Translation: The Circus by Basema Younes

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is my translation of a short story in Arabic by the contemporary UAE writer Baasema Younes.

Submitted: May 11, 2008

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Submitted: May 11, 2008






Baasema Younis


The Circus (Dubai Al-Thaqaafiyya, Jan. 2005, pp. 148-150)


For some reason, we got to know in this neighborhood, the damn circus, built some six months ago, to the east of our small neighborhood, gathered its tents and stuff and readied its horses, to carry the players and the baggage, and left.

When the news spread, the face of my brother Abdalla was turning into something of a loaf of bread that dried hard having been carelessly handled by mischievous air. He remained silent for a while when I retold the news at lunch time. He pulled his hand out of the big dish of rice, as if pulling away from an adventure he really wanted to take to the end. He shook his hand abruptly getting rid of the grains of rice remaining thereon. He rose and walked off inciting our clashing looks to follow him. A tragic question, as thick as a cloud, was wandering in my mum's eyes staring at my father's face, as blank and emotionless as a mask. My mum would then turn to me, a kid who was barely 15, only to get back frustrated and helpless. She desperately wanted someone to share her fear and worry with; the desperate wish was wrecked by the rocks in the chasm of my dad's negligence and of my own smallness. Eventually she opened her mouth as if wanting to sigh a complain burning inside her. Yet, my dad's coarse voice cut her tongue off, decisively silenced the impulse to speak as he murmured "I throw my hands up!" [A translation of the formulaic Arab-Islamic expression la Hawla wa la quwwata 'ila billaah, Lit. No power save that granted by Almighty God]

I sneaked away hoping to succeed in disappearing before my mum would find out I'd stopped eating. She used to get tense whenever she looked carefully at my body and noticed how thin I was, and whenever she noticed my brother Abdalla's wandering absent-mindedness, and a complain thereof would break out.

I didn't want to impose my presence on Abdalla who sat at the edge of the stairs to the right of our yard, his eyes stretching over the bulk of the very tall ziziphus tree as if measuring its height while thinking of something. I don't know why the idea of committing suicide popped up in my mind at that moment. My fear escalated while he was climbing the tree with his eyes, hovering amongst its branches. Then, I didn't find a pit where I could bury my curiosity. I got closer and sat next to him, faking a cough and pretending it was a coincidence to see him there. A single question was moving on the tip of my tongue wanting, but fearing, to go out: Was it Abdalla that had done it? Was he the alleged father of the unborn baby of the circus dancer?

Abdalla's burning eyes were diving into the trunk of the tree while I was swallowing back, together with my heated saliva, a volcano of questions erupting from my increasing desire to know and my curiosity to get an answer. They were whispering about the scandal of my kind brother, the decent, wise son of a dignified family of seafarers, with the circus dancer. A treasure, he was, that the flamboyant Soad discovered and held tight the end of the rope where it started with her dirty fingers. I never could believe Abdalla, the slim young man, would surrender to the invasion of a dancer, so full of femininity, such as Soad, or that they would get into a foul relationship that would disgrace the whole family, a relationship that would become another man, drowned in obscenity and whorish drunken nights. I looked at my father's and mother's faces expecting a disaster that would explode as the defaming tongues, pregnant with rains of tales and hearsays, talked about the relationship more and more and crowded around our windows. The Abdalla-and-Soad story became a scandal everyone discussed without shame or camouflage. I used to pass quickly where there was a café or a male gathering fearing that the repressed men's zeal might burn me in its flames.

I observed Abdalla's face more keenly, focusing on his eyes, his disturbed looks, as I had never done before. I was digging deep into their terrains, their details that day, taking an imaginary adventure that forced the image of Soad writhing and zigzagging in his eyes with her soft flexible body, as she used to do every night at the circus tent, when my mother's voice pierced my skull threatening: "This fallen slut will see her end at your mother's hands if she does not stay away from my poor son."

The rumors were usually sown at Abu Khloud's Café, watered and grown there too, where men were burning their lungs with the fire of the hubble bubbles, turbulent with anger and regret. There, I saw their tongues moving, heard their breathing, exhaling outrage. They thought Soad was too much for Abdalla – a boy who could not compete with a muscular strong man such as any of them. They were humming with the story, their heads steaming with resentment, inhaling smoke and burning shouts of envy and malice underneath the burning coal, insulting Soad, while drowning in the deprivation of the pleasure of touching and getting closer to her.

Ever since the damn circus embarked on our neighborhood, Soad has become the story of every man, yearning to burn in her fire, and of every wife who hates her beauty and feels jealous thinking of her own husband's fantasies about the woman. The women of the neighborhood began to negotiate the issue of Soad's femininity, their tongues choking with frustration. When the relationship between Soad and Abdalla started to chew up everyone's ears, the neighborhood became a nest of a wasp buzzing and moaning after a strong blow on the head. The men were consoling one another because the pretty woman they all craved preferred a boy – Abdalla – to them all and the neighborhood girls' hearts wept in silence tragically regretting a wonderful young man who had been haunted by a terrible female jinni, sucking his blood and feeding on and eroding, his soft, young body mercilessly.

My mother used to roar and thunder every night, from behind the door of her bedroom that was filled up with anger, her suppression bursting into bullets that went everywhere in the house, complaining to my father, "Abdalla is burning his wings in a furnace. That snake is wrapping up his neck with her tail, sucking his blood, and she'll leave him when she's fed up. Don't stay silent, Abu Abdalla. Don't take the bait the owner of the circus is luring you with simply because he purchases goods from your shop. You're kind and so is your son Abdalla; don't sell him for some money the circus owner gives you."

She was warning him of a trick the owner of the circus had been plotting so that the former might support their stay in the neighborhood for longer, knowing how influential the shopkeeper, from a family of seamen, and how keen he was on making more and more profits. Yet, I couldn't hear any answer from my father; silence was the only response I knew he used to make. Perchance I thought my father was happy with the profits he made from the circus players and that he too was proud of his son Abdalla, perhaps even jealous of his own son for winning the heart of a woman that he himself craved. I was alarmed that my father might not be uncomfortable with the fact that the woman was simply a belly-dancer, a playful slut no more.

Like all others, my eyes climbed up Abdalla's tall neck, looking for answers at the tiny pores in his skin knowing I would find none at all; he was stubborn and impermeable. He was also extremely handsome; however, I could never picture him within one and the same frame with a slut such as Soad. The silence lasted for long; so, I decided to break it. I drowned in despair whenever I approached Abdalla's coast; yet, my curiosity gave me strength and incited me to whisper, begging for an exchange that might get me some satisfaction, and I murmured hopelessly, going down the drain, "It's so strange This is my translation of the religious prefab subhaan allaah, Lit. "Exalted be God, far from any imperfection". In this context, it expresses astonishment or wondering]

my mother never liked the circus." I did not expect Abdalla would look at me to respond; his long silence was quite normal and predictable and he didn't surprise me with any disruption of the norm. I continued, capitalizing on his silence, "And my father often said those circus guys are cursed and they would have their tragic destiny."

Abdalla went further in his silence as if wishing to remain a wrap where a lot of stuff is hidden and then to through the wrap far away as if throwing a trash bag. Notwithstanding, I continued, while my heart was beating with a desire so pressing to hear him whisper a single word that would comfort my turbid, wishful thoughts. I whispered, stirring a reaction, "I always wanted to go to the circus one day to see what the dwarf does with the giant." "And the fat woman eating fire," I went on faking a laugh. Abdalla's face was still fixed in the direction of the tree, as if writing down, inscribing, a story on its huge trunk, its formidable neck. I laughed going further telling naïve stories where I myself didn't find any fun worth telling, "Poor old lion! He has to obey his trainer for the pieces of meat he will be rewarded with. Could it be that …" I don't know why I stopped then. I turned toward Abdlalla, still silent, inquisitively looking him in the eye and speaking up, my voice pregnant with a deep fear, "You haven't heard of the circus moving? Soad, the belly-dancer, was found killed." I don't really know whether it was a fit of emotion, or a simple, unexpected breeze of air that profoundly, yet unnoticeably, shrugged Abdalla's shoulders. Then, he was still again, as if he hadn't moved a bit, and he left me silently wondering whether he really loved the woman. "The owner of the circus," I resumed my news, "is the suspect, as she was …"

Abdalla's body moved out of its shell of stillness, shaking to look as tall as I used to know it. He didn't look at me, as if not wanting me to know how he would look hearing the news about Soad. He moved two steps and then stopped abruptly facing me and asking, "What did you hear about her?" I hummed ecstatically as he started communicating with me, "The circus owner killed her because he had found her pregnant; he loved her and wanted to marry her. Having killed her, he stole her dead body and escaped, together with the circus, from our neighborhood so that he might not be arrested." Then I whispered cautiously, "No one knows who the father of embryo that was growing in her womb was."

I didn't make out how Abdalla's hand moved up that fast and shut my mouth while his eyes were watching, terrified, the door of my father's room. "If you say a single word …", he warned me. I nodded assuring him I got the message and whispered, "Don't worry! I won't tell them it was you …"It wasn't me", he said in anger. I almost blamed him for not trusting me, but I found out I had not understood the whole story. "It was not me," he said wiping his sweat with a shivering hand, "but it was some one we both care about." "My father?", I asked. Abdalla spoke again, quietly, shutting my mouth with the palm of his hand again, "I had to stop him from repressing my mum. Poor mum! She doesn't deserve to be treated that way."

I couldn't figure out how high Abdalla's head went up then in front of me and how I began looking at him as if watching a shining star that filled the sky with light and brilliance at that particular moment. I recollected the days and minutes when I had often seen Abdalla following my father, keeping an eye on him, chasing him whenever he went out. I began to figure out the reality of the accusations Abdalla had let people weave about him, while he was innocent, fearing that the truth might have killed our poor mother knowing about my amorous father.

Only the ziziphus tree remained with us in the yard, as I watched Abdalla rising to leave the place preferring to keep silent. I beheld a circle around the bottom of the trunk of the tree. In the center of the circle, scattered stones thrust deep as if it had been a newly-dug hole. I rose, pulled by the hand of an astonished desire to predict, attracted thereby to sit there and start digging for an answer, as if I could hear the breathing of a repressed woman coming from underneath the dust, crying for help. My hand was shivering and I was scared that I might get to her, wishing something might happen to prevent me from going after my thoughts. At that moment, I was shaken by the sudden opening of the door of my father's room. My mum came out of her room, too, shaking off the dust of a coma of curiosity that had possessed me, taking me back to a reality I had been unaware of, while I was ignoring the meaning of my brother Abdalla having become a shadow for every query that toyed with my thoughts. I jumped off and deliberately pretended preoccupation with the huge trunk of the ziziphus tree.

Sympathetically, I contemplated my mother when, unsual for her, she shouted at me, "Stop wasting your time playing in the yard and come help your father in his room!"

I had to refrain from everything and leave the place, shutting my ears to the cries going down the darkness of the dust; cries that I thought were begging me to reach for a dying person and save her. I almost saw her hand going out of a small slit that had just appeared over there. Yet, I backed off and shook her image off out of my thoughts. I washed my chest with a cold air that blew at that moment and walked away leaving the whole place behind, wishing I would never get back there lest I might find an answer to any of the questions that stir boisterous noise in the skull of my curiosity ever since that day.


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