A Feast and The New Mona Lisa

A Feast

…..The moon did not rise over the balconies of the king’s palace that night, and the palace gardens were pervaded by desolation; the king was absent from his palace.
…..The king had spent his entire life in his palace, because it contained everything, and everything could be found there, whether the item was prevalent in the kingdom or not; rare items were imported for it from abroad. For this reason, there was no need for him to leave his palace; everything could be found there.
…..The truth was that the king did not even know the full extent of his palace’s holdings. The palace was so large that he had lived in it for a long time without discovering all its hidden recesses and without ever reaching the end of its walls.
…..Actually the king’s attention had been diverted from his kingdom’s affairs to the concerns of his palace; but he had been distracted as well from the affairs of his palace by the interests of his courtiers and family. Concern for himself, however, outweighed even his interest in his courtiers and family. In short, that king was interested only in himself.
…..Since he was concerned only with himself, there was no need for him to take an interest in the affairs of the kingdom. It was the kingdom’s duty to take an interest in the king. Therefore it was not the king who should visit the kingdom. The kingdom should head to the palace, because within its walls the palace contained all things.
…..It happened once that the king became so inebriated by the sense of his own self-worth that he was filled with conceit. Then he followed a whim and began to strut around, feeling cocky about his rule, medals, and crown.
…..The guards did not notice him, and he continued strutting till he reached the gate. Then he left the palace without any of the guards knowing. The king marched forth and penetrated deep into the city, which he had never entered even once in his life. His feet did not lead him to the city’s higher parts, where the upper crust, prominent citizens, and ambassadors lived. Instead, luck led him that night to poor neighborhoods and ramshackle buildings.
…..Cutting a strange figure, the king penetrated those neighborhoods without a single guard. He was, rather, flanked by his medals and escorted by his crown and royal caftan. He attracted people’s attention, and they began to stare at him with amazement, wondering where this strange figure could have come from. On discovering him, a group of unruly young men encircled and restrained him.
…..They were excited by his strange appearance, his unusual clothing, and his weird conduct–especially when he began to scold and issue orders, wanting them to execute his commands. They, however, knew nothing about these commands and were unaccustomed to them.
…..His risible appearance stirred them, and they burst into laughter. They thought he looked like the neighborhood minstrel. So they asked him to sing and dance for them. When he refused, one youth approached and grabbed him, wanting to help him dance. When he placed a hand on him, he found him soft and succulent. Amazed by this, he called to his mates, who were astonished by this discovery. His skin was smooth and didn’t resemble their rough hides, his hands were tender and unlike their tough paws, and he had no protruding bones like theirs. They deduced that this was not a human being like them. Perhaps it was a new kind of animal unfamiliar to them. Why not taste it? So they bit into it from all sides and dined on its delicious flesh till it was all gone.
…..When the guards arrived, everything was just the way it had been before, and no trace of him remained.

The New Mona Lisa

…..The first person who paused before La Gioconda that morning was stunned. He saw quite clearly that the hair of Mona Lisa was starting to turn white.
…..The painting was installed on the throne of its kingdom in that gallery in the Louvre Museum, and the morning sunlight illuminated it. It had not budged from its place, and no one had damaged it. It could not have been more carefully guarded. Over the course of days and years fans of every race had thronged to see it from all continents. Through her five centuries, time had aged as she watched coolly, gazing out into deep space while her lips formed that enigmatic smile, that puzzling smile that purveys all the heart’s cryptic desires.
…..“What’s happened now?”
…..“What’s changed?”
…..The first person to see her white hair could not believe his eyes. He rubbed his eyes, closed them, and then opened them. Then he rubbed his eyes again. He peered at the painting very carefully. It was abundantly clear to him that her hair had turned white. Cries of disbelief rang out from all sides. “What’s happened?”
…..“What is this?”
…..“How amazing!”
…..Everyone was overwhelmed by a sense of utter despair, and people began to observe the spectacle with a lot of astonishment and concern as events unfolded in rapid succession.
…..The transformation took place before their eyes. An inspired artist seemed to be moving his magic brush, which was working dexterously and skillfully, transforming the ancient painting into a new adaptation or something like the flash of a subliminal advertisement across a television screen.
…..In fleeting moments the face lost its femininity and magic as it acquired wrinkles and creases, and the nose shriveled up. The eyes sank into her face, and in the wink of an eye the Mona Lisa became a time-weary, gray-haired old woman whose back had been bent by time.
…..Those luminous, dreamy glances and all the beauty that gravitated to her sweet, enigmatic smile disappeared to be replaced by malicious, mocking laughter from rotted teeth with cavities and a mouth that spewed fumes in every direction.
…..The delicate fingers had become crooked and dry–like nails and strips of steel. The delicate brown dress, which was threadbare and in tatters now, suddenly revealed a deep-set wound between the two breasts.
…..The background of the painting–the enchanting landscape with water, verdure, trees, and winding rustic roads–had completely disappeared, and a modern scene had replaced it. There were columns of reinforced concrete, structures of interlinked steel beams, many complex installations, high towers, and satellite dishes. There were metal cylinders, smokestacks, railroad tracks that extended as far as the eye could see, and other industrial flotsam and jetsam.
…..The first man asked, “Is this caused by some computer glitch?”
…..The second man inquired, “Have they hooked artistic masterpieces up to computers?”
…..The third man replied, “Everything is computerized nowadays.”
…..The fourth man agreed, “Yes, even the human brain is linked to these devices. They’ve started regulating it and directing it by remote control to do their bidding.”
…..The first woman asked, “Who says the painting has changed? Perhaps it’s our minds that have changed.”
…..The fifth man said, “They’re governing our minds and making us see things the way they want us to see them and not the way they really are.”
…..The second woman said, “Then they’re destroying the intellect. They’re destroying our minds.”
…..The sixth man agreed, “That’s not all; they can use this instrument to unhinge the intellect by introducing viruses into its system, by changing its software, by altering its configuration in whole or part, or by flat out destroying it.”
…..The third woman said, “This weapon is more powerful than all the weapons of mass destruction they’ve constructed so far.”
…..The painting became increasingly hideous at each moment till none of the fans of the Mona Lisa could bear to watch the spectacle. They put their hands over their eyes and retreated, backing away from the hideousness of what was happening. Then they rushed off, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, racing and screaming, screaming and racing, and racing, and racing, and racing, and racing, and racing, and racing, and racing, and screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and screaming…till they crossed the bridge into the forest.

Bios

Hassan Nasr

Hassan Nasr was born in 1937 in Tunis. He has been active in Tunisian literary life since Independence in 1956, and started publishing short stories in magazines in 1959. He studied literature in Tunis and Baghdad, and lived for two years in Mauritania. He worked mainly as a high school teacher while writing short stories and novels. He lives in Tunis. The translation by William Hutchins of his novel Return to Dar al-Basha was published in 2006 by Syracuse University Press. His other novels include Sijillat Ra’s al-Dik (Mr. Cockhead’s Files, 2001), Dahaliz al-Layl (Corridors of the Night, 1977), Khubz al-Ard (Bread from the Earth, 1987) and Ka’inat al-Mujannaha (Winged Creatures, 2010). His short story collections include: Layali al-Matar (Rainy Nights, 1978), 52 Layla (52 Nights, 1979), al-Sahar wa-l-Jurh (Insomnia and the Wound, 1989), and Khuyul al-Fajr (Pipe-dreams, 1997).

William Hutchins

William Hutchins, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He twice has been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation, first in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing), and again in 2011-2012 for al-Koni's novel New Waw. His translations have appeared in Words Without Borders and Banipal Magazine. His translations of Arabic novels include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press), Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books), and The Traveler and the Innkeeper (American University in Cairo Press) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni. He has four translations scheduled for release during the summer of 2012: The Diesel by Thani al-Suwaidi (ANTIBOOKCLUB), Return of the Spirit by Tawfiq al-Hakim (Lynne Rienner Publishers), The Grub Hunter by Amir Tag Elsir (Pearson: African Writers Series), and A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal (Garnet).

Al-Ma'duba. Published in Sahar wa-l-Jurh ("Insomnia and the Wound"). Copyright (c) al-Dar al-Tunisiya li-l-Nashr, Tunis, 1989. English translation copyright William Hutchins, 2012. .................................................................................................................................... Al-Muna Liza al-Jadida. Published in Khuyul al-Fajr ("Dawn Mares or Pipe Dreams"). Copyright (c) Dar al-Yamama li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawzia‘, Tunis, 1997. English translation copyright William Hutchins, 2012.