On the re-release of Adel Esmat’s The Days of Blue Windows, a new excerpt in translation:
By Phoebe Bay Carter
Last week, Al Kotob Khan Bookshop celebrated the re-release of Egyptian novelist Adel Esmat’s The Days of Blue Windows. Originally published in 2009 by Dar Sharqiyat and awarded the State Prize for the Novel in 2011, it was republished this year by Kotob Khan Publications.
Reflective and tinged with melancholy, the novel is narrated by a man looking back on his childhood in the Egyptian Delta city of Tanta. His grandmother’s house, where he was raised, stands as the center point of his memories. Within the four walls of the family home, he probes at his memories of the people who shaped his childhood, the aunts and uncles who inhabited and eventually vacated the house’s many rooms, the neighbors who came and went, and, at the heart of it all, his grandmother who raised him.
The narrator’s memories are marked by loss. The people who once filled the house have nearly all either died or emigrated, including the narrator, who tells his story from the United Arab Emirates. The memories, told as vivid snapshots in chapters that could almost be stand-alone stories, come from different moments in the narrator’s life and signal his evolving understanding of death as he grows up. The narrator also meditates on the loss of familiar ways of life and the city itself as it goes through rapid changes around the turn of the 21st century. However, this is not a nostalgic portrait of an idyllic past. The narrator came of age during a period of political turmoil and war: the end of the Nasser years, the 1967 Naksa, and the War of Attrition with Israel which followed, all leave their marks on the family, and on the house itself.
Esmat was born in 1959 and grew up in Tanta. He has authored eight books, including الوصايا (The Commandments), which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2019, and Tales of Yusuf Tadrus, which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2016 and has been translated into English by Mandy McClure. This year, Kotob Khan also republished Esmat’s 2010 ناس وأماكن (People and Places).
Chapter 1 from The Days of Blue Windows
By Adel Esmat
Translated by Phoebe Bay Carter
Now, here in this Gulf city where the days slide by one after another, I can predict with astounding precision the particularities of tomorrow’s events, of next week’s and next month’s, until I sometimes even imagine that I see my own death; I will lie down on the sofa in my grandmother’s house, there in the city of my childhood in the heart of the Nile Delta, close my eyes, and let the light recede.
I think often of that distant city. Something happened there that shattered my sense that life was moving forward; that the future would ever arrive. For a long time, I sifted through the small details of my life: the smell of the mornings, my grandmother’s mutterings, the fear of blindness that haunted my youth, the songs that once drifted through our street. I searched through folktales and bedtime stories, through death and love and jealousy. I tried to recall the faces of people I know I will not see again. But it was all no use.
I was unable to find that which had brought my life to a halt and turned me into someone for whom nothing waits, whose future is utterly barren. In that house, I lived days that seem now to possess an unfading vividness. They appear thus from a distance, although, as I was living them, I did not know that those days would remain small specks of happiness whenever I realized I had no future. Something in my life has stopped, and there is nothing left for me to do but to repeat the tasks of yesterday. Perhaps life is nothing but the repetition of days.
Sometimes I see my grandmother as clearly as though she were still alive. She is resurrected in dreams of unexpected intensity, at a time when I thought everything had assumed its final form. I wrote to my uncle Mahmoud to ask if he had kept any photographs of her. His reply took a long time to reach me, since he has not kept pace with the times and does not have a cell phone or an email address, although the first years of the new century have already passed us by. His hand-written words brought me closer to him as I read his latest letter:
What does it mean to speak of a new century? You follow the trends, but these temporal divisions are merely human inventions. True, the house has become uninhabitable. Even the mice have long since fled. It is so old now, it is like looking at a fragment from another life. Life in the city grows louder every day.
If you returned to Tanta, you would not recognize it. Every day, they knock down another house and put up a high-rise in its place. You may have left the city behind, but it left me behind while I was in it.
Hand-written letters have a personal feel that has only become clearer since the invention of email. The distance between the two people shrinks, allowing one to surmise something of the other’s circumstances. The shape of the letters, their slant or precision or beauty, carry their writer to you. There is a singular presence in handwriting, like the sound of a voice, which evokes the writer and his surroundings. Such were Uncle Mahmoud’s letters. I was able to see him clearly, closing the wooden garden gate in the morning and hurrying across Saeed Street to the vocational high school. There he is, walking the same ground I once walked, in his absent-minded manner, still sporting the same style of clothing he has been wearing since the early seventies. He was fossilized in time and would not move forward.
Uncle Mahmoud’s response confirmed my suspicion that there were no photographs of my grandmother in the house. Not even her ID card, which she had used to pick up my grandfather’s pension at the beginning of every month, was to be found among her papers. Perhaps her sister Mounira took it before she died.
The only picture remaining of my grandmother is that mental image each of us has of her—personal images we each formed in the privacy of our own minds. How souls fragment and multiply when they depart this world! And now she inhabits that shifting existence, free to appear as she wishes. She is here, wafting into our dreams and idle thoughts like an elixir of times gone by. I had no other choice but to preserve her essence in my own thoughts. All that remained for any of us to do was to try to locate her wandering soul somewhere within ourselves: Uncle Nabil in Germany, Mohammed and Afrah in Canada, me here in Sharjah, and Uncle Mahmoud there in Tanta. As for my cousin Siham, Aunt Samira’s daughter, she will never quite be able to picture our grandmother. She has only stories, for she was born after our grandmother’s death and never saw her photograph.
Uncle Mahmoud’s last letter weighed heavily on me. I could not even bring myself to re-read it, and I began trembling in the dawn light. My grandmother was standing at the garden gate, saying, “Look…a white bird is pecking at the windowpane, come shoo it away.” The details of that distant morning came flooding back to me the next day. She searched frantically under the pillow for her copy of the Quran, having caught a shiver at the sight of a white bird circling the living room after shattering the blue-coated windowpane. With a flap of its wings, it landed on the shards of glass and began to peck at them like wheat kernels. It was not a cold day, but the bird had brought her a chill she could not shake.
The faint morning light trickled in from the terrace as she stepped out onto it. She looked out over the small garden, pausing for a few moments on the stairs, then crossed the walkway leading to the wooden gate. She opened it, as though still looking for traces of the bird. She stared at the balcony of the Pasha’s house and then off into space. Pale blue translucent clouds streamed across the sky. She peered towards the bottom of the street. The doors were all closed, and the windows and balconies submerged in morning silence, while from a distance came the clatter of the bread-cart horses’ hooves on Al-Helu Street.
She closed the wooden gate and stood lost in a daze on the little garden walkway, eyes fixed on the row of flowerpots lined up below the sitting-room window. She climbed the stairs to the terrace and straightened the cane chairs, then turned back to the garden, as if expecting to see the bird again. She went back inside, afraid she would find the pane of the south-facing window shattered and the bird’s blood on the sofa. She opened the door to the sitting room. A faint light seeped through the cracks in the west-facing window, illuminating the monotonous tranquility that had settled over the chairs. The desk was in its place beside the terrace door, extending the length of the wall. Everything was serene as always. For some time, she paced through the house, shaken by the broken windowpane and the sound of the glass shards scraping in the bird’s beak. There was something inscrutable about the pure white of the bird’s feathers; it stirred an uncanny and disconcerting feeling she had not felt since Nabil’s departure. The bird made low, angry noises as it continued its attack on the glass shards, pecking them up off the tiles.
She told me later that the bird was the angel of death who had taken my uncle Fouad’s soul, but I could not fathom how the angel of death could have dropped by the house for a visit, only to wait a few more years before taking my uncle Fouad’s soul away for good during a military operation east of the Suez in April, 1970.
Umm Wedad arrived promptly at seven, as usual, bearing a dish full of ful and the smells of an ordinary morning. My grandmother asked her to make sandwiches for the children, saying she was not feeling well, and sat on the sofa. The weak blue light that filled the house had made her anxious ever since the front windows had been painted blue in case of air raids, and she was overwhelmed by an insurmountable depression. This dark glow, especially in the mornings and evenings, created the impression that she was living in the hazy irreality of dreams, and it sometimes so enervated her that she would beg us, “Open the windows, all this blue’s gonna be the death of me!”
Phoebe Bay Carter is a translator from Arabic and Spanish, and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. She is the Cairo editor of ArabLit.
Adel Esmat is an Egyptian novelist who has been shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. He studied philosophy, has a degree in library science, and works as a library specialist in the Egyptian Ministry of Education.