Ibtisam Azem

Authors In Conversation

LitCrawl Brooklyn: A Multilingual Most Exquisite Corpse

by Jessie Chaffee:

At PEN America’s Lit Crawl Brooklyn 2018, Words Without Borders and SLICE Literary partnered to present a multilingual exquisite corpse, a story authored by four international writers—Glaydah Namukasa, Ibtisam Azem, Amir Ahmadi Arian, and Silvana Paternostro—and translated by Dr. Merit Kabugo, Sinan Antoon, Amir Ahmadi Arian, and Mary Ann Newman.

In the exquisite corpse tradition, one writer penned the first segment of the story (in this case, Ugandan writer Glaydah Namukasa, who was given a prompt line from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H., translated by Idra Novey: “I’d transformed myself little by little into the person who bears my name”). The next writer, Ibtisam Azem, received the final line of that first segment and continued the story in Arabic. And so on, and so on, until we reached the final writer. The end result is a story stitched together by a group of writers, each one not really knowing what came beforehand. As this exquisite corpse was multilingual, it had the added layer of translation, as, for example, the final line of Amir Ahmadi Arian’s section, written in Farsi, was translated into English and then into Spanish so that Silvana Paternostro could complete the story.

At the Lit Crawl event, hosted by WWB’s Jessie Chaffee and SLICE’s Marae Hart, the writers and translators (and several audience volunteers) shared the story with the large crowd on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum, in both English translation and the original languages.


By Glaydah Namukasa, Ibtisam Azem, Amir Ahmadi Arian, and Silvana Paternostro
Translated By Merit Kabugo, Sinan Antoon, Amir Ahmadi Arian, and Mary Ann Newman

The Person Who Bears My Name

English Version

1. Glaydah Namukasa (Luganda original), Dr. Merit Kabugo (English translation)

I’d transformed myself little by little into the person who bears my name.” He got up suddenly and pushed both hands into his trouser pockets, trying to conceal the trembling that had engulfed his body. “Doctor, I recently discovered that I was fooling myself all along, and that I was indeed fooling everyone else. I do not deserve to be called a superhero.”

“Why do you think so?”

“I did not escape from those guys because of personal courage. No . . . there is something I did in order to become a commander. I believed that if they made me a commander I would be able to escape from them.”

He walked away from the doctor. He thought that he had made a mistake coming to the doctor. He had committed a grave crime, which he could not share with anyone. He suddenly heard the voice of a three-day-old baby, whom he had grabbed from her mother’s embrace, pushing her into the stomach of a pig and stitching her in there. The baby’s voice was saying you are a half-beast.

“Don’t go away.” The doctor got up from the chair and drew closer to him. “You were in captivity and whatever you did during your time in captivity was not out of your own wish.”

He slowed his pace. He then turned suddenly and returned to his seat with a bowed head.

The doctor also returned to his seat and said, “That is good. It is also good that you came to see me, because it is a sign that you need help. I want to assure you that I am ready to help you . . .” The doctor took a silent pause and then continued, “I want to reassure you that I am ready to help you.”

He then lifted his head and said, “Counselor, I don’t think I am able to tell you what I did.”

2. Ibtisam Azem (Arabic original), Sinan Antoon (English translation)

He then lifted his head and said, “Counselor, I don’t think I am able to tell you what I did.”

Let me be more specific. It is more than not being able to tell you what I did. I simply lost the desire to talk. Everything happens with the first bullet that settles into a warm body, turning it cold. “War” was a big and distant word, but it became much smaller when I became a log in its firewood. I was firewood, don’t you think so? I was a sniper and a sniper is a god. I decided, with the pull of a trigger, who would live and who would be my next target. They were not victims. They were targets, targets we had to hit. How can I not believe that divine intervention sent me to this war?

She was a child. No more than fifteen. That’s what I realized later. But she looked like a full-grown woman. She insisted on approaching the checkpoint. It was extremely hot, as if the gods had thrown us into a frying pan. I was sweating profusely. She was walking confidently toward us. We yelled at her. “Stop . . . Stop!” We didn’t say it in her language, of course. But is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know the word “stop”? What can I tell you? The red dot was right between her eyes. She felt it and furrowed her finely plucked eyebrows.

All this heat and the hubbub surrounding us were shattered in seconds. I felt very cold after shooting the bullet. There was silence and I stood behind it. A god in the shape of a sniper.

3. Amir Ahmadi Arian (Farsi original and English translation) 

There was silence and I stood behind it. A god in the shape of a sniper. I released the safety and looked at him through the scope. Picking up boxes from the trunk, his face kept moving around. It was difficult to see his whole face at once. A nose so small it was barely visible, a mouth that moved even when he was not talking, thinning hair. I saw the features one by one but didn’t get a chance to put them together into a full face. It made no difference anyway. I am sure when god gets down to take a human life, he never thinks of their faces. Nothing like ignoring a face to make killing easy. Now that the turn of events had put me in the god-like position of taking this man’s life with a slight movement of my finger, I had no reason to care about his face.

The man picked up the last box and put it on the ground. He walked around the car and exchanged some words with the driver, then ran back to his own car, like he had sensed something. His sudden change of pace distracted me. He took three long strides from one car to the other and paused only when he was opening the door. I followed him through the scope, and pulled the trigger as soon as he paused. The bullet made a hole in the car.

4. Silvana Paternostro (Spanish original), Mary Ann Newman (English translation) 

The bullet made a hole in the car. In the door on the driver’s side.

They knew that everything had happened in under three minutes because the Bee Gees were still on. The four friends had gone out in the silver four-door that Lucho’s dad had just given him as a gift. It was the night before Mother’s Day and they had decided to do what grownups do, for which you need to have a car: they hired a trio of those musicians who sit outside the stadium waiting for customers to show up. The four of them pooled their money to pay the serenaders who would follow them from house to house in a taxi. They negotiated a set price. It would be the same for each mom. They all knew one another and they didn’t want any hurt feelings later on.

Lucho was parking in front of the first stop, Juancho’s house. He was waiting for the trio to arrive in the taxi, but what flew past instead seemed jet-propelled. “Hey, your lights!” shouted Lucho, almost shrieking. The streets of his city were dark, and that midnight there was no moonlight.

They stopped singing “Staying Alive” when they heard the van brake. The sound alerted them that it was one of those magical fearsome cars that had begun appearing in the city a few months back.

Everyone had heard the stories: the shot fired in the discotheque, the pistol at your temple following a whistle at a stoplight.

They watched as the Blazer with tinted windows backed up. “You said something to me,” was what they thought they heard, ’cause no one really knows what they heard. Everything happened so fast.

“You’re driving without lights, my friend,” Lucho had started to say when the shots cut him off.

“That’s so you don’t stick your nose where it’s not wanted, kid.” And with that the smoky window went up and the van continued on its weaponized way without turning on the lights. There were more than five of them, so between the shots and the squeal of the tires, the people on the block started coming out of their houses. The first to approach the car were gardeners, cooks, nannies, custodians, and doormen.

The engine was still running. Lucho, Poncho, Chacho, and Juancho sat paralyzed in their seats. The song wasn’t ending. Staying Alive, Staying Alive . . . Lucho pulled a flashlight out of the glove compartment and started examining his car like a pediatrician examining a newborn. Yes, there was the bullet. Embedded in the door below the lock. Immediately after, Juancho’s papa and mama came out in their pajamas. At that time on a weeknight, this traditional, conservative part of the city had already prayed and gone to bed. The Manotas came out to see what all the fuss was. They found their son with his friends, a taxi driver demanding to be paid, and a few agitated mariachis, still ready to play “Las mañanitas,” lest they lose the trip. Without understanding anything, Juancho’s mother received her serenade. The only thing that had become clear that night was that the city had new owners, men who would shoot at you just because.

Readers May-Zhee Lim, Amanda, Pedro Zenteno, Amir Ahmadi Arian, Sinan Antoon, and Ibtisam Azem. Photo: Jessie Chaffee.

The Person Who Bears My Name

Multilingual Version

1. Glaydah Namukasa (Luganda)

“Nagenda nkyuuka mpolampola okutuusa lwenafuuka omuntu kati nyini linnya erimpitibwa.” Yayimuka mangu ddala nateeka emikono gyombi munsawo ze’mpale, olwo nno nga agezaako okukweeka okujjugumira okwali kumutandise. “Naye Musawo, munnaku ezo eziyise ngenze nkizuula nti nali nelimba bwelimbi, era mbadde nimba buli omu. Sigwanira kuyitibwa muzira mubazira.”

“Lwaki olowooza bwotyo?”

“Okuwona abassajja abo serwaanako bwerwaanyi. Nedda . . . ninna kyenakola okusobola okufuna obwa kamanda. Nakimanya nti bwebanampa obwa kamanda njakusobola okubatolokako.”

Yatambula agende ave mumaso g’omusawo. Yalowooza nti akoze nsobi okujja ewomusawo. Kyeyali yakola kyali kya naggommola era yali tayinza kukibuulira muntu yenna. Mukaseera ako yawulira eddoboozi ly’omuzimu gw’omwana owennaku essatu gwe yali yagajambula namujja mu mikono gya maama we, namuvumbika mulubuto lwembizzi namutungira omwo ngagumugamba nti oli muntu nsolo

“Togenda.” Omusawo yayimuka kuntebe namusemberera. “Wali mubuwambe era ebyo byonna byewakola nga oli mubuwambe, wabikola teweeyagalidde.”

Yatta kubigere katono. Oluvanyuma yakyuuka omulundi gumu nakomawo naatula nga awunzisse omutwe.

Awo n’omusawo yadda muntebbe ye nayogera nti, “Okoze bulungi. Era wakoze bulungi okujjja okundaba kitegeeza nti weetaaga obuyambi era nkukkakasa nti ndi mweetefutefu okukuyamba . . .” Omusawo yasooka nasiriikirira, oluvanyuma nagamba nti, “Nziramu okkukakasa nti ndi mweeteefuteefu okukuyamba.”

Awo yayimusa amutwe nalyooka agamba nti, “Kansala, kyenakola silowooza nti nsobola okukikugamba.”

2. Ibtisam Azem (Arabic)

3. Amir Ahmadi Arian (Farsi)

4. Silvana Paternostro (Spanish)

La bala le hizo un hueco al carro. En la puerta del lado del conductor.

Sabían que todo pasó en menos de tres minutos porque la canción de los Bee Gees seguía sonando. Los cuatro amigos habían salido en el cuatro puertas plateado que el papá de Lucho le acababa de regalar. Era la víspera del día de las madres y habían decidido hacer lo que hacen los mayores y para lo que se necesita tener carro: contratar un trío de músico de esos que se sientan a esperar que lleguen clientes en frente al estadio. Entre los cuatro le pagarían a los serenateros que irían siguiéndolos de casa en casa en un taxi. Negociaron un precio fijo. Sería la misma canción para cada mamá. Se conocían y no querían el problema de que se resintieran después.

Lucho estaba estacionándose enfrente de la primera parada, la casa de Juancho. Estaban esperando que llegara el trío en el taxi pero lo que paso fue un bólido. “Ey, luces,” grito Lucho casi como un quejido. Las calles de su ciudad son oscuras y esa medianoche no había luz de luna.

Dejaron de cantar Staying Alive cuando oyeron la camioneta frenar, el sonido les aviso que era uno de esos carros mágicos y miedosos que habían empezado a aparecerse en la ciudad hacia un par de meses.

Todo el mundo había escuchado historias: el disparo en la disco, la pistola en la sien después de un pitazo en un semáforo.

Vieron la Blazer de vidrios oscuros retroceder. “Me dijiste algo,” creen que fue lo que oyeron pues nadie sabe muy bien que oyó. Todo pasó tan rápido.

“Vas sin luces, llave,” empezaba Lucho cuando lo interrumpieron los tiros.

“Pa’ que no te metas en lo que no cabes, pelaito.” Y con eso subió la ventana ahumada y sin prender luces prosiguió su camino armado. Fueron más de cinco o sea que con el ruido de las llantas y los disparos empezó a salir la gente de las casas de la cuadra. Al carro se acercaron primero jardineros, cocineras, nanas, celadores y porteros.

El carro seguía prendido. Lucho, Poncho, Chacho, y Juancho paralizados en sus puestos. La canción no se acababa. Staying Alive, Staying Alive . . . Lucho sacó una linterna de la guantera y empezó a examinar su carro como un pediatra a un recién nacido. Si, ahí estaba la bala. Incrustada en la puerta abajito de la cerradura. Acto seguido, salieron el papá y la mamá de Juancho en piyama. A esa hora en un día de semana, esta parte de la ciudad tradicional y conservadora está ya rezada y encamada. Los Manotas salen a ver cuál es la bulla. Se encuentran a su hijo con sus amigos, a un taxista que exigía que le pagaran y a unos mariachis alborotados, pero listos a tocarle “Las mañanitas” a la señora madre no fuera a ser que perdieran el viaje. Sin entender nada, la mamá de Juancho recibió su serenata. Lo único que había quedado claro era que los dueños de la ciudad eran otros, señores que disparaban por qué si.

Participating writers and translators, volunteer readers, and hosts Karen Phillips, Jessie Chaffee, May-Zhee Lim, Amanda, Pedro Zenteno, Amir Ahmadi Arian, Sinan Antoon, Ibtisam Azem, and Marae Hart. Photo: Jessie Chaffee.

Brooklyn Crowd photo by PEN America / Jasmina Tomic