In his first novel, Black Rains (أمطار سوداء), Yemeni author Badr Ahmad writes with searing clarity about the effects of armed conflict on Arab societies and, more broadly, on the human condition. Until recently, Ahmad’s fiction was little known outside Yemen, but it is now more accessible thanks to two recent translations. In December 2021, “Encounter,” an excerpt from Black Rains, was published in Y’allah, the University of Texas’s new journal. Also in 2021, Ahmad’s novel خمسه أيام لم يسمع عنها appeared as Five Days Untold in Christiaan James’ translation. ArabLit spoke with translator Katherine Van de Vate about “Encounter” and her views of Ahmad’s fiction.
What first struck you about Black Rains? What made you want to spend time with it?
Katherine Van de Vate: I was drawn above all by the force and directness of the prose. Black Rains was composed in 2011, during the Arab Spring, and was the first Yemeni novel written during that period. It deals with the destructive power and uncertain outcome of armed conflict. The author’s goal was to chronicle the toll such conflict takes on ordinary people and their lives and to illustrate its terrible damage to the social fabric.
While there are many excellent novels about the political upheavals of the last decade, the majority of those translated are from Egypt and Syria. There are fewer translations of novels from elsewhere, though other countries have endured equally traumatic events. I wanted to share a perspective from a different country, as well as to highlight a writer who might otherwise not reach English readers.
A quick re-cap of the novel’s plot: A young man is on a visit to a conflict-wracked, unnamed Arab country. During a break in the fighting, he visits the market, which is thronged with locals eager to escape their houses, and an old man begins talking to him. However, their conversation is interrupted by a massive explosion that leaves scores of dead and wounded, followed by violent armed clashes between insurgents and government forces. The two men flee, the older one guiding them through the battle-scarred city to a supposedly safer place. When they reach it, however, they are seized by an armed gang and eventually executed by firing squad. A great deal happens to the two men in between, but that’s the gist.
Though that all sounds rather bleak, Black Rains is in fact an engaging read, with plenty of gallows humour. As they face the firing squad, the two men discover they share the same name, “Amin,” which of course echoes the word “Amen,” and they burst into hysterical laughter before the bullets strike them down. The novel reminds me of Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work in its portrayal of the absurd behaviors people resort to in order to navigate the landscape of war.
How did you first come across Badr Ahmad’s work?
KVV: As so often happens, through a referral from another translator. Badr’s work had been translated into Italian and he was searching for an English translator. His novel Bayn Babayn (Tra Due Porte) was published by Poiesis Editrice in 2019 in Federica Pistono’s Italian translation, but has not yet made its way into English.
How would you describe this novel’s style, rhythm, pace, sound? What were you working to echo or re-create in the translation?
KVV: Black Rains is short and fast-paced; it packs a lot into just 100 pages. I would describe the style as cinematic. The writing is spare and almost devoid of flowery language. We are plunged into the story with all our senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch, even taste. I tried to preserve that visceral quality in translation, to allow the reader to experience the events rather than look at flat words on the page. What does armed conflict (whether revolutionary or another kind) feel like when you have been thrown to the ground in an alley by a bomb blast? How do you feel when you have to helplessly watch someone die? These are the kinds of questions Ahmad tackles in his novel.
The excerpt begins with an unsettling danger, a false sense of normalcy. And then Karl Marx appears, and wearing a jilbab, no less. How would you describe this character and his role in the novel?
KVV: The resemblance to Karl Marx is the author’s device for helping us visualize the old man, but throughout the novel, the old man is also a sort of guide, not only to the country’s ruined landscape but also to the chaotic and unpredictable politics of conflict.
That false sense of normalcy preceding danger is fundamental to the period the author is portraying. Black Rains was written in 2011, during the early months of the so-called Arab Spring, when revolution was unfolding across the region. We all remember the heady sense of hope and exhilaration that accompanied those upheavals. But to the ordinary citizen on the ground, things often looked very different, especially in Yemen, already the poorest country in the region. That view from the ground was the genesis of this novel and in fact, of this novelist.
In a 2017 interview with the magazine al-Riwayah, Ahmad describes, in unforgettable fashion, what it was like in Yemen in 2011. His hometown of Ibb was in a particularly bad way, with gangs of armed men roving the streets, pillaging, robbing, and killing in broad daylight, and nightly news broadcasts were dominated by images of corpses. State institutions had stopped functioning; basic goods were confiscated by the military and appeared in the markets only intermittently; there was no electricity, internet, or garbage collection. Ahmad describes his country then as a wilderness in which the defenseless ordinary citizen could be struck down by a random bullet at any moment. These are the events he evokes so vividly in Black Rains.
In March 2011, as Ahmad awaited a ride during a torrential downpour, a group of six armed fighters arrived and set up a roadblock nearby. As the men prepared to waylay motorists, they drank alcohol and sang and cackled hysterically, like “lewd hyenas,” as Ahmad recalled. As he watched the rain soak the men, Ahmad suddenly imagined that the water was staining everything black, not only the fighters, but “everything…including my dreams, the faces of my children, and the smiles of my father.” For the author, that blackness represented the suffering of ordinary Yemenis. He raced home and wrote nonstop for three months until he had completed Black Rains. Though he had written since childhood, it was only for himself. However, friends persuaded him to submit Black Rains to publishers, and he has gone on to write two more novels as well as short stories.
What strikes me about Ahmad’s work is that he is depicting the region, not just one country. He highlights the plight of the ordinary citizen, al-muwatin al-aadi, who is overlooked by those in power but bears the brunt of conflict and upheaval from which he gains nothing. I particularly liked this passage: “Even if the killing and destruction come to an end, their trail of devastation strikes at people, ideals, and morals, breaking families apart, rupturing the ties of compassion that bind society together, and transforming people into savage two-legged beasts, selfish creatures who fight desperately to survive one more day on this earth, whatever the cost. This destruction will not bring about any systematic reform, not for decades.”
As Ahmad wrote in his interview with al-Riwayah: “I wanted to write, to scream, to protest, to put my imprint on the forehead of this world. I wanted my sons and daughters to know, a decade or two from now, that their father rejected this war, he rejected all this destruction and exposed the thieves who rode on the wave of the revolution.” It’s hard to imagine a more compelling reason for writing a novel, or a braver testimonial for the common man.