New Fiction in Translation: ‘The Illusion of Sea’

We walk in its dry valley for fifty, one hundred, or two hundred meters until our feet feel the warmth of its quiet water. Its waves rose a little bit and played with us, in turn, a game that left white salty lines on our trousers when the water dried. He realizes, then, for the first time that he can’t go any further. Let it be flames that keep us way from the seaside, better than the dying of the flames, which chases us even into the protrusions of time. This cloud is in the shape of the oyster you picked yesterday! – But there’s no road on the ship! – Look! Then he hears a voice from his heart, whispering:


from every tightness,

from the tightness of the one street,

the tightness of the small house windows. Walking in the water is not the same as walking on the ground. – How? Its water was too little to allow swimming, the fathers said. The child continues on his tiptoes. Their feet touch the beginning of water. He is also the translator of John Berger’s   To The Wedding. – On the giant ship that we saw yesterday. Don’t leave the place just yet! They throw their bags along the roadside and run until they reach the beach. Their small thin chests shiver because of the cold water. the friend asks. It was very close in the gulf! He wishes that they would leave him watching the crowd from where he stood, feeling his body resist the reverse current of air that reduced the heat. How many times was the child awakened from the innocence of the stab by the dark scent of the flames from petrol factories? There was no escape from being filled with hate for the place, the city, the sea, the mountain; hate for a destiny as shallow as the gulf water that didn’t reach our ankles. – And how will we come back when we want? And what could be worse than the flames when they screamed in the child’s face, forcing him away from the seaside, was the dousing of the flames. Nevertheless, we used to escape in the morning before school or in the early evening during summer holidays to play with the sea, with the illusion of sea. – The ship is still there! – Don’t you see how the water is not high? He translated Ernest Hemingway’s   Old Man and The Sea   (2016) and John Steinbeck’s   The Pearl   (2016) into Arabic, and published his debut novel,   Maps of Yunus, in 2018, which was supported by a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. And how many times did the child’s body shiver when he sat on the gulf rocks, watching the sun stab the horizon, and the bleeding twilight reflected as an unearthly lake on the face of the gulf? We were children, who waited for the weekend to run towards the gulf, a small gulf relaxed against the foot of an igneous mountain, where the huge ships take a breath before crawling into the narrow canal. Mahmoud Hosny   is an Egyptian writer and translator who is currently in his first year of a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Southern California. The sky was then covered with black clouds, and the air overwhelmed with the dark scent. This is the first time the water is not warm. Let it be the lesser of two evils, the child’s heart said. His heart throbs aloud through all his ribs. 

The voice comes back: When you go back home, you will find you father dead. He takes a minute to think, then says: Because there, we might be able to become oysters, like the cloud. We were the ones so young, the ones who couldn’t stop moving, their faces burned slightly by a heavy sun that rises from the gulf side and sinks beyond the dark mountain. They slow down as they go deeper. Those white salty lines uncovered our lies when the mothers asked us: Why are you late? Nothing could pierce it except the ugly flicker of the flames, in their nervous dance all night. New Fiction in Translation: ‘The Illusion of Sea’

This story, shortlisted for the 2019 ArabLit Story Prize, appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of ArabLit Quarterly: THE EYE:

By Mahmoud Hosny

Translated by Mahmoud Hosny

The place was choking, and it will always be. The dark choke didn’t release its hold of the place until the flames exhaled again and the dark clouds slowly crumbled. That was it: to “visit” the sea, as if the sea were lonely and needed us, the children, to visit “him.” 

The sea was close to us in view, not in use. Escape from the darkness of the choking air. No one has told him what to do when his feet no longer touch the seabed. *

Here he is, the child, coming back from school, standing in the door of the moving microbus, holding the roof’s net as the adults do when the cars are full. the friend says. It took its tempo from the slow movement of the city that was always simple. His friend, who stands beside him in the door, holding the net like him, awakens him from his heart’s whispers. He wishes that no one would pull him into the mouth of the steel body crowded with the smell of hot breathes and sweat. The water covers him. – To the sea! He looks at the oyster cloud and continues: Then, no one will be able to grab us by our arms and prevent us from seeing the road! They sink in the sands, sometimes, stumbling and laughing and then keep going. The oyster cloud whispers in his heart: You will not leave the place until your father dies. They take off their shoes, roll up their trousers, and run on the sand saturated with salty water. He is able to do nothing but give up, lose his consciousness and surrender to current. How could we escape from exhaling hate for school? Enthusiastically, his friend shouts. We’ll hide inside it, and then we’ll leave when it moves off. So, we roll up our trousers, touch with our feet its soggy salt sand and forage for oysters and shells. I can’t go anymore. – Why? We hid inside the houses, unable to endure the winter heavy with the scent that invaded our lungs whenever we went outside for school. From a distance, there is a fisherman screaming from his small boat, raising his hand to tell them to go back. The water tosses it. He closes his eyes quickly and tries to open them again but there is no ship there. Factories stood between the gulf beach and the foot of the mountain, as if, from their positions up there, they burned the mountain, sticking their tongues out to the child maliciously: “This is for tearing up your fragile string with the scene.” In those moments, the gulf waves stopped playing, the mountain stopped dancing between shadow and light, and darkness filled the horizon. They continue their running. It hangs, the child’s body, neither afloat nor settled on the seabed. From the throng of the hustle, the child used to slip away onto the asphalt river. Then he, the ten-year-old child, says to himself: Why do all the people here move in the same direction? – The sea is the road! On the west bank, there was a small house, without balconies, only windows that were burnt all day by the heavy sun. Why do they always move in crowds? Time after time, his heart chokes with the question, with the crowded steel bodies and the heavy heat that becomes even heavier as the spaces between the vehicles tighten. – But why? He would run and laugh loudly, there, on the other bank, where the air was lighter and the shade was kinder or at least this was what he thought! His friend is afraid: I am tired! Those white salty lines uncovered our lies after we’d convinced our mothers that we would never “visit” the sea. In water, you need to swim, and no one has taught him how to swim. The child’s eyes open in fear, half-conscious. We, then, hurry back, screaming in happiness at what the gulf gives us. – We’ll escape! He tries to open his eyes to find the ship under the water, but the salt burns them. Nothing there except a pale blue horizon. And things remained as they were, in cold and in heat. This is the first time the water reaches their knees. The rocks fill its beach. Time was simple. Still, the child felt out of place, without getting familiar with the wide street that was like an asphalt river and the city on its banks. Again he hears the oyster’s voice, quiet, like incurious destiny: 

Patch up your nets, 

repair the wood of your boat 

and don’t leave the place until you see, in your dream, 

gazelles running on the surface of the gulf waters. 

Follow their trace. 

Follow them to their destination. The fisherman shouts and the child is under water. – The ship is close, we won’t need much to reach it, the child says in his mind. Escape until you get lost,

when there’s no place but the seaside,

save the destination where you sense a sea? And we were so young, like the small quick fish that overwhelm the warm gulf waters, in the winter of this small city. the child replies. – I’ll go back, the friend says. After a moment of stillness, he turns to his friend with wide-open eyes, and shouts: “Stop here, driver!”

– Where will we go? the child says loudly, a kind of victory in his voice. He looks at the cloud, frowning because of the sun. No swimming in the gulf. His friend cries as he tries to go back. He tries to touch the sands with his feet to push himself up, but his thin body rolls fearfully. He keeps going until his feet no longer touch the sand on the seabed. We long for the weekends to visit the sea. The small windows overlooked the crowds in whose hustle the child was often engulfed, while still feeling out of place. Its water recedes most of the time. We can come back as long as our eyes can see the mountain! And there we were, running away, not just from the seaside, but from the whole scene. He, the child, felt it simple.