SF, fantasy, and YA author-translator Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi shares a chapter from his novel Malaaz:
The novel is set in a future, post-war Egypt, after the collapse of the current civilization and the rise of another in the wake of a nuclear winter. The Nile is yellowed, the sky is smogged, and the walled city of Malaaz, where a warrior class called the “Hunters” take advantage of civilians, is a rare place of safety.
The protagonist, Qasim, is different from the others. He can read and write, is a self-taught metallurgist, and he’s not interested in rigid class hierarchies.His only friend, Uways, is the local blacksmith.
A new threat appears: Prince Seya of the rival city Abydos wants to conquer Malaaz.
The Lone Wolf
By Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi
Translated from Arabic by Emad El-Din Aysha
It was a cold, foggy morning. The sun had disappeared behind thick clouds, casting a dark, foreboding gloom over the City of Malaz, the greatest of the northern cities and the headquarters of the Sayyadin—the dreaded Hunters. Then a loud screech shattered the morning silence. The giant gates of the city were opening, huge iron barricades that ground away as the veins in the Hunters’ hands threatened to burst from the effort. Another group of Hunters looked on from nearby the gate with cautious gazes, positioned on the city walls and its high towers. One blewa copper bugle, signaling that it was safe for the dwellers of Malaz to head off to their work in the farmlands and quarries outside of the city.
Everyone gathered in front of the gate, where they were surrounded by a group of Sayyadin on horseback, bows and arrows slung over their backs. The procession marched through the gate, leaving the safe haven behind them to face the harsh environment beyond, beset with dangers that never seemed to end. After they went on their way and the crowd dissipated, a young man of eighteen emerged. He had sharp features, dark eyes, and a hawkish nose, with long straight hair, jet black and flowing, which was scattered around his face. He carried a canvas bag on his back, and a dagger dangled by his side. Seeing this, one of the Hunters said: “Qasim, will you be heading out all by yourself?”
Another added, mocking, “Ignore this Nabbash!”
Qasim ignored the remark. Nabbashinwas the name given to scavengerswho dug up the remains of the ancient civilization—the few scattered remains of it that were still left, here and there, surrounded by desiccated ruins and prowling feral beasts. The first Hunter to speak pointed to the ruins over the horizon, reminding Qasim, “You’ll never survive out there, not without protection. Ican protect you, for a share of what you’ll get. What do you say?”
Qasim confidently grasped the handle of the dagger hanging by his side. “I can take care of myself.”
Then he added, as he moved away from the gates of Malaz, “I also prefer to keep the spoils for myself…without sharing them with anyone.”
Qasim was known among the Malazi people as a self-reliant recluse, someone who always preferred to work alone—that’s why they jeered at him and called him the “lone wolf.” He also held a profound hatred of the Hunters, those who took everything for themselves, leaving the people with nothing but scraps. They extorted money from everyone under the guise of “protection,” exploiting the labor of those who slaved away in the fields and quarries. It was at times like these that he recalled what people used to say about the Sayyadin—legends about how they’d once helped the people, saving them from the apocalypse, sheltering them from danger until Malaz had been established. But now they were nothing but a sword on the necks of the Malazi inhabitants.
In truth, Qasim was angry at his own people for surrendering so readily to their fate, hating them more than even the tyranny of the Sayyadin. The people thought of nothing save satisfying their lusts, preoccupying themselves with the search for food and drink, never once thinking about their lot in life and changing this terrible world they endured. That’s what made him so angry. Sometimes, he’d ask himself: What drove them to stay alive, breeding and swarming like swamp flies? What strange force made them continue this accursed existence? He never found an answer, but he kept on asking; he fumed on the inside and, from time to time, had to let out angry gusts from his chest.
Now, he walked among the wild shrubs and the few tree saplings that had been able to sprout and grow—despite everything nature had suffered during the disaster—until he reached the banks of the Nile, with its dank yellow waters. A layer of cold mist floated over the surface, so he raised his hand to his mouth and began to whistle, repeating the distinctive, regular tune until he heard the same from the other bank. Then he sat down, waiting in the cold early morning fog, contemplating the waters of the Nile. It was said that, in the past, it was blue, and that people lived a life of ease before the disaster, in no way resembling the utter misery they were living now. He had not lived through the disaster himself; it happened many decades ago, or perhaps centuries. Who knew! People had stopped counting. There were only scattered tales told by the aged and the travelers sitting around campfires on cold winter nights, and, like all stories, they were embroidered with many an exaggeration.
The fables spoke of a great war that took place between the children of humanity, conflicts over energy resources that led men to use their most advanced, and their most deadly, weapons, until country after country collapsed and millions upon millions perished, leaving only a few struggling to survive in this harsh environment. Malaz was the first city established in Egypt after the collapse of civilization in the wake of the Great War. Its dwellers named it Malaz, or “Haven,” believing it to be the last refuge of humanity, while the ever-hopeful called it Madinat Al-Baath, or “City of Resurrection.”
Qasim felt a greater pain than those he rubbed shoulders with, as he was one of the very few who could read. His grandfather had taken special care to instill it in him from his earliest years. In his little hovel of a home, he had many old, yellowed books that he read over and over again. That was what made him more aware of the truth than the others who suffered in the same circumstances. Perhaps it was their ignorance that shielded them from the hurt that possessed him. It was at that moment that he remembered a verse his grandfather had recited to him, the words of an old Arab poet from a bygone era named Al-Mutanabi:
He who has Reason suffers—while in Bliss—with his Mind
While the Brother of Ignorance—in the Direst of Circumstances—is Blessed
A metallic sound broke the silence, followed by something slicing through the fog over the waters of the Nile. It was a metal boat, captained by a masked man using a primitive hand engine. Without a single word exchanged between them, Qasim jumped into the boat and threw the man a copper coin before the man turned his boat to sail toward the opposite bank. The man was one of the inhabitants of the small villages outside of Malaz that lay along the banks of the Nile. They preferred to remain silent and were not friendly to the Malazi inhabitants, even though this mechanical boat was the only way for someone like Qasim to cross to the other side of the river.
For his part, Qasim kept his lips sealed until he reached the other bank. He jumped out of the boat and walked through the ruins of what had once been called, in antiquity, Cairo, when people had been able to build high-rise buildings and move down paved roads using fuel-powered iron vehicles. They were even able to fly through the air and traverse the oceans. People could travel from one town to another in a few hours. Now, a person may live their entire life without leaving their village, or heading off a few days’ walk at most. What more could one hope to do, with bandits and wild beasts and the countless other dangers that lay at every twist and turn of the road?
Qasim glimpsed some people taking tentative peeks at him from the windows of small homes, most of which were ruins of the pre-disaster buildings, the ones that had withstood the destruction, mixed in with some primitive mud dwellings. He knew beforehand that scavenging near them would incite their hostility, so he kept up his pace till he left their gazes behind him. He searched the vastness of the ruins for something usable. There wasn’t much. Too much time had passed since the disaster for there to be anything left that one could really use. The clouds eventually parted, and the sun began to throw its searing rays on Qasim as he continued his scavenger hunt, forcing sweat to break out over his body. Determined, he worked on. From time to time, he would find little odds and ends that might come in handy with time, so he placed them in the canvas bag slung over his back. Then he stumbled on some metal vehicles frozen in their places, uselessly, and removed some iron from the metal structure to sell to the Haddadin, the metalworkers of Malaz. But these vehicles had been scavenged already, stripped of their metal and left like the skeleton of a worn-out body. Nonetheless, he refused to give up, inspecting the remains of the vehicles carefully, searching the narrow gaps that an inexperienced hand could not easily reach. Then he found what he was looking for: little metal gears that were bolted in. He couldn’t pry them loose, so he took his dagger from his side and used it to release the gears from the rust and dirt that had clung to them over the years. Finally extracting them, he cried out with joy, placing them in his canvas bag.
After a quick glance at the sky, Qasim realized the sun was about to set. Staying outside Malaz after sunset was far too dangerous, so he decided to take his bag and retrace his steps. Following the path between the ruins of ancient Cairo, he crossed the Nile to the other bank where Malaz lay. From afar, he glimpsed the workmen returning from the mines and farms, exhausted. One step ahead of them, the Hunters were on their horses, leading them like lambs. Qasim ignored them as he crossed though the city gates, making his own way. One of the Hunters who was at the gate stopped him, saying, “Hold on there. Show me what’s in your bag!”
“And what business is it of yours?” Qasim snapped.
The Hunter spoke as his fingers wrapped themselves around the handle of his sheathed sword. “Choose your words carefully if you want to return to your family safely, boy.” Bending down to look Qasim straight in the eye, he added, “Weare the ones who keep you all safe, do you understand me?”
Qasim swallowed his anger as he grabbed his bag to hand it over to the Sayyad, who scattered its contents on the ground, then said sarcastically, “Rubbish! It’s all rubbish, worthy of a Nabbash like you.”
He exchanged laughs with his fellow Sayyadin while Qasim busily gathered what the Hunter had spilled on the ground, returning the items to the bag. Avoiding them, he cursed under his breath, muttering insults that did not reach their ears.
Qasim walked amidst the streets, paved with slabs of rock, in the city that was Malaz, with its dry, lifeless rock buildings. Each consisted of one or two floors at most, mixed with the ruins of some ancient buildings from the days before the war. He witnessed the people returning from their labors in the farms and quarries, their features strained, children and women welcoming their fathers, husbands, and sons on their safe return home. Qasim, meanwhile, made his way to the Haddadin district, with its thick plumes of black smoke rising from the distinctive chimneys of some of its rock buildings. These were the legendary makers of weapons and shields, the people who had made Malaz famous. Most of the blacksmiths had settled in this quarter, near the western gate of the city where the wooden carts entered Malaz, loaded with metals from the quarries of the Western Desert. Qasim arrived at a nondescript building with the tell-tale sword and shield symbol of the blacksmiths. No sooner had he entered than he saw a Haddad with a hulking, heavyset body. The man wielded a huge hammer that was proportionate to his sheer girth. He was striking away on the blade of a sword, which glowed a fierce shade of red. The blacksmith stopped what he was doing to look at Qasim, who greeted him: “Good evening, Uwayes.”
Uwayes smiled. “Good evening to you, too, my friend. Have anything for me today?”
Qasim grabbed his bag from his back. “Maybe.”
He promptly took out the pieces of steel and gears and what he’d been able to salvage that day from the ruins, earning Uwayes’s admiration: “Excellent pieces. They can be smelted and used to forge some swords.”
Then he pointed to a twisted piece of steel wrapped around itself, asking: “And what is that?”
Qasim returned it to his bag.“ That’s a spring I got from one of the old vehicles, but it’s not for sale.”
Uwayes chuckled. “You have such a strange hobby, my friend. Collecting these things.”
Then he handed over a few copper coins, the price for the metal he’d handed over.
“Is that all, you miserly old geezer?”
Uwayes grumbled in a low voice. “Work these days isn’t like it used to be.”
Qasim gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Not to worry.”
Returning to the blazing sword, Uwayes said: “I’ve got a weapons order today for the Hunters. Maybe I could take you out to dinner in one of the bars of the eastern neighborhood, if they’re as generousas usual.”
Qasim understood all too well that last biting remark. After he’d finished beating the sword into shape, Uwayes dipped the blade into a bucket full of cold water which set off a loud, hiss as the water cooled the metal, and steam filled the air. Suddenly they heard the tread of horses on the harsh rocky road, which made its way to them as quickly as the sound of a whip cutting the air. A wooden horse-drawn cart appeared, making its way to the blacksmith’s workshop. Before it could slow to a halt at the workshop door, the Sayyadin on board leapt out, their leader at the front. He directed his words to Uwayes: “Blacksmith, are the weapons ready?”
Uwayes gestured to a collection of swords and spears hanging on the wall. “Ready, sir.”
Without uttering another word, the Hunters began to move the weapons to their wooden vehicle, and then their leader threw a sack filled with copper coins on the wooden table in front of Uwayes. He opened the pouch and counted the pieces of currency with a quick glance. “What? Just this?”
The Hunter drew a sharp sword from its sheath and waved its tip a few centimeters from Uwayes’ face. “Is there a problem?”
Uwayes exchanged glances with the Hunter before he said: “No, no problem at all.”
Qasim saw everything, and he pulled his eyebrows together in anger. He was on the verge of speaking when Uwayes gave him a look. He remained silent. The Sayyad turned, placing his sword back in its sheath as he left, followed by the other Hunters. The last to leave was a young Hunter, only a few years Qasim’s senior, with a look of arrogance fixed on his face. He pushed Qasim out of the way with a deliberate blow to the chest.
Qasim replied in anger: “Curse you!”
Everyone was surprised by Qasim’s words. Uwayes tried to calm things down, saying: “My apologies. He did not mean—”
But the Hunter pushed him aside and stared at Qasim, fury in his eyes. “What did you say, you swine?”
Qasim cared little about the anger in the man’s eyes. “I said curse you, and curse allyou Hunters.”
The Hunter took his sword out and sliced away through the air as he moved toward Qasim, who had taken out his dagger with an equally swift motion. But the sword broke through the blade of the dagger and continued on its path, carving a sharp gash beside Qasim’s left eye. Before the Hunter could finish Qasim off with a second movement of his sword, his leader intervened. “That’s enough!”
The Sayyad pointed to Qasim and said, pleading, “But Sir, didn’t you hear what he said?”
The commander repeated firmly, “I told you to stop!”
The Hunter fell silent for a moment, as if he were seriously contemplating disobeying his commander’s orders, before he returned his sword to its sheath with a sharp movement and joined the others at the cart. The commander gave Qasim his hand to help him up. “Next time, choose your words more carefully; they may get you into a situation you can’t get yourself out of.”
Qasim froze as he watched the commander join the Hunters before they took off with their horse-drawn cart, hooves triggering sparks on the small rocky expanse that was Malaz. Uwayes came close to him and spoke in a perplexed tone. “You’re the luckiest person I’ve seen in my life. No one has ever escaped the fury of the Hunters!”
Raising his hand to his eye, Qasim felt the gash, which throbbed with a burning pain. The sword had wounded his forehead, and his eyes had barely escaped the blow. “Are you alright?” Uwayes asked.
Qasim smiled faintly. “Don’t worry, it’s just a scratch.”
Uwayes brought him some cold water to cleanse the wound, and then advised him, “Go to the Attar. He’s a herbalist; he can put some ointment on it.”
Qasim hefted his bag. “I will.”
Then he left the workshop to find himself again in the streets of Malaz. The last rays of sun were disappearing, and darkness fell as the city closed its gates. The places that operated only in the dark began to open. He could see that thetavernsand bars were preparing to welcome visitors whose pockets were loaded with copper coins. From time to time, he also spied a whore standing in front of a bar, displaying the charms of her body, available for the right price. Qasim stared at the ground, ignoring their attempts to entice him, when suddenly a sweet odor tickled his nostrils – the smell of a barbecue. Looking for the source of the smell, he found some people around a ring of fire, roasting an animal of some kind; perhaps a ram, maybe even a dog. People didn’t draw distinctions between these things, as they had in the past, at least according to what his grandfather told him. Religion had prevented people from doing many things, but people no longer cared about such matters. As attractive as the scent was, he stopped himself from getting too close. For all he knew, they were Sayyadin, to be avoided at all cost. He heard harsh, nonchalant laughs from the group moving around the fire. His pace quickened as he turned to a side street, and the sound of the laughter slowly faded away.
Ahmed Al-Mahdi is an author, critic, and translator. Find him at www.ahmedmahdi.net. His YA novel Reem is available in translation on Amazon.