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Saba’t Gurabaa’ fil-Madina
(Seven Strangers in Town)
Published by Awraaq Publishing & Distribution, Cairo, March 2014.
The Sergeant’s predicament
“Sergeant Abdel Hai’s job was to keep an eye all night on the insurgents held in custody at the military garrison, and hand them over at dawn to the firing squad. He would keep himself vigilant with the help of sips from the poor quality arak he procured daily from the local endaya at the outskirts of the border town. But he never bothered to chat with any of his prisoners or offer them a drink. One particular night, however, the arak was unusually strong, and he found himself warming to the only prisoner he happened to have in custody. He offered him many shots and they spent the night chatting and singing. But when he opened his eyes before dawn, the cell door was open and his guest had vanished into thin air.”
With this prologue, Sudanese novelist Ahmad Al Malik introduces us to the predicament of Sergeant Abdel Hai, who has to lay hands on the fugitive or find a replacement to face the firing squad in less than three hours if he cares for his life. The best scenario for the sergeant is to catch one of the seven strangers he saw the previous night in al-Naseem’s endaya, a bar that sold locally made liquor. But it would be a disaster if he caught a local because the matter it be discovered sooner than later. As he lurks in a bushy ditch near the bar in wait for someone to come out, the inner world of the bar starts to unfold. The bar serves as the central terminal from which the reader is taken on a series of flashback rides into the lives of the clients: strangers dislocated by the endless wars raving across the country, young men running for their lives, and brokers offering their service to help those desperate souls sneak through the borders. Among the guests that night was a VIP: a deposed military ruler who was dreaming of recapturing power with the help of the government of a neighbouring country.
This part of the narrative is intercepted by gripping snapshots from the “backyard” of the house: the service girls and their tacit war to win the heart of the only male servant, Sulaiman al-Askari, the pleasant-looking, enigmatic young man. And there is the woman in charge, al-Naseem, a strong personality and an outspoken political critic. In one of her political tirades, she tells Sergeant Abdel Hai:
“People are starving to death and children can’t go to school, and still there are some who want to convince us that we do have a government. What we have is no more than a gang that lives off the sweat of the disadvantaged. When they run out of money, they crack down on us and on poor merchants, looting our money in the name of taxes, zakat, or fines. It’s a kind of armed robbery similar to that of the shifta bandits [gangs who operate across the border areas of Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia]. The only difference is that the gangs live in mountainous caves while the government lives in the palace.”
Occasionally, Sergeant Abdel Hai, a bona fide client of al-Naseem, would sit alone to sip from the free mareesa beer that the girls kept in the courtyard for those who could not afford it, or for promotion purposes. When liquor turned his head, he would lose his reservations and tell al-Naseem some of his past glories in the army. He would credit himself with fake heroic acts. There was always someone else, other than him, who made a mistake and, as a result, the coup attempt was foiled! Al-Naseem would burst into laughter and say:
“If the attempt was foiled, how come you are still alive? Did they run out of bullets when it was your turn?”
“I was granted clemency by the President on the Revolution Day,” he finally said. Rubbing her henna-tinted plaits, al-Naseem asked him: “Which revolution are you talking about?” Pointing to an old, drab radio set, she added: “Many revolutions have we heard about through this radio set, but we haven’t seen any improvement at all. Every newcomer starts by blaming their predecessor. Thus, the spin goes on and we alone are the losers. We never take part in this game of musical chairs and yet we have to pay our share of the cost along with the others!”
Weaving all these threads together, Al Malik has managed to build a compelling narrative, full of satire and humour but also of deep frustration and aborted dreams.
• Quoted text has been translated by the reviewer
• Ahmad Al Malik photo by Margot Rood
Published in Banipal 58 – Arab Literary Awards (Spring 2017)
Reviewed by Adil Babikir
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