New Short Fiction: Mansour El-Souwaim’s ‘The Gizzard Tree’

Editor’s note: We share this story as part of our ongoing “In Focus: Sudan” section, which you can find at arablit.org/sudan.

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The Gizzard Tree 

By Mansour El-Souwaim

Translated by Nassir al-Sayied al-Nour

We arrived at our destination just before nightfall. I was surprised by the magnificence of the building. I had never thought that this man, whose abilities my friend sought to use, would live in such a glamorous palace. At the main gate, we were met by a man with clerical features, a hairless head, a bushy rounded beard, and sleepy eyes. He wore in full black suit, white shirt, and black necktie. We had to walk a short ways through a blossoming garden until we reached another interior gate, in front of which stood another man with Buddhist features, wearing a loose wide yellow jellabiya and holding beads in his hand. He took us inside. We crossed through a giant, cylinder-shaped lobby. Then suddenly we stood before a man seated on a luxurious chair, while a group of men and women sat before him in the dirt.  

We sat for half an hour in silence as the man stared with impassive features at the faces opposite him. This must have been a method he used to enthrall his customers before launching into his job—or so I guessed. At last, the clerical-looking man and the man with Buddhist features approached the Sheikh and exchanged a few words. Then the hairless man stood to the Sheikh’s right side, with the other on the left. A woman was the first to speak, weeping as she complained about her husband, who many other evil women sought to snatch away from her. The Sheikh reassured her with short hums, then asked her, before she left, to write down her name, as well as her husband’s name. Next was a young man with a childish face, complaining about his long unemployment, which had stretched on ever since his graduation, so that he had fallen into a depression and was ready to kill himself. The man gave a brief sermon about the risks of suicide and promised to solve his problem within a week. He asked this man to stay until the end of the session. Another, older woman complained of her son’s disease, saying she wished to see him cured before she died. She cried out in agony. The man assured her that her son was being cured, and that when she back home she would find him well. 

Later on, I got bored, and I amused myself by counting the chandeliers that hung from the ceiling over our heads. Then my friend Omer’s session came. He stood and loudly said: Oh, our Sheikh Farededin—

But before he could finish, the bald man corrected him: Say

 Ustaz. He’s not yet ascended to the professorship, to be called a Sheikh. Angry, Omer turned back to me, and I gave a scornful smile as he swallowed my cynical rejoicing. He presented his own complaint, which was about how he was treated in his job. He was no longer allowed to stay in one place, and immediately each year, he would be sent far away, and when he got back to the capital, he would stay no long than a month before, once again, they would send him out to the areas that were on fire. He spoke with such sadness that I was afraid he might burst into tears. The Sheikh, or rather Ustaz, reassured him with two words: It’s done. He spoke them and gave me a questioning look: What about you? I trembled as our eyes met. Then, mustering my courage, I said: I’m only here to be with my friend, and I pointed at Omer. Again, he asked: There must be something on your mind you wish to know. Ask whatsoever you would like. 

In his tone, I felt challenge and contempt. As I personally had nothing to ask for, I decided to play a different game. I said: It’s nothing for me, my life is going on as I like, and no one could intervene with me, nor my wife, employer, father, or family. I’m free enough, but if you allow me, I’ll ask for something in general. For the first time, he settled deep in his seat and waved a hand in what I perceived as a welcoming gesture. I said: I wonder if the world will soon be destroyed? What I mean is that, aren’t there wars everywhere? A continuous international threat of the use of nuclear weapons? So do you think that our world will be destroyed, or will soon vanish?  The Sheikh Ustaz answered me: I don’t think it’s that. It is inevitable that the world will come to an end within three years. But it will not end because of the ongoing wars here or there, nor because of nuclear weapons. However, its end will come from the actions of the gizzard tree when its growth is complete. 

I felt sorry for myself, and I despised this one who was called Ustaz, but before having translated such sense into speech, he said: Indeed, you disdain such ridiculous talk. That what’s I realized. Still, I will show you how the world is going to die. Suddenly, he stood and took two steps from his luxurious chair. He looked younger, more handsome, and well-dressed in his full blue suit and shining black shoes. He pushed his hands out into the air and a screen appeared, full of blue and green dots. He searched through the gelatinous screen forms with the fingers on both hands, and it resolved into a map of the earth and other planets revolving in the cosmos. Again, he waved his fingers, and the planets dimmed. The earth grew until it took on the shape of its well-known maps. 

He jabbed a finger against a point in the middle of one of the oceans and said: This is Satan’s Eye Island. You’ve never heard of it, but it’s there. Again, he waved his hand, and the rest of the map shrank while the island popped to the front of the screen. The island looked featureless, except for its smooth rocks and the ocean waves vehemently striking its shores. The Sheikh—Ustazmoved his hands, and it seemed as if they were sinking into the core of the island. He said: Beware this figure. 

A tube-shaped figure formed in front of us, like a tree trunk with yellow leaves on top. The Ustaz said: This is the gizzard tree, in its final growth cycle, and I’m going to show you now what will happen in the next three years. He moved his hands, and the screen dimmed for a few seconds before it flashed with a collection of images distributed in small squares where Satan’s Eye Island had been. The Ustaz said: follow these images, as they’re describing up the cycle of life of gizzard tree.

In the first image, the tree appeared close to the bottom of the earth’s crust. In the second image, yellow leaves appeared, fully covering the land of the island. In the third image, it seemed as if the land of the island had been smashed and thrown into space. In the last image, a giant tree with yellow leaves had filled the screen and was growing in the ocean, while the island had vanished. Ustaz said: This is the gizzard; it grew, much as a tree soaks in sunrays with its insatiable leaves. Watch what’s coming next. He moved the image with his hand and replaced it with another blue one; it was rippling and reflecting the bottom of the ocean. 

Then he pointed at what looked like giant cables and said: These are the roots of the gizzard which have begun to extend—look! He moved his hands, and the images appeared one by one. The giant roots were striking everywhere; the space they covered was as vast as the ocean’s span; and water spilled into the dry lands in every corner of the world. The roots emerged, and the earth began to crack and split. Suddenly, the continent of Australia appeared, transformed into bright broken molecules, and then it arrived at the other continents: continent after continent. The whole earth was invaded and overwhelmed by these giant roots, and they smashed the earth and transformed it into broken swimming molecules. At last, the Ustaz moved his hand, and the gizzard tree appeared again, standing alone in space while its roots moved in nothingness. He said: Three years from now, the world will end, the gizzard will swallow it up, and it will be gone forever. 

I thought: Liar, hypocrite.

The Ustaz said: Only the liar and hypocrite thinks the end of everything is a game. 

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Mansour El Souwaim is a Sudanese writer and journalist. He has published both novels and short stories. He was part of the first-ever International Prize for Arabic Fiction Nadwa, and was selected as one of the Beirut39, one of the best young Arab writers under 40. 

Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour is a critic, author, and translator.

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