Poet, novelist, and documentary filmmaker Ahmed Atallah was born in Qena, in Upper Egypt, and he started out by publishing colloquial poetry. His popular Mariam: A True Story was published in 2013:
Most recently, Attalah won Egypt’s State Incentive Award for 2020 for his novel غَرّبْ مَالْ.
Mariam: A True Story was written mostly in Egyptian colloquial Arabic, detailing the quiet love between a young Egyptian Christian man and an Egyptian Muslim woman turned into a taboo by the society around them. Omar Ibrahim has translated a selection for ArabLit.
By Ahmed Atallah
Translated by Omar Ibrahim
I am a mechanical engineer. There’s a cross tattooed on my hand, thus I am Christian.
My relationship with God, like that of any other human, is apparently normal. I work all day and, when I get home at night, I pray before I sleep: “Dear Lord, I’m not an angel. I sin, but you forgive.”
Today I’m 44 years old.
All these years passed while I was surrounded by friends: Eng. Mohammad Younis, Eng. Mostafa Mahmoud, Mohammad Ali, Hany Ismail. They were always with me, whether I was at work, in the neighborhood, at the coffee shop . . . everywhere.
We usually meet on Fridays after the communal prayers. Mohammad prays at the mosque while I’m at church. We finish and then we meet up. We have lunch and go to any coffee shop. We spend the whole day there, and then everyone heads home at one or two the next morning.
The next day, everyone goes to work.
I’m from Giza.
All my neighbors are like brothers to me. Whether in my building or in the buildings around me, I have many of them: Moustafa, Sherif, Awad, Sameh, Mahmoud.
And she is my neighbor . . .
She’d been a friend of my sister Yvonne. They went to the same school in both primary and secondary. But, in secondary, she went to a public school while my sister Yvonne went to a private one.
When I was in the faculty of engineering, she was in her final year of school, and she was working at a shop right beside the entrance of my building. I used to greet her whenever I went in and out.
It was normal. She was like Yvonne. . .
No . . . It wasn’t normal. She was never like Yvonne.
Back then, I began to admire her, but I never said anything. That was simply because—well, as I understood it back then—things wouldn’t work out.
I admired her silently, voicelessly.
When I bought things at the shop, I felt that I was special, although this wasn’t because I was her neighbor, since there were a lot of neighbors who visited the shop. She sometimes kept them waiting until she finished something. But that never happened with me. She would leave everything to get me whatever I wanted, and with a warm smile.
I knew she felt comfortable when I was around.
But she was also silent, also voiceless.
* * *
I graduated in 1991. I got an exemption from the military service and started off my career as an engineer. I worked doing installations in tourist villages. I installed washing machines, kitchens equipment, central air conditioning systems, and hot-water boilers. Mostly, I specialized in boilers and washing machines, and I mostly worked in Hurghada, Sharm El-Shiekh, Marsa Alam and Safaga.
I travelled continuously because of work. This traveling—and the work—made me notice that foreign women might easily marry Egyptian men. It was normal. A foreign woman got into a relationship with an Egyptian man. They both went to a lawyer, signed a contract, and they were married. Then she’d notarize the contract in her country. She might travel with him back to her country and stay there, no problem, or he might stay in Egypt and she’d visit him once a year, stay for a month or so, and then return home. That wasn’t a problem either.
At that time, my family talked with me about the necessity of being in a relationship with someone.
But who should I be in a relationship with?
I thought and thought, until I reached an answer:
The one for whom my heart bore feelings.
I would only live once. So I shouldn’t marry just because it was an obligation. I also needed friendliness, kindness, and respect.
Lots of Christian girls were around, here and there. Some of them are gorgeous. Some visited our house and sat with Yvonne for hours. And they talked to me. But none of them drew my attention.
Every time I searched inside my heart, I found nothing but Mariam’s image . . .
Ahmed Attalah is the author of a number of books of poetry and prose, winner of this year’s State Incentive Prize in the novel category.
Omar Ibrahim is an Egyptian literary translator, poet and essayist. He translated Mahmoud Morsi’s collection of poems It’s Time I Confess into English, and his Arabic translation of H. P. Lovecraft’s novella The Whisper in Darkness was on the bestselling list of many bookstores. He also has his own poetry collection, titled Fragments of My Mind, and two upcoming translations.
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