Summer had lasted too long that year. It was February and, nearly everywhere in Morocco, the sun continued to triumph each day, scorching the earth, souls, bodies, and skin.
It was a real economic catastrophe for the country. For all of us. Our future. Our projects. The radio and the television said it over and over.
Everyone was sick of that unbearable, intolerable heat. Except for him and me. We loved that the sky was completely blue day after day. And we adored the sun. Our god.
We had our ritual. Walking for hours and hours after school. Walking with and beneath the crushing, sensual rays of the sun. Walking to melt into the heat. The eternal heat wave. Melting into each other, him and me. A boy and another boy. Two brothers. Better than that. Always walking without getting tired to make it to the night, the dark, a bit of calm, hidden intimacy. Our little corner behind his house. Dreaming in silence one beside the other.
He was older than me. He was fifteen years old. I was thirteen.
His family, who lived opposite us, didn’t like my family. Our mothers, especially, had royally despised one another for years and would often argue in the middle of the street.
I showed solidarity with my parents, of course. But, deep down, I didn’t really give a damn. Ever since I was born, right there on the other side of our little street in our poor neighborhood in Salé, was my double, only bigger, sweeter, more beautiful. Me: him. Him: me. Him, always a step ahead of me. Him, timid. Me, brazen by necessity. From afar, from up close, a twin fiction between the two of us. At the beginning, without a word.
What I alone was preparing for the both of us took years and years to finally take place.
His hand reaching out towards mine. I take it. I hold it in my hand. I make him come closer to me. I feel his body. His heart. I see his sweat. I breathe in the hot air that comes out of his nose. Without a question, it’s really him, it’s really me.
He says, “My name is Abdellah.”
I reply, “My name is Abdellah.”
He doesn’t believe me. He smiles. He is beautiful, more beautiful with that smile, that mouth open wide.
I continue: “Same as you. My name is really Abdellah.”
He comes even closer to me and he murmurs, “Same as me? Then you’ll have to prove it!”
I didn’t know how to respond. Without realizing the meaning of the words that came out of my mouth, I ended up saying, “We can have a contest, a competition, if you want… Man to man.”
He really liked that proposition, that challenge, that audacity. I saw it in his eyes and on his skin. He was excited. Without having to lower my eyes, I knew that his cock was swelling. All at once it was breaking free from its restraints. Then Abdellah made that incredible gesture that I will remember for the rest of my life: he put his left hand on his cock and, as one would with a crying baby, he caressed it gently to calm it down and put it back to sleep. It went on a very long time. An entire minute. An eternity for me. Then, he suggested, “Give me your milk. And I’ll give you my milk.”
Immediately, I cried out joyously: “Sperm! Your sperm!”
He placed his hand, the one that had just touched his cock for so long, on my mouth, and he revealed what was to come: “I’ll teach you everything, Abdellah.”
Abdellah was suddenly more than just my name. It had become an immense sky, a great notebook in which I could write all of myself through the other, him. My life before me. My future now present thanks to him. Thanks to what bound us, secret, mysterious, and concrete. A volcano. Milk. Milk overflowing. Exploding. On the verge of inundating the entire world through me.
Abdellah was counting on me to come up with all the details. Finding the right place, the right hiding spot for us to carry out our challenge, our promise.
I told him to meet me after school.
“Wait for me near the side door of your school, not the main one. Nobody goes that way. After classes are over, I’ll meet you there. Around 4:20, when all the students have left.”
“I know where to go.”
“Where are we going, little Abdellah?”
“To Hell, Big Abdellah.”
“That works for me.”
As I waited for nightfall, I didn’t know where to take him, to tell the truth. So I suggested that we walk and then walk some more.
Our steps led us far, past the big forest, all the way to the river, the Bou Regreg. Opposite us, Rabat the capital and the Hassan Tower. Another world that had nothing to do with us and our plan. We stretched out on the ground and tried to find inspiration. It didn’t come. But we didn’t give up. Someone had to make the first move. I figured it was Big Abdellah’s role, not mine. He didn’t do anything. He was probably thinking too much about what he had to do. About his responsibility towards me. I wanted to reassure him, tell him not to be afraid. I looked at the sun, which was growing distant. I turned my head towards him. I opened my mouth and, at that same moment, the muezzin began the call to the fourth prayer, the sunset prayer. I said nothing.
We listened attentively to the masculine voice, explosive and strangely very spiritual, as it filled the air and the world with Arabic words celebrating God. Then, we got up to go home.
It was ruined. Nothing was going to happen. God was against us. We had to quickly forget our scandalous plans and quickly repent.
An hour later, when we were back in our own neighborhood, it was completely dark. The street was empty. God had disappeared. And desire had returned. Strong. Urgent. Tyrannical.
I understood that I would have to force Big Abdellah to go through with it. To be for him both actor and director. To take his hand. Unzip his fly. Take out his cock. And call forth the miracle.
Behind his house, there was a little garden that didn’t belong to anyone. And, in the middle of that nothing of a garden, there was a small tree with big leaves still green despite the dryness. That was where we had to hide. And do the deed.
Without asking, I led Big Abdellah beneath that tree. We sat at its roots. I glued my body against my friend and brother. And, still without concerning myself with what he thought, I drew nearer to his face and I kissed him on the cheek. A hot kiss. Very hot. Very humid. Feverish. Loving.
Fortunately, he reacted quickly. He lifted his head towards the leaves. Breathed in deeply for a few seconds. Put his right hand on his fly. And, as if illuminated from within, his entire body began to vibrate, to tremble, to shake.
I could see it clearly. I already adored it. Hidden for a moment inside his pants and briefs, the other Abdellah’s big cock couldn’t take it anymore. I drew closer to my friend’s face again and I planted another hot kiss on his cheek. He turned towards me and, unzipping his fly, he kissed me too. On the mouth. For a long time. He hurt me. I didn’t protest.
The cock was there, on display, standing at attention, large, proud, tall as the Tower of Rabat. Outside of him. Crazy. Tender. Volcanic. And so red.
Big Abdellah put his arm around my neck and invited me to observe what he was doing up close.
“Watch carefully. Remember every detail. Enjoy. Soon the rain will fall.”
He was telling the truth. He was right. The miracle that everyone in Morocco had been waiting for was finally going to come. Any second now. Water. Water everywhere, for everyone and all at once.
Big Abdellah’s cock was now more than red. It had turned black. He cried out. He roared. He was about to die from being so alive. I moved my hand towards it. I touched it gently.
Big Abdellah took my hand and put it in his mouth, biting it hard. I let him.
It was at that moment that the milk appeared. It came out of Abdellah’s cock violently. Abundantly. The spurts shot far. All the way to the tree’s leaves. To the sky.
It was beauty itself!
Abdellah let go of my hand. Looked at me. Smiled sweetly. And, after a short moment of rest, he started to masturbate again.
To encourage him, I murmured in his ear: “Come on, come on, this time I want to drink it, your milk. Swim in it. Come on! Come on!”
I find co-translation to be a fascinating venture. A translation, after all, is nothing more than the result of one translator’s close reading of a text. I’m a strong advocate of multiple translations; I find that the juxtaposition of more than one of these close readings is a great tool for understanding a text – especially a problematic text, or one that is ambiguous or opaque. I’ve really enjoyed working with Emma, and I think it shifts some of this comparative reflection to the translation process itself.
Emma and I often gravitate towards different authors and literary styles, although we also share some common interests. It was through this intersection that we first met, both of us invited to a dinner in Paris by two writers we were translating, both of whom are members of the same literary group. We kept in touch, and when Emma ended up in New York, we decided to start working together on some side projects to add variety to our work.
Our process is quite complementary; our different habits, when averaged out, tend to strengthen the resulting text, and perhaps our weaknesses are somewhat mitigated. This composite method is the way we approached the texts that Abdellah Taïa was kind enough to send us: parallel translation that resulted in similar but different texts, and then a long session going through each text word by word and line by line. The resulting text is a single voice forged of two separate readings. Sometimes, our results were similar enough that little or nothing needed to be changed, but on other occasions we ended up having to explain ourselves, to justify our choices, finally coming to a consensus about which choice better represented our common understanding of a passage, what sounded or flowed better, or which rhythm better suited Taïa’s personal syntax.
To me, discussing these minute differences is an extremely valuable and enjoyable process; often, translation becomes driven by habit and instinct. It has been a great way to force ourselves step back and re-examine why certain choices work better than others, and to have to try to explain the feelings that dictate this. I believe the back-and-forth and the resulting compromise makes for a better translation, and helps make us both more aware of our craft.
Chris and I were both asked to translate a short story by Abdellah Taïa for the 2016 PEN Translation Slam. Two translators bring in their own versions of the same text for the audience to compare in front of the author. The point of the exercise is typically to show how different translations of the same sentence can be. It’s easy and fun to nitpick a translator’s word choices and debate what the author really meant. But during the translation slam, what was most surprising to me was how similar my version of Taïa’s story was to Chris’s version. And this is not because Chris and I tend to write with a similar style or translate similar authors—I skew contemporary, experimental female voices and he skews Nobel-winning European men—but because Abdellah Taïa’s voice comes through so strongly in his writing that our sentences naturally drifted towards the same decisions. Taïa’s pared-down writing style and powerful, purposeful vocabulary guided both of us to similar, and at times identical, English versions of his story.
When we saw how successful a co-translation of his work could be, we asked Taïa for more stories to translate together. We each did our own translations and then over the phone we read through them side by side, word by word. For such a short story, and even with such similar starting drafts, it still took a solid few hours to come up with a final version, to decide whose word choice to go with where our drafts differed, or whether we needed to retranslate a certain sentence on the spot. For the most part, two things happened: one of us quickly admitted the other had come up with a better English word, or we bartered with each other: “I’m okay using your ‘triumph’ if we can keep my ‘scorching.’”
But there were times when Chris had to make my expressions more idiomatic, and he challenged some of my safer suggestions for the male organ. In turn, I reigned in some of Chris’s elegant word choices that overshot Taïa’s register. Finally there were those instances when we had created identical versions of a sentence, and it was clear we were both hearing the same voice read the story in that moment. Together we ended up with a text that is a bit of Chris, a bit of me, and more Abdellah Taïa than either of us could have achieved on our own.
Abdellah Taïa was born in 1973 in Rabat, Morocco, grew up in the neighboring town of Salé, and later moved to Paris, France, where he lives now. Taïa’s public proclamation of his homosexuality in 2007 sparked conversations about gay rights in his home country and throughout the Arab world. His own experiences, as well as themes of sexuality, Islam, and immigration, feature prominently in his work. He is the author of nine books, including Le jour du Roi, which was awarded the Prix de Flore, and most recently Celui qui est digne d’être aimé. He has also directed a film adaptation of his book L’Armée du Salut. Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, Rhode Island, where she is the co-owner of Riffraff, a bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of a PEN/Heim grant, an NEA Translation Fellowship, and a Fulbright in Morocco. Her translations include Anne Garréta's Sphinx and Not One Day (Deep Vellum), Fouad Laroui's The Curious Case of Dassoukine's Trousers (Deep Vellum), Anne Parian's Monospace (La Presse/Fence Books), and Frédéric Forte's 33 Flat Sonnets (Mindmade Books). Her forthcoming translations include Virginie Despentes's Pretty Things (Feminist Press), Delphine Minoui’s I’m Writing You From Tehran (FSG), and Marcus Malte’s The Boy (Restless Books). Chris Clarke was raised in Western Canada, and currently lives in Paris, France. His translations include work by Raymond Queneau (New Directions), and Pierre Mac Orlan (Wakefield Press), among others. He was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant in 2016 for his translation of Marcel Schwob’s “Imaginary Lives” (Wakefield Press, March 2018). His translation of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano's "In the Café of Lost Youth" (NYRB Classics) was shortlisted for the 2016 French-American Foundation Translation Prize. Chris is a PhD candidate in French at the Graduate Center (CUNY) in New York.
Original artwork by Michael Welsh.