Exclusive extract: Sons of Gebelawi by Ibrahim Farghali

The National has an exclusive English-language extract from Ibrahim Farghali’s operatic satire Sons of Gebelawi.

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It seems I've lost my powers. That's right, I've become like the scarecrow, propped on a cheap plank to frighten any birds that might appear, and that don't fear me in the first place. This is how it's been since the individual with whom I'm twinned decided to stop writing. I'm no companion spirit, as might appear from my words; more an "imp of writing" if you will. That's right, an imp of writing and that fellow's the writer. If you'd care to know his name, it's The Revealer. Most likely you've never heard his name before and that's only natural because he's never published anything. This last point is embarrassing to me, because it portrays me in the guise of a failure, someone who doesn't have what it takes to inspire.

The truth is otherwise.

You should know, first of all, that everything you've read up to this point is the text of an entirely imagined story, whose first and only muse was me. It may come as a shock to you to find out that all you've read is nothing but purest fantasy, unfounded in fact. Neither Kibriya, nor Nagwa, nor any of the others who appear in the text, exist: it's just the imagination of a writer who finally decided he'd been afflicted with writer's block and elected to make the last chapter you read the end of the novel. But let me tell you: what he claims isn't true. I inspired him with a final chapter, which he found himself unable to write and in which is revealed the truth of what happened to Naguib Mahfouz's books. He himself was convinced by the incidents it related, which took place in some period outside time, located in some long-forgotten era when Egypt was mistress of the world.

But having finished the last chapter about Nagwa, he suddenly stopped writing, muttering to himself that everything he'd written was no more than a pack of nauseating lies, that the chapter he had ready in his head concerning the character Rafiq Fahmy, inmate of the old peoples' home, and his mysterious relationship with Kibriya, wasn't good enough to hold a place in the novel; that the ending he was due to put in wasn't convincing, just pointless prattle. He placed the pages in a drawer alongside five novels he'd written before and never published because they'd been left uncompleted for the very same reasons. He slipped the key in the lock and turned it several times so that he couldn't be tempted to return to that or any other text. To further ensure he wouldn't go back he went to his lover, handed her the key and asked her to put it in her handbag and not to cave in should he come back and ask for it for any reason whatesoever. His lover, who always dealt with him on the basis that he was an oddball, did not inquire into his motivations, and because she had been sitting down to watch a film while he had been in the office she had taken the key from him and got quickly to her feet, adjusting her short nightdress, and headed over to the coffee table on which she'd laid her bag. She tossed the small key inside and returned to where she'd been sitting, without looking at him.

He saw she was absorbed in watching the film and in no mood for a discussion or interruption until it was over, and he gave in without a fight. He went to the kitchen, opened the fridge door and looked for a bottle of beer. He found one and took it. He popped the cap off the green bottle and took a gulp that let him know how thirsty he was. He asked her if she wanted anything to drink. She pointed at the full glass of beer in front of her and said she hadn't finished it. He sat on the sofa next to the plump blue armchair on which she sprawled. He studied her bare legs, resting on the squat glass table in the centre of the living room. She'd shifted it a little towards the chair so she could prop her legs on it. He studied the tops of her thighs where the gauzy black nightdress had ridden up. He noted her absorption in what she was watching and swallowed another mouthful of beer. He lit a cigarette from her pack then offered her one. She scowled and shook her head, denying her need to smoke. The reaction irritated him and he turned to the screen.

It was a film he loved: The English Patient. It was also a film that made him jealous on a personal level, since it proved to him that some quality texts could be turned into quality pictures of the same calibre as the original, though personally, I regard all those who adapt literature for the screen as lacking imagination, possessed of mediocre or limited abilities.

Permit me to inform you that I am friends with the imp of a Canadian author called Michael Ondaatje. Among the imps of your world he's considered pretty talented. I myself have heard from his own mouth the words he gave to the English patient's lover when Count de Almasy abandoned her, bones broken, in the cave. I beg you, place yourself in her position: unable to move in a cave, in the depths of a vast mountain surrounded by the desert, only faint glimmers of light penetrating within, no food or drink to be had:

- My darling, I'm waiting for you.

- How long is a day in the dark, or a week?

- The fire is gone now, and I'm horribly cold.

- I really ought to drag myself outside.

- But then there would be the sun. I'm afraid I waste the light on the paintings and on writing these words.

- We die.

- We die rich with lovers and tribes.

- Tastes we have swallowed.

- Bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers.

- Fears we have hidden in, like this wretched cave.

- I want all this marked on my body.

- Like the names of countries and the borders drawn on maps.

- With the names of powerful men.

- I know you will come and carry me out into the palace of winds.

- That's all I've wanted.

- The lamp has gone out and I'm writing in darkness.

After hearing them from Michael Ondaatje's imp I repeated these words dozens of times over until I had them by heart. Thousands of times I repeated them, invoking them like a madman, as often as I repeated the words inspired by another friend of mine, the imp of a Turkish author called Orhan Pamuk, from his novel My Name Is Red and given to the character Elegant Effendi: "For even if you bury me in the most magnificent of tombs, so long as that wretch remains free, I'll writhe restlessly in my grave, waiting and infecting you all with faithlessness. Find that son-of-a-whore murderer and I'll tell you in detail just what I see in the Afterlife."