The novel Fellini’s Shoe, by Egyptian author Waheed Taweela, is divided into 14 parts, each of which weaves together the life of the narrator with life story of legendary Italian cinema director Federico Fellini (1920 – 1993). Basma Abdel Aziz and Anis Arrafai both chose the novel as one of their favorites of 2016:
By Waheed Taweela
Translated by Omar Ibrahim
Dedicated to all those who yelled and nobody heard them. To all those who could not yell at all.
A Scene Fellini Would Have Detested
That’s exactly what happened.
We all looked left at the same time.
Our necks were sharply twisted in just one move, and so they remained.
We turned sharply, as if we were newly appointed soldiers in a camp surrounded by barbed wire in the middle of the desert.
Mystery encompassed the place, and it left its signature on every face and soul. Fear flew in circles under the ceiling like a stupid buzzing bee.
We sat, waiting for the sentence of fate. We could hear no clear voice. We could barely hear a few faint murmurs. We saw only hands shaking, lips moving.
We were like robots, or even puppets, moving by the command of someone else, as if he were playing with us like toys.
He was actually playing . . .
The member of the ruling party arrived. You might borrow the devil’s eye and try to catch a glance, but you’ll never see him. He’s always surrounded by his guards, servants, and assistants. You won’t see him, but you can feel him. His heavy shadow stifles the place. His strong smell extends through the air.
People with authority and power have a certain smell that fragile hearts can’t miss.
Wait a bit, Sir. Sorry, you wait a bit, my lady. According to rules of etiquette, I should have called you first. And according to the rules of love, you’re first. I am a man who can be deemed an old lover. “Old” here doesn’t imply that I’m someone who lived for long or that my teeth fell apart. Rather, it means I plunged headfirst into the sea of love and am still going deeper. Love’s details dwell in my features, and my fingers are full of promises.
Women would listen to me even if their hearts were broken. But the hearts of men are shattered, and what’s left of them turned into stone.
Wait for a bit . . . Even the absent-minded knows him once he hears his footsteps. The sound of his heels is high and clear. It shakes your heart. It pierces your heart before it reaches your ears. When you stay around them for long, you’ll know them by their footsteps, by that sharp sound, even if they’re at the end of the passage. Their high heels fit their gray halo. Gray is the worst color. It’s always associated with mysterious people, and people of authority. He knows . . . He surely knows.
It was deadly silent, except for a few intermittent tones. The tones were monotonous, but they gave the feeling that he had been victorious in the “Battle for Earth’s Liberation.” When the slow, sad music was fading, that meant he’d sat down. The sounds of the other heels belonged to those who were always at his beck and call. Only then our necks were allowed to return to their normal position.
We were at the end of a conference that had been held to beg for national awareness between nations whose national awareness had been stolen. Comrades from all around the world had attended the meeting. The begging was on a large scale. We are an eternal, supreme nation. And at the end of every begging conference, all the world should appropriately celebrate both what we’ve achieved and what we’ve lost. We, in fact, proved to be responsible and didn’t fall short on anything.
A loud voice came from behind me saying:
We made recommendations at the speed of light and we took the most dangerous decisions! We were victorious. We crushed our enemies during the conference! Wherever there’s a conspiracy, we shall crush it. We shall spare no effort in doing it. Our throats were about to be torn away from our necks. Letters and words flew around the place. It was a heated fight.
A scene that Fellini would have loved
-Say it louder.
I was ashamed to see the signs of surprise on their faces—what had happened? Had I made a mistake? Was this the main question, and had I failed it? Was it a sign that I was one of those glorified sinners? But none of them mocked me, and none showed any signs of disapproval, as if they were just as surprised as I was, and I thought, from the shame apparent on their faces and their selfish modesty, that I had not committed a sin, that I’d made sure, from the first glance, that I could not raise whatever voice I had left, to use it to express either joy or sadness, to shout at them in either case, and it seemed selfish that I said it all in one stroke, at the same level and tone as every other time, like a woman who slept beneath a man she didn’t care about, the man drowning in his delusion while she was watching TV from beneath him and making a single sound to finish the game.
We were a group of psychologists doing our Master’s studies in Poland, as the Communist countries were the only ones who took us in, as though we were their children, and opened all the doors and windows for us. We memorized the names of their leaders, and we knew the photos of their leaders and of their football players, and an entire page of our official newspaper would be crowded at every opportunity with photos of Comrade Lech Wałęsa and Comrade Kim Il-sung, although of course we were not tempted to love them, or to love our own fathers, more than the eternal leader.
Now I remember the story: A famous broadcaster arrived a few minutes late for her show, as a result of a procession in support of his Excellency the President on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday. She went straight into the studio, where the scriptwriter had set down her papers and left, and she began reading live on air what he had written about the merits of the prophet and his holy struggles without any regard for the meaning of what she read, saying that he was the first leader of all mankind with his insight and courage, and that the whole world listened to his wisdom both morning and night, how he had clever opinions and a strategic brain, how he was present with us and about the value of our love for him, and how, “None of you will have faith till he loves me more than his father, his children and all mankind.”
She set the papers aside, raised her eyebrows in evident surprise, and said in a tone of clear disapproval: “Ya Allah, it’s as if he were writing about his Excellency the President.”
We had been deluded. We’d made a big mistake in thinking this had been about the Prophet, but broadcasters and journalists used it, especially in the national programs and in the football matches that we won, and he corrected this obscene mistake of ours just as he corrected other mistakes we so naively made.
The professor raised his hand and asked, in his eloquent manner:
-Is there anyone here who is not Polish?
He was smiling. -From which country?
-From which country?
-It doesn’t matter, they’re all the same.
-Shout it with all your strength.
Obviously, it achieved the same result as my previous performance. My colleagues’ faces reflected the truth without the need for a mirror.
-Please wait for me after the lecture.
The professor appeared, at first glance, as the last envoy of the angels on earth, with a calm gaze, and the most beautiful thing about it was that his eyes reassured you, sitting behind glasses with transparent lenses, as though they were not medical lenses but were to complement that handsome face. It was a face so clear it seemed as though he drank nothing but milk and love, and he had silver hair befitting an aged actor, but it was thick hair, almost as it must have been in his youth. For some men, when they grow old and approach their departure, their hair ceases to shine, or it fades, as a signal. His nose was as straight and unbending as innocence, and there were a thousand grooves around his tender smile.
-Syrian, Egyptian, Tunisian—they’re all one country, and we’re all one.
After the lecture, his kind hand found its way to my shoulder, and his smile surrounded me. He had a single question:
-Have you, in the past, suffered the effects of torture?
In truth, I don’t remember anything except torture . . . and a few other things.
My memory was wiped clean. Blank. And all I wanted was to have it back. Sometimes, it seemed to me that I would never recover it, and all that would remain before my eyes at all times would be black cats. And I asked myself: Were there no white cats? Did I not touch a woman? Why don’t I remember one love story? I was like an Alzheimer’s patient, seeing faces and forgetting them.
Yet the story of an orphaned passion remained in my memory, because I could see her friend morning and night, and this woman was the only one I held onto, so as not to fall to my dementia. She was the straw that helped restore the details, to bring me back.
I don’t know whether I truly lost my memory, or whether someone intervened to erase it, or whether I intervened as a way of repressing memory, so I would forget everything and devote myself to one thing?
His hand was still gripping me, I noticed.
-Have you suffered the effects of torture?
-No, Sir, I suffered from love.
Waheed Taweela is an Egyptian writer, born in 1960. He has published several collections of short stories and novels, among them Ahmar Khafif (Light Red) in 2008, and Bab al-Layl (Night Gate) in 2013. An excerpt of the latter is available, in Julia Ihnatowicz’s translation, at Banipal.
Omar Ibrahim is an Egyptian literary translator, poet and essayist. He translated Mahmoud Morsi’s collection of poems It’s Time I Confess into English, and his Arabic translation of H. P. Lovecraft’s novella The Whisper in Darkness was on the bestselling list of many bookstores. He also has his own poetry collection, titled Fragments of My Mind, and two upcoming translations.