New Short Fiction: ‘Our Offering,’ by Amgad ElSabban

The short story “Our Offering” first appeared in English in the Winter 2019 issue of ArabLit Quarterly: THE STRANGE:

Our Offering

By Amgad ElSabban

Translated by Mona Khedr

Magdy’s gaze fell by accident on a tiny ad written in fine print in the bottom corner of one of the pages of a local newspaper. Because he was inclined to pry, Magdy pushed his plate aside, shoved his wooden chair back, and got up to find a magnifying glass so he could read the details of the ad. After reading the ad again and again, he—for the first time in a long while—felt there might be a way out.

The ad announced the return of the “Our Offering” contest after a pause of an entire decade. The contest had been publicized four times, and only once had it gone through. The other three announcements had been canceled despite the numerous temptations extended by contest organizers encouraging nominees to come forward. Conditions for applying included that the contender was of good health, pleasant appearance, and free of disease. The lucky winner was promised a majestic funeral that would air live on all the local TV channels, as well as a memorial statue that would stand tall at the entrance to the city. 

For a few seconds, Magdy saw in his mind’s eye his body carried respectfully on people’s shoulders amid a magnificent popular procession as people bitterly wept over his departure with tears as tormented as the pain he had suffered. Before they buried his body, one of them addressed the crowd, reading from a letter that Magdy himself had prepared in advance. In the letter, Magdy absolved himself by telling the chapters of suffering he had endured.

Two years back, Magdy had donated a cold-water fountain as a token of thankfulness to God after he’d survived a car accident. The fountain was placed on the sidewalk that ran along the main road, beside the sewer and parallel to the tobacco kiosk. The fountain helped quench the thirst of many, moistened the parched faces of some, and was a destination for several stainless-steel cup thieves. One day, shortly before the dawn call to prayer, two young boys, who were just done playing soccer, headed to the fountain. One of them began filling up his stainless-steel cup with water when an electric charge traveled from the fountain right through his body. His friend immediately pulled him to the back, trying to keep him away from the electric cooler. But the electric shock moved right on into the boy’s body and killed him on the spot.

Magdy was startled awake that morning by strong knocks on his front door. He jumped to his feet, still in his underwear, and ran to open the door. He was given a strong punch to the chest and fell to the floor. Through the loud cursing and kicks that poured down on Magdy, he could make out that he was being blamed for the young boy’s death.

For a second, the shock staggered Magdy. What cold-water fountain? What kid? Eventually, with effort, he remembered. He denied knowing anything about the fountain after its purchase. He didn’t even remember where it had been set up. The sudden emergence of an elderly man, who announced the dead boy’s funeral would be held soon, saved Magdy from the looming crowd, which was about to return to its attack. 

Since Magdy could not be legally charged or proven guilty of murdering the child, the boy’s relatives and those of the neighbors—whose hearts felt for them—decided to turn his existence into a living hell. They stuck posters of him, labeled MURDERER, all over the walls of their neighborhood as well as the nearby villages. Every time he tried to start afresh in a new place, stacks of trash and loads of rubble were heaped on him. Children chased him, grabbed at his bottom, and ran away in torrents of irreverent giggles. 

After several failed attempts to escape his situation, Magdy returned to his place and tolerated the occasional individual assaults that, with the passage of time, he got used to. But little did he expect the big to-do coming his way.

On the anniversary of the boy’s death, his relatives and supporters painted the walls of Magdy’s building and the ones around it solid black. In white paint, they sketched in images of the boy eating, drinking, lying down on his stomach, turning to his right side and then again to his left, and absent-mindedly contemplating the ceiling. 

They sketched what might have been the long trajectory of the boy’s life. They represented him at his graduation ceremony, on a work trip to the Gulf, with his wife and his first child. They drew a picture of him amid his many grown children, of his homecoming from the Hajj, even of his funeral. They had a sketch of him as a man of advanced years—death, they imagined, could only have come after a long, fulfilled life.

Haj Hussein, owner of Hassan & Hussein Funeral Services, was one of the biggest sympathizers with the boy’s cause. Whenever he felt a sudden pang of longing for the dead boy’s mother, his former sweetheart, he would install a pavilion to host mourners in front of Magdy’s building. The dead boy’s parents, at this event, would bind the building’s gates with heavy chains once they were certain Magdy was locked inside. If he attempted to escape, they would make sure they found him and returned him to his apartment. They built the pavilion on the narrow street right in front of his building and shone lights on the white sketches of the killed boy graffitied on the building’s black exterior. In a weepy voice, the child’s mother would recount the views and opinions her departed son would have adopted regarding all current affairs that were then taking place around the world. The event usually ended with bitter curses poured upon the murderer, Magdy, followed by the amens of all those present at the pavilion.

Magdy was not sure how he felt about all this. In the beginning, he’d been convinced he was guilty. When he thought about how there was no evidence that he was the culprit, he would silence his brain, reminding it that it had been he who bought the cold-water fountain. He accepted the harassment to relieve his guilt. 

But once the ceremonial pavilion became a weekly event, Magdy’s guilt turned into a burning desire to silence them all. One day, he opened his little window that overlooked the pavilion and loudly cursed the lot of them, although no one heard his shouts because of the deafening loudspeakers they’d set up. Instead of wasting more energy, Magdy went and got his binoculars and began to study the faces of all the attendees, jotting down their names one by one, hoping for future revenge. 

He imagined that, one of these nights, he would jump off his window wielding a huge knife, look directly into their eyes, and vent the anger that filled his heart in a stabbing spree that would leave them frozen in shock. But the truth was that Magdy had become too gaunt; he was thinner than a stick of sugar cane. He would grow frustrated, and then his urgent desire for revenge would fuel him once again. Suddenly, an idea jumped into his head: he should give his body a complete makeover!

Magdy researched the forms and figures of military fighters spanning the eras from before the birth of Christ until the modern world wars. He compared the bodies and picked measurements. He decided on a width of shoulders and chest, a body height, the shape of the head and the forehead, the composition and the sizes of the muscles, and he drew every detail on a blank sheet of paper. Once he was settled on the shape of his desired body, Magdy spent each of God’s days roaming the hospitals in search of plastic surgeons that would recreate him in the sought-after image. 

He received so many derisive responses that he eventually grew frustrated and, for a long time, remained locked in the darkness of his room. But once again, he looked through his binoculars, this time to prey on an error that one of the dead boy’s supporters had committed, and to coerce them to side with him. He saw Semsema the barber selling tickets to out-of-town mourners and threatened to expose him. Semsema spread a rumor that Magdy had peeped on the naked bodies of the neighbor women through his window. People in the neighborhood grew so furious with Magdy that they nearly killed him. Ultimately, after failing at an attempt to take his own life, he kept to himself.

Magdy’s reason for applying to the “Our Offering” contest multiplied, and so did his feelings of ineptitude and guilt, hoping he hadn’t lost his chance, since the call for nominees had now aired on national television.

Holding a chainsaw, Magdy took to the streets after midnight. He located all the mailboxes and sliced them open. He carefully checked the outgoing envelopes but did not manage to find any letter addressed to the contest organizers. Opening the last mailbox, Magdy decided that, if he didn’t manage to find one potential letter, he would physically head to the contest headquarters. But soon enough, he was arrested for destroying public property.

Jail was convenient for Magdy; the cells were empty, and no one blamed him for murder or public disturbance. People outside prison would eventually forget him, and he would gladly forget all people. Jail was the alternative to the peace of mind he’d sought in applying to the contest. Anyhow, he was certain he’d lost that opportunity. But his time in jail was a hassle for the people outside. They consoled themselves that, one day, he would be out again, so they could lock him up in his apartment and carry on calling him a murderer. He would then happily accept all the insults they heaped on him. The ceremonial funerals they held regularly, despite Magdy’s absence, were no longer enjoyable. The event was no longer a destination for bachelors and bachelorettes seeking a future spouse. It was no longer a chance for flashy young women to show off, nor for elderly women to entertain themselves with gossip and memories of the dead. People stopped coming from the neighboring villages to attend the gathering. They started to timidly pray to God to release Magdy from lockup. 

On the day the results of the contest were announced, Magdy was circling his cell, having completely forgotten the cold-water fountain, the killed boy, the insults, and even of the application letter he had sent to the contest organizers. He forgot the whole ordeal and busied himself in memorizing the words and shapes drawn on the walls of his cell. 

Outside Magdy’s cell, everyone was holding their breath in anticipation of this moment: the announcement of the winner. The dead boy’s mother leaned her arms onto the marble kitchen countertop and occasionally glanced at the TV screen set  over on the kitchen cupboard. Semsema the barber spread his body comfortably out on two wooden chairs and settled his eyes on a TV placed on a small wooden table. The coffee shop was packed. The heavy smoke coming out of the customers’ hookahs, along with the flapping wings of a pet falcon kept inside a cage hung next to the TV, mingled with the attentive eyes locked on the screen. 

Meanwhile, the woman chairing the contest committee sat impatiently in the prison commissioner’s office, wishing the man would’ve shown up sooner. She was eager to finish her task. She was even more eager to take off her tight shoes. She was dreaming of the long vacation she’d have after the contest was over.

After the TV host’s long presentation, the contest winner was announced. Magdy won handily; after all, he was the only applicant to have come forward.

The coffee shop customers leapt to their feet in anger. The neighborhood residents took to the streets in disbelief; the boy’s mother, who struck her chest despondently, came with them. They marched toward the nearby prison hoping to escape the impending bereavement.

The committee chairwoman held Magdy’s hand. She dragged him like a little child. He was dazed, especially after he’d learned his execution would take place at dawn the following day. They rode in a red Volkswagen. Magdy tried hard to remember his application letter, but he was too distracted to do it. As they were on their way to the contest headquarters, a figure blocked the vehicle’s way. The chairwoman jammed on the brakes, barely managing to stop the car before she ran the person over. The people of the neighborhood rushed up to the car and dragged Magdy back to his apartment. They bound him carefully to to his wooden chair and invited the boy’s mother to beat him mercilessly.

The chairwoman came back with a large group of men. After a fierce battle, the chairwoman managed to free Magdy. Once more, he was carried to the Volkswagen. The chairwoman handed Magdy a few balls and asked him to pick one. Feebly, he made his pick. He held the ball in his hand for a while before he lifted it up in the air and threw it at her. 

The car made its way through deserted roads. Only the croak of frogs could be heard in the silence. Magdy, sitting in the backseat, was utterly exhausted. He fell into the sort of deep and peaceful sleep that he’d not experienced in a long time. The car pulled over in front of a small house in the middle of nowhere. A few women opened the car door; they carried Magdy inside the house and set him down on a couch. 

The mood was dark and depressing. The women exchanged glances and gave wide smiles. Gracefully, they proceeded to take off their clothes. They blared cheerful music through the house as they stood around in bright-colored slips. Then, they headed to the kitchen to prepare sugar wax.

Each of them talked about her first experience waxing her body, trying to anticipate the pain Magdy was about to experience. They left the kitchen, swaying along to the rhythm of the music, and one let out a thunderous trill of joy. They stripped off Magdy’s clothes., surrounded him, and very quickly waxed off all his body hair. 

Magdy gave a few weak yelps of pain. The women took him to the bathroom to wash, and they petted his penis as they would a little child. They asked his penis whether it was happy or not. And, just so they would not get dispirited, they answered their own question with a loud, confident YES! They dressed Magdy in a white wedding dress that they’d cut to knee-length. They applied kohl to his eyes and lipstick to his lips. They covered all the bruises on his face with rosy blush, then hid his face under a transparent veil. 

As dawn appeared on the horizon, a pick-up truck arrived at the house. They lifted Magdy’s body into its cargo area, and the truck launched out to the Nile-side Corniche Road. As people on the streets got a glimpse of the truck, they laughed wildly. Anyone who would wed him would definitely be blind, they said. The truck climbed onto a high bridge. They lifted him up and tossed him off.

As Magdy tumbled down toward the Nile, people cheered, heralding the return of the Bride of the Nile.

Amgad ElSabban, born in 1990, is one of Egypt’s talented emerging writers. His work has appeared in several ink publications such as Akhbar Al-Adab and Al-Badil, as well as online blogs including but not limited to Yousef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal. ElSabban is also the recipient of the Afaq short story prize in 2018.

Mona Khedr is a theater academic and a literary translator based in London, Canada. Her critical research and literary translations focus on interpretation studies and interculturalism in theater and literature, and have appeared in academic journals including Two Lines, Ecumenica, African Theatre, and Performing Islam.