This excerpt from Ibrahim Nasrallah’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-winning Dog War II was translated by Wen-chin Ouyang for Nasrallah’s book launch in London last year. It is reproduced with permission.
Read it with Nora Parr’s Five Things You Need to Know About 11th IPAF Winner ‘Dog War II’:
Fangs and Claws
By Ibrahim Nasrallah, translated by Wen-chin Ouyang
Rashid called the driver of one of the two ambulances he owned. He was in front of the hospital within ten minutes. News of the curfew had just reached him. No automobiles, except for ambulances and police cars, were allowed in the streets. Electronic checkpoints and traffic lights were now programmed to stop any other moving object.
Within five minutes Rashid knew this for sure. All the streets were empty. Only ambulances and police cars could be seen.
The deafening silence brought back memories of the Dog War.
‘I noticed today that people kill when they fight. They are not interested in just hurting who they fight.’ The driver said.
‘They go for the jugular right away?’
‘Yes, they go for the kill. It’s like they’ve made a pact on going straight from the boxing ring to the grave’.
‘Without dropping by the hospital first?’
‘Without making a stop at the hospital’.
‘Are they trying to cut the cost of treatment?’
‘I don’t think so. I think they’re trying to reduce the number of people who look exactly like them, their clones, just like the way they tried to get rid of those who looked different’.
‘But how did we come to this, and so fast? This is what I don’t understand’.
‘Nobody knows. Since 11 look-alikes have been sprouting like mushrooms after rain. They are now everywhere’.
‘Yes, since 11.’
‘And you, have you seen anyone who looks exactly like you?’
‘Not yet. Not till now anyway. But I’ve been so afraid of looking into the mirror since mid morning. I’m really afraid of finding out that I have come to look like someone else. The worst thing for people to do today is to look at themselves in the mirror.’
Rashid was about to turn around to look at the face of the driver, but darkness got in the way. The driver felt it and said, ‘Please, don’t look at me. I don’t want to know.’
Rashid acquiesced. After a long silence, the driver said:
‘I think we deserve this. If you will allow me, let me say that this is a natural outcome of the Dog War. The War ignited it and after that it just mushroomed. We simply didn’t notice, as if we had no eyes or brains.
Rashid was fond of talking to the working class. He picked up this habit when he was young. He used to love listening to them. But he was always careful not to waste his time getting into discussions with them. He did not believe any discussion with them would yield important results.
‘Absolutely,’ The driver interrupted him, saying, ‘Pardon me, but I am one of those people who have spent three quarters of their life on the street and I can say I have seen practically everything.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Exactly. People hurt each other badly, and for what reason? I once read a novel in which the author predicted the Dog War. He was talking about an epilepsy epidemic that hit everyone and turned them all into wild animals, fangs, claws and all, and they started attacking each other for the silliest reasons.’
‘I think that…’
‘Precisely. Even disagreements on any issue. The One used to want everyone to be the same, to be exactly like him, to think exactly like him, to behave exactly like him, but now, please, take a look around you, they are all like him, but what does he do, has he embraced them, no, he is killing them one by one!’
‘Is there…’ Rashid was about to say something, but he did not finish his sentence, knowing that he would be interrupted.
‘Please, forgive me, but I didn’t hear the rest of your question!’
‘Right, I was going to say is there…’
‘Sure, of course, there’s a solution. People should be forbidden to go out during the very few daylight hours, and the state should prohibit any use of lighting at night.’
‘But that will…’
‘No, it’s not like what you think. Work can continue, our work can continue. We can use instead night goggles from old times that will allow us to see what is in front of our nose but not the features of anything in great detail. As for the Castle, and I trust you so I’ll say what I’m going to say, it has no problems whatsoever. The army, the security and the intelligence all have telepathic powers, as they say, that only owls possess.’
‘This thinking is…’
‘Good, isn’t it? Thank you. There’s something else that must be taken care of as well. All the mirrors must be confiscated and any use must be subject to severe punishment by law. Has it ever occurred to you that we’re only mirrors of the mirrors into which we’re looking?’
Rashid shook his head in wonder. He then raised his head to look at the rear view mirror in the car. It was turned upward. He looked at the side mirror next to him. This one was turned downward. The side mirror next to the driver was the same, turned downward.
‘What did you say?’
‘Me? I didn’t say anything,’ the driver replied.
‘Let’s then drive around the other neighbourhoods. It’s a rare luxury that we have this kind of quiet in the city.’
‘Do you know, Sir, that this quiet is the only thing that will make one smile in this terrible tragedy.’
‘But…’ Rashid went quiet as soon as he uttered the word. He suddenly understood that his silence was what made the driver give him the right to speak.
‘You were going to ask…?’
‘Right…’ Rashid went quiet again.
‘What is right?’
‘Please finish what you were going to say.’
‘Where do these profound thoughts come from?’
‘Are you surprised by what I said? I’m as surprised as you are. I’m just thinking about my ideas too, which, I feel, have suddenly matured, and I think it has something to do with talking to my car all the time. What can I do in the dark but talk to my car? I have to confess to you, Mr. Rashid, that I’m very pleased I lived the time when cars talked back when you asked them questions and discussed things.’
The driver went quiet for a bit then added:
‘There’s a rumour—but I don’t like to take this kind of fantastic fib seriously, even though we have to expect anything—and the rumour says that if a man gazes long at himself in the mirror he’ll keep his looks. Some families spent an entire week surrounding themselves with mirrors, and even when they went to sleep they made sure their faces were turned towards mirrors.’
‘I heard children repeating something like this. They heard it in schools. They asked me to buy them little mirrors. Of course I refused. They broke a mirror. They claimed it was an accident. When I tried to collect the pieces I realized some went missing.’
‘Pieces went missing? Things were getting serious,’ the driver commented.
‘You mean how they broke the mirror?’ Rashid asked him.
‘Believing in fantastic fibs, even though I thought sometimes, and really I only think on occasions, for there is no need for anyone to think all the time, but on the occasions when I thought, I would say if any one had told me a fantastic fib like this, that people would all begin to look alike, I would not have believed it. Would you have, Sir?’
‘This is exactly what I want to say. What worries me most is not that people are all beginning to look alike. I worry about more important things. I don’t really want to think any more about it unless it becomes a reality. I called my wife early in the evening and told her not to open the door to anyone who looked like me. What do you think happened?’
Rashid remembered the weatherman who came to look like him. He suddenly heard himself shouting, ‘I will kill him!’
‘Exactly what I thought, I will kill him,’ the driver said.
‘Let’s all go home. I don’t think there is a need for us to drive around any more. Go home after you take me to my house. Go home and rest.’
‘You’re a kind man, Mr. Rashid! I have to confess that I took advantage of the quiet, snuck off work earlier, and dropped by my house. Some surprise was waiting for me.’
‘No, God forbid, did you find…’
‘No, nothing like that happened! I had told my wife, as I told you, not to open the door to anyone who looked like me.’
‘Don’t say she…’
‘Precisely. She refused to open the door even to me. I tried to prove to her that I was I. She said there were compelling rumours that likeness was not limited to looks but extended to memories, habits, and thoughts in addition to fingerprints, voice, and eyes. I was about to break down the door when she said, see, your look alike did exactly what you’re doing now.’
‘She said that?’
‘And more! She also said if I had to choose I would choose someone exactly like you, because I love your handsome looks, but he has to be a company manager, or an artist, or a sensitive writer, or an astronaut, who will take me and my children to another planet away from all this. She then said to me ‘Did you know that we are on the verge of Dog War II?’ She refused to tell me about her sources! Mr Rashid, it’s mind boggling how much a housewife knows about what goes on outside.’
The driver went quiet for a while then asked, ‘Do you think there’ll be another war?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘You’re not sure then?’
‘I don’t think there’ll be another war. But tell me, did you see your wife today? I mean did you see her face?’
‘I already told you, Sir, that she spoke to me from behind the door.’
‘Did you ever think that she might have turned into another woman, and that your children now look like other children? People don’t necessarily have to turn into our look-likes, you know, and we could easily turn into the look-alikes of other people.’
The driver turned around to look at Rashid, and Rashid turned around to look at the driver the same moment, and Rashid screamed, ‘No, no, this can’t be happening!’
The driver looked exactly like him. The driver, very surprised, asked, ‘what, what happened, Mr. Rashid?’
‘Let me off here, right now!’
Wen-chin Ouyang is Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS University of London. She has written extensively on classical and modern Arabic narrative and literary criticism. She is the author of Literary Criticism in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Culture: The Making of a Tradition (1997), Poetics of Love in the Arabic Novel (2012) and Politics of Nostalgia in the Arabic Novel (2013). A native speaker of Arabic and Chinese, she has been working towards Arabic-Chinese comparative literary and cultural studies, including Silk Road Studies.