Hebatallah Ahmed – Qasim

Ahmed LE Arab Women P&W April 2024

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Live Encounters Arab Women Poets & Writers April 2024.

Qasim,  flash fiction by Hebatallah Ahmed.

Translated from Arabic by Dr. Salwa Gouda. 


Oh December, good morning to the birds that inhabit my bold jasmine, to the warm cups that fill the kitchen, to the stormy weather outside the window that tempts me to make a cinnamon-and-sugar stuffed cake. I, incredibly, love the smell of cinnamon mixed with vanilla. The smell of vanilla stimulates my appetite, and cinnamon gives me energy of unlimited gentleness. Its sting, combined with the intensity of its scent, resembles an overflowing femininity that incites one’s resolve to challenge, just as the dense rose tree beneath the window does; as it flaunts its roses in the face of rain, radiating brilliance after rain that continued throughout the night.

The December air this morning dances breathlessly with the dresses of passers-by, and its shy sun shrinks the shadow of a woman buying groceries, bread, and oranges for her children. With the second drizzle of rain this morning, I begin to knead the cakes well and massage the dough with a large piece of butter, and with every massage the scent of nostalgia wafts from my hands and the kitchen. The “Qasim” gale, which has struck Alexandria since yesterday afternoon, has been severe this year.

I once asked my grandmother why you called that violent gale “Qasim, and she said: One day the fishermen went out in a large group, and the sheikh of the fishermen was suffering from a cold that had become difficult for lemons, so his eldest son Qasim went away to lead the fishing procession, and there the sea swallowed him, and his father went mad and went out in anger to the sea and struck it with his stick, and the sky mobilized for retaliation, , to avenge the adornment of the youth. The sky continued to rain heavily of sadness and love for five full days. The wind rose, uprooting the doors behind which loved ones hid along the coast.

So, the people called it Qasim gale. The cat jumped in fright into the kitchen, and I lost my balance as I thought about Qasim, whom nature had revolted against being swallowed by the sea. Was he so handsome that the land would spare him as wide as the sea? Were his eyes like the eyes of Omar Sharif, and the sound of his laugh like Rushdi Abaza’s laugh…or was he filled with confidence like Amal Dunqul’s poems?

Or does he plant ears of corn, goodness, and love in the earth? Or was the sea the most courageous of Qasim’s lovers, so it embraced him inside its heart, throwing everyone away? Hmmm… the cake fills the kitchen with a pleasant smell. The light that penetrates through my fingers as I bake it makes me able to collect the day’s remains in an empty glass jar on the spice rack; bringing back to my soul some of the sweetness cut from it. It seems to me that I have loved the smell of bread since forever.

The story of my passion for cinnamon sticks coincides with the story of Qasim and the sea. Why didn’t I think about the necessity of opening a bakery? And set up a wide sofa in the middle of it, on which the grandmothers of the neighborhood sit, and the children gather around them, listening to the tales of the gals and the stories of the beautiful girls who stumble over the cups while baking cakes with the names of those they love.

And of course, I will create a cake named Qasim with lots of cinnamon, ginger, and honey.

Fixed time

At half past four o’clock, the station is full of groups of people, ranging from those arriving to travelling, laughing, and frowning, and various colors of dresses, coats and scarves, and the squawking of conductors and vendors. Her arrival silences the noise, with her slender stature and her flexible body despite the passing of the years. She kept the same white dress and high heels, and her carefully styled hair, which has grown taller over the past year, and the mixed fragrance of jasmine and fruits, and her strong attractive steps… I heard a faint groan emanating from Muhammad Atwan, followed by a long sigh. He pulled a chair in front of Madani’s booth,

“You are welcome, I swear it is a long time ago! You are welcome, Madam. Jilan.”
“Mercy…how are you and how are the trains?” Muhammad Atwan, smiling: “Okay, fine, Madam, excuse me.”

Atwan left, bowing his head to the right, and left, squinting, and saying: “Indeed… longings are the goods of strangers.” On February 5th every year, Jilan comes looking the same for fifteen years. Nothing had changed except the dimming of the sparkle from her eyes, the smile shrinking into a curved arc that matched the color of the red lipstick, and a trembling appeared that comforted her fingers as they fumbled together. “

Fifteen years, Kamel, and I have never lost hope that you will come on the five o’clock train as you promised me. I know, my dear, that you will not break the promise even if you are late… you will come. I break the neck of time with my daily attempt to outrun the sun, ignoring the silence of the years hanging on the holder next to the door. I make sure I am well dressed in the windowpane and the dirty elevator wall, which clearly reflects my image. You know that I do not like mirrors… The walls of the house are filled with pictures of those who have passed away, my father, whose fate did not give a chance to meet you, and my repulsive wretch brother, and Khalaf the one whose back has been bent by time?

Do you remember Khalaf, the young man who was carrying your letters to me?! The young man grew up and now has three children, the youngest of whom is a girl named Jilan – after my name – I became the manager of the bank where I work, and they started calling me Mrs. Jilan instead of Miss Jilan. They are fools who do not know how much I love calling me Miss, to remind me that I am devoted to you …

“You may not know, Kamel, that the fifth train no longer existed at the end of January 2011. I was also surprised, my beloved, that the time of our sacred train was changed. Although the young revolutionaries demanded change, I did not hear that one of their demands was to change our time. I heard them calling for freedom, justice, equality, living in dignity, and refusing inheritance of power. They demanded things and things that did not include changing the time of the trains. I came here on our time in 2011.

I was surprised that day that the trains from the governorates to Alexandria and Cairo stopped, and the station was completely crowded. However, I was crowded to get under the street lamppost, where our meeting place was, you might manage your way and come to me.

When the wait was long, I chanted with them: “The people want the trains to return.” “Haha don’t laugh at me. Yes, I participated in the cheering, just as I shared a loaf of bread last year with a young man who came from his village to look for work here in Alexandria. He was waiting for a relative of his: He told me, ‘Eat this expensive loaf of bread kneaded with my mother’s tears.’” I didn’t tell him that I found it saltier and softer than all the loaves I had tasted before.

“The year before, I found you on the opposite sidewalk… I don’t really know how I forgot the place of our meeting – I grimaced a little – You told me, Kamel, that our place is under the street lamppost of our love. It is the one with a scratch on it bearing a heart with my name and yours. I called you Kamel, Kamel, I am here.” I ran over you until the heel of my shoe got stuck in the pavement tiles that have been repaired for two years. I left it and ran barefoot, and you did not hear.

I pushed the passengers before you disappeared into their dust, and I ran… Five o’clock strikes, and I ran… The station’s internal call rose, and the horn of the departing trains rose, drowning out my voice, and I ran… “Where did you go, Kamel? And how did you not hear my voice even though you heard my silence?”

Pardon me, Kamel! I know that you would not have ignored my call. Tell you a secret?! Your beloved’s vision has become weak… I have been using eyeglasses for ten years, but I do not wear them when I come to our expected date so that they do not obscure my eyes and I can see you clearly among all arrivals.

Kamel… Oh Kamel… I’m here.” Jilan’s voice rose as she stood up and ran towards sidewalk 6, and Muhammad Atwan and Madani ran after her to prevent her from falling onto the tracks.

© Hebatallah Ahmed

Hebatallah Ahmed is an Egyptian writer and doctoral mental health researcher. She has published two collections of short stories, Al-Nawala and The Vanilla Revolution. She won the 2024 Sawiris Literary Award for Short Stories, Senior Writers Branch, for The Vanilla Revolution. In addition, She won the Egyptian Story Club Award 2023 and the Central Prize of the Palaces of Culture for her collection, Al-Nawala.

Translation by Dr. Salwa Gouda, an Egyptian literary translator, critic, and academic at the English Language and Literature Department at Ain-Shams University. She holds a PhD in English literature and criticism. She received her education at Ain-Shams University and California State University in San Bernardino. She has published several academic books, including “Lectures in English Poetry, and “Introduction to Modern Literary Criticism” and others. She has also contributed to the translation of “The Arab Encyclopedia for Pioneers,” which includes poets and their poetry, philosophers, historians, and men of letters, under the supervision of UNESCO. Additionally, her poetry translations have been published in various international magazines.

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