A Living Corpse
Faouzia Aloui (Translated by Ghenwa Hayek)
Everyone gathered in the alleyway. It filled up; bursting with people. Everything in the nearby streets and alleys came to a standstill. Shops closed their shutters and doors. Some remained half-open; their owners had rushed out. The roar of machinery ground to a halt as people began to stream in from all over, some on foot, others on donkeys and a few crammed onto trucks.
Abullutuf was a well-respected man, much beloved by everyone in town. He was generous with widows, orphans and the deserving poor. The least people could do was to attend his funeral and see him off to his final resting place, accompanied by their blessings and prayers for mercy.
A few women with disheveled hair, and some in dark veils, ran by. A large woman slapped her face, and another wailed as she pulled on her lips. Yet the tears didn’t come, and she contented herself with reciting prayers loudly.
Men with baskets and loaves of bread pushed by, stumbling across groups of screaming children.
People crowded around the wide-open door, waiting for the coffin to exit, oblivious to the cold and to the rain, which was now pouring down, unlike the drizzle earlier.
Someone said: “They were going to bury him last night after evening prayers, but they postponed it so that his son Abdu would have time to return from Tripoli.”
Another replied: “I think he’s not coming; he hasn’t heard the news – I heard his phone’s not working.”
A third commented: “Whether he comes or not, he didn’t get a chance to see him.”
“From God we come, and to God we return,” murmured the trees and rocks and a flock of bedraggled birds that crossed the skies in search of shelter.
The muezzin Abdurrahman passed by, pale-faced and in a hurry, followed by the teacher Abdulsamih and a member of the town council, who collected tolls at the market and harassed the artichoke sellers who, in his opinion, set up their wares messily, spoiling the look of a town that was already untidy to begin with.
People began to become weary, some showing signs of boredom and others distracting themselves by lighting up cigarettes and making phone calls. Suddenly, a tall black man whom no-one had seen before appeared, and shouted:
“God bless you all, and reward you. Please leave, Abullutuf will not be buried today”
“Will not be buried today?” people murmured in surprise, but no-one answered their questions.
Some men, who were good at this sort of thing, pushed away the curious onlookers and shut the house door.
While his eyes scanned the crowd, the muezzin said: “I washed him with these very hands, and his body was as hard as a rock, the blood flowing out of his ears and nose until I stuffed them with cotton.”
The teacher said: “His eyes were wide open, and I tried to shut them. His wife Umm Sa’ad had given him something to drink and said a prayer over him as he snored, but by the time she called in his sister, he was dead.”
The town councilman said: “I’ll fetch the coroner, he will confirm it.”
The muezzin reprimanded him: “Why the doctor? What good will the doctor do?”
* * *
The rain poured down, and the crowd dispersed. Questions hung there like low clouds. Some onlookers, still curious, remained, impervious to the water drenching them. Others rushed to nearby shops and to the mosque, which soon overflowed with people.
A black cloud covered the moon that night. Red patches appeared around it, making the sky appear even more desolate. Perhaps the neighbourhood cats had felt something. They were jittery and jumpy, as they leaped from roof to roof, their tails as straight as arrows, their eyes inflamed and their fur on end. They rushed for shelter in stalls and under piles of wet logs.
The muezzin Abdurrahman recalled that he had felt something unusual as he climbed up the minaret to call for morning prayers. He had slipped twice, and almost fallen. He’d heard a strange sound, and his heart pounded so hard that he thought he would faint, but he said a prayer and didn’t tell anyone about it, so as not to scare people or incite panic.
Kamel’s door didn’t open today for anyone except relatives and the butcher, who came in empty-handed and emerged with two heads: one, the sheep that had been slaughtered for the funeral meal, and another sheep that had been slaughtered for an unknown reason.
* * *
People stayed in the alleyway. They hovered a bit, muttered a few things, then left, but they would return a while later and approach the door, talk to the children and then go away again. Suddenly, a fire alarm went off, setting off a host of questions. A piercing wail rose up into the sky, and a suffocating aroma of incense was released into the yard, quickly flooding the entire alley.
Abullutuf is gone,
Abullutuf is gone and is back,
Abullutuf reached the gates of heaven, and has returned with blessings and supplications,
Abullutuf is as beautiful as the prophet Joseph, and his voice is as pleasant as the cooing of doves,
His nails, Praise be to the Lord, have been etched with strange henna-colored markings . . .
* * *
Zainab collapsed in a faint, hitting her head. The women neighbours rushed around her, dabbing her wound with coffee beans. Halima went into labour early from the shock of what she had heard. A turtle was so scared that it scurried off to throw itself into a pool of water. A dog licked the pot of meat broth seven times, and no one shooed him away.
* * *
Umm Sa’ad prepared the adjoining room as she shivered and mumbled prayers. Abullutuf’s sister poured water over her head, then dabbed it with a red cloth. The teacher had ordered her to furnish the room in green, and she lined up cushions along the walls. She clambered to close the window, her legs wouldn’t stop shaking, and she didn’t dare look at her husband, still laid out in his coffin. The teacher, in a white cotton burnous, walked around him reading from the holy book. Then he began sprinkling rosewater onto his head, and asked Umm Sa’ad to rub his feet with garlic oil and give him some bitter coffee to revive him. Before she reached the kitchen Umm Sa’ad collapsed. The hallway filled with people. The alley was swarming, the whole town panicked, and the mountains were almost crumbling from fear.
The councilman couldn’t get through with the coroner. The sheep were brought and slaughtered in front of the house, making rivers of blood. Food was distributed to all, along with green tea, red syrup and lemonade. Arguments flowed, and old women danced, waving white kerchiefs. Children fell to their knees picking up eggs, raisins and sugar candy.
Abullutuf was shaking, and his eyes were shut. Questions poured down on him from everywhere.
What’s the afterlife like, Abullutuf?
Did you see heaven?
Did you make it to the Holy Throne?
Did you see the dead there?
Were they in their burial shrouds, or in their everyday wear?
Did you hear the cries of sinners being punished?
What about the Jews?
Abullutuf was silent. He was shaking, and in a bad state, as the muezzin spoke prayers into his ear. They had taken the burial garment off him and stored it away in a closet, for another death.
They fit Abullutuf out in a shirt and trousers, and placed a yellow turban on his head and then dressed him in a white burnous. They sat him on the floor and propped him up with cushions. Then they covered his face with a green veil no-one would be able to take off. The man was like a saint or a martyr, so who would dare confront him, or want to see his face?
People queued up outside the house in rows and rows. A policeman came to organize the traffic, and hoped that he would become Abullutuf’s bodyguard. The doctor insisted he follow up on the case in order to get to the bottom of it. The teacher cursed the ignorance of all doctors.
The lame, the blind and the stricken came. Unmarried women jostled with the poor and with capitalists who had grown rich from spreading oppression and corruption across the land and were now afraid of others’ envy. A man came by asking after Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts, and whether Saddam Hussein would rule Iraq once again, or whether he was gone for good.
Abullutuf was shaking from fever, and didn’t say a word, but the muezzin was speaking on his behalf, and the teacher was describing things. Umm Sa’ad was anointing people with a frothy liquid that she claimed was the spit of the holy man Abullutuf.
The son who had arrived before the funeral cancelled his return trip to Tripoli and began to distribute yellow cardboard numbered squares to the crowd to take down the nature of their complaint and their social standing. Friday meetings were held, where food and drink were distributed abundantly. The town’s young people were in a frenzy, and stopped going to school, going to the religious recitals instead and dancing jigs for the crowd. Along the street leading to Abullutuf’s alley, vendors set up stalls selling cookies, soda and cigarettes smuggled from Algeria as well as old clothes and bananas imported from the Ivory Coast. The local hairdresser Nefertiti raised her prices, and began to style hair in a more modern style. Her sister rented a stall and wrote in shaky foreign letters “TATTOO” on a sign, indicating that she now catered to the new trend. Girls and boys rushed to have their bodies “painted” as a means of seduction, or rebellion, or plain ennui. They drew hearts and flowers, the names of loved ones and Cupid’s arrow tearing through hearts. Everything in the neighbourhood was energized and brought to life. The municipality decided to widen the road and fix the broken streetlights. A man who loved miracle-workers donated generous funds to build a garage for the cars that were arriving at all hours from neighbouring, brotherly countries. VIPs came by to find solutions to their economic, political and sexual problems. Abullutuf had turned the world upside down: doctors wrote petitions condemning the nonsense spewed out by Abullutuf, which threatened them with bankruptcy. Umm Sa’ad’s star rose high in the sky: she truly was a blessed woman, otherwise why would her mother have chosen the name Umm Sa’ad for her, out of all names*? She had been touched by her husband’s holinesss. She massaged the lame and the blind with her own spit. The councilman resigned and became the household’s guardian. The muezzin stopped saying the adan in person, and bought a tape recorder with an amplifier that delivered the call to prayer all the way into the next villages. The sale of herbs, incense, turtles, snakes and the bones of the dead smuggled from a nearby cemetery accelerated. Abullutuf shook under his pile of opulent clothes. His chest tightened from the smell of incense that burned night and day. The sound of prayers spread across the alleyway from the loudspeaker nailed onto the door of a shop that sold sheep’s heads and terrible grilled sausages.
People prospered. The doctor dropped by in disguise to give Abullutuf a nightly injection of some unknown substance to ease his pain and soothe his plight. Abullutuf had gone mute from a stroke, and that was why he wasn’t telling anyone what he had seen in the afterlife or in the stars. Still, the teacher insisted that Abullutuf be kept alone in his room, because those like him did not tell people what they had seen. The mayor was re-elected due to Abullutuf. Umm Sa’ad promised him more victories in the years ahead as he had provided her with parking space near her yard for cars coming in from neighbouring, brotherly countries. The night of the big feast, when the large black bull was slaughtered and the urn filled with almonds and candies was shattered, a scream shook the walls of the house and frightened the white doves from their perch. When Umm Sa’ad went in to give her husband a drink, she found him lifeless, blood pouring from his nose. She rushed to tell the teacher, and in a flash he prepared the corpse for burial and snuck him out under cover of night in a cart filled with watermelons. When the sun rose the next day, the teacher was seated in Abullutuf’s place, the veil of honour covering his face. Umm Sa’ad decided to build a mausoleum with a green dome that only she could enter, and her son, who used to live in Tripoli, set off to find out how to set up an internet connection.
Note: Sa’ad means luck
First Published in Banipal (UK)
Editor: Samuel Shimon
Mission: Founded in 1998, and publishing three issues a year, Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature promotes and celebrates the publication of contemporary Arab authors in in English translation, and encourages the readership of Arab writers and poets for both the particularity and the universality of their voices. Banipal’s three cornerstones are that Arab literature is an essential part of world culture and human civilisation; that dialogue between different cultures needs to be continually deepened; and that the joy and enlightenment to be gained from reading beautiful poetry and imaginative writing is an integral part of human existence. These three tenets, which guide Banipal’s decisions and standards, are continuously strengthened by the inspirational power of literary translation to open dialogue and understanding between cultures – the moment a reader starts to read a translation new dialogue begins. Banipal sees itself as a vehicle for intercultural dialogue and exchange that opens a window for non-Arab audiences on contemporary literature from the Arab world, enabling fruitful discourse to develop that will lead to further exchange, mutual respect, new writings, deeper understanding, and Arab literature taking its rightful place in the canon of world literature.
Faouzia Aloui was born in 1958, and lives in Kasserine, Tunisia, and is a poet and fiction-writer with three collections of short stories and two of poetry.
Featured in Issue #6 of The Literarian.