It was quite the predicament! I had snuck out of school straight after the fifth class and climbed the souk’s big neem tree opposite Tayfour’s mill. Yet I barely had time to catch my breath when I discovered, to my bewilderment, that my neighbour on the opposite branch was none other than the principal of the school. Of course, he hadn’t climbed up the tree to order me down; it would have been enough for him to have simply stood in the shade of the tree, littered with the seeds of saliva-wet nabag fruit, and shouted: “Come down, you donkey of a boy! Are you a student or a crow?”
To anyone, particularly from atop the big neem tree, the souk, before the incident which was to come, looked like a broad street, reduced to a tiny winding stream by the commodities packing its sides. Piles of nabag (my favourite), tomatoes, bread, water jars, the lot. It seemed quiet, but it was the quiet before the storm: before the outbreak of the shouts of beggars and vendors, of heated bargaining, and the general hustle and bustle. It was bracing itself for war.
From a passing plane, although planes rarely did pass over it, the school before the big incident would appear as a triangular courtyard with closely packed classrooms; a square in the south for the morning assembly, a volleyball court in the east, and a small farm in the north. From the back of a donkey, however, the school appeared to be a decrepit fence surrounded by tamarind and mesquite trees, and a secret exit for late-comers and early leavers like me. From inside the classroom, the school was a mass of students bound together by fear of the principal—a force stronger than the ionic bonds of chemical elements. It was cloaked in silence, like a military garrison. The air of the classrooms and the courtyard was saturated with the exhalations of hundreds of terrified lungs. It was a throttling environment, even for parasites stubborn enough to survive in elephants’ bellies.
After the happy incident, the souk was reduced to crumbled shacks and smashed tomatoes, as if it had been hit by a bomb or a massive storm. The school, however, was a carnival of joy. Students were running around the trees, their racket echoing across the classrooms and extending even as far as the principal’s ears.
What Fatima’s dog did was unthinkable. She succeeded in demolishing the huge barrier that had stood between us and the greatest pyramid of all: Hadrat al-Nazir, the principal of al-Esailaat elementary school. That barrier, mightier than the Great Wall of China, would not have collapsed had it not been for Fatima’s dog and her wickedly sharp teeth. Who would have thought that such a solemn and formidable character as the principal would run away in terror from a dog? We owe a lifelong debt to Fatima’s dog, and from this day on, will never allow any harm to come to her. We will endow her with the tastiest morsels of meat and falafel and will caress her tiny, brave head. If we can, we will build a statue in recognition of her noble deed, a monument like those of Galileo, Newton, Faraday, and others who sacrificed their lives for the sake of knowledge and the student movement.
But what had prompted Fatima’s dog to spare us the agony of the morning assembly and a memorisation test?
Let me tell you what happened.
If I could borrow the dog’s bark, features, and its speed, I would run the principal around a full circle. Haven’t we been taught that the earth is round? I imagined the dog chasing him across the borders into the deserts of Chad and Mali. His legs were as heavy as a millstone, as if he were running through a basin full of glue. He swam naked across the Atlantic, killing all the fishes with his body temperature and stinking sweat. On seeing him, the Romans and the Persians mocked him in their tongues, and he sought shelter in the Indies, but the snow on the top melted like a dollop of fat in a pan, and the hot solution spilled into the coffee plantations. The poor filled barrels and containers with the floods of hot coffee while the plantation owners cursed the ozone hole. This scramble was a chance for exposing the ridiculous lies the principal had filled our heads with. Running at full speed away from Fatima’s dog, he looked like a terrified elephant trying to hide behind an ant’s bottom. Like any panic-stricken creature who would have trouble accepting such simple logic as a mountain being bigger than a needle, or nabag and tomatoes being for eating, not for crushing under one’s dung-littered shoes, or a dog being faster than even a young man, the principal did not see anything wrong in seeking refuge behind a watermelon! The poor fruit, seeing her sweet red blood oozing through the dog’s claws, could not help but wonder if the purpose behind her creation was to be served as dessert after lunch or to provide shelter for the principal.
If you had seen him during morning assembly, a lion swaggering around its den, you would never have been able to marry that image with the one of him at the souk, so frantic that he even sought shelter inside an eggshell, as if he might find some room beside the embryonic chick in the tiny white spherical womb. As one who knows how it feels when the principal comes close to me in the classroom or during the morning assembly, I can solemnly swear that the poor chick, in the unlikely event that it survived such a violent encounter, would not grow a single feather, even if it were to live as long as Noah.
His heavy steps at the morning assembly. The haughty and hostile looks even his thick glasses could not hide. When he set eyes on you, you felt as though gangs of street cats were engaged in a deadly fight over your body, or that you were trapped in a tiny corner, staring at a hammer about to smash your head. He seemed to have been cast from a special type of clay, the same mould used for casting senior executives, presidents, military officers, and criminals. A cast that lacks sense, humour, affection, and sympathy, it knows no fear. It leads a perfectly calculated life, like a mathematical formula where a change in one part will misbalance everything else. His strides and looks made the schoolchildren tremble. Their bags, steps, and exercise books, even the shades of classrooms, all quaked in fear of him.
I used to sneak out of the school just after the fifth class, through my secret exit, an opening in the fence camouflaged by mesquite trees. I would climb the big neem tree, waiting for the principal to leave first. He would also leave after the fifth class, to do his daily shopping. Who would dare to discipline him for this early departure?
On that day, the principal left the school as usual to run errands for his family. At the souk, Fatima’s gaunt dog saw him and although she sees scores of people every day, it seems that for some reason she suddenly remembered our habit of hurling stones at her. I am not sure why we did that. It could be that we really wanted to throw stones at the principal but out of fear had to divert them towards the dog’s lean bottom, like one who stabs the shadow instead of the elephant. The dog was apparently determined to put an end to our frequent disturbance of her peaceful naps by the school fence, by getting down to the root cause: the principal.
Of all the people at the souk, she headed for him, as if attracted by his clean and perfumed, plump body. Perhaps she thought she should get to the underlying cause of her suffering. That sounded logical. If it were not for him, she wouldn’t be getting shelled with our stones on a regular basis.
No sooner had he appeared at the souk than the dog let out a loud cry, as if to alert everyone to cease trading and sit back for the show about to commence. The principal’s body started to tremble when he discovered the target of the impending attack was none other than himself. At first, his eyes flitted between the crowd and the approaching dog. How could he escape through a street packed with people?
In the crazy scramble that ensued, the principal tried hard to speed up without losing face, but as the dog drew closer to his legs, he became less conscious of the surrounding environment, including the mocking laughter of vendors, women, street boys, and onlookers. When the dog unleashed her sharp canines, his self-awareness plunged to zero. He vowed to save himself at any cost.
Trading at the souk had come to a standstill. The hungry forgot their hunger. Pickpockets put their activities on hold. Everyone was eager to watch the thriller unfolding before their eyes. The whole souk stood paralyzed, the scene like a photo. Everyone was delighted to see the tedious rhythm of life disrupted and replaced by the film featuring a solemn principal and a gaunt dog. Concern over his public image did initially cross his mind as he flew through the souk, breaking teacups and smashing piles of tomato and cucumber under his heavy shoes. But after a matter of seconds, these concerns were dwarfed in comparison. Overcome by a total sense of detachment from his surroundings, the universe had been reduced to a dog baring her teeth. We could never have imagined that this formidable figure could be vulnerable to fear.
Would you run away from a gaunt dog, Mr. Principal? Even if you escaped her ruthless teeth, the memory of this painful experience will continue to haunt you all your life, Mr. Principal.
For the first time in his life, he felt death was a close reality. His entire body was drenched in sweat. If only this would all turn out to be a nightmare. His sole chance of survival was to outrace the dog, and it took me by surprise how this flaccid, aging body could have such a force of speed within it, concealed behind that false solemnity. That latent energy was now triggered by the dog barking, and the principal’s legs were racing against the wind, fueled by the fear of death.
Death is a truly personal experience; beyond pain, fear, and all other emotions common to man. Death destroys your life in a twinkling. How fragile and weak this life is. Even the faintest breeze can extinguish it. Death is the invisible enemy who knocks on our door at any moment without prior notice.
Was this really a fitting end for the principal’s life and long career in education—to die in the heart of the souk, terrified, covered with dust, and with a perforated bottom?
Was it an act of justice that flesh from the plump principal pass to this dog’s skinny body?
“Justice is a supreme value” the board behind the principal’s office reads.
The principal suddenly started to sense his organs coming to life. His long-morbid heart awoke to the influx of oxygen-filled gushes of blood. He could feel his heels, eyes, muscles, thighs, legs, abdomen, hair, and navel. He could feel pain, this strange creature, delving into him through all those gateways. In his cartoon-like dash, he had smashed Suad’s teacups, but he could not stop to apologize. No adherence to law and ethics at this terrifying moment. He had turned into a blind mass of flesh, inhabited by the grand demon of fear (and selfishness). He saw nothing wrong in taking shelter behind beggars, trees, and even children. He could think of no one but himself, as if it were not he who had deafened our ears with high-pitched speeches about sacrifice and self-denial. Where was his so-called self-denial as he hid behind Halima, the old blind woman, and tread his panicked legs over the teacups belonging to Suad the widow?”
I would no longer take for granted any of the statements he made at the morning assembly and the classes, such as gravity, and the Earth revolving around the sun. The Earth is a cube, and gravity existed only in cucumber, nabag, and Amna’s face.
At this point in time, I was so full of admiration for the principal that I wanted to kiss him. For he was free of all inhibition. He could not be blamed in that moment were he to break into tears, or take off his clothes, or smash things up. The scene had now transformed into just a dog and a principal: a rabid dog and a terrified rabbit. For an undisciplined dog, hungry and neglected, in a souk where no rubbish bins or even a single piece of bone was to be found, the flesh of the plump principal was irresistibly tempting.
Millions of images must have passed before his eyes, of people he had met even briefly during the course of his life. He could surely remember their scents and their clothes. Did he think he was hallucinating? He was moving at full speed now and his legs and those of the dog looked like four fan blades set to the same speed. He jettisoned his load. The bag. The dictation exercise books for the fourth year, my class. Then came his wristwatch, his shoes, his pants. I wonder if it had ever occurred to him that he could jump over the high mound of watermelon, hurl the approaching dog with hot pieces of Tayfour’s bread, or make 14 circles around the sabeel, the public drinking water jars. We later nicknamed that structure the principal’s Ka’ba, for who else would go around it 14 times, as if in supplication?
The dramatic race ended with the principal climbing the neem tree and planting himself on a small branch opposite me. Here we were, intruders in the dwellings of birds, watching the souk’s hustle and bustle. A live film, no tickets or queues, starring Hajja Halima, Osman the deaf, and an assortment of other downtrodden characters. A film without a director or scriptwriter. A real-time presentation. The role of the beggar being played by a true beggar, not a wealthy actor who was paid millions to play the heartbroken, penniless pauper. Indeed, you can’t compare the performance of a bereaved woman with that of a paid mourner.
Luckily, there was no need to hide behind the tree branches until the principal departed. He glanced over at me with shy, broken looks, silently imploring me not to divulge his secret. We went down and had tea together. It seemed we had exchanged roles. I was now the principal, in command, while he had assumed the role of the frightened and negligent student, tapping on my shoulder like a close friend, and begging me not to divulge the matter to my schoolmates. I tried hard to stop myself from laughing when I remembered him jumping around, shouting away the approaching dog, climbing and falling, and uttering words I had never imagined would be stored in his vocabulary. You have exposed your true self, Jadalla el-Tayeb, son of Sakina. That is your true, naked name. The period of power and might is gone, and you have been reborn in a new era that will be marked in the records of students for all eternity. All historical events would henceforth be distinguished as before the bark—BB—or after the bark—AB.
From our position high up on the tree, I swore I would never disclose the secret. He kept imploring me and I kept nodding my head to comfort him. Looking at his bald head covered with dry leaves, I couldn’t help but wonder if the figure sitting opposite me really was the principal. I thanked him for visiting me in my den and invited him to come back any time and make himself at home.
Back in the school courtyard, and much to the puzzlement of the students and teachers, I inserted my hand into the principal’s trouser pocket, took out a bunch of pounds, dusted off the powder of the red and yellow chalks and started counting them in a slow motion, while the principal looked on as if hypnotized. I then ran down to Hajja Batoul sitting on the tree shade to buy myself some sweets.
A question mark the size of a lamppost loomed in the eyes and hearts of the students, teachers, and the guard, even those of the trees and the drinking water jars, when I bought a doum fruit and instructed him to loosen the peel with the remainder of his teeth. He sat on a chair and started digging on the hard shell with yellow, decayed teeth, while I swaggered around the courtyard to everyone’s astonishment.
The news spread, and scores of people started to pour in, some to show sympathy, but others to seek compensation for damages: teacups, utensils, water jars, smashed tomatoes and cucumber, broken pots of groundnuts. I had related the story 375 times, which is the total number of students and teachers plus three (I had to relate it to a teacher three times, and each time he burst into laughter and almost fell on his back.)
In the classroom, he sent me an imploring look. On turning to the students, however, their mocking looks hit him hard and he was certain that I had drawn a caricature image for him that no force could erase from the students’ minds. A wild laughter erupted across the classroom. For the first time in my life, I devised a physics formula: The speed of light equals the speed of the principal minus the speed of Fatima’s dog. I wrote it on the classroom’s outer wall opposite the morning assembly courtyard, next to the motto “Learning enlightens the heart.” Someone had added in awkward handwriting: “but the best breakfast is fatta.”
The school, post the great incident, was like a carnival. Children playing in the courtyard. A football hitting the principal’s office door. A tennis ball landing squarely on his bald head and bouncing back to the gleeful children. He, meanwhile, was absorbed in his thoughts about the historical changes which had occurred in his body, his glands, his mind, his freedom, and his self-perception. He felt grateful for Fatima’s dog, which helped him shed the millions of masks and false faces he had been wearing to reinforce an image of sternness and severity.
Thanks to Fatima’s dog, one of the Lord’s invisible soldiers, the principal was now liberated from his self-imposed prison. She had washed away all his old perceptions and he had been born anew, a 70-year-old child. I, on the other hand, rose to stardom as a talented storyteller. I was the first to have discovered that the principal was a normal human being, who loved, slept, and got scared like everyone else.
To be honest with you, the only talent I have is storytelling. I read directly from my head, not from a book. I am a poor orphan: I cannot afford to buy books, and there is no public library in my village. And let me make another confession: despite five long years at school, I am still illiterate. My only book is my imagination. It is my heart, which dreams of millions of things—some of which are attainable, while others are not—but in the end none ever transpire. As a result, I have no choice but to imagine everything. I imagine how candies look. I imagine how they taste. I chew them slowly so they should not slide between my tongue and throat. I become so deeply immersed in this exercise that I start to believe they really exist. These tales make me my own master, giving free rein to my imagination. I see stones smiling, as if courting a beautiful angle. I see the sky as a big mother’s heart embracing me, comforting my scared breaths. I do all that is within my power to capture the attention of my audience.
Having been the lowest-scoring kid in the class for three consecutive years from years one to three, I was always the brunt of my schoolmates’ jokes. I became the perfect example of stupidity, a position long held by the donkey. That was why I used to steal away from school every day to the souk. There, from my favourite spot atop the neem tree, I would entertain myself by watching people as they moved about the souk, and their odd facial expressions as they bargained. Inspired by my empty stomach, I would map out an imaginary journey for the gleaming red tomatoes, starting from the damp canvas sacks, arranged in small piles, then inserted in other sacks originally used as cement packs, then placed in an oven, and then finally finding their way into Amna’s drooling mouth. I have always thought Amna’s saliva must be as sweet as sugar cane stalks and yearned for just a sip. But that dream was as far-fetched as my wish to become the highest-scoring student, with full marks in mathematics. Or to see my mother as a close friend of the principal’s wife, or Hajj Ali’s wife, so that I could have a chance to play football at their home (the only football pitch in the village) and watch Superman on their black-and-white TV set.
The school came to recognise my talent only after I had related the story of the dog 375 times (three times more than the total count of the students and teachers combined). Each time, I would make additions or deletions to ensure my tale was captivating. My mother admired my theatrical skills and my ability to “transform a tiny grain into a gigantic dome.” I have always sympathized with tiny objects, like the tiny round balls of dung. Just as women gaze at glimmering jewelry hanging in shop windows, I would gaze at those tiny formations, thinking of their painful journey through the donkey’s bowels, only to be tossed out as worthless refuse, as if they were not good enough to be put to a better use, like becoming a bray, a kick, or a soft hair on the donkey’s back or tail.
As it happened, the person most happy with what Fatima’s dog had done was the principal himself. The dog had chased away one principal, but had brought us another one, a much better one, for us and for him too.
Abdel-Ghani Karamalla is a Sudanese writer and novelist living in Khartoum. He has written several novels and short story collections, including Sharp Back Pains, Wooden Heart, Scent of Silt, and Bellow of Shame. He has also written more than ten books for children and illustrated all his children’s stories himself. His writing has been translated into English and French.
This story was translated from Arabic into English by Adil Babikir, a Sudanese translator and copywriter based in the UAE. His published translations include Mansi: a Rare Man in his Own Way by Tayeb Salih (Banipal Books, 2020); Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology (University of Nebraska Press, 2019); The Jungo: Stakes of the Earth, a novel by Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin (Africa World Press, USA, 2015); Literary Sudans: An Anthology of Literature from Sudan and South Sudan, (Red Sea Press, USA, 2016); Summer Maze, a collection of short stories by Leila Aboulela, translated to Arabic (Dar al-Musawarrat, Khartoum, 2017). Babikir is a contributing editor of Banipal Magazine. Some of his translations appeared in Banipal, The Guardian, Al-Doha magazine, and Jalada Africa. His forthcoming works include a collection of Sudanese short novels and a book on the legendary Bedouin poet al-Hardallo.