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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.

Yael’s Darkness – Al-Gharbi Emran – trans: Hatem Al-Shamea

An excerpt [Two Chapters] from Al-Gharbi Emran’s Yael’s Darkness

Chapter One


The 14th century Hijri

The Manuscript of Joudar

It was ten o’clock in the morning. Groups of dock workers, vendors lying on the street, and the loudspeaker of a waste-truck echoed loudly. Unemployed people occupied the corners of cafes, while beggars roamed about. We entered the gate of Yemen, where we encountered narrow streets, old buildings, and a black wall that surrounded an ancient mosque, ending at a fig tree. A grey-painted iron gate welcomed us, and we passed through it into a room made of bare bricks. A soldier, not older than fifteen, stopped us and asked, “What do you want?”
I replied in a loud voice, “Good morning. We want to see the director of the institution.”
“He hasn’t arrived yet,” he responded.
“We’ll wait for him,” I said.
“No waiting is allowed here!” he warned us.
We stood where we were, and I turned to the soldier and said, “We’re on a mission.”
“Who are you?” he asked.
“We’re a committee from the Ministry of Culture,” I replied.
The soldier’s features changed, and his voice softened. “I’ll inform his office manager. Wait here,” he said.
He grabbed his gun and ran across the sunny courtyard toward the building. In the front yard, cars of different colors and green plants were scattered around. Windows were distributed on the building’s façade, reflecting the surrounding old floors. In the guard room, there were dry qat branches and a worn-out blanket.
That soldier came running, followed by a young man in a black uniform, descending the stairs of the building. He approached us with a faint smile on his face, shaking hands and welcoming us. I directly addressed him: “We are on a mission, and this is our assignment letter.”
He replied, “I am the manager of his office, and he is waiting for you in his office. Follow me.”
We climbed the stairs of the building and passed through its glass door. We were received by a spacious and well-lit hall with neon lights on its ceilings, despite the daylight. There was a billboard on the wall and photographic pictures of prominent visitors of the building. At the corner parallel to the door, there was a wide office, where a young man was sitting behind a keyboard, tinkering with its buttons and his eyes fixed on the screen. There were several iron doors at the sides. We entered another spacious hall, where the side walls were blocked by the frosted glass of the windows. On the front wall, there was a picture of the country’s leader, shaking hands with a short man in white turban. A smiling sixty-year-old man descended the stairs from the upper floor, resembling the one who was shaking hands with the leader. He spoke in a deep voice, saying, ‘Everyone who visits us notices the picture of our leader. It was taken during the opening ceremony of the building. I was receiving him, and as you can see, this is my hand shaking his.’ He said that while pointing with his index finger. Continuing his words, he said, ‘The leader is an old friend of mine. We spent early days together, and we did not know that he would become a great leader. He appointed me as the manager of this building after he became the leader of the country.’ He completed his explanation, and his paternal smile observed our features. I guessed that he knew the purpose of our visit, but he did not allow us to speak or shake hands with him. The head of the committee handed him our assignment memo. He studied it in silence, and an exclamation mark appeared on his face. Then, he raised his face, maintaining his smile, but it was tinged with indifference. He said, ‘I welcome you, and I know that there are conspiracies to tarnish my reputation. I want to clarify that everything in this building is the result of my efforts. I built it over more than three decades, and I will not leave it to those who want to destroy it. As you can see, I have spent my life loyally serving the leader.’ He gestured for us to follow him and led us into a square side hall with six desks, each with a computer on top. There was another hall with tables distributed at its corners.
We descended a marble staircase and entered a similarly spacious hall through one of the unlocked doors. The rectangular room was filled with tin boxes stacked on top of each other, flanked by glass shelves holding folders and manuscripts. Wooden boxes were piled on top of one another in a separate area. Another large hall was filled with shelves of bound documents, with loose papers and envelopes scattered haphazardly. We descended ten steps to a lower underground hall and stopped in front of an antique wooden door. He said, “This is the entrance to the underground storage room, it contains a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts. It seems the employee entrusted with the keys has not returned from his leave. We’ll enter it together when the keys are available.” He stepped down to bid us farewell while repeating, “I will be of great assistance until your mission is complete.” He shook each of our hands with an exaggerated way, patting our shoulders as a show of great respect. The head of the committee then told him, “We will be here at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning to begin implementing the task assigned to us by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage.”
The committee began its work of inventorying the contents of the halls, starting with the inventory of the entire hall and then the inventory of the contents of each box, assigning each box a new number in addition to its previous one, classifying each document according to its condition, and giving it a unique code. After that, a cross-check of the records was done with the previous records of the institution. When that was finished, a digital copy was made, and the documents were archived electronically. The boxes were then sealed with lead and a new lock, and the process was repeated for each box until the entire hall was complete. Finally, the hall was secured with new locks and sealed with lead. Days passed as we continued our work, and when we finished with one box, we immediately moved on to the next. When the entire hall was finished, it was locked with new locks and sealed with lead.
While taking inventory of one of the boxes, my attention was drawn to the title of a manuscript written in bold red on its cover: “The Darkness of Allah,” followed by “Joudar the Bookmaker” written underneath. On its last page, it stated, “And the completion of this was on the first of Rajab, 462 AH.” The manuscript was in good condition, with polished parchment pages. Several questions began to emerge within me. How could there have been a bookmaker during that time? And how did a man who practiced a profession related to books think and live? I sat on one of the closed boxes, taking advantage of a beam of light coming from a small opening near the ceiling, and opened the pages of the manuscript. The colours of its letters and engravings, its handwriting, and the texture of its pages amazed me. I began to read the first page, and the story led me to where I stood.

Chapter Two

The 14th century Hijri


All praise is due to Him who is exalted above the ability of limited minds and thoughts to comprehend His greatness, who is beyond the expression of different tongues and languages to describe His essence, who is sacred in His attributes and the negation of attributes that are not befitting of His creativity and creation, which even the noblest human intellects have been unable to fully comprehend. Thus, when one seeks to understand Him, he is overwhelmed by waves of confusion and is drowned in their currents, and the hand of inadequacy drags him into the abyss of shortcomings. He seeks refuge in His presence, clinging to the peak of recognition, which is salvation, as He is the originator of the universe and the heavens, and testifies to the inability of human intellects to comprehend Him. The truth of comprehension is shrouded in the curtains of obstacles to His unity, and whoever follows them without guidance falls into misguidance. Whoever rejects them without a guide is lost in the paths of falsehood and confusion. Therefore, all praise is due to Him who bestows countless blessings upon those who obey and disobey Him. The obedient are filled with His blessings, while the disobedient are filled with their own limitations. This thankfulness brings mercy and contentment, while ingratitude brings sin and aggression. Every soul will be presented with its record, and there is no doubt that it will be held accountable.
Afterwards, I, Joudar, son of…, lived as fate allowed me. I worked as an apprentice in my youth, learning to draw letters and decorate them with my teacher Sa’sa’ah. I also learned to mix flowers with gum, lime, and charcoal powder in various proportions and boil them to extract writing and painting colors. I became skilled in preparing parchment from goat skins and making paper from white hemp. I also learned to collect and weave paper and bind it into books.

I spent my life searching for the essence of things and the paths of truth. And now I write down some of what I have experienced, after spending years copying what people wanted and what concerned them. I will return to my story and recount a day in the future. It was a Friday in the month of Muharram in the year 435 AH. On that day, a group of masked men spread throughout the neighborhoods and markets of Sana’a, looking for their victims. Some of them arrived at the paper market, and at that moment my teacher Sa’sa’ah shouted to them, “Run, Joudar, save yourself!” I saw death in his eyes, and quickly the masked men closed the shop’s door. They pushed me, and I sneaked under the lashes and kicks between the legs of their horses, colliding with the bodies of the riders who had gathered behind the horses. I saw him writhing under the lashes, and his torn clothes flying around him.
On the morning of the third day, news spread that the masked imam had fled at night with a large sum of money. The tribes and men of the new call filled the streets, alleys, and markets of Sana’a with panic. Fear hung over the city as the smells of killing, looting, robbery, and burning wafted through the air.

When the imam planned to sneak out and escape outside Sana’a, he ordered his masked soldiers to kill a number of the city’s leaders and elders, accusing them of betrayal and collaboration with his enemies. My teacher Sa’sa’ah was one of the sheikhs of Sana’a whom the masked men were ordered to kill before the imam’s escape.

My mother and I expected at any moment that our door would be broken down. We heard screams and howls, and footsteps following each other. My mother prayed in her prayer room, beseeching her Lord and repeating her prayers. I did not know what to do. She advised me not to think about facing those who would break down the door. The pleas from neighboring houses echoed repeatedly. The city had experienced a siege for more than a month and a half before it was stormed. The residents then closed the entrances of the streets and alleys. Some died of hunger and fear.
As we took refuge in our house, my mother and I heard the drums’ beat. She said to me, “Do you hear what I hear? The Lord has answered my prayers. We have been saved!” I asked her to open the door so we could see what was happening. She warned me to be cautious. I walked in search of the source of the drumming. People followed the horn blowers and drummers, walking and stopping. One of them read the new call of the imam for the safety of all residents, surrounded by a group of soldiers. Many people followed them.
I returned to our alley and told my mother what I saw and heard. She wrapped her veil around her head and asked me to accompany her to the teacher’s house. We ran amidst the ruins of many houses, smelling of death and dust.
We stood near the teacher’s grave, next to a tree stump at the entrance. Grief enveloped the teacher’s house, filled with lamentations and many women crying. My mother joined them, but Shoudhab could not speak.
As we took refuge in our house, my mother and I heard the drums’ beatings. She said to me, “Can you hear it? The Lord has answered my prayers. We are saved!” I asked her to open the door so we could see what was happening. She warned me to be cautious. I walked in search of the source of the drumming. People followed the horn blowers and drummers, walking and stopping. One of them read the new call of the imam for the safety of all residents, surrounded by a group of soldiers. Many people followed them.
I returned to our alley and told my mother what I saw and heard. She wrapped her veil around her head and asked me to accompany her to the teacher’s house. We ran amidst the ruins of many houses, smelling of death and dust.
We stood near the teacher’s grave, next to a tree stump at the entrance. Grief enveloped the teacher’s house, filled with lamentations and many women crying. My mother joined them, but Shoudhab could not speak.
Nine years ago, there was a child who was eight years old. I saw his mother holding his arm, standing in front of this stone platform. The teacher was busy with what was in front of him. Despite the noise of the market, I heard her voice saying, “Peace be upon you, neighbor.” The teacher raised his smiling face and said, “And peace be upon you, neighbor.” His smile widened when he saw the child’s face clinging to his mother’s dress. The child smiled with his little eyes. The mother said, pointing to her child, “This is my son, I brought him to you.” The teacher looked at the child’s features again. The child’s eyes were broken. He moved his lips and looked at her face and said, “Isn’t he too young to work?” She replied, “He can stay in the shop when you go out until you come back, or he can bring you some things.” He looked at the child’s figure again and said, “It’s okay, my little one. Let’s see what we can do in this life together.” The child clung to her fingers fearfully, afraid that she would leave him with the old man and leave. He looked around and saw a world of many shelves. The old man raised his hand, pointing with his trembling finger, and said, “Will you come back tomorrow, my little assistant?” She replied, her fingers playing with the child’s face, “He will be with you from early in the morning.”
I took a deep breath when I bid him farewell, turning back to where we had come …. holding onto my wrist… He spoke to me on the way back:
– Why were you anxious?
– I was afraid you would leave me and go!
– Didn’t I tell you that you would work as an assistant for a nice man?
– Yes, but I didn’t imagine it would be today.
– You must remember the road because tomorrow you will come alone.”
I am still haunted by the moment of anxiety from that day… she took me through the alleys and streets that separated our house from the intertwined shops back and forth several times… strange paths… pointing towards the facade of that house commanding me to memorize the decorations of the mudbricks, the pitchers of the neighboring house, the aqueducts and stone arches we walked under, the swaying palm trees with their steep slopes, the blindfolded camel circling around a black rock, the high minaret adorned with protruding decorations, the long mud walls of the orchards with their drooping branches, the clustered shops in all directions, the perforated roofs, and the others that turned the market alleys into dark vaults… sounds, colors, and scents… all these signs were stored in my mind. My mother’s voice pointing with her finger to memorize the landmarks of the road. She spoke to me about what a good boy, whom his mother loves, should possess, saying, “When you are there, don’t talk too much… listen to what is said to you… don’t believe everything you hear… don’t rush to talk or respond… always smile… don’t argue with those who are older than you… avoid all strangers.” I spent that night imagining the next day and its terror until I fell into a deep sleep.
In the early morning, my mother dressed me in clean clothes and hugged me at the doorstep of the house. She hung my bag around my neck and gave me a piece of bread. She held my hand and said while smiling, ‘You know where you’re going.’ Her words made me feel scared and helpless. She whispered to me, ‘Remember, I’m always with you. You’re not a child anymore. Today, you’re a man, and the sheikh in his shop is waiting for you.’ My finger trembled as I slipped it from her grip. I walked away, feeling lost and cold. The streets were empty, except for a few. My heart beat fast, and I felt alone among the winding alleys. I recalled the signs of yesterday: my mother’s voice, the smells, the high-rise buildings, the mud walls, the doors, the minarets, the domes, and the waterways. I trembled as I stood between several similar alleys, hesitating to find a sign that would guide me. I turned around to make sure of my location and almost cried when I saw my mother watching me. I felt embarrassed and thought of going back to her. She signalled me to turn left. Most shops were still closed, except for a few. I recognized yesterday’s shop. Its door was still closed. I sat on its stone step, swinging my feet. Then, the sheikh showed up, walking in regular steps. When he saw me standing there, he smiled and said loudly, ‘This is you, my boy. Now, make sure you’re an active assistant.’
I didn’t know what to say. I landed and stood up, extending my hand to shake. I turned around and saw my mother. I felt like she was watching me from somewhere, smiling. The sheikh climbed up the stone steps and pulled out a long key. He turned it in the lock and repeated: ‘Oh Opener, Oh Knowing, Oh Provider, Oh Generous, Oh Guide, Oh Mighty.’ And every time he turned the key, he added a prayer in the same rhythm. I watched him as he pulled open the two small wooden doors. He motioned for me to come inside while he continued his prayers. The warm smell of the shop filled my nose. He sat leaning against the wall in the corner and motioned for me to sit on a box that took up half the interior space of the shop. The small cave-like room was covered in high shelves, some of which hung with threads, fabrics, and books. Drawers revealed their contents day by day: threads, belts, buckles, and pots filled with ink and gum. I watched him intently as he worked on his craft. The intermittent sound of the pen scratching on the paper was the only sound in the room. After a while, he looked up and gazed at me as if he had just discovered my presence. ‘My name is Sa’sa’ah, and what is your name?’ he asked.
“I thought my mother was teasing me when she said his name was Sa’sa’ah! But that was really his name. I searched for a connection between his rectangular face and that name. I remembered my mother saying, ‘Names resemble their owners.’ So as soon as you meet someone, you start looking for similarities between their features and their name. Inside me, I started to furnish those names with small details that my senses picked up, like a gesture or a smile or a voice. I realized he was waiting for my response, so I said, ‘My name is Joudar.’ ‘Yes, Joudar, I remember,’ he said. I didn’t like that name, so I searched for a new name for him. His calm voice interrupted my thoughts, as if he could read my mind: ‘We will be friends.’ I didn’t know what to say, I was confused. He continued, ‘Your name is beautiful, but I will call you my little friend.’ It was as if he didn’t like my name either. We both decided to choose new names for each other. It didn’t take long before one of them addressed me as ‘Teacher.’ I thought it was a name until I found out it was an attribute. Meanwhile, he continued to call me ‘my little friend,’ and I addressed him as ‘Teacher.’ I had never heard anyone call me ‘friend’ except for my mother. So, when she hugged me and said, ‘Welcome, my friend, my soulmate,’ I felt happy and proud.”
After a few days of the murder of the teacher Sa’sa’ah, his wife asked me to rebuild the shop. I consulted with my mother, and she advised me not to hesitate. Her voice unsettled me. I didn’t see any work for me except what I learned from the teacher over the years. I secretly go through the streets and alleys full of debris and remnants to the market. I contemplate the shop, the remains of its walls, the stone counter in front of it still intact, a pile of charred sticks mixed with stones and debris from the ceiling, everything in the color of fire. Some of our neighbors in the paper-makers market asked me if I would rebuild the shop. Some said, “May God help you and have mercy on him!” And another said, “If you want to work with me, I welcome you.” I was determined to restore the shop to its former state. My mother warned me not to be emotional. I didn’t know what emotion she meant; was it my love for my work, or for the teacher, who she loved to hear me talk about all the time, or maybe she knew about the feelings I had for Shoudhab.
The teacher’s wife came to the market, and it was the first time I saw her. Her daughter Shoudhab was with her, to see what was done. They stood in front of the storefront, admiring the new door, wooden shelves and cabinets, and a box similar to the one that burned. Shoudhab’s eyes were searching for something, and she found it every time she came to the shop: his voice, his smile, his face, his eyes. She looked at his empty spot and noticed her eyes were filled with tears. I showed my composure; I hadn’t cried since his murder. But my eyes welled up for a moment. Some people from the neighbouring papermakers’ shops rushed over, and passers-by gathered around us.
My mother told me about the teacher’s wife and daughter visiting the market. I told her, “I feel a deep satisfaction when I am there.” She took my hand, looking at my face. For the first time, I saw bright red spots surrounding her eyes. “I don’t want to lose you,” she said. “You are my safety and my whole world. I’m afraid they will kill you one day, just like they killed him. I can’t imagine my life without you.” She finished her words and looked away so I wouldn’t see her tears and her fearful expression. She knew her words wouldn’t deter me. She stood there silently crying, then turned to enter the Wahim’s house.

I walked through the alleys of the neighbourhood that I was used to walking every morning on my way to the shop. I expected to see him there. I opened the small shutters and sat next to the box where I used to sit for years next to him in the shop. I looked at his spot, hearing the sounds of the vendors. I stood there, stretching my neck, looking at the row of adjacent shops, waiting for him to appear from any corner of the market alley. He used to come, ascend the stone bench, walk into the shop, sit in his corner between the wall and the door shutter, and immerse himself in his work, drawing letters on new pages or discussing footnotes with colours of amazement.
Today, his place is cold, and his tools don’t move. The ink in his bottles is stagnant, and there is no longer a sound or a smiling eye wandering around. His spirit, yes, his spirit, when I turned, I caught shadows that quickly disappeared. His breath, with the smell of yesterday, brushed my cheeks. His features seemed to me as an image of a man sitting, asking me about my well-being. His face’s contours wavered between a mysterious smile and a different voice. I stood up but found no one. My eyes wandered deep into the alley of the stationers, searching, the same routine of the days, the sounds, the people’s movements, someone coming out of their shop, and another standing and stretching. Loiterers loom under the scant shadows.
I forget my loneliness and find myself talking to him, or perhaps to myself. I ask, “Who do I turn to so I can know the quality of what I’m doing?” I never imagined that I would be alone one day, or that death would visit me. Or is what I’m living not my life? And that a person must think and imagine a life to live as they want. But I can’t imagine, and I never asked the teacher or my mother about that matter.
When he said, “Run, Joudar, quickly! Save yourself!” Did he realize his own death? Did that death not betray him when it came at its appointed time? Or did it betray him when he saw it coming before its time? Or did his god take revenge on him while he saw him dedicating himself day and night, melting into his work of drawing and engraving for others?

I must think about death from today and prepare for it. Should I find a way to approach it? Or should I dedicate myself to what I love to do, as the teacher tried to do? I should immerse myself in what he taught me. I saw the joy of work in his eyes, his words, his satisfaction, and the best work was what he drew and engraved. It was something that I felt a passion for, which penetrated into my soul.
I feel a hunger that cannot be satisfied by the bread and water I consume. I complain to my mother, and she looks at me surprised. I search within myself and find nothing but a longing for what I love. Or perhaps there is a sorrow inside me that pushes me to cry, but tears do not come out.

That man comes before he disappears, wandering around the shops with his rags and patches that barely cover his skin. I watch him as he walks, stopping in front of every shop. His smile peeks out from between the strands of his hair when he reaches me. He greets me, and without asking for permission, he sits in the corner of the bench, bewildered. I watch him, absorbed in counting his earnings. He offers me a piece of bread or a few beans, but I shake my head in refusal. He mumbles incoherent words as he chews his food, and he offers me grapes without looking at me.

Our relationship in the past was not clear. When he came, I didn’t care about the conversation between him and the teacher, and I never stared at his face. But today, I realize how similar he is to the teacher, and how his few words resemble his. Day after day, he talks to me without me asking, as if he is talking to himself about the paradise that awaits us, where he and the teacher will be. He describes it as vast, wider than the heavens and the earth. I drift away, imagining that paradise, but I can’t identify the characteristics of the righteous people who will enter it. However, I am sure that it is far away from the heavens and the earth, or else it would have taken their place, and our sky and earth would not exist.

Day after day, I wait for his arrival, as his strange stories that he tells me when he wants to talk are intriguing. He talks about his acquaintance with the teacher and their stories over the years. He said that he feared for him in his last days while he was still in disguise, and the teacher persisted in deceiving him. But in the end, he led him to the edge of the abyss, and that’s when he decided to take revenge and fled, losing his faith.
That beggar did not have a specific dwelling. When I remember the first time I saw him, he was in those rags and patches, and even his disappearance remained in them. Today, I remember his appearance as if he was born that way, fully formed, and never aging. He extends his hand to passers-by, and his lips chatter a lot. The last time he spoke to me, he said that the messenger of the righteous, the owner of the books, would come to take the books and what we had copied. He warned me that I would be deceived, saying, “The cost of deception is death.” Then he rose from the bench, dusting off his hands, and looked at me with a smile that I cannot forget.

Peaches – by Nabilah Al-Sheikh – trans: Hatem Al-Shamea

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