An Excerpt from Nadia Al-Kowkabani’s ‘Ali Muhsin Souk’

As Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth) rolls into a close, we have an excerpt by Nadia Al-Kowkabani, who was set to appear at Shubbak Festival last month along with Libyan writer Najwa Benshatwan. However, both authors were denied visas. Instead, they addressed the audience by video and read from their novels

As part of Shubbak Festival, Words Without Borders had one excerpt of Al-Kowkabani’s Ali Muhsin Souk, trans. Thoraya El-Rayyes. ArabLit has a second, trans. Sawad Hussain:

By Sawad Hussain

Within the literary arena, one can argue that Arabic translation is on the rise with writers from Egypt, Lebanon and Syria being recognized and even celebrated at times among mainstream readers. However, there are only a handful – and that is at best – of English translations of Yemeni literature. Moreover, all of the Yemeni fictional prose currently available in English has been penned by men.

Ali Muhsin Souk is a novel that depicts the revolution in 2011 of the Yemeni people against Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in power for 22 years. It details the physical and emotional turmoil that the nation and people as a whole endured as well as the proponents and opponents of the movement. Through the eyes of the populace of the souk, the reader learns of Yemen’s tumultuous history, uncertain present and promising future.  The novel is divided into four parts, with Younes and Mehdi narrating different sections covering the entirety of the revolution from its roots to the aftermath. The extract is taken from the first section of the novel, towards the beginning when the revolution is just beginning to form.

February 20th 2011

By Nadia Al-Kowkabani

Translated by Sawad Hussain

Nothing stays a secret for long in the souk. The news spread like rampant wildfire. People in the souk talked incessantly of some merchants and sellers who had supposedly gone off to join the revolution. Sahat At-Taghreer, or Change Square, was what the youth taking to the streets decided to call the square closest to Sana’a University’s eastern gate. It is here that the peaceful mass revolution was first sparked.

That morning, during Younes’ weekly visit to the chicken farm, he sensed the palpable tension in the air around that square. The owner of the store that sold chickens appeared to be less than pleased about the turn of events. As he drove, he grumbled audibly and let loose a torrent of curses directed at the protesters. All Younes could do was listen to his swearing as he silently surveyed what was happening around him, sitting in the front seat of the pick-up truck loaded with empty yellow cages. All the talk about the revolution was loud. All the way from the souk to the chicken farm Jumbo-Younes’ mind was split between those for and those against the revolution. Once they arrived, he focused all his attention on looking at the chickens that were prepared to be sold to people like him and listened to their clucking. After Younes had spent what seemed an age choosing the suitable ones, he asked the man who supervised the laying hen to let him sneak a peek at her, so that he could later share with his mother and sister Amal what he saw. The man told Younes that he couldn’t see the hen right then as she was sleeping. Younes tilted his head quizzically at the prospect of a hen sleeping at midday. The supervisor explained that the light was artificially controlled to give the illusion of morning coming more than once a day; meaning that the hen would thus lay multiple times. Younes smiled to himself when he heard this, and before leaving the farm with the cages full of different-sized chickens, he asked the storeowner if he could buy a bunch of yellow chicks with his day’s wages. He wanted to sell them to the kids in the neighborhood next to the chicken market at the back of Ali Muhsin souk. The owner agreed, albeit reluctantly, warning Younes that he didn’t want any trouble or mess because chicks didn’t last long outside of the farm.

An enterprising farmhand revealed that he could add dye to the chicks’ feathers so that they’d be more attractive to the kids with green, red, and orange feathers. Younes shot him a look of gratitude, and asked softly about the additional cost. The worker disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a box full of chicks that had been sprayed the colors of the rainbow – the sight of which caused

Younes’ eyes to sparkle with excitement. He smiled shyly at the man and eagerly took the box from him, placing it on the pile of cages that were already stacked in the back of the pick-up.

On the way back, Younes was lost in his childlike dreams of selling the colored chicks to his friends, and how the money that he’d earn would be the first step towards owning his own shop: “Younes’ Chickens”. Meanwhile, the storeowner kept up a continuous stream of profanity about the chaos that had spread throughout the country because of the youth going out to that square to revolt –sarcastically calling it the ‘youths’ downfall’ instead of their uprising. He changed their route on the way back to avoid having to see Sahat At-Taghreer.

*                    *                    *

Mehdi Areemi worked alongside Younes, and was his best and only friend. Mehdi couldn’t pass up the chance to go to the square and see what was happening; more importantly, he wanted to see how he could get some work and earn a few quick riyals. That evening, Mehdi came back to the souk upbeat, telling everyone he met about Sahat At-Taghreer, and what he’d seen there. That was the way of the souk; it never slept. Afterwards, Mehdi went to Younes’ home and started telling him what he’d come across in the square.  His eyes glistened as he told his friend that, “Even the policemen stopped chasing the protesters with their electric batons and didn’t do anything about the first tent pegs hammered into the ground, letting us know that change – is here.”

The bitter cold of Sana’a in February opened its arms to welcome all of those flocking to the square, vanquishing all traces of fear as soon as they entered the square, flooding them with warm feelings of safety and peace which shone in their faces. Hope hovered in the air – hope of winning a new nation that would wholly grant them all of their rights. Mehdi expressed his admiration for the garbage bags available everywhere to preserve the cleanliness of the square, and started comparing the filth of Ali Muhsin souk with its litter everywhere to the spick and span Sahat At-Taghreer. Mehdi stopped speaking, delighted, just like those joyful faces that had seen the first step towards their dreams being taken.

After Mehdi’s recollection, Younes’ confusion grew at what was happening as he remembered his morning journey and the contradictions he witnessed. He hung onto Mehdi’s animated portrayal and imagined the details. The only thing he owned was his imagination. His mother’s constant worrying over him forced him to have to envision everything that he’d heard, without thinking about the right or wrong. That’s why he was astonished, mouth agape and pupils dilated as he observed Mehdi. Mehdi stood on a rock next to Younes’ house, allowing him a view of the square. With Younes listening attentively, he vividly described the shape of the stage that had finished being assembled in front of the stone memorial by the university entrance, a few meters from the eastern gate. The memorial was engraved with the Prophet’s words, Faith is Yemeni and Wisdom is Yemeni. Mehdi said that he liked the upbeat music and protest songs that were blaring from the speakers onstage, which the crowd both listened and actively responded to as they engaged with its meaning and sentiment. These songs filled Mehdi’s lungs with pure air, revitalizing him. He started singing lyrics of the national anthem in a loud, carefree voice, “We gave you our precious blood, was it enough?”, and ended humming along for the rest of the words he hadn’t memorized.

Younes wasn’t the only silent one. His mother and sister Amal peeked out from the window of their small house taking in what was going on. Um Younes knew exactly how the youth in the square felt pitching the first of their tents, the confident feelings of security in that moment that would likely never be matched, the hopeful certainty of a better future, and of the life to come that they were striving for, for themselves and their nation. She lost herself in thought remembering the moment when she closed the door of her modest home after some kind volunteers had finished building it; a month after she had learned of her husband’s death. Before that seminal moment, she had had to endure insults and harassment at the hands of the shop owner from whom her husband had rented a place for them before he went off to the war. She paid off the rent for a few months with the amount that she received from the First Armored Division of the army, a spousal benefit they would pay her for the rest of her life to enable her to support her children. In the months that followed, she wasn’t the only one who received her missing husband’s salary, whose name would be moved to the list of the dead.  Just like her, there were a number of mothers and wives who became widows. There were young kids like Younes, shouldering rifles, and she watched them, unsure if they’d get their fathers’ salaries or their own! [1]

The call of the past regime to enlist– that of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his right-hand army man at the time, Ali Muhsin – was her husband’s reason for going to war, coupled with a desire for a steady salary to secure her future and that of their children. She still did not, however, understand her husband’s real reason for going to war… And then she understood even less when they came to her with the news that he had died, how in his death he was labeled a martyr for the motherland – in the ongoing war in the north whose underlying causes she also did not fully comprehend. She demanded to see his corpse, but they refused; they said he’d been wrapped in the republic flag along with his comrades. All this said with the utmost calmness: “Your husband is dead. He’s a martyr, a hero…”

Um Younes mourned. Upon leaving he had told her that he was going for her sake and that of his kids, so how could he go and die without letting her know exactly why he went to war? How? She was utterly bewildered when one of the First Armored Division officers informed her and placed a hundred thousand riyals in her hand, telling her it was “blood money” for her husband from the nation.  He promised to keep her husband’s salary payments coming.

After her husband’s death, the neighbors helped Um Younes to build her a home on the hill at the back of Ali Muhsin souk; the hill that had witnessed their love, their rendezvous before their marriage, the pleasure of her waiting for him after he had finished selling the foodstuffs from his cart that varied based on the vegetable and fruit prices that day, and their eventual sitting in silence. Those moments drugged her slim body every time they came to mind. Their dream of building a home that was all they wanted out of life, on that hill that had no apparent owner. A stolen touch of her hand was bliss, and the thrill of his dreams on those evenings when they were left alone to themselves was intoxicating.

Um Younes convinced her neighbors that her husband owned the hill and that the deed was with him when he went off to war – that it was her right to build a house to shelter herself and her three children.  “Won’t you have pity on Mohammed, this handicapped child of mine, and save him from the insults of the owner of the store that we live in, and his lecherous looks at a widow thinking she’s an easy catch because her husband is dead?!”

After listening to her bitter complaining, her neighbors helped her build a room, a bathroom, and a small kitchen. They built the window in the sole room overlooking the souk stretched out in front of them, vast and extensive. Um Younes would be rooted to the spot in front of it for hours, lost in thought, as if she were waiting for the return of her dead husband, believing he’d come back despite what they’d said about his death. She never saw his corpse. She never said goodbye. She never got to blame him for his early departure. She never told him that when he left, he left behind a beautiful baby girl in her belly who she named Amal – hope – willing him to come back. She never got to tell him that she didn’t need the salary that he had lost his life for, and that their life together, that was pure bliss itself. She never told him that she had kept his last gift wrapped as it was, and that she would never wear the carmine robe that he had bought her before his final goodbye. How could she be convinced of his death when she still hadn’t achieved her dreams, nor those of his children? “I’ve changed my name from Fatima to S’ada – happiness- because he said that I’m the happiness of his life yet to be lived, and I’m waiting for our shared future. He’s not dead, and I’ll be here waiting for him until he comes back to meet me, him at the window and me here, his happiness waiting for him.”

After they had finished the roofing of her house, she insisted that they put a door on the front of her house before they put the finishing touches inside. She embraced her kids, on the verge of tears, when they closed the door for the first time. Because of that, she knew all too well the feeling of those young men and women as they hammered their tent pegs into the ground of their dreams, to build a new nation and wait for a better tomorrow that she had dreamed of for her kids, a tomorrow far from the reality of the cold and deserted walls without her husband or the rest of her family.

After the death of her father, her three sisters getting married and settling down in Sana’a, and her own marriage – Um Younes’ older brother and her mother returned to her birthplace of Wadi Bina in the province of Ibb. Sana’a was no longer able to extend comfort, peace, and a sheltered life to its inhabitants with its chaos, pollution, crowded streets and rising prices. Her brother built a store adjoined to their old house, and bought goods suitable for the Wadi residents with his portion of the money he got from selling the family house in Sana’a. It wasn’t luxurious by any means, but its prime location on As-Siteen street doubled its price, which is how Um Younes was able to build her house for less.

Amal cut her mother’s daydreaming short when she asked for permission to go outside and play with Younes and Mehdi. She let Amal go. Mehdi had piled together a bunch of stones on a rock slab, and carefully climbed on top, egging Younes and Amal to repeat the slogans he heard in the square urging the dictator to leave: “Irrrrrhal!!” which they parroted with matching fervor, “Irrrrrhal!” They waited eagerly for the next slogan, so Mehdi pumped his fist high above his head and shouted, “As-shab – yurid – isqat — an-nizam!” Delighted with their echo, he said once more with gusto, “The people – want – the fall of – the regime!”

*      *     *

[1] Child soldiers became a widespread phenomenon in 2004 under the leadership of the First Armored Division, general Ali Muhsin Al-Ahmar and they were forced into internal confrontations that started to appear on the surface in several areas in Yemen, especially in the province of Sa’dah which had six wars. Despite societal, civil and human rights groups opposing this, the issue continued without any attention given to the crimes committed against the rights of children.

Nadia Alkowkabani was born in Taiz, Yemen, in 1968. She is a novelist, short story writer and academic. Al-Kawkābanī obtained her PhD from Cairo University in 2008 and since then she has worked as professor in the faculty of engineering at Sanaa University. She has published five collections of stories and three novels, with extracts translated into English, French, and German. She won the President of the Yemen Republic award for young writers in 2001. She has had excerpts from two of her novels featured in Banipal, in 2009 and 2015 (an edition on New Fiction) In 2009, she was invited to participate in the first writers’ workshop (nadwa) organized by International Prize for Arabic Fiction and her work was included in the resulting anthology entitled Emerging Arab Voices. Yemeni history, architecture and mythology are focal points of her narratives. Her writing, though fictional, is imbued with tangible verisimilitude due to real life events and personalities being woven into her stories. Her works are laced with a clear criticism of the Yemeni religious, political and military elite. Her body of work based in Yemen spans over two generations; the generation of 1960s revolution in  north Yemen and  the new generation of 2011 revolution in unified Yemen.