ArabKidLitNow recommends Ahmed al-Mahdi’s dark yet witty YA fantasy, Reem (ريم).
Author’s awards:Winner of the Short Story Award, 2017, from the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, for the short story “Unusual Visitor”
Author: Ahmed al-Mahdi
Publisher: Al-Kenzi for Publishing and Distribution
Buy in Arabic: ريم
Egyptian author-translator Ahmed al-Mahdi’s Reem: Into the Unknown (2017) is a dark YA fantasy, a reimagined folktale in the vein of T. Kingfisher’s The Seventh Bride. It opens from the point of view of Saif, who’s living a claustrophobic life in suburban Cairo, working a desk for a major corporation. His life is empty, and, after taking a detour to get around a typical Cairo traffic jam, he crosses paths with a pet store, just a stone’s throw away from home. There, he finds a cage covered in black cloth, hiding a strange black cat. This launches Saif—and the reader—into the intertwined stories of Reem and Osama.
Reem re-tells a European horror-folktale in an Egyptian setting, with Egyptian wit, relaying the story of a girl who’s pressed into witchcraft by her seemingly kind old grandmother. Saif must untangle the threads of the story, delving into the world of greed and witchcraft thriving just beneath the workaday world of modern Cairo.
Ahmed al-Mahdi is an author, translator, and critic who lives in Cairo, Egypt and has published three novels, as well as numerous stories for children.
In his office at one of Egypt’s big corporations, Saif sat in front of his computer’s bright screen, feeling totally bored. He stared inattentively at the numbers that ran past on his screen, and from time to time he yawned and checked the time on the wooden clock that hung on the wall, wondering how much time was left till the workday ended. Although he had a digital clock in the corner of his screen, he preferred the sound of the wooden clock ticking away, with its constant, circular, clockwise movement, which gave him a sense of the passage of time.
He struck the keys with the rapid movements that now came to him, as he was used to the mundane work that drained away hours of his life every day. He felt especially weary today, because it was the last day of the week, and he was looking forward to the weekend. It seemed there was an unwritten rule that, the closer the thing you wanted, the more you craved it. He didn’t actually do much on the weekends — just watch TV and read the occasional novel — as he lived alone, and he preferred not to hang out much with his friends, who’d become used to his retiring personality.
Saif glanced up again at the wooden clock and noticed there were only about fifteen minutes remaining, so he arranged the papers on his desk and shut down his computer. Once the clock struck three o’clock, he left the office and rushed down the stairs. He didn’t like the elevator, since he was claustrophobic. Once he reached the ground floor, he headed to the garage, looking for his car, trying to remember where he’d parked it that morning. Finally he found it, and rushed toward it.
The garage worker was waving as usual to greet him, so he waved back before he got into his car. He started up the engine, which roared as usual. Then he left the office building, driving the car into the crowded city streets, heading straight for home. To pass the time, he began to think about what he’d have for lunch — although he don’t need to worry about deciding what to eat, since he lived alone. He might get some take-away, or cook a simple meal using his humble cooking skills, which hadn’t improved, even though he’d lived alone for many years. Today was, as he always told himself, “just another day.”
Yet on this particular day, there was construction work on the main road, and drivers had a hard time trying to pass through the tiny sliver of road that barely allowed for a single car to edge through. Saif wasn’t the kind of person who could bear sitting in a Cairo traffic jam, so he decided to take another route home. This way was actually longer, forcing him to take several side roads, but for him it was still better than being stuck with all the angry drivers on the main road.
When Saif passed a fast-food restaurant, he seized the opportunity and bought some hot sandwiches to eat on the long ride home. But then, before he got home, he noticed a pet store. Even though it was close to his apartment, this was the first time he’d ever seen it. If he hadn’t been forced to change his daily route, he might never have seen it.
He suddenly felt the desire for a pet, without knowing where the urge came from. Maybe it was just the idea of doing something new and different, or maybe it was because his friends kept insisting that he marry, telling him that living alone could make him lose his mind. Maybe the company of a pet would relieve his loneliness. Although the idea seemed strange to him at first, after he turned it over in his head – while he was standing in front of the shop – he said to himself, “Why not?”
Full manuscript and plot synopsis available upon request.