His departure came without explanation.
His destination was remote, he said, uttering a series of ominous sounds – the name of a city I had never heard of before. His leaving seemed a matter of fate. In an instant I could see the city he set out for, with its ashen streets.
There are no colours save for the grey that cloaks much of the place, alongside hints of black and white. Throngs of people walk slowly in the faded streets, wearing grim expressions and staring at a still point ahead. A leaden silence bears down on everything.
There he walks, lost in thought. And I, outside the scene, peer at him worriedly, sensing the arrival of a giant with a black coat, sullen face, and heavy footsteps. Suddenly, chaos reigns: people run in every direction, trying to escape.
I feel the earth shake under the footfalls of the man in the black coat. I know he appears on the streets from time to time, stepping powerfully with the aid of his ebony cane. His sightless eyes shift over the faces ahead, until they fall on one that will restore his vision. He points his finger at the face, and its owner vanishes from existence. The giant returns to his blindness, awaiting his next victim.
This time, however, there was only the anticipation of his coming, and the tremors that accompany him wherever he goes. Within minutes, those who were running realized they had been duped, and went back to walking as before.
I scanned the throngs and found him walking with the same slow steps. I looked closer, in search of that cunning-fox expression that characterizes him, but I could not see it. He adjusted the black scarf around his neck, raising his head to the sky like someone startled by raindrops on a dry day, then returned to his daydreaming.
He has been exploring the city since his arrival, wandering its streets without stopping. He wrote to me excitedly that it is a city of the world: ‘Every conceivable language is here. No nationalities, no differences. You don’t even need to speak to communicate your thoughts!’ In the year that followed, his letters became less frequent and said nothing about this city of his – the city that seemed somehow out of this world.
Some time later, he went back to writing about the city: long letters that contained nothing personal – no information about him, no questions about me. Just extensive passages about this city that bears no resemblance to the cities I know, written in ornate script with small, carefully-drawn characters and an exaggerated attention to style.
He wrote: they called it the city of eternal sun. Its sun set only after the last inhabitant slept, and rose before the first got up. They were all deprived of the night. They were not even aware of its existence.
There was no giant then, or faded streets, or people running. Just the perennial day and a fierce, barely-setting sun. The streets of the city resemble each other so closely they are like infinite replicas of the same street. Its Gothic architecture inspires awe: spired towers and prominent arches; stark, imposing squares; screaming gargoyles with eyes wide open in horror; and gardens – more akin to woods – pooling out along the city’s periphery.
These are the same woods from which the giant with the sightless eyes emerged – except, at the time, he was not blind, and his expression was suffused with seduction rather than sullenness. He moved about lightly then, speaking of a beautiful thing called night; he had read about it in the books piled high in his cabin in the woods and heard about it from the fishermen in the neighbouring lake.
They said they had seen it in other cities, while working on big fishing boats in faraway seas. He closes his seductive eyes and speaks of the night as though he can see it: ‘A great darkness that not even a thousand lanterns can dispel – only soften it slightly, imbuing it with even greater beauty.’ He moistens his lower lip with his tongue, savouring the idea of night.
He left the city of the sun in search of the night. He walked for hundreds of miles; days and weeks passed, then years. He asked all those he met, describing it in muddled words.
With the passage of time he began to lose hope – but he kept on his path defiantly, not once looking behind him. He walked for he knew not how long, picking fruit from trees and drinking spring water, until he found himself on the way back to his city.
He recognised it by its tall spires and crystal domes that reflect the sun’s rays, giving rise to a galaxy of brilliant suns. He could not tear his eyes away from their frightening luminescence, until he began to feel the light seeping away. The closer he came, the dimmer they became. At first, he did not understand what he was experiencing; he assumed that the lights of the world around him were slowly fading out. Only when he was submerged in total darkness did he realise that he had finally fulfilled his quest. He had met the night face to face. He was overjoyed, for now he would carry his own private night back to the city of the sun.
The remaining distance, short though it was, was the most difficult in his long journey. He stumbled and circled the city walls several times before he could get in. When he finally entered, the city people were astonished by the sight of this scowling giant with dark clothes and lumbering steps. They discovered that, with his return, their city had been transformed into another: a pallid place, caught between a day that had left never to return, and a night that refused to arrive.
In the next letter my friend appeared to have forgotten about his last one, repeating everything he had already said, with minor adjustments, before continuing the story. The giant with the snuffed-out eyes retreated to his cabin in the woods for a long time, during which he did not utter a single word, instead listening to the sighing of the trees, the twittering of the birds and the roar of the wind when it blew. When he tired of his solitude and his silence, he took to the streets with heavy footsteps that shook the ground beneath – leaning on his ebony cane, sheltering behind his blind and sullen stare and armed with his experience in listening to nothingness. His eyes shift over the faces ahead until they fall on one that has the power to restore his vision. He points his finger, and its owner vanishes from existence. The giant tries to gather in all the details of the new world around him before he is plunged into darkness once again – but to no avail. He returns, despondent, to his cabin and his waiting.
The city with its Gothic soul takes root in my mind. Its identical streets and imposing squares inhabit me. I dream about the gargoyles on its buildings’ facades, and awaken feeling like someone who has roamed its paths. I get up at dawn, weighed down by what I’ve seen. The giant moves in my mind, his expression transformed once again from sullenness to seduction, as though inviting me to follow him.
I read and re-read my friend’s letters. I pore over the elegant script with its precisely-penned characters, and I think of how much he has changed. He no longer bears any resemblance to the person he once was. The city seems to have performed some mysterious black magic on him, driving him to write without emotion, without purpose, without stopping. I send him letters asking how he is, what he’s doing, whether or not he is planning to return. He does not utter a single word in response to my questions, but continues to write about the city that has cast its spell on him, transforming him into a mere eye that captures the details of its surroundings and a hand that records them tirelessly.
Instead of letters steeped in questions that he skips over as though they weren’t there, I began to write about my city. An invented city that lies between mountains clad in lush green plants and trees, and a relentlessly raging sea that films the air with the scent of iodine and whose waves, every morning, spit thick layers of salt upon the beach. Built entirely on the precipice that sweeps down from the mountains to the raging sea, the houses of the city appear to be in eternal freefall. Its people are caught in a never-ending battle with gravity: they walk slowly in ascent or descent, fearful of falling from this great height to the crashing waves below.
I composed a letter for every one I received from him, not commenting on what he’d written or asking about him, and he – as always – appeared to have not even read mine. Then I begin to write without pause, long letters preoccupied with details and penned with care. I dispatch some and neglect to send most, until I stop corresponding with him altogether, intent only on inking hundreds of letters that I stack high here and there throughout my house.
I write, ignoring my aching fingers and the pain in my hunched back, blurring the lines between my city and his, between the Gothic architecture with its squares and screaming faces and the perilous precipice with its houses resisting eternal freefall; between his giant with the black coat and blind eyes and the people I see when I open my window, walking cautiously up and down.
I re-read my letters, strewn all around me; I contemplate my ornate script with its small, carefully-drawn characters and exaggerated attention to style, and I think of how much I’ve changed. I emerge from my house, surrounded by plants and thick tangled trees, and come, in shock, upon my city with its grey streets and stark squares and the leaden silence bearing down on everything. Closing my eyes, I succumb to the darkness, and the scene opens up silently before me. I see throngs of people moving slowly, staring at a still point ahead . . . I see him walking, lost in thought . . . and I hear, loud in my ears, the thud of heavy footsteps. Could it be coming from me? ?
Ted Hodgkinson spoke to Wiam El-Tamami about the challenges of translating from Arabic and how the uprisings in the region are changing the literary landscape…
TH: The winning story depicts a world plagued with isolation and foreboding. We are introduced to a moving carousel of characters who are locked into their own private realities, some of them darker than others. One features a blind giant roaming a city blighted by perpetual daylight. I couldn’t help reading the story as an allegory for totalitarian suppression, specifically the way that subjects of such systems rely on imaginative inner worlds to sustain themselves. Do you see a comment on tyranny in this story?
WET: Interesting that you read it in that way – I didn’t, personally. For me the story was a mood to savour and sink into, rather than something that required exhaustive analysis. It’s a rich and evocative piece – I just let it roll around inside of me and set off whatever resonances it may, without coming to a conclusion about ‘what it means’. I preferred to leave it open, and I wanted to make sure my translation did too.
It might be tempting to associate any art coming out of an Arab country nowadays with the extraordinary chain of events that’s ricocheting across the Arab world. I think there’s a danger in doing that too much: to reduce people to mere products of a political system, rather than seeing them in the full splendour and squalor of their humanity!
Arabic is a language with a very different flow to English. Are there particular challenges for translating between these two languages, do you think?
Oh yes, plenty! In Arabic writing there’s a tendency towards long, rambling sentences that can run on for a whole paragraph. A common stylistic device is to string together lists of synonyms, ‘She was stunning and dazzling and ravishing’ and, in general, to repeat the same information multiple times in different ways. This is seen to lend power to the writing, but in English it’s just tiresome. A translator has to be bold and creative: take this mass of meaning, whittle away all the redundancy, and transpose it into different structures – shorter, more digestible units with a rhythm and flow that works in English. Arabic writing is usually far more florid than contemporary English-language writing, so that too that needs to be pared down in order for it not to come off sounding stilted. But there’s a twist: individual Arabic words are jam-packed with a range of nuances that is often impossible to convey with a single word equivalent in English. Herein lies the tension – you need to prune and streamline the text in order for it to be readable, but you have to add more words to keep it faithful! So you see, translators tread a tricky tightrope between capturing the full implications of the Arabic while creating an English text that flows smoothly and doesn’t sound overwrought, dated, or downright melodramatic. That’s just the introductory acrobatics. Now you have to make it actually enjoyable to read . . .
Have you detected a sea change in the writing you have seen since the Arab Spring? Do you think it is likely to create a new freedom of expression in the countries that have overcome dictatorship? Is writing still a place where anti-government sentiment can be expressed effectively?
I think it’s too soon to tell. One thing that’s definitely been noticeable in Egypt, particularly Cairo, is the outburst of public art in a country that used to have precious little. Now there’s street art popping up all over the city, a monthly art & music festival held simultaneously in public squares across Egypt, a mobile open-mic event that travels around Egyptian towns, etc. Having said that, we are slowly realizing that the overthrow of Mubarak was not the end of the revolution, dust hands off, mission accomplished – but just the beginning of a long and complex struggle. The interim military council is acting in ways that smack of the old regime. Since February, 12,000 civilians have been thrown in jail, many tortured, thousands sentenced before military tribunals that make a mockery out of the justice system. A law has been passed criminalizing protests and strikes. A blogger, Michael Nabil Sanad, was handed a three-year jail sentence for writing a post critical of the military, and is now dying on hunger strike. There’s a long road ahead.
Do you feel an added responsibility or urgency, given the changes occurring in the Arab world, to transmit the work of writers that might carry a comment on what is going on at the moment?
I have to say, not particularly: for the reasons mentioned above – we’re in this for the long haul – but also because I don’t see literature as a vehicle for transmitting commentary on a socio-political situation. That, to my mind, is the task of journalism. When it comes to literature, my preferences tend towards the humanist and universal rather than overtly political and temporal.
Do you write yourself? What are you working on at the moment?
‘I grew up in a yellow place where nothing grows, and I’ve been travelling slowly since.’ That’s a line from a story I wrote some years ago and I apologise profusely for quoting myself, very bad form I know, but it’s a handy shortcut that explains a little about how I see the world and myself in it. I’ve lived in several countries and wandered through quite a few others, and I’m working on a collection of short stories based on these ‘slow travels’. It’s about encounters: a truck driver I hitched a ride with in the mountains of north Lebanon; an old woman with a cleaver and a painted face dishing up chao ga at a street food stall in Danang, Vietnam; a red velvet chair in a hotel in Toulouse called ‘Le Grand Voyageur’. . .
What does winning the Harvill Secker Translation Prize mean to you?
At the moment I’m primarily an editor of novels in translation. I think this award will encourage me to focus more on translating myself. It’s already been very interesting for the tables to be turned, to suddenly be at the mercy of others wielding that dreaded red pen – feels like my karmic reckoning! In all seriousness though, I’m just excited to meet and chat, to collaborate and create – to do more and more of the kind of work I love, the kind that keeps the fire going.