New Fiction in Translation: Azza Maghur’s ‘Mowgli and Shere Khan’

Mowgli and Shere Khan

 by Azza Maghur

Translated by Safa Elnaili

The City

It’s not a jungle, it’s a city, but not any city, it’s the capital. He’s not “Mowgli”—his name is Ihab. As for “Shere Khan,” he’s nothing but an animal. This story takes place in Tripoli. As I write it, I won’t be telling you about the Tripoli that I’ve lived in for half a century; I’ll tell you stories about the war that’s devouring it.

For those who don’t know Tripoli, it’s a city that embraces the sea. The connection isn’t merely geography, but rather spiritual. Its legend is based on the sea. It has a name that’s sung in the anthem of the US Marines, about when the people of Tripoli captured the Philadelphia battleship near their warm shores. It was when Yusuf Pasha Karamanli[1]ruled the Saraya[2] and practiced piracy in the Mediterranean Sea. A time when he enforced sanctions and levied fines, and hosted consuls of foreign countries.

When you take a short stroll through Tripoli, you can see the wall of the old city with its gates open to the sea, and, despite the heat, the breeze keeps them cool. Its houses are adorned with humble balconies as bashful as their residents. Calls to prayer soar from towering minarets, while the churches stand mute. The swallow parades across the dusky sky. The fronds of palm trees drape down like locks of women’s hair. The breeze is as salty as sailors’ legs. You can see the French Consulate building, towering over the Marcus Aurelius Arch, and the sea like the receding shade of an old giant. Its pillars tell stories of history, betrayal, conspiracy. Meanwhile the British Consulate still hides in one of its narrow alleys, witnessing the comings and goings of the British consul in his classy suit and tie, as well as the letters of Miss Tully, the consul’s sister, included in the book Ten Years’ Residence at the Court of Tripoli. In great detail, it describes life in Tripoli’s alleys and its guardian fortress, the Red Saraya. The Saraya stands tall on the remains of a Roman building, facing the sea, and watches the other side of the Mediterranean with its sleepy eyes.

Marcus Aurelius Arch. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Marines’ anthem declares, “From the Hills of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli / we fight our country’s battles / in the air, on land, and sea.” Yet this very same sea was where they met their defeat. The Spanish sailed to Tripoli[3], painted the fortress red, then handed it to Saint John Knights, who sailed to the city and built one of its towers. The waves slammed into the tower to remind the occupiers that they would ride these waves, defeated, back to their rocky island. Then came the Ottomans[4], bringing a much more modern colonialism. The Italians’ boots landed on its shore early last century[5], naming it the Fourth Shore. They turned the fortress into the governor’s headquarters and overstayed their welcome by almost forty years. They built new districts and schools, and a lower class of Italians were settled on its soil and called it their southern shore. From this same shore, they left, humiliated, after their defeat in WWII. Today, there’s no need for an occupier from across the sea to humiliate Tripoli; its people are doing the honor themselves.

Ihab

In 2011, Tripoli was heating up like a boiler. Fog draped over it like a high-collared winter coat. The Tunisian revolution succeeded, and Zein El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country: “Ben Ali ran away, folks!” This was how Ihab received the news while lying on the sofa, flipping through the channels. He hadn’t heard of Bouazizi, that grocer who burned himself to death after a female officer, named Fadia, confiscated his goods at the vegetable market and physically assaulted him. Ihab, who was nineteen, had only heard the part of the story where Ben Ali fled the country one early morning, and Tunisia was finally free of his grip.

Soon after, Egypt made its move, with Tahrir Square its beating heart. Egypt’s flames ignited Ihab and his friends. From January the twenty-fifth, Ihab abandoned his TV screen, grew his beard and mustache, lay on his stomach, and consumed all the images of the Egyptian revolution till it grew in his heart, paralyzing his mind. He lived the revolution in his home—texted his friends, and posted news on Facebook, wondering when it would happen to them.

Al Bayda and Benghazi rose. Ihab went out on the streets, whispered, then shouted at the top of his voice in Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square: “Benghazi, you’re not alone, Tripoli’s here, we are one.” 

NATO stepped in and supported the rebels in their fight against Qaddafi. All along, Ihab and his friends believed it wastheir battle, and toppling Qaddafi was their victory, no one else’s, when in fact, this was the very first time they had ever held a gun, “Hold it right Ihab, hold it right so you won’t drop it,” and so Ihab clutched his weapon close. He followed the others’ leads, watching them closely, and tried to imitate them, but they all carried their weapons differently. 

Ihab never fired a bullet. When NATO destroyed all military bases and caches of live ammunition and explosives, the rebels finally seized Tripoli. Ever since Ihab had carried his gun to the streets on August 20, his family, neighbors, and friends considered him a rebel. He stood guard at checkpoints with his gun hanging over his shoulder, poked his head into car windows and graciously welcomed the drivers, “Assalamu Alaikum. Your papers, please.” Eyes looked up to him with admiration, hands handed over papers with obedience, “God bless you, boys,” they’d tell him.

A beautiful image, taken straight out of a historical saga, carved in people’s memory, and repeated: a young man, his gun over his shoulder, a military beret resting on his shoulder-length hair. All the young men looked like Che Guevara, but they were rebels in a quiet, mid-sized city. The sea breeze and humidity caress the city, and the sea foam slaps the asphalt cliffs of the corniche. Hearts filled with thrills, joy, and anticipation after turning the final page on forty-two years of oppression. Everyone held their breath for what would be written on this new white page, though it was wet, its edges yellow, and difficult to put a mark on. Little by little, weapons became normal scenery in the city—submachine guns on pick-up trucks and tanks. People even learned to distinguish the different sounds of munitions. They grew tired of it. It was no longer the symphony they once danced to, in hopes of fulfilling a dream that was waiting on the horizon, or so they thought. That dream had fled into oblivion.

In Ihab’s home, joy turned into worry. Ihab’s mother felt unrest, as if an army of ants had crawled from the soil up into her bones, all the way to her heart. She became restless with Ihab’s repeated stories. He was a different man when she looked at him now, fixing his military uniform in the mirror. She feared he would fire a bullet at someone and break a mother’s heart—a mother, like her, staring at her child in the mirror. It scared her to death that he’d thirst for blood and turn into a predator.

 One day, she was no longer as patient as an ant but vexed as a stinging bee. She grabbed his arm and turned him toward the mirror, her finger pointing to her head, “A revolution, son, is in the mental, not in the metal.” She stuffed his military uniform into a plastic bag, gave it to the garbage man, then faced him with all her strength, pointing her index finger at his face. “No more weapons in my house,” she stressed. And with motherly love, she advised him to return to school, which he did. Ihab started an engineering degree at Tripoli University.

Shere Khan

In the heart of Agidida prison in Tripoli lies Shere Khan. He was named after the Indian tiger in Walt Disney’s movie The Jungle Book. Alhadi has the features and traits of a ferocious tiger. His head resembled a foul, deflated ball pinned onto a stick-like body: disproportionate. His real name didn’t echo his personality, but rather the opposite, so his friends hesitated to call him Alhadi, or The Peaceful One. One day, he announced to everyone that his name was Shere Khan, and ever since, he hadn’t responded to anyone calling him Alhadi. 

By the age of twelve, Alhadi had abandoned school. The alleys of Busliem were congested with people like him, and all submissively gravitated towards the same doomed fate, death by overdose or prison. 

In 2011, Shere Khan was serving time in one of the prison blocks. He spent his days talking and smoking in the dusty square courtyard with his fellow inmates. He dragged around his dull days like a donkey pulling a cart, having served five years of his ten-year sentence. After smoking hashish, Shere Khan learned to inhale heroin from white paper rolls till he passed out. Before prison, he used all sorts of adulterated heroin and learned to roll it into cigars. Most importantly, he became a pro in drug dealing. He sat low in the seat of his Honda Civic, rolled down his window a little, and waited. “Hey man, wanna wrap?” He’d hand it over after getting his payment. 

Shere Khan knew he’d be arrested one day. He didn’t care; his friends were waiting for him at Agidida prison, but what he didn’t expect was a ten-year sentence. On his first day in prison, he decided not to count by days but by months. After three months, he decided to count by years.

Five years passed, taken out of Shere Khan’s life and spent in inhaling Riyadhi cigars,[6] then spitting out its bitterness. Smoking and curling up in the corner of an open field was all he could do.

Fortunately for Shere Khan, he spent the second half of his sentence not only as a free man but as a man of power in the city. The doors to freedom opened one revolutionary night. Shere Khan and his inmates walked out free men. He blended in with the marching crowd; his identity dissolved. With his inmates from Agidida, he headed to the rebels’ headquarters and became one of them. He put on a military uniform, grew his hair, and crowned it with a wool beret. Shere Khan went bold, occupied a building, joined the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and got paid handsomely. For Shere Khan, this was still not enough.

Mowgli

Ihab resembled other young men of his age. He was tall and skinny, walked with a slightly curved back, had soft and thick black hair, dark skin, and black eyes. Crooked white teeth hid behind his smile. Ever since he’d left his weapon and returned to his seat in the classroom, his war comrades named him Mowgli, not out of mockery, but out of love. It was a clear-cut declaration of his abandonment of war, checkpoints, and conflict zones.

Every once in a while, news about the rebels reached him. “We’ve marched into Bani Walid; come join us.” “We’re in Busliem; they’re still green[7].” “Worshfana is still full of Qaddafi followers, just come along,” they’d say, but Ihab’s decision was final. The day he relieved his shoulder of the gun’s weight, he felt lighter. When he was a rebel, his heart and body were heavy. He finally returned to college—to his friends, his ruler, his shapes and diagrams, his mathematical equations, and his calculator. He could feel his heart beat again for a beautiful sight, a spontaneous look, a kind word, or even a unique shape. 

News about the war fell on his ears like bullets falling from the skies of Tripoli. “He was ambushed and died a martyr; there’s nothing we can do. It’s in God’s hands.” “He fought ISIS in Subrata.” “He died a martyr in Kikla and Mishashia.” They all fell like dry dates from a palm tree and broke like reed sticks. They learned to accept the smell of blood. They pointed their guns at any moving object and pulled the trigger, unleashing those flaming bits of metal into the air, one bullet after the other, and watched them cut through the flesh of their target. Their targets were once neighbors, relatives, kin, and even good friends.

 “Thank God you snapped me out of it, Mother. There were guys I knew well who died in Bani Walid.” His mother looked smug. She gazed at him in the mirror as he changed, little by little, into Mowgli. Mowgli the innocent and calm, the boy with a kind smile, coal-black hair, and dark skin. She leaned toward him and laughed, “I guess I’ll be calling you Mowgli, too!”

Fatima

Fatima had wide black eyes; coal-black hair; a fair, round face; and a short, round figure. She had a soft, gentle smile, as gentle as she sipped her tea. Fatima lived in the projects in the Abu Salim[8] area. Her father was a Chief Sergeant in the Armed Forces. Every day, Haj[9] Muftah headed to his camp in Tajouraat at the break of dawn. He rode the city’s Iveco minibus to work and returned home to his wife Khadija for lunch at noon.

Fatima studied French at the School of Arts and Sciences. She, too, rode the Iveco, heading out shortly after her father left for work. She’d squeeze herself into one of the seats next to the window to watch the crowded streets, her body swinging forward every time the driver hit the brakes. Traditional music boomed in the Iveco, playing Mirskawi songs How can I forget my lover’s name now that I’m burned with her flames. How can I ever leave when her fire is all I feel? No doctor can heal my pain; because of her love, my life is in vain. How can I walk away from a love that’s leading me astray? It’s hard. I can’t sleep; her eyes are all I see

At noon, and at the corner of the street leading to the slums, Sher Khan stood under the broken streetlight, leaning against its pole. He waited for Fatima with a lit cigarette between his fingers. He followed her, whistled at her, and called out her name, but she never replied. Fatima knew he had just woken up. He looked refreshed; his hair dripped wet on his shoulders; his sunglasses covered a deep scar that started from the corner of his eye and went halfway to his cheek. 

“Just give me some attention, or am I out of your league?” 

Fatima hastened her steps, rushed through the building’s front door, and raced up the stairs without looking back. He was a man whose name was associated with drug dealing. That alone scared her. She finally got into her apartment, panting. Facing her was a golden framed portrait of the Colonel in his military uniform. She glared at the photo, smiling, and wondered what made his long face look so gaunt. She’d mutter to herself, “God, how much he’s changed,” trying to avoid being overheard by her sister, Fathia, who’d say, “Who? Our Leader? God bless the man, nothing wrong with him.”

At the beginning of the revolution, young men in the neighborhood gossiped about Fatima’s family. They first whispered and called them “the Greens.” When things heated up, they called them “Moss.[10]” Then after victory, it was “Cronies[11].”

Fatima’s two brothers volunteered to fight for Qaddafi’s regime, to suppress the revolution. They marched in the Green Square, their necks and heads wrapped with the green flag, and chanted, “Only Allah, Muammar, and Libya.” When Tripoli fell to the rebels’ control, one of her brothers fled to Egypt. The other was arrested after a neighbor reported him. “Who? Her! She’s nothing but a Moss,” they’d say about Fatima. She walked away, head bent, and eventually decided to quit school for the rest of the year and stay home.

Her brother’s detention took longer than expected. Her mother grew downhearted and lonely, especially when the neighbors started avoiding her and whispered behind her back. Her father wearied of knocking on doors and asking about his son’s fate. By the time he found his son imprisoned in a fallout shelter, his wife had passed away. Before her death, she had brought down the portrait from the wall and hid it under her bed.

     “Your mother died!”

     Her brother wept.

 “Get me out, father. I’ve done nothing wrong. I only chanted in Green Square. I didn’t even use the Kalashnikov. Get me out of here.”

“If only they’d transfer you to Agidida prison, you’d be in better conditions.”

His son bowed his head, “Very well, father, very well.”

Haj Muftah tried several times to get to Sher Khan’s office. The office was located in a neighborhood villa previously owned by “Cronies”; it had a lit-up sign at the entrance that read “Security Forces.” Sher Khan recruited and armed some young men from the area and trained some of his Agidida friends to guard the villa. In front of the villa, a parked pickup truck with an anti-aircraft missile was pointed towards the neighborhood. 

Haj Muftah stood for hours, not too far from the office, waiting for Sher Khan to appear. Sher Khan got out of his Land Cruiser, which was parked in front of the villa, and almost crashed into it. When Haj Muftah spotted him, he rushed towards the car with all his strength, “Sheikh Alhadi, Sheikh Alhadi.” Sher Khan turned to the voice that was calling him. Haj Muftah addressed him without thinking, “I’m Haj Muftah, Fatima’s father,” he panted.

He presented himself to Sher Khan and stood there waiting for him to finish his phone calls. His eyes watched Sher Khan’s lips draw a mocking smile. He heard the same words he’d heard for the past five miserable years. “They’ll investigate your son, then transfer his case to the prosecution.” Haj Muftah took shy steps toward the dusty desk; he almost tripped over the folded carpet. His voice quivered, “God bless you, son. I beg you!”

 “Come back in two days.”

Haj Muftah took two steps back and spoke with his hand on his chest: “Thank you, thank you. I truly have no words.” As he turned toward the door, Sher Khan suddenly said, “Next time you come here, bring Fatima with you.” Haj Muftah didn’t turn around to face him. Instead, he walked away, fighting his tears. When he left the villa, he burst out crying and never returned. 

Mowgli and Sher Khan

     Just like in the Jungle Book, Mowgli had to face Sher Khan.

The young men in the neighborhood had grown sick and tired of Sher Khan and his gang. They got together and burned tires; their strike was against killing the innocent, destroying livelihoods, abusing women, and wronging people. Sher Khan screamed at the top of his lungs in his office, “We work for Internal Affairs! Bring me the head of whoever says otherwise.” Mowgli led the protests and held up the banners, “No weapons. No militias.” “We demand a safe Tripoli, free of weapons.”

Mowgli had heard of Sher Khan but had never seen him. He woke up early every morning and spent most of his day finishing school work at college and sitting in cafés around the neighborhood, drinking Mikyata[12] and eating brioche. He sometimes smoked a cigarette then put it out under his foot on the dirt-covered asphalt that looked as though it were riddled with smallpox. 

As for Sher Khan, he lived in the dark, humid areas, checked on his underground prisoners, stepped on their bodies, then whistled when they cried out in pain. He spent most of his days sleeping. He started his day with a mixed-weed cigarette; he’d inhale until the sensation filled his scrawny body. He spent time in front of his mirror, putting on different pieces to make an unmatched outfit, but he always kept on his rubber flip-flops. It was the perfect footwear for his toes to breathe, a habit he picked up from prison. He loved to scribble his name on papers after having someone read their contents for him, “We work for Internal Affairs, that’s all that matters,” he’d say over and over.

For Mowgli and Sher Khan to meet was against all odds; they were from different times and places. When they met, Sher Khan carried a weapon and wore his flip flops. Mowgli held a banner and wore sneakers. Mowgli marched surrounded by his friends, but Sher Khan ducked behind his car with his militants. “We’ll keep protesting in the streets until you leave,” Mowgli chanted at the top of his lungs, but Sher Khan ground his teeth and breathed heavily through his nostrils. Mowgli held up his banner and swung it as if he were dancing. “No militias!” Sher Khan knelt down on one knee and pointed his gun toward Mowgli, looking through his scope with one eye. That evening, Mowgli fell lifeless to the ground; his blood ran in a long line beside him. His friends carried him, head dangling and eyes halfway between life and death.

Mowgli’s story didn’t end like in The Jungle Book movie. Mowgli in the jungle didn’t fear Sher Khans’ danger and strength because wolves and monkeys had raised him, whereas Mowgli in the city lived in his mother’s embrace and blessed by her prayers. He took part in the revolution and finally felt the fresh breeze of the sea for the first time. He married and divorced a gun he never used, stripped off his revolutionary uniform and set himself free. Whereas the delusional Sher Khan held on to the revolution, enjoyed every last spoil of it, and, unjustifiably, appointed himself its guardian. This time, the guardian killed the revolutionary—the revolutionary who had failed and who gained nothing but shattered dreams, like a cloud with no rain. 

The City

The city grew quiet after its storm. Laughter wilted like lights fading in windows, one after the other. Doors were shut like flower petals closing up, and mouths were filled with water like potholes in winter. People bowed their heads like flags at half mast and cast down their eyes like curtains shut in daylight. 

Ihab’s mother’s screams pierced the neighborhood. “I took the metal away from my son, I wish I hadn’t,” she howled. The women cried around her as in no other funeral. The cries came in all sorts of sounds: screams, screeches, bellows, meows, and brays. All were heard except for her soft voice, the voice that chanted in the kitchen and sang lullabies to Ihab. With every scream, her soul clung to her body. It gave her a taste of bitterness, “The country has changed. People have changed.”

The likes of Sher Khan multiplied in the country, and the likes of Mowgli ceased to exist. The city turned into a jungle, ungoverned. Tigers crept in the dark nights, fought over houses, and preyed on humans. Men like Sher Khan didn’t fight with their hands, scratch with their claws, or bite with their teeth. They hid like mice behind their oversized cars, carrying anti-aircraft guns, and they played with their guns like toys, shelling crowded neighborhoods. 

The waves slapped the Saraya; it sighed and wept. The doves flapped their wings in the square, raising light dust. The fronds of the towering palm trees rustled in the streets. Seed pods fell from the ornamental trees lining the sidewalks. The swallow paraded the sky, and the geese embraced their goslings in the lake. A heavy silence weighed on the city. Fear filled people’s hearts and sucked out their dreams, leaving them hollow like dry, odorless cinnamon sticks. They hid behind the walls of their homes, shielded themselves with their locked cars.

Ihab left, but Sher Khan stayed.


[1] He ruled Tripolitania (1795-1832) during the Karamanli Dynasty (1711-1835).

[2] Also known as Assaraya Alhamra (The Red Fortress/Castle), established in 1919 during the Italian occupation as Tripoli’s national museum. The castle is located in the old-town district, overlooking the harbor. 

[3] Spanish rule (1510-1530)

[4] Ottoman rule (1551-1911)

[5] Italian Occupation (1911-1943)

[6] Local brand. ‘Riyadhi’ in Arabic means ‘athletic’.

[7] Green here is a connotation to Qaddafi’s regime – green flag, green book.

[8] One of Tripoli’s largest areas and home to its maximum security prisons.

[9] From the word Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). Libyans use the word as a form of respect to elders.

[10] The color green was heavily associated with Qaddafi’s regime (the green flag and the green book), thus his followers were called this name. 

[11] Comrades and followers of Qaddafi’s regime and political views

[12] A type of coffee drink.

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Azza Kamel Maghur is a Libyan lawyer, human rights activist, and constitutional law expert. She holds a law degree from Benghazi University and a DEA in international law and international organization from Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris. Azza is known for defending political prisoners, advocating for NGO rights, and openly calling for a constitution in Libya. After the Arab Spring, Azza played a major role in campaigning for democracy, human rights and women’s rights. She spearheaded a legal committee to draft laws concerning NGOs and worked on further legislations, including the election law of 2012. She published numerous legal articles in both Arabic and English. Azza was the only woman selected to join the February Constitutional Committee that was in charge of amending the Libyan Constitutional Declaration that led to the current House of Representatives’ establishment. She is also a short story writer and has published three collections of her work.

Dr. Safa Elnaili is an assistant professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Alabama. She holds a PhD and an MA in linguistics and literature from Louisiana State University, in addition to an MA in Applied linguistics and Literature from Benghazi University. Dr. Elnaili is currently earning an MFA in Literary Translation and Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a Libyan Scholar, translator, and writer who has published papers on language and literary style in the Libyan short story. Dr. Elnaili is devoting her career to bringing Libyan literature—as an underrepresented literature—to a wider, international readership. She has an upcoming translated short story collection with DARF Publishers.

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Also read:

Female Protagonist in Libyan Short Story Post the Arab Spring: A Critical Discourse Analysis

“The Leaf” by Azza Maghur, tr. Safa Elnaili

The original story, “موجلي وشيرخان

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