From Arabic Translation Prize Winners, ‘Cunning Clouds of Betrayal’

Yesterday, the University of Arkansas formally announced the co-winners of their 2014 Arabic Translation Prize. Today, a story first published in Banipal from co-winning author Hisham Bustani, trans. co-winning translator Thoraya El-Rayyes:

Hisham Bustani

Translated from Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes

“Why do lies invade us like an incurable plague, occupy our cells, flow through our blood so that we infect others? Why do lies trap us like a cloud of poison gas – out of Akira Kurasawa’s dreams – between inhaling it or being torn apart on a rocky shore at the bottom of the abyss?”

When he told her this, clouds were creeping into the blue sky and he started to count them: “This is the wolf of deceit, that is the obelisk of stifled desire and the one next to it is the knife of our shameful deeds. Ah, this is my face turning and spreading out and becoming thinner and thinner.. see, the sky has appeared from under it.”

The thick fog did not leave the hills of her face. When he nudged her, he felt her body absorb his elbow and she didn’t turn around.

[One day earlier]

She was radiant, dressed in yellow. When his fingers touched her black and white keys, out came the sounds of someone else. Maybe he hadn’t practised well enough. In his mind he read the sheet music again and moved his fingers over and over, then tried once more, and out came someone who didn’t resemble his reflection in the mirror, then another, and another.

He gathered his strings, left her and walked away.

[One day later]

There was only a piano in the empty, spacious hall. The first player entered, bowed before an audience in his head, threw back his coattails and sat down. He lifted the keyboard lid, closed his eyes a little and then.. pushed off with his fingers, releasing a stifled wooden sound. When he examined her insides, he did not find strings but a swimming pool. He stepped onto the edge, dived in and died, for it held no water.

The second player entered, bowed before an audience in his head, sat down and wriggled his fingers quickly in the air, then hit her keys and out came a stifled wooden sound. When he examined her insides, he did not find strings but a grotto from which strange lights shone with a weird glare and as soon as he went inside, the entrance was sealed by a boulder that let no air in, and he died, suffocated.

The third player entered, bowed before an audience in his head, sat down, crossed his fingers and stretched them and then.. nothing but the same stifled wooden sound. When he examined her insides, he saw a street and as he crossed it he was hit by a speeding car and.. died as well.

All that remained was an empty, spacious hall with a coffin inside.

[That same day]

“This cloud is you: a box of games with an open lid; a door slightly ajar that says enter to passersby, who have no faces. How can I hold on to you when you are mist that escapes my grasp, shaped by the wind and people’s watchful eyes?” He said this, and bowed to an audience clapping loudly in a hall full to the brim. Little by little, the sounds began to fade and fade as he saw them one by one evaporating into clouds and creeping into the blue sky. He turned to her. She had left and would not be coming back, so he sat and started to count her: “This is the wolf of deceit, that is the obelisk of stifled desire and the one next to it is the knife of our shameful deeds. Ah, this is my face turning and spreading out and becoming thinner and thinner.. see, the sky has appeared from under it.”

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