From Khalid Lyamlahy’s ‘A Foreign Novel’

Also read the author-translator’s note, part of our special section on self-translation.

By Khalid Lyamlahy

Translated by Khalid Lyamlahy

Excerpt 1 – Queuing at the Prefecture

On my right, people under a wooden shed, in front of a metal gate. I walk their direction, convinced that my place is there: with them, amongst them. Brandishing my folder, as if wanting to share something with these foreigners, those who resemble me, I scramble to join them, as if they were lost brothers, with whom I’m only now reuniting after years of separation and turmoil. I join the end of the line. A child smiles at me. I smile back. I look at my watch. They should open the gate in exactly thirty-five minutes. 

I open the folder and take out the new book I bought a few days ago. I lean on the wall and try to focus on reading. A nearby child starts crying. His mother tries to calm him down but he sobs louder, ever more wildly. An old man stares at me through glassy eyes, static and imperturbable. I want to ask him for an explanation but decide against it. I don’t know him, after all. I close the novel and put it back in the folder. I am starting to get cold now. A religious silence settles in. People are increasingly discreet, increasingly blurring together. Soon, we will become errant phantoms and vanish into the bluish sky, smoke of the ephemeral. We will lose ourselves somewhere, burying names and surnames under the weight of the emptiness pressing into us. The world will carry on as though we had never been. This shed will fall, scattering its debris across the square where still we are waiting for providence to open the gate. I close my eyes and attempt, vainly, to banish this nightmarish vision. The images return, obstinate, unavoidable, frozen in memory as static sequences.

Excerpt 2 – The Old Man and the Foreigners

Unconsciously, my steps lead me to the carriage entrance where the other day I’d met the old man with the white beard. There he is again, bent forward, whirling the corn broom with those same agitated gestures. The handle seems to rotate in all directions, twisted by the hairy hand of its owner. Every now and then, the old man stops, throws the broom on the floor, wipes his brow, looks up and down the street, as though to make sure nothing has changed, and then calmly resumes his labour.  

[…]

“There you are, back again,” he says.

“Yes. I was just passing by…”

“Passing by, passing by… That’s what they all say,” he responds, letting his arms drop along his body in a movement that could indicate anger as well as irritation.

 […]

“What are you doing here?” demands the old man, scratching the white, wiry strands of his beard. 

I told myself that nothing, at this precise moment, obliged me to answer. Yet I found myself compelled to say something, if only to break the silence. The words tumbled out. 

            “I came from over there,” I said, while reluctantly pointing to the Prefecture building. The old man didn’t need any more indication to understand. He closed his eyes as if to communicate that he knew exactly what I meant.

            “They all walk by this area,” he added. “I’ve grown used to seeing the same faces at the same times of day. They often come back several times. Always the same.”

            I thought back to the crowd under the shed, waiting every day for the metal gate to open. He was right. They were the same characters at the same times in the same positions with the same expectations. Nothing had changed. Nothing could ever change.

            I looked up to avoid his inquisitive eyes. Three clouds were already turning dark grey. Islands of blue that had been resisting the creeping shadows disappeared in their turn, sucked up in the steady movement. Behind the three clouds that yet hovered in their original position, more clouds, darker ones, were cutting into the blue, increasingly insistent.

            “What do you do for a living?” he asked me.

            My response came to me in a flash. 

            “I’m writing a novel.”

            His eyes suddenly lit up. He scratched his beard again, then looked up at the sky. I think it was at this very moment that it began to rain.

Excerpt 3 – Writing the Story of a Novel

            Writing the story of one’s first novel as though recounting the story of one’s life. The two stories resemble each other, intersecting, converging, running along the same discontinuous line. As if they were carried by the same breath that rises from somewhere, from someone, hidden before but now delivered, shivering and naked, to the blank salvation of the page. Words parading across virgin space leave behind them a grey trail that emerges, slowly, as the gloomy smoke that’s chased between clouds by a sudden and unforeseen wind. Each falling word on the white page breaks something in me. Each sentence intruding on the text’s architecture breaks something away from me […]

            Writing as if we were looking for ourselves, by investigating the furthest, darkest corners of the character we are or believe ourselves to be, by stripping away the self we think we know, finding it, at last, a foreign presence. It resembles us without perfectly corresponding to what we are, and slips through without a trace, without a sign, like a rumour that has slipped away from the terrace of a café and whose echo goes on pricking the indiscreet ears of passers-by, ending up in public squares and private meetings, a cruel leitmotiv of the unbearable emptiness of existence. 

            Writing as if we were dreaming of a simple and assured identity, freed from administrative formalities and standardized procedures, exaggerated delays or renewed extensions, authenticated documents or embellished proofs, desperate waiting or forced concessions. Writing as if we were reinventing, with each thought, the free movement of writing. Each word released by the silent flow of the dark ink will redefine my conception of writing and throw me back toward the nakedness of being. Each word produced by the monotone scratching of the sheet will remind me of the unfinished quest for an impossible identity. 

Excerpt 4 – Why Are Residence Cards Pink? 

            “Why are residence cards always pink?”

            Sophie’s question came, unexpectedly, in the middle of the lecture. We were sitting at the back of the auditorium, probably in the last row, just in front of the entrance. Once again, I was late and as usual, I tried entering discreetly. The only available seat was the one next to Sophie.

            For the first time, her eyes, blazing green orbs, give me pause. She holds the card up lightly, like a soiled napkin, and I realize how much its colour is incompatible with the translucent surface of her skin. Smiling at the thought, I attempt a response:

            “I don’t know… maybe to distinguish them from other cards…”

            “Obviously,” she replies, visibly annoyed.

            She gives me back the residence card which I immediately slide back into my wallet. How many times have I repeated this movement? I don’t know. I don’t remember.

            I look at Sophie, gorgeous, untouchable: since the first day of class, a fading illusion. She’s right. It’s a legitimate question. Why are residence cards printed on pink paper? Pink is at once a poetic and ambiguous colour. The child of red and white, blood and void, sufferance and innocence, anguish and nothingness. Not the type of colour to offend the eye, but one that slips away tenderly and inconspicuously, a benign spectre that leaves no traces in its wake, no mark on memory. Perhaps the residence card is just that: a fleeting truth, a transient abstraction; a laminated card doomed to live a year of indifference before returning to a dark office at the Prefecture, often the same one in which it was brought to life. 

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Khalid Lyamlahy is Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. His work focuses on North African literature in relation to political, social, and cultural debates in the region and beyond. He is author of Un Roman Etranger (2017) and co-editor of Abdelkébir Khatibi: Postcolonialism, Transnationalism, and Culture in the Maghreb and Beyond (2020). He tweets at @khalidlym.

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Also:

Deena Mohamed: On Drawing Self-Translation

Ali Shakir: What Is the Self in Self-Translation?

Mona Kareem: Self-Translation Never Lands

Dunya Mikhail: Writing it Twice Is the New Original

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