Cities without Palms (an excerpt)

by Tarek Eltayeb

Translator’s Introduction: New Migrations North in Tarek Eltayeb's Cities Without Palms

The son of Sudanese parents, Tarek Eltayeb was born in Cairo in 1959, and spent most of his youth in Egypt before immigrating to Austria in 1984, where he lives to this day. He began writing in earnest in 1985, shortly after his arrival in Vienna. He financed his education there by selling newspapers and washing dishes (among other jobs), and he draws upon these experiences extensively in his literary works. Although an accomplished poet and short story writer, Eltayeb’s international reputation was firmly established with his 1992 novel Cities without Palms, which tells the story of Hamza, a kind-hearted boy from an impoverished Sudanese village called Wad al-Nar. As drought and disease ravage the village, Hamza decides to leave the village and head north, “to the city” (meaning Omdurman), in the hope of finding work and winning a better life for his single mother and two younger sisters. Taken in by a band of criminals, Hamza briefly manages to stay afloat by committing petty crimes. But he soon finds himself homeless, and all paths to an honest living prove short-lived for him. And so he continues his journey north. After a brief interlude smuggling duty-free goods into Cairo, he manages to make it to Europe, where he lives the life of a “legal,” and then “illegal,” migrant worker. 

Cities without Palms tells a double narrative: on the one hand, it catalogues the hardships of life in Sudan; on the other, the harsh conditions of migrant workers in Europe. In both narratives, the supposed morality of the upper classes is called into question, and readers find themselves siding with Hamza, whose need to survive and send money back to his family so often falls into conflict with the law, whether Sudanese, Egyptian, or European. Abject poverty, Tarek Eltayeb tells us, has its own laws, and its own morality. Unlike the character Mustafa Sa’eed in Sudanese novelist’s Tayeb Salih’s famous Season of Migration to the North (1966), Hamza’s journey north is not one of power, or attempted conquest. It is simply one of survival – both his own, and that of his family. While Tayeb Salih’s seminal novel, written in the aftermath of Sudanese independence from the British, zeroes in on the ruptures and violence inherent in the colonial and post-colonial encounters, Tarek Eltayeb’s novel focuses less on the causes and more on the repercussions of poverty. Eltayeb’s use of direct and simple first-person narrative brings Hamza even closer to the reader, and allows for a nuanced portrayal of the protagonist’s transformation from a naïve village boy to a young man struggling to find his way in distant lands. Hamza’s story is continued in the 2006 sequel The Palm House (English translation 2012), whose memorable opening lines reveal the author’s continued preoccupation with the plight of the poor: “Poor cities are more merciful to the poor and the destitute than wealthy ones. In poor cities, everyone is equally impoverished, and there are no contrasts to show the destitute just how far down life’s ladder they actually are.”

As a novel, Cities without Palms has, somewhat appropriately, made its own journey north, with translations appearing in French, German, and finally English — the first Arabic-language Sudanese novel to be translated into English since the work of Tayeb Salih. - by Kareem James Abu-Zeid


“To the City” from Cities without Palms

I get off the train with the others, feeling my way forward like someone walking in the dark. Hands flail against me, feet kick out at me, the swinging suitcases slam into my back and elbows—everything is so quick, chaotic. I turn this way and that, trying to take it all in, like a child lost in the crowd.

The voice of an old man carrying several bags and boxes catches my attention—he addresses me almost angrily, telling me to help him carry his load. I pick up a few of his bags and walk with him until we emerge onto a large plaza. “Put the bags here my boy, and thank you,” he says.

I continue on my way, my ears filled with an intense din whose like I have never heard before. Cars of all makes and colors fly by at astonishing speeds — I have only ever rarely seen cars in my life, and never so many of them. The people too are different. They walk so quickly here; they seem to leap through the lines of speeding cars. I hear their voices all around me, their greetings, their conversations, their laughter, all of it blending into the roaring engines and honking horns. I see men wearing clean white robes, their heads wrapped in white turbans. I see women in bright silk dresses walking behind them. And I see others dressed very differently, men and women whose clothes remind me of stories I had heard about the English during the occupation.

I am a bit thirsty, so I look around for a water jar but fail to find one. Instead I find a store selling colorful juices at different prices. I choose the cheapest one and order a cup of it, but it fails to quench my thirst. I order another, and then another. It tastes strange and wonderful, and at this very moment I think of my mother and my two sisters, wishing that they could enjoy this delicious drink with me.

 

I slowly continue on my way, looking about in all directions, my eyes following the people’s movements. And whenever someone stops and stares at me, I simply say hello, for it is our custom in the village to greet passersby. Yet no one in this wondrous city takes any interest in a stranger. Many of the people walk in groups, and sometimes some of them stop to greet an acquaintance, yet everything here is different from the ways of my village. Even the stores are different. They are grouped together here, and you often find four or more lined up one after the other, all of them selling the same things.

  I try to cross the street, but the cars rushing by in all directions force me back to the sidewalk. So I keep walking along my side of the road until I find a way to get across— I would rather cross a river than this horrific street. Suddenly, a delicious smell reaches my nose and drags it forward until I find myself standing at the door of a restaurant, my mouth watering. I see groups of people eating inside, and there is a steady flow of customers both into and out of the place. I marvel at the sight of people eating outside their homes. The stories I had heard in the village make it easier for me to understand many of these strange new things, but that does not lessen my amazement. I look at the delectable food from behind the windowpane. Then I look at the prices: they are higher than I had expected. My hand reaches into my bag and touches the bread I had brought with me, which has become cold and stale by now. I raise my eyes once again, this time ignoring the prices and looking only at the food, and my mouth waters even more.

I eat like someone who has just emerged from the desert, then loathingly pay the bill. The little money I have with me will not permit any more meals of this sort.

 

God! What will I do in this enormous city? I feel lost. I feel as if I were in the middle of a vast and boundless sea: everyone must swim here, myself included, for I will sink to the bottom if I do not. I decide to introduce myself in some of the shops and businesses that I have seen—perhaps I can find work in one of them. I retrace my steps and present myself to all the various store owners as if my very person were a product to be sold. Some of them look at me as though they do not hear a word I say; others turn their faces away from me or motion for me to leave; and still others are polite and apologize for not being able to offer me any work.

Where can I find work? I ask myself. I need to find something, anything. Otherwise I will not survive, nor will those I left behind in the village.

When I finally succeed in crossing the street, the hope of finding a job once again takes hold of me. Yet whether calmly or rudely, whether indifferently or with a certain degree of surprise, the shopkeepers all give me the same answer. I continue through the city, bewildered but with eyes on the prowl, scouting for work while being bombarded by so many new and unfamiliar scenes. Overwhelmed by it all, I sometimes stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk, causing other people to crash into me. The adults often swear at me, while the children usually just look at me in bewilderment.

 

The long and hopeless walk through the city has left me out of breath. It is incredibly hot, so much so that the pavement has heated up my sandals, which are now stinging the soles of my feet. I move to the shade to escape this torment, leaning on the side of a store and considering my next move.

Without warning, a tall young man suddenly appears in front of me. His curly, unkempt hair has a dark red hue to it. His old, dirty clothes are in the style of the English, and there is a certain crafty air about him. He is holding a pack of cigarettes in his hand and smoking in long, drawn-out drags, exhaling the smoke simultaneously through both his mouth and nose.

He addresses me, “How are you, my friend?”

“Not that well, as you can see. I’m exhausted—this heat is killing me.”

“I can tell from your accent that you’re not from the city.”

“No, I’m not. I’m from a village called Wad al-Nar, hundreds of miles from here.”

He closes his eyes and repeats what he has just heard, as if trying to remember something, “Wad al-Nar . . . Wad al- Nar. . . . What family are you from?”

“You don’t even know the name of my village, so how would you know the name of my family?”

He laughs and says, “You’re a light-hearted one, son of Nar!”

“My name’s Hamza.”

“Your name’s not important. Tell me who you’re looking for here.”

“I don’t know a soul in this city. I came here to look for work.”

He looks at me in disbelief, as if I were crazy, “And what sort of work are you looking for?”

“Any work. I need money, and my family needs it too. We’ve been reduced to poverty, and I had no choice but to leave and look for any work that I could find. I thought that since the city is so large, there might be a chance of finding something here.”

“I see. And what can you do?”

This time I look at him with a mixture of supplication and mistrust. Is he trying to provoke me with this question? Either he is unemployed himself and looking for entertainment, or is sincere and truly interested in finding work for me. With this thought in my mind, I reply, “I can do any job I’m given. Do you know of something?”

“Let me think a bit. For the moment, don’t worry about anything. Get up and I’ll take you to some friends of mine.”

 

I stand up wearily and, caught between joy and doubt, begin another long walk through the city. We go through neighborhood after neighborhood, and pass street after street, and all the while I keep looking behind me to try to remember the way. Is this all a trick? Each neighborhood resembles the other, and the shops all seem the same, as if we were walking in circles. We finally arrive at an old house with a large door of rusted iron. He gives the door a couple of clear and patterned knocks—a young man opens it, groggy from sleep. He lets us in and greets me as if he knows who I am. I take a quick look around me—as the stranger in a strange place is wont to do—and when I turn back the man is gone. He has disappeared without a trace.

I address my new friend, “What work will I be doing?”

  “Relax,” he replies. “Rest a while from your journey. In any case, our work begins at night. I’ll tell you all about it after you’ve had a rest.”

His words reassure me, though I still cannot shake the doubt and uncertainty from my thoughts. As I sit down on a carpet, a wave of exhaustion washes over me. I find myself lying on my elbows, then on my side, and finally I fall into oblivion. I sleep like a dead man, forsaking both the world and its dreams.

I wake up to the sound of a heated discussion. I hear five different voices—they are clearly talking about me. I pretend to be asleep so I can figure out what is happening. I realize that a couple of them want me to stay, but that the others are against the idea. One of them speaks out very harshly, each sentence of his containing a few choice vulgarities to express just what he thinks of my being here. He reminds my friend of the idiot he brought in last month and who got caught, while the rest of them barely managed to escape into the safety of the night.

I get up to greet the group, but the one who was speaking gives me such an evil look that I stop in my tracks. I look at this giant in terror. The whites of his eyes are tinged with yellow and red; they seem to be popping out of their sockets. His teeth are all black, and there is a deep scar above his left eyebrow, which adds to the harshness of his features. He is wearing a dirty white robe that reaches slightly below his knees, as well as a large gold watch on his right arm, and a black bracelet made of fine leather on his left one. When I finally manage to get close enough to shake everyone’s hands, I catch a whiff of a very familiar smell emanating from the giant’s body: gasoline. Before extending his hand to me, he coarsely asks, “What’s your name?”

“Hamza.”

“Where are you from?”

“The village of Wad al-Nar,” I say in an ever-diminishing voice. “I doubt you’ve heard of it.”

My strange accent seems to convince him that I’m telling the truth. He slowly looks me over. “Are you ready to work with us tonight?” he asks.

I do not think to ask about where or how. I take a deep breath, like a prisoner who has just been granted a pardon, and quickly reply, “Yes. Yes, I’m ready.”

“Alright then. Al-Khattaf will explain everything to you, and I expect you to do a good job—I won’t tolerate any ignorance or stupidity, do you understand?”

“Of course I do. Of course. You’ll see how well I work.”

He does not say another word. I have no idea what they are keeping from me, but it seems as if tonight’s work may not be entirely legal.

 

Thinking about my family and the village, I touch the amulet and whisper to myself: Today I found a place to stay, and I’ll start working soon enough, so just put off your curiosity until tonight.

Al-Khattaf—‘the thief’—sits beside me. It was he who met me in the street and brought me here. He keeps calling me “son of Nar,” referring to my village, or perhaps because he simply likes the name. He begins explaining the work to me, “You know that there’s a gasoline shortage in the city.”

“Yes. Of course I know,” I reply, though I know nothing at all about the shortage—I would rather lie than have him think I am an idiot.

“Great. After midnight we go to a large parking lot somewhere. ‘The Whale’ always picks the location—he’s our boss, the man who was speaking to you a moment ago. We go after the cars, each of us with his own specific task. One of us is in charge of opening the cars’ fuel tanks, while another checks which ones have the most gasoline. I’m in charge of siphoning the gas into a container with a small tube; someone else keeps a lookout so we don’t get caught; and the last two carry the siphoned gas to our own car, which is usually parked some distance away from the others. You will be one of the two people in charge of carrying the gas—do you think you can handle that?”

The thought of starting this work, the idea of getting myself involved with these people, frightens me. Yet the choice is clear: either I say yes and begin stealing with them; or I refuse and go back to the streets, and risk being forced to spend the night in the police station.

“Isn’t there a chance we’ll be arrested?” I ask him in a shaky voice.

“You seem afraid.”

“I’m not afraid. I’ve just never stolen anything in my life.”

He answers, coughing and laughing coarsely, “This isn’t stealing, it’s redistribution. The gas is poorly distributed during the day, and we fix this by redistributing it at night. Now, are you in or not?”

“Yes, I’m in,” I say, clenching my teeth. “When do we start?”

“After midnight. You can go walk around a bit now. Or would you like to come to the movies?”

“Sure. I just don’t have that much money.”

“That doesn’t matter. We have our own way of getting in.”

 

I go to the cinema with them. We deftly jump over the back fence and sneak in, and all of us sit together to watch one of the American movies. I can’t stop thinking about the job this evening (I see people kiss on the screen); I worry that someone will come and ask for my ticket (I see a gorgeous, scantily clad woman); in doubt, I look at my new friends who are watching the movie and laughing (the hero has a sword; he stabs the villain); I can no longer deny the fear I feel (one woman kills another with some poison). I watch the movie, but although I am astounded by what I see, my fear ruins the fun for me.

The second film begins, and my fear gradually slips away, allowing the movie to finally take hold of me. The music is wonderful, and the sight of horses running swiftly with gun-toting men on their backs delights me. They ride up mountains and descend into valleys. I hear them speak in a foreign language, and words appear at the bottom of the screen, but my poor reading skills are not quick enough to keep up with them. I barely manage to decipher two words before the entire line vanishes and a new one takes its place. I keep on trying until I realize that I am missing the entire movie. So I watch the rest of the movie without attempting to read the words at the bottom of the screen— the gestures and screaming of the characters are much easier for me to follow.

This film also ends with the hero bloodily defeating his adversary. He carries away the lovely woman on the only horse still alive and heads back home; then the music starts up again.

We leave the cinema through the main door. I see the attendants standing there and watching everyone leave. I look in the other direction as I go by, afraid they will realize I did not buy a ticket. Then we all go to a restaurant, where we are brought fuul—a dish made from stewed broad beans—with cheese. The others pay my bill for me after we have eaten, and I thank them.

 

The Whale and another one of our colleagues are waiting for us at the corner in an old Landrover. We jump into the car and head behind the giant souk of Omdurman, where many cars are parked, all crammed together. We circle the area twice to make sure no police are around, then the Whale parks in a dark spot behind a fence.

I pick up my container and walk to the appointed place. The work begins quickly and silently, a flurry of signals and whispers. I am terrified, and each time I hear the sound of a car—even one a mile away—my fear increases. One of my colleagues arrives with a small container filled with gasoline, which he then pours into another container. I keep one eye on the container and the other on the road, straining to see any movement, even that of a stray dog or a starving cat. “Don’t be like that,” my new colleague whispers. “Someone’s watching the road right now, and if anything happens they’ll let out a whistle and we’ll calmly and quietly walk away, then meet the others back at the fence.”

The job ends without incident and we head back to the derelict house. We had only been working an hour, yet it felt like an eternity. My fear has left me exhausted, and I fall into a deep sleep. I wake up the next morning in alarm. Who are these people? I ask myself. How did I get here? What am I doing here? What nightmare is this? A moment later the events of the previous day return to my mind. I look at the others sleeping around me and shut my eyes again. I try to fall asleep, to fall back into oblivion; but sleep doesn’t come, and neither does oblivion.

The Whale went out—as I would later learn—to sell the stolen gasoline, and when he returns he distributes the money among us and tells me, “Today is Thursday. We don’t work tonight because people stay out later and there’s a greater chance of getting caught. So everyone can spend their evening as they please.” One of my colleagues goes to the brothel; the second goes out to drink araq—a liquor made from aniseed; the third goes off to join some other friends; and I have no idea what the fourth one does. The last one, however, is crazy about movies, so I seize the opportunity to return to the cinema with him. We watch the same two films again, but it feels as if it is for the very first time, for there is no work at the end of the evening to wear on my nerves and spoil the movies. We go out to eat afterward, and this time I pay for my food out of my own pocket. Then we head back to the house.

 

Two weeks go by, and I have already managed to save up a fair amount of money from the robberies. I go to the post office and send some of the money to my mother in Wad al- Nar. I feel better after this, and impatiently wait for a reply to let me know that my mother received the money.

I continue working with the group for the next four months, during which time our schedule never changes. With the exception of our weekly night off on Thursdays, we always begin stealing gasoline after midnight. Watching movies becomes my pastime, and eating fuul with cheese becomes almost an addiction. I follow my friends’ leads in everything and join them in all their activities, hoping to win their affection—this a way of forgetting, of losing myself, yet I fear that I may lose even this comforting form of loss. Sometimes I am able to enjoy myself, but other times I feel only danger and uncertainty. The lack of any word from my mother and sisters adds to my worries. I have sent them money four times and told them to write me at the nearest post office, where the letters can be held for me. I go by the post office every day, but to no avail. I immerse myself in the fleeting pleasures of this world to take my mind off my incessant worries.

As is so often the case in these matters, differences arise among the members of the crew, and this time they cannot be reconciled. Two of my colleagues quit, and I myself have grown tired of this dangerous work. I had hoped for something different in the city, and so I seize this opportunity to leave the group; no one cares that I am leaving, nor do they seem to care about what I will do next. And even though it means losing my one place of shelter, I take my leave of everything in that ruined house without any regrets.

Excerpted from Cities without Palms by Tarek Eltayeb. First published in Arabic as Mudun bila nakhil, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Tarek Eltayeb. English translation copyright © 2009 by Kareem James Palmer-Zeid. Published by the American University in Cairo Press (www.aucpress.com

Sudan stamp image © Igor Golovniov / Shutterstock.com

Half-American and half-Egyptian by blood, Kareem James Abu-Zeid was born in Kuwait in 1981. He grew up around the Middle East before living in France, Germany, and New Jersey, but now calls Northern California home. He received his BA from Princeton University in 2003, and was a Fulbright Research Fellow in Germany as well as a CASA Fellow at the American University in Cairo. He has taught language and literature courses in Arabic, French, German, and English at UC Berkeley and at the universities of Heidelberg and Mannheim. He is writing a dissertation on modern Arabic poetry, with a focus on Syrian-born poet Adonis, in Berkeley’s Department of Comparative Literature, and works on the side as a freelance translator of Arabic, German, and French. Kareem James Abu-Zeid has translated works by poets from Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. He has translated two novels by the Sudanese author Tarek Eltayeb for AUC Press, of which Cities Without Palms was a runner-up for the 2010 Banipal Prize for translation. His forthcoming book-length translations include: the novels The Mehlis Report and The Confessions by Lebanese author Rabee Jaber (New Directions Press), and Selected Poems by the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish (New York Review Books).