By Ibrahim Fawzy
Khaled Nasrallah’s The White Line of Night, shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), is set in a nameless country where censorship of published texts is carried out by force of parliament. The censoring body checks all books before they are allowed to be published, and ban those deemed offensive.
The protagonist of Nasrallah’s The White Line of Night, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), is a dilemma-stricken censor who happens to be a voracious reader who becomes disturbed and pained whenever he has to ban a book, especially one he loves. The story begins when he is captivated by a book penned by an author going by the pseudonym of the “Knight Writer,” which he ends up having to ban because it includes some words deemed offensive by the powers that be. He then meets with the author and tries to convince him to edit these words out, but fails.
Later on, a number of authors and activists stage a protest against censorship when another author, the “Adventurer,” is awarded an international prize for a book that is banned in her own country. This leads to censorship rules relaxing a little before coming back full force. The censor, who also owns a publishing house that he inherited from his father, faces the difficult decision of whether to pursue his passion and defend his deep-seated belief that good books should be available for all, or to stick by the rules.
The narrative style swings between the omniscient narrator who relates the censor’s tale and the first-person account of the censor who reflects on his own job. Nasrallah, in this dystopian novel, bases the story on the binary opposition of black/white, as the poetic title of the book indicates, where in this context, “white” represents resistance and knowledge, while “black” or “night” represents oppression and ignorance.
An excerpt from the second chapter of ‘The White Line of Night’
By Khaled Nasrallah
Translated by Ibrahim Fawzy
At times, phrases and paragraphs become muddled up. The censor would often read a sentence and claim that he had read it elsewhere. No matter the context, you might find him considering an idea from one book, and insisting that he could name the source that inspired it. Then there were times when he would read a few pages and predict what would happen next – and get it right. It was quite ridiculous. So much so that he would sometimes laugh himself silly and wonder how this was happening. “I’ve seen this before,” he found himself insisting, time after time. This would happen again some weeks later, although he could never be absolutely sure because he was also certain that he had neither read this latest book nor did he know the author. On top of all that, whenever he would retire to bed, some of the scenes from the book would suddenly appear to him just as he’d imagined them. He would chat to the characters of the texts about this and that. Sometimes his dreams would enact what would happen in the following pages that he had not yet read.
This all might be considered normal if one reflected on what was known about the censor: that he read at least 200 pages a day (and that if responsibilities, exceptions, and emergencies compelled him to read less, he felt disappointed and guilty, which forced him to then make up the reading he missed the following day), and that he always had to finish a book he started no matter the consequences and no matter how boring it was. It was only when he read that final letter that he felt a sense of accomplishment and completion.
Naturally the censor, like any other reader, had a unique critical vision; he could sort through and deconstruct storylines, and form his own personal opinions. He had his favorite writers too but, because of his bad luck, he was hardly ever assigned to check a book by an author he admired. Each week, he hoped he’d be given one of these special books by the person responsible for distributing them to the staff, but his hopes would be dashed. When this did actually happen, his entire week would be filled with joy. He never banned any of those books. And so it was with the novel he was currently up to the second chapter in, by the Knight Writer (a pseudonym), which opens with two characters lost in a desert for an unspecified period, discussing philosophical and existential questions as to what was happening, and what had let them there. The author then made a point of distinguishing between text that reflected reality and that which was based on dreams, so as not to confuse the reader. Before they could find a solution to their dilemma, one of the characters ended up fainting from the blazing sun and severe dehydration. This led the bewildered other man to search for a way to save his friend, since the text required both characters to exist, and if one of them died then the other would surely follow… His only resort was to urinate while fully dressed, and squeeze his dripping pants into his friend’s mouth.
But the author didn’t write all of this exactly how the events have been described; he used an offensive word that jarred with the censor and made him feel a sense of unique responsibility, towards a task that he felt destined to fulfil. Before settling on any course of action, he decided to take the book home with him and to finish reading it that same night. This wouldn’t infringe on the general rules, and in fact the distribution official urged his workers to do this during peak times.
Khaled Nasrallah is a Kuwaiti writer and novelist, born in 1987. He works as a PE teacher in Kuwait and has published numerous articles in the Kuwaiti Alwasat and Alqabas newspapers. He won first place in the ‘Short Stories on the Air’ competition organized by Alarabi magazine, and his novel The Highest Depth was longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2017. A member of Rabitat Al-Udaba in Kuwait, he is the CEO and founder of Nova Plus Publishing House in Kuwait
Ibrahim Fawzy is an Assistant Lecturer at the Faculty of Arts, Fayoum University, Egypt. He earned his MA in Comparative Literature in 2021. He is also an emerging literary translator whose translations have appeared in ArabLit.org and ArabLit Quarterly, Merit, Sard Adabi, Africa Qira’at, Olongo Africa, and Akhbar Aladab. In 2021, he was awarded the iRead prize for the best review of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels. His first monograph, Belonging to Prison, is forthcoming in 2022. He can be found on twitter @IbrahimSayedF1