Translated by Sarah Aldawood
The selections published here are from Wafa Al-Harbi’s Burning the Loaf (2018) and Loss Recycled (2019). Al-Harbi became popular among Saudi readers through sharing her stories on Twitter.
Her writing can be characterized by its accessibility to a broad readership and by its ability to surprise the reader in a small space. Her flash fiction pieces start with charming elements, which capture the reader’s attention and imagination, but often end with a lesson or melancholic note. Al-Harbi’s miniatures employ an effective blend of irony and poignancy in a simple, pared-down language, with some ambiguity embedded in the multiple layers of meanings, which allows readers to produce their own interpretations. Her stories tackle a variety of different themes, but with a focus on daily life.
For the translator, the joy and the challenge of translating Al-Harbi’s stories lie in their brevity—everything matters in these short pieces. In this context, the greatest difficulty was to preserve the imagery of the original and the multiple layers of meanings and tones they contain in an idiomatic English format, without losing Al-Harbi’s voice. Moreover, I faced a common translator’s issue of how to render cultural details that are unlikely to be familiar to the English-language reader. It is my hope that my translations will capture Al-Harbi’s literary elegance and channel her creative universe for English readers, and that the stories will evoke the same ambiguity and wonder.
Before I went to bed that night, my grandmother’s braid had been white. When I woke up in the morning, it had turned red! I couldn’t think of a rational cause, so I went through my grandfather’s papers, hoping to find a love poem he had written for her that had even made her hair blush.
I had writer’s block, so I decided to go to a quiet café with the hope of finding inspiration. The waiter approached to ask what I’d like to drink. He was wearing a necktie printed with fish of different sizes and colors. I ordered coffee, no sugar, and a glass of water. The whole time, I tried to summon inspiration and write some words, but a fish kept jumping from my coffee cup into my water glass, distracting me.
Saving the days
In my childhood, I used to have a money box that I would fill with sheets of paper from my desk calendar, hoping to extend my mother’s life.
A family of things
Suddenly, I decided to become a writer, and I thought long and hard about an idea that would lead me to the world of writing. I thought of suffering. What do I suffer from? Loneliness! And because most new writers are constantly trying to invent new definitions for things, I wrote in the preface: “Loneliness means putting your favorite candy in an exposed place and then going back to it after a while to find it just as you left it. No one stole it or chewed off half of it, not even ants.” To write, I have to feel exactly what I’m writing. So, I tried to intensify my feeling of loneliness by hanging myself on the wall to launch a state of loneliness shared by my things that are silent—the wall clock, the wardrobe, the table, the bed, and the vase—to look as if we’re all friends. I’m silent all the time, and anyway, I don’t need to use my ears when I talk to myself, exactly like these things around me. The furniture and I make up a silent family. My deep faith in this made me empathize with the table, so I stopped putting the hot teapot straight onto it. I don’t sit for long on the chairs, and I don’t sleep on the bed for more than nine hours. I can’t endure much myself—how could my furniture?
Sometimes, I move the wardrobe to a different place and move the chairs to make them feel that they’re moving just like me. I don’t want to be different because I move. I believe shared feelings with these things make us a family. When I’m tired, the chair welcomes my tiredness exactly as the bed does when sleep grabs hold of me.
Today is the twelfth of August: my residency status in this country has ended. I’ve packed my luggage as I did that first time, leaving behind my family who bade me farewell with their sad and tearful faces, as I followed my dreams with no specific destination. Today I packed my luggage and looked back at my family of things, feeling like a fish out of water. I wrote on a napkin: “Why do we have to say goodbye?” and I kept writing while I watched my family being sold piece by piece in the auction: the wall clock, my rocking chair, even my pillow. Two hours later, waiting in the airport before my departure, I touched my feet. I felt them turning into wood! I will write about “the power of yearning” before I become woooo—
Wafa Al-Harbi is a Saudi short-story writer born and raised in Medina, Saudi Arabia. She has published four collections of short stories. She was longlisted for Al Multaqa Prize for Arabic Short Story in 2019 for her collection Burning the Loaf.
Sarah Aldawood is currently a PhD student in Comparative Literature with a focus on Translation Studies atthe University of Massachusetts Amherst.