By Faḍīlah al-Shābbī
Translated by Gretchen Head
The police line both edges of the long street for its entirety. A woman crosses as an officer rushes in her direction, yelling:
- “You, woman, you walk while everyone else stands still?”
The woman looks to the right and left. There isn’t a soul in the street besides the low ranking police officers posed like electricity poles. Turning to the officer, “I’m sorry, is walking in this street not allowed?”
His reply is sharp: “You walk into a prohibited area and now you ask questions.”
The early afternoon sun has no mercy. She feels sweat trickle down her forehead and this officer, no, this mass of convulsive nerves, is in front of her blocking her way.
“Is there a reason that walking isn’t allowed in this vast interminable street?”
“You’re looking for a reason? Take the reason...”
She felt his strong hands pull on her shoulders. With a brisk extraordinary speed, they lifted her up high and threw her against the white wall of the towering building that stood in front of them. She felt the pain of collision; something in her broke; something was crushed; something leaked blue blood onto the building’s wall, and her eyes went with it. Strangely, they could still see. Another smear of ruby red blood on the wall, another green, then yellow, orange, brown, gray. People who had been walking, thrown against the building’s wall as they had done to her. It had become a surreal canvas that the police officers stained with human bodies. From their height, the eyes could see the greater part of the city in which traffic had stalled. The cars parked in the streets and alleys, the buses, even the trains, waited for the presidential procession to pass. The early afternoon sun, shining violently on the blood on the building’s walls, flowed down in waves of dark colors. As she streamed down the wall in a wave of blue blood, Madinah sensed that she could still feel what happened around her, to her. She didn’t know how that could be yet that’s how it was.
One early afternoon she was sitting at the station on Muhammad V street in Tunis waiting for the number 28 bus teeming with people. It toured the city as a moving ghetto that carried the riffraff, the marginalized. A winter morning, the remains of rain in the lengthy street. She was alone at the station with the picture of the president. In front of her, scores of cars in two directions; in the station’s glass walls they went every which way. Even the image of the president’s face suspended in the glass was transformed into another street; it reflected innumerable cars approaching, receding, and a few pedestrians, as though a strong wind had swept them far from that place. She was - before she discovered the president’s picture - alone at the station. With an air of distraction, she murmured to herself, “The morning dissipates into its minutiae, the children have reached the hour of maturity, and the self its furthest decline. The shadows of the morning still beckon to their passing; gold spills out into the infinite space, silver branches over incandescent action.”
The buses prefer the areas in the center, but as for the outskirts, they’re for waiting. She waited then looked... A woman waiting for the bus, stung by venomous lashes of cold. Gazing at her old wet shoes, “I’ll have no coat this year, no sympathetic thread.” She waited then looked...
No one was at the station. She was opposite the resigned street and the four glass walls of the small station. She turned to the right and suddenly there was the president’s picture; no one but the two of them, she looked, and he looked. Was she the observer or was she the observed? How odd that he was staring at her, as if he were a stranger meeting another stranger. The moment was exceptional. Madinah’s exile in a station on a nearly desolate street on a rainy day and the ruler’s exile inside his own rule. The ruler’s exile is the hidden meaning of his actions; its signs are kingdoms and republics. Republics, or jumhuriyat: the word broken into its parts is jamr, burning coal; huwwa, a bottomless chasm; rayat, banners. A man dwelling in the crystal, a drop of rain on his forehead that doesn’t dry, in a dark blue suit, and with a suitcase. A man gave the woman sitting opposite him a kind look; she politely looked away. With her hand she removed the idea of a mask. Then she stared at him and focused on the eye. There is a great distance between one eye and the other. I can touch you with my eye, despite that, you’re the one looking at me. The president’s two eyes are different: A seductive eye, a specter of a smile hovering in its lights and darks. A look of seduction; a look revealing intention. A woman and a man, or rather, the image of a man. A wise woman - a woman governed, a man ruling - a man ruled. The seduction of power hisses its storms’ jets from him to tighten around the furthest quarters. The one under the gaze is indeed a woman and she is the one who is watching while this suitcase brushes against her feet like a cat on the station’s wet sidewalk. The other eye is leaden. The political eye that discharges orders just as it fires bullets. A road of iron, a street of lead, people made of copper and a memory without mercy. The sun is strong and wrathful. There is no river in this city, but its inhabitants are a river of angry blood. Crocodiles are a species of humanity that eat, drink, and capture the markets. Their females cover their eggs with a bit of gold then go back to swim in the blood of events. The sun of need and exigency blazes, the blood dries, but the anger remains and so does the sun.
The speakers amplify the call: People, listen and take heed! This occupation is once again returning to our land. A direct globalized military colonization, strong and aggressive, with its weapons of mass destruction and accompanying earthquake.
People, listen and take heed! This colonization deadens the living for hundreds of thousands of years. It is not a clean death and it is everywhere. Human pain is the earth’s tendon stretched to its limit. Homes collapse like fragile structures made of paper. Their surface is a game for petty kings; a game that brings minor gains and another that brings losses. For one hundred years they played until history turned and now I see you at the bottom, you subjects of petty kings and presidents. It distracted you until your dreams wasted away. While the great nations’ ambitions change, they’ll devour you statelet by statelet. While you just stand there, history shifts and the most important of events occurs.
That giant on the Northern bank of the Mediterranean stretches its languages like wires probing the markets on the Southern shore. It hits the sea with its hand and drowns the boats carrying the hungry who have fled their country’s parties and sects that know nothing of justice.
In some square:
A soldier: We are the occupation forces. We’ve come to liberate the country from its native people, scholars, and palm trees.
A second soldier: The sun will liberate the city from us if we don’t find shade...
A third soldier: And this armor that we wear is a small fire.
Another soldier: Do you believe in the imposition of punishment?
Another soldier: Look for the crime, maybe you’ll find the punishment.
The second officer: The war is a crime.
Another soldier: You’re waging the war, so you’re a criminal.
Another soldier: From a moral perspective, yes, but you and I, and the rest of you, are hired hands.
The first soldier: You and I are simply robots programmed to kill? Where is freedom then, freedom of choice?
Another soldier: Freedom is no more than a delusion nesting in the minds of idealists. Modern warfare has changed human fighters into biological, nuclear, robotic soldiers.
The second soldier: Shhh...Don’t you hear? It’s like there’s something creeping underground.
Another soldier: That’s Madinah.
Another soldier: What Madinah?
The second soldier: She’s a crazy woman who roams the streets.
Another soldier: Is she attractive?
The third soldier: A woman wrapped in black clothes stained by the dirt of the road.
Another soldier, licking his lips: Don’t forget, there are hanging gardens behind the dust and mirage. The weight of history lends depth to the eyes and their gaze.
Another soldier: A crazy woman who claims that she’s the city.
Another soldier: The insane are more dangerous than the sane.
The soldier turns in the other direction, addressing his friend: Damn you, you ruined my erection.
The other soldier smiling: You sly clever bastard....
The narrative returns to its people in the occupied country, to the woman prisoner, the woman who pours into the fenced-in street like a waterfall. She is a mix of green and rays strong enough to reach me; she sounded like a cry resembling the rustling of leaves:
- Listen Umar, for tens of thousands of years my sister and I were palm trees with our roots submerged deep into the Tigris’s bank. One morning, the god of thirst descended on the place and drank the entire river; gravel and dying fish were all that was left of its torrent. He soaked up the ground water but didn’t stop there. Arrogantly, he contorted his neck and targeted the second river, laying my roots bare. Angry, I said, “God of thirst, no matter where we look this quiet morning we see your smugness, your insolence. You’ve killed the two rivers and you’ve killed us. You haven’t spared even the color of the pebbles or the evenings’ sweet fragrance.” He turned staggering, not used to anyone challenging him. Snarling, “Who’s talking to me now? A woman?” His eyes turned white, he stretched out his hand pierced by the flash of half a dozen knives. Pulling me out by my roots, he threw me to his raging servant, saying, “We sentence her to exile from the banks of the Tigris to the gates of the Sahara in the Arab Maghreb. She is the woman endowed with the seventh sense who will destroy everything....” Umar asked regretfully: “And your sister, what’s the other palm tree’s fate?”
- “Maybe she’s there on the banks of the Tigris resisting.”
- “How can a palm tree resist?”
I didn’t have an answer given the great distance.
Returning to the station on Mohamed V street. The bus appeared after a long wait and Madinah got in. The bus was filled with children who turned to the woman, staring in surprise at the picture of the city drawn on her robe. One of the children touched it to find that it wasn’t made of fabric but something closer to human skin. Madinah looked at the children as they felt the strange robe, questions springing from their mouths. The woman asked them: “Would you like me to tell you the story of this robe?”
In one voice they answered: “Yes.”
- “Now, in our own time, there lives a giant being. It’s said that he crosses the seas. He has a head with many eyes and ears and long hands that reach to far away continents. He has a thousand legs.”
- One of the children interrupted, “Where does this beast live?”
- “It’s said that he’s coming from over there, from behind the Atlantic, or the Sea of Darkness as we call it, but he could be anywhere and everywhere.”
- “He’s a scary thing.”
- “What does he eat?”
- “You might not believe what you’re going to hear now.”
The children moved closer to Madinah the storyteller.
- “Tell, please, tell.”
- “It’s said that this creature eats cities.”
- “Cities!” The children yelled together.
- “Yes, cities. They’re his favorite meal, he won’t devour anything else. You’ll see him pulling out the city by its roots with his hands. Then he puts it, dripping, at the threshold of his enormous mouth. He doesn’t swallow it just then, instead he savors it, chewing all its coasts, and there are many. Then like an earthquake he takes the people, trees, stones, rivers, and mountains by surprise. He demolishes them under his molars, inhales them voraciously, as they become liquefied, viscous, vaporized, and motionless.” The storyteller’s voice brought the children out of their stupefaction. “I’m the city and this robe is my external skin that confronts whatever danger I encounter. My immunity produced countless other hidden skins. Some of them are bitter when bitten, some act as a tranquilizer, and some others are poisonous; they’re skins used to defend the self and the right to remain.”
- A child cut in, “Is the city a living being?”
- “Indeed, and the proof is that I am that in front of you.”
- Another child aggressively interrupted, “You’re a woman and the city is merely a name that you’ve called yourself.”
- She responded calmly, “Touch the living garment and you’ll understand.”
- Another child, “Are you just one woman, or are you all the women, all the men, all the children?”
- “I am the city.”
- “So then we’re a part of you.”
- “You’re part of me. I was waiting for you and, look here, we meet at the station.”
- “I have a story,” a child said, “‘books and birds.’”
- “Books and birds?” staring, the children responded, “Tell us the story.”
The child sat up straight in his seat inside the bus and began to narrate:
There was a bird who entered an open window and fluttered across a room with walls of shelves filled with books. He landed on the nightstand and suddenly heard whispering. The bird turned toward the wide bed covered by a beautiful quilt of marvelous designs. He noticed that one of the bed frame’s bottom boards was moving up and down. Apprehensively, he flapped his wings, moving closer, and heard someone calling him from inside the bed.
- “Come closer, don’t be afraid of us. Lift up the bed’s board and you’ll see us.”
- “Who are you?”
- “We’re the books.”
- “I see the room’s walls are filled with them.”
- “We’re the children’s books.”
- “Why are you stuffed into that box?”
- “That’s our story if you’d like to hear it. But before that, I have a request for you, bird...”
- “Ask what you will.”
- “Would you be able to take me far away from the highway that runs next to this room? Its constant noise is tiresome.”
- “With pleasure.”
- “Take me to mountain Boukornine, to the summit where the celestial blue creek is. There, on its grassy banks, I will recount our story.”
The whispering of the books stacked inside the box formed by the bed subsided. The sparrow approached the askew board, picked the book up with his beak, then left the room, flying through the city air. Very gently, he put the book down on the bank’s grass. From the mountain’s peak the sky seemed close, the clouds like a herd of cattle swaying in the green vegetation. After taking some drops from the creek to quench his thirst, the bird perched near the book and waited....
A mild breeze ruffled the book’s pages; a voice came from them that struck the bird like the whispering of the wind.
“My author composed me with great care and writing about the nature of humanity requires reading. She would often repeat, ‘Children are my future readers,’ singing it with a guileless joy as she opened the windows of her room onto the morning sun. One day she filled a suitcase with children’s books and carried it to the agency, stumbling under the burden of its weight. Books are heavy. After all, their pages’ paper comes from the forest’s trees and their writing from the deepest recesses of the human mind.”
The agency was composed of enormous buildings filled with elevators and infinite stairways. At the agency, she was told, “we deposit the books into pipes until they reach the children who will read them.” She looked at the pipes; they were solid metal descending from a staggering height, twisting and turning through the transparent building. It seemed to her that the shining pipes looked like layers upon layers of intestines in an enormous stomach. The author stood outside the agency to catch her breath. The pipes plunged deep into the earth, their fiery solid metal obscuring the convulsions, contractions, and secretions of the giant stomach. After some contemplation, she said, “The bottom pipes must connect to the city’s sewers.” Confused, she asked herself, “My books will get to the children through a drainpipe of seething fluids?”
A white cloud spread its wet band over the grass and the bird fearfully rushed to stretch his wings. He covered his friend the book to keep him from getting wet so that his voice wouldn’t become inaudible and cracked. Inwardly the sparrow said, “If only this troublesome cloud would perish! Hopefully it’s only passing by.” He felt the book’s silence under his wings. He waited, apprehensively folding his feathers so that his wings would insulate the book, yet the pages underneath remained silent. The bird looked around him. Finally, the cloud moved away. Reassuring his friend, “The cloud’s disappearing, there’s no fear of you getting wet,” but the book stayed quiet. The bird jumped up and perched on the grass near his friend, asking, “Why are you silent? Did some moisture slip in? Weren’t my feathers secure enough?” The book answered, “My friend, be sure, you wrapped your feathers around me so well that the water couldn’t find the slightest opening. To thank you, I was collecting some perfume from the ambergris and musk of my letters.” The sparrow flapped his wings disseminating the fragrance; bees rose in flight in a light dance. After a moment, the bird asked his friend, “It feels like there’s still some anxiety coursing through your pages, is there something troubling you that you haven’t revealed?”
- “In a little while, my author will get here. She’s climbing the mountain now, carrying freedom, and freedom, my friend, is a heavy thing to carry. She reaches the mountaintop every day at the same time. After a great deal of toil, she leaves at dawn. One day she entrusted me with her secret, saying, ‘I made a vow to myself to bring freedom up to the mountaintop to wash it in the stream, cleansing it of all the pollutants that cling to it.’ She hasn’t betrayed the covenant once. Don’t run away terrified, my friend, when you see her pushing freedom in its enormity in front of her, her hands, legs, and knees dripping blood. As soon as she puts it in the stream, it expands and you’ll see both of them playing in the water. You’ll watch as freedom spreads out euphorically, leaving the soft hands responsible for purifying it of its defilements. If you look to the stream, you’ll find that even the water seems charmed as it joins the woman and freedom in the game, helping with the disinfection. Freedom, after its glow has returned, breathes a new strength into the creek. It purges it of its dirt and rejuvenates the water. Once her work with freedom is done - and she’s stopped the bleeding and treated her injuries - the stream widens to reveal a silver waterfall that pulls the woman out gently so that the two of them can slide down a pathway of water to the mountain’s base. This is what my author has vowed to do every day at this time ever since I’ve existed as a book.”
The sparrow, amazed by what he has just heard, asked the book: “Would it be possible for you to introduce me to her?”
- “With pleasure, but we must choose a moment to meet.”
- “When would be a good time?”
- “Once she’s finished cleansing freedom, my author’s routine is to lie down for a little while on the grass to catch her breath as she waits for the stream to turn into a waterfall. That’s our chance to approach her.”
A rumbling sound, something heavy dragging, the fall of footsteps that hold fast despite the difficulty of the mountain terrain and its enormous rocks.
- “Here she is, she’s arrived. Let’s hide behind this tree to watch what happens.”
Events swiftly ran their course and both of the game’s participants were soaked by splashes of water. Finally the woman laid down on the grass exhausted. The sparrow waited a bit then tossed the book in front her. Warily, the woman opened her eyes. Finding the book, she picked it up and leafed through it, surprised. “This is my book, who brought it to the mountaintop?” The book uttered, “My author, cause of my existence, a dear friend of mine brought me to this high indomitable place.” The writer smiled, interrupting, “You’ve finally fallen into the hands of a reader.”
- “He’s a creature who’s beloved to me, but not a reader.”
- “Explain what you mean”
- “He can smell, taste, listen, sing...”
- “My author, please allow me to introduce you to my winged friend.”
He gestured for the sparrow to come down from the branch, who perched on the grass near the author and the book.
- “Welcome, any friend of the book is a friend of mine.”
- “You two were wonderful, you and freedom in the stream.” He looked at the book laying on the grass, “During my short visit to your room I saw that the books haven’t reached the children.”
- “They were lost in the caverns of the agency’s pipes.”
- “I know that as well...What’s the solution?” A moment of silence passed in which the author appeared to be thinking. It seemed to the book and the sparrow that she was quiet for a long time. The woman approached the creek’s bank. The process of the stream’s transformation had begun. She said, “Listen, I have an idea. We’ll borrow some helicopters and drop books throughout the entire country from above. The sky will rain books down on them.”
Astonished, the bird looked at the book, “Marvelous, this idea is marvelous.”
As the author stood with freedom preparing to depart through the waterfall she waved farewell, “Tomorrow we’ll meet at the Ministry of Defence to submit our request to borrow the helicopters.”
The waterfall’s roar was like a powerful anthem of the will; a distant joy stirred in their spirits.
The next day the author crossed the Kasbah’s square overrun with people and cars. The heat made it difficult to breathe. The book was in her hand, the sparrow flying just above them. She stopped in front of the door to the Ministry of Defense; it was big, suggesting the building’s high rank. The guards stood at its sides heavily armed. One of them faced her, “Where to?”
- “I would like to meet His Honor the Minister, please.”
- “What about?”
- “A cultural matter.”
- “Go to the Ministry of Culture.”
- “The matter doesn’t pertain to the Ministry of Culture.”
The guard repeated stupidly, “What’s it about, then?”
- “A matter related to the country’s interest...”
The sparrow felt the situation’s difficulty. He flapped his wings and flocks of birds descended in multitudes, pecking the glass of the minister’s office window with their beaks. The clamorous twittering caused the minister to jump from his chair and turn toward the window. Noticing this, the sparrow understood that his plan had worked, he had brought the minister’s attention to the situation below where the guard was increasingly raising his voice. The birds withdrew just as suddenly as they had come. Opening the window, the minister listened to the commotion in the ministry’s entryway. He saw a common woman, one of the people, in the grip of some of the guards. He ordered the assistant to bring the woman to him. The sparrow flapped his wings, circled the space of the office, and landed on the author’s shoulder as she stood in front of the minister. Confounded, the minister looked at the woman, this friend of the sparrow. Addressing her, “Woman, what’s the matter here?”
- “Mr. Minister, Your Eminence, I’ve come to you about an issue related to the country’s interest...” The minister interrupted her, “The country’s interest?...” He turned pale: “Give me what you have, woman...”
- “We’ve come to you hoping that you would permit us to borrow some helicopters to drop children’s books from the sky as gifts for the children of this city and others too, even for the children in the distant countryside.” The minister stared at her then responded coldly, “I see that you’re using the plural form. Are there others with you?”
- “The birds and I.” The sparrow anchored on her shoulder chirped. The minister said to himself, “I’m obviously in front of an insane person.” He pressed a button and a guard immediately entered. “Take this woman’s fingerprints and get me her identity right away,” he ordered. The employee disappeared and reemerged like the jinni of the magic lamp. After extending his greeting to the minister, he said, “She’s the writer...” The minister commanded the guard, “Welcome the writer with a reception that befits her...”
The guard dragged the woman outside the office, rolled her from the top of the stairs to the bottom floor, finally throwing her half dead in the street under the merciless summer sun. The cars, buses, and pedestrians sped by without stopping, as though they were chasing the city as it made its escape. No one stopped to help the woman who had lost consciousness. The sparrow circled high above, arriving at the square of the Kasbah and its fountain of glistening water. Gathering drops in his beak, he returned to the writer, feeding her the water as he would his chicks. He repeated the process several times until the woman opened her eyes. She pulled herself together setting out on the sidewalk sluggishly, her winged friend fluttering in front her.
Over on the mountaintop, the book and the sparrow were despondent after the torture inflicted upon their friend the writer. The hours passed heavily, the silence stretched between them. Suddenly the sparrow flapped his wings addressing the book: “Don’t you hear? A rumbling sound, something heavy dragging, and the fall of footsteps that hold fast despite the difficulty of the mountain terrain and its intractable rocks.”
The sparrow sang while the book let his friend listen to the rustling of its pages and the music of its letters and words, “It’s the author and freedom...” The rippling of the stream sounded like laughter.
Faḍīlah al-Shābbī has been a leading literary figure in Tunisia since the 1970’s. The author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, multiple volumes of children’s literature, a collection of short stories, and four novels, she is also, notably, the cousin of poet Abū al-Qāsim al-Shābbī (d.1934), whose “Irādat al-ḥayat” (“The Will to Live”), originally associated with the struggle for independence from colonial rule, quickly became the revolutionary anthem throughout the Arab world when the protests began in 2010. The poem’s first lines were chanted in protests in Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and beyond. Chabbi herself has said, “I inherited the poetic spirit from this great poet....I promised myself that I would complete Abū al-Qāsim al-Shābbī’s message...that I would continue it, though in a different way” (Interview). True to her intention, she addresses the theme of political injustice in a distinct voice appropriate to the particular kinds of oppression endemic to her contemporary environment. The novel from which this excerpt is taken, Justice (al-‘Adl), is part of a trilogy of political fiction. Written in 2005, Justice was banned for three years by Ben ‘Ali’s government before it was available to the public. It is a merciless political invective that often targets both the State’s symbolic strategies of surveillance and its failure to bring justice to its people. Veiled only by its use of direct allegory taken from traditional modes of storytelling, it merges the literal and the symbolic, poetry and prose, the personal and the collective, metaphysical discourse and satirical lampoon in an episodic narrative with a recurring protagonist. Within this variegated framework, Chabbi accentuates the dark absurdity of living under an authoritarian regime and the necessity of the individual struggle for justice and autonomy regardless.
While her poetry has occasionally appeared in translation in literary anthologies (for example, in Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four, The University of California Book of North African Literature, 2012), this is the first translation of her fiction. Though the intense campaign of civil resistance waged by the Tunisian people in the middle of December of 2010 was triggered by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Ben Ali’s repressive twenty-three year rule was not free of local acts of defiance, often sublimated into literary texts that chipped away at the State’s hold on the imaginative capacities of the people. Chabbi’s political fiction is an important example, not only of this type of political dissent, but of women’s participation as political actors who contested the strategies of domination executed by the State before the Arab Spring. In recognition of Chabbi’s contribution to Tunisian literature, a collection of her complete works was recently published in five volumes by Dār Muḥammad ‘Alī li-l-nashr in November of 2013.