‘Arsène Lupin,’ a Short Story by Sonallah Ibrahim

My father got dressed, brushed off his tarbush with the sleeve of his jacket, and placed it at an appropriate tilt on his head. “No, I um…” I said quickly, going back to the shelves. As I skimmed the pages, I realized it was a collection of old detective stories. 

“Okay, I’ll just take this one,” I said cautiously. Here’s another novel, The Red Eye. I’d torn it up just to get rid of it, but I still remembered a few lines from the opening pages—about a beach and an abandoned fortress where a crime had been committed, and people running through the shadows, whispering. We were at the back of the courtroom. I noticed my father motioning to me from afar, so I stood up. I didn’t even have enough time to go to another shop. I sat on a backless wooden chair in the corner and watched as he brushed soap on his chin and passed the razor over it, then leaned forward to look at his face in the mirror. I snuck inside, listening. I started looking through the books I’d been through before, in case there were any about Arsène Lupin that I’d missed. A loud snort exploded from his lips. 

“I’m just gonna look for a novel,” I said, pointing to the paperbacks. 

His mouth discharged a second snort. *

Sonallah Ibrahim is an Egyptian novelist and short-story writer. I went in. 

I tried to get his attention by touching his lumpy thigh. It was brand new and had a smooth, shiny, colorful cover. I looked at the back cover. Meaningless titles, but any one of them could be intriguing. At the bottom were printed the huge, delicious words, The End. I stood by the door not knowing what to do. Execution at Dawn. It was glossy and white, with an advertisement for the next novel in the series. I realized he must be planning to go out today. I decided to keep searching, more quickly this this time. My father was smoking. Maybe I’d stumble across that book we used to have at home when I was little, the one I’d never finished because what I had got through was enough to strike terror into my heart. Dozens of small paperbacks were piled on top of them. Here’s The School of Secrets again… okay, let’s give it a try. I tugged at his hand and, ready for a battle, made my request. Its pages were yellow and coarse, the printing a mess. Her face hadn’t changed. But he took the book from my hand and shoved me in the chest. I felt annoyed, and sweat was pouring down my face. I walked away without saying anything to her. 

“What’d she say?” my father asked. Her translation Revolt Against the Sun: A Bilingual Reader of Nazik al-Mala’ikah’s Poetry, recently appeared from Saqi Books. It looked gory, and I’m not a big fan of horror novels. I didn’t know what to say to my mother. Behind it was the face of a man in a hat who had to be Arsène Lupin himself. Then we got off in front of a big, walled building with people crowded around its entryway. I found the door of the apartment ajar, just as I’d left it. Then he twisted the ends of his white mustache all the way up to his nostrils. I wanted to touch it with my finger. He had the mirror propped up against a glass full of water and was sharpening the straight razor on a piece of leather in the palm of his hand. The Perfect Crime. Eugénie Grandet. She went over to a man in a turban and spoke to him for a little while. I looked to the left and saw my father talking to some other people. Maybe hundreds. Typical clue-puzzle; I’ve read them all before. I sensed my father was in the bedroom, so I headed that way. “I’m not gonna sell you anything.”

I left frustrated. He followed me into the store, asking its owner “Got any novels, yaa ‘amm?”

The man handed us five small paperbacks. All this searching, and I’d go home with nothing. It looked smooth and refreshed. Then a strange smile crossed her lips, which made me feel weird, and she fixed me with a cold stare. I saw an empty spot next to my mother, so I sat in it. I got through the first pile without finding what I was after. He turned from the table to look at me. 

“Get dressed. “C’mon baba, let’s go ask about those novels.” 

He didn’t object. “Now we’ll go inside and meet up with your mama, who’ll be with her mother.”

I was surprised. I saw that I’d read all of them except one. I followed the razor’s movements, up and down, slow and strong across his fleshy palm. They were arguing. 

This was the first time I’d ever seen a courtroom. We passed near a door on the right, and he pushed me towards it, saying: “There she is, over there.” And I saw her. A huge gun stared out at me. They were old books, with worn paperback covers and torn yellow pages. Then my grandmother went to the front of the room and spoke with the judge for a while. Then I noticed a book with a thick black cover lying nearby. The man was sprawled out on an old chair, his gallabiyya parting to reveal a huge, fat thigh. To the left were the two small shelves I’d been dreaming about for days. The Master. You’re coming out with me.”

Going out with him was better than ten novels combined. Read this one already too. We got on the tram, and I placed the novel on my lap with its front cover facing down. Then we went back out to the main street. Romance novels either. I backed away, and when he didn’t say anything, I crept toward the two shelves and started looking through the novels. And a novel my father had read to me…

“Look, there’s no novels,” a voice suddenly boomed directly above my head. She said, ‘How are you?’”

He headed for the door, and I went with him. “Mama?”

“Yeah, you’ll go say hi and see what she says to you.”

“You’re not coming?”

“No, I’ll wait for you in the hallway.” 

He led me into a big, dark lobby. Dust rose from them in clouds, mixing with a strange smell that seemed to saturate everything in the shop. “You’ll see,” he said. 

We got on the tram and rode a long way. I found him sitting on the bed with the wooden table in front of him and the shaving box (which was really a cardboard cigarette box) on top of it. Not a very promising title. She is currently working on a book about crime and investigation in modern Arabic fiction. I noticed her long black hair. It wasn’t anything like I’d expected. She was sitting in silence next to my grandmother, who was the first to see me, and who looked behind me, worried. The School of Secrets. It looked like I wasn’t going to leave with anything this time. 

 “You don’t like any of them?” the man shouted from behind me. Death Mask. We went through the doors. His works available in English include That Smell and Notes from Prison; The Committee; Zaat; Beirut, Beirut; and Stealth. I looked around in despair. The Greatest Love. It had no title or frontmatter. At the same time, I couldn’t leave, because I couldn’t imagine spending the day without a novel. His body shook, and his left eye cracked open to reveal a red circle. I looked into the corridor outside and saw my father gesturing at me with his head while pacing with his hands behind his back. “Where’re we going?” I asked him. I had to head home right away; my father didn’t know I’d gone out. 

When I got to our street, I crept along the walls of the houses, careful not to be where my father could see me, in case he was on the balcony. The Chinese Mystery. I wanted to get home as fast as I could. Maybe we’d get a chance to buy a paperback along the way. 

Before my sister had been able to cry, scream, or insist on being brought along, my father had fooled her, telling her he’d let her play at our neighbor Umm Zakiyya’s apartment all day long. I saw a shop with some books in it. When he was done, he wiped his chin with a bar of alum. It appears here to celebrate the new translation of Ibrahim’s Warda, which was published last month in Hosam Aboul-ela’s English:

By Sonallah Ibrahim

Translated by Emily Drumsta

I approached the store with some hesitation. Read it already. Dad had brought it home before. She spoke to me in a quiet voice, as though we’d never been away from each other. 

“How are you.”

But she didn’t ask me to sit next to her. Broken Pieces. “We don’t sell novels.”

The man had gotten up from his chair in a huff and was taking back the books I’d gathered up to choose from in case I couldn’t find anything good. But I didn’t find any Arsène Lupin novels. 

I swallowed my annoyance and started going through the books again, this time more slowly. I was scared he’d wake with a start and see me. There were none about Sherlock Holmes, or even Charlie Chan, despite how annoying I find him. She didn’t look at me. I noticed we were heading toward the tram stop. But his red eyes just stared in silence. 

“There’s no Arsène Lupin,” he blurted out suddenly. 

My hands stopped short. His Warda appeared this summer in Hosam Aboul-ela’s translation

Emily Drumsta teaches Comparative Literature at Brown University. “It’s okay… here’s one I…” 

Crime in the Clouds. We left the apartment, locking the door behind us, and went down to the street. The wind blew the cover open, revealing the last page. The magical name was written in small letters under the title. I worried he might attack me, or tear me apart, but he settled his body back into the chair and sighed. I placed it to one side. Maybe it’ll surprise me. “Not much. I stole a glance at the man, scared he’d explode at me again. I dropped my hand to my side in disappointment. The first Arsène Lupin novel I’d ever read. It wasn’t crowded. I snatched it up and opened it. I stole a glance at my mother. I inspected the collection as fast as I could, looking at the first page of every book and searching for a specific line of small words beneath the title. I’d read it before, but it’d be fine to buy it again if I didn’t find anything else. Arsène Lupin Under the Sea. ‘Arsène Lupin,’ a Short Story by Sonallah Ibrahim

Sonallah Ibrahim’s “Arsène Lupin,” originally written in the al-Wahat Prison Camp, Western Desert, Egypt, in 1963, appeared in translation in the Summer 2020 CRIME issue of ArabLit Quarterly. It was filled with long benches that ended at a high platform where the judge sat. The White Sisters. Now I’d be happy with any old detective novel. 

The Flower of Death. The Unknown Letters. She saw me, but she didn’t seem to recognize me. She seemed to have grown taller since the last time I’d seen her. I stood up, confused, not knowing what to do. But the man was asleep, even though it was already morning. Maybe I could find one of the big, old novels? There were no passionate defenses, no crowds, no judges in colored sashes, no lawyers filling the halls of justice with their resonant voices and theatrical gestures. 

My grandmother stood up. She was staring straight ahead, indifferent. Her head was wrapped with an old white scarf. 

I went over to her while still looking at my mother, who was wearing a black silk coat and a thin veil. I ran up the stairs so fast I was panting and sweating when I got to our floor. I loved that smell. He spent five years in political prison, from 1959 to 1964. I resisted the urge to read the final lines and instead turned the book over, face up. The sound of his snoring stopped immediately. I figured it was one of those old books that have nothing to do with novels. He clearly wanted to get rid of me, but there was still a whole other shelf to go through. We walked to a narrow street flanked with old shops on either side. My arm was starting to hurt. He didn’t seem to have noticed I’d been gone. The only thing I could tell for sure was that they weren’t detective novels. Once in front of the door, I peeked in and found what I’d been expecting. Or cover. I was only a step or two away. I almost jumped for joy. All of these books were pocket-sized. Our Daily Bread. “This is the court,” my father said. Not clear what it’s about from the picture on the cover. Reading it, I almost flew out of my seat with happiness. He was snoring loudly. Same author as Arsène Lupin, but this one wasn’t about the gentleman-thief. I was shocked. She turned away to follow what was happening in the courtroom. I took the book, and my father paid for it. He pulled out a dirty handkerchief and began wiping the sweat from his neck, his red eyes now wide open, staring at me. “I already said we don’t have any novels!” he yelled. The Three Eyes, by Maurice Leblanc. To his left stood a shaykh wearing a caftan, turban, and glasses, and a woman in a wrap.