New Fiction in Translation: ‘The Illusion of Sea’

This story, shortlisted for the 2019 ArabLit Story Prize, appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of ArabLit Quarterly: THE EYE:

By Mahmoud Hosny

Translated by Mahmoud Hosny

The place was choking, and it will always be. And we were so young, like the small quick fish that overwhelm the warm gulf waters, in the winter of this small city. We were the ones so young, the ones who couldn’t stop moving, their faces burned slightly by a heavy sun that rises from the gulf side and sinks beyond the dark mountain.

We were children, who waited for the weekend to run towards the gulf, a small gulf relaxed against the foot of an igneous mountain, where the huge ships take a breath before crawling into the narrow canal. The rocks fill its beach. Its water recedes most of the time. So, we roll up our trousers, touch with our feet its soggy salt sand and forage for oysters and shells. We walk in its dry valley for fifty, one hundred, or two hundred meters until our feet feel the warmth of its quiet water. We, then, hurry back, screaming in happiness at what the gulf gives us.

We long for the weekends to visit the sea. That was it: to “visit” the sea, as if the sea were lonely and needed us, the children, to visit “him.” 

The sea was close to us in view, not in use. No swimming in the gulf. Its water was too little to allow swimming, the fathers said. Nevertheless, we used to escape in the morning before school or in the early evening during summer holidays to play with the sea, with the illusion of sea. Its waves rose a little bit and played with us, in turn, a game that left white salty lines on our trousers when the water dried. Those white salty lines uncovered our lies when the mothers asked us: Why are you late? Those white salty lines uncovered our lies after we’d convinced our mothers that we would never “visit” the sea.

And how many times did the child’s body shiver when he sat on the gulf rocks, watching the sun stab the horizon, and the bleeding twilight reflected as an unearthly lake on the face of the gulf? How many times was the child awakened from the innocence of the stab by the dark scent of the flames from petrol factories? Factories stood between the gulf beach and the foot of the mountain, as if, from their positions up there, they burned the mountain, sticking their tongues out to the child maliciously: “This is for tearing up your fragile string with the scene.” In those moments, the gulf waves stopped playing, the mountain stopped dancing between shadow and light, and darkness filled the horizon. Nothing could pierce it except the ugly flicker of the flames, in their nervous dance all night.

And what could be worse than the flames when they screamed in the child’s face, forcing him away from the seaside, was the dousing of the flames. The sky was then covered with black clouds, and the air overwhelmed with the dark scent.

And there we were, running away, not just from the seaside, but from the whole scene. We hid inside the houses, unable to endure the winter heavy with the scent that invaded our lungs whenever we went outside for school. How could we escape from exhaling hate for school? There was no escape from being filled with hate for the place, the city, the sea, the mountain; hate for a destiny as shallow as the gulf water that didn’t reach our ankles.

And things remained as they were, in cold and in heat. The dark choke didn’t release its hold of the place until the flames exhaled again and the dark clouds slowly crumbled.

Let it be the lesser of two evils, the child’s heart said. Let it be flames that keep us way from the seaside, better than the dying of the flames, which chases us even into the protrusions of time.

Time was simple. He, the child, felt it simple. It took its tempo from the slow movement of the city that was always simple. Still, the child felt out of place, without getting familiar with the wide street that was like an asphalt river and the city on its banks. On the west bank, there was a small house, without balconies, only windows that were burnt all day by the heavy sun. The small windows overlooked the crowds in whose hustle the child was often engulfed, while still feeling out of place.

From the throng of the hustle, the child used to slip away onto the asphalt river. He would run and laugh loudly, there, on the other bank, where the air was lighter and the shade was kinder or at least this was what he thought!


Here he is, the child, coming back from school, standing in the door of the moving microbus, holding the roof’s net as the adults do when the cars are full. He wishes that no one would pull him into the mouth of the steel body crowded with the smell of hot breathes and sweat. He wishes that they would leave him watching the crowd from where he stood, feeling his body resist the reverse current of air that reduced the heat. Then he, the ten-year-old child, says to himself: Why do all the people here move in the same direction? Why do they always move in crowds? Time after time, his heart chokes with the question, with the crowded steel bodies and the heavy heat that becomes even heavier as the spaces between the vehicles tighten.

Then he hears a voice from his heart, whispering:


from every tightness,

from the tightness of the one street,

the tightness of the small house windows.

Escape from the darkness of the choking air.

Escape until you get lost,

when there’s no place but the seaside,

save the destination where you sense a sea?

– Look! This cloud is in the shape of the oyster you picked yesterday! His friend, who stands beside him in the door, holding the net like him, awakens him from his heart’s whispers.

He looks at the cloud, frowning because of the sun. After a moment of stillness, he turns to his friend with wide-open eyes, and shouts: “Stop here, driver!”

– Where will we go? the friend asks.

– To the sea!

– Why?

– We’ll escape!

– How?

– On the giant ship that we saw yesterday. It was very close in the gulf! We’ll hide inside it, and then we’ll leave when it moves off.

– But why?

He takes a minute to think, then says: Because there, we might be able to become oysters, like the cloud. He looks at the oyster cloud and continues: Then, no one will be able to grab us by our arms and prevent us from seeing the road!

– But there’s no road on the ship! the friend says.

– The sea is the road! the child replies.

– And how will we come back when we want?

– Don’t you see how the water is not high? We can come back as long as our eyes can see the mountain!

Enthusiastically, his friend shouts. They throw their bags along the roadside and run until they reach the beach.

– The ship is still there! the child says loudly, a kind of victory in his voice.

They take off their shoes, roll up their trousers, and run on the sand saturated with salty water. They sink in the sands, sometimes, stumbling and laughing and then keep going. Their feet touch the beginning of water. They continue their running. This is the first time the water reaches their knees. This is the first time the water is not warm.

– The ship is close, we won’t need much to reach it, the child says in his mind.

They slow down as they go deeper. Their small thin chests shiver because of the cold water. His friend is afraid: I am tired! I can’t go anymore.

From a distance, there is a fisherman screaming from his small boat, raising his hand to tell them to go back.

– I’ll go back, the friend says.

The child continues on his tiptoes. He keeps going until his feet no longer touch the sand on the seabed. He realizes, then, for the first time that he can’t go any further. Walking in the water is not the same as walking on the ground. In water, you need to swim, and no one has taught him how to swim. No one has told him what to do when his feet no longer touch the seabed.

The water covers him. His friend cries as he tries to go back. The fisherman shouts and the child is under water. He tries to open his eyes to find the ship under the water, but the salt burns them. He closes his eyes quickly and tries to open them again but there is no ship there. Nothing there except a pale blue horizon. He tries to touch the sands with his feet to push himself up, but his thin body rolls fearfully. The water tosses it. He is able to do nothing but give up, lose his consciousness and surrender to current. It hangs, the child’s body, neither afloat nor settled on the seabed.

The oyster cloud whispers in his heart: You will not leave the place until your father dies.

His heart throbs aloud through all his ribs. 

The voice comes back: When you go back home, you will find you father dead. Don’t leave the place just yet!

The child’s eyes open in fear, half-conscious. Again he hears the oyster’s voice, quiet, like incurious destiny: 

Patch up your nets, 

repair the wood of your boat 

and don’t leave the place until you see, in your dream, 

gazelles running on the surface of the gulf waters. 

Follow their trace. 

Follow them to their destination.

Mahmoud Hosny is an Egyptian writer and translator who is currently in his first year of a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Southern California. He translated Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea (2016) and John Steinbeck’s The Pearl (2016) into Arabic, and published his debut novel, Maps of Yunus, in 2018, which was supported by a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. He is also the translator of John Berger’s To The Wedding.