Lock-in Literature: Ali el-Makk’s ‘Forty-One Minarets’

This lock-in Monday, as part of our ongoing series of stay-at-home literature, a short story by award-winning Sudanese writer Ali el-Makk:

By Ali el-Makk

Translated by Adil Babikir

Masjid Al-Nilin, Omdurman. Photo credit: Nick Hobgood

The hospital reeked of two distinct odors: the smell of sewage and the smell of death. You may not be familiar with the latter, but he could recognize it as it hovered over his mother’s head. It had been his understanding that death, true to its deceptive nature, would attack only in the dark of night, but that proved wrong as his mother died around midday.

Standing helplessly beside her bed, he wished he could lend her a heart, a kidney, an eye, or part of his soul — any organ that would help her survive.

In the morning, he felt a gnawing pain. Well, it was not a pain in the true sense of the word, but rather a subtle anxiety.

“What if my mother died today?”

“Everyone is destined to die one day,” he tried to console himself. This was the typical statement he would make to console others.  But when it was his mother, no words of consolation did him any good.

It was winter, a season he feared to death — perhaps because of the cold, dark nights  —  or perhaps because his father had died suddenly during the same season. He kept the telephone close to his head while he slept, expecting a call at night from the hospital and a wailing voice screaming in his ears: “She died! She’s gone!” But why should she die? Wasn’t this the best and cleanest hospital? Wasn’t it the best-equipped facility, staffed with British nurses? But could an English nurse prevent death, or at least delay it?

“How is she today, Sister Alice?”

Sister Alice had a lifeless face. “We’re doing everything we can.” What was that supposed to mean? He turned his eyes towards his mother. He loved her face and her color. Neither black nor white, she had instead a Sudanese color. Although she never went to school herself, she wanted her son to get the best education, so he’d become a doctor fixing fractures and curing illnesses. But that was not destined to happen, because he simply did not share that dream.

Here he was, standing beside her bed. She was wrapped in a white sheet. Could anyone reach this level of weakness? “We need a miracle, Mr. …,” said Sister Alice. “Dr. Hussain has done everything within his power, but…”

But what? She was breathing heavily. Her Sudanese body was swollen, and her back was full of bedsores. Her eyes were closed, and she had not uttered a word for seven days now.

“Is this what you call a coma, Sister Alice?” he anxiously asked. Were he a doctor, he would have known and would not have had to ask. He would’ve been at a totally different level. A luxurious car, a house, a family, money — without much effort.

“But why should I marry and have children? Is it one of my responsibilities to protect mankind from extinction?” he said to himself.

A cold wind was blowing in through the northern door. He had a fit of coughing and, for some reason that was beyond him, he felt he was about to throw up.

“Go out. We don’t want anyone here.” The guard came in, preceded by his commanding tone. But why? he asked silently. “These are the instructions of the hospital administrator. I will lose my job if he finds you here.” It sounded logical and convincing. The earth could barely accommodate more jobless.

The guard’s firm orders seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. No one moved an inch. Was it an act of defiance? Was it because they believed a few piasters would make the guard look the other way? If he was allowing people to enter the hospital outside visiting times in consideration of a small amount of money, then he could just as well let them stay for the same reason.

The guard went out of the room, his threatening voice echoing through the other rooms. “Get out! The administrator is coming any moment now.” The echo died down in his ears gradually, until it was driven away by memories of his mother.

As a young child, he’d been talkative and hyperactive. His mother had loved him so much, but in her own way. She wouldn’t hesitate to punish him when he misbehaved, and he would scream and stay away for hours, but she would eventually take him back into her arms and tell him some lovely stories.

She loved to talk about mosques. “There are 51 mosques in Omdurman,” she would tell him. “Ten of these have no minarets.” He still remembered their names after all those years. Abdel Ghaffar Mosque. Sheikh Yousif Mosque. The Grand Mosque.

“Why do they call it the Grand Mosque?”

As if she were expecting that question, his mother instantly responded: “Because it’s the biggest mosque; its minaret is the tallest. And because it’s at the heart of the marketplace and is visited by great masses of people. And because it was the government that built it.”

“But what does the government have to do with prayers?” This was a question his mother may not have an answer for.

“And who built the Coptic Church? Was it the government also? Aren’t the Copts different from the Muslims? Why should the government build all the mosques and all the churches?” She gave no answer to these questions, and he couldn’t understand why.

Although she was a devout woman, she never spoke about the merits of praying. And although she loved mosques, she never went to one. Some of the neighborhood women attended Friday prayers at the mosque. Hajja Kaltoum, Hajja Zainab, and other Hajjas. The fact that they’d performed hajj may have bestowed upon those women an attribute of men: attending the Friday prayers at the mosque. Most of the women who performed hajj were very old, and it was possible that his mother refrained from attending Friday’s congregational prayers because she didn’t want to be classified among that group.

The Gadah al-Dum Mosque: was it in Mawradeh or Hashmaab neighborhood? Who was Gadah al-Dum? Was he a saint? A philanthropist who built it to gain a ticket to paradise? What about the one who called the mosque after himself and built a sky-scraping minaret? People said he built his wealth from dubious deals. Certainly, people’s gossip was endless.

The street was teeming with pedestrians, cars, and noise. The hospital was at the center of a bustling ocean. Traffic was unusually high for that time of the day, with cars blasting their horns, sometimes for no apparent reason. It was called the English Hospital because its residents were mostly British. During the colonial era, the hospital was perfectly clean, neat, and quiet. “Even if a resident died, there was hardly any noise,” Uncle Siddig, who’d worked in the hospital since that time, used to say.

Are you saying, Uncle Siddig, that the hospital became filthy and noisy when it passed to local management? Yes, came the silent answer from Uncle Siddig’s eyes.

The hospital’s gate on the Railway Street side was closed as usual. There was no one there at that time, except a young girl who pressed her face to the bars of the steel gate. Perhaps she was pretty, but he couldn’t tell for sure from that distance. She was definitely tall.  Why was he thinking of her? Was it an attempt to drive his mind away from impending tragedy?

The doctor suddenly came in, greeted him with a nod, and quickly went out of the room. It was clear he wanted to avoid any conversation. It wasn’t the usual time for patients’ rounds. Apparently, the doctor had been summoned by Sister Alice. It must be pretty serious, and the minutes the doctor spent checking his mother sounded like hours. Again, he steered his eyes off to the street. He saw the ben trees surrounding the fence and dancing in the air. The girl pressing her face against the bars of the closed steel gate. The guard’s vacant seat. Perhaps she was waiting for his return. She might beg him to let her in, so she could see a seriously ill patient. Her appeal might not be persuasive enough, so she might offer some money. The guard might fan his head around for a while before, eventually, letting her in. Pushing the coins in his pocket, he would urge her to make it quick because he’d lose his job if the hospital administrator spotted her. In case she was caught, she should say that she’d jumped the fence or sneaked herself through the bars, or ….

He heard the doctor’s footsteps quickly leaving the room. When their eyes met, he read nothing in the doctor’s eyes that encouraged him to ask any question.

Where is your medicine, doctors? he asked, answering himself: You should be thankful that a great effort is being made to save her life. Can’t you see how people are dying in the so-called common wards? Didn’t you see how that man from South Sudan bled to death? Did anyone come to his rescue? Anyone cry or wail for his loss? He simply passed away, with no parents, wife, or family around. Surely, you should be thankful that your mother is receiving superb care here.

Dragging his heavy steps, he went into the room.

“Did the doctor say anything?” he asked one of his female relatives.


“Nothing at all?”

“What on earth could the doctor say? Our fate is in God’s hands.”

This doctor in particular was not one who cared to comfort the worries of families or give them any information about the conditions of their patients. “What did he do now?”

“He just placed the stethoscope on her chest and examined her like someone examining a sheep, and then he talked to the Sister in a strange language. This girl is truly kind, although she is a khawajia.”

His mother always dreamt of his wedding day, seeing him in his bridal dress with the harira ribbon on his wrist, a golden crescent on his forehead, sweet-smelling dharira pasted onto his hair, and girls singing to the rhythm of daluka drumbeats. Alas! Look at her now, motionless, her eyes closed, hardly breathing. Could anyone survive a combination of renal and cardiac failure?

“Mother, the Grand Mosque, why is it called so?”

“Because it is at the heart of the marketplace, and because it was constructed by the government, and because it is spacious. Haven’t you seen ecstatic people dancing to the rhythm of madih after Friday congregational prayers during the holy month of Ramadan?”

She never saw any of this herself, but only heard about it. She loved madih and used to recite the lyrics praising the Prophet while in the kitchen or performing other household duties.

Although she loved her son very much, she wouldn’t hesitate to punish him severely if he ignored his homework or insisted on going to the cinema, or if he let his hair grow too thick. He would storm with rage, but would quickly calm down. Was he today his own master? Could he let his hair to grow freely?

Like a trained chorus, the women wailed loudly. You are now on your own, and tragedy has landed on you!He rushed out of the room. The corridor suddenly thronged with people. Was it curiosity, or grief, or fear of death that drove them in? He ran away; was he trying to escape the wailing or the curiosity of the people who were struggling to get into the room? Anyway, no one noticed his departure.

With wet eyes, he glanced around the hospital’s courtyard. The objects appeared blurred. The ben trees were dancing with the breeze. The sewage smell was now even stronger. A woman was standing at the gate, pressing her face against the bars, and the watchman’s seat was still vacant.

Ali el-Makk (1937-1992) is an acclaimed Sudanese short-story writer and literary critic. He published several short-story collections, including The Petite Bourgeois, In the Village, The Moon Sitting in his Courtyard, and Ascending to the City Bottom.

Adil Babikir is a translator and an Arabic content manager at Mubadala Investment Company in Abu Dhabi. He has translated several works, including Mansi: A Rare Man in His Own Way by Tayeb Salih and two novels by Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin.


Other translations in our stay-at-home series:

‘Eyes Shut’ by Rami Tawil, tr. Nashwa Gowanlock

Bushra Fadil’s ‘Phosphorus at the Bottom of a Well.’ tr. Mustafa Adam

‘A Street in the Pandemic’ & Other Poems by Jawdat Fakhreddine, tr. Huda Fakhreddine

Belal Fadl’s 2007 satireInto the Tunnel,” tr. Nariman Youssef


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