You wouldn’t know it from the landscape of translated Egyptian fiction, but horror is a popular genre on the Cairo book market, both at bookshops and at the annual Cairo book fair:
Scholar-translator Richard Jacquemond, after a visit to the 2016 Cairo International Book Fair, noted that three genres dominated shelves and tables: horror, satire, and romance. Because of the legendary opacity of the Egyptian book market — there are no reliable bestseller lists or sales numbers — Jacquemond poked through Goodreads to get a sense of the most popular authors.
In his article, “Satiric Literature and Other ‘Popular’ Literary Genres in Egypt Today,” Jacquemond judged that — by GoodReads ratings — versatile and beloved Ahmed Khaled Tawfik (1962-2018) came out on top, with 328,528 ratings. There is no way to separate Egyptian book-rankers from others who read in Arabic, but Jacquemond judged that Egyptians made up a large number of Arabic-langauge Goodreads users.
As writer Ahmed al-Mahdi has noted, some of the popularity of horror comes particularly because of prolific and beloved Egyptian novelist Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, who laid the groundwork for much Arabic-language genre-writing in Egypt. Other horror writers who made Jacquemond’s Goodreads popularity list were Ḥassan al-Guindi, who came in high at twelve — following just after pop novelist Alaa al-Aswani — and, further down the chart, Tamir Ibrahim.
Writer and critic Ahmed Salah al-Mahdi is a long-time fan of Tawfik’s writing. Al-Mahdi was winner of the Short Story Award, 2017, from the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, for the short story “Unusual Visitor.” The author, translator, and critic lives in Cairo, Egypt and has published several novels, as well as numerous stories for children. He is missed this Halloween.
Here, his Halloween short story, “Hour of the Wolf.”
Hour of the Wolf
Written by Ahmed Salah al-Mahdi
Translated by Emad El-Din Aysha
It is the hour that separates the night from the dawn. It is said that this is the hour when most people die, and in which most children are born; the hour when sleepers are attacked by their worst nightmares, and when those who are awake are pursued by their worst fears. It is the hour when you sometimes wake suddenly and your throat is dry and you feel that you are not alone. That is the hour of the wolf.
Wait a minute. I still haven’t introduced myself: My name is Mohamed. I work as an architect in one of those building projects in a remote province, and it’s my job to supervise a large group of workers. It’s a taxing job that devours long hours of my day, which is why I always return to my apartment, exhausted, have a warm bath, eat a light dinner—which I prepare for myself as best as I can—and maybe surf the Internet a bit, before I leave the computer and lie down on my bed for a deep sleep.
An engineer, Omar, shares the room with me. We both supervise this work, but we’re rarely together. Often one of us is on holiday while the other is left alone to work, and then we switch roles. These days Omar has been on vacation, while I was alone in supervising the workers, and after a long hard workday, I went back to my daily routine. I sat down for a little while in front of the computer, browsing some messages to see if there was anything new. I left it on as usual, and, after three minutes, it dropped into a state of hibernation, and I went to bed in search of a little of my own hibernation
Sleep crept over my eyelids, rolling its gentle transparent cloud over my exhausted body. I soon fell into a deep sleep. I don’t know how many hours passed before I woke from my slumbers, drenched in sweat, struggling as hard as if I’d been running, a great pain gripping my whole body.
I remained lying in bed for a few minutes, catching my breath and gathering my thoughts. Then I forced myself up into a sitting position and looked at the clock that was placed on a small table next to the bed. It was the third hour after midnight. I was terribly thirsty, so I went to the refrigerator for some cold water, and then to the bathroom before returning to the bedside to sink back into a deep sleep. Nothing bothered me until I woke alone in the morning. I went to the lounge on my way to the bathroom, but something odd caught my attention. The computer screen was lit. That shouldn’t happen unless someone had pressed a button on the keyboard or moved the mouse, so how had it lit up by itself? I was sure it hadn’t been lit when I woke up at three. I said to myself: no doubt the wind must have moved the mouse or something like that.
I went to the bathroom and washed my face as I contemplated my tired features in the mirror. Then I went to the kitchen and prepared a simple breakfast that I ate without any real appetite. After that, I changed my clothes and went back to work to spend another long, stressful day. By the end of the day I was back in my apartment, and by now you know what I get up to, so I won’t tire you with a reprisal. In the end, I went to my bed to sink into a deep sleep.
At exactly three o’clock, I woke up in a panic. Something, I don’t know what, woke me. That this had happened a second time worried me—especially for someone like me, who broke his back all day working, my sleeping hours were a sacred, unquestionable ritual. But what bothered me more was that I didn’t know what made me wake up every night, and why I felt such terror? I prayed for God to protect me from the devil, then I passed through the lounge and took a long look at the computer screen. It wasn’t lit. Nothing had happened. I drank water from a bottle in the fridge, then went to the bathroom, before I went back and finished sleeping.
When I woke in the morning, another strange thing was waiting for me. The door of the refrigerator was open. I extended my hand inside and found the food was warm. The refrigerator had been open all night. I tried to remember if I’d forgotten it open after I’d taken a drink; but no, I was sure I’d shut the door. Perhaps I hadn’t shut it firmly enough, and a current of air had opened it. I was always ready to blame the air for everything!
The day went by uneventfully, and then I woke scared for a third time. It was no longer just an annoyance—I was genuine terrified. I drank some water, went to the bathroom, made sure to close the refrigerator door firmly this time, and checked that the computer screen was off, and turned on the Quran broadcast on my mobile phone, placing it right next to me. Then I surrendered to sleep, asking God to shelter me from the devil.
I woke in the morning. The first thing on my mind was to check whether anything out of the ordinary had happened while I was asleep. The computer was the same, the fridge was the same, and everything was in its place, thank God. I felt strange satisfaction.
After eating my breakfast, I went to my bedroom for a change of clothes. No sooner had I opened the cupboard than I fell back in terror. There was a bloody palm print on the back of the wooden cupboard. It had notbeen there before, I’m sure–there’d been no reason for it to be there. This blood had only appeared today.
If somebody was playing a prank on me, it had gone too far. There was nothing ‘funny’ about any of this, and something told me this was no joke. At work, many people noticed that I wasn’t my usual self. I chalked it up to exhaustion. Fortunately, my colleague Omar returned from his holiday that same day. I breathed a sigh of relief, as I would not have to spend the night alone. He also sensed that something was worrying me, but I didn’t tell him what had happened so as not to raise his suspicions.
I woke that night to a strange feeling coming over me. My whole body was paralyzed. I couldn’t move even a finger, couldn’t speak or shout or call out for help. I knew this phenomenon. I’d read about before, when your mind wakes before your body, leaving you unable to move. I’d gone through it several times before, which calmed me a little. I tried to relax. Sometimes, when this happened, I could get back to sleep again. I heard a voice from outside my bedroom. There was someone in the hall, the steps were approaching my side. I looked out of the tail of my eye and saw Omar looking in my direction, silent for several moments. He then said: “Don’t move!”
I wanted to laugh and shout that I couldn’t in fact move, but I could see now that he wasn’t even looking at me, but at something in front of me. I managed to look at that spot, but didn’t see anything at all. Then I saw my shadow on the wall, sleeping on the bed, and there was also a shadow of something lying on my chest. Suddenly the shape was in front of me. My eye caught something translucent, a gelatinous form that—out of the blue—leapt off my chest.
“Help me grab it!” Omar shouted.
I felt free at last, as my limbs came back to life. I started running after Omar, and I noticed something bizarre as I ran. I saw myselfsleeping on the bed, my eyes shut. I couldn’t understand how I could see myself, but I kept running after Omar, and that’s when I noticed that the door of his room was open, and I saw him sleeping on his bed as well, completely unaware of what was going on. I had no idea what was going on, either, but I was more determined than ever to catch that thing. We clung to it together, Omar and me, finally cornering it. It was soft and downy, and I honestly wondered how it could have lain on my chest, choking me with its weight. It was made of brown gelatin and, inside it, there were white bones. I started to recite what I knew from the Quran and found the bones turning red, the thing’s screams turning to piercing wails that cut into my ears, penetrated my brain itself, going all the way in.
I woke at the moment and found that I had been asleep in my bed the whole time. I pushed myself upright and sat for a few moments before heading off to Omar’s room, where I found he was asleep. I returned to my room and sat on my bed, thinking for a while, until I fell back asleep.
I woke in the morning and found Omar awake and preparing a cup of tea in the kitchen, so I said to him, “Did anything strange happen yesterday?”
“No, nothing happened.”
Then he pondered for a moment before adding, “Yes, actually, something strange did happen. I woke at 3 a.m., scared for no particular reason, so I listened to the Quran and went back to sleep.”
Then he turned to me. “Why do you ask?”
“Nothing. Just a dream.”
I felt it was not just a dream, but who really knows what it was? Who knows?