“A Letter to Kofi Annan”

Mahmoud Shukair (trans. Nariman Youssef)

November 30, 2023 
The following is by Mahmoud Shukair from The Common Issue 23, highlighting Arabic short stories from Palestine. Shukair was born in 1942 and writes novels and short stories, and has authored 74 books to date. Shukair was awarded the Mahmoud Saifeddine al-Irani Short Story Prize in 1991, the Mahmoud Darwish Prize for Freedom of Expression in 2011, the Jerusalem Prize for Culture and Creativity in 2015, and the Palestine Prize in Literature in 2019.

Abdelghaffar, owner of the tallest building in the quarter—built by the sweat of his brow, as he reportedly doesn’t tire of saying—is pacing up and down his rooftop, stressed about the stray dogs that have been disturbing the neighborhood’s sleep with their nonstop barking every night—Abdelghaffar’s sleep is more affected than anyone’s, his home being the highest in the neighborhood and receiving the noise from all directions at once.

“I said to folks: ‘Why not form a committee to sort this out? It’s not just one or two dogs. There’s about three hundred of them! They’re on the run from areas bombarded by the occupation’s army. And where do they all end up but here, of course, in our peaceful neighborhood?’”

Why this neighborhood remains more peaceful than others is a matter either of pure chance or of forces beyond Abdelghaffar’s comprehension.

“I checked in with my cousin Abdelsattar here. Told him, ‘Son of good people, what’s even wrong with a committee?’ If whatshisname Bullmart or Olmert wants us to form a district committee in order to sort out this bloody dog situation, why don’t we do it and give ourselves a break? Huh, Abdelsattar, why?”

“What an idiot! What kind of question is that? I’ve been warning him since the Israelis confiscated our land to build a settlement for the Jews from the Russian countries. How many times did I tell you, Abdelghaffar, to never form a committee when they ask you to? Didn’t I say they’d have ulterior motives? Did I or did I not say that?”

“How much more stubborn can you get? It’s all about showing off political knowledge for Cousin Abdelsattar. The stray dogs have made our lives black as tar, and he still scoffs at the committee. It would be bowing to the occupiers’ wishes, he says. We’d come across as collaborators, like we’ve accepted whatever the occupiers do, he says. But, I’ll tell you what, Cousin Abdelsattar contradicts himself. He refuses to deal with the city council, but then, one way or another, he deals with the Interior Ministry. For years, he’s sat on the sidewalk across the street from the Interior Ministry, with his chair and his typewriter, and typed up applications for people who want to renew their IDs, or get travel permits or birth certificates.

“I have higher academic qualifications than Abdelsattar. I’ve graduated and worked as a teacher for thirty years. Abdelsattar just went to school for six years. The only graduating he’s done is from elementary school. And yet, he fancies himself a politician! Well, I couldn’t give two fucks about his politics. They grab our land, and Abdelsattar refuses to talk to the city council. Instead, he talks to the United Nations, just to show me he knows his shit when it comes to politics. Writes them one petition letter after the other, each with hundreds of signatures—our signatures, of course—and asks them to intervene to get us our land back. The United Nations has never actually done anything for us. Our petitions have all been in vain, gone with the wind.”

“Abdelghaffar holds that against me. He keeps saying that our petitions have gone with the wind. Abdelghaffar remembers about going with the wind from the days of teaching composition to his pupils, many years ago. But he can’t fool me just because he knows a handful of idiomatic expressions. He’s no intellectual. Like, I didn’t finish my formal education, because my father’s circumstances didn’t allow it, but I educated myself. I read the newspaper almost every day. Abdelghaffar doesn’t, ever. He considers newspapers a waste of time. He just keeps taunting me: ‘The land is lost, and what good has the United Nations done us, Abdelsattar? The settlement has spread over our land and left my sister’s son with half a brain, Abdelsattar. Without God’s mercy, Noaman would be dead by now, Abdelsattar.’”

“Yeah, yeah, if God hadn’t intervened, I’d be dead by now. But my brain ain’t halved like they say—Uncle Abdelghaffar and the rest of this damn neighborhood. Why is it haram to visit the settlement? Huh, ye God’s people? I didn’t go there with an agenda. I just went to walk on my father’s land. And I told everyone I met: ‘This is my father’s land, and it belongs to me, and anyone who says otherwise is a pimp!’

“But my own neighbors don’t believe me. If you only heard what they say to me! ‘You think you’re fooling us? We know you went to spy on the settlement’s girls. We know you looked through their windows when they undressed for bed. And you didn’t stop until they came out with their sticks and guns and chased you away. You’re lucky they didn’t shoot you, asshole! You’re lucky all you got was a beating with sticks, even if it made you lose half your mind.’

“Lose half my mind? Spy on girls? Me? Stupid lies! I have a girl right here in our neighborhood. She’s holding out for me. And I for her. It’s all my mother’s and father’s fault that we’re not engaged. They won’t let me marry her like God and his prophet ordained. Not just Mother and Father. Uncle Abdelghaffar too.”

“The boy’s a halfwit but has the energy of a bull. He says to me, ‘Uncle Abdelghaffar, go ask for Nahla’s hand and get us engaged.’

“Nahla is the daughter of the cattle-feed trader. I told him, ‘Noaman, that’s the daughter of a well-off man. She goes to university. There’s no way she’d take you for a husband. She might already have her eye on a doctor or an engineer.’

“My nephew Noaman said, ‘I swear by God, and by the pea in the peapod, I will marry no one but Nahla.’

“I told him to clear off. ‘I have enough trouble as it is!’ I said. ‘The barking dogs won’t let me sleep, and now you’re battering my eardrums with your blabber. Give me a bloody break, boy! I have to think of a way to sort out this mess with the dogs.’

“Then, on a night with no moon, I remembered the Secretary General. And I thought: Where are you, Cousin Abdelsattar?”

“He called me up and said, ‘Come right over, Abdelsattar.’

“I thought: What now? May God protect us on this dark night! I went over. A few of the neighborhood’s people came along. Noaman saw us scuttling down the road and followed us like a shadow. We ignored him. I thought maybe there’d been a fight. Or someone in Abdelghaffar’s household was sick. We got to the house, and I said, ‘Is all good, Abdelghaffar?’ and he said, ‘Where would good come from, Abdelsattar, when these dogs won’t let us sleep?’

“The others who had come with me began chiming in:

‘Wallah, these dogs have made us hate our lives!’

‘Wallah, all I want is to hear the TV. But all I get is barking, barking! I just want to watch the soap, for God’s sake!’

‘One can’t talk to the wife and children anymore. Barking, barking! Shu haz!’

Then Noaman said, ‘Yeah, I can’t hear Nahla sing behind her window anymore.’

‘Leave Nahla alone,’ someone told him, ‘before you drive her to jump out of the window!’ Noaman said nothing, but moved his pupils left and right as if to say, ‘You bastards!’

“I was multiplying fives by sixes in my head, with no idea what was going on in Abdelghaffar’s. ‘So then,’ I said, ‘what do you suggest, Abdelghaffar?’

‘We send a petition letter to the Secretary General,’ Abdelghaffar said, ‘and hope he’ll interfere and save us from these dogs.’ ‘Then I could hear Nahla’s voice again when she sings behind her window.’ ‘Shut up, boy! We’re all just about Nahla’d out.’ ‘Wallah, not a bad idea.’ ‘Maybe we could finally hear the TV!’

“I said to myself: Now Abdelghaffar has totally lost it, just like Noaman. Was he joking? No, he seemed dead serious. Next thing, everyone was talking at once, singing the praises of the Secretary General:

‘His name is Kofi Annan. Wallah, he’s a good guy. Just looking at him on television, I can tell he’s a good guy.’

‘He looks like he could be Arab. But why is he called Kofi? What kind of devil’s name is that? Names don’t cost money. Why couldn’t his father have given him a name like Mostafa? Mostafa Annan!’

‘Ya Khayi, the man’s not Arab. You wanna drive my brain out of my skullcap? Not Arab!’

‘Not Arab, but Muslim, no?’

‘Not Muslim either, man.’

‘Fine! We send him a letter inviting him to convert.’

‘Bro, you don’t guide whoever you want to God. God guides those he wants.’

‘I heard he was about to announce he’s Muslim anyway.’

‘People, let us focus! What’s wrong with you?’

‘I swear by Nahla’s eyes, last night I saw him walking in the neighborhood.

He was in disguise to find out about the problems we have.’

‘Noaman! Just be quiet! You’ve turned him into Omar ibn al-Khattab now?’

‘I swear on Nahla’s life! I said, “Good evening, Uncle Kofi.” He looked at my face and kept walking without a word.’

‘See, you fool? It wasn’t Kofi Annan, then.’

‘I say it was.’

‘Shut up, idiot. Just shut up.’

“I thought to myself: The idiot is none but you, Abdelghaffar. What happened to your head? Out loud I said, ‘Abdelghaffar, Kofi Annan is an important man. Do you think he’d have time to solve the problem of the dogs that keep you awake?’

And he told me, ‘Abdelsattar, just use your brain. Why did they call him Secretary General, then, if not because he’s responsible for problems in general?’

‘Find another problem to talk to him about. Not the dogs! That’s a respectable man, and you’ll offend him.’

‘Offend him? Praise your God, Abdelsattar! What’s wrong with complaining about the dogs? Aren’t dogs God’s creatures too? Fine! You don’t want me to mention dogs? How about we say we’ve gotten ourselves a little deer problem! We’ll tell him, ‘Ya Kofi Annan, help us deal with these barking deer! Deformed deer that look like dogs, God help us!’

“Noaman was laughing so hard, he fell on his back.”

“Yes, wallah! I laughed like I hadn’t laughed in ten years. Both at what my uncle Abdelghaffar said and at Abdelsattar’s tone. He talks to us like he thinks no one in the neighborhood is clever enough to follow. I told him, ‘You’re pitiful, Abdelsattar.’

‘The pitiful one is your neck when the knife cuts through it!’ he snapped back. ‘What do you think is funny? Are you laughing at your uncle Abdelghaffar? Have you no shame?’

‘Leave him alone, Abdelsattar,’ my uncle said, ‘and just tell it to me straight.’”

“But Abdelsattar didn’t get a chance to answer me, because right then, I noticed something that hadn’t happened in months. A perfect silence had descended on the neighborhood. No barking. For the first time in months, the barking had suddenly stopped! Could the dogs have sensed the serious measures that were about to be taken against them? That’s not impossible. ‘You all paying attention?’ I asked, pleased with my genius idea from minutes before. ‘The barking’s stopped.’

‘Wallah, yes, it really has stopped.’

‘I swear on Nahla’s precious life, it’s stopped.’

‘No need to call the Secretary General, then.’ That was Abdelsattar, with what sounded like irony.

‘We can still call him,’ Noaman objected. ‘Why can’t we call him?’

‘Shut up, boy.’

‘No, I won’t shut up. I want to marry Nahla, and he must help me. I’ll write to him and ask that he convince my mum and dad and Nahla’s people and Uncle Abdelghaffar that Nahla and I belong together.’

‘Get out. Get away from here. You think the Secretary General has time for your light-brained idiocy?’

“They all left me alone eventually: Noaman, Abdelsattar, and the rest o’ them.”

“Yes, I went home and started getting ready for bed.”

“I marched straight to Nahla’s house and settled under her window till midnight.”

Almost everyone in the neighborhood is getting ready for bed when, as if on cue, the dogs start to bark.


From The Common, Issue 23. Used with permission of The Common. Copyright © 2023 by Mahmoud Shukair.

Translator Nariman Youssef is a Cairo-born literary translator based in London. She manages an Arabic translation team part-time at the British Library, and has led and curated translation workshops with Shadow Heroes, Shubbak Festival and Africa Writes. Her recent translations include Mo(a)t: Stories from Arabic, Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven, and contributions to publications like The Common, ArabLit Quarterly, and Words Without Borders. Nariman holds a master’s degree in translation studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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