It’s publication week for Bed for the King’s Daughter, a collection of 22 short stories by Syrian author Shahla Ujayli, translated by Sawad Hussain:
It’s not a surprise to see this collection in English translation. After all, it won the prestigious Almultaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story in 2017, a pathbreaking prize that previously went to Mazen Maarouf’s fantastically surreal Jokes for the Gunmen. Moreover, two of Ujayli’s novels have been published in English translation: A Sky so Close to Us and Summer with the Enemy, both translated by Michelle Hartman, both after they were shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Yet Sawad Hussain writes, in her introduction to Bed for the King’s Daughter, that she faced an uphill slog in trying to find a publisher for this short-story collection.
“Too short.” “Too experimental.” “Not enough sense of place.” “Not Arab enough.” These were a few of the rejections she received from editors, she writes. Although The Common magazine published the opening story in the collection, “The Memoirs of Cinderella’s Slipper,” Hussain said she was told, again and again, that short-story collections were “just too hard to sell in today’s market.”
Yet she kept on looking until she found a home for the collection, with University of Texas Press. The following appears with kind permission from translator and publisher.
Dead Man’s Hand
By Shahla Ujayli
Translated by Sawad Hussain
I was driving my steel-gray Honda Civic toward the free morning clinic where I work. The clinic is on the main road that goes from Na’ur to Um Al-Basateen village. In front of me was a white van that looked like an ambulance, but with a green light on the roof instead of a red one, and large windows making up most of the vehicle’s body. Once, I drove out in front of the van; another time it overtook me. I wanted to edge out in front of it, free myself of the stench of death engulfing the road that morning, a morning that seemed otherwise serene. But the van’s driver didn’t give me a chance to do so. When it sidled up beside me at the traffic light, I turned and saw a coffin through the side glass panel. The mere difference of a meter between my beating heart and that still one; the way we each interpreted traffic laws, jolted me.
Reciting the Fatiha prayer under my breath, I looked over again. We both turned off onto the same side road to Um Al-Basateen, a narrow and quiet road. While the van was in front of me, I stared at the words written on its back door, below the glass: O reassured soul, return to your Lord, well pleased and pleasing to him. I looked above the words and all of a sudden a palm struck the back window. It flipped back and forth on the glass surface, clenching into a fist and then slackening. I trembled behind my steering wheel. A dead man’s hand was signaling to me urgently, beckoning me.
I tried to convince myself that whoever was accompanying the body was the one who had waved at me, but I was almost certain that I couldn’t see anyone in the back. The dead man persisted in showing me his palm, as if he were about to grab me by the neck or my collar. He needed help and I knew all tormented souls, kidnapped or killed, would ask the living to avenge them or reveal the murky circumstances of their death. He might even still be alive!
I followed the van when it turned off toward the cemetery. I thought perhaps the corpse could be someone from the political opposition, the security forces having tortured him to death. Or maybe he had been a soldier of the regime who was assassinated by the opposition. But I soon remembered that there wasn’t a power struggle going on between those in office and the opposition here in Jordan, let alone a war!
When we reached the cemetery, the ambulance swiftly shot through the gate, the hand remaining raised all the while, pounding on the glass, as if no one else but me could see it. A woman, clad in military fatigues and a keffiyeh, machine gun at the ready, stopped my car.
“Where to?” she inquired. “I want to follow the coffin.”
“Women don’t attend burials. It’s not proper. It’s strictly forbidden, actually.”
I had caught sight of another woman inside, a gravedigger, emptying a grave with her shovel, wearing plastic boots, her shirt tucked into her leather belt.
“But you’re a woman,” I promptly replied. “And that grave digger over there is also a woman. I’m a doctor, so maybe you’ll need me for something?”
With a sternness that kept me from needling her further, she snapped, “That woman and I are forced to do this because not many others know how. All our men died in the war, and the dead don’t need doctors.”
The sound of cars honking jolted me from my waking nightmare. I released my stick shift and took off. The van was nowhere to be seen. When the radio station I always listen to at eight on the dot came on, the news presenter shared that a top commander in the area had met his end in a nearby country, at the hands of two women who had lost their families in the war.
Shahla Ujayli is the author of four novels: The Cat’s Eye (2006), which won the Jordan State Award for Literature 2009; Persian Carpet (2012); A Sky Close to Our House (2015), which was IPAF-shortlisted in 2016; and Summer with the Enemy (2018), which was IPAF-shortlisted in 2019. She has also published one other short collection in Arabic, The Latticed Window (2005). The Arabic edition of A Bed for the King’s Daughter (2016) won the 2017 Al-Multaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story awarded by the American University in Kuwait.
Sawad Hussain is the winner of the 2019 Arablit Short Story Prize and an English PEN Translates award. She co-teaches a workshop on translating Arabic comics at UK secondary schools via the collective Shadow Heroes. Her upcoming translations include a Palestinian surrealistic work by Akram Musallam for Seagull Books. She holds an MA in modern Arabic literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies.