Hala and the Dinosaur*
A short story
By Tarek Ghanem
Midday, on a day warmer than the one that came before, colder than the one after, in the midst of a mediocre February and in the crowded heart of the capital of Fearistan, a conscript who’s wrapped in two cheap gray wool jumpers tucked under his black military uniform carries the heavy briefcase of the country’s prosecutor general. The bag is swollen with documents, files, an ipad, a laptop. With his laughing eyes, he is wordlessly trifling with his friends and others who come from the same village, all of whom overpopulate the prosecutor general’s office. He is on his way out to the prosecutor’s comfortable car, which basks confidently in the shade outside. The scent of an original “Fahrenheit” cologne, which the prosecutor, who is now walking behind him wears to work every day, penetrates the area, instantly changing its energy. It fleetingly overpowers the smells of cigarettes, the remains of tea and spiced Turkish coffee, the rural sweat of the conscripts. As soon as the entourage steps out of the inner darkness of the building to the light of the capital’s polluted sky, a light wind briskly sweeps through, pushing the very long hair on one side of the prosecutor’s head sideways. He uses this hair, or rather glues it down, to cover his concave baldness. The problem is the prosecutor general is a little handsome: his two shapely hands are big, his body is well-built, but his bald head is the one thing that can send childish doses of insecurity surging into his bloodstream, despite all his accomplishments in life. At the same instant his hand jumps to cover the sudden nakedness of his skull, the cell phone, which was already in his hand, rings loudly and falls from his hand to the marble floor (two other phones are in his pockets on silent). He knows the number. He knows the caller. He does not know what the subject of the call will be this time. He bounces with his body to catch the phone, momentarily forgetting his naked skull.
Prosecutor: Yes, sir. Good morning. Good day. How are you…
Voice: [This part removed by the author in fear of consequences.]
Prosecutor: No worries, sir. It’s all clear. Everything will turn out the way you like. These kids must be disciplined. I have been reading literature all my life, but this is not literature. Exploiting Life is not literature. It’s filthy and rotten… That novelist Ahmed Taji must learn his lesson. Such promiscuous kids! They know nothing about discipline and good conduct. Even the illustrations are…
Voice: [interrupting] That’s okay. Thank you, your honor.
The prosecutor now walks slowly back to his office, cutting through the beams of surprised looks that are shooting out from inside the open doors on both sides of the building’s corridors. He is thinking about what to do. The employees, security guards, and the conscripts are thinking about what they will now miss, and are all engaged in various degrees of daydreaming about the world outside their workplace. Now they will have to stay until the prosecutor gets “lost.” The prosecutor is back in his office. He walks in and shuts the door. The first thing he does is call his wife to inform her that he will be late. He checks on his beloved children, especially Shahinda. He thinks fleetingly about his previous lie, when he claimed to be an avid reader of literature. All he’s read in his life from cover to cover are two, not three, novels. One of them is Yusuf al-Sibai’s Give Back My Heart, which he, ironically, finished on the very day that al-Sibai was assassinated on a much warmer February day, during a Nile cruise with his then-young wife in Aswan in 1987. Novelist and former military general al-Sibai was the minister of culture. He was shot while on a state visit to Cyprus because of his efforts to assist Sadat in the peace treaty, and for traveling with the latter to sign the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
The prosecutor also read the poetry of his much loved poet Abdel Rahman al-Abnoudi. He thought a little about whether the legendary The Personality of Egypt by Gamal Hemdan might be considered literature, even if remotely. He thought and decided to consider all the movies inspired by Naguib Mahfouz’s works, in addition to Nightingale's Prayer, based on a book by Taha Hussein, to be not only literature that he could consider himself to have ”read,” but to be the crème of literature and its eternal crowned jewel. These movies can be considered literature even if he saw their cinematic adaptation. And so, his syllogistic reasoning goes, he has been reading literature all his his life. He has read extensively in law, of course, and some history penned by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal with his canonical historical works, which many consider scripture-like, about the 1952 regime in Egypt. However, he was honest with himself: neither of these last two cases is true literature. If only.
He makes up his mind. He makes many phone calls. He calls the public defender assigned to the case of Taji and Exploiting Life; a literature professor appointed as head of the English Literature department in a public university by the magical effect of a special recommendation from ”above”; a prominent media personality; a judge; a military judge; a military general; and a senior assistant to deputy minister of justice. The latter is a close friend. They all agree to come to his house at six to discuss the case. Of course he invites them for dinner. He is generous. He orders a feast. A big feast. An expensive feast. Fish.
The general prosecutor’s daughter, Shahinda, has a best friend: Sara. A junior in law school, Sara is in the ”elites-only” French section in the big public university in the capital, and she spends many hours in the prosecutor’s house. Sara is the assistant deputy minister of justice’s daughter and a confidant of the prosecutor. Unlike Shahinda and others around her, she is revolutionary at heart in a society antagonistic to all things revolutionary, either in thought or in critical innovation. Sara and Shahinda are just coming back from the Judge’s Club, which imperially occupies one of most expensive spots of the capital of Fearistan, overseeing the broad river that cuts through it. They both studied for most of their time there, also playing on their cell phones every now and then. Sara, who loves contemporary literature and fiction, especially the writings of her generation, has recently decided to carry out a wicked and audacious plan.
Two years ago, she stopped arguing with anyone about politics and public issues in serious and candid manner--not even with Shahinda or her mother, the two individuals closest to her heart. She has started to live comfortably with the impossibility of hoping for change, with the impossibility of hoping for influence. However, she still--with the aid of her cleverness, peaceful temperament, and innocent aura--catches wither interlocutors off guard. Anyone from the tiny, immediate society of the judicial and military elites around her who she decides to set up is usually left bare in front of themselves. This is how it goes: She puts on the hat of Socratic gadfly, posing seemingly innocent and painfully obvious questions, acts ignorant, and forces her fellow conversant with escalating tactical arguments. They always get caught in her snare. They are left to face the deficiency of their own poorly-thought-out ideas. She enjoys this and masters it. She still remembers when she made everyone at the family table laugh at her father when he claimed that the government does not intervene in the formation of cross-partisan alliances. That was a laugh.
So, today is a big day for her. Today, Sara decides to outdo all her previous games. She is upset by the general atmosphere and the general discussion around the case against novelist Taji, a case which is mockingly known in the opposition and youth circles as the ”Trial of Stagnation.” She decides to take revenge for literature, for imagination and freedom--but in her own way, and following her own understanding of the significance of small and personal victories. She made up her mind and paid a small sum to her friend and talented designer, Ahmad Gaber. She had him make a special and fake copy of Exploiting Life, removing the illustrations and putting it in a new cover that resembles the books from the 1970s and 1980s issued by the Ministry of Culture. She asked him to change the front matter and everything else, except for the actual text. “As is… as is. Leave it as is,” she kept insisting to Gaber. All she asked to change was the author’s name from Ahmed Taji to Edwar el-Kharrat, one of the giants of Egyptian literature, and the title from Exploiting Life to Hala and the Dinosaur.
Her idea is simple. She wants to prove that what bothers the Fearistanian judges and generals is not explicit sexual writings. What bothers them has nothing to do with ethics, religion, masculine patriarchy, authoritarianism, fake middle-class self-righteousness or any of these bigger ideas. After all, almost all the old ”giants” of Fearistanian literature have written explicitly about sex in their literary classics. Right? What really outrages them--and no one knows this more than Sara--is something simpler, more basic, more primitive. It is their primal, visceral, and intense hate of the liberal, open minded, and liberated youth. The old guard of Fearistian authorities lived a hollow and stern life, or so they see it, at least, when they compare it with the ”unrestrained” youth of the revolution. They hate intellectuals and the youth who are ”just having fun.” The great tycoon, Mohamed Farid Qamis, who is very close to the regime, said so recently in the open. They especially hate them if they are young. Especially if they are liberated.
Sara read the novel Exploiting life and didn’t like it. She fully agrees with its ideas and line of thought, and she appreciates the internal coherence that glues its particular crude and boorish language with the project of the author. She agrees with the boredom, lack of motivation, and loss of hope that colors all the layers and shades of current life in Fearistan. She agrees with the author’s dystopian analysis. She agrees that the capital of Fearistan is perishing for sure. It is set to explode internally. However, for her, a like or dislike of the book has and should have nothing to do with the principle of free speech. Neither does she object to explicit writing. But she also doesn’t like profanity. She likes more creative language, and the kind that avoids old-fashioned pretensions. She is conservative and religious--a little. But Sara adores Taji’s articles and op-eds, especially his piece on granting the cheesy and dimwitted head of the musicians’ syndicate judicial and police powers. This article made her laugh repeatedly. Or his other essays that see the country’s crisis is in essence an unsurmountable generational gap, a piece that she read more than once. There is also his article on how ugliness permeates the current public space.
She plots how the prosecutor general will fall into her trap this evening. But she doesn’t know that her prey will now be bigger. Maybe bigger than the trap she’s dug.
The invitees enter one after the other. Sara’s father comes in, too. She welcomes him, and they agree that she will stay with her friend, the prosecutor’s daughter, until the meeting and dinner are over. Then they will go home together. She starts reaching out and feeling in her bag, which contains the fake copy of Exploiting Life, or Hala and the Dinosaur. As time ticks away, her eyes brighten more and more, and she is increasingly anxious. The elders close the door behind them and start their meeting. Their meeting is surprisingly and unexpectedly short. Tomorrow in the afternoon, Sara will know that Taji is sentenced to the maximum possible sentence, two years in prison. But, for now, at least for this moment, she has changed her plan and her eyes are set on a bigger victim, a more important one, and this is all that matters in the here and now. The elders open the door. They go to the spacious and over-decorated dining room where three delivery men have brought in the food. A forest of watercress, scallion, and little lakes of tahini paste surround an elaborate and carefully manicured garden of different seafood dishes. The smell fills the place and expectation tickles everyone. “We will also have tea ready, please…,” the prosecutor says while waving his arm in a slow, awkward circular manner that signifies welcome.
Here and here only Sara will be able to eavesdrop on, nay witness and partake in, the conversation. Now and only now she will be able to cunningly put the fake novel on top of the three books she has been studying and appear natural. She decides to approach the famous literature professor who is a puppet of the security forces.
“How are you, Sir. I love literature so much and love your writing. Your latest piece was amazing.” Some adulation. After some ego stroking she continues: “Which writers do you love?” She quickly advances before the professor’s hands get dirty with the fatty smelling fish.
“Al-Ghitany. I love something called al-Ghitany.”
“Me too, professor. Do you love Yusuf al-Sibai?”
“May his soul rest in peace. What a giant of literature. I read all his works.”
“Really! Wow! What do you think about this novel? Can you please read aloud a little part of it? I love it when you recite poetry and excerpts of literature on television.”
All the people around the two of them smile. Others, who have no interest in literature, start remembering that they better wash their hands before eating.
“Sure...sure. Let’s loosen up the mood a little before the table is fully set. What novel is this. Oh, Hala and the Dinosaur… Uh… Haaala and the Dinosaur. This is rather one of al-Kharrat’s better works. He is a literary giant. What giant… Yes, I read it.”
Of course he never read it. Of course, he’s confused because the title is close to al-Kharrat’s famous work Rama and the Dragon.
He starts reciting the prose majestically and slowly. Everyone is delighted while snatching bites of the appetizers. He reads for two full minutes until he finds himself face to face with a sex scene. He stumbles. Stops. Thinks. Decides. Comments, “And there is a sexual scene here… but, you see, when one of those giants writes… when they talk about love or innocent insects [by which he means an explicit sex scene], they talk about it with such grace and civility. See… see... Of course I will not read this part now because of the presence of our respected daughters. You can read it on your own if you wish.”
Sara thanks him and expresses her respect and appreciation loudly in front of everyone. She asks him to write her a little dedication note and to sign the first page of the book. “Please, for my sake!” He does it hastily, but with a smile, since hunger by now has sunk into his belly. She comes closer to him and, with all the courage in her stomach, she slowly and emphatically whispers in his ear: “Look closer professor. This is Taji’s book, Exploiting Life. I changed only the cover. Al-Kharrat never wrote a book or anything called Hala and the Dinosaur. You moron.”
She walks out and goes to chat with Shahinda. She celebrates her biggest victory internally and alone, while the dinosaurs are enjoying the delicious seafood and their fantasies about the aphrodisiac effect it will have on their aged bodies. The literature professor remains speechless for remainder of the night.
* I am indebted to Marcia Lynx Qualey for editing this short story, which I translated from Arabic. The original Arabic story was published on Qoll.net