The following is a sci-fi short-story I wrote for my Arabic literature course. Enjoy:
As I lay dying beneath an alien sky I dreamed of my father and the language he had loved. The bullet wound in my thigh was throbbing, and though I’d closed the hole in my vac-suit before much of my oxygen has escaped, some of the higher-than-Gaian sulfur in my enemy’s atmosphere had snuck in. When I gave my squad the command to abandon me, abandon the mission, abandon this illness-swept planet I choked on the foul air.
“Kyrian, tell Commander Jerard it was my fault. I landed us too close to their base. Don’t let him ride you too hard.“ I listened at the feedback as Kyrian’s Translator repeated my instructions to him in his native Russian. I had never heard his voice speak directly to me, nor he mine. I heard, in a voice which sounded older than my friend,
“Alright Hamad. Go with God. Over and out.”
I lay back on the vermilion hillside and watched the scout ships spit rocket-flame as they hurtled back into the sky. I knew, though could not see, that they would dock in the fight-bay of the battlecruiser hanging in geosynchronous orbit. Commander Jerard would blame the entire crew, not for my death, but for the entire failed attack against this Jinxi town. There was nothing I could have done to save my crew from punishment had I lived, and nothing I could do prone and forsaken on this hillside.
I knew I would die. There were no plants on these hills which could heal me. The turquoise sky rained nothing and the sulfur clouds brought no respite from Janxi’s dual, glaring suns. I settled back into the snake-grasses, shifting onto my side to ease the stinging muscles in my leg. The enemy zinger had thrown me into a surprisingly protected crevice on these low and rolling hills. I could hear the whine of sonic-rounds arching above my head, coming from the barrels of other abandoned soldiers, and see the flashes of the battle in the distance, but the real fight had moved on. I would soon have nothing to hear but the thick rasping of the Janxi-wheat. The Janxi grass was more like Gaian asparagus than wheat, if asparagus grew waist-height and bright orange. My suit’s stealth circuits would default space-black, leaving me as clearly marked a target as possible before I died, but the brother-suns were setting and I could expect to die in this planet’s purple darkness.
I had some hours of oxygen left, though my life-support systems would fail long before that. I would die uncomfortable and alone, but that was more than I had expected when I had been snatched up by the Gaian Corps. To die with my own thoughts, uncontrolled by the corpse-keepers of the Sergeants of Death was better than most of my group-mates could hope for. More than Kyrian could hope for if he was fully punished for this ill-conceived expedition.
I tried to think of my father. I detailed his face in my mind—smile and frown lines in equal proportion, a tall forehead, a broad nose. But his physical form, what he called the crocodile-suit for the soul, was ephemeral. I remembered him tall and strong when I was a child, throwing me in the air and always catching me. I remember him old and stooping, thick square glasses squatting on the tip of his nose as he read from hand-written folk stories I remember him with the tubes, his rich skin milk-pale.
But his voice. His voice speaking the language of his birth home, his voice never changed. Rich, deep and light depending on his mood, well-trained after years of professional translating, fully lived-in while storytelling, never flat. He had a story for each language he spoke. Arabic came from his grandfather, who taught him to read and write when his own parents snatched the cotton from the back-breakingly low and snarly bushes. They had sat together until the dim light coming through the greasy window faded to dark, reading the Quran aloud. My father’s grandfather would sit in the room’s only creaky chair, with my father sitting cross-legged at his feet, resting his back against the chair’s long legs. First, my great-grandfather would read to him from the Quran, moving his finger under the words to help him match sounds with shapes. Then, as my father grew better at reading, his grandfather would lean back, eyes closed, and listen to my father stumble and run through the book, correcting his pronunciation from memory. Sometimes, as my father would read, my great-grandfather would sing under his breath, old work songs from the fields.
My father’s English came from his first formal schooling, mandated by sleepy government shrews. The only bright part of his time under English teachers was a round-faced Priest named Father Castro, who’s unorthodox admiration for his students’ culture kept him at the lowest ranks of the Anglican church for his entire life. My father’s English was always British English, though for years he translated exclusively for Americans.
French was his first language of choice: as a young man he escaped to Paris, slipping out from under the terrible pressure of being a quick and curious mind in a land ruled by brutish souls. Knowing he would one day have to leave Egypt or mortgage his mind to pass for as dull as the landowner, he studied French desperately. Night after night, he studied in his grandfather’s old chicken hutch in the fields with an oily candle for company. Surrounded by the smell of old poultry, he drilled the basics of colloquial French into his brain, trying to pass for an Algerian beggar if not the Cairene scholar he wished he could seem. There was little in his life my father had not related to me as a bedtime story as a child, but what he did to finally get across the dividing sea between our homeland and Europe was one detail I could never elicit.
He spent years in Paris, working first as an Egyptian Arabic tutor for oil-men, and later for refugee-helping bleeding-hearts. He rented a small room in a small flat, and saved all his tutoring money to send home, disguised in the leaves of old books he donated to the town school.
The story of the money and the books was one he loved to tell. In his first month in Paris, he had gone to the great and winding bookshops by the Seine and carefully selected the first book he would send home. It was Winnie the Poo, a trashed copy none of the censors or customs-men would care to steal. He wrote his message as an inscription using the three languages he and Father Castro shared:
Father Castro at the local school received the book, read the inscription, ripped the binding off and delivered the cash to my great-grandfather.
While my father waited for the heavy-minded leaders of his country to die or retire to lay dragon-like upon their heaps of stolen gold, he became fluent in French and eventually began to work as a translator of contracts and newspapers for French businessmen. He always kept a rotating class of tutoring students at the local universities, meeting them in cafes but never at his small apartment. He loved to learn the fine shirts and candied fruits of France, but also the sultry pop rhythms and the habit of honoring books.
Late one afternoon in his small room in his small flat in Paris, my father learn his grandfather had died. He was translating the obituary section of Al-Ahram for a French client. There was no formal obituary, just the names of every body buried in the local cemetery that week. My father scrambled for the publication date of newspaper; it was months old.
He wound down his contracts with local students and businessmen and left Paris the following year. My father could no longer bear the separation and enough of the government had shifted into younger, if no more flexible, minds that he felt he might finally make a home in his homeland.
He arrived at the home his parents had moved to in the city while he was away. The land they had worked was given to another family; something about more efficient farming techniques making them surplus personages. It was late on a Friday afternoon, when the sun was glinting on the tops of the shiny downtown buildings. The whole family was away, but the key under the same flowerpot it had been when he left a decade ago, now placed at the top of the flight of red stairs. He walked through the apartment, seeing signs of his money’s presence if not his own. A complete collection of Winnie the Poo, binding neatly reattached. A small collection of well-loved children’s toys for nieces and nephews. A mirror with gold-leaf near his mother’s closet. A Translator.
I was yanked out of my memories by a sudden pain in my leg. The sky was slowly turning lavender, and the Alpha sun was close to setting. My feet were terribly cold. I couldn’t feel my smallest toe. I punched up my internal environmental controls; they were perfectly normal. My wound, which I had been able to ignore as a reconstructed the cigarette-smoke and waxed pine wood smells of my grandparent’s home, had moved from dull aching to near numbness with occasional spurts of pain.
I suppressed a shiver and dove back into my memory, resettling my back against the knobby orange canes of Jinxi-wheat.
The Translator was paste-grey and chunky. My father had seen a slicker version of it in the cafes where he met his students. It was essentially a speaker, a microphone, an audio to text and text to audio translator with a language translator integrated. An Arabic-speaker could say a phrase into the microphone, the Translator would display the text of what it thought it had heard, then, below it, what it thought the translation was in, say, French, and then it would read that translation aloud in a square robotic voice.
The Translators in Paris were often grammatically wrong, quickly failed in noisy places, and spoke only in that ugly mechanical voice. He wondered whether a brother or sister had needed it for school, or whether his father was working for a businessman who needed to give him more detailed cleaning instructions than his father’s rudimentary English and their non-existent Arabic could allow.
He picked it up, fingers stretching around its bulk. Just as he moved his thumb to turn it on, he heard the front door smack open and the sound of his mother’s voice. He froze, dropped the thing onto the table. When his family came into the room and saw him, there was much screaming and exclaiming and crying and laughing.
He saw his litter brother and sister for the first time. Though Father Castro had written to him of their births back before the move, his parents could not write him nor afford photographs. They were shy of this tall man wearing a pressed white shirt with French cuffs and the black business slacks. His face was paler than theirs, his skin and waist spoke of his love of rich foods and days spent hunched over a lamp-lit desk, writing.
The next day the entire family walked to the cemetery where my great-grandfather was buried. My father sat at his grandfather’s grave and sang all of the songs he had learned from him. His younger brother and sister were noisy and restless until their mother, my grandmother, pulled out the Translator and told them to do their English homework.
Then they sat, backs against two sides of a nearby monolith, whispering into the Translator and passing it back and forth, playing a three-person game of bilingual telephone where the Translator was the dumb kid who mixed up words.
My father sank into his memories of his grandfather, pulling out the smells of his yellow books, the creak of his much-repaired chair, the cracked smile of a man who fought in his youth. He began piling up the dust around his tombstone, trailing his fingers in the designs while his mother spoke to the groundskeeper and his father smoked a cigarette. As the dusk rose and the sun set, they walked the miles over the broken sidewalk to their apartment, children still quietly whispering to the Translator.
My father found work quickly translating for the French consul’s wife. She was a Christian and involved in a small women’s hostel and language training center in Maadi. Her attempts to speak Arabic had left her with a reputation of a kind-minded but ignorant lady-patroness. She simply could not comprehend the language’s lack of a “to be verb” and broke into French at the slightest frustration.
He helped her recruit young Arabic-speaking students from his brother and sister’s school to teach the Embassy’s children in the center, paying them by the hour to play small games. He lived at home, sharing his siblings’ room and seeing where he could fit into their lives. His little sister, hair still in plaits, marched up to him on one of his first days back and informed him their brother was getting beaten up at school and what was he going to do about it? After confirming the story with their mortified younger brother, he discovered the cause was his brother’s old uniforms with their short-and-frayed cuffs and holey-shoes. Without telling their parents, my father went to his brother’s English teacher and offered to trade a month of tutoring for his top students in exchange for a new outfit. He agreed and spent a month reading Byron aloud and discussing it with the three brightest students, one of whom was a girl.
He made it a habit of waiting with the students for their parents or siblings to pick them up. They finished late at night at and he could not bear to think of one of his students walking home alone, loaded down with books and looking small in their uniforms.
Waiting outside the school with his students was where he met my mother, Aliya. She came every night to pick up her sister, my father’s student. She had a neighborhood reputation as someone too tough to pick on and wore it with pride. Her little sister, with her scuffed glasses, skinny legs and ill-hemmed cuffs, lit up when Aliya through the school gate.
Every week my father had his three students write a poem using their new vocabulary, and Aliya’s sister wrote the first week about being so scared that her sister would be disappeared. He decided to risk his crush on Aliya and violating her sister’s privacy by showing the poem to her. But Aliya’s English had stopped advancing when she stepped out of formal education to work with her mother in the family corner-market and she could not read it. He described her sister’s fears to her, but my mother explained she would rather be disappeared for fighting than fade into a nothing-person, a bowing person, a blank. My father offered to walk her home that night, but she turned him down flat.
On the last day of class, my father made a final bid to get to know my mother: he offered to trade her lessons in English for fresh produce from her family’s shop. He would have done it for free, but he had grown a healthy respect for Aliya’s pride in the preceding month.
She agreed and so my father began to spend his Saturdays meeting her in local coffee shops, dragging her through vocabulary when all she wanted to do was argue politics in Arabic. She never invited him to her home, but when the produce she brought in payment started arriving more withered and more bruised he proposed a change to their deal: if she would come to tutor Arabic at the French consul’s wife’s language center two evenings a week, they could keep up their Saturday lessons.
The small women’s hostel and language training center had changed since he had first come back to Cairo. Its two downstairs rooms with their cinderblock walls now at various times served as a English-language center for local school children, an Arabic-language center for the children of foreign businessmen and Embassy staff looking to supplement their Translators, a meeting center for a local bible-reading group, a computer center where the parents could use the internet while the children studied, and a small lending-library in Arabic, English, and French. Rather than smelling of new paint and dust as it had when my father had arrived, it now always smelled of too many people, hot coffee from a crusty pot, and sugary children’s snacks.
One day, a young man in a football jersey came to the clinic to use the computers. He was neither a student nor parent of students and my father called the French consul’s wife over from where she was hunched with a panicking-looking Baccalaureate student studying French.
“I want to read the newspaper to the computers,” he said in Arabic. My father translated for the consul’s wife.
“What? Did I understand that right? Why do the computers need to be read to?” The French woman curated a radically safe space for her students and had no place in her heart for trouble-making youths who couldn’t make themselves understood.
My father asked and translated: “He wants to record his voice on a website that—“
He asked a clarifying question.
“Ok, yes, yes, he has a girlfriend who doesn’t speak Arabic and they use a Translator to communicate. He wants to read a newspaper to her account on the Translator website, which she can then sync her Translator with, so she hears his voice instead of the robot one when they talk.”
The consul’s wife was being beckoned back by her harried-looking student.
“Tell him he can use the older one in the back until a parent needs it. And tell him to keep his eyes on his girlfriend’s account and off those fighting-game sites!”
The young man came in every few evenings, and eventually joined one of the weekly English-for-parents meetings, on special sufferance. To ensure that all but the most unusual words his girlfriend would hear came in his voice, he had to read 3,000 words to the online program. This took a few months, and as his English got stronger he want back and rerecorded some of his earliest attempts. He had a little ceremony at the clinic when he was finished, presenting her with her own Translator wrapped in bright paper and a pre-recorded message in English. Sometime between when he had started recording and finished, the Translator website had made it possible for people to record their own phrases, and eventually entire articles and novels, completely in their own voices.
He was not the last lover to come to the clinic. Young couples who spoke different languages, or even different dialects of Arabic, who used the Translator to ease their communication came in together to read aloud to the website. The funniest couple were the Parisian man and the Canadienne woman who came in in early Spring. She was from Montreal and terribly embarrassed about her accent—an embarrassment in no way diminished by her mother-in-law’s apparently scathing jokes at her expense. Together they spent months hunched over a computer, him carefully reading French newspapers and she practicing her Parisian accent. The Translator had by this time amassed a sufficient database of voices reading the same literary texts in every existing translation that it could nearly always match meanings.
Their plan was to visit his mother in the late summer, and his wife would speak into the Translator which would then repeat her words using her husband’s voice and accent. On the day they returned, successful, from their trip and celebrated with the group, my father realized every child in the clinic from a diplomatic family was studying with a Translator. Apparently the creators of it were using Cairo as a test-market for other Middle Eastern educational markets and had deeply discounted the devices.
The clinic students still worked with tutors, but mostly to practice their pronunciation so they could correct their Translators and understand cultural context. Very few students wanted to meet with speaking-tutors anymore, because they did not need to speak their language of study very often.
In the late winter, my father proposed to my mother. They married that Spring. She got hired as a computer technician for the clinic’s growing computer lab. Her little sister was now able to run the family produce shop part-time while she studied at university. The clinic had expanded into a the next-door former garment-mending shop and had culled a few dozen more computers from local businesses who were looking to discard them post-upgrade. In addition to books, they began to lend out older-model Translators which used my father or my mother’s voices as the starting default.
It took some years, but by the time I was born the clinic no longer catered to children whose parents could afford to have them in school, or the Embassy staff’s children. Translators were so well-programmed that the only phrase most businessmen needed to speak was “Do you have a Translator?” After which they could conduct their business, each speaking his own language.
There were so many more businessmen in Cairo by that time as the government was creeping towards democracy using the China route—business interests first, then grudging local political rights, then even more slowly, unrigged national elections. But Egyptian businessmen, after moving home to benefit from the newly virile economy, eventually moved way again to live at the global next hot-spot. Young people like my mother’s sister chose to live where they wanted to based on cost, space, and the kinds of jobs available but not language-spoken (she ended up living in Bishkek because she loved the weather and the soaring mountains).
Children whose parents could not afford Translators still came in for tutoring, as did the older people in the neighborhood who could not get the hang of the hand-sized devices. Sometimes a grandmother would bring her grandson in to help her understand the website, but in two generations each’s dialect had become so specialized from lack of interaction with other variants that one boy used his Translator to understand his grandmother.
Even with these changes, the clinic was always full. Pregnant mothers would come to read children’s stories into the Translator website, so when their child was born they would hear the voice of their mother anytime they were spoken to in a foreign dialect or language. Lovers would come in to read to each other so they could always hear each other’s voice when speaking with their Translator. When a relationship melted, friends would offer the heart-broken their own voice files, or they would return to recordings of their mothers’ voices until they found a new love.
The language tutors became computer technicians, helping mothers and lovers with their pronunciation so their loved-ones could hear their best voices. More than the 3,000 words the first young tough had needed to read, the best voice files had 300,000 or more words recorded, an entire series of novels worth. The Translator software was good at identifying emotion, and so, with a sufficiently rich database of words could make clear the difference between a mother saying “Be careful,” and an enemy saying the same.
This shift to using Translators only touched me tangentially as my father insisted I learn to speak each of the languages from scratch. To him, the point of learning a language was not to translate word or even emotions but to understand the soil from which a person grew. While he drilled the basics of French and English and Arabic into my head, my mother used her years of practice teaching itchy schoolboys to keep me interested. They tutored me not only in the grammar and vocabulary but the music. My father taught me the hymns, the folk and pop songs he had learned with Father Castro and in Paris and the songs of his grandfather. He made me read the poetry of Byron and Eliot and Hugo and even Rimbaud. I did use a Translator in school, and it was in my father’s voice, as were several of my classmates. His voice file had become popular, perhaps because it was available in the three most commonly spoken languages in my neighborhood. Using my father’s voice for all three meant no jarring shift in speaker between languages.
By the time I recorded my first voice file for my first crush—she refused to use it, since it was a one-sided love affair—there were no more children in the clinic studying languages out of books. Slowly enough that it took the French consul’s wife’s son visiting to notice, the clinic had become a space for the elderly.
It had started with my grandmother, who had never understood the need for a Translator and was offended when it asked her to read sample texts aloud as she had never learned to.
After she could no longer work, she began coming to the clinic to keep my father and mother company while they worked on the project that took most of their middle-lives: reading aloud the great and ancient poetry of Arabic, English and French. My parents had feared a day when the only time the Translator’s ugly and mechanical voice would be heard by school children would be when they studied poems of the past with uncommon words. My parents wanted children to not feel that distance; they wanted people to grow up with as much familiarity with modern as ancient stories.
They also recorded the untranscribed stories of their mother and her friends. The stories from birthbeds and fields and weaving rooms. They recorded my grandmother telling her versions of the stories, and through her brought dozens of her friends into the clinic. They kept coming, perhaps for the free coffee but probably more for the company.
Between those storytelling and transcription sessions, an old stranger asked my father to read to her from the Quran.
My father and my mother had read the entire work into the Translator story database, as had hundreds of imams and movie stars and radicals, but the stranger was quietly firm: she wanted to hear the language of God from a human tongue.
My mother and father laid down their project and took turns reading to her. She brought more and more of her old friends in, who mixed with my grandmother’s friends well. My parents often left the recorders on in the surrounded lab, hoping to increase the richness of the religious readings Translator offered. That was my last image of my father before the hospital, an image I carried with me when I was yanked into the sky war after the March 15th Jinxi attacks.
Within a few months after Gaians lost Paris to the Jinxi, I was conscripted to aid in a sneak attach on the resource-rich Jinxi-planet. On the long space-journey, my Translator became the thread connecting me to my comrades, all of whom had been secretly and randomly selected to fight in the transtellar war. I framed that image in my heart: my father and mother sitting in sturdy school chairs, surrounded by a dozen or more old women, some listening with their eyes closed, some napping quietly, some following along with their fingers following the reading, and a Translator awake on the floor.
The pain was nearly too much to bear and I had run out of fond memories. I rolled over onto my stomach, legs no longer responding except to jolt me with more pain, and crawled up the slope. I could no longer hear the zinging of bullets, and the smoke of explosives had long-since blown towards to the rusty violet mountains. I dragged my elbows over the crest of my hillock and saw nothing but dark undulating ranges growing into stark spikes on the horizon. I knew the enemy might be cast low, dying or hiding, or burrowed down under the stalks of grass, surrounding me. I inched myself down, settled back onto my flattened nest and took a deep breath. I could smell the oxygen recycling breaking down.
I wanted to die breathing the open air, even if it came with whiffs of cracked and rotted eggs and the aftermath of battle. I pulled my numbing wrists up, released the catch on my vac-suit helmet, and popped it off. There was a breeze I couldn’t have felt from within my suit, and it dipped down my forehead, over my eyebrows, into my eyes, down my cheeks and over my open lips in a way that was almost comforting.
The planet was warmer tonight that it had been during the day-battle; the dust in the air and the smell of unburnt gasoline reminded me of the Cairo of my youth. I collapsed back, fumbling fingers unable to remove any more of my uncomfortable suit. I felt tugged away by the tides of a sleep I knew would be deeper than any from which I could awake but a song flew into my mind, batting at my memories. I breathed deep of the noxious air and sang:
So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
My voice soared and echoed, though I could no longer feel below my breast-bone:
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
I was singing in a duet. My suit Translator was on, I realized as I breathed to get prepare for my final stanza. My father’s voice was singing his Arabic translation of this Byron poem with me:
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
I slipped into that deep current, sinking and slipping down and down. I could feel nothing, see nothing, hear nothing but the echoes of our voices, arching over an alien land.
SPOILERS: It’s still a little drafty, but it’s the first fiction I’ve written for a class since middle school. All of my other fiction tends to be of the fannish sort, so it was fun. Also a little manic–I couldn’t get the first line out of my head for weeks and I finally had to sit down and pound it out. You (hopefully) saw a lot of Cairo, a lot of The Forever War, and a healthy dose of linguistic nerdiness. Here’s the two models I used for the clinic: the Episcopal Training Center in Cairo, and the Santa Maria Urban Mission in San Jose, CA.
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”–E.L. Doctorow