In Celebration of Neil Hewison: An Except from His Translation of Yusuf Abu Rayya’s ‘Wedding Night’

butchThis excerpt of Yusuf Abu Rayya’s Wedding Nighttrans. Neil Hewison, appears with permission from AUC Press in celebration of Hewison’s 31 years at the press. He retires at the end of this month, and every Thursday until then, ArabLit celebrates an aspect of Hewison’s career.

This book was winner of the 2005 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and is set in a small town in the Nile Delta, where we find Houda, a deaf-mute butcher’s apprentice who reveals the town’s private stories through his very public sign language. Houda — who plays his role as a Gohaesque wise fool — destabilizes the apparently stable rural community. The book is also unusual for being a satiric novel set outside of Cairo.

This excerpt is near the beginning of the book, when Houda approaches Fakiha, who also destabilizes the community by dressing differently from the rest of the women in the small town.

Hewison recalls, in an essay forthcoming on ArabLit, the process of translating this “hilarious dark satire with scenes so vividly drawn that you smell the squalor of Houda’s bare room, feel his lust when he catches sight of his neighbor’s wife, get stoned with the men in the hash den, and wince at the personal hygiene of Adenoidal Aziza. Two of my great personal pleasures of working on this book were my meetings with Yusuf, over beer and shisha at the Grillon, to ask him about the meaning of some of the obscurer expressions; and evenings with my friend Habiba, after one of her delicious Egyptian, Moroccan, or Hungarian meals, reading my translation aloud to her as she followed the Arabic text, and as her ever-patient husband seemed to walk into the room just as we came to a particularly bawdy passage.”

From Wedding Night by Yusuf Abu Rayya, trans. Neil Hewison

Fakiha was conscious of the wide eyes that were staring intensely at her. She saw the tears of lust flowing down his cheeks, and her body shook. “What does this idiot want from me? He never stops staring at my whole body. When I’m sitting among the women neighbors he only looks at me. His eyes are like knives tearing my body apart, exposing its secrets. I can’t bear their humiliating, shameless, fearless looks.”

She came out with her husband’s equipment to put it in front of the door, and went back to the room to prepare his breakfast. Houda caught up with her.

“What do you want?” She turned her white palm up in the air to ask the question.

He pointed to where his heart was and lowered his eyelids, then brought his closed fingers to his lips.

“Find yourself someone else.”

She heard Fikri calling from the lavatory and was alarmed. Her whole body trembled. “Yes?”

“Have you got the food ready?”


She pushed Houda out, and he backed away without taking his eyes from the two well formed breasts between the pink fluff that rested on the twin mountain of her bosom.

At the door his feet stuck fast to the floor, and he resolved to lunge, the desires of his skinny hand being greater than his will— it wanted to take hold of one of the bulges of this towering, perfectly proportioned, divinely engineered body, a body that would arouse the desire of a suckling babe.

Just as he was about to launch the surprise assault, three things happened:

Fakiha bent down to the brush, whose wooden handle stuck out of the bucket; her husband emerged after dealing with his needs, busy pulling up his trousers and drying his hands on their rainbow-spattered legs; and Shaykha Aida came downstairs, led by her younger sister Nawal.

Fikri gave morning greetings to everyone and signaled to Houda to go into the lavatory, even though he had now retreated outside in defeat, preceded by Nawal, holding her blind sister’s hand, on their way to the cemetery to catch the female mourners before the hot sun rose too high, and to return before noon with a great for- tune of pastry and bread rolls and a small amount of money.

He was distracted by Nawal’s small rump, squeezed into a tight gallabiya that was drawn in at the hips and ran in pleats across the two strong, firm buttocks. His impotent desires awoke once more, and he stepped quickly to walk beside them along the long corridor. In a flash, like a bird of prey tearing with its talons at the throat of a pigeon, he grabbed at the girl’s two prominent little lupine seeds, which were bursting into the resplendence of femi- ninity with unsuspected vigor. The child in her was alarmed, and she struck at his claw, soiled with dried blood.

“You dirty thing!”

Shaykha Aida scolded her sister. “Must you really?”

“The mute knocked into me.”

“I’ll give you a knock!”

Zaki, startled by the events, grabbed his brother by the collar of his blood-caked robe. “Stop getting us into trouble.”

Houda held up a finger and wrapped the fingers of the other hand around it, to say, “I keep telling you to get me married.” They went out into the street, and a cool breeze touched their faces. The fresh air made them both cough at the same breath to expel the foul air of the room in viscid phlegm, which they trod into the ground.

Fakiha, in her red dress with its soft fluffy trim, continued to picture Houda’s eyes for some time afterward. Since her husband had brought her here from her distant village, Fakiha had fascinated the young men of the neighborhood with her tall stature, her soft hair left to fall wild around her shoulders, and her dresses that accentuated many of her charms. She was not like the other women of the quarter, who wore tightly buttoned gallabiyas and black headscarves and went out wearing black slippers of thick leather. She preferred joyful, gaudy colors, she was original in her choice of headscarves bordered with large, bright flowers, and she went out in bright-colored sandals with brilliant roses on the front. She also constantly chewed gum, which she cracked beneath her small white teeth and pushed out with the tip of her tongue to make a pop that shook the fiery hearts of the boys who never tired of loitering under her window or standing for hours under the walls of the big house. The walls stretched from Pottery Street to the cheese factory. Over them hung the green branches of tall mulberry trees, which leaned far out and in the midday heat cast their shade in front of Umm Ali’s house.

Fakiha spent the days alone once Fikri had left with his bucket and brushes, his work clothes decorated with the colors of his paints, the deeply ingrained oil stains not quite obliterated from his face. She might go out to run an errand here or there, or to buy vegetables from the market, or she might sit with the women under the walls of the big house.

If Houda saw her as he was coming or going, he could never contain himself—his body would compel him forward and willy- nilly lead him to her. Sometimes his hand would rise up to grasp her fleshy arm constricted in its tight sleeve, and sometimes he would find himself face to face with her, blocking her path, invad- ing her embrace in the narrow passageway of Umm Ali’s house.

One day he took leave of his senses when he came back from the butcher’s shop to find her bending over at the doorway, her backside high in the air, as she swept up the mulukhiya stalks scattered on the floor inside. He leaped onto her from the doorstep, grabbing both her buttocks and knocking her force- fully forward. Her surprise was so great that she almost fell on her face, just managing to stop herself. She wheeled around to hit him with the broom, but he was not ready to let go, swing- ing behind her as she turned. In order to get the better of him, she shoved him against the wall, and the “Ow!” he uttered was loud and clear. He cupped his hands between his thighs and ran doubled over, cowering and dejected, to his room. She followed him with the broom in her white hand, merry with its shiny gold bracelets.

Truly furious, she signaled to him that if he did anything like that again she would tell her husband: she raised her free hand to her lip to twirl an imaginary moustache. She would expose him to the residents of the house so that he would be kicked out into the street. And she mimed with the broom toward the door: she would sweep him out like a pile of garbage. Then she would make a scandal of him in front of the whole neighborhood—and she raised both hands to describe a large circle, and kicked the air with her leg, to mean that everyone would cast him out.

He kept his attention on her as he inserted the key in the padlock, contemplating her beauty. He wished he could throw his thin body into her arms, although the pain that rose from below doused his desire. He put his finger to each eye in turn in a ges- ture of obedience, then bunched his dry, skinny fingers to his lips and launched a kiss into the air. This made her smile and forget her vehement anger.

Copyright AUC Press. This excerpt appears on ArabLit with permission.

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