“A Naguib Mahfouz character arrives in Havana”: Maru Pabón Translates Rogelio Riverón for Valentine’s

Grey Dust Covers the Eyelids *

Nikos Economopoulos, Havana, 2017. Source: magnumphotos.com

A Naguib Mahfouz character arrives in Havana on a Turkish Airlines flight. He had escaped Cairo three months earlier and bounced around until he landed in Istanbul, where he was able to find work as a bellboy in The Seagull’s Nest hotel in the ancient part of the city. It was a three-story house with four rooms per floor. Lacking an elevator, the man – skinny, with a turbulent gaze matched by a discerning tongue – had to carry the luggage up a narrow and badly illuminated stairway, which multiplied the demands on his body. He felt safe at first, far away from where he had presumably committed the crime that had sent him into exile. He tolerated the excessive labor in silence, knowing that such was the lot of an undocumented immigrant.

One afternoon he was summoned to the reception. He found himself facing a couple that had asked for a room with a terrace, available only on the third floor. The receptionist wrapped up the transaction and addressed the new guests. He’ll go with you, he said, and wished them a pleasant stay. They had brought two large suitcases, so he had to take turns bringing them up. Actually, the gentleman had told him that he would take care of his own bag, that he should only help the lady, but he refused. It was only after he had finished hoisting up the bags with great effort that he took note of the couple’s features. She was blond, young, ugly. The man, who was likely over sixty, had a closely shaved head and gave off an air of nobility. He respectfully bid them goodbye, but the blonde gestured for him to stay and opened the door to the terrace. She went outside and glanced down, first at the nearby houses and then at the street, in the manner of someone preparing for a police ambush. She walked back into the bedroom and handed him three 1 Euro coins minted in Spain. That night, the fugitive went to bed early. As dawn broke, he dreamt of a man dragging a suitcase towards the top of a mountain. It was cold and dark and yet only midday. As he was about to reach the zenith, the man realized that he was no longer pulling a suitcase but a statue bearing his own features.

In the morning, his boss instructed him to pick up breakfast and bring it to the couple’s room. He went to the kitchen, where he was handed a wooden platter covered by a cloth. The shapes beneath the cloth suggested that he was carrying two croissants, two teas served in those stout glasses typical of Istanbul, and a sugar bowl. He rang twice before anyone answered. The blonde greeted him swathed in a plush robe, as if she had just taken a scalding shower. Put it down here, please, she said politely, and moved aside. As he bent over to deposit his charge on the designated table, he saw that the man with the shaved head was still in bed. The duvet was pulled up to his chest and his arms were stretched out behind him in a somewhat eccentric position. He only understood what was happening once he was walking down the stairs: the man was handcuffed to the bed-frame.

Unnerved, he reached the lobby and went out into the street. The concierge had said something to him, tasked him with something else most likely, but he didn’t turn around. Before descending into a cobblestone alley, he glanced at the third-floor terrace out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t see anything out of place. A few blocks further, in front of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, he boarded the wooden tram dating from Atatürk’s time – a tourist attraction more than any real vestige of the past – and rode it to İstiklal Avenue. Once there, he walked into a Turkish Airlines office and, after making some calculations, bought a ticket to Havana.

Naguib Mahfouz refers to his characters as individuals doggedly searching for a future – that is to say, since all they have experienced is disappointment and lack, they renounce the lives they have used up. Objectively, he specifies, it’s life that has used them up, and he adds that these characters are defined by a sort of subterranean melancholia and a pharaonic absence of remorse. But Naguib Mahfouz, accused of heresy by radical Islamists, has been dead for more than a decade at the instant that his character – let’s call him Ali Zayn so as to protect his identity – touches Cuban soil aboard a Turkish Airlines Boeing 777. Does this mean that Ali Zayn has managed to emancipate himself through the extinction of his master? Or rather that – even against his will – he is destined to guarantee a slice of posterity for his master, that is to say, Naguib Mahfouz? Perhaps both options are unimportant. Perhaps landing on an answer puts him in lethal danger. For the moment the essential thing is to transform himself, to pass unnoticed; in a word, to live.

He extracts two useful facts from the little that he knows about Havana. Small and badly run business abound, and suspicion isn’t triggered in people as frequently as, for example, in Tunis or Baghdad. Feeling emboldened but barely able to control his fear, he approaches some of his countrymen, students in their third year of medicine, and learns from one of them about a place that hires foreigners. It’s located in Lawton, in front of a park with a palm tree and a monument dedicated to Cuban mothers. When he finally decides to pay it a visit, he’s greeted by an old woman. Tidy and assiduous, she nevertheless allows herself to adopt a vulgar tone with her employees. She’s known as Lucy the Head. Ali Zayn accepts her terms; she justifies them without masking the irony in her voice: Your visa expires in a few days. That’s a problem. I’m not sure how you’re going to sort things out and it’s not my business, but I can’t pay you more under these circumstances. He looks at her a tad confused and the old woman concludes: Risk too has a price. You know that, right? He does. He’s coming from Istanbul, where he was also undocumented. He agrees to the conditions and is hired to take care of the maintenance, the luggage, and the shopping. The old lady has one last thing to add: he will be required to reside in the hostel. She grants him a room behind the back patio, narrow but free of charge. It’s all the better for business: living on the premises, he will be at her disposal at all times.

Ali Zayn will never figure out if the hostel is legal, if Lucy the Head pays taxes, or if she’s recklessly flirting with the law. She is undeniably discreet, though that could be part of her business strategy. In fact, in order to get to the rooms, one has to walk through an antechamber that doubles as a tattoo parlor. It’s run by a light-skinned mulatta – tall, skinny, cheeky – she goes by Yeny the Tattooist. The anarcho-punk atmosphere she has created in her parlor serves as a smokescreen for the hostel and also appeals to the guests. The mulatta treats Ali Zayn with well-worn familiarity: she addresses him informally from the first time they meet and demands details of his life in Egypt. Go on, tell me about the great golden sarcophagus. Is it true that Cleopatra was a writer and a mathematician? Is it true that she had a tattoo on her crotch? She mocks his surprise. Papi, you better get with the program. Here everything is on the table. Ali Zayn weighs her words in the balance and accepts her familiarity. From then on, he chats with Yeny whenever he can’t avoid it, but he conceals anything that could endanger him. An old man who wears headphones connected to a discarded phone also roams the hostel. They call him Rolo. They say that he’s Lucy the Head’s brother and that he’s haunted by hallucinations. He uses the phone as a music player, listening to the song A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum on repeat. He lives in a small room next to the one assigned to Ali Zayn, who consoles himself that night with the thought that perhaps everything will go well for him in Havana. It seems like he escaped in the nick of the time, he tells himself; the blonde who materialized in The Seagull’s Nest was surely a bounty hunter.

What Ali Zayn would admit to feeling is the “pharaonic absence of remorse” that Naguib Mahfouz detected in his characters long before any critic did, although Ali Zayn isn’t up to speed with his creator’s ideas. Since the day he slipped away from Cairo aboard a supply truck, his only thoughts have been about surviving without pausing to analyze how. Near the border with Israel, the Iveco­­ – which had seemed like a vehicle suited for long trips – began to falter. The driver didn’t have time to guide it away from the road; he stopped without warning and jumped onto the street, lifted the hood of the truck, and began to inspect the engine. As for Ali Zayn, he went behind the truck and urinated for a minute or so. He was in the middle of returning the beast to its shelter when he saw an old man walking onto the road along a path on the left bank. He was swaddled like a bedouin in a worn-out thawb and carrying an empty birdcage. He approached him with determination and said:

— I beg you to buy this cage.

Ali Zayn burst out laughing.

— I don’t want to, he responded.

— Then I order you to, said the old man.

— You didn’t give birth to me, you haven’t fed me, and I don’t work for you: you have no power over me, argued Ali Zayn.

— Then I advise you to, said the old man. Come to your senses.

Ali Zayn tore the cage away from his hands.

— Now it’s mine, he gloated. I order you to buy it from me.

The old man looked at him in shock. Ali Zayn grabbed him by the thawb and drew him menacingly close.

— Why would I want a cage without a bird? he said, more to himself than in search of an answer.

— So that you can learn the value of freedom, the bedouin answered all the same.

Ali Zayn let him go. The old man swore and pounced on him with a dagger. Ali Zayn hit him on the head with the cage, which immediately shattered into pieces. The dagger dropped to the old man’s feet, wobbled, fell sideways, then steadied itself and disappeared down the path. Ali Zayn went to pick up the dagger. The blade was lightly curved and the handle was carved in the shape of an angel.

He has gone over the quarrel with the bedouin several times over the last three months. Sometimes the bedouin seems like a maniac, but later he’s sure that he was a secret agent, someone who knows about his past. One time, as dawn was approaching, he dreamt that the bedouin and the man tied to the bed in the Istanbul hotel were one and the same, but on waking he saw no physical similarities between the two images. The morning of the incident, when he returned to the Iveco, the driver had asked him:

— What did the bedouin want?

Ali Zayn told him the truth.

— To sell me an empty cage.

The driver smiled. Ali Zayn began to have doubts. Was that the whole truth? Now, in Havana, he slips the dagger between his pants and his body, on his right hip as usual, as he goes out on assignment for Lucy the Head. He wears a Florida Marlins cap in order to throw people off. The old lady has charged him with buying a few kilos of pork, haram meat, forbidden by Islamic law. It makes no difference, he tells himself, it’s not like he’ll be eating it. The street is nearly empty and it’s cold. A tedious drizzle spreads over the sidewalks and roads. Ali Zayn arrives at Porvenir, a rather generic avenue in an average neighborhood, it seems to him. The market is two blocks away on the right: two long halls filled with stands displaying unwashed vegetables covered with black earth, which reminds him of the soil around the Nile. They also sell garlic, a variety of peppers, and, at the back, sausages and meat. There are only two or three customers in the market, but the sellers address them with a fervor that Ali Zayn finds crude. He haggles with a fat, sweaty, and helpful butcher who nevertheless ends up getting his way. With a plastic bag in hand, he turns back, crosses the avenue, traverses the remaining two blocks, and turns right. Then he stops. He shifts the bag from one hand to the other. He starts walking again, but suddenly his vision blurs. He reacts belatedly, he wants to defend himself, but he’s been immobilized from behind and pressed against a wall. He feels like he’s suffocating. He feels them rummaging around his body and realizes they’re looking for the dagger. He feels a sting in his neck and struggles, but he doesn’t manage to free himself. A voice says: Allah sees everything before it happens.

Yeny the Tattooist sees him coming and runs to him. Come here, she tells him, what happened? She takes him by the arm, forces him to lie down in the tattoo chair, and examines his neck. It’s not deep, she says. Who was it? Ali Zayn doesn’t know, he explains, they attacked him from behind, they said something to him before releasing him: “Allah sees everything before it happens,” he thinks it was. Yeny the Tattooist laughs. What language were they speaking? she asks. Ali Zayn thinks for a moment. I don’t know, he says. I think it was Arabic. Yeny the Tattooist confesses something to him: she doesn’t own the parlor; it belongs to Lucy the Head, who rents it to her at a bloated price. Yeny’s house is in La Palma and now she offers it to Ali Zayn, in case he feels like he’s in danger. He has yet to confirm this is all something more than a series of annoying coincidences. Ali Zayn doesn’t want to trust Yeny, but he also doesn’t want to seem too wary. We’ll see, he thinks. Maybe the assailants were just neighborhood thugs, says Yeny, cheerily; maybe they were speaking such local slang that, in the moment, it reminded him of his mother tongue.

What is it that guarantees the posterity of an author: his style or his characters? Is it the sum of his relations to language, or is it rather the specific nature of his characters? It is well-known, for example, that Jorge Luis Borges creates symbols before characters, but Mahfouz – like Stendhal, like Leo Tolstoy – seems to trust characters with his afterlife. The entity we grudgingly agree to call an “author” ends up becoming a sort of defective god. As soon as he has children, he starts to depend on them. It’s so obvious that it almost goes without saying: in order for an author to survive, his characters must outlive him. Ali Zayn may have emancipated himself, but only on one condition: that Naguib Mahfouz no longer need him, nor any of his characters, in order to achieve posterity.

Yeny the Tattooist insists the assailants are small-time thieves who weren’t searching for anything in particular, but Ali Zayn isn’t so sure. Lucy the Head has decided to take precautions and keeps him busy with routine tasks inside the hostel: unplugging the sink in the third-floor room, replacing a socket in the kitchen, sweeping the interior patio paved with marble trimming. As the days of isolation accumulate, he feels more and more anxious. He peeps at the street from the Tattooist’s parlor, thinking of taking a walk to stretch his legs, but Lucy the Head objects.

— You’re not going to get me into a mess with the law, she warns him. You won’t get away with it, and there are no secrets here. If they kill you while you’re working for me, they’ll arrest me, and I can’t handle an interrogation.

— You’re not the boss of me, Ali Zayn argues back. You didn’t give birth to me or buy me.

— But I sheltered you, Lucy the Head says, putting him to shame. If you put a single toe on the sidewalk, you’ll join the battalion of vagrants who roam these parts.

This condition is of no use to him and he knows it. As he retreats, he mutters a line from the Qur’an: If you have no patience, you have no faith. He lets himself fall onto the narrow bed in his pigeonhole of a room and – in accordance with his pharaonic absence of remorse – tells himself that in extreme circumstances he might have to get rid of Lucy the Head. In any case, he tries to calm himself and reaches a state of drowsiness that severs him from his worries. He sees himself in Cairo a few months ago, just before the chain of mistakes that thrust him into exile. He was working as a messenger for a local chief who applauded his cunning, trusting him with increasingly sensitive tasks. One day, he gifted him with a weapon: a German gun, a Heckler & Koch P7. With a nod, Ali Zayn thanks him, and the chief puts a hand on his shoulder in a paternal manner. He explains that, out of all of his men, there is no one worthier of the weapon, nor of the mission that he subsequently assigns him: to transport some precious stones to a suburb where dust and misery have conspired to conceal the workings of speculators. Ali Zayn sets off with the envelope. Once he has covered enough distance, he opens it to check whether the chief was telling the truth. They are indeed rubies, he confirms, and he amuses himself by inspecting them for a few seconds. He holds them in the palm of one hand while stroking them with the other, but in a moment of distraction one of the minuscule stones drops onto the broken sidewalk and disappears. Ali Zayn kneels down to look for it. In a ridiculous gesture, he tries to trace the route the stone took upon landing on the sidewalk, but the reality remains as it was a few moments before. Although frightened, he resumes his expedition and hands over the package without running into any other mishaps. The recipient doesn’t even open the envelope, leading him to understand that when it comes to a deal of this magnitude, mistakes are neither foreseen nor tolerated. Ali Zayn returns to the chief’s headquarters – a few rooms decorated with enormous carpets at the back of a bakery – and demands a soda in an overly cocky tone. The servant who hands it to him bows slightly as she tells him: Fanta with ice. It’s all that’s left in the fridge. Then she walks away, smiling contemptuously. In accordance to the chief’s protocols, Ali Zayn must wait at home for a new assignment, so he says goodbye and walks down the avenue to flag a service motorcycle. Night falls. The bike is a midsize Suzuki driven by a man wearing marijuana-green gloves. Before isolating himself until the next day, Ali Zayn buys lamb sausages, a box of fat-free milk, and a packet of sesame-filled cookies. He goes up to his apartment and turns on the ceiling fan, which rotates weakly but noisily. He makes a quick dinner with what he’s bought and drops onto the sofa. At times the lost stone flashes across his mind, but he keeps his emotions in check. He turns on the television and flicks through the news until he resigns himself to watching porn. The actor has Saracen features and is wearing a turban. One of the actresses is a redhead; the other will never take off her burka, even while she happily swings her XL breasts around. Her areolas are so ochre they seem to be painted on. The three of them act out a script too predictable for Ali Zayn, who promptly falls asleep. By six in the morning he’s already on his feet. He prepares some instant coffee – made in Switzerland, according to the package. He sips it carefully and smiles to himself, recognizing that he’s fond of these rather trivial details: where each product was manufactured, the brands of watches and cigarettes, of weapons and trucks. At seven he receives a call from his boss and feels glad that he got up early: report promptly to headquarters. He finishes the coffee and heads to the street. The traffic has already swelled and there are too many people looking for a ride to work. He beckons a service motorcycle and it stops a few feet in front of him. The driver looks at him through the opaque plastic of his helmet. They set off. When, forced to stop by the first traffic light, the driver impatiently presses the accelerator, Ali Zayn notices the marijuana-green gloves and realizes it’s the same driver who had taken him home the previous afternoon. The coincidence unsettles him. Never before – that he can remember – has he been picked up by the same driver twice in a row. He suddenly remembers the ruby swallowed by the sidewalk on the fateful morning of the prior day. That’s it, he deduces: the driver works for his boss. He’s been keeping an eye on him all night, and now he’s driving him to his trial. Ali Zayn stares at the marijuana-green gloves wrapped around the handlebars. Before the bike can start up, he jumps off and darts across the street, the cars dodging him as best they can.

In a way, what guarantees the posterity of an author is his relationship to falsehood. Or to unreality, to put it more diplomatically. Even stories that seem to opt for the everyday are structured by a displacement of reality; this is where their significance resides. To comply with cultural obligations, Naguib Mahfouz has written a few stories about ancient Egypt, the Egypt ruled by the rhythms of floods and the staffs of pharaohs. But Thoth’s paw doesn’t have the best grip on the author’s pen. Rather, Mahfouz is redeemed by his mundane characters, the ones who are less important and less archetypal, and who can even shrug off their provenance. His irreplaceable characters are those who discredit his paternal status by emancipating themselves from him, such as Ali Zayn. As he fled between cars on the morning he sensed that he had been discovered, he was the image of the universal deserter, the figure who flees even the string of words he has just exhaled.

He opens his eyes and sees Rolo’s face an inch away from his own. The old man is jostling him and Ali Zayn has just woken up. Rolo holds out the telephone.

— Lucy says to fix it, she says you know how.

— What’s wrong with it? asks Ali Zayn irritably.

— It stopped playing, Rolo explains. In the middle of the song.

Ali Zayn gets up, grabs the device and adjusts the headphones; a fragment of A Whiter Shade of Pale immediately rings out. He hands the phone to the old man, who still seems upset. You can’t hear anything, he says.

— Give it here, says Ali Zayn impatiently.

He puts on the headphones and confirms that the song is still playing and that he can make it out well. He doesn’t like this song. Ever since he heard it playing at his parents’ house on a radio station they used to listen to, it has seemed to him like a cheap lament. It’s been twenty years and he still doesn’t like it. Ali Zayn stares at Rolo and Rolo stares at him, as though challenging him. Ali Zayn grabs him by the shirt and shakes him.

— Don’t play with me, he warns him.

Rolo tries to free himself but finds it impossible, so he cries out for Lucy the Head. His wails don’t reach the ears of the hostel’s owner, but they have the effect of making Ali Zayn come to his senses. Once freed, Rolo fixes his shirt and begins to laugh. He grabs his phone and laughs. He spits at Ali Zayn, who by this point isn’t surprised. He finally recognizes the old man: he’s not Rolo, or maybe he is, but he’s also the insolent bedouin who appeared with a cage near the Israeli border.

— You’re a wretch, says the old man. You’re a Spartan dog.

Ali Zayn strikes him in the stomach and the old man collapses. As he falls, the dagger with the angel handle that Ali Zayn had lost during the attack slips out of his pant pocket. Ali Zayn laughs vindictively as he ties Rolo up. He looks at him for a moment, then throws him on the bed and pulls the covers up to his shoulders, as if he were asleep. He walks out feigning carelessness and goes in search of Yeny the Tattooist.

He finds her absorbed in the act of stamping a pirate ship on the shoulder of a wasted forty-something-year-old.

— Gimme a sec, she says. We can talk as soon as I’m done here.

The forty-something man, however, seems to bristle. Yeny snaps at him:

— I’m going to fuck this up if you keep moving, she warns him. Instead of a pirate ship, you’re going to end up with a submarine.

— Tell him to get away, the forty-something-year-old demands.

— Do you have something against Muslims? says Yeny.

— No, but tell him to go, the guy insists.

Ali Zayn takes a step back, but he doesn’t disappear from view. He’s nervous; he fears that Rolo will regain consciousness and start to yell. Luckily, the pirate ship is reaching its final form on the forty-something man’s shoulder. Yeny wipes the blood away with a gauze swab, gives him the usual instructions, charges him, and sees him off. She approaches Ali Zayn.

— What happened to you? She inquires. Then I have to hide you, she decides once she learns that Rolo is tied up because, apart from being himself, he is also a bedouin.

She makes a call on her cellphone and looks at herself in the mirror. Stay calm, she says and turns toward Ali Zayn. Stay calm, she says to him, everything will be settled soon, you’ll see. Ali Zayn begins to have doubts, but the sudden warmth of Yeny’s gaze convinces him of her good intentions. A car honks its horn on the street and Yeny urges him, reinforcing his peace of mind.

— Go on, that’s Alfredito.

Ali Zayn thinks she’s going with him, but the Tattooist prods him affectionately and says:

— Don’t be naïve. I’m risking enough for you, and I don’t even know why. Maybe it’s because I like Arabs. But if on top of everything I leave the parlor, Lucy the Head is going to realize I’m helping you. You can’t even begin to imagine how sadistic Lucy can be.

They reach the door and Yeny points out a yellow Lada on the opposite side of the street. Run, she says, I trust Alfredito. He’ll take you to my apartment now and I’ll join you in a bit. Ali Zayn slumps into the passenger seat. Alfredito heads out and, even though he drives slowly, he keeps glancing at the rearview mirror as if nervous. When they reach Porvenir, he leans over to adjust his seat and Ali Zayn spots a baseball bat on the car floor, well within reach. Alfredito notices his alarm and reassures him. Easy bro, he intones in English, it’s just a protection against hostile dudes. Ali Zayn understands, but he doesn’t trust him. You follow me? Alfredito insists. I understood you, says Ali Zayn, but I speak Spanish. I see, Alfredito laughs. Well, what I said: the bat’s not for you.

The Tattooist’s apartment is in a fortress perched over a river that is poisoned by the town’s waste. One has to meander through a hallway paved with broken tiles; Ali Zayn trips over them, making Alfredito laugh. The room is decorated with a life-size poster of Freddy Mercury. It also contains a damascene red sofa, an enormous television, and a fridge. The bedroom is on one side and the kitchen is on the other. Alfredito throws the keys on the sofa and says goodbye: Be discreet – God isn’t a wizard. Ali Zayn doesn’t believe in God, he believes in Allah, and he supposes that if Allah is all things, then he is also a wizard. But the driver’s warning still rings true: Lucy the Head can’t catch him by surprise. He opens the fridge and drinks a glass of water. Then he goes into the room where he sees a small bed and a nightstand with a lamp and a bottle of body lotion. In front of it, there is a rather small bookcase; right next to it, a plastic folding door. He draws it back to find a toilet and a shower. He takes out his bald eagle to relieve himself, and confirms that the toilet flows directly into the greenish waters of the river. As he merges his liquid with the liquids below, he goes over the events of the last few months and laments his fate. He may not be a sentimental guy, but he’s tired. The rancid smell emanating from the toilet brings him back to the present; he tucks his bird away and walks back to the room. Suddenly he feels drawn to the bookcase. He makes out a copy of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, a volume of the Art of the World anthology dedicated to Albrecht Dürer, and a copy of Selected Poems by Dulce María Loynaz. He opens this one, motivated above all by the phonetic magnet of her last name: Loynaz. He flips through a few pages and comes across a poem titled Love Letter to King Tut-Ank-Amen. The surprise stuns him for a few seconds. Then he resumes his thoughts and takes the poem as a good omen. Ali Zayn has never had much patience for superstition. Nevertheless, he now divines that the appearance of his compatriot in such a faraway place means that he has come to protect him. He slowly reads the letter where the Cuban poet evokes an afternoon sprinkled with white ibises and offers the teenage pharaoh the ten most beautiful years of her life. Loynaz is writing, she admits, in the solitude of a cold room. Ali Zayn is also alone, in a room filled with a putrid stench. He closes the book, but he marks the page with the angel-handle of his dagger. He searches the kitchen and finds a nylon bag filled with nails. With a pestle meant for grinding spices, he manages to secure the apartment door. He reinforces it with a wooden plank. He sits down on the sofa and, while he waits, he ponders. The ten most beautiful years of his life, have they already passed? The ten most beautiful years of his life, will they arrive one after the other, or will he have to select them one by one from among everything he has lived and forgotten? The ten most beautiful years of his life don’t exist.

[*]Polvo gris sobre los párpados” by the Cuban author Rogelio Riverón won the 2020 “Julio Cortázar” Ibero-American Short Story Award