A Dog with No Tail

A Dog with No Tail

Hamdi Abu Golayyel
Translated by Robin Moger
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 160
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15m7j4j
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  • Book Info
    A Dog with No Tail
    Book Description:

    In a world with no meaning, meaning is an act . . . This is a story about building things up and knocking them down. Here are the campfire tales of Egypt’s dispossessed and disillusioned, the anti-Arabian Nights. Our narrator, a rural immigrant from the Bedouin villages of the Fayoum, an aspiring novelist and construction laborer of the lowest order, leads us down a fractured path of reminiscence in his quest for purpose and identity in a world where the old orders and traditions are powerless to help. Bawdy and wistful, tragicomic and bitter, his stories loop and repeat, crackling with the frictive energy of colliding worlds and linguistic registers. These are the tales of Cairo’s new Bedouin, men not settled by the state but permanently uprooted by it. Like their lives, their stories are dislocated and unplotted, mapping out their quest for meaning in the very act of placing brick on brick and word on word.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-064-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. I Keep the Files Stored in My Head, My Friend
    (pp. 1-8)

    I smoked the joint. It was strong. I say that about every joint I smoke—that it’s strong, that it’s “good stuff”—but this one seemed particularly potent. One piece of hash makes five perfect cigarettes. If I’d been with friends I would’ve made eight, even ten, but instead I made just three. Convinced myself it would help me think about the novel. I rolled each one differently and told myself each time: I’ll start with this one.

    I always seem to start with the weakest, the worst. Some flaw in my make-up means I never do better than good...

  3. Dreams
    (pp. 9-16)

    The Doctor dreams methodically: every so often he is visited by a new dream. All his dreams come true. What are all the jobs he’s done but dreams come true? He doesn’t overreach himself, though. He has no desire to turn his life upside down; he merely seeks to improve his circumstances. Rolling in the dust of the building trade he dreamt of guarding trucks. Rather than spend sleepless nights guarding trucks he dreamt of traveling the country as a driver’s mate. Instead of dozing before a garage of heavy-goods trucks he dreamt of his backside on the comfy bench...

  4. A Private Job
    (pp. 17-20)

    I sat in the center of what remained of the pile of sand. It lay in a circle around me. I squatted and looked up. I had climbed to the top of that building and down again one hundred and forty times. Seven floors, two apartments to a floor. The residents were cooperative. They gave me glasses of iced water all day. They saw how it was when a sack spilled onto the stairs. It was heavy. I couldn’t climb up to the roof with it and fling it down. It was the first time I had moved a complete...

  5. Hamdi
    (pp. 21-24)

    The craftsmen in Matar’s crew were mostly from around Muniyat al-Seirig and Shubra. Sometimes they would be joined by guys from provinces in the north and south, but they’d drive them off, hassling them and treating them with contempt until they left. I didn’t like to work with them. Easy though it was to work with a plasterer, a tiler, or a plumber, I preferred carrying sand, gravel, and cement to working with them. Even mixing the cement was better. They were—without exception and completely without provocation—foul-mouthed: “faggot” this, “pimp” that, and so on.

    Still, I made friends...

  6. The Story of My Family
    (pp. 25-30)

    I’ve tried to write the story of my family many times, but I always fail, and here I am failing in front of you as we speak. It’s an interesting subject—tragedies, miracles, and myths—but then I hesitate and lose my nerve. The first complicating factor is the sheer number of them. There are distinct differences between the different branches. They range in color from white-skinned as a European to black as an African. Then there’s the fact that as a breed they are irritable and talkative and generally impossible to please. In 1997 I wrote a maudlin story...

  7. I Reach Out My Hand and Blush that My Hand Reaches Out
    (pp. 31-36)

    As the first shocks of the 1992 earthquake hit I was in a pit, two meters square and a meter and a half deep, in the foundations of a dilapidated house. The Doctor was with me as I dug, filled the bucket, and handed it to him to be emptied on the tip outside. Down in the foundation trench, I felt none of the tremors that shook the rest of the nation. I labored on diligently as, over my head, people fled death.

    I was also embarking on a sentimental adventure. I am peculiarly unable to endure the rejection of...

  8. A Vision
    (pp. 37-40)

    And I saw, as the dreamer sees, a vast heap of sand, and I saw myself, a little bulkier than usual, hovering around it then packing it into a huge sack. In a single motion I swing the sack onto my shoulder and climb a ten-story building and fling it from me and die. I actually die. I breathe my last. But in the morning I awoke, full of energy and extraordinarily eager to get to work. I went down to the bathroom, scrubbed clean, and headed off to the café, where Mi‘allim Matar hired me to take care of...

  9. Playtime
    (pp. 41-44)

    From time to time we laborers would get time off. As a general rule, and unlike the rest of the professions, manual workers have no fixed holiday. They go out looking for work and if they find it it’s a working day and if they don’t it’s a holiday. We worked in particularly exceptional circumstances. We took advantage of the government’s negligence. Fridays and official holidays were ideal for work in collapsing and dilapidated buildings but we couldn’t care less. We would iron our clothes then it was out to the cinema, or Fustat Park, or the zoo. Sometimes we’d...

  10. God’s Work
    (pp. 45-50)

    Man, and man alone, is capable of absolutely anything. A believer, he regards every step on his way as new evidence of the truth of his faith. An infidel (a word I dislike), he sees nothing but proof of his disbelief. This thought comes to me whenever I recall the story of the time I set out to do God’s work. Well, that story and others, too. There’s the personal: for instance the story of my mother’s pains that baffled the greatest doctors in the land, but no sooner had she planted her feet in the sands around the Prophet...

  11. The Pricking of My Conscience
    (pp. 51-54)

    I woke at six, as usual. It was freezing; icy. It was Ramadan at the time and I just couldn’t be bothered. I still had to get up, go down to the bathroom, squeeze onto a bus. Then what? Hanging around at the café. I might get work, and then again, I might not. I pulled the blanket tighter and closed my eyes. I was almost asleep again when my conscience perked up: “So why are you here, then? Isn’t it time to work? Fine, forget work for the moment. What about money? Got any with you?”

    Panicking, I jumped...

  12. Standing on Solid Ground
    (pp. 55-58)

    The Doctor had a relationship with a woman from the village. It would die down and flare up, but it would be on his mind constantly. After he’d had a couple of joints and his mind was bright he’d talk of nothing else. It was a truly peculiar relationship. She couldn’t tell what the Doctor wanted from her. Hanan, it was: his cousin’s wife. He tried to sleep with her and she tried to sleep with him, and that was it. He did her in his dreams and for years now had considered trying her out for real. She, too,...

  13. Amm Ahmed
    (pp. 59-62)

    Amm Ahmed had two apartments in the Earthquake Blocks in west Ain Shams: one on the top floor, one on the ground floor with a small garden overflowing with plants of every kind. He’s originally from our part of the world, the Doctor’s uncle. He came to Cairo in the seventies and started out as a laborer until he made a success of working as an office boy in the headquarters of Banque Misr, supplementing his income with a tea stall on Mansour Street. He was living in Boulaq and after the earthquake he patiently endured queues at government offices...

  14. A Fleeting Visit
    (pp. 63-64)

    The Doctor visited Daniel in prison. Daniel is a relative, a neighbor, and a good friend. He’s the one who got us the room in Ain Shams and it was only proper that we pay him a visit to see how he was doing. They chewed over the difference between jail time and life on the outside and the Doctor almost asked him whether you could get time off for good behavior in cases of embezzlement and bribery. They agreed that it was only a matter of days and they’d end soon enough, and the Doctor took some money to...

  15. The Laborer
    (pp. 65-66)

    I heard that they were traveling to Cairo to work as laborers. I asked them: what’s this laborer thing? Naturally, I didn’t expect that they were working as pilots. I knew that they were workmen and that they carried sacks around. An uncle of mine told his son, “Take yourself off to Cairo and get some muck on your clothes instead of sitting around here.” But the word laborer fascinated me. Why laborer? ‘Working as a laborer.’ Why did it refer to the toughest and most exhausting work? But when I made the journey myself and started work I saw...

  16. A Reception Fit for a General
    (pp. 67-70)

    I don’t know why I joined the demonstration. I don’t know why I didn’t run for it the first chance I got. I could have: I got close to the wall and thought of making a break for it. The students were fleeing all around me, singly and in groups, and even the soldier told me to do it: “Jump up and run,” he said, “before they catch you.” I’m a naturally submissive type, instinctively terrified of the police and security forces, and by rights I should’ve run, I should’ve flown like a bird. But I was ashamed, embarrassed to...

  17. A Letter
    (pp. 71-72)

    My dear brother,

    Greetings and affection. I hope that you are well and that my aunt and Ahmed and Zeinab and Somaya and their children are all as well as can be.

    Give my love to Aunt Miriam and her children and to Uncle Mukhtar’s family. Tell them that I sent him a letter and he never replied and I don’t why. Was the address wrong or is he busy? Give my love to Ayman and Khalid and Shihab.

    Anyway ….

    Let me remind you that we’re brothers and there are no unpaid checks or IOUs between us. Also, let...

  18. A Film
    (pp. 73-76)

    I keep thinking of writing a film about the time the Doctor spent in the actress’s building. While we were working up in Shubra my imagination would run away with me: the film was finished and it had rocked the world. I still see it as a good way of improving my prospects. Whenever money gets tight I turn to my copy ofLearn to Write a Film Scriptand begin preparing for my masterwork.

    The Doctor returned from his stint as a driver’s mate a wreck, skin on bone, lines of cement creasing his face. But he didn’t come...

  19. A Traitor and an Informer
    (pp. 77-80)

    The central security truck was as packed as a public bus. Fifty students hale and hearty, a disabled student, and a student who turned out to be the son of a police officer and got out before we started to move. As I got in I saw a student I recognized. We’d never had much to do with each other but the moment we saw each other we shrieked and embraced in an ecstasy of relief. Staggering about, we both spoke simultaneously, “Did you see? Did you see what happened?” then burst into an uncontrollable torrent of giggles. I tried...

  20. A Plot of Land
    (pp. 81-82)

    Everybody knows where to find the laborers. Their markets are on top of bridges or at the edge of public squares. But we were too proud to sit out in the sun. Our spot was Salim’s café at the beginning of Muniyat al-Seirig Street in the direction of Sheikh Ramadan. I liked it because of Salim. He wasn’t the owner, though he acted the part, and he endeared himself to me because he made it clear he thought manual labor was beneath us. “A great bunch of guys,” he’d call us. “Not the sort that should be scrabbling around in...

  21. Military Prison
    (pp. 83-88)

    At night they transferred us to a place nearby that we were told was the military prison. It felt like a chamber beneath the sea, beneath the eternal Nile, a long, dark basement, its interior coated—or rather sprayed—in cement from top to bottom. At one end stood a lavatory that leaked in every direction. When we arrived the place was full of bunk beds. They made us stand outside for ages while they carried them out. They brushed and scrubbed the room clean and we entered. A soldier handed me a sheet of newspaper (al-Wafd, I think). I...

  22. How Can I Call Out to You, Mother?
    (pp. 89-90)

    Until this point in my life I’d managed to hold myself together. Naturally, I’d been scared before—I’d almost died of fear—but I’d never gotten as far as blubbering and wailing. In the Beni Suef prison my self-control was even more unbreakable. The sheer length and gravity of my fellow prisoners’ sentences, anywhere between life and a decade, made it easy for me to accept the idea of a year behind bars. I told myself I would use the time to retake my high school exams and improve my marks. Each morning I would bounce, bubbly and full of...

  23. Long, Smooth Fingers
    (pp. 91-96)

    I haven’t been this agitated for a long time.

    Why am I so confused and uncertain? Why do I waver between advance and retreat?

    I’m all grown up.

    I will die aged forty-five.

    A madwoman with a nose ring and a tattoo on her face spat in my eye and said, “You’ll die young. You won’t live past forty-five.” We were coming back from a match or a wedding, about ten of us, and the woman stopped us in the street. I don’t know why I felt so proud. I looked at the other boys with the confidence of one...

  24. Umm Hassan
    (pp. 97-106)

    I am a graduate of the Umm Hassan College. That was its name. I got 50 percent in my high school exams and enrolled. It offered its alumni a rather bewildering educational qualification, better than mediocre and not quite good. Officially, the college fell within the purview of the Ministry of Higher Education. In reality—in terms of employment, marriage prospects, and social standing—their certificate carried the weight of a technical diploma. The students, esteemed colleagues one and all, were mostly poor and lazy. If we had been hardworking, or even mildly conscientious, we would have gotten into a...

  25. Extremely Tall
    (pp. 107-110)

    Abu Antar, the owner of my building in Ain Shams was originally from Upper Egypt, from Qena, I think. He traveled to Saudi Arabia and lived like a monk for ten years until he had saved enough to buy a house. He was extremely tall. You don’t see many that tall in a lifetime. He usually wore a gallabiya on bare skin and wrapped his head in a turban that was sometimes gleaming white and sometimes filthy. He suffered from a speech impediment and hated talking. When he spoke it was like he was swallowing or vomiting. His Adam’s apple...

  26. Abu Tahoun
    (pp. 111-114)

    Our village is always on my mind. From my very first day in Shubra I thought of it as my true home, the only place where I move free from fear, a citizen with rights and obligations. I place it before me and leaf through its memories, those histories of a wounded homeland. Why I always associate homelands with injury I could not say. They seem somehow more impressive, more authentic, when debilitated by wounds. And our village is wounded: poor and tiny, set far from the highway and the market and fresh water, and surrounded on every side by...

  27. Bakr
    (pp. 115-120)

    Mi‘allim Bakr was from back home. His full name: Bakr Qarani Bayoumi. He came to Cairo earlier than most. He was short, solid, and always elegantly attired in an Alexandrian gallabiya and glowing white turban; in winter he added a cashmere shawl and woolen robe. Whatever the weather he was never without a pressed white skullcap. A font of stories, of boasts unending, and epic tales of his exploits and the heroics of others, he came to the city as a simple workman in the sixties. But he strived and struggled and learned how to be a plasterer. He founded...

  28. Fayoum
    (pp. 121-126)

    I got to know the town of Fayoum quite late. I’m originally from the governorate of the Fayoum, from Abu Tahoun, which lies about forty kilometers to the south of town. Of course, I’d go there to catch buses to Cairo and elsewhere. In junior high and high school I would visit in order to eat felafel sandwiches in Katkout restaurant on al-Mohamediya Street, koshari in Sukkar on Mustafa Pasha Street, and to go to the cinema—in winter, Fayoum cinema next to the old Palace of Culture, and in summer the Abd al-Hamid cinema by Bahr Yusif. They were...

  29. The Room in Ain Shams
    (pp. 127-130)

    The room—the room in Ain Shams—was on the third floor. All on its own and free from the tyranny of the other apartments, the last step on the staircase meant you had arrived, that you were now standing before my books, the gas stove, and the blankets Daniel had bought for us. Truth be told, he had bought them for himself. His room was beneath ours. The tenant of our room was entitled to share the bathroom with the tenant—and, more pertinently, the wife of the tenant—in his room, and he decided there could be no...

  30. The Crew
    (pp. 131-134)

    Matar’s crew relied heavily on the element of surprise. I don’t ever recall entering a building through the front door when I worked with him. He’d dig foundations and raise columns on any empty plot of land he came across. We’d always work on buildings about to collapse. During holidays for the employees of local municipalities we worked long hours. Friday was double wages: a day and a night. We’d ease the red wax away with a delicacy befitting its official status and work on until morning. But from time to time we’d work in inhabited buildings, buildings that were...

  31. A Visit
    (pp. 135-144)

    As I was revising the final draft the Doctor came to visit. He called me up and said he was in Isaaf; that he had just left Sanaa, secretary to Professor Ahmed al-Birri at theal-Ahrambuilding. “Got any of the good stuff?” he asked and I told him I did. He chuckled. “God keep you, Professor,” he said, “I’m coming right over.” For a while now the Doctor had been following the progress of a philanthropic project initiated byal-Ahramfor the express purpose of saving him from a court case over a bounced check he’d handed over as...

  32. The Matter Requires Careful Consideration
    (pp. 145-150)

    I happened to read the biography of this foreign writer whose work I had never read a word of previously, though his name was frequently mentioned in the literary circles I moved in. An extremely hard life. He worked jobs that seemed horrendous even to a laborer like myself, but, as the translator emphasized, they “influenced his creative endeavors, left him enough to enjoy his old age and most importantly, demonstrated that he had first to carve away at the coalface before he could achieve literary distinction.” I pondered my literary distinction: a daydream from which I returned with all...

  33. Glossary
    (pp. 151-152)