New Short Fiction from Sudan: ‘Nameless,’ by Mohammed Hamad Mahmoud

By Mohammed Hamad Mahmoud

Translated by Mustafa Adam

My first-born brother passed away just nine days after his birth. The blood of the sacrificial sheep, slaughtered under the Haraz tree during his name-giving ceremony on the seventh day, had not yet dried, nor had the placenta that had enclosed him. They left behind all the baby clothes, the cloth diapers, and the toys that had been gathered for the new arrival. They shrouded the small body in a white sheet, then, after the burial, they prayed that God may reward the baby’s parents. When they returned, the blood of the sacrificial sheep had dried in the shape of an unknown land, a country that was nameless, just like me.

My second-born sister had passed away after just eight days, as if she had waited just long enough to carry her name up to the heavens with her. After suckling on her mother’s nipples nonchalantly, for no apparent reason she suddenly stopped. It seemed that death had taken her by surprise, without any sign or explanation. Under the Haraz tree, the imam of the mosque was reciting the descriptions of paradise to my bereaved father, in an attempt to comfort him, saying that it was built from gold and silver bricks held together with fragrant musk mortar, that its soil was made of saffron and its pebbles pearls and sapphires. The others made do with shaking my father’s hand and repeating the prayers for God’s recompense.

The little funeral dispersed quickly and without much sign of outward grief. Sadness lurked within their collective memory, rather than in a more personal, solemn mourning. The men headed off to see to their own affairs, while the women stayed with my mother for the rest of the week, trying to console her by saying that all was predestined, when in truth they believed that it was the work of some black magic and the evil eye, the deception of schemers. They sought refuge in Allah from the guiles of witchcraft and began to hastily search for amulets hidden in all the cracks, slits, and gaps in the walls of the house. Because they were extraordinary amulets, they managed to evade those seeking them, lurking within my mother’s brain.

Because life is not much concerned with those who have departed, many suns rose, one after the other, laughter resonated again in the corners of the house, incense holders infused fragrant smoke into the air, and the aromatic smoke of acacia wood rose from the hole used for the sensual Dukhan ritual. The branches of the Haraz tree had grown a little larger with the eruption of blossoms, accompanied by the voice of Al-Kabli on Radio Omdurman, singing: The morning sun rolls at its leisure; along its chartered path our destiny is concealed. If not for you, my beloved, hope would not be so exquisite, so full of sorrow, and yearning. Right after the song ended, she felt me take shape in her womb. She removed the pan from the fire and her trepidation took its place.

Meanwhile, I was growing day by day, passing through the various stages of development: from a drop of semen to a blood clot, then an embryo, stretching out. My mother was busy visiting the shrines of holy men and saints, embellished with green decorations. I listened to the thundering  tambourines, music troupes, and the voices of dervishes tormented by the ecstasy of passion,  with mighty yearning, and luminous divine love. I listened to the humming of incandescent chants and prayers to drive away spells and the fluttering of flags. She would stretch her hand high to call upon dead holy men and spiritual leaders, and then rub her hand over me, being shaped within her protruding womb. At other times, I could hear a deep, dry voice loudly reciting religious incantations and telling her that the evil eye is a direct result of women distancing themselves from the true faith. It went on making recitations for seeking refuge in Allah from women, devils, evil spirits, and the lowest depths of hell. I listened to mysterious talismanic spells and felt the hot blood of a black rooster slaughtered on top of my mother’s belly. Sometimes I would hear women congregating around the roaring rhythm and the crazy dancing summoning Bashir, al-Loulyia, and Aidarous, who takes his abode in Aden, as well as Bilal, who takes his abode in the mountains. They would beat on small drums and tambourines at both the Eastern and Western Gates and at the Gates of the Wind, calling upon them to descend, asking forgiveness and acceptance from their summoned guests and requesting the healing of the sick, relying on Allah and their masters.  

When her delivery approached, my father brought an ewe instead of the ritualistic ram. My mother’s growing fears would have taken grip of her, had an elderly man not appeared through the kitchen window, looking as if he had traveled a long way, his eyes glinting like those of a child. He told her, in a quivering voice, “Do not call him by any name or term of endearment until he reaches puberty.” He gave the faint smile of someone who was about to disappear suddenly, after he had handed her three soft dates. If not for the dates, she would have deemed the whole episode a figment of a hopeful, yet skeptical imagination. The news spread far and wide, like a comforting breeze. Even ten years after my birth, I would hear my story related as if it had just happened recently. I grew up amidst the collective fear of being called anything, not even a description, although the foolhardy would call me by titles denoting that I was nameless, such as “aliqa” “Bidoun,” “Sadah,” “Saai” or “Amm Fakko.”[1] But those names would quickly vanish.

Shouting out ‘hey’ was enough to grab my attention; which in our Arabic tongue was the truncated vocative “Ya”, not followed by any other form of address. I became the vocative case, defined by the implicit designation despite my physical presence, hidden despite my actual existence. On joining primary school, I started leaving sufficient space for my non-existent name at the right margin of the page, followed by my father’s full name, who died and immortalized his name through me. I did the same in my English notebooks, at the left side of the page. I was the third person in all languages and descriptions in the universe. When the English-language teacher teasingly addressed me as “Hey Mr. Absent,” I would pay full attention to her, her rounded lips, and the curves of her breasts. On one occasion, her thobe unintentionally slipped, and I was dumbfounded by her beauty. In my dreams, her dress was drawn down even further, and I was overwhelmed by lust until the spellbinding tremble that moistened my pants. I realized then that the time had come to be given a proper name. After all these years of deprivation, in which I was fascinated by the names of prophets, sages, revolutionaries, poets, singers, and actors, at last I was going to have one of my own. I had hoped that my mother would be there to name me, but she had been snatched away by meningitis a few months before. 

I had kept the secret of my reaching puberty to myself for a few months, to allow enough time to pick a suitable name from the numerous notebooks in which I had been jotting down various options, but my changing voice finally exposed me. The fervor gathered momentum among the people of the neighborhood to finally put an end to our unfinished story—people are usually exasperated by unfinished tales. My naming is a conclusion, my death is a conclusion, and so is the harvest. But each beginning has an end. Everything is cyclical: every autumn comes with its Virgo, every summer with its Gemini, and every winter with its Sagittarius. I had chosen to stay indoors to avoid the never-ending visits. I didn’t answer callers and didn’t open my door to those knocking. I wanted a name of my own so desperately that I would get tired of staring at my notebooks, then I would change my mind altogether.

I chose a number of names hurriedly, then dropped them again until my mind was fatigued. I raised my eyes to the sky for help and when I lowered my gaze, I encountered the smiling face of a man sitting under the Haraz tree. He told me: “It wouldn’t hurt you if your name were your name or its opposite. Being defined is a limitation and an arduous burden, ‘Ya’. Be the call but not the called one and you will be the names, all of them. Be the blood-red nameless homeland; be the directions, all of them together; all the gates, the Eastern, the Western, the Gates of the Wind and the Seasons. Do you want that?” I nodded fervently and he opened his palm, offering me three dates. I accepted his offer and we began ascending together, first, over the Haraz tree, then above the talismans and amulets, above the green shrines and fluttering flags, above the warnings of those always suspecting sins, above Bilal, who makes his abode in the mountains, until the landmarks turned nameless, without dividing borderlines or distinct differences. Then he indicated that we had arrived.              


[1] Meaning “boiled food without spices or taste,” “without any confirmed and acknowledged identity,” “plain,” like in black tea without milk or “without color,” “good for nothing” or “for no reason,” and “stark naked,” respectively.

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Born in 1985, Mohammed Hamad Mahmoud is a Geotechnical Engineer who graduated from Khartoum University. He has published a book of short stories titled Azameel (“Chisels”).

Mustafa Adam is a Sudanese English-language lecturer and translator, engaged in literary translation from both Arabic and English. He obtained an MA in English literature (University of Khartoum, 1982) and an MA in General Linguistics ( University of Manchester, 1984).

Leonie Rau

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