Badr Ahmed: The Tale of My First Novel
Translated by Christiaan James
I began writing stories and other prose at an early age. When exactly? I honestly don’t know. However, I do recall how I would write, emptying all my thoughts onto the page, and then seeking feedback from my friends. Some of what I penned I would hold onto while other things I tossed into the trash or destroyed completely. One thing I remember perfectly well, however, was that not for even a moment had I seriously thought to publish my writing in any manner. And the matter continued that way for quite some time.
In 2011, the Arab Spring broke out, taking the world by surprise as masses across the spectrum poured into the streets calling for liberation and release from hegemonic, worn-out systems that had destroyed both “tillage and stock.” I observed what had occurred and was continuing to transpire in places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen. I could sense a real yearning among the people--beaten down by years of corruption--for freedom and social justice. I witnessed the flames of revolution begin to lick at and then consume the former thrones of tyranny and injustice. Yet at the same time, I watched as creeping tendrils deformed the revolution and parasitic worms ate away at its body.
In March of the same year, insecurity peaked throughout Yemeni cities and mine in particular. In the streets and alleys, we began to see unknown armed men, looting and killing in broad daylight with impunity while satellite channels showed us the corpses of victims and protests live on screen. The whole situation was simply unbelievable. State agencies and institutions ground to a halt as basic goods disappeared off shelves overnight and began to pop up instead on the black market. Electricity was completely cut off and internet service stopped as our ability to communicate came and went. Trash piled up in the streets. And gunfire would stop sometimes for a reason and at other times for no reason at all. Stray bullets fell from the sky, harvesting souls in the marketplaces, at schools, and in the streets. Gangs of smugglers monopolized basic goods and sold them according to their own interests. In mere months, the entire country had transformed into a savage and lawless jungle. The simple citizen who had gone out to the streets calling for freedom, civil rights, and justice now just tried to desperately survive.
Medically-speaking, the country was in a state of clinical death and could not be saved. Once, an optimistic doctor smilingly told me, “Be patient. The nation is expelling toxins and disease!” Chemically-speaking, the homeland was decomposing and disintegrating, turning into a foul-smelling, unclassifiable heterogeneous mess. From a physics standpoint, the nation was free falling into the abyss while socially, the bonds of society were unraveling and the law of the jungle prevailed.
One March evening in 2011, I found myself standing on the side of the road in a remote area. The sky was downpouring though I wasn’t paying much attention to the rain drowning my feet. I felt a strange sense enveloping me as I fixed my eyes on the horizon, waiting for a car to come down the road and take me home. Suddenly, three motorcycles appeared off in the distance. Crossing through rain, water, and lightning, they came to a stop just steps from me in the middle of the road. Six armed men got off the bikes, blocked the road with boulders, and set up a flying checkpoint, and started waiting for the oncoming cars. Not one of them glanced at me twice as I silently stood there, staring at their clothing, gaunt faces, and the evil emanating from the corners of their mouths. They passed around a flask of locally-produced alcohol, smoking, and singing as they laughed and shouted like a hyena screeching in heat.
That night, the rain continued to pour and wash over everything: the ground, the walls, trees, lamp posts, and the armed men. With every droplet that hit them, it seemed as if their bodies were spewing forth black ink. I scrutinized their faces and bodies as another thought entered my mind. I found myself saying, “It’s not that their skin is spewing black ink but that the rain is coating everything in blackness.” It was just then that I saw the rain stain everything black. And when I say everything, I mean it. My dreams, the faces of my children, and the smiling face of my father. As I watched their drunken hysteria, I thought, “What if the abundant rain has transformed into nothing but torment? Weren’t people waiting for these life-giving rains? Yet now contaminated rain is falling upon them, killing everything beautiful in their lives, and driving out the wild hyenas from their dens.”
I had been carrying a ream of paper and a clutch of pens when I got back to my house. My head and imagination were brimming with ideas. I wanted to write. To scream. To protest. I wanted to place my mark on the world. A decade or two from now, I wanted my children to know that their father rejected this war. He rejected all its devastation and he exposed all the thieves riding the wave of revolution.
That evening, without even taking off my rain-soaked clothing or warming my limbs from the cold, I grabbed a pen and began to write and write. For three months, I didn’t stop writing. During that period, I saw destruction sweep my country and roam from house to house and homes turned into funeral memorials. Everywhere floated the corpses of victims and the faces of orphans. By writing my first novel, Black Rain, I found a place of refuge that partially isolated me from all that was happening. I remember when one of my friends saw me writing incessantly, ignoring the news, he remarked, “The country is burning to the ground and you’re writing short stories!” I still remember his words and I remember how I did not respond to him other than with a smile.
I finished the novel in June 2011, I truly hoped that my premonitions contained within it would turn out to be wrong. In my novel, I didn’t just talk about Yemen, but about all countries convulsing during the Arab Spring. I preferred to leave the location of the novel vague and its characters unnamed. Doing so allowed it to transcend space and time. It could then easily and eloquently reach other Arab readers in countries also undergoing the Arab Spring and in some way might mimic their lived reality. I placed the protagonist of the novel, Amin, into the plot without divulging his past, his nationality, or memories so that his character would be unconstrained by rigid frameworks that might restrict the reader's imagination. The reader could thus embody the story and become fully immersed it.
After finishing the novel, I passed it to some friends, both litterateurs and general readers, and I began seeking their opinion. To be honest, I was surprised by the admiration the novel received given that it was my first experience writing a book. However, that still did not press me to publish it either in hardcopy or even online. I thought that I would do just as I had done with my previous works until a friend encouraged me to publish. And so I contracted with a Moroccan publishing house, Dar Al-Watan. The novel came out in late 2012 and was well received by readers both inside Yemen and abroad. This success inspired me to continue writing and just a few months after its publication I began working on my second novel, Rabi’ Al-Hanthal.
Writing the first novel is both intimate and special. Perhaps an author experiences nothing like it during subsequent works. Maybe it is because he poured his whole heart into it and gave it his utmost care. Perhaps it is simply because he filled those pages with his first untouched imaginings. Or perhaps because it was his first primal scream into this world full of silence and disappointment. Or maybe, just maybe, the first of anything--like a first love--can never be forgotten.