This summer, we will run select pieces from summer issues of ArabLit Quarterly. This short story, by Libyan novelist and short story writer Najwa Binshatwan, tr. Sawad Hussain, ran in the summer 2019 SEA issue of the magazine, available as PDF, e-pub, and in print.
By Najwa Binshatwan
Translated by Sawad Hussain
“The sea ran away to Malta, uqsim billah,” Haji Faraj swore to his fellow patients without pulling the large Toshiba radio from his ear.
“Maaaaalta?!” the men gathered around him chorused, their mouths one quarter open, one quarter shut.
Haji Faraj pressed the radio to his ear even harder, shocked at the sight of the ugly void left behind by the sea. “Don’t look, don’t look,” he advised. “Seeing the emptiness will hurt you. The whole scene—it makes you think of the end times.”
“All this ugliness laid bare in front of us today used to be underwater. God have mercy on us. Who’d believe that we’d been swimming year after year in such garbage and lived to tell the tale?”
From sheer dread, one of Haji’s friends began to cry so hard his teeth chattered. “Our s-s-sea ran away to M-m-alta. What a d-disaster!”
“Why did it decide to up and go now?” another one, who didn’t have any teeth to chatter, asked.
“Maybe it was scared…like us.”
“You’re thinking of Sha’ban’s woman, not the sea.”
“Sha’ban? Who’s that?”
“Sha’ban—whose wife ran away from him just like our sea ran away from us.”
“Where will it go? Our sea doesn’t have any relatives around here except for the Mediterranean by Malta.”
“Malta refused entry to any runaway seas today.”
Angered, one of the men stomped against the floor, making the stale bowl of spaghetti by the door jump. Cockroaches scurried out to seize the caked dregs of noodles and sauce that spilled out of the airborne bowl.
“Who said that?” someone asked as cockroaches darted over his toes.
“Haji Faraj’s radio,” said the man whose shirt was now stained with sauce.
“Now that the sea’s run away, what we couldn’t see before is now in broad daylight,” added another. “Dead fish, migrant bodies, and all sorts of garbage. Before, the surface was swollen with jellyfish, sea turtles, and boats abandoned by those who’d decided to travel by foot instead.
”That evening, Haji Faraj’s radio – with its contradictory declaration that the sea hadn’t run away, but had drowned – stirred up an entirely new commotion.
“Our sea has drowned, everyone. As usual, you don’t believe me. I swear to you that it drowned to death and that its body has been disposed of in some far-off place.”
“Really, Faraj?” someone asked, gripping a piece of bread and a small onion. The rest of them clenched what hair they had left and sank to their knees, weeping.
The night nurse, who was skilled at chopping chicken and onions, chimed in. “Of course it drowned, a painful death. Just look at all the migrant bodies that filled it up, and still there was no drainage system installed. Just look at all that trash and sewage.”
“Why didn’t we die?” the man with breadcrumbs asked.
The funereal scene ended in onion tears.
When the central government announced a plan to rebuild what the war had devastated, the municipality put forth a request to establish a sea. Unlike other requests, which usually lingered in a state of neglect, tucked away in drawers, the central government responded right away, as they didn’t have any drawers in their offices in which to hide such paperwork.
“We used to go down there every day to swim and have fun, as if we were setting off for work—always at the same time, unless someone had diarrhoea or needed their insulin shot. If someone came to dive, they’d find the whole shore empty because all of us were down in the depths. And if someone came to soak up some sun, they’d see only our heads popping out of the sand, with no space left for theirs. If someone went to have a heart-to-heart with God, he’d find people there before him, doing just that. And if he wanted to spend time alone on the beach, he’d find everyone there already, alone.”
Everyone who was using the relatively new sea was of the older generation, since the youth had left for the big cities. It was because of one of these young people, who had left to work in the central government, that the permission to establish a sea in his far-off town was expedited. His father was Haji Faraj himself, carrier of the red radio, who never stopped following and transmitting the news, even when the radio was in Abdullah Nakir’s shop for repair.
“You got a smoke?”
“Hardly! No one’s come to visit me in a long time.”
“Because of the war. Maybe my family’s been killed … they might … only God knows,” said Sha’ban, the man whose wife had run away.
Haji Faraj reached the shore with his radio, where he found his fellow patients trying to read a strange sign, the corners of which were soggy.
A couple of them were patting themselves down for their glasses, while others apologized for not bringing them along in the first place. Several drew near and then retreated from the sign, trying to decipher the mysterious characters inscribed on it. Then the hand of God was with them, as it always is in group activities, and they were able to read the sign at midday:
SEA UNDER MAINTENANCE. NO SWIMMING ALLOWED!
When the old men understood what the sign said, they rumbled and grumbled and roared, protesting the timing of such maintenance, the decline of government services, and of many other things, such as Haji Faraj’s cowardice, as if without a sea they would cease to exist.
Indeed, the following day, that was just what happened: they ceased to exist. Every. Single. One. The sign indicating that the sea wasn’t fit for swimming stood atop a pile of rubble and the men’s bloody limbs, unaffected by the devastation that had struck.
Two years on from their deaths, the government set aside a budget to build a new mental hospital as a replacement for the old one, which had been the site of a different sort of madness.
In an attempt to pacify the souls of the deceased—those for whom the original mental hospital had been opened, and with whom it came to an end—and for the benefit of the new patients who would inaugurate this new hospital, the government decided to situate the hospital somewhere with a real sea view, confirming that they took into consideration the needs of their citizens, both the dead and the living.
Haji Faraj’s radio did not communicate this tremendous news. Not because bad news was his speciality, God forbid, but rather because the terrorist bomb that had blown up the hospital left only the laundry room and a few patient wards where several bodies were left whole.
Haji Faraj’s corpse was still grasping the radio that had managed to stay in one piece.
His corpse, however, didn’t survive falling off the paramedic’s stretcher as they transported him to the ambulance: the first time his dentures rolled into the pocket of one of the paramedics, and the second time his nose broke, or maybe it was his collarbone that cracked, but he was truly broken.
It became clear to Haji Faraj’s corpse that the stiffness of Sha’ban’s legs was preventing him from being put in the ambulance. He might as well make the most of being repeatedly dropped and help mankind somehow. After all, Sha’ban was a kind man. The kind ones were always underappreciated, just as an ambulance is always being used for things other than saving those in need.
As such, and as smoothly as he could, Haji Faraj dropped himself onto Sha’ban’s body, cutting off the oxygen tubes and the blood that were being pumped in, putting an end once and for all to his friend’s tribulations.
“One madman is the cause of another’s killing,” the driver of the ambulance muttered to the gravekeeper, who gave a quick glance as he gestured for the burial permit and a cigarette.
Before the flame could touch the cigarette, the ambulance lurched forward, as if it were a donkey trundling along, knowing where to go and how to come back at any time without the slightest hesitation.
Then, with a quiet that the sky of this warring city lacked, the ambulance left the graveyard just as it had entered, a donkey knowing its way.
For those who want to listen to the radio, Haji Faraj lies at rest in plot 40.
Najwa Binshatwan is a Libyan academic and novelist, born in Ajdabiya, Libya, in 1970. She was the first Libyan author to be shortlisted, in 2017, for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, for her novel The Slave Yards (2016). She has written three other novels: The Horses’ Hair (2007), Orange Content (2008) and Concerto Qurina Eduardo (2022). She was chosen as one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 40 by the Beirut39 project (2009-2010) organized by the Hay Festival, and her story ‘The Pool and the Piano’ was included in the Beirut39 anthology. In 2018, Binshatwan won a Banipal fellowship for creative writing. In 2019, her short story collection Serendipity (2019) was longlisted for the Al-Multaqa Short Story Prize, and her collection Catalogue of a Private Life (2018) won the English Pen Translates Award.
Sawad Hussain is an Arabic translator and litterateur who is passionate about bringing narratives from the African continent to wider audiences. A contributor to journals such as ArabLit and Asymptote, she was co-editor of the Arabic-English portion of the award-winning Oxford Arabic Dictionary (2014). Her translations have been recognised by English PEN, the Anglo-Omani Society and the Palestine Book Awards, among others. Her recent translations include Passage to the Plaza (the Palestinian resistance classic by Sahar Khalifeh) and A Bed for the King’s Daughter (by Shahla Ujayli). She holds an MA in Modern Arabic Literature from SOAS. Her Twitter handle is @sawadhussain.