Egyptian author’s Muhammad Aladdin‘s first novel, The Gospel According to Adam (2006), was a break with traditional novel format. Aladdin went on to write four more novels; below is an excerpt of Adam translated by Humphrey Davies, with an introductory Q&A with the author:
ArabLit: What sparked you to begin like this, with multiple male personalities around a (generic, nameless) female? The males are also, of course, archetypes.
Muhammad Aladdin: I don’t know –the men were also nameless as well, and that was, I guess, an important part of the game. There is another female archetype appearing later in the novel. It all began with this idea of “How would you talk with a girl you like?” and then the madness begins. You asked before about this idea of the “unattainable female” which appears in my writing; I don’t think it recurs much in the nine books I’ve written, but I think you are right in the sense that for me it’s both realistic, and yet full of layers of different meanings, this idea that we are always after an unattainable female, which can be a goal, an idea, a dream — life in its wholeness.
AL: What can we gather about the narrator, and his social milieu, from his casual mention of rape and sexual violence?
MA: Well, some would suggest that Adam reveals the social milieu of an entire society. I can’t disagree; it can be; but what was more important to me is that The Gospel According to Adam is actually a book of sins: greed, cruelty, oppression, etc. It’s all of what you consider unholy, coming from truly unholy creatures called humans. Yet the book also speaks about two marvellous things about human beings, imagination and hope. I chose to write this from an individualistic approach, which is why the first-person technique was a must for this novel.
The only assertion of rape comes from The Bald Mechanic, one character we ultimately dislike. I think it can be a disturbing book, but I would hope it will be a good read.
AL: Which writers do you consider yourself in dialogue with, stylistically and content-wise?
MA: Would you believe me if I said I really do not know? I truly do not. I can tell you of the writers I love instead, but it would be a long and usual list, maybe a dull one.
AL: How would you describe your writing, as an oeuvre, or as a project? Is there something you’re trying to accomplish that we can see the beginnings of in this excerpt?
MA: That’s the hardest thing to ask from a writer, I don’t know how I can answer this, but I do believe that every writer has an obsession. Mine might be alienation, madness, connection and disconnection, imagination, maybe obsessions itself, or without being too pretentious, life itself. If the writing would deliver life to you, make a life for you, through its own lens, then I’ve succeeded. About the excerpt, I hope it will reflect something of this.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ADAM
By Muhammad Alaa al-Din
Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies
The sun directs its piercing gaze at the street, its whip lash excoriating the heads and backs of the passers-by. Sticky sweat pours over my forehead as I make my slow progress seeking protection in the shade of the buildings on my right. A few steps ahead of me the square opens out, its face, too, shiny with sweat. What sin can it have committed to make the sun scorch it so with its looks? It occurs to me that I’ve chosen the wrong time for a walk; I could have waited an hour or two. Protruding breasts beneath a tight blouse catch my eye. Full lips too. I glance at her cautiously as she stands in front of the fast food restaurant and keep on looking, over my shoulder, at her prominent, well-aimed breasts, of a succulence I can almost taste. I tell myself the young man she’s waiting for won’t come. Entering the square, I stand in front of the news stand, scanning its wares—a nourishing daily habit that will do nothing for me. If I were anyone else I wouldn’t bother to keep doing it over and over like a monkey or maybe I’d actually buy the papers every morning so I wouldn’t need to stand and stare at them. I start to move away and find her ahead of me. I notice her yielding, woman-of-the-people backside and slow my steps a little so I can examine it well. She slows too making it difficult for a few moments for me to give my glances free rein. I can feel her turning to look at me so I pretend I don’t notice. From behind my back materializes a man in his thirties who follows her the length of the sidewalk, his intentions as clear as the sun’s gaze. I narrow my eyes and the sweat makes sloping landing strips of my eyebrows while I watch the girl, the man behind her. She takes the street that goes to Falaki Square on my right so I drop the whole thing and cross to the other side. Then a strange curiosity seizes me so I turn around and lean against the underground railway exit wall, watching her as she walks down the street, the man still behind her (because her breasts protrude and her backside is of the yielding, woman-of-the-people type). She must have noticed who’s following her because she stops at a tourist shop. He stops too. She resumes her walk and he follows. She stops again at a clothing store. He stops, and the timing and the way his body turns toward her indicate that, impelled by her sudden halt, he is about to fire off the first salvoes that will initiate their acquaintance. She turns on her heal and makes her way once more toward the square. Now her entering the street appears to have been a random act, as she’s returning to her original position. She gives me a long look as she walks that slow walk of hers that imparts a gentle, harmonious, and anything but vulgar swing to her backside. She smiles as I look back at her before walking on again. Anyone else would have understood the signal or even seized the opportunity with a brash swagger and accosted her at the news stand, or perhaps gone back to where I first saw her and told her how beautiful she was and invite her to a drink with me at the fast food restaurant. I don’t have any money on me but as a Brash Swaggerer I would possess a decent fortune and since I’d talked to her that way, I’d own an apartment set up to receive young women with protruding breasts and yielding backsides or I’d know a friend who had such an apartment, though I’d prefer doing it on my own and at my leisure. I’d speak confidently, as befits one who’d made love to as many girls as he has hairs on his head, and talk in a lofty style. She’d be generous and a good sport and agree to take her clothes off after less than half an hour and let me do whatever I wanted without saying, “That’s wrong,” and that would make me very happy. Or it might be that being a Brash Swaggerer and expert love-maker whose every night was a banquet of breasts and vaginas and backsides, it might not make me that happy, meaning that following the ecstasy of the first encounter our love making would take on a somewhat mechanical quality. She’d tell me that the apartment was beautiful and that the shiny brown parquet made it look even nicer, the colors being a mixture of browns and pistachio greens that blended into a harmonious whole that was easy on the nerves and not spoiled by the small red band on the pack of Marlboro. These imaginings make me think of a Sensitive Painter who treats women, food, and drink with delicatesse. Or perhaps I’d be a cruel Bohemian Artist and I’d slap her and kick her and stick my finger in her in a way that hurt her as she lay on top of the wide old unkempt bed. She’d like that and surrender her lower half to me on the bed and sway her head as it hung out over the side and she stared at the cigarette ash scattered here and there over the ancient parquet. As a brutal Bohemian Artist I’d get no pleasure out of this submissiveness of hers and try to get her angry so I could well and truly rape her. Perhaps she wouldn’t like that and would threaten to scream if I hit her again and that would certainly make me happy. I might be happy too if I went back to being a Sensitive Painter, so that I could savor her delicately, the way I did French wine, but perhaps she wouldn’t like that because she was looking for someone who would ram himself into her with the force of a mule and treat her like a piece of meat that had to be speared and chopped so it would cook faster, through and through. I’d never accept anything like that because my French upbringing and life overseas had made me see women as a delectable sort of sweetmeat that was to be nibbled an inch at a time. It goes without saying I’d have made love to beautiful Caucasian women who left the alluringly pendulous florets of their vaginas just the way they were. It goes without saying I’d have licked that dazzling whiteness and looked into those riveting blue eyes and thrust my hand into those smooth blond tresses. As a Sensitive Painter, though, I’d have grown bored with white Caucasian bodies and felt a need to savor more thoroughly the tawny brown. On the other hand as a brutal Bohemian Artist I’d have written a bed-based doctoral thesis on the special excitement created by having a “country chicken” clucking away on your bed, what with her piercing looks and her slightly snub nose and her kinky hair, all of which sent the lust screaming and 3-D through your veins. The Caucasian Snow White type stirs up in me something that wants to rape and make love to it like a machine so that you feel her almost melting beneath you, but the country chickens are solid ramparts immune to time and erosion who demand of you wordlessly “Is that the best you can come up with?” Perhaps I won’t be a painter but go back to the image of the Brash Swaggerer, though now I’d add the word “Vulgar” because I’d be wearing a bracelet and a gold chain that would up my price bracket in the eyes of the girl with the protruding breasts and yielding backside. My apartment would have to be decorated in bright colors because I’d think those are the most elegant in the world. The bed would have to be wide and showy, with mirrors and red sheets. The hair of my chest would have to be bushy, even if I had to use a razor on it and I’d have to be sucking on a cigarette while she caressed me. I’d be the spoiled son of a rich businessman who’d fathered him after first having five girls and who was preparing him to run every detail of his business all the way from abstention from mere marijuana to how to make a tasteful choice of presents to be sent to the big guys. My skin would be brown to contrast with the expanses of gold on my wrist and neck and fingers, my bedroom would be stuffed with furniture and floored with high-cost ceramic tiles whose price I didn’t bother to ask when I bought them. I’d call out to her with explicit expressions that doubtlessly would not appeal to the Sensitive Painter but which would be perfectly appropriate to the Bohemian Artist, who has often offered to give my apartment a make-over. Maybe the whole thing wouldn’t even happen at all because the girl with the protruding breasts and yielding backside would never allow me to address her as “babe” as she stands at her first place in front of the fast food restaurant. I’ll try again, and maybe molest her a bit. I’ll be a Bald Mechanic with an ugly face wearing my clean Sunday clothes and on my way to the movies and I certainly won’t be happy when she rejects me and maybe I’ll stick my finger into her in a despairing gesture of revenge. That might happen and at that moment I might strike out at the crowd that would gather in a few minutes with infinite denial that I’d ever interfered with the girl with the protruding breasts and yielding backside. I might be taken off to the police station, where the officer whose car I usually tune would get me out after signing an undertaking not to molest her again. Maybe the girl would agree to let me touch her protruding breasts and play with her vagina in the cinema because the only apartment I have has been taken over by the mother of my children, not to mention the children. She would take twenty pounds off me plus the price of the ticket and I’d go back happy to tell everyone in the café the details of my sortie, adding to them by saying she really liked me and offered to take me back to her place so I could pleasure her, and it turned out her husband was there and he was a queer and he wanted me to pleasure him too, so I pleasured her and gave the husband a slap across the face that knocked him flat. And the workshop bosses around me would be laughing at the husband who was a pimp and a sodomite and none of them would say anything about how I get all hot for the backsides of the apprentices in the workshop and that what really happened was I pleasured the lad Hamada on the back seat of the car that was there for an overhaul after I got out of the police station. In the midst of the laughter I might catch sight of the Sensitive Painter sitting on a chair on the sidewalk opposite and whisper to one of them that he was queer. And as the Sensitive Painter on the chair in the low-class café I’d stare at the Bald Mechanic who wears clean clothes on Sundays and I’d say to myself . . .