Drowning

Drowning-CoverZIADA Hammour
Dar el ein, Cairo, 2019, 266 pages

Summary

Summary

Sudan, 1968, the military coup taking place in Khartoum echoes all the way to the small rural town of Hajer Narti, where the body of a young girl has just been found in the Nile. Like every time a body is washed up on the shore, Fatima shows up: according to popular belief, when the Nile brings a new body back, it also brings back an old one. Fatima is still looking for her daughter Souad, believed to have drowned many years ago.

The body of the unknown girl will be kept in water for three days in the hope that someone from the nearby towns will recognize the girl before she is buried – the body being in no state to be taken out of the water.

The novel unfolds within the narrow time window of a few months, as we watch how the fate of Abeer is sealed. The 13 year old nymphet, daughter of Fayit Niddo, an old slave, will ultimately throw herself in the Nile. This suicide leaves little doubt as to the nature of the first drowning that opened the book, thereby lifting a corner of the veil that covers the misery of so many women’s lives.

Though slavery has been abolished, freedom is not truly granted to slaves, and the traditional social structure of Hajer Narti remains the theater of an old struggle for power and land between two clans, the repercussions of which shape the most intimate details of life. As the reader picks out the thread of the complex relations of kinship, the trap in which Abeer finds herself gets more clearly defined. All boys and men of the village are attracted to the unusually beautiful young girl, most of whom end up having sex with her. Including her presumed powerful uncle, Al Basheer. Abeer is the daughter of Fayit Niddo, and one of the notable men of the village, the wedding celebration of whom the village is about to celebrate.

Abeer is a child that should have never seen the day of light, according to Al Radiyya, the wife of the dominant clan’s chief Mohammad Said, and sister in law of Abeer’s father.

Abeer is submissive, and seems to have abandoned her body. Ever since Al Radiyya has prevented her from going to school, two years prior, thereby crushing her dream of becoming a doctor and escaping this town with her mother, Abeer has been an empty vessel. She never refuses a sexual invitation, and is silently abused, including by the communist doctor, Shaqrab, who ran away from the city and came to this town with dreams of social justice and equality.

“Drowning” is Hammour Ziada third novel. With scarce descriptions, and just the minimal amount of words, Ziada succeeds in portraying very convincing characters, and in poignantly capturing the violence of social relations in a strictly codified society. Only Abeer eludes the reader. Like a dream all men try to catch throughout the novel, Abeer floats silently across town, a fluttering butterfly. Her dead eyes are only visible to the reader, while all men see is her slender body. Her humanity is finally revealed a few hours before her death.

In the words of the preeminent literary critic Mahmoud Abd El Shakkour “The tragedy of Hajer Narti lies in the fact that it is governed by cycles of misery and joy, a misery that lies in the wait and the isolation, in the beautification that is done in the pain, soreness and blood of scarification, and in the fact that its people do not realize that the successive military coups in the capital are the only reason why they are able to remain in power. They also do not realize that Fatima will continue to look for her drowned daughter Souad for years and generations to come, so long as no one breaks these cycles, so long as the Nile swallows its victims, instead of being a river of paradise.”

[More details available upon request]

Translation sample

Translation sample

Translated by Jonathan Wright 

Fayit Niddu stood up, tall and muscular, and called her daughter over. “Abir,” she said, “come and fill the water jar. Your uncle Bashir hasn’t left any for us.” 

Then she turned to Abdel Razeq. “No one treats me fairly here, except for you,” she said.

Abir came into the shack and added a fragrance to the place, like the smell of guava leaves in the rain.

She was a slim girl.  As dark as black magic. Her young legs shone like the moon over the Nile. Her breasts were like lemons that hadn’t yet ripened, and they were hardly covered by her childhood clothes.

When she bent over to pour the water, Hajj Bashir muttered, “Goodness gracious! There is no power or strength but in God.” Suleiman al-Hawati smiled and took a deep breath, almost a gasp of desire for the girl. The men’s eyes sparkled as if they were confessing to themselves that she had them in her thrall. Rashid left the shack in a hurry, watching Ahmad Shagrab as he tried to wash the smell of death from  his body, with such vigour that he almost scraped his skin off. 

Abir left the shack too and al-Rashid was almost blinded. The girl wasn’t pretty, but she was as salutary as good health to a sick man. He stopped her for no particular purpose and asked, “Does the smell of the body upset you?”

She shrugged her shoulders and pursed her lips with indifference. She tried to slip past but he grabbed her wrist.

“You’re a big girl now, Abir,” he said.

She looked at him with dead eyes.

Like a guava pecked by birds. She smelled aromatic and enticing. Her hair was dishevelled and dusty, as befits a girl.

He was interrupted by the sound of the ferry and the muttering of his brother Bashir behind him. He let go of her wrist and she flew off like a dove. Hajj Bashir prodded him in the back and said, “The ferry’s here. Come on, let’s get to business. The moulid’s in a few days and the wedding too, and there’s lots that needs to be done. That’s enough leching.”

He didn’t linger. His brother treated him as a child, though he was a man in his thirties. But he loved him as a child loves his father, because his brothers were the only father he had known.

[Longer translation excerpt available upon request]

 

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