Translating Dystopia: An Excerpt from Yasser Abdel Hafez’s ‘The Book of Safety’

Earlier this month, we profiled several contemporary Egyptian dystopias. There seemed no better day than today to share another excerpt from a dystopic work forthcoming in translation this spring.

Excerpt from Chapter Two of The Book of Safety

Yasser Abdel Hafez

safetyTranslated by Robin Moger

Behind the children’s park was my place of work. A place unknown and unvisited by all but those fated to embark on a most unique experience.

The Palace of Confessions.

My private name for it, telling myself, as the microbus conveyed me from Shubra in the city’s center to the furthest inhabited spot in the eastern suburb of Medinat Nasr, Khaled’s off to the Palace of Confessions to have some fun.

The spacious park lay between the Palace of Confessions and a modest huddle of residential buildings, the greater part of it fringing a vast area ringed by a dull gray wall. No buildings could be seen behind the wall, only hillocks of sand, and it was topped by signs warning against approaching and taking pictures. From here, the park narrowed, terminating at a path wide enough for two to walk abreast and lined by cacti. When the employees all arrived at the same time, they were obliged to form a queue beside the cacti, one plant per employee. The door would only admit one person at a time—after the security device had checked their ID and allowed them in—but the throng I’m picturing never came to pass, not once. Perhaps because there weren’t that many employees to begin with, or perhaps because I would arrive late, choosing to linger in the park, to take time out amid the dazzling hues of its flowers and plants—so captivated, indeed, that I was increasingly convinced that Chagall himself had arranged them, the only person capable of playing with color thus, of combining it to bring such joy to the heart of those who saw it.

Yet, for some reason, this joy was absent in the children there, their numbers never rising or falling; they seemed distracted in a way quite at odds with my assumptions about childhood. I’ve no experience with children, but generally speaking, shouldn’t they seem joyous and uninhibited? These ones weren’t like that. They played with a busy discipline that made it appear as though they’d been drilled. One would come down the high slide, then turn and pad back to its ladder, waiting his turn like an adult who has learned that the system is the way to get what he wants. No shouting. No fighting over toys. I memorized their faces. No names. I never got to know them, because the mothers on the wooden benches never called them. Not one ever shouted for her child to take care, or dashed wildly toward their fallen offspring. They sat there contentedly, in their faces the placidity that comes from certainty. Women in their thirties and forties, elegant in the beauty-free way of wealthy women from Medinat Nasr, immersed in hobbies from their mothers’ era: three or four crocheting, a similar number flipping through fashion mags, while a lone blonde, younger than the rest, sang outside the flock and read books with old covers. Most likely their husbands worked behind the dull gray wall, pursuing mysterious callings in nameless buildings, or else were colleagues of mine I hadn’t met.

The ground floor of the Palace comprised a reception room where an ancient functionary passed his time solving crossword puzzles. My relationship with him lasted the seconds it took for my bag to pass through the scanner. I’d greet him and he’d pay me no mind. He couldn’t even see those passing him by. He’d been programmed along with the machine—and provided the row of lights on top didn’t turn red and its tiresome siren didn’t sound, he had no cause to lift his gaze. I was tempted to put a knife in the bag so his scanner would scream and he’d be forced to notice me.

The old man was the lobby’s center, surrounded by four flights of stairs, each running up to a different department, and behind his desk a flight down to the basement where the guilty were housed: comfortable little cells, tidied and searched each morning while their occupants took breakfast in the small cafeteria next to the games room. They were free to move between their cells, the games room, and the café. There was no fixed schedule and no locked doors, but the basement was their world until the interrogation was over.

*

Mustafa brought us a fearsome list of his victims: ministers, diplomats, artists, religious leaders, businessmen; people and crimes for which he provided the proof, the individuals concerned having preferred to make no report out of embarrassment or the desire to avoid scandal. Who would welcome detailed discussion of what went on in his bedroom? Who could ignore the many warnings designed to stop him telling? Documents vanished, and it was best not to bring it up. Private pictures of husband or wife, carefully concealed from the spouse, now laid out before sensitive eyes; the hidden revealed. Threats whose attendant instructions it was impossible not to obey. Nabil al-Adl himself had gone against his own creeds and convictions in order to keep hidden the photograph of his sister-in-law, Sawsan al-Kashef—near-naked and sprawled in her lover’s arms—which had confronted him one day, and written beneath it in fiery red ink, a warning: Don’t squeal.

What frightened the authorities, and got Mustafa’s file referred to the highest levels, was not simply that his victims included names whose homes were fiercely guarded around the clock. More pertinently, one of these names, the major general whose apartment Mustafa had been robbing when apprehended, headed a team responsible for updating strategic plans for guarding the president himself—a fact itself outmatched by Mustafa’s confession that he’d been planning to rob the president’s residence, and that he’d intended it to be his final job in this country. If brought off successfully, he explained, it would have meant there were no challenges left for him here, and the time would have come to test his skills in other, more stimulating climes.

More surprisingly, however, his statements transcended mere confession to reach the level of theory:

The heavier the guard, the easier it is to get through. The higher the wall, the easier you feel on the other side of it, no matter how poor a climber you might be.

Why? If the question could be asked of any man and remain unanswered, it meant that he would be referred to us, for us to eradicate and remake it—innocent and free of question marks—as ‘Because.’ His coming to us was an admission that he was the best and most skillful in his field, a special breed of man who belonged with his ilk: unseemly geniuses, outcasts from the paradise of lawfulness.

The purpose of our research was to uncover the aims of Mustafa’s organization and find any followers that he had not identified. There was concern that his ideas might spread and though his most senior assistants had been detained and had given detailed confessions, the suspicion that even one individual with the same mental powers might be lurking out there compelled our attention. Those who had been arrested were dangerous criminals. That was something we could accept. They were not particularly convinced by his views and credos, but had gone along with him in the pursuit of gain. It was quite possible, they said, that their criminal operations might have continued undiscovered, because the plans he laid adhered to a principle of absolute caution and were based on what he termed The Book of Safety, a volume containing hundreds of observations on the most propitious times to commit a crime, the risks that must be avoided, lists of addresses, the names of occupants and their professions, the phone numbers of state officials, escape routes and hideouts, instructions for issuing threats, and blackmail. It was a book he had fashioned with patience and love out of his experience and the experiences of others. He loathed error, seeking an ideal state in which he might attain absolute self-possession and control circumstances around him—a dream of perfection. En route to this state, he had managed to convert ordinary citizens into partners, some unwitting and others sympathetic to his ideas and dreams. What he hadn’t realized was that error occurs precisely when we are taking care to avoid it.

Even so, he would never have allowed his ideas to disappear, hence the fundamental question: to whom had they been passed on?

“We concluded you were trying to revive the legend of Robin Hood.”

“What do you mean by that? You’ve been unable to deal with us using the standard methods, so you’re taking refuge in myth? Or is this an honor reserved for me?”

From The Book of Safety by Yasser Abdel Hafez, translated by Robin Moger, published by Hoopoe (an imprint of the American University in Cairo Press). Copyright © 2017. Reproduced by permission.

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