From the FOLK Issue: ‘Death in Three Portraits’

One of the eerie short stories from our FOLK issue is by the legendary Egyptian author Yahia al-Tahir Abdullah, whose The Collar and the Bracelet is available in Samah Selim’s award-winning translation.

Death in Three Portraits

By Yahia Al-Tahir Abdullah

Translated by Salma Harland

– Portrait One –

Bakhit Al-Bashari lay in his sickbed, the same bed he once made with his bare hands from the stalks of palm fronds. An unwelcome disease had kept him bedridden for the past two years. Hazina lifted the well-tucked sheets as she peered in, examining the dark bluish-yellow rash that covered the ailing body. He is dying. She fought the bitter thought. “Go get Sheikh Fadil,” she called out to her daughter Fahima, “And don’t you come back without him!” Hazina sat at her husband’s bedside, watching as his chest expanded and fell with each breath. “He is still fighting with all his strength, like a man.”

Sheikh Fadil gathered the trail of his white silk kaftan to sit, only to be interrupted by Hazina, insistently swearing by Prophet Muhammad, the purest of all humans, that Sheikh Fadil should not soil his clean garments by sitting on the bare stone slab. Fahima hastened to fetch a straw mat, laying it on the stone bench that circled the sturdy Mediterranean dwarf palm that stood in the middle of the yard. Sheikh Fadil finally settled. 

The bristly foliage of the palm tree swayed and rustled in the breeze, making a muffled crackling sound like that of snakes slithering through the feathery plumes of pampas grass. The soft half-light of twilight swept through the grounds and walls of the narrow yard like a tide washing the shore. Sheikh Fadil started to elaborate on the benefits of sunlight to the weak and sickly, yet Hazina remained silent, sitting on the floor by her husband’s bed with Fahima following her lead. I will copy her every act; Fahima thought, I am far too young to have her wisdom and knowledge.

Sheikh Fadil tilted Bakhit’s frail face in the direction of the sacred qibla and gently pressed against his chin before pouring a mouthful of water between the cracked lips. “There is no god but Allah,” Sheikh Fadil whispered in Bakhit’s ear, “and Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.” Stepping back a few paces to contemplate the effect of his handiwork, Sheikh Fadil then seated himself again on the straw-covered stone slab.

Darkness engulfed the yard without warning. The knowledgeable Sheikh Fadil reckoned that it must be the angel of death. “Indeed—” the hardened Hazina nodded. Fahima thought it was rather the sun, simply setting behind the western mount, yet she chose to keep her opinion to herself, closing her eyes like her mother and Sheikh Fadil before her to protect them from the wind-whipped earth blown over by the two enormous wings. And like her mother and Sheikh Fadil, Fahima also heard the gasp and the sudden slam of the door. A loud cry escaped her mouth.

* * *

Female mourners joined Hazina, wailing and ostentatiously beating their cheeks, but Hazina knew that each and every one of those women was calling out to their own lost ones. She would rather be with the men, she thought, shaving the hair off the dead body’s armpits and groin, washing it and rubbing it with myrrh before wrapping it with the clean white shroud they had bought with the little money they had. They would then pray for mercy on his soul before carrying the shrouded body on a wooden plank to the burial place, where they would finally lay it to rest in the ground and cover it with soil. After that, it would fall to Hazina to figure out how to pay the reciters who would read the Quran before the deceased, may Allah have mercy on his soul.

– Portrait Two –

“Ma—” Hazina woke up with a start to her daughter’s feeble voice. “The cold… It’s too cold, Ma,” Fahima whimpered, her feverish body trembling from head to toe. Hazina gathered the bed covers and piled them on top of the shivering body, religiously applying cool vinegar-soaked towels to the fevered head from night till dawn. The next day, the distraught Hazina examined Fahima’s face, only to discern a dark bluish-yellow rash. The deadly fever, she thought.

Al-Ma’mun Al-Mudaklam, the barber surgeon, paid Fahima a visit. He shaved her head, phlebotomized it with a razor blade, and used five heated cups to draw out the dark toxic blood. “There is more spoiled blood to Fahima’s system,” he said. “For her pure life-blood is still turbid. If her health was not so poorly, I would have let out two more cupfuls to guarantee her recovery.” He then added that he would make another visit to his young patient after the zuhr call to prayer.

Al-Mudaklam returned, only to see Fahima’s lethargic state unchanged, waking up from one half-conscious state only to slip into another. He kindled a fire, heated a nail, and singed Fahima’s head three times before finally saying: “I have driven off the spoiled blood. It is all in Allah’s hands now.”

A gleam of hope flickered as Youssef Al-A‘war, standing on the rooftop of the Mosque of Abdullah, called for the ‘asr prayer, then for the ‘isha. Hazina glanced at Fahima as a faint smile wreathed the pale quivering lips. “No! No, she is not welcoming you,” Hazina cried. “She is only too young to fight off the pain.”

– Portrait Three –

Wary of the bad luck that might befall her if she trod on any of the graves, Hazina cautiously walked the remote and tortuous footpath that ran through the cold cemetery, sun-glazed with the crimsons and violets of the setting sun, wilted yellow privet blossom showering her with every breeze. Her ears caught the faint sound of oncoming footsteps. Feebly, Hazina tried to expel the intrusive, ominous thoughts, but it was in vain, and finally she gave in to the pull forcing her to look back. To her surprise, there stood Fahima, the dead Fahima, as flesh and blood as herself, before thawing into dew in a blink of an eye. Could it be the jinn’s omnipotent daughter, the one with the two sisters, playing tricks on my mind? Hazina thought. The three all-powerful sisters, daughters of the jinn: they control the mighty millstone that turns and turns and grinds flesh and bone. They snare stray cats and dogs, howling in terror, as their six eyes turn red and fiery like burning coal.

* * *

The house was bleak, and Hazina lonely and forlorn. Both Al-Bashari and Fahima had died, and the fevered Hazina was too weak to call out for her neighbour. All was quiet but for the dull grinding sound of the millstone. The amber eyes of the three jinn sisters glowed in the dark once more, but Hazina was no longer afraid. She smiled, feebly, as she looked back at the black naked giant overhead.

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Salma Harland is an Egyptian-born, England-based literary translator who works between Arabic (Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic) and English. She holds an MA in Literature and Philosophy from the University of Sussex, a PGCert in Translation and Interpreting from the American University in Cairo, and a BA in Translation from October 6 University. Her literary translations (both from and into English and Arabic) have appeared or are forthcoming in ArabLit Quarterly, Ancient Exchanges, Jadaliyya, Eurolitkrant, Turjoman, and Romman Magazine, among others. In 2021, she was named one of the British National Centre for Writing’s 2022 Emerging Literary Translators.

Yahia Al-Tahir Abdullah (1938–1989) was an Egyptian short story writer and novelist and a prominent voice of the Sixties Generation, known for their leftist and nationalist views. Yahia’s works stand out for giving voice to the voiceless, often being centered around poor and illiterate characters from Upper Egypt. He wrote four novellas, including The Collar and the Bracelet, and five collections of short stories.

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