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  • Welcome to ALT Magazine & Press: Hazawi Prize Announces 2023 Shortlist: (Sana'a, Yemen) - The shortlist for the 2023 Hazawi Prize for Yemeni Literature has been revealed, announcing the ten writers who have been selected as finalists for this prestigious award.
  • Now in its second yearly round, the Hazawi Prize recognizes exceptional contributions to fiction in Yemeni literature. Organized by the Hazawi Cultural Foundation, this annual prize aims to promote Yemeni literature and support creative writers.
  • This year's shortlist features both emerging and renowned Yemeni authors. The ten works advancing to the final round of judging are:
  • - Abdullah Faisal shortlisted for his novel, Spirits and Secrets.
  • - Aisha Saleh shortlisted for her novel, Under the Ashes
  • - Farouk Merish shortlisted for his novel, A Dignified Stranger
  • - Ahmed Ashraf shortlisted for his novel, A Painful Belt
  • - Ghassan Khalid shortlisted for his novel, A Sky that Rains Fear
  • - Hosam Adel shortlisted for his novel, The Lord of the Black Dog
  • - Asmaa Abdulrazak shortlisted for her novel, Shrapnels
  • - Abdullah Abdu Muhammad shortlisted for his novel, The Road to Sana'a
  • - Najah Bahkeim shortlisted for her novel, The Final Decision
  • - Samir AbdulFattah shortlisted for her novel, What We Cannot See
  • The winner will be revealed at an award ceremony in Sana'a later where they will receive $1,500 USD. Second and third prizes of $1,000 USD each will also be awarded. All shortlisted works are celebrated for chronicling Yemen's rich culture and wartime experiences. This prestigious prize continues highlighting the nation's thriving literary community.

The Gravedigger – Sameer Abdelfattah – trans. Hatem Al-Shamea

The Gravedigger

“It is not easy to become a gravedigger.”
With these words, Abdul Mujoud concluded his long talk with his new assistant in the room overlooking the cemetery.
The young man rose, expressing his frustration with the repetition of such words, and walked toward the door murmuring softly:
“Always words and advice. This old man never tires of talking.”
Abdul-Mawjud called out:
“What did you say?”
But the young man just replied:
“Nothing” and kept walking. At the threshold, he thought he heard Abdul-Mawjud sigh, “The old man’s hearing is still sharp despite his age.” The cold air made the young man shiver, and he contemplated turning back to the room, but he heard the words of Abdul-Mawjud and drew his collar tighter, thrusting his hands into his pockets as he walked until he came across a tomb. As he stared at the expanse of graves, he uttered a deep sigh of despair:
“Here is the end.” He stood in silence for a moment before making his way to the cemetery gate. Peering outside, he despaired at the lack of any change; he thought of sneaking away and sitting beneath the lamppost at the beginning of the street. He reasoned:
“Even that lamppost is lonely; its light cannot diminish the gloom and fear. The darkness of the night is ever-looming, like a tall old man who thought he would be the center of attention.”
He stepped out of the cemetery gate, feeling the warmth of the pavement beneath his feet, and thought of returning to the comfort of his bed.
“It’s only an hour’s delay, why am I so tense?” he tried to console himself.
He returned to the cemetery and meandered around the graves before eventually settling down beside the newly-dug grave that would soon receive its occupant. Closing his eyes, he allowed the silence to envelope him. When he opened them, he was reminded of the wise words of the old man:
“It is easy. You have to become one with the place and be part of it. Comfort can be found in the silence.”
He stood up and, without having to be asked, informed Abdul Mawjud that the funeral procession had not yet arrived. He walked up to the opposite side of Abdul Mawjud, sat with his knees tucked to his chest, and pondered if this was a good place to think about the future. Suddenly, Abdul Mawjud spoke as if he was talking to himself:
“Our work is not like any other job. Above all, we must not let fear take hold of us through the white cloth, and remain composed when we bid farewell to our loved ones.”
He then turned to the young man and said,
“The trembling of your hands was evident last time. You must approach this as if it were a regular job, not as you are ending someone’s life. Human relations no longer matter here.”
Standing firmly despite his age, Abdul Mawjud walked towards the window that overlooked the cemetery gates and pointed to the vast expanse:

“At the beginning of my life, I was filled with fear when I first participated in burying a body, and I was so shaken that I could not sleep for three nights. Despite this, I now cannot rest without checking the graves. My father realized my fear and I often ran away from home to avoid his punishment. My grandfather wanted me to learn a different profession, but I could not bear the difficulties of those works and my father’s conviction only grew stronger that I would be his heir.”
The old man paused for a moment, and his expression softened as he condensed the decades of his life into a few words:
“Through a lot of work from both myself and my father, I became well-versed in this profession after five years. However, it was only many years later that I fully understood the true meaning of being a gravedigger. Look at them; the graves are now silent, but not stationary. There is an energy of the universe in them; they are still being affected by the laws of life and time, as living beings. A tomb is born, ages, and eventually ends so that a new one can take its place. People who are still living are unaware that things have changed for the dead, and the actions they continue to take appear strange to them. Even the dead are taken aback by them. -Look! That grave belonged to a rich person and its appearance reflects this. This simple tomb, however, contains the remains of a vegetable vendor, who was your neighbor, I heard. It does not matter, he is now still my neighbor, and despite all the relatives of the deceased, the dead still feel lonely when their loved ones leave them in this place of unknown fate. All of them [the dead] are clothed in the same fabric and are left to the same worms. None can claim superiority to the moisture of their graves, and none can reject the lowly worms that consume them. We are merely deluded into believing that differences between people still exist in death, as if the wealthy remain wealthy and the poor remain poor even after death.”

The old man turned to the young man, inquiringly:
“Don’t you like my talk?” he asked.
“Yes, I do,” the young man answered, “but one of us must stay alert for the upcoming funeral.”
“The next funeral!” the old man replied carelessly.
“It’s been a while since we’ve seen one like this.”
The young man asked,
“Is it for someone important?”
The old man replied,
“More than you can imagine. The funeral has been delayed by those who wanted to pay their last respects. After the funeral, you’ll be able to take a break, but just for a few days.”
They fell into a heavy silence, and the young man attempted to ask the old man to close the window, through which a chill wind was sneaking in. However, the words got stuck in his throat and turned into a faint hum. The old man turned to him. The young man then began to murmur to himself, as his impatient nerves were being tested by the quietness of the room. He was trying to listen for the approaching funeral, but all he could hear was the sound of his own voice:

Why am I here? Why have I agreed to work with Abdul-Mawjud. Yes, he is well-regarded, a first-class gravedigger with a strong commitment to finishing his work to its completion, which is why he uses this room to be ready at any time. His skill and dedication are respected by those around him, but I do not wish to follow in his footsteps. I seek comfort and warmth, not the chill of the grave as if I were a lifeless corpse.
The old man’s voice brought the young man back to the somber atmosphere of the cemetery. Positively nodding his head to indicate that everything was prepared, the man shook his head and spoke again.
“There’s no point in asking you; I have to do everything myself. Your attitude almost seems to suggest that you have forgotten something. It would help if you did not give up. No matter what your problem is, you have the right to live. Where you are now, there are dead remains below the dust. How many problems did these dead people have in their lives? Did they manage to solve all their issues? I don’t think so. Let’s be honest. Since you began working with me, you’ve been trying to escape. You’ve been doing your job as if you were forced to. No one can make you do this job, not even me. I would have left this job a long time ago and gone to something else, but I didn’t because I was dedicated to it. You must decide for yourself whether you want to continue or not. Don’t let others decide for you.”
The young man stepped closer to the old man, wanting to honestly tell him about his desire to leave. However, he was interrupted by the old man’s voice:
“You know, Mahmoud, the burial of the first corpse still resonates in my head, and I still wonder how I could conquer my fear. Though many were afraid of the graves, I think no one loves them more than me! Is it the habit and familiarity with this place, as my years have been engraved in this cemetery, or is something mysterious that attracts me here?! I cannot break up with this place. I know these tombs one by one. When I feel bored, I take the bed sheet and sleep among the tombs. Every day I discover that I love graves as my children. I cannot believe it, but it is the truth I live.” The young man was taken aback as he listened to the old man’s words. He stood there, observing the wild view outside the window, wondering how the old man could see beauty in it. He sighed, realizing it was already too late for him to leave with the light.
He thought to himself,
“What secret made him give up the lights, sounds, and warmth? Is it his age that he can no longer bear the burdens of life? However, everyone has been saying he is like this for many years! Will I be like him? I have to move away from here; I can no longer be able to stay with death in one place.”
With these last thoughts, the young man walked away from the room, leaving the old man to his solitude.
The silence lingered for a few moments before the old man addressed the younger one, saying:
“I do not have any problems with the deceased; it is the living that I struggle to confront. It is not that they reject me, but their wild gazes make me avoid them. I attempted to cope with the living, but my efforts were futile, so I ended up leaving and settling here. It is not as easy as it seems, leaving everything behind and going to work; I spent the most trying years in this room; I left thousands of cries and blows in each of its walls. My loud and terrified voice only reached the dead—the delirium of a fever. One day I lay down within an empty grave, and as soon as the dust reached my face, I jumped up and ran away like a madman. When morning came, I found myself sprawled on the ground in the next village. Thinking constantly of death, it eventually became a companion of mine; we conversed while gazing at the stars. It is not madness, but I often found myself talking to it late at night, and then sleeping in its company. I could find no one to befriend me except death.”
The old man slowly walked a few steps through the graveyard and gently lifted a handful of dirt. As he allowed the dust to slowly fall through his fingers, he thought to himself,
“This dust is as much a part of this place as death and I. I have experienced life in all its forms: fear, joy, and even boredom. I often feel lonely and wish I could find someone to share my sorrows and dreams with, someone who could bring life back to my numbed emotions and whom I could cry in the embrace of. People might think me to be unemotional, but it is my job. I am not scared of death, I buried my father with my own hands. I chose not to marry or have children because I did not want them to experience the fear I had when I laid him to rest with this dust. I could never describe that moment.”
The old man sighed and slowly moved towards the newly opened grave. After a deep hum, he said,
“I have only one nightmare that disturbs me here. I sometimes yearn for it to come true. In my dream, when I sleep in my room, I feel someone knock on the door. Suddenly, the walls of the room disappear and I can only see the graves around me. The people I had buried come out of their tombs and carry me on their shoulders, celebrating and taking me all around the cemetery before burying me in the grave I pointed to. Afterward, they left the cemetery and went home, leaving me feeling lonely inside the tomb. People think I have no feelings and that I have no right to have fun or to be happy. Their gaze has made me feel like I was already buried a long time ago. I have grown accustomed to the fear, and sometimes I even seek it out. In the last year, I have not had any new nightmares. It is difficult to search for fear in a place like this, but sometimes the thought of life itself is even scarier. I am still a human being, after all, and I have dreams like any young person. While some of them may be trivial, I wish I could return to those days and relive my life. I long to escape from everything and everyone.”
The old man added:
“Disappearing into a new place is effortless for you. When you are seeking to escape, you blend in with the bustling masses. Immerse yourself in the energy of the crowd and when your body becomes part of the flow, you have managed to flee. But here, you cannot vanish. You will be alone with the deceased; fear is the initial thought. When terror takes over, escape is not possible. You remain in your spot, anticipating the end; maybe fear has been the reason for my survival all these years. I am scared to return here, lying on a wooden slab. I dread the thought of being entombed in such a pit.”
The old man was quiet for a moment, then he kicked some dirt into the hole and spoke again:
“Life and dreams end in a small hole, and once the mourners have gone, all is forgotten. Those buried here are soon forgotten and their graves may one day be overgrown with green leaves. This place is a reminder of death, and I stand between the living and the dead, trying to figure out which side I belong to. I know that my end will come in this hole, but I want to settle it sooner. Life with all its ups and downs, and death lurking just around the corner. Will I be able to enjoy my life before it is too late? I still haven’t figured it out. All this time has passed and I still haven’t come up with any answers. Sometimes I feel drawn towards death, but something keeps bringing me back. Sometimes we fantasize about things that will help us pass the time, but when we realize we are chasing a phantom, we choose to either flee or succumb to fear – either way, it’s the same.”
“At the beginning, it may seem that escape is an option, but when fear arrives, it becomes clear that the situation is more dire. This is the stage where there is no return; running away is futile and attempting to save oneself from the inevitable is an act of futility. The nightmare of approaching the end seems unavoidable, leaving one with the feeling of hopelessness. In a single moment, the situation can go from joyous to despairing. For example, one could have been in the comfort of their own home, but the arrival of a funeral brings the realization that life is fleeting. Even when the sun is shining and the atmosphere is pleasant, a few steps can change the entire outlook, causing those steps to become heavy and filled with sadness. When an individual decides to take on a project, nothing could have prepared them for the events that would follow. Life can be full of beautiful things. When I was a young boy, I used to cry easily when I lost something; the sympathetic looks from others and my father’s stern expression did not sway me from choosing my path. What is the purpose of clinging on to things if they will inevitably be lost one day? Years have passed quickly. You know the temptations of life; people, light, warmth… I have left the cemetery eight times, but each time I went home. Yet, there was an event – perhaps insignificant to some, but to me it was enough to close all the doors and never return. If I left the cemetery now, there would be no place willing to accept me; the smell of death had become entrenched in my clothing and in my very being. Even when I breathe, the scent of bones and worms escapes me; I feel like if I sat in a lush garden, it would become a cemetery within an hour!”
The old man turned to the younger man, silently contemplating the graves for a moment, before speaking:
“Many have worked with me before you, but they were always scared of living with death, and so eventually left. Now, in my old age, I am in need of someone who can do something for me.”
The young man asked:
“What is it that you need?”
The old man replied:
“I need someone to bury me. I know that I will die alone in that room or amongst the graves. Therefore, I need someone to cover me with dust and lay some green flowers on my grave. Everywhere I go, I feel people’s gaze upon me, and when their gaze meets mine, all I see is fear and terror. To them, I am an embodiment of death. A few weeks ago, when I went to get a haircut, I could not ignore the image I saw in the mirror. Unkempt eyebrows, deep sunken eyes, prominent facial bones and chapped lips. My face was like that of a corpse. I can feel death coming to me, and when I wake up from my slumber, I do not open my eyes straight away; I wander around the room, finding the door and then opening my eyes. One day the door will not open, but I fear that will only be a nightmare. They are calling me. The dead call me; they come to me in my dreams, telling me I have a place amongst them and wondering why I have not come yet.”
The old man paused for a moment before continuing,
“When the funeral comes, I get ready, and as soon as people leave the cemetery, I sit next to the tomb, talking to the deceased all night. It is not madness, but this conversation is the only thing that brings me peace. Even when I feel desperate, I know that someone is listening to me. This proves that you will be a good gravedigger, but if you ever think of leaving this place or this job, please come see me one day.”
He then pointed to the nearest part of the middle of the cemetery:
“Look at that small stone there.
-“What is it?”
“That is where I want to be buried,” the old man replied solemnly. The young man put his hand on the old man’s shoulder, and the sounds of the funeral cortege could be heard from afar…

Psychological Analysis of Memory and Trauma in Mayasa Al-Nakhlani’s “I Named Her Fatima” by Hatem Al-Shamea

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