Belal Fadl’s delightful 2007 satire, “Into the Tunnel,” beautifully translated by Nariman Youssef, originally appeared as part of our series of lockdown literature last year:
By Belal Fadl
Translated by Nariman Youssef
No one expected things to go this way.
For many long years, the idea of his absence had been a terrifying specter for his opponents and supporters alike. Whenever the subject came up, no one wanted to dwell on it. There were those who shrieked, in voices perfectly pitched to cover any tremors of hypocrisy, “May he never cease to grace our days!” Others, hiding behind murmured worries about the future of the country, said things like, “Even the prophet died, and no one can escape God’s will, may he protect us from evil.”
Then there was the third group, forever ready with an overexcited declaration that “the fertile soil of Egypt will always sprout new trees.” But if you asked them to name one of those trees as the potential next president, they’d look at you like they wanted to slap you and say, “For more than a quarter of a century, Egypt has been ruled by a man who wouldn’t have dreamt of ruling it. It’ll just go to someone else who’s not dreaming of it now. This old country may be suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, but she still has a big heart.”
Whatever they all thought or said back then, no one could have predicted his sudden disappearance and the mind-boggling way in which it occurred.
What happened is as unfathomable now as it was when news agencies and TV channels first broadcast the breaking news. “President’s Convoy Vanishes into Orouba Tunnel!” What? How? Why? Will it ever come back out? No one seemed to know and, most likely, no one ever will, or at least not anytime soon.
All anyone knows is that His Excellency was on his way to Parliament to deliver a historic address, in which he would have announced his decision regarding the popular demand that he accept responsibility for the country for another six-year term. This was going to end many years of speculation about whether he would pass on the presidency to his son, or to one of his aides, or even choose to leave behind the legacy of a free presidential election, held under judicial supervision and away from the influence of security agencies, in which the people could, sixty years after they had sung that “the nation has found its way,” actually choose their own fate.
There were a few seconds in which the security officers responsible for the convoy and the conscripts stood facing the road with their backs to rows of informants — customarily mobilized to stand in for the devoted public. A few seconds in which all of them wondered if they’d been struck by a momentary collective blindness that caused them to miss the convoy as it left the tunnel. But then the panicked questions came bellowing out of radio receivers, forcing them to acknowledge that their eyes had been wide open all along. Yet all they could see was the hollow emptiness of the tunnel, which looked as if it had never seen traffic in its life.
During the days that followed, those unlucky souls were subjected to unimaginable forms of torture, the like of which not even the most seasoned dissenters in the entire history of the country’s political opposition had known. The interrogation was bewildering, and also a bit embarrassing, for both the interrogator and the interrogated. “Where did the convoy go? What do you mean it vanished? Do you take me for a fool?”
When, by the fifth day of torture, each one of them had confessed to hiding the convoy in a safe place and offered to describe and reenact the crime, the futility of the whole exercise became impossible to deny. The country was left facing an unthinkable, dark future.
But not before having explored every possible hypothesis to its bitter end, including some so ludicrous they should have been the end of the hypothesizer.
There was the suggestion that repeated roadworks undertaken by the governorate had caused the ground to cave in and swallow the convoy as it passed. Then the Helwan Observatory was commissioned to investigate the possibility of it having been swept into a cosmic black hole due to a passage through the tunnel that coincided with the alignment of the sun and the State TV News Section. A medical team was asked whether it was our own ability to perceive the convoy that was compromised, while the convoy itself was actually there all along. A historian was arrested for comparing the disappearance, on live TV, with that of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakem bi-Amr Allah, who went missing in the desert hills of Moqattam hundreds of years ago. The same historian was later placed at the head of a group of researchers to help the ongoing criminal investigation by looking into the details of al-Hakem’s disappearance. Which led to the reopening of the grave of Sitt al-Mulk, al-Hakem’s sister, who was suspected of having plotted his murder, in order to establish the level of plausibility of any hakem, ruling in the name of god or otherwise, to vanish into thin air.
More mayhem ensued when all over the land a thick slimy liquid started to ooze out of the ground. This was interpreted by the chief editors of certain state-owned newspapers as tears shed by the very soil of Egypt over the president’s disappearance. And by certain mosque preachers as a sign of God’s wrath, the end of days, and the imminent arrival of the final redeemer Imam al-Zaman. But what the probe into the matter by a high-level engineering committee revealed was leakage from plumbing and sewage networks. Meanwhile, experts in constitutional law were at a complete loss. Many days and nights were spent in attempts to fill the sudden constitutional gap. Even the most skilled constitutional tailors could not stitch something up for this sudden-disappearance scenario.
If one might have thought the general public would respond with jokes and memes, as they do to most things, this was quickly proven wrong. People seemed paralyzed by fear. Political and social scientists argued that jokes would’ve been an appropriate reaction only to the departure of a ruler who had passed but briefly through the life of this pious nation – piety, as we all know, being closely tied to loyalty – whereas His Excellency had ruled for so long that our countrymen and women could not conceive of their lives without him. He was there when they were born, as they grew up, and, as they grew old, they blossomed and withered in his shadow. Not many knew him when he first came to power. Now, ninety-nine–point-nine percent of the population had known no other ruler.
The world began with him and seemed to go on forever, as long as he was in it.
Tectonic plates had moved, separated and rejoined, but he had remained unmoving. Islands were drowned, entire countries destroyed by earthquakes, cities buried under volcanic ash, nations displaced by storms, but he remained unchanged. It seemed like, when it came to him, history froze, the past collided with the present, and both rammed into the future to form a cosmically unprecedented unit of unembellished time, in which the present is a past that has been lived before, and the future is – at best – more of the same.
Time in those days was no longer measured by days, months, or even years – it was measured by chunks. Chunks of time that were separate but only superficially different. On closer inspection, they had all happened before. Whether you supported or opposed his government, you felt you must have already said and done all that you had to say or do in a previous chunk. There was nothing more to add. Everyone had reached the end of their tether. And there was no apparent end in sight.
Now, almost a year has passed since the sudden disappearance of the president’s convoy inside Orouba Tunnel. The people are once again assured that God will bring them no evil. The issue of the inheritance of power, which was debated to death for years, has come to a sudden halt. Because even the hungriest power-grabbers don’t dare bring it up while the fate of the disappeared convoy remains unknown.
It took a month or so for people to return to a form of normality. No longer preoccupied with the president’s vanishing act, they are getting on with their lives and everything seems to be going even better than before.
There have been, however, new puzzles claiming the attention of observers and analysts: How has nothing that they used to warn against taken place? For instance, how has the president’s absence not led to chaos or civil unrest, or plunged the country into a political void? How is there no hunger uprising, no constitutional crisis or economic imbalance or shortage of drinking water?
Religious leaders have said that the sudden disappearance awakened people’s piety and fear of God. Terrified of disappearing themselves, they have begun to turn to religion in their every action. A delegation of political, economic and sociological experts has been sent by the UN to study this globally unique phenomenon: a country without a ruler, with no seeming need to fill the vacancy. Here is the explanation they’ve come up with, in the words of the head delegate: “During the last years of the late president’s rule, the Republic of Egypt did not live, merely survived. The fact that it still exists at all is itself a miracle.”
At a coffeeshop, alleged to be seven thousand years old, a man playing backgammon praises God then asks his companion, “How is anything in this country still functioning at all?”
His companion says, “On a wing and a prayer. Like it always has.”
Belal Fadl is an Egyptian writer and scenarist whose work spans a number of genres and disciplines. He is the author of more than twenty screenplays, fifteen books, three short story collections, and has written numerous journalistic articles and op-eds, most notably for Al-Dostor, Al-Masry Al-Youm, and Al-Shorouk.
Nariman Youssef is a translator and writer in English and Arabic. Her literary translations include Inaam Kachachi’sThe American Granddaughter and Donia Kamal’s Cigarette No. 7.
Read the Arabic at al-Araby al-Jadeed.
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