Last week, we went on a tour of new Egyptian literary voices: the dystopic, the thrilling, the comic:
One of the key emerging novelists is Mohamed Rabie, who recently won Egypt’s 2017 Sawiris Prize in the “emerging novelist” category for Otared, a novel also shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Literature.
The novel is set, in part, in a future Egypt and overlaps the real and the surreal, the difficult and the impossible. This excerpt is provided by Hoopoe Fiction, a new imprint by AUC Press that aims to bring out engaging and page-turning works of Arabic literature in English.
Excerpt from Chapter Three of Otared
Mohammad Rabie, translated by Robin Moger
I was approached by a young man smelling of soap—he seemed to me to have just had a bath and shaved—and gripping a long-barreled shotgun of local manufacture in his two clean hands. His nails were carefully clipped and filed. I looked like a beggar by comparison: I reeked of sweat, my clothes were filthy, and my hands were smeared with the soil I’d dug up not long before.
For those like me with no papers, the inside of the bridge was the only way to move between Cairo’s two halves, despite the risks. You could lose your money and your possessions. You could lose your life. But crossing over the bridge was impossible. For me, the checkpoints were traps. And the toll down here wasn’t high: just a single pack of cigarettes. Cheap to them and cheap to me. I was going to cross as a regular citizen. They had no idea I was with the resistance, and I couldn’t tell if they were with the resistance or just thugs protecting their source of income. I was carrying nothing of any value and the journey was a very short one, just a kilometer or so through the bridge.
Calmly, the young man said:
“Price of entry is one unopened packet of cigarettes. No weapons here. If you’re carrying a weapon, chuck it down that hole, now. No talking to the pedestrians and no looking at their faces. If you’re carrying a mask, then put it on; otherwise cover your face with a scarf or a sheet of newspaper. If you don’t have those, then here’s a paper bag you can put over your head. This is for your own protection. Don’t reveal your name or identity to any of the pedestrians or vendors, asleep or awake. The inner bridge isn’t just a passage like it used to be—it’s a place where lots of things are bought and sold. I won’t forbid you to buy anything from the vendors, but all purchases are made at your own risk. Don’t come to me complaining that you’ve been robbed or cheated. Now, on your way.”
I placed the cigarettes in his hand. I took the mask from my bag, put it on my face, and fastened it to my head with the leather strap. Now I was ready to cross.
The darkness pressed in on every side. Nothing could be seen ahead. To my rear was the youth and the fading scent of his soap, his comrades clustered around him, watching me. With their clubs and short swords, they looked like real guards. What little pale light came from the hole fell across the lower halves of their bodies. I took a few paces forward and distant sounds reached me from the depths of the tunnel. There were scattered gleams of colored light, the rattle of blades and chains.
The first thing I saw was a woman. She looked to be about sixty years old, her features obscured by a piece of cloth wrapped around her face, like a turban covering her entire head. She wore nothing else, and the sagging flesh of her breasts and shoulders gave away her age. Her appearance was overwhelming. The sudden nakedness and the covered face threw me completely off balance. I’d never before seen a naked woman in a public place. Without thinking, I lifted my hand to my own face, checking that the mask was fixed in place. I felt properly secure now. She was stroking her thigh with her palm, and then she squeezed her right tit and in a hoarse, unruffled voice asked: “Five for five?”
I walked on, expecting the worst.
I wouldn’t have guessed that the bridge had been built with a tunnel like this inside it: two walls, a floor, and a ceiling, all cement. Vast cables and pipes stretched the length of the tunnel along the ground, clearly visible to the passerby through gaps in the long wooden planks that covered them and that had almost certainly been placed there by those using the tunnel to protect against the risk of electric shock should the cables fray, and in order that the pipes wouldn’t spring leaks or break if trodden on. There were a number of shacks on both sides of the passageway, a meter across and two meters high, and over the entrance to each one hung a blackout curtain, blocking what little illumination was given off by the lights that dangled from the tunnel’s ceiling. Some of the curtains were lowered, and some were raised to show what lay inside. Curiosity got the better of me. I hadn’t laid hands on a woman for a long time, and the warmth of the place and the ever-present sense of danger urged me to stop. Outside what I judged to be the most orderly of the shacks, I halted. There were no pedestrians nearby, and a thin girl sat on a raised chair outside the curtain. In the wan light, her legs looked soft and smooth. Her face was small with regular features, and embellished with the dark red of her lipstick. She wore a light robe whose open neck displayed her throat and cleavage. “Five for five,” she said, and though I didn’t understand what she meant, I nodded to seal the deal and followed her inside, and she lowered the curtain behind us.
From Otared by Mohammad Rabie, translated by Robin Moger, published by Hoopoe (an imprint of the American University in Cairo Press). Copyright © 2016. Reproduced by permission.