By Omar Ibrahim
Tareq Imam’s The Cairo Maquette, shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, explores the lives of three main characters: Uriga, Nude, and Billiards.
Each of the three opening chapters recounts a personal incident that relates to each of these three characters. Uriga, for instance, accidentally killed his father when he was still a child: He pointed his index finger, imagining it a gun, at his father’s forehead and said, “Boom!” Although they were playing a game, it became deadly real, as Uriga’s index finger was in fact a gun. As for the graffiti artist Billiards, he one day discovers a living eye, lying on the ground. He picks it up and starts roaming the streets of Cairo until he reaches the façade of his apartment building. There, he finds graffiti on the wall—a replica of himself drawn by his own hand—but with one eye. Only then does Billiards realize that the eye he found is actually his own.
When it comes to the documentary filmmaker Nude, she has a problem with mirrors, which see in the following excerpt:
An excerpt from the second chapter of The Cairo Maquette
By Tareq Imam
Translated by Omar Ibrahim
Cairo, 2020 AD
At an early stage of her life, Nude realized that she would never have a single reflection in the mirror.
This realization came one long-ago day, when she was standing in front of her bedroom mirror, alone and completely naked. Suddenly, she was surprised to see the mirror’s surface reflecting another body.
Ever since that day, she had surrendered to this mysterious partnership and sacrificed having an individual reflection; and just so, the other reflection would never step outside the mirror.
That reflection was intensely concrete for a person who had never existed, at least in the reality where Nude abided by its laws. This cruel apparition invaded her most private moments, as when she was turning over naked in bed, or when she sat half-nude on the toilet stall in a mall bathroom.
The reflection was that of a man. Or, to be more accurate, he had now become a man; for when he appeared before her the first time, he was still a kid, just like she’d been back then. She had witnessed his childhood, and now she saw him as an adult, and she expected to watch him grow into an old man, even though she assumed she would die before him.
The two of them had grown up together: she in reality, and he behind the border of glass. Her fear of losing him magnified and, with the passing of days, it became even monstrous. And just like a dream, this fear never stopped crawling along, until it devoured wonder and disbelief.
And so Nude came to realize early on that she didn’t fear the things that couldn’t be believed, and that horror—real horror, fatal horror—lay in the things she witnessed in her everyday life.
This man, who had no real existence in the world, had such a strong visual presence that he could never be removed from his place. His power was unrealized, even though it was undeniably vivid. It went on growing larger and larger until, after a while, it almost replaced her. The young director’s face withered, as if she were his own reflection, and she gradually transformed into a ghost, as she waited for that horrifying moment when she would see him alone in the mirror.
Tareq Imam is an Egyptian novelist and journalist, born in 1977. He is deputy chief editor of the Radio and Televisionmagazine in Cairo. He began writing at a young age, publishing his first collection of short stories, New Birds Unspoiled by the Air, at the age of eighteen. He has published eleven books of novels and short stories, including The Calm of Killers (2007), The Second Life of Constantine Cavafis (2012), My Father’s Shrine (2013), The City of Endless Walls (2018) and The Taste of Sleep (2019). In 2010, he took part in the writers’ workshop (Nadwa) for talented young writers organized by IPAF. Some of his books have been translated and he has won numerous Egyptian, Arab and international prizes, such as the Egyptian State Incentive Award, the Sawiris Award (twice), the Egyptian Ministry of Culture Award (twice), the Kuwaiti Suad Al-Sabah Prize, and the Spanish Museum of Words (Museo de la Palabra) Prize.
Omar Ibrahim is an Egyptian literary translator and business developer at Bears Factor Literary Agency. He has published seven books to date, chief of which are: an English translation of Mahmoud Morsi’s collection of poems titled It’s Time I Confess (published by Kotobna), the Arabic translation of H. P. Lovecraft’s novella “The Whisperer in Darkness” (published by Dawen), and an anthology of English poems translated into Arabic titled Ice and Fire and Other Forgotten Poems: Selected Verse from Britain and America (published by Insan Center), in addition to the Arabic translation of David Stuart Davies’ The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Scroll of the Dead (Published in 2021 by Kayan for Publishing and Distribution). His latest Arabic translations are Leigh Bardugo’s award-winning novel Shadow and Bone, made into a successful Netflix series of the same name, and two children’s books by Nigerian author Mohamed Omar entitled Samad in the Desert and Samad in the Forest published by Salam for Publishing and Distribution in London. He also worked as a translator at Migration Yorkshire organization and worked as an expert reader for the American Literary Translation Award in 2020 and 2021.