One of the film pitches featured during the opening night of the “BILA HUDOOD: Arabic Literature Everywhere” festival was Katherine Van de Vate’s pitch of Badriyah al-Badri’s The Last Crossing:
Excerpt from ‘The Last Crossing’
Translated by Katherine Van de Vate
Your first step in life is your first step on the road to death.
Lights are running towards me. It’s the first time I’ve seen lights with legs. It’s not a cartoon, these are actual lights, running so fast they are panting; I see their tongues lolling out, drooling as if they are about to leap on someone and shred him with their sharp fangs. I try to run away. I find I have no legs. Oh God, did I leave my legs at home when I went out? Didn’t I put them on before I put on my shoes? Or maybe I left them in the market as a deposit with one of the sharks who crowd the street filled with peddlers hawking contraband goods? Did one of the peddlers steal them – the man who sells cheap leather shoes, perhaps? It must have been him; his shoes were so shabby he was forced to steal my feet, their cracks exposed by my open shoes, though I’d worn long, rough wool socks that didn’t reveal how chapped my feet were. But what would the shoe seller do with my feet? Was it my new shoes he was after? Why didn’t he just ask me for them? I would have gladly handed them over for nothing; I might even have bought a new pair from him to replace them. That way, he could have killed two birds with one stone instead of taking both my shoes and my feet. Maybe it was the sardine-seller? I always used to see him sloshing barefoot through pools of ice-melt from the frozen fish, a sure sign he was used to the touch of blood. Damn him! He doesn’t know I faint from the touch of blood, let alone walking in it. As a child, I would pass out at the sight of blood trickling from a cut in my finger or a gash in my forehead, like the one I got after falling out of a tree. Its branch gave way beneath me when I climbed up to play with a bird’s nest and break its brown-speckled eggs. Except for their color, the spots were all different, and all the eggs were about to hatch.
I was forever getting into scrapes like these when I skipped Shaikh Yassin’s lessons in the hope of avoiding his cane, which invariably found its way to my back because I hadn’t memorized Surat al-Shams or al-A’la, or even Surat al-Bayyinah. Though the Shaikh swore even an infant could learn al-Bayyinah by heart, I couldn’t seem to lodge its verses in the deepest corner of my soul, a place I’ve never reached, that I’m not even sure exists. The only surah I had memorized, almost before Shaikh Yassin had finished reciting it, was al-Ikhlas. I found myself raising my hand and my voice jubilantly:
“Me, Shaikh Yassin, me, me, me!!”
Once again he directed his cane towards me, as he intoned Surat al-A’raf:
“‘So when the Qur’an is recited, listen and be quiet, that you may be granted mercy.’ How many times do I have to repeat it before you understand?” But still I insisted on reciting, and the delight I savored in that moment, my classmates watching me covertly, gave rise to a happiness that remained with me all my life. My elation even made me forget the sting of the Shaikh’s cane, though its mark remained on my left arm just below the shoulder where it landed before he stowed it away in its hiding place beside him. Shaikh Yassin did not neglect to tell my father about my achievement so that my father would reward him for all his efforts, but my father gave me an even bigger sum to express his pride in his son’s cleverness, warning me not to tell Shaikh Yassin about it in case he felt insulted. Like a little man sworn to guard his father’s secret, I’ve kept it to myself until this day.
As I played hooky, I used to fritter away the time doing any old thing until it was time to go home so my mother wouldn’t discover I hadn’t gone to memorize the Qur’an. I would climb trees to pick the hanging fruit their owner had hoped to give to his own children, or abandon myself to the irrigation ditch, where mud colonized my body until my mother’s loofah fell upon it like an enemy to be repelled.
They are running, running, and I am rooted in place, like a tree, staring into the face of death. All I can do is freeze where I am and take refuge in my pounding heart, whose sound deafens my ears to what is happening. They approach, they blind me so I cannot see them clearly; they don’t even give me the chance to peek at them. I close my eyes as tightly as I can, I squeeze my eyelids shut, concentrating my strength in them. I turn my body away in an effort to hide, pressing my knees tightly together and wrapping my arms around them, doubling up like someone performing a random prostration that disturbs the rhythm of their prayers.
At last, I find my feet. It seems I didn’t leave them at home, and a peddler didn’t steal them, not even the one who sells the second-hand clothes, carefully ironed after they’ve all been washed together in an old tub on one of the abandoned farms. The stains that still cling to them make it clear they were laundered clumsily and in haste, with total disregard for any health and safety regulations. Anyway, why should these vendors bother to protect us from disease and death? We’re merely passers-by who glance at their goods and move on; seldom do we buy anything that would give them a reason to take care of us. If one of us does purchase something, his skin and blood had better be used to infection so he won’t lie awake at night worrying about it. Not one of us fears the appearance of spots on his body that has been darkened by the blazing sun, so why worry about a few small blisters? We no longer notice the difference between the itch of a skin infection, sunburn, or even the bites of the mosquitos that feed on our blood and are not poisoned by it. How often did we hear the sentence “Don’t be soft like a woman!” when we tried to scratch what those clothes deposited on our “effeminate bodies,” as the vendors would call them derisively after one of us suffered an allergic reaction. That’s why these sharks will never lose money.
Badriyya al-Badri is an Omani poet and novelist. She composes poetry in classical and colloquial Arabic. She has participated in many local and regional Gulf events and competitions. Her published novels include: Beyond Loss (2015), The Last Crossing (2017), and The Shadow of Hermaphroditus. She has two poetry collections: Narrow Valley (2018) and Closer to the Waving of a Poem (2019).
Katherine Van de Vate translates Arabic literature into English. She previously worked as an Arabic curator at the British Library in London and as a US diplomat in the Middle East. Her translations have been published in Words Without Borders, Asymptote, ArabLit Quarterly, and elsewhere.