The first short story in English translation by Egyptian author Amal Al Banna originally ran on ArabLit in April 2019:
By Amal Al Banna
Translated by Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi
It was a harsh cold night, and the moon was nowhere to be seen. It was at the end of its cycle, the high clouds covering its penumbra and concealing the light of the stars. The superstitious say the spirits live at night, and that they even take over the roads, especially during the long winter nights. Thunder, they say, is nothing but the sound of their fighting, and lightning the blood from their endless wars.
Those who dwell in the distant hills tell stories full of the mystery and rites of ghosts. Even the moans of the wind as it blows on the distant seashore makes the tribal elders shudder. Everyone shudders wave an eccentric man who’d been chased by thieves, who had stripped him of his fortune as he cried out for help. After that, the man wandered every valley, singing his songs. He shouted his hollow nighttime cries, and in the morning the boys would throw words and stones at him, this exile from a false paradise. His glittering eyes were enough to let them know that he’d become like the night birds who know their way in the dark. Tonight, they heard his spasms of words as they rose above the walls, and even the wood smoke swayed, as if he were puffing at it, to set them on fire again: Drowned… Drowned… Drowned…
Those were his words, which echoed all through that night, and this was the first time the tribal elders had heard these words, shouted by the crazy man. The elder from Jarim wanted to verify his words, although he dismissed the idea, knowing that his cowardly guards wouldn’t take the risk, even if they were surrounded by hundreds of torches.
At dawn, they gathered in their great hall of prayer. They found him entering the holy place, crawling toward them.
“What did you say yesterday, Saleh?” the Juhayn elder asked.
Their voices were harsh and their movements slow as they gathered around him. He lifted his pale face, his eyes sleepless and restless. He pointed to the door where the twilight shone. “At the sea…,” he said in a terrified voice. “There’s a drowned man in the waters of the sea.”
“You’d better not be lying, Saleh,” the Jarim elder said. “You know very well that I hate liars and lies.”
He shook his shaggy head. “He’s there,” he said, wheedling. “A mermaid carried him and left him all alone.”
The elder nudged him with his left foot, so that he fell onto his face. “Harbinger of evil. The whole night you repeat your wails as if you were singing.”
The Baja elder looked down at him. “What do we do now?”
“Perhaps he was a fisherman drowned in the sea’s wild whirlwinds,” the Hasim elder said.
“First, we need to know which tribe he belongs to,” the Laith elder said.
“How could we, when we’re more than twenty?” the Juhayn elder asked.
“We go there ourselves to identify him,” the Laith elder said. “Then his tribe carries out his burial ceremony.”
“That’s if what the crazy man said is true,” the Jarim elder said.
“Send some of your guards to check this news,” the Juhayn elder said. “Then we go to identity him.”
The Jarim elder went out to the square and called upon some of his guards, who answered in a hurry. They greeted him, then stood before him.
“Ride your horses to the beach,” he said, “and scour it well for a drowned body.”
“Yes, Sir.” They saluted him.
They rode, dressed in black, toward the sea. More than three hours passed before they came back to confirm the news.
The tribal elders emerged from the prayer hall to mount their own horses, which had been whinnying at the winds which had caught the animals by surprise, their ears pricking in fear. They crossed the hills toward the light that dwells at the horizon, and also in the canyons of the djinn-ridden valleys. The horses’ hooves clanking sounded as if it came from the deep abyss down which fate lurks. They reached the shore and its rugged rocks, and finally they reached the narrow grey coast that embraced the raging waters.
They dismounted, and their faces beneath their turbans looked like wooden planks amidst the sea. They surrounded the man. He looked to be in his thirties, huge, his stomach bloated. While his black hair was matted, it fluttered with the wind that murmured in their silence.
“I don’t know the man. He certainly doesn’t belong to my tribe,” the Aayel elder said.
“His features are like those of our people, don’t you agree?” the Juhayn elder asked. “But I don’t remember seeing him before.”
They went on studying his features for a while before they left, convinced they didn’t know him.
“What do we do now?” the Hasim elder asked.
“We send the town criers to the tribes to see if anyone has a relative who’s gone missing, telling them to come to identify him,” the Baja elder said. “And let them describe his clothes, with their four colors: black, white, red, and green.”
The palm trees swayed beneath the silver clouds, and the women’s headscarves, with their waving fringes, found their way into this talk at the sides of the roads. Even the children cheerfully gripped their empty plates and banged on them with wooden sticks, mimicking the town criersas they roamed the alleys among the houses.
A few people went to the beach and came back, assuring their tribal elders they didn’t know him.
The elders met in the evening to see what to do about him, and they decided to perform the rituals of prayer the next day, and to bury him in the tombs of the Hasim tribe, which was their oldest and noblest tribe.
The Hasim elder sent his guards to bring him on a mule, and to wait for the next day.
Hours later, his men came back and stood panting before him as if death were chasing them.
“What’s the matter?” he asked in surprise. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Sir,” one of them began. “We discovered something very serious about the drowned.”
“What, have you identified him?”
“Then what’s the matter?”
“The man didn’t die drowning, as we all thought, Sir. He was shot.”
The word fell on his ears like a storm tearing across the ground, and with a trembling hand, he fumbled for the nearest chair to support himself. He sat and tried to escape this trap that had been set for him. He pointed at them. “You may have been mistaken. You couldn’t be sure in the grim darkness.”
“No, Sir,” one of them said. “When we lifted him and put him on the mule, the back of his shirt was full of bullet holes. That means he’d been shot dead, and thenthrown into the sea.”
His two wavering cheeks and swollen eyelids were a warning of the danger that loomed in the distance. No one owned bullets save the king who’d colonized the northern region of their country, who had imposed many treaties on them, treaties they had accepted in order to avoid his wrath… For many years, each had committed himself to the little patch of the earth he’d granted them. Since then, tales had been told about him. People called him the King of the Palace, because his palace was awe-inspiring. It rotated with the sun, and it was set under a star. It was said that the star could create supernatural magnetic fields, and that it was in contact with outer space.
He closed his eyes as the border of the safe world receded. He who had long been spared conflict was now facing one, brought to him by nature itself, with all the dangers that implied.
He shot up, pushing aside the thoughts that assailed him.
“You better not have brought him here,” he said.
“We decided to let you know what we’d found first, to see what we should do.”
“Well done,” he said. “This is a disaster, and I won’t bear it alone.”
The night stole sleep from his eyes, and he felt he couldn’t control his thoughts. Before the dawn, he felt the urge to stand up and walk. He went to the prayer hall as the barking of dogs laid a pall over his lost breath. He stood at the door, waiting for the others until they all arrived and looked at his stern face.
He said in sharply, “The man we all thought was drowned, well, my men discovered yesterday that he’d been shot in the back.”
“What do you say?” the Jarim elder exclaimed.
“What have you heard?” the Hasim elder asked.
His words drained all the color from their cold faces, and their senses were momentarily paralyzed.
“Oh god! How did that happen?” the Juhayn elder asked.
The Hasim elder spoke in weak voice. “We all know that the King of the Palace is the only one who possesses bullets. It’s certain he did this.”
“What did that poor man do to deserve this fate?” the Laith elder asked.
“It’s not my concern, and it shouldn’t concern you either, gentlemen,” the Hasim elder said. “It’s the same whether we know or don’t know. Surely, there was a dispute between the two, and the king eliminated him and threw him into the sea.”
“You didn’t say anything new!” the Jarim elder said.
“New!” the Hasim elder exclaimed. “Don’t you remember the treaties between us?”
“What do you want to say?” the Jarim elder said.
The Hasim elder felt his heart pounding. “I won’t bury him in my land,” he said. “He might know. He surely has spies among us now, who deliver him news. He’ll see me burying him in my land, or you in yours, as support for his enemies.”
The sun began to shine as if it were glowing out of a deep well and the horizon was hidden behind the shrubs that looked like distant waves.
Silence fell, and the men’s broad foreheads overshadowed their faces.
“What should we do now?” the Juhayn elder asked.
“We throw him back into the sea,” the Aayel elder said.
“And if the sea returns his carcass to us once again?” the Jarim elder asked.
“There’s a chance the waves will cast him upon a far land,” the Hasim elder said.
“Well spoken,” the Juhayn elder said.
The Jarim elder studied the faces around him and said in a steady voice, “And we will all supervise the process of throwing him back to the sea, and pray that God not bring him back to us.”
They made up their minds, and off they went on the backs of their horses. While the road went uphill, their race seemed ceaseless, as if the world they were searching for was out there. When they arrived, the two guards stood apart from the man, their faces glazed with the pallor of the dead.
The men disembarked from their horses, joking and telling old tales. They came closer to see the bullet holes in his cloak, and, before they gave the order to get rid of him, there appeared in the distance clouds of sand, which were racing the desert dunes. Everything was coming toward them – the land folded into the loud sounds, the stench of death, and even the sea behind them seemed to give off the sound of missiles crushing the life between their skins. As the king’s flag approached, they moved closer to each other, until they found themselves standing in a row, as if they were ready to be executed firing squad.
His horses stood there,whinnying and beating the ground with their hooves. He greeted the men with a careless gesture, his head as thin as a pale, ragged bird. Heavy clouds moved across the sky as if chewing on lightning.
“His stench has reached my palace,” the king said with disgust. “Why have you still not buried him?”
The Hasim elder looked at the others. “We’re here to do that, my king.”
“You’re too late. The air is filled with the stench.”
“We didn’t know of him until yesterday,” the Jarim elder said.
“You don’t care about the environmental law and its protection,” the king said. “It’s something we agreed on in our treaties.”
“Rest assured, my king, and don’t worry yourself,” the Laith elder said. “We’re all here ourselves to supervise this mission.”
The king gestured to his men, and they threw down a wooden box that had been on one of the horses in front of them. “Bury him at once,” he said.
“Do you know who he is, my king?” the Juhayn elder asked.
“Aren’t there treaties of non-interference in the internal affairs of others, o wise elder?”
The king sharply pulled on his horse’s reins, which made it lift its neck and front legs and shy away. His soldiers followed, shouting in joy, until they disappeared beyond the hill and their voices were gone.
“He knows everything that goes on between us,” the Jarim elder said.
The rain began to fall in showers, and the box before them appeared like a treasure that had been thrown to them by the eagles.
The Hasim elder pointed to his men. “Carry him away and bury him.”
“Why don’t I bury him?” the Juhayn elder said.
“We all agreed before that I would bury him,” the Hasim elder said.
“But you didn’t do it before, when you knew that the King of the Palace was the one who killed him, afraid that he might condemn you,” the Juhayn elder said.
“And what’s the difference now?” the Hasim elder asked.
“The difference is you want him to be pleased with you, so you can get closer to him at our expense,” the Jarim elder said.
“This was our agreement and I’m holding to it,” the Hasim elder said.
They argued in guttural yelps, then they fought with their arms and legs, the guards striking each other, even throwing rocks at each other from the shore. Some of them fell over the dead body and the tall wooden coffin. In their isolated patch, they were like a herd of savage men, oblivious to everything, consumed by a desire that burned their false identities. They fell one after another, until their fight was for nothing, and their dying bodies grew numb and went silent. They lay in the heart of the rain, in the depths of the tomb, where ghosts fade away, and the man beyond the nearby hill shouted again: Drowned… Drowned…
The Jarim elder, with his swollen face, bent knees, and streams of blood around his nose, shouted as if possessed: “Go to hell! Go to hell, you harbinger of doom!Goddammit!”
He looked over his shoulders at the bodies that lay around him. He tried to stand up, as did many of the others.
They kept looking at each other, aggressively, as if they were waiting for another round.
“Stupid.. We’re all stupid,” the Juhayn elder said, panting in pain. “We’re fighting over a corpse that’s driving us to its damnable fate.”
The Hasim elder leaned on one of his guards. “If we’re all stupid, then be the wise among us, valiant elder, and then every one of us will go his own way.”
“Divide him as you’ve divided the land between you,” the Laith elder said as he leaned over the coffin.
“Isn’t this forbidden?” the Juhayn elder asked.
“Why?” the Hasim elder asked. “Let’s bring the religious scholars to permit it. This way, no one can blame us.”
“You’re right,” the Jarim elder said. “Let’s go and leave the guards to finish the job. But first and foremost, we all need to forget this day and all that’d happened on it.”
They rode their horses, which had grown weary from watching them, and left the scene for the final butchery.
That evening, they came back with him in parts, every tribe with its fair share. They buried it at night, deciding to pray for him in the morning.
Days and weeks passed… At noon on a day that the shadows of the rocks and trees elongated and swayed in the wind, the king’s men came to all the tribes with their hysterical voices, carrying the same message to all the elders: The king wanted to meet them that afternoon in his palace.
The women’s heads emerged from their wooden balconies after the king’s men departed, while the people in the streets were in a tangle of questions. The guards chased them with sticks so that they ran away, every man to his house… Time passed slowly in their hearts as they made their way to the king. They were amazed by his hospitality when they entered one by one…Everyone floated on his lifesaving smile. Here, one hour was the equal of days—nay—it was the equal of years they had lived until this moment.
He offered them a drink and raised his cup. “Cheers to our long-lasting friendship.”
They raised their cups and drank to his toast.
He looked at his watch. “I don’t want this to go late and burden you.”
“Would we ask about time in your presence, my king?” the Hasim elder asked.
The king gave a sardonic laugh as he twisted the cup in his hand. “You always honor me, gentlemen,” he said. “But this was not my point.”
Enthusiastically, he stood to show them a map reflected in the palace lights, to which he pointed with a relaxed arm.
“Do you see these areas?” he asked.
They tried to examine them, but in vain.
“It seems the map is unclear,” the king said in a shocked tone.
“God bless you, my king, it’s like the sun in front of us,” the Jarim elder said, and everyone agreed with him.
“This is your land over here,” he said. “And I made a contract with the oil exploration companies to work there.”
One of the men tried to speak, but the king interrupted. “You will be my partners in everything that comes out of the earth.”
“And where will we go with our families, my king?” the Juhayn elder asked.
“The buildings along the shoreline,” he said, slyly. “Renovate them.”
“We won’t all fit,” the Juhayn elder said.
“Let the chiefs, and those who you choose, dwell in them,” he said firmly. “Pitch tents for everyone else.”
“Tents, my king!” the Hasim elder exclaimed. “Isn’t that a strange thing to ask of our simple people?”
“You seem to forget your origins, elder. Wasn’t this your beginning?” the king asked. “There must be sacrifices for great projects, so that, afterwards, you can reap the rewards.”
“We’re to leave our land…!” the Jarim elder said.
“Not for long, elder Aabed,” the king said. “This deal will change your lives forever, and we’ll be partners at one table.”
“But…how can we convince our people to leave the land?” the Laith elder asked.
“That’s the question I was waiting to hear,” the king said, drunk with joy. “And it’s an intelligent question, I admit. We shall discuss the matter straightforwardly.”
“How…?” asked the Hasim elder.
“When they feel unsafe, because of some gangs I’ll incite to spread chaos and panic among them.”
“And what role do weall play in this?” the Hasim elder said.
“It’s a very simple role, without which no one will believe the sheer genius of what’s to happen,” he said, clearly amused. “What you need to do is to turn a blind eye to the crimes to come,and to appear before them in the guise of weak men who do not have the right to defend themselves.”
“And then…” The Laith elder nodded in agreement.
“And then they, on their own, will ask to leave,” he said. “They’ll accept anything you impose on them… What do you say?”
They looked at the king in silence, and he added cheerfully, “As you say in your language, silence is the sign of satisfaction, and the sooner you get on with the good, the better. I’ll make the necessary arrangements at the earliest opportunity, and I’ll give you all the details.”
Their shadows grew closer over the table as they looked at his papers, while the old mirror with its flecked spots gazed out of the corner of the room, reflecting crows in their nests.
They went far behind the eastern hills. The horses passed through the valley of the jinn. The sound was clear, horribly clear… It was a mad chant that led to the horses to freeze in panic: Drowned… Drowned… Drowned….
Amal Al-Banna is an Egyptian writer who works as a teacher. She has two short-story collections, one titled Strangers and the second The Drowned. Her debut novel is forthcoming.
Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi — author of the popular books Malaaz and Reem — is an Egyptian SF and fantasy novelist. You can find more about his works on GoodReads.