Ali Al-Kasimi: The Island of Grace
The Island of Grace
by Ali Al-Kasimi
Translated by Hassane Darir,
Professor of Translation and Terminology (Cadi Ayyad University, Marrakech)
and revised by W Richard Oakes Jr.
PhD-University of Edinburgh (Independent Scholar)
We children used to call it "The Island of Grace". Some of us were embellishing our words, calling it "the Island of Grace and elegance". As for the adults, they called it "the modern world".
We called it "the Island of Grace", because its inhabitants (girls and boys), who started coming to our small town, were astonishingly graceful, elegantly dressed, energetic, and agile. They were tall, and most of them had blond hair, blue or green eyes, handsome features, shining faces, and charming smiles.
They used to come to our town as a special kind of tourist. There was nothing here to entertain them. There are no amusement parks, theaters, movie theaters, gambling houses, tourist resorts equipped with sports fields or Olympic swimming pools, or markets filled with a variety of cheap goods. There was nothing in our town that would tempt them to come to it. It is just a group of miserable one-story houses, built of mud or bricks, roofed with palm fronds, with a small mosque in the middle, and two modest buildings for the men of authority. And yet they were constantly coming to us in groups and individuals.
Their only center of attraction was the hills near our town, which contained an ancient Babylonian city dating back more than four thousand years, of which only ruins remain, ruins of a lost city. Just deserted streets, roofless halls, cracked marble columns, and crumbling walls carved with strange creatures, some with animal heads and human bodies, others with human heads and winged animal bodies. An obelisk was rising in one of the dust-shrouded squares, with cuneiform inscriptions, carvings and decorations on it. At the entrance to the city, there was a huge, hard stone statue of a terrifying lion, crouching on the chest of a beautiful woman lying on her back.
Those blond tourists were wandering through these ruins, fiddling away in its quarters, peeking at books that they were holding in their hands, or listening to a guide who accompanies them and provides them with explanations. We children were amazed at the interest shown by those tourists in ruins, which are neither useful nor harmful, ruins that have been in their place for thousands of years, just a stone's throw from us. We did not care about them, or rather they did not pay any attention to we who live near them. All we learned about them in the only primary school in the town is that they are the remnants of a great ancient civilization that arose and prevailed, and then collapsed and disappeared, all except for those ruins.
Some of those tourists, with graceful bodies and bright faces, would smile at we children when we gathered around them and stared at them, telling us words in their language that we did not understand, so we thought they were a greeting of affection, especially since some of them used to accompany their words with a piece of candy they gave us. A number of the town’s youth, who were fluent in the language of the tourists, approached them and spoke with them, and sometimes escorted them to the hotel, which is a two-story building overlooking the ruins, where they stayed for one or two nights at most.
Through these young men, news leaked to us from their conversations with tourists and from the newspapers and magazines that the tourists throw away after they finish reading them, only to be grabbed by the young men. We started hearing stories and novels that were closer to fiction than to the reality we know, exaggerated stories which contained a lot of exaggeration about the lives of these tourists and the prosperity of their country. These stories captivated our ears and dazzled our eyes, and we started building palaces from them in our imagination, since our town, with modest and compact houses, was totally devoid of them.
We heard that their country is rich and full of productive factories and fruitful farms, and that its people own beautiful homes and luxury cars that open the garage gates with their lights, and that they come to our country on airplanes that we only saw flying in the sky, or on luxurious ships. Each ship includes fine restaurants, playgrounds, swimming pools, and nightclubs, where passengers spend their evenings, dancing to the tunes of music played by bands, until late at night, and then they go to their cabins equipped with comfortable beds, clean mattresses, and bathrooms.
One day, we learned that one of the townspeople traveled to the Island of Grace to study at one of its prestigious universities. Some of us whispered in disapproval: "He decided to stay there and he will not return!" And others wondered: "How can his family be satisfied with that?" And the answer came: “He sends them money and gifts, and they have shown signs of wealth.” We were told that he is not the only one who has migrated to the Island of Grace, as there are thousands like him from all over the world, and some of them are lucky enough to become millionaires.
The stories we were hearing about the Island of Grace were closer to fiction when they began to deal with the news of amazing inventions and discoveries, things that we had never heard of: a television that brings you pictures and news from remote places, as did Solomon’s jinn, robots that replace workers on arduous missions, spacecrafts flying around the universe like planets, and computers that come with admiration.
But the tales that left us drooling, and caused us to lick our lips when we heard them, as a cat does while stalking a small mouse from afar, are the tales of food and restaurants on the Island of Grace. We have been informed that their markets are full of different types of meat, fish, birds, grains, fruits and vegetables. All of them are sold at low prices.
The most wonderful thing on the Island of Grace is its many luxurious restaurants, which spread like mushrooms in the countryside during spring days. Restaurants have excelled in satisfying their customers and fulfilling their desires as quickly as possible. When you enter some of them and sit at the table of your choice, you will find on it the list of dishes and in front of the name of each dish, you press the buttons for the dishes you want, and a sign is lit in the kitchen bearing your table number and the numbers of the required dishes, so the waiter brings them to you immediately.
Other restaurants adopted a different approach; when you enter, you find a table full of different types of food, so you choose what you want and fill your plate yourself, then return and fill it again and again. You eat whatever you desire until you are satisfied, without increasing the predetermined price of the meal. And when you sit down at one of the tables, and put your plate full of food in front of you, the waiter rushes to you with a glass of the drink you prefer, and before you finish drinking all of it, the waiter fills it a second, third, and fourth time, without you having to pay extra for what you drink. You end your meal with delicious ice cream and desserts that you pick yourself from a moving tray that the waiter brings to your table.
And we laughed a lot when one of us said:
- "The cooks, waiters, and bartenders are university graduates."
One of us asked sarcastically:
- "Do you believe that cooking requires university studies?! PhD in porridge, for example!"
A third supported him, saying:
- "Our mothers are good cooks without having gone to even an elementary school."
Another objected, saying:
- "But my older brother told me that there are books that specialize in preparing different dishes."
Until then, we had only seen books about reading and arithmetic in our town.
It seems that the people of the Island of Grace acquired a special fondness for food, due to its abundance, quality and delicious taste. The demand for restaurants increased to the extent that some of them kept their doors open twenty-four hours a day, providing people with the meals they desire without being restricted to certain times. You can ask the waiter to bring you a meat-rich dinner in the morning, order breakfast in the evening, and combine two meals at lunchtime; you are free to choose. The Island of Grace is also the island of freedom. Everyone is free to eat what he wants, whenever he wants, where he wants, and how he wants: standing, sitting, or walking; in the restaurant, at home, school or lab.
The restaurants on the Island of Grace are equipped with what it takes to meet your desires. They have created cardboard trays to carry food home, plastic spoons, forks and utensils to be thrown away after a single use, and sealed cups whose lids are pierced by paper tubes for sucking, so that no liquid spills while you drink and drive your car at the same time. It was hard for us to imagine all of those utensils, because we were eating with our hands.
Car factories began responding to the food needs of the island's inhabitants, so additional tools were installed in the car in front of the driver, metal holders in which drinking cups and food plates could be fixed, so that the owner of the car does not stop eating and drinking while driving. Car companies competed to satisfy the tastes of eaters, so some of them put an automatic spoon in front of the driver, carrying food for him from the bowl to his mouth without him having to twist his neck or use his hand.
As for those who prefer to stay at home watching TV programs or playing computer games, and do not want to bother themselves with going to the restaurant, all they have to do is call their favorite restaurant, and their food will arrive at their homes within a few minutes. Pre-prepared dishes in the restaurant's kitchen are heated with microwaves, which take only a few seconds. Transporting them from the kitchen branch closest to your house covered with a special quilt that keeps them warm on a high-speed motorcycle takes no more than a few minutes. Food will be placed next to you for you to eat, while you enjoy your favorite TV show, reclining in your comfortable lounge chair.
As the years passed, we grew older, and our perceptions grew along with us. So, we started understanding better what we heard, analyzing what we saw as manifestations and events in a deeper way. The news continued to reach us about the abundance of production and the abundance of food on the Island of Grace. We heard that its government annually dumps thousands of tons of wheat and rice into the sea, and throws thousands of quintals of butter and milk into lakes, in order to keep farmers profiting. At that time, desertification was besieging our village, and drought was sucking the sap from the roots and branches of our plants, turning them into dry hay which the winds scatter, causing the poor to be hungry.
The impact of luxury on the people of the Island of Grace who come to our town became evident. Their bodies began to grow in height, width, size, and strength. They must be eating meat in such huge quantities that their muscles grow, their bellies get full, and their buttocks swell. The buses that brought them to our town started expanding the size of their seats to accommodate them. We became accustomed to seeing them become closer to buffaloes than to normal people, because of the swelling of their faces and stomachs, the sagging of their chests, and the thickening of their limbs. We no longer called their island "the Island of Grace".
As people grew in height, width and thickness, things changed in size on the island. Furniture companies started making beds that are larger and more solid, and seats that are wider and more robust. Gone are the days when there were a few shops on the island specializing in large-sized clothes. Now these shops have become the norm. Builders began to widen the doors, the sizes of the rooms, the corridors, and the staircases in the buildings.
The arrival of tourists from the island to our town diminished. We heard that they have become slower in movement, and find it more difficult to move, because of the weight of their bodies. Now they prefer to stay in their homes and eat their delicious food. Perhaps they will not find enough food for them if they leave their island. Furthermore, we heard that many of the islanders prefer not to go to work in order to stay in their homes and continue to devour food, content with what they receive from the good social security salary allocated to the unemployed. They got so addicted to eating that eating became a part of their nature.
We started hearing news that is hard to believe. We heard, for example, that the police on the island occasionally have to take away or widen the door of a room or remove the ceiling, in order to help a man who could not get out after spending months in his apartment eating and eating. The news of such cases became so frequent that they were no longer considered as surprising. The rescue of the besieged (a term for those who could not leave their homes because of obesity) only stopped after the number of policemen who could enter through the doors dwindled.
As the absence of workers and employees from their factories and offices increased, the administrations resorted to extending the lunch period to two and three hours instead of the previously scheduled single hour, in order to encourage people to work. Most of the companies took various incentive measures such as lengthening coffee breaks, so that every hour of work is followed by an hour of coffee break. On the island, the word coffee no longer meant that well-known liquid, but rather all the sweets, pastries, nuts, fries, grills, etc. that accompany it. The workers were eating and eating and not working.
Despite all these incentives, the appetite for work decreased, and many institutions and factories were forced to reduce production, some of them closed a number of departments or suspended a range of services, and others closed their doors. There was no one to repair the houses in need of restoration or the damaged machinery. Thousands of cars were abandoned in the streets, because the people of the island could not get in through their narrow doors. Devastation spread throughout the island, just as the scabies spreads in the body, until we imagined that it would become, with the passage of time, similar to the ruins of that Babylonian city located near our town.