A short story by novelist, poet, critic and screenwriter Yasser Abdel Latif published on the 18th of September in شرفات [Balconies] the culture supplement of جريدة عمان [The Oman Daily], though it is not available on their website. Abdel Latif is the author of a single novel, قانون الوراثة (Dar Merit, 2002) [Law of Inheritance] for which he won the 2005 Sawiris Cultural Award. It is currently being translated. He also has a collection of short stories يونس في احشاء الحوت (Kotob Khan, 2011) [Jonah in the Belly of the Whale] and two collections of poetry ناس وأحجار [People and Stones] and جولة ليلية (Dar Merit, 2009) [Night Tour].
I found myself standing in the heart of darkness on a train platform under the open sky.
I’d been at the wake of a work colleague’s father in a village in Baheira province, some three hundred kilometres from Cairo and had been too late to catch the minibus in which I’d arrived in the company of the rest of the co-workers, who had come from the capital to pay their condolences. Unable to make the return journey with them I was forced to return alone on the country train.
There is a rail network that connects the villages of the Delta to junctions in the towns and capital cities of its provinces. I had no idea where in the network this station lay but I knew that I was in the far northwest, on the border between cultivated land and the desert.
It was about nine in the evening yet in the countryside it seemed like the depths of night. The station was a single uncovered platform with a single strip of track before it, which meant the train travelled along it in both directions. I was standing alone at the station and all about me the corn stretched out over vast distances. Though it was summer, a thick layer of fog rested over the fields, which emitted the electric whine of hovering insects.
There was a solitary, feebly shining lamppost on the platform, a sphere of mosquitoes surrounding its halo of light. The lamp would fade out for minutes at a time and the mosquitoes would fly off, to return as the light bloomed anew after taking its break. In the sky was a crescent moon that far from dispelling the air of desolation only deepened it. Mobile phones still lay in the future.
I smoked getting on for half a pack of cigarettes, alternating between a seat on the wooden bench and standing at the platform’s edge. Recalling some lines of poetry by Amal Donqol—At the village stations insomnia’s trains pull in/ And the wings of dust draw up with the languor of imminence—I took to entertaining myself by repeating them and fancied I saw the train approaching, swaying indistinct through the darkness… but it was only fancy.
From across the fields the sound of yelping or barking reached my ears. Wild dogs, were they? Wolves? Maybe even hyenas. I reflected that such predators abounded in these desert bordered regions, but comforted myself with the thought that I stood on a station platform, that the station and the tracks belonged to the world of the government, that wolves and hyenas belonged to the wild, and that these two worlds rarely intersected, even in the countryside. Perhaps if I were to step down to that world in the fields the hyenas would attack me, but up here…
After a while the howling started to recede and the fading sound, the blanketing fog, the sinister moonlight and the fields’ narcotic fragrance combining together, I entered into a state that resembled a dream. Fear subsided. In truth, I hadn’t been afraid. I was, perhaps, amusing myself with fear, with finding myself in a situation so perfectly suited to it. Yet the rituals of condolence, the mouthwatering food we tucked away at the wake and the family’s attempts to deal with the ordeal by losing themselves in formalities… all this put paid to the dream’s spell and left me as fixed in reality as a nail in a lump of wood. And indeed, I was a nail, all at sea on a station’s platform.
The family of our friend—the one hosting the wake—were originally from the Saeed in southern Egypt, but had settled in Baheira decades back. For this reason, the ceremonies had a predominantly Saeedi flavour. The men were constantly offering us cigarettes: no sooner were the ones in our hands finished than one of them would come up proffering his pack and begging off was never on. I don’t like to write too much about smoking—I view it as one of the overworked clichés of modern Arabic literature—but the sheer quantity of the cigarettes I inhaled that day, either at the wake or nervously out at the station, left me no choice.
The women of the family, who had come with their men from the Saeed, were gathered in a room alongside the hall where we sat and their weeping and wailing was clearly audible. At first the keening was an undifferentiated jumble, then one of them soared clear with a scream and piercing ululation and then we heard the adeed, the dirge of the south, pure, like a song innate to every heart, that continued to sound inside my head even as I stood at the station:
“Whose grave is this, the herd now tramples in?
The stranger’s grave, who leaves his kith and kin.”
We da gabr meen illy al bagar daasoo
Gabr el ghareeb illy faat naasoo
the wailing woman had sung, stretching out the ee in ghareeb and the aa in naasoo until it became gabr el ghareeeeeeb illy faat naaaasoo. I pondered the etymological connections of baqar and qabr—cows and grave—and an ancient verse also popped into my head: Harb’s grave lies in a desolate spot/And by Harb’s grave no other grave lies. It is said that the verse is anonymous, found inscribed on a tombstone all alone in the Arabian sands, just as it is said that the statue of the idol Hubal once stood carved from red marble on the desert fringe beside the shore of the Red Sea. There is a kinship between the Saeed and the Arabian deserts, like the one between their poetry.
I stand waiting for a train that does not arrive at a station gone astray. At the wake they informed me that a train would definitely pass through tonight but they weren’t sure of the exact time, or rather: the train never arrived on time.
At the far end of the platform I spied the figure of a man sporting a tarboush in the old style, or at least that is what it looked like in the moonlight, by the pale lamplight. I didn’t notice him arriving; he was suddenly there on the platform. He must be an employee from the provincial offices of the venerable railway company: a guard or a ticket inspector; the station manager, even.
I gathered myself and decided to go over and ask him about the coming train; whether it was coming at all. The journey from where I was to where he was meant crossing the entire platform from one end to the other. When I got there I discovered a short man in a suit and a tarboush whose red colouring was visibly faded despite the poor light and to my surprise he was dapper, quite the opposite of the moth-eaten mien one expected in aged functionaries of his sort.
“Excuse me,” I asked him. “When will the train arrive?”
“Going where?” he asked me.
“Cairo,” I said.
“You’re at the wrong station,” he said.
“What do you mean? They brought me here and said that the train stops here.”
He said, “It’s the wrong station for time, not place…” then began moving backwards by degrees, as though gliding on tiny wheels, until, still facing me, he got down off the platform and bit by bit was engulfed by the fog.
I was conscious of a high-pitched whistle and a dazzling light approaching from the north. Ancient and decrepit, the train was pulling in.
I ate a lot, I smoked a lot and the four elements smote me.