This summer, we will run select pieces from summer issues of ArabLit Quarterly. Sonallah Ibrahim’s “Arsène Lupin,” originally written in the al-Wahat Prison Camp, Western Desert, Egypt, in 1963, appeared in translation in the Summer 2020 CRIME issue of ArabLit Quarterly.
By Sonallah Ibrahim
Translated by Emily Drumsta
I approached the store with some hesitation. Once in front of the door, I peeked in and found what I’d been expecting. The man was sprawled out on an old chair, his gallabiyya parting to reveal a huge, fat thigh. He was snoring loudly.
I stood by the door not knowing what to do. To the left were the two small shelves I’d been dreaming about for days. Dozens of small paperbacks were piled on top of them. Maybe hundreds. I was only a step or two away. But the man was asleep, even though it was already morning. I was scared he’d wake with a start and see me. At the same time, I couldn’t leave, because I couldn’t imagine spending the day without a novel. I went in.
I tried to get his attention by touching his lumpy thigh. The sound of his snoring stopped immediately. His body shook, and his left eye cracked open to reveal a red circle. A loud snort exploded from his lips.
“I’m just gonna look for a novel,” I said, pointing to the paperbacks.
His mouth discharged a second snort. I worried he might attack me, or tear me apart, but he settled his body back into the chair and sighed. He pulled out a dirty handkerchief and began wiping the sweat from his neck, his red eyes now wide open, staring at me. I backed away, and when he didn’t say anything, I crept toward the two shelves and started looking through the novels.
They were old books, with worn paperback covers and torn yellow pages. Dust rose from them in clouds, mixing with a strange smell that seemed to saturate everything in the shop. I loved that smell.
I inspected the collection as fast as I could, looking at the first page of every book and searching for a specific line of small words beneath the title. I got through the first pile without finding what I was after. I felt annoyed, and sweat was pouring down my face. I stole a glance at the man, scared he’d explode at me again. But his red eyes just stared in silence.
“There’s no Arsène Lupin,” he blurted out suddenly.
My hands stopped short. He clearly wanted to get rid of me, but there was still a whole other shelf to go through. I decided to keep searching, more quickly this this time. But I didn’t find any Arsène Lupin novels.
I swallowed my annoyance and started going through the books again, this time more slowly. Now I’d be happy with any old detective novel.
The Flower of Death. Read it already. The Perfect Crime. Dad had brought it home before. The Chinese Mystery. The first Arsène Lupin novel I’d ever read. The Three Eyes, by Maurice Leblanc. Same author as Arsène Lupin, but this one wasn’t about the gentleman-thief. I started looking through the books I’d been through before, in case there were any about Arsène Lupin that I’d missed. Execution at Dawn. It looked gory, and I’m not a big fan of horror novels. The Greatest Love. Romance novels either. The School of Secrets. Not clear what it’s about from the picture on the cover. Death Mask. Typical clue-puzzle; I’ve read them all before. Broken Pieces. Not a very promising title. Or cover. I dropped my hand to my side in disappointment. My arm was starting to hurt. It looked like I wasn’t going to leave with anything this time.
“You don’t like any of them?” the man shouted from behind me.
“No, I um…” I said quickly, going back to the shelves. “It’s okay… here’s one I…”
Crime in the Clouds. I’d read it before, but it’d be fine to buy it again if I didn’t find anything else. I placed it to one side. The Unknown Letters. Read this one already too. Here’s The School of Secrets again… okay, let’s give it a try. Maybe it’ll surprise me. The Master. The White Sisters. Our Daily Bread. Eugénie Grandet. Meaningless titles, but any one of them could be intriguing. The only thing I could tell for sure was that they weren’t detective novels. There were none about Sherlock Holmes, or even Charlie Chan, despite how annoying I find him. All of these books were pocket-sized. Maybe I could find one of the big, old novels? Maybe I’d stumble across that book we used to have at home when I was little, the one I’d never finished because what I had got through was enough to strike terror into my heart. I’d torn it up just to get rid of it, but I still remembered a few lines from the opening pages—about a beach and an abandoned fortress where a crime had been committed, and people running through the shadows, whispering. Here’s another novel, The Red Eye. And a novel my father had read to me…
“Look, there’s no novels,” a voice suddenly boomed directly above my head. “We don’t sell novels.”
The man had gotten up from his chair in a huff and was taking back the books I’d gathered up to choose from in case I couldn’t find anything good. I looked around in despair. All this searching, and I’d go home with nothing. Then I noticed a book with a thick black cover lying nearby. I snatched it up and opened it. Its pages were yellow and coarse, the printing a mess. I figured it was one of those old books that have nothing to do with novels. It had no title or frontmatter. As I skimmed the pages, I realized it was a collection of old detective stories.
“Okay, I’ll just take this one,” I said cautiously.
But he took the book from my hand and shoved me in the chest. “I already said we don’t have any novels!” he yelled. “I’m not gonna sell you anything.”
I left frustrated. I didn’t even have enough time to go to another shop. I had to head home right away; my father didn’t know I’d gone out.
When I got to our street, I crept along the walls of the houses, careful not to be where my father could see me, in case he was on the balcony. I ran up the stairs so fast I was panting and sweating when I got to our floor. I found the door of the apartment ajar, just as I’d left it. I snuck inside, listening. I sensed my father was in the bedroom, so I headed that way. I found him sitting on the bed with the wooden table in front of him and the shaving box (which was really a cardboard cigarette box) on top of it. He had the mirror propped up against a glass full of water and was sharpening the straight razor on a piece of leather in the palm of his hand.
I followed the razor’s movements, up and down, slow and strong across his fleshy palm. I realized he must be planning to go out today. He didn’t seem to have noticed I’d been gone. I sat on a backless wooden chair in the corner and watched as he brushed soap on his chin and passed the razor over it, then leaned forward to look at his face in the mirror. When he was done, he wiped his chin with a bar of alum. It looked smooth and refreshed. I wanted to touch it with my finger.
He turned from the table to look at me.
“Get dressed. You’re coming out with me.”
Going out with him was better than ten novels combined. Maybe we’d get a chance to buy a paperback along the way.
Before my sister had been able to cry, scream, or insist on being brought along, my father had fooled her, telling her he’d let her play at our neighbor Umm Zakiyya’s apartment all day long.
My father got dressed, brushed off his tarbush with the sleeve of his jacket, and placed it at an appropriate tilt on his head. Then he twisted the ends of his white mustache all the way up to his nostrils. We left the apartment, locking the door behind us, and went down to the street. I noticed we were heading toward the tram stop.
“Where’re we going?” I asked him.
“You’ll see,” he said.
We got on the tram and rode a long way. Then we got off in front of a big, walled building with people crowded around its entryway.
“This is the court,” my father said.
We went through the doors. “Now we’ll go inside and meet up with your mama, who’ll be with her mother.”
I was surprised. “Mama?”
“Yeah, you’ll go say hi and see what she says to you.”
“You’re not coming?”
“No, I’ll wait for you in the hallway.”
He led me into a big, dark lobby. We passed near a door on the right, and he pushed me towards it, saying: “There she is, over there.” And I saw her.
She was sitting in silence next to my grandmother, who was the first to see me, and who looked behind me, worried. Then a strange smile crossed her lips, which made me feel weird, and she fixed me with a cold stare. Her head was wrapped with an old white scarf.
I went over to her while still looking at my mother, who was wearing a black silk coat and a thin veil. I noticed her long black hair. She seemed to have grown taller since the last time I’d seen her. She saw me, but she didn’t seem to recognize me. She spoke to me in a quiet voice, as though we’d never been away from each other.
“How are you.”
But she didn’t ask me to sit next to her. She turned away to follow what was happening in the courtroom. I stood up, confused, not knowing what to do. I looked into the corridor outside and saw my father gesturing at me with his head while pacing with his hands behind his back. I saw an empty spot next to my mother, so I sat in it.
We were at the back of the courtroom. It wasn’t crowded. It was filled with long benches that ended at a high platform where the judge sat. To his left stood a shaykh wearing a caftan, turban, and glasses, and a woman in a wrap. They were arguing.
This was the first time I’d ever seen a courtroom. I was shocked. It wasn’t anything like I’d expected. There were no passionate defenses, no crowds, no judges in colored sashes, no lawyers filling the halls of justice with their resonant voices and theatrical gestures.
My grandmother stood up. She went over to a man in a turban and spoke to him for a little while. I looked to the left and saw my father talking to some other people. I stole a glance at my mother. Her face hadn’t changed. She was staring straight ahead, indifferent.
Then my grandmother went to the front of the room and spoke with the judge for a while.
I noticed my father motioning to me from afar, so I stood up. I didn’t know what to say to my mother. She didn’t look at me. I walked away without saying anything to her.
“What’d she say?” my father asked.
“Not much. She said, ‘How are you?’”
He headed for the door, and I went with him. We walked to a narrow street flanked with old shops on either side. My father was smoking. I saw a shop with some books in it. I tugged at his hand and, ready for a battle, made my request. “C’mon baba, let’s go ask about those novels.”
He didn’t object. He followed me into the store, asking its owner “Got any novels, yaa ‘amm?”
The man handed us five small paperbacks. I saw that I’d read all of them except one. I almost jumped for joy. Arsène Lupin Under the Sea. It was brand new and had a smooth, shiny, colorful cover. I took the book, and my father paid for it. Then we went back out to the main street.
I wanted to get home as fast as I could.
We got on the tram, and I placed the novel on my lap with its front cover facing down. I looked at the back cover. It was glossy and white, with an advertisement for the next novel in the series. The wind blew the cover open, revealing the last page. At the bottom were printed the huge, delicious words, The End. I resisted the urge to read the final lines and instead turned the book over, face up. A huge gun stared out at me. Behind it was the face of a man in a hat who had to be Arsène Lupin himself. The magical name was written in small letters under the title. Reading it, I almost flew out of my seat with happiness.
Sonallah Ibrahim is an Egyptian novelist and short-story writer. He spent five years in political prison, from 1959 to 1964. His works available in English include That Smell and Notes from Prison; The Committee; Zaat; Beirut, Beirut; and Stealth. His Warda appeared this summer in Hosam Aboul-ela’s translation
Emily Drumsta teaches Comparative Literature at Brown University. Her translation Revolt Against the Sun: A Bilingual Reader of Nazik al-Mala’ikah’s Poetry, recently appeared from Saqi Books. She is currently working on a book about crime and investigation in modern Arabic fiction.