The winner of the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize, announced today:
How Kind They Are
By Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa
Translated by Maisaa Tanjour & Alice Holttum
For ten years, my hair has caused me untold suffering. I always let it grow long, only trimming it very occasionally. It is frizzy but I really wish it was silky soft. Over these years I have tried many creams and oils, but it has remained frizzy. When I walk down the street the lightest gust of wind is enough to make me look like a ghoul. Kids run from me as if I were the snake-haired Medusa herself. Oh, how my long hair has exasperated me and not been what I wanted.
They arrested me yesterday evening. The patrol head greeted me in his own way, and I was very surprised: instead of shaking my hand, he warmly shook my face with his fist, causing one of my teeth to fly from my mouth and land on the street. I read once that certain nations have peculiar habits when it comes to handshakes — kissing noses, for example. I secretly wondered if the patrol head was one of those people. After that, he lovingly kicked me into a car and we went to the security department. I was very upset about my knocked-out tooth; I imagined one of the local kids treading on it, crushing it during a game of football.
At the security department, they affectionately hurled me into a cramped cell. There were dozens of young men in there and I could only just squeeze into the corner. Terrifying shrieks were penetrating our cell from all directions. How lucky those neighbors were: they had televisions to watch the Barcelona vs Real Madrid match and were raucously cheering the teams on.
An hour passed as I looked through a skylight in the roof of the cell, watching the night creeping up and the moon scattering feeble light over our bodies. By chance I noticed something written on the wall to my right: I love you, Lina. The word “love” made me sigh. I opened my mouth and grabbed another tooth that was on the verge of falling out. I used it to scratch the following sentence under the first one: This man loves you, Lina. Damn you! You must understand this fact. Damn you too, Samira, because I love you, but you act like this man’s Lina. Then I drew a heart pierced by a sharp arrow. When I had finished, I put my tooth in my shirt pocket. Oh, what can I say about young women! They never believe that men have equal rights nowadays!
I almost suffocated in the silence of those young men. I turned to my right and gasped when I saw my neighbor.
“Ali Aqla Arsan!” I exclaimed. You’re here too? Hello, it’s nice to meet you.”
“Hi! But I’m not Ali Aqla Arsan.”
Naturally, this was a little trick of my own invention; I often used it on the south route bus to start a conversation with whomever was sitting next to me.
At that moment, the door of the cell opened and the jailer cried out my name. I stood up happily, muttering, “Finally, time for dinner!”
I walked to the door and, before exiting, asked the others, “Want anything from outside?”
Frankly, I was afraid that someone might ask for a kilo of oranges, or a kilo of apples … or a Kilo of Michel — the market had actually closed hours ago. No one uttered a word so I sighed in relief and went away. The jailer kicked my legs and I fell. He grabbed my right leg, his colleague my left, and they dragged me quickly along a long gloomy corridor. How considerate of them: they did not want me to walk and were protecting my legs from exhaustion. Truly, I felt embarrassed by their kindness.
In the Inspector’s room, there was a thin, naked young man on the floor. He was unconscious and covered in blood. The Inspector was taking photos of him with his mobile phone. When he had finished, one of the jailers took the young man out. The Inspector looked at me. I smiled at him. “Why is your hair so long, you asshole?” he shouted at me.
My God: asshole. What a beautiful, kind word, sounding like a sweet melody from a piano. It was my uncle’s favorite word, what he always called me when we played cards with our friends.
“It’s because the barber in our neighborhood is a dissident, so I boycotted him as soon as the cosmic conspiracy against our country started.”
“A dissident? Give me his name and address!”
“His name is Taj Aldeen. He lives in the fourth grave to the right of the olive tree, in the southern graveyard.”
The Inspector gave the address to the jailers and ordered them to fetch the so-called Taj immediately. I was over the moon: only the security services would have the ability to reach into the afterworld to bring me back my father, who had passed away a year ago, I thought.
The Inspector smiled maliciously as he tied my hands behind my back. Then he gathered my long hair in his hand and tied to it a thick rope. He passed this rope through a metal ring that was hanging from the ceiling. He pulled the rope, assisted by the jailer, and my body rose up. I was dangling from the ceiling by my hair. Wow! I was mesmerized by this amusing notion. I was like a swing. The Inspector started pushing my body toward the jailer and the jailer pushed it back. They were laughing like two little children. I laughed with them; I really liked this game and I sang them a Fairouz song, Yara. But after a few minutes the Inspector yawned and left the room with the jailer to go to sleep for a while, leaving me there alone, hanging from the ceiling by my hair. I was very sad. Why had they not stayed to play with me? What did they have to lose? We had all been enjoying this funny game, the three of us. How kind the Inspector was. But unfortunately, he had forgotten to take my photo with his mobile phone, so I had lost a unique opportunity for fame. I would have had fans, and girls would have chased me wherever I went.
After a few hours blood started to trickle from my forehead over my face. Soon some flies flew up to drink ravenously. After they had finished, one of them came and landed on my nose, smiled at me, and said, “Thank you. Your blood is a true delicacy.”
“You’re welcome, my friend. I’m happily at your service.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“Umm … To be honest, hanging like this, I can’t possibly believe in anything.”
“You mean you’re an atheist.”
“I remember being a believer last Tuesday.”
We both remained silent for a moment then I exhaled deeply and said, “To be honest, my friend, I don’t believe in unreciprocated faith. I believe in faith and counter-faith, and since I was a child I’ve felt that God doesn’t believe in me.”
Suddenly the Inspector entered the room; the flies panicked and flew off my face. “Goodbye, my love,” whispered the one that had spoken to me as it flew away.
The Inspector ordered the jailer to get me down and take me back to the cell. I wanted to ask about dinner, but the jailer kicked my legs again and I fell. He grabbed me by the legs and dragged me back along the gloomy corridor.
From the door of one of the cells along the corridor came the sound of someone screaming. His voice was very similar to my father’s. Delighted, I screamed back, “How are you, Dad? Don’t worry about me — the people here are very kind, rest assured. Later, they’re going to send us to Addounia TV where I’ll talk on camera about our important literary experiences. Then we’ll take a souvenir photo with the host in the ‘Misleading News’ section. After that, we’ll go home and drink our best araq. Don’t worry, Dad. Do you have any cigarettes? Just a couple of cigarettes, please, for the sake of the Soviet Union! Please — I’m dying for a cigarette.”
Apparently, my father couldn’t hear me over the screams of the Barcelona and Real Madrid supporters.
The jailer opened the door to my cell while I lay on the floor. “My father being brought back from the afterworld by the security services will put the fuqaha in a very embarrassing position before believers,” I thought. “I hope that God will inspire them with the right interpretation.”
Then my sweet romantic jailer lifted me up in his arms as if I were his beloved, and threw me gently into the cell.
Under the faint light of the moon penetrating the room through the skylight, I tried to look for Ali Aqla Arsan, but one of the men tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Do you know anything about corpses?”
“Yes, I do — most of my family died in my arms.”
“Please, can you check if this guy’s dead or not? I can’t see well enough.”
I looked where he was pointing and saw the thin naked man from before. I leaned over him and took his head in between my hands, lifting it towards the moonlight. I moved my face towards his until our noses touched. I stared deeply into his eyes and saw my face clearly reflected in them … I gasped sharply. My frizzy hair was silky soft; I couldn’t believe it. I let the young man’s head fall to the floor and caressed my hair. Only then was I certain that it really had become as soft as silk.
My mind soared with happiness. I stood in the middle of the cell laughing madly. I clapped my hands and swayed joyfully. Everyone applauded me, including Lina and Samira from the wall. They cheered my primitive dance. I danced for a long time beside the corpse of the thin young man. I danced ecstatically like a drunk jester and through the small skylight in the roof the moon wept some more light upon us from above.
Ali Aqla Arsan is a Syrian politician, writer and president of the Arab Writers Union from 1969 to 2005. His policies conformed to those of the Syrian ruling party and attempted to oppress and silence the voices of free Syrian writers.
Michel Kilo is a Syrian dissident writer and human rights activist.
Syrian author and playwright Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa has published six collections of short stories and four plays that have won him prestigious literary prizes in Syria and the Arab world. Several of his short stories have been translated into many European languages as well as Turkish, Japanese, Persian and Kurdish.
Maisaa Tanjour is a freelance translator and researcher. She was born in Syria in 1979 and currently resides in Leeds. She is also an interpreter with years of experience working in diverse professional, humanitarian, local and multicultural communities and organisations. She studied at the University of Homs, and has a BA English Language and Literature and a PG Diploma in Literary Studies. She came to the UK in 2005 to study at the University of Leeds, and has an MA in Interpreting and Translation Studies, and a PhD in Translation Studies.
Alice Holttum is a part-time freelance translator and translation proofreader. She was born in Edinburgh in 1979 and currently resides there, working also as a furniture maker. She has a Joint Honours BA in Russian and Arabic (2004) and an MA in Applied Translation Studies (Arabic-English) (2006), both from the University of Leeds.
Read the Arabic original, كم هم لطفاء: