Caine Prize-winning Sudanese author Bushra Fadil’s dizzying “Phosphorous at the Bottom of a Well” as translated by Mustafa Adam, first appeared in THE EYE issue of ArabLit Quarterly:
By Bushra Fadil
Translated by Mustafa Adam
Sa’ad trudged toward his foreordained suicide, embodying his own version of Sudan. He’d experienced this version of Sudan just for a fleeting unconsummated instance on his return home, after a prolonged absence in Europe. He’d travelled to Europe during the tumultuous times of the Angry Young Men Movement. He’d been born in Omdurman, on the famous Arba’een Street. His father was a wealthy trader who was passionately involved in the activities of public life, even before the inauguration of the Graduates’ Congress.
Sa’ad arrived into this world in 1940, during political turmoil in the lower Nile Valley, which is why he was named after the famous Egyptian politician, Sa’ad Zaghloul. On finishing his college education, he opted to travel abroad, as he didn’t feel obliged to be tied to a regular job. He yearned for something bigger and better. He joined the European hippie movement, melting into that rebellious and rejectionist human herd, with their raw revolutionary zest. Within a few years, he’d earned tremendous fame in hippie circles, where they called him “Sade” instead of “Sa’ad,” an unvoiced echo of the notorious Marquise de Sade. Sa’ad didn’t change much. With the passage of time, his mind was drained of the fumes of the Youth Revolution, in which he was, deservedly, the sole representative of the Sudanese people. As such, that revolution has been reduced to a stereotype of thick, unkempt, uncombed, and fluffy hair. Since then, he’d indulged in the offbeat habits of pipe smoking, beer drinking, and listening to ‘60s music, about which he became an undisputed authority. His unrelenting indulgence in these habits discouraged Sa’ad from pursuing his previous intellectual concerns.
His rebellious old friends scarcely remembered him. His old Sudanese acquaintances, and many family members and close friends, had fallen one after the other, after which his thick hair started to fall, which perhaps is what prompted Sa’ad to find a way out of his predicament. For most of the past forty years, Sa’ad had gone on posting sporadic letters to his nuclear family, just to inform them of the new temporary destinations of his bee-like itinerant life, staying for a while in most of the big European cities, sucking down the nectar of their civilizations. But, unlike bees, which give and take, Sa’ad kept the knowledge he acquired to himself, at a distance from his own culture and people.
His parents passed away during the eighties, and some of his brothers, friends, and most of his teachers followed suit in the nineties. Long decades went by before some Sudanese immigrants made it to European countries. By that time, Sa’ad was temporarily settled in Finland, and some of his countrymen started to fall upon that small country. Because of his newly developed inclination to solitude, he was exasperated by the torrent of pestering questions from the new arrivals. That’s when the idea of committing suicide started to gnaw at his heart. Being obdurate as ever—one-of-a-kind—perhaps nobody would have been able to dissuade him from what he intended, and, for sure, he didn’t divulge his innermost intentions to anyone. So, toward the end of the nineties, he decided to go back to his homeland.
Sa’ad decided to celebrate the new millennia by committing suicide on the soil of his homeland. He packed his meager belongings and, because he had always been weird and intrigued by weird things, he meticulously planned how his final destination on earth should be in the bottom of an abandoned well along the ancient caravan route Darb al-Arba’een. He entered Sudan through the border checkpoint with Chad. The moment his feet touched the land in Darfur, he embraced the region’s beautiful, lush green landscape. Although it was surrounded by desert from all sides, it appeared to him as a virgin land, unmolested by urbanity. He noticed that the most entrancingly beautiful thing in this part of the world was the people of Darfur… their whole-hearted way of greeting total strangers, their unceasing open invitations to join in their meals or have a cup of tea wherever he went. Since he was bent on his suicidal plan, he declined such warm, unconditional friendly invitations, which enraged his prospective hosts and made them notice his unfamiliar skin-tight clothes with distaste. They must have decided that this creature did not belong to their world.
He started his journey along Darb al-Arba’een aided by maps obtained from European bookshops and libraries. He got a photocopy of a map, made by the English colonizers, in which they had pinpointed certain fixed stone landmarks in the desert, as well as locations of military areas and old battlefields. A spot in a torn map—and he didn’t remember from where he’d gotten it—marked the coordinates of the location of an old abandoned well along Darb al-Arba’een.
After a strenuous journey, which Sa’ad had not expected to be so long, he arrived at the location of the abandoned well, as indicated on the map. He couldn’t recognize any signs there apart from the endless sea of sand. With the help of his maps, a compass, and other equipment, Sa’ad inadvertently stood only a few steps away from the exact spot of the ancient well. He couldn’t guess that those who’d dug the well had kept it protected by a cement cover, which stopped it from being filled up by the surrounding sand, until he walked right over the cover and felt the echo of his steps resounding in the hollowness beneath his feet. He spent the whole night atop his chosen well and then began to remove the piles of sand from the circular cement cover. It was slightly slanted. Perhaps the design was intentional, to make it easier for a single person to lift the cover. This was what Sa’ad finally did, essentially and inconsequentially at the end of his rope.
Sa’ad descended into the belly of the well by an iron ladder that was fixed to the concrete walls of the well and led to the very bottom of the well. The ladder was made of solid iron bars, each bar bent in a rectangular shape, with one end implanted into the wall of the well, while the protruding part represented a handle for climbing down to the bottom. Sa’ad descended, step by step, down the well. At step forty, he came upon a strong, thick, dangling rope. It was what his people called salaba in their dialect, the same word they had for stolen. For the last four decades, it had never occurred to him to use this word. He muttered: “I’ll go down to the water level, drink a sip of my homeland’s water, then return up to this rope and turn it into a noose around my neck.”
As soon as he descended another forty steps, Sa’ad found himself suddenly submerged in the water, and, within the next forty seconds, his body fell freely to the very bottom of the well. In fact, Sa’ad was astounded by his otherwise carefully planned suicide, because carbon dioxide efficiently carried out the horrendous task of taking Sa’ad’s life, even before his unexpected drowning. Sa’ad was already dead by the time his body returned to a standing posture, with his feet wedged in the mud at the bottom of the well. But his memory was quite fresh. He tried, desperately, by the agency of his active memory, to bring back life—his departing soul—to his dead body, but it was futile. Through his memory, he toiled hard to turn his head to the right or left, but it was to no avail. He remained fully awake during the forty seconds that followed his sudden death, and fully aware that a huge calamity had befallen him. He hadn’t planned to put an end to his life in such an abrupt manner, but rather through his own volition. He wanted to hang himself by the salaba but the well’s water and, before that, its poisonous gas had done the job, and another sort salaba had stolen Sa’ad’s life.
Sa’ad’s face remained transfixed, as if ready to be professionally photographed in a primeval photography studio. In the following forty minutes, Sa’ad’s active memory made a quick inventory of his personal history. It dawned on him that he’d been ungrateful to his homeland and his people. His decision to take his own life had been a mistake. What would he reap from such a decision? How was it possible for him to transfer the knowledge he’d accumulated in the last four decades to his fellow countrymen and friends? When the word “friends” occurred in his active memory, Sa’ad thought despairingly: “My friends? Are there any of my friends who still remember me in Omdurman?”
Then and there, Sa’ad recalled his version of Omdurman, and he wept, perhaps for the first time in many decades.
With great difficulty, he tried to remember the names of some of the streets of his old city. If Sa’ad would return, in flesh, to his Omdurman, perhaps he wouldn’t recognize any of its main streets. He strained to recall the names of some of his friends: Khalid, Hafiz, Ali, Shawgi, Mahgoub, Salah…
By then, Sa’ad had been reduced to a fretful vigilant memory and two popped-out pupils, glued to the rusty well wall. The well water was pure and clear. He yearned for a sip of that clear water to quench a mirage of no-longer-existent thirst, but alas! The agony of suicide must have clenched his soul in this limbo. Another forty minutes had gone by, and his memory was turned into something like a moon hanging over the sky of his homeland. He recalled what had befallen his homeland since Independence Day, the first democratic general elections, the successive military coups, the mass demonstrations, prisons of political detention and life in exile. Sa’ad’s was self-inflicted, as part of his quest for a ready-made fully fledged homeland in Europe, with its modern infrastructure and fixed institutions. In the process of realizing his quest, he overlooked the fact that homeland is only the sum total of both its peoples and animals, especially goats. He’d just then realized that his disputes with virtual others, with whom he’d gone on arguing throughout his long stay away from his homeland, were utterly mundane, insignificant, meaningless. In assessing the performance of political parties, independent leading figures and military coups, his languid stand regarding his homeland had ended up, essentially, wrong.
Forty hours passed, and Sa’ad’s memory was a moon hanging over the perturbed sky of the African continent. He envisaged his entire homeland as a tiny block within that structure of systems. From that vantage, his memory turned continental, addressing its personal agonies, coming out from the deep recesses of the bottom of a well, forgotten for ages, in a forgotten expanse, secreted within the boundaries of a homeland, which is part of a continent. Then and there, a flood of unparalleled tolerance exuded from Sa’ad’s transfixed memory. His decision to put an end to his life was rendered irrelevant, but it was too late. Sa’ad’s departure from his homeland, forty or so years ago, seemed quite futile, as far as this stretched body, stuck to the wall of the abandoned well, was concerned, with its fixed eyes staring involuntarily at the vast nothingness of imperceptible algae. Sa’ad was transformed into mere memory.
Another forty hours passed before Sa’ad was metamorphosed into a sun hanging over planets and moons. Homeland was reduced, then, to a tiny space measuring not more than the one his body occupied in the deep bottom of his wretched well. His existential problems figured lucidly in his mind. If he’d had time before making his hurried decision, enough to shake or simply turn his head, perhaps he would’ve rescinded his decisions all the way back, but alas! His fate was sealed.
It appeared to Sa’ad that his suicide involved an unanticipated torture, as he repeatedly recalled, during the span of another forty hours, which he had just remembered. It dawned on him that he could recount the entirety of his life experiences in the span of a few hours, then a few minutes, or even seconds, if he kept repeating them time and time again. His memory began to run like Nano magnets: a hidden, barely perceptible memory, yet encompassing infinity.
Forty days elapsed. The mere existence of al-Arba’een Street, Sa’ad’s sixty years of toiling on the surface of the earth, the futility of living for forty years in the diaspora, and Darb Al-Arba’een were completely erased from Sa’ad’s memory. His memory turned into something like a black hole at the heart of the galaxy, with billions of solar systems orbiting around it. Thus his memory was trapped inside an abandoned well, on a godforsaken area in his homeland, itself in a huge continent, which was part of a planet, orbiting around its own solar system within its galaxy. By the end of the fortieth day, Sa’ad’s memory had become a super black hole, around which an infinite number of galaxies orbited. His memory was turned into a void self, knowing nothing of whatever happened, yet fully aware of how it was completely insignificant and immeasurably tiny. Its smallness could not be measured by mathematical science, as a result of the perpetual accumulation of universal time and the remoteness of its risks, and the momentum of its colossal incidents and calamities.
What had been the urge that pressed him to seek refuge in Europe, yearning for pleasurable and ephemeral encounters, believing that this was the essence, the nectar, of meaningful life? What was the compelling force that drove him away, forsaking that overwhelming and captivating beauty, which he relished, sitting in their back garden in Omdurman? What an enchanting floral fragrance, tangled with the bodily odors of the gentle and caring people of his own family! What a soothing and warm voice his mother had, flowing gracefully from behind the curtains of decades of absence! He longed for her canny glance, brimful with unconditional humanity, when she bid him farewell on the day he departed. How on earth had he flagrantly committed this grave mistake of putting an end to his life? What was left of Sa’ad’s memory dwelled for a long time in such bottomless torments and heartbreaking laments, which began to widen and widen its circles, as if wanting to engulf the entire universe. And just before the final step of becoming one with the universal carbon cycle, Sa’ad’s memory recalled the lines of his favorite poet and sorrowfully yelled, without a voice:
“We became like mud at the bottom of the well, incapable of seeing its face on the water’s surface”
Promptly at this final non-utterance, at his last cognizance, Sa’ad’s memory exploded into millions of tiny pieces, ending up as a chaos of mixed-up cells of phosphorus and other organic matter. At that very last moment, Sa’ad heard a thunderous roar, which was actually his real suicide. Bubbles of air surfaced from the bottom of the well and were bonded with the fabric of the open air.
Sa’ad’s death was thus complete and perfect. No sorrows were felt by any of his loved ones, family members, friends, or acquaintances. No one took part in his non-funeral. No one was grieved at his departure. His whole being, which was, until that very final moment, existent on earth, was turned into undisputable nothingness. It wouldn’t have been possible to relate Sa’ad’s tragic incident to anybody, if not for this intergalactic narrator who volunteered to tell us this nihilistically bleak story.
Bushra Fadil is a writer and former lecturer in Russian literature at the University of Khartoum. He has published four collections of short stories. Born in Argi, a village in northern Sudan, he is currently based in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. His most recent collection of short stories, Above a City’s Sky, was published in 2012.
Mustafa Adam is a Sudanese English-language lecturer and translator, engaged in literary translation from both Arabic and English.