Winner of 2018 ArabLit Story Prize: ‘Our Story’

We are delighted to announce that the winners of the first-ever ArabLit Story Prize are Muhammad Abdelnabi and Robin Moger for “Our Story”:

This year’s judges decided, after some deliberation, to award the top prize to “Our Story,” written by award-winning Egyptian author Muhammad Abdelnabi and translated by the similarly award-winning Robin Moger.

The story comes from Abdelnabi’s 2014 collection, As the Torrent Carries Away a Sleeping Village, published by Dar Merit. The book won the prize for best short-story collection at the 2015 Cairo Book Fair.

This year’s three judges — translator Thoraya El Rayyes, novelist Ruqaya Izzidien, and novelist Ma’n Abu Taleb — particularly noted the voice in the original of “Our Story,” and how it was echoed and rebuilt in translation.

Judge Thoraya El Rayyes:

“Our Story” is a charming, meticulously crafted tale that explores through metaphor what it means to exist at the margins of an increasingly interconnected, voyeuristic world. The author’s impressive control of tone and pace creates a haunting, playful effect which gives this story its unique, compelling voice. Robin Moger’s translation captures the mood and rhythms of the original in elegant, fluent prose. The translator succeeds wonderfully at reproducing the distinctive narrative voice of the story with inspired, inventive phrasing.

The winning story receives a $250 prize, split between author and translator.

The other three shortlisted stories were:

Maya Abu-Alhayyat’s “Kharandia,” translated by Riham Adly

Rasha Abbas’s “How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile,” translated by Fatima El-Kalay

Raja Alem’s “The Boa”, translated by Rana Ghuloom

You can listen to all the shortlisted stories, read by either author or translator, on Soundcloud. Print versions will appear in the inaugural ArabLit Quarterly.

The winning translation:

Our Story

By Muhammad Abdelnabi, translated by Robin Moger

Should you care to picture the state our district was in subsequent to the first murder, picture an old woman returned once more, without prio r warning, to pleasure’s thrill: an adolescent again with thick black braids that lovers can cling to, and swing. This was how our district received the first reports: a thrill of delicious fear swapped on from mouth to mouth, from house to house.

And should this image have appealed to any of you, then he might examine it for himself; we invite him, without delay, to sketch the outline of a door, here on this wall, to open it and step through, and there inside he shall find this woman, and in her hand a mirror. A small mirror, jagged-edged. A mirror that could cut, could kill, maybe, in certain circumstances. A mirror as mean and impoverished as (its fields and orchards notwithstanding) this district of ours with its odd name, likewise mean: the name of an old coin not used for centuries.

Perhaps you smiled when you read the first reports in the pages of your newspapers, or on the screens (of course) of your computers, and you said: “What an extraordinary name!”

You mustn’t worry about your friend, the one who just now went in to see the woman and shut the door behind him; he can come back out any time he chooses. He might miss the story, is all.

So. There is a murderer on the loose in our district. A local for sure, not a stranger or someone passing through. Strangers rarely visit, and if they do, don’t spend the night among us, though our hotels are clean and their prices reasonable as you have discovered for yourselves. And should it come to pass, should anyone actually stay here a night or more, they would be under our gaze moment by moment, every step they take weighed and reckoned by the district’s inhabitants. Not out of any desire to spy—we are not barbarians—but simply to store away such scenes for when they are needed, days when nothing is happening, when we will remind one another of the way that stranger walked, of that visitor, the clothes she wore. Whiling away our evenings. But why should anyone come? We have no plage fit for bathing and play, no beguiling deserts dotted with herds and valleys and springs, and there are no temples or ancient churches in our hills. Not even a single shrine for a single saint. Now you know, so no puffing out your cheeks and saying, “There’s nothing worth seeing in this devil’s country.” We know you don’t mean to be rude so we shan’t be angry, and if we were then our anger, like our joy, is fleeting. But perhaps by “devil” you mean our murderer. So listen to his story, then. From the beginning. From our lips.

It begins with us finding the taxi driver, throttled with a rope, his head resting on the wheel and his tongue flopped from his mouth as though mocking the policemen who were clustered round the crime scene at that early hour, clad in the distinctive gleaming dark blue uniforms of our district’s force. They were at a loss. Though the training they receive is not so very different from the training given to your police, experience in such situations cannot be gainsaid, and on this point their record was a blank—no priors; as virginal as the braids of that woman with whom our brave guest is currently closeted, discovering for himself how a simple metaphor can take on living form.

Our first response: astonishment and absolute silence. We’d no idea what it was we were meant to do. Should we be frightened? Excited? Should we get our children in the house and lock the door? Should we repent our sins?

Days later, the police still at sea, one of us plucked up the courage to speak about the incident, and this persuaded another to engage him in discussion on the subject, and this set us all off, staggering and bumping through a maze of question marks and exclamations. Marks large and small, shifting and bouncing about, all in the same harsh neon hues that colour everything hereabouts—and we do hope this over-exuberant colour-scheme isn’t hurting those keen eyes of yours. We staggered about, then, and while we staggered we talked and we talked: Didn’t we have the right to have our own terrifying criminals, too? Were the big cities the only ones allowed to have serial killers, the same way they’d monopolized cinema and fizzy drinks and political scandals and so on (you’ve a much better idea of all that than we do)? This incident could be our moment, the humble beginnings of our march towards glory, into history and immortality etcetera etcetera, all the things we’re always hearing about from you lot, and about which, of course, you’ve a much better idea than we do.

Back to the point: the old woman was young once more and her braids hung down and all the locals were training their tongues to hide their local accents in preparation for the media (maybe you’ve noticed this, too), and we stood around waiting for the cameras to come, for the satellite channels’ microphones, for the correspondents and the presenters, and still we waited. And the reports of the taxi driver’s murder? No more than a few lines in your papers and the whole thing forgotten as though it had never been. We nearly surrendered to despair and some of us loudly declared their contempt for the killer who had seduced us with promises then had given up before he’d got going. But before we could drain the last drop of hope from our souls: the second incident.

A large family, viniculturists, reported the disappearance of the youngest of their grandchildren. A pretty little doll of a girl, not yet of school-going age. As you will know from your newspapers, local residents engaged in a hunt for her. That was us. You’re looking at the very people you read about: the ones who engaged in the hunt. Yes, we engaged. Yes, we hunted. If only you’d been with us, we could have all dived together into an ocean of zeal and sweat and fear and tireless pursuit, the pretty young mother calling out her daughter’s name, the cry echoing through every corner of the district. A wonderful scene. We mention it now in case any of you were thinking of writing up this tale for stage or screen, perhaps. We were quite certain the girl was dead. Our murderer wouldn’t let us down. And each of us secretly hoped that they would be the first to find her body, that their name might find a place (at the very least) somewhere in the lines of a newspaper report. But it was her uncles who found her, not far from the boundary fence of their farm: draped across a truck tyre, her radio tuned to raï, her eyes closed and in her hand a still-full bag of popcorn.

The surprise on your faces every time I mention truck tyres or raï or popcorn comes as no surprise to me. If you stayed here among us a while longer you’d discover for yourselves many more such signs of progress. Of civilization.

No, her honour had not been violated. For all that he was a killer, our killer was chaste, not a beast. And no use searching for anything that might link the taxi-driver to the girl: these are things one finds only in your films. Or perhaps such things are customary among serial killers where you come from—choosing victims in accordance with a specific set of characteristics, or in a sequence dictated by some psychological disorder or governing obsession. A perfectly normal human being, then, no different to the rest of us. Discontent, perhaps. Perhaps in search of something he can’t quite name, something to restore to him his sense of self. And if that seems to you unduly sympathetic to the murderer, then so be it: this, too, we learned from your films.

We come to the third incident, one that took place at the height of the noonday heat (which for us, here, is a time for taking it slow; a face-frier) and inside the solitary cinema located in the town square where the ceiling fans turn, relentless spinning tops whose whine drowns out both dialogue and soundtrack. The murderer wore a broad-brimmed hat, it was said. A traditional hat, as worn by the majority of farmers and labourers hereabouts. That they concealed their eyes behind dark glasses. Did this mean that the anonymous perpetrator was a man? Others indicated that the opposite might be true; that it might be a woman, her hair raised beneath the hat. But who could say? The employee at the ticket counter said that they were dark-skinned, but the man who took the tickets at the door called them fair, and the only person who didn’t contribute any testimony, that is to say the attendant who led them to their seat, flashlight in hand through the darkened theatre… well: that was because he had received a deep knife thrust between the ribs, had dropped where he stood, between the two back rows, his life gently ebbing away as the opening scenes wove the first strands of a love story across the screen. And, of course, his ghost had parted before the two lovers had been parted, and it was not until they had joined lips in final, happy reconciliation that we discovered his corpse.

Only then were we able to command your attention. You came mob-handed, as they say, and at last the party started. And now? Now you’re here and you’ve had a good look at all the places where these events took place? Now the real game begins. Now our friend cannot turn back, not now they’ve earned themselves such an audience as this.

Let us make a short trip together, to the town hall, where, it’s said, a new bombshell has gone off. Just minutes ago. A snake of blood twists out from the ladies’ washroom. The cleaners alerted us to the identity of the latest victim: an elderly employee known for her serious demeanour and her dedication to her work.

Here we are. As you can see, a trip to the town hall is well worth the effort. A gem of antique architecture! But never mind that, come over here. There she is. The victim. Still swimming in fresh gore, and sporting a luminous smile of a sort never seen on that face when it was alive and bent to its work. You may take pictures, of course. We are generous. Note the radiance of the slain woman’s smile. As though God had appeared before her without warning. No doubt she died happy, having discovered at last the identity of the murderer who has the whole world thrown into bewilderment. More splendid yet, that she would get to keep that secret to herself for eternity. Our story is not done yet. Stay with us.

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Muhammad Abdelnabi is an Egyptian writer, born in 1977. He has published five short story collections, a novella titled Imprisoned Phantoms (2000) and two novels: The Return of the Sheikh (2011), which was longlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and In The Spider’s Room (2016), which was shortlisted for the IPAF and appears in Jonathan Wright’s English translation this fall. In 2010, his short story collection, The Ghost of Anton Chekhov, won the Sawiris Literature Prize, and his latest collection, As the Flood Passes the Sleeping Village, won the prize for best short story collection at the 2015 Cairo Book Fair.

Robin Moger is a freelance translator of Arabic with a particular interest in twentieth-century and contemporary prose and poetry. He is the force behind qisasukhra.wordpress.com, an independent website dedicated to showcasing Arabic literature in translation, and was the winner of the 2017 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. His most recent translation is Yasser Abdellatif’s The Law of Inheritancenewly out from Seagull Books.

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Submissions to the 2019 ArabLit Story Prize will open on March 15, 2019 and will close May 15, 2019. Judges will be announced in early May, and the shortlist will be announced in September 2019. Send questions to prize@arablit.org.

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