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Tales from Dayrut

Tales from Dayrut: Short Stories

Mohamed Mustagab
Translated by Humphrey Davies
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 214
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  • Book Info
    Tales from Dayrut
    Book Description:

    This collection of fourteen connected stories and a novella, From the Secret History of Numan Abdel Hafez, takes us deep into Upper Egypt and the village of Dayrut al-Sharif, in which Mohamed Mustagab was born. To depict a world renowned for its poverty, ignorance, vendettas, and implacable code of honor, Mustagab deploys the black humor and Swiftian sarcasm of the insider who knows his society only too well. When the stillness of a day’s end is shattered by a single gunshot, poignant beauty merges seamlessly into horror, and when a police officer seeking to unravel a murder finds himself with more body parts than he knows what to do with, violence tips as easily into farce. In counterpoint, the author’s often surrealist imagination explores the mysteries of a landscape where seductive women haunt dusty paths and a man may find himself crushed like a worm beneath another’s foot. Elsewhere, the horizons of ‘my village’ expand to include other countries (the author worked in the Arabian Peninsula for a number of years), where equally disastrous consequences follow on folly and self-delusion. Previously almost unknown in English, Mustagab’s voice is both original and disturbing.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-173-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Dayrut al-Sharif

    • Hulagu
      (pp. 3-9)

      In the year nineteen twenty-something, my grandfather had left the city of Qus behind him and, with his traveling companions, penetrated deep into the belly of the mountains of the Eastern Desert. By the time the sun of the fifth day had staggered to the horizon in search of its extinction, the one path on which they had been proceeding had become a dozen paths, their eyes were darting in all directions, the camels were braying, their breath was coming in quivering gasps, and my grandfather whispered to the nearest of those with him, “We are lost.” Unable to restrain...

    • The Battle of the Camel
      (pp. 10-13)

      Siesta time dragged the people and the animals off the streets and the dykes and cast them down on the mud benches and inside the byres and the houses. Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Khalil (ninety-two years of age) described the weather that day as ‘hell’ and his sole remaining wife (bedridden) responded that “God alone is kind.”

      Hajj Nadir locked up his shop and hurried to the courtyard of the mosque where he flopped, I mean dropped, down panting and without even tossing a greeting to the lifeless bodies of Muhammad Abd al-Majid, Abd al-Nazir Ibrahim, Abu Zayd, and Ga‘ud. Even...

    • The Acacia Dog
      (pp. 14-18)

      On my way home from the mill, after the bend in the sycomore-fig road, I met with a woman on the verge of the age of despair. Sensing that she desired intimate converse with me, I conveyed to her the feeling that I was not averse. The road emptied of all life. The trees, despite their enormous size, fled. Silence embraced us.

      She asked about my father, and I indicated to her that he was dead, and that my mother had remarried. “A pity,” she said, and I did not know at whom the pity was directed, my father or...

    • Assassination
      (pp. 19-23)

      They were leaving the mosque of the Sons of Abdillah right after the evening prayer. Each looked hesitantly at the other, seeking to rid himself of whomever or whatever it was that troubled him, and they made their way quietly to the meeting ground outside the house of Hajj K.

      On the wooden bench (made by Jabra the carpenter, who had yet to receive the money he was owed for it) sat D and S, while on a low bench of mud brick built into the wall sat other letters of the alphabet. Two more consecutive letters were standing because...

    • Bughayli Bridge
      (pp. 24-34)

      From the beginning—and even long before the beginning—we have had to put our faith in the fact that fish dwell in water, bats in ruins, teachers in schools, peace of mind in death, foxes in fields, monks in monasteries, falsehood in books, seeds in cracks, poison in menstrual blood, and wisdom in the aftermath of events; and the best of you, good gentlemen, is the one who is spared either the wisdom or the events.

      Talk of wisdom brings to mind our friend the police officer, who, a few days prior to his being awarded the Badge of...

    • Operation Kidnap Amira
      (pp. 35-39)

      We pulled up the green corn stalks, lopped off their tops, and made beautiful rifles out of them with butts of mud that we covered with red brick dust. A thrill of apprehension swept over us as we left the fields behind and infiltrated the village with our mud rifles for the first time, to participate in the party that the North Side was putting on to celebrate the acquittal of Hafiz Effendi in the case of the abduction, strangling, and throwing into the market well of a child from the Batran clan. That day we obtained a plentiful supply...

    • The Offering
      (pp. 40-59)

      We do not know exactly when it happened, but that it happened is certain. My father talked of it and my mother didn’t deny it, and Yahya Haqqi, Yusuf Idris, Khalil Isa al-Ghar, Ali al-Juhayni, the Khwaja Bisada, the sainted Bibawi, and Abd al-Waddud the Nasal all went on about it. Abd al-Waddud the Nasal was the most emphatic in his insistence that it really happened, but it was Yusuf Idris who made the desperate efforts to pin down the period in which it occurred, and was even so bold as to state once that what happened had happened a...

    • Sunflowers
      (pp. 60-72)

      It is no longer practical for me to report anything in my mother’s words: she has submitted and hovers apathetically next to an abandoned oven, where she smiles genially at the army of ants that marches over her flaccid, compassionate body. Similarly, my father was found, the winter before last, wedged between the buttocks of a fat woman who in turn was wedged between two bricks. It is no longer appropriate for me to seek the help of the tongues of others in the telling of my story, not because those tongues have been cut off “like men to whom...

    • Horsemen Adore Perfumes
      (pp. 73-77)

      The day shuddered and shook the nests of the little birds into the furnace of fire. Grief jumped to the left and poured dust over the bodies of the children. The cities shook with laughter, hymns, dementia, and glee. The ovens of the villages collapsed on the pots of baking food and the warming bread.

      A woman who loves dogs and collects foxes said, “Beware this sour black face! It leaves sterility behind it and spreads fornication. It wrangles with the truth, smashes silk cocoons, trades in the skins of virgins, brings sadness, and feeds on adversity.”

      The day shuddered...

    • A Woman
      (pp. 78-82)

      A few lines from now something horrible is going to happen: we shall release the notorious A to scale the walls of the residence of Mrs. N. He will then invade her bed, strangle her with his strong arms, and leave her a lifeless corpse, blood running from its nose and mouth and flooding the world.

      As far as the basics are concerned, Mrs. N is beautiful and suffers from a conspicuous desire for unbuttonedness. One young woman has related an embarrassing and ambiguous story about her, a story later confirmed by the corpse of a mendicant cloth-seller. Also, a...

    • The Edge of the Day
      (pp. 83-88)

      The sun, a little flustered, blushed a brighter red. A fox dropped down into the ditch and, once sure all was well, stuck out its muzzle from the midst of the riverhemp foliage, and lapped at the water. A frog poked its head up, causing the fox to stop drinking and ready itself for the hunt. The Hajj set his little, only, son in front of him on his jenny (its back dyed with henna because of its many wounds), towing his cow and its newborn offspring behind him. A mongoose peered out from among the stalks of sugarcane, hoping...

    • Naked He Went His Way
      (pp. 89-92)

      The man’s naked arm hung in the air in the entrance to the squalid house. People stared intently at every fissure and ant hole in the front wall in hope of seeing the expected serpentine movement. All eyes strained to examine the courses of the mud brick and the wood of the façade, the palm fronds of the ceiling, the cracks in the walls.

      “My price is a pound.”

      He extended his thin, savage arm upward, as high as it could reach, till it almost touched the ceiling. Then he turned his head to face the people.

      “My price is...

    • One Way Only
      (pp. 93-101)

      I reached our house before sunset, in a state of exhaustion and covered with the dust of travel. My mother opened the door, threw herself into my arms, and burst into tears. I tried to make her stop but her unceasing sobbing pleased me. That wretch of a pigeon-dung vendor—a man of no standing and of whose village, family, and even name we knew nothing—that worthless vendor of pigeon dung had sworn at my mother and cursed her and said that, were it not for a number of considerations, he would have smashed her teeth in.

      And the...

    • The J-B-Rs
      (pp. 102-114)

      The voice of the J-B-Rs quivered with sorrow. The Great Jabir, laid out in his winding sheet, indicated to them with a blink of his eyelids that they should sit. One of them whispered through his tears, “Impart to us your last words, Father!” But the Great Jabir continued to stare into the distance in silence.

      Quaveringly, the voice of the clan of Jabir rose in a hymn that spoke of a vizier who started life in a pit. But the Great Jabir continued to stare into the distance in silence.

      Someone with a ringing voice chanted the tale of...

  4. The Secret History of Nu‘man Abd al-Hafiz

    • On His Birthplace and Lineage
      (pp. 117-127)

      No one in this world can pinpoint the year in which Nu‘man was born. It is certain that Germany’s Reichstag had been burned down as Adolf prepared to rid himself of the opponents of the Third Reich, and that Lenin had died and handed socialist Russia over to his obdurate successor. On the other hand, we find it difficult to credit that Chamberlain had yet taken over the reins of power in Britain, Greatest of them all, and it cannot be confirmed that my paternal uncle Mihimmad (so pronounced) had yet left the prison where he had been incarcerated for...

    • On His Childhood and Youth
      (pp. 128-135)

      The most cogent analysis among those who tend to treat the life of Nu‘man as a span encompassed by or linked, over the course of long periods, to those of other people (mother, grandfathers, grandmothers, paternal and maternal uncles) is that to disassociate Nu‘man’s particular span from the lives of those who passed on before or at the same time as him should be regarded as an arbitrary act deployed by certain of his enemies with the intention of isolating his life preparatory to the diminution and, ultimately, destruction of his status.

      According to this argument it would have been...

    • On Perdition
      (pp. 136-144)

      We must pause now before the calumny—which is to say, the lie—that some swindler has put about concerning Nu‘man, accusing me of having been party to the expunging of Nu‘man’s father from existence so that I could give the son the opportunity to grow to manhood as an orphan and thus prepare the way for his inclusion in the lists of prodigy performers and miracle workers. This swindler has documented his patent slander by providing the names of a number of famous orphans who altered the course of history, and he has even had the gall, this swindler,...

    • For the Majestic, and Also Beautiful, Lady!
      (pp. 145-153)

      The majestic, and also beautiful, lady who had decided to acquire Nu‘man Abd al-Hafiz for her magnificent house was composed of a nose, two lips, two eyes, two eyebrows, two cheeks, and a neck, followed by a chest, two breasts, a navel, and two thighs, which were components rarely found gathered together, and complete, in the women of our village, whose particulars hung loosely by reason of the constant changes in the climate and such factors as erosion, heat, children, mud, dung, cold, and men.

      It is believed that certain individuals—a very few—have suffered violent ends on their...

    • An Intermediate Chapter
      (pp. 154-160)

      To be even-handed, I have to declare my reservations about accepting the disturbing statement made by a certain scoundrel against the Khamis lineage, among whom Nu‘man is to be numbered, to the effect, apparently, that they are a people lacking in discernment: when they come across a purse full of gold, they undo the cloth purse, filch it, and leave the gold,¹ and if one of them in those days had recourse to a moneylender to buy a sack of chemical fertilizer, he would pay the price of it many times over, and in installments, and sell the sack immediately...

    • On the Empty Tomb
      (pp. 161-168)

      Any historian is bound to be afflicted by panic and confusion when he discovers that his hero—the vehicle of his theory—is hiding from him matters of the utmost sensitivity, matters whose revelation may have repercussions on the challenge and response that—so we are told—govern the progress of history, matters that may even subject the entire theory to collapse.

      We have gone the length of the preceding chapters believing that the topknot of hair crowning Nu‘man’s pate was nothing but a freely growing ‘ex-voto’ dedicated to Sheikh al-Farghal that could be shaved off only once a kid...

    • On the Circumcision
      (pp. 169-176)

      Perhaps the first to start a serious discussion on the matter of Nu‘man’s circumcision was a relative on his mother’s side who worked as a marketer of hens’ eggs in the aftermath of an epidemic that wiped out the area’s chickens in the summer of the Coptic year 1668, and who was, or so it is believed, engaged in the preparation of the necessary equipment. Umm Nu‘man, however, clarified to her relative the nature of certain impediments that stood in the way of her making the arrangements for her son’s circumcision, first that it was conditional upon the slaughter of...

    • On How the Circumcision Was Completed
      (pp. 177-183)

      “All things are in pawn to God’s will, and had God wanted Nu‘man to be circumcised in Mecca, no impediment could have prevented it, and had He wanted him circumcised in al-Ta’if, nothing could have intervened.”

      Isma‘il the Gravedigger mumbled in confirmation of these cringing consolations that flowed from the mouth the Eid the Barber, the jenny that bore them both lowering its ears and neck until its muzzle was nearly touching the ground. Nu‘man, mounted on the jenny following behind, rested his back on his mother’s soft chest. The cavalcade proceeded silently and steadfastly, eyes, and thighs, defeated, as...

    • On the Days of Might
      (pp. 184-189)

      The thing between Nu‘man’s thighs swelled and he stayed in the house when in the village, or the hut on the banks of the Bahr Yusuf. Meanwhile events moved quickly and without respite: his mother’s things were burgled twice; Sheikh Bakr died immediately after taking his fifth wife and after he had sold his land and his Jeep and spread his mat next to Shahawi the Tomato Seller; weevils destroyed the village’s cotton acreage and left the fields as nothing but dry stalks swaying in the autumn wind; in the nearby town Adli Tulba Ulaymi led the student demonstrations calling...

    • On the Preparations for the Wedding
      (pp. 190-197)

      I must confess that I was taken by surprise when it became clear to me that the idea of Nu‘man’s getting married did not arise from the days of the inflammation of the thing between his legs. On the contrary, it (the idea of his getting married) was as old as the bruises that covered his knees and the cracks that embellished the soles of his feet. However, “[i]t is always easy for an historian twenty years after an event to see the folly of those involved in it,”¹ and candor compels me to state the outward appearance of the...

    • On the Wedding!
      (pp. 198-206)

      As soon as all were assured that the three tail stars of Ursa Major had waned and were no longer in a position to set upon the moon, that the dowry had been paid down to the last item, that Faraj Allah the Tailor had finished mounting the piping on the jallabiya of frescacloth, that the month of Tuba had gone, that forty days had passed since the death of one of the bride’s relatives, and that it had been ascertained that the dates of the Feminine Impediments were not incompatible with those of the days set aside for the...

  5. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-210)