By Phoebe Bay Carter
Kafka fi Tanja was published by Dar Tabarak for Publishing and Distribution in 2019.
In this novella, Jawad Al-Idrissi works as a teacher in the morning and a vegetable seller in the evening. Though he dreamed of becoming a literary critic, he abandoned his college education and personal ambitions — as is often the case for the eldest son — and instead has been working to support his mother and sister ever since his father stopped working in order to spend his days on his prayer rug. One day, after years of perfunctory devotion to his familial duties, during which Jawad had resigned himself to his fate and all but forgotten his own dreams, he awakens to a shocking development: he has turned into a monster. The monster has magical powers of which Jawad remains ignorant — each morning he wakes up with no memory of what has happened the night before. Soon he loses his job, leaving his family with no source of income. Instead, he becomes reliant on his family’s support. Left with no other choice, he puts his life at the mercy of his family and its buried secrets, which have now begun to rise to the surface.
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Kafka in Tangier, Chapter One
Mohammed Said Hjiouij
Translated by Phoebe Bay Carter
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces
He read Kafka’s Metamorphosis before bed. When he woke up the next morning after a night of unsettling dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monster. No, not a large insect like Gregor Samsa. More like a putrid and distorted version of himself. Nevertheless, he knew that his fate would be no different from that of young Samsa: he would die in three months, no more and no less, just before his twenty-seventh birthday.
Good. Now that I’ve caught your attention, let’s go back to the beginning and proceed one step at a time.
You ask who I am? Oh, the curiosity of the limited human mind, which cannot hope to grasp me in my enormity! Suffice it to say that I have gone by many names throughout human history, among them the Blind Bard, Shakespeare, the Storyteller… Perhaps the most famous would be Scheherezade. And now you ask, where are these events taking place? Ah, how limitless is the curiosity of your human minds! Come on now, does that really matter? Fine. Let the setting be Tangier. But of course not the city of Tangier that you know. This is another that merely resembles it. A Tangier parallel to the one you consider real. But, mind you, being parallel doesn’t mean it is fictitious. Let us agree from the outset that the binary of reality and fiction depends entirely on where you’re looking from.
Now, can I get back to the tale? Good.
It began in a sewer. He was running, looking over his shoulder every other step, fleeing from an enormous insect that looked to him, under the dim light, like a cockroach the size of a dinosaur. He was dreaming, of course. I know you are smart enough to realize this and also to realize that this dream was a predictable result of the story, or novel, that he read before he went to sleep.
Before returning home the day before his metamorphosis (which was a Sunday), he had followed his feet that afternoon to Malabatta Beach, which he had not visited in the past five years. He was impressed by the new corniche and the wide plaza, which the municipality had designed in imitation of the Hassan Mosque Plaza in Rabat. But after a few steps, he found himself face to face with an open sewer belching the city’s waste directly onto the beach. He saw to his left children swimming gleefully there where the wastewater mixed with the ocean. To his right was a bridge covering a section of the drainage ditch, with cars whizzing over it at such a speed that it would be impossible for a pedestrian to cross. He peered down at the sewer, contemplating the water thick with human waste. Raising his eyes, he saw a man scrutinizing him from across the ditch. He looked out of place, standing there dressed in black from head to toe. Shiny black shoes and a fancy black suit. Unkempt hair, bulging eyes, and large ears perked to receive the world’s buried secrets. All black except for his near-translucent skin, and a small red notebook in his left hand. His eyes were bright with intelligence, but also with a lurking sadness that threatened to take over his entire face. There was something familiar about the face. Very familiar. Maybe he was famous. Surely he had seen a picture of this face not long ago.
He turned away from the man and pulled an envelope out of his pocket. On its corner was a green insignia of a snake swallowing its tail accompanied by the words Medical and Reproductive Testing Laboratory. He stared at it for a long time, until his eyes began to water. He pursed his lips. Furrowed his brow. Then let all the pieces of his face fall slack. He sighed, finally letting the anguish settle onto the blank slate of his face. The envelope slipped from his grasp, and he watched as the breeze tossed it about for a moment, as though rocking a feather to sleep, before laying it to rest on the water’s surface. He watched as it floated, drifting with the current until it soaked up the wastewater and was dragged under by excrement.
That bridge, with its concrete pillars sunk into the waste water, was the setting of the dream. The underbelly of the bridge, to be precise.
The further he went into the sewer, the weaker the light became, while the putrid stench grew stronger. It filled his mouth as he swallowed the air, trying to get oxygen to his lungs.
He tripped and fell. He went under the thick sludgy water. He got up quickly, spitting and wiping the shit of the city’s inhabitants from his face. He set off running again at a speed not typically seen in dreams. But, like someone who’s cast the evil eye upon himself, he felt a sharp stab of pain in his right leg and fell once more. The insect descended upon him. Its jaws gaped like a T-Rex’s as they came closer and closer to his neck.
His heart raced, pounding like a war drum under the arch of the bridge. He realized that until then it had been completely silent. He had not even heard the sound of the water splashing under his own feet. But now he heard his heartbeat like a drum announcing war between two tribes. He wanted to lift his hand out of the water to push away the insect, which had begun to look to him like a great, black dog. It looked like — no, it was the hound of the Baskervilles. But the nerve signals lost their way between his brain and his hand. He wanted to scream, a desperate and irreplaceable act, but his tongue stuck to the back of his throat. He was choking. A shudder wracked his body and he felt a warm stream of liquid run between his thighs. He opened his eyes.
The first thing he was aware of upon waking was the septic stench that had hitched a ride on his nose from dream to reality. He would soon realize that, in fact, the opposite was the case. The fetid smell had traveled from reality into his dream; or, rather, it was the very smell that was responsible for creating the whole dream just as he was beginning to wake up.
The second thing he became aware of was a numbness spreading across his right side. A numbness punctuated by tingling. It was not unlike pins and needles, but ten times stronger. The strange thing was, he was lying on his left side. Shouldn’t he, he thought, have pins and needles on the side he was lying on, not the side up in the air, free from the weight of his own body?
The third thing he became aware of was the warm liquid between his thighs and dripping down his legs. Yes, you know quite well what that means.
But he couldn’t believe it. He figured he must still be dreaming. He blinked several times, but nothing changed. The same noxious stench, the same tingling along his right side, and still the same damp below him. So. It wasn’t a dream. He cast his gaze around the room. It was indeed his bedroom, of that there was no doubt. His wife asleep on the other side of the bed, their daughter’s crib nearby; the antique clock his mother had bought before her own marriage told him it was six in the morning. On the wall facing him were three frames of the Arabic calligraphy he had once so loved to paint, back in the days before life had trapped him with its net and broken his back. This was his bedroom, of that there was no doubt at all. And this was no dream he was living now.
Then, as he tried to roll onto his back, came the moment of truth. The truth that would make him scream a scream that would shake the building from its colonial-style gables to its concrete foundations. A scream that would echo across the large apartment as it bounced from room to room, knocking on each door and hammering at each eardrum, slinking under the chairs and leaping across the sofas, ricocheting off the walls and ceiling and floor. It would be a long time before the furniture absorbed all the despair and anger and grief of that scream.
Phoebe Bay Carter is a translator from Arabic and Spanish and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Her translations have appeared in ArabLit Quarterly, InTranslation, Action Books blog, and elsewhere.
Mohammed Said Hjiouij has published two short-story collections, two novels, and is co-founder of the Tangier Literary Magazine. His Tangier by Night, winner of the Ismail Fahd Ismail manuscript prize, was recently released by Dar al-Ain.