Younis in the Belly of the Whale

by qisasukhra

The title story from poet, novelist and short story writer Yasser Abdel Latif’s Sawiris Prize-winning collection يونس في أحشاء الحوت (Kotob Khan, 2011) [Younis in the Belly of the Whale].


Younis in the belly of the whale.

Oh belly like a casket:

Younis lives, he does not die.

 Naguib Surour


I entered the mall through one of its sixty-nine gates. It is the biggest mall in North America, sprawling out over eight residential blocks: an entire commercial district in a town that lacks the very concept. Though situated on the west side of town, it is the central district for a city without a centre.

I entered through the gate that leads into the food court: a spacious area more like a little plaza than anything else ringed by a line of counters dispensing multinational fare and in the centre tables and chairs belonging to no one restaurant in particular. You just help yourself: buy food from a counter, carry it over on a plastic tray, then sit and eat at one of the tables. Four fountains were positioned in the middle of the tabled area, shooting out water in beautiful formations, lightly speckling those seated with their spray, and giving off a burbling sound that initially seemed romantic, until bit-by-bit your awareness of it grew and it took over your mind, impairing your ability to speak and listen simultaneously—that’s if you had anything to say.

Japanese sushi, Teriyaki chicken with white rice, beef a la Szechuan with green onion and ginger and carrot and cabbage stuffed spring rolls, Thai-style prawn soup with celery and sliced bamboo, vegetable masala for vegetarians and for dessert rice pudding with cardamom, mutton tagine cooked with red plum from Marrakesh, Russian kielbasa served with a yoghurt and cabbage garnished borscht, Swedish meatballs with gravy and chips, Mexican red beans and mincemeat with guacamole wrapped in tacos, sheets of Ethiopian bread with red paprika sauce for dipping and strips of cured beef, Italian dishes from lasagne to cannelloni through to pizza plus every other kind of pasta and sauce, Greek souvlaki with a salad of tomatoes, onion, lettuce and feta, doner kebabs with Lebanese hummus and olive oil and even Egyptian falafel and tahina wrapped in shami bread… plus, of course, the presiding monarchs of American fast food, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Burger King: genuine culinary globalization. Indian immigrants eating Chinese, Arab women in hijab chewing Turkish shwarma, Chinese teens wolfing burritos. I was left dizzy by the sheer variety of dishes and by the water splashing and burbling ceaselessly inside my head and the choice on offer exhausted me.

I went to the Italian outlet and bought a slice of pizza, like someone taking refuge with a half-known relative amidst a crowd of strangers. (You can’t trust falafel made in North America by white hands: any ball of taamiya that hasn’t been fried in motor oil is not to be relied on). I took the slice and sat down at one of the tables to eat it with cola.

When I’d finished I left the court and like a sleepwalker made my way over to a passageway signposted, PlayLand. Down the passageway I went, surrounded by dozens of children, unaccompanied or with their guardians. The passage was long and I walked it with my mind fuddled from the irritating burbling that was even now going round my head. As soon as that sound started to die away the din of games and rides rose up to blend with it. The further my slow, child-dogged steps took me the more the water’s burbling faded, ceding its place to the roar of entertainment. I didn’t notice that the passageway I trod had suddenly turned into something like a suspension bridge. The walls on either side and the roof above vanished away and vast contraptions filled the space around it. Serpentine tracks for four different grades of rollercoaster coiled through the air: one for children, its rails set just off the ground and moving gently, a second with a line of teenagers at the gate, which made an initial circuit around the hall then plunged into the shadows of the Tunnel of Love to drop still further beneath the ground where, at some point, it became a kind of boat meandering across an artificial lake through a darkness brushed by dreamlike lights, a darkness that allowed the young lovers to steal feverish embraces and kisses… then the one with sharp climbs and drops for the grown-ups and, finally, the lunatic coaster that rose and fell at terrifying angles, made sudden swerves, whose passengers had to possess strong nerves and sound hearts.

Either side of this passage/bridge were gates, stations for the rollercoasters’ passengers, and at each one children and adults stood in line for their chance at the pleasure of the thrilled scream. The space around me, with its gigantic fairground rides, its rollercoasters and the rattle of wheels on rails snapping through the air, its carnival throng of kids and teens, was the embodiment of a mysterious spirit the meaning of which escaped me however much I recalled previous experiences at the amusement parks I’d visited back home as a young man. In fact, my alienation extended to swallow the very idea itself: In what “spirit” did they build these dancing monuments to steel and technology, to an imagination devoted to the pursuit of pleasure, in our wretched cities?

The suspension bridge came to an end and the passageway became a passageway once more, proclaiming the end of the huge machines and heralding the start of the smaller games that lined both sides of the corridor. Wandering past them my attention was caught by something that looked like an astronaut’s outfit beneath a sign reading: Scuba-diving Simulator. A machine that replicates the experience of diving, then, like those computer games that let you fly or drive. Then a second phrase in cheerful font: Dive into the depths without getting your clothes wet! That’s my game, I told myself. Diving dry’s perfect for a wanderer from the East like me: a Melancholic, a detached Apollonian observer.

I stood for some moments inspecting the apparatus: a spacesuit, or a virtual diving suit to be precise: a huge helmet, clearly constructed to accommodate a screen in front of the eyes, a trunk of some lead-like metal, arms and legs of flexible silicon terminating in a pair of gloves and perfunctory flippers, and on the back of the metal trunk an oxygen tank just like the real thing, if slightly smaller. The instructions stated that it was equipped with hi-fidelity speakers that played sound effects from the ocean’s depths and sensor pads at the palms and neck to give the user the impression of being underwater via his sense of touch. First removing shoes and coat you put on—or get into—the suit, feed it four dollars’ worth of coins and, once closed, it swivels you from an upright stance to the horizontal and all you have to do is move your arms and legs in a swimming motion to power yourself through the depths… Enjoy.

I fed the coins into the machine, donned the silicon arms and legs and shut myself into the helmet and metal trunk. For a brief moment, the darkness inside was absolute. Then I heard a whine and felt the whole apparatus tilt me over. An axle was fixed to the waist of the metal casing which allowed it to tilt down a recumbent position and up straight again while my arms and legs moved freely inside their rubbery sleeves.

At first, through the speakers, I heard a faint whispering and muffled sounds recorded underwater, then the screen lit up. The screen curved around my face at a fixed distance from my eyes to give one-hundred-and-eighty degree vision. It was just like peering out through a diving mask. I found myself in turquoise water, not too far down: ten meters, say. The graphical fidelity of the underwater scenery was not what I’d expected: it was incredibly realistic, and from its velvety quality I could tell that it had been shot with a high-definition camera and converted into cinematic footage using 3D technology. Thanks to the sensors against my skin I really did feel as though I was underwater and in my ears the same pressure that comes from depth. I watched shoals of fine silver fish swirl around me and, as per instructions, I paddled my arms and legs and found myself moving forward … What astonished me was that the little fish broke apart when I moved among them, the shoal scattering chaotically then regrouping at a distance. The machine’s software must be incredibly advanced for the footage to respond to the movements of a person in PlayLand inside some Canadian mall. It even occurred to me that these scenes might be a live feed from a camera set up beneath the sea somewhere, but I decided to stop thinking about the technicalities and enjoy the experience. With pure delight I started swimming through the shallow turquoise waters and then I got the idea of going to the surface to see what I could see. I spread my arms, lifted my head and began kicking my feet vigorously until I saw that I was approaching the surface, and when I got there a sentence flashed across the bottom of the screen in red: It is not permitted to break surface… Please make your way to the surface simulator… This unexpected division of labour alarmed me but I decided to see the game through to the end and swum on underwater.

I saw a huge ray, its flat black body like a triangular carpet and its two flippers beating like the wings of a Roc cruising with measured speed over the seabed. Its electric tail stirred storms in the white sand each time it touched the bottom and in its wake the clear water clouded. I saw great hordes of jellyfish swaying back and forth and clouds of blue-tinged sardines glistening in the rays of sunlight that pierced the water. Suddenly I found myself face to face with a deep blue, a vast abyss. I saw that I’d been swimming over a platform of coral covered with a layer of white sand, which is what was lending the water its turquoise clarity, and now, here I was, confronting the true depths. Darkest blue. The coral platform came to an end like a cliff, beneath which the deep stretched away for miles. I stopped where I was for a moment, uncertain, as though I in a real sea, then went forward into the unknown.

Sinking down the face of the coral cliff I saw dazzling fish the like of which no eye has seen before, all shapes and sizes, singly and in shoals, in orange and every shade of blue and green. Even a medium-sized grey shark. It approached me: came closer with his terrifying jaws and dead eyes to confront me, then peacefully withdrew. I’d read somewhere that fish gather in large numbers next to reefs because of the plentiful supply of food and thus—following the famous law by which all fish abide—the plentiful supply of food for those that feed on the feeders.

I began to swim over the coral, watching or diving down in search of a change of scene, and when a shoal of yellow fish scattered I found myself facing a gaping hole in the coral that led into a featureless darkness. Cautiously, I approached, knowing full well that this was a coral cave, favoured haunt of deadly sea serpents. To my surprise there was a ray of light cutting through the gloom, some opening in the cave’s roof through which the sunlight crept down to these terrifying depths. This opening, I reasoned, must lead to the shallow turquoise waters above the coral platform. Protected by my metal suit and virtual state I took heart and decided to enter the cave and pass through the opening in the roof to the other side. In my mind was a neglected spot on the Alexandrian shoreline known as Masoud’s Well. Masoud’s Well was a hole in the rocks near Miami, connected to the sea by a tunnel. In the 1970s kids would compete by jumping into the well, passing along the tunnel then bobbing up in the sea. I started swimming forward into the cave, heading towards the light. It wasn’t a negligible distance, but the light shining out into the blackness made such measurements somehow hard to judge. Minutes passed, swimming along, bumping from time to time against the reef, hearing the echoes of these collisions rebounding redoubled through the speakers. Once again the software’s sophistication stunned me. When I reached the opening I discovered it was too narrow to let me through and each time I tried I heard a siren wail off and on like a warning, so I decided to alter the plan and turned back towards the cave’s entrance. The darkness was absolute on the return journey. You could barely make out a thing and I was colliding against the coral with increasing frequency, the muffled squeak of metal on rock amplified by the echo-chamber of the deep and rendered tangible by the speakers that picked up each and every movement left or right. Inside the lined silicone tubes my hands and feet began sweating heavily. Has the game turned real? I wondered, and felt a dizzying disorientation in the darkness. A real dizzy spell, perhaps. I paused to catch my breath and gather my thoughts and as I did the warning sirens went off, louder this time, and at the bottom of the screen a phrase stood out in red: Oxygen about to run out… Please exit the diving simulator as quickly as possible… and it seemed I had forgotten how to open this metal suit from inside.