New Fiction from Sudan: Salah H. Ahmed’s ‘The Bearded One’

By Salah H. Ahmed

Translated by Adil Babakir

Those who were around in the final moments before Wad Siraj’s death on that hot Friday noon said he had arrived moments earlier, parked his fancy Mercedes at the main road, and continued on foot into the narrow alley. It was his custom to leave the car there and take the remaining distance on foot to his friend Mustapha’s house. His justification was that he wanted to protect his car, part of a big fleet of extravagant vehicles, against the deep potholes in that alley, although, as a four-wheel drive, his car was well-suited to cruising through the roughest of terrains. But the true reason behind his reluctance to drive into the alley, apart from the fact that it was too narrow, was that, halfway through it, a tall palm tree stood in the middle, making it impossible for cars to get all the way to the end. Even from that halfway point, driving out of the alley would require reverse driving skills that Wad Siraj did not have.

Image courtesy Salah H. Ahmed

The eyewitnesses were having a modest lunch in front of al-Razeen’s empty-shelved grocery when the man approached. He greeted them with his loud, gravelly voice. They returned his greeting and invited him to join them, but he apologetically noted that he was already late to lunch with his friend Mustapha.  

Once they were certain the man was out of earshot, the luxurious Mercedes, with its blue metallic sheen, tinted glass, and a cabin that resembled a room in the Republican Palace, became the first item in a rich agenda of gossip. That subject led them nicely to Wad Siraj’s rise from rags to riches—his abrupt skyrocketing rise from the deepest recesses of poverty as a young, semi-literate oaf living in this very alley, to a superrich man who owned a villa in almost every one of Khartoum’s high-end districts and could buy all the houses in this neighborhood for twice their market value. The poor residents of the neighborhood were always critical of his reluctance to extend help to the needy amongst them, noting with contempt how he reacted to those who did approach him, either by an outright rejection followed with a lecture about the virtue of hard work, or by offering them high-interest loans they wouldn’t risk taking. 

The quest for a possible source of Wad Siraj’s sudden wealth would inevitably give birth to many theories. From a bootlegger of booze and a dealer of hashish among low-income customers, as well as marijuana and heroin among the privileged; to heading a gang involved in stealing the cars of the rich and smuggling them across the borders to Egypt and Libya; to leading a gang specialized in looting the houses and electronic bank accounts of the wealthy. Another theory had it that, after long years in a low-paid job in the Gulf, luck knocked on his door when he saved the life of a prince, who, in gratitude, gave him a huge sum of money. And according to some women, who were quoting one of his female relatives, he had been visited one night by no one less than Saint al-Khidir, who endowed him with an inexhaustible treasure.

Perhaps those theories gained credence because of the man’s bad reputation in the neighborhood. Until his rise into the world of the wealthy, he had been known to be hostile and aggressive, with a heart as hard as his muscles. He was a short-tempered man who would not hesitate to resort to violence to settle any differences, regardless of whether the other party was a man or a woman, elderly or a child. No wonder that everyone, including his next-door neighbors, steered away from him, while for his part he made no effort to win them over. Everyone, including those no less notorious than him, breathed a big sigh of relief when he left the neighborhood.

Wad Siraj was seen back in the neighborhood only occasionally, may be twice a year, when he visited his friend Mustapha. The latter was a bit of a bewildering person. For, despite his long friendship with Wad Siraj, which had persisted since childhood, he showed no signs of wealth whatsoever. He continued to stay in the same modest house in that alley, and to work as ironsmith in the Omdurman souk, leaving the neighborhood in the early morning and returning by sunset. In fact, he might have been paying too high a price for his connection with Wad Siraj. While everyone treated him cordially, most elected to keep their distance, for fear of dropping a bad word here and there about Wad Siraj that Mustapha might relay to his friend. As for Mustapha, the fact that he didn’t have many friends neither pleased nor bothered him, perhaps because he didn’t have time to socialize in any case. 

But none of that deterred the neighborhood from wading into the man’s affairs. Some said he was Wad Siraj’s right hand, and his modest house was only a pretense until it was time for him to leave the neighborhood and enjoy his hidden wealth. Others said Wad Siraj had offered him a huge fortune in return for becoming his right hand, but he’d turned down the offer as a matter of principle, and for that reason Wad Siraj grew even more eager to win his friendship. A third group worried about Mustapha’s safety. To them, Wad Siraj’s keenness to remain a close friend of Mustafa’s was nothing but an attempt to buy his silence, yet that couldn’t go on forever, and, at some point, Wad Siraj might decide to silence him permanently.

On that Friday noon, according to eyewitnesses, Wad Siraj went into the narrow alley. Moments later, a cry of pain reached them from afar, which they could easily identify as Wad Siraj’s gravelly coarse voice. It came loud and clear, since the noon heat had kept the streets free of their usual clamor. They exchanged inquisitive looks in search of a possible explanation. Al-Razeen said that Wad Siraj had probably seen Fawziya, the neighborhood’s unrivaled beauty queen, strolling naked down the middle of the alley. They burst into laughter at the jest, which could have ended the conversation on that humorous note had a second cry not rung out. In a blink of an eye, the jesting mood turned grimly serious. 

They all rushed into the alley to investigate. Wad Siraj was face-down on the ground. Apart from a he-goat under a lean, leafless tree, busy chewing on a rag, the alley was still empty, although the two cries had been loud enough to awaken even those who had been sound asleep. They must have come out to investigate, and upon seeing the massive body on the ground, they’d shut their doors to steer clear of the trouble.  

Al-Razeen and his company rushed to the man and, once they’d turned him on his back, they saw his wide-open eyes and the panic in his expression. There were a few bruises on the face. His elegant clothes had become soiled with mud as his body hit the ground, but there was no blood suggestive of violence. 

“My God! Must be a heart attack,” al-Razeen said. 

“Are you out of your mind?” another man retorted. “What heart attack could hit this bull?”

“Let’s take him to hospital,” another suggested. 

“Could one of you call Mustapha?”

One of the men ran down to Mustapha’s house. Once he’d arrived, Mustapha rummaged through Wad Siraj’s pockets and pulled out his car key. “Is there anyone here who can drive?” he asked. “We need to rush him to the hospital.”

Two men came forward. One of them boasted of his ability to drive the 4WD, which, according to him, required special skills. The other man insisted that he possessed the necessary skills, having previously driven a Land Rover belonging to no less than the British embassy. “I could drive the more challenging type, let alone this Mercedes that easily runs all by itself,” he added. He stretched out his hand to snatch the key from Mustapha’s hand, but the other man was quicker. The confrontation soon developed into a fight that involved swearing, punching, and kicking. When those present finally managed to disengage the two, one of them had lost a tooth while the other was left with a swollen eye.

Al-Razeen decided to drive. The others carried Wad Siraj and stretched him out on the back seat. Mustapha sat on the front seat near al-Razeen, and the car set off for the hospital. Only then did the alley residents start to come out of their houses and ask about what had happened, and the dormant alley started to come back to life.

Not far from the crowd stood two little children, around five or six years old, both bare-chested, wearing only a knee-length underwear, one of them carrying a small, partially inflated ball.

“I was sitting by the door,” the one with the ball said. “I saw the man walking down the road. Then the bearded one—yes, the bearded  one—said to him . . . said to him, ‘Hello, Wad Siraj!’ The man said, ‘Hello, brother!’ Then he looked around to see who had greeted him, but he couldn’t see anyone except the bearded one. ‘Come join me, brother,’ the bearded one said to him. Then the man started to scream. He fell down. And the men came and took him to hospital.” 

“And where is the bearded one?” his friend asked. 

“Over there,” he replied, pointing at the he-goat, who was still sitting under the lean, leafless tree, gnawing at the remainder of the rag.

*

 Salah H. Ahmed is a Sudanese-British journalist, writer and translator who lives in London. He studied English and French at Khartoum University and is a serious amateur photographer, painter and musician. His published works include two novels in Arabic: Sinnal Ghazaal (The Gazelle’s Tooth) and Abul Kalaam.

Adil Babikir is a Sudanese translator into and out of English & Arabic, living now in Abu Dhabi, UAE.  His translations to English have appeared in Africa World Press, Banipal, Al-Dawha Magazine, and others. His published translations include The Jungo: Stakes of the Earth, by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin (Africa World Press, 2015), Literary Sudans: an Anthology of Literature from Sudan and South Sudan (Africa World Press, 2016), Mansi: A Rare Man on his Own Way, by Tayeb Salih (excerpted on Banipal issue #56), The Messiah of Darfur by Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin (excerpted in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2015), and a translation to Arabic of Summer Maize, a collection of short stories by Leila Aboulela (Dar al-Musawwarat, Khartoum, 2017).

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