there were meant to be the prophet’s footprints. What if Mashari had fallen down, and the large stampede trampled him and crushed his bones? Why hadn’t he called when he knew their phone numbers? Faisal turned his back to the Kaaba and ran, as much as a person could run in a crowd, to the closest entrance to the Grand Mosque. Men in military uniforms, badges emblazoned with Special Emergency Forces on their chests, stood by the entrance. “Mashari’s lost! Lost!” he exploded as he reached where they stood. He was panting, sweat pouring down his forehead, his eyes anxious. They looked at him, brows knitted, not understanding a word he had said.
“What’s wrong, hajji?”
Faisal whipped out his iPhone from the pocket on the leather belt fastened to his white wrap. He showed one soldier after the other his son’s picture. “He’s lost!” he repeated, as if reciting a tragedy aloud to himself. Standing amidst a sea of sandals, colliding with thousands of arriving pilgrims, he raised his phone up high, surrendering to the full, overwhelming force of the truth.
Sawad Hussain is a Cambridge-based editor-at-large for ArabLit who is also an Arabic translator and litterateur who holds a MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history and literature.