#WiTMonth’s Translate This: Hadiya Hussein’s ‘What Will Come’

Hadiya Hussein is an Iraqi writer who was born in 1956. ArabLit recommends publishers pick up a translation of her 2017 novel, ما سيأتي:

Hussein started writing short stories in the 1980s, and she published two collections in the ’90s: I Apologize on Your Behalf (1993) and The Span of Two Bows from Me (1998). She went on to publish many acclaimed novels, including Ma Ba’d al-Hub (2004), which was translated by Ikram Masmoudi as Beyond Love (2012) and published by Syracuse University Press. Her novel Riyam and Kafa was longlisted for the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Hussein’s 2017 ما سيأتي plunges both characters and readers into desire and darkness. In the novel, translator Barbara Romaine writes:

Narjis, the novel’s protagonist, under surveillance by the authorities, has sneaked out of Baghdad against orders. She is on a mission to find the man she loves, who disappeared many months ago, but who she believes is still alive. On a tip, she has been taken to a Kurdish district in the north of Iraq, and is being sheltered by a Kurdish family, resisters who make a practice of helping people who seek their vanished loved ones. In this scene, Narjis is suddenly and urgently ushered by her hostess, Mizgin, through a door hidden behind a picture of a forest. The door leads from the guest quarters where Narjis has been staying into a secret part of the house, but there has been no time for Mizgin to explain to her why this is necessary, or what emergency may have occurred.

Publishers interested in learning more about the novel can contact info@arablit.org to be put in touch with the author and translator.

Excerpt from ‘What Will Come’

By Hadiya Hussein

Translated by Barbara Romaine

Hadiya Hussein.

The shadows engulfed Narjis, but Mizgin dispersed them, switching on the small flashlight she held in her hand. She gave this to Narjis. “Quick now, go downstairs,” she urged. “Using this light to guide you, keep going until you reach the end of the tunnel. Sit down there and turn off the light. You mustn’t come back until you hear my voice. If you’re alarmed by noise in the tunnel coming from this direction, then you must go out by proceeding in the same direction you went. You’ll find something that looks like a boulder, but it’s not—it’s cork, painted so that it resembles rock. Push it aside and go out. A few meters away you’ll find someone who’ll look after you.” With that Mizgin left her, slipping the picture of the forest back into its place as she went.

Gripping the flashlight with trembling fingers, Narjis plunged into the tunnel that had been dug into the earth. Her breaths came rapidly, her heart seeming to swell as its rhythm accelerated. The air was dank, the place stiflingly humid and malodorous. She set her feet almost directly where the beam of the flashlight fell, conscious of her bare feet. She did not turn her head, and she had no sense of the distance she had to traverse; the tunnel seemed endless to her, and she felt off-balance—perhaps her blood pressure had risen or fallen. Fear caused her all

at once to let the flashlight slip from her hand. The light went out, and complete darkness descended. She leaned over and felt around for the flashlight, the stones on the ground cutting into her palms and the soles of her feet. Crawling forward, she searched until she found it, and grabbed hold of it like someone seizing a vial that held the elixir of life. Once more she illuminated her surroundings. She stepped on something damp, and heard a faint susurration, something like a squeak—it might have been the sound of a mouse. She hurried on as quickly as her feet could carry her. The tunnel wasn’t long; it was fear that drew it out.

When she reached the end, she sat down on the ground. Taking hold of the object made of cork, she moved it slightly, to make sure it really wasn’t an enormous rock that she’d be unable to budge. In vain, she tried to compose her breathing and her heartbeat. She extinguished the light, and the dimensions of the space were obscured. She was facing back in the direction from which she had come, her mind beset by evil thoughts. The house must have been subject to a police raid, surely? What would happen if they knew where she had gone? What fate would they devise for her? What would she say if they arrested her and dragged her off to their offices? “I’m looking for the man I love”? They would mock her, of course, they who didn’t know the meaning of the word “love,” or what it meant for a woman to set off in search of a man for whose disappearance they themselves were responsible. They would say there must be something else she had run away from when she violated the prohibition that had been imposed upon her against leaving the city. “This is a dangerous woman,” they would say, “—don’t be fooled by her innocent face. We’ll flay her alive until she confesses.”

She stayed crouched where she was, submitting to the darkness and the way the time, seemingly arrested, squatted upon her chest. Her senses, though, did not relax their vigil, but were alert to every noise, even the sound of insects crawling, and from time to time she still heard a faint squeaking, which now she was certain was that of a mouse. Curling up in a ball, she huddled in place, suspended in pitch-dark, and closed her eyes against visioins of ghosts, while her mother’s voice travelled through space to dispense its reassurance: “There are no ghosts in the dark, Narjis.” She quickly opened her eyes again, not because of the voice that came to her from the next world, but because everything was indistinct: There was in this darkness no differentiation in color, nor could outlines be discerned in this corner or that; it was all one shade of pure black, an all-encompassing gloom, open to all manner of prognostications. The silence was loud, cacophonous with her rapid breathing and anxious heartbeat; time was not obedient to the hands of the clock—here time’s scorpion-claws delivered their sting and injected their venom into the spirit before attacking the body. She could not cry out, and she could not see the ghosts with their lit-up eyes, long noses, and tails of fire as she had seen them in her childhood; she feared, rather, the phantoms of living men that appeared before her—devils’ spawn, coming from where she had entered. She stared into gaps in a darkness that had no gaps, entrenched, trembling, locked into her own silence as she struggled to suppress her terrors as best she could, as if these terrors were something palpable she could fend off with her hands, and if she could not do this then she must acclimate herself to them.

They say there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, so where was the light? When would it come and dispel the darkness? Where indeed was the end of the tunnel now? Was it the spot in which she now huddled, or in the direction she was facing—the way she had come? No light came, nor Mizgin’s voice to rescue her. The minutes dragged on, stretching out idly, heedless of the woman who restrained her breathing as if the supply of air would soon be exhausted, while she prepared herself for some menace that might beset her at any moment. She sensed something stirring on her right-hand side—a snake, perhaps. She shivered and cringed, bracing herself. Then she felt a terrible chill, as if summer had given way, with autumn following on its heels, come to freeze her beyond endurance.

She thought about leaving, going outside. She tried to shift the artificial rock, to see what was behind it and who awaited her there, but when she stopped hearing the sound she thought was a snake, she drew back. Perhaps it was terror that, in its extremity, had crept, serpent-like, into all her joints, and she imagined it as a snake. She must follow Mizgin’s advice, and stay quietly where she was, even though she no longer felt quite certain of what Mizgin had told her, that all was secure, every precaution having been taken.

What if the darkness never ended? What perils, Narjis, might lie in wait for you then?


Barbara Romaine is a professor and translator of Arabic literature. Her published translations include works by Radwa Ashour (Blue Lorries, Spectres, Siraaj), Bahaa Taher (Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery), and Mohamed Mansi Qandil (Cloudy Day on the Western Shore)Romaine won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 2007 to facilitate her translation of Spectres and was named runner-up for the 2011 Banipal Prize for the same book. She was awarded a second NEA fellowship for 2015, to support the translation of A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore. She currently teaches at Villanova University.


Read more:

Interview: Hadiya Hussein on Personal and Public Memory

Short Story: Where is Revolution City? tr. Paul Starkey

Film Adaptation: Hadiya Hussein’s ‘Man in a Cup’