Inaam Kachachi’s 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novel The Outcast is based around true stories and follows the life of Taj al-Muluk Abdelmagid, a journalist and publisher who experiences several generations worth of Iraqi history before we meet her as an elderly woman. This excerpt has been translated by Sawad Hussain:

By Inaam Kachachi

Translated by Sawad Hussain

It was a moment in life she hadn’t experienced before. And she didn’t think she would come to know it, even later on. She was seated, on the train, next to the window, when she saw her past rush toward her and fling itself into the seat that faced her. It gloated as it looked into her eyes, snatching her away from the monotony and feebleness of the years gone by. Would she pretend it wasn’t there or change her seat altogether? She told herself to get up, make her way to the emergency alarm, and pull its red tongue. She would hear the screeching of the wheels as they scraped against the railroad tracks, spewing sparks. She would open the door, leap out, and run along the sidewalk – but its eyes locked hers and bound her hands.

She relaxed her tightly shut eyelids and surrendered herself to plumes of white, teased cotton. A bad dream is what it was, brought about by a commonplace question with an answer that seemed just as normal. She didn’t understand at first, what the police officer stationed by that door had told her. But his words stoked a dormant ember, buried deep in her chest. She was curious why he was guarding that hospital room in particular, and not the rest of the long corridor. She asked him about the patient lying down inside: who could it possibly be?

Sometimes the inpatients of this Parisian military hospital were army officers. But such patients never required a police officer, clad in blue uniform, standing at the ready at their doors. Maybe he was high-ranking, or someone of importance from an ally country. Kings, heads of state and party leaders were known to come here for treatment. Some of them died in their beds here. In such circumstances, it was announced they took their last breath in their own nation, and the funeral procession would accordingly stream out of their home. Behind curtains, surgeries and treatments would take place, France fulfilling its duty of hospitality, for the benefit of its allies…and at times for its foes. Who was the patient behind that door? A criminal wounded while on the run? Or roughed up during an interrogation? Maybe they were fixing him up before putting him on display for the judge. Protocol demanded that the police officer shouldn’t respond to her curiosity. But he was well mannered and didn’t ignore her question. He raised his right hand to his cap to greet her, as was the custom before speaking to any citizen. Bending down to her height, he whispered the name. He had no reason to suspect her or have a bad feeling about her. An old woman: wrinkled face, back bowed, staying in the same hospital, shuffling along the hallway leaning on her cane. He told her what she wanted to know, and it didn’t mean a thing to him. The man inside was sick and dying: well known at one time, now no longer mentioned. His time had passed, and his name was now a mere entry in the encyclopedia. He himself didn’t know who the patient was before he was informed that he was the former Algerian president. The police officer was just that, not a history teacher.

Upon hearing the name, the bats of her past stirred. Her heart tightened, pounding. She couldn’t fathom that the patient in that room, on the fifth floor, just a few feet away from her room in the Val de Gross hospital, was Ben Bella himself. It was as if a gust blew through the calendar of her life, the pages flying about, flipping it over, back to the beginning. This was no happy coincidence but the misfortune of an evil man next door to her. The officer whispered his nickname, and his first name came to her: Ahmed. She hadn’t forgotten her victims, or those she took a liking to, nor those she had shown mercy. They had given her his picture, clarifying his real name and his nom de guerre: Mizyani Mas’ud. A stature that was difficult to forget, tall and thin like a cypress tree. She had found him in the location they had told her he would be. Drinking coffee, as he was prone to do, at a particular hour by the Nile. She was to stroll and slow down when she got close enough to him. He had stood and returned her greeting, responding to her spontaneous question. She had scrutinized his face and smiled. Then she left just as she had come, a simple passer-by with a fleeting question. How old had he been back then?

Taj Al-Maluk knew herself. She had lived three lifetimes in the span of one, no longer expecting any more coincidences or anything else from fate. But Ben Bella being here wasn’t fate or a coincidence. It was karma for what she had done.

When boredom weighed on her over the many hours and months, she would reflect, deeply. Bored to the point where she might as well have gone hunting for watermelon seeds in the garbage dump, as the Iraqi saying went. Life was drawn out, stretching longer than necessary. Life then started to diverge from the direction in which she had been going, teasing her indecisively; shati bati. No one even knew for certain what shati meant exactly, nor bati for that matter. The same went for the saying al-‘ami shami. Just that they both were used in times of indecision. She was now out of bed, having taken a few steps to move her legs, as the doctor had advised, when she saw the angel of death patiently waiting for her in the hospital corridor. There, a stunt double was carrying out the acrobatic scenes of her life on her behalf, the star of the film. Maybe she was an actress without even knowing it. A star, in spite of herself. Fate had sent his second in command to gloat at her, schadenfreude at its best.

“Will you let me in for a minute to greet him?”

“Not allowed, Madame. He’s in a partial coma.”

She tried to picture the guard’s reaction if she told him that she had once tried to assassinate the languishing patient beyond the door. That was more than half a century ago. She had tried, but her heart hadn’t obeyed. The officer saw her smiling, distracted, and smiled back at her. She returned to her room, her cane tapping the hallway floor. Ben Bella had escaped death. He had survived to see his country independent. He then became president of Algeria. She remembered him with sadness, not any warm feelings. She didn’t like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s allies. From prison to being dragged through the courts; from death sentence, to the presidency. And from the presidency back to prison. The usual in such places on this earth. Now at what must be over ninety years old, he came to receive medical treatment from his colonizers, the enemies of yesteryear. Politics was a bitch. His room was close to hers. The former president and a former spy, peaceful neighbors, under the curse of old age. She would find a way to see him. She had to get in, to tell him that the only reason he was still breathing was because of her. Let him go after that and die as he damn well pleases.

Not a soul in this hospital knew her real story. But she knew. Her memory was still pristine, no chance of faltering.

“Maimouna knows her God and He knows her” is a popular saying used when debating what was haram and what was halal – in the end only God knows your intention. She had heard it from Habib Bourguiba’s lips when he visited Baghdad. The Pasha had introduced her. She was a journalist, so she had gone up to him and conducted an interview. A revolutionary Tunisian lawyer, he had come to ask for support for his people from Nuri Al-Said’s government. Each Arab country had its issues and a token person who came to plead its case. Bourguiba achieved his wish and won his country its independence from France. The young revolutionary earned the title of ‘Supreme Combatant’ for ending the seventy-five year protectorate. If only this head of hers would stop spouting names and recalling people’s faces. The pain in her knees was enough as it was. The nurses huddled around her asking how to make her comfortable. Her husband had been an officer whose name everyone knew, the hero of WWII heroes. It was enough for her to say that she was Cyril Champion’s widow for people to cherish her, fawn over her. Students were taught his works at espionage training institutes. A vile profession that people would rather refer to as the secret services. But that was another story.

Stretching, she brought her portable radio close to her ear. To concentrate more closely, she put on her sunglasses, shading her eyes. She turned her attention towards the Arab Spring. She followed the news of what they called the ‘Jasmine Revolution’. She liked the name; it lit up her innermost being. On cloud nine she was. The next time the doctor called her Madame Champion, she wouldn’t respond. Instead she would smile slyly and say that her name was Taj Al-Maluk. An Iranian from Baghdad. He may well believe her because of her brown skin, which spoke for itself. She jumped between stations following the news bulletins. In Tunis, the atmosphere on the street had reached boiling point. Placards were raised high on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Death had already come to take one of the biggest names and yet this avenue was still his namesake. She saw him in his white summer suit and two-toned shoes. Black and white. She had crossed paths with him in Baghdad, just as he had crossed paths with Ben Bella. He refused to let the cargo of weapons from Cairo to Algeria pass through Tunisia’s ports. The useless, ridiculous behavior of such resistance fighters in a time that was boiling over. She stretched out her feet from under the blanket and contemplated them. Small with even smaller toes, but they had traversed mountains and journeyed across continents.

The nurse came to her with the dinner tray and her evening pills. She asked for another pill to put her to sleep. She knew that her mind wouldn’t stop buzzing. It was going to be a long night because a bat from her past had escaped, now lying just three rooms away. We are determined that Algeria should live… tun tanam tun tanam tun tanam. She could remember the melody but had forgotten the rest of the words. Red and yellow bumps would pop up on her husband’s face whenever he heard this national anthem of theirs. A particular allergic reaction of an intelligence officer who had lost the battle. They called it the ‘unrest’ or ‘agitation’, so as not to confer upon it the honor of an actual war. Commander Cyril Champion’s troop waged war with rifles, cannons and tanks. The enemy fought back with the bodies of its men and women. Martyrs, a million of them. A million dogs is what he called them. He was especially wicked when badmouthing Arabs. As if he were cursing her, and taking revenge for her dislike of him. The independence of Algeria never let him be, clawing at his eyes until he breathed his very last.

‘Martine Champion’ didn’t know how that night passed. She followed the news and slept fitfully. She dreamed that her legs had regained their full strength once more and her back was no longer hunched. She marched on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis and reached Al-Tahrir Square in Cairo. She wasn’t dreaming but rather had firmly made up her mind. She yelled with those protesting, her voice getting louder. She wished she could be propped up on someone’s shoulders. Just like Al-Wathbah, the uprising of January 1948 in Baghdad. She woke up fatigued as if she had just come back from traveling. She lay wrestling with pain in a place on her body she couldn’t pinpoint. Her memory haunted her. The nurse came with breakfast and a handful of her morning pills. All the drugs in the world wouldn’t help…

Inaam Kachachi was born in Baghdad in 1952, and studied journalism at Baghdad University, working in Iraqi press and radio before moving to Paris to complete a PhD at the Sorbonne.

Sawad Hussain is an Arabic translator and litterateur who is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history, and literature. Her upcoming translations include a Palestinian resistance classic by Sahar Khalifeh for Seagull Books, a Lebanese young adult novel for University of Texas Press, and Mama Hessa’s Mice, by Saud Alsanoussi.