Lock-in Literature: Tareq Emam’s ‘The Tale of the Woman with One Eye’

This lock-in Monday, as part of our ongoing series of stay-at-home literature (for those who are still at home, and those who aren’t), a short story from the EYE issue of ArabLit Quarterly:

By Tareq Emam

Translated by Katherine Van de Vate

Long ago in the City of Walls, you could see the enormous mountain of dark-blue kohl towering over the city no matter where you stood.

On a day long ago, at the foot of the mountain, sat that wise woman—the one with only one eye in the middle of her face. The eye was very wide, and it was always rimmed with kohl. Within it flickered not two irises, as other humans have, but three. Some called her the woman with one eye, others the woman with three irises; both were right.

The generation of descendants who now live by that mountain were brought up with the memory of a curse they never witnessed. They had nearly become ghosts as, day after day, they lost the power to assume bodily form, as if they had been born under that woman’s curse.

She was a strange woman. She would pass her time by placing a few handfuls of the finely powdered kohl around her eye to embellish it, making it seem wider. Whoever saw her allowed that her eye was indeed beautiful; in its depths moved the three irises of three different colors: one black, one blue, and one green, like three ornamental fish swimming in the turbulent waters of a vast white well. Despite that, no one who had come face to face with her could deny that her eye was as frightening as it was beautiful. This is how we have come to know that beauty is not complete without an element of fear.

By gazing into the woman’s eye, our forebears, who first drew breath beside that remarkable mountain, discovered that its white waters thundered like the waves of the sea, surging back and forth to dash against the surrounding wall of solid kohl. Some of the water splashed over the wall, escaping the eye as tears, their long dark threads trickling down the length of the woman’s billowing robe.

That eye of hers was a great mystery, as enigmatic as her very existence. Although she was not beautiful, and her slight, withered body folded in on itself like an ancient tree branch, all the women of the emerging city secretly envied her for the beauty of the kohl crowning her huge eye. Kohl was not yet known in the world. The only place where that magic powder could be found was the mountain of the one-eyed woman, from which she seemed to extend as if she had been born of its soil.

The woman with one eye was generous, begrudging no one in the city her wise counsel or her frequent gifts of potions, remedies, magic foods, or liquids of strange tastes and colors. But she resolutely refused to lend any woman even a tiny amount of the kohl that she put on her eye, leading them to speculate that her magic powers and profound wisdom came from the mountain of kohl. The years passed, and the mountain grew no smaller, although she never added anything to it.

The people were not aware that the woman’s tears, which fell incessantly, were mixed with kohl, or that when they dried, they once again became solid chunks of kohl that she re-used. This is how it came to be that every grain of kohl in the mountain carried the scent of tears.

For her part, the woman would answer no questions about the matter. Like any wise woman, she believed that man’s suffering began when he enquired about that which he should not know.

Granted a long life, the woman had watched over the city since the time when it had been only an expanse of desolation. It grew before her eye, like her fatherless child, until it became a maze of walls without doors. Although the world might sometimes waft through the seams of its walls, the isolated city lay deep in slumber, like a dreaming dog.

People knew nothing of the woman’s history, nor did they know the reason for her strange shape, but they were all eternally grateful to her. Not only did she restore peace to the suffering, but her mountain protected the city from the strong winds buffeting it, which would otherwise have demolished the city walls in an instant. The woman also used the mountain during the raids that threatened the city, filling her palms with handfuls of kohl that she flung into the eyes of invaders to blind them.

Years passed, but the woman grew no older and the mountain of kohl grew no smaller.

Though they admired her, day by day the women of the city grew more envious of the woman, until one day they decided to go together to the mountain and help themselves to its kohl. But because she was wise, the woman knew, as soon as she saw them, why they had come. Before any of them could utter a word, she said: “You want this kohl for your eyes. You believe that it holds the secret of my wisdom and my longevity. But you forget that it is all I have. I have no husband like you do, no house, no children, nothing but my strange shape and feeble body. Would you begrudge me the only thing I possess?”

For a moment, the women bowed their heads. But they rallied quickly, deciding not to listen to the woman or heed her words. Elbowing one another aside, they approached the mountain of kohl, each grabbing as much as she could. With a smile, the woman pronounced her final words: “I could stop you, could block your hands with a single glance, but I will not, for the loss will not be mine.”

By the time she was done speaking, the women had divided up the mountain of kohl and dispersed, their sacks filled with the plundered dark powder. For the first time since they had known the kohl mountain, each woman returned home by a separate road. After this, the woman disappeared for ever, her existence only a memory.

On the following day, every woman who had put the kohl on her eyes awoke with a single white eye in the middle of her face; the eye had no iris, and burning tears streamed from it continuously. Meanwhile, the mountain of kohl was gone, transformed into a broad lake where three big fish swam. And because the lake had no wall to contain its roilingwaters, they spilled out in wave after frenzied wave. The water coursed through the narrow streets of the maze-like city, streets barely wide enough for a single person, toward the houses of the city without doors, threatening to inundate it.

All attempts to build a wall around the surging lake failed. The force of the water overcame any barrier, dissolving clay, stone, iron and every other material with which the people sought to dam the flood. With the dawn of each new day, the city lost one or more of its houses, until one day the men of the city decided to use the kohl remaining in their houses to contain the waters. They headed to the lake with their sacks of kohl, emptying them on its banks. And oh, surprise! The waters calmed, like a wound suddenly stanched. In this way, the city came to overlook a sea of tears, later a harbor, where the ships that docked disgorged every sort of stranger, not one of whom entered the city without bringing a new cause for tears.

From that day onward, the waters ceased their onslaught on the city, dashing fruitlessly against the solid new walls, unable to escape or dissolve them. From time to time, though, a few waves leapt the walls and meandered gently down the city streets to remind people of an old woman’s tears and a dark blue mountain, the location of which has become a distant memory.

Tareq Emam is an Egyptian writer and critic, and author of many books including My Father’s Grave and The City with No Walls.

Katherine Van de Vate recently completed an MA in translation studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She has spent more than 20 years living and working in the Middle East as a U.S. diplomat, serving in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, and Turkey. Before that she was an Arabic curator at Princeton University Library and the British Library. She is now embarking upon the translation of Arabic fiction into English.


Other translations in our stay-at-home series:

4 Poems by Jan Dost, translated by Mey Dost

Issa Hassan Al-Yasiri’s ‘A Primitive Prayer for Uruk,’ translated by Ghareeb Iskander, with thanks to Hassan Abdulrazzak

Zakaria Tamer’s ‘The Flower,’ tr. Marilyn Hacker

Lock-in Limited Release: Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘The Man in the Picture’, tr. Karim Zidan

Ali el-Makk’s ‘Forty-One Minarets’, tr. Adil Babikir

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

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

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

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


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