Fragments of Obsessions & Suspicions
Translated by Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour
His face was hidden by his bent head, with its enormous turban, as he busied himself with the food in front of him. His hand went up and down between his mouth and the dishes like an old crane. I put my meal on the only free table at the restaurant, exactly opposite his. Then I stepped up to the hand-washing basin. My ear was struck by a giant cough, and I turned to him just as he was brushing the leftovers off his gallabiyah. I washed my hands and went back to my food. I sat facing him, and we looked like two parentheses. Crumbs of food covered up the part of the table’s surface nearest the dishes. I glanced at him, and caught a glimpse of a turn of his huge turban, which concealed his head. He was focusing on his dishes, wolfing things down in his strange way. I knew this sort of person, and their intentions, and I bet that he meant for me to grow so disgusted that I couldn’t eat, and then he’d take my food for himself. He was mistaken. I pulled back my dishes and began gulping the food to extinguish my aching hunger. Perhaps I could have spent two days filling that empty stomach. A beam of suspicion fell on me; perhaps his huge cough might affect my food. But whenever I turned to examine his face, I was stopped by his huge spiral turban. A wild desire compelled me to look at him, maybe to learn something about his figure and to discover which diseased part of the map he belonged to. Then I could figure out what kind of epidemic he carried, which could invade and destroy his skinny body. And I’d learn how others could be saved.
Sneakily, I asked him to pass me the salt. It’s empty, he said. He didn’t bother to look at me. He murmured meaningless words, then increased his suspicious bowing over the dishes. He devoured his food so greedily that he was about to finish.
As I got ready to swallow the last bite of my food, I discovered that what I’d thought was his fatal cough had truly contaminated my meal. Since he coughed in a manner so loud as to be earthshaking, my heart told me that something unusual must have happened. At that moment, he gulped down the last of his food and stood suddenly, turning his back to me, as light as a spider. He didn’t allow me to examine his face or figure enough to recognize him, and he went to washbasin. As I followed him, he must have sensed me behind him, otherwise why did his steps move so quickly? I thought that the washbasin would be a good chance to achieve my goal. I wouldn’t talk to him. Instead, I’d look into his eyes, to know whether his diseases were long and chronic or quick and lethal. I couldn’t remember where I’d read such a thing, but anyway it must have been in a medical article, or in one on philosophy or genetic engineering, I’m not sure.
At the washbasin, I lined up with him as he lowered his face to the tap, just as he’d been doing at the table full of food. As he busied himself with his unending mouth rising and falling, I harassed him with many tricks, such as kicking his flat shoes under the basin. But he only drew them back, so that his shoes were like dead frogs. I apologized lavishly, but he didn’t care. I asked him to pass me the soap that was in his hands, and he passed it over his spiral turban, then brushed a hand against his face. As he didn’t raise his face from the tap at all, my surprise increased. I jabbed him with my elbow so sharply that he retreated a little, then stood at the corner of the washbasin. He faced downward, holding his gallabiyah and turning it inside-out to remove the crumbs, so that a giant bulge appeared on his bowed back. He obsessively removed everything that stained his loose gallabiyah with the colors and spices of different appetizers. He rubbed it, then rinsed it over and over, in a process that spiraled like his huge turban. I felt certain that this troublesome man might continue for a long time. I could have a cup of tea waiting for the man, out on the old wooden bench with its poking-up nails that stood in the main corridor, which was used for entering and exiting. When I came up from my third sip, a busy fly was driven by bad luck to fall into the glass. As I was dealing with the fallen fly, a loose gallabiyah passed me by, with a sound like a wide sail blowing in the in wind.
I put down the tea with its reckless flies and stood quickly to follow the man. But my trouser leg was snagged on one of the bench’s nails. I struggled to free my trousers from the chair’s claws. Time passed, and I was still trying to free myself from the nail’s yoke, which widened the distance between me and the suspicious man who hid a secret under his strange turban. When it was almost too late, I violently yanked the trousers away from the bench’s hold, and it tore in both directions, up and across. But I didn’t care. The only thing I cared about was catching up to the man with the loose gallabiyah and spiral turban.
I broke through the crowds that were headed all directions, searching for the lost face under its huge spiral turban, but he had faded away, sinking into absence before disappearing completely.
The man had rolled off through the crowds, and his absence seemed even greater as he dissolved like salt in hot soup. He carried off his shadow and disappeared. What did this mysterious man want? Had he bowed down on his shadow’s shoulder then opened his gallabiyah to fly away on the wind? Or had he been swallowed up by the earth, devoured in its depths? Had they cheated each other, then disappeared, becoming a tiny thing in fading whispers?
I was still searching for questions to dispel suspicion, but the web of complicated questions surrounded me like bindweed climbing a tree trunk. These questions left like planting seeds on the sea, only to harvest nothing but foam and spray. Fear passed through my heart, which was full of suspicions and surrounded by mistrust—that what had happened wasn’t true. I was like an idiot strolling through the streets, searching for my lost target among identical features. A fluttering gallabiyah with a huge spiral turban, swimming in the crowd. I broke through the turbulent crowds, gazing at faces, but the turban disappeared into the flow of people. The loose gallabiyah slipped away between the crashing bodies and their chaotic movements.
I ran aimlessly in all directions, knocking on the wind’s doors, hoping they might respond. The echo returned with empty wings from the feathers of answers. I searched for any high vantage to climb up on, hoping perhaps I could see him clearly amidst the crowds that followed the mirages of their own fantasies. But there was nothing but piles of dust, noise from the peddlers, and the continuous roar of exhausted power generators. I climbed up the electricity pole, again and again; then I climbed up a huge billboard. I stared down at the steadily moving crowds, hoping I might achieve my goal. The people looked like a confused flock of ants with their surprisingly quick movements.
People surrounded the billboard’s pillars, pointing up at me, murmuring to each other. An old woman begged me not to do it—not to kill myself by falling from this high place. Suddenly I glanced among crowds and saw the same man with his turban wound around his head like a lazy snake, and his gallabiyah like a Bedouin tent, resisting the crawl of the stubborn and riotous sands.
I descended quickly, but the man disappeared just as fast—dissolving and vanishing. I saw the woman surrounded by the crowds, who were congratulating her for something or other, I didn’t know what. I didn’t care—I ran as though I’d been bitten, moving through the streets like a crazy man talking to himself. I asked the passersby about the mysterious man with a loose gallabiyah and huge spiral turban. Some cursed me with rude words, while others sympathized, regretting that I was wasting my youth on this long passage toward madness.
Ahmed Abu Hazim is a Sudanese journalist and short-story writer. He has won various literary awards for his short-story collections, including the prestigious Altayib Salih Prize for the Short Story in 2011. He has brought out two collections of short stories in two editions. He currently lives in Sudan, where he works as a cultural journalist and radio and TV producer.
Nassir A-Sayeid Al-Nour is a critic, author, and translator.