Award-winning Short Fiction: Raja Alem’s ‘The Boa’

Raja Alem’s “The Boa,” translated by Rana Ghuloom, was on the inaugural ArabLit Story Prize shortlist in 2018 and appeared in the first-ever issue of ArabLit Quarterly.

The Boa

By Raja Alem

Translated by Rana Ghuloom

Everyone knows me as Fatima the Meccan. But the truth—which I have hidden so well throughout my eleven years of existence—is that I wasn’t born in Mecca, but rather in the year 500 Hijra, or 1106 in the Christian calendar, in Wadi Acci near Granada. Anyone who has delved into history and dates would recognize that this matches the birth date of Abu Bakr Mohamad ibn Abdul Malek ibn Mohamad ibn Mohamad ibn Tufayl al-Qaisi, known for short as Ibn Tufayl.  

Our identical birthdays are not coincidental, since we—he and I—are soul-twins, born from one isthmus. I was always with him when he treated the sick, and when he worked as a hajib, or minister, in Granada. He eventually birthed me through his mother the gazelle, when we embodied the character of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan. He called me “The Vapor” through which the living are roused to life, and after whose departure the body becomes cold, no better than the stick we use to fend off beasts. With my experiences and my aptitude for the natural sciences, and having arrived at the Oneness of the necessary being, I aided Ibn Tufayl until he was taken into the Almohad court, where he became a favored doctor of the Almohad caliph Abu Ya’qub Yusuf al-Mansur (1163 – 1184 A.D.).  

When Ibn Tufayl died in 1185, I took him with me, and my soul wandered without any guidance. I then found myself drifting towards those routes that tended east, towards Mecca. When I entered Mecca, a woman was giving birth in a divan in Souk al-Saghir, the marketplace that leads to the courtyards of the Grand Mosque. The midwife and the aunts of the newborn girl were sitting on a copper basin. Under the basin were veils of mucus, and under the veils was the archangel Azrael whispering, incomprehensibly, into the newborn girl’s ears: She should have been born male

I moved towards the basin, where I adorned myself in the mucus veils, sucked on Azrael’s finger and gained strength from the heavy women seated on my chest. As the women lifted and lowered the basin, nine times they did that, I joined them by crying. I spat out all the womb’s waters that were stagnant within my chest, and then waited for their despair. They proceeded to wrap me into some cloth, leaving me to the breast of the crying woman who was to take care of me. Between the tears and milk, I dwelled in Souk al-Saghir under the minarets of the Grand Mosque, until I began training my body to walk, and they came to know me as Fatima.  

When you ask me about the course of my past life, I tell you quite honestly that I moved between living beings and symbols, and avoided materializing into fixed forms. This was because I am certain that “confining, by means of form, a matter that should not be formed is dangerous”. Living with Ibn Tufayl, I nurtured whatever arose within his innermost depths: his every inner state, every contemplation, every abstract musing. I became the character of his novel, Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan. I let him birth me from some fermented clay found within the belly of a forgotten island, until I became some warm clay mixed with cold, some moist clay with dry. It was a balanced and equal intermixing of forces. In the center arose a stickiness and an extremely small bubble, full of a tender airy matter of a perfect balance. My eternal breath flowing from God, the exalted and sublime, clotted within it. The totality of forces yielded to me. They prostrated themselves and were subjected to my divine perfection. When the clay was processed and its limbs were fully formed, the veils tore off of me in what resembled childbirth. Being a newborn whose source of nourishment had ceased and whose hunger had become unbearable, I pleaded for deliverance, and a gazelle who had lost her fawn heeded my call. She reared me until I had ascended rung by rung the ladders of Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan’s body. The death of my gazelle mother led me into a state of reflection and I began seeking knowledge of the world of matter encompassing me. I eventually arrived at the fundamental truth that no being is distinct from the essence of the necessary being. I merged with the luminous celestial bodies, with a brightness that was untainted by any trace of distress or filth. I whirled around my own and the center of the island, until I left no distinctions between selves. I reduced my relation to all tangible things to the extent that even those closest to Ibn Tufayl were unable to see me anymore. I persisted in my intimate investigation until I discovered what no eye has seen and what no human heart has conceived. I witnessed concealed things and recovered secrets that encompassed the universe. Secrets that moved within the depths of existence and moved everything in it. I acquired the ability to move into and travel through different time periods and bodies. I then passed these singular truths to my inseparable companion: The stars have our breaths. His body is the axis. Whatever variations of connected universes he holds are his own, most far-away limbs…  

And now that I have moved into the body of the Meccan Fatima, I could relax into these various knowledges of mine. I was absorbed by the sweetness of childhood until I reached my eleventh cycle of forgetting, according to the Meccans’ calculations of age.  

My problems in the Meccan society began when our neighbor Aisha al-Subkiya suddenly went into labor. She was the same neighbor who had recently been widowed, during her seventh month of pregnancy. 

Before her labor on that night, the moon had descended so low that it filled the water basin in the courtyard facing our house’s divan. Until that night, I had managed to fully hide my ancient connections to Andalusia and to Ibn Tufayl and I was successfully recovering from my forgetfulness. I used to sleep on a bench in our enclosed balcony, and my mother would bolster me with a red cushion so that I wouldn’t fall off the bench and break my neck. How many of my stories did that cushion know! It was a red damask cushion that was more than any other like that same eavesdropper from the days of the Arab caliphate. It was as though it had materialized right out of my dreams. But let’s return to my sleep that night. During those dreams, I went back to Cordoba and to the Almohad Court. There were specters that received me, and reenacting their past roles, they would clear a space for me between channels of water and narcissus. By those channels, Andalusian moons would ripen, people of need would sing and plant their poems, feasts were set out for those near and far, and we (the stories and me and my soul-twin) would preside over them, first with the Caliph Abi Ya’qub and later with his successor, his son Abi Yusuf.  

As the slave-girls’ muwashahat poems trickle onto the chests of the men in the divan and climb up their blossoming beards, Abi Yusuf is busy welcoming a Berber delegation filled with wild eyes like lakes of gold pouring over the walls engraved with Quranic ayahs. I was captivated by the extraordinary rawness of the muwashahat, when suddenly… the scream of a terrestrial woman… tears the slave-girls’ throats… and scatters the Berber… the cry gurgles, thickens, closes off my windpipe… Suffocating, I abruptly floated out of the dream without even having the time to strip off my Andalusian guise. I quickly realized that it was our neighbor, Aisha al-Subkiyah, screaming.  

I left my sleep to find the pair known as my mother and father in distress, stumbling towards the door of our house. Together we descended our high stone stairs, went through the wood-latticed vestibule carved with leaves, through the copper-latched door, through the narrow alleyway, to our neighbor’s door. She was collapsed on the floor under her door, with torrential screams spiraling around her, pushing us away. The orbs of her brassiere, embroidered with starry buttons, were pulling tightly against her nipples, while the stripes on her pants’ waistband circled her pelvis. Each silk stripe was followed by a cotton stripe. The crown of her belly had slipped free and was glistening with a captivating impudence. The fringes of her pants were an octopus dying in a nocturnal fluid, emitting dizzying smells. I got closer in spite of my mother’s attempts to push me away. I found around me my gazelle mother and the other forest animals whom I had once cut open as I looked for the stirring fire that once gave them life. Given my long-lasting relation to animate life during the time of Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan, I knew exactly what was happening inside the belly of Aisha. Her womb had ripped, spitting its waters out, while the fetus was shriveling into a desert inside her. Aisha’s passageways were narrowed by her bones of ebony, which formed a throne on her pelvis. The fetus had no hope of passing through.  

As I examined her, my mother and father kept shoving me away, and then the earth shook and tore from under our feet with the arrival of the midwife and the other loud and distressed neighbors. The midwife announced that the mother had suffocated along with her child-seed, and so they left her laid out in the divan that was usually used to receive men and which was the closest to the road. The funeral procession would be the fastest from here; it would slip right into the alley and to the graveyard. The people gathered recoiled, mourning her as her own yells solidified into a net that surrounded her and paralyzed her, leaving her unable to cry for help or even breathe.  

I couldn’t join their mourning. How could I, with all my skill in the science of anatomy, be capable of cleaving her seed away! When Aisha began turning green, and the whirling height of Azrael was wrapping the divan’s cushions around her, I grabbed a sterilized knife, slashed open her stomach and… before my thrust could touch the furrowed lining of the womb, a net of wails came down on me… wails threaded with convulsions. Their net caught me. And they tied me down. 

***

Then, moons, solar cycles and the years they made up passed with me locked up in a room they call the makhlawaan. It was a dwarfed emptiness stuck like a parasite to the women’s guest room, which was yet another emptiness, long like a mummified snake. I was concealed because I had, as they put it, gone mad. The jinn woman of the child-bed lady had possessed me and had not left me since. Even my form altered between the female and the male in their eyes.  

I certainly didn’t attend Aisha al-Subkiyah’s funeral, even though the troops carrying rice with chickpeas were threading through the alleys. A plate of rice with chickpeas and one with tahini were slipped to me from an opening in the makhlawaan’s door. I was no longer capable of being nourished through their human mediations. I had become saliva mixed with the Subkiyah’s waters, and after this moment I was never hungry again.  

***

I was then neglected by everyone around me, including those known as my mother and father. I was forgotten in that makhlawaan.  

Until I was certain that everyone who had known me was dead or forgotten. The expansion of the Meccan Grand Mosque had swallowed Souk al-Saghir, so I wandered amongst Mecca’s rainbow-pigeons. We used to spend the prayer time cooing on top of the Kaaba’s rainwater spout which faced the Stone of Ismail, may peace be upon him. Under the spout, all supplication is accepted, as from there a pathway leads up to the seventh heaven. I abandoned my human existence and my physical form that was distant from the Superior Self. With my grey flock I took on the shape of centuries of prayers, so that when a certain tranquility overtook our coos, we folded into the curves between the Quranic verses and their extensions and dispersed among them. As soon as Mecca’s night descended, the verses became embodied in us, and transported us to their concealed garden around the edges of that hidden pathway.  

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Raja Alem was born in Mecca and now lives in Paris. Her works include ten novels, two plays, biography, short stories, essays, literary journalism, writing for children and collaborations with artists and photographers. She often appears on the international cultural and literary scene, especially to discuss and give workshops on spirituality, children’s creativity, and links between east and west. She has received many awards in the Arab world and in Europe, including one from UNESCO for creative achievement in 2005, and another from the Lebanese Literary Club in Paris in 2008. Her novel The Dove’s Necklace was co-winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and was translated by Adam Talib and Katherine Halls, and her latest novel, Sarabwas just published in Leri Price’s translation.

Rana Ghuloom, from Bahrain, has recently graduated with an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the Pennsylvania State University. She has worked as a freelance translator interested in the intersections of Sufi poetics and gender issues in contemporary Arab/ic literature.

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