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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 Quarantine Philosopher – Wajdi Al-Ahdal – trans. Hatem Al-Shamea

The Quarantine Philosopher

Wajdi Al-Ahdal

trans. by Hatem Al-Shamea

Chapter One

“The Great Certainties: The Origin of Every Deception”

“In the Zima cemetery, the events of this novel unfold. I won’t delve into the stories of buried humans; instead, I’ll content myself with recounting an entertaining tale about a world unknown to you. I will focus on the corpse worms, those small creatures just a few meters away from your footsteps.”


The son of Zima, the founder of the Zima cemetery and innovator of its Sandism doctrine, passed away while recommending the creation of an artificial sun in the sky, in line with his usual inclination to replicate everything.
After generations, his wish was eventually fulfilled by Al-Qahtani the Great, the current ruler of the cemetery, who funded a project to manufacture a giant sun made from the waste left over from petrochemical factories. This sun provided light and warmth to the worms of the Zima cemetery, which had long been in need of light. However, this artificial sun brought with it unforeseen consequences, as it filled their reality with false illusions and fallacies.
Mishaal al-Hijazi clung to a raft that had been swept away by the powerful waves of the Red Sea, sneaking onto the shore of the cemetery in the middle of a starless night. Exhausted from thirst, he fell immediately to the ground as soon as he felt the dry land beneath his feet, summoning sleep.

When morning broke, he awoke feeling disturbed and ventured out into the streets of Zima Cemetery in search of water. He walked along Al-Hamra Street, his toes filled with the salty moisture of the sea, an intense, burning itch spreading across his skin. He was filled with rage at the immense process of forgery which had taken place, changing the original name of the cemetery, “The Tomb of Our Mother Eve,” to the name of their Imam, “Zima.” He muttered to himself like a madman, shaking his fists in the air.
As he walked along the Corniche, he saw beautiful worms from the Viking cemetery. Their wrinkles had not yet formed and they, like him, had entered the country illegally. Despite the police patrolling the area, they sold copies of the illegal Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He left the pavement covered in the sticky remains of chewing gum, juice boxes, and used water bottles left by the absent hikers.

As he walked onto the hot, boggy sand, his mouth was dry and a stone was stuck under his tongue. He desperately wanted to drink from the high waves, hoping the saltiness of the water would be less severe. When a wave came crashing like a Hindu monk, he eagerly drank from it. But the intense salinity burned his throat and stomach, and he felt dizzy and a sharp whistle penetrated his ears. Everything turned yellow in his eyes. He had forgotten the Red Sea was the saltiest sea in the world! The smell of oil drained from his stomach, and he realized that the sea water had been deliberately contaminated with oil waste. He felt regret for his decision to come back to the Zima cemetery, and the remorse felt like a stab in the side.

He saw his reflection in the water and noticed a thick vapor coming out of his nostrils, shaped like a heron, with a transparent texture like crystal. He trudged to the beach and vomited the polluted salt water he had drank. He found a soft edged stone and placed it under his tongue. Suddenly, the yellowness vanished and the colors of the world returned. He felt light and clear-minded.

He rested on the beach, with his feet towards the sea. He couldn’t help but feel the sea was mocking him, laughing at his clumsy attempt to harm him. He picked up a shell and wiped away the sand. It was petrified and wrinkled, like a face he had heard about but never seen – his ancestor who, in his youth, drank marrow from the bones of corpses. He felt a deep connection to the shell, believing it was a mirror image of his own empty self in which only the wind whistled.
He was a forty-something worm, tall and slender, with a healthy physique that combined agility and strength. His wide eyes were magnified by thick-lensed glasses and his head was oval in shape, with a broad, domed forehead and taut skin that hinted at his intelligence. His large, flat ears complemented his long, clean-shaven face that was perfectly proportioned. His long, narrow nose was crowned by two delicate mustaches that hinted at his good taste and elegance. His mouth was straight without bending, even when he smiled, and his lips were thin and even, not one fuller than the other. His chin was cast bronze without protrusions, and his neck was long and rounded without any deformed veins, as if it was a young girl’s neck. This beautiful neck was the source of his discomfort, as it gave him a feminine touch that he was not comfortable with.
Mishaal spent the first half of his life devoted to the study of Sandism law, mastering its intricate rules and memorizing the sayings of its renowned scholars. Against his will, he was sent by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to a distant cemetery in Europe to teach its migrant worms to pray. Once his mission was accomplished, he threw his return ticket away and devoted the second half of his life to the pursuit of philosophy, indulging himself in the joys of life until he felt completely liberated from the strictures of the Sandism doctrine. When he was satisfied that he had finally broken free from his deep faith, he decided to go back home to spread his newfound ideas.

He had read in Ibn Rushd’s writings about a curious property of the Zima cemetery: its soil was said to be too porous to hold water, and written words would quickly be erased by the harshness of the climate and the intensity of its sandstorms. Mishaal had the ambition to make a name for himself among the world’s philosophers if he could find a way to make the Zima cemetery’s sands hold water, thus transforming them into arable land, and make books printed on dust-resistant paper so that their words would last longer.

His delicate scalp bore the brunt of the scorching sun of Al-Qahtani the Great, radiating from the highest point in the sky and deceiving the inhabitants of the cemetery into believing it was the blistering summer season. As he looked for relief, he noticed lush trees caged in square boxes on either side of a pristine and organized street. The asphalt was painted green, likely from the oil that had been drained from the sewers. These trees were unaware of the concept of light and shade, of blooming and bearing fruit, and of the necessity of water to release oxygen. They were merely ornamental and nothing more, causing Mishaal al-Hijazi’s heart to ache for their plight. Avoiding the wide and wooded streets, he changed his course and followed the neglected dirt alleys, filled with piles of rubbish and swarms of flies. More than once, he stumbled upon lazy cats and dogs lying on the ground as if they were dead.

As he passed by an elementary school, his attention was drawn to a bearded teacher with sparks flying from his eyes. The teacher had a thin bamboo rod wrapped in black adhesive, presumably to instill fear in the late students. Five old women, “pilgrims”, stood nearby, selling pulp and salted peanuts. They winked at the foolishness of the Mutawa, leaning against the school wall, each wearing the traditional clothing of their respective countries. His keen eye was able to tell which tomb each of them had come from, based on the colors and styles of their attire.

Mishaal al-Hijazi was reminded of his happy school days, when he and his friends would rush to buy from the women. The pleasant memory brought a smile to his face. However, his musings were interrupted by the sound of young captives singing a collective anthem in praise of Al-Qahtani the Great, praying for his long life. As the wind began to roar, the air became polluted with dust and the range of vision decreased. The cemetery slowly came to life with the sound of car horns, preachers spreading their sandy doctrine from homes and shops, where cassette tapes were sold cheaply. Mishaal al-Hijazi felt he had somehow become part of the daily rhythm of Zima Cemetery.
He saw a slender young worm, dark-skinned, her face hidden behind a veil, smiling at him with her blue eyes as wide and captivating as a gazelle’s. His heart fluttered, and a low moan of admiration escaped his lips. He followed her down a deserted alleyway and stopped her, asking her to give him some water. She laughed at his peculiar request and began toying with a few daring ideas. She then boldly removed her black cloak, groaning softly, and lifted her yellow dress up to her nipples, revealing her lower half to him in all its naked glory, her skin glowing and radiant like a soft crescent dune. With a stretched, singing voice, she pointed to a well and said, “Drink from this… with happiness and healing!” The philosopher’s heart melted like butter, his veins pulsing with the allure of instinct, and his spirit becoming as wild and feral as a shrieking hawk, ready to devour its prey.
Mishaal spun around, only to find a masked worm brandishing a hamburger-shaped machine gun. He immediately recognized the figure as one of the “Night Guard” weasels. He knew they were hostile to anyone whose thoughts were different from the norm, so he quickly ran down a narrow, winding street, disregarding the cries of a young woman trying to deceive him. Mishaal ran faster, expecting any moment to be struck by a barrage of treacherous bullets.
He walked down the bustling street, passing by the countless stores and malls that were filled with people. The street was alive with a cacophony of sound from the honking of cars, chatter of people, and the occasional shouts of street vendors. He noticed young men dressed in white “waisted” clothing, so narrow at the waist and shoulders it was almost like a woman’s dress. Whenever a beautiful cheeky woman passed by, these young men would throw slips of paper with their phone numbers and car numbers in her way, hoping one of them would be lucky enough to get a call from her.

He lit a cigarette of a cheap brand, the acrid smoke mixing with the aroma of strong perfumes and the stench of goats locked in a barn with no air. Everywhere he looked, he heard young men bragging about buying expensive car numbers and others cleaning their camel’s ironing tires with headache medicine. He left the mall feeling disgusted and walked on, the hustle and bustle of the street fading away into the distance.
He continued to walk with determination, his heart full of hope for a better future. He began to hum the song ” And my patience is the patience of sailors, who go astray in the sea is an oyster ” by the renowned singer Mohammad Abdo, keeping himself entertained on his journey. He was filled with anticipation and excitement for his great mission of enlightenment, something he had planned while abroad and eagerly awaited his return. But his joy quickly dissipated as he saw the decadent young people and their careless attitudes. He knew breaking through the solid wall of ignorance would be a struggle, and his efforts might not bear fruit for a long time. Despite his strong conviction to overcome all obstacles, the gloom that had plagued him since the morning could not be shaken. Suddenly, a blue billboard with the words “Institute for the Promotion of Thought” caught his eye, and his face lit up with joy. “Oh, thank God, I finally found what I was looking for! From this institute, I can set off to share the humanist doctrine and its teachings with people in the cemetery. All I hope is that fate will give me sincere disciples,” he thought to himself. He headed towards the direction of the arrow, arriving at a modern building. Taking the glass elevator, which resembled a transparent gift box, up to the eighteenth floor, he came across the door of the Institute for the Promotion of Thought, which was ajar. As he stepped inside, he was greeted by a worm with beaming face from the cemeteries of East Asia. They shook hands warmly, as if they were old friends. Mishaal Al-Hijazi’s eyes blazed like a meteorite that had been split in two as he declared,
“I am Mishaal Al-Hijazi, I have a PhD in humanistic philosophy, and I wish to work at the institute.” The Asian worker responded coolly, his face a mask of gray as he sneered,
“You don’t have a brain! Read the ironing sign closely.”
The philosopher turned towards the direction indicated by the Asian worker and observed a metal sign explaining, “The Institute for the Advancement of Thought offers specialized scientific courses in teaching Eastern cooking and cuisine.” Philosopher Mishaal’s ears turned red, and he ignited with shame and anger at himself. With a feeble gesture towards the proud worker with his uplifted nose, he left the eighteenth floor and the beautifully designed building, feeling a bitter disappointment.

Above his exposed head circled two hostile crows, clashing in mid-air with their beaks, and black feathers fell to the ground, as if the sky were a broken cushion. He changed his path again, disturbed by this omen of doom. He succumbed to thirst until he almost fainted and dared to ask a frail worm, stooped over corpses and leaning on a crooked stick, where they drank water from. The old worm’s joints trembled with joy, and he threw his stick into the air, then knelt down, leaving the philosopher Mishaal completely behind. With a movement lacking refinement, he caught the attention of passersby, making them gather around him and Mishaal.
The aged worm raised his white robe to his hump, revealing his thick skin, then pointed with his four fingers, saying, “Here is where Zimis drink their water!” Philosopher Mishaal’s face flushed with intense embarrassment, and he felt his legs trembling and unable to support him. Fiery glares surrounded him from all directions, and he realized that he was encircled by hostile intentions eager to spill his blood. Philosopher Mishaal covered his face with his hands, retreating backward in wide steps, while malicious blows rained down on his hump, and curses, like arrows, relentlessly pursued him. By the skin of his soul, he managed to escape the aggression of the zealots with minimal losses.
When he felt the pain in his groin intensify, the philosopher Mishaal was surprised to see blood flowing from a wound, perhaps caused by a sharpened blade. He bandaged his wound with a piece of cloth and hurried behind eight short-statured workers from the Bangladeshi cemetery. He saw them jumping into the bed of a quarter-ton pickup truck, so he climbed in behind them, constantly looking back in fear. The driver raced at a reckless speed, indifferent to the lives of those he carried in an open bed, devoid of safety conditions. Philosopher Mishaal felt empathy for these strangers coming from the farthest corner of the Indian subcontinent, who believed in achieving one dream: that each of them could gather enough money to build a simple house and then return home.

He noticed the young man sitting beside him, the most handsome and tallest among them, displaying a photograph of his beautiful wife carefully hidden behind a transparent plastic pocket in a worn-out brown wallet. In broken Arabic, he explained that they got married a month and a half ago and spent their honeymoon in the streets of Dhaka. Captured for generations without shelter, they decided to emigrate, hoping to provide a roof for their children when they are born. The handsome Bangladeshi kissed the eyes of his wife in the picture and sighed until his entire being trembled. He then tucked the wallet into the shirt pocket close to his heart, and his splendid eyes welled up with tears.

Philosopher Mishaal pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pants pocket, attempting a desperate gesture to dispel the sorrow that had suddenly struck him like lightning, surprising him with the torrent of tears. He offered cigarettes to his worker companions, but none of them reached out, out of shyness. He insisted and swore at them in Bengali to take them. The handsome Bangladeshi, bewildered, asked, “Baba, I don’t understand Nietzsche!”
The philosopher, Mishaal, spoke with unwavering confidence, as if conversing about a close comrade:

“Nietzsche is a great prophet… do you comprehend?”

The Bangladeshis were influenced by his commanding demeanor and admired his passionate gestures. Each of them retrieved cigarettes from their packs, aligning with their assigned numbers, and all indulged in smoking with sheer elation. Unexpectedly, without any forewarning, they found themselves somersaulting through the air and collapsing onto the unforgiving asphalt, a result of the van colliding with a streetlight pole. Fortunately for Philosopher Mishaal, positioned in the back on the right side, the impact propelled him onto a sandy patch, resulting in only minor bruises.

That particular streetlight pole remained steadfastly planted in the middle of the road. Despite the street’s expansion and fresh layers of pavement, the municipality hesitated to remove it, apprehensive of malicious political accusations. Suspended above it was a grand portrait of the esteemed cemetery governor, Al-Qahtani. Any endeavor to displace the image could be perceived as a conspiracy against the ruling regime, carrying the gravest of penalties. Hence, the municipality opted to reinforce the pole with additional cement barriers, safeguarding it from potential collisions that, God forbid, might compromise the illustrious image of Al-Qahtani.

Philosopher Mishaal wiped away the dirt from his mouth and eyes, adjusted his jacket, and proceeded towards the accident site. There, he beheld the van with its crumpled front and shattered windshield. Scattered across the scorching asphalt, spaced at intervals, lay the eight Bangladeshis.
He rushed towards them and realized that their injuries were serious. The stout and unshaven driver, who miraculously escaped the horrific accident without a scratch – thanks to securing his belly with the seatbelt – caught up with him, praising his luck for escaping death. Philosopher Mishaal snatched the mobile phone from the driver’s trembling hand and called for an ambulance and the police.

After a few minutes, the handsome Bangladeshi breathed his last, his hand clutching the tattered leather wallet containing a picture of his smiling wife. When he was thrown high in the air, then tumbling on the asphalt several times, he cared less about preserving the safety of his brain, protecting his face, or any other part of his body, as much as he cared about keeping his Bengali love stable above his heart.

Philosopher Mishaal closed the lover’s eyes and kissed them. He sat beside the lifeless body, crying without tears. After half an hour, the site was cleared of any trace of the crime, as if it had never happened. The driver was released after a brief, pointless investigation. The focus shifted to Mishaal’s opinion of Al-Qahtani the Great and whether he aimed to bring down his image from its high position. As for the Bangladeshi victims, the police never inquired about them.

Subsequently, some security personnel descended to the street, accosted Philosopher Mishaal for being unemployed, and demanded he leave the scene immediately.
His feet led him to a wide square dominated by a massive hourglass. Its glass revealed tons of stagnant sand in its lower half, while the upper half remained empty with just a single grain of sand. Philosopher Mishaal pondered at length on how he could overturn the sculpture to reset time within it. The square was filled with military personnel and security worms, leading him to guess that he was near the palace of Al-Qahtani the Great. Every gunshot he heard involuntarily made his body tremble, despite his desperate attempts to hide his weakness. He walked cautiously, brushing against the military personnel who proudly flaunted their circumcised organs with their pistols.

A brazen officer offered him a provocative glance, suggesting a light circumcision with a single expert shot. Philosopher Mishaal politely declined, saying, “I regret that I cannot fulfill your request because my nightingale organ is no longer mine.” The insolent officer laughed and pulled out his pistol, placing its muzzle under Mishaal’s belly.

” What do you mean? Is he indebted to a prostitute you had slept with?”
The philosopher, Mishaal, reclined, proudly stroking his mustache, saying, “No, the matter is not that bad. All there is that I donated it for the sake of knowledge!”

The insolent officer chuckled, returning the pistol to his leather holster, a look of satisfaction on his face. “Well, that’s good news. But do you think your donation will contribute to the advancement of knowledge?” he asked.

Philosopher Mishaal, regaining his composure, replied, “I am confident that my donation will help various scientific fields give birth to more inventions. Just wait for nine months, and after that, you’ll hear the cries of newborn technology echoing from within me!”

The military men burst into laughter, mockingly ventured to let the “new clown” walk away at his own pace.
The heat intensified, and the dust increased the thirst of the philosopher Mishaal. He resolved to head to the palace to voice his complaints about the mistreatment he had faced from the people to Al-Qahtani the Great himself. The palace had eighteen consecutive iron gates, taking him more than two hours to pass through due to thorough inspection and repetitive, tedious questioning. Then, he walked through a beautiful garden adorned with a fountain emitting the scent of diesel. On both sides stood date palms with lush red-colored bunches, few fronds, barren and unproductive. The sight triggered a sense of apprehension and pessimism in the philosopher Mishaal, as he wondered if these trees were brought from the world of nightmares. He entered the air-conditioned waiting hall, but his attention was immediately captivated by a peculiarly beautiful sculpture: a giant palm tree with a golden trunk, from which hung black dates dripping with asphalt.
He waited for three hours, then he was allowed to enter. He adjusted his attire and walked deliberately, haunted by ominous thoughts magnified by thirst. He saw Al-Qahtani the Great, leading the court’s proceedings, was preoccupied with playing with a child barely four years old. He focused his gaze on the features of the strongest worm in Zima Cemetery, the most renowned. His face appeared square, the lower jaw strong, adorned with a light mustache resembling a crescent. Beneath his full, slack lower lip, a dimple emerged like a dark star amidst a dark crescent. His cheeks were smooth and polished, devoid of any wrinkles. Beneath his prominent nose, standing like a bird’s beak, two lightly groomed mustaches lay above his tight upper lip, portraying the carefree youth indulging in pleasures. In contrast, his thick, dark eyebrows, akin to a raven’s tail, hinted at patience, endurance, cunning, and lofty determination. His eyes, a puzzling mix of intelligence, submerged emotion, and cold brutality. His short, fleshy neck extended its veins into broad shoulders, and his rounded, well-fed body suffered from a sagging belly, scratching the image of his youthful appearance. He wore a white robe, adorned with a black and gold-trimmed sash, covering his head with a white headscarf and a black headband. The left end of the scarf was folded to the right, revealing a portion of his dense, intertwined hair extending to the lobe.
Despite his dry throat, heavy tongue, and cracked lips from thirst, the philosopher Mishaal voiced his complaint, shouting:

– Grant me justice, O prince, from those who have wronged me.

Al-Qahtani the Great, turned to him, addressing him with a cold look that delved into the depths of his intentions. Then he lifted the child from his lap and moved his head, confirming the stability of the headband:

– May God guide you. Has anyone wronged you from my citizens?

– Yes, indeed. I reached Zima Cemetery yesterday, and, by God, I haven’t tasted even a single drop of water. I am on the verge of death due to thirst.

– If you had asked them for water, they would have given it to you.

– I did ask, and I requested water from a beautiful Zimia. But She uncovered her hidden organs to me, and I turned away from her in escape to preserve my modesty and honor. Then, I encountered an almost seventy-year-old Zimi, frail and feeble. I asked him to guide me to the water source, and he pointed to his privates and trying to tempt me. The worms thought the worst of me, and I suspected that they wanted to harm me, so I wisely managed to escape the danger they posed, saving myself from their deadly intentions.
Al-Qahtani the Great, [his face marked with sorrow and sadness], said to him:

– Unfortunately, Allah has afflicted me with the most wretched and disgraceful citizens in the world. Oh, if you only knew how they harm and trouble me! My heart is on the verge of breaking from their despicable deeds. I feel my stomach is filled with worms from the reports I hear about them. I swear by Allah, thought you did not request me to swear, that the worm in my stomach is like this.
As Al-Qahtani the Great spoke his last sentence, he exposed his private organ to the astonished philosopher, Mishaal. The complainant understood the awkwardness of the situation he had put himself in and acted wisely. He requested one of the servants for an official white paper, and when the servant brought what was needed, he wrote a commitment to abstain from drinking water throughout his stay in the Zima Cemetery. Al-Qahtani the Great was impressed by the quick wit displayed by philosopher Mishaal. He accepted the commitment from him with an unusual kindness and sealed it with his ring. In a blink of an eye, he entered the seat of governance through a side door, accompanied by a tall and broad-backed guard with a grim face resembling a gorilla. He wore a grey robe and a brown leather belt with a pistol on one end and a sword on the other. In his hand, he held a cup of oil. The guard approached the philosopher, Mishaal, his fiery eyes fixed on him, and handed him the cup. With trembling fingers, the latter brought the cup to his mouth and poured the thick black liquid onto his parched throat in one swift motion. A smile of satisfaction appeared on the face of Al-Qahtani the Great, who signaled imperceptibly to his followers, indicating permission for the philosopher to stay in the cemetery without harm befalling him.

Stray Hearts

The night, a café of memories – Asma’a Al-Shaibani – trans. Hatem Al-Shamea

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