Every Thursday in October, ArabLit is celebrating and reflecting on Neil Hewison’s thirty-one years at American University in Cairo Press, during which he helped shape what we know as Arabic literature in English translation. This is an excerpt from Hewison’s translation of Yusuf Idris’s City of Love and Ashes, co-winner of the second Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature:
From the translator’s prefatory note:
Yusuf Idris was one of the true giants of modern Egyptian literature, his contribution far greater than is revealed by the few selected short stories that have so far been available in translation. He revolutionized the Arabic short story with his very first collection, Arkhas layali (The Cheapest Nights, 1954), in which he depicted the lives of lower-middle-class and working-class Egyptians in vividly realistic terms. In these and other stories, and in his novels and hard-hitting, satirical plays, his inspired use of Egypt’s rich colloquial Arabic in his dialogue achieved a real-life directness that is absent from the work of writers past and present who rely solely on the classical language. In City of Love and Ashes (his first novel, published as Qissat hubb, A Love Story, in 1956), Idris switches effortlessly between a graceful and expressive classical Arabic in the author’s voice and a vital and imme- diate colloquial when the characters speak for themselves. This use of two contrasting forms of Arabic cannot, unfortunately, be reflected in an English translation. Idris goes further, and evinces regional and class differences in the speech of his characters (Hasan, for instance has a north coast accent, while Abu Duma’s speech reveals his lack of education). I have not attempted to reproduce ‘equivalent’ English regional and social varieties in this translation: the result would be highly artificial.
The tram terminal in Shubra al-Balad is more than just the beginning of a tram-line. It is a pivot of constant interplay between Cairo and its suburbs, between the city and the many factories scattered around it. You see village folk here coming to the capital, awestruck by the city, breathless at the drone of the great bustle and the new world. You see sullen workers in the bustle too, resentful of the city but unable to escape it.
And—on this particular January day—you see Hamza standing as usual waiting for the tram to leave the long tail of cars crammed at the beginning of the line and make its way to Ataba Square. As he waits he breathes in deeply, with pleas- ure, for the terminal was also a pivot of constant interplay between the constricting life he lived in the morning among the white coats, vats of dye, and test tubes and the free and open life that began once he stepped onto the station platform.
He stood and narrowed his eves slightly behind his glasses to be able to see the scene more clearly. He observed the people as he fidgeted nervously. The faces that attracted his attention were serious and harsh; he imagined their luster was the spark of hidden desires being set free, the outbreak of revolt, and when their voices reached him he always took them as the rustle of demonstrations or the roar of strikes. In spite of the cold, and the gray clouds that hid the sun, there was a smell in the air, a peculiar smell that made the body tremble, like the smell from the barrel of a rifle just fired.
A tram pulled away from the line of cars to start its long journey. Hamza practically sprang onto it to claim a place among the many people standing. By the time the conductor had finished issuing the tickets the passengers had quite relaxed, and any barriers of reserve and alienation among them had lifted. Hamza pricked up his ears to listen to their conversations. Not the usual altercations, apologies, jokes—just the English . . . The English . . . Battalions, commandos, Kafr Abduh, tanks . . . Erskine and the Egyptian troops . . . Four English soldiers killed . . . The waterworks blown up . . . Their day will come, the bastards . . . By God, we’ll turn them out of Egypt dancing and singing all the way . . . If we had weapons … We need weapons … Where can we get them? … Where? There are ways . . . If only they’d come out and fight us man to man!
Three halts from the beginning of the line, halfway between Shubra al-Balad and Cairo, Hamza got down. There were no buildings here, just broad stretches of cultivated land, telephone poles, huts made from tin sheets, and mounds of piled garbage.
He walked for a time across deserted land until he came to the leveled patch with the tent erected on it. A firing post had been set up at one end of the patch of land; at the other end there were wooden barricades, and in front of them a ditch. A sign on the tent read “The General Committee for Armed Struggle” in small letters, and beneath it in larger letters “Shubra Training Camp.” He found the sign hanging crooked, so he straightened it. He saluted, and his salute was returned by a large, dark, young man wearing long, yellow trousers and a long- sleeved, turtleneck jersey. The young man had seen him coming, and had left his seat at the firing post and come to meet him. Hamza greeted him and they went inside the tent out of the bitter cold. Hamza sat on a box with handles on the sides, while the young man sat next to him on the ground. Hamza rubbed his hands together to warm them and blew into them fruitlessly. His teeth chattered as he spoke. “It’s cold.”
“A cup of tea‘d go down nicely, Hasan!”
“You want some tea?”
“Go down nicely, Abu Ali.” Hamza called Hasan by his familiar nickname. “Tea. We’ll make you some tea.”
The young man went off to a two-legged gas burner, a tin can, a large earthen-ware pitcher full of water, and a jar of sugar, and pulled a half-ounce packet of tea from his trouser pocket. While he was lighting the burner, Hamza asked him, “Nobody been?”
“Not a soul.”
“Somebody was supposed to come at two o’clock, and it’s two-fifteen now. Didn’t he show up?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Nothing strange but the Devil!”
Then the young man looked at him, smiled, and added, “I don’t believe’it.” “What don’t you believe, Hasan?”
“That we’re going to make a training camp.”
“It just doesn’t look like it.”
“Tomorrow it will, know what I mean?”
The burner flared up and filled the tent with flame and smoke that almost caught the roof. The young man cursed it and all its kind. After the storm had set- tled, he asked Hamza, “You like it strong?”
“No. Not too strong.”
“But Mr. Hamza, those few miserable weapons we have aren’t worth an onion.”
“Don’t worry. You have the pistol? Give me it.”
“Just give it to me.”
The young man got up and went to another box. He opened the padlock and pulled out a pistol with a shining barrel. Hamza took it and examined it. He closed one eye and looked down the barrel with the other, muttering, “It’s full of dirt. Give me some kerosene and a rag. It’s Italian. The English took it from the Italians. And we took it from the English.”
This excerpt is reproduced with permission.